"I've been through hell with some of the ghosts I've fought. They're not too gentle, you know? But whenever I had to fight them, whenever the fight ended, it ended. That was the last of it. I'd never have to look back if I didn't want to. I always thought I was kind of strong…being able to do that." I twisted my fingers together. It was becoming a bit of a nervous tick. Strong? Yeah right. "This time was different. I needed to come back home, back here, after everything that happened and act like nothing had. That kind of strength, the kind I needed to do that, I just didn't have…"
Silence. Why had it gotten so silent now? I was tired. I was fading. But the silence didn't let me stop. Something about it pushed me on.
"The mind games. The aftermath. The nightmares. It was anything but over. It had gotten bigger, worse, from that day on, because I didn't know how to deal with everything. I never had that kind of strength. Instead I just curled in on myself, convinced myself that I was all that mattered. I tried shutting everyone out. Evading rather than facing. And I tried shoving ghost fighting as far out of my mind as possible. I was hurting people. I get that. But even now…I don't know what I could have done differently." I glanced down at my fingers and steadily unwound them. "I'm sorry."
"You don't have to apologize…" Tucker whispered. "We got that from day one. It was a lot. No one could have handled it."
"Tucker and Sam did try to help. Jazz too." I glanced at my parents for just a moment, but still I could barely look at either of them. "But there was really only so much they could do without me. I didn't even try to help. I just sat back and watched them get hurt. I didn't know what to do. I couldn't think about anyone other than myself at the time. It made me angry that I was shoving off all my responsibilities, but I just let the feeling fester. Never did anything to change it."
"You know you couldn't have." Sam inched a bit closer to me. "Besides, Mr. Masters offered his help not too long after…It really saved us" The bitterness was almost absent from Sam's tone, but still she didn't bother facing him when she spoke. Her attitude seemed much lighter now, possibly since he saved my life.
The thought still stung a bit.
"Vladdie…how long have you known?" Dad's voice barely carried across the room. Still weak. Still immensely hurt.
"Pre-existing circumstances led me to discover your son's double identity. When Phantom disappeared from Amity Park, I made the connection to Daniel and got the information from him."
I had to hand it to Vlad, the guy was good at dodging questions.
"And you helped him after that?"
Vlad shifted a bit, almost uncomfortably. "…Yes."
"Thank you…" The sounds barely made it to my side of the room. "Thanks for looking out for him when I didn't. You're a good friend."
Now wasn't the time to laugh at the irony.
"After Vlad took over it lifted a lot of the burden off our shoulders." Tucker shrugged, like he was brushing off the comment. "He kind of got things under control."
A stab of guilt hit me in the chest. Under control. After I practically begged him over the phone. That was after Johnny's shadow demolished their house. After the irreversible damage had already happened.
"Mom, Dad, the police asked you for help with the death of the little girl and her family a few weeks ago, right?" I could practically feel Tucker and Sam stiffen in their seats. "I know the ghost destroyed the house and killed them, but the son survived, right? What happened to him?"
They skipped a beat, and the silence was able to drown me for just a moment.
"He's in foster care I think. There's an aunt a couple states over who's trying to submit the paperwork to adopt him. He might be living with her by now." Mom's voice was still strained, but a tentative carefulness had crept into her tone.
"That's good then…" I trained my eyes on my feet, shuffling them a little bit. I could still feel the rest of the room staring at me, everyone's eyes digging into me. God I hated it.
"Danny, you don't blame yourself for that, do you?" The carefulness had been replaced with clear worry, only adding to the torture in her voice.
"Well that ghost, I…I mean it…" I could feel the desperation seeping into my voice. "I've fought that ghost before. A bunch of times. I can defeat it easily. If I'd been there maybe they wouldn't have…"
I was cut off mid-sentence, eyes still on my feet, by two slight blue arms wrapping around my body. My head shot up in shock. They were wrapped gently around my shoulders, careful to avoid my cut up chest. I felt frozen, my eyes wide, brain reeling, but with a second to think, to really feel the warmth and softness against my body, I gave into it. Ever so slightly I leaned my weight against her, hot tears pricking behind my eyelids.
"No, it's not your fault. You've been so strong…and so selfless…" Her body was shaking, her voice trembling. "I can't watch you blame yourself for this. This—everything—is my fault. I caused all this. I can't imagine how strong you've been through all of it, but it's…it's unimaginable. I'm just so sorry."
Slowly, tentatively, I wrapped one arm around her back, leaning closer into her hazmat suit. So this is what it felt like. This is what I was missing. I raised the second arm and snaked it around her back, feeling her body shake with uncontrolled sobs. I missed this. I missed being close to her. She's Mom. And I missed her.
