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seventeen.

february, 2018

In the aftermath of the broken laptop, Scully seems to be very on-edge. Jumpy, tense, jerking whenever Mulder touches her shoulder. He suggests that he go out and buy a new laptop (he feels like the least they should do is replace Ryan's broken one), and she immediately insists on doing it herself, like she doesn't want to be left alone in the room.

After the laptop had flown across the room, he'd expected her to immediately come up with several rational explanations for how it had happened. He'd expected her to dismiss it as a normal occurrence. He hadn't expected her to be afraid, although he can't blame her. He is plenty spooked himself after everything. But it still throws him to see her reacting this way. In the aftermath of the crash, she hadn't said anything. She'd just stood there, fists clenched. As he went to go examine the broken machine, he'd thought he saw her fingers shaking.

They end up going to get the laptop together, simply because Mulder doesn't particularly want to be in the room alone, either. He'd expect her to tease him about being scared, just a little, but she stays quiet, winding a scarf around her neck under the sharp edges of her hair. They drive to the store together, taking the broken laptop, and pick one out that looks fairly similar.

Scully is unflinchingly stubborn about the entire thing. She doesn't want to talk about it. When Mulder brings up setting up some sort of device to monitor further paranormal activity in the hotel room, Scully says, “No, Mulder,” and that is that. No explanation as to why. She refuses to engage in further discussions on the subject. And he'd be willing to leave it alone if he didn't see the way she tenses up when they re-enter the room and her eyes fall on the dent that the laptop left in the wall. She's stiff, her hands clenched in her coat pockets.

Mulder steps close to her and puts a gentle hand on her back, murmurs, “Are you okay, Scully?”

She tenses even more, but when she turns around to face him, her response is less hostile than he'd expected: firm, but surprisingly gentle. “I'm fine, Mulder. Okay?” No room for argument.  

He rubs circles on the small of her back habitually; he doesn't believe her. “I'm a little on edge, too,” he says. “That was pretty unnerving.” Still nothing. Her gaze is somewhere between neutral and defiant. He runs his palm along her spine. “Do you want to get a different hotel room?” he offers. “Maybe at a different hotel?”

Her nose wrinkles, and she shakes her head automatically. “Don't be ridiculous. That's entirely unnecessary.” She steps away from him, setting her bag down on the little table. “So, what's the plan for tomorrow?” she asks, changing the subject smoothly. “I feel like one of us should go and see Joy Seers. Just to check in, maybe see what she remembers. Maybe talk to her husband, too, since he knew the girl who died before the Caruthers did in 2002.”

He doesn't push. He doesn't want to push too hard and drive her away. “That's a good idea,” he says. “I'd like to do some research, too, into ways to get rid of the ghost. Find out if there's some way to get rid of it without involving a priest.” He chuckles a little, and Scully shoots him a wry smile. But it comes out a little wobbly. “But we can both go to visit Joy, if you want,” he offers, sitting down on the edge of the bed.

She shakes her head. “No, you should focus on this research. I can pass on your well-wishes.” She bumps her elbow against his as she sits beside him. “Besides, we don't know if Skinner or Kersh are going to figure out where we are, and insist we come back,” she adds. “Tomorrow's Monday, remember?”

“Oh, nobody ever comes down there to check on us,” he says dismissively, wrapping his arm around her shoulders. She doesn't shrug him off, resting her cheek against his shoulder. He kisses the top of her scalp. He murmurs into her hair, “Are you sure you're okay, honey?”

He can feel the clench of her jaw. “I'm fine, Mulder. Really.” She lifts her head and turns to kiss his cheek. “I'm going to take a shower, okay? We should get some sleep.”

She stands from the bed and begins pulling things from her overnight bag. Mulder watches her go, a little wistfully. He wants to reassure her, somehow, but he doesn't know how to. She's stoic, closed off, and she doesn't even believe in ghosts.

---

Scully can't sleep. It's ridiculous, but she can't. She can't relax enough. She's tense, jolting at every little sound: the air conditioning, the floorboards outside of their room, the wind outside their window. It sounds just the way it did on Halloween night of 2016 in their hotel room; it sounds like a human wail.

Mulder sleeps through all of it, snoring softly beside her, turned over on his side. She wishes, now, that she'd taken his offer to move to another hotel, but she is too embarrassed to admit that he was right, that she is frightened. He admitted that he was on edge, too, he gave her every opportunity to confess her nervousness, and she still held back. She can't admit how much seeing the laptop fly across the room scared her, she can't admit how frightened she's been by the things she's seen ever since they started coming to Willoughby. And as much as she's tried to rationalize the whole thing, she just can't.

