Alone with his short wave at the Molikuk PO during a blizzard, John Weaver enters into a strange relationship with a dying woman who cannot see or hear him.
Post of Ice
The latest shipment of stamps was late, but that was nothing new. During inclement weather, Weaver could never count on an accurate schedule, and there was a new series of storms coming through, so his stamps were likely to be very late. Weaver decided to pass the time as he usually did during these long hiatuses. He worked crossword puzzles.
Not new ones...there were no new ones. He would have had to go all the way to Borensmouth to buy a New York Times or something, and he hardly ever managed to do that. Even in Borensouth, the Times was hard to come by, and when he did “stock up,” he was only able to get about six or seven to last him the month. He could work through these within the space of a day, maybe two.
Occasionally, new ones would arrive from foreign parts. But most of the time he just did the old ones again and again. He had turned his famine into an asset long ago by not writing in the puzzles. Rather, he did them in his head, strolling up and down the steel-grey floor writing with his eyes. He had gotten exceptionally good at this, and he could contain the image of an entire puzzle in his head with no difficulty.
Now the roads were bad with the storms, so it was unlikely that anyone would be coming any time soon. Not that he craved either company or his supplies. Considering that the fewer people he saw in a week, the happier he was, Weaver faced the approach of a storm with indifference. As long as the fifty-foot path leading from the Post Office to the little shack where he lived was walkable, or as long as there was a way to ford around it, he could easily get back to his stores: his novels, his collection of empty crossword puzzles done so many times.
Snow was hurled against the window-panes and the poor wind was moaning under its burden. I’m so tired, it said. heavy.
Weaver strolled to the radio and turned the ancient knob like a prayer wheel, hoping to latch on to the correct frequency. They had promised him one of the digital models, but that was slow in coming, too. He was the last man in Alaska to have to use this antiquated short-wave device, with its backlit dial, looking like a miniature wannabe jukebox. Why did they even bother promising him new equipment? Nothing came when they said it would. Not crosswords, not supplies, not even the letter for his sign, missing for two years running now.
“This is P.O. Twelve-Twenty-four. Twelve-Twenty-four.” He muttered into the waffle of a microphone by his face. His breath coated the old wires with steam and made them slick. He spoke the words again and again, like a mantra emitted from his chest, his deep voice like the groaning of a rocker on a wood-floor. “P.O. Twelve-Twenty-four, come back.” Sometimes it took twenty minutes to find someone to answer him.
The late stamps were unimportant. Mark Oster would come by to get his five-dozen in a few days for his “mass-mailings”. Anya Mullin would probably want a few for the postcards she sent to her niece. There wasn’t any reason to inquire about them, really. He just wanted the folks in Anchorage to know that he was doing his job. And the ritual of the radio superceded any need or desire. It had to be enacted. It was his prayer, his morning benediction, his calisthenics. His wrist would cry out in abandonment if it was not exercised, if it did not feel the slight fatigue of the turning, turning, turning of the knob. What would he do when there were only buttons to push on a new radio? He did not know.
Seventeen years at Post Office Number Twelve-Twenty-four, servicing the greater Molikuk area, four towns and a native community. Ten-years-and-seven keeping frequencies open for emergency communications between the mountain that dwarfed his little shack and the valley below with its little crop of towns numbering maybe four-thousand people in toto. Nine-and-eight years as the sole connecting element with the outside world
He had not been born in Molikuk. He was one of four people in this region who had not been born there, and only one of two who had no family in the area. It was not a magnet for immigrants. Pleasant but impoverished in the summer, desolate in the winter, Molikuk attracted only hikers, and precious few of those. The trails in the surrounding mountains were generally too rough for the casual outdoorsman, and the area was somewhat inaccessible, so it was a chore even for serious hikers to reach the area. Molikuk county only attracted the diehard outdoor-types, those who came usually because they had been everywhere else.
But Weaver had come to Molikuk looking for a job. Intelligent, even offsettingly so, he had always found it difficult to connect with other people. He had come to this place, so far away from everywhere else, to determine paradoxically if loneliness came from being away from people or from being around them.
So after seventeen years of pondering the question, he had come to the gradual and inescapable conclusion that he was different from the rest of the people in the world. His isolation was difficult for most people understood because it was consciously undertaken, chosen. They, all of the others, were all together, thinking themselves in company, and they were still lonely. Most of them didn’t even recognize the sensation, filling their emptiness by eating too much or buying things. Meantime his mind was clear. He was alone, and proud of his solitude, even pleased with it. He thought of true isolation as a precious commodity, like a dwindling supply of firewood stacked up in a pantry.
