The family sat around the two card tables that had been set up in the living room of their home and covered half-heartedly with a paper table cloth resembling one that might be used at a child's birthday party—it was yellow with metallic blue and red balloons—because they did not own anything that might have been more appropriate, and the irony of this struck the Fenton's with a fierceness that could only be described as being alien—it should not have been strange that this small town family be virgin to such unyielding pain, but they felt as though there was fault lying in them for being so inexperienced as they were. One might wonder, however, how one could want to be granted the know-how of something so untouchably morbid, for it was not as if they were climbing Everest or toying with medical advances in the field of cancer; they could not say they would have packed warmer clothes or paid more attention to a specific piece of information sooner—rather, they were regretting their abandonment of their late son, which was something they could not undo or do over, and would inevitably lead to his relatively mysterious death in the depths of the lake that bordered their little town, like them, very virgin to such tragedy. No, the parents should not wish this pain upon themselves, but in the midst of a death one can only wish they'd tackled the sorrow they now felt prior so their suffering might be minimized. And this, perhaps more strongly than they desired anything else—other than the return of their son, of course—the Fenton's did.
At the table with them was their daughter, Jazz, whose hair was tousled, her signature blue headband abandoned. The dark eye makeup she'd applied prior to the funeral was now smeared across her cheeks in long black streaks; her red lipstick had run, and all that remained was some that had caked in the crevices of her abnormally dry lips. She still wore the black dress she'd donned in the early hours of the morning, but now her bra-straps had slid down her soft shoulders and her skirt was disheveled so that her panties—solid-colored and painfully simple, because she was not the type of girl to spend hundreds of dollars on undergarments as her schoolmates Paulina and Star might—were rendered exposed. The pantyhose she wore had long runs down their length, because her fingers could not be controlled as she watched her baby brother being committed to the earth in a short metal coffin; it seemed that by raking her well-kept but unmanicured nails across her thighs she was retaining something that resembled restraint, which she practiced continuously and which would keep her from jumping out of her seat and lunging at the coffin with her arms open in a pathetic attempt to prevent its impending descent into the cold, worm-ridden ground.
The girl's eyes were bloodshot, and behind the veil of hardened makeup her face was red from hours of ceaseless weeping. Now, however, they were dry and her face was sullen, overcome with exhaustion, because she had, upon returning from the cemetery, taken a sedative at the request of Vlad Masters, and had retreated to her bedroom to sleep for almost four hours. Her mother had done likewise; Jack, however, had sat up with Vlad at the kitchen table, staring down at the piles of photographs which derived from the bulk of the his dead son's life and swallowing beer at an alarmingly rapid pace—especially if you were to consider that Jack Fenton had not touched a drop of the stuff since he'd been in college. Vlad had; he drank heavily after every football game he'd ever attended, whether the Packers came away victorious or with a disappointing loss beneath there belt, and therefore was able to swallow the alcohol Jack willingly offered up with ease, although he'd promised himself that he would not have more than five (by the fifth, he could begin to feel the alcohol consuming him) so as to avoid becoming drunk and doing something that would hinder his plans—say, laughing about the ease at which they'd conceived the idea of the boy's death, or how shocked Daniel would be when he woke up in another fifty years, disoriented and horror-stricken but physically unaltered. He would not surpass this limit he'd set for himself, even though they remained in the kitchen for at least three hours and surrounded by at least forty bottles of good beer, reminiscing in the memory of their deceased son and nephew.
