Hands tangled in his hair, the boy slammed Ben against the wall. They kissed, breathless from the fight and the pent up anticipation of the day. When he finally pulled away, the boy grinned at him. It was full of promise and confidence, but Ben could never place a single detail about it.
“You ok?” he asked, still holding him close. Ben felt safe, warm, content. He kissed the boy back and shrugged.
“I’m ok I guess.”
He heard laughter and the world shook. The boy’s laughter hurt his ears, like he wasn’t supposed to hear it.
“You wanna go get lunch?” The boy was pulling away from him now, exuberant affection having been deployed, and now hastily withdrawn. The others were coming to join them now. Sage watching them both with warm eyes.
“Ben?” she said.
He looked back to the boy who had jumped up onto the low wall, staring at him with empty black eyes.
“Ben!” she repeated, louder this time.
The boy was laughing, though Ben could still make out no part of his face, save those eternal black eyes. The laughter was nauseating, cutting through him to his very core, he was going to be sick, he was falling. As he slipped backwards into nothing, the boy cocked his head, and the laughter stopped.
“Hey, hey, hey, hey… Ooh woh! Won't you come see about me?”
His eyes flickered open sharply. His throat hurt from the cold air in the room, his mouth was bone dry. The magnetic distortion from the 8-track player woke him up long before the blasting music did. Groggily, he reached out his mind to the dark bubble of energy, trying to turn off the player. It was a jarring experience. His mind bouncing off the crackling shield, he rolled onto his back swearing.
“ Tell me your troubles and doubts. Giving me everything inside and out and...”
Had he been dreaming? He felt his heart rattling like he’d run a mile. Not that he’d ever run a mile non-stop before. Giving up on the the booming 8-track, he attempted to focus on summoning up the images of his dreams. Nothing came. He slumped back onto the bed, pulling a pillow over his face.
“ Love's strange so real in the dark.”
Three days of this. Three days of weird dreams, three days of his mind empty by morning, and three days of this damned song. Every morning at 6am, the battered old music player would blast him with ‘Don’t You’ at maximum volume. He couldn’t figure it out, he thought he’d fixed the problem last night by completely dismantling his speakers. Now instead the music just came out of the 8-track built-in system. So not as loud, but with far worse distortion.
“Think of the tender things that we were working on.”
With a long sigh, Ben dragged himself out of bed and grabbed at his headphones. If he couldn’t turn the music off, then he’d drown it out. He felt like he hadn’t slept at all. His music hurt his ears it was so loud, but it kept ‘Simple Minds’ at bay, for now. He couldn’t avoid seeing the awful crackling distortion that surrounded the beat up old music player, out the corner of his eye.
He put his hood up and went down to breakfast, here he could turn his music down a few notches and get himself some cereal. Most of the others were about, occupying the tables and couches spread out through the kitchen and lounge, he didn’t look at any of them. Instead he set about putting his coffee mug in the microwave. His head bowed he felt something sharp hit his shoulder, and killed the volume on his music to turn with a scowl.
“Hey shithead!” Stella took aim with another chunk of cereal and threw it at him, the golden hoop was wreathed in a shimmer and sped faster than anyone could see to smack him hard in the side of the head. “You need to fix your stupid alarm. It is SO loud.”
The microwave whirred behind him as he fixed her with a dark glare.
“It’s not my alarm,” he said with a shrug, opening the cupboard to the coffee, while Stella proceeded to pelt him with high velocity breakfast cereal.
“What you mean it’s not your…”
Turning his music back on full, he added one of coffee, two of creamer and three of sugar to his mug, kept the spoon and retreated back to his room with coffee and cereal in tow. He could still sense the 8-track whirring upstairs, but the song had stopped.
The coffee was bitter and awful, he scowled at it for daring to make his morning any worse. But he'd learned to manage the nasty aftertaste by taking a spoon of cereal after each sip.
Ben sat at his desk, strewn with lengths of unused wire, half dismantled pieces of tech he had no intention of using. He checked on his bank of chargers, all blinking at him. It took so long to make sure he always had a full power pack ready to take with him at a moment's notice. He took his phone out and plugged it in while he took another look at this stubborn 8-track.
He didn't know where he'd got it from. He imagined that box of miscellaneous old technology that Jack had been getting rid of a few months ago. That would explain why it only came loaded with one, overplayed 80s jam. What it didn't explain was why Ben, Frequency, couldn't do a single thing to stop it waking him up at 6 in the morning at full volume. He'd tried to remove the song, he'd tried to wipe the player of any pre-programmed information, he'd even tried to remove the tapes, but that had proved more trouble than it was worth.
Three days since it started waking him up, and he couldn't think of a single reason why. He tilted it so he could look at the mechanism again, reaching out his mind to flip through all the functions. It was like sinking into glue, the device resisting him in a way that no firewall had ever done before. All from a piece of technology that went obsolete in the 1980s. He went deeper, finding the song again like a translucent echo of a sound that he couldn't quite grasp onto, like it moved whenever he went to modify it.
