The problem with having a psych major for a roommate is that you can't hide anything from them. I learned that one firsthand when my roommate dragged me to a peer counseling group on campus because he was worried about how I was acting for the past three weeks and he was afraid I was depressed. The group tried to help, but they eventually shipped me off to a shrink at the med school, who ran some tests and decided I wasn't depressed—just anxious, so he sent me off to another guy. Mom and Dad were all for me going, since they saw how bad I was over spring break and they eventually heard just what happened. Gwen gave me the go-ahead to tell everything. But there was the problem: I'd been abducted by aliens. For real. If I told anyone, I'd be drugged up faster than Ben could turn into an alien.
I snorted suddenly, and Lance raised an eyebrow.
"Something funny?" he asked.
"Nothing," I said. "Just can't believe I'm getting my cousin's jokes all of a sudden." Lance looked confused, but even if I explained, that would happen. After all, now I was making jokes so easily about the aliens, accepting the unbelievable.
Maybe I really was crazy after all.
Christopher Lance, MD, came highly recommended by the med school psychiatrist, and looking the degrees on his wall, I could understand that. I'd respect him a lot more though if he didn't look like a kid. Maybe he was too old to be hanging around Gwen and Ben, but he looked like he'd be hitting the bars with the undergrads on the weekends—if he didn't get carded for looking like he was too young to drink.
"You can stop looking for a clock," Lance said. "I took it down after seeing one too many clients watching the time instead of concentrating on therapy."
I couldn't help it. I smirked at that one. "How many is too many?"
He smirked back. "Just one."
I stopped looking at the wall and looked back at Lance, who sat in the chair across from me, relaxed but intent on cracking open my brain and seeing what was inside. Kind of like the Xenocyte, now that I thought of it. I tried not to flinch at the memory.
"You know, therapy is a two-way street," Lance interrupted. "Sure, I could give you drugs and send you on your way, but it wouldn't solve a thing. The problems you're facing are still going to be there."
No kidding. About the only way to get rid of those problems is for Gwen and everyone to wipe out all those Highbreed, and even then…
I didn't even realize my face fell until Lance called my name and when I looked up, he looked a little concerned—well, as much as therapists were allowed to be, I guess. "Ken, let's start with your grandfather." How did I know he was going to do this? I sighed, and he quickly added, "We don't have to start with his death, per se, but everything I've read indicates your anxiety attacks started after his death."
"Okay," I finally agreed. "How much time do we have?"
The smirk was back, though a little less smug. "A little less than forty-five minutes."
It was going to be a long forty-five minutes. I sighed and began to talk.
My family was close—especially the Tennyson side. Even when Uncle Carl was arguing with Grandpa, they still tried to maintain some kind of relationship. Yeah, Gwen and Ben used to fight a lot as kids, but it really wasn't different from any other family, and as they got older, they got along a lot better. Must have been all that alien stuff. But even though I was on the outside, I didn't suspect anything. There really wasn't anything different in my family at all. Maybe my sister and my cousin had finally started getting along, but how weird was that in an already close family?
I can admit that after the whole thing in Santa Mira, I began running away from them. At the end of the year, instead of signing up for another dorm, I found an apartment close to school. It meant I wasn't going home for the summer. Mom, Dad, and Gwen came up to help me move everything in, and looking at Gwen, I could tell she was a little hurt by this. But what could I do?
"Are you sure you made the right decision?" Lance asked me. It was my last session before going home for a week for Gwen and Ben's birthday. Lance might have been asking about me getting my own apartment, but I couldn't help but wonder if my visit was a good idea either. I couldn't get out of going; except for their tenth birthday, when they'd been on a road trip with Grandpa, it was always a big family affair.
"I don't know," I confessed, sighing and closing my eyes. "It's not that I'm trying to hide from my family. But…"
"You're still hiding from your family," he answered. "I don't know what to tell you, honestly. You haven't given me a lot to work with, and we've been at this for at least two months now. All I know is that a lot of your anxiety is tied up in your family, so I don't know if you should avoid them for now or if they're important to your support system and you should seek their help. You've revealed a lot of ambivalent feelings about them."
