Twelve years after the accident
When everything went to hell, it was only Sam's fighting instinct that kept her from completely falling apart. Danny had sacrificed himself; now it was up to her to make it count, and she couldn't afford to let him down. The lawsuit was filed almost immediately—she'd been working on it for weeks, ever since Danny first came to the decision that he had to go public. If she was honest with herself, she'd been working on it for years. For longer than she'd been a lawyer. For longer than she'd been Danny's wife. For almost as long as there was an Anti-Ecto Control Act and Danny was a half-ghost.
Tucker was a godsend. Already in town on an early summer recess to campaign for his re-election, he stayed at her side constantly, converting his entire campaign to the cause. He got her through the dizzying blur of press conferences, interviews, public appearances, and rallies with the seasoned ease of a career politician. Of course, the Fentons were wonderful as well, but it was different with Tucker. The two of them were the ones who had been there from the beginning, and now it was he more than anyone else who propped her up when she might otherwise have crumbled.
Even with Tucker's unflagging support, however, after two weeks, Sam found herself nearing exhaustion. There was yet another rally the last weekend in July, this one originally scheduled as a Re-Elect Tucker Foley event in the park, and the summer heat and humidity were oppressive. Afterwards, the Fentons beat a hasty retreat—Jack and Maddie were headed to Washington to address a symposium of para-scientists, and Jazz and Nick wanted to get their eight-month-old baby out of the heat—leaving Sam, Tucker, Valerie, and Paulina to deal with the press while Dash hovered nearby like a pit bull ready to pounce. When the press finally left, and the five of them were the only ones remaining in the parking lot west of the park, all Sam wanted to do was crawl into the nearest air-conditioned hole in the wall, curl into a fetal position, and sleep for a week. Unfortunately, she had to be in court on Monday morning for some procedural motion, and she hadn't finished reading the briefs, so sleep wasn't going to happen anytime soon.
Tucker put an arm around her. "You look like you're about to collapse."
"I feel like I'm about to collapse." She leaned against him, her head resting lightly against his shoulder. Like Danny, he'd shot up their last year of high school and was a good half a foot taller than her now.
Valerie came up on her other side and slipped her arm around Sam's waist, and she took a moment to let the two of them be her crutches to keep her from falling. Then, she straightened and pulled away from them, steeling herself for the work that still lay ahead. "But collapsing isn't on the schedule."
Tucker crossed his arms in almost parental reproach. "Well, food better be. Look. We're right across from the Nasty Burger. Let's grab something there. I could go for a double-Nasty."
"Ugh. I'm not hungry, Tuck."
"They have air conditioning…"
She sighed, relenting. "Yeah, okay. But half an hour, that's it. Then I gotta get home and look at those briefs."
Tucker grinned, victorious. "You coming, Val?"
"No, you guys go ahead. I need to get home."
Sam chewed on her lower lip, anger and remorse warring within her at the unspoken reason Valerie wanted to get home. Biting back on them both, she simply asked, "How's she doing?"
"She's… coping." Valerie put a hand on Sam's shoulder and squeezed, then got into her car. Before closing the door, she looked up at Tucker. "You have a meeting with your campaign manager this afternoon, right? Anything you need me for?"
He shook his head. "No. Just stay with Dani. I'll call when I'm done."
"I guess that makes it three for lunch," Dash said as Valerie drove off. He'd been sticking to Sam like a bad case of static cling for the past two weeks.
"Make it an even four," Paulina corrected.
"Uh… who invited you guys?" Sam arched an eyebrow at both of them, but they ignored her, following behind as she and Tucker headed across the parking lot toward the fast food restaurant on the other side of the street.
In truth, she didn't mind having them around. She liked Dash, and he was handy for keeping the crowds at bay. And Paulina, as much as Sam hated to admit it, had turned out to be really, really good at running a campaign. So good that, a week ago, Sam had freed up some funds at the Human-Ecto Alliance to hire her as a full-time field manager. She was still in the process of transitioning from her job in Chicago and was only in Amity Park for the weekend, but she'd already found an apartment and would be moving sometime in August.
