A Light in the Tunnel

By Neetz



The huge blue and green demon screamed with rage as it was engulfed in a cone of light and caught in the accompanying pull. In only seconds, it lost the final stage of the battle it had waged for the last half hour against the four men and one woman who sought to capture it. Ripped from the tunnel ceiling, the angry ectoplasmic entity slid into the deceptively small ghost trap. The device snapped shut as the light, and the demon, were suddenly gone. The danger, however, was far from over.

"Look out!"

The cry sounded just barely before the ominous rumbling that had been building over the last few seconds produced terrifying results as the ceiling of the abandoned subway side tunnel gave way.

A shout of "NO!" and a scream echoed loudly, but Peter Venkman's denial and Janine Melnitz' horrified cry could not stop the rain of rock and metal that filled the tunnel. Nor was it in time to warn their three teammates whose cries of shock and surprise were drowned out in the roar of the collapse.

Winston Zeddemore knew he and his friends had only an instant to retreat to the only possible place of safety, a small maintenance alcove, and it was only by the quick reflexes of the ex-soldier shoving the other two men into that questionable shelter that they were not buried by the pile of debris. But Winston had no time to measure his success as one chunk of falling concrete struck him hard on the back of his head and right shoulder. Darkness closed over him and he lost consciousness. Egon Spengler grabbed his friend as he collapsed and pulled him the rest of the way into the recess just as they were plunged into a darkness of a different sort.

Now unable to see, he cried out frantically, even before his ears stopped ringing from the roar, "Ray!"

"Here!" Ray Stantz called from very close by. "Winston?"

"I have him. He's hurt," Egon replied, easing the injured man to the floor before he began probing for injuries. He felt Ray's hand on his arm as he found the sticky wetness oozing from the wound on the back of Winston's head. "He's unconscious. Something struck him hard."

"How bad?" Ray asked.

"He has a cut on the back of his head. It's bleeding pretty badly, but I don't believe there's any major skull fracture. It's impossible to tell without light. Give me your handkerchief."

Ray complied and was silent for a moment while Egon pressed the cloth against the injury.

With one hand pressing the make-shift bandage in place, Egon ran his other hand carefully over Zeddemore's body until his fingers found something else that wasn't right. "I think his shoulder is also dislocated," he announced.

"Egon, what about Peter and Janine?"

Spengler was silent for a moment before replying. "I believe Peter was far enough away to be on the other side of the collapse. Janine was even further back in the tunnel. They should be safe."

"Egon, Peter wasn't that far away. Are you sure..."

"No," Egon replied, forcing calmness into his voice. "I'm not sure, but I refuse to believe otherwise. We're not giving up on Peter or Winston or ourselves, Raymond."

Ray's breath was released in a trembling sigh. "No," he agreed quietly. "I'll check out what we've got ourselves into here."

"Be careful," Egon admonished.

"Too late for that," Ray replied as he moved slowly away. It was only moments later when he returned to Egon's side.

"Any luck?" the physicist asked.

"Nope," Stantz replied. "This recess doesn't go back more than a few feet and the opening to the main tunnel is completely blocked." He paused for a moment, then sucked in a deep breath and yelled for all he was worth. "Peter!"

The cry, so close to his ear and so unexpected, made Spengler jump, but he didn't chastise the younger man. Instead he held his own breath as he and Ray both listened for any kind of reply. It didn't come.

"Too much debris. The sound can't penetrate," Egon theorized, hoping the explanation would quell the fear he could feel coming from his partner, a fear he shared despite his earlier words.

"Peter has to be all right. He'll get help."

"Raymond, we must face the fact that it will take time to summon help. Time we may not have."

"I know," Ray replied. "There isn't much air in here. But you said yourself, we can't give up hope." He paused for a moment. "Maybe we should try and dig out."

