Title: Winterlong IV. Ashes and Ghosts
Author: Neoxphile
Feedback: neoxphile@aol.com
Keywords: MSR, Post-Col, Post-series, kidfic
Series Page: http://www.mulderscreek.com/winterlongseries.html
Spoilers: The Truth
Disclaimer: I am not Chris Carter, though I envy his bank accounts, and you know by now he created our beloved characters.
Summary: Some of the dead had a harder time casting off the mortal coil than others.


December 26th, 2006
Early Morning

The sound of the car in the driveway was loud enough to turn Mulder's head as he sat drinking his orange juice. With most of the household still in bed there simply wasn't enough noise for him to not have heard, even with the power on. Though they'd been sure the night before that the power failure heralded the end of civilized life as they knew it, it had kicked back on an hour later. It was a welcomed reprieve but they knew it wasn't going to last.

As Scully let herself into the house she shook a dusting of snow off her coat. "You're the only one up?"

"No. John wandered through the kitchen about ten minutes ago looking for a diaper for Lacey. He said that Monica was getting dressed. The rest of the kids are still in bed, and yes, I check to see if Jesse and Jeremiah needed to be changed, too." It still amazed him that it could be done without waking either of them up.

"Oh good. We should be leaving soon. " But the way that she sat at the table suggested that she wasn't eager to start moving bodies. He wasn't either.

Mulder cast about for something to say. "Was the meeting worth your time?"

"We finally came to an agreement," she announced as she reached for a mug. He handed her the half-filled bottle of orange juice and wondered how much longer there would be such a thing. Electricity wasn't the only commodity on its deathbed.

"What was the decision?" he asked. Scully had volunteered to go to a meeting early that morning, to work out the final arrangements for the island's dead. "About the shrouds?"

"You wouldn't believe how heated an argument that got, Mulder." One corner of her mouth pulled down in a grimace. "Eventually we made them see reason when we pointed out that we'll still need things like sheets, and that their overwhelming preference - shower curtains - can be used as tarps and other useful applications, all of which is important now that we can't easily produce things on our own."

"How?" Mulder asked, though his thoughts had already begun to drift towards the cottage system of days gone by. There was probably an excess of most things that they would need right then, given the demand for things had effectively and instantly been reduced by over 80 percent, but eventually the ready-made things would run out. By that point he hoped that they would be able to produce again.

"By telling them that wrapping corpses in plastic would keep them from biodegrading, and probably bring disease to the island," Scully said lightly.

"Would that have been a big problem?" Mulder asked skeptically.

"Maybe, maybe not. Those folks who went out to Deerhoof and Claireborne saw some sea life, so maybe the bodies would be eaten either way. As it is, it was a good excuse to get them to use things we probably won't need as badly in the future. Namely paper tablecloths and masking tape donated by one of the churches."

"That won't be as pleasant as plastic wrapping the bodies, but I guess it's better than totting them around entirely unwrapped like they were cord wood."

She wrinkled her nose, and made him grin at having been able to gross out a former medical examiner. "Yuck, Mulder. Could you have come up with a more objectionable description of the deceased?"

"Actually-"

Their discussion on how unpleasant a mental image that produced was halted by knock on the door. Mulder got up and let in Helen, Peter, and Lily.

"Morning. How was your Christmas?" Helen greeted them. Peter and Lily said nothing.

"Different," Mulder allowed. "What can we do for you this morning?"

Helen shook her head. "No, it's the other way around. We came to watch the kids for you while you're…busy today. It's the least we can do."

"Oh, that's great," Scully said, and meant it. They'd supposed that either Doggett or Reyes would need to stay behind to look after the kids that morning. With Helen and her teenage charges there, all four of them could help dispose of the bodies and spare people who were less acclimated towards seeing the dead. "You're sure the three of you can handle them all?"

"Of course. Peter and I will be fine here," Helen said firmly.

