Last time we saw BEN… (click for recap)
Nineteen-year-old Benjamin Alderman lives in the village of West Six (West 10,996), where he takes care of his younger twin sisters, Anda and Mica. Despite the limp he has had since childhood, he has managed to keep himself and his sisters safe from solders, Burnings (the memory wipe), and Watchers (ghostly and mysterious spies). He and his sisters years ago took in a strange young man named Peter, despite knowing nothing about him. Ben sometimes wonders who their friend really is. When Ben returns to the house one day, he finds it has been broken into. As he fears for his youngest sister, Anda, who was home alone when their home was broken into, he discovers that the strangers are still inside….
Two strangers stood in his home: a pale man with glasses and a dark young woman with black hair in a dozen dreadlocks around her shoulders. Both looked muddy and ragged like they had just come from a run through the woods. Ben guessed the woman was only a few years older than himself, but he couldn’t gauge the man’s age. Anda, trembling ever so slightly, sat on the bench next to the table with her hands in her lap. The switchblade Ben had given her lay on the far end of the table out of reach. Three sets of eyes looked at Ben.
“It’s not him,” the young woman said, her face shifted from surprise to disappointment, and her dark eyes narrowed to slits.
The man blinked behind his glasses. “I can see that.”
The strangers looked at Ben with surprise, more surprise than he would have thought since they were the ones who’d broken into his home. Ben looked from one to the other. “Oh, I’m sorry, but I didn’t realize we were expecting company.” He looked at Anda. “Anda, did you invite friends over for dinner and not tell me?”
Anda’s eyes widened at him.
“I apologize for the intrusion,” the man said and blinked, “but there seems to be some mistake.” The man was tall and lean. His hair was pulled back into a tight bun, disguising the length of his hair, stretching the skin around his eyes, and making his already high forehead appear even higher. Thin glasses perched on his nose, and his eyes seemed larger than they probably were.
Out of the corner of his eye, Ben saw Anda’s eyelids flutter.
“We’re just looking for someone, a friend, so no need to worry,” the strange young woman said. She was small and muscular, and her expression reminded Ben of a cat swishing its tail and preparing to pounce. She wasn’t beautiful, this feline woman. Her face was too pointed, her eyes too wide. And he thought her face probably had a permanently angry expression, like a cat when it’s dozing and staring and scheming.
“Worried? Do I seem worried to you?” Ben asked with exaggerated nonchalance. “Your friend isn’t here, so you can be on your way. And maybe you’d like to use the front door this time? I hear doors are easier to get through than windows.”
The man stood perfectly still for a moment, then blinked. “Maybe this will help,” he said and reached into his coat pocket. Unsure what the man reaching for, instinct took over, and Ben reacted. He snatched up his crutch and swung it at the man’s head. The stranger ducked, but not in time, and the crutch grazed him as Ben staggered forward, limping, swinging his crutch, and yelling. He was so focused on the man, that he never even saw the woman move. She darted behind him and kicked out his bad leg, and Ben crumpled with a yelp of pain and fell forward into the man. They both tumbled to the floor sending the man’s glasses and Ben’s crutch flying across the room.
“Hey! Watch it!” the man yelled. He rolled over smoothly and jumped to his feet in a practiced and smooth motion. “Just calm down, okay? Ow!” he grimaced and clutched his head.
Ben scrambled for his crutch with one hand, clutching at his aching leg with the other, but the woman sprang forward, wrenched his arm behind his back, and pinned him to the ground. His chin slammed into the floor as the woman’s knee dug into his spine, and his world tilted sideways in a shock of pain.
“Oh, now you’ve done it. Let him go,” the man said as he knelt to the floor and blindly felt for his glasses. “Am I bleeding?” he asked no one. He wasn’t.
“Gimpy here came at you,” the woman said. “And you’re fine.”
“Hey!” Ben yelled. “I can hear you. And get off me!”
