A caravan rolls in just before noon. The cadre of men and women who serve as the compound’s security force conduct their standard check – no weapons, no drugs, no explosives – and Scully’s up next, checking everyone in the group for signs of disease.
She’s only had to turn someone away once: a little girl with a rattling cough that Scully was certain meant tuberculosis. TB has wiped whole settlements off the map. Towns they used to trade information and goods with, gone in a matter of weeks. Whatever antibiotics are left have no effect on this new strand of disease. It’s not something they can risk.
The girl’s parents begged. They begged, and over and over Scully told them no, her face and voice emotionless. She’s had so many years of practice. Eventually the family left.
They’d had another child, too. A boy, maybe nine or ten years old. Like the parents, he had no symptoms. Scully offered, at the time – she offered to let the boy stay. Promised to care for him, as best she could.
That was the moment, she thinks, when they finally understood – when they finally realized that this was the end of the road. That no settlement would let them in, that indeed their only choices were to abandon their daughter or accept their own exile. And of course, that is no choice at all. Scully knows.
The woman had looked at her then. Her eyes skating past Scully’s face to focus on Will, standing a few yards away. “That’s your boy,” the woman said. It wasn’t a question. “Would you leave him?”
Of course, it is no question at all.
She wonders sometimes what happened to that family after they walked away. They risked the mountains, even though they were warned. They had nowhere else to go – they’d tried every other direction.
Today’s group comprises fifteen people on foot, pulling carts behind them. Men and women and children, all clean and well fed enough. Scully shines a flashlight into their eyes and ears and mouths. How little she knows of the visitors from these brief checks, and how much. One man’s tongue has been cut out. Scully swallows the bile in the back of her throat and asks no questions.
“Cough,” she instructs a teenage boy, about Will’s age. Her voice is muffled by the mask she wears.
She nods to Cassie, one of the guards, and the group is cleared for entry.
They filter in through the gates, and Cassie leads them through to the courtyard. A couple of them start setting up shop. All the usual traveler businesses – people selling things they’ve scavenged from the homes of the dead, food and jewelry and books. One man has gathered a collection of eyeglasses, hundreds of pairs, and he sets them out on a table for people to try on.
She’s seen these men before. Glasses are a precious commodity. She never looks too closely at their wares.
When they were young. Mulder staring at her over the rims of his glasses, feet up on his desk. Mulder sprawled across a motel bed, making furious, illegible notes on another file, glasses falling down his nose. Her hands, taking them off, setting them down somewhere they won’t get in the way.
Someone has scavenged their house by now, she’s sure of it. Which means his glasses are sitting on a table just like this, in a settlement just like this. She never wants to find them.
One woman sets up a tent and lays a blanket out in front of it. Cross-legged in a long, flowing skirt Melissa might have worn thirty years ago, she starts shuffling a deck of cards. Scully flinches.
She hates these “psychics” most of all. Worse than looters and thieves, they’re charlatans, preying on the desperation of the new era. Scully would turn them away at the gate if she had the authority.
The woman looks up and makes eye contact from across the courtyard, her hands still working the cards. Scully refuses to look away first. This is her home.
The woman’s lips turn up at the corners and she lowers her lashes, acceding to Scully’s position. But she stays there, shuffling.
Scully walks toward the bookseller’s table and rifles through the piles. It’s a better selection than she’s seen in months. She picks out a mostly empty composition notebook first, then starts going through the books. Ever since they came here she’s been looking for Moby Dick, or any of the Harry Potter books, for Will – he’s eighteen now, but she knows there are some things you don’t grow out of.
One spine sticks out from the others. She doesn’t have to be able to read the title to recognize it.
Mulder had gotten a whole box of them from the publisher. He gave most of them away, but copies would still appear all over the house; she’d find them under the couch, on the kitchen counter; for a while it seemed like every time she opened the hall closet, copies of his book fell out.
The woman working there follows her gaze. “I’ll cut you a deal for both,” she says, her voice gruff. “That one and the notebook.”
Scully licks her lips. Exhales. All the nights he stayed up late writing. How he’d come to bed still wired from whatever new discovery he’d made, sliding his hand across her hip and whispering the secrets of the universe into her ear. It took him four years to write it. He’d read passages out loud to her, trying to figure out if his words made sense. There are parts she still knows by heart.
“Just the notebook,” she says.
She makes her trade just as her neighbors are starting to come into the courtyard. Word of new arrivals always travels quickly. Scully watches. From hard experience she knows that the first thing you do is search the faces of all the strangers, hoping that one of them will be someone you’ve lost. In over a year, she’s never seen it happen. Even now, the world is just too big.
One by one their shoulders drop; residents and newcomers alike settle back into their accustomed hardness. There is no one here for you. There is no one you belong to.
And just a half-second later, business begins, friendly and loud, like the rest of it never happened at all.