The world spun in and out of focus.
In between the brilliant flashes of light and sound, darkness filled his mind. There was nothing in those dark and empty moments, absolutely nothing.
When he surfaced from the depths, everything around him was unfamiliar and chaotic. A fountain flowed red. People ran screaming. Yet he felt completely calm. A warm fuzzy feeling filled his brain and chest, and he had the strange sense that he saw everything through a thin rippling veil.
Someone touched his shoulder, told him to, please, step this way. The man pulling at his arm wore a green uniform with red smears down his front.
The word sent a ripple of something through his stomach, but calmness squelched the swelling feeling with a firm hand, and the warmth surged through his veins.
The soldier stood so close to him that he could smell his breath. It smelled like… smelled like… rotting leaves.
Purple and blue shadows ringed the soldier’s sunken eyes like the man hadn’t slept in years. As he stared into the soldier’s eyes, which stared back, seeing and unseeing at the same time, a twinge of something pulled at his throat. But the soldier looked him up and down, and then turned to another soldier.
“Damaged,” the soldier said, calling to someone behind him.
He suddenly noticed an ache in his leg and a crutch under his arm. He looked up to ask the soldier what had happened to him, but the soldier grappled with his weapon. Fascinated, he watched the soldier struggle to load darts with little yellow feathers into his gun. The soldier’s hands shook, fumbled, dropped the darts to the ground, and looked up past him with wide eyes.
He turned around to see what the soldier was looking at.
Two people. A man with a thick, red beard, wild hair, and a gray jacket. A woman with a dark dreads like vines. They yelled at each other.
The word just popped into his head and stuck there like a thorn.
The woman grabbed the man’s arm and screamed at him. “It’s too late—you can’t save him. Come on!”
“No, Cassie. Let go of me—let go!” the wild-looking man cried and wrenched himself free of the woman.
The word popped again into his mind as the woman locked eyes with him. Wet streaks trailed through the dirt on her face. His heart fluttered. He stared at her, wondering who she was and why she was staring at him, but she shook her head, turned, and ran the opposite direction down the street. Smoke poured from the buildings on either side, and the woman disappeared into the rolling gray.
She had looked at him. A warm and pleasant feeling spread over him. But as the smoke rolled over where the woman had disappeared, he realized that the wild and bearded man was running straight for him with a raised gun.
The gun flashed. Three loud cracks. While the noise was sudden, it did not startle him. He followed the wild man’s gaze to the ground behind him. The soldier lay on the ground, and dark red spots blossomed on his chest, his eyes stared up into the sky.
The wild man in the gray jacket grabbed his arm and began dragging him away from the dead soldier. His feet refused to move quickly, but he stumbled after the man in gray still clutching the crutch under his arm.
“I told you to stay at the house.” The gray man gripped his arm tighter. “Hey! Move faster!”
“I can’t. My leg—my leg is… hurt,” he said, unsure what else to say. But he looked down, and his leg was not injured that he could see, although it was painful to walk on.
“What? Are you… oh shit.” The man stopped pulling to stare at him. His brown eyes were so light they were almost gold. “Shit. Shit!” the man yelled to no one in particular. “Why didn’t you listen to me, Ben?”
“Is that my name?” he asked, eager for a name. “Am I Ben? Do you know me? And what’s wrong with my leg?”
“Yeah, yeah, you’re Ben. Let’s go. Quick,” the man said and pushed Ben roughly down the street after the woman with dark dreads.
Soldiers ran for them as they disappeared into the smoke. Ben let the man drag him through the cloud of ash, his mind still in a veil, and they emerged from the blue smoke into a pale shadowed alley.
Everywhere he looked, he saw smoke and fire and yellow feathers. He didn’t even know where he was. Something began to poke through the veil around his mind. Something cold and bony and pale: a skeletal finger proding at him. He turned to ask the man what was going on, but with a swift movement, the man reached out and pulled something out of Ben’s shoulder. It was a dart with a little yellow feather. Ben’s shoulder burned with the memory of the needle.
“Burned,” the man said. The dart clinked against the stones and rolled away.
The word triggered something at the back of his throat. It poked through the warm calmness around his mind, like broken bones against skin.
“I’m a friend, and I’m trying to help you,” the wild man said. “Your name is Ben. My name is Peter.”
He flushed with embarrassment that he couldn’t even remember his own name. Ben worked, for now.
