A little piece of early birthday fic for the birthday girl, Mara…part time cheerleader, part time big sis, and full time Petey pal. She requested my version of how the guys first met. Here ya go, chick. I'm sure it kicks canon and fanon in the teeth. Whoops. Hey, Mara…welcome to the jungle, Finkette.
Did you ever meet someone and know, just know that you were going to click? That this was a person who would understand you when no one else did? That they would stand beside you when no one else would? Did you ever take one look at them and realize that they would fill a hole in your life you hadn't even known was there? That they would be more than a best friend. They'd be your family…your brother. Did you ever?
I mean, come on. What a crock of shit.
As a matter of fact the first time I met Egon Spengler, brainiac extraordinaire, the last thing on my mind was wanting to pal around with some wannabe Einstein, the Malibu version. The first thing on my mind was to wonder who the hell let this guy off his leash. But hey, I'm ahead of myself. It all started with an explosion.
Didn't it just figure?
I rarely went into the Physics building, Toadhall as we non geekoids called it. Why would I? Bunch of science toads scuttling around, clutching their calculators in sweaty palms. Not exactly a must see attraction. Ordinarily you couldn't have dragged me in there with King Kong pulling and Godzilla pushing. Had no interest. None. Zilch. Zip. Nada. But then there was this girl…yeah, yeah. I'm a dog. It's not like that was ever news to me. Rachel. She was a TA for one of the professors, Finkelstein. And while he was the epitome of a physics nerd with bowtie, taped glasses, and sports jacket decades out of date, Rachel was not. She was beautiful in a way that made it difficult to even talk to her. Not because she was up on a pedestal or anything. It was just hard to get words through all the drool dripping out of your mouth.
Just unbelievable, this girl. Granted she was an older woman, twenty-one, and I was just a freshman. But I was without a doubt the most well known freshman on campus. It was my second semester at Columbia, but I was already bucking for BMOC status. I ran my social life like it was a war campaign. In other words I played to win. Popularity got you things and I had no problem with things. I liked things. I was very much pro thing. Honestly, who wasn't? Of course Rachel was still a tough nut to crack. And that's why I wheedled her into tutoring me in physics as I was having a real problem with the subject. The fact that I wasn't even taking it might have had something to do with that, but I'd always been a firm believer in the 'what gorgeous TA's don't know won't hurt them' credo.
So there I was, walking down a deserted hall on my way to meet the ravishing Rachel when Spengler decided to recreate the Big Bang.
* * *
The building was fairly deserted that time of the day. Finkelstein's office was on the third floor and I was heading towards the stairs singing Rod Stewart's new song under my breath, "Do you think I'm sexy and you want my body…." I was pretty sure I'd have to adopt it as my theme song. What could be more perfect? Now if I could only get Rachel to buy into it. I switched to humming when I forgot the next line, took another step and was nearly impaled with shards of glass as an explosion blew the frosted panel out of the lab to my right.
I shook a few stray granules of glass off my leather jacket and sweatshirt as smoke began to billow out of the hole in the door. Someone had just taken a drastically wrong turn on his way to the science fair. Spotting a fire extinguisher mounted on the wall a few feet away, I snagged it. Knocking politely on the door frame, I pushed it open and stuck my head in. "Friendly door-to-door fire extinguisher salesman," I announced cheerfully over the screeching fire alarm.
A blond head rose from behind one of the lab stations and bemused blue eyes regarded me through thick, horn rimmed glasses. "Ah, indeed. Most fortuitous."
"You said a mouthful, pal," I agreed as I sprayed down a smoldering counter top. "Gratuities happily accepted."
He had obtained his own extinguisher from the corner and was deftly and efficiently foaming down the other half of the counter. He looked like he'd had a lot of practice with the equipment. Made me wonder if this was his first explosion. We coated the last of the scorched counter and partially melted metallic conglomeration I didn't even want to guess at. Setting down his extinguisher, the blond guy, wearing a white shirt and dark pants so blandly unfashionable the Amish would've turned their noses up at it, extended a long hand. "Egon Spengler."
I shook his hand with the same flashy grin I gave everyone. Hell, even a geek might be in a position to do you a favor someday. "Peter Venkman," I said superfluously. After all everyone knew who I was…frat rat, popular guy, practically a football god. "But you can just call me Smokey the Bear."
A pale eyebrow raised. "Yes, quite appropriate." Spengler's long angular face wasn't exactly set up as a stage for happiness and joy. Still I noticed a subtle change in expression when I gave him my patented Venkman-for-mayor grin. It was an odd mixture of disapproval, amusement, and reluctant curiosity. "Which physics class are you attending,…ah…Venkleman?"
I narrowed my eyes. He had done that on purpose. I knew he had. I didn't need the wry glint in his eye to clue me in to that. "Actually, Spengler," I enunciated every syllable with the utmost care. "The only physics I'm remotely familiar with is bodies in motion. I'm here to pick up my date." Okay, date was an exaggeration. So what? I cocked my head to one side to stare at him dubiously. "You know, a girl?" I made a curvy outline in the air with both hands. "A woman? Female of the species. Do you have any paper? Maybe I could draw you a picture."
The horn rimmed glasses began a slow and rather annoying slide down the long, hawk like nose. "I assure you I am familiar with the term."
"In theory anyway, eh?" I said with syrupy sympathy.
A faint flush of red appeared over Spengler's cheekbones although his voice fairly dripped with disdain. "As if what you think could possibly…." His words trailed off as he stared fixedly at my neck. "You're bleeding."
I swiped my hand across my neck to come away with a small smear of blood. "Oh yeah, I am. These things happen when glass explodes in your direction. Imagine that." I was still pissed and no belated show of Spengler concern was going to change that. I had jumped in to help out this guy and he had given me nothing but grief. And then to not even know who the hell I was? That was just rude, maybe borderline certifiable. Okay, maybe I was a little conceited, but I had good reason to be. I was Peter Venkman after all. And another thing…uh oh…what the hell was that? I aimed a casual finger past Spengler's shoulder. "Uh…is it supposed to be doing that?"
Spengler turned, his tall, lanky frame not nearly as awkward as I would've given him credit for. His half-melted metal monstrosity was vibrating and squealing in a pretty damn ominous fashion. "No, it is not," he said calmly. "In fact that is bad." Then he turned back and tackled me.
Caught completely off guard, I hit the floor hard, the air exploding from my lungs in a pained whoosh. Spengler's hand instantly covered my eyes just prior to the second explosion of the past five minutes. Even with my eyes covered I could see a bright flash. Damn, whatever this guy was playing with was either going to put Columbia on the map or blow it off altogether. Spengler removed his hand and sat up, shaking tiny metal fragments out of his short blond hair. Standing, he silently held out a hand to me.
Accepting it, I let him pull me to my feet. "'Bad'?" I wheezed incredulously, still trying to regain the wind I'd lost when I hit the floor. "If that's bad, what the hell to you consider very bad? Armageddon?"
"Very bad," he mused. "I have not come across a situation yet that merits the categorization of very bad." He made to brush the metal flakes from my sweat shirt. "Are you harmed?"
"'Harmed'?" Dangerously near coming off as the first parrot to attend Columbia, I simply couldn't help it. "'Harmed'?" I took another swipe at my neck, but there was no more blood. The cut must be small. "Physically I'm fine. Mentally you've scarred me for life, Spengler. I gotta say you're definitely top of the line in aversion therapy for Good Samaritans. I'm happy to report I'll never be tempted to help anybody again…ever…and that includes in my next life." I could hear approaching sirens outside and pounding footsteps coming down the hall. I shot one last glare of outrage at Spengler and headed for the door. "Have fun, Lucy. Looks like you have some 'splaining to do."
I slammed the door on the deep bass rumble. What little bit of glass remaining in the frame, dropped to the tiled floor with a musical tinkle.
Jeez, what an asshole.
