The Collar and the Cavvarach

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Chapter Eighteen: For Sale

Ellie’s for sale. Bensin had known it could be coming, but part of him still could hardly believe it. All the way home in the rental car he kept saying the words to himself. Ellie’s for sale. They’re really selling her.

It was his fault. He should have made sure she was free by now. But what was he supposed to do? Between extra cavvara shil practice for the Grand Imperial and the rest of his responsibilities, he hadn’t had a chance to come up with a plan for getting the money.

Bensin stood aimlessly in the living room while Coach Steene got ready for work and issued last-minute instructions. He wondered if perhaps someone had bought his sister already; and if so, how he could possibly find her. Even after Coach had shut the front door and Bensin heard him hurrying down the steps, he stood unmoving, trying to decide what to do.

How long had that ad been in the paper? Just today, or had it been there all week? If this was the first day, probably nothing had come of it yet. The Creghorns had advertised Bensin — both in the newspaper and on the CSF bulletin board — for several days before Coach Steene had finally bought him. Of course, that was partly because Bensin had done everything he could to discourage potential buyers. Ellie wouldn’t think of that, wouldn’t know what to do even if she did.

One way or another, he had go to the Creghorns’ house right now and see if she was still there. If she was, he needed to make an escape plan and get her away as soon as possible. It was as simple as that.

But how will I pay Wenn? If he waited one more day, and if he came in first, his share of the prize money combined with his current savings would be plenty. But he might not have one more day. Could he afford to wait and risk someone buying her today or tomorrow? And what if he didn’t win first place? Even second place wouldn’t be enough.

Maybe I can make some sort of deal with Wenn, promise to pay him extra if he can wait a little longer for the rest of the money. But no, he knew Wenn wouldn’t go for that. Maybe I can promise to come in every week and work for him. No, he wouldn’t go for that either. The man had made it clear that Bensin had to pay the full amount in cash up front.

Well, I can stop by and ask Ricky for ideas. His friend might be able to come up with something when he got back from work. In any case, Bensin had to act, and as soon as possible.

Slumped over in his seat on the bus, he kept thinking of everything he had ever seen or heard about cruel owners and the things they did to their slaves, especially to young girls. If Ellie were sold, what would her new owners be like? Mr. Creghorn had been mean enough to Bensin, but at least he had never used the Motivator on Ellie. Hit her sometimes, yes; yelled at her and locked her in the room without meals, sure. But he had never done anything really horrible to her, and for that Bensin was grateful.

Back at the Coastal Coconut Corporation, the foreman usually left the slaves alone as long as they followed orders and fulfilled their work quotas for the day. But Bensin had seen slaves who shirked their duties — men and women both, and even kids — lashed until they screamed for mercy and then left lying there in so much pain they couldn’t even get up. And he had heard stories about even worse things.

Promise me you’ll look after Ellie.

He would never forget Mom’s last request, or his own promise. “I will, Mom. Someday she’ll be free.”

And he would keep his promise. Whatever it took. Whatever it took.

He jogged down the street from the bus stop, afraid of what he would find at the Creghorns’ house. But to his relief, the first thing he saw was Ellie, playing with Baby Willem in the front yard.

“Bensin!” She jumped up and ran into his arms. “I missed you. They’re gonna sell me!”

“I know. I’m glad you’re still here now.” He hugged her back and glanced through the windows to make sure the Creghorns hadn’t seen him. Not that he was doing anything wrong. Yet. “Has anyone come to look at you?”

“Yeah. A man and woman came yesterday, but they said I was littler than they wanted.”

The baby grabbed her leg and fussed for attention, so Ellie picked up the red rubber ball lying nearby and rolled it across the lawn. “Go get it!” Chortling, Willem scurried after it on all fours like a dog learning to fetch.

“Then another woman came today,” Ellie continued, “and I think she really wanted to buy me, but she said I was too expensive. She said she was gonna think about it and maybe come back later. But she looked mean. She never smiled. I hope she doesn’t buy me.”

