The GAV screeched to a sudden halt, Maddie already half out the door before it had stopped. The ghost on the road in front of them roared, baring oversized fangs at the vehicle.
She rushed around the car, pulling open the doors in the back with force. A weapon. That’s all she needed. A weapon, ASAP.
The thought distracted her enough that she stumbled, almost falling over something out of place in the GAV. She barely caught herself on one of the shelves, already turning to scold Jack, when she saw—
“Phantom,” she whispered, feeling her brain grind to a halt.
Because it was, without a doubt, Phantom. The ghost seemed to be severely injured, splattered in green ectoplasm. It dripped over Phantom’s side, staining the wall of the GAV that he leaned against. One hand was pressed loosely against his side, but the ghost’s eyes were closed, and he hadn’t responded to her tripping over him, either. Passed out? But that wasn’t possible, was it?
She bit her lip. The ghost outside was a bigger threat. Maddie knew she had to focus on that one, first. Phantom was clearly in no state to leave, but…
Her hand touched the familiar metal curve of a Fenton Thermos.
Without another thought, she uncapped the device. Phantom was dragged in without another movement, not even stirring in the slightest. This was a perfect opportunity to study him, and the Thermos would preserve him until the right time.
With that settled, Maddie turned to grab a gun. Jack needed her. Phantom would come later.
“Uh, Maddie?” Jack’s voice rang from the back of the car, and she paused. “Why is there ectoplasm splattered all over the inside of the GAV?”
She blinked for a moment before realization struck. “It’s Phantom!” she yelled back, already turning to walk back. “I found him seriously injured and passed out in the back of the van, but we had to go deal with that attacking ghost.”
Now next to her husband, she clambered inside. The Thermos was still where she had left it, and she grabbed it. Let’s not get that one confused with the others. “I caught him in this Thermos. Not sure how bad his injuries really are, but this way he would be stable until we could look at him.”
“Good thinking!” Jack grinned, climbing into the GAV next to her to stow their weapons. “Passed out, though?”
“He didn’t move, not even when I tripped on him.” She frowned at the Thermos in her hand. “It was… strange. He was completely unresponsive, but he was still together. Leaking ectoplasm, but only from his injuries. Not destabilized.”
“Odd,” her husband agreed, clicking the last gun into its place. “I guess we have our work cut out for us!”
“Indeed.” She turned the Thermos, slowly, gazing at the meter in its side. It was startlingly full, a measure not just of mass but also of a ghost’s strength. Considering that Phantom was the only one in the Thermos… “Why don’t you drive us back, honey?”
His excitement would turn him in an even more reckless driver than usual, she guessed, but… she didn’t want to risk Phantom escaping.
Briefly, she considered clipping the Thermos onto her belt, but no. It felt safer in her hands, even as she had to take one off of the device to climb into the passenger’s seat of the GAV.
Their drive back home was… well. It was certainly fast.
Before she knew it, Maddie was clambering out of the GAV with one hand, the Thermos clenched in her other. “I’ll go prep the lab. Jack, bring in the spent weaponry and the other ghost, please?”
“Gotcha!” He bounded away to the back of the GAV while Maddie walked to their front door, quickly unlocking it. The house was empty inside—Danny was off with his friends, and Jazz away to the library—but that had become rather common these days.
At least she wouldn’t have to worry about either of them protesting their capture of Phantom. She didn’t understand it, the youth’s insistence that the ghost was good, but she certainly didn’t understand how her own children had fallen for Phantom’s tricks.
Well, it would be a problem no longer. Once she and Jack were done with their studies of Phantom, the ghost would no longer trick anybody.
Maddie left the Thermos on one of the mostly empty tables, quickly putting away the few things that were on it. She rolled a trolley over, paused. Rolled her eyes and emptied that, too.
By the time Jack had made it downstairs, their used weaponry stacked in a pile to the side—she made a quick mental note to make sure those were taken care of later—Maddie had finished preparing the table and the trolley. She had stalled out a large assortment of tools they might want or need for their inspection of Phantom.
There were no straps on the table—they had removed them due to the diversity in ghosts’ bodies—but she didn’t think they would need them, anyway. Phantom had been so weakened… He hadn’t even fought back when she’d tripped over him, when she’d captured him.
“Ready, Jack?” she asked, picking up the Thermos again. “We won’t know how he’ll act.”
“Ready,” her husband confirmed. He flexed his fingers, the metal ghost-proof gauntlets shifting with the movement. “I’ll hold him if he tries to escape.”
Maddie nodded, twisting the cap off of the Thermos. With a whir, it unloaded its contents, spitting Phantom onto the table.
The ghost groaned as he hit the surface, his limbs twitching slightly. He seemed slightly more awake than in the GAV, but not much. Didn’t even try to leave the table.
Ectoplasm gushed from several injuries all over Phantom’s body, the liquid spilling onto the table already.
“Not looking good, Phantom,” Jack commented, disengaging the gauntlets. Clearly they wouldn’t need them to restrain Phantom.
