"Why did I have to get paired with her?" Mikey banged his head against the lunch table. "She's just so… ditzy! The epitome of the A-List's idiocracy! Phantom this and Paulina that! It's always the same story!"
Lester gaped. "Dude, I don't know why you're complaining! Star's hot! Like, hot hot. Any other guy would be head over heels!"
He groaned. "She's not my type."
"I thought everyone was your type?"
"Being bi doesn't mean that I'm attracted to anyone. Sure, Star's pretty and all but she's superficial and scatterbrained." Mikey glanced her a few tables away and scowled. He drew his fingers over her head and crossed an X. "Not my type."
"Whatever," Lester said. "I still think you're overreacting. Even if you're not into her, being her partner can't be the end of the world!"
"Trust me, it is. This leadership project is due in a week and she hasn't even talked to me about it yet! All she's done is text Paulina and brainstorm half-assed ideas about beautifying the community and act like I should be carrying the entire project!"
"Well, why don't you come up with a project idea that she'll actually be interested in? Something that she'll get into?"
"I don't think she has any interests. She's just that… shallow," Mikey remarked bitterly.
"She's literally the second most popular girl in school, she has to have something she likes to do!"
"I mean, she likes cheerleading? And uh, nail-designs? Oh, and Phantom! She loves Phantom!"
"There you go!" Lester said. "Come up with a way to improve the community using Phantom! That's your project!"
"'Using' Phantom? How am I supposed to get in contact with the ghost boy!"
"I mean, you don't have to get him on board. Just use him as a marketing tool or a logo or something. There's plenty of other people that look up to him, so it'll work like a charm!"
"I hope you're right, Lester. I'll try to talk with her next period."
"That's the spirit!" he patted Mikey on the back.
"So, I know that you're not really into this project, but I have a few ideas that you may want to hear me out on."
"Okay, sure." Star didn't even look up from her phone. "Knock yourself out."
"The assignment says that we have to come up with a way to improve the community, and I know that our community's main problem these days is ghosts, so I was thinking that… we could do something about Phantom?"
Immediately, her eyes snapped up. "Phantom?"
"You're not one of those antis that want to get rid of him, are you?"
"No!" Mikey waved his hands. "I was more thinking like, we could base our project on him somehow! To benefit the community!"
"Oh, yeah. That sounds cool. But what would we do?"
"Well, there's a lot of damages because of ghost fights. Maybe we could figure out how to minimize damage? And use Phantom as part of the campaign?"
She bit her lip. "That's a good idea, but it's tricky. There's no way to predict ghost fights or protect areas once they've been targeted. We can't exactly get tangled up in the fights themselves."
"True… so maybe we can find a way to prevent them or dissuade ghosts from attacking at all? But what keeps ghosts away?"
"Phantom?" Star suggested.
Mikey's eyes widened. "Oh my God. Phantom keeps the ghosts away! That's it! We can just make giant mascots of Phantoms to keep the ghosts away!"
"What? Like… Phantom scarecrows?" she laughed.
"Exactly like Phantom scarecrows! If they're convincing enough, ghosts will totally steer clear of them!"
"It's so stupid that ghosts might fall for it! Mikey, you're a genius!"
"Thanks!" he pushed his glasses up on his nose. "So… any ideas what materials we'll need?"
It took a lot of resources and a considerable amount of planning, but by the end of the week, Star and Mikey had single-handedly created six Phantom-crows ready to be placed around Amity Park. Their teacher amended them for their creativity and awarded them a well-earned A. The rest of the class had resorted to basic projects like flower planters and soda-can recycling, so their project was definitely a breath of fresh air and bound to break ground in their community.
"From a distance, even I'd think this was Phantom!" Paulina marveled. "Wouldn't you think so, Dash?"
She ran her hand over the glossy black material that Star managed to snag from a local crafts store and twirled the scarecrow's tufts of white hair.
"I gotta hand it to you, Star, this idea was super smart!"
"Well, Mikey came up with it. I just bought most of the stuff and helped put it together."
"So modest," Paulina crooned. "You're definitely going to be a great aunty-coneur one day!"
"Do you mean 'entrepreneur'?" Mikey deadpanned.
"Yeah, that person!"
