This was a night like any other. If he told himself that often enough, perhaps he could convince himself it was true. He’d sat vigil through enough nights like this that he should have been numb to it by now. So why, then, was there nothing but misery pooled in what passed for his gut to keep him company?
Joey hovered in place, hands shoved deep into the pockets of his suit, musing. Contemplating. Regretting. As he always did. What else was he good for? His eyes flicked towards the motionless form sprawled on the padded floor across from him and he winced. Jesus Christ, Red. There was a hideous bruise developing on her forehead where she’d smashed it repeatedly into the sidewalk. There had been no relief, no final collapse into unconsciousness in the snow outside Grace Church. Just that continuous thunk, thunk, thunk of skull on icy concrete.
No one had heard him shouting for help as loud as he could. No one ever pays much attention to the wind, after all. It had been an eternity without measure before the police arrived to collect her and poor Cory, the luckless cop who’d had the bad fortune to stand within arm’s reach when she’d finally broken. She fought them. He’d felt a perverse kind of pride at that. Two of the officers looked to have been roughed up pretty bad. And then away they went. And Joey went with her. And now here they were.
Back in Bellevue.
There was a song playing on a radio down the hall of the temporary care ward, echoing against the polished linoleum softly so that the chords wrapped in around on each other. Joey didn’t recognize the melody, but Danny had mentioned his precious music lessons often enough that even now, so many years later, Joey could pick out the chord types, how they rose in pitch, one to another. He didn’t really care to, though. Music was never his thing. But Linda had loved music, and so had Danny. He’d never figured out if he’d felt jealous over that shared love or not.
Maybe Lauren would have liked it. She did like dancing - she’d done almost nothing but at her kid brother’s wedding. She’d hum along to the radio for hours, if he let her. Maybe he should have let her more often. He could have stayed out on the balcony, watched the stars roll by, a few more nights than he had done. Maybe he could have even asked her to dance. She’d have had to take him by his tie to do it, but maybe that could have given her a laugh. Lauren’s laugh was something rare and lovely, and he missed it fiercely, now more than ever.
Hell, maybe Red would like the song. She was an odd duck, but she wasn’t a totally lost cause. Not that he could ask her now. Her body was on the floor of the padded cell, just a few feet before him. Below the blossoming black and blue marring her brow, her glasses were gone, leaving her face unnaturally undressed, and her long hair pooled around her head like a shock of fire in the dull grays of her fluorescent-lit room. Wherever she was, though, it wasn’t here. At least, he hoped not. He never was sure with Lauren, but he hoped that, in the midst of this deathless, drugged sleep, the Blackwell women weren’t present enough to feel the agony that sometimes ripped through their bodies with screams and violent thrashing.
Hallelujah, hallelujah, the singers crooned, their tinny voices from the radio dancing up and down the hall, as if answering his hopes with an affirming prayer. Hallelujah, hallelu . . . ujah.
Heaving a long sigh, he pulled his hands from his pockets and pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes for a few moments, almost wishing he could press hard enough for it to hurt. He longed for something else to feel besides guilt and regret and helplessness.
How had this all gone so wrong? He knew that dealing with Madeline was dangerous, but could he have foreseen . . . this? Red sedated and confined, just like her aunt and grandmother before her, locked away and unable to give him the only connection to the rest of the world he had left? Hell, he’d bet good money no one could have seen this coming, but that didn’t stop him from kicking himself.
Madeline had always rubbed him the wrong way. She was too placid. Too calm. Too collected. She claimed she’d been trapped on the far side of eternity, unable to pass on and unable to escape to the living world, for at least as long as the Countess had been active. Someone with that much time on their hands should have been much worse off, as he could say from personal experience exactly how long it took to go nuts from boredom with the same view twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, without stop, rest, or distraction.
It made sense that concocting a genuine lunatic’s gambit had been Madeline’s method to save her sanity. But never had he suspected in all the years of his undeath that it had been she who killed the Blackwell women. She who had ripped a hole in their minds to let the universe pour in and drown them, even if it had been inadvertently. Not him, as he’d always feared, but her. She’d stripped him of two companions - never mind that one had never seen fit to acknowledge his existence - and left him holding the bag.
And because he couldn’t wait to think of a better idea than shoving that Victorian-era broad out of Red’s mind, here he was a third time, trapped and alone. Madeline had been the one holding back the universe from overwhelming Red. Her final words to him haunted him still. It was his fault this time. His doing. He was fated to watch another young woman with her whole life ahead of her wither away while doctors probed and hypothesized and frowned and failed her, until she finally died.
Hallelujah, the radio sang again as he dropped his hands from his face. The chorus, he supposed. Hallelujah. It was a pleasant enough melody, if a bit melancholy. Hallelujah. Almost funereal. Ha. How twistedly appropriate. He hated it. Hallelu . . . ujah.
Sighing as he turned away from the body on the floor, he pocketed his fists and floated the length and breadth of the cell, pacing as best as his ghostly form would allow. Perhaps it was the years of intangible existence playing tricks with his perception, but he could have sworn this was the same exact cell Lauren had occupied shortly after her own break. Of course, all these padded cells looked the same, and they all bled together so abysmally and so completely. It hardly mattered if it was the same cell or not; he’d have a good couple dozen hours to memorize its details before Red was transferred to the permanent patient ward, where she would rot away the rest of her days.
