Daphne’s story is a horrifying one. Truly though, when you get right down to it, this is Ryan’s story – told from his point of view. She comes to him broken and he believes he has nothing left to offer the world at large. A woman more wounded than he is pushes him past his boundaries, makes him take risks again, open up again, and ultimately connect again.
Ryan treats her, heals her, and shows her she is strong enough to survive what she’s been through – and good enough to still get a happily ever after.
If you haven’t read “The Hermit” – I hope you’ll give it a chance.
That you fall a little in love with Ryan like I did while writing it…that you’ll cheer for Daphne when she discovers a core of steel she truly didn’t believe she had.
Ryan Wallace hiked up the mountain, lost in thought as he usually was.
Some days he was lost in memory and those days were harder.
He often toyed with the idea of taking his life but somehow, it felt like the coward’s way out. He’d made his choices and it was only right that he deal with the consequences.
If he’d been walking just two steps to the left, he might have missed her completely. Walked right past her and she would have died of exposure within hours.
If he hadn’t stumbled across what he at first thought was a child in the deepest wilderness of Alaska’s Wrangell Mountains, Ryan’s life would have gone on as it had for so long.
He didn’t miss her. He didn’t pass her.
He tripped over her still form and barely caught himself, scrambling back to gape at her in shock and confusion. He lived twenty miles from his closest neighbors, there were no roads, and the nearby river was packed with snow and ice this time of year.
That meant she’d traveled overland on foot.
How she’d survived at all puzzled him.
There had been a time when puzzles meant everything to him. Ryan felt the familiar itch between his shoulder blades. The itch that told him he couldn’t rest until he knew how she’d come to be here.
He stood staring down at her for a long time before he approached. She could already be dead. She wore boots with no socks and clothes so thin there were places where they appeared transparent.
It had been four years since he’d seen another person.
He’d packed in ten years of supplies when he’d sold everything he owned and walked away from what was left of his life. Fresh goods were air-dropped in a meadow not far from his cabin and charged to his credit card without the annoying chatter other customers might require.
Solitude was a choice he’d made. Having it disturbed was…unexpected.
Sighing deep in his chest, he crouched beside her and removed a glove, immediately noting the jagged scar along her jaw that spoke of a serious injury and likely great pain.
As Ryan reached out to take her pulse, his hand trembled.
He had no choice; he had to touch her to help her. The truth was that he was many things but a cold-blooded murderer of innocents would never be one of them.
Clenching his hand in a fist, he sent a message through his body and mind to step the fuck up already.
When he opened his hand again, his fingers were steady as a rock.
Placing them on her neck, he felt a pulse so shallow he almost missed it. She was in danger of freezing if he didn’t get her to shelter immediately.
Tugging his backpack off his shoulders, he removed a thermal blanket and wrapped it around her body. He pulled the bedroll blanket out and added that, placing his pack beneath her head. Standing, he set about making a litter from branches and twine to transport her back to his cabin.
He moved quickly. Two short hours remained before he lost the light and would be forced to make camp. Alone, the prospect wouldn’t bother him but allowing her to remain at the mercy of the elements for another twelve hours would kill her. Of that, he was certain.
She was his responsibility now. It was his job to keep her safe and make her well so she could go back where she belonged and leave him alone again.
Alone but not at peace. Never at peace.
He used his bedroll to shield her from the rough twine, lifting and moving her to lie on it, shocked at how little she weighed. He carefully tucked the blankets around her and used more twine to secure her to the litter.
Pack over his shoulders again, he stood staring out at the Kennecott Glacier in the distance with his hands on his narrow hips.
“I don’t know why you’ve sent this person to me. I won’t pretend to understand. I’ll help her and send her away. Is this going to become a regular thing? Sending me underfed strays to patch up?”
When there was no answer, he pinched the bridge of his nose between his finger and thumb, squeezing to relieve the tension building there.
“Okay, let’s get this over with.” He turned and lifted the litter, hauling it behind him as he retraced his steps.
Ryan moved rapidly down the mountain and the roof of his cabin came into view as the sun began to disappear behind the lowest range.
He breathed a sigh of relief and pulled her up on the porch, untied the twine, lifted her from the floor, and carried her inside the warmth of his compact home.
First things first, he couldn’t afford an infestation of bugs. He had no choice but to clean and examine her. He spread an old blanket over his farmer’s table and laid her on it.
Retrieving his medical bag and supplies from the pantry as well as a warm flannel shirt and thick socks, he returned to her side. He pulled the blankets back and conducted a series of tests to check her vitals. The corneas of her eyes were yellowed, the pupils dingy. They dilated when he flashed his light in them.
He started removing the tattered shirt and men’s pants, held to her malnourished frame with a piece of dirty rope.
She wore no undergarments. Everything went into an enormous Ziploc bag he would save for the authorities.
Gradually he bared her body to his eyes and his heart felt a wave of compassion he hadn’t experienced in far too many years to count.
The obvious malnourishment and dehydration were the least of what this woman had been through. Her bones showed clearly under her lax grayish skin.
The scarring was so much worse. Everything from lash marks to what looked like slices from a knife were scattered over her torso, arms, and legs.
Someone’s desire for her to remove her body hair with either an old blade or the edge of a knife had left her armpits, legs, and pelvic area dotted with infected razor burn and likely agonizing tiny cuts.
