Dark Stories: Ben
I am closing in on finishing up with my Dark Stories that I will be posting on the blog. I wish they could go on and on, just because I have enjoyed embellishing on the characters that I created for my trilogy, but I have tapped into most of the characters with these stories, with a few minor exceptions.
One of my favorite characters is Ben, or Big Ben, as he is fondly known as to those who know him. He is sort of an enigma, or at least I tried to make him out to be that for the most part. He doesn’t say much-he is a giant of a man who doesn’t seem interested in much of anything except being left alone to do what he does best, for the most part. At least that is how he starts out, but it becomes more clear where his heart, and intentions lie as Into The Dark moves forward. He plays even a larger, more crucial role in Beyond The Dark, and once again, he is probably one of my favorite characters.
For better or for worse, the little story that appears below pulls the covers back on Ben and makes him less of a mystery. I believe after reading this, you will probably agree that he is the most unique of all the characters in the trilogy. In his own way, he stands out from everyone else more than Michael or even Cindy does.
This story takes place, like many of the others, predominantly in flashback, though it begins and ends after Ben has rescued Jeff and Ray from the deathtrap they were facing in Manchester. As always, there are probably some missed typos, and I ask for your forgiveness for those. I hope they don’t detract from your reading of this brief story about Big Ben.
Ben didn’t bother looking back at Jeff. It was wasted effort and efficiency was the hallmark of everything Ben did out in the open these days. Pausing to make a decision about what to do could be fatal. He knew the path he was running on, so it wasn’t as if he had to make any random choices anyway. The route he had taken was one that would distract and frustrate, then confuse and baffle the simple minded stiffs following him and Jeff. It was a piece of cake.
Once the group had decided that RVs were their best bet for staying alive, it had been Ben’s job to find a place to park them. And once he’d found a home for them at the edge of Manchester, he’d focused on committing the streets, buildings, and neighborhoods of the small town to memory so he would know all the threats and dangers that he would be forced to face in the future.
There would be no accidental dead ends and no second chances needed for his trip back to the RV camp. Even with a hundred and sixty pound kid on his back and a wheezing, out of shape man trudging along behind him, there was nothing in the town of Manchester capable of stopping Big Ben from making his way back to safety.
Before today it had always been quiet in the small town. A few wretched figures tucked away here and there, oblivious to his movements throughout the area. Once they realized one of the living was amongst them, it was always too late for them. Ben didn’t waste arrows or bother pulling his knife out. If he spotted a single ghoul, almost without fail he would move in and drive their head into the pavement before any synapses fired in their messed up brains. One quick, fluid movement. Once you learned how to do it, it was hard to forget. The results of his assaults were generally all the same: they were rarely noticed by the other infected nearby and there was only a limited amount of mess.
Most of the bodies were dry. Blood and other fluids that were a part of the normal human body had often already evaporated or leaked out of the stiffs Ben put out of commission. So when their heads met the pavement, if he did it correctly, there was no splash back, no gory splatter. No muss, no fuss.
Most of the shadow people, as Ben liked calling them, were not restless enough to investigate another decommissioned ghoul after it hit the pavement. They mostly hid in the dark, perhaps to avoid the detrimental effects of the sun on their deteriorating physiques. He had no real idea what the reason was for them hiding, but was appreciative that they didn’t bother investigating the corpses of their own kind after he executed them. Dealing with singles limited his headaches.
If there was more than one, it was best to hide and wait for them to depart. Only a small percentage could sniff the big man out and if Ben did not want to be heard, they simply did not hear him. Of course, when he was discovered, it tended to be over before they knew it.
If it wasn’t so sad, it might be comical in a dark and twisted way: he could swear he saw the surprise on their faces when he crushed their throats. That first little maneuver was so they couldn’t alert their buddies with excited moans that came with their discovery of warm flesh. Sometimes there was enough time to see what might pass for fear on their faces just before he crushed their heads beneath a giant work boot or cracked their skulls with whatever blunt object might be handy. It was almost enough to make him feel sorry for those tormented beings. Almost, but not quite enough to give him pause in his duties. Because if he slipped up he might get bitten, so there was no room in Ben’s heart for sympathy for the already dead.
