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thirteen.

november, 2017

A couple weeks pass with no leads on the unofficial Willoughby case. Mulder and Scully don't exactly want to officially go down there and investigate—lest they draw the wrath of the Budget Office again—so they've been working on other cases in the meantime. One in West Virginia, another in Indiana. Mulder writes a letter to Jared Caruthers and sends it to the prison he's at in Pennsylvania, but they don't get a response right away. They're back to their usual routine of spending a few nights a week at one of their houses, but it's different now. Now, they're together, in whatever sense of the word.

They spend a weekend in Scully's place, walking the dog together, Mulder fighting with the technology to cook, wrapped up in blankets on the couch or in her bed. Three nights at the house in Farrs Corner, staying up too late working and passing Mulder's reading glasses back and forth because Scully left her pair in her bedside table drawer. Another night in Scully's bed, tipsy and giggling like newlyweds. They buy each other breakfast or lunch at work. Mulder insists she take the desk chair. They keep things relatively peaceful with Skinner, despite past tensions. It's almost idyllic.

They're at Scully's one weekend morning, wrapped up in her sheets and comforter, huddled over on one side of the bed because that monstrous dog of hers is taking up the entire other half of the bed. Sprawled out by the pillow, taking up just enough space so that they can't lay there. Mulder didn't know a dog that small could take up that much space. “We need to renegotiate this space issue,” Mulder says into Scully's hair, his arm around her waist.

She shifts in bed, the top of her head landing just below his chin. “Mulder, I never expected you to argue about a situation that landed us sitting this closely in bed,” she says coyly. She's teasing him.

“Maybe not, but I didn't expect to have our space reduced to the size of a twin bed.” He nudges her side through the blankets. “Maybe the dog should have his own room, Scully.”

She scoffs. “Well, that seems a little excessive.” Next to her, Daggoo yawns—admittedly adorably, that little fucker—and Scully scratches his belly contentedly. “You and your dogs,” Mulder murmurs, kissing the part in her hair, and she shifts against him again, snuggling into his chest.

On the bedside table, his phone beeps with the email alert. “Some important case?” Scully mutters huskily against his shoulder as he reaches for his phone.

“Hmm. It's from Jared Caruthers, actually,” he says with surprise, opening up the email. “I included my email in case he wanted to forgo letters. Looks like he did.”

Scully props herself up on one elbow, scooting to the other side of the bed and pushing Daggoo away. He crawls into her lap, wriggling and yipping, and she scratches the top of his head. “Really? What did he say?”

Mulder scans the email. “He's willing to meet with us,” he says. “He mentions the possibility of us coming down sometime next week.”

Scully cranes her neck to read over his shoulder. “That sounds good to me,” she says. “How far away is the prison?”

“Couple hours. Up in Pennsylvania. We could drive up after lunch on Monday if there's no new case.”

“Mmm.” She rubs her nose briefly against his neck. “That makes sense. We can stay over here again Monday night if you want; I think it's closer.”

“That's sweet of you.” He kisses the top of her head again. “Although the mutt and I may need to have a discussion before then. I think it's ironic that he likes to sleep on my side of the bed.”

“Oh, hush, you big baby.” She pats the side of his face. “You'll be just fine.” He kisses her abruptly before she can finish.

---

The weather this fall has been kind of sporadic: hot one day, freezing the next. Tonight, it's freezing. Ryan hates the irony in that; the one night he'd wanted to spend outside.

He finally has his driver's license, but he has to borrow Annie's car if he wants to go anywhere. She said that he could have hers when she got a new one next year, but he suspects she's still sort of suspicious of him after the fire. That the suspicion will never completely go away. She says she isn't suspicious, that she trusts him, believes him when he says it was a stupid mistake, but he doesn't believe her. It probably doesn't help that he is technically going back to the scene of the crime tonight. If he gets caught, he'll never live it down. That'll end any chance he has of ever regaining his reputation in this stupid town.