Phantom groaned again, a warble of sound that might’ve been intended as an answer. Definitely awake, then, but in poor condition.
She moved to roll him onto his back. Frowned at the deep slice in his side, right where the ribs would be on a human. The inside of the injury glimmered with fresh ectoplasm but it didn’t spill, not nearly as freely as she would’ve expected. No, the surface-level ectoplasm seemed… almost crystallized, a solid instead of a liquid.
Frowning, with one hand bracing Phantom, she reached in. The ectoplasm certainly felt solid under her probing finger.
Phantom groaned again, his left arm shifting slightly, like a weak attempt at batting her away.
“He seems to have some form of ectoplasmic bones,” she reported to Jack, finally rolling Phantom over all the way. The ghost twitched, his left hand wandering back to the slice. His eyes, he kept closed. “But his injuries are severe. He might destabilize before we finish our research.”
“That’d be a waste.” Jack frowned at the ghost on their table, too. “We’ll have to stabilize him. This is the first ghost with those kind of traits we’ve seen. We can’t risk losing him.”
That, at least, they agreed on. “We’ll need to close the injuries, stop him from losing too much ectoplasm. Can you get a needle and thread?” She looked back at Phantom, his complexion seeming to pale. “Fishing line if you can find it, but normal thread might be enough to tide him over for now.”
Phantom muttered something again, a whining noise that didn’t quite make it to words. It was odd. Maddie had been sure the ghost always spoke in perfect English, yet he seemed to be conversing in something else now. She was almost tempted to consider it a ghostly language of sorts, but why would such a thing exist? Ghosts weren’t intelligent enough for a society, let alone a language that drove such a thing.
“I found some fishing line, but not nearly enough for all his injuries.” Jack handed her the first aid kit, a sterile needle and clean thread, as well as a ball of tangled phase-proof wire. “… and I’ll have to untangle it first,” he added on, sheepishly.
“We’ll have to risk the normal thread.” She reached for the needle, then paused. Looked at Phantom. “It… His structure seems far more complicated than that of other ghosts. Should we see if he has a layer of skin underneath the jumpsuit? Stitching the two together might cause harm.”
Jack nodded, already grabbing Phantom’s right hand—the one not pressed against an injury. He hooked his fingers underneath the edge of Phantom’s white glove, carefully peeling it off.
As she had half expected, the glove came off entirely, damaged but not destabilizing even when removed from the ghost it belonged to. And underneath it, Phantom’s hand was… almost normal. The skin was the same cool tone as his face, a thousand small details she never would’ve expected a ghost to have, especially on a surface not usually exposed to sight.
“Let’s strip the rest, too,” Jack said, dropping the glove next to Phantom’s side. He reached for Phantom’s left hand, but hesitated. “The jumpsuit, at least. But, Maddie, what detail.”
“He’s unlike every other ghost we’ve tested so far,” she agreed. From this close, she could see the exquisite detail in Phantom’s clothing, too. A zipper hidden in the edge of his collar, which she tugged down to unzip the front of his suit. “And you couldn’t even tell from the way he acted! I wonder how many more are like this? Is it related to their strength?”
Phantom’s jumpsuit peeled apart to reveal a pale chest. Several smaller cuts littered his front, previously unnoticed due to the splatters of ectoplasm. The structure of it was, again, oddly detailed and human like.
Jack whistled, low. “What a scar, Mads! I wonder if it’s related to his death?”
“Why would he have scars of an event he doesn’t remember?” She zipped the jumpsuit down to his belt, working his right arm out of the sleeve. “I’d consider it more likely that it’s an old injury he got in a ghost fight. Maybe he kept it for intimidation purposes, to show that he won from a ghost with a certain level of power.”
“But then, why not show it off?” Jack asked, helping her by lifting Phantom up slightly. The ghost groaned, quietly, but didn’t try to stop them. “Why hide it under his suit?”
“He might’ve changed his appearance to appear more tame towards Amity Park’s citizens.” She rolled the right side of the jumpsuit down to Phantom’s hips, but that left the other side. “Jack, why don’t you keep pressure on that cut, and I’ll take off the rest of the jumpsuit?”
Her husband nodded, bustling over to press his hands against Phantom’s side. The ghost hissed, a strange warble and click to the sound, like a layer of audible static. His left hand batted at Jack’s hand, weakly, but it stilled quickly. The ghost went limp against the table.
“Did he pass out?” Jack asked, leaning over Phantom without taking his hands off of the injury. “Well, that’ll make our job easier, at least.”
She hummed as she peeled off Phantom’s left glove, slick with ectoplasm. His hand was sturdier than she would’ve expected of a ghost, a clear sign that his bone-like constructions extended into his hands. The skin was… surprisingly human-like, too cool but not as icy cold as ghosts usually were.
Maddie dropped the glove with the one already on the table, turning to lay down Phantom’s hand, when she noticed its appearance.
