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Learning From Failure

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Winter in New York City. Every time the season rolled around, Holtzmann remembered just how much she hated the cold. Last year, she’d tried inventing a portable climate control unit, but navigating the subway wearing essentially a modified space suit had been hellish. So this year, she settled for wearing battery-powered heated long underwear. Not quite a perfect solution, but it was better than nothing. At least her body was warm as she trudged down the street, even if she’d lost all feeling in her face.

Shopping bag dangling from one arm, she waded through the snow piling up on the sidewalk, the firehouse in sight. In front of the large, bay doors, Kevin pushed the same shovelful of snow back and forth across the walkway. He’d stripped out of his winter coat, and it was tied around his waist so he wore only a Henley and increasingly soggy jeans.

“Hey, Kev,” Jillian said, squinting a little as the snow made another round back from one side of the swath the city snow removal crew had cleared earlier to the other. “What’cha doin’ there?”

“Oh, hey,” Kevin said, straightening and giving his usual earnest grin. “I’m shoveling the driveway. Gotta make sure we can get the car out if there’s a ghost emergency.”

“Uh-huh,” Holtzmann said, as Kevin shoved the shovel forward again, his scoop of snow growing with the still-falling accumulation. “Well, looks like you’ve got this pretty well under control.”

She decided Kevin didn’t need to be reminded their source of transport was currently on the other side of the veil. No reason to spoil his plans.

Kevin beamed at her as she walked by on her way inside.

As soon as she was indoors, she pulled a jar of Pringles out of her bag, tore into the container, and popped one into her mouth. 

Abby walked by with the PKE meter in her hand.

“Holtz, if you get the chance, could you take a look at this thing? Yesterday, it started going off every time I got too close to a dog. Unless every dog in the city is possessed by a spirit, I think it’s getting glitchy.”

“I’ll get right on it. But I suggest we all start preparing for the canine uprising just in case,” Holtzmann said, reaching for the meter and tucking it under her free arm. “And by the way, did you know Kevin is outside moving snow back and forth?”

“Really?” Abby sighed, turning around to glare at Erin, who leaned up next to one of the windows, staring outside. “Erin, did send him out there?”

“You know the city’s in charge of clearing all the snow off those sidewalks, right?” Patty asked, looking up from the true crime book in her hands.

“I know,” Erin said. “I just—like watching him shovel.”

“Oh my God,” Abby said. “Call him in here before he gets frostbite.”

Holtzmann chuckled, popping another chip in her mouth before jogging up the spiral staircase to the second floor. She moved to the back of her workspace after dropping the PKE meter off on one of the tables filled with spare parts and half-finished projects, making her way toward a big, hulking shape at the far wall covered with a canvas tarp. She flung the cloth off and took a moment to study the frame of a hearse from the 1950s.

Reconstruction of the body had been going slowly so far. She’d spent a lot more time worrying about building the engine up. When she was done, this baby was going to go from zero to sixty in under ten seconds. She’d already started planning her modifications on the equipment for the roof, too. The whole nuclear reactor thing worked out fine last time. No reason she couldn’t add a few more enhancements this time around.

She was currently working on a trap to mount on the roof that would create a vortex over the hearse to suck in any aerial ghosts within a two-block radius. At the moment, she was still debating how important it was to find a way to modify its vacuum-like pull so it stopped dragging in nearby pigeons as well.

Holtzmann grabbed a grease-gun from where it lay on the sheet spread out under the skeleton of a hearse and went back to work on the engine, pretty sure she could get that finished by the end of the day, assuming one of her other projects didn’t snag her attention later.

#

Holtzmann was working on the fuel line when the clank of footsteps on the stairs warned her someone was coming. She jumped back, grabbed the corner of the tarp, and just managed to get the hearse covered by the time the footsteps reached the second floor.

“Holtz?” Abby’s voice called out.

“Abby,” Holtzmann said, sidling out into the center of the room. “What brings you to the land where dreams come true?”

“Just checking up on the PKE meter,” Abby said. “Erin and I were going to go scan that hotspot in Central Park tonight.”

“Right,” Holtzmann said, drawing the word out.

Shit, she’d gotten so wrapped up in her surprise project, she hadn’t even looked at the PKE meter. She scanned Abby’s face, still patient, but expectant. And now Holtzmann had to let her down.

“Here’s the thing—I kind of forgot about the PKE meter. But, I’ve been working on something else. An ionization reader,” she said, forcing some enthusiasm into her voice.

She moved over to a table, picking up a compact box with a small satellite-dish shape on top.

