At the start of his freshman year, Danny Fenton was a nobody, just another scrawny white boy built mostly out of elbows, only known by anybody at all because his parents were the town mad scientists. He wasn’t noticeably good at anything, but he liked science class most of all because he wanted to be an astronaut when he grew up. Good on him for being an optimist, since it looked like his big sister had inherited all the brains in the Fenton gene pool.
Danny had two close friends, Tucker the geek and Sam the goth. Being described in just one word is harsh, but when you’ve got a guy juggling a backpack full of palm pilots and cell phones and a bottle-black girl in knee high combat boots, how else could they be labeled? Danny though, Danny was as average as anybody. He was nice (if a bit snarky), clever (if a bit naive), and once puberty stopped stretching him like a rubber band he might even be handsome one day.
But then, not even halfway through his first semester at Casper High, Danny Fenton changed.
Nowadays, he’s got knuckles like ground beef. Other boys in gym class say he’s built like he’s been wrestling crocodiles, and that he’s got the scars to show for it. He doesn’t slouch like he used to, but some days he’s got a limp, or he favors one arm, or he has to sit out the mile run because he somehow bruised his ribs so bad he can barely breathe. Last month was Photo Day, and he showed up with a broken nose and three missing teeth. When it was his turn on the stool, he grinned at the camera with a mouth full of blood, like he was daring the whole world to come after him.
He had all his teeth again the next day, and nobody knew what to make of that.
He’s still got Tucker and Sam, and nowadays Valerie Gray hangs with them too, sometimes. Nobody’s sure why, though the Casper hive mind remembers Danny and Valerie dating for a few weeks their freshman year. All of them though, Sam and Tuck and Val, they’re often as roughed up as Danny is. Asphalt burns and ugly bruises and thin scars on their arms and legs, and last year Tucker had his leg in a cast for two whole months. Valerie’s been to the hospital plenty of times herself, and nobody knows how she got those two huge, puckered scars across her back. Sam couldn’t take notes for weeks sophomore year because she’d burned her hands somehow, and she’s still got shiny pink palms and nerve damage in all her fingers.
They’re all always in trouble. Detentions, suspensions, groundings; you name it, they’ve probably got it within the last week. Their grades are in the toilet. They skip school all the time. Danny runs out of class as often as once a day, and if he comes back at all he walks in like he got hit by a truck. The teachers have all given up. It’s not drugs. It’s not their home lives. They aren’t in any gangs. Nobody’s seen them at any parties in years. Some kids crack Fight Club jokes, but those are just jokes, no substance to the name calling or the tired movie quotes shouted at them when they walk through the halls.
That only leaves the ghost attacks, but everybody knows Danny’s scared witless of anything that might go boo. It’s been a joke since grade school, the shivering baby boy of the town kooks. If you run up to him wearing a bed sheet he might just wet himself. What a bad day that must have been when he found out ghosts were real.
So if it isn’t gangs or ghosts, what could it be?
“Hey Fenton, c’mere!”
Danny’s been Dash Baxter’s favorite punching bag since junior high, although it might be more out of habit these days than anything. Danny’s taller than Dash, nearly as broad in the chest, and he’s got arms like he’s spent the last three years benching dumpsters. But Danny always plays meek when Dash comes a-hollering, takes the after-school beatdowns like a champ. Never says a word, although sometimes he’ll smile, slow and sly, and look at Dash like he could just laugh.
Needless to say, Dash never likes that.
Danny turns at the sound of his name, shuts his locker and spins the dial just before Dash gets him by his collar. Used to be, Dash had to haul Danny off his feet to look him square in the eyes. Now, he’s gotta pull down, bend Danny’s back and buckle his knees, to do just the same. Even if Danny wasn’t buff, he’d still be one of the tallest guys at school. Look at his dad, after all. Jack Fenton would be hard to miss even if he didn’t go around everywhere in that that awful orange jumpsuit.
“Well good morning, Dash,” Danny says, like his collar isn’t ripping at the seams. “Fail another test?”
“Like you’re one to talk,” Dash sneers. “You’ve got a worse grade in chemistry than I do!”
“Only ‘cause I can’t touch the beakers, remember?”
Dash releases his grip on Danny’s shirt, shoves him against the lockers. “Man, what’s with you today?”
And there’s that grin. The curl to Danny’s bruised mouth that says without saying, how little you are, Dash Baxter, how boring. “What, don’t tell me you’re worrying about me?”
A crowd’s already gathering, even though a single punch hasn’t been thrown. But then, everybody can sense a fight, sense that certain kind of electricity warming the air. It’s nearly tangible, whenever two kids are about to throw down, and Danny’s got his scarred hands fisted like he might just fight back for once.
“As if, Fenton. I just wanted to ask you something.”
In the crowd, Tucker and Sam brush past onlookers soundlessly, edging in to help their friend, if he wants them to. The twitch of his head, once and to the right, is barely noticed by anybody but them. They stop; they watch.
“Oh yeah?” Danny’s lips thin, bare a sliver of chipped white teeth. “You looking for the answers to last night’s algebra homework? Well you’d have better luck asking Star, ‘cause I didn’t do it.”
“No, you idiot, I wanna know if you know where Phantom’s gonna be this weekend.”
Danny’s eyes widen. He actually tries to take a step back, but the lockers dig into his spine. “Why d’you think I know where he’s gonna be?”
“Please,” Dash scoffs. “Everybody knows Phantom’s, like, obsessed with you for some reason. He’s always around wherever you are.”
“Wait, what? Seriously?” Danny chuckles, drops his shoulders, stretches his hands til the knuckles pop. “You don’t think with all the experiments my parents do I’m not the least bit contaminated?”
“What, hasn’t anybody noticed?” He casts his gaze around the crowd, pale eyes flashing green in the fluorescent lights. “Phantom can sense ectoplasmic signatures. How else would he know where the other ghosts are?” Danny grins, drags his nails through his black hair. “He follows my sister around too, go ahead and ask her. He thinks we’ve got signatures when it’s mostly, I dunno, residue from one of my dad’s inventions blowing up at the dinner table again.”
Dash faces pinches like he’s just smelled something rotten. “Gross!” he says, and just like that, the tension breaks. No fight between the jock and the freak today, no chance to see a little blood, no point to stick around.
“Why’d you wanna know where he’ll be this weekend?” Danny asks as people begin to drift off to class. Sam and Tucker linger, cautious, focused. Beyond the thinning crowd, Valerie turns around the corner at the far end of the hall and goes stock-still. She bares her teeth like she’d be willing to tear a bite out of Baxter’s meat to make him leave Danny be.
Dash, smirking and unaware of the three hungry pairs of eyes focused on his back, pulls a sheet of paper from an inner pocket of his letter jacket. “Paulina and I are putting a party together for him--y’know, to celebrate three years of Phantom saving our butts. Figured he’d appreciate the gesture, right?”
“Uh.” Danny’s fingers twitch, but he accepts the paper. It’s cute. White print on black, with little green ghosts as a border. Thanks for everything you do, it says. Phantom’s #1, it says. The invitation crinkles in his hands. “Yeah. Guess so.”
Dash rolls his eyes. “Whatever, freak. Just make sure he gets it, or it’s your butt on the line.” He turns and heads to class, shouldering Tucker out of his way just because he can.
Danny watches him go, like he can’t quite believe what just happened. “Sure thing,” he mutters finally, turning to join his friends. If he limps, well, it’s not like anybody ever hears him complain about it.