She curls up against the warm plane of Mulder's back, her nose pressed against his shoulder, and shuts her eyes. Whatever she's seen, she reminds herself, he's seen it, too. Halloween of 2016 in the school. The night the assassins broke in, the night before they went to Norfolk, both times in dreams. She's seen it twice in dreams, she thinks—definitely after they came back from Norfolk, and possibly the night before the fire in Willoughby, back in 2016 (she thinks she remembers it that way)—and twice in person. Once in this very hotel, and once in her own home. And then tonight, whatever tonight was. It feels like nowhere is safe. She doesn't know what it is—whether it's a hallucination or paranoia or really, actually a ghost—and she doesn't know why she and Mulder keep seeing it, but she knows that it is not good. She knows that she is starting to agree with Mulder: that this thing needs to be gotten rid of. She just doesn't know how.

She finally falls asleep, uneasily, her chest to Mulder's spine and her hand on his hip, feeling the rise and fall as he breathes. When she drifts off, she is telling herself that she needs to tell Mulder, that she has to find a way to be honest with Mulder. But she falls asleep before she can figure out how.

---

In the morning, they have breakfast in the lobby. Scully thinks that Mulder must notice the circles under her eyes, but he doesn't say anything about them. Instead, he talks about some articles he found online. “There's lots of different options for getting rid of hostile spirits,” he says, “but I'm not sure how many of those would help in our situation. I don't know what Ryan did to get the ghost out of his house, but I don't think we can sage an entire town.” He chuckles, and Scully offers up a half-hearted attempt at a laugh. He takes a bite of toast, adding, “I thought I could walk to the library today. Kick it old school. Isn't there some book with a section about the Specter?”

“Sounds familiar,” says Scully, taking a sip of her coffee.

“Could be useful.” Mulder tears off a corner of toast and folds it around his last bite of bacon. “You going to talk to Joy?” he asks around his mouthful.

“I think so. I need to call her.” She takes a bite of yogurt, staring at her plate. “It doesn't feel right to just drop in,” she adds quietly.

Mulder reaches across the table to pat her hand. And then he asks it. “Are you okay, Scully?” he murmurs. “It looks like you didn't sleep at all last night.”

She yawns, and tries to stifle it. Tell him, a small voice in her head urges. Just tell him. You need to tell him. But she can't find the words. “Guess I was just restless,” she says. “But I'm okay.” She smiles toothily at him across the table, forcing the corners of her mouth to turn up.

He doesn't look convinced. He squeezes her hand. She tries, lamely, to change the subject. “Anything from Skinner yet?”

“No, not yet. I'd say we're in the clear, but it's still early.”

He smiles wryly, and her forced smile shifts into a genuine one. She loves him. She loves him so much, it hurts sometimes, and she's missed him desperately for years now. And here he is. She squeezes his hand this time. “I'll join you at the library when I'm done at the Seers's,” she says.

---

Scully calls Joy Seers after breakfast, using a number she finds listed in the phone book (she has Joy's cell from 2016, but after well over a year, who knows if it's still in use?). Fortunately, Joy seems open to a visit, subdued but still somewhat cheerful on the phone. She remembers Scully, and she tells her to come on over.

Scully finds the house easier than expected and parks on the street. The door is answered by a bearded man with glasses, who gives her a polite but questioning look. “Can I help you?”

“My name is Dana Scully,” Scully says, offering her hand to the man. “I’m an FBI agent. I… know Joy. I spoke to her about coming here?”

“It's okay, babe,” a voice says from behind the man, and then Joy appears in the doorway. She's a bit thinner than Scully remembers, hair down past her shoulders, but she smiles broadly at her and motions her in. “Agent Scully, it's good to see you again,” she says. “This is my husband, Ben, by the way.” Ben nods politely at her, shaking her hand as she enters.

“It's good to see you, too,” says Scully, really meaning it. “Mulder and I were so… worried, when we heard what had happened. And very, very relieved to hear that you were okay.” She feels awkward, unsure of what to say; a part of her wants to reassure Joy, tell her, I was in a coma, too. I know what it's like to have missing time. But she feels like it would be hollow, considering how different the circumstances are; she spent much less time in a coma, for one thing.