Spending time out in the wilderness of the world was therapeutic for Ben. A thousand times better than that shrink he had paid to try and unscramble his brain a couple years back. Back then, it had all been about trying to forget; forget the life he had led, in all its lurid glory. It had been hard to do, nearly impossible at times. So it seemed amazing that something as simple as a name change, to Ben, did such wonders for his soul.
None of the people he was with now knew his real name. None of them recognize him, so when he was dubbed “Big Ben” he latched on to the name change like he had been thrown a life preserver. It was not as if anyone would recognize his real name, Shawn Horton, anyway, but Ben just felt right. The world had shifted on its axis once again and so Shawn Horton, who had also been known as Bloodthirsty Rick Roberts, was again changing his name to suit his new existence.
No one in Cincinnati had recognized him when he returned home from Atlanta, outside of his family and friends. Being one of the masked bad guys helped insure that was the case. When he stepped out of the ring and more importantly, out of the spotlight, it was the first step in abolishing all the old and ugly things that permeated his existence for years: the botched marriage to Becky, all the broken bones, and the part where he had sold his soul for a little bit of glory.
The final step, or so it seemed, was becoming Ben: just some big dumb guy who knew how to handle himself in a world where the dead decided to get up and start walking around again.
When Ben thought back on things, he knew it all began and ended with Isaiah. Isaiah Ezekiel Jones, head of IEJ Wrestling Enterprises, promoter extraordinaire and manager of one of the largest stables of professional wrestlers in the United Wrestling Federation. Isaiah was a retired wrestler and was slick and smart enough to have grabbed a share of the profits made with his body back in the sixties and seventies, when he was in his prime. There was not nearly as much money in it back then, but Isaiah was smart enough to invest and stake his claim with a chain of fast food restaurants that had a presence throughout the southeast. Isaiah was the one who discovered Shawn Horton, an ex-marine and wanna-be body builder, and turned him into one of the best paid bad guys in the sport of professional wrestling.
Shawn had been just too damn big for his own good when he had been in the Marine Corps. He had seen some action in Desert Storm and had been dubbed “mountain” by the other jar heads. Not just because of his size, but because he was an immovable rock that was as quiet and immutable as stone. He obeyed orders, was surprisingly light on his feet, but had little interest in showing off his exceptional strength to everyone around him, which left him isolated for most of his tour of duty. So when his four years were up, Shawn was glad to be done with it.
He returned to the states and decided to make a go of things in Atlanta. One of the few guys he had made friends with in the corps told him how great a place it was to live, so he thought he would give it a shot. Not knowing what to really do with himself, he got work in a gym as a personal trainer, bluffing his way into the job mostly. That was where he was discovered by Isaiah.
Shawn cut a pretty impressive figure and despite his shyness, Isaiah saw potential in the big lug. He wasn’t “pretty”, so a mask took care of that. Later would come tattoos, a bald head, and a devilish goatee. Isaiah dazzled Shawn with promises of easy money and a lot of fun along the way. He introduced him to several other wrestlers who did a good job luring him and coaxing him to take a shot at life inside the ring.
Six months later, he was Bloodthirsty Rick Roberts, one of the masked superstars of the UWF. He signed a lifetime contract with Isaiah and was taught the ropes in the business. He dyed his beard pitch black, learned all of the dirty moves he could, and created a few trademark catch phrases for the fans. He was on his way.
Becky was one of Isaiah’s stable of hot girls that were a part of his traveling road show. She got paid to be one of the good guy’s girlfriends and to maybe have the occasional catfight with one of the other girls up in the ring during introductions. It stirred up the crowd and gave the wrestlers ample reason to display what appeared to be real hatred for each other. She was a statuesque platinum blond, and had a surgically enhanced body that could make a Playboy Playmate weep with envy. Ben was a hooked on her before he even realized it, but Becky ignored him for the most part. Being shy, at least outside of the ring, he could barely talk to her unless it was a part of the script, when he was trying to “steal” her away from her onstage boyfriend. It was not until he got to be a popular attraction that she took notice of him. Even then, it took him becoming one of the star attractions facing off against the other big named talent every night before she actually deigned to speak to him.