"Paulina knows what she's talking about, nerd!" Dash shoved him.
Mikey huffed indignantly and held his tongue. He didn't need to get the shit beaten out of him today, after all. He only had to wait a little longer and this entire partnership with Star would dissipate. Then, he wouldn't have to deal with the A-List anymore.
"So, where are you putting them up?" Paulina asked. "I wouldn't recommend putting them in uh... Fendork's neighborhood. His Dad might shoot them down."
"Ugh, I forgot about that lunatic," Star intoned. "Good thing we're not putting any on that side of town. So far, one's going up in Elmerton and another's going by the docks. We also decided that we're putting one on the school's roof since we get a lot of them here. We haven't decided on the other three yet because we're waiting on a map of areas with high attack rates."
"Good idea. Hopefully they'll actually make a difference!"
"Well, that's the idea, after all."
"What if ghosts aren't scared of them, though?" Dash pointed out. "I mean… you'd think most ghosts would be scared of Phantom, but some of them aren't. Some of them try to fight him! Like that time Phantom and I were shrunk real small and we had to battle this killer robot dude who was totally out for Phantom's ectoplasm! We kicked ass together!" he boasted.
"I don't know why anyone would be foolish enough to purposely fight mi amor! He's so strong and brave that he can defeat anything!"
Mikey hated to admit it, but Dash… was sort of right. What if the ghosts saw the scarecrows and tried to attack them because it was Phantom! What if instead of ghost deterrents, they acted as incentives?
Well, too late now. Mikey couldn't afford to turn back now. If they didn't follow through with this project, their grade would be jeopardized. Everyone was counting on them to do this and if Mikey shot down his own idea that wouldn't look good at all! The best course of action was to watch how this would play out and pray that Dash was wrong. He had to have faith in the scarecrows.
Even if it was against his better judgment.
Danny was reasonably confused on most mornings, but today was not cooperating with him at all. The moment he touched down on Casper High's campus and shifted into Fenton, he was met with a startling sight. There was a life size-doll that resembled Phantom hoisted above the school's entrance. It was wrapped in shiny, black material, branded with his logo, and had a flat mop of white hair on its head.
It was kind of eerie. Was this a dare or a threat? Was someone going to try and hang him in front of the school? Given, the doll looked like Phantom, not Fenton, but his ghost side still had plenty of haters. He'd learned the hard way never to underestimate his enemies—ghost or human.
Danny set his suspicions aside and surrendered himself to Lancer's first period. Still, the picture of that doll haunted him. What did it mean? What was it for? Did a student do it?
Between third and fourth period, Danny caught up with Sam and Tucker and asked them what they knew. To his disbelief, Tucker responded a bit too enthusiastically.
"Oh, that's a Phantom-crow!"
Danny gaped at him.
"Phantom-crow. You know, like scarecrow. Phantom." He mimicked smashing the words together with his fists. "Phantom-crow."
"I still don't get it."
Sam's explanation was much more helpful. "It's something that the College Prep class did. They had to plan a community service project or something and one of the groups came up with Phantom scarecrows to ward off ghosts. Who knows? It might work."
"If this takes off, you should patent it," Tucker suggested. "They're based on your physical likeness. You could totally make a profit!"
"You want me to apply for a patent… for giant scarecrows that look like me?"
"Tucker, I don't think scarecrows are really an original idea."
Sam laughed. "Yeah, you might have to fight some medieval farmer for the rights."
"That's easy, Danny can just take me to their ghost! Then we can hash it out over who owns scarecrows."
Danny shot them an incredulous look. "What are you two even talking about?"
"Apparently Tucker's going to go beat the shit out of some dead farmer."
"Wouldn't the farmer beat the shit out of him?"
Tucker held his hands to his chest in dramatic shock. "You've betrayed me, Daniel."
"Last time you said that it was over onion rings."
Sam snorted. "That sounds about right."
They turned the corner to Danny's next class and bid them a quick goodbye. He slipped into his desk and laid his head down, trying to get a minute or so of rest before class started. Danny snagged any naps he could these days with as much sleep deprivation he got. The chatter of his classmates dwindled under the veil of sleep and soon Danny was dreaming.
