When someone shows you who they are believe them; the first time.
— Maya Angelou
The three of them crowded into a small dark room, divided from the x-ray machine by a partition. Danny leaned against the far wall, hands shoved into his pockets, looking self-conscious and angry. Maddie tried to catch his eye, hoping for an explanation, but he was busy staring holes in his shoes.
Dr. Wagner shouldered past Maddie to stand between her and Danny, giving her a sharp look. She complied with his unspoken warning, hanging back near the door. The initial shock had worn off, and now she could sense the terrible gap between her and Danny. She wanted desperately to hug him, but the closed-off slant to his shoulders forbade it. She'd expected him to be dsitant— how else could he respond?— but it still stung.
A computer monitor added a white glow to the room, recessed into the wall above a set of controls.. Dr. Wagner pointed to the image on the screen, a white on black image that showed a ribcage, the softer lines of the inner organs and the faint outline of clothes. All perfectly normal except for under the sternum, where a scramble of lines darkened the image, creating a tightly-packed sphere. It looked like a child had scribbled on it in pen.
Maddie stared. The dark patch seemed familiar, but strangely out of place.
"That," Dr. Wagner jabbed a finger at it. "What the hell is that?"
"What on earth?" Shannon peered at the image. "Are you sure the machine isn't malfunctioning?"
"No. Whatever that is, it's definitely there." Dr. Wagner said, and worry cut through his hostility. "Something's causing a distortion of the gamma rays— an energy source, maybe, I don't know. It could be some kind of pacemaker, but— I don't see any mechanical structures, metal or plastic. Even if there was, that kind of energy so close his heart would scorch the aortic tissue and cause heart failure." He eyed Danny as if he half expected him to collapse. Accusations simmered in his eyes as he turned to Maddie. "Danny says you know. Start talking."
Did she? Maddie stared, fascinated by the puzzle despite the situation. "Could you invert the image?"
Dr. Wagner nodded and tapped a command on the keyboard. White and black shifted to black and white. Bones became shadows, the body a gray veil, and in the center the scrambled lines changed to a bright, perfect white. The sphere seemed to glow even it the static image.
Ah. Of course. Maddie reached out and touched the screen reverently. It wasn't distorting gamma rays, it radiated them, like a tiny sun. It was beautiful. "I didn't realize it would manifest so strongly in your human form," she said, glancing at Danny.
Danny shrugged and scuffed his toes on the floor. "I juiced it up so you could see it. He wasn't listening."
"I'm listening now." Dr. Wagner looked from her to Danny. "Human form?"
Maddie flinched; she hadn't meant to say that so carelessly. Just because Shannon knew didn't mean Danny's true nature was common knowledge— or that he wanted it to be. She glanced at her son.
He jerked his head toward the doctor. "Tell him. I can't explain it like you can."
"This is what we call a ghost core." Maddie circled the bright mark with her thumb. "Think of it as a brain and heart wrapped into one super-efficient organ. It's not even an organ really, it's a stable cluster of energy that self-perpetuates and generates all the information needed to create a ghost's form. At its most basic unit, this is what an ecto-entity is. Ectoplasm gives a ghost form and power, but those are just trappings. Its consciousness, the information for its identity—what I suppose you could call its soul— rests here."
Dr. Wagner glanced from the image to his patient. He paled. "You're telling me there's one of these ghosts—an ectoplasmic entity— inside Danny right now?"
"It's not just inside me," Danny spoke up. "It is me." They looked at him. His eyes glowed.
For dramatic effect, Maddie assumed, and it certainly gave him an eerie, alien look in the dim room. The temperature dropped and Maddie shivered, reminded sharply of that night in the hospital room where all she could see was some dangerous creature overshadowing her son. Would these strangers be able to understand what she hadn't?
"If you mapped out the electromagnetic pattern of his brain," she went on carefully, choosing her words one by one, "it precisely matches that of his core. Danny thinks… and feels… with his ectosignature just as much as with his human brain, and vice versa, like two sides of the same coin. They make up a single entity. Something entirely unique."
