'Embers' by Foxsong
Story, pre-X-F, rated PG.
Spoilers: Post-ep of sorts for 'Fire.'
Archive at will, but please provide a link back to my site at http://trax.to/the_foxsong_files
Thanks to Kel for giving me the idea that Mulder's excuse in 'Fire' was a lie to cover something much darker. Thanks to MaybeAmanda for her usual efficient, ruthless, yet tactful beta.
"The X-Files" TM and copyright Fox and its related entities. All rights reserved. Neither this work of fiction nor its author are authorized by Fox.
Summary: "When I was a kid, and my best friend's house burned down, I had to spend the night in the rubble to keep away looters."
It was the summer before you turned thirteen, the first summer since she'd gone, and your parents had finally decided to go ahead and take up residence in the summer house the way they had for the past five years. It had been a source of disagreement, but then so many things were; the sound of their raised voices downstairs after you'd gone to bed was as much your lullaby in those days as the little transistor radio you sneaked into bed with you and tucked under your pillow.
So your father made the arrangements on the phone and your mother packed up all the summer things and you helped her put them into the car, and for the first time you were alone in the back of the big Ford Fairlane station wagon on the long trip to Quanochataug.
You weren't sure why you used to look forward to going. You were just as much an outcast there as you were at home. Maybe the difference was that in Quanochataug you could put a label on it. In Quanochataug, you were one of the summer people, and the townies' kids looked down on all the rich summer people who breezed in for the season and then went away again. Maybe it was easier being singled out for that than because of some other, more indefinable quality; it was easier being disliked for where you came from than for who you were.
This summer was like any other, and it was not. Every morning you were fed and pointed at the door and told to go out and play. If you came back at lunchtime, you'd be fed again; if you didn't, no one seemed to particularly miss you. You were expected to be home for dinner, and then you'd go back outside into the endless summer evening, with its long shadows and its fireflies, and stay until the mosquitoes chased you inside for the night.
It was different without her.
You'd felt it at home, of course, but here it was new again; here the wound was fresh, the ache was almost physical. For the first time, you understood the way you had begun -- without really knowing it, and much against your conscience -- to adjust to her absence, to implicitly accept that it was permanent. At home, you had stopped expecting to see her; you had stopped opening her bedroom door in the impossible hope that she would be there, and would yell at you for failing to knock, and that all the months that had gone before would somehow have been a trick of your imagination, a nightmare that was suddenly over.
It was all new here. You'd never been here without her, never been here without being reminded daily to keep an eye on your sister. You'd never been here without her tagging along, annoying you, getting in your way. You'd never been here without telling her half a dozen times in the day to just find somebody else to play with, for pete's sake, can't you just leave me alone? Just for once?
Of course you hadn't wished her away, you told yourself. Not like that. Not...
The summer eased into its rhythm. As soon as your parents had settled in, they joined the rounds of cocktail parties in the evenings. Once a week, sometimes twice, the party was at your house, and your mother would call you to help her move the speakers from the record player onto the patio. You would take the stack of folding lawn chairs out of the garage and set them up outside, and you'd put the ashtrays and the citronella candles on the tables while your father set up the bottles and glasses on the larger table that served as a bar near the back door.
You were always expected to make an appearance at these parties. You had learned to time your entrance, making it about an hour after the festivities were under way. By this time, you had learned, a few drinks would have blunted the sharp edge of your mother's determination to prove she could throw a party just as well as any of these goddamned WASPs; your father's glass of bourbon would have brought on an air of bonhomie and transformed you into his good boy -- come here, son, show them how much you've grown already this summer! I swear, he'll be taller than me in a couple of years.
The faces changed from party to party; the cast of players varied as the summer people came and went. Every other week that man who worked with your father drove up for the day, the chain-smoking one with the tall blonde wife who was as slim and nervous as a racehorse. On those days, the party would begin earlier in the afternoon, and stretch further down the long lawn toward the lake; Mr. Doyle from two houses down would pull his speedboat up to the little dock there, and while the men went waterskiing, your mother and the tall blonde racehorse wife would circle the outskirts of the party, each keeping one wary eye on the other, and keeping her distance.
