Chapter 1: Friday.
We drive to the Cape. I cultivate
myself where the sun gutters from the sky,
where the sea swings in like an iron gate
and we touch. In another country people die.
- Anne Sexton, The Truth the Dead Know
They abduct each other for a long, cold weekend in mid-February.
She’s been itching to get him locked up in a moving vehicle for days. Rocketing down a highway with her at the helm, where she gets to steer and decide what touches them. For long hours on his couch that night, autopsy hands on his head, in his hair, she’d thought about what it would mean to hide him away. Thought about what it would mean to steal and stash him like fairy treasure, to draw protective rings.
In his bed, later, she’d decided it would probably mean a lot, a whole shitload. Judging by the way her own emotionally stunted, back-of-the-throat tears had surprised her as she blinked up at his ceiling - by the terrified way his hand had traced up her open blouse - it was more than either of them were prepared to deal with right now.
Still, he’s the one who makes moves in that direction.
On Wednesday morning, hooking his coat on the rack with unusual care: “I was thinking about going up to the Vineyard.”
Blinking over the styrofoam blur of her coffee, she tries to remember the last time he’d even nodded in her direction before jetsetting.
It’s, uh, personal. A place I always wanted to go.
She nods slowly. Part of her, the fractional element best at decoding them both, understands that he’s asking something, but she’s missing variables. Out of practice.
She hasn’t spoken to him since Monday night, when he’d told her he was going to take a couple of days. She’d seen him yesterday, though. Driving carefully parallel to the path where he usually runs, taking the long way home to catch a glimpse of him, fogged and out of breath, between the trees.
Sometimes, she could admit to scaring herself.
Her coffee tastes like burnt water. “Oh?”
She means What and Why and Do you really think that’s - but, lately, she’s been trying to make herself less of an investigator into this particular case. She has pages of notes from his mother’s autopsy. A tape with her own detached, boundless monotony rattling off possible CODs. The only hitch came in heavy on the last name (“Teena Mul - der”) and, even then, it could sound like a tear in the ribbon.
“My dad left it to my mom, the house in Chilmark.” He shrugs. He hasn’t taken a seat yet, flitting between the far wall of the office and the front of the desk. She’d like to unwind him. “I need to clear it out if it’s gonna sell. Skinner wants me to take a few more days anyway.”
Watching him move is like watching fucking tennis. Back-forth back-forth. He hesitates by the pinned up article on unexplained cave deaths and other evidence of tommyknockers. She takes a breath. Thirty love.
“You still have the house in Chilmark?”
His father had lived in West Tisbury. Mostly she knew this from Mulder’s feverish mumbling in her bed, years ago, and notes on the Roche incident. His mother’s place in Connecticut was spotless, impersonal. A rental, maybe. If Teena Mulder would deign.
“‘Let things go’ was not inscribed in the original Mulder family emblem.” A closed-mouth smile as he flicks through files on their cornered computer table. “I am my father’s son.”
Except that he isn’t. He is his mother’s son. She knows that with a hyper-specific intimacy, the way she could tell you the periodic table, the chambers of a heart, the location of the aneurysm that killed the fourth cadaver she’d cut open at Stanford. That is: she know through science and biology. Through blood and white gloves.
God, the house must have been empty for years. Without ever seeing it, she knows it is a lonely, white-sheeted place. She wants to ask where he’ll sleep. It feels important.
“Isn’t it,” she starts. Burnt water pause. She wrinkles her nose as she drinks. “Cold there this time of year?”
That’s brilliant. They could play meteorologist instead of doctor. It had been clear and cold when she’d driven to his apartment from the morgue, a night her father would have carefully selected for lessons in celestial navigation. She had watched the highway lines as she drifted over them just for the sake of witnessing a marked change.
He shrugs. Crosses half the distance of the office, picks up a snowglobe someone from Accounting had given them as a gag gift in last year’s Secret Santa. He shakes it so hard the little Martian cracks its head on the plastic. She starts ticking off ways she could get him to stand still: Yell. Throw her pen. Take her top off.
Last week, he hadn’t been moving, but he wasn’t still. He was shaking - addict out of a fix, all bleary-eyed stares and newborn anger that broke her heart no many how many times she saw it. This is the world? This is it?
Sometimes she wishes he’d get some kind of universal object permanence. Actually practice the world-weariness he preaches with his tired eyes and dingy kitchen. Learn to anticipate the punch or else to slip and roll with it. It’s all incongruent - leaves her there cursing God and rocking him on the floor and all the while thinking you should know better at no one in particular.
Anyways. Option three had been sufficient at the time.
He drums on the desk and she feels the vibration. He fiddles with her microscope and she tenses. He stops, flat out in the middle of the room and turns and looks right at her, and she swallows her coffee so fast it burns her throat. She coughs hard, shaking too-hot liquid some jackass upstairs in the bullpen made onto her top.
“Shit,” she says. “Fuck.”
She can tell he’s looking right at her, at where her eyes would be if she wasn’t swiping at her blouse. She raises her head and meets up with him again. She feels embarrassed. Feels like she’s kept him waiting.
“You could come with me,” he says. Middle of the room, stock still. She was going to ask.
They blink at each other.
He starts up again. Tugs on his tie. “I mean, if you. If you want to. You don’t have to. I don’t even know if you can get - if Skinner will give you the time off. It’s mostly a bunch of old junk anyway. And dusty. Are you allergic to dust? Really dusty.”
He swipes a finger-full of it off the nearest flat surface as if to make a dialectical point and frowns. She leans back in his chair as he comes around the side of the desk, making moves for the sticky notes she keeps on the corner. He’s probably going to do something useless with them, like make a slinky by tugging them all at once but not hard enough to separate.
“And there’s a lot of stuff. I should maybe just sell the house with everything in it. Or, I don’t know, burn it.” He steps close to her, eyes still on the sticky notes, and she snaps her wrist out. Grabs the end of his tie just hard enough that he’s stunned by the feeling. Match point.
“I am not,” she starts slow. This is the verbal equivalent of trying to keep your shadow off an insect until you could trap it. “Allergic to dust.”
She relinquishes his tie to slide her fingers over his wrist. His pulse rabbit thumps under her thumb.
“I’d like to go,” she says quietly. Ridiculously, she feels the urge to end with Thank you.
His heart rate stays prey-fast. She looks up and expects to find his eyes wide with the same flat, glossy terror. Instead, he’s looking down at her with the kind of revelatory sweetness she used to think belonged anywhere but in a government job.
“Alright,” he says, swallowing. “Friday?”
She nods up at him, swiping her thumb over the contact paper skin of his wrist and letting go. “You know where to find me.”
He smiles absently, moving back towards the door. He’s not staying, she realizes. He drove ninety minutes from Alexandria to get his fingerprints all over her lab equipment and ask her to sort through his childhood with him. He came all the way here and almost couldn’t slow down long enough to do it. That, she thinks with a fondness so old and sweet she could choke on it, is a waste of gas. She closes her eyes and almost misses him turn back.
“Scully.” He holds the door open with his boot, jacket draped over his arm. “It is cold there. This time of year.”
That night, she’d thought of them somewhere warmer. Not California, the Pacific having spit them both back out to choke on sand, but Florida, maybe. Everglades and mothmen. Holiday Inns where someone else made the bed. The Chilmark house is empty. She imagines a square of clean floor under the place where his childhood bed has sat for years. She imagines the East Coast wind off the ocean. The unfrozen force of it, still rocking against cold shores.
She smiles. “Okay.”
Mulder leaves with half a smile and an absent little wave. Setting her coffee on the desk, she leans forward to right the stupid snowglobe. She shakes the plastic until the snow swirls without any hint of higher pattern, until the Martian lands unsteadily on its feet.
They sit in the Taurus and breathe in hot, recycled air that sighs periodically from the hissy dashboard vents. Blowing on their hands to make up for the dearth of warmth. She keeps offering Mulder pieces of snacks she’d picked up at the airport in the form of tilting various plastic bags his way, and he keeps brushing her off.
He’d paid for the car. And the plane tickets, which made her seamlessly uncomfortable. She hadn’t even realized they were flying until they were rolling up to Dulles. It’ll be faster, he’d said. She’d nodded like she understood the urgency.