* * *
The next time I saw Spengler I was sitting in the lecture hall and stuffing the last bite of a twinkie in my mouth. When I looked up to see his oh so cheerful countenance, I almost choked on the sponge cake. Coughing desperately, I scowled at him out of watering eyes. He gazed down at me tranquilly and said politely, "Do you require the Heimlich maneuver?"
I managed to swallow before answering with annoyance, "No thanks. I'd sooner die if it's all the same."
"Asphyxiation is increasing in popularity I hear."
Jeez, what the hell was that? Humor? Well, not really, but closer than I thought this geek with a license to kill would have ever come. He pulled up the chair next to mine and sat down, placing a pristine notebook along with three precisely sharpened pencils on the desktop. "Make yourself comfortable, Spengler," I said sourly. Wadding up the cellophane wrapper, I tossed it under my desk. "So what the hell are you here for? Come to blow this building up too? I know you're not taking a parapsych course. Go without using your calculator in a class all semester? Ha…I'd like to see that."
"Then you will." Spengler folded his hands gravely on his notebook and regarded me with laser sharp intelligent eyes that held a distant spark…a memory maybe. "Actually whether you choose to believe it or not, I find the subject…interesting. Not to mention the fact that unfortunately even a physics degree has certain of the 'softer science' requirements."
"Unfortunate for me anyway," I grumbled. Slouching back as far as I could, I stretched my sneakered feet out and propped one up on the desk in front of me. Then I devoted myself to ignoring Spengler utterly.
"Venkman, it appears that you are attempting to ignore me."
I rolled my eyes. "Yeah, you're a certified genius, all right."
"Yes, I think that goes without saying," he said dryly. Pushing his glasses up with an obviously ingrained and unconscious gesture. "Venkman, I wish to…I wish to apologize for the other day. You helped me and I may have been somewhat less grateful than I should have been."
"Is that Spengler for rude as hell?" I drawled, not about to let him off the hook.
A pale eyebrow immediately shot up. "If you insist. You cannot say, however, that you did not more than hold your own."
Damn, he had me there. I shrugged. "Yeah, maybe." Jeez, didn't know who I was. That still smarted. I wasn't busting my butt shmoozing everyone who was anyone on this campus to be an anonymous nobody. Peter Venkman was going to be a somebody. No way that was ever going to be in question.
"Do you accept my apology?"
Ah hell. This guy was something else. "Whatever floats your boat, Spengler. You're forgiven. I absolve you. Go in peace, my son." I waved a hand in the air. "Happy now?"
"Ecstatic." Spengler rolled a pencil back and forth between his fingers. "So, Venkman, I would never have guessed you for one to show up for class early."
I glanced at my watch and put my hands behind my head as I whistled nonchalantly. "You'll see." Casting a sideways look at him, I frowned. "Where's your books? Can't believe you wouldn't be fully prepared for class, Spengler."
"I have already had two weeks to read the text book, which was certainly more than adequate time." The class had started two weeks late into the semester due to the professor's untimely bout with gallstones. A nice mini vacation for me, but of course Igor here would've already read the book. Spengler continued, "And I have a near photographic memory. It is unnecessary to bring it with me."
Naturally, Einstein had a photographic memory. Excuse me…near photographic memory. Didn't everybody? "So why do you bring a notebook?" I countered. "Why bother taking notes?"
"It makes the professors nervous if I do not," he said with a faint edge of apparent exasperation at the memory-challenged professors of Columbia.
I couldn't stop the snort of laughter that slipped out. "If that makes 'em nervous, I wonder what the explosions do?" Spengler tilted his head, his glasses sliding back down his nose as faint amused surprise lightened his features. Before he could comment I sat up, straightened my hair and smiled winningly as the rest of the class began to filter in.
After the majority of them arrived Spengler leaned closer to say under his breath, "I must admit to curiosity. How did you know, Venkman?"
I eyed the class. Eighty percent women to twenty percent men…not a bad ratio. And I was already picking mine out. "It's a gift, Spengler," I said smugly. "It's a gift."
* * *
I ignored the knocking on my door for a good ten minutes, my head buried under the pillow, before I finally came to the conclusion whoever it was either wanted to die an ugly death or was a gold plated son of a bitch. I heaved myself out of bed, groaned at the alarm clock that read the horrifyingly early hour of eleven am. Yanking up my sweatpants with one hand and running a hand through my longish hair, I jerked open the door and snarled, "What the hell do you want?"
It was Spengler. Jesus Christ. The short white blond hair, tailored shirt starched to knife-edge sharpness, pressed dark pants…it was all too much. Too early. Too annoying. Too Spengler. I groaned again and closed the door in his face then headed back to bed. Flopping onto my stomach, I wasn't the slightest bit surprised to hear the door open and the measured tread of one Egon Spengler come to ruin my day from the very beginning. "So, Venkman," the bass rumbled, "Are you actually in a coma or merely the laziest human on the planet?"
I slitted one eye to glare at him. "For a genius, Spengler, you're pretty stupid sometimes." I pulled the pillow back over my head, muffling my voice. "I'm sure this is no social visit. You're certainly not Mr Social now, are you? So you must want something, right?" Psych 201 working overtime. I yawned, sucking a good portion of the sheet in my mouth. Spitting it out, I finished, "That's where ya lose me. You're not exactly buttering me up here, Spengler."
"Ah." I could hear Spengler sitting on the opposite bed that had belonged to my roommate Todd before he dropped out. "You have a valid point. I did not consider it in that light." A rueful thread ran through the words. "For some reason, Venkman, you have the ability to try my patience as none other."
"Me?" That got me up. I sat up, kicking the covers to the floor in the process. "You have got to be yanking my chain. What the hell have I ever done to you? I damn sure never blew you up!"
Spengler was distastefully pushing a half-empty pizza box away from him. "You lead an unexamined life, Venkman. You drift along with no real aim other than to advance your social standing. It is a waste, and waste annoys me."
Okay, I'd been pissed. Now I was furious. I don't think I'd even been this mad…ever. I stood up, walked over and shoved my face down into his. "Is there something you wanted, Spengler? Besides the punch in the nose you're about to get?"
Spengler sighed. "I have made you angry, haven't I?" No shit Sherlock. "That was not my intention. You seem to have potential, Venkman. I merely dislike seeing anyone waste potential."
"What do you want, Spengler?" I repeated between clenched teeth.
Wisely giving up the topic as a lost cause, Spengler cleared his throat. "A library book, The Golden Bough. I require it for the paper we have been assigned in our parapsychology class and the library informs me that you have it. In addition they would like me to inform you it is five days overdue."
Okay. Fine. Whatever it took to get him the hell out of there. I was already done with my paper anyway. I turned and started rooting through my dirty laundry hamper, otherwise known as the floor at the foot of my bed. After a few seconds I emerged triumphant and slammed the book against his chest. "There ya go, Spengler. Now do me a favor. Take a friggin' walk so I can go back to leading my 'unexamined life'."
He stood, an oddly uncertain expression on his long face. I didn't know Spengler well…thank God, but I'd never seen him remotely at a loss, not even during the whole explosion thing. We'd taken class together now for three weeks, and yeah, okay, I'd talk to him then. We had some pretty interesting conversations actually. He might be a physics geek to the nth degree, but for some reason he had a fairly intense interest in parapsychology. And while, to be perfectly honest, I'd taken the class for the women only, I had gotten sucked in quickly into the subject. It was interesting. Yeah, we had some good talks. But that certainly didn't give him any right to hound me about my life. I liked my life. I worked hard at it, even if Spengler didn't see that or didn't think it was 'worthy'. So I didn't want to be a Nobel prize winner. So what?
"Don't let the door hit you in the ass, Einstein," I snapped.
Spengler's brow furrowed and he cradled the book in one hand. "Venkman, I may not have expressed myself well. I would prefer not to leave this badly. I did not mean to offend you."
"I'd hate to see what the hell you'd say if you did." I pulled the door open pointedly.
Pushing his glasses up in what I now recognized as a delaying tactic, he offered tentatively, "Perhaps we could have lunch together and discuss this like rational adults. We do have to take class together. We should attempt to coexist peacefully."
