HEART FOR TRADE WEEK 7
Not for lack of trying, Ryan hadn’t slept much. His body was exhausted, but even in the luxury under his back, the thick mattress with warm blankets, he couldn’t get comfortable in such an unfamiliar place. Jarum on the other hand, snored loudly across the way. His mouth open, his limbs splayed out—he looked like a child and sounded like he was trying to contact extraterrestrials. Ryan smiled a little, slipping out of his bed onto the thin rug covering the floor. He pawed at the pajamas each of them had been given.
He wanted to try out the bathtub this time. Last night they had been introduced to the shower. A strange booth with a water tank near the ceiling, warm water would filter from a nozzle with tiny holes and allow them to clean up for ten to fifteen minutes. Ryan had never felt so good in his entire life, so clean. He’d been embarrassed by the amount of dirt and grime that had pooled onto the tile floor and had spent the next hour cleaning it up with a towel so no one knew how dirty he was.
He slipped into the washroom and carefully folded his pajamas on the counter. After several minutes, frustrated with the hot and cold settings, Ryan succeeded in filling the tub like Benny had showed them. He sank into the water and shut his eyes. Another luxury the rest of the world would never know. The bathtub soothed his aching limbs, relaxed away his stress and made him feel better about his hygiene. When the water cooled and his fingertips were wrinkled, he got out of the tub and dried off.
Naked, he padded over to the cabinet that Benny had pointed out and excitedly opened it. The stick with bristles sat next to a tube of… toothpaste, he read. Deodorant, he squinted. Floss? These people spent way too much time on their appearance, he shook his head. But if he was going to live here, Ryan guessed he should at least try these things. He read the labels on the back of the items before squirting a glob of toothpaste on the bristled stick—also known as toothbrush, according to the directions.
Looking around, he sighed and started to brush his teeth. A foamy mint substance filled his mouth. He loved the tingling sensation, the clean feeling, the grime coating his teeth washed away. When his mouth got to full he spat into the sink and smacked his lips. It was a nice taste, but too intense to keep there. So he gargled some water in his mouth and spit in the sink.
A sigh left his lips. His tongue swept over his squeaky clean teeth. He didn’t know if this place could get any better than this, but boy was he wrong. After using the comb, the deodorant, and the plastic razor with several sharp blades, he stood before the mirror with several little cuts on his jaw line. He felt new, different—barely recognized himself. Leaning closer, Ryan ran a hand over his smooth skin in awe. Back home, his father had an old open blade that he’d taught the boys how to use. But it felt nothing like this.
He wanted to cry. He wanted to hug himself and slide down the wall. As wonderful as it all was, he couldn’t help but feel terrible that his village didn’t know this kind of luxury—that these things were wasteful beyond their former basic necessities. Shaking off the urge to cry, Ryan padded back into their room and went to the small dresser next to his bed.
Another stack of clothes awaited him. He fought the need to smell the clean fabric and put on each article ceremoniously. Feet sliding into brand new, lace up boots, he walked over to where Jarum still lay sleeping and sighed. Better to let him sleep, Ryan thought.
He wanted to explore for himself. Benny hadn’t said anything about when they would be brought to breakfast or if someone was coming to get them at all. Instead of waiting around, Ryan opened the door to their room and walked into the cool, empty hallway. He checked both sides before chancing a right. Off he went into the unknown, no one in sight.
Samuel roused from his drunken sleep when the intercom crackled next to him.
“Sir?” Avery whispered.
“Huh?” Samuel nearly fell out of his chair. The bottle in his lap clinked to the floor.
“Sir!” Avery’s hissed. “Wake up.”
Holding his head, Sam groaned at the speaker. “What is it, Avery?”
“Ryan just left his quarters. Alone.”
“What?” Samuel turned to the glass and found the bed across from Jarum’s empty. “Shit.”
“The monitors are tracking him towards the water filtration room. Should I buzz Mack?”
“Yeah.” Sam stood too quickly. His head swam. “Yes,” he repeated. “Mack should get the picture if he runs into Ryan, but fill him in so he doesn’t freak out.”
“Mack? Freak out?” Avery made a sound of disbelief. “Yeah right.”
“Just do it.” Sam blinked open an eye at the speaker. “Please.”
“Magic words will get you everywhere. I’m on it, Commander.” She paused for a moment. “You, ah, also missed the shift meeting.”
“Crap!” Sam swung open the door into the brightly lit hallway. He covered his eyes with his hand.
“Don’t worry, Sir.” Avery’s voice followed his down the hall. “Benny handled it pretty well, for a rat.”
“Yeah. Yeah. Sorry. I’ll alert Mack and Benny. In case Jarum wakes up too.”
“Good. Thanks. Keep watching the monitors.”
“Seriously?” She laughed.
