A child was the love you didn't have to look for, didn't have to prove anything to, didn't have to worry about losing. Which is why, when it happened, it hurt so badly.
― Jodi Picoult
Danny sat in the passenger seat of Shannon's truck, watching the streets slip past in flickers of light and shadow. Mom's headlights flashed in the rearview mirror as they made a turn, catching his eye. Danny swallowed, then took another bite of granola bar―his third. The last thing Danny felt like doing was eating― especially these, which were dry and mealy, but Shannon had dropped the box in his lap with a look that brooked no arguments.
The dizzy, sick feeling faded, and an electric tension simmered up in its place. Mom was here. That finally sank in. He crumpled the granola wrappers in his fist to keep his hands from shaking. She was here.
"Danny." Shannon glanced at him. Her hands shifted and regripped the steering wheel. "Are you sure this is what you want?"
No, but it had felt like the right thing to do― and he couldn't just leave Mom hanging, not after all that. Danny scowled. "I can't believe Dr. Wagner was being such a jerk."
Shannon frowned, though she kept her eyes on the road. It had begun to drizzle again, the street lamps leaving jagged trails of light across the slick asphalt, the windshield wipers swishing steadily. "Try to see it from our perspective. You came to us hurt and frightened, and you refused to tell us your name or where you're from. We only knew that someone had hurt you."
Danny winced; he'd tried to hide the fear. The knife thing hadn't helped. It looked bad. It was bad, technically, but… it wasn't Mom's fault. She'd had no idea what she was doing. Even if it didn't make sense, that was the truth. Danny dug at a tear in his jeans with a fingernail. He just didn't know how to make it sound less crazy.
"The first word I hear about your mother is an explanation of how it's 'not her fault' that she used you as an experiment." Shadows deepened the lines of worry on Shannon's face, highlighted in blue in the dimness of the cab. Her voice had a tone Danny hadn't heard from her before― quietly furious. "An experiment― and the worst part is that I believe your story. Do you understand how disturbing and unreal that is?"
Of course he did. It hadn't felt real to him at first― like some stupid, overcomplicated practical joke. It still felt like a sick joke the world had played on them both, like any minute he'd wake up and realize he'd been in some long, tangled-up nightmare. Danny squeezed his hand felt the flicker of pain through his palm. This was real. It wouldn't go away, and neither would Mom.
Shannon took a deep breath and smoothed her fingers along the worn seam of the old leather steering wheel. "My knee-jerk reaction is to keep you as far away from that woman as possible. I ignored that impulse because you asked me to, but I can't say that I like it."
Danny shrugged. "She won't hurt me." Mom wasn't cruel. Not to humans, anyway. There was no way she'd do anything now. She hadn't even wanted 'Phantom' to suffer, once she realized he could.
"Are you saying that because you believe it, or because you love her?"
Danny turned to give Shannon a defiant look. "I'm saying it because it's the truth."
Shannnon's worried expression deepened. "She can hurt you without meaning to."
He stuffed the granola wrappers into the empty box, dropping it to the floorboard. "If she pulls out any scalpels I'll make a run for it."
"Not what I meant."
Of course not. He knew that. It hadn't taken an ectoblast to hurt him last time. Just knowing that she'd still fire at him, after everything― Danny shook his head, refusing to follow that thought. That was an accident. She hadn't meant it. She'd looked nearly as horrified as he'd felt. He'd known that, and he'd still left. He couldn't do that again.
Danny tapped his fingers on the armrest, a nervous tattoo that blended in with the rain. "What else can I do? Be your live-in dog walker forever? Keep making up fake names? Land more people in the hospital?"
He leaned into the door, resting his cheek against the cold glass. "I'm just saying."
They stopped at a red light. The rattling engine subsided, allowing the quiet patter of rain to fill the truck. Danny's eyes wandered back to the rearview mirror. Mom's familiar old sedan reflected back, the headlights bright and clear. They must've replaced the one Technus obliterated a week before Danny left for camp. The traffic light changed. The truck surged forward.
