Stop leaving and you will arrive. Stop searching and you will see. Stop running away and you will be found.
Maddie smoothed her hair and ran a nervous hand down her purse strap as she followed the young doctor into the clinic. It was an old building, thick with the odor of dusty carpet and antiseptics, the walls a muted shade of gray that might have been white a decade ago. It was clean, however, and the overall effect was cozy, if a bit musty.
Dr. Wagner led her past the reception room and through the door at the back into a long narrow hallway. Faded health posters lined the walls that Danny might have walked past, old orange and blue school chairs that he could have sat in…
She glanced up at her guide. Freckled and curly-haired, he only beat her height by an inch or so. He couldn't be much older than Jazz. That thought made her smile. "I have to be honest, I was expecting someone older."
The doctor shot her a sharp look. Unexpected coolness flashed behind his green eyes. "I'm older than I seem."
Maddie winced. Nice start, implying that his qualifications might be in question. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have presumed."
"No you're right," he said, turning away and continuing down the hall. "I am new and relatively inexperienced; that's the reason I called you in." Dr. Wagner glanced back. "I'll be honest too, I was expecting a jumpsuit. You wear one in all of your pictures."
He'd done his homework. Maddie tugged at the hem of her blouse self-consciously. What else had he read about her? "This visit is more academic. I'm here to help your patient, not hunt ghosts." Ironically she did hope to find a ghost. Just not like that.
"Ghost hunting." Dr. Wagner chuckled. "I didn't think you'd come right out and say it." He turned and continued down the narrow hall past empty exam rooms. "That's an unusual full time profession. Especially for someone with a PhD."
Maddie shrugged; she was used to skeptics. Most people saw her work as idiosyncracy at best, lunacy at worst― even if they were interested in her more academic talents. "Not in Amity Park."
"I thought all that ghost stuff was for the tourist industry― you know, Loch Ness monster type lore. Give a nondescript city some local color, tempt thrill-seekers, get some extra summer revenue."
"No, it's all quite real." It was sometimes hard to believe how insular Amity Park had remained. Despite mass invasions and news coverage, the localized nature made it hard for outsiders to accept. Maddie pursed her lips; how to put it scientifically, but simply? "What we think of as paranormal activity is actually the manifestation of a set of physics entirely unlike our own. Our world has always had this connection to another plane of existence. This plane… zone… exists parallel to ours, and sometimes it bleeds through. Amity Park seems particularly prone to this. It may be that the planes happen to converge there, or certain conditions increase the odds of paranormal activity." According to Danny, the portal itself had turned their city into an ectoplasmic hot spot. "Think of it like an algae bloom."
"Or a flush hunting season." The doctor pulled a set of keys from his lab coat pocket and unlocked a door at the end of the hall. "That's what you do, right? Hunt them?"
Maddie winced at the turn of phrase, though it was accurate. "Not just hunting, Dr. Wagner. Observation, documentation. There's so much to be learned from extradimensional study. Our inventions have improved by leaps and bounds since we gained access to a consistent source of ectoplasm."
Dr. Wagner stopped, hand flat on the door. She couldn't read his expression in the half-lit hallway. "Right. The experiments. I've read about those, too."
Maddie shivered. Her… 'work' with the GIW was top secret―and even those records had been erased, according to Tucker. This man couldn't have read about them. It was impossible, but… the way he used the word, it was almost as if he knew. He didn't elaborate, however― he only opened the door and beckoned her in.
She shook off the irrational fear as she followed. She was here to learn about Danny. She had to be professional, helpful, informative… not paranoid.
They stepped into a cramped and cluttered office. Dr. Wagner pushed aside a box of files that was taking up a chair and gestured for her to take a seat. As she sat down, he leaned against a desk opposite her and folded his arms. "Like I was saying, Dr. Fenton―"
"Maddie, please," Maddie said. She was here as a mother, not a scientist.
"Maddie then," he said easily enough, with a small, sharp smile. "Though all the papers call you Dr. Fenton. 'America's Leading Ectobiologist.' Pretty impressive stuff."
"Not as impressive as it seems," Maddie replied, eyes dropping to her lap. She pulled her purse onto her knees and studied the plain silver clasp. Those accolades she'd once taken pride in rang hollow now. She hadn't proved as scintillating of a scientist as she'd once thought. "It's easy to dominate a niche field."
