Ripley roared, sounding more bored than irritated, but I decided to stop by and say hey. I hated the idea of her being in a cage. Even if she was safe, it didn’t seem right to me. The cost of safety was different than what it used to be, but so was freedom. It carried a much greater risk, but I’d always believed it’d be worth it in the end.
In a turn of luck, Tatum stood outside her cage, admiring her as she paced along the fence. He had on his full camo uniform today, with his jacket hanging open, and a couple other soldiers stood next to him, laughing at something he said.
“Hey, Tatum,” I said, walking over to him. He looked back at me, and he managed to look both irritated and happy to see me.
“You know, I am a soldier, Private First Class. You could show me a little respect,” he told me when I got up to him.
“Sorry.” My cheeks reddened. “Pvt. Tatum, sir, can I talk to you?”
“Can it wait? We’re going out in the field today.”
“The field? What are you talking about?” I asked, momentarily forgetting about my incessant quest to see Max.
“Out there.” Tatum motioned towards the walls towering around us. “We go out in the field, search for survivors, kill some zombies, check things out. That’s how we found you.” He looked back over at Ripley, who roared again and swished her tail. “We were gonna take her out with us, but she’s still too wild.”
“She’s supposed to be wild. She’s a lion,” I bristled, as if he had said something derogatory about her.
“Well, we’re not taking her today.” Tatum shrugged. “But we’re going soon. So, can I talk to you when I get back?”
“Um…” I bit my lip and fidgeted. I didn’t think I could wait any longer. “This’ll just take a sec. Please.”
He sighed and nodded at his friends. One of them made some kind of joke about Tatum being whipped, so he put his hand gruffly on the small of my back and pushed me away from them.
“Look, I don’t know anything,” Tatum said in a low growl when he’d gotten out of earshot of everyone.
“I know, and I’m sorry. I don’t mean to keep bothering you, and I know that you have a job to do, protecting everybody. But I need your help.” I looked hopefully at him. “It’s really just a small little favor.”
“What?” Tatum asked wearily.
“I need you to get me in the building, just up to the second floor. Then I have a friend on the inside who can get me the rest of the way.”
“Oh come on,” he rolled his eyes.
“Please!” I stood up on my tiptoes, thinking that would somehow help my cause. “I know you can do it. You know your way around this place, and it’s not that much trouble.”
“You know you’re obnoxious, right?” He looked at me hard, his hands on his hips like a pissed off housewife. I nodded. “I don’t even know why I’m helping you.” He sighed and nodded. “All right. There’s something I can do, but it’ll have to wait until I get back.”
“After supper?” I asked, barely able to contain my excitement.
“That’ll probably work.” Tatum shrugged. “I’ll meet you by the mess hall. And wear something… nice. Slutty, even.”
“What?” I looked at him dubiously.
“No, it’s important.” He lowered his voice again and took a step in, but I think it was more for my benefit, like he was trying to protect me from embarrassment. “You’re cute and all, but you don’t try. And you need to look hot.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“It’s how I’m gonna get you in,” Tatum said like I’d understand. “I’ve taken a hot girl or two back to my room, for, you know.” I must’ve looked appalled because he held up his hand. “You’re not really going to my room. I know you only have eyes for that punk who follows you around like a sad little puppy, but I need everyone to think I’m taking you back. So you gotta look hot.”
“I-I-” I stammered, not sure what part of his statement I wanted to argue with first.
“You can thank me later,” he smiled at me. “I gotta go to work.”
With that, he turned and walked back to his buddies, leaving me kind of flabbergasted. Once that wore off, I felt genuinely excited for the first time in a very long while. I had a plan, and it sounded reasonable enough.
I was going to see my brother by the end of the night.
Over a breakfast of powdered scrambled eggs, I told Harlow that I needed her help getting dolled up. Lazlo had never looked more offended, and when he made a few snide remarks about my character as a lady, I decided to let him stew in it for a while.
After lunch, she helped me pick out clothes, deciding on one of her skirts, which turned out to be comically short on me. Lazlo sulked around the trailer, unnecessarily slamming everything he could while Harlow adjusted this and that and fixed my hair. When she was done, I definitely looked hot, but I felt stupid.
Right before I was about to leave to meet Tatum, I finally told Lazlo and Harlow what was really going on. Harlow looked mildly disappointed that I wasn’t actually into Tatum, and Lazlo apologized profusely. I accepted, because I’d found his huffing and puffing all day rather amusing.
I didn’t tell either of them about the stockades or the possibility of exile, because I didn’t want to worry them. They both looked concerned enough about the plan, although that lessened a bit when I explained that Blue was involved.
I don’t think they were thrilled about the whole thing, but there was nothing they could do to stop me. Nothing had stopped me yet.
When I was standing by the green tent, fiddling with the hem of my skirt, I started getting nervous for the first time. Breaking into see Max could result in me being forcibly separated from him forever, by either imprisonment or banishment.
But if they weren’t going to let me see him anyway, it didn’t make that much of a difference. Besides, if I could break in once, I could do it again.
Tatum whistled when he saw me, so I took that as a good sign. He had dressed down to a snug green tee shirt and camo pants, his dog tags clinking against the muscles of his chest. He strode over, in that exaggerated confident walk of his, and grinned broadly at me.
“You look great,” he said.
“Thanks.” I rubbed at my arms and wished I hadn’t worn such a short skirt. “Can we go now?”