The boy at the door has a ghost under his skin. It’s a close fit, but green light still seeps out. It paints him smeary shades of radioactive green. Under the smoky light you’re fairly certain he’s a teenager with dark hair, a couple years older than you. Beyond that, it’s hard to make out details. When he looks at you, his eyes flare like glow-in-the-dark stars.
He raises one hand in an erratic wave, his face crinkling in a panicky grin. As he waves, his fingers blur, like there’s a lag the ghost hiding inside him can’t help, like flapping your hand in front of a TV screen. Four fingers become eight. It’s very hard not to stare. “Hi there!” His voice pitches high, cracking a little. “I’m, uh. I’m looking for Norman. Norman Babcock?”
You force yourself to meet his too-bright eyes. “...Yeah?”
Irritation flits across his face, there and gone in half a second. “Does he live here?”
He blinks. There’s a delay there too, just enough to disorient. For an instant, whatever color his human eyes are is gone, leaving a shock of highlighter green. “Seriously? I figured he’d be older--uh. You. I figured you would be older.”
You scowl, standing up a little straighter. He still has half a foot on you. “What do you want?”
“Oh, right.” He laughs, a staccato burst of nerves. “This is gonna sound crazy--and I know that--and you totally have my permission to slam the door in my face, but please, just--just hear me out first.” He waits for you to nod, licks his lips before he starts to ramble.
“So, um. Blithe Hollow is freaking teeming with ghosts, right? But apparently you’re the only one who can see them? And the thing is, I think whatever’s up with this town is starting to affect me too, because I’m normally not like--uh, this?” He gestures at himself, his smile pinching as the ghost’s motions lag behind his own again. “And I’m kind of seriously freaking out because I think it might be getting worse? And I don’t know what that means? Anyway, the pilot lady stuck in the tree down the street said you’d be able to help me with--with whatever’s happening.”
You gape. You can’t help it. You haven’t even told Neil about the pilot lady yet.
He drops his arms, sighing. “Am I on the right track here or did she totally play me and you just think I’m a lunatic now?”
Very carefully you ask, “You… can see them too?”
“Well, yeah?” He shrugs. “Where I come from, you have to be blind not to see ghosts. Then again, they’re normally blowing stuff up or coating themselves in hundreds of pounds of raw meat instead of just meandering around like friendly zombies, so I guess I can see where you’re coming from.”
“They’re not anything like zombies,” you bite out. “Trust me.”
He squints. Or maybe only the ghost does, or they both do. It’s hard to tell. “All that stuff really happened? Last year, I mean. With the Witch?”
You ignore his question. Dozens of people have asked you about that night, about what really happened and how you stopped her. You’re tired of correcting people, and besides, it’s over now.
“You found me,” you say instead. “Now what?”
His name is Danny Fenton, he’s fifteen years old, and he’s here in Blithe Hollow because his parents are real life paranormal scientists that actually specialize in ghosts. It doesn’t sound quite so crazy once he says he’s from Amity Park.
“That place is on the news all the time,” you say, stirring cocoa mix and marshmallows into two steaming cups of milk. “My dad says it’s all a big scam. A, uh, ‘tourist-attracting, smoke-and-mirrors heap of sensationalist garbage.’”
Danny chuckles. “Oh, what they show on national television is the tame stuff. The GIW--Government agents, hilarious thorn in my side--have a pretty good lockdown on the really crazy attacks. Y’know, so people don’t freak out all Ghostbusters-style.” He taps two fingers against the edge of the kitchen table; at the same time, the ghost pops its knuckles one-by-one with his thumb. “You ever hear of the time the entire city got teleported to a different dimension?”
...He’s got to be messing with you. You look at him over your shoulder, raising one eyebrow. “You’re kidding, right?”
The ghost wears a grin from ear to ear, and his mouth isn’t too far behind. Maybe it’d be better if you just didn’t ask. Getting to the point of things seems the smart thing to do. Try as you might though, you can’t think of a way to ask how the heck did you get a ghost stuck in you?? without probably offending one or both of them.
