Mulder shifted on the couch and stared up at the ceiling in the gathering darkness. It was like a museum, this house: a life-size diorama of a family's life in the early seventies, only without the people themselves: no life, no emotions, no spirit, just artifacts, like the physical evidence recovered at an archaeological dig. But then that's what his family had become after Samantha was taken: the cast-off shell of something that had once lived and breathed.
Mulder rolled onto his side and ran his thumb along the dark, tight braid of hair in his hand. It had been in a box in the garage. He'd lifted a lid and there it was: her hair, something his mother had saved once, probably from the time Samantha'd decided she wanted bangs. She'd sat outside on a stool--it was right here, at the Quonocontaug house--with a towel around her shoulders, his mother combing the long, brown hair straight down in front of Samantha's face. He'd come up and teased her, told her she looked like Cousin It, and she'd squealed for him to cut it out. His mother had chased him off.
He brought the braid to his nose and sniffed. It smelled of hair. Not of her, but it was hers, an actual part of her he'd touched a thousand times, on a head that had tucked itself--much younger then, and smaller, the hair downy and soft--under his chin or against his shoulder. Hers, but not her. There was no life in it now; it carried no essence of her, the kind of thing a psychic might tune into in searching for her.
And what would Clyde Bruckman have said? Would he have taken the hair and closed his eyes, a pained expression crossing his face, and announced a time and date and manner of death? Would he have handed the braid to Bruckman if he could? Or would that have admitted too much?
Scully'd say, if she were being honest and not so damn set on saving his sanity, that it had been a dream, a necessary fantasy he'd been living with all these years: the crusade for an ideal and not the actuality of an eight-year-old girl who'd been no angel. She hadn't been. Samantha was screaming/hair flying/brightly-ribboned I'll-tell-on-you-Fox. And he'd been far from the perfect brother. He'd insisted on watching the Watergate hearings and then 'The Magician', but he'd held her--she'd come flying straight into his arms--when she panicked watching her father argue with Old Smoky on that terrible night. Just like when she was little. It was a sign, proof. There had been a connection between them. It wasn't just something his traumatized psyche had created in the aftermath of her disappearance.
Mulder rolled again, to the other side, and tucked the braid of hair under his chin. He closed his eyes and listened to his breathing in the dark.
She'd gone to his apartment again after work. She'd checked the computer, the refrigerator, the sink, the bathroom. This time she'd even ventured into the bedroom, though it was only stacked with boxes--files mostly--and he never used it, anyway. There was no indication that he'd been home. He'd always left some sign before, a flight number, or longitude/latitude coordinates... something. But this time there was nothing, and the only logical explanation was that he didn't want her to know where he was.
He was an adult. Well, for the most part he was, a survivor who sheltered hope like a candle flame. He'd offered it to her once when there seemed to be no hope left, none even remotely on the horizon. Hope and a hug she'd direly needed but could barely afford to accept.
He could take care of himself.
Scully rolled onto her back and pushed the pillow farther under her head. A patch of moonlight spilled across the bedspread and touched her hip. Her fingers went to her neck, searching out the small gold cross tucked inside the collar of her pajama top. She rubbed the polished surface softly with a thumb and stared out at the half-circle pouring its quiet light through the window. He'd kept the cross for her during the months she was missing. He hadn't left it in the evidence bag with her badge but had kept it himself and pulled it warm from his pocket when she wakened in the hospital, as if it had never been abandoned to cool into a piece of mere metal.
Scully closed her eyes. Behind them she found words, a piece of cross stitch from her mother's kitchen wall--a psalm. 'Thou knowest my thoughts afar off', the brown lettering said; she could picture the plaque with its flowered border. 'Thou compassest my path and my lying down.' She let her breath out slowly.
He needed space.
She just wanted him to be safe.
Mulder's eyes came open. Something...
He blinked and turned his head to listen. The house was silent and wasn't. Beyond the window the sky was black, littered with stars.
A dream. His cheeks were damp and he'd been dreaming, but the images were fading already, dissipating into nothing. There'd been some great sadness--overwhelming sadness--but Scully'd been there, too, a comfort up against his cheek.
On the far side of the room, a floor board creaked.
Mulder's breath caught. He held it, listening for subtle sounds.
A footstep, then another and another. Then silence.
A jolt of adrenaline and he was up, smooth and silent, on one elbow, lungs short of air, blinking against the thickness in his head. He strained to hear past the pounding of his blood.
