“Jack,” Maddie called, staring at the blueprints of their Fenton Ghost Portal, “did you put a light switch on the inside of the Fenton Ghost Portal for maintenance purposes?”
Jack wandered over to see where she was pointing, shook his head, and said, “No, that’s the on/off switch.”
Maddie swallowed and whispered, “Then who turned it on?”
Jack scratched his head. “Are you sure those are the final blueprints? I did make some last-minute changes. That switch might not have been functional, even if I left it in.” He bent over her shoulder to study the blueprints more closely, and a quick glance at his face told Maddie that, yes, these were the final blueprints, she hadn’t made a mistake, and that Jack was just as confused as she was.
She’d pulled out the blueprints because she thought it high time they shut the portal down and do a thorough check on everything before powering it back up. They hardly wanted something to short out—explosions were not out of the realm of possibility—and routine maintenance of the structure itself only made sense, especially when they had the portal running twenty-four-seven. Finding a way to turn it on and off efficiently had been another matter, of course, but she was sure she’d figured that out, and then—
And then she’d seen the light switch. The on/off switch. The one that was inside the portal, where neither of them had turned it on, where no one could have turned it on safely, yet had been wired in and was crucial to the portal’s function.
She remembered, all too well, the crushing disappointment she’d felt when they’d started up the portal and it had failed to work.
She and Jack had left to clear their heads, knowing they’d need to look at everything again with fresh eyes to figure out what they’d missed, yet when they’d returned….
“We need to talk to Danny,” Jack said, his thoughts a mirror of hers. “He took his friends down here, showed it off. He said they’d hit something….” Jack’s voice cracked, but Maddie didn’t need him to fill in the rest.
What if this was what Danny had hit?
She didn’t know how that could be possible. Danny had said there had been an accident, but he’d been fine. No scratches or scrapes, no burns or bruises. He’d made it sound like it had been a technical glitch, something miraculously fixed when he’d stumbled into the control panel by the door, not….
Not going into the portal chamber.
Not turning it on from the inside, having so much electricity and ecto-energy flooding his system—
No. She was simply worrying too much. That couldn’t have happened; Danny certainly wouldn’t have been fine if it had. More likely, the three of them had made a game of throwing things into the portal, and something had hit the switch, and they hadn’t wanted to admit to playing around in the lab when they’d known full well that they shouldn’t do that.
“I’ll go; you can focus on your own work, sweetie.” Maddie stood and, seeing her husband’s troubled expression, gave him a peck on the cheek. “I never meant to bother you with this.”
“Is this my fault?”
“You made a simple mistake on the blueprints that we both overlooked when we were building it and checking it over,” Maddie said. “That would make it as much my fault as yours, but Danny’s fine, whatever he and his friends were up to that day. We don’t need to worry about that.” Jack still looked unconvinced, so Maddie gave him a smile and said, “Danny should be in his room doing his homework. I’ll let you know what he says.”
“If he talks to you,” Jack murmured as she turned towards the stairs. That was a problem, and not just a recent one, but Maddie hardly thought things would get better if they didn’t try. Perhaps, if she made it clear she was willing to listen to whatever Danny had to say and wouldn’t be angry with him, he’d open up to her.
When Maddie knocked on the door to Danny’s room, however, she didn’t get an answer. She’d checked the kitchen and living room on her way up, so he wasn’t downstairs, and the bathroom door was open. She knocked again, louder, and called his name, in case he was just asleep. Nothing. He shouldn’t be at Sam and Tucker’s; it was a school night, and he was grounded on school nights to do some studying after his dismal grades on his latest English and math tests until there was some sign of improvement or he accepted someone’s help as a tutor, since he wasn’t keen on accepting help from them or Jazz.
Maddie crossed the hall to Jazz’s room and knocked on the open door. Jazz looked up from her own homework, and Maddie said, “Sweetie, do you know where your brother is?”
Given how close Danny and Jazz had gotten in recent months, Maddie almost expected a hesitation followed by a lie, but Jazz said, “There’s a lunar eclipse tonight. He’s probably on top of the Ops Centre.”
Danny hadn’t mentioned anything at supper, but he hadn’t mentioned much of anything to them lately. She should have remembered this without that; his interest in astronomy was something that hadn’t waned over the years. “Right, thank you,” she said.
