Jo's first clue-in that something is wrong is that she wakes up.
Wakes up. As in, she was asleep. As in, she is a ghost, and ghosts don't sleep, what the hell is going on.
She doesn't open her eyes because she doesn't want to wake up in Heaven or Hell or wherever else, because that'll mean that someone's banished her, and she'll never get to see home again. Being a ghost sucked, but not as bad as total separation is going to suck.
She hasn't done that in ten years. She feels her lungs expand, and there's an ache, there. Like a cramp, like exercising a muscle you haven't used in awhile. Which, you know, she hasn't. Breathing isn't really a requirement when you're dead.
She opens her eyes, blinks. It's bright.
She's lying face-up, in the woods somewhere she doesn't recognize. Traipsing through the forest all day was never one of her bigger hobbies, so. That's not surprising.
Here's what is surprising: she can feel her fingers.
Here's what else is surprising: her left hand brushes her waist, and solid skin connects with solid skin.
Jo bolts upright, breathing heavily. Holy– holy shit.
This is not Heaven; she feels inexplicably sure of the fact. And maybe she's an optimist, but it sure doesn't seem like Hell.
Home sweet home.
Jo starts laughing, then, and her voice is hoarse and cracked and it kind of hurts like a motherfucker, but she's laughing, God, she might finally be able to talk to people that can hear her. She grabs fistfuls of leaves in each hand and just holds them, like she hasn't been able to in ages, gets dirt under her fingernails. It's like the movies. It's exactly like the movies. She's going to get out of this fucking forest and drink a bottle of water and she already knows it's going to be the best damn thing she's ever tasted. Alive. Holy shit, life, living, Earth, she's alive. She can smell the damp, like it stormed hard a few days ago and the rain's still sitting on the air. It's a good smell. She's not gonna forget that. She curls her hands tighter and her knuckles go white. Pinches her left hand and watches the blood rush back when she lets go. Jesus Christ. She's alive. Ten years and she's alive.
She leans forward, brings her knees closer to her chest, tests her weight on each foot. Carefully. She died in a car accident, so who the fuck knows if anything's still broken.
Jo's looking down at herself, in the same dark jeans and black tank she died in, and the weird thing is, she kind of looks fine. There is this weird, thick scar trailing up her hand and a little past her wrist, but hey, that's what comes with living. Proof that you've done it.
She stands up, winces a little– she hasn't exactly needed muscles, in a while, and takes a shaky step.
It works. Her balance is a little off, but– but it works. Sort of. She trips a few times (gliding was so much easier, God), but, you know. Not too shabby, for ten years out of practice. That makes her smile. Like riding a bicycle, apparently.
She scans the area for some kind of sign, for, like, a river, or something, or a–
Or the sound of a truck horn that could probably be heard from three states over.
Jo approximates where she thinks the sound is coming from and starts trudging in that direction. She's doing pretty well, making some good headway, she thinks. Then she runs head-on into a tree.
It's kind of disorienting, for a second or two. She shakes her head, blinks a few times. Whoa. Weird. Can't walk through things, anymore.
It feels like eight hours until she hits the highway, but it's probably more like thirty minutes. She counts herself lucky, for that one. She could've woken up in, like, Siberia, or something.
She's sweaty and exhausted and dirty, from trekking through the forest, so she steels herself for the inevitable circumstance of not being able to score a ride from anyone. Shit. Fuck. It's okay, it's fine, she'll just, she'll follow the road to the next town over and she'll give someone a call. Charlie. She'll call Charlie, Charlie'd help her out of anything, Charlie will probably ask a lot of questions about how exactly Jo is alive and kicking, but she'll help. Charlie's great like that. Jo hung out around Charlie's for a full week after she died, but it bummed her out too much to hang around her best friend when her best friend couldn't see her. Yeah. Being dead blows chunks.
She sticks out her thumb anyway, once she gets close enough. The first ten cars whiz past her, and then she loses count.
Jo's about to give up all hope when a Prius (she's going to be rescued by a Prius driver, this is just fantastic) swerves off onto the shoulder, and the driver bursts out of the door.
