Tommy is curled up sleepy-small under an afghan in the back seat, his thumb still halfway in his slack mouth; Jack is slumped against the passenger side window. His dark head rattles against the glass when I pull over but still he doesn't wake.
Through the windshield I see the city's queasy sodium glare reach up to dull a star-spattered sky. A hot, dirt-laced wind whips across the bridge and is knifed in two by the Washington Monument. A sliver of moon sends pale light skittering across the wavetops on a choppy Potomac. Shouts drift across the river's slow breadth. Every few minutes, there's the throaty roar of another jet taking off from National.
A small part of me is exhilarated to be here for the first time in my life -- at least, I think it's the first time -- but fear spikes my blood with adrenalin.
I stare at the map once more, a bitten fingernail tracing the route to Alexandria over and over. After one last check I manhandle the station wagon back into the late night traffic. Everything I love in the world is in this car.
The boys think this is just the road trip I have been promising them since last spring. They don't know they're not going home again.
I am not a brave woman and this is bravest thing I have ever done.
I am terrified.
* * *
When his anonymous black Mercedes glided to a halt in the driveway this spring, I suppressed the childish desire to crawl under the kitchen table, press my face against the cold linoleum and pretend nobody was home.
That wasn't possible because my sons were out there, doing their chores. Jack dropped the rake and shouted his excitement. Tommy drew his armful of grass clippings up to his face. Wide blue eyes peeped over the top of them, suspicious of the new arrival.
My father climbed out of the car even more stiffly than usual. His hair was much shorter and grayer, his shoulders more hunched than the last time I had seen him.
He's getting old, I thought. A vicious little voice added: "Good."
I watched him put one hand on Jack's shoulders, telling him how much he'd grown in the last year. Jack was up to his shoulder already, lanky and strong from endless games of basketball and football.
Tommy had always been much more shy. Six months between visits is a long time for a boy that age and he had only seen his grandfather once since his father's funeral. But after a moment he dropped the leaves, sidled up to the crumpled trench coat and gave the hem a tug. When the old man's attention switched from Jack to him, he beamed.
Unlike me, the boys were always delighted to see him. One or two visits every year and cards for Christmas and birthdays doesn't build much of a relationship but he always brought gifts for them when he did come. Children are just as mercenary as adults but in them we try to find it charming.
He spotted me watching. One arm was slung around Jack's shoulders and the other hand lay on Tommy's red-gold curls. Gestures of ownership. The vapor of his breath curled and hung in the chilly evening air like his usual cigarette smoke. He nodded a greeting but his narrowed eyes were flinty.
'Oh God," I thought, "he knows.'
My knuckles were white around the handle of the kitchen knife. A rivulet of red mingled with the slip of mud and water from the half-peeled potatoes. I had sliced open the pad of my left index finger, a thin, shallow sting of a cut that halved the whorls of the print. Even as another splash of blood fell, blooming wide like a rose on the waterlogged chopping board, I couldn't seem to move.
He knew what I'd done.
The kitchen door swung open and I started, as if someone had just switched me on. Come on, I told myself, remember how to act normal. You've been pretending to do it all your life.
"Dad," I said shakily, wiping wet hands on my "World's Best Mom" apron. The blood left a lurid trail across the pink material.
Between two yellowed, outstretched fingers he was holding a battered white envelope; the one I had asked a colleague going out of state to mail to my brother.
"I got your letter, Samantha," he said.
* * *
I had thought about writing many times.
But what could I say to Fox? My brother was a stranger to me.
Looking sickly and tired in the green neon glow of the empty diner, he had shaken with suppressed anger as he crushed my hand in his grip and told me everything I had pieced together about myself was a lie. At the time, I hated him for it.
I knew who I was then. I was John's wife. I was a mother. My life wasn't perfect but I finally belonged somewhere, to someone, and no one would spoil that.
Eighteen months later it was spoiled anyhow.
It took a long, long time after John died before I could face clearing out his den. The room still smelled of pipe smoke, dust and warm couch leather, just as it always had. He didn't invite me in there often; he said there were important books and papers there that careless hands shouldn't touch.
The week after the accident, a couple of men from the company offered to get rid of them for me -- they brought lilies for the widow and left with his hard drive. They had no answers to my questions. No one did.
Now the room had odd, empty spaces, like a mouth where half the teeth had been pulled.
