Danny jerked awake, his leg cramping in an extremely painful way. He blinked, trying to get his eyes to adjust to the bright light. Something was scratching on his face. He felt around, still half-blinded and half-asleep. His hand pushed aside empty plastic bottles, old clothes, loose papers, and eventually grasped onto his phone. Squinting, he stared at the screen. 5:17 pm.
Danny groaned and tossed the phone away, not caring where it landed. It clattered against...something. He should have been in class three hours ago. Technically, I should have been in class three weeks ago, Danny thought humorlessly.
Groaning, he sat up and looked around. Ah, he thought absently, rubbing the imprint of the carpet from his cheek, I fell asleep on the floor again… Gingerly, he stood, his cramped leg flaring again. He grunted, and sat back down again, trying to massage the spasm away. After a moment, he tried standing again, and was relieved when his leg held his weight. He looked around his dorm room and, after finding a sweatshirt that at least looked clean, he pulled it on and stepped out into the hall.
Two people pushed past him, and Danny pulled the hood down over his face and shuffled towards an elevator, riding it down from the seventh floor to the first. He stepped around a group of people getting on, not looking anyone in the eye. Reaching into the pocket of his sweatshirt, he pulled out a beaten pack of cigarettes and a lighter. He pushed open a glass door with his elbow, and lit a cigarette, inhaling deeply. He held the breath for a moment, then let it out with a puff of smoke. Then he sat down on the stone steps outside the door and leaned against the glass wall, hoping that nobody from campus security would see him and tell him to put it out.
Keeping an eye out for one of those annoying uniforms, he watched groups of students walk by in the distance. He hoped that nobody would see him. This particular stoop was Danny’s favourite place to sit and smoke. Technically, this was a service bay for the supply trucks that stocked the small “shop” and “restaurant” connected to his dorm building, so the door Danny had just exited was rarely used by students. He leaned back, the sharp steps digging into his spine.
He glared at the sky. It was cloudy. Light breeze. Rather warm. Definitely spring, he thought.
Sighing, Danny took another drag and stubbed out the cigarette. He briefly considered going back inside, back to his trashed room, and emailing yet another dubious excuse for why he missed class to a professor he had never met. He considered, more briefly, actually cleaning the room, actually attending a class, but the thought made him ache. Instead, he pulled out another cigarette and lit it. The feeling of something tearing inside him returned again, and Danny closed his eyes tightly. If he focused just right, he could almost see the hole, the rip, the tear, the void that had started eating away at him.
“I didn’t mean for it to get this bad,” he said softly to nobody in particular. “I just...wasn’t ready. And now it’s too late.” He felt the hot streak of something wet leak from his eye and down his cheek. He clenched his jaw. No, he thought, I wasn’t ready for this.
When Danny had left for college, he had been so excited. He was going to study astrophysics and he didn’t care that there wasn’t anything he could really do with a degree like that, but the venture excited him just the same. All Jazz could talk about for the two years before that was how great college was. How many friends he would make; how much fun Danny would have. And she was so proud of him for going, for getting accepted, for following his dreams. She had even helped him pack!
Sure, it fucking sucked that he, Sam, and Tuck had all been accepted to different schools. But they had made it work in the way that only best friends could. It was genuinely fun at first to see their dorm rooms, their campuses, their new friends , but as time went on, Danny found himself less and less interested in their new lives. As time went on, he found himself longing more and more for the old days. The easy days. He didn’t want to play third wheel to Sam and her girlfriend on their dates. He didn’t want to go with Tuck to the engineering building to see his projects. He didn’t...want. That was when he first felt the hole rip open inside of himself.
After his first year of college, he withdrew. He didn’t go out with his friends much anymore, didn’t talk to them much anymore. It was hard to be around them when, in comparison, Danny hadn’t done anything new or made new friends. It was so much easier to stay in his single dorm room, re-watching old movies, re-listening to old music. So why bother? He had seen their lives. He had literally witnessed them moving on with their lives. The ghost thing had been wickedly fun in high school, but with the trio spread out all over the state, it was pretty much impossible for “Team Phantom” to function like it used to. If he was being honest, they’d probably never go ghost hunting together again. And if they did, Danny knew it would be different. If he was being honest, he doubted they would want to do it again. Upon this realization, Danny felt that feeling again, that ripping and tearing that left him feeling empty inside.
