Fox Mulder stands beside the swimming pool in a YMCA in Alexandria, Virginia. The pool is old and the echoey room poorly ventilated. Moisture forms a soft haze around the buzzing overhead lights, and on the narrow deck all the surfaces are wet. The air is close with humidity and the smell of chlorine.
He loves it here.
Beneath his bare feet, inlaid among the sweaty tiles, are the words "NO DIVING," but the warning is contradicted by the white starting block in front of him. He steps up, adjusting his goggles, and sights along the blue distance. There is no one else in his lane. The plastic flags at five and 45 meters hang limply in the stifling air. He wiggles his toes and coils to spring, waiting for an imaginary gunshot.
Actually, he's not so big on gunshots lately. Maybe something else, then, like that saucy cheerleader waving her handkerchief to start the drag race in Grease. Yeah, that works.
The cheerleader looks like Scully and she's waving a file folder. Whatever.
Swimmers to your mark.
He slices through air into water. Bubbles fly past his face. The delicious, elusive tangibility of water engulfs him, and it feels like waking in a familiar room after a confusing dream.
He dolphin-kicks to the surface and starts to pull. He turns his head for air. He counts: this is length number one. One, one, one, one, one. He counts lengths instead of laps; it's easier to keep track that way. Besides, the time and distance pass more quickly when counted by halves instead of wholes: a harmless piece of self-deception. Divide by two, multiply by 100, and suddenly he'll have done half a mile.
There's the wall up ahead. He somersaults, finds the wall with his feet, pushes and twists.
When he dives in he starts out thinking that he's not going to think, but that never lasts. Thinking about not thinking constitutes thinking, after all. When his brain has no one else to talk to it talks to itself, and swimming is his most solitary exercise.
In high school he played basketball, which is just the opposite — immediate, interactive, and thoroughly grounded in the moment. He still loves the hustle, all the intricate twists and turns of it, the posturing and the playful give-and-take.
His high school didn't have a swim team, but that didn't matter; they lived in the midst of the ocean and its claim on him was older by far than any other. He's belonged in the water since his first summer, when his father held him under the arms and dipped his toes in the Vineyard Sound. It calls to him. He's drawn to water the way he's drawn to the stars, with a longing he's never been able to put into words.
Things start to make sense in the water. Fragments of information dissolve and re-form into new shapes, new meanings. Pieces previously disconnected are suddenly joined together; ideas are given birth. It's weirdly meditative.
He turns again, pushes off, and ponders the number three. He discovered long ago that simply counting lengths doesn't always do it. His thoughts are too fluid, too easily interrupted, and he loses count unless he concentrates, turns each length of the pool into a meditation on the number itself.
Some numbers are easy to remember: Majestic 12 and 10/13; Roswell in '47 and Maris's 61 homers in '61; July 20, 1969.
But this isn't 69. This is three.
Three is the Stooges and the Lone Gunmen — and if the Gunmen are the Three Stooges, does that make him Shemp? — and, oh yeah, the Holy Trinity. Four is north, south, east, and west; earth, air, fire, water. Water. Five is his personality type. Six is Scully's, and six is Samantha falling out of the rope swing and breaking her collarbone. She wore a sling for the rest of the summer and cried about how unfair it was that he was still allowed to go swimming when she couldn't.
Samantha could swim like a fish, her hair in long dark braids trailing behind her like fins or seaweed on summer days at Quonochontaug. Even so, she used to spend hours just sitting in the shallows, playing with the sand and telling herself stories, and assaulting him with shrieks and splashes whenever he came near. The last summer, her eighth, she had a bathing suit patterned with blue starfish, with little ruffles at the hips. His was boy-boring and red — or, hell, could have been green; anyway, his mother picked it out.
They practically lived in their bathing suits. Every morning at the summer house he would pull on his trunks in the loft before shimmying down the ladder to breakfast, where there'd be toast and eggs from the little grocery near the marina and Mom in shorts and sleeveless shirt would be braiding Samantha's hair. Once they went outside they'd be out for the whole day, only running in briefly for sandwiches or books and running back out again before Mom could scold them for tracking sand into the house.
He liked to throw a golf ball out into the deep water and dive and dive until he found it again. Sometimes Samantha would insist on playing too, and she always got mad at him when he threw the ball out too far for her to follow.