“This won’t only alert you to ghosts’ presence, but, once I have the kinks worked out, it will also analyze their vapor class to let us know what we’re really dealing with. You wanna take it out, give it a test run?”

“Is it ready?” Abby asked, reaching out to take the device.

Was it? Holtzmann hadn’t even finished lab testing yet. Well, more like she hadn’t started lab testing it yet. Probably not wise to let Abby and Erin take it out in the field when she wasn’t even around to monitor.

“Uh—not really, no,” Holtzmann said, putting the device back on the table.

She scanned the lab. There had to be something else she could give Abby while she worked on the PKE meter.

“Don’t worry about it,” Abby said. “We can survive one investigation with what we’ve got downstairs. I’ll let you get back to what you were working on. Unless you want to come along?”

Holtzmann swallowed, her throat a little too tight. Abby didn’t sound like she was disappointed about the currently-dog-detecting PKE meter, but still—why wouldn’t she be? Going out into the field without even the equipment basics.

“Nah,” Holtzmann said. “I’ve got lots to do here. But call Patty and me if things get too hot out there.”

“Will do,” Abby said, giving a two-fingered salute before grabbing onto the fire pole and sliding back downstairs.

Holtzmann crept over to the hole in the floor and listened as Abby and Erin gathered up their gear, said goodbye to Kevin and Patty, and left the firehouse.

Two minutes later, she heard Kevin announce he was done for the day and leave as well. Then, only the occasional rustle of the pages of Patty’s book broke the silence in the cavernous building.

Holtzmann moved back to the table and started disassembling the PKE meter, At the very least, she could have it up and running by the time Abby got back. Not that that mattered. She was already too late to be useful to the team tonight.

She unscrewed the casing and tried not to focus on that feeling of failure itching up her spine. Her fingers flew over wires and she worked on letting the PKE meter problem absorb all her thoughts. Only, the machine was a little too simple and didn’t require her full attention. She figured out the problem soon enough, a loose circuit that apparently tricked the meter into interpreting canine pheromones as spectral phenomena. She picked up her tiniest Phillips-head screwdriver and went to town.

She wondered how many screw-ups Abby and the others would tolerate before they got sick of her. Before they realized she was too “volatile” to have around. Maybe Abby hadn’t minded Holtzmann’s eccentricities when she was the only backup available, but now that Erin and Patty were around, Jillian wasn’t really essential anymore.

 And it’s not like the Ghostbusters would be the first people to toss Holtzmann out on her ear. Hell, her own parents had gotten sick of all the explosions in the basement when she was a kid and changed the locks on her when she was sixteen. It was more of a gesture than anything else, really. She could’ve picked the new lock in under a minute. But she’d gotten the message.

She was just being paranoid, right? Holtzmann tightened her grip on the PKE meter and wished it were that easy to get a grip on herself. Abby and Erin and Patty weren’t going to kick her out of the Ghostbusters, right? Right. After all, the first thing Abby had told Erin about Holtzmann was that she was “loyal.” That kind of thing mattered to Abby. They were—family now. But real family. The non-lock changing kind. 

“If you keep tightening those screws, you’re going to strip them,” Dr. Gorin said from a foot and a half away.

Jillian looked up, long past flinching at her mentor’s sudden appearances.

“Dr. Gorin,” Holtzmann said, forcing a smile that relaxed into something more genuine at the sharp look in the other woman’s eyes.

“Jillian, I’ve known you for years now, and I’ve never seen you work so thoughtlessly,” Dr. Gorin said.

Holtzmann bit the inside of her cheek. Great, now she’d disappointed Dr. Gorin too.

Dr. Gorin pinched the bridge of her nose and took a deep breath.

“That’s not what I meant,” she said. “I can see we’re going to have to talk about feelings again. You know how I hate that. What I meant is that there’s clearly something else on your mind. Now—would you like to talk about it?”

Holtzman switched the PKE meter on, watching the glowing pink paddles rotate slowly.

“Nah,” she said. “I’m good.”

“Hmm,” was all Dr. Gorin said. At least for the next few minutes, while it became clear Holtmann wasn’t going to start talking.

“In that case, I had a few thoughts on the containment unit I thought we could discuss,” Dr. Gorin said, all business once more, and sweeping back toward the unit in question.

Holtzmann picked up the back of the PKE meter’s casing, screwed it back together, and took off after her mentor.

