This time, Dash had antagonized his father on purpose. He stumbled home from Kwan’s drunk off his ass, dropped his letterman jacket on the table where his father sat—and initially his father had just looked bemused. Initially, his father’s expression, lips tilted upward, eyebrows raised, had said, boys will be boys, because he knew that Dash came home from parties drunk sometimes and dragged girls back with him other times and had never really cared. He was relaxed, even, shoulders slouched, the first two buttons of his shirt undone, tie untied.
“I’m quitting the football team,” Dash had said. He’d wanted it to come out proud. Instead it was slurred and broken and scared, all of the things Dash had fought all his life not to be. It shamed him.
Kwan had begged him not to quit, though. Kwan had pulled out every argument against it except for your dad will beat the shit out of you, because Kwan never could verbalize what happened to Dash when his front door whispered shut. It had been Paulina who’d said that, bluntly, and it had hit Dash like a hammer to the chest. Don’t I know it, Dash had answered, and he’d knocked back another shot. Paulina had watched him with her hawkish, expressionless gaze—it had taken Dash all of freshman year to learn that Paulina, for all she played at being shallow, had the eyes of an eagle. Observant, whip-smart.
“Excuse me,” his father had said, primly, moving to stand, and then Dash was on the ground and his father was screaming himself hoarse, but it was white noise to him. It was nothing compared to the vindication of shirking his father’s expectations—he was smiling to himself, blood from his broken nose pouring into his mouth, but it was worth it. It was worth it. When his father’s dress shoe collided with his ribs and Dash saw stars, it was worth it still, to be free. To nail his final fuck you in his coffin. It’d only taken him until senior year to work up the courage.
“You think,” his father spat, “that you run yourself. That you are your own man. I am your father, you live under my roof, and you will not make such—such idiot decisions when you carry my name, do you understand?”
“Not for long,” Dash groaned, rolling over onto his back and clutching his ribs. The next kick caught him in the soft part of his stomach, and then Dash’s father pulled him up by the shirt collar and punched him right across the jaw. Fingers knotted into Dash’s hair, the screaming echoed louder, and then Dash’s head was slammed against the tile floor and everything went black and ringing for long, long seconds. Nothing hit him in those seconds, which was surprising, because Dash’s dad wasn’t exactly good at control, and Dash had walked into this knowing there was a not insignificant chance his dad might kill him.
“Lay off,” came a snarl above him, a familiar one. The echo. The slouching, slow, wailing echo that bounced off the walls. Eerie, otherworldly —ghostly.
There was the solid sound of a punch that hit home, brutally so, followed by the cracking of bone. “You’re—you’re—” Dash’s dad stammered. For the first time since Dash could remember, the man sounded scared.
“Right now? Your worst nightmare.”
Dash forced himself to open his eyes—it was a blur, but he saw white, and black, and then his vision cleared and holy shit. Holy fucking shit. Holy shit on a fuckstick.
Phantom was holding Dash’s dad in the air by his throat. That was Phantom’s voice, ringing around the room, fraught with power and icy hatred. Phantom was seeing Dash like this. Dash’s bruised stomach churned at the thought, and he tried to force himself upright, but the room tilted dangerously and he dropped back to the tile.
“Touch him again,” Phantom growled, “ever. I dare you. I will find you, no matter where you go, no matter how far you run. But there won’t be anything left for them to find of you. You can’t hide from me even if you die.”
Phantom dropped Dash’s father, who stumbled, and hit the ground. Phantom made an inhuman sound, like the noise a dolphin would make while being fed into a meat shredder—a series of wet, disgusting clicks and whistles, almost wailing. He fired green energy from his hands that bound Dash’s father’s arms to his sides.
“Dash, son,” the man said, nervously, “tell him this is a big misunderstanding, that—”
Phantom punched him in the face. “Say one more thing. Do it. They’ll be picking your teeth out of the walls.”
Dash’s vision swam into blackness. There was the vague sensation of being lifted, of a cold tingle spreading through him.
