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Achluophobia

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PROLOGUE

Yellowed porch lights from neighboring houses punch orbs of brightness into the colorless night that hangs heavily behind the living room windows.

“Lindsey!” Her mother’s voice carries down the stairs to the couch that Lindsey sits on. Joey, her younger brother, glances at her over his tower of Legos that perches atop the coffee table. Ignoring his glare, she pulls her comic book closer to her face, her eyes straining to make sense of the jagged lines of the drawings at a too-close distance.

“Linds!” She hears her mother’s sing-song call again.

“Mom’s calling you, you should answer,” Joey says as he rummages through the plastic toy pieces in front of him, before settling on a long red plank and places it at the top of his creation. Lindsey chuckles and rolls her eyes as she snuggles herself deeper into the couch cushions. Her little brother is the personification of innocence with his bright blue eyes and freckled cheeks, both of which lend credence to his invariably angelic attitude.

“She’ll come down and get me if she needs me.” She can feel his eyes on her still as she nonchalantly flips the page of her book and smirks. “Lighten up, punk.”

In a flurry, their mother enters the living room with her arms full of dirty laundry and her curly mahogany hair wisping wildly in every direction. Recently laid off from her job as a bookkeeper, her days are spent doing laundry, meal-prepping for the week ahead, and whirling throughout their house like an F5 tornado with a purpose.

“Didn’t you hear me calling you?” she asks, her voice as weightless as the flowy blouse she’s donned.

Lindsey shakes her head ‘no’ as her little brother speaks. “She did.”

“Tattletale,” Lindsey mumbles. Joey shrugs.

Their mother sighs, and then chuckles as she flits around the furniture, dusting here and there with a stray sock. “Linds, you really need to remember to blow out your candles before falling asleep. You’re gonna burn the house down.”

“I like the light,” Lindsey responds as she flips a page of her book.

“Well, then we can get you a night-light. A night-light won’t catch the curtains on fire.”

“Mom! I’m fifteen, I can’t have a night-light. If my friends saw that, it would be like freaking social suicide.”

“Language, please,” their mother warns. “You know I don’t like it when you say freaking. That’s just another variation of a cuss word, and we don’t talk like that in this house.”

“I have a night-light,” Joey offers.

“You’re eight, no one cares if you have one,” Lindsey replies.

“Linds, being afraid of the dark, at any age, is nothing to be ashamed of,” her mother says as she crouches and begins to pull stray socks from underneath the couch, tucking them to the heap of clothing under her arm. “I know plenty of adults that sleep with the bathroom light on.”

“I’m not afraid of the dark!”

Her mother juggles the laundry to her side as she bends down to press a kiss to the crown of her head. “Then blow the candles out before going to sleep, hon, or else I’m taking them away and supplying you with a princess plug-in.”

“Fine,” Lindsey says with an over-exaggerated sigh. “I’ll blow them out.”

“You promise?”

Lindsey nods. “Yeah, promise.”

“Thank you.” Her mother turns on her heel, and begins to exit the living room. “And Joey,” she calls over her shoulder. “It’s after 9, get into your pajamas and brush your teeth. Bedtime, buddy.”

Joey glances towards his mother, then leans back away from the coffee table and places his hands in his lap, sighing deeply as his eyes cast downwards.

“Better get a move on, little brother,” Lindsey says. “Bedtime waits for no man.”

“Can I…can I sleep with you tonight?” he asks, his voice barely above a whisper.

Lindsey laughs. “No way, Joey. You kick too much in your sleep, and I value my space too much.” He remains seated, his shoulders slumped while his hands are sit perfectly still atop his thighs. “Did you watch Jaws again when Mom wasn’t home?”

He shakes his head.

“Were the kids at school telling you scary stories?”

The top of his blond hair swishes gently across his forehead as he shakes his head again. Lindsey closes the comic book in her lap and stares at her brother.

“What is it then?”

“I dunno. Nightmares, I think,” he says quietly.