He borrows his aunt's car because it's freezing and about to rain, and because he's tired of riding his bike around town like a little kid. He's trying to avoid suspicion, so he parks it at the nearby church and walks, up the street, past the houses near the church and to the site of the original apartment building. The place where his parents died. It's gone now, of course, but they're building some new house on the property. Ryan can't decide how to feel about it, but it's not like he has any sway over the decision. Especially considering he burned the original place down. (It seems so stupid now, thinking about why he burned the building down—to try and stop the Specter. It seems so childish. You can't stop the Specter that way. He's trying to find another way.)

The new house can't be called a house; it's a skeleton, only the frame and part of a wall in place. The chunk of wall faces the street, and Ryan gratefully ducks behind it. It's already dark, but he doesn't want anyone driving by to see him inside and get suspicious. Aside from this being the scene of two Caruthers family crimes, he's technically trespassing. He turns on his flashlight and props it up against the wall, leaving him a small yellow-white light to work with. From his backpack, he pulls the folded-up board from under his wallet. Finds the planchette and pulls that out, too. A Parker's Brother Ouija Board, bought for two bucks at the Goodwill in the next town. It's a fucking cliché, but it's all he's got.

He's never played with one before. He's been terrified of them all his life. (He sees a ghost all the time; why the fuck would he want to summon another one?) A friend of his had one at a sleepover, and he refused to play, and got called a weenie until he cried and called his aunt to come and get him. This feels like a rite of passage, a fulfillment of everything he's checked out of all of his life.

He pulls out the video camera he stole from the closet and sets it up facing the board. It's probably stupid, considering that people probably still suspect him of faking the house in class last year (and probably only let it go because Mrs. Seers got into that accident, and Agent Scully never let on that she saw him in the school), but he wants video proof. If this works, he's going to send it to Agent Mulder, who probably believes in this shit. A witness testimony of sorts. Ghosts are real, and the Specter really did possess my uncle. It's all real. He makes sure it's recording, sees that the little red light is on, and moves back to his spot before the board.

He pulls one more thing out of his pack and tucks it under the corner of the Ouija board: his parents’ wedding photo. Takes a deep, shaky breath. Come on, Ry, one of the kids at the sleepover had said—Ryan still doesn't know if he was trying to be nice or cruel. We can contact your parents. Don't you wanna talk to them again? He hadn't then. He was too scared.

He inhales, exhales, places the planchette on the board. Places two fingers on it. He takes two more shaky breaths, shakes shaggy bangs out of his face as he moves the planchette around the board a couple of times. Thunder crashes off in the distance.

Ryan’s fingers are cold on the plastic, hands shaking. He presses his shoulder against the bricks. “If there are spirits here tonight,” he says in a low voice, “please make yourself known using the board and only the board.” It’s probably not much protection against the Specter, but it’s something. And he has his old washable cross tattoo habit going again, and he’s wearing a crucifix that Jared sent with his last letter under his t-shirt. He offers up a quick prayer that this won't go badly, even though he's never prayed in his life.

Nothing happens. The planchette sits still in the center of the board.

Ryan sighs, chewing at his lower lip. It's childish, but he starts to move the planchette around the board. Swirling it back and forth. He spells out M-O-M and is on the D of Dad when the planchette yanks off one side. It rapidly spells out H-E-L-L-O.

His heart speeds up, fluttering hard, pounding against his ribs. “H-hello?” he stammers. “Mom, Dad? Is that you?”

The planchette slides again, violently, over to YES.

He laughs, a little terrified, a little joyful. He's heard stories about his mom and dad all his life—they met in college, they danced the Macarena and the Electric Slide at their wedding, they were so happy when they found out they were pregnant. His dad used to read to him every night while his mom fed him, his mom took him on long walks every day in the stroller, they both sung to him and neither of them could sing at all, they were as tone deaf as he is. But he has never once had a conversation with them. It's frightening, it's overwhelming. He can feel tears on his face.

Above him, lightning flashes across the sky.

“A-are you okay?” he whispers. “Is it nice, wherever you are?” He doesn't know if he believes in heaven, but if there's an afterlife (and there must be), he hopes it is good for them. His mom and dad. He has so, so many questions.

