JUNE 21, 2015
Isaac dresses in the new clothes he found on his bed; an oversized button-down shirt over a white t-shirt, and faded jeans that would have fit him two months ago but today are a hair too short. He frowns, yanking at the cuffs until they cover his socks, and wonders if he should check in with the Doc before leaving.
He doesn’t have to go looking; Scully is waiting for him in the hallway. “Ready for your first day?” she asks.
Isaac rolls his eyes, but there’s a knot in his stomach the size of his fist. “It’s not a big deal.”
Scully’s lips quirk. “Maybe not…but good luck, anyway. I’ll be outside at the greenhouse if you need me.”
He slings his backpack over his shoulder and shuffles to the cafeteria for breakfast, even though he doesn’t think he’ll be able to eat. Two of the boys he’d met yesterday, Cam and Jack, are waiting for him. He knows little about them except their ages; both are thirteen, a couple years younger than him. They’re friendly, but naive. They don’t understand what happened outside the compound, save for what they’ve overheard, and those stories had become grossly exaggerated over time; nothing like what Isaac had seen.
He eats in silence while the other boys talk, and watches the rest of the compound’s residents filter in. His toast is dry, sticky on his tongue.
“I still think Batman would kick Superman’s ass.”
“No way! Superman can fly. Batman just climbs stuff.”
“Yeah, but Batman has a cooler car.”
“So what? It’s just a stupid car. Superman could pick it up one-handed.”
Isaac tunes them out, absently stirring a packet of imitation syrup into his cream of wheat. He takes a bite, then puts the spoon down and gathers his things.
“Hey, Isaac! Where you going?”
Jack is looking at him expectantly, and Isaac forces a smile. “Don’t want to be late. I know where to go.”
He walks to the classroom at a plod, hesitating at the door. The teacher, a stout man with a close-cropped beard, introduces himself with a handshake.
“Hey, Isaac, right? Welcome back.”
He doesn’t know what to say, so he nods.
“You can call me Steven. We like to keep things informal around here,” the man says, smiling. “Welcome to class,” he continues, turning toward a bookshelf. “You’re fifteen, right? Tenth grade?”
Isaac nods again, clearing his throat. “Almost sixteen.”
“Great. Here are your books—they’re a bit outdated, but Robert and I can fill in the gaps. Your group is over there; back right.”
He makes his way to the table, avoiding the other students’ curious stares. Only one doesn’t seem interested; a girl, a little older than him, who sits at the next table, scowling into her book.
As the lesson begins, Isaac is relieved to realize he remembers more than he thought. Mr. Cartwright—Steven, he corrects himself—opens a biology textbook and asks Isaac’s section to follow along.
“Last week, we studied parasites; small organisms that require a host to reproduce and survive. This week, we’ll learn about parasites that work on a micro scale. Viruses are parasites at the cellular level; they usurp healthy cells and use them to reproduce.”
The word conjures images of moving flesh, extended, swollen middles. Isaac shrinks back in his seat a little, thinking back to New England, to the sight of a man’s blown-open corpse laying prone on a bed.
“I’m sure you’re all familiar with common viruses, like influenza or chicken pox,” Steven continues. “In many cases, it’s not the virus that makes you feel sick; it’s the body’s immune response that makes it so uncomfortable. Some viruses multiply so rapidly that the powerful immune response actually kills their victim before it can kill the virus.”
Isaac feels his meager breakfast turning over in his stomach. Cam nudges his elbow and gives him a strange look; Isaac realizes his hands are trembling on the table, so he stuffs them under his legs.
“Yes, Charlene?” Steven asks at a break in the discussion. Isaac looks over, where the quiet, dark-eyed girl has raised her hand. She’s looking right at him, but doesn’t seem to see him at all. For a moment, he forgets his discomfort.
“Is it true that it was a virus that killed everyone?”
The class grows quiet, waiting for the answer. Steven looks down, shuffling his notes, clears his throat. “Well, that’s a good question. That seems to have been the consensus, although we don’t know for—“
“I thought it was the monsters,” another girl interrupts.