A crackling sound could be heard from somewhere outside. Cool air flowed past his cheeks. Mulder glanced toward the door and saw that it stood open. The far side of the room was silent. The intruding presence was still there but it waited now, unmoving. Mulder blinked and then blinked again, straining to see. He forced himself to breathe quietly, in and out, in again, out again, a metronome of reassurance and fear.
A sudden light danced yellow and flickered against a tree trunk outside the window. Two more footsteps--tentative footsteps--came from across the room. Then nothing. Mulder's stomach tightened. The garage was on fire.
He wanted to lean, to bend. He visualized his gun on the floor and his arm reaching, stretching, fingers tightening around the cold, weighty metal of the Sig. But the bed would creak; he knew this mattress. Just hold. Breathe.
A step, then another and another, more casual now, as if whoever it was had satisfied himself that the place was empty. Mulder squinted into the shadows and saw movement. The sound of liquid sloshed inside metal. Then it spilled, as if someone were peeing on the floor.
Silently, smoothly, Mulder reached toward the floor, his hand stretching. His fingers reached around the cold, heavy weapon and nicked off the safety. Slowly he slipped from the bed into a crouch. Inside, his blood raced, throbbing. The smell of gasoline filled the room.
Mulder circled behind the bed, around the dining table, careful to stay low and in the shadows. Then he dove--slow-motion, it seemed--at the figure in front of him.
The man went down--not a big man or a small man, but one about his own size. Mulder punched, hoping for a face, and contacted a cheekbone. His fist stung, then pain exploded in his ribs as he was kneed. They rolled, Mulder pulling on his opponent, the other man grunting and scrambling to get away. The side of Mulder's face smashed into a table leg but he punched again, catching the man square in the nose. There was a shriek and Mulder dragged his opponent quickly toward a patch of light. His heart jolted.
"Krycek, you bastard!"
But Krycek rolled, slipped free and staggered to his feet. "What are you doing here?" he gasped. "Get out of here, Mulder!"
More gas spilled on the floor.
"Like hell I will."
Mulder sprang, catching his adversary at the knees and slamming him into the wall. Krycek went limp.
Mulder paused, gulped in a breath, then lurched toward the cell phone he'd left on a chair next to the bed. When he came through the doorway, flames were breaking through the garage roof, beginning to lick at the shingles.
From his vantage point on the grass near the curb, hands around his knees, Mulder watched them fight the fire. The action was somehow distant, like an old movie with the color slightly off and not quite real. Bursts of yellow-gold sparks flew into a black sky, carrying away his past converted into bits of papery ash. It was the old familiar pattern: everything disappearing the way his sister had, or like the evidence he was always seeking. Everything vanished. His investigations began as hope, as a faith in something unseen, and turned at some point into vivid reality he could witness, touch, sometimes even photograph or measure. Then the evidence was always gone, snatched away or lost in some way he could never anticipate, and he was left, once again, as nothing more than a prophet, proclaiming what those around him could neither see nor accept.
The house was burning now, too, the result of shifting air currents, or chance, or maybe just the force of the wind created by the blaze itself. Mulder watched as yellowed technicolor flashbacks overlay the scene in front of him: his then-young father angry and yelling, the Smoking Man glaring at him from the doorway, his bitter accusation--"You're a little spy!"--echoing and re-echoing. Then a time not so long ago, being here and breaking lamps against the brick wall of the living room, picking a strange, cylindrical object from among the shattered pieces: the weapon Old Smoky had wanted.
Smoky would have been the one who sent Krycek to do this.
What was it with Krycek, anyway? He couldn't be the only goon Smoky had working for him, and yet they kept crossing paths, with Krycek doing more damage each time. Maybe assignments were drawn out of a hat and Krycek just had bad luck. Or maybe, when Smoky handed him the hat, every piece of paper inside it said 'Mulder'.
Shadow-forms approached from across the lawn and faces leaned close, coming into focus: a sheriff who needed to file a report; a couple of EMTs who wanted to check him over, wash the blood--Krycek's blood--from his hand, fuss over the cut on his cheek where he'd smashed into the chair leg. He let them do their work and kept his eyes on the house: the doors, the windows. Krycek had escaped through a window after he'd shot his father. He'd smooth-talked his way out of a cell in a Russian gulag, leaving Mulder to be subjected to the black Oil. He'd managed--somehow--to make his way out of a locked room in an abandoned missile silo. Maybe this time his luck had run out. Maybe he'd finally met his fate, a victim, in the end, of his own treachery. The firefighters had gone into the house early on, searching until the flames drove them back, but no Krycek had emerged--not under his own power, and not over anyone's shoulder.
