BEN

Ben didn’t like mirrors because he was never sure who was else staring back. Out of habit, he checked his reflection in the mirror at the end of the dark hall with a quick glance. Clear. He was alone. He descended the stairs, managing his limp and his crutch with less grace than he would have liked, but he made it down the stairs and out into the garden and the blue and red and green sunset. Out in the cold, he knelt by a row of winter squashes and quietly began to weed in the fading light.

He looked down at his dirt-covered hands. They seemed older and stronger than they should be, not like they belonged to a nineteen-year-old boy. Behind him, the house was dark. The electricity was out, again, but not that they relied on it way out here in West Six. Above the fading daylight, in the deep of the sky, the first stars winked. Ben didn’t notice. He never looked up at the stars anymore.

His mother had taught him about the constellations, their names, and stories. Pegasus, Aquarius, Andromeda, and Perseus. She had talked about them like they were old friends. Like she knew them and spoke to them. Like they knew her and spoke back to her. Of all the stars in the sky, she had particularly loved Perseus.

“Do you see those stars?” she would ask, pointing up into the heavens. “Those stars are Perseus. Perseus is coming to save us, do you understand? There is hope.” But that was over nine years ago when Ben was still a child. When he still believed in things like stars and prophecies and hope. Now that constellation was only the remnant of some forgotten religion, myth, and faith. There was no Perseus, and there was no hope. No one was coming to save them, he had no time to stargaze, and there was always work to be done down here in the dirt.

Ben pushed his long, dark braid over his shoulder and out of the dirt. Practically, the traditional long braid irritated him, but he understood its purpose. A long braid meant memory, history, past. Long hair signified status and station. Stability. Whenever Ben negotiated, he let it hang down across his chest. He might be a nineteen-year-old with a limp, but he had seen much, and his hair twisted back into a thick, long rope meant power.

Movement in the shivering grass behind him caught his attention. He looked. Anda, his youngest sister, walked softly towards the garden. She always did have a knack for being quiet, unlike Mica, her twin sister. As far as Ben could tell, the only thing the two girls had in common was a birthday. Somehow Anda reminded him of a fawn, anxious, spindly, and something about her face was rather deer-like. Something about her eyes being too big and dark, and her mouth too small. And her hair was white like the tail of a deer. It waved around her in the breeze and turned pink in the sunset.

Ben didn’t know why her hair had turned white. One day, when she was no more than six or seven, Ben noticed a whitish streak in her dark brown braid. Now she was only sixteen, but her hair had been white for years. At least she was easy to spot in a crowd.

She hummed a sad and mournful tune full of sorrows and sea billows and rolling waves. Ben had never seen the ocean, but his mother had described it to him, saying, “it’s as wide as a cornfield, stretching on forever, and as deep as the sky.”

The crickets began to chirp as if joining in Anda’s song. Ben pushed his crutch out of the way as Anda knelt to help weed and pick radishes. His leg, stiff and weak, ached as he shifted in the dirt.

“All set for tonight?” Ben asked, turning his attention back to the garden.

Anda smiled, and it was a smile that Ben had not seen in a long time: her mischievous smile.

Ben kept his smile to himself. Tonight would be good for them all. Tonight was Peter’s birthday, and tonight they would celebrate.

Peter had been good to them. He’d saved them. Ben had been on the verge of giving up when he’d found Peter. Thanks to Peter’s help around the farm and the money he brought in doing tattoos, they were able to stay afloat. Just barely. Peter had given them so much, so they always tried to make his birthday special. 

Despite all that, they didn’t actually know when Peter’s birthday was because he wouldn’t tell them. All they really knew about him was that he was in his late twenties (Mica had decided that he was twenty-eight), he had one hundred and three tattoos, two of them had been burned off, he was an excellent artist, and that he was like them. Alone.

Since that was all they really knew, they had chosen the anniversary of the day he had joined their little family seven years ago, the night Ben had found him in their back field by the family graveyard injured and sick in a pile of frozen leaves. Peter always said he was just passing through, but he’d been passing through for seven years.

