Sam was jealous.
She had no right to be jealous, she knew that, but it was an irrational and ugly side of her that she’d never been able to shake. It just bothered her so much that out of the three of them, she had become the normal one. The only one without special powers, the only one who couldn’t see the ghost sitting with them at the table. She just couldn’t shake that hunger and desire to be something different, that desire to be special.
The guilt of it weighed heavily in her stomach.
She had always been jealous of her two best friends, always, though the reasons had changed over time. At first it was Danny’s parents, she was about eleven years old when people had started gossiping about it. They were actual real ghost hunters, it was probably the most badass thing a parent could be, she thought. She couldn’t understand why Danny never wanted to talk about it, she couldn’t understand why the other kids thought it was weird, or funny.
It took a while for Danny to realize that she was being completely genuine in her interest, and wasn’t just pretending to make fun of him. He warned her that she really didn't want to do this, but eventually he had let her walk home with him, let her inside that amazing and bizarre building... and she had learned very, very quickly why Danny had little to no interest in their profession.
They were boring. So so boring.
She had been expecting something a little more occult when they’d shown her the lab, some dusty, cobweb laced bookshelves, or a rug with a mystic circle in the centre of the room, but they had nothing of the sort. Everything was made of steel and glass, it was clean and clinical, there was some kind of chemistry set on a table, a corner of the room had been full of broken pieces of machinery. It was... unusual, but not at all what she had expected.
Maddie and Jack had been more than happy to explain every aspect of their work to her, they were excited to have someone actually show interest. Sam sat and listened politely, even after Danny had made his excuses and gone upstairs. She wanted to be interested, she really did, they were talking about ghosts after all, it should have been interesting.
But there was just so much... science. No magic, no exorcisms. Just boring technical jargon.
When she finally extracted herself and escaped back up into the house, she sat at the dining table where Danny was sipping a glass of juice.
“I told you.” he grinned.
“Still cooler than my parents.” said Sam, but her envy had certainly waned slightly.
And then she met Tucker’s parents.
The Foleys were an entirely normal family, they didn’t have interesting jobs or even interesting lives. Mr Foley liked going fishing with Tucker’s grandmother, Mrs Foley liked to bake when she wasn’t on call for work. She was a nurse, but even that wasn’t as interesting as Sam might have believed, she only worked in a general clinic, no emergencies, no life-saving procedures. She spent most of her days taking temperatures, checking blood pressure, and giving flu shots.
They were ordinary, boring, and kind.
They were the kindest parents Sam had ever met. They had made her feel welcome in their home, told her she could help herself to anything in the fridge, that she could come over whenever she wanted, stay as long as she liked. She never felt like a burden or a bother in the Foley household, she felt like family. Mrs Foley would kiss her on the cheek before she left, pressing a bag of home cooked biscuits into her hand. She had learned a vegan recipe just for Sam. Then she would go home, to that big, empty, cold house, her parents didn’t even notice that she had been gone.
That envy had never waned.
She thought she had it under control though, she never let it get between them. Despite her initial motives, she did get along really well with the two boys, even though they all had wildly different interests at first. That seemed to be the one thing they did have in common, they were different. Tucker was a giant tech nerd, Danny was awkward and had weird parents, Sam was a rebel who did everything against the grain.
Sam liked being different. She knew it was a deep-seated problem, its roots embedded in the way she was raised. She was raised to conform, to always present a picture-perfect image, to look the way a good little girl ought to look, to speak the way a good little girl ought to speak, she had to care what people thought, because people had to think she was a beautiful, well-behaved little lady.
Nothing was more important than making a good impression. Nothing was more important than what people thought of you. Nothing. Sam had been raised to be the perfect little daughter, she had been raised to be an accessory.
Everything she did had to reflect favourably upon her parents, she couldn’t misbehave, she couldn’t fuss or complain or put even a toe out of line because it would embarrass them. If she was a bad girl people would say they were bad parents, and nothing was more important than making a good impression. Nothing was more important than being perfect.
She had been a good girl, she did as she was told, she worked hard to hear her parents praise, to hear them tell everyone how smart she was, how special she was.
Her achievements were never her own, though.
Sam could read better than any others her age, her mother claimed it was all because she had read to her every night before bed. Her mother lied.