You set both cups down on the table and sit down adjacent to him. “What happened, exactly, with you and him?”
Danny blinks. “With who?”
“With the ghost?” He stares at you, cluelessly. “The ghost inside you? The ghost staring up at the ceiling right now?”
He shivers then, and the ghost’s head snaps back into alignment with his own. “Oh. Heh.” He wraps his hands around his mug and squeezes. “Believe it or not, I’m not being overshadowed. This is my own ghost.”
“I--really?” You take a sip to give yourself a couple seconds to let that sink in. “I’ve never seen anything like this before,” you say. “I’m sorry. I don’t know if I’ll be much help.”
“I figured you’d be out of your depth. There’s not too many people like me out there.” There’s a little curl in his voice and in the ghost’s smile you don’t think you’re supposed to notice, so you stay quiet. “Still,” he continues, “if you’ve got any suggestions, I’m all ears.”
“I’ll do what I can.” Another sip to think, and this time he joins in. He makes a little pleased murmur, a soft little sigh of contentment. The ghost--his ghost--goes back to frowning at the ceiling like it’s insulted his mother. Does--does he know your grandma is up there? You’ve seen him on TV; you’ve seen what he does to other ghosts. Where do you even start with something like this? Actually, no, that’s a stupid question. Basic facts is where you start, unless you want a repeat of last year.
“Well, ok,” you begin with a steadying breath, “How did this even happen in the first place? Not the whole separating thing. You already said that’s new.” Fumbling. Ugh, you’re no good at talking to living people. “It’s just--if my sister’s ghost started flopping around like yours is, and she could see it? She’d run screaming down the street. You seem…” You trail off, because both of his faces share the same sly grin.
“Unsurprised that I have a ghost, and that it’s doing weird things I can barely control?”
Danny tells you what happened.
Not everything--he’s got an easy face to read, made all the easier by his ghost’s soft chuckling. You think you understand why he feels the need to lie. Everybody has secrets. But he tells you enough. How crazy Amity Park is, how dangerous. How every day is a chance to be attacked and terrorized by big green things that don’t resemble people at all, or by ghosts that almost look alive, or even by ghosts that almost look like the ones you’ve grown up with. But even the most harmless looking ghosts there can shoot fire from their hands, or worse. He tells what it’s like to live in that kind of place, of how you have to do anything--everything--you can to protect people who can’t protect themselves.
“There was an accident,” he says, like it’s a confession. “Don’t ask me how, ‘cuz I’m not gonna tell you. After that though--that’s when the ghosts started to show up.”
He pauses, like he’s weighing something huge and dangerous in his head. It doesn’t take brains like Selma’s to know what. Are you safe. Would you tell anyone. Even if you did, would it be bad. Stuff like that. You let him think, sipping your cocoa politely. You make it a point not to poke around without reason.
Finally, with a huge heave of a sigh, he pulls a cell phone out of his pocket. “I don’t see a way of fixing this without telling you the truth. But I’m gonna need your word you won’t tell anybody.”
“Do I have to swear?” you ask.
Danny huffs.“Well yeah, dude. This is serious.” He makes chopping motions with both hands for emphasis, his ghost tagging along. “Life on the line kind of serious. I’m putting a lot of trust in you, okay?”
Swearing got you into a whole mess of trouble the last time you did it. You still have a nasty scar on your chest and your parents keep the phone disconnected most days so the reporters can’t call. Still, Danny’s slowing tearing in half and you might just be able to help. “I promise,” you say, and hope you’re not making a mistake.
“Good enough, I guess.” He leans across the table, his ghost following reluctantly, and deposits his phone into your hand. There’s a blurry picture of three teenagers pulled up. The background is dark and indistinct, brick maybe, but they’re all lit by a suffuse white glow too close to be a streetlight. There’s dark-haired white girl, dressed all in black and purple; a black boy with thick glasses and a floppy hat, one yellow sleeve stretched out to take the shot; and in the middle, arms slung loosely around each of their shoulders--
“That’s what I look like when I change,” Danny says softly. “It looks like bad Photoshop, I know, but I’m telling the truth.”
