The Night You Died
Charlie's eyes were pulled so wide, Ben thought he could see her entire eyeballs. He'd never seen that kind of horror on anybody's face, ever. She pulled her hand away from Ben's, and scuttled back against the alley wall.
"Please!" Charlie was wailing at the top of her lungs. "Please don't hurt me!"
Ben didn't know what else to do. He panicked. He grabbed her, putting his hand across her mouth the way Nathan had, when Ben was the one yelling.
"Charlie, shhhh!" She was still squealing, her eyes pleading with him. "Please don't scream! We'll get caught!" Hurt her? Why would she think he'd want to hurt her? He took a guess. "I'm not here to hurt you. I'm not a ghost, okay?"
His fingers on her mouth actually seemed to be calming her down. She brought her fingers up, trembling, and laid them over his. Her skin was so warm, soft like he remembered. Once in a while her hand used to brush against his, when they were both pointing to things in the book.
"I'm just me," Ben soothed. "I'm here because you're in trouble." Charlie nodded. Her fingers were barely touching him at first, and they were shaking like she was freezing cold. She laid them on Ben's wrist, like the touch could prove he was real. She didn't try to pull his hand away. She just kept hold of it, as though she were afraid to let go.
"How did you get yourself in a cult, Charlie? You're gonna get killed!" But she couldn't answer, could she? "I'm gonna take my hand away, OK? Just-- just don't scream."
Ben withdrew his hand. Charlie kept her hands on his wrist, her whole body shaking now.
"Ben..." She gasped, and squeezed his wrist even tighter. "Oh God... Ben!" She pressed her eyes shut, then opened them wide again, staring at him in horror. "You're not here, you can't be here..."
Ben took a step back, to let her talk without any more pressure. She kept hold of him. She fell to her knees, her voice rising as it pleaded with him. "I saw it myself, I saw it and it's all my fault, and I..."
She dropped his wrist, and clung to his shirt, her fingers curling into the material. She burst into ragged, hiccuping sobs. "That's what it is, isn't it... before God will accept me I have to tell you." Her voice grew frantic, and her eyes got bright like they used to be, but with a wilder look than he'd ever seen in them before. "I have to confess so you can move on too."
Ben didn't know what to say. He just stood there, wishing it all hadn't happened. But he owed it to her to listen. He owed her that and so much more.
"You died, Ben," Charlie seemed to be trying to steady her voice, trying to meet his eyes. But she couldn't stay still, and she couldn't stop sobbing. "I brought you out to that field and I let that man strangle you."
Ben closed his eyes. "I wanted to be there," Ben looked down at her, tried to pat her hands. Every time he touched her, she flinched, so he stopped. "I wanted to summon that demon as much as you did," he admitted. It was the first time he'd ever said that aloud. "Maybe even more."
"I saw you die." Charlie gulped, like she was trying to swallow back the words. "I let it happen, and I couldn't--" She gasped, and sobbed again. "I didn't stop it!" Charlie dove against Ben's chest, burying her face in his turtleneck. How many times had he imagined Charlie hugging him? And it had never, ever been like this.
She was muttering something, like a chant or a mantra. "I let fear control me, and fear is the selfish idol, and..." He couldn't make out the rest. She kept mumbling, and the sobs slowed, like she was finally getting control of herself again.
"Oh Ben--" Charlie sagged, and Ben did his best not to let her pull him off his feet. "Your parents said because I didn't tell anyone in time, you couldn't be put to rest properly." Ben could believe that. That was exactly the kind of thing his mother would say. "It took a week for anybody to find out you were killed."
A week. He wondered how long it took for anybody to even notice he was gone. He put a hand on her head, and stroked her hair. This time she didn't flinch. It seemed to help, a little, but her tears soaked through to his skin just the same. This was closer than he'd ever been to her. Ben's heart sank. Under the crushing weight of all their guilt, he couldn't feel anything about her closeness. Nothing at all.
"They were so angry, Ben--" Charlie sobbed. "I ruined their lives, and I took yours away, and I'm so sorry..." She couldn't breathe with her face in his chest, sobbing that hard. She had to turn her face to the side.
"I go over that night in my head over and over, Ben," she gasped. Ben tried to go over it too. Looking down at her, a sudden flash of memory made Ben want to kick himself. No wonder she was so freaked. Ben was dressed almost exactly the way he had been the night he died. It was a detail he should have remembered-- he was almost always wearing the red turtlenecks, he liked them the best. They'd been his big brother's favorites too, before they got handed down.