A tree rustled across the courtyard. It wasn't very tall, but it's branches stretched around itself donning magnificent, orange leaves. It looked familiar, but he couldn't place where he'd seen it. An autumn breeze twisted through its leaves and ventured towards his face. It pressed against him and whispered something incomprehensible, something cold. He wanted to reach out and touch it, but his arms wouldn't move. It was like they were pinned to his side.
That's alright, he decided. The wind still feels nice.
Suddenly, something below him shrieked a terrible shriek. He tried looking down and—
—smacked his head on something hard.
He smacked his head on his desk. Great job, Fenton!
The tardy bell must've startled him. Stupid bell. It sounded exactly like that noise from his dream… oh. It was the noise from his dream. (But was it?)
Maybe he was more sleep-deprived than he thought, but it almost felt like he'd heard the noise in his dream first.
It was easy to ignore his parents' endless drivel about ghosts at the dinner table, but Danny usually tuned back in anytime they mentioned Phantom. Even if it was something he didn't want to hear about, like their newest dissection procedure or the surgical camera they'd installed in the lab ("It'll capture that nasty spook's insides in high definition!"). Nonetheless, it wasn't all bad; sometimes they were just discussing his presence in the community or about how their latest attempt to capture him failed because he 'conveniently' evaded their traps.
"Oh, Mads, did you hear about that project that a few kids did? People are finally recognizing the need for more diverse spectral protection methods!"
Mom dragged her spoon across her plate, dividing her food from latent ectoplasmic residue.
"I don't think I've heard of that yet. What did they do?"
"Well, you know how all the young people look up to Phantom? Some kid got the idea that Phantom's likeness could scare away the other ghosts and decided to make Phantom-scarecrows. Isn't that clever?"
"Oh, it is! Phantom's awfully territorial, so it makes sense that his presence could drive away other ghosts. Surely, some of them will see through the ruse, but it'll dissuade a few of the smaller ghosts."
"That's what I thought too," Dad said. "It won't be extremely effective, but it's a step in a good direction. More and more people are evaluating the threat of ghosts in this town and taking action!"
"I don't know," Danny spoke up. He hadn't put much thought into the topic, but it seemed that people were neglecting a few obvious facts. "It's true that some ghosts are afraid of Phantom, but there's other ghosts that seek him out to attack him. If ghosts find the Phantom-crows, won't they attack areas that wouldn't have been targeted otherwise?"
His parents stared at him and his stomach dropped. Had he said something too detailed? Did he give himself away?
Dad fiddled with his silverware. "It's just… you usually don't give your opinion when we talk about ghosts anymore."
Danny's cheeks grew hot. "Oh."
"I mean, it's true what you said," Mom added. "Actually, it's a really good point! I'm surprised that you knew that about Phantom."
"I pay attention sometimes."
Especially in his own ghost fights, but they wouldn't know that.
"Well, how about you put some of that attention in your classes, huh?"
"I am. Have a little faith in me, will you?" he joked. "And this isn't the first time I've spoken about ghosts in awhile. I just… I don't know, get enough about ghosts in the rest of my life that I'm usually tired about talking about them when I get home."
She narrowed her eyes. "They're not bothering you again, are they?"
"No, no! Nothing to worry about. Who knows? Maybe I'm being too pessimistic and those scarecrows will actually work. Then we really won't have much to worry about!"
"Well, if the scarecrows ward off all the ghosts, we'll still be left with Phantom," Dad pointed out. "That'd be a sad sight; a hero ghost flying around with nothing to fight. That spook will be so distressed that he'll never see us coming!"
And… this was probably a good time for him to duck out. He didn't need to enable another one of Dad's 'rip Phantom apart molecule by molecule' tangents. Danny hurriedly came up with a homework assignment and excused himself from the table.
Danny usually didn't get enough sleep to dream. Whenever he did, they were usually trauma-induced nightmares. Flashes of the portal, the feeling of being ripped apart and smashed together again all in the same moment, and the sickening stench of his own flesh burning. The swish of a red orb, the loss of his free will, and infinite piles of riches… enticing him to stay forever. And him. The cruel curl of his lip, his wicked laugh, sadistic and crippled by apathy. The way Sam's head rolled back when the explosion hit, how Tucker's glasses caught the brilliant blaze, and his parents' look of absolute betrayal.
