Part Two: Those that Break
Gone. The saddest word in the language. In any language.
- Mark Slouka
Maddie sat at the kitchen table. She stared down at the mug that had found its way into her hands. Somehow there was always coffee in the pot. She couldn't remember the last time she'd made any herself. She wasn't even sure she remembered how.
A chime sounded. The doorbell. Someone ought to open the door.
Jack was absent. Talking to investigators, reporters, the police. Running errands. Tinkering in the lab—or destroying it further, she didn't know. Maddie hadn't set foot in that place since Danny disappeared.
The police had been there, pushing paper into her hands, walking her through the missing person filing. Jazz had handled most of it. Maddie just signed the bottom of each page, not even seeing the text in front of her. They'd asked her questions, but all she could do was shake her head.
"I don't know," she'd said over and over, like a puppet with a pull string.
A lie. The truth, the terrible, awful thing was that she did know.
Her son was a half-ghost, a halfa. He had been ripped from the sky by a trap of her own devising. Dragged away by government agents and subjected to unspeakable experiments. Experiments she had conducted with her own hand.
Danny had every right to leave her.
She squeezed the mug tighter, watching a bit of cream on the top that hadn't yet mixed into the coffee. The swirl of white spiraled, delicately balanced. Still pure and distinct, though mingled irreversibly with the coffee. It no longer had the ability to exist as a single substance.
As the minutes stretched on the knock turned into an insistent banging that echoed through the house. Tiny waves shuddering across the surface disturbed the swirl of cream, curdling it into oblivion.
Someone really ought to get it.
Another door―upstairs, Jazz―banged open. Feet stomped down the stairs. Maddie listened to them cross the living room. The knocking stopped. Murmured, terse voices. The door shut. Silence. Jazz appeared in the kitchen doorway.
"Mom," she said. Her eyes were tired. The purple swelling around her right eye only added to the look of defeat.
Maddie looked at her in silence. Clutched her coffee. Waited.
Jazz dragged out a chair and sat, squeezing her hands together. "That was Tucker. He was at the hospital earlier, and he saw the GIW checking out Danny's room. They know there was ecto-activity there, and he thinks they could tell it was Phantom's ectosignature." She shuddered. "Tuck said that with all your…"
She stopped, swallowed, glanced at Maddie. "They know a lot about Danny's ghost half now."
Danny's ghost half. It rolled off Jazz's tongue as naturally as breathing. Her daughter had accepted it with such unquestioning ease.
Nervous fingers twisted tangles into long red hair. "I don't think they've guessed who he really is. They would have been here hours ago. But if they were at the hospital, they know there's a connection. If they find Danny and try to do a scan, he's in trouble."
Maddie looked at her hands. She'd denied it to his face. She'd nearly shot him. Why did she pull the trigger?
Jazz leaned forward, catching Maddie's downcast gaze. "You can't let them know about Danny."
"But if they knew―"
Irrelevant. Tainted. She remembered Agent L's cold gaze as he dismissed even the possibility of a truly sentient ghost. Wasn't that why she had been so determined to free "Phantom" in the first place?
"It wouldn't matter,” Jazz said, echoing her thoughts. “They'd take him anyway. You understand that, right?"
Maddie shuddered, clutching the mug tightly. That conveniently hidden facility, where no one could see what was done to the ghosts. That place where she had… she had...
The sharp word made Maddie start, sending the mug out of her hand and crashing to the floor. It shattered. Jazz drew back, a blush creeping along her cheeks. Maddie's realized her daughter was on the verge of tears.
Jazz squeezed her eyes shut. "I know this is awful. You shouldn't have found out this way. I should've…" She breathed deeply, then opened her eyes, pushing back the chair and crouching to gather up the shards of ceramic. "I need you to listen to me, okay? For Danny."
"Danny," Maddie echoed, and found herself nodding.
"It's the only way to keep him safe. They'll ask you questions, but you have to play dumb. Say that you weren't there when he left. You know nothing about it."
