Excerpt from The Sectarian
Ben leaned forward over his lap in the armchair, more to muffle his gasp for air than because he was physically sick. Mostly, it was just his lungs and his head that needed a few seconds to reconnect when Ian drew him back from the Fell. He clasped his hands in front of his knees and tried not to look like he was about to puke. Or have a panic attack. Thankfully, he didn’t have two energy drinks back-to-back in his system, so all this felt pretty normal by now.
After just a few seconds, he straightened again and leaned back in the armchair. The woman who’d had her name called stepped past him and gave him a brief glance. Ben smiled at her, the woman blinked in surprise before smiling back, and the world just kept moving.
‘Sweet young man?’ Ian groaned.
Ben smirked. I mean, come on, he thought back. Just look at you.
‘They used to call me the Acolyte.’
Well, I betcha dead people aren’t tapped into the rebel Shaddor telephone lines. Though thinking about that now made it a little weird. Ian hadn’t been learning everything he knew about the Fell from a superiorly evil demon guarding that abandoned house. Turned out the Guardian was just one of the worst rebel Shaddor Ben had seen—okay, maybe comparable to the one he’d called the rag demon that had tried to attack him in his dreams and in front of Richard Monday’s house. It was just a little funny that the rebel Shaddor, who also hadn’t ever seen anything like Ian’s undead spirit walking around in the Fell while the Guardian tortured his body, had picked a name for Ian. Especially the Acolyte.
‘Not like I had a say in it or anything. You try being there for millennia.’
“No, thanks,” Ben muttered. He grabbed his paper coffee cup off the table in front of him and drained the last of it. It was still warm, because time had just about frozen in this dimension while he’d popped on over to the alien-realm copy of it. Then he stood, dropped the empty cup in the trash, and headed for the door.
The woman named Anna, apparently, headed that way too with her fresh cup of coffee in hand. Ben held the door open for her with another small smile. She eyed him up and down, grinned, and said, “Thank you.”
She stepped briskly into the parking lot toward her car and turned back once to flash him another smile. That made it just a little weird; Ben was a lot more used to people looking at him sideways and putting a bit more distance between him and themselves whenever he and Ian took one of their little detours.
‘Pretty sure she was checkin’ you out, man.’
“No way,” Ben muttered, sticking his hands into his jacket pockets.
‘You’re right. She’s probably the friendliest person on the entire planet and just wanted to make sure you go through the door safely.’
“Shut up.” Ben turned from the coffee shop’s front doors and headed back toward the sidewalk. Maybe she’d given him a few more glances than normal, for a little longer than normal, but all the women who’d ever taken a second look at Ben and then had the opportunity to speak to him had dropped him like an apple with a spider crawling on it. Technically, none of them had literally screamed, but he always knew. Nobody wanted the kind of weird that came with Ben Robinson, even before he’d picked Ian up from the Guardian’s time bubble and started chasing down rebel Shaddor. Except for April.
She hadn’t run away from him screaming when he’d known that frat house was burning down before anyone else—because he’d heard it straight from a Shaddor being, or maybe a dead person’s spirit, now that he thought about it. She hadn’t called him crazy even then, when he struggled to shove the voices in his head back down into silence, where they’d stayed for years before that night. She hadn’t even blinked, figurately, after everything she’d seen banishing rebel Shaddor and hearing Ben talk out loud to Ian and finding out in the worst way possible that Ian actually lived inside Ben’s head. And she’d forgiven him for keeping that a secret from her, because she understood secrets.
‘You’ve got it bad for this girl, huh?’
“Probably,” Ben said. He turned off the sidewalk leading to the coffee shop and onto the sidewalk along the street, then paused. If Frances really was April’s grandma—and while he was pretty sure at this point, April hadn’t proven it yet—what the woman’s spirit had just told him started to color everything he knew about April in a different light. What if she actually did remember her dream about ‘the man from the future’? What if she’d already put the pieces together, and that was why she hadn’t been scared away from ever talking to him again? She’d had plenty of chances, they both knew that. And maybe she hadn’t recognized him immediately, but what about now?
‘That would literally make you the man of her dreams,’ Ian said, then barked out a laugh.
“Shut up.” Ben shook his head and kept walking, but he smirked. It didn’t sound quite as bad when Ian put it that way, but Ben didn’t want to think of it that way at all. He wasn’t exactly sure how he felt about it, and he wouldn’t know until he talked to her and told her all about the woman named Frances who said she was April’s grandmother. It was pretty impossible to predict how she’s handle that, but at the very least, he owed it to her. He’d promised April and Peter that he wouldn’t keep any more secrets when it came down to what he saw in the Fell and what the Shaddor beings or the spirits of the dead told him. The last time he’d tried to protect them by keeping his mouth shut had landed all three of them with the Sectarian Circle, completely clueless and flailing.
‘Don’t beat yourself up. I probably wouldn’t have told anyone at first, either. I wouldn’t have waited as long as you did, but…’
“Yeah, yeah. Lesson learned. We can move on.”
‘Sure. How ‘bout moving on to what are we doing next with the day?’
Ben wasn’t really sure about that, either. He hadn’t exactly planned to be walking down the street on a Wednesday morning at almost 9:00 a.m., but that was what happened when a person didn’t have any plans at all, wasn’t it? It happened when Ben did make plans, too, so he tried not to get too caught up in what came next until it came next.
“Honestly, I wouldn’t mind taking a nap.”
“I hardly got any sleep last night.”
‘Because you went out to a show and brought April home with you.’ Ian snickered.
‘Hey, let your conscience be your guide, right?’
“You’re literally the farthest thing from anyone’s conscience.”
‘At least it’s not Peter living in your head.’
They both laughed at that, then Ben remembered Peter’s ****** mood this morning and that Ben had made it even worse with his green explosion thing. He had to come up with something better to call it. “I’ll fill Peter in too,” Ben said before Ian could even bring it up. “Maybe tomorrow. When he doesn’t feel like hell.”
‘How considerate of you.’
Ben headed a little farther down the sidewalk toward the shopping center just ahead, pulling out his phone to request an Uber. He might have called April or Peter for a ride, if Peter hadn’t been the one who’d stranded him here and if both of them weren’t still in class right now. They’d just started classes for the day, he realized. Time went by so slowly after waking up as early as he had today.
‘Huh. Maybe that’s why most people wake up at normal hours.’
Ben stepped into the shopping center parking lot and waited for the Uber driver. He’d wanted normal pretty much all his life, but normal wasn’t really his thing, was it?
Ian didn’t hold back on his usual complaining when the Uber dropped Ben off at his apartment just after 9:30 a.m. While there wasn’t any way for Ben to turn the guy off, that didn’t mean he had to listen to Ian. So he kicked off his shoes and flopped into his bed for that nap he’d been talking about, not even bothering to take off his clothes. Just because he’d spent the last week sleeping off his Shaddor-induced exhaustion didn’t automatically make seven hours of sleep enough to take him through the day. Especially when he literally didn’t have anything else to do.
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