Hunched over his desk he subtly tried to shift and manipulate the frequency until he was confident he could at least change the time that the song played, shifting it from 6 to 10 when it would just be an inconvenience and not tantamount to torture. With a triumphant grin, he withdrew his mind from the 8-track. That was until the horrifying sensation of the song settling back into its 'default' position reached him.
Although he had never had any luck brute-forcing the device, it was the only place to force the wave of frustration that hit him. The equivalent of shoving the program with all his might. What it had never done before is shove back. The 8-track crackled with power and shocked Ben's hands, still resting on the desk. With a startled yelp he dropped the player, his chair wheeling back reflexively from the source of the pain, catching on some discarded laundry and pitching him back onto the bed. His arms aching where the shock hit him.
Swearing and sore he shot a withering look at the 8-track.
"Fine! Be like that, play your stupid song. What do I care."
Of course he cared. Had the universe ensured he ended up with the only cursed 8-track in the world, just to piss him off?
Angrily, he grabbed for his cell phone, flipping through the communications app. Nothing, no messages from any of them. Kalino, Sage, Alina - he flipped through each channel checking when each last messaged, when they logged in. When he was done, he flicked the window away with his thumb, bringing up the next one. When he was done with Alina, he scrolled for the fourth channel. Nothing came up, he cursed his temperamental phone and swiped again. All he succeeded in doing was bringing up his list of all available open apps, he didn't want that. He tapped back to the main app screen, then blinked. Why was he looking for a fourth channel that didn't exist? Penance, Arcana, Sohcahtoa, Frequency: that was it. There were four people connected to the system and there always had been.
Ben blinked and rubbed his face. His arms still ached, but he pulled himself back to his desk to finish his breakfast. He really was losing it.
There had to be a pattern to it: the weird dreams, the random 80s music, the additional elements in their app. Only he could have changed it, and the closer he looked, the more he realised that it wasn’t simply a new, unexplained extension to the app; it was built into the very fabric of it, from the ground up. He had constructed the entire framework around the shape of five.
Why would he do that, if there were only four of them?
He’d spent his whole day moving from the 8-track to his phone and back again, ultimately making no progress and turning over more questions than he had before.
Why would he construct something for four people, with a hidden fifth deep inside it? What did his sudden and vivid dreams mean? Why would he set up a random song to wake himself and the rest of PCOY up every morning?
His phone buzzed on his bed, it sounded as fed up as he felt. Ben grabbed at it and felt a stab of disappointment, just Kalino. He paused to question himself, Kalino was his good friend, one of only two people who texted him with any regularity. Why then had he been expecting someone else?
[Dinner at Jack’s?]
[Be there in 1hour.]
He took the long walk across town. Thought absently about going via the junk shop to see if he could find any more beat up radios to work on, but he didn’t want to be late. He brushed his hand across the course wall of the old clock tower, absently wondering what it would be like to climb up the ancient stairs wrapped around the top. The thought made him dizzy.
Kalino was just there when he arrived.
“Did you come all the way from town?”
“Wanted a change.”
He hadn’t been to Jack’s since the dreams started, he’d thought about it but it made him sad somehow. He’d been hoping that Kalino’s easy way would help him escape how tired he felt. He let the older boy talk about his current projects, let his words just wash over him while he stared into his mug.
"And what can I get you boys?"
"Coffee please," Ben wasn't that hungry anyway, and a plain coffee was about all he had the change for. He didn't really like it, but it was hot.
The boy wrinkled his nose at him.
"I'll have a hot chocolate, Jack," Ben could tell he was grinning even though his face was hard to make out. "With cream, and marshmallows on it. And I'll have some maple pancakes... what Ben?" he laughed.
"Don’t hold back, order what you really want,” he snorted.
“Look, coffee makes me weird, and it’s bitter and gross. Actually Jack, you know what. Make that two hot chocolates, ignore him.”
Ben raised a hand to flap him away.
“No it’s fine, honestly.”
“My treat. I’m not going to eat my breakfast with some 60 year old with a plain coffee,” he was laughing.
Ben felt a surge of warmth towards him. He didn’t have it in him to resent the boy for treating him while waiting for the others. He could afford it.
Two mugs set down before them, both reached at the same time, their fingers touched. The boy grinned, Ben smiled and looked away. It was nice.
“Ben? Hey Ben,” Kalino waved a hand across the table in his line of sight. Ben blinked and looked up at him.
“You stopped listening for a bit there, you ok? You seem a bit out of it.”
Ben wrapped his hands around his cup, now tepid. He mumbled about how he hadn’t been sleeping well.
“I didn’t want to say anything, buddy but yeah you look really grey.”
Ben cracked a smile for him.
