"Humans are easier to hypnotize than other creatures," Ben said, rubbing his fist and staring at the door from which Josh had just hastily exited. Suddenly, he looked down at my hand on his arm.
I tore it away and took a step back. My hand tingled from where it had touched Ben's bare skin, and my heart chastised me for it. "I suppose I should thank you."
Ben shrugged. "He was a jerk."
I laughed weakly. "You got that right. Geez. I can't believe I was stupid enough to go out with him," I said, and walked over to where Josh had knocked the refrigerator magnets from the door.
"You two were together? Should I have-"
"No! No. I would have handled it, but he caught me off guard. I'm glad you intervened, I might not have been able to control myself." I remembered how it felt Friday night, after the kiss in the car, how the power of my fire had surged in my veins, needing to be released. I had gone straight up to the bathroom and filled the bathtub with water, then shot countless fireballs into the frigid water. The entire room had been filled with steam. "Anyway," I continued after replacing the final magnet, "he was breaking up with me. It hadn't been going well for awhile."
Ben laughed and I whipped around to look at him. "What's so funny?" I demanded.
"Nothing." I continued to stare at him until his lips twitched upwards and his eyes crinkled at the corners. "It's just- well, I could tell things hadn't been going well. You know, by the welt on his face."
I flushed. He must have heard our conversation. "He deserved it," I muttered.
"I believe you," he said, still chuckling. "I know better than anyone that you aren't afraid to stick up for yourself." And then he blushed too. I had to turn away from him so he wouldn't see the pain I knew was evident on my face. I used the refrigerator handle to pull myself to my feet and tucked a stray strand of hair behind my ear. Even my ears were burning.
"How did you find me? Where have you been all this time?" I asked in a small voice. I heard the scraping of a stool against the tile floor and hesitantly turned around, leaning against the fridge for support.
Ben was slouched on the kitchen stool, his black hair hiding his eyes that were held in the palms of his hands.
He sighed, and weight that slid off of him was almost tangible. "As you know, we chased Marissa to the Indian Ocean, but we didn't know she had a whole territory established there. We had to retreat. But we went up around Asia and Russia, to the Arctic Ocean. It was a long year," he moaned, and sat up. "Most of the party went back to Carmichael City, but my family and I returned to Morphentine."
Ben laughed then, a sad sort of laugh, and gazed up at me. "I wanted to find you. I didn't know you'd moved, and then I got word from Martha and Mr. Galls that you were gone. Do you remember them?"
I just nodded, too choked up to say anything, to my chagrin. Martha and Mr. Galls were my first friends in Carmichael, if you considered the school janitor and lunch lady friends. As it turned out, they were only there to guard me, as they too were Waterpeople, and were protecting me from those who wanted my demise.
"It was hard, not knowing where you were. I didn't know how to handle it. I arranged a search party, worried you had been captured by the Transmutes or something, even though I knew your aunt and Teddy had moved also. I was so confused. Some of the citizens even thought I was going crazy," he chuckled darkly. It almost sounds like he...missed me. Regretted what had happened, I realized. Then my heart shot a reminder straight up to my brain that that was stupid and impossible and too hopeful, and the fractions of my heart remained separated.
"Anyway, it took forever, but I eventually found out you had moved an entire coast away." He grimaced. "My father wouldn't let me come. I insisted for months, even threatened to run away against his wishes." He looked up at me. "I couldn't leave things the way I had. It didn't feel right." So it wasn't just me, I realized. All the nights I had cried myself to sleep, clutching the hollow space in my stomach that used to house the happiness that Ben brought me. The many times I accidentally thought or said his name and felt nauseous to the point where I had to sit down. Surely he hadn't been that bad, but at least he'd felt something.
"But then we got wind of a dangerous force churning in the Eastern hemisphere. The Transmutes. And, after reviewing the prophecy, my father relented. We needed you. So I came here."
"Not by yourself?" I wondered aloud. His parents were overly protective of Ben; there was no way they would have let him journey across a continent by his lonesome.
"No. Mr. Galls accompanied me. But he's not here right now," he added.
My shoulders fell. “Oh.”
Silence fell on us for the next few minutes as I arranged and re-arranged the refrigerator magnets.
“I should go.” Ben stood up abruptly and pushed the stool back in place.
I was suddenly, irrationally, panicked. “Where are you going?”
“Galls and I have a room at the motel in town, the one with the pool out in front.”
I nodded. There was only one motel in town.
Ben walked to the table where the phone sat and grabbed a piece of paper and a pencil. He jotted something down then handed it to me. It was a phone number.
“Call me. When you decide what you want to do.” He paused and his mouth pulled down. “I know this is a lot to ask, and you don’t have to decide right away. Even if you will help, that doesn’t mean you have to forgive me. I know I don’t deserve it.”
“Ben-“ I began, but he turned around and stalked back to the living room, leaving me by myself. I heard the soft click of the front door closing.