Title: Finding Rokovoko
Author: prufrock's love
Classification: Casefile, MSR, Horror
Summary: A case in the Florida Everglades takes Mulder and Scully on a terrifying journey nowhere. The air conditioning and the laws of physics won’t work. She wants dinner and not to die. He dreams of a boy on the beach and not being Captain Ahab. A love story of absolute evil and existential doubt and truth that isn’t found on the free map from the Visitor Center.
Spoilers: Through season 5.
Notes: With thanks to Mimic for beta-reading. Twice.
Archive: Mimic & Gossamer only.
Disclaimer: Not mine; don't sue. This isn't intended for profit.
January 16, 1997
32 miles west of Nowhere, Florida
Due to a convergence in the Earth's electromagnetic fields, many experts considered the Sedona Vortex the epicenter of mystical forces in the northern hemisphere. New Orleans, Louisiana, reigned as the queen of paranormal activity but, in Special Agent Fox Mulder's expert opinion, the recent ghost sightings in the Devil's Backbone made Texas a close contender. For unexplained meteorological and navigational phenomena, the prize went to the Bermuda Triangle, of course. Witches: Salem. UFO sightings? No question: Roswell. Alien abductions? Bellefleur, Oregon, and Skyland Mountain ran neck-and-neck.
In 1993, Fox Mulder had witnessed Max Fenig’s abduction from Townsend, Wisconsin, but that was a fluke. Wisconsin had more lake monsters than UFOs, and Max was a repeater: taken dozens, perhaps hundreds of times. Max existed on the fringe of society, a lonely, tortured soul who’d devoted his life to proving extraterrestrials visited Earth, and the government sought to both conceal and benefit from that visitation. Max Fenig was out there somewhere, wearing his NICAP hat and searching for the truth about aliens.
Mulder still wore a suit, carried an FBI badge and a weapon, and in 1997, was no closer to the truth than he’d been in Townsend, Wisconsin, in 1993. Or in 1973, when his younger sister vanished from his family’s living room on Martha’s Vineyard.
A little-known paranormal geographical fact: On the FBI’s dime, Agent Mulder had discovered the epicenter of Hell a couple dozen miles west of Nowhere, Florida, on a rural dirt road and in a rented SUV with the 'check engine' light on again. Winter blanketed the rest of the United States, but not southern Florida. The sun still blazed as it slid into the horizon in front of them. The Lariat SUV’s air conditioner hadn't worked right from the get-go, and the vents smelled of stale cigarettes. Mulder's dress shirt felt like damp Saranwrap.
His partner, Scully, sat in the passenger seat looking as cool and unreadable as usual. She wore one of her many, many navy blue pantsuits. She’d done something different to her auburn hair. A scabby bruise lingered on her forehead, but makeup now mostly covered the marks on her cheek. The swell of her right breast and the edge of a pale pink lace bra showed at the neck of her white blouse. Scully scrutinized their free Everglades Visitor Center map with the same intensity she reviewed lab results and autopsy reports.
They'd driven off that map fifteen miles ago and left the pavement eight miles before that. The only radio station had faded to static. Outside the SUV, cicadas buzzed and frogs called back and forth. Ahead, the wide evening sky burned like hot coals behind an endless sea of sawgrass. Mulder watched the road; Dana Scully watched the map.
In the years she’d been his official counterpart, Scully guarded the gates of science and justice with a 9mm pistol, a badge, and a medical degree. She made Einstein seem dim and the Venus de Milo look plain. Mulder respected her more than any other person on the planet, and she could infuriate him faster than anything in the universe, inclusive of Robert Modell, myopic NBA referees, and the numerous inaccuracies of the TV show Profiler. Together, he and Scully had solved or at least put to bed 141 X-files – the FBI’s catch-all term for any case with a paranormal tinge - and put 43 criminals behind bars. He’d take a bullet for her without batting an eye, and put a bullet in anyone or anything that threatened her. But until seventeen hours and thirty-five minutes ago, Mulder never considered that he might love her.
He had no fucking clue where he was.
Still, he had a shiny new X-file and a theory. A rented black Ford Explorer with a black leather interior, a faulty air conditioner and a malfunctioning engine or radiator. And a beautiful, skeptical partner who saved his life on a regular basis yet currently avoided making eye contact.
He adjusted his hand on the steering wheel and cleared his throat. "Scully, what mankind fears most is always the unknown. That which exists in the shadows or outside our comprehension. Stories of diminutive yet menacing 'others' appear in numerous cultures. Tales of pygmies date back to the ancient Greeks. Mysterious 'little people' show up in Indian petroglyphs. The Irish have the vanishing púca, while the Eskimo Ishigaq leave no tracks in the snow. The trow of the Orkney Island, the di sma of Sweden... In April 1977, in Dover, Massachusetts, over in a span of forty-eight hours and within an area of two square miles, three separate individuals witnessed a small, slim figure lacking a nose and mouth, but with long, spindly fingers and large glowing eyes. The Dover Devil."
With his right hand, Mulder demonstrated spindly extra-terrestrial fingers.
Scully stared at the flimsy map.
After a thorough study of his partner's profile and her reflection in the glass of the passenger-side door, he continued. "Are all these stories merely accounts of alien encounters? Are they architypes birthed by an innate sense that we are not alone? Or, Scully, have these 'others' always been out there, existing in the shadow of human society? Could the answer be 'all of the above?' And could our government be exploiting that? Sightings of 'others' have increased exponentially since the early 1950s. Coincidentally, we know the Consortium's alien-human hybridization programs date back to the Roswell crash in 1947. There's no ignoring that our government's secret experiments on soldiers span decades, or the exploitation of orphans and the insane," he reminded her. "What a perfect smokescreen."
Mulder awaited rebuttal. A scalpel-sharp verbal dissection, a scathing look. A brow raised in a perfectly-plucked, skeptical arch. The words "paranoid" and "crazy" and "are you kidding me?" Scully seldom missed a chance to whack him with her rigid stick of science.
The useless paper map expanded to fill the passenger side of the car. After a brief struggle and some muttering, in a series of exact folds, she triumphed and reduced the map to a neat, equally-useless eighteen-inch square.
"Scully, you yourself witnessed the nightmarish results of the Litchfield experiments. I have an X-file from the 1960s documenting creatures in the Everglades known locally as 'squallies' or 'squally kids,' due to their small stature. Some witnesses describe them as flat-faced while others report pig-like snouts." He gestured to his face, cupping his hand over an imaginary clown nose. "These have glowing red eyes, not unlike similar creatures spotted in Staffordshire, England-" He raised a finger to make his point. "- also a known UFO hotspot."
None of this got any response from the other side of the car. Not even the mimed snout.
Scully held the map with her right hand; her left hand rested on the car's center console. Mulder's right hand was on his thigh. He didn't need both hands to drive thirty miles an hour on a stick-straight rural road. He could just reach over and interlace his fingers with hers. Smoothly. Coolly. Confidently.
After a tense, nearly silent breakfast this morning, Mulder had set his cellular phone on the counter beside the restaurant’s cash register. He’d signed the credit card receipt, then handed the pen to Scully. After three steps, he remembered the phone and whirled around, bumping full-frontal into his partner. They'd both dropped their phones – Mulder’s slid across the tile floor, down some steps, and into pieces - and anxious, awkward apologies ensued.
He wasn't paranoid; the Waffle House waitress had given them a suspicious look.
Mulder moved his right hand only to smooth the leg of his slacks. On the dash, the engine's temperature gauge edged past the top of the green zone and neared orange. "The squallies - possibly thirty to fifty individuals - are said to be the result of a failed government genetics experiment abandoned decades ago. Either that, or years of inbreeding deep in the Everglades. A group of short, flat-faced, humans or humanoids reported outside Naples, Florida who-"
She interrupted. "Who, if they exist, might be possible suspects if Kelly Ann Fender's and Mindy Donaldson's last known location - and ours - was anywhere near Naples, Florida, Mulder." She gave the open map a sharp flick, making the paper snap.
A bead of perspiration trickled from the base of her throat, down her chest, and disappeared beneath the fabric of her blouse. Her breasts rose and fell. Mulder managed to look away a few seconds after deciding he should.
Her clothes covered the marks, but she still had contusions on her wrists and shoulders, and grab marks on one ankle. Scrapes on her knees and elbows. Last week, Ed Jerse, a man Mulder’s size, had tried his best to kill her, and Scully, who couldn’t reach the top of their filing cabinet in their basement office, had put up one hell of a fight.
Mulder spent the next mile in tense silence, alternating between watching the engine get progressively hotter, watching the narrow, unremarkable road, and not watching her.
"Until a few months ago, Edward M. Jerse…" Mulder cleared his throat again. "Edward Jerse had been employed at the same brokerage firm since graduating from Princeton. No history of drinking or drug use. No history of violence. Friends describe Jerse as a loving husband and father. No one saw the divorce coming except possibly Ed's wife and Ed's boss, who'd been having an affair since 1994. DNA tests proved otherwise, but his wife initially claimed Jerse hadn't fathered either of their children. At this revelation, a heated discussion ensued in which the Jerse's concerned neighbors called the Philly police - of whom Mr. Jerse's father-in-law is chief. Three guesses which spouse got arrested for domestic battery and which was granted a restraining order barring him from his house and children.”
Scully's profile didn't turn, but Mulder saw her watching him.
The check engine light began flashing.
Her lips moved to speak, stopped, then asked curtly, "Why is this relevant, Mulder?"
"I'm just saying-" The needle of the engine's temperature gauge was in the orange. Mulder's necktie felt like a noose. "Edward Jerse got dealt a lousy hand. Jack Willis was a respected instructor and, by all accounts, a good guy. I'm saying… Maybe your taste in men isn't terrible."
Her jaw broadened but she didn’t respond.
Mulder took and exhaled a slow breath. "It's a nice tattoo, Scully."
She said tightly, "Thank you."
After another mile, the temperature gauge reached the red zone. The gravel road through the tall grass barely had room for two cars to pass. They hadn’t encountered another vehicle in almost an hour. With no place to pull off, Mulder just stopped and shut off the ignition.
From her expression, this came as a surprise to his partner. She lowered the map.
"The engine wants to overheat," he explained.
"What's wrong with it?" She asked like he had a psychic link to the radiator and pistons.
"Everyone and everything is against me?" Mulder guessed. The engine’s problem eluded him, but he wasn’t a mechanic. He was, however, an Oxford-educated FBI profiler baffled by his diminutive partner’s decision last week to screw a handsome stranger who took murder requests from a talking tattoo. Then last night, an equally unexpected series of events transpired, precipitated by Scully suddenly deciding they should kiss goodnight and ending with Mulder, sweaty, sticky, and staring bewilderedly at the popcorn ceiling of her motel room at the Miami Holiday Inn.
In the car, Scully’s chest rose and fell. She folded the map using its original creases and tucked it into a crevice of the door. When she touched his wrist, he felt little sparks from her fingertips. Luckily, Mulder prevented himself from jumping, thereby preserving his cool exterior.
"Not everyone is against you," she assured him.
She'd been against him last night, but that seemed an unwise response. Even now, a forensic examination would find his hair, fibers from his clothing, his DNA on her body. His DNA in her body. Traces of her on his skin – make-up, saliva, her skin cells beneath his fingernails. From an evidence perspective, sex didn’t wash off as easily as people thought.
That seemed another unwise response.
Instead, he said, "It was nice," as a follow-up to the tattoo compliment and so belatedly he cringed inwardly. "But my work- Our work," he amended, "has to take priority. The gulag in Russia, the Samantha clones on that farm in Alberta. That Martian rock: we’re so close, Scully. Close to answers that I deserve, you deserve. Answers the American public deserves. I can't let anything distract me- Us," he corrected again, "from finding the truth."
Shit. By comparison, 'against me last night' would have been a better response.
Still, she nodded. "I know." Her hand returned to her lap.
He worried his lower lip between his teeth. He opened and closed his mouth a few times. What finally emerged was, "I'm sorry Big Blue ate your dog."
Her brows rose. "Mulder, that was nine months ago."
He shrugged his shoulder. After some thought, he followed his random apology with an equally arbitrary and unrelated concession. “You should have a desk.”
Her posture relaxed a little. “No, you’re right. There’s not enough room in your office.”
He corrected her. “Our office.” The steering wheel grew slippery beneath his palm. “Maybe I need a bigger office, then. A smaller desk. Less crap. Less something.”
Scully stared at her window, but he couldn’t tell if she was looking through the glass or watching her reflection. More awkward seconds passed. Rolling down the SUV’s windows wouldn’t make the vehicle any cooler, and the Florida mosquitos outside rivaled vampire bats in size and honey badgers in tenacity.
"It was nice," he said again. "Last night. Rather…" He hunted for words. "Unexpected, but nice." He had, inclusive of Quantico, the Violent Crimes Unit, and the X-files Division, now slept with every female partner, instructor, and close co-worker the FBI ever assigned him.
He kept waiting for Scully’s rational explanation of her actions. Her wordy treatise of self-justification.
On impulse – and in desperation - he took her hand. Her fingers felt cool. “It crashes and burns,” he said rapidly. “I’ve done this before, and it always does. Everyone agrees they’re adults and just letting off steam and for a while it’s nice. But at some point we have to leave this-” With his free hand, he gestured to their surface-of-the-sun, middle-of-nowhere surroundings. “-and return to the real world. Other people – people who aren’t us – have lives that exist outside of casefiles and motel rooms rented at the special government rate.” He squeezed her hand. “But it was still very nice.”
Mulder got a polite little nod, which he found encouraging.
“I need you, Scully. Despite my efforts to convince you and the rest of the world I’m a self-centered jackass, I can’t begin to articulate your importance in my life. Not just as my partner or to my work, but as my friend. I’m not jeopardizing that for a roll in the hay.”
Her words sounded like she’d rehearsed them in her head when she responded neutrally, “Mulder, you could have said no.”
His head moved in a slow, thoughtful nod. “That would have been tough with your tongue in my mouth. It would have come out-” He imitated speaking around a ball-gag, getting increasingly emphatic. “’-Oh ank ewe, Ully. Oh, Ully. Oh, Ully. Oh. Oh, oh, oh.’”
“I heard that. Oh my God, Mulder.” She sounded earnest and apologetic, but the corners of her lips twitched. “I’m so sorry. I did hear you articulate those exact syllables last night – as I overpowered you while flat on my back with your hands on top of mine. Sometimes I just don’t know my own strength.”
He arrived at either an epiphany or heatstroke: he did love her. In a way he couldn’t begin to articulate. In a way that terrified him as much as the thought of losing her.
“Last night, there was focused gasping. Focused, ecstatic gasping of ‘oh, Ully’ repeatedly implies consent – and approaching climax. If you encounter a blindly flailing ‘oh, Ully, oh, Ully,’ take your tongue out of my mouth and call 911 immediately.”
He squeezed her hand again, and got a Mona Lisa smile. For the first time in weeks, she seemed present, and the air in the stifling SUV became breathable.
He took a breath and asked, “You wanna talk HIV status and birth control like adults, or you wanna go with what we both know, call it ‘no fault, no foul,’ and just move on?”
Her pretty smiled changed to the expression people have as they wonder if they’ve left the coffeepot on.
He asked, “Scully?”
Now her face indicated certainty she’d left the coffeepot on, but also forgotten where she’d put her keys. She eased her hand from his.
A swarm of angry disbelief formed in his mind. Scully considered frozen yogurt decadent and insisted they arrive hours early for flights. She kept dental floss, tampons, sensible shoes, and an extra pair of pantyhose at work, and a list of his and her emergency contacts, drug allergies, and medical mishaps with her at all times. The woman Mulder knew as his partner did not have unprotected sexual intercourse with a stranger.
Her cheeks flushed. “Ed, Ed- He’s HIV negative. He was tested when he discovered his wife’s suspected infidelity. I was tested in the emergency room last week.”
“HIV can take months to show up. You’re a medical doctor, Scully. You know that. What’s wrong with you?” He opened the driver-side door. The outside air wasn’t cooler but it was different. “Oh my God. What were you thinking?”
Her jaw broadened. “I didn’t just transmit HIV to you, Mulder.”
He threw his left hand skyward. “I’m not the one I’m worried about. A little over two years ago, after praying to any god who might listen that I’d find you alive, I sat in an ICU with your mother and sister, with doctors telling us there was no hope. Then Donnie Pfaster wanted to chop you up and keep you in the freezer with his Tater Tots. The citizens of Dudley, Arkansas, tried to behead you. Six months ago, Gerald Schnaus offered you a free icepick lobotomy.” He turned toward her in the driver’s seat. “Now, you want to risk dying of AIDS? I’d like to refer to my earlier statement: you’re important to me, Scully.”
“I haven’t contracted HIV, Mulder,” she said icily. “Nor have you.”
He stared at her, his heart pounding, and perspiration covering his throat and forehead. “The last time I recited your medical history to an ER doctor, it didn’t include any sort of birth control. Provided you don’t waste away of AIDS in the next year, are you anticipating the birth of Ed Jerse, Jr?”
She blinked twice. Then blinked again. For once, she couldn’t manage a poker face. She hadn’t given pregnancy a thought; he could tell. Not with Jerse last week. And not with Mulder last night.
“Are you serious?” Now he was out of the SUV. Mulder stood on the road with his hands on his hips. He reminded himself that it was 1997. He shouldn’t have assumed birth control was her responsibility merely because she was the initiator and a medical doctor and the one who could get pregnant. Still, the Everglades buzzed and the sky boiled. “You’re telling me, nine months from now, my genetics may get to duke it out with some psychopath’s on The Jerry Springer Show?”
She stared at the dusty, bug-splattered windshield.
“Scully?” he demanded angrily.
A breeze bent the tall grass toward the dying sun and made Mulder’s damp shirt billow, but she stayed silent and still.
Mulder’s cell phone was a useless electronic jigsaw puzzle. An hour earlier, antenna extended and held high, Scully’s phone got one bar and had one flashing battery icon. Now her dead phone rested on the center console, Mulder sat on the SUV’s hood, and Scully stood beside him on the road. Ahead, in the west, the last scarlet arch of the sun lingered above the broad field of grass. The tall grass rippled in the breeze, and every bird imaginable sang from its unseen hiding place.
If the Lariat employee had understood what Scully shouted into her cell phone, a tow truck should have arrived twenty minutes ago. If not, another car would pass sometime. Eventually. Logically.
They waited another quarter-hour. Neither spoke, and no car passed. No planes flew overhead. No airboats or vehicle engines droned in the distance.
They would have spotted mushroom clouds from a nuclear annihilation. Mulder could rule out a rapture; Scully remained. A global electromagnetic pulse seemed reasonable, but their SUV’s headlights still worked, even if the engine didn’t. Despite appearances, barring a flu pandemic or alien colonization, they couldn’t be the only people left on the planet.
Mulder put his feet on the SUV’s bumper and rested his elbows on his knees. “The currently held belief regarding the squallies HQ – a remote, abandoned mental asylum - appears to confabulate the older legend of government genetics experiments gone wrong and stories of an isolated, highly-inbred clan. If the squallies were created purposefully, a la Litchfield, then they either overthrew their creators or were simply abandoned in the Naithlorendum Sanctuary under the care of a lone guard. Alternately, going with the legend that the squallies are the Peacock’s shorter, southerly cousins, they are said to have taken up residence in the abandoned Naithlorendum Sanctuary somewhere near DeSoto Boulevard and Oil Well Road. Don’t bother checking the map; neither road is listed on it.”
Scully, facing Mulder and the front of their vehicle, took a step sideways and craned to see down the gravel road. He turned and looked with her. Nothing approached except nightfall. She sighed tiredly.
The dying sun made her hair glisten, and the breeze blew her thin blouse against her breasts. Backlit by the darkening sky, she reminded him of a painting, with the red of her hair and lips a stark contrast to her fair skin and the delicate fabric. The urge to shake her and yell, “what the hell were you thinking?” competed with an impulse to put his arms around her. Assure her everything would be okay. Act like normal people do. Not like two people stranded in the middle of nowhere with everyone and everything against them.
Instead of doing either, he sat on the SUV’s hood and said, “No one knows if the old man who guards the asylum is trying to keep outsiders out or the squallies in, but he’s said to shoot to kill on sight. Which is far kinder than the squallies, who, if they capture anyone inside their asylum, will eat him or her alive. Both missing women were avid birdwatchers known to venture far into the Everglades on their own. Two women, three years apart, seem to have disappeared without a struggle or a trace, leaving behind vehicles and families expecting them home for dinner. It fits, Scully.”
Scully checked the empty road again. “As would being eaten by any one of the 200,000 hungry alligators in the Florida Everglades. Yet you went with-” She made a snout gesture. “-squallies.”
He shifted his feet. A fine layer of dirt coated the polished wingtips as well as the bumper. The temperature cooled, and his shirt and T-shirt had dried; now the fabric felt stiff against his skin. They had flashlights, spare magazines, evidence bags and the usual sundries, but their luggage was back at the Holiday Inn. Scully had a bottle of water, a useless map, and a pair of flat shoes. Mulder had his shiny new X-file and theory.
“How can no other driver pass us in over an hour?” she asked, apparently rhetorically. “It’s a county road, and even if it wasn’t, we can only get so far off the map before we hit Cuba, the Atlantic, or the Gulf.”
He raised his head to look at her. “Think of it this way, Scully: if we’re the last man and woman alive on Earth, we’ve already settled the ‘will-we-or-won’t-we do our duty to repopulate’ question.”
She crossed her arms. “Dibs on Neiman Marcus, the labs at Quantico and Johns Hopkins, a good steak dinner, and a long bath in an air-conditioned penthouse at the first abandoned Hilton we come across.”
“Of course.” He smirked. “Nothing but the best for you and our child.”
“Be nice. If the world’s ended, it’s me or-” She imitated the snout gesture again. Then, she smacked irritably at a mosquito and checked the road a third time. “Mulder, I’m starving.”
He slid down from the hood and walked a few steps from the vehicle, restless but without a goal or destination. “A steak dinner for two. Check.”
“Enough,” she said warningly. “Give it a rest.”
He shot her a withering look but kept his mouth shut.
Ahead, something long and dark lay cross-wise on the road. While it could have been a big stick, a snake seemed more likely. The creatures swooping overhead looked like bats. Every so often, from a patch of low trees in the distance, he heard a soft splat and splash that had to be an alligator entering the water.
Their forays into the wilderness seldom ended well.
If they had to spend the night, the SUV’s rear seats folded down, making a safe bed for Scully and a cramped one for Mulder. They had winter jackets in the car; Baltimore had three inches of snow when they boarded the plane yesterday morning. They started the day wearing suitcoats. Rolled up, those could serve as pillows. It wasn’t the Hilton, but it would keep them from becoming alligator kibble. If no help showed up, tomorrow morning, they’d start walking.
The vast swamp housed threats besides the squallies and hungry alligators, rattlesnakes and cottonmouths. The skunk ape, Bigfoot’s equally stinky cousin, was sighted last year. People released pet Burmese pythons into the Everglades, where, with few natural predators, the snakes grew to monstrous size.
He should pee in the bushes now, before the bushes got darker.
While he assessed his bladder and current hierarchy in the food chain, Scully had approached behind him. In a less bitchy tone, she said, “Mulder-”
He exhaled. “What?”
“I’m the one who got us stranded out here.” He looked over his shoulder, at her. “Or is this a ‘it’s not you, it’s me,’ and ‘let’s just be friends’ speech? I’m good. Move along.”
“You’re not good. I know you. Regardless of what I say, you’ll worry.” She crossed her arms over her chest as if she felt cold. “I haven’t contracted HIV, Mulder, and pregnancy is unlikely-”
“It’s not that.” He rolled his shoulders and turned toward her. He shoved his hands in his pants pockets. “Am I thrilled? No, but whatever happens, it’ll be okay. You’re my friend, you’re my partner, and in a way, I love you.” He paused, hoping she’d say something. When she didn’t, he continued. “I trust your judgement. At least, I thought I did.” He stepped closer. “It’s-” He stood so close he smelled her skin. In a hesitant voice, he asked, “What’s wrong with you, Scully? Not just sleeping with me, not Jerse – for weeks you’ve seemed distant and distracted. Like you don’t care about-” He thought “me” but said, “-our work. Do you- Do you want to go back to Quantico? Do you not want to do this anymore – trying to bring cryptids to justice and uncover truths buried beneath miles of lies? Do you want a job where you aren’t abducted by aliens or asked to autopsy elephants? Is that it?”
A long moment passed. He studied her face for some clue. He thought of kissing her. Trying to shake the truth out of her. Promising pretty much anything.
She bit her lower lip.
He asked softly, “What’s wrong, Scully?”
Then, in the same calm, apologetic voice, she said, “There’s a malignant tumor growing in my nasopharynx. Leonard Betts, he... I have an advanced, aggressive nasopharyngeal cancer.”
He saw her lips moving but heard no other sound. Not the birds. Not the waving grass. Not the insects. He saw pink cheeks, smooth skin, bright eyes: she radiated health. There was some mistake. A mix-up in the lab. The wrong name on a file. Mistakes happened. Babe Ruth had nasopharyngeal cancer.
Babe Ruth died of nasopharyngeal cancer.
“So, so you’ll need surgery? Time off work?”
Her head moved side to side. “The tumor is inoperable.”
His chest hurt. All the air – the sweltering, still air of the day and the cool breeze that arrived with dusk – vanished. “Chemo, then? It’s treatable, right?” But he already sensed her answer.
She shook her head again. “Chemotherapy and radiation will just forestall the inevitable for a month or two.”
He stared at her. Once he could form words again, he asked, “Is it, is it the same-”
“The same cancer that’s killing the MUFON women in Allentown? Yes.”
She looked exactly like Dana Scully. Composed, professional. Effortlessly both beautiful and brilliant. But the Scully that Mulder knew wasn’t dying of cancer.
Hand shaking, he touched the bridge of her nose with his index finger.
Scully took his hand and slid his finger upward so it pressed between her eyebrows.
In a tight voice, he asked, “What do we do?”
up at him with bottomless blue eyes. Then she looked away. Her chest rose and
fell. “I say, unless another car comes along, we plan to spend an uncomfortable
night in our rental car. Worst case scenario: when I don’t call Mom tonight,
and Mom can’t reach you, she’ll panic and call AD Skinner. He’ll send a search
party. We’ll be back in civilization by morning, at which time I expect air
conditioning and a steak.”
“Okay.” Still shaking and unable to do anything other than follow her lead, Mulder shoved his hand back in his pocket. “Since when do you call your mother every night?”
Again, he correctly predicted her answer, which was, “Since I was diagnosed with cancer.”
Insects droned outside the SUV and a distant moon waxed silvery-white. In the back of the Explorer, with the rear seats folded flat, Mulder lay on his side and Scully lay on hers, with a narrow Neutral Zone between them. His watch read 10:50 PM. Earlier, he’d moved their things to the front seats or the floorboards and stowed his sidearm in a cubbyhole. His body craved rest, but his mind ran a labyrinth of what-if scenarios and guilt and helpless terror. Each time, his mental maze ended with him standing beside her tombstone.
Mulder rearranged his legs. Theoretically, he should fit in the seventy-three by forty-one-inch cargo space – seventy-three by nineteen, allowing half for Scully and some for The Neutral Zone – but he kept bumping the front seat or the tailgate, or getting jabbed by a seatbelt buckle or a tie-down hook. The Explorer’s upholstery was rough and itchy. They’d discovered mosquitos the size of a Cessna could squeeze through a window cracked open less than a centimeter, so it was stifle or swat. With the windows rolled up tight, the glass fogged like this night was a repeat of the previous one.
“Scully, are you still awake?” he asked, though he knew she was. He’d been watching her not sleep for ten minutes.
Her head moved against a makeshift pillow she’d fashioned by rolling up her suit coat. “Yes.”
