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Countless Roads

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The dead won't leave Len alone.

It's not his fault, not really. It's a family curse, or gift, apparently; gone down from mother to son and son to daughter as long as his mother knew of.

His mother told him that back home – she always called it 'back home' like Ethiopia was somewhere she'd left only for a moment and intended to return to, even though she'd lived in Central City since she was a kid herself, brought along by her parents after they’d fled the second world war – it was seen as a good thing. A blessed thing.

It’s not to everyone that Elohim gives the power to see ghosts, after all, his mother tells him. You know who does that? The great rabbis from the Talmud, the woman that raised up old Samuel, old Elijah, and us. It's a great honor – subject to some debate, that is, but what isn’t?

Well, it’s supposed to be a great honor, anyway, at least before it kills you. Their family doesn't live to fifty, usually, not unless they're very lucky.

Len was very small when his mother, scarcely thirty, died choking on it. His father had killed her without laying a hand on her, though he did plenty of that, too.

The dead, you see, generally want to live. Len's family, they're great at that: they've got plenty of life in them, too much of it, got enough to share if they want. They can make a faint echo into a spirit, a spirit into an apparition, an apparition into a poltergeist, a poltergeist into a fully-fledged manifestation. If we really put our back into it, Len's mom told him, we can make them almost appear human. Let them touch and feel and eat and everything.

The ghostly dream come true.

But even Len's family has only got so much life to spare, and some of it's got to be spent on living. Len's mother spent hers unwisely, falling in love with a man that did nothing but drain her just like the dead did. And the dead sometimes don’t ask, sometimes they just take and take and take –

And that’s how Len's mother died, because she didn't have the energy to fight back. Len's dad took most of what she had, and the dead took the rest, and now the only one left is Len, and he has to put up with his dad too.

Lucky thing he's young and full of life. It'll take some time before Lewis can beat him down enough for the dead to get to him.

Because Len doesn't care about it being a blessing or something you feel like you gotta do, a mission in life, something like that, the way his mom had said it was. Len wants to live, and if that means not sharing nothing with the ghosts, so be it.

He doesn't care.

He doesn't.

He does.

He promises himself he won't give any of them the time of day, much less part of his life, that he'll be as cold as his father always tells him he has to be. And at first he is, but –

"I just want to hug my baby again," one whispers mournfully as he passes.

And, well, surely just a little won't hurt?

It doesn't, either: he gives her just enough for one last ghostly embrace, a dropped penny with a significant date, and all he gets is a little hungrier. Steals two hot dogs from the deli instead of one, and he doesn't notice a thing.

The next one wants a burger.

It's so prosaic he has to laugh, and, well, he does that rare enough that it's worth giving himself a headache getting the guy all the way to poltergeist stage and letting him loose at his favorite burger restaurant.

He makes it through the years as best he can, saying no to most like he ought but giving it to a few. It's harder when the food is scarce and his father mean, but sometimes he can't resist.

Then Lisa is born and he knows he's gotta do everything in his power to stop giving 'cause he can't let himself die so long as she's around, so long as he's the only one there to protect her from her mother's indifference and their father's cruelty.

Turns out to be a bad idea.

Len's mom always told him he's got to give, that he can't deny it, but saying no is easy enough – well, easy enough if he closes his eyes and thinks of Lisa – and it's not until the unquiet dead come after him that he understands that a bit of giving is necessary if he wants to stay alive.

See, the ghosts he helps because they asked are the ones who defend him against the ones who want to take without asking.

The unquiet dead, his mom called them.

The cruel, the vicious, the ones who want revenge or pain, the ones who thrive on spite and pettiness, the ones that stuck around because damned if they'll see someone else thrive. The men who are like his father, small-minded and always blaming the world for the hurt they unleash upon it; the women who are like him, too. The murderers, the hitters, the waspish middle aged ex-prom queens who stick around to ruin their rival's lives long after the competition's over and the final bell's been rung.

They know Len won't say yes to them, so they don’t even bother asking. Instead they come with grasping hands, grabbing and hurting, until Len’s muscles ache like he's been running too much, his lungs choke up, he gasps for air –

The last few ghosts he allowed himself to help, a gang of kids who wanted to play at the arcade, a grandmother to attend a wedding she desperately wanted to be at, a guy trying to talk his best bud out of suicide – suddenly they're there, pulling the unquiet dead off of him, and he can breathe again.

They're so few, though, and the unquiet dead so many; it's hard and takes them a while. Takes a while before Len’s arms stop shaking and his fingers and teeth unclench.

The school nurse says he had a seizure.

His father looks at him, sneer on his face, and tells Len that he'd better not do that shit again or he'll get what's coming to him. Len promises he won't.

And he won't. He knows better now. He's got to give to some if he's going to stay alive; he just can't give to too many, that’s all. He's young and he's full of life and he's got a family curse and it's time he started accepting that instead of running from it.

He'd do better if only his dad didn't take so much time and energy and pain.

It's harder now that his dad's figured out that Len'll do anything for Lisa, not just feed her and tuck her in and play with her, but throw himself between them and agree to all sorts of dumb things if only Lisa stays safe.

All sorts of dumb things.

Like the robbery job that goes so far south that not even Len can rescue it, no friendly ghosts to peek around the corners and tell him if someone's coming, no scary sound distracting people at the right time; and his dad doesn't just ditch him but scapegoats him, too. Blames the whole thing on him, smirking the whole while when he talks about how sad it is how kids these days are. Terrible, really. Some juvie’ll do good to scare the boy straight, he’s sure of it.

Len goes into the judge's chamber and tells him, "I can't go to juvie, I'm raising a kid."

"Aren't you fourteen, Mr. Snart?"

"It's my sister. Someone’s gotta raise her, and it ain’t my dad who’s doing it."

The judge makes a face. "Sorry, kid," he says, and he seems to mean it, too, for all the good that does Len. "We all know your dad was in on the job, but unless you're willing to testify against him..."

"He'll only get worse if I do," Len says.

"He'll be in prison," the judge points out.

"For a year, maybe two," Len replies. "He's got friends, and he'll plea deal out. And then I'll be in for it for real."

The judge makes another face, but doesn't disagree.

"Please," Len says, and he doesn't say that to just anybody.

"Sorry," the judge says again, averting his eyes, but he only sentences Len to two months in juvie – a tenth of the time he could – on the grounds that Len's a first-time offender.

It's not great, but it's better than nothing.

Turns out, in the end, that it was a good thing, because in juvie he nearly dies, but doesn't, and in juvie –

He meets Mick.