Danny's glowing eyes quenched and he looked away. Maddie winced; Danny didn't need to hear her crude breakdown of who and what he was— but Dr. Wagner had to understand. He couldn't repeat her mistake of confusing one person for two.
"Do you believe me now Dr. Wagner?" Danny said. He stared at the wall, the sour downturn of his mouth outlined in profile. "That thing and the form that came out of it, that's what my mom saw. She didn't treat me like a human being because I wasn't—I'm not."
Was that what Danny thought? Surely he didn't believe that. Those were her lies, her mistakes. Hadn't he realized that? Maddie let her hand drop from the screen and took a step back. "That's wrong. You're very much human, Danny. Even if you weren't—" Ghost or human, what she had done was horrific.
"I mean technically I'm not," Danny glared at her and jabbed a finger at Dr. Wagner. "Do you want him to go to the police? Get the GIW involved?"
"GIW?" Shannon asked.
Dr. Wagner crossed his arms. "The government agency that was supposedly Danny's real kidnapper. He tells me they'll come drag him off if I turn his mom in."
Maddie tensed; the thought hadn't occurred to her. She'd been so single-mindedly set on finding Danny that she hadn't considered the larger consequences. If she was brought to court— Danny was right, in an ectoplasmic case the GIW would be notified, just as they had after Danny's return. Sam may have won over Amity Park, but only within the city limits. The GIW hadn't shut down yet—and Maddie couldn't forget Kerza's thinly veiled threats either. Other 'interested parties' might target Danny. She couldn't let that happen.
She looked at Dr. Wagner with real fear this time. "That could be worse for Danny than for me. Ghost rights are very limited, and there's no precedent for human hybrids. You'd expose him to some very dangerous people." The GIW had known perfectly well that Valerie was human, and yet they'd taken her. It would be ten times worse for Danny.
Dr. Wagner shut off the x-ray machine with a snap. "How convenient for you."
Maddie bristled. Having Danny here sparked a defiance in her that she hadn't known she had left. "This is not about my past actions," she said, slowly and clearly. "I am willing to do any penance Danny asks of me, but—"
"You ought to be in jail." He turned and stepped close. The doctor had barely an inch on her, but he drew himself up fully and glared.
Maddie recoiled as if he'd slapped her. The sheer venom in the words—and the conviction. This man believed with all his might that she was evil. This was how she looked to an outsider, Maddie realized. Dr. Wagner wasn't trying to manipulate her, like Vlad or Kerza. He wanted justice. He was in the right, and they both knew it. It wouldn't be anything less than she deserved.
"Patrick," Shannon spoke up from behind Maddie, a warning in her voice.
Dr. Wagner didn't move, eyes locked with Maddie's as they stood toe to toe. "Don't 'Patrick' me, Shannon, you know I'm right. You should know more than anybody what she's put Danny through."
"Hey," Danny pushed off the wall and took a step toward them. "Don't I get a say in this? It happened to me. This is my mom. And—" he broke off and looked away, tugging at the hem of his oversized shirt. He sighed. "Yeah, I'm upset and she's not totally innocent, but I don't want her to go to jail." Then he straightened and crossed his arms, leveling a cold stare at Dr. Wagner. "I won't press charges, and I won't testify against her."
Danny defending her warmed Maddie and made her heart ache at the same time. She met Dr. Wagner's gaze. "I don't disagree with you, Dr. Wagner, but I won't cooperate either. He's right. The risk is too great."
"Again, how convenient," he said through gritted teeth.
"We won't force you into anything you don't want to do, hon." Shannon said, slipping past Maddie to stand beside Danny.
"Speak for yourself." Dr. Wagner whirled to face Danny. "You're a minor. I don't need your permission to file this. In fact, reporting abuse is mandatory."
Danny glared, a spark of green in his blue eyes. "What, after two months?"
The doctor shrugged. "I'm willing to face repercussions for that if I have to. I'm supposed to protect your well-being. That's my job as your doctor."