"You and Peter?" Scully asked, looking confused. When she turned to Lily, the girl gave her a shy smile.

"I'm…coming with you. To help," Lily said with more force than Mulder supposed her capable of. The tone invited no arguments.

Of course, he didn't let that stop him from trying. "How old are you?"

"Fifteen. Almost sixteen," the girl said defensively. "That's old enough to help."

"Okay," he said, making Scully start in surprise. She probably wouldn't end up going through with it, backing out just like Adam did when it came time to see a body, but he didn't want to be the one to keep her from feeling useful. "We're about to head out. Do you want something to eat before we go?"

Lily shook her head emphatically. "My dad said it's better to have an empty stomach if you're going to see dead people for the first time. Second or third time too."

It probably was good advice, but it made Mulder wonder what sort of man Lily's father had been if he'd seen dead people on a regular basis. "That might be a good idea. Let me make sure John and Monica are ready to go."

They were still getting their coats on when Nelson pulled up in front of the house in a huge passenger van. It bore the logo of a church, too, so Mulder suspected that it had once been used during church outings. He wondered what the people at the church felt now that there were so few parishioners that their donations had become so easy to make.

Glancing upward, he wondered more what people who thought there was a God in heaven thought of the situation. Would it try their faith? Had it already? Or would they see it as Job did, a trial to make their beliefs more steadfast? He honestly wasn't sure which would be the more likely; the strongest believers in their home were Scully and Doggett, and neither of them had been deeply religious.

As they boarded the van, he tried to search the faces of those already seated for the type of spirituality he occasionally felt a longing for himself, but they were unreadable. The van was already mostly full, so the five of them sat near the front, which probably meant that they'd be the first dropped off to begin their work.


It was a short drive, made shorter by a lack of traffic on the streets. Thanks to their work earlier in the week, there were no cars parked on the sides of the road either. Scully smiled faintly, thinking that there would be no problems plowing the roads that winter – as long as there were still people capable of running the plows.

Nelson drove to the far end of the road before stopping. Scully stood first, and looked over her shoulder at the seat Doggett and Reyes were sharing. "See you back at the house."

"Whoever gets back first starts dinner, right?" Reyes asked.

"Right."

Lily looked uncertain, but she followed Mulder out onto the sidewalk, and then stood waiting for Scully. Before they looked for the first house, Scully put her hand on Lily's shoulder. "Are you sure you want to do this?" she asked, giving the girl a searching look.

Lily nodded slightly. "My daddy was a coroner on the mainland."

Though she hasn't said anything, Scully had also wondered about the advice the girl had gotten from her father. Knowing his profession made the remark a lot more innocent than she feared. But it was on her mind to point out that that was her father, not Lily herself. They didn't really expect a fifteen-year-old girl to help move the bodies.

"Well, let's go then," Scully said, trying to keep her voice steady. Trying not to suggest that the girl be prepared to run off to throw up.

The row of houses they stood before was wholly unfamiliar, though perhaps they'd driven down that street before. Mayor Lamb had decided to send people to streets they didn't live on when it came time to remove the dead. Apparently this was to make the chore slightly less traumatic to the remaining islanders. At least they would not be handling the bodies of their friends from the neighborhood.

Considering that they hadn't really know their neighbors anyway, it didn't really make a difference to Mulder and Scully on that front, but it did give them some small sense of relief to know that they would not be the ones taking away the body of Olivia's biological mother. These folks would not be Lily's neighbors, either.


"Well, here we are," Scully said needlessly as they found the first home that contained a body. "I guess we better go in and get this over with."

He thought she might have been trying to prompt the girl into giving up, but Lily just set her shoulders and followed them. She was brave, they had to give her that.

Mulder's only real objection to the girl helping them was that with her along, Doggett and Reyes had been assigned to another neighborhood. It was probably more fair that way, dividing up people who had seen death often, and learned not to flinch - at least not on the outside - but it put him in a sour mood. He tried not to take it out on Lily.

