Last time we saw BEN… (click for recap)
Ben has been doing his best to care for his younger twin sisters, Anda and Mica, but they keep making it hard. After Cassandra and Aaron break into his home looking for their friend Peter, Ben decides to let Peter get rid of them. Life in Nova is dangerous, especially for anyone damaged, like Ben, where his limp could get him Adjusted or worse. At least here in West Six, the soldiers are lazy. While West Six soldiers merely intimidate with the threat of the Burn (the memory wipe), there’s always the threat of Watchers (invisible spies who can see through your eyes). The last thing Ben needs is strangers causing trouble. But when Peter decides to let his old friend Cassandra stay, Ben wonders how he can keep his sisters and himself safe from a threat he doesn’t even understand…
“Where are they?” Mica asked. She’s found a moment to brush her hair, and she looked a bit more presentable. Ben guessed Cassandra’s presence had something to do with that. Mica set a wooden platter of bread on the table with a thud. Peter had made that platter.
Ben shrugged. Aaron had left into the darkness, and Peter and Cassandra had disappeared, leaving the siblings to finish preparing the meal. Now the food was ready, but the honored guest, and the uninvited guest, were nowhere to be found.
“Should… we wait?” Anda asked. She stood over the cake at the far end of the table, admiring the sugared flowers and ruffles of chocolate.
“For a few minutes,” Ben said. He noticed Mica staring at the red cash still on the end table. He had forgotten to pick it up, Cassandra’s amused gaze had distracted him. As he watched Mica, he could see greed standing behind her. Greed with his little potbelly and his hands in his pockets, making rational arguments. He’s always very convincing, greed. “Hey,” Ben said, limping over to Mica.
“Give me that,” he said and snatched up the money, tucking it into his own pocket.
“I was just looking,” Mica mumbled. Absently, she pulled a piece of hair from her plait and braided it.
“What about the Eternal Eye?” Anda asked softly, her head tilted down towards the cake. “Shouldn’t we scrape it off?”
“That money is for the back window, understand?” Ben said with a finger pointed at Mica’s face.
“Oh, that more than covers a stupid lock. You know that. Can’t we get something useful?”
“Useful? Locks aren’t useful? What did you say, Anda?”
“Useful like… like a gun,” Mica said, focusing on the little braid she was weaving. “Wouldn’t that help? You know? Hunting and stuff?”
She wasn’t wrong. A gun would make hunting easier, and since Ben was the only one who hunted, it would mostly benefit him. He wondered what motives Mica had for offering up a suggestion that primarily helped someone else. She made a good argument, rational even, but something about it didn’t smell right. Besides, Ben was already saving money for the next round of permits, and they could make do without a gun. For now.
“No. I don’t need that. Besides, trapping works better for anyway,” Ben said.
“This money goes to the next round of permits.”
Mica wrinkled her nose at him. “Fine. But if they’re not back in two minutes, I’m eating,” she said and sat down with a huff. “I’m hungry too.”
“Then I’m glad we’re back,” Peter said. They turned to see Peter and Cassandra standing in the door, coats off, and ready for food. “Mica would have eaten all the rolls, as usual,” Peter said with a grin, but his smile fell when he saw the dessert. “You bought a cake.”
“Of course. It’s your birthday, Peter,” Anda said.
Peter smiled at her, but Ben could tell that his smile wasn’t happy. He wondered why.
“Thank you,” Peter said, sitting at his usual place. They usually sat two on each side of the long table, with the chairs at the ends always empty. Those were their parents’ chairs. Cassandra took a seat on the bench next to Peter, opposite Mica, and the meal began. They usually chatted over dinner, but tonight everyone was quiet.
In the absence of conversation, forks scraped, and glasses clinked loudly. Ben watched Cassandra shovel forkful after overflowing forkful into her mouth. She stabbed at her potatoes as if they would run off of her plate if she wasn’t fast enough.
“So, you and Peter go way back, huh?” Mica asked.
Ben shot her a warning glance, but Mica stared hard at Cassandra. Cassandra nodded without looking up. Her cheeks bulged with potatoes and carrots.
Mica put her fork down. “I’ve never been to a city before, much less Windrose. What’s it like?”
“It’s not too different from here. People work, kids go to school, and the world keeps spinnin’,” Cassandra said through a full mouth. She swallowed, loaded her fork, and stuffed another bite into her mouth, losing a carrot on the way.
“Mica, let her eat,” Peter said.
They sat eating quietly for a moment. But Ben could feel Mica staring at Cassandra.
“Do people really die on the Wall?” Mica asked.
“Mics,” Ben said in a harsh whisper.
“What? We actually have someone from Windrose who can tell us if Viola’s actually crazy or not. Well?”
