"Is he going to be OK?"
Ben looked down at Nathan. Juno had cut his hair short,and so far the regrowth hadn't made it far past his shoulders. It was all fanned out, a halo of gold against a dark pillow.
"It's hard to say," May whispered. Her hands were folded in prayer, her head bowed. "This kind of wound--"
Nathan was asleep, or passed out maybe, on Juno's futon. The pillow and the blanket were dark red, kinda purplish, like wine or some kind of fancy berry. It was nice. Everything May had was nice. She was kneeling beside the futon, watching over Nathan as he slept. The purple dress she was wearing now was even prettier than the red one she'd been wearing when he met her. It had shiny pink flowers with frilly leaves embroidered into it, and Ben thought he saw some kind of bird hiding amongst them. Her comb had red enamel on it this time, and so did the chopsticks in her hair. But her eyes were filled with worry, and her face was kind of angry. Not at Ben, though. Not at him.
"Guns are such cowardly, such reckless--" May sputtered, "Such human weapons!" She shook her head. She ran her hand over Nathan's chest. Her fingers hovered over his ribs, never actually touching him. "Once loosed, a bullet tunnels. It's a greedy, destructive little beast." She withdrew her hand, her face tight with concern. "It seeks out the softest and most vulnerable places."
"Such a small thing to be so dangerous." Juno wasn't far either. He was gazing down at the Thorn. He'd laid it across a cotton pad in one of May's old jewelry boxes, but he hadn't closed it yet. He touched the jeweled eye tentatively, and it lit, a soft green glow sparkling in that tiny pupil.
"It is very hard for us to understand weapons without the responsibility of will behind them," May looked at Ben. Her eyes turned apologetic, when she saw how uncomfortable he was.
"At least it's a comfort to know Lamayel is alive somewhere," Juno said softly. He closed the jewelry box, and set it down amongst other curios. The shelves near the window were full of little curiousities, mostly sculptures and pieces of native art. Native to what, Ben didn't know. But they were definitely native to somewhere. "But I think I should be the one wielding this, when the time comes." He patted the box, his fingers lingering a while before he finally let it go.
Juno left to get dinner out of the kitchen. May nodded at Ben, and tilted her head toward the table-- Ben got the message. He should go. She remained by Nathan's side, whispering to him softly though he didn't seem to hear.
Ben sat at the dining table. This was the chair, he thought, where Nathan sat when Juno told him Ben saved his life. Not that it meant anything. Ben sulked. He picked at his food. It was all foreign stuff. There were little bowls and weird flat spoons and chopsticks. He didn't know how to eat foreign food. His mom bought Chinese all the time, but he always had forks and regular spoons to eat it with.
Juno seemed to understand though. When he brought out the last bowl of food, he brought out a fork and a spoon too. The rice smelled good, and even the weird slimy green stuff kind of looked like it might be tasty. Juno put a few things on his plate, and Ben picked at them, wondering where to start.
"Mr-- umm...." Nathan had told him the name, when he first mentioned Juno. But it was really long, and now all Ben could remember was that it had a lot of Ls in it.
"Juno is fine. I've worn out attachments to other names." Juno ladled some cloudy soup into one of the little bowls. He dropped some of the green stuff and some tofu-- that was one thing Ben recognized-- into the soup.
"I overheard--" Ben pushed his green stuff around. He wasn't really sure of it yet, but he wanted to try. "Is that what you meant by 'graveyard nails'? The way he--"
"It's a sign he hasn't been aware for very long," Juno said gently. The way Juno spoke made Ben feel better. He tried the shallow spoon, but the green stuff kept slipping out of it. He got some tofu, though, and some of the cloudy soup. It wasn't half bad. It was actually really comforting-- soft, salty, and warm. The more of it Ben ate, the more comforting it became.
"To heal we push our energies into the structure of the body," Juno explained patiently. "His is still indiscriminate." Juno lifted his little bowl, sipping right from the side. He used the flat spoon in it, too. Ben tried it that way, and got his first bite of the green stuff. It felt funny on his tongue, but it tasted nice too. Ben put down his spoon. He tried not to slurp as he sucked another piece of green stuff off the side of the bowl.
"We all do it," Juno continued. "Push peripheral parts of our processes too hard." What a mouthful, Ben thought, and smiled despite himself. He pulled the smile down quickly, though. For one thing it felt like he had a bit of that green stuff stuck in his teeth. He tried to push it around with his tongue.
"So he's using up the body now?" Something from the file Nathan had written for him was bothering Ben. Or something Nathan had told him. Something about human bodies not being able to take the strain when angels used them.