For the intelligent person, being alone was a necessity, now more than ever. These days it was harder and harder to get away from everyone, to clear your thoughts, to have your own opinions about things. Even the kids of Tomplin, the largest town in the county, were all doing just like they saw on TV, wearing nose-rings and letting their pants fall down, in a parody of fashion-heights. Hard enough to escape the influences of ones’ parents, but to fall under that spell, too, so that you weren’t really rebelling, but merely putting a bit in your mouth and pulling the cart.
Weaver remembered being in college, the three years he had been able to stand it, watching people grouping together for no reason but to keep themselves from feeling alone. They protested Republicans in large demonstrations on the square, not even caring that nobody was listening to them. The TV was always on somewhere, surrounded by fifty zealous watchers, Olympics fans, Star Trek fans. People were always distributing leaflets for their clubs on the corner. Join this. Learn that. Sit in here.
Getting away from them had been impossible. Their noise was everywhere. Their presence unavoidable. Even in the stony, silent depths of the library, someone had gone and done all the crossword puzzles in all of the magazines. All of them. Someone had gone in and taken a sloppy black marker to them; the same handwriting in every one; the same scrawled “s” with the little tail.
He had hated that person. He had hated them all, and his hatred had driven him from them. Those he would have called his friends had, over the three years, grown tired of making the effort for him, so that he found himself alone, despite being in the midst of a close group. The realization of it had nearly killed him.
Now he was truly alone, and had been for seventeen years. Loneliness was not a pleasant sensation; the emptiness still throbbed from time to time, as it had when he had been in college. But all he had to do was remind himself that in thirty-seven years, he had never found anyone he could really talk to and that, after all this time, he doubted seriously that there were such people. Then his pain seemed less like pain, and more like a golden medal hanging at his breast. The sensation that filled him as he contemplated his loneliness would become far more satisfying, and he could cut into it eagerly, satisfied upon devouring another generous helping.
The radio came crackling like a spilled soda brimming on the edge of a tabletop. A man’s voice. Lester on Route 73. “…nowfall…damned ice. I can’t get from…”
“Hello, Lester,” Weaver mumbled into the microphone. “It’s John Weaver at 1224, come back.”
The static answered him, wordless but curious.
“It’s John, 1224. Lester, where are my stamps?” He meant to laugh, but such sounds never really escaped his throat. Usually, they were translated by the listeners who knew him.
“…ice…” was the reply, and then there was no more. The static playfully covered everything, dancing like a fairy in the frost over a lawn.
But Weaver was not to be daunted so easily. Leaning over his microphone, his eyes on the window, watching the snow-drifts gradually obscure the mountainside, he continued to mumble into his waffle-microphone. “Come back. Come back.” His wrist was limber, used to this motion. It would not tire easily.
But as he traversed the acceptable bands a shocking bleat came through his little speaker, startling him enough that he dropped the knob and stared at his radio for a full five minutes.
The bleat had sounded like the twanging of an electric guitar string silenced by the rapid strike of a soft palm. It had been loud and clear, but it was hidden under the static that covered tracks like the snowdrifts. Now there was nothing. He was no longer on the right frequency. He had ridden over it briefly. Now he searched back over the spot, looking for that sound. It did not recur. He scanned the dial in familiar places as well as the places it might have never occurred to him to try. He was delving for that sound as though it were a pain in his neck that he wished to map so that he might avoid it later.
There was another sound, but this one had the consistency of a modem. That had probably been the one, but the idea nagged at Weaver that he had really been on a different part of the dial when he had heard this first sound.
He shook his head and rose to his feet, leaving the modem sound behind just in case it turned to something else. Having completed his wrist calisthenics for the day he rose to check the fridge for a diet cola. The house seemed to lean with the force of the wind and crackly static covered the sounds of the modem before it died out completely.
The lights failed, then came back on.
Over lunch, Weaver paced up and down the floor, staring at the empty crossword puzzle in his hand. The last time he had done this one, he had gone for the smaller words first and worked his way up to the larger ones. This time he was working diagonally across the page, moving from one word to another, never leaving a stray letter behind. Now he was stuck, an occurrence which was guaranteed to strike at least once during this exercise. No matter how many times you did a crossword puzzle, if you failed to write the answers in, you would blank on at least one word. Today it was six letters for “The curse of Durin.” He remembered having solved it seventy times before, remembered the ease with which he had filled that word in one day, the sense of satisfaction he had gotten completing it on another. Now he knew that he would not find the answer to that particular query today. It was out of his mind, blanketed, prevented quite completely.