"I understand wanting to settle things," Shannon said, "but I wonder if you can approach this with a clear mind. I don't think you realize how much your feelings color things for you, Danny. You're still blaming yourself for this situation, just like with Nicki. Even when your mother is clearly the one in the wrong."
Danny bristled. "She―"
"Ah, no." Shannon raised a hand. "No defending her, Danny. I'm not being hateful, I'm stating a fact. She knows that. You do too, if you take a second to think. I'm not trying to pass judgment, but both of you need to stop worrying about blame and take a good look at what happened."
"What, me running off? Hiding? Not dealing with things?" He scowled, staring out the rain-flecked window. "Yeah, let's talk about that more. Sounds great."
"You have been dealing with this, Danny. Whether you realize it or not. You've come so far, and I don't want you to lose that. I don't want it to go back to haunting you."
Danny glanced at Shannon with a wan smile. "I'm a ghost. Haunting's kinda my thing."
She didn't smile back. "No jokes. Not this time, kiddo. I can't let you deflect this."
"Avoiding is also my thing," Danny muttered. "Thus all the running." Coward. Maybe Dash had really known him better all along.
Shannon shook her head, staring thoughtfully at the slick pavement outlined in the headlights. "You didn't run from me."
He gave her an incredulous look. Had she forgotten about the past forty-eight hours?
"I mean before. After that dinner, when you…" she paused, as if searching for a way to put it. "Had that―"
"I remember," Danny cut in, flushing at the reminder. The only thing worse than puking in front of a bunch of people was them remembering it. He'd lost it― lost himself, and nearly attacked Shannon. One stupid sound had been enough to turn him into a wreck.
"You scared us―and you scared yourself. I don't think any of us realized how seriously your mental health had suffered. I was so worried for you. The next morning, you walked out the door and I was sure I'd never see you again."
"That would've been easier." He would never have gotten so tangled up with Dr. Wagner, him figuring things out, finding Mom, threatening to get her arrested. Nicki wouldn't have been shot. They wouldn't be driving to Shannon's house right now with Mom in the rearview mirror.
"Maybe. But you made the hard choice, and you stayed. You let us help you. It was a good thing." She reached out and tapped his shoulder. "You could have run from plenty of things since then, but you didn't. Me. Dr. Wagner. Those boys who attacked you, even though you should have. Apologizing to Nicki. Now here you are with the person you have the most reason to fear, and you invite her in." Shannon shook her head. "You're a brave kid, Danny. Don't fool yourself about that."
Brave? Just thinking about facing Mom made him want to melt into a wall. "That's not me."
"What is you?" Shannon asked, her tone gently teasing. "Leaping tall buildings in a single bound? Jumping in front of bullets?"
Danny slumped in the seat, running a fingernail along the seam of the truck's old upholstery. His ribs ached at the odd position, but he ignored them. "That's not me either, I guess. Not anymore." That last disaster had proved it. He'd only made things worse―and what would have happened if he had managed to blow up that spraypaint? He could've killed somebody.
"Why do you have to be?" Shannon shrugged. "Forget about your Mom for a second, and Patrick, and me. Forget about bravery or running away or what anyone expects or what you used to do. What do you want?"
Danny turned and stared out the back window, at the familiar headlights just behind them, bright and steadfast in the rain. Seeing her scared him, yeah, but mostly…
He thought of Mom's face in the hallway, all the fear and sadness. She'd pulled away from him like she was afraid of him. Like he was too broken to touch. She'd looked so miserable. It felt like he couldn't even talk to her. It was so frustrating. He missed her. He missed home.
"I want my Mom back," he said quietly, without thinking. As awful as it might be to start talking, he wanted her back. He wanted this stupid standooff to end. He wanted to fix things.
Shannon gave him a long searching look. The worry didn't go away, but she nodded. "Then I'll give her that chance."
"Okay. But...you've got to let me do this, okay? Don't hover."