I walked round, looking at his old college biochemistry texts marching in orderly fashion around the shelves; running a finger along the CDs lined up on the rack in alphabetical order. He once sulked for an hour because I put Let It Bleed in among the Beatles albums.
I could feel the fury building again as I paced the room. John was a workaholic who spent most of his waking life in a lab. What the fuck was he doing getting caught in a fire on an air base?
Anger blazed and I shoved the CD rack off the shelf. The satisfaction I got from that crash must have lasted a good second before I realized I was just going to have to pick them up again. It wasn't like he was coming back to be mad at me.
The hidden CD was in a plain case; no insert, nothing printed on the disc itself, although the spine said it was a Stones bootleg.
I thought: 'God, John, I hide my diary better than that.'
I put it into his player but no noise emerged save for the whirring of the machine itself. So I went into Jack's room, switched on his computer and cautiously slid the disc in.
There were at least 30 folders on there and one had my name on it. I thought it would contain accounts, maybe scanned-in pictures. I never expected it to contain medical records.
At first, I thought maybe it was because I'd had health problems in the past -- John just wanted the information on hand in case I was taken ill somewhere away from home -- but these stretched back into the early 70s, a time I didn't remember properly.
The day after he proposed I had told him why I dreaded talking about my childhood.
My only clear memories begin at the age of 14. There are faces and images from before then, snatches of memory, but it's all fuzz, static and choppy editing.
I was told that I was badly injured in a car accident that killed my foster parents. That seemed believable -- I have scars. Aunt Marjorie was kind and looked after me well, but she couldn't help me remember. Worse, from the fragments I could piece together I wasn't certain if I wanted to recall the past.
After I told John all this and said I would understand if he wanted to break it off, he pulled my head to his shoulder and stroked my hair and whispered over and over that it didn't matter, he only cared about me and now.
At the time I thought he was being kind. Now I think he already knew it all.
Then I found folders for the boys. Jack's only contained medical records and the results of some kind of IQ test but there were at least 50 files for Tommy; most of it scientific notation that I couldn't understand.
I was very ill just after Tommy was conceived, they told me it was some kind of blood disorder -- another period of my life I don't remember much about.
I had been told I could never have another child, so John and my father got me the best treatment in the country, and I prayed harder than I've ever prayed for anything in my life. I spent the first few months of 1995 in bed, terrified that I would lose him. But Tommy had always been fine. Hadn't he?
The pictures and files began to give shape to all the fears I had been suppressing since that oddly familiar stranger told me a bizarre story in an empty diner. "That man is a liar," he had said, pointing at my father.
The next time I looked away from the machine it was to see Jack's irritated face. "Aw mom, you know I don't like you touching my computer," he whined, dumping his schoolbag on the bed. "You'll mess everything up."
He had sounded so much like John then that I yelled at him. He had to be coaxed out of the treehouse an hour later with apologies and promises of ice cream.
I wrote the letter to Fox that night.
* * *
Of course, my father stayed for dinner. Nothing important was said over the burned roast and overcooked carrots but Tommy sensed the tension and became fractious.
I took him up to bed early and we read 'Danny, Champion of the World' together as my father's tenor rasp and Jack's breathless, eager alto drifted up the stairs. I thought about the lies that man might be telling my son.
I tried to go back downstairs but that provoked another fit of tears. Tommy had been having nightmares again so I sat in the dark with him and stroked his sweet, damp forehead until his eyes slid shut and his breathing evened out. That steeled me. "I'll do anything if it protects you. Anything," I whispered.
Jack ducked his head round the door and I put my finger to my lips. "Shhhh. Don't wake your brother." I pushed the blanket up under Tommy's chin, then closed the door behind me.
"Mom, look what Grandpa got me," Jack whispered excitedly, brandishing some expensive-looking electronic game. "Can I go to Jason's and show him?"
Doubt must have shown on my face because he added quickly: "Grandpa says it's okay."
I thought: 'Don't leave me alone with him, Jack,' which was ridiculous. Jack was only a 12-year-old boy. What could he possibly do? Better to get him out of there.
"Okay, but you get back here by nine. No excuses on a school night," I told him.
He nodded and ran down the stairs. Somehow, I managed to follow him.
In the living room, by the mantle, was the man who made me.
In one hand he held a cigarette, in the other he had the letter. "'Dear Fox'," he quoted in a mocking tone. "'I realise I have left this too long. Please forgive me. You said that the man I call my father has lied to me. I believe that now. I hope you can help me'."