Bensin knelt in front of her and put his hands on her shoulders. “Listen, Ellie, you don’t have to worry about that woman.” He glanced around to make sure no one was passing by on the sidewalk and lowered his voice just in case. “I promised Mom I would make sure you were free, and I will. And that time is coming very soon.”

“But you tried before, two times, and it didn’t work. And now I have a collar.”

Abruptly, he remembered what he was supposed to look for. “Let me see your collar for a second.” He turned it around in his hands, checking for the words Wenn had said would be etched into the steel. Nothing.

“This is the good kind of collar, Ellie. It doesn’t have GPS. That means that when we leave, they can’t track you.” She was looking at him blankly. “I found out about a guy who knows how to get people’s collars off. I’m going to take you there really soon, just as soon as I can get enough money to pay him. After we get your collar removed, you’ll go to that City Watch station that I showed you, where no one knows who you are. Then it will be just like I told you before, where you tell them you don’t have any parents and they’ll find a new family for you to live with.”

The baby was trying to chew on the ball, so Ellie went over and pulled it away, rolling it across the lawn for him to chase again. “But I’m scared,” she confided. “Last time they said they would lash me if I tried to escape again.” Her eyes filled with tears. “But I’m scared of that man, too. I don’t want to live with him.”

Bensin put his hands on her shoulders again. “You have to be brave, Ellie. Life is dangerous for slaves no matter what, but it’s easier to deal with the scary parts if you’re brave. And this time my plan is going to work. I know it is. The City Watch won’t catch us sneaking around the streets because we’re going to take the bus.”

“But what if the bus driver —”

“The bus driver won’t know you’re escaping, because we’ll have passes. I told you, I’ve got it all worked out.” Sort of.

The baby made a choking sound, and they turned in time to see him cramming a handful of grass into his mouth. Ellie darted over and pulled it away. “No! No, Baby Willem! I told you, no eating grass or rocks or dirt or snails.” She reached into his mouth with both hands, pulling slimy green globs off his tongue. “Yuck. No!” she added for good measure. His chubby face puckered and he let out a wail.

“I think I better take him inside and find him something else to play with,” she said, wiping her hands clean on her shirt. “If Mrs. Creghorn hears him crying out here, she’ll be mad.”

“Okay, but let’s go in through the back. Then maybe I can sit in the kitchen with you for a while and they won’t see me.”

They brought the baby in through the kitchen door, and Ellie handed him a teething ring from the counter. He grinned and stuck it into his mouth as far as it would go, drooling happily, tears forgotten.

Bensin could hear the drone of the TV from the next room. He peeked through the doorway and saw Mr. Creghorn lounging on the couch with an open bag of pretzels beside him and a beer in hand. Mrs. Creghorn was probably in her study, working on her computer as usual. He eased the kitchen door most of the way shut so they would be less likely to notice him and assign him some chore.

“Is Becka here today?” he asked Ellie, who had sat down on the floor and was tickling the baby’s toes.

“No, she doesn’t come on Saturdays. She’s nice, though. Sometimes she helps me with the baby when I can’t get him to stop crying. I’m gonna miss her when I get sold.”

The doorbell rang, and Mr. Creghorn turned off the TV. “Hilda?” they heard him call. “I think it’s another buyer.”

Ellie turned to look at Bensin with wide eyes. He took her hand and squeezed it. “Shh. Don’t worry. Let’s listen to what they say.” Just in case, he opened the cupboard next to the fridge. Pulling a cracker out of the box he had known would be in there, he handed it to the baby to keep him quiet.

They heard the study door open and Mrs. Creghorn’s footsteps crossing the living room. Then the front door opened and a man’s voice said, “Hi, are you the Creghorns? I saw your ad in the paper about selling a little girl.”

“Yes, come on in,” Mr. Creghorn’s voice exclaimed.