Egon considered for a moment, his mathematically gifted mind quickly working out the figures. "No," Egon replied. "Any exertion on our part would quickly use up the air we have. We must remain still and calm if we are to buy Peter and Janine enough time to get help. It's the only chance we have for rescue." His tone revealed to his companion who knew him so well that any hope at this point was perilously slim. Neither man spoke again, both realizing the importance of conserving their precious supply of oxygen.

***

"Egon! Ray! Winston!" Peter yelled the names of his friends over and over as he frantically stumbled over loose debris toward the ruins of the ceiling that filled the tunnel. He grabbed at the first rock he came to and savagely shoved it aside, reaching immediately for another.

"Oh, my God! Peter!" Janine called in panic. Her cry did not slow his frenzied efforts to clear a path to his friends. Instead, he called to her over his shoulder.

"Get out of here, Janine! Get back to Ecto and call for help!"

"But..."

"GO!" he screamed, then, turning for just a moment, his eyes fell on the secretary's ashen face and her wide eyes that were already filling with moisture. "You can't lose it now, Janine, just go," he said, striving for a calmness he didn't come close to achieving. "I've got to keep digging, but I don't think I can reach them without help."

"But if they're under all that..."

"Behind it!" Peter shouted. "They're behind it, not under it. Do you understand?" His eyes locked with hers, pleading with her not to shake the only thing he would allow himself to believe. "There was a little maintenance tunnel on that side. If they got in there, they're okay. But we don't have a lot of time."

Janine's eyes stared into his a second longer before, with a determined nod, she turned, stripped off the proton pack she was wearing and bolted back down the tunnel. It was several miles to the tunnel entrance and back to where they had left Ecto parked. Even if Janine made it in world record time, it could easily take a hour before help could get there. Peter knew Egon, Ray and Winston did not have that kind of time to wait. Once more he resumed his desperate digging.

"Hang on, guys," he whispered. "Just hang on."

***

On the other side of the wall of rubble, there was no way to judge the passage of time except by the thinness of the air. Egon sat on the floor with Winston lying across his lap, the handkerchief still pressed against his head wound. The bleeding seemed to have stopped, for all the good it would do the unconscious Ghostbuster. In a way, Egon reasoned, Winston might be the luckiest of the three of them. Instant unconsciousness had spared him having to just sit and wait to die.

He could feel Ray's shoulder pressed against his and he could hear the younger man's shallow breathing, so loud in the silence of the small niche. It was somehow reassuring to have such a physical reminder he was not alone, and yet, as unpleasant as the thought of dying alone was, the idea of his friends sharing his fate hurt even more. Knowing Ray and Winston's lives would also be cut short tore at his very soul. The only good thing he had left to hold on to was the hope that Peter had been spared, and even that wasn't a certainty.

How long had it been since they had received the telephone call from the New York transit officials asking for their help? How long since they had first entered the subway in search of the dangerous class 7 entity that had been menacing early morning commuters? As they tracked the ghost into the abandoned section of the tunnel, it hadn't seemed so different from so many other jobs they had taken over the years since they had formed the company. They had always known how dangerous the job was. It wasn't something they dwelled upon, and yet it was a risk they all accepted. Only at times like this did Egon question if it was too great a risk and too much pain to bear. It wasn't that he was so afraid of dying. The hardest burden would be borne by those left behind.

This would be hard on his mother. He had worried at her being left alone when his father died. Once out from under the often dominating influence of her husband, however, her spirit had seemed to blossom. She had become more independent and self-sufficient than Egon would have dreamed possible. It would, doubtless, tear her apart to lose her son, but his mother had proved herself to be a strong woman and somehow she would survive.

Then there was Janine. He was certain she had been far enough removed from the cave-in not to have been caught in the collapse. That thought comforted him to a point. With the clear vision of hindsight, he regretted allowing himself to be talked into letting her come along on this bust. But it had been intolerably dull at headquarters of late and Janine was desperate for a little excitement to break up the monotony. Besides, with the skills she had developed over the years, she was certainly an asset on a bust, and it was good for her to have the practice for those times when they were short-handed and desperately needed her to pitch in. None of them could have known what a price Janine would have to pay for relieving her boredom. She may not have been harmed, but she had seen the fatal disaster happen, and Egon realized the image would probably stay with her for the rest of her life.

