Ben's Prologue

by Annie Houston

Seventeen-year-old Benjamin Walsh was a tall, slim kid. He ran track at school, his only athletic endeavor, and therefore had a lean, taut look about him. Somewhat gangly as most teenage boys are, his hair was dark, almost black. He kept it in a rough cut an inch or so longer than his parents considered appropriate. His eyes were a light gold-flecked hazel surrounded by short black lashes, confined behind heavy-framed glasses. There was a geeky look about him. In past years it would have marked him as a target for bullies, but in this decade it was becoming a coveted and even cultivated look among teenagers and college kids.He sat on the cold oak planks of his parents' second-floor guest room. It was a large, generally unused room in the house and so remained largely empty. The walls were old white horsehair plaster, and the room contained only three pieces of furniture. Placed in the room more for storage than for decorating purposes, they consisted of a queen bed on a steel frame covered in a white sheet; a chest of drawers scratched and chipped, stained the same shimmering artificial gold as the floors; and against the wall, next to the only window in the room was an old empty mahogany bookcase of unfathomable weight, carved with deep scrolls and flowers. It was against the side of this bookcase that Ben had pressed himself as he prepared to lean over and peer out the left corner of the glass. He pulled his long legs awkwardly to his chest in an attempt to make himself as small as possible. Had anyone below looked up, they would have seen only the faintest shadow of a human form behind the window. He laid his glasses on the floor and pushed a few stray hairs from his forehead. Slowly and steadily, he lifted a pair of binoculars to his eyes.

The window of this room was its only remarkable feature. A single pane of old glass four feet high and three feet across. It had a low wide sill that ran the length of the pane. Located on the second story and northern wing of the house, it held a western view. Guests of the Walshes would daily have been treated to a grand view of the sun setting over an immense lush neighborhood. Immense in proportion, age, and wealth. Ben's family lived in Meriden-Kessler. An old neighborhood outside of Indianapolis, built by the super-wealthy of Indiana in the 1930s and 40s. It was now home to professional athletes, wealthy businessmen, lawyers, and doctors. His parents were the latter two. His father was a surgeon and his mother a lawyer, dealing mostly in medical malpractice suits.

The homes here were large old houses, some large enough to be considered mansions. Unlike the carbon-copy houses of the suburbs, each home here had its own individual architectural design. Some looked like old English castles complete with jagged cut stone and high parapets. Others looked like Italian villas with ornate iron scrollwork, terra cotta walls, and clay tile roofs. Some were modeled after French chateaus, topped with useless widow walks, blue-green slate roofs, and ivy-covered balconies. Most had large yards with old-growth trees that cast sunlight-dappled shadows on manicured lawns. Some even had low walls with gates around the property. Low enough to see over but high enough to keep unwelcome guests out. Ben's house had one of these walls. His own home was a large, long gray stone structure. It had a vague German practicality about it but nothing festive or touristy or even truly defining. It looked more like a "war time" orphanage or bunker to him.

This was the world that the guest room window framed. But a more discerning eye might have picked an entirely different view.

Were one to squat down low and lean to the left, squint and look between two large oak tree branches, one might have been able to pick out the bedroom window of Sara Green. It was this view that Ben Walsh was most eager to see.

Sara Green was a thirty-six year old doctor's wife. Small and lean, she had high cheekbones and bright green eyes. She wore her long deep red hair in a perpetual bun, loose with soft wispy curls falling around her face. Ben's father worked with her husband at the hospital, and the Greens had a daughter, Matilda, who was almost twelve. The same age as his sister, Amy. The girls were best friends. Ben had known Sara since he was a small child. But in the last few years, his interest in her had been peaking. It wasn't that he liked older women exactly. He was like most teenage boys. Eager to lose his virginity and driven by hormones. He just liked women. All kinds.

Ben's own mother was only a year older than Sara, but seemed ancient in comparison. Her name was Tara due to his grandmother's misguided love of Gone with the Wind. She was a big-boned woman with straight dark hair, cut in a short military style bob. A litigator for Thornburg, Brown, and Ernst, it was her job to shred people's confidence on a regular basis. And she was quite good at it. She had chain-smoked for nearly twenty years. It had made her skin thin and dry like old parchment. Her eyes too had been clouded by cigarettes, turning them from blue to a dull grey. She never seemed all that fond of children, and Ben had always felt that he and his two siblings existed more for social reasons than love. He was the oldest. His brother, Chris, followed three years later. Finally came Amy, an unwelcome surprise, a year after Chris.

