Last time we saw BEN… (click for recap)
Benjamin Alderman lives in the village of West Six, far from the Capital, Windrose City, where he takes care of his younger twin sisters, Anda and Mica. Despite his 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 (invisible spies). So far. When strangers break into his home and threaten him and Anda, Ben struggles to keep Anda safe from the unsavory looking thieves. But he discovers that the strangers are looking for Peter, the young man Ben and his sisters took in years ago. Ben wonders who Peter really is, and if he can be trusted. Peter returns home and reveals that he does indeed know these strangers, Cassandra and Aaron, from his mysterious past. But even as Ben decides to trust Peter, he wonders what that decision will cost him, what danger these thieves might bring, and what else Peter is hiding…
Ben slammed the kitchen door behind him, leaving Peter and the thieves to talk. Anda jumped and spun around. She clutched a small kitchen knife, and a thin slice of carrot stuck to the side of the blade. The carrot slid off of the knife onto the floor, and the tiny orange wheel rolled away. Anda did not move to pick it up.
“Glad to see you can use a knife,” Ben said, looking at the blade in her fist. He immediately regretted the comment as she lowered it with a blush and turned back to chopping vegetables. She responded to nice, not sarcastic. Anda had turned the tap off and had picked up the radishes from the floor, but the window still stood open. Ben closed it, and Anda jumped, again. He ignored her twitch and examined the damage to the window. The lock was broken. He would have to fix that tomorrow. Yet another thing to do. He grabbed a towel from the counter and began to wipe the mud from the sill.
“I’ve… never seen Peter so angry. What was all… that?” Anda asked, her eyes fixed on the cutting board. She chopped slowly. Her fingers still shook.
“Friends of Peter’s,” Ben said and tossed the dirty towel into the basket in the corner.
Anda wrinkled her nose. “From… Windrose?”
“That’s what they said.”
“What… do you think they want?” she asked. “And what was it that she said? ‘Algol is… falling?’ Algol… sounds Ancient, doesn’t it?”
Ben held back a sigh. “I don’t know, Anda. And we’ll probably never know. You know how private Peter is. Hell, we had to make up his birthday.”
Anda paused at the mention of Peter’s birthday and squinted. “Are they… staying? For dinner?”
Anda nodded and resumed chopping. Outside, footsteps tramped up the back porch, and the screen door banged open and shut. Mica was home. Ben listened to her rustle around in the hall, hang up her coat, and step out of wet boots. He suddenly grew anxious about how Mica would react to the strangers, especially Cassandra.
Mica had been in love with Peter since the day he arrived. As Ben had watched her trace the sun tattoo on Peter’s forearm with her little nine-year-old finger, he knew she was smitten. But Peter was almost ten years older than Mica. He treated her kindly, like a little sister, so Ben ignored Mica’s mooning and starry eyes, just like Peter did. If Ben ever even suspected that Peter felt otherwise, he’d beat him to death with his crutch, although deep down, he knew he’d never need to. The kitchen door opened, and Mica, late, as usual, entered carrying a paper bag filled with food.
“It’s raining,” Mica said. Raindrops dotted her dark hair like little pearls of light, but she still looked wild. She always looked unkempt. Grubby. She never bothered to comb her hair properly, and she reminded Ben of a stray dog. And her hands were always moving, always doing something. They were quite a bunch: Ben with his crippled leg, Anda with her white hair, Mica like a mangy dog always up to something. And then Peter, the large, ugly, bearded man with too many hidden tattoos and scars. Ben knew they were an odd group, but sometimes he saw it more clearly than others. He saw it clearly now.
“I got bread and cheese and even some fruit,” Mica said and poured her purchases out on the counter for inspection. Store-bought food was a luxury, but birthdays always warranted a celebration.
Ben silently watched Mica prattle on about nothing, as usual, and just waited for an opportunity to speak.