“We have to get out of here. Let’s go,” Peter said. Soldiers at the end of the alley ran for them. He tried to remember if the soldiers were good or bad, but he couldn’t. There was nothing in his mind, just vague words behind something filmy and transparent that meant nothing.
Peter pushed him away from the oncoming soldiers, and they ran back into the smoke. Ben was grateful that, for the moment, he didn’t have to try and remember anything. For the moment, his path was chosen for him.
The smoke cleared, and Peter shoved Ben down a burning street. Peter kept a firm grip on his weapon, turning to fire at the soldiers who emerged from the smoke. One soldier dropped, and then another. The last one ducked for cover and stopped pursuing them.
They ran past flaming houses. There were bodies everywhere.
They passed a tall, thin man in an apron dusted white and a woman with long white-white hair waving in the wind. Little yellow feathers stuck in their chests. They held hands and stared down at their intertwined fingers as if they had no idea why they were holding hands.
Peter turned Ben down one street but instantly staggered back, knocking Ben off balance. He nearly dropped the crutch. In the middle of the street, three soldiers stood over the woman with the dark dreads. She knelt on the ground with a yellow feather in her neck.
“Cassie! No!” Peter screamed and fired on the soldiers. One soldier collapsed to the ground. One dropped to his knees and fired back. Peter fired until his weapon emptied. More soldiers ran towards them with weapons raised. Yellow feathers streaked by like tiny songbirds.
Peter pulled him back down a different street, and they hurried to a road that led over a field and into a forest. It began to rain. Ben wondered how it could be raining and sunny and smoky at the same time.
Peter urged him forward as they ran down the road. They ran until Ben’s lungs burned, and his leg ached. His hand grew numb from clutching the crutch to tightly. He tripped and fell more than once. They ran until they shot out of the forest and into the misty, rainy light.
To their left stood a house, its door painted with blue and white flowers. To their right, on the other side of the road, a barren field blurred into a gray horizon. Chickens milled about the grass.
“Aaron! Mica!” Peter raced up the porch and into the house, sending the chickens scattering and clucking. He tumbled out again and ran around back, past a garden and a barn to a wide field. Ben followed as best he could, but his crutch sank into the wet earth.
Something flickered red at the edge of the field near a dirt road. A slender column of smoke twisted and writhed up into the sky. As Ben stared, he realized that it was a transport. For some reason that he could not understand, the sight of the burning transport filled him with nausea. Thick, heavy, and aching feelings, like snarling and stinking animals overpowered him with the rotten, sharp smell of pepper and dirt and sweat.
Peter pulled up short, stumbled backward, and stood in tire tracks that crisscrossed like wounds across the grass.
“No… We’re too late. They didn’t make it,” Peter said. Then he ran for the transport and inched as close as he dared, shielding his face from the flames and trying to see inside. The fire shimmered blue and red and green, dying in the light misting rain. Ben followed.
Peter retreated from the heat of the burning transport and collapsed to his knees in the grass. The sun slipped behind the rain clouds. A flock of birds passed above them like black falling stars. All Ben could hear was his heartbeat and his breath, loud and hot in his ears, and the shimmering flames cracking and biting and spitting as they died beneath the rain.
As they stood watching the fiery transport waste away to ash and smoke, Ben’s heartbeat slowed and steadied itself. He breathed deeply. The air here was different from back there in all the chaos. Here it was clean and cold and sharp. It felt good in his lungs, and it cleared his head. Slowly, his insides unclenched and ached.
“Too late for what? Who didn’t make it?” Ben asked. As his head cleared, that milky white veil thinned, and the calm he felt earlier began to churn, like water swirling before a storm.
Peter didn’t answer. He just stared at the flaming transport.
“What’s going on?” Ben took a few unsteady steps towards Peter, who did not answer. “Hey!” Ben limped forward. A twig snapped underfoot.
At the sound, Peter reacted so swiftly that Ben barely saw him move. He blinked, and Peter knelt, staring and pointing the empty gun at him. His eyes alert and focused to shining bright points, his wild, red braid trailed down his shoulder. The speed of Peter’s movements frightened Ben, but he saw sadness in Peter’s eyes, not anger.
“Whoa, hold on there,” Ben said. “How about you put that gun down and tell me what the hell is going on? Why can’t I remember anything?”
Peter dropped the weapon with an embarrassed look. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. Habit. It’s not even loaded. It’s… and they’re all…” he started, but something caught his attention, and he tensed like a cornered animal.