The driver's a young woman– early to mid twenties, if Jo had to guess– with this bright red hair that's totally not natural. "Oh my God," the chick says, "are you, oh, gosh, are you okay?"
Jo nods. "I'm– yeah, I just, I got a little lost? So, if you– do you know where we are, by the way?"
She blinks. "I– yes, you're in northeastern Michigan? I was heading back down to Ann Arbor, but, um, if you have somewhere else to be–"
"Ann Arbor," Jo breathes. What are the odds. "No, Ann Arbor is perfect. I'm Jo, by the way. Jo Harvelle."
"Anna Milton," says the girl. She tilts her head. "Do I– I don't know you from somewhere, do I?"
"Probably not," Jo says, brightly. She decides it's really not a good idea to tell Anna that, yeah, it's possible you recognize me from my obit in the Ann Arbor News ten years ago, you know, the girl that died in that gigantic crash that killed six people?
Jo tries to float forward towards the car, leans forward a little like she's going past Anna, except what she's forgetting is that, unfortunately, humans don't float. She trips forward, thinking, shit, except suddenly she's not falling anymore.
Anna catches her.
For fuck's sake.
Jo recovers in record time, shifting her weight back onto her feet, grinning, all charm. "Sorry," she says. "I'm a little out of it. Sure that's given you a sparkling first impression."
"Yeah," Anna says, and she smiling, damn her. "Sparkling." She guides Jo to the car, walks close like she's prepared to catch her again, which achieves nothing except making Jo blush furiously. Okay, so, sue her. There are worse things than being caught in the arms of ridiculously pretty redheads.
Jo puts a lot of determined focus into making sure she opens the car door and gets inside without tripping over her own feet.
Awesome. Gold star for the klutziest Harvelle in recorded history.
"I'm not a serial killer, by the way," Jo adds, as Anna pulls back onto the highway.
"You know, that sounds kind of like something a serial killer would say."
Jo grins. "Suspicious."
There's a silence, for a bit. Jo asks if she can turn on the radio. Anna nods. Jo turns it on, watches as Anna taps the steering wheel and bobs her head to some pop song Jo doesn't recognize.
It's probably kind of weird to ask for her number, right?
Yeah. Yeah, of course that's weird, what the fuck. Fuck.
"Holy shit," says Anna, suddenly, and the car swerves a little before righting itself. Jo grips the seat. "Holy– I'm, are you, you said your name was Jo Harvelle?"
Jo's heart sinks to her toes. Damn. "Yeah, that's me."
"That's, I mean, unless you're a different Harvelle, aren't you– aren't you supposed to be dead?" Anna sounds terrified.
Jo takes a deep breath, and turns in her seat. "Well," she says. "Supposed to be dead feels kind of strong, to me."
"Oh my God," Anna says, faintly. "I remember– you were in the news. That car crash. Ten years ago, at least, how are you– you look, you look young, I mean, how is that possible?"
"I don't know." Jo shrugs. "I guess I woke up on the wrong side of the gateway this morning, or something."
"The wrong side of the–" Anna exhales. "Oh. Oh, I, I get it, you– that's funny. A ghost is telling me a joke, that's hilarious."
"Hey," Jo protests. "I was a ghost for a decade, okay, I know what that looks like. And right now, sweetheart, I can tell you that I am very real. Sweat and blood and everything. The works."
"Am I dead? Is this Heaven, or something?"
Jo smirks. "You think I'm your Heaven? That's cute."
Anna throws her a sharp look that's caught hovering halfway between worry and exasperation. "Funny," she says. "You're funny. But, I'm still– I don't– how are you alive, if you're alive?"
"If I knew, I'd tell you. Who knows. Miracles happen, I guess."
"Miracles," Anna repeats. She sounds kind of distant. "Oh."
"Hey. Snap out of it. I'm not interested in getting in another fatal accident, you hear me?" Harsh, maybe, but she says it kindly enough. Probably.
Anna glances at her, forehead clearing. "Yes. Yeah. Of course, sorry."
"Prius drivers," Jo mutters.
"What've you got against Prius drivers?"