No one objected when he swung the door open, and it still stuck Mulder as strange. It was like being the last people living in a place that was turning into a ghost town. There was a deep hush over the house, which was probably to be expected considering that there was nothing running in the house. Nothing running, that is, other than a battery-powered clock somewhere in the kitchen that still faithfully ticked off the minutes despite its owners never needing to know the time again.

"Bathrooms and bedrooms," Scully reminded Mulder quietly.

"I know."

The three of them split up, and Scully was the one to call out that she'd found the body. Lily was closer than Mulder, but he was able to catch up before she went into the room and stop her by gripping her arm. "Wait here."

"No, I told you, I want to help," Lily protested. She looked ready to twist out of his grip.

"Just for a minute," Mulder told her. "Wait until we've wrapped the body up. Okay?"

All of the fight when out of the girl, and it was easy to see that she was imagining what the dead man in the master bedroom might look like. "All right."

For a moment Mulder found himself thinking about why she had come but Peter hadn't. Most teenagers seemed to feed on a steady diet of horror movies, but perhaps the events of the past few days had convinced them that it was no preparation for confronting death head-on. Lily was probably the only child on the island who felt like she had something to prove, which would explain why she was the only volunteer who wasn't old enough to vote.

Lily didn't look happy with his request, but she stood there after he walked into the bedroom. He knew because he'd glanced over his shoulder to check.

Scully was already ripping open the package to an extra-long paper tablecloth. Shivering a little, Mulder asked himself if removing the bodies from the houses would make them seem less like tombs. Somehow, he doubted it.

Taking one end, he helped Scully spread the tablecloth out next to the graying corpse of a middle-aged man. Through his vinyl gloves, Mulder could feel the unnatural chill of the body when they rolled it onto the tablecloth. The feeling lingered, even as he tore off a length of masking tape so they could finish securing their unnatural package.

"Lily?" Mulder called, hoping the girl had lost her nerve and gone back outside. "We're all set."

To his disappointment, the girl entered. Even in the gloom of the unlit room, he could see that the sheen of vapor rub under her nose did little to keep her from smelling the scent of death that permeated the room. She swallowed hard, but there was iron in her spine as she approached them.

"Take the middle," Scully told her. It surprised him a little; he'd predicted that she'd try to reason with Lily again, and talk her out of helping.

The body was not as similar to a cord of wood as Mulder had hoped. From boring conversations with Scully, he knew that rigor mortis usually dissipated by seventy-two hours after death, which was a timeframe they had recently passed. Frowning to himself, he couldn't help but wish that their stiff was a little more stiff.

Eventually the trio managed to manhandle the corpse out the door and onto the sidewalk in front of his house. The corpse's house, Mulder reminded himself, not his. If he started thinking of the awkward bundle in their arms as a person, he'd never be able to get through the day. It made him wonder how many nights he was going to wake up after nightmares. And how many more it would be before Lily got a peaceful night's rest.

Scully he didn't worry about. The ability to feel horror at ordinary death seemed to have been stripped from her by her medical training long before he asked her to cut open their x-files first related victim. Today that seemed like a blessing.

They didn't have long to wait. On each block someone had drawn the slightly envied duty of driving trucks slowly up and down the streets, stopping each time someone emerged from a house with a body. It was a lot like the ‘bring out your dead' scene in Monty Python, Mulder thought, though these dead were so undeniably. And it wasn't funny. Not at all.

After they lifted the body onto the truckbed, they didn't need to worry about what happened to it. It was someone else's task to get it onto a boat, and later push it into the ocean. He was glad that they wouldn't be the ones to see them drop into the water with a final splash.

Instead the trio sighed and walked down the street, looking for the next house marked with an X. At least people had been thorough when it came to inventorying the deceased. There would be no surprises much later, not like the grim, belated discoveries in New Orleans after the hurricane the year before.