Maddie couldn’t decide if it was guilt or dread that weighted her feet as she climbed to the Ops Centre. She and Jack never meant to ignore their children, but Danny had pushed them away, closed himself off, and they couldn’t find a way to reconnect with him. She’d thought there’d been some improvement after the DALV symposium disaster, and Jack had thought there had been some improvement after the fishing trip they’d taken to Lake Eerie, but….
But for all that Danny still had his moments where he warmed up to them, there was a distance they couldn’t seem to bridge, and Maddie was no longer sure if it had begun before the Fenton Portal had started working like she’d always assumed.
If Danny and his friends had done something while in the lab, if the accident had been more serious, if the portal’s miraculous functioning had not been so miraculous after all….
Maddie opened the hatch, easing the metal door down slowly so it wouldn’t clang and startle Danny. She couldn’t see him when she first climbed out, and she wondered for a moment if Jazz had been wrong, but then she caught sight of a familiar silhouette outlined by the glow of the FentonWorks sign below.
Said silhouette was perched perilously close to the edge, nearly to the point where he should have slid off entirely, and Maddie had to stop herself from calling out and scolding Danny for being so reckless. She hadn’t come to yell at him. She’d come to talk to him and, more importantly, to listen.
After that, she could go back downstairs and turn off the sign. It wouldn’t do much to dim the light pollution, but it would help. If Danny had asked one of them to drive him out to the country, she wouldn’t have refused, but he must have thought she would have. She would still make that offer first, of course, but she could see the faintest tinge of red at the edge of the moon, and she wasn’t sure there was time.
She couldn’t remember something as simple as how long a lunar eclipse lasted, even though Danny had surely told her more than once.
Maddie eased herself over the safety railing and walked as close as she dared to the edge, shifting her weight to compensate as the metal curved downward. It was funny, the way the light seemed to make Danny’s hair appear lighter than it was; it was almost white. At least he’d thrown on a jacket before coming up here; the chill of the night air would’ve surely given him goosebumps otherwise. “Danny,” she called softly. She saw him start, and her heart jumped into her throat when she realized she might very well have disrupted his balance.
And then she realized that gravity wasn’t asserting itself on the figure at all, and something inside her twisted for an entirely different reason.
Wide green eyes turned to meet hers as she scrambled backwards. She had weapons with her, of course, but none she cared to use without a sure footing, when a misjudgement might mean a fall to her death and not a tumble to the ground.
Her searching fingers found the railing behind her as Phantom said in a rush, “I’m sorry, I swear I wasn’t spying, please don’t shoot.”
He’d twisted in the air to fully face her and looked ready to fly off at any second, but he didn’t.
Maybe because she hadn’t pointed a weapon at him yet.
Maddie’s heart was still racing, but she risked taking her eyes off the ghost long enough to do a sweeping glance of the Ops Centre roof.
And no chance of him being on the other side when the best view of the moon was from this one.
Jazz had been wrong, then. Perhaps Danny had sneaked out and was watching the eclipse with Sam and Tucker in one of the parks, where the darker sky would give him a better view. That was good, at least. That meant he was safe, far away from the dangerous ghost who felt entirely too comfortable about lounging on her rooftop.
“Why are you here?” she bit out. She could feel the firm bar of the support railing against her back now, and she leaned into it, knowing it would be the only thing to help stabilize her if she had to shoot. They’d greatly reduced the recoil on their smaller ecto-guns, and the lipstick had none at all, but she wasn’t just shooting into the sky; where Phantom hovered meant she’d have to shoot across to the other houses, slightly downwards, and even if the blast from an ecto-gun wouldn’t scorch human flesh like it would a ghost’s, it could still do material damage.
Quite aside from the fact that she didn’t want to deal with another lawsuit, it wasn’t fair to the neighbours to take a shot like that when Phantom could easily dodge it.
He had to think her an utter fool. “Stargazing.” Her tone told him in no uncertain terms that she didn’t believe him for a moment. Now that he’d moved, she could see that the glow that surrounded him was his own, not from his proximity to their sign, but that made no difference. “It’s not very dark here, Phantom, when you could fly anywhere you liked to get a better view of the sky.”