Tara was a cold woman, and his father, James, was all but an absentee father. The children largely ran the house. Meals were instant, toaster-oven ready, or deliverable. And parental guidance amounted to "Did you remember to brush this morning?"

But Sara seemed to love children. Her house was always open, and the neighborhood kids tended to congregate there. She fed them homemade cookies, cakes, and brownies. The Walsh children ate so voraciously that Sara, suspecting they were starving to death, began sending meals home with them. Soups and stews, sometimes a chicken casserole, which was Ben's favorite. She topped it with corn flakes, and to him it tasted of heaven.

Ben focused his binoculars on Sara's window. He had been watching her fairly regularly for the past year. Usually she was just making her bed, or the room was empty, but on a few occasions he had seen her in just a bra and panties. He noticed she favored matching sets. The glimpses had been brief, but enough to send him running to the bathroom. He had memorized the slope of her hip, as it became her waist. He lingered on the smooth roundness of her breasts and prayed every night to be lucky enough for another peep. But today the room was empty.

Sometimes he would entertain fantasies of Sara seducing him Anne Bancroft-style. Inviting him up to reach something on a high shelf, then sitting on the bed, she would expose a long leg covered in a silk stocking.

"Are you trying to seduce me, Mrs. Green?"

And she would reply, "Yes."

"Ben!" His mother's gravelly voice raked across the house as she stood at the bottom of the stairs. "Ben," she called again.

He jerked back from the window, startled. "What is it, Ma?" he yelled back. In his house ninety percent of all communication involved shouting.

"Get down here. I want to talk to you."

He heard her footsteps move toward the kitchen. He stashed his binoculars under the bed, and rubbing his head, he hoped for better luck that night.

His mother stood in the kitchen finishing the last drag of a cigarette. A long stream of smoke issued from her lips. She was in front of the small window that was above the sink. Her thick shoulders blocked the sun and Ben's view of the sad dying plants on the ledge. His mother claimed that they had gotten too much sun or water. He had another theory. They had given up. Died of despair, cigarette smoke, and neglect.

The kitchen was a close, dark room. It still had olive green cabinets with rounded edges and black iron hardware from the '70s. They mirrored the path of the cracked white linoleum counter beneath that jutted out into the center of the room in an L-shape. It split the room in two and gave it a diner-like appearance. On the other side of the counter were a kitchen table and an old wooden door with a loose knob that led out to the back yard and the pool. His father was forever saying, "I'll fix that door this weekend." But the kids knew better.

"Ben I need you to do an errand for me. And don't roll your eyes, " she barked, anticipating his next move.

"Maahm," he whined.

"I don't need the attitude." Her lips pursed, exaggerating the tiny smoker's lines around her mouth. "Run down to the Greens' and get your sister. She has a gymnastics lesson."

He lingered a moment and sighed, more for effect than any real disdain. He thought he might get lucky and see Mrs. Green...maybe in a pair of too-short shorts that she was fond of wearing. It was the end of June, and the oppressing heat of summer was in full bloom. Ben was sweating before he reached the sidewalk. And though he was wearing a thin white tee shirt, it felt heavy and cumbersome. His khaki shorts clung uncomfortably to the insides of his thighs. The air was sticky and thick all around him. He tried to walk in the shade of the trees, avoiding the sun's blistering light, but it made no difference. At this point in the year, heat seemed to emanate from everywhere. The street, the cars, the houses, the trees. Even the grass seemed to have tiny furnaces hidden in the soft green blades. He crossed the street. Ahead of him was the Greens' house.

It occupied a corner lot and was much smaller than his own house. Probably the smallest on the block. Yet still large enough to elicit "oohs" and "ahhs" from the suburbanites who routinely passed through. The home had a high-pitched roof with soft mossy wooden shingles. A tall chimney of irregular stones jutted up from the back of the house. The walls were a deep red and adorned with small arch windows in evergreen trim. Ben often thought that if the trim had been white, the house would be mistaken for a gingerbread house. Four enormous oak trees, one on each corner of the lot, with long-reaching branches provided the lot with constant shade.

The yard all around was one enormous garden. It was a blanket of greens, yellows, and purples. Impossibly large hostas with white-striped leaves as big as Ben's hands poured out from the perimeter of the house, obscuring its foundation. Beneath them flowed streams of deep green ivy that stretched their vines across the yard and up the trees. Pocketed within the ivy were outcrops of granite boulders surrounded by flowers--each a spectacular burst of color against the leafy backdrop. A thin sidewalk leading to the house was all that was left uncovered, but the plants seemed to be trying to rectify that. Here and there a vine jutted across, trying to cover the cement.

