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Night Shades

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It was late, late at night and long past the hour when the city had fallen into fitful slumber and those with good sense had abandoned the waking world, but Maddie Fenton was still wide awake. Her fingers laced around a cheerfully patterned mug and her hair wild on the worn fabric of her favorite tank top, she stared into the lukewarm tea she had brewed hours ago and wondered if maybe she should try her hand at reading the leaves. 

The moon and stars cast bleak light across the streets and into the darkened windows of the other houses along the street, but Maddie huddled in the spotlight of the lone bulb that hung over the kitchen table; even as the shadows ran down the walls and across the cold tile of the floor, she was safe from their icy touch. 

Some nights, the shadows were bolder, more persistent. For those nights, when the light of a single bulb was not nearly strong enough to drive them away, a sleek silver blaster joined her for her silent vigil by the kitchen table. 

Tonight was one of those nights.

A muffled crash echoed from the basement, and Maddie’s eyes snapped to the closed door. Her head lifted slowly. She uncurled by degrees, starting with uncurling her hunched shoulders and ending with prying her hands from around her mug. 

There was a second crash, followed by an odd distorted muttering, and Maddie was halfway down the stairs in half an instant.

“Don’t move,” she barked, training the sights of her blaster dead center on the chest of the ghost who had been plaguing her family for the past month and a half. 

The ghost froze. It stared at her with wide green eyes, looking for all the world like a frightened child even though Maddie knew it was nothing of the sort. In one hand, it held a Fenton thermos while the other hovered over the button to seal the doors of the portal. 

“Caught in the act,” Maddie said bitterly, and the ghost twitched oddly. 

“Caught doing what?” it asked, “What do you think I’m doing?”

As usual, Maddie had to fight down the urge to fire blindly at the sound of that warped voice - and the sight of that oh-so familiar cocky grin. Phantom looked unusually tired tonight, and the ghost’s white hair swayed more than usual in an intangible breeze, but despite it all, she could never mistake that face. 

What type of mother wouldn’t recognize her own son?

“I guessed that you had been letting the ghosts through the portal,” Maddie said, readjusting her grip on the blaster, “And now I see that I was right.”

“Maddie-” Phantom began, but cut off with a flinch when she flicked off the safety warningly. It had finally stopped trying to call her ‘Mom’, but even hearing it say her name was enough to make red creep across the corners of her vision. 

“Please,” Phantom tried again, “I’ve told you, I want to help keep Amity Park safe. I fight every day to capture ghosts and send them back-” it gestured pleadingly at the portal. “Why can’t you believe me?”

“Because I know better,” she spat. “What kind of protector steals a child and takes his face?” 

Her eyes darted to the swirling green doorway and then back to where Phantom stood. 

“I bet that’s where you’re keeping him, isn’t it?”

The ghost’s smile, already strained, crumbled to pieces. “I don’t have your son, Mrs. Fenton.”

Maddie scoffed. “You’re a filthy liar.”

Phantom bristled in indignation, eyes flashing and legs fusing into a tail that beat the air angrily. The rubber of its gloves creaked as its fingers tightened around the thermos. 

“It’s the truth!” shouted Phantom, “I am not and never have been keeping your son hostage!”

“So you don’t know where he is?” Maddie challenged.

The ghost’s anger drained away as quickly as it had set in. It said nothing.

“I knew it,” she hissed. Phantom watched her warily. “Even if you’re telling the truth, and you don’t have Danny, you know where he is. As if I needed any more proof that he’s somewhere in the ghost world, which all of you ghosts know like the back of your hand.”

“Not really,” Phantom protested weakly, “I mean, I still get lost all the time-”

The wall just beside its ear erupted in a shower of sparks and ectoplasm as Maddie once again spared its miserable afterlife, and with a gasp, Phantom flinched out of sight. The doors to the portal slid closed, seemingly of their own accord, but Maddie had no doubt that Phantom had fled the lab before they locked shut. 