"I guess Emily Dickinson was wrong," Lily said quietly as they found their next target.

"What?"

"She said that we didn't have to stop for death. He would stop for us instead. It feels like we're stopping for death, doesn't it?" Lily's eyes looked bleak. "The real death, I mean, not the hooded figure with the scythe."

"A temporary pause," Scully said decisively. "Today we're putting everything aside to deal with the dead, but tomorrow and every day after we still need to see to the living."

Mulder glanced at Lily, trying to gauge if the girl felt less bleak hearing this. He knew that he ought to, but he didn't really.

"Yeah," The girl said. Or maybe it had only been a sigh.


Late Afternoon

The collecting of the dead took four months. At least it felt like it, Mulder decided as they wearily headed home that afternoon. His exhaustion was mirrored on Scully and Lily's faces. Doggett and Reyes weren't back yet, but he bet they were in no more mood to make dinner than he was. Not that he could focus on dinner, anyway. His mind kept being dragged back to the people they'd tried to lay to rest properly. And even more on those they couldn't.

Though they'd only handled ten themselves, there had been two hundred bodies given hasty burials at sea that day. Six hundred and fifty people were still unaccounted for, but stories told to them by other survivors mirrored the one Lacey had told Reyes about her parents, aunt, and uncle: A large craft appeared over the buildings, then a flash of light so intense that it temporarily blotted out the sight of the living, and when it left most of the bodies were gone as well.

Not one storyteller reported seeing a living person taken away, so it was assumed that all the missing were also dead. Most people seemed to desperately hope that this was the case. Mulder could understand the sentiment - few understood as well as he did what horror might await those taken alive. It was best to hope that the missing were beyond further insult.

Not that there was much talk amongst the adults about what had truly befallen the Earth on the 22nd. It was rare to hear anyone say the word "alien," though no one seemed to believe that there was a less fantastical explanation for the apocalypse. Or if they did, it was kept even quieter than the truth. Maybe there was more discussion elsewhere, where people were less tight-lipped than New Englanders were renowned for being, but there was no way of knowing that now that the news reports had trickled to a stop.

"You get them all?" William wanted to know as soon as they were in the door. Something uncertain about his tone suggested that he didn't exactly know what was going on, but he just wanted them to be through with the task that took his parents away from home.

"Yeah, kid, we got them all," Lily said faintly.

Across the room Scully spoke to Helen in hushed tones, and Mulder knew she was asking the other woman to make sure that the girl took it easy after such a draining day. Helen looked concerned, and was nodding, so he knew that the message had been received.

There was nothing more that Mulder wanted to do than to crawl into bed and pull the blankets over his head, but he knew that it wasn't possible. That was the sort of luxury a single person had, not a parent. Their being tired didn't keep hungry bellies from needing to be filled, or dirty bottoms from needing to be changed.

"We got them all, Will," Scully seconded. Her tired eyes fixed on the boy's face. "Why do you ask?"

For an answer, he threw himself at her knees. "It makes you sad. I don't want you to be sad tomorrow, too."

Scully didn't say anything at all, but Mulder noticed her eyes were welling with tears. "You're a good kid, you know that?"

"I try," William replied earnestly.

"What have you been up to while we were gone?" Mulder asked, trying to force liveliness into his voice.

"We were looking for buckets."

"For buckets?"

"Yeah! Adam and Tyler showed us a neat trick. You should see." William grabbed his hand. Glancing over at Scully she seemed as puzzled as he did.

"Adam! Show Dad the thing with the bucket!"

William dragged him into the bathroom, and somehow Adam had gotten there before them. The other little boy had a bucket half filled with water in his hand. "Okay, watch."

Before Mulder could protest that he was wasting water, Adam dumped the water into the toilet. It made a gurgling sound, then drained. "See?"

"Why?" It was the only thing Mulder could think to ask.

