Dirty Hands [Tall Pines Underground #3]

Chapter three, edited and all spiffy. If you want to start reading from the beginning, check out Chapter 1: Quarantine.

I’m enjoying going back through these chapters that I wrote literal years ago, rediscovering little turns of phrase and plot developments that I’d forgotten. I was and still am rather proud of the slow reveal of how terrible life is inside the refuge. One of the primary pillars of that theme is contrasting the current state of affairs with the utopian solarpunk ethos of the refuge’s design. Which lets me do some fun worldbuilding, as in this chapter with the walipinis.

I’d love to hear what you think! 😀

3. Dirty Hands

The next day we woke to the sing-song shouting of a boy who’d already tired of his job, which was to wake everyone up: “Rise and shine, wake up wake up, time for breakfast.  Rise and shine…”  He walked up and down the rows of bunks, alternating between touching everything he passed or, suddenly remembering, keeping his arms limp at his sides.  A woman waited for him at the far wall, thanked him for a job well done, and then told him to put his shoes on.

Dressed, the human contents of the barracks spilled up the loop road to the Mess.  Instead of filing inside, though, the crowd pooled outside the doors.  Jackson craned his head and bounced up on tip toes to see what the holdup was.  “There’s a table set up,” he reported, “and it looks like the doctor and nurses from the infirmary.”

“Vitamin injection day,” explained a nearby poolie, without enthusiasm.  She slowly rolled up her right sleeve.

Slowly and single file, the Ponderosa poolies shuffled past the medical table, gave their name, and received a shot in the arm.  They then stepped inside the Mess to collect breakfast.

The boys and I waited our turn, and I passed the time explaining in vauge detail the necessity of B12 supplements for our mostly-rice diet.   We finally stepped up to the table twenty minutes later.  Aubrey turned back from administering a shot.  She started when our eyes met.  I offered a feeble smile.  “I’m Susan S—” I began to tell the other nurse, this one with a chalkboard.

But Aubrey’s face hardened immediately, and she cut me off.  “Sozas.  These three just arrived, they don’t need anything.”  She waved us past.

Caden sputtered with frustration.  “Then what did we just stand around waiting for?”

Aubrey gestured theatrically at the door.  “Nothing.  But the wait’s over, so go get your breakfast.  You’re holding everything up.  Come on, move it.”

Surfing the tide of poolies behind us, we pressed on through and into the cafeteria line.

“Your girlfriend’s a piece of work,” Caden observed sullenly.  “No offense, mom.”

“Not my girlfriend,” I corrected needlessly.  Breakfast was rice balls with bean paste centers, rice balls with fish paste centers, or rice balls with a different bean paste center.  I picked three at random.  “And everyone’s on edge.  You want to make your life easier, stop expecting people to be on their best behavior.”

Jackson snorted.  “Certain.”

A surge of motherly responsibility rose up within me.  “But that does not mean,” I added hastily, “that you shouldn’t try to treat others nicely yourself.”

“Yes, mom,” both responded in nonplussed unison, and then high-fived each other for their flawless synchronization.  I ignored their grinning at each other in favor of pouring myself some strawberry water.

Our sweetie overseers did not particularly care about the delays getting into the Mess, and so breakfast was short.  I carried my last rice ball out onto the loop road to listen for work assignments.

Teddy rattled off a list of first names I recognized from the day before and the three of us started moving towards where the big man was standing.  But while he called for Caden and Jackson, he fell silent before calling my name.  A moment later I heard “Susan!” called by a young man on the other side of the road.

I clutched my boys’ hands.  “Looks like I’m not on your work detail today,” I managed around the sudden lump in my throat.  I tried to catch their eyes.  “Stay safe, alright?  Be careful.”

“Yeah, don’t worry, mom,” Caden smirked.  “Jackson will take care of me.”

I let go of their hands and watched them join Teddy’s entourage with all the casual heedlessness of youth.  I, on the other hand, felt like my heart was collapsing to pieces inside me.  What if something happened to them?  I forced myself to breathe, and then shouldered through the milling poolies to join my own work detail.

Mitch Westin was an unassuming man lost somewhere in his thirties, with thinning fair hair over perpetually ruddy skin. He looked like he had just run up a hill, an impression I would discover hung about him at all times.  And today, he was our supervision.  We were going to harvest berries in the walipinis.