“I can tell you that I was very relieved as well,” Joy says with a soft laugh, motioning Scully towards the couch she'd sat on during her last visit. She waves at her husband as he disappears further into the house and folds her hands in her lap as she sits opposite Scully. “So what's up? I guess you guys are back in town because of the Specter? Has something happened?”

“Sort of,” Scully says, shifting uncomfortably. She's not exactly going to disclose that they are in town partially because Ryan Caruthers thinks she is possessed. She gives her the least descriptive summary she can. “We’re… here, more or less, because of Ryan Caruthers. He seems afraid of the… ghost.” After all this time, she still finds it hard to say the word. “He wants us to find some way to get rid of it.”

Something flickers over Joy's face, some dark sense of agreement, before it's replaced by neutrality. “I can't disagree with that sentiment,” she murmurs, shifting uncomfortably in place. She clears her throat and continues. “So, I guess you want to talk to me about that night?”

Scully nods, uncomfortable herself. This always was the hardest part, after she'd had to endure countless interviews of her own about various traumas and losses. Just tell us what happened. She hates it. “If you don't mind,” she says softly. “Whatever you can easily recall.”

“No, it's okay.” Joy offers her a small, considerably muted smile. “I still remember… some things from that night. Some things since.” She shrugs. “I remember… my necklace breaking by some invisible force,” she says, and it's only then that Scully notices the empty space at Joy's collarbone. “I remember driving home,” she continues, a little unsteadily. “I was just driving along, and… the radio just came on. I didn't touch it. I couldn't turn it off; I was just frozen. And then, I-I felt something come over me.” Her jaw is clenched, her teeth tight, and she is practically shivering in place. “I couldn't do anything, or stop it,” she finishes. “I couldn't stop it. I looked into the backseat, and I saw something, and it lunged at me. And then everything went black.” She shrugs, a little shakily.

Scully doesn't say anything. She doesn't know what she could say. She doesn't want to ask the obvious question—What do you think that was? The answer seems obvious.

Joy clears her throat and continues. “I-I don't remember anything after that. I just remember waking up in the hospital.” She pushes curls behind her ear and offers Scully a muted, polite smile. “I assume,” she says, “that it had something to do with the hauntings. I know it sounds so silly, but… after everything that happened that night… I don't know what else it could be. All the things moving by themselves, all the things I had no control over…”

“I understand,” says Scully, and it feels like a confession, like the closest she'll come to admitting what she hasn't been able to tell Mulder. It almost feels like a betrayal, and that's what is truly silly. She should be able to tell people; she should be able to tell her husband.

Joy nods, running her fingers through her hair. “I don't know what to make of it,” she says. “I still have nightmares, sometimes, where I can't breathe, can't move… I still hear things sometimes that I think might be a ghost…” Scully is tempted to suggest sleep paralysis, but she keeps her mouth shut. Joy fidgets, nervously. “And things have been so strange, since I woke up…” she says in a soft voice, nearly a whisper. “I-I'm constantly on edge. I can't relax. I always feel like someone's watching me. And there are long periods of time that I can't rem—”

Joy stops, suddenly, mid-sentence, freezing in place. Her face goes stiff and expressionless; her eyes go blank. She quivers a little in place. “Joy?” Scully asks, and then, with more fear when she doesn't reply, she repeats, “Joy?”

The woman quivers again, blinks slowly, and shakes her head. “I'm sorry,” she says, almost delicately. “I am afraid I lost track of what I was saying.”

“Are you all right?” Scully asks, feeling Joy's forehead with the back of her hand. “Does your head hurt? Do you feel dizzy?”

“I am perfectly fine,” Joy says, surprisingly composed. She smiles, but there's something different about it. Something more biting. Scully removes her hand from her forehead.

“Is there anything el—?” she starts to ask, but Joy seems to have zeroed in on something else. She's staring at Scully's collarbone, her cross and her wedding ring, peeking up above the collar of her shirt.

Self-conscious, Scully starts to tuck the necklace away, but Joy reaches for it first, gesturing to her cross. “This necklace is very beautiful,” she says in a soft voice.

Scully shivers inadvertently. She vaguely remembers having a discussion with Joy about their similar necklaces, but she isn't sure whether or not Joy remembers that. She wonders if Joy's necklace was lost after the accident. “Thank you.”

