With one more wheezing breath, I slowly take my last step up the rocky outlook and take in my surroundings.
In the great blue basin above me, the atmosphere seemed to whisper and hum and dilate like the sea, scattered clouds littering the sight and floating gracefully along. The sun shone low in the sky, a great gold coin cascading its light onto the landscape below and beginning to lower in the distance.. On the horizon, mountains and forest stood ever still, miles and miles away, surrounded by a soft blue haze. Between me and the horizon were thousands upon thousands of deep green trees, some taller ones swaying slightly in the breeze as though they were alive. Behind me was the long, hard hike through a similar forest to the one before me, and I noticed several long gaps in the trees that I assumed must be a few hiking or game trails, winding like rivers through the green canopy.
I shouldered my backpack higher onto my shoulders and glanced to my left. Very faintly on the blue horizon stood a tall structure standing seemingly on two legs with a box on top. Cross-beams worked their way up the legs like a ladder for support and I recognized the building - or, more accurately, stand - as one of the watchtowers I had been briefed about, partially hidden behind blue mountains.. There were dozens of these towers across the massive expansion of Shoshone National Forest, and they were all spaced miles and miles apart. Coming to this realization, I heaved a great sigh, the effort hurting my raw throat and lungs.
I reached behind me and scrabbled for my water bottle in a side-pocket of my pack, letting the cold water wash over my tongue and mouth and even allowing some of the liquid to fall down onto my sweat-soaked shirt. I looked down at my old heavy-duty, military issued camouflage pants and my huge, clunky, durable hiking boots. Basic military training was bad enough, and wondered once again - as I always did when I realized how tired I was - why I was forcing myself to do this.
Swishing the water about in my parched mouth, I looked to my right and saw my destination. A similar watchtower to the one in the distance, only this one was far, far closer - less than a mile’s walk but up yet another steep incline. And so I allowed myself a few minutes of rest and mourning over my almost numb feet before I set off once again.
I had been right in my prediction that I’d soon no longer be thankful for how close my watchtower was; the map had shown me I was close, but definitely not the altitude at which the stupid thing was seated. Although I knew it only made sense for the watchtowers to be high and be able to see for miles in all directions for any signs of fire, by the time I’d ascended the grass and tree-covered hill on which my tower stood, I’d forgotten this and decided watchtowers, forests, mountains, and hiking were all equally stupid. Thankfully, because I was so exhausted, this last stretch of the hike gave me time to think, and also time for the sky to begin to darken.
The forest, in my eyes, was infinitely more beautiful at night. The sun, halfway covered by the horizon, threw its final rays of orange light across the forests and mountains. Instead of the blue haze the distant mountains and trees now stood in a haze of orange, pink and red, the colors glowing as vividly as a water painting but as real as anything I’d seen before. In the forest around me, the wildlife had quieted as though in awe of the radiance before me. On the opposite end of the tye-dye sky, white pinpricks of light began to sparkle and appear, little dazzling dots of dim brightness. The moon, nestled among a nest of the stars, displayed only half of its full glory tonight, and did not quite shine in the reddish sky around it.
Snapping myself out of this nature-induced daze and reminding myself that I’d see enough of the wild by the end of the summer, I liked towards the west and before me, my home for the next few months stood proudly. It was entirely comprised of a dark, gnarly wood. Resting my hand upon the side, I found the material to be rough and cool to the touch, and briefly, in a fit of pleasure, I hugged the cold wood, wrapping as much of my body around it as I could, covering it in my sweat but relishing in the chilliness that touched my skin.
After a lifetime, I let go and looked up. Four thin, slanted pillars stood on all four corners of the box it supported above. Leading up the legs, supporting the structure were cross-sections of the same wood leading up to the box on top. From my position, I could only see that the box itself stood upon a slightly wider platform with rails all around it, and I wondered how I would get up there. I glanced about the structure, hoping to find some sort of heavy-duty, well-maintained, naturally-grown elevator (by that time I was even prepared to accept an escalator) but no such machine was found. The only way up was through a sort of thin spiral staircase snaking its way up the sides of the lookout tower and around the legs. Coming to yet another devastating realization, I simply stared at the tower angrily for a few moments, and after deciding that the thing had gotten the message, I started the climb up the roughly 60 feet of staircase.