He flinched, no doubt pretending to feel her sharp reproach as if she’d struck him. He was awfully good at mimicking human emotions and reactions like that. “I…needed to stick around here,” he mumbled, almost too quietly for her to hear.
She saw him hesitate, and then he opened his mouth and lied to her face. She wasn’t sure why she was remotely surprised—he was a ghost—but what irked her is that he seemed convinced she’d believe it. He kept talking, maybe in an attempt to keep her distracted, and she listened just enough to hear him tossing out little details here and there that he clearly thought would help his story.
She hadn’t met another ghost that was as brazen as this one, but…but maybe there was a reason for that.
She had no doubt that Phantom knew how their portal worked. He had to empty all the ghosts he caught in his thermos at some point, and creating portals wasn’t one of his abilities that she’d ever seen. She’d assumed he’d found a way around their genetic lock, but maybe his interest in them—their inventions, their portal, their lives—wasn’t just due to a sense of self-preservation.
Perhaps Phantom had been the first ghost through the portal.
Perhaps Danny and his friends had met him, befriended him without realizing they’d only be betrayed later, and—
It still wouldn’t explain who had turned on the portal in the first place.
And if Phantom had been planning to meet Danny here, perhaps to fly him somewhere darker to watch the eclipse in exchange for information on their latest inventions, it didn’t explain Danny’s absence.
Phantom was rubbing the back of his neck, looking sheepish, as another lie tumbled out of his mouth.
“You know about our inventions,” Maddie said, cutting him off, “and you know about our portal.”
Phantom was shocked to silence for a moment before he blinked at her and said, eloquently as ever, “Huh?”
“There’s an on/off switch in the interior section of the portal,” Maddie said, watching for some flicker of recognition in his eyes, some sign that this wasn’t new information, because if he and Danny were friends, Danny would surely have talked to him if not to them—
Phantom’s eyes grew wide again and his feet dropped to the metal of the Ops Centre with a quiet clang. He took one step towards her, then another, until he was no longer in danger of simply sliding off—or would be, if he weren’t a ghost. “You know about that?” His voice was higher now, strangled, tinged with…. Not just fear. Desperation? Resignation? Hope?
She couldn’t sort it out, and it wasn’t worth trying.
“Of course we know about it,” she replied sharply. “We built it.”
“I…. I always thought that was a mistake.”
It had been, but it should have hardly been one he had ever thought about. She waited, sure he’d say more if she let the silence stretch.
“I…. Then you know?”
His voice was very small, but his eyes were fixed on her face like he dreaded the answer she might give.
Maddie considered lying. She considered pulling out one weapon or another and shooting Phantom at close range, before he had time to react. She considered what she should ask Phantom, now that he seemed to be in a listening mood, but instead of any of those arguably more important questions, she asked him something she wasn’t even sure he could answer. “What happened the day our portal started working?”
His reaction was all the confirmation she needed that he knew, even if he couldn’t have been directly involved.
“I….” She saw him swallow, as if he had any need for that. “I, um, did what I knew I shouldn’t.” He chewed his lip and, when she said nothing, added, “I’m sorry. I wish I could say I wouldn’t do it again, but, um, I would. Apparently.”
She was standing on top of the Ops Centre, having a somewhat civil conversation with a ghost because he’d been the only one she’d found while looking for her son, and for all that he was telling her very little, it was abundantly clear that he knew more of what had happened the day of Danny’s accident than she or Jack did.
Maddie let out her breath in a huff and forced the tension from her shoulders. Phantom wouldn’t stay and speak with her for much longer if he expected her to take a shot at him, and she…. She needed to know what had happened. For Danny’s sake. That was far more important than facing off with the supposed town hero. There would be plenty of opportunities for that and much fewer to get any hint about what had happened in the lab that day. Even if Phantom tried to feed her lies, it would be something for her to go on when she approached Danny.
“Let’s talk,” she said quietly, easing herself down so that her legs stretched out in front of her while her back remained firmly planted against the railing. “Please. I won’t shoot, I promise.”
Phantom hesitated only a fraction of a second before he dropped down across from her and crossed his legs. “I didn’t actually think you would.”