He yearned for anything else to look at, for anyplace else to be. The shop would have been cozy this time of year, the wood stove in the corner heating the space comfortably while snow fell outside the tall display windows. Danny and Linda would have been either home with family or out on a gig, leaving him to close up shop. Lonesome, sure, but not like this. Lauren’s apartment would have been better - even with its pervasive cigarette smoke stains and its ugly-as-sin carpet treaded thick with ash and cigarette butts, it wasn’t such a bad little sardine tin. She’d have hung a little sprig of holly on the door, her one grudging acknowledgement of the holiday season, eventually returning it to its hook every time he blew it down for a laugh.
But his thoughts drifted again to Red, her garish pink apartment walls with the mementos from their past adventures covering every flat surface available. Griff, the P.I. bear, would have a miniature Santa hat perched on top of his tiny Homburg in a couple of months, which Joey wouldn’t blow away for God or money for fear of the chewing-out Red would give him for his trouble.
Would that he could see that ridiculous little teddy bear again. The dictaphone Red had bought - at his insistence - from the thrift store. The photos of the Blackwell family hung alongside people they’d met and helped together over the last few years. They’d done so much good together. Helped so many spooks, and a few living folks, too. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right.
Hallelujah, came the chorus again from the radio, hallelujah. The singers used no instruments to back their harmonizing voices, and the effect was almost like a church choir had set up shop in the hall outside the cell. Hallelujah, hallelu . . . ujah.
He’d never been a praying man. Never saw much point in it. The world was as it was, what you saw was what you got, and it was your job to make do with what you had to get by, and maybe do some sob story a good turn when you had the chance. That was, of course, before he’d died, but he stuck to those same principles. Why change them? It wasn’t as if the Almighty had sat him down for a talk before flinging him back into the living world without the ability to affect it on his own. Hell, sometimes he almost wished he had some big, bearded, ancient jerk in a robe to yell at, maybe wring some answers out of him.
But no, no answers for Joey Mallone. No teachers, no rulebooks, no divine intervention. Just trial and error, learn as you go, try not to fuck up. All he’d really learned in the process was that he was good at two things: talking to ghosts and threatening the living, and the only times the latter had ever really mattered, he couldn’t do anything but shout from the sidelines. Some Spirit Guide.
The longer he thought, the more pointless everything he’d learned in his career as a Guide seemed. Was Madeline bullshitting him when she said he’d only become a Spirit Guide simply because he’d been the last ghost Madeline and the Countess had saved together? He couldn’t remember that meeting clearly at all, so it was anyone’s guess, but he had a feeling she was right. In what universe would anyone knowingly choose a tailor from the wrong side of the tracks, plugged full of lead for a debt that wasn’t even his, to bring peace to the restless dead? He sure as hell wouldn’t.
As he heard the radio starting into another chorus of Hallelujah, he made towards the door to the cell, maybe intending to hover near the radio to get a rise out of the receptionist. Glancing back over his shoulder at the figure of his erstwhile partner, he hesitated. She seemed peaceful there, but vulnerable. Would she wake again, so soon? Would the drugs wear off while he was away? Would she still be raving and screaming, or would she be herself?
Sighing again, he turned towards her once more and shook his head mournfully. “It’s like they’re reading from a playbook,” he noted to himself, bitterness twisting his features. The words welled up from the weight he knew he shouldn’t be able to feel in his chest, distilling the past hours of reflection so that he could get them outside his damned head, if nothing else. “Constrained. Drugged. Placed under observation. In a week, they’ll move you to another ward.”
Red didn’t budge. Didn’t blink. Didn’t twitch.
“Then they’ll poke you full of needles, and nod thoughtfully while taking notes. Then they’ll move you to a long-term care floor, keep you drugged and fed and washed. . . And then . . .” He gulped. “I’ll watch you turn gray. I’ll watch your skin weather and dry.” Just like Lauren. Just like Patricia. “And then . . .”
He couldn’t bring himself to say it aloud, except to turn to his old standby, the phrase he’d provided to so very many of the unwitting dead: “I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.” Now the words fell from his lips without him needing to pull them together consciously, and he floated closer to the senseless woman. “It’s all my fault. I can’t blame the universe. Or death. Or even you. This one’s on me.” You brought this on yourself, Madeline had said. She was right. But even still . . . “Maybe I deserve it, but you certainly don’t.”
With that, the injustice of it all came crashing down upon his head like a thunderbolt, and his fists clenched tighter within his pockets. She was younger now than Lauren had been before her break. She had so much life left to live. Sure, it was the crappy life of a Bestower, slugging back countless gallons of joe, slogging through abandoned dumps, and racking up restraining orders from everybody and their dog, but it was life! It was her life, and she deserved to live it! So what if he was a fuckup of a Spirit Guide? He was the only one who could help her now, and he’d be damned if he didn’t at least try.
“There’s got to be a way to fix this,” he growled to himself between gritted teeth. “There HAS to be.” Resolve steeled anew, he made for the door a second time. Again, he paused just before leaving, looking back towards Red’s motionless form. Hang in there, kid, he urged her silently. And don’t go anywhere.
Joey passed through the padded cell’s door, leaving Rosa Blackwell to her unknowable dreaming, unsure of his destiny, save that he had to do right by his Bestower, somehow.