There was a sudden, sharp pain near his temple as the EMT worked on it; Mulder gasped. His eyes watered and he noticed the sky suddenly--a thinning gray now--and a little group of spectators. He felt heavy-headed, as if he'd been awake for weeks. When the EMTs finally let him go, he wandered around to the back of the house, away from the gathering crowd. The press would follow soon enough. An arson fire would make the front page in a sleepy little place like this, and he had no need to broadcast his whereabouts by getting caught in a press photo. If Scully saw the pictures, she'd know. And then she'd worry.
Mulder headed for a clump of trees where the lawn dropped away to the water's edge and sat down. They'd played hide-and-seek here, he and Samantha, under these trees. He'd hide behind the biggest trunk and she'd go off in some other direction, searching and calling, until he'd step out, touch base, and call to her that he was safe. Then her hands would fly to her hips, her nose would wrinkle and she'd blurt out, "Not fair, Fox!"
Mulder looked up and across the yard. A thickness suffused the scene, a kind of sleepy unreality. His eyes wanted to close. He leaned forward and rested his head on his arms.
Krycek had wanted him out. Why? He'd said it almost without thinking, a gut reaction, and Krycek's gut reaction was never to save anyone. Why this house, here in Quonocontaug? No one lived here. Unless it was a move to get to his mother somehow, to pressure her for something.
He squinted up to see a deputy; behind her, the sky was too bright. The house was four blackened walls now, standing like the borders of an open courtyard. Smoke and steam drifted from the wreckage.
"They've gone back in and checked. There was no body inside the house."
"Are you sure?"
"They checked twice." She shook her head. "There's nobody in there."
He nodded and turned away, grimacing at the stubble that coated his cheeks and chin. The light hurt his eyes; he just wanted to close them.
His mother would have to be told, but how would she react? Would she fall apart or would she be relieved to have this accumulation of the past finally gone, taken away so she didn't have to make the decision herself? And what about her after all? Was she safe? Or was she just a pawn in another attempt to get to him, the way they'd used Scully?
Mulder got slowly to his feet. He had to go to her.
The drill descended out of a blinding light, its high-pitched whine heralding a pain she knew too well.
Scully gasped and sat bolt upright in the darkness. Gripping the edge of the pillow beside her, she made herself breathe in, then slowly out, willing her body to ease its sudden frantic pace. Gradually, the rhythm of her heart slackened.
The moon was gone from the window, leaving only a thin, angled shaft of light on the carpet. Scully eased herself off the bed, reached for her robe and went to the glass, searching for moon or stars--anything to focus on to keep the pictures in her head at bay.
Better to head for the kitchen, toward the light and its safe, reassuring things: the soft comfort of the sofa, the tea kettle, the vase with the deep yellow sunflower she'd placed on the table tonight. Scully sighed, ran a finger along the window ledge and looked up into indigo sky.
Cassandra Spender had sat beside a window in her wheelchair once, marking a pattern on the glass--an all-too-familiar pattern that had drawn Scully in a way she couldn't put to words. She hadn't felt that call since Cassandra disappeared, but the memory of it, together with the nightmares that still came--the bright lights, the men, the drill spinning so rapidly it was only a blur, and the terror--all these things were jolting, recurring reminders that normal life, life with its conventional assumptions of future and security and family, had forever passed beyond her grasp like a plane she'd failed to catch.
Scully wrapped the robe around her and went to the kitchen to put the kettle on to boil. In the cabinet she found a mug and a tea bag and set them on the counter. She made her way slowly to the couch, around the back of it, and back to the kitchen, letting her fingers trace the tile pattern in the countertop, waiting for the kettle to boil. When it did, she poured the steaming water into her mug and carried it to the couch.
Curling into the corner of the sofa, she took a sip, forcing herself to concentrate on the flavor trickling hot down her throat, willing the dream-images into the shadowed corners of her mind.
She'd made a promise to Penny Northern that she wouldn't give up. And she'd made a promise to herself, after Penny died, that no matter what else she did with her life, she'd work to solve the mystery of who had done this to her, not just for her own peace of mind but for all the others who would continue to be taken if she didn't act, and especially for Penny and the rest of the women who had lost their lives from the aftereffects of the tests.