“Oh, I almost forgot. Here.” Ben pulled three laminated cards out of his pocket and flipped through them.

Benjamin Alderman, Mica Alderman, Miranda Alderman. While Miranda was her full name, they always called her, Anda. To Ben, Miranda was not his sister’s name. Miranda was the name of a stranger. He handed her the card across a line of squashes.

“Happy permit day,” he said.

Anda slipped the card into her pocket. “How much did Malcolm… charge this time?”

Twice as much as last time, but he couldn’t tell Anda that. Out loud he said, “More than he should, a lot less than he could.” It was worth the price to keep them out of the government-run school. But, despite Ben’s bargaining skills and the money Peter brought in through his art and tattoo skills, the cost went up every season. 

Ben always got a little bit queasy when he thought about it. If the three of them enrolled in the school now, since they were so old and so far behind, when they graduated, they would be given manual labor assignments. They would be shipped off to far away supply cities to make airship parts, weapons, or textiles, or to pull weeds in some vast and endless field. That was a fate Ben would like to avoid. Besides that, Ben was months away from being too old to enroll at all. That’s if they would even take him because of his limp, which wasn’t likely. He didn’t like to imagine what would happen if he tried to enroll with one leg inches shorter than the other.

He had been five years old when he’d fallen and broken his right leg. His mother had done her best without help, their father had left them just months before, but it wasn’t good enough. His leg hadn’t healed well. It grew more slowly than the other, and was now two inches shorter than his left. Even with the lifts in his shoes and his crutch, he still limped. Out here in West Six it was possible to exist with a limp or anything that made you… less. Big cities like Windrose were another story. No one limped there.

“Any… chance we could apply for these legally?” Anda asked, pulling Ben back from his thoughts.

“The work permits are legal,” Ben said. “We’re just ‘legally’ only allowed one per year, not four. They’re three-month permits for harvest or planting.”

“I know. Just… feel like we’re doing something wrong.”

“Next year I’ll be twenty, so I can get a farming license. Then it’s only three more years for you and Mics. Easy,” he said. He tried to sound positive, but four years was a long time to wait and pay bribes.

A flash of pink in the tall grass. Down by the road, a bright pink cat trotted towards the village. It paused to look at him, the backs of its’ eyes shining green and gold.

“Is that Lincoln?” Ben asked, pointing.

Anda looked up, pushing her waist-length hair over her shoulder. The cat hissed at them and then ran off into the woods. “Some… idiot dyed him pink,” Anda said.

“Who’d be dumb enough to mess with Malcolm’s cat?”

“Probably whoever’s been… setting fires and stealing food from the barracks,” Anda said without looking at him.

Ben went back to weeding with a vengeance. Someone had been sabotaging the soldiers’ food and booze supply recently, putting everyone in danger. Ben wondered if Anda knew who it was. He had his money on Titus, the baker, but whoever it was needed to be stopped. Sooner or later, Malcolm’s superiors would notice all the supply requests and replace Malcolm, and whoever replaced him would be far worse: no more bribes and no more permits.

“Do you know who it is?” Ben asked.

“No,” Anda said, still looking at the radishes.

“But you’ll tell me if you see anything?”

She nodded.

“Well, let’s forget about that for tonight,” he said, trying not to worry. “Tonight’s a party. Did you get a gift?”

Anda nodded again and plucked radishes from the ground. The scent of earth and root laced the evening breeze. “Did you get a… cake?” she asked.

“Of course.” Ben tried to hide a smile. Since they spent most of their money on bribes, they had precious little for luxuries like cake bought from Titus, but purchasing a special treat had been easier than last year: this year Re-Incarnate Day was early.