He filled a small tub with warm soapy water and began to wipe her body down with a soft cloth after he stoked the fire to prevent her from becoming chilled. His mind was detached as he’d been trained, seeing her as a patient and not a person of specific gender.
When her body was as clean as he could get it, the scars and bruises were so much clearer against her pale flesh. He applied antibacterial ointment over every cut and sore he found, covering the worst with gauze and medical tape.
The bruised outlines of hands on her upper arms and inner thighs infuriated him on her behalf. Her genitals were raw and he knew she likely had vaginal and anal tearing. For someone to treat a human being this way meant they deserved nothing less than death.
After a moment of consideration, he removed an ACE bandage with a Velcro closure. Lifting her upper body, he worked to bind her breasts.
Evidence of severe and repeated sexual assault would make her feel vulnerable under any condition. He wanted her to feel as secure as possible under several layers of clothing, if and when she ever woke.
He went into his storage room and removed a pair of long johns that had proven to be too snug for his comfort as well as a new pair of his boxer briefs and a white undershirt. Everything was huge on her but it was the best he could do.
When he had her body covered enough to preserve her dignity, he pulled her close to the edge of the table so that most of her hair hung over the side. Using a pitcher, he rinsed her hair several times with vinegar to kill and dislodge any lice she might be carrying.
Ryan had been unable to determine her hair color initially. So many layers of grime had given it a gray tint. With each rinse, the dark brown began to show through.
He allowed the last rinse of vinegar to sit for a few minutes while he trimmed and cleaned her nails and toenails, noticing several severe breaks to the nail bed.
Placing the trimmings in another bag, he zipped it in with the clothes she’d been wearing.
When he finished, he pulled the heavy socks over her feet, leaving them over the long johns for extra warmth. He inspected her scalp with a flashlight and comb to ensure there were no eggs or bugs infesting the length.
Satisfied, he washed it with regular shampoo and rinsed it one last time before towel drying it and running a comb through the tresses until it was detangled.
He dried her neck before pulling on the flannel shirt and buttoning all but the top button. After he rolled up the long sleeves, Ryan moved her to the worn couch near the fire that he’d layered with towels.
Finally, he tugged an old quilt over her still form.
Ryan made beef broth and ginger tea, knowing he’d have to get her to eat gradually. Taking a large dropper from his medical bag, he sat on the edge of the coffee table and carefully pulled down her lower jaw. Testing with a small amount of the broth, he waited to be sure her body’s natural reflex would kick in and cause her to swallow.
Nodding his head with a slight smile that felt foreign on his face, he worked to feed the cups of both liquids to her. It took a long time but he felt she’d likely be able to keep it down. He sat back on the ratty chair he favored and watched her in wonder before falling asleep.
The days passed slowly.
He discovered if he took her in to the toilet, pulled her clothes away, and placed her in position, she would pee without an issue. That she had no bowel movements attested to the fact that she hadn’t had access to solid food in too long.
Ryan doubted she’d appreciate such intimacy with a complete stranger – no woman would – but it saved her clothing. Every two days, he removed and washed what she was wearing, gave her a sponge bath, and treated her wounds.
He always left her dressed in one of his shirts and clean socks while he washed the rest in the hand crank washing machine. He allowed them to hang in front of the fire until dry then he always redressed her fully, being careful not to put his hands on her bare skin more than absolutely necessary.
They existed in his space together, though she was unaware, with him her primary caregiver as she healed from God only knew what trauma.
He stayed close to home, having no need or desire to stray far.
Before he’d come up here for the last time four years ago, he’d made a dozen trips equipping this remote home with the basic necessities and creature comforts he refused to live without.
An old mining road allowed him the ability to drive loads to the bottom of the mountain where he could transfer everything to a rugged Kubota and haul it to the cabin clearing several miles away.
The ATV was secured in a cave should he need it. He hadn’t driven it in a long time and hoped the battery still worked.
The days passed as they had for years. Only now, when Ryan read, wrote, and listened to music he also waited for his unknown patient to wake up.
Every day, her pulse was stronger and her color a bit better.
Eight days after he found her, he was feeding her beef broth from the dropper when she opened her eyes and startled the shit out of him.
He sat back, putting plenty of space between them.
They stared at one another for several long minutes. She said nothing as she fought to stay awake, to figure out where she was and who he was.
She wanted to stay awake but her body overruled her. Eventually her eyes drifted closed and she whispered sadly, “Please…please don’t hurt me.”
Then she was out again and Ryan found himself unable to move.
For the longest time, he sat there beside her, feeling a tiny crack in the frozen ice surrounding his heart. He set the bowl down beside him and buried his face in his hands.
Never in his life had he heard such heartbreak and fear from another person. It gave him a clarity regarding his own troubles he’d refused to confront in all this time.
He picked up one of her frail hands and held it lightly between both of his large ones.
“I will not hurt you. You’re safe with me. I swear it. No one will ever hurt you again.” His thumb smoothed carefully over her skin but the touch was not intentional. “I want to know what happened to you.”
He patted her gently and stood, replaced the quilt over her chest, and went into the kitchen. As he’d done every night since he found her, he cleaned, locked up, and collapsed in his chair across from the couch in front of the fire.
Stretching his legs out in front of him, Ryan fell asleep in the same place, with the same view, he’d held for eight nights.
Over the next few days, she opened her eyes more and more but didn’t speak again. When she was awake, she shook constantly.
He carried on, sleeping in the living room and nursing her back to health.
His questions would have to wait.