Thanks to everyone who reviewed, you guys are the best :) This is the last chapter, but I do have more ideas rolling around in my head.
Do not own, make no money.
It's been days since the fighters took the boy from the other group, but no one thinks about it. We get up early, work all day and return to sleep when the sun drops from the sky. The air has been getting colder, but the temperature doesn't bother any of us. We no longer have dry cereal from boxes to feast on in the mornings but we eat whatever the Skitters give us. There have been a lot of beans and rice and leafy greens for every feeding, tonight is no exception.
The building we stay in is a hospital; that much I have come to comprehend. I don't know when I came to the realization, or even if I figured it out on my own or the knowledge was given to me by my Skitter, but once it occurred to me that's where we are, it made sense. I think the wing where we sleep is what used to be the nursery, but I'm not sure. I used to sneak peeks at the walls, but I stopped doing that after the boy was stolen from us. I stopped doing a lot of things, but I'm not sure I can remember what it was I stopped doing exactly. I've stopped longing for things that I could never have. I've stopped yearning for the comfort of what I used to know and I've welcomed the acceptance of what is new.
My Skitter is very proud of me and I feel good about that. He always makes time for me, at some point during the day, to let me join with his thoughts. I know that we're going to be leaving soon. One group left today while my group stayed to finish up some of the work. I'm going to be here for a few more days. My Skitter is leaving tonight though, going ahead to prepare things because I'll be going to the home base while the rest of my group moves on to a new area to continue gathering the steel and aluminum scraps. I've been there before, I think, but that was a long time ago and I don't really remember much about it. I'm sure that's where I received my harness. This time will be different. My Skitter will meet up with us to take me with him, once we are near the city. He will bring my replacement, so that the circle isn't broken, and the group will be whole.
I'm anxious to finally be going where I'll belong. I won't feel so empty inside and I'll be able to do something that matters. My Skitter will stay with me, while the rest of the group goes on with another Skitter, to another place, to keep working. I'm glad he will be with me; I don't want to be separated from him now, even for just a couple of days. He's the first Skitter that I've let myself open up to, the first one that I felt that connection with, and I don't want to lose it. I want to continue to make him proud and keep him happy. He knows this and has told me too many times to count that I am doing a good job and that I make him proud every day.
I don't like that he has to leave tonight to go ahead and get things ready for me. I don't want him to go; I have a nagging, digging sensation right at the base of my skull, close to where my harness ends. It's like an electrical current buzzing at my brain, telling me that I will never see this Skitter again and it pulls at my chest with an odd emotion I'm sure I'm not supposed to be feeling. Am I sad? I'm not sure anymore what sad is supposed to feel like. He has let me know that I won't be alone, that I'll be looked after well, and he promises that he won't sever our connection. He'll be waiting for me when I get there, and everything will be okay.
I know I'll be looked after; the Mechs have been keeping a closer eye on us all since the incident. Their patrols are more frequent and they keep their lights directed at the hospital at night more than they used to. Still, I can't shake that feeling of doom that seems to thicken the air around me. I want to go with him, but that's not possible. I want him to stay with us, but he has no choice, he must do what he is told, just as I must do as I'm told.
He waits until after I've eaten my fill of beans and rice off the floor where they're feeding us before directing me to the other side of the room where there is more quiet and calm. He's saying goodbye to me, it's time for him to leave with one of the Mechs. He assures me that I will be okay, and tells me he expects me to do as I'm told while he is gone, and warns me not to fall into old habits. The old habits are vague memories to me. I don't remember with much clarity what exactly I did that wasn't acceptable, so when I promise him that I won't disappoint him I am as sincere as I can be. I only have one purpose, and that is to keep my Skitter happy and proud. He knows I'm being honest with him. He knows I don't really know what he's talking about, I know he knows because he knows everything about me. He knows more about me than I do actually, and that gives me an odd sense of security.
