BEN

Last time we saw BEN… (click for recap)

Peter returns from hunting, and Ben reveals that his memories have been restored. Peter questions him and discovers that Ben was visited by Seth the Unseen Prophet, his father. Peter runs from the shelter to find his father, and Ben follows. Ben finds Peter in the charred remains of West Six. There Peter tells him that he is a prophet like his father, and he is the Last Prophet. As they turn to leave, they are startled by a Burner, Titus, standing behind them with golden glowing eyes…

Ben froze, shocked to see the baker and his golden Watcher eyes. 

Peter rushed Titus and slammed his shoulder into the large man, and they rolled to the ground. Ben watched, horrified, unable to move. 

Titus had been their friend forever. Seeing him with shining eyes and a shaved head sent something shocking and cold through Ben. Something was wrong. They never kept Burners around. They always shipped them far away to be forgotten by their friends and families. So why was Titus here?

Titus shoved Peter off, sending him flying through the air. Peter landed some feet away, rolling to a stop in the soggy weeds. Ben moved to help but saw Titus staring up at him from the ground and froze. Peter mumbled something foul as he scrambled to his feet, squashing in the mud. 

“We have to get out of here. Now—run!” He grabbed at Ben and shoved him towards the village.

Ben looked back at Titus. The large man struggled to get to his feet, but his eyes were still on them.

“Why is Titus here?” Ben asked.

“He saw us. Means they saw us. They’re coming. Back to the house—run!”

They hurried down the road towards the charred remains of the village, Peter pushing Ben along, Ben struggling and tripping over his uneven feet and his crutch. Ben looked wildly from side to side, searching for more Burners or soldiers in the destroyed and broken village. They ran through the village square. The fountain still trickled with brownish-red water. They passed the destroyed bakery.

At the square, Peter grabbed Ben and pushed him into the remains of the schoolhouse. They stumbled back into the shadows of the building, and Peter held his hand up for quiet. Ben tried to slow his breathing, but his heart raced. His leg was painful from the sudden sprint, his lungs burned, and fear clouded his vision. Then he heard it.

Footsteps. Many footsteps. 

Ben and Peter hunched down behind an overturned desk. The footsteps stopped.

Ben carefully peeked around the edge of the desk. A group of Burners, their heads freshly shaved, stood in the center of the square by the fountain. Titus was now among them. Ben recognized each and every blank face in the group, his friends and neighbors who now knew nothing of themselves. Ben carried all that was left of them in his mind. A soldier in a green uniform directed the Burners, pointing to the buildings around him. 

They were going to search the buildings.

“Why West Six Burners?” Ben asked in a hushed voice. “And why the Burners? These Burners? They never keep Burners around.”

“But if everyone’s been Burned, who’s to recognize them? Shit. They must have processed them real fast and turned them over to the military. She’s looking for Seth, and we need to get back to the shelter. Now. Out the back door.”

As the Burners scattered into the buildings, Ben and Peter slipped out the back door and down a blackened alley. They paused at every street and checked for golden, glowing eyes before dashing across the open space. Silently, they slipped from shadow to shadow past blank-eyed Burners, former friends and neighbors now void and empty of their history.

At the edge of town, the forest came into view. Peter and Ben crouched behind a woodpile behind Viola’s house and surveyed the waterlogged field between them and the shelter of the woods.

“Think we can make a run for it?” Ben asked, not looking at Peter. They both knew he didn’t run well.

“I don’t like running out into the open, but looks like we don’t have much of a choice.”

Figures emerged from the forest. Ben and Peter hunched down behind wet firewood. A patrol of Burners and soldiers started up the road towards the village. They would pass right by the woodpile.

“Into the house,” Peter said, and ran low and fast towards the back door.

Ben followed, slipping on muddy ash and wet leaves. The bottom half of his crutch was covered in mud. Inside they hid behind an overturned bookcase, squatting in the rubble of the old woman’s home. The Icons of Loraine and Rufus, charred and blackened around the edges, started up at Ben from the floor.

“As soon as they’re gone, we’ll make a break for it,” Peter said.

“You never answered my question.”

“What, you want an answer now?”

