Chapter Ten: Braved it Twice
At dinner on Tuesday, when Coach Steene was in a good mood after two days off in a row, Bensin dared to broach the subject of getting extra time off for himself on Sunday.
“Um, Coach, I’ve been thinking. Officer Shigo asked if my owner was making me work more than eleven hours a day, and I said no, but then afterward I counted it up. Most days I start on my housework by about seven, and then during the week we don’t get home from the CSF until after nine at night. So that’s actually fourteen hours.”
Coach Steene took his time finishing his bite of corn. Setting his elbows on the desk, he rested his chin in his hands and regarded Bensin thoughtfully. “Well, if you look at it that way, I suppose it is. But don’t forget that about forty-five minutes of that time every day is just you sitting on the bus or in the bus stop, and you do get at least half an hour off for each meal. Plus, I’m not sure jogging or fitness training counts as work, so that takes off another hour or two depending on the day. So, if you really want to get technical, it looks like you owe me more hours of work per day than you’ve been doing.” He chuckled. “I was married to a lawyer for seven years, and while I could never out-argue her, I did learn a few things from her.”
Bensin’s face fell. Oh, well. It was worth a try.
“You may have a point, though,” his owner conceded. “I guess I’d have to look up the exact policy to be sure, but since I don’t give you a choice about the physical training, that might have to count as part of the eleven hours, which would bump you over the legal limit at least some of the time. I presume you brought this up because you have some sort of request.”
Bensin brightened. “Yes, Coach. I was wondering if it might be possible for me to take a few hours off on Sundays in the middle of the day. That’s when my — er, when most of my friends have the day off. I would still do the yardwork for Mrs. Endison from 9:00 to 11:00, but I thought maybe then I could just stay down in that area until three. Then I’d catch the 3:05 bus and be at the CSF in plenty of time to help with your 3:30 Youth Intermediate Cavvara Shil class.”
“You’ve thought this all through, haven’t you?”
“Well, I’m sure Serra would have come up with a good counter-argument, but I can’t think of one at the moment, and to be honest, I don’t see the point. An extra few hours once a week to spend with friends is hardly an unreasonable request considering how diligent you’ve been. And there’s really nothing I need you for that badly at the CSF during that time anyway. There will be daytime tournaments now and then on weekends, so I can’t promise you’ll be able to do it every week. But otherwise, I don’t see why you can’t take a a little time for fun on Sundays.”
Bensin knocked on the Creghorns’ front door at a few minutes past eleven, with money in his pocket and a mind full of plans. He had to mow the lawn before they would let his sister out, but when he finished, Mr. Creghorn wrote Ellie a pass.
She hugged Bensin but quickly drew back. “Ew, you’re all sweaty!”
“Well, I can’t help it; I’ve been working outside all morning. You’ll just have to hold your breath the whole time you’re with me.”
She giggled. “What are we gonna do? Are we gonna play in the park?”
“We’re going to do lots of fun things,” he told her. “First, we’re going to ride the bus to somewhere. Do you know where the closest bus stop is?” He made her lead the way around the corner to the stop down the next street. “Now, when the bus comes, I’m going to show my card and they’ll let me on for free, but you don’t have a bus card, so you’ll need to pay money.” He handed her three coins. “This is how much you give the driver: one imp and fifty slivers. You’ll also need to show your pass, so keep that ready in your other hand.”
“Why can’t you give the money and hold our passes like you always do, and I’ll just follow you?”
“Because you need to learn how these things work and start being a little braver to do stuff by yourself. Sometime you might have to take the bus without me.” Like when I get you your freedom. He wasn’t quite sure yet how the transportation part of his plan would shape up, but it would be a good idea for her to know how to use public transport on her own just in case.
When the bus pulled up, he made Ellie get on ahead of him, hand her money to the driver, hold up her pass, and lead the way to an empty seat. “You’re doing great,” he encouraged her. “Make sure you put your pass back in your pocket so you don’t lose it. And remember that if the bus is ever full and more free people get on, we have to get up and let them sit in our seats. Now listen when the driver calls out the name of each stop. We want to get off at Palm Avenue. When you hear him say that, stand up and start walking toward the door so you’ll be all ready when the bus stops.”
