Then Things Changed


benji_icon.gif eileen_icon.gif nick_icon.gif

Scene Title Then Things Changed
Synopsis Benji visits the Old Dispensary and finds more than she expected.
Date June 7, 2011

Old Dispensary

Rain beads on the Dispensary's rippled glass windows and makes a sound on the roof that's loudest in the attic but sharper outside. It hits leaves in trees, fronds of ferns, and glances off the roof of the old rusty pick-up truck parked outside with the windows rolled up to keep water from leaking in onto the upholstered seats, worn and reeking of cigarette and cigar smoke. It makes the gravel gleam and the building's brickwork shine dark, lit silver by the early morning glow bleeding through branches where the cloud cover is thinnest and the sun's halo shines white through the pale gloom.

What it does not do is fall so heavily that someone with a fondness for nature would not want to go walking in it. Eileen did for the better part of an hour before putting on coffee and fixing a cold breakfast of fresh cut fruit, soft cheese and vineagar-cured fish for those well enough to eat it, and lukewarm rice porridge and salted eggs for the infirm young man who is not.

Benji has no way of knowing, however, what lies on the other side of the Dispensary's stately wood doors — only that the lamplight spilling out of the windows and warming the loose rock underfoot means someone is home.

Huddling near the Dispensary's bulk so as best to shield from the coming rain, Benji affords a few moments to shake out her umbrella of clinging rainwater, a cheap thing of navy blue and patterned with shell shapes that does its duty in keeping her dry from the rain. Most of her dry. Though her boots are pragmatic, they're uncomfortably wet, with some of that moisture clinging to the denim of her jeans. Though it will become humid and warm as the day wears on, the morning retains enough nighttime coolness to make necessary the modest grey cardigan pulled over white blouse, though left unbuttoned, hanging off a shoulder.

She knocks, then, as if you were meant to politely knock on the door of obscure, officially abandoned ex-hospitals in the middle of dangerous woodland territory.

Then bends to pick up the cardboard box she'd set down, white material wrapped in plastic to protect it from the rain, and breathes in and out her nervousness.

There are starlings in the woodland that make a better peephole than anything the Remnant might build into the door; Eileen knows who is standing on the other side before she opens it, a lit gas lantern in one hand and the door's handle in the other. If Benji had stopped by a few hours earlier, she would find her in the combination of nightgown and coat that she remembers from her childhood, but the hour is late enough that her aunt cannot justify wearing what she sleeps in. She is clothed instead in a lighter shawl and gray dress, her milk-pale feet bare and hair swept back into a loose bun knotted at the nape of her neck, much less taciturn-looking than the wool and leathers she wears in the field and when addressing the Ferrymen network as one of its leaders.

Or maybe that's just the softness of her mouth as she asks, "Yes?"

Well. At least the right person answered the door.

Anxiety releases and then winds back up taut, Benji brimming with the kind of tension that deers have when they don't know whether or not to run, but could, given the slightest excuse. "Um," isn't an answer, looking down at the parcel in her hands, the umbrella tucked beneath an arm. "I just wanted to come by and. This is for you." Rather than assume she is invited inside, Benji remains on the stoop as she unwraps the box from the plastic enough to crack the lid. She doesn't assume that a blind woman would use her eyes, a flick of a glance around towards the nearest avian critter.

Though the scent of poppy seeds and rum is a strong one, the dense pastry inside flavourful enough to smell that maybe Eileen doesn't need her eyes anyway. "A peace offering," Benji adds, a twitch of a smile at the corner of her mouth.

"A peace offering," repeats Eileen, sounding faintly dubious, but the birds blanketed across the wood tell her that there must be some truth in this because Benji has come alone. Rainwater drips off the ledge hanging above their heads and leaves ugly splotches on Benji's cardigan. She can smell the dampness clinging to her as strongly as she can smell the contents of the box, and it's pity more than it is curiosity that has her opening the door wider.

"Come." In, she means. "There's something I'd like your help with. You can bring your offering with you."

