Chapter 1: apophenia
Her face is close, so close, and he watches it happen like a highway safety video. Catastrophic Collisions: It Could Be You . He knows that he should draw away, that this will end badly, that he’s going to be telling her in five seconds that he doesn’t want this, that the fallout of it will inflict genetic disorders on the next five generations of their conversations. And yet. In a split-second of selfish, self-righteous weakness he thinks: I want to do it anyways. I want to know. Why the fuck not.
Her mouth is on his. Warm and peregrine. An introduced species. It’s her decision. Why the fuck not.
Her mouth is opening, and he shouldn’t respond to it because he’s going to stop this in three more seconds. But he’s in this now, and he wants to. He’s spent the last six months numb and with near-constant acid reflux, his chest sometimes aching so persistently that he considered whether he might actually need to see a doctor. He is so sick of caring. She almost died. Why the fuck not.
His hands go to her hair and he turns the kiss into something almost clinically deep. As if he’s performing it. Making an encyclopedic entry. Data entry. Dana entry. This is what it’s like to do this with her.
Their faces switching sides like turns of the screw. Once, twice.
Coup de grace, he pulls her against him. Her fingers on his ears. Not urgent but firm, a commitment in it that breaks his heart. She’s always committing to him, goddamn her. God bless her. Goddamn it.
One more second.
Zero more seconds.
Zero more seconds.
Zero more seconds, Fox.
He feels the slightest tremor go through her, through those steady little hands that could be veined with radiation and carcinoma and still split an apple at fifty paces. And suddenly that’s it. He stops. He doesn’t look at her. He breathes.
He didn’t look away quick enough. He’ll have the glimpse of her breathless, expectant face filed in his brain for the rest of his life. Maybe he’ll make it the album art for the Sounds of Dana Scully LP so he’ll remember not to listen to it. Great.
He’s not looking at her but his hands still rest on either side of her face. He removes them gently, reaches for her hands instead.
He inhales, exhales.
“You don’t want to do this,” she says, kinder than he deserves.
He looks up, safe now that she’s said her line. Her mouth is chafed to a flush. Flashes of red candy suckers, a flukeman’s sucker. He’s a sucker.
“Scully, you are--” He stops. “I like you very--” he laughs wearily. Stops. Laughs. “I like you very much. I should hope that’s obvious, after all of--after everything. That’s a not a question here. I just--”
“--I need a rest.”
“I know,” she says, looking at their hands, then up at him. “It’s okay.”
“Mulder, it’s okay. It’s really okay.” She squeezes his hands slightly and smiles. Releases them. Steps back and stumbles over her confidently forgotten coat. Picks it up. “I should probably go now, though.”
He hates her for how little embarrassment she manages to betray, loves her. Hates himself. His beard burn blushing across her face like he’s forced discomposure upon her anyways. Just the latest reason that Dana Scully’s body doesn’t get to obey her mind.
“I’ll take another look at Max in the morning,” she says at the door. “Impotence is more likely to have a physical than a psychological cause.”
Chapter 2: gigantomachy
By the close of Fox Mulder’s one and only inpatient clinical psych rotation, a requirement for his Doctorate in Experimental Psychology at Her Majesty’s University of Oxford, he was measuring his daily self-worth by how much time had elapsed between when he’d last seen a prematurely senile 50 year old smearing semen on a nurse’s smock and when he found himself in a private venue with his own dick in his hand. His record was about five hours after the end of a shift. His nadir was the bathroom during lunch. He made it to fourteen hours and ten minutes once, but that was only because he’d gotten so drunk on the way home that he couldn’t have gotten it up even if he’d been awake to want to.
Malfunction reveals function. No, he is not the teenage boy with the compulsive habit of stretching his own foreskin. But he has been known to fidget and to pick. He does not scream or hit when he’s been denied, but he has kicked a wall in his time. Fundamentally, there is not much difference between a paraphiliac’s sexuality and his own, in the strict sense of involuntary arousal. There is not much difference between a criminal’s behavior and his own capability for I want . Not much difference, but enough. The difference between permanent residence in a grim institution and living a life of respectable disrepute.
He doesn’t have the detachment for clinical work, nor the patience for experimental. He ended up in Behavioral Science because what he does have is an instinctive sense that there is neither wonder nor dignity to be found in human physicality. People call Fox Mulder fanciful, but there is a brute practicality to him in this respect, one either belied or expressed by his tendency to be flip when it comes to the subject of biological needs. Workplace liaisons with Miss July and all. He will speak sparklingly of Giglioli’s whale, but any attempt to coax him into romantic admiration for the serial murderer or the High Noon hijinks of law enforcement will be met with an unimpressed impasse. To understand something without loving it is a talent, and Fox Mulder has it. He stopped profiling not because he did one too many method acting masterclasses on behalf of Uncle Sam, but because as childish as it might sound, something in him was starving from a lack of magic. Hungering for things that he instead might love but not understand.
Speak of the devil.
“Mulder, this is incredible” she’s telling him, bicep-deep in the abdomen of a man five times her size. Dr. Scully, always finding enough wonder in the physical for both of them.
“Give it to me, Scully” he says. She acknowledges the potential for amusement with a potential smile.
“In cases of conventional gigantism, subjects will suffer from any number of conditions.” She retracts her arm and leans back from the autopsy table as if sated. Satan, sated. Religious suspicion of satisfaction. Doesn’t matter, pay attention. “It’s usually caused by a tumor on the pituitary gland, and puts tremendous strain on the body’s system. Musculoskeletal and circulatory breakdown is endemic. The human body simply isn’t meant to be larger than a certain size.”
