Author's Note: We're actually a lot closer to the end than you might think, like maybe a chapter away… but more on that later. For now, the stunning revelation of what happened to Sam three years ago!!11!
Note: Okay, I admit it. The ghost featured in this chapter is just a really huge Taxxon. (If you don't know what that is, then don't worry about it!) I wrote most of this chapter before I ever really planned on developing the story much further, much less putting it up, and now… well, I could change it, but I don't want to. Sorry! (I know, I know, then why did it take so long? Adding in the bits that made it actually fit in with the crazy story that came out of all this took longer than I thought it would!)
Also note: To clear up some confusion, even though Danny is the one telling the story to Sam, some of the events of the time of the accident are written from Sam or Tucker's points of view. So there are going to be a couple things in there that Danny obviously couldn't have known, and obviously wouldn't actually tell Sam if he were telling her the story. But you guys get the whole story because you're special!
Phew. I talk too much. Story time!
Obligatory meaningful song lyrics:
I've made my mistakes
I've got nowhere to run
The night goes on, as I'm fading away
I'm sick of this life, I just want to scream
How could this happen to me?
—Simple Plan (lol, remember them?)
Chapter 11: The Accident
Danny led the way into the house, resisting the urge to look over his shoulder and make sure Sam was following. Or that she was there at all. He still couldn't quite believe he'd found her waiting on his doorstep like that, when he'd been uncertain whether he'd ever see her again at all. He flipped the lights on his way inside. With eyes accustomed to analyzing his surroundings in seconds, he immediately noticed that the wall opposite the couch had a thin, spidery crack in it and wondered where it had come from. When his father still lived there, unexplained destruction around the house was completely normal, even better left ignored if you didn't want to subject yourself to a long, over-excited explanation as to what had caused it.
Even without his dad as an excuse, Danny didn't worry about it. With nearly every nook and cranny of the house stuffed with weapons, as well as the over-all security system that could be powered with a flip of a switch, the Fenton household was probably the safest place in the entire city when it came to warding off ghosts. Plus his ghost sense wasn't going off, so if there had been trouble it was gone now, anyway.
Danny swallowed and quelled his wandering thoughts. There was no use putting this off.
When he turned around Sam was still there, standing awkwardly just a few feet past the doorway like she was afraid to come in any further. Which was ridiculous since she had been there hundreds of times before. Or, he supposed, if she didn't remember all of that then at least she had been there a few times since coming back the other day. Still, her eyes darted around her like she was seeing everything for the first time. When they finally settled on Danny he felt his face heat up and the prickle of sweat on his back. It was unusual for his body to overheat like that since his temperature was naturally a few degrees colder than was normal. But he was extremely nervous, and it couldn't be helped.
"I, uh, have to clean something up," he said awkwardly. "Do you mind…?"
"Go ahead," Sam replied immediately. She seemed nervous too. Danny turned and headed toward the kitchen, but she didn't start following him until he glanced back to make sure she was.
He turned on the lights and she raised her eyebrows at the mess on the floor. Shattered glass in a large puddle of sticky purple something, though the bigger pieces made it apparent it had been a jar of jelly if the smell didn't.
The two said nothing more to each other, and Danny set about wetting a sponge to start soaking up the jelly. Sam finally pulled out one of the kitchen chairs and sat down, looking unsure as to whether or not she should offer to help. Danny kept at his task with complete focus. Of course, he'd pretty much forgotten about the spilt jelly until moments ago while casting about for something he could do that would keep he and Sam from just looking at each other.
"Don't you think you should pick up the glass first?" she asked, startling him. He'd been leaning over, scrubbing at the floor, and now he sat back and looked at what he'd accomplished so far (which wasn't much—he'd basically been spreading it around).
"I guess so," he said. He leaned over again, and didn't comment when Sam knelt down and started to help him. He wasn't really sure what to say. Thank you seemed a bit empty. He could say thank you a thousand times and it wouldn't come near actually expressing how grateful he was that she was here. Well not here, as in in his kitchen, but in Amity Park, with him, and not gone back to wherever she had been for almost three years.
An impossibly long moment passed with the two of them quietly piling up the bits of glass to the side of the splatter. Danny outwardly kept as calm as possible, but his mind was spinning. Three days ago if someone had told him he'd be alone in his house with Sam Manson he probably would have laughed in their face. Well, not laugh. Probably he would not have reacted at all, but inside he would have recognized the improbability of the suggestion. Now he felt like he was in a dream. Even though he could see her, hear her, even smell some peachy scent over the jelly which she must have washed with or sprayed on, it was hard to handle that not only was she back, but finally they were alone together.
Of course he had mused about seeing her again thousands of times before. Sometimes he even allowed himself to have completely silly thoughts, like Sam mysteriously re-appearing one day and rushing into his arms and forgiving him for everything and… and what? Happily ever after? He still wasn't sure what place there was for her here.
"So…" he broke the silence, "What do you want, exactly?"
He was still focused on the floor, and barely glanced up at her. She was braver than him and stopped working long enough to look him directly in the eye. "I want you to tell me what happened three years ago. This 'accident' you all keep alluding to, but no one ever tells me about. My parents told me it was a car accident… a collision… Then you say I was ghost-bait, like I got eaten or something." She raised her eyebrows. "You can see how the stories don't exactly match up."
He almost wanted to smile at the comment, but forced himself not to. His instincts screamed at him that this had to be a trap. Or something. She was so angry before, as furious as he had ever seen her. How could she be taking it so calmly now?
As for telling this particular story… it wasn't going to be easy. He'd never told the entire story to anyone before, except Valerie. And she'd been a sympathetic listener, not to mention completely uninvolved with the situation. This was different. "Well, what do you remember?" he asked, hoping to find a starting point.
"In general?" Sam clarified. He shrugged, and nodded. Better to finally find out what, exactly, she did or did not know. Assumptions in that direction hadn't exactly done him any favors so far.
"Well," she said, taking a breath, "I remember the high school… Casper High, right? And I remember this burger place we used to go to all the time, but I hate burgers so I don't know why. And I remember other parts of town, if only vaguely, like my feet could take me to certain places as long as I didn't think about it. I remembered Vlad a bit on the way over here… a little too late for that to be any help, right? I remember Tucker, and I sort of remember Valerie. And you." She finished, but she seemed uncertain for some reason. She narrowed her eyes at him questioningly; like it was his fault she was confused. "You were one of the first things I remembered. I felt like I knew you more than I knew anyone. And I…" she seemed to think better of wherever she had been headed with that train of thought, and instead said, "But I don't think that's necessarily true. I mean, maybe I knew you, but I obviously don't know you, right?"
"Right," Danny agreed, because what else could he say? He found that his heart was beating rapidly in his chest and he was still too hot. He had been sure that she was about to say she had feelings for him. And then she stopped herself, and said something much more logical.
Get a grip, he thought to himself, You can be logical too.
"So basically," he continued, "You really, really don't remember anything about the accident? At all?"
She thought for a moment and then shook her head. Her long hair was pulled up, but her bangs still hung in her face, half-shading one eye, and they swayed with the motion. "No, I do. Sort of. I remember waiting for you. I had this… this image of you, in my mind, flying. Coming to save me. I knew that it was really important." She reported this fact with little expression, but her eyes flashed. Like she was daring him to call her out on her nonchalance.
Danny realized, somewhat hysterically, that the way the two of them were acting they might as well have been conducting a business meeting. A very, very awkward business meeting, but still… neither was willing to let the other see exactly what they were thinking. This had become, in general, the way he operated as a person, but he was unused to talking to someone else who was the same way, and he hadn't expected it from Sam, who usually said what she meant and to hell with what anyone thought of her because of it. Part of him wanted to scream, to yell at her again and get her to break out of her shell too, like earlier. It was ridiculous to act this way around each other. She had to be feeling at least half as much as he did right now.