It was a good half hour’s ride, and he passed the time by pointing out landmarks outside the window. “Down that street is the public library. Remember when we went there a few weeks ago and sat in the children’s section, and I read you every single picture book we could find about rabbits? And there’s the Grand Plaza Mall. I’ve never been inside, but I think it must be the tallest shopping mall in Jarreon.”
“And I see a park with a gigantic fun playground,” Ellie added excitedly, pointing. “Maybe we can go play there sometime.”
“Yeah, we probably can. Maybe even on our way home today.”
Arriving at Palm Street, they disembarked at last. “Now we’re going to walk down to the end of the street and turn left at this first corner,” he instructed his sister, recalling the bus route map he had studied earlier. “You lead the way.”
“I forgot which way is left.”
“That way.” He pointed.
“But where are we going?”
“I just want to show you a place you’ll need to go later. You have to learn how to get there.”
Half way down the next street she saw it from a distance and stopped short. “I don’t want to go there!”
“We don’t have to go in today. I just want you to see where it is.”
“I don’t want to go in another day either.” She folded her little arms across her chest and scowled. “Every time we go in a Watch station we get in trouble. I don’t like Watch stations. I don’t even like the way they look. The outside is all gray and scary, and the inside is too cold.”
“But this is a different Watch station. The people here are nicer.” Glancing around to make sure they wouldn’t be overheard, he bent down and whispered in her ear. “This Watch station is the one where they’re going to find you a family to live with!”
She regarded it dubiously. “But it looks the same as the other ones. And that’s the same thing you said last time, and the other time too.”
“Well, this time it will be true. I have a better plan now, or at least I’m working on one. And nobody here has seen us before.”
“But I’ve got a collar now.” She wrapped her fingers around it. “You said people can’t escape after they get a collar.”
“Well, I was wrong. I figured out a way that they still can. But that won’t be today, so let’s not worry about it just yet. We’re going to spend the rest of our time today having fun together.”
Turning, he led her back in the other direction until they arrived at a greasy-smelling fast-food restaurant that he had seen from the bus window. He had brought his own lunch with him, but the Creghorns didn’t believe in providing meals for slaves who couldn’t be bothered to stick around the house at mealtimes. That was all right; he wanted to get something special for Ellie anyway. He let her choose whatever she liked — everything here was cheap enough — and she picked a cheeseburger, a chocolate chip cookie, and a cup of orange soda.
They took their meal to the tables outside and sat down together there, since the manager wouldn’t let him bring his own food into the restaurant. Full, satisfied, and sticky, Ellie announced finally that it was the “most yummiest lunch ever.” After a quick wash-up in the restroom, they were on their way again.
The two of them took the bus partway back to the Creghorns’ neighborhood and got out near a second-hand store. “You can choose one toy for me to buy you,” Bensin told her, “but the price can’t be more than ten imps.”
Ellie, who couldn’t even read numbers, asked him the price of every toy in the store one by one. At last she settled on a set of plastic farm animals, a little grubby from prior use but still in decent condition.
They rode back to the park they had seen on their way over. It was bigger than the one near the Creghorns’ house, and as Ellie had noticed, the playground area had more fun equipment. They spent a long time there, Bensin pushing her on the swings whenever the free kids left one empty and watching as she slid down the twisty slides again and again.
Some boys his age were kicking a soccer ball around on the grass nearby. A couple of them were wearing collars, so if he had been there alone he might have dared to ask if he could join in too. But he saw the boys casting scornful looks his way, and he was pretty sure that some of their laughter was directed at him. After all, except for a few parents supervising their children, he was the only person over the age of eight on the play equipment. But though he felt his face turning red, Bensin told himself that he didn’t care what they thought. His sister needed him, and he was here for her.
When Ellie had finally tired of the playground, they found a shady spot in the soft grass under a tree to play with her animals. He helped her build fences for them out of twigs, and the two of them made up stories about adventures on the farm. Ellie couldn’t stop giggling as Bensin acted out a dramatic battle between the pig and a large beetle that wandered too close, announcing the combatants’ every move like a commentator at a cavvara shil tournament. When the beetle finally fled in disgrace, she clapped and cheered as enthusiastically as any audience.
