I'm there in the morning to watch the children arrive, standing in the small schoolyard and greeting them as they dawdle down the sidewalk or squirm in strollers pushed by indifferent nannies. Very few of the children at the Montessori School are dropped off by their parents. That's just a fact of life. Woodley Park is an affluent neighborhood in the upper northwest of DC, its leafy streets lined with large and well-maintained Victorian houses. Its inhabitants are doctors and lawyers and senior government officials, the sort of people who wouldn't dream of sending their children to a public school and have more money than time. It's perfectly natural. It still makes me a little uneasy, but then I'm only a teacher's aide.
There is one boy who arrives every morning, as regular as the tides, not with his nanny or with his au pair, but with his parents. Both parents. He is one of the youngest children in the toddler program, just barely two. William Scully.
I spot them in the morning at the end of the street, and it always seems to take them forever to get down to the corner where the school stands. William's father lifts him up to stand on the low retaining wall that separates the front yards from the sidewalk. He holds both his son's hands, letting him walk unsteadily along the wall, grinning like a king. Both of them. Sometimes he carries his son sitting on his shoulders, as William grabs at the leaves overhead. Sometimes they stop to examine chestnuts and sticks and weeds poking through the cracks in the sidewalk, studying them with the intensity of scientists while William's mother stands over them, her arms folded impatiently. Sometimes, more rarely, she carries her son herself, snuffling with sleep against her immaculately suited shoulder.
They are a striking couple, William Scully's parents. A matching pair in dark serious suits that mark them out as employees of the federal government. He is tall, lanky, with untidy dark hair and deep hazel eyes, just on the wrong side of forty but wearing it well. She is petite, red-headed and carefully blow-dried, with wide blue eyes and thin lips that can be easily set in disapproval, but curve warmly when William's father makes her smile. I say "William's father"--they don't wear wedding rings. They are not married. Her last name is Scully and his is Mulder. I know this from the FBI ID badges that they wear clipped neatly to the lapels of their suit jackets. And I know this because I listen.
"Mulder, we're going to be late," she says, tapping the toe of one expensive boot against the cracked and tilted surface of the sidewalk. "Let's get a move on."
"We're coming, Scully," says her partner, looking up from following the path of an ant to its nest. "Aren't we, William?"
"Coming, Scully," echoes their precociously verbal son, and a smile steals across his mother's composed face.
Last names. They call each other by their last names; their son calls them by their last names. Maybe this is something that FBI agents do? I don't know.
They are both armed. I noticed this one morning when William's father bent down in the schoolyard one morning to talk to one of William's small friends, and his suit jacket slipped back to reveal a holster at his hip carrying an heavy, black, businesslike gun. It was hard to miss after that. William's mother's shoulder holster is more discreet, but I spotted it once I looked, outlined under her jacket. She never takes that jacket off, even on the hottest mornings when the air is saturated with humidity.
Like many other small children, William Scully sometimes cries when his parents leave him, reaching his arms up to them beseechingly. No matter how many minutes their leave-taking has already consumed, William's father will always bend down again, speaking to his son in low reassuring tones.
"Mommy and Daddy have to go to work now, William. We're going to go to work and hunt aliens, and then we're going to come back to you. That's the important part. We're going to come back. Promise."
When William cries, his mother always averts her gaze from him, embarrassed, unwilling to meet her son's eyes. She takes an indrawn breath and sets her lips into a line, looking anywhere but there. Once William is taken inside, she relaxes again. William's father puts his arm around his partner's shoulders and leads her away, down the road towards the Metro station, speaking to her as gently and reassuringly as he speaks to his son.
"It's all right, Scully. He'll be fine; you don't need to worry. You don't need to worry."
As if she is the one who was crying.
Just as regularly as they arrive in the morning, William Scully's parents return for him at six o'clock. A little rumpled from the day, they talk animatedly about work as they make their way down the street. When they approach the schoolyard they quiet themselves self-consciously, turning themselves once more into the parents of a small boy, with no concerns other than cookies and coloring books and Winnie the Pooh.
There is something oddly emotional about their reunions with their son. William's father stands awkwardly, as if he doesn't quite know what to do with his limbs, running a hand through his hair until it stands up in unruly tufts. William's mother picks her son up and clutches him to her tightly until he wriggles in her arms and cries to get down again. Once or twice I think that I see tears in her own eyes, but it must just be a trick of the light.
Taking him into their possession again, they set off for home, once more the happy nuclear family. And I watch them go, and wonder.
Every so often, someone else comes to collect William. This is something that we accept; we encourage parents to fill out an emergency list of caretakers who can pick up their children if they are for some reason indisposed. William's parents offer us three names, which is unusually thorough of them.
The first person on William Scully's emergency list is Margaret Scully, his grandmother. She comes to the school from time to time with William's stroller, a petite dark-haired woman in late middle age, bubbling over with plans for a trip to the zoo or to the carousel on the Mall. Her visits are always telegraphed ahead of time.
"William's grandmother will be picking him up tomorrow," says William's mother in her matter-of-fact tone. "She should be here at four or four-thirty."
"Gramma," concurs William earnestly.