“It was a reflex,” the man said, ignoring Ben. “That’s all. And nice job. Way to beat up a…”
His voice trailed off, and Ben’s ears went red. “What? A cripple? A damaged? A gimp? Is that what you were going to say? Give me my crutch, and let’s try this again, huh?” But his shoulder burned as the woman twisted it.
“Ah, come on,” the man said. “You’re going to break his arm if you’re not careful. That’s not even… fair,” the man said. The woman did not relax her grip or remove her knee.
“Get the hell off of me, and let’s have a fair fight!” Ben said, squirming and kicking.
“Not a chance,” the woman said.
“This is why no one likes working with you,” the man said to the woman, but he was pointing at Ben.
“What? I get the job done,” she said and tightened her grip on Ben’s wrist.
The lanky man rolled his eyes, found his glasses, and examined them for damage before perching them back on his nose. He looked at Anda, who sat frozen to the bench, then stood and brushed himself off.
Listen,” the woman said to Ben. She leaned over his head, and her dark hair swept past his face. She smelled of woods and water and mountain journeys. Fir trees and sunshine and snow. “We’re not going to hurt you,” she said.
“Then you’re not doing a very good job,” Ben said, but it came out in a wheeze. “Get off me!”
“It’ll… be all right, Ben,” Anda said suddenly. “Everything will be fine.”
He gave her a questioning look, and she nodded to him.
The man leaned Ben’s crutch against the table and tucked the switchblade into his pocket. “Ow,” the man said softly as he rubbed his head and winced.
“Really? Gimpy here barely touched you,” the woman said.
Ben smiled to himself. At least he’d gotten in one good hit.
“Was your information wrong?” the woman asked. “You know we don’t have time for this.”
“He will be here,” the man said, giving her a look.
Ben studied him more carefully out of the corner of his eye. The man was maybe in his early thirties, yet sad and anxious lines had already creased his mouth and forehead. He seemed stiff as if he had been walking for days and days, yet his bursts of energy and movement indicated that he was stronger than he looked. A bandage wrapped around his right wrist, and the man absently touched it. Ben got the feeling that he was a very dangerous man and watched him warily.
“We’re looking for someone, and we know he lives here,” the man said.
Ben shrugged, as best he could under the circumstances. “Well you’re outta luck. It’s just us.”
“Two men live here, and we’re looking for one of those men. And we’re not looking for you.”
“That’s too bad, we’re getting along so well,” Ben said with a smile. “Like I said, you’re outta luck. No one else lives here.”
The woman pushed on Ben’s arm. His shoulder burned. “We’re looking for a man who lives in a farmhouse two miles outside of the village with blue and white flowers on the front door—blue star flowers. Sound familiar?” she asked.
Their mother had painted those flowers on their door after the twins were born. Their father had gotten so angry about it. Ben had listened behind closed doors as his parents fought for days about those flower. He never found out why the flowers had made his father so angry—they were just flowers, just like the blue stars in the back field.
“Then maybe you should have tried knocking on that big, blue door!” Ben said through gritted teeth.
The woman ignored him. “He’s tall, real light brown eyes, nose been broken a few times, scars on his palms. Covered in tattoos,” she added in a low voice. “You know him?”
A sudden sick feeling filled Ben’s belly. Of course he knew who they were talking about: Peter. He had always wondered if one day people would come for Peter, and his past would finally catch up with him, and the rest of them. It looked like it finally had.
Anda raised her white eyebrows ever so slightly at him. Ben answered with a slight shake of his head and hoped the strangers had not noticed the exchange. Maybe if the strangers thought Peter wasn’t here they would leave.
“I told you—there’s no one else here,” Ben said. “I’m sure there are plenty of farmhouses with flowers on their doors. Why don’t you try breaking into some of those?”
The man just stared at Ben. “Tell me,” the man said. His face turned towards Ben, but the fire flicked across his lenses, obscuring his eyes. “When does Mica get back from shopping?” Ben’s mouth went dry. “If Peter isn’t back by then, we’ll just ask Mica,” the man said.