“Have a seat,” added Mrs. Creghorn. “Can we get you anything?”

“No, not at the moment. Tell me about this little girl of yours,” the man replied. “You said she’s five?”

“Five and a half, yes.”

“Good. I like them young enough to train. Is she strong for her age? Good stamina?”

Ellie shivered, and Bensin didn’t blame her. Though the questions could be taken innocently enough, the coldly intent way the man was asking them gave him the creeps.

“She takes care of a baby all day,” Mrs. Creghorn replied. “She knows how to stick with it and not complain.”

“Glad to hear that. So she doesn’t whine or argue? I want someone submissive and obedient, no matter what.” Something about the way he emphasized the last three words made Bensin feel cold all over.

“She knows better than to argue when we tell her what to do,” Mr. Creghorn assured the visitor. “A little discipline goes a long way at that age. I’m sure you won’t have any problems with her.”

“Excellent. And you mentioned she’s pretty. Blonde hair, it said?”

“Blonde hair and big blue eyes,” Mr. Creghorn told him.

“Green eyes,” his wife corrected.

“Green. That’s what I meant to say. Would you like to see her? She’s out in the yard somewhere; we can call her in.”

“Definitely.”

Ellie shrank against Bensin. “I don’t want that man to buy me. I don’t want to go home with him.”

Bensin’s heart was pounding and his stomach felt tight. “Don’t worry. He isn’t going to buy you. I’ll make sure of it.” I will die before I let him touch you. He’s not getting his hands on my little sister.

They heard the front door open. “Ellie?” called Mrs. Creghorn into the front yard. “Where are you?”

He could feel her trembling against him, and he put his arm around her. “Listen to me, Ellie. That man is not going to buy you, I promise. Now go out there and meet him and answer whatever he asks, and when he stops talking to you and starts talking about the price, I want you to quietly turn and walk back into the kitchen. Understand?”

She nodded as he gave her one more squeeze and a gentle push toward the door.

“Oh, here she is,” they heard Mr. Creghorn exclaim. “Come over here, Ellie, and let this nice man take a look at you.”

“So you’re Ellie,” the man said.

“Y-yes, sir,” she whispered back.

“You’re a pretty little thing, aren’t you?”

“Um — I guess so, sir.” The adults chuckled.

“Come here.”

There was silence for a moment. Bensin didn’t dare peek through the half-open door for fear they would see him. What was the man doing? Was he touching her? Hurting her? No, she would cry out if he hurt her. Bensin did hear her give a scared little whimper, and he almost jumped up to see if she was all right, but managed to stop himself in time. It would ruin everything if they realized he was here.

“Cley, maybe we ought to talk about this some more,” Mrs. Creghorn put in. She didn’t sound as though she liked this man either. She had always been nicer to Ellie than her husband was.

“We’ve been over this before,” Mr. Creghorn snapped. His voice turned polite again as he addressed their visitor. “So, what do you think?”

“I like it,” the man said finally. “Very nice. In the ad you said eight thousand or best offer. Will you take six?”

“Somebody already came by this morning and offered seven. We told her if I didn’t get any better offers by Tuesday, we’d give her a call.”

“Fine. I’ll pay seventy-two hundred.”

Ellie reappeared in the kitchen doorway, blinking back frightened tears. “He licked his lips when he looked at me,” she whispered to Bensin. “Why did he lick his lips? Do you think he wants to eat me? I’m scared.”

With a glance at the baby to make sure he was still occupied with his cracker, Bensin seized her hand. “Come with me. Quick.” He eased the back door open and pulled her out with him, shutting it quietly after them.

“Where are we going?” Ellie squeaked.

“Hush.” He ran with her to the back fence, seized her under the armpits to hoist her over, and vaulted over after her.

“What are we doing in the neighbor’s yard?”