“A lovely cross. And is that your wedding ring?” Joy traces the shape of the ring in the air with one finger. Scully swallows, nods. Joy looks up at her, her eyes dark as they meet. “I assume your faith in God is quite strong,” she says. “As is your faith in all other situations. That you trust your God to protect you. Am I correct?”

Scully swallows again, roughly, and looks away. “I suppose so,” she murmurs. She's uncomfortable, her spine crawling, her heart thudding. “I appreciate you talking with me like this, Joy,” she says, tucking hair behind her ear. She suddenly remembers something, a lame grab at shifting the subject. “Actually, do you think your husband would mind if I asked him some questions? I know that he knew the girl who committed suicide back in 2002—Holly Smith.” She has a sudden revelation and shifts in her position, away from Joy. “And he had the theory about the ghost being malevolent, right? The one you told us about last Halloween?”

“Yes,” Joy says, subdued. “You wish to speak to him?”

Scully's eyebrows raise. The change in Joy's demeanor, in her pattern of speech, is vaguely concerning, but she doesn't say anything about it. She's still unnerved by their earlier interactions. “Yes.”

“I will go get him.” Joy stands and starts for the door. To Scully's shame, she lets out a little exhale at her exit. She feels horrible, but Joy's shift in behavior threw her. After a nearly sleepless night, she doesn't think she can handle more tension.

A few minutes later, Ben Seers pads in, absently pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “Joy said you wanted to talk to me?” he asks. “Agent Scully, right?”

“Yes. I would like to have a word, if you don't mind.” She starts to stand, but Ben motions to the couch, and she sits back down. He sits in the chair across from her. Scully clears her throat, picking at a cuticle, feeling awkward. “I wanted… to ask about Holly Smith,” she starts, and Ben's eyes almost immediately cloud over, a familiar look of grief. This is always one of the hardest parts. “You-you were close with her before she died, right?” she continues awkwardly

 Ben laughs bitterly. “We were dating,” he says. “Is this because Jared Caruthers is going on parole this week? Or because of the Specter legend?”

Scully pushes at her cuticle. “Sort of both,” she admits uneasily. “Do… do you believe in the legend?”

Ben bites his lower lip, shifts in his chair. “Back then, I thought I did,” he admits. “It was… exciting, and mysterious, and I wanted to believe in ghosts. Hol and I, we both loved ghost stories. We did research together in our spare time, I was thinking about writing my thesis on local history, and it made sense… Joy told you about my theory, right? That the Specter is—was, whatever—demonic?” Scully nods. “That wasn't my theory, not exactly. It was Holly's. I found all the pieces, but she put them together. We kept digging further and further, to form a hypothesis; I know she was talking to Jared about it. She actually got excited when she told me that she was seeing the ghost, as if it couldn't absolutely destroy her.” Ben laughs again, rubbing his eyes wearily. “I don't know if I believe in the ghost anymore,” he says. “Fifteen, sixteen years ago, my girlfriend and I research the ghost, she starts seeing it, and then she commits suicide. A year and a half ago, my wife tells me about her classroom supposedly being haunted, and then she has a car accident and falls into a coma for a year and a half. Part of me wants to make something more of it, and part of me just wants to leave it alone. Jared tried to figure out why Holly died, if it wasn't her fault that she died, and he ended up killing his brother and sister-in-law. I may be selfish, but I don't want to look any further, you know? I don't want to risk anything else happening. I'm just grateful that Joy is okay.”

“I understand,” says Scully, because she does. She pushes at her thumbnail with her pointer finger. She tries a different approach. “Can I ask you about Jared Caruthers? I guess you must have known him pretty well in the time before he committed the murders.”

“I did.” Ben nods. “He was Holly's best friend. Since childhood. They hung out a lot, and I know they really loved each other. And to be honest, I liked him a lot, too. He was a good guy. He was absolutely devastated when Holly died. Tried to convince me that the Specter was responsible.” He rubs at his eyes again, his forehead. “I don't know why he committed those murders. At first, I didn't think he had committed those murders. I couldn't believe it; I thought he must've been framed. And now? I don't know. I hope he takes this chance on parole to turn his life around.”

“You didn't see any indications that he was going to hurt anyone?” she asks. She is trying to cover all of the bases. She still doesn't know if she believes that Jared Caruthers was possessed or not. “Any signs?”

Ben shakes his head. “I didn't. But then again, I wasn't really looking. I was grieving, and I didn't see a lot of him after I rejected his theory of the Specter's involvement.”