“Yeah, I had lunch with Rockatrice,” it was weak but seemed to put Kalino at ease.
“I know Sage was worried.”
Awkwardly Ben waved a hand, attempting a nonchalant and failing.
“Yeah well I’ve managed to wake her up a few mornings now with a fault music player. I can’t imagine I’m her favourite person. Or Lunar Lens’s, or anyone at PCOY right now.” He swirled his spoon through his frankly room-temperature chocolate and sighed.
He’d hoped that this might bring him out of his weird funk, having dinner with Kalino, talking shop, being normal for a while. But he couldn’t shake the growing empty feeling inside him, like there was somewhere he needed to be. Something he was missing.
Kalino was talking again, had he zoned out again? He had a bad taste in his mouth. He realised he couldn’t keep sitting there, he needed to clear his head, he needed to be outside.
“Uh… sorry Kalino, I gotta go,” he said, pulling up his head, head down, muttering something about texting him before vanishing out of the front door of Jack’s without another word.
Cutting through the park was an easy decision, it was darker there and he was nursing a pounding headache. Food and warmth hadn’t touched it, maybe a walk would. His phone buzzed, probably Kalino or Sage. He wiped away the notifications with a thought and pressed on. Ducking into the metro station, he swiped his card and kept walking.
He didn’t know what was wrong with him. He hadn’t felt so stressed and listless in as long as he could remember. Maybe it was just one long anxiety attack, the sort that sneaks up on you and doesn’t shift until some time after college. He shoved in his headphones, pointedly avoiding eye contact with a green skinned woman who was taking up way too much space in the train car.
Maybe all this was part of his mutation. He’d first got his powers through his headgear, maybe it had fried his brain and it had only taken him this long to notice. Maybe it had been a mistake to think he could harness the power at all, and in reality all the time he’d just been spending his brain cells. If he didn’t stop he’d end up as a vegetable by the end of the week.
Ben shook his head, going to sit down. He was just being paranoid. He hadn’t been sleeping well, and been having vivid dreams about some mysterious boy with no face. He was probably just from TV. That popular mini series ‘the boy with no face who inserts himself into your dreams for no reason.’ Without meaning to, the idea forced a laugh out of Ben, far louder than he intended and heads turned to face him.
Nervously, he stood back up, holding onto the teal bars near the door so he could hop straight off when they slid open.
“Pinnacle City,” the recording intoned. Had he really gone so far up town?
By the time he surfaced, it was properly dark, a crisp snap to the night air. He zipped up his hoodie and walked with purpose. He was sure he had never been to the Pinnacle Community before, and yet his feet seemed confident of the way. Of a way at least. He ducked past the security and kept walking, the rows of well manicured houses reaching up around him all glowing with the lights of families within.
Once again he felt that pang of loss, like a pain in his chest. Annoyance flared there too, was this what was upsetting him? Some misplaced sorrow about missing a family he never knew. He snorted at nothing: what a stupid thing to be upset by. He was about to double back to head home, when he stopped before the only unlit house on the broad curved street.
The garden was well kept, most likely by the same poor people who kept the rest of the gardens. The fence was neat and neutral, mostly to keep out gawpers like him. The path was of the kind made up of broken stones put back together to pretend it was deliberate, with one loose stone towards the middle that would pitch you forward if you stepped on it wrong.
The snow covered everything, the sidewalk, the cracked path, the steps up to the house. Ben’s foot must have caught somewhere in the mass of white and sent him flying. A strong arm grabbed him by the elbow.
The house was like nothing he’d ever seen before, all high ceilings and fancy floors and too much space. And quiet. So quiet. Everything caked in snow was left in a room just for coats and boots.
The boy didn’t seem to care about what got messy, so Ben didn’t either. It was just nice to be out of the cold. Enough of the freezing air and water had soaked through to his skin that he didn’t know if he’d ever be warm again.
“My parents won’t be home for ages. They might even have been stopped by the blizzard.” Ben could hear the grin in his voice. “Come on, you’re gonna go blue at this rate.”
Walking from the cold downstairs to the warm bedroom was a shock. Past so many unused rooms, a bathroom as big as his and Sage’s rooms combined, and finally… it was everything he’d imagined and more. Thick carpet under his bare feet, a room dominated by the size of the bed, books crammed on almost every wall. As the door closed behind him he felt safe.
“You can stay in with me if you want, or I can drag the futon in from the study.”
“Here is good,” Ben perched on the bed, feeling dwarfed by how big it was, how much there was of everything. He could barely hear the howling wind rattling at the windows as he got under the thick duvet. The boy had towelled his hair dry and he smelled like the rain.
Even in the massive bed they were drawn to one another. The boy’s hand reached out to run through Ben’s hair. Their feet tangled together.
“Can I?” he murmured as the windows rattled. Ben nodded.
