Ben knew this park. He hadn't set foot in it for at least eight years. Maybe nine. Once upon a time there'd been a few less cracks in the cement paths, and a lot less crack in the people. It hadn't exactly been picturesque when Ben was a kid, but it had gone way downhill as he grew up. The whole place got condemned the year before Ben died, when some psycho killer left a whole bunch of victims arranged like they were playing on what was left of the playground. Nobody even wanted to develop the land after that. Even the crackheads didn't want to hang out where something that gruesome had gone down.
Ben stopped, halfway out of the SUV. He wondered what to think of that, now. So much of the way he looked at the world had changed, in such a short time.
Ben shrugged to himself, and eased the rest of the way out of the car. He must've been asleep for a while. He'd already missed most of what looked like a really pretty sunset. The red-gold clouds on the horizon were slowly giving way to a soft, purple sky above. The sun was just about gone. There were still a few stray blazes of orange painting the trees, lighting them up from all kinds of crazy angles. In the distance, the shorter, mirrored skyscrapers sort of looked like they were plated in gold.
Even the rusty old iron work along the paths looked pretty, all lit up like that. There were all kinds of reds and orange flecks in the rust that showed up nice in that light. Rust wasn't really all one color. Ben hadn't ever noticed that before. It had been so easy to overlook so many things when he was alive.
There were way more trees here than Ben remembered. The grass was crazy tall, and full of crawling things. He didn't remember there being so many bugs when he was a kid. Ben wondered if they seriously had exterminators in the park when it was open. People didn't want too much actual nature in their 'nature', so maybe. Or maybe the place just filled up with life when all the people were gone. There sure was a lot of it here.
There was grass poking its way up everywhere grass could get, and some places Ben never expected it to get-- like cracks in the middle of the paths. There were bugs crawling in and out of a rusted lamp-post, like they were making a nest in a tree. And-- yikes! There was a beehive taking over the top of a trash can. Ben avoided that one. Animals had been reacting weird to him ever since he died. Ben didn't want to find out the hard way if he had the same effect on bees.
Ben hadn't spent enough time looking at life when it welcomed him. Now he felt awkward, in a place where life was taking over. The further into the park he got, the more certain he was that he just didn't belong. When he was a kid, he ran all over this place, and never feared anything. Now he was afraid of everything, and that was just beyond pathetic. He was dead, hollowed out, and filled up again with something so evil it scared the angels. Crackheads and psycho killers-- try holding a candle to that! He was probably the freakiest thing there had ever been in this city, and he still felt so scared.
A low mumbling made Ben look over, from the path he was on to the little bench around the bend. He hadn't meant to, but he'd stumbled across Mr. White. Ben shoved his hands in his pockets, embarrassed to have blundered on a private moment. Mr. White had a bible open on his lap, and his head was bowed. Ben had never personally owned a bible, they weren't allowed in his house, but he could spot one from a mile away. There were a few tense years in his middle school when who had them and who didn't was a big issue. As one of the have-nots, Ben's instinct was to stay clear.
Ben tried to edge back along the path, to give the guy his privacy. But his ever-present inner screwup wouldn't let him. Before he'd thought out any words, he'd opened his big stupid mouth and started talking.
"You're praying..." he stated the obvious. Well, he was in, he might as well embarrass himself all the way. "... after everything you've seen, how can you still pray?"
"That's how you see it, boy?" Mr. White didn't sound mad at him. He just sounded peaceful. Ben let out a relieved breath, and walked toward the bench where Mr. White was sitting. "Funny," Mr. White said softly. "After everything I've seen, I think I finally understand why I need to pray."
Ben stopped at the bench. He wasn't sure it would still hold two people-- it basically looked to Ben like tetanus with a little bit of iron still mixed in. "What's the point?" Ben asked him, "The world is so ugly, and miserable. How can you believe in God when he lets it get this way?"
"Coz I believe in God, son, not cosmic babysittin'." Mr. White patted the bench beside him, sending a shower of little flakes drifting to the ground. There were little pools of water collected in some of those erosions, and Ben thought he saw a spider crawling up one of the legs. But he eased down onto the bench all the same.
"God's a Father," White said solemnly. "Fathers gotta let their kids find their own way." He left his eyes closed, left his head bowed. Ben was kind of grateful for that, because he didn't have to make eye contact either. He stared at his sneakers, listening. Letting kids find their own way, huh. Ben's father sure had that part of parenting down. Ben bit his lip, to keep from frowning, just in case Mr. White opened his eyes.
"Worst part of bein' a Dad," Mr. White sighed. "You gotta watch the scrapes and bruises over and over." Ben picked at the rust beside him, peeling little flakes away from one of the holes. "You could keep it from happenin', sure," White went on, "But if you love your kid, you gotta let it go on. It's the cuts and bruises what teach 'em why real damage happens."
Ben gawked at that. He just couldn't hold it in, not even for a second. "You lost your family!" he blurted out, "That's not a bruise!"
"If God let it happen, son, it just might be," White intoned. He opened his eyes a little, and gently stroked the page his bible was open to. His fingers stopped on an underlined passage, but Ben didn't feel right trying to read it. The print was way too small anyhow. "Just might be somethin' a lot worse up ahead that I've gotta be strong for."
Ben couldn't decide if that was amazing or awful. He was stuck between conflicting emotions, and they both wanted out all at once. "What? How can you say that?" The words gushed out, picking up speed and volume, "Aren't you just making excuses for what's happening to you? It's like... having something to believe in is more important than it being true!" Frustration won out over everything else, and Ben pointed at the open bible. "You're still reading that book when you see right in front of you what God is really like!"
"Hold up." Mr. White lifted his head, and looked at Ben closely. His eyes narrowed. Ben felt like Mr. White's eyes were drilling right through him, boring through his head and out the back of his skull. "I've heard these words before," he said slowly. "Word for word."
Mr. White closed the bible, and twisted in place to look at Ben more directly. "Exactly what am I lookin' at?" It was hard to look away from that face, especially with the sense of authority creeping back into Mr. White's tone. "And you answer carefully, now," Mr. White cautioned him. "I got me more than one kinda Sight."
Ben edged back, reluctantly. He wanted to disappear, but he felt pinned in place by that sharp voice, and he couldn't wiggle out from under the pressure of those dark, piercing eyes. He swallowed past a cold lump of shame in his throat. He hadn't wanted to upset Mr. White. Here was the first human being Ben had spoken to since his death, the first genuine person he could actually talk to, and Ben had already gone and wrecked everything.
"Whatever you are," White pressed, "you still walk like a boy-- and I raised me three boys. The good Lord gave me a gift when it comes to knowin' when a boy's trying to lie." Ben shifted uncomfortably, trying to figure out what to say. Everything in him just felt choked up. Nothing he could say seemed like it would do anything but make things worse.
"So you tell me--" White insisted. "What are you?"
"He's my responsibility." Nathan's grim tones cut through the tension, and Ben retreated from the bench. Nathan staggered out of the brush and onto the path. His left arm hung limp at his side, and his right held pressure to the wound in his chest. He opened his eyes, and fixed them on White. Those eyes smouldered, steady and challenging despite the tired expression around them. "That's all you need to know."