The phone rang five times before Winston Zeddemore answered with the familiar greeting, "Ghostbusters." When he was met with silence, he called into the line, "Hello?"
"Winston," Egon answered, having finally found his voice.
"Egon," Winston responded, obviously recognizing not only the identity of the caller, but something in his tone that alerted him to trouble. "What's wrong, man?"
Again, Egon couldn't make himself speak.
"Egon?" Winston prompted.
"It's Peter. He's been hurt."
"Bad." The tightness in Egon's reply said more than the one word.
"What happened?" Winston asked. "You were just supposed to be on a lecture trip. You guys run into something?"
"You could say that," Egon replied. "It's a long story."
"Okay, it can hold until we get there. Where are you?"
"Huffington," he told him, then gave more detailed directions.
"Are you okay, Egon?" Winston asked.
"I'm fine," he replied.
"Egon?" Winston pressed, not accepting the quick answer.
"Just hurry, Winston," Egon replied and could almost see the determination assert itself on his friend's features.
"Janine is due back from lunch any minute. As soon as she gets here, we're on our way."
"Egon, listen, I'm sorry, but Ray and Janine are gonna want to know. What happened?" Winston replied, his voice gentle.
Egon closed his eyes and took a steadying breath. "Peter was stabbed."
"It was a case of mistaken identity. The man who did it is in police custody. Peter's in surgery now. The doctors don't know if..."
"Hang in there, brother," Winston implored him. "We'll be there as soon as we can."
"Just hurry, Winston."
"Okay, m'man." With those words, the line went dead. Egon shivered as the thought entered his head. He didn't want to think of that particular word. He'd been sitting here in this waiting room for almost an hour before he realized he needed to call the others. How could this have happened? He'd asked himself that question over and over. If he hadn't accepted the speaking engagement, if he hadn't asked Peter to come along, if they hadn't stopped at that store... No. It was too easy to think of ifs. They were well past what ifs. What had happened had happened.
He knew he was still in shock over what had occurred. He just couldn't accept it. Who would have thought only a few hours ago he would be sitting here alone while somewhere else in this hospital, Peter was fighting for his life? Why?
"Why not?" Peter asked, turning in the passenger seat of the rented car to look at his friend. "Didn't you say we had all afternoon to get back to New York?"
Egon shook his head as he kept his eyes on the road in front of him. "I have experiments that need attention, Peter," Egon replied, a familiar forced patience in his voice to indicate he'd rather drop the current topic of conversation. He cast the psychologist a sidelong glance. "So what is it about Huffington that makes you want to stop there? I've never heard of it."
"Nothing special. Just old Walter has a place up there. He's an old buddy of my dad's. He retired a few years ago and opened up this old country store. I just thought it would be nice to stop by and see how he's doing."
Egon was silent for a few minutes. "It's been a long time since you've seen this Walter?"
"Few years," Peter admitted.
"You think maybe he's heard from your father recently?" Egon asked knowingly.
It was Peter's turn to sigh. Egon knew him too well. "Yeah, I guess the thought had crossed my mind."
Egon glanced at his watch. They really were ahead of schedule and there was nothing pressing to get back to. Peter had been concerned about his father the past few weeks, Egon realized. It wasn't anything new for Charlie Venkman to be out of touch with his son for long periods of time, but the last time Peter had heard from him, the old con man had hinted he might be in a bit of trouble. That had been over a month ago and it was apparent to all of his friends Peter was worried.
"I don't supposed it will delay us substantially if we stop by and visit with your friend for a while," he relented. "Just don't accept any invitations for dinner or any prolonged stay. We do need to get back to the city tonight."
"No problem!" Peter replied. "Thanks, Egon."
"No problem," he echoed with a hint of a smile.
"This place is great, Walter," Peter enthused, and Egon was inclined to agree. Built out of logs, with high ceilings and mostly wood fixtures, and sporting the requisite cracker barrel, The Old Country Store was large and exuded the atmosphere of the kind of mercantile that had disappeared with an earlier generation. Besides groceries and an area devoted to local crafts, the store was well stocked with hardware and sporting goods, an especially lucrative business with the large hunting reserve near Huffington. "You must be pulling in a mint here."
"Doing alright for myself, son," the retired con man nodded as he showed the pair around his domain. "It's quiet here, but that's what I was ready for after all those years in the business."
Peter laughed. "It's okay, Walter. Egon knows Dad and I told him you were an old associate of his."
"Your father and I had some right old days, boy, I can tell you," Walter replied with a laugh.
"Heard from him lately, Walter," Peter asked, trying to make it sound casual.
Walter looked at him for a moment. "Not for a while, Petey," he replied. "Why?"
"Oh, you know Dad. I thought he might have dropped in to see how you were doing."
"Ain't seen Charlie in quite a while now," he replied, but turned away as he spoke.
"Walter?" Peter put his hand on the man's shoulder. "Come on, it's me, Pete. Have you seen him?"
Walter sighed. "Yeah, he was here a couple of weeks ago. Don't know where he went from here, though."
"He was okay then?" Peter asked.
"Sure," Walter replied. "Nothing can get old Charlie down."
"What kind of a scam was he pulling, Walter?"