“Hold up there son,” he felt a hand take his elbow firmly and he flinched away, jarring his shoulder with the force of his recoil. The security guard wasn’t a very tall man, but Ben could feel the oppressive weight of him baring down as he waved his flashlight in the teen’s face. “This is a restricted community, you can’t go staring at houses.”
The guard glanced up at the unlit windows, Ben’s hands that had been clutched white around the garden fence, and the sheen of sweat on his forehead: his eyes narrowed.
Ben could only imagine how it looked, some teenager lurking around the neighbourhood, having a minor event in front of big empty house. He was going to be in so much trouble. His eyes widened as the man reached for the radio on his belt. He had an over-large plastic earpiece with a cable that trailed across his chest. With a twitch of his eyes, Ben sent a shockwave of intense static. The guard yelled, clutching his ear and dropping his radio onto the concrete, and Ben took off down the street at a wild sprint.
He could hear the shout for him to stop vanishing away behind him, as more lights came on: curtains twitching as he passed. He could feel the tell tale flare of an outgoing cell-phone call as he left the road, cutting back towards the metro stop. If the police had been called then Ben needed to be far away from here. His chest hurt from the panic and the sheer effort of maintaining this speed. But he was also an unladen sixteen year old boy, with the fear of returning to PCOY in a cop car to drive him. He knew he didn’t have long before the guard’s call was answered, the cops always responded quickly to issues in the Pinnacle. Just one of the perks he guessed.
His legs protested their ill-use as he slowed to enter the station. Once he was through the barrier, he knew better than to keep running and drawing attention to himself. He mimed playing on his phone as he stepped onto the escalator. Nobody followed him in, although every moment he expected a shout or a hand on his shoulder.
Only once he was back below ground, his feet firmly on the train back downtown did he collapse into a seat, his hands trembling around his phone, his earphones playing static.
He wasn't sure what possessed him as he sprinted between the doorways. His legs screaming with the effort, Ben finally ducked down behind the broken wall, the shards of his broken phone crunching painfully in his pocket. No way to call for the others, the whole room was a mass of smoke and steam, no chance for the cameras to give him anything helpful.
The heavy tread of boots echoed out of the gloom, and he froze... already? He knew that he'd been followed
"Let's 'av ya then," slurred his assailant with all the awkward cadence of the best the Steam Society could offer. Ben heard the steam cannon grinding into life again and he recoiled, focusing his energy on creating a frightened looking copy of himself to run away, hoping to draw the danger away. The steam cannon fired a lazy spurt of boiling steam and he heard the man laugh.
"Think ya can fool me with y'little tricks and japes, brat?" continuing his unstoppable approach.
'Shit' thought Ben, slamming his face into the slick floor as a thick gout of steam tore the paint of the wall above his head. He was going to die, on the floor of the public pool, to an insane brute with the worst British accent he'd ever heard. Another burst of steam, this one closer caught his covered and cowering shoulders and he cried out knowing his thin hoodie wouldn't shield him for long.
Just as he was coming to terms with his imminent mortality, he heard a shout, a curse, a long boiling stream and a splash as the Steam Society bruiser hit the water. Still hiding, Ben felt a hand on his shoulder and flinched. The boy's voice was clear, even with all the noise around them and the hood pulled up over Ben's ears.
"Hey, hey Ben it's ok. He's gone. It's me."
It was all he needed to say, Ben felt himself lifted out of his small hiding place, pulled up into the boy's arms. It was like they were the only two people in the world. He felt a kiss on the top of his head and crumpled, breathing in the boy's scent like he was trying to remember something. Despite how hot the room was, Ben couldn't let go of him, the boy's hands wrapping around the back of his head, Ben's cheek pressed against the boy's shoulder.
"I didn't think you'd make it in time," he murmured, feeling awkward to admit it.
"Course I'd make it. Soon as I knew your phone was offline, I was here."
Ben smiled, just listening to his voice was soothing. It was amazing how safe he felt like this. Like nothing bad could happen as long as neither of them let go. He felt the boy sigh.
"I gotta go, though."
He looked up into the boy's face uncertain, the boy stared back his face somehow unreadable. No feature or expression could be made out, his eyes were huge dark voids that went on forever. Ben stared into them, panic rising in his throat.
"I said, I gotta go Ben. I gotta go."
Ben could feel himself being dragged away, invisible hands on his limbs and the scuttling of tiny spiders. He tried to scream, to protest but no sound came out of his mouth.
"WON'T you come see about me."
Ben groaned and rolled onto his side, dragging the pillow down onto the side of his head.
“I'll be alone, dancing you know it baby.”
He hadn’t had a moment’s sleep. He felt like he'd been punched in the face, he was so tired.
"Tell me your troubles and doubts. Giving me everything inside and out and LOVE’s strange..."
