Last time we saw BEN… (click for recap)
Ben discovers that Cassandra is wanted by the government, and they’re willing to pay. A lot. Enough to get him, Mica, and Anda out of Nova for good. However, turning Cassandra in means Burning her, and he just can’t bring himself to do that. Before Peter heads out to a job, he asks Ben about their hidden and illegal books and promises not to say anything about them. Ben reassures Peter they won’t turn Cassandra in, and heads out to keep an eye on her. After all, they won’t hand her over to the authorities, but that doesn’t mean they have to trust her…
It had been a good morning. Cassandra had managed to spill half the milk, fall off her stool, and get hit repeatedly in the face by Celia’s tail. Much to Ben’s satisfaction, Celia had decided to leave a nice warm pile behind her and flick some of her offerings onto Cassandra, who gagged easily. By the end of it, Cassandra was covered in dirt and splattered with warm milk and manure. Success.
A bit before noon, Peter returned while Cassandra was washing up in the house from morning chores with Ben. Peter handed Ben a new lock for the broken window with a smile, and then he and Cassandra disappeared into the barn. Ben watched the barn from the kitchen window, waiting to see if Peter and Cassandra slinked away somewhere. Nothing.
He waited a few minutes more and then slipped outside, determined to find out what they were up to.
Ben paused at the barn door, listening. Nothing.
He waited, holding his breath, trying to hear. The barn was quiet, and all he could hear was the sound of Celia rustling hay. Carefully, he opened the large door with his free hand, letting in the warm and the bright and the light, and limped inside. Dust motes floated in the sunshine.
He blinked in surprise. The barn was empty.
Celia looked at him and swished her tail. Ben walked in circles around the barn, absently pushing at hay with his crutch, wondering where they were. He fumed at himself for losing them again. He had no idea how they had managed to get out of the barn without his seeing. Secrets, with her hand over her mouth, stood in the corner just out of sight, stifling a laugh, but Ben heard her.
Frustrated, Ben spent the rest of the day going over their meager budget, fixing the broken window, and absently searching for the vanished Peter and Cassandra.
Ben dropped a pile of dripping vegetables on the counter. Anda and Mica weren’t back yet, and he was hungry and angry. It wasn’t his turn, but he would start supper anyway. He pulled a knife out of the drawer and began chopping a carrot. Behind him, a door opened and closed. He turned and found Anda standing with her back to the closed door, watching him.
“Hey. Get a pot going for the potatoes,” Ben said and scraped a pile of carrots into a bowl.
Anda did not move.
Ben paused his chopping and looked over his shoulder at her. Her white hair seemed brighter against the dark wood of the door, and her eyes were wide.
“I have to talk to you,” she said.
“Okay.” Ben put the knife down and turned to face her, leaning back against the counter for extra support. Fear bubbled in Ben’s stomach. Anda never wanted to talk, so whatever it was must be important. He hoped it was about that family of deer she was trying to befriend, but he knew it wouldn’t be anything that easy. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
She rubbed her right palm with her thumb. “I… had a bad dream last night.”
“What was it?” Ben asked when she didn’t say anything else.
“I dreamed… I dreamed….” she said slowly. Then her words tumbled out all at once. “It’s been the same dream, over and over again. I have it almost every night. And now it’s getting worse, and I don’t know what to do,” she said, exasperated, looking down at her hands.
“What’s this dream?”
Anda looked up at him, her eyes wide and white and gray. “Something… terrible is going to happen, and I can’t stop it.”
Her words chilled him. “What’s going to happen?”
“Have you… ever noticed Peter’s hands?” Anda looked down at her own palms.
Ben blinked with surprise. “His hands? Why?”
“Hey, did you start dinner yet?” Mica yelled from the other side of the door just before she slammed into it, startling Anda and knocking her forward. “Whoa! What’s going on in there?” Mica said, pushing the door open more slowly and poking her head in.