Today he found his sister sitting in the ivy with Matilda. Two small dark heads pressed together. Coke cans nestled among the ivy leaves and magazines, filled with pictures of teenage boys, spread before them.

For the most part, he could not stand Amy's friends. They seemed to him a gaggle of pubescent, twittering, giggling airheads. They would stand in tight groups, whispering. Then, for seemingly no reason, a burst of screams or laughter would issue from them. He would often find them quietly stalking around the door to his room, peeping moony-eyed and silent. And when they did engage him in conversation, it was always inane, clumsy questions about cars or skateboards, neither of which interested him. At this age, they were only just awaking to their own sexuality. Ruled by insecurities and jealousy, they spent the majority of their time being cruel to each other in the hopes of elevating themselves socially. And though they wanted to attract boys, they had not quite grasped the workings of a boy's mind or exactly what boys were thinking about. They maintained romantic ideas based on movies they had seen. A kiss, crashing ocean waves, and then all fades to black, and the credits roll. Dirty Dancing was high on their list of what love would be like. Love and sex were the same thing to them. But that was not so for boys. Only Matilda seemed different to him.

It might have been because of his weakness for her mother or because he had known her since her birth, but he was, well, fond of her. She was the youngest of Amy's friends. She would not actually be twelve for another two months, but she alone seemed to understand the separation of the physical and emotional. She had a quiet confidence. And an awareness of her body and how to hold it that was unsettling to most adults. Sometimes he wondered if this is what Nabokov meant when he said "nymphet." But he found he could speak easily to her about anything and didn't mind so much when she went all moony-eyed at him. However, his brother, Chris, went weak and tongue-tied at the mere mention of her name.

She was every bit as beautiful as her mother. Matilda had a soft, small-boned structure to her heart-shaped face. The same bright green eyes as Sara, but her long hair was a deep chestnut. Chris would often follow Amy and her friends around, trying to lure Matilda away from the group. Ben thought back, trying to remember what he did with the girls when he was twelve and thirteen. It seemed that he used to take them to the far corner of his back yard. There was an old stone tool shed that they had converted into a pool house at the edge of the property. He remembered ducking behind there and kissing. Maybe a bit of fooling around. Nothing too serious, but he doubted Chris was bold enough to try that with Matilda.

"Sara," he called from the sidewalk. "Mom says come home now."

"Why?" Her voice was sharp and high-pitched. The tone set his hair on end.

"How should I know?" he barked back. "Just go!"

She scowled at her brother and gathered her things. She stuck out her tongue at him as she walked by. He felt a bit sorry for her, watching her in the leaves next to Matilda. Amy, in sharp contrast, was boxy and had a long face with a square jaw. She was tall and slim, but looked a lot like Ben. Attractive for a boy, but not so for a girl. She had to work at being pretty.

Matilda stood and motioned to Ben. "Mom made a casserole for you guys. Come on, she's in the back yard."

They walked side by side. Ben gingerly stepped sideways, cuffing Matilda with his shoulder. "So, have you been to my house lately?"

She looked puzzled. "You know I have. Practically every day." Her voice already had the sliding lilt of a teenager.

"Yeah, but have you been in the back yard?" He gave a short pause. "Behind the pool house?"

An intense red spread across her face and down her shoulders. Her arms flew at him, landing several sharp smacks on his shoulder. "Shut up!" She yelled, "No one was supposed to know! I'll kill Chris!"

Ben suppressed a little laugh and grabbed hold of her wrists. "Stop it Mattie." He held her until he felt her arms go limp and he was sure she would not strike him again. "Chris didn't tell me anything. It was just a guess."

"I don't even like him that way, really. He's not that cute. He just looked so desper..." she stopped herself, remembering that this was his brother.

"It's okay. I get it." He had to agree with her. Chris was not the most attractive boy. He had white blond hair that stuck out at irregular angles. He seemed perpetually sunburned, and his eyes were the same dull grey as his mother's. He was short and stocky for his age and already had the beginnings of severe acne.

"Don't tell him I said that. It would really hurt his feelings." She took a deep breath and, trying to rectify the situation, said, "He is the sweetest boy I know, though."

Ben nodded. His brother was the most good-natured person he had ever known.

They rounded the house and entered the back yard. Sara was standing high atop a stepladder, holding a branch cutter. It was a long, heavy, bright orange pole with a black blade on the end. Its cutting surface, highly polished silver, gleamed as it caught stray rays of the sun. He guessed her to be at least fifteen feet up. There was a pile of small branches below on the ground.