He shifted his feet again. Worried his mouth. He’d shed his dress shirt, and wore his suit pants and T-shirt. Except for her shoes, Scully wore what she’d had on since they landed in Florida earlier today, including her weapon and holster. “How long?” Mulder cleared his throat. “With chemo, how long?”
“My oncologist estimates about six months.” Her voice sounded small in the noisy darkness. The later it got, the louder Mother Nature turned up the volume.
His chest felt tight. As much as he wanted to say the doctor was wrong and she should get a second opinion, he asked, “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
Seconds crept past.
“You don’t like people leaving you, Mulder. You’re right; we’re close to answers. After everything we’ve been through… Now we’re so close.” Even more softly, she asked, “How could I tell you I’m going to leave you?”
He reached over and found her hand. Her fingers felt small and cool and smooth. “I wish you would have told me before.” He swallowed dryly. “Before last night.”
Sounding like her usual self, she responded, “Mulder, an hour ago, you had me sit in the passenger seat while you folded down the back seats and made a place for us to sleep. We have half a liter of water, and you wanted me to drink it. It must be sixty degrees outside but you’ve asked three times if I’m cold. You tried to follow me when I went to empty my bladder.”
In self-defense, he said, “There are alligators. Really big alligators. Snakes. And squallies.”
“And I’m armed.” She shifted closer to him in the back of the little SUV. “I’m not dying tonight. Not any more than you are. Still, a terminal illness changes things.”
She was right. Even now, when she was healthy enough to be bitchy, a clock counted down in his head. Every second had a common denominator: her death.
The Smoking Man would have a cure. That bastard’s project caused Scully’s cancer. His project could save her. Mulder held Scully’s hand and listened to the frogs and insects as he contemplated a deal with the devil incarnate.
If Scully knew about a deal, she’d tell Mulder to let her die.
He said, “You wanted to be with me-” He inhaled. “You wanted that before…” The epiphany sent him spinning like a little carnival ride. He couldn’t tell if his heart hurt more or less. Emotional triage was tough when cancer ripped a gaping hole in his entire universe.
Her hand squeezed his, then her fingers began sliding away.
He tightened his hand around hers. “What if I want things to change, Scully? If you have six months- If I have six months with you-” His heart pounded. “Yes, I’m so married to my work on the X-files that my basement office and I should file a joint tax return. I want to discover the truth about what happened to my sister. The truth about the UFO abductions and experiments, but… I want to discover those truths with you, and if you have six months-” Now his throat hurt when he swallowed. “-what if I want things to change?”
She answered softly, “I don’t want you to change, Mulder.”
“Too late.” A painful quake began at his core and spread outward until his whole body shook with fear, with rage. He wanted to get the hell out of this rented SUV and miserable swamp, find Cancerman, and beat a cure for Scully out of him. “When I said I want the truth at any cost, I meant any cost to me.”
She pulled her hand away. Pushed up on her elbow. Moved closer to him. Then she lay down, fitting the back of her body against the front of his. When he put his arms around her, he found he wasn’t the only one shaking.
“I love you,” he whispered hoarsely, into her hair. He sniffed. “I’m not just gonna stand by and let you die.”
“Mulder, there will be a time when that’s exactly what I need you to do.”
“No.” Then, for the first time in hours, he got to stipulate a valid point. “Not tonight.”
“Not tonight,” she agreed, and let him hold her.
The SUV shifted as if someone or something nudged the back bumper, which woke Mulder. Which meant at some point he’d fallen asleep. Next to him, Scully inhaled.
Another bump, this time on the passenger-side fender.
A few seconds later, something nudged the rear door on the driver’s side, near Scully’s head. The little SUV rocked side-to-side.
In the darkness, Mulder eased his weapon from the cubbyhole and flicked off the safety.
“A bear,” Scully whispered.
He held his breath and listened. He didn’t hear any bear-like sounds. Rain drummed on the metal roof. Otherwise, he didn’t hear anything. Not frogs, not insects, not birds.
The vehicle shifted again. Not as if another car hit it or a large animal tried to get inside – as if someone braced their hands against the outside and gave it a push.
His wristwatch read a little after 4:00 AM.
Scully touched his chest, guiding him to lie down, stay below the windows.
He lay on his back beside her, holding his pistol and waiting. The Ford’s interior had cooled; the glass fogged again. They had no food in the vehicle. No toothpaste or fruity-smelling toiletries or anything a bear might try to get at. Somewhere, Mulder had an old bear safety Indian Guides badge. At least in 1972, the Indian Guides manual said bears went after an easy lunch.
Another bump. Mulder wouldn’t be getting his security deposit back on this SUV.
He was famished, and his equally hungry partner had cancer. If Mulder had to shoot this bear, they were skinning, roasting, and eating it.
Footsteps scampered around the SUV. Not a lumbering four-legged creature. A nimble creature on two legs. Maybe more than one creature. He turned his face toward Scully. “Skunk ape,” he whispered excitedly.
Even by moonlight, her scornful expression hurt. She was right, though. He didn’t smell anything except the interior of the car, the rain, and that they could both use a shower. The skunk ape took its name from its foul odor. In the accounts Mulder had read, witnesses described the scent as rotten cabbage and concentrated dead, wet dog.
The SUV still had a new-leather-interior scent. Scully’s shampoo smelled a little like vanilla.
The vehicle didn’t move, but he heard quick, light footsteps on his side. Then Scully’s side. Two, maybe three individuals. Creatures. Things. Whatever would want to play ring around the rosy with their SUV in the rain, in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere.
Something outside giggled, sounding childlike. Any enthusiasm about a skunk ape vanished.
Scully’s head turned; she’d heard it too.
The children’s laughter, like the footsteps, came from close to the SUV. A chill passed through him.
More mischievous giggles and another shove against the rear bumper. The door handle clicked beside Scully, but he’d locked the SUV earlier. He heard someone try the driver’s door. The back. After another peal of laughter, the feet seemed to scamper away.
Mulder stayed low and absolutely still. He heard his watch ticking. His heartbeat. Scully’s rapid breathing.
A tense minute passed. Then another. The SUV didn’t move. He heard nothing but the rain. No footsteps, no eerie laughter.
Without turning his head, he cut his eyes sideways at Scully. She wasn’t watching him. Still on her back, she held her weapon and focused on the window above Mulder. He followed her gaze. On the foggy glass, backlit by the moon and already partially washed away by the rain, he saw handprints in the dust.
Dozens of children’s handprints.
He looked at the rear window, and the glass of the driver-side rear door. On each, little hands had left overlapping prints halfway up the glass. As if they’d gotten close, trying to peer inside. The prints were no higher than a kindergartener could reach, but there were hundreds. All around them.
Mulder had never in his life wanted to be somewhere else so much. And he’d recently spent time in a Russian gulag and with a murderous pedophile. Moving as little as possible, he checked his watch again. Four minutes had passed since there’d been any movement or sound outside.
He reached above his head, found the keys, and handed them to Scully. She was smaller; she could stay lower. Last night the SUV had started only to immediately overheat, then refused to start at all.
She nodded. It was worth a try. Maybe there’d been some mechanical miracle as they slept.
He shifted so Scully could ease over him and between the front seats, keeping her head down. Shoeless, she maneuvered into the driver’s seat. He heard her turn the headlight switch so the lights wouldn’t automatically come on. The key slid into the ignition. Turned.
He had his finger on the trigger, ready.
The engine coughed to life.
The car’s wheels sprayed gravel as it made a rapid and expert 180-degree turn, then took off east, in the direction they’d come from yesterday. Scully was half a mile down the road before she switched the headlights on or raised her head above the dash.
A patchwork quilt of little handprints ringed the dirty hood.
She cranked up windshield wipers and told Mulder to climb over the seat rather than stopping so he could get out and move up front. He put his seatbelt on and kept his weapon out. Fields of tall, dark grass pressed against the road on either side of them.
Keeping one hand on the steering wheel and driving in her stocking feet, Scully holstered her weapon and fastened her seatbelt. “What the hell were those things?” Her brow furrowed. “A pack of animals?” She glanced at the driver’s side window. “Obviously, primates made these prints. Escaped chimps?” she guessed. “And that laughter. A kookaburra? Kookaburras are native to Australia. How would one survive in the Everglades?”
He opened his mouth.
Before he could speak, she said rapidly, “Oh my God, Mulder. Do not say squallies. Don’t you dare say the word ‘squallies’ again in this car. Seriously, what were those things?”
“Fine.” Mulder turned toward her, raised his right hand, and smugly mimed a pig snout.
In answer, she put her foot down, heading back to civilization as fast as possible.
His shoeless partner possessed a preternatural ability to speed and rationalize at the same time. Ten minutes and several miles later, her explanation was, “A feral child? We need to check the local missing person report for a child younger than-” She adjusted her hands on the wheel. “-five or six. Do you think the child was about six?”
For a woman speculating that they’d just encountered and then abandoned a small child alone in a swamp, she didn’t slow down. The rain had stopped. The windshield wipers still slapped back and forth at top speed.
Mulder compared his hand to a print on the passenger-side window. He’d put on his holster, but left his dress shirt folded in his carryon bag. “Accounts of the Black-eyed Children place their age between six and early teens, but they’ve never been sighted east of Texas.”
“Mulder, brown eyes are dominant. Individuals with dark brown, almost black eyes are found throughout Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Central and South America, and Jewish populations around the world. More than half the world has brown eyes.”
He tilted his head and focused his dark eyes on her. “Really?”
She huffed in annoyance, but didn’t put much effort into it. “What I’m saying is: a missing child would be far more likely to have dark eyes than any other eye color. How is that relevant?”
“The Black-eyed Children aren’t missing. According to most, they’re not even human children,” Mulder explained. “They’ve been theorized to be demons, vampires, or even aliens, though the encounters I’ve reviewed sound like a run-of-the-mill ghost. A group of black-eyed children approach an adult in a rural area, asking in a monotone voice for a ride home. Once the children are in the car, the adult unfailingly reports noticing something hugely wrong with the children’s eyes, and experiencing an overwhelming sense of fear. At some point on the ride home, the children vanish from the car.”
In the dim SUV, she glanced at him as she drove. Her eyebrow’s altitudes differed, indicating rebuttal was forthcoming. “Do these hitchhikers leave behind the very cashmere sweater they were wearing at the high school dance, just before they tried to walk home and were killed in a hit-and-run? I think I remember hearing that ghost story at every teenage girl’s sleepover ever.”
Mulder shook his head. “No,” he said scornfully. “That’s Resurrection Mary, and we’re not even in the right state. Not to mention she’s an adult female.”
“And your Black-eyed Children…” she prompted.
He settled back in the seat. “I’m proud; you skipped the air quotes.”
“I’m driving,” she said flatly, and finally turned off the wipers.
Two eyes, close-set and near to the ground, glowed ahead of them, then vanished into the grass. A raccoon or an opossum was making its nightly rounds. Mulder tried to radio again. Still static.
He reminded her, “I just said the Black-eyed Children speak in a monotone. They don’t giggle and play tag around rental cars.”
A front tire dipped, and both of them jumped. The rear tire hit the same pothole in the gravel road. Scully slowed down.
“Then what did we just encounter?” she asked. “Because kookaburras don’t inhabit southern Florida, escaped chimps don’t giggle, and a child – feral or lost – old enough to work a car door handle should be old enough to speak. What’s your theory?” When Mulder moved to make the snout, she sighed and pushed his hand down. “Finding a place to dump your murdered body would impede my progress toward the hot shower and soft bed awaiting me at the hotel, Mulder.”
For a moment, her hand stayed atop his.
The SUV hit another pothole. The stick-straight road through the tall grass seemed to narrow.
“Scully, how far have you driven?”
She glanced at the dashboard. “Just over eight miles.”
“You should be almost back to the blacktop.”
Mulder wasn’t imagining it. The two-lane gravel road became one lane. He hadn’t paid a huge amount of attention during the drive out this afternoon, but he didn’t recall driving through here.
She slowed further as the gravel road became a gravel center and two dirt ruts. “I am not almost back to the blacktop,” she said with certainty.
Grass and tree branches brushed the sides of the SUV.
“How could you have made a wrong turn?” he asked. The rural roads went north to south or east to west, connecting point A to point B and with nothing in between except swamp. This one ran east to west, and the SUV’s electronic compass had read ‘east’ since they peeled out of Squallyland.
Mulder lurched forward as she slammed on the brakes. His seatbelt locked. The SUV skidded to a stop with the front inches from a wide tree trunk. Moss hung from the thick limbs. Beyond the big tree, Mulder saw a dark pool of still water. “Wrong turn,” he said with his heart still pounding.
“Wrong turn,” she agreed shakily. Scully took a slow breath, put the transmission in reverse, and eased backward. Again, branches raked the Explorer’s metal sides.
“Do you want me to get out and help?” he asked. She had no place to turn around, and accidentally backing off the road risked backing into a swamp.
“While I’m aware I’m being irrational, I’d really prefer you remain in the vehicle, Mulder.”
He chuckled. “Thanks. I love you, too.”
She continued creeping backward, watching the rearview and the driver-side mirrors. “Maybe I don’t want you eaten by an alligator.”
“Understandable.” He turned to look out the rear window, helping her watch. They’d backed far enough for the road to be gravel again, but still barely wider than Mulder was tall. “You’re dying and you’ve just discovered I’m good in bed.”
The SUV stopped. She didn’t shift the transmission. She didn’t adjust the mirrors. She just stopped. Her brow furrowed and her chin quivered.
“Jesus, Scully. I’m sorry.” His abdomen felt as if he’d vomited until he had dry heaves. “I’m sorry.”
She blinked quickly.
So did he. “I don’t know what to say,” he admitted. “I don’t know what to do. And if there is a right thing to do, rather than doing it, I have us out here in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere, hungry and lost and making pig snouts and air quotes at each other.”
He unfastened his seatbelt. Her shoulders rose but she didn’t shy away. He put his palm against her face. The top of her cheek felt wet. In unison, she moved forward, he moved forward, and he rested his forehead against hers. He felt the pulse in her neck, the smooth warmth of her skin. It would almost be easier if she was gaunt and weak and her hair had fallen out. She felt alive, just as she had the previous night.
The cancer diagnosis had to be a mistake, and Mulder wanted to punch the negligent doctor who’d made it.
Denial. A normal stage of grief.
“You’re sure?” he asked hoarsely. “How can you have cancer? What if there’s some mistake?”
Her chest rose. “I saw the scans. “
He stroked the fine hair on her jaw with his thumb.
“My oncologist is excellent,” she assured him. “She-”
“Your oncologist is shit.” Mulder sniffed and sat back. “You need a second opinion.”
Scully used the rational, slightly condescending tone he’d come to know and love. “Mulder, I’m the second opinion.”
“I’m getting my hands on those MUFON women’s medical records,” he announced. “If there’s no recognized treatment, then there are clinical trials somewhere. Alternative medicine. We’re getting you ancient herbal shit from China or some sort of Communist Bloc chemo.”
He fastened his seatbelt. Glanced at the dash. The SUV had half a tank of gasoline and no warning lights on. They were fine. Just lost.
“I don’t recall learning about ‘Communist Bloc chemo’ in medical school.” Her shoulders rested at their normal level, and she’d stopped crying.
He wasn’t saying the word ‘dying’ in her presence again. Ever. “It’s a real thing. I saw it. There were signs in the airport in Russia. Krasnoyarsk even had billboards. ‘Communist Bloc chemo,’ right beside the ads for Yugos and black market American blue jeans.”
He saw a very small, very tired smile.
“Maneuver us the hell out of here, Dr. Scully,” he requested, and the SUV crept backward again.
If Mother Nature could give directions, they’d be fine. Once the rain stopped, the darkness was a cacophony of insects and frogs. A few birds. They’d seen small mammals watching from the grass, and a snake slithering beside the road.
Scully had the high-beams on and drove twenty-five miles per hour as she kept an eye on the odometer. Mulder helped. Earlier, she’d had to back a quarter mile before the road widened enough to see-saw and turn around. They retraced their route west, watching for any side road. Logically, she probably veered off when they’d fled the squallies - or highly curious, giggling chimps with a pet kookaburra; it was still open for debate – before she’d turned on the headlights. They’d get back on the right road, and head to the hotel for a long shower and a good steak.
The dashboard indicated they’d driven seven, and now almost eight miles. On either side of the gravel road, the tall, dense grass spread for miles.
Scully scooted higher behind the wheel, rubbed the bridge of her nose, and slowed even more.
There were no turns. No side roads, no pull-offs, no paths. The road didn’t even curve. They’d driven eight miles west as straight as a ruler, and with no mile markers, no road signs, and no landmarks except maybe the opossum. Mulder hadn’t seen trees, even. The twin walls of grass rivaled the stone wall in China, and beyond them were no electric lights of any sort. Not a house, not a convenience store. Nothing.
Where they’d parked earlier, a footpath had led from the road twenty feet to a tree and a good place to pee. Mulder watched for any break in the grass.
“Maybe the odometer’s off,” Scully postulated.
“Maybe.” He could have run faster than she drove. Tonight summed up many of their cases. Tonight summed up much of his life, in fact: an exhausted, uncomfortable, frustrating attempt to get back to where he was originally lost. “As soon as it’s dawn, we should be able to see power lines or electrical towers. Some sign of civilization.”
The odometer registered eight miles from their previous location.
“Mulder, what’s the speed limit?”
He didn’t look away from his side of the road. “Why? There’s zero chance you’re exceeding it, and if a cop appears and pulls us over, I’m kissing him, then following him back to civilization.”
“Do you remember?”
He shook his head. “Probably thirty-five or forty, but I don’t remember seeing a sign.”
“We haven’t passed a sign. Not posted in either direction. Each state has its own guidelines for the distance between speed limit signs, but generally the higher the limit, the farther apart the signs,” she told him. “Even if the speed limit on this road is fifty-five, which would be ludicrous, there should be a sign every few miles.”
He shifted in the seat. “Please record my voice as I say skeptically: a valid observation, but not necessarily reliable evidence of paranormal phenomena. Road signs get stolen all the time. I had two hanging on my bedroom wall in high school.”
“If Martha’s Vineyard wanted their signs left alone, they shouldn’t name places Horneytown and Goodhead.” He tapped her right shoulder with his hand. “My crime spree continued abroad. Yorkshire has a Butt Hole Road, and Oxfordshire was a treasure trove.”
As if she prayed emphatically, Scully recited softly, “Please don’t let me be pregnant. Please don’t let me be pregnant.”
He judged that as sarcasm, so he responded in kind. “There’s a Pull Out, North Dakota. Maybe I should have light-fingered that one.”
“I’ll remember that if there’s a repeat performance.”
That got him to turn his head. “Climax, Georgia. Atop, Pennsylvania. A Beaver Lick, Kentucky, a From Behind, Kentucky, and a Spread Eagle-”
He gasped as the front of the SUV dipped sharply, throwing him forward. The road vanished, along with the grass that had flanked it. Scully hit the brakes. Mulder grabbed the dash. Tires skidded, light flashed on the dash, and the antilock brakes engaged. She cursed. He cursed. For a millisecond, the headlights illuminated a black void.
Once they stopped, at a steep downward angle, he saw a wide pool of water. Gnarled trees and low brush flanked either side of them. The road was a wide cement slab rather than gravel. On one side, slimy-looking, grooved pavement sloped and disappeared into the water. The other side ended at an ancient floating dock. An alligator on the bank raised its head. Frogs croaked, insects buzzed, and somewhere wings flapped frantically. Mulder saw a frayed rope swing dangling from a branch and ripples where some creature just ducked underwater.
What Mulder couldn’t see was any way Scully might have passed where they stopped earlier, or accidentally ended up here. He’d watched. She’d watched. There’d been no place to turn or pull off. The road hadn’t narrowed and petered out. She’d driven eight miles due west on the same two-lane, gravel road they’d traveled earlier. The road probably went all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, except someone dropped this patch of swamp in their path.
In the distance, he heard faint children’s laughter.
Scully fumbled with the four-wheel drive controls, and then hastily shifted into reverse. “Mulder, I think we have a problem.”
He braced his hands on the dashboard and nodded. They’d somehow taken the road from Nowhere, Florida to Fucked, Colorado.
Forward wasn’t an option.
After some squealing tires, four-letter words, and tight maneuvering, Scully got the Explorer turned around and back up the cement slope. As soon they reached the top, she stopped, both hands on the steering wheel, mouth agape.
The steep road to the put-in and dock didn’t intersect with the two-lane gravel road. It was the end of the gravel road.
Scully had the presence of mind to turn off the four-wheel drive.
Yesterday, Mulder spent an hour sitting on the SUV’s hood, fuming, ruminating, and watching the sunset. The blazing sun had disappeared behind a broad marsh of pale green grass. There’d been no large trees in the distance, and no body of water. The road had continued west for miles. Their current location couldn’t be anywhere near where they’d broken down the previous evening.
His partner’s expression indicated she’d arrived at the same conclusion.
“Wait a second,” he requested. Mulder unsnapped his shoulder holster, grabbed a flashlight, and unlocked his door.
As the dome light came on, Scully asked anxiously, “Where are you going?”
“I love you,” he said solemnly. “If I don’t come back, tell our son I got the grizzly that got me.”
“There are no grizzly in the Everglades. What are you doing?”
He left the door open. “I’m just checking over our shoulder. Relax. I’m armed, and my squallies-” He made air quotes high above his head as he walked away. “-are entirely fictional, remember?”
Six feet behind the SUV, the gravel really did become a steep slope of concrete. Armed or not, he wasn’t walking down the ramp on anything less than a triple-dog-dare, but with the flashlight, he saw the water’s edge, the trees, the uneven dock. The fresh tire marks where they’d slid to a stop. He smelled the dense, decaying vegetative scent of the swamp, and felt the pavement beneath his shoes.
“Pull forward,” he called to Scully.
She let the Explorer roll forward a dozen feet. Mulder followed it.
“More,” he called.
With the passenger door still ajar, she idled another ten feet. Again, he followed.
Her nature got the better of her. Scully shifted into park long enough to lean over and close the passenger door. Then she rolled down her window as Mulder walked beside the vehicle.
At about twenty yards, he called, “Woah.”
She eased to a stop. “Just stretching your legs?”
He’d already turned and switched on his flashlight. The white beam pierced the cool night, illuminating the place they’d just been. The breeze blew threw his hair and T-shirt, and chill bumps rose on his skin. After a slow breath, he said, “Check your rearview mirror, Scully.”
Behind them, rather than the drop-off, a gravel road continued due east. The trees had vanished. Once again, an uninterrupted wall of grass ran along each side of the road.
Scully stopped the car and got out, still shoeless. The Explorer’s headlights cut two swaths through the darkness ahead: a straight, gravel, two-lane road going east. Scully stood beside Mulder, staring as he showed her the same view to the west.
“Oh my God, Mulder.”
The night wind whipped her hair and blouse. A black blanket speckled with stars stretched from one horizon to the other. A hidden creature chattered excitedly, and another splashed through the marsh. Mulder and Scully had one bottle of water, no food, no idea where they were or how to escape, less than half a tank of gas, and one of them had terminal cancer.
He put his hand on her shoulder. “You’re right. We got a problem.”
Somewhere in the darkness, little voices found that hilarious.
Scully drove east on the gravel road at a snail’s pace, though Mulder had no expectation of getting anywhere. His neck hurt and his stomach was probably digesting itself. His head throbbed from lack of sleep. The darkness somehow grew blacker, and the sky threatened rain again. The road continued as before: straight, just wide enough for two vehicles to pass, and with a foot of firmament on each side before a wall of tall, marshy grass. He felt certain they’d passed the same opossum. It had started looking tasty.
While Scully watched the road, Mulder compared his wristwatch to the dashboard clock, checking for discrepancies. Both indicated 5:17 AM. Then he compared the watch, the dashboard clock, and the odometer.
She rolled her shoulders a few times and stretched her neck side-to-side. “Are we missing any time?” she asked tiredly. “Do the laws of physics still apply?”
“Depends on what dimension we’re in. Is Daylight Savings Time in effect?”
“I don’t care if Howdy-Doody time is in effect. How do we get off of this road, Mulder?”
“I’m working on it.” He switched on the SUV’s radio and turned up the volume so harsh static filled the speakers. He hit the ‘scan’ button.
“Lovely,” Scully called loudly.
“Only if you’re going for a homicidal mood.” She adjusted the volume until the static became white noise. “What is it you’re hoping to hear?”
“If this is a paranormal event, maybe we’ll pick up some sort of electronic voice phenomena. We might get a numbers station broadcasting a hypnotic or subliminal message. Radio mind control is extremely well-documented. HAARP’s ultra-high frequency experiments are said to disrupt weather patterns, while the impact of extremely low frequencies on the human nervous system is largely unknown.”
The skeptical expression he got would normally inflict third degree burns. Tonight, he couldn’t even have warmed his hands with her scorn. “Mulder, do you even have any idea how car radios work?”
He gestured to a backlit green button. “It’s on.”
The SUV’s interior was dark, but not so dark that he missed her weary eye roll. Drizzle collected on the windshield.
“It’s a stretch,” he told her, “but I don’t think we can rule out a connection to the Philadelphia Experiment and the Montauk Project. Some sort of multiverse or time loop.”
“Does this mean you’ve abandoned the squallies theory?”
“No,” he said haughtily. He tried rolling his shoulders and stretching his neck. It didn’t ease the ache the way a steak, a shower, and a soft bed would. “No, it just means I haven’t figured out how or why the squallies are doing this. Purposefully disorienting their victims isn’t mentioned in any of the eye-witness accounts.”
“Between my job, my family, and my recent acquaintance with the oncology department, I can attest that being referred to as ‘a victim’ gets old fast, Mulder.”
He studied her profile, trying to formulate an appropriate response. What he arrived at was, “Me too,” which sounded like he referred to himself either as a victim or a selfish asshole. He tried stretching his neck again.
She took her eyes off the road to ask abruptly, “Why a son? You said ‘tell our son’ about the grizzly. I always thought you’d want a daughter.” She cleared her throat, adjusted her hands on the wheel, and resumed watching the monotonous nothing illuminated by the headlights. The drizzle became more constant, less patchy. “If you ever decide you want a family, I mean.”
He worried his mouth. “I have absolutely no idea how I’m supposed to respond. That question’s like this road. No matter which choice I make, it’s gonna take me someplace I’m not happy about.” He leaned sideways, checked the odometer, and changed the subject. “How far now?”
“Eight-point-two miles.” She took her foot off the accelerator. The SUV idled forward. The wipers slapped back and forth. She sat up taller, scanning every piece of gravel and blade of grass. Tendrils of fog rose from the marsh and fine rain floated in the headlight beams. If a horror movie needed a road that led to The Most Ominous Place Ever, theirs should be in the top five choices.
“Scully, we’re not gonna plummet into some sinkhole or ravine. If they wanted us dead, they could have dropped that tree or pond a few feet closer. Something wants us contained or providing entertainment, not dead.”
Her profile looked unconvinced, but arguing his point would be fruitless. Also, to his knowledge, the Everglades lacked ravines and sinkholes.
As they crept through the misty darkness, Mulder reviewed the last few hours, trying to consider all the possibilities. “Can you think of any way to rule out some sort of shared hallucination or dream? Could we still be asleep right now?”
She drove like they traveled one of those treacherous cliff roads in Nepal or Bolivia. “Do I get an EEG machine?”
“Not unless you packed one.” Despite his “they don’t want us dead” hypothesis, her hypervigilance was contagious. Chill bumps rose on his forearms. He adjusted the temperature control a few degrees higher and started scanning the road as well.
The windshield wipers made another noisy pass.