“Mica!” Ben said, waving his crutch at her. “We’re having a conversation here, what the hell is wrong with you?” He hated to have Anda’s timidity take hold once more. Mica had a way of overshadowing her.
“What?” Mica said entering and making a rude gesture at him. “I’m here, on time, I might add, to start dinner. Spent all day chopping up that fallen tree for firewood. You’re welcome. At least we won’t freeze to death this winter. What’s the big deal?” she opened a cabinet, found a pot, set in the sink with a slam, and began to fill it with water. “I come in to start dinner, early, by the way, and you—”
“—Let’s talk in the other room,” Ben said to Anda, limping to the door.
“No, it’s fine. Really… nevermind.” And then Anda was gone, stepping through the door into the dark before Ben could stop her.
“There. Happy? You scared her,” Ben said, smacking Mica gently on the back of her head.
“Hey! Not my problem. What did she want?”
“She said she’s been having bad dreams. You know anything about that?”
Mica rolled her eyes. “Same dream? Yeah. She wakes up all panicked and scared. Cries a lot—I have to calm her down.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Ben asked, exasperated. This was the first he’d heard of bad dreams, and it sounded serious.
“She asked me not too.”
Ben sighed. The sound of running water filled his ears like a strong wind blowing through the woods. “She thinks this dream means something bad will happen. What does she think will happen?”
Mica lifted a shoulder. “She won’t tell me. But I wouldn’t worry about it. She’s always had weird dreams. Ever since we were kids.”
“But it’s been getting worse, though, hasn’t it?”
“Yeah, but they’re just dreams. They don’t mean anything. We all have bad dreams, who doesn’t? This whole damn country is one bad dream. One big—”
“Watch it,” Ben said before she could get creative with her expletives. Ben thought about his own dream, where he’s standing on a mountain and watching his country dissolve into flames and ash, and he knows that his family is gone. “You should have told me. She’s pretty upset about this.”
“But they’re just dreams. And what would you have done? Told her not to worry about it? Tell her everything will be okay? It’s fine. I can take care of it. I’ll always take care of her. You know that,” she said, her voice dropping to a whisper. She turned the water off and stared down into the pot. The faucet dripped. “I know I can be kind of… I don’t know. Difficult. But I’ll always take care of her. Always.” She looked up at Ben with fiery eyes, and he believed her.
“Yeah. I know, Mics.”
Mica set the pot on the stove to boil and then began peeling potatoes in the sink. “I went into the village this morning.” Flakes of potatoes skin stuck to the damp sink like red and white flower petals.
Mica shrugged and kept her mouth shut.
Ben knew what that meant: something bad had happened. “What, no Health Center warning, nothing?” he asked.
“They’re always asking us to turn people in. Always offering money for us to give up our family and friends.” She peeled faster. Wet flakes covered the sink. “They’re looking for someone else now, too, not just…” she said, not even daring to finish the thought, her eyes still on the red and white shreds of potato. Her hands moved fast, peeling and peeling and peeling. The potato got smaller and smaller.
Ben swallowed. “Who are they looking for now?”
Her gaze grew cold and hard. “The Prophet. He’s back.”
That old terror, the one that stands over his bed at night and watches him sleep, raised its cold, black head. Ben felt dread, that stinking, frozen thing, watching him with dark, lidless eyes. The Prophet was an evil name in the Alderman house. The day the Watchers had come, the day their mother had died nine years ago, the soldiers and Watchers had been looking for the Prophet. Seth.
“You’re sure?” Ben asked.
“Of course, I’m sure,” she said. The potato in her hand was considerably smaller after so much peeling. “He’s ten years older, looks fifty years older, but it’s him. I wouldn’t forget that face. He’s the reason….”
“Didn’t know that he was still around. I thought they caught him last time. You tell Anda?”
“Of course not.”
“Good. Let’s keep her out of the village until they stop showing his face. I don’t want her panicking.”
“There’s something else.” She looked behind her at the door. “Don’t tell anyone, I mean, really don’t tell anyone, okay?” She dropped the potato into the pot with a splash and pointed the peeler at him.
