MARCH 28, 2015
In the dream, he’s traveling an unending road through a strange city. There’s no one for miles, though remnants of life remain; litter, mostly, and rusty cars parked at odd angles across the street. They’re empty, always empty.
Eventually he stops checking.
He keeps moving in hopes he’ll encounter someone, something to explain the desertion. The air is thick and heavy with smoke, but he can’t see the source.
A fire? A bomb, maybe?
The wind blows hot and dry against his cheeks. His lungs pull in and out, in and out, acutely aware of his breath in the stillness, the last of the living things.
His voice dies off, thin and willowy, enveloped by smoke. He doesn’t know what scares him more; the thought that he may never hear another human voice again, or the the thought that someone—something—might answer.
“Is anyone there?”
Something else’s memory guides him across unfamiliar ground as he makes his way into a narrow alley. It would be a tight fit for a grown man, but Isaac is slim, his shoulders slipping easily between the crumbling, weathered buildings.
The door beckons from the depths of the alleyway like an old guard, a forgotten soldier hidden beneath a curtain of vines. The plants scrape his fingers as he draws them aside, leaving angry pink welts across his heart line.
This is the part where instinct tells him to run. He never listens.
Maybe it won’t work this time.
False hope. The handle turns fluidly, the door opening on silent, well-oiled hinges, swinging wide like a gaping mouth. He steps over broken glass and thick layers of rotting paper to cross the threshold. The air is stale, but it’s a welcome respite from the smoke.
Turn back, Isaac.
It’s the same every time: A shadowed hallway with rooms on either side, green light spilling from beneath locked doors. He knows they’re locked because he’s tried them, every last one, with the same result. The definition of insanity.
The lights grow dim as he continues, casting murky shadows. His figure lumbers along, stretched and alien against the painted concrete walls.
Passing room after room with no response, the hallway seems to go on forever. He’s forced to take a right, passing through a set of doors that swing wide without so much as a groan. The world outside is covered in the film of an unknown number of years, but inside it’s pristine, untouched.
Run, run, fast as you can.
The rhyme pops into his head, and part of him wants to heed the call of his childhood subconscious. He should leave this place.
“Hello?” His voice sounds too loud in his ears, vocal chords stretched taut with fear.
Beyond the doors lies the kind of deep, inky darkness that reminds him of his mother, just before she was taken, sucked into nothingness. He doesn’t want to go there, but whatever has driven him to this place can be found only by forging ahead, so he does. Step after step until his outstretched hand meets cold resistance.
The last door.
But you knew it would be here. It’s always here.
A whisper at the back of his neck. A foreign tongue caressing his mind with ancient fingers.
Not again, he thinks with dread, but it’s too late. He can’t go back, there is no other path.
He finds the handle, silently begging it to stick, to be locked, to come off in his hand. Anything to stop him from looking beyond. The same wish, the same door, the same answer.
A blood moon shines down over a valley that burns with acute ferocity. It has burned like this for years—tens, hundreds, or thousands, it no longer matters.
The tongues lash and swirl at his inner thoughts, a rising chorus of agony that doubles him over at the threshold. He can’t pull his eyes from the destruction laid before him, all the dead of the world at his feet, as if to say, “This is your inheritance.”
The dream always ends this way, with Isaac’s body folded on the ground, his eyes fixed to the burnt red sky, full of a knowledge so heavy, so cloying, it bursts open like rotten fruit.
He wakes with a start, slick with cold sweat. The voices linger, echoing in the corners of his mind, and for a few terrifying moments he can’t tease apart the dream from reality. The tangled sheets hold his clammy body captive, and he twists and turns in a frenzied panic.
Get out! Let go!
Fight or flight becomes flight, but there’s nothing to flee from in the safety of his cluttered, drafty room. He lays flat, heart racing, coming to with the sinking realization that the dream has grown more real.
He can still smell the smoke.
Like that night in the woods, the night he can barely remember. There had been the forest, the dark trees swaying in the night sky, the sudden light, he knows he saved them…but the rest is as fuzzy as the ominous presence in the dream.
He stifles a sob, gasping for air, hoping he didn’t cry out this time. The last thing he wants is Mulder hovering, asking questions…or worse, the doc. She would put her hand to his forehead, ask Mulder to fetch a cool cloth, make Isaac lie still, check his pulse.
But they all know the problem isn’t his heart.
He hears the lull of Mulder’s dreams above him, a small comfort, but there’s more. Out there, beyond the old walls of their rural farmhouse, he can hear something else, too.
The ones they’ve been waiting for. They’re a hiss at the edge of his consciousness, grasped at feebly but never captured, slipping away like a silvery fish in a vast ocean.