Maddie watched the coffee creeping across the tile. "Nothing."
Sam glared at the patch of settee visible between the two sets of white slacks. It was a particularly offensive shade of pink, like chewed bubblegum, part of the sugary-sweet decor of the downstairs sitting room. Her mother had chosen this room, of all places, to host Sam's interrogation.
An appropriate setting for torture, Sam decided. The ambient disgust that she held for it gave her stony attitude that much more power.
"Sam, sweetie," her mother said, twisting white-gloved fingers around her gilded teacup. "These men are from the government. They only want to help. You and that Fenton boy."
She hated that subtle, condescending way of removing themselves from Danny. "That Fenton boy," as if Pamela Manson hadn't heard him called by name a million times.
"I know who they are," Sam. She transferred her venomous glare from the couch to its more deserving occupants. Her hands curled into fists. "I know what they do."
The man with the buzz cut stared back at her through impenetrable black shades, unmoved. "Miss Manson, you were the last person to have contact with Daniel Fenton. We have reason to believe that he had already been compromised by an ecto-entity at that time. An ecto-entity that escaped our possession."
"Imprisonment, you mean." Same leaned forward, digging her nails into the armchair. "Your unethical, immoral, probably illegal imprisonment of a sentient being."
"Our daughter is an activist," Pamela said with a touch of pride. "Although usually it's for more… appropriate causes." Her mother sighed, setting down her teacup. "I don't know where this ghost rights craze is coming from."
The second GIW chuckled. "Your daughter has been reading too many internet conspiracy theories, ma'am," he said with a flash of yellow teeth.
This man, who had introduced himself as Mr. Dujean, didn't quite fit into his GIW uniform. There were uncomfortable little bulges at the armpits and waist, a coffee stain on his slacks and crumbs in his lap. The other GIW agent had offered no name at all, only a cold glare and a signed paper confirming the mandatory nature of this interview.
Dujean brushed cookie crumbs off his lapel and reached for a teacup. "You don't have any coffee, do you? Whoops."
Pamela stared at the blot of tea on her cashmere carpet. "I'm afraid I'd have to brew a new pot," she answered with a brittle smile. "I wouldn't want to make you gentlemen wait. This interview will be brief."
"Never mind. then," Dujean responded affably enough. "You don't need to worry about the legitimacy of the GIW, Miss Manson. We're a fully-sanctioned branch of the US government."
"Of course," Pamela said, sipping her own tea and gazing at the two agents with cool green eyes. "Our lawyers confirmed it before we let you in."
Sam tried not to gape at this unexpected parry from her mother. The Mansons weren't afraid to call in their legal team against the GIW, she was saying. The high-level branch of the government line didn't intimidate her at all.
It figured that a carpet stain would raised Pamela Manson's ire.
"We've run our own checks, as you can imagine," Dujean responded with an unpleasant, crooked smile. "We know that your family are law-abiding, responsible citizens."
"We have nothing to hide."
Sam's skin crawled; she wished she could have her mom's confidence. Too bad it was based in a false assumption. There were ectoguns under her bed, ghost files on her computer; some of Danny's blood still smudged on the handle of the industrial-grade first aid kit she kept behind her speakers. She had a lot to hide.
"I'm sure you already know, Miss Manson," he continued, taking a sip of his tea, then frowning in disappointment. "Enabling and aiding an underage runaway is a punishable offense."
The man with the buzz cut opened the folder that had been tucked under his arm. "These records show that you made a substantial withdrawal from the hospital ATM immediately after Daniel Fenton's disappearance. Do you still have that money?"
Sam's mother made a faint sound of dismay, her hand fluttering up to cover her mouth.
Sam shrugged. "Why? You looking for donations?" She crossed her arms and leaned back. "I gave it to a homeless guy. He looked like he needed a new coat."
Dujean snorted. "An eight hundred dollar coat?"
Sam returned their skeptical gazes with practiced apathy, grinding her combat boots into the plush carpet. "You heard me."