“I have this dream,” he said like the four words were one. “Every few months for the past year or so.” His pace slowed from teletype to conversational. “In the dream I’m on a beach with a little boy. We’re building something out of sand, but the part we’re working on together is just a piece of something huge. I don’t know what it is; I can’t ever see all of it.” Now he watched his window rather than the road. Tiny water droplets beaded on the glass, as fine as a dusting of powdered sugar on a cake. “In the dream, I have the sense the boy’s my son…”
“Oh,” she said neutrally. If possible, she scrutinized the road even more closely, which conveniently precluded looking at him. “I was just giving you a hard time, Mulder. Pretending you’d climbed on some patriarchal bandwagon. I didn’t mean to-”
“He’s my son-” He took a slow breath. “-but he looks like you, Scully.”
Wisps of fog climbed from the marsh and rolled over the road. The headlight beams reached half their previous distance. Scully kicked the wipers up a notch.
When she didn’t respond, he said, “In Wales, old men speak of a fog that used to pass through their villages, making their sheep vanish. Fog often precedes a ghostly aspiration. Witnesses to the Philadelphia Experiment describe a thick green mist, while sailors report encountering fog banks that render their navigational equipment useless. It’s a common phenomenon in the Bermuda Triangle, and said to be related to the Hutchison Effect.”
The mist was standard-issue gray mist. They weren’t in the Bermuda Triangle, or Philadelphia, or missing any sheep. Either Scully was too tired to care or too kind to point that out. The silvery, foggy wisps gathered into a thick layer low to the ground. Mulder continued monitoring his side of the road – the ten feet ahead that he could see of it.
“There are the ‘preborn’ people,” Mulder told his window, “who believe they communicate with their child long before its conception – a belief which even I can’t get behind - and precognition, of course, but Jungians believe the children in our dreams represent some facet of ourselves. When I dream about Samantha, it’s not just the sister taken from me, but my own childhood, my innocence. When I dream of the boy…” He inhaled a slow breath, started to speak, then didn’t.
“What, Mulder? When you dream of the boy…”
When he turned his head, she’d left the foreboding road perilously unsupervised to look at him.
He worried his lower lip between his teeth. “If your cancer was diagnosed earlier, would that have made a difference? Would it have been curable?”
“This type of cancer occurs primarily in teenage or elderly males, and in Asia or Africa. In smokers or people who work in canneries or those with a family history. Nothing about me would make any doctor suspect a nasopharyngeal carcinoma.”
“So that’s a yes?” He fiddled with the vent, flipping the louvers up, down, left and right. “What if I knew? Subconsciously? A dream is an answer to a question we haven’t learned how to ask. I knew about those MUFON women, and I’ve dreamt of that boy ever since you found that implant. Maybe he’s not my son.” Mulder gave the vent an angry flick that made his fingernail smart. “He’s me, alone, seeing one piece of a larger picture I’ll never understand. I make the leaps, Scully, but you’re the one who makes them make sense. Without you, I’m-” He stopped just short of completely selfish asshole. Fox Mulder, FBI; semi-selfish asshole.
After a long minute, she asked gently, “How do you know he’s not your son?”
He stared at her with his mouth open. “You’re-” He almost said the D word. He tilted his head. “You have cancer. Incurable, inoperable cancer.”
A thick fog opened its arms and embraced them. Mulder saw the SUV’s hood and a glow from where the headlights should be. Scully stopped the vehicle. The engine idled and the wipers cleared the windshield. “I can’t see to drive,” she said, entirely unnecessarily. “The fog’s-”
The speakers squelched. The radio gave a few electronic shrieks, and then resumed static. Quickly, Mulder adjusted the volume and hit the scan button. Only static. He tried again. He checked his watch, the dashboard clock, the odometer.
The fog rolled past the SUV, on and on like a genie awakening, but didn’t dissipate. They couldn’t see someone five feet away from them. His partner sat behind the wheel with the ill-at-ease expression of a dog awaiting the vet. Mulder shook his head and turned the radio off.
“What exactly is the Hutchison Effect?” she asked.
“It’s not relevant unless we start to levitate.”
The windshield began to fog. They both reached for the defogger button, bumping hands. Scully got to man the button, but then put her hand over his on the center console. “What’s happening, Mulder?”
He had to admit, “I don’t know.”
Her chest rose slowly. “It’s almost dawn. The sun will burn the fog away. If we can’t figure out where we are, Skinner will send a search party.”
They had to be somewhere for a search party to find them. He wasn’t certain they were anywhere. “The gas gauge matches the odometer, right?” he asked. “You’re really driving somewhere?”
She looked down, then nodded. She interlaced her fingers with his. For a few seconds, they just sat there.
Then, with his free hand, Mulder opened the glovebox, pulled out the SUV’s owner’s manual, and thumbed through a few pages. The page numbers were sequential, and each sentence or diagram he focused on made sense. He replaced the manual and shut the glovebox. “We’re not dreaming,” he decided. “Not a normal dream. In dreams, if you open drawers, try to read books or gauges or analog clocks, the dream gets hazy. Our sleeping brain can’t fabricate such complex details.”
He held up his hand in a stop gesture. Mulder turned his head to listen. His fingers slid from hers. He hit the button to roll down his window. A big breath of fog blew in.
Somewhere outside, he heard footsteps on the gravel. When he looked back at Scully, her blue eyes took up half her face. She shoved the SUV into park and reached for her holster.
The footsteps approached Mulder’s side, but he saw nothing in the mirror except a blur. Then he heard them passing. In the dark, rolling fog, he glimpsed the brim of a man’s fedora, tilted as if looking down. No face, but the sleeve and shoulder of an overcoat. “Sir-” Mulder bolted out of the SUV. “Sir! I’m an FBI Agent.”
He heard steps, but the figure moved forward as if gliding on rails. Mulder followed. The figure didn’t pause or look back.
“Sir, can you tell me our location? We were on a county road off of highway-”
At the front of the SUV, Mulder stopped. He watched the silent man glide through the headlight beams and vanish into the fog. If Mulder stepped away from the vehicle, he might as well have been blind.
He inhaled and stepped forward. He could see his feet. Feel the gravel road. Scully was right behind him. “Sir?”
Ten more steps, and he lost sight of the headlights. There’d been a moon earlier, but now he couldn’t make out the grass beside the road. He heard the engine, but also the heavy footsteps ahead of him. Drizzle covered his face and T-shirt. He kept a hand on his weapon and braved a jog. He told himself the Everglades didn’t have any ravines or sinkholes he could accidentally fall into.
Mulder’s dress shoes kept hitting gravel. He ran. Ahead, the fog thinned, and he caught sight of a tall, hatted male figure. Mulder closed in. Five feet. Three. He reached for the man’s shoulder.
Behind Mulder, a car alarm wailed. A chorus of birds shrieked and frantically took flight from the marsh flanking the road.
Mulder stopped and turned. He saw inky, foggy, blackness rather than distant headlights. “Scully?”
The alarm continued. Her voice didn’t respond. His heart, already pounding, redoubled its pace.
He followed the alarm. His first hurried attempt ended in a patch of soggy weeds alongside the road. He located the edge of the gravel and followed it.
The SUV’s headlights flashed, and the hazard lights and dome light blinked frenetically. The alarm continued. Every light in the vehicle seemed on and angry. Scully was behind the wheel, working knobs and buttons like a harried church organist.
Mulder yanked open the driver’s side door. The speakers blared static; numbers blurred as the radio scanned the dial. A Christmas tree of red and yellow warning lights flashed on the dashboard.
“I don’t know what’s wrong,” she yelled.
As quickly as it started, the alarm stopped. The headlights went dark. The engine died. The interior of the SUV went black and silent.
Mulder heard Scully try the key, but no sound from the starter or engine. Keys jangled again. The gearshift clicked as she pushed it firmly into park. She tried again. Nothing. “It’s dead. There must be an electrical issue,” she said in the darkness. “Maybe that was the problem with the engine earlier.” He heard her rooting around. A flashlight switched on.
“Maybe eight-point-four miles is a hard stop,” he said. “Neither of us get to pass that point. Alternately, maybe something didn’t want us separated or for me to catch up to that man.”
She pointed her flashlight at the dash. The new SUV had less than a thousand miles on it, but the trip odometer still read 008.4. “Who was that man, Mulder?”
“My guess?” He rested his forearm on the top of the vehicle and leaned toward her. Fine rain fell on his back and shoulders. “A shadow figure. The Hat Man: a tall, faceless man wearing an old-fashioned hat and a trench coat who seems to glide rather than walk. They’re associated with fog and a sense of foreboding. Silent, shadowy, hatted figures have been documented since the 1950s-”
Her flashlight momentarily blinded him. “As well as, if I recall correctly, a mid-eighties episode of The Twilight Zone.”
Despite being sore, exhausted, frightened, and soaked – lost, starving, and bug-bit - he grinned. “When Jules Verne wrote From the Earth to the Moon in 1865 and the French made it into a movie in 1902, it was science fiction. Neil Armstrong still planted a flag in 1969.”
A freak event occurred in their partnership: Scully didn’t correct his omission of Buzz Aldrin’s role in the moon landing. She slouched behind the wheel, looking frustrated and exhausted. The flashlight switched off. Her weary voice said, “I want out of here. This fun house isn’t fun, Mulder.”
He blew a drop of rain off the tip of his nose, and nodded. “I know. I’ll find the guy in charge and get our money back. We’ll go on the Tilt-a-Whirl instead. After, you can win us a giant stuffed panda in the shooting gallery.”
“Cotton candy sounds divine right now.”
At first he thought that was sarcasm. Once he decided it wasn’t, he promised, “I will get you cotton candy.”
In the darkness, she leaned sideways so her head rested against his chest. That risked the rain and his thoroughly-wet T-shirt, but she didn’t seem to mind. “Thank you.”
After a second’s hesitation, he put his hand on her back. A second freak occurrence: she didn’t shrug away and insist she was fine. She wasn’t fine. He wasn’t fine. Acknowledging both seemed refreshingly bizarre.
“In 1976, while filming an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man,” he said for no reason other than to speak, “the crew discovered the preserved body of a man killed in a train robbery in 1911. The original owner of the sideshow purchased and displayed the corpse in the 1920s. The carnival changed hands several times, and at some point the corpse got posed as a hanged man in the haunted house – and left there for fifty years.”
Fog swirled around him. His T-shirt couldn’t possibly absorb more cold rain, but her head was warm and heavy. “Tell me something else,” she requested.
He stroked her hair, which curled in the mist. “At age twenty-five, P.T. Barnum began his career in humbug by purchasing and exhibiting a blind slave woman named Joice Heth, whom he billed as George Washington’s nursemaid and an impressive 161 years old. For fifty cents a pop, Heth shared her memories of little George with eager carnival goers throughout New England until her death in 1836.” He tucked some strands of hair behind her ear and smoothed them in place. “At which time, an examination of her body indicated she’d been no older than eighty. Barnum, however, insisted the body the doctors examined wasn’t Heth, who was on tour in Europe and, if Barnum is to be believed, may still be telling her tales.”
Leather creaked as she shifted in the driver’s seat, still keeping her head against his chest. “One more.” Her breath made the hair at the base of his neck rise.
He kissed her crown. “Saint Sarah is the patron saint of the Gypsies, a people more correctly called the Roma. The Romani believe Sarah was a Black Egyptian maid who accompanied Mary Magdalene, Mary Jacobé, and Mary Salomé – the mother of the apostles John and James – by sea to southern France in 42 AD. By the fourth century AD, the place the Marys came ashore was known as ‘Our Lady of the Boat,’ and by the ninth century, as ‘Saints Mary of the Sea.’ The church claims Sarah never existed, but in 1448, masons discovered four female decapitated skeletons beneath a church in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.” He stroked her cheek, her shoulder. “The Roma traditionally decapitate their dead to prevent their return as vampires, and these four heads had been arranged to form a cross. Even more interesting, to this day, in the crypt, an ancient statue of an unknown Black female accompanies statues of the three Marys.”
“I love you,” she said, and he could have stood in the miserable rain all night.
He kissed the top of her head again, and her brow, and her temple. She tilted her face up, he stooped, and her soft lips beneath his completed a perfect circuit. “We’re getting home,” he whispered, “and you’re getting a hot shower and a good steak and some cotton candy. And then I’m gonna make sure you get to love me until you’re 161.”
“No, you’re not,” he insisted, and kissed her again. He melted into her, with his hands on her face, keeping her close. He could have been on another planet for all he cared about Hat Man and possessed rental cars and the mysteries of the Florida Everglades. “You’re not.”
Behind Mulder, from deep in the foggy marsh, a child giggled. Scully gasped and pulled back. Ahead, another little voice joined in, sounding mocking. A third voice, now in back of them.
Heart pounding, Mulder reached for his sidearm. He’d be shooting blind; fog obscured what little he could have seen in the blackness. And he’d be shooting a child. Or something impersonating a child.
Laughter rang from the marsh again. Then the first child, perhaps. Then from the other side of the road. The giggles surrounded them like menacing numbers on the face of a clock.
Then the laughter stopped. An eerie stillness remained.
He pivoted, ready, but nothing emerged from the mist. He felt the eyes watching, though. “We have an audience.” Each time he moved, the fog pawed him with ghostly hands.
Scully got out. She stood beside the SUV, hand on her holster, flashlight off but at the ready. “I’m not saying there’s anything out there not fully explainable by science, Mulder. Fully explainable.” She took a shaky breath. “But hypothetically, if there were, what the hell do they want?”
“There’s the ‘catch us and eat us alive’ hypothesis, which remains a contender.” He kept staring into the claustrophobic blackness. “However, predators don’t pause to laugh at their prey, especially when that prey is distracted by a romantic entanglement.” Seconds passed as he saw nothing, heard nothing, as if the night held its breath. “Kiss me,” he requested.
“It’s a verified FBI investigative technique.” He didn’t lower his weapon. “Kiss me.”
He got a peck on the cheek reminiscent of saying goodbye to Grandma, but their unseen audience giggled just the same.
“I’m going with door number three, Scully, though I’m not sure knowing they’re cheering for us makes them any less creepy.”
Another chorus of gleeful laughter encircled them.
“More,” Scully said. “Also, it makes them rude little eavesdroppers.” She slid behind the wheel. “Get in, Mulder.”
He made another fruitless visual inspection of the dark, foggy night. Her door closed. When Mulder reached the passenger side, he remembered he’d left his door ajar and the window rolled down. He sighed, shoved his pistol in its holster, and got in.
He heard Scully push a button, but the SUV’s doors didn’t lock. Keys jangled. His window didn’t rise.
The driver exhaled. “If we start taking our clothes off, do you think our mysterious spectators would get embarrassed, take their fog and vehicular malfunctions, and go home?”
That probably was sarcasm, but Mulder ran his fingers through his wet hair and said, “I think it’s worth a shot.”
Despite the exchange of “I love you’s,” they had as much sex as either of them wanted in an SUV while lost in the Everglades and being surveilled by possibly-evil, possibly pig-faced children – which was none. For a while, they’d held hands. Mulder hoped that rocked the squallies’ world.
Mulder woke to a foggy dawn, Scully asleep beneath her trench coat in the reclined driver’s seat, and feeling like he’d rolled in wet grass after a red-eye coach flight that hadn’t included meal service. Dew coated the windshield and hood and him. Greenish-gray light and drizzle filtered through the fog, creating a soft-focus yet stark landscape. His line of sight extended about thirty feet, but didn’t include the shore of a sea of sawgrass.
A storm approached. He felt it.
When he got out of the SUV, the ground squished beneath his shoes. Scully shifted but didn’t wake. Mulder left the passenger door open and waded through a white carpet of fog. He ventured away from the vehicle to relieve himself, but kept an eye on Scully. A large, dark bird passed hurriedly overhead. Mulder circled the vehicle, trying to get some sense of where they were. That Most Ominous Road Ever from last night – if it didn’t lead here, it should.
In the distance, he saw three small, pale figures in the fog. Perhaps children, perhaps stumps or animals. In the other direction, a path wove toward some large, sprawling building. He followed the path as far as he could without losing sight of the SUV, which wasn’t far. Still, he’d lay ten-to-one odds what that building was.
Thunder rumbled in the distance.
Mulder stood beside the open passenger-side door, forearms on the roof, as Scully blinked awake. He asked, “Was it good for you?” with as much enthusiasm as he could muster.
She met the morning as though she prayed for a criminal, a clear shot, and an excuse to pull the trigger. “Have you figured out where we are?”
“In a manner of speaking.” He leaned in and handed her the bottle containing their only water. “You want the good news or the bad news?”
She set the water aside and rubbed the bridge of her nose. Her mascara had smudged into dark shadows beneath her eyes. “Start with our present location. Please tell me there’s a coffee shop.”
He pointed over his shoulder with his thumb. She squinted at him, then straightened up to look.
Their SUV sat amid a dense swamp. The roots of the cypress trees poked upward like wooden icebergs through ponds of brown water. Like the dock, the air had a decaying, vegetative smell. Fog still covered the murky water, but the only solid ground was beneath their feet and the path between the trees. His watch indicated after 7:00 AM, but Mulder still couldn’t see fifty feet through the swamp or – on the off chance their vehicle started - any way to drive in or out.
Scully opened the driver’s door and got out. For every ten degrees her head turned, her puzzled expression grew. Mulder gestured as if waving away a waiter; rational thought wasn’t worth the effort. Last night, they stopped on a gravel road; this morning, they woke deep in a swamp. That might complicate Skinner’s search party.
Thunder rolled again. A breeze wafted through the fog and brought the scent of a storm.
Scully took a few steps from the vehicle, but stopped when her shoe sank into mud. “Are we trapped in an episode of Scooby-Doo?”
“If so, it’s not nearly as fun as I’d envisioned. Though you’re hot, Daphne.”
She made another visual inspection of the foggy swamp, then pressed her fingertips to the center of her forehead. “So what’s the good news?”
Mulder’s pants and T-shirt couldn’t get any more ruined, so he slouched against the SUV’s fender. “This would be the good news. It’s not without precedent. In 1915, during World War I, three soldiers witnessed a battalion of 250 men march into a fog and never march out. No bodies were ever found, and none of the men were reported as prisoners of war.”
“In 1950, a young man in Victorian clothing, with mutton chop sideburns, was struck and killed by a car in Times Square. Witnesses say he just appeared, seeming startled. His pockets contained Victorian era money, a letter dated June 1876, and other items all in mint condition and dating to the 1870s. A business card identified him as Rudolph Fentz with an address on Fifth Avenue.” Mulder crossed his ankles, warming to his tale. “Except the business on Fifth Avenue never heard of him, nor could the police find any record of Fentz even existing. The NYPD police finally tracked down the widow of a Rudolph Fentz, Jr. Junior died at the age of eighty-one, but had been a kind, loving family man. Just like her late husband’s father who, the widow said, at twenty-nine, went for an evening walk in 1876 and was never seen again.”
Her brows moved closer together. “Is the moral here ‘don’t cross against the light?’”
“More good news.” He threw his arms wide. “No traffic.
“Where are we?” she demanded. “How did we get here? Mulder, we need food and water and shelter.”
“In 1815, a prisoner in a Prussian gulag vanished in front of a dozen witnesses. His body faded away until his manacles and leg irons fell to the ground, empty. In 1901, the female principal and vice-principal of Hugh’s College, Oxford, were vacationing in France. While visiting in the gardens of Versailles, the women rounded a corner and encountered Marie Antoinette sketching. In 1950, a woman walking home at night on a lonely road near Dundee, Scotland, crossed paths with a group of Pict warriors with torches searching for their dead after a battle in 685 AD. In 1970, Jackson and Martha Wright entered the Lincoln Tunnel on an afternoon drive, and only Mr. Wright emerged; no trace of Mrs. Wright was ever found. There are dozens of well-documented time and reality slips.”
“Mulder, my head is pounding. I swear to God…”
“I have no idea how we got here, but there’s a path. Say, ‘Mulder, where does that path lead?’” he prompted. Her head tilted to an uncaffeinated, dangerous angle, so he answered with feigned bravado, “Why, it’s the only way out of here, and I suspect it leads to an old mental asylum, which means we’ve found Squally Central.” He made the arms-wide gesture again. “More good news. Now say, ‘what’s watching us through the fog?’”
“I’m gonna hurt you, Mulder.” She did glance at the path, though. “Quicksand? Rodents of Unusual Size? Lions and tigers and bears?” She held up a finger warningly. “Don’t say it,” she instructed sharply.
So he only mouthed “Oh my.”
She exhaled like a dying dragon. Lightning struck, painting the swamp bright white.
Mulder grinned and made the pig nose gesture.
A cool breeze blew and drizzle descended on her hair. “You think we’ve found the Naithlorendum Sanctuary? The abandoned mental asylum near DeSoto Boulevard and Oil Well Road?”
He put his hand over his heart. “You do listen.”
“Only when we can’t pick up an NPR station on the radio.” She crossed her arms. In her flat-soled shoes, she stood eye-to-chin with him. Then she turned, scanning the trees. The sky grew dark. “If this sanctuary has a street address, it’s locatable by the United States Postal Service, which means if we’re there, we’re locatable, too.” After a deep breath, she got her flashlight and weapon from the SUV, and dropped her badge around her neck. She shrugged on her trench coat. “Let’s go see what’s there, Mulder.”
He grabbed the bottle of water and his coat and carry-on bag. “Were you listening when I mentioned the cannibalistic squallies? When I described the crazy guard who shoots to kill on sight?”
Scully stopped twenty feet down the path, turned, and opened her coat to show him her pistol. “Would you want to get between me, breakfast, and some Extra Strength Tylenol right now, Mulder?”
“No ma’am.” He swept his hand ahead. “Lead on.”
Drops, then waves of rain reached them. Scully tied her coat closed and walked faster.
Mulder took a last look at the SUV sitting amid the cypress trees. “Do you have a plan for once we reach the Naithlorendum Sanctuary?”
She glanced back. “If Freddie Krueger comes after us, we only have to control our dreams.”
“That’s the Westin Hills Asylum and largely fictional. Scully-” He hurried to catch up with her. “Scully, you-”
“There are no squallies, Mulder,” she said over her shoulder. Two crimson streaks flowed from her nose. “There’s no Hat Man, no evil security guard. We-”
“Scully,” he called again. “You, uh… Your nose- Your nose is bleeding.”
She stopped and put a hand to her upper lip. Mulder rummaged in the pockets of his trench coat, hoping for a Kleenex. When he looked up, blood covered her fingers and the sides of her mouth. Her nose didn’t bleed; it gushed.
“Jesus, Scully.” He yanked open the carry-on bag and shoved aside latex gloves and notepads and evidence bags in search of tissues. A roll of gauze. A napkin. Anything. “Is it the tumor?”
Scully held her nose closed so hard her knuckles were white. Blood streamed down her chin and neck, turning pink when it met the edge of her blouse. She leaned forward to spit out a mouthful.
“It will stop,” she said nasally. She braced one hand on a tree. She coughed, then spit again.
“When?” If anything, the bleeding seemed to worsen. Someone had turned on a spigot between an artery and her nostrils. His hands shook as he checked his pockets and the bag again. For an IV line. A pint of O-Positive. A paramedic.
She stepped toward Mulder. He looked in time to see her start to wilt. He grabbed her before she fell and guided her down to the damp ground. Mulder replaced her hand with his, pinching her nose closed as hard as he could. She coughed and frantically pushed his hand away. A fit of coughing, then retching, left him spattered with blood. If he held her nose closed, she choked. If he tilted her head back, she choked.
There was so much red the world had a scarlet tint.
Thunder crashed overhead. The heavens opened. He kept one hand on her shoulder and put one on her nose, pinching less firmly. Blood ran down his wrist. Scarlet covered her mouth and neck, but her cheeks became ghostly white. The rain stung like hail.
She shook, and Mulder shook with her. “What do I do? How do I make it stop?”
Because it wasn’t stopping. She’d bleed to death in a swamp in the middle of nowhere.
“Scully, answer me. What do I do?”
“Mulder,” she said, far more softly than the situation warranted. When she looked at him, her eyes didn’t focus. Her face went from pale to translucent.
He barked, “Scully!” again as her eyes closed. Her head lolled to the side and her body slumped against him. The nosebleed didn’t stop.
He knelt in the mud, holding her, one hand still on her nose.
Now the rain fell in cold sheets, slapping one after another. Lightning bit treetops so close an electric hum passed through him. Mulder put those old Indian Guides badges to good use. The human body – even a small female – could lose several pints of blood and survive. But a bolt of lightning could kill them. If lightning didn’t, hypothermia would. Alligators could detect blood, and he and Scully were covered in it.
Mulder let go of her nose, wiped the rain out of his eyes, and picked her up. The footpath had become a small stream. He slipped and slid as he carried her toward the SUV. Each time her head fell back, she choked, so he kept stopping to reposition her. That made carrying her unwieldly, but they hadn’t walked far from the Explorer. He’d get her in the vehicle, safe and flat and dry. Wait out the storm. Let Scully tell him what to do when she woke.
The path to the SUV ended in a brown pool. Thunder boomed. Lightning flashed again. Mulder heard a tree sizzle, crack, and fall.
He adjusted his grip on Scully and searched for a way around. The water spread as far to each side and in front of him as he could see. He braved a careful step forward. His foot disappeared past the ankle without his toe touching the bottom. Even if – covered in fresh blood - he avoided whatever snakes and alligators lurked beneath the dark water, he couldn’t wade through a waist-high swamp while carrying her. Not and keep her head up, holding a 115-pound unconscious woman like he’d cradle a child. He could put her over his shoulder, if he wasn’t picky as to whether or not she could breathe or bled out.
A shred of sanity returned. The water covering the path wasn’t flash-flooding. He wouldn’t find a way around or through. Last night, this spot was a foggy gravel road. This morning, the high ground in a swamp. Just as the marsh grass had concealed the dock the moment they drove away, an endless pool now existed in place of their SUV.
Blood covered Scully’s face and neck, gushing from her nose as quickly as the storm washed it away. Her right arm hung limp. Her breathing had a gurgling sound, which was the only way Mulder knew she wasn’t dead.
A moment ago, she’d been fine. Hungry and cold and bitchy and lost, but fine.
A day ago, she’d been fine. He’d knocked on her hotel room door to see if her charger might fit his new cell phone. She’d let him use her charger and, as his phone juiced up, occupied herself by putting her tongue in his mouth and her hand down his pants.
He’d been with her once. Once. And he’d just promised 161 years. She was a thirty-two-year-old beautiful, brilliant woman with her whole life ahead of her and he needed her and he loved her.
This was not happening.
Lacking any other option, arms aching, rain stinging his eyes, Mulder turned and carried her in the opposite direction.
Whoever designed the Naithlorendum Sanctuary in the 1880s believed there was no such thing as too much red brick. Formidable red walls ringed a half-dozen abandoned little buildings, many missing roofs and open to the storm. Brick paths sprouting weeds ran at right angles through and across the rear courtyard. Just inside the long archway that had served as the back gate, an old bronze plaque screwed to an even older red brick wall reminded everyone ‘Patients May Not Pass Here.’ A stout gate – secured by a stout padlock until a few hours ago – enforced the sign. Just inside the asylum’s walls, to the left, Mulder saw a big cemetery of little graves. To the right, ancient playground equipment rusted in the rain, and swings moved in the mist as if occupied by ghostly children. Both areas connected to the main building via red brick paths.
Mulder had taken off Scully’s bloody blouse but left her pink bra on because it seemed dry and he valued his life. He put Scully’s trench coat between her body and the brick floor of the archway, positioned her on her side, and draped his coat over her. He used his T-shirt to wipe the blood from her face and neck, walked outside the archway and rinsed the shirt in the rain, then repeated the cycle twice more. He’d left the carry-on bag on the path, and lost their bottle of water somewhere. He found the SUV’s keys in Scully’s pocket, but Mulder had his wallet, his badge, a flashlight, a broken cell phone, his weapon, and a spare magazine. And that shiny new X-file and theory. And a partner dying of cancer.
Mid-morning passed. The vengeful storm didn’t. Scully didn’t wake.