Sam had painted a lovely picture of a daisy in a glass vase, her father claimed it was all those trips to the art gallery he had taken her on. Her father lied.
She worked hard to be a good girl, to do everything perfect, and it stung to have to listen to her parents take all the credit, to listen to them talk about how much time they spent with her, when they barely paid her a lick of attention when they weren’t scolding her.
In public they gushed about their perfect clever angel, behind closed doors it was the opposite.
It was critique after critique, scolding after scolding, she was never good enough, she always had to be better. They would hound her when she failed, yell at her tutors, even her own grandmother, blaming everyone but themselves when Sam did anything that wasn’t perfect.
Sam had only been eight years old when her grandmother’s words changed her life.
She had been sitting in the old woman’s lap, crying and crying and crying. One of the other girls at the party last night could read in three languages, Sam had barely made headway into her second. Her mother had been furious, she had taken everything from her, books, games, tv, even her dolls. She’d given her a book in French, told her that she wouldn’t get any of her things back until she could read the entire thing out loud. Pamela hadn’t offered her more lessons with her tutor, she hadn’t offered to sit and work through it with her, she gave her the book and expected results. Sam had cried that she couldn’t read it, that it was too hard, her mother just told her to try harder.
Ida had held Sam as she cried, devastated to disappoint her mother, terrified of what people would think of them, and then the old woman had whispered in her ear.
“Can your mother read French?”
Sam shook her head, still buried in her grandmother’s chest.
“Can all of the other children read French?”
“Then why should you have to learn it?”
It was a word she’d never even thought of asking, her parents had never given any reason to think it was even an option. Why did she have to learn French? Why did it matter? So what if one girl could speak three languages, none of the other kids could. Why did Sam have to be better? Why?
When Sam asked her mother that one simple question, she had gotten a hard slap in return.
Her father had stood between them, shouting at Pamela for striking her. They argued for hours, Sam had never been slapped again, but that one time had been more than enough. It was the final push she needed. She’d had enough of her parents taking credit for everything she did, she’d had enough of trying to impress everyone all the time, of trying so hard yet never being good enough. She decided she wasn’t going to take their shit anymore.
The next party they attended, Pamela bragged loudly.
“Our little Sammy’s learning French!” she held onto Sam’s shoulders with her sharp, manicured nails. “She’s already started reading Le Petite Prince! She even said it’s her new favourite book-”
“No I didn’t.”
Three words. With just three words she had completely silenced her mother, a feat she didn’t even think was possible. The talons on her shoulders dug into her skin.
“Yes, you did sweetie,” said Pamela, gritting her teeth in a forced smile. “Remember? We were reading it together yesterday when-”
“You didn’t read it with me.” Sam interrupted. “You took away all my toys and told me I couldn’t have them back until I could read it by myself.”
Sam had been grounded for months after that, but she didn’t feel at all bad about it. She’d felt a giddy sense of euphoria, she had embarrassed her mother, she had made a bad impression, and her parents couldn’t do anything to change it. After they’d gotten home and she had been sent to her room, she heard her father explain what had happened to her grandmother, and then she heard Ida laugh so hard she nearly coughed up a lung.
Every extra punishment Pamela heaped onto Sam drove Sam’s behaviour even further into rebellion. Her mother had given her nothing to lose, if she was going to be miserable doing everything she was told, then she may as well be miserable doing whatever she wanted.
When Sam was ten, she had decided to become a vegetarian. She had never liked eating meat, but she had never been given another choice. She’d expressed this to her grandmother who reminded her that her parents would never let her starve. They couldn’t force her to eat anything unless they strapped her down and stuck a funnel in her mouth, Sam laughed, but wasn’t certain her mother wouldn’t try it.
After she’d made her announcement, Pamela had tried everything from threatening to send her to bed hungry, to bringing up those poor starving children in Africa. Sam told her mother that she could send her dinner to them instead. Pamela did not like that.
Ida had been right, though. Her mother had sent her to bed without dinner, but she had to feed her eventually. When she tried having the chefs sneak meat into supposed ‘vegetarian’ meals, Sam stopped eating anything she hadn’t seen be prepared in front of her own eyes. Her father had to step in and talk Pamela down, eventually assuring Sam that her food would be meat free from now on. Sam still inspected everything she was given, once she was old enough to use the kitchen, she stopped eating anything that she hadn’t prepared herself.