He looked up at me for the first time. "Sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child."
My fists clenched and unclenched by my side. "I found out about John," I said in as cold a tone as I could muster.
"Found out what about John?"
"I found copies of the reports. You introduced us. He was spying for you, right from the beginning."
It was the first time I had ever voiced the fear out loud. I hoped he would laugh and tell me I was stupid.
"Ah, the disc. John should've known better than to keep insurance." He shook his head and looked at me. "He didn't know who his friends were. I don't want to speak ill of the dead but he really was a fool."
He lifted a cigarette from the pack in his breast pocket and lit it, sucking in the smoke in silence. "All I ever wanted to do was protect you, Samantha," he said finally. "To give you everything you wanted. John was part of that."
I could feel my knees begin to unlock and bend, so I sat down before I fell. "Was it like that from the beginning? Was any of it real?"
He waved his hand as if I was just arguing semantics. "Real? What's 'real'?"
My hands shook so I dug my nails into my palms. "I just want you to tell me the truth."
"Ah, the 'truth'," my father said sourly. "You have your brother's facility for meaningless buzzwords."
"Perhaps I should go and ask Fox what the truth really is. Or Mom."
He took another drag of his cigarette and looked down at his feet. For the first time he looked uncomfortable. "Yes, well. I have to speak to you about that. I have something to show you. And something to tell you."
He reached across to the pocket of his trenchcoat and pulled out a videotape.
* * *
My brother, white shirt rolled up to the elbows, tie snaking around the pencil holder on his desk, sat in a scruffy office. His fingers were flying across the keyboard, pausing only to pitch wastepaper fastballs into the trashcan and pour coffee down his throat at lightning speed. My father only took his finger off the fast forward button when the office door swung open.
From the weird vantage point, high above Fox's left shoulder, I figured that he didn't know he was the star of this show; a video icon in static-flecked black and white.
His visitor shut the door behind her. She was my age, but instead of my long skirts and sloppy sweaters she was wrapped in a smart, black business suit. She was the sort of career woman I always envied -- pretty and confident.
"Hey, Mulder. You okay?" Her voice was hard to make out on the crackling soundtrack.
His head tipped back in the chair as he stretched his neck. New lines scored his face and his hair was shorter but I still felt the same jolt of recognition as I had in the diner years ago. "Yeah, I think so," he said. "At least I'm nearly done with paperwork."
The woman disappeared from the shot and reappeared with two mugs of coffee. She leaned against the desk, next to him. She opened her mouth and then closed it again, as if the thought would not translate. "I've typed up the autopsy notes, Mulder. If you want, we can append them to Samantha's file."
His head cocked to one side and she shifted awkwardly but didn't look away. "You don't believe the two things are connected, Scully, so what would be the purpose?"
"I didn't say they weren't connected, Mulder. I said there was no causal connection. That doesn't mean that Samantha's disappearance didn't have a bearing on the final days of your mother's life. Or her death. It's had a bearing on you for as long as I've known you."
A click and the picture froze. I tipped my face into my hands, unable to watch any more. My eyes were dry, eyelids scraping their sandpaper surface with each blink, my mouth so arid I couldn't speak.
It shouldn't be affecting me like this. Having a mother had been an abstract concept to me for 20 years.
The paused videotape buzzed like a fly trapped behind glass.
My father was staring out of the window. The hand holding the remote control had dropped to his side. A curl of ash hung from the neglected cigarette in his other hand.
He bit his bottom lip and suddenly he wasn't my father, or the master manipulator, he was a man who had lost a lover. Just a man.
"Show me the rest," I demanded. He pressed play without looking at the screen, stubbed out the cigarette, lit another.
On the tape, silence hissed for a long time. I couldn't see Fox's face. The woman -- Scully -- was looking at him, concerned. "I guess it would tie everything up neatly if we did," he said finally. "All over."
She looked down and away then, the sweep of chin-length hair curtaining off her face. "Mulder. I know that..." she began.
"It's okay," he interrupted and reached out to her. She put down the mug and clasped his hand. "I guess you were right all along. You always believed Samantha was dead."
"Mulder, I didn't want to be right about that. Not about that."
He leaned against her. She pulled him close and planted a kiss on top of his head, then lifted her hand free for a second and scraped the beginnings of a tear away from one eye with the heel of her palm.
I wanted to reach into the screen and shake him. He'd seen me in that diner, held my hand, tried to convince me to talk to him. What had made him think that I was dead?
