It was astonishing how many natural plants had adverse effects on ghosts. Maddie had never particularly cared for the science of botany, but she was slowly learning that it was much more vast than she had initially conceived. For instance, rowan wood was said to ward off malicious spirits, upheld by several ancient pantheons. Of course, Maddie—ever the scientist—had to see this for herself. She built a small box out of rowan wood and released a small specimen into its confines. To her surprise, the ghost was unable to phase through the wood!
Although it wasn't the most practical material to build inventions from, it was a start. Who knew what else she could learn by turning to the natural world? She and Jack had always focused on the modern side of ectology, but sometimes the old ways superseded the new. It would be detrimental if she didn't investigate!
In her studies, Maddie found a flower called campanula xanthostella which was known to make ghosts lethargic. Most sources reported that it also made ghosts high—which was a bit absurd since ghosts didn't have a nervous system. It was intriguing, nonetheless. For a good week or so, Maddie sought out the flower. Supposedly it was a rare breed of flower with bright, yellow star-shaped petals and blue tips. She was crushed to learn that 'ghost-nip' was not native to North America and would likely wilt in a trans-Atlantic shipment. Though, it might be worth looking into one day if she ever vacationed in Europe.
So, she refocused her sights on another flower: the fabled veritas foetida. It was said that whoever possessed the flower could pry the truth from the lips of any ghost. It almost sounded too good to be real, but Maddie was willing to take that chance. After all, she had the perfect ghost in mind to interrogate.
Phantom was a menace and nothing less, nothing more. Maddie was appalled that the townsfolk were swayed by his cheap grabs at attention and hollow heroics. All the spandex-clad teen had to do was swoop in and save a busload of children, and suddenly, everyone forgot about all the ruthless property damage he inflicted on the town. No one even acknowledged how he had overshadowed the mayor, shot at ghost hunters unprovoked, robbed several stores, and personally attacked Maddie's son. Instead, Phantom was cherished! The bastard was placed on a pedestal for all the 'good' he brought to the community. At times, it felt like the only person on Maddie's side was her husband and the elusive Red Huntress. Even her own children, who Phantom had reportedly terrorized, felt sympathy for the ghost boy.
With the veritas foetida, also known as the Spirit of Truth, Maddie could put an end to Phantom's lies once and for all. She would make everyone see what a conniving spook he really was!
Unable to find any for sale online, she asked a few botanists around town if they knew of any flowers that met the description of the veritas foetida. To her surprise, it was actually her son's friend's grandmother that knew of a patch of the orange-petaled flower near the outskirts of town. Maddie gladly thanked Ida and invited her to dinner one night, yet she politely declined. That was probably for the better. Dinner at FentonWorks… wasn't exactly mild-mannered. Jack had a bad habit of accidentally reanimating their food and the last thing Maddie wanted was to give the poor woman a heart attack.
It didn't take long to find the place that Ida had described. It was a small clearing in the woods, just west of Axion Labs. She dug up as many of the flowers as she could and replanted them in a planter she'd bought for the occasion. They were gorgeous flowers, almost like small bulbs of fire floating atop vivacious, green stems. The only downside is that they had a horrible stench that made Maddie pinch her nose up in disgust. She'd never smelled something so foul and she felt like that was saying something, considering that she spent most of her hours in her laboratory researching various properties of ectoplasm.
When she arrived home, she set the planter outside of her kitchen window. It was a great vantage point for sunlight and it allowed Maddie to keep a careful eye on her plants lest any ghosts tried to sabotage her latest project. Plus, all she had to do was slide the screen on the window up and she could water her flowers from inside the house. Perfectly convenient!
All she had to do now was trap Phantom in a compromising position.
"I'm sorry, I can't take it anymore. What the heck is that smell?"
They were eating dinner and Danny hadn't stopped making faces all night. At first, she'd assumed it was because she'd grounded him for missing class earlier, but now she was starting to reevaluate his odd behavior.
"What smell, Danno?" Jack promptly sniffed the air. "The casserole?"
For a moment Maddie swore that there were two, green pin-pricks where his pupils should have been. It must have been a trick of the light because a moment later, Danny's eyes were back to normal.
"No, it's not the casserole. It… smells like fungus or something rotting."
"Weird. I don't smell a thing."
Jack brushed him off and took another bite of Maddie's broccoli cheddar casserole.
"I swear I'm not imagining this." He turned to his sister. "Jazz?"
Her daughter glanced up from her plate with dull, blue eyes. "I can't smell it either."
"You said it smells like fungus?" Maddie asked. "Like a really foul plant?"