"He'll refine his ability as more of his humanity falls away," Juno reassured him. "Practice helps."
Ben looked down at his bowl. It was still pretty hot. He blew on it. The little clouds inside parted, and made delicate swirls around the bowl. Lose his humanity, Ben thought, if the guy he knew was Nathan with too much humanity, what would he be like when he woke up with even less?
"You feel responsible," Juno soothed, "You shouldn't. Just eat." He slid a little wooden board across the table. It had a pink log on it. But it was white on the inside, the pink was just like a fragment of a rainbow around the end. There were a few pieces sliced off. They looked like little pink-lipped smiles. They were so cheerful, Ben had to taste them. They were chewy, and sweet. He didn't really know what they tasted like. He decided they tasted like smiles.
Ben smiled at Juno, and Juno smiled back, his weathered face crinkling up like old paper. Ben thought of Grampa Joe again, and looked down quickly. He ate the rest of his meal in silence, and ducked into the bedroom as soon as it was over. Better to quit while he was ahead.
He spent the rest of the night at the computer. He didn't even look at the bed much. It was inviting, with its pretty blue sheets and that warm comforter. Ben wasn't sure what the problem was-- the way he felt guilty for messing up everything when he first slept here, or the fear gripping him every time he tried to think about sleeping at all.
"I see you found the clothes Maka fetched." May's voice made Ben jump. She moved so silently, he hadn't even heard the door slide open. Or closed, for that matter, because when Ben looked up the door was closed behind her. "A little smoky," May grinned, "But at least they're yours."
Ben clicked the mouse listlessly. It was nice to be back in one of his oversized turtlenecks, even if it was one of the green ones. He'd put the red ones straight in the wash, though, because all his clothes still reeked from the apartment fire. Nathan had stolen a few possessions out of his house for him, one of the few nice things the angel ever did for him. And that felt like a lifetime ago.
"What are you up to?" May stepped up to the desk, and it dawned on Ben that he hadn't even answered her.
"Oh, sorry..." he stumbled over the words. "Just checking to see if this girl wrote me back..." His anonymous blog hardly ever updated, and he wasn't surprised when nobody read it. Maybe if he added pictures or something. Nah. It was just such a small niche. A few people liked what they thought was his make-believe life as a dead kid. If they only knew.
He hit refresh again. Nothing. He pushed the mouse away. "Wish I could talk to girls I could SEE," he complained. Charlie didn't count. Charlie wasn't just a girl. "I'm such a nerd."
"That's nothing new," May grinned at him, mirth twinkling in her dark blue eyes. "One life, Juno shot notes into my window with arrows." She sighed, shaking her head. "He was a lousy shot," she chuckled, "but it was adorable."
"Hey May--" Ben asked over his shoulder, as she turned to go. "What's it like, remembering all those lives?" He shrugged, looking back at his screen. "I never get why vampires whine about it, I think it would be cool. Like, you're clued in. Nobody can tell you what to believe."
"Vampires speak to how sad man is when he outlives what he loves," May said, walking slowly towards the door. "Real immortality is different." She paused at the divider, as though she needed a rest. "Most of the sad things blur into a background for the moments you treasure," she reassured him. "On balance life is beautiful. That's all anyone needs to remember."
The computer beeped. Ben looked back at the screen and refreshed it-- just emails from some stupid advertiser. So frustrating! He turned to ask May another question, but she was already gone.
As usual, it was well after midnight by the time Ben quit clicking refresh. Ben pushed away from the keyboard. He stripped off his turtleneck, and headed for bed. Shirtless, he flopped down on top of the covers. He stared up at the hardwood roof on top, tracing all those little swirls in the wood-grain with his eyes.
What moments did he even treasure, Ben wondered? The few things he could remember about being with Grampa Joe just made him sadder every time he thought about them. Mostly he thought about the fights, and about all the time he spent alone. He'd lived his whole life, and now it was over, and if he lived again, what would he even remember about the person he was today? A lonely little loser, he thought. Somebody who never did anything good for anybody. Ben closed his eyes.
"I was right." Charlie's voice. Ben was there with her, and she had the old book open between them. That's all Ben really knew about what was in the book, that it was really, really old. Its pages were all cracked and turning funny colours, and it had a real leather cover that had to be oiled or that would crack too. She'd made this high-pitched little squeal the first time she saw it. Ben loved how excited she got every time he fished that book out of his bookbag. Ever since she saw that book, they'd met in the library every day for lunch, and every conversation had been about what it might contain.