“Yeah, yeah. What is it?”
“Well, it’s just that… I’m not supposed to know this, it’s not on the official Health Center alert, but Seth… they didn’t just call him The Prophet… they called him the Unseen Prophet.”
Unseen meant treason. Unseen meant mountains and myths and hope. Unseen also meant hidden and useless and cowardly, and now the reason for their mother’s death.
“You’re sure?” Ben asked so softly he barely heard himself.
“Don’t tell anyone. I mean, really don’t tell anyone.”
“I won’t. Shit. It just keeps getting better and better, doesn’t it?”
Mica didn’t seem to hear him. “They also said that he has scars on his hands,” she said, looking down at her own palm.
Ben knew what she was thinking. “Lots of people have scars. It doesn’t mean anything.”
She shrugged. “I know. I just… I don’t know. I think I’m starting to lose it,” she said, going after a fresh potato.
“If none of this is in the official report, how do you know about it?”
“Don’t ask. Just don’t. Ben… what’s going on?” she whispered. “Why is he back?”
Ben looked at the dark door behind them. “I don’t know, Mica. I really don’t know.”
Ben helped Mica with dinner, and just as they were laying the table, Peter and Cassandra appeared. Anda came in and sat down and hid behind a curtain of white hair, her eyes and nose were red like she’d been crying. They shared another quiet dinner together, and Ben kept thinking about Cassandra’s disgust at milking Celia, and how the warm milk had made her gag. He also kept thinking about the hay in her hair and the back of her neck.
In the quiet and contentment of dinner, he let himself think a pleasant thought, just this once, just for a moment. There were too many other evil thoughts in the world that he felt he should hold on to something good, even if it was just a fleeting thought.
After dinner, they cleared the dishes into the kitchen, and Ben rolled up his sleeves to wash. Mica yawned.
“I’ll take care of these, you go to bed,” he said, taking a plate from Mica. She didn’t argue, apparently chopping wood all day had taken it out of her. She waved good-night and headed up to bed. Peter said good-night as well and disappeared up to his attic room. Anda looked at Ben, her mouth open like she was going to ask a question. Her eyelids fluttered and then opened wide.
“What?” he asked. Anda smiled, just a small twitch of a grin, and then followed Mica upstairs without a word.
“You can go too,” Ben said to Cassandra.
She shrugged and slid a plate into the sink. “I’m taking advantage of your hospitality. Might as well do some chores.”
Ben rolled his eyes. “Warm enough last night?” he asked more just to say something than because he cared, and got to work scrubbing the dishes.
“Celia and I were fine, thanks.” Cassandra found a towel and dried as Ben handed dishes to her.
“I’m sure Celia enjoyed the company.”
She snorted. “Yeah, well, I think we were both a little scarred from this morning, so I wouldn’t call us friends. Has your family has always been here?” she asked. “In West Six?”
“As far as I know. Where are you from?”
“Windrose. As far as I know,” she added with a twitch of her nose like a cat sniffing. Her dreads hung loose in dark ropes around her face. Ben found himself thinking about how she smelled of woods and water and snow.
“Peter’s present sure was something. You find a lot of strange things around here?” she asked, wiping down a spoon.
Ben scrubbed at a plate. “Anda likes to go poking around. She’s curious, that’s all.” He sensed danger and kept his eyes on the suds in the sink.
“She doesn’t strike me as the kind of person to go poking around, but she should be careful.”
“She’s not stupid.”
“I never said—”
“—She can keep her head down and take care of herself. She doesn’t get into trouble,” Ben said, pointing a sopping scrub brush at her. Soapy water dripped onto his boots.
“All I’m saying is that you can get into a lot of trouble poking around. That’s all.” Cassandra gently moved his dripping fist back over this sink.
“You can get into a lot of trouble around here for just about nothing. Millions of dollars worth of trouble.” Ben raised an eyebrow at her.
