Chapter One: Before You Get a Collar
Everything was quiet in the next room, had been quiet for at least half an hour. Bensin pressed his ear against the wall again, and this time he heard the sound he had been waiting for: faint, rhythmic snores. Perfect. Mr. Creghorn always slept the soundest when he was snoring, and that meant that Mrs. Creghorn would probably have put her earplugs in.
Bensin rose from the mattress he had been kneeling on, stretching his stiff limbs. Fishing in his pocket, he pulled out the two paperclips that he had straightened and then re-bent near the ends. He felt his way across the dark room to the door, ran his hands over the handle till he found the keyhole, and inserted the first paperclip. Though he could hardly see anything, he closed his eyes to concentrate as he inserted the second one, raking it in and out to work his makeshift lock pick just the way Ricky had taught him. The metallic clickety-clickety seemed horribly loud in the quiet house, but there was nothing to be done except hope his owners were truly sleeping soundly.
Finally he felt the last pin rise out of the way. With the first paperclip, he turned the lock, and with a quick twist of the handle, the door swung open.
I did it! Grinning in triumph, Bensin tiptoed through the doorway, down the carpeted hall, past the bedroom where Mr. Creghorn was snoring away, past the baby’s room, and into the living room. As softly as he could, he slid back the deadbolt on the front door and found the keyhole. The clickety-clickety seemed even louder now, and he held his breath, wondering if anyone would hear.
But the only other sound was the ticking of the clock on the wall above the couch. Turning the handle to make sure the front door was really unlocked, Bensin dared to breathe again.
Pocketing the paperclips, he tiptoed back into the bedroom and pulled the door shut once more. Then he hurried over to the other mattress and shook his little sister gently by the shoulder. “Ellie, wake up!”
In the darkness, Ellie rolled over. “Hmm?”
“Wake up,” he repeated softly. “We’re leaving!”
“Huh?” She sat up, catching the urgency in his voice. “What do you mean?”
“We’re escaping. Here, put your shoes and sweater on.” He was already wearing his own sneakers, uncomfortably tight at the toes since the Creghorns didn’t believe in buying shoes for slaves very often. He bent to pick up the light jacket he had left at the foot of his mattress. Though it still got warm in the middle of the day, nights were cool at this time of year in Jarreon.
“The Creghorns are asleep,” he told his sister as he thrust his arms through the sleeves, “and I’ve got the door open. You’re going to be free tonight!”
“But it didn’t work last time,” she protested, fumbling in the dark to put on the clothes he handed her. “And they were really mad.”
“I know, but I have a better plan this time. And with it being New Year, I figure most of the City Watch will have the night off, so we won’t be spotted as easily.”
“But what if they catch us again?”
“Then you just look small and cute like you’re so good at, and you’ll have nothing to worry about. You’re too little to lash.” He hoped.
“Can I bring Bunny?” She reached for the stuffed rabbit that Mom had made before Ellie had even been born.
“Of course. Here, I’ll carry him in my pocket for you. Now come on!”
Her little fingers tightened around his as he led the way out of their bedroom, pausing to close the door silently behind them. They tiptoed down the hallway and through the living room, and he eased the front door open. Outside, he led her down the steps and along the walkway.
The front gate creaked loudly, and Bensin winced. Ducking, he pulled Ellie down with him into the shadows behind the low fence and then froze again. But there was no sound from the house, and no lights went on behind the Creghorns’ bedroom window. Last night they had stayed up past midnight to welcome in the New Year, so he knew they had been extra tired tonight. Good.
Bensin rose to his feet and he and Ellie slipped out onto the sidewalk, a cool breeze ruffling their hair. From the tight clutch of her fingers around his, he could tell that his sister was scared, but she knew better than to make a sound.
The street was still and empty, but that didn’t mean anything. You never knew when the City Watch might pass by on patrol. The moon was hidden behind a thick layer of cloud, but the street lamps gave plenty of light. Strings of colorful New Year lights twined their way along fences and around the trunks and lower branches of trees, making it harder to find dark places to hide in.