Instead he continued to regard her coolly, as she was him. Maybe it was ridiculous, but it felt safer than the alternative, no matter how tempting it was.
Besides which, maybe after hearing the whole story she would be in the mood to scream at him again.
"Okay," he said finally, "Here it goes. It was the beginning of our sophomore year. Not long after the whole city got taken over by this giant plant ghost named Undergrowth, actually, and you…" He trailed off, noted that she didn't remember that incident either and said, "Well, I can tell you about that later, if you want. But here's what happened when you lost your memory…"
-Almost three years earlier…-
When Danny didn't show up for school that day Sam felt like she had a rock in the pit of her stomach. By third period she was so nervous she could hardly sit still, constantly shifting in her seat, tapping the steel toes of her boots, drumming her fingernails. Mr. Lancer was droning on about how the transcendentalists focused on living in the present and appreciating each moment, and she was a million miles away.
She felt a sharp kick to the back of her chair and turned around. Tucker gave her a puzzled look and a slight hand gesture indicating, What are you doing? Then he whispered, "Sounds like STOMP going on up there or something." She scowled, glanced forward to make sure Lancer was still planted firmly face-front, scrawling notes on the chalk board, before tearing off a corner piece from a notebook page, writing on it, scrunching it up and casually tossing it over her shoulder.
It landed dead center on Tucker's desk (he always wondered how she managed that without even looking). He unfolded it and smirked. Sam could somehow make sarcasm resonate even in writing. What, you're a Broadway expert now? she wanted to know. He wasn't surprised to find the message beneath the quip: Danny isn't here. He carefully took up his pencil and scribbled a reply, eyes darting forward every few seconds to keep tabs on Lancer.
When the paper was flicked back, it missed its target of over Sam's shoulder to her desk by inches, veering off to the right towards the aisle. Sam was expecting this, however, and at the last possible moment her hand shot out and she caught it neatly.
I told you hes probably sleeping you know he needs it
Her shoulders heaved a little as if she were sighing, and when she didn't send over a reply Tucker figured she was pissed off. But what did she want him to say? That Danny wasn't in school because he'd finally met a ghost too powerful for him to handle on his own and he was dead? Well he wasn't going to play into her paranoia. He couldn't, because A) he honestly did believe Danny was perfectly okay and B) he wasn't sure what he would do if Sam was right.
Sam was obviously just falling prey to those feelings she didn't want to recognize. He felt his eyes rolling, a sarcastic 'girls' resounding in his thoughts. Sometimes they just didn't get it. Although, come to think of it, Danny was being equally dense…
He snapped back to reality when there was the usual rustling of everyone getting their stuff together before leaving class. (Mr. Lancer just couldn't seem to hold his students' attention through those last five minutes). Tucker closed his notebook impatiently, realizing he hadn't written anything down about Leaves of Grass, and apparently on that note they were supposed to write a personalized "Song of Myself" for homework, and he hadn't the faintest idea what kind of song that was supposed to be. (He hoped techno.) Maybe he was getting caught up in Sam's anxiety after all.
The classroom seemed to brighten as the bell rang, the students' dull lethargy replaced by enthusiasm in a heart-beat. Lunch time. Tucker almost smiled, thinking of the BBB sandwich he'd be eating in just minutes (that is, bacon-bacon-bacon), and wasn't even particularly annoyed when Sam stood up and left without talking to him. After all, it was probably best if she wasn't there while he was eating, considering her given mood and the fact that he really wanted to be able to finish his lunch without Sam deciding to commit an act of 'environmental justice' and throwing it out.
But he stopped dead when a familiar figure staggered into the classroom and towards Mr. Lancer's desk. Sam was already at the door, but she backtracked to stand beside him, her grudge forgotten between seconds.
Danny looked awful.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Lancer, I—"
The teacher didn't look up from collecting his papers together on his desk. He simply said, "Just let me know in detention, it'll give you more time to come up with something good." Then he did glance up to cast Danny one of his disappointed looks, and his expression abruptly changed. "Sirens of Titan! Is that bloo—?"
"Danny! There you are. Time for lunch!" Sam said quickly. She grabbed him by the arms and forcibly ushered him out the door. Tucker followed behind, waving to Mr. Lancer and laughing nervously.
"Let me go, Sam," Danny was grumbling when Tucker met up with them outside, "I had a good story prepared already, you didn't have to—" Sam cut him off, scolding though she was obviously upset.
"Danny, do you even realize what you look like right now? I can't believe you came to school like this!"
Danny looked down at himself, surprised. His clothes were the worse for wear, he supposed, and still steaming in some places. The holes in his jeans weren't exactly stylish but he'd made sure they weren't indecent either.
"What's the big deal?" he asked, "Destroyed clothes were 'in', I thought?"
"Destroyed meaning tastefully ripped not smoldering, dude," Tucker informed him. Despite the quip his voice was shaking.
"That's not what I'm talking about," Sam said angrily. Danny flinched when she reached toward him, unable to keep from closing his eyes as her hand tentatively made contact with his face, then traced along his cheekbone with more confidence.
"Look," she said, and now her voice was shaking too.
He opened his eyes to see she was holding her hand up, palm open. He barely seemed to realize what she was trying to say, he could only focus on how weird it was that she had done that: gotten his blood on herself like that, like it was nothing. Sam, with his blood on her hands. It was something Mr. Lancer would have liked to analyze, he was sure, if it had been a scene in some work of fiction or another, but…
Oh. That's what Mr. Lancer had been so shocked about.
"Crap," Danny groaned, hurriedly wiping his arm along the side of his face. "I had no idea that was still bleeding."
"Obviously," Tucker muttered while Sam demanded,
"Why did you even come into class, Danny? You should have at least tried to clean up. We're supposed to keep suspicion to a minimum, remember?"
"If I miss any more of that class then Lancer has a perfect excuse to hold me back a year!" Danny defended himself, almost wildly. A few students walking passed cast the trio awkward glances before going back to ignoring them like usual. Sam was glad that Danny had gotten most of the blood off of his face, though the cut, hidden somewhere in his hairline, had begun to bleed freely again. She bit her lip to keep herself from complaining about that too. For a long time she'd been forcing herself to accept that Danny was going to get hurt every now and then, and if she worried too much she risked sounding like Jazz. Danny thought of her as a sister too much already.
So instead of making a further fuss about his safety, she began to point out, "If you're going to come in looking like that it's better to—"
Danny interrupted. He seemed to come back to his senses and lowered his voice considerably. "Look, we'll argue about this later, right now we've got a huge problem."
Tucker paled. "How huge?"
"Um…" Danny narrowed his eyes, apparently doing some heavy mental number crunching. Then he concluded, "Really, really, really, really huge."
"Ah," Sam and Tucker sighed.
"Because it wouldn't have been nearly as exciting with just one 'really'," Tucker complained, but Danny was already leaving, back out of school to either show or tell them whatever this huge problem was. Tucker and Sam followed him, anywhere, like always.
The Gorge of Amity (usually called just 'the gorge' or 'the Not So Grand Canyon') was less than two miles outside city limits. Teens drove to its edges to drink or make out, and occasionally danger-hungry rock climbers would take advantage of its impossibly steep cliff walls. Most of the time people left it alone though, since it was not particularly attractive as far as natural phenomena went, nor did it come close to sizing up in color and majesty when compared to its Arizonan cousin.
It was a mile from wall to wall at its widest, and half as deep in some places. There must have been a river at the bottom of it at some point, which was something of a mystery since there wasn't one now, and not any known record of there being one since the area was first settled. The temperatures were also mysteriously cold, known to be around 6-15 degrees cooler than the temperature of the nearby city.
Weighed down with his two friends, it took Danny twenty minutes to fly the three of them there. He touched down far from the edge and took a moment to de-ghost and rest. Sam and Tucker regarded the edge of the gorge warily. From here they could see nothing, but already it was colder and a wind swept up and bit through their clothes.