"Fox! It's over my head!" It was over his head too, but that was the point. He ignored her, breathed, and kicked down through the slanting light until his ears popped. There it was. Just a little farther… got it.
He burst to the surface, gasping, with the little white ball clutched triumphantly in his hand. Samantha darted in to take it from him, but he wriggled out of her slippery grasp and held the ball up over his head where she couldn't reach it.
Some of those days are crystal clear and bright in his memory; he knows all the words, what they were wearing, and what they had for lunch. But there are other days, a frightening number of them, that he can barely remember at all, and those are the ones that wake him up at night drenched with sweat or tears, reaching for what isn't there. He tells himself he wants to know everything, but he knows there's some tiny, self-preserving part of him that doesn't want to hear what was said back then, doesn't want to know who might have played catch with him on the beach or shared beers with Dad by the barbecue grill.
The flutter kick uses up more oxygen than any other part of the forward crawl, so long-distance freestylers barely move their feet until the final sprint, relying instead on their arms to propel them onward. Maybe his memory is like that; it may provide a vital edge in the final stretch, but too much too soon and he'll run out of air.
He never was one to forgo kicking, though.
He pours it on now, racing for the wall just meters away; pull, pull, breathe, pull, and then his fingers close on the gutter edge and he finally lets his feet touch bottom. Nine hundred meters.
He ducks underwater to slick back his hair, then shoves his goggles up on his forehead and leans against the wall, breathing hard.
There are signs of intelligent life up here; there are a few swimmers in other lanes now and music is playing on a loudspeaker. He thinks the lifeguards must bring in mix tapes, because he tends to hear the same songs over and over. Somebody here really likes Oasis.
After a moment he reaches for the water bottle he stashed under the starting block and takes a few careful sips. Fresh water tastes strange after all the chlorine. As he stows the bottle again the music changes to something by Counting Crows, and just like that he starts to rattle off crow-lore in his head: one crow means sorrow, two crows mean joy, three crows a wedding, four crows…
"Stop it," he mutters firmly, and pulls down his goggles, wiping off the fog with his thumbs before sticking them in place. He takes a breath and pushes off again.
Time for breaststroke.
Of all strokes, breaststroke with its long-limbed, easy glide requires the least of his attention. If he times it right it feels almost effortless. For most of the first length he's just focused on how smooth it feels, enjoying the fact that his timing seems to be right on today, and then he realizes he's dangerously close to losing count. He did 900 free, nine hundreds times two, that makes 18 lengths, so this is 19.
When he was 21 he swam the English Channel.
Well, okay, it was a relay race, so he actually swam something like one-eighth of the English Channel, but it's still the ultimate swimmer cred.
They left England at dawn: the boat pilot and his mate, six swimmers, two coaches, and Phoebe. He wasn't sure how she'd finagled a spot on the boat — knowing Phoebe, it was by fouler means than fair — but he was glad of her company during the long hours on the choppy sea while he waited for his turn.
He was fifth up, and he dived off the boat in midafternoon into the sharpest cold he'd ever known — worse than high school when the guys would ride their bikes down to the beach after basketball practice and dare each other into the December surf. He set a fast pace through the rough, interminable waves; it warmed him up, but not by much.
At first he was intent, inspired — the English Channel! — but after a while everything fell away except the rote movement of his body and the mindless imperative to keep going. Then, through the white noise of the water and his own breathing, he grew vaguely aware of Phoebe calling encouragements at him. Against all reason, hearing her voice made him feel a tiny bit warmer, and he clung to it as proof that the world still existed, that he wasn't utterly alone in a shoreless, frigid sea.
When his hour was up and they hauled him back, shivering, onto the support boat, she greeted him with a blanket and an astonishingly genuine smile. He was too exhausted to question it, so he gratefully swallowed the hot chocolate she fetched for him and leaned on her windbreakered shoulder as they watched France grow on the horizon. Of course, later on when he was horribly seasick she was nowhere to be found, but that was par for the course.
Phoebe was not cut out to be a swim team groupie, although she seemed to glean some arcane amusement from trying. In actual fact, Phoebe hated the water, and she always seemed slightly thrown by the existence of an activity in which she could not be in direct competition with him. Still, though, she managed to play the supportive girlfriend in her own special way. She cheered him on at meets and ogled his teammates shamelessly. She made gleefully inappropriate remarks about breaststroke (and really, wasn't that his prerogative?). She smirked when he wore Speedos, and she thought butterfly was an incredibly dodgy method of locomotion.