Scully nods. She has more questions she feels like she should ask—she thinks that Mulder would want to ask more questions—but she doesn't want to push. She understands the pain, the worry, the grief; she's seen it a thousand times, felt it a thousand times. She picks up her bag and stands. “Thank you so much for speaking to me,” she says. “You and Joy.”

Ben nods. “I hope I could help,” he says. “Although I'm still not entirely sure what it is you're investigating.”

Scully laughs quietly despite herself. “Neither do I, half the time,” she admits, and Ben smiles politely. She starts to walk off, but the sound of footsteps further in the house makes her pause. She remembers Joy's strange behavior, the sudden way she seemed to change: right in the middle of a sentence, something about long periods of time since she woke up. It's stuck in her mind, she can't let it go. She steps a bit closer to Ben's chair and says in a soft voice, “If you don't mind me asking… how has Joy seemed since she woke up?”

Ben looks surprised. “S-she's seemed fine,” he says. “Pretty healthy… maybe a little odd at times, but I figured that was to be expected, with the adjustments… Why do you ask?”

There are the footsteps again, heading towards the living room. Scully straightens up, replying, “No reason,” in an even voice, and hating the fearful tingle traveling up and down her spine. “I just wanted to check in.” You are being ridiculous, she scolds herself silently. There is nothing to be afraid of. There's nothing to be afraid of. She smiles brightly at Joy when she re-enters the room.

---

Mulder calls her en route to the library. Scully presses the Answer button and tucks it between her ear and her shoulder, answering, “Hey,” in lieu of her usual Scully. She admittedly loves the advantage of caller ID.

“Hey, Scully, it's me,” Mulder says, the same way he did twenty years ago. (Despite the caller ID.) He sounds stunningly solemn. “I just got a call from Skinner. He's got a case for us.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. It's, uh… it's a child.” His voice is grim now, almost apologetic. “The son of a local law enforcement officer in a little town called Eastwood, Connecticut. Found dead in the woods.”

Scully winces on instinct. “That's horrible,” she says.

“It is.” Mulder sighs on the other end, weary and emotional. She knows that emotion. She recognizes it as well as she did the things that Joy and Ben Seers were feeling. This is going to be hard.

She tries to change the subject. “So, why are we being called in? What's the X-File?”

“Local police are saying it's an animal attack, but the FBI thinks otherwise,” says Mulder. “Skinner wants us to take a look; he's sending the file our way. But I think the general theory is that it may be a murder, and Skinner seems to think it has the M.O. of an X-File.”

“Well, whether it's a murder or an X-File, I think it's worth looking into,” says Scully. As it much as it hurts to say it—as much as she knows it will hurt to work this case—she knows it needs to be solved. For that child, for his family. “Especially if the local police are ignoring facts.”

“I agree,” says Mulder. “And Skinner told me that no one else was available to fly out to Connecticut, anyway.”

Scully bites her lower lip and nods. She drums her fingers on the steering wheel, still tense and jittery. “When do we leave?”

“In a couple hours. There's a flight at one. I think, if you're up for it, we could probably take a look at the crime scene at maybe examine the body today. I'm headed back to the hotel to pack up.”

“I'll meet you there,” she says. “I'm on my way back from meeting with Joy Seers.”

“Okay,” Mulder says. “Oh, how was Joy doing? Did she remember anything?”

“She did,” Scully says. “It's a long story, I'll fill you in.”

“Okay. I'll see you in a few.”

“See you in a few,” she says, and he hangs up.

She exhales deeply, dropping her phone in the passenger seat. She's tired. She's very tired. And she knows this case is going to be incredibly hard. She's been thinking of her son frequently for years now, and almost constantly since December, and she knows that this case is probably going to just make it harder. Operating on almost no sleep and a fearful demeanor won't help, either. She's going to buy a cup of coffee at the airport and possibly try to nap on the plane.

Scully flips on her turn signal as she prepares to change lanes. Her eyes shift up absently to her mirror and note the car behind her. And then land directly on the dark, humanoid shape in the backseat.

Scully screams, shrill and fearful like a child, and slams down on the brake. The car screeches to a stop abruptly; a horn honks longly and indignantly behind her. She looks over her shoulder at the backseat, and then back at the rearview mirror. There's nothing there.

Her heart is thudding too hard against her ribs, she's breathing too rapidly. A tear wells in her eye, and she frustratedly wipes it away. Grits her teeth, takes a deep breath, and takes her foot off the brake. There's nothing to be afraid of, she tells herself. There's nothing to afraid of.