“But. Aside from–” she gestures to the purple weal around the body’s throat. “This man is in fantastic health. A large heart, but none of the indications of cardiomegaly. He’s just very…big.”
“Size isn’t everything you know, Scully.”
“So they say.”
She begins to chatter about The implications and he has one of those moments he’s been having a lot lately, where instead of being charmed when she gets into a scientific commotion he becomes, embarrassingly enough, jealous. He finds himself itching to say something petulant and crass, to make her feel as naive in her enthusiasm as he does in his. At least this time he has an excuse.
“I spoke with Mrs. A-Million this afternoon.”
She startles. “And?”
“And apparently Max had problems with choking at the bat, so to speak. Severely depressed about it. She wasn’t particularly surprised to hear that he was dead.”
“Recently? Depression can suppress the libido. It could have been the other way around.”
“As long as they’ve known each other, apparently.”
She looks down at the body, hesitates.
“This has a flavor of urban legend, but–”
He tsks dramatically.
“–unusually well-endowed individuals can at times have trouble sustaining an erection due to the blood volume required. It can be the case that they’re actually physically incapable of becoming fully erect, even when aroused.”
He resents her a bit for the casual way she says fully erect , for saying it the same way she says subdural hematoma and longitudinal incision , for the fact that it records to a mental tape that he knows will click on like a haunted boom box at both inconvenient moments and moments that should be convenient but become inconvenient because it’s her.
“So he was hung because he was hung .”
“Your mind have any other tracks today, Mulder?”
Fully Erect ft. Dana Scully.
“I follow the evidence.”
“Well, the evidence says this man did die by hanging. I wouldn’t say he ‘was hung’, as he almost certainly hung himself.”
She looks up at him, more confused than off-put.
“Yes, nearly certain. The degree of venous congestion above the ligature and at the root of the tongue are common in cases of suicidal strangulation. Not to mention that Mr. Munroe would have taken longer than the average person to die this way, given his size and vascular health. If he’d wanted to struggle, he could have. But there are no signs indicating that he did.”
“A murdered man can still want to die.”
“Well you asked me for my reasoning, and there it is.”
He is quiet.
“You know, Mulder. I know this case isn’t what you thought it would be, but Mr. Munroe is still a remarkable individual. Honestly he might contribute more as he is, scientifically, than if he really had been–”
“I made no claims about that, if you’ll remember. In fact I said from the beginning that this case was going to be a waste of time.”
He doesn’t like the tolerant warmth in her voice. He wants her hurt or her anger, some kind of indication that he is being rational enough to be worthy of her effort. Uncharacteristically, the universe comes through for him again.
“His wife claimed they’d been trying to conceive, which is why he was–” he seems to contemplate a more irreverent phrasing “–more upset than usual. Not yet convinced of the relevance.
He doesn’t tell her about the particular melancholy of witnessing a loving but unhappy marriage, like attending the funeral of someone you’ve never met. The feeling of being crowded by emotion that wasn’t yours to see. The obscenity of poetic pain.
She looks up again. Her voice is firm, but not accusatory.
“You should have told me that sooner.”
“I should have.”
He never condescends to her with apology. She accepts this.
She begins to shove the body towards the locker, and he has one of the other kinds of moments he’s been having lately. She looks comic, quite literally lilliputian. He is filled with a sudden, inarticulate delight and for that moment he feels better about nearly everything. She was on her deathbed a month ago, red-eyed and pale, a joke about the undead in there somewhere that he never managed to find. And now here she is, trucking away, alive and among the unliving. Struggling gamely. Tilting at a giant with him.
His delight takes on a piercing quality. Nevermind.
“Mulder, would you give me a hand?”
“There isn’t an M.E. around?”
He sighs. Max’s arm hangs off the table and as he picks it up to place it on the body he holds it up to her in a half-hearted pantomime: Hand . She smiles. It’s strange. A relief in it that depresses him, as if the weirdness of their conversation was just a leadup to this one lame punchline.
She’s been looking at him strangely off and on lately. A bit proprietary, a bit anticipant, as if she’s reminding him of a shared joke and he hasn’t gotten it yet.
It makes him nervous.
Chapter 3: fakelore
Three Days Earlier
The reel of galvanized steel rope had cost him $1.50 a foot, and he’d had to purchase it from a wholesaler two states over, but money, as they said, hardly mattered where he was going. If Max had been poetic, he might have found something umbilical in the way that the cord unspooled from the hollow tree in which he’d stashed it. Something faerie in the silvery glint of it against the snow. Instead, he was simply relieved that the snow had not caused the reel to rust.
A rusted rope would not be strong enough.
He whipped it over the tree’s thickest branch. He had come to like this tree recently; the hypertrophy of its limbs inspired a sense of kinship in him. He liked to think that it was an oak, because he had it in his mind that oak was a particularly strong sort of wood, though he didn’t really know. The forest was littered with branches snapped beneath the wet weight of snowfall, but Max’s oak bore it with a guru calm.
Two more whips of the cord and that was enough. He had an image of it squeezing the branch in two like a pinched worm, a cheese cutter, a tourniquet on an amputee. He didn’t want to risk it. He threaded the end through an old pulley, pulled it taut and scaled his way up.
His form was decent. The branch did not creak. The steel sliced his hands and was nearly intolerably cold, but blood, as they said, hardly mattered where he was going.
If a giant falls in a forest, does it make a sound?
Max’s father had never taught him how to tie a tie, let alone a noose, but he had taught him how to rig a load. At the top, Max pried the ends of the rope apart and braided them back in about twenty inches down. A splice, it was called. He placed it around his neck.