Steven blanches. Even Robert, the younger group’s teacher, has stopped and is listening from the other side of the room.
“There’s no such thing as monsters,” one of the youngest kids says; his voice wavers a little on the last word, as if he doesn’t quite believe what he’s saying.
“It was both,” Isaac speaks up, surprising himself. The words sound rough in his mouth.
“How do you know?” Charlene says, staring at him.
Isaac swallows hard, feels his face grow hot as the class’ eyes fall on him. “I…I saw one of the things. While I was out there.”
“Yeah, right. If you’d seen one you’d be dead,” Cam says.
“No need for that,” Steven says. “Ah…let’s move on to the two primary components, which are—”
Isaac frowns into his textbook, unable to focus on the words on the page. He can feel the girl’s eyes on his back long after the lesson ends.
He skips lunch, begging off Cam and Jack’s company, and ventures outside instead. The sun feels good on his face, and for the first time in weeks, his skin doesn’t prickle at the thought of being in the open.
There’s a well-worn path running in the shade alongside the compound’s north end, and he follows it, taking in the scenery. He turns the corner to find a row of makeshift greenhouses, scrap metal and fiberglass baking in the desert sun. The Doc is outside one of these, talking with someone. Isaac ducks his head and hurries along.
Beyond the greenhouses is the garage, where two men and an older woman are working on the pickup truck that had brought Isaac and his parents to the compound the day before yesterday. No one notices him, and he feels his steps grow lighter, less hurried, as he passes.
He reaches the back side of the compound, where the desert opens up, rocky outcroppings in the distance. Blue sky meets red desert rock and he stands for a moment, stunned by the glare of the sun outside the compound’s plentiful dark shade.
He takes a few steps, meandering, wondering if he should head back, before he sees her. The girl from his class sits in the shade to his left, her back pressed against the concrete structure. Before he can stop himself, he’s walking toward her.
“Hey…you’re Charlene, right?”
She wrinkles her nose, visibly annoyed at the interruption. “And you’re the new kid,” she mutters, not looking up from her book.
“Yeah. I’m Isaac.” He sticks out his hand.
She looks up at him but doesn’t offer her hand in return. “Well, Isaac,” she says, drawing out his name with a leer. “Shouldn’t you be back at school kissing the teacher’s ass?”
He withdraws his hand, feeling foolish, but covers his disappointment scowl. “Shouldn’t you be?”
“You going to make me?” she sniffs, returning her attention to her book with a quick shake of her head. Her fingers are blunt and calloused, her eyes intense, her hair cropped into a short, messy pixie that makes him realize his own hair probably needs a trim.
He shrugs. “There’s not much to do here.”
“You just don’t know where to look.”
Her dark eyes glint, and she snaps the book closed, tucking it into the back of her shorts. Something in the way she smiles makes him nervous, makes him think she’s looking for a fight. “Come with me. I’ll show you.”
“Nowhere,” she says, arching an eyebrow. “You don’t get to ask. You’re the new kid.”
“What are you, a wimp?” she says.
He rolls his eyes. “No. I just don’t take every stupid bet that comes my way.”
She smiles a little, smug, “Fine, if you want to stay here and be bored, whatever. Your loss.”
She turns and walks away from the compound into the seemingly empty landscape, hands in her pockets, as if she does this every day. She’s heading toward nothing he can see, save for the edge of the land, the chain link fence a shimmering line of silver in the distance. He looks around, but the only people in sight are working, not paying attention to a couple of kids. He should be back at school, sitting in a stuffy room and listening to a history lecture.
Unfortunately, she’s far more intriguing than the thought of a bunch of old people, all of whom are presumed dead now.
He finds his feet moving forward without his consent. “Hey, Charlene…wait up!” he calls, and when she turns, it’s as if she expected him to follow.
She rolls her eyes. “Don’t call me that.”
“That’s your name, isn’t it?” he asks, falling into step beside her.
“Oookay. What do I call you then?”