Despite his reticence, Spengler had to admit to himself he cared for the spirited young woman, and it was certainly impossible to deny that she loved him. She had never been the least bit shy about expressing her feelings. Now, he regretted all the times he had turned away from her shows of affection in embarrassment. It was too late to admit to her that what he felt for her was stronger than he had ever been able to demonstrate. Janine, too, would take this very hard. But like his mother, Janine would find a way to cope. He had to believe she could pull herself through this and go on with her life.

The air was very thin by now and Egon felt himself getting more lightheaded. Next to him, Ray shifted, and Egon felt the occultist's fingers grasp his arm, then slide down to locate his friend's hand, clutching it firmly. Egon returned the squeeze, wishing he could see Ray and Winston for just a moment before it was all over. The impenetrable darkness of their tomb made that impossible. Neither man said a word; there was no reason to. He knew what Ray must be thinking and his thoughts drifted in the same direction, to the one other person they would be leaving behind. He could not console himself that his oldest friend would be all right, because he wasn't at all sure it was true. Even as he felt himself begin the lose consciousness, his last thoughts were for the one member of the team who was not with them. As reality retreated around him, he whispered into the darkness, "I'm sorry, Peter."

***

Blackness began to give way to a faint light and even before Egon could wonder where it had come from, the illumination began to increase. His vision, at first fuzzy, was beginning to clear and he could see the source of the light, far ahead and above him. He seemed to be moving toward it, though his feet were still. It was as if he were riding on an escalator which was carrying him slowly but steadily toward the intense white beam.

He sensed something next to him, and turned to his right to find Ray standing beside him, his face seeming to glow in reflection of the brightness into which he stared intently. Turning in the other direction, he found Winston, his eyes now open and alert, also looking toward their destination with a mixture of curiosity and wonder on his features.

As he looked into the brilliance, for the first time, Egon realized there was something silhouetted against the light. No, more than one something--and the shapes were human. They seemed to be very, very far away, and yet as he could make out five people standing there, looking down toward the approaching Ghostbusters. When he concentrated, the features on their faces became very clear.

First was a young couple whom he could not place, although there was something vaguely familiar about them. The woman was blond and very slender, the man stocky with red hair. They were smiling as they looked down on the three men.

Next to them stood a tall, very dignified looking older black woman. There was a pride that seemed to shine from her face as she too watched them grow nearer.

As his gaze shifted, Egon's breath caught in his throat. The man standing next in line was all too familiar, although the expression on his face certainly was not. The stern visage so familiar to the physicist through all those years as he had grown to manhood seemed to have melted away and been replaced by warm affection. Egon was amazed to be staring into the smiling face of his father.

"Dad?" he said aloud in disbelief, and he could hear the tremble in his own voice.

"Hello, son," his father replied, although his lips didn't seem to move. He was still so very far away, but even those softly spoken words were clear as crystal in Egon's mind. He stared at his father in open-mouthed amazement for several seconds before he realized there was one more figure standing beside him.

His eyes looked over at the woman, intending only a glance before returning to his father, but recognition of both the woman and her expression froze his eyes on her face. Almost as startling as seeing his father was looking into the eyes of Peter Venkman's mother.

Her face did not hold a peaceful, smiling expression like the others. Instead, it was a mask of anguish and worry. Egon shook his head in confusion. Why was she so distraught? Peter was safe, wasn't he? It was at that moment that the realization hit him like a physical blow.

They were dead. He, Ray and Winston were passing over to the other side.

"Come, son," his father's voice spoke in his head. "It's time to come home and rest." Egon turned toward him and saw him extend his hand. As he looked at the others, suddenly realizing their significance to his companions, they all seemed to be holding out their hands toward the three men. All, that is, except for Peter's mother.

Her hand was also extended, but she seemed to be pointing toward them. No, Egon realized, not toward them, but at something behind them. Slowly, he turned and for the first time looked in the direction from which they must have come.