"I'll try." Shannon touched his arm. "I understand wanting to work things out, and I realize this situation is complicated but―Danny, things happen. You can't run from your past, but… sometimes you have to let it go. That dog-walking position's still open."
Danny shrugged, kicking his heels against the seat. "So what, you'd tell Mom I'm hanging out here forever? That'll go over well."
Shannon smiled wryly. "Dr. Wagner would be perfectly happy to blackmail for you."
"I don't want that." Mom didn't need more problems.
"I'm just saying that there's a place for you here. Always will be. You don't have to go through with any of this. Not talking to her, not explaining things to me. You have nothing to prove."
Gravel crunched under the truck's tires and they rumbled up the driveway. Danny watched in the side mirror as Mom's headlights turned in just behind. If he'd figured anything out in the past few months, running didn't solve things. It just made them more complicated. "Thanks, but I kind of do."
Maddie followed the old truck in her sedan, bumping up a short gravel drive. They pulled up to an old, rangy southern house, complete with a wraparound porch and a pair of gables. Maddie noticed a ramp leading up to the side of the porch as they climbed the swaybacked, creaking steps and went through the frayed screen door. The house smelled of dog and dust and old leather. The front hallway had a staircase that disappeared into a shadowy hall upstairs. A doorway to the right opened on a cozy living room, and another one further on showed a glimpse of a bright and cheerful kitchen.
Maddie adjusted her purse strap. Danny shuffled his feet, hands shoved deep into his pockets. Shannon fiddled with her keys, looking between them with a mixture of concern and watchfulness.
"Where's Harley?" Danny asked.
"Asleep probably. Liz wore her out yesterday." Shannon sighed and glanced toward the kitchen. "It'll take a while to fix supper. I know it's late, but can I offer y'all some coffee?" Danny looked up hopefully at the word. "Decaf," she added sternly, earning a disappointed sigh from him.
Maddie watched this interaction, not understanding it but recognizing the familiarity― the shared history, the implied routine. How much of the two months since she'd last seen him had been spent in this stranger's house? Danny had a whole life here that Maddie knew nothing about.
Wouldn't be the first time, a nasty little voice in her head supplied.
In ten minutes the coffee pot was full and Shannon ushered them into the living room, retreating to the kitchen alone. Maddie and Danny sat. Her on the couch, him on an armchair, both facing the coffee table, with steam curling between them. The brisk scent of coffee gave the scene a touch of familiarity, but everything else was strange. Strange house, strange mugs, strange woman in the other room, more comfortable with Maddie's son than she was.
"She seems to be looking out for you." Maddie began, trying not to sound wistful.
"Yeah. She's been really nice." Danny glanced at her. His eyes didn't quite meet hers, skating over her shoulders instead. He picked up his coffee, then put it down. "Where's your hazmat suit?"
Maddie tugged self-consciously at the hem of her blouse. "I… I thought it might be inappropriate. I didn't want you to feel..."
"Oh." He studied his feet.
Despair dropped over Maddie like an iron net. He was so distant. She cradled her coffee, staring at Danny's mug sitting alone across from her. What could she say? What could she do to reach him?
Danny made a vague gesture. "So you've been… are you still… you know, ghost hunting?"
Not in the way he meant it, perhaps. "A little."
He nodded at her face. "Someone got you."
Maddie touched her cheek and remembered the fading bruise there. "That wasn't a ghost, actually. You have some very... passionate friends."
"Oh… oh." He looked down. "Sorry."
Maddie winced; she hadn't meant that as an accusation, but he'd taken it that way. She groped for words, searching for the right thing to say. She had raised Danny, she knew him so well; but the boy― the young man who sat across from her was nearly a stranger. Maddie took a deep breath; she had to tell him. He had to know. She was burning to reassure him, to erase any misunderstanding he might have suffered from since her misfire into the hospital wall. "If…if I'd known it was you, I would never…"
"I know," he interrupted, voice flat. "But it was me."