"So…" Tucker interrupted the silence, "When you say 'enormous centipede monster'… what exactly do you mean by that?"
Sam and Danny shot him simultaneous quelling glares. "Sorry," Tucker sighed, "I guess I'm hoping this is a weird joke and we can all have a good laugh and go back to school."
"I guess we know there's something wrong if you actually want to go back to school," Sam pointed out. More seriously she turned to Danny. "Did it say anything to you? Usually guys like this are bent on world domination to some degree, at least. I mean, Undergrowth…" She trailed off. It had been less than a month since the plant ghost had made its assault on Amity. The town, as it was accustoming itself to do already, had quickly lost interest in the mysterious circumstances that had managed to double the plant life in the city and leave a few streets in shambles.
Danny shook his head. "Nope," he said, "Well, I guess I didn't really give it much chance to start a conversation. But it didn't give me one either." He glared down at the thing and reached up to gingerly prod at his head-wound.
Tucker and Sam said nothing, pondering what it could mean that the ghost hadn't talked yet. "Let's get this over with," Tucker sighed, and together they walked the rest of the way.
Despite Danny's best efforts to describe it during the flight over, nothing could have prepared Sam and Tucker for what they saw floating aimlessly along the bottom of the gorge.
It was, in fact, an enormous centipede monster. At least fifty feet long and ten feet wide, its enormous body was divided into bulging, pulsing sections covered in a thin, pearlescent black shell. From their bird's eye view it was impossible to tell which end was the head and which end was the tail, but it was also impossible to miss the legs: there were hundreds, possibly thousands, each three times as long as any of the kids were tall, spindly but alarmingly strong-looking. Its entire body was encased in a familiar, glowing green aura, and despite being quite a distance down they could see from its motion that it was floating, not crawling. Currently it was moving along the bottom of the canyon, occasionally curling back around on itself to change direction as if it wasn't sure which way it wanted to go.
"Holy crap!" Tucker cried as soon as he saw it. He stumbled back a few steps, tripped over a jutting rock and landed hard on his backside. Sam said nothing, but gasped audibly and unconsciously gripped Danny's arm.
"Tell me about it," Danny said blandly, regarding his friends' reactions without surprise.
"I am going to be sick," Tucker said, breathing hard, "Seriously. Look out. I can feel it coming." He leaned over, clutching his stomach.
"I can't believe no one else has noticed it yet," Sam pointed out. She was obviously freaked out but trying to be logical nonetheless. "I mean, it's huge! It is beyond huge, it's—"
"Enormous, I know," Danny agreed tiredly. "My guess is that it hasn't been here for very long. People don't come out here as often in the fall and winter. Too cold."
"But what's it doing?" Sam wondered. She hadn't let go of his arm yet, and Danny didn't comment on it. Their eyes remained glued to the monster below. "And how did it get there? It couldn't have come through the portal, I mean you'd have noticed. Somebody would have noticed!"
"I don't think it did," Danny agreed. "And it seems to be just… I don't know it's just…"
"It's just chilling," Tucker observed, curiously. He'd carefully approached the edge again, and stood nervously beside his friends to watch the creature. So far he'd managed to keep from actually being sick, but with one hand on his stomach he didn't seem to be in the clear of it just yet.
"It is just chilling," said Danny. "I don't think it knows about the city yet. It can fly higher, or it could earlier when I was fighting it, but I guess it doesn't know how to get out of the gorge."
"Then how did it get here?" Sam wondered. "If it's not intelligent enough to find its way out… and it's too big to have gone through the Fenton Portal… I mean, it couldn't have just appeared."
"Stranger things have happened," Tucker mused. But as they looked down on the gigantic, lost-looking bug it occurred to all three of them that very few stranger things had happened.
Before any of them could say anything else, an eerie sound emitted from the creature below. It was somewhere between a hiss and a cry, obviously inhuman and oddly forlorn. Sam found herself immediately feeling sorry for it.
"Aww," she said quietly to herself, before more clearly pointing out, "I think it's lost. The poor thing doesn't know where it is or what to do!"
"Please tell me you do not actually think that thing is cute, Sam!" Tucker cried, aghast. Danny laughed, but clearly on this one he was allying himself with Tucker. Typical.
"I think she does," he agreed, sharing a knowing look with Tucker, who laughed in turn. Sam rolled her eyes and dropped Danny's arm, opting instead to get closer to the edge. She wasn't afraid of heights, but she still felt a touch of vertigo while looking down. It really was very, very far. The creature made the noise again, this time louder, and she heard Tucker's frightened reaction behind her. But in her case it only made her feel more sorry for the thing. After all, it was possible that Danny had attacked first and it had only fought back in self-defense. And making that sort of noise… clearly it was missing something. Probably it wanted to get home. Maybe it had accidentally left behind a whole family of enormous centipede monsters, the poor thing. If they could find out how it had escaped the Ghost Zone, and lure it back in somehow…
She whipped around, something suddenly occurring to her. "Why the heck would you get so close to this thing on your own? …and how did your clothes get all burnt, anyway?"
Danny looked slightly embarrassed, but shrugged. "I don't know, I wanted to check it out. I didn't know the thing was going to launch itself at me! And I got burnt because it spits out acid, or something like it. From its sides. What's that called again…?"
"Secretion," Tucker supplied helpfully.
"Right, whatever," Danny sighed. "Great."
Sam looked down at the ghost again. Well, okay, so apparently it had attacked Danny first, and apparently it secreted acid, but that didn't mean they couldn't still help it somehow.
"What the heck is it doing now?" asked Tucker, suddenly alarmed.
Sure enough the ghost had stopped hissing. Its mouth, which was presumably as huge and unpleasant as the rest of its body, was far more preoccupied with something else. The three teens watched, amazed, as the creature turned toward the cliff wall with sudden resolution and buried its jaws in the stone.
"Maybe it's blind or something," Sam said at the same time Tucker cried, "It's bashing its head in!"
By now Danny stood closer to the edge too, directly next to Sam. "No…" he said, eyes wide. "I think it's… eating. This thing is eating through solid rock!"
The rest of the school day was more unbearably long than usual, and the three teens spent whatever time they could discussing what they had seen that afternoon. Mr. Lancer had been too surprised to officially give Danny detention, but he was still late getting out of school. Dash Baxter, noticing that Danny was eyeing the clock and clearly anxious about something, had made a point to blame his favorite punching bag for knocking over a bucket of fish meant for dissection during last-period biology, ensuring that the smaller sophomore would have to stay after to clean it up. Tucker, who was in the same class, loyally offered to help (which didn't keep him from complaining the entire time).
By the time the two boys caught up with Sam (who had given up on them and started walking home) it was twenty minutes after the last bell.
"Formaldehyde," she said to them accusingly as they caught their breath. "You've been dissecting, haven't you?"
"No," Danny assured her quickly, "Just cleaning up dead fish, not cutting them open."
"Right, we're doing that tomorr—" Tucker began, but dropped it when Danny nudged him. "I mean Danny and I will be doing an alternative assignment. Protesting on moral grounds, you know." He winked and shot a very obvious thumbs up to Danny. Sam rolled her eyes and started walking again.
"You know," she said, "It is just disgusting how they still raise defenseless animals specifically so they can be carved apart by students who don't even care what they're looking at! I mean, do you know how easy it would be to create a computer simulation that would—"
"Sam, you're absolutely right," Danny said soothingly. He knew that letting Sam get much further would put both him and Tucker in danger of getting dragged into yet another one of her schemes to change the school's dissection policies. "But I think right now we should figure out what to do with our creature that's still moving."
"And eating, like, the entire gorge," added Tucker.
At first Sam appeared to want to argue, but then she sighed and conceded. "Okay, you're right. Anyone had any bright ideas since earlier?"