Trying to avoid the light as much as possible, Bensin steered Ellie along the edge of the sidewalk, hugging the shadows of the neighbors’ hedges, darting across the well-lit areas. At the end of the block, he turned left. Partway down the street, he crossed to the opposite side, quickly pulling Ellie across the open space. There were fewer shadows to hide in here, but he knew a couple of the families on the other side kept dogs. The last thing he needed was for them to start barking and alert the neighborhood to the presence of two runaway slaves. When he was sure they were well past, he led his sister back across the street, thankful for the trees that gave some protection from the street lights.
“Where are we going?” Ellie whispered, breaking the silence.
“To the park, first,” Bensin whispered back. “We can talk there. Now shh.”
They hurried on in silence, Bensin darting wary glances at the houses on either side. In addition to the glowing New Year decorations, many had porch lights on for safety, with an occasional nightlight gleaming through bedroom curtains. But as far as he could tell, no one was awake; no one heard them pass. Probably they were all dead to the world in their beds, sleeping off their New Year’s dinners, dreaming about the gifts they had received from friends and family and their hopes for the coming year.
I know what the year 154 will hold. Freedom for Ellie. Bensin could endure anything himself if only his little sister could be free and safe. That was the best, the only New Year’s gift he wanted.
Turning a final corner, they saw the neighborhood park at the end of the block. Ahead, street lamps and houses gave way to dark open space. “Almost there,” he whispered encouragingly.
They crossed the street one more time to avoid another dog. Beyond the last of the houses, concrete became grass beneath their shoes. There wasn’t much cover here, with trees standing only around the edge. Bensin pulled Ellie after him at a run, aiming for the playground in the center. He was thankful there were no lights, but anyone looking out a window in one of those last few houses would see them darting across the grass.
The playground loomed before them, beckoning like the safe haven he hoped it would be. He led Ellie past the swings, drifting back and forth a little in the night breeze, to the stairs of the tallest slide. The platform at the top was covered; they could rest there for a few minutes and not be seen.
“I don’t want to play right now,” his sister objected, panting, at the base of the ladder. “I’m too scared.”
“We’re not going to play. I’m going to explain our plan up there where no one will see or hear us.”
He followed her to the top, pulling his feet out of the too-tight shoes as they sat across from each other on the narrow platform. The twisty slide spun away to his right and the ladder dropped down to the left, but here at the top lay a sheltered island of safety. The City Watch, if they passed by on patrol, wouldn’t see them in the shadows under the domed plastic roof.
Lightning flickered from far off across the city, and Ellie scooted closer to him. “Is it gonna rain?”
“Probably not.” Rainstorms were a rare event in Jarreon. Only slightly less rare were the dry storms that sent dark clouds roiling across the usually clear sky, bringing thunder and lightning and unfulfilled threats.
And change. Mom had told him that stormy skies were a sign that change was coming. The weather had been just like this the day Ellie was born.
“Your life is about to change,” he told his sister as thunder grumbled in the distance. He grinned, knowing she would hear it in his voice even if she couldn’t see it. “We’re going to make you free! You’re going to live with a mom and dad who love you, and maybe some brothers and sisters too; and you’ll get to go to school — real school, not slave school — where you’ll not only learn how to read and write, but all sorts of other fun things. You’ll never have to wear a collar or be lashed, and no one will ever force you to wake up early to feed the baby or change his diapers, or yell at you if he cries. And someday when you grow up, you’ll be free to get a proper job — whatever kind you like — and earn money, and buy whatever you want, and maybe get married and have your own children if you feel like it. They’ll never be sold away from you, and you can do whatever you want with your own life!”
“That’s what you said last time.” Ellie refused to be impressed. “But it didn’t work.”
“I told you, I have a better plan this time. Last time we tried to go too far. The orphanage is miles away; I should have known we wouldn’t make it before it got light and the Watch caught us. But this time we’re only going to a City Watch station. I’ve been talking to Ricky, and I know how it works now. When free kids have problems, they can talk to a Watch Officer, and he or she will help them. If the Watch officers think you’re free and you don’t have any parents, they’ll find foster parents for you.” At least, Ricky had been pretty sure that was the way it worked. “We don’t have to go all the way to an orphanage for that.”