She was an IOU kind of person, had been since she and Charlie were collecting late lemonade stand payments from neighbors near the base in San Diego. She believes in splitting things down the middle. In reparations. It was something that never sat right with her in Catholic school: You failed God and ate His body. With Mulder, it’s the same. You fail him, you cut open his mother, perfect y-incision, and you bare yourself to him the same way later that night - pulling back the sides of your blouse like you would to expose the ribcage, the womb. And you don’t kiss, you keep not kissing him, actually. You failed God and ate His body. You failed Mulder and watched him bite his own lip until it bled.
You fail Mulder and you don’t quite, but almost, fuck him, and he’s still the one paying for plane tickets and rental cars the next week. Your walk of shame is actually a flight to L.A., a fight with your boss, a trip to the place he grew up. To where his mother (ribcage, womb) watched him grow. There’s no etiquette for this. She’s working with what she’s got.
Almonds, she decides, a little desperately. He likes almonds. She tilts another bag in his direction, organic Trail Mix this time, shakes it like he can divine taste by sound. Which, oddly, wouldn’t surprise her, not with the way he fixates when she talks.
He ignores her. Fiddles with the heater. He’d been quiet on the plane, not angry, but uncomfortably still. For as much as it gives her whiplash, she is used to Mulder’s tendency towards undirected motion. She's disturbed now by his unaffected stillness, a change she had no part in. And her therapist will love this, but she wonders, she does, if he learns to self-soothe, what would really be the point of her.
“Sorry it’s so cold,” he says finally.
She shrugs. “We’ve had worse rental cars.” Smiles, shoving her trail mix somewhere deep in her carry on. “Remember Portsmouth?”
He grins, quick, and she watches him worry his bottom lip for a moment too long before he does. It is not, she’s almost sure, that she did not want to kiss him. “Nah,” he says. “Canton. With the radio knob that was stuck on that one station? It kept playing — what was it?”
He doesn’t forget things, even this inane. Letting her fill in the blank - it’s a truce. Had they been fighting? She didn’t think so, except in the way they always were, as of late, shadowboxing various iterations of themselves. She is sorry most of the time. She knows that.
“Tiffany. ‘I Think We’re Alone Now.’”
“Actually, it’s pretty crowded,” he quips. From God knows where he has unearthed a packet of sunflower seeds. The only thing she couldn’t find at the Logan Hudson News.
She rolls her eyes, both of them huffing relieved little laughs out towards the dashboard at some involuntary return to homeostasis. They’re parked just off a thin strip of sand arcing around the Ferry dock. Outside, people huddle in a few grey coat clumps. Children shriek on the edge of the surf, avoiding stealthy surges of cold water. She watches one little girl toe a line in the sand with a boot, knit hat pulled down low over ears and forehead. She looks intent, serious.
The ferry honks as it pulls lethargically into the dock. The little girl’s mother jerks her back from the water, not hard, but with a suddenness that makes her daughter stumble and yelp. She recognizes fear in the action rather than anger, and looks at Mulder as he moves to put the car in drive, wondering if he’d noticed. The first time she’d really met his mother, she’d heard the crack of her slap across his cheek from the other room.
“You’d think kids have drowned here,” Mulder says. “The way some of the parents are.”
The ferry looms ahead, larger than she would expect if she didn’t know anything about boats. Most things are more than expected if you don’t know everything about them in advance. It’s maybe what made her such a good student - she doesn’t like to be surprised. They wait in a skimpy line of cars, rumbling up the dock.
Mulder shrugs, back to not looking at her again. The girl and her mother have disappeared on board.
He says, “Probably.”
On the ferry deck, the crowd is thin and clearly local. Subdued. Even the children are quiet and bored. Everyone sitting in cars or moving inside the boat’s interior to mix packets of Swiss Miss into thermoses of hot water.
Outside, the air is sharp, cuts against Scully’s cheeks as she makes her way out of the car. The ferry doesn’t rock so much as it drives, humming, through dips and valleys. Mulder begs off the view with a flick of his wrist and some seasickness bullshit. That’s okay. She doesn’t mind staring down the natural world alone; she just doesn’t often get the chance.
The bar of the railing is too cold to touch, even with gloves on, so she leans just above her elbows. It’s almost 4 o’clock. The sky goes the pink-grey of ruined laundry, lipstick crushed into sheets and t-shirts. The water is a deep, reflective blue. She peers out over the rail, not expecting to see anything but not not-expecting it either.
As a Mary Jane’d child, heel-toeing out to the docks after church, her mother used to tug on her collar to keep her from hanging too far over the edge of the deck. The Pacific is a geological absurdity, is briny and improbable and big. She’d learned to swim in it by inertia. By her mother’s tardy hands at her collar and the sharp tug of gravity. The crash of the waves, too deep to gauge even near the dock, her mother’s yelp, a rare curse; all of this less imprinted on her than her father’s face, calling down to her as she beat the water with curled fists and lost a Mary Jane:
What’d you learn, Starbuck?
And he hadn’t meant about keeping her hands on the railings, or her Mary Janes in line with Charlie’s Oxfords, Melissa’s mysteriously bare feet, on the edge of the deck. He’d meant what did you learn. If faith ousted fact, in this carefully bound subduction zone, what did the ocean have to teach about knowing things?
Annoyed with herself, for her own predictability, she mutters at the water: “I look deep down and do believe.” She has the urge to spit just to make an impact on the surface.
At the time, she’d looked straight up at Ahab. Gone blind with the sun and coughed in lieu of an answer. Here’s what I learned. Spitting salt water onto the deck at his feet like bad communion wine.
“Is this all I had to do to make you a believer, Scully? Get you out on open water?”
For years she’s had the creeping sense that everything she says, she is saying to Mulder. No matter who is listening and especially if no one is. It’s why she’d stopped confessing.
She keeps her back to him, shrugging. “You know me, I’m easy.”
“No,” he says. “You aren’t.”
Her fingers unbuttoning her blouse so fast, fast because she wanted to prove she could do it, because she wanted to shock him, still him, stop him from crying. The ferry jolts and tugs.
She says, “I thought you were seasick.”
“I thought you were worried about it being too cold out here this time of year.”
They are rigorous with each other. Somehow both exacting and imprecise, demanding some impossible standard and never knowing what to do when it’s met. This is imprecision, now, she realizes, as she bites at the air and his arms come to rest on either side of her, palms on the railing and chest to her spine.
“It’s too cold to—”
“Fuck,” he says, jerking his hands back from the rail, shaking them. “Fuck.”
Her laugh is a shudder. In most things, she has given up warning him. He’s too quick to hold. “If you stuck your tongue to this railing, it wouldn’t come off.”
“Thank you, Ralphie.”
“I triple dog dare you,” she mutters, reaching blindly behind her for his wrists and bringing his hands around her waist to lock just below her navel. He tenses, then pulls her in so her spine straightens against his chest. She has to strain a little to see the water. “Did you bring gloves?”
“What do you think.”
What does she think. She thinks, of course not. Thinks, why would you ever take your own advice. Thinks, doesn’t mean to think, didn’t your mother ever tell you to keep warm.
Doesn’t mean to say it either. Doesn’t mean to, but does it anyways, says: “Didn’t your mother ever tell you to keep warm?”
He breathes sharply, and she feels it from behind her. So close it almost feels like the breath is hers, but inverted, taken in from somewhere near her thoracic vertebrae and spreading to her chest.
“Mulder, I didn’t mean—”
She grips at his wrists, trying to turn herself around to look at him. She feels him shake his head, relink his hands.
After a moment of stillness, he says, “No. She told me to hold my breath as we pulled into the dock, though.”
There is a winded quality to his voice that reminds her, oddly, of running hard. She echoes it. “Why?”
“Superstition.” It is not a dismissal. She can feel him thinking. “Some old wives tale, I guess. She said it was good luck.”
She smiles, closed mouth, at the image of a skinny, skinned-knee little Mulder. Cheeks puffed out, holding his breath and Samantha’s hand. In front of him, his mother ducks and jolts with the ferry motion — silhouetted and imprecise against red island sky.
