emily is four, which is really too young to understand the hallmark glare of mother’s day that strikes them both in an odd light. they were a strange and pretty pair. the young gun-toting mother and her daughter without a childhood - most remnants of emily’s first three years had been swallowed up by brusque and inexplicable flames that had eaten away at the sim’s house like cancer sometime in february.
“california wildfires,” mulder had muttered when they got the call, emily asleep on the couch between them. “they said it must have been wildfires.”
“very small wildfires,” she’d replied, mostly too tired to fight the absurdity of the thing, the unfairness of slipping a little girl’s past right out from under her. she’d seen a wildfire blast the definition of its name into a hazy sunset as a child once, flames gasping at the sides of the sky. “very small,” she’d repeated. he’d held her hand until the oxygen came back into the room, proving itself in the easy rise and fall of emily’s chest.
it’s may, a cloying sunday morning, the temperature flirting with the upper seventies.
“i do not want those,” emily declares sternly, eyeing her mary janes suspiciously from the edge of the bed. she was not a crier, preferring steely silence and watery glances to histrionics.
“she gets that from you,” mulder had said three weeks ago, as emily sat with her hair in wet tendrils around her cheeks, refusing the brush, speaking in monosyllables. “god,” he’d shaken his head after sleep had finally pressed her into submission against his shoulder. “she could break your heart.”
“dana,” emily says, her voice tinged with the bruising hint of a whine. “i want the magic shoes instead.”
scully nods,crawling to pull a pair of ruby red slippers from the corner of the room. she’s spent more time on her knees these past months with a toddler than she ever had in church. this feels like a new form of sanctity.
emily grins, reaches out her sweet round hands and gets glitter all over her pink fingers. she laughs, delighted by the shower of sparkles all over the bed spread.
“magic!” she exclaims and scully isn’t sure she’s wrong.
“happy mother’s day,” mulder says when he picks them up, kissing her cheek and presenting her with a handful of daffodils that may or may not have been picked from private property.
“you know daffodils are historically associated with bad luck?” she teases, her hand inexplicably lingering on his wrist as he smiles dumbly at her.
“i get a kiss!” emily demands from the floor and she lets him go, her fingertips strangely missing the thrum of his pulse.
he was around a lot, more than he had been before emily, in that paranoid push-pull of their lives together. she’d thought it would end when she left the bureau, sure his unyielding devotion would fray, but it hadn’t. it hadn't. nothing changed except he touched her softer now, or maybe that’s how he’d always touched her but she hadn’t felt it through bullet-proof vests.
they take her to the park in dupont, with its sprawling wizard of oz mural and twisting monkey bars. emily plays happily in the sandbox, her shoes sparkling in the sun. they watch her from the closest bench, mulder dusting sand from his jeans after constructing an elaborate castle. she keeps the daffodils in her hand, pretends not to notice the whisper of his fingers on the back of her neck.
a little boy cries out sharply for his mother, and scully thinks of emily’s stern little voice saying “dana” as she crawled into bed with her.
“do you think,” she starts, then bites her lip, watching emily’s hair fall over her eyes as she squints at her sand-creation.
“what, scully?” mulder’s eyes always change color in the sun. she’s spent so much time in darkness with him that the warm hazel is almost unfamiliar. she looks at emily again.
“do you think she knows? i mean, she knows i’m her mother. we talked. but do you think she understands?”
do you think she loves me? is what she means but is too afraid to say. she’s never lied to him before, he reads the real question in the curl of her fist.
he opens his mouth to reply, to tell her that she’s never seen herself asleep with emily curled up against her shoulder, that she can’t have noticed how her daughter watches her, mimics the purse of her lips. “mulder, no,” emily had said two days ago, when he’d offered her the wrong flavor ice cream, her voice a mirror of her mother’s.
“i think,” he starts and emily is there, suddenly, bouncing up towards them with the energy and levity of a refracted sunbeam. “this,” she says, presenting scully with a blue-green piece of what probably used to be a beer bottle, but had been worn down, softened and made safe by some distant sea before being abandoned in the sandbox. “this is very pretty. it’s for you.”
“oh,” scully says, a smile catching her voice.