But the second person on William Scully's emergency list bears no apparent family connection, and his visits are always unexpected. I still remember the first time that he arrived at the school. It was a perfectly normal Tuesday until noon, when one of the teacher's aides went out for a coffee and came back bearing rumors of some sort of siege in central DC, roads blocked off and SWAT teams called in. That was all she had gleaned from the television at Starbucks, tuned to CNN but barely audible over the buzz of conversation. We turned on the radio in the school's kitchen, took turns listening to it one at a time, trying to keep the news from the children but not really gathering anything more than the first confused reports.
Then, at five, a black government car pulled up outside the school. Out of it got a couple of anonymous-looking men in dark suits who stood by the car, looking around uneasily. They were followed by another dark-suited man, older and more authoritative.
He walked into the schoolyard and flashed an FBI badge at me. "Ma'am. Walter Skinner. I'm here for William Scully."
Offhand, I didn't recognize the name. We left him standing there, broad-shouldered and trench-coated amid a sea of small children, while we huddled nervously in the office and pulled William's file. And there he was in black and white. Name: Walter Skinner. Relationship to child: Boss. While not strictly accurate, its meaning was clear enough. Though the school certainly hadn't requested one, there was even a head-shot of the man, taken in front of an American flag. He was fixing the camera with a steely gaze, the light from the flash glinting off the edge of his wire-rimmed glasses.
I emerged from the school with William in my arms. To my surprise, he reached out to the man as soon as he saw him.
"Here he is, Mr Skinner."
"A.D., F.B.I," said William, leaning almost out of my grasp in his eagerness to be handed over.
"Do I have to, uh, sign for him or anything?"
"No," I replied, "that's not necessary."
The man looked at me disapprovingly, as if he had assessed our school's procedures and found them wanting. Then he reached out and took William Scully in his big arms.
"Come on buddy," he said in a voice surprisingly gentle. "Let's go see your crazy parents in the hospital."
On the Metro the next day, I picked up the free paper and spotted the story right away. Hostage situation at the National Air and Space Museum; one suspect dead, one in custody; a stand-off; two FBI agents taken to the hospital with minor injuries. Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. William's parents.
After that incident, I familiarize myself very thoroughly with the contents of William Scully's emergency list. But there is only one other name on his list of designated caretakers, and I see him only once.
That day there are no alarms, no news stories, nothing out of the ordinary at all. There is only a beautiful spring day with the sun shining down and petals from the flowering trees falling over the schoolyard like pink-tinged snow.
The young man is neatly dressed in jacket and tie, but he doesn't look like an FBI agent somehow. He has chestnut brown hair, a carefully trimmed beard, and open blue eyes.
"Um, is William Scully here?" he asks shyly. "I'm his godfather."
"Melvin Frohike?" I reply, surprising myself by remembering the final name on William's form.
He flushes slightly. "No, actually, I'm John Fitzgerald Byers. That's Melvin Frohike over there."
He gestures towards the street, where a shabby old VW microbus stands parked next to the curb. Loitering nearby are two decidedly unsavory-looking characters. One is short, with a ponytail of graying hair; despite the warm weather he's wearing a fur-lined vest and fingerless gloves. The other man is taller and younger, with scraggly yellow hair reaching down to his shoulders. The T-shirt that he's wearing says "Rancid." If I'd seen them hanging around the school on any other day, I probably would have called the police. But when it comes to the mysterious William Scully, I've learned to expect the unexpected.
I must look puzzled, because Byers decides to clarify. "Frohike is his godfather too," he offers. "We're all his godfather."
"If you'll just wait here for a minute," I say, "I'll go and get William's file."
When I return from the school office, all three of the men are loitering in the schoolyard, drawing curious glances from the children and the other parents.
"What the hell is taking so long?" Frohike is saying to Byers in an undertone. "Mulder said we just had to collect him and go. We don't have much time."
"Yeah," says the third man. "They're waiting at the airport now."
"They have to check," says Byers. "It's for his own good."
"Mr. Frohike?" I say. "I'll need to see your identification."
Grumbling, he fishes a drivers' license and a passport out of a back pocket, signs our visitor's book, and insists on leaving a thumbprint for good measure. All the paperwork is in order, no matter how weird the guy seems. Melvin Frohike, godfather has been added to the list by William's father a few weeks earlier.
And some of my doubts disappear when William catches sight of his ragtag band of godfathers. He runs towards them on unsteady legs, and wraps his arms happily around Frohike's knees.
"How you doing, tyke?" says Frohike, hoisting William up with an 'oof' of effort. "Your parents are waiting. Sun and sand."
"And really cheap weed," adds the third man, earning a dirty look from Byers.
As they slide open the door of the VW bus, I notice that these three bachelors have a car seat already installed. And there is a stuffed animal on the seat next to it. The thing has more tentacles than eyes, and plenty of both, but William clutches it to him familiarly as he is strapped in.
The van pulls away with a screech of tires, as if it can't accelerate too fast. I watch it go with a strange feeling, not of foreboding, but of something that I don't quite understand. It is the last time that I see William Scully.
His parents don't drop him off the next day. We call them at work, and at home; no answer. Then comes the weekend, and then another day without William. On Tuesday morning, I find another story in the newspaper:
FBI Agents Disappear
Special Agents Fox Mulder, 42, and Dana Scully, 38, were reported missing on Monday along with their two-year-old son William Scully. FBI Assistant Director Walter Skinner, had no comment, but said that an investigation was ongoing.