When she thought of old wives tales, and those who believed them, she didn’t think of Teena Mulder. When she thought of holding your breath for life and luck, she thought of graveyards.
“Anyway.” This said like you might slap dirt off your hands — Now that that’s finished, let’s get cleaned up. “What were you Melville-ing about out here, Starbuck?”
An unexpected noun selection. Her spine stacks as it tenses, and she feels every click.
Mulder presses back gently against her stomach. She understands that he is simply evening the score. In a few minutes, they will dock and deny holding their collective breath. She’s lying to herself if she thinks she didn’t want to be here in part to crack open his childhood like primary ribs, take a Stryker saw to it, if you will, and air out the rot.
He’s begging her the same courtesy. He has always asked more of her. He has always been vampiric that way, testing her thresholds, toeing lines, but always awaiting her welcome admission just the same. You have to invite me in.
She swallows. “Thinking about how I learned to swim.”
He laughs. “Did Bill toss you in?”
“No.” Mindlessly, her gloved hand moving against the thin bones of his bare wrist. “No, I fell. I was looking over the railing, like this, and the water was so clear, and it looked so warm. My mom didn’t catch me in time.”
Still laughing. “First lesson in gravity?”
“Maybe,” she says. “Gravity and mother nature.”
“‘Loveliness unfathomable,’” he quips. “Did it make you love the water?”
She shakes her head, hair brushing under his chin. “No, I hated it. It was cold. I drank a whole gallon of saltwater and lost a shoe. Melissa laughed at me.”
“But you love it now,” he says. She gets the sense he is pleading some obscure case. “I’ve seen you get misty about bodies of water before, Scully.”
“I know what it is now,” she admits. “I know what that kind of love means.”
Mulder goes quiet. As she starts to look at him, the Vineyard wavers into sight. It is monochrome at a distance with what she thinks is old snow. She stills, and they look straight ahead as his years-long summer island slides cooly into view.
“Are you alright?” she asks, quiet. It’s a red-ribbon question, one she keeps reminding herself to ask. The first time she’d thought to it had come out horribly breathless, his lips at her neck, and he’d laughed, biting down. She is half-hoping the wind will eat it.
But nature is not only supremely indifferent, it is tricky, two-faced. That’s what she’d learned. The wind kisses her voice right up to him; she feels him tense. It’s loud even to her ears.
The waves are rougher now, the deep blue revealing itself to be a brackish, unthinkable black. The ocean promises clean hands. Promises baptism. Draws you deeper. Faith ousts fact, and everyone still gets dragged to the bottom.
“Scully.” He smiles against her hair, nods hard so she can feel it. “Scully.”
And it’s not an answer, but she knows what he means. She’s freezing out here in the wind, her face to the waves and the breeze, her lips chapping under her tongue. His arms around her waist feel heavy, weighted belt, anchor caught. She stays, between him and the rail. Between him and the wind, and the water below. This is what it means to love something that could kill you.
She says, to him, to the ocean, dark and soft with sunset, as sweetly as she can: “Liar.”
As the boat docks, they breathe in together. They don’t let it out.
The place he grew up is quaint and inaccessible. A microcosmic white fence town, shuttered up for winter. Mulder finally breathes in deep parked on the dock. The grey of the island wasn’t old snow, but new, flecked with sand and brine.
As they drive off the ferry, into the open outskirts of town:
“I always hated this part.”
She brings her head up from the cool glass of the window. It is dark out, and when she slid in next to him with coffee that morning, it had been just after six. Her breath frozen in the air outside her apartment. “Hmm?”
“Coming home in the fall.” He gestures with his hand. The street lights streak across the windshield. “And you can see how empty it is, how quiet.”
She is tired, stupid and cloudy with the phantom rock of the ferry. She says, “I bet it’s busier in the summer.”
Looking out onto the clean, curved streets, he squints, then shakes his head. A sharp shake, like he’s never thought of that before, even though she’s almost certain he has thought of everything at least once. He is excellent at contradiction. He spent his years in a summer home, and his summers somewhere else. He grew all the way up at twelve, and still somehow never really did.
A little helpless, then, when he says, “I wouldn’t know.”
The house is done up for Halloween - white-sheets draped over the furniture, billows of fabric tucked and pinned with debutant gown grace. She tours herself around the lower level while Mulder unloads the groceries they’d picked up from the Stop and Shop on the way into town.
The living room is the first room in the house. It is unimposing, empty, but it holds her attention. A fireplace tucked into the far wall, mantle bare. A kitty-cornered television set still sporting a pair of rabbit ears. She crouches on the hardwood, facing the front door and the curtained windows. This is an old crime scene, and she treats it as such.
When Mulder had first told her about Samantha, it had happened in their shared bedroom. His thin chest held down against blue sheets as his sister held out her arms from across the room. Later, with Roche, the scene had shifted. Stratego and the Magician on the staticky TV screen. Light from these windows, curtains pulled aside, and a gun on the mantle. She’d noted the inconsistencies as they came but never lingered on them. It was never exactly about where with Mulder, about Samantha, it was about what. It was about why.
“What did you find, Agent Scully?”
She flushes, feeling caught in the act. But he is smiling a distant smile when she turns around, leaning in the doorway to the kitchen.
“Not much.” She straightens up, her left knee cracking. The urge to say I’m sorry gets trampled by her stomach, empty and growling.
“Me either.” He looks around the room without seeing it. Lingers on her in the center and shakes his head. “It’s weird seeing you in here.”
She doesn’t know what to say to that, and he doesn’t wait.
“Let’s eat. We’re both exhausted.”
She follows him dumbly into the kitchen. Being in stranger’s houses makes her feel like a child. Dependent on someone else for directions, so she can find water, the bathroom, a spare blanket. So she doesn’t get lost.
Mulder makes peanut butter and jelly. The paper plates they picked up glide on the wooden breakfast table. There is tap water in tall, heavy glasses. Surprisingly clean.
“This was the only thing me and Samantha could make,” he says. “Still the only thing I can make.”
The way he talks about her, Samantha, is different now. Devoid of some of the heavy blend of defeat and quixotism that use to weigh down every anecdote. That unprecedented combination of old grief and blind, daring hope. It is lighter. A family photo album voice, not wholly unlike the kind her mother uses to talk about great-aunts, the long and rightfully dead, and never about Melissa. She never expected it of him.
“You have pasta in your apartment.”
“Just to keep up the appearance of human life functions.” He grins again, unnerving her. She knows he’s not alright, but she’s not sure what he is. She’s accustomed to him three steps shy of crazy, dangling from a ledge. She’d wanted stillness, wanted peace, and, boy, had it been oversold.
“Tell me something else about her,” she says. “About Samantha.”
It’s not what she wants, more information, not right now, but she wants to study him while he talks - wants to look for traces of the haunted, unmoored thing who’d leaned up against an Oregon bed and told her stories by candlelight. She watches for it in the lines of his hands, his jaw and knucklebones.
His grin doesn’t falter, but it gentles, crimps delicately. “It was good to see her, Scully. She was older. Fourteen, I guess. Her hair was so much longer. And she was tall. It made me realize that I had been forgetting.”
He doesn’t forget anything. It would be easier if he did. If she could pretend anything either of them did - his kiss on New Year’s, her wrapping her arms around him the other night on this apartment floor - wasn’t weaved perfectly into the tapestry of everything else they’d ever done. Tooms and his fluorescent bile knit prettily in with blood from her nose and her mouth on his neck.
“What she looked like.” He looks evenly at her. “I mean, I know I have photos - and my memory. But it’s different, what someone looks like alive. Moving. She was beautiful."
There is nothing beautiful about any of this. The peanut butter is sticking to the roof of her mouth. She nods carefully. “But - Mulder, she was dead. ”
“She is dead.” Simple. He takes another bite of his sandwich. “Samantha has been dead for twenty-one years.”
Twenty-one years is the whole time. Is more than that. Is longer than Samantha had ever lived, is longer than she’s known him, is the whole time he looked, the whole time. And it didn’t even matter. She doesn’t immediately identify it as anger, whatever it is that makes her wrap her hand around the glass of tap water and wait for the cold to seep into her palm. This whole fucking time. And he’s sitting here in this cold house eating PB&Js like they haven’t almost died for this.