The planchette swirls, lands on YES again. And then it keeps moving, spelling out words. W-E L-O-V-E Y-O-U.

Ryan gulps. Wipes his face with his free hand. “I love you too,” he whispers. He doesn't know if teenage boys are supposed to tell their parents that they love them, but he's going to. He's never gotten to before, aside from the visits he and Annie paid to their graves when he was a kid. (Crouching in front of them, his hands covered in dirt and grass stains, his eyes sticky with tears as he told the stones everything he wanted to tell them.) This video is going to be embarrassing as shit.

Thunder rumbles again. Ryan clears his throat, wiping his eyes again. “Mom, Dad…” he says carefully. It feels so strange to say those words to them, even if he can't see them. “I need to ask you something. If you remember it.”

The board says nothing. The planchette is still. Ryan continues, “That night… uh, with Uncle Jared… did he…” His words break off, quivering. He doesn't know if he can say it. “Did he… did he mean to kill you? O-or was it not him?” He's stammering, weeping, blinking at the flash of lightning. He can barely articulate it, but she forces it out. “Was it the Specter? Was the Specter using him?” he whispers. “D-did the Specter kill you?”

The planchette yanks again. NO.

Ryan's mouth drops open. There's no proof, he has no proof, Jared won't tell him anything and no one else will believe him, but he was so sure… “He did?” he whispers. “Mom… Dad… he killed you?”

YES.

He shakes his head hard, his jaw clenched. “N-no, he couldn't,” he whispers. “He didn't. He…”

The planchette yanks again and again. YES YES YES YES.

The thunder booms, louder this time. A tear drips down Ryan's face. “Why?” he murmurs, his voice wrenched free of all noise. “Why did he kill you?”

The planchette loops around the board again, sharply. B-E-C-A-U-S-E O-F Y-O-U. Ryan gasps hard, yanking his hands away from the board, but the planchette keeps moving. Y-O-U Y-O-U Y-O-U Y-O-U… And Ryan suddenly understands that this isn't his parents, or not solely his parents, and he grabs for the board, for the planchette, to shift it over to GOODBYE, but the planchette moves before he can grab it. It goes flying, directly at him, and hits him in the forehead. He jerks back in pained surprise, and his head bangs hard against the unfinished wall.

He can hear the rumble of thunder again as he collapses on the ground, his head pounding.

His vision is funny, swimming, his stomach turning; he feels like he is going to throw up. His ears are buzzing with faint things, words, voices, and the sounds suddenly sharpen into something clear. Screams. Blood curdling screams, a woman's screams. A sharp, pained, deep-voiced groan, a whimper. Why, the voice pleads. Why are you…. The voice breaks off into another moan.

The screams break off into sobs, whimpers, pleas. Please, don't, don't, don't… another voice, a woman's voice, begs. Don't do this, please… Another scream, this one full of pain. Why? the voice pleads. Jared, why? Why are you doing this?

The responding voice is familiar, scarily familiar. It's different, though, darkly-toned, stiff, nearly mechanical. I have to.

More screams, more sobbing. Please, Jared, please… the voice pleads. Please don't hurt our baby. Please don't hurt Ryan. More screaming. Ryan, screaming. Ryan, crying out until his throat hurts. Ryan, lurching off to one side and vomiting hard.

His head hurts. Thunder is rumbling again, and his head, his throat, his eyes hurt. He knows what his parents sound like, Annie and both sets of grandparents have videos. But he's never heard them sound like that. Begging for their lives, for his life.

He wonders if any part of that was real, or if it was all the Specter. If just once in his life, he could hear his parents actually say that they love him.

He picks himself up off the ground, groaning and checking the back of his head—no blood, thank God. He checks the camera, too, and the little red light is on. Thank God for that, too; this is the best proof he could ask for. He puts the camera and the planchette into his backpack. But when he reaches tentatively, cautiously for the board, it yanks away from him as if shoved by an invisible hand. Seems to quiver in place, rattle on the slats of unfinished wood. Ryan reaches for it again, and the whole thing bursts into flames. He yelps, scrabbling back across the floor until his back hits the wall again. He blinks hard, as if expecting the image to go away, but it’s real. The board is ablaze. He can feel the heat of it seeping through his jeans.