“yes,” emily replies gravely. she grins, pauses, then kisses scully smartly on the cheek before wandering back to her miniature castle. scully closes her eyes, curling her fingers over the smooth glass.
mulder reaches over and takes her hand in his, emily’s answer held safely in the curve of her palm.
they wake up. the sun is warm and cream against their sheets, her skin. they’d known this was coming in the way you know that if you jump off a bridge you will hit the ground. you’re still sure you can hold onto the ledge. you’re not convinced of the cement until you can taste it.
when they’d moved here, to the low-slung house cradled in acres of fields, she’d been soothed by the silence of it. they’d hushed each other in so many bedrooms and across so many hotel sheets. they’d lived half their lives in whisper, holding silence sacred like an oath. here the silence held the house so they could make their own noise.
but there were always birds in spring, the cracking of branches and ice against the windows in winter. even the quiet had a rhythm, a smooth and subtle symphony.
she hears nothing but his heartbeat now. she supposes that is appropriate. “it was today.”
“yeah,” he breathes, turns in bed to look at her with wide and frightened eyes, presses his lips to her knuckles like he’s confessing. “i didn’t really believe it could happen.”
she holds him for as long as she can let herself before the reality of it all sets in. “let’s go,” she says, quiet, a prayer. “let’s go get him.”
william is very small when they find him, a sixteen year old boy curled and crouched in on himself until he fits neatly in the corner between his living room couch and a flower-print wall.
“everyone is dead,” he whispers when he sees them, as if unsure that they’re an exception. “everyone is asleep and won’t wake up.”
the dirt on his sneakers tells her he’s tried the neighbors, a mile south, and found just what he had when he’d opened his parents bedroom door. she wants to hold him, remembers showering the antiseptic smell of the morgue off her skin before picking him up as a child, not wanting him to learn death and all its senses. sight, sound, smell.
mulder squeezes her hand and she can feel his fingers shake. “no,” she says, her voice curved around a hundred things she wants to tell him. “not everyone.”
they get lost in wyoming. what should be a two day drive ends up taking ten as they drive without a speed limit or a clear direction. they’d decided on arizona a year ago, sure that if there were others who were immune they were likely to be clustered there.
almost two weeks into a blank, quiet drive and mulder and william raid a highway convenience store for a handful of cds and iced tea. mulder hands her the tea and kisses her. “could be love, scully.”
william is quiet, serious, but he laughs loud and real when mulder puts on everybody wants to rule the world, calls them mulder and scully, or fox and scully if he’s teasing. he’s funny, their son, wry and sarcastic like his mother. it’s spring and flowers press at the highway, growing despite the dead weight of an empty world.
they’ve found some sort of routine in the press of roads, the occasional rescue mission of lost and terrified survivors. they send everyone they find towards arizona and william is good with the most shell-shocked ones, the children. he has steady hands and his father’s smile.
a little girl, maybe ten, had lost her whole family. she wouldn’t speak to anyone until william knelt in front of her and said something in a low murmur. she’d nodded and held his neck, crying for her mother. that was in kansas. william has been quiet since, staring out the window at the rush of mottled greys and greens.
i want my mother, the girl had sobbed into his neck.
i know, he’d said. i know.
his mother had been thin and sweet, she’d called him willie and he’d hated it. he’d called her mama, even though it was a baby word. his chest aches.
“mom?” he says suddenly, and it hurts but in a good, bruising way like your heart does after you run so fast that you think you’ve changed the turn of the world. he wants to, he wants to.
the air in scully’s lungs backfires, choking its way into her chest. mom , mulder mouths from next to her. the car feels warmer than before.
she tightens her hands on the wheel, blinking fast. “what is it, will?”
“nothing,” he says, squinting out the window as the sun strikes the road, reflecting it back. she thinks he almost smiles, rubs at his eyes. “nothing.”
the house smells sweetly of nag champa and something else, orange juice, maybe, or citrus baby shampoo. the effect is warm, sweet and somewhat nauseating.
“it smells like stevie nicks started a really magical daycare in here,” mulder says offhand as melissa laughs her sparkly fairy godmother laugh and hugs him sideways.
california light sprays into the room through warped glass windows and from somewhere down the hall scully can hear sara’s musical little voice chanting out her abcs over the rush of running water.
“monica will love you for saying that,” melissa tells him, turning to scully and planting fluttering butterfly kisses all over her cheeks. “happy mother’s day,” she hums, gently touching her fingertips to her sister’s stomach. “you are absolutely ginormous.”
scully rolls her eyes, returning her sister’s iridescent affections. “scully will love you for saying that,” mulder quips from the kitchen and she can hear his smile.
there is a clattering from the hall, the unmistakable sound of plastic princess heels on hardwood, and sara drags her mother by the hand into the foyer. “see!” she exclaims, all four year old pride and gap toothed smile. “i told you they were here! i knew it!”