When he came to, he was in a car. His own car. There was a first aid kit sitting on the middle console, and Phantom—the goddamn Phantom of Amity Park—was sitting in the driver’s seat, looking, of all things, sheepish.
“Flying with a concussion is kind of the worst,” he said.
“Flying… with,” Dash struggled to form words. “Phantom?”
“In the, er, ectoplasm.”
“I,” Dash swiped a hand over his face. It came away bloody. “How did you—”
Phantom, if possible, looked embarrassed. A green flush—a glowing green flush—crawled up his cheeks. “I, uh. Ghost hearing is actually… it’s actually really, um, good. I can hear things people can’t, and the things they can, from a lot further away, it’s—sort of like being a dog. Or an elephant. Infrasound, ultrasound, you name it, I can hear it. Something something the density of ectoplasm and its sensitivity to vibration, yadda, yadda.”
“I thought ectoplasm was… ghost blood.”
“You hear with your blood?”
Phantom shrugged. “Kind of. Sort of. Maybe. But I, uh, heard shouting. I investigated.”
“Major breach of privacy, dude,” Dash said.
Phantom’s brows drew together. He looked deadly serious. “You might’ve died. It was necessary.”
Dash turned away. “We… are not in my garage.”
“We’re parked a block away.”
“You drove?” Dash asked.
“I can drive! I drive just fine! I don’t know why everyone’s surprised I can drive. Johnny even taught me how to work a motorcycle—that’s, uh, off-topic, though.”
Dash’s head ached too much for the current conversation. He had vague memories of some ghost named Johnny, but they were ephemeral, non-solid. “But you can fly.”
Phantom’s expression turned serious. “You have a concussion. A bad one. Like I said, flying with a concussion is kind of the worst, take it from me.”
“You can get concussions?”
There was a faint smile on Phantom’s face. He rapped his knuckles against his temple. “Ghost concussions,” he said. “For ghost brains. But that’s neither here nor there, I need you to give me directions. You need somewhere to stay.”
“Take me home.”
“No,” Phantom said, evenly. It was not a voice to question.
Dash squirmed. “You know, when I was younger, I used to dream about this.”
“Sitting in a car with a ghost?”
“No, you. Phantom. Saving me from my dad.”
Phantom’s eyes widened. It was an expression that would’ve been funny, if it didn’t hit Dash in the chest, full-force—why did he look like he had, for lack of a better phrase, seen a ghost?
“Creepy, right,” Dash said.
“No,” Phantom said. “I, uh. It’s… flattering? No, that’s not the word. Honoring.”
“Don’t you have a city to save,” Dash said. “I mean, why are you here with me, covering for my ass? You have better things to do.”
Phantom swallowed. “I don’t save cities. I save people. And you’re just as important as anyone else who lives here, and your dad? Just as bad as the monsters I fight.”
Dash looked out the window. His face and ribs throbbed in time with his heartbeat. Don’t fucking say that, he wanted to snarl. Don’t say that, you don’t fucking live with him, that’s my goddamn—
But he bit down on his tongue and held the thought back.
“My friend Kwan, he’s—he’s not far. I think he’s waiting for me, to be honest. Paulina—she’s another friend of mine—should be waiting there, too. I’ll… tell you where to go.”
Phantom twisted the keys. The engine roared to life, and he threw a grin at Dash. “Don’t worry. I’m a very safe driver.”
“This is the weirdest experience of my life,” Dash mumbled.
“You don’t know the half of it. Ha! Halfa it. Don’t look at me like that, it’d be funny if you were in the know, can’t explain all that complicated ghost stuff, though.”
It occurred to Dash, as Phantom flicked on the right blinker and pulled onto the neighborhood’s main road, that Phantom was trying to cheer him up. There was something tight, something caustic to his grins—which were wide enough to reveal glowing green gums—and it was made all the more difficult to bear by what appeared to be scars marring Phantom’s face. Acid green, glowing scars, some thin and straight, some jagged; one sliced through his upper lip. There was something familiar about it, something Dash was finding impossible to place. Maybe, though, it was the oddity of seeing Phantom up close, which was something that, as far as Dash knew, had never happened to anyone. He was always too fast for the cameras to get a still shot.