You know, regular nightmares.
He didn't know what to do with this. This didn't feel like a nightmare, but it was definitely vivid enough. That, and he was lucid. Was lucid dreaming bad? He knew that Jazz did an entire report about it for one of her psychology classes.
He was suspended in the air, but he couldn't move. Paralyzed. Entranced by the dark landscape below. Weathered planks of wood carved broad paths over a misty mass of water, ebbing in and out. He couldn't see them, but there were a few street lamps nearby. Their reflections hung in the water like ethereal, yellow flames.
Somewhere in the distance, dogs barked. Gritty, low howls that pierced the night. They lulled after a few moments, but Danny couldn't help but feel like something was wrong. This wasn't one of his normal nightmares; this was something new. This felt real.
He tried to speak, to say something. But it was like there was something sewing his lips together. What? He couldn't even talk? It was irritating enough that he couldn't move his body!
In a panic, he tried moving his legs, arms, anything. Nothing would work! Why wouldn't his body work?
He was ultimately trapped in his own body.
He wanted to move. Couldn't he at least have the freedom to breathe?
… maybe this was a nightmare.
The dark water ebbed in and out, hitting the concrete barrier underneath the docks and moving back across the lake. The same pattern, over and over with no deviation. How many minutes had it been? It felt like he'd been listening to the waves for an eternity now. It was cruel how dreams distort one's sense of time, stretching tedium out for hours. He just wanted to wake up.
He was lucid, yet he had no power. He couldn't control this dream, move his body, or wake up. He tried to snap himself out of this, tried to resurface his consciousness. Still… the waves splashed against the wall and retreated. He tried for so long too… so long.
Was this his brain's idea of a metaphor? Was this self-punishment? He'd almost prefer being compressed inside the Fenton thermos. If he heard that water splash against the wall one more time—!
Okay, that settled it. This wasn't a nightmare; this was insanity.
Just as he'd given in, surrendered to the futility of waking up, his alarm went off. The dark docks vanished before his eyes and suddenly he was acquainted with his pale, yellow blinds. Somehow, in his sleep, he'd phased his arm into the blinds beside his bed. Without much thought, Danny tried pulling his hand out and ended up disrupting them even more.
Duh, dumbass. You phased yourself in, you have to phase yourself out.
Finally coherent enough to function, Danny phased his arm back out of the blinds and leaned against his headboard. He didn't feel rested at all. He just wanted to go back to sleep. Even though he'd dreamt for hours and hours, it was like he hadn't gotten a wink. Maybe it wouldn't be the end of the world if he took a short nap before getting ready?
But it would be. Mr. Falluca had a chemistry quiz first period that he couldn't miss and he'd made a promise to his parents that he'd pull his grades up. There wasn't a choice; he had to push through it. After all, it was just until three o'clock… he could make it until three! He'd done it before and he could do it again.
He was okay. That impossibly long dream had ended and he was going to take Falluca's test. He was okay because he had to be.
Okay, he didn't make it until three. He made it to lunch and Sam and Tucker forced him to take a nap on one of the couches in the library. He called them stupid for being such good smotherers and blacked out like a light.
This time, he was suspended over the courtyard from yesterday. His first instinct was to move, to move his head so he could place his surroundings, but once again his body refused to move. He pushed his mind to regain control of his body, pushed himself to even twitch a finger. Inevitably, his attempts were null. He was helplessly imprisoned within himself, paralyzed.
Just like last night. And now that he thought about it, just like his daydream yesterday.
He should've realized it much sooner. This was a pattern, wasn't it? Something was seriously wrong with his sleep.
He addressed his gaze to the scene below him. Sunlight cast across the courtyard, and for the first time Danny noticed that there was a human-shaped shadow stretched across the ground. There was a roundish top that must be a head, a bulky torso, and thin arms and legs. There was enough to suggest that the shadow belonged to him, but that definitely wasn't his body. He knew his own shadow and that wasn't his. Was he even in his own body?
Somewhere, a door slammed.
"Shhh, we'll get caught!"
If he could gasp, he would have. There was someone here, someone that wasn't part of this void dreamscape. Or, maybe they were. Maybe they were a figment of his imagination, but they were still the first person he'd heard since these weird dreams began. If only he could turn his head...