I folded my arms, looked at him and then looked at the open door with a raised eyebrow.
"I would be willing to buy."
Well, hell. Hit a man when he's down. "You'll buy?" I asked suspiciously. At his nod of confirmation, I wavered for a moment then gave in. Free lunch? I'd have gone with Mussolini for a free lunch and it sure as hell wasn't going to be just a hotdog either. I was going to hit Spengler hard on this one. Flashing a wolfish smile, I said, "Let me grab a shirt."
I'd show Einstein how we did things downtown.
* * *
Spengler's eyebrows had risen when I had ordered and not come back down. In fact when the food came they climbed even higher. "There are medications for a tapeworm in these enlightened times," he commented dryly.
I shook my head sorrowfully as I dug into my steak, potato, veggies, bread, soup and salad and dessert to come. Not exactly a lunch, more of a dinner, but hey, you want to play, you got to pay. "You really can't help yourself, can you? You've got all the social skills of a hermit crab."
"Hmph." Spengler carefully dissected his piece of chicken breast that looked to have been thoroughly cooked to rid it of any possible taste whatsoever. "I admit to have not making it the sole purpose in my life unlike some…." In what I sensed was a rare display of temper, he slammed his fork down on the table before pinning me with an exasperated blue gaze. "How do you do that? How do you manage to get under my skin every time?" He picked up the fork and then put it back down again. I was starting to get motion sick from it all. "Venkman," he continued. "I am sorry. What you choose to do with your life is none of my business. You seem to do very well for yourself on campus and while it may not be what I would have chosen does not mean it lacks in worth. You are remarkably intelligent no matter how little you care to show it and I am sure you will do well in whatever field you choose." Finishing his little speech, he picked up the fork again and speared a piece of chicken. "So…are we friends again?"
I nearly choked on the bite of steak in my mouth. Spengler was dangerous to my health. First the explosion then the twinkie…now this. Friends? He actually thought we were friends? Just because we shared a class, had a few talks, survived an explosion together? Friends with a physics geek no matter how subtle and wry a sense of humor he had? No. I hung around with my frat brothers, the other football players, the girls who made the Venkman grade, the who's who of campus life. I took a swallow of my Coke desperately then looked up and whatever I'd been about to say died on my lips. Spengler was looking at me with amused expectation on his face. He expected me to lose it over the friend thing. He was waiting for it. But if I'd learned anything in my life from my dad, it was how to read people…even when they didn't want you to. Yeah, he had his face under control but his eyes were a different story. It was just a shadow in the blue but I could still see a faint shimmer of disappointment.
I savagely jabbed another piece of steak with my fork. We had nothing in common except a weird class. I sure didn't want to be seen in public palling around with what was probably the founding member of the three-dimensional chess club. It sure as hell wouldn't do my rep any good. Ouch. That was pretty damn shallow. Spengler had a tendency to bring up thoughts like that. There was nothing wrong with shallow. I aspired to it. Didn't I? I finished my bite of steak and sighed deep from my gut. I was going to regret this, I knew it…down to my bones, I knew it.
"Yeah," I mumbled with disgust. "We're still friends." For some reason the pure pleased surprise in Spengler's eyes warmed me, but that didn't keep me from adding wickedly, "As long as you keep buying me lunch anyway."
Spengler glanced haughtily down his nose at me. "The way you eat, Venkman, I sense this could be a very short friendship."
I shrugged philosophically. That was the nature of most friendships anyway, wasn't it? Another thing I learned from my dad.
Things never lasted.
* * *
"I'm curious, Peter. Is there any alcohol left on fraternity row or did you consume it all?"
I kept my forehead resting on the cool porcelain of the toilet and concentrated on holding back the dry heaves that I could feel fighting their way up. Clammy sweat had my hair plastered to my face and neck as I sat on the bathroom floor and thoroughly wished I were dead. A wonderfully cold washcloth was placed on the back of my neck. An efficient hand smoothed the lank hair back from my forehead as I lost the battle with the porcelain god and dry heaved miserably over the toilet. After a few minutes I recovered and muttered, "Could you kill me, Egon? I'd take it as a personal favor." Okay, it was more slurred than muttered. Hell, I was lucky to be conscious much less talking. I had thought I could make it from the frat house to my dorm on the other side of campus. I thought wrong. I'd almost hadn't made it to Egon's apartment which was a few blocks closer than my room. Nothing like showing up at your buddy's place for the sole reason of puking in his toilet. Was I a pal or what?
Egon sat on the edge of the bathtub and said with an edge of anger in his voice, "You seem to be doing a perfectly adequate job of that yourself. You certainly don't appear to require my assistance." Despite his words, he was studying me with concern in his eyes. Rewetting the washcloth, he replaced it on my neck. "Really, Peter, what were you th…." He let his words trail off. "Never mind. That is not important now. Do you think you are ready to try for the couch?"
"Not even gonna let me have your bed for the night?" I closed my eyes. "Jeez, what a pal."
Egon put a hand under my arm and helped me slowly to my feet. "The couch is much closer to the bathroom."
"Good thinking." I let myself be pulled along, trying not to notice how the room swung to one side then the other. He settled me quickly into one corner of the sofa and headed back to the bathroom to return with a small garbage can. And that was definitely good thinking 'cause the bathroom was looking further and further. Within minutes I was covered with a blanket and my head was resting on two pillows. I closed my eyes and tried to ignore the nausea still churning my stomach. I felt Egon sit down on the edge of one of the cushions.
"Peter, what is wrong?" he said quietly.
"Little too much beer and tequila, Egon," I groaned. "I thought my stomach turning inside out would've been a clue."
"Peter," the bass said warningly. "I know better than that."
And he did. It had never crossed my mind we would've stayed friends after our parapsych class ended. I thought that would be the end of it. I mean, why wouldn't it? Funny, it hadn't happened that way. I stayed to take summer classes and work to supplement my scholarship. Egon had attended class through the summer too. Forget double major, he was probably headed for the triple. The frat shut down during the summer, there was no football practice and I actually found myself spending more time with Egon than less. It was bizarre as hell and I tried not to think about it too hard. I dragged him out of the lab, when it wasn't being blown to pieces, and taught him how to play basketball...badly. He talked me into taking another parapsych class and now I was actually considering minoring in it maybe even majoring. I took him to a Yankees game and in turn he tricked me, yep, tricked me into going to the opera. I still owed him big for that. Now we were well into the next semester and we were tighter than ever. Weird.
Yeah, it was weird. But even weirder than that was how he picked up on things, quirks of my personality that I thought sure I'd kept hidden from anybody. I could fool anybody, anywhere, anytime…I'd always been proud of that. That is until I ran into Egon. I hadn't yet figured out if that pissed me off or just scared me…maybe a little of both.
"It's nothing, Egon." I pulled the cover up over my head. "I got drunk. I'm in a frat. It's the law."
He seized the cover and pulled it back. "Peter, I have seen you drunk before. You usually enjoy it more than this. I have never seen so drunk that you became this ill. All day you have not been yourself. Now tell me what is wrong. I insist."
Insist? He insisted? I opened my eyes and slid a glance up at his worried face. I'd never had anybody worry about me before except for my mom. I wasn't sure I liked it or not. The worry sharpened in his angular face and I relented. Maybe it was the alcohol or maybe it was just stupidity in thinking there might be one person that I could trust. "It's my birthday," I said flatly. "Today's my birthday." I fumbled my hand out from under the blanket and stared blearily at my watch. "Whoops. Yesterday was my birthday." Must have been a timewarp. I could've sworn it was still yesterday.
"Your birthday?" Egon echoed blankly. "Why did you not tell me?" Annoyance slipped into his voice, annoyance directed at himself. Like he should've known somehow. Like he should've been psychic. "We could have celebrated."