From their expressions she knew exactly what each of her friends was thinking: Danny had thought of any and all ideas possible, but had dismissed all of them as crazy or impossible. Tucker had probably gotten distracted and not thought of a thing. She wasn't much better off, of course, not having had a single viable idea herself. The only thing to do was to thermos the ghost, but how would they get something that big and strong to stay in the beam? Even if they could, somehow, figure out a way to knock it out, Sam was still convinced it was blameless and would rather not end up hurting it.
"Well, glad to see we've all been so productive," Danny sighed after nobody spoke up. They began walking again, mostly in silence which was occasionally broken by half-voiced thoughts and not a few complaints on the situation.
When they reached Danny's house (the destination all three of them had automatically set out for), Danny turned to his friends before they stepped inside. "Okay, look. We're not going to get anywhere on what we know so far, which is basically that this thing is really big, kind of dumb, and apparently likes to snack on boulders. I've got to take some time to watch it."
Sam rolled her eyes. "We'll watch it, Danny. We can take shifts or something, it'll be easier."
"I can get to the gorge faster than either of you, and besides, what if it sees you? It's a lot faster than it looks."
"I can take care of myself," Sam said pointedly. As an afterthought she added, "And so can Tucker!"
"Don't drag me into this," Tucker insisted, laughing nervously, "I'm fully willing to admit that I can't take care of myself." Sam glared at him, but when she turned back to Danny she could tell he was already giving in.
"Okay," he said, smiling a little, "We'll take it in shifts then. I think we should start as soon as possible. The longer this takes, the more likely it is that that thing finds its way into the city."
With that agreement (Tucker reluctantly consenting to the plan), the three finally entered the house. Danny immediately led the way to the kitchen so they could forage some food before closing themselves up in his room for more detailed planning. He grew noticeably nervous when he found his mother there, but relaxed after he saw that she was not, in fact, trying to cook anything. Instead she was seated at the table, dressed in her usual hazmat but with the hood pulled down revealing her short, neatly cut hair. She was completely engrossed in a large book that looked (and smelled, they noticed as they drew nearer) like it was hundreds of years old.
She gave a little start when Danny banged a cabinet shut, having successfully found a bag of chips his father hadn't gotten into yet.
"Oh, hi Danny," she greeted happily. "Tucker. Sam. What are you kids up to today?" All three started to give standard, non-descript answers when she frowned, her eyes sweeping over Danny's appearance. Although he had quickly cleaned up when they got back to school at the end of lunch, his clothes were still the worse for wear.
"What on earth happened to you?" she asked, bewildered. "Didn't I just get you those jeans last week? They're full of holes! And your shirt—"
"Uhm, yeah, but actually. Uh, well…" Danny stuttered to explain. Tucker stepped in smoothly.
"Danny's just being hip," he said easily.
Mrs. Fenton raised an eyebrow. "Hip?" she repeated, a little blankly.
"Right!" Sam picked up, relieved. "That's the new trend, you know. Holes in your jeans, your shirt, your, um… shoes…" She glanced down. Even one of Danny's shoes had a charred hole on the side of it.
"Uh…huh," Maddie said, still sounding a little skeptical. She seemed to be preparing to ask another question so Danny cut her off, hoping to distract her with something she would find more interesting.
"Whatcha reading, Mom?" he asked hopefully.
Immediately her expression changed to one of delight, and she gestured for them to take a closer look at the ancient tome. "It's called Des fantômes du Val de Loire," she told them proudly. "Would you believe I found it at a yard sale? It was written in 1736, and it's a surprisingly scientific account of 105 different ghosts the author found in abandoned castles in the Loire Valley in France. The information seems so accurate, it almost makes me wish I could go. Imagine how exciting it would be if the same ones were still around!"
"Really exciting, Mom," Danny agreed. "Well, we're gonna go do homework, bye!" He ushered Sam and Tucker from the kitchen as quickly as possible. As he had expected, his mother had once more been drawn into the book and didn't bother with any further comments on his clothes, or what they were up to. The three pounded up the stairs and, with a certain amount of relief, shut Danny's door behind them.
"I guess you were right about how I look, Sam," he admitted. Her eyes glinted in an I told you so kind of way, but she managed to keep from saying it out loud.
"Okay," said Tucker, opening the bag of chips and crunching one decisively. Clearly now it was down to business. "So if we're watching this thing in turns, I'll go first. Because honestly I don't want to be caught anywhere near it in the dark." He shuddered. "Is that cool with you guys?"
"Fine," Sam agreed, laughing a little at his unabashed fear. "Then I'm going next."
"I'll take the night shift," Danny said eagerly.
"Not all night?" Sam wondered, ready to jump down his throat again about taking too much onto himself.
Danny, obviously covering up his intentions, said, "No, no way. I'll come wake one of you about half-way through. Guess that's you, Sam, if Tucker's against doing this at night. You can go again in the morning, Tuck."
"And miss school?" Tucker wondered. Danny nodded apologetically, but the action was unnecessary. The next moment Tucker cried, "Score! I mean, if I'm going to skip I'd rather spend the day eating and playing video games, but I guess it's still worth it…"
"I wish I could say the same," said Danny, "My parents will kill me if I have to repeat a class. Actually, if it's Lancer's class I think I'll kill myself."
Sam elbowed him. "Don't say that," she chided. Tucker looked thoughtful.
"How does somebody who's like half-dead already kill themselves?" he wondered. Danny was immediately caught off guard, before looking intensely curious.
"You know, I never actually thought about it. I mean, I assume—"
"Okay, stop," Sam interjected. "I'm all for being morbid, but can we focus on what we're doing? Come on, Tuck, I'll get you a cab."
"Sweet!" he replied happily. "You know Sam, I'm so much happier I'm friends with you now that I know you're rich."
"I'm glad to see our relationship means so much to you," Sam said dryly.
"Hey, Sam," Danny asked before they could leave, sounding ever so slightly nervous. "While Tuck's bug-sitting do you want to… I don't know, do something?"
Tucker apparently got something caught in his throat because he began to convulse in a fit of coughing. Both of his friends promptly ignored him.
Sam said logically, "Well, I don't know. Since we're both going to be up a lot tonight shouldn't we try to sleep?" After thinking for a moment she suggested, "I mean, we could sleep together…"
Tucker's coughing fit intensified, to the point where Sam smacked him on the back and growled, "Oh, shut up, that's not what I mean and you know it!" He continued to snigger, but for the most part subsided.
Danny, who managed to look dignified despite blushing furiously, said, "Sure, sounds good to me. I'm really tired from this morning anyway."
"Okay," said Sam, smiling at him, "I'll be back in a few minutes." She dragged Tucker out of the room just as he started full-out laughing again.
Around 9:30 that night Sam couldn't help but feel a little relieved when she saw Danny's tiny, glowing figure breaking past the city limits and heading straight toward her. Despite her earlier claims that she could take care of herself, of course she couldn't help but feel a little alarmed this close to the creature all by herself. She'd been keeping an eye on it on and off since Tucker's shift had ended that afternoon, but for the moment she was taking a break by crouching behind a large, jutting boulder. That way she was hidden from its view, and it was hidden from hers.
Even so, the glow from the thing made that whole section of the gorge emit a pale, green light like a thousand dying glow sticks. She hoped nobody would notice.
When Danny touched down the first thing she noticed was that he had brought a jacket, and she was immediately grateful. It was early autumn yet, but the nights had started to get pretty chilly. She was especially grateful when she noticed that it was one of his jackets, and slipping it on immediately warmed her up for more than just the obvious reason.
Danny, however, did not seem to sense any importance from the gesture. Instead he immediately turned his attention to the ghost, which was doing much the same as it had been doing all day: wandering around the bottom of the gorge, occasionally emitting some of those terrifying cries, and a little more frequently taking huge chunks out of the rocky sides with a mouth Sam was glad she had only seen once; it was peculiarly round and lined with rows and rows of sharp teeth that did not look like they belonged on a bug. Four red, bulbous, compound eyes surrounded the mouth, but she was still uncertain of what good they were.