Ben went cold. If these strangers knew their names, what else did they know?
“I… don’t know what you’re talking about,” was all Ben could manage to say.
For a moment, everything was still. The man just watched him, and Ben struggled to keep his breathing even.
“Cassie,” said a voice from behind them. “Let him go!”
At the sound of the voice, the woman smiled, and her smile crinkled her eyes and wrinkled her nose. She leaned a bit closer to Ben. “Told yah,” she whispered.
Ben twisted his neck to see Peter standing in the doorway, his large frame blocking the light from the kitchen like a boulder. He was dripping all over the place, it must have rained, and his face twisted in anger. He wasn’t a good looking man, Peter. His craggy face was too pointed, his cheekbones too prominent, and his forehead too big and lined to be handsome, or even pleasant. But when he smiled, you knew he truly meant it.
Peter’s long red hair hung wild around him, and his even redder beard glimmered with drops of water. Standing there, with his hands on the door frame and his hair matted and wet with rain, he reminded Ben of a bear, something wild, powerful, and completely out of place indoors. Ben wasn’t afraid of Peter. He liked Peter, they were friends, and he trusted Peter. But Ben also understood that their friend kept so much of himself unknown and locked away. But after years of sharing meals and doing chores together, the questions about Peter had ceased to matter, and Peter had become part of their lives. He had been their friend for years, but now those blurred and distant questions were coming back into view, and Ben wasn’t sure he would like the answers.
Peter stared at the woman until she released Ben’s arm, silently stood, and backed away. Her leather-soled boots silent on the hardwood floor. Ben wasn’t sure if he was relieved to see Peter or frightened for him. He scrambled to his feet and snatched the crutch from Anda’s outstretched hand.
“You two all right?” Peter asked Ben and Anda without looking at them.
Anda was pale, but she didn’t seem hurt or even afraid, just tired. Her eyes fluttered like she was fighting sleep, and then opened wide. Ben nodded to Peter. “Yeah, we’re all right.”
Peter’s light eyes darkened as he stared at the strangers, his red eyebrows drawing close together. “I’m about to beat the shit outta the both of you. Coming here after all this time—how did you even find me?” He raised a fist at them. Dark lines from his many tattoos flickered across the back of his hand. He always wore long sleeves and kept his collar buttoned, but sometimes the strange images flashed across his body on the edges of sight.
The woman smirked. The man stared back, unafraid. With a tilt of his head, the man said, “you thought you could just disappear? Really, Peter, you should know better than that.”
“You know these two?” Ben asked Peter.
Ignoring him, Peter walked over to the man and stood almost nose to nose with him. “You think you can just show up, break into my house, and assault my family?”
The man looked calmly at Peter. They were about the same height, but although Peter had a few pounds on the thin man, Ben wasn’t sure who he’d put money on in a fight.
“Admittedly, things got out of hand,” the man said. “We did try the front door. No one was home,” he said and blinked. “And they are not your family. They are not your blood.” There was something cold and hard and bitter in his words that even without context, Ben could understand.
Peter suddenly shoved the man and knocked him to the ground. His glasses slipped down his nose. Anda gave a little cry, and even Ben was surprised.
Peter was the gentlest person they knew. When they found mice in the house, Peter would release them into the woods. He would catch hornets that had wandered inside in a glass and free them out the window. He never hunted. Despite his leg, Ben was always the one to hunt or trap or slaughter the chickens. In the past seven years, Ben had never seen Peter intentionally hurt anything or anyone.
As Peter pulled a calloused fist back to strike, the woman stepped between Peter and the man, her palms out in defense. “Algol is falling,” she said.
“Algol is falling,” she said again.
His eyes narrowed at the woman. For a moment, everyone was utterly still. When Peter turned away from the strangers, he had gone pale. “Well, screw you, too,” he said over his shoulder. He shook his head, as if to clear the anger from his eyes, and looked at Ben with embarrassment. Then he sank down next to Anda, almost falling backwards onto the bench. As he rubbed at the scars across his palms, he studied Anda’s trembling face. “You’re all right,” Peter said, nudging her with his shoulder. “Shit. Just old friends of mine. Nothing to worry about.”