“Jack, look.” She held up the hand, her fingers tracing the extensive scarring. Its texture differed from the rest of the skin, rough and ragged like an actual scar. It seemed to originate in the palm, branching outwards from there, all the way down his wrist and into the cuff of his jumpsuit. It glowed, faintly, brightest at the palm. “Do you think it’s the same scar as on his chest?”
“Only one way to find out, huh?” Jack twisted his head to nod at Phantom’s face. “He has some kind of bruising on his throat, somehow. Green instead of purple, but you can’t mistake that kind of splotching.”
“At least we won’t have to worry about a crushed windpipe.” She twisted his arm out of the sleeve, feeling the bones in his shoulder shift with the movement. Definitely a human-like skeleton. How odd. “There we go. Definitely one large electrical scar, with the extremes in the palm of his hand and on his chest.”
Jack shifted his hands, allowing her to push the jumpsuit down to Phantom’s hips entirely. Now, they could see the ragged edges of the injury, the way it had torn Phantom’s… skin, for lack of better word, apart.
“Whoever, or whatever, he fought must’ve been something vicious,” Jack commented. Green ectoplasm continued to bubble up around his black gloves.
“Loathe as I am to say it, it was a good thing that Phantom dealt with it.” She looked over Phantom’s other injuries, but none seemed as threatening as the one on his side. “Something like this would’ve killed a human almost instantly.”
She picked up the needle, taking it out of its packaging. Using sterile tools might not be necessary, but Phantom was already defying what they knew of ghosts. Better not risk it.
“He must’ve caught it, at least,” Jack said as she threaded the needle. “If he was in the back of our GAV, the fight must’ve ended. Not sure where the Thermos went, though.”
Maddie gestured, and Jack shifted, pinching the injury closed instead of covering it up. She stuck the needle through, swiftly, but Phantom didn’t move.
“Definitely passed out,” she commented, moving to pinch the injury closed herself. “I’ve got this, Jack. Can you go look over the rest of his injuries?”
“Well, he has those bruises on his neck.” Jack paused, placing his fingers against the bare throat. “They seem… finger-like? Like someone tried to strangle him. A ghost my size, maybe?”
She threaded the needle through Phantom’s side again. “But why try to choke him out? That’d do nothing to him, he’s a ghost!”
“Maybe they were trying to snap his neck, instead?” Jack made an uncertain noise, moving up to Phantom’s head. “If he has something like bones, they gotta serve some purpose, right? So maybe breaking his spine would’ve disabled him, like with a human?”
“But as a ghost, his most important part is the core in his chest, not the brain.” She was making steady progress on Phantom’s side. The ghost still hadn’t stirred. He’d better not destabilize, not after all the effort they put into preserving him. “Unless he needs his head for some kind of offensive power, snapping his neck wouldn’t have done them any good.”
“There might not be any logic behind it, anyway,” Jack pointed out. “We’re talking about ghosts, after all. Maybe this wasn’t an attempt at strangling at all, but just the most convenient part for the other ghost to grab.”
He paused, gently probing Phantom’s head. “He definitely has some sort of skull, too. Very human-like, barely any flesh—or ectoplasm—over it. A cut on his temple, kind of deep. Looks like it bled badly, but it’s got some sort of crust over it, now.”
“Normal ectoplasm doesn’t crust… But normal ectoplasm also doesn’t form bone-like structures.” Halfway through the slice on his sides. The ribs still glinted crystalline against a backdrop of green so dark it appeared black. “No other injuries on his head?”
“None that I can see.” Jack hesitated, then ran his fingers through Phantom’s hair. The black of his gloves contrasted starkly against the white of Phantom’s hair. “There’s some dried ectoplasm in here, but I think it all came from that cut on his temple.”
“That’s good, at least. I’m not sure how his head injuries would compare to a human’s.” A few more stitches went into Phantom’s side. “None of the cuts on his chest seemed severe when I checked them out earlier, and I don’t think he has any on his arms, either.”
Jack hummed, walking past her to the other end of the table. “I’ll check out his legs, then.”
As she continued to stitch of Phantom’s side, Jack’s humming paused. His hands wrapped around Phantom’s left leg, gently probing the limb.
“I… think he has a broken leg,” Jack said, abruptly. “It feels like the bone-like structure doesn’t line up right. It’s not that way on the other leg.”
“We might have to set it, then.” Another stitch as she thought it over. “If his flesh injuries heal, his bones probably do as well. He probably doesn’t need his legs to walk, but having the bone grow wrong might stop him from forming his spectral tail.”
She paused, her hands stilling. “How does he form a spectral tail if he has bones?”
“I…” Jack halted too. “I honestly don’t know. He doesn’t move that thing like there’s any bones in it.”
“Maybe…” She continued her work again, pulling the needle through Phantom’s false flesh. “Maybe he can form and dissolve the crystal structures by will? To form bones and then make them go away when they’re a hindrance?”