“Did you remember to use your Monster Spray that Dad made you?”

“It’s just a squirt bottle filled with water, Lindsey,” he says rolling his eyes. “I’m eight, not stupid.”

Lindsey chuckles. “Okay,” she says, dragging the word out. “Do you want to talk about them?”

He looks at her finally, his eyes piercing her own, consideration flashing briefly across his face. He stands suddenly, the fleeting moment broken, and looks away as he gathers the Legos into a plastic bin with one quick swipe. Lindsey watches him intently as he tucks the bin into it’s place under the table, and then turns to walk out of the room.

“So that’s a ‘no’?” she calls after him.

“Good night, sleep tight,” he replies as he ascends the stairs. “Don’t let the boogeyman bite.”

“It’s bed bugs, you creep. Joey.”

He says nothing, instead just continues up the stairs until he’s out of sight.

Xxxxx

The Cranberries ‘Zombie’ flows softly through Lindsey’s headphones as she leans back against her headboard and tucks her feet under her heavy down comforter. The clock on her night stand reads 11:21pm, its red glow dulled by the candescence of the burning candles surrounding it.

A gentle tap at her door is followed by her mother entering her room. “I’m going to head to bed soon, sweetie.”

“Ok. Hey, Mom, can I go to the mall with Rosie tomorrow?”

Her mother smiles, then crosses the room, seating herself on the edge of her bed.

“Linds, you know money is a little tight right now. Your dad has been working a lot of extra hours.”

“Yeah, I know. I just wanted to get Joey ‘Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets,’ because he’s almost done with ‘The Sorcerer’s Stone.’ I have some birthday money left that I was saving.”

Her mom smiles again, and grasps her hand.

“You’re a thoughtful sister, you know that? Remind me tomorrow, and I’ll put the money for the book on the counter,” she says with a wink. Lindsey nods. The bedsprings squeak softly as her mother shifts her weight, easing herself closer to her daughter. “Hey, hon, you okay?”

“Mom,” Lindsey starts hesitantly. “Did Joey tell you he’s been having nightmares?”

“No,” she replies, shaking her head. “He didn’t mention it, but they’re pretty common for a boy his age. Did he say something to you?”

“Earlier, yeah. I mean, Mom, he seemed pretty freaked out.”

Her mom nods. “Nightmares can be scary, especially for younger children, Linds. Don’t worry, I’ll make sure to hide the Jaws dvd and they’ll pass. Now, get some sleep, and don’t forget about your candles.”

“I won’t, promise.”

Lindsey leans into the kiss that’s pressed against her cheek, then watches as her mom walks out of her room, shutting the door behind her.

Eyes suddenly laden with exhaustion, she snuggles further under her covers and gives in, closing them for what she feels is just a moment, only to startle awake a few hours later according to the clock on her nightstand.

3:07am.

The stout single wick candles at her bedside still burn brilliantly, their small flames strong and stable over the pool of melted burgundy wax, casting a dim glow throughout the space of her room. Her sleepy eyes trail lazily across her belongings and furniture, scanning her room as she struggles to determine what has woken her. Everything appears in place, but the uneasiness in the air sends a sudden shiver down her spine.

Outside of her room at the far end of the hallway, a loud thump sounds loudly throughout their home, as if a heavy book were dropped clumsily to the hardwood floor. Lindsey leans up on her elbow, her eyes alert and fixed on her closed door.

“Dad?” she calls, her voice weak with the knowledge that her father isn’t expected to be home for another few hours. His shift at the rubber factory doesn’t end until 6am, normally putting him home around 6:30.

Her heart beats solidly in time with the rhythm of approaching footsteps, like the heavy clomping of a man’s work boots walking slowly along the wooden floor. She sits up rigidly, facing towards her door as the steady thump thump thump grows louder with each step, unhurriedly making their way in the direction of her bedroom.