"Anything interesting?" Danny asked her. He sounded tired, which she wondered at because presumably he'd been sleeping since that afternoon.
Sam nodded. "Well, it hasn't done anything different, but I think I kind of understand why it's doing this. I mean, obviously it's stuck in the gorge or it would have gotten out by now. Probably it doesn't know that there is anything else outside of it. And I think it's… starving."
"How could it be starving?" Danny asked a little skeptically, "It's been snacking all day."
"I know," Sam pointed out, "But still… those cries… unless that's some kind of weird mating call it sounds like it seems to be really upset about something. And every time it ends up chewing through the sides for a while it always seems really desperate about it. Like there wasn't any alternative."
Danny was quiet for a moment, obviously still skeptical. Finally he said, "I think you are giving this thing way too much credit when it comes to personality."
"I'm just telling you what I think," she defended herself, "If you don't want to hear what I have to say then—"
"I'm sorry," Danny sighed. "I spent the past few hours Googling centipedes, giant centipedes… all those little legs are bound to get to a guy before long, you know?"
Sam rolled her eyes, but relented. "You were supposed to be sleeping," she said.
Danny shrugged, "I couldn't, after you left. I figured I might as well do something useful." He looked down at the ghost thoughtfully for a moment before turning back to Sam. "So you think its eating rocks out of desperation?"
"Yes, I do," replied Sam. She was smiling a little, glad Danny was taking her suggestion seriously.
"I've never heard of a ghost that wanted to eat anything…" Danny said thoughtfully. Sam shrugged.
"Well we already know this thing's not the sharpest crayon in the box. Maybe it doesn't know how ghosts are supposed to be."
"Okay," he said, "So… do you think it might actuallywant something else to eat?"
"It attacked you earlier," Sam pointed out.
Danny nodded. "Okay…" he was frowning, thinking hard, and then suddenly his expression changed to a bright smile. "I'll fly you home and come back here for my next shift."
She allowed him to pick her up. It was only awkward for a second, and then she settled back in his arms, completely comfortable. His body was cold, and she knew the ride would be windy and even more so, but she had his jacket and she felt warm and happy.
"You will wake me up in a few hours, right?" she asked when they were in the air. She didn't have to shout over the wind or anything. Danny was flying slower than usual, and she wondered if it was because she was weighing him down or because he wanted to.
"Of course," he said, a little too casually.
"Danny," she scolded, "I swear, if you do something stupid like spend the whole night watching this thing on your own, I'll—"
He laughed. "Relax, Sam. I'll wake you, okay? I promise."
She didn't smile, and said grudgingly, "Good." Danny laughed again.
When Danny came to wake her up, shaking her gently while urgently whispering her name, Sam thought she might still be dreaming. For one thing he was a ghost and he was floating, but more importantly his face was very near to hers… not touching, but so close that if she sat up at all her nose might bump into his, her lips might…
She remained frozen, pressed against her pillow. Once he saw that she was awake he backed up a bit. He looked both giddy and tired in a way that suggested the former was a consequence of the latter.
"Is it my turn?" Sam wondered. Her voice was still croaky so she cleared her throat. Then as her senses slowly fell out of sleep and into place, she realized that pale sunlight was creeping through her dark curtains. It was morning already! "You didn't wake me up—" she started to accuse him, but he interrupted her. Whatever he had to say he was pretty excited about it.
"I have an idea!" he pronounced triumphantly. Sam groaned softly, too sleepy for Danny's excitement to be contagious. She wiped her eyes and vestiges of yesterday's eyeliner came off on the backs of her hands.
"Danny," she said angrily, "The deal was that I would take another turn. I don't like that you go and do things like that all by yourself. It's like you're protecting me, or something, and you know I don't need—"
"I know, I know," Danny said, impatient, "I'm sorry, okay? Just hear me out. I figured out what our friend likes to eat."
Now Sam's interest was piqued. She sat up and looked at him more clearly. "What?" she asked.
"Meat," replied Danny, a tad smugly. "Last night when I was watching it, it dove into the rocks again a few times, and I thought about what you said, about how it was starving. So I figured I would try to find something else it might like. I went back home and dug around, but you know we never really have anything good. I found something in my fridge. Maybe it was supposed to be a pot roast or something, I have no idea because it was really old and gross at this point. I want to see if the ghost would like it."
"I'm guessing it did," Sam said, wrinkling her nose at the thought.
"It loved it," Danny confirmed. "I mean, the thing went nuts. Even more so than going after the rocks. It was practically the same when it first attacked me. I think what it comes down to is that it will eat anything, but what it wants to eat is meat. I saw something like that on the internet, actually, carnivorous centipedes…" He shuddered. "Remind me not to image search next time, those things are seriously gross…"
"Hm," said Sam. Danny sat down on her bed.
"I was just thinking," Sam replied, her lips quirked, "That I was feeling pretty sorry for this thing. But if it's so desperate to get meat when it can clearly survive by other means, well… I'm not sure I mind all that much if we've got to bash it around a bit."
Danny grinned. "Well good, because a bashing was just what I had in mind."
"How, though?" Sam wondered. "I mean, it's huge. And fast. And it secretes acid. Even if you get close enough to hit the thing, it could just turn around and eat you."
"I know," said Danny, "But I don't plan on being the one to hit it. I was thinking of using something much bigger, say… the side of the gorge?"
He was obviously very excited to tell her the plan he'd come up with, which, according to his reaction, must have been pure genius. Sam raised her eyebrows. "I'm listening."
"It's pretty simple, really," he said casually, "I'll just lead it on a chase, fly down there and get the thing to follow me. I'll go to one side of the gorge, and then fly straight toward the other side. Then, just when I'm about to hit it, I'll phase through the cliff wall, but the bug will smack right into it!"
He looked at Sam like he was expecting her to burst out into applause with enthusiasm. Her actual reaction was fairly chilly. She narrowed her eyes and said, "That's insane."
"No it's not," Danny insisted, looking a little hurt. "I mean, yeah, I guess it's a little insane, but it should—"
"Just how fast is this thing, Danny?" Sam asked. "You were really beat up yesterday." When he didn't reply she pressed, "Do you honestly think you can out-fly it for that long?"
It was apparent that this had occurred to him and he was trying very hard not to let on. "Look," he argued, "I don't know if you've noticed, but humans are made primarily of meat. As soon as that thing discovers the city we're all in huge trouble! So there isn't a choice really, right? The wall of the gorge is the only thing big enough to hit it with, and I'm the only thing that flies to lure it there. It's not like we can get the thing to fly slower."
Sam's eyes brightened in a way he wasn't sure he liked. She threw off her covers and jumped out of bed before going to the window to open the curtains. Sunlight from the just-rising star poured into the room, seeming to fall short of dark painted walls and equally dark furnishings. Her pajamas were matching pants and a tank top which were black with white webs and spiders on them, and Danny couldn't help but notice she looked seriously cute.
"Maybe there is," she said so seriously that he immediately paid attention again, "I mean, I don't know, maybe this would be more dangerous, but I feel like anything is better than you flying right in front of that thing's mouth…" She remembered its fangs, set in circles like all the thing had to do was inhale and anything in its way would immediately be sucked inside and torn to pieces. No, it was much better not to put Danny in that position. "I mean, if you could hold onto the back of it somehow, and fly as fast as you can in the other direction, wouldn't that slow it down? Then we could bait it with something else, easy."
Now Danny looked at her like she was the crazy one. "Like what, the specter speeder? It's got to fly, Sam." A thought suddenly struck him and he said, "Wait, actually that might work. I mean, I may not be faster than the thing, but I could probably slow it down enough for the speeder to out-fly it. We could… we could strap meat to it, or something! Lots of meat. It would be more interested in that then some kid latched onto its tail, right?"
"Right," Sam agreed, smiling that he was following along with her idea even though the idea of using that much meat for anything made her feel a bit sick. Then Danny's face fell.