She frowned at him. “Didn’t think I would what?”
“Shoot me. Right now, I mean. Since you didn’t start that way. And because you….” He trailed off, studying her for a moment, and then added, “Because you suspect, I guess.”
Suspect what? That he worked with Danny and his friends? That he most likely worked with Jazz as well? That they were the reason he could get around the genetic lock on the portal, the reason he could freely come and go from Amity Park?
That he might be one of the many reasons her son had pulled away from her?
Maddie glanced up at the moon, but the eclipse looked unchanged to her eyes. Danny would know the difference. He’d be able to point out where the shadow looked a hair thicker.
Phantom, following her gaze, said, “It’s early yet.”
Stargazing, he’d said. Maybe she hadn’t been wrong in thinking he’d planned to meet with Danny after all, except for the fact that Danny wasn’t here.
“Do you know where Danny is?” she asked quietly. Phantom looked back at her, shifting uncomfortably, and didn’t look remotely surprised by her question. At his reluctant nod, she pressed, “Is he safe right now?” Another nod, and she found herself nodding as well. “Good. I…I worry about him.”
Phantom’s voice sounded strained when he asked, “Is he what you wanted to talk about?”
“In a way,” Maddie admitted softly. She couldn’t see a way of getting any information without showing that she was willing to trust Phantom, and being honest with him was the first step towards that. Well, that and not pulling out any of her weapons. “When Jack and I first built the portal, it didn’t work. While we were gone, Danny was in the lab with his friends, and there was an accident, and suddenly it was working.”
She waited for Phantom to say something, but he was staring at his gloved hands in his lap.
“The security cameras in the lab haven’t worked reliably since that day. The power surge of the portal turning on fried all the electronics, and even once we replaced everything, it would still…glitch.”
Phantom didn’t meet her eyes.
“I’ve begun to suspect that those glitches aren’t entirely the fault of our hardware, for all that we can never seem to get any footage when the portal is actually open.” She suspected Tucker’s involvement, not just Phantom’s—especially since Phantom’s help would require enlisting the help of another ghost like Technus, as she’d never seen him display any particular affinity for electronics or technology. More often than not, the cameras were out for weeks at a time, until she and Jack happened to check and reset them or replace the damaged parts, and sooner rather than later….
“I’m not as concerned about what’s been happening in the lab recently as I am about what exactly led up to the accident,” Maddie continued. “What I initially took to be a light switch for maintenance purposes was not that and was instead the reason the portal hadn’t worked when we’d tried it, and…. And we’d left it plugged in, and when we came back to the lab again, someone had turned it on.”
Phantom finally looked at her again. “What do you want me to say?”
“What you should say, not what you think I want to hear.”
“Fine.” Phantom jumped back to his feet in a motion too smooth to belong to any human, and he started pacing in front of her, a short circuit that was only a few steps each way. “Fine. You want the truth? And you’d believe me? Even though ghosts lie? Even though they’re manipulative and you should never trust a word a ghost says?”
“Speaking as if you’re not one again,” Maddie observed, for it hadn’t been the first time. She knew he was just parroting her own words back to her, words he’d no doubt overheard more than once, but it hardly helped his case.
She saw Phantom grimace as he stopped in front of her. She looked up, keeping her face impassive, until he said, “It’s not a switch.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Inside the portal. It’s not a switch. It’s definitely a button. Two, I think.”
Maddie wanted to accuse Phantom of stealing the blueprints to the portal, only she was perfectly aware that that panel was marked as containing a switch, not buttons. Thinking back to it, she tried to remember what she’d been soldering, what Jack had been working on—
Had there been buttons?
“How do you know?” It might be a trick. It might be a lie. The trouble was, she couldn’t see what he’d gain from it. It was easy enough for them to check, especially when they already planned on powering down the portal for maintenance. Not that Phantom would know that unless the kids had told him, but—
“How do you think I know?”
“Danny,” Maddie said, because it was the only thing that made sense to her. Jazz had been the one studiously avoiding the lab back then, and Danny had been down there with his friends. He could have easily seen the inside of the portal chamber and told Phantom about it later.
Phantom gave her a curt nod. “Exactly.”