“In which case we wouldn’t need to set his leg, because he can just reform it properly,” Jack pointed out. It was quiet for a moment as he, presumably, felt out the bones. “It feels like a clean break, at least. We can try waiting it out and offer him a splint if he needs it.”
“That might work.” She finished another stitch, looking over her work. Tied off the thread. “There, this should keep him stable for now. Let’s hope he doesn’t immediately rip it or phase it out when he wakes up.”
Which was baffling her, still. Ghosts don’t pass out; they don’t black out or sleep or go unconscious in any way. Even if Phantom had bones of some sort, what benefit could passing out give him?
“I’ll get a bucket and some cloth.” Jack had wandered off already, having finished his inspection. “We better clean all that ectoplasm off of him, make sure he’s not hiding anything more severe.”
She nodded, placing the needle back in its wrapper. It would have to be thrown out and replaced later; there was no sterilizing a needle so heavily stained with ectoplasm. Speaking of which…
Maddie stripped off her gloves, dropping them on a nearby table, and wandered over to the lab’s closet. It always paid to have a few jumpsuits on hand. One of the bins contained spare gloves, and she quickly pulled a clean pair on.
“I got the stuff!” Jack announced, bustling down the stairs. He had replaced his gloves with clean ones too, at some point. Hopefully before he left the lab and smeared ectoplasm on everything.
“Let’s get him cleaned up, then.” She took one of the cloths out of the water—warm, but not too hot—and pressed it against Phantom’s chest. The ghost made a soft noise, a staticky whine, his fingers twitching.
No further movement came.
They carefully cleaned the ectoplasm off of Phantom’s body; his scars seemed to glow even brighter when they were wet. As Jack finished cleaning off Phantom’s torso, Maddie moved over to his head.
Phantom still had his eyes closed, but they were no longer clenched as tightly. Thick globs of ectoplasm trailed down the side of his face, smeared through his hair.
Gently, she pressed the cloth against his head, just underneath the injury. If it had scabbed over, she didn’t want to reopen it. Phantom moaned, his eyes moving underneath the lids.
It wasn’t a sound, not a human one, but… Maddie could’ve sworn that Phantom called her ‘Mom’.
“Those noises are strange, aren’t they, Jack?” she asked, trying to distract herself from the not-word. Ghosts didn’t do parents; the concept of a mother should be completely foreign to Phantom. “I’ve never heard him speak anything but perfect English.”
“They’re so inhuman!” he agreed, as excited as ever. “The warbling, the almost static sound of them! It must be something lower than true speech, for Phantom to fall back into it when injured.”
Jack tapped on Phantom’s chest, right in the center of the glowing scar. “It’s almost like it comes from his core, sometimes, instead of his mouth. Fascinating, isn’t it?”
“But why would ghosts have a basal language of their own?” She rubbed the ectoplasm stains off of Phantom’s cheek, the ghost’s nose twitching when she brushed too close past it. For just a brief moment, she could see green gums, sharp teeth. “They’re not sentient, not even like animals. Right? They would have no need to communicate with each other.”
“Well, if they can learn human languages, I don’t see why they couldn’t have their own.” He shrugged, coming closer to Phantom’s head as well. “They clearly have some form of intelligence, even if it’s limited. They can conceptualize and plan, after all.”
He lifted Phantom’s head, and she started cleaning the ectoplasm out of the ghost’s hair. It was odd, the texture of it just off. A little too slick, too smooth. Not heavy enough, as it seemed to stir even when neither of them touched it.
“I suppose you’re right,” she eventually said. Phantom’s head laid limply in Jack’s hand, the other braced under the ghost’s shoulders. “They must go out of their way to avoid using it around humans, then. I can’t think of a single ghost using it before, not even the animals.”
“It’s definitely weird,” Jack agreed. “And, I was thinking… It doesn’t seem the echo the same way as their voices either, does it?”
She paused, the wet cloth pressed against Phantom’s head. No. No, it certainly hadn’t. “Huh.”
“Maybe they do always speak in it,” Jack continued. “Maybe they just layer actual speech on top of it, usually. Maybe that’s what causes the echo? A voice from their core, for ghosts, and a voice from their throat?”
“I suppose it might be possible.” The clumps of green had mostly been washed out of Phantom’s hair, now, leaving just faint green stains. “I think this is as good as we’ll get it, Jack.”
He nodded, lowering Phantom’s head back onto the table. The ghost stirred again, a little, eyelids clenching and relaxing again. It sniffled, oddly enough, face contorting.
Maddie dropped the cloth back into the bucket of water. They’d definitely need to get rid of all that, too. Ugh. The disadvantages of working with ectoplasm.
Phantom warbled something again. His fingers twitched against the surface of the table.
“Look who’s waking up!” Jack grinned at her, from Phantom’s other side. “About time, Phantom!”
The ghost jerked, suddenly, like a full-body flinch. He hissed, a sound filled with static and pain.
And then he was sitting up, fingers clawing against the surface of the table.
“No you don’t!” she told him, pressing a hand against his chest. Pushed him back against the table. “You’re not tearing those stitches I just put into you.”