Adam rolled his eyes. "I tried flushing the toilet when the power was out last night, and nothing happened. That means you've got a well like we had at our house. Dad said that the pumps in the well need electricity to work. But if you pour water into the toilet with a bucket, it flushes still during a power failure. Get it? When there's no more power for good, we can still use the toilet."

"That's great, but those pumps run the faucet too," Mulder pointed out. "So we can't fill buckets in the bath tub when there's no power either."

"So? The ocean is in the back yard," Adam said, looking like he thought grown ups were sometimes incapable of grasping the obvious. "We can fill them up with ocean water and bring ‘em in."

"Maybe. Do you know if saltwater is corrosive?" Mulder asked, excited by the idea but thinking of the pipes. Suddenly he felt a lot less tired.

Adam shrugged. "I'm seven. I don't even know what corrosive means."

"It means- Ah, I'll figure it out. Thanks for showing us this."

Adam beamed with pride. "I knew you weren't here the last time we had a lot of power failures, so I thought maybe you didn't know."

"You're right." He jumped several inches when he felt a touch on his shoulder.

"Oops. I didn't mean to scare you," Helen apologized. "I want to let you know that Peter and I have started dinner."

Mulder thought of saying "I could kiss you!" but he wasn't sure how the older woman would take that. Instead he gave her a grateful look. "The three of you will be eating with us, right?"

"Well…" She looked uncomfortable, like one might if they'd invited themselves to dinner.

"Come on, it isn't right for someone to cook a meal and not have any," Mulder cajoled.

"Okay," Helen agreed.

By the time they got back to the kitchen Doggett and Reyes were hanging up their coats and the first scents gave evidence that dinner would soon be on the table.


Though he took little pleasure in scrubbing pots, Mulder was happy that there was hot water to do them in. Eventually they'd need to boil water in order to heat it, and he wasn't at all looking forward to that. Water for cooking and drinking water couldn't come from the ocean, so they'd have to look for a source of fresh water once the ground thawed. With a little luck, there would be enough snow before then to keep them in fresh water for a while.

"Mulder!" He looked up from the sink half full of dishes, and wondered if it was an emergency. "Mulder, come quick!"

Dashing into the living room, he expected to be entering the site of some sort of mishap, but instead he found that Jesse was the focus of everyone's attention. He wasn't at all steady, but he was standing on his own two feet. Scully caught Mulder's eyes, then held out her hands to the baby and spoke encouragingly to him.

Jesse gave her an uncertain look, then lurched forward, taking a wobbly step. Then another two in quick succession. Lacey and Olivia cheered for him, and he stumbled forward, falling into Scully's open arms.

Scully looked up, beaming. "I didn't think he was ready to walk yet."

"Me neither," Mulder admitted. The little one had given no indication over the previous days that the thought of walking had ever crossed his mind. They believed that he was probably just about a year old, but they knew that not all babies walked at twelve months. Some were competent walkers by their first birthdays, and others needed a couple of more months to get on their feet.

"Get him to do it again!" Hailey encouraged.

"We'll see if he wants to," Scully told her. "If we push him or scare him, he might decide that walking is overrated and refuse to try it again."

That said, she set him on his feet again, and they all watched to see if he'd take any more steps. Mulder wouldn't pierce the balloon of Scully's pleasure by telling her that he didn't think these were actually the boy's first steps, but the way Jesse willingly wandered a few steps made him think he'd had a bit of practice.

Jesse's parents had probably watched their small son take a few steps before they'd died. But even if she asked him, he intended to lie and say it probably was his very first attempt to walk. She had been denied William's first steps. He wouldn't deny her these too.


Scully kicked forward, and was about to smash Leonard Betts over the head with her maglite when he managed to grab a hold of her foot, and upend her in mid-kick. Before she could scream, she realized that the person tugging on her foot wasn't the cancer-eater. The hand was much too small and years too late.