The Refuge’s gardens were some distance from the circle of lodges around the Mess.  We hiked past the kitchens, picking up baskets as we went, and then marched up above the Golden Eagle lodge towards the rising ridge to the east.  There had once been a path, but herds of feet tromping up and down its length had scattered the rocks on either side and trampled the pine needles around it.  Now there was just one broad smear of packed earth running under the trees.

I dimly worried what would happen at the first heavy rain this winter.  The “path” would turn into a muddy sluice, possibly erode the whole slope. [This needs passing mention once winter hits, that lodges are “losing time” because they have to assign folks to do path maintenance.]  I looked up to say something, but the comment died on my lips.  Who would I tell?  Westin plainly didn’t care, and my fellow poolies could do nothing about it.

Twenty minutes later, we had ascended the rise off the east end of the saddle.  On the hillside, the trees thinned and the shade broke into dapples.  Ahead of us stretched the walipinis.

They were not much to look at, although this was by design.  From the outside, they looked like low, rickety cages, some thirty feet across and fifty long, draped in tattered nets of khaki and green knots.  Close up, you could see the panes of polypropylene hiding underneath the camouflage netting.  From the air, they looked like nothing but hardscrabble ground.  Or at least that was the hope.

Westin split our group into smaller clumps of workers and sent us inside.  Rough steps of wood planks holding back earth and gravel led us down to the greenhouse doors at each end.  We pulled open the door and stepped inside.  The air grew close, moist, and just slightly warmer than the thin blustery breeze playing in the trees outside.

The floor of each walipini was dug into the ground about four feet deep.  The clear plastic walls rose three feet above that, giving us more than enough space to stand and walk around the garden inside.

The plants sat in rows of raised beds that ran down the length of the building.  They formed stripes of vibrant green, touched by flecks of other living colors: blue berries, red peppers, golden sunflowers.  The whole space was filled with the soft murmur of running water.  I knew without looking that the wooden planks that formed walkways through the plants could be lifted up, revealing beneath them long troughs of flowing water populated with watercress and fish.

The walipini was alive, a secret cradle hidden in the woods bursting with living things.  Not for the first time I thrilled at the feeling of stepping inside this carefully-maintained oasis, of being part of the secret of its tranquil existence.  If the Refuge made these wonderlands possible, it couldn’t possibly be as horrible as I worried.

Baskets in hand, we set to harvesting berries.  The walipinis faced south and despite the air camouflage a good deal of sunlight streamed in, warming the green-scented air.  We worked our way down the aisles slowly, one on each side of the wide green row of plant beds, so that each of us faced one other worker.  George Madison worked opposite me.

“You know Maggie’s talking through some serious biases, right?” he asked with a grin.  “This place hasn’t been easy on her.”

I laughed so hard and so suddenly I dropped a pair of berries into the bed.  As I rooted around the find them, I said, “And here I was, about to comment on how nice and companionable this felt.”  I considered the man across from me.  “She was warning me about listening to you last night.”

“Bitch,” he noted without heat.  “Anyway she comes to her axe-grinding honestly.  She was just spurned by her sweeite lover.”

“I suppose nothing’s more companionable than gossip,” I allowed.  “Go on.”

“Not a whole lot to say,” George shrugged.  “Maggie only spent a couple days in the Ponderosa barracks when she first arrived.  Then one night she’s not in her bunk when the lights go off.  Some folks say they saw her flirting with Jack Estes after dinner.  The next day some poolie from Beaver lodge shows up for Maggie’s things.  And we don’t see her again for a week.”

“This Jack is a Beaver sweetie?”

George bobbled his head.  “He’s one of Beaver’s lotharios, yeah.  Which we might have warned Maggie about if she hadn’t disappeared on us.  She wasn’t his first toy from labor pool.  Anyway, nine days later, she storms back into the Ponderosa barracks, all her clothes balled up under her arm.”

“That sounds terrible, poor thing.  I imagine she thought she’d found her way out of the labor pool.”

“Oh yeah,” George chuckled grimly.  “An impression that Estes was happy to encourage if it made her more… malleable to his preferences.”

I raised an eyebrow.  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Maggie hasn’t said anything,” he admitted, “but I’ve heard that his prior conquests—a Grey Wolf girl and a Beaver girl—complained loudly about the long list of weird kinks he wanted them to get into for him.  And they didn’t last half as long as Maggie.”

“That does sound like a good recipe for resentment,” I agreed, and frowned down at the berries.  “Poor Maggie.”

“It’s a shame what happened,” called the woman working another row over.  “Absolutely despicable if you ask me.”