Dr. Wagner shook his head. "You're underselling yourself. From what I've read, you and your husband practically invented the scientific approach to ectoplasm, or at least pulled it out of the dark ages. You created the first stable portal, substantiated many of your previously published theories, and your inventions dominate the market for ecto-weaponry and spectral detection." He shrugged. "I didn't even know that was a thing until I started looking into you."
"Thank you," she said, increasingly confused. Why did he want to ramble about her professional life? "I only hope I can put that knowledge to good use. You have a patient with potential ectocontamination?"
"Right. My patient. Here's where I'm hoping you can shed some light." He pulled a clipboard out of a drawer and handed her the sheet off the top. Maddie's eyes flew to the top corner, but there was no name listed. Strange. She glanced at the doctor, wondering if she should point it out, but she didn't dare risk it.
"I couldn't believe his blood panel the first time I saw it," Dr. Wagner went on. "I thought it might be my inexperience, but the senior physician at my main practice hadn't seen anything like it either. Our labs couldn't identify the chemicals―and what they could tell us didn't seem possible for an apparently functional human being. I was completely stumped."
Maddie nodded, only half listening, her eyes devouring the data, which revealed a tantalizingly familiar chemical structure. No wonder they'd been confused. Ectocontamination of this level was practically nonexistent outside of Amity Park.
"Then after I'd asked around, Grace emailed me about this ectocontamination thing." Dr. Wagner paged through his clipboard and read off another sheet. "Caused by prolonged exposure to or infection by an ectoplasmic substance, accompanying symptoms may include low body temperature, memory gaps, erratic behaviour, ocular phospheresence, levitation, projectile vomiting, and/or miscellaneous abnormal phenomena." He looked up at her, eyebrows raised. "It fits, crazy as it sounds."
"I agree," Maddie murmured, staring at the numbers, wishing she knew for sure that they were Danny's. They were close… so close, but not exact. "The high ceruloplasmin levels are a distinctive trait. It's a residual response to the massive presence of copper in the bloodstream that accompanies exposure to ectoplasmic matter. It could be a lingering symptom of possession, or accidental absorption, or any number of things." In Danny's case, that meant ectoplasmic transformation. The manifestation of any of his ghost abilities would have muc hteh same effect.
"There's where it gets really weird. It can't be an environmental contaminant. The ceruloplasmin's not just residual in his blood, it regenerates. The second blood panel I took showed more ceruloplasmin than the first. He's able to metabolize copper at an unbelievable rate."
That's what made Danny different from other ectocontamination cases. His body produced ceruloplasmin as a natural part of his hybridized blood. Just as his ectoplasmic blood had contained traces of human substances, flecks of iron that had no perceivable purpose but related to his other form.
"Interesting," was all she could manage to say. Her hands were trembling, and she smoothed the side of the clipboard to hide it. "Do you have more information on the patient? Physical makeup?"
Wordlessly he handed her another sheet.
Her eyes devoured the information, hungry for any clue. Male, caucasian, eighteen. That was too―no, he might have lied about his age. Would have lied, to keep from being reported. Height, same as Danny's. Weight… Maddie ran her thumb over the number, her brow creasing. "He's underweight." Even after all these weeks?
"Strange, isn't it?" Dr. Wagner crossed his arms, clipboard dangling from a thumb and finger, eyes on the floor. He frowned. "I had him track his intake for a week, just to make sure he wasn't starving himself. He eats twice the caloric content that any kid that size could handle, but he stays right at the bottom of the BMI range. That's not my only concern. There's a lot of strange things about this kid. He's got some kind of super immune system, as far as I can tell, because nobody ought to have that kind of white blood cell count without being perpetually sick. He's resistant to infection, too― even with a dog bite."
Maddie's head snapped up. "Dog bite? What happened?"
He looked at her strangely and she let her eyes drop, heart thudding. That had been less than professional. Danny had been attacked by dogs? Or something worse? What if a ghost had followed him?
"It healed up well. Eerily well," Dr. Wagner said. "Dog bites are notorious for infection, but looking at that wound, you'd think that bacteria didn't exist. The inflammation was minimal, too."
"Oh," she said, eyes glued to the readout. The words blurred into meaningless symbols before her eyes. What else had happened to him? Was he alright now? Had he been in terrible danger without her having the faintest idea?