"Now, Petey, you know I'm retired. I keep out of that kind of thing now. I got this nice little place and my wife and granddaughter to help me run it. I don't want any trouble. I told Charlie that and he understood. Good friend, your dad."
"Yeah," Peter replied with sarcasm. "Great guy."
Peter caught Egon watching him and pulled himself upright. "Well, as long as he's not got himself into something he can't get out of, I guess that's all I really needed to know."
Walter laughed. "Son, there ain't much of anything Charlie can't get himself out of!"
"Sometimes he needs a little help," Egon murmured, recalling the times Peter had been forced to come to his father's aid.
"Come on, boys. Why don't you look around and see if there's something you like?"
It was at that moment Peter's eyes came to rest on a very lovely young blonde standing behind the counter in the area reserved for local crafters to sell their wares. "I think I've already found something I like," he remarked with a smile.
Walter laughed. "Careful, boy, that's my granddaughter Becky. You mind your manners around her."
"Your granddaughter?" Peter exclaimed. "How'd she turn out so pretty with your genes?"
"Took after her grandmother like her mother did!" The older man waved at the girl. "Becky, come meet some friends of mine." The girl came over and was properly introduced to Peter and Egon, then Peter casually steered the conversation toward the merchandise in the crafts area as he and Becky wandered away from the other two.
"That boy is a chip off the old block," Walter exclaimed.
"There's a lot more substance to Peter than there is to his father, Mr. Beeks," Egon asserted.
Walter rubbed at his chin. "Well, I reckon that's probably so. I like Charlie a lot, but there were times I didn't think he did right by the boy and his mother. I didn't do all I should have for mine either, but I always tried to be there for them when they needed me. Old Charlie sometimes enjoys the con so much, he forgets about other things. He don't mean any harm, Dr. Spengler. That's just the way he is."
"I know, Mr. Beeks, but it wouldn't hurt him to show a little more consideration toward Peter's feelings. If you happen to speak with him anytime soon, you might mention Peter's been worried about him." Egon had the feeling the old man knew more about Charlie's whereabouts than he had told Peter.
"Don't know when that might be," Beeks replied, "but I'll sure keep it in mind." He exchanged an understanding look with Egon, then as his gaze wandered toward the front of the store, his expression turned into a frown.
"Problem?" Egon asked, following the merchant's gaze.
"That's Jake Hudson and his wife," Walter replied. "Jake's father's not exactly a member of Charlie's fan club, if you take my meaning. Good thing is, he don't know Charlie and I are friends. I'd just as soon keep it that way."
"What did Charlie do to Mr. Hudson?" Egon asked.
"Took him for quite a bit of money, actually," he said in a whispered voice. "Horace Hudson is one of the wealthier men in this county. He's also a gambler and when he gets drunk, he gets mean. The son there's the same, and they say he beats up that pretty little wife of his now and then. I didn't feel a bit sorry about Charlie gettin' the better of the old man. Do feel bad for that girl, though."
"Perhaps Peter and I should be on our way," Egon suggested, and started to move toward the counter where Peter and Becky were still talking.
"Look what I'm buying, Egon," Peter lifted a colorful crocheted afghan to show the scientist. "Becky's grandmother made this. Looks just like one my mom used to have that her mother made."
"It's quite lovely," Egon replied. "Peter I think we'd better be going."
"Aw, Egon, Becky and I were just getting to know each other."
"May I remind you, you promised this would be a brief visit," Egon pressed closer. "We should leave now."
Peter offered him a confused expression, but nodded. "Okay, let me pay for the afghan and I'll be ready. Here you go, Becky," he said, handing the young woman several bills.
"Thank you, Dr. Venkman," Becky replied, a little too loudly.
Egon saw Jake Hudson's head turn toward them and after a moment, he headed their way.
"Peter, let's go," Egon said urgently, catching Peter's arm and trying to steer him away from the approaching man.
"Venkman!" Hudson cried. "I want to talk to you."
"Yes?" Peter stopped, but Egon tugged at his arm.
"Don't stop, Peter. We need to go."
"Stop right there, you cowardly bastard!"
At that, Peter froze to the spot, despite Egon's urging. Walter stepped between the two men just before Hudson closed the distance.
"Now hold on, Jake. I don't want any trouble in my store. Why don't you just let these gentlemen be on their way?"
"What do you want with me?" Peter asked.
"My name's Jake Hudson; my father's is Horace. That answer your question?"
Peter frowned. "No, I can't say it does. Am I supposed to know you?"
"Jake, let's go," pleaded the young woman who stood at Hudson's side. He responded by striking her with the back of his hand, sending her flying into a display of canned goods and falling to the floor amidst the scattered cans. Becky rushed around the counter to help the girl. Peter took an angry step toward the man, but Egon's hand still on his arm held him back.
"Jake!" Walter cried, keeping himself between the would-be combatants. "I said I want no trouble here and I meant it. You leave my customers alone!"
"You got a rotten brand of customers here, Walter." He turned back to Peter. "Do you steal money from so many people you can't even remember their names, Venkman?"