Mulder misreads her. “You don’t believe me,” he says, shakes his head at the plate. Smiles that blank smile again. “That I saw her. That’s okay.”
That’s not it. She considers him, considers herself, too, carefully. “Mulder,” she starts, like a challenge. “When my father died, I saw him.”
He blinks, cocks his head at her. “I thought your mom called you?”
“I mean before that. They’d been over for dinner, but they’d gone, and I was asleep on the couch. Something woke me up, and there he—” She can’t say “there he was,” because he wasn’t. He wasn’t. She straightens. “I saw him.”
Nodding. Quiet but urgent. “How did it make you feel?”
There is an eagerness she hasn’t heard from him in days. He’s going to crack her like a case. Earlier, she’d thought it was the same, this trip and pathology, thought she’d come here to autopsy everything he’d been before he met her, but it wasn’t. To learn about Mulder’s mother, she’d split her wide. To learn about Mulder, she cuts herself open right down the middle.
She swallows the tap water from the glass, holding it in her mouth for a half-beat and remembering how the Pacific had tasted at six. Aware of her father’s simmering disappointment like water set to boil.
She lays her hands flat on the table. She says, “Afraid.”
The full bed in the master bedroom has clean sheets they dug up from a linen closet and smells like the cotton bundle of herbs tucked away in the corner. She lays claim to it starfish style, exhaustion sucking her bone dry and heaving with her onto the bed.
Mulder had insisted she take this room after they’d found the guest room stripped bare. He was down the hall, in what she assumes is his childhood bedroom. They’d said their good nights in the hallway.
She hadn’t looked around when she came in, tunnel vision steering her firmly to the bed. She blinks at the room now, waiting for vague shapes to take solid form in the heavy curtained dark. A dresser across the room, a mirror atop it that tilts heavily against one wall. She catches her reflection, shadowy in the dark as she sits up on her elbows to look around her. Something about it surprises her, even though she can’t see well enough to make anything out. Mulder from earlier: It’s weird seeing you in here.
She lies back down, filled with the sudden urge to hold her breath. This was his parents’ bed. He is his mother’s son.
Carefully retracting all her limbs, elbows to ribs and knees to chest, she goes fetal in the middle of the bed. She is desperate, suddenly, to touch nothing. Tense to the point of shaking. Crime scene investigator like, she leaches herself out of the room. She won’t unpack her suitcase here. She is afraid to touch the drawers.
She looks only where she can see without moving her head - staring hard at the corner of a night-table, a hint of patterned wall-paper that might be leaves, might be flowers.
Breathing in a deep, shuddering breath, she tries to pinpoint which of her organs the oxygen hits when. What do I know, she thinks, without irony. When she was in high school, college even, she used to lie in bed and recite to herself facts she knew cold. Counting elements on the periodic table and bones in the body to lull hers into sleep.
Today, she thinks she knows death. Mortui vivos docent. She knows Mulder’s mother. More than he does, probably. More than she should. Knows she had broken bones, a clean one straight through the right arm. A fracture to her knee. Knows she had been eating poorly, TV meals, maybe. She had probably been a smoker. She’d died fast.
It could have been anyone on her table; it would have been the same. Scully has friends in graveyards, in Arlington and in less reputable haunts. There are dead men she knows better than she ever knew her father. Than she knows Mulder now.
The thought is somehow terrible, although it’s simple enough: The dead are easier to know than the living. They open at her insistence. It sits her up, thinking this, straightens her spine. She is out of bed in a half-second, with a hot flash of childhood, middle of the night terror. The only cures are old ones. She makes her way into the hall.
As a child in base houses, she used to share a room with Melissa. All the configurations were identical on the West Coast, and the room was always the same even when the state wasn’t. When she was nine, they moved to a house off-base, with rooms enough for all the Scully children. She would wake up confused, for weeks, adrift in the absence of Melissa’s tossing and turning, her sleep talking, her twitching legs and dog dreams. In the hallway outside her door, she would stand with her feet on either side of the squeakiest board and listen until she could hear Melissa across the hall. A shift, a scramble against sheets. Proof of life, and then she could put herself to sleep.
There is light from under Mulder’s door, a rosy pink. For a moment, she imagines he is reading with a flashlight, long legs tenting sheets. Imagines she can hear him flip pages. That should be enough, but she has never stood outside his door without knocking. She raps with her knuckles, and then feels absurd. It has to be after one. She’s too old for this.
“It’s open,” Mulder calls. “Actually, it doesn’t lock.”
His voice is loud in the silent house, even from the hall.
The glow that had crept under the door is magnified in the room, but she can’t see any lights on. The light comes from the walls, warms the room, is organic, inexplicable. From a double bed shoved unevenly against the far wall, Mulder is watching the ceiling. He glances her way, the pink light painting him a faint blush.
“It was Samantha’s,” he says. Embarrassed. “The nightlight. I didn’t think it would work.”
He pats at the edge of the bed, and she sits. She feels ridiculous in earnest now.
Pulling her knees to her chest, she leans back against the footboard and rests her cheek on the flat tops of her knees. The bed is too short for her to pretend they can sit here and not touch. Even curled into herself, the back of his hand rests gently next to her foot.
She looks out at the room. It’s lopsided, all of the furniture on the left side. Would it be worse if her things were still here? Waiting for her to crawl back into bed while her brother got too tall for his? Or is it bad enough as is. An open space enshrined. As if she had packed up her things at eight, as if she’d run away. As if she’d never been here at all.
He breathes and she hears it. He moves against the sheets, and it’s not Melissa’s scramble, but it’s loud enough. She thinks she’ll go, having got what she came for.
He hooks a hand loosely over her left ankle then, still watching the ceiling. He doesn’t pull her toward him, just holds. Like maybe she wouldn’t notice. She opens her mouth hot against the skin of her knee.
“So.” His thumb over her Achilles, pressing gently. “Were you afraid you were the only one left in the world?”
The nightlight sets up shadow plays and everything preens against the walls. A scattered array of trophies and virtu on top of a squat shelf still lined with books and comics.
“This house is haunted,” he says seriously. “It’s not a haunted house. But it is a house that is also haunted.”
She’s ended up next to him, sharing a pillow, both looking up. It feels like summer camp. Like a sleepover. It surprises her that he does not have acrylic stars.
“That doesn’t make any sense.” But it does. She’s felt it - in the crime scene bareness of the living room, in the flowered walls of the master bedroom. The sense of weight, of being asked to let something make peace, to let it go. This room, with Samantha’s dusty pink night light plugged into the far wall and its emptiness enshrined, is the only place she feels some kind of preordained absolution.
“Who ya gonna call,” Mulder says. In blurred periphery, she sees him quirk his mouth.
“Yes.” He sounds pleased. “You.”
“You know, in college, I really never saw myself beefing up my resume with ‘proton-pack weilder-slash-ghost killer.’”
“You’re being modest.” She opens one eye. “You’re the best ghostbuster I know.”
“And you,” letting it out on a breath. “Are the biggest nerd I know.”
“I’m the only person you know.”
When it mattered, she could only ever come up with proper nouns, names and places, things anyone could find in his file. Your mother is Teena and your sister is Samantha. You were born on this island. Things she could forget if she left, because she had always meant to leave. An hour ago, two years ago. She had never meant to stay.
Facts like clean hands: I had a partner. He had a mother and a sister, and once, he was born. Someday, he’ll die. Except she never could convince herself that he would.
He was defiant. He had ways of winning games without ever knowing the stakes.
He says, “You should get some sleep.” And there it is. This time, that’s all it takes. She relaxes into the bed, already closing her eyes. “We’ve got work to do tomorrow.”
She is wearing a sweatshirt over a pajama top, buttoned to her throat. In Kansas, in Kroner and in Tennessee, they’d done this with no problem. The key was to play it like they’d died together, straight-backed and still.
Then, careless as a fuckin’ misplaced landmine, he says, “I want to take you everywhere. Everywhere I was happy when I was a kid.”
Scully draws in a breath through her nose. Rolls away from him fast to feel cold, new air on her cheek. The way she knows he loves her, she already knew this. They are long past abusing flower petals to try and perform gentle divination on this thing. Loves me, loves me not. She knows. But still.