Stepping inside, just clear of the portal so that Eileen can press it shut, and setting the umbrella to lean near the door, Benji musses her fingers through dark hair as she takes a discreet glance around beneath paint tipped eyelashes, comparing the place to either what she knows of it thirty years from now, or what she imagines it to look like — it could go either way. But her attention settles back on Eileen, her surprise mild and curious that her visit has added purpose.

She nods along with the tentative, ever-shy, "Okay."

"This way." Door now shut and lantern still in hand, Eileen sweeps toward the stairwell and up it, leading Benji up the narrow stone steps that spiral up to the Dispensary's second floor where giant windows in the much wider hallway make the flame behind the glass unnecessary, though she does not turn the lantern down or off. It is still dark where they're going.

She comes to a stop in front of an unmarked door identical to the two on other side of it, and reaches out to hook the fingers of her free hand around the knob. When she rotates her wrist, it pops free the door's interior latching mechanism, and as she opens it decades-old hinges creak in quiet protest.

Raspy breathing interrupted by a raling cough, muffled by a pillow, are the first indication that the room Eileen has led Benji to is not empty. The room is dim and gray, the gray light from outdoors casting a rippling and dancing light from the raindrops on the window. The next sign is the scent of illness — the salty acrid scent of sweat, the metal and copper of blood that seems to linger in the room no matter how clean those playing nursemaid keep it.

Unaware of visitors, Nick tosses his head on the pillow, turning away from the door to face the wall. Another cough racks his body, already too thin, pounds shed in high fevers and from lack of appetite. He murmurs something in Polish into his pillow, though only the taste of the word is there, not enough voice given to it for Eileen to pick out meaning.

Having stopped in the hallway, curious but not brave enough to voice it, Benji doesn't immediately move inside, the sound and smell of sickness both being something it'd be difficult to not become accustomed to, where she's from. The automatic instinct is to not go near until context and sense slides back into place and she remembers that in this world, she's immune. For now.

And she doesn't have to move inside to see who and what it is, either, shoulders loose and hands only just tight enough to keep a grip on the Polish pastry she couriered from Manhattan to Staten Island. Moving as if on stage and lacking a script or any particular amount of confidence, Benji minces towards the door, edges into the room, mouth parted to speak until she hears the muffled muttering. So it's to Eileen she says, "How long?", with a dry cracking quality to her voice.

"A few weeks," says Eileen, leaving the door open behind her as she crosses to the nightstand and places her lantern upon it. She grazes the back of her hand across Nick's brow and is unsurprised by the heat radiating against her knuckles — her brother is as he was the last time she checked. "I've been giving him meadowsweet steeped in hot water when he can keep it down. When he can't, I've tried getting him to chew willow bark, but the salicin does only so much.

"I'm hoping water might bring the fever down." It will, at the very least, wash away the sweat that has Nick's hair plastered to his face and the linens glued tacky to his skin. "Would you help with his clothes while I fill the basin? I won't be very long."

Turning at the voices, Nick opens his eyes, and if there was any doubt what illness he had, it's gone with the shock of blazing red sclera around the blue irises, the color of which seem almost lavender thanks to the crimson tint. They focus with some difficulty on Benji's face before lips part and he murmurs, "No…" in that weak and hoarse voice.

A shaking hand lifts as if to ward them off. His eyes close again, screwing up tight like a child trying to wish away a bad dream. "Don't want you t'see me like this," he whispers, before the exertion makes him turn his head to cough, attempting to keep it under control but it soon becomes more violent.

"Please," is a plaintive plea, and Nick's hand curls into his shaggy black hair, curling into a fist. "Should've gone to a hospital."

It would be easy to obey. Okay! Sure. I'll see you when you aren't dead or dying of the plague.

Of course Benji can't do that, but Nick isn't too foolish for trying. "Um." Bending at the knees to set the box of bejgli down on the floor, up against the wall, Benji straightens again with her head bowed some, hands smoothing out the creases in denim jeans. Blinks hard, once, twice, takes a difficult step forward before it keels over into being easier, moving for Nick's bedside as if there was magnetism involved. Though eye contact means only so much to Eileen, Benji isn't looking at her, moving to hover around the other side of the bed.