"Mr. Hudson," Peter said coolly, "I haven't stolen any money from anyone, much less your father. My friend and I were just passing through and stopped in to take a look at this store of Mr. Beeks'. If you'll step aside, we'll be on our way."
"You ain't goin' nowhere!" Hudson cried.
"Tom! Larry!" Walter waived at two men standing a few feet away near the sporting goods counter. Immediately, they came toward the group. "Boys, I think Jake here needs a little help outside."
"Don't you try and throw me out, Beeks!" Hudson cried.
Larry, a rather muscular black man, grasped Hudson's wrist. "Let's go get a little air, what do you say, Jake?" His deep baritone voice was soft, but it was impossible to miss the underlying threat in his tone. Before allowing himself to be led away, Jake locked his gaze with Peter's.
"This isn't over, Venkman."
"You've got the wrong man, Jake," Walter told him. "Let it lie."
Tom grabbed Jake's other arm and he and Larry started walking the man toward the entrance. Jake went along for a few steps, but pulled the men to a halt.
"Alright!" he cried. "I'll leave. But I came in to get me a new pair of binoculars. Don't you want my business, Walter?"
Walter considered for a moment. "Okay, Jake, just keep your distance."
Hudson held up his hands and shrugged his resignation, then headed for the sporting goods counter. Larry and Tom took a couple of steps away, but showed no signs of leaving until Jake had finished his business.
"What was that all about?" Peter whispered to Walter.
"Your dad had a run in with his dad. The boy never saw Charlie, so when he heard Becky call your name, he probably thought you were him."
"Are you alright, Mrs. Hudson?" Egon asked the young woman.
"Yes," she nodded nervously, clutching a tissue Becky had provided against her bleeding and rapidly swelling lip. "I'm sorry."
"You have nothing to apologize for, Liza," Walter told her. "But Jake's made a mistake. This isn't the man his father had the problem with. Think you can convince him to go on home?"
"I'll try," she whispered, her apprehension apparent.
"Mrs. Hudson," Peter called. "You don't deserve treatment like that. No woman does. There are places where battered women can get help."
"He doesn't mean it. He just has a bad temper and sometimes it gets the better of him. He's not really bad. He can be very kind and gentle."
"It's a sickness, Mrs. Hudson. Believe me, I know. I'm a psychologist and I've seen women in your situation before. If you stay, it will only get worse. He has no reason to change if you just stay and take it. You need to get away from him. I can help you find out where to get help in this area if you'd like."
"No!" she cried. "Just stay away from Jake. Leave us alone!" She turned and ran toward her husband who was once again glaring in Peter's direction.
"You tried, son. I'll give you that," Walter patted Peter's shoulder. "Now you'd better leave before Jake gets his dander up again."
"It was good to see you, Walter," Peter smiled at the old man. "If you see Dad... well..."
"I know, Petey. You take care of yourself."
Peter gave his father's friend a nod, then collecting his package, he and Egon headed toward the front of the store. Jake Hudson had his back to them and appeared to be studying the pair of binoculars in his hand. Just as they passed, there was a sudden crash of glass as Hudson brought the binoculars down hard against the top of the display case before him. He reached inside, pulling something from the shattered case, then spun around lunging across the aisle toward Peter. Something in his hand glinted with reflected light. A knife!
Peter apparently saw the blade at the same time as Egon. Shoving the package with the afghan at his friend, he pushed Egon out of the way, but before he could turn his attention on Hudson, the man was upon him. With one swift upward thrust, he buried the knife in Peter's midsection, then with a twist of his hand, pulled it back out, readying to strike again.
Peter gasped as the blade sank into his body, then cried out in pain as it was wrenched away. His hands were on Hudson's wrist, the one that held the knife, but he had no strength to hold it distant. Just as Hudson's arm started forward for another strike, Larry wrapped his beefy arms around the slighter man's midsection and hauled him up off his feet. At the same time, Tom caught the knife-wielding arm, giving it a twist until the weapon fell free of his hand.
"PETER!" Egon cried in sheer horror as he watched his friend grab for his middle and sink to his knees on the wood floor. Distantly, he heard shouts from Hudson and the two men restraining him and screams from one or both of the women, but he paid no attention. All his concentration was focussed on getting to Peter's side. He sank to his knees beside the stricken man, wrapping is arm around Peter's back and cradling his head on his shoulder as he eased him back to lean against his own body.
"Peter!" he called again as Peter's face turned toward him, features contorted and teeth clenched tight against the pain.
"E-Egon?" he breathed, then cried out once again as the movement brought on a stab of pain. "Hurts," he whispered, barely audible.
"Hold on, Peter," Egon implored him.
"We've called for an ambulance, son," Walter said as he sank down on the other side of Peter. "Becky! Bring some towels!"
Egon's eyes travelled from Peter's pain-filled face to his hand clutched tightly against his stomach. Blood oozed between his fingers, already saturating the bottom half of his shirt and the front of his pants. Egon placed his own hand over Peter's and pressed. Peter cried out in agony.
"I'm sorry, Peter," Egon's voice was shaking, "but we have to put pressure on the wound. You're losing too much blood."
"Don't..." he started to say, then collapsed back against Egon, his head rolling against the physicist's chest.