"You smell it too?"
She shook her head. "I think it's my new flowers. They have this awful scent—almost makes me gag."
"If they're so bad, why get them?" Jazz asked.
She left it at that. If she told them her plans for Phantom, they would only jump to his defense again and she wasn't looking to start another argument. Not at the dinner table.
Danny shifted in his seat. "Uh, they don't happen to be Blood Blossoms, do they?"
Blood Blossoms? She'd heard of those in her research, but they were long extinct, dating all the way back to the eighteenth century. It was a pity. Supposedly they were one of the only plants that could single-handedly bring spirits to their knees, unraveling their cores like thread on a spindle. Still, that begged the question: where in the world would Danny hear about Blood Blossoms?
"No. These are a different flower, but Blood Blossoms have been extinct for ages. How do you know about them?"
"One time Vlad threw me in a ring of them."
Jazz coughed. "Danny…"
"Our Vladdie?" Jack asked. "How would he do a thing like that?"
"Oh, it was this whole thing. I had this map that could take me anywhere, anywhen. Vlad—being an absolute bastard—stole it and we ended up in Salem during the witch trials. Sam was tied to a stake and he threw me in the Blood Blossoms... zero out of ten experience, do not recommend."
Jazz slammed her hand down on the table. "Danny, what are you doing?"
"I don't know. Eating dinner?"
He stabbed a forkful of casserole and resumed eating as if he hadn't just spouted obscenities about their family friend and claimed he'd time traveled.
"Uh, sweetie, I think what Jazz meant to ask was what you meant by Salem Witch Trials? And uh, a magic map?"
Jack was clenching his silverware so tight that Maddie suspected it might bend. "And that slander about Vladdie?" he ground out.
"The Infimap belongs to some yetis in the Far Frozen and they let me borrow it. Also, I don't know what to tell you, Dad, but Vlad is a complete dickwad. It kind of baffles me that you haven't figured out how shady he is by now. I mean, he's only tried to murder you like five times? He's seriously fucked in the head."
Okay, that was enough. Neither of her children swore; something was wrong with Danny. Was he drunk? Had he done drugs? Whatever it was, he was not acting like himself.
"Daniel James! Where is all this profane language coming from!"
"It's not really new. I've been saying fuck since I was twelve."
"Son, we don't tolerate that language at the dinner table," Jack glared. "I don't know why you're convinced that Vlad has anything less than good intentions, but this is not like you at all."
When Maddie looked into his eyes, he didn't look sorry. He just looked confused, as if the words had left his lips without his consent. There was no delirium, no haziness. His eyes weren't clouded or bloodshot… and the bags underneath them were as dark as ever. Despite his puzzlement, Maddie was almost one-hundred percent certain that Danny was sober.
So what was making him say these strange things?
Jazz had stood up and was holding a hand to Danny's forehead now. She glanced back at her with a careful resolution.
"Mom… what did you say your flowers did, again? The ones you're researching?"
What did that have to do with anything? Did Jazz think that they were making Danny sick? Well, he had complained about their strong aroma right before he started acting odd. Was there a connection? Was this an allergic reaction?
"They make ghosts susceptible to the truth, but that isn't relevant. Do you think this is an allergic reaction? Does he have a fever? I should have known better than to just dig up flowers from the woods!"
"Ohh," Danny swatted Jazz away just as her arm went slack. "Now it makes sense. Don't worry, Mom. I'm not having any allergic reaction."
He gave her a thumbs-up as if that would make her feel better.
"Why are you behaving this way? What's wrong?"
He leaned back in his chair. "I mean, nothing's really wrong with me. Like you said, I'm just telling the truth."
"I think he just needs sleep," Jazz insisted, pulling on her brother's arm. "Come on, Danny."
"Wha—? No. I haven't finished my casserole yet. I didn't eat breakfast or lunch today."
"Ugh! You told me that you did!"
"Well, I lied. If you haven't noticed, I do that a lot."
"Will you both just stop?" Jack interrupted. "Someone here needs to explain what's going on."
Danny opened his mouth to speak and Jazz slapped her hand over it. He tried speaking through her grip, but his words were too muffled to make out.
"Jasmine, let go of your brother."
She removed her hand with great reluctance and settled back into her seat beside Danny. He shot her an irritated look before turning back to Jack.
"I know what's going on. It's kind of stupid, really. Those ghost flowers—whatever they are—are making me tell the truth. I don't really feel affected, but it's the only thing that makes sense."
"That's absurd," Maddie said. "You're not a ghost."
Without missing a beat, he responded, "Yes I am."