The silence of that word, the empty space it left in his mind, provided enough force to shove the magazine away from his eyes, to push it all the way to the coffee table with the sandwich rinds and the corn chip crumbs. Silence. The wind had stopped for a moment. He looked up. It was dark outside in the early afternoon. He could see the light in the post office down the path from the window of his little shack.
So he put on his coat and braved the chill bite of the air as he slid down the path to the post office. It was time to shut down for the day. No one would be driving up in this ice-storm anyway.
The radio buzzed faintly. The little yellow light behind the dial seemed to be resting on its feet, waiting until its strength returned so that it could crackle another mile.
Idly, he turned the dial one time and listened to the static noise soar and pout. He wondered about the sound he had heard that morning. Custom overtook him and he put his bottom in the chair, reaching out for the knob. He moved the dial back and forth like the starter on a dash. This time, instead of looking for a sound, he looked for the place where the current was softest, where there was space, a silence that might be filled by a sound.
He became obsessed about finding the most perfect silence he could in that crackling and hissing. Not there. No, over that rise. That valley’s deeper. Silence. Deeper silence.
Finally, he found it. A true silence, punctuated not at all by pops or cracks or even the faint whine of the frequencies piling on top of one another. He let it pour over him, mixing the radio silence with the air silence that still permeated his cabin. If only the refrigerator had not been humming, if only he had ceased to breathe even for a moment, if only his nerves would stop buzzing in his ears. This, he thought, is it. This is as far as I can get from anyone. This silence is the perfect solitude.
“Can anyone hear me?”
The sound made him jump. In the dim light of the radio dial, with the overhead lights off, a woman’s voice had come through as clear as if she had been in the room with him.
There was nothing more for a long time. He sat over the microphone with his head on his hand, listening to the silence, begging for a surcease in the sameness of it all, if only for the curiosity of the thing.
Finally, the voice again.
“Hello,” Weaver said, flipping on his microphone.
But there was no answer. The voice on the other end did not seem to have heard him. The silence continued on the other side of the radio wall. At last, it was broken by a stiff curse.
“Hello?” Weaver asked, again. “This is Post Office Twelve-Twenty-four. What is your situation, over?”
“I’m totally screwed,” the voice answered.
“What? Hello?” Weaver followed frantically.
But the line went dead again and there was nothing save the silence and the refrigerator.
He remained in the dark, save the glow of the dial spilling yellow over the table. He stayed in the silence for an hour. Eventually he heard the sound of snow striking the window pane with a faint clacking. Something else had broken that silence, something mysterious, the sound of a human voice.
I’m totally screwed.
It was a mystery. A sentence without a context. It might have indicated many things, Weaver reasoned. Someone may have been trying out a new radio, only to find that it didn’t work. Or it might have been a prank. Those happened from time to time. It might even have been a broadcast of some kind, accidentally bleeding onto a higher frequency.
But like an empty crossword, the mystery required other words to shape it, give it possibility. And Weaver, unable to resist, found himself some time later breathing quietly in front of his mike as the dark deepened and the snow piled up higher outside his window. Already he had lost sight of his little cabin, lit up at the end of the fifty-foot trail, behind the drifts of snow.
He may have gotten up to eat. Food seemed to register somewhere within him. But he could not be certain. A few crumbs suggested themselves on the iron floor; he may have supped without a plate while he listened, rapt, to the silent breath of the radio. But already the quality of the frequency he had uncovered was changing. Already waves of sound were washing across that silence like the tide coming in, dampening the once secure sands, pulling the topmost of them out to sea with them. Already there were two hums, one rising, one falling, singing like a violin duet. Soon the static would set in. Soon the turning of the earth would change everything.
Desperately, he flicked the dial back and forth, turning it with all the precision he could muster from years of practice. The silence came. It went. Fleetingly, it was in his grasp, but, like a jellyfish, oozed out again. At last, he came to a compromise, the greatest silence he could gather, the spot with the amount of noise he could tolerate.
And after some time, he heard her again.
He did not reply, this time. He waited to see if a better comment was more forthcoming.
“You know, I don’t know if this radio actually works or it doesn’t.”
So it was a broken receiver. A letter fell into place.
