Late night at the precinct parking lot. John Kresge liked leaving late. The office wouldn’t be empty then, but it would be a bit emptier. Quieter. You could smell the ocean at night, without the sun to burn it away. Sometimes a sweet hint of something green.
Tonight it smelled like tobacco.
“Detective Kresge,” said a voice. It lilted in a way that made one tense for disingenuity.
Kresge stopped. A cigarette flared in the shadows near his car.
“I was sorry to hear about Roberta Sim. That’s your case, isn’t it?”
“I’m sorry for you.”
“Sad, a woman with a family like that. Sad about the husband too.”
Kresge didn’t reply.
“I can’t imagine what you’ve been told. Experiments and conspiracies.” The man with the cigarette chuckled in a way that made Kresge think he had the world “chuckle” in mind.
“I can’t talk about any open cases.”
“Oh? I was under the impression this case was closed and the Freemasons did it.”
The man stepped into the light, exhaling smoke. His face was sallow and deeply lined, like a folded omelet. He took a manila envelope from inside his coat and set it on the pitted hood of Kresge’s Ford.
“Look again, Detective. My friends and I aren’t the only bogeymen in the dark.”
John Kresge hadn’t had a cigarette in five years, but as he drove home with the envelope riding passenger and the wind streaming in through his open window, he was overcome with the feeling that he needed to quit.
Three months earlier.
There was a desperation in her those days. She was aware of it; she had always had a strong awareness of desperation, the way one is aware of a woolen Christmas sweater. Something uncomfortable and undignified, to be removed as soon as possible.
But lately her desperation had taken on a self-indulgent, self-punitive quality. The texture of a hairshirt. Why shouldn't she be desperate? Newly acquainted with her mortality, why shouldn't she want? Why shouldn't she let herself feel the pain of unfulfillment for once? She was a marshmallow test savant, but she had taken it to an extreme during her illness. Gratification more sacrificed than delayed. No room for yearning when there was work to do, a life to justify, and a partner to steady like a Ming vase in a magnitude 7 earthquake.
She felt stupid, watching him flee the hotel room in Florida, spooked by the mere idea of cheese and intoxication in close proximity to a bed. He’d never made a move. Why would he want her to? She felt stupid, looking at the mundane evidence of her scraped-out insides. Ovarian reserve: 0. They wrecked you, and you couldn't do anything about it. Stupid, getting cancer. Stupid, following a man that had straight-up told her he’d lost the map. Stupid, so stupid, how she feels when her mother calls her, winded with excitement, to tell her how big her big brother's wife is getting.
She gained five pounds that week, but there was no congratulation to be had for that. Just relief. Just the occasional, unconscious linger of her partner's eyes that he would never, ever do anything about.
She was alive and for once, goddammit, she could resent her life if she felt like it.
San Diego was hot and bright, unseasonable even for California. She felt beached. Displaced and overexposed. Disturbing to realize that the sun was no longer a home to her, though she knew it once had been. She was a creature of the underworld now. Sickbed pale and mole-blind from five years in a basement. Dressed all in black like a plague-hag, like Death himself.
Probably it was just Tara that had her thinking that way. Big, ripe Tara. A California peach. So fucking fecund one thought she should probably be eaten now, she might go off tomorrow.
Nevermind. It wasn’t Tara’s fault that she’d been perfectly engineered to mock both Scully’s empty womb and absent sister. It wasn’t Tara’s fault that she made Scully long for Melissa’s simple vibrancy. Melissa could be flighty, but she'd never trucked in the opulent liveliness of the vain and insecure. Melissa was never sunny. Melissa was always serious in her own way.
It wasn’t Tara’s fault how badly and how shamefully Scully had missed Melissa when she was ill. Not Tara's fault how Scully had thought that Melissa had loved her, but would not have been destroyed by her death, the way that Mulder or their mother would have been. Not Tara's fault how much Scully had craved someone like that. How much she needed to look into someone's eyes and not see the end of the world because otherwise the sense of failure might kill her before anything else did.
Definitely not Tara's fault how at secret times, Scully had been relieved that her sister was not there. Not Tara's fault that Melissa would have also meant herbs and crystals. That Melissa would have had a faint distaste for Scully’s sad reliance on unnatural cures, as if radiation and opiation were childish things that Melissa was indulging. Not Tara's fault that Scully would have hated Melissa a bit, she knew.