“I can’t argue with that,” I agreed, and then shifted my features to a smile.  “I don’t think we’ve met.  I’m Susan Soza.”

The older woman returned my smile.  “Delores.  You’re the new family, right?  Has anyone invited you to church services on Sunday yet?”

“No one has,” I responded.  George, his back to Delores, had drawn his lips back to produce a comical rictus of fear.  I suffered no confusion over his opinion of the services.  “Has somebody built a little chapel for the Refuge?”

“No, we just use the amphitheater,” she responded with a laugh.  “Mister Jameson—he’s the Host over at Mountain Lion—he makes sure nobody has to work on the Lord’s Day, so we can all attend.”

“We can all attend or we all must attend?” I asked warily, looking from Delores to Geore and back.

“Oh, nobody’s required to go,” she answered quickly, mildly affronted.  She then turned solicitous.  “I’m sorry, are you not Christians?  I just assumed with a name like Soza—”

“We’re Unitarian Universalists,” I told her with a fixed grin.  George raised an eyebrow at me.

Her face clouded.  “I’m not familiar with them.  Is that like Methodists?”

George laughed.  “Naw, UUs are the hippy-dippy New Age church where you can believe anything you want, right?”

“Between that and the Methodists, we’re a lot closer to the Methodists,” I assured the woman, and beamed her as warm a smile as I could.  “I’d love to attend services.  I may even be able to rouse the boys.  Thank you for the invitation.”

Delores smiled and went back to work.  George muttered just loud enough for me to hear: “You’re going to regret that.”

Before I could reply, the door from outside opened and Westin poked his head inside.  “Susan!  Susan.  Is Susan in here?  Someone out here needs to see you.”

Shrugging at George’s look of curiousity, I put down my basket and made my way outside.  Westin followed me up the steps.  “I don’t know what this is about, but make it as quick as you can, okay?  We need to finish this harvest today.”  He then waved me forward, to the end of the rough track that led back to the compound.

Aubrey stood there, waiting for me.  Already my eye picked up the telltales that told me her status ranked higher than mine.  She’d showered this morning.  Her clothes were freshly laundered.  She wore simple earrings, but jewelry nonetheless.  As I approached, I detected the faintest trace of her perfume, and tried to stop myself from remembering it fondly.

“What can I do for you?” I asked warily.  Nothing about her demeanor held a trace of welcome: her shoulders were squared, her hands folded before her, and her eyes were fixed, not on me, but on Westin.

“Washington,” she said, and it took me a moment to realize she was supplying me with her last name.  Finally she locked eyes with me, her expression so intent that I nearly stopped in my tracks.  “Roll up your sleeve.”

I opened my mouth to object, but complied instead.  She stepped close and wrapped her cool fingers around my upper arm.  “Pretend you’re getting a shot,” she directed, and when I looked to her face her eyes were again on Westin, some fifty feet away.  “I need you to do something for me,” she said quietly, and pressed a paper envelope into my hand.  By the way we were standing, Aubrey holding me close to her, Westin would be unable to see the hand-off.

“What is this?” I asked, even as I slid the envelope into my pocket.

“The less you know, the better,” she breathed.  “Get these to Teddy Mahone, okay?”

“The big guy?”

She actually rolled her eyes.  “How many Hawai’ians named Teddy do you know?  It’s important, okay, and I know I can trust you.”

After everything else that was happening, it was that statement that made my heart pound.  She held me close enough that I could feel the heat off her skin.  “Okay,” I managed.

“Tell him there is more but I can only move a little at a time,” she added, and finally released my arm. “And don’t tell him you got it from me.”  Louder, and for my supervisor’s benefit, she said, “That’s it.  You can get back to work.”

Then she turned and walked back down the hill.  I returned to the walipini, picked up my basket, and pretended like nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

By the end of the day, it had become plain that berry picking was no less back breaking than quarry work.  It was also capped by a treacherous hike back down the hill, balancing heavy baskets across our shoulders while we negotiated the roughshod wash that had once been an orderly trail.

We deposited the day’s harvest at the back door of the Mess and then circled around to the queue for third Mess.  Teddy’s team and my boys were nowhere in evidence, although I expected he would wring every minute of work out of the day.

Maggie waved at me from the end of the line, and George and I fell into place behind her.  “Pleasant day gardening?” she asked with a sour smile.

George shrugged.  “Blueberries for breakfast tomorrow, can’t complain about that.”

But Maggie snorted.  “We’ll see if there are any left by the time First and Second Mess are done with the spread.”

