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eighteen.

march, 2018

In Eastwood, Connecticut, there are witches and hellhounds and small-town fury. And dead children. That is the hardest part. Mulder and Scully are something of an audience to the crumbling of this town, and specifically of two families, two police officers and their wives and children. A little girl named Emily that they couldn't save. They can't get out of town fast enough.

The pleasant bickering—gallows humor, the back and forth they've been good at for years—from the crime scene fades away the longer they drive in the dark. They end up at a hotel near the airport, simply because neither of them wants to fly back tonight. There are two beds in their room; they use one, climbing in together after showering. Mulder wraps an arm around Scully's shoulders, and she lets her cheek fall to his chest. “You okay?” he murmurs to her scalp.

She chuckles humorlessly and shakes her head. “Not really.” She can't admit that she's been seeing or hallucinating (or whatever) the Willoughby Specter, but she'll admit this, that she's not okay. It's a step, she thinks. “That was a… difficult case,” she adds softly.

“I know.” He kisses her hair. “Cases like that are always hard.”

“Those little kids…” she croaks, curling a hand around the hem of his t-shirt. She can still hear that woman screaming her daughter's name. Emily. She shuts her eyes as if it could protect her from the image. It's still so hard sometimes, remembering everyone she has lost. Her daughter. Her son, lying on a morgue table just like Andrew Eggers; that tiny shape under a sheet.

“I know, honey,” Mulder says, and his voice breaks. “I'm sorry. I should've told Skinner we couldn't take it.”

She sniffles, rubbing her chin against his shoulder. “We knew what we were getting into when we took the case. I just wish we could've done something to stop it,” she says, lifting a hand to stroke his hair. “Besides, what would our excuse have been? I'm not sure we could've justified staying in Willoughby, no matter how upset Ryan was.”

“Hmm.” He thumbs her cheekbone, underneath her eye. “This case kind of reminded me of Willoughby, you know,” he says. “Albeit a more extreme version, of course… Small town. Prejudiced, superstitious townfolk. The gates of hell.”

“Where are the gates of hell involved in Willoughby?”

He nudges her. “Remember Joy's story about the potential origin of the Specter? The man who supposedly worshipped the devil and was found frozen on a mountain?”

“Fire and ice,” Scully says dryly, leaning her forehead into his neck. “The difference is that no one has died in conjunction to this case since 2002.”

“That we know of,” he points out.

“That's not helpful,” she chides, and he squeezes her close. “Do you think that everything is okay in Willoughby, Mulder?” she adds after a few minutes. “Ryan sounded pretty upset on the phone.” She's remembering the call that Mulder had gotten a few days ago, after they'd landed in Connecticut.

“I don't know,” says Mulder thoughtfully. “Ryan didn't seem very willing to offer up information, but I told him to call me if anything came up, or if it got dangerous. And I haven't heard from him, so…” He tucks the blankets around them, strokes a gentle finger down her jaw. “We'll need to meet with Skinner back in DC tomorrow, of course, but we could head back to Willoughby after we're finished with this case,” he adds. “What do you think?”

“We could do that,” Scully says hesitatingly, although she's not sure. She's been a bit apprehensive about the whole thing for months now, and their last visit only made things worse, what with the laptop in the hotel room and whatever it was she saw in the rearview mirror. The things that Joy Seers said to her, about faith and God; it's silly that it should bother her, but it does. Especially if they really were at the gates of hell tonight. It feels like a pattern now, like some sort of dark force is following her, and it somehow feels different from every case that she and Mulder took back in the day. It shouldn't, but it does.

Mulder is still talking. “It seems like a good idea to me,” he says, running his fingernails over Scully's scalp until she shivers. “I think whatever happened in that hotel room, coupled with Ryan's fear, is a good sign that something bad is happening in Willoughby. And I don't want to let it go too far. I don't want it to end up like—” He breaks off mid-sentence, and she knows that he's thinking of the case they just closed, of their son, out there on the run somewhere. It's hard not to; she sees their son in almost every case with a child, the same way she sees Emily. Mulder told her the other night that he'd told Anna Strong that he had a son the other day; I haven't told anyone I have a son in sixteen years, he'd said, his voice thick, and she'd wrapped her arms around him. William— Jackson —has weighed heavily on their minds ever since they found him, and therefore, so do cases like the one in Eastwood (the same way they always have, but a little harder now), and so does the case in Willoughby.

“I know,” she says. She lifts her head to kiss his cheek; his eyes are half-shut, like it hurts. She finds his hand, his callused palm, with hers and holds tightly. He hums low, brief thanks in his throat. “Oh, Mulder,” she murmurs, squeezing his fingers, “how the hell do you want to stop whatever's happening in Willoughby? I don't know if there's anything we can do.”

“Assuming it is, in fact, a ghost…” he says in a teasing tone that she knows is reference to the fact that she doesn't believe in it (or that he thinks she doesn't believe in it). He lets out a dry chuckle; gallows humor again. “Maybe the Grimoire of the Eastwood Witch could help us.”

She nudges him hard in the side, shaking her head. She keeps seeing Anna Strong go up in flames. She's thinking about what Mulder said at the crime scene: There is no getting out of this town, Scully. Not these days. She's thinking about Jared's story at the prison a couple of months ago, that he and his brother and sister-in-law were trying to exorcise the ghost when they were murdered.