"Peter?" Egon's free hand frantically made it's way to his friend's neck to check his pulse, hardly remembering to breathe until he felt the weak but steady beat.
"He's passed out," he said numbly.
"Better that way," Walter said. "He was in a lot of pain. Here, son, let me get these towels in there."
Egon relaxed his hand long enough for Walter to place a pad of folded towels against the wound, then he returned to putting pressure on the injury. Faintly he could hear a siren approaching above the sound of Peter's labored breathing.
"Hospital isn't far," Walter told him. "They'll get him help real soon."
But would it be soon enough, Egon wondered. Peter was losing massive amounts of blood. The knife had been a long one, probably five inches. How much damage had it caused? Peter was probably bleeding internally as well as externally. He was unconscious, he could be dying.
No! Egon shied away from the thought, shaking his head to make it go away. Peter could not die. He couldn't let him die. It was all so senseless. Why had it happened? Why? Why?
Why? That question was still rang in his mind, even after two hours of waiting for word. Peter hadn't regained consciousness on the way to the hospital. He had looked so pale as they wheeled him away from Egon into the emergency room. He vaguely remembered the nurse asking him questions which he must have answered by rote. Then she had taken him and cleaned his hands of Peter's blood. The same blood that was now dry on his own shirt and pants.
The doctor had come out once, long enough to inform him Peter was indeed bleeding internally and they had to operate immediately to find the source of the bleeding and stop it. With the authority they all had given each other in the event of such an emergency, he had given his consent, signed the appropriate papers, then returned to this room to sit, alone with nothing but dark thoughts.
He'd seen Peter injured before, sometimes seriously. It had never been easy and it never got any easier. Peter Venkman was his oldest and closest friend. The word friend wasn't nearly strong enough to describe their relationship. Even the term brother seemed inadequate. Peter was the other half that made Egon whole. Two men, so different, yet so compatible. Peter brought out the part of Egon that, due to his father's influence, had lain dormant all his life. Peter had taught Egon how to enjoy life outside a laboratory, to interact with people and not spend all his time on experiments. He had drawn him out into the world and shown him a part of it Egon would never have discovered on his own.
For his part, Egon had given stability to Peter's life. Egon was the rock that anchored the chaos of Peter's emotions. After an uncertain beginning, they had each found someone who would stand beside them and not waiver. Someone each could trust not to desert him, who would be there when he was needed. Peter knew Egon would always be honest with him and over the years, that trust had deepened.
Now it was almost impossible for Egon to think of his life without Peter Venkman in it. And yet, he sat here, alone in a hospital waiting room, facing the very real possibility.
And it wasn't just the possibility Peter could die. It was the senseless way it had all happened. As Ghostbusters, they faced dangers every day. They all knew how easily any one of them could be killed on the job. But they always faced that prospect together. If one of them were ever struck down, it would at least be for a reason. They had a purpose they had all agreed was worth the risks.
But meaningless violence, Egon could not accept. For Peter to die was unimaginable; for him to die for no reason was totally unacceptable.
So now his thoughts had brought him full circle back to that same one word question, a question with no discernable answer.
The physicist raised his head to find the answer standing before him.
"Mr. Venkman," he said coldly.
"Walter told me what happened. Has there been any word?"
"Peter's in surgery. They're trying to stop the bleeding. We won't know anything for a while."
"I see," he replied as he sank onto a chair near the door.
"You got here pretty fast," Egon observed.
"I was staying with friends over in Crandell. That's less than an hour away. Walter thought I might be going to see them, so he took a chance I'd be there, or that they might know where I'd gone."
"I'm glad someone knew how to contact you," Egon told him, his voice flat and emotionless.
"You think this is my fault, don't you?" Charlie blurted out.
Egon looked directly into the eyes of the balding man. "Jake Hudson tried to kill Peter because he thought he was the man who had taken his father for a large sum of money. We both know you are the man he was really after. Once more Peter is hurt because of you. In the past, the hurts have been emotional, for the most part. Sometimes financial." Egon's voice became louder. "But this time, Charlie, this time your son may die because of you. And you want to know the really ironic part? He wouldn't have even been there except he was worried about you. He wanted to find out from Walter if he knew where you were and if you were alright. Walter was right. There's nothing you can't get out of. It's those who love you that get strewn along the wayside. But that's alright, because Charlie Venkman is a survivor. Nothing hurts you, does it, Charlie?"
Egon jumped to his feet and walked the length of the waiting room to a window on the far wall. He gazed out unseeing as his fists clenched and unclenched, fighting to get his anger under control.
"A lot of what you say is the truth." The voice coming from right behind him surprised Egon so much he spun around to face the source. "I know I've hurt Peter before and I know it's because of me he's here now. If he dies, it will be my fault. I know that. I don't know if I can live with that. I don't think I'll want to live with that. I'm all the things you think I am, Spengler. I was never a good husband to Peter's mother and I've never been a real father to Peter. He had to find that kind of love somewhere else. And I will always be grateful to you and Ray and Winston for giving him what I never could. I know what I am, Egon. There are times I don't like myself any more than you do. But I don't have it in me to change. I tried when I married Peter's mother, but it never worked. But I love my son. Even if it looks like I don't know how to show it, I do love him. And he knows I love him. Maybe he didn't for a long time, but he does now. And he and I have you and your friends to thank for that.