His eyes moved to stare at her, the green dull and glassy compared to their usual brightness. He frowned, warbling something at her.
‘why’ her mind told her it meant.
“Down, Phantom.” She pressed harder, and he collapsed back against the table. There was more tension in his body, now. In his false muscles.
Or were they false?
“We found you passed out in the GAV,” Jack explained, tone dropping into something comforting. “You looked close to destabilizing.”
Phantom’s eyes seemed to sharpen, finally, as they darted from her to Jack and back. His left hand wandered to his side.
“Don’t mess with those stitches,” she told him, sharply. He flinched, but dropped the hand. “We didn’t clean you up just so you can wreck all our hard work, you know?”
He licked his lips, tongue vivid green against his pale skin. “Why?” he croaked out, layered so thickly in static she could barely make out the word.
“Why?” she repeated, quirking an eyebrow at him. “Well, you were too interesting a subject to pass up, of course. None of the ghosts we’ve studied so far had bodies as complex as yours. What a waste it would be, to let you melt away like that!”
Phantom pressed flatter against the table. His hands wandered, like he was looking for something. “Now what?”
“Well, there’s no straps on this table, if that’s what you’re looking for,” Jack said, looking down at Phantom. The ghost stilled immediately. Huh. Odd. Why would he know to look for those? “For now, you appear weakened enough that there’s no risk of your escape, but you’re awake enough to answer some questions. Mads?”
“Sounds like a good start,” she agreed. This was probably the most pliable they would get Phantom. “Let’s start easy, shall we? Your leg is broken. Lower left. Do you want a splint for that?”
“I…” Phantom blinked, apparently caught off-guard by her question. “Um. I think I’ll be okay.”
She nodded, watching him carefully. His eyes seemed to brighten, slowly, becoming greener and greener by the second. Even his complexion seemed to gain some color back.
“Did you catch the ghost who roughed you up so badly?” Jack asked, crouching a little so he didn’t tower over Phantom as badly. “Wouldn’t want them to try the same on any humans, after all.”
“No, he’s… He’s not a concern anymore.” Phantom tried to push himself up again, but paused when she glared at him. “He’s… He only has it out for me. Doesn’t really care about the humans.”
Well, that was good, at least. “Is there any risk of him breaking in to chase you?”
“No, I took care of it.” Phantom shook his head, slowly, wobbling a little. “He needs his suit to be a real threat, and I destroyed that.”
A ghost wearing a suit? Something mechanical, then. Maybe like that annoying electric one, which controlled technology, but he didn’t seem all that interested in Phantom.
Must be an unknown ghost. That was… worrisome. The possibility that there was such a dangerous ghost out there that they knew nothing about, running loose in Amity Park.
Phantom seemed uncomfortable, pinned down flat against the table. She supposed that she and Jack were kind of looming over him.
“You can sit up, if you want, but be careful.” She tried to ease her posture, to soften her glare. Phantom was just a ghost, yes, but he was voluntarily giving them information. No point in shutting him down so soon.
The ghost nodded, sliding his hands underneath himself. Slowly, he pushed himself up. Cautiously. His face strained as he did so, briefly, hand sliding closer to the stitches in his side.
Curious. A pain reaction. Could be faked, of course, but it seemed… it seemed genuine. The barely-there hiss of static through his clenched teeth, layered over an almost physical sense of pain.
Maybe that was Phantom’s big trick all along. The ability to make others feel emotions. To somehow convey emotions and feelings that he, himself, did not feel.
“Do you want painkillers for that?” Jack asked, also watching the ghost grimace, hands hovering over the stitches. “Or, uh… Some ghost equivalent?”
Phantom’s eyes slid back to Jack, then Maddie, and back to Jack. “I… If you’ve got some. I need more than a human, though.”
“You want some water to help that go down?” Jack grabbed the first aid kit, digging through its contents for the painkillers. “Or food?”
“Um. Water would be nice. Food…” The oddly mundane sound of a growling stomach. Phantom flushed bright green. “I’d like food, yeah. Um. Thanks.”
Jack handed her the painkillers, already turning towards the stairs. “I’ll be right back with a glass and something to eat. Maddie, you figure out how much to give him.”
She turned the bottle in her hand, searching for the instructions. How did Phantom compare to a human? Was his metabolizing faster? Stronger? Did his ectoplasm somehow form organs, as well as bones? Some sort of non-crystallized solid?
“Um. I probably know how much I’ll need if you tell me what kind that is,” Phantom said, interrupting her train of thought. Her eyes snapped from the bottle to him. His shoulders were drawn up, tense.
“What?” she asked, still working through the sentence. “Oh, it’s… paracetamol. We don’t usually need painkillers for this sort of stuff.”
He nodded understandingly, and Maddie wondered how much of it he really did understand. His structure was definitely more complicated than that of most ghosts. He had bones, musculature, apparently even organs. Was it really that far-fetched to think that he might have something like nerves, too? That he might feel pain, or at least understand it?