By the time I’d finished, I was once again horribly aware that the my backpack must weigh at least three tons and my legs felt - well, I couldn’t really feel my legs. But this was once again forgotten as I found myself on the platform, my hands on the railing, looking out below.
Dark forests of silhouettes and shadows extended miles in all directions, only a few massive mountains forming a sort of basin in the valley below. Above, the sky had darkened to a deep, deep blue, and the stars shined as brightly as a thousand camera-flashes and twinkling in the same manner. The Milky Way was clearly and brilliantly visible: huge nebulae floated motionless in front of a stream of white and orange light, like someone had ripped the whole in the sky and placed all the beauty in the universe into the open wound. But even this beauty couldn’t outdo the timeless light of the moon, whose rays lit the structure I stood on, only half of the celestial body needed to fill me with awe.
I breathed in deeply, and the cool night air filled my lungs as a breeze washed across my sweat-saturated skin. In my exhaustion, I closed my eyes and was almost lulled to sleep where I stood: I had begun to sway when I heard a muted, barely audible voice resonated from the room behind me.
I whipped around. In the middle of the platform was a room, about ten feet by ten feet, windows on every side. Following the source of the voice, I opened the door to the room and stepped in.
It felt rather spacious for such a small area, mostly due to each of the appliances and furnishings within being very space-efficient. A tiny bed, tiny sink, and tiny desk lined the walls, a variety of storage chests and cupboards lining the rest. In the middle, on the ceiling, there hung a little lamp, and I pulled the string below it. The lamp filled the room with a yellow glow. On every wall, there was a continuous, long window so that I could look outside, having a 360 degree view of the dark landscape around me.
I jumped when there was a crackle, and then a voice coming from atop the desk.
“Well, are you gonna stand around in there all night, tower-lover?”
I stepped towards the little desk with a little chair in front of it. On the table was a little yellow radio in its charge-port. Gingerly, I picked the thing up and jumped again when the voice returned.
“Dear lord, have you ever seen a radio before?” The voice had an almost British accent affecting it, and was definitely feminine. I also immediately got the feeling the speaker was young: the dry humor seemed to confirm that. “
I clicked a button on its side, and lifted it to my mouth. “You can see me?”
I clicked the button again. I looked around the room for any sign of life or a human as I waited.
A few seconds later, the woman responded. “Yes, I can. I am under your bed.”
I snorted, a little pissed off from my fatigue. “I’m not going to fall for that.” I said as I quickly went on my knees and looked under my bed.
“Ha! You can’t fool me. I can see you, dork,” the woman said, insulting me in a strangely affectionate way, “and you totally just looked.”
“Shut up,” I responded, her mockery beginning to anger me, “and tell me where you are.”
There was an audible sigh. “Damn, a spoil-sport. Wish they could’ve set me up with a comedian, or at least a celebrity.”
“Where are you?” I repeated, looking around once more. I had dropped my backpack off my shoulder when I noticed a little yellow light in the distance, above the tree-line. Squinting, I could barely see the dark outline of another watch-tower.
“Good job!” The woman said. “You found me, Blue’s Clues!”
“You’re in that watchtower?” I asked. There was another, longer, exasperated sigh.
“And dumb, too?” She said to herself. “God, I’m screwed. They sent me a dumb one.”
“Shut up, “ I advised again. “You have binoculars?”
“Another smart deduction from Sherlock,” The woman observed. “Yes, that’s me, hello.”
“Hello,” I said, ignoring the small jibe, too exhausted to get worked up.
“I’d say nice to meet you, but it seems as though you aren’t the best with first impressions,” The woman said. “My name is Amarrah. My friends call me Marz.”
I wondered just how high-powered her sight was. “Hello, Marz. How powerful are those binoculars?”