Her body feels weightless as the rest of the house seems to fall completely silent. She can no longer hear the rush of the heat through the furnace ducts, the creaking of the boards swelling in the attic, or the hum of the music through the headphones that lay on her pillow. The focus of her hearing has zeroed in solely on the pathway of the footsteps.

She pulls her blanket to her face and over her mouth, suppressing the overwhelming urge to call out for her mom, knowing that whoever is on the opposite side of the wall would also be able to hear her. She closes her eyes tightly, and in her mind, she’s able to envision their location in the house.

Thump

Starting at the top of the staircase just adjacent to her parent’s bedroom.

Thump thump thump

Brushing past the door to the guest room that sits musty and vacant.

Thump thump THUD

The footfalls grow louder as they pass the bathroom that’s lit by a seashell night-light.

THUD

The linen closet...

THUD

THUD

THUD

Then finally her bedroom which sits opposite to her brother’s.

THUD

Her eyes whip open and she inhales sharply through her nose as the steps come to rest just outside of her bedroom. Her heart feels as if it has been replaced with an enormous bird trapped behind her ribcage, rapidly fluttering its wings in an attempt to break free and escape.

“D-dad?” She tries to call again, but her voice is muffled by the downy feathers in the comforter.

Creeeeak

The floorboards that lay behind her bedroom door whine under a sudden shift of weight, and she freezes, holding her breath as her eyes widen. The loose pictures that hang along her wall flutter wildly. A chilled breeze rushes across the room into her face and all around her, and the once bright flames of her candles are extinguished, reduced to skinny billows of smoke. Submerged into darkness, she jerks herself backwards, pulling the blanket with her until her back is flush against the headboard.

“No!” she cries. “Get out!”

She pushes her blanket aside and leaps to her feet, barely feeling the cold floor beneath her as she throws her door open and scurries out into the hallway, nearly tumbling down the stairs in an attempt to take them two at a time. Her chest is heaving as she stumbles into the living room, before collapsing onto the couch.

“Ouch.”

Lindsey screams, then feels a small hand clamp over her mouth.

“It’s just me,” the little voice says.

Lindsey gasps as her little brother pushes her to the side, off of his legs. “Joey? Joey, oh my God, what are you doing down here?”

“I couldn’t sleep in there.”

“Sleep where? Your room?”

He hums in response and buries his face deeper into the pillow beneath his head. Lindsey shifts to look back over her shoulder, staring at the staircase for a moment before settling back into the couch. She burrows under the blanket at the other end of the couch, sliding her legs between her brother and the cushions.

“Why?” she whispers. “Another nightmare?”

“What about you?” he asks, ignoring her question. “Did you have a nightmare?”

“I don’t know,” she says unevenly, glancing again at the staircase. The living room is dark, but Lindsey can already feel herself relaxing. Being in the presence of another person has managed to calm her frayed nerves. It must have been Joey walking from his room, she thinks. That has to be what she heard.

Joeys breathing deepens, and for a moment she wonders if he’s fallen back asleep. “There’s someone in my room,” he whispers suddenly. “He stands in the corner by my closet and watches me sleep. His breathing wakes me up at night.”

“A man?” she nearly yells. “Joey, did you tell Mom?”

“Shhhh, Linds, you’ll wake her up,” he whispers harshly, nudging her with his toes.

“Sorry, sorry,” she whispers.

He hesitates before continuing. “I didn’t tell Mom, ‘cause I don’t think... he’s not really...I don’t know.”

“Is he there all the time? Like, during the day, too?” she asks, purposely keeping her voice low.

“I don’t think so. I only see him at night when my night-light’s off, in the dark.”

“Your night-light is always on, Joey. What’s he look like?”

“I don’t look at his face. I try not to look at him at all.” Joey shifts so that he’s facing his sister. “He turns off the light, Lindsey. He likes the dark.”

Lindsey shudders, and pulls the blanket up to her chin. “It’s probably just a nightmare,” she forces out. Even she can hear how lame her excuse is as it tumbles out of her mouth.

Joey watches her briefly, then closes his eyes.