He seemed to think the matter settled, and he dropped back down into a sitting position opposite her.
She was still trying to figure out why Danny would ever bother to tell Phantom what the inside of the portal looked like.
“You’re taking this better than I thought you would,” he admitted. “This isn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be when I finally told you.”
Finally told her what? Surely not about the buttons on the inside of the portal.
“I…. I’m kinda glad you brought this up. In a not-shooting-or-dissecting-me situation. I’m not sure if I would’ve had the nerve to tell you otherwise.”
She said nothing, hoping he’d give her another clue about what he meant, but instead, he twisted to look at the moon again. The rust might have spread since she’d first looked at it, but it was moving more slowly than she’d anticipated.
“Some things happen in an instant, y’know? And sometimes they take forever. And sometimes, that’s the same thing, and it’s just your perspective that’s messed up.” This time, Phantom looked back at her over his shoulder. “That’s why this is nice, having the time and taking the time.”
“Are you ready to tell me the rest of it, then?” she asked, still not clear on what it actually was. Phantom shot her a quizzical look, his brow furrowing. She saw the moment his face smoothed over, melting into understanding and quickly shifting to a careful, blank expression.
“You know enough for now, I guess,” he said, even though she really didn’t. He turned his gaze skyward again and added, “You can tell me when you figure it out.”
There he went again, teasing her with cryptic comments.
Maybe, if she started guessing, he’d tell her. He’d already admitted to wanting her to know. “Danny and his friends turned on the portal. They got it working while we were gone.”
Phantom snorted. “They didn’t all press the on button.”
Maddie frowned. Even though Phantom was no doubt right, he made it sound like…. “Why would Danny tell you all of this?”
“I need to know,” she said, but was that even true? She didn’t expect to police who Danny confided in, but why Phantom? “I…. Danny told us about the accident, but he never went into any great detail about what the accident was, only that he was fine, but now that I know the switch was on the inside of the portal—”
“Button,” Phantom corrected without turning around.
“I just…. I’m worried that there were more consequences to that than we realize. Even if it’s as simple as something Danny or one of his friends tossed into the portal and it hit the button, there could be some reaction—”
She broke off when Phantom twisted to look back at her. “You seriously think they looked at the gaping cavern of the portal chamber and went, hey, let’s throw stuff in there? Not, I dunno, I always wanted to go in there or who knows what kind of awesome, super-cool things exist on the other side?”
“You have no idea what the portal chamber looks like, even if Danny did tell you there was a button in there.”
Phantom rolled his eyes. “Fine, then do you really think they would’ve noticed there were buttons if they were just throwing stuff? It was dark in there, and those things were more than halfway in.”
Maddie opened her mouth, but something about Phantom’s words gave her pause.
Why did he talk like he’d personally seen the inside of the chamber? He was a ghost. The portal had always been on since he’d been in Amity Park. He couldn’t possibly know how dark it could be inside without the proper lighting setup, and that touch of bitterness in his voice…. There was no cause for that if Danny had simply told him it was hard to see in there without a flashlight. There wasn’t any reason for Danny to have told him about the chamber at all. As long as it was working, it was none of Phantom’s concern; he should only be worried if it was in danger of not working.
Was it possible that he’d had a glimpse of the interior the moment the portal formed? The time frame would be so short, she wouldn’t have thought anyone could see anything, or register any details if they had seen it, but— “You were the first ghost through the portal, weren’t you?”
Phantom wrinkled his nose at her. “What? No, I think that was the Lunch Lady. Giant meat monster, remember?”
“But then why—?” There was no reason for him to lie about this. He didn’t know why she was asking what she did. “Why would Danny tell you what the portal chamber looked like?” she repeated. “Danny, Sam, Tucker, Jazz—any of them. It makes no sense.”
“It makes no sense because you’re making assumptions instead of listening to me,” Phantom said, which she thought was uncalled for. They were having a conversation, weren’t they? “They never told me anything,” Phantom added, his voice quieter now. “They didn’t need to.”
He turned away from her again, looking back at the moon and leaving her to puzzle out whatever that meant. No entity from the Ghost Zone should know what the inside of the portal looked like. Even those with the ability to create natural portals hadn’t come through Amity Park before that—not according to their Fenton Finder prototype, anyway—and when Phantom didn’t even have that ability, well…. He would have had to have been here all along.