Moonlight filters through the window, casting long shadows that remind him of the dream. He turns away with a shudder, pulling the quilt around his shoulders, though nothing can stop the shivering.
There are hours to go before morning, but he won’t sleep tonight.
MARCH 28, 2015
The doc doesn’t come back that night, or the night after. He overhears Mulder talking to her on the phone, though they don’t have to speak aloud for Isaac to understand. She’s working a double shift, sleeping at the hospital.
Staying away from me.
He sits on his bed, knees drawn to his chest, wondering how his bad luck managed to draw not just one distant mother, but two.
Mulder finds him curled up with a book that evening.
“Hey…want to help make dinner?”
Isaac shrugs, but his traitorous stomach grumbles at the smell of fried onion and peppers. He follows Mulder into the kitchen.
He’s opening a can of tomatoes before he works up the nerve to ask. “She’s pissed at me…isn’t she?”
Mulder makes a soft sound of acknowledgment as he pours macaroni into a pot. “She’s not all that happy with me, either,” he admits. “She’ll come around, though.”
Fat chance, Isaac thinks glumly.
“She will,” Mulder insists, reading Isaac’s thoughts in that uncanny way he has; a former profiler with too much time on his hands. “I know Scully. She’s forgiven me for worse.”
Isaac raises an eyebrow. “Like what?”
“Like bailing me out of prison…more than once,” Mulder says, a hesitant half-smile on his face as steam wafts from the bubbling pot. “A school suspension and a few words are hardly a jail sentence. Which doesn’t,” he says, pointing his fork in Isaac’s direction to emphasize his point, “make what you did OK.”
“I guess,” Isaac mutters, poking at the contents of the frying pan without enthusiasm.
“Scully doesn’t give up easily. Give her some time.”
But how much time do we have?
The thought comes from nowhere, from the depths of a bad dream, and Isaac shivers slightly despite the heat coming off the stove.
“Oh, and you’re grounded.”
He shakes himself back to the conversation, nonplussed. “That’s it? I’m grounded?”
Mulder cocks a wry eyebrow. “What, you expected us to send you back to Skinner?”
“I just thought…” he swallows, dropping his eyes, as Mulder has come closer to the point than either of them would admit, “I thought maybe it would be worse.”
Mulder shakes his head, suddenly isolated, lost in his thoughts. “You’re a keeper,” he murmurs, just as Isaac has a flash of unfamiliar memory…
…dim light, warmth, a chemical smell, like bleach…
He considers asking what it means, but Mulder has already moved on. They heap steaming pasta and sauce onto their plates, skipping the table in Scully’s absence. They eat on the couch instead, drinks balanced on their laps.
When they’re finished, Mulder sets his plate aside. “Want to kill some undead?”
“Thought I was grounded.”
Mulder stretches, hands behind his head as he leans back into the cushions. “You got me—I’ve never grounded someone before,” he says. “Just don’t go throwing any more kids into walls, OK?”
Isaac snorts, but it seems they’ve made their peace. Neither makes a move to pick up the controllers. Mulder tips his head back, eyes closed, and the silence stretches out. Isaac surprises himself, uneager to return to the self-induced solitary confinement of his room. His mind wanders.
“Mulder?” His voice comes out unnaturally small, and ripple of fear passes between them at the hollow, trembling note.
“Something’s changing,” he murmurs.
Mulder leans forward and bites his lip, considering this, and Isaac feels a wave of relief that the man doesn’t scoff, doesn’t balk, just asks the next logical question. “How so?”
“I don’t know yet, but I can feel it…it’s like…like…I dunno,” he groans, frustrated at his inability to voice his fears, the sense that the world is teetering on the brink of some great abyss. “Everything is wrong.”
Another flash of thought, but Mulder is quick to conceal it, locking it away beyond Isaac’s mental reach. He narrows his eyes, probing, but Mulder looks away, because they’re both thinking the same thing.
MARCH 29, 2015
By the next day, he can’t stand the sight of his room, the empty house, the whisper of Mulder’s thoughts. A quick look around tells him Mulder is holed up in his office, so Isaac tugs on his sneakers and eases the screen door closed on its rusty hinges, careful not to let it slam. It isn’t difficult to sneak out, though until now he’s never had reason to.
It’s a twenty-minute walk if he’s quick, but today he takes his time. He has no desire to go back to the barren farmhouse with its sullen silence, too much like his dreams to be comfortable.
He finds her backpack sitting on their rock, but no Alice. They’d planned to meet, but that was before he put her brother in the hospital. The sight of her pack is both unsettling and a relief.
Maybe she doesn’t know yet. Maybe she’s pissed at you.