No. That was all someone's fault, but it wasn't Tara's.
When the phone rang that first afternoon, it felt almost like all the phone calls she’d ever gotten from her sister. Melissa’s weird psychic way of calling just when Scully had been thinking of her. Melissa’s tiresome tendency to impart earnest moral imperatives.
"She needs you, Dana,” said Melissa’s voice, hollow with distance. “Go to her." Need. It was not compelling. It was compulsory.
She traced the call to a suburb ten miles away. Cars already swarmed the house. Blowflies to a corpse.
The corpse was a Roberta Sim, forty years old and married mother of one, slumped slit-wristed in her bathtub like a suburban Marat. Dead three hours, the detective told her. The call must have been a software glitch. No one was alive to make it.
The daughter was a strange little girl. Illegible eyes and a helmet of pageboy hair. Silent and serious, even in investigative chaos. Scully noticed her like a romantic hero at the other end of a room, like a heartbeat in stethoscope silence, her depth of field contracting until only the girl was at the center. The girl stared back, calm and without expression.
She needs me, Scully thought. A clear and certain thought, like the chime of a bell. She could not remember the last time she had had such a thought, and the simplicity of it arrested her.
“Can we get some privacy here?” said a man, and the detective shut a door in Scully’s face.
That would be the father. Something wrong about his anger, she thought. Not merely grief. Not merely shock. Not even merely the anger of a guilty man. But something almost...jealous in it. Possessive. He had not liked her looking at that girl.
She needs me, Scully thought.
The certainty dogged her like a bad drug. Like a one-night stand that was better than she’d bargained for. It made her restless and itchy. It made her call Mulder, her regular conviction dealer, and it made her hang up. No, he was not a convinced man these days. She could hear him scoff. She could feel his unease at the prospect of giving her sympathy again, just when he’d gone to the trouble of distancing himself from the Mulder that kissed her wasting cheeks and held her dying hands. She could see him sweeping in and making the mystery his own and for some reason that offended her too.
It was her the girl needed. Not Mulder.
She dreamed that night, for the first time in a long time. She dreamed of the dead rabbit in the red and yellow tin. Fur crawling with phantom maggots, a pathologist’s confabulation based on what bodies look like when they’ve been abandoned. In truth the tin had had a tight seal. No room for Bill, no room for flies, no room for air. The real tin had revealed only a sunken little body that smelled like bad meat, as if it were a sandwich that had been left overnight.
The phone woke her. “She needs your help,” said Melissa again. “Go to her.” So she went.
The Sim house was dark and quiet. No crickets, she thought as she rang the bell. But then, were there crickets in San Diego? In December? She found she couldn’t remember.
Marshall Sim answered the door.
“Mr. Sim,” she said, “my name is Dana Scully. I’m sorry for your loss and I’m sorry to disturb you at this hour.”
“What do you want?” he said. That same anxious curtness as before.
“I received a phone call less than an hour ago. I was addressed by name and I was told that I needed to help someone...a woman. I traced the call and it came from your house.”
This news seemed to panic him. He did not look caught. He looked as if she’d said a bomb had hit downtown.
He was in the middle of a meeting, he said. No one had called her, he said. A bad day, he said. Stop coming around. There was a strain in his temple, she saw, like a repressed tic. His grip on the door was white and his skin sheened with ill-health. A pair of dangerous-looking men watched Sim from the living room. Bureaucratically dangerous, like a rent-a-cop with an assault rifle.
“Are you alright yourself, Mr. Sim?” Scully said. “I’m a medical doctor, if--”
“For God’s sake, leave it,” he said. And shut the door.
Scully looked back at the darkened windows on the upper floor, perhaps for a glimpse of the daughter. But there was nothing. Just a shadow that could have been anything at all.
Early morning at the police station. A box full of Roberta Sim, wheedled from the detective. It was a strange thrill to make a nuisance of herself, though she could barely let herself admit it. Was this how Mulder felt all the time? Bureaucratic order suddenly trivial in the face of a little girl in need of answers? Astonishing.
“So what are you looking for?” said Detective Kresge, new the role of the foil. “Can you even tell me?”
“It says here that your precinct visited the Sims before. Two weeks ago. A domestic disturbance call?”
