Take Off Your Shirt
The end-of-the-day siren finally sounded.
“Show time,” Arn announced. “Let’s go by our tree on our way to the shack.”
We rushed from the field to the tree, Arn leading the way.
What the heck has he got planned? How is he going to make anyone think I’ve got a disease?
When we arrived at the tree, Arn went to the other side, leaned over and a few moments later stood up holding a small black container, about the size of a small jar of cosmetics.
“Take off your shirt Tammy. We’ll get you fixed up in no time.”
I took off my shirt. Arn unscrewed the lid on his container, inserted a couple of fingers and produced a glob of reddish stuff. He randomly rubbed the reddish stuff on my upper arms and lower neck, under the area my collar normally covered. Soon those areas were covered with dark red blotches.
Unexpectedly I found myself enjoying his touch, the first time he had touched me in the three days I had been on Hoth.
“Put your shirt back on. Don’t button the sleeves and leave the top couple of buttons undone so I can pull up your sleeves and pull your shirt open at the neck to show them your horrible disease,” Arn directed.
“Do you really think this is a good idea, Arn?”
“Yeah, I do. This is survival, Tammy. I don’t want you disappearing in the middle of the night.”
“That happens around here?” I asked.
“Yes, it does. We can talk about it later. But now we have an audience waiting. Walk next to me.”
We walked toward the shack, being careful to keep the shack between us and the people lined up to turn in their equipment and pick up their bowls of soup. When we got close to the shack, we veered around it. Several people near the shack shrunk away from us. Everyone else hung back even further. Every eye was fixed on us.
“Just as I expected,” Arn said under his breath.
Murmurs in the Crowd
We stepped up to the opening in the shack wall. Prune face saw us and gasped. She put on a pair of gloves, reached out and took our gloves and brushes.
“I’m puttin’ ‘em away from all the others”, she announced to the assembly. “These’ll be theirs from now on. They’ll be getting’ their own bowls too.”
The crowd murmured. I heard “Where’d she come from?” and “Why they puttin’ some sicko over here?”
Arn spun me around to face them. He pulled up my sleeves and opened the neck of my shirt.
“See for yourself. The goon said we’re o.k. if we don’t touch it.”
In the deepening dusk only a few people were close enough to see the red splotches.
“Zeno’s right! She’s got some red stuff growin’ on her,” one of them announced.
“Keep her away from us,” the group shouted.
Will They Kill Me?
“My friends, don’t be alarmed. You’ll all be fine if you keep away from us.”
With that we turned to prune face. Two gloved hands reached out to us with our bowls of soup, then two tin cups.
“These are your cups from now on. Keep ‘em with ‘ya if ya’ want to drink. Don’t use the other cups. Don’t let her touch the water barrel or jugs. Never.”
We turned and walked back to our tree. We sat down next to each other. My knee touched Arn’s leg. He made no attempt to move.
“Don’t you think you might have overplayed your hand there, Arn? Now they’re really afraid of us. Aren’t you afraid they’ll try to kill us?” I whispered.
They’re Afraid of Us
“They won’t try anything,” he whispered. “They’re all afraid of me. They’d take on the goon with the gun before they’d mess with me. Haven’t you noticed how no one comes over here?”
“Zeno came over to our end of the field this morning.”
“Guess you couldn’t see his lip quivering. He was scared as shit.”
“So why did he come Arn, if he was scared?” I asked
“The others put him up to it. They wanted a report on who you are and what you look like up close. Prune face must have told one of them you’re pretty.”
“Look, Tammy. You’re going to be o.k. I won’t let them touch you,” Arn said as he laid his hand on my knee and patted it.
“They’re all afraid of you?” I asked. “I’m not. I bet I could whip your ass.”
Arn found that funny. He snickered as quietly as he could.
“Let’s finish our stew, take the bowls back to old prune face, then we’ll talk.”
That’s what we did. When we returned to our tree, we lay down very close to each other and whispered for at least half an hour before falling asleep.
“Why are they afraid of you, Arn?”
“Awhile back a couple of them tried to jump me so they could steal my spare clothes. I was getting the best of them, so four of their friends joined in. As you would say. ‘I whipped their asses’ good. I told ‘em I could take on all forty of ‘em. So now they give me a lot of respect.”
