The next morning Aben ran back to Seavan’s door. Seavan greeted him with a smile as he took the bottles. Then he withdrew a folded paper from his front shirt pocket. “The list got longer and longer. Those geneticists really were geniuses.”
Aben took the paper, stuffed it in his back pocket, and grabbed the empty milk bottles. “Thanks. I’m with Kayne today, though. See you tomorrow.” He ran back to the wagon.
“You get lost back there, toad?” Kayne jerked the horses as Aben was climbing on the wagon, sending him crashing down among the empty bottles. He was always doing little things like that if he couldn’t reach him. Aben’s anger burned.
Raven, he’d noted, just followed his brother’s lead, and if left alone, he’d rather be friends than enemies. Although he still had to be the boss. Kayne was cruel. He’d even caught him treating the cows a bit viciously when he was angry, but marks on the cows would get him in trouble with his father. A small kittle had somehow made its way into their barn looking for milk, but the poor little cat didn’t have a chance when Kayne caught it, ripping its wings from its fuzzy little body. He was glad his sister had not been near enough to see it, and he had again cautioned his mother to keep Mia close to home. Someday… someday Kayne would be sorry. Aben didn’t know how, but he would stop him somehow.
Aben had confided to Frank the evening the kittle was killed when they were drawing water for baths at the pump. “He killed the kittle, Dad,” he said, giving Frank the honor of the title “Dad” for the first time since he and his mother were caught stealing from their customers. “And he tortured it first. Not just for a few minutes but over several hours. At least when I’m with him, I know he’s not hurting Mia.”
Frank stopped pumping. “He threatened her?”
Aben bit his lip. Maybe he’d said too much. “Please,” he whispered. “If he knows I said anything….”
Frank touched his arm. “I understand.” He grabbed one of the pails of water, and Aben took the second. “Someday we’ll leave here,” Frank promised when they reached the door. “Probation is only seven years.”
Seven years of hell.
But now he was in a wagon with Kayne, and the only thing holding Kayne in check was that they were right out in the middle of the road in front of the whole city.
They didn’t work in the field later, instead he was assigned to clean the barn again. Kayne placed several new bruises on him, also ‘accidentally’ throwing old straw and manure into Aben’s face with his pitchfork. By dinner time Aben was so covered in cow, horse, and goat manure, that he needed to strip out of his clothes and wash his hair and body outside.
As he lifted the towel from his head he saw the beast flying overhead to the south, heading toward the city. And this time he knew it was a dragon. Aben tensed, but it did not seem aware of him. This time he got lucky.
He slipped into the clothes Frank brought him only so that his mother would not see his bruises, especially the new ones Kayne had given him. He went inside and sat at the table. “Saw another dragon,” he said casually.
“No!” Mia screamed. “No!”
He hadn’t realized how terrified Mia had become of dragons. He wondered if it was their close call back on the trail or whether Kayne and Raven’s little brother Eddie was telling her stories. “It’s okay,” he soothed. “It was far away and flying away from us. In fact it might not have been a dragon. Maybe it was one of those flying elk.” He remembered his note from Seavan that he hadn’t been able to look at. He ran back outside and pulled it from his smelly clothing.
Back at the table he opened it.
“What’s that, Sweetheart?”
“A note from a friend.” For indeed Seavan had written more than just a list of animals.
“I told Lena that those boys are working you too hard, Aben.”
Aben froze, lowering his note. “Don’t say anything!”
He met Frank’s gaze, and he knew Frank understood. “Amanda, you must not interfere. This is our work, and we can handle it. Should we tell Harmon that we believe you are overworked?”
“Of course not, but this is more than that. Those boys are beating on you, aren’t they?”
“No!” Frank echoed. “Look, Amanda. Farm work is rough. Aben will get used to it.”
“It’s killing him, Frank. Can’t you see it? He’s lost weight. He has bruises all over his body. He has dark circles under his eyes. He even cringes a bit when he walks now. Don’t you see it?” Tears filled her eyes, and Aben hated Kayne even more.
He clenched his jaw which made speaking hard, but he forced out the words. “I am fine. Do not say anything. Do you want to get us all thrown out for the….” He cut himself off as he saw Mia’s round eyes watching him.
“He’s right, Amanda,” Frank said softly. “We cannot make waves. Remember. We agreed on that. We don’t have any options yet.”
She ran to the second room, and Aben could hear her sobs. In all the time since they were sentenced and forced here, Aben had not heard her break. She’d always made it seem like an adventure. Now the adventure had given way to reality.
Mia still watched him with her wide brown eyes.
“Stay close to Mama tomorrow,” Aben said softly. “She needs a close friend.”
Frank nodded. “Stay close to her, Mia.”
Mia jumped from her chair and ran into the second room to her mother.
Frank watched her go, his concern evident in his eyes. Then he shrugged. “Perhaps Lena Archer will decide not to get involved in her husband’s work. If she’s sick, she probably won’t say a word.”