“Will you stay down here with me tonight?” he asks.

“Yeah. Yeah, I will.”

xxxxx

FOX MULDER RESIDENCE

“Oh God, Mulder, right there.” Her voice is low, husky. The muscles along her spine are taut as piano wire as she arches her back.

“Like this?”

She groans loudly in response.

He chuckles, “Jesus, Scully. You’re going to wake my neighbors.”

She closes her eyes tightly, and stifles another groan. His hands were always something she’s loved about him; the strength they offer at the small of her back, the love she feels with each caress, the pleasure that his fingers are able to manifest.

“Scully,” he whispers.

“Mulder, please, don’t stop.”

“Scully,” he says a little louder. “Why do you even wear those heels if they hurt your feet so badly?”

“Mulder,” Scully says nudging the palm of his hand with her toes, “stop asking questions and keep rubbing.”

His hands squeeze the arch of her foot, his thumbs digging into the sensitive tendons, then travel to her ankle. Such a delicate frame for such a strong woman, he thinks.

Her toes flex and contract as his fingers trail up her calf, his thumbs rubbing circles into her gastrocnemius. He’s unable to take his eyes from the sleek lines that trace the muscle, well formed from years of running. It seems inconceivable to him that just 24 hours ago Scully was clad in First Person Shooter gear; knee pads, head gear, and chest protection.

She’d looked ridiculous, and she knew it. But there she was, his Scully, locked and loaded, ready to take on whatever Maitreya threw at her. Ready to save his ass, again.

He thought he’d never been as in love with her as he was the moment she stepped off that platform.

But tonight as she lay on his couch in nothing but his t-shirt and boxers, with her feet in his lap and her hair askew, he realizes how wrong he’d been. He’s positive that he could never love her more than he does right this very second.

“Mulder…”

“Mmm?” he hums in response.

Her eyes flutter open and she smiles wickedly. “Take me to bed.”

Xxxxxxx

2 WEEKS LATER
DOMBROWSKI RESIDENCE
FRIDAY

 

With minimal effort, Lindsey can easily recall when Saturdays were a joyous event in their household. She remembers just weeks before, the afternoons spent playing with her brother outside in their backyard, refusing to come inside unless it was for a quick trip to the bathroom or their mother calling them in for dinner. Staying up late to watch movies as a family with their own bowls of popcorn, knowing that Saturday night bedtimes were more of a suggestion than a rule to be enforced. Mornings spent sleeping until the sun shone warmly through the curtains and the smell of frying bacon wafting into her bedroom.

The weekends now, however, have become edgy and sleepless, leaving everyone rattled and irritable. Her father has been around less and less, picking up extra shifts whenever available. Her mother explains his growing absence with the family needing more of a ‘financial cushion,’ but Lindsey is convinced it’s an excuse, only a half-truth.

She knows her father tries to be supportive and perceptive when he is home, actively listening to their hushed declarations of fear and offering, but Lindsey can’t shake the nagging feeling that it’s easier for him to stay away from the chaos. It’s easier to attend to a family that’s losing their shit, she thinks, when they’re a phone call and a forty-five minute drive away.

There’s a short series of light taps against her door, and she looks over to see her brother peek his head in.

“Hey,” she says quietly. “Can’t sleep?”

When he enters her room his shoulders hang heavy, and he shakes his head.

“Want to sleep in here again? You can if -” Joey’s sliding under the covers before she’s able to finish the sentence. He turns to face the wall, and presses his back into her side, his breathing slows as soon as his head touches the pillow.

Lindsey sighs, and snuggles down under the covers.

“Don’t blow out your candles,” she hears him whisper.

“I won’t,” she responds, watching the sturdy flicker of their flames. “I promise.”

Xxxxxx

Lindsey jerks awake with a hiss as her brother’s elbow jabs into her stomach.

“What was that?” Joey whispers.

“Ow, it’s my stomach, you jerk.”

SLAM

The sharp sound of wood slamming against wood booms throughout their home. “No, Lindsey, THAT.”