"I keep wondering what we were thinking," Charlie choked on the words, and for a while the only sounds she could make were more of those bubbling sobs. "... why we did what we did."
The guy at the reference desk. He was really what made Charlie move from talking about the book to wanting to try out the stuff in it. Before they met that guy, the book was just something to talk about, a great big what-if they could imagine forever. Then Charlie got the idea to check stuff in Ben's book out against the occult books they kept in the back of the public library, and everything got way too real.
They weren't supposed to be in that section, it was for adults only. People were supposed to sign in at the reference desk before they even went inside. Ben and Charlie just tagged along with a couple of older people, trying to look like they were following their parents. It was her idea that they would hold hands, and pretend they were brother and sister. Why hadn't he remembered that? That started out as one of the best days Ben had ever lived. Not to mention, one of the last.
They found some books in languages they couldn't even read. There were these low stools, but round and on wheels, and Ben found three of them. They put the book on the middle one and the others were for sitting. They found books in all kinds of languages, and went hunting for any of those symbols. And sometimes they even got close. They couldn't understand what any of it meant, but it was still so exciting to find the symbols. Mostly because of how excited Charlie got. Charlie said they were in on a secret nobody else had. She'd talk faster and faster, explaining the ways all the books probably tied together with this one. It didn't make a lot of sense to Ben, but as long as she kept talking, that was good enough.
But Ben was supposed to be the lookout, and he was looking at her when he was supposed to be looking out for her. So this creepy guy was standing over her before Ben even knew anybody else was there. He had long greasy black hair, and a jagged scar down his left cheek. His skin looked kind of gray, like he hadn't been in the sun for a long time. He had a gray jacket on, like a blazer or something, and a white T-shirt underneath it. He was leaning right over Charlie, staring at Ben's old book, and his hair was practically touching her.
When Charlie looked up at the guy, she didn't even get scared. She just got more excited, and pointed to the thing he was looking at in the book. He pointed too, and started to ask her questions. His nails were painted black like Charlie's, and Ben hated him for that. The guy didn't even introduce himself. He just sank down behind her, perched on his toes so he could lean in closer. It made Ben uncomfortable, but Charlie just kept on talking.
It wasn't fair. The book belonged to Ben, and he was willing to share it with Charlie. But not this guy. It was supposed to be theirs! Ben snatched the book away, and shoved it in his bookbag. Charlie looked surprised, so he mumbled some stupid lie about how he had to go. Like his parents would worry. He ducked out of there, because he didn't want her to see that his lip was trembling. His ears felt like they were on fire, and his face felt so hot he worried he might be turning red all over.
He'd run out of the library. It was all just sinking in now. He'd just run out and left her there with the guy all alone. He could have been anybody. Anything could have happened to her. Ben held Charlie tighter, and hoped he wouldn't start crying now. More than ever, Ben felt like he'd deserved to die.
"It didn't seem real to me," Charlie sobbed, "It was exciting and mysterious." And it was. It really was.
The guy with the black nails worked at the reference desk at the library, and he knew all about the occult section. He'd spent the whole afternoon explaining it to Charlie, and helping her understand the foreign languages. Charlie insisted they go back, and Ben didn't want her to get mad. Eventually Ben ran out of excuses, and meetings with the library guy became a regular thing. The guy showed them how they could follow the book's directions. He seemed really interested in this one page, with a big bull-headed demon on it. Ben had always felt drawn to that page, too.
The guy said that the drawing was of a powerful spirit, one that could give them all what they really wanted. He said it was one of the oldest creatures that ever walked the earth, and that there was nothing that could command its will so well as little children. He showed them diagrams in the book, and drew them out with little corrections in the empty spaces. He told them they would need candles, and oil, and that he could get them lamb's blood from the butcher. The more he told them, the more Charlie talked about him, and the faster she talked about what he wanted to do. If Ben didn't keep up, he was sure she'd forget all about him. So when the guy said they were running out of time, Ben was the one who agreed they should do the ritual right away.