He looks to the left, to the right, down the slope to the surface of the stream. He realizes how quiet it is here, how remote. Suddenly the sight of the rusted out car nestled amongst the trees is not comforting at all. The discarded cans and broken bottles gleam in the morning sun, like blades shimmering in the grass. His heart beats faster, his mind going to the kind of dark recesses his father knows all too well.
Maybe she was taken, what if the pack is a decoy? What if they’re using it to—
“Isaac! Over here!”
Her voice rings out across the clearing, and he lets out the breath he didn’t realize he was holding. She’s been there all along. Now she waves a small bunch of wildflowers in greeting.
He waves back, a slow pass of his hand through the air, hoping the scare doesn’t show on his face.
She closes the distance and hands him the scrappy bouquet, turning suddenly to sneeze into the crook of her arm. “Allergies,” she mutters, swiping at her nose. “You’re late.”
He swallows thickly, searching her face for reproach. “I had to sneak out.”
“I didn’t see you in class yesterday,” she begins, looking him in that way she does, as if she’s seeing not just into his eyes but through them. “Then I got home and found out…what happened, Isaac?”
She knows. Shit.
“I…we got in a fight,” he says, a flush of shame creeping across his face.
“Yeah. I heard mom and dad talking about it…they aren’t going to press charges. I think they’re more pissed at Buddy…they know how he is,” she sighs.
The doc will be happy to hear that. Isaac feels a slight lessening of the tension across his shoulders. Maybe I’m not a complete fuck-up after all.
“They don’t know I’m here, either,” she continues. “I don’t think they’d be happy I’m hanging out with you since…you know.”
Since I tried to kill your brother. His mind fills in the blanks for both them.
“Look, I’m really sorry—”
Alice cuts him off with a shrug, her expression murky, but not exactly conflicted. “Whatever. Buddy’s a jerk. He deserved it.” She brushes past him to dig through her pack. “I brought my lit stuff. So you can help me? My mom’ll kill me if I fail the make-up test tomorrow.” She lifts a paper-wrapped novel from her bag. She’s doodled all over the cover, swirls and lyrics, he catches a glimpse of her initials in fancy script along the binding.
I wonder if my initials are on there, he thinks, his face growing warm at the thought before he brushes it aside quickly, as though she were the one who could read his mind and not the other way around.
They spend half an hour going over her analysis Of Mice and Men before he realizes he’s no help at all. At one point he looks up from the book to find her staring at him as though he has three heads, and he wonders in a mild panic if he has something between his teeth.
“Ugh, I just don’t get it,” she says, slapping the book shut with a definitive thud. “It’s stupid anyway. I want to be a doctor. I’m never going to need to know this stuff.”
Isaac smiles, because he can imagine her a doctor. She looks the part, serious and sharp. “Yeah, it’s pretty stupid.”
They sit in uncomfortable silence, her picking at a fray on the knee of her jeans, him trying to think of something to say that won’t reveal his nervousness.
Finally Alice stands up. “I have an idea,” she proclaims, and he knows that, whatever it is, he will agree to it. He is strong, his mind is sharp, but she has a different kind of strength entirely.
She grabs the book, and before he can ask what’s up, she’s jogging to the edge of the stream. He opens his mouth to protest, because he can already tell what’s she’s going to do, but she’s faster, nimble on her feet. He moves to join her at the edge of the water just as she lets the book fly, tucking it into her arm like a frisbee, then letting go with a soft cry that makes his heart quiver.
The paper-covered missile glides along the air and lands with a great splash that makes Isaac grin, sharing in her glee even as the thought of destroying the book gives him pause. They share a secret now; a silly thing, a child’s thing, but something he’ll hold on to long after she’s gone.
He moves up beside her, and she turns to him, laughing. “Lennie and George can suck it,” she pronounces triumphantly. Her hand grazes his and he feels himself grow warm. Before the joy of this simple contact can register, she leans in and brushes her lips against his. The softness of her mouth is so fleeting, he wonders if he’s imagined the kiss.
She’s standing close, with her face next to his, smiling a knowing smile. He swallows, then smiles back, the grin plastering itself across his face before he can contain it. Then her hand is in his, giving it a brief squeeze before she pulls away, reaching down to pick up a flat, weathered stone.
“Bet I can beat your record.”
He shakes his head and shrugs, speechless, watching as her arm arcs back, flinging the stone, which hops across the surface of the water. He loses count at five, he’s too distracted, watching her. It sinks into the brackish water, but the ripples crest outward, seeming to go on forever.
He’s so caught up in thinking about the kiss that he doesn’t hear the telltale way she clears her throat, as if it might be getting a bit sore; doesn’t notice the sneezing that continues, even though her wildflowers have long since been abandoned on the ground behind them.