Putting on his wet T-shirt seemed pointless, so he didn’t. For a while, he paced the length of the archway – fifteen steps each way. He shivered but a larger quake inside him ached. He kept checking on Scully: that she breathed and had a steady pulse. He had no idea what the hell to do if either stopped. Between thunderclaps, he listened as hard as he could for a car or plane or boat engine. He looked for powerlines or cell towers or any electric lights.
After another hour, Mulder slouched down just inside the archway, near Scully and out of the rain, and counted the graves. Then he started assigning names to the little wooden crosses. Reggie Perdue. Deep Throat. Duane Barry. Mulder’s father. Scully’s sister. The Thinker. X. All the people who’d died for his quest to discover the truth about Samantha’s disappearance.
The next grave Mulder was responsible for wouldn’t be Scully’s. Not a second time.
The Smoking Man must be behind Scully’s abduction and her cancer. Ever the great puppet master, now Old Smokey probably sat in an armchair beside a warm fire, enjoying his Morley and awaiting Mulder’s capitulation. If a cure existed, Mulder would make the deal - leave the X-files, abandon his search for the truth. Do whatever Cancerman demanded in exchange for Scully’s life.
If a cure existed.
In the dark doorway of a ruined little building far across the courtyard, Mulder spotted three small, pale children, squatting, arms around their knees, and watching him. Or an optical illusion. Or some beige rocks. He didn’t know or care anymore.
He moved deeper into the archway, and he maneuvered Scully so her head lay on his lap rather than the cold bricks. Her bare shoulder inside the trench coat cocoon felt warm. Mulder could still see the edge of the asylum’s cemetery. A little rabbit waited out the storm beneath a stone bench.
Even in the dim tunnel, he discovered the blood he’d missed with his T-shirt. In the fold in front of her ear. In her hair. In the creases of her neck. Beneath his nails and between his fingers. Without makeup, the scabby bruises showed on her face: mementos of Ed Jerse.
Two rats scuttled through the archway as if Mulder didn’t exist.
When Scully shifted, he wiped his eyes and sniffed. “Scully? Can you hear me?”
She made an affirmative noise.
He stroked her shoulder. “Just rest. You had a bad nosebleed. I think you went into shock.”
She corrected him, barely audible. “Hypovolemic shock.”
Her head remained on his lap. He pushed her damp hair back from her face. “Is this what’s gonna happen? Someday, the nosebleed won’t stop?”
“It’s more likely death will result either as the tumor presses into my brain or metastasizes.” She still spoke softly, but as if she discussed a patient rather than herself. “There will be vision changes. Difficulty breathing and swallowing, obviously. Problems with judgment and impulse control.”
He took all that in, weighed the implications, and asked, “Six months is the high estimate, isn’t it?”
She nodded her head.
“Rest,” he repeated. “We’re safe. Or, we’re what passes for safe around here.”
Beneath the coat, her hand reached up and took his.
Since her eyes were closed, Mulder dragged his forefinger below each of his eyes again, then passed off the motion as scratching the stubble on his jaw.
“In 1959, in the Ural Mountains of Western Russia, rescuers found the bodies of nine hikers,” Mulder told the bricks on the opposite wall of the archway. He heard his voice waver; he hoped she didn’t. “The young men and women were from a local university, all experienced skiers and hikers on a well-planned expedition. They’d wandered slightly off their planned route, and decided to set up camp for the night and backtrack the next day.” The bricks felt like rough ice against Mulder’s bare back, but her hand was a warm, velvet lifeline. “Twenty-four days later, rescuers found the tents cut open from the inside and the hikers’ bodies, all under-dressed and all within a mile of the campsite, on flat, open ground. Two men had fled their tent in their socks and underwear only to make a campfire a quarter mile away, lie down, and die beside it. Broken branches suggested several others climbed trees, trying to see their location, though the campsite and their route were easily visible from the ground. One woman was face-down in a stream, though her cause of death wasn’t drowning. Some had traded items of clothing, likely trying to stay warm. Autopsies revealed that within nine hours of their last meal, six hikers died of hypothermia and three of blunt-force trauma the doctor likened to a high speed car.”
“Don’t cross against the light,” she mumbled.
“As far as the rescuers could tell, none of the hikers tried to build any sort of shelter or return to their campsite for their winter coats and boots, or to hike down the mountain. There was no sign of an avalanche or attack by locals or – and please record my words – a yeti. Seven young men and two women basically wandered around as if they had no clue where they were until they froze to death or were struck by a non-existent vehicle.”
She opened her eyes, looked around, then closed them again. “Is our vehicle non-existent?”
“Momentarily. Skinner’s gonna be pissed.” The rain let up a little. Across the courtyard, a three-story red brick building had wings that spread like open arms and windows that watched with dark, empty eyes.
“Glad it’s on your Bureau credit card.”
Her hair didn’t need tucked behind her ear again. He tucked it anyway. “Something wants us here. It’s batting us around like a cat with a mouse. Given our absolute lack of any other option, I think our best route out is directly through. Except you need to be in a real hospital, not one inhabited by squallies.”
“I’m dehydrated. I need fluids and rest, and I wouldn’t say no to a Snickers bar.”
He’d spotted one of the rats just beyond the long archway, at the edge of the swamp. “I’ll add that to the list: a good steak, cotton candy, and a candy bar.”
She stipulated. “Snickers. Where’s our water?”
His shoulders slouched. “Somewhere near the SUV, along with my bag which contained, among other things, a dry dress shirt. I thought about going back to look for it, but I was afraid to leave you. Ditto checking the crumbling remains of Squally HQ for something I can use to catch rainwater or as a blanket.”
“Any sign of another human being? Not that I’ve heard or seen. If there’s a navigable road in front of this place, no car has traveled it in hours. I think we’re still on our own.”
Her eyes opened again. “Do you know when this asylum closed?”
“It was bought by the U.S. government in the early 1950s and remained open less than a decade after that.”
“Mulder, if the building’s structurally sound, check it. Patients in the old mental asylums often stayed their whole lives. Some were born and died in them. Many asylums functioned like a self-contained village; they raised their own livestock, grew their own food. There will be a laundry somewhere. You might even find an old orchard.”
Mulder studied the main building and the smaller structures scattered across the grounds. The place wasn’t that large. Unless they gardened in the front yard, the former residents of the Naithlorendum Sanctuary hadn’t raised or grown their own anything. “Where are the adult graves, then?” The red brick walls encased the cemetery, the playground, a few ruined out-buildings, and the sprawling main hospital. None of the hundreds of graves was more than four feet long. Little white crosses marked each one. “If people lived and died here, where’d they bury them?”
“Maybe they had a crematorium.” She groaned as she shifted. “Maybe this sanctuary housed only disabled or mentally ill children. Still, there will be a laundry, a kitchen. A medical clinic. Look for salt, sugar, saline. Go see what you can find.”
Her second theory seemed more likely. He heard a rat skittering again, but didn’t bother turning his head. “What if I leave to search and you’re not here when I get back? In 1979, two couples traveling together through France needed a place to spend the night. All the hotels were full, but someone directed them down a cobblestone road to a quaint old inn that they liked so much they wanted to stay there again, two weeks later, on their trip home. Except the inn had vanished, as did any photos they took while there. The negatives were still sequential, but those photos – photos both couples knew they’d taken - were missing. Just gone.” He spoke faster. “What if I come back and you’re just gone?”
“Mulder,” she said with weary scorn, “the squallies will not get me. I have a gun and one hell of a headache. We’re in the middle of a swamp in a rain storm. Find a cup and bring me water before you lose your audience for your paranormal anecdotes sooner than you already will.”
That shivering he’d attributed to the cold – it wasn’t the cold. It was bone-rattling fear, now combined with a sucker punch. He croaked, “Scully-”
“I’m sorry.” Very slowly, she pushed up on her elbow. The coat fell away. For a beautiful, half-naked young woman, she moved like an ancient one. “But this is not how and where I want to die. Find me something to drink, and dry clothes or a blanket, and then a way back to a road.”
He helped her ease up to sit against the wall, and put the coat around her shoulders. “Okay,” he agreed, despite every instinct he possessed. The kitchen would be in the main building, fifty yards away. Mulder knew he’d step inside the ruined structure, fill her shopping list, and return to an empty swamp or sea of sawgrass where he’d left Scully.
“What about that?” she asked. Scully pointed to a big glass bottle of Gatorade near the rear gate. Mulder scrambled to get it. The bottle was damp with rain, but the label bright and the lid sealed. “How old is that?”
“I think we can safely say it post-dates the 1966 Orange Bowl.” He checked the label. “1992.”
“Perfect.” She held out her hand.
That bottle hadn’t been there. Mulder had occupied this archway for nearly three hours. He hadn’t overlooked a big lime green, lifesaving bottle.
Or the bright blue backpack now just beyond the gate, at the base of a tree. He looked in the other direction, at the doorway of the building where he thought he’d spotted the pale figures earlier. It was vacant. The bunny still crouched beneath the bench.
The storm dialed back another notch, still raining but with less malice.
Mulder probably looked like the umpire at a tennis match as he retrieved the pack, terrified to take his eyes off Scully for more than a second. She sipped the Gatorade and looked annoyed with his vigilance.
“Thank God for forgetful urban explorers and teenagers looking for a place to get high.” She sat up straighter. “What do we have?”
The zipper opened easily. Inside, Mulder found two canteens of water, and some granola bars and trail mix. A roll of toilet paper flattened and inside a plastic bag. Several paper towels, also inside a Zip-lock bag. A good compass, a flashlight, a whistle. Spare batteries and unused 35mm film. Insect repellant and sunscreen. A solar blanket, a few yards of bright orange cord. Binoculars. A creased National Park Service brochure from 1994, a buck knife, a first aid kit, and a clean handkerchief. A man’s red Hanes T-shirt. A box of condoms, which Mulder held up to show her.
“High hopes,” she commented.
“Us or our forgetful urban explorer?” He handed her the shirt, then a granola bar. The North Face pack had a label with a man’s name, a Georgia phone number, and an Atlanta address. “Scully, while I won’t look a gift pack in the mouth, this wasn’t there ten minutes ago.”
She held the Gatorade bottle out. “Drink.”
He shook his head.
Her brow furrowed. “I’m a medical doctor. Drink, Mulder.”
He drank, but only a little. “This isn’t some teenager’s pack. It’s not full of weed and Fritos. This is what you or I would pack for a day hike.” Maybe better than he or Scully would pack. Mulder felt a little flashlight envy; this guy’s stuff was nice. The light worked; the knife wasn’t rusted; none of the fabric had mildew. “It hasn’t sat in this wet swamp for the past three years.”
She had the T-shirt on and continued drinking the Gatorade. When she passed him the bottle again, he didn’t argue. He just sipped. Under doctor’s orders, he ate a handful of the trail mix and took half the granola bar. None of it tasted stale.
The rain thinned to gray clouds and mist. There might have even been a sun up there, somewhere. Mulder still hadn’t heard or seen any sign of modern civilization, but their snacks indicated they were probably in the right decade.
“When Count Saint-Germain appeared in European high society in 1742, he claimed to be the illegitimate son of a Transylvanian prince, born in 1660,” Mulder said as he chewed. He sat beside her, leaning against the bricks. “Though he appeared about forty-five years old. Saint-Germain played violin like a virtuoso, was a master painter, and spoke twelve languages, including Sanskrit, Chinese, and Russian. He was renowned as an alchemist and brought an elaborate lab everywhere he traveled. In 1760, at a party at Madame Pompadour’s, an elderly countess claimed an identical man courted her in Venice in 1710, fifty years earlier. She assumed the man was Saint-Germain’s father, but Germain claimed it was not. It was Germain himself.” He took another bite. “Saint-Germain died quietly in 1784, yet the following year attended a masonic convention in Paris. A few years later, he advised another noblewoman of the coming French revolution, correctly predicting Marie Antoinette’s beheading. He visited the same noblewoman in 1815, and again in 1820, never appearing older than forty-five.”
“Mulder, this sounds like good genes crossed paths with senility and a Casanova on the make. Or are you about to announce Count Saint-German was a vampire?”
He gave her a tired but scornful sidelong look. “You went for the red herring, Scully. Not every immortal being from Transylvania is a vampire. Besides, Germain once mentioned being present at the council of Nicaea in 325 AD, making him far older than Vlad Dracula or any other known vampire. No, Germain was a brilliant alchemist who discovered the secret of eternal life. He popped up again in an 1897 photo with a French singer, then during World War I, and as recently as the 1960s.”
He tilted the wrapper so the last crumbs fell into his mouth as he waited for her to whack him with her big, ever-present stick of science. Harp on the power of suggestion. Group hysteria. The poor reliability of eye-witnesses.
Instead, she took his hand. In a gentle voice, she told him, “It’s not out there, Mulder. I’d eat human livers and hibernate if I thought that might let me continue our work.” She paused. “Continue with you. There is no such thing as the secret to immortality or fountain of youth, and my doctor isn’t wrong.” Her fingers tightened against his. “I have cancer, Mulder. A cancer for which there is no cure. This time next year, you’ll be doing this alone, and that’s what I expect you to do. Continue the work. I expect you to figure out what happened to me and stop it from happening to any more women.”
He clenched his jaw, swallowed, and couldn’t speak.
She didn’t let go.
He blinked again. He hated cancer. Everything about it kept blindsiding him again and again. He hated her cool, composed, compassionate explanation. He hated her feeling sorry for him rather than herself, and he hated that he felt sorry for himself.
He crumpled the granola bar wrapper into a foil ball and flung it at the wall. It traveled eighteen inches before fluttering to the brick floor. So he kicked it with a muddy loafer. After several tries, in a tight voice, he admitted, “I can’t.”
“You can. I know you can.” She gave his hand a squeeze and his cheek a kiss. “But you don’t have to today,” Scully announced. With one hand on his shoulder and one inching up the wall, she eased to her feet. “Today, I still got your back.”
He stood. Got her coat. His coat. The pack. His damp, slightly pink and very muddy T-shirt. She kept her hand on the bricks, steadying herself.
The storm had faded to gray skies and mist, making the asylum in the distance look like it belonged in a horror movie. Mulder spotted three pale, oddly shaped faces in a high window, watching them.
Despite being on the FBI clock, he offered his hand. She took it. “Let’s go find your damn squallies, Mulder.”
“Scully, I think the squallies have found us.”
She sighed. “Of course you do.”
For decades, the Naithlorendum Sanctuary kept people from breaking out. The high windows had bars and the thick doors had big locks. Vines climbed the bricks, but Mulder saw no broken windowpanes, no forced doors or plywood, no evidence anyone had ever managed to break in. A tree had taken out part of the hospital’s roof, but the exterior of the structure remained intact. Lightning or a fire had charred one of two towers at the front of the main building. The brick wall ringed the grounds, and an impassable swamp met the outside of the wall as far as Mulder could see. Inside the gate, each wing of the hospital intersected with the outer wall. There was no going around the building. Only through.
The architect underestimated an FBI agent’s ability to pick a rusty lock. Then to shoot a couple bullets through a lock. Then use an old hammer and axe from the toolshed to pry, pound, cuss at, and demolish a lock and part of the door it secured.
B&E via the kitchen was Scully’s idea. Individual rooms or dorms might be locked from the hall, and there would be some means of securing each ward. Separating boys from girls, older children from younger ones. The asylum’s kitchen would access the dining room, which would be off a hall. Which hopefully led straight to the front door, 1997, and a busy road.
In the time it took Mulder to get the ancient kitchen door open, he could have tunneled beneath the foundation and up into the kitchen. However, by the time he kicked open the warped door, his T-shirt had dried somewhat. Scully had finished the bottle of Gatorade, gotten a chance to rest, and could walk on her own.
Mulder shined his flashlight inside. He saw a low ceiling, peeling paint, cobwebs, and a long sink that had probably once been white. The air felt cool, and the building smelled like mildew and earth and damp plaster. A wooden table near a dirty window was covered in powdery-looking mold. Rusted pipes ran along the ceiling and as far into the room as the flashlight beam reached. An old apron and a rag doll lay forgotten. A little red ball, so old the faded rubber had cracked, chose that moment to roll across the floor and stop at Mulder’s feet. “No, nothing creepy about this place,” he quipped. “Nothing bad could ever happen here.”
Scully came to the doorway to investigate. He gave the kitchen another sweep with his flashlight. “The ceiling and floor look intact,” she observed, and shrugged on her coat. “I think we’re in luck.”
He stuffed his coat inside the pack and slung the backpack over his shoulder. “Scully, that’s the worst definition of ‘luck’ I’ve ever encountered.” He put one foot inside the shadowy room before he asked, “Would you think badly of me if I went in at gunpoint?”
“Are the squallies still out to get us?” She stepped around him. “Because if they are, by the look of this kitchen, they haven’t eaten in about four decades.”
Her flashlight switched on. An animal squeaked, and feet skittered away in the shadows. Mulder surreptitiously unsnapped his holster and followed her. “Accounts of individuals with pig-like features date back to the 1630s, though all involve pig-faced women.” He found himself whispering as if he might disturb someone. “In every case, a pregnant woman insults a beggar or the beggar’s children by calling them pigs, and in turn is cursed by the beggar to bear a pig-faced baby.”
An overturned wooden stool lay beside a metal rack of milk bottles. Scully went around it. She answered at a conversational volume. “For centuries, doctors believed in maternal impression: that the mother’s thoughts or traumatic experiences could influence the baby’s appearance.”
“Well, you somehow never see anything, so I think Junior’s in the clear.”
She turned to give him a withering look.
“Anyway,” Mulder continued, drawing out the word, “a woman named Tannakin Skinker is the first known case: the head of a pig, the body of a woman. Contemporary accounts record her grunting and eating from a silver trough. An astrologer told her parents the curse could be broken if she would marry. Despite offering huge sums of money, her parents were unable to find any man willing to go through with the ceremony and consummate the marriage.”
Scully said dryly, “Obviously, the Skinkers never made that offer in a bar near a naval base at 2:00 AM.”
The kitchen ended at a swinging door now swollen stationary inside the warped doorjamb. Rather than trying to force it, Mulder nodded to the pass-through a few feet away. He checked that the wall was stable and had a floor on the other side, then helped Scully up and through. She maneuvered as if just getting over the flu – slow and tired, but steady.
After he climbed through, Scully swept her flashlight over a long, low table that formed an oasis in the center of a large room. Dusty spiders’ webs decorated eight little chairs on each side of the table. “Not seeing any silver troughs, Mulder.”
The table and chairs were elementary school-sized. Like the kitchen, paint hung in long strips from the dining room walls. A dripping brown spot on the ceiling threatened to fall. Mushrooms sprouted below it. Mulder spotted rat and raccoon droppings, and smelled something long dead.
He felt eyes watching them. As he moved, the shadows seemed to follow a little too closely. Metal squeaked quietly to his left. Tires rolled against the floor, sounding like a gurney or a wheelchair. Maybe a child’s bike or a wagon. It creaked twice, then stopped.
His flashlight beam lit a broad, empty floor. No wheelchair, no gurney. No bicycle or wagon.
“Try not to bump anything, Mulder.” Still leading the way, Scully said, “Your pig-faced women are likely a combination of a cruel superstition and severe cleft pallet. Alternately, anteverted nostrils are seen in children with Cornelia de Lange syndrome, William’s Syndrome…” Her light inspected the ruined remains. “In all likelihood, the very children once housed here.”
Mulder’s foot found some hard, small object. He looked down. He’d stepped on an old brown, plastic toy dog akin to a Crackerjack prize. He left the toy and moved on. “In the 1720s, another woman, Griselda Steevens of Dublin, Ireland, was seldom seen in public and never seen without her veil. Her story has the same beginning and the same end. Cursed before birth by a beggar woman; doomed to die alone.” He whispered again. “In 1820 in Manchester, another account. There have even been sightings of pig-faced female ghosts.”
“Well, that clearly proves their existence.” Her flashlight blinded him momentarily. “Are you just making those names up?”
“Right hand to God, Scully: Griselda Steevens and Tannakin Skinker got those names, a pig’s face, and spent their lives as virgins. You should talk with them about your definition of luck.”
The dining room opened to a second area twice the size, but windowless and empty except for two ancient, rusting tricycles and an overturned wagon. Scattered across the cracked black and white tiles, Mulder saw a mangled slinky, some jacks, and a dented metal spinning top. A record player on a low shelf still held a warped record.
The ruined building had the patiently sinister atmosphere of the Nazi concentration camps or a serial killer’s basement: as if the walls had witnessed unspeakable evil. None of the toys moved, but he heard wheels again. The soft crunch of rubber tires on dirty tiles, like a wheelchair inched forward.
“Mulder, I can’t administer a tetanus shot right now.” Her voice ahead of him sounded annoyed. “Don’t disturb anything here you don’t have to.”
He told her with absolute certainty, “I’m not disturbing anything I don’t have to.”
She sighed. “These old institutions were closed after lawsuits or reporters exposed deplorable conditions, over-crowding, and patient abuse. Many started out with good intentions and – while barbaric by our standards – the best treatment available. By the 1950s, though, some hospitals warehoused ten times the number of very ill, very handicapped patients for which they were designed, and with no resources to provide even basic care.” She stopped. Her flashlight beam panned the room. “It must have been hell on Earth.”
Mulder pointed his light at one of the tricycles. “Where are the wheelchairs? Cribs? High chairs? The dining room had sixteen chairs, but the courtyard has hundreds of graves. If this place warehoused very ill, very handicapped children, where’d they put them? On the floor? Or did most of those kids never leave their rooms?”
She looked around the open room. “Sadly, either is quite possible.” She exhaled. “Let’s go, Mulder.”
He surveyed the toys strewn across the dirty floor, then followed her. The play area had three doors, all too warped to move. They chose the one warped halfway open, and eased around it. Scully first, then Mulder immediately after her. As he turned his head to squeeze though, a dark shape moved near a tricycle in the corner. Not a rat, raccoon, opossum, or lizard shape. Not one of the pale creatures in the window earlier. An ill-defined but shadowy human shape.
“Are you stuck?” Scully asked.
“I saw something.” He had one foot in the playroom, one in the hall with Scully, and the edge of the door against his sternum. His flashlight was on the Scully side. The only light in the play area filtered through two high, vine-covered windows.
Whatever the dark form was, it didn’t move. But it didn’t vanish, either. He heard water dripping from somewhere and his heart pounding in his ears. “Scully, there’s something here.”
“It’s probably an animal,” her voice answered. “Or you could be having hallucinations brought on by sleep-deprivation. It’s nothing. Come on.”
Only because he loved her and she needed rest and fluids, Mulder left the ghostly “nothing” and squeezed through the doorway.
After two bathrooms connected by an open shower room, they found a ward. A girl’s ward, from the peeling pink paint. Flanking a wide, windowless hall, each room’s door stood open like soldiers at attention. Twin-sized rusted headboards and metal drawers and piles of mildewed sheets created an obstacle course. The rooms had numbers above them: 1,3,5,7 on his left, 2,4,6,8 on his right.
In the hallway, the pink wall between room 2 and room 4 rippled. Something moved under the Pepto-Bismol colored paint, like a hand beneath a bedsheet. Mulder shined his flashlight slowly, making sure the shadows didn’t create an illusion of motion.
The wall moved. Something pressed its way out. He got his mouth open to say, “Scu-” as she stumbled backward into him and barked, “Shit! Oh my God. Mulder, there are still-”
Her flashlight hit the floor. Her free hand caught his arm, and she slumped against him. He dropped the pack and grabbed her. For a few seconds, as she struggled not to faint, whatever was in the room and behind the walls had to wait. “You okay?”
She sounded embarrassed. “I got dizzy. I must not have enough blood volume to compensate for a sudden spike in cardiac demand.”
Once she seemed steady, he let go. He stooped to find his pack and her flashlight. “Does that mean you got scared?”
“Mulder, there are bodies in that room.” As soon as her flashlight was in her hand, it illuminated room 1.
He pointed his light alongside hers. In pitch black, a child sat on the bed, holding an ancient teddy bear. Another lay at the foot with its head on a pillow. A third stood, arms outstretched welcomingly.
“No,” Scully amended. Her light moved slowly across the cramped room. “Not bodies.” On closer inspection, the children had no heads or hands, only pink towels fashioned to resemble them. Stuffed pants and shirts made up the bodies. The standing form – two thin lines attached the shoulders to a light fixture. The room had toys, children’s books, and an old board game on the floor. As if one child invited a few friends to visit his room. At a glance, in the darkness, the tableaux was convincing. “Why would someone do that? Do you think they left it that way, or someone broke in and arranged this as a prank?”
Mulder checked the hall wall with a flashlight beam less steady than a moment earlier. No movement. He felt the presence, though. Something wanted out. “Perhaps these are questions we can consider at a later time,” he suggested.
She pointed her light in the bizarre room again, exhaled shakily, and turned toward the end of the hall. “Good call.”
“Easy,” he cautioned, and stayed close behind her.
Now he saw the ghostly figures everywhere. In the dark bedrooms. Sliding down from the crumbling ceiling. When he turned and looked back. Despite what his partner believed, he did consider the possibility of sleep deprivation and the power of suggestion.
No. When the shadows didn’t match the objects producing them, he wasn’t hallucinating.
Scully kept walking, so he carried the backpack and walked with her. “Jesus, this place is creepy.”
He offered no argument. He spotted an open door at the end of the ward, and proceeded toward it with as much haste as Scully could manage.
This dark hallway was a mirror image of the first – windowless, peeling paint, decaying walls and ceiling, and littered with debris and animal droppings - except painted teal blue and with all eight bedroom doors closed. Closed with sturdy, wooden, windowless doors, and locked deadbolts.
Whatever was in those rooms could stay in those rooms. Whatever secrets the ugly teal walls knew, the walls could keep. The whole building had once inhaled tragedy and now exhaled evil.
Though a 1970s Lincoln Continental would fit crossways in the hall, the walls felt closer. Mulder noticed himself scrunching his shoulders and slouching, trying to take up less space. He heard a soft pat, pat, pat in the darkness behind them. Perhaps water dripped. Perhaps light, quick footsteps followed. An unseen wheelchair creaked forward again.
The door at the end of the boys’ ward stood ajar, the floor ahead looked solid, and nothing blocked their path. Whatever came next had to be better than this claustrophobic tunnel. The shadows eased down the walls and followed them like a pack of hungry, stealthy dogs. Another soft crunch of wheels against a dirty floor. Another ripple in the paint.
As they neared the door, Mulder stepped on something hard. He moved his foot and looked down. He saw a little, brown, plastic dog, like kids used to get in a Crackerjack box.
In a building that didn’t ooze evil, by Mulder’s estimate, they neared the center of the hospital. A left turn should point them toward the front door. He watched ardently for any left turn.
The boys’ ward led to a large, dusty room crammed with rows of naked, twin metal bedframes. A corner contained a mountain of mattresses decayed into a giant rats’ nest of mildewed cotton and shreds. The architect probably intended the space to hold two rows of beds. Mulder counted five rows, and a line of metal cribs beneath the windows.
“‘Warehoused’ is the correct term,” he said. “I think we’ve found vintage mental asylum.”
“I think you’re right.” Scully’s light made a quick scan of the room: scarred floor, cracked and crumbling plaster, ancient ceiling fans draped with spiders’ webs. “It looks like the boys’ and girls’ dorms got a coat of paint and new plumbing in the 1950s, but this area’s never been renovated.”
Mulder nodded. “I counted eight beds in each of those dorms. Unless Uncle Sam slapped some teal or pink paint on any other section of this building, it’s a big facility to house just sixteen kids.”
Here, windowpanes had broken. Ancient plywood covered the top of one window. The beds had a Victorian rather than One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest look. The inner wall was blackened, probably by fire. They might be beneath one of the hospital’s burnt towers. He saw two doors: one open across the room, and one closed, charred, and toward the front of the building.