But the more she thinks it, the more it doesn't sound true.

---

After school, Ryan's doing homework at the kitchen table, trying his best to concentrate on that and not worry about his aunt at work, or wonder why he hasn't heard from Agents Mulder and Scully yet, when the doorbell rings.

Ryan clambers to his feet immediately and heads for the door, assuming it must be the FBI agents. But when he opens the door, he finds a kid standing there with rumpled hair and a Spiderman sweatshirt. It takes a few seconds, but he finally recognizes him: it's Robbie O'Connell, much taller than Ryan remembers. (He hasn't seen very much of the kid since the fire, for obvious reasons; the sheriff was pretty amicable about the whole thing at the time, and he knows that Annie is still friends with Bonnie O'Connell, but it's not like they're getting invited to barbecues anymore. And certainly, there are no more offers to babysit.)

“Rob,” Ryan says with shock. “What… what are you doing here?”

“Mom and Dad told me not to come,” Robbie says, rocking back and forth on his heels. Ryan raises his eyebrows at the kid, and he continues. “But I wanted to come. I didn't know who else would know what to do.” The kid looks up at Ryan, almost shyly. “And I don't think you set that fire to hurt Dad. You wouldn't do that.”

“Oh,” Ryan says awkwardly. “Um, thanks, kid.” Robbie is still staring at him with those little-kid eyes, so Ryan adds, “W-what's going on?”

“I'm seeing the ghost again,” Robbie says in a rush, bouncing up and down on his feet, fiddling with the hem of his sweatshirt. Ryan's eyes widen instinctively; in the back of his head, he thinks distantly: Oh, shit.

Robbie's still talking, nearly rambling. “I've seen it four times since Christmas, Ryan, and I'm really, really scared,” he says. “The last time that happened, my dog ran away, and my dad and my Uncle Kenny almost died. I don't want that to happen again!” His lip trembles like he is going to cry.

“Hey, hey, buddy.” Ryan leans forward and pats the kid's shoulder. He's never been great with kids—marked by both the fact that everyone in town thinks he's a criminal, and by the fact that he's never really been around them, anyways—but he'd always felt pretty okay with Robbie. He pats Robbie's shoulder, trying his best to be reassuring. “It's going to be okay,” he says, and hopes desperately that it's not a lie.

“D-do you know what to do to stop it?” Robbie asks softly.

Ryan meets the kid's eyes, and tries his best to look serious. To convey seriousness and comfort with one look. “I'm working on it, Rob,” he says. “I promise you, I'm working on it.”

He knows what Robbie is fearing. He's been seeing the ghost, too, and it's been more frequently than normal, which is saying something. He's worried about what it could do to his family. Jared is going on parole in a couple of days, and now Robbie is seeing the ghost again, and it all feels too convenient. His house is safe—he thinks, he hasn't seen the ghost inside the house since last December, but he can't really know for sure, can he? He's scared, too. He's scared, too.

Robbie sniffles, dragging the back of his wrist across his nose like it's running. And Ryan suddenly remembers something: Robbie didn't used to be scared of the ghost. Robbie used to think it was cool. Robbie used to want to see the ghost. “Hey, Robbie?” he asks tentatively. “What happened? Last I remember, you used to like the ghost. You thought it was really cool.”

Robbie looks up at him, his eyes huge. “The ghost always shows up before bad stuff happens, but he never tells you what to do about it,” he says—incidentally the same case Ryan has been making for years, but he lets it slide. Having just one more person believe him about the ghost being evil feels like a victory.

And—” Robbie continues pointedly before pausing, licking his lower lip thoughtfully. “You remember how I used to feel when I saw the ghost? Real good, like it was an angel?” he asks, and Ryan nods. “Well, it doesn't feel like that for me anymore. It feels bad. It feels scary.”

It'd never felt that way for Ryan. He's been seeing the ghost since he was little, and it has never once felt good.

---

Ryan sends Robbie home, mostly because he hardly wants to be on the O'Connells's bad side. Before the kid leaves, he promises he's going to do everything he can to help him. “You remember those FBI agents who came to town when your dog was missing? The ones you called Men in Black?” he asks, and Robbie nods. “I called them,” Ryan says, feeling almost proud of himself. “They're going to help. They're going to try to get rid of it.”