"Maybe going home is a mistake then," I replied, hanging my head.
"Try it," Lance suggested. "Eventually, you'll have to face your problems, so this short visit might provide a good stepping stone for that. It's a time for celebration, so there'll be less stress all around. We've already worked on how to change your thought process to limit the amount of stress of everyday life, so try those methods in case you do encounter conflict. And if all else fails, just go home—to your apartment, I mean." I nodded reluctantly. "So when do you leave?"
"Tomorrow," I said. "I wanted to get in one more session beforehand. Gwen's birthday is Wednesday, and I head back Saturday."
"If you wanted to get in therapy before you left, you could have just headed out tonight," Lance joked, but I shook my head.
"Don't want to drive there at night," I said. Not again, anyway. And I was avoiding the area where Santa Mira used to be like the plague.
Lance nodded. "Probably a good idea. Safer." He looked a little suspicious, but I wasn't going to answer. The session was over, anyway.
The next day, I got up early for the drive back to Bellwood. It would only take a few hours on the Interstate, but I wanted to be sure where I was going. No more side-trips to rundown towns. I also wanted to thoroughly check my car for any more nasty surprises like last time. I usually did, but this time it was important I checked everything. Granted, I probably didn't need to—when I got the new car, Gwen and Ben's friend Kevin installed this piece of alien tech that would scramble anything anyone might try to use to disable it—but I always felt better after checking through it myself. Once I was sure everything was safe (or safe as it ever would be again), I headed off.
The weather looked terrible when I set off. The skies were cloudy, and rain was beginning to fall. At least it was still hot and muggy out instead of cold. Still, I wasn't enjoying the drive. Everything reminded me of that day. I was tense at the wheel and constantly checking the mirrors. I don't know if it was a flashback or what—I felt like I was back there again, only with the knowledge of what happened. I was convinced they were coming for me.
The rain became a downpour, and I started freaking out more. As the lightning flashed, I remembered how the two mechanics at the garage suddenly flickered in front of me, looking like some kind of bizarre creatures. I'd started to run, but they spat some kind of slime at me—cold and sticky and strong. I tripped when it caught my foot, barely catching myself thanks to martial arts and soccer skills from high school. They bound my hands with more slime, questioned me, and finally pulled out that Xenocyte. It was still dripping with slime as it wrapped its cold, wet tentacles around my face. I could taste it as I screamed. Then it bit me, and my scream died as it started messing with my head.
I splashed water on my face in the rest stop men's room. I'd had to stop to wait out the storm when I began shaking so bad. I still couldn't seem to get past the memories. No matter how many times I tried to wake myself out of it, I still felt the Xenocyte on me. The scars were still there, and more than just the small needlelike ones on my cheek where the Xenocyte bit me.
I pulled out my phone. I'd been avoiding this for too long.
"This is Dr. Lance's office," came the voice on the other end. Lance himself—he didn't have a secretary.
"Lance? It's Ken Tennyson," I said, my voice shaky. "I need to make an appointment for Friday. I need to come back early."
"Ken?" he asked. "What's wrong?"
"I…" I choked up. It took me a minute, but finally I confessed, "Over spring break, I was kidnapped. For two days. My grandfather came to save me. That's how…" I started crying.
"Ken," Lance said softly. "Do you think you can make it till Friday?"
"Y-yeah," I choked out.
"Okay," he answered. "So try and get through this as much as you can. And when Friday comes, I want you to tell me everything, understand? You've got bigger problems than I thought, and we need to work through them."
"Okay," I agreed.
"All right then," he replied. "Take the chance to recover yourself, then try and enjoy your vacation as best as you can."
I nodded and hung up before breaking down again. And the storm raged on.
My vacation wasn't exactly the best one I'd ever had, so I was glad when I went back on Thursday—thankfully, on a clear day without a panic attack—and went to Lance's office on Friday. I was slumped in the chair, trying not to break down again.