"I know you're angry with me, Egon, and you have every right to be. You've done more for Peter than I ever have. But don't think I don't love him. In my own way, I love him every bit as much as you do."
Egon shook his head. "Your way of loving someone leaves a lot to be desired. I've seen Peter disappointed by you again and again. You've left scars on him that can never be healed. By all rights, he should hate you. But he doesn't. Despite it all, he loves you. Time after time you let him down, and yet when you dane to pay him a visit, he lights up like a child given a puppy. He's come to expect very little of you because that's all he's ever got from you. And despite everything you are and everything you aren't, he's still proud of you. Peter loves you so much he can find some small spark in you he can take pride in. He's a better man than I am."
"You despise me, don't you?"
Egon shook his head. "No, Charlie, I don't despise you. I feel sorry for you. I know how valuable Peter's love is. It was hard won and it is not easily given. And yet, no matter what you do, it's always there for you. And you don't even know what you've missed, just because you've never turned around to look." He sank down in a nearby chair and dropped his head into his hands. "What does it take, Charlie? What does it take to make you see what you've wasted?" He looked up at the older man. "Does Peter have to die for you to make you see?"
Charlie paled visibly and he too sank down into a chair opposite Egon. Lowering his own face into his hands, his shoulders began to shake with silent sobs.
Egon watched in equal silence. A part of him took satisfaction that his words had actually touched something human in the old con man. But a voice in his head reminded him this was not what Peter would want. Slowly, with a great deal of hesitation, Egon reached out his hand and placed it on Charlie Venkman's shoulder. Peter's voice in his mind whispered approval.
After a few moments, Charlie's sobs subsided and he looked up with tearful eyes at his son's best friend. A wordless understanding passed between the two men. Egon gave the shoulder beneath his hand a final squeeze then leaned back in his chair. Charlie straightened himself and also prepared to wait. Whatever the news was, they would both be here to receive it. Whatever the outcome, neither man would be alone.
For Peter, Egon could do even this.
It was some time later when Winston, Ray and Janine arrived. There still had been no word from the doctors. Janine rushed immediately into Egon's embrace, both reassuring and needing reassurance, strong woman and vulnerable little girl all in one person. Egon found himself more than happy to have her to hold onto.
Ray's expression was haunted and it was obvious he had been crying. Ray was always the closest to his emotions and the first to show exactly what he was feeling. For those reasons, the others always felt very protective of their youngest partner. But as he faced Egon, Ray's expression projected an inner strength that was sometimes easily overlooked. Of all people, Ray understood the dynamics of Egon and Peter's complex relationship and he would know how devastated Egon must feel, especially having spent so much of the vigil alone.
Winston stood patiently behind Ray waiting as Egon dealt with first Janine's emotional support and then Ray's anxious questions. The expression on the older man's face was grim. Although he had come to this family late, his devotion to his friends was no less than the others. It had taken no time at all for Winston to make his own place among the Ghostbusters. He possessed a seemingly boundless strength of spirit born out of his relationship with his own close loving family and a rock solid belief in God that nothing his years pursuing the paranormal had been able to shake. If Peter didn't make it, Winston would be no less devastated than the others, but he was the best able to withstand such a loss, and he took it as his responsibility to be strong for his remaining friends.
As Egon explained in detail exactly what had happened to result in Peter's injury, Charlie Venkman, who had stood off to the side from the moment the others arrived, walked even further away. Although he stood with is back to the group, Egon could imagine he felt keenly the looks cast his way as his involvement in the tragedy became clear. Predictably, Ray's gaze toward the older man held sympathy. Winston stared for several moments at Venkman's back, his effort at keeping his temper in check revealed by the clenching of his jaw. Only Janine spoke to him.
"This is all your fault!" she cried, starting toward the man, only to be caught up short as Egon caught hold of her arm. "Haven't you hurt him enough for one lifetime?"
"Janine!" Egon called her name so sternly she turned to him in surprise. "Let it alone." It was the closest thing to a command Egon had ever uttered to her, and predictably, Janine's first reaction seemed to be to challenge his right to order her to do anything.
But when she turned to face him, something in his expression seemed to cool her anger immediately. All the fire seemed to die, and as he sat down, she sank into the chair beside him. She gave Charlie one last look. When she spoke again, it was quieter, but no less intense.
"Peter deserves better, Mr. Venkman," she told him simply, then turned to lean her head against Egon's shoulder.
Charlie turned and looked at his son's friends, taking in all the expressions they offered him, then he nodded at Janine. "Yes, Janine. He does." He sat down in a chair well removed from the others and directed his gaze toward the same window Egon had stood before earlier.
Ray looked hesitant for a moment, torn between his feelings of sympathy for the elder Venkman and his concern of what his actions had done to Peter. At last, seemingly too tired to make any further efforts, he sat down next to Egon.
Winston was the last man standing and he muttered something about getting coffee and disappeared down the corridor. Egon knew it was Winston's way of dealing with the wait: to focus on taking care of the others. In much the same way, Egon kept himself together for the sake of Ray and Janine. He had had all the time alone he wanted for the moment. Right now, he was glad to have his family around him.