He fumbles in his backpack until he finds a water bottle and dumps it over the board. A few sparks of fire remain on the board, and he stomps it out with his sneakers. His hands are shaking, his head is pounding. He stamps on the Ouija board until it stops smoldering, reaches down and grabs it, ignoring the heat. He throws it out of the skeleton of the new house, shakes his hands hard in the air to try and relieve the pain. Grits his teeth. He hurts all over, his head is pounding.

He finds the picture on the ground, soggy, blackened and charred around the edges. But he can still see his parents’ faces. He can still see them. He slips it back into his backpack and walks away.

Thunder claps again as he is walking back to the car. The sky opens up, and it starts to rain.

---

Annie is on the couch when Ryan gets home, absorbed in a Netflix show. She jumps when he walks in, fumbling for the remote and pausing it. “Hey, Ry,” she says, her shoulders relaxing in relief—that he's not a burglar, he supposes. Or a ghost. “You're home sooner than I expected. Did you see the movie?”

He shrugs. His head is killing him, and he's exhausted. And the fear hasn't completely left him, is wedged under his skin. His heart is still pounding too hard. You'd think that after seeing those ghost for most of his life, he'd be immune to all this fear, but he isn't.

“Do you want to watch a movie now?” Annie asks, motioning to the couch. “Make some popcorn, some candy? You can pick.”

He shakes his head, somewhat reluctantly. “I'm going to bed. Thanks, though.”

“Sure.” She shrugs. “There's some pizza in the fridge, help yourself.”

He nods, yanks his fingers through his hair and grimacing at the burst of pain. “Night,” he says, and walks upstairs. His hands are trembling. He just wants to go to sleep.

He pins the picture back up on the wall, first. Annie will ask what happened, but he doesn't care. Next, he hooks the camera up to his laptop and backs up the video three times—twice in the cloud, and once on the laptop itself. He fast-forwards through it; he doesn't want to watch it, but he wants to make sure it's all there. He types out an email to Agent Mulder and attaches the video. This is proof, the email says, and he'd wanted it to be proof that Jared didn't murder his parents on purpose, but this works, too. It is still proof—proof that the Specter is anything but angelic. It's something. He thinks this is plenty of stuff to convince the guy, he seems pretty open to this stuff.

He presses send, shuts his laptop and curls up in bed. Checks his phone and is responding to a text when it buzzes to life with an email alert. The email didn't send. It doesn't say why.

Reopening his laptop, Ryan tries again. And again. Each time, he gets an alert, and each time, it doesn't explain why. Usually, it'll say that the address is invalid, or the file is too big, but these say nothing. The file won't send, no matter what he does.

Ryan slams his laptop shut and puts it away, flopping on his stomach and burying his face in the pillow. He doesn't know what to do. He doesn't know what to do. That was his chance, to convince the FBI agents that Jared didn't murder his parents, or that the ghost was malevolent, or any of the above, but he's pretty sure he's lost it, if the email won't go through. He digs his fingernails into the mattress until the skin underneath stings. He stuffs the corner of the pillow in his mouth and screams in frustration. He keeps the light on even though he can't sleep with the light on, because he's too afraid to turn it off.  

---

On Monday, Mulder and Scully drive up to Pennsylvania to meet with Jared Caruthers. They call ahead to the prison, who seem surprised—because Jared's about to go on parole, Scully supposes. (Mulder told her a couple of weeks ago.) But the visit is approved, and Monday afternoon, they find themselves in a visiting room with Jared Caruthers.

He stands as they come in the room, reaches across the table to shake their hands politely. “Agent Mulder, right?” he says. “You're not, ah… you're not here to mess up my parole, are you?” He chuckles, but Scully can tell he's a bit nervous.

“Not at all,” she says. “I'm Agent Scully, Agent Mulder's partner. We'd just like to ask you some questions.”