"Ken?" he called. "Ken, I know this is hard, but I need you to tell me what happened." After a moment passed and I still couldn't talk, he added, "Take it slow. You don't have to give me any specifics." I nodded. "Okay then. This happened over spring break, you said?"
"Yeah," I answered. "I was driving home, and my car broke down. It was raining, so I called my parents to let them know I was in a town called Santa Mira, and the repairs weren't supposed to take long. I would have been able to set out again the next day."
Lance nodded. "Then what?"
"I was at the garage, and the mechanics asked my name," I explained. My voice was getting high-pitched and panicky again, just like when the DNAlien questioned me. "I thought they were being friendly, just trying to make conversation! But then the lightning struck, and…" I stopped short. I completely forgot. If I mentioned what really happened, who kidnapped me and what they did to me…
"Ken?" Lance asked. "Ken, if you can't get through this part, we can come back to it."
"You're going to think I'm crazy," I whispered.
"That's not my job," he insisted. "I'm here to help you work through your problems. I don't make judgments about sanity—it's a legal term anyway, not a clinical one. And everything I've seen about you in these sessions so far indicates you're a rational, ordinarily normally functioning human being, who's just going through some major problems with anxiety and possibly trauma right now. You've never given me any indication that your grasp on reality is slipping."
Even with that reassurance, I still wasn't sure. I sat there for a minute, not wanting to talk.
"You need to tell me, Ken," he said. "Whatever's going on, it's eating you alive. Even if you think it's something that would make me think you were crazy, you have to say it. You can't afford to keep it buried inside you any longer."
I broke down then. Out of nowhere, I started telling him everything—about the DNAliens, the Xenocyte, Grandpa Max's sacrifice… I couldn't stop. It was like the words were running down like the rain, never giving me a chance to calm down and explain. Lance was wide-eyed in shock as I told him everything, and he was even more surprised when I told him about Gwen and everyone.
"They've been in on this the entire time," I said. "My sister, my cousin, my grandfather—they all tried to keep me out of it. They didn't want to put me in danger, and still…"
"Ken," Lance interrupted, holding up his hands. "Calm down. You're hyperventilating."
I was, and I buried my face in my hands. The memories were churning, hurting. I was shaking again, and I thought I was going to be sick. When I felt like I could breathe again, I asked, "You don't believe me, do you?"
"You're from Bellwood, right?" he asked. I nodded weakly. "I've heard about the Bellwood Aliens—the different aliens that kept showing up all over the country five years ago and then settled in that small town. After all that stuff going on, I don't know how anyone doesn't believe in them. It's not like they were keeping a low profile. A couple of my college friends and I were planning a trip there when they just disappeared—no more strange attacks, no more weirdness. Everything ended in Bellwood. We were kind of disappointed." I looked at him in surprise before remembering that he was probably barely older than me. Suddenly, I was glad I had a young therapist. "It was your cousin doing all this?"
"Yeah," I answered. "He's got some kind of watch—he just picks out an alien on there, presses it, and changes."
I was really surprised when Lance grinned. "Cool."
"But…" I started.
"But," he interrupted, and suddenly he was all business again, "I can see why you've been freaking out lately. First of all, you went through a terrible ordeal, even taking the aliens out of consideration. You were kidnapped, your life was threatened, you were brainwashed and forced to fight against your family, and then your grandfather died in an explosion. Add that to the symptoms you've been showing—flashbacks, intense distress and some physical reactivity to any kind of cues that remind you of the event, avoidance of any thoughts or people or places connected to it, your estrangement from your family, your lack of interest in your usual activities, and what looks like almost the entire criteria list under 'increased arousal'… I think we're looking at acute posttraumatic stress disorder—at least until next month, 'cause unless we eliminate your distress in that short a time, your diagnosis will progress to chronic PTSD. The only difference in that is the duration of the symptoms—over three months."
I stared at him in shock. PTSD—that was for war vets, not college students. What I went through was big, but I didn't think it was that big. Still, as Lance handed me his DSM copy and showed me the criteria, it all seemed to fit. And it definitely was interfering with important areas of functioning, as Lance pointed out.