I nearly missed it when Dad pushed himself off the couch as well. His movements were cautious, still like the lost little puppy I found when I came home, but slowly he made his way across the room, bending down beside Mom. He rested one bulky hand on my shoulder, and even with the tiny amount of contact I could feel how much his body was trembling.
"Please, we never meant it…" His voice was still small, but he whispered so close to my ear that his words came out clear. "We still love you. We always loved you. We caused all this, and you're suffering for our choices. Someday…" The desperation in his voice nearly broke something inside me. "Someday can you forgive us?"
I unwove my left hand from Mom's waist, turning the palm toward me and placing it on Dad's hand. His fingers still trembled, resting lightly on my shoulder. Could I have their love back? Could I have my life back? Could I look back on this someday and just forget, just let it go?
"Yeah…" I whispered. "I think I can do that…"
It's been three weeks since they found out. I was bedridden until yesterday, and the muscles in my legs could hardly support themselves when I tried to stand. I'm getting better at it though. It's painful, definitely, but I'm trying to get as much use of my freedom as I can before my surgery tomorrow. The doctors need to replace the missing ribs with metal substitutes. I at least won't be at risk of puncturing my heart on table ledges after that. Well I was never really at risk of that beforehand, you know, bedridden and all. I don't really care for the doctors. It hate that they're constantly hanging over me like vultures; it just gives you the sense you're going to drop dead any minute when they refuse to leave you alone at any point of the day. I hate it more that I'm stuck in some secret personalized hospital Vlad had built for himself. The green and gold décor makes your eyes burn after about the second day.
The alternative would have been the lab, which—yeah, just no thanks…
Mom sent a note to the school saying we're dealing with a family emergency, so I've been told. She might have upped it to mono after about the two week mark of me being gone from school. At least that way Jazz was able to return to her classes. She told me she didn't mind missing, but you don't have to know my sister as long as I have to realize that's a lie.
The weirdest part is probably dealing with "Nurse Vlad" on frequent occasion, mainly because the doctors only take orders from him. I still can't decide if it's funny or unnerving seeing him show up in hospital booties and sanitary gloves. I'm leaning more toward the creepy side.
Sam and Tucker practically live here. I can tell the doctors don't like them, which I kind of consider a personal victory, since I really don't like the doctors. I try to tell them they can go home and actually have lives, but Tucker tells me he has nothing better to do and Sam gleefully reminds me she hates her family. I don't think that's quite true, but I won't argue against their company. Trust me, there are plenty more multi-player card games than single, and there is very little else I'm authorized to do here. Once I graduate I'm moving to Vegas, I've decided. It's amazing how much three weeks of nonstop poker can really improve your skill. Sam tries to remind me I should at least be trying to catch up on the school work I've been missing, but I assure her Jazz's daily tutoring sessions are at least equal to a full day of school, if not more. I've actually been trying a little harder with my English work.
Kind of speaking of which, I got a phone call the third day of my stay here, a private number to my cell phone I had to be authorized to answer. Mr. Lancer sounded almost surprised on the other end when I picked up. He started fumbling over himself, starting with how unacceptable it was for a teacher to be contacting a student using their cell phone, but he got to the point eventually. After my third day of absence he was getting worried that something happened with my parents. Apparently he found my cell phone through emergency contacts the school keeps for the students. He seemed relieved when I explained I was okay, and what happened. He said he was glad to know I was doing better.
Mom and Dad come in a lot. Almost as much as Sam and Tucker, but they keep their distance when my friends are over. It's still hard to be in the same room with them, especially alone (save for the damn surveillance doctors) but they're trying. They're definitely trying. I am too. I don't know if things will ever be the same—I doubt it. But if I work off the knowledge they still love me, if I remind myself every chance I get that they regret everything they did, it's easier to try to forgive. There's still some dark part of me deep inside that wants to see retribution for what they did, but that voice gets quieter every day. I think it's been replaced with poker strategies in all honesty. Hopefully someday it'll just be gone.
As reports from Sam and Tucker go, Dash is still scared shitless at the sound of my name. Tucker's invented a game of passing by Dash's gang and loudly musing, "I think Danny's coming back in a day or so," and silently cracking up at the reactions. Dash's is always the best, he says. Paulina puts on a show for him, but Tucker says that's only because they're dating now. Sam says it won't last three days. Either way, he's clearly shared stories with the football players, but the rumors haven't spread any farther. No one's inclined to believe the guy who got a D on his recitation of the alphabet (apparently a spontaneous assignment Lancer gave him when he caught Dash whispering about me in class. I have to remember to thank him for that one.) The jumpy, neurotic state he's in nowadays seems to have taken away all his street cred. Tucker thinks I could just look at him in the hallway and he'd be too scared to ever speak my name again. On the flipside of that, there are rumors going around that I was able to best Dash, like beat him up or something. That should be fun, at least for a little while, once I get back to class. In all honesty I just want to see his face. Just once. Even Sam finds it a little funny.