“We sent a unit ‘cause the neighbors were complaining. They were screaming at each other. It wasn’t a happy household. Happy people don’t kill themselves.”
There was a tox screen, she saw. High levels of doritriptan. A new migraine medication, said Kresge. “Apparently, you take enough of it, you’re wearing a cloud for a hat. I figure she anesthetized herself and then--” fwip. “We found a bunch of empty sample packets in the bathroom trash. A couple more in her purse.”
“How new?” said Scully, examining the packets. “There are nine common triptans and that’s not one of them.”
“Sounds like you’d know better than me.”
Beneath the packets was a photograph of the daughter, smiling with a birthday cake. Some sort of abyssal purse residue crusting one edge of it.
“I’d like to borrow this” said Scully.
“Sure,” said Kresge. He seemed relieved that he could say something that might make her leave.
The days and hours blurred in the monofocus of investigation. Somewhere in the last few years of subsuming her goals into a questing hero’s, she had forgotten that she was rather remarkable at her job. She could see it in the detective’s face. Kresge gave her the grudging respect of a highly competent man grown complacent so slowly he hadn’t noticed it happening. She made him notice. She was unsettled to realize that he looked at her the way she saw people look at Mulder, with the wary, exasperated awe for those too excellent and too passionate to be entirely sane.
Roberta Sim’s wrists had no hesitation cuts. Roberta Sim’s stomach had no pills. Roberta Sim had a puncture wound on her heel, a body full of triptans, and syringes in the trash. For his daughter’s anemia, the father said when they confronted him at the house. She’ll die without them, he said. We’ll check that out, said Scully.
“You think I’d lie about my daughter dying, Agent?”
“We’ll see,” Scully said. She fought a strange urge to tell him that she knew the girl was adopted, as if it would throw his devotion into question.
Little Emily Sim had sealed birth records in the State of California, she’d found. Little Emily, so far as Scully could tell, had never belonged to an adoption agency and had never been a ward of a state or court. Were it not for the sealed records, she may as well have not existed.
Little Emily also looked just like Little Melissa.
As they left the Sim house Scully saw a dark sedan pull away, the driver with his eyes on the windows of the upper floor. Scully looked up, and this time there was no question. A little girl’s hand had darted between the curtains and disappeared.
“His daughter’s home,” said Scully.
“What?” said Kresge.
“He lied. She’s not at a friend’s house, I just saw her.”
Scully went back through the front door and past the technicians still tagging evidence in the living room. Mr. Sim was righting a picture of his wife, jerky with irritation.
“What now?” he said.
“You lied about where your daughter is, sir,” said Scully, brushing past him and up the stairs. “I’d like to know why.”
“For Christ’s sake--”
He followed after her, with what might have been an intent to tackle. Scully moved faster. She shoved open the door to the room that faced the street, only barely stopping herself from slamming it for fear of scaring the girl inside.
Sim had no such concern. He was at her back a second later and boomed the door against the wall.
“Get the fuck out of my house.”
A technician looked up at them, one purple-gloved hand in a pink-flowered trashcan. “Agent Scully?” he said. A pair of white curtains billowed gently behind him.
“I--” said Scully. “I’m sorry. I was mistaken.”
“I’ve had enough,” said Sim. “My daughter has been at a friend’s house all afternoon. You’ve got some vendetta against me based on absolutely nothing--”
“Agent Scully,” said Kresge, coming up behind Sim.
“--and I am two seconds from charging you with harassment if you don’t leave this family in peace.”
“Let’s go, Agent Scully,” said Kresge. “They’ll find anything else that needs finding.”
Scully took a hard glance around the room, anyways. But there was nothing to see. Just a cheery little bedroom for a three year old girl.
“My mistake,” said Scully, and left Kresge and the father behind her.
Scully and the detective rode back to the precinct in silence. She prepared for an admonishment, or talk of being too close to things, but Kresge surprised her.
“You know I noticed something funny,” he said. The steering wheel was made from a dull, blue plastic. Fake leather texture. Discolored from what looked like a decade of sunlight and finger-sweat. He gripped it firmly. A masculine grip, she thought.
She said nothing.
“Did you notice there weren’t any pictures in the house? None of the kid. Just the one of the mother.”
“I didn’t, actually.”
“Hm.” He made a turn. “Funny. He seemed pretty attached to her.”