“The teen portion, but up it by half, then.” He opened his hand, and only then seemed to realize that he wasn’t wearing his gloves, because he froze up. Stared down at his bare, heavily scarred hand. “Wh— Why am I not wearing my jumpsuit anymore?”
“We had to take it off to check your injuries.” She uncapped the bottle of painkillers, keeping Phantom in her peripherals. “And you seemed to have a structure underneath the jumpsuit, unlike most ghosts. We didn’t want to risk damage by sewing the two together.”
Phantom hummed at that. “I… thanks. I don’t think that that’d be good, yeah.”
“Well, it would be a shame to let you destabilize just like that, wouldn’t it?” She shook out a few pills into his hand. This was just… a study. An ordinary ghost wouldn’t have any desire for painkillers, and it definitely wouldn’t be able to process them. But would Phantom be any different?
“Yeah…” He made a face, hand curling closed around the painkillers like she might take them away again. “Well, thanks anyway, I suppose.”
Jack’s thudding footsteps sounded, and he appeared down the stairs. In one hand, he held a glass of water. In the other, a plate with a few sandwiches. “Sorry, we didn’t have anything quicker.”
He walked up closer, handing the glass to Phantom first. The ghost took it in his empty hand, fingers carefully wrapping around it, slick with condensation.
“Thanks.” The ghost raised the hand with pills to his mouth first, dropping them all in before chasing them with a big gulp of water. He made a face, following it with several smaller sips of water. “Eugh. That stuff never tastes good, does it?”
“It’s not supposed to taste good,” she pointed out, quirking an eyebrow. “You realize that, right?”
“Of course I do, I’m not an idiot.” He leaned backwards slightly, emptying the rest of the glass in one go. “Doesn’t mean I gotta like it.”
He handed the glass back to Jack, exchanging it for one of the sandwiches. Didn’t even try to grab the whole plate.
“Are you sure you don’t want more?” Jack asked, gesturing the plate at Phantom. “Those are some serious injuries to heal from.”
“Yeah, I guess, but…” Phantom shrugged, taking another bite of the sandwich before continuing. “It’s getting late. Wouldn’t want to ruin my appetite.”
Maddie could feel her eyebrow raising. “Dinner plans, Phantom?”
“I… uh.” His shoulders came up, suddenly, as he seemed to remember where he was. “Kinda, yeah…”
He took another bite of the sandwich, dropping his eyes down to his loosely folded legs.
Phantom looked like a scolded kid. It was the only thing she could think off. The way he curled up on himself, the tension in his shoulders. It just reminded her so, so much of Danny, whenever she scolded him.
Her heart stuttered in her chest, and she cursed herself. She couldn’t feel sorry for him. He was just a ghost! He was— he was doing it on purpose, to make her feel bad! To make them let him go!
The ghost continued eating in complete silence. His hair hung down over his face, barely moving anymore. The lines of his shoulders taught.
“Look, Phantom…” She paused, looking over at Jack. He shrugged back, looking equally unsure of himself. “We’re ghost hunters. We can’t just… let a ghost go.”
“Especially not one as fascinating as I am?” he sneered back, bitterly. He looked up, suddenly, venomous green meeting her eyes. “That’s all I am in the end, huh? No matter how hard I try, no matter how much I let myself get hurt just so no one else has to! In the end I’m just some ghost, to cut up and experiment on!”
She flinched back, involuntarily. The glow around his body, barely visible before, had flared out with his temper.
“It’s not like that,” Jack tried, feebly.
“No?” Phantom hissed back, the warble of static layered heavily over his voice once more. “Then what is this, huh?”
“We’re helping you.” She straightened her back, her fists balling automatically. “We’ve stitched you up, given you painkillers, fed you.”
“Because you didn’t want to lose me,” he countered. His lips curled, showing her once more those green gums and vicious teeth. Fangs. He’d had fangs all along, and she had never noticed until he bared them at her. “Because I was such a precious study object! And the painkillers, the food—”
He flung out an arm. “I bet that all that was just a test, to see if I was faking any of it! Could I really process food? Do painkillers really work on me? Wow!”
“Would you have preferred it if we hadn’t done any of that?” she snapped back. “That we’d left you smearing ectoplasm all over the place until you destabilized?”
“Doing the right thing for the wrong reason doesn’t make it good!” His glow flickered wildly, coalescing and twirling like flames. His eyes burned bright like a jack-’o-lantern’s. “Just because you helped me doesn’t make you the better person!”
“You are the one who broke into our vehicle.” She took a deep breath, forcing herself to calm down. Getting into a shouting match would accomplish nothing. “You passed out in the back of the Ghost Assault Vehicle.”
That seemed to take all the wind out of his sails. Phantom spluttered, but his glow dimmed significantly already. “I— That’s not what we were talking about!”
“You practically served yourself up to us,” she continued, her voice flat. “What else did you expect, a heavily injured ghost unconscious in the vehicle of ghost hunters?”