“We’d better head back,” he told her finally. “After all, we still have to stop for ice cream.”
He wondered if Coach Steene would say that champion athletes didn’t eat ice cream. “Are there any healthy kinds?” he asked the slave working behind the counter.
The man handed Ellie the cone of strawberry swirl she had picked out. “Frozen yogurt is better for you, or at least that’s what my owner tells people. Doesn’t taste as good, though, if you ask me.” He pointed to his left. “The flavors over at this end are all yogurt.”
Bensin chose caramel. Surely one little serving of dessert wouldn’t affect his athletic abilities.
“Can we do this again every day off?” Ellie begged in between licks. “Please?”
“Well, I can probably come hang out with you almost every Sunday now. My owner said I can stay in the neighborhood for a few extra hours before I have to get back and help him at work. But we can’t spend this much money every time,” he warned. “I have to save up for other things.” Like your freedom. “We’re doing all this today because I wanted to make it a really special day that you can remember whenever you’re lonely or bored or missing me. Oh, and speaking of remembering, we’re going to do one more thing before I drop you off.”
The department store a few blocks from the Creghorns’ house had one of those little booths that people could sit in to get their picture taken. The two of them had to wait while some free teenagers finished playing around in it and striking silly poses, but finally it was their turn.
“I’ve never actually used one of these before,” Bensin admitted, frowning at the instructions on the screen. “I guess I put the money in here, and then we get to choose a color for the background.”
Ellie chose hot pink, the last color Bensin would have wanted, but he was doing this for her, after all. He put his arm around her and they smiled dutifully for the camera, and a moment later two small prints pushed their way out of the slot in front of them.
“We look great, don’t we?” Bensin handed one of them to her. “Now we both have something to remember each other by when we’re not together.”
Ellie examined her copy critically. “My hair’s messy. I can’t brush it very good by myself, and now that you’re gone, nobody helps me. And you can see both our collars. I wish they didn’t show in the picture.”
“Yeah, but at least you can see my muscles, too. That’s the most important part, right?” Bensin flexed them like a bodybuilder and pretended to punch her, making exaggerated aggressive noises until she giggled so hard she toppled off the seat.
Back at the Creghorns’ front yard, Bensin hugged her goodbye and took her pass. “You don’t need this anymore now. I’ll throw it away for you.” But he tucked it safely into his pocket along with his own. “I’ll try to come see you for a few minutes every day like I’ve been doing, but if I can’t come sometimes, just remember today, all right? Think of how much fun we had, and look at our picture, and that will help you feel better. And if you sleep with it under your pillow, then you won’t have to feel lonely at night.”
He peeked through the doorway as she went in, craning his neck for a glimpse of the living room clock. Good, he had just enough time to stop by the local park and look for Ricky.
After a quick search, he spotted his friend sprawled in the shade under a tree, reading a tattered comic book. “Hey, have you found anything out for me?” he inquired, squatting down beside him.
Ricky set the comic book aside, sat up, and stretched. “Nice to see you too, bro. Not yet, sorry. But I did ask around at work.” Ricky’s owner ran a construction company for which Ricky and his three roommates toiled six days a week. Judging by his stories, some of the other slaves who worked there had been everywhere and seen everything. “Nobody could tell me much except that they know there are people who will do it, for enough money, of course. A couple guys promised to ask their friends about finding one of those people.”
“Thanks. You’ll let me know when you find out more?”
“Yeah, bro; don’t worry. But like I said, better start saving up. Everyone I talked to agreed it’s gonna be expensive.”
On Monday, Bensin went back to Officer Shigo’s house. He had debated long and hard about it, but guaranteed work was guaranteed work. In the end he had finally summoned the nerve to call once more — a slightly less nerve-wracking experience than the first time — and arranged to be there at eleven o’clock as before.
Officer Shigo was waiting for him in the front yard, cans of white paint and brushes at the ready. It was strange and almost embarrassing to see a Watch officer dressed in old, stained clothes. Is he going to be painting too?
He was. After the man had checked his pass, the two of them carried the cans out to the curb, and together they started in on the outside of the fence. Bensin had helped with painting jobs before, so he knew how to do it, and the officer didn’t have to give many instructions.