But that isn't exactly true, he finds out a few minutes later. He calls Agent Mulder from the number he saved into his phone last year, to let him know that Robbie saw the ghost, and also to see if they've made any progress. But Agent Mulder doesn't pick up immediately. And when he finally does, it's with apologies. Apparently they've been called out of town to Connecticut. Some case that apparently takes priority over this one. “I'm sorry, Ryan,” he says, “but we were in such a hurry to get out of town, I forgot to get in touch with you…”

Anger rises in Ryan's throat—sudden, like bile—and he blurts, “That's bullshit!” Agent Mulder tries to say something on the other end, but Ryan keeps going, plunging like a freight train. “You said you'd try to help me. You said you'd do your best!”

“We will do our best, Ryan,” Agent Mulder says, his voice annoyingly patient. “We want to help you. These orders to work this case are coming from above us, and it's more or less urgent… it's a murder investigation. It's more of an actual investigation in general… We couldn't justify staying in Willoughby over this case.”

Ryan works his jaw back and forth, grits his teeth until his bones ache. “That's bullshit,” he mutters, quieter. It does make sense, he guesses, but at the same time, it doesn't. Why would they come here if it wasn't a priority? What will he be able to do if he doesn't have any help from them? The local police won't be any help—they’ll just laugh at him and tell him the Specter isn't dangerous—and he can't do it by himself. He can't do it by himself.

“Ryan, I'm sorry,” Agent Mulder says, and he does sound almost genuinely sorry. Almost. “There wasn't anything that could be done… How about this, okay? If anything happens… if anyone is in danger, or gets threatened, if anyone gets hurt… call me and Agent Scully and I will be there as soon as we can.”

Ryan shuts his eyes with frustration. He feels like a little kid, the way this guy is talking to him. It infuriates him to no end, the promise of help just to have that hope taken away. “Yeah, whatever,” he mumbles angrily, kicking a leg of the table. “Whatever. See you later, I guess.”

“Wait, wait,” says Agent Mulder before Ryan can yank the phone away from his ear. “What did you call to tell me about? What happened?”

Ryan thinks of Robbie, weepy and frightened on his porch. He thinks of the ghost outside his door, Annie's or Mrs. Seers's blank eyes, the scissors raised in the air. He thinks of the fact that they're pretty far away, and that they didn't seem to think they could help anyway. Especially Agent Scully.

“Nothing,” he snaps. “Good luck on your murder case, I guess.”

“Ryan—” Agent Mulder starts, but Ryan has already hung up. He drops the phone on the table and drops his face into his hands.

---

That night, Ryan can't sleep. Can't relax, can't stop thinking. He gets up and checks the salt lines along his windows, a habit he's developed in the weeks since the banishing incident. He replaces them weekly, all over the house, and frequently sages. Annie has stopped questioning it. She doesn't argue, but Ryan can tell she doesn't exactly approve. He doesn't know if she believes in the ghost, the danger; he doesn't care.

Ryan rechecks the salt line and notes, satisfied, that the line is still there, unbroken. He straightens up, looking out into the dark night as he reaches for the shade, and then he freezes. His eyes land on a hulking figure down by the tree in the backyard. A small light flicks to life, almost like a lantern.

Ryan clenches his jaw to keep from huffing in disgust and yanks the shade down, hiding the shape from view. He checks the line one more time: still unbroken.

He tries to scoff it off, tries to act like it's no big deal. But he can't stop shivering, as if freezing, as he climbs into bed. His hands won't stop shaking.

---

march, 2018

A few days later, Ryan gets a call from Jared, who is officially out on parole. They've more or less made up since their argument in December, although Ryan senses that Jared is still upset that he tried to banish the ghost, and he is still hurt that Jared scolded him for trying to protect himself. But whatever the case, Ryan has been trying to keep up with the parole process. He's scared to death about what's going to happen now that Jared is out. It has been something of an awkward process with his aunt's resentment for her brother, but he's somewhat been making it work.

“I just wanted to check in,” Jared says when he calls. “An old friend from in here who got out a few years ago agreed to let me stay with him; he lives in Winchester.” (The next town over from Willoughby.) “He's just picked me up, we're headed over now. I just wanted to tell you that you're welcome whenever—”

“No, no, no,” Ryan interrupts, waving his hands in the air frantically like he can erase the words. “No, you can't go there, Uncle Jared. You gotta come here. You gotta come straight here.”