“But I thought the City Watch station is the other way.”
“There are lots of stations in Jarreon. The one they took us to last time is the other way, but we’re not going there. I don’t want to risk anyone recognizing you. Besides, when they find out you’re gone, that’s the station the Creghorns will probably call, ’cause they’ve talked to the officers there before. So we’re going to a different one. I looked it up when we were in the library the other day, and I know how to get there now.”
“But I don’t like the Watch. They lashed you last time.”
“Yeah, but it didn’t hurt. You know that. When you’re as strong as I am, hardly anything hurts.” Bensin pushed up the sleeves of his light jacket, flexing his muscles for her to see. “Grr! You know how tough I am!”
She giggled. “Okay, but what are you gonna tell them when we get there? They’ll know we’re running away.”
“No, they won’t. Since you don’t have a collar yet, they’ll have no reason to think you’re a slave. You’re going to tell them that you have no parents and nowhere to live, and then they’ll take care of you until they find a nice family for you to live with.”
“But what about you?”
Here came the part she wouldn’t like. “They won’t see me. I’ll take you as close to the station as I can, but you’ll have to go knock on the door without me.”
Ellie drew in her breath, and her next words came out in a wail. “But I can’t do it by myself! I don’t want to go without you!”
Reaching out, he took both her hands in his. “You have to be brave, Ellie. This is the only way it will work.”
“But I want you to be free with me too!”
“I know, and I will be.” Maybe. “But not yet. The moment they see my collar, they’ll know I’m a runaway slave, just like before. This is probably our last chance, because I heard Mrs. Creghorn saying the other day that you’re old enough you should be wearing a collar too now.”
Ellie pulled a hand free from his and reached over to finger the cold circle of steel around his neck. “I always wonder what it’s like to wear one. Is it that bad?”
“Yeah, it is. Before you get a collar, people don’t always know if you’re a slave or not. But when you have one, it’s obvious. Everyone looks at you different, talks to you different, like you’re an animal and not a person. When free people ask your name or who your owner is, usually they don’t even wait for you to answer before they grab your collar tag to read it for themselves. Sometimes if they really want to be mean, they even call you ‘collar’. And I can’t pick the lock on my collar; I’ve tried I don’t know how many times. So if you’re going to escape, it has to be before you get one.”
She nodded, but she still looked sad. “Don’t worry, though,” he assured her. “Once you’re free and safe, I’ll work on all my days off and save all my money — every last sliver — until I have enough to buy my own freedom. Then I’ll come and find you, and we’ll both be free and happy together.”
Ellie sniffed, and he could tell she was trying not to cry. He squeezed her hand comfortingly. “When you were only one day old, I promised Mom that I would take care of you and that I would make sure you were free someday.” He had also promised to teach her to be strong and brave, but he hadn’t made much progress yet in that area.
She wiped her cheeks with her sleeve. “I’ll get a job first thing and start saving up all my money too. And then I’ll buy your freedom right away and we can live together again.”
Free kids don’t get jobs. At least not when they’re five. But Bensin rose to his knees and reached over to hug her. “What a great idea! I knew you’d think of something smart like that. Now come on, it’s time to go.”
She scooted over to the slide and pushed off. Though Bensin knew he was too big, he squeezed onto it and spiraled his way down behind her.
He had often brought her to the park to play on their days off. Something inside him clenched up at the thought that he would never come here with his sister again, never hear her laughing and calling out to him as she zoomed down the slides or while he pushed her on the swings. But he couldn’t let himself dwell on that. If she ever came to this park again, it would be as a free girl with a new family. I’m keeping my promise, Mom.
Taking her hand in his again, he ran with her toward the shelter of the trees at the edge of the playing field as lightning flickered once more. “And remember,” he told her in a low voice, “you can’t ever tell anyone you were a slave. Don’t ever talk about it with a single person — not the Watch Officers, not your new family, not your friends, not the teacher in your school. If they find out, they’ll make you a slave again.”