"Nuh-uh!" a second voice called out. "The cameras are still broken from the last attack. We're fine."
The first person—a girl—scoffed.
"So? Teachers come out here for smoke breaks. We're not in the clear, dumbass."
The two figures lingered in Danny's peripheral vision. The girl wore a red sweater and carried a metallic lunchbox. The second voice—a tall, dark-haired boy—shouldered a green and orange backpack. He didn't recognize either of them, but it was clear that they were students.
Did that mean that this was… Casper High? What the hell?
Why was he dreaming that he was hanging over Casper High? Why were these kids in his dream? And why couldn't he still move? Why was this happening over and over? Why, why, why—?
The girl in the red sweater jestfully shoved her accomplice. "Danny," she said. "Danny wake up."
"Wake up. First lunch is over, we gotta go."
His eyes snapped open and he almost collided foreheads with Sam. Luckily, he managed to phase through her just in time. She made an "eeking" sound and stepped back.
"Close call," Tucker commented. "Though, if you hadn't phased you coulda tried to aim a few inches lower." He tapped his fingers against his lips with a shit-eating grin.
"Tucker—" Sam growled.
This time, Danny took a few steps back.
"Wanna repeat that?"
When school ended, Danny found himself visiting the school's courtyard. There had to be a reason that his dreams transported him here, trapped him here. He was going to get to the bottom of it, no matter what. Even after his nap at lunch, he hadn't felt rested at all. And he had a bad feeling that he wouldn't get any rest until these dreams stopped.
As soon as he entered the courtyard, he was met with the sad sight of the Phantom-crow. It immediately struck home and Danny pieced it all together.
This started when the Phantom-crows had been hung up around town. This particular Phantom-crow was hung directly over the courtyard, where he'd been in his dream. And it cast the exact same shadow.
It sounded beyond ludicrous, but it was the only thing that made sense: he was being pulled inside the scarecrows.
Reeling from his discovery, Danny ran his hand over his face. This couldn't be real. He didn't even know this was a thing. Who would even think this was a thing? Who suspected that they saw through the eyes of their own immobile, straw imitations?
With a bout of levitation, Danny leaped onto the roof. He examined the Phantom-crow with baffled fascination and noted that it looked even less like him up close. He reached to brush it's mop of stringy white hair and immediately refrained. Was it even safe to touch this thing? What if he touched it and it zapped him straight back into it, for good this time? Paralyzed, trapped as a scarecrow… forever.
He didn't want to take that risk.
Instead, he resolved to just eyeball it. From what he could tell, there wasn't anything obviously suspicious about it. That didn't help his situation at all. He needed to figure out how to get it to stop pulling him in, to stop disrupting his sleep and thrusting him into hours upon hours of mind-numbing tedium.
He hated this stupid Phantom-crow.
If he could get away with destroying it, he would. But this was a community project. He couldn't destroy something that others made to benefit the town, could he? Students had dedicated their time to this. Besides, tons of people were keeping their eye on this project, even his parents!
He'd feel guilty destroying it.
Having made up his mind, Danny stepped off the roof and flew home. He'd find another solution.
"Mom, Dad," he called into the lab. He was desperate and didn't have time for indirect prefaces, he was jumping straight to the point. "Do you think Phantom's spirit is actually in the Phantom-crows?"
Something in the lab clattered.
"What was that, Danno?"
Danny trudged downstairs and repeated his question. If anyone would know about ghostlore, it'd probably be his allies in the Ghost Zone. Although, his parents were closer so he'd settle for their explanation first.
Mom pulled her goggles off of her face. "What do you mean 'Phantom's spirit?' Are you asking if he's possessing them?"
"Yeah, sure. They're supposed to protect the city and a lot of people think he has a protection obsession—" Only a few people had figured out his obsession, but he was stretching the numbers for credibility. "—so do you think that some part of the real Phantom is lingering inside the Phantom-crows? And hypothetically, is there a way to get rid of it?"
Dad tilted his head. "That's an oddly specific question, but I always love a brain teaser! Lemme think on it for a few minutes."
He reached for a pad of notebook paper and started gathering his thoughts.