“Right or left?” Phantom asked.
“What if someone sees you?” Dash asked.
Phantom glanced at him. God, but his eyes were far too bright, like headlights in the dark. “Then people start talking about how Dash Baxter was riding with Phantom, and nothing ever comes of it.”
Dash paused. “How do you know my last name?”
Ectoplasm flooded Phantom’s cheeks. Holy Christ, did Dash just embarrass a ghost? “I watch the football games, sometimes,” Phantom said. “I recognize you. Starting quarterback. Creepy, I know, but I’m dead, creepy is kind of what I do.”
“No,” Dash said, thickly. “I’m, uh. What’d you say? Honored. I… thanks, Phantom.”
“Don’t mention it. Really, don’t, if Skulker knew where I went on Friday nights I’d get almost skinned alive more often.”
Dash worked his throbbing jaw. “I… I quit the team, today. Tetslaff was pissed. My dad was more pissed.”
Phantom shrugged. “You can quit if you want. It’s your life.”
Dash sucked in a shaking breath. Phantom’s easy acceptance—he could imagine Phantom, floating invisibly over the football field, watching a game in his downtime. The downtime Phantom never seemed to have, not with three or four ghost attacks in a day, on average. Phantom looked young, too, like he’d died in high school and was forever young, some sort of heroic Peter Pan; maybe those games had meant something, to Phantom. And yet Phantom—simply allowed Dash the space to be Dash.
“That’s what set pops off,” Dash said, softly. “He wants the perfect son. The football star, popular kid, he wants—he wants something I’m not. I’m fucking tired of doing what he wants, man. I wanted one last year of high school to be who I am, and —fuck. Do you know how much I used to hate myself for how much I hated football? But I figured it out. I’m never… I’ll never please that piece of shit. I’ll… oh. We’ve just been sitting here. It’s, uh, a left.”
“I don’t mind sitting here if you need it,” Phantom said, quietly. Kindly.
Dash swiped at his curiously wet eyes. “Nah, this is embarrassing. Crying like a pussy in front of the local fuckin’ superhero? I can’t—fuck, I am useless.”
“I have a nervous breakdown basically every five hours, you’re not alone.”
Dash looked at him. “Really?”
Phantom’s brows crawled to his hairline. “Don’t even doubt it for a second, man. I don’t know how you feel about life advice from someone who isn’t alive, but—to be you, and to be happy, you’re going to have to disappoint someone. You can’t be all things to all people.”
“You are,” Dash said.
Phantom snorted. “No the fuck I’m not. You know how many people I’ve disappointed? The list is actually everyone I know.”
“Well, you know me, now, and you’ve never disappointed me.”
Phantom swallowed audibly, which was strange, considering Dash didn’t realize ghosts could swallow. “Thanks,” he said, strangled.
“Another left, here.”
The car dipped left. Phantom drummed his gloved fingers nervously against the steering wheel. There was still blood on the knuckles.
“My head fuckin’ hurts,” Dash moaned. “We’re almost there. God, I’m—Kwan’s parents are gonna fuckin’ snap.”
“I don’t want to be in foster care my senior year,” Dash huffed. “I can last. I can.”
“And what would’ve happened tonight if I hadn’t heard?” Phantom asked.
Dash felt the justice of that one cut into him. “‘Nother left,” he rasped. “And then it’s the third house down.”
“That’s a big house,” Phantom said, awed, when he pulled into the driveway.
“Thanks for the ride,” Dash said, fumbling with the door handle. He swung it open. “You’re, you know, you’re alright. For a dead guy.”
“Oh, I’m not leaving,” Phantom said. “What, did you really think I was going to drop you off without checking if you needed to go to a hospital? I’m a ghost, not totally fucking insane.”