Over the crackle and distortion of the busted speaker he heard the knock at his door. He felt his exhausted irritation flare in his chest. What was he supposed to do about it? Did they really think he was doing this on purpose. He thumped out of bed and walked to the door, stretching as he went.
Sage looked at him reproachfully, wrapped in a heavy dressing gown. She'd clearly been awake no longer than him and it didn't take three guesses to figure what woke her.
"Ben. If this is your attempt to get up earlier?..."
"I'm not doing it," he snapped. He didn't mean to be mad at her, but the implication that he would purposefully do this to himself every morning was irritating.
"Well can't you stop it?"
"Brilliant idea Sage, I'll get right on that," he moved back into his room, repeatedly clicked the 'stop' button, then returned to the door. "Well, that didn't work. Any ideas?"
"You know what I mean, Ben," her voice had taken on a tone.
"Don't you think I've tried?! It's right by my bed Sage, I hear it too."
"Don't you, forget about me. Don't, don't, don't, don't, don't you, forget about me."
He winced, and stepped out of his bedroom shutting the door behind him. It didn't block out much sound, but it helped. He could see some of the kids poking their heads out of their doors to see the argument kicking off.
Pushing past Sage down towards the kitchen, he let out an irritated huff.
His head hurt, his throat hurt too. He had no idea what he must look like, stalking about in his t-shirt and sweatpants, glaring at the younger kids who were hovering in the doorways taking up space, as the strains of 'Don't You' faded into the background up the stairs.
Ben could feel the eyes on him as he wove through the kitchen to fetch a mug out of the cupboard. He wasn't hungry today, he'd settle for the coffee. The microwave growled at him, the beeping was just the wrong pitch to irritate him, and he didn't even have his headphones to distract him.
Staring at the glowing numbers, he scrubbed the sleep from his eyes. Today he'd take the damned 8-track to the junkyard. A voice in his head already told him he wouldn't do that, not while there was a mystery he couldn't solve. Opening up his mind to his powers, he knew the music player was still filling his room with music, the pattern around it was so familiar it was as if Ben programmed it himself. Curiously familiar. He felt on the cusp of a breakthrough adding his one, two, three of coffee, creamer and sugar, when a harsh metallic pain shot through him, his head throbbing as he spun around in response.
"Hey dipshit!" Stella stood up at the doorway, with some of the others around her. The spoon she'd thrown clattered to the floor by his feet and she reached for another one from the counter. "Sort out your stupid music!" She punctuated it with another hurled spoon, it made contact with his shoulder and he recoiled, hot coffee spilling over his hand. "I don't want to have to wake up this early just because you want to wake up to stupid shitty music."
He scowled back at her and the small crowd who were following her into the room, some staring, some trying to move around and help themselves to breakfast things. His cheeks reddened, she was a few years younger than him, but already he could feel patterns of the others who picked on him when he was younger. Some of them smirked as Stella reached for a third spoon. Shit. He was too tired for this.
"Hey Freak! I'm talking to you," she pulled her arm back to throw again, and his eyes flared with a sudden hot feeling. She'd made the mistake of coming down to yell at him, holding her phone with her headphones in, likely to block out the noise on her way past his room. Gripping his cup from the top, he took a step towards her his eyes fixed on hers. No one really knew what had happened until she crumpled with a scream, ripping out her earbuds, the horrific shriek they emitted echoing off the kitchen tiles. He stalked past her, the others gathered around gormlessly, and Lunar Lens who had appeared on the stairs in her dressing gown with Sage in tow. He didn't want to talk to them either.
Storming back to his room, he slammed the door, put his mug down in the nest of mugs he was collecting and threw himself into his chair.
He was so exhausted, he could feel his eyes pulling closed as he slumped forward onto his elbows staring at the 8-track. He would see it now, clear as anything, he's been a complete idiot not to see it sooner. There was only one person who would be able to so completely frustrate and infuriate him. Only one person who could rebuff every single one of his attempts to alter the system.
It had been Ben himself who had programmed the 8-track.
Somehow he had set up the random song that he didn't even like, set it to play at max volume every morning at 6am and made it completely unalterable.
That all seemed so clear now. The thing he couldn't explain, no matter how hard he racked his mind, was why.
"Ben?" Lunar Lens pushed his door gently, it hadn't caught when he slammed it shut, even though she was hesitant to just burst in. He hadn't seen her look at him like that since he'd had his braces off, when she was less worried about the poor 'freak in the headgear' getting mercilessly tormented by the other children.
He waved her in, of course Sage followed. She hadn't been around the first time. He wondered if she'd been so worried about him when they were children, but it was only a passing thought. Lens was blinking at him and the wreck he'd made of his desk. All his projects, all his previous work was strewn about on the floor. The 8-track took 'pride of place' surrounded by a graveyard of coffee cups and cereal bowls. Overseeing it all was Ben himself, who hadn't slept properly in four days, hadn't showered in three, and hadn't been outside in two.