While Mulder inspected the fire damage, Scully turned sideways and stepped between the rows, headed for the open door.
“Take it easy,” Mulder cautioned the back of her trench coat. “Scully, I’d like what’s behind door number two.”
“Sorry, Monty.” Her voice and flashlight beam moved away. “There’s been a fire. If we disturb that door, the wall may collapse.”
He still studied the burnt wall. “We don’t have to open it. The doorjamb’s holding the wall. All I need to do is knock a hole in the door.”
She’d reached the middle of the room. “Please reference my previous statement.” He heard metal screech against the floor; she’d pushed something out of the way.
“Easy,” he repeated. Mulder frowned and went after her. “Let me get it.”
In the center of the ward, his flashlight beam found a narrow path between the jumble of beds, but no Scully. He swept the light side-to-side. Empty beds. Dust. Chunks of plaster from the ceiling. No diminutive partner. “Scully!”
From a few yards behind him and to his left, she answered, “What? I’m fine, Mulder.” He whirled and pointed the light at the charred door. Scully squinted and shielded her eyes. “Why are you yelling?”
His skin prickled. She’d been ahead of him. Seconds ago, maybe fifteen feet ahead of him. He’d heard her footsteps, seen her light. Even if she changed her mind about the fire-damaged door, she couldn’t have backtracked. Not that quickly. Not without passing him or crawling over the traffic jam of creaky beds. “Scully?”
“There’s been a fire.” She used the same pedantic tone. “If we disturb this door, the wall may collapse.”
He hoped his body possessed sufficient blood volume to compensate for a spike in cardiac need, because his heart tried to come out of his chest. “Scully, you-” He swung the flashlight to illuminate the far end of the room, where she should be. Then back to the blackened wall, the closed door, and his nonplussed partner. The French term was déjà vécu: the crossroads of vivid déjà vu and precognition. An eerie recognition, but also an unexplained certainty of what happened next.
He felt certain if he’d been a second slower in locating her, he wouldn’t have.
He kept the light on Scully. “We- We don’t have to open it. The doorjamb’s holding the wall. I could just knock a hole in the door.”
“Please reference my previous statement, Mulder.” Her flashlight pointed at the open door. “Try this way.”
He saw the same narrow path between rusted beds. One footboard has fallen, blocking the way but easily movable. He’d just heard her push that footboard aside.
“Scully, you weren’t over there a second ago.”
He heard a sigh. “Then where the hell was I? A day spa?” She walked over, stepped around him, and ordered, “Let’s go, Mulder. The faster I’m out of this place, the better.”
He agreed wholeheartedly.
He stayed close as he followed her, keeping within arm’s reach. Unfortunately, her bravado was short-lived. She let him move the footboard aside, took a few more steps, then stopped at the last bed, leaning against it. He opened the pack and offered one of the canteens. She took it without objection. After a moment, she said tiredly, “I’m sorry.”
“You’re sorry you have cancer? Please don’t make me feel like even more of an ass.” He put a hand on her shoulder to ensure she didn’t teleport again, then he pointed his flashlight in the direction they’d entered. Like the walls in the hall, the shadows in this room felt too close. “Is there anything I can do?”
She shook her head. “I just need fluids, rest, and to keep my heartrate low.”
A dark form slid out of the charred wall. A second followed. Whatever evil had tried to take her from him now adopted a more direct approach.
In a carefully calm voice, Mulder suggested, “Let’s find someplace you can rest.” Whatever moved, it kept moving closer. His skin prickled. Heartrate low, heartrate low, he chanted in his head. He put his hand on her shoulder again. “Come on. Maybe there will be a Snickers.”
The two shadow creatures had empty gray eyes. He heard the wheelchair again.
Still slouched against an ancient headboard, she leaned her forehead against his chest. “This sucks, Mulder.”
Beside the charred wall, the semi-transparent form of a young teen girl in a long nightgown hung with a rope around her neck. Her bare feet dangled inches above the floor. Her face had swollen and darkened. The body rotated a few degrees. Urine and feces soiled the nightgown. Mulder smelled the corpse rotting and the human waste. The rope above her head attached to nothing.
Behind him, the wheelchair inched forward.
His hand shook as he stroked Scully’s hair. He considered just manhandling her, but that risked frightening her or another nosebleed. He kept looking right to left, right to left. From the open door to the encroaching shadows and back again. “It’s gonna be okay.”
A pale little hand eased around the edge of the door. Then a head peered through. A small child in ragged shorts gestured for them to approach. The kid was skinny and no more than six. The same size Mulder had spotted in the rear courtyard earlier, and in an upstairs window. Bald. With an oddly flat, upturned nose. The child’s lips pursed and its brow furrowed with an urgent expression. It made the gesture again.
It did not giggle. Nor did a second and third identical child, who approached behind the first, find anything amusing about the situation. They stood in the dim doorway, making synchronized, serious ‘come on’ gestures.
An invisible freezer door opened. The air around Mulder turned frigid.
“Let’s go,” he said firmly, and steered Scully toward the door.
Light footsteps scampered away. When Mulder looked, the children had vanished.
The wheelchair eek, eek, eeked in the shadows. Near the charred wall, a rafter creaked at the weight of the hanged girl. The room smelled like a shallow grave. Mulder kept Scully in front of him and flashlight pointed ahead, since glancing back did him no good.
The hem of his pant leg snagged as if he walked through briars. Then the other cuff. After the old bedframes, the way was clear. The fabric caught on something else. And again. He saw nothing on the floor. Another tug, like a tailor adjusting the fabric. Then fingers encircled his ankle.
Mulder jerked away and hurried Scully through the doorway to the next room. The floor felt gritty. He turned and looked down. Someone had poured a line of salt or sugar across the threshold and around the edge of the room they’d entered.
His money was on salt. Protective circles of salt or chalk dated back centuries. Spirits, benign or malevolent, couldn’t cross.
The icy-fingers-on-his-neck sensation stopped. Nothing grabbed at his ankles or creaked or smelled like anything other than a decaying old building. Taking a deep breath felt easier. They stood in a hallway. Mulder exhaled and shined his flashlight around. The area looked more like an office building, less like a hospital. An administrative section. The doors had frosted glass windows, and wooden chairs dotted a narrow hallway. Rusted, mid-century light fixtures dangled from the bowed ceiling.
Mulder picked a chair, made sure it wouldn’t collapse, and put Scully in it. She leaned forward and pressed a palm to her forehead. She still held the canteen but didn’t lift it to drink. His heartrate slowed from panicked-we’re-gonna-die-now to merely terrified-we’re-gonna-die-soon.
“Sixteen kids, Scully.” Mulder set the pack on the chair beside her and took another deep breath. He pointed his flashlight at an office door. His hand still shook. The stencil on the glass read ‘Mr. Thurston Wood’ and beneath that ‘Admissions.’ “Eight boys, eight girls. Where have we seen that before?”
She spoke as if supplying a line. “The Litchfield Experiments.”
“Exactly. The Adams and Eves. Genetically stronger, smarter, paranormal children. I think the locals have it right: after this place shut down as an asylum, the government took over and performed some sort of genetic experiments, producing the children they call squallies.”
“I thought the squallies wanted to eat us, Mulder.”
He examined the next door, and checked in the other direction. His flashlight beam found ‘Mrs. Donna Moore, Records.’ Then, barely legible, ‘Dr. Clarence Steele, Research.’ The thin line of salt continued down each side of the hall, crossing each threshold.
Mulder and Scully had entered via the ground floor at the back of the building. Somehow, this hallway had concrete stairs descending into darkness. The office door closest to the steps was stenciled with ‘Dr. Victor Klemper, Director.’
Mulder said, “Bingo. Look.”
Scully raised her head. “Dr. Klemper immigrated under Operation Paperclip after World War II. His genetic experiments were Cold War-era. He couldn’t have been here long before this hospital shut down for good.”
“I think you’re right.” Mulder shone the flashlight at the room they’d just exited. The beam didn’t penetrate the darkness as far as it should. “But I also think, even before Dr. Klemper, something very, very bad happened here.”
She sounded tired. “I’m sure many, many very bad things happened here.”
“This place is evil. Angry. Can’t you feel it?”
Her chair creaked. “Aside from the deplorable conditions, prisons and mental hospitals were once seen as opportunities for research on a disposable population. In medical school, we learned techniques developed during the 1950s dermatology studies in Philadelphia’s Holmesburg Prison, all of which would be considered highly unethical, if not illegal, today. In the 1960s, children at Willowbrook Hospital on Staten Island were used in hepatitis experiments without their parents’ knowledge. In New York’s Creedmoore Hospital, a doctor studied the results of electroshock therapy on children with autism, some as young as three years old. These places don’t have a good track record, Mulder.”
A window at the end of the long hall overlooked the rear courtyard. In Mulder’s mental map, the window should face another direction. “This place has an awful big cemetery. If this hospital opened in the 1880s, why were all the grave markers placed about the same time?”
She sat back in the chair with a weary groan. “A flu outbreak. Smallpox.”
“All of them?”
“Maybe the original markers were replaced. Churches and civic organizations raise money to put modern markers on old graves all the time.”
He shook his head. “That’s not it. Scully, what happened to the patients when the old asylums closed?”
The water in the canteen sloshed. “Some were sent home to their families. Others went to other hospitals. Some were put out on the streets.”
“There’d be records of that, right?”
“Probably. If the records are still-”
An old red rubber ball rolled lazily out of the darkness. The little ball passed their feet and bounced down the stairs. Mulder followed the ball with his light. He heard six bounces, a pause, then six more. The concrete stairs looked intact – and preferable to the circle of hell in the room they’d just exited. A line of salt had been poured down each side of each step.
Mulder pointed his flashlight at his own face and gave her a ‘provide a scientific explanation for that, Dr. Scully’ look.
“A raccoon?” she guessed. “Either that, or it rolled out of some rats’ nest. Rodents collect all sorts of items, and raccoons are famously dexterous.”
Now his eyebrows rose in disbelief. “Really, Scully? Raccoons?”
“Their paws resemble human hands,” she explained patiently, “yet are actually similar to a weasel or ferret. Raccoons are often observed meticulously washing their food or manipulating small objects.”
“Junior’s gonna come out lookin’ like George Clooney,” Mulder responded sarcastically.
Mulder felt a kinship to some long-deceased file clerk who’d toiled away for decades, unappreciated in his or her basement office. The asylum didn’t have a basement as such, but a lowest, least-used level. The office equivalent of Timbuktu. Where they send employees who hit on the boss’s wife, or announce aliens are among us and/or the government is against us.
At the base of a flight of crumbling steps, and down a narrow, windowless hall decorated with rusting pipes, forgotten boxes, and spiders’ webs, the red ball rested in front of a nondescript wooden door marked ‘Archives.’ The knob turned but like the others, the door had warped and swollen shut. The surrounding walls looked stable and the doorjamb intact. Mulder gave Scully a questioning look. She nodded.
He crashed the door inward with his shoulder, then kicked it open. When the cloud of dust settled, Scully’s flashlight beam found a row of old wooden card catalogues. Ancient filing cabinets. Shelves on the other side of the cramped room held large leather bound books. Faded gold letters on each spine indicated the year. 1880, 1881 on the bottom shelf. 1913, 1914 at waist level. The highest shelf started with 1940 and ended with 1951 tipped sideways.
“Admission records,” Scully said immediately. Her light moved around the room. “Those are probably contact cards and patient files.”
Mulder found a low, wobbly stool. “You sit; I’ll hunt.”
“Do you even know what you’re hunting for?” Her lack of objection to being sidelined was a clue to her condition. This was a pit-stop, Mulder told himself. On the way through the hospital. Another place for Scully to rest. Then they were getting out and getting her to a real hospital. She reminded him, “Even if this facility only housed a few hundred children at once and each patient spent five years here, over the course of eighty years, that equals more than three thousand files.”
“I don’t need to check all three thousand files. I just need to find the records of the last patients before the government took over.” He’d already dropped the pack, tucked his flashlight beneath his chin, and jerked a drawer of the card catalogue open. “I want to see where those children went.”
He thumbed through the yellowed cards. White, Annabelle. No. 10748. Born: March 21, 1932. Admitted: April 13, 1937. Age: 5. Condition: Idiocy. After that, the card recorded the child’s parents and their address. The bottom line listed how Annabelle White might have left the asylum: Recovered, Discharged, Transferred, Died. Annabelle had an X beside Transferred and a notation January 9, 1943, Smithfield Psychiatric Hospital.
Claude, Patrick. No. 10881. Born: November 14, 1935. Admitted: January 8, 1938. Age: 2. Condition: Epilepsy. Recovered, September 11, 1947.
Green, Lizzie. No. 11005. Born: Unknown. Admitted: October 31, 1939. Age: approximately 4. Condition: Mongoloid. No parents’ name or address. Transferred: February 1, 1951, New Orleans City Insane Asylum.
He took Lizzie Green’s index card to a filing cabinet with the drawers organized by the patient’s assigned number. File 11005 held a black and white photograph of a small girl with Down syndrome, and about ten pages of old-fashioned medical records. Mulder tried patient 10881. Another black and white photo, another set of hand-written doctor’s notes.
Scully was right. The cards and drawers and files stretched back eighty years. Mulder could spend months sorting through them.
His partner sat on the stool, sipping from the canteen and looking tired. Mulder wore the filthiest T-shirt in history, suit pants, muddy dress shoes, and wet socks. To him, the air in the room felt comfortable. Scully had her trench coat tied closed.
He checked his wristwatch. He’d give it ten minutes. Odds were, whoever ran the hospital in 1951 was dead. After forty-six years, many of the patients’ parents were dead. If Mulder could figure out what happened in ten minutes, he would. Otherwise, Scully’s health took precedence.
He grabbed the 1951 ledger from the top shelf. He opened the cover and hit pay-dirt: a patient census. Hatfield, Judy, age 9, No. 11056, Mental Deficiency. He checked the card for patient no. 11056. Hatfield, Judy was admitted as a three-year-old, had no parents or home address, and died May 12, 1951.
Cooper, Moses, age 11, No. 11057, Epilepsy. Moses, noted as ‘Negro’ arrived at age 6, had a mother and father but no home address, and died. May 12, 1951.
Natchez, Susan, age 6, No. 11061, Cripple. Arrived at age 4, had two parents in Sarasota, and transferred to the St Petersburg Home for Crippled Children and Orphans May 9, 1951.
Jones, Jonathon, age 5, No. 11065, Childhood Schizophrenia. ‘Illegitimate.’ Arrived in 1946, had no father listed. And died May 12, 1951.
Evans, Sue, age 7, No. 11068, Mental Deficiency. Her card listed two parents and a local address. Discharged to her parents’ care May 3, 1951.
Mulder’s half of the granola bar had worn off long ago. His stomach growled, his neck and shoulders ached, and his eyes stung from lack of sleep. He smelled bad. Still, an excited flutter grew in his abdomen. The game, as the bard wrote and the great detective quoted, was afoot.
He ripped out the index cards of the three children who died May 12, 1951, and yanked open the ancient filing cabinet. Patient 11057’s file contained a photograph of a black boy with a twisted torso and gaunt limbs bent at odd angles. The feet pointed like a ballet dancer’s, but his hands bent at a right angle from his wrists.
“Can you decipher this?” Mulder thrust the old file at Scully and reached for patient 11065. Another photo of a child with a withered, tortured body. “This doesn’t look like epilepsy or autism to me, Scully. What’s wrong with these kids?”
Her flashlight scanned the picture, then pages. “Polio.” She leafed through the file. “This indicates he suffered grand mal seizures but was otherwise healthy. No mention of contracting polio.” She checked again. “In 1949, the doctor mentions participation in the ‘the project’ and notes ‘outcome was unsatisfactory.’”
“What was his cause of death?”
Paper rustled. “There’s none listed. That’s odd. There’s not even a death certificate. Mulder, I’d swear on the Bible that this child’s a polio survivor. That’s acute flaccid paralysis.”
“That happens to a lot of guys.” He continued rummaging, but seized a golden opportunity for juvenile sarcasm. “Not me, of course, but other guys.”
Her voice said flatly, “Mulder, I know several tasteless, odorless substances I can drop in your coffee and ensure it happens to you. Numerous times. Over the course of days. Provided your heart doesn’t stop.”
He turned and aimed his light in her direction. “That’s not funny, Scully.”
She assured him, “I can restart your heart,” sweetly and with an enigmatic smile.
He frowned and gave her Jones, Jonathon.
Mulder opened Hatfield, Judy. From the photo, little Judy had suffered one of the genetic disorders Scully could rattle off. Her limbs had a withered, twisted askew look. Her chart reflected participation in ‘the project’ in 1949 and that the ‘outcome was unsatisfactory.’
He showed the photo to Scully. “Polio?”
“Yes. See the flexion-abduction contractures of their hips and the equinus deformity of the ankles?”
Mulder understood only half of the words in that sentence, but he trusted her judgment. “When did Salk develop the polio vaccine?”
She continued leafing through the files. “Dr. Salk’s field trials began in 1955 and polio was virtually eradicated in the United States by 1961.”
“No, when and how did he first test his vaccine?”
She looked up. “In 1952. He injected a disabled boy in an institution in New York with his vaccine. When the child remained healthy and developed immunity, nineteen other children were vaccinated. Dr. Salk’s work wasn’t shoddy or secret, Mulder. It was funded by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.”
Mulder studied the little girl’s photo. He pursed his lips. “Anybody try before Salk?”
Pages rattled. “Dozens of virologists, pathologists. A safe, effective polio vaccine was the Holy Grail of medicine in the first half of the twentieth century. In the mid-1930s, a well-regarded doctor in New York began administering what he’d deemed a safe vaccine, but ten children died of polio and others suffered permanent paralysis. The doctor was disgraced.”
Mulder rested his forearms atop the open drawer of musty files. “If I’m a doctor in Nowhere, Florida, in 1949, and I develop a polio vaccine and test it on disabled children, and it gives them polio or kills them, what do I do?”
Scully opened the second file he’d given her. “You keep it quiet. Odds are, no one will ever know.”
“Exactly.” He nodded. “And what do I do when someone wants to shut down my hospital and send those test subjects elsewhere? Expose my mistake to the world?” He paused. “This place has a big cemetery, Scully.”
“You think the doctor here killed his patients?”
He nodded again.
Her head tilted at an angle that meant rebuttal. “I can list a dozen reasons for these children having the same date of death, and none involve homicide. There could have truly been a polio outbreak.”
“But the files make no mention of polio, and those photos are of living children. Polio isn’t what killed them.” He handed her a third file. “Wouldn’t a polio outbreak have been reported to the local health department? How much do you wanna bet this one wasn’t?”
He ripped the census page from the 1951 ledger and began cross-checking names and patient numbers. He rooted halfway through another child’s file before he noticed she hadn’t answered.
“Scully?” He pointed his flashlight at the stool near the doorway. The files remained open on her lap. She had her fingertips to her forehead and a pained expression. “You okay? Do you need to lie down?”
His ten minutes were up. Mulder had his answer. Or, at least, a working hypothesis. What he lacked was proof. Of a horrible crime no one cared about anymore.
She inhaled and lowered her hand. Her head shook ‘no.’ She looked from him to the filing cabinet, then back to Mulder. After a second, she instructed, “Show me the files of children whose patient number is in between two children in the project. Then, show me the patient censuses for the decade before the hospital closed.”
Mulder jerked patients 11062 and 11063 out of the filing cabinet. Then 11058. He piled those folders on her lap and returned to the shelves. In the interest of time, he ripped the census pages from the 1950 ledger, too, tossed the book aside, and grabbed 1949. Once he’d defaced back to 1941, he gave the pile to Scully. The stack on her lap reached her waist. “Find me something that will convince a judge to let me exhume a couple of those graves,” he requested. “I’ll bet my next paycheck that no child in this facility died of natural causes on May 12, 1951.”
Her flashlight moved slowly down a page. Another page. Another.
He held his breath.
A rat scampered in the hallway. His watch ticked. Paper rustled. Dust floated through his flashlight beam, which had begun to dim.
He exhaled when he got lightheaded.
By the fifteenth page, he’d begun to fidget. He pushed the file drawers closed and stood beside Scully, reading over her shoulder.
She scanned page four of 1949.
“Is this what it’s like to be my partner?” he asked finally. “Like the nerdy kid in fifth grade who knows all the answers and lives for the moment the teacher calls on him?”
Scully opened a file, but didn’t look up. “I was that kid, Mulder.”
“So was I.” He leaned against the filing cabinet beside her. “Don’t keep me in suspense. Tell me what you’re looking for. And more importantly, if you’ve found it.”
“First, I’m ascertaining the hospital’s yearly mortality rate, which spikes dramatically in 1949, then returns to roughly baseline in 1950 and 1951.” Now she leafed through another file she’d requested. “Secondly, since I presume patient numbers were assigned as the children were admitted to the asylum, I’m checking the outcome of contemporary patients not listed in the 1951 census – meaning they were discharged, transferred, or died.”
“These three died. Their files record the patient’s participation in ‘the project’ in 1949, and ‘outcome unsatisfactory.’ Cause of death in 1949: respiratory failure secondary to poliomyelitis.” She looked up. “There’s no notation of a polio outbreak being reported to the local health department, and the official death certificates list pneumonia.”
“The hospital didn’t want anyone looking too closely.”
She nodded. “Less than 1% of children who contract polio suffer paralysis, and only about 5% of those children die when their respiratory muscles fail. Polio wasn’t particularly deadly, Mulder, just highly contagious among children. If this place had an outbreak, even with medically fragile children living in squalor, the mortality rate should be in the single digits.”
He leaned closer. “Don’t keep me guessing.”
“About one-third of the patients in the 1949 census aren’t listed in 1950. Of those who survived, I’d estimate at least half suffered severe paralysis. That’s not an outbreak, Mulder; that’s a faulty vaccine.”
“You think it’s enough to get an exhumation order?”
She nodded again, looking confident.
“Good work, Dr. Scully. Let’s get the hell out of here.” He unzipped the backpack and shoved in files and pages. She passed him the stack from her lap. The stool squeaked backward as she stood.
The files fit, but only if he took out his trench coat. The coat hit the floor, and he got the zipper closed. “Will an autopsy still be able to determine-”
Scully gasped. Mulder aimed his dying flashlight at her face. Blood covered her mouth and chin and fingers. She studied her raised hand, seeming stunned.
The butterflies in his belly became rocks. “Shit.” He dropped his flashlight on top of the filing cabinet, pinched her nose, and guided her back to the stool. “It’s okay,” he promised, which was a flat-out lie. Already, blood covered his hand and her neck. “Scully, what do I-” His voice broke. “What do I do?”
She pointed her flashlight to the hallway, then had him let go so she could pinch her nose. “Let me lie down,” she said nasally.
Moldy cardboard boxes and dusty crates littered the hall. The only open space was at the bottom of the steps. Mulder planned to help her up and walk her there. In reality, her feet probably never touched the ground. Over a century of dirt and fifty years of dust covered the cement floor. He laid her down anyway. Her flashlight thudded to the floor. She started to shiver.
He left her to run back for the pack, and grab his coat and flashlight. Her canteen. When he returned, she’d rolled to her side. Mulder held his flashlight with his teeth and covered her with his coat. He rolled one of the coat’s sleeves into a pad and tucked it beneath her head. Then he knelt beside her helplessly.
He’d seen bandanas in the backpack.
Hands trembling, he yanked the zipper open and fished inside the pack. He pulled out the bandanas, the second canteen, and the solar blanket.
Mulder wasn’t certain a solar blanket worked without the sun. He covered her with it anyway.
Her free hand reached out, touching his thigh. He took the flashlight out of his mouth and checked her face. Her pupils looked huge and her skin, gray. “It’s okay,” he repeated. “Let me take over.” He folded the bandana, put it over her nose, and pressed her nostrils shut. He left his flashlight on the floor near her head, on and aimed at them. Scully’s flashlight remained beside her where she’d dropped it, on and aimed at nothing.
The hand that found his felt cold and slippery with blood. Her eyelids lowered and fluttered open. Her teeth chattered.
“Just rest. It’s stopping,” he said, despite being unable to tell.
Her eyes closed. Her hand became limp.
“I’m right here. It’s gonna be fine.” He couldn’t tell if she heard him. “Rest.”
The shivering continued. He trembled, too. His hands, his abdomen. A horrible, helpless, painful quake.
He added a second bandana over the first. She breathed. Short, shallow breaths.
“I love you,” he said, and got no response.
He looked around desperately. The stairs behind Scully led to the offices. Her feet pointed toward the hospital archives and a dead end. In the other direction, after a line of salt, the hall became murky darkness.
Quick, light footsteps moved in the darkness at the top of the stairs. He shined his light up in time to see a blaze orange sleeping bag rolling lazily down toward them.
Scully might not hear him, but someone did.
Mulder had switched off both flashlights to save the batteries. The last time he’d checked, his watch indicated just past noon and that Scully had been unconscious almost twenty minutes. Neither number seemed reliable. They’d spent perhaps an hour navigating this decaying, possessed maze, and she’d slept an eternity.
If anything existed darker than the dark, he was sitting in it.
Once the nosebleed stopped, he’d zipped her inside the sleeping bag and, remembering the Indian Guides manual, wedged the backpack beneath her feet. Her shivering gradually subsided. But she didn’t move. An unsettling stillness descended as life awaited clarification from some higher authority. Mulder heard her breathing – slow and even and welcome – and another sound he told himself wasn’t a snake slithering. Other animals squeaked and scurried. Water dripped. His watch ticked and his stomach growled. The frightened, angry quake inside him continued.
The FBI chose Scully. A scientist with an IQ in the stratosphere, a forensic pathologist with all the right credentials. Despite the government’s intent to debunk and derail his work, Fate assigned Mulder a perfect counterpart. Uncompromising, incorruptible. Loyal to a fault. Ready to analyze or dissect or whatever it took to find a logical explanation for that which defied logic. He owed her everything.
She wasn’t fated to die here. She wasn’t fated to die in six months. Maybe in another sixty years, but not here or in six months.
His stomach complained again. Mulder refused to touch the remaining food or canteen in the pack. He sat beside Scully with his arms wrapped around his bent knees, and waited. He could carry her, but upstairs offered no exit, the archive room was a dead end, and evil oozed from the other direction of the dark hallway. If he explored on his own, she’d be gone when he returned. His temples pounded from gritting his teeth.
Every so often, something moved at the top of the stairs.
After staring in the direction of the noise for a while, Mulder called, “You understand that she’s sick. Isn’t there anything else you can do to help? Like show me how to get her out of here, maybe?”
He thought he saw small human forms, but couldn’t be certain. At this point, even the laws of physics could be swayed by exhaustion, fear, and the power of suggestion.
“This isn’t a game,” he barked at the stairs.
Scully shifted her feet. Or maybe her foot just slipped down from the backpack. Mulder grabbed her flashlight and switched it on. Her eyes remained closed. He’d cleaned her face but missed even more spots than last time.
“Scully? Can you hear me?”
He didn’t expect a response and he didn’t get one. He checked her pulse. She had one; his medical expertise ended at that.
Something scuffed against the rough cement high on the stairs. Then the same noise, a little lower. Again. It sounded like kids easing down the steps on their bottom. Bump. Slide. Bump. Slide. More than one child, but in unison. Mulder put a hand on his pistol.
Small, bare feet appeared on the third step from the bottom. The noises stopped.
A little hand extended out of the darkness, toward him. Offering something. Moving slowly, heart pounding, Mulder got to his knees and reached over Scully. As a small cylindrical object fell onto his outstretched hand, the child dodged backward, into the shadows.
The chorus of giggling sounded nervous rather than mischievous.
When Mulder examined the gift, he chuckled tiredly. He held a Snickers candy bar. “Thanks. If she doesn’t die of hypovolemic shock, she’ll be thrilled.”
The little voices found that hilarious.
“You got a cure for cancer up there?”
