DECEMBER 24th, 2010
"Uncle Mulder? What causes poverty?"
Matthew's relatively innocent question caught Mulder off-guard as he untied the last sleeping bag and placed it on the camping mattress. He stood up from his squatting position and shook his head at his twelve-year-old companion.
"It varies," he answered, and led the way back to the food court. They were on the upper level of the mall, walking past closed shops with their gates drawn and lights out. Sleeping bags lined the walkway, some cushioned by air mattresses and camping mattresses. The moving homeless shelter would find a new building every week, and this particular night required a bigger building than most churches could provide.
"Some people get addicted to drugs or alcohol and spend all their money on those things, so they can't pay rent. And they can't hold down a job because the drugs and alcohol affect their performance," Mulder continued, glancing down at Matt, who was paying rapt attention.
"Sometimes people lose their jobs and can't find new ones in time to pay their bills. Or they may have medical expenses that drain all their savings, and then lose their job on top of that. Sometimes people get a bad start, and their parents kick them out of the house when they're young. They may never get on their feet after that."
Matt nodded slowly, deep in thought.
"Then there are those who just can't seem to deal with life. Some people's parents never teach them how to manage money, how to go to work, how to try hard. They may grow up without parents at all, or they might grow up mostly on the streets, so it's all they know. There are so many variations that it's hard to pinpoint one reason," Mulder finished.
"Well, there is one solution, I guess. Even if it's short-term," Matt said. "We help out."
"That's right," Mulder agreed with a smile, and put his arm proudly around his nephew's shoulders. "We've got plenty, so we're volunteering what we've got — time and resources — to those who need a boost. We're trying to help them get on their feet."
"So that's what the career center's all about?" Matt asked. "They give help to people who never learned how to get a job and stuff like that?"
"They also give tutorials on how to find an apartment, and how to budget money. I want you to keep an eye out for a 'new' kind of homeless person."
"Who's that?" Matt asked, curious.
"Families. You're going to see a lot of that here—whole families who have been foreclosed, who don't have incomes because they've lost their jobs in this economy. Those people are usually the ones who use the career center. They know how to work and they may know how to save. But they need some advice as to how to rebuild their lives after everything fell apart."
Matt was quiet for a moment. "What if our house burned down?" he finally asked.
Mulder remembered being his age, before his sister was taken. These thoughts were prevalent in his mind even then. Normal prepubescent kids thought about all the things that could go wrong and realized the multitude of things that could derail their lives.
Mulder squeezed Matt's shoulders and then released him, and said, "You'd have a place to stay with your Aunt Dana and me. And your mom has insurance on the house and all the stuff inside, so it'd just be a little while before you got a huge check that would help you get started again.
This seemed to reassure the boy, because he nodded and stuck his hands in his pockets. "That's good," he said.
They arrived at the food court, which was bustling with volunteers. There were long rows of tables with food buckets available, a huge stack of plates, trays, and silverware, and servers ready to assist their homeless 'customers'. Scully was preparing the tables, placing napkins at the center of each table as a finishing touch on a huge endeavor. Feeding over 200 people was no small task.
Tara, who was helping Scully, waved at her son and Mulder as they approached. "Are the sleeping bags all set up?"
"Everything's good to go," Mulder answered.
Just then, the mall rumbled. Matt looked around and asked, "What was that?"
Scully glanced at her watch. "There's a huge Metro stop right below us and it's on the hour. You've never felt that before?"
Matt pulled out his cell phone and checked the time, and while checking his emails, said, "Yeah, but I've never felt it rumble that much. Must've been the express."
When Matt didn't put the phone away, Mulder said, "You're not gonna have time for that when they get here, Matt. If I were you, I'd go grab a granola bar because two hours from now you'll be hungry."
"You mean we won't have time to eat?" Matt asked, shocked.
Tara laughed. "You're barely going to have time to breathe. Once everyone's served, we'll eat the leftovers or eat what I brought. But not before then."
Matt put his phone away despondently.
"Don't worry, you won't go hungry," Scully reassured him. "Go get a snack now."
He hurried away to the McDonald's not far from where they stood, which was still open and manned with two teenagers. It was where the volunteers' belongings were being kept. No food was being served, but the McDonald's manager offered to keep it open for this event to volunteer his tables and chairs and the space behind the counter.