"Never mind," he sighed, "I've seen this thing in action. As soon as the speeder swerves to avoid the cliff, it'll follow and do the same. That won't work. Unless… unless the speeder crashes!"
"What?" Sam asked, bewildered.
Now it was Danny's turn to jump up excitedly. He started pacing around, and probably didn't notice that his feet weren't even touching the floor as he did so. "I'll hold onto the thing for the chase, and then I'll let go just in time to pull whoever it is out of the speeder. The speeder will crash, the ghost will crash, but we'll be home free! And we'll need a third person to be ready to thermos the thing as soon as it's out."
Sam grabbed one of his arms to stop his pacing, and looked up at him very carefully. "Do you really think you'd be able to make it in time?"
"Of course!" Danny said, brushing her off. "And what else can we do? We have to get this over with as soon as possible." He thought for a moment before brightening. "Tonight. My parents have a job on the other side of town. They'll be nowhere near the gorge, and with them out the house we can steal the speeder."
"Won't they be mad you trashed it?"
Danny shrugged, "Not after I tell them about the ghost. They always get so proud when they catch me ghost hunting." He threw her an ironic smile and she laughed. "Anyway, it'll give my dad an excuse to build a new one. Worst thing that will happen is that I'll be grounded, and it's not like they can keep me in anyway."
For a moment the two teens just looked at each other. It was a pretty crazy plan, they both realized, and it had been concocted a little after five in the morning by a kid who had gotten virtually no sleep and a girl who was a little biased about keeping her friend out of direct danger. Still, it was all either of them could think to do, and the more they visualized it the more the plan seemed like it would be easy.
"So that's it, then?" Sam asked.
Danny nodded, grinning. "Let's go wake Tucker!"
Tucker seemed even less excited about the plan than Sam had been about Danny's original one. When they told him, he pulled his covers over his head like he would be safe from them there. "Oh god," he said, his voice muffled, "That's the craziest plan ever. Are we really doing this?"
"Yep," Sam and Danny replied simultaneously.
Slowly he emerged, eyeing his friends warily as if either of them might attack him at any moment. Then he sighed. "Okay…"
"Good," said Danny, "So, we need someone to play bait and someone to be ready with the thermos."
Tucker sat up, looking more and more unhappy with each passing second. Reluctantly he said, "Well, clearly it's the man's duty to take on the dangerous job… God, I can't believe I'm saying this, but I'll—"
"I volunteer as bait," Sam cut him off.
"No," the boys said together without even looking at her. Sam glared at them.
"Why, because I'm a girl? Look, I know the whole thing seems pretty dangerous—"
"Seems dangerous?" Tucker cut in. "You think a high speed chase with an huge carnivorous centipede with MEAT strapped to your ship only seems dangerous?"
She crossed her arms. "I trust Danny. It'll be fine."
But now Danny looked doubtful. He said, "I don't know Sam. Maybe this isn't such a good idea after all. I mean, we're tired, maybe we should…"
But she was hearing none of it. "What, now you're the rational one? I'm the one who always has to knock sense into the two of you! You thought it was a good idea because it's our only idea. And we have to do something before that thing attacks the city. That means as soon as possible. If you're saying that's tonight, then let's just do it. And anyway," she continued, before either of her friends could interject, "It pretty much has to be me. This isn't just going to be a straight line flight, it's going to take some maneuvering. You know I have better reflexes than you, Tucker." He thought for a moment, probably recalling how thoroughly Sam could thrash either of them at video games, before nodding reluctantly.
Now she turned to Danny. "Let me do this," she insisted.
Danny sighed. "Okay."
Danny figured the hardest part would be actually holding onto the ghost. In the end, he decided the best thing to do would be to strap himself to it somehow. Besides its countless legs, he noticed it had two pincher like parts the stuck out at the back. So he dug out some bungee cord from his parents equipment, and spent much of the day after school learning to very quickly tie a secure knot with just one hand. Meanwhile they gave Tucker the job of getting enough meat. He got discounts at the butcher shop for being a frequent customer, which Sam admitted was useful as much as it disturbed her. She herself hid in Danny's basement, familiarizing herself with the controls of the speeder. It was meant to navigate through the ghost zone, but would work basically the same in the human world. The control panel was a little complicated, but Mr. Fenton had for the most part designed it to function the same way a car did.
Danny had to make the speeder intangible to get it out of the house. They flew to the gorge as soon as Danny's parents had left at sunset, Mr. Fenton babbling excitedly about all the equipment he was bringing along. Danny figured that someone had to be pretty desperate to actually call on his notoriously… enthusiastic… parents to solve a ghost problem, and thought that maybe, after this whole centipede monster business was over with, he would go check it out himself. Then again, he was running only on a three hour nap he had taken the day before, and instead thought maybe as soon as they had dealt with the ghost he would like to pass out on his bed.
With all three of them in position, he took a deep breath, his coil of bungee cord slung over his shoulder, and flew down into the gorge. Tucker had come up with the way he could attach himself to the ghost: first he would throw a pretty big piece of meat in front of it, enough to distract it while he tied himself on. This part of the plan, which he had been worried about the most, went surprisingly well. As soon as the ghost saw—or smelt or however it sensed—the meat it set upon it ravenously, and paid no attention to Danny as he quickly came up behind it and lashed his arm to one of its pinchers. Acid dripped down from its body onto his skin and he hissed when it burnt. He also realized belatedly that this put him in prime range of the other pincher, but there was nothing he could do about that now. He yawned despite the adrenaline coursing through his body, and looked up expectantly to the top of the gorge. Sam had to make her move soon before the ghost noticed what he had done.
She did. She navigated the speeder down into the gorge, executing a few quick turns with precision. Danny was impressed—she really was quite good at that sort of thing. But then he had no more time to be impressed, or in fact think about much of anything, because of course the speeder had been a bit altered for the operation. Thanks to Tucker, about twenty pounds of raw beef and pork had been tied onto it. It was dripping, and pretty darn disgusting, and it caught the ghost's attention immediately.
The centipede launched itself after the speeder, whipping Danny behind it wildly, and for the first few seconds he was too shocked to do anything. Then he realized his mistake, and gritting his teeth he began to fly. At first it seemed like this was having no effect whatsoever and he panicked. Being pulled around so quickly and facing the wrong direction, he had no idea what Sam was up to or even if the ghost had gotten to her already. The thing was still moving, still chasing, so she must still be okay. But she wouldn't be for long if he didn't get this to work. He forced his body to be parallel to the ground, as best as he could tell where the ground was, and flew harder than he ever had before. It was definitely a strain, but besides his arm he couldn't tell what, exactly, he was straining against. Flying came so easily and naturally to him he'd never before had to think about the physicality of it. Now it was taking such a great effort, he wondered how long he would be able to keep it up.
To his immense relief, he felt the ghost slowing down. He focused his tired mind as best as he could on flying in exactly the opposite direction it was trying to take, and sure enough it began to work. But he couldn't let his guard down. He had to pay attention to the exact moment Sam made her move toward the other side of the gorge, because then he would have to phase through his bindings and get her out. He'd been worried about it before, obviously it was a very dangerous part of the plan. But it wasn't until now, when they were finally doing it, that he realized just how difficult it was going to be for him to make it in time. He was too tired, slowing down the ghost was too hard. He wasn't ready.
But he had to be.
Sam wasn't particularly worried when she finally turned to face the opposite edge of the gorge. There was no space for worrying, her entire body was consumed in adrenaline from the chase. She would reach the other side in less than a minute.
This was arguably one of the craziest and most dangerous things she'd ever done. But it didn't matter. She knew she wasn't going to be in the speeder when it crashed, and she knew she certainly wasn't going to end up eaten by the ghost. Danny would come for her. Even now he was probably letting go of the thing and zooming to save her. She pictured it, and in her head it was in slow motion, and maybe a little over-dramatic. Certainly more romantic than the rescue was actually going to be, but she couldn't help it. Any second now she would feel his arms around her, pulling her to safety.