“I’ll never be famous this way.” She had made a joke, but the context was missing from Weaver’s perception. She went on. “There’s supposed to be some kind of readout and I’m not getting it. But it looks to me like we’ve still got power flowing through this thing. I probably ought to turn it off and give more power to the heater, but I’m a gambling girl.”
More information, he thought, though not of a particularly useful kind.
“I’m just hoping that somebody is picking this signal up.”
“I am!” Weaver said into his microphone. “Hello, Post Office Twelve-Twenty-four, this is John Weaver re-“
“Oliver told me it was pointless, but you’re going to prove him wrong, aren’t you?” The voice had interrupted him.
“Yes! Yes!” John insisted. “Who is this? Over.”
“Eventually you’re going to work for me.” Silence.
“Hello?” Weaver said. Several seconds, and the cessation of meaningful speech, were driving him mad.
“Hello?” came the voice.
“Yes, hello!” Weaver screamed.
“Damn,” said the radio. And it clicked and fell silent.
The person on the other radio was not hearing him. Whatever the situation, a broken radio or the interference of the mountains, she was not picking up his voice the way he was receiving hers. In fact, it seemed she had little notion that her radio was functioning at all. She was talking blindly to it as though it might house a genie who would come out given the right provocation.
He could not touch his dial now. If he lost this frequency he might never find it again. The bookmark of silence that had enabled him to find it was fast deteriorating, and though he could make out the woman’s signal through the noise with little difficulty, he would not be able to count on her speaking at any given time, indeed if she ever spoke again, as a means of finding her. So he sat by his radio, trapped in his chair, as the wind picked up beyond the window pane. It also had begun to hum again. “Heavy,” it said. “Wake me. Wake me.”
The clicking noise on his radio awoke him from a drowse. His neck popped once and ached with the motion, although he was too hypnotized by the sound of his radio to take note.
Had she been speaking before? Her voice trickled back into his memory, but he could not be sure how far it extended. Perhaps she had only just begun again. Perhaps he merely effaced the gap between this time and the last time.
“The heater’s broken,” she said.
He sat up, very much alarmed. The temperature had fallen so rapidly he could feel his own heat bleeding out the walls of the post office.
“So Olly’s gone out in the snow and I think it’s the last I’ll see of him,” the voice went on drily. “It’s just you and me, now, sports fans.” There was a snort. “He’s so stupid. He thinks he’s mister outdoorsman, but he’s only going to get himself killed.”
And then, unexpectedly, the voice wept. Like an unstopped dam, her crying went on for a good fifteen minutes, wailing and howling, the sound rising and falling like one of the radio frequencies. The sound of tears and mucous could be heard, the sound of sniffling, resembling a burst of white noise, the sound of gasping breath.
“Hello!” Weaver cried into his mike. Checking himself, he switched the switch to off and on again. “Hello!”
This did not stop the crying coming from his speaker. But eventually, words followed the grief. “We’re both stupid,” she muttered bitterly. “He for taking me on this trip and me for not leaving him a year ago. What an idiot. What an idiot!” Another outburst of crying followed, but this one lacked the fuel of the first one and petered out after only a few minutes.
There was some resigned sniffling.
“I’m on Bert’s Peak, Ranger Station…what is it…eight, I guess.” She seemed to have remembered the purpose of her broadcast. “And if anyone can hear me I wish they’d let me the fuck know.” There was a sound like the wiping of moisture from beneath the nose.
“I can hear you,” Weaver mumbled, but not into his mike.
“I don’t even know where the fuck it is, where the fuck we are,” she went on in her raggedy voice. “We were following some trail when the storm hit and we were lucky enough to find this old dump.”
Bert’s Peak was closed to hikers on account of the series of dangerous landslides that had taken the lives of a number of people last summer. Nearly all of the ranger stations had been closed. Presumably, this one had been accessible enough to house this woman and her friend.
“I shouldn’t be surprised,” the woman said, but the rest of the thought continued in her head. After that, the line was quiet again for a while.
This much was now clear: A woman was trapped in a ranger station on Bert’s Peak. It was night, with a temperature well below zero and a whipping wind, and a series of ice storms coming across the range. They would continue to batter the side of the mountain, probably well into the next morning.
Weaver picked up his telephone and listened. White noise danced around the dial-tone. Idly, he sat there with the receiver in his hand, trying to remember the phone number of the sheriff. He could not call it to his mind, though its rhythm played itself out in his head a number of times. Hurling the phone to the receiver, he dashed for a copy of his phonebook. The battered book was earworn and incomplete. Someone had torn the emergency page from it.