He looked across the room toward Charlie once more. He was all alone. But hadn't he chosen that path? Egon had always regarded Charlie Venkman with a degree of contempt for his shortcomings as Peter's father. The physicist didn't have Ray's easy forgiveness in him. But he'd held his tongue, for the most part, because despite it all, Peter really did still love the old con man. This afternoon, he had not held back. For the first time, he had allowed himself to tell Charlie Venkman what he thought of him. At first, it had been a relief. But the longer Egon thought about it, the more he realized he had used Charlie as a convenient target to blame for the pain he himself was feeling. It was true that Charlie's actions had led them to this place, but did he deserve all the blame?
With a heavy sigh, Egon gently disentangled himself from Janine's embrace and stood up, walking slowly toward the man who sat apart from them.
"Charlie," he said quietly. "I owe you an apology." Venkman's head shot up in surprise. "While I have never and will never condone what you have done with your life and how your lack of responsibility has affected Peter, I should never have blamed you for Peter being hurt. I know you love Peter, in your own way, and I know you would never do anything to purposely hurt him. Jake Hudson is the man responsible. He's the one who tried to kill Peter. There can be no justification for anyone to coldbloodedly murder another person. You may have contributed to the situation, but you should not have to bear the guilt for another man's insanity."
Charlie stared up at Egon for several minutes, then shifting his gaze away for a moment, he cleared his throat and looked back up at his son's friend.
"Thank you," he said quietly. "I can't tell you how much I appreciate what you just said, Egon. You have every right to hate me as much as I hate myself right now. And there is nothing anyone can say that will absolve me of my share of the guilt. The only thing that can make that right is for Peter to be alright."
"Peter will be alright," Egon said firmly. "I won't believe anything else."
Movement to his left caught Egon's attention. It was Winston, holding a small cardboard tray with five cups of coffee. He held the tray out toward Charlie. "You'd better have a cup, Mr. Venkman," he said levelly. "It's going to be a long night."
Charlie looked at Winston with gratitude before he took one of the cups. Winston offered the tray to Egon and he took a cup also. Moving back across the room, he set the tray down on the low table in front of Janine and Ray, then claimed a steaming coffee for himself.
Ray stood up and took a couple of steps toward Egon and Charlie. "Why don't you come over here and sit with us, Mr. Venkman?" Ray asked. "We're all Peter's family."
Charlie shook his head. "You're Peter's family, Ray. Janine was right. Peter has always deserved better than he got from me. Thank God he found it with you."
"Come on, Charlie," Egon encouraged. "Self recrimination won't help the situation. Learn from your mistakes and try to do better. That's all Peter has ever wanted from you. Come on. Come sit with us. Winston's right. It will probably be a very long night and whatever we have to face in the morning, none of Peter's family should be alone."
The old con man nodded and followed Egon across the room to join the others. Janine caught his eye and gave him a nod as he sat down across from her and Egon. Then the five of them settled into silence as they waited for news from the doctors.
Egon came awake with a start. He hadn't intended to fall asleep; hadn't really thought it was possible, but the tension-induced exhaustion had finally caught up with him. The sleep, however, had been anything but restful. His dreams were filled with the image of Peter Venkman lying limp in his arms and covered with blood. Nothing he could do would stop the flow. Then, like an endless tape loop, the scene would reset and they'd be walking out of the store again, only to relive the knife attack once more. As he worked to steady his frantic breathing, he realized how accurate the dream was. He felt trapped in the aftermath of the assault, unable to get past that one image. The scene never ended because the outcome was still in doubt.
"Are you alright?" Janine asked softly and Egon realized he had been lying with his head cushioned on the secretary's shoulder.
"Yes," he replied. "I'm sorry if I disturbed you, Janine."
"I wasn't asleep," she replied.
He looked around the room at his friends. Winston nodded at him as he sat protectively near Ray. The youngest member of the team had also succumbed to his exhaustion, but even in sleep, the expression on his face revealed his worry.
A few chairs away, Charlie Venkman sat leaning forward in his chair, his elbows propped on his knees, his hands clasped before him. He didn't look up at the sound of their voices, but continued lost in whatever realm of thought his mind had produced.
Egon turned to look at Janine. She was trying to look confident, but failing miserably. The hurt little girl look that appeared in her eyes at times like this always made his heart twist just a bit. It was so different from the expression he was accustomed to receiving from her. Reaching his arm around her, he wordlessly drew her closer against him, feeling her arms wrap around his waist, both comforting and comforted by her nearness.