"Mom, Ben's here."

Sara let the pole drop momentarily as she wiped the sweat from her forehead. She was wearing short white shorts and an almost see-through white halter top. Normally this would have sent him into a fit of fidgeting, but something about the scene before him seemed off. Something was not right, but he could not exactly see where the problem lay.

"Hi Ben. I'll be down in just a moment to get that casserole. I just want to get this last branch down."

It was a thick, diseased-looking limb that was growing in a strange curving hook toward the house. Sara had to stand on the top of the ladder to reach it.

"Mrs. Green? I can do that for you," he called, already taking a step toward her.

"Oh, thanks, that's sweet, but I think I can manage." She lifted the pole high above her and gripped it with the blade.

Ben pushed Mattie behind him. When he felt her resist, he pushed harder, knocking her off balance. She fell back a few steps and growled out an inaudible angry little expletive. But it didn't register because he was slowly but accurately beginning to assess the situation.

"Mrs. Green!" he shouted, but she was already cutting the branch. It splintered but did not separate from the tree. Instead it clung to the trunk with thick fibrous strands of wood, like tendons refusing to sever from the body. It swung down like a lever loosed from the tension of its fulcrum and skimmed the air in front of Sara, missing her by inches. For a moment, everything seemed still and slow. Ben wanted to call out. He thought, If she just holds still...if she just doesn't panic...

But startled, she was already thrusting her weight backwards. The ladder shifted, and Sara threw her weight forward to try to correct the imbalance. She grabbed frantically at the air as the ladder tottered. Left, then right, then left, then she fell with a great crash to the ground. The branch cutter slipped from her hands, and the blade tipped back, catching her on her shoulder. Her legs were tangled in the rungs as she fell, causing her to land head-first on the ground.

When Ben reached her, red blood was seeping from the gash on her shoulder and beginning to soak the crisp white top. There was blood on her head too, running down the edge of a rock, peeking out through the strands of hair. Her eyes were open, and her hands twitched erratically. "Mrs. Green?" His voice was not more than a whisper. A clear liquid escaped from her ears. Ben lurched back and covered his mouth as he gagged.

A high rough shriek came from the direction of the house. Matilda was running toward him, eyes wide and arms outstretched.

He rose and ran toward her. Using the full force of his body, he collided with her and knocked her to the ground. In almost the same instant, she was rising up again. Ben caught her around the waist and lifted her up in his arms. Matilda kicked in a wild attempt to climb over his shoulders. She was struggling, coughing and spitting as she fought against his ever-tightening grip. He kept moving, trudging against the fierce flailing abuse.

Snot and tears were covering his face as he entered the front yard. He called out hoarsely and quietly. "Help." But it was barely loud enough for him to hear, let alone anyone else. He tried to force the air into his lungs and called out again.

They stumbled into the center of the lawn, and Mattie slipped from his arms. She rolled into a cool patch of ivy. Immediately recovering herself, she made again for the gruesome scene behind her. Ben grabbed her ankle, pulled her violently to the ground, and crawled on top of her. He squeezed Mattie as tightly as he could to his chest. He was still shouting for help, but a low unintelligible moan was all he could hear. Repetitive, raspy, the panicked moan grew louder and higher in pitch. Until it broke into one loud, tight scream.

Ben sat up. He was alone in the darkness of his dorm room. His own scream had awakened him. The sheets were soaked with cold sweat. Shivering and groggy, he stood up. For a few moments, he held his breath. It had been five years since the accident, but in his mind, the images were still pristine, unaffected by the passage of time. Even now awake, he could still feel the little girl's body struggling against him. Ben shook his head violently, stomped his feet, and stretched his fingers wide. His system was overflowing with adrenaline now. It felt as though pins and needles were pricking his whole body. Ben cursed quietly, then sat back down on his bed and grabbed the small digital clock from his nightstand. The little blue numbers glowed an impassive 4:45. He switched off the alarm. No need for you, he thought, dropping the clock back down on the table with a thump. There would be no more sleep this morning. Maybe not tonight either. He wondered to himself how long would the images stay with him this time?

Still feeling the adrenaline in his body, he slipped on a pair of blue sweatpants and a faded grey sweatshirt. The red block letters that read "Indiana University" were still visible but cracked and decaying. He picked up his glasses from the nightstand and stepped into the hallway. The bright buzzing flourescent lights above caused him to flinch. Ben made his way outside to the dark predawn stillness of the campus. He looked up at the sky above. Deep purple clouds stretched out for miles around him. He began running. The air was chilly and musty. He could smell rain coming.