"Oh, nothing," Jo assures her. "Except your fugly cars. Bad visibility, shit design, idiotic placement of the–"
"Eco-friendly," Anna interrupts. "So shut up."
Jo sinks a little lower in her seat, grinning broadly. "Ugh," she says, cheerfully. "I bet you're one of those nature geeks, huh. How many Save the Whales t-shirts did you own as a kid? Wait, don't tell me– you grow herbs. Oh, and you drink those kale smoothies, too, right?"
Anna is silent, fuming. "They're good," she says finally, defensively, and Jo probably busts a lung laughing.
They start seeing signs for Ann Arbor after another forty-five minutes, which is a period spent with Jo asking questions and getting answers and trying not to push too many buttons or get any buttons pushed. She's enjoying herself, which is a pleasant and refreshing feeling. You don't get a lot of days like that when you're, you know, trapped halfway between reality and the spirit world and your only tie to Earth is a couple of clothes and meaningless belongings that your mom couldn't bring herself to burn.
She realizes how fucking stupid it is of her to think that she can call Charlie, or her mother, to think that she can go back to Ann Arbor at all. If Anna recognized her, if some random chick who was probably fourteen when the accident happened recognized her, then there's no question that her mom'll know. That Charlie will know, and Ash, and everyone else she knew, and– and oh, God.
"Jo?" Anna sounds worried. "Jo, are you okay?"
"I'm–" Jo inhales, exhales, it's funny that she needs to do that, it's funny that breathing works, yeah, hilarious, really, "I'm fine. Sure. Yes."
"Don't freak out on me now, okay? 'Cause I'm pretty terrified that a girl who's been dead for ten years is sitting in my passenger seat, but I'm keeping a cap on it, right? It's okay, hey. What's wrong?"
Jo breathes. It doesn't come naturally, because she's supposed to be dead, Jesus Christ, shit shit shit. "Everyone thinks I'm dead," she says. "My mom, Anna, my mom thinks I'm dead and and that's because I was and she thinks I'm dead," and there it is, yeah, is it weird that she managed to suppress the tears until now?
"Oh, hey," Anna says, and takes one hand off the wheel to place it, warm, on Jo's knee. "Hey. Hey, look at me, it's gonna be okay, we're gonna figure it out."
Jo rubs at her eyes, angrily. Stupid. "We?"
"Yes. Yeah. Hey, I'd be kind of a horrible person if I abandoned you now, right? You don't have to go back right away, I've got– I live kind of downtown, you know, near the YMCA, you know what I'm talking about?" Jo nods. "Yes, right, well, it's my parents' house, technically, but they walked out on us years ago, so as far as my brother and I are concerned, it's ours."
Jo thinks about that, and doesn't ask. It's none of her business. "You're kind of an angel," Jo whispers, hoarse. "You know that?"
Anna smiles, weakly. "Sure," she says. "If you say so."
They actually do pass the YMCA on their way to Anna's house, which Jo hasn't even seen since she died. They've done some renovations, but it's the same old place. She did day camps there, when she was a kid.
Anna's brother is out of town, on some extended weekend trip with his best friend, apparently. Anna talks about the best friend and how her brother is totally gone on him and Jo listens, she does, but mostly she's just watching Anna's face, all bright and happy talking about her brother, and it's cute– worryingly endearing, really– and why.
Jo tries– with, predictably, no success– to glide through the car door instead of getting out like a normal person. Anna doesn't laugh at her, which makes everything worse, somehow.
She focuses on making it up the stairs, slowly– she can't just float through ceilings anymore, yeah, which sucks, but not enough to make her miss being dead. Anna tells her to shower, and when Jo gets out– Anna's towels are illegally fluffy, what the hell– there's some folded clothes on the counter. They fit, mostly. The shirt's a little tight, but the sweatpants are great. The clothes smell like laundry detergent and something else she can't place. Rosemary, maybe.
Jo walks out tentatively, trips her way down the stairs (stairs were definitely easier as a ghost), follows the smell of what is definitely something akin to pumpkin pie, which, like, okay, that's it, she's sold, she's going to marry this girl.
It is pumpkin pie. Score. Jo's got a great nose for that kind of thing.