Perhaps it was how naïve he was, or maybe it was just how opportunistic Becky was that Shawn’s timid efforts to court her turned into a whirlwind affair in no time flat. Three months after their first date they were married. Isaiah, ever the opportunist, turned something he was originally opposed to into something he could promote inside the ring. Becky became a cold deceiver, stabbing her ring good guy boyfriend in the back by becoming Bloodthirsty’s main squeeze.
All Shawn knew was that he was happy and had found the girl he would spend the rest of his life with. Becky was brash and bold, exactly his opposite. The mask gave him enough courage to stand up in front of thousands of fans and growl at them, but Becky gave him confidence to believe in himself outside the ring. Together they grew in popularity on the circuit as one of the elite couples on the wrestling scene. Shawn knew they would be together forever.
Forever lasted exactly one year.
Much later, it was obvious to Ben that the affair had been going on the whole time he and Becky had been together. But at the time he caught her and Isaiah in bed, he it was as if he’d been sucker punched by the deceit. For better or for worse, Shawn had trusted his little lady and her deception had been complete. When he discovered them together, Becky tried to convince him that it was all some sort of big mistake, and when Shawn didn’t buy that, she told him she was sleeping with the boss for the both of them, to help advance their careers.
Shawn, who had become Bloodthirsty Rick but had yet to turn into Big Ben, didn’t listen to a word she said and nearly killed Isaiah that night. The old man had been a pretty good wrestler in his day, and was still in good shape, but he was no match for the massive ex-Marine, who broke five of the promoter’s ribs, three of his fingers, his nose, and his right arm.
When Shawn finally calmed down, the police took him into custody and his face, his real face, was smeared all over the local and regional papers for the next couple of days.
Becky divorced him and Isaiah sued. In the end, Shawn was banned from wrestling for life and lost his three homes and all his other possessions to Becky. Most of his wealth, which Isaiah convinced him to reinvest in the wrestling operation, was gone as well. Shawn paid off his lawyers and washed his hands of it all. He took what little of what remained of his fortune and moved back to his hometown of Cincinnati, where no one had any clue who he had once been.
That had been almost two years ago. There was still a little money left over, and he didn’t have to scrounge for an existence and could even afford a shrink who he went to every week for almost a year, until the doctor told him that he had to do the talking if he wanted to get better.
He bought a small, secluded cabin in Kentucky down on Cave Run Lake, which gave him a chance to learn how to hunt and fish. It was comforting, being down there alone. Bow hunting became Shawn’s favorite new pastime. He split his time between there and Cincinnati, where he took on a job hoisting boxes in a factory. The money was crap, but it kept him busy and physically active. Shawn’s ripped physique was beginning to turn more toward a more pear shape. It was age and the lack of a desire to go to the gym anymore. That was how his father had been, barrel-chested and big armed. Even with his diminished physicality, Shawn still cast an imposing shadow and was still just as light on his feet as ever.
After a while, he got comfortable with this new existence, almost happy.
When Shawn heard the first reports about the contagion sweeping the world that might spell the end of everything, his plan was to make his way down to his cabin, but things got hairy way too quick. So instead he planned on ways of getting away from the city on foot, away from the thick knot of the dead that was growing larger every day.
Military training mixed with his wrestling experience became a pretty useful combination when it was made clear that there were a lot more of the infected than living out on the streets of Cincinnati.
Though Shawn was sure he could do okay on his own, he decided hooking up with some other people might enhanced his chances for long term survival. That was when he met Michael and the small band of people traveling with him. That was when he became Ben, the stoic giant who didn’t ask questions and did just about anything and everything everyone else needed to stay alive.
Ben had no inclination to become a leader, so he and Michael got along just fine. For Michael, it was clear that having this huge ally around was going to come in very handy. For Ben, it was easy to accept his role in this new little society. While he wasn’t sure he wanted to stick around with the group forever, he did like the idea of being needed. The cabin could wait. He would make his way there when he helped the others to find a permanent safe haven and they became self sufficient.
It was rough at first. The factory had been a really bad idea, and not one that Ben had been in favor of, but he let that go because Michael had believed it would work. After they fled from that nightmare, it was easy to see that the volume of infected anywhere near the city was going to overwhelm them no matter where they hid. They needed to migrate further east, toward the countryside.