“Don’t call me anything, new kid,” she says, narrowing her eyes at some point in the distance. He looks ahead but doesn’t see anything, save for the fence that’s growing slowly closer as they walk. She looks over her shoulder, but the landscape behind them is clear, barren; they’re behind the main part of the compound.
“So do you do this a lot? Walk out here?”
“Do you always ask this many questions?”
“Only when I don’t get answers,” he says, trying to keep his voice even. She’s impossible to read; he wishes he could hear her thoughts.
They’re close to the fence now, and she stops, glancing from side to side.
“What are you looking for?”
He bites his lip. “What happens if we get caught out here, anyway?”
“Nothin’,” she says. “Besides, catching us here isn’t the problem,” she mutters.
They’re following the fence now, walking along the perimeter to the right. She appears to be looking for something, ducking her head occasionally to run her fingers along the chains.
“Still bored,” he calls, goading her, but she doesn’t listen.
“Here we go,” she says, stopping, sending one last glance over her shoulder before she reaches down into the dirt and pulls.
The fence comes up easily, and Isaac suddenly realizes what she means to do.
“So,” she says, eyes glinting. “Are you coming or not?”
She ducks under, through the opening, and he follows, the chain link scraping his back as he crawls through. They’re outside the compound’s safety net. He stands, wiping red dust and dirt from his jeans. There’s a fine sheen of sweat on the back of his neck, but he doesn’t know if it’s from the heat, or the excitement of being outside.
She pulls something from her pocket, holding it in her hands; Isaac looks closer, realizes it’s a compass. She frowns at it intently as they walk further from the borders of the compound. He watches the needle spin, and spin, and spin, seemingly unable to find a resting point.
“What do you need that for?” he asks finally.
“Nothin’,” she says, but doesn’t take her eyes off the needle. As they walk, she checks it occasionally. He catches glimpses of it over her shoulder, watches as it begins to slow, to tremble, and finally settle on north.
The desert seems endless, devoid of landmarks, but she seems to know where she’s going. The thought doesn’t make him feel better. He’s considering giving up and turning back when she stops at a large, white rock that stands out from the rest.
She turns the compass and points them west. Isaac’s throat hurts, and suddenly he realizes how foolish they are to go wandering in the middle of the day in a desert; he doesn’t have any water.
As if she’d read his mind, she stops, pulling a bottle from her pack. “Drink up.” He does, feeling a bit less parched, but his head throbs. After five more minutes of walking, a dark line grows on the horizon, slowly taking shape; a series of rocks jutting out against a backdrop he can’t discern from the desert around it. Isaac squints, but that only makes his head ache more.
She seems to be making right for it, though. Eventually they reach a large crest, a wall of rock. “We’re here.”
He stops and turns, seeing nothing but the wall and more desert in every direction. “What’s ‘here?’” he asks, hoping his voice sounds dry and not terrified.
She doesn’t answer, just begins climbing. It’s easily seven feet to the top, but jagged, with handholds and footholds all the way up.
“Uh…sure,” he shrugs.
The climb is easy. She watches with a curious half-smile, as if she expects him to fall, so he concentrates especially hard on a flawless ascent.
“Not bad, new kid,” she says when he makes it, and he shrugs again, something tugging at the back of his consciousness like a child at his pant leg, but he pushes it away, too focused on keeping his cool. His head still aches, and he reaches for the water bottle again.
He turns to face her, and finds her staring out at the landscape before them; a valley of reds and rich greens far below, a canyon oasis. They’re standing at the far edge, where the desert begins to give way to rocky forest. The sight makes Isaac dizzy, breathless, and he’s glad when she sits down so he has an excuse to do the same.
“We’re a long ways out,” he says.
“Far enough,” she agrees.
He takes a seat. “So what is it about this place?”
She shrugs. I just like it.
He blinks, squints. “What did you say?”
“I didn’t say anything,” she says, giving him an odd look.
“No, you said ‘I just like it.’ I heard…”
You heard her.
He closes his mouth with an audible snap. “Nothing,” he whispers weakly.