She was having visions every night now. Creeping, rotting dreams. Mornings spent feeling as if something important and terrible had happened, but unable to remember what. As if she’d murdered a man and left the body dripping liquid, death-voided shit through the floorboards of her living room. As if she’d swallowed poison and in an hour she’d get a headache and in two she’d begin to shiver and in five she would be dead. But she’d forgotten.
She thought it might have to do with the cancer. Some post-traumatic thing. An anxious brain still anticipating the termination phase of terminal illness.
Mulder would have had ideas, but these weren’t the sorts of things they told each other. She didn’t want to look across a table at him, and know that he knew that as a child she’d suffocated a rabbit in a lunchpail, and that at thirty-four years of age she still dreamed about it. She didn’t want him to know that she had a brain that thought about maggots and coffins that overflowed with blood. She didn’t want him to know about the time she dissected her mother and she didn’t feel a thing. That she pulled gold, plasma-coated necklaces from Maggie’s stomach like intestines and placed each piece in its own jar for pickling and when she looked closely she saw that they were all heavy old curio things, with the skeletonized faces of her siblings inside them. She didn’t want him to know that last night she seduced Donnie Pfaster in his cell with whispers of metastasis, and in his moment of weakness she grabbed his face, his eyes, his balls and everything she touched turned black with necrosis, falling off his body in thick, velvet sheets. That he screamed as he decayed and when she woke up she felt dirty and oversexed like she’d had her first wet dream.
It was intimate knowledge. Too intimate for her, let alone him.
Kresge bore gifts. A pharmaceutical firm was buying Roberta Sim off at $30,000 a month. To keep the girl in a clinical trial for an obscure hemolytic anemia, apparently. The father’s idea, apparently.
“How shall I put this?” said Dr. Calderon, the trial’s director. He had a smooth, continental voice, like a multimillionaire from a made-up country. “These payments are a gesture of goodwill to Mrs. Sim. She wasn’t completely convinced that our experimental treatment was the way to go.”
“She wanted to pull Emily from the program?” said Scully.
“She filed the paperwork, but her husband later withdrew it.”
“Did you ever prescribe injections of a drug called doritriptan to Emily during her treatment?” she said.
“No, no.” said Dr. Calderon, relieved to be discussing things that had no smack of illegality. “I prescribed them for the husband.”
Marshall Sim answered the door in a state of exhaustion. His hair was unwashed, his tie was undone, and a rash crept up the right side of his neck from beneath his collar. The bumps were high-pile and pin-pricked with blood, freshly scratched. He held a slopping cup of coffee in his shaking right hand, his forearm stained with watery tracks of brown. Scully had a flash of disdain for how quickly Sim had deteriorated under the demands of single fatherhood.
“Marshall Sim,” said Kresge. “You’re under arrest for the murder of Roberta Sim.”
Sim stepped back in surprise and tripped to the floor, accidentally avoiding Kresge’s cuffs. His coffee splashed in Kresge’s face.
“Goddamnit,” said Kresge.
“You’re insane,” said Sim, scrambling backwards.
Another officer pushed Kresge aside to cuff Sim instead. On an absurd autopilot, Sim attempted to shatter his coffee cup on the officer’s neck. But his grip was weak and his aim was off and the cup flew out of his hands instead.
“Where’s Emily?” said Scully.
“Get out!” Sim shouted. So abrupt and so desperate that it took Scully a moment to realize that he wasn’t talking to them. “Emily, get out!”
Scully looked up and saw that Emily was watching the scene from the upper landing. Emily did not look frightened, but she did look confused. As if she were trying to add 6 and 7. As if she were trying to remember just exactly who Marshall Sim was.
The arresting officer yanked Sim to his feet.
“You have the right to remain silent--”
“Emily!” said Sim, crying in earnest now. “Oh god baby. Get OUT!”
The littlest crease appeared upon Emily’s smooth little brow. Scully watched her follow the path of Sim’s departure, lingering on the door as he was dragged entirely out.
Their eyes met.
Emily blinked, and then smiled just so slightly. The easy, shy, unthinking smile of the young, to whom everything is new. She turned and disappeared from view.
“Emily?” said Scully. Get out, Sim had said. Scully once again went up the stairs, to the room she’d seen before. She pushed open the door.
