It's Saturday. The sun is out, the birds are singing, and John Watson is being lowered to the floor while he grapples for purchase on a complete stranger's coat. No one understands why. Everyone moves on with their lives while he sits on the floor, crying at nothing.
It kills me sometimes, how people die.
If I had any other job, any other being, I'd tell him myself. I'd tell John Watson that Sherlock Holmes was never flesh and blood, never solid, never true. But I know the business of death; I know how it works, and I know that sometimes, losing someone you love and keeping the memories alive is better than having them dissipate into nothing, even if the latter hurts more.
The latter is proof.
I'd kept my eye out for John Watson since he returned from the war with what looked like the whole world upon his shoulders and a bag of souls dragging behind him. That's what led me to him. It's my job to take the souls, to cradle them in my hand and to tell them that everything is going to be just fine, and so when John Watson left Afghanistan with a thousand scared soldiers behind him, I couldn't sit idle.
And so I saw when John Watson walked into an empty laboratory and marvelled as a man that didn't even exist changed his life. It made me sad, I think, that he was so lonely. Lonely enough to create a man to help him escape. Lonely enough to rent a house under two different names. Lonely enough to befriend a policeman who felt a little sorry for him.
I watched as his psychiatrist prescribed him with anti-anxiety medication to stop his shaking hand, only to switch the bottles when he wasn't looking and give him something to stop the hallucinations. I saw how scared she looked when he left, cheerfully telling her that his new friend Sherlock Holmes was going to save him.
She didn't have the heart to tell him that he didn't have a saviour.
No one did.
Not even me.
Sometimes, souls tire me, and so I turn to the living in the hope of some respite. It was then that I found myself drawn to John Watson again. John Watson and Sherlock Holmes. The innate ability that humans have to surround themselves with goodness, real or imagined, almost makes me a little jealous. I was jealous of John Watson for a little while. I was jealous of the way he would stare with the all the wonder of a little child in his eyes as he followed the dream man around the sitting room. I was jealous when John Watson stopped running after following the dream man down a deserted alleyway and I could feel the very essence of life thundering through his veins. I was jealous of John Watson's unwavering faith in the dream man that he'd only just met and that he didn't even know wasn't real.
I wasn't jealous when the room went eerily silent after the dream man left and John Watson looked around as if he'd just lost a piece of his heart. I wasn't jealous when John Watson emerged from the alleyway and saw a stranger staring at him, befuddled, because he'd run straight past him and was laughing at thin air. I wasn't jealous when he wondered where the man he'd trusted completely and absolutely failed to show and John Watson would lay on his bed and cry.
I only pondered how one man could possibly be so alone in all the world with all its humans.
I am haunted by humans.
Every time I revisited John Watson, I found myself wanting to scream from the top of my lungs that Sherlock Holmes was not a real man. That Sherlock Holmes was an excellent shade, a fantastic shadow, a beautiful ghost, but that's all. Nothing more. I wanted to tell John Watson that he was more alive than anyone I'd ever met, but I realised that it would mean nothing, because all I'd ever known were lost souls.
Then I realised that John Watson was another one of those lost souls. He just hadn't stopped trying to read his map yet. Sherlock Holmes was his compass, forever pointing in the direction farthest from sanity, and John Watson followed him like a dying man to an oasis.
And then I couldn't tell him anymore, because anyone with even half a heart knows that the naïve smile of a man in the dark is nicer than the dead eyes of a broken one.
The months passed and I found myself growing more attached to John Watson and Sherlock Holmes and I couldn't see why. It was as though Sherlock Holmes had begun to exist, like he was bleeding through the cracks in the universe because he didn't want John Watson to live his life on his own.
I'd almost begun to like him before I remembered that he wasn't real.
But it seemed like the more Sherlock Holmes began to manifest, the less John Watson would believe in him. When he worked out the missing link in a case that didn't make sense, he'd spin around and Sherlock Holmes would not congratulate him with a small smile and a witty comment. The room would just stagnate, and John Watson's faith in the man who had saved his life began to waver.
The silences would last longer, and I would feel guilty that I hadn't told him sooner.
It was inevitable, I think, that one day Sherlock Holmes would die. I don't even think you could call it a death. It was just a signal of the hallucination coming to an end, a last goodbye from the dream man before he left John Watson to be alone again. I didn't expect to feel so sad when he jumped. I didn't expect to feel a chink in my armour.
But I saw John Watson's face, so I bent down and picked up the pretend soul of the best man he'd ever known. Or not really known. I can never tell how much he knew about Sherlock Holmes, I just know that he felt safer with him than he'd ever felt with anyone in his entire life.
I couldn't take that away from him, that feeling of comfort, so I let him be.
I left him to sit on the cold London pavement and wallow.
Sometimes I hate my job.
Even now, I wonder how much of my life is convinced.
In the weeks that follow, I feel more like an omen than ever before. I think I want to keep John Watson safe, so I hang around him like a bad smell, lurking in corners and watching through windows as the already empty living room now feels like a crypt. I see as his kindly old landlady visits him with tea, biscuits and a permanent frown etched in her eyes. I see as his psychiatrist comes with more prescription and new anti-depressant drugs. She has the frown too. I wonder how many people in John Watson's life have the same frown.
John Watson has the frown too, only his is like a constant stab in the gut, a reminder that he shouldn't be crying because no one ever really died.
But still, no one tells him.
I think out loud that it's so wrong, but I know that somewhere, somehow, it's right.
Better to have loved and lost than never have loved at all, right?
A month after I first saw his frown, I was pulled to him in that familiar way I've known so many times before. I said no, not him, not John Watson under my breath over and over, because John Watson made me feel more alive than any other human had ever done before, but it made no difference.
He looked almost peaceful as he slept on his bed, medication scattered around him like confetti at a celebration. Someone might say it was a celebration. He was back among his friends.
As I gathered his soul, I apologised for never speaking up, for letting him believe in a false god and live in a false world without ever stepping up to help.
He only smiled.
As he looked past me, I think he saw Sherlock Holmes again, because his smile turned into a beam and he ran off into a new world.
I didn't feel guilty after that.
He was happy.
He does something to me, that boy. Every time. It's his only detriment. He steps on my heart. He makes me cry.