Careful not to touch his four--eight--fingers, you hand him his phone back. A weird pseudo-possession or something, you’d understand. But he expects you to believe he’s some kind of… ghost hybrid? What do you even call that? “You’re Danny Phantom?”
“I’d show you, but….” He shrugs. His ghost doesn’t. “I dunno what might happen if I tried that now. Kinda nervous about doing any ghost stuff, honestly.”
“But you’re not…?”
“Dead?” He wraps his hands back around his mug like it’s a lifeline, grips so hard his greenish hands burn white. “Yeah, I’m not dead. How it works though? Pfft, no idea.”
Maybe he’s not lying. It’s not like you know everything there is to know about ghosts. “But your parents--you said they’re scientists, right? Haven’t you asked them?”
Danny laughs. “Are you kidding me? They’re the last people I want to know about my extracurricular activities. They don’t just study ghosts; they hunt them.”
“Oh.” Your imagination supplies shiny steel examination tables and jars of pickled bits that glow in the dark. Science fiction villain stuff. Hastily, you hide behind your mug. “Sorry.”
He waves your apology aside, but winces, hissing pain, when his ghost doesn’t play along and his left hand splits at the elbow. “Ahhght. Don’t--don’t worry about it.” He settles back in his chair, presses both hands flat against the table, moving stiffly like he’s afraid he might explode if he’s not careful. His ghost’s hands curl, scratching noiselessly against the wood into hard fists. “Anyway, I’m the one who should be apologizing. I just waltzed in here and dumped all my problems on you. I’m surprised your parents haven’t kicked me out yet.”
“It’s just my Grandma and me here right now. Does that hurt?”
His ghost cocks its head a little to look at you all askance, weirdly judging, like it knows something his human half doesn’t. Its eyes flick back to the ceiling, and then it winks. There’s enough disparity between his halves now that he has three eyes and a wide, wide mouth, pulled in two different expressions.
He looks a lot like Aggie.
“Does what--oh.” He shivers again, a whole-body delayed reaction to his ghost seeping out of sync. As before, it seems to snap every bit of him back together again. “Brrr. Um, no? It’s just really, really weird. Ever been on a roller coaster?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“It feels… kinda like the apex of a loop-de-loop. Like my stomach can’t decide if it wants to crawl up my throat or down to my feet at the same time.” He swallows, hunches his shoulders, taps his nails against the table, 1-2-3-4 ticks. “It’s getting worse too.”
So there might be a time limit on this. Okay. You throw back the rest of your cocoa, gasping as it burns your throat a little. Then you’re up, nudging your chair in with one foot. “Well c’mon. Let’s go.”
“Well sure. It’s not like I have a treasure-trove of ghost-repairing trinkets stashed in my house.”
“Do you have a treasure-trove of ghost-repairing trinkets stashed someplace else?” Danny asks, a hopeful little flutter in his voice.
You smile weakly, picking up his mug. “Sorry. I’m just a kid who talks to dead people. We should probably leave anyway. My parents don’t really like... weird stuff.”
He winces in sympathy, or maybe he just winces because his ghost stands up before he does.
When you try to pour his mug out you nearly drop it instead. The cocoa, nearly untouched, is frozen solid.
Danny’s parents are here to study last year’s “tornado,” except they call it an “ectostorm” and came to Blithe Hollow with a whole RV’s worth of complicated gadgets to measure data and collect samples. Or something. Danny’s a little fuzzy on what exactly it is they’re doing. He and his sister came along for a last family cross-country vacation before she goes off to college. He does his best to avoid their gadgets anyway, since he has a bad habit of setting them off and raising too many questions.
“I felt kinda sick last night so I went to bed early,” he says, as you walk together down empty suburban streets towards the big hill at the edge of town. It’s still early on a Saturday, two weeks into summer vacation, so there’s almost nobody around. Nobody but ghosts, that is. Danny flinches every time a ghost so much as waves at you. If Amity Park is even half as crazy as the news says it is, you don’t blame him.