“Emily?” she said.
There was a tap on the back of her left leg, and something deep in Scully startled. She had forgotten how thoughtless children are with their touch, how their warm little hands feel too real somehow, too small to be alive. How they made you wonder when you’d forgotten to touch people that way, where along the line something so simple and human had acquired a sense of violation.
Emily stood behind her, three familiar paper packets held tightly in her hands.
“He needs these,” said Emily, offering them up with a heartbreaking lack of guile. Doritriptan succina, in ten ten-milligram pills.
“Oh,” said Scully. She hesitated, then took the packets. “I’ll make sure he gets them.” A funny flip in her heart again as her fingers and Emily’s brushed.
“FBI,” said Kresge. He stood a few steps down, shirt drenched and eyes pink. “You ready to go?”
“You’re going to need to come with us now, sweetie,” she said to Emily. “We’ll make sure you’re safe. Okay?”
Kresge gave them an uneasy look and turned away. At the bottom of the stairs, Emily held out her hand with the same simple askingness with which she’d held out the pills. Big-eyed and silent. Scully took it, feeling overawed, and frightened of that.
A child services van was outside.
“Honey,” she said, settling Emily in. Gentle and hesitant. “Your father seemed very worried about you. Do you know what he was worried about?”
Emily didn’t reply, reaching with magpie wonder for Scully’s necklace instead.
“You like that, huh?” said Scully. Emily nodded. Scully gave her the necklace, and then she was called away. “I’ll see you soon, okay?” Emily played with the necklace. Nodded.
She was lying on an operating table, her stomach abduction-swollen, and Mulder’s head between her legs. She couldn’t see him; her gown was draped over it all with gynecological delicacy. But she knew. Those were warm Mulder hands that stirrupped her thighs and soft Mulder hair that brushed her skin and that nagging Mulder mouth that was on her, in her, firm and dedicated and maddeningly prone to whimsy. God, she was wet like she was bleeding out. Like someone had pulled a stopper from her. Like he was some orgasmic midwife and her water was broken, broken, broken.
And he loved it, shocking how much he loved it. She felt licked up and drunken in. A sensation of increasingly fervent suction the wetter and closer she got. He pulled her briefly into his mouth and a sweet, close, very close sound of agony escaped her.
He did it again. Hard this time. Painful hard.
“Mulder,” she gasped.
Harder. Again and harder. His hands tight on her now.
Again and again and again, and she had the frightening thought he was trying to take her clit off.
“STOP,” she screamed. And suddenly the gown was gone and she saw that her stomach was cracked open like an egg, white and jagged-edged, a shrinking pool of yellow where her organs should have been. She watched as last of the yolk disappeared up into Mulder’s wet weasel mouth.
“Why?” she said, sobbing now. “Why?”
He looked at her seriously. Apologetically. Factually.
“You had something I needed,” he said.
The phone rang. She woke up on the couch in Maggie Scully’s fairy-lit living room, still dressed in her holiday-professional best. It was the second night in a row she’d done so.
She heaved the Sim files from her lap and went to the hall to answer.
“Hello?” she said.
She became aware of a kind of magic, midnight hush in the house, and for a second she could believe in it all. In the idea that a spirit was waiting on the other side. That it would choose her ear to whisper in.
“She needs your help,” said Melissa, more urgent than she’d ever been. “Go, now.”
The FBI switchboard had scarcely said County Children’s Center, when her cell phone bleated from her pocket too. Loud and unmagical.
“Scully,” she said.
“Sim’s escaped,” said Kresge. “We’re looking for him now. Stay alert, Agent Scully, he might—“
“He’s at the children’s center,” said Scully. “He’s going for Emily.”
“I’m leaving now. If you want to save her you’ll meet me there.” She clicked the cell phone off and ran for the car.
The house phone clicked off as well.
The children’s center was dim and yellow. It smelled like children and regulation, like wipes and warm copiers and the acid kick of puke.
She was halfway to the special needs dorm with a security guard and a night nurse at her heels when a door slammed up ahead. Too far ahead. Marshall Sim turned, saw them, and ran the other way, Emily in his arms.
“FBI, freeze!” she said, but Sim didn’t stop. He was out the emergency exit at the other end and an alarm began to blare.
She followed him through the door, out onto the center’s lawn.
“I said freeze,” she said.
