IT'S HALFWAY THROUGH SECOND PERIOD when a rocket careens through the window— sending shattered glass across the floor— and explodes against the far wall. Debris showers the air. My eardrums ring. The students around me scream and duck under their desks while others race for the door.
Half a second too late, a shiver runs through me, my breath condensing in front of my mouth. I turn and look back at Tucker. He's staring with owl eyes at the window... or, what used to be the window.
Skulker floats down into view, aiming a deadly-looking gun at me. He tilts his head and says, "Whelp."
Glancing around the room, I see that most of the students besides Tucker have already bailed. Paulina's still in the back of the class though. She looks unconscious. Probably fainted.
I turn back to face Skulker and reach into my core, transforming with a snap-fizzle.
"Tuck—" I start, but he's already nodding and leaving to find Sam.
"You could have just given me a call if you wanted to talk. I have a cellphone. You do know what a cellphone is, right Inspector Gadget?"
"You talk too much, child," Skulker says without imagination. "Less talking, more killing."
His jetpack roars as he rockets forward and grabs me by the collar of my suit, throwing me towards the ceiling. I concentrate and phase through it. With a tumbling whirl, I find myself above the roof on the eastern wing.
Fine. I reach back for my thermos, spinning to try and catch him by surprise when he follows me. I wait. Seconds tick by. My shoulders hunch. I start to get worried. A whirring noise erupts from behind my back and I turn to see Skulker's iron foot aimed at my head. I backflip to get away, flying as far from the school possible.
"That's right— run ghost child!" Skulker crows. He sounds manic with the thrill of the chase. I realize that I'm only giving him what he wants most: Prey.
Near an alleyway, I spin to go on the attack.
"Domo arigato, Mr Ro—" I inhale until my lungs feel like balloons about to burst and brace myself. As I scream, a memory stirs in the back of my mind, yawning and stretching, until it overcomes me and the alleyway dissolves.
—Complete darkness. Screaming. Pain. Acid burns through my veins. I punch into the void, but my arms won't move. A circular bright light. I shy away from it. I kick. I buck. I knash my teeth together in frustration. The screaming cracks. I discover I am the one screaming. The pain intensifies and I pick up where I left off. It feels like the right thing to do. Scream until my throat tears; scream until someone helps me; scream to prove I'm alive—
Then, just as abruptly as I had been thrown into that place, I'm ripped free. I blink and see Skulker half broken and sparking from my latest volley. He's saying something to me, but I'm too preoccupied from that memory. I look down at the dropped thermos. It's at least twenty feet below, rolled halfway underneath a trashbin.
"...did not just call me Mr. Roboto, runt." I look back in time to see Skulker raise a rocket from his right shoulder and aim; fire.
My body wants to dodge right, but my brain is reeling. The two tug at opposite ends of a rope, leaving me stuck in between. His rocket hits me in the chest. My eyes go wide. His eyes go wide. My bones snap and I'm cartwheeling backwards, hurtling towards something at a very unhealthy rate.
I have a split second to marvel at the brick masonry, before my head collides with a not-so-heartwarming crunch.
The first thought I think, once my brain reboots and starts thinking thoughts again, is: Intangibility, dumbass. Use it.
"...Hey kid, are you dead?"
A gigantic question mark spins idly in my mind. I can taste my own blood in my mouth. The taste is iron-ey and plastic-ey and completely unwelcome. I swirl my swollen tongue across my teeth. All of them are intact, from what I can tell. I count that as a tiny win.
"What do I do? Do I hide the body? They'll know immediately." Skulker's muttering to himself, terror trembling in his voice as he pokes me in the back over and over like a piece of meat. I flinch. No good. I'm in bad shape. Definitely concussed. My ribs are shifting, too pliable, probably cracked if not broken. "You were supposed to go right. You always go right. Why didn't you go right? You can't die, got that?"
"Why can't I die?" I ask. "Not that I'm complaining," I tack on as an afterthought, not wanting Skulker to get any ideas. Dying is high on my list— if not the highest— of things to avoid. So far I haven't done a great job of it.
Skulker freezes. "You're alive?"
I crack an eye open and reward Skulker with what I hope is a withering one-eyed glare. The inner rebel in me stands up to shake a fist, but my defiance is quickly smothered by overwhelming pain. I probably look more pathetic than anything. I shove my cheek into the cement to check that the ground is stationary; right now it's pitching somersaults.
"Oh good, good."
"Why can't I die?" I repeat. "And why aren't you making me into a rug or skinning me or— or whatever?"
"Did I say that? I didn't say that." Skulker hums. "Anyway, I'm rethinking the rug. Might throw off the... what do you humans call it? Feng-shui? Actually I was just— Hey, can I go inside your soup-warming device? Just for a little while. Maybe five years."
I stare. "What?" I'm not sure I heard him correctly.
"Isn't that what you wanted to do in the first place? Enslave me in that little contraption of yours?"