His shoulders came up again, Phantom halfway through curling up in a ball. He muttered venomously, some ghost-speak noise again.
And, again, Maddie somehow understood exactly what he said.
‘parents,’ he had hissed, from the very center of his being. An almost sardonic tone to it, somehow.
“Look, Phantom,” Jack said, picking up Maddie’s slack. “We’re ghost hunters. Supposedly, so are you. We found a potentially dangerous ghost in our vehicle without our knowledge, and we made the decision to patch you up. Regardless of the reasoning behind it, what else would you have wanted us to do? What would you have done, in this situation?”
“I…” Phantom sighed, blowing the hair out of his face. “I would’ve patched them up, too. But I definitely wouldn’t have told them that I saved them just because they were so fascinating, because I wanted nothing more than to experiment on them.”
“Would you have rather had us lie to you?” Jack asked, bluntly. “Would you rather have had us tell you that we patched you up out of the goodness of our hearts?”
“I… no.” Phantom shook his head, wrapped his arms around his bare chest. The picture of uncertainty. “No, because I know you would’ve been lying. You’ve been hunting ghosts for research for ages. Me, especially. There’s no way you would’ve patched me up out of kindness.”
“So then what do you want from us?” Maddie asked, shoving her thoughts to the back of her mind for now. “You didn’t want us to let you dissipate in our van. You didn’t want us to lie about why we helped you, but you don’t want us to tell you truth about that, either. What option does that leave?”
Phantom gritted his teeth, his glow suddenly brightening and immediately dimming again. “I don’t know! I just— Can’t you just be nice! Couldn’t you just fix me up out of the goodness of your hearts and mean it?!”
His fingers clawed in his hair as he curled even further into a ball, only the broken leg staying in its place. His shoulders were taught with tension, shaking lightly.
It sounded like… like he was sniffling.
She grimaced, turning to look at Jack. He, too, seemed completely thrown off by the display.
It was just…
It was so genuine.
The shaking of the shoulders, the soft sounds of muffled crying, the barely visible glint of tears, the hitch in his breath, the soft keening of his core.
The hitch of his breath?
Hesitantly, Jack reached out. Placed one of his hands on Phantom’s shoulders—so big it almost covered the entire area. “Shh, kiddo.”
Phantom shook harder, but didn’t try to throw off Jack’s hand. The hitching of his breath was clearly audible now.
Maddie didn’t know what to do. She knew how to comfort kids, and her heart clenched, demanded she help this teen, too. This kid that reminded her so much of her Danny.
But she didn’t know what to do. Phantom was supposed to be just another ghost. An ectoplasmic abomination that had lied and faked its way into everyone’s hearts.
Not a teen, warbling “mom” at a stranger who cleaned his wounds. Not a teen who had hidden in their car when he’d gotten too injured to get away, searching for something that reminded him of his parents. For someone who’d keep him safe like his parents would’ve, should’ve.
“Oh, Phantom,” she said, threading her fingers through his hair. It was soft, still wet where she’d cleaned it. Still stained faintly green from his own ectoplasm. “Oh, honey… Why have you hidden this for so long? You are so… so human.”
He keened again, shaking harder under their hands. And in the sound, she heard ‘love acceptance warmth caring’ and ‘not me not mine not for ghosts’.
And for once, Maddie Fenton ignored her curiosity to focus on the crying ghost in their lab.
“Shh,” she told him, soothingly combing her fingers through his messy hair. “It’ll be alright, Phantom. We… It was our mistake. We were wrong.”
“We were so wrong,” Jack chimed in, rubbing circles on Phantom’s back. “We… You’re just a kid. How long have you been dead, kiddo? How old are you really?”
Phantom sniffled, and, voice warbling with emotion, said, “Two years. I— Sixteen.”
“Oh, sweetie.” He was so human, so young. He could’ve been her own son. “We’ve been so wrong. We never should’ve shot at you, never should’ve threatened you.”
“We let our assumptions lead us,” Jack agreed, quiet. Soft. “Phantom, we’re so sorry. Hey, shh. It’ll be alright.”
The ghost, so human and yet not, shook his head. Only slightly, just enough that Maddie’s hand didn’t dislodge.
“We’ll make it alright,” Maddie promised him, instead. Fierce, sharp. Determined. “Let us make it up, Phantom. Let us pay for our mistakes.”
“Don’t wanna,” he mumbled back, so quiet she could barely hear him. “Lemme leave.”
“Of course you can,” Jack assured him, still rubbing circles on Phantom’s back. “We won’t stop you, kiddo. We just want you to be safe.”
Phantom sniffled again. Slowly turned his head, until a single vivid green eye looked up at Maddie.
It was ringed with red, green-tinted tears still tracking down over his cheek.
“Do you?” he asked. He sounded… shattered. The echo of ghost-speak behind his voice wavered like glass in a storm.