"'Dodgy,' Mulder?" Scully's voice cuts across the reminiscence.
Laughing underwater is not a good idea, but he almost can't help it.
Most of his Britishisms are long gone, but on the rare occasion he lets one slip Scully is always quick to call him out on it. What had they been talking about that time? Kelpies, selkies, coelacanths, Big Blue, the Fiji Mermaid? He'd felt something brush his leg that day in the middle of the Channel, and he'd barely even believed in cryptids then. Scully has read Moby Dick; she knows about these things.
He switches to fly with the next turn, throwing his whole body into the familiar undulating rhythm, drawing a keyhole with his hands. Scully wouldn't make fun of his butterfly, but then again she's never actually seen it. It's hard to keep up with his swimming when they're on the road; the motel pools are few and far between, and often too small for laps, but sometimes he gets lucky.
He should make a case for staying only in places with pools on the grounds that it would aid his investigations. Somehow he doubts the Bureau would go for that, but it's true. He's worked out entire profiles in the pool without meaning to; they just ripple into his mind like the waves he makes, insight building on insight until suddenly the picture becomes clear.
Miami. Ritual homicide. It was their third night in the motel after three frustrating days without a lead. He fidgeted in front of the TV until he couldn't stand it anymore, then changed his clothes and crept quietly downstairs. The pool room had closed at ten. He picked the lock and swam in the dark.
He swam IMs until he could barely stand, butter-back-breast-free over and over again, then knocked on Scully's door all damp and wobbly-legged and told her whodunit. Ten minutes later she was on the phone getting a warrant and he was crashed across the foot of her bed, out like a light with his hedgehog hair leaving a wet spot on the scratchy mauve comforter. She woke him after what seemed like only moments to apprehend the suspect, whom they found chanting in a dockside warehouse, pouring out blood sacrifices to the boundless sea.
All the waters of the world are one. It's no wonder, really, that gliding back and forth through this self-contained chemical bath makes him think of the beach, of the Channel, of Martian canals, of things that live and die in amniotic flasks and of brushing tears from Scully's cheek in a long, bright hallway. That last one shoots his breathing all to hell and he has to revert to breast and finish the length with his head out of the water, gasping awkwardly.
He glides to a stop against the wall and just hangs there, breathing. It's fine. Scully's fine. We're all fine here now, thank you.
Thinking about upsetting things while underwater is an even worse idea than laughing.
It doesn't seem right that human beings are made of water but can't breathe it in. It's a foolish oversight of evolution, like the low incidence of human telepathy; everything would be so much easier if he could just take the thoughts from his head and share them with someone else when he needed them to understand.
R.E.M. are crooning over the loudspeakers: "Everybody Hurts." Thank you, Michael Stipe. He turns to survey the deck and eyes his blue towel lying crumpled on a nearby bench. He could get out. But no, he hasn't made his goal yet, and anyway he hates to end on a bad length.
So — backstroke? It's his least favorite, but he's a completist. He gazes up at the fringe of flags while subtracting in his head. The aborted butterfly brought him to 52, so he's got, hmmm… 12 lengths to go. Six trips down and back. Six hundred meters.
"Ah, screw it," he decides, and pushes off for another set of breast.
Fifty-three, 54, and the rhythm is perfect, the kick and the pull flowing seamlessly one from the other. He imagines his watery insides straining against the impermeable barrier of skin, trying to merge with the water that surrounds him — like calling to like, so close and yet so far away, their mingling impossible except by final and cataclysmic dissolution. For a crystalline moment his mind goes utterly clear and there's no him anymore, just two bodies of water united in motion.
The Vineyard. He is eight years old and a sea creature at play, gamboling in the sun-soaked breakers under the cliffs. He doesn't speak the same language as the people up in the air, so when one calls to him from the shore — Fox, it's time to come in now! — he ignores the foreign words and slips back down to his aquatic habitat. This is his home, his element, this half-lit, changeable realm that moves him and moves with him. He trails a hand in front of him and feels the ocean between his fingers like invisible strings, like magic. He likes the way the salt tastes. The sunbeams as they sift down to illuminate his secret world are the most beautiful things he's ever seen. The treasures of the deep are his to seek and to find. He follows where the currents lead.