Her dad wasn’t faultless in her terrible childhood, but he always knew where to draw the line, he knew when something wasn’t worth the trouble.
But as long as her mother pushed Sam, Sam would always push back. When she became vegan her mother had started telling people about it as though it were a trendy fad, Sam wanted no association with some fancy diet, so she would interrupt her mother by telling people she was actually ultra-recyclo-vegetarian, it was a term she’d made up, but it was weird and off-putting enough that her mother had stopped mentioning it to people.
Even being goth had been born of rebellion. Sam had already refused to wear any of her mother’s ridiculous dresses, but Pamela would often take everything from Sam’s wardrobe and leave her with nothing but frills and lace. Sam retaliated by either wearing her bedsheets as a toga, or go down to breakfast in her underwear.
Ida had been the one to take Sam clothes shopping and let her buy everything she wanted, she’d chosen everything in black so she didn’t have to get constant lectures about wearing clashing colours. Her mother had been furious, her father even chewed Ida out for encouraging Sam’s disrespectful behaviour. Ida wasn’t allowed to take Sam out any more, but she did slip Sam some cash and let her know that the lattice by her bedroom window was a lot sturdier than it looked.
Sam’s entire life had been pushing against people, she couldn’t just be herself, every choice she made had to be a statement, it had to be fought for. She got so used to that combativeness that she was constantly on the defensive. But despite thinking that she had completely pushed away every aspect of her upbringing, things still lingered.
She was playing the same game she always had as a child, it was just wearing a different hat. She couldn’t make mistakes when it came to the things she loved. Her mother would take any opportunity possible to drag her down, she had to be able to answer every question Pamela had about veganism, she had to know all there was to know about the books she'd been reading, she had to be at the pulse of every new environmentalist movement, otherwise, her mother would scoff, why did she even bother? What was the point of loving something if you couldn’t even do it right? Do you even truly care?
She had to throw herself fully into anything she claimed to love, she had to prove that it was truly what she wanted. Goth, vegan, radical environmentalist, she gave herself into them all, gave everything she had to the cause, these things showed the world that she was different, it showed everyone that she was special. But she wasn’t special.
Danny and Tucker were special.
What was veganism to being a half dead superhero? What was being a goth to being a reincarnated Egyptian Pharaoh?
It made their lives difficult. It came with responsibilities, stress, pressure, a life of fighting and lying and suffering for the sake of protecting themselves, protecting others. Sam had no right to be jealous. She had no right.
She was still jealous.
It hadn’t been so hard when Danny was the only superpowered one between them, but once Tucker had started unearthing his latent abilities, Sam could feel herself falling behind. They were both better than her now, what was the point in being part of the team if she couldn’t do anything? How was she supposed to prove that she cared?
That was why she needed the book.
She had brought it with her to Danny’s house, it had been sitting in the bag by her side as they ate, she found its presence comforting. When she’d finished with her lunch, she had excused herself to the living room to begin prepping. She knew what Danny had wanted her to do as soon as he tossed her the ghost core, it was a ritual she had mentioned to him a while back, but she’d never tried it. She wasn’t comfortable using the heart of any creature, living or dead, in any kind of ritual, but she knew in this case that the circumstances outweighed her personal discomfort. There would be a trickle-down effect here, using this one core could kickstart a series of events that could lead to Danny’s mother finally learning that ghosts weren’t all evil, it would be the end of her brutal dissections and experiments.
That was the idea anyway, she desperately hoped she wasn’t setting aside her morals in vain. She didn’t bend for just anyone, but she agreed to do it for Danny, she would cope with the discomfort and disgust for Danny, and for the sake of those future ghosts, and to prove to everyone, to prove to herself that this was important to her, that she truly cared about this.
She opened the grimoire, flipping through pages filled with loose paper notes and translations.
She had always been the one to do most of the team’s research, Tucker did all of his study online, but he struggled to filter through the garbage before finding anything particularly useful. Most ghost lore had been altered over time and become riddled with old wives tales and superstition.
The real info, Sam had found, came from books. An old book never updated, an old book never changed, the information was untouched by the passage of time, Tucker had been looking for information about ghosts written by humans. Sam was looking for books about ghosts written by ghosts.