“What,” Dash said, mutely, but there wasn’t time for him to chew Phantom’s ass out, because the front door of the towering house in front of them had swung open and Kwan was running out.
“Dude, you weren’t answering my texts, you missed my calls, I—holy fuck,” Kwan said. His eyes trained on Phantom, widened. “Is—is that—”
“It’s fuckin’ Phantom, and he was cool until about five seconds ago,” Dash snapped, forcing himself upright. “Fuck,” he said, when black slunk forward from the edges of his vision.
Kwan caught him easily. The car’s engine was killed, and when Dash could see again, Phantom was hovering over the hood.
“If you take me to a hospital,” Dash spat, “I’ll refuse treatment. It’ll be useless.”
Phantom’s lip curled. “Boy, you are stubborn, I’ll give you that. Okay. But on the condition that I patch you up.”
Kwan looked mystified. “H-hi, Mr. Ph-Phantom,” he stammered. “We, um, me and my friend inside have this. We’ve done this for Dash before. If you need to go, it’s, uh—”
Phantom disappeared from the air above the car and then reappeared beside Kwan. “You’re just going to have to trust me on this one. Lead the way, big guy.”
Kwan hauled Dash inside—Dash, for all that he tried, couldn’t manage to walk on his own. His vision swam. Kwan led him to a couch and laid him down flat on it, picking up Dash’s sneakered feet and propping them up.
“Paulina!” Kwan called.
Footsteps hammered down the hall. “I was getting the first aid—what in the—”
Dash couldn’t see her expression, but he really, really wanted to. He watched as Phantom offered a small wave and a crooked grin, as if all was right with the world.
“He saved me,” Dash said. “Punched my dad in the face.”
“Four times,” Phantom corrected. He shouldered past Kwan, and leaned down in front of Dash. “I’m going to do something a little—a lot—invasive. But I want to make sure you don’t have a brain bleed, or a cracked skull. I’m going to turn your skin and your skull invisible and look at it. That’s going to suck a lot for you, but it’s non-negotiable.”
“Brain bleed?” Kwan said. “I—oh my god—”
Phantom held up a hand, and Kwan silenced himself. “No panicking. I’m kind of the local expert on head injuries.”
“Ghost concussions,” Dash mumbled.
Phantom nodded. “This is going to feel cold.”
He pressed a finger and thumb to Dash’s temple. Dash let his eyes drift shut—the coolness felt wonderful, after the heat of the pain. Phantom tilted Dash’s head this way and that, gently, and then finally he said, “It’s just a concussion. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a humdinger of a concussion, but you’re not in mortal peril. There, at least.”
“At least,” Kwan said, again. “Dash, what did—what did that bastard—”
Keeping his eyes closed was easier than facing Kwan’s protective anger. He let Phantom pull the same invisibility trick with his chest, and it was another few moments of careful study before Phantom declared that one rib was fractured, but nothing had pierced any vital organs, and likely wouldn’t.
After Phantom had backed away, Kwan was kneeling in front of Dash, peppering him with questions.
“Can I have a fucking minute,” Dash snapped, uneasily.
Kwan stood up, looking only more concerned. He turned towards Phantom, but whatever gesture he made, Dash missed—his eyes drifted shut, and he pushed his mind across a sea of emptiness. It was him, and the pain that lived in him, but he was alone. He was himself.
When his eyes would drift open again, Kwan would tell him that Phantom had left, with orders that Dash was to rest—some soul-deep part of Dash had ached, at that. Phantom’s presence hadn’t been unwelcome. There was something relaxing about his demeanor, even if his ghostly attributes were unnatural and off-putting. Kwan, after that, would tell him that he’d talked to his parents, and that the authorities were involved; he broke down sobbing, even, apologizing over and over for not involving them sooner. Paulina would call him, crying, apologizing for the same thing.
Dash took it all in stride. He was still thinking about the scar that sliced through Phantom’s upper lip, glowing bright green. It was comforting in its familiarity.