The two of them hurried down another residential street, still keeping to the shadows as much as possible. Bensin tried not to let himself think about all that might go wrong. And even if everything goes right, Mr. Creghorn will bring out the Motivator and lash me within an inch of my life tomorrow. Of course Bensin would pretend he didn’t know where his sister had gone, but of course his owner wouldn’t believe a word of it. It didn’t matter, though. Let him do his worst. I’ll die before I tell. No matter what they do to me, it will be worth it.
In the distance, he could hear the sound of traffic. “The next street is a busier one,” he warned Ellie in a whisper. “There will be cars, so we’ll have to be extra careful to stay out of sight.” Watch Officers were more likely to patrol there, too. He would have to keep a sharp lookout.
They crept along the new street, Bensin bent nearly double, staying in the shadows of the low brick wall that ran along the front of people’s yards. Every time he heard a car coming, he dragged his sister toward the nearest bush or parked car, crouching behind it with her until the vehicle had passed. If only there were another way we could go. But the only other routes he knew would take them far out of their way.
Three blocks down, they came to the little shopping center where Mrs. Creghorn sometimes sent him to buy groceries. Most of the buildings were dark, but the parking lot was well lit, and he could see lights on in the all-night pharmacy. The Happy New Year sign in their window was flashing red and gold.
“We’ll go around the edge,” he whispered, thankful for the thick hedge that bordered the parking lot.
They were less than halfway around when he heard footsteps approaching, loud in the stillness. Ellie gasped, and he turned and slid his hand over her mouth before she could make a sound that would give them away. “Get down,” he breathed, and pushed her gently to the ground at the base of the hedge. He dropped beside her, shielding her body with his, and the two of them lay there where the shadows were darkest, holding their breath.
The footsteps drew closer. Bensin didn’t dare turn his head, but out of the corner of his eye he could see a pair of black boots below the dark blue pants of a Watch officer’s uniform. The man was walking past the buildings with measured steps, a flashlight in hand. From time to time he swung the beam of the light back and forth across the parking lot.
If he shines it this way, he’ll see us for sure. Bensin squeezed his arm more tightly around his sister’s shoulders, willing her to stay silent. He could feel her little body trembling.
The officer drew closer, and Bensin could see the sidearm in its holster at his belt. I bet I’m a better fighter than he is. But the thought gave him no comfort. If they both had cavvarachs, he suspected he could beat the officer in a duel, but that wouldn’t help him now. He was unarmed; and anyway, a cavvarach, perfect for close-quarters combat, was no match for a gun. Besides, you couldn’t fight a Watch officer. Not unless you were looking for a death sentence.
Of course, the death penalty was the consequence for a slave who attacked any free person. Mr. Creghorn loved to remind Bensin of that, but Bensin was sure that law wasn’t always enforced. Who wanted to waste a valuable slave when you could just sell him to someone else?
“Is it the Watch?” Ellie whispered.
“Shh!” He should have kept a hand over her mouth. Had the officer heard? The man turned toward them, but he was still some distance away, and it was impossible to guess anything from his expression. The flashlight scrutinized the parking lot, asphalt and painted lines and occasional scattered trash appearing in its sweeping beam. Bensin waited for it to flash across his face, but the officer pointed it the other way, examining the space between two buildings.
And then he was gone. The blue uniform disappeared around a corner, and the sound of footsteps gradually faded.
Bensin released his grip on Ellie and rose to his hands and knees. “Get up, but keep quiet. Yes, it was a Watch officer, and he’s just around the corner. We’re going to stay in the shadows and crawl in case he comes back.”
He led the way along the hedge, keeping its comforting darkness at their right, the open parking lot stretching away to the left, the buildings beyond. They reached the corner and turned, still crawling. We’re halfway around.
“My knees hurt,” whispered Ellie from behind him. “Rocks and things are poking them.” The officer was nowhere in sight, so Bensin stopped to let her rest. “What if he comes back and sees us?”
“If he sees you, just tell him what I told you to say: that you don’t have any home or parents. As long as he doesn’t see me, you’ll be fine.”
“But what if he sees us both?”
“That’s why we’re staying in the shadows. Now come on.”
Bensin breathed a sigh of relief when they completed their circuit of the shopping center without spotting the officer again. He must have gone off to patrol somewhere else. “We can stand up again, as long as we stay away from the light,” he told Ellie. “We’ve got two more blocks to go on this road.”