Meanwhile, Mom narrowed her eyes. "Are you asking for a reason? Did you see something?"
Danny bit the inside of his cheek. "No, no. It was uh, just a conversation I overheard."
"I figured the experts would know, so I asked you guys."
He was probably pushing the flattery, but he was short on time.
"Good call," Mom ruffled his hair. "If there's anything else you ever want to ask about ghosts, you come to us, okay?"
Like he couldn't just ask himself for most things.
"Oh, for sure!"
"Alright, I think I got something!" Dad declared. "It's possible for ghosts to possess objects that he has a personal connection to. Normally, it'd be something from his past life, but since the scarecrows are erected in his image it isn't too far of a stretch to say he could possess them."
"What about removing his possession? How would I, I mean, someone do that?"
"Hm, possession is tricky. People assume it means the same thing as overshadowing, but it's a lot deeper. You could probably pass the scarecrows through the Ghost Catcher, but that'd only be a temporary fix. Removing the ectoplasm doesn't sever the connection, so I'm at a loss."
Mom nodded. "That's why human possession is such a big deal. You can knock out a ghost that's overshadowing a person, but you have to perform an exorcism to fix possession. And exorcisms… aren't exactly foolproof. They're religious rituals, not scientific procedures—a lot could go wrong."
"Like those horror movies!" Dad chimed in.
"What would sever the connection?" he asked.
"Well, killing Phantom would probably do it."
"You can't 'kill' a ghost, sweetie," Mom reminded him.
"Right, but Danno knows what I mean! Obliterate him, tear him to pieces—that sorta stuff!"
Danny tried to keep his hands from shaking and shoved them into his pockets. "Yep."
"So, does that answer all your questions?"
Definitely not. He still had no idea how he would sever the connection, in fact, he felt even more confused.
"I think so. I'll be up in my room."
He left his parents alone with their experiments and slammed the deadlock behind him. He didn't know what to do or who to turn to. He was positive that Sam and Tucker couldn't help. Hell, he wasn't even sure if he could explain this to them! Clockwork and Vlad would tell him to figure it out by himself, and he doubted any of his other allies would know what to do.
He was fucked.
All he could do now was try not to fall asleep.
In a battle between the body and mind, the body always won. It was an inevitable consequence of man's hubris; no one could outwit sleep. No one living, anyway.
Danny couldn't even remember where he'd fallen asleep. In his room? On the kitchen table? Had he caved and gone to Sam or Tucker's house?
All he knew was that he'd screwed up and now he was back inside one of these scarecrows.
This time he wasn't at the docks or at the school, but he was hanging over a street. An ordinary street with cracked pavement and dark green scorch marks that the city failed to power wash. It wasn't nighttime yet, just a little bit before sundown. He could see the sunset in the distance, grazing above a powerline in his peripheral vision.
He couldn't make out much besides the street below him. From what he could tell, this could be any side of town. But if he had to guess, he was out near Elmerton—it was quiet here. Elmerton was the farthest area from downtown, by local standards it was much more rural than suburban. That, and Elmerton was often the brunt of ghost attacks so not many people wandered around the streets anymore.
Danny couldn't decide which was worse. The grating repetition of water crashing and receding against the docks, or silence, stretching out into what felt like hours. Had it been hours? The sun had finally fallen below the horizon, hailing pitch darkness. There weren't any street lamps here, unfortunately. Not being able to see anything felt wrong. Danny was used to having night vision, so not being able to discern his surroundings was startling.
How did humans live like this? It must suck not being able to see. No wonder Tucker complained all the time.
No sight, no sound, no movement. His only occupation was his thoughts, and they were screaming. Livid. Loud. Desperate.
He wanted this to move, he wanted some relief! But there wasn't any relief!
It was as if a heavy weight was compressed on his chest, digging deeper every time he tried to breathe. He would inhale and the pressure would clamp tighter, tighter, tighter! No reprieve for Danny; your lungs aren't allowed to inflate! Tighter, tighter, tighter.
Time was excruciating. If he ever woke up, he'd ask Clockwork if he could punch it in the face. (But isn't Clockwork time? … shhhhh)
At some point, the night's darkness dissolved and resurfaced below Danny's eyelids. His breath caught in his throat and he awoke in a fit of coughs.