She doesn't want to go back to Willoughby. She doesn't know if she believes in the ghost, and she's too afraid to find out. Anna Strong was trying to finish what she started, Holly Smith and Ben Seers were trying to prove that the alleged ghost was not malevolent, Marion and Jared Caruthers were trying to get rid of it for vengeance and protection. And look what happened to them. She doesn't know what she believes, she's afraid to believe (just like she told Mulder all those years ago), and she's afraid to find out what will happen to her and Mulder if they keep trying to get rid of it. He says he's seen it, too. She wants, desperately, to be selfish.

But if she is selfish, if they don't go back, she doesn't know what will happen to Ryan Caruthers. And she doesn't know how they can help, or if they can help, but she won't leave that kid behind to whatever it is that is tormenting him because she is selfish. She won't.

She has to tell Mulder, she decides. It's only fair. She doesn't know what she's even telling him, she's still halfway trying to rationalize the whole thing (what if Ryan Caruthers is making this whole thing up to protect his uncle, what if he's given Mulder and Scully something to make them hallucinate, drugged them somehow, didn't she see the ghost for the first time after they first met Ryan?), but she still has to tell him. She has to be honest, no matter how much it scares her; she needs to make sure he knows. She barely been knows how to begin, how to explain why she hasn't told him already—will he be angry that she hasn't told him already and accuse her of working against him, the way he had a long time ago? No, she doesn't think he would do that now, but it's hard to tell; she doesn't know why she hasn't told him already, she should've told him two years ago.

She starts gingerly, tugging gently at the tail of his shirt. “Mulder,” she whispers, “do you really believe in this? In… in the Willoughby Specter?”

It sounds so silly, coming out of her mouth, but she is ready for a quick confirmation, because of course he believes, he's said so more than once. And then they can move on, and she can tell him what she thinks she's seen. But there is no immediate answer. Only silence in response, followed by a grumbly snore.

Scully lifts her head and sees that Mulder, once an incorrigible insomniac, has fallen asleep.

---

Annie Caruthers has not seen her older brothers in sixteen years.

It's stupid, but sometimes she feels like she lost Jared when she lost Ian. Like she's an only child now. She hasn't seen Jared in person since the trial, and she could barely even look at him then. (She once thought he was innocent. She once thought they'd prove him innocent, and she'd have at least one brother. But he barely even tried to defend himself. The evidence was all there, and he practically admitted to it, and that was it. And she hasn't wanted to see him since.) She hasn't seen her brothers since 2002, and in reference to Jared, she would be completely fine with never seeing him again. But here she is, waiting for her big brother who murdered her other big brother to come home. The one thing she swore she'd never do, and something she can't not do, or she risks alienating her nephew further. God, her family is fucked up.

Annie and Ryan are waiting in the living room. Just waiting—the lack of activity is strange, and the tension in the air is palpable. Ryan is pacing—around the rug, in front of the stairs, in front of the door, where the salt line sits untouched. (He's been watching her closely ever since they got back from the hospital in December, and he flipped out the first time she tried to clean it up, so she hasn't touched it since. Easier to just let him sprinkle salt in front of the doors; maybe it'll work, will bring them some good luck.) Annie sits on the couch, fidgeting, her knee bouncing nervously. It's a habit she's carried since childhood; it used to drive her mother insane. ( Stop fidgeting, she'd say. Relax. ) They're both watching the door, their eyes flitting back and forth; Ryan keeps craning his neck to see the driveway. He's as anxious as she is.

Annie chews her lower lip, picking at a thread on a throw pillow. “Did he say when he'd be here?” she asks quietly, resisting the urge to tell him to call Jared and order him not to come.

Ryan scratches at the back of his neck. “No. I think he said an old friend had picked him up, and he was headed back to Winchester with him. Prison's not too far away.”

“I know,” Annie says quietly. She's driven Ryan that way many times. (Ryan used to try to get her to go talk to Jared with him. He really wants to talk to you, he said. He misses you .)

Ryan turns to face her, bouncing up and down on his feet. “Aunt Annie,” he starts in a faltering voice, “I'm really sorry that… I mean, I didn't want things to…”

The doorbell rings before he can finish.

Ryan heads for the door, casting a nervous, apologetic look over his shoulder. A silent plea for her just to go with this. Annie sighs and gets to her feet reluctantly. She hates awkward situations like this.

Ryan opens the door and motions him in. The man who comes into the room makes Annie's breath catch involuntarily in her throat. Her big brother. The last time she saw him, he was unshaved and messy in a courtroom, tangled hair and bloodshot eyes. Now, he's surprisingly neat, dressed in plain clothes, more muscle than she remembers. He's grown a beard, and he seems taller, which is impossible, but that's just how it seems. Annie looks at the ground, a lump in her throat.

“Hey, Ryan,” Jared says, shaking Ryan's hand awkwardly. Ryan greets him, shifting just as awkwardly. Annie isn't listening. She's still looking down at the rug, picking out the patterns with her eyes. She wants to be about anywhere else right now.

And then she hears him speak to her, in a strained, nervous voice. “Hi, Annie.”

Annie swallows and looks up. Tries to mute the combination of anger and affection that swirls up when she looks at him. He killed our brother, she thinks involuntarily, and gulps. “Hi, Jared,” she mumbles.

Jared gulps, too; she can see his Adam's apple bobbing. “I-I hope it's not overstepping to say that… I've really missed you,” he says. He offers Annie a wobbly smile.

Ryan looks between them hopefully, his eyes wide like a child of divorce who has watched The Parent Trap one too many times.

Annie forces a smile. It feels too fake and plastic, too wide. She wants to say, It is overstepping, but she doesn't.