“Mulder. ” This like he’s handed her a ticket to Nowhere on a Saturday morning, but she already knows she’s going to go. “I thought this was about clearing out the house.”
In the glow of Samantha’s leftover light, she knows how he would look if she turned back to him. She doesn’t. She, at least, likes to think she has always known the stakes. Steps carefully, most of the time, eyes on some ultimate goal. Whatever that is now.
If Lot had been a woman, there would have been no pillar of salt.
“It is. It’s all the same thing.”
He shifts toward her and the floor underneath them groans.
“Besides,” he says, breath in her hair. “Proton packs don’t kill ghosts. They catch them.”
When she sleeps in his childhood bed, she dreams of ectoplasm and her sister. She dreams a memory, of smoking her mother’s cigarettes, but she is on Mulder’s front porch. The Sound is a black basin. Her hand disappears in front of her face.
She dreams of sucking on the filter hard. Dreams of growing up that way, with a deep breath, the taste of it all a surprise. The crush of hot, bitter ash on her tongue like the blood of Christ without the wafer, the briny salt of the sea. She dreams that as she grows she burns with the cigarette, blowing towards the water.
She dreams: Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return . She dreams that for one fucking second, she can forget.
end part 1.
Chapter 2: Saturday.
In the attic, the house’s exoskeleton bares ribs and beams, insulation and pink, pulpy muscle. It’s cold, early morning frost filigreeing the little port window at the top of the eaves.
She kneels on the uneven floor, between a rocking horse and a vacuum cleaner. The box open in her lap is old cardboard, damp with cold and pliable. The first two had been Halloween decorations. One of them held a plastic skeleton, and it’d rattled when she dug it from the box. She’ll laugh about it with Mulder, later. She won’t tell him that, for a moment, she’d thought it was a body, thought it was bone.
This one is smaller, though, and heavier than the others. She uses her nails to get under the masking tape. The house is quiet below her. She’d left Mulder in bed when it got too bright. There were no curtains, and the light had cut cooly through the full windows she hadn’t noticed the night before. The nightlight’s pink glow had washed away with the coming of morning.
It’s paper. Inside the box. She curls her fingers under the bottom, lifts it a little just to be sure - it is heavy, but its contents ruffle, flutter lightly as she pulls them out in layers. They’re drawings, most of them, and report cards, notebook pages. Done out on wide lines in faded pencil, the careful, stilted verticals of a child’s hand.
Most are folded, and she leaves them if they are, stacking them aside and pinning them with her knee. This is the way she avoids what she might consider a true invasion of privacy. Overstepping. He hadn’t asked her to come up here. In fact, he hadn’t asked her to do anything yet, except in the way that she knew he was always asking something of her, and she was always, somehow, unable to give it. But the dangling cord from the attic had caught against her shoulder as she made her way back to the master bedroom, quiet in the cool hallway, and she knew she wasn’t going to get any more sleep.
Besides, boxes weren’t the worst thing she’d ever opened up for him.
A few of the papers are flat, contents exposed. FOX WILLIAM MULDER, GRADE 6 is written neatly, ruler-straight at the left hand of a notebook sheet. A Wrinkle in Time is not really about time-travel. It is about fate. Smiling, she skims to the bottom of the page where the writing becomes his illegible, familiar scrawl - like he’d begun by trying hard to keep his hand steady and then become either tired or excited. The last line she can make out is: It is free-will that makes the characters happy, but it is fate that brings them all together, even when the space-time continum (spelled wrong) proves to be unreliable. She puts it in the To Keep pile.
The other open sheets are mostly kindergarten scrawls, Samantha’s. She leaves them in the Maybe pile to the right of the rocking horse for Mulder to go through. There are a handful of report cards. Mulder had gotten a B in physics. Figures. A snapshot of him and Samantha, neither older than ten, backs to the camera, on the edge of the front porch. It’s black and white. The sky is gray and the Sound black. Mulder in a white t-shirt and Samantha holding the corner. Her head turned to him as he looks out at the water.
At the bottom of the box is gold. She squints at it, clearing away the last bit of paper. It’s cold to the touch, weighty and curved when she pulls it out. A ring, too small for her to hook more than two fingers through but too big to be worn. Identifiably brass lacquer over iron - a thin layer of corrosion and a metallic smell on her palm. Under the last few pieces of paper, there are at least ten more.
“What’d you win, doc?”
She hadn’t even heard him come up the ladder, and it creaked. The ring stings against the others as it drops into the box and gives off a metal echo. Mulder is bleary from sleep, barefoot and rubbing at his cheek. When she’d left his room, he’d had one arm around her and the other over his eyes.
“You’re up early,” she says.
He tilts his head at her, sitting down on the other side of the box. “So are you.” He rubs his arms. She’s in a UMD sweatshirt that she cuffs up her wrists and old jeans; he’s in a t-shirt and sweats. She can see his breath, just barely, freeze when he talks. “Jesus, it’s cold up here. I forgot we even had an up here.” Grinning, now: “Wanna give me the tour of my own house, Scully?”
She nudges the open box in his direction. For a moment, he seems hesitant to look into it, looks at her instead, at the piles by the rocking horse, for a half-second too long at the vacuum cleaner. When he finally does, frowning at the cardboard, his face lights up so fast she is reminded of the golden glow from the Pulp Fiction suitcase, washing over Travolta like midday reflection. Only you never got to know what was inside.
“No way,” Mulder says. He scoops out a handful of rings, laughs. “I forgot that I kept these.” He looks seriously at her over his hand, like he does before he climbs a fence, lies to Skinner. “You weren’t supposed to keep them, you know.”
Leaning back, her palms scrape at the thin wood of the attic floor. The whole room warms as morning comes in full. “Mulder, I don’t even know what those are. And you really, really don’t want me to guess.”
The intent in the curve of his body towards hers, elbows on knees, is clear and childish. He is going to tell her a story. His smile, as he drops the rings back into the box, has the same effect as the morning. The light is brighter and the shadows darker. She leans towards it, towards him and thinks, Begin .
“They’re carousel rings,” he says. “There’s a carousel in Oak Bluffs. The oldest operating carousel in the country. At least, it was still operating the last time I was out here. It turns - “ he illustrates with a finger on his palm. “You know, in a circle.”
“I’ve heard of that kind of thing, yes.”
He snorts, laughing deep in his chest. “I’m just being thorough. Anyways, it still has brass rings - which is what these are. While the carousel turns, in a circle, you can reach out and grab as many as you can hold. My record was four.” He looks at her, chin up, proud. “My parents used to take me and Sam. There was this one yellow horse, ugliest fucking thing I’ve ever seen, but it was the only thing she would sit on. I think maybe it’s because she was worried no one else would. It had red eyes, Scully. On a carousel. For children .”
She swallows. It’s the same prickling sense of unease from the night before, at the kitchen table. When they used to talk about her, she always felt she should cross herself before and after. It was a careful thing, like stepping lightly in a sleeping house. He has changed the scenery, turned on the lights, gotten everyone out of bed.
“These are both of yours?” She asks. “Yours and - “ It’s not a pause if no one notices but her. Mulder is turning one of the rings over in his hand. “And Samantha’s?”
“No.” He shakes his head. “These are just mine.”
“Was she too little?”
It’s stupid, everything she’s done since this time last Monday has been some variation of latent and utterly complete idiocy, actually, but the image of Samantha, at five or six, tilted half-sideways on the back of a yellow horse, with her skinny arm outstretched, reaching, makes her blink back tears. She thinks of the plastic skeleton in the box. Of the way she’d traced its radius and then packed it away.
Mulder says, “Nah, she could reach pretty far.” Another shake of his head. “You’re just not supposed to keep them. She always gave hers back.” He looks at her for a moment, considering. She blinks faster, so fast she thinks she’ll make herself dizzy. Leans harder back on her hands.
“You know what? We should go. I’ll take you.”
This, for some reason, makes her blush and look away. “Mulder.”
“No, Scully, I want to.” His sincerity is going to kill her some day. She’s sure of it. “I really do. Like I said last night, we should - “
Her head snaps back up. That he even says “last night” is a betrayal, feels like something of Judas and Jesus caliber. Nothing that happened between them at night, as of late, in bedrooms, was supposed to be thrown out like a fishing line, tossed into casual conversation. It had hooks . It didn’t belong here, in a place with so much light and shadow.