“Demetrius had this thing called a pineapple,” she said, pushing her matted braid aside. “But it was too expensive. It was so strange. I don’t think I would have known how to eat it! I got some oranges instead. I thought they’d go best with chocolate. The cake is chocolate, right? Is Peter back yet? Oh, and I also scored something special to drink.” She held up a small bottle of golden liquid and smiled proudly at it. “I know it’s a bit much, but tonight is a special occasion, and with tomorrow being Re-Incarnate Day, and… what’s wrong?” she asked and carefully set the bottle down on the counter.
“You finished yet?”
Mica frowned at him.
“Some friends of Peter’s stopped by,” Ben said.
“‘ Friends of Peter’s?’ You mean, Viola and her demon cat?” she asked uncertainly.
It was a fair question. While Peter had been in West Six for seven years, he tended to keep to himself, despite being busy with his art and job inking tattoos for locals and soldiers. As far as Ben knew, other than himself and the twins, Peter’s only friend was the old woman who ran the black market: Viola.
“No, I mean—wait, what is that?” Ben asked suddenly, pointing to Mica’s jacket. The edge of a small book peeked out of her pocket.
“What? Just a book,” Mica said softly.
Ben stifled the urge to yell at her. Every house had a copy of True Tales of Novan History: A History for Childen, but for the most part, that was the only book in the house. Books were allowed, but only if they were government approved and printed on a government-issued printer. However, the book in Mica’s pocket was neither government-approved nor printed on a government-issued printer. Even worse than that, the book in Mica’s pocket was Ancient. Any book published before Nova was formed three hundred years ago was considered Ancient, illegal, and treasonous. Ancient books were punishable by Adjustment, Burning, or death. Usually all three, not necessarily in that order.
A few years back, they had lost a book, The Odyssey. Scared the shit out of them for weeks. Ben and Mica and Anda walked around expecting an Adjustment notice on their door or Burn dart in the neck for almost a month. But nothing had happened. Ben decided that Mica had lost the book. She could be careless, and she was the last one to have it. They had to be very careful with Ancient books, and not only did Mica now have an Ancient book in her pocket, but they had a box full of Ancient books buried out behind the barn. And strangers from Windrose City sat in the next room.
Ben held his hand out for the book.
“Seriously?” Mica asked.
She rolled her eyes and slapped the book into his hand. Ben stared down at the paperback. Alice in Wonderland.
“Dammit, Mics…” Ben mumbled.
Anda turned around and saw him holding the book. Her eyes flicked to the door, and she turned almost as white as her hair.
“What’s the big deal? We do this all the time,” Mica said in a harsh whisper, but she still glanced over her shoulder. “No one knows.”
Not even Peter knew. This was the one thing they had not shared with him. But while they were just hiding books, Ben wondered what Peter was hiding from them. He limped to the cabinet at the far end of the kitchen and stashed the book in their hidden compartment behind the pots and pans. It was just smart to have a few hiding places these days.
With the book safely out of the way, he stood up and turned to face Mica. “Two people broke in and held Anda and me hostage. They were looking for Peter,” he said, hoping to get her attention finally.
Mica’s blue eyes widened. “Someone broke in?”
“Yeah. Two of ’em.”
“No, Not soldiers. Like I’ve been telling you, they’re friends of Peter: Aaron and Cassandra.”
At a female name, Mica’s cheeks went red. “They’re in there now, right now?” she asked and pointed to the door. Ben nodded. “Then why aren’t you in there, too?” she asked.
“Peter’s taking care of it, so leave it,” he said with a scowl and a finger in Mica’s face.
But Mica got her determined look, and before Ben could stop her, she started for the door to the main room. Ben hopped after her, grabbing for her arm, but his crutch got in the way, and he missed.
“No, just wait. Mica!” he called after her, and they burst into the main room together, leaving Anda alone.
“So you do know where he is—” Aaron was saying as Mica slammed through the door. He stopped and looked up as the two Aldermans stormed in. Ben frowned. He had thought the strangers were looking for Peter, who were they looking for now? Ben had the sudden sensation of standing on a dark ledge and not knowing how far down the earth was.
