Title: Ghost Lights
Keywords: Challenge Fic, Halloween, post-col
Spoilers: William, The Truth
Disclaimer: Mine, wish they were.
Summary: Halloween night just isn't the same.
A cold wind picked at the pair who hurried down a deserted sidewalk, past dark windows set into the uniformly gray buildings of the business district; all the businesses were legally required to close by 5:30 p.m. The boy held his father's hand tightly, and his short legs struggled to match the tall man's stride. His father wanted to slow down, to give the boy a breather, but it was dangerous to be out at night. Especially that night. As it was, the streak of red, crimson as blood, was already wide in the sky.
"Dad, why do we have to walk?" the little boy sniffed. His cheeks were red, and even though his longish brown hair, exactly the same color as his father's, hung in his hazel eyes, it didn't do much to keep him warm. Octobers had grown colder over the past few years, and the official weathermen said it might snow.
"The car broke down, you know that." It had, two miles back. Like all cars of the day, it was small, fuel-efficient, and not terribly reliable. Unfortunately, the last was a manufacturing goal that had been well met.
The child stared up at him. "But why can't we get a taxi or something?"
"Have you seen anything that looks like a taxi?" his father asked rhetorically as they hurried down the empty sidewalk. People no longer carried phones with them, so the only chance of getting a taxi would be hailing one as it passed.
"No, sir," the dejected nine-year-old replied with a heavy sigh.
"That's why we have to walk."
There were no vehicles of any kind around. None had passed them, not even once in the two miles since they abandoned their malfunctioning car. He hadn't wanted to give up for dead, not at first, so they'd wasted a half an hour of the waning daylight as he fiddled under the hood and tried to coax it back to life. He hadn't expected to see any cars either, not on Halloween night. Most people had the sense to get home well before dark, and he wished that he'd had that sense too instead of going to visit his mother.
"How much farther?" the boy asked, beginning to whine.
"Four miles or so, Max," Will said through gritted teeth. It wasn't Max's fault that he walked so slowly, he was only nine after all.
"Four more miles? Dad, that's so far." Max looked around, clearly aware that the twilight was beginning to fade away.
"I'm sorry, Buddy. But there isn't much I can do about it."
"I wish mom had a car," Max said wistfully. "Then she could pick us up."
"Me too." He thought about repeating his father's favorite saying about if wishes were horses, but that seemed mean given that even a horse would have been handy right then. He and Max had both been taught to ride.
"Dad, can you..." Max broke off with a shiver, and stared down a long dark alley before looking away. "Can you tell me what Halloween was like? You know, before."
Before. No one ever had to elaborate when they use the word before. Everyone knew what they meant.
Will frowned to himself, and tried not to snap at the boy that there was no sense dwelling on the past. Memories of the past were always bittersweet, and Will didn't spend much time revisiting them. But when he looked down at his shivering son, he realized that Max would be slightly less miserable if he had something to distract himself with.
"Well," he began. "We used to dress up."
"As what?" Max asked, clearly perking up a little even as the shadows deepened around them.
"Oh, anything. Some people would dress up like their favorite cartoon characters, and others would pick outfits that were perennial favorites."
"Perennial?" Max repeated uncertainly.
"It means every year. What I mean is things like clowns and witches and vampires, the grim reaper and werewolves, things like that. You could see kids dressed as those things any Halloween."
"But why? How come they picked icky things?"
"People used to like to scare themselves a little. They'd dress up as scary things, and even go to special events were people in scary costumes would jump out at them to scare them silly. Those were called haunted houses."
"Oh," said Max. "We don't do things like that any more."
No, Will thought, they didn't. There weren't horror movies or scary costumes any more, though he could recall walking past a crumpled up mask five years earlier that had been discarded in a alley and so faded that he couldn't quite figure out what it had been meant to be. Partly these changes had come about because there wasn't much of a market for manufactured scares any more, but mostly because they were outlawed.
"Then what?" Max asked.
"Oh, then we went from house to house and said 'trick-or-treat' and people would give us candy."