The steel’s cold felt somehow more noticeable like this, Max thought. More meaningful, against the warm, animal heat of his jugular. He folded the collar of his shirt, and tucked the tails back into his pants. He inched to the edge of the branch, and then he jumped.
There was no noise. Only the slack swing of the empty splice above the empty October snow.
Five Days Earlier
“I have a case,” she’d said, dropping the file onto his desk with a subtle, goofy air of flourish. She was pleased with herself.
He looked down at the first page, then back up.
“Scully, I don’t need to be patronized here.”
“ Patronized ?”
“This is a Bigfoot case. From Roger Biglund. ”
“Would you read the file?”
He did, for about twenty seconds. He eyed her.
“I’m not sure this is better.”
“Blue snow, Mulder.” She was so very very pleased with herself.
“Scully, Paul Bunyan is what’s been called ‘fakelore,’ something invented to sell bullshit authenticity to people that don’t know any better. He’s a glorified mascot.”
“You mean big-blue-ox-shit?”
“To the extent that Bunyan was a real person he was never more than an above-average Canadian lumberjack. The rest is exaggeration and fabrication.”
“I’m surprised you’re just going to ignore the rich oral tradition of the American Northeastern logging communities. Not to mention the centuries of mythology and folklore surrounding gigantic entities of one type or another. For that matter,” she went on, “I’m surprised you’re going to ignore the well-documented medical reality of conditions like Marfan Syndrome and acromegaly.”
“Centuries of folklore?” Mulder settled back in his chair, succumbing to the treat of her curiosity. “By all means, tell me about the centuries of giant folklore, Dr. Scully.”
“At any rate,” she said. “I know it’s not Paul Bunyan . But something is damaging the Muleton forest and you’ll notice they’ve ruled out industrial runoff.”
“Sounds like it’s for the EPA to handle.”
“The EPA doesn’t make a habit of investigating reports of oversize vandals.”
“Good for them.”
She considered him. “Well, do you have something else?”
“Frankly, I’d investigate a sighting of Barney before I investigated anything from Roger Biglund.”
“Fine, then let’s investigate Barney.”
He seemed to really notice her for the first time since she’d entered the office. She sat herself in a chair on the other side of the desk. Pulled out her computer.
“You taking anything for that cabin fever, Scully?”
“I’m very interested in Barney, Mulder. A real sighting could alter the field of paleontology as we know it.”
He exhaled a short, laugh-like sound, putting his hands behind his head and leaning back into them. There were few things he liked better than when Dana Scully pulled off a joke. Voice flat, mouth aquiver. Something wonderfully exclusive about it, like he was one of the few she trusted to understand just how funny she really was.
He looked up at the pockmarked ceiling. He would have been the only one that knew.
“You know,” he said. “I’ve met a lot of credulous people. I mean half of these leads we get, they’re delusion. People easy to fool and desperate to believe. People who want to think they’ve seen a ghost because it makes them feel important for the first time in their small and unhappy lives. Even long before the X-Files, I met these kinds of people.”
“People like attention,” she said, watching her computer boot. “Munchausen’s, Histrionic Personality–”
“And I’ve met the crooks, too.”
“–Killers that involve themselves in their own investigations.”
“We’ve met them. The people that feed those delusions and then profit on it. Hell, we build institutions to delusion and call it religion.”
“Hm,” she said. Loaded.
“Doesn’t matter,” he said. He brought his hands back to the desk. “Not the point. The point is that I can usually recognize these people. I know what to look for.”
He tapped at the files.
“But Biglund, Scully? I think he’s gotta be either a crank or an idiot, but I couldn’t tell you which. The point is that he’s never right. And people tend to get hurt.”
“I don’t think that he’s right. I think that he’s noticed something.”
“Let me show you some other things that Roger Biglund’s noticed,” he said, weaving his way to a drawer of files. He tossed one onto her end of the desk, hitting the back of her computer.
“1982. Biglund’s president of the North American Sasquatch Society. Claims he found scat in the Rockies. Arranges a tracking expedition. They go off-trail, three people fall to their deaths.”
He tossed another.
“1985. He’s been living in Santa Fe. Processing the tragedy, allegedly. Becomes obsessed with the Navajo ceremony known as the Squaw Dance or Enemy Way. It’s an evil-dispelling ceremony, famously used for returning soldiers.” Mulder pulled a book from the top of the filing cabinet and thunked it onto the desk for good measure. Slaying the Monster: Mental Health in the Navajo Nation . “Claims it cured him of his PTSD although of course, none of my contacts there can confirm it was ever performed on his behalf. He starts volunteering down at the local VA office, where he tries to pull off some bastardized version of the ceremony himself. There’s a rash of veteran suicides.”
“Mulder, veterans are–”
“1989. Back to his roots. Moves to Lee County, South Carolina, where he claims– claims –he grew up. You might recognize the name. Founds Scape Ore Seekers, Incorporated with himself as the CEO, naturally. Fancy name for a Lizard Man swamp tour company, but that’s what it is. Yadda yadda, suspicious deaths.” He flipped open the folder and smeared the crime scene photographs across the desk. “Pick a card, Scully.”
Scully checked her email.
“1994. Get this. Biglund has a vision that he’s going to die. He’s childless, so he offers up his fortune–such as it may or may not be–to whomsoever can get him evidence of Bigfeet, Lizard Men, Abominable Snow People, you get the picture. No one has, but one Mary Louise Merkle certainly died trying.”
Scully observed the stack of folders. Placid.
“Sounds like you want to investigate him,” she said.
Chapter 4: horus
In 1989 Fox Mulder met a graphomaniac named Horace Steel. Horace was 75 years old and probably fit for polite society, but had been institutionalized so long that he had little incentive to live in any other way. He was witty and pleasant and had brokered as much peace with his compulsions as one could reasonably expect. Some people had their brains colonized ten hours a day by dead-end jobs, thankless children, empty stomachs or exploding shells. Horace simply wrote. It wasn’t so bad.