The Georgetown Moving Shelter representatives were manning the front doors of the mall, where about two hundred people stood in line outside awaiting entry. They would take their Moving Shelter ID's that proved they were not offenders and were safe to admit, and then the individuals could enter the mall, grab a meal, watch a movie, visit the career center, or simply go to sleep. Tomorrow they would leave and go wherever they went for the day, and tomorrow night the shelter would have moved all their supplies to their next location. The location schedule was distributed at each of their evening locations and at the regional office, which was open all day for new members to register and obtain an ID.
The first wave of individuals were admitted when the representatives opened the mall doors and began counting. They were admitted in groups of twenty five every ten minutes, and went in order of arrival. As Matt obtained his granola bar, the first wave came through the front door. He stood for a moment in the McDonald's, opening the wrapper and crunching down on the first bite, watching the twenty-five individuals enter the mall and present their IDs to the volunteers at the desk.
Numbers were entered in a laptop, which was secured to the folding table with a laptop locking cord. Matt saw one man eye that cord and it occurred to the twelve-year-old that he might want to steal it. It was worth a lot of money. He ate the next bite of his granola bar and watched, completely fascinated.
"Hey, dude, you better get over there if you're serving," a teenager behind the McDonald's counter said, but Matt didn't get the chance to answer him. Mulder's voice cut through the crowd.
He pocketed the remaining half of the granola bar and ran over to stand next to Mulder, who handed him an apron and pointed to the tray next to his. "This isn't Discovery Channel, it's work. Start serving mashed potatoes, kiddo."
Matt nodded, and tied the apron around his waist silently.
Soon there was a steady line of hungry homeless individuals seeking a warm meal and shelter for the night. At first hesitant as to what he should do, Matt soon got into a rhythm. A half hour into it, he was mimicking Mulder's question as each person came through. "Mashed potatoes, Sir?" "Would you like mashed potatoes to go with that beef?" "Merry Christmas."
They heard another rumble, and this time Matt almost lost his footing and the table shook so violently that the tray almost slid off. Mulder grabbed it at the last second and shoved it back into place, pulling his hand away quickly and shaking it from the heat of the dish. "Are you okay?" he asked Matt.
Matt nodded, but looked worried. The homeless had frozen in place, as if bracing for impact. Many of the servers had as well, and it was Scully who said from not far away, "If that was the train, I'm starting to question the structural integrity—"
As she was speaking, Mulder's eyes grew huge and he grabbed Matt and dove under the table in one swift motion. Scully stopped speaking and followed suit, although she couldn't see what he was looking at. It seemed everyone else had a delayed reaction in comparison, because the screams only erupted a moment later.
One level below them where there were still shops, the floor had cracked down the center of the two story opening and begun to cave into the subway station below. The building shook violently and chunks of concrete flew in a plume of smoke as dust filled their nostrils.
Mulder was brought right back to that room in Pakistan that had collapsed around him, the dusty surroundings clogging his airway and making it impossible to see. The table came down on top of them, and Mulder shielded Matt with his body as best he could while attempting to shield his own head from the impact with his arms.
The marble floor beneath them cracked and crumbled into the center opening, but it didn't cave completely. A tremendous roar filled the air, almost as a delayed sound effect. Mulder found himself screaming in pain from the sound alone, and that was before the smoke cleared enough for him to see the sight.
There in the opening of ground floor of the mall, only about a half a football field away from him, were two train cars at forty-five degree angles with each other. Sparks erupted from each car as chunks of concrete fell upon the wreckage. People cried out in anguish and fear. A baby cried. Someone screamed for help.
He recognized that voice. It was Scully's. "Scully!" he screamed back, and tried to get up. The table on top of him fell away, and he dragged Matt up by his armpits, adrenaline ripping through his body. He was met with the sight of his five-foot-tall partner directly in front of him.
"Oh, Mulder, thank God…we thought…" she threw her arms around him and Matt simultaneously, and only seconds later Tara joined in.
Matt stared at the wreckage in total shock, and Tara grabbed her boy and pulled him away, towards the almost untouched McDonald's. The front entrance of the mall had been covered in debris that seemed to spew from the wreckage. The tables that had once held volunteers and the laptop that checked ID's were now buried under enormous chunks of concrete and marble. Mangled doors could barely be seen where the mall entrance once was, and Mulder knew there were a lot of lucky bastards on the other side of that door who hadn't been granted admittance yet.
The agents took only a moment to take in the sight and decide what had to be done. The escalators were impossible to navigate , and the elevators were not safe either. There was no way to get down there unless they were to attempt to get to the back stairwell. But there were people down there who needed help, who were trapped in that mangled train and wouldn't receive help until it was too late.
The lights were flickering, but close to going out. Scully looked around her and saw that many of the homeless in the food court had been injured but just as many seemed to be okay. What she saw were no longer obligations or customers, but spare hands.