“There are other projects. Other children like you.” He moved the flashlight beam up the steps until he found three pairs of little feet. “Are you all Adam or Eve, or do you have names?”
A hand lowered into the light, holding up four fingers. Above the next set of feet, five fingers. The feet on the right: seven.
“Four, Five, and Seven,” he said. “Special Agent Fox Mulder, FBI. Pleased to meet you.” He aimed the beam at Scully’s sleeping face. “This is my partner, Scully.”
Moving with the synchronicity of barn swallows, the three bare-chested little children eased down another step for a closer look. They appeared identical and, except for the odd noses, pale skin, and baldness, like slim, healthy five or six-year-old humans.
They couldn’t be human children. The project shut down forty years ago. Whatever they were, it wasn’t kids.
Mulder pointed the light at the steps. “Are you all Adams?” He had a fifty-fifty shot, and his instinct said male.
The boys nodded in unison.
“Where are the others? Where are your sisters?”
With their left hand, all three boys pointed to the dark, foreboding hall.
Mulder played another hunch. “Are you the only ones left?”
Three bald heads nodded again.
“Did you make those stuffed kids in the ward? Are those your friends?”
More synchronized nodding. Moving as one, the boys descended another step. They leaned forward, studying Scully appreciatively.
“If I was that beautiful, would you bring me a Snickers? Or an ambulance?”
Again, hilarity. The boys covered their mouths and hunched their shoulders as they giggled.
“She needs a doctor,” Mulder told them.
As if Mulder hadn’t spoken, Adam Four inched forward, touched Scully’s auburn hair, then jerked his fingers back like he’d been burned. Four scurried back to Five and Seven to giggle behind their hands.
“Yeah.” Mulder sighed and sat back. He tossed the candy bar aside. “I love her, she’s thirty-two years old, and she’s dying. It’s a laugh riot.”
Now the three identical faces looked perplexed.
“Dr. Klemper’s dead.” Mulder wrapped his arms around his knees again, still holding the flashlight. “Your progenitor. He had a conveniently-timed heart attack a couple years ago after destroying an untold number of lives. In all likelihood, he had a hand in the experiments that caused her cancer.”
The perplexed expressions continued.
He took a weary breath. “You’re pilfering from hikers and campers and birdwatchers. You know how to find food and supplies.” He held out the nearly-empty canteen. “If you won’t show me the way out of here, would you find her some potable water? If she wakes up- When she wakes up, she’ll need fluids.”
Adam Four seemed to be the leader. He inched forward, snatched the canteen, and scurried back. In unison, the three boys stood, turned, and scampered up the stairs and into the darkness. Once their footsteps faded, Mulder turned the flashlight off again.
His watched ticked. Scully breathed. The rats made their rounds. Mulder rubbed his forehead with his fingertips as if he was the one with a tumor growing there. In the darkness, he put his hand on Scully’s shoulder, more to comfort himself than her. Their makeshift camp at the bottom of the stairs lacked the palpable evil of the wards upstairs. That made their situation only marginally less terrifying.
Wherever the boys went, it wasn’t far. The trio bump-bump-bumped down the steps on their backsides within minutes.
Mulder sat up straight and aimed the flashlight beam at them. If the squallies could get out and find water, Mulder could, too. He could carry Scully and follow them. Drinkable water meant a stream, and streams led somewhere. Or a well or faucet, which meant civilization. The kids stayed alive somehow. That meant he and Scully could, too.
The three boys looked as proud as pale peacocks, but Adam Seven – provided they remained in the same order - got the honors. The boy held out a little glass vial.
Mulder’s hopes and shoulders fell. “Water. She needs fluids.” He eased the pack from beneath Scully’s feet and unzipped it. He showed them the remaining canteen. He shook it so the water sloshed. “Water.” The full canteen met the floor with an angry thump. “H-two-O. Agua. She needs water. More Gatorade would also be acceptable.”
Four and Five seemed puzzled. Seven continued offering the glass tube.
“Where’s the bottle I gave you?” None of the boys had the empty canteen. “What did you do with it?”
Their posture didn’t change, nor did their expression.
“Damn it. Okay.” Mulder took the vial. “Thanks. That’s about as helpful as the candy bar.”
In unison, the boys pointed to the back of their neck.
“I don’t understand.”
They repeated the gesture, then pointed to Scully.
Mulder inspected the vial with his flashlight. A typed label read ‘MN 1068,’ which meant nothing to him. A bit of metal half the size of a BB floated in some clear liquid. “What is this?”
The same synchronized movements. Back of the neck. Scully.
“Is it a microchip?” He couldn’t tell without a microscope. “Yes, she found a microchip in the back of her neck. It was placed there during her abduction. It’s been removed. Where did you get this?”
Back of the neck. Scully.
Mulder threw up his hand. “Yes. A microchip. Thank you. Now she has a set. I’ll have them made into earrings for her birthday.”
Back of the neck. Scully.
“Put it in her neck?” he guessed. “What’s that gonna do? Where’d you get this?”
Instead of answering, the boys turned and ascended the old steps in perfect unison.
Mulder examined the floating little speck with his light again. It could be a microchip. Or a bit of metallic paint. He shoved it in the pack, regardless.
Scully inhaled. The sleeping bag rustled. He left the flashlight balanced on the pack, shining roughly on the two of them.
He touched her face. “Hey, partner.”
Her eyes opened. A very soft, “Hey.” She stayed frighteningly still.
Mulder got the canteen and held it so she could drink. He used what spilled to make a clean spot on her face. “You missed out on all the action. I saw squallies. Adams Four, Five, and Seven. We were right. Klemper created them.”
She seemed to lack the energy to nod or argue.
He had her sip again. A straw would be nice. So would an ER doctor.
“Are you up for chewing?” He showed her the candy bar.
She asked, “Mulder, where’d you get that?” barely audible.
“My three new pint-sized, genetically-modified, follically-challenged friends.” He opened the wrapper, bit a little piece off the end, and gave that piece to her. They’d exchanged far more intimate bodily fluids lately and it made eating less effort on her part.
The Snickers bar tasted fresh.
Another sip of water, another tiny bite. He licked his teeth. As she chewed, he held the bar up to the flashlight. It should taste fresh. According to the date stamped on the wrapper, this candy bar was best consumed by April 2000.
Mulder got them lost in the Everglades and trapped in a collapsing, haunted old mental hospital. She’d lost her sister. Scully’s career was the same joke as his. If removing the microchip implanted during Scully’s abduction had caused her cancer – her work with Mulder had caused her abduction. She’d folded her arm beneath her head as a pillow, drank maybe a quarter of the canteen of water, and swallowed six tiny bites of the candy bar of the future. That took ten minutes and resulted in a nap.
As Mulder waited, he used his fading flashlight and saved the battery on hers.
Once her eyes opened again, she didn’t move. Even her breathing sounded tired. So logically, she used her strength to ask, “Mulder, when was the last time you peed?”
He’d been fiddling with the backpack in the darkness, unzipping and zipping it, needlessly adjusting the straps and buckles. “What?”
“Urinated. Peed. When was the last time?”
“Uh, this morning.” He worried his mouth. “Scully, I know my VHS collection reflects an adventurous spirit, and you’re hot as hell, but I’m not sure I’m down for that.”
He smirked and zipped up the pack. “I’ll get right on that.”
“What are you gonna do if I don’t?” He set the pack aside and scooted closer to her. “Beat me up?”
The sleeping bag rustled. Her right hand touched his leg, then found his hand. He interlaced their fingers, gave the back of her hand a kiss, then just sat with her. She wouldn’t be walking out of this hospital. He’d be carrying her. Carrying her where, and through what, and to what remained in question.
He couldn’t leave her on the floor forever. She needed a doctor. An IV. To cauterize whatever in her sinus kept bleeding, if possible. Moving her risked another nosebleed. Even if he found a way out – a way out to what? They had no shelter, no vehicle, and no way to call for help. He’d listened this morning, and now for over an hour as he sat with Scully, and never heard a car or a plane.
No matter what he did, it was wrong.
Her hand squeezed his. “Tell me about the boy,” she whispered.
Again, he responded, “What?”
“The boy in your dream.” She paused to take a breath. “Your son.”
Mulder swallowed dryly. “He’s, he’s- I don’t know. He’s six or seven. Maybe fifty pounds. Brown hair, hazel eyes. Wearing blue swim trunks, flip-flops.”
“You’re not putting out an APB, Mulder.”
Now he took a slow breath. “He has your features, but my coloring. His nose and cheeks are sunburned. The breeze blows his hair. The sun must be behind my back, because he squints when he looks at me. When he gets close, he smells like sunscreen and the ocean, and kinda like you. It’s early evening; I see the long shadows. We’ve been at the beach all day. I’m getting tired, but he has the same boundless energy I did at his age. There is no dissuading him.”
He barely heard when she asked, “You’re building a sandcastle?”
Mulder pictured the dream, trying to recall every detail. “We’re building something out of sand. Something huge. I can’t see what it is, but it’s big enough that he can climb on top. The top part is intricate, but the sides are still just smooth sand. I’m sitting near the shore, filling buckets, and he’s hauling them up there and dumping them out. Over and over. I’m ready for dinner and a beer, and it feels like we’re gonna empty the beach before he runs out of steam. Every so often, though, he stands atop whatever we’re building and looks down at me, so proud. He smiles, and it’s your smile. So I keep filling those buckets.”
“I bet you do.” She squeezed his hand again and whispered, “Someday. You’ll get to meet him.”
“Scully…” He worried his mouth. “I understand I’m almost forty hours belated on this - and I don’t want this held against me in a court of law - but I’m not particularly eager to meet him. I have pressing questions about extraterrestrial visitation of our planet and our government’s collusion in that visitation. I want to know about those files we found in the Strughold Mining Company and the bodies I saw on the Navajo reservation. Why innocent people are being abducted and experimented on, and what the hell is in that black oil. I want to find out what happened to my sister. Then, maybe I’ll get around to spending a day at the beach with a kid. Right now, I still have seven weeks’ paid vacation and no intention of using it.”
In the weak light from the dying flashlight, very softly, she reminded him, “Someday.”
Her hand remained in his, but grew limp. When he checked, her eyes had closed.
“Scully,” he said sharply.
She made an “um” sound. After a second, she said, “Mulder, I need an ambulance. I need you to find a phone and call 911.”
“That’s a wonderful idea.” He loomed over her with the dim flashlight. “Would you happen to know the location of a working phone?”
She whispered, “You go. Get help.”
“Not without you. We’re both getting out of here,” he informed her. “I’m getting you to a hospital, and you’re going to be fine.”
Her second “um” sounded skeptical.
He stood and scanned the area with the flashlight. The beam died, resurrected a moment when he smacked the side of the light, and then faded to really-most-sincerely-dead. He switched to Scully’s light.
His choices remained the same. Left to a dead end, up the stairs to nothing, and right down the hall, across that line of salt, and to God alone knew what. Something slithered. Something scampered. But whatever evil waited in the darkness beyond that salt line silently licked its lips and bided its time.
Mulder gathered the pack, the canteen and candy, and his resolve.
He heard the familiar scuff, bump, scuff, bump of three small children sliding down the steps. He aimed the light at them. “Tell me you brought a medevac from 2003. A fully staffed and equipped ER from 1989, even.”
The Adams continued their synchronized slide until they sat on the second step from the bottom. Again, they seemed pleased with themselves.
“Gatorade?” If he could get her to wake up and drink. “Maybe an exorcist and some holy water?”
Adam Four showed him a white plastic shaker of salt. The disposable kind people took on picnics.
Mulder’s eyebrows rose. “That’s a start.”
Adam Five, in the middle, had an identical shaker.
“You two pour; I carry?”
Three bald heads nodded.
“That sounds like a plan.”
Adam Seven held out a hand and looked at the flashlight. Mulder handed it over. He slung the pack over his shoulder and slid his arms beneath Scully’s cocoon of sleeping bag and trench coats and a solar blanket. She was semi-conscious. She put an arm around his neck, making distributing her weight easier.
“I’m getting you out of here,” Mulder told her. Then, to the squallies, “Lead on, boys.”
Seven held the flashlight and walked two steps ahead of Mulder. Beside Seven, Four and Five had the plastic saltshakers. When they reached the line of salt across the hall, all three paused and looked back.
Mulder got a good grip on Scully. He nodded.
Adam Seven stepped over the line. Immediately, on his left and right, Four and Five began pouring salt on either side of the hall. They moved so fast Mulder walked quickly to keep up.
He thought the salt had to form a protective circle, not parallel lines. Maybe the idea was to stay ahead of the ghosts, though. Keep evil from oozing out of the walls as they passed.
Scully’s head rested against his chest. He couldn’t hear her breathing over his own, but it didn’t matter. He wasn’t stopping and he wasn’t putting her down.
He’d guessed correctly. The claustrophobic hall ended in a second line of salt and an open, echoing room. An old gym, from the wooden floors. The boys stopped pouring. They turned and put a finger to their lips, signaling him to be quiet. As soon as Mulder stepped over the threshold, he saw why.
Along the edge of the room, a gray girl in a long nightgown stood with her nose to the peeling wall. Every few feet, he saw another girl. Except each girl floated a yard above the floor. Their long, tangled hair didn’t move. The ragged fabric of their gowns didn’t move. They just hung there in an eternal, ghostly time-out.
A line of salt already ringed the room, which had to be the boys’ doing. The girls’ ghosts must be attached to this room, somehow. They couldn’t get through the walls, but they couldn’t get at Mulder or the squallies, either.
He kept walking. The salt circle didn’t stop everything. The room felt like the Arctic, and old, pent-up fury pressed against him. He dreaded what would happen if he scuffed a gap in that thin white line.
Mulder followed Seven’s flashlight. The boys moved quickly and lightly. Mulder’s steps sounded like he stomped. One of the dead girls turned her head, watching with her dead eyes.
Mulder tried to tread lighter. A second girl’s head pivoted. A third. Each moved like the jerky robotic animals at Chuck E. Cheese. Creepy on a good day, in good light. Nightmarish under any other circumstances.
A fourth girl. Now the whole wall of girls – ten or twelve – faced Mulder. They floated far above the floor and just inside the salt line. In unison, and like a clockwork toy, their heads turned and their black eyes tracked him.
He saw the far wall and a doorway. Girls lined that wall, too. Tattered nightgowns, dangling feet, long tangled hair.
Every movement had been jerky, but the dozens of ghosts’ mouths opened easily. They screamed. All of them. Angry, deafening shrieks. They rose higher, still howling, desperate to get out. To get at Mulder and the boys. The girls couldn’t reach them, but their fury could. It clawed at him like hands reaching out of a portal to Hell.
At the door, he made damn sure to step over, not on, the line of salt.
The boys entered a treatment area. Or what passed as treatment, in 1880. A dozen filthy, claw-footed bathtubs. Rusting iron rings on the walls. A couple ancient exam tables. An overturned wheelchair. But no ghosts or demons or whatever haunted the previous room.
Mulder stopped, heart pounding, lungs desperate, arms aching. He wasn’t putting Scully on the ground or in one of those tubs, but he eased her onto a table. She’d been dead weight before they’d entered the gym. But she still breathed, and she didn’t bleed.
The boys gestured – in unison – for Mulder to move forward. Pick her up and keep going.
On no sleep, minimal food, and pure terror, after a few minutes, 115 pounds got heavy.
Four, Five, and Seven waved him forward. Mulder took a big breath and slid his arms beneath her again.
She hadn’t gotten lighter. The solar blanket and sleeping bag must be weighing her down. Looking absolutely nothing like the romantic hero sweeping the beautiful woman off her feet, Mulder shifted and boosted her up awkwardly, trying to get a good grip.
He nodded for the boys to continue.
A line of salt began on each side of the next doorway and continued down a corridor, leaving a few feet of space between the line and each wall, and a four-foot wide safe zone down the middle. Overturned chairs and rusting metal drawers littered the floor. Crutches. Another wheelchair.
This time, the squallies had penned the ghosts of the polio survivors to the walls. Misty children with limbs twisted at bizarre angles crawled and dragged themselves along the cracked tiles. Cried helplessly. Moaned in pain. Begged. They moved back and forth, going nowhere. Pacing like broken animals at a zoo. Except animals’ shadows matched the animals’ movements. These tortured ghosts: their shadows moved on their own.
Four, Five and Seven waved him forward.
“You gotta be kidding me,” Mulder whispered.
He’d given up on making sense of the floorplan. He just followed the boys and the flashlight. Sometimes they poured salt, sometimes not. They’d turned right, left, navigated an abandoned ward and a medical clinic. They’d started out on the hospital’s lowest level and never gone up a flight of stairs, yet they’d crossed a room with light seeping through the ceiling. In the neighboring hallway, ferns and vines grew on the floor. He’d stepped on the tiny plastic brown dog again and, in another room, spotted the same toy on a rusting metal shelf. The dirty windows didn’t face the direction they should. He’d lost feeling in his arms ages ago. He could be carrying Scully through 1989 for all he knew.
Like the energetic boy in his dreams, the little squallies kept urging him to continue.
When they stopped, all Mulder cared about was that they’d stopped. And Scully continued breathing. And he could ease her down onto the floor without ghostly hands grabbing at them.
That something-long-dead smell returned.
He checked Scully over, and then rolled his shoulders. Groaned. When Mulder looked up, the boys pointed to a jagged hole in a wall of old red bricks.
“Is that the way out?”
All three heads shook side-to-side. Adam Seven shined the flashlight through the opening. Someone had neatly removed enough bricks to make a hole a man could stoop and step through. Mulder suspected the intent had been to replace the bricks; the loose ones remained stacked nearby. Along with an old, open bag of quicklime and an ancient pistol.
He eased away from Scully, doing his umpire-at-a-tennis-match impression again. Then, changing his mind, he picked her up, carried her a couple yards, and laid her down beside the wall. He kept a hand on her shoulder as he glanced through the hole.
Unless southern Florida had basements or brick silos, this had been a cistern. Seven’s flashlight beam moved around the interior. The cistern was dry. Mulder spotted the intact phalanges and metacarpal bones of a small hand. Another hand. Then a skull, facedown, missing the upper back. Child-size saddle shoes.
Mulder took the light from Seven, kept a hand on Scully, and looked again.
He started counting. Five. Eight. Ten. The children’s bodies had been dumped, not placed. He saw evidence of more execution-style headshots. Someone tossed the corpses through the opening in the bricks and gave them a dusting of quicklime, but most of the flesh rotted away long ago. That dead body smell: this wasn’t the source.
Any remaining skin wasn’t pale anymore, and the odd noses were long gone, but all the corpses were the same size, and none had hair. He saw six bodies in dresses and three in button-up shirts. The corpses beneath those on top – he could only spot skeletal feet, hands, or heads.
Added up, he counted thirteen children.
Mulder pointed the light at Adam Seven. “These are your brothers and sisters, aren’t they? You’re the only ones who survived.”
Three heads nodded.
He peered inside the cistern again. Then at the bricks and quicklime. “How’d you escape?”
Like synchronized swimmers, they pointed up. Mulder shone his flashlight at a wall above the opening.
He found the source of the smell.
Near the ceiling, a man’s badly decomposed body was pin-cushioned with old hypodermic needles and scissors and kitchen knives and scalpels and any other sharp implement the hospital might offer. The legs dangled and the arms extended outward, Christ-like. The corpse wore dress pants and a doctor’s lab coat. The decayed face lacked a nose. Mulder bet they’d cut it off. Ribs protruded from each side of the corpse’s back, creating the illusion of wings. A blood eagle. A slowly-rotting guardian angel.
The old Viking sagas extolled the blood eagle as a method of execution; open the back, cut the ribs free and pull the ribs and the lungs out. Leave the victim to die in agony. Much fixated upon by the sociopaths of the world, rarely executed.
He aimed the light at the boys. “Is this your work?”
All three beamed liked they’d just presented him with an A+ spelling test.
“You should meet your Litchfield cousins,” he commented. “They’re a little older, but you’d get along nicely. If they offer you something to drink, decline.”
They nodded solemnly.
He shrugged off the backpack and sank down beside Scully with a weary groan. “Your brothers and sisters aren’t the only ones who ended up like this. I found stacks of similar bodies in a railcar in the desert. The consortium of men who brought Klemper to the United States has funded all manner of horror. I’ve seen mute clones. Alien-human hybrids. They’re doing some sort of tests in Russia right now. Once the experiment’s finished or deemed failed, the subjects are disposable.” He nodded to Scully. “Case in point.”
The boys squatted down near her, studying her face.
“All she did was do her job. When we take an oath to put our lives on the line for the public-” He leaned his head back against the bricks. “-this isn’t what it’s supposed to mean.” Mulder stroked her shoulder. “Show me how to get her out of here.”
They seemed fascinated with Scully. The same way little boys became fascinated with bugs and tadpoles, and decided to keep them.
An awful realization trickled down Mulder’s spine. The cistern was the terminal destination. The squallies could leave anytime they liked, and never intended to show Mulder a way out. He’d hauled Scully through Hell to get absolutely nowhere.
“You wanted to show me what happened to you. To your brothers and sisters, and the kids before you.” Mulder put his other hand on the pack. “If you want people to know about you, about the polio experiments, I have proof. But I have to get out, and I’m not leaving without her.”
The squallies exchanged silent glances. They must communicate telepathically.
“I can keep you safe,” he offered, though three little creatures who could pin an adult man to a wall just below a ten-foot ceiling and perform a skilled vivisection didn’t need Mulder’s protection. “I told you, I’m an FBI agent. Do you know what that is?”
“Come with me, then. Show the world what Klemper did.”
More silent glances. Like they debated telepathically who got to pitch in a game of stickball.
Beneath his right hand, Scully’s shoulder rose and fell as she breathed. He checked his watch. Late afternoon. A few more hours and – if he found his way out – they’d be in the dark. Once the remaining flashlight died, he had no way to signal for help. He tried to think.
“They took your family from you, just like they took my sister.” Mulder leaned forward, taking a different tack. “I’ve only encountered one other set of Adams and Eves, but what I’ve seen has to be the tip of the iceberg. They’re out there: your brothers and sisters. Can you feel them?”
The boys nodded.
Mulder rolled his proverbial dice. “Then let’s go find them.”
The squallies liked the pretty FBI lady. The squallies liked playing tricks on the FBI agents and eavesdropping on kissing. But they also liked company. Having siblings. They liked knowing and telling secrets - hopefully, more than they enjoyed keeping Mulder and Scully as pets. It wasn’t a good bet, but he was too exhausted and numb to get his own brain to work, let alone crawl inside the mind of pint-sized genetically-modified, time-bending pranksters.
The kids did nothing. They didn’t even seem to blink.
As Mulder waited, he rubbed Scully’s shoulder. She mumbled his name.
After a moment, the boys stood in unison. Turned in unison. And walked away.
His heart sank.
Maybe, maybe - provided she didn’t teleport to another dimension the second he glanced away – he could lower Scully through the hole and into the cistern. It must be above ground level, and the drop wasn’t more than eight feet. He could lower her down six of those feet, and the corpses would break her fall. Maybe he could knock enough bricks loose in a wall to create an exit. Maybe, between hauling her down into the cistern and hauling her out, her nose wouldn’t start bleeding again.
The boys stopped. They gestured for Mulder to follow.
Mulder snatched the pack and scrambled up.
They assumed their usual formation. Mulder carried Scully. Adams Four and Five carried the salt. Seven got the flashlight again.
Mulder hadn’t noticed a door across the room. Or maybe it just appeared; he didn’t know anymore. The hinges creaked as Seven pushed it open. A rusted gurney stood in front of a cement tunnel that stretched farther than the flashlight beam reached. A line of salt crossed the threshold, a sign of nothing good.
One side of the tunnel had steps; the other was a smooth downward slope. The door had said ‘Maintenance,’ but Mulder knew what the tunnel was. Tuberculous hospitals had them. So did the old polio wards with rows of children in iron lungs and no hope of recovery. Anyplace that needed to remove a dead body from the building without alarming other patients. Modern hospitals had elevators and back hallways; old hospitals had these. A gurney bearing the corpse rolled down the slope and whoever accompanied it used the steps. The hearse met them at the bottom, outside. The orderlies called the tunnels ‘body chutes.’
Even standing outside it, Mulder heard ghostly voices whispering.
Adam Seven made the ‘follow me’ gesture.
his grip on Scully. “Seriously, are you just choosing the creepiest places
True demonic possession required a host and an invitation – which Mulder had no intention of being or extending. Many so-called demons were really dark spirits attached to an individual rather than a location. Even so, worst case scenario ended in an exorcism and getting covered in pea soup.
Poltergeists were rare and parasitic. They gleaned power from the living, usually older children or adolescents. At most, a table moved or hairbrush flew across the room. A window slammed and broke. Even the Amityville House only produced foul smells and oozed slime from the walls and hatched a swarm of flies. And a ghostly black pig with glowing red eyes. Unpleasant and messy, but not lethal.
True ghosts… Most experts in the paranormal considered ghosts a spiritual recording tethered to a certain time and place. Energy, but energy detached from the here and now. As such, ghosts couldn’t harm anyone.
Those experts had never encountered whatever concentrated evil coated the cement walls of the Naithlorendum Sanctuary’s body chute. For seventy or eighty years, the tunnel discharged small corpses newly separated from their confused or tortured souls at the end of a tragic, too-short life. Now, each spirit seemed trapped inside the body chute and very, very pissed off about it.
Shadows climbed the cement walls and skittered across the low ceiling. The whispers continued. Not words, but a hundred unintelligible voices all hissing and jabbering at once. Mulder’s breath formed white clouds in the frigid air. Every so often, something brushed the top of his head like a cat might brush against his leg. A very dangerous, wrathful demon cat. Twice, a jagged fingernail had grazed his cheekbone.
He stooped, kept a good grip on Scully, and walked faster.
Adam Seven led the way with the flashlight. Four and Five trotted just ahead of Mulder, each pouring a thin line of salt on either side of the tunnel. Mulder’s chest heaved and his shoulders and arms trembled. They’d descended at least the length of a football field, but the tunnel continued. He’d begun to wonder if it continued all the way to Hell.
He wondered about the capacity of those little plastic saltshakers. And what happened if the salt ran out.
Something scratched his left temple like he’d walked into a tree branch. Teeth chattered. A hiss above and behind him sprayed cold saliva on his neck. Icy hands continued brushing the top of his head, accompanied by a schizophrenic chorus of angry whispers.
He saw shadows boiling on the walls around him and a point of light in the distance.
As he followed the boys through the hospital, he’d shifted Scully’s limp body every way possible, holding her higher, then lower against his chest. Adjusting his arms. With his left arm beneath her shoulders rather than his right. Back to the original way. Now, as his arms shook, he considered putting her over his shoulder.
The circle of light widened.
If the bottom of the sleeping bag edged across the salt line on the floor, he felt little jerks, as if the fabric snagged on thorns. Half the floor of the tunnel was a smooth slope, just wide enough for a gurney. Equally narrow steps made up the other half. He couldn’t walk in the middle. He tried the slope. Within a half-dozen paces, Scully’s head snapped back as an invisible hand grabbed her hair.
Mulder yanked her away, boosted her higher against his chest, and went back to hurrying down the steps.
The cold hands and sharp nails resumed reaching down from the ceiling.
He saw green beyond the tunnel’s exit. Grass. Trees. He saw outside.
Ghostly hands continued plucking at the sleeping bag and Mulder continued walking. He stayed one step behind Seven, so close Five and Four hurried to keep up with their lines of salt. The two boys moved in perfect unison toward the end of the tunnel. Fifty more feet would put them outside.
The boy on Mulder’s right looked up, and Seven looked back. A saltshaker had emptied.
Their expressions indicated no one had thought to bring a spare.