I've been given a bit of free roaming privileges for the day, so long as I'm not caught outside the building. I've assured the doctors, as I swear on my life, Danny Fenton will not be caught outside this hospital. Good, they usually say, you're not allowed out anyway. It seems they don't pick up on the loophole of my statement. I tried it yesterday, for the first time in three weeks, I went ghost. I didn't know what to expect, possibly the horrible, searing pain that's accompanied each transformation to date, but logic went against that. My two halves were fused now. The unbearable pain of the first two weeks in this hospital was the pain from my ghost half, and it was slowly subsiding. I transformed right there. Suddenly lighter than air. A familiar chill running through my body. It felt good. No, actually it felt great. I think I broke into a fit of mad chuckling until the new doctor came in on her watch and I transformed back before she saw. That was the only alone time I had, the gap of time between the doctors' shifts.
I asked Sam to bring me a bouquet of flowers yesterday. She asked what for, and I said nothing. They've been hidden under my bed since. I wait in bed now, fiddling with a deck of cards in my hands, until the doctor on watch rises from her seat, stretches a bit, and walks out of the room. They don't even make for good conversation. I probably have thirty seconds at best, so I transform, phase a hand through the bed and grab the flowers, and, careful not to strain my chest, I rise up into the air. I phase through the roof and like that, I'm gone.
Flying! Oh God I almost forgot the feeling. It's so freeing I almost lose myself in the sky. Flips and turns. Fly faster. Break the sound barrier. God that sounds nice right now. But I catch myself before I act on the thought. I'm still injured, badly injured, and I can't screw up the one opportunity I have to do this.
I pass over rooftops and streets, and I wonder for a moment if anyone sees me. It's been nearly two months now since Phantom disappeared. Does anyone see me in the air now, suddenly back after two months of absence, with a bouquet of flowers in my hands of all things? I go invisible just to be safe,
I find my destination quickly, and I settle into the budding grass just growing from the ground. I twist the flower stems in my hand for a moment, then cautiously, I set them down in front of the head stone.
"Hey," I say to the grave, but it doesn't answer back. I would hope not; I'm not in ghost fighting condition yet. "I figure I ought to come by sooner or later to pay respects."
The tombstone stares back silently, its engraved lettering catching in the noontime sun. Rachel Kleinbard. Her birthday was January 10th, her deathdate mirrored it. January 10th. I do the math between the years, just four years old. The images play through her mind. The little girl sticking four, chubby, frosting covered fingers to the camera. A smile stretching wide across her face. I'm…FOUR now!
Her parents' headstones flank hers on either side, and I pull a rose for each from the bundle and dropped it on their graves. Melanie and Jonathan Klienbard. 29 and 36 respectively.
"I'm sorry this happened…" I whisper to all three graves. "I'm sorry I wasn't able to prevent it." I glance around, but the graveyard is empty. "I looked into it. Your son, Tommy, he's with his aunt now, if that makes you happy to hear." I'm still met with no response. I don't know why I keep pausing like I'm expecting one. "I'm sorry you were the victims of this. I'm sorry I couldn't be stronger for everyone. None of this should have happened." I feel a few loose tears poking at my eyes, and I brush them away. "I'm getting better now. Stronger. I'll be back soon hopefully. And I promise to you, to the three of you and Tommy, I won't ever let this happen again." The wind picks up, and the wrapping paper holding the bouquet together rustles with the breeze.
(A/N: So yeah, that's the end. I guess I'll just say I had a lot of fun writing it. All the reviewers have been great encouragement and inspiration, so thanks to each and everyone of you. This story revived a passion for writing I forgot I had. Thank you all )
(Edit: Okay, so I decided to go reading through all my reviews start to end as kind of a celebration thingy and—holy crap! I forgot how freaking kind you people are! I'm not three pages through and I remember entire weeks I spent last year just floating around in a giddy haze because I've never been complimented so much in all my life. It's just such a fabulous feeling reading through all your kind words—like seriously no words. I honestly didn't think I could ever write anything before I started writing this. It was freshman year of high school and I had more important things to do than write. I never thought I was that good. But thanks to this story and to all of you people I've picked it up with a passion. Really, I know I went on a bit of a hiatus with this story, but I'm back at full throttle. It picked me up through some darker times. The happiness this story, and all of you, have brought me is indescribable. So thank you all, from the bottom of my heart, you make a little girl happy. :D)