I couldn’t see her, but I could imagine her rolling her eyes. “It’s Amarrah, to you. I don’t even know your name. And don’t you worry, these bad boys can’t see much. I only see your silhouette. My, you’re short.”
My face went red and I spluttered a bit - my height had always been an insecurity - but then she laughed. It was a high, tinkling laugh, one that made the corners of my mouth twitch, but I furiously refused to let them, choosing to stay bitter to the young woman on the radio.
“I’m just kidding around, I’m probably shorter,” She said. “and you should probably get unpacking. I’m betting you’re tired after the hike, and you’ll want all that stuff ready for when you set out in the morning.”
That took me by surprise, and I had a coughing fit for a full minute as I dug for my water.
“My, my. Perhaps you ought to drink some water,” Amarrah observed helpfully once again.
I drank so quickly that I choked, and it took another minute for me to stop coughing again. I swirled the liquid in my parched mouth and swallowed thankfully, breathing a sigh of relief.
“I’m glad you took my advice, did the water help?” Amarrah said casually. I closed my eyes for a second.
“Your humor is going to take some getting used to,” I said, sitting down on the bed, groaning with pleasure as my legs ceased their aching.
“Well, we have the whole summer to get to know each other,” She said. “Plus, it’s your fault for taking this job. You are a numb-skull.”
“Shut up,” I said again, not having the energy to argue. I laid back and watched moths flutter about my lamp.
“Another fantastic comeback,” Amarrah commented. “I hope you’ll have better ones after you get some sleep.”
“Shut up,” I repeated. “What did you mean, when I set out in the morning?”
She quickly replied, “That’s alright, I was just screwing with you. I always let the new watcher get a few days of good sleep before they become my slave.”
I could imagine her rolling her eyes once again. I couldn’t even imagine what she looked like, but for a brief moment I saw my wife rolling her eyes in my mind’s eyes. I physically flinched at the thought as painful memories seized up in me.
“You alright there, tower-lover?” Amarrah asked, a little more gently. I hoped she asked out of concern from my lack of answer, and not from seeing me flinch. I dearly hoped her binoculars were not that strong.
“Fine,” I said evenly, pushing such sad memories from my head. I began to unpack, piling clothes on different areas of my small bed. “Watcher?”
“That’s your job, innit?” Amarrah said rhetorically. “You’re out in the middle of nowhere to watch for fires, illegal fireworks, criminals-on-the-run, natural disasters, and other such exciting things. Plus, I have the authority to send you out when there’re electrical failures, or if I need you to take a hike and document something on our maps.”
“Exciting things,” I echoed.
“Yes, to me, those are exciting things. I know that sounds terrible but I’ve been out here for a while with little or no excitement,” She said. “If the Canadians invaded, I’d rejoice.”
“We’re in northern Wyoming,” I said.
“Close enough. God, if only Canadians were more power-hungry.”
“What if I’m Canadian?”
“Oh, please. If I could see how much of a midget you are, I could definitely see your army-grade materials and clothes. Especially that damned backpack of yours, it’s over half your puny size. You’re American military, so not a Canadian, eh?”
“If you could see that, couldn’t you see what I look like? Also, Canadians would find that cultural mockery offensive.”
“Uh, no. I have binoculars, not a telescope. All I can really see is a human-shaped camouflage blob. Ha! Maybe I’ll call you Bob the Blob, since you haven’t even told me your name. And I can sort of see your silhouette in your tower. Oh, and if you’re Canadian, I’m sorry, eh?”
I snorted at her failed attempt at a Canadian accent, placated and relieved that she couldn’t really see me, but noting how quickly and excitedly she rambled on. “You said you’ve been out here for years. How old are you?”
“Oh! Finally, you’re asking the right questions,” Amarrah said. “I’m 21 years young.”
“You sound and act like a teenager,” I observed.
“My mom always told me to act ten years younger than I am,” Amarrah explained. “Ha! Then she goes and dies at the tender age of 50. Irony.”
I blinked at her offhand joking about her mother’s death. “Oh. I’m sorry to hear that.”
“It’s whatever,” She said. “I’ve had months out here alone to think about it. I’m over it.”