He wrote letters for the most part, Horace said in one letter to the FBI. It had started during the war. Innocently, Horace said.
You wrote letters back then because you’d go insane otherwise, no matter whether or not the person on the other end would get them, or care if they did. You wrote them to your mother and your brother and your grocer (“You save a ham for me for Christmas, sir. I’ll be home in December.”). And sometimes you’d get a letter back and you’d know that the world contained something other than grisly encampments that stank of gym socks.
(Socks, jocks, blocks, fox in a box. Gangrene, gum drops and a short sharp shock…)
Horace had a tendency to trail off Tourettishly into pages of association and alliteration. They had to take the Seuss books out of the idiot room, Horace told Mulder once, regretful in the manner of one who has had to give up chocolate for his health. They’d ruin me for days.
He’d had a wife when the war started. A good woman, a good friend, but he’d always been a bit temperamental you understand. That’s what they sometimes called it then. Temperamental. The only good word for it really that wasn’t clinical, even now. “Gay” did not convey the thing at all.
Captain Flint was a rawboned little British officer with a neat uniform, a trim mustache and an accent that Horace hadn’t had enough knowledge to place, but knew could not be aristocratic. He was a strangely captivating combination of fastidious and vulgar, prone to fondly berating his possessions and anything else he liked. (“What a fucking mess you’ve got in,” he’d told his boots once, polishing them free of mud. “That’s what happens when you put yourselves up Benito’s backside.”). They met in Sicily during an Allied alliance to intimidate Italy out of commission. They only knew each other a week but agreed to stay in touch.
Ha. In touch. In touch, out of touch, tush, touché, tut-tut, King Tut. Touched. Touched by an angel. Touched in the head. I never touched him, that’s the joke of it. Oh they wrote all about it, what they’d do if they could see each other. Mostly through a prophylactic irony, but occasionally with such emotional and erotic sincerity that Horace would have a perverse desire to put an old musket in his mouth in order to feel anything like it in the physical realm.
They joked about their names. Horace guessed that that was where his graphorrhea started. He’d never paid much attention to patterns until he met Flint. But Flint said they sounded like a duo. Flint and Steel dance a continental reel. It was too ridiculous. My dear Horus , Flint addressed one letter. Flintlock , Horace replied. And so on.
Two years later, only a month before the end of the war, Horace was halfway through a letter when he got the news. Captain John G. Flint was dead, shot somewhere in France. He didn’t know what to do, so he finished the letter and mailed it. Then he wrote another letter, and he mailed that too. He didn’t know why he mailed the letters at first; it was foolish to do so when there wasn’t a person on the other side to burn them. But Horace realized that that was the very fact that he did not want to acknowledge. If he didn’t mail the letters, then that meant that the recipient was gone.
Flint made up the bulk of the letters, but he was not the only person that Horace wrote to, not even the only dead person. He sent more letters in that last month of the war than he had in the rest of it altogether. He tried to stop when he got back to the States, but he found that he could not. He got a job at a print shop and took home reams of paper and boxes of pens. He licked so many envelopes so fast he’d slice his tongue, and to this day he still lacked feeling where it had scarred. Horace had enclosed a photograph there, the cheap exposure giving it an oddly graphic quality. His tongue stuck out and crossed with thin white lines.
His recklessness caught up to him, though. He’d barely been home a year when his wife got a parcel in the mail from Flint’s sister (who Flint once said had always been a self-righteous gossip). Our mother wanted them destroyed , the message attached to the parcel said. But if it were me I’d want to know what my husband was . Horace came home from the shop that day and saw his wife surrounded by his hundreds of posthumous letters. He’d finally gotten a reply.
You have to understand, Horace sometimes said, she could have had me arrested. It might not have worked, there was no direct evidence of sodomy, and certainly not on American soil, but not many would have faulted her for trying. Committing me was the kind thing, relatively, or at least she thought it was. She didn’t even commit me for the homosexuality. Many men were in treatment for shellshock then, and I was obviously unwell in some way. It wasn’t a difficult decision. She probably hoped that whatever had led to both the writing and the temperament was just some battlefield insanity and that I would soon be cured.
He wanted to be cured himself, truth be told. He felt pushed out of his own mind back then, pushed out by pain and longing and compulsion. At one point it seemed he’d even make a go of it. When they took away his paper he wrote on the walls, and when they took away his pencils he wrote in his blood and when he fainted from blood loss they strapped him to his bed for a week. In the end they decided it wasn’t worth the trouble and gave him back his things, but Horace did not forget that time. He wrote less and cooperated more and there was talk of letting him go home.
And then the dead started writing back.
This was the crux of Fox Mulder’s interest of course, and the reason that he and Diana were in Albuquerque that summer. There were an astonishing number of X-Files that featured either automatic writing or spirit communication or both, but Horace Steel’s was one of the few that seemed to have any credibility. You encountered a lot of schizophrenia in parapsychology, it being the go-to diagnosis for people who saw and heard things that they shouldn’t. The correct diagnosis, more often than not. And if it wasn’t that, it was any number of other increasingly obscure psychoses. But Horace Steel’s chart mentioned only the hypergraphia and post-traumatic stress.
“Oh I never told them about the dead,” said Horace softly. “I learned my lesson.”
Horace Steel had a funny nobility to him, even in the infantilizing dress of a mental ward and through fifty pounds of extra weight. He reminded Mulder of a 19th century general. Strong-nosed and bright-eyed and a firm, half-inch growth of exactly white beard.