---

The day after the Eastwood case, Mulder and Scully spend most of the day clearing up what happened, after their arrival back in DC. The agents who picked up the case before handing it off to them aren't too happy with the lack of a clear perpetrator in the deaths, but a phone call from Officer Wentworth (who essentially served as Mulder and Scully's ally in the whole situation) confirms that there is no other clear explanation, and people seem to just want to lay the whole thing to rest. The report that Mulder wrote on the flight home is met with some disapproval, but that's more or less what they're used to.

By the time they finally get out of their meeting, Mulder has several missed calls from an unfamiliar number, but he recognizes the area code. “These calls are from Willoughby,” he says, showing Scully the screen of his phone as she unlocks the office. “And it doesn't look like they're from Ryan.”

Her eyebrows raise. “Do you think something happened?” she asks.

“I don't know,” Mulder says as they enter. He presses the return call button and tucks the phone under his cheek as he sits across from Scully as the desk.

It rings only a few times before a frantic man answers on the other end. “This is Deputy Jacobs from the Willoughby Police Department. Agent Mulder, is that you?” he says in a rush.

Mulder blinks in surprise. “Yes, this is Agent Mulder,” he says. “I was returning your phone calls.”

“Are you in Willoughby? Mike thought he saw you and Agent Scully at the Chinese place last weekend.”

“Um, we were in Willoughby, by request of Ryan Caruthers—he was spooked about the Willoughby Specter, you know… but we got called out of town on a case a few days ago. Is something wrong, Deputy?” Across the desk, Scully raises her eyebrows questioningly, and he shrugs.

On the other end, Jacobs takes a tremulous breath, lets out a sigh. “You remember the sheriff's son, Robbie?” he asks. “He's missing. He's been missing for a couple hours.”

Mulder freezes, his stomach thunking at the deputy's words. “R-Robbie's missing?” he repeats, putting the phone on speaker and setting it down between them. Scully's eyes widen in panic. “What happened?”

“He was supposed to walk back home from a friend's house—it’s only about a block, but Bonnie O'Connell says he never showed up, and the friend's mother says he definitely left. Joe's out looking for him, but we're not entirely sure…” Deputy Jacobs's voice breaks. Scully has gone sheet-white, leaning closer to the phone and listening intently. “I-it's probably nothing,” he says thickly. “But Robbie told his parents that he'd been seeing the ghost lately, and I thought that might…” He breaks off, taking a few shaky breaths.

Scully clears her throat and says, “Deputy Jacobs, we can be in Willoughby in ninety minutes if we leave right now.” Her voice is determined, steely and fearful at the same time.

Jacobs clears his throat. “Actually, I was hoping to ask you another favor,” he says. “We have most of the force out looking for Robbie, the general consensus is that he probably wondered off… but there was something that Bonnie—Robbie’s mom—was worried about. Today is the day that Jared Caruthers got out on parole.”

Mulder swallows dryly; his throat is stunningly tight. This feels like Eastwood all over again; except this time, they may be able to do something. “And you think that he could be involved?” he asks. It's hard to reconcile that with the man they met in the prison a few months ago, but it's certainly possible.

“I don't know. But that seemed to be a theory of Joe's. And considering Jared Caruthers's connection to… to t-the Specter, and to Ryan… I just thought…” Deputy Jacobs trails off. He sounds like he is in tears.

“You want us to find Jared Caruthers and see if he's responsible,” Scully supplies.

“Yes,” Kenny says gratefully. “Just to check. Joe got in contact with the prison to see if Jared was coming back here, and they said he was living in the next town over, in Winchester. I have an address.” He rattles it off, and Scully scribbles it down on a Post-It note. Her eyes are bright and unwavering, and she looks like she's somewhere between crying and ready to hurt someone. And afraid, Mulder realizes. It's small, and it's muted, but she is afraid—and not the I'm-scared-I-won't-be-able-to-save-this-child afraid. A different kind of fear, somehow. He covers her hand with his on the desk.

“We'll go and check in on Jared Caruthers,” he says into the phone. “And we'll come to Willoughby and help out after we're done. Give me or Scully a call if there are any changes, okay?”

“Sure, sure,” says Deputy Jacobs, sounding a little distracted. “We… we're hoping it's not too serious, of course… That kid…” He breaks off mid-sentence, clears his throat. “I-I can't thank you enough for your help.”

“Of course,” Mulder says, but he's inadvertently thinking about what he told the police in Eastwood when they asked what the FBI were doing there: The FBI has jurisdiction over the killing of the immediate family of a law enforcement officer. He's hoping—he’s praying —that this won't be the case here. He doesn't think he could stand being unable to save someone else. He never should've left Willoughby in the first place, never should've seen this case as easily dismissable; if he'd stayed, maybe he could've figured out some way to help Ryan and exorcise this ghost, and this never would've happened. Or maybe—he hopes—that the kid has just wandered off, and he's perfectly fine, and there's no connection. But he has a feeling that it's not.

As if sensing that he's distressed, Scully squeezes his fingers. He rubs one finger over her knuckles and says into the phone, “Deputy Jacobs, did you say that Robbie had been seeing the ghost?”

“Yeah, he has been.”

“Has he said anything to you about it?” Mulder asks. “Anything noteworthy?”

Scully meets his eyes across the desk. He'd expected her to have some sort of disapproval, some sort of chiding, but instead, she just looks spooked.

“Uh, yeah,” says Jacobs. “He said that… he said that it felt different this time. That before, he'd felt safe, but he didn't anymore. He felt scared when he saw it this time.”

It's too much like what Ryan said to them earlier in the week. Mulder sighs, rubs a hand over his face, pressing his fingers into his forehead. “We'll be there as soon as possible,” he says into the phone.