Dujean set down the teacup with a clack; he leaned forward and lacing his thick fingers. "You wouldn't want to spend your last year of high school in juvenile detention, would you?"
"Oh Sammy," Pamela murmured, but there was an angry glimmer in her eyes that gave Sam hope. Even if it was just for the Manson reputation, Mom and Dad wouldn't let the GIW bully her without a fight.
Even better, the GIW were more afraid of bad press than the Mansons were. Sam had noticed how Danny's second disappearance had barely reached the news stations, how none of the papers even touched the subject―even though the first time Danny had made national headlines. Someone had suppressed the story. The GIW were hoping they could quietly find Danny, get their ghost back, and take him away. As if she'd ever let that happen.
"You just have to answer a few questions," Dujean said. "We don't want to get you in trouble, Miss Manson. We just want the truth."
She flung back her head and bared her teeth at the men in their less-than-spotless white suits in her most dazzling smile. "Try me."
At first Danny had no particular plan except getting away. He'd slipped into the back of a truck that reeked of wet mulch and kerosene, then hopped off at the first gas station, phasing into one of the big, empty eighteen wheelers leaving the city. Now the highway roared past outside as the truck rattled its way to some unknown destination.
Danny leaned up against the front inside of the truck and rested the heavy backpack in his lap. He crossed his arms on top of it and lay his head down. Exhaustion soaked into his bones. He still felt light-headed and sick, just from a few seconds of intangibility. Sleep wouldn't come.
The truck was dark, empty and hollow. A couple of wooden pallets and heavy straps bolted to the wall swayed with every bump the truck hit.
He coughed, then stiffened at the echo that bounced back against the empty walls of the truck. He knew this space, better than the inside of his bedroom at home. That sound, weird and tinny from his own supernatural voice, but with a claustrophobic, airless intensity that could only come from four prison walls.
Danny's eyes flew open with a start. He stared at the dull gray steel of the ecto-proof ceiling above him. It was night; the lab beyond the glass walls was pitch black. The cell was lit dimly by a combination of his failing aura and the still-wet ectoplasm fading into dark green on the walls. He drew the battered stump of his arm up to his chest. The moldy citrus stink of his own ectoplasm burned his nose.
He'd been dreaming of freedom, of stars, and… highways? Danny rubbed at his aching eyes. It all seemed fuzzy now.
Something moved in the corner of his eye. He turned his head. A figure stood outside the smudged and foggy glass. Blue jumpsuit. White lab coat. Red hair.
"Mom," Danny croaked, pushing himself onto one elbow.
No. Dr. Fenton.
He flinched, half expecting to be blasted with electricity for his verbal slip, but instead the figure stepped closer. He could see her clearly now, the dark circles under her eyes, tears streaking her cheeks, her hair limp and draggled as if she'd been standing in a downpour.
"Are you okay?"
Mom just stared at him sadly. She knew, he realized with a twisting panic. Who he was, what she'd done, everything. The raw pain in her eyes struck him through the heart.
"I know I should have told you, I just…" he sighed. "I didn't want to. Everything would change." He ignored the ache of his body and climbed to his feet. "As long as only I knew it was almost like it didn't happen. You know? A nightmare I could put behind me."
He shifted under her silence; wouldn't she let him out, now that she knew? Couldn't they go home now?
"Mom? I—ow," Danny broke off at a sharp yet distant prick. It sang through his nerves, both removed and immediate; a bizarre, alien sensation. He gaped, horror squeezing at his chest. He knew that feeling. Someone had cut his missing hand.
"Mom!" Pain and fear edged into his voice. "Somebody's…"
Then Danny realized that he couldn't see her hands. She wasn't looking at him any more, though her face wore an unchanging mask of grief. She was looking down at something. A scalpel flashed.
Terror sizzled in his veins. Not again. In two strides he came face to face with her. Now he could see flickers of gloves in the shadows that swallowed up her lower half, splashes of electric green. "You have to stop. I don't know how much more I can—"
She wasn't listening. The intercom was off.