“Ben, can we talk?” She was trying to be gentle with him. Usually losing your temper and flaring your powers at each other was a big no. He was already preparing a reflexive ‘tell Stella that then’ but bit his tongue. She’d come to him, which meant she thought he needed more help. What had Sage been telling her?
“Sure,” his voice crackled as he rolled his chair away to make space. The cheap wheel caught on his phone cable and he stopped with a sigh. Lens moved in to perch on the edge of his bed, Sage continued to hover in the corner. It was clear she was uncomfortable, he didn’t feel much better.
“What happened in the kitchen?”
“Nothing.” It was still a reflex to say it, even though it was patently untrue. Lens gave him leeway on it.
“Sage tells me, the music isn’t your fault,” she inclined her head to the 8-track player, Sage blushed and looked away as if it weren’t obvious that she’d told Lens everything.
Ben hesitated and glared at his bare feet.
“Yeah. It isn’t.”
“Is it related to your powers?” Lens’ voice remained calm while Ben could feel himself getting more and more irritated.
“I’m not doing it on purpose.”
“Ben, I am not for a moment suggesting that you’re doing it on purpose. Just if you are struggling to control...”
“I’m not struggling to control my powers,” he could hear the crack in his voice as he said it. “It’s not something I do, every day the 8-track is set to play the same song, every morning, same time, same volume.”
The older woman leaned forward, looking at the device more than Ben with a curious expression.
“And you can’t stop it?”
“Then who set it?” Lens had the unique ability to take a direct accusation and make it seem gentle and understanding.
Ben continued to pointedly not look at her. He knew that whatever he said next would point suspicion on him. He didn’t want to be out of control of his powers, he’d never had a problem since they first manifested.
“I think. I think I did.” When he spoke, Ben surprised himself with how soft and sad his voice sounded. He made the fatal error of looking up at Sage who looked more scared than anything. It didn’t help. Lunar Lens sat quietly, the silence was almost more unsettling than a stream of questions, Ben could feel the tiredness pull at his face and he clicked the knuckles on his thumbs. “I’ve tried to stop it, I tried to stop it on day one. But every time I change one parameter it resets all the other ones, and if I try to force it just shuts me out. I don’t even like the song!”
Rising gently from her perch, Lunar Lens moved to his desk to look closer at the 8-track. Sage hadn’t moved, but she also hadn’t left. Lens peered around the music player, noting the fused casing and the space cleared around it, before turning to him and asking.
“Ben, where did you get this from?”
The question threw him off entirely.
“What do you mean?”
“This music player. Where did you get it from?” She sounded firm,
It was a stupid question, like asking how long he’d had hands, or where the concept of music came from. He shrugged, his brow furrowing.
“I don’t know. I’ve just always had it.”
“But you don’t remember buying it, or being given it by someone else?”
His head hurt, he remembered first looking at it.
“I hope you like it,” the boy said with a grin that Ben couldn’t see.
“No, I love it. It’s really great.”
It was retro, old magnetic tape. But he could fix it up and use it to feed music through it. Or even set the mixed tape on it and install it in the clock tower.
It was good that they could all be together, especially around Christmas. He’d been worried that the CD would be lame. But the boy had laughed.
“Ben!” It was Sage’s voice. He opened his eyes to question her. She was on her knees beside him, clutching earnestly at his hand. When had she crossed the room? “Ben!” she sounded worried. “Ben, can you hear me?”
“Of course I can hear you, stop shouting.” His mouth felt weird. He tried to pull his hand away, but it was tingly and numb.
She waved a hand in front of his face, it made him dizzy, he shut his eyes again.
“Ben,” she pulled at him. “You just stopped for a minute, it’s like you weren’t even here.”
“I was just remembering,” his face did feel oddly clammy, like it had taken all his effort just to summon a fragment of their conversation. “When he gave me the 8-track.”
“Who gave it to you, Ben? You said you didn’t know.”
He tried to stand up, still feeling wobbly, his hand reaching out to steady himself on the desk. It was then that he realised the object of so much curiosity, his music player was missing.
“Where did it go?” He felt another surge of panic rise in him, as if not knowing where the device had gone was the worst thing he could imagine. Sage was watching him warely. Ben knew how he must look, red faced and anxious, getting stressed about a missing piece of defective junk. He wanted to make her understand.
“Lunar Lens took it, she was worried it was having a negative affect on you. And I think she’s right.” She took hold of his arm to fix her eyes with his. “Ben, have you even slept this week? You look so tired. You missed school yesterday...”
“I, what?” he frowned at her. “No, it’s Sunday. We didn’t have school yesterday.”
“It’s Saturday, Ben. This is exactly what I’m talking about. Losing a whole day, that’s not good.”
