Ben tugged at his new shirt. It was long-sleeved, and that made him happy. But it was pretty form-fitting, and that really didn't.
Ben didn't have an ounce of flab to be ashamed of. There was no problem in that department. To the contrary, he was about as well-muscled as a fifteen year old boy could hope to be. There was plenty of baby fat in his face, but he had a lot going on from there down. As soon as his brother would let him use the weight machine, Ben had practically lived in the basement. He'd spent entire weekends down there, sculpting his body into the kind of thing that belonged to somebody better.
See, in the movies, when the wimpy kid went to high school, and he got picked on, all he had to do was join a team, or play a sport, and everybody liked him. Ben took the lesson to heart. All he had to do was buff up, and that would mean nobody picked on him anymore. So over the summer before his freshman year, Ben had put every waking hour he could into that weight machine. High school was going to be better than middle school, or grade school, or preschool for that matter. Ben was finally going to belong.
All that hard work didn't change things the way Ben wanted to. If anything, the other kids made even more fun of him when he was fit than they had when he was wimpy. They made jokes about him spending all his time in the gym trolling for gay guys. They called him a 'twink' and a 'stud', and they whistled at him in the shower after gym. He was still a foot shorter than anybody in his class, and he was still the one they liked to shove around. If anything, they shoved him harder, and it made him angrier than he'd ever been before.
One day he finally couldn't put up with it anymore. He turned to the tactic of last resort-- the climactic fight that would finally put an end to the bullying. Ben didn't know how to fight, and he couldn't get lessons. His mother didn't believe in violence. No amount of evidence inflicted on him by his classmates could instill that belief. Ben, on the other hand, was all too aware that violence existed. As he was getting shoved into his locker for the fifth time in one week, kicking and screaming, he decided he was tired of being the only one who wouldn't resort to it. So he lashed out.
The plan was to whip out the ninja moves, and square off with the bad guys. He'd scare them into running away, or hurt them so bad they never tried again. What really happened was messier. It was a lot of clawing and scratching and punching wildly at nothing. It was a lot of anger that wanted out all at once, and no real way to tell it where to go.
When somebody tried to pick Ben up from behind, he didn't even look to see who it was. He lashed out blindly. He kicked, and hit, then his fist connected, and his hand just exploded in a shower of pain. He screamed, and so did everybody around him. The next thing he knew there was somebody lying on top of him. The other boys were being hauled away. One of the school security guards had Ben pinned, and was pulling his hands behind his back. Everybody was looking somewhere else though, and they were looking pretty shocked.
Ben tried to squirm so he could see what they were looking at, and that just made it worse. The security guard yanked his hand, hard, and forced it into place. He felt the flex cuffs tighten around his wrists, pulled so tight that he thought his arms were going to come loose and rip right out of his body. The security guard hauled him to his feet, and turned him around.
That's when he saw her. Miss Sheffield, the nicest teacher he'd ever met. She always wore pretty dresses, and smelled like strawberries. She let him stay late after class when he didn't want to go right home. She let him eat his lunch at his desk when there were kids waiting for him in the cafeteria. She talked to him about his family, and told him she liked what he wrote on his assignments. She didn't tell him he was disappointing all the time. She didn't treat him like he was slow.
She was the only decent person in the whole stinking school.
She was holding her eye, and crying. It was swollen up, all red and puffy, and she had a little cut on her lip. And Ben knew. His heart felt like it was dropping into his stomach. He knew for sure what he'd done.
The rest was a blur. Meetings and school counseling. Interviews with the police, and a meeting with a social worker. Miss Sheffield took a leave of absence, and Ben never saw her again. She'd tried to pull him out of the fight. She'd tried to break it up. Ben wanted to tell her he was sorry, that he hadn't meant to hurt her, but his parents got a lawyer who said it was best Ben say nothing for now. By the time 'for now' was over, Miss Sheffield had moved away.
Ben's lack of focus, his poor social development, and his declining grades were all warning signs, the school said. They said he was antisocial, that he'd planned to hurt someone all summer and that was clear from the way he'd spent his time. A normal boy would have been playing outside. A normal boy would have more friends.
So he went to meetings for a few weeks, and until the end of winter break he saw a doctor every Tuesday. He went back to wearing his shapeless hand-me downs, and walking with his head down. He tried to be invisible. At least he'd stood up to the bullies. At least now they'd leave him alone.