Jared sits back down as they do. Scully has seen mugshots of him from back in 2002, and the man changed a lot: he is older, less disheveled. He's grown a beard. There's a certain amount of weariness in his eyes. He says, “So in your email, you mentioned knowing my nephew, Ryan.”

“Yes, we've run into Ryan a few times in investigations of Willoughby,” says Mulder.

“He's mentioned you a few times in his letters. I remembered the unit from when, uh, when my friend died in 2002. I think I talked to some people from it. But I don't think that was you two.”

“No, you would've spoken with our colleagues,” Scully offers. “Agents Doggett and Reyes.”

Jared nods. “Yeah, that sounds familiar.” He sighs a little, shutting his eyes briefly, rubbing at his mouth with one hand. “I’m sorry, it's just… hard time to think about. You had some questions for me? I'm assuming about what happened with my brother?”

“Yes,” says Mulder. “If you don't mind talking about it.”

He offers them a grim smile. “It's not like I haven't been asked to talk about it a million times before.” He folds his hands on the table, regards them politely. “What do you want to know?”

Scully clears her throat, shifting in her seat. “Could you talk about that night?” she asks. “What you remember?”

“Not very much, I'm afraid.” His voice is as grim as his smile.

“Anything you can tell us is helpful,” Mulder offers.

Jared sighs, shutting his eyes again. “I'll… I'll tell the story if you want me to,” he says. “It's a difficult story, but I'll tell it. Everything that happened that year… with Holly… and then Ian and Marion… it's hard to think about.”

“I understand,” Mulder says. “Take your time.”

Jared sighs again, presses his hands briefly into his eyes. “Okay,” he mutters. “Okay. Um, after Holly died, things sort of went downhill. Nobody would believe me that Holly wasn't responsible for her death, that the ghost would involved. Maybe her boyfriend believed me, a little, but he was in pain and he didn't want to hear it. Those agents came in and investigated, and they didn't really find anything, and I didn't know what else to do. I got fired from my job. I got recommended to several therapists, and hell, I probably should've gone. But I don't think it would've changed the outcome of that month. It just might've changed my involvement with it.”

“What do you mean?” Scully asks.

“Marion called me. She had taken a year off of work to stay home with the baby—she taught middle school English—and I knew she'd been bored lately. And she knew what a hard time I'd be having. We'd always been… friends. Pretty close friends. So she would ask me to keep her company after Holly died, let me play with Ryan or whatever, so I wouldn't be thinking about Holly. So I figured she was calling because of that.” He grits his teeth, staring down at his hands. “But she wasn't. It wasn't that. She was calling because she'd seen the ghost. Seen it three times, in fact. And she was scared. I-I don't think it was just because of Holly, I don't know if she believed me about Holly before she saw the ghost. But other people had been seeing the ghost, and other people had been experiencing bad shit because of it. And I think she started believing me then. She was scared for Ryan, that something bad was gonna happen to him. And she wanted my help.”

He's quiet, fidgeting with his hands. Mulder prods gently, “Wanted your help with what?”

“With the ghost,” says Jared. “She… she wanted to get rid of it. I don't know if it was more because of fear or boredom… but she wanted to get rid of it. We joked about it, before Holly died… we'd meet Marion and Ryan sometimes for coffee, and Holly would play with the baby, and we'd talk about Holly seeing the ghost, and the research her boyfriend was doing, and Mar would joke about exorcising it or something. But she was serious this time. She asked me if I was interested in helping her, and I said yes, absolutely. After what that thing did to Holly, I wasn't willing to risk it happening to anyone else. Especially not my family.” He winces, as if realizing what he's said, and drops his head into his hands. “So that was when it started,” he mumbles.

They sit in silence for a moment before Mulder speaks. “So… you and Marion were going to exorcise the ghost?” he asks. “What about your brother?”

“Ian… Ian was hesitant, but he agreed to help us after Marion asked him a few times. I'm not sure if he was being indulgent of our fears, or if he was actually concerned, but he helped when he could. We… we researched exorcisms, Marion went and got ordained online… It all seems so fucking juvenile now, but we were so young. Mar and Ian… they were so young.” Jared shakes his head, his face still hidden. “The, um… the night it happened… we were going to try and do it. The exorcism.”