Jazz had her head in her hands and Maddie was almost inclined to do the same.
"Danny, this isn't a game. Stop playing around."
"I'm not playing. I'm a ghost. Halfa. Half-a-ghost."
He was on her last nerve now. "Stop it."
"Oh come on, if I'm not a ghost why else would I be saying all this? Why else would I be the only one to smell the flowers?"
"If you're really a ghost, then prove it." Jack's voice was guarded, steely almost. He still sounded wound-up from when Danny had insulted Vlad and she couldn't blame him. This whole situation was beyond ridiculous!
Danny snorted. "I don't want to."
"Then how are we supposed to believe that you're a ghost?"
"That's the thing," he said conspicuously. "I don't want you to know I'm a ghost. You guys finding out my secret is my worst nightmare. Well, not really. My worst nightmare would probably be you guys flipping out and dissecting me. It's a frequent night terror I have."
A few months back, Maddie had dipped into the kitchen for a glass of water before bed. When she came back upstairs, she'd heard faint whimpers from Danny's bedroom. Concerned, she threw open his door and found him lightly thrashing in his sheets, slicked with sweat. She crouched beside his bedside and lightly jostled his shoulder until he awoke from his nightmare. She hadn't expected him to shoot awake, blink the haze from his eyes, and plead for her mercy. In that state, he was nearly inconsolable, mumbling about how he didn't mean to die and that he was sorry… so, so sorry. He snapped out of it after a minute or so and chalked it up to some crazy, isolated nightmare. She'd looked past the haunted look in his eye and wished him good dreams. She'd forgotten all about it by the next morning. But now… it all came rushing back.
Was Danny telling the truth? Could he actually be a ghost? It was a terrible, terrible thing to consider. Was she really supposed to believe that her beloved son was dead?
"Danno, we'd never do that," Jack said softly. "Even if you were… a ghost. You know we would never hurt you, right?"
"No, I really don't know. I want to believe that you'd love me unconditionally, but it's hard when you're so prejudiced against ghosts. Besides, you already have a personal vendetta against ghost-me so it's not that improbable."
He said this in such a self-assured way that Maddie couldn't believe what she was hearing. What he said couldn't be true. Danny would never think that about them, about himself! But Danny would never joke about something so morbid—no one would say that without good reason to believe that it was true. He actually… thought…
"I probably shouldn't have said that."
Jazz scoffed. "You think?"
"Sorry, I can't exactly control what's coming out of my mouth right now. What's your excuse?"
Maddie gulped. "Danny… did you die?"
She had to know. She had to know if this was true. Yes, it was ludicrous that her son was a ghost. He was eating casserole and obviously breathed and still growed! But it made too much sense. If Danny was a ghost, it would explain so many little moments that she'd dismissed. It would explain the moments that she pushed to the back of her brain before morning.
"Only half. It was back in Freshman year when you guys were so bummed that the portal wasn't working. I went inside and turned it on, got zapped, and woke up as a ghost. Really disorienting, let me tell you that. Eventually, I turned back human and tried to forget about the whole thing, but that didn't last too long. It made me a hybrid. I can switch back and forth between human and ghost. I was terrified of living in my own skin for a bit, but I've adjusted."
"You're—you're making this up." Jack shook his head, but Maddie could hear the denial in his voice. He believed Danny. As much as she hated to admit it, she did too.
She was scared shitless.
What was he?
"Nope. It's not that bad, really. I like being half-ghost. I guess the downside is that I'm affected by stupid truth flowers, but at least I get to fly?"
She was pretty sure that her heart stopped. He could fly? What else? What else didn't she know?
Jazz cleared her throat. "Mom, I think you should get rid of those flowers. This… this has gone on long enough. It's not fair to Danny, having to spill everything."
No, this wasn't fair to her. Why did he have to keep this from her? Why hadn't he told her the truth?
She wanted to know everything.
"What else have you kept from me? What else, Danny!"
"It's hard to say. I have a lot of secrets, but I guess the biggest one would have to be that I'm Danny Phantom. Get it? Phantom sounds like Fenton? I thought it was a funny play-on-words. Uh… other things I've kept from you. Most of the time I skip school or sneak out, it's because I'm ghost fighting. I get injured a lot. You've injured me some and that kind of makes me feel bad. Can't really show you the scars, though, since I have super-healing. And uh, I think I might be going through ghost puberty? My gums are super irritated and I'm convinced I'm going to grow fangs—I'm really, really not looking forward to that."