---

Annie Caruthers is a good cook. It's been more or less a learning process—Ryan remembers, as a little kid, back when they were still living with his grandparents, a lot of cooking lessons on behalf of his grandma, and eating a lot of chicken nuggets and mac-and-cheese (both because it was easy and because that's what he enjoyed at the time)—but she's improved considerably since the beginning. But it's clear that she hasn't put a lot of effort into this dinner. She makes two frozen pizzas—a dinner that Ryan wouldn't usually complain about, but he kind of expected something a little fancier for this dinner. But Jared doesn't protest. “I've been living on prison food for sixteen years,” he jokes, grinning awkwardly at them. Only Ryan smiles back.

The dinner mostly goes like that. Jared stops trying to make conversation after a couple minutes and focuses on picking at his pizza. Annie stays silent, absorbed in her plate and glass of Coke. So it's mostly left to Ryan to make conversation. Which isn't something that he's very good of (at holidays, most of the time his family has no trouble finding subjects to discuss endlessly, and he can just fade into the background), but he makes a good effort. He tells Jared funny family stories in an attempt to lighten the mood, but it seems like it just brings back bad memories. (Jared tries to smile and mostly fails, and Annie avoids everyone's eyes and wipes her own a few times.) Ryan offers up a few stories about school—the ones that don't involve near suspension or juvenile delinquency—and those seem to go over a bit better, but not by much. He asks Jared a couple questions about how he's been doing, but those just seem to piss Annie off more. He realized that he's never really had a conversation with Uncle Jared outside of discussing the ghost or his parents.

Ryan tries one last desperate bid to change the subject. “So, Uncle Jared, have you talked to Grandma and Grandpa today?” he asks. His grandparents live in Oregon, and he knows they went years without talking to Jared, but they started to tentatively rebuild their relationship with him shortly before Ryan did; they were part of the reason that he got up the courage to ask to go and see Jared.

“I talked to them a couple days ago, actually. I think Mom wanted to try and have dinner… try and reconnect… the next time they come into town,” says Jared, his mouth twisted in an expression somewhere between a smile and a grimace.

At that, Annie scoffs, before either of them can say anything else. “Unbelievable,” she mutters under her breath.

Ryan turns to her incredulously; she is rolling her eyes. Jared says, uncertainly, “Annie, I'm sorry…”

“Sorry for what?” she snaps. “Sorry you killed our brother?”

“Aunt Annie!” Ryan snaps. Jared leans his forehead hard into his palm, his eyes screwed shut.

“Ryan, I'm sorry, but I can't do this, okay? I can't do this!” Annie stands, waving an angry hand in Jared's direction. “I can't just sit here with him and pretend that everything is okay! H-he killed my brother,” she says, and her voice cracks, her face white.

Jared rubs at his forehead hard, standing himself. “I knew that this was a bad idea,” he mutters, wiping his eyes, shaking his head. “I-I should go.”

“I think you should,” Annie says coldly.

Ice water seems to shoot through Ryan's veins, and he stumbles to his feet. “You can't go,” he insists, grabbing at Jared's sleeve. “You can't! It's too dangerous.”

“Ryan, I can't stay here,” Jared says in a soft voice. “It's going to be okay, though. Nothing bad is going to happen tonight…”

“No,” Ryan says in a low, furious voice. “No, you're wrong. This fucking ghost… it hurt my parents, and it hurt me, and it's tried to hurt Aunt Annie… it's not going to stop until it's finished the job, and it's going to try tonight.” His voice rises in a while; to his disgust, he can feel tears welling up, his eyes and nose stinging. He feels like a child throwing a tantrum.

Jared seems to be searching for words, a combination of guilt and distress visible on his face. Annie, however, is staring at them both in disbelief. “Jesus Christ, Jared,” she breathes. “What the hell have you been telling him? H-have you been telling him that you aren't responsible for what happened to Ian and Marion? That a ghost is? What the fuck ? No wonder he's been having nightmares!”

“Annie,” Jared says with a sigh, “it's not what you think.”

“How the hell is it not what I think?” she snaps, nearly shouting. “He gets into trouble, he burns down a building, h-he breaks his ankle doing some banishment spell for a ghost he's been seeing all his life, and you think that doesn't have something to do with you? You can pin it all on some fucking ghost? The fucking Willoughby Specter?”

Ryan is speechless, hurt beyond words. Jared is pale and horrified, his eyes wide. He says softly, “You're right, Annie. It has everything to do with me. Just not in the way that you think.”

He turns towards Ryan, reaching out to clap him on the shoulder. “I'm going to leave, okay? I'm going to call my friend to come and get me. It's going to be fine.”

There are furious, hurt things that Ryan wants to say, but somehow, he can't get the words out. He nods, numb. Jared claps his shoulder again before turning and offering an apology to Annie. She says nothing in return.

When he's gone, the door slamming behind him, there's something of a tense silence in his wake. Ryan covers his face with his hands. He thought that they'd be safe if they just stayed here, but he should've fucking known it wouldn't work. He should've expected something like this.

“Ry, I'm sorry, but…” Annie starts.

He lowers his palms and shoots her an indignant, searing look. “Is that really what you think of me? That I'm fucked up because of Uncle Jared? Have you ever believed me about the Specter?”

Annie's mouth opens, closes. She starts uneasily: “Ryan, it's not that I don't believe you…”

“Yeah, got it,” Ryan snaps.

He moves, automatically, to the coat hook by the door, and grabs his coat. Then he yanks the door open. “Ryan, where are you going?” Annie calls, her voice tight and nervous, and maybe a little angry.

“Out!” Ryan shouts in response, letting the door slam behind him.