That explains the state of the crime scene, Scully notes. The occultish and religious paraphernalia.

Jared presses his hands harder against his eyes briefly before pulling away. His eyes are damp. “Um, Mar and I set up. That day, we… we hung out with the baby, and we set up. Ian was weird about the whole thing, but he came. After work, he came home and agreed to do it. We… we had a plan. We were gonna summon the ghost with… with a fucking Ouija board, and then we were going to try to exorcise it. Get rid of it. To protect my nephew. God, it all sounds so fucking stupid now. I don't know what I was thinking. But I… I didn't know what else to do.” He wipes his eyes, sniffling. “I thought I was doing the right thing.”

Scully looks at the ground, uncomfortable. It's hard not to think about her sister, listening to Jared tell this story. She tries to remind herself that this is a murderer, that what happened to Melissa is very, very different than this, but it's hard to remember that when she's experienced every emotion she sees on his face. The guilt, the regret, the wondering what you could've done differently. She knots her fingers in her lap, presses her palms together.

“We, uh, we tried the Ouija board and nothing happened. Ian and Marion thought it didn't work. Ian wanted to quit, Marion wanted to try again… they were bickering about that. Ian went to check on the baby. Marion decided to make some food, I think… she was gonna make a salad. She was chopping tomatoes. She said we should eat something, and maybe try again. I decided to take a smoke break. I went outside to take a smoke break, out in the hall. That's… that's the last thing I remember.” His voice breaks. “T-the next thing I know, I'm waking up in the hall. Ian and Marion are on the floor, and they… they're just covered with blood… I had the knife that Marion used to chop tomatoes, and it was in my hand, and I remember thinking that the blade was red from the tomatoes, but it wasn't…” He makes a soft choking sound. Scully lets her eyes slip shut.

“Take your time,” Mulder says gently. Scully feels his hand cover hers on her knee, gently, and she wonders if he is thinking of Samantha. She tightens her jaw and opens her eyes, but she doesn't pull her hand away.

Jared takes a few deep breaths, rubbing at his face. “I guess you know the rest of the story,” he says dryly. “I… I called 9-1-1. I went to check on the baby, and by that time, I'd figured out what had happened. What… what I'd done. So I ran. I-I don't think I really thought about it, I just… I just did it. I didn't want to leave Ryan alone, but I didn't know what else to do. I just ran.”

Scully takes a few steady breaths, tapping her foot softly against the floor. Mulder says, “So… you don't remember the murders? If you don't mind me asking.”

Jared shrugs. “No, I don't. I don't remember a bit of it, and I think I'm happier that way. Living with the whole thing is bad enough.”

“I understand,” Scully says kindly—more kindly than she expected.

Mulder fidgets next to her, a sign that he wants to ask more questions but also doesn't want to push too hard. He says, “I don't know if Ryan has mentioned—”

“He has.” Jared smiles grimly at them. Cynical. “I appreciate my nephew's support,” he says. “Even if it's not necessary. After everything… not seeing him for thirteen years, or know if he was okay… I was so surprised that he didn't hate me. I know that my sister hates me.” He grimaces, rubbing at his jaw. “His ideas… I don't want to dismiss them. For a long time, I thought I was possessed that night. With what happened to Holly… I thought it was the only thing that made sense. I didn't want my brother and sister-in-law to die. But I didn't want to make excuses.” His teeth grit. “I am responsible, even if I didn't want to be. I pulled them into the problem with the ghost, after Holly… and I did the killing. Even if I don't remember it. Making excuses seemed cheap. It didn't seem fair, not to my family or to Marion's. I deserved not to have a chance to start over because of what happened. I deserved to have my life ended, too, in a sense.” He stares off into a corner, his eyes nearly glassy, like he's going to cry again. “Ryan… he's a good kid, and I love him, and I hate myself for what I did to him. I don't deserve his loyalty.”