“How did you beat six of them?” I asked.
“I have some special moves Gramps taught me.”
“What’s your level?”
“Why do you ask?” Arn shot back.
“I’m Shichi-dan,” I said. “I must have been talking in my sleep.” A fleeting image of an old man appeared in my mind.
“No, you weren’t talking in your sleep. Yes, I am Shichi-dan,” Arn barely whispered, then began making little choking sounds.
“Are you choking, Arn?”
“No, no. Just a little something from the soup must have stuck in my throat. How’d you learn karate and why did you learn it?”
“I can’t remember just yet. All I’m getting is an image of an old man and faint memories of walking away from a bunch of guys all laying on the ground. I think I put them there.”
“I can pretty much guarantee you did,” Arn said. “Alright, you’ve convinced me not to mess with you. Maybe you could whip my ass. Nobody better mess with the two of us together.”
He Trusts Me!
“What’s with you, this tree, patch of almost dead grass and the end of the field, Arn?”
“One of the goons owed me a favor and got me assigned to this area. I think the tree has long roots, and there’s some sort of spring under it. The ground here is a little cooler for sleeping. I can keep to myself down here. No one notices when I get up during the night and take a little walk. Even on these short nights I wake up before it starts getting light. Guess I don’t need as much sleep as most people.”
Suddenly he seems to trust me! Wonder why?
“You walk during the night? Have you been walking since I got here?”
“No, I was afraid to leave you alone. I didn’t want anyone or anything messing with you.”
“Anything?” I asked.
“Sometimes people have come up missing during the night. We never see them again.”
“Maybe the goons are taking them”
“I doubt it. The goon I sort of know says they’re not. If the goons take someone away, they usually walk up to them and say ‘This is your lucky day. Come with me. You’re bein’ transferred.’
“Supposedly they’re being transferred to one of the other settlements to work there. But we really don’t know. Maybe it’s just to the stew pot. I doubt that though. They need workers here to care for the plants. We grow a lot more plants than we need for feeding the people in this settlement. I’m sure they’re shipping the extra plants to the other settlements.”
“Why do they grow the plants here and ship them to other settlements, Arn? Can’t those settlements grow their own plants?”
“Apparently not. This part of the planet is pretty much a desert. It takes lots of water to grow these plants. We have lots of water, Tammy.”
“Where is it? All I see is desert.”
“On the other side of the mountains there’s a big processing plant that converts sea water to drinkable water. The goons have workers over there whose job is keeping that plant up and running. If the water plant goes down, the plants we brush off will die within days. No plants, no food and we’ll all die.”
“Do workers ever get transferred here, Arn?”
“Never. That’s why we work from first light to last light. We’ve lost workers, the ones that got transferred out and the ones that just disappeared, but we’ve never had a new worker except for you. You were some kind of strange transfer.
“I hear everything, even when I’m asleep. I didn’t hear a sound. I’d walked earlier in the night. You weren’t here when I got back. I woke up just as it was starting to get light and there you were, a few feet in front of me, looking over your shoulder at me.”
“Yeah, wondering where I was. It seems to me I just fell out of the sky and landed in the dirt in front of you on this strange planet.”
“If you had fallen out of the sky, Tammy, I would have heard you land.”
“Until I get my memory back, I guess we’re at a dead end on that one,” I said.
Holding Hands in the Dark
Arn reached out and took my left hand between both of his. He squeezed my hand and I squeezed his.
“You don’t understand how glad I am that you’re here, Tammy. You and Gramps are the best things that have ever happened to me.”
“I’m glad you’re here with me, Arn. I can’t say I like being on Hoth, but if I have to be here, you’re the one I want to be here with. You’re sweet, smart, kinda cute and Shichi-dan to top it off.”
He’s more than kinda cute. He’s really cute. Then why do I have mixed feelings? For some reason I’m not supposed to like guys. But I really like him holding my hand.
“Ya know, I get the feeling that together we’re gonna be kickin’ some serious butt one of these days,” Arn said.
With that, I squeezed his hands with both of mine, pulled my left hand from between his hands, put my left arm over his back and gave Arn a hug.
I rolled over and fell asleep immediately.