"I celebrated." Oh boy, did I…with a vengeance. I had started drinking in the late afternoon and kept at it steadily all night. My frat brothers had been more than happy to celebrate right along with me, throwing an impromptu party…no reason needed. And I hadn't given them one.
Egon's mouth flattened and he demanded, "Who forgot?"
Whoa. Holy shit. Maybe he was psychic. Was a helluva sight better than a magic eight ball, that's for damn sure. I glared at him with a flutter of panic in my stomach before rolling over to face the other way. I was not going there. I was not.
"Not your mother," he mused relentlessly. "You always speak very highly of her and she is always sending you cookies and brownies. No, she would not have forgotten." His hand absently pulled the blanket back up on my shoulder from where it slid down with my movement. "But you never speak of your father. Peter, was it your father?"
Tensing, I said emotionlessly, "Let it go, Spengler. I'm already nauseous, okay? That subject is not likely to improve the situation." It actually came out as sishuasion, but Egon ignored it.
There was a moment of silence as I could literally feel Egon planning his strategy. I knew there was no way he was giving up. That's when it hit me. He might know me better than anyone else on campus, but the reverse was true as well. And that did it. That definitely made up my mind. It scared the crap out of me.
"I do not exactly have the best relationship with my father either," Egon started contemplatively. Apparently he'd decided which way to go…establish the common ground. "He has very rigid ideas on what I should do with my life. He always has. He is most…immovable on the subject."
In other words his father cared enough to want to control his son's life. Okay, maybe not the best father, but not the worst. No, not the worst.
"But he would not forget my birthday, no matter how frivolous he considers the celebration of them." I felt a tentative hand rest on my shoulder. "I am sure your father will remember today. Perhaps he was…."
It was stupid that I even still cared, that I still let it get to me. God, why the hell did I still let it get to me? Was I that much of a sucker? I felt a wave of self-disgust roll over me, but it didn't stop me from turning my head to look at Egon. "It's now officially a tradition, Egon. Five years in a row. I'm thinking of promoting it as a national holiday." What the hell was I doing? This was shit I didn't tell anybody…that I didn't trust with anyone. I looked away from Egon, laying my head back on the pillow. "It's no big deal, okay?" I closed my eyes and hoped he would take the hint and leave me alone.
No such luck. I heard him inhale sharply and the grip on my shoulder tightened. "That son of a bitch."
That got my attention. My head whipped around fast enough to make me think seriously about that garbage can. Egon's face was pale with fury. Hell, I'd never seen Egon more than annoyed, and I was usually the cause of that. I'd never seen him furious. Blue eyes glittering with anger he pushed his glasses up emphatically with his other hand. "He has not called you, not sent you a card? Not in the past five years? Do not take this the wrong way, Peter, but are you sure that the bastard is still alive?"
Bastard? Son of a bitch? This was definitely a side of Egon I hadn't seen before. Sighing, I gave up sleep as a lost cause and sat up. "He's alive. He calls on occasion for…other things," I said flatly. Yeah, he called to ask for money, to try to involve me in his schemes. Those were the calls he found time to make. "It's okay, Egon. I'm mostly used to it. I just got stupidly drunk. Hell, that makes everything seem worse." I pasted on a grin. I liked Egon. And as unlikely as it seemed, he was my friend. But that didn't mean I wanted him to know all the details of my less than Norman Rockwell like life. I had never really cared about what people thought about what was on the inside of Peter Venkman. There wasn't any need to because no one was going to see that part of me. That's why I spent so much time on the outside.
The grin didn't seem to fool Egon. He was studying me with an odd expression, a sort of revelatory one. Like he had just figured out the solution to a difficult mathematical equation. "Peter," he started then lapsed into silence as I unconsciously shifted position to withdraw. "Yes," he continued smoothly. "You are no doubt correct. It must be the alcohol." He reached over and gave me a light push down. "Go to sleep. I anticipate you will have quite a deserved hangover in the morning. You will need all the rest you can get." Deftly he pulled the blankets back up, switched off the lamp and left the living room of his apartment before I even could get out a good 'huh?'. Okay, that was not like Egon. He did not give up that easy. But I was too tired and too sick to puzzle it out. I rolled over on my side and said bitterly under my breath, "Happy Birthday, Peter."
Hell, it was like Christmas, right? Just another day.
* * *
The next morning came way too soon. But not too soon to wholeheartedly wish that I was dead…dead, buried and a forgotten memory. I winced at the brightness of the daylight filtering in past the curtains. Ah jeez, my head felt bigger than a watermelon, my stomach was rolling, and what the friggin' hell was that smell? I managed after two attempts to sit up and cradle my head in my hands. I would've moaned but I had a feeling sound, any sound would be a bad idea…a very bad idea.
"Peter, you are finally up," Egon's voice stabbed through my head like an icepick. "How are you feeling?"
I peered up at him with what I'm sure was extremely bloodshot eyes and made a soundless snarl.
"Ah. I see." He extended a glass filled to the brim with a frothy bile green concoction, the origin of the stench from the pits. "Drink this. It will make you feel better."
I regarded it dubiously. "It looks like what came out of me last night. Why the hell would I want to put it back in?"
Egon sighed and wrapped my hand around the glass. "Drink it, Peter," he demanded. "We have a busy day and you lying comatose on the couch does not figure into it."
Busy day? It was Saturday and I didn't plan on doing a damn thing but feeling miserable and sorry for myself…not big plans maybe, but my plans. Still…Egon had an unwavering gaze fixed on me and I rolled my eyes and relented. I tipped the glass up and choked down about half of it. Then I stared with wide, betrayed eyes at my so called friend as I concentrated on not sending the stuff back where it came from. After nearly a minute of indecision my stomach finally grumbled and accepted the intruder. "Are you trying to finish me off?" I asked incredulously. "What is that shit? Used laundry detergent, stagnant toilet water, what?"
"My mother's recipe. Give it a minute. You will feel better. I promise." He retrieved the glass from me and took it back in the kitchen. I was swinging my legs to the floor when he returned with a towel. "I'd advise a shower as well. You are not exactly groomed for polite company."
I clutched the towel and tried to make sense of this whole thing. "Egon, what's going on? My brain's moving a little too slow this morning to make guesses." I narrowed my eyes against the eye searing brightness of Egon's pink shirt. I remembered saying to him once, 'Jeez, Egon, lose the black and white theme already, would ya? Liven up your wardrobe a little before the Mormon nation whisks you off as their new leader.' I had no idea he'd actually listen to me. And I definitely had no idea he'd go for pink. I wasn't too sure I'd done him any favors.
"We are celebrating your birthday, a day late perhaps, but nevertheless." He had taken a handful of my sweat shirt and was pulling me up to my feet and was ushering me towards the bathroom before I knew what had happened. "And do not even think about arguing with me, Peter. You will not win." He shoved me through the bathroom door and closed it before I could get a word in edgewise.
Huh. On one hand I didn't want this. I didn't want anyone, even Egon, a witness to my vulnerable points. On the other hand…it might be kind of fun to see what Egon had whipped up. Yeah, just fun. It wouldn't be like I needed it or anything. Sure, that was it. I didn't want to hurt his feelings or anything. I'd go. It wouldn't be any big deal.
Nope, no big deal. Just another day. I had to keep that in mind.
I had to.
* * *
It was the best 'just another day' I'd ever had. I don't think I'd laughed so hard since I'd snorted milk out my nose in the sixth grade when my lab partner Bobby Armstrong had slipped his half dissected frog into Susie Shone's sandwich and she'd nearly taken a bite of it. Cruel, yeah, but also funny as hell.
That didn't have anything on this.
Egon had tossed his cookies on the roller coaster. I had told him not to eat the chili dog first. I had warned him, but can you believe he'd never actually had one before? He hadn't been on a rollercoaster either. What kind of life was that? At least he had waited until the ride was over. Would've hated to see it en route so to speak. He had glared at me after straightening up from the grass, his white blond hair sticking up on end, and a greenish pallor on his face. "I did not enjoy that in the slightest."