Then, she asked the question for me.
"But why do *you* believe it now?"
He sat up straight again, his shoulders uncurled. "I just do. Maybe it was the diary that convinced me she never had a chance." He shrugged. "Maybe I just want to stop concentrating on the people I don't have, start thinking about the people I do have."
She looked a little surprised and pleased. "Oh."
He turned to look at her and I could see his profile for the first time. His mouth twisted into a smile -- you could see the smart remark coming a second before he said: "Particularly ones I have in the biblical sense."
"Mulder." She half-laughed, pushing him away from her with a flat palm and moving towards the door. He caught her arm to pull her back and she frowned. "Mulder..."
"I know. Not here. We never know who's watching. You know what, Scully?"
He leaned close and stage-whispered in her ear. "No one's watching. And if they are, no one cares any more."
"Maybe. But still not here." He let go of her arm and she walked to the door; he followed. She turned. "Seven. My apartment. Don't be late."
You could hear her heels clack into the distance as he stood in the door jamb, one hand clutching at the frame above his head. Then he walked back to his desk and I saw him clearly for the first time. A slow, quiet smile curled across his tired face.
'So that's the real you,' I thought.
There was a sudden noise from beside me. My father looked at the television in disgust as Fox sat back down at his desk. "That's enough of that," he said, stopping the tape. "Say goodbye to him, Samantha. It's for the best. He has no power to do anything for you. I've always said I would protect you and I will."
"I could go and talk to him, explain it all."
He took a long, slow drag of his cigarette, the way he always did when he was preparing to deliver the coup de grace in an argument. "You could," he said. "But it would do no good."
"Why?" The word rang out harsh like a gull's cry; I startled myself with how desperate it sounded. He patted my head, as if I was a child.
"Samantha," he said with infinite gentleness. "Fox doesn't believe in you any more."
He got up and removed the videotape from the machine. "The disc now, please," he said. I fetched it from its hiding place in John's den and handed it over. "This was the only copy?"
I nodded, the penitent daughter even though I was seething inside.
His cool hand slid round the back of my neck, one finger rubbing the tiny scars there. He pressed leathery lips to my forehead. "Good girl."
Then he walked back to his car. It was the last time I ever saw him.
* * *
I look up at the nondescript apartment building half a block from the parking spot, wondering if one of the lights at the window is my brother's. Jack lifts his head, blinks and yawns pinkly. "Are we there yet, mom?"
"Kind of," I say. "There's someone we're going to see."
I sling my purse over one shoulder, pull the pack with the money in it over the other and scoop Tommy off the back seat. His head lolls and he mutters sleepily as I lock the doors of the car one-handed, bags pulling me off-balance.
A man opens the door for me as I approach the apartment block -- thank God for old fashioned courtesy -- so I reach the fourth floor without having to negotiate the intercom.
I pause by the window at the end of the hallway and nudge Tommy. "Honey, I want you to stay here with your brother." Jack looks up at me, face grave, while Tommy fists the sleep out of his eyes and looks bewildered. I lay a hand on Jack's cheek. "Stay here. It's only for five minutes."
It had taken more than half a year to plan this. I moved carefully at first, so carefully, certain I would be watched. At first he called every week to check up on me and I played the dutiful daughter. I was followed when I went out and I'm sure my calls were monitored. But I made no attempt to contact Fox and by May his phone calls stopped and his agents lost interest in following me to PTA meetings and Wal-Mart.
I know the house was searched while I was out on two occasions, and they were very thorough in John's den. But while a careful investigator can put books and papers exactly back where he found them, he cannot replace disturbed dust. My copy of the disk stayed safe, taped to the underside of the knife drawer in the kitchen.
I began liquidating the assets John and I had accumulated over 13 years of marriage, trickling as much cash as I dared into a secret bank account. Yesterday, I withdrew all that money and today at 5am I left my old life for good.
No light seeps from under the door of 42 as I rap on it fast, in time with my heartbeat. A lock turns, a deadbolt shoots back, and the door opens a sliver.
"Yes?" A woman's voice, low and impatient, and for a second I'm certain I've made a mistake.
"Fox Mulder lives here?"
It's her, the woman from the video, peering out of the door. I can only see the right half of her face in the murk of the room. I relax a little; this has to be the right place.
"Scully? You're Scully, aren't you? I'm sorry, I don't know your first name."