Still, she held her stance for a few moments more as she scanned the lab for anything out of place. When nothing leapt out at her, she dropped her arms back to her side, stuffing the blaster into the waistband of her jumpsuit and marching back up the stairs. 

She paused with her hand on the door knob. Now that she knew for certain, time was of the essence. The sooner she and Jack could launch a rescue, the better; every moment Danny spent in that hellish, swirling dreamscape was a moment too long. 

Twisting, Maddie looked back down into the lab. Lit as it was by fluorescent lights and nothing else, she might also be able to escape her insomnia and the approaching sunrise. If falling asleep had been hard before, it would be impossible now.

She descended the stairs once more, and got to work.

-

“-and if you feel even a tiny bit nauseous, or if any of the tech stops working, just press the big red button and we’ll have you reeled back in faster than you can say, ‘spooks and specters’! I also added a tracking beacon to the suit, so if the tether gets cut, we’re coming in right after you!” 

Beneath Jack’s boisterous front, Maddie could see just how afraid this whole expedition made him. She set a comforting hand on his arm, opening her mouth to try and reassure him, but no words came out. Truthfully, she was as scared as he was. But they had to do this. She had to do this.

For Danny.

Some of her thoughts must have shown on her face, or perhaps she had repeated them aloud often enough in the past months, because Jack sighed and covered her hand with his. 

“It’ll be fine,” he muttered, able to muster the encouraging words she couldn’t find but not managing to imbue them with much confidence. Her lips quirked into a small smile.

“It’ll be fine,” she repeated, and he rested his forehead on the glass dome of the newly constructed pressurized suit she was going to wear on the first expedition into the ghost world. Maddie closed her eyes and reminded herself that this was a momentous occasion. She was going to be the first scientist to set foot in an alternate dimension! That should have been exciting.

It wasn’t.

But exciting or not, she had made up her mind to do this, and that meant leaving safety and the known world behind. She couldn’t stand here until she was ready - she never would be. 

So Maddie reluctantly pulled away from Jack, drawing comfort from his presence and the familiar chaos of the lab with all of its haphazardly strewn tools and half-finished bundles of wires and metal. It called to her, but the call of the portal, which stood open and spilled gentle arcs of toxic green light into the lab, was stronger. 

She glanced over her shoulder one last time at Jack, and at Jazz, who stood, pale-faced and half in shadow in the far corner of the lab. 

“I’ll be right back,” Maddie promised softly. Jazz just ducked her head and refused to meet her eyes. That was fine. Once they had Danny back, they could all begin to heal together. 

Firming her resolve, Maddie walked forward until her toes were brushing the swirling eddies of the portal. Then, taking a deep breath of the filtered air in her suit, she plunged beneath the surface. 

Green , was the only way Maddie could think to describe the ghost world. Nothing but green as far as the eye could see. Chunks of rock drifted aimlessly across the wasteland, and the only other spots of color against the vivid backdrop were a scattered handful of doors of various shapes and sizes, all of which her brain insisted were purple but which glowed with faint black light. She had to look away when a sharp pain took up residence in the base of her skull.

“Hello?” she tapped the control panel in the arm of her suit. “Jack, can you still hear me?”

“Loud and clear, honey! The Fenton Phones work like a charm!”

“Just like we knew they would,” Maddie smiled. “Now, let’s see if everything else is running as smoothly…” 

And it was. Aside from the scanners, which were practically vibrating right off of her utility belt with the influx of new data, all of the equipment Maddie had brought with her was functioning within standard margins, and in some cases seemed almost more stable than they had been on the other side of the portal. She made a note to gather samples of the ambient ectoplasm in the ghost world and test the performance of their equipment based on proximity to ghostly energy. 

The last and final scanner Maddie pulled out was the most important. It was a modified Ecto-Detecto, specially redesigned to point the user towards human energy signatures. Danny’s toothbrush, carefully preserved, sat inside the signal chamber. 