She'd never driven anything much before this, but with the cliff wall drawing nearer and nearer she instinctively wanted to swerve and avoid it.
With one foot firmly accelerating, she took her hands off the controls so she wouldn't.
Tucker was standing in the bottom of the gorge, and far enough away that he saw the crash before he heard it. It had been a safety precaution, positioning him so far away, in case the ghost saw him and got distracted. One moment the speeder was in the air, intact, flying at full speed. The monster was right on its tail. Then it wasn't the speeder anymore, it was wreckage. It had flattened against the cliff wall, shards of glass and metal and plastic leaking off and bounding to the ground. The impact had left it so deeply embedded in the cliff it did not fall right away, and by then it was too late.
The monster had crashed right after it. Its head hit first, and Tucker could see that even then it began to consume the speeder. Then the rest of its body hit, smashing in on itself in a longitudinal wave. Its bulbous skin burst in some places, leaking the disgusting fluid it secreted as pound after pound of flesh followed into the original impact. Its multitude of legs still flailed. And then it wasn't in the air anymore, it was falling, sinking to the floor of the gorge in a series of tremendous crashes.
Tucker saw it all, blankly, like his brain had shut down just enough to keep him from truly feeling the horror he should have been. His eyes fell on the creature, then up to where some of the specter speeder remained smashed into the cliff. It seemed to be emitting a greenish glow, he noted vaguely.
Then Danny and Sam appeared and his thoughts were working again. Danny was a wreck, his costume torn and burnt, and covered in the sticky, burning goo of the creature. He looked like he was doing his best not to get any on Sam. She was unconscious in his arms, her head falling back completely like a new born or a dead person. As he flew nearer Tucker could see that she was bleeding, and most of the right side of her face was swelling, already purpling into bruises. After everything it was this that made him feel ill.
"I didn't make it," Danny told him, sounding confused. "I didn't get there in time." He was holding Sam's body as if it were the most precious thing in the world but he wouldn't look at her.
Tucker was stunned. "She was in it when it hit?" he verified, seeing the crash again before his eyes suddenly in crystalline detail. He looked again toward wreckage that remained. That wasn't something you survived. Danny floated uncertainly, like he was trying to decide whether what had happened was real or not.
"Danny," Tucker said carefully, "Take Sam to the hospital."
His friend's eyes turned sharply to him, startled. He didn't move. It was like he was frozen, like he hadn't understood what Tucker had said.
"Go!" Tucker yelled. And then Danny understood. He turned and sped off as faster as he could back to the city. To safety.
Tucker reached into his back pack and pulled out a Fenton thermose. He still had a job to do. He activated it toward the huge, twitching body of the ghost, wondering if it were really dying or if something like this could even die. Maybe it would regenerate. Maybe with two heads this time, like a hydra. He didn't really care. He stood and allowed the thermos's beam to drag all eight tons of bug guts directly at him, face first, for once not trying to eat anything.
When it was done he put the thermos back in his back pack and looked around. Danny had flown him there earlier, and there didn't appear to be any immediate way of getting to the top again. But Danny was bound to come back, or perhaps someone else would find him. Or maybe he'd be there forever. The sun was finally just about set, he determined from the appearance of the light above the gorge. He stumbled over to a small boulder and sat down.
Danny hardly had enough coherence to come up with a proper story, but he realized it was a testament to how used he was getting to a life of secrets that even as he flew break-neck speed toward the hospital, his mind automatically pulled some explanatory details together. He had wanted to take Sam and Tucker out for a ride on the specter speeder. They'd been chased by the centipede ghost. The crash had been an accident. He and Tucker had got out okay, but Sam was… Sam was…
Hurt. She wasn't dead, which was a relief considering she didn't look very alive. She was warm, and she was breathing, although it seemed a little shallow to him. Flying so fast made it necessary to hold onto her tighter than he thought he should be, and he wondered if he shouldn't have put her somewhere and not moved her, or something. He unwillingly looked down.
The parts of her that weren't injured were very pale, and the wound on her head was extremely bloody. Besides this she might have been asleep. He wished she would wake up, because she would probably think it was really fun and exciting to be flying this fast. If he wasn't so completely bent on his destination, he also might have thought it was fun and exciting. Despite how incredibly exhausted he was, he had never flown faster. Not even when he'd tried to save Sam. Obviously then he had not been fast enough.
"I'm sorry," he said later, to her parents. "I'm so sorry."
The Mansons put a lot of stock in remaining composed and respectable at all times, but now it seemed like they might reach their breaking point at any moment. Their neat, bright clothing stood out sharply under the harsh florescent lights in the dully decorated hospital. Danny's own appearance was even more unkempt than it had been earlier, but now he had an excuse.
"What were you even doing at the gorge?" Mrs. Manson demanded. Tears were streaming down her cheeks, although her make-up remained perfect in spite of this, and her voice was quivering. She was clinging to her husband, and both were keeping a safe distance away from Danny, like he might explode at any moment. "It's dangerous, Samantha should have known not to go there!" she cried.
"We… we followed the ghost…" Danny fumbled. His mind and body were both completely exhausted. His own parents were on their way to pick him up, but for now he was stuck. It would have been so much easier just to tell the truth, but he couldn't. Sam wouldn't have wanted that, he told himself.
Then, stop thinking like she's dead!
"You followed a hundred foot centipede out of the city?" Mr. Manson asked incredulously. His face was bright red from anger, and Danny ignored the exaggeration. "Because I didn't hear anything about something like that. Someone else would have—"
"No," Danny agreed, frantically searching for another explanation. He wished Tucker were here to help him out. Tucker, he realized. He'd left his friend back at the gorge, alone. Hopefully he was okay. The thought made him wince. He was not taking very good care of his friends today, and that was the understatement of the century.
"No," he said again. "We followed a different ghost, um… Danny Phantom. The centipede was in the gorge though, and it attacked us."
At his last words Mrs. Manson gave up trying to hold it in and sobbed outright, burying her face in the sweater her husband had tied around his shoulders.
"I'm… I'm sorry," Danny said again. He didn't know what else to say. He needed to get away, but he felt completely trapped. The lights seemed to be getting brighter, the walls closing in on him. It was only when white spots began to appear in his vision that he realized he was not far from passing out himself…
"Sorry isn't going to bring our daughter back," Mr. Manson said coldly. Before Danny could interject again, he snapped, "Don't even tell me, young man. The only reason Samantha was anywhere near those ghosts is because of you! You and your freakish family. It's all your fault!"
Mrs. Manson cried louder.
It is my fault, Danny knew. It was my idea. It's all my fault.
"I'm sorry!" he said, drawing closer to them in desperation. "I didn't want this to happen. Especially not to—"
The next moment he was flat on his back on the cold floor. He wondered if he had finally just toppled over as he had felt like he might the entire time, but then he realized that Mrs. Manson had actually shoved him away from them. He was unsteady enough that the blow had sent him to the floor. Two nearby hospital personnel ran over as if to restrain her but she shook them off and looked down at Danny unapologetically. "Just leave us alone, freak!" she snarled, "If our daughter survives this somehow, you will NEVER come near her again, understand? Not you, not Tucker, not your family. You will leave us alone, and you will leave our daughter alone!"
…Leave? …Leave Sam?
Danny knew he should wait for his parents, somewhere in the back of his head, but he hardly noticed when he got back on his feet and ran. Neither of the Mansons tried to stop him. They were probably glad to see him go.
It was completely dark when he got back to the gorge, probably cold though he couldn't really tell in his ghost form. He couldn't get certain images out of his head. The doctors pulling Sam from his arms when he couldn't seem to let go, the reproving look they'd given him as if they knew it was his fault. Mrs. Manson's anguished expression when she and Mr. Manson arrived. Her anger lashing him when she told him what he already knew: that Sam wasn't waking up. And Sam. Beautiful Sam, looking pale and beaten on a stretcher. Looking dead on a stretcher.