I eye the ghost with mounting suspicion as he retrieves the Fenton Thermos from where it rolled across the alley. He places it on the ground next to my face. I reach out, pick it up, and point it at the ghost with shaking hands.
"Do it," Skulker urges.
"Is this some kinda trap?"
"Hurry up. Before I change my mind."
I frown, then I shrug and press the button, half expecting some kind of explosion or a net to pop out of thin air. Instead, Skulker's tugged into the device. I swear that a split second before his head disappears he gives me a relieved smile.
Huh. That was… weird.
"Danny?!" Sam skids around the corner, catches sight of me in the alley, and nearly tumbles trying to over-correct her momentum. Tucker is right behind her. "Are you okay? You're bleeding." She's by my side in four long strides. Already she's undoing her backpack, no doubt searching for medical supplies.
"I'm just great," I tell her. Catching my sarcasm, she pokes at the back of my head. I wince when she pokes the tender spot. Gotta say— I'm getting a little tired of being prodded. Her fingers retract, stained red-green with my blood.
"You look really bad," Tucker says nervously.
I give him a bloody grin. It's supposed to be reassuring, but Tucker pales.
"Don't worry. I promised not to die." I remember Skulker's minor panic attack from earlier.
My head feels exactly like you'd expect after slamming it into a brick wall: Like there are tiny people yanking on strings in my brain, banging pipes, and setting off small explosions.
"Did you get him?" Tucker asks.
I give the thermos a cocky little shake with more pep than I feel. "Yeah..."
The victory is a hollow one. I feel like I've opened yet another portal— this time one containing a million questions. Why didn't Skulker finish me off? Who are 'they'? Why'd he ask to go in the thermos? I groan. I'll think about this later. Besides, it isn't like Skulker can go anywhere. I can always flush him out and interrogate him tomorrow.
"Let me hold that for now," Sam reaches over to take the thermos out of my hand, but I pull it close.
"I got it. Skulker and I have unfinished business."
Sam gives me The Look™. "You better not be finishing any of that business until you're healed."
"Its just a broken rib." I attempt a laugh, but it hurts too much. Instead it turns into a cough, which turns into blood spattering down my tee, which turns into Sam nearly crying.
"Shut up," she tells me.
So I shut up.
There's no point in going back to school. Just as there's no point in going to the hospital. One sample of blood, one heart monitor, or one thermometer later and I'd be the next medical oddity. That only leaves my room, my bed, my galaxy-patterned quilt, and all the time it'll take for my powers to superglue my bones back together.
Sam and Tucker manage to half-walk-half-tote me back to my house. I'm practically rolled up the steps and into my room.
I put the thermos containing Skulker onto my desk, then I make for the bed. My pillows are humming invitingly with godly beams of light. As I take a step to bury my aching head into their embrace, Sam tugs on my arm.
"Wait— your shirt. We need to clean you up first."
What about my shirt? I blink and look down, seeing the blood-splatters down my chest. Ah.
"Later." I swallow thickly as a wave of nausea hits me. They've been coming in droves every ten minutes. Tucker senses something's up and kicks my trashbin over to me. "I gotta… lay down," I mumble.
"I dunno about this," Tucker says warily as I stick my head deep inside the bin. "You were coughing up blood. Maybe we should tell your parents? We could say you got mugged or something."
"No." I close my eyes as the vertigo worsens. My mouth waters. My stomach rises to my throat. With a grimace I spit into the trash, waiting for the feeling to pass. After a minute it fades away, leaving behind an uncomfortable tightening in my abdomen. "Go back to class. I'll be fine. I'll just tell them I have a headache." It wouldn't be a lie.
"Even your parents are going to notice something's up when they see all that blood on you," Sam says quietly.
I sigh. She's right. I put the bin down and carefully tug at the hem of my shirt to pull it off. Tucker has to help me get it up over my head.
Sam and Tucker gasp in unison.
I blink and look across my room at the mirror, seeing mottled angry bruises across my ribcage. The outline of my ribs is visible through my swollen skin. It looks like one of those post-modern abstract paintings my mom always tilts her head at and ho-hums. Like some artist sniffed too much turpentine and went a little crazy with the blue, green and purple ink.
Sam turns from me, shaking her head, to root around through my drawers for a clean shirt.
"This one alright?" she asks.
Without looking I nod, my lips tight. I don't trust myself to speak at this point without decorating the bedroom floor with my breakfast. The pair of them seem to sense that what I desire most (besides a new body) is darkness and silence. They fuss over me for a bit, before they leave me cocooned in bed to count my breaths, focus on healing, and ponder over how bizarre this morning had become.
Hi guys! I had a lot of fun with this story. It's fully written, edited, and formatted so expect timely updates every-ish Sunday.
I had a small army helping me with this story. Thank you HaiJu, HappyLeifEricsonDay, Cordria and Aquatwin for their extensive beta work. Without their polish this story would be super clunky.
As always, reviews and critiques are loved.