The scanner had pointed unerringly towards the portal in the long months since Danny’s disappearance. Maddie had been the last one to see him - she refused to add alive to the end of that statement; he was still out there somewhere, and the scanner proved it. Even though the police would do nothing to help, she had known that this was no teenage runaway. And now that she was inside the portal, the scanner would point the way to her son.

Although, the stupid thing seemed to have gotten fried as she walked through the portal. Its needle hung limply, almost seeming to point back in the direction she had just come from, which would have just been silly. Luckily, it was nothing a simple reboot wouldn’t fix.

As she waited for the scanner to reset and power back on, Maddie drifted without direction through thin air. It was the strangest sensation, almost like being weightless, but with the bone-deep understanding that gravity was pulling you in five directions at once. The result was that she simply hung in space, like a magnet caught between two equal and opposite poles or a fly caught in honey. She shook her head, and didn’t fight the giddy smile that threatened to split her face. 

The smile vanished, of course, as soon as she glanced back at the scanner.

“Jack, I think the scanner is broken,” she said. 

“Really? What’s wrong with it?”

“It’s pointing…” Tugging on the tether looped around her waist, Maddie managed to spin in place, until she was oriented pointing back at the portal. The needle spun with her. “It’s just pointing at the portal.”

There was a heavy silence on the other end of the line as Jack processed this. Then, sounding as horrified as Maddie was starting to feel, he asked, “Mads… you don’t think…”

“None of the neighbors saw Danny leave the house,” she said firmly, if a little desperately, “Wherever he disappeared to, it has to have something to do with the portal. That’s it.” She cast one last searching look around the swirling green void, but it offered her no answers. “I’m coming back through.”

“Okay.” 

 

Dinner was a strained affair. Maddie knew that Jack was turning the events of the expedition over in his mind, trying to find a theory that didn’t lead to acknowledging that they had been on a wild goose chase all this time, and Jazz--

Well, Maddie didn’t know what Jazz thought anymore. Her daughter’s hair hung in her face, and her fork twirled absently in the spaghetti mounded on her plate. Maddie sighed softly. Sometimes it felt like she had lost more than one child on the day that Danny disappeared. 

Maddie, for her part, was thinking about the portal, and about Phantom. The ghost knew something about Danny and where he was - of this, she was absolutely certain. In fact, if her theory was correct, Phantom would have to have been the last one to see Danny, if only to take his likeness and memories. No ghost could have known the things it knew, and--

Maddie froze with a forkful of pasta lifted halfway to her mouth. It clattered to the table, and both Jack and Jazz jumped in surprise.

“When was the first sighting of Phantom reported?” Maddie asked. Her hand still hovered in the air, fingers curled around where the fork had been moments ago. 

Jack’s eyebrows drew together. “It must have been…” His eyes widened. 

“The day of the disappearance,” Maddie finished grimly. From out of the corner of her eye, she saw Jazz watching them both in silence. “That must mean--”

“--that Phantom was the first ghost to have come through the portal.” Jack and Maddie stared wildly at each other, before Jack leapt away from the table. He barrelled up the stairs to the ops center, Maddie hot on his heels. 

After three hours, they had constructed a rudimentary timeline of events on the rolling whiteboards. People and dates were linked with red yarn, taped to the boards and trailing in haphazard lines from photo to photo and bullet point to bullet point.

At the center of it all: a picture of Danny, taken by one of his friends, a newspaper clipping about the disappearance of the fourteen year old son of the Fenton family, and the word Phantom written in jagged black marker and circled red. 

“You’re getting closer.” 

Faster than thought, Maddie and Jack whirled around, drawing weapons as they went - but Phantom was just a bit faster. The ghost retreated to the other side of the ops center, the guts of the weapons spilling from its clenched fists. 

“You’ve been looking in the wrong places,” Phantom said, calm in the face of their fury. “Your son isn’t in the Ghost Zone.” 