His words hit her like five consecutive sucker-punches to the face, then to the gut. She felt bile surge in her throat and had to hunch over to keep from hurling. No. No way. This wasn't… he couldn't be—
Danny was Phantom?
She'd hurt him as Phantom? More than once?
She'd hurt Danny.
And what the fuck was ghost puberty?
Jazz was speaking again, but Maddie didn't hear her. She faintly registered that Jack had stood up and left the table, opting to sit in the living room instead. Danny still appeared confused and her heart ached for her poor, poor boy. What had she done?
"Mom, please." She absently noted that Jazz's eyes were red. "Just tell me where the flowers are."
The words left her lips before she could think them. "By the window."
Jazz had crossed the room. She heard her daughter pull up the screen on the window, but didn't dare look. She was still focused on Danny, who seemed to hover on the edge of his seat. His black hair stuck up at odd angles, as always, and she tried to imagine what it would look like if his locks were white instead. It wasn't so hard. How had she missed that Phantom had Jack's nose? How had she missed that his jawline curved the same way that her own father's had? And the way he held himself… that was how she held herself. With tense shoulders and loose posture. It was uncanny. All the similarities aligned and converged onto one another.
Danny really was…
Phantom. He was a ghost. The same ghost she'd planned to expose in front of the whole town with the very flowers that had made him spill his deepest secrets tonight.
Behind her, Jazz slammed the planter onto the counter. At the commotion, Maddie finally turned and found that her daughter had started unearthing the flowers one by one, tearing their stems into ribbons. They smelled as vile as they had when she had planted them and Maddie wondered how she could have ever believed those flowers to be her salvation. She'd been ignorant. She saw now that the truth could be as infectious as any lie.
Those flowers were rotten at their core.
"I'm sorry I hurt you." Danny's voice was but a murmur in her ear. "I never wanted you to find out, at all. I'm sorry about what I am. I'm sorry that you can't love me anymore."
She threw herself out of her chair and stood beside Jazz. She dug her fingers into the soil and grabbed hold of a delicate blossom and plucked its orange petals until it was nothing more than a naked stem. Neither she nor Jazz spoke as they destroyed the flowers. At one point, Jazz had switched on the garbage disposal and dumped what remained of the veritas foetida down the drain.
Even after the last flower had been obliterated, the sour scent still lingered. It hung in the air like the stench of mildew wafted through an abandoned cellar after weeks of rain. Danny met her with wide, fearful eyes and she knew that the spell had been lifted. But at what cost? All his dirty laundry was left out to air. She knew so much that she needed to know, things that she never wanted to know.
And he was afraid. He was afraid of what she was going to do to him now that she knew what he was… who he was.
He flinched at the sound of her voice and Maddie felt her heart drop into her stomach.
"I'm not going to hurt you, sweetie. I—I love you. Even if you are..."
He fell through his chair. Not out of it, but through it. He trembled as he pulled himself to his feet, ready to make a run for it. She wanted him to pull him into her arms, to comfort him. Instead, she held back. The last thing she wanted to do was come on too strong. He was vulnerable now. That was evident in his expression alone.
"St—stay away from me."
Jazz reached out. "It's going to be okay, Danny."
"No. I—I told them everything. Everything. I can't…" he pressed a shaky hand into his diaphragm. "It won't ever be okay! I spilled it all… just like that. I messed everything up."
Even though he still appeared as if he would flee at any moment, Maddie made up her mind. Before even she could process her actions, she stepped forward and pulled Danny into a gentle embrace. Not tight, not secure. It was a soft enough hug that he could break from if he felt like it.
"You haven't messed anything up. I know this is terrifying for you, but please trust me. I'm on your side, sweetie. I know… I know this isn't what you wanted to happen. If it's anyone's fault, it's mine for seeking out those flowers. Don't think that everything is going to fall apart because you said things you had no control over."
"Shh…" she hushed him. "You're afraid of how we'll react to this news, to these secrets. We need time to process, but I guarantee we won't flip out. We won't hurt you. I see now that our prejudice was misplaced and I will try to make it up to you once I wrap my mind around all of this. I love you so, so much and I can't lose you, Danny."
He choked back a loud sob. "Even if I'm a ghost?"
"Wh—what about Dad? Dad left."
"He was overwhelmed… but I promise you he feels the same. I know your Dad better than anyone and he's not one to give up on his family just because something happened that was out of your control."
Danny pressed his face, which was wet with tears, into her shoulder. She held him in her arms as she cried, whispering assurances that everything would be alright. His tremors gradually died down and everything became clear again.
Whether he believed it or not, Maddie knew for a fact that everything was going to turn out just fine.