“We’re getting you out of there the fastest way we can. If we go round to the front, they might see us through the windows.” He grabbed her hand again, and bending low, led her across the yard to the next fence. Lifting her over once more, he pulled himself up and dropped onto the grass beside her. His heart was pounding harder. Any second now they would realize she was gone. He had to get her as far away as possible as quickly as possible. That was the only thing that mattered.

There was one more yard to cross, and then only a final fence stood between them and the next street. Bensin peeked over it to make sure the coast was clear. Cars were coming and going, but there were no pedestrians close by at the moment. He picked Ellie up one more time and heaved her over before hopping over himself.

“Now where are we going?”

“To the bus stop, and let’s hope the bus comes quickly.”

“Will the man come out here looking for me?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. Come on!” Taking her hand again, he hurried her down the street as fast as her short legs could carry her.

“Is that the bus? I think I see the bus!” panted his sister, pointing. Sure enough, the distant form of the city bus was rounding a corner far down the road ahead of them. The bus stop was still two blocks away.

“Get on my back!” Bensin ordered, crouching down to let her climb on. “And hang on tight!” He broke into a run, hoping no one would stop him and ask where two slaves were going in such a hurry or demand to see their passes.

Sprinting down the sidewalk, he overtook a boy on a bike and dodged a woman pushing a stroller. The bus was still approaching. Who would make it to the stop first?

He was at the curb now. The light was red, but he couldn’t afford to pause. Bensin leaped into the street, his heart lurching as a car he hadn’t seen swerved around him, its driver blasting the horn.

One more block to go. The stop was on the next corner, but the bus was nearly there. If we miss it, it’ll probably be twenty minutes before the next one comes by. That would be plenty of time for the Creghorns to come looking for Ellie or to call the City Watch. And there was nowhere to hide along the street here. Bensin picked up his pace, narrowly avoiding a man stepping out of a parked car.

Ahead of them, the bus pulled over to the curb. Two people got out, and the door closed behind them. Bensin let go of Ellie’s leg with one hand and waved frantically as he ran, hoping he wouldn’t drop her and that the driver would notice and take pity on them and wait just a few more seconds.

Bensin didn’t, and the driver did. The bus stood still, and the door opened once more as Bensin dashed up to it, panting.

“Get off,” he ordered Ellie, and she dropped to the ground and scrambled up the steps after him.

“Thank you, ma’am,” he exclaimed, breathless, as the driver pulled the lever to shut the door behind them. “Our owner sent us on an errand, and he would have been so mad if we missed the bus and got back late. I have a bus card, and here’s the money for my sister, and here’s our pass.” He stuck his hand into his pocket and pulled out the pass Coach Steene had given him, still folded, along with his card and a fistful of coins. Counting out three fifty-sliver coins, he leaned over and inserted them into the slot. Climbing the final step, he purposely stumbled and dropped the rest of his handful. Coins, card, and pass scattered all across the front of the bus.

“Just pick them up and have a seat,” the woman ordered impatiently, releasing the brake and angling the bus out into traffic again.

Bensin, breathing a sigh of relief that she hadn’t asked to examine their pass, crawled around with Ellie gathering up the coins. A kind passenger handed him the last two, and Bensin thanked the man and pulled Ellie into an empty seat.

“Where are we —” she began, but he shushed her hastily.

“Don’t talk,” he whispered in her ear. “Just sit. Trust me.” She nodded and curled her little fingers around his. Her hand was cold in spite of the warmth of the day.

Actually, Bensin wasn’t quite sure where they were going. Wenn’s End was in the opposite direction, not that he could take Ellie there with so little money anyway. This was the bus that he normally rode to the CSF or home to Coach Steene’s apartment, but that was only coincidence. He would have boarded any bus, going any direction, just to get Ellie away from that man.

But now he had time to think, and he needed to make a plan. He only had a few imps in his pocket, and no pass for Ellie. They couldn’t get far like this. Craning his neck to look at the clock at the front, he was glad to see that it was only 5:12. Coach wouldn’t be home for another hour and a half at least.