“Which the dead had a bit of a problem with, actually,” he said. “I’ve had the thought that the only reason they started writing to me was because I’d stopped. They got lonely, I mean. And once they’d talked to me they wanted to talk to other people.” Horace laughed. “Imagine that. You manage to get through time and space and the veil of death and the only person on the other side is a mental case.” Space, case he scratched onto a pad. “I’d want to talk to someone else too.” He laughed again.
“How did you know what was happening?” Mulder said. “How did you know you weren’t, pardon me here, insane?”
“I didn’t. I suppose I still don’t. That’s why I started writing the FBI really. I figured if I ever got anything right they’d tell me. Of course they never did, but well. That’s never stopped me.”
“You got a lot of things right,” said Mulder.
“Hm,” said Horace. He couldn’t seem to let himself react fully to this news. “Did it help anything?”
“No. I think I’m the only one that read the letters.”
“Do you want me to tell you about any of them?”
“The cases? Oh, I don’t know. I just hope you got the people that did them.”
“We got a few. Emily White, Katherine Godwin—”
“Oh, Katie! Goodness, that’s good to hear. The dead can be very belligerent sometimes, trying to get my attention. But Katie was very polite, very nervous, even after all the awful things that happened to her. I’m glad she got some justice.”
Mulder looked at Horace with a kind of wonder. Horace smiled sadly.
“Are you sure you aren’t insane yourself, Mr. Mulder?”
“Can you do it on command?” said Mulder. His sudden animation made Horace uneasy. He started writing a bit faster. “Can you talk to anyone directly?”
“I take it there’s someone you want to talk to.”
Mulder considered being dishonest.
“She might not be dead. But I’d like to know if she is.”
There was an uncanniness to Horace, then. The stern, daguerrotype stillness of his face and the blur of his hand.
“I can try,” he said eventually. “But I’ve been writing to John for forty years now, and he’s never written back.”
Chapter 5: penuel
He knows what she’s been doing. He is, personal crisis aside, quite intelligent. He knows that she’s been hopefully stroking the limp agent of his paranormal ardor. That’s a cruel thought. But the two of them are never kind to each other in this way, preferring the secluded licking of wounds, and so something must be pushing her to feel either urgent or permitted.
If he doesn’t encourage it, it will stop.
“I don’t think there’s much more that we can do here, Mulder,” she says. They are in the car, stationary. The air comfortingly perfumed by her scoured, post-autopsy scent. Beneath it, stale notes of preserved flesh. Her apocrine system always blended disturbingly well with death.
If he doesn’t encourage it, it will stop.
“I want to get a drink,” he says.
“Don’t we deserve a drink?”
Scully looks at him with the earthquake confusion of solid ground behaving like something else.
“Deserve has nothing to do with it. We should let the local force know about our findings. I’d like to do some research.”
He pulls a flyer from his coat; red paper and smeared toner. Max-A-Million vs Spitting Pete. Big block letters and cartoon strongmen rending chains, their muscles in bunches of improbable, dinner-roll lumps. He taps the name at the bottom of it. Jake’s.
“Boxing, Scully. The national pastime of the working man. The man’s man.” He starts the car and pulls out. He’s The Man’s man.
“Research, Mulder. I need an internet connection. You can drop me at the motel.”
They drive in silence a few moments. An occasional, unearthly groan of their wheels against the packed, road-beige snow.
“It seems pretty relevant,” says Mulder, “what a man was doing the day before he died.”
“I’m not saying it’s irrelevant. Just that–” she stops. “He was a boxer?”
“Allegedly.” He tosses the flyer into her lap.
“Fighting words, Scully.”
“Mulder, you saw the body. There was absolutely no physical trauma aside from the ligature wound. There’s no way he could have been in a fight the day before. And even if he hadn’t fought recently, I would have expected to see evidence of a history of injury.”
A History of Injury . He represses the urge to imagine an autobiography with that title. He’s not that kind of pathetic.
“Would you say it’s almost--unexplainable?” They both smile a bit, watching the road.
They pull into the Muleton Lodge, a beige building stuck rectangularly to the side of the road. For a snowy place, he’s been thinking, Muleton is awfully beige. Perhaps October snowfall always feels beige. All that white and brown and orange mixed together. Or is it them? Beige car, beige coats. Beige precinct tiles and beige precinct files. Beige is even etymologically beige, he tells the Scully in his head. It’s only ever been the word for the color of undyed wool.
Undyed. Undying. Dying. Dyed in the wool. Woolly. Wool between the ears.
“You getting out?”
“I’ll be right back,” says Scully, unbuckling. Mulder picks the flyer delicately from her lap. “Then we’ll go.”
He watches her. It is almost unbearable, the sight of her purposeful little stride and her Where’s Waldo pile of pathological grimoirie. He looks away.
He is not really used to thinking of her as “cute.” She was cute when he first met her, in the way that the green and earnest are cute. Soft-cheeked and serious. But it was an objective, unimportant sort of cute, like calling a child cute. A quality worth smiling to himself over, but not worth treating her any one way about. A quality she outgrew. A quality that during her illness seemed even flat-out grotesque. He did not want to think of her as small then, let alone be charmed by it.
Frankly, he’s never found her smallness attractive. Not exactly unattractive, but certainly not inherently attractive. Possibly because he knew that other men would. He knew that many men would find her doll-like prettiness a turn-on, or her porcelain, bedridden beauty a month ago something to be sexually possessed.
He has tended to prefer the indelicately beautiful. Amazonian, cheekbone beauty. Strong-boned porn-star sexuality. Sexuality undemanding and aloof in a way that made him feel secure. Adult sexuality, he tells himself. Three tapes in. Sexuality he could objectify because it could handle the weight of his objectification.