When the group made it across the street and Tucker pulled open the door to the Nasty Burger, Sam almost fell to her knees in gratitude as a blast of cold air hit her. A few people turned and stared as they went to the counter to order, but after some threatening looks from Dash, no one bothered them.
It wasn't until they settled into a booth with their food that the memories started flooding back, and the grief they brought with them threatened to overwhelm Sam. She exchanged glances with Tucker and saw it in his eyes, too. It wasn't right, being here with Paulina and Dash instead of Danny. This had always been their hangout. The gaping hole his absence left made it almost hard to breathe.
"Maybe we should take these to go," Tucker said softly.
"Are you kidding?" Paulina tore open a salad dressing packet and squeezed sesame dressing onto her Asian chicken salad. "This is the first time I've been off my feet all day. I'm not moving for, like, three years."
"Sam?" Tucker pressed.
She gave him a weary smile. "I'm good, Tuck."
He nodded and began unwrapping his double-Nasty with cheese, while Sam picked at her tofu soy melt. She'd lost what little appetite she'd had, and the smell of Tucker's and Dash's burgers was making her queasy.
"Oh! I just remembered." Paulina put down her salad fork and dug something out of her designer tote. "I have a sample of the awareness ribbons I'm gonna order." She laid a ribbon down on the table. It had three vertical stripes—black down the center, with white edges on either side. "Black for mourning, mostly, but it's also for POWs and MIAs, and anti-terrorism. All of those are good fits with our cause."
"And the white is for ghosts?" Tucker rubbed the bridge of his nose, obviously still not used to the absence of the glasses he'd worn since he was eleven, despite the fact that he'd been wearing contacts for over a year. The red beret was still there, however—not as ubiquitous as it once was, but it was something of a trademark, so he tended to wear it during rallies and campaign events.
Paulina nodded. "That, and innocence. But mostly it's because an all-black ribbon wouldn't show up on anything in Morticia's wardrobe." She indicated Sam with a jerk of her head.
Sam gave her a weak smirk, but was too tired to bother responding. All she wanted was to finish lunch and get the heck out of here before the smell of the burgers made her puke. It was weird, that. She'd eaten at Nasty Burger for years without other people's burgers bothering her. She looked at Tucker. "You know, maybe you were right. Maybe we should—"
"Y-you're her, aren't you? Mrs. Phantom?"
Sam clenched her teeth and resisted the urge to smack Tucker for the slight grin tugging at the corners of his mouth. "It's Fenton," she corrected, looking up to see three teenage boys standing in a huddle near the table. They all had shaggy, shoulder-length hair in varying shades of brown, and were wearing baggy jeans and t-shirts. Two of them, including the one who had spoken to her, looked vaguely familiar.
Before any of them could say anything more, however, Dash was glaring at them. Even sitting down, he was almost their height. "Get lost. This isn't a meet-and-greet."
"I… I'm sorry." The boy who had spoken looked a little ashen and far more contrite than the minor interruption warranted, even with Dash glowering at him. "It's just I…I…" He looked down at the floor. "I'm David Zunden."
"Who?" Sam frowned, drawing a blank, but Paulina gasped.
"David Zunden? The boy from the train?"
Sam's heart almost stopped in her chest. That's why he and his friend look familiar…
Tucker clenched his soda cup almost hard enough to pop the top off, and Dash was out of his seat in an instant. "You gotta lot of nerve, talking to us!"
Paulina grabbed his arm and tried to pull him back into the booth. "Dash Baxter, you leave that boy alone! I've been trying to talk to him for two weeks!" Succeeding in pulling Dash down, she turned on her thousand-watt Paulina-smile. "Don't mind him. We've had him fixed, so he's mostly harmless."
This got an awkward titter from the boy's friends, still flanking him, but David himself looked mortified. "I… I'm so sorry."
"You should be!"
Sam finally found her voice. "Both of you, stop it." She looked up at David. "Did you want to speak with me?"
"I… yeah…" Then, he shook his head. "No. I shouldn't have bothered you. I'm sorry."