Scully held the mug under her chin and let its warmth drift up onto her face. She needed to keep that promise. But it was more than one person could do--to find these truths and expose the men behind them. And Mulder was gone.
How was she to do it now?
Mulder looked up and willed himself to focus. His mother stood in the doorway, her eyes filled with worry.
He opened his mouth and when nothing came out, he shrugged. There was blood across his T-shirt--that bastard Krycek's blood--and a cut on his cheek. He hadn't shaved in... he didn't remember how long, maybe two days.
"Sorry, Mom." He squinted against the brightness. He only wanted to close his eyes and sleep.
His mother opened the door wider and stepped onto the porch. "Fox, whatever happened to you? Were you in an accident?"
"I... I'm okay, Mom." He stepped forward and into her tentative embrace. "I'm okay."
He stayed there a moment, eyes closed, his cheek against her shoulder. Her gray hair was turning white. He couldn't recall when it had started to do that.
"Come in, Fox. Sit down. You look like you need to rest."
He straightened and followed her through the hallway. In the living room he sank into an armchair and let his head fall back. His eyes closed; he made them open. She was standing, waiting.
"Would you like some coffee?"
"No." He shook his head against the back of the chair. "I've been running on coffee all morning."
"Let me fix you something to eat, then," she said, turning toward the kitchen. She seemed eager to get away.
"Look, Mom--" Mulder pulled forward in his chair. "Sit down. I need to tell you something." He swallowed.
She stopped, then came to the end of the sofa nearest him and sat down on the edge of the cushion. He took a deep breath.
"It's the Quonocontaug house, Mom. It's gone. Burned down."
She said nothing, just looked at him wide-eyed, uncomprehending.
"I went up there yesterday, Mom. I was looking through some things... in the garage--" His voice was going gritty, the way it did when he was on the verge of emotional overload. He eased his breath out slowly. "I decided to stay over. And I woke up in the middle of the night, and... the garage was on fire."
"But how could that be?" The lines in her face seemed a little deeper, more defined than he remembered.
"It was arson, Mom. I kind of ran into the guy who was pouring the gasoline," he said, touching the side of his face. The pain made him wince.
"Did you catch him?"
"I thought I had." He shook his head. "But he got away." Somehow, Krycek always got away.
His mother stared at the coffee table and at nothing. "But who would--" Her face went taut.
"He's the guy who killed Dad."
Teena Mulder sank slowly back into the cushions. There was pain in her eyes now, years of it. "It never stops. It never leaves you. They never leave you," she whispered hoarsely, and then stopped abruptly. He watched her breathing, the up and down of her dress. She was weary and dry-eyed, beyond tears. "And the house, Fox?"
"Gone, too. The wind blew the sparks. I--" He pulled something from his pocket, something dark.
"I, uh--" He took a breath and attempted to smile. "I came away with this. I ran outside-- I... I didn't even know I had it with me." He handed her the braid of Samantha's hair and leaned forward, resting his head in his hands. There was no sound, only the rhythm of his breathing, in and out, and the hollow ticking of the mantel clock. Finally a hand touched his shoulder.
"Fox, I am so... so very sorry--" It was softer, not the edgy voice she used when he'd ask her to remember something and she'd say she couldn't, that it was all too long ago, while her eyes were sharp, brittle, demanding Why are you doing this to me, hurting me this way? "I'm sorry for this life we've had, for the way it's been for you--" She sighed. "I only wish I'd--"
Mulder looked up. "No, Mom." He shook his head. "It wasn't your fault. There was nothing you could have done. These men, they do whatever they want. They take whoever they want."
Reaching out, his fingers found his mother's and held them. On the mantel, the clock ticked empty time.
"I'm tired, Mom," he said finally. "I need some sleep."
Teena Mulder paused in the doorway to her spare room. From behind her came the soft chime of the mantel clock sounding three. Sunlight streamed through the eyelet curtains and onto the end of the white bedspread that covered the length of her sleeping son. Her eyes traced the line of his cheek, the curve of his chin, the color in his lips. His forehead was creased with subtle lines; stubble spread shadow-like across cheek and jaw.
She pictured him asleep at six months, and at six years, and at sixteen.
Even when the scene before her went watery, she found herself unable to turn away.
"Sir?" Scully said, incredulous.
Kersh beamed at her from across the expanse of his desk. "Congratulations, Agent."
