“Hello, my passengers!” a man dressed in military grab

-1“Hello, my passengers!” a man dressed in military grab called out as he stood before a
crowd of people on top of a podium. The group below was huddled together in an overgrown
clearing where a ran down town laid close in the distance, and some of them glared up at the
black and white rat as he began to speak. “I’m Sargent Clay, and I’m your new leading officer.
I’m sure a bunch of you are confused as to where we are, but guess what! We’re here!
Welcome to your beautiful vacation spot, Highholt. You’ll be living here now.”
Rin didn’t want to live here. They wanted to go home—their true home. The air here
was sticky and hot, a complete flip from their chilly mountain village. All around them was
nothing but green—the Chen never saw this much growth in their life, and they were honestly
starting to feel a bit suffocated from the crowd, humidity, and all the trees that caged them in.
What seemed worse at that moment was the fact that they didn’t see power lines. No power
lines meant no electricity, and no electricity meant no plugs to charge their handheld game.
Yeah, this wasn’t going to work out.
The panda stuck close to Skeeter, a nice tiger lady they had met on the train ride to this
Highholt place. They didn’t know anyone on the train, and while they were friend to everyone
and the people seemed just as kind back, the child felt out of their element and lonely. They
had never ventured from the Chen village before, and to be suddenly placed on a train so far
from the mountains surrounded by other shaken people, some of whom were injured because
they did not want to come on the train, did not help their nerves.
But they met Miss Skeeter. While it was because she was big, pretty, and kind that Rin
decided to sit next to her out of all the people on the train, it had become less superficial over
time. They felt safer with her than anyone else on the train, and when they were beginning to
board off for the first time since getting on at the station, they held her hand and kept up with
her pace as they peered around where the train had arrived. Soon the passengers were ushered
to a clearing and an ugly man had started talking to them.
He wasn’t ugly because of his looks—the black and white rat was average looking, or at
least of what Rin could see from their vantage point in the crowd. But something in his voice
made Rin uneasy, and they recalled what their grandmother had said: Appearances are
deceiving, pork bun. A fruit can look plump ad ripe on the outside, but on the inside, they’re
rotten. People are like that, too. Ugly people are rotten people, mean and horrible. But those
people, they look like me and you, they don’t look ugly. You must see inside of them, Rin.
Back then, Nǎinai’s words were lost to them. But now they think they understood.
Sargent Clay was ugly—he brought them and all of the rest of the nice people here when they
didn’t want to and lied to them. Rin thought briefly that the passengers should have fought the
guards when they had the chance, but it was too late. They were here now, and they had to
listen to this ugly man’s speech.
He said, “What’s a vacation without a little work, huh? Those houses down there need
quite a lot of elbow grease before they’ll ever be livable. You’ll all need to start doing some
sorta work if you know what’s good for you, because you’re all going to be assigned some jobs
on the twenty-first. After you get those, you’re not gonna have enough time to make sure you
won’t be sharing your bed with some poison ivy.” Rin’s brows furrowed and they tugged at
Skeeter’s arm, and the tiger looked down at them with a questioning look. “What’s poison ivy?”
the panda whispered as quietly as they could, but before Skeeter could answer them, the
Sargent clapped his hands and drew Rin’s attention back to him.
“All right! Let’s get to work everybody. Another thing I gotta say is: there isn’t a single
way outta here. I really, really don’t think you should try it, either.” He then made some sort of
signal to the soldiers with his hand. Rin did not know what it meant until the guards raised their
weapons and with wide eyes the panda tighten their grip on Skeeter’s hand, who in returned
grip their hand harder as well and she suddenly had a severe look on her face. She pulled Rin
behind her as the soldiers began to close in on the crowd.
“Make sure to wear sunscreen, everyone,” Sargent Clay said with a big, crooked smile,
“It’s hot out there.”
The soldiers herded the passengers down to where the village was, and closer
inspection showed just how broken and abandoned this place was. Skeeter moved Rin so that
they were walking in front of her and kept a hand on their shoulder as they stayed near the
center of the crowd—it seemed to be the safest place to be since the soldiers and their
weapons flanked them on either side. Rin felt a little scared, but they kept a hand on the one
that Skeeter had on their shoulder, and they kept themself calm. Nǎinai said that if they
listened to the policemen, they would not hurt them and they had nothing to fear.
Still, the way the weapons gleamed in the harsh sun made the panda’s stomach knot
and they started to feel even clammier under the sun.
The soldiers eventually left after reinstating that they needed to work, though some of
them stuck around at the edges of the village and watched them. Rin could have sworn they felt
their eyes bearing into them, but they pushed down the feeling. “What are we going to do,
Skeeter?” they asked as trucks rolled off from the train, bringing various supplies with them—
tools, sleeping material, but no food. That concerned them a little.
“Well,” Skeeter began, looking out at the trucks and the people walking towards them
to pick up their share of supplies before looking down at Rin. “First we find a house. Then we’ll
start working on it to make it better.” Rin frowned at the idea of doing work, but they knew
they had to. They thought about one of the soldiers catching them slacking off, and their brows
furrowed at what sort of repercussions they would have.
Skeeter sensed their discomfort, and she crouched down on her knees so that she was
at eye level with the panda. “You said you had to share a room with your grandparents back in
your village, yeah? Now you’ll have your own room, and you can decorated however you want.
Does that sound nice?”
Rin knew that she was trying to cheer them up, but it only reminded them that they
missed their Nǎinai and Yéyé. They no longer cared if they used to share a room with them and
that they would fuss at them if they played on their handheld past bedtime. They again wished
they were back at the village with their grandparents. Wasn’t it about time that their parents
would return from the city to visit the village? What would they think when they found out one
of their children were taken by the police with no explanation?
“Yes, it sounds nice,” Rin said despite their feelings, hoping Skeeter would believe them.
However, the tiger just looked sadly at them and straighten herself up while keeping a hold on
the panda’s hand. “Let’s go get what we need—you can carry the hammer and nails for me
while I grab some boards, alright?”
They looked up at her and looked back to the trucks and nodded.
Rin swung the hammer back and forth at their side as the jar of nails they carried in their
other arm jingled. They and Skeeter had picked a home before they went back to where the
trucks had dropped off the supplies. There wasn’t much to pick from—all the houses required
some form of work before they be considered anything close to an actual house. They settled
on a small home that had two bedrooms, what seemed to once been a tiny kitchen, and a large,
empty room that could have been a living room.
It wasn’t home, though, Rin thought. It would never be home.
Skeeter glanced down at the panda, but they kept looking ahead of them as they swung
their arm along with the arm beside of them. They had been quiet ever since they left their
chosen building. The woman looked back ahead of her and switched the board she was carrying
onto her other shoulder, and she did not say anything for a couple of feet they walked. She
glanced back down at Rin, and then she began to whistle a tune.
The panda gave her a glance with a raised eyebrow, but as the tune continued, their
brows raised as if they recognized the tune. At first they were stunned that Skeeter would
whistle such a thing, but then Rin began to find humor in it. With a slight giggle, they began to
quietly sing along to the tune:
“I've been working on the railroad
All the live-long day.
I've been working on the railroad
Just to pass the time away.”