#

Holtzmann had been telling Rebecca the truth. She was good. She was good when there was a T3 sighting in Queens and the ghost transporter was finally up and running (and no longer sending angry spirits to Michigan) and zapped the ghost away (to a completely empty dimension, she was pretty sure) right when he was about to tear a guy in half. She was good when the ghost of an angry librarian haunting the Hudson Park Library had sent cards from the now-dusty card catalogue slicing through the air with enough force to decapitate small children until Patty sucked her through the newly-repaired ghost chipper, splattering Erin with ecto, which she still had globbed in her hair when they all went out for dinner afterward to celebrate.

Holtzmann was less good when her latest invention, a grenade designed to implode ghosts rather than explode them (partially created in response to ecto’s intense attraction to Erin) fizzled out after collapsing a yeti-like apparition’s left foot, leaving him even more pissed off but not incapacitated beyond lumbering with a slight limp. Abby and Patty were able to wrestle him into a ghost trap, but Jillian still couldn’t help but feel like she’d failed them. And put them in danger, too. If her tech was faulty out in the field, someone could literally die because of it. Someone she cared about could die.

So she started testing her equipment three times more carefully than ever before, and even though the hearse she’d been building in secret was finally in working order, she didn’t tell anyone about it. She kept adding extra enhancements and safety redundancies that make Dr. Gorin shake her head every time she caught Holtzmann working on it.

“This is ridiculous, Jillian,” Dr. Gorin finally snapped one afternoon, watching Holtzmann run a full diagnostic on a ghost taser for the fifth time. “Your friends’ line of work is inherently dangerous. They all clearly accept that—jumping into portals with shoddy retraction plans. You’ve never been this cautious before, and it doesn’t suit you. It’s slowing your entire process down, and besides that it’s—boring.”

Holtzmann winced a little, and gave an apologetic smile.

“Yeah,” she admitted. “It does kind of blow.”

There was a pause before Dr. Gorin asked, “Jillian, do you remember the first thing I said to you the day we met?”

Holtzmann grinned.

“Yeah.”

She’d been on her own for about a year when she broke into Dr. Gorin’s lab in the middle of the night to experiment with antimatter in a controlled environment. Something went wrong with her calculations though, and in the morning when Dr. Gorin walked in, half the very expensive equipment—that belonged to the university, not Gorin—had simply ceased to exist. Dr. Gorin just looked around the lab and then at Holtzmann, who was still trying to pull the plug on the failed experiment. Dr. Gorin had been completely calm. She’d helped shut down the last of the antimatter reaction, then turned to Jillian and said:

“Nothing is discovered without the occasional failure.”

“Yeah, I remember,” Holtzman said, reaching for the soldering iron without any clear plan of what to do with it since the taser was definitely working. “I don’t know why I’m being such a dude about making mistakes lately. I’m sure I’ll be blowing things up again in another week.”

“Maybe,” Dr. Gorin agreed with a nod. “But what I really meant was that my philosophy on failure extends outside the bounds of scientific discovery.”

Dr. Gorin turned back to the containment unit. The two women worked in silence for a few minutes, Holtzmann mostly thinking through ways she could improve the taser. She’d thought they were past the conversation point of the evening until Dr. Gorin spoke again.

“Do you ever plan to tell them about the new hearse?” she asked.

“Pfft, yeah,” Holtzmann said, twisting back and forth on a rotating stool. “Once it’s awesome enough to show off.”

“Of course,” Dr. Gorin said.

#

Holtzmann spent the next three days working just on the hearse. She hadn’t expected Dr. Gorin not to notice it. It was taking up a lot of space and she did spend a lot of time working on it, after all. But her mentor hadn’t directly mentioned it before, and now that it was no longer a project that only she, Jillian, knew about, it felt that much harder to keep putting off the big reveal. She was fiddling with a new high-powered headlight, thinking she might be ready for an unveiling in another week or so, when the rest of the Ghostbusters scaled the stairs into her workroom.

“Holtz?” Abby called out when they were all on the second floor.

“Yes, Abby?” she replied, stepping out around the towering equipment where she could be seen more clearly.

“Hey,” Erin said, waving. “Haven’t seen much of you the past few days. What’ve you been working on?”

“Oh, you know, this and that. Coming up with a new ghost-repelling cologne. Testing T4’s sensitivity to low-frequency pitches. That kind of deal. Why? We got a new case?”

Patty sighed and took a step forward.

“You all are gonna spend so much time being polite we’ll never get to the point,” she said, before turning toward Holtzmann. “Your creepy mentor said you had a new project to show us.”

“We kind of want to see what it is,” Erin admitted.