Another Skitter moves towards us and I understand this is the new keeper, the babysitter so to speak, until I meet up with my Skitter back home, where I'll do something special, though I'm not sure what that something is. I don't care what it is, I only care that I'll get to do something important, and I'll belong. I watch my Skitter move away, though a door and I keep my mind connected to him as he makes his way out of the hospital, down the drive and towards the road.
I can feel the new Skitter easing into my thoughts, sending me affection and assurance that it's okay, I'll be reunited with my own keeper soon enough. I have to remember that they love me and want me to be happy. They will keep a special eye on me and I'll be kept safer than I've ever been in my life. They know I need to be watched closer. That's why this Skitter is here, he's experienced with protecting those who are in the most danger.
I don't understand what he means, but I don't question it. I don't doubt him, but that nagging feeling returns as I lose the closeness I had felt with my Skitter. I can still feel him, but he's moving too far away for real contact. I can hear him in my head, but it's faint and it will remain faint, barely heard, until I see him again. I follow the Skitter back to the other side of the room where the rest of my group has finished eating. Buckets of water have been lined up along the wall so that we can drink and wash. We all move to them in a single line and do just that. The water doesn't remove all of the dirt, but enough that we feel a little better, more comfortable for sleeping.
The new Skitter leads us out of the room, into the hall, and towards one of the rooms where we sleep. I fall into the end of the line, that's where he wants me. He wants me back in case there is some kind of problem. I don't know what problem there could be. We are safe here, that's what we've all been told. We are with family and nothing can get to us, the fighters can't get to us to steal us away or hurt us. Why do I feel dread and doom building up inside of me while we make our through the dark halls? Why is the pit of my stomach turning to ice? I shouldn't be feeling these emotions, I'm beyond those feelings. They are irrelevant and I don't care about them, at least I'm not supposed to care. The new Skitter doesn't feel what I'm feeling, he isn't like my own Skitter and he isn't tuned into me. His attention is on another boy, the one in the yellow shirt. The boy is going to bond with the new Skitter, just as I've bonded with my Skitter, I can feel that desire in both of them. Part of me feels neglected, left behind somehow, but somewhere deep in my head I can feel my own Skitter trying to ease my tensions. He's too far away to be able to help much but he is trying. I hang onto that as a presence steps in behind me.
I know someone is behind me, but I pay little mind to it. I should be alarmed, part of me screams out at me to turn and look, but I can't do that. Eyes straight ahead, pay attention to the Skitter, listen to his directions. We enter the room and one by one we are directed to lie down, just as we have every night, form the circle, the protective ring that will hold us all together through the night. Make use of each other's body heat, rest our heads on each other to protect us from the cold hardness of the tile floors. One of the harnessed hangs back next to the door while we take our places, and the Skitter looks at him, wondering how he had missed seeing this one before. I can feel the Skitter's acceptance of what is to come. I don't understand it, but he seems to expect something to happen soon that will be important. He is blocking me from making a good enough connection now; I'm unable to fully understand. The kid by the door finally moves in to join us and lies down, but the circle is complete and he's outside of it. Everything inside of me screams out that this isn't right, but I can't dwell on it for long. I close my eyes and welcome the comfort of the Skitter holding us all together, safe and secure in our own world. The room grows silent and the Skitter starts to drift off to sleep, opening up my mind for my own Skitter to reach out to me.
He's holding onto me, embracing my thoughts and soothing my nerves. I let my body relax and start to fall into the abyss of peaceful sleep. Sleep cleanses my mind and regenerates the harness so that I will have the strength and energy for the following day. I can hear the Skitter lying over me purr quietly as his mind drifts through the minds of the other kids in my group. Someone in the circle moves a little and the rest of us adjust to compensate for the change. I can feel my mind starting to turn numb and try to lose myself in my Skitter's mental embrace from so far away. "Click" I hear the soft, muted sound close to me. Movement from the space above my head spurs me to open my eyes and the reflection of light from something close catches my attention. I raise my head and turn it to see what it is.