His head down, he bolted, leaving his friends behind, but Sam was overcome with a sudden need to talk to this boy, to hear what he had to say, and she jumped up from her seat and went after him. "Wait!"
He stopped, but wouldn't turn around to face her.
"Come on. Let's go find a more private seat so we can talk."
"No, I… I couldn't."
She put a hand on his shoulder. "It's okay. Really. Please."
Nodding, he followed her back towards her booth. "David and I are gonna go talk for a minute. Paulina and Dash, stay here. Tucker…" She saw that Tucker hadn't moved. He was still white-knuckling his soda cup. "Tuck? I think maybe you should come with us."
"I don't think so." His voice was low and thick.
He looked up at her, his jaw clenched almost as tightly as his fist around that soda, then he nodded slowly and slid out of the booth, finally letting go of the death grip on his cup.
"Uh… David?" His friends were still standing there, shuffling their feet on the checkered tile floor. "You want us to come, too?"
David shook his head as he trailed behind Sam to an empty booth a few tables away. When they were seated, he started to look at her, but couldn't quite meet her eye. "Um… Mrs. Fenton—"
"Ugh. It's Sam. I'm too young to be 'Mrs. Fenton.' And this is Tucker Foley. He's Danny's and my closest friend."
The boy nodded. "Yeah. I've seen you on the news."
"Funny." Tucker sniffed. "I haven't been seeing you on the news, and I kinda think I should be."
"No. I'm sorry, Sam. This kid did something incredibly stupid, and Danny paid for it. But has he given one public thank you? One sign of any gratitude at all? Anything to shut up all the idiots who say Danny deserved what he got? No. Dead silence. Like it doesn't even matter."
The boy looked like he wanted the ground to swallow him whole. "I am so sorry. Really, I am just… I'm so sorry."
"You don't have to be sorry." It was an effort for Sam to force her voice to remain steady. "It wasn't your fault."
"Like hell it wasn't!"
"Tucker, would you shut up!"
"You're the one who dragged me over here!" He looked at David, furious. "What were you thinking, walking across a train trestle?"
Sam grunted in exasperation. "Stop it, Tucker."
"I really shouldn't have bothered you guys. I'll just go." David sounded like he was on the verge of throwing up—a feeling to which Sam could relate a little too well. He started to slide out of the booth.
Swallowing over her own nausea, Sam put a hand on his arm to stop him "No. David, please. I wanna talk to you, really. I'm not gonna lecture you about being on that trestle. Tucker is conveniently forgetting how many stupid, potentially fatal things we did when we were teenagers. We should be dead a hundred times over for all the stunts we pulled. Right, Tucker?"
Tucker remained silent.
"Yeah. Except we were always trying to help."
"And you'd have us stop now? C'mon, Tuck. If anyone knows Danny, it's you. If it hadn't been this, it would've been something else. You know that. There will always be someone who needs saving."
He let out a long breath, like he was releasing something he'd been holding inside too long. "Yeah, okay."
She turned back to David. "What happened to Danny is not your fault. Really. If it hadn't been you and the train, it would've been something else. That's just… that's Danny. So please don't blame yourself, because I don't blame you."
She'd said it just to placate him so that he would stay and talk to her, but as soon as the words were out of her mouth, she could feel their truth. She didn't blame him, and telling him so loosened a little bit of that knot that had been in the pit of her stomach for two weeks. Not a lot, but it was a start.
He looked up, but still not quite at her, a mixture of raw emotions on his face. "I'd be dead if it weren't for him."
"I know. So would I. So would all of us."
He nodded, taking in a shaky breath. "I just… that's why when I saw you here, I had to say something. I had to… to thank you, since I can't thank him. And to say I am so, so sorry. I… I actually wanted to talk to that other lady when she came by our house." He jerked his head back towards the booth where Paulina and Dash were sitting. "But my mom is completely freaked out by this whole thing, and how big it is in the news, and people camping out on our lawn and digging through our trash. She's afraid to even let me go out in public—I had to sneak out today just to hang with my friends. And… then we run into you. It's like… I was supposed to talk to you. To tell you I'm sorry. And to tell you I think I finally get what he told me that night."