Then, I see the gleam of something metallic. A gun in her hand, rising. "Who are you?" she snaps.
"I'm ... uh, a friend of the Mulder family," I said.
The visible eye thins to a suspicious slit. "Friends of Mulder's family aren't usually friends of his. So who are you?"
I want to cry. "I just need to speak to him," I say, trying to hold my voice steady for the sake of the boys. I can see Jack at the end of the corridor, his hands bunching into fists, rising on his toes as if he wants to run to me. I will him to keep still. "I really need to speak to him. Please."
The door opens a little wider. "Move into the light, where I can see you properly."
I move along the corridor until I'm directly under the last light in the hallway. I know I must look terrible. I'm hot and sweaty after 18 hours on the road and I haven't slept well in months.
There's a small gasp from behind the door, it swings open and suddenly, she has her gun in my face. "I want you to drop your bag, step to the side and put your hands up against the wall," she states in a cold tone. "No swift movements. I've seen your kind before."
It's the kind of tone you don't disobey. I put both palms on the cold, grubby plaster beside the door and face the wall. She emerges, a smaller than expected shadow in my peripheral vision. A hand pats down my pockets, traces the contours of my sides, presses the small of my back.
"Mom!" shouts Jack in alarm. I can see Tommy wriggling in his grasp, trying to run over to me. Any second now, he will probably start crying.
She notices them for the first time. "It's okay, Jack, keep a hold of your brother," I say.
"You brought *children* with you?" Her voice is full of disgust.
"I couldn't leave them in the car, could I? And you're scaring them."
I turn but she's already walking back through the door. "You'd better bring them inside," she says.
We walk through a short hallway into a narrow living room lit only by the pale glow of an aquarium; it sheens the prints on his walls, the windows, the wide black maw of his TV, glints off her gun. I only feel able to breathe again when she tucks the weapon into the waistband of her sweatpants.
She pulls a rumpled, patterned blanket off the vast couch as she walks past it to switch on a lamp. A bottle of Evian, a half-empty silver blisterpack of pills and an alarm clock lurk on a side table next to the lamp stand. The light reveals a book-lined living room with anonymous pale walls. A masculine room.
She stands in the middle of it, in a scruffy gray T-shirt and an open blue shirt that hangs off her thin frame. Her hair is unexpectedly vivid against her pale face. A wide horseshoe of green, puce and gray bruising frames her left eye, making me wince.
I hardly recognise her. Her features are the same as the woman on the video but everything else about her is different, harsher.
"Sit down." It's a command, not an invitation.
I sit on the creaking couch, drawing Tommy onto my lap. He grabs fistfuls of my sweater and buries himself in my shoulder. Jack dumps our bags at my feet and sits so close to me that I can feel the quivering of his thigh muscles. His hand finds mine and I'm not sure who is steadying who.
"My name is Samantha. Samantha Halley." There's a derisive little snort at this but I keep a conciliatory smile on my face. "These are my sons, Tommy and Jack."
She stares at Jack for a moment, then at a framed photograph on the bookshelf near her head and then back at him. A flash of something crosses her features, softens them for a second.
"And I think you guess who I am already, don't you?" I say.
"You're going to tell me you're his sister," she says in a flat voice, her arms folded across her chest.
"I am. I know he believes I'm dead but he's been lied to and so have I." My voice gets thinner and more imploring the longer she lets me babble. "If you'll just tell me where he is or when he'll be back I know I can explain it."
"No," she replies. "You can't."
I can feel the anger begin to simmer and spread. "Look, I have to talk to him..."
"No, you don't understand," she interrupts and for the first time she sounds like the gentler woman I saw on the tape. "You can't. He's missing."
* * *
I'm sitting in the near-sterile kitchen of my long-lost brother's apartment, with a needle sliding under my skin, telling a stranger whose first name I don't even know about my patchwork life.
The oddness of it all makes me wonder if this is just the latest surreal dream in a lifetime of them.
I offered to give a blood sample to be checked against my brother's. She said she was a doctor and we could get this over with right away. As soon as I agreed, she relaxed. Now it is done, she gives me a tight little smile for the first time.
I need something to do with my hands so I make us both coffee like the good little housewife I've always been.
Low-level panic hums in my head like a bass string struck hard; an eardrum buzz that says "now what do I do?" over and over again. I drown it out by listening to her story.
Scully tells me Fox has been gone for almost five months now. Just vanished from a forest in Oregon. No word, nothing. When I press for details, she evades the question.