The glass flung his cries back to him. They rebounded over and over till his ears ached with his own screams. He dropped to his knees, curling around his wounded arm, squeezing it tight. That didn't lessen the pain that ripped through his senses. Danny gasped for breath around dry, shuddering sobs.
"Please just stop—please—"
The truck jolted over a pothole, knocking Danny flat.
Danny scrambled up, hand burning with phantom pains, half ready to fly away in terror—rings formed around his waist instinctively. A sudden wave of nausea sent him crashing to his knees. He groaned and yanked the transformation back, pressing his face into the steel. Reality soaked into his awareness. The hollow metal under his cheek, the rumbling engine, the hiss of other cars passing by.
Oh. The truck. The lab had been weeks ago. He was miles away from it, the GIW, and even Amity Park by now.
Danny collapsed. He squeezed his eyes shut, willing his heart to stop thudding like a jackhammer against his chest.
A dream. Or something. Had he fallen asleep? Danny didn't remember. If he had, the nightmare had robbed him of any kind of rest. Danny pressed his injured hand against his chest and shuddered.
Crawling back toward the front of the truck, he gathered up the backpack and buried his face in it. Its brown fabric still smelled faintly of Tucker, of homemade cologne and burnt circuitry; the thermoses were two comforting lumps inside. If he tried, he could imagine Sam's smell mixed in there too, a warm smell, somewhere between exotic flowers and old comic books.
After a minute he got up, resting a hand on the side of the truck to steady himself. The confines of the truck were getting to him, that was all. His hand brushed against a thick vinyl strap that hung from a bolt in the side of the truck. Danny picked it up; his thumb pressed against the ridgy fabric, testing the realness of it.
Maybe he could… His eyes wandered up to the roof of the truck. It was probably a waste of energy, definitely risky, but right now, he just wanted out.
Danny took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and found the flickering coolness of his core. Danny wrapped the strap around his waist a couple of times and knotted it. He crouched and sprang, grasping at intangibility. Phasing played tricks on gravity, letting him drift up through the roof on pure momentum.
He dropped the intangibility. Instantly his body was yanked, feet-first, toward the end of the truck. The makeshift tether yanked tight around his armpits. The truck roared and rattled beneath him. Headlights flashed in the darkness. Warm summer air blasted by. Danny lay on his stomach and tried not to retch.
The wooziness passed easier this time. The world stopped careening in circles and settled for hurtling straight along the highway at eighty miles an hour. That was just over cruising speed for a ghost; the familiar onslaught of wind in his face gave Danny a weird, bittersweet feeling. He hadn't flown in months. Probably wouldn't again for… well, a while. At best. If ever. The bitter overtook the sweet, and he rolled on his back instead.
The world swished by in a dark blur, but up above the night sky held still, calm and empty. They must have left the cities behind, because the stars were brilliantly clear. Danny picked out the easy ones: Orion, Ursa Major and Minor. His eyes wandered from the Little Dipper's tail and found the northern star, and just beyond that, Cygnus. He was heading south, then. As good a direction as any.
Mom had shown him that constellation. A raw ache cut through his chest; images of her hollow, distant face came rushing back, with hands moving in the shadows. Danny pushed the image away, shaking his head. Mom. Back then. She'd shown him Cygnus.
It was too faint to see in an urban sky. They'd driven out fifty miles and stayed up half the night. Then they slept in till eleven and made pancakes with blueberry constellations. Just him and Mom, for a whole weekend. A half smile curled his lips.
That was back when ghosts were just some abstract theory. When inventions were toys to tinker with, not death traps in the making. When things were simpler. When he was simpler. Why couldn't he dream about back then?
Danny stretched out his hands to frame the cluster of stars. His bandaged fingers, awkward and crooked, broke the circle. Sighing, he let them drop to his lap, closing his eyes and listening to the wind whistle by. He wanted to go back. He just didn't know how.
Those that Break :: tbc…