“Hey, Peter, I heard you had some friends over,” Mica said. She planted herself in the middle of the room and crossed her arms. She wasn’t going anywhere.
Ben bristled. She was always acting without thinking. Or maybe she was thinking. That worried him even more.
Peter and the strangers sat by the fire. Peter hunched over his knees with his hands clasped as if in prayer. “Mica. This is Cassandra and Aaron,” Peter said, still staring at the floor.
“Nice to meet you,” Mica said, looking the strangers over. Her fingers tapped gently against her arm. She stared longer and harder at Cassandra, who nodded to her and then looked back to Peter, expectantly.
No one spoke, so Mica, as usual, broke the silence. “Your friends aren’t staying for dinner, are they? Because we need to know if we’re going to be making extra food. It’s my turn to cook, and I need to know. You know we don’t have a lot to spare.”
Ben rolled his eyes.
“Yes, that would be nice. Thank you,” Cassandra said before Ben and Aaron could say no.
Aaron gave Cassandra a look, and Ben fumed. “Look,” Ben said. “Tonight isn’t a good night for us. Stay at the Inn. The Wildflower has the best beer around. And they have plenty of windows for you to break.”
“I’m not sending them there,” Peter said.
Peter shot him a dark glare that sent a cold feeling through his gut. Peter never glared.
“Are their travel papers a problem?” Ben asked innocently. “Because I’m sure they have the approved travel papers.”
“Look,” Cassandra leaned forward. “I know it’s inconvenient, and we’re very sorry for the misunderstanding earlier. And for breaking in. I’m sorry we broke in. But we will gladly compensate you for your trouble and for any damage we caused. We’ve been traveling for two days straight, and we haven’t had a real meal in almost three,” She said and nodded to Aaron.
He reluctantly pulled out a few bills from his wallet and dropped them onto the end table. Ben looked down at the red, yellow, and orange cash against the dark wood. It was more money than Ben had seen in a long time. He could feel Mica tense beside him, and her anxious tapping stopped. They were always short on money.
But Ben was not thinking about the money. He was thinking about Cassandra’s hungry plea. He could now see the weight of their journey settling on them and ringing their eyes with dark circles.
Ben knew what it was like to be hungry. Hunger has large hands and foul breath.
Aaron nudged Cassandra.
“And…” she hesitated. “I’m sorry I… sorry I called you… Gimpy.”
Ben could feel Mica tense. She, Anda, and Peter never made fun of him because of his limp. Sometimes other people did, but more so when he was a kid, and it always stung. Oddly, he hadn’t felt bad when Cassandra called him Gimpy. She had said it differently. Maybe it was the fact that she had pinned him down like he was a real threat that had undercut her words. Like she wasn’t treating him any differently because of his leg, and the words were just for show.
“Well… we don’t turn hungry people away,” he said. Cassandra and Aaron relaxed a bit and nodded their thanks. “But that broken window is going to cost you,” he said. He might be letting them stay out of kindness, but they didn’t have to know that. Aaron nodded to him and tossed a few more bills onto the table. Ben thanked him with a smile. He thought he caught something like amusement, like he had impressed her, flicker across Cassandra’s feline face. He tried not to blush. The wilderness of West Six didn’t leave room for romance.
“Traveling, huh?” Mica asked.
Cassandra nodded, “Yes.”
“Where are you going? West Six isn’t much of a destination.”
“Can we do this later, please?” Peter asked, staring at the floor and rubbing the scars across his palms.
“Fine.” Mica shrugged. “Whatever you want, Peter. You’re the boss.”
Peter looked up at her, and Mica met his gaze with a smile, although Ben knew better—that was not her happy smile. Peter sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “I’m sorry, Mica. We’ll be done in a few minutes.”
Mica pursed her lips and turned to Cassandra. “You two picked a good day to stop by. It’s Peter’s birthday. We’re having cake.”
Aaron frowned. “Your birthday isn’t until March.”