Forcing her eyes open, she peered at the end of the bed. A small boy dressed in striped pajamas was giving her a relieved look. "Mom! I didn't think you'd wake up!"

She shook her head to clear it. Tyler had just called her Mom, and he looked terrified of something. "What's wrong, Tyler?" She pitched her voice low, trying not to wake Mulder. She didn't know what time it was, but it didn't feel like she'd been asleep long. "You look like you've just seen a ghost."

"I did!" the wide-eyed seven-year-old insisted.

"Tyler-" His frightened expression kept her from lecturing him. Instead she threw off her blankets with a slight groan. "Where?"

"Down stairs."

"Why were you down stairs? It's the middle of the night."

Tyler looked guilty in the moonlight. "' woke up kind of hungry. I was looking for leftovers."

They walked down the stairs, and Scully fully expected him to point to a piece of furniture covered in clothing, and have to explain what the "ghost" really was.

Instead he slipped his hand into hers and led her to the window. He pointed outside.

It was snowing again, as it had been doing on and off since the night of the invasion. The moon lit up the snow, making it even paler than her adopted son's face. He stood silently beside her as they observed the parade.

Because that's the first description her mind was able to fasten on to describe what her eyes saw. Parade. Several people walked in front of their house, single-file. They didn't turn their heads to peer at Scully or Tyler, but seemed fixed on some distant spot in front of them. The snow didn't hinder their steps, nor did they leave any footprints to mark their passage.

She could see the darkened houses across the street through them.

Their eyes were blank and empty. And they glowed with a faint green phosphorescence that reminded her of textbook images of phytoplankton. There were dozens of them.

Saying nothing, Scully gathered Tyler into her arms and took him into the kitchen. Where they couldn't see the macabre spectacle any longer. Where the macabre spectacle couldn't turn suddenly and see them.

"I told you," Tyler said a moment after she set him on his feet. He looked like he more than half expected her to contradict him.

"Yes, you did."

"My father told us that there was no such thing as ghosts." His voice held a note of accusation. Towards his father for being wrong, she thought.

"Mine did too," she told him, feeling overwhelmed. "Scientists insisted that there couldn't possibly be real ghosts."

"So they were wrong."

"They must have been," Scully reluctantly agreed. She didn't want to believe her own eyes, but what choice did she have?

"Are they mad?" Tyler asked. His hands nervously played with a placemat.

At first she interpreted this to mean crazy and wondered who he meant, but then she realized that he was talking about the ghosts being angry. "About what?"

"I know we weren't supposed to hear, but Peter said that grown ups put the dead people into the water today. And now there are ghosts. Are they mad that they didn't get buried in the ground?"

There was some logic to what the boy said, she decided. It probably wasn't a coincidence that the dead chose this night to wander. "Maybe they're not mad," she said at length. "Maybe they're just lost."

"You don't think they're mad?"

"They haven't done anything bad-" Please let them not have hurt anyone, she hastily prayed just then. "-so I think they're not mad. At least not at us. Right now, I don't think we have to worry about them doing anything bad to us."

His face lost a little of its tension, so she knew that she'd guessed the reason for his question correctly. "Maybe they're looking for their bodies."

"Maybe."

"Or people they love," he added.

A new worry sprang up. "Tyler, did you see anyone that… that you knew when they were alive?"

"Nope. I couldn't tell who they were. Why?"

She knew that she probably shouldn't tell him, but it was wrong to lie to him, too. "I was worried that maybe you saw Olivia's mother."

Tyler's eyes widened. "Because she went in the water today, too. No. I didn't see her."

"Good."

"I didn't see my parents either," he told her. "I don't think they're out there. I think they're too far away."

She hoped so. "There are more people who are missing than we put into the ocean, and it didn't look like there were enough ghosts to be the ones missing."

"You think they're dead though." As soft as his voice was, she knew it wasn't a question.

"Yes, I do."

Tyler sighed and leaned against her. "That's what I thought. Adam keeps saying that they'll come back, but I don't think he believes it either."