Hal looks back at me, alarm in his eyes and a blade in his hand. I know him, he's my brother. I threw up on him and then laughed about it. I used to wish I could be like him. He's not supposed to be here. Seeing him seems to spark a fuse in my brain, burning through flashes of recent memory that has been missing. Hal peeking out over the top of a steep bank, watching me from the stream, saying my name.; Hal standing next to Dad on the roof of a building, watching me through binoculars; Hal lying in the ruins of the street next to a girl, unconscious and still. Hal begging me with his eyes not drag the girl away. Hal screaming as if he was in agony as a line of harnessed kids are gunned down in front of him. I sense that my Skitter is the one releasing my memories, giving them back to me after keeping them safe for so long, but I don't want them, I don't want this.
They took the other boy, they weren't here for me; they left me behind, why is he here now? Why is he looking at me as if what I do might matter for something to him? They came back for me? My mind screams out in fear as I realize I'm about to lose everything that has been promised to me. My Skitter isn't here to protect me or show me what to do; I have only the baby sitter and I feel lost with him. Panic rises inside of me as the flashes of memory hit me with such a speed that I can't keep up with it all. Dad reading to me, Matt maneuvering down the driveway on his rip-stick, Mom laughing at a joke I've told her, Hal looking me in the eye and smiling. The words "Math Geek," dripping from his crappy grin as if he were being funny. In that instant, that micro second that it takes all of this to process in my mind, I remember the familiar yearning to see my father, my little brother and my mother, and the recognition and desire to reach out to my brother sends alarms to the Skitter nesting above me, enough to bring him out of his sleep.
It all happens so fast that it's like a dream. The thought processes that take over now aren't mine, my desires are pushed away and a thousand different minds meld together with mine. Protect the Skitter. Hal thrusts the blade straight into the Skitter's mouth, the Skitter is fighting back, screeching and the rest of my group is coming fully awake to follow the orders screaming in all of our heads. Protect the Skitter. I do as the others do, grab for Hal and try to pull him back, I try to save my new family, I need to protect my home, I'm finally where I belong, where am not laughed at and made fun of. I'm special here. I don't want to lose what I have.
I realize, even as I pull at my brother, that these aren't my own thoughts, they are the thoughts of the Skitter fighting for his life and the thoughts of the other minds that are in my head, controlling me. Still I fight against my brother, until the fight moves away from my group across the floor and I can no longer reach him. I can feel the pain the Skitter is feeling, the anger, and the fear he's emanating is so strong I can almost taste it in the air around me. I watch the struggle; watch my brother fall to the floor and from nowhere an arrow strikes the Skitter, pulling his attention from Hal. I don't follow his gaze, but I can see through his eyes what he sees. Tom Mason, my father. I see him without looking and I think that I should have known that my father would be close by. He's never far from Hal it seems.
The fight continues, and I watch as Hal shoves his knife into the Skitter's mouth again and throws him down to the floor, I feel the pain and I want to cry out. As the Skitter's life drains from his body I hear him thanking Hal in his mind for ending it quickly for him, for releasing him from the hell in which he's been imprisoned. I don't understand it, how he can he be glad to be dying? How can he thank my brother for ending the perfect life that had been laid out for all of us? I want to scream at Hal that I hate him for taking the away the best thing that had ever happened to me, but at the same time, on the inside, I feel as relieved as the Skitter.
The room falls quiet, finally, and I can do nothing but stare at the dead Skitter, lying on the floor in front of us all. I reach for him, just as the others do, mourning his loss, wishing he would wake up so he can protect us. I cry out to my Skitter, try to make him see what is happening to all of us, but he's gone, I can't feel him. I can't feel anyone except the other kids in my group. I feel their confusion and sorrow, and I don't know what to do.