“and you were very right,” monica tells her, stretching up to hug her sister-in-law in the awkward-one armed way people adopt around the very small and very pregnant. she blows a kiss to mulder, who waves and holds his hands out to sara from the kitchen. laughter bubbles up from her little girl chest as he swings her around once, twice, her princess shoes lifting gracefully off the floor.
“oh for the love of god, dana,” melissa groans, swatting at her sister’s shoulder, still smiling. “we can’t have you making heart eyes at him for the whole meal. i won’t be able to eat.”
monica snorts, then frowns, her voice lowered in half-hearted warning, “melissa.”
“i don’t know what you’re talking about,” scully sniffs, feigns cool indifference. “we’re just very good friends.”
mulder nods from over sara’s head. “the best of friends,” he adds, winking at his niece. “we decided to have a baby instead of getting friendship bracelets. much more permanent.”
melissa laughs again, that stained glass sound. from the kitchen sara, breathless, says: “the world sure is spinny today” and the scully grins as the sun drags across the window, turning them on their calibrated axis.
the white cardboard sign in the gas station window informs them it’s mother’s day with pink and purple text. she is not particularly grateful for the p.s.a, but mulder pulls over off the interstate, even as she says, “we can’t afford to stop.”
“we’ll be right back,” he promises, plucking william out of his carseat and kissing her cheek. “tell your mother we’ll be right back so she believes me, buddy.”
“back, ma!” will chirps, waving a pudgy fist and patting mulder’s shoulder like he’ll make sure of it.
she tries not to feel anything like fear as she crosses her legs on the warped gas station picnic table and watches them set off into the dust that obscures the building from the road. she tries not to feel anything like she had watching mulder walk out of her apartment nine months ago. she thinks instead, obscurely, of his watercolor eyes when he’d kissed her in the threshold of a jail cell in spring, william’s weight warm and solid between them like an understanding: you don’t leave us again .
the sky is hot, burned blue by the arizona sun and william’s gleeful “ma!” echoes over empty desert space. she squints into the sunlight, can barely make out the outline of her entire life wandering back towards her with flowers in hand.
when they’re close enough to touch, she goes to stand in their combined shadow. william shakes a half-hearted bouquet of withered violets with a smile. they’re missing most their petals, she notes as she leans towards them, inhaling nothing but the smell of baby powder and her own perfume. “beautiful,” she tells will, kissing his cheek, and means it.
mulder shrugs. “he liked the petals much better off the flowers.”
she grins, still somewhat awed, despite herself, at the sheer existence of them, her wild-eyed boys. “that's okay,” she says, plucking a petal from the bunch in william’s chubby first. “they’re more fun like this.”
“loves me,” she sing-songs as she tickles his cheek with the flower. she plucks another. “loves me not.”
william laughs his rolling baby laugh and she plucks two more, glancing up at mulder. he smiles differently these days, less ephemeral, more concrete. “loves me, loves me not.”
will’s giggle hangs in the still air and she becomes suddenly aware of their context. they’re knit together tight, the three of them, throwing dark shadows across empty gas-station tables. the interstate hums nearby, the rush of cars like the ocean. we’ve built an arc, she thinks. they’re smiling on top of the flood.
william is looking at her expectantly, the last of the petals poised between her fingertips as they stand out in the summer glare.
“you okay, mom?” mulder says low, his free hand coming up to trace the hard line of her shoulder. she nods, her vision going dizzy and warm.
“loves me,” she says, smiling. she tips forward into mulder’s one armed embrace and william’s crushed violet fingers as the rest of the petals fall sweetly to the ground.
her hair is laced with gold in the sun, her hand small and cold in his. they are a striking, memorable pair. from the other side of the cemetery someone takes quiet note of them, eyes lingering just for a moment not in recognition but in solitary speculation. he wonders who they are to each other, to the small marble graves they’ve stopped at.
it’s a may sunday, a popular day for visitation, every other headstone packed with gaggles of grandchildren and drooping flowers. they came alone and empty-handed. she’s petite in a black coat, her red-brown hair slicing overtop her shoulders. he’s taller, thin, and dark-haired. he leans close to her when she speaks like he doesn’t want to miss a word.
the wind blows warm and her shoulders droop suddenly. she swipes at her face and he cinches his arm around her shoulders, holding her up even as she curls her hands into fists at her sides. “happy mother’s day, mom,” she chokes, her voice wavering and hard. it carries across the green expanse of holy rood cemetery.
“It’s okay, em,” the boy says, quietly, and it’s suddenly clear he is a boy, younger than he’d looked at first glance. closer and in profile, his face is a blurry reflection of the girl’s, those cutting blue eyes. siblings.
he pulls her closer to him. “i miss them too.”