After his second year of college, Danny had started skipping classes. Not on purpose, of course. Not at the start. The first time was an accident. Danny had been up late the night before, curled into a ball on the floor, staring at his laptop with stinging eyes. He had been waiting for a message from one of his friends, his brain stuck in a loop of memories. They were always so close, so in sync, and Danny knew that one of them had to know he was feeling this way. This terrible, painful, empty way. They have to know, Danny had sobbed, they have to know.
Next thing he knew, he was waking up to his laptop making some sort of noise and desperately, he clawed at it. He scanned his messages over and over again, his eyes burning and his mouth twisting into a grimace. There was nothing. It had just been his professor, emailing him to ask why he wasn’t in class. Danny blinked and rubbed the tears from his eyes, typing a quick reply. Something about being sick, promising it wouldn’t become a habit.
It did, and the void opened wider and wider inside him each time.
His third year of college was going poorly, and Danny hadn’t expected anything different. He had taken up smoking years ago, trying to calm his nerves and, only at the start, to try make himself appear “cooler.” Now it was just another shitty habit, like avoiding the classes he never planned to attend in the first place, his family who never called, and his friends who hadn’t reached out in months.
Is it me? he had thought countless times. Did I do something wrong?
Danny stubbed out the second cigarette next to the first and stood, wiping his hands on the thighs of his pants. He turned and went back inside.
Vlad Masters had kept himself busy the last few years. Playing mayor and CEO at the same time was more work than he thought it was worth. Not to mention the damned ghosts. With Danny gone, it was up to him to shoo the occasional pest away from Amity Park. It was a tedious, thankless job, but one he took pride in.
Vlad laughed to himself. Sure, he smirked, pride. He had been out later than he would have liked after such a long day, chasing off a rather annoying ghost that spoke of nothing but boxes for fuck’s sake.
Growling, Vlad floated down through the roof, directly to his bathroom, and immediately transformed. Sighing, he leaned forward and examined his face in the mirror. He had very recently turned 47 and was looking for any signs of...of what? He frowned at his reflection. Signs of old age? He shuddered at the thought.
Vlad shook his head and turned to the shower instead. It had been an already rough day, and the godforsaken ‘Box Ghost’ had only made it worse. Disrobing, he stepped into the cool water and sighed again.
Danny’s heart sank lower than it had for a while, and that was saying something. He hands shook, as he scrolled up on his laptop to read the email again.
Academic probation. Failure to attend classes. Impending expulsion.
He felt the void threaten to tear open and swallow him whole. He had to get out of here, leave, before it actually did. Before the university did what it was threatening to do. Danny glanced around his room, panicked. He...had a bookbag at one point, he was pretty sure. Yes, there it was, under a heap of...Danny didn’t even know. Clothing in need of washing. Trash in need of tossing. Forgotten textbooks he had meant to return last semester, or were those from two semesters ago?
Danny was breathing hard. He couldn't just leave, what was he thinking!? I...I have to fix this. This is my fault. I did this. I did this to myself. It’s my fault. He looked around the room again. What was he looking for?
And where would I even go ? he whined to himself, chewing on a fingernail. I can’t go home , they’d start asking questions again. I can’t go see them , we haven’t spoken in so long, it’d just...make things worse.
Suddenly, a thought occurred to Danny. It was a longshot but...it was probably the least problematic place to go in his current state. He stood still for another moment, surveying the damage he had done to the room. No, it’s...it’s too much, he thought, his foot tapping frantically. He had to leave
He dug out the bag, and started packing.
After his shower, Vlad had dressed in a pair of silk pajama pants. He drifted lazily to the kitchen of his Amity Park mansion and poured himself a glass of something strong . He quickly downed the glas, refilled it, and set it on a marble counter. Then he teleported himself to his library, snatched a book from the desk, and then back to the kitchen. It was a rather domestic use of the power, he knew that. But damn was it convenient.
He raised the glass and took a sip, floating to his favourite armchair, and settled in with his book. He tried to read a few lines, but his general frustration kept distracting him, and by the time he realized he had just been reading the same sentence over and over again, he groaned and leaned his head back.
He had just nodded off when a sharp noise jerked him from sleep. Blinking sleepily, he looked around the room. There it was again. At his door, there was another knock.