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From Our First Goodbye to the Last Hello

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Joey can't just float through walls. Well, he can. It's just a little more complicated than it looks. He's insubstantial, but he still exists on some level. That wall knows damn well that he's not supposed to be there. It's an old argument, but it's one he wins every time. He's practically memorized the walls by now; that big crack in the drywall bothers him every time he sees it, but he can't exactly tell anyone to fix it. They never notice. But he knows this building better than anyone.

If he were still alive, this would be the equivalent of impatiently pacing the halls, waiting for Lauren to wake up, waiting for these quacks with their needles and their medical gizmos to fix her already. Twenty-five years and counting. He'll wait as long as he has to. Not that he has a choice.

Lauren's sleeping, for once. Honest-to-god sleep, not the drugged, half-conscious delirium she's usually in. Usually she's somewhere between vague, twitchy mumbling and a full-on screaming fit. Right now she looks almost peaceful.

He doesn't stay near her for long, but he feels guilty whenever he's away. She knows when he's there. She looks right at him and screams. Sometimes he can make out words: "Joey", "Why," "Help me".

"You made your choice," he says. "I didn't do this to you." He tried to stop her. Tried to tell her what would happen. He doesn't let himself think he could have tried a little harder.

He's tried to blame her, as if it's somehow her fault that a real life seemed like a better future than spending every night crawling into the darkest, loneliest places this city had. There would always be another lost soul waiting for them; people weren't going to stop dying any time soon. But Lauren could save herself. The spooks could wait; most of them were forgotten by the world, even in death.

***

It's happened before. Lauren's mother was a sweet, kind woman with no room in her life for ghosts. She rejected Joey from the start and died in a nuthouse, clawing at herself if they didn't tie her down. He's sure it's not his fault; hell, he's new to this too. How could either of them have known what would happen?

"It's not fair," says Patricia, when she's still lucid. Before she breaks. "Why me?"

"Life's not fair," says Joey. "Not everyone gets a happy ending. We know that better than anyone."

***

Lauren tried to see some kind of romance in it, at first. Leading the lost to their just reward. When reality hit, it hit her hard.

What they do is never happy. It can't be. Humans spend their entire lives knowing that one day, it'll all be over. Ghosts are loose threads in the fabric of reality; they're what happens when a death breaks someone so hard, they forget what the rules are.

He hates dealing with suicides. Time stops for them. They're caught in a space where it's always now, always their darkest moment, always that instant of utter despair before they jumped, or pulled the trigger, or slipped the noose around their neck. And there's no way to take it back now, no way to fix what drove them to it in the first place.

Tonight she's too young, floating on a ledge above a New York even brighter and louder than the one Joey knew. "I just wanted it to end," she sobs, spectral tears running down her face and dissolving into nothing when they hit the ledge. "They never noticed I was here. I thought no one would notice if I was gone."

"They" hadn't, but Joey doesn't tell her that. The families usually wouldn't talk about it; you didn't share that kind of pain with a stranger, after all. They assumed she'd run off somewhere, probably with a guy. They hoped she'd wise up and come back on her own. She was desperate for a way out; it just wasn't the one they'd assumed.

It's a long way down from here, even if you take the quickest route to ground level. "I thought it was wild," says another, eyes fixed on the skyline. "Like flying. I laughed the whole way down. Then I ended up back here. Couldn't even kill myself right. How pathetic is that?"

A few years earlier and we could've done you some real good. Talked you down off that ledge. You could've gone home to your family, gotten on with your life. Or maybe you just would've gone on hurting. Doesn't matter now. We can give you eternity, not life.

***

Lauren shivers in a chilly wind that passes right through Joey. He can't feel cold, and at first he'd thought that was a blessing. No more frigid winter mornings. Then he realized he can't feel warm sunshine on his face, either.

"I didn't sign up for this," says Lauren, quietly.

"Neither of us signed up for anything, darling," answers Joey. "The job's there. Someone has to do it."

***

There are more dead kids than he ever needed to know about: dead of neglect, dead of misdirected anger, dead of sickness or starvation or some unlucky bastard who turned a corner too fast and couldn't hit the brakes in time. Kids are always the hardest ones, for Lauren. She tries to deny it, tries to hide behind that apathetic facade she's built around herself. But every time they have to send a kid off, Lauren's jaw clenches a little bit too tightly and she gets that look in her eyes.

Joey looks at ghost kids and sees a goddamn waste of a life; all that potential, blown away like dust in the wind.

Lauren, on the other hand, sees Rosa.

***

Rosa's a sweet girl. She doesn't deserve any of this. When she's in the right mood she can be a little ray of sunshine. When the accident takes her parents she's left with a lapsed medium as her only family. Lauren doesn't even consider leaving her out in the cold.

Adopting her is the easy part. They don't click at first; Lauren's never had to play mom before, Rosa's too young to understand why her parents aren't around anymore. And Lauren, who's more versed on the subject than most humans alive, can't bring herself to explain. But they make it work, somehow.

It's no wonder Lauren prefers this to chasing down ghosts. She thinks she beat the system. She thinks she can walk away. After all, there's a little girl who needs her now.

Joey tries to talk some sense into her anyway. Lauren's turning her back on people who need her to do something only she can do. Patricia didn't know the consequences of not doing it; Lauren had to watch her mother waste away in a nuthouse, and they both know damn well why.