Maddie flinched. She stared at her hands, wishing with all her might that she had been less blind. All of the rehearsed apologies fled from her mind, leaving her with the gaping reality of what she had done. "Why didn't you tell me?"
Danny picked up his mug and took a long sip. He cupped it between his hands and stared into the dark liquid. "I was trying to protect you."
She glanced up at this, startled. "So you let me hurt you?"
"I was chained down, Mom." His left thumb made a slow circuit of the white ceramic handle, brows knitting into a frown. He still wouldn't look at her. "I don't think 'let' is the right word."
Her fingers tightened around her own mug. "You could have said something."
"You wouldn't have believed me."
Maddie cringed at that, mind spinning over a dozen remembered near truths and half confessions―ones that had only cemented her hatred for Phantom. So obvious in retrospect, but she hadn't wanted to believe him, not then. "You could have changed back to human. I couldn't have argued with that."
"Yes you could, Mom. Remember the hospital? And the GIW were right there watching." His jaw set in a stubborn line. "I was not giving my secret to those psychos."
That determination frightened Maddie. Was it really worth all she'd put him through? "You'd rather die?" It came out sharper than she'd intended. "You shouldn't have survived half the things I did to you. Do you know how that makes me feel, that I did that to my own son?"
"How it made you feel?" He slammed down his coffee with a bang and got up. "Oh geez, Mom, I'll try to be more considerate next time I'm strapped to a table and cut apart!"
He strode off toward the window, then turned on his heel, eyes blazing. "You looked me in the eye every day and told me that everything I felt was a lie. You didn't care about a single thing that happened to me, because I wasn't 'real'. How do you think that felt? Being what you hated? I was just a ghost to you! I meant nothing. I was nothing. And… and you were going to leave me there."
The hushed fear that crept into his voice cut Maddie to her core. She'd had some vague plans to rescue Phantom, but if he had done nothing and she'd gone home, the search for Danny would have consumed her. She would have let him be forgotten. Phantom hadn't been nothing, but― the word low-priority flickered across Maddie's mind. She shuddered.
"I was wrong," she whispered.
Danny laughed harshly. "No joke. You felt bad, but not bad enough to save me. I still wasn't real to you, even after you knew I could feel. It was just 'sorry about that, better luck with the next scientist.' I was still just a ghost, right?"
"Something less than human." He threw out his hands. "Did that make you feel better when I couldn't stand up from all the times you electrocuted me? When you almost melted me― when you were cutting chunks out of my hand? You knew―even if you shut me up and ignored me, you knew how much it hurt me. But hey, I was dead―who cared?"
"Wait, I forgot! I'm not even a ghost― just half. Some freaky failed experiment. Faking my feelings. Faking caring. Faking pain. Everything's fake about me. I'm just lying to you, manipulating you, for who knows what reason because obviously no reaction was ever going to―"
"I was wrong, damnit! I'm sorry!"
They both stopped short, standing nose to nose, separated only by the coffee table.
Maddie blinked, and then pressed her hands against her mouth, tears welling in her eyes. "Oh, Danny. I'm so sorry."
Sinking onto the couch, she bowed her head. Tears dripped from her face and spotted the knees of her jeans, and it took every fibre of her being not to sob outright. She couldn't break down here. She didn't deserve it.
"Mom," Danny said. He sounded startled. Ashamed. "I didn't mean to―"
"Don't!" Maddie shook her head and bit her cheek. This wasn't why she'd come. "Don't you dare apologize to me. You're right, I was― it's hideous and hateful and I hate it. I can't stand how much I hate what I did. You're right, and I'm sorry. You have every right to hate me."
A long pause, punctuated by Maddie's unsteady breathing.
"I don't hate you."
He was lying. He had to be. It was Danny who'd suffered because of her blindness. Danny, her Danny, who'd spent weeks locked up in that place. Danny who'd had the courage and resourcefulness to escape when she'd nearly left him behind. Danny who she'd driven away. Danny who she had no right to call her Danny anymore. He had to despise her.