“So were you able to see your sister yesterday?” the man inquired as they worked.
“Yes, sir.” Bensin’s heart sank. He had been hoping to avoid conversation and questions. But Officer Shigo was looking at him, obviously waiting for more details, so he had to go on. “We ate lunch together and hung out in a park.”
“And did you buy anything with that money you earned here last week?”
“Yes, sir. She picked out some toy animals, and we had lunch and ice cream and got our picture taken.”
“I bet that was a fun treat for both of you.”
“Yes, sir.” Bensin made sure not to look at him, focusing hard on his paint strokes. He was afraid the officer would somehow figure out what else they had been up to. Not that there was any crime in approaching a Watch station and looking at it from halfway down the street. But if Officer Shigo knew about that, he would surely realize what Bensin was planning.
“And how’s your training going? You have a tournament coming up next weekend, don’t you?”
“Yes, sir; on Saturday.” That was much easier to talk about. “I’ve been practicing every day, sir, and my owner says he thinks I’ll be ready.” And I am this time. I’m not going to lose in the first round, not ever again. Of course, Jayce would be competing in this one, too, but they wouldn’t be paired with each other anymore. Coach Steene had promised to make sure of that.
In any case, Bensin was determined to make Coach proud this time and to win them both some money as well as a trophy. He wanted one of his own for that shelf in the living room. And the money would be a welcome addition to his meager savings for Ellie’s freedom.
When they had finished the street side of the fence, Officer Shigo suggested they stop for lunch. Once again, he invited Bensin to come inside and eat in the air-conditioned dining room. It was tempting, but Bensin still couldn’t bring himself to accept. So he sat out at the table on the porch while the officer ate in the house.
After lunch they painted the other side of the fence. Officer Shigo seemed determined to make conversation as they worked. “So, I remember from your tag scan that you used to work at Coastal Coconut Corporation. What did you do there?”
Why would a free person want to keep talking to a slave about matters not related to his current work? Probably so he can try to figure out if I’m going to break the law again. The more he knows about me, the better he’ll be able to predict what I might do. That was the only explanation Bensin could think of, and it scared him. But he couldn’t refuse to answer the man’s questions. And he had better answer honestly, or he was likely to get in more trouble. “Don’t ever lie about something a person could find out the truth about” was one of Ricky’s rules.
“I did different things there, sir.” Bensin dipped his brush into the paint again and scraped off the excess on the edge of the can. “When I was little, I mostly helped with odd jobs in the kitchen. Later I worked in coconut processing. We produced and packaged coconut milk, coconut cream, coconut oil, coconut flour, and shredded coconut.”
“Did your parents work there too?”
“Yes, sir.” Bensin ran his brush up one of the boards. “My mom worked in the assembly lines, and my dad drove a truck, making deliveries and stuff.”
“And where are they now?”
“My mom died right after Ellie was born, sir. They said it was from complications of childbirth.” It still made him sad to think about that. “A friend of my mom’s there at CCC helped me take care of Ellie when she was little, but I mostly raised her myself. A couple years later, the CCC got bought by some company that wanted to build houses on the land, and my dad and all the rest of us were sold different places.”
He could still remember that last evening before Dad left. Bensin’s work was done for the day, and he was keeping an eye on two-year-old Ellie, who was playing in the dirt and weeds just outside the dormitory while they waited for dinner time. He was helping her stack broken pieces of coconut shell to build a tower when Dad came up and squatted down beside them. He didn’t say anything at first, just watched the two of them. Bensin, who never knew what to say to him, didn’t speak either.
“Someone’s here to buy me,” Dad told them finally. “I’m leaving in a couple minutes, as soon as they agree on a price.”
Bensin wasn’t surprised. Half the slaves there had been sold already, and they all knew it was just a matter of time before the rest of them went. The only questions were when and to whom.
Dad reached a grubby hand out to ruffle Ellie’s blonde hair. “Looks so much like her mom. A little girl her age, they won’t usually sell on her own. Guess you’ll probably get to stay with her at least until she’s a bit older.” He cleared his throat gruffly. “Take good care of your sister.”
“I will,” Bensin assured him. “I promised Mom.”