So they'd gone out in the middle of the night, and Charlie had to pretend she was sleeping over with a friend. Ben didn't have to pretend-- he'd snuck out lots of times, nobody even said anything to him about it. His parents believed in letting a child have independence, they said. Maybe they just knew what a scaredy-cat he was all the time, and that he'd never really do anything bad.
But he was doing something bad tonight. He knew that, deep down inside. Even while he was scratching the symbols into the sand, something in him was screaming at him to stop. It was like his hands didn't want to do what he was telling them to, like his feet were reluctant to move. He kept stumbling across bits of the diagram, and he could tell the library guy was getting frustrated with him. The guy told him to get the candles ready. Ben felt like an idiot fumbling with the candles while Charlie and the library guy finished the diagram, but he didn't argue, because he couldn't even keep the candles lit. The babiest of baby jobs to do in the whole ritual, and he couldn't even do that right.
They poured lamb's blood into all the lines they'd etched in the sand, and the symbols started showing up really clearly. Ben had a hard time getting near it once he could see them. They made Ben feel small and afraid. It was like those words belonged here more than Ben did. Like they were more real than everything around them, like they were so real they made the sand and the sky afraid to get near them. The guy put a candle on each spoke of the central star, and the light twinkled across shiny channels of red. The words seemed to move, almost like they were breathing-- and Ben realized he wasn't. He'd gulped in a big breath, and sat down where the guy told him to.
"Then suddenly there was that fire," Charlie sobbed, "And I really did believe it, all at once."
That was right, Ben realized. It hadn't just been candlelight on the blood. They'd each sat on one of the top points of the star, and for a long time nothing happened. Then the guy's head dropped forward, and Charlie's and Ben's heads jerked forward too. They were all chanting, low and urgent. Ben didn't even know the words he was saying. It was like talking in his sleep, but worse. He just knew it was desperately important he get the words out, right away. They were too big to fit in his mouth, too important to hold in his brain. They had to be said, and he existed just to say them. And the faster he said them, the brighter the light in the blood became. The blood started to burn up, starting from the points of the star.
The circle around the star lit up, and it was all on fire, now. Charlie screamed, and jerked back from the flames. They'd startled her, breaking her out of the dream. Ben couldn't even look up at her. He just kept chanting, louder and more urgently. The guy from the library was shouting, and there was a light coming off him, like he was on fire too. He looked up, and his face had changed. He was desperate, now, eyes pleading with the night sky like he was begging God for something. Ben thought he might even have seen tears.
But then anger started rising up in Ben's chest. No. It needed a better word than that. Malevolence, Ben thought. This wild kind of rage and hate that Ben never knew he could contain. Suddenly those words burning on the ground just seemed small and petty. The man from the library offended Ben, like just by living he was messing up the world. Ben wanted to lash out at him, to hit the guy like he'd hit the bullies, but the world had gone all crazy around him. Everything seemed skewed, tilted out of place, and Ben wasn't even sure he could stand. He stopped chanting, and this dark sound came out of him, like a low hissing that started deep in his chest. The flames around the star came rushing into the center. All the light came rushing into the middle of the circle, all at once. And then... and then...
"The next thing I remember I was trying to get up," Charlie seemed a little calmer now, a little hiccup of leftover crying interrupting here and there. "I was so confused. I couldn't figure out why he was holding you."
The guy from the reference desk was holding him. The guy he'd left Charlie alone with at the library. They'd all been thrown free of the circle, which was now a scorched crater in the sand. The candles, the blood, the oil, all of it was burned up and gone. Ben felt dizzy. He felt like he couldn't quite fit back into the memory, like he didn't really belong there at all.
The guy had been holding his mouth open. He was looking into Ben's mouth, like he was trying to see something in there. The guy was staggering, like he was drunk or something, and at times his weight on Ben was so heavy it was like he was leaning on Ben for support. His fingers were so tight, digging into Ben's cheeks, and Ben couldn't even move his jaw. Then the guy let go of Ben, and he was talking, but in a language Ben didn't know. Only, Ben was listening, and his lips were curling up in a smirk like it was all just too funny not to.
"I couldn't think straight," Charlie confessed, "I should have done something." She'd been trying to sit up, Ben remembered, but she was all clumsy and awkward like Ben had been. She couldn't move very well in that laced-up corset top she liked to wear over her blouses anyhow, and those tight black jeans. Sometimes Ben had wondered how she even managed to breathe in all that stuff. She shouldn't blame herself, Ben thought. Maybe she couldn't even have screamed.