I held up both hands. "Whoa, big guy. I warned you. I said don't eat the chili dog first, didn't I? I was just lucky I didn't get hit by any friendly fire." I handed him a clean paper napkin I had snatched from the hot dog stand as we'd left…just in case.
He wiped his mouth meticulously. "How is my eye?"
The side of my mouth twitched. "Black," I replied cheerfully. Egon had taken me to Coney Island for the big birthday fest, a pretty big sacrifice considering how frivolous a waste of time he considered that sort of thing. The first thing we'd hit was the games. It was the first thing that hit back. Egon had been introduced to lobbing baseballs for cheap and worthless prizes, an American pastime. Unfortunately his aim wasn't so hot and one baseball had bounced off the back wall to hit him in the eye.
Then there had been the petting zoo incident. Who knew a goat would take such an amorous interest in Egon's leg? Of course I could have helped him fight it off…naaaahhh. That was asking way too much of me. So I'd leaned on the fence and howled with laughter until a llama in the other pen had started grazing on my hair. I had yelped, lunged away, and lost my balance. Windmilling my arms I'd fallen square on my ass into a nice warm pile of llama manure. Despite the death grip the goat had on his leg, Egon had thrown back his head and laughed equally as hard as I'd laughed at him. Of course when he realized that smell was going to accompany us everywhere including his car, he'd sobered up quickly.
And that was nothing compared to the cotton candy incident.
I grinned as Egon threw away the napkin and attempted to tame his hair into some type of order. It had grown quite a bit from the near crewcut he'd had when I first met him. "You ready to blow this popstand, Egon?"
A quickly suppressed spasm of relief passed over his angular features. "Are you sure? I am certainly willing to stay and…ah, enjoy myself further."
I shook my head and took sympathy on him. "I've had about all the fun I can stand and you've had all the physical damage you can." I slapped him on the shoulder. "Let's get back to campus and grab you some ice for that eye."
Back in Egon's car we both rolled down the windows despite the chill in the air to let the manure smell air out of my clothes. Egon tapped a long finger on the steering wheel in silence for a few moments. When he finally spoke there was a thread of regret in his voice, "I am sorry it did not turn out better, Peter. I am sure you have had much better birthdays than this."
"Are you kidding?" I said with surprise. "I had a blast. That was the best birthday I've ever had." It slipped out before I even knew I meant it. But I did mean it. It had been.
"Indeed?" Egon looked at me over the frames of his glasses with startlement. "You really have suffered in your life, haven't you?"
It was the same dry humor that even in the beginning had me laughing despite myself. Well maybe not from the very beginning, there hadn't been anything remotely funny about the explosion. I grinned at him. "You had fun too, don't lie. You've missed out on a lotta good shit in your life, Egon. You're just making up for lost time now. I can't believe you'd never been on a 'coaster before." Then again…considering what he said about his father, maybe it wasn't so surprising after all. "Now that I think about it, I'm kinda surprised your parents didn't have you in college fresh out of the womb."
"My mother insisted I progress with my so called peers," Egon said phlegmatically. "She feared my socialization skills would suffer otherwise."
I glanced at him askance. "Jeez, considering your skills now that's one helluva scary thought."
He raised an eyebrow. "Praise from Caesar. Although in fact I have been able to occasionally lead the gullible to believe I obtained my first degree in grade school." Then he smiled the small movement of his lips that was a cheshire grin for Egon.
I leaned against him warmly, shoulder to shoulder for a moment then reached up and cuffed him on his blond head. "We really have to get you out more often, Spengs, but you're coming along. You're coming along."
He raised his eyebrow higher at his new nickname. "So are you, Peter." His blue eyes gleamed. "So are you."
* * *
Jeez, how'd I get myself into these things? Then again Professor Rathbone was a very, very nice looking woman, forty, elegant, and the most gorgeous eyes. When she asked for volunteers to help out with one of her experiments, who could say no? Certainly not one Peter Venkman…not hardly. Of course she failed to mention that she wasn't going to be there.
I scowled as the door to the empty classroom opened and victim number one walked in. About time. He was twenty minutes late. Signing up to participate in experiments was a good way to get a little extra credit. Done a bit of that myself. "Jeez, where ya been? I don't have all frigging day here," I said with annoyance to the stocky kid who stood uncertainly in the doorway. Had to be a freshman. Bright red hair, round brown eyes, clean khakis and plaid shirt, everything painfully neat. "Well, come on. Let's get this moving."
If anything the eyes got bigger. "Are…are you Peter Venkman?"
"That's me," I confirmed breezily. "But you can call me Dr Frankenstein for this little experiment." Damn, he was still just standing there. I headed over, grabbed his arm and plunked him into a chair. "You have a calculator with you?"
"Uh, no." He waved his hand slightly like he was still in junior high trying to get the teacher's attention. "I think there might be… you know…a…."
I cut him off ruthlessly. The sooner I got this done the sooner I could get the hell out of here and hit dinner. As a matter of fact Egon was supposed to meet me and we were going to hit the pizza place. "Good. No calculators allowed. This experiment is to measure the effect of negative environmental conditions on cognitive function as demonstrated by the measurement of your mathematical skills. Got that? Okay, good. Let's go."
I ignored his sputtering and popped the headset on him and slapped down the bluebook full of mathematical problems progressing in complexity from most difficult to least. I grabbed his hand to wrap it around a pencil, clicked my stopwatch and snapped, "Go!"
He continued to stare at me with a peculiar sort of panicked numbness. "But…," he repeated helplessly.
I waved the stopwatch frantically. "You're affecting the results, kid. Get going before you blow the whole experiment."
He swallowed hard and started on the first problem. Once he got started he started to whiz through them. Looked like the kid was pretty damn smart. Yeah, he was cooking until the rest of the experiment kicked in. The headphones started to pipe the noises into his ears. It started out fairly soft with long gaps between then progressed to rapid, wailing siren like alarms interspersed with blood curdling screams. Nerve wracking. I should know. I'd made the tape for Professor Rathbone. It was an interesting experiment. When the subject should be increasing in speed through the problems as they lessened in complexity instead he actually began to slow down. Very basic, but interesting. It made me wonder how it would work in the measurement of psychic ability. Hmmm. And maybe instead of audio disturbances you could use something like electrical stimulation. Huh. That was a thought.
The kid's twitching drew me out of my reverie. He was almost to the end, but it didn't look like he was going to make it. No one had yet without just giving up. I glanced pointedly at my stopwatch then challengingly at his round face. At that he straightened his shoulders with determination and with the tip of his tongue sticking out of the corner of his mouth as he concentrated, he tackled the last page. His eyes were practically crossed with the effort, but he scribbled the answer to the last problem with a triumphant air and slammed the pencil down before ripping the headphones off.
I clicked the stopwatch to a halt and grinned impressed. "Not bad, Brooker. Not bad."
"Peter, I hesitate to even ask what you have done to Raymond."
I looked over to the doorway where Egon stood, arms folded and a reproving expression on his long face. "Hey, Spengs. Who's Raymond? Oh yeah, that freshman you wanted me to meet." I winced abruptly. "Uh oh." I grinned sheepishly at the redheaded kid. "You're not Matt Brooker, huh?"
He shook his head.
"You didn't sign up for this experiment, did you?"
He shook his head again.
I cocked my head to one side. "Hmm, probably for the best. You did too good. You would've thrown the results off." I slapped him on the back. "No hard feelings, uh…Raymond, was it?" I started cleaning up the mess. "Guess that Brooker kid isn't going to show. Ready to hit the pizza place, Egon?"
Egon's reproving look changed to an outright glare. "Peter Venkman, do make the effort to realize the entire universe does not revolve around you, if you please."
Jeez. I rolled my eyes as the kid looked between the two of us worriedly. "Don't worry, Raymond…hey, can I call you Ray? You look like a Ray. Anyway, Ray, Egon is always looking to keep me in line. Seems to feel it's his calling in life."