Lauren speaks to him less and less until eventually she just pretends he's not there. She stops tensing up and turning away from his attempts to communicate. Maybe she's really convinced herself that he's a hallucination. Not that she'll ever admit that; Lauren gets hostile when anyone suggests she's crazy.

Sometimes, when Joey tries to talk to Rosa, she'll stop and look around. He swears that she's looked right at him a few times. It might be nothing. Just his cold ghostly aura, which is all that most people perceive of him. But babies can see him; they haven't learned that they're not supposed to. There's another explanation, but it's not something that Joey can bring himself to wish on her.

***

The last time Rosa sees her aunt outside of a hospital, Lauren's screaming like a banshee and trying to knock the walls down with her face. She's been having episodes for some time; she snaps at Rosa, claws at herself until she bleeds, gasps in pain for no discernable reason and then screams at Joey when she thinks they're alone. Joey's been here before. He feels like a dame tied to the train tracks; he can see the inevitable barrelling down on him but there isn't a goddamn thing he can do to stop it.

It's like seeing Patricia at her worst, all over again. A kind and caring woman reduced to a howling animal. Joey can't even manage an "I told you so".

Rosa dives into her little hidey-hole and stays there, holding Griff the P.I. Bear to her chest. She's trying not to cry. But she's smart enough to call 911 first, realizing that it's really bad this time and that the neighbours have learned to tune out Lauren's little incidents.

And the hell of it is, there's nothing he can do for either of them. Lauren's all but lost. Can't talk to Rosa, can't even touch her. Joey just floats there silently and watches, like he's done for years.

When the paramedics get there they shoot Lauren full of sedatives and load her into an ambulance. They're going to take her away to a place that she will never leave, and Joey will have to watch her die.

Before his bond with Lauren drags Joey away and into the night, he sees the nice cop trying to lure Rosa out with a lollipop. The poor kid; she'll spend the rest of her life dealing with the aftermath.

***

Rosa drops by for a visit every week. Sometimes she just talks for hours, about how she's doing, what her newest foster family is like, or her new school, or how much her English teacher loved that story she wrote. She always comes alone. She rarely mentions friends, and never a boyfriend. Aunt Lauren must be the one stable thing in her life; Rosa's constantly being uprooted. By now, she must accept that Aunt Lauren's never going to come back.

Joey half-expects her to stop coming as she grows older, but she doesn't. Every week, regular as clockwork. She's a little light shining in the depths of that wretched hospital. She has her grandmother's eyes.

Sometimes she starts to talk and trails off into silence, like there's nothing else to say or she's not sure how to say it. On those days Joey can see shades of the terrified little girl he saw on that awful night.

"Take care of yourself, kid," says Joey, once, when Rosa's on her way out.

She falters in mid-step and looks around, as if she heard something.

***

The rest of the time it's just Joey, the docs, and the crazies. The latter remind him of the spooks he and Lauren dealt with; lonely, sad, and so lost. There are some real wackos, guys who think they're the reincarnation of Napoleon or Jesus Christ. But the rest? Mostly they're overwhelmed. Something happens that they can't handle on their own, and they end up here. The docs do their thing. Most of their patients go home. Some don't.

It would break Joey's heart, if he still had one. He doesn't wish ill on any of them; the vengeful spirit act got old after about a week. He can't even haunt the place properly. At least, he hopes, maybe none of them will ever need his help.

He watches them come and go: new patients, new orderlies, new doctors. New faces bringing new stories with them. And through it all Lauren stays in her bed, unchanged.

***

One day Lauren's body just gives out. Twenty-five years of neglect and sedatives take their toll at last and her heart stops beating. Joey hopes it was peaceful. If she was really lucky she might not have been aware at all. Either way, she's gone. It's over now. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. Just like everyone else.

He shouldn't be happy that Lauren's dead. That would be awful. Maybe relieved that she can move on instead of being more or less literally tied to her hospital bed. But he shouldn't feel so liberated now. He can feel the bond dissolving. Maybe, just maybe, he'll get to move on too. But he can feel a new bond forming, and he's caught like a fish on a line.

It's Rosa. Of course it's Rosa.

***

Rosa tries, bless her. She fumbles through her first cases, but so did Lauren. If there's a rulebook, Joey never got his copy. They work through it together, and they help people.

And every time they do, Joey wonders if Rosa will shoulder this burden or cast it aside, leaving it for the next one to take up. She does well enough; she's not as confident as Lauren but not jaded enough to grow numb to the pain she sees. They do their job, they send the spooks off to where they need to go. They make it work, somehow.

***

Later, much later, he'll see the universe in her eyes. He'll take his first breath in decades and feel the pavement under his feet.

He looks up at night and never quite shakes off the sight of that horrible rift in the sky, like a scar on the face of reality. But the Countess and Madeline are gone, never to claim another victim. For one brief, shining moment, there are no lost souls denied their rest. And all it took was the utter ruin of three innocent women.

They're fading away already: Rosa's forced but earnest smiles; the worn-out sighs Lauren gave every time she sent someone off; Patricia, defiant to the end. He'll hold on to what he can, and he'll never stop wondering if he was worth it all.

Why me?

She could've brought back anyone. Or everyone, maybe. But out of everyone she could've resurrected, she picked Joey Mallone.

Once, he told someone that life's not fair, that not everyone gets a happy ending. But if this shiny new life is all he has, he's damn well going to make it count.