“They won’t hurt you,” you say quietly, and offer him a smile when his face darkens.
He laughs, less nervous but still self-conscious. “R-right, sorry. Uh, I think maybe I started splitting as soon as we crossed the town border, but I didn’t notice anything really weird until I woke up this morning. I saw I was green and--haha, I kind of panicked. I texted Jazz after I talked to that pilot so she’s handling my parents for now, but I dunno how long that’ll last.”
“Jazz?” you ask.
“Oh, my sister. She knows about me too.”
Unconsciously, or perhaps not so much, you’re leading Danny out of town, up to the old graveyard, up to Aggie’s tree. You’re not sure if you’ll walk that far, but it’s nice to get away from the suburb streets before everybody wakes up. Especially when you’re talking about ghosts.
“They’re gonna want to talk to you,” Danny says. “My parents, I mean.”
“I figured.” They wouldn’t be the first. Reporters and scientists and people from all over the place have tracked you down since the storm. Since Aggie. You’re not surprised anymore. You are pretty sick of the attention though.
As you walk together, you swap stories. Danny is every inch a real life superhero, with crazy tales right out of science fiction. Ghosts that could control you with music, ghosts that feed off of emotions, ghosts with electricity licking their fingers. Your sister was huge into Ember awhile back; a lot of teenagers in Blithe Hollow were, for a few months. From how Danny talks about her though, you don’t think you ever want to get her autograph.
You don’t expect Danny to be interested in your quiet conversations with ghosts, in the hours you spent sharing little nothings with your grandma or the gangster in his cement shoes. But instead he’s--not fascinated, no, he’s too nervous, too busy tripping over his twothreefour feet to be fascinated. But he’s certainly charmed by the thought of friendly ghosts.
Eventually, as you knew he would, he asks about the tornado.
“She wasn’t a witch,” you say before he can crack another wry joke. He’s full of those, you’ve learned, even when he’s falling apart at the seams. “Her name was Aggie. She was my age when the townspeople hung her.”
Both halves of Danny wince. “Geez, that’s awful. Why did they do that?”
You don’t quite dare to look at him. You’ve only told Neil and your grandma what Aggie said, and they both had looked at you like--like they could see the parallel between you and her too. The townsfolk had been so angry, after all, and scared too. Still, you don’t like pity. You talk to your ratty shoelaces instead. “Because… because she was like me. She could talk to ghosts, and that scared them, so they decided she was a witch and they killed her.”
He doesn’t say anything for a minute, which is fine with you. Then, quietly, “You know, other people can see me, Norman. We don’t have to leave town just to talk.”
“I know,” you say softly. “I just thought you might like to get away from all the other ghosts. You keep acting like they’re gonna tackle you or something.”
He laughs sheepishly. “Can you blame me? Two days ago I beat up a jerk who could turn into a dragon.”
You laugh too, because how can you not laugh at something so absurd, so morning cartoon logic? “Fair enough.”
“Where are we going anyway?” he asks.
You look over your shoulder, back towards town. You’re up high enough that it’s spread out like a picnic blanket below, settled neatly in the palm of some huge giant. Cars travel up and down streets at right angles, kids play tag and tetherball in the park, an airplane hums by overhead. It’s very peaceful. If it weren’t for the shimmery smears of green, so out of place out of this picturesque scene, Blithe Hollow looks like a place where nothing strange at all would ever happen.
Her tree isn’t too far off now.
“We’re going to Aggie’s grave,” you say, walking once more. Danny hesitates before he hurries to catch up. It isn’t hard to with his longer legs, even if he keeps sprouting a second pair of them.
“Oh--cool? I mean, is there anything special about it?”
“I think it might help.” You aren’t sure about that until you say that, and then it feels like you meant to do this all along. “Maybe,” you add hastily.
Danny pulls a face. His ghost doesn’t stop looking at the forest ahead. “Well I guess I won’t hold my breath.”
You look up at Danny. Both halves of him have snapped together again, and he’s gone rigid, like your sister when she sees a snake. The clearing where Aggie’s tree is is still a little ways off, but his neon eyes are wide open and looking the right way.