They did, for a while. And after a while, the meetings stopped. Everything went back to normal. Almost. Because the next time Ben got stuffed in a locker, he let it happen. He didn't fight back.
That was the longest morning of his life, and when it was over, he didn't even want to come out. He didn't have a choice. The boys came back at lunch, and pulled him out. There were a lot of them, more than Ben had ever faced before. They dragged him out behind the gym, and Ben just let them. Because they dragged him past a hallway full of people, some of them teachers, and nobody did anything to stop them. Everybody just looked at him, or worse, just looked away. He was the kid who attacked Miss Sheffield, after all. Nobody cared if he got hurt after that. Maybe they never cared at all.
Ben never talked to anybody about what happened behind the gym. He never thought about it, if he could help it. He limped home, his clothes torn, bleeding from what felt like a million places. He had sneaker treads bruised into his chest, and they stayed that way for a week. His lip was split so bad he had to get stitches.
His mother yelled at him for getting into fights. His father said the next step might be military school. The principal called him in for a meeting, and said the next time, they might have to send him to juvenile jail.
A month later Ben was dead. He wondered if anybody cared by now.
Ben shook off the self-pity. It was useless anyhow, it just made him more mad. The shirt was comfy, and it was a nice kind of gray. The jeans were nice and baggy, with extra pockets down the sides, so obviously Juno had cared about the kind of clothes Ben liked to wear. It was kind of impressive, really, that they were the right size. Maybe Juno had grandkids, or something. Ben's father used to say that when a guy has kids, he gets an eye for sizes. He said you can see them growing out of what you bought them, and you know what you need to get next.
Ben grinned up at Nathan. "I can't believe we're meeting some special human warrior for God..." And here was the kicker, "... in a MALL."
And the mall was bustling. It was one of the most cheerful places in all the city, a riot of colour. There was probably more plant life potted along this one concourse than managed to survive in all of downtown. People always dressed up to come here, even the old ladies who just walked up and down the mall. They always had their hair done, they wore the prettiest track suits, and most of them wore earrings that chimed merrily as they power-walked past.
Ben would rather have been on the first floor, above the food court and close to the arcade. It always smelled like baking things there. Cinnamon buns and pretzels and fluffy glazed muffins. There was a Korean barbeque place at the corner of the food court that always had the most amazing food smells. Ben had never been brave enough to try the food, but he'd always wanted to.
Up here it was mostly boutiques, and the third floor of the department store. There were a lot of girls here, though. There were some punks too, because the indie music shop still clung to its third-floor hole in the wall. So many shops got shuttered over the time Ben had been coming to this mall, but somehow that rathole of a music shop survived. It had real old records and even cassette tapes, which Ben just thought was bizarre. But the punks loved it, and they descended on the place in swarms whenever something new came in.
"Hmm." Nathan put a hand on his coat, pulling it a little tighter around him. The air conditioning was blasting, and the angel looked pretty cold. "You'd prefer, what, a dark alley?"
"How many times have you been to the mall, do you think?" Nathan asked, casually, "Couple dozen?"
"A hundred!" Ben answered, "At least!"
"That's a lot of memories," Nathan said softly. "So describe to me one memorable thing that's happened while you were there."
Ben tried to sift through his memories. There had to be something, right?
"You can't, can you." And Nathan was right, he couldn't. "When people are sufficiently absorbed in themselves, anything at all can go on around them unnoticed."
Nathan gave him a very slight half-smile, something milder than a smirk but not entirely friendly either. "You'll find the world of the spirit disappointingly sensible about things like that. Most things--"
Nathan stopped. He pinched the bridge of his nose. His eyes squeezed shut, tight, like he had a headache coming on. "Oh, for crying out... You know what? Forget I said anything." Nathan sighed, waving a hand towards the parking exit. "Apparently we're taking a serious detour through cartoon-land."
The guy standing at the doors was a lot to take in. He wore a broad-brimmed purple hat that flopped down over his eyes, and a long black trenchcoat with its absurdly high collar turned up around his face. The coat had a deep crimson lining that made Ben think of an old Dracula costume. That wasn't helped by the enormous crucifix around his neck, or his narrow lift-heeled boots. His hands were wrapped like a fighter's, or maybe bandaged, Ben couldn't really tell. Everything, from his purple tux to his Dracula coat, was slashed up here and there, making him look a stylish kind of damaged. He looked like he'd been in a dozen action-movie battles, and hadn't changed his clothes since stepping off the final sequel's poster.