Holtzmann raised an eyebrow at them. Interesting. She could just show them some half-functioning, still in the early-days project. She had literally dozens stashed around the place. But clearly Dr. Gorin had set this up. If she thought the hearse was ready, who was Jillian to judge?

“It’s not exactly ready to take for a spin, but all right,” she said, moving backward to the far end of the workspace. “Step this way, but as always, don’t touch anything unless you’re not emotionally attached to your limbs.”

The others followed, obviously curious.

For the sake of dramatic flair, Holtzmann was relieved she’d replaced the tarp when she removed the headlights to work on. She wasn’t exactly feeling confident about showing them the hearse, but she knew how to fake it.

“Oh, wow,” Abby said, when the obviously car-shaped lump came into view.

“Is that—?” Patty asked.

“Behold,” Holtzmann said, flipping the tarp off with stage magician flair.

“You built us a new car!” Erin said. “And it’s—also a hearse.”

“Yeah,” Holtzman agreed. “Patty’s uncle didn’t seem willing to loan us his last one, so—besides, I figure this makes up for the whole faulty implosion bomb thing. You know, when we all almost died.”

“That’s a lot of stuff up on the roof,” Patty said, staring.

“Oh yeah, got some good stuff for us all this time around,” Holtzmann agreed, scanning all the new toys on the roof.

“That’s great, Holtz, really, but—Dr. Gorin said something else too,” Abby said.

Really? What else could she have said? Was it about the containment unit? Jillian knew it was taking a while to get up and running but, come on, she was working with the kind of science that theoretical science dreamed up on acid trips. It was bound to take a while.

“Just,” Abby continued. “Look, you know we care about you outside of what you can make for the team, right?”

Holtzmann shrugged, shoulders going a little too rigid. What else did she have to offer, other than what she could build for the Ghostbusters? Abby and Erin had the rest of the science under control, and Patty knew more about the city than she ever would.

“Your inventions are amazing, but, they’re not the only reason we’re glad you’re around,” Erin said, inching toward her.

“C’mon everyone, I just built us a new car. It’s not a deep, meaningful symbol or anything.”

Unless Freud had written something about the meaning behind building cars for your friends she was unaware of. Of course, he probably had. But she doubted it was about emotional insecurity or anything that banal.

“No,” Abby agreed, migrating closer to Holtzmann, like she were magnetized or something. “Unless there was a reason you were worried about showing it to us. Why you’ve been—keeping to yourself, working so hard lately?”

“Just keeping busy,” Jillian said. “Staying useful.”

On second thought, maybe she shouldn’t have said that. Everyone started looking at her like she was a baby duckling or something. It was a little uncomfortable.

“We aren’t friends—or, like you’ve said before, Holtz, family—just because we’re useful to each other,” Abby said.

Erin nodded, enthusiastic in her agreement.

 “Baby, you got to know we don’t just need you on the team—we want you here,” Patty said. “I mean, who else is going to genuinely terrify me between ghost sightings?”

“Yeah,” Erin agreed. “And help us monitor Abby’s blood sugar.”

“Hey,” Abby said punching Erin in the arm.

Erin flinched, glaring at her.

“See?” Erin mouthed at Jillian.

“True,” Holtzmann said, taking a deep breath. She was feeling a little unsteady, but not really in a bad way all of a sudden. “Besides, I’m also the best dancer on the team.”

“Mmm, I don’t know about that,” Erin said, smiling her most awkward smile.

Holtzmann winked at her.

“You did a real good job on that hearse,” Abby said, turning back to the mostly-finished car.

“Yeah,” Holtzmann agreed, her whole body relaxing a little in the silence that followed, everyone staring at the hearse together.

Even if the others did change their mind about how they felt about Jillian beyond her usefulness, she still had that. She could still build them a kickass car. But then, she thought, she was pretty sure she’d had it wrong before. Maybe she didn’t really need to worry so much about screwing up. Dr. Gorin was usually right, after all. And Holtzmann still had a lot to learn about being part of a family.

“How were you planning to get that downstairs, now?” Patty asked.

“Ehh,” Holtzmann said, slinging an arm over Patty’s shoulder. “I’ll think of something.”

“Holtz, no, you are not going to blow a hole in the floor,” Abby said.

Holtz rolled her eyes.

“We’ll see,” she said, grinning.

“But, what about what Dr. Gorrin said a whole ago? Something about sneezing on this floor and disintegration?” Erin asked, fidgeting. “I’m pretty sure explosives are worse than sneezing.”

“Shhh,” Holtzmann said, grabbing the two remaining Ghostbusters with her free hand and pulling everyone in for a hug. “Let me enjoy the moment.”