We must go through bitter waters before we reach the sweet. - Van Helsing to Arthur Holmwood, Dracula by Bram Stoker
They first met on the porch of Eva Miller's boarding house in Jerusalem's Lot. At the time Mark was just a boy of around 12 years old, small for his age, but his eyes already had the look of someone who had seen too much. Ben was twenty years his elder. He listened as Mark told his story, of Danny Glick appearing at his bedroom window, hovering mid-air like a ghoul - or a vampire. The plastic cross had seared Danny's cheek and Danny had fled, but Mark no longer felt safe in the small town. More worryingly, he told Ben about Straker's house and his failed attempt to kill the head vampire, and of Susan's fate, wanting to warn Ben not to welcome in the woman who was now one of them.
Ben was the one who hammered the stake through Susan's heart, releasing her from her vampire curse to true death.
It was foolish of them to have split up so close to sunset. Hubris on Father Callahan's part. Ben understood Mark's need to warn his parents but they should have waited.
"He only wanted to help me," Mark told him once after a particularly brutal nightmare. "I don't think his faith wasn't strong enough."
With the sun close to setting Father Callahan had accompanied him, wanting to support Mark as he explained the strange happenings to his disbelieving parents. Ben should have been with them, especially as Barlow had left a letter promising retribution on young 'Master Petrie'.
Barlow killed Mark's parents outright, dealing them a kindness greater than the fate that had befallen so many of the town's residents. That night Father Callahan disappeared after bartering his life for Mark's release. In return the remainder of the small group figured out where Barlow had gone to lay low during the daylight hours, and Ben killed him, though it didn't make much difference. With another night falling and the fledgling vampires all hungry and looking for blood, their blood, the only two survivors from the small group fled the town together.
Ben Mears and Mark Petrie. Most people took them for father and son.
They moved from town to town, heading south in a zig-zag line, and everywhere they went Ben sought out information on the small town they had left behind. Sometimes he rented a motel room on the outskirts of a small town, cheap and rundown, using the last of his dwindling cash to pay for several days up front. He looked for work, cheap labor, cash in hand, to pay for gas and food, and then they moved on again. Never staying too long in one place. He knew he should have handed Mark over to Child Services but neither of them could stand the thought of being separated once the sun set. They were all they had left in the world, standing guard while the other slept fitfully.
That year Mark had a growth spurt, leaving him almost as tall as Ben but gangly, as if he had yet to grow into his lengthened limbs.
Eventually they made it all the way down into Mexico, finally stopping at the small town of Los Zapatos where they attended mass at the local church, sometimes together, sometimes alone, comforted by the words even though neither of them knew their meaning. He tried to school Mark while they were on the road, making sure he had the semblance of an education.
They never spoke of Salem's Lot but their dreams were plagued by its horrors, leading to Mark's breakdown in the small church and his confession, spilling the terrible details of a small town overrun by vampires.
Ben's nightmares grew worse, as if personally witnessing the deaths of the people he had known even in passing in the small town, and he awoke one night crying out Mark's name in fear as Barlow tore into the boy's throat. He couldn't go on like this, knowing the vampires were out there, perhaps in increasing numbers spreading out from the abandoned town. Knowing they might be looking for him and Mark, wanting their revenge for the death of their master.
"I'm going back," he told Mark that day, watching as the color bleached from Mark's suntanned skin until he was almost as pale as the vampire he had become in Ben's nightmare. "Can you come with me?" Ben asked desperately even though he knew it was so unfair to ask so much from a child.
"Do you love me?" Mark asked quietly.
"Yes!" he responded fervently, truthfully. "God, yes."
Mark wept, holding onto Ben tightly.
The journey back took days instead of months, and they stayed close to Salem's Lot as the cleansing fire raged through the seemingly abandoned town for three days, aided by the dryness of a long, hot summer. Ben fancied he heard the screeches of the undead creatures as the fire claimed them but he knew they could not have caught them all. Perhaps most of them though.
After the fire Mark never talked again about joining the Church; never mentioned leaving Ben's side.
They took the road, traveling from town to town, back and forth across the States, down into Mexico then back up into Texas. The years passed and often Mark would take the wheel these days while Ben slept or worked on his latest story idea. Sometimes his work was published and the royalty checks paid for motels - a bed, decent food, and a hot shower. Sometimes they slept on the beach beneath the sun's warm rays, eating the meager rations stored for the harder times. At night they huddled together keeping watch, rarely sleeping during the hours of darkness, because the night belonged to the monsters.
Ben had good memories of the Pacific on the Californian coastline. They swam in the ocean, playing like kids, laughing and splashing until the sun headed towards the horizon, and it was on one such day that they kissed for the first time.
Nine years together on the road, and Ben felt a very different fear, afraid they had overstepped a boundary, in case Mark was trapped in some weird kind of Stockholm Syndrome. Afraid Mark would realize Ben had nothing to offer him except more of the same life, always on the road, never staying in one place for too long, never putting down roots. Mark deserved more than this even though he had ceased to be a child in Ben's eyes years ago when he struck the match to light the cigarette that set Salem's Lot ablaze, or several days later when he walked through the fire ravaged streets, entering buildings by Ben's side, and staking any vampires that had survived the fire without any hesitation. The ones too stupid to find better hiding spots. Mark had not even flinched when they found the 'boys' in a moldering haystack, including the one who had tried to bully Mark on his first day at school in Salem's Lot. They all turned to ash when dragged kicking and screaming into the sunlight. Even Danny Glick.
They barely spoke for two days, driving in silence for the most part.
They had enough money from a day's work fruit picking to pay for a motel, and as the awkward silence stretched, Ben felt his heart sink.
"Do you love me?" Mark asked quietly.
Ben was thrown back into that distant memory, of begging Mark to go with him back to Salem's Lot to confront the monsters from their nightmares. His breath shuddered and his eyes stung with bitter, unshed tears as he replied just as fervently as that first time.
"Yes. God, yes."
He wept as Mark pulled him into his arms and kissed him.