At the same moment, his eyes fell again on Peter's father and despite his still present anger at the man, he couldn't help feeling sorry for him. If Peter didn't survive, Charlie would be alone, and although it was a condition he had brought upon himself, Egon took no satisfaction at the thought. His feelings regarding Peter's father had always been mixed, but for the most part, they had been resentful on his friend's behalf. Despite all the hurts Charlie had inflicted on his only son, Peter never stopped loving him. And despite all the times he had hurt and disappointed Peter, Charlie never changed. Egon's love for his friend made him protective and Charlie Venkman was the one thing Egon had never felt able to protect Peter from. All he had been able to do was be there to help pick up the pieces, to support Peter in the wake of one of his father's acts or omissions. There was something missing in Charlie, something self-destructive that had never allowed him to fully appreciate what he could have had. Peter understood his father better than anyone else, but that didn't stop the pain when Charlie failed him, again and again. For his own part, Egon had never really taken the time to try and understand the con man. The broken, balding, sad and lonely man sitting across from him bore little resemblance to the reckless, inconsiderate, self-possessed schemer he had always taken Charlie for. Perhaps this was the side of Charlie Venkman his son had always known existed and could never give up on. That he truly loved Peter, Egon had no doubt. The sad part was, Charlie, unlike his son, had never known how to love someone. This was the kind of man Peter had been well on his way to becoming when Egon had first met him in college. For the first time, Egon wasn't feeling rage against Charlie for sending Peter down that path, but sorrow that no one had rescued the older Venkman before it was too late.
Egon knew what an influence Peter had had on his life, but he often discounted his own impact on Peter's. Looking at Charlie, he felt a strong sense of gratitude he had been able to see something more in the younger Peter Venkman at a time when he could effect a change in the direction of his life. More than anything at that moment, he wanted to talk to Peter about his new insights.
But the realization hit him once again he might never be able to talk to Peter about anything again. He shivered at the thought and Janine's arms tightened around him.
"Dr. Spengler?" a voice called from the entrance to the waiting room and Egon raise his head to find the doctor he had spoken to before standing there, tiredly removing the surgical cap from his head. Immediately, all five occupants of the room were on their feet.
"Dr. Richardson," Egon addressed him, hesitantly.
"We've managed to stop the bleeding. The tip of the knife had penetrated a major blood vessel. That's what caused the heavy bleeding. Thankfully, there was no major organ damage. Of course, if we hadn't been able to stop the bleeding in time..." He let the thought go unfinished. "We went through quite a lot of replacement blood keeping him stable throughout the surgery. He is very weak and the possibility of infection is a prime concern, but he's stabilized and I have every hope for a full recovery."
There was a collective sigh of relief from Peter's friends. Charlie Venkman sank back down into his chair and dropped his face into his hands for a moment before looking back at the doctor. "When can we see him?"
The doctor looked questioningly at Egon. "This is Peter's father," the physicist explained.
"Well, he will be out of it for quite a long time, I'm afraid. It will take hours for the sedation to wear off and then I would expect the weakness from the blood loss to keep him asleep for even longer. But that's good for him. He's in recovery right now, but he'll soon be moved to intensive care. Immediate family is allowed to stay with him there, one person at a time."
A flash of his anger returned as Egon realized as his father, Charlie would be allowed inside while they who had become Peter's real family would not.
"Doctor," Charlie stood before him. "Everyone in this room is Peter's immediate family." A one-sided smile broke across his features as he looked around him. "I was always a believer in large families."
The doctor narrowed his gaze. "You mean all these people are your children?"
Egon regarded Charlie with a raised eyebrow, almost enjoying seeing some of the old spark come back into the con man's eyes.
"Dr. Richardson, I give you my word. These men are his brothers and this pretty little thing is his sister, just as certainly as I am his father." Charlie addressed the doctor, but as he spoke his gaze locked with Egon's. More so, he seemed to add to the physicist.
"Alright, then I'll send a nurse for one of you as soon as Dr. Venkman is settled into ICU."
"Thank you, doctor," Ray stepped forward and grasped the man's hand. "We can't ever thank you enough."
The tired surgeon smiled. "I think you have," he assured the occultist. "Why do you think I became a doctor in the first place?" Then, he grinned. "And if seeing the relief on your faces isn't enough, I think my bill will take care of the rest." With that he walked out the door.
Egon turned once more to Peter's father. "Thank you, Charlie," he said sincerely.
"For what? For telling the truth for once in my life?" He shook his head. "No, I owe you for all you've done for my son all these years, all the things I never did. As Ray just said, I can never thank you enough."
He reached out his hand toward Egon and with only a momentary hesitation, the physicist grasped it.
"Now, all we have to decide is who gets to sit with Peter first." A gleam lit Charlie's gaze as he reached into his pocket. "I just happen to have a deck of cards here. I suggest we cut for the order of visitation."
"With your cards?" Janine asked, looking at him skeptically.
"Of course!" Charlie replied. "I wouldn't cheat my own children, now would I?"
They all dissolved in a chorus of groans and relieved laughter.
"Hey, Egon," Peter greeted with a tired smile as the physicist stepped into his hospital room. "How do you like the new digs?"
Egon took a cursory look around. It was just a normal hospital room, except for the green floating form of Slimer hovering next to Peter's bed, but it looked wonderful to Egon. After several days in ICU with a hopeful prognosis, but still lingering concerns, there was something reassuring about Peter being moved into his own private room that finally put to rest his lingering worries the psychologist might suffer a relapse.
"It looks just fine, Peter," Egon replied. "Where is everyone?"
"Winston, Ray and Janine headed back to New York to pick up some fresh clothes for themselves and for me. They promised to pack a bag for you too, so don't worry. They would have woke you up and taken you along, but I told them they had to leave me someone to fluff my pillow."