He runs down the driveway and past Jared, who is standing at the curb, assumedly waiting for his ride. He shouts a similar question of Ryan's whereabouts as Ryan passes.

“I need to check on someone!” Ryan shouts in response. He might as well give the truth to Jared—they’re more or less in this together, or so he thought. He's honestly not sure anymore.

Ryan keeps running, taking the familiar turns, going up familiar streets. He's going to check on the one person who has mentioned the ghost recently who isn't possessed. That seems to be the only responsible thing left to do.

The O'Connells's house is only a few blocks away, so Ryan makes it there in a pretty decent amount of time. He's breathing too hard, cold sweat running down his back; he sags forward, his hands pressing into the bark of the big tree in the front yard. He remembers this tree from babysitting—Robbie used to love to try and climb it. He shuts his eyes, his face wet, and takes a deep breath. He stands and stretches, walks up the front walkway and rings the doorbell.

Almost instantly, the door is being pulled open. Mrs. O'Connell is on the other side, and her expression is almost eager until she sees who it is; it immediately falls. “Ryan,” she mutters, in about the coldest tone he's ever heard from her; she's always been a lot nicer to him compared to her husband. “What are you doing here?”

“Hi, Mrs. O'Connell,” Ryan says, trying his best to sound polite, and not panicked. “I wanted to, uh, drop in and say hi to Robbie. Is he here?”

Mrs. O'Connell laughs harshly, her mouth around in a grim frown. “Unbelievable,” she says vaguely, as if talking to no one. “No, he's not here. He's been missing since sometime this afternoon.”

Ryan's stomach drops out from under him, his knees going weak. “He's missing?” he stammers. “W-what happened?”

“We don't know. My husband is out looking for him.” Mrs. O'Connell crosses her arms, nearly glaring at Ryan. “You know, this whole thing seems to coincide pretty conveniently with Robbie's claims of seeing the Willoughby Specter. A story I seem to remember you getting him interested in.”

Ryan's stomach twists again; he sways a little in place. “Y-you're blaming me for this?” he stammers. It's not an entirely off-base assumption—the Specter probably wouldn't be targeting Robbie and his family if it weren't for him—but the accusation still floors him.

Mrs. O'Connell sighs, rubbing her temples. “Look, Ryan, I don't know what's happening here, but—” Her voice breaks. “Y-you let our dog out, you almost killed my husband, and now my son goes missing after getting scared of a ghost you told him about? It's not a coincidence. It can't be.”

Ryan feels faint. He clutches the door harder. “I-I didn't let out your dog,” he whispers.

It's true. It's the one thing he didn't do in this whole giant mess: he didn't go anywhere near the damn dog. His suspicion is that the Specter possessed Robbie to let the dog out, just based on what he heard Robbie and Sheriff O'Connell had said about that night. But it wasn't him. Everything else was his fault, but not that.

Mrs. O'Connell's face falls further. Crumples. She looks like she's on the verge of tears. She says softly, “I'm sorry, Ryan. But I think you should go.”

She starts to close the door, but Ryan holds onto it, holds it open. “I-I really want you to find Robbie okay,” he stammers. “I-I-I'll go look for him. I'll go help look…”

Mrs. O'Connell looks at him and looks at him. She's sad; the look she's giving him is almost sympathetic. “Do whatever you want, Ryan,” she says. Slightly pitying and slightly disgusted. “I'm sorry.”

She tries to close the door again, and this time, he lets her. The door slams hard.

The tears rush up, and Ryan doesn't even try to stop them. He covers his face with his palms and sobs like a baby.

After a few minutes of crying, his ribs heaving, his cheeks wet, he decides it's silly to just keep standing on the porch of a woman who basically just told him to go away. He swipes wildly at his eyes and walks down the stairs and over to the sidewalk. He's walked several houses past the O'Connell house, sniffling and considering what the hell he's going to do now, when his phone starts to ring in his pocket, buzzing insistently. Expecting it to be Annie, a call he'll probably ignore, Ryan pulls out the phone and looks at the screen. But it's not Annie. It's an unfamiliar number.

Ryan sniffles a few more times, wiping his eyes and nose again, as he answers the phone. “Hello?” he says, praying his voice is steady.

There is only silence on the other end. Staticky, rustling sounds. And then, just as he's about to hang up: “I assume that you are feeling a considerable amount of distress, Ryan Caruthers.”

The voice sounds like Mrs. Seers, but Ryan knows it's not. It's the way she's sounded ever since she's woken up. It's harsher, more threatening. It's the type of voice that Ryan imagined as a child, huddled in a corner with his hands over his ears, his eyes shut, pretending that there wasn't a ghost in the room. It's the type of voice that might've haunted his nightmares.

Ryan intakes a sharp breath, his ribs tightening, and whirls away from the houses, as if the residents are listening to him. He cups his hand around the phone speaker and his mouth and whispers furiously, “You have Robbie, don't you?”

“Perhaps.”

He grits his teeth furiously, his hands clenched into fists. He's so furious, he can barely breathe. “Where the hell did you take him?” he hisses, clutching the phone hard. “What did you do?”

“That remains to be seen.” The voice is almost unfamiliar, like any inflections of Mrs. Seers have been scrubbed away. He wonders how long the ghost has been there, if there's even anything left of his old teacher. “I could do a lot of things. I have been watching the child for a long time.”

Ryan balls his hand in the top of his hair. He doesn't know if the Specter wants to do this to implicate him, or to lure him there and hurt him instead of Robbie, but he doesn't care. He doesn't care. He's not going to let anyone else die. “You want me?” he growls. “You'll get me. Where is he ?”