“Dunno,” she says while sitting up, the haze of sleep disappearing as she pulls her brother closer.

As they huddle together in her bed, waiting, she can feel his small hands fidgeting under the blanket, and she covers them with her own. A slight ringing assaults her hearing as she listens intently for any sign of movement beyond the bedroom. Lindsey shakes her head swiftly to stop it, and feels as if her hearing has suddenly been amplified, wincing as the wicks of the candles crack and pop into the silence like the burst of distant fireworks. Joey’s hand grasps her own, clutching it tightly.

“I’m gonna go check-” Lindsey starts.

“No! No, you can’t leave.”

“Joey, it’ll be fine.”

“Please.” His voice trembles as he begs. “Don’t go, Linds.”

She presses a kiss to the crown of his head, then ruffles his hair with her fingers. “We’re fine. I’ll be right back.”

The matress springs squeak as she slides out of her bed, then she quietly inches her way across her room before opening her door a few inches. The wooden frame feels smooth against her cheek as she peeks through the crack into the hallway, and is startled to find it completely dark.

That’s not right, she thinks. Each night their mother turns on the night-light in the bathroom just in case anyone needs to use it in the middle of the night. That soft glow usually bleeds through the open doorway and into the hall, but tonight it’s pitch black.

She looks back at Joey, who’s sitting ramrod straight in the same place she left him, and offers him a weak smile. He doesn’t smile back.

The hinges whine as she opens the door the rest of the way, and steps out into the unusually chilled hallway. A shiver shakes its way down her body, goosebumps rippling over the length of her limbs. She crosses her arms stiffly across her chest, her hands rubbing briskly across the exposed flesh for warmth. If she were to exhale slowly, she thinks, she’d be able to see the puff of her warm breath curling from her lips. But, with the adrenaline that is pumping through her veins, her breaths are quick and shallow.

The floor feels like a sheet of ice beneath her feet as she tiptoes further into the hallway, tossing a glance at her parent’s bedroom door, which remains closed. Every door in the hallway is shut, she realizes, including the bathroom.

In the lower depths of her belly, a dull ache of dread begins to churn as her curiosity propels her forward, the old floorboards groaning weakly with every step she takes. The bathroom door looms before her, the close proximity of whatever lay waiting behind it sending her heart to thump wildly in her chest.

She reaches out and grasps the doorknob, gripping it tightly in her hand. With a deep, shuddering breath, she turns it.

The click of the latch releasing resounds loudly throughout the empty hallway, sounding like the crack of a gunshot. She freezes in place with a gasp and looks around, convinced that she’s drawn attention to herself, but is relieved to find herself alone.

Please be empty, please be empty, please be empty, she thinks, chanting to herself.

After another deep breath, she pushes the door open. Her body numbs as she covers her eyes with her hand, temporarily blinded by the striking glow of the night-light, and she stifles the scream that’s building in the back of her throat. Burned into the back of her eyelids is the shape of a form standing directly ahead of her, tall and bright. She stumbles backwards a few steps, then forces herself to look again.

“What the…” she mutters as her eyes finally adjust to the brightness, then covers her mouth to keep from laughing. A few feet in front of her hangs the mirror above the vanity, her confused reflection staring back at her.

SLAM

She spins around, her eyes frantically darting across the hallway, searching for the source of the noise.

“LINDSEY!!” Her brother’s scream slices through the silence.

“Joey?” She sprints the few steps to her bedroom, and loses her footing. Her face slams into the dense wood of her closed door first, followed by her chest and knees.

“Go away!” She hears him scream. “Lindsey!”

The sharp pain in her nose doesn’t even register as she twists the doorknob and pushes.

“It’s locked!” She yells as she slams her hand repeatedly against the door. “Joey, unlock the door!”

The door knob pulls at the skin of her palm as she attempts to twist it back and forth, hopelessly tugging at it. The air around her grows thick as she rams her shoulder into the center of the door, she struggles to breathe while throwing her weight into it as her brother shrieks, “Please don’t let him get me!”

