December 22, 4:45 pm CST
For the first time in her life, Sam understood why some people hated Christmas.
Outside the passenger window of the mammoth, tricked-out, ghost-fighting recreational vehicle—known to its owners as the Fenton Family Assault Vehicle or the Fenton RV, depending on who was driving it—the sky was turning a deep purple as the last bit of daylight faded in the west. She could see Christmas lights coming on in many of the houses they passed as they lumbered down the snow-dusted streets of Amity Park—pinpricks of festive reds, blues, greens, and golds that kept the dark at bay. But their cheery glow only served to bring the sense of loss Sam was feeling into sharp relief. It wasn't enough to completely ruin what had always been her favorite time of the year, but it certainly kept her from feeling the kind of joy she'd always associated with the holidays.
A faded Amity Park Supports Danny Phantom sign, trimmed with lights, passed into her line of sight, and she pressed her lips together. It had been a while since she'd seen one of those signs. The more generic I Believe in Ghosts placards with the black-with-white-trim ribbon emblem in the corner were far more common, and even those weren't as ubiquitous as they had been before the election. Seeing the older sign added to her melancholy, and her hand automatically went to her own black and white ribbon, pinned to her coat.
The RV pulled up to the curb in front of a two-story brownstone that was decorated much like the other houses. There were lights lining the doorway, and a menorah held a prominent place in the front window next to the I Believe in Ghosts sign. Hanukkah had been over for nearly two weeks, but the menorah and the other Hanukkah decorations inside would stay up through New Year's, along with the lights and the Christmas tree.
"Well, here we are."
Sam turned to face the driver, offering what she hoped would be interpreted as a warm, sincere smile. Not that she didn't feel sincere warmth. It was just that she had to plaster on fake smiles so often these days, it was hard for her to believe the real thing looked remotely genuine. "Thanks, Maddie."
The older woman smiled in return, but there was a sad edge to it. She tucked a strand of short, gray-streaked auburn hair behind her ear in a nervous gesture. "Are you sure I can't talk you into staying with us, sweetie? I just hate to think of you here all alone."
"Alone?" Sam made a derisive sound at the back of her throat. "You're kidding, right? My problem is that I don't get enough time alone. Between work on the case, all the media schmoozing and public appearances, and the endless flow of people dropping by or calling to check up on me, I would kill for five seconds alone. And that's not even taking into account the ghosts. I swear, I think the Box Ghost has opened up some sort of Ghost Travel Agency, and I'm the first stop on the tour. If there's one thing I can promise you, it's that I will not wither away from loneliness anytime soon."
Maddie chewed her lip a moment. "It's not loneliness I'm worried about."
Sam gave a brief nod of understanding. "Jack is here every day checking the security system, and then Nick comes by and fixes whatever Jack did."
She got a snort out of Maddie with that one.
Bolstered by the slight improvement in Maddie's mood, Sam continued. "Dash finds any excuse he can to hang out here—he'd sleep on the couch if I'd let him—and I keep a Fenton Phaser on me at all times." She patted her pocket, where the small ecto-plasmic gun was fastened securely into a pocket holster.
"The one Jack modified?"
She nodded again. They both knew it wasn't the ghosts Maddie was worried about, either.
This placated the older woman somewhat, but then a different look of apprehension crossed her features. "Sam, I… I don't suppose Danielle is one of the people who calls to check up on you?"
Sam looked down, focusing on some scope or another on the RV dashboard, her shoulder-length black hair falling like a curtain around her face. "I'm the last person she wants to talk to."
Maddie put her hand on Sam's shoulder. "It isn't just you, Sam. Jack and I haven't heard from her, and neither has Jazz. I keep hoping…" She sighed. "She still blames herself."
"She blames me."
"It's not your fault, sweetie. And it's not hers, either."
"I know. And on most days, I know we did the right thing. But Dani's gonna have to work it out for herself."
Maddie turned, sitting back in her seat in weary resignation. "I just hope she does it soon. I worry about her, that she'll…"
"Do something stupid," Sam finished, looking back up. "Valerie won't let her. You know that."
Maddie's expression turned sardonic. "Like drop out of school?"
"She just took a year off. Even her advisor thought it was the smart thing to do."
"I know, but still." Maddie put her hands on the steering wheel, gripping it tightly. "This isolating herself from her family, from school, from everything and everyone but Valerie. She needs us, and we need her."
Sam felt a familiar anger bubble up. She understood why Dani wouldn't talk to her, why she blamed her for the way things had gone down on that unspeakable, horrible night. But to do this to Maddie? Sam had to bite the inside of her cheek to keep from making a nasty reply, which would only serve to make Maddie feel worse. Instead, she shrugged. "I know, but what can we do?"