The thing about her of course, is that she is not actually delicate at all. He wonders about those other men she’s liked. The hulking teachers and divorced psychos. Jack Willis had about twenty pounds and two inches on him. Jack Willis liked that she was small, he could almost guarantee it. Though he isn’t sure whether she liked that Jack was big. She probably liked it and disliked that she liked it, he thinks.
The problem with liking that a woman is small though, with liking that you have power over her, with liking that little thrill that maybe she both needs and fears you…is that sometimes you get turned off when she doesn’t. Whether or not you want to. Yeah, Jack Willis liked that she was small.
Really, he isn’t surprised that so many people apparently like fucking kids and daddies. Just a slight tweak in the appeal of sexual dimorphism isn’t it?
Why the fuck is he like this.
He can’t figure out the right way to find her sexually attractive, and he doesn’t at all want to think about why he is even trying. There was something innocent and bemusing about his flickers of thoughts about her, back when she was innocent and bemusing. They weren’t threatening. Just his pervert brain being a pervert about the female form again. Background noise.
Later it felt cleanly inappropriate. Later he started thinking of her not as small, but as dense. Later he started thinking of her as Scully rather than the funny spy with her funny little deadpan calves. Later he couldn’t objectify her the way one can’t objectify a parent. She was too necessary, too above.
Now she is something else. The heart of cuteness is contrast, isn’t it? An infant's ineffectual punch. A puppy trying and failing to walk. A soft-hearted soldier. A body-builder and a toy poodle. To find Scully cute would be to think of her capability as unlikely, wouldn’t it?
So he doesn’t like this anger he feels lately, this sense of something like cuteness. But the contrast at the heart of it feels new. It doesn’t have anything to do with the unlikeliness of her ability. It has to do with the unlikeliness of…her existence? How dare she be herself. How dare she be the single spark in a sea of confusion. How dare she be.
Jake’s is located at the edge of the town, near a nail salon and a shuttered tax office that collectively a half-dead sign declares to be MALL.
The Jake’s logo is one of the few bright things around. A big, backlit cartoon of a scrappy boxer KO-ing an angel. Both in oversized gloves. The angel’s halo tilts comically off its axis, propelled by the force of the boxer’s punch. JAKE’S, it says below.
The bar is dark and beer-smelling and surprisingly large. Mulder notices a square marked out on the floor in old yellow tape. A man counts bills behind the bar.
“I’m Agent Fox Mulder and this is Agent Scully,” says Mulder. The man glances up at them, but doesn’t say anything. “Can we ask you some questions?”
He finishes counting the money in his hand. One, two, three.
“Okay,” he says. He reaches for another stack.
“What’s your name?” says Mulder.
One two three, the man counts.
“Pete,” he says. Mulder is taken aback.
“Of spitting fame?” Mulder puts the flyer on the bar top. Pete doesn’t look at it.
“Yah.” Four, five, six.
“Did you get those bruises in that fight?” says Scully. The right side of Pete’s face is split-lipped and well-contused.
“Yah,” says Pete.
“How’d the other guy look?” says Mulder. Pete shrugs. “Who won?”
“Does he win a lot?”
“This was the man you fought?” Mulder puts a photo on the bar as well. Pete looks.
“Do you remember if he sustained any injuries?” says Scully.
“I got him some.”
Mulder and Scully look at each other.
“Are you aware that Max is dead?” says Mulder. Pete blinks at that.
“Dead. Do you know anyone that might have wished him harm? Held a grudge that he beat them, maybe.”
“That’s what we’re trying to find out.”
“No one could’ve killed Max.” A beat.
“What do you mean by that?” says Mulder.
Pete doesn’t look at them. He stacks the money together and locks it somewhere underneath the bar.
“Do you mean physically?” Mulder says. “Physically, no one could kill him?”
Pete doesn’t answer.
“Mr…Pete,” says Scully. “Any information you can give us would be helpful. Anything about his state of mind that day. Anyone you might have seen him talking to.”
Pete begins stacking glasses behind the bar. Loudly.
“How well did you know Max?” Glass clanking.
“We fight,” he says eventually. “He was good to fight. That’s all I have to say.”
Chapter 6: propinquity
“Here’s why I don’t trust Biglund,” said Mulder. He was gnawing at a peanut as if it were a seed, much as a smoker might gnaw at a straw. They had reached the restless midpoint of the flight, at which he tended to tap the armrests, investigate the complimentaries and generally clatter around like a boy in church.
“He likes being a big fish in a small pond. That’s the through-line. Sure, maybe he has an interest in the cryptozoological. He definitely thinks he does. But that’s not what drives him. What he likes, what he really likes, is being at the top of a heap of losers.”
Scully looked up at him from the ‘85 file. She had two stages of listening to him talk. The stage at which she left her glasses on and the stage at which she took them off. The glasses remained on.
“What’s confounding,” said Mulder, “is that he doesn’t do anything with it. He has money, but he’s not a millionaire. He hasn’t defrauded anyone. He’s not violent. He hasn’t roped anyone into commune polygamy. So far as I can tell, he likes the attention and that’s about it.”
“Attention?” said Scully, “Or power?”
“Or status?” said Mulder. “Same things, different things. What’s the difference, Scully?”
“What’s the similarity?”
“Purpose,” he said. “Security. I don’t know. Humans are social animals, they feel safer when they have a wall of bodies between them and everything else. Wall of people, wall of money. That’s why they call it social capital.”
“That’s very biological of you.”
The peanut cracked and skittered out of his fingers, a piece landing atop the files in Scully’s lap. He sighed.
