Last time we saw BEN… (click for recap)
After the disastrous birthday dinner for Peter, Ben, Mica, and Anda meet in secret to discuss their options, their only option: keep quiet and play dumb about the book. While Anda trusts Peter and wants to let him in on their secret (their stash of illegal books), Ben and Mica recognize the danger: Burning if anyone else found out. But is Anda’s trust misplaced? She reminds them that Peter saved them—helping them keep their farm and stay out of the government run schools. But Ben recalls his first meeting with Peter and something he never told Mica and Anda. When they first met, Peter mentioned Perseus—the mythical savior of Nova Ben’s mother used to talk about in whispers. But even as Ben questioned Peter about Perseus, he denies ever saying the word. Now, with Cassandra, Peter’s mysterious old friend, watching, Ben knows they have to be more careful than ever. Who knows what Cassandra is capable of…
Ben awoke later than usual the next morning. The sun was already up, so it was late for Ben. A headache and a fog hung over his body. Although he wanted to sleep longer, curiosity about their stranger gnawed at his stomach, or maybe he was hungry. The remnants of breakfast had been left on the table for him to scrounge through. Everyone else was already up and starting their day. He ate a hurried breakfast and headed out to find their stranger.
Outside, Ben breathed deeply the cold, damp, and piney air. He liked days like these, days that announced that winter was near and that frosty nights were ahead. The forest surrounding the field shivered and rippled in the wind. If Ben closed his eyes, the trees sounded like a rainstorm sweeping across the fields. At the very farthest end of their field, surrounded by weeds and dandelions, lay the little graveyard.
Nine of the tombstones were faded and impossible to read. The tenth one simply read, Astrid. That marker had just appeared some years ago. One day they just noticed it. It wasn’t bothering anyone, so they left it alone. Ben figured whoever put it there needed it to be there, and that was all right with him. Although he always wondered who Astrid was, and who needed to remember her. A few years ago, Ben had tried to put markers for their parents, but Anda had thrown a fit and wouldn’t let him.
At the far edge of the field, an old dirt road wound through the woods and connected to the main road some miles east, where it looped around the far side of their cornfields. On the other side of the farmhouse, across the main road leading west to the village, stood their cornfields. The corn had already been harvested, leaving wide expanses of brown earth, waiting for next year’s crop. The barren fields blurred into the distant now gray horizon.
Ben turned back and set out to the barn to check on their guest. It was empty. Celia, their milk cow, was already out to pasture behind the barn. She lifted her massive head, gave him a slow blink, and returned to the grass.
Anda took care of Celia. Along with Celia and their chickens, she also took care of stray cats, dogs, the occasional bird, and once a tiny bat. For as long as Ben could remember, she had been better with animals than with people. And their mother had encouraged her. He was never sure why she didn’t help Anda learn to deal with things, and people, better, but he tried. It didn’t go over well. Anda had very few friends and kept to herself, and Ben worried about her.
Anda’s shy personality and Ben’s limp left Mica to do a lot of the manual labor around the farm. Ben hated having his little sister chop wood and fix the barn roof, but what choice did he have? He could ask Peter for help, and occasionally he did, but for some reason, he preferred keeping Peter separate. Peter was part boarder, part family. The line came into focus when Peter handed him cash each week from the jobs Ben had gotten him, then receding again at dinner time as Peter took his place at their table.
Ben set off to check some traps deep in the woods, carrying only a hunting knife. While Peter did more than enough for them, the one thing he never did was hunt. He left that for Ben, and Ben never asked why. A few years ago, Ben had tried to teach Mica and Anda to hunt and trap, but that was a fiasco. Anda had cried when they had caught a rabbit, and Mica had kept gagging on the smell. No matter how hard she tried, she would always vomit whenever she tried to clean and dress their catch. So Ben had exempted Anda and banned Mica from hunting ever again. Despite his limp, and despite being the only one remotely capable, he had become a skilled trapper of rabbits and small things.
Out in the woods, Ben could almost forget about strangers slipping through windows. Almost. The woods were calm, and sleepy animals peeped out of their holes and nests as he slipped by. He checked his traps one by one, hoping for a rabbit or two for dinner. A sudden gust of wind sent the branches above him swirling and dropping leaves like fat, red raindrops. The sound of trees like rain and waves and water always reminded him of the night his mother died.