I can't believe I've missed him. More than 20 years and I miss him by less than 20 weeks. Frustration eats at me like acid. "You must have seen *some*thing," I say.
"I wasn't there."
She shakes her head and looks down into her coffee. "That doesn't matter any more."
She tells me that she will find him. She insists on it. There's fierce determination in her voice but looking at her strained face and the way her knuckles whiten around the mug as she speaks about him, I think the hope has gotten very frail lately.
Scully taking care of his apartment -- I think she's responsible for its pristine state. She speaks about Fox like she's furious with him, like he's on an extended vacation and when he gets back she's going to kick his ass for not calling.
"The guys," whoever they are, have taped every Yankees game of the season for Fox; that is what Jack is watching now in the other room. I will not allow him or Tommy to hear me speak ill of their father.
I tell her about John's accident at El Rico, and the disc, how I copied the information and then wrote to ask Fox's help. It's kind of her not to mention how naive I was.
"He searched for you for years, you know, and all the time you were a day's drive away," she says, shaking her head. "You should've called him after the... after your father left. He would've helped you."
I look down, my finger tracing infinity in droplets of coffee I have spilt on the table. "He scared me," I whisper. "His story was insane to me then. And he just seemed so driven and unhappy."
When I look up, expecting to find her angry, she just sits tapping the mug on the table, lost in thought.
It's only when I get to the part about the strange records for Tommy that she blanches. "Let me look at those," she demands. I give her the disc and follow her back into the living room.
Jack is engrossed in the game but Tommy has his forehead pressed against the aquarium, breath fogging the cold glass. One finger traces the stately motion of an angelfish as it veers past a bobbing UFO toy.
The fish crowd close to his head -- perhaps they're intrigued by the bright burn of his hair. I ruffle his bronze curls and he grins up at me, then goes back to pulling faces at the tetras as they dart to and fro.
She snaps on the computer, pulls on a pair of round reading glasses, and slides in the disc. Sitting down at the desk, she types in a password. The cuffs of her over-long sleeves keep getting in the way so she shrugs the shirt off and that's when I see it.
Her entire left arm is yellow-green with bruising, scored through by red scratches that make parts of it look like crazy paving.
She grimaces as she hears my intake of breath. "What happened?" The question is out of my mouth before I can stop myself.
"I was sideswiped by a van on my way home, ten days ago. Run off the road and into a ditch," she says, as if she's reporting some unfortunate incident that happened to a stranger. "Not an accident."
There's an uncomfortable silence as I move to her shoulder and try not to stare at the damage. I dig up the appropriate platitude. "Lucky you weren't badly hurt, then."
"Yeah." Her tone is flat and brittle. "Oh yeah, I'm real lucky."
"Are you okay?"
She stares resolutely at the screen and then presses her fingers into her eyes for a moment. "I'll live," she says.
She double-clicks on the icon. "I recognise some of these names," she murmurs, moving the arrow from folder to folder -- from Hagopian to Kane, from Kane to Northern.
I think she senses my impatience as I hover behind her. She opens the folder for Tommy and picks a document at random. She reads so quickly, clicking the mouse through the pages of impenetrable data. "This is a report on RFLP tests."
She spots my look of confusion. "Restriction fragment length polymorphism. This file contains a genetic map of your son." She pauses. "I'm sorry to ask this but has there ever been any question about his paternity?"
"No, of course not!" I splutter. There's never been anyone else but John.
She's still scrolling through the files, her expression darkening. "Has Tommy ever undergone gene therapy of any kind? Is he being treated for any medical condition at all?"
I shake my head. "No. Nothing. And Tommy hardly ever gets sick."
I hear her exhale through pursed lips. More clicks as she opens documents and speed reads what I can't begin to understand.
"The company John worked for made sure we had a comprehensive health check-up every year. Could it be that?"
She shrugs. "It's way too detailed for just a health check. You were examined every year?"
"Yes. John said it was one of the perks of the employee package with Prangen."
The clicking of the mouse stops.
Scully pushes the chair back so fast that it bangs against the coffee table and makes Jack flinch. She strides across the room and kneels next to Tommy, who tears solemn blue eyes from the fish to stare at her.
"Tommy, my name is Dana," she says. "May I take a quick look at you?"
He bites his lip and looks up at me. "It's okay, honey," I say. "I'm here."
He turns back to Scully and nods.