There was a light there, too, but it was very dim and yellowish and it was difficult to make out anything clearly. Egon narrowed his gaze and concentrated until the image took shape. He could see a man, and he seemed to be frantically digging at a pile of rocks, metal and dirt with his bare hands. He was saying something, but Egon couldn't quite hear. He turned his head just slightly and listened.

"Please, guys, please don't do this to me. You've just got to be alive in there. Please, hang on. I'll get you out. Just... hang on!"

Peter!

Egon recognized his friend. He could hear the pain and desperation in the strained tenor voice and suddenly he realized the significance of their situation. He looked at Ray, then at Winston. They had also turned to look behind them and both obviously recognized Peter. Egon could see the same ache he felt growing within him shining in their eyes. It had seemed so easy to give in to the situation, to allow themselves to be brought into the light and into the sheltering embrace of their loved ones. But the sight of the fading light they were leaving behind spoke loudly to his heart, demanding action. Maybe it was not possible to go back now, but he had to try. The look he shared with each of his friends told of complete understanding and accord among them. Giving them a nod, he turned back for a moment to look at the figures ahead.

His father's smile had faded for a moment, then returned, brighter than before. When his eyes met Egon's once more, they held understanding, a kind of unspoken communication he had never before found in the austere and forbidding countenance of this man for whom the search for knowledge had always taken precedence over friendship and love. The gentle smile remained, although the elder Spengler's eyes held a touch of sadness as he nodded to his son.

Egon smiled back, then looked to Peter's mother. Her expression had softened, and the calm and gentle happiness he had so often seen in her eyes was there once more. A voice in his head whispered, "thank you."

With one last glance at his father, Egon turned and started walking back against the pull, toward the dim light that still held the image of a pleading and desperate Peter Venkman. It took all his strength to force his leaden legs to move, to force his body into the strong wind that had been at their backs before. Without looking, he felt the presence of Ray and Winston beside him as, ever so slowly, he started moving back toward the failing light. The brilliance behind them seemed to intensify, sending a beam of light past to illuminate the path before them. After several trudging steps, their progress seemed to get easier and the dim light below seemed to brighten and grow closer until its light showed the way back. At that point, the glow behind them started to fade, but just before it disappeared completely, Egon heard his father's voice once more in his mind, echoing as if from a great distance.

"I always loved you, son, and I'm very proud of you."

Egon hesitated, wanting to turn back for one last look, but found he couldn't. The light before him seemed to surge up and blind him, and he lost himself to all conscious thought in the flood of white.

***

Janine had never run so fast in all her life, and thankfully, the help she summoned with her frantic 911 call from the mobile phone in Ecto-1 had been responded to immediately. Now, with fire department rescue units, policemen and paramedics all in tow, she ran back down the tunnel, guiding them to the scene of the collapse.

When they arrived, Peter was still digging as frantically as he had been when she left. He didn't seem to register their arrival until one of the policemen gently but firmly pulled him away from the wall of rock to allow in the trained rescue workers with their equipment. Even then, the psychologist tried to struggle, but he was too exhausted to put up much of a fight. Once he realized a small army of men had replaced him, he stepped back and promptly sat down on the tunnel floor, his legs too rubbery to keep holding him up. Janine dropped down beside him, panting, her arms going around him, knowing he needed the contact as much as she did. Although his leaden arms lay limply in his lap, Peter leaned into Janine's embrace, resting his head against her shoulder and closing his eyes.

It was only a few minutes after their arrival that a member of the rescue team let out a whoop of joy. They had broken through to an open pocket! Peter roused and, with the assistance of the still hovering policeman, pulled himself shakily to his feet. Janine stood beside him, arms still around him not only to steady him, but also because she still couldn't bear to break contact, especially since they had no way of knowing what they would find on the other side of that wall.

One of the firemen wiggled through the hole with a high-powered flashlight and disappeared for an interminable few seconds before his voice echoed back to the waiting others.