But her eyes are wide. “You…”
“We should go back,” he says, feeling his heart begin to pound, the throbbing at his temples picking up a similar angry rhythm. It’s not right, because if he can hear her…
I can hear Them, too. And They can hear me.
“Don’t wig out on me, new kid,” she’s looking at him, staring. “Did you—”
“We can’t stay here,” he says, looking back and forth, scanning the horizon, which was just a moment ago a thing of beauty, now an endless threat of places to hide.
“I do this all the time,” she snaps. “And you still haven’t told me how—”
“I’m not staying,” he says through gritted teeth. “They’ll find m—”
A vise grips his temples, sudden and relentless, the humming static comes flooding back in a painful rush. He stumbles to his hands and knees, the rough surface of the rock scraping his palms.
No, no no no they’re here, they found us
“Kid? Hey, get up! What—”
He hears her in the distance, but the thoughts are too powerful. Tears leak from his eyes as the searing hot band tightens and tightens again. He rolls to his side, clutching his head and keening.
“Get up, what the hell is wrong with…oh…ohhh,” her voice goes weak, he can hear the whistle of her lungs in her next breath.
He gasps, spittle flying from his parched lips. The headache backs off just a little, just enough for him to raise his head to see the thing that’s waiting for them on the horizon. It’s a speck, a dark ink spot against the lush green forest, but it’s moving, rippling through the branches at an unnatural speed.
“Isaac you’ve gotta get up,” she says in a rush, already heading for the side of the rock, searching for footholds. “We have to get back…”
It found us.
He finds his strength, crawls to the edge of the rock and climbs over. A wave of pain hits him mid-climb and he feels his hands involuntarily let go, feels himself falling backward.
It’s only three feet, but it knocks the wind from his lungs, black, murky lines creeping across his vision. Energy tingles at his palms, but it’s weak; whatever forces have subdued the telepathy have also taken his strength.
Charlene is on him, pulling at him. “For fuck’s sake, Isaac, GET UP we need to GO.”
He does, feeling like he’s walking through quicksand, but he gets to his feet at her painful insistence. She’s holding his hand, pulling him along.
He grunts, losing her hand as she wrenches it from him, but by some miracle he stays on his feet. The world doubles and solidifies in front of him when the static in his head grows louder, angrier, more insistent. He catches rushes of emotion with each steady throb, hatred and fear and hunger, a deep, roaring hunger that makes his blood roil.
He can feel it behind them, sense its shuffling footsteps and creaking breath. He can feel how it smells them, it hears every sound they make, and it’s faster than either of them could ever hope to be. Any minute he expects to feel the sharp pull of claws and teeth, like shadows ripping the skin from his body.
Run run run don’t look back don’t look
Charlene is ahead of him, her legs are shorter but she’s faster, all her faculties about her. He has the dull sensation of burning in his chest, realizes he’s holding his breath, lets it out in a painful, coarse bark. The static seems to have reached a crescendo.
“Kid!” she rasps, still ahead of him. “Come on!”
He can’t reply, can’t find it within him to form words, just closes his eyes and lets his feet hit the ground, step after step, until he feels the lessening, feels something like rage flash at the back of his mind, then pull away.
He’s panting when he finally catches up to her; she’s pulled an inhaler from her pocket, is sucking on it in long, airy gasps.
“Is it gone?” she asks in a wispy breath, slowing her pace, casting long, wide-eyed glances over her shoulder.
“Think so,” he gasps, wincing at the last vestiges of the headache.
He swallows hard. “Let me see that compass,” he demands.
“Just…let me see it,” he sighs. She narrows her eyes, but digs in her pocket and brings up the compass.
Spinning. The needle is restless again, whirling and whirling, first one way, then the other in a confused, never-ending cycle.
“Does it always do this?” he asks.
She nods slowly, looking at him as if something has opened within her, as though the fear bound them together in a way they can’t yet understand.
“Only when you’re at the compound, right?” he whispers, his footsteps a slow, aching plod. He can see the fence in the distance, and he realizes just how sweaty and hot and tired he is, feels like he could lay down in the sand and fall asleep.