I was silent, because that felt like the right thing to do. Quietly, I began to stack my clothes into the small dresser at the foot of my bed. Amarrah was silent for several minutes as I tucked away my things, and she only spoke again after I’d collapsed on my bed and let out a long, weary sigh.
“So, what’s wrong with you?”
My eyes still closed, I mumbled into the radio, “What do you mean?”
“No one ever really wants to be out here to watch for fires and help the environment. So, the only people who take this job are psychos and people who need to leave their past behind,” She said quietly. I noticed a far more serious tone in her voice, and I thought very hard about what she said. “Which one are you?”
I was silent for a long while, unsure of how to respond. After a few minutes, I said, “My name’s Oliver. And I guess I’m the second option.”
She, too, took her time just thinking. “I’m sorry for being so nosy, and annoying. I’ve been out here for years, and the last guy stationed at your tower - the only one I can radio to - wasn’t the most talkative. Or mentally stable, for that matter.”
I was surprised at her sudden change of character. “How do you know I’m talkative, or mentally stable?”
“Well, I don’t. But honestly I’d take anything right now,” She said quietly.
The loneliness in her voice made me shiver, and I smiled a little. “Well, I’ll be sure to meet your incredibly low expectations.”
She laughed again, and the sound made me tingle and shiver again, but this time with an unusual pleasantness that I haven’t felt in a while.
“Thanks, Oliver. You should probably get some rest.”
I let a long silence slip in our conversation, so long I almost fell asleep. But a rush of trust seemed to wash over me as I thought about Amarrah, and so finally I said, “You were right, I’m ex-marines. Honorably discharged. My wife was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s after I came back, last year. It’s all gone downhill from there. She can’t even remember her name, at times, and definitely doesn’t remember me.”
I wasn’t sure exactly why all of this spilled - I was traditionally a quiet, introverted individual who only spoke in witty, sarcastic ways. Why I was telling my life story to this random girl I’d met five minutes ago, I’d never be sure.
“I’m sorry, Oliver,” Amarrah said simply. “How old was she?”
“We were both 28,” I said.
“Damn. That’s young, for Alzheimer’s,” She said quietly.
“Yeah,” I said, “it is.”
There was a very long pause. “What was she like?”
I squeezed my eyes shut and my wife appeared in my head: her golden hair, fair skin, red lips. But her eyes were wide open and blank, unseeing, unremembering. I let out a long sigh as tears welled up slightly in the corners of my eyes, and I cursed myself for being a sissy.
“Hey, look, I’m sorry for asking,” Amarrah said. “I’m stupid, you’re probably tired. Get some rest.”
“Woah, wait,” I said, recalling a few minutes ago. I didn’t want her to feel guilty, so I wiped my tears away and said as evenly as I could: “You called me a tower-lover. What’s that mean?”
Amarrah giggled. “Sorry, if you haven’t figured it out by now, I’ve been watching you hike since you first came into my line of sight.” She said, very unapologetically. “I saw you hug the tower, down there . . . is that what else you left behind? A disgusting fire-watch tower fetish?”
“Perhaps I ought to get some rest, before you recover your funny bone for the night.” I said, laying back onto the bed, breathing out slowly through my nose.
“Yeah. Goodnight, Oliver. Radio me when you wake up.”
“Will do. Night,” I said.
I closed my eyes and spread my aching body across my little bed, my feet dangling off the edge as I slowly relaxed.
With a little crackle, the radio came on once more.
“Hmm?” I mumbled back.
“I’m really glad you’re out here,” Amarrah confessed quietly. “And you really seem like a nice guy. Just - yeah. Sweet dreams.”
The line cut off, and I stood slowly and shut off my lamp before falling back onto my bed. I decided then it would be best not to answer and embarrass the young woman more. I took a few minutes and just thought about nothing, clearing my head of all thoughts as I typically did when looking to sleep.
Within minutes, I had dozed off peacefully, my wife’s face only filling my thoughts for a moment before the echoes of Amarrah’s laugh sung a sweet lullaby in my head.