Cursing, Weaver put on his coat and opened the door. The cold sliced at him like a swift scythe. The wind pummelled him. He bent over and threw himself into it.
The wind pushed him up the slope towards his shack, but the snow-drifts were too deep and it occurred to him within seconds that he might very well lose himself on the way to his cabin. Turning around, facing the fury of the storm, he wrestled his way back to the post office and shut the storm out behind him.
Dripping onto the iron floor, he cast his coat off and shivered his way back to sanity. The sheriff’s number popped into his head, as well as a thousand other sensible thoughts, and he picked up the phone again.
“Deputy Cezar . Who’s this?”
“Weaver Weaver at the Post Office.”
“What’s up, Weaver? You safe?”
“I picked up a transmission from Bert’s Peak.”
“Someone’s stuck up there.”
“Did you contact them?” The officer’s voice registered growing alarm.
“I can’t speak to them. The transmission’s only coming one-way for some reason.”
“Can you identify the frequency for me?”
Weaver gave the officer the number. After a few minutes of uncomfortable silence, the officer returned. “Well, either they’re not listening now or I can’t reach them either. Did they tell you where they are?”
“It’s a woman,” Weaver said, feeling sick. “Ranger Station Eight.”
“Jesus,” lowed the officer. “I know that one. What a night.”
“Can you get to her?”
“No,” the officer replied, without preamble.
Weaver sat back in his chair, stunned.
“It’s a godawful night,” the officer continued, in a resigned, frustrated tone. The snow is impassible up there now. There are a dozen ranger stations on that peak. We’d never find her. Over.”
Weaver stared at the radio as if the woman was trapped somewhere inside of it. She was going to die.
Weaver found himself listening to the droning of a woman’s voice as he lay with his head on the table. He knew he was asleep. But he could see her, now. She was pretty, with scrubbed skin and red patches on her cheeks, blackish hair, with pale blue eyes. She spoke to him.
“And I haven’t seen you,” she said.
That’s because it’s been a long time, he answered in his head. But he knew that she could hear him.
“But you haven’t combed your teeth.”
The microphone combs it for me.
“I haven’t brushed my teeth in a week. That’s all I’ve eaten is toothpaste,” she said. Something like that. Something about toothpaste.
You should try my toothpaste.
“I haven’t had a thing,” she said. “Not since the raid of seventy-four.”
You were there?
He raised his head from the table, meaning to ask her exactly where she had been standing during the raid. But he realized where he was and what he was doing, and he heard her voice going on and on. She had been speaking for some time.
“I don’t even like crackers,” she said. “Mom used to put them in my soup, but I hate them. Now I’d kill for a bag.”
The crackle of the mike seemed like a virtual fire that stood between them, warming neither of them.
“Hello?” Weaver tried again, as if it required only the right configuration of stars for his message to reach her.
“Olly…” she paused, getting a hold of herself. “He’s so damn stupid. He bought us all these packages of freeze-dried food that you have to prepare using this great machine that won’t break, only we had to leave the battery behind on the path and now all I have to eat are the crumbs stuck to my granola wrapper.”
Her voice was thin and flat as it came through the speaker by his right hand, but it was soft also, like a comforter on a bed that has been smoothed over with a hand.
“I’ll probably starve,” she went on, “if the cold doesn’t get me first.” Her voice was beginning to thicken. “And it’s so…damn…cold.”
You’ll be alright, he said to her. You’re under cover. The rescue team will get to you.
But she let off and said no more for a time.
She mumbled on and off, clearly talking to herself, sentence fragments, a wisp of a thought. It seemed that, for a time, she was tired of monologuing. Weaver listened to the silence for a while, trying to construct complete sentences out of the fragments she had uttered. At last, tired of the exercise, he bit his lip and said, “Damn you, talk.”
As if in answer, she started to sing. “What’s love…got to do…got to do…” Her voice was off key and it trembled slightly, but it was hard to say whether that was from the cold or from her lack of confidence in singing.
“Hey Molikuk,” she said, recklessly. “It’s three AM. Request lines are open.”
Weaver expelled a snicker through his nose. “How about some Woody Herman?” he said, as if she could hear him.
“Maybe some Ramones or something that kicks butt,” she replied. “Maybe Sex Pistols. They never let me play the Sex Pistols.”
She had left him behind already.
“Don’t know that one,” he said.
“I just wish this radio did anything at all. The light’s not even working anymore.”
“It works…” Weaver muttered. “It works…at least one way.”