"It won't protect me." Danny waved a hand that took in the room. "Don't you get it? Didn't you see the x-ray? What do you think will happen if that ends up in the federal system? I'd be screwed. The GIW—"
"There is no GIW," Dr. Wagner cut in. "This isn't some horror movie. Nobody's going to drag off a kid and do experiments on him just because of some weird physiological quirks."
Maddie's eyebrows shot up. No GIW? The idea of an impartial outsider dissolved. This young man knew nothing about their strange and complex world. He had no idea what damage he could inflict on Danny's life; the GIW had nearly destroyed Danny the first time, with her help. He wouldn't be so lucky again.
"You have to admit it all sounds unlikely," Shannon interjected mildly.
"Except that's exactly what happened." Danny shoved his hands in his pockets and kicked at the x-ray machine. "What do I have to do, break into GIW headquarters and drag one out by the lapels?"
Maddie stared at the doctor, frustrated. Was it that hard to believe? She was used to skeptics, and Amity Park remained insular due to the limited manifestation of ghosts, but surely not to this extent. Especially with the Mansons stirring up controversy— Maddie paused at the thought. Sam Manson. Tucker had mentioned putting a video online…
Shannon touched Danny's shoulder. "I get that you want to defend your mother, but Patrick's accusations are serious—and not without some weight. A police investigation could help sort everything out."
"You can't lie to protect her. I know what she did."
"Patrick," Shannon said again, frowning.
Danny scowled. "I'm not lying!"
"I could show you," Maddie spoke up. "Do you have internet access here?"
They gathered around one of the computers back in the office, Maddie in the main chair and the three of them packed around her to see the small, outdated monitor as she tapped in a search. Shannon pulled up a chair beside Patrick; Danny leaned in over her shoulder.
Shannon glanced at Patrick. He was watching Maddie, his eyes narrowed. The muscles in his jaw worked under the skin. She'd never seen her friend so angry before, or so stubbornly determined. Something about Danny's situation had struck a nerve.
A video clip popped up, the preview freeze-framed on a fantastical figure. A teenager, white-haired and glowing, flew through the air with his fist outstretched, eyes lit with an eerie, familiar glow.
"Where did this come from?" Danny asked. He wore an odd expression, wistful and nervous.
"Tucker," Maddie said simply. "He wanted people to remember you."
Shannon didn't know who Tucker was, but it meant something to Danny. He sat down on the edge of the nearest desk, hands clasping his knees, eyes fixed on the screen. "Oh."
Patrick sat back in his chair and scowled. "You're going to prove a government conspiracy with amateur scifi?"
"I'm trying to show you the truth." Maddie did a remarkable job of controlling the irritation in her voice. "It might seem a little unbelievable to someone from outside Amity Park, but it's very much real."
"I'm supposed to just take your word for it?"
Danny sighed. "Come on Dr. Wagner, this is way too serious for a prank. Just watch it, alright?"
Maddie clicked play.
Shannon watched a giant green spider appear on the home video. It took a moment to register that this—supposedly—was real footage, not computer graphics. She would have dismissed it as clever photoshopping if it hadn't been for Danny's little demonstration earlier. Now… she wasn't sure what she thought. Just looking at it on the screen gave her the same hair-raising, eerie feeling that she couldn't quite explain. A conviction that something fundamentally impossible was happening.
That feeling increased as the boy from the preview image shot into frame. Literally, soaring through the air like a cannon, easily twenty feet above the sidewalk.
Patrick stared as the little white-haired figure swooped around as if gravity was optional, blasting away at the absurdly monstrous neon-green spider. He leaned in, squinting at the screen. "Those stunts are… how are they getting him to fly above the buildings? Who is that?"
"That's me." Danny hunched his shoulders. "Well, it was me."
"You were a stunt double?"
"Those aren't stunts," Danny said, tone flat.
Patrick opened his mouth to retort, but then the girl on the video vanished under a pile of rubble and all of them turned their attention to the unfolding scene.