She asked Danny to take her to the Ghost Writer’s library, Danny and Tucker didn’t have the time or the patience to read through book after book, but Sam was willing to spend all the time she needed there. Danny had a lot of responsibility resting on his shoulders, and he was going to need to brush up on the laws and history of the Ghost Zone sooner rather than later. It was getting to a point where ghosts were starting to catch on that Danny wasn’t entirely who he appeared to be, they were starting to talk.
Sam knew Danny couldn’t do the research alone, reading was her strength, he needed her. She could breeze through books to find what she was looking for, she could take notes and remember details that just slipped by Danny. She finally had something important to do, something that only she could do.
The only issue had been the library assistant.
She looked exactly like the type you’d find working in a library, she was a tall wiry ghost with grey skin, red eyes and blue hair pulled into a messy bun, she had been managing the library while Writer was imprisoned, and she hadn’t been particularly pleased about doing the job solo. She had allowed Sam in to peruse at her leisure, but Danny was strictly banned from the premises until Writer’s return. Sam knew that Danny could have easily overpowered the ghost, or Commanded her to allow him access, but Danny didn’t use that power carelessly, instead he respected her wishes and remained outside.
Over the next few days Danny had dropped her off for a few hours to read to her heart’s content before picking her up and bringing her home again. Sam treasured those lone, solitary hours. It felt good to have a purpose, to feel like she was making a difference somehow. Until she got stuck.
As it turned out, a lot of the books were written mostly in ghost speak. It was a complex language, almost runic in nature, and she had very little understanding on how to comprehend it.
She had been puzzling over a particularly large, leather bound book, trying to gain some context clues from the pictures to help decipher the runes, when the library assistant had popped her head around a shelf.
“Do you need any help?” she asked.
"No, I’m fine.” said Sam.
The ghost woman floated over, glancing at Sam’s scribbled notes.
“You know, you can’t just hole yourself up with a book and expect yourself to learn it alone.” she said, primly. “You'll be here forever doing it that way.”
“My mom would beg to differ.” Sam muttered, and then sighed. “Okay yeah, I’m kinda stuck. You got a guide or a cheat sheet or something?”
The ghost frowned and settled herself next to Sam at the table.
“You can’t learn Exspiravit Scripturam with a guide. Especially in a book this old, the runes change meaning over time.” She pushed her large, round glasses up her nose and rolled up her sleeves, she reached into the neck of her sweater and pulled out a pocketbook. “Here, I’ll go through it with you.”
Sam gripped her pen tightly.
“Thanks, but I’d really prefer to do this on my own.”
“It’s... ugh, I dunno. It’s stupid.” Sam put down her pen and sat back in her chair, nibbling on one of her lip piercings. She needed the help, she knew she needed the help, but it was just... humiliating, to be caught in her failure. Caught looking lost and confused, like she didn’t know what she was doing.
It was humiliating because it was true, she didn’t know what she was doing.
“Well,” said the ghost. “You aren’t going to translate anything by yourself, so as far as I see it you have two options. Accept help, or give up. Which one seems worse to you?”
Sam didn’t answer, the ghost opened up her little notebook and began copying the ancient text out, grouping certain symbols together, making notes beside them in English.
“Danny tried to teach me already,” said Sam, pessimistically. “He said it’s hard to teach a language he didn’t have to learn.”
“Well, I’m certain that this ‘Danny’ wasn’t a linguist in his previous life.” the ghost put a hand out for Sam to shake. “I’m Andy, and it will be my utmost pleasure working with you.”
With Andy’s help, Sam had not only been able to translate some interesting Ghost Zone history, but she’d also been able to narrow down some more relevant books, the ghost had most of the library memorised and could point Sam toward whatever she was looking for. She’d been able to borrow a few about the ghost monarchy for Danny to skim through, and a couple about Egypt from the ghost’s side of history, with some translated notes for Tucker to look over. Technically he could read ghost speak, but unfortunately the better he could read it, the less interested he would become. Apparently Duul Aman had not been much of a scholar.
And then she found the grimoire, and she found herself a new purpose.
She had always wanted to be a witch.
Magic was something Danny had never dabbled in, Tucker’s reincarnation itself was the result of a magical curse, but he didn’t have any idea how it worked. Sam was still working on finding the right book for that.
