JUNE 18, 2015
They leave a smoldering pile of ashes behind the decrepit motel, the only sign of a presence in the otherwise barren town. Mulder watches the broken sign grow smaller in the rearview mirror, a painful reminder that they grow further from home with each mile.
As someone who didn’t legally exist for years, he’s surprised at the wave of homesickness, how settled he’d felt in their Virginia farmhouse, and then the island, how hard it is to leave everything behind.
There is no ‘home’, he reminds himself.
The drive is quiet, the scenery around them is beautiful even in its desolation. Birds take flight as they drive past, flocks scattering in ebony, feathery quantities larger than Mulder can ever remember seeing before. The same goes for deer; they graze beside the roads with impunity, barely twitching at the sound of their puttering truck as it crests one hill after another.
This is good for them, he thinks with a measure of guilt. We were their virus.
They reach the Kentucky border in the early afternoon, and decide to set up camp on a back road rather than venture into the city before dark. The advantage of daylight seems important in a way it hadn’t before.
Using the map as a guide, Scully finds a former logging road, overgrown but passable, and they drive a mile in before parking the truck in the shade of a large oak the foresters must have taken pity on. Summer is in full bloom at the height of August, the trees lush and green in the humid air, the forest fragrant, wrapping them in a blanket of earthen scents and sounds.
It doesn’t take long to set up, given what little they have. Scully roots around in the truck for their next meal—soup, green beans, a box of crackers—and Mulder prepares their beds, throwing blankets over the seat of the truck, rolling out the foam and sleeping bags in the back.
“Where’s Isaac?” he says when he’s finished, wiping dust from his hands on his jeans.
“He’s down there,” Scully gestures to a stream beyond the brush a few yards away, through which Mulder glimpses the boy’s dirt-streaked red shirt. “Dinner’s almost ready.”
Mulder limps down the rough path where Isaac is sitting next to the water.
“Hey, kid, the doc’s making dinner. Hope you like Campbell’s cream-of-something-or-other.”
Isaac stiffens at the voice behind him, and there’s a soft snuffle as he wipes his nose on his sleeve of his t-shirt.
“Fine,” Isaac whispers.
“Ahh. ‘Fine’,” Mulder says, approaching with his hands in the pockets of his jeans. “Heard that one before.”
Isaac turns his head away, and Mulder sees the steely glint of blue in his eyes. “I said I’m fine.”
“Oh, I heard you,” Mulder says, taking a seat next to Isaac. “I just thought I’d enjoy the view from over here.”
Isaac makes a low sound in his throat, but doesn’t move away, doesn’t tell him to get lost. Mulder takes this as his cue.
“You probably know,” he continues, “that all of this used to belong to the Native Americans. The Shawnee, actually. Before our great-great-greats got hold of it and started planting flags everywhere. They brought sickness and famine, killing hundreds of thousands, decimating the tribes and forcing them to live in exile. I’m beginning to understand how those first nations must have felt.”
Isaac sniffs in agreement, but remains quiet, staring at his reflection in the water, as if willing himself to vanish under its glimmering, bubbling surface.
Mulder waits, walking the uncertain but familiar line between pressing him and pushing him away. The boy’s voice is watery and low when he finally speaks.
“I can’t believe she’s gone.”
Mulder frowns. “Your mom?”
“She was your…friend, right? Girlfriend?”
The boy’s cheeks flush. “Just a friend,” he mumbles, but his words ring with a fierce, protective quality, the same way Mulder’s might have years ago, when he would have said, “She’s my partner. We just work together.”
“Isaac, I know you grew up with a certain…approach to spirituality, and I know we haven’t exactly talked about what we believe, because that’s…well, that’s a whole different…but…I guess what I’m saying is, I don’t think your friend is gone. Not in spirit, at least.”
Isaac snorts, brushing this off with impatience. “I know.”
“Oh…” Mulder trails off, puzzled, watching the boy with grave consideration, noting the way his young shoulders tense, almost trembling from the effort of what he’s holding back.