"I've found them! They're alive!"

A shout of joy went up from the rest of the rescue workers as they set to work carefully widening the opening.

Janine could tell from the tension in Peter's body it was all he could do not to rush forward to see for himself his friends were all right. But he knew it was important to stay out of the way and let the professionals handle things.

"This has got to be the greatest stroke of luck I've ever seen," the policeman remarked. "I would have sworn that debris wall was several feet thick and would take hours to get through. It's a good thing it didn't. Your friends would never have had enough air to last." He turned and looked at Peter. "From the looks of things, son, you cleared several feet of the stuff away before we got here."

Peter shook his head. "I don't know," he replied. "I just kept digging."

"How did you know where to dig?" the officer asked.

"I saw where they were when it came down, right in front of that small alcove. It was the only place they could be and still be alive, so that's where I started digging."

"With what?" the other man asked. "You're bare hands?"

Peter shrugged. "Didn't have anything else. I thought about using my thrower," he indicated the proton accelerator which now sat on the floor near Janine's, "but I was afraid I'd just bring down more of the ceiling."

"You probably would have. This section of the tunnel is pretty unstable anyway. It's been abandoned for years. The transit authority should have done something about it a long time ago."

"How are my friends?" Peter called, edging his way closer to the hole through which, by now, several paramedics had disappeared.

"Fritz said they're alive and we aim to keep 'em that way," one of the firemen replied.

No sooner had he spoken than a paramedic climbed back through the hole and a stretcher appeared. Nothing could hold Peter back any longer as he surged forward to find Winston lying unconscious, his head wrapped in a bandage and his arm taped against his body to keep it immobile.

"Is he all right?" Peter asked the attending technician in alarm.

"Looks like he got a pretty good clunk on the head and dislocated his shoulder. The head wound has stopped bleeding, though, and his vitals are all strong. I'm sure he's got a concussion, but I think he'll be all right."

"How about my other friends?"

"They'll be bringing them out pretty soon. They both started to come around as soon as we got the oxygen on them. They don't appear to be injured and I think they'll be fine."

Peter sighed in relief and turned to smile at Janine who was still hanging onto his arm.

"Peter?"

The sound of the familiar voice caused him to turn back toward the opening in time to see Egon finish climbing through. Aside from being covered in dirt, and moving a little deliberately, the physicist looked unharmed.

"Egon!" Peter cried as he grabbed for his friend. As soon as his hands closed on Egon's arms, however, Peter cried out in pain and Egon made a grab for him as his knees buckled.

"Peter! What is it? What's wrong?"

Peter's face, already unnaturally pale, had lost the remainder of its color and he looked as if he was about to pass out.

"Hands," Peter gasped as he fought against the pain. Egon eased his friend to the ground and reached gently for Peter's hands. One look and he cried out for one of the paramedics. The palms of both hands were so cut and bloody they resembled raw meat. His nails were all broken, several of them into the quick, and two fingers of his left hand were at such an obviously odd angle Egon knew immediately they must be broken.

"My God, what happened to your hands?" the physicist asked.

"He was digging you guys out with them," Janine supplied, crouching next to the two men. "He must have been digging for almost an hour before I got back here with help."

Egon frowned as an image popped into his mind: Peter clawing frantically at the rubble of the collapsed ceiling as he pleaded with his friends to hang on. The vision sent a chill down Egon's spine, then Peter moaned and Egon turned away from the picture in his mind and concentrated on the very real friend in his arms.

"It's okay, Peter. We're all going to be all right. Just... hang on." Peter's eyes opened and met Egon's for a moment as he seemed to smile through the pain, then they slid shut again and his body went lax.

"Peter!" Ray cried as he climbed through the hole to find his friend unconscious in Egon's arms.

"He'll be all right, Raymond," Egon assured him as one of the paramedics knelt next to them and carefully began to tend to one of Peter's hands. "He's just passed out from exhaustion and the pain of his injured hands."