“Mulder,” she said, setting her glasses down. “Have you considered that perhaps you don’t understand him because you yourself don’t care about these things?”
“About what, security? The respect of my peers?”
“Well,” she said, a fondness in it. “You don’t tend to make decisions based on what other people will think, no.”
An almond now.
“You do?” he said. “I should warn you about this department, Scully.”
“I’m saying it’s just not so mysterious. People like to be liked.”
“Ah, but he likes being liked by the emotionally vulnerable, socially maladjusted and mentally ill. What does that tell you about him?”
“What should it tell me about you?”
“Don’t sell yourself short, Scully.”
He stared forward a moment. The head that crowned above the seat in front of him was both half-bald and snowed with dandruff. Weren’t they mutually exclusive? It seemed a bit unfair.
“It tells me he does it for a reason,” said Mulder. “It’s a pattern. Where there’s a pattern, there’s a principle. Maybe, anyway.”
“Hm,” she said.
“They’re too obviously easy marks. I mean they’re clinically easy marks.”
“And he what? Gets off on getting them killed?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“No deaths in Muleton.”
A longer pause. Mulder reached over and pulled a file from the middle of her stack. He didn’t open it. Instead, he had a flash of awareness of the physical calculus that he had just performed, an act safely away from legly, laply contact, but somehow still too intimate. It made him uncomfortable.
“I don’t cultivate anyone, you know,” said Mulder. “That’s the difference.”
Scully looked at him with a simple, serious sincerity.
“I know,” she said. She returned to her file.
“Death,” said Roger Biglund, “Is not exactly death. That’s what I’ve realized.”
A circle of people watched Biglund speak. Mostly women, mostly white, mostly middle-aged. A door squealed open at the other end of the YMCA gym.
“All the people, all the religions, they’ve all got words for things that aren’t death. In-between things. Limbo, you know.”
“Ghosts,” said a woman.
“Exactly, ghosts. And I think that’s what part of my trouble’s been. I’ve been thinking in terms of life and death, I’ve needed to categorize my experience into one or the other. By why should I? I don’t have to know what I saw. I can just know that I saw something. It was what it was. I don’t need other people to tell me what it was, you know?”
He spoke quickly, earnestly, with the sense that what he said was interesting.
“You might not know this Roger,” said a woman dressed like a Chico’s premonition. CLAIRE, her nametag said. “But experiencers sometimes say that although an NDE is an extraordinary thing, it happens to ordinary people, and it happens often. Our society might not have a good vocabulary for these experiences, but you are far, far from alone.”
Murmurs of agreement.
“But see,” said Biglund. “I mean that’s great, that’s great. Having other people. Having--what’s it?--corroboration. Corroboration. But I’m saying, even if none of you were here, it wouldn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter. It was what it was.”
“I don’t think anyone would disagree, Roger,” said Claire.
“Just because something is rare doesn’t mean it isn’t real. Even if no one else saw it that wouldn’t mean it wasn’t real. I think that’s important to learn.”
“So why are you here, then?” said another woman. She sat heavy in her chair and breathed with the help of an oxygen machine. An old, grey-edged name tag stuck to the side of the tank. Jerry, it said.
“Come on, Jerry,” said someone else.
“Well if he doesn’t need anyone, why’s he here?” said Jerry.
“Can’t you go one meeting--”
“Let’s let Roger talk,” said Claire.
“I mean look at him,” said Jerry. “How old are you?”
“Ah--” said Roger, bewildered. “Forty-one. I’m forty-one.”
“He’s forty-one! Incredible. I’m forty-one. Now look at this, see this difference? What does he know about it?”
“Jerry, it’s not your turn,” said Claire.
A few moments of silence. Biglund was an energetic, babyfaced forty-one, with a hairline that had ceded barely a centimeter of territory. His face was too round and too shiny to be handsome, but he had an almost exhausting air of health. And everyone in the room seemed suddenly aware of it.
“Well,” said Biglund. “I--don’t know if that’s quite fair. I mean I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t, you know, if I hadn’t had an experience. Sometimes I dream I’m dying again and I wake up, you know...sad, you know, sad that I’m not.” A pause. “Anyhow, I didn’t mean to offend.” A longer pause. “I’m just happy to be here. To share and to hear.”
“We all have our own experiences,” said Claire. “We’re glad to have you.”
“I’m all done then.”
It was a hot day in Santa Fe. A dry, flat, hair-iron heat. Jerry Pulaski sat on a bench outside the Y, gripping the handle of her oxygen cart and feeling sweat pool and drip beneath her breasts. Down her back. She squinted out across the parking lot.
“Would you like a ride?”
Biglund was wearing a pair of sunglasses, but he took them off as he asked.
“I’ve got one.”
“You mind if I sit here a second?”
Jerry sat and squinted and did not reply.
“No one’s coming,” said Biglund, conversational. “I know it. I know you wait until everyone’s gone. They think you have a niece or a daughter or someone, but you don’t.” He paused, looked away. Looked back. He sighed. “I don’t know how to give people their pride, just don’t know how. Don’t know what that means. So I’ll give you a ride if you like.”
“I don’t want a thing from you.”
Biglund pulled a tissue from the pocket of his slacks and pressed the sweat from his forehead. He sighed again. Sat down.
“What must you have thought,” he said distantly, some strange, soothsayer’s calm come over him. “Seeing those little Vietcong women? Those people were the enemy, but they let the women fight. What guilty pride you must have felt, watching them take out all those strapping American soldiers. Those stupid, cruel men.”
A pause. He stared out at the same patch of lot as Jerry.