"Valerie could make her come home for Christmas, for one thing."
Her irritation rose to the surface again, and this time she couldn't quite keep it out of her voice. "Danielle's a big girl, Maddie. Valerie can't make her do anything."
"Well, she certainly could refuse to let her stay at her apartment. Then she'd have to come home, or go back to school, or something."
"No, she wouldn't have to come home or go back to school. She's an adult. Like it or not, she can do whatever the heck she wants. At least with Valerie, she's not going off half-cocked looking for revenge and getting herself killed in the process."
Maddie sighed. "I know she's an adult, but I'm still her—" She stopped short. "No, I'm not. I'm not her mother, not really."
The pain in her voice punctured Sam's anger, deflating it, and this time it was she who put an arm on Maddie's shoulder, squeezing it for emphasis. "Yes, you are. This has nothing to do with that, and Valerie would be the first person to tell you so. It's the fact that you're Danny's mother that's the issue. That's why she can't face you. Or Jack, or Jazz. She's even uncomfortable around Tucker. But she'll come around in her own time. You'll see."
"I know. But it's already been five months, and I..." Maddie faltered, blinking back tears. Like Sam, she was wearing a black and white ribbon pinned to her coat, and she toyed with its ends as she tried to regain control. "It feels like I lost them both, and it's Christmas, and I thought for sure by now…"
Sam pressed her lips together again, unable to trust herself enough to respond.
Then Maddie shook it off, smiling. "No. I'm not going there. We'll have a full house for Christmas, and there are plenty of reasons to celebrate. You're staying over Christmas Eve after the candlelight vigil, right?"
"If you have room."
"Don't be silly! Of course we have room! Jazz, Nick, and Charley are the only other ones staying the night. They'll be in Jazz's old room, and you can have Danny's. Then that'll be at least a day or two I won't have to worry about you."
Back on safer ground, Sam grunted in exasperation. "You don't have to worry about me at all. I—whoa." She put a hand to her abdomen.
An anxious frown crossed Maddie's features. "Everything all right?"
"Oh, everything's fine. The baby just kicked, that's all. He does that a lot now."
Maddie laughed. "I remember what that was like. When I was pregnant with Danny, Jack and I were convinced he'd grow up to be a field goal kicker for the Colts." Then, she gave Sam a hesitant look. "Do you mind? I know you don't like people touching your belly all the time, and we were just at the doctor's, but…"
"Please. I don't like random strangers on the street acting like they have the right to manhandle me, but you are definitely on the approved list."
Maddie reached out and placed her palm across Sam's abdomen, and Sam guided it to the place where she'd felt the most activity. They didn't have to wait long before there was another kick. It felt like popcorn in a hot air popper, and Sam couldn't help but laugh. "Man. It's like Circus Gothica in there."
"Just wait a couple more months. You'll swear you can make out body parts through your skin."
"Okaaaaay, that's really creepy."
"Oh, it's not as bad as it sounds. The circus acts were my favorite part about the third trimester."
"Considering all the other joys of the third trimester, like the backaches and the squashed internal organs, I'm thinking it won't really be much of a contest. And kicking is good. He can kick me all he wants, just so long as doesn't phase right out of my uterus."
Now it was Maddie's turn to be reassuring. "Don't you worry about that, Sam. I know things got a little scary there when we couldn't find the heartbeat, but those weekly shots you're taking will keep him locked up safe and sound. I promise."
Sam nodded, growing more solemn. "I know you keep telling me I don't have to thank you, but I really can't stop thanking you for everything you've done. Dr. Mihashi's an amazing doctor and a wonderful person, but she would never be able to take care of this pregnancy without you."
"Do you think I'd trust my grandson to any other ghost expert?"
"There are no other ghost experts."
"Hey, wait a minute!" Sam grinned as an idea occurred to her. "What if I stopped getting the shots when it's time for him to be born? Maybe we can just phase him out of me!"
Maddie arched an eyebrow at her. "I don't think so. You're gonna have to do it the hard way, just like everyone else."
Sam wrinkled her nose in a mock scowl. "Oh, come on! If I've gotta spend the next couple of decades worrying about the trouble a kid with ghost powers can get into, the least he can do is make his entrance into the world as painless as possible."
"Not gonna happen. And, Sam?" Her expression turned serious. "The worrying doesn't stop after a couple of decades. It never stops. With or without ghost powers."
Sam swallowed as she met Danny's mother's eyes. "Yeah. I know."