"I don't know— what do you need?" is more for Eileen than Nick, an eager-to-please lift in her voice before she looks down at the man in front of her. A small sound in the back of her throat precedes an outstretched hand, moving to touch his shoulder.

"I need it to be off if it's above the waist," Eileen says, and it's easier for her to place her focus on Benji than Nick — it places his croaked plea in her periphery, allowing her to work. This situation is only marginally less stressful than the time he was spread out under her hands and she needed to make sure he didn't bleed to death.

There's still blood, but it isn't constant and seeping, saturating everything that his wan, limp body comes into contact with. He'd been cold to the touch then, too. "It's better if you do it," she adds in a softer voice on her way back out the door. "There are reasons. I don't know if you understand them where you come from."

Thankfully, Nick's not wearing a complex ensemble for sleeping in — merely a t-shirt and sweat pants, but even so, he shrinks away from any would-be helpful hands. Eileen's voice has him looking to a corner of the room, hissing to someone who isn't there, "Poznaje. slysze jej. Udaja sie daleko."

Those livid-red eyes sweep back in Benji's direction, narrowing as if Benji would do him harm, and Nick moves to sit up, an epic effort that has him gasping for breath. "I can do it," he mutters, but suddenly he ducks, gasping in horror at something unseen by the other two in the room. "Go before they take you, too," he whispers fiercely.

A tentative touch to the shoulder turns into something more solid — hands move to stop Nick from working himself into a fit, breath catching and Benji wincing at the look she receives. The baking heat of the fever isn't difficult to feel, and see in the sweat doing its work to cool him back down again. Benji would rather Eileen not leave, a glance to her small, departing form. But she doesn't call out.

"There's only you and me here," she says, voice as low and quiet as usual, gentled, as if talking to a child. Nick, after all, is younger than she is. "I promise. Just let me help you." She's never followed her mother's choice in the healing of people, or her aunt's efficiency in nursemaiding, but she's seen them both do it enough to move to rid Nick of the shirt sticking clammily to his skin, focused on the task as something to— focus on. As opposed to meeting blood shot eyes, or allowing the guilt in. Yet.

When Eileen returns, it is as promised with a basin of water and two fresh cloths draped over the lip. The water is clean rather than hot, only a few degrees apart from the temperature of the room, and sloshes against the sides of the basin regardless of how carefully she carries it. This time she closes the door at her back, for her own privacy as much as Nick's.

She has not forgotten that Benji's purpose for coming here did not revolve bathing her dying father's half-naked body. "I was quicker to judge you than I should have been," she says, placing the basin of water on the bedside table beside the lantern. Its reflection ripples in the dark surface. "I apologize."

Benji's words that there are only two of them in the room do little to make Nick feel better; his eyes narrow and he turns to look to the corner he'd addressed a moment ago, then shakes his head. "I can smell it… the gas… and the sulfur…" he whispers, doing what he can to help get out of the sweat-drenched t-shirt. Beneath, apart from the various scars of wounds past, his lean torso is a canvas for garish mottled bruises from stumbling the day before into the dresser — the exertion and energy spent having made him all the worse today.

"I'm sorry," Nick whispers. "I tried…. I tried to do what you asked. Tell your… tell her I loved her. Tell her I'm sorry," he tells Benji before turning away, eyes closing as he rests his head back on the pillow. Each word grows weaker until the final syllable cuts out completely, just a breath rather than a word.

The door closing with Eileen's re-entrance makes Nick's eyes open again, and he turns his head suddenly, fear renewed. "Don't let her in, Lee."

Shrugging off her cardigan and discarding it somewhere different than where she'd dropped Nick's t-shirt, Benji undoes the pearly buttons at the cuffs of her shirt, rolling them back enough to expose several inches of wrist and forearm. She is mostly just nodding to Nick's words, not trusting them to be coherent enough to really register, but she doe say, "That's good." The sentiment is more genuine than simple word choice allows for.