"Everyone listen up!" She screamed, and her commanding, high-pitched voice cut through most of the noise in the immediate vicinity. "If you aren't injured, I need you to get to the McDonald's! Gather in the McDonald's if you're not injured—you're going to help us treat the people who are!"
People started to move, mostly the volunteers who took Scully's command seriously and started gathering those who were otherwise standing still and awaiting instruction. Some of the homeless people were leading their friends into the McDonald's as well. Others stayed behind with their injured friends.
Scully turned to Mulder. "We need supplies. Rope to rappel down there. Medical supplies. Flashlights. There's a sporting goods store around the corner there—it should be untouched. Do you have your lock pick?"
He couldn't help but smirk. "What do you think?" She nodded and he took off, stopping at the McDonald's on his way to talk to Tara and Matt. "Matt, you have the best cell phone signal in this place. Can you call 911?"
Matt seemed dumbfounded for a moment, before he nodded and pulled his phone out. "What should I say?"
"Let me talk," Mulder said after he had dialed.
"911 what is your emergency?"
"This is Special Agent Fox Mulder, ID 10131120. I'm in the L'Enfant Plaza Mall, upper level above the Metro Stop. There's been a train collision. There are two train cars that came through the lower level roof of the mall and breached the shopping area. The main entrance to the mall is blocked off by rubble. We have about a hundred people in the mall right now for the Georgetown Moving Shelter, and I'm estimating about a quarter of them are injured and require immediate medical assistance. We haven't seen any passengers emerge from the train."
"I understand, Sir. I'm alerting the authorities right now. What is your status?"
"I'm uninjured. My partner and I are organizing relief efforts." He began walking towards the sporting goods store. "What is your relief capability?"
"Until the proper authorities have assessed the structural stability of the station, I can't tell you how soon we'll be able to get to you. The rear entrance to the mall should be untouched by your description. That may be a way in. If you stay on the phone I'll be able to get you updates in real time."
He pulled his lock pick and began to work on the gate in front of the store while balancing the phone between his shoulder and ear. "Do you have any indication as to the cause? Any other calls that came in that would indicate a terrorist attack, a power grid malfunction, anything?"
Only two summers ago, two trains had collided on the Red Line because of a faulty sensor telling one train that the other was not on the track when, in fact, it was.
There was a pause. "I'm cross-checking right now," the woman told him, and he successfully picked the lock and began working on the store's glass door lock. "We've had three calls come in from Train 499, reporting a suspicious-looking man in a suit. I've got three separate descriptions here, all of them…not likely. There may have been lighting problems on the train before it crashed, Agent Mulder."
"What were the descriptions?"
"The man is described in all three calls as wearing a DC Metro Rail Maintenance uniform, with white hair, and…depending on who gave the description, blue, green, or gray skin."
Mulder's upper lip twitched. "Why was he suspicious?"
"They describe the man as 'pacing' or 'stumbling' through the train cars. I don't have any further details, but you and your partner may want to watch out for this man, if he survived the collision."
"Thanks, I'll pass that information on."
"Agent Mulder, I'm reading a large electrical discharge on this line, I think we might—"
Her voice was replaced by a shriek that nearly broke Mulder's eardrum. He let the phone clatter to the ground, and he winced in pain, finishing her sentence. "Lose the signal…" He picked the lock, and gained entrance to the store.
He picked up the phone from the ground and put it in his pocket, and then grabbed a backpack and began stuffing everything he thought they might need inside of it. He took plenty of batteries, duct tape, two large rolls of rope, as many flashlights and lanterns as possible, every first aid kit on the shelf, and an entire box of granola bars.
After lugging all the equipment back with him, he dropped it in the McDonald's where Scully was organizing relief teams. She attempted to group the homeless with at least one volunteer as she told them how to organize the wounded—leaving the severely wounded where they were, assisting those who needed a bit of help, and instructing those who could to move under their own power into the McDonald's.
Matt and Tara were huddled together against the ordering counter, where the two teenagers were fearfully watching the entire thing and awaiting instructions.
Scully turned the 'floor' over to her partner when she said, "I need five people to go stand by Agent Mulder. He'll give you instructions on how to distribute supplies to people and make sure everyone has a flashlight and water when these lights go out."
"I also need three able-bodied, strong adults who are going to go with me down there to the train to try to get people out of there, and another three to go with Agent Scully to the rubble by the door and start to help people there."
Volunteers came in droves. It seemed among the homeless, willingness to help, or perhaps to just feel needed, was in abundance.