"Don't, Mom. Please don't." Danny sighed, a deep, shaky breath followed by a wince. He ran a hand over his face. "Forget what I said, it…it's okay." He turned away, shoulders slumped, hands shoved into his pockets. "Look―I'm going to shower." Before she could respond, he disappeared into the hall.
Maddie squeezed her hands together so tightly her nails dug into the skin, staring after him, wanting to call him back― but her head was still ringing with his words. Her heart thundered in her ears. Air seemed to catch in her lungs and turn to lead.
She had never seen this side of Danny― not in the worst moments in the lab, not in her son. He'd hidden this from her even more deeply than his ghost half. The hurt and anger she'd seen reflected back in Sam's eyes, from Valerie, Vlad, the ghosts, it all paled next to Danny's.
Of course. How could it not?
Maddie shut her eyes and tried furiously not to sob. She'd been so naive. She'd thought if she could just find him― explain things― but that didn't change her actions. It didn't save him. It didn't change what he'd been through. Like his hand, it would never truly heal.
Two days with barely any sleep, the fight, arguing with Nicki and Dr. Wagner and Mom, all of it seemed to drag at Danny's shoulders as he climbed the carpeted Mount Everest to the second floor. His ribs twinged with every inhale. At the top of the stairs, he leaned his head against the old wood paneling and caught his breath. Weak.
Danny shut his eyes, listening to the soft murmur of voices from downstairs. Shannon must be talking to Mom. About what? Him, probably. Danny scowled. He was tired, dirty, hungry, and after that 'talk' he felt like he'd been hit by a truck. If they wanted to say stuff about him behind his back, fine. He was taking a shower.
He took a second to snag some clothes from his room, then stepped into the bathroom and locked the door. Turning the water on as hot as it would go, he glanced down at his clothes. He'd kicked off his shoes at the front door, but other than that he was fully dressed.
Danny groaned. His back and arms felt like one huge aching bruise, but he was too tired to try phasing them. Passing out in the bathroom was not how he wanted to end the night. He grit his teeth and snatched each sock off, dropping them into a pile.
Was that even a talk? She just... kept demanding answers he didn't have. Why didn't you tell me? How could Mom still ask that? Didn't she get it by now?
Pants and boxers came off in two stiff jerks, yanking open the zipper and shoving them to the floor, ignoring the pain lancing through his shoulders.
Like he was some kid who'd hidden his report card or something. Like it was his fault he'd gotten captured by psychopathic agents. Like he hadn't been stuck between a lousy option and a worse one. He knew the risks and he'd made a choice. She was the one who'd gone all mad scientist on him. Was he supposed to know she'd do that? That she could be that... that heartless?
Danny straightened and grabbed the collar of the old plaid shirt in both hands. He jerked it open. A few buttons clattered off across the tiles. Setting his teeth, Danny twisted one arm out of the shirt against the screech of his aching muscles, then slipped it down his other arm and added it to the pile.
Leaning against the sink, he fought to catch his breath against the sharp pain in his side. The bruises had darkened into nasty shades of blue and purple over the past couple of days. He could map them out without looking by the dull burn that wrapped around his ribs and shoulders. He glared at the tired blue eyes in the mirror.
He shouldn't have to answer her stupid questions. He could have told her that. Instead he'd snapped and started yelling at her. Throwing all this stuff in her face that she already knew. That was low, and mean, and—
Danny shut his eyes, wincing at the memory. He hadn't meant to make her cry. Mom wasn't heartless, she'd just... she hadn't seen him. He couldn't blame her for that.
...except that's exactly what he'd ended up doing. He pushed back his overgrown bangs and sighed. What an idiot.
Danny pulled back the shower curtain stiffly and clambered into the tub. The water stung as it struck a hundred little cuts and abrasions, but the warmth made him want to melt right into it. He held still, letting the water pour over him until the cuts numbed. The purr of the water drowned out everything else.