Max looked puzzled. "Why would they do that?"
"It was tradition, Max. People liked to see what the kids would dress up as, and they would reward them candy."
"Do you know what a pumpkin is?" Will asked. "I'm pretty sure your mom showed you a picture of one in a book."
"Big orange thing, right? People grew them gardens." When gardens had still been allowed. It had been quite a while since people were allowed to grow their own food instead of buying it at state sanctioned stores.
Will nodded. "That's it. When I was a little boy, people would carve them, and put a candle inside."
Max gave him a skeptical look. "Dad! You're making that up."
"I'm not, I swear. We used to carve faces into them, and light them up."
"Why on Earth would you do that?"
"Another tradition. Once upon a time, hundreds of years ago, people believed that carving the faces and lighting up the pumpkin, or maybe a turnip in some places, would help keep evil spirits at bay," William explained. "Actually, that's what Halloween was all about beginning. By the time I was a boy, it was just for fun, but once upon a time people believed that spirits roamed the earth on October 31st, and dressing up as monsters would confuse them. Pumpkins would confuse them too."
"Oh." Max looked off in the distance, and Will guessed that he might be thinking about how dark it was. Neither Will nor Madison ever broke curfew, so this was one of the few times Max had ever been outside after dark when he wasn't in his own yard. "Dad, are we going to get in trouble?" Max asked, proving that Will's theory have been correct.
"I don't think so. We didn't mean to break curfew, so we shouldn't get into any trouble." He hoped. In all honesty, it actually depended upon who was there to scan Will's ID when they made it back to their apartment complex. He didn't tell his son this, because it was no use worrying about something that probably wouldn't happen.
Instead of being reassured, Max grabbed his arm. "Look!" he said, grabbing Will's arm.
Will followed his finger. In the distance, he could see a trio of green, glowing spheres. SensorShips. It wasn't good. Most of the guards were pretty lax when it came to enforcing the sundown curfew, but things were different when They were around. Will's grip on his son's hand tightened a little bit.
How had it all come to this? That was something that Will wondered again and again. "It's okay, don't worry."
But he worried. Things had felt tenuous for nearly two decades, but lately they seem to be unraveling even more. It was strange to think that he was more worried than he had been right after the invasion, despite everything that had happened since then. He couldn't stop imagining that humanity stood up on a precipice, and that someone was about to push them off at last.
He looked down at Max. Will's parents had been in their 40s when they adopted him, and when they talked to him about growing up and having children of his own, there had been the expectation that he would do so a little younger than that; perhaps in his early thirties, or maybe his late twenties. But that was before the breeding programs. Before the aliens accidentally, not that they ever admitted fault, killed off far more people than they intended to when they invaded in 2012.
No, neither Will nor his parents ever anticipated that people would be assigned a mate soon as they graduated from high school with the expectation that they would soon reproduce. Will had the feeling that his eleven-year-old self would have been very surprised to learn that he would have a child just eight years later. And two more besides since then, at home with his wife, safe and sound for the night.
Max broke into his reverie. "Dad, you said people liked to be scared. What was the scariest thing that ever happened to you on Halloween?"
I stayed out past curfew accidentally, and became terrified that I might have inadvertently targeted myself and my young son for reprogramming, Will thought. Of course he didn't say that. It would be monstrously cruel to do so, even if it was true.
"Um, the scariest thing that ever happened to me on Halloween was when I was eleven. It was the last year that there was any trick or treating." The fact that the invasion had started less than two months later didn't need to be said; even children Max's age were taught in school all about how the aliens had come to "help" humanity back in the December of 2012. Most people hated the fact that the propaganda was taught even in the earliest grades of elementary school, but many children didn't seem to buy into the hype the way they were intended to so grumbling was kept to a safe minimum.
"So before there were so many rules to keep us safe?" Max asked.