He stopped and blinked at her. No. No that had to be wrong. The 8-track had first gone off on the Thursday morning after he’d not slept well, he’d waved it off as a glitch and gone to school tired. Then it had happened every morning since. This was the fourth morning so... the realisation dawned on him. What had he been doing when he thought he was at school? Sage was giving him space to figure it out, chewing the inside of her lip while he stared blankly at her, probably worrying he was about to blackout again.
“I covered for you at school,” she said, half shrugging, as if the fear of getting in trouble was what was bothering him, before she sighed. “You were talking about who gave you the music player.”
“Was I?” He looked at her awkwardly. He didn’t know how to say it without looking crazy. “I’ve been having these dreams.”
He could see her eyes that she was worried.
“I’ve been having these dreams, all week. About this boy. He’s one of us, he’s in our team. I don’t remember all of it, most of its gone out my brain by the time I wake up. I try to make a hologram of him but I just can’t remember his face. He saved me from that Steam Society heavy at the pool, and I slept at his house during the blizzard, and…” he froze with a blush, no he definitely wasn’t about to tell her everything he’d remembered from his dreams. Sage was like his sister, he wasn’t about to tell her about the boys he’d kissed in dreams. “I know I must sound insane Sage. But he isn’t just a dream. He was part of our team.”
“He can’t have been though, surely. None of us remember him.”
“But you were there! You all were,” Ben could hear his volume increasing despite his best efforts to remain calm. “We had Christmas, at Jack’s together. Before we beat Windshear.”
“We didn’t beat Windshear. He turned himself in. We weren’t even there.”
Ben glared at her, she wasn’t listening. Of course she wouldn’t accept his wild dreams as proof. She jumped as he lunged to grab his phone, flicking open their communications app and showing her the inner workings with a triumphant flourish.
Sage looked at him blankly. He made an irritated noise.
“Look at it,”
“It’s our app?”
“There are five discrete channels. And only four of us.”
“So you made a spare, a backup?”
“I don’t need to make a backup Sage. And if I did I wouldn’t do it like this. The entire setup is based around the simple idea that there are five of us. Why would I do that?”
“I don’t know, Ben. It makes more sense than the idea that there was a boy who everyone magically forgot.”
Ben faltered, of course she was right, it did sound completely far fetched. A boy who was once their best friend; someone he’d had feelings for; someone so important to them who had just vanished. Didn’t it just make more sense that he was losing it?
Maybe it would be easier to just give up and move on? But he remembered him. It wasn’t just his dreams, it was as if his dreams were reminding him of something he already knew. He remembered lying in the boy’s bed under a heap of duvets watching Netflix on his busted up laptop. He remembered walking into school together, and sitting in Study Hall grinning whenever they caught the other looking. He even remembered voluntarily going to a football game.
He couldn’t give up on him, he was remembered for a reason. Even if it was only by one person, it counted.
Sinking down onto his bed, Ben put his head in his hands. His skin hurt he was so tired. Tears pricked the corners of his eyes. When he spoke, he spoke mostly to his floor.
“Sage. I don’t need you to believe me completely. I just need you to entertain the idea that I might be not be crazy.”
There was a pause, and he felt the bed depress beside him.
“It’s not a question of whether or not I believe you. Your bad dreams, your room putting on its one-song tribute to the Breakfast Club. That all happened at the same time. That isn’t nothing. And if this boy is real, then there will have to be more than just your dreams to show for it. And if not, then something is messing with your head. Either way, I’m going to help you figure it out. You’re not crazy, something is obviously going on.”
She slipped an arm over his shoulders, speaking softly at him. For a moment he resisted her, before letting her pull him into a hug, her chin resting on the top of his head. And then, only then knowing that at the very least Sage - his family - was on his side, Ben let himself cry.
There really was something about her that reminded him how good it was to have a family. She didn’t need to believe him, not really.
“Hey,” she whispered, pulling him away and letting him quietly wipe his face on his sleeve. “How about we take a walk?”
He frowned at her.
“What do you mean?”
“Like get out of this room,” she nodded to his heap of mouldering coffee cups. “Get some fresh air. Maybe you might have another memory?” She clearly meant this to be comforting, but his hesitance must have shown on his face. “I’ll be there, Ben,” she continued to hold his arm.
He sighed, his eyes itched. Maybe she was right. Standing unsteadily they stood in silence for a few expectant moments. Before finally he shuffled awkwardly.
“I need to get changed.”
It was like she’d been shocked, Sage clapped her hands and said.
“Right! Sorry,” a little too sharply, and then vanishing out of the door.
The world outside of PCOY felt a little too fresh for him, like it was personally attacking him for being so unwashed and unrested. Sage had gotten two texts from Lunar Lens, probably wondering after Ben, the response was quick: Sage was handling it. He shook his head. He knew better than to spy on her, but the boundaries between the physical and digital had started to blur.