"Less of a calling, more of a curse." Egon elbowed me lightly as he walked up to us. "Raymond, this is Peter Venkman or as he likes to be known, the Peter Venkman. Peter, this is Ray. He's a freshman in engineering."
I shook Ray's tentatively offered hand. Egon had really picked himself up a stray this time. This kid barely had enough self-confidence to be counted among Homo Erectus. "Nice to meet ya, Ray. Sorry about the whole Kafka flashback there."
He smiled shyly. "That's okay. Sorry if I messed your experiment up by doing too well. I won't try as hard next time."
I blinked. Huh, maybe there was more to this kid than I'd thought.
* * *
"Ray is from Morrisville," Egon commented as he sniffed disparagingly at the greasy menu.
Which of course meant absolutely squat to me. It certainly didn't sound as if the beautiful people congregated there…the beautiful sheep maybe. "Wherever the hell that is they raise 'em pretty smart," I said. "You went to town on those problems, kid."
Ray blushed as red as a three alarm fire. Jeez. I hadn't seen anyone blush in forever. This kid was going to have a helluva time on campus. "Thanks," he stammered. "I've always been good in math."
I slid a sideways look at Egon that said plain as day 'I hope you know what you're doing.' Waving an impatient hand for a waitress, I drawled, "So what drew you two brain trusts together?"
Egon pushed his glasses up. "Ray and I were both browsing the occult section of Yolly's Used Books. Ray is actually a little more interested in the occult end than I, but we still had a most fascinating conversation. In fact Raymond bought an esoteric volume known as Tobin's Spirit Guide. It looked to have some quite promising insights into…."
I could literally feel my eyes crossing and brain cells committing hari-kari. Once Egon got started it was hard to get him to stop. Don't get me wrong. I liked parapsych or I wouldn't have been shooting for it as one of my majors, but there were other things in life. Egon would agree to that except his other thing would be physics with mold as a nice side hobby. I waved harder and with greater desperation for the waitress. Finally she arrived and I did a little bit of obligatory flirting before ordering us a large with the works.
"I am curious, Peter," Egon said dryly. "Would it be possible for you to not flirt with any woman under fifty?"
"Nope," I replied promptly. "You might as well ask me to stop breathing, Spengs. Just can't do it."
Ray was watching this byplay with great interest I could see. "So, kid," I said. "Has good old Egon here managed to melt your brain yet?"
He shook his head vehemently. "Oh no. I like talking to…Egon." He snuck a glance at Egon to see if that was going to be allowed. Encouraged by Egon's faint smile, he continued, "We talked about all sorts of things. He told me all about the parapsychology class you two took together and, boy, that sounded great. I can't wait to take that. He said you're majoring in it. I bet that'll be so much fun. I love engineering too. It's neat. I wish there were some way to combine the two of them. Wow, that'd really be something, wouldn't it? Did you want to see the book I bought, the Tobin's?" He started digging in his backpack. "It's really awesome. I told Egon he could borrow it whenever he wanted. Of course you can to. Gee, it's in here somewhere." Notebooks, books and pencils started to fly out of the backpack as he dug deeper.
I threw one partially horrified, partially astounded look at Egon. What the hell? What the hell had he done? Where had that shy kid gone? This kid could not be for real. No one could be this…this…well this Ray was all I could think of. It was a classification heads and shoulders above enthusiastic and deserved a whole new label all its own. My God.
Egon, face calm, pulled off his glasses to clean them with his handkerchief. He didn't fool me for one second. That son of a bitch was laughing at me. I narrowed my eyes at him. Paybacks are hell, Spengler, I thought gleefully. "Hey, Ray," I interrupted the great Tobin hunt. "Has Egon asked you to help him out in the lab yet?"
Ray's head popped up out of his apparently bottomless backpack. "Help in the lab? Wow, that would really be an honor." He turned to Egon. "That'd be great, Egon. I know I'm only a freshman, but I study ahead. And I'd do just what you told me too, I swear." His face fell a little. "I've been banned from the chemistry lab since I sort of caught it on fire last semester. But the physics lab doesn't know about me yet. Working side by side with you…that's so great!"
Grinning at the wince that crossed Egon's face, I locked my fingers and stretched them out, cracking my knuckles. Oh yeah. Egon, the most anal of lab toads, partnered with someone as destructive as him, with twice the energy. It would drive him nuts…for a while. But one thing about Egon, he could be remarkably patient on occasion. Witness me. Who knew? It might actually be good for him. There was something about this kid, aside from his almost frightening enthusiasm. I couldn't put my finger on it, but it was there all the same.
Ray plunked a dusty, moldy book on the table. "Here it is. You wouldn't believe what a good deal I got on it."
Thanks in part to Egon, I could admit something about this kid that I never would've a few semesters ago.
We just might've gotten a good deal ourselves.
* * *
"For the last time, Ray," I said slowly, patiently and with both hands threaded through my hair in a death grip on my head. "The lunch lady is not the creature from the black lagoon."
"But, Peter," he started.
"No, Ray. No buts. She's just a dumpy, homely woman who ladles out peppers stuffed with mystery meat. She is not a member of the web-fingered lizard-creature relocation program. Got it?"
Ray's face took on a stubborn cast I was rapidly becoming familiar with. "But her eyes, Peter," he hissed as if she could hear us all the way across the cafeteria. "They're just like a fish's. And don't you think she's a little green? I'll bet she has scales too. You know in places we can't…." Finishing that sentence was obviously a bit too much for our boy Stantz as he promptly turned scarlet.
I put my forehead on the table and carefully, methodically tried to pound my brains out.
"Ah, Raymond, I see you have put forth your theory to Peter regarding the cafeteria lady." Egon sat down at the table and patted me solicitously on the back. "Take deep, slow breaths, Peter. I fear you may hyperventilate."
I swatted at his hand goodnaturedly. "Fine, Spengs. If I keel over right here from a burst blood vessel in my brain, it's you that has to do the CPR. And I just had a chili cheese onion dog. Your funeral, big guy."
"In that case, Peter, I fear I shall just have to let you pass to the other side. Remember to go to the light. The light is your friend." He began to cut his chicken parmignan or what passed for it anyway with precise strokes.
Ray let out a bleat of snorted laughter before he buried it in his own lunch. While he thought I wasn't looking he raised worried eyes to see if I was mad. The semester was almost over and Ray had hung around with us for most of it, but he still had moments of doubt and insecurity. And he really had trouble, I thought, knowing how to take me. I was careful, most of the time, not to make him the subject of my sarcasm. Egon of course was a Venkman free for all. But he could go toe to toe with me, no problem, more than holding his own. Ray…well, he still needed a little work.
I scowled at Egon and slung my arm around Ray's shoulders, shocking him so much he nearly spit his milk out. "Be that way, Igor. I'm sure my buddy Stantz here will give me the kiss of life, won't ya, pal?"
I could see Ray gathering himself, scrambling for something to say, and I held my breath. Ray was an awesome kid, but if he was going to hang around with us he had to get in the game…for self-defense if nothing else. He gulped and smiled widely, "Sure, Peter. But do you think you could brush your teeth first?"
I blinked at him once, twice, then laughed until my sides hurt. Looking through tearing eyes, I could see Egon letting loose with his own bass rumble. After a second Ray joined us, round face flushing a healthy pink, not from embarrassment but from humor. It was, as Ray would say, great to see. Rubbing at my eyes, I choked out, "Okay, Ray. For that you get a freebie. I'll prove to you the lunch lady is no lizard. A lizard wouldn't find me attractive now would it?"
"Only if it had a problem with its own kind," Egon said under his breath.
I punched Egon in his biceps. "I'm working here, Spengs. No comments from the peanut gallery." I stood, smoothed my hair and headed for the food line with a killer smile on my face. A man had to do what a man had to do.
Ten minutes later I returned, feeling queasy, vaguely violated and bearing her phone number written on a napkin. I dropped it to the table triumphantly. "There you go, Scooby. Just a woman…sort of. Definitely not a lizard. Can we go now?"