That actually was the intention of the myriad of rules that were imposed on what remained of humanity. When the invaders had planned to make their big strike against Earth, their estimations had been that only a small percentage of people would resist to the point of death. Will had once seen that estimate to be around ten percent. In the end, between resistance and disease, almost fifty-five percent of all human life was extinguished. This left a population significantly smaller than the aliens needed to meet the goals they had outlined for colonization, so rules to keep people safe were draconically enforced by humans that the aliens could trust...and some of those invaders looked human enough when they wanted to anyway, so few people defied the guards, not when you didn't know if you'd be up against a man, or something much stronger that just looked like one.
It's kind of like Halloween, Will thought a little giddily, they play dress up too. He noticed that Max was looking up at him with a faintly alarmed look, and realized that he'd never answered the boy's question. "Um, yeah. It was the last time before then."
"Well, I went trick or treating with my friends Bobby and Edward. We had gotten a lot of candy, but Bobby had a good idea: we could get even better treats if we went over to the neighborhood where the wealthy people lived-"
"-back when people were allowed to be rich, huh?"
"Yeah." The aliens might not have ever met Karl Marx, but they would have liked him. They definitely had similar ideas about wealth distribution, and how people ought to be happier if there were no longer significant gaps between the rich and the poor. "Anyway, we both agreed with Bobby, but trick or treating was only for two hours, which was a problem. Getting to that other neighborhood would have taken a long time...if we'd taken the conventional route. So, even though we knew that it wasn't a good idea, we cut through a swamp."
Max's eyes got wide, and Will felt a little better. He was definitely taking his son's mind off of the trouble they might be in once they finally got home. "A swamp?" Max squeaked excitedly. "They still had them then?"
"They did. People claimed that they were a good way to get rid of water pollution. We got half way through the swamp when it happened," Will said ominously.
"What?" Max half-yelled, taking the bait.
"Shh!" Will hissed, automatically looking around for Them. People who made a scene in public were often dealt with harshly. "How many times have I told you and Daniel not to shout?" Before long Will would be keeping an eye on Corrine's volume too, but just then she was only fifteen months old and even They realized that infants were noisy.
"Sorry," Max mumbled.
"It's okay. Anyway, we'd gotten halfway through the swamp when Edward shouted a lot louder than you just did. Bobby and I demanded to know what was wrong, but he wouldn't say anything. He just pointed."
Fascinated, Max dropped his voice to a whisper. "At what?"
"Fifty feet from where we stood, several green glowing balls hung in midair. They were bigger than the softballs they made us use in gym class."
"Did you think that the-" Max thought better of what he'd been about to say and clamped down on his tongue for moment. "-Helpers made 'em?"
"No, this was before They came, remember?" Not that the thought of aliens mightn't have occurred to them anyway. But then, just before the invasion, aliens only seemed to visit sleeping people who weren't wrapped too tight, and the occasional drunk in a pickup truck.
"Edward started to babble about ghosts, and we yelled at him, telling him not to be stupid. I don't know what Bobby thought, but I was pretty well convinced that we were the victims of a prank set up by high school kids who'd snuck into the science lab."
"Was it big kids playing a joke?"
"Nope. Once no one laughed at us for being gullible, and the balls began to bob around... Edwards's ghost theory started to sound more realistic."
"What did you do?"
"We ran like hell. And the glowing blobs seemed to follow us!"
Max's eyes were wide with shock and delight. "No way!"
"It sure seemed like it." Will smirked at the memory of the three of them crashing through the swampy darkness while the glowing spheres mindlessly trailed after them. They were damn lucky no one with a video recorder happened by at just that moment.
"That does sound scary," Max remarked.
Since his son showed no signs that he realized they had nearly reached the checkpoint, Will decided to keep talking. Maybe Max would continue to be too distracted to notice that twilight had long since slid into night. "I won't lie to you, we were almost scared enough to wet our pants by the time we got out of that swamp."
"Did the glowing balls follow you out of the swamp?"
"That's what struck us as weird - they didn't. We looked around everywhere for them, but they were just gone, disappeared."
"They couldn't leave the swamp?"