She interrupts sharply. “It’ll be closed, Mulder. It’s February.”
“Oh.” The ring in his hand goes back to the box. “Yeah. You’re right.”
God, she’s an asshole. A moment ago, she’d been biting down the urge to tell him exactly where to take his carousel, his sincerity and open hands - and now she wants to touch him. Again. Wants to hold him. Wants to build a fucking carousel, string up rings, let him reach. Wants to find ways to make him answer “are you okay” without ever having to ask it.
Instead, she sits. Silent. She used to know how to do this. Fuck. She takes off her top one time , lets him touch her one time , he kisses her one single time , and suddenly every time she looks at him it’s like not solving an equation, like crushing chalk in her hand. Like holding sea water in her mouth and trying not to let anyone know that it tasted like the things that hadn’t been able to survive in it.
And then - she doesn’t have to do anything. Somehow, that makes it worse. He brings his palms to his face, suddenly, as if inspecting them, and breathes in deep. The smile, again, just like that. “Just what I remembered. They always smelled like pennies.”
“It's the iron,” she says. “The perspiration on your skin reduces it into ions and decompose the oil on your skin, giving it a detectable odor.” She scrapes at her left wrist, trying to find her sleeve and pull it down. “It’s easy for us to smell because of our developed, although largely dormant, ability to smell blood.”
He’s looking at her in a way that makes her think about other evolutionary developments. About what keeps people alive, and what kills them. Tilting his head. “I didn’t know that.”
This, at least, this mindless back and forth, this she still knows how to do. She taps her pile of paper. “I know you didn’t. Tenth-grade Physics, Mulder. B minus.” She clucks, shakes her head.
He leans over the box. She seesaws away. “Let me see that.”
“Nope.” She picks the paper up, pretends to study it, frowning.
“I was wronged,” he says. “Mrs. Tillerson had it out for me.”
“ Oh, ” she sighs. “It was a conspiracy against you. I see.”
“Exactly.” He lunges for her then, primed to snatch the paper out of her hand. His knee catches the box, which catches three other boxes, which sends the rocking horse flying, which desecrates her careful piles and unearths the skeleton.
It knocks her onto her elbows. Mulder catches himself with one hand to the left of her ribs and the other wrapped around his report card. He hovers almost above her, victorious.
“Mulder.” She is laughing. It is a Saturday morning laugh, a baseball laugh, a-your-mother-is-alive-and-your-sister-still-could-be laugh. “You made a mess.” Tilting her head back to point her chin at him. “We’re going to have to reorganize this.”
He’s hovering above her, breathing hard although he hadn’t come that far. His eyes are bright, feverish. He says, “No.”
He says, “I think we should burn it.”
“You’re not serious.”
“Why not?” He smiles at her. She can’t place it, the way it makes her feel. “It’ll be just like summer camp. We could roast marshmallows. Send smoke signals.”
“And who would come looking?” What she means is, Both of us are already here .
“That’s the point, Scully.” He shakes his head, drops the report card. It flutters down somewhere by her right shoulder. He reaches out to touch her cheek and smiles. “No one.”
Mulder, who never let anything die. Who couldn’t ever let go. Who’d kept her here for years. He’s looking at her now, clear-eyed and intentional. He is touching her. He is suggesting they make it all go away. It’s not that she cares about his report cards, his fucking childhood scribbles. They can burn the whole house down if he really wants, it’s just -- Did she do this to him? Last year, about stopping the car and moving on and it all sounded good, sounded like she might finally get a day off for a change. But this was different, this was all new, this was Mulder with an epilogue.
Did she make him want to let things end?
“I’m sorry,” she says, suddenly, jerking back. The way it chokes its way up her throat surprises her. She pushes herself further back on her hands, sits up, further from him. His hand falls away. “I - I’m sorry, Mulder.”
“What?” He scrambles. “Scully - for what?”
She bites her nails into her palm. Isn’t it obvious? It’s not obvious to her, but it should be to him. It always seemed obvious to him. She couldn’t fucking blink without bleeding her cards. “Your mother, and your sister, and the other night.” Shaking her head. “Even last night. I shouldn’t have - it was my mistake, and it wasn’t fair to you. To either of us. I’m here to help you and instead, I’m, I don’t know, I think I’m making things worse.”
“Scully.” He’s looking at her like he did she'd said she had cancer - cancer! - that same flat disbelief, the same horrified confusion. “What are you talking about? What I have of my sister - “
“Your sister is dead!” She slams her palms down on either side of her. The rocking horse bobs. “Your mother - Mulder, when I went to her house, those pictures in the frames? Of you and Samantha? They were burned. She erased it, the two of you. How can you --” She is going to say, Do what she did . But she swallows it. The words tasted like copper in her mouth, like blood, like pennies. She finishes quietly, “How can you want to burn everything.”
And then, because she can think why, if she tries, she says, “I’m sorry.” Again.
Mulder is looking right through her. When he stands, he has to kick through discarded paper and the way it cyclones up reminds her of their snowglobe, of the upset little Martian. When he speaks, his voice is flat.
“What’s to be sorry for. You’re a doctor , Scully,” he says. Quiet. “Everything dies.”
She brings down a box of silverware to the kitchen, an armful of things that won’t burn or break. The sink coughs up cold water for a long moment before finally running hot. The idea of cleaning something sounds good, sounds generous, almost. They could leave things here, impersonal and clean enough to see a reflection in, for someone else to find.
Mulder slams the screen door. She keeps her hands in the sink, palms up, and waits for the water to burn. He’s been chopping wood. Something about her reaction in the attic had made him only more determined. That was, at the very least, familiar.
It’s afternoon now, and clouds over the water are smoking out the sun. Where it flashes and drags through the kitchen, it catches dust and old dents. They haven’t spoken since the attic, since almost nine this morning. The house doesn’t seem to mind, supplies its own symphony of creaks and settling groans. It is a place used to silence.
The creak in the threshold behind her is a tell, like someone who scratches their cheek before bluffing at Hold ‘Em, even if she could hear him breathing. If he’s looking for a fight, she’s the only one to have it with.
Whether or not this thing between them was a marriage of convenience used to keep her up at night, but the question had become diluted, dull, the answer too obvious. Of course it was and of course it wasn’t. It didn’t fucking matter anymore, because the fact remained, always, in a hundred settings, a million timelines, that she was the only one here.
“Did it ever occur to you, Scully,” he says, “that I am relieved. That I’m actually fucking glad to know what happened to her, even if it means she’s gone?”
The quiet surety in his voice surprises her. A fight, maybe, but one he’s looking to win. The silence in the house doesn’t dissipate when he talks, just absorbs, wraps it right up in the quiet.
He means Samantha, even though she is not the only one dead. For years, she has been the thing in everything they don’t say. Scully stops up short, ghosting her finger over the sharp edge of a blunted knife before setting it back on the counter. “No.”
“Well, maybe it should have.” She’s not looking at him, focusing on the rush of water from the spout. She wonders how long that can last, how long the center will hold. He’s angry, his voice hard and scraped raw. “I mean, what did you want, Scully? Be honest with me. Did you think she was alive? That me and Sam would play happy family and you’d, what, take pictures for the photo album? Then vs. Now. We could finish that game of Stratego. ”
She winces. He steps closer and she cranks the water hotter, runs a fork back and forth under the spray so it hits her wrist, her shirt, the counter. He’s quieter now, almost whispering although there is no one else, will never been anyone else.
He says, “Did you ever really think we’d find her?”
Maybe she never really wanted to. Maybe at some point, in between cancer and Emily, she’d begun to accept that this, this endless search, faithful and virtuous, was the only way she’d ever get to love him. Maybe she’d accepted it would go on forever; they’d be canonized, heroic, scrubbed clean. Maybe she’d wanted it. Maybe she doesn’t know what to do with him when they’re standing still.
She shrugs. “I don’t know, Mulder.”
“I thought,” he stammers for a moment. Another step. She presses her pointer finger over the rusted tines of the old fork. The water has left her numb. “Scully, I thought this is what you wanted.”