No one mentioned your sister. She was not even a topic to be tiptoed carefully around, to be alluded to with significant looks and rueful shakes of the head and a sudden change of subject. It was as if she had never existed, as if you had always been an only child, the apple of your mother's eye and the shining hope of your father's family name.
In the middle of that summer, your father introduced someone new at one of the parties at your house. The new man was tall and brown, with a short, well-groomed, greying beard; he wore a cream-colored turban on his head along with his unremarkable button-down shirt and khaki slacks. He had a small brown wife who wore what looked to you like an unimaginably long, brightly-patterned scarf, draped and woven over her head and around her body into something graceful and exotic. Behind them trailed a brown boy, about your age; his eyes were dark and downcast like his mother's, and he barely glanced up at you when your father introduced you.
The brown man, it seemed, was someone who was working with your father and his friend. He had come from overseas and would be spending the rest of the summer on Quanochataug while the three of them conferred on some project. Your father never explained what the project was, and none of the other men seemed to care; apparently the brown man was interesting enough by himself. You watched your mother and the tall blonde racehorse wife pretending to be friends while they escorted the man's little brown wife around the party, introducing her to the rest of the women.
The summer stretched on, the long days at their longest. The heat made you see shimmering pools on the concrete in the middle of the streets, but when you rode your bike closer, they weren't there at all.
If someone had asked you, you'd have been hard pressed to point to the exact moment that the social order had changed, but you knew it had. The brown boy was different enough from both the townies and the summer kids that the two groups drew together, uniting themselves against the newcomer. Your own status underwent the most remarkable upswing; because the brown man worked with your father, and you had been the first to meet the brown boy, the rest of the boys came to you with their questions. You found yourself, for the first time in your life, not just on the inside, but even being treated with something like respect.
It was a heady feeling. It made it easy for you to join in with the other boys, easy to be one of the gang, pushing the outsider further away at every opportunity. It made you forget -- or maybe deny -- that only a few weeks ago you'd been a brown boy, too; different, outcast, shunned.
It probably would have gone differently if she were still there, you thought later; with her at your heels, you could never have run with the boys like a jackal with the pack. But she was gone, and your father, with his projects all day and his glass of Jack Daniel's in the evening, did nothing to hold you back; your mother just shook another of the little tablets she called her vitamins out of the bottle after breakfast, and said she was glad you were making friends, and sent you out to play, and one thing led to another as steadily as each night grew a few minutes longer with the passing of the summer.
At first it was as simple as a pointed, prolonged silence whenever the brown boy approached, but as he came to understand that he was not wanted, he avoided you; you and your new friends had to go out of your way to find him and make sure he knew exactly how unwanted he was. It became a competition of sorts, with all of you vying to find new and more creative ways to torment him. The summer was almost gone when you proposed the boldest action yet, one you were sure would secure your position as a ringleader long after the brown boy and his family had packed up and returned to their strange country and been forgotten.
You crept silently out of your house after your parents had gone to bed; you slipped away into the warm humid night. The only sounds you heard were the frogs down at the lake, the crickets at the edge of the woods, your own muffled footfalls on the path through the trees. Some of the other boys were already waiting for you in the shadowy thickets near the edge of the brown boy's backyard.
The shed was closer to the woods than to the house. It was old, and it was rundown; even looking at it now in the shadowy half-light you could make out the peeling paint and the places where there was a board loose or missing. There were a few minutes of hushed, hissing discussion among you as to who would step out into the clearing and do it, but in the end it was decided that since it had been your idea, you should be the one. Someone pressed the box of wooden kitchen matches into your hand.
You felt exposed, almost naked, crossing the few yards of dry grass that separated the woods from the shed; the match was torch-bright when you struck it against the rough strip on the side of the box. You tossed it hurriedly through the broken windowpane into the shed and darted back to the shelter of the trees.
At first, as you waited, you couldn't be sure it had worked, but just as you'd really begun in earnest to dread having to go out and try again, you saw a tendril of smoke drift up from a crack in one of the old boards. You watched in fascination as the first glimmers of firelight glowed in the darkness. Your compatriots murmured muffled sounds of admiration; someone thumped you hard on the back in approval. You dared to breathe again.