"You, you said 'first,'" I pointed out after I got over the shock of the diagnosis. "What else is there?"
"On top of all that, you've got other anxiety issues," he said. "This is where we add the aliens back into context. Your entire world has changed. Almost everything you ever knew was a lie. That's enough to give anyone stress."
"Yeah," I agreed. That one was easy enough to accept. "And my mom and dad knew some of it too. Turns out my grandmother—who I never knew—was an alien, and that's where my sister got her powers. I'm not even human. Not all the way."
Lance nodded. "And given your experience with the Xenocyte, I'm betting your humanity was something you were desperately clinging to." I nodded. "Okay, here's what we're going to do—I want to focus on exposure therapy for the next few sessions, until we get through the entire traumatic memory. It'll seem counterintuitive, but trust me, it works. I'm going to need you to talk about your memories—in depth this time. I won't lie, it'll be hard, but eventually, you'll become desensitized to it. You'll stop fearing your memories, and you'll learn how to take control over your thoughts and emotions again. At the same time, we'll continue the cognitive therapy, since we need to deal with your guilt too. I want to try and avoid medication, but if the exposure therapy alone doesn't help you control your emotions, then we'll try that too. Does that sound good?"
I nodded. What else could I do? I couldn't live with this anymore. I needed whatever I could get.
Things got easier after that. Whether it was because Lance knew exactly how to treat me now or because I finally got it all off my chest, I don't know. I still couldn't believe that he believed my story, but it turned out that there were more people who believed in the "Bellwood Aliens" than I thought. A couple of friends from school did too, and some of the people they knew were following rumors of their reappearance all over the state. Of course, they weren't close enough friends that I could tell them what happened, but it was still something I hadn't expected from the people I knew. Maybe now I just knew what to pay attention to.
I started getting updates on some of that stuff from home too—mostly just e-mails from Gwen. There wasn't a lot of detail, kind of like she was censoring herself. So I got a couple of vague references about what they were up to, but not enough to get a clear picture. I guess she figured I didn't want to hear about the alien stuff anymore. I didn't get anything from Ben at all. And after how my visit went, I wasn't surprised. I was also still too pissed to care.
Therapy got easier too, eventually. At first, it hurt even more going through my memories, but after a while, it stopped hurting as much. I still had nightmares and everything, but everything was getting manageable. And after a while, the guilt started to fade too—slower, but I was starting to blame myself less for everything that happened. I at least could recognize that it wasn't my fault that I'd been kidnapped; it could have been any one of us, and I just happened to be the one more isolated from the rest of the family.
Stopping blaming myself for everything I did as a DNAlien? That was harder.
"Gwen held up a shield to keep me and the guys off each other," I explained calmly, glad I was keeping my emotions under control the whole time. "But it still wanted to fight, so she had to hold me down so they could get close enough to try and help."
"Stop there," Lance interrupted. I gave him a confused look. The tone of his voice didn't sound good—kind of…well, both annoyed and concerned at once, but underneath his therapist-calm.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
"In what you've just told me, I counted at least five instances of you referring to the DNAlien you as 'it,'" he pointed out. "And I'm sure if I go back through the recording—" He gestured toward the tape recorder he was using to keep track of my sessions— "I'd find even more cases I've missed."
"And?" I asked, getting testy.
"And I think you've got a problem with dissociation," he continued, and I rolled my eyes. "The moment the Xenocyte bit you, it stopped being a separate entity. You as a DNAlien and you as a human—you're not two separate things. You can't deny that part of you."
I groaned in disgust. "How am I supposed to get over the guilt if you're telling me I'm guilty?"
"I didn't say that," he answered, maddeningly calm.
"You may as well have!" I argued. "So, what? I can't blame the DNAliens for what they did to me? It's not their fault that they kidnapped me, used me to capture Grandpa, made me try to kill my family? It's not the Xenocyte's fault that it changed the way I think, ripped apart my personality, and gave me all these issues in the first place? Damn it, Ben, give me some answers!" I stared at Lance, but he calmly looked back at me. As he started to speak, I cut him off with, "How can you stay so damn calm all the time? Here I am, telling you about the worst experience of my life, and you don't even react! You say you're trying to make me normal again. Well, what's normal then? My life's been completely fucked up thanks to those aliens—there's no such thing as normal for me anymore! And you, sitting here, watching me suffer like it's some kind of movie—this is why you'll never understand what I went through! You've got no emotions at all!"