"Right, but we didn't know that until later, so we kept looking around for them, expecting them to pop back up any moment. Edward was more scared than me or Bobby, so he began to insist that we go home immediately, which made me mad. I yelled at him that we'd gone to all that trouble to get to the rich neighborhood, and it would be stupid to go home without trick-or-treating. Bobby quietly listened to us argue before asking Edward if he really wanted to turn around and go through the swamp again. Edward said no, of course, so I got my way."
"Dad, did you really go back through the swamp once you got your candy?"
"No, and I don't think Bobby really meant for us to, either. He was banking on Edward being too freaked out to even think that we could take the long way home, and it worked. We were almost done trick-or-treating went Edward suggested we go home the other way. Bobby and I told him it was a great idea, like neither of us had thought of it ourselves."
"That's kind of mean."
"I guess it was."
"Hey, you said you didn't know then that the balls couldn't leave the swamp until later, so how did you find that out?"
The checkpoint was coming into view, so Will spoke faster. "As soon as we got to Edward's house, he decided that he needed to confess, and told his mother everything. She immediately began laughing and didn't stop until we indignantly demanded to know what was so funny. Our 'ghosts' were nothing more than balls of swamp gas."
"That's all?" Max looked a little disappointed.
"Yup, and we felt pretty stupid-"
"Especially Edward, I bet."
"-But she told us not to feel bad because they been spooking people for hundreds of years, and one of the nicknames for them was ghost lights, so plenty of other people had mistaken them for ghosts too."
"I bet you all felt better then, knowing what you'd really seen."
Will looked over his shoulder; the green glow of the SensorShips was still out there. "You know, we did. But not so much that we ever cut through the swamp again at night." Not that there'd been much of an opportunity for that, Will thought but didn't say. By New Year's Day 2013, Will was the only one left. Edward and his sister had died of aliens' disease, and Bobby's family was taken away after his father was branded a resister. He hoped that they were long dead because it was better than the alternative...
"I wouldn't have gone-" Max's words dried up when he became aware that they were standing before the guard hut. He groped for his father's hand, and Will could feel the tremor that ran through his entire body.
The guard, one Will did not know by sight, gazed at them impassively. You wouldn't know from his blank face that he held so much power over them. "ID."
Will quickly handed over the plastic ID card that was stamped with his name, William Van De Kamp. The guard looked at it before looking briefly at Will's face. He peered down at the boy, but Max was only nine, and had not yet been issued his own identity card, so the child didn't hold much interest for the guard. Instead, he looked off into the distance, looking contemplative. "It's dark."
The coldness in the man's voice made something shrivel inside of Will. "Sorry. Our car broke down. We had to walk the last few miles."
The guard nodded briefly. "Where?"
"Sixth street, sector four."
Turning away, the guard focused his attention on the computer monitor in his hut instead. Will watched as he accessed the cameras for that street. Will's car soon came into sharp focus. In days gone by one might worry that a broken down car might be vandalized, but nobody would dare touch the car these days, not even if it stayed there for a week.
After a moment study, the guard looked back at Will. "Tomorrow be on time."
When the guard opened the gate to let them through, Will felt a sense of giddiness. He told himself that the story had been for Max's sake, but he had been using it to distract himself as well. It kept the gibbering part of his brain that insisted that they would immediately be dragged off for reprogramming at bay. And it had been wrong.
It was Will's instinct to thank the man profusely, but he didn't. There was something about the man's demeanor that made Will think that this was not a man at all, and displays of appreciation would not be welcomed, nor particularly well received. Growing up his parents had told him that his insistence that he could tell the men from the pretend men was mere self-indulgence. No one could see through their disguises. But Will thought he could... he just learned not to tell anyone else about his secret ability.
If Max knew that his father had been in terror that they would not make it home that night, he showed no sign of it. Instead, he scampered ahead of Will, saying "Wow, Mom's going to be really surprised that we're late. Do you think she'll be mad?"
"No." She'll be relieved that we came home at all. "I'm sure she's been worried."
"Oh, yeah, she would be. Do we have enough credits to buy her some flowers? That would make her feel good, after being scared tonight."