A glance to Eileen that is as wavery and liquid as the pan of water brought to the bedside, she gives a small, slightly nasal scoff. "Were you? I don't know."

"You could have told me I had a son," is all the judging Eileen is prepared to do now as she sits down on the edge of Nick's bed, takes one of the two cloths and submerges it in the water. The absence of soap indicates a lack of confidence in their ability to wash off the greasy residue it would leave behind, and while this might not be problematic under normal circumstances the circumstances are not normal. She does not want to risk irritating Nick's skin more than his sickness already has.

She wrings out the excess water by twisting the cloth over the basin, then uses it to wipe Nick's brow with a gentle blend of Egyptian cotton and something coarser. "You're safe," she tells him. "We won't let anyone in."

Looking like he might argue for a moment, gaze darting from the door to the corner of the room, he turns to look back at Eileen, then Benji, before closing his eyes again. A shuddery sigh trembles through his body, and the muscles of his cheek jump and dance with tension. "So sorry," he whispers again, though it's not addressed to either of them directly — perhaps to both, and perhaps to more than the two of them but the world at large.

"She smells like sulfur. I can tell when she's close," he adds, something in his demeanor younger, more fragile, a tone similar to the little boy from London Eileen knew so long ago. "Sulfur and cigarettes…" his words are slurring, and though he tries to look up at them, his lids droop heavily.

There are two cloths, and Benji can do the maths. Numbers written on lined paper and chalk drawn on the stone floors of a room in Bannerman's Castle, education passed down like an old leather jacket or a dusty heirloom. One cloth is for Eileen, one for Benji.

That she isn't immediately reaching for it isn't because she can't count — hands preoccupied in wringing themselves, before they left when Nick succumbs to unconsciousness in the wake of last, muttered words, press the pads of her fingertips high on the either side of her nose, as if enough pressure could stem renewed tears. Her breathing hitches, trips over itself, a damp sound.

She doesn't have to. Eileen, it seems, does not have any desire to discuss Astor — or if she does, it is not intense enough for her to pursue the subject when Benji starts making sounds that are more familiar than the Englishwoman is comfortable with admitting. "Your friend's handiwork," she says, using her fingers to separate pieces of Nick's hair and tuck them slick behind his ear. "Here and on the front page of every newspaper in America. Every radio. Every television set.

"For what it's worth, Benjamin, our generation is as divided as yours. We would not have been forced to Pollepel otherwise."

"He isn't my friend."

The second time she's made this correction, but at least she isn't asserting what her name is. The comment is muffled into her palms, before taking a shivery breath in before both hands go out to pick up the cloth and wring it out. Benji still hasn't made it all the way to looking at Eileen since she arrived at this room, and doesn't start now as she goes to gently dampen down Nick's skin, following the slack curve of an arm. Her discomfort is palpable, but she ignores it and expects it to be ignored. "I'd say that if I could undo everything, and have never come here, I would, but— thinking that way isn't useful, where I'm from."

"It isn't useful here either," Eileen says. "I dream about a boy with velvet eyes and a face like his father's. Raven hair, glossy and dark. Lashes dusted in coal. When I'm asleep, he's small enough to gather in my arms and I can feel him breathing. The sound makes me think of reeds in the wind; I'm afraid to let him go." She cleans Nick's eyes and mouth with more care than she probably would if he was still conscious, paying close attention to the fluids that have crusted there. To Raith, the cloth would be a death sentence — he is older than Nick, well past his physical peak, and with enough complaints about stiff joints that Eileen will boil both cloths and basin in boiling water for an hour before she allows him in the same room with them.

"It's wrong of me to want that, and I'm going to kill myself thinking about how I could've had it. So I don't." Except when she does. "Instead I've been thinking about a future where the Ferry lives under an open sky. If you're ever going to be born, it should be into something better."