“Tell us where he is!” Jack shouted, brandishing an ecto-pistol that looked comically undersized in his giant hands. Apparently Phantom thought so, too, because the ghost cracked a smile before flicking it away with a precisely aimed blast of its own.

“You wouldn’t believe me if I did,” said Phantom. “So I’ll give you a hint. Just one hint, and you can take it or leave it, whatever you want. Does that sound good?”

That was much more in-line with what Maddie would expect from a monster like Phantom. 

“Fine,” she hissed. “Spill it, spook.”

Phantom raised an unimpressed eyebrow at her, but complied. “Turn off the portal,” it said simply, and then it floated out of the ops center like walls were a thing that happened to other people.    

“Turn it off…?” Jack and Maddie frowned at each other. Why would turning off the portal help them find their son? Was it even possible to do? 

“Wait,” Maddie realized. “If the portal was interfering with our readings from the scanner, then turning it off should allow it to fix on where Danny actually is!” 

“Of course!” Jack brightened immediately. “We can start work on it first thing in the morning!”

She hesitated. 

“I think I’m going to start now,” she said slowly, already eying the door back downstairs. 

“Maddie,” Jack started, then stopped, at a loss for words. 

“I won’t be able to sleep,” Maddie said. “This way, I can at least do something other than just sitting around.”

Jack let out a frustrated breath. She didn’t turn to look at him. 

“Alright,” he said, after a moment, “Then I’ll work on it with you.”

-

Jazz looked like she wanted to be anywhere else in the entire world, but she slunk down to the lab just as they were putting the finishing touches on the control box spliced into the portal’s power source. It no longer ran on electricity from the grid - they had marked the moment half the town had gone dark as the moment the portal had opened initially - which meant that it must have been drawing power directly from the ghost world. The device they had designed was set up to create electromagnetic pulses that would, in theory, disrupt the flow of ecto-energy to the portal’s frame for long enough to let them test their scanners again. 

“Stand back, sweetie,” Maddie told Jazz, and Jazz shrank back even further from the portal. Jack and Maddie, who stood much closer, pulled their hoods and goggles over their heads. 

“Ready?” Jack asked.

“Ready.” Maddie confirmed. 

Jack slammed a fist into the button labelled ‘ off.’ 

With a groan of protest and an explosion of goopy green ectoplasm, the portal began to de-stabilize, the edges peeling away from the steel frame and giving them the first glimpse of the machinery inside the tunnel walls. 

And… plants?

As the portal shrank, sloshing violently in every direction, ectoplasm splattered across the floor of the lab and the inside of the tunnel - and the gently glowing purple flowers that became more and more visible with each passing second. By the time the portal had finally disappeared - with the sound of soda being sucked through a straw - Maddie could see all the way to the back of the tunnel.

Although, that wasn’t really true. Choking vines, more black than green, clung to every inch of the tunnel walls, in some cases woven over and under themselves where they had run out of room and refused to quit growing. Delicate purple flowers peeked out of the tangles, and upon closer inspection, so too did clusters of red and black berries. 

“What on earth…” breathed Maddie, stepping forward. The leaves of the plant shrunk away.

“Careful,” Jack said warningly, and Maddie nodded tersely in acknowledgement. She snagged a face shield from a nearby table - better safe than sorry - but her suit would protect her against anything but the most concentrated of ectoplasmic attacks. 

As she advanced, the vines retreated shyly, and by the time she had reached the threshold of ecto-burned steel, they had piled themselves in the back of the tunnel and along the walls out of her reach. Like this, their root system was visible, running through the machinery like little wires except for one spot near the end of the tunnel, where they dug into the ground in a ropy, fibrous mass. 

Was this what Phantom had wanted them to see? What did it mean? How had Phantom even known this was here? From the moment the portal had turned on until just a few moments ago, the inside of the tunnel would have existed as a paradox, like Schrodinger’s cat. Since the space inside the tunnel was acting as the conduit between two realities, it would exist simultaneously in neither reality and… in both… 

The ground swayed beneath Maddie’s feet. She unhooked the modified scanner from her belt. 