“You’re just some kid in way over your head.” Maddie let her hand drop from his head, instead trying to convey her genuineness through her gaze. “You’re… barely a teenager. No one can—no one should—blame you for any of the damages you’ve caused, trying to help.”
“You’ve tried so hard, despite your death,” Jack chimed in, his hand stilling too. “You’ve died, and you’re still so good.”
“You’re so good, Phantom. I wish you were one of ours.” Maddie reached forward, slowly, wiping the tears off of his cheek. “If you ever need us, for anything, please don’t hesitate to come by.”
“I—” Phantom’s voice crackled, and he sniffled again. Wiped his own hand past the other eye. “I don’t— I can’t—”
“Please just promise us that.” Jack let his hand slip off of Phantom’s back, placing it on the edge of the table instead. He, too, stared pleadingly at Phantom. “We won’t force you to do anything, kiddo, we’re just asking. Let us help.”
Maddie slid the stained gloves over towards Phantom. “Phantom, we obviously remind you of your parents.”
The ghost hunched up again, slightly. Green spread over his cheeks like a blush. She pushed on. “You called me Mom when I cleaned off your wounds. You hid in the GAV because you felt safe in it, because it reminded you of your parents. They’re obviously not here, because you’ve died or because they’ve died or because of some combination of those, but you’re still allowed to want that comfort. And we are willing to give you that. It’s the least we can do, to repay what we’ve done to you, what we’ve threatened you with.”
“I—” His breath hitched again. “I don’t… I’ll keep it in mind.”
Well, she supposed they could hardly push for more. She didn’t think she’d be so open to accepting help from them either, if she’d been in Phantom’s place.
“Please do,” she told him instead. Patted him on the right knee. “Whatever it is, whatever you’re struggling with. You’re always welcome at our place. Okay?”
“Okay,” he whispered back. He wiped over his face again. “I gotta… I gotta get going.”
“Dinner plans, right?” She stepped backwards to give him some space. “You’d better eat well, young man.”
Phantom grunted, a noise vaguely underlined with acceptance. He stuck his arms through his sleeves, carefully pulling the jumpsuit back up over his upper body.
“And be careful with your injuries.” Jack handed Phantom the gloves, having apparently scooped them off of the table at some point. “Those stitches in your side will need some time to heal before you take them out, and your broken leg… Well, you’d know better than us how it heals, but still.”
“I know how to take care of myself,” Phantom grumbled back, pulling on his gloves. He grimaced at the left one, more green than white with his spilled ectoplasm. It had dried, crackling uncomfortably as he moved his fingers. “Despite the evidence of the contrary.”
He pushed himself off of the table, suddenly. Maddie jerked forward automatically, but Phantom hovered above the ground, his leg held limply.
The ghost raised further up, until he floated at their eye level. “I… Thanks. For helping me. And… the apologies, I guess.”
“It was the least we could do,” she assured him, crossing her arms loosely. “Please, Phantom, come to us if you need anything.”
“I’ll… keep it in mind.” He shimmered, turning transparent. Then, suddenly, he dove upwards, and then he was gone.
“Well…” Jack cleared his throat. “That… That happened.”
“Yeah,” she agreed, looking at the empty table. It’s surface was stained green with Phantom’s ectoplasm, a small puddle left where he’d bled the worst. “God, Jack. What have we done?”
“Something we’ve learned from. Something we won’t ever do again.” He looked up, meeting her eyes. “That’s all we can do, Mads. Make amends to the best of our abilities.”
She nodded, slowly. “We’d better get working on cleaning the lab. We’ll need to go through all our research on ghosts, strip it down to the base observations. Start over from scratch.”
“Yeah.” He rubbed a thumb over the edge of the stain on the table, absentmindedly. “But first, we should focus on our own kids, I think.”
Maddie paused. Turned to look at the clock. “Oh lord, you’re right. I’d better get started on dinner.”
“I’ll start on cleaning the lab.” Jack nodded at the stairs. “You go take care of the wonderful kids we already have, instead of worrying about Phantom.”
“Thanks, honey.” She pressed a kiss against his cheek, before turning to rush up the stairs.
He was right. They already had two wonderful kids. Worrying about Phantom would do them no good, not unless the ghost would accept their help.
The door to the kitchen swung open, and Maddie stared in the startled blue eyes of her son, the lingering sounds of the conversation she’d just cut short between him and his sister.
“Oh, kids, I’m so sorry. I’ll get started on dinner right away.”
“Something distracting in the lab?” Jazz asked, getting out of her chair. “Can I help?”
“If you could help me peel these potatoes, that’d be wonderful…” She passed a pan and a knife to Jazz. “And, yes, I suppose you could say as much.”
Danny laughed. She turned to look at him, at his cautious grin. “Must be something big.”
“Yeah,” she answered, watching him angle his head slightly. Letting his black hair slide down his face, parting just right for her to see a flash of dark red against pale skin. A scab on his temple, right where… right where Phantom had had a scab, too.
But… surely that couldn’t be?
No, it was just her mind playing things off.