I barely comprehend the movement and soft voices in the room. Human voices that are so out of place that I can't understand the words being spoken. I'm stroking at the dead Skitter when a hand grabs hold of my jaw, pulling my view away, directing it towards the owner of the hand. My Dad says something to me, but I don't understand the words, I have no idea what he's telling me. Only one word sounds familiar, and only because I'm sure I've heard it recently. "Ben." That one word sticks in my brain, almost burns through my skull.
He pulls me back, away from the Skitter, towards a window where other hands are waiting to pull me through. I want to fight against them, I want to go back to the room and wait for someone to come and tell me what to do, but I don't know how to do that. The basic functions that I used to have are gone, the instincts are there, but my body can't decipher the meaning of my thoughts and carry them out. It's used to being under someone else's control; it made life easy and safe.
We are out of the building, moving quickly away from the hospital, away from the temporary home I'd become so familiar with. My legs feel shaky, but Hal is holding my arm, pulling me and guiding me along side him. I have no choice but to move. The adults and Hal speak back and forth to each other, but again, I can't grasp the meaning of their words. The one word I would know isn't spoken. We are all rushed around the corner of the building as the ground trembles under the weight of a Mech coming close. My mind screams out, trying to draw the attention of the guard, but it seems the connection is broken. I realize without a Skitter close to us, the Mechs can't read us or sense us. That's knowledge that I had before, but I tend to forget a lot of what I know when it's mostly irrelevant to the task set in front of me.
My mind drifts in the black night. There is no moon shining above us, the clouds have muted the light, making everything feel quiet and still, except for our footsteps as we make our way through an alleyway, towards a wooded area. Hal seems to have relaxed next to me. His hold on my arm eases off, but his arms snakes around me. "Ben, are you in there?" He asks the question quietly. "Just hold on, it will be over soon, I promise." I keep my gaze straight ahead. That word again, Ben.
My Dad is on the other side of me, guiding one of the other kids. "Ben?" He reaches out with one hand and let it rest on my shoulder, he says more. Still I keep my eyes straight ahead. I try to process the word. Ben. I think my name is Ben. My arms hang limp at my side, too heavy to lift, and I feel as if each step is harder to take. I feel my heart starting to race, and it almost hurts to breathe, as if I'm drowning. I don't know what is wrong with me. My back starts to ache; the harness starts to feel heavy. I don't know how long we have been walking, it feels like it's been barely a minutes, but as always time is lost on me. We are approaching a building; people are coming out to meet us. Dad and Hal guide me through a door and then everything turns blurry and vague before complete black takes over. I can hear what's going on around me, at least some of it. I can feel my body being moved for me, and a prick in my left arm. Too many voices to keep up with are shooting through the air. I feel air pushing through my nose, cold and dry, but it seems to ease the feeling of suffocating.
A hand cups at the back of my head and I can hear Dad's voice. "Hang in there Ben; it's Dad." I feel him taking hold of my hand. Other words buzz in my head at that moment, words that I can understand words that are familiar. I'm theirs, I belong to them, and they will not lose us to the humans. I call out to my Skitter, feeling his connection again, finally. I want him to come for me, but he whispers thoughts into my mind, visions of me hugging my father, and rough housing with Matt, tickling him and taking pleasure in hearing him laugh. My Skitter is showing me memories he's been holding back for me. Memories he's been keeping safe until I was free. He knew my family would be back again, but if I had continued holding onto their presence the others would know and stop them. My Skitter never wanted to be what he is, and he doesn't want any of his kids to live the life that he's been forced to live. He cares about us too much for that. He's letting us all go.
The pain in my back hits with no warning, hot pulses shoot down my spine, from my neck straight down the middle of my back, stabbing all the way into my gut as it moves. I feel almost detached from it; I can feel my mind drifting around it, almost as if it's separate from me. I call out to my Skitter in my mind, asking him to make it stop, but he's gone, and I'm alone in the dark. Silence, stillness surrounds me. At some point I fall off into sleep, and I dream. For the first time since I've had the harness, I dream about a family that I both love and hate. I dream about school, and Harry Potter. Too many images to keep up with flood over me. It's as if it has all stored up in my head over time and now needs to be released.