“Is it the dreams, Isaac? Did something—”
The boy wheels on him, eyes glittering. “You guys expect me to protect you, but what if I can’t? I couldn’t help my mom. I couldn’t help Alice. I couldn’t stop this…this thing from happening to us,” he spits, his voice rising, swept away in a flood. Tears flow from his eyes but he doesn’t seem to notice as they make salty puddles in the rocky sand beneath them.
“You want me to help, you think I’m some kind of…of key, that I’m supposed to save us, but I don’t know how! I could have killed her! I don’t always know how to control it and when that happened…and what if I had? What would you have done?”
“Isaac, you didn’t—“
“And what if you die? What then?” he says, anger radiating from his stricken face. “What would she think?”
“Hey…hey…” Mulder reaches out before Isaac can protest, pulling him into an embrace as the boy’s terrified rambling devolves into sobs. He clutches at him like a drowning child, and Mulder has a vivid memory of the boy’s newborn fist holding his shirt, the same thoughts pulling at him, weighing him down.
What if I can’t protect you, either?
“Hey now, s’OK,” he murmurs, hand behind the boy’s head, ruffling his brown hair, placing a kiss on his temple. “You’re alright.”
There’s a rustling from behind them, and Scully appears, concern written on her face. Mulder, still holding Isaac, gives her a look and a nod, silent reassurance.
She nods, retreats. Mulder resumes stroking the boy’s hair until he calms, pulling away and folding in on himself once more, wiping his nose on his sleeve.
“Sorry,” Isaac mumbles.
“Nothing I haven’t thought of doing myself. The doc hates it when I get snot all over her nice clothes, though,” Mulder says, smiling a little, nudging the boy’s shoulder with his own. They sit side by side while Isaac regains control, until his breath no longer hitches, until he can speak without his voice breaking.
“You know, Isaac, if something happens to us…it happens. We’re all living on borrowed time,” Mulder says, biting his lip as he thinks about what he’s about to say. “But you can’t give up. We believe in you because you’re our son, but the only thing that matters is what you believe. As long as you have hope…that’s what you live for. Don’t ever stop fighting for it.”
They walk back to the truck, where Scully busies herself over a pot of soup, trying not to make her concern obvious. Mulder sidles up to her and puts his hand on her lower back as she’s divying up their meal.
“Mm mm good,” he murmurs as she ladles soup into a paper bowl.
They eat in tense silence. Scully watches Isaac out of the corner of her eye; he picks at his green beans without enthusiasm.
“We need to keep moving,” he blurts out before they’ve finished dinner, as Scully is sopping up the last of her over-salted soup with a cracker.
“Do you sense something?” she asks, glancing at Mulder, then back at Isaac, wondering if there was more to their waterfront conversation than they’d let on.
“Not like that,” he says, shaking his head. “We need to find others.”
There’s a long, uncertain pause, the air around them growing quiet enough to hear the scraping of plastic against paper. Mulder bristles at her side, glancing uneasily at Scully just as she asks, “Others?”
“There are other people out there,” Isaac says. “We saw that, back at the lab, when we had internet. Our best chance for survival is to stick together. I know you’re worried. I know you think more people will make us weak,” he says, turning to address Mulder directly. “But we have to take a chance. I’ll be able to tell when people are being honest, I’ll know when there’s trouble. You have to trust me.”
“Isaac—” Scully begins, her voice too calm, too gentle.
He turns to her, beseeching, “You asked if I trust you, and I do. But do you trust me?”
Her lips part for a second, but she closes her mouth without saying anything.
“I know you do,” he continues. “You know I’m right.”
He’s angry now, fuming. “But you don’t listen to me. I’m just a kid, right?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You don’t have to,” he sneers, and she winces, feeling her face color at the truth in his words. “Whatever. I’m going to bed.”
The truck door slams hard enough to make them flinch.
Sleep never comes easily given the new world in which they find themselves, but tonight it seems an impossibility, so Scully agreed to take first watch.