He'd woken up.
He didn't know why or how he'd woken up, but he figured that it must've been something in the real world that disturbed his sleep. Before, he'd only been pulled from his dreams by an intervening force. And he couldn't have just woken up because he was well-rested, he was still as exhausted as ever. Whatever had happened, it was a fluke and he was grateful.
"Coffee," he decided groggily. "I need coffee."
By morning, Danny was hardly holding on. He'd woken up around two o'clock and downed at least three pots of coffee. They worked for the first four hours, but they were gradually wearing off; they could only do so much.
"You look tired Danno, did the spooks keep you up?" Dad asked.
"Something like that," he grumbled.
"Well, that's a shame! Hopefully you can get some shut-eye after school today. Jazz is in town from college for three days, so we're going out for dinner tonight."
Ancients, what would Jazz say when she saw him like this? How would he even explain?
"Good luck on that big test today, by the way! I saw Mr. Lancer's email about it. I'm sure that's why you were up so late, making bank on your promises."
He completely forgot.
"Alright then, I gotta head down to the lab so I'll see you later, kid!"
Somehow Jack had moved from the table to the stairway and Danny hadn't even noticed.
Once the coast was clear, Danny kicked off from the ground and floated out of the house. To his chagrin, it took him twenty seconds longer than it should have to realize that he was still in human form and had forgotten his backpack.
If that didn't set the tone for the rest of his day, he didn't know what else would.
"Name and date at the top of your paper, bubble in the version of your test that's written on the packet, and… start."
The literary assessment was an hour-long multiple-choice test comprised of various excerpts and comprehension questions. Danny was supposed to complete the study guide, which would've given him a pretty solid idea on how to answer these questions.
' Which of the following is NOT one of the claims mentioned in the author's introduction?' 'What is the antecedent of "they" in paragraph nine?' 'Examining the letter as a whole, how can you summarize the author's argument?'
Danny tried to read over the passage to answer the questions, but his mind kept getting hung up on the same sentence over and over. His eyes felt heavy, strained. The ink on the paper appeared to bleed, dripping letters that swirled into a soup of nonsense. How was he supposed to make sense out of this?
He propped his head on his hand. He was so tempted to just lay his head down on his desk, to fall asleep, but he couldn't do it. He couldn't give in and he couldn't go back into those scarecrows. He had to at least try on this test and from there he'd try to make it through the rest of the day.
If he couldn't accomplish this, what could he do?
His neck felt sore. His eyes stung with days upon days of sleep deprivation. The circles below his eyes felt hot. His hair was flat and greasy. Had he even showered this week? He couldn't remember. He couldn't remember much.
His eyes glazed over. Words were letters and letters were ink. And what was ink? Black. Ink was black. He was fading into it, eyelids drawn like curtains.
After a few moments, the world was no more. He was snapped straight back into the school's scarecrow, stolen from his own body.
He didn't want to be here. He wanted to go back. Even if it was to finish a test he was doomed to fail. He didn't want to be here! He was tired of this suffocation, paralyzation. Tired of arms strung to his side, pinned like a puppet's. Tired of not even being able to breathe or blink or shout.
He just wanted to scream.
He wanted out out OUT—
Why did this have to feel like an eternity, strained upon his mind? Like someone had pulled the dough of infinity through his ears and was stretching it across his brain with a rolling pin.
The tree in the school's courtyard stared at him, and with no other choice, he stared at it. He could only see the tree's face if he looked at it a certain way, but he was sure that there was something inside its bark. Something sentient, something tortured. He was the same as the tree. Inanimate. Rooted. He wanted to tell the tree that it was okay, but it wouldn't be. The tree would always be a tree, stuck. Suffering.
It was probably a good thing that trees couldn't talk either.
With this revelation, he decided that he didn't want to look at the tree anymore. Instead, he turned his attention to its leaves. They rustled in the wind, and Danny longed for their freedom. To at least move along with the wind, instead of just tethered to one spot with no autonomy. At least their perspective of the world changed, spinning up into the sky or resting on the prickly, damp grass.
Danny never thought he would have envy for a leaf, but life was full of surprises.