Please. Please, please, please, let me be wrong, she prayed, to whoever or whatever might have been listening, and powered the device on. 

The purple flowers swayed in a phantom breeze, overcoming their reticence to creep inquisitively towards her, and even though it had been an age since the prerequisite biology classes she had taken in college, Maddie’s memory was good enough to inform her that they were solanum dulcamara , and deadly dangerous to the touch. This time, she shied away from them. 

The scanner beeped in her hand, announcing that it was ready and operational with a cheery beep that made her flinch. Hardly daring to breathe, Maddie glanced away from where the roots were buried in the ground. 

A sob welled up in her throat, forcing tears from her eyes.

“No,” she whispered. Just as it had for months before, the needle pointed towards the back of the tunnel.

Concerned questions drifted to her ears from the mouth of the tunnel, but she wasn’t listening. Feeling like she was wading through molasses, Maddie moved further into the tunnel. 

Every step cost her, and her clumsy feet kept catching on exposed wires and pipes that stuck up through the floor. Had Danny seen the same flickering lights in the tunnel walls? Had his feet lodged in the same unexpected pits in the floor? 

What was buried under the roots of the climbing nightshade?

Just as she made her way to the mass of vines, an odd protrusion from the wall caught her eye. This far back, it was hard to see anything, and the strange glow of the plants somehow seemed to darken rather illuminate the space, so she turned the readout display of the scanner and let its faint blue glow wash over the wall. 

Power on, said the label on the button, and Maddie fell to her knees. The steel was warped and twisted where the vines burst from the ground, disappearing into a cavity that she could only see as different volumes of shadow. 

“Bring the welding torch,” Maddie croaked, noticing how the tunnel warped her own voice and threw it back at her in disjointed echoes. Like--

Like how--

Just like--

Like a ghost’s .

 

Jack and Maddie worked in silence. They had quickly learned that cutting through the vines was not a good idea - ghost plants, it seemed, had a tendency to resist being pruned - and while having to carefully maneuver around the plants was taking them longer than Maddie could stand, it was better than the alternative. 

There was also a small, guilty part of her that wanted to drag her feet, prolong the process or delay it indefinitely. It was the part of her that didn’t want to see what she knew she was going to find when they finished, and it was growing larger and larger with every chunk of steel they peeled away.

But to her surprise, when the last red hot piece of the floor fell away, it wasn’t hysteria that swept her away; instead, a tide of apathy like numbing frostbite washed over her limbs. 

Even as Jack scrambled out of the tunnel, the sounds of him being violently ill carrying back to her, and as Jazz screamed and flung herself back up the stairs and out of the house with such haste that the front door slammed with a concussive boom, Maddie felt nothing. 

Mindful of the cherry-red glow of the steel, she reached down into the hole and wrapped her arms around the thin body that rested inside. The same darkness radiated off of it as the flowers, which had retreated as soon as the welding torches had blazed to life. And indeed the body and the flowers were one and the same in more than just that; the roots sprang directly from the chest cavity of the perfectly preserved corpse, through skin and the material of a black and white Fenton Works jumpsuit. 

Blue eyes stared at nothing. Black hair hung limply over a pale forehead. A raw, blistered trail ran from one hand all the way to one cheek - an electrical burn. 

All of this and more she took in as she gathered the body closer. Her arms tightened around it until they shook, and her shoulders heaved with tears she could hardly feel. Vines crept soothingly across her back, and if she didn’t think about how deadly they would be if they brushed across her bare hands, she could almost imagine that Danny was hugging her back.

This was what she wanted, wasn’t it? All those months, and she had sworn to find Danny. Even in the privacy of her own thoughts, how often had she told herself that she just had to find him, that she just had to know?

Over the cresting despair, Maddie wondered how long she had known that her son was dead.