The squallies ran for the exit. Flat out, their arms pumping and bare feet pounding against the cement. Mulder clutched the sleeping bag and ran after them. He couldn’t see what lashed at him, but he felt dozens of cold slaps. A car wash’s whirling brush of evil attacked him. The whispers became overlapping, incoherent screams. Hands grabbed at his ankles and at Scully. The shadows on the ceiling clawed at his face.
Seven dashed out the end of the tunnel. Then the other two boys. They stopped, turned, and gestured together for Mulder to hurry.
Fingers snatched at the back of his T-shirt. Teeth snapped closed near his ear and a jagged fingernail just missed his eye. An angry shadow grabbed the end of the sleeping bag hard enough to yank Mulder off-balance. He jerked away and stumbled over the line of salt across the threshold.
He didn’t drop Scully; he collapsed into the blinding sun and broke her fall. He felt the grass beneath his back and head before his eyes adjusted enough that he could see it. Once he let go of her, he squinted around at a wide, weedy lawn. The world swayed, but ahead, a straight lane stretched into the horizon, and the front of the hospital rose to his right. Directly behind Mulder, the shadows still rolled and whispered and plotted inside the tunnel, but couldn’t escape.
The boys lined up in their usual order – Four on the left, then Five, then Seven on the right, holding the flashlight. In the sun, their pale skin had a waxy look, and the short, downy white hair covering their heads glistened. Mulder’s lungs tried to come out of his chest and he felt faint, but the little squallies weren’t even out of breath. They squatted beside Scully and looked vaguely concerned.
Mulder shaded his eyes. She remained unconscious, eyes closed, head lolling to one side. Her nose didn’t bleed. The orange sleeping bag looked like Mulder had dragged it through a briar patch, but Satan’s minions hadn’t clawed her face or ripped out her hair.
He exhaled and leaned back on his hands. His heart pounded and his muscles were Jell-O. If the tunnel had been twenty yards longer, he and Scully would still be inside it.
The three boys continued their vigil, looking like the genetically-altered version of see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. Mulder blinked as his pupils caught up to the sunlight. He saw old stone benches and an overgrown fountain in front of the hospital. The pavement had cracked and buckled, and weeds had begun to take back the long driveway.
But the driveway led to a road. Mulder saw it. Directly in front of the hospital, perhaps an eighth of a mile away, he saw an honest-to-God road. He could carry her another eighth of a mile. Hell, he could drag her another eighth of a mile.
He inhaled and turned toward the orange cocoon with a shock of auburn hair at one end.
Scully’s lips were blue.
“No.” He scrambled to his knees. She’d been unconscious when they entered the body chute, but she’d been breathing. Now, her face grew grayer by the second. He jerked the sleeping bag’s zipper open and shoved aside the trench coats and solar blanket. Her chest and bare shoulders had the same corpse-gray tint.
After two tries, he found a pulse. Then he waited anxiously for an inhalation that didn’t come.
“Hey!” he barked. “Scully.” Mulder started to smack her cheek, but slapped his palm against her upper arm instead, afraid of another nosebleed. “Wake up. Breathe.” He jostled her shoulders roughly. “Scully. Hey. You need to breathe.”
Her lips turned the color of the sky just before an evening storm. They’d been in that tunnel two, maybe three minutes. He didn’t know when she’d stopped breathing, but he knew four minutes without oxygen would put a big dent in her higher brain functions.
“Wake up,” he ordered. He pinched her nose, tilted her chin, and had his mouth to hers when he reconsidered the pressure mouth-to-mouth resuscitation might put on the little scab or clot that held the nosebleeds at bay. He couldn’t shake her, either. He made a fist and ground his knuckles into her sternum, just above the bridge of her pink bra. “You’re not dying!” he yelled at her. “This isn’t it, damn it. Breathe!”
Her shoulders convulsed as she gasped. Then a second breath. A third. Her chest kept moving.
He collapsed back, catching himself with his forearms just before his back hit the grass. “Thank you,” he snapped. “Do it again.”
Only her chest moved, but her skin stopped looking like she needed a toe-tag.
“Oh my God.” He gasped and sprawled on the weedy lawn beside her in his suit pants and filthy T-shirt. After a couple breaths of his own, he repeated, “This isn’t it, Scully. Not yet. It’s not your mission in life to prove me wrong.”
The squallies found this hilarious.
Mulder still had a gun. He woulda shot all three of them if he’d had the energy to move.
The line of salt across the end of the body chute might hold closed the gates of Hell, but Mulder sensed he hadn’t quite left Evil Brigadoon yet. No more than a couple minutes had passed. He’d tried to get Scully to wake up and drink – unsuccessfully – and drank two swallows of water himself. He’d zipped up the pack and glanced around. In that time, the early afternoon became the orange glow of evening, and the sun didn’t set in the direction he thought it should. His watch agreed, though. An hour of daylight remained.
He sighed, rolled his shoulders, and stuffed the canteen back in the pack. “She needs a doctor and daylight’s burning,” he told the squallies. “Let’s get a move on.”
The boys still squatted on the other side of Scully, arms around their knees. They looked up in unison.
“Ándale, ándale, fellas.” He slung the pack over his shoulder. “Arriba, arriba.”
Mulder’s knees popped as he got to his feet. He’d hoped some part of him might stop hurting. None did. His limbs felt like they shook, whether they really did or not. He crouched down, and slid an arm beneath Scully’s shoulders and one beneath her knees. As he lifted her, her head tipped back.
And her nose began to bleed.
“Damn it!” He put her down. “Shit!” He couldn’t remember what he’d done with the bandanas, so he pinched her nose with his thumb and forefinger. Hard, but not too hard. Slow the bleeding, but don’t make her choke. He’d mastered the technique. Warm blood seeped through his fingers and down her face.
The quake in his arms and legs spread through the rest of him.
Seven, his brother Darryl and his other brother Darryl, continued to watch.
“Would you do something?” Mulder yelled at them. “You think this is funny? You think it’s a game? She’s dying. Go find-” He didn’t know what to ask for. He couldn’t start an IV. He couldn’t get her to wake and drink. He couldn’t cure cancer. He repeated, “Shit.”
Three pale heads tilted at a curious angle. Then the boys stood, turned, and scurried toward the hospital. They disappeared behind the ancient brick cistern that contained their siblings’ corpses.
Mulder thought he might hear a vehicle. He didn’t see headlights in the distance, but it was barely dusk. Some drivers wouldn’t switch on headlights yet.
He took his hand off her nose. The blood didn’t spurt, but it kept seeping. He gritted his teeth and pinched her nose again. Her lips grew mauve rather than pink. “Come on, Scully,” he pleaded.
A towel. He should have asked the squallies for a towel. Or cotton balls or paper towels. Gauze. That would be good. Something he could use to plug her nose. He could keep her head above her heart and he could carry her and flag down some driver and get her to a doctor.
The squallies were long gone.
He heard a car again. Perhaps. Still no headlights.
He checked her nose. Two crimson streams appeared immediately. He applied pressure again, but looked over his shoulder, toward the road. On his own, he could sprint that far in no time. Carrying her, exhausted, dehydrated… It meant letting her bleed a while.
A vehicle approached. Distant, but Mulder heard it.
Maybe a car passed every ten minutes. Maybe one passed every few days.
He tried loosening his fingers again. Still bleeding. “Come on, Scully,” he repeated. “Keep breathing.”
The brothers scampered back. Not with a towel or napkin or even a roll of toilet paper. Adam Seven held out a four-by-six snapshot, and all three had that ‘A+ spelling test’ expression.
“Not really what I had in mind, boys. Find me a towel and some cotton balls or gauze.”
Seven continued to offer the photo.
Mulder didn’t let go of Scully’s nose, but he reached over her and snatched the picture.
He noticed Scully in the photo first. She sat on a wooden bench swing, wearing a lavender, cowl-neck sweater with a dark, slim skirt and high heels out of 1940s Hollywood. Her hair, parted in the middle, fell past her shoulders and curled the last few inches. She looked relaxed and, of course, beautiful.
In the picture, Mulder sat on the other end of the swing, slouched comfortably. His shirt collar was open and he wore a charcoal suit pilfered from JFK’s wardrobe. Shorter hair, shorter sideburns. Older. One of his hands rested on Scully’s and the other held a blue wicker basket of dyed and plastic eggs.
Mulder recognized that bench swing, the porch, and a tree behind it. That was Mrs. Scully’s backyard.
But Mulder didn’t own that suit. And he’d never met the little boy who leaned against the back of the swing between them, grinning. The kid was six or seven years old. Maybe fifty pounds. Brown hair, hazel eyes. Scully’s features, Mulder’s coloring.
On the back of the photograph, in Scully’s writing, was ‘At Mom’s, Easter 2007.’
At least yesterday morning, it was January 1997, and Scully had six months to live, provided she didn’t die on the overgrown lawn of an abandoned mental hospital. “What is this? Where did you get it?”
All three boys pointed their pale index finger toward the road.
Mulder looked at the photograph again. At the writing on the back. At the little boys.
Two distant headlights glowed pale yellow. Scully’s nose still bled.
Mulder shoved the picture in his pants pocket, slid both arms beneath Scully, picked her up, and ran. He couldn’t hear her breathing over his own, but her lips weren’t blue. They were blue-ish.
He glanced back. The squallies still stood in front of the ancient red brick hospital, pointing toward the road. He saw the blackened tower, the barred windows. The cistern and the body chute. Adam Seven had the flashlight.
A rusted sign marked Oil Well Road, which intersected with a two-lane gravel road. DeSoto Boulevard, Mulder presumed. Sawgrass flanked both sides and a black Ford Explorer blocked one lane.
A wave of sickening terror passed over Mulder. For a moment, he thought he’d died and this was Hell. His Hell: a perpetual loop of desperate attempts to save someone he loved. And always failing her. Sisyphus had his hill. Mulder had a stolen sister and now a dying partner. Any second, he’d step on the brown Crackerjack toy dog and be back where he started.
He stumbled down the center of the road, holding Scully. Her head tipped back and one of her arms hung limp. He shook too violently to risk adjusting her or his grip.
Their rented SUV had all the windows rolled up. Mulder stopped. He carried Scully wrapped in their trench coats, not the sleeping bag. He saw her bare shoulder, not the red T-shirt. No little handprints covered the Explorer’s windows or hood. But he felt the weight of the backpack on his shoulder.
An ancient deputy sheriff’s cruiser rolled to a stop in front of Mulder, a few car lengths from the SUV. The headlights blinded him.
“I’m an FBI agent. I need an ambulance,” Mulder called. “Now.”
His heart pounded. At least years passed before the headlights died.
“I’m Special Agent Fox Mulder,” he said the second the car door creaked open. The old deputy wore sunglasses at dusk and looked like a tanner version of Jackie Gleason from Smokey and the Bandit. “I need to get her to a hospital. Please. She’s in hypovolemic shock.”
The deputy got out with a hand on the butt of his revolver. “Agent Mulder? X-Files? DC office?”
Mulder shook so hard he almost dropped Scully. “She needs a doctor,” he pleaded. He’d rattle off his badge number but he couldn’t remember it. He saw himself reflected in the deputy’s mirrored sunglasses: a disheveled man in a blood-stained T-shirt holding an unconscious, bloody, half-naked woman.
“This woman’s in shock?”
Mulder couldn’t speak. He just nodded.
The deputy returned to his car long enough to radio HQ. Mulder must have managed a few words, because the deputy found the car keys in one of the coat pockets, opened the back of the SUV, put the seats down, and told Mulder to lay Scully flat. The deputy didn’t touch Scully, as if trying not to contaminate any trace evidence. “Where’d you find her? What happened to her?”
“She’s my partner,” Mulder said. He hadn’t moved. “She’s an FBI agent.”
The old deputy glanced at Scully’s bloody face and bare shoulders. The ugly scab stood out against her pale forehead, and old bruises ringed her wrists. “This is why there shouldn’t be pretty women in the FBI.”
Mulder still had his arms full of pretty woman; he couldn’t reach his holster. “She needs a doctor,” he repeated.
“An ambulance is on its way, son.” The deputy nodded to the back of the SUV again. “Set her down.”
Mulder moved on auto-pilot and eased Scully inside the Explorer.
Those seats should already be down. They’d slept back there. Like the front passenger window should be down. The odometer shouldn’t still register the mileage from twenty-four hours ago, but it did. When Mulder climbed behind the wheel, leaving bloody handprints everywhere, the stifling SUV shouldn’t start.
The engine turned over on the first try. He cranked up the air conditioning. Cool air blew from the vents.
Mulder twisted in the driver’s seat. The deputy had the rear doors open and leaned in, watching over Scully but still not touching her. “How did you know who I am?” Mulder demanded. “Where we were?”
The old man glanced up. “I spoke with you on the telephone about our missing person cases.”
The deputy’s nametag read Jenkins. Mulder had talked with him. A siren approached. Scully’s nosebleed seemed to have stopped. She looked like Carrie at the prom, and she shivered, but her chest moved. Mulder reached back and pulled the coat higher, covering her up. “But how did you know where we were?”
“I didn’t.” The deputy jerked a thumb over his shoulder, toward the asylum. “The teenagers like to come out here to smoke dope and screw. I was just on patrol. I wasn’t expecting you and your partner until tomorrow morning.”
Mulder looked. Down a lane retaken by weeds, only a shell of burnt-out, graffiti-covered red walls stood. The roof had fallen in. The dry cistern was a pile of mossy rubble. Plywood covered the bottom of the body chute. He heard the deputy asking what happened to Scully and what they’d been doing at the old hospital.
Mulder stared at the man, but couldn’t get his mouth to move to form words.
“That place closed down in 1951. They sent the retarded kids home or to other hospitals. Retarded? Is that the right word these days?” Deputy Jenkins continued. “Anyway, the government used the place to train monkeys to go into space or something, but that shut down after a few years.”
Mulder scrambled out of the SUV. “I had a pack. Where’s the backpack?”
Red and blue lights flashed in the distance.
The pack sat beside Scully’s feet, where Mulder had dropped it. He yanked the zipper open, getting it stuck on the nylon fabric a few inches from the end. He pulled out the old files and the pages he’d ripped from the ledgers. His fingers left crimson smudges. “These are- Get these to your prosecuting attorney. The hospital didn’t send those kids home or to other hospitals. Whoever was in charge killed them to cover up illegal polio experiments. It’s all here. Get an exhumation order for any child who died on May 12, 1951.”
“Okay, Agent Mulder.” Deputy Jenkins assumed a calm, condescending tone reserved for raving psychos and preschoolers wailing over lost kittens. “I’ll look it over. Why don’t you sit down, Agent Mulder?”
“It’s all there. Courtesy of a pretty FBI woman.”
Another condescending, “Okay.”
Mulder checked the backpack again. No canteen. No flashlight. No cord, no knife, no label with a Georgia phone number and an Atlanta address. The pack was empty.
He fished inside frantically. He discovered a half-eaten candy bar. At the very bottom, his shaking fingers found the little glass vial, still sealed. Back of the neck. Scully. Back of the neck. Scully.
The ambulance stopped behind the deputy’s cruiser.
“How’d they get here so fast?” Mulder demanded.
“We’re ten minutes out of town.”
No they weren’t. He and Scully had driven for ages. Through the middle of nowhere. Off the map. Then Mulder wanted to know, “What’s today’s date?”
That was yesterday. “What year?”
“1997.” The old deputy eased his sunglasses down his nose and squinted at Mulder. “What exactly happened to you and the pretty FBI woman, son?”
The Florida ER doctor estimated Scully had lost over three pints of blood. Between 7:13 PM and 8:45 PM. During which time, Mulder and Scully had driven nowhere, though they both remembered traversing the gravel road in the dark– almost hitting the tree, then nearly sliding down the dock. It hadn’t rained that evening, but their shoes got covered in mud. He’d carried Scully through nothing. The mental asylum was burnt-out rubble, yet they’d found intact files and ledgers in the archive. Scully lost her blouse. Mulder picked up a nice backpack, a mysterious microchip, and a Snicker’s bar best eaten by three years in the future.
The wrapper was a misprint at the candy factory, according to Scully, and the squallies were figments of Mulder’s imagination. A hallucination brought on by exhaustion and dehydration – however exhausted and dehydrated a healthy adult man could become by doing nothing and going nowhere from 7:13 PM to 8:45 PM. Scully opened her eyes in the ICU, called Mulder “crazy,” and expressed displeasure at him losing her flashlight. “Obviously, there’s a scientific explanation, Mulder.” Her explanation involved him being dead wrong and, on her part, a rapidly-growing nasopharyngeal tumor causing vision changes and problems with judgement and impulse control.
For days, the Miami doctors struggled to get Scully well enough to return to DC and have other doctors begin pumping medicinal poison and radiation into her body. When Mulder and Scully arrived home, she had the microchip implanted solely to appease him. Her oncologist said putting the chip beneath Scully’s skin didn’t pose any threat. According to her oncologist, it wouldn’t do any good, either.
That left Scully on indefinite medical leave and Mulder back in his basement lair. Late January, then early February snow covered the tiny windows near the office’s ceiling, blocking sunlight and muffling outside sounds. A few cases crossed Mulder’s desk and his office phone range once in a while. AD Skinner came down to bitch about travel expenses or make vague inquiries about Scully’s health. Once a week, a janitor passed in the hallway with a dust mop. Outside the Hoover Building, Washington went on with life while Scully battled cancer and Mulder examined a mangled little snapshot.
At Mom’s, Easter 2007
He hadn’t shown Scully the photo for the same reason he hadn’t asked if she considered him something more than her friend and partner. Right now, everything besides cancer was irrelevant.
Misty ghosts appeared in photographs all the time. In April 1919, Freddy Jackson posed with his RAF squadron despite having walked into a spinning propeller on the tarmac a few days earlier. Friends described Freddy as absentminded – perhaps too preoccupied to notice his own death. In 1954, an Australian mother photographed her baby’s gravestone only to have the dead infant appear in the photo. Mulder had numerous X-files documenting credible ghost photography.
Thoughtography, aka psychic photography, imprinted blurry or distorted mental images into photographs, and had existed almost as long as cameras and film. Ted Serios, a Chicago bellhop, purposefully burned his thoughts onto Polaroids in the 1960s, while the recently-deceased Gerald Schnauz had no idea he radiated his insanity into innocent women’s passport pictures. Chizuko Mifune imprinted images on photographic plates in 1913, and Uri Geller worked with 35 mm film today. Mulder had seen several examples of digital psychic photography. Thoughtography had a section in his filing cabinets, too.
The Easter photograph of Mulder with Scully and the Boy to Be Named Later wasn’t misty or blurry.
The squallies manipulated time and matter somehow – a rare but documented phenomena. Stories of time travelers weren’t limited to eye-witness accounts, either. In 1941, a photo of a crowd at the re-opening of a Canadian bridge included two men holding modern cameras; one wore sunglasses and an outfit more at home in 1991. Ditto a long-haired, T-shirt and shorts clad surfer in a 1917 San Jose Bay photo. Despite being seen by hundreds of witnesses and captured in dozens of snapshots, the Babushka Lady who filmed President Kennedy’s assignation had never been found. In photos, people around the woman seem surprised at her presence, as if she’d appeared in Dealey Plaza in 1963 and then vanished. Some believed she traveled back in time trying to prevent Kennedy’s assignation. Less optimistic souls believed the Babushka Lady showed up to ensure it happened.
Mulder had the FBI lab test samples of the Easter photograph’s paper, the ink. He’d magnified the picture, digitized it, enhanced it. The photograph was digital, not film, taken with a hand-held camera and printed on high-quality paper with a professional printer. The paper wasn’t bizarre but it differed slightly from any sample they had on file. The picture didn’t appear altered; the shadows matched the lighting, which matched an April afternoon at Baltimore’s latitude. The angle of the lens suggested a person just over five feet tall holding the camera at eye level. Magnified, Mulder could see a series of old circular scars on his cheeks, and one on his wrist. He wore a wedding band but no watch. Neither of Scully’s hands were visible. The handwriting on the back: Scully’s and standard Bic black. When he had a computer program predict a child’s features based on images of Mulder and Scully, the boy’s face appeared on the screen.
Mulder had damaged the photo by shoving it into his pants pocket at the asylum. Bent the corners, left creases across the center. His bloody fingerprints marred the shiny paper. The lab lifted other prints: Scully’s, her mother’s, and a set of smaller prints not in the FBI database. The bottom and left sides of the snapshot suggested the photo had been tucked into the edge of a larger frame. Those edges hadn’t faded, but the rest of the photo showed minimal UV damage. Wherever, however, the squallies got the photo, it wasn’t more than a few months old.
At Mom’s, Easter 2007.
Mulder spent days studying the picture. The Zapruder film and the Patterson Bigfoot footage hadn’t received as much scrutiny as the mangled little snapshot.
He didn’t have Scully to stand over him and whack him with her rigid stick of science, but he’d tried every way he could think of to discredit the photo. Prove it a hoax. He couldn’t. All evidence pointed to a casual snapshot of three happy people taken on a pretty spring day in 2007, displayed briefly in the corner of a larger frame, and then transported back in time to 1997.
On a whim, Mulder removed the picture from the evidence bag and looked around his cluttered office. He had a poster taped to the wall and collages of paranormal stuff tacked to corkboards. He had files and stacks and drawers of pictures, but no framed photos at work. That didn’t mean he wouldn’t get a framed photo by 2007, though.
Scully framed photos. Scully matted, framed, hung, and dusted photos. But if she’d labeled and displayed this snapshot, she’d done so casually. Halftime break during an Easter egg hunt with Mulder and the boy had been a pleasant memory, but not a precious one.
Perhaps the mischievous squallies brought Mulder some half-truth. Maybe for Spooky Mulder and the pretty FBI woman, Happily Ever After had come and gone by 2007. Maybe Scully and her son had a lovely, normal life, and she’d invited her soon-to-be ex-husband over as an act of Easter charity. The child’s prints on the picture must belong to the boy. Perhaps their son had kept the photo. Maybe the kid was thrilled that his father stopped chasing monsters and rumors long enough to show up every few years.
Regardless, that photo was Mulder’s future. Scully’s future.
But each time Mulder visited, Scully looked sicker. The microchip did nothing. The radiation and chemotherapy did nothing except make her nauseated and her hair fall out. When he held her hand or kissed her cheek, she felt distant, like a kite fluttering atop a long, fraying string. He held on for dear life. She grew farther away.
As cold, dark winter weeks dragged past, he considered the photograph in another light. Maybe the little squallies hadn’t stolen it. Maybe 2007 Mulder plucked the snapshot from a frame in his office and handed it to them as a message to his younger self. Or maybe 2007 Cancerman handed it to them.
On Valentine’s Day, Mulder brought Scully a bag of pink cotton candy – which she couldn’t even smell without getting queasy, let alone eat. She’d stopped driving and started staying at her mother’s house. The tree in Mrs. Scully’s backyard reached skyward with stark, naked branches shivering in the wind. Snow covered the bench swing. He’d stayed a while, eating her mother’s soup and trying to get Scully to smile. Scully wanted to sleep. He’d kissed her cheek as he left.
Their encounter at the Miami Holiday Inn hadn’t been mentioned since the asylum, but she knew he loved her. That endless, foggy gravel road, in the miserable rain, with evil all around them, saying she loved him- Promising 161 years- That happened. That was real. That wasn’t poor judgment or impulse control. At least, not on his part.
In January, Scully had urged Mulder not to change. She’d wanted him to continue his feverish quest for the truth while barely noticing the bodies hitting the ground around him. That was the man Scully knew as her partner. That was the man she’d said she loved.
Mulder saw things ending one of two ways, and in neither scenario did Scully get her wish.
Valentine’s Day, after he left Mrs. Scully’s house, he bought a 24X36 walnut picture frame. At the office, he transferred his I Want to Believe poster to the frame, drove a nail, hung it level, and then sat back and admired. The framed UFO poster classed up the joint, but not as much as a beautiful forensic pathologist. Then Mulder took the elevator up to AD Skinner’s office to request a means of contacting the Devil.
February 23, 1997
Downtown Washington, DC
The birthday girl looked like a concentration camp survivor: skinny, with hollow cheeks and dark shadows under her eyes. The noisy, crowded DC pub felt stuffy to Mulder, but Scully kept her coat on. Her auburn hair was a wig. At her mother’s house, Scully didn’t bother wearing it. The ruse was for others’ benefit. In this instance, a birthday dinner anywhere she wanted. Anywhere.
Usually, a few days after each chemo treatment, she’d feel like eating again. When he’d extended the invitation, he’d envisioned white tablecloths. Good steaks. Fine wine. Candles.
She’d chosen a place near the Hoover Building where they’d eaten a few hundred times already, full of FBI agents and with all the ambience of a high school cafeteria. He suspected it was the first restaurant she could think of that didn’t have a drive-thru window.
He knew she’d had another CT scan this morning only because Mrs. Scully told him. This afternoon, Skinner had pulled Mulder aside to ask about Scully’s cancer. Mulder told the truth; he had no idea.
Mulder did know the telephone number Skinner finally coughed up and claimed was the Smoking Man’s rang to a drycleaner in Chinatown. Today, though, there’d been a business card slipped beneath Mulder’s apartment door. It was blank except for a DC area number – which Mulder bet didn’t ring to a drycleaner.
Skinner had advised Mulder not to deal with the Devil. The AD said Cancerman would own Mulder, as if that mattered. Skinner dramatically under-estimated the value Mulder placed on Scully’s life while over-estimating the importance he placed on his own right now. Mulder struggled to envision himself as the man in that Easter photo, but whoever that man was, he hadn’t stood by and let Scully die in 1997.
Instead of telling Scully any of that, Mulder loosened his tie and twisted the cap off his beer bottle. They sat at a wobbly little table on the far side of the pub, near a jukebox that hadn’t worked in years.
“I’m paying,” he reminded her casually. “Are you sure you don’t want to throw up something more expensive in a bathroom with more reliable plumbing?”
Scully’s smile had a weary air. “I’m fine. It’s just nice to be out of the house.”
He leaned back in his chair, holding the bottle. “The basement’s too quiet without you. There’s no one to follow me around and explain why I’m wrong. I haven’t been called ‘crazy’ in weeks. For all I know, I could be correct and sane.” With his free hand, he nudged the bent cap across the tabletop with his index finger in a series of little taps. After a few tries, he worked up to asking, “What’s the word from your doctor?”
She nodded before she spoke. “Good. The scan was good.”
His heart skipped a beat. “Good in what way?”
“Spontaneous regression has been documented with melanomas, lymphomas, and especially neuroblastomas. The prevalence has been estimated as high as one out of every hundred thousand cases.” She sounded like she needed a slide projector and a pointer. “An extreme fever is thought to be a contributing factor, as is excessive blood loss. In combination with an aggressive course of radiation and chemotherapy-”
“In English,” he requested. “Good in what way?”
She took a breath. “The chemotherapy and radiation seem to be working. The tumor’s growth has slowed and, for now, it appears to be shrinking. My oncologist is very pleased.” Scully paused. “She still thinks I’m crazy, but she’s very pleased.”
“Scully, that’s not just good. That’s wonderful.” He could have levitated. She looked like she’d found a parking meter with two minutes left on it when she had a four-minute errand. He set the beer bottle down and bent toward her. “Isn’t it?”
“Yeah.” Now he read her smile as akin to the wig: for others’ benefit. “Yes, it’s wonderful news.”
She held up a warning finger. “-is the reason my oncologist thinks I’m crazy. I can’t believe I had something inserted into my body at your insistence.”
“One, it’s a nice body. Two, I don’t recall insisting.” He shifted in the creaky chair. “Wait, were we still talking about the microchip?” Mulder scratched a dried smear of food off the tabletop, then glanced at her pale face. “Regardless of why the tumor’s shrinking – since it is, can you stop the treatments?”
“No. I’m not out of the woods by any means. The doctor is just optimistic.”