Have you ever been so afraid that it hollowed you, left you dried out and blown around from moment to moment like a reed? That's what it feels like when something threatens your children. No matter what you do or how vigilant you are, it's never enough. That's why I ran.
Her hands slide to the back of his neck. Her movements are so gentle that he forgets his reluctance and returns her smile. She lifts his hair and peers closely at his neck, pressing the top of his spine, the glands in his neck. He starts to wriggle. "When was he born?" she asks.
She bites her bottom lip, nods. "Have you noticed anything unusual about him at all? Anything?"
"He's very smart. He spoke late but he was reading when he was three. I mean, Jack is smart too but not like Tommy." There's a grunting noise from the couch at this and I cast an apologetic glance at Jack, who ignores me.
She stares at Tommy, who is spellbound by the angelfish again as it flits past his nose. Her expression is odd. "I'd like to take blood samples from Jack and Tommy, run some tests," she says. "Maybe these records were just your husband's way of making sure the children were well."
I agree to her request because I'm incapable of believing anything good about John any more.
* * *
Jack is pretending to watch the ball game but stealing protective glances at me. I'll have to answer his questions soon. Tommy is lying asleep on my lap, clutching the UFO toy from the fish tank. Scully gave it to him for not crying when the blood was drawn.
She asked if she could keep the disc and I agreed. I hope she might understand what's on it.
She's been on the phone in the bedroom for 15 minutes now, talking about me. It must be a friend, the kind of person you can wake at 4am on a Thursday morning. The door is shut but I can still hear her side of the conversation above the noise of the television.
"Do you think it's possible, Frohike? Could it be adapted?" A pause. "How quickly?
"Don't know, but I think she might be." Pause. "Yeah, two. Her sons." Another beat. "I told you, they just turned up at Mulder's door."
"Yes, I was there; what difference does that make?" She sounds harsh again, like she did when we first met. "Because I couldn't stare at the same four walls for one more hour.
"Mom went home." A beat of silence. "No, I didn't tell her.
"Because she was driving me insane and I don't want to fight with her.
"Look, I'm okay. No... Frohike, listen..."
Another pause and then she's almost shouting. "Frohike, I'm all right, damn it. Just drop it."
When she next speaks, her voice is back at its normal pitch. "Yeah. Okay. At 5:30 then."
She emerges and gives me a hard look. "I need to know what you were planning to do," she said. "You were going to speak to Mulder and what? What did you want from him?"
And that was the big question.
I think I had envisaged some big reunion with hugs and kisses and swelling strings. My big brother with that slow, quiet smile, saying he'd keep me safe forever. But the truth is, people have been telling me they'd protect me for 27 years and no one ever has.
"I'm not going back," I say with venom. "I'm not."
"Mom!" Jack protests. "We're not going home?"
I give him a warning stare. "We're not going anywhere where they can find us again, Jack."
Scully, who is leaning against the desk with her arms folded, nods her satisfaction with that answer. She leads me back into the kitchen away from the boys. "I can help you disappear," she says.
Judgmental blue eyes rake my face. "Friends of mine have another ID set up. Transport. Bank accounts. You could take it. It would take a couple days to get the papers changed so they fit you, and some for Tommy and Jack. But then you'd be good to go."
She had all this prepared? "This was for you wasn't it?" I say. "You were going to find him and then you were both going to take off. Disappear."
"My circumstances have changed." The way she snaps that forbids further questions. "I will help you if that's what you want. But if you go, you can't go back."
"I'm ready," I said. "I won't have my children tested and catalogued."
The corners of her mouth turn up. "Okay, then," she says. I feel as if I've passed some kind of test.
* * *
The seconds tick slowly away to 5:30. The boys are in an untidy tangle in my arms on the sofa. I blink rapidly to keep my eyes open and attempt not to yawn. She sits in the chair opposite and tries not to make it obvious that she's studying us.
I decide to ask her what has been bothering me. "What made you decide I was Fox's sister?"
Scully reaches for the silver-framed photograph from the shelf, the one she has been eyeing all night, and hands it to me. There's a tall boy with his arms folded, his face split by a lopsided grin. A younger dark haired girl with pigtails smiles confidently at the camera.
I think she is me.
I don't know whether to be happy I've found another piece of the puzzle or upset because this happy girl, leaning into her brother, is such a stranger.