Well, for her those lunch hours had been about the book. For Ben, every conversation had been about watching the choker move on her neck, watching a smile break out of those dark-lined lips. She always wore an ankh, and it bounced a little when she laughed. Ben liked that, and the way she always smelled like cloves. She had beads in her hair and she wore skull earrings on bad days. She was the only one in his miserable school who would talk to him, but she was perfect, so that was all right.
"You know what that is?" She lifted the book, her long black fingernail tapping at an upside-down star. Inside it was what looked like a really angry goat, and outside it were letters Ben recognized from his 'cultural colouring books', each paired with letters in the squiggly language that made up the rest of the book. IThNLV didn't really spell anything, as far as Ben knew. Or maybe ThIVLN, he wasn't sure which way it was supposed to go, since it was mixed in with other languages. But the last thing Ben wanted was disappoint her. So he nodded.
"That's a Sigil of Baphomet," Charlie explained anyway. "It's gonna be our Rosetta Stone." It was sitting next to a drawing, a powerful man with a bull's head, his head thrown back as if to roar. There was more of that squiggly writing around it, and some pictures Ben had never really been able to interpret. They always felt like directions, but Ben wasn't sure for what. Charlie really dug them, and that was enough.
"I showed it to the guy at the reference desk, and he thinks he can help us decode the rest." Charlie was talking fast, and her eyes were all bright. Not filled up with weird light, like Nathan's when the angel got mad. Just sparkling and happy.
She was so excited. Ben opened his eyes. He didn't remember turning off the lights, or getting under the covers. It felt like he'd just rested his eyes. If only we'd known.
You got her attention.
It was getting easier to deal with those words in his head.
That was the point of showing it to her.
Well, not just in his head. They seemed to come from all over, they seemed to shake right up through his guts. They made his skin crawl like it wanted to get away from him. They blotted out everything else so he had no choice but to pay attention.
Now she's in a cult.
And then a terrible sinking feeling started in Ben's chest.
Because of me?
Captive to her illusions.
It wasn't really an answer, but Ben didn't need one. That old book had been full of stuff his mother didn't want in the house. Crazy stuff, with pictures of demons and angels and people doing ritual stuff. His mother had screamed at him about what happened to peoples' lives, how their families ended up when they lived with that kind of backwards superstition. Where had it taken Charlie after he died?
She won't suffer long.
What's that supposed to mean? Will they kill her? People got killed in cults. It's how you always heard about them. They would make her drink something, and they'd all be found together.
Your angel doesn't trust you enough to tell you what will happen?
Trust him? That was a laugh. Ben couldn't even imagine Nathan trusting him. What would that even be like?
He probably fears you will use the power he is afraid to wield.
The Thorn... Ben thought. He'd taken an awfully long time to use it in the car, hadn't he? Maybe Nathan was afraid of it, after all. Juno hadn't thought Nathan should use it, either, had he?
Their frenzied suicides will make it impossible to follow the captive Aspect. The mind-splitting pitch of their suffering will drown out her cries.
I can't let that happen. Ben slid out of bed. May or Juno must've turned out the lights. Somebody'd been here, because Ben's clothes were out of the laundry, and folded neatly on the coffee table. Ben slid one of the baggy red turtlenecks on.
He had to do something. He couldn't let Charlie end up the way he had. I won't. She's still alive. She has a chance. I'll save her.
Ben slid the door open. Nathan was still asleep, but he wasn't laying flat on his back anymore. He was facing the window, his hair hanging halfway down his back by now. Ben could barely see him breathing, slow and steady. He had to be asleep. Ben slid the door a little wider. That little scraping sound felt deafening-- he wished he knew May's secret, how she moved that door without making that sound! But Nathan didn't stir, and his breathing didn't change.
The words stopped Ben in his tracks. He tried to keep from shaking, tried to cope with them until they passed.
Wielding the angel's weapon will rip asunder the fragile lie of your living. You will not merely die. You will be annihilated.
I don't care.
Ben pulled the jewelry box off the shelf, careful not to disturb the sculptures next to it. He looked at it for a long moment, then back at Nathan's sleeping form.
All right, Ben admitted, to the voice and to himself. I do care. He tucked the Thorn into his pocket. But something good has to come of all this, right?
Ben turned toward the door, but it was so hard to leave things like this.
"I'm sorry." That final whisper was all he had to give.
Nathan stared at the window, his back to Ben. He lay still, listening to Ben pad toward the door. His chest pushed air in and out, slow and steady. He counted the steps. Nathan knew by heart how many there were between here and the door. Ben was short, so he took a few more. He heard the door unlock, then lock again, so it would latch behind the boy.
Nathan heard Ben pull the door closed. And just like that, the boy was gone.