“What is it?” you ask.
He breathes out, “Must have been some fight you guys had, huh?”
You look around. The forest is just a forest; old, gnarled trees with leaves so thick the noon sun’s blotted out as soon as you leave the road. There’s not a single root-thorn left to even hint at what happened last year, but you know what he means. It’s not always about seeing. “I talked to her,” you say. “I told her a story to help her fall asleep.”
Danny walks on, picking his way unerringly through the undergrowth. His shoes don’t make a whisper. It’s a struggle to keep up with his longer stride, and he only walks quicker when the clearing finally comes into sight. The lonely tree at its center is still naked and clawing at the sky. His ghost’s legs blur entirely when he breaks into a run, streaming out in a dark streak behind him. He stops there, at the edge of the tree’s roots, looks up at the crabbed branches like he expects something to drop down and start swinging. He waits until you’re just behind him, then asks, “She was strong, wasn’t she?”
He sounds… subdued. He sounds like how people do in church, where there’s never an echo even when everybody talks at once.
“She was scared,” you say.
Danny doesn’t move, but his ghost does. It leans right out of him at the waist with a sound that might be a suction pop or the slow drag of a zipper. He shudders but doesn’t try to fight it. His ghost presses its green-white hands to the knotted treetrunk, digs its fingers in deep, and pulls.
Everything happens at once.
There’s an almighty crack! sound, like thunder pounding overhead, or like a tree groaning as its roots are wrenched out of the ground. It’s a big sound, a powerful and huge and frightening sound that beats in your chest and makes it hard to breathe. There’s wind, hot and and howling and whipping up rotten leaves and dead things and dirt, pulling and pushing you every which way. The trees rasp and creak, talking in a language you can’t understand except you’re positive they are angry. There’s light, a searing highlighter green bleeding in from nowhere. It splashes the ground and the trees and stains the sky yellow. Your eyes ache from the light and sting from the wind and belatedly you think, maybe this was a bad idea. You stagger back, shielding your face, and Danny is laughing.
“I can’t believe it!” he cries out over the wind. “It’s a portal!”
“A portal to what?” you shout back.
“To the Ghost Zone!”
“C’mere, it’s safe, I promise!”
You take three very dubious steps closer to Danny. Like a magic trick, or an optical illusion puzzle, your eyes slide right and then you can see what he’s so excited about. His ghost has torn a hole in the--not the tree, no, Aggie’s tree is still fine. He’s torn a hole in thin air, a perfect circle of acid green set in nothing at all. The light and the wind are streaming from it, but even as you watch the wind starts to die down, until there’s just a gentle pull, like a friend tugging you someplace new. The light dims a little too, but then whatever is inside making the light shifts and wavers, like a tide, or sluggish TV static. It moves like something alive.
“Danny, what--what is this?”
He’s grinning again. His eyes are a perfect, blazing match to the light staining the both of you. “I told you, it’s a portal to the Ghost Zone. It’s what ghosts call home--well, a lot of ghosts, at least. All the ones I know in Amity Park do; I don’t know how different things are here.” He takes a deep, whole-body breath, and sighs it all out explosively. Then he laughs, bouncing on the balls of his feet. “I’ve never seen a natural one so stable before. They usually fizzle out after a minute or two, but this one’s been sitting here for--geez, ages, I bet--just waiting for a little push. My parents are gonna flip!”
“Uh, good? Really though, what did you do?” You hesitate, an awful thought turning your stomach to ice. “Is Aggie gonna… come back?”
Danny shrugs. “I dunno, honestly. What was it like when you--when you talked to her?”
You rub your eyes. An awful headache has snuck up on you all of a sudden. “Bright, kinda like now, but it was more--yellow, I guess. The ground broke up, and gravity went funny, and she was… she was so--” The world spins faster than you can keep up. “Nnngh. Can--can we move? I don’t feel--so good.”