Will reached down and ruffled his son's hair. "That sounds a good idea."
When they reach their building, Daniel, age six, stood at the window watching for them, and Will watched as Madison's hand reached out and grabbed him just before he would've run outside. It was taking longer for them to rein in Daniel's impulse for dramatic gestures than it had Max's.
Madison had a million questions when they got inside, and Will was happy to answer them all. He was just happy to be home and safe, Max too.
Later, while Will brushed his teeth and put on his approved nightwear, he found himself thinking about the Halloween night he'd told Max about. He'd only told him part of the story. He would only ever tell him part of the story.
What Will didn't say was that the most frightening part of that night happened after he and his friends had parted ways for the evening. He had just reached the side of the house when he realized that he heard voices inside the house. Angry ones. Although he knew that it was wrong to eavesdrop, he sensed that this conversation was important, so he froze there to listen in.
"I know this is hard to hear, but-" an unfamiliar voice, a woman's, began to say, only to be cut off by William's father.
"He's not your son," he said harshly. "Not any more."
"You don't understand how important this is," an equally unseen man protested. "This is literally a matter of life and death."
"I think we've been more than polite," William's mother said tightly. "Other people would have thrown you out as soon as you mentioned aliens, let alone asked to take his blood."
William shivered. What only earth would these people want his blood for? Dimly, he realized that "these people" were his birth parents – he'd known since the age of five that he was adopted – but at that moment, he wasn't giving the fact much thought.
"To make a vaccine that will save people!" the unseen woman exclaimed.
"Right, a vaccine," William's father rumbled sarcastically. "One you claim can only be made if you bleed our little boy."
"You say that like we intend to drain him, but we only need a little blood. We're immune to the virus, but we only gained that immunity as adults. The research we've done over the last few years suggests that William's blood would work much better than ours since his immunity is coded into his DNA."
"You've said that you're a doctor, where? I want to tell them that they've mistakenly hired a crazy person."
"I'm not crazy," the woman, his biological mother, William finally allowed himself to think, said.
"Insisting that you need our son to help stop an alien invasion is beyond crazy," William's mother replied coldly.
An alien invasion?! William found himself thinking. That sort of exciting-terrifying thing was the theme of movies and books, not real life. That kind of thing wasn't possible because there was no life on other planets. Everyone said so, and everyone couldn't be wrong.
Apparently William's father had enough because he growled, "Leave. Go now before I call the police to make you leave."
A moment later the door creaked open and William dove behind a bush to position himself to watch them leave. They passed by the porch light, and he saw them. The woman was short and slight with red hair that caught the light like a brief flame. The man, on the other hand, was tall and rangy with hair and eyes just like William's.
It only took them a second to pass him, and part of him wanted to cry out, to demand their notice, but he didn't.
They were speaking in hushed tones. "Should we take...drastic measures?"
"I don't know. I just don't know."
William watch them leave, and felt helplessly conflicted.
In the end, they had opted for drastic measures a few weeks later, and had been hauled off in handcuffs as their reward. As far as Will knew, they had still been in prison for their kidnapping attempt when the ships arrived. He had no idea what might have happened to them after that.
Will sometimes thought about them, wondering what life might have been like had they succeeded. If there had been a vaccine, would there have been enough people to resist successfully? Had his parents, the people who had loved him and raised him since he was a baby, single-handedly caused everything that had happened? He tried not to think about that, but it was hard. That was one of the reasons he rarely visited. Until today, it had been eight months since he'd last seen them.
He went to stand by the window, and he could hear Madison trying to convince Corrine to go to sleep. The moon outside was bright enough to see that the three SensorShips he had spotted earlier had invited friends. Something was going on, but he couldn't turn on the news and expect to hear anything akin to the truth, so he just had to wait.
Wait and wonder. And hope that things were not about to take another turn for the worse.
Learn more about Ghost Lights here
Stay tuned for a 2014 story that's both a prequel and sequel to this one, Cotton Wool. now being posted!
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