“As this might be the last chance I get, then, yeah. I want an answer. Why didn’t you tell us who you were? Who Seth was?”

“Shit, Ben, you ask too many questions. Quiet.”

Voices outside. Ben held his breath. Footsteps on the path by the woodpile. The patrol passed by, moving quickly towards the village.

Peter let out a sigh. He moved closer to the window and peeked through what was left of the tattered curtains. He waved Ben over: the coast was clear. Ben crawled towards the window, being careful not to knock anything over with his crutch. 

Behind him came the shattering, crunching sound of breaking glass. Peter turned to him, his eyes wide. Ben looked to see what he had knocked over and broken: nothing. They looked at each other in confusion.

Voices yelling outside.

“Did you hear that?”

“Yeah.”

“Check the house.”

Footsteps running towards the house.

Ben and Peter stared at each other. Frantically, Ben switched his grip on his crutch so he could swing it better at heads. Peter picked up an iron poker.

A flash of black and pink. Somethings bolted past Ben. Yowls turned to screeches as Toby, Viola’s cat, and Lincoln, Malcolm’s pink cat, scrambled out the back door, skittered across the porch, and shot out into the field with tails high.

Laughter from the squad outside.

“Cats!”

More laughter.

“You and you—you two stay here. Watch the road.”

Ben and Peter looked at each other. Guards had been stationed right where they needed to go. He felt like his heart might explode as it hammered away in his chest and refused to stop. Fear crouched next to him, her hands across her knees, and smiled.

“What do we do?” Ben whispered. He eased himself over to the wall under the window next to Peter and leaned back against the scorched wood. He still clutched his crutch like a weapon.

“Just give it a minute. Maybe they’ll do a perimeter sweep, and we can make a dash for it.”

Peter positioned himself to see out of the window and watch the Burners. Ben sat quietly, listening to the sound of shuffling footsteps on the mud slick road. They waited for the right moment to run.

Finally, Peter smiled sadly. “I’ve never been so thankful for that stupid cat. Viola was my grandmother,” he added almost as an afterthought.

Under any other circumstances, Ben would have been surprised, but too much had happened the past few days for this to be a shock. “I see where you get your good looks.”

Peter grinned under his beard. “Yeah.” But his smile faded, and his eyes darkened. “I saw her just before they got her. When I was looking for Anda. They don’t bother Burning the old people. She was a fighter, even to the end.”

Ben thought about all the ghosts in his past and Peter’s. He pulled the little wooden figurine out of his pocket and turned it over and over in his hands. Everyone in West Six had ghosts. They sat quietly for a few moments, listening to the wind and ghosts run through the withered and wet fields.

“My mother’s name was Astrid,” Peter added. He said it casually, but the name struck deep inside Ben.

The little family graveyard out back flashed into his mind: Astrid. The name suddenly became more than just another ghost, and she now had a smile and a laugh and a child. She had a birth and death and everything in between. 

And she had Peter.

“Did you put up the grave marker?” he asked. But Peter couldn’t have. The marker appeared well before Peter arrived at the farm.

“No. Viola did. Your farmhouse, that was her house. My mother’s house. She grew up there. When we came back, we went looking for Viola, but she had moved. Another family was there. Three kids.”

“Us? You saw us?”

“Yeah. You and Mica and Anda. You were playing in the field. My mother—she smiled. Said it was good that children were playing there. We left and went into the village to find Viola. That’s when….” he trailed off and looked out the window into the fading light. “When someone recognized my mother.”

Then the Watchers had come.

Ben somehow felt closer to and yet farther from Peter all at once. “Why are you telling me this? Why now?” he asked. He had so many questions for Peter, but somehow that was the only one that seemed important right now. He ran his thumb over the figurine. The edge wasn’t sharp enough to cut, but almost.

Peter just shrugged. “Things unsaid, you know? And I figure… ah, what the hell. If my being here and my past is going to get everyone killed, then you might as well know why.

Ben nodded, appreciative that he was finally getting answers even if they only led to more questions. Peter’s openness reminded him of the memory Seth had given him, and he suddenly felt uneasy, like he had been putting something important off for far too long. The longer he let it go, the harder it would get. “Seth didn’t just restore my memories,” Ben said, shifting away from Peter.