Technically she had disappeared. They didn’t know if she had been killed or Burned, but either way, she was never coming back, so it was easier to believe that she was dead. Although Anda still refused to accept this.
Reminiscences smiled at him and held out a glowing hand. Nine years ago, Ben had stood with his mother in the field out back under a crystal clear blue sky. The wind set the trees shifting and the grass shivering. Despite the brightness and the singing birds, the day felt cold. That was the day the Watchers had come. The day they had Burned West Six looking for someone named Seth, the Prophet. The Prophet’s face had been flashing all over the Health Center display for days. Whoever this Prophet was, Loraine wanted him badly and would pay handsomely for news of him. The Prophet Killer was hunting.
“They’re coming,” his mother said, lifting her face to the sky.
“Who?” Ben asked and reached for her hand.
With one hand she pulled her shawl tight around her, with the other she gripped Ben’s little hand. Ben felt strangely comforted by her rough, scarred palm. Her hair fringed around her shoulders as the wind had whistled through the grass.
“Ben,” she said and knelt beside him, staring up into his face. “You have to listen to me: take your sisters and run, hear me?”
“Don’t come back for three days, understand?”
“You’re not coming with us?”
“No. I can’t. I have to protect the house.”
“Can’t we stay and help?”
“No. Remember what I said? If they find you, they’ll hurt you. So you have to hide in the woods with your sisters, understand?”
“Will they hurt you?”
Her hazel eyes shown dark and bright like black and gold eclipses. “I will be fine. But if I’m not here when you get back, then I want you to wait here for your father, understand?”
“He’s not coming back.”
“Yes, he is. He is coming back,” she said sharply like she was chiding herself, not Ben. She collected herself and looked back up at him. “I promise. He’s coming back, and you need to be here when he does. Do you understand? But if I’m not here, then you wait for him. You know the basement? Where you’re not supposed to go? If I’m not here, then I need you to forget about it—don’t go down there, understand? That’s very important. Don’t go into the basement. Your father will come back, and you have to keep the house safe until he does. Promise, Ben. Promise me that you’ll wait for him and protect Anda and Mica and this house. Promise you’ll protect your family.”
“Good. Now, go. And don’t take any books, understand?”
But he did one. He clutched a silver and white book under his jacket as he pulled Anda and Mica into the dark woods. Mica screamed and tried to go back, running for the back porch where their mother stood with a hammer in hand. But Ben pulled her away into the forest. He didn’t take the book out, not even once, while they hid under the trees. He just kept it in his coat pocket close to his chest.
They spent three days hiding in the woods. He was so hungry. He tried to keep Mica quiet, but she cried. Anda sat silently. Darkness filled up the woods like black water. Ben watched his sisters closely, afraid to break his promise to his mother. The trees around them swayed gently in the wind like they were underwater. Anda sat in the silver moonlight with her knees up under her chin. Her hair mostly white, but a few stubborn streaks of brown remained, her eyes opened wide, looking out into the nothingness around them. Mica lay asleep on the ground, tired from crying all day. Ben looked back at Anda and froze. Her eyes glowed gold and green, like two tiny stars in the sky. As Anda sat quietly staring out into the night, her eyes shifted and flickered. And then the light vanished. Ben was only ten. He had never been so scared in his life.
When they emerged from the woods three days later, Loraine was no longer looking for the Prophet. Ben assumed that Rufus had found him and killed him, earning his title, Prophet Killer. Their mother was also gone, and the house was empty. The screen door banged open and shut in the wind. Inside, the basement door had been nailed shut. Ben told the girls that they were not to go down into the basement, and they only nodded, barely hearing him, and more concerned with finding food. The little wooden door to the basement had been made to blend in with the paneled wall and go unnoticed. With a table and a vase with flowers in front of it, eventually, they all forgot it even existed.
Reminiscences nodded to him and winked. Then she slipped away humming a forgotten song. All his traps were empty. Ben turned for home under the sunlight blinking on the leaves. The sun rose high, a pale yellow orb. Cassandra had brought up too many painful memories: his promise, the Watchers, their mother. He wished that he knew what Peter and Cassandra were up to. If he had gotten up earlier, then he could have followed them and discovered what they were doing. Tomorrow, he would make certain to keep an eye on them.