There's a moment of empty silence on the other end, and then a nervous laugh on Jared's part. “Ryan, I-I don't know that that's a good idea,” he says. “Your aunt, she… she doesn't want to see me.”

Almost as if on cue, Annie walks into the room and sees him on the phone. Her eyes narrow, as if she's zeroing in, and she mouths, Is that Jared? Ryan nods impatiently, turning in his side so he doesn't have to awkwardly stare at her. “It doesn't matter. You've gotta come anyway. It's the only safe place; I've made it safe. The Specter can't hurt you if you're in the house.”

Ryan can sense Annie's discomfort behind hm. “Ry—” she protests briefly, but he ignores her. “Please,” he says, his voice husky. Ever since the FBI agents left town, he's been on edge. Worrying about himself, his friends, his family. Robbie O'Connell and his family. He can't stand worrying anymore. “Please come here.”

Jared laughs again, uneasy. “Oh, Ryan, I don't know…”

“Come here. Straight here.” He stabs the tabletop with his finger. “Aunt Annie is fine with it.”

“I have a hard time believing that.”

“She is, I swear.” Ryan turns in his chair to face his aunt again, and throws her a pleading look. She looks pissed, her arms crossed, but she's not shaking her head. She leaves a sigh, rolling her eyes, and shrugs. “It's fine,” he insists into the phone—it’s not entirely a lie. “Seriously. Please come here. W-we need to figure out what to do about this. We need to figure out how to stop it.”

Jared sighs, almost the same way as Annie did. “Fine. Fine, fine, fine. I'll come, but not permanently, okay? This isn't going to be easy, Ryan.”

“ I know. I know. Just please come here, okay? It'll be fine,” he says, irritated. “Be careful.”

“I will,” Jared says with a sigh. “Ryan, I don't want to doubt you… but are you sure it's this dangerous right now? You've been seeing the ghost for years, right? Why is right now so important, after everything that's happened over the past sixteen years?”

Ryan sighs, rubbing his forehead with his palm. He thinks of Robbie seeing the ghost, of seeing the ghost outside his window that night. That's not the first time it's happened, and that's not the last time, either; he's seen it several times since. It all coincides: Robbie seeing the ghost, him seeing the ghost, Mrs. Seers being possessed, Jared getting out of prison… He knows what people are saying around town. They're saying that Jared is coming back to kill him and take his final revenge, or that he's coming back to team up with him, and the Caruthers will go on a killing spree around town. It's the stupidest thing he's ever heard, but he's probably not doing a very good job of steering clear of those rumors, asking Jared to come here. But he doesn't care. He just wants to keep the people he loves safe, and with those FBI agents out of town, he doesn't know how else to do that. “It just is,” he says. “Trust me, okay? Let's not have history repeat itself.”

Jared chuckles humorlessly, bitterly. “That's a low blow, kid,” he says. “I'll be there in about an hour, okay?”

“Okay,” Ryan says, pinching the bridge of his nose between two fingers. “Okay, thank you. Thank you. I'll see you then.”

When he hangs up, he looks up to find Annie staring at him, eyebrows raised. “You know, kid,” she says, “I figured you'd want me to spend some time with my brother after he got out. I just didn't think it would be so soon.”

Ryan sighs heavily. “I'm sorry, Aunt Annie. I just…”

“It's not safe anywhere else but here?” she asks incredulously. “What the hell does that mean, Ryan? Are you still scared of the Specter?”

“It's a long story, okay?” he replies, nearly whining. “Can you just… trust me? Can you trust me about this? I'm doing all of this to keep us safe.”

Annie shuts her eyes with frustration, shaking her head. “I just don't get it,” she says. “I want to support you, Ryan… I want you to do what you need to do to get over what happened… but I just don't understand how you could feel safe around that man, after what happened. After what he did to your parents.” She groans, rubbing her temples as if she has a headache, and shakes her head as if to erase the words. “I'm sorry, I know I shouldn't say those things to you, but… I know something's going on. It's been going on for years. And I've never completely understood it, but… can you explain it to me? Can you try?”

Ryan's not looking at his aunt directly anymore. He's looking over her shoulder, through the kitchen window. By that same tree in the backyard is the familiar form of the Specter, sans lantern. He's turned away so Ryan can't make out his face but it's him, he'd recognize him anywhere. And then as Ryan blinks, he's gone. As if he was never there.

“I'd tell you…” Ryan says in a tremulous voice. “But… I just don't think you'd believe me.”