"Umm... wow." Ben mouthed the last word fully, packing the last word with every sarcastic nuance a single syllable could hold.
Nathan just shook his head, pinching the bridge of his nose even tighter. The human tracker turned without a word, and stalked out into the parking structure. Nathan followed, so Ben tagged along in the angel's shadow.
They kept walking, deeper and deeper into the parking structure. Ben looked around, and noticed, they were running out of cars. It wasn't a busy day, and the third floor parking level was almost empty. Ben looked up at Nathan. Nathan glanced down at him, and nodded, though Ben wasn't quite sure why.
"Hey, yo... Raggedy Damned," Nathan called after the man. "What say we cut the drama?" The guy didn't even break his stride. "Pardon if I'm stepping on your groove here," Nathan said, a little louder, "but you're kind of wrecking the whole point of a crowded meeting place, get it?"
The guy didn't answer. He didn't even turn. Nathan stopped following, and put a hand on Ben's shoulder to stop him. Ben kept one ear on the conversation, but there was a sound bothering him, and he wanted to figure out what it was. It was like a humming, but, it was really loud. It was like an engine, but not like you'd hear in a parking structure. It was too loud, and it was running too hard. A motorcycle maybe? Those jerks liked to rev their engines inside.
"Here's the plan," Nathan yelled after the tracker, "You break whatever vow of silence you've got going, we pause in the dramatic-striding-forth, we exchange names, and we start tracking."
That was definitely an engine, Ben was sure of it. And it was a big engine. And it was getting closer. It was a car running like this was Daytona, and it was coming this way. Ben pivoted in place, just in time to see an SUV coming up the ramp. It caught air as it rounded a cement post, and its headlights bounced over Nathan's shoulder. Then, click, click, the highbeams flashed on the face of Raggedy Damned.
But there wasn't a face there. Just bandages wrapped around a withered skull. One of the bandages was practically cutting into the guy's eye socket. The other socket was just an empty pit of nothing with little ridges of bone showing through. The guy's face was as bandaged-up as his hands, and Ben wondered if there was even anything under there.
Nathan's eyes narrowed. He took a step back, falling into a wide defensive stance between the raggedy man and the boy. Behind him, the SUV's tires squealed. It fishtailed between rows of cars, then straightened out, bearing directly down on the angel. It was really close, and it was accelerating. In front of him, the empty-eyed tracker let out a loud, rattling growl. Nathan sized up the whole mess with a single word.
Nathan threw his weight against Ben, shoving the boy ahead of him. "Run, Ben!" he yelled. Ben did not need persuading. "Use the pillars," Nathan pointed, "Go!"
The SUV didn't even turn a little. It sped straight past Nathan's heels. The turbulence it kicked up was so fierce, and it passed so close, Nathan's coat nearly whipped him off his feet as he ran. It plowed straight into Raggedy Damned, or whoever the guy really was.
"I'm so scared!" Ben yelped.
"It's all right--" Nathan soothed. Ben had never heard him be soothing before. He was surprisingly good at it. "Be ready to move."
The SUV's bumper hit Raggedy Damned first, sweeping his legs out from under him. His torso slapped hard against the SUV's hood, putting a deep dent in the middle of it. He slid up the hood, until his head smacked into the windshield. His head stopped moving for a second, but his legs didn't-- he tumbled over the SUV's roof, and launched into the air. The SUV finally braked-- it took a while to skid to a stop, but it just managed before reaching the far wall of the garage.
Raggedy Damned tumbled, rolling into a twisted pile of goth chic on the cement. Dull red-black fluid oozed from his bandages. Ben wasn't sure he could even call that stuff blood. It was goopy, and kind of watery in places. It didn't belong to anything living, that was for sure. Realizing that didn't make the squirming in the pit of Ben's stomach go away. The thing was still moving, still gurgling behind those bandages. Its twisted limbs were trying to untangle themselves. Ben hid his eyes, but the image wouldn't go away.
"Get your skinny ass in motion, fool!" The man behind the wheel of the SUV shouted. "The rest of this ambush ain't far off!"