"See?" Her eyes flick to Jack, who is sprawled along one end of the couch and I realise that Scully has been seeing Fox in my son. Jack has the same small chin and prominent nose. I try to hand her back the picture but she shakes her head and says softly: "It's okay. Keep it."
I push it into my bag, my hands shaking. "So you think I'm telling the truth?"
"I'm not completely convinced, but I think I believe you. The balance of evidence is in your favor." She gives a tight, little smile. "And I'll be checking out your story anyhow."
"If you're not sure, why are you helping me? Apart from anything else, this costs money. A lot of money."
"Yes, but Mulder inherited a lot of money when his... when your mom died. Half of that money is yours. He wouldn't begrudge you it."
"What if I'm not his sister?"
She shrugs. "If you're not his sister, do you and Tommy and Jack need our help any less?"
"But that doesn't answer the question."
Her head tips back for a second and she sighs. Then her wintry eyes fix on me. "These people. Once they have you, they never leave you alone."
Scully's low voice is a blade unsheathed, sharp with anger and bitterness.
"There's no one they won't try to control. Mulder and me, we've been fighting them but you can see how far we've gotten. They take everything that's good and precious and they leave you with *nothing*..."
She realises that she's about to wake the boys and lowers her voice. "Well, I'll be damned if I'll let them have Tommy," she says. "Or you, or Jack. I won't stop fighting and if I can fuck them over while I'm helping you, so much the better."
That's an impulse I understand, even if I don't know the circumstances. "It sounds a lonely life, though."
"I'm not lonely," she states firmly. "I have Mulder."
It seems unkind to remind her that he's gone. She catches my look anyhow. "He never gave up on me, not once. I won't give up on him."
Her cell phone rings three times, then stops, then rings three more times. She climbs out of the chair. "Time to go."
I wake up Jack who scowls and stretches. I pick up our bags and bend toward Tommy awkwardly until I feel a hand on my shoulder.
"Let me," she whispers. She gently slides one arm under his back and the other under his legs, scooping him into her arms and cradling his head against her neck. He mutters and squirms, then locks his arms around her neck.
She holds him very tight as we make our way down the dank concrete staircase to the back of the building.
* * *
When we leave my brother's apartment building, creeping out of a fire door into the grimy, litter-strewn alley, the city is waking up to another humid gray Thursday.
A short, heavy shower has left wide, shallow puddles across the street. A set of tires hiss through them as a battered Volkswagen van pulls up behind a Dumpster.
Scully introduces the men inside and I try to remember which name goes with which face. The neat, bearded guy is Byers, who gets out and shakes my hand. There's something steady and trustworthy about him. The one at the wheel, a long-haired, thin faced man whose name I didn't quite catch, just nods and pointedly looks at his watch. A door in the side of the bus draws back and a squat, badly shaven little man gives Scully a quick smile and then looks me up and down with unashamed curiosity. This must be Frohike.
He turns to me and takes the bags from my grasp, slinging them into the back. "Take my hand," he says, waving a paw in fingerless gloves at me. He pulls me into the van, which smells of week-old socks and greasy takeout.
I try not to wrinkle my nose as I sit down. Scully leans in and passes me Tommy, who squirms for a second and then settles back to sleep in my lap. Jack climbs in, his eyes going wide and excited at the electronic equipment stacked against one metal wall, sprouting wires.
The little man gives him a brief grin then turns to Scully. His voice is gentle. "Comin' with?" he asks.
She shakes her head. "Got to get back, Frohike, you know..."
"...just in case," he finishes. "I know."
"Sorry about earlier," she says with an embarrassed shrug.
"No sweat. I was getting too damned nosy."
She smiles at him. "I'll see you later, guys." She turns to me and nods. "Well, goodbye. Good luck."
"You won't forget the disc?" I ask.
She shakes her head. "I promise, as soon as I know anything I'll tell you what I can. I'll get the information to you."
She takes a deep breath as if taking a decision and then reaches for my hand. "Take care, Samantha. Look after the boys. When he gets back we'll contact you, somehow. He'll want to meet you."
I nod. I want to believe her. A quick squeeze and she lets go. The little guy draws the van door shut and mutters: "Okay. Drive, dude."
The van jolts forward, then peels away into the early morning traffic.
Eight hours ago I was sitting in my car hoping to meet my brother, and not thinking much beyond our first conversation, except to tell myself that I wasn't going back. Now I have no idea where I'm going.
'Fox Mulder doesn't believe in you any more.' That was what my father had said.
No, but someone does.