Maybe he could stay here forever. That sounded better than going back and facing things downstairs. A wave of dread coursed over him as he thought about Mom sitting there, drinking her coffee, waiting for him. Waiting with those eyes that wouldn't meet his and more 'I'm sorry's that came out stiff and strangled.
He'd told her it was okay, and he'd meant it. He hadn't ever hated her, even back then, though he'd come close a few times, when there were thousands of volts setting fire to his nerves and she just watched, expressionless, with those cold red lenses over her eyes, waiting for him to break―
Danny slammed his palms into the wall, shaking off the memory. Of course he'd forgive her. It wasn't her fault. Not really. Of course he didn't want her blaming herself. It just―sucked. Everything sucked.
He drew in short breaths through clenched teeth, squeezing his hands into fists, pressing the knuckles into the old blue tile. Hot water pelted down on his neck and back. It was like a boiling mass had been dug up from deep inside him and now it sat hot and thick on his chest, threatening to choke him.
She apologized, Fenturd. What more do you want?
Danny didn't know. He didn't know, but... He ran both hands up his forehead, pushing his wet hair back and letting the water spatter on his face. He squeezed his eyes shut and pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes. Bright spots popped behind his eyelids.
He didn't hate Mom. Danny knew that. It was okay, but he wasn't. Maybe he couldn't be.
Shannon stepped into the living room, wiping her hands on a red checkered dish towel.
Maddie straightened, trying to compose herself; she dashed a hand across her cheeks that only served to smear the tears into her makeup. A large part of her wanted to excuse herself to the nearest bathroom and spend the rest of the night in there, but she took a deep breath and looked at Shannon instead.
The woman studied her critically. Then she nodded and sat down across from Maddie in the armchair. "Supper can wait," she said firmly. "You and I need to have a word."
All That Remains :: tbc...
It's not over yet.
This was the first scene I wrote - way back when I first thought seriously about doing a sequel, before Shannon existed, before I had any idea what I was getting into. It's changed a lot since then, but this and the next chapter are the heart of this story. We're almost home, guys. Let's do this.
Meanwhile my life is about to go through some crazy changes. I'll be working away from home for a few weeks, then I'm dropping to part time to focus on writing. Which is exciting but also scary, since I have yet to prove I can make anything close to a living wage with this ole hobby of mine. Still, I'm gonna give it a shot. I'm ready to do more than my day job. We've adopted a cat and we're searching for a bigger apartment. Life keeps on rolling forward.
Double thanks to my beta readers, MyAibou, Anneriawings, LunarMothim, Misfit-toy-haven, Pumpernickel Muffin, Attu, Chintastic, and Cordria, who worked through these two chapters not once, but twice, since after the first pass I made a lot of changes. Supersize that for Cordria, who helped me navigate the tangled knot of meshing plot and characterization before I revamped it. You're the actual best, never change. :)
And thank you, dearest readers, for your reviews! They're not only super encouraging, but are really useful in spotting weak points in my story which I can then buffer before you even notice. It's a beautiful symbiosis. Shoutout especially to Today-Only-Happens-Once for the lovely lengthy review on this and some other stories! You're awesome and I really appreciate you taking the time to write those up!
First off, thanks for your reviews! You always have something thoughtful to say. :D
I wanted to get back to you re: the GIW acronym you mentioned a couple of chapters ago. I've puzzled over that one for a long time too. The best one I've been able to come up with is Government of Interdimensional Warfare.
I feel that calling it 'interdimensional warfare' rather than 'ghost hunting' accurately reflects their militant/xenophobic mindset. Their exorbitant funding also makes the most sense if you see them as an extension of the US Defense Department, haha. Grant for Interdimensional Warfare is another option, but the term implies a level of oversight that doesn't seem to apply to them.
It's tricky turning a joke name into a serious one, which is why I haven't nailed it down before now. If anyone has a better suggestion, I'm all ears!
Until next time,