There's an unexpected lump in Scully's throat; she didn't expect to be moved by the testimony of a murderer, especially a murderer she doesn't particularly believe. She nods and looks back down at the table, clearing her throat.

“I appreciate you talking to us like this, Mr. Caruthers,” Mulder says after a few beats of silence. He sounds like there's some emotion in his voice, too. If there's any language they both understand, it's guilt. “I just have one more question, if you don't mind.”

“Sure.”

“When you were arrested… you were found in the cemetery near your brother's home,” he says. “What were you trying to do?”

Jared laughs, and it has a touch of humor in it. Just a bit. “What do you think, Agent Mulder?” he asks. “I was trying to finish what we started the night before.”

---

“There's no way to prove he was possessed, you know,” Scully says as they pull away from the prison.

Mulder throws her a wayward grin from the driver's seat. “I knew you were going to stay something like that.”

“Well, there isn't,” she says matter-of-factly. “Whether or not I believe that theory, there isn't. It could just as easily be a lie to gain sympathy from his nephew.”

“He seemed to have plenty of guilt and grief about the whole thing,” Mulder says, having his thumb over his shoulder at the prison like a hitchhiker.

“That means he's guilty and he's grieving. That doesn't mean he's possessed.”

“So, what would be your alternative theory, then, Scully?” He's mostly teasing, but there's just enough seriousness in his voice to let her know he wants to know her theory. “Why is all of this happening in Willoughby?”

Scully considers it for a second, tapping her foot against the floor. “Do you remember when we first got called to Willoughby and I suggested that the town might be affected by some kind of a mania?” she asks. “A psychological response, possibly to the legend itself, or to the attention gained from claiming sightings?”

“Yes.”

“Well, what if that's part of it?” she offers. “And the things people see… the real things, not the stories that people make up… are the result of some sort of hallucinatory substance affecting the town?”

“The way ergot caused the Salem Witch Trials, you mean?” Mulder says slyly.

“I meant more along the lines of that mushroom field in North Carolina,” she replies dryly.

“Is the town of Willoughby being digested?” he says in that stupid not-spooky spooky voice that she secretly loves.

She nudges him in the side. “You know what I mean,” she says, and he makes a face at her. She laughs, quietly, because she really has missed this. They've been working together for two years now, and she doesn't think she'll ever stop missing this. “I don't know, Mulder,” she adds. “Hallucinations seem like the only way to rationalize everything that's happened.” That we've seen.

“Not everything,” he says softly. “Not quite.”

He's still smiling at her, sneaking glances out of the corner of his eye. She loves him. “No,” she says, reaching out and putting her hand over his knee. She squeezes his kneecap. “No, not quite.”

---

Ryan makes a trip to the grocery store after school and races home to beat his aunt. It's not a bad trip if he rides his bike; not far from school, not far from home. Sometimes he can appreciate this tiny-ass town.

He got the package from Amazon yesterday, it's sitting upstairs on his desk. The white sage, and the cheapest gemstones he could find. He puts those on his desk and dresser, lights some sage with his lighter. Then he rips open the bags from the grocery store. More crosses, the type he's seen in tacky decorating. Maybe they work better than the cheap plastic ones from Vacation Bible School, he doesn't know. He nails those on the wall. Annie will probably notice, but maybe not, she doesn't come in his room a lot. He hopes not. He doesn't want to have to explain this until it's all over.

The last thing left is the salt. He opens the bag and pours it in a line in front of the door, just like in the movies. Pours it in a circle around his bed. Along the windowsills and the door to his closet. Stores it in the closet for safekeeping.

The woman in the store had given him the strangest look when he unloaded his cart onto the conveyor belt. Probably only increasing his shitty reputation, but it doesn't matter. None of that matters, none of the banal, unimportant stuff. All that matters is ending this. He wants to finish what his parents started.

Ryan checks his salt lines, checks his sage. The sage smell is not great, but he wrinkles his nose and ignores it. He wants to make sure everything is right. He wants to make sure that it can't get in here.

It's the only way to keep himself safe.