The explosion, when it came, took you a stunned moment to comprehend. You'd always thought explosions were necessarily accompanied by the sudden, Hollywood-loud bang that they made on TV, but the sound of this one was only a whoosh, as if the fire had taken a gasping breath and blown out a mouthful of flame like some kind of dragon. The roof of the dilapidated shed lifted off in a towering spray of sparks and shrapnel that scattered, on the thick summer wind, toward the brown boy's sleep-dark house, raining fire down onto its roof.
You were running before you had time to realize you were doing it. Something in the shed, your mind screamed -- maybe a can of paint thinner, maybe an old lawn mower, its tank still half-full of fuel -- you should have looked, you should have checked it out. You stumbled heavily over something on the ground, righted yourself without falling, ran on harder. You realized you were still clutching the matchbox, crushing it in your fist. You flung it away into the night as you fled.
Somehow you made it home, made it back into the dark house, made it into your room. You toed off your muddy sneakers and huddled, still dressed, under the thin blanket on your bed. Your own heartbeat was so loud in your ears that it almost deafened you to the firehouse sirens when they began to blow a little while later. When the telephone rang, you heard your father come out of the bedroom to answer it; you heard your mother's voice down the hallway, raised in a question; your father said the brown man's name, said something about a fire, about taking him to a hotel. The front door slammed and you heard the car's engine cough to life in the driveway below your window, and after it pulled away the nighttime quiet fell over the house again.
You must have fallen into some insensible state. Maybe you slept. When you came to yourself, when you looked around, it was dark and quiet; you sat up and peered out the window and saw that the station wagon was in the driveway where it belonged. If you had been wearing your pajamas instead of your clothes you could have believed it had only been another nightmare.
Without quite deciding to, you found yourself swinging your legs over the side of the bed and reaching for your sneakers. For the second time that night you let yourself out the back door into the whispering night and made your way toward the brown boy's house.
For the second time that night you stood in the shadows of the trees at the edge of the clearing.
The house had been almost half burned away. Charred beams stood out like bones on the north side, facing the shallow, blackened hole in the ground where the shed had stood. The stench was like nothing you had ever smelled -- not clean like a campfire, or like the fire your father laid in the hearth at Christmas; it was thick and ugly, and it seemed to reek of destruction and hate. For a moment you felt light-headed and wondered if you might vomit, and you clenched your teeth and turned away from the skeleton of the house, and skirted the woods, heading toward the front of the building.
He was sitting on the front step, so still that at first you didn't even see him there; your eyes only made out his form when he moved, shifting the shadowy object resting across his knees. For a few dizzying seconds you supposed he'd been killed, and that you were looking at a ghost, but then he put one brown hand to his mouth and coughed.
What made you step out of the shadows? What made you cross the driveway and approach him? Were you going to tell him what you'd done? You didn't know then; you would never quite know, even after many years had passed. But you found yourself standing in the open, a few yards from the brown boy who was sitting in the ruins of his home with a rifle across his lap.
When you found your voice, you asked him what he was doing there; you only realized after the words had left your lips that it sounded as if you thought he still had no right to be in this place. He said -- and this was the most you had ever heard him say -- that he was guarding it, so that the looters could not steal his family's possessions before they could gather them up and take them away.
Looters? You were puzzled. There are no looters here, you told him.
He shrugged, and answered in his soft voice with its curious accent that in his country, it was the way -- that the eldest son must stand guard until the family's valuables had been safely removed.
You thought you wanted to say something more, but the brown boy had already turned away from you, dismissing you. There was nothing you could have said anyway, you realized, and you stepped back, half-fearing and half-hoping as you turned away that the brown boy would raise the rifle and take you down on the spot.
You reached the edge of the trees without incident, and faded into the sheltering darkness, but you couldn't walk away. You turned back toward the house, and sank down onto your haunches; you crouched there in the shadows, keeping vigil with the brown boy, until the first hints of daylight began to break through the trees in the east.