Vlad had not planned originally to reside at the Fenton home to take part in the residual grief of that week's events, because the sight of his beloved Maddie in such undiluted pain was one that induced a kind of sadness of its own, but he was also bestowed with the knowledge that if it were not for his presence, the family would lapse into something of anarchy; there was no telling what Jasmine and Maddie might do if left to their own devices, and Vlad knew that a sullen Jack would be in no condition to prevent them from doing what they willed. Vaguely, Vlad could see Maddie running to the cemetery in the late hours of the night, insisting that her son was not dead as she had since she'd first laid eyes on his unmoving body on a metal slab in the mortuary and that he should be exhumed. More disturbing, he saw the events of the coming days playing out as those in the novel by Stephen King, Pet Sematary—though Jack had been carried into a state of calmness by countless bottles of beer, there was no certainty that his pain had not driven him into something of madness and that he wouldn't attempt to penetrate the too-bright green turf that had been planted on Danny's burial plot with the blade of a shovel and remove him from the earth. Though such an idea seemed grossly disrespectful, it was not implausible by any means—Vlad knew better than anyone how the limbic system walked hand-in-hand with undying grief and caused the body to act as it might never normally. And of course, if the man were to tamper with the intricately constructed hardware he'd placed beneath the boy's skin—if it came into contact with any foreign substance such as metal (it was like a magnet, in reality) or shifted in the slightest, it would certainly malfunction—Daniel might regain consciousness. And of course, if this were to happen, not only would his plans for the future be crushed into pieces that would be too small to be put back together again, but he would be charged with murder—Danny's body had, after all, been "examined" by a coroner he'd employed (or so he told the Fenton's, but in truth he had been the only one to touch the body, even taking pains to dress him in a silk suit he'd ordered from India which would not irritate his hardware and make him look really very stunning at the same time, while the mortuary simply provided for a convincing backdrop) . He was certain that Danny's powers would also be discovered if they were to find that he was alive, because the hardware was a compilation of the boy's genetic make-up—he had, of course, finally decoded the DNA of Daniel's mid-morph but was no longer appeased by the idea of creating a clone—and anyone who possessed this information would be bestowed with the secret of his alias, and his own, as well, because in the process of creating the hardware that had enabled his plan to work so flawlessly he had implemented some of his own DNA to stabilize Daniel's; he knew that Danny was still inexperienced in that he had not achieved complete mastery of his powers and often struggled to keep them from emerging unconsciously, and he had theorized that introducing some of his own (more stable) DNA would minimize the possibility that the boy's ghost powers would act up and he might, say, turn intangible as he lay in his coffin before the sea of family and friends that had come to mourn his untimely death. Of course, this was less than ideal, because Vlad had come to learn—painfully throughout the entirety of his days since that fateful night in the lab with Jack and Maddie—how closed-minded society was to such deformities, and they would surely be hunted. To ensure that the boy stay in his box should he wake up to eliminate all chance of such a thing unfolding, Vlad had built Danny's coffin with a sort of ecto-repellent, but in reality the man did not think it would be an issue; the hardware, along with the task of monitoring his heart-rate and breathing, was implemented with the sleep-inducing substance Vlad had harvested from a ghost named Nocturne, who specialized in the subject of sleep and possessed the vivid power to lull any being he chose into unconsciousness with his rather advanced technology. If he'd come to understand the ghost well enough, the hardware Nocturne used sent signals to the brain which fooled the neurons into believing it was time to retreat into sleep no matter how light or warm it may be outside; the one being put to sleep, Nocturne had quickly admitted when faced with another of Vlad Plasmius' energy-blasts, could only be woken when the hardware was reprogrammed with such instructions.
"Sometimes one is strong enough to overcome this power and awaken when they please," Nocturne had told the sour-faced man who stood before him, his hand glowing a bright fuchsia. "It does not happen often, but I have seen it."
Upon taking this into consideration, he'd revamped the coffin, but the unease that had formulated in his rather compulsive mind at the consequences of Daniel's escape did not subside for quite some time, and though it was less than ideal, Vlad realized that it would perhaps be best to keep an eye on Jack and kin and the burial plot of his favorite half-ghost—like every other aspect of the funeral, he'd financed the gravestone, purchasing the most beautiful and in ordinance with what he believed Danny would have liked best if he had really been a corpse, and though he knew it was a considerable amount of money to spend on something that was nothing more than an elaborate play, he also knew that the love he would gain in the end was worth more than any amount of money the world could offer—until the death had blown over…or he'd been in the ground long enough for his mother and father to give up any hope that he might still be alive. Of course, it would be a long several weeks of donning a mask of faux grief constantly, of playing homemaker while the Fenton's recovered, but if it meant getting the one thing he wanted most in this miniscule world we live, he would.
"I'd like to propose a toast," he said now, standing up from the folding chair in which he sat with his plastic cup of lemon-lime soda in hand. Raising it, he continued softly, "To Daniel."
Jazz and Maddie remained unmoving but nodded in agreement, their faces showing no trace of emotion now. Jack raised his plastic cup of root-beer—like Vlad, he'd made himself a drinking promise as well—he would not consume it in front of them—and nodded. "To Danny," he murmured, and he, too, was void of all emotion.
Because they were all looking down at the picture that had been placed on the table of Jazz pulling Danny in a little red wagon when they'd both been very young, Vlad Masters found he could unleash the smile he'd been suppressing since dinner had begun with great difficulty; trying to keep from chuckling, however, was a much more difficult matter, and it would not go unseen, but he managed to speak without committing such an offense: "Our little badger will always live on, you must remember. That, I can assure you."