Sam's eyes widened. "What he told you? He said something to you?" She realized it was a stupid question as soon as she'd asked it. Of course Danny had said something to him. That's what he did. He always had some smart-aleck thing to say when he was fighting or saving someone, especially when he was feeling self-confident. And that night, he'd been so sure.
David nodded. "When he grabbed me, just before he made us both all ghostly and stuff—"
"Intangible," Tucker corrected. At least he was starting to sound more normal now.
"Yeah, that. Just before the train came. I'm thinking I'm pretty much dead, then all of a sudden, he grabs me and says, 'Hey, kid. Do you believe in ghosts?'"
Sam frowned. "He asked you if you believe in ghosts?"
"Yeah. Weird, huh? I mean, what kind of question is that? I grew up in Amity Park. Who the heck doesn't believe in ghosts anymore, especially in Amity Park? I even had one of those Danny Phantom plushies when I was a kid. And then, there he is, making it so the train just passes right through us, so duh, of course I believe in ghosts. But… I think I get what he meant, now." For the first time in the entire conversation, he met Sam's eyes. "I've seen that video. I hear what they're saying on TV, and on the internet. That's what he was talking about, all that hate. He wasn't asking if I believed ghosts exist. He was asking if I believe in them. Like, that they're not all evil like some people think. Like they deserve a chance, just like everyone else. Like the chance he was giving me."
Sam closed her eyes in a futile effort to hold back the tears that were trickling out through her lashes. After a moment, she opened them again and met Tucker's gaze as he bit his lip to keep his own emotions at bay. When she could find her voice again, she turned back to David. "So what's your answer, then? Do you believe in ghosts?"
He nodded. "That's what I figured out, right when I saw you guys today. I do believe in ghosts. And I need to do something about it. I… I wanna go on the news, like you said, Mr. Foley. 'Cause all the stuff everyone's saying, like he did this really horrible thing when what he did was save my life. It's like I completely don't matter, and it just makes me wanna…" He clenched his hands into fists. "I just want all those morons to shut up, you know?"
Sam sighed. "Yeah. I do know. And I think it's great that you wanna tell your story. It's… a fitting tribute to Danny, and I know people will want to hear what you have to say, but your mom is pretty clear that she doesn't want you involved."
"She… she doesn't get it."
"Did you tell her what you just told us?"
He shook his head slowly.
"Okay. Tell her. What you said is really beautiful, David. Maybe if you tell your mom, she'll understand why it's important. And here." Sam pulled out a business card and wrote her private cell phone number on the back. "She can call me if she wants. I'd love to talk to her, even if she still doesn't want you in the news. I just…" She looked him directly in the eye. "I want her to know that no matter what, I'm not sorry he saved your life."
He took the card from her, once again avoiding her gaze. "Okay. Thanks, Mrs.… Sam. Mr. Foley."
"Tucker. If she's too young to be Mrs. Fenton, then I'm too young to be Mr. Foley."
David nodded, then got up and rejoined his friends, while Sam and Tucker returned to the table where Paulina and Dash were waiting. Paulina leaned forward as they sat down, excitement plain on her face. "The kid's a natural! We so need to get him on the news. They'll eat him up."
Sam glared at her. "You were eavesdropping?"
"Well, yeah. And good thing, too, since he just gave us the perfect slogan for our whole cause, especially if he tells that story to the press. We're talking billboards, buttons, bumper stickers, yard signs—"
Sam arched her eyebrow. "Don't pressure that boy or his family. If his mother calls me, I'll talk to her, but I don't want you hounding her."
Paulina eyed her. "You know you're gonna need him to testify."
"Well, yeah. Which is reason enough to not alienate his mom. I'd rather them come forward on their own rather than drag him in against his will and against his mother's wishes."
"Fine. But we don't need her permission to use the slogan, since it was Danny who said it to begin with." She picked up the black and white ribbon and held it to her chest. "'I believe in ghosts.' It's perfect."