She sits at the end of the makeshift bed, legs swung over the tailgate, peering uneasily into the surrounding forest, the night sky cloudy and heavy with the scent of rain.
There’s a cooler with bottled water, salvaged from the abandoned store, but Scully digs beneath the plastic until she hits glass.
Water isn’t the only thing they salvaged.
“Hey,” comes a sleepy voice behind her. “You gonna share?”
She smiles, prying off the top, letting the beer foam gently onto the grass at her feet, the smell of wheat and hops reminding her of late summer nights, the porch swing, and a baseball game on the radio. Simple, easy things. Lost things.
“Too hot to sleep,” she lies, scooting over as Mulder’s weight shifts the truck. They look back, waiting to see if they’ve woken Isaac, who makes a soft sound from his bed in the cab, but doesn’t wake.
Mulder grunts in agreement, accepting the beer.
“Hope you don’t mind it warm.”
He grimaces as the first swallow goes down; it’s cheap, a bitter treat. “I won’t mind it so much if we can chase it with another.”
She smirks, but the smile doesn’t reach her eyes. He can just make it out in the dim evening glow.
“He’s right, you know,” she whispers.
A soft huff as she passes the amber bottle back, and he takes another sip, this one goes down more easily than the first. She suddenly has a craving for pizza to go with it; one of many simple things they may never get back, but right now, greasy cheese and dough might as well be the holy grail.
“It’s too dangerous, Scully.”
“It’s dangerous no matter where we are,” she counters, feeling comforted by their familiar pattern of argument.
“Anyone who survived is immune for a reason. They’re either part of the project or they had access to the vaccine by way of the same source. We can’t assume they’re all like us.”
She sighs. “Mulder, I need to be able to study this; we need to know what’s happening to Isaac. If the vaccine changed him—”
“He said it was just a dream—you don’t believe that?”
She shifts uneasily, taking another sip of the beer. “His DNA shows structural changes, changes that shouldn’t even be possible. That worries me, and his behavior…” she stops, sighing. “I’m just saying, there’s strength in numbers, and that’s a valuable resource we don’t have out here.”
Mulder picks at the bottle label, thumb scratching at the glass, considering this.
“Mulder, he shouldn’t be alone,” she presses, watching his face for signs of understanding.
“He has us.”
She snorts softly, watching the tree line, the dark, shifting woods around them. “For how long? They’re waiting for us. We can’t assume his protection is enough…it’s not fair, to put that burden on him.”
Mulder considers this with a raised eyebrow, before passing her the bottle. “Here.”
“You obviously need this more than me.”
“You’re probably right,” she agrees, accepting the drink. “The night brings it out in me, I guess. It’s so…still. I suppose it’s always been this way, that this is the natural state of the world and we’ve been too insulated by the comforts of modern life to notice, but…when it gets dark…it’s easy to believe that whatever greater forces might have been watching have given up on us.”
“We all fight our battles alone,” he murmurs, squinting up into the sky; the clouds have started to drift, to part, pinpricks of stars visible through wisps of spun cotton.
“We don’t have to,” she says, reaching over to take his hand. “There was always at least one person who had my back…even in the dark. You taught me that.”
He bites the inside of his cheek, lets her squeeze his fingers, and he squeezes back.
“We may not need anyone else, but Isaac does,” she whispers. “He deserves to have the chance at a normal life…whatever that means now,” her voice drops.
He doesn’t respond, but he doesn’t draw his hand away, either.
The night falls over them, and eventually they crawl back into the truck bed, her head spinning gently with the effects of the alcohol. Not used to that now, she thinks, remembering how she could match Mulder drink for drink without slurring a word when they were back in Virginia.
His arms move around her and she lets them stay, even as she wishes for privacy. Strange, in this world, to wish to be alone, but then she might be able to cry, to scream, to unleash the anger that coils at the back of her throat.
Instead, she presses her back to Mulder’s slumbering form, and she waits.