Ben never made any unsolicited suggestions but the others, including Michael, were beginning to rely on him more and more for almost everything. The combination of his military training and the time he spent learning how to hunt and live off the land down at his cabin was invaluable to the group of city and suburban dwellers. He was the only one in the group not afraid to stalk the wilderness, to forge ahead and find the group new and safe places to go. The world at large was a fairly quiet place now, with no loud wrestling promoters or deceitful wives to mess with him. Just the shadow people. They might not like him, but he always knew where he stood with them.
So when Michael brought up the idea of getting an RV to just drive off in, Ben suggested they get several of them, and that they find a place where they could hide them away from the rest of the world. It would be better than hiding out in some building they had to fortify and barricade to the point where they could never leave. They could circle the RVs up to offer a walled in fortress and then flee in them if needed. Michael was skeptical at first; at least until Ben assured him that he could find the perfect place for them to put the RVs that would give them a chance to live unmolested.
And that is exactly what he did.
It felt good to be appreciated. Ben knew he was being used, just like he had been in the marines and as a wrestler, but this was different. Michael was, for all intents and purposes, his boss, but he didn’t push. The others? Well, they just needed him, and they appeared to be grateful that he was willing to do everything they were unwilling or incapable of doing for themselves. They didn’t beg or wheedle, but smiled and were friendly, despite the small amount of talking he was willing to do with them. Mostly, they were good people. Mostly.
Amongst the adults, Lydia was his favorite. The sweet woman treated him with respect and appreciated everything he did. She didn’t have to thank him for everything, but she did—every chance she got.
The little children she watched out for were angels. Especially Sadie, who Ben adored. Making them little wooden dolls and toy soldiers was one of the few pleasures he could provide them, and the fact that they were ecstatic with the results, despite how amateurish his efforts were, made him feel all the more protective over them.
The two teenage boys were good kids and Ben liked them well enough. They left him alone for the most part and even when they moved into his RV, they understood that he needed his space.
The new people were okay too, despite Michael and his two stooges instant dislike of Jeff. Ben was tempted to actually suggest that Jeff just go with the flow and not push Michael’s buttons so much, but why bother? It was clear that both of them were pigheaded, so nothing he said was likely to make much difference. Instead, it was easier to just sit back and watch what happened. Things would likely settle down within a few days between those two.
At least that was what Ben thought before Michael’s screwed up expedition.
Ben wasn’t afraid of the stiffs. Not on a physical level at least. He was careful to wear a thick coverall when he went out on his little forays, and for the most part the undead were weak and incapable of doing much to threaten him. What strength they had lied in their numbers and boundless determination to devour everyone in sight. He could accept that challenge. Even though he was not fearful of them, he was no fool. He never assumed anything with the shadow people. They were dangerous despite how pathetic they were.
Taking them out had always been easy … at least after he got past the queasy feeling that came with his first execution, which had been one of his neighbors. Ben still felt a vague sense of regret as he was eliminating the undead, but his priorities were always clear. He estimated he had “killed” several hundred ghouls, though he did his best not to keep track of the number. It was just a morbid statistic he had come to accept as a fact of this new life he found himself living.
Ben respected Michael. The man had some good ideas, though perhaps he was weak on his execution of some of them and needed a bit of assistance now and then. He kept everyone organized and focused, and was a natural leader. Ben didn’t feel compelled to follow him, but it was clear that almost everyone still alive needed someone to take charge and assure them that it would all work out in the end. Michael was more than willing to do just that.
Unfortunately, there were some annoying side effects that went along with having the young man as a leader. Michael seemed obsessed with testing those around him; testing their loyalty in particular. It was as if he believed he was destined to build some sort of society that would somehow take back the world from the undead, and he needed faithful subjects willing to do whatever he asked of them to insure his victory.
So when Jeff came along, someone who was a bit too independent minded, Michael felt obligated to put him in his crosshairs. That had to be the reason for the screwy food run. Ben knew there was no other reason for sending everyone out; he could more effectively take care of getting food and other supplies for the camp alone than a whole group of clumsy people following in his wake. Sending them all out was a power trip for Michael, pure and simple.