“The light’s on, but nobody’s home,” she said in a sing-song way. “Kind of like Olly.” Then she laughed. It was a refreshing sound, the sound of warm water poured over ice. Desperate to keep her mood up, she spoke through the tail end of the giggle. “If I’d have known how stupid he was…
“But he was pretty!” she said, as if in answer to herself. “So damn pretty! I could have taken a bite out of his biceps every time I…” She faded.
“Well, pretty doesn’t count for much,” she concluded. After a moment, she added, “But I already knew that.” Another pause. “Then why did I go out with him?” A crackle. “Why did I come out here with him?”
Her answer came from her own lips, and it was a different voice, a sad, old, knowing voice. “Because he was strong. Because he reminded me of my dad.
“What was so great about my dad?” she asked herself. “Oh yeah. He left.” Then she laughed again.
He switched his hands so that he was leaning to the left instead of the right. He was feeling very sore from sitting so long.
“Maybe I liked Olly cause I was sure he wasn’t going to leave. He needed me. I showed him how good I was. I showed him how much he needed me.” Another pause, then a cluck, which might have been a laugh or a sob. “Yeah, I showed him all right,” she went on bitterly. “And he left me here.”
You’re better off, he thought. If he...
“That bastard!” She walked over his thoughts with her own metallic scream. “That bastard!” Then the cries came again. But there was shivering in them. Teeth chattering. “Shit, I can’t feel my legs.”
“Stand up!” he cried. “Don’t sit there. Get the circulation going!”
“Whatever,” she mumbled.
“No,” she said.
“No,” she said again. “He’s not going to do that to me.” There was a scraping, as if someone had pushed a chair back. “He can’t break me by leaving.”
He nodded, thankfully.
“I’m going to live long enough to figure out why I’m alive.”
Then a terrible clatter filled the speaker. Her cursing was far away, now. She had dropped away from the microphone. Perhaps she was on the floor. She cursed again and again, and it was clear she was having difficulty regaining her feet. John’s fingernails curved into the desk and he squeezed until the pain in his digits forced him back into himself.
After an eternity, her voice came rasping back into the microphone. “Maybe not,” she said.
He had decided he was going to stay by the microphone. Even if she didn’t know he was there, he was now committed to bearing witness to her ramblings. Perhaps, in some way, she might be comforted by the possibility that someone was listening.
Actually, he had a more selfish reason. He was enjoying listening to her. With the burden of supplying half a conversation lifted, the burden of reassuring somebody he was there, John found he could enjoy her company too.
Her voice came through now and again, interwoven with the snow, making snatches of monologue. Often she would talk for five minutes and then grow tired, fading out
“I was really excited about the idea of making it big by 2000,” she said at one point. “I was going to be the best-loved DJ at twenty-six years old. You wouldn’t believe what I did to make that happen. I made myself into this perfect creature. Good looking. Funny. Smart.” She paused for a second to take her breath. “I never had time to think about what I was doing.” Again, she paused. “I’ve got time now.”
“I guess I didn’t do so bad,” she said, consoling herself. “I did score the perfect boyfriend. Everyone was so jealous! And I got this great job at KSLA doing the ten-to-two.” Then she laughed.
“Now here I am...Ha ha!” She paused, as if to wipe a tear from her eye. “Doing the ten-to-two...” She laughed, unable to continue.
He laughed, then, too, without knowing why. He kept his hand over his mouth, as if trying to keep her from hearing.
“I mean, most of my friends didn’t even know what they wanted to do, and here I am, I’ve got it all figured out,” Her voice was turning ragged. “At least for the next twenty-five years…”
She began weeping again. While her sniffles pierced the room at uneven intervals, he spoke.
“I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to write for science magazines. I wanted to be one of those highly published but little seen doctoral types that send their vast knowledge out into the ether where other folk can pick it up and learn from them.” He smiled through his fingers. “I wanted to be admired but not touched. Then I –“
“Oh, God,” she said suddenly. “Oh, God.”
God can’t help you, he thought, feeling so heavy in his stomach. Or maybe only God can help you. I don’t know which.
Another burst of static interrupted his thoughts and a different transmission came through, a blurb of male gobbledygook that lasted about a second and was punctuated by a shrill beep.
“Hello?” the woman cried, frantically. “Hello?”
She had heard. Her receiver was working.
“Hello!” John said, getting to his feet.
“Hello? Oh, God! Please! Can anybody hear me?”
“I can hear you!” John said, trying to force his voice through the microphone. “I can hear you! Please!”