He pulled his hood up and let her lead the way. They walked in silence, down towards the school, through the park, skirting the BASH. It was a long walk, at the very least it would tire him out. Ben tensed as they approached Dynamite Jack’s, he half expected another memory of the boy who vanished. He at least expected Sage to want to go in, but she didn’t force him one way or another.
Glancing at the police station, he was so sure of his memories. He remembered watching through the cameras clear as he could see through his eyes. He had seen Windshear choking the Miscreants. He remembered the five of them storming past the assembled TV vans. He remembered all of it; how Sage didn’t was the bigger mystery. She saw him staring and was clearly concerned he was having another ‘episode’. Not this time. He shrugged,
“It was a big day, Sage.”
“Do you remember anything? About the boy?”
He chewed the inside of his cheek. He had the vague impression of someone strong and masked, body-slamming Windshear through a portal of his own creation, while Ben crouched in a jail cell with a dying Rockatrice.
“Yeah,” he said, helplessly. He wasn’t about to lie. “I remember it, but you say we weren’t there.”
“We sat over there in Jack’s. The Old Guard arrived in time for Windshear to turn himself in.”
He didn’t respond, he didn’t need to. Instead he focused on chewing a chunk out of his mouth, his hands in his pockets.
They walked home in silence.
“Hey Ben,” Sage murmured, dropping back from the main gate. “If these dreams are really causing you, you know, problems? Then I’m sure I can make something.”
“A magic potion?”
“Yes, actually,” she prickled in response. “You don’t have to. It was just a suggestion. I don’t have a lot for ‘strange dreams and memories’. But maybe if it can help you to sleep past 6am, then maybe you’ll be able to feel better? Feel more you? Well! You’ll at least catch up on some lost sleep.”
He shoved his hands in his sleeves, conceding the point. His constant diet of instant coffee, cereal, and gum probably hadn’t been helping either.
Ben hovered outside of Dynamite Jack’s his phone wrapped up and in his pocket. He’d waited inside for half an hour and was starting to get worried. He knew the boy wouldn’t respond to him, couldn’t find him anywhere. His eyes strained as he struggled to make out the ends of the streets, lost to a dream.
A warm hand touched his back and he spun, looking up into a featureless face.
The boy wasn’t smiling.
“Sorry I’m late.”
He didn’t need to say anything else, Ben forgave him instantly.
“I was worried,” he swallowed as their fingers brushed, smiling weakly.
“Yeah. So I can’t stay,” the boy took his hand, but was already turning away, glancing over his shoulder.
“What do you mean, you just got here?” Ben gripped his hand tighter.
A cold fear washed over him, it wasn’t reflected by the mild severity of the situation but something deeper, something more primal. The boy was leaving; not Jack’s, not Protean City, just leaving.
“Ben…” he looked away again, but pulled him in closer. “I’m sorry.”
The apology carried with it, the weight of a thousand regrets and Ben stared at the boy. For the first time he could feel something in him wake up. He knew he had to pierce the mask, he knew he had to remember this, to understand. The boy continued.
“I didn’t mean for it to turn out like this. I really thought…”
“Shut up,” snapped Ben, his eyes threatening tears that never came. “You’re not allowed to do this. I said I wouldn’t forget. And he’ll have to pry you out of my head one second at a time. You can’t give up like this. I won’t let you.”
The boy smiled sadly and leaned in to kiss him.
“I’m not giving up Ben. I promise. There’s just some stuff I gotta do.” The kiss felt like goodbye, even as the boy wrapped his hands around the back of Ben’s neck, and for a moment he believed him. “I’m sorry.”
At the first hint of something else in his mind, Ben struggled. But it was far too late, the boy was easily stronger than him and had him held firm, their foreheads still pressed together.
“No, wait don’t.” In that moment time slowed, as patiently each memory was ripped away. The threads of their months together, their friendship, their heroism, leaving nothing behind. And there was nothing Ben could do but struggle. “Please. You don’t have to do this, please, JOHN!”
Ben blinked looking up at Jack’s. Why had he come out here? Why was he crying?
Through the sleep and the fog and the half caught memories, Ben could hear something. A distortion coming through the phone clutched in his hand. He groaned, struggling against the thick wool-like sensation in his head. Coughing he clung to it, feeling the frequency buzzing behind his eyes.
Was someone calling him? No it didn’t feel like that. He pinched the bridge of his nose and attempted to focus his eyes on the time. The dregs of Sage’s draught still holding sway over him, he fell back into his pillow.
The throb of the soundwaves in his skull continued to pound incessantly, he focused on purging that while focusing his eyes.
Somewhere, far away, something was sending him a message, something sympathetic to him.
As his eyes slowly came into focus he heard it, like there was a thread that stretched out across the whole city. He could feel his heart sinking, the white numbers on his phone screen stabbing at him, as the music rolled over him.
“ Slow change may pull us apart, when the light gets into your heart, baby"
So be it.
"Don't you, forget about me… ”