On this side.
Maddie let out a slow breath. She knew not every ghost lived in the Ghost Zone, but for Phantom to have been one of those ones, they should have heard about him long before they got the portal working. The only other thing that made sense were if he had been someone to pass away recently or come to Amity Park shortly before the portal had opened, but ghosts in this realm who were tied to something couldn’t travel without that something being moved, and Phantom was young, speaking without any recognizable slang from another era, and there hadn’t been any children—
The thought grew in her mind and became fully formed before she could stamp it out and dismiss it as the obviously incorrect idea it surely was.
Instead, she found herself staring at Phantom as he looked up at the night sky, and she remembered how she’d thought him her son.
No one had needed to tell Phantom what the Fenton Ghost Portal looked like when it wasn’t running because he’d seen it before it had ever been turned on in the first place. He’d been inside it, without even his ghostly glow to provide additional light.
Because he’d always lived on this side and never in the Ghost Zone.
“You turned the portal on,” Maddie whispered, because that was easier to say than the rest of it, the important part.
Still, his quiet yes made her heart ache, knowing what must have happened in that moment, knowing how much sheer energy would have coursed through his body, the equivalent of a lightning strike—
“You’re lucky to be alive.”
That made him turn to look at her. He offered her an unconvincing smile, letting it drop off his face when she didn’t return it. “Am I?”
She wasn’t sure which he meant. Am I lucky? Am I alive?
She pulled in her legs and shifted to sitting on her knees before opening her arms in a clear invitation for a hug.
He didn’t move.
“Danny.” It felt so strange to call him that, but that was his name. The name she and Jack had given him when he was born. “Please.”
Still he hesitated, and she had to fight to keep from trembling, from showing how cold she suddenly felt. “Danny,” she repeated, “I’m sorry.” Was she crying? His figure was blurry now, a smear of white and black. When had she started crying? “We should have realized, and we didn’t.” It was hard to choke out the words, but she had to say them. He had to hear them. “I’m sorry for everything we’ve done to you. I…. I know that’s not enough. It can’t be enough on its own, but please, let it be a start. You’re still our son. We love you.”
She didn’t know what had happened, not really. Not down to the science of it. She and Jack had never studied what that amount of ecto-radiation in a single instant would do to the human body; it hadn’t exactly been something they could study. They had always assumed it would result in death and taken precautions to avoid it; even Vlad’s exposure in their college years had landed him in the hospital for months, and that would have been less than what this had been.
But she understood now that this was her son. Somehow. He had always been her son.
And Danny’s accident in the lab that day had always been so much worse than he’d let them believe.
This explained so much, and it emphasized how little she’d known.
Phantom flew into her arms and buried his face in her shoulder. “I love you, too,” he mumbled. There was a blinding flash of light, and she closed her eyes against it. When she opened them again, she was met with familiar black hair.
The figure in her arms hadn’t moved, and she hugged him tightly.
“Do you want to go in and talk to your father?” she whispered into his hair, but he pulled back to look at her and shook his head before snuggling in beside her.
“Not yet,” he said. “I want to see the eclipse. I… I can tell him when it’s over.”
A few more stolen moments of stargazing in silence. Well, she certainly couldn’t argue that. As Danny had said, it was nice having the time and taking that time. And he had come up here to see the eclipse in the first place.
Maddie, shifting again so she was sitting cross-legged with one arm wrapped around her son, knew how fortunate she was that he’d decided to confide in her, to seed enough clues for her to figure out what had been staring her in the face for far too long. She was grateful that he’d bridged the chasm of misunderstandings that had spread between them, and she was thankful that there were now so many ways they could help him—not the least of which was fighting the ghosts that turned up while he was in school or doing his homework or trying to sleep. He’d taken so much responsibility upon his shoulders, and he hadn’t crumbled under the weight of it.
Not even when she and Jack had done their best to tear him down.
She tried not to think about what would have happened if she hadn’t listened—this time, or ever.
Instead, Maddie turned her gaze to the heavens and watched silently as red seeped across the moon, relishing the fact that she was doing so with her son.