Danny says a word your dad would ground you for, and then he’s got you by the waist and then suddenly there’s no ground beneath you. You freeze, clench your toes tight and squeeze his wrists so hard your fingers ache, and only breathe again when your shoes touch asphalt. He’s taken--flown--you back to the road. “Sorry,” he mutters, letting go. “Portals never bother my friends or my parents. This is a weird one though, or maybe you’re just a little more--I dunno, sensitive? You okay now?”
“Y-yeah.” Your head still hurts, but it’s already better than before. You blink green afterimages away and look at him--and then do a doubletake. “Hey, you’re better!”
He looks down at himself and grins again. His ghost has vanished, although maybe it’s more accurate to say it’s just become a part of him again. He looks completely normal, completely human--except for his eyes. They’re still that same searing green. You can’t even see a shade of whatever his eyes are supposed to be anymore. Maybe they’re supposed to look like that? Or maybe only you can see what he is now. You’ll have to ask, before anyone else sees. “What do you know,” he says, “I can’t believe that worked.”
“Me neither,” you admit with a smile. “So--you’re okay now?”
“I think so. I mean, I feel fine. I guess we’ll see though.”
The walk back home goes much quicker now that Danny isn’t tripping over his own feet, but the sun is still nearly touching the mountaintops by the time you make it to your street. The whole way there Danny’s nearly skipping, actually walking on thin air when nobody but ghosts can see him, and going on and on about how different Amity Park and Blithe Hollow are. You let him, listening with one ear and nodding when it seems he expects some kind of input from you. You’re very tired now, though you don’t know why. The thought of curling up under your covers sounds like the best possible thing you can do.
He summons a ball of green light at one point, a buzzing and humming thing that’s not quite smoke or fire or plasma, but something in between. It drips and crackles between his fingers, and when he lets you touch it your whole body breaks out in goosebumps. He laughs, and you do too.
You aren’t quite sure what happened today, what opening a hole to--wherever, whatever that place is--could do to the town. Will other people be able to see the ghosts? Will the ghosts change? Could they become more like the ghosts of Amity Park? Will other ghosts slip through the portal now that it’s open? Danny doesn’t know either, but he promises to get his parents to take a look at it. “You’re the only person here who can see them,” he says, his hand resting briefly on your narrow shoulder, “Most ghosts that come from the Ghost Zone aren’t as… friendly as the ones already here. At least, not without some help.”
You’re pretty sure Danny’s idea of “help” involves a lot more punching than yours does. Still…
“Maybe you shouldn’t tell them,” you say carefully. “Unless--only if something goes wrong. I don’t--I don’t want your parents to try to make the ghosts leave if they don’t want to. They’re all really nice people. They wouldn’t hurt anybody even if they could.”
Danny pulls a face, like he’s not sure he believe you, but says, “Alright. My parents are planning on staying here for most of the summer to study the town, so there should be plenty of time to make sure nothing gets out of--oh, crap!”
You flinch. “What?”
Danny yanks his phone out of his pocket, swearing again when he sees the time. “Oh man, I bailed out of the RV hours ago--my parents are gonna be combing the streets by now! They called me seventeen times, oh god, Mom’s gonna skin me alive--”
You hook your hand around his elbow, laughing, to get his attention. “Hey, it’s okay. Just tell them you were with me all day. I mean, it’s true and all.”
He shoots you a dubious expression, taps out a quick text to somebody, and then pockets his phone again. ‘You sure? They’re gonna be all over you first thing tomorrow.”
“It’s okay. Really. Just--could you come with them?”
Danny smiles. “Yeah, definitely. Thanks, Norman. Seriously. I… I dunno what I would have done if you hadn’t dragged me up there.”
You smile back. “Probably fall apart?”
He laughs, and then bursts in a sharp white light you have to turn away from. When you look again, he’s ten feet off the ground and he’s changed. His black hair’s gone white, and he’s traded his jeans and t-shirt for the black-and-white jumpsuit you’ve seen on the news dozens of times. He glows like a streetlamp, and grins at the shock painting your face. “See ya, Norman!” he shouts, and rockets up and out of sight.
You wave, laughing, and walk the last block home.