They were nearly to their next turn when they passed a gate behind which a large dog stood, wide awake and watching the street. Bensin didn’t see it in time, and it burst into furious barking.
They both jumped, and Ellie shrieked in alarm, immediately clapping a hand over her own mouth. “Sorry!” she whispered through her fingers.
“Run!” Bensin grabbed her arm and dragged her past the gate, the dog still shattering the night with its barking. There was a van parked by the curb a few houses ahead. He dashed toward it, sister in tow. “Scoot under,” he ordered, just as a porch light went on.
Flinging himself to the ground, he wriggled forward on his belly, his dangling collar tag scraping over the asphalt and the back of his jacket snagging against the van’s undercarriage. Ellie followed, and the two of them lay there on the cold ground, listening. In a moment, they heard a woman’s voice call to the dog from inside the house.
Ellie reached for his hand as a door opened. “What’s the matter?” they heard the woman say. “There’s no one here. You barking at stray cats again?”
The dog gave one last wuff and went silent. They could hear its owner walking around her front yard, probably checking for intruders, and then the front door opened and shut once more.
Bensin waited until his heart had slowed back to its normal pace. “You’re doing great,” he whispered. “You’re so brave! Mom would have been proud of you. Ready to keep going?”
“I guess so,” she whispered back, her voice tremulous.
They crawled out from under the van and continued down the street, darting into the shadows whenever a car drove by. At last they reached their turnoff.
“I’m tired,” Ellie complained. “Are we almost there?”
“Not really. It’s still a long way.”
“Can’t we stop and rest some more? I’m hungry, too.”
“I’m sure they’ll give you something to eat at the station. But I guess we can stop for a bit if I can find somewhere safe. In the meantime, I’ll give you a piggyback ride.” He crouched low and hoisted her onto his back.
A moment later, Bensin almost jumped out of his skin when a ragged man who had obviously had too much to drink came stumbling around a corner and bumped right into him. He leaped aside, nearly dropping his sister, and wondered at the same moment what kind of kick would work best with his hands occupied and extra weight on his back.
But no. The man wasn’t wearing a collar, and Bensin couldn’t afford to risk his life by attacking a free man, even a bum. Not when he was already risking so much tonight anyway.
But the bum didn’t seem to care. He mumbled what might have been a greeting and staggered on his way, clutching a bottle.
Still, Bensin didn’t want to chance the man remembering them and telling someone in authority. He crossed the street at a run, darted down another, and turned at the first corner. Ahead, he saw lights and heard music. Probably the bar the man had come from, full of revelers toasting the New Year.
“Are we lost?” squeaked Ellie in his ear, arms clasped tightly around his neck.
“No, we just took a detour.” Bensin spied a dark opening between two buildings. “Look, there’s an alley. I’m going to set you down and check if it’s safe, and if it is, we can sit in there and rest for a little while.” He squatted down and gently unpried her arms.
Spying an empty beer can on the ground nearby, he tossed it into the darkness. It bounced off of something with a metallic clatter, but there was no other response. Satisfied, Bensin beckoned his sister forward. “Okay, let’s go in.”
The metal object turned out to be a trashcan, which Bensin bumped into and nearly knocked over in the dark. Wincing at the loud clang, he sat down behind it and pulled Ellie down beside him. It smelled none too pleasant, and he didn’t want to think about how filthy the ground probably was. But at least no one would see them. “We can rest for a few minutes. Not too long, though.”
“Can I hold Bunny?”
“Of course.” He pulled the toy out of his pocket and handed it over. Freeing his feet once more, he rested them carefully on top of his shoes so he wouldn’t dirty his socks with whatever was underfoot. He massaged his sore toes. I’m going to have blisters after this for sure.
Ellie settled the crocheted rabbit on her lap and stroked it as though it were a real animal. “Don’t worry, Bunny,” he heard her whisper. “We’ll be okay. At least me and you will still be together.”
She leaned against Bensin’s shoulder. In a few minutes he felt her relax, and her breathing grew regular.
Lightning flickered overhead, illuminating bulging layers of cloud. It must be a good sign. Ellie’s life is going to change tonight, Bensin reminded himself. It won’t be much longer now.