Dad pulled off the cap he was wearing and fitted it on Bensin’s head. Then, without saying anything else, he got up and disappeared around the corner of the building. Bensin never saw him again.
And he didn’t know why he should care. He had never been close to his dad, and that was one of the longest conversations the two of them had ever had. But every now and then he felt a faint, puzzling sadness as he thought back to that evening. Ellie didn’t remember it, didn’t remember Dad at all. But Bensin wore his cap every day.
“And that’s when Cley and Hilda Creghorn bought the two of you?”
“Yes, sir. They bought me because they saw I was strong, and they wanted someone to do outdoor work and win them money in sports.”
What he didn’t mention was that being strong was no accident. After he made his promise, Bensin realized he couldn’t teach his sister to be strong unless he was, so he started working out. That was his last year in slave school, and his teacher let him borrow a book about fitness. He followed everything it said and exercised every evening after work. He didn’t know any other kid his age who could run as fast as he could, or lift as heavy a load, or shimmy up a palm tree as quickly.
“Ellie was only two at the time,” he went on, “but they bought her as well, because they were planning to have kids of their own and they wanted a slave girl they could train up to be a nanny and do housework and stuff.”
“With your parents out of the picture, that explains why you’re so determined to watch out for your sister,” Officer Shigo observed, again seeming to know what Bensin had been thinking.
“Yes, sir.” Bensin adjusted the cap’s brim and dipped his brush back in the paint. He made sure not to look at the officer. Can he tell I’m still working on a way to free her? But if Officer Shigo knew, he didn’t say anything.
When they had finished the rest of the fence, they stopped for another break. The officer brought out lemonade again, along with a plate of colorful sugar cookies. “My wife and daughters made these over the weekend.” He set them on the porch table. “Help yourself.”
Should champion athletes eat cookies? But Bensin couldn’t think of a polite way to refuse. “Thank you, sir.” He chose the smallest one and took a bite. “It’s good.”
It still felt awkward to be sitting there just a few feet away from a Watch officer, but at least the man didn’t ask any more questions. He joked about the cookies and how Carlia’s frosting job made it difficult to identify their shapes. Bensin even found himself chuckling as they discussed whether a particular cookie looked more like a lopsided rocking chair or a cow with a cavvarach.
The shed was easier to paint since they didn’t have to do the edges or back sides of any of the boards. Bensin made sure he was always working around a corner from the officer so it would be harder for the man to talk to him. Why doesn’t he just leave me to do the work and go sit inside?
They were nearly done when the three kids returned from school. Bensin kept working while their father crossed the driveway to welcome them home.
“Wow, you’ve done a lot,” said a voice. He looked up to see Nate examining the shed walls. “The fence out front looks great, too.”
“Thanks.” It was always awkward talking to free people his own age. Bensin was never sure whether or not to address them as sir or ma’am. Most kids didn’t expect it, but every now and then someone would make it a big deal and accuse you of being disrespectful if you didn’t.
“I’m glad you’re here doing the painting. Dad would probably be making me help with it otherwise.” Nate grinned, and Bensin hesitantly smiled back.
“I’m glad I could do it, too,” he admitted. “I like being able to earn money on my day off.”
“My dad says you’re good at cavvara shil.”
“That’s cool. I’ve never learned, but it’s fun to watch. I play soccer. I’ve been on the team at my school the last two years. I bet you have to train pretty hard to be good at cavvara shil.”
“Yeah, but it’s fun.”
“Well, so is soccer, but sometimes you just come home and want to do nothing but take a cold shower and lie under the fan for a few hours, you know?”
Bensin chuckled. “Yeah.” That’s everyday life for most slaves, athletes or not. But we never have time to actually do it.
“Well, I’d better go start my homework. Maybe I’ll see you here again. Will you be back?”
“I don’t know.”
“I hope so.” The boy grinned again. “Every time you mow the yard is one more time I won’t have to do it. I mean, you’d be welcome anyway, but you know.”
Officer Shigo asked the same question a few minutes later. “You’ve braved it twice. Feel like coming back next week? The lawn will need mowing again, and I’ll probably have a few other jobs too.”
“I guess maybe, sir,” Bensin admitted.
“Well, check with Mr. Mayvins, and if he says it’s all right, give me a call when you decide.”