They got off down the street from the apartment. “You want to see where I live?” he asked his sister.

“Okay. Your owner won’t be mad if I come in?”

“No, my owner’s really nice. Anyway, he’s not home right now.” Bensin hurried her up to the front door, hoping none of the neighbors would notice them. As quickly as he could, he pulled out his key and let them in, shutting the door behind them. Just in case, he went around and closed the blinds on every window. “We’re safe here. The Creghorns don’t know where you are, and that man can’t find you. You can relax.”

Ellie did look a lot more relaxed now that they were far away from the source of her fear. “It’s a lot smaller than the Creghorns’ house,” she observed, glancing around the living room. “How come there’s so many boxes in here? And where’s the couch?”

“We don’t have much furniture because my owner doesn’t have much money. I showed him how to use boxes for shelves and cupboards like how you and I did in our room.”

“Can I look around?”

“Sure.” Bensin led her on a quick tour. “See, that’s the kitchen right there. Here’s my room, and here’s my owner’s room.”

“He’s messy, isn’t he?” she giggled, peeking into Coach Steene’s bedroom. “Look at all the stuff he left on the floor.”

“Yeah, he is pretty messy,” Bensin agreed. “I pick up after him a lot, but I don’t think he really notices. On my days off, there’s always dirty dishes all over the kitchen until I wash them the next day. But that’s okay. Like I said, he’s nice; he never hits me or anything; and he’s the best coach I ever had. So I don’t care if he doesn’t keep the place neat.” He led Ellie to the one armchair in the living room. “Now I need you to sit here for a minute while I decide what to do next.”

“Okay, but I’m hungry. Is there anything I can eat?”

It was getting close to her usual dinnertime, Bensin realized. There were leftovers in the fridge, but Coach was probably planning on having those for his own dinner later. He took a couple of energy bars from the cupboard. “You can have these. This one’s mixed berry and this one’s caramel pecan.”

Her eyes widened in delight. “Candy bars?”

“Not quite. They aren’t as sweet as candy bars, but they still taste pretty good, and they’re a lot healthier. They’re what me and my owner have for snacks between meals. Just sit down and try not to drop any crumbs.” Obediently, she climbed into the chair as he tore open the wrappers for her.

Bensin went to his room and dug out the four passes he had hidden at the bottom of one of his boxes: Ellie’s old one that he had saved and three spare blank ones. He had stashed them there in case he ever needed one, and just in time, too. The next day Coach had taken away the stack he used to keep in the desk drawer and hidden them somewhere else.

Bensin brought Ellie’s old pass and one of the blank ones over to the desk in the dining room. He fished through a stack of utility bills, grocery receipts, Coach’s paycheck stubs from work, and other random papers, until finally he found a pen at the back of the top drawer. It didn’t take long to fill in the new pass with Ellie’s name, today’s date, and the rest of the information, but the signature could be a problem. Most people didn’t take the time to look carefully, but someone might conceivably compare it with the one on her collar tag to see if they matched. Officer Shigo still did that with his every time.

Officer Shigo. What am I going to say to him on Monday when he asks about Ellie? But Bensin pushed the thought away. One problem at a time.

Setting the new pass down on top of the old one, he adjusted it until the edges matched up. He pressed down as hard as he could until he could see through it to the one underneath. Slowly and carefully, he traced the curves and swirls of Mrs. Creghorn’s signature onto the new sheet.

Ellie had both the energy bars unwrapped and was taking bites from each in turn, caramel smeared on her hands and around her mouth. Folding the forged pass, Bensin stuck it in his sister’s pocket for her. “Here’s your pass. Keep it with you just in case.”

That was the easy part. Now for the hard part. Bensin went down the hall and into his bedroom again, pulling out the envelope from under the mattress. He dumped his money out onto the bed, added the coins from his pocket, and counted it, even though he already knew about how much he had. His savings now came to eight hundred forty-four imps and nineteen slivers. And I need two thousand.