Several times he heard people walk past the mouth of their alley, some talking loudly and drunkenly. Nobody ventured in, though, and Bensin was confident he had chosen a safe hiding place. Still, they couldn’t wait around too long. He had to drop Ellie off at the City Watch station and get home before morning.
Finally he pulled his shoes back on and shook his sister awake. “Come on, Ellie. We can’t sit here all night.”
“I’m sleepy,” she protested as he pulled her to her feet. “I don’t wanna go any farther. I wanna go to bed.”
“The Watch officers will give you a nice, warm, comfortable bed to sleep in as soon as we get to the station. And something to eat,” he promised, hoping he was right. “Now let me put Bunny back in my pocket, and let’s go.”
“No. I wanna hold Bunny.”
She was being stubborn, and he didn’t bother arguing. “All right, but if we have to run and you drop him, we might not be able to go back.”
“I won’t drop him.”
At the mouth of the alley, he paused to glance both ways before venturing out. Almost immediately, a flashlight beam from across the street sliced through the darkness. Bensin jumped back, nearly tripping over his sister. “Get back! Get back!” He pushed her behind the trashcan once more.
“What is it? Is it another Watch officer?” she whimpered, wide awake now.
“I think so.” Crouching, Bensin peered out from behind the trashcan. He was horrified to see a uniformed officer crossing the street toward them, his flashlight beam playing back and forth across the alley entrance. “He must have heard us. We have to get further back. Maybe there’s another way out of here.” He grabbed her hand and dragged her after him, still crouching low. Another trashcan loomed, and he dodged just in time. Darting behind it, he was dismayed to find that they had reached a dead end. Could they climb the wall?
“Who’s back there?” called a stern voice from the alley entrance. A beam of light illuminated the dirty ground just to their right and the brick wall behind them.
We can’t get over the wall without him seeing us. On his own, Bensin might be able to shimmy over and flee down the next street without getting caught or shot. But with Ellie, his chances were much smaller. Besides, there were probably more officers nearby, especially considering that this was a neighborhood with a bar. He could call for backup, and before we know it we’ll be in the middle of a manhunt. Bensin had seen such things on TV when the Creghorns watched the news.
There’s only one way out of this. “Ellie,” Bensin whispered through a sudden terrified tightness in his throat, “it’s time for you to do what we talked about. The man won’t hurt you. Go tell him your parents are dead and you have nowhere to live.”
“You mean — go out there all alone?” she gasped.
“I know you’re there,” called the officer. “Come out, whoever you are.”
Bensin clenched his fists in anguish. How could he send his little sister to face a Watch officer by herself? The man had a gun, for the emperor’s sake! If he couldn’t escape with her, his instincts screamed that he had to protect her in any way he could — with his own life, if necessary. Certainly not hide in the shadows and send her out to face an armed man alone.
But Bensin couldn’t forget his mother’s words that day he had visited her in the hospital. “Slavery is worse for girls, Bensin. Their owners think they can do anything they want with them. Promise me you’ll look after Ellie as much as you can. Teach her to be strong and brave.”
And Bensin, tears in his eyes at the frightening sight of Mom so pale and weak on her hospital bed, had looked down at the red, wrinkly bundle that was his little sister and promised. “I will, Mom. I’ll take care of care of her no matter what.” As an afterthought, he had added, “And someday she’ll be free. I’ll make sure of it, I promise. I promise!”
And this was his last chance to keep that promise. The Creghorns would be taking Ellie to get her collar any day now, and she would never escape after that.
“Come out with your hands in the air!” the officer called. He sounded closer. He must be stepping into the alley, though probably he didn’t want to venture too far in until he knew how many possible enemies were lurking back here.
“Go, Ellie,” Bensin whispered, trying to make his voice encouraging. “It’s time for you and Bunny to get a new home. Step out where the man can see you and say what I told you to say. And make sure you don’t let him know I’m here.”
She gave a frightened little whimper but obeyed. Rising to her feet, she took a shaky step forward, Bunny clutched to her chest like a life preserver.
Bensin had never felt like such a loser.