I hear soft voices, whispers, and they aren't in my head, they are around me. I'm not alone, I feel almost crowded. Something wet and oddly comforting brushes against the skin on my back. The weight of the harness is gone, and that part of my back has been void of any other sensation for so long that the touch of cool water seems foreign. I welcome it, and relish in the ability to feel it and enjoy it. I feel my body relax, the nerves seem less stressed and frayed. I'm free from being held in, held back. It feels good and I like it. I smell the scent of freshly washed linen against my face and it occurs to me that I've not smelled or tasted anything close to this for so long.
I slip into the calmness and into a deeper sleep, but I don't know for how long. No dreams come, but I feel at peace. I'm not sure what wakes me, but my mind struggles to come out of the numbness. I'm not used to waking on my own; I've become accustomed to sleeping deeply until being pulled from my slumber by my Skitter. I feel my eyes blinking a few times before letting them open. I'm lying on my stomach on a cot, in what appears to be a make shift hospital. I can see Hal sitting next to me, Matt sitting on his lap. Both of them looked as if they were sleeping. I raise my head slightly and look at my left arm, draped over the edge of the cot, and see the I.V. line running from a bag hanging on a pole.
I turn my head back towards Hal and Matt and look at them for a moment before closing my eyes again. I draw in a deep breath and try to think about where I am and what exactly has happened. It's foggy, and I'm not sure what I'm feeling. I'm disappointed and angry, but at the same time, I feel as if I'm where I belong. Some how I feel pissed at Hal, but I'm sure I owe him my life. He saved me. He's an ass, but he saved me. He'll probably never let me forget it either. I crack my eyes open and look at him, his head hung down next to Matt's, his eyes closed. "Dumb jock," I mutter the words without even thinking about them.
Hal's head shoots up instantly, his eyes focused on me. "Ben?" His movement and voice brings Matt out of his own slumber, his eyes wide and a hint of a smile on his face. I lie here, staring at them both, amazed that they are here, in front of me, and even more amazed that I know them, and remember them and love them. I've missed them, and somehow I know that they have both missed me.
"Dad," Hal's whispered call sounds almost frantic as he leans forward a bit.
I close my eyes, afraid that if I open them this new reality will vanish. Footsteps coming towards me click against the tile floor. I open my eyes, my brain becoming more aware as it screams at me to look, anticipation for who is approaching quickly taking over. I open my eyes, directing them towards the floor at first, and see a pair of boots next me. I blink a few times to clear my vision and force my head off the pillow to look up. It's him, the one I am most afraid will disappear. He smiles instantly, happy to see me, "Dad?" I'm still not sure; it all feels surreal to me, I'm afraid this is a dream.
He drops into a crouch and reaches for my hand, taking hold of it. I feel something in the touch that I never felt with the Skitters, like an electrical current that tingled up my arm. The sensation you feel when someone who really loves you is near. His smile widens, spreading to his eyes. He's relieved, I can feel it. "Yeah, it's me." He gives my hand a squeeze and nods his head the way he always does when he's excited, quick short nods. "It's me."
I want to reach out to him, beg him to hold onto me, but as I start to think about that, the familiar whispers in my head start buzzing. I pull my gaze away from Dad, rest my chin down on the pillow, and listen to what they are saying to me. They will come back for me. I'm a part of their family now, and when it's time I'll go home, to them. The harness is gone but I'm still theirs. I let out a long breath and try to ignore what they are saying to me. My Skitter wanted me to be free, and I am now. I'm never going back. They lied to me, they played games with me. I know that. I push the whispers of a hundred different minds back, I try to ignore them. I have to concentrate on where I am now, on who I am. My name is Ben Mason.