Maybe he could find someplace for Ellie to hide until after tomorrow, when he was more likely to have enough money. But where could she hide that would be safe and no one would find her? Not here in the apartment, certainly. And not out in public anywhere; it would be much too dangerous for a little girl to spend the night alone in some dark alley or vacant lot.

Bensin stared out the window, trying to think. If only he knew anyone else who would be willing to help, to keep her for a little while. Well, Ricky might be willing, but there probably wasn’t anything he could do. It wasn’t as though he could stash her away in his owner’s house. He might know people who knew people who could do something, but it would take time to track down those connections, and they didn’t have time.

But there was one more option.

With a sinking feeling inside him, Bensin slid the money back into the envelope and stuck it all into his pocket. You have to do it, he told himself firmly. There’s no other way.

Back at the desk, he searched through all the drawers in vain. “What are you looking for?” Ellie inquired with her mouth full.

“Money.”

Her eyes widened. “You mean, your owner’s money? You’re gonna steal it?”

“Be quiet, all right?” he snapped, guilt making him short-tempered. “It’s the only way to get you free. You want to go back and let that man buy you?” She shook her head and clamped her mouth shut.

Where would Coach Steene hide extra money? Surely he must have some at home. Ricky had told him he knew where his owner kept a supply of cash for emergencies.

Maybe in his bedroom. Bensin went into Coach’s bedroom and checked under the mattress and in the pillowcase, but there was nothing. He searched through the row of boxes that held his owner’s clothes, careful to replace everything exactly the way it had been. Not that Coach Steene would be likely to notice.

But he couldn’t find any money. Maybe Coach kept it all in his wallet; and Bensin knew he always had that in his pocket.

Wait a moment. Hadn’t he stopped to get cash on the way home that afternoon? And he had changed his clothes before he hurried off to work. Bensin paused, staring at the T-shirt and shorts on the floor at his feet. Was it possible …?

Slowly, hardly daring to breathe, he bent and picked up the shorts. There was a bulge in one pocket. Heart pounding, he stuck his hand in and pulled out — a wad of folded bills.

He could hardly believe it. He counted out the money with shaking hands: four thousand imps, all in hundred-imp notes. It was more money than he had ever held before in his life. Much more.

I can’t believe I’m doing this. Bensin had never stolen anything before except for an occasional snack from the Creghorns’ kitchen. He knew it was wrong, and it felt even worse because Coach Steene had treated him so well. He’ll sell me for sure when he finds out. But even that wasn’t as bad as picturing how betrayed Coach would feel, the look on his face when he found out. The thought made Bensin feel sick.

But he couldn’t let himself focus on that. Ellie would be safe by then, and that was all that mattered.

I could get my collar removed, too. There was enough here to pay for both of them. Bensin paused, considering it. He had never seriously thought about freedom for himself. Sure, he had dreamed about being free, like every slave did, but he had never actually thought of it as a realistic option. Getting freedom for Ellie would be hard enough. Besides, his life had been pretty good ever since Coach had bought him, collar and all.

But Coach would sell him after this, and then life would probably stink again.

Bensin stared at the money in his hand, weighing his options. If he paid Wenn to cut off both their collars, would he and Ellie be able to live together somewhere as brother and sister? Or would they be separated, sent to live with different families? Would her chances of convincing the Watch officers she was free but homeless be better if he came along, or worse?

He reached a hand over his shoulder and felt his back. The old whip marks from the many times Mr. Creghorn had lashed him didn’t hurt anymore, but he knew the scars still showed. Anyone who saw them would know he had once been a slave. But Ellie had never yet been lashed. She didn’t have any incriminating marks.

I can’t come with her to the Watch Station. If anyone made him take off his shirt, it would all be over.

I’ll never be free. But that was all right, Bensin told himself, trying to make himself believe it. It didn’t matter what happened to him. As long as his little sister was free and safe, he didn’t care about anything else. Besides, knowing that he would be here to face the consequences made him feel just a little less guilty about stealing from Coach Steene.