“Stay away from him!” she screams.

And then everything falls silent.

“Joey!” she yells and slams her hand against the door. “Answer me, Joey!”

She hears a small click before the door starts to open, inch by inch revealing the expanse her pitch black bedroom. The darkness feels oppressive as she stands before it, its density swallowing all light and energy as she stares into it, unable to turn her eyes away. A tingling sensation sparks in her belly as she feels her foot slide over the threshold. The darkness pulls at her, beckoning her through the doorway. Joey emerges from the shadows, grabbing her hand as he runs past, and begins to drag her down the hall.

“The candles blew out! Lindsey, run!” he yells, pulling her with all of his might.

A loud pop erupts, the night-light in the bathroom exploding as they pass the doorway, thrusting them back into complete darkness as they sprint to their parent’s bedroom. “Mom!” he yells, throwing open the door. “Mom, wake up.”

Lindsey slams the door shut behind her and locks it, her chest heaving as she collapses against its solid frame.

“What’s going on?” their mother asks as Joey catapaults into bed with her.

“It’s back,” Joey whines, pulling their parent’s duvet over his head. She sits up in bed, motioning with her hand for Lindsey to join them.

Sandwiching their mother between them, Lindsey climbs in under the covers, curling into her mother’s side. “Didn’t you hear us screaming?” she asks.

Her mother shakes her head, bewildered. “I didn’t…” she whispers. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s not going away, Mom,” Joey says. “It’s getting worse.”

They sit in silence for a few minutes, the children’s faux sense of safety quickly betrayed when they hear a familiar muffled thump at the opposite end of the hall. Lindsey’s muscles immediately stiffen, and her mother’s arm tightens around her.

Thump

Thump

“It’s coming from Lindsey’s room,” Joey whispers. Their mother hums in response, shifting her weight to pull her children closer.

Thump

Thump

THUMP

Joey gasps loudly as the footsteps cease just outside their door. A heavy stillness falls over them, but remains for only a moment before the doorknob jostles slightly, the lock preventing it from fully turning either way. The jostling shifts to a constant rattle, the knob shifting back and forth rapidly, before becoming forceful. The latch begins hammering against the strike plate as the door jolts violently in its frame.

Lindsey barely notices as Joey covers his ears with his hands and buries his face into his mother’s side, while she and her mother stare ahead wide-eyed. She can’t hear his whimpers as the family pictures that hang on the wall shake viciously under the thunderous assault, then fall one by one to the floor with a shatter, glass scattering in all directions.

A loud BANG reverberates through her as the door jerks in its frame one last time, a fine crack splintering vertically down the length of the wood, before it all comes to an abrupt end. The air buzzes with remnants of what feels like an electric energy, the deafening silence crashing over them once again.

“I can’t do this anymore,” Lindsey whispers.

Her mother strokes her hair. “I know, sweetheart. I know.”

Xxxxxx

DANA SCULLY RESIDENCE
FRIDAY AFTERNOON

Mulder lazily slides his fingertips along the exposed skin of her thigh, still slightly damp with perspiration. Scully chuckles and swats his hand away. “Not again. My mom is going to be here- wait, what time is it?”

The bedsheet falls from her chest as she rises from the bed and crosses to the bathroom. “She’s going to be here in half an hour, Mulder,” she calls over her shoulder. “Get up and shower.”

“Half an hour? That means we have twenty minutes to kill,” he says while sprawling out on his back, his arms tucked under his head. “You know what we could do with another twenty minutes, Scully?”

Scully throws a towel at Mulder, which lands on his face with an ‘oomf.’ “Mulder. Shower. I want you clothed before she walks through that door.”

He groans dramatically as he rolls out of her bed, stretching his arms above his head as he emits a yawn.