"He was-he was digging us out with his hands," Ray said. It obviously wasn't a question, but a statement of fact, and his tone made Egon's head to turn toward Ray in surprise. The look on the younger man's face left him no doubt Ray was recalling the same scene Egon had remembered only moments before. Sudden realization caused the occultist's eyes to grow large as he turned to the physicist. "Egon?"

"Yes, I know," Egon replied.

"You, too? Gosh, this is amazing!" he cried in excitement.

"What's amazing?" Janine asked.

"It will keep," Spengler replied sternly, effectively ending the discussion. "Right now, we need to get Winston and Peter to the hospital."

"We'll want to check you two out too, Dr. Spengler," one of the paramedics reminded him. "After all, you were both unconscious when we found you."

"Egon?" Janine asked, suddenly worried again, as she looked him over carefully for hidden injuries.

"We're quite all right, Janine," he said gently. "There's no need for concern."

"A girl has a right to worry after the stunt you guys just pulled!" she replied.

Egon started to reply, but caught himself and looked up at her, a broad smile suddenly blossoming on his face.

"You're quite right, Janine. I stand corrected. Everyone has a perfect right to worry about the people they love."

Janine's jaw dropped as she stared at him in speechless amazement. Egon's response was even more surprising. He chuckled. Janine's mouth snapped shut as she crossed her arms, tilted her head and gave him a look which left no doubt she was not going to tolerate being laughed at. But when Egon stopped laughing and smiled up at her, she relaxed a little and a smile played at the corners of her own lips.

"Speaking of which, are you all right, Janine?"

Her eyes sparkled as she connected this remark with the last and realized the implication. "Yes, Egon, I'm fine."

"Okay," said the paramedic as he sat back and waved to one of his associates. "Let's get this guy on a stretcher and get him out of here."

Egon helped them carefully ease Peter onto the stretcher, running his hand over his friend's forehead before relinquishing the burden to the firemen. Getting to his feet, he took hold of Janine's hand and started after the rescue team as they made their way down the tunnel. Ray walked beside Peter, gazing down at him in worry all the way. But something told Egon they were all going to be fine, a gentle voice in his head that whispered once more, "thank you."

***

"Hey, guys, what's happenin'?" Peter smiled as Ray and Egon stepped into the room. "How's Winston doing?"

"He's much better this morning," Ray reported. "He said the headache is down to a dull roar and his shoulder isn't throbbing the way it was last night."

"That's great," the psychologist replied, but quickly seemed to sober, his gaze seeming to drink in the faces of his friends.

Egon looked at him closely, a frown of worry creasing his forehead. "Are you in any pain, Peter?" he asked.

"What?" Peter asked in surprise. "No, 'course not. Not with all the pain killers the doctors have pumped into me." He held up his gauze-wrapped hands. "Doctor said he doesn't think I'll even need skin graphs. I did a real number on my hands, but it looks like they're gonna heal up just fine. Figures, don't it? You guys get trapped and I'm the one who ends up in the hospital!" The lightness in his tone seemed a little forced and Egon picked up on it.

"What's bothering you, Peter?" Egon asked.

"What could be bothering me?" Peter replied sarcastically. "Besides the fact that you guys almost died yesterday?"

"Peter," Ray chided. "It was a little scary, but we all came out of it all right. In fact, part of it was really great!" Egon tried to shoot Ray a warning look, but the younger man wasn't paying attention to the physicist. "And when we realized Winston had seen it too..."

"Ray, I..." Egon started, placing a hand on the occultist's shoulder.

"Whoa, Tex, back up a minute. What are you talking about?"

Ray blushed and looked at Egon. "I-uh-well..."

Peter looked from one of his friends to the other, his expression suddenly wary. "Okay, guys, give it up. What is it you're not telling me?"