Still, he hated to take any of Coach’s hard-earned money. His owner wouldn’t be able to pay for the truck repairs without it. But we can drive that little white car to Red Arena tomorrow. He won’t sell me before then. And as long as I win at least third place, it will be more than enough to pay the mechanic. And then after he sells me he’ll get plenty to live on until his next paycheck. Bensin supposed that if he placed in the Grand Imperial, he would probably sell for a higher price. Maybe whoever bought him would want him to keep training and competing in cavvara shil. That wouldn't be so bad.

His hands still shaking, Bensin pocketed one thousand two hundred imps, half in each pocket so the bulges wouldn’t show, and stuck the rest back into his owner’s shorts. As much as I need. No more. And he would pay Coach back for every sliver of it, he decided. Of course, Coach definitely wouldn’t let him keep the usual ten percent of his prize money tomorrow; not after this. But Bensin would save up, even after he was sold. Even if it took him years and years, he would hire out on every one of his days off and never spend a single sliver again until he could pay his former owner back the full amount.

Not that that would keep Coach from being mad, but it would help Bensin feel a little better. That still didn’t make what he was doing right, and he knew it. But he had to save his sister.

“You ready to go?” Back in the living room, he took the empty wrappers from Ellie and tossed them into the plastic grocery bag that they kept under the sink in place of a trashcan. “Now wash your hands and face, and wait here while I go get my jacket.” He wished he had one for her. It wouldn’t be as chilly as it had been the last time they had tried to escape, but if they were out late enough, even April nights could get cool. Well, she could borrow his if she needed to and wear it with the sleeves rolled up.

“Where are we going now?” she inquired as he helped her wipe the crumbs off her face with a damp paper towel.

“We’re going to visit that guy I know who can cut people’s collars off. You’re going to be free tonight!”

“Tonight?” But Ellie shook her head. “No! I can’t go be free tonight. I didn’t bring Bunny!”

“You’ll have to be free without Bunny. I’m sure your new family will buy you other stuffed animals. Now come on.” He opened the front door and glanced outside to make sure no one was watching.

“But I don’t want other stuffed animals. I want Bunny. He’s my most bestest friend!” Her eyes filled with tears. “I can’t go without him.”

Bensin closed the door again and sighed. “Okay, I’ll tell you what. After you move in with your new family, I’ll go get Bunny from the Creghorns’ house and bring him to you when I come visit. All right?” He had no idea how he was even going to find out where her new home was, or whether he would be able to visit without giving away her secret, or if he would have any way of getting Bunny at all. But there was no point in saying so now.

“Okay, I guess,” Ellie agreed finally, sniffling. She wiped away tears. “As long as you bring him soon. I can’t go to sleep without him.”

“I know.” Bensin reached for the doorknob again and hesitated. “Oh, I’d better write my owner a note. Maybe then he won’t realize right away that I’m gone.” He wondered what Coach Steene would do when he did realize. He might wait an hour or two, and then — what? Call the City Watch, perhaps. That was what Mr. Creghorn would do; had probably already done. Bensin wondered if Mr. Creghorn had called Coach Steene, as well. He must have guessed that Bensin had something to do with Ellie’s abrupt disappearance. But Coach kept his phone off at work, and even when he got home, he sometimes forgot to turn it back on right away. So he might not find out for a long time, especially if he thought Bensin was in his room.

Bensin rummaged through the desk drawers again until he found one of Coach’s notebooks. Tearing a page out, he jotted a quick note saying he had gone to bed early. Then he ran down the hall to his room, stuffed an armful of clothes under the covers, and arranged them so that in dim light it would look like someone was lying in bed. He made sure to shut the bedroom door on his way out. If he were lucky, Coach might not even realize he was gone until morning. And Bensin planned to be home before then.

“All right, it’s time,” he told Ellie. “Let’s go make you free!”

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