Ben almost said something about it to Michael, questioning him on the wisdom of his decision, but after seeing the confrontations in the camp before they left, he decided not get in the middle of things.
Now he was dealing with the unfortunate results of that hesitancy.
Ben was angry. Angry he had not spoken up and suggested an alternative to this snafu and angry he had not kept a closer watch on the little expedition as it moved into town. Instead, he had gone deeper into Manchester, surveying the various buildings and streets to convince himself things were as quiet as they had been for the past few weeks.
That was when he realized there was going to be trouble.
The ghouls he saw as he slinked from building to building were agitated, aroused like they hadn’t been since they’d first come to the town, rolling the RVs down the road and pulling them off into the woods. They were bouncing off one another, wandering the streets when before, they had been content to bury themselves in the deepest shadows they could find.
Perhaps it had been the minivan when it had driven into the area the day before, and once again, when it had been driven onto the road earlier, when the group going on the supply run had piled out of it and walked down the street toward town.
After seeing how many were stiffs were wandering the streets of Manchester, Ben knew he needed to get the group out of there before the ghouls could pinpoint their position. But by then it was already too late. He signaled to Michael over the walkie-talkie, but by that time the rest of the group had already left the van and were on their idiotic scavenger hunt.
When he heard the first shots, Ben was already running at top speed, trying to get back to the group before it was too late, though he suspected it had been too late the minute the others had driven out of the camp on this fool’s errand.
Finding Ray and Jeff as they were about to be overwhelmed had only reinforced that belief. He managed to save them, but given Ray’s condition and the shit storm that had been stirred up already, things were ugly and were about to get uglier still.
Ben broke free of the last building and took off at a sprint across the road. He had chosen an alternative path back to the camp; a route he had mapped out a couple of weeks earlier just in case something bad like this happened.
Ray’s dead weight in his arms slowed him down only a little bit. He’d dealt with packs that were just as heavy under equally tense situations. No situation quite as perilous as this one, though. Ray’s lolling head and quiet whimpers as he bounced up and down were far worse to cope with for Ben than the challenge of having to carry the boy’s weight on his shoulder.
Ben could hear heavy breathing behind him. He slowed to a fast trot to allow Jeff to catch up, knowing that if the other man fell behind, he might give away their position. The moaning was far too loud, but was still quite a ways behind them. The dead would continue to seek them out, but if they lost sight of them and couldn’t smell them, they wouldn’t know where to go.
Still, it was risky heading directly back to camp. Finding a place to dig in and cover up for the night probably would have been the best thing to do. Ben had done that on a couple of different occasions, even when he only suspected he’d garnered unwanted attention on one of his journey’s into Manchester. On both occasions, the coast was clear by morning and he never knew for sure if his ploy had been necessary. Still, waiting things out guaranteed the camp would remain safe. So it was tempting to pull off into one the buildings he knew for certain was clear and wait things out with Jeff and the teenager.
But if he did that, Ray would die out here.
The kid was dying. Ben was no fool and had no delusions about getting him back to camp being the way to save him. The teen was getting weaker every second and in a few hours, maybe even sooner, he would stop breathing. Soon after that, perhaps within moments, he would turn into one of the shadow people, and Ben would be forced to smash his skull into the pavement, or at the very least, slip his hunting knife into the back of the boy’s skull. But if it was Ray’s destiny to die, he was going to die amongst friends, not in some dusty abandoned storefront.
Ben had heard the van when it had departed without Ray and Jeff. The others, or at least everyone beside Marcus, had made it out of that mess alive. Ben hadn’t seen that bastard Marcus’s corpse, but could put two and two together. Jeff had been wielding the dumb S.O.B.’s shotgun and as the old saying went, the only way something like that happen was if he had pried it from Marcus cold dead hands. As far as Ben was concerned, Marcus’s death was nothing to be sad about. But that wasn’t how Frank or Michael would see things. They would be out for blood once they knew what had happened … even if the dipshit had gone and gotten himself bitten and the others had been forced to brain him to protect themselves.
Nope, things were about to get very messy back at camp, and not just because an entire town filled with undead were all riled up.