“I wonder, did it break your heart to fire at them? Or was it the only thing that made it right, knowing that you might have hit someone that was worthy of it? I wonder, how does it feel to have maimed and murdered, to have ruined yourself...and to have it not count? I wonder how you drive past the VA office and stop yourself from screaming that you were there too.”
“You don’t know shit.”
“I know that if you were a man you’d have a purple heart and two hundred dollars more a month. The only reason you’re at these meetings and not theirs is that it wasn’t your job to kill. They talk about being ignored by their country, but they don’t know a thing. Do they?”
Jerry ignored him.
“Well I can’t fix it,” said Biglund, sounding more like himself again. “Can’t fix anything. Things are done and then they’re done. But you know, there are other things in this world. Other things than this world. I don’t know if they’re better, but they exist...and they’re different.”
He stood up.
“I sound like a nutcase, I know. I know. Sound like I’m selling something. But I might as well be nuts about something beautiful, you know? I can’t understand you Jerry, of course I can’t. But I know that this world hasn’t been beautiful to you. That’s all.”
He took a card from his shirt pocket and put it down on the bench beside her.
“Can’t fix anything, like I said. But I can offer you something else.”
Jerry said nothing. Biglund sighed a final time, put his sunglasses back on, and turned to leave.
“And I won’t pay for your cab, of course. That’s how pride works, I’m thinking. I’m learning.”
For all that Fox Mulder thought a lot about female fear, there was a certain kind that had taken him a very long time to notice. Or perhaps simply believe. A very long time for a young man possessed of an athletic body and an ineffable romantic charisma, at any rate. It was not the fear that you were trying to sleep with her, but improbably: the fear that you weren’t. The fear of the reasons that you weren’t.
He could tell, more or less, when a woman was attracted to him, but he tended to treat it with a kind of rueful camaraderie. As if it were absurd to consider a liaison any kind of real possibility, as if he’d had surgery the day before. I also wish I could sleep with you, his manner said. But I can’t and you can’t and isn’t life funny? Let’s have a drink.
Most women saw it for the roundabout rejection that it was. Were deterred. Fox Mulder would not make a move to save his life, and if your ego could not handle that, then you tended to leave Fox Mulder alone. He liked women like Henderson down at the QDU. Competent, humorful women with just enough sincerity in their flirting to be flattering, but old enough to take themselves off the table for him.
Diana though. Diana didn’t take herself off the table. Diana was both self-sufficient and in awe of him for the right reasons. The reasons he considered right, that is. Diana did not appear fascinated by him, but by the questions he was asking. Diana did not mind that he could only be relied upon to show up at her doorstep at a maximum of once a week. Diana was not insulted by his oblique, joking ways of talking about sex and whether he wanted it. Diana laughed. Diana gave him room. Diana kissed him first and she looked him dead in the eye when she did it.
Diana was being bizarre.
She had been oddly short with him ever since they’d arrived in New Mexico. She had not gone with him to visit Horace. Had said she’d had someone to talk to at the university. Not so strange. But she’d been almost disinterested at his excitement over dinner, and had left for her own room.
He knocked on the door, wishing for something playful to accompany it. Foxes knocked in fairy tales didn’t they? No, of course not. That was wolves. Devil deceivers, always wanting to be let in, always devouring. Sex. Stones in their bellies. Foxes were the clever fools. The Foolish Mr. F--
She opened the door, and he could see that she’d been reading at her table. Scattered books about mind reading, and papers full of notes. A wave of fondness went through him. She looked at him in that bemused, but slightly wary way she’d been looking at him the last few days and he realized it had been almost three weeks since they’d last properly slept together.
“Everything okay?” he said.
“Of course, Fox,” she said.
“You want to tell me what you found?” he said.
“No,” she said.
He examined her a moment, and he knew she wouldn’t kiss him this time.
“Okay,” he said, and closed the door behind him.
“Fee-fi-fo-fum,” he says, punctuating each word with a knock upon her door.
“It’s open,” she says. He steps inside, taking stock of her all cross-legged and investigative on the bed. Such a funny, girlish posture for a woman in such a serious suit. The sight of her toes through the beige of her hose just another thing he can’t bear these days.
“Have you no self-preservation, Scully?”
She smiles, but doesn’t reply, absorbed in whatever it is she’s reading on her computer. He leans against the bureau opposite her.
“There’s another match tonight,” he says. “I’m going to check it out. Something’s up with that boxing.”
“Maybe. Maybe something else. You coming?”
“Mulder, don’t you think we’re picking up an awful lot of disconnected things, here?”
“Who says they’re disconnected?”
“I don’t know,” she says. “Boxing, giants, snow…”
“Biglund. I could have told you there’d be a body.”
“I think you did.” A pause. “Well, the EPA sent me their findings on the snow, though I’m not sure what it means. It’s an illusion.”
“It’s reflecting blue. It’s common in deep snow, in fact. Red light gets absorbed and blue gets reflected back.”
“But that wasn’t deep snow.”
“No,” she agrees. “But something about it is...degraded. Whatever’s happened to the snow, it’s causing it to refract light in such a way that it appears blue. But it’s still just snow.”
“Just snow,” he echoes. “What would do that?”
“Truthfully? I don’t know. But it’s something else to look for, I suppose.”
She stands and begins to gather up the papers a bit. He stands from his position against the bureau too. Against The Bureau. Another memoir in there.
She passes him on the way to the bathroom, and he feels the sleeves of their jackets brush. So very brief. One bit of rayon meets another, like it has a thousand times before. Still, he thinks she would have avoided it a year ago. Somewhere along the line, Scully’s stopped staying out of his way.
“Boxing, Scully,” he says. “Fifteen minutes.”
“Changing, Mulder,” she says. She nods at him. “Fifteen minutes.”