I couldn’t yet tell if Maggie’s griping was cynicism or valid complaint.  “Surely the kitchen staff could just divide everything into three stages, right?” I asked, looking between them.

“They could,” Maggie acknolwedged.  “They don’t.  And why would they, most of them are Eagle poolies, and they eat at Second Mess.”

“Ponderosa sends poolies to the kitchen every day,” George pointed out.  “Our people are in there, too.”

“Yeah, but they’re always the minority, and they’re never on the line.  They’re washing dishes and shucking soybeans.”

George’s wife, a much younger woman I only knew in passing as Gini, sidled up to her husband, their two young daughters in tow.  He smiled and pecked her on the cheek, but didn’t let any of that distract him from the debate.  He rolled his eyes.  “Listen, if there are no berries for us tomorrow, we can go to Abernathy, and he can—”

“Do what?” Maggie scoffed.  “He eats with First Mess like all the other sweeties.”

“Not all the time,” he protested.  “He’s eaten with us at Third Mess a bunch.”

“Less and less often,” was the response.  “Half the time he just has a meal delivered to his suite.”

The argument was interrupted by the arrival of Teddy’s work crew and the boys cutting the line to give me a hug.  I wasn’t sure which made my heart leap more: seeing that they were safe and whole, or the unprompted display of affection.  We exchanged brief check-ins—we had all worked hard, stayed safe, and were now tired and hungry—before they looked uncertainly down the line to where their fellow quarry workers were standing.

The doors to the Mess opened and the line lurched into halting motion.  “I don’t know if it’s okay for you two to cut in to be with family—” I started to say, and a moment later the boys had disappeared, heading down the line.

Maggie watched them go.  “It’s totally okay,” she assured me.  “People do it all the time.  Gini just did it a moment ago.”

I looked back to where they had gone and hooked a thumb after them.  “Look again.”  Sure enough, both boys were already deep in conversation with another young man.

“Aw,” crowed George.  “They made a friend.”

I shot Maggie a sardonic smirk.  “The tip-off was the matching hugs.  That was a carefully choreographed check-in with Mom, calculated to make me happy enough to see them go.”

George chuckled and then looked worriedly at his own, much younger, children.  “Oh, the heights of duplicity I have to look forward to.”

“We’ll be negotiating over which meals I can expect to see them at shortly,” I predicted with a rueful smile.  “But.  Better than their being socially isolated and grumpy all the time.  I’ve weathered that before, don’t want to repeat the experience.”

I ate with Maggie and the Madisons.  Conversation was light and sparse as the day’s exhaustion settled over us.  The children occupied a good deal of their parents’ attention between goading them to eat and listening to a detailed if fragmented report on what had happened in the creche that day.  I must admit I enjoyed watching the young ones, and I caught Maggie bestowing a sappy smile on them more than once.

Then motion in the corner of my eye caught my attention.  Teddy Mahone had stood from his seat and now his bulky form was pushing down an aisle of benches.  The diners on either side of him swayed like cornstalks in a field as the farmer walked down a row.

I excused myself and made my way after the big man.

He did not have a tray in his hand, so as I expected he stepped outside towards the restrooms. By the time I exited the Mess, the door to the men’s room was closing after him.  This side of the Mess was deserted, so I simply sat down on a convenient rock to wait.

When he emerged, I stood up and said his name as politely as I could.  He started, glanced back at the bathroom door, and then to me.  “Yeah?” he answered.  “This about your boys?”

“No,” I said, stepping closer before I withdrew the envelope from my pocket.  It was a letter envelope, sealed and then folded in half.  That did little to conceal its contents, which were easy enough to feel through the paper: a trio of glass vials and what felt like a syringe.  “I have something for you.”

Only when I was close beside him did I press the envelope into his hands.  He took the package automatically, then lifted it up to examine it quizzically.  His thick fingers ran across the bumps in the paper, and his eyes went wide.  “Where did you get this?”

I took half a step back, if only so I did not have to crane my neck to look him in the eye.  “I can’t say.”

His features clouded and he made the envelope disappear.  “So I owe you now,” he said matter-of-factly, and suddenly it looked like he might cry.  “Is that how it is?”

I blanched.  “Oh no, no.  Not at all.”

The big man raised his eyebrows.  “Listen, I’m not into any sly double talk.  You want to blackmail me with this, that’s fine.  I can live with that.  But I’m not going to call you my friend or something while you’ve got a collar around my neck.  I’m not going to do you little favors and shit.  You want me to do something for these, I will.  But let’s me clear what this relationship really is, up front.”