And Benji knows better than anyone that the dreams she speaks of are true imagined figments as opposed to speculation, and she is quiet as she listens, the tepid water designed to even out Nick's body temperature and cool in the open air.

"I didn't grow up with any siblings," she offers, after a moment. Her sleeve is dragged across her face, careful of her wet hands as well as basic hygeine. "My sister died of the five-ten before I was born. Astor— " She flicks a glance, finally, towards Eileen, then back down at Nick. "He's my cousin, but before, he was more like a younger brother to me. You used to let me feel important, like I could protect him. Things changed a little," she adds, voice affected wistful, but genuine beneath it as well, shaped eyebrows raising. "I can't— give you dreams of what could be, just what I know, but I'd like to help."

Eileen remembers a dream, too, about a different little boy with a bible. The corner of her mouth curves into something rueful and suddenly she understands why the physical task she's assigned Benji should be so difficult. "You're like him," she says, not of Astor. "Sensitive. He was my world for a long time, you know. Then things changed.

"Not a little." Her cloth explores new territory: Nick's throat. "If what I've felt is what you know, then you know I loved you too. Very much."

The cloth Benji is using is slid back into the basin, careful not to splash. Then, she goes to take one of Nick's hands, touch delicate and tentative before gaining some confidence and comparing them palm to palm, head tilted. Fingers then ease between each of Nick's in a gentle, loose grip, other circled around his wrist, careful not to rouse him. She allows for a small smile at Eileen's words. She starts to speak, forces herself to clear her throat and start again; "Did he…?" She looks back up at her aunt, tilting her head towards where Nick's lies damp on the pillow, loose on his neck being wetted down beneath Eileen's cloth. "Did he tell you?"

"We don't speak like brothers and sisters do." Because brothers do not do to sisters what Nick did to Eileen. A pair of wings flash in Benji's peripheral vision, and Eileen's eyes settle elsewhere in the room, slate gray feathers effective camouflage in a room with similar coloured walls. It's the mockingbird's bold black markings that make its outline visible by the window, curtains drawn shut.

That's a no. "But your mother didn't either, if she is who I think she is." There are not many women that Eileen can imagine Nick having a child with. It puts their last conversation in perspective. "Did you want him to?"

Disappointment slopes the angles of Benji's shoulders despite herself, and the fact that it lacks decorum to feel that way about someone who could die, whose current sleep could slip into a coma and neither of them here would even know it. "Oh, just— after the, um. The meeting? He said something and I thought…" And she trails off, the hand not tangled with Nick's lifting to flip, dismiss the non-promise of being capable of being broken. By now, it doesn't matter.

"But we never really spoke like fathers and sons do. You were there, a lot, when he wasn't. I'm sorry, I would have said something sooner. Or come here sooner."

"I wouldn't have been here." Benji has Astor's father to thank for her being here now, though she does not tell her this or even invoke Gabriel's name; it is always a risky thing in the Dispensary, and talking about Gabriel makes Eileen as uncomfortable as she is talking about Astor. She places the cloth back in the basin. "There's an extra room if you decide that you want to stay," she says. "I can dress the bed and let the others know you're here for Nick."

She rises from the edge of the bed and reaches out to place a hand between Benji's shoulder blades in a light and fleeting touch that's meant to reaffirm something though even Eileen is unsure of exactly what, only that it feels the correct thing to do and satisfies her in a small way when she does. "Some tea first, I think."

"Oh— "

Refusal is on the tip of her tongue until she realises there isn't much that needs her attention otherwise, particularly — she'd already tried her hand at finding Ingrid, and Benji will imagine she is somewhere like Benji is, needing time. "Thank you," she decides upon, sliding a look back to Nick, although she doesn't get up just yet, glancing up the length of Eileen's arm at the touch which seems to loose a little bit of the tension in Benji's spine, if only because it reminds her that it's there.

She nods, once, before sliding her hand free of Nick's and resting it in place. She stands, follows, picking up the pastry as she goes, and when she shuts the door, it's done quietly.

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