But Sim had already stopped. Some ten members of San Diego’s police force had their weapons trained on him as well.
“I’ll kill her,” said Sim, a gun to Emily’s head. “I’ll kill her before I let you take her.” His hand shook. Emily was silent, but tears streamed down her face.
“We won’t harm her, Mr. Sim,” said Kresge, “I give you my word. But we need you to put the gun down.”
Sim didn’t put it down.
“They’re after her,” he said. “I’m the only one that can protect her.”
“Who’s after her, Marshall?” said Scully. The sick intuition of conspiracy was familiar to her now, and at that moment she felt nearly humming with it.
Sim shook his head.
“You won’t trick me. I won’t tell you what I know.”
“Marshall we can help you,” said Scully. “We can help you. Who’s after her?”
Again Sim shook his head and Scully watched it happen like turning a flipbook. One moment he was moving his gun and the next there was a hole in his head. His grip on Emily loosened and both of them fell to the ground.
Scully ran to Emily, who sat looking down at her father. Crying, but as quiet as ever. She stroked his gunshot face, indifferent to the carnage of it.
Kresge stepped up, two officers with him.
“We need to take him,” said Kresge. “I’m sorry.”
Scully gently pulled Emily aside, and the men carried Sim’s body away. Emily turned to her then, burying her head in Scully’s shoulder.
“I’m so sorry,” said Scully. “I’m so sorry, baby.”
As she stroked Emily’s shuddering back, she looked out at the parking lot. A car pulled away. Not a police car. Another dark sedan, its lights turned off and the moon oil-sleek against its hull.
Only this time, in a flash of streetlight, she recognized the man inside. The linebacker man. The hulking alien with the flat, inhuman face.
She held Emily tighter.
It had seemed too providential that Emily could be Melissa’s. Too easy. Too seasonal, even. A miracle child at Christmastime? It seemed even more absurd that Emily, should she wish it, could be hers. But who was she to turn up her cancerless nose at such a thing?
It had terrified her, the pull those telephone pleas had on her. For all her insolent career changes and for all her Catholic upbringing, Scully did not think she had ever truly understood the feeling of “being called.” Saints, prophets, artists, Mulder. Their determination had always been somehow abstract to her. A thing she accepted existed but did not quite believe. A jealous part of her had thought of it as delusion or weakness, that focus that went beyond the point of reason. All those women, those Taras, talking of finding purpose in their children. My God, it had to be a weakness, didn’t it? If even they could get one? Someone had to be reasonable, she would tell herself, even if it meant she would never know the romance of vocation.
But her number was up, now. Her number was up after all. And she was afraid of how much she wanted it.
A part of her still did not want to call Mulder. A part of her wanted it more than she cared to think about. She knew that Mulder would go soft with her the instant she was in distress, and she resented, at times, that it was so predictable. She didn’t like the temptation to be weak in order to balm her feminine ego. She didn’t like that she knew that he feared her weakness, and that it was her responsibility to save him from that fear.
But she had the excuse of practicality now. She needed his recommendation and she could no longer keep her suspicions regarding Emily from him.
“Mulder,” he said.
“Hey Scully. Hey--did you see the latest Gunmen? Holiday issue, I’ll mail it to you. Baby Jesus was a changeling, apparently.”
“No, I didn’t see it.”
There was a long silence.
“Is everything okay?”
She suddenly didn’t know how to reply. The silence went on too long.
“I’m--getting a little worried, Scully. What’s happening?”
“I need you to come out here. I’m not sure I should talk about it on the phone.”
A brief hesitation, then of course:
“I’ll be there. As soon as I can.”
“The Gunmen will call you.”
“I’ll be there soon, Scully.”
A long silence.
“Call me when you land.”
Mulder had begun investigating of course, because that was who Mulder was. Scarcely off the plane and already brimming with evidence and admonitions. Telling her he’d found Emily’s surrogate. Telling her if he really cared he wouldn’t recommend her to the court. Telling her that Emily wasn’t meant to be.
Well who among them could really be said to have been meant to be? In the scheme of things, no life was less miraculous than any other. Even the most perfect, planned-for child was so cosmically unlikely it almost couldn’t be contemplated. And even the most abused, mutated life received the same grace of God as any other.
It was all absurd and it was all holy. What did Mulder know?