"Peter, we weren't intending to keep anything from you. Although it might be better to wait until you and Winston are out of the hospital and safely home." Egon's eyes locked with the psychologist's for a few seconds as he weighed his options. He would rather not have had to discuss what had happened to them until Peter had had more time to get over the fright. It had been obvious from the moment they entered his hospital room he was still shaken by the near loss of his friends. But as he measured the determination in the familiar green eyes, Egon realized there was no avoiding the subject now that Peter's curiosity had been aroused. He took a deep breath and surrendered to the inevitable. "While we were trapped in that alcove, we had a rather... unique experience."

"What-what kind of experience?" Peter asked, frowning as he looked from one man to the other.

"It was probably just a dream. It will take much more analysis to determine if it was anything more, but..."

"But how could it be a dream, Egon? We all saw the same things," Ray objected. "The tunnel, moving toward the light..."

"Whoa!" Peter cried, pushing himself up in bed. He winced as the pressure caused his hands to sting.

"Careful, Peter," Egon warned, helping his friend to sit up as Ray placed pillows behind his back. "You must be careful of your hands."

"Never mind my hands, what the hell are you talking about?"

"It was just like all the stories you hear from people who've come back from..." Ray suddenly stopped, not wanting to say the words that still made him shiver.

But Peter knew where he had been heading. "From the dead?"

"We're not sure that's what it was," Egon replied quickly. "It could have simply been a shared dream. After all, we have experienced a certain amount of telepathic empathy before. We have even speculated it could be a result of constant exposure to ectoplasmic entities which has increased our psi abilities."

Peter held out a bandaged hand. "Wait a minute, Egon. Give me the facts before you try to explain them away, okay?"

"It was after we'd passed out in the alcove," Ray began. "I remember coming to and I was moving through this darkness toward a bright light."

Peter's eyes grew larger. "Egon, that's a classic near-death experience!"

"Well, we're very much alive, Peter. Just keep that firmly in mind." Egon looked at Ray, his expression imploring the younger man to tread carefully.

"Go on, Ray," Peter encouraged.

"Well, there were these people standing in the light. At first, I couldn't see who they were, but then their faces got clearer and I recognized them, well, some of them." He paused and smiled, his eyes growing suspiciously bright. "Peter, my parents were there. They looked just like I remembered and they were smiling at me."

Peter's tension had increased. It was obvious this was only reinforcing his fears of how close he had come to losing his friends. But it was too late to stop now.

"My father was there too," Egon told him. "And Winston's grandmother. She passed away when he was just a little boy. We all saw them, but I didn't recognize Ray's parents or Mrs. Zeddemore."

"You all had the same experience?" Peter asked. "Egon, this doesn't sound like a 'shared dream' to me."

"Be that as it may," Egon pressed on. "Yes, we compared notes this morning and it appears we all experienced--or dreamed--the same thing."

"They were all smiling, even Egon's dad," Ray continued, glancing apologetically at Egon, but the physicist smiled back at him. "Anyway, I heard my parents speaking to me and Egon and Winston heard their folks talking to them, but we didn't hear each others' conversations. It was almost like it was telepathic instead of talking out loud."

"Is that when you... woke up?" Peter asked, hopefully.

"No, there was more," Egon replied, knowing that now that they had begun, they had to see the story through to the conclusion. "Peter, there was one other person standing in the light whom we all recognized."

"Who?" Peter asked hesitantly.

Egon grasped his friend's arm. "Your mother."

Peter's mouth fell open. "Did-did she say anything to you?"

Ray shook his head. "Not at first. But she was pointing at something behind us. When we turned around we saw something really faint in the distance."

"What was it?"

"You," Egon stated simply. "We all saw you digging at the pile of debris trying to get to us. That's when we all realized we weren't ready to leave. Each of us, individually, made the decision to turn around and come back." He reached out and caught hold of both of Peter's arms and made sure he held his friend's gaze. "Peter, in the final analysis, it doesn't matter whether what happened was really a near-death experience or just a dream. What matters is that deep down in our subconscious each of us knew we couldn't leave you all alone. We knew that, because we each knew how it would feel to be the one left behind, and we also knew such a thing would be harder on you than any of the rest of us. We weren't afraid to die, but we weren't ready to leave you. So you see, Peter, it isn't so easy to get rid of us."