"I'm sorry," she said, meaning it.

All five of her and Mulder's adopted children were someday going to have to come to terms with their losses, and in a way she hoped it would be sooner than later for all of them, as hard as it might be. Olivia had seemed to understand that her parents wouldn't be back, but it didn't stop her from having nightmares every night. She thought it would be even harder on the twins, because they'd known their parents far longer, and were the least likely to forget them in time.

"Me too." Tyler tilted her head to look up at her. "When I was scared earlier I called you Mom ‘cause I forgot. Is that okay?"

"Of course it is. I'll answer to Dana or Mom."

He smiled. Scully patted his hand. "Wait here a minute, okay?"

"Uh huh."

She walked back into the living room and looked out the window again. Far down the road, almost out of sight, a few ragged ghosts could still be seen. Apparently their procession was coming to an end.


After tucking Tyler into his bed, and checking to make sure the other kids were all asleep, she went back to her room to wake up Mulder.

"Huh, what?" Mulder asked, not bothering to open his eyes.

"Mulder, wake up. We need to talk."

"I'm awake," he mumbled, and let his head drop back onto his pillow.

"Mulder!"

Sitting up, he gave her a disbelieving look. "Is there something wrong with one of the kids?"

"No. There's something wrong with me."

"You sick?" he asked in concern.

"Stunned. Tyler woke me up to show me some ghosts."

"You're shocked that he got you out of bed because he thought he saw something? You know little kids better than that, Scully."

"I'm shocked because he wasn't imagining it." Scully told him about what they'd seen. "It was the creepiest thing I've ever seen, Mulder. What are we going to do about it?"

"I hate to break it to you, but the Ghostbusters aren't real. And even if they were, they'd probably be dead like almost everyone else."

"Not. Funny," she said through gritted teeth. "What are we going to do about the ghosts?"

"What did you have in mind? I seriously doubt ghosts would leave even if we asked them really nicely."

"I mean about the ghosts in relationship to the kids, Mulder."

He shrugged. "We don't even know if they'll ever be seen again."

"And if they are?" she persisted.

"We'll deal with that when and if it happens. We can't contingency plan for everything, Scully."

She wanted to plaintively ask why not, but she knew that he was right. It didn't make her happy with him, though. "Next kid who sees a ghost is going to be sent your way."

"Right. Whatever. Go to sleep." He groaned and buried his head under the covers.

Scully resisted the urge to punch him.


The Following Afternoon

When Doggett got home, he was dirty and looked tired. It had been his hope that he could get his bride to fuss sympathetically over him, but the first person he ran into was Mulder.

"So, John, are you sure you couldn't find a plaid shirt?" Mulder asked, his mouth already quirking. "That would have completed the lumberjack look nicely."

"Ha ha. How come you didn't sign up for the wood-cutting duty? We've still got a lot of wood to cut before the snow gets deep."

"I signed up to haul away cut wood and store it in abandoned houses, which is something we start tomorrow. As for why that and not what you're doing… Scully doesn't trust me with sharp objects, never mind a chainsaw."

"Yeah, I guess we need fetchers and carriers too," Doggett drawled. "Not everyone is cut out to use a chainsaw."

"Gee, John, that didn't sound superior at all," a voice behind them said. They both turned to see Reyes and Seth looking at them.

"He started it," Doggett retorted.

"Right. Just because you spent your boyhood cutting wood for your grandma it doesn't give you the right to lord your superior woods skills over everyone else."

"Wait, Mulder knew I wasn't serious, right?"

"Though my feelings were cut to the quick, I think I'll survive," Mulder solemnly told her.

She shook her head in exasperation. "Is one of you going to teach the kids to lay a fire? They've been talking about it all day."

"Sure, but I hope they don't expect to be successful on the first try."

"Of course they do. They're children."