Ben pulled at a weed. Re-Incarnate Day was a full six months early, and he didn’t know why. He wondered, but he wouldn’t ask. Questions like that were considered unpatriotic, irreverent, and subversive. Questions like that got you a visit from the local Peace Official if you were lucky, an Adjustment if you weren’t, and a Burn if you had really, really bad luck. But this year Re-Incarnate Day lined up with Peter’s birthday and cheaper baked goods, so he decided just to be grateful. The Aldermans would be eating their treat a day early to celebrate Peter instead of their Eternals: Henrietta Loraine and Rufus Loraine. Ben smiled at the thought of eating cake as an act of rebellion, and rebellion seemed to smile back with icing smeared across his grin.

“Where… did you hide it?” Anda asked as an owl sliced through the darkening sky above them.

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Ben said with a grin. A smile flashed across Anda’s face for just an instant, but it was enough. He saw it.

“Come on, Ben. Where is it?” she asked and stood, her bright white hair tousled in the breeze and caught the last of the butterfly sunset. “Where did you—” she stopped speaking. Her eyelids fluttered like pale moths for an instant. She had been doing that a lot recently, and it was starting to worry Ben. He began to ask what was wrong when he heard a low hum growing. It was a sound he had grown to hate. He had not expected transports this late in the day.

Down the long road that ran past their cornfields, a small convoy of transports from the Capital, Windrose City, rumbled into view. The transports’ canvas tops had been stripped off, exposing metal frames like ribs. Soldiers crowded inside, and even more clung to the sides like insects on an animal carcass. Malcolm had three squads already, and more soldiers was a very bad sign. Soldiers were bad enough, but Ben’s stomach churned when he saw the Burners mixed in with the soldiers. Their smooth and gleaming scalps caught the last of the light, and their blank eyes stared straight ahead.

Burning was what they called the memory wipe. In a matter of moments, the Burn serum permanently erased the victim’s memories, past, and self. Apparently, the victim’s brain feels like it’s boiling. Ben always wondered how they knew that since no one who’s been Burned can remember it.

Anda knelt slowly to the ground and looked down as the little convoy slowed, and the soldiers stared and shouted at them. The Burners sat silently, ghosts among the animals. Ben got to his feet behind Anda, straightening to his full height, leaving his crutch on the ground and balanced on his good leg. The shouts turned to insults directed at Ben, and then the trees swallowed up the transports leaving the dust to settle in the fading, fluttering light.

“Still got that knife I gave you?” Ben asked.

“Don’t… I don’t like knives.”

“It’s just in case.”

“Just… don’t like knives. Besides, I keep out of their way just fine.”

“I know,” he pulled out his own knife from his boot, a switchblade. The metal case flickered in the autumn sun. “But it’s just in case.” He held it out to her.

She looked at it with wide eyes, then turned back to the radishes.

“You have to be able to defend yourself. You know that. I can’t… Just take it. Please?” he extended the knife again. He tried to be nice. Anda responded better to nice, unlike Mica, who didn’t seem to respond to anything.

Anda looked at it out of the corner of her eye. “Fine,” with a quick movement, she grabbed the knife and tucked it into her boot. “Happy?”

“Was that so hard?” Ben asked.

“You don’t… have to do that, you know.”

“Do what?”

“Protect us… all the time. They won’t hurt me. They… they can’t.” She looked at him with an expression that he did not recognize. Her eyes seemed older than her sixteen years like suddenly she had a whole lifetime flickering deep inside of her.

“Whatever you say,” Ben said uncertainly. Anda was becoming more of a stranger to him every day. Mica might be rash, volatile, and have anger issues, but at least he understood that.

“Is Mica back yet?” he asked.

“Don’t know.”

“She’s in charge of dinner tonight. Dammit, why is she always late? You go get things started until she gets back,” Ben said.

The gate squeaked open and closed as Anda slipped away, humming as she went.

Ben stayed out in the garden a few more minutes, pinching at worms in the half-light. He often thought about leaving. Sometimes the desire to leave, desire for adventure, with her impish smile, crept up behind him. Sometimes she startled him as he watched a sunset, and her scent of earth and blood and pine washed over him. Sometimes she tumbled over him, grinning and begging for attention and overwhelmed him.