“Save water, shower with a friend?” he asks as he enters the bathroom. The moist air already smells heavily of her shampoo, as she hums huskily in response. The shower curtain squeaks as he pulls it back, then steps into the tub behind her.

xxxxx

Mulder can’t seem to wipe the grin from his face through their lunch of sandwiches and soup, resulting in the occasional kick to the shin from Scully under the table, followed by an icy sideways glance. Maggie, thankfully, appears ignorant to their ongoings, and chatters on about the recipe she’d found days earlier for a pot roast.

“It practically melts in your mouth, Dana. It’s simply delicious.”

Scully cuts a quick glance to Mulder, her eyes daring him to smirk at the comment as he hurriedly wipes his mouth with his napkin. “Well,” he says leaning back in his chair, “that was a wonderful lunch. Thank you, again, for bringing it over, Mrs. Scully.”

“Yes, thank you, Mom.”

“Oh, you’re very welcome.”

He stands and begins to clear the table of the dishes, stacking the bowls onto the small plates.

“You don’t have to do that,” Scully insists.

“I got it,” he says as he takes an arm-full to the kitchen. “You two talk.”

Maggie reaches across the table and takes Scully’s hand. “Actually, I was hoping to speak to you about something, Dana.”

“Are you ok, Mom?” Scully asks as her eyebrows rise, suddenly alert and giving her mother her full attention.

Maggie chuckles, then waves her hand passively. “Oh, no, sweetheart, I’m fine! No, this isn’t about me, it’s about a friend of mine.”

Mulder returns from the kitchen, and places a steaming mug on the table in front of each of them. “Coffee for my ladies, prepared just the way you like it.”

A smile spreads across Maggie’s face as she watches him press a kiss to the crown of Scully’s head, and then walk into the living room and fall into a heap on the couch with the remote in hand. The Discovery Channel begins to drone in the background.

“Mom? What did you want to talk about?”

Maggie sighs. ““Yesterday I received a call from Claire. Oh, Dana, she was frantic. Broke down to tears as soon as I answered the phone, poor thing. She apologized numerous times for bothering me, and I tried to assure her that she wasn’t a bother, but that didn’t seem to calm her down.”

“I’m sorry, but who’s Claire?” Scully asks.

“A friend from church, sweetheart.”

Scully nods, gesturing with her hand for her mother to continue.

“Claire and her husband, Jack, have been going through a rough time. They have a young son and a daughter, such a lovely family.” Scully watches as Maggie pauses, running the tip of her finger along the rim of the coffee mug. “You know I wouldn’t normally ask something like this of you, but she said that she’d remembered that I’d told her about you and Fox investigating the paranormal, and she’s apparently desperate for your help.”

Mulder turns from his place on the couch and looks towards Maggie. “Help with what?”

“Mulder-” Scully starts.

“No, Dana, I’d like for him to hear this, too. Claire is convinced that their house is haunted.”

“Oh, Mom, that’s not really what we do.”

“What gives them that impression, Mrs. Scully?” Mulder asks as he pads across the floor and seats himself next to Maggie. Scully sighs.

“I don’t really know any of the specifics, but she was so insistent. She asked me to see if you two could help her.”

“Has she contacted the church? I’m sure if she explained what was going on, they would be more than happy to send someone to conduct a blessing.”

Maggie shakes her head. “She doesn’t want to involve the church.”

“Too embarrassed?” Mulder asks, and Maggie nods. “That’s actually pretty common.”

“Mom, I’m sorry, but when I say that we investigate the paranormal, I don’t mean that we are paranormal investigators.” Her mother looks at her intently, her eyebrows furrowed. “It’s not like what you see on t.v.,” she explains further.

“Well, hang on a minute, Scully,” Mulder says, placing his hand on hers. “We have a three day weekend because of the holiday. It doesn’t have to be an official investigation, just a favor for a friend of the family.”

“Mulder-”

“Please, sweetheart. Just go talk to them. That’s all I’m asking,” Maggie says.

“Just a quick conversation? We can do that. Mrs. Scully, could you give Claire a call for us? Let her know we’ll be over in a few hours.”