Turning to Mulder, Doggett asked, "Should we be concerned that they think we are teaching them to start fires for fun, rather than as a valuable skill?" Mulder didn't reply, so he sighed. "I know ‘they're children.'"

As Doggett worried, Hailey and Adam were unhappy when their attempts to start a fire didn't result in a steady flame. Neither of them were able to get anything else to burn after the kindling was used up. Mulder and Doggett told them not to worry, they'd get it with practice, but the kids looked glum when they scooped out the ashes into a metal bucket before it was Tyler's turn to try.

To everyone's surprise, Tyler fussed with the small pile of wood he was given, and soon had a real fire burning in one of the fireplaces. "How did you do that?" Hailey demanded to know.

"I read a book about it," Tyler explained. "After I read Hatchet I wanted to learn how to make a fire too."

"You learned how to make a fire from a book?" His twin looked dubious. "How can you learn things like that from books?"

"Adam, you better hope that we'll all be able to learn well from books," Scully said making him look up at her. "We're going to have to learn how to cook on the woodstove in the kitchen too before long."

"The power's gonna go out again, huh?" William wanted to know. He and Seth had been watching the attempts at fire-making, and had only whined a little when they were told that they weren't old enough to try themselves.

"Unfortunately," Scully agreed.

"So we'll be like frontier people?" Hailey asked. "Like the Little House on the Prairie books we were reading in school."

"Sure," Mulder said.

"Forever?" Seth asked in a small voice.

"I don't think so." Doggett patted him on the shoulder. "I think someday, we'll have power back again. We just need to learn how to do the stuff that used to take a lot of people with fewer."

All the kids looked relieved. "Oh good."

The fact that they looked so hopeful made Doggett's heart ache. It bothered him that they were only offering the kids that hope, not opinions they could even remotely base on fact. The truth was that none of them really knew what was in store for the heirs of a broken world.


Hours Later

Doggett's achingly full bladder forced him out of bed in the middle of the night. He was on his way back to the bedroom he shared with Reyes, when he noticed Mulder standing at one of the living room windows. Trying not to make the stairs squeak, he went down to join him.

"Scully and Tyler saw them last night. I told her that they wouldn't be back again," Mulder said quietly, gesturing at the glowing figures that glided past the house. "But I wanted to see them for myself."

Still fighting his urge to insist that this was some sort of elaborate prank, Doggett forced himself to look at the ghosts. They didn't seem to notice anyone, and he wondered how they could maintain their balance with their hands folded like that. Then he swallowed a laugh at himself. He couldn't even tell if their feet meet the ground, so why worry about balance?

"You see how their hands are folded like that?" Mulder whispered. "When I went to sign up to haul wood, someone said that they'd been a person doing the burials at sea. The priest Nelson mentioned spoke over them, and their folded hands were arranged on their chests before they were pushed overboard. Can you believe that? They partially unwrapped the bodies to fold their hands…"

Doggett almost mentioned the ghost that he and Scully had seen, but he didn't. They had concluded that Billy Underwood was some sort of ghost, but who was to say there was only one type?

"I don't think they can leave," Mulder concluded.

"You don't?"

Mulder shook his head. "I think the ones who were left behind are as trapped here as we are. Something the aliens did is keeping them pinned to the Earth, just like we are."

That was a strange way of looking at things, Doggett thought. Most people didn't see being earthbound as being trapped. But when he thought about it, maybe Mulder was right. The invaders apparently had no interest in the living, and he hoped that it would continue to be the case. There was no need for them to care about those still on Earth – it would be ages before people might think of leaving the confines of their planet again. The survivors posed no threat.

"What I wonder is, are we going to be trapped here after we die? Will we be the same way, filling up the world not with the living, but the inescapable dead? Imagine what that would be like after a few hundred years."

Doggett decided that he'd rather not let his thoughts linger on multitudes of the empty-eyed dead wandering the world. It was too depressing a thought.

The End... for now.

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