Blatant disappointment on his face, Ray sighed, "I really thought…I guess so." Then he brightened. "You know, I think there's a ghost of this three legged dog in my dorm. I'm pretty sure the dean back in nineteen twenty had…."
As his words washed over me like a wave I put my head back down on the table, not even bothering to pound it this time. This kid was going to be the death of me.
At least then my ghost could take his phantom pooch for a walk.
* * *
Life was weird.
Not exactly news to anybody, right? Yeah, life was weird and pretty much out to get you. I'd known that from day one. The doctor pulled me out, slapped my ass and said, "Watch your back, kid." Good advice. I'd become damn good at bobbing and weaving over the years.
Up until now.
And it was my fault. I'd left my end zone wide open and had nobody but myself to blame. I could've tried to pin it on Egon or Ray, but…no. I was a lot of things, but a hypocrite was not one of them. They had no idea of the disaster they had made of my nice, well ordered life. Huh, Spengs would howl at that…well, howl being a microscopic loss of Spengler composure. Maybe it didn't look well ordered from the outside, but it was. I had everything designed to keep people…never mind. That's nobody's business but mine anyway. I had it the way I wanted it. Past tense. That was all shot to hell and back now.
So now it was decision time. Salvage what was left or rebuild completely? Stay or go? Taste great or less filling? Question of the ages.
Fridays sucked. This one had for sure.
Instead of my alarm clock waking me up that morning it was the phone. I had just moved into the frat house a few weeks ago. The phone was out in the hall. Mikey answered it then came banging at my door. "Venkman, phone!" Then he banged at the door a few more times, already familiar with my sleeping habits or as Egon referred to them…near death experiences. I staggered out of bed in baggy, rumpled shorts and T-shirt and made it, just barely out to the hall to grab the phone. I should've stayed in bed. After a few minutes I hung up, went back to my room and put my fist through the wall.
Wasn't much of a wall.
Ray must've heard the sound because when I turned at his hesitant knock on the door frame, his eyes were round and worried. In fact he looked a lot like the first time I saw him. Uncertain. Wary. "Oh…hey, Ray," I said, deliberately casual, already pulling on my jeans and digging in my closest for a shirt.
He came into the room, eyes travelling from my reddened and abraded hand to the hole in the wall. "Peter, are you…is everything okay?"
I could tell it took a lot for him to ask. Ray had made some great strides but I think this was the first chink he'd seen in the façade of the Venkman fun time machine. The first little hiccup. I think I'd shaken the foundations of his world for a moment. "Yeah, everything's fine," I said with glacial calm, tying my sneakers with savage, jerky motions that didn't seem to reassure Ray in the slightest. "What can I do for you, kid?"
His face fell a little...not much though. I think he was more worried about me than disappointed. "Your paper, remember? You wanted to go to the library before class."
Oh yeah. I'd asked Ray if he wanted to be an informal case study for one of my psych projects. He'd been tickled pink. That kid. He'd been tickled pink if he'd been Chicken Little and the sky chose him to fall on. I sighed and felt my eyes soften. "Sorry, Ray. Something's come up. We'll have to reschedule."
"That's okay," he said solemnly. Then brightening, he suggested, "Maybe between classes. Before lunch?"
I shook my head, wrapping up every grim emotion I felt and shoving them down deep where it wouldn't show. "Don't think I'm gonna make class today, Ray. Maybe tomorrow, okay? We'll watch football and I'll subject you to psychological tests that would embarrass even Freud," I grinned and Ray's shoulders slumped even further. Somewhere along the way I'd lost the ability to fool Ray. Well, hell, first Egon…now Ray.
The worry on his transparent face deepening, he asked, troubled, "Peter, do you want to…maybe get Egon or something? Are you sure you're okay?"
The very last thing I wanted was Egon to know about this. I squashed the tiny piece of me that whispered that it might feel good to talk to someone about it…someone who wouldn't judge me. Maybe he and Ray wouldn't think badly of me. Hell, I knew they wouldn't. My head knew, my heart knew. A lifetime of instinct still gave me a swift kick in the guts. "No, Ray. Don't bug Spengs," I replied, resigned to the fact Ray would see through any of my usual song and dance I dished out to nearly everyone else. "I have to take care of something. But I'll see you guys tomorrow. Okay?"
"Tomorrow?" he repeated dubiously. Then an obstinate expression began to swim across his features. "Peter…."
I cut him off. "Tomorrow, Ray," I said firmly. I wasn't going to be fit company for anybody for a while. I wouldn't even inflict myself on my arch nemesis Boxer Mahoney in the foul mood I was in. I grabbed my jacket and started towards the door. "Hang out here for a while if you want. And tell Egon sorry about lunch. I know it's my turn to buy for you guys. I'll catch it next time." I could see Ray's mouth dropping open to protest and I waved hastily. "Later." Then I was in the hallway and making tracks.
Had a perfectly good day to ruin.
* * *
Three hours later I was outside the police station and headed for the subway. I was past furious to the just-don't-give-a-shit stage and lighter of next semester's book money as well as frat fees. Forget one job during the summer. I'd have to get two and still be lucky to scrape along by the skin of my teeth. Thanks, Pop. Money will pass, but memories…they'll last forever. Whether you want them to or not.
No, Ray and Egon wouldn't have thought less of me for having to bail my dad out of jail. And I shouldn't think less of myself. But that was easier said than done. I wasn't stupid and God knows I had all the self-esteem I needed and then some. Still you live with something like that your whole life….well, let's say you find some interestingly pertinent tidbits in your psych books years later.
I could deal though. I had learned to deal almost before I could walk. By tomorrow I'd be the same Peter Venkman I always was…minus some pocket change.
At least the worst was over. That was something, right?
You'd think I'd been giving off enough bad vibes to scare off Jack the Ripper. Apparently not. There was someone out there almost as pissed at the world as I was. Almost.
* * *
It was already dark by the time I got home. It was still early, about seven, but it was getting darker earlier every night now. The frat house seemed oddly quiet until I remembered the beer bash at the Kappa's. If I knew my brothers and their long term, monogamous relationship with alcohol, every last man of them was there. I trudged up the stairs, wincing with every step until I reached my door. Opening it, I was reaching to flip the switch when I realized there was already a light on. The shabby lamp on the table beside my dilapidated couch was on. The warm pool of light revealed Egon, sitting on the couch with a finger holding his place in the thick textbook on his lap. The blue eyes were leveled on me. I should've known. Well, it was too late to make a run for it and I doubt I'd have gotten too far with my knee anyway. I'd just have to tough it out, brazen through it. "Hey, Spengs. Happen to do any of my studying while you're here?"
"Peter." Just one word, my name, but it held a wealth of emotions...concern, anger, affection, exasperation. "Where have you been? Ray told me…." He let the words trail off as his I stepped into the room and he got a good look at me. Concern instantly overshadowed all the other emotions on his long face and he stood, the book spilling unnoticed from his hand to the floor.
"I'm okay," I said hastily. "Looks worse than it is."
He regarded me with a discerning gaze that couldn't be fooled then indicated the couch. "Sit," he ordered. "I will be back in a moment."
Resigned at the implacable glint in his eye I limped over to the couch and sank into the cushions with a sigh of relief. His mouth tightened at my hobbling gait, but he said nothing and disappeared out the door. I closed my eyes and leaned my head back against the couch and catalogued my aches and pains. It was a good way to keep my mind off what the hell I was going to tell Egon. I had no doubt I didn't have much choice this time. The only other time I had talked about my father to Egon he hadn't pushed me. We were at a different level in our friendship now, a level at which he would not hesitate to kick my ass, metaphorically speaking. At least I hope it was metaphorically speaking. Enough of me hurt already. It felt so good to sit on something besides hard subway seats that I slid down a little further and relaxed to the point of bonelessness.