And then, without a word, he stopped the tape, rewound it, and played back everything I just said, stopping at one line in particular: "Damn it, Ben, give me some answers!" I blinked in shock for a minute before he got the tape set again, recorded a mention of the interruption, and looked back at me.
"You called me Ben," he pointed out. "Freudian slip? Actually, there's a lot Freud would have to say about that, especially about transference."
"That's uh…" I started, trying to remember what my old roommate had talked about. "That's when the patient starts redirecting feelings toward someone else to their therapist?"
Lance nodded. "It's a psychoanalytic thing. I may not be a psychoanalyst, but that's pretty much a textbook example, I think. So at the risk of sounding like Freud, mind telling me what happened with you and Ben? I'm guessing it happened during your visit home?"
I nodded. I wasn't proud of what happened. "It was the day before the party. Ben was playing soccer and asked if I wanted to join in." "It's not much fun one-on-no one," he'd said with a laugh. I remembered giving him a weak, fake smile before agreeing. Between the PTSD and my breakdown on the highway, I couldn't manage to feel much. I'm not sure if it was because I was numb or if I was just too exhausted to let myself feel anything.
"What happened?" Lance asked.
"We were playing fine until Ben brought up my attitude," I explained, mentioning the numbness and emotional exhaustion. Ben had even apologized for it, as if it was his fault everything happened to me. "I didn't want to talk about it, and he changed the subject."
"But somehow, you ended up back on the subject," Lance realized.
I nodded. Ben wasn't always good at knowing when to leave something alone. "I think he realized I was still feeling guilty, especially then. I mean, it was his and Gwen's birthday. It was supposed to be the whole family." And Grandpa was gone, and it was partially my fault, no matter what Ben and Lance said. "He tried to tell me it wasn't my fault, and then he started justifying what the DNAliens did."
"Ken," Lance said in almost the exact same tone Ben had used, "you know it wasn't their fault either. If they're part-human, you know that means they were put through the exact same thing you were."
"Yeah," I admitted. I think I got that back then too, but… "It's not easy to admit, you know?" Lance nodded. "Anyway, I got pissed off and started arguing with Ben. He tried not to fight back—stayed calm and everything. But I just wanted someone to yell at."
"Someone to blame?" Lance guessed, and I nodded reluctantly. "If it was someone else's fault, it couldn't be yours."
"Yeah," I said quietly. "And then…" This part was the worst of it, and I felt the shame eating at me. I sighed before confessing, "Then I told Ben it was his fault."
"How so?" Leave it to Lance not to tell me outright that I was out of line. No, he had to analyze it, make me realize why I even thought I was right to begin with before I could accept I was wrong.
"Ben couldn't fight back that day," I explained. "Grandpa didn't tell him not to, but everything he told Gwen to do pretty much was telling us not to let Ben try to interfere." Maybe Ben could have saved Grandpa from the Highbreed, but then Grandpa would have lost his chance to take them all out. We didn't have any other way out. "Kevin and I had to hold him back—he kept trying to get free and stop Grandpa from detonating the bomb." And remembering Ben's desperate pleas for Grandpa not to do it, I hung my head as I added, "I told Ben he didn't care. That for him, everything was about the mission—that was Ben's reaction immediately after the bomb went off. There we were, in shock and trauma, hurt, and he just says that the DNAliens and Highbreed will be back and 'we' have to finish Grandpa's mission and protect the planet, since there's no one else to do it."
"And by the way you said 'we,' I take it you mean Ben, Gwen, and Kevin," Lance guessed. I nodded again. "He left you out of it, even after what you went through. I think he was trying to protect you."