Peter looked at Egon for some time, then turned and looked at Ray his expression full of awe. "You guys... you were all about to be reunited with-with people you love and lost and-and you came back... because of me?"

"Peter," Ray smiled, shaking his head as if explaining something simple to a backward child. "We love you, too. You should know that by now."

"I do," he replied. "But I just never... you gave up being with... but your folks were..."

"They understood," Ray told him. "My mom said they'd see me again someday."

"I think the experience brought us all a sense of peace and... maybe a little closure." Egon smiled wistfully.

Peter looked at his friend knowingly. "I always knew your dad really loved you, Egon." The physicist looked at Venkman in surprise. "But I guess it was something you needed to hear from him, huh?"

Egon smiled and shook his head at how well his friend knew him. "Yes, Peter, I guess you're right."

"Winston said he'd always been afraid he'd forget his grandmother. She'd been so important to him when he was little. But she told him she would always be with him and he wouldn't forget what was important." Ray leaned around Egon to place his hand on Peter's shoulder. "So you see, it really wasn't a scary thing. It was great!"

"Yeah, Ray, it was great that you guys nearly bought the farm," Peter replied, but he seemed to be a little more relaxed, even if he wasn't quite comfortable yet with the thought of how close he had come to losing his friends.

"I'm sorry, Peter," Ray frowned. "This was so much harder on you than it was for us. But you have to know, we'd never leave you alone."

"If you have the choice," he replied. "Maybe next time you won't."

"Perhaps not," Egon agreed gently. "But that time has not come and with any luck, it won't come for a very long time."

Peter's mouth curved in a hint of a smile. "Yeah, well, if it did, with my luck, you'd come back and haunt me!" Peter exclaimed, but he shivered at the thought.

"No," Egon assured him. "We wouldn't haunt you," he grinned, "so long as you behaved yourself, of course." Peter raised an eyebrow at the remark. "But you can be assured, we'd be watching over you. It's obvious you need a guardian angel."

"He already has one," Ray piped up.

"Oh?" Peter asked.

"Your mom," Ray explained. "She loves you, Peter, and she's still watching out for you. She showed us the way back, after all."

Peter's eyes filled as he smiled at his friends. "Yeah, and I owe her big time for that."

"Don't be afraid, Peter. It was a close call, but we've all come through it intact and maybe a little better for the experience. For whatever the reason, this time it appears we were given a choice between giving up and going on to the next plane of existence or holding on to life. Whether or not she was real or imagined, the vision of your mother reminded us all we had a reason to hold on."

"You can say that again!" Ray added.

Egon squeezed his friend's arm once more. "I think we've all been shaken a little, perhaps you most of all, but give us a little time together to get past this and things will start to get back to normal. I think we could all use a little time to relax and recover."

"A vacation?" Peter asked with a hesitant smile.

"A short vacation," Egon replied. "But for now, I think we'd better leave and let you get some more rest." He reached out and pulled Peter into a firm hug before rising from the bed. Ray immediately followed suit.

"Don't worry, Peter," the younger man whispered in his friend's ear. "You're gonna be stuck with us for a long, long time."

"I'd better be, Tex," Peter replied.

Ray rose from the bed and followed Egon to the door. As Ray walked out, the physicist paused giving Peter one more reassuring smile and nod before he, too, disappeared from view.

For a long time, Peter lay in his bed thinking about what his friends had told him, realizing with a touch of awe, yet not for the first time, just how lucky he really was. How many people had the kind of friends who would turn back from the rewards of the other side just for them? After a while, the fear that had taken hold of his heart at the moment of the cave-in began to fade away. In its place was a warm feeling of belonging. Yes, indeed, Peter Venkman was a lucky guy. Finally, he closed his eyes, a smile curving his lips.

"Thanks, mom," he whispered. As he drifted off to sleep, he seemed to feel the gentle touch of warm lips against his cheek and a soft voice whispering in his ear.

"You're welcome, dear."



~The End~