Birds cawed and scattered across the sky, their wings flashing in the gray.
“It’s not safe here. Not yet. Come on,” Peter said. He got to his feet and led Ben to the barn. Inside, a large cow shuffled anxiously in her stall. Peter went directly to a spot in the far corner of the barn and pulled up a trap door from under a blanket of hay, revealing a ladder leading down into darkness. Peter nodded for him to descend the ladder. He looked from Peter to the ladder and back again.
“It’s safe. Promise.” Peter sighed.
Ben weighed his options. Now that the cold air had cleansed the filmy feeling from his head, he was thinking more clearly, and he wasn’t sure if he really trusted Peter. He could run, but where would he go? He didn’t want to head back to the village, and that was the only other place he knew of. And it wasn’t like he could get very far, not with his damaged leg and limp.
Or he could stay with Peter, at least for now. Peter had gotten him away from the chaos. At least here, Ben could try and get some answers. The soldiers back at the village didn’t look too communicative.
“Yeah, all right,” Ben said, “here.” He handed Peter his crutch and carefully climbed down the ladder into the deep darkness below.
His feet touched hard-packed dirt. He hopped back as Peter handed him his crutch, climbed down after him, and closed the door above them, shutting out the light. In the darkness, Ben felt Peter push past and rummage around. Ben just blinked, trying to adjust his eyes.
A warm light burst to life and filled the little room. Peter had found and lit a lantern. In the flickering yellow light, Ben surveyed the shelter.
The little bunker held some crates, a small table, and several cots. Peter picked up the lantern and moved farther back into the room towards a large and strange device. It looked like a lantern with a glass cylinder in the center and a metal top with dials and switches.
“What is that?” Ben asked.
Peter set the lantern down and surveyed the device. “That,” he said, “is our Blind. This will, hopefully, keep the Watchers out of our heads.” He began fiddling with knobs and switches. The machine whirled to life, emitting a low hum, and the cylinder glowed bright blue-green.
A strange sensation passed over Ben, like a door closing that he didn’t know was open.
“Does it always do that?” Ben asked and shook his head. His head felt fuzzy again, but not like back in the village, overpowered and filmy.
“Do what?” Peter asked, his eyes still on the device.
“Nevermind. What are Watchers?”
“They’re… spies. They get in your head and see through your eyes. This hasn’t been tested yet,” Peter said, gesturing to the Blind. “No good way to do that. We just pray that Cassandra did her job. She wasn’t too confident it would work—it’s an antique—but right now, it’s all we’ve got.”
Cassandra… did he mean, Cassie? The woman with the wild dreads?
The… pretty one?
“Who is, Cassandra?” he asked. “Is she the one who didn’t make it? And how does that thing work?”
Peter rubbed his forehead. “Look, just give me a few minutes. I can’t explain everything now,” he said. He sank down onto a crate, and gingerly touched his side.
Then he noticed Peter’s shirt and the wet, red spot under his hand.
“Like me?” Ben asked, looking down at his own leg.
Peter winced. “Not exactly. I think it’s just a graze, though. Hand me that medical kit over there,” he pointed to a box on the floor.
Ben picked it up and dropped the box into Peter’s hand. Peter pulled out bandages, needle, thread, gauze, and little bottles, some that rattled with pills, some with liquid inside. Ben eased himself down onto the cot, his leg aching, and tried to give Peter some privacy as he unbuttoned his shirt and examined his side. But the large man was covered in strange tattoos, and it was hard not to stare.
The lines raced down his arms and crawled around his rib cage. Flowers and mountains and strange beasts covered his chest and shoulders. Foxes and stars. And eyes. The man was covered in dark lined eyes.
Suddenly embarrassed for staring at the dark lined images, Ben looked for something else to hold his attention. Next to him on the cot as the empty gun and a lighter.
Ben sat, turning the silver lighter over in his hands as Peter tended his wound. Peter began to sweat and grow pale under his red beard with every bloody stitch. He tried not to stare, but the red man was shaking. He wondered if he should offer to help, but he doubted he would be much use as he couldn’t even remember his own name, so instead, Ben just stared at the lighter.
Finally, Peter dropped the needle and sighed. “Wow. I always hate doing that,” he said softly.
Ben looked up at an even seam across Peter’s side. The bullet had ripped through a tattoo. Despite the precision of the stitches, the tattoo of an eye now puckered and distorted like a wink.