"Definitely an angel," Jo says, and Anna starts a little as she turns around. Cute. "Or, like, a goddess, maybe. There's no chance you're single, right?" It comes out sounding kind of desperate, probably, which, yeah, not what she was going for. Cool. Anna just blinks, and Jo's embarrassed, so she starts talking to fill the silence. Terrible idea. "I mean, like, I'm not, you know– you're just, you're great, I bet you've got all the guys going after you, because, they, they've got eyes, right? As in, no, that sounded– you know, anyone with eyes can see that you're gorgeous, obviously, but you're also– fuck, forget it."
"Not so much the guys," is what Anna chooses to say, and oh, oh. Jo opens her mouth, closes it, opens it, forgets what to say. Okay. Alright. Awesome. Yes.
She's beginning to think she's in over her head, here.
"Oh," Jo manages, finally, which isn't even a coherent sentence. "Well, that's, I mean, me either, mostly. Sometimes, but not– not lately." Not lately. Not lately. Jo gets the strong urge to hit herself in the head with a frying pan.
"Hm," Anna says, that's all, no, you know, oh, yeah, and how much action did you get as a ghost, exactly or even how lately is 'not lately'? Just 'hm.' What does that even mean, is what Jo wants to know.
"So," Jo says, after a minute. "Is the pumpkin pie in the oven, like, a community pumpkin pie? You know, is this a free-for-all kind of deal, or do we share, or do we fight for it, or do I have to pay you, because I will, that smells– totally heavenly, actually."
Anna smiles, leans back, and the sun glances off her hair. Jo doesn't even care if that color came out of a bottle. It's gorgeous. "I'm not really in the habit of making pumpkin pies to eat by myself," Anna says.
"Why the hell not?"
Anna laughs. "Funny," she says.
"You seem to think so."
"Yeah, well." Jo grins devilishly. "Only part of my charm."
Anna snorts and turns back to the counter, which is not cool, because Jo is definitely charming, Charlie always said so.
"What?" Jo says, and trips again as she makes her way across the kitchen. Seriously. Apparently this is not like riding a bike. "Do you not think I'm charming? Say it to my face, jerk."
Anna laughs. "Oh, no. Sure. You are. Very charming."
It's funny, sort of. After Jo died and figured out she could talk, even if people wouldn't hear her, she got into the habit of visiting people she knew and having one-way conversations with them. Mostly because it was a better option than talking to herself. She'd sit in Charlie's office and watch her work and she'd say, I wish you could hear me, I wish I could hug you, I wish I could come back. And she'd been selfish, too. Isn't everyone? We had plans, you and me, you remember? We were going to die together on our fucking yacht and we were going to come back as ghost best friends and haunt the hell out of all the assholes in this world and it's not fair, I miss you.
So maybe Jo's having trouble adjusting to being alive physically, but at least she knows how to keep the stuff she shouldn't say inside her head. It's why she doesn't blurt out something stupid, like, I wish I could kiss you, I wish I was normal, I wish this was ten years ago and that stupid car accident had never happened and I wish we'd met in a fucking grocery store or something and I wish I could take you to dinner and I wish this whole situation was normal and I'm sorry.
She is sorry. She's always been sorry. Anna's beautiful and stupidly generous and bakes pumpkin fucking pie, and Jo envisions with terrifying ease exactly the kind of road that this could go down, and she hates herself, just a little.
It's late afternoon, the kind of autumn evening where everything's still gold light even if it's fading quickly and summer's back for a spell because it's forgotten that it's supposed to be gone.
It makes her smile. Summer woke up on the wrong side of the gateway, too, huh.
Anna orders pizza, and they have the pie for dessert. It's delicious, tastes even better than it smells, and they watch NCIS and Anna gets really into it and everything seems like it's working, for now.
It's pretty late by the time Anna guides her upstairs, ignoring her protests about Anna sleeping about the couch and showing Jo to her room before promising that the couch is actually really comfortable and that she'll be fine. Jo's last conscious thought before she falls asleep in Anna's ridiculously comfortable bed is that, hey. Not too bad, for a first day back.