“What I wanted? ” She turns on him. His helplessness, his defeat has always managed to spark something in her. He is closer than she thought, and she has to look almost straight up to see him. “To find your sister dead ? For you to get closure in California in some fucking graveyard for children? To find out that at fourteen, at fourteen, Mulder, she had been relieved to die. For her to only remember that you had dark hair. And that you teased her.” She sucks in a breath, looks up at him. “No, Mulder. This is not what I wanted.”
If they never know the truth, it can be anything they want it to be. Like the cat, alive and dead all at once. She never wanted to open the box and find it had become a coffin. For someone who has built up all her faith on fact, she had become reliant on intrigue and ambiguities. Endless impossibilities. She turns away, turning off the water with a hard twist that stings in her wrist.
“I’m sorry,” she says, pressing her palms against the counter. She takes a deep breath, then another, then three more and by five has figured out that’s not going to keep her from crying. This has nothing to do with the attic, with setting fires, and it has everything to do with it, all the same. Her voice tilts and breaks on a high point. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
She shoulders past him, more of a duck than a shove, and he lets her go.
The screen door closes behind her with a scrape and a hush. Quiet, quiet, quiet.
She is embarrassed to be crying. When Mulder follows her onto the porch, the sun is streaking the old wood with yellow and gold. Her breath freezes, and her cheeks are hot. He brings her her jacket and sets it gently over her shoulders, careful not to touch her, before sitting down at her side.
He shakes his head. “Stop saying that. You don’t have to be sorry.”
“Well,” she blinks, swipes under her eyes again. This was supposed to be about him, not in the vague way that everything had been for years, but wholly and directly. He was the one who had lost something. “I am.”
Quiet for long moments, but not the kind inside the house. Bigger, uncontained. Easier and harder to swallow. He knocks his knee off of hers and then leaves it there.
He says, “You know I didn’t learn how to swim until I was ten? I just wouldn’t do it. Samantha could have lapped me by the time she was four.”
She sniffs, sitting up. “Until you were ten? But you lived here - ” she gestures out at the deep basin of the Atlantic, just beyond tress and shore. “You lived right on the water.”
He looks at her. A ghost of a smile, a phantasmal quirk that she recognizes. “You can be close to something and never touch it.”
She thinks of his apartment the other night. Thinks of holding him close, letting him feel her. Thinks of not kissing him. Guilt, up like a gasp in her lungs, makes her chest feel tight. She looks away. Eyes back to the water. Quiet again as the sun bobs between clouds.
Finally: “If we never find her, it never ends, Mulder.”
She means this. She means any of it. She means the two of them, set out in the dark against some unknowable thing.
He reaches out across the porch deck. It is like her dream, with the dust and the cigarette. Except there is nothing to distract her fingers, nothing to burn. She presses her hand over his when he offers it.
“I know,” he says. “I know, Scully.”
The house casts a long shadow as the sun tracks in and out of the clouds, and they stay out of its way. This is generally inefficient as an organizational strategy, and necessary as a preservational one.
At some Main Street restaurant five minutes down the road, the manager recognizes Mulder, calls over his wife and his little granddaughter. He wants to know if he’s married, if they’re married, if they are going to get married. He wants to know why he hasn’t seen him in so many years. The baby swipes a handful of napkins off the table and shrieks when they flutter out of her hand. He calls him Fox, and their meal is on the house.
Scully leans back hard on the vinyl booth as they wander away, an irritating blur of familial content. She wraps her hands around her coffee and closes her eyes. She is metaphysically hungover, scatty and cotton-headed from lack of sleep. Tonight, she’ll take the couch.
“You alright over there?”
Scrubbing at her cheek with a warm palm, she nods. “I should be asking you that.”
He shrugs. “I am if you are.”
She huffs. “I’m fine.”
“I know you are but what am I.”
As a child, she wonders, did Samantha ever wish she were taller so that she could look at him dead on when she stuck out her tongue, shoved a finger in his chest after he’d pulled her pigtails?
Mulder slaps the table and stands, holding out a hand at the open end of her booth. “Come on, I want to take you somewhere.”
Following him has always been the best way to pay her debts. She’s not going to apologize again, but she takes his offered hand. Maybe Samantha had used her height to her advantage, made him lean down and try and catch her.
Outside, the air has gone silver and cold. Their breath freezes and catches, spiderwebbing.
Quietly, she says, “You already have taken me somewhere.”
He nods, lets go of her hand for a moment to lace her cold fingers together with his warm ones. The weft and warp of them, joint and bone. “Somewhere else.”
It’s a seven minute drive to what Mulder cryptically refers to as “the pond.” Still, she likes to hear it in the singular. It settles her to think there is only one version of wherever he is going to take her, only one body of water like this, only one choice and he’s already made it. How Soon is Now plays on a spotty radio signal as they drive until they’re catching some post-modern version, hearing only every other word and vinyl-scratch catching - the son, be loved, criminally, the heir , human, human . Mulder switches it off when it slices into straight static as the pond gasps and levels before them like the Atlantic’s open mouth, its cupped palm.
The car had rumbled over wet sand, snow and hard gravel into a makeshift parking lot. A gentle incline tilts them gently towards dunes and water. In the bleached light, she can make out a white sign, tilting heavily: SQUIBNOCKET POND.
It’s far too cold to sit outside. To be on the water like this, crouching over it, exposed. Mulder leads her over frozen sand and melting ice in boots and a dark jacket. Far too cold. Still, when he finds a place on the dark, jagged beach, silver with winter light, he pats the ground beside him. And she doesn’t hesitate to take her customary place.
He points out the water in front of them, quieter than the Atlantic. “That’s the pond,” he says, and twists around, still pointing, to look out behind them at the high cliffs of sand. “And over there, somewhere, is the ocean.”
“A barrier beach.”
She’d seen a few in California, lagoons of water that the ocean couldn’t feed off of. Places it teased but never reached. Great arches of sand and brine. Still, her father told her that the ocean always won out, eventually. The human body was seventy percent water, there was nothing the sea could not touch.
“Yeah.” Mulder nods. “In the winter, especially if it storms, water will come up over the lower points here, but the beach hasn’t been breached in a hundred years. It’s the only one on the Vineyard like that.”
Wind pushes only gently at the water. The sun ducks and lowers under clouds. At their backs, the dunes block the gusts off the ocean. A hundred improbable years it had kept the ocean out. She shivers, from either cold or dissatisfaction. For a natural place, it felt sufficiently unbelievable.
Mulder is looking at her. They’re sitting close, tited on the cold, wet sand. His breath is warm. “Do you like it?”
She turns her head sharply, her hair catching against her cheek. He’s watching her levelly, eyes crinkling with something that might be nervousness, a twitchy little vulnerability. She swallows. He showed her things like this all the time. Improbable things, challenging, unprecedented things, things that made her squint or close her eyes or swallow hard or follow his hand. Looking wherever he led her was the very crux of this, them. She had always thought all she had to do was see . She never thought it mattered if she liked it.
“I don’t know,” she says finally. It pleases her to realize it’s true. “I don’t know how I feel about places the ocean has tried to touch, but can’t.”
Mulder nods, and she worries for a moment she’s answered incorrectly, disappointed him. But he’s still watching her.
“I like it,” he says after a moment, looking back out at the water. “It makes me feel safe.”
She blinks, then smiles, pressing her lips together so she can feel it in the cold. If that’s the case, they can sit here until they freeze and sink. Until a winter storm curls itself up over the Atlantic and drags the tide over the low beach, and they drown. And the whole time, as they’re being dragged out to sea, she’ll be wondering at what it is to be safe with the most unavoidably, incidentally, heartbreakingly dangerous person she’s ever known. That they’ll be dead won’t change any part of it.
He gestures out at the water. “This is where I finally learned to swim.”
Her smile grows. “Oh?”
“Yeah,” his voice reflects his grin, refracting the sound. “You can see the other side. Not now, because it’s dark, but in the summer. With the ocean, you never know where it ends.” He shrugs.
“I would think you’d like that. Not knowing where the end of it is.” She leans against him, teasing. “It’s mysterious .”
He’s serious. “It’s terrifying.”