Taking it as a cue, Egon moved to the bed and, carefully assisting Peter up, gave his pillow a cursory pounding.
"Thanks, Spengs," Peter whispered, his eyes speaking volumes about how grateful he was to be alive. The thought of how close they had come broke through Egon's resolve to act normal and he gently pulled Peter into an embrace. "Hey, big guy, don't sweat it. I'm fine, honest."
"I know," Egon replied. "I'm just very grateful for that fact."
Peter's arms wrapped around his friend. "I'm sorry I put you guys through some tough hours."
"Just try not to let it happen again," Egon said forcefully, then slowly lowered Peter back down on the bed. "Where's your father?" he asked, surprised to find Charlie missing. He had been almost impossible to move from Peter's side in the past few days.
"He hit the road about an hour ago," Peter replied with a casualness that didn't ring true to Egon.
"He left already?" Egon remarked in astonishment.
"Yeah, you know Dad. Got things to see and people to do out of their hard earned cash." Egon looked away. "Why are you so surprised?" Peter asked. "You know how my dad is."
Egon nodded. "I hoped he had learned something from this incident."
Peter shrugged. "He didn't learn anything he didn't already know, Egon. Don't let it get to you, that's just the way he is. He can be really great in a crisis, but when everything is back to normal, he can't take that. Normal just isn't my dad."
"He could have stuck around until you got out of the hospital," Egon remarked.
Peter looked at him appraisingly. "He kinda got to you this time, didn't he?" Egon looked up in surprise. "I get the feeling quite a lot went on between you guys while I was out of it."
"We had a discussion," Egon replied cryptically. He turned his own divining scrutiny on Peter. "You aren't the least bit bitter over your father's role in this, are you?"
Peter shook his head. "I can't blame him, Egon. He is what he is. I still harbor some hopes someday he might change, but I stopped counting on it a long time ago. And he didn't intend to hurt me."
"He never does," Egon observed.
"No, he never does. It happens. It isn't his fault I was in the wrong place at the wrong time."
"But this time, it almost got you killed."
"But it didn't," Peter replied. "Don't dwell on it, Egon. Don't let it eat at you and make you bitter. It can if you let it. You taught me that. Charlie Venkman is Charlie Venkman. He's my dad and I love him even if he drives me crazy. But he wouldn't hurt me on purpose. I know that and so do you."
"I didn't," Egon admitted. "I'm afraid I took my anger and fear out on Charlie when he came to the hospital."
"I kinda thought so," Peter smiled. "It's okay, Egon. It wasn't your fault. I've lashed out at him quite a few times myself. But I don't think you said anything to him he hadn't said to himself. He feels it, he just can't hold onto the feeling, you know?"
"And you truly don't assign any blame to him in this case?"
Peter shook his head again. "In a way, it was a good thing."
Egon looked at him aghast.
"No, hear me out," Peter instructed, holding up his hand to forestall Egon's objections. "If Jake hadn't gone off on me, one day he would have lost it with his wife and she'd be dead. I wasn't about to get through to her, nobody was. She would have stayed with him until he finally killed her. Now, according to the sheriff, he's going away for a long, long time. Attempted murder, and with a lot of witnesses. The sheriff says this might even wake up his father. Don't get me wrong, I'm no hero in this. But I'm gonna be fine and now so is Liza." He paused and looked down at his hands for a moment before looking back at Egon. "And there's another good thing that came of this."
"And what might that be?" Egon asked.
"I think you and my dad understand each other a little better now."
Egon ducked his head to hide his smile, unsuccessfully. "You might be right about that." He raised his head. "I realized you and your father are a lot alike, and that makes it very difficult to stay angry with him."
"Yeah, I'm just a chip off the old block!" Peter laughed.
Egon shook his head. "But you found out something Charlie never did. You learned some things, some people, are worth making a commitment to. You understand people in a far deeper way than he ever will. And I hope I'm not being immodest in believing I had a small part in your education."
"Not small," Peter corrected, "monumental is more like it! I think I would have been even more cynical than Charlie could ever hope to be if I hadn't met you and Ray. I owe you guys a lot. Don't think I don't know that."
"And you never forget how much we owe you," Egon replied, grasping his friend's hand and giving it a squeeze.
"Is the patient up to visitors?" asked a voice from the door.
Peter's face lit up when he realized his visitors were Walter and his granddaughter.
"I'm up to gazing at a pretty face anytime, Walter."
Walter chuckled. "Why, thank you, son, but Becky is much prettier than I am."
Peter laughed and grimaced as his hand went to the bandage around his middle.
"Are you alright?" Egon asked, his smile disappearing in renewed concern.
"I'm fine, Egon," Peter replied, his eyes expressing a meaning that went beyond the words. "It's just that, as much as I hate to be so cliche..."
"It only hurts when you laugh," his three visitors chorused together, then all broke into laughter, which only grew as they watched Peter alternately laughing and grimacing.
As the others continued to share the joke, Egon sighed with contentment. After all that had happened, there was one thing he would always be grateful to Charlie Venkman for and that one thing was smiling up at him right now.