Again Aben slept little.
The next morning Aben finally read Seavan’s letter at breakfast. “Aben, Let me know how I can help. I’ve seen you changing over the last two weeks. I want to be your friend. If there’s anything I can do, please know that I’ll do it. Here’s the list of all the flying creatures, aside from birds that we could think of last night. But there might be more. Those geneticists certainly had fun.”
Aben wanted to write back, but he didn’t know what to say. And now he knew why Cassie had run from him. What could anyone do? What could he say that wouldn’t cause him or anyone else to be hurt more than they already were? If he did anything, Mia and his mother would be the ones to suffer. Is that what held Cassie back? Had her uncle threatened someone she loved? Surely he wouldn’t hurt his own children to get back at her.
Seavan had even included an extra piece of paper in case he hadn’t had one. He managed to find an old broken pencil. “Seavan, Thanks for your offer. If I figure things out, I’ll let you know. Right now, I’m just new and learning. I’ll be okay when I toughen up. But I can’t make any waves. Seven year probation and all. Aben.”
At the milk room, Aben’s face was slammed against the wall. “What did I tell you about talking, you little toad?” Kayne growled near his ear. “Do you want your little sister to die young?” He banged Aben’s head against the wood of the barn again.
Raven glanced around nervously. “Not his face. Not his face. They’ll see that.”
Kayne punched Aben in the gut and then kicked his groin, until Aben lay curled up on the concrete floor of the milk pasteurizing room writhing in pain. Kayne grabbed his hair. “Remember that kittle we found? How about we take your sister out to the back field next time we clear trees?”
Aben couldn’t say a word. What could he say? Protesting would give them even more power over him.
“You think we can’t get to your sister, don’t you?” Kayne whispered. “Well I can get anything I want.” He smashed his boot into the small of Aben’s back and then walked away.
Raven loaded the wagon alone, not even trying to get him up to help. But when he was through he crouched beside him. “Look, Aben, I don’t want to see her hurt okay,” he whispered. “Don’t tick him off again. Please.”
At that moment Aben knew there were times Raven was afraid of what his own brother was capable of. But then Raven’s gaze hardened. “Come on. Quit lazing, toad. We’ve got work to do.” He kicked Aben with his boot and grabbed his arm, jerking him up.
Raven’s sympathy did not extend past allowing him an extra few seconds to disembark from the wagon and climb back on. Other than that, he still had all the running.
Seavan gave a soft curse when he saw Aben.
Aben realized that his face must look as bad as it felt. As he handed Seavan the note, he knew Seavan would know he’d lied. He wanted to snatch it back. “Aah. Not much time to write this morning,” he said and realized his words were a little slurred, perhaps because he felt light headed. He realized he was making his lie more obvious. His only friend was sure to despise him now. He grabbed the empty milk bottles and walked away, too discouraged to work at hiding the limp from his still throbbing groin.
Seavan ran ahead and stood in his path. Raven was sure to see him now. “Aben….”
He hated the wetness in his eyes. “If he sees… I have to go….” He walked around Seavan and carefully climbed into the wagon.
“What’d he want?” Raven asked as he started the horse walking.
“Guess he looked at my face. It’s a mess, isn’t it?”
Raven turned off the route. Aben was afraid to ask where they were going. He was too weak to fight. But then Raven stopped at a public pump. “Wash yourself up.” He tossed a dirty rag to him from the floor of the wagon.
He did the best he could without a mirror, and Raven seemed satisfied when he returned to the wagon. They made the rest of the deliveries and went home.
At the barn Harmon Archer and Frank were waiting. Frank swore under his breath, but then pretended interest in the horse he’d been harnessing to the plow. Harmon turned and his eyes narrowed as they studied Aben. He glanced at Raven, but then looked out to the field where Kayne herded the goats to the far pasture.
“What did I tell you boys?” he said sharply. “Aben works with me for a few weeks.”
It was that simple. And he was free. But he shivered. Would his freedom cost Mia her life?
Not this time. After dinner he pulled out his pack. He immediately noticed it was not neatly leaning against the corner between the couch and the wall. He pulled out his books, but instead his hand grasped a section of shredded paper. Aben groaned. Frank glanced at him and then saw the books, as Aben pulled out the rest.
“Oh no, Aben,” his mother said. “How… who could possibly…?”
He threw them down to the floor. “Don’t ever say anything about me again. Who knows what the psycho will do next?”
After his mother and father went to bed, and Mia’s mattress dragged into their room because she was scared, Aben tried to sort out the pages of his books and see how much he could salvage. He found his picture from Michael ripped in fourths. Carefully he flattened the pieces. He couldn’t throw that away, but he did end up burning most of his books, keeping only a few pictures which weren’t too mutilated. He hid them in the bottom of the couch, and then lay down to sleep.
Go to Chapter 6
© 2013, 2000 by Deborah K. Lauro. You may make one copy for personal use. To share, please direct friends to this website.