“Now, you want to know what’s going on?” Peter asked. “Well, I’ll tell you.”
He spoke while he wrapped a bandage around his side and cleaned up from his procedure, and this time Ben stared so as not to miss a word as Peter told him his story.
“Your name is Benjamin Alderman,” Peter said. He told Ben about his two sisters, Mica and Anda. How Ben had saved him and given him a home. He said that he had found this shelter and this Blind but was unable to make the Blind work, that is until Cassandra and Aaron showed up. They wanted information, and in exchange, Cassandra got the Blind working. Peter told him that Mica, his sister, had gotten in trouble, and they were going to flee West Six, but Watchers and soldiers had come.
He paused. “The transport out back…” he cleared his throat. “And I couldn’t save Anda… she got Burned. They had already Burned her when I… I couldn’t save…. and they Burned you. That’s why you can’t remember.” Peter went quiet. “You just had to come for her, even after I told you to stay at the house. Why didn’t you trust me?” he asked, but it was a question for a different time man at a different time.
Ben pondered, turning the lighter over and over in his hands. The names meant nothing to him, but he wished they would. Peter’s anguish over Ben’s rebellion was… genuine. He wished he could answer Peter. He tried to remember why he had gone to the village, but there was nothing before the smoke and the screaming and the chaos. So he changed the subject.
“And my leg?” he asked. “What’s wrong with me?”
“When you were a kid you broke your leg. Should have been fine, but your mother wouldn’t take you to the Health Center. You got an infection. It made your leg grow slower than the other one.”
Ben nodded, but it wasn’t like he could check the story, although his right leg was a few inches shorter than his left. He’d figured that much out. But he wondered about all the other things Peter had said. “Why should I trust you?” Ben asked, not sure he had an option not to.
“Because… because of this.” Peter carefully stood and picked up an old box. With a satisfied smile, he held it out to Ben, wincing and holding his side with his free hand. “Go on, take it.”
Ben took the box from him and looked inside. Inside was a book. He pulled the book out and examined it. It was, The Odyssey. He opened it up, and papers fell out.
“What are these?” he asked and picked them up. Three faces stared up at him. Two young women and one young man.
Mica Alderman… Benjamin Alderman… Miranda Alderman.
“That’s you,” Peter said.
Ben raised and eyebrow at him.
“Ah, hold on.” He dug through the medkit and tossed him a small mirror, his blood smeared the edges. “They always have mirrors,” Peter said, but his forehead gathered and wrinkled.
Ben looked into the little mirror and examined the face looking back at him. Then he looked at the pictures. The face in the photos was younger and cleaner, but it was definitely his. He looked up and saw Peter holding a wooden figurine of rough and bright wood, running his thumb over the edges.
“What’s that?” Ben asked.
“Nothing. It doesn’t belong in there.” Peter clenched it in his fist and then threw it to the other side of the room. It settled in the dirt. “Those papers are your old permits. One for you, Mica, and Anda,” Peter said.
“Yeah, we call her, Anda for short. Miranda is her full name. And there, that picture, that’s the three of you.”
Ben pulled out a photo from the back of the book. It was of the two young women, himself, and Peter standing together.
“A few years ago a traveling salesman came around with a camera. You don’t see a lot of those out here, salesmen or cameras. We got a picture of the four of us. It’s on the mantle in the house. I got Viola to get me a copy of the photo—you know, just in case this ever happened. I like to prepare. I tried to save them…” he added so softly Ben almost didn’t hear him.
Ben had no memory of the faces before him, so Peter’s remorse that he couldn’t save them meant little to him, although he wished it would. It would be nice to replace the emptiness inside with something else, but could he really believe this man?
Even as he wondered, he had seen those people in the streets. He had smelled the smoke and heard the screams, and Peter had saved him from that. If Peter hadn’t dragged him out of that village, he would still be there in the madness, in the flames, and in the streets running red. He might even be dead by now.
“So… we were friends?” he asked, staring down at the photo.
Peter nodded. Then he told Ben all about his life, story after story from the past seven years. Finally, Peter fell asleep while in the middle of a story about Celia, their cow, and Ben blew out the lantern. He lay in the dark and tried to remember the things Peter had told him, but there was nothing in his memory, not even a feeling, an image, or an impression, just nothing.
As Ben drifted off to sleep, he thought he heard far-off sounds above them, and wondered if soldiers had found them. Eventually, the sounds faded into deep and empty dreams, and Ben slept…