I took another step backwards.  “Teddy, I think there’s been some misunderstanding.”  I nodded at his pocket where the envelope had gone.  “I didn’t… I’m not the one who got those for you.  I was given them to give to you.”

He scowled, eyes hard.  “So the demands will come later, from somebody else.”

“No, I mean—” I stopped myself and took a breath.  “I don’t know anything about that.  I’m just the messenger.”

He grunted.  “Just the pawn,” he corrected.  “Alright.  Then run along, little pawn.”  Without waiting for me to do so, he turned and plodded through the Men’s door again.

I took a few moments to get my heartbeat and breathing back under control.  Then I hurried back into the Mess.  What had Aubrey gotten me into?

We retired to the poolie barracks a little while later, cocooning ourselves in our bunks against the day we just had and the day we would have when the sun rose.  What little activity and few voices disturbed the gathering quiet slowly feel prey to the night.  The barracks quieted and stilled.

At night the full brunt of the Refuge would fall upon me, overwhelming and suffocating.

By the end of each day, exhaustion clipped all conversation short: minimal phrases and sentence fragments, questions asked with a tilt of the head instead of real words, and brusque replies of a grunt or a nod. Eye contact that said, “I want this blanket.” A look away that meant, “I don’t care enough to fight over it.”

I tried to tell the boys goodnight every night, tell them I loved them even if not in so many words. A little joke, a wry observation, a scrappy little hope that the next day we’d see another pretty sunset or that we’d find someone who’d play cards. Some meager recognition of their humanity, and mine, too, making contact despite our surroundings and not losing track of each other. A promise to be human to each other tomorrow.

They did not always have the patience or the goodwill to play along.

So we would climb into our bunks, pull the thick, drab blankets over our bodies, and curl up with our backs against the overhead lights. Someone would eventually turn them out, but never before midnight. They’d stay burning, a trickle of current through their LEDs draining hardly anything from the solar-charged batteries tucked against the ceiling up in the corner. And if it cost nothing, the light was a luxury we could afford, and so every night there were poolies who insisted on revelling in its glow.

Staying awake, thinking your own rebellious thoughts, felt good. If you stayed up late plotting out what you’d do differently, and woke up tired and useless the next morning when the sweeties came to put you to work, well that was your own little rebellion. They couldn’t touch you in your own world of might-have-beens and hypotheticals.

What if I had arrived early enough to live in a suite? What if I picked the work details, what if I planned the build projects. What if I could invite anyone to come share the bed in my suite, even for just one night? Sharing a bed, sharing your body, sharing an evening with someone… sometimes that seemed like the greatest luxury imaginable.

And perhaps afterwards, and you lay sweaty and panting on top of each other, you could whisper your secrets to each other. You could share these private thoughts that you mulled over in the still-lit barracks, under a thick blanket and surrounded by a dozen loops of snores and breaths and wheezes.

We were packed all together here, row upon endless row, but the truth was we slept alone. No one heard our thoughts and no one shared our secrets. No one knew the colors that we painted across the insides of our heads.

It made me want to scream.

What was I, if no one knew me? Surely I knew my own thoughts, but if I was the only one, if there were no outside confirmation that yes, I, too, was a human being, then was I? Was I anything more than a poolie, a pair of hands and a back and every once in a while half a brain to decipher where best to dump a load of rocks?

I was a mother, at least. I felt for all those who had come to the Refuge alone, with no one who knew them before they were poolies, with no shared memories of a better time when life was more than work and meal and sleep. My boys were my anchor, and I hoped I was theirs.

If I wasn’t, if I failed to return the favor, then I was only using them. I would be that worst deformation of a mother, whose whole identity is derived from her children. That greedy identity that would suck her children dry, claw and grab them close to buoy her up, all the while suffocating them.

I remembered the boys as toddlers, as babies, when they were so small and delicate I felt as if I could crush them if I weren’t careful. And were they any different now? Both of them were taller than me, but I knew their teenaged selves were still made out of paper and spun sugar. They could still be crushed. I could still crush them without thinking. I worried, every night, if I already had.

What kind of life had I brought them to? Everything that had come before–schools, sports, family stories, and weekend trips–it all paled in significance before the Refuge. This place I had brought them to for safety, this place threatened to grind them up, and for what? To make concrete for a hovel huddling beneath the pine trees. This was the future that I’d given them, that I’d delivered them up to.

Was it better than what was happening outside?

How would I know?

Would we ever know?

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