“Oh, shit!” the woman screamed, frustrated. “Shit! What is the problem with this thing?” There was a terrible sound, like a ton of snow falling over a mountain pass, and then silence.
The silence was terrible. Not another sound followed that outburst.
“Hello?” John screamed. “Hello?” She had heard. She had heard something. A plane flying over. Who knows what? And then she had…he did not know what had happened next. The silence was as inscrutable as a jealous lover. He hated the silence. Hated it! He continued to scream “Hello” into his mike, as though he were in a play and the microphone had missed its cue.
This newest silence tortured him for a period of time that the darkness would not disclose. The sameness of it, within its parameters of two rising and falling hums, matching the wind outside with its steady moaning, defied any sense of relief or panic that an accurate assessment of the hours would provide. So many thoughts came through his head, and he could not map each thought to a moment. The thought might be longer and it might be shorter than a second.
How long did it take to evaluate a life? A moment? A heartbeat? An hour, carefully planned, in front of a word-processor? Did it take longer than a single life to evaluate that life? What was to become of this woman? Was there anything of value to keep of her after her death? John felt his fingertips weave into the flesh on his forehead as the unnamed moments ticked by, as the darkness grew or shrunk from dark to dark, and the silence fell from moaning to not moaning. And when the wind had stopped for a while, and when there was nothing in the room but him and the two whines of the radio, she spoke again.
“I don’t want to be alone.”
He sat up. His face broke into a grateful smile. He stared at the speaker like an attentive servant.
She was mumbling, now, in a voice made thick by the cold. It was hard to make out certain words through the low-fidelity of the transmission. But his ears strained to translate, to fill in the missing gaps, so that he understood her, everything she said, everything she did not say.
“When I started going out with Olly, I thought things were going to be different. I thought he really wanted to know me. But what happened instead was I wanted to become somebody he knew.”
She paused to consider.
“He was so damn perfect, with his big biceps and his outdoorsman shit and his confidence and his smile, and I thought, hey I’m a professional somebody-else for a living. Surely I can be smart enough to fool this dumbass into thinking that I’m his perfect little girl!”
She gave a laugh that sounded like a cough.
“So I became what I thought he wanted. And I thought...I thought he appreciated me for that. I thought he cared. Maybe. I thought...maybe he’d want to get to know me, someday. Or maybe…”
She trailed off. Then something cracked in her voice, as though she could not bear what she had been about to say. She came back with a hideous shout, the fury of static behind her.
“Damn it, that was so stupid!”
She paused again. He could almost see her incredulous expression, the wrinkles in her scrubbed skin, right around the pale blue eyes.
The scream had robbed her of much needed breath. She paused to recoup, coughed once, and went on angrily. “I came on this trip because I wanted him to think I was like that, that I was that kind of person, the kind of person he’d want to know! And he left me! He left me alone!”
A sound like a short burst of static blew. She went on in a fury. “I did all that work to try and get him to want to know…whoever I became…and he left me alone! Oh my God!”
She laughed hysterically and the radio laughed with her. “I’m such an idiot!”
John shook his head. No, he said.
“And now I’m going to die, without anybody ever caring who I was! Who I really was!”
“I care about you,” John said, as if to comfort the empty silence.
“Listen!” she said, as if she knew he were there, knew he was writing down every word in his mind to be assembled later. “I exist. I really exist.”
She was screaming herself hoarse. “Before I became this, before I died like this, I was a real person!” She quieted down. “People liked me,” she said. Her voice was beginning to deteriorate, now. She had used up a precious supply of her own strength, and now the cold was mounting a terrible counter-attack. “And now there’s nobody left to put it right.”
I don’t understand, John said, or didn’t say. I can’t understand. I never knew anybody. Not before. Nobody knew me.
“There’s no way I can fix it now. Oh, God. I couldn’t fix it before. That was the problem.” Logic was failing her.
“Look, Goddammit!” she said, with slurred emphasis, like a woman talking over a half-empty bottle of vodka. “You’ve got it all wrong! It’s not about joining. It’s about melting. It’s about making a mess and letting someone else clean it up sometimes…the water drips over whatever it wants to. But you really can mop it up. And so what if some of it ruins something? Maybe…maybe…
“Maybe you didn’t need it…”
She paused. The pause could have been any length of time. It was frozen. “Look,” she said. Another pause, any length of time. “I want to melt now! I want you to be with me...it’s so damn cold...Be with me now! I exist. I really do.”