Scully forced a smile. It was as if the wind had been knocked out of her and she was trying to breathe again.
"You'll report to Quantico Monday morning."
"Yes, sir," she said, repeating the smile more fluidly this time. She stood automatically to shake the hand Kersh offered and headed, dazed, for the door.
Beyond the shadow of Kersh's office, the secretary smiled under fluorescent light and Scully made herself smile back, a conscious coordination of mind and muscle. In the hallway she reminded herself to steer a wide berth around passersby. She walked a straight line, but inside her thoughts swirled like dry leaves in a whirlwind.
It was a strategy, a ploy.
It was the position that would make the laudable career, the one that would make her family proud--would have made even her dad beam to tell his friends that his daughter was nested high in the teaching faculty of the FBI Academy. Full professor. A solid, prestigious career; something to show for herself and her life. Respect and respectability.
It was the logical subsequent step to dismissing Mulder. Disable him, move her out of range.
She paused by a window and looked out, unseeing.
Bill would be proud. Her mother would be encouraged, beaming. And what would Melissa say, if she were still alive, if she could talk to her about this?
Missy would say to follow her heart, to listen to what her insides were telling her.
Scully ran her fingertips along the smooth-grained railing. Her fingers squeezed the wood, gripping against a rising, invisible tide.
Traffic moved steadily past the row of parked vehicles at the curb. Scully set down the cardboard box and raised her hand to hail a cab. She'd spent the last of the afternoon cleaning out her desk, absently sorting objects and documents while her mind remained trapped inside the news Kersh had given her.
A pleasant male voice came from behind her. She turned to find herself looking into John Byers' neatly trimmed beard.
"Do you need a ride, Agent Scully? We have some information you may find interesting."
She paused and tried to force away the concerns of the afternoon. "Yes. Yes, I do. Thank you."
A creaky VW bus pulled up in front of the row of newer cars lining the curb and stopped. The door slid open. Langly grinned at her from the passenger seat, his signature yellow mane framing his face; Frohike was behind the wheel. They reminded her suddenly of two cartoon characters, a lion and a dwarf. Byers picked up her box; Scully climbed inside and slid across the seat.
"Agent Scully," Frohike said, turning briefly to acknowledge her with a nod.
"What's going on?" she said.
The van pulled away from the curb. Scully gripped the back of Frohike's seat for balance.
"That's what we'd like to know," Langly drawled, turning around, the black rims of his glasses stark against his wild blond hair.
"Wait, I thought you guys had information for me."
"We do," Byers said. "But where's Mulder? We haven't been able to reach him."
"Mulder was 'dismissed' from his position two days ago," Scully began carefully, pausing to consider how much she should say. "Skinner thinks he was set up. I do know Kersh deliberately sent me off to pick up evidence so I wouldn't be there when it happened. I didn't even know about the review until I got back, and by then Mulder was already gone." She took a slow breath, caught up again inside the moment she'd heard the news. It had come like a sudden gunshot, the unexpected burst that changes everything.
"... 'net this morning," Langly was saying.
"Excuse me?" She willed herself to focus.
"I was surfing the Net this morning, and I came across this." He turned and handed her a printout. It was a police and fire report from somewhere in Rhode Island.
"There, on the third line," Langly said, pointing.
"Mulder's family does have a place there, in Quonocontaug, don't they?" Byers asked.
"Yes..." Scully said.
"And you haven't had any contact with him since Tuesday?"
"No. No, I tried. I went to his apartment twice. He usually leaves something on his computer, something so I'll know where he is, but--" Cars and buildings passed the window in a blur. "There was nothing there."
She swallowed against a sudden pressure in her throat and looked down. All four passengers fell silent.
"We'll keep our eyes and ears open," Byers said finally. "We'll let you know as soon as we hear anything."
Scully attempted to smile. After a moment she turned to watch the
darkening blur beyond the window, her ears filled with the high-pitched
whine of the engine.
DISCLAIMER: The X-Files and its characters are the legal property of Chris Carter, 1013 Productions and Fox Broadcasting, though in practice the series' universe and its character have become part of the collective cultural landscape of the show's many fans worldwide. This story is a derivative work, one viewer's exploration of situations and possibilities left untapped within the series. I make no money through these efforts; I just get the writing practice and the satisfaction of gifting fellow fans with these explorations of some very memorable fictional characters and their world.
© bardsmaid 2005 |