The day passed uneventfully, and Ben returned empty-handed to an empty house in the mid-afternoon. Re-Incarnate Day celebrations began promptly and were not to be missed. Ben washed up and put on presentable clothes, his best ones which were a bit big and rarely worn. They were his father’s. Then he sat in the main room waiting for the others and fidgeting with a ball of yarn.
Soon Anda returned and went upstairs to wash and change. She had been befriending the small herd of deer that lived nearby. When she came back downstairs, her hair was brushed and braided, and she wore her best blue dress, the one with the little yellow flowers embroidered on the collar. It was their mother’s, and it was too big on her, but she belted it as best she could.
Because Re-Incarnate Day required your best, the Aldermans wore their parents’ old clothes, the nicest clothes they owned. It was, to Ben at least, an odd day. It was that one day a year they would all wear clothes that belonged to the dead, foreign shirts and dresses that felt all too familiar, yet completely alien.
“Where are they?” Ben asked. He got up and paced the main room tugging at his collar.
“They’ll be here.” Anda picked up her sewing basket and continued mending a tear in one of Ben’s shirts.
“We can’t be late,” he said, anxious to get going. It always took longer when he walked with them.
“We won’t be,” Anda said.
Ben paused in front of the fireplace. Beside the mandatory photos of Loraine and Rufus sat the only photo of the three Aldermans and Peter. Ben loved that photo because they all looked happy, even Peter. A few years ago a salesman had come by with a camera. The photo had been expensive, but Peter scrounged the money and insisted that they get a picture. It had been worth it.
Beside their photo stood the little wooden figurines their parents had carved of their family — one for each of them. Five were smooth and soft and dark, and one was rough and light, all angles and lines, newly made. That one was Peter’s. Mica had carved it for him after he had been with them for two years. Peter had smiled and had run his fingers along the figure. A sick, churning feeling started in Ben’s gut as he wondered what lay ahead for their family.
“All set,” Peter said, walking into the room.
“You look nice,” Anda said.
Ben turned to see him ready for the evening: beard combed, hair slicked back and braided, wearing his best white shirt and vest, borrowed from Ben—his father’s. Peter did look good. A pang of jealousy shot through Ben: the shirt and vest were not big on Peter. He filled them out like he was supposed to be wearing them, not a child in borrowed clothes.
“Does Cassandra need something to wear?” Anda asked, looking back down at her sewing. The needled flashed in and out of the rough, dark cloth in her hands.
“She’s not coming.”
Anda and Ben looked at Peter. He shot them both a warning look. “And no one mentions her in the village.”
Anda’s eyelids fluttered.
Ben watched her uneasily, for a moment forgetting Cassandra. “Anda—”
“I’m here! I’m ready!” Mica burst into the room. Her face had been scrubbed clean and red, and her hair frizzed around her head in desperate need of brushing, but she was in their mother’s yellow dress, and her boots were on. Ben sighed: they were finally ready to go. They all looked a bit flimsy, thin under too-big shirts and dresses, but at least they could wear jackets over their potato sack clothes and look a little less ridiculous.
Peter nodded to her. “Good. You and Anda look nice.
Mica blushed. Anda smiled.
“Let’s go,” Peter said, turned on his heel, and headed for the back door.
“Wait, where’s Cassandra? Does she need to borrow something? I have an old dress, it’s not my nicest, and it would be a bit long on her, she’s so short, but I have some—”
“Cassandra’s not coming with us, and do not mention her in the village. I mean it. You got that?” Peter asked. He looked each of them in the eye, and they each nodded. “Good. Let’s go.” He pulled on his jacket and walked out the back door.
Mica looked from Ben to Anda with a wide-open mouth. “But everyone’s supposed to go—it’s practically the only thing here that’s mandatory. How can she not be coming?”
Ben shrugged. “She’s not. And just… just don’t say anything about her, got it?”
Mica frowned but nodded. Anda put her sewing away and followed Peter out the door.
“But how can she not be coming?” Mica asked again.
It was obvious. Cassandra wasn’t coming because she wasn’t even supposed to be here, she didn’t have travel papers, and she was up to something.
But Ben only shook his head. “Grab the pictures. We can’t be late.”