There was a bang and John jumped, but he reasoned that it must have been her fist, beating desperately into a countertop, insisting that life return to it, if only for a little while.
“I was somebody before I tried to become somebody,” she murmured on. “I wasn’t alone. I counted. I existed! I counted before my mother told me how pretty I could be. I counted before my father…” and she seemed to spit the words, “bothered to write me. I counted before…” Another pause. “Olly…” she sighed, letting the words drift off.
“Keep speaking,” John said, over his mike. “Keep talking. Don’t stop. You’re not alone.”
“I’m not alone,” she muttered.
“Don’t go to sleep!” he said, urgently.
“No,” he said. “I’m with you. I’m here. You count. You exist. I know you.” I will never forget you.
“I count,” she said. And then she said no more.
He waited for her next words, but they did not come. Only an endless, merciless whining from the radio. Then the silence eventually won. And John hung over his mike as the paltry light filtered in through an inch of ice that caked the window panes. Staggering to his feet, hurling on his coat, shuffling out the door into the fresh cold morning, John made his way up his ruined path, slipping and falling, unconcerned, until he arrived at his snowbound door. He kicked it once, forced it inward and shambled down the rise to his doorstep. When he found his bed, he sunk into it and melted into it before he froze.
Her voice returned to him in his dreams. For two or three days, as he slept through the duration of the thick ice that covered everything, he continued to hear her voice in his head. Whenever it grew too silent in his room, her voice broke through, talking to him, though that voice was fading farther each time he heard it. At last, her voice faded completely, as it had in reality. He cried for her once or twice, when he could no longer hear her.
And then she appeared to him. She was smiling at him over a microphone, comforting him. Her soft eyes told him not to cry, that she was with him. But in that dream, she was silent.
He had been thinking about her off and on, when, a few weeks later, he heard a truck rumbling up the hill. He assumed it was fresh supplies, maybe the stamps. But when he went out, he saw the Sheriff escorting a smaller figure over the cold ground towards him.
“Say, Weaver!” the Sheriff called.
“Hello!” he called, confused, raising his arm. “I thought you were the stamps!” The figure by the Sheriff’s side was coming into focus. It was a young woman.
“Weaver,” the Sheriff said, nodding at the woman who held onto his arm, “this is Elsie Dunn. She’s the woman you saved.”
“What?” he said, falling back a step.
“This is the woman,” the Sheriff said again, smiling, “whose location you identified for us in time for us to rescue her.”
“Oh,” he said, his hand covering his mouth.
She was short, just under five feet tall, with brown hair and a long nose. Her eyes were also brown and a little close together. There were several patches of frostbite on her face which had been treated and had begun to fade. The woman leaned heavily upon the sheriff and she limped a little, even more than the slick patches on the ground would warrant. But she smiled.
He did not know what to say. He did not know how to greet her.
“Come on in out of the cold,” he said, turning away and holding the door open.
The woman allowed herself to be helped through the door. John closed it behind them.
“Miss Dunn wanted to come up here personally and thank you,” the Sheriff said. The woman was staring at John, now, looking for the right words.
“What,” John said, incredulously. “For calling the police? It’s nothing.” “Mister,” the woman began, “I just...I just want to thank you!” Her brown eyes had begun to water. She sniffed once and shook her head.
“That’s…” John began.
“I really thought I was a goner. I really did.” All at once, the words began to pour from her. The Sheriff smiled behind her. “I was all alone up there and it was cold and dark…I can’t tell you what I was thinking...” There was no point to this. She was not seeing him. He could not speak to her.
“It’s nothing,” John said, smiling and nodding his head. “I’m sure anyone would have done the same.” He smiled as warmly as he could, but he looked away. He was remembering the solution to one of the problems in his latest crossword puzzle. “I’m sorry,” John said, turning his body into the desk where he fumbled busily. “I was just trying to find some stamps.”
“We won’t keep you,” the Sheriff said, good-naturedly. “Ma’am?”
“Thank you,” the woman said, again. She turned slowly from him and her gaze fell on something far away.
“Say, Weaver, you ever get that replacement letter for your sign?” the Sheriff asked, leading the woman out through the door. She was concentrating on keeping her footing on wobbly legs.
“No, not yet,” he said, laughing.
He waved at the pair as they exited, then bent to his desk drawer, hearing the door close behind him.
The car vanished around the bend, slowly dragging behind it the rumble of its engine and the sound of the wheels crunching over the ice. After a minute, all that could be heard in the post office was the sound of John, rummaging desperately through the mostly empty drawers of his desk.