“What do you mean?” Peter turned and looked at him.

“Well….” Ben rubbed his forehead, where Seth had touched him. “He, um. He gave me a memory for you. He told me to give it to his son, and that’s you.”

“He gave you a memory for me?”

“Yeah.”

“What is it?” Peter asked, squinting at him.

Ben squirmed. The obvious question was, what the hell are you talking about? You can’t just give memories away like chocolate. But he figured the how wasn’t as important as the why. “Well, it’s about… ah,” he struggled. 

Then he told Peter the memory in as much detail as possible. Even as he spoke, he could feel the memory fading to black and white, the sharpness of it dulled and softened with age, as all memories do with time, until, when he had finished speaking, it was almost gone. He had only the faintest outline of it in his mind. He knew where the memory should be and what it had been, but the memory itself wasn’t there anymore. All that was left were feelings and aching.

“You all right?” Ben asked.

Peter nodded and struggled to breathe. “Thank you,” was all he could say. They sat silently for a while, listening to the sounds of birds and bugs and the wind rushing through the field. The soldiers on the road paced back and forth.

“Here,” Ben said. “You should put that back,” he said and handed the figurine to Peter. “We don’t have a complete set without it.”

Peter turned the little wooden figure over in his hands and smiled his thanks.

“Yeah.”

They sat in silence, watching the Burners amble around the road, keeping watch. The question of how Seth gave him a memory, something so intangible and personal, itched at the back of his mind. “Did you know he could do that?” Ben asked, unable to let it go.

“What?”

“Give and restore memories.”

“Oh, yeah. I mean, no, he can’t restore memories, but he can give them. I knew about the memory thing. That he could do. It’s weird, but it’s a gift of the prophets.”

“Can you do that?” Ben asked, holding his breath.

Peter laughed quietly. “No. The Useless Prophet, remember?”

“So, how did my memories get restored?”

“I don’t know….” He looked at Ben with an expression so intense that Ben grew uncomfortable. “I don’t remember him being able to do that.”

“Well, he can now,” Ben said. The story Cassandra told them surged through his mind. Prophets with gifts and stars and Foxes and ghosts. All the prophets dying. Did that mean Peter would die at the hands of the Prophet Killer? Captured, tortured, murdered? Terror snapped its jaws at him.

“And when you said that you were the Last Prophet, what does that actually mean?” Ben asked, uncertain he wanted to hear the answer, unsure he didn’t already know it.

But Peter just stared at him with an intense and far off look in his eye. “You ask a lot of questions, you know that? I’m hungry. Let’s get the hell out of here.” He shifted and peeked out the shattered back door.

Ben felt fear and her milky eyes watching him, terror at her side, clicking its jaw. He couldn’t lose his friend like that, not to torture and death. At once, the decision was made. He would make sure Peter didn’t die like that. 

All at once, something shifted inside him, and fear backed into the shadows, leading terror away by the hand.

Ben joined Peter peeking out the window. One Burner stood facing the road, and one stood facing West Six. With their shaved heads and gray jumpsuits, Ben couldn’t tell who they were, but he was sure he knew them. He knew everyone in West Six.

“They’re not moving,” Ben said.

“I can see that.”

“So how do we get out of here?”

“Working on it.”

“Can we distract them?”

“Doubt it. Probably best to… incapacitate them somehow.”

“Can’t we… isn’t there another way?”

Peter raised an eyebrow at him.

“I don’t want to fight a friend of mine. Whoever they are.”

“I don’t either, but we don’t have a choice. And remember, they’re Burners now. They don’t know who you are or who they are. They’re gone. I don’t like this any more than you do, but we have to do this. You take the one on the right. We jump ’em, get them down, and get the hell out of here. Got it?”

Ben nodded. “Let’s get this over with.”

Peter led the way out of the house, darting out behind the woodpile. Ben followed more slowly, his crutch sticking in the mud. They crouched and waited for their opportunity. Ben strained to see who the Burners were, but he couldn’t get a good look. A flock of birds startled in the field, and they shot like embers and ash into the sky.

As Burners turned to watch the birds sail overhead, Peter rushed the Burners with a yell.