“I am surprised you cannot figure it out.” A pause on the other end. Usually, when people pause on the phone, you can hear people breathing, but Ryan can't hear a thing. It's all quiet. “It is the place where you have felt me closest.”

There's a sharp click on the other end, and then nothing.

---

The drive to Winchester is mostly quiet. Mulder drives, mostly to focus his anxious energy on a task . Scully sits in the passenger seat, fidgeting, flipping through the Willoughby files Mulder had grabbed from the filing cabinet before they'd left. The tension in the car is unmistakable. They both are nervous, stuck in the place of Eastwood and children they couldn't save.

At one point, Scully reaches across the center console to squeeze Mulder's arm. “You know it wasn't your fault, right?” she says in a soft voice. “We had to leave. There's probably nothing we could've done.”

Mulder chews at his lower lip, squinting at the road. “You're right that we had to leave,” he says, “but I don't know that there was nothing we could've done.” He's thinking about Ryan's phone call on the day they left, how there seemed to be a reason for Ryan's call that he couldn't disclose. He doesn't know if that has anything to do with this, but he's got a feeling that it does. “I think the most we can hope for is that we'll be able to bring about a good outcome here,” he adds.

Scully sighs, squeezing his arm briefly before letting go. “What do you think is going on here, Mulder?” she asks in a subdued voice that catches him off guard. “Why do you think this is happening?”

He blinks a few rapid times, thrown off. He doesn't know if she's trying to start some sort of debate or not, and he's definitely not in the mood for a debate. “I think it's all connected,” he says. “Ryan, Jared, Robbie, the ghost.” He casts a brief, sideways look at her, expecting her to refute the ghost claim, but she doesn't say anything. “I would suggest some other explanation, but after what happened in our hotel room, I don't really have one,” he continues. “I think that whatever's happening is connected to the Willoughby Specter. I think that's kind of undeniable by now.”

He expects Scully to have a retort to that, some kind of alternate explanation, but she says nothing once again. He sneaks another glance and finds her sitting quietly in her seat, looking down at where she's got Google Maps open and directions to Jared Caruthers's new address pulled up. She seems almost disinterested… or scared. The way she seemed back at the office when they got the call from Deputy Jacobs.

Some things are suddenly starting to make sense to Mulder, to fall into place. He remembers the way Scully seemed spooked in the aftermath of the laptop flying across the room, the way she seemed apprehensive about coming back to Willoughby in the first place. And there are older memories as well: her reactions when he told her about seeing the ghost—the dreams he had before the Perlieu incident and before they went to Norfolk, and the time that he physically saw it, in the school—and, further back, the way she reacted when Joy Seers showed them the videos of the haunting in her classroom. He remembers being thrown by her behavior there, the way she seemed to be spooked by all of this. He remembers thinking that it was unlike her, that this is unlike her. And he wonders—probably too late—if something is wrong.

He sneaks another look at her as they turn up a street. She's still quiet, cradling her phone in her lap. He speaks gingerly, trying to let her know that he is not judging her or expecting anything of her, as he looks out at the road: “Scully? Do… do you believe in the ghost?”

More silence, a longer silence than he expected. Mulder looks at Scully briefly again, and sees that her neck and cheeks are red as if she has a fever. (Or as if she's embarrassed.) She clears her throat as if preparing to confide, but what she says is not that. She says, “The turn's up here, Mulder… here, this next left.”

If he knows Scully, than he knows that this is efficiently a shutdown of the subject. He takes the left, into the parking lot of a sprawling apartment building. “Deputy Jacobs gave us the apartment number, right?” he asks.

“Second apartment, fourth floor.” Scully clutches the phone hard, turning it off with the flat of her thumb. “Mulder…” she starts, uncertainly. Almost apologetically.

“It's okay.” He reaches for her hand on an impulse, pulling it away from the phone and squeezing briefly. “It's okay,” he repeats, looking her right in the eyes. Her cheeks redden further; she looks away. He squeezes her hand again before turning and opening his door. “We should probably get going.”

He hears her door open. “Yeah,” she agrees, “we probably should.”

They ride the elevator to the fourth floor in silence. The second apartment is directly adjacent to it, and Scully raps on the door, her stance hardening and her face flattening out into a serious expression. They both pull their badges as a man on the other side of the door shouts, “Coming!” They hear a series of footsteps before the door creaks open, a man who is definitely not Jared Caruthers standing on the other side. His face falls a bit at the sight of their badges, his face growing stonier as if he's putting up his defenses.

“FBI,” Scully says calmly. “Is Jared Caruthers here?”

The man's eyes dart back and forth between them as he shifts in the doorway. “Why do you want to know?” he asks, raising his eyebrows.

“We'd just like to ask him some questions,” Mulder says. “Is he here?”

“Dan, it's okay. I've got this.” Jared appears next to the man in the door, his expression somewhere between nervous and polite. He scans their badges quickly before meeting their eyes. “Agents Mulder and Scully? Did my nephew call you?”

“Actually, we're here in conjunction with the disappearance of Robbie O'Connell,” says Scully.

Jared's face falls, his mouth dropping open in surprise. The man next to Jared—Dan—crosses his arms and snaps, “He's been with me most of the day, you know. I picked him up from the prison in Pennsylvania, I brought him here to get settled, I dropped him off at his sister's for about an hour, and I picked him up about twenty minutes ago. I don't know who this Robbie O'Connell is, but—”

“Dan, it's fine, it's fine,” Jared says, holding up a hand as if to quieten him. He addresses Mulder and Scully: “I don't know Robbie O'Connell. I-I think Ryan might've mentioned him to me before, but… I've never met him. And I didn't take him, or hurt him. If you want to take a look around…” He sweeps his arm broadly across the doorway.