"But I was frozen," Charlie went on. "I was too scared."
Ben should have been scared, when the guy grabbed him like that. Thinking about it now made his throat feel like it might be closing. But when it was actually happening, he'd been weirdly calm, like none of this stuff really mattered. He'd just let the guy shake him, and listened to him demand answers in words Ben couldn't remember now.
"He pulled your eyes open and looked at you like he was searching for something." Ben remembered that too. Ben had let him, he hadn't even fought back. Why hadn't he fought back? "I thought, maybe he wasn't going to hurt you. Maybe he was just feeling confused and crazy, like I was." Like they all were, Ben thought. Everything seemed far away that night, like nothing was real anymore.
"You weren't moving," Charlie explained, like she was trying to bargain with him. Ben could totally understand that. There were times when he bargained with his own memories, trying to believe things another way. Ben held her tighter. "Your eyes were rolled back. Maybe he was trying to wake you up." But they both knew what came next. "Then suddenly he had his hands wrapped around your neck, and-- oh god, Ben!" Charlie buried her face in his chest again, like his shirt could somehow shut out the images flashing back behind her eyes.
"Your face was so purple, and your tongue started to push out! You just kept swelling up and you couldn't even move!" Her voice was muffled, but he could feel every word right through his skin. "I should have called the police," she sobbed, "I should have helped you! I should have done something!"
Charlie slumped in Ben's arms, so he had to help hold her up. "I should have told someone," she said, and her voice went so quiet. "I ran home and hid in the closet. I stayed in there until my parents came looking for me. It wasn't until the police started asking questions, so much later, that I told anybody anything. It's my fault nobody came for you."
"That's not true," Ben soothed her. Pain squeezed his eyes shut. He didn't want to cry, Charlie was sad enough already. He tried to sound strong, tried to sound reassuring. "Someone did come. It didn't matter. It was already too late for me."
"But it's going to be okay," Charlie was talking quickly now, like she hadn't even registered what he'd just said. "God didn't give up on me." Ben opened his eyes. Charlie brought her face up to his, and grabbed his shirt like she was trying to grab his attention right through it. "He sent me an angel-- wings and everything!" Her eyes were the way he remembered, lit up and excited. Somehow, in this dark alley, after all those tears, Ben found their sparkle unsettling. "There are a lot of them that come to the mission. He told me that I can redeem myself by becoming part of something greater." Charlie's voice got more shrill, more insistent. "I'll beg him, Ben. I'll beg him to let me redeem you too."
Captive to her illusions, Ben thought. She couldn't even hear what he was saying, could she. Not if it didn't fit into what she believed. "Oh Charlie..." Ben sighed. "Somebody warned me that you wouldn't be able to see through your pain." She was holding him so tightly, her head on his shoulder. He'd always wanted to be her shoulder to cry on. Why did it have to be like this, why did it have to wait until now?
"Why would God want you to lose yourself to make up for losing me?" Ben couldn't make her listen. Or could he-- "Here--" Ben shifted her a little, and dug around in his pocket. The little jewelry box was stuck in there good, but Ben got it out. "I brought something that can help you. It can break up the illusions they use to blind you." He tried to shift her some more. He could pry the box open a little with one hand, but he couldn't get the Thorn out. "I just--"
Something jerked him away from Charlie, so violently Ben dropped the box. A shock ran up the back of his spine, but it wasn't just physical. It was something else. Ben collapsed. Somewhere far away, Charlie was screaming. She was getting further and further away. He could open his eyes just a little. Just enough to see two of the other girls restraining Charlie, dragging her by the arms. She was trying to reach him, she was throwing all her weight against them and stretching out her hand.
"NO!" Charlie was hysterical. It broke Ben's heart to see her so scared. There was nothing to be scared of, he wanted to tell her. Nobody could really do anything to him, anymore. Strong hands lifted him, and his vision went gray. No, he was looking at something gray. Somebody's back, somebody with long black hair that was fine and delicate like a baby's.
"Don't take him!" Charlie was screaming. "Please, let him go!"
Ben didn't want her to say that. He would have let them take him anywhere, if he could just make them let her go instead.
"He hasn't done anything wrong!"
But he'd done everything wrong. Everything in his whole life. And even now that his life was over...
Well he'd gone and screwed that up, too.