"Probably," I admitted. "And I think we were all a little shocked when he said that. Just a minute ago, he'd been screaming and pleading with Grandpa not to sacrifice himself. And now? Just back to business."
"Sounds like he's learned to compartmentalize," Lance mused. "Just like you have to dissociate between yourself and the Xenocyte-influenced DNAlien you, Ben has two different sides to himself: a kid and a soldier. He needs to play both roles, so he has to distance himself from the intense emotion if he's going to be able to function as a soldier, much like you try to distance yourself from the memories and emotions of the event. Without actually treating him, I can't say for certain if what Ben's doing is healthy—it might just be a defense mechanism he's adopted to maintain his mental health rather than let himself break down from constant anxiety."
"Yeah," I admitted with a sigh.
"So, back to your dissociation," Lance said, steering us away from the tangent. "For you, it's easy enough to blame the Xenocyte for what it did to you. Honestly, everything you've described about how it broke through your mind and began changing your perception—it sounds like the psychological equivalent of a rape."
"That's actually a good description," I confessed.
He nodded. "It's what brainwashing does to you. Read up on the political examples sometime. Proves we're not all that different from the monsters we fight."
I lowered my head at another memory. "Yeah."
"What else happened?" Lance asked. Can't ever get one past him.
"After Ben fixed me and we found Grandpa, we had to stop the trucks that had the hatched Xenocytes on them. Everyone else targeted the trucks. I went directly for the Xenocytes." Gwen and Ben had been blasting at the trucks from the air, and Kevin smashed at the DNAliens trying to stop us. I grabbed a broken pipe or something and beat the Xenocytes to death, leaving putrid green gore everywhere. I clenched my fists. "I was so angry about everything they'd put me through—I wanted to make sure it wasn't going to happen again and that none of those things survived."
"And how do you feel about that decision now?" Lance asked.
Like a flash of lightning, the memory hit me again. The weight of the metal in my hands, the fierce desperation as I smashed the Xenocytes, the smell of the slime that bled out of them…
"I think I'm going to be sick," I confessed, moments before I collapsed, dry-heaving.
I didn't need him to tell me what I had to do next, and I had to do it in person. The very next weekend that came up, I drove back to Bellwood. I knew it was probably going to be one of my last chances to do this. It was almost the end of summer, and school would be starting for both of us. I wouldn't have time to drive down after class and work, and Ben would be busy balancing homework and alien fighting.
He was playing soccer again when I found him. Now that I think about it, it's probably the only chance he has to get solo practice in. He saw me walking up and—probably remembering how well things went last time—set down the ball.
"Hey," I said lamely.
"Hey," he answered back, sounding just as awkward.
"How's, uh…" I trailed off, trying to think of something to say. Not much came to mind. "How's everything?"
Ben just gave me a confused look and said, "Okay, I guess."
I sighed. Delaying this was only making it harder. "Listen, I'm sorry about last time…"
"It's okay," he said, shrugging it off. "I know you didn't mean it. You just needed to blow off some steam."
"No," I argued as he started to go back to his game. "I did mean it—at least, I did then." Ben just looked confused, and I sighed again. "I guess I just didn't know how to handle it—you wanting to go on with the mission. That's all."
Something flickered on his face for a moment—some emotion I couldn't pick up fast enough. And then his serious, back-to-business face—what I was starting to think of as his mask—settled back into place.
"We have to," he insisted. "Otherwise more people are just going to go through what you did." That something flickered again, and he added softly, "I can't let Grandpa's sacrifice be for nothing."
It was only thanks to Lance pointing out my own redirections that I picked up on that. "Wait, you? Ben, Grandpa trusted you to do this even before Santa Mira. If you're worrying you're letting him down…"
"No, it's not that," he answered, finally breaking his mask and revealing that emotion I'd picked up before. I still wasn't quite sure what it was, but it was all over him as he sighed and tried to avoid looking at me.
"Look, if it's because of what I said, I'm sorry," I said.
"Not really," he replied. Eventually, he sighed. "Okay, part of it. I should have been able to do something."