They don't have a warrant for Jared's apartment—and on top of that, Mulder thinks he’s probably not responsible. He'd had his doubts before, and this exchange has all but confirmed it. He could be wrong, but it seems like Jared is not involved. “Can your sister confirm that you were there the entire time you were outside of this man's presence?” Scully asks, her voice stern, and Mulder follows her line of thinking: Annie Caruthers has no reason to cover for her brother. He doesn't think he's ever gotten Annie's direct opinion on Jared, but he remembers Jared saying that his sister hated him.

Jared nods grimly. “I don't think she'll like it, but… yeah. Yeah, give her a call.” He motions them inside and rattles off the number for Scully, who steps aside to make the call. Her eyes slide over the room as the phone rings, looking for signs of anything amiss. Jared's friend, Dan, shoots them another suspicious look as he slips into the back of the apartment.

Jared is speaking to Mulder in a frantic voice. “I know you have no good reason to believe me,” he's saying nervously, “but I swear, I never came into contact with that kid. I wouldn't even be able to pick him out of a lineup. And I swear to God, I would never hurt him… I don't want to hurt anyone…”

Mulder chews at his lower lip, doing his own quick scan of the apartment. He offers, “Jared, this is probably an odd question… but do you think that this disappearance could have something to do with the Specter? We… We'd heard that Robbie had been seeing the ghost recently, and with his connection to Ryan…”

Jared's jaw works back and forth, as if contemplating. “It certainly sounds like it,” he says softly.

“Ryan called us in last week because he was scared of the ghost,” Mulder admits. From the look Scully is giving him, he assumes she thinks he's oversharing, but it doesn't seem to matter. Right now, it seems like Jared may be the best person to have a conversation with about this ghost. “He wanted us to… try and get rid of the ghost,” he adds sheepishly, the shame of their lackluster effort rushing back.

Jared grimaces a little, rubbing at his mouth. “That makes sense,” he mutters.

“Why's that?”

“Because he first contacted me in an attempt to get rid of the ghost,” Jared explains. “He wanted my help. He figured out what Ian and Marion and I were doing when they died, somehow, and he thought he could do it successfully. His attempts were… less than successful. He-he set a fire two years ago in an attempt to make the flurry of sightings stop, and he tried to exorcise the ghost himself just in December… and it ended in him spraining his ankle, and—according to him—Annie being possessed and nearly hurting herself. And when he called me to tell me what happened, I… I reacted badly.” He winces again. “I was so scared that he was going to get hurt. Or killed. And I think… I think he was kind of defeated after that. More scared. I… I guess that's why he called you two in.”

“He seemed to think that it was getting more dangerous,” says Mulder. “He gave us a video he took of a seancé—as proof that things were dangerous—and in the middle of watching it, the feed froze, and the laptop went flying across the room out of nowhere.”

Jared has a regretful, knowing look on his face. “Have either of you seen the ghost?” he asks. “Just… out of curiosity.”

“I have. A couple of dreams last fall, and once back in 2016. I don't think that Scully has.”

“I've been seeing it, too,” Jared admits. His voice is tight and afraid; it's small, like a child after a nightmare. “More than usual. Today, Ryan insisted that I come straight to the house because the house was protected, and I'd hoped he was just being paranoid. But now… now I don't think that's the case.”

An uneasy silence falls over them. Mulder's gaze shifts to the floor, unsure of what to say. He doesn't know how to stop this. He wishes desperately that he did.

“Okay,” says Scully across the room. “Thank you.” She hangs up, slipping the phone into her pocket, and crosses the room. “Well,” she says to Jared, “your sister confirmed your alibi. She says that she saw you standing at the end of the driveway after you walked out, and that she saw you getting picked up when she was leaving.”

“Okay,” Jared says awkwardly, one hand in his pocket. “Okay. And, uh, did she say where Ryan went? She was going to get him, right?”

“No, she didn't know where Ryan was,” Scully says. “Actually, she said she was out looking for him when she picked up.”

“Shit.” Jared rubs at his mouth stressedly. “Shit. I thought he might’ve been home by now. Shit, he… he said he was going to check on someone. I bet he knows about Robbie… I bet he's out there looking for him.” His eyes are shut tight in frustration, his voice wavering with fright. “Fuck. That kid is going to get himself… hurt.” He stops awkwardly, as if wanting to avoid the possibility of something worse than hurt.

“Do you think there's a possibility that he's found Robbie?” Mulder asks, his mind working. Scully raises her eyebrows at him questioningly. “Do you think that they could be in the same place somehow?” he continues. “If all of this is happening for the same reason?”

“Mulder, are you thinking that we may be able to find both of them somehow?” Scully asks.

“The line of thinking is that the Specter is connected to their disappearances, right?” he offers. “So by that logic…”

“You could probably find them both if you looked for one of them,” Jared says, his voice infused by sudden hope. “Y-you have to go look for them, please. I think I have an idea of where they might be.”

Mulder meets Scully's eyes again. She looks uncertain, saying, “Mulder, I don't know… I'm not sure that it's the best lead to follow.”

“Deputy Jacobs said most of the force was out looking for Robbie, right? What's it going to hurt if we follow this lead?” Mulder prods. “What if it's the right lead?” Scully doesn't look sure, and so he prods further. “Besides, Ryan Caruthers is missing, too. By pursuing this lead, we're pursuing them both.”

Jared is looking between them apprehensively. Scully sighs and nods. “I should call Deputy Jacobs, though, and let him know what we're doing,” she says. Mulder nods back and passes her his phone, where he has the number saved.