"It would be interesting," the doctor added, "to find out what else that kind of physiology might have to offer."
"Yes," Maddie murmured, barely listening.
"How far you could take it. How much you had to hurt him before it stuck."
Maddie froze, finger still on a line of text. What was he saying? She looked up.
Dr. Wagner was watching her. That cold look had returned to his eyes. "You could learn so much, maybe even how to reverse engineer it. A natural resilience like that would revolutionize the medical field. Save thousands of lives―be worth millions. Sounds tempting don't you think, Dr. Fenton?"
"It's Maddie," she snapped, standing up, "and I don't like what you're implying." That sounded chillingly like something Dr. Kerza might say. Who was this man? What did he want?
"Just a thought." Dr. Wagner waved her off, picking up a stack of papers and shuffling through them as if he hadn't said something altogether horrific. "That's not why I called you in, Dr. Fenton. What concerns me about this patient isn't his physiological oddities. It's the injuries he arrived with. He's been getting them for years; there are scars for those. Not his hand, though. That's recent." He looked up from the papers and met her eyes with deliberate coolness.
Ah. The air grew thick around Maddie. Now she understood. He knew. He saw what she hadn't; just like Dr. Kerza. Just like Vlad. Just like Skulker. He knew, and he despised her for it. Just as she would, if she were in his place. She clenched her teeth, steeling herself for what she knew would come next.
"It looks fine on the surface, a little scratched up, nothing serious. Inside…" He tossed aside the papers and took a step toward her. "I've never seen anything quite like it. Not even from an industrial accident. It isn't blunt trauma or strain; it's something else." He yanked another piece of paper from his clipboard, this one a photocopy of an x-ray, streaked with red sharpie.
"The scar tissue is so strangely placed, under and around otherwise intact muscles, interrupting the connective tissues. The tendons almost seem like they'd been scraped off and reattached. It's horrific to look at. And crazy. How could something like this happen? Studying the injuries, it finally hit me. How methodical it looked."
Maddie had been methodical. Slow, deliberate. She'd taken her time, mapped out every inch of the transparently human anatomy, as if it hadn't displayed traits that should have given her pause; muscles that required neural feedback to operate, nerve clusters running alongside the tendons. The writhing, flinching reaction to her attentions. She'd studied every single fiber without learning a thing.
"I don't know how much this ghost science of yours defies the laws of physics," the doctor went on, ruthless, "But maybe you can explain this to me how there's no incision point, no superficial scars, and yet― I'd swear someone that someone had been in there, taking everything apart."
More literally than this man knew; and not once, but repeatedly, testing its cohesion, its ability to rearrange itself from contorted arrangements, its regenerative stamina. Ignoring the twitches that continued as the days went on, her back to the boy imprisoned behind her, silenced by the thick, murky glass.
"The scars are there, but inside. And they go deep." Maddie understood the look he gave her now, the smoldering anger under a brittle veneer of calm. "He'll never use that hand without pain for the rest of his life, do you realize that?"
Mutely, she shook her head. Maddie wanted to back away, but the chair pressed into her calves, stopping her.
"Kids are funny, though. Especially this one. Beyond traumatized, hand half crippled, health permanently damaged, and he won't say a word against the perpetrator. If I even hint at the word abusive, he'll say it wasn't like that, it was 'just an accident.' Who would he want to protect that badly?"
"Nobody who deserved it," Maddie whispered.
The doctor laughed without humor. "There we can agree." He paused. Maddie felt frozen in time, compressed by his stare. Somewhere nearby an air conditioner rattled to life. Rain tapped on the windowsill. Subdued voices murmured in the corridor. "You have a son, don't you?"
Of course he knew.
Dr. Wagner broke eye contact and paged through his clipboard. "Funny thing, when I looked you up I got almost as much information about Danny Fenton as you, doctor. He's made national news twice this year."
He pulled a sheet from the middle of the stack and dangled it in front of her eyes; Danny's gaunt face framed by a hospital bed stared out of a newspaper clipping, titled FOUND TEEN VANISHES.
"He was scheduled for a surgery, wasn't he?" Dr. Wagner turned the paper and looked at it. "A corrective hand surgery."