When he reached the gorge he wondered if he shouldn't just let himself crash into the cliff wall too, like Sam. Like he'd let her.
Then he saw it, right on the cliff wall where the speeder had crashed. Circular. Glowing in the night, emitting a hyper green fog that dissipated quickly upward. He stopped short mid-flight, watching it as if mesmerized. It didn't make sense, for it to be here. Nothing about the afternoon could have led to its creation. It didn't make sense. You couldn't eat between dimensions. It did not make sense.
Tucker was shivering, his knees pulled tight to his chest and his head bowed. Staring, Danny landed next to him, wondering what he could say.
"I'm sor—" he began, but Tucker cut him off. He pointed a finger, shaking with cold, to the glowing patch of cliff wall. To the ghost portal that, against all reason, had appeared there. His teeth were chattering.
"I think we have a problem," he said.
There was an awkward silence as Danny's voice trailed off at the end of the story. They were both sitting on the couch by now, having finished cleaning up the mess in the kitchen. Danny had talked on and on, and she hadn't interrupted once. They'd worked together without looking at each other, and then moved to the living room. The couch was still uncomfortably stuffed with weapons, but Samantha supposed it was the sort of thing you got used to. They sat so far from each other they were practically at the opposite ends.
"Thank you for telling me," Samantha said at last. Her throat felt dry, like she'd been the one talking the whole time.
"I should have told you right away," Danny pointed out. He smiled, amused, but it wasn't the cheerful sort of smile Tucker always seemed able to call up. It was bitter. "I should have told you three years ago."
"You should have," Samantha agreed. She stood, and so did Danny.
"You can… you can still stay here," he offered, and then quickly added, "You know, if you want to."
"It's okay," she said coolly, "I'm going to go sleep in my own room. I need to think." This was a lie, of course. She had no intention of returning home where her parents would find her. Still, she wasn't sure she could bear the awkward tension between her and Danny any longer.
She hurried towards the door without even saying goodbye. It felt good to know what had really happened, no matter how incredible the story seemed, but it hadn't exactly cleared up how she felt. If anything she was more confused now. She couldn't help but feel sorry for Danny, the way he had told it. Not that he had said anything that was meant to cater her pity. Rather he'd told it straight, factually, reporting his and Tucker's reactions but not commenting on them like it was all something from a text book. And it was for that very reason that she felt sorry for him. But it didn't mean she also didn't feel sorry for herself.
Before leaving, she couldn't help but ask. It's not like this could get any more awkward, she encouraged herself, Might as well now while he's being honest. "Danny, before… were we…? You know."
Danny had been eyeing the floor while she made her hasty exit, but now he met her eyes. The question hadn't surprised him. In fact, he didn't seem to have reacted at all.
"No," he said expressionlessly. "We weren't."
"Oh," she replied, because there wasn't really anything else to say. She left, and closed the door quietly behind her. Somehow, leaving Danny inside by himself felt awful, like she was abandoning him. But hadn't he abandoned her for three years?
"Sam!" It was Tucker. He was floating along just above the sidewalk. Sam descended the porch stairs and stood next to him, at which point she abruptly realized they were roughly the same height. She noticed for the first time (having been previously distracted by the fact that he was a ghost more than anything else) that Tucker looked younger than he should have, but that made sense, didn't it? His ghost had been ripped out of his fifteen year old body, and he would be eighteen by now. She recognized that she was distracting herself from more important matters, and greeted him.
He looked relieved, and Sam realized that although the air had been somewhat cleared between her and Danny, the last Tucker had seen of her she'd claimed to be a different person and stormed off.
"I'm sorry about earlier," she said. "I wasn't serious. About going back, I mean."
"I know," Tucker grinned. He hadn't, really, and he was extremely relieved to see Sam peering at him from under Samantha's choppy bangs.
She thought about asking him about all that Danny had told her. Maybe Tucker could shed some more light on the situation, help her to better understand how she was feeling… And then she realized how very much of the day she had spent running, and how much she had to think about already. Exhaustion set in quite suddenly, and she said, "Look, my parents are back in town. I can't go home. Do you think…" she trailed off as she realized she didn't know whether or not Tucker even had a home in the city any more, let alone if it was somewhere he could take her to stay. Probably anyone would be weirded out if their dead, teenage son brought home a girl asking if she could sleep over…
So she was surprised when he simply said, "Sure, I know just the place." Without warning he scooped her up like he had earlier, and together they flew off.
Valerie looked sleepy and surprised when she opened the door and found it was Samantha who had been knocking.
"I'm here too," Tucker whispered, his voice coming from the thin air beside her. "I didn't want to freak out your neighbors."
"Thanks," Valerie replied, rolling her eyes. "What do you guys want?"
"I need somewhere to stay," Samantha asked directly before Tucker could ask for her. Valerie looked even more surprised.
"You mean you're not going back to Miss Priss Prep School, or wherever?"
Samantha smiled at the name which, in her opinion too, was quite accurate. "No," she said simply.
"And can you keep this on the DL from Sam's parents? Oh, and Danny?" Tucker asked hopefully. Valerie frowned. Probably she was not accustomed to keeping secrets from Danny. Still, she sighed and opened the door wider to let the other teens in. Her father had left for work an hour or so before, so the apartment was empty. Samantha, with her best effort, did not stare at the less-than-exquisite décor. She had never been in such a shabby living area in her life, as far as she knew.
"You can have my room, as long as you don't touch anything," Valerie said grudgingly after Tucker had left. She led the way across the main area of the apartment, which was both a kitchen and living room, and to one of the closed doors on the other side. "I'm going out in a few hours anyway."
"Out?" Samantha wondered. She couldn't hide her curiosity as well when inside Valerie's room, which was as small and shabby as the rest of the apartment and crammed almost floor to ceiling in some places with what was obviously very sophisticated ghost technology.
"Patrolling," Valerie replied. "You know."
She was currently dressed in blue cotton boxer shorts and a white tank top with a heart on it, her feet securely tucked in furry pink slippers. Even so, Samantha easily believed it was the same girl she had first met flying around in battle armor. Her expression was defiant, like she was daring Samantha to pick a fight.
But Samantha, who found she was quite exhausted and that her head was spinning as if she had been hit with, say, the side of a cliff, found she was only grateful towards the other girl.
"Thanks, Valerie," she said, "This is really cool of you."
This seemed to catch Valerie off guard. "Whatever," she shrugged. She pulled one of the blankets off of her bed and dragged it along behind her as she went out the door, presumably to sleep on the couch. Before she closed the door behind her she said, as if out of habit, "Good night, Sam."
Samantha, who so far had not quite minded when Tucker or Danny called her by the ugly nickname, found that for some reason this time it didn't bother her when Valerie did it either.
"Good night, Val."
To be continued…
Post A/N: ….OMGZ. So there you it. I'm sure that was all very contrived and nonsensical, but hey. Weird stuff happens to these kids all the time. In this case it just happened to go horribly wrong.
As I mentioned before, there is only one more chapter left to this story. …unless it goes really, really long and I'm forced to split it into two chapters. (Which I should have done with this one—it's 24 pages, sheesh!) However, there is very probably going to be a sequel. I wasn't sure whether I wanted to go through with it or not, because once I get back to school writing is probably going to be sloooow going again and that's frustrating for both you and me. But then I started getting all these ideas and, well, I just really want to do it! So hopefully we have that to look forward to, but in the mean time…
(Super thanks to: Devilchild93, Talia Ali, A, LaRosa, dessyweird51, otakualways, storycrazy22, theLilyLady, YumeTakato, KHFREAK14, Chaos Dragon, Kovva, Kaydreams, and Xweetok!!)
NEXT TIME: Sam confronts her parents, and the kids confront Vlad! …sort of!