And there was that memory of him screaming and fighting me and Kevin as we tried to hold him back. It wasn't exactly a flashback, but it was just as powerful when I looked back at Ben. The whole way he looked defeated right now matched up better to the Ben in that memory than the way he stood in ground zero, trying to lead what was left of the last best chance the planet had against the Highbreed and the DNAliens.
Maybe it was Lance's influence again, but something told me that wasn't the whole story. Feeling like I was the therapist now, I asked, "What happened?"
Did I have the same kind of world-weariness Ben had as he confessed, "We had this huge battle the other night. An alien princess got kidnapped, and the Emperor was holding the planet hostage in exchange for her. Except he was planning to destroy the Earth anyway the minute he got her back."
"But you won," I pointed out. After all, here we were, still alive.
"Yeah," he answered, but there wasn't any emotion in it. Except for…was that bitterness? "Would have been better if I actually did something, though."
That was definitely bitterness, and I blinked. "What do you mean?"
"I got this new alien, Alien X," he explained. "Probably the most powerful one I've ever used. Time and space—they're just toys. I could warp reality without breaking a sweat. That is, if it was just me."
"Wait, like there's another mind in there?" I asked. "I thought was just you as the aliens. Like putting on a costume, or something."
"Usually it is," Ben admitted with a shrug. "But something about Alien X is different. He—or maybe they have a split mind made up of three Voices: Serena, Voice of Compassion; Bellicus, Voice of Rage; and me, Voice of Reason. In order to do anything, two of us have to agree on it."
"I'm guessing that doesn't happen much," I said, and Ben snorted. "Ben, that's not a person—that's a government."
"Tell me about it," he muttered. "And they've got a backlog of about sixty-five million years. They weren't going to do anything about saving Earth until they got through with all of that first."
"So what happened?" I asked. This time, Ben looked a little puzzled.
"I'm not exactly sure," he said. "I was fed up with them and having to watch the end of the world. I started yelling at them, told them I had nine other aliens who could do it better than they could. Then the next thing I knew, I was Swampfire." He looked at his watch. "And it wasn't the Omnitrix changing me on its own."
"That's not normal?" I guessed.
"No," Ben answered, still looking at the watch. "It's got a Master Control that keeps me from switching from one form to another immediately. Otherwise, I've got to go back to human, then go alien again. I broke it once by accident, but I never figured out the combination again after. I wasn't even messing with it this time."
"Then you broke through it by sheer willpower?" I asked. Slowly, he nodded, looking completely shocked and confused. "Ben, I wouldn't call that doing nothing."
"Yeah, but…" The look on his face said it all. My hyperactive little cousin from years ago still couldn't stand having to wait and watch the action. Maybe I'd done the worst possible thing for him by keeping him from running after Grandpa Max, even if it was to save his life.
"That's not all of it, though," I remembered. "Something else was bugging you, right?"
He nodded again, looking away from his watch and putting his arm down. Still, he wasn't looking at me. This time, his eyes were just kind of unfocused, staring off at nothing. After a minute, he said, "It's stupid, but… Grandpa got the chance to tell the rest of you something. Not to me."
I blinked, not sure I'd heard him right. When he didn't react, I asked, "What do you mean?"
"He told you it wasn't your fault," he reminded me. "He told Kevin he'd changed and might make a good Plumber one day. And he told Gwen to be good—his last words."
"Ben, he didn't…" And then I stopped. He was right. Grandpa hadn't told Ben anything personal like that. His last words to Ben were general, meant for everyone: complete the mission. No wonder Ben had been so focused on that; it was all he had.
"Ben, if he had the chance, he would have told you a lot more," I insisted. I think Grandpa was probably closest to Ben out of all of us, and that's before taking all the alien stuff into account.
"I know," Ben answered. "Maybe he figured he didn't have to. He already gave me his last words once—he was trying to deactivate a doomsday weapon, and we both thought he was going to die. I'd been possessed by the guy who wanted to activate it, and now that I was free, Grandpa wanted to be sure I knew he was proud of me." I looked at Ben in shock as he casually revealed all this—something I could definitely relate to. I realized just how much of an idiot I'd been not talking to him or any of the rest of my family about everything.