So far, her experimenting had just been that, experimenting. She’d been using spells to help her plants grow, she'd even created a few shielding charms, and anti-possession sigils, she’d been considering getting one tattooed.
But the spell she was preparing right now? That was something completely different. She hadn’t tried this one before, and she was terrified of messing it up.
Young spirits were fragile, and without a core they had no anchor, when they were gone, they were gone for good. She was holding the second life of her friend’s father in her hands. She had desperately wanted to have this power all to herself, to feel unique and special, and with that power had finally come the cost, the responsibility, the burden. She was officially part of the club. Yippee.
Danny stuck his head into the living room.
“Hey Sam, before you start, I think we should move into the Ops Centre, mom’s less likely to walk in on us.”
“Good idea,” Sam started packing her things back into her bag and headed up the stairs. “Just remember to bring me some of his DNA, a hairbrush or a razor with a few whiskers on it will do the trick.”
“What are you two up to?” she heard Jazz ask as she met the landing and pulled down the attic ladder, well, it used to be an attic ladder, before the Fentons moved in, now it opened up straight into a large domed room, large windows lining the walls.
It was here that she finally got to begin.
She mixed some grave soil into a paste with a homebrewed honey mead, poured from a flagon engraved with a sigil of vitality. She was lucky she’d already gotten a number of the items prepared, they were for a similar ritual, designed to help Danielle in the event she destabilised again, but this occasion took priority. Danny’s dad was in a vulnerable state, and Sam could probably hazard a guess as to why Danny was in a rush to give him more strength. If Vlad decided to make an impromptu visit, he would destroy Jack’s ghost without a second thought.
Sam started to paint a circle on the floor with the paste, just large enough to fit the big man. Inside the circle, she painted runes for strength and resilience. She picked up a jar of dandelions and placed them all around the circle, touching petals to stem.
Then she pulled the ghost core from her pocket.
She felt ill just holding the thing. It may not have looked like a normal heart, but it was a heart just the same. She was sacrificing this defenceless creature. She had to remind herself that there was a greater good to this, that it was a sacrifice worth making.
She opened the jar, and tipped the little core into her hand, it was still oozing.
She sat like that for a few minutes, staring at it as ectoplasm pooled in her palm. Ghosts could reform if their core was intact, she held the heart of something that could conceivably recover. She knew it would become something mindless and driven only by whatever emotion it absorbed from the atmosphere around it, but it would become something too close to sentient for her comfort.
She heard someone come up the ladder behind her.
“I got the hair.” Danny said as he approached, “There was still plenty stuck in his hairbrush.”
He held up the strands, and then went silent as he noticed Sam sitting stock still, ectoplasm dripping from her palm. She swallowed, this was her role, this was her responsibility, she wanted this. She wanted to be special, she wanted them to be proud of her. She had to push past it, she had to... She wiped at her cheeks, her hand came away wet. She had fought so hard to become who she wanted to be, she had worked so hard to be here right now, doing something only she could do, because she wanted to be special.
She was special now, she wished she wasn’t.
“Sam... if you really aren’t comfortable with this, I can do the next part.” Danny put out his hand.
She didn’t want his help, she had always done everything on her own, she had to do everything on her own, she’d never been given another choice. She didn’t want him to think that she couldn’t do this, she couldn’t accept his help without admitting that she couldn’t do this, and Sam had to do this. She had worked so hard for it.
But she’d worked just as hard to be who she was, and she was someone who couldn’t take a life. Not even an afterlife. She was someone who couldn't do this. She stretched her hand out to Danny, he took the core.
She had two options. Accept help, or give up. She knew which was worse.
“Place it in the centre.” she said, eyes averted. “Then crush it with this.”
She picked up a small, smooth rock, wrapped the hair Danny had given her around it, and passed it to him.
“Hold your breath when you do, and step out of the circle quickly.”
Danny did as instructed.
She didn't look until he stepped back, a green mist billowed up from the collapsed core, and Sam felt a pang of guilt thrum through her. The mist did not dissipate, instead it flowed into the dandelions, settling over them until they gave off a slight glow. Sam checked for any cracks in the chain, any mist escaping out of the circle, but it seemed stable. She had placed the flowers perfectly.
She looked up at Danny, eyes shining with just a little more than tears.