Suddenly, his wrist folded underneath him, unbuckling with a pang of pain. His eyes snapped open and Danny recoiled at the hand pulling on his shoulder. Mr. Lancer stood beside him, judging him with a resigned look of disappointment.
"Mr. Fenton, the test is over. Please turn in what you've completed into the basket at the front."
Danny stared at him. Was he serious? Was it actually over? Had he really just failed this test? No, had he just failed a multiple-choice test? He couldn't even stay awake for that?
That was the last straw. He was done.
He wanted to find a compromising solution, but he couldn't live like this anymore. He wouldn't let the scarecrows dominate him any further.
His mouth was dry. He nodded at Mr. Lancer, deposited his empty answer sheet in the basket, and left without a word. Sam and Tucker were waiting for him at his locker, but he couldn't even handle them right now. He was unhinged, tired. So fucking tired. Although destructive, he only had one option. He knew that those students put a lot of work into their project, but he needed sleep. Sanity. Anything other than this.
He only felt a little guilty.
Commotion spread throughout the school like an untamed, ruthless beast. Mikey knew that something was happening, but he couldn't tell what. Several people were nose-deep into their phones, wide-eyed and aghast. Others straight up dropped everything and fled the classroom, disregarding Mr. Falluca's cries of reason. Mikey couldn't seem to get a clear answer from anyone. There was so much pandemonium that nobody took time to explain.
Kwan was shaking Dash by the shoulders, Sam looked like she'd just swallowed a lemon, and Paulina was trying to push her way past Mr. Falluca. Near the back of the classroom, Valerie sat cross-legged on top of her desk and rummaged through her backpack. From what Mikey could tell, she was piecing together some sort of… ecto-ray? How did she even have one of those?
"He's finally lost it," Valerie grunted. "It was only a matter of time."
Who? Who was causing this much panic?
"Won't anyone tell me what's going on!" he shouted.
He had every right to know as they did. It wasn't fair that nobody clued him in because he didn't have any friends in this class.
Sam took pity on him. "Phantom's being a dumbass."
Mikey blinked. Phantom? No wonder everyone was getting so riled up.
"He's attacking the scarecrow," Dash mumbled. "Phantom's the good guy, why would he do that? He's the good guy..."
"My scarecrow?" Mikey's voice cracked.
"Mi amor… something must be troubling him; I need to talk sense into him," Paulina wept.
"Hold up, hold up, hold up—! My scarecrow?"
Was he offended? Did he not like that it looked like him? Did he think it was a mockery?
That had to be it. Why else would he attack it? Mikey's stomach twisted with guilt.
He had pissed off Phantom. Phantom! He probably thought it was a hate message! He probably thought Mikey and the entire school hated him!
Mikey's eyes snapped back up. Paulina—a hundred-pound girl that was all elbows and knees—had overpowered Mr. Falluca. She'd slammed him against the doorframe and fled. The rest of the class followed in her lead, including Mikey.
In a thriving mob, they stormed the courtyard. Mikey was sandwiched between Kwan and a short, brown-haired girl, but that didn't stop him. He pushed against the people in front of him, desperate for a glance of Phantom's carnage. He had to know, had to see. And after enough shoving, the mob thinned enough that Mikey had a clear vantage of the roof.
Phantom had fistfuls of straw in his hands, engulfing them in bursts of hazy, green fire. The scarecrow was still hanging at its post, but it was mostly gone; he'd destroyed all but the last of it. It stung to see all of his hard work decimated by the hands of his idol, but it didn't hurt as much as he'd anticipated. He could tell that there was something… off about Phantom.
For instance, there was something wild in his eyes, but it wasn't angry. It wasn't insane either. He still seemed like himself, he just seemed frustrated. Stressed. Pitiful. There was definitely something pitiful in his eyes.
He wondered what drove Phantom to this point, why he unleashed all his frustration out on Mikey's scarecrow. Maybe he was mad at himself, so he decided to hurt something that looked like him? That idea haunted Mikey, he hoped it wasn't true. Phantom did so many great things for them, he shouldn't feel bad about himself.
"I hope he's okay," Sam whispered. Mikey hadn't even realized she was beside him now.
"Me too," he said. Though, Phantom looked a little more relieved than he had a moment ago. Maybe this was what he needed. "Though, I think he will be."