It looked real...very real to Shannon. The people in the clip weren't movie stars, just regular men and women, young old, fat, thin, plain and pretty. When they bled, it looked too much like the people who came into the ER after some natural disaster, dusty, unkempt and dazed…. though hers weren't usually dripping with green goo. Or saved by a skinny kid in black who happened to fly and shoot green lasers from his hands.
Shannon watched the supernatural figure rescue people again and again, and things began to click into place. This was Danny. The Danny who kept coming home bruised from saving strangers. Danny who had no sense of personal risk. Danny with his corny jokes and bravado that she'd only caught from him in faded snatches. Shannon didn't know how, or why, but the incredible creature on the screen and the boy sitting next to her were the same person.
Then the scene changed, and the boy onscreen hung from a net in the dark as a man behind the camera taunted him. Maddie's hands clenched where they rested o the desk. Danny's shoulders slumped and he looked away. Shannon's skin crawled for a different reason this time. Threat dripped from every word the stranger said. The clip ended.
Patrick sat back in his seat. "That was quite a show."
From his tone, Shannon could tell Patrick wasn't convinced, and she hardly blamed him. Now that it was over, it all seemed just too fantastic to be real. But something about Maddie's tense posture, mirrored in the way Danny's hands bunched and kneaded in the hem of his oversized shirt, told her they were both in deadly earnest. This was real. At least they believed it to be.
If the white-haired boy was Danny, and all this had really happened… Shannon thought of the last clip and shuddered. "Who was that man?" she asked.
"That was the GIW," Maddie said darkly. She closed the tab and pushed away from the computer, swiveling to face them. "It's an official branch of the US government with an absurdly broad jurisdiction. They do not hesitate to imprison anyone they see as an ectoplasmic threat—even children."
"Even—you mean Danny" Shannon said, caught between disbelief and a growing sense of horror. She turned to Danny. "You were taken someplace, and… given over to scientists?" It sounded like a bad scifi movie.
Danny drew his hand up to his chest in a subconscious movement. "Yeah."
Shannon had a sudden, vivid image of Danny curled around his arm on the bathroom floor, ash-white and barely responsive, all because of a bad sound at a bad moment. An electric knife. She felt sick.
Maddie seemed mesmerized by the blank computer screen, finger tracing the contours of hte mouse still in her hand, not looking at anyone. "I was—"
"Mom—" Danny interrupted, half standing.
Maddie shook her head, sending him a sharp look that brooked no argument. "No, Danny. I was one of those scientists. The primary one." She took a deep breath, let go of the mouse, and swiveled around to face them, expression resigned and grim. "I was assigned to experiment on Phantom— Danny. And I earned my keep."
Silence filled the cluttered office, blank and suffocating. It sounded too bizarre to be real. But the video, Danny's injuries, his startling trick at the hospital, the glowing eyes, everything Shannon had seen and learned… Shannon looked at them, separated by only a few feet. The set of Danny's shoulders and Maddie's defeated posture made it feel like miles.
Patrick slowly shook his head. "Sorry, not buying it. Your friends might be good at special effects Danny, but I'll stick with what I can prove. Real things. Your suspicious disappearance, your injuries, the deliberate abuse. You admitted that you inflicted those injuries, Dr. Fenton."
Maddie's winced. "I did, but—"
"That's all I need to know. More than enough to put you behind bars."
Danny stood and glared. "I told you, you can't do that!"
Patrick dragged a hand through his curls, standing up and turning to face Danny. "Yeah, I can. And should! Why are you fighting me on this? If she gets convicted, she can't touch you. This could all be over. You could go home."
Danny took a step closer to Maddie, who sat stiff and white-faced, eyes on Patrick. "That's not why I left."
He'd said that before, more than once. Shannon studied them; Maddie tense, waiting, Danny's posture protective, hands curled into fists. Maybe that void between them wasn't as real as she'd imagined.
Patrick threw up his hands. "Then why? Please explain to me why you made yourself homeless and wandered hundreds of miles— before you'd even completed your medical treatment— if it wasn't because of her?"
Danny waved a hand in a sharp, frustrated gesture. "I—I don't know! I just… I couldn't deal with things, that's all."