An icy touch on my knee brought me out of a near doze. I blinked to see Egon carefully placing an ice filled towel on my knee. A large hole was ripped in my jeans from the unfortunate meeting of my knee and the asphalt. The skin showing was already purple and stretched shiny and tight over the swelling. Not a pretty sight. Once that was settled he handed me two aspirin and a glass of water. I accepted them silently and popped them in mouth and washed them down. Then he handed me another towel and ice, a smaller one. "For your face," he said quietly.
I shrugged and held the makeshift icepack over the rising and no doubt spectacularly bruised lump on my jaw. The abrasion on my one fist had multiplied to both of them, red and raw. "You never told me you were moonlighting as a nurse, Egon," I said with a millimeter thin veneer of casualness.
"I never had need to be one before now," he responded grimly.
Touché. Or other French words to that effect. "Where's Ray?" I asked as he sat on the sofa beside me. "I can't believe he's missing this little surprise party."
"One of his seminars from last week was rescheduled for tonight. He will be here when it is over. Of that there is no doubt. He is very worried about you, Peter," Egon said sternly. "As am I."
It amazed me that he could say things like that. To the casual observer Egon probably appeared to have all the emotional range of a snowcone. But in fact the opposite was true. He was more in touch, as cliched as that sounded, with his feelings than I would ever be…than I ever wanted to be. I was perfectly happy to be the living embodiment of the Florida everglades…nice, shiny and green on top and full of muck, swamp, and things with teeth underneath. At least I had always thought that way before. It scared the hell out of me to feel all of that disappearing like quicksand beneath my feet. Change was bad. Even the dinosaurs had known that from the time the first one had said, 'Hey, is it getting a little chilly or is it just me?'
I hated change.
"Yeah, well, no need to worry," I said with every bit of sincerity I could scrape out of the Venkman vault. It was a last ditch effort and I tried to put my all into it. Didn't I? "I'm fine. Had a little disagreement with the asphalt. No big deal. Maybe I could sue the city. What do ya think? At least get a street named after me. Venkman Avenue? Peter Esplanade? Classy, huh?"
Egon looked at me, just looked at me with such a pure and complete patience that it freaked me out a little. Hell, it freaked me out a lot. He reached over to rearrange the icepack on my knee when it began to slip then he focused his total attention on me. "Peter, you have a choice to make," he said, bass sober. "It is your decision. It always has been. I thought I could help you, but perhaps I wasn't helping. Perhaps I was merely pushing you someplace you didn't want to go. I am sorry." He smiled faintly. "I seem to say that quite a bit with you." The smile faded. "I am your friend, Peter, and I will be for as long as you want me to be. But friendship comes down to one thing, one element above all others." He paused then exhaled deeply. "Your choice, Peter. And I promise you I will do my best to abide by it."
I wanted to demand what the hell he was talking about. In other words I wanted to pretend. Yeah, pretend, because I knew exactly what he was talking about.
He was talking about something I just didn't have in me. It's not like I'd never had it, not like I'd been born a suspicious son of a bitch who trusted nothing and nobody. No, that'd been a life lesson taught to me at an early age, taught so thoroughly that I wasn't sure I could overcome it even if I wanted to. I could feel my eyes ice over into a look I knew I hadn't given Egon in a long time. It was the superficial, careless persona that was second nature to me…and well on its way to becoming first. It was the touchstone, the anchor of my existence and I held tight to it with a very real sense of panicked desperation. It had stood by me for a lot of years. I couldn't give it up.
Egon flinched as the indifference passed over my face like a glaze. It was a small motion, barely detectable and quickly controlled. Egon was a man of his word after all. Yeah, he tried to conceal it, but too late. I saw it, and any chance I had of going back to my old life faded and became as intangible as the wind. And what I thought I couldn't give up gave me up instead.
I ran a hand through my hair and dropped the icepack on the table. I couldn't look at him though. Not when I said it. "I went to bail my dad out of jail for check kiting. He's probably halfway to Atlanta by now." I said the words quickly, like they left a bad taste in my mouth. Hell, they did leave a bad taste.
A warm hand closed around my wrist, but the deep relief in Egon's voice was even warmer. It hit me that maybe he was as scared as I was, for different reasons. Scared that he would lose me, lose his friend. "How were you hurt?"
Like that's what mattered, and the fact that my conman father had been arrested was not even worth mentioning in comparison. "I was mugged," I said numbly. I looked down at the long fingers clasped around my wrist, still unable to meet his eyes. This wasn't just a big step for me, this trust thing. This was an endless drop down a bottomless chasm. And I hated heights. I felt a shadow of a wicked grin play around my lips. "He picked the wrong day and the wrong guy to mess with." I had been unwilling to give up my wallet, empty or not, but was perfectly willing to take my frustrations out on him. He was bigger, but we were pretty evenly matched. And I was too pissed to worry about possible consequences.
The grip suddenly tightened almost painfully. "Tell me you did not provoke your attacker. Tell me you did not look for trouble," he said angrily. "Tell me that this instant, Peter."
Oh shit. I slid a cautious glance up to see Egon scowling at me, glasses half mast and falling fast. "Can I lie?"
"No, you may not. Damn it, Peter, for someone who is as remarkably intelligent as you, you can on occasion be so monumentally stupid." He released my wrist and, reaching past me, retrieved the icepack I'd discarded on the table and slapped it back in my hand. "It does not do you one iota of good on the table."
I rolled my eyes and instead of obeying, tossed it lightly from hand to hand. My dad had really screwed me up. No one knew that better than me, no matter how good I was at hiding it…from others and from myself. I also knew Egon was more than aware of that since the time I'd shown up drunk at his apartment. So I didn't have to put it in words. But there was something else that I did. "Spengs, this is going to be hard for me." There was an understatement and a half. "I'm going to need for you to promise me something."
Instantly Egon placed a hand on my shoulder and squeezed lightly. "I will not let you down, Peter. You have my word."
I smiled; it was the first genuine one all day. "Yeah, I know." And crazy though it was, I did know that. "That's not what I meant." I let the smile slip away and said with deadly seriousness, "Promise me you won't let me mess this up, Egon."
'Cause I'll try. I'll push you and Ray away as far and often as I can. I won't intend to, but I will. So don't let me. I couldn't say those words, but I thought…I knew Egon heard them anyway. Blue eyes certain, his hand tightened on my shoulder. "I promise you, Peter. And I have never broken a promise."
I cleared my throat. "That's good, Egon. I got a feeling I'm going to give you a run for your money." I leaned back, resting comfortably shoulder to shoulder with him, and reapplied the icepack to my face. "You know how much I hate when something happens to my face, Spengs? I'm practically prostate with grief here."
"Oh Peter." The horrified voice said softly from the doorway. "What happened?"
I looked up to see Ray hesitating by the door, his backpack dangling from one hand. His round face had paled a shade at the sight of me. But there was something besides worry…anxiety maybe? It was simple enough to deduce why. Ray was afraid I'd be mad that he'd told Egon about my less than controlled behavior that morning. Even though I'm sure he thought it was for my own good. And, hell, it had been. "Hey, Ray," I mumbled cheerfully around the weight of the icepack. "Egon was really pissed I blew off classes today. He decided to teach me a lesson. Watch out. He's got a mean right hook."
"Peter," he repeated my name in an exasperated tone that was new for him. It was nice to see him holding his own. To take a page from the book of Ray, it was great. He hurried over and winced when he got an even closer look. "You look terrible! Who did this? Have you been to the hospital? Can I get you something?"
And that got Egon in the swing of things. "He was mugged, Raymond." He purposely didn't mention the part about my father I noted with relief. I would have to talk about that someday with Ray. But I'd had enough with my old man today. Pushing his glasses up, Egon added, "Have you been to the hospital, Peter? Or did that last bit of common sense escape you as well?"
Guilty as charged. I slid down and tried not to look like Fido with his tail between his legs and the cat's tail hanging out of his mouth.
"Peter." This time they said it in unison.
Wonderful. Now I had nagging in stereo.
Friendship, it was a multi splendored thing. And despite what I used
to think, that was no crock of shit.
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