“No, my birthday is today.”
“What were you thinking?” Ben shoved Mica through the door and into the kitchen. Anda jumped when they entered and brandished a wooden spoon in defense. Ben gave her a frustrated look. “Would you relax already? Everything’s fine.” She winced, and he felt a twinge of guilt for snapping at her. He started to apologize, but Mica cut in.
“I just wanted to know what’s going on, what’s the big deal?” she said, ignoring Anda completely.
“I was giving Peter the chance to send them away, but no—you had to go in there and ask about dinner. Now they’re staying. Are you happy? If you hadn’t gone in there, they probably would have just left,” Ben said. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Anda flinch.
“I was just asking,” Mica said. “What’s wrong with you? Do we even have enough food for them? You should have just said ‘no.’ Why did you say they could stay? I don’t like them. Especially her. She has shifty eyes. I don’t like—”
“I let them stay,” Ben said. “Because I don’t know who they are or what they want. Because they’re from Windrose. Because they could work for the government and report us. Because turning them away would have looked suspicious. And because they’re hungry, and we know what that’s like, don’t we?” He paused, letting his final words sink in. “So yes, we will have enough food for them. We’ll make it work.”
Mica shifted from foot to foot and blushed. “I’m sure their money didn’t hurt,” she said under her breath.
Ben ignored her and continued. “There are a dozen reasons why I let them stay. But you should have let Peter handle this. And she doesn’t have shifty eyes,” he added. He actually thought she had quite lovely eyes, but he wouldn’t tell that to Mica.
“Oh, come on, Ben. We don’t know what Peter was doing before he came here,” Mica said and lowered her voice. “We don’t know how he ended up here, and why he won’t go back. Those scars on his palms, ever wonder where he got them? We knew he was in a city, but Windrose? The capital? Now these people show up? And they sure as hell don’t have travel papers. You know just as well as I do that this was gonna happen eventually. We all knew that Peter’s past would catch up to him at some point. Now it has. We have no idea what that means and—”
“Drop it. I mean it. Peter will take care of it, and we’ll just act normal until they leave. Hopefully we can handle that. End of discussion,” Ben said, but he didn’t feel confident their odd little family could act normal. “Help Anda with dinner. I think you were supposed to take care of that anyway?”
Mica huffed and began to sort through her purchases. Ben noted that she stashed the bottle of liquor in the hidden compartment. Apparently their special birthday booze was not for burglars, especially not a dark-haired, attractive girl like… but he let that thought go.
Ben leaned against the wall in thought, drumming his fingers on his crutch, closing his eyes as if he could see the problem better without them. He felt like someone was tugging on the one loose thread of his life: Peter. Everything else had been taken care of and tied nice and tight. The farm, the bribes, the permits, everything was under control and in place except Peter and his mysterious past. He hoped that their uninvited guests wouldn’t unravel everything.
The door opened after a few minutes, and Ben opened his eyes. Peter, Aaron, and Cassandra walked in.
“Aaron is leaving. Cassandra is staying for a few days,” Peter said. Mica shot Ben a glare that could peel paint while Peter went to the cupboard and pulled out some bread, cheese, and dried meat, which he stuffed into a cloth bag. “We’re going out. Be back soon.”
Aaron waved, “It’s been… interesting,” he said and blinked at them.
Ben fought the urge to yell at Peter. Dinner was one thing, but staying for a few nights was another.
“Peter, can I speak with you a moment,” Ben said, and it wasn’t a question. He limped out of the room not waiting for an answer, while Mica and Anda glared at the strangers, wooden spoons ready.
Ben waited for Peter by the fireplace. In the center of their mantle, in the middle of their wooden chachkies and figurines, next to their copy of True Tales of Novan History: A History for Children, sat the mandatory photos of the Eternals. Although their faces and bodies were always a little bit different after their transfer into a new Vessel, the Vessels were selected so that a few features remained constant. Henrietta Loraine, Eternal Mother, always had long hair in a braid that trailed down to the ground, and a distinct and sharp nose. In this photo, her deep-set dark, brown eyes glittered like coals in a sun-bleached skull.