Maddie's hands were bloodless from clenching them so tightly, but her voice stayed even. "Yes."
Dr. Wagner's eyes narrowed. She wondered how she'd ever seen him as boyish and friendly. "You know who my patient is, Dr. Fenton."
She clasped her hands in her lap and took a quiet breath. "I'd hoped."
"I bet you did." He pushed himself off the desk and took a step toward her, glaring. "You couldn't just let him go, could you? Did you want to do some follow-up tests? Examine the long-term effects of inhuman treatment? Trust me, it's not pretty."
Maddie shook her head. "I'm his mother." Part explanation, part plea.
"I'm aware of that particularly messed-up detail, yeah." Dr. Wagner's voice rose as he stepped closer, fire sparking in his green eyes. "That's what makes you so completely despicable. This is human experimentation, do you realize that? That's worse than torture. You haven't blurred ethical lines, you obliterated them. Your own family wasn't safe from you."
He didn't understand. It wasn't that simple. There was so much she hadn't known, so many things she'd blinded herself to. So much had changed since then. "You don't understand what happened to us."
"Us?" Dr. Wagner grinned viciously. "Oh, I'm sorry Dr. Fenton. Where are the reports of you being found in your own home at the brink of starvation? Which of your hands reads on an X-ray like a high school dissection project? When did you feel so desperate to get away that you left everything you knew and were afraid to tell anyone your real name?"
Maddie held back a flinch at every fresh accusation. "I know all of that―"
"I'm sure you do. You're very accomplished and thorough in your research according to everyone who writes about you. No, you know. You knew it all along. You just don't care. But I do." Dr. Wagner held up the stack of papers and hit them with the flat of his hand. "I've got the report all written up, documents, forms, all of it. I can go to the police tomorrow."
Her mind sank into a strange calm; she'd run this gauntlet so many times now, fear didn't grip her now. Her head didn't flood with protests. Everything he could accuse her of she'd already gone over a thousand times; how true it was, and how inexcusable any excuses would be. She couldn't be crushed under a guilt already so firmly wedged into her heart.
Maddie stood. She stepped closer and closed her hand over the sheaf of papers, gripping it. If this man thought she cared about her own freedom at this point, he was gravely mistaken. He could do what he wanted― but she had to see Danny. "Where is my son?"
Dr. Wagner shrugged and yanked the papers free. "He's gone. You can check with the Kreugerville police if you don't believe me. None of us know where he went, and frankly, I'm glad he's out of your reach."
Gone. Maddie sank back into her chair. Just like that, all her hopes crumbled. Danny was gone. He'd been here, right here, and he'd vanished. Had he realized she was coming? Was he that desperate to stay away from her?
"I didn't call you here for some happy reunion," the doctor went on. "I just wanted to look you in the eye and see what kind of person could have done what you did. Now I know."
Maddie let her eyes drop to her hands. Without her they looked thin and white and strangely not her own. "I'm not a monster, Dr. Wagner," she said softly. "I'm just human. Terribly human."
He scoffed and picked up the phone. "Tell that to your lawyer."
The door opened. Dr. Wagner looked up from the phone, scowling. "Come back later, we're―" he cut himself off. He sighed and set down the phone with a click.
Suddenly Maddie knew exactly who had just come in. She went stock-still, afraid to move, as if the moment might shatter. Turning ever so slightly, she saw him. Danny. He stood in the doorway. Baggy mismatched clothes, overgrown hair in disarray, bruised face, wide, startled blue eyes.
All that Remains :: tbc...
There it is, folks.
It took them 47 chapters to return to this moment, but there they are. And here we are. Let's do this.
Sorry about the delay, there were more bumps to buff out with this polish edit than I'd anticipated. It's late here and I've got other writing to poke at before bed, so I'll keep this short and sweet.
Much love to my amazing beta readers! That would be MyAibou, Anneriawings, LunarMothim, Misfit-toy-haven, Pumpernickel Muffin, Attu, Chintastic, and Cordria! This chapter went through a lot of changes, and I really appreciate all the dialogue and advice I got from everyone.
And much love to you, my dear readers! Thank you for your reviews and kind words! They keep me going (especially in a writing desert like the present month, aha)! Too tired for shoutouts tonight, but you should know that I read every review and very much appreciate you taking the time to drop me a line.
Till next time!