I didn’t keep to my solitude after that. When the meal bells rang I obediently found my way to one of the dining areas. Though I never heard anyone say that I must, I noticed that people tended to sit at tables according to which rooming house they were in. Paul was in a rooming house on the other side of the compound so I seldom saw him in the same dining area, at least not for morning or evening meals.
Several more days passed before I started to work. I still didn’t feel right but I knew I wasn’t sick or injured. For several days I walked the compound. Helpful friends, or so they told me they were, encouraged me not to go far beyond the borders of the compound. They said it was not unsafe but there was still much work to do. I don’t know where I would have ventured had I decided to leave. In every direction I looked there was nothing to run to, only trees and fields and mountains. There were no roads leading out of the compound. I wondered how we had all gotten there.
Several more people introduced themselves over the next few days. I heard their names but chose not to remember them. They were all like Vann. Nauseatingly happy and cheerful and always smiling. The only affinity I felt for anyone was for Paul and we had barely spoken a word to each other. Paul didn’t smile. I didn’t know why but that meant something to me.
During my walks I found myself checking on Paul every day. We never spoke. When I was near we would look at each other briefly, our eyes would lock and we would each nod once. Somehow I knew that meant that he was okay and I imagined he knew the same about me. They had him working with wood, hewing posts and making furniture. He was very strong as he seemed to pick up logs effortlessly.
A few more days passed and I made my way to the vineyards again. I didn’t know why but I was compelled to work there. I followed others after morning meal one day. Vann had said no one was in charge but when I got near the vineyards a dark haired, bearded man was directing people on what to do.
“Will you be joining us in the vineyards?” he smiled at me.
I nodded once.
“That is great. We need some help tying up the new vines. Have you done that before?”
I stared at him. I was pretty sure I had never worked in a vineyard before.
“That’s quite all right. Dave here will show you what to do.”
A tall blonde man came smiling toward us. “It’s quite simple really. Just follow me.”
I watched Dave work for a few minutes and then took a ball of twine and started working on my own. The morning went surprisingly fast and before I knew it the bells were ringing again. It was time for noon meal.
We didn’t go back as far as the rooming houses to eat. There was a large Oak tree about midway between the vineyards and where I had seen Paul working. Underneath in the shade were four large tables. I was glad to see Paul sitting at one as I approached. I made my way toward him.
“Rick, you forgot to wash your hands. You can’t eat without washing your hands.” Dave was doing his best to direct me. I glared at him in return.
There was a large rock basin nearby. People were pouring water from pitchers over their hands. Something about the sight sickened me. I got within a few feet and my heart started racing. Once I turned around I felt immediately better. It was worth any consequences to not wash my hands.
There were two women near the trunk of the tree handing out plates of food. I went and got one amidst disapproving looks.
“He’s new,” Dave whispered to the woman as she handed me my plate. She smiled politely but said nothing. I went back to where I saw Paul and sat across from him. Dave was still following me.
“Rick, those of us from the vineyard usually eat together,” he told me. I didn’t move. Dave lingered for a few more minutes before making his way back to the tables where the vineyard workers were sitting.
Paul and I had not been this close since the day we had went for our tour with Vann. He ate his food in five or six bites and I was sure he didn’t chew any of it. He looked intently at his plate while he ate and then sat up straight, arms at his sides, his gaze slightly below mine.
I picked at my food. I still wasn’t hungry but the food was good so I ate three bites and put my fork down. Others near us tried to engage us in conversation but neither of us spoke. After a while those around us went on conversing as if we weren’t there.
The next fourteen days passed exactly the same way. I would rise and attend morning meal. I would work in the vineyards until noon meal and then find my way to sit in silence across from Paul. For the first several days someone tried to encourage us to sit apart and then those near us would try to involve us in conversation, but we sat each day in silence. Finally, people started giving us a wide birth and then acted like we weren’t even there.
On the fifteenth day something changed. I don’t know what. The morning was the same with morning meal and working in the vineyard. Then it was off to noon meal and sitting across from Paul. He ate his food in exactly six bites. I had started counting. Then he sat up straight, arms at his sides, his gaze just slightly below mine.
I don’t know where it came from. Seeing him sitting there, stiff and somber, me just barely starting on my meal and him already done, something clicked in my head.
“At ease, soldier.” I told him. I almost choked after the words came out. It was the first words I had spoken in weeks. Paul was equally alarmed. His eyes were huge and he looked ready to run at the first indication that he needed to.
Neither of us moved for several minutes. Paul’s eyes were locked solidly on mine. Then, barely a whisper and his lips not moving I heard him say, “What did you say?”
Though no one was listening to us I looked around before whispering back, “At ease, soldier.”
Paul surveyed everyone in the dining area and made sure no one was paying attention before he spoke again.
His words were again barely a whisper, his lips not moving, “Meet me. Barn. Five minutes.”
I nodded once and looked back down at my food. Paul was gone in a flash. I felt an internal timer kick on in my head. I hurriedly finished my food, the first time I had eaten everything I was given, and then cautiously made my way to the barn, checking several times to make sure that neither Dave nor anyone else was following or watching me.
The end of the barn was stacked high with logs for the wood working team to use in their activities. Instinctively I knew that I would find Paul between them and the back wall.
Again I checked to make sure no one else was around. Everyone else was still seated in the dining area, barely having begun their noon meal. I crouched slightly and swiftly made my way to where Paul was.
As soon as I turned the corner around the last pile Paul grabbed me and slung me against the wall of the barn. His right arm was pressed against my throat, cutting off my air supply, his left arm pinning my arms to the wall. He was insanely strong.
“Stand . . . down,” I choked out. I didn’t know what the words meant, but I knew I had to say them.
Paul backed away only slightly but freed my arms and let me breathe again. I gasped in a few breaths as he took my face in his hands and turned in quickly from side to side.
“Is it you, sir?” Paul asked me. His eyes were so intent I felt like they were boring into me.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
Paul leaned back into me. “Is it you, Sir? I will end you if this is a trick.”
I knew the words to be true. Words I did not know or understand quickly tumbled from my mouth, “ID 32, 15, 100, brown, level 9.”
Paul didn’t move. His stare was so intense that I believed that alone could end me.
Several tense minutes passed. Then, just as suddenly, Paul grabbed me in a different way, wrapping his arms around me so tight that I again couldn’t breathe.
“Oh, thank God,” he gasped. He clung to me even tighter until finally I had to gasp again, “Can’t . . . breathe.”
Immediately, he let go and backed up. He stood tall once again, shoulders back, rigid as stone.
I felt weak for a moment and let myself fall back against the wall.
“You know me?” I asked him. His eyes stayed fixed on me and for a second I thought I saw a tear forming in the corner of his right eye.
“Very well, Sir,” he answered.
“And I, I know you?” I asked him.
“Very well, Sir.”
Paul maintained his stoic pose as I searched my brain for what question most needed an answer. Only one question immediately came to the surface. “Who am I?”
Paul’s expression changed for the first time since I had known him. There was a look of concern in his eyes and he frowned ever so slightly.
“You don’t know?” he asked me.
“Obviously not,” I answered.
“It’s not safe,” he told me. “Meet me here tonight, right after first rain. Make sure the tigers don’t follow you.”
In an instant, as quickly as he had disappeared from the table, Paul was gone. I let myself slump to the ground. I didn’t know what any of this meant but for the first time I felt like something made sense.
What are your thoughts so far?