Scully sits up a little. Feels the cold sand with her fingertips until she can’t feel anything with them at all. “Still?”
She leans back against him again, her shoulder brushing his. It’s too cold not to touch. “I used to think that the ocean just tipped over the side of the world. Like if you spilled water on a table.”
Mulder pulls away from her, suddenly delighted. “Are you telling me you, Dr. Dana Katherine Scully, physicist extraordinaire, were a Flat-Earther in your rebellious youth?He claps his hand over his chest, falls back on his elbows in the sand. “You’ve been holding out on me. You’re clearly a natural. Maybe a little undiscerning about which theories you buy, but we’ll work on it.”
She resists the parallel urges to both shove and kiss him. Shakes her head and laughs instead. “I was four.”
Tilting his head, he looks up at her. “Somehow,” he says. “I can’t imagine you ever being a child.”
He, who could imagine anything. Who had imagined her right into the thirty-sixth year of her life without coming up for air, he couldn’t imagine her as a child. It pricks at her for no discernable reason. Just a pinch, like having blood drawn. She blinks and looks away, crossing her arms over her chest and curling tighter in on herself. “When you met me Mulder, I was a child.”
She hears him sit up but doesn’t look over to check. Her hair is too short for him to tuck behind her ear. Good. It had always made her feel cherished and untouchable. Made her feel, ironically, like a child. He brushes it away from her temple anyways, pulling it away from her eyes. His fingers are gritty with sand. She blinks the grains away from her eyelashes, tastes the salty sting of them on her lips and blows a breath out. He thumbs her cheek. “No, you weren’t. You’ve always been older than me, Scully.”
It’s funny. She’s always thought he thought the opposite. She cuts a glance his direction, turning her head, and his hand falls away. “You know I’m the same age as Samantha would have been?”
He blinks. For the hundredth time today, she feels invariably disgusted with herself. “What?”
Mulder puts space between them. She feels the hurt from him like a skinned knee, a no-contact sting. “I didn’t ever think of you like that,” he bites out. “You weren’t important to me by proxy .”
She’s exhausted by them. The careful aporia of their ability to know each other best and not at all. “I don’t think that.” She does, kind of, but it isn’t worth it. Samantha is dead; she is alive. She is thirty-six years old. Her bones no longer grow the way they once did. She’s what he still has. “I’m sorry.”
He shakes his head, a sharp, tense little arc. “It’s alright.”
For one second, she thinks, she would just like to be one thing. To stop having to cleave to proper nouns from his mouth or someone else’s. Starbuck, Dana, Agent, Doctor, Scully. Would like to not be monolithic, not be a martyr, not be slowly and surely made up to be either.
She takes a deep breath, feeling suspiciously like she used to before confessing.
“You know, I had braces for a year when I was fifteen,” she starts. She's not sure where it comes from. She's trying to compress definitions. Trying to explain. Mulder turns suddenly towards her. Looks with wide eyes. She stares out over his head to the edges of the still pond. “Melissa was prettier and more popular, and she got me drunk for the first time in the back of her boyfriend’s sedan when I was seventeen. When I was three, Bill accidentally broke my arm when we got into a shoving match in a treehouse. He’s been protective of me ever since. My favorite book was never Moby Dick growing up. I liked Little House on the Prairie , Nancy Drew , but I loved it because my dad did.”
She bites at her lip, combing for more memories. It’s disturbing how much she cannot remember. “In the seventh grade," she says, "I punched a girl in the mouth because she said that my favorite movie was stupid. When I was really little, and waiting for my dad to get back after shipping out, I would sit on the dock and count the waves. The first thing I ever killed was a rabbit. It was an accident, but I didn’t cry. The first thing I ever cut open was a bird, a sparrow that Bill had hit with his BB gun. I wanted to scare Charlie. He threw up. He loved birds. In a way, I think I was trying to love it with him. By learning it, seeing what made it tick. I thought the best way to do that would be from the inside out.”
When she looks back at Mulder, she’s breathing hard. “I kept the wishbone.”
The way he’s looking at her now is dazed, gentle. She used to think her affinity for death - if that’s what you could call it - kept him at a distance. But maybe she is his memento mori. He keeps her close to know he has not died, but could, still.
He’s not saying anything. She blushes, the warmest she’s felt since they came out here. She had meant it as an apology and an exposition, affirmative evidence. Something like the other night, but with all of her clothes still on.
“What.” He talks like he’s swallowed syrup. Slow, slow and sweet.
“I just did.”
She sighs, huffy and frustrated. She digs her fingers into cold sand. “Say what you’re thinking.”
“I’m thinking,” he swallows. “I’m thinking that I wish I knew you when I was a kid.”
The blush spreads down her chest, pooling into her joints and extremities. Suddenly, she can feel her fingers, and they prick and burn. The corner of her mouth tightens into a swallowed up little smile.
“Why,” she asks, her voice carefully steadied. “So I could help you study for physics?”
It’s different, the expressed wish to spend your past with someone instead of your future. Or maybe in addition to. It is scrappy and uncomfortable. He’d been a fundamentally unhappy child, and she would have never understood him.
Still, she thinks, he would have tugged the other end of the sparrow’s wishbone with her. Instead of leaving her with the whole thing, like Charlie did. It was thin, size of her father’s thumbnail. It might not have broken in half. It might have fallen apart entirely. She worries for a moment that he’s going to press it -- I wish I’d known you -- and then she’ll have to say this out loud, watch him figure out what it means for her.
He laughs. “I’ve explained this, Scully. Mrs. Tillerson hated me. I am not to blame.”
Relieved, grateful he’s slid her gently off the hook, she moves closer. “Why?”
His arm unthinkingly around her waist. It’s dark. She wonders if the beach closes. If they’re the only ones out here, in the world. “Why what?”
“Mrs. Tillerson, why did she hate you.”
“Oh,” he rubs his eyes with his free hand. “I don’t know. I was a shit. She said I was too much in my own head and that it was giving her migraines.”
She laughs. “I’d have liked her.”
“Mmm.” He is younger when he smiles, even when it’s just a passing thing. “You’d have liked Samantha.”
The tightness in her chest is symptomatic of tears, but she doesn’t cry. She ducks her head, swallowing. “Would she have liked me, do you think?” She’d had no idea it mattered to her.
He answers fast and certain. This is, she realizes, something he has thought about before. It makes her choke, not uncomfortably, just like something sweet has gone down wrong. She has always thought Mulder mildly disappointed in his dead. It is maybe what has kept her alive for so long.
She has never considered that he is instead worshipful. That he doesn’t pray, but that he would want to know what their blessing would feel like if they would give it, if he could accept it.
“She’d have loved you,” he says. She sniffs. The cold is making both their noses run red. “She’d have thought you were the most incredible person in the world.”
She roughly palms at her cheek. He sounds like a child, short on object permanence and full of genuine hyperbole. She says, “Come here.”
The irony of this while they’re so close that every outer edge of the outline of their bodies - at rest, in parallel - is touching, is not lost on her. Still, she tugs at the back of his neck, drawing him down until his head is against her shoulder. It can’t be comfortable, but that’s not the point.
“What are you doing?” His voice muffled against her jacket. She palms the back of his head, gently.
“Learning,” she says.
Behind them, the dunes of the breach rise like shell-shocked, blasted buildings. Carved out, roadkill rotted, eaten by the sea. They face the dark, quiet water of the pond while the ocean snarls somewhere beyond the crested hills. Her hands come to his forehead, his temple, and he leans into her hard. It is a gentle, unrelenting vivisection.
Passing headlights from some far off causeway silhouette them against dark water. After long minutes, she stops touching him. He doesn’t move. For some reason, when she speaks, she whispers. “You ever think about the ships that have wrecked here? Coming into port, but never quite making it home? All the people waiting here, looking, and having no idea.” She remembers counting waves on a dock.
Mulder shakes his head, echoes her voice. “A ship hasn’t wrecked here in two hundred years, Scully,” he says. “No one is looking anymore.”
He says it like a comfort, sitting up then to wrap an arm around her shoulders. Sheltered from the wind and the water here, looking out at this empty lagoon, she supposes that it is.
Behind them, waves test and snap at the barrier. They never, never break through.
end part 2.