But go where?

It was the same everywhere in Nova, and there was nowhere to run. Besides, he couldn’t leave yet. Maybe when Anda and Mica turned twenty. Maybe when they didn’t need temporary work permits anymore, and maybe when they could take care of themselves. Maybe then Ben would leave this place and never look back. But that day was far away. And there were a lot of maybes between now and then.

Ben collected himself and took some deep breaths. The cold air caught in his throat, and the taste of the coming winter tinged the wind. He picked up his crutch and determined not to worry for the rest of the evening. Then he left the comfort of the garden and headed for the house.

The lights in the windows pulsed and shimmered. The chickens were quiet in their coop. The chimney puffed, reminding Ben of an old man smoking. He ducked inside just as the sun completely disappeared over the trees, and purple-gray darkness covered the world. The stars began to peep. Inside, the house was warm and bright and smelled like cedar and pine. A fire snapped in the next room.

Ben shook his coat off and hung it on the hook by the door. He paused, running his hand over his mother’s old coat. He’d tried to sell them once. But Anda had refused to sell their parents’ coats and boots, insisting that they were coming back one day. Ben had never seen her so distressed, so he left the coats alone and sold some old tools from the barn instead. Now the coats just hung there smelling of cedar, the past, and faded memories. From the two empty hooks on the wall, he knew that Mica and Peter were not home yet. He could hear the water running from the kitchen, so he limped in to wash his hands and see if Anda needed help with dinner.

The kitchen was empty. Anda’s bag rested on the counter, and radishes spilled across the floor. The tap was running. A cool breeze brushed past his face. The hair on the back of Ben’s neck stood up, and he noticed the back window. It stood open. Mud splattered the sill. Faint footprints filed across the floor past the radishes to the next room. It only took a moment for Ben to guess what had happened, and he reached down to his boot for his knife. It was not there. He flinched as he remembered he had given it to Anda just minutes before.

 He wondered if the soldiers had come back. But soldiers didn’t sneak through windows—they kicked in doors. If it wasn’t a soldier…. His throat filled with hot fear and sticky dread, and his mind raced to cold and dark places he had tried to forget. Places under cold leaves and falling rain. Hungry places.

Ben constantly feared the day their mother died would repeat itself. That day, nine years ago, was the day the soldiers had Burned West Six. That was the day the Watchers had come. 

The Watchers: walking phantoms, specters, apparitions— a shadow behind a thought and a half-forgotten memory. The official story said that Watchers were the ghosts of dead soldiers still serving Loraine, still loyal to their Eternal Mother. They walked invisible and peeked through your eyes to see what you see, feel every emotion and goose-bump and tingle on your skin. They keep you safe, so the official story goes. You know someone has a Watcher in their head if their eyes glow with a warm honeyed light. You didn’t look into shining, glowing eyes. Everyone knew that. You never knew who else might be looking back.

 Despite the unsettling stories, Ben’s parents had told him that Watchers were not to be feared. They had said that the Watchers couldn’t hurt him or those they looked through. Ben was safe. They said he wouldn’t even feel them inside his mind. But Ben swore that nine years ago he had felt them. He remembered sitting under a tree. Rain and cold leaves fell around him. The chill running down his spine. Looking over at Anda. Her gray eyes suddenly glowed and shimmered gold in the dark forest.

 Ben took a deep breath and exhaled, desperately trying to regain control of himself. He edged closer to the door leading to the main room. The main room held their fireplace and the old wooden table where they shared meals and played cards at night. Ben wondered what else was in there now. If Watchers had come, what did they see, and what had they sent to slip through windows?

The door stood ajar, and Ben leaned forward to see inside. Light shifted on the wall where it shouldn’t, and a floorboard on the other side of the door creaked. A shadow darted across the wall and disappeared. Ben gripped his crutch and pushed open the door, ready for a fight.

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