Cassandra lowered her eyes. “You’d do anything for your family, wouldn’t you?”
“Almost anything,” he said and began scrubbing again.
She smiled at him shyly. He had not expected a smile. It changed her angry face and made her lovely. Ben hadn’t noticed the gold flecks in her eyes before, but they glittered. Cassandra’s face turned back to a frown, and she continued. “But haven’t you ever wanted to do anything more than just… this?” she gestured around with a mug. “Farming and whatever else it is you do?”
But there was nothing else, and Ben would never leave this place, not as long as Anda and Mica needed him. As long as he needed them.
“My parents are dead too, so I get it,” she said, as if she knew he was thinking Mica and Anda.
“A fire. They worked maintenance and died trying to put out a stupid fire. Yours?”
“Father left one day. Mother disappeared when Watchers came. Maybe Burned, probably dead. Either way, it’s the same thing.”
Cassandra nodded. “Your sisters will be fine, you know. They’re… stronger than you think. And who knows, maybe they’d even want to go do something more too,” Cassandra said as if understanding his hesitation.
Ben gave a sharp laugh. “All right, where would we go? What would I do? Gimpy here, remember? I’m not good for anything and would get Burned the minute I tried to apply for a job in any city. They don’t like gimps. Any ideas?”
She shrugged and looked away, her hair falling over her shoulders. “I don’t know. Maybe you could go to the mountains. Just for kicks, you know.”
Ben suddenly felt like he was treading on thin ice, like wandering out onto a frozen lake and suddenly realizing it wasn’t frozen solid. Any moment cracks could spider beneath him, and the wrong word could send him plunging into darkness. ‘The mountain’ was the unofficial code for ‘the Unseen City.’ No one ever said they wanted to go to ‘the mountains.’ That was treason. Besides, since learning that the Prophet was actually the Unseen Prophet, Ben’s opinion of the hidden city had changed a bit. Yet the idea of a place free from Loraine was more than a little appealing.
“And what’s in the mountains?” he asked, rinsing a pot.
“Probably nothing. Besides, it’s a long way to the mountains. Especially in winter.”
“Have you ever seen them?” he asked without thinking.
“The White Mountains?” she paused and stood on her toes to put a mug on a high shelf. “Yes. I have. They are beautiful. Looks like that’s everything,” she said and handed Ben the damp towel. With a smile, she slipped out the back door into the night, leaving Ben alone.
Ben put away the last dish, then went up to bed. He lay on top of his covers, wondering what their conversation meant. She had admitted that she had been to the White Mountains. Did that mean she had been to the Unseen City?
Of course not, because it wasn’t there anymore. It and the last of the Unseen people were destroyed in the Last Civil War. If the city was real and wasn’t under a pile of rocks, why have they been hiding for the past hundred years? Because they were cowards. But why else would Loraine want Cassandra so badly? And why should he care about the Unseen City? Their Prophet nearly destroyed his life, nearly got them all Burned. And now he was back….
Eventually Ben drifted off into a fitful sleep, dreaming of rock and water and falling. And fire. The mountain fell beneath his feet with a crash, and the fire overwhelmed him.
Ben awoke with a start, sweating and panting. A sound had cut through the nightmare and pulled him awake, but he couldn’t remember what the sound had been, or the nightmare. A creak outside his door. That was it: the floorboards had creaked. Someone was up.
A bright moon lit his room as Ben reached for his crutch and limped to the door, placing his crutch and stepping carefully over the squeaking boards in his own room in a well-memorized dance. He cracked open the door and looked out into the hallway. Empty.
He went back to the chair by the window for his sweater. As he pulled it on, he looked out the window and saw two figures moving low and fast across the field towards the road. From this distance, he couldn’t tell who they were, although he had a pretty good guess. A few moments later, he was out the back door and moving as fast as he could through the grass tinged silver in the thin starlight, the laces of his untied boots snapping against his crutch. He would find out what Cassandra was really up to one way or another.