"It's not the same, though," I pointed out, and Ben nodded.
"I know what he felt about me," he said, "but there were still things I needed to hear." And I think in that moment, I learned more about my cousin than I ever did for the past fifteen years.
Something about hearing all that from Ben changed things. It wasn't enough trying to learn to work through the pain; I knew I had to learn to get better, not just back to normal. After all, like I told Lance, there wasn't such a thing as "normal" for me anymore, not with everything I'd learned. Yeah, I'd have moments like Ben did back there, hurt and full of regret, but I didn't want it to be as pervasive anymore. I guess the best way to say it is that I was trying to make a third me, separate from the person I'd been before Santa Mira and the PTSD patient I'd been since the Xenocyte infected me. I wanted to come to terms with all of that and be able to fit in my new life. Maybe I couldn't shoot energy beams or absorb matter, and maybe I didn't think I wanted to turn into an alien ever again, but I wanted to be part of this now, however I could.
Lance agreed with me and started integrating it in part of my therapy. When school started again, I changed out one of my classes for a positive psychology seminar. Yeah, the whole thing played out like a self-help book at first, but it really was complementing the PTSD and anxiety therapy. Gwen and Ben started e-mailing me more, this time going in-depth about their missions. Some of it worried me, and sometimes, it triggered nightmares and flashbacks, but the most painful stuff was becoming less frequent and slowly, less intense. I was starting to manage things, and I was starting to feel again—the good along with the bad, now. And all that progress I made couldn't have happened at a better time.
I honestly don't remember much of what happened when I picked up the phone one night and heard a breathless Ben on the other end say, "He's okay!" I don't remember if Ben had to explain exactly who it was or if I just knew instinctually. I do remember having a flashback to the bomb going off and trying to figure out if there was any possible way Ben could be right about this.
"Ken?" Ben called all of a sudden, and I snapped out of my memory.
"Are you sure?" I asked. "The explosion…"
"I talked to him," Ben insisted. "He said it didn't work—somehow, he ended up in the Null Void instead. He's been there the entire time. He was trying to get back before he realized the people there needed his help first." Then, softly, like he couldn't believe it either, he repeated, "He's okay."
I think I was feeling the same flood of emotions Ben was: shock, disbelief, lingering trauma from the memory, and hope. Grandpa Max was alive—it barely seemed real. But Ben said even Gwen and Kevin had seen him, and I knew it had to be.
"Are you okay?" Ben asked after I'd been quiet for a long time.
"Yeah," I answered. "Just a lot to take in. What about you?"
There was a pause on the other end. Finally, Ben said, "I heard what I needed to this time. I'll be okay."
"Good," I replied, feeling the first meaningful smile in a long time form on my face. "If you see him again, let him know I'm doing okay."
"Yeah, I will," Ben promised.
I was still a little shocked when I hung up, but everything was beginning to settle in. Finally, I dialed Lance's office to schedule another appointment. I knew I still had a long way to go before I could really say I was better, but this was a good start.
Ben 10: Alien Force is the property of Cartoon Network, created by Man of Action. The title comes from a line in Josh Groban's "Remember When it Rained."
This story's been in the works since the first airing of "Max Out," and it finally formed a plot by "Voided." I would actually like to continue it through the end of the season, but I may do that in sequels. Information on PTSD came from the DSM-IV-TR, the bible of mental disorders in America, and the therapy information came from the United States Department of Veteran Affairs website on the treatment of PTSD. I focused heavily on cognitive-behavioral therapy rather than drug therapy or psychoanalysis, though a bit of positive psychology came in the end with Ken's self-treatment.
As a note, Dr. Lance is an expy of Dr. Sweets from Bones, thus explaining his youngness and eagerness to jump on the concept of aliens (though given that many of the battles in Ben 10 were in public areas, it's kind of surprising that the entire world doesn't accept the existence of aliens already). I know he stretches the suspension of disbelief, but I was horribly tempted to do an outright crossover with Bones, and I had a hard time defeating the urge.