“Habit,” he commented dryly, knowing that watching the monitors was what Avery lived for. “Goodbye, Avery.”
“Sir,” she finished with a crackle of the speaker and then she was gone, a slight chuckle as she went.
“Fuck,” Samuel muttered under his breath. “Give me strength because this man is gonna be the death of me.”
Ryan wrapped his hands around the thick, metal banister and watched water pour into the large drums at a high-pressured speed. A network of catwalks broke up the different drums. Each circular vat looked a little different. The last one was obviously on its way into the main water system if his assumption was correct, rushing into a system of pipes and through the thick rock wall. The others before it were not so clean. Muck layered the first one. Ryan swiftly looked away from it. The smell reminded him of home a little—dirty like he had been.
Walking along the high metal platform, he noted the natural water being filtered through from a small opening near the end. Some type of lake or river must be nearby. Curious, he descended the steps until a large man blocked his path. Dressed in a light blue jumper and goggles, the man smiled up at him.
“You must be, Ryan.” He waved. “I’m Mack!” He called over the loud noise of the containers.
Ryan waved back, checking behind him to make sure no one else would ambush him. “Yeah.” Thrown off by the man knowing his name. “I’m sorry,” he called back. “I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to be here.”
“No worries.” Mack climbed the stairs. “You thirsty?” The large man gestured to the containers with a brawny laugh.
“Uh. No thanks.” Ryan took a step back when Mack reached the platform.
“I’m not mad kid. You got no reason to be scared.” Mack patted him on the back. “It was just a joke.”
“Sorry.” Ryan looked down.
“You look curious. Come on. Let me show you around a bit.” Mack shook his head, leading Ryan to the other side of the platform, another set of stairs. “This is where we treat the water on the base for consumption, the facilities, the faucets—everything. We recycle as much as we can. Water being one of the most important commodities we have. With disease and pollution high, we take this process very seriously.”
“Huh?” Ryan was still stuck back on faucets.
“All the water,” Mack summarized with a smile.
“Yep. Every ounce of water used on the base comes here when it goes down the drain. You know, the little thing at the bottom of the tub or sink with holes in it?”
“Got it.” Ryan nodded, liking Mack already. The guy didn’t make him feel dumb in the least.
Mack squeezed his shoulder. “We start with the main container over there with the big one on it. That one is called the screen. It separates the sand, objects, and uh… other things from getting through to container number two.”
Ryan leaned on the banister. “What do you do with the stuff that doesn’t go through?”
“We put it through another larger screen at the end of every container cleaning. We cut off the water flow and clear the tank. The waste is used as compost or fertilizer outside. Not on the fields. Helps stuff grow, but due to the waste in the heap, we don’t use it on food for us. It’s got too much bacteria and toxins for porous food. Not even the chemical will clean it up.”
“You just don’t use it for food, right? The waste?”
“You’re a smart one.” Mack ruffled his hair. “Come on. Let me show you the clean stuff. I’m getting thirsty just talking about it.”
Ryan smiled. “Okay. Me too.”
As Mack continued the tour, Samuel watched from the top platform. From up above, he saw Ryan crouch next to Mack, pointing and nodding with interest. He could tell Ryan truly loved to learn. It was in the excited way he used his hands, his wide eyes and the way he touched things as if he could learn by their texture. Overwhelming as it all was, Ryan had immediately started exploring to immerse himself in this new world. Damn, Sam thought. He owed the man one hell of an apology.
Last night had been uncalled for. Ryan was right. They’d only been here a few hours. How could Samuel expect them to understand everything? He couldn’t. The thought in mind, Sam whistled with his fingers and offered a wave to the men below.
Mack waved back but Ryan looked away like he was in trouble. On a sigh, Sam nudged his head and Mack got the picture.
“You hungry, Ryan?” Samuel called out. Blue eyes shot straight up to him. “I’ll take that as a yes. Come on up.”
After thanking Mack and tucking his bottle of water into the large pocket of his sweater, Ryan ascended the stairs.
“Good morning,” Sam said.
“Hi,” Ryan returned quietly.
Swallowing his own pride, Sam put an arm around Ryan and pushed open the facility doors. Ryan straightened his back, rigid under Sam’s arm until a hand massaged his shoulders. In the quiet hum of the hallway, the Commander cleared his throat.
“You should be mad at me.”
Ryan looked up. “What?”
“For what I said last night,” Sam continued. “It wasn’t right. I had no place trying to judge you when you didn’t understand. It’s going to take time and patience on my part. I pulled you from one world and thrust you into another. I’m sorry, Ryan. I really am.” He took a deep breath.
“Both of us are going to have to work together to make you a Jarum feel comfortable here. I want to give you everything you’ve ever needed. I want to show you great things you’ve never seen before. I want you to learn and thrive and I can’t do that by yelling at you.”