Anda smiled at him, although her eyes were still anxious.
“This is Cassandra, and that’s Aaron.” Peter lifted his chin to the strangers.
Cassandra waved, and Aaron nodded. Anda regarded them suspiciously from behind a curtain of white hair, and Ben only stared at their greetings. Cassandra’s dreads fell around her face, and she shook them out of her eyes. An amused smile tilted the corners of her mouth. It was a nice mouth, and Ben quickly looked away.
“This is Ben and Anda. My family,” Peter said the last words slowly and pointedly. “They’re not supposed to be here,” he said to Ben, nodding to Cassandra and Aaron.
But Aaron extended his hands in apology. “I am sorry we scared you.”
“Doesn’t matter. You won’t be staying,” Peter said. “You’ve got quite a ways to go to get back to Windrose. And I’m sure you want to get started.”
“Windrose? You’re from the Capital?” Ben asked, immediately on edge.
Windrose, the capital city of Nova, was in the heart of the country and home to the Eternals. West Six was a very, very long way from Windrose City, almost as far as you could get without ending up in the Empty Places. In Nova, towns and cities and villages radiated out from Windrose in four territories and were named for their location and proximity to the capital. North One, East Sixteen, South Thirty. Windrose was almost four hundred and fifty miles away. No one around here went to Windrose, and no one from Windrose ever came to West Six. Well, West 10,996 was the official designation, but that was a mouthful. Way out here, locals and neighboring towns referred to each other by the last digit. They were Six.
This far west, in the ten thousand designations, you were getting close to the Empty Places, and the end of Nova. After the Empty Places, void of cities and people, came the White Mountains, and then the Poisoned Wastelands, and then, somewhere, far away, the ocean. West Six might be as far as you could get before you ran into the Empty Places and the wilderness, but Windrose City was a different kind of wild.
Ben had seen images of Windrose on the annual Re-Incarnate Day celebration, but he had never been there. Besides, way out here, they had a few soldiers. In Windrose, they had much, much worse. Ben would rather deal with soldiers. At least you could see them. These strangers in front of Ben had traveled half the country to get to this little not-so-special village, and he wondered what that meant.
“Anda, Ben, could you give me a moment with these two?” Peter asked. Anda nodded, got up, and headed for the kitchen. She paused at the door and glanced back. There was a strange light in her gray eyes that Ben did not recognize. She blinked, and that odd look vanished under white lashes. Then Anda slipped away and was gone.
Ben, however, did not move.
Peter looked up at him. “Ben?”
Peter shook his head. “This won’t take long.”
“I’d rather stay.”
“Five minutes. Then they’re gone,” Peter said and stood, drawing his large frame to his full height. He wasn’t asking anymore. Ben was surprised. In all the years that Peter had been with them, he had never used his physical presence to bully anyone, let alone them. But now that shadows from Peter’s past were beginning to surface, Ben wondered what Peter was hiding.
Part of him had always known that he didn’t really know Peter, but years of living under the same roof with someone, sharing food and responsibilities and laughs, breeds trust. That trust fought against the questions. If he didn’t even know Peter, the person who had saved them all those years ago, how could he protect Anda and Mica from Windrose strangers slipping in through windows? Doubt, a thin man whose mouth was always just slightly open, stood behind Peter, looked down his thin nose at Ben, and sniffed.
But Ben knew who Peter was now. He might not know who Peter had been when they had taken him in and given him a hot meal, but he knew that the bear of a man who stood before him was good. Ben ignored doubt and decided to trust Peter.
Ben locked eyes with Peter. “Five minutes. Then I want them gone.” But as he limped to the kitchen, he wondered what he had just done, what dangers might come pouring down on him and his family, and what his decision would cost him in the end.