Ben knew he should have put an end to the conversation, but he had to admit, he was curious too. The stories about the Wall around Windrose City had kept Ben up at night when he was a child. Viola’s favorite pastime was scaring children, and her horror stories of choice were about the Wall. He looked at Peter for help, but Peter was slicing his meat with intense precision.
“What? The Wall?” Cassandra asked, finally looking up at Mica.
“Yeah. Do people really get turned inside out if they try and cross?” Mica stared back, eager for an answer. Even Anda looked interested, holding her fork just in front of her open mouth, waiting.
Cassandra shrugged. “I wouldn’t know. I’ve no reason to sneak into the city over the Wall.” She smiled and popped a carrot into her mouth.
“Did Loraine really burn half the city down during the Burning of Windrose City?” Mica asked, almost breathless. “Are the ruins really still there?”
According to Novan history, Loraine destroyed half of Windrose City some years ago to end a rebellion. Half the city was set on fire and destroyed. Apparently, parts of it still stand. The ashes have long washed away, but the ruins are left to remind people to be loyal to their Eternal Mother. Ben glanced at Cassandra, hoping she would answer.
“Of course it’s still there. Ruins and all,” she said.
“And have you seen it?”
Cassandra smiled, although her mouth was full, making her look ridiculous. Ben thought of a chipmunk with nuts stuffed into its cheeks. “Why would I need to go to the Ruins?” she asked around her full mouth.
Ben and Mica exchanged an unimpressed look, and they ate silently. But after a moment, Mica was back at it. “How did you two meet? You and Peter.”
“Mica,” Peter lowered his fork long enough to give her a flinty look.
“No, it’s fine,” Cassandra said, her hand over her stuffed mouth as she spoke. She took a long moment to chew and swallow. “We grew up together. When Peter left, we lost touch,” she finally said.
“What have you been doing all these years? Factory work or something? Or are you in the military—a government worker?”
“Mica. Shut up.” While Ben was curious too, the less they all knew about Cassandra, the better. Then at least they could deny knowing anything if soldiers questioned them.
“What? I’m just being polite. Trying to make conversation. There’s no law against that. Yet.”
Cassandra watched Mica. “This is a nice house. Did you grow up here?” she asked.
Cassandra let her fork rest on her plate, pausing her hasty meal. “Where are your parents?”
After a long moment, Mica replied, “They died.”
Anda flinched, but for once didn’t correct her.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Cassandra said and stuck another bite into her mouth. “I guess you don’t want to talk about it, huh?” she said through her full mouth, half-chewed meat and carrots showing as she spoke.
Mica lowered her head and went back to her plate. Ben could feel his cheeks turning red.
“Any news from the village?” he asked, looking from Anda to Mica, hoping to shift the focus from them and his glowing cheeks. Mica glared at him. “Come on, anything I should know about?” he asked.
“Actually, yeah. Duncan got turned in and taken for an Adjustment yesterday.” Mica said, almost defiantly.
Everyone froze, even Cassandra. Everyone knew what Adjustment meant. Ben turned his attention on his food, cutting his meat into small, even chunks. No one in West Six had been taken in for an Adjustment in a very long time. Something cold settled on Ben. He felt as though something cold and dead, like a frozen, rotting carcass, had been in the room the whole time, but he only now noticed it. Dread. Turned in meant someone had snitched.
Ben knew just how it happened. He could play it all out in his mind in a flash. Someone from the village, someone Duncan knew, maybe even trusted, gave a tip to the Health Center. Then Duncan was taken in for Observation and Adjustment. Then Duncan was Burned. An Adjustment Notice from the Health Center would be found on Duncan’s door, and Duncan would never be seen again. That was how Adjustment worked. The worst part was, whoever snitched on him made a lot of money getting their neighbor Burned.
While anyone could have turned Duncan in, Ben had his money on Adam, the locally elected Windrose Peace Official. The Peace Official’s only job was to keep an eye on the locals and report any suspicious activity to the Commanding Officer, Malcolm, or the Health Center Supervisor. Adam spied on his own people and regularly snitched on them for money if he could, but it was only small things. Things that warranted maybe a fine, or a wrist slap. He didn’t get them taken in for Adjustment, at least, not anytime Ben could remember. Ben hoped the extra money and food were worth it to him.
“Really?” Ben asked. He swirled a carrot in the gravy on his plate. “Know what he got turned in for?”
Mica shrugged. “Probably for illegal weapons or something. Duncan wasn’t very bright. He probably stashed them under his bed… idiot.”
Despite what Mica said, Duncan wasn’t an idiot. If he did have illegal weapons, he wouldn’t have gotten caught with them. Ben wondered if instead, Duncan had a stash of books. Nothing as exciting as Ancient books, of course, but illegally printed ones at most. Duncan would be the type to have books under the floorboards. So was Ben.