“It’s okay,” Ryan murmured.
Sam stopped, putting his hands on Ryan’s shoulders. “No. It’s not okay. I was an asshole and you didn’t deserve that. Will you give me a chance to make it up to you?”
Slowly, Ryan looked up at the Commander. He saw the stress in Samuel’s body, his eyes with the little lines at the corners. He saw a man who was tired, lonely just like he was. Everyone was human. Everyone made mistakes, even Samuel of Rineway.
“On one condition.” Ryan smiled.
“Don’t lie to me to make me feel better. I want to know what this place is. I want to be a part of it like everyone else. If you’re trying to save the world like you say you are, I want to know how and why. I came from the outside, Samuel. Now that I’m on the inside, I want to help them and I can’t do that if I’m in the dark.”
Nervous, but knowing Ryan was absolutely right, Sam nodded. “After you’ve stuffed your face with some real food, I promise to tell you everything.”
“Shake on it.” Ryan held out his hand. “Where I come from this means something.”
“Where I come from this means everything.” Sam gripped Ryan’s hand and shook it. “We got a deal, Ryan?”
“Yeah.” Ryan slipped his hand from the warmth of Sam’s. He’d been too worried up until now to notice the Commander’s proximity, his touch, his eyes and scent. Now as they stared at each other, he couldn’t remember anything else.
Realizing he was leaning into Ryan, their lips way too close, Sam pulled back. “Good,” he whispered.
Ryan’s stomach growled, interrupting the moment. Last night’s tacos still sitting on a tray in the room. He was starving. “Sorry.”
“And that, stop apologizing for everything.” Sam laughed, tugging Ryan after him. “Saying sorry for being hungry is like saying sorry for breathing.”
Ryan blushed, letting Sam pull him along through the base. Very true, he thought. Very true.
The mess hall was full with the breakfast crowd. Ryan, apart from his initial shock of the large room filled with tables was more focused on the delicious smell filling the air. He was led to a long table at the head of the room where one of the men from last night was eating.
“Andrew,” Sam called.
The soldier got up from his chair and saluted Sam. “Good morning, Sir.”
“Will you cut that out and eat? I was just saying hi.” Sam shook his head. He leaned into Ryan. “He’s a little old school. Don’t mind him.”
Ryan bit his lip to keep from laughing as Andrew pulled out a chair for him. “Thank you.”
“It’s a pleasure to attend to the Commander’s spouse.” Andrew nodded, waiting until Sam sat until he seated himself again.
“Spouse?” Ryan cut his eyes to Sam. “What did he just say?”
Sam tapped his fork against his empty plate. “He, uh… well, the entire base was and is under the impression that I took up the trade for a, uh…”
“Oh.” Ryan looked around the room. He noticed the sidelong glances or full on stares as people filled their mouths with food. “They think we’re…”
“Yeah,” Sam answered quietly. “If it makes you uncomfortable I can make an announcement.” He began to push his chair back.
Snatching his hand, Ryan shook his head vigorously. “No. Please don’t do that.”
They stared at each other for a moment before a short, squatty woman popped out of nowhere. “Good morning, Commander and company,” she boomed.
Ryan jumped in his seat. Barely a foot above the table in height, the woman’s voice surprised him—deep like a man’s. “Hello,” he squeaked.
“You must be, Ryan.” She grinned. “Sure is a looker, Commander. It’s about time you got yourself a piece.”
Sam’s eyes went wide. “Yvonne!”
“Don’t mind him.” The cook scooped eggs onto their plates, looking at Ryan. “He’s so conservative. Can’t even say the word penis for the life of him.”
“Oh God,” Sam groaned. He put his face in his hands. “Yvonne, please. I’m begging you.”
“Has he begged you yet?” She winked at Ryan.
He turned crimson. A few chuckles, even from Andrew, made him shrink into his chair. “No.”
“All in good time I suppose.” A stack of circular, golden things was piled onto his plate, followed by some type of meat links. The cook leaned in, sweaty face and all. “You need any tips on how to heat up the bedroom you come and ask old Yvonne. I know a thing a two about these men.” She waggled her brows.
Andrew stabbed his pancakes and barked a laugh. “You kill me, Yvonne.”
“Sign me up because I want to die right now,” Samuel muttered into his hands.
“Offer stands.” The cook patted Ryan’s hand. She put a bottle of thick, brown liquid on the table. “Now eat up. If you’re anything like the Commander here then I know you’ll just love sausage.”
As the mess hall erupted into laughter at the obvious innuendo, Ryan looked around in shock. Samuel hid his profile with his hand, bringing a bite of eggs to his mouth.
“Don’t worry,” Andrew chuckled, “she does it to everyone.”
Looking down at his plate, Ryan stared at his food. But why me, he thought. Why me?
TO BE CONTINUED…