“Yeah,” she says. “The rocks…they’re like, magnets or something.”
She’s closed off again, distant, as they close the distance to the fence. This time, someone is waiting for them.
“Shit,” she whispers under her breath. “Who is that?”
“I know who it is,” Isaac says, groaning inwardly. “It’s Mr. Hale.”
“Who?” she whispers.
“He came in with Sc…I mean, my mom and me.”
Mulder is standing at the fence, watching the two kids approach with his hands on his hips. His eyes lock on Isaac’s and for a moment, there’s the flickr of a smile on his father’s face before he ducks his chin to hide it.
“Hey,” Mulder calls. “How’s the grass over there?”
Charlene tosses Isaac a look. They’re standing at the fence now, faces criss-crossed with wire, and Mulder cocks his head. “Greener, you think? Because it looks the same to me.”
Isaac rolls his eyes. “Hi, uh, Mr. Hale,” he coughs, and Mulder scowls, pacing the edge.
“Want to show me how you got over this thing? Guessing you didn’t climb it,” he says, looking upward, to where the gate towers above them, barbed wire lining the top.
Charlene wrinkles her nose, then nods toward the section of the fence that’s come up. “Here.”
She finds the opening, pulls it up, and the two of them slip through.
“Ahh,” he says, nodding toward Charlene. “Who’s your friend, Isaac?”
She answers for both of them. “I’m Charlie.”
“Uh huh. Want to tell me what you two were doing outside the fence?”
She holds his eye, jaw set. “I wanted to show Isaac around.”
“You’re bleeding,” Mulder says, noting Isaac’s scraped palms, a gash on his head where he’d grazed it against a sharp rock.
“We, uh…we were chased,” Isaac says.
“Don’t!” Charlie hisses. “It was nothing,” she says, turning back to Mulder.
“I can see that,” he returns mildly, gesturing to Isaac’s forehead.
Her nostrils flare, but she doesn’t argue, just folds her arms across her chest.
Mulder looks back and forth between them before giving a sigh. “I’m not going to say anything. But I want you to promise you’ll stick around. No more exploring, OK? Both of you,” he says, narrowing his gaze on Isaac, who flinches and nods.
“Promise,” they say in unison.
“Good. Get back to school. Isaac, can I talk to you?”
“Umm…can I have a sec?” he asks, and Mulder shrugs.
Charlie has already begun to walk back to the compound.
“Hey, Charlie, wait up.”
She looks nervous now, all her former bravado leeched from getting caught. “What?”
“I, uh…I’m not bored anymore.”
She snorts, but there’s the hint of a smile on her lips. “Stay out of trouble, new kid.”
He grins back. “You, too.”
Mulder is watching with the same worried expression when he turns back, and his broad smile falters.
“So what happened?” Mulder asks once Charlie is out of earshot.
“I…we went out too far.”
“Nothing,” he lies.
“Isaac,” Mulder says, wiping his brow. “C’mon.”
“Fine,” Isaac sighs. “We got out there, and I could hear…things. I got a headache…it…it made it hard to see.”
Mulder bites his lip, thinking. “And They could hear you.”
Isaac nods, recalling with cold certainty the way the creature honed in on him, locked them in its mental grip. “They found us. But…I couldn’t defend myself. I think…I think it knew it, too.”
“You could have been killed. Both of you,” Mulder says.
“I won’t do it again.”
There’s a long pause before Mulder finally shakes his head. “Go see the Doc, OK? Hopefully you won’t need stitches for that,” he murmurs, gesturing to the gash on his forehead, to match his already healing scratch. Blood stings at the corner of his eye and he swipes at it with his sleeve. “And I meant it,” he continues, gripping Isaac’s shoulder, pulling him into an awkward half hug. “Don’t go out there. Not without a plan, at least.”
Isaac nods, chagrined, and turns, searching for Charlie. Maybe I can catch up—
Mulder looks back at the chain-link fence, lost in thought. “Some risks are worth taking, kid. Some aren’t. You, of anyone, should know the difference.”