Rufus-Loraine, General Eternal, and Prophet Killer, always had his shaved head, glistening and smooth. The angles of his skull stood out against the taut skin. Ben did not understand Rufus. Only Burners shaved their heads. It’s how you can tell who’s been Burned and who hasn’t. The trailing braids and waist-long hair proved memory and history and prestige. A shaved head spoke of emptiness and shameful secrets. Along with the shaved head, Rufus had a scar running down his face. Ben particularly hated that part of the Re-Incarnate ceremony, and he shivered at the thought.
Peter appeared at Ben’s side, suddenly and silently. He made a frustrated motion. “What?”
“A couple days? What the hell!” Ben said, trying to keep his voice down. “These people break in and hold us hostage, and you invite them to stay? I said to get rid of them, not to invite them for a holiday.”
“I can’t send her away yet.”
“Really? It’s not hard. Watch, I’ll show you how,” Ben said. He moved towards the door.
Peter reached around him and grabbed Ben’s free arm. He never touched the arm that wielded the crutch. “They need help,” he said.
“What does that even mean? We all need help. I need help keeping us fed. I need help keeping Mica and Anda out of the system. I need help keeping people from breaking into my home. Hell, I need help walking. And who are they really looking for? Is that what they need help with?” Ben added with a lowered voice.
“It’s not important.”
“If it’s information they want, maybe I can help?” Ben said softly. “I know a lot of people in the black market.” He wasn’t really offering, and he suspected Peter knew that, but he just wanted to see what Peter would do. Peter gave him a look that he couldn’t decipher, and somehow he felt ashamed.
“They got what they wanted, and so did I,” Peter said.
“Well, that makes me feel all better. What did you get?”
“They won’t hurt anyone.”
“Could have fooled me. Just tell me one thing that’s actually true.”
Peter sucked his teeth. “I’ve known them for a long time ago,” he said. “Since I was a kid. Cassandra and I were good friends.”
Ben suppressed a smile. Mica was gonna love that. “What do they want from you?” he asked.
Peter rubbed at the scars on his palms. The thin, dark lines from ink across his body peeped out from under the cuffs of his shirt. “It’s safer for everyone if you don’t know. Trust me.”
“I do trust you,” Ben said, but doubt rose in his throat. “But I don’t trust them.”
“They messed up tonight,” Peter said, staring into the fire. The light flickered across his face like moving shadows in the forest. “But they are good people. You, Mica, and Anda are safe. Please believe me on that.”
“Really?” Ben felt his shoulder still burning from where Cassandra had twisted it.
“Yeah, really. And it’s just Cassandra. I told you, Aaron is leaving.”
“Well, Cassandra doesn’t seem so safe,” Ben said.
“How’s your arm?” the big man asked with a straight face, but Ben could see the smile in his eyes.
“Look, what do you want from me?” Peter asked. “She’ll be here for two days, three at most, and then she’s gone. Promise. I’ll be around the whole time to keep an eye on her.”
Ben chewed the inside of his cheek, thinking. The fire snapped and popped. He hated the idea of a stranger under their roof, especially a beautiful stranger from Windrose City.
“I wouldn’t let anything happen to any of you. Promise,” Peter said.
“She’s not staying in the house.”
“Take it or leave it.”
“Fine. Two days,” Ben said.
“Three,” Peter countered. “Just in case,”
“Just in case, what?”
“Just let me handle this, okay?”
“Three days. No more,” Ben said and limped away, leaving Peter by the fire. But fear looked at Ben and smiled. “And don’t forget,” he said over his shoulder. “You have tattoo appointments tomorrow. We still gotta make money somehow.”
As Peter walked away, fear put a cold arm around Ben’s neck and whispered into his ear, and he wondered what dangers the cat-eyed woman and the man with the coin eyes would bring upon his house.