They spent the rest of the meal in heavy silence since each attempt at conversation was worse than the last. When they had eaten all the food, it was time for the cake. As Ben pulled the cake closer, he realized that he had forgotten about the Eternal Eye on top. It was too late to scrape the decoration off, so he decided to ignore it and hope Cassandra would too. He sliced quickly through the eye, and served large slices to everyone, wiping the edge of the knife off on each plate to get every crumb and smear of icing. Usually, they were more frugal and made treats last as long as possible, but birthdays were different. They always cut large slices on birthdays—even for burglars.
The cake was all but gone when Ben remembered Peter’s present. “Anda, where’s the gift?”
Her eyelids flickered, and she gave him a cold, almost vacant stare. “What?”
“Peter’s present? Where is it?” he asked, trying to keep his voice level. Anda responded better to nice.
“Don’t… have it. I mean… I forgot it,” Anda said.
“Come on, it’s not a birthday without presents!” Ben said.
Anda turned a bright shade of pink.
“Is this it?” Peter asked. He held a wooden box in front of him. “It was under my spot.”
“No… don’t think this is such a good idea right now,” Anda said, her eyes focusing suddenly on the box. Peter smiled down at the gift in his hands, and the lines around his eyes creased deeply. His bearded jaw lifted as he smiled. “Thank you, Anda,” he said. “I assume you picked it out?”
Anda suddenly stood up, pushing the bench back. Peter and Cassandra lurched with the movement. “No… really. Can we do this another time?” Anda asked. “Please… it’s… it’s not ready.”
“Anda, just sit down,” Mica said. “I’m sure it’s fine.”
“I really think… we should wait—it’s not… ready… forgot part of it,” Anda said and reached for the box.
Peter brushed her hand away gently, his angular face softened by a smile. “I’m sure it’s perfect,” he said, untied the twine, and lifted the lid off the box. Anda sank onto the bench and stared at her hands. Peter looked puzzled at whatever was in the box. Cassandra knit her forehead and sat up a little bit straighter to see what Peter held. He reached into the box and pulled out his present. Between his thumb and index finger, he held something thin, and Ben gasped when he realized what Peter held.
Fear opened her mouth, a perfect red circle.
Peter held one of their books, one of their Ancient books.
“What’s this?” Peter asked evenly. Ben and Mica looked at Anda, who was still staring at her hands. “What is this?” Peter asked again. He put the book back in the box and fit the lid on as if hiding it would make it no longer exist.
Peter would recognize immediately that the book was Ancient and illegal. Legal books had shiny plastic covers, bright colors, large texts—they all looked exactly the same. Ancient books all looked different. The Alderman’s Ancient books had cloth covers in shades of dark blue and forest green and reds so deep they were almost black. Their Ancient books all had small letters and yellowed pages, rounded and bent and soft. They were nothing like the Legal books with their pages were sharp enough to cut.
Ben kept his eyes down, not looking at Anda.
“I’m… sorry,” Anda said. “I… I found it… in a box of things, and thought you might like it.”
Mica wrinkled her nose. Ben and Mica could tell when she was lying, could Peter? More importantly, could their guest? Cassandra’s eyebrows went up. Peter tilted his head down at Anda.
Anda was a worse liar than he thought.
“You know what this is,” Peter said.
Anda hesitated. “No,” she finally said, but it was too late. “I mean, sorry. I… I thought the pictures were nice—that’s all.”
Cassandra wiped her hands on her napkin. “Can I see?” she asked and extended her hand to Peter, and Ben was reminded of a cat playing with its prey. But Peter handed the box over without a word. Ben could feel his face turning red again. Cassandra set the box down in front of her with a thump and flipped the lid off with one finger. It clattered to the table, and everyone else winced. She pulled the book out and held it firmly with both hands and stared at it.
“This doesn’t look so dangerous to me.” Cassandra paged through it. “Who cares if you have an Ancient illegal book? Anda’s right though, it does have nice pictures,” she said, looking hard at Anda, who turned a deep, deep red. Cassandra continued, “From what I understand, having one illegal book would be bad, sure, but not the end of the world. If, say, you had more of these or sold them, then you’d be setting yourself up as an enemy to our Eternal Mother. And you wouldn’t want that, now would you?” she said and looked at Anda again.
“No,” Anda whispered.
“We are safe, we are fed, we are forever free. Our Eternal Mother, may she reign forever,” Cassandra said.
“Forever may she reign, our Eternal Mother,” everyone else answered together.
“Be ever watchful.”
Cassandra surveyed them all with a half-smile. “Well, this is a party, isn’t it?” she asked and pushed the box back to Peter. She picked up her fork and stabbed at the last chocolate crumb on Peter’s plate with a grin.
Ben grinned back, his face aching with the effort. Despite Cassandra’s nonchalance, Ben knew that Anda had just given her all she needed to turn them in for Adjustment and claim a hefty reward. He wondered if they’d all Burned and dead by morning.