“I need to come with you,” Jared says insistently to Mulder. “I think I know how to find them.”

Mulder is tempted to argue—he knows that Scully would—but it doesn't feel worth it. There are two kids out there who need help, and he needs to make sure he doesn't fail them this time. “Where do you think they might be?” he asks.

“This is going to sound crazy, but… I've always had a feeling that the Specter was stronger in a certain area,” says Jared. “I think it's on the block of the old church, the one that's been around since before the town was founded. I think it has some sort of… power center there. I know that sounds crazy.”

“You think Robbie and Ryan are there?” asks Mulder.

“Somewhere on that block… It makes sense, right? Aside from the possibility that it's a power center, it's also the place where Ryan's parents died.” Jared gulps, his face white and rigid with fear. “It makes sense that they'd be lured there, right? If it started there… it makes sense that it would end there.”

It does make sense that it would be there. It almost makes too much sense; it's too perfect. Mulder can't help but wonder if this is all by design, if Jared is supposed to be drawn back to the scene of his crime the night that he gets out of prison; he can't help but wonder if they should leave him at home.

Scully hangs up the phone. “Deputy Jacobs seemed fine with us pursuing this lead,” she says, handing it back to Mulder. “Maybe even a little confident in it.”

“So they haven't found Robbie yet?”

“No, and he said there was no new leads,” says Scully. “He said he hasn't even heard from Sheriff O'Connell since he called to inform the department that Robbie was missing.”

---

The house being built on the property where Ryan's old apartment used to be is finally finished. It has a full structure, bricks and mortar and a roof. The wind whistles over the shingles as Ryan approaches it from the sidewalk, and he thinks involuntarily of the night of the seancé. Of the Ouija board bursting into flames.

He's too scared to go in. He knows he has to go in, but he's too scared to go in. Even with the knife. He'd stopped back by the house to get the knife—Annie was gone, presumably out looking for him—in a small attempt at self-defense, but he's worried that it's going to condemn him rather than save him. His uncle stabbed his parents, after all, right here. Right on this property.

His throat hurts, thick with fear, and his hands are shaking. He considers, briefly, just running away and calling the cops.

But no, he can't do that. That might get Mrs. Seers arrested, and he knows that this is not her fault. If she survives the night, she doesn't deserve to go to prison. And besides, there are no guarantees that the ghost won't just kill Robbie if the cops come. And he doesn't know that the cops can even stop the Specter.

It has to be him. He's the one it wants.

The door to the new house begins to move, creaking open excruciatingly slow, the hinges squeaking like they're fifty years old instead of just a couple months. There is no one behind it.

Ryan takes a deep breath and begins walking up the dirt-lawn to the house. He wonders when the property will be ready to sell, wonders if they'll tell the people who buy it what happened here. Everyone loves a good ghost story, he thinks bitterly. Everyone certainly loves this one, but nobody knows the details. The true story, here, is one that gets people killed.

He steps over the threshold and into the dark house. The door slams shut behind him, making him jump. He looks frantically in front of him, to either side, over both shoulders; he doesn't want to be caught off guard. But there is no one there.

Ryan takes a deep breath. “Hello?” he calls out, his voice trembling, and is instantly disgusted with himself. He doesn't need to resort to horror movie clichés, no matter how on edge he is. Where the hell are they? he thinks, gritting his teeth. He steps further into the front hall, walking towards the next room. It's furnished, albeit sparsely—by the real estate company, he assumes—and it looks cheesy as hell, but he's strangely grateful for the furniture, the corny decorations. It keeps this empty house from becoming his parents’ empty apartment, the empty rooms and the graffiti on the wall and the overturned crib in the nursery. A shiver runs sharply up his spine, and he shudders. He walks through another, sprawling room and finds nothing.

It's in the next room that he sees it: the two shapes lying on the ground, one large and one heart-stoppingly small. Ryan seizes his phone in quivering fingers and turns on his flashlight, shining it on the shapes. The faces snap into place: it's Robbie and the sheriff, the kid tucked securely under his father's arm. Neither one of them are moving, are alert.

Ryan's breath catches in his throat, and he rushes over to crouch beside them, letting it drop to the floor. “Robbie?” he whispers frantically, his voice rasping. “Robbie, can you hear me?” No answer.

Praying, frantically praying that he isn't too late, Ryan reaches down and presses two fingers to Robbie's pulse point in his neck. There it is, beating reassuringly strongly. Ryan breathes a sigh of relief, and checks the sheriff's pulse. Equally strong. They're both alive, but they're both unconscious, and Ryan has a feeling it's not a natural sleep.

He grips Robbie by his bony shoulders and begins to lightly shake him. “C'mon, Rob, wake up,” he whispers insistently. “You've gotta wake up.” But there's no response from Robbie; he's limp, his limbs flopping like a rag doll. “C'mon, kid,” he whispers, but Robbie's face stays still.

Ryan moves on to the sheriff, poking him hard in the arm; the guy's too bulky to shake. “Sheriff O'Connell?” he hisses. “Can you hear me? We gotta wake up, we gotta get out of here.”

A floorboard creaks behind him. Footsteps echo across the unfinished wood.

Ryan's breath catches in his throat. He fumbles instinctively for the knife tucked into the waistband of his pants, as bad as an idea as that may be. His fingers close around the handle just as it speaks.

It's the voice, the one that almost sounds like Mrs. Seers, but not quite. It's too far removed. It sounds like something else, something darker, something Ryan can't quite put his finger on. Something inhuman.

“Ryan,” it says. “I'm so glad that you're finally here.”