Behind Scully, an auburn-haired young agent named Pendrell sat at the bar and watched their table. Agent Pendrell worked in the Hoover Building’s forensics lab, fighting crime with a microscope and test tubes. On Agent Pendrell’s shifts, Scully’s work requests always went to the front of the line. In late January, when Pendrell personally delivered a stack of lab reports to the X-files office, he’d seemed crushed to find only Mulder in the basement.
Mulder rotated his beer bottle. Scully stirred the ice in her glass with a straw and studied the water’s movement. She stared into her glass like it could divine the future.
“Did I tell you the autopsies came back from the Naithlorendum Sanctuary?” Mulder had copies set aside for her. The corner of his desk had an optimistic stack awaiting her return. “Strychnine. All three exhumed bodies. One of the doctors and a couple nurses are still alive and under arrest.”
“What about notifying the patients’ relatives?”
“I called 1981, asked to speak with the biggest chauvinist pig they had, and thereby talked with Deputy Jenkins this morning. He said the local media is having a field day, but only a few of the kids’ relatives have contacted him. You saw those files; most of those children didn’t have families in the first place.” He sighed and tilted his chair back. The wood protested. “It’s the story of my life. When I’m right, no one cares. When I’m wrong, people hold congressional hearings.”
“We did good work, Mulder. Maybe we didn’t solve the case we set out to, but that hospital’s cemetery is filled with children who deserve whatever justice we can give them.”
“Maybe it will give their spirits some peace, because that’s the most haunted placed I’ve ever been.”
According to Scully, there’d been no haunting, but she said, “It can’t hurt.”
For a woman newly not dying of cancer, she looked broken.
The front legs of his chair hit the floor with a thump. “Scully, what am I missing?” He took an educated guess. “You and me?”
She didn’t look at him, but said, “No,” in a manner he found unconvincing. “Mulder, this-”
“Don’t worry about it,” he interrupted glibly. An invisible potato-peeler carved a long slice off his heart. “I try to have sex once per presidential term. Thanks to you, I’m good through 2001. And if you don’t file for divorce or request reassignment – or both - I’m even better.”
She didn’t laugh.
He spoke softer. “You were sick. Frightened. You’re a beautiful woman, you’re my best friend, and we’re both adults. And you were correct; I could have said no. You have other things to focus on right now. I told you: so do I. If that’s what’s bothering you, let it go.”
She nodded absently, and that potato-peeler made another torturous pass.
He took a long drink from his beer bottle, then sat studying the line of liquid inside it.
“Mulder, something you said in Florida-” He looked up. Her eyes met his: blue and bottomless and frightened. “The- This chip in my neck: you didn’t find it in the ruins of a mental hospital.” Her chest rose. “Did you get it from the Smoking Man?”
“You mean that microchip in your neck that does nothing?” He shook his head. “I got it exactly the way I told you. A non-existent creature from Nowhere handed it to me. When, where, or how he got it, I don’t know. Maybe from an E.B.E. or a consortium lab. Maybe from a Radio Shack in 2017. Maybe your future self sent it back in time with the squallies and saved your own life, thereby creating a predestination paradox that could tear a hole in space-time and launch yet another Star Trek spinoff. All I know is that the tumor’s shrinking, so I don’t care if Adam Seven stole the chip from Smokey’s medicine cabinet.”
“I don’t remember everything that happened in the Everglades, but I remember enough, and I know the lengths you’ll go to for the people you- The people you care about.” She seemed to perform a visual polygraph of his face. “Say, ‘I didn’t make a deal with the Smoking Man,’ Mulder.”
“I didn’t make a deal with the Smoking Man, Mulder.” He took a deep breath and leaned back. His chair complained again. “The Cree tell of the Mannegish, a small, slim humanoid creature lacking a nose and mouth. They’re said to have large heads and delight in playing tricks on humans. Aside from the six fingers and being amphibious, the description roughly matches the squallies. I already told you about the Dover Demon, but I did some checking while you’ve been on medical leave. In the 1970s, a local paper reported a similar creature they dubbed ‘The Toronto Tunnel Monster.’ I think all three might be one and the same. Klemper’s creations, and perhaps predecessors of the Samantha clones I encountered in Alberta.”
She stirred her ice water, appearing appeased. “Or, your time traveling squallies are secretly amphibious and went to Canada to avoid the draft. All of Canada. Toronto’s about fifteen hundred miles from Alberta, Mulder.”
“Maybe they migrate.” Mulder pointed out, “I don’t know that they’re not amphibious. I think we should check it out, once you’re up to it.”
He got a skeptical eyebrow, which was as welcome as a ray of sun in the depth of winter. His heartache subsided to painful but bearable.
He rested his elbows on the table and leaned toward her. He tried one last time. “I showed you that Snicker’s wrapper, Scully.”
“It’s just a misprint,” she argued. “We were lost, dehydrated, sleep-deprived. I’m surprised you don’t think you spent the evening with Bigfoot.”
“The Skunk Ape. Bigfoot lives in the Pacific Northwest and isn’t known to fetch candy bars.”
As Scully’s lips parted to begin a wordy treatise of Mulder’s wrongness, Agent Pendrell worked up the nerve to approach their table. Pendrell picked at the damp label on his beer bottle. “Agent Scully,” he said like he’d just noticed her, “we miss seeing you in the lab. Agent Fletcher brought in cookies yesterday. His wife makes them. They’re exactly the same recipe as the Doubletree Hotels’ cookies. Chemically identical. We ran them through the gas chromatograph and checked.” Pendrell paused, then requested earnestly, “Don’t tell the AD.”
Agent Pendrell didn’t get a smile at full wattage, but then, neither had Mulder. “Your secret is safe with me,” Scully promised.
“How are you? I heard you were sick.”
He stepped aside as a waiter set down a burger and fries in front of Mulder and a dry, diminutive sandwich for Scully. Once the waiter left, she answered, “My doctor’s optimistic.”
“That’s, that’s good.” Pendrell put a hand on the table, a foot from hers. “When you feel up to it, come visit the lab rats. I have a new GS-MS that can perform a complete analysis of fire accelerants in less than ninety seconds.” He tapped the table twice. “Plus, we have cookies.” His confident grin faltered. “But Agent Fletcher’s wife has a toddler at home and a son in kindergarten and she takes care of his mother with Alzheimer’s so I need to give Fletcher some notice if we want another batch.” Another pause. “I think the dough has to chill overnight.”
Pendrell’s expression suggested immediate regret at every word after “cookies.”
“Chilling dough solidifies the lipids and allows the sucrose and gluten to absorb the liquids, concentrating the flavor,” Scully responded.
The agent’s eyebrows rose. “Wow. You bake?”
Another weary but kind smile. “No, but my mother bakes and I’ve been spending a lot of time on her couch. I’m also a wealth of information about daytime TV.”
Mulder, not party to this conversation, drained most of his beer bottle and then doused his fries with ketchup.
There was some light banter about Oprah, the properties of glucose, and Agent Pendrell’s mother watching Days of Our Lives. Then a pause. Pendrell’s voice said, “I’ll let you eat. Feel better, Agent Scully. Agent Mulder.”
Mulder waved airily as Pendrell returned to the bar.
Scully studied her sandwich sadly.
“I’ve been reading up on UFO sightings in the Everglades.” Mulder paused for a bite of burger. “Oddly enough, modern sightings are rare. However, in March 1965, James Flynn, a well-regarded rancher on vacation, saw a bright flash he thought was an aircraft going down. He followed the light and rushed to offer any aid he could, but arrived at the crash site to a floating, glowing craft which emitted a loud hum. When Flynn tried to approach the large craft, a blue light zapped him between the eyes, knocking him unconscious.”
Mulder took another bite. Scully began dissecting her sandwich, though he’d seen her cut into putrid corpses with more enthusiasm.
“Flynn believed he was unconscious for a few minutes, but later learned twenty-four hours passed before he woke. His medical records document visual impairment as well as radiation burns and bruising on his forehead. Flynn’s muscular atrophy suggested time in zero gravity. All the classic signs of a UFO abduction.” Mulder stuffed several French fries in his mouth. “Investigators returned to the scene to find a charred circle on the ground and a ring of blackened trees. The Air Force tried to discredit Flynn, but NICAP rated the encounter a ‘five,’ reflecting clear evidence of contact with alien intelligence.”
She looked longingly at his meal. Hers remained untasted. “If the chemo and radiation stop working, I hope there’s more out there than a class five bug zapper, Mulder.”
He conceded, “Me, too,” and nudged his plate toward her. “But you’ll be fine. Here. You and Junior eat.”
With a surgeon’s dexterity, Scully extracted a single ketchup-less fry from Mulder’s plate. She took a bite off one end. Chewed. Swallowed. Took a second bite.
Mulder caught their waiter’s eye and gestured for him to bring Scully a plate of fries.
Her voice said gently, “Mulder, I assumed you’d surmised that I’m not pregnant.”
Whatever made the crusty spot on their table, Mulder scratched more of it off with his thumbnail. “Yeah. I surmised. I’ve driven you to two dates with your cancer doctor. I figured if you were pregnant, we’d be driving to a different type of doctor.” He switched to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s voice. “I was referring to you and Mr. Tumor.” He offered a second clean fry and a twisted grin. “I hope it’s that parasitic little bastard’s last meal, because I’d like his host back at work.”
She didn’t take his French fry or speak for several seconds. When she responded, her voice seemed unsure of its footing. “Mulder, I- My doctor ran some tests. Tests unrelated to my cancer, but there was a concern.” She adjusted the two triangles of sandwich on her plate. Straightened the knife and fork on her napkin. She slid the water glass a few centimeters to the left. “I’m not pregnant,” she said, “and my OB/GYN doesn’t think I’ll be able to become pregnant.”
He lowered the fry. “Not right now, obviously.” Though he sensed that wasn’t what she meant.
She shook her head. “No. Not ever. The doctor can’t explain why, but I have no ova. I can’t conceive. I am, in layman’s terms, barren.”
He dropped the French fry, leaned closer, and spoke softer. “You’re sick. You look like Death warmed over. How can the doctor-”
“There are no ova,” she repeated, “so it doesn’t matter if I’m the picture of health or on my deathbed. A woman’s body’s ability to sustain a pregnancy can vary, but no ova means no ova. Yet I have no history of endocrine issues. No gynecological infection or congenital malformation.” She used her ‘discussing a patient’ voice. “You’re correct; chemotherapy can impact a woman’s fertility, but this predates my cancer. My hormone levels are normal. My body thinks the ova are there, and according to my medical records, three years ago, they were. Now-” She inhaled. “Now, I cannot conceive a child of my own. Ever.”
He didn’t have a place inside him where babies grew. Still, he felt a dull blade jab him there. “The doctor’s wrong.”
“He’s not wrong. He just can’t provide a medical explanation for my condition any more than my oncologist can explain my remission.” She slid the water glass to its original location, leaving a damp trail on the scarred table. “During my abduction - setting aside that it’s scientifically impossible to ripen and extract the tens of thousands of ova typically present in a woman my age – I remember undergoing some sort of gynecological procedure. I’ve seen the Litchfield experiments. The clones. I have seen things, Mulder,” she insisted. “I’ve seen scientists take genetic material and use innocent women to create…”
Monsters. The consortium abducted women, added some alien DNA, and created monsters.
Mulder’s lips parted but no sound emerged. The boy in his dreams was just a little boy. Not a hybrid. Not evil. And identical to the kid in the Easter photograph Mulder had at home hidden inside a copy of the redundantly titled Readers Digest Mysteries of the Unexplained. Future Mulder and Scully would know if the boy was a clone or the result of a consortium experiment. Scully took in homeless dogs; she might adopt a kid with its own X-file – and Mulder would be happy for her. But for Future Mulder to help hunt Easter eggs at Grandma’s, that child hadn’t been created in a test tube.
“Scientists just successfully cloned an adult sheep,” Scully said, seeming to address the tabletop. “They can grow a viable human ear on a mouse’s back. Genetic engineering has advanced to the point that unscrupulous doctors could play God. All they’d need is genetic material and a laboratory operating outside government oversite.”
“No.” Mulder got his lungs and mouth to work in unison. “There’s been a mistake. There’s a mix-up at the lab or- How long has this guy been your OB/GYN? Why would he worry about your fertility if, a week ago, you were terminally ill? Don’t you find that suspicious?”
She didn’t look up. He wasn’t certain she even heard him.
She rotated the wet glass counter-clockwise, one jerky millimeter at a time. “I’d never given much thought to having children.” Her voice waivered. “I just took for granted that I could. If I ever wanted to. But when my doctor said... Until the tumor began shrinking, ‘ever’ meant a few months. Now, ‘ever’ seems like a very long time. I can’t have a child of my own, ever.” She spoke faster. “I told Mom about your dream: the boy, the beach, the intricate sand structure beyond your comprehension. What if you’re dreaming of a child out there who needs our help? Created without my consent and gestated by a surrogate, but my biological son? Mom just said, ‘Honey, Fox is a Libra; they’re dreamers.’ This from a woman who believes her own dreams are a free version of The Psychic Friends Network.”
“You’re not even making sense,” Mulder argued. “Hypothetically, a boy featuring your freckles and my legendary skill at puns would involve my genetics, which the consortium doesn’t have.” He picked up his beer. “I’ve never been abducted. Who is this doctor? What exactly are his credentials? Is there a diploma on his wall from Evil Conspiracies R Us?”
“It’s 1997.” She sounded as if she told an awful secret. “They don’t need your semen. If they have my ova, your beer bottle has all the DNA they’d need. So does your toothbrush, your pillowcase, and your car keys.” When she looked at him, her eyes glistened. “If I die, you find that child, Mulder. You find him, and you stop these experiments.”
“You’re not going to- Jesus, Scully.” He stopped debating, set the damp bottle aside, and took her hand. Her fingers felt like ice. “Your OB/GYN is either lying or mistaken,” he insisted. “I promise.”
“How can you know that?”
“Because I do.” He sounded like a third-grader. “The same way I know you won’t die of cancer. When am I ever wrong?”
She sniffed. “You want that alphabetically or chronologically?”
He chuckled. She didn’t.
Mulder leaned forward and, with his other hand, tucked her hair behind her ear. “Get a second opinion. Not right now, but once you’re well, pick a random OB/GYN out of the phone book and make an appointment. Like you said, what your doctor’s telling you is scientifically impossible.” He put his hand on her cheek. That skin felt cool and smooth. “The world’s in no danger of being overrun by redheaded skeptical clones and my Magic 8-Ball tells me that boy in my dream isn’t getting here this century.”
She didn’t believe him. He could tell, and without a smile, her face was bleak winter. Her thumb stroked his, then her hand slid away as the waiter arrived with a plate piled with French fries.
Once the waiter left, Mulder opened his mouth but closed it without speaking. After a breath, he said, “If I ever manage to find the truth… For future reference, I’d like to remind you of my spotless genetic makeup and the degree to which Libras commit ourselves to projects.”
Her lips moved. “Okay.”
A frantic-looking blonde woman approached behind Scully. Snow dotted the shoulders of her coat, and her red nose and eyes suggested recent crying. “Excuse me. Are you Agents Mulder and Scully?” She spoke desperately, as if each word risked her life. “Your office said I might find you here.”
Mulder sat up straighter, and Scully twisted in her seat.
“My name is Sharon Graffia. You knew my brother.” She sniffed. “I’m not crazy. He said you’d believe me.”
Scully’s glance at Mulder conveyed her rule of thumb: anyone who claimed they weren’t crazy probably was.
“Your brother said we’d believe what? What can we do for you, Ms. Graffia?” Mulder stood and offered a chair. The woman remained standing.
She brushed her hair back from her flushed face, getting none of it to stay out of her eyes. “He said to find you if he didn’t make it. He-”
“Excuse me,” Scully said. “Who are you talking about?”
“Max. My brother was Max Fenig.” Ms. Graffia spoke so quickly she stumbled over her words. “Max was on Flight 549, carrying something he said the government would kill for.”
“Max?” Mulder asked, “What was Max carrying?”
The woman shook her head. “I don’t know. He never told me.” She sniffed again. “But his plane went down two hours ago near Northville, New York. He said to find you. He said you’d believe me. That crash was no accident. He said if he died, you’d investigate.”
“We will,” Mulder promised. He amended, “I will.”
“Okay.” For a few seconds, the woman seemed frozen. Then, hand shaking, she pulled a piece of notebook paper from her pocket and set it near Scully. “My telephone number and address.” She exhaled sharply. “Okay. Thank you.” She whirled and hurried out of the bar as abruptly as she’d rushed in.
“Clearly, Sharon Graffia and Max Fenig are kindred spirits.” Scully looked up at Mulder. “What would Max be carrying?”
“And who or what brought Max’s plane down?” Mulder leaned his palms on the tabletop. For the first time, he glanced at the row of television screens above the bar. On three different networks, reporters covered the crash of Flight 549.
Scully watched the TV screens with him. The CNN camera panned over a debris field that seemed to stretch forever. “Oh my God,” she said softly.
“Since Amelia Earhart disappeared over Howland Island in 1937, unexplained aeronautical events have riveted the public’s imagination,” Mulder said. “In 1944, Glen Miller vanished somewhere over The English Channel. The Bermuda Triangle is a geographical hotbed of nautical and aeronautical nightmares. In 1945, Flight 19, a Navy training mission led by an experienced instructor, took off from Fort Lauderdale. The pilots radioed in complaining of instrument malfunction. In all likelihood, they flew in circles until they ran out of fuel, then crashed at sea. Which is not what makes this story bizarre.”
Mulder waited to see if she’d ask what made the story bizarre. She continued staring at the televisions.
So he told her. “The five planes and the fourteen men operating them were never found. No bodies, no wreckage. That’s unusual, but here’s the kicker: the thirteen men the Navy sent out to look for Flight 19 also vanished without a trace.”
She didn’t look at him, but she said, “Those were private or military planes, Mulder.”
“In 1947, a British South American Airlines flight between Argentina and Chile reported smooth sailing until it radioed in, in Morse code, the letters STENDEC and then vanished in the Andes Mountains. One passenger carried diplomatic documents; it’s possible the plane was shot down to keep that information from reaching its destination and the wreckage concealed. Others have hypothesized a wormhole or a mass UFO abduction, which would be among the largest UFO abductions ever documented.”
Wide fields dotted with airline seats and suitcases and crumpled metal played on all three televisions. And bodies. Maybe the cameraman couldn’t make out the scattered body parts, but Mulder could.
“This plane didn’t vanish,” Scully reminded him. “This plane just fell out of the sky with hundreds of people inside it.”
“As did Pan Am Flight 7 in 1958, far off course and without ever sending a distress call. Toxicology revealed extreme levels of carbon monoxide in the passengers’ bloodstream, suggesting sabotage of the ventilation system by a crew member. Last year the crash of TWA Flight 800 was attributed to defective wiring, though witnesses on the ground saw streaks of light approaching the plane, and then an explosion, suggesting the plane was shot down by a missile. Three years ago, investigators discovered USAir Flight 427 crashed and killed 132 people due to a rudder defect. That was the first time the National Travel and Safety Board ruled the Boeing 737’s rudder defective, but leaked internal documents indicate the industry knew about the problem as early as 1991, when USAir 585 rolled and killed all 25 people on board. And Copa Airlines Flight 201, another 737, which killed 47 people the same year.”
Mulder was just getting warmed up. He needed his files, and to make some calls. Talk to the controllers on the ground, interview eye witnesses. Get the transcript of the flight data recorder.
Scully asked, “Did Max Fenig ever mention having a sister?”
He put his hands on his hips as he stood beside the table. He had to admit, “No. But that’s easily checked.”
“Do we know that Max was even on Flight 549?” She’d stopped watching the televisions and started studying Mulder. “Is his name on the passenger list? Did he make the flight? Could this be another person with the same name? Max and his friends are rather excitable individuals.”
Mulder pointed out, “Again, all easily verified,” as soon as she gave him a chance.
“And perhaps things to verify before you damn the aviation industry, accuse the government that signs our paychecks of shooting down a commercial airplane, or declare a wormhole over Northville, New York.” She sighed. “Is this what you’ve done for the past month, Mulder?”
He slouched. “No.” He’d consulted on six cases and investigated three. His expertise had been requested, then mocked by multiple branches of law enforcement in half a dozen jurisdictions. “I also read Adult Video News and got in a couple games of basketball.”
Predictably, he got a tired eye roll. “A little alone time goes a long way for you, Captain Ahab.”
The dull pain in his abdomen returned and now radiated upward to join forces with a wounded heart. Mulder shoved his hands in his pants pockets. “Is that really what you think?”
Scully watched the TVs again. “That she’s not even Max’s sister?”
He balled his hands into fists. “That I’m Captain Ahab? That I’m an insane man blindly chasing my own destruction?” He ordered his mouth to stop talking. It wouldn’t. The pain reached his heart. “That I don’t care who gets hurt-”
“I know you care.”
He spoke faster. “-and with no room in my life for anyone or anything else? Ever?”
Mulder just wanted to know the truth about his sister, about extraterrestrials, and about the government’s experiments. He never wanted innocent people – Scully or her sister or anyone - to suffer or die for his quest. He’d never intended to join the ranks of Max Fenig and Don Quixote and Captain Ahab. Men who Cervantes called burning minds barred from the exuberance of real love. Mulder loved her. And he’d certainly never intended to do that. If love had a pause button, he’d hit it and be a lot happier.
Photographic evidence that he and the pretty FBI woman had a young son in 2007 didn’t help Mulder now. He didn’t know how or why the boy existed. Maybe the squallies’ Easter photo was less ‘when a mommy loves a daddy’ and more the end result of ‘what shall we do while your cell phone charges?’ or even ‘please deposit semen sample in the sterile cup’ and Future Mulder had made his peace with that. Hell, maybe Scully and her OB/GYN were right, and Mulder could look forward to a class five encounter with an alien bug zapper and earning his Indian Guides Medical Rape Victim badge.
Regardless, right now, he was looking east and hoping for a sunset.
Mulder studied the floor. His palms felt sweaty. He exhaled, removed his hands from his pockets, and put them on his hips. He addressed the worn floor tiles. “Sorry, Scully.” He shifted his feet. “You’re sick. Sometimes I can be a rather excitable individual.” And a selfish asshole. “Once again, let’s just move on.”
She said, “No,” and his heart skipped a beat.
Mulder looked up to find her focused on him.
“No, you’re not Ahab, Mulder.” Her voice was soft. “I think you’re a brilliant, noble man searching for the truth.” Even softer, as if running out of breath, “And I want to be there when you find it.”
Once her words had time to register, the pain in his chest lessened and a weight lifted from his shoulders. He smiled down at her. “You will be.”
To his surprise, she responded by easing up from the chair at glacial speed. “We’ll have to drive. I’m not vomiting every thirty minutes in an airplane bathroom.” She took one French fry from the plate the waiter had brought her and bit off the end. “I have chemo Thursday afternoon.”
He grabbed his coat but said, “You’re on medical leave. Are you sure you should-”
“I’m a medical doctor,” she informed him. “I know what I should and should not do. Hundreds of people on that flight are dead. Go get the car, Mulder.”
The National Transportation Safety Board, the FAA, the airline, and a host of local and federal agencies would spend years trying to determine why the hundreds of people on that flight were dead. Mulder had no jurisdiction. He’d be laughed at as soon as he opened his mouth. Even if he managed to shoehorn the X-files into the mix, they’d be an afterthought. The FAA wouldn’t let Scully do any autopsies or lab work. Mulder would have to fight for copies of preliminary data, which he could easily forward to her in DC. He valued her expertise, but Scully could provide an expert opinion from her mother’s sofa while nibbling baked goods. “I could just e-mail-”
“Or, you could get the car.” Her stubbornness had a desperate undercurrent. “Unless you’re afraid I’ll slow you down.”
He shrugged on his coat. “You never slow me down, Scully. You keep me on course.”
To Mulder, the room went quiet. Time paused. With his heart still recovering, he’d spoken casually, almost flippantly, but if he’d been a cartoon character, a light bulb would have appeared above his head. He replayed those words in his head. She kept him on course. She was ground to his sky, ballast to his ship, reason to his intuition. She made him a whole person. Love didn’t describe what he felt for her any more than ‘large’ described the universe.
Her voice said, “I need to work, Mulder,” and life resumed its normal pace. Several seconds must have passed; she watched him expectantly. She’d never unbuttoned her coat, and her cheekbones, vivid eyes, and pale skin gave her a dramatic beauty, like the tragic, consumptive heroine in a Victorian novel. “Right now, I need something I know.”
She kept him on course. For Mulder, those five words summed up her place in his life. He needed her. He drove and provided paranormal color commentary; she read the map. For Scully right now, another five words – I need something I know – spoke volumes. She knew how to be an FBI agent. A medical doctor. Anything beyond that was a brave new world she didn’t have the strength to navigate.
Mulder put his hands deep in his pockets again. “That’s good, because I need a partner.” He stepped closer to her. Close enough to kiss. “For a while there, I worried I might lose her.”
The faintest hint of a smile appeared. She shook her head. “Not yet.”
“Not ever,” he insisted. “I’m gonna get the car.” He nodded to the bar, where an auburn-haired lab geek kept an eye on her. “I’ll be a few minutes. Why don’t you let Agent Pendrell buy you an ice water? Tell him it’s your birthday. Offer the poor guy a fry.”
Her eyebrow rose.
“I’m serious. I can covertly admire you any day of the week. For Pendrell it’s a limited time offer.” He nudged the plate closer to her. “I’m paying for them. Someone should eat them.”
For FBI purposes, Dana Scully often hid under frumpy suits and behind medical terminology, but she also knew how to be a beautiful, captivating woman.
“Go,” he urged her. “Take the ketchup.”
She didn’t take the plate or the ketchup. She did push her chair in and say, “Fine. I’ll wait for you at the bar. Don’t forget to turn the heater on, Mulder. Maybe find a box of Kleenex. I still get nosebleeds.”
“Yes, dear,” he said sarcastically.
When Pendrell noticed Scully approaching, the guy beside Pendrell got elbowed and hurriedly vacated a stool. She sat down. After Pendrell managed not to piddle on the floor, he launched into some nerdy story, gestured animatedly. Scully looked faintly amused.
Mulder dug his wallet out of his pocket and wedged $20 beneath his empty beer bottle. Cancerman’s card was tucked behind the remaining bills. Mulder studied it a few seconds as everyone else in the room watched either Dana Scully or TV. Then Mulder tossed the card onto the damp tabletop and set Scully’s water glass atop it. As the moisture seeped into the cardstock, the ink bled away.
Mulder didn’t know how things turned out for him and Scully, but he knew that they did. So he left her swapping scientific trivia with the enraptured Agent Pendrell, and went to get the car. To turn on the heater, find a box of Kleenex, and go determine what happened to Max Fenig and Flight 549.
End: Finding Rokovoko
Yield: 20 large or 30 small cookies
½ cup rolled oats, chopped fine in blender or food processor
2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
¼ tsp. cinnamon
1 cup butter (2 sticks), softened
¾ cup brown sugar, packed
¾ cup granulated white sugar
1 ½ tsp. vanilla
3 cups miniature semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 ½ cups finely chopped walnuts, toasted and cooled
Combine ground oats, flour, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon. Set aside. In separate bowl, cream together softened butter, white sugar, brown sugar, and vanilla. Add eggs to butter mixture one at a time. Mix until smooth. Slowly add dry ingredients to butter mixture; mix until dough forms. Fold in chocolate chips and cooled walnuts. Form dough into 1 or 1½ inch balls, depending on size of cookies desired. Refrigerate dough at least 30 minutes, optimally overnight. Chilling the dough solidifies the lipids and allows the sucrose and gluten to absorb the liquids, concentrating the flavor.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place balls of dough on parchment-lined cookie sheet, 2 inches apart. Bake 12 minutes in convection oven, 15 minutes in regular oven, until edges are golden brown. Cool on cookie sheet 1 minute before transferring to cooling rack.