Not an unusual thing for sufferers of PTSD, Shannon thought. He couldn't articulate what was eating at him, couldn't find any relief in familiar things, so he'd tried to escape it instead. Put all reminders behind him along with the trauma. With mixed results.
"Deal with what?" Patrick looked at Maddie and his eyes narrowed. "The chance she might hurt you again?"
Danny growled and moved in front of Maddie, breaking Patrick's gaze. "Stop twisting my words!"
Maddie stood up. Shannon saw her hand move toward Danny's shoulder, hesitate, then drop to her side. "I am not a threat to Danny, Dr. Wagner. You can trust me on that, if nothing else."
Patrick barked out a laugh, a harsh sound even stranger coming from his lips. "You think I'd trust anything you say? You—neither of you—get a say in this. What you did wasn't just wrong, it's illegal. You are going to jail." He stalked over to his desk and snatched up a stack of papers, brandishing them. "Danny, you can be as mad as you like, but if she's safely away from you and any other victims, that's enough for me."
Danny glared at Patrick. "If you think prison would keep me from seeing Mom then you're definitely not listening. Come on." He seized his mother's hand. Maddie stumbled after him, lips parted in surprise. Danny led her right through the nearest wall, as if it were made of mist.
The hair on the back of Shannon's neck prickled—though she'd half expected it this time, it was still so eerie. She glanced at Patrick and found him open-mouthed, staring at the spot where Danny and Maddie had vanished. The papers dropped out of his hands and scattered on the floor.
"Shannon—he—just—did you see that?"
"Yes, it's one of his talents apparently." She got up and headed for the door. "Come on, you can't leave it at that."
All that Remains :: tbc...
Silly Patrick, tricks are for kids!
Sliding in under the wire, but it's still the weekend so I'm counting this as on time. There were so many fun elements to this chapter, it almost makes up for the horrifically difficult balancing act of all these complicated character emotions colliding and figuring out how to express that. Almost. Ah well, it's done as well as I can do, time to move on. It has been so blisteringly hot here, it's ridiculous. Makes me grateful for modern times and ice cream, that's for sure.
Much love to my awesome beta readers, MyAibou, Anneriawings, LunarMothim, Misfit-toy-haven, Pumpernickel Muffin, Attu, Chintastic, and Cordria! May your summers be sunny and air-conditioned!
Also thank you, dear readers, for your reviews! I'd like to answer a couple of questions real quick:
If everything is written, why don't you update more often? (InvaderL asked, though I've gotten this one before)
A few reasons, friend! First, although it's "done" and if I dropped dead you could still have a decent reading experience with the remaining drafted chapters, they all lack a final editing pass, which can have small or large consequences, depending on how well I did my job on the first post-beta pass. This chapter had some exposition cut, dialogue shifted around, and a ton of characterization sewn in because it was so roughly put together- just like in the last chapter, a lot of the beta pass energy went toward improving Dr. Wagner's story arc, not so much the technical refinement. So the polish edit took me three passes, about four to six hours of writing work. I'm slow, le sigh.
Point being that "done" just means the editing process is taking up a smaller percentage of my writing time. During the peak of writing SoaD I could easily spend the bulk of my evenings and weekends on it - something like 20 hours per week. Now I'm devoting that same time to working on original fiction, which is important to me because I want to eventually make a living off my writing.
Also it's important to me to space out the updates, because how you reviewers react to the story matters. The heart of the story won't change at this point, naturally, but if someone brings up an important point (or, the horrors! a plot hole) I might incorporate that information into my edits, subtly changing character dialogue or description. The two-week span gives me time to receive your thoughts, think them over, and respond to them within the story if needed.
That said, I miight have a couple of bonus updates that are closer together planned. There was one chapter that ended up so huge it had to be cut in two, and not even I have the heart to make y'all wait two weeks for that one.
Last but not least - guikat, I understand where you're coming from. I want to respond to you and have a discussion, but I feel like we need to get past a few more chapters first. Look for an A/N with your name on it in the future. :)
Till next time!