“Oh, thank you, Fox.”

Xxxxxxx

DOMBROWSKI RESIDENCE
FRIDAY NIGHT

The sleepy street is quiet under the soft lunar glow, which highlights the asymmetrical facade of each victorian style house, accentuating their well-manicured lawns. It’s late in the evening, nearly 9pm, when Mulder slows the car to a crawl in front of a large two-story home, nestled neatly in the middle of the suburbs. With it’s peaks jutting high into the inky sky, the house stands tall before them, its windows shining brightly with the luminescence of interior lighting.

“I’d hate to see their electric bill,” Mulder deadpans as he parks the car. Scully flashes him a smile and unbuckles her seatbelt. “You in a hurry?”

She sighs, tilting her head towards the house. “This isn’t exactly how I planned on spending my holiday weekend, Mulder. A haunting?”

“The sooner we debunk this haunting, the sooner we have a happy family friend, you have a happy mom, and the sooner we can go home.” He chews his bottom lip and drums his fingers along the bottom of the steering wheel.

“How do you know it’s not a real haunting?” she questions, unable to hide the surprise in her voice.

The question catches him off guard. She is provoking him, and he loves her for it. Even when he thwarts their weekend plans with an impromptu unofficial investigation, she’s still willing to play their game.

“We won’t know until we speak to the family,” he says.

“Right,” she says nodding. “We can’t very well do that from the car, now can we?”

She climbs out of the car and makes her way up the narrow walkway, leaving Mulder scrambling to catch up as she reaches the door.

xxxxxxx

“Dana, Mr. Mulder, would either of you like some tea? Coffee?” Claire Dombrowski asks while holding up a coffee mug. Scully smiles and declines with a shake her head.

“No, thank you,” Mulder says holding up a hand, “but, please, call me Mulder. Just Mulder.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Claire says as she places the mug on the countertop, and pours herself a cup of coffee. “I think Maggie told me that you preferred to be called that. And please, don’t mind the mess,” she says gesturing to the few dishes in the sink.

“You have a lovely home,” Scully says, trying her best to reassure Claire. “Stunning, actually. What year is it?”

“Oh, early 1900’s, give or take a decade,” Claire’s husband, Jack, says with a laugh. “We’ve done our best to update what we can, but there’s still so much to do. We’re actually considering downsizing.”

“Why is that?” Scully asks.

“Big house for a small family,” Jack says with a shrug, efficiently ending the conversation.

“So,” Mulder starts, “Mr. and Mrs.-”

“Jack and Claire,” Jack interrupts.

Mulder nods. “Jack and Claire. Dana’s mother, Maggie, recently informed us that you were experiencing some issues, and asked if we could offer a solution.”

Claire crosses the linoleum floor and seats herself at the table next to her husband, across from Mulder and Scully.

“We’ve, uh, we have a…” Jack says as he leans back in his chair, putting his arm around his wife’s shoulders.

“Situation,” Claire finishes for him. “Our house is haunted.” She sighs heavily into her mug of coffee that she holds in front of her face, pushing the steam to roll over the rim and then disappear.

“What’s brought you to that conclusion, Claire?” Scully asks, trying to keep the edge of skepticism from her voice.

“Well, we’ve been experiencing things lately. The last few weeks, at least. I know this sounds ridiculous, but it’s been gradually getting worse, to the point that the kids are terrified.”

“Where are your children?” Mulder asks.

“Our daughter, Lindsey, is staying at her friend’s house tonight, and Joey, our son, is upstairs in bed.”

“He’ll end up in our bed by morning,” Jack adds with a sad chuckle.

Scully smiles gently, then asks, “How old are they?”

“Lindsey,” Claire replies, “is fifteen-”

“Going on twenty-one,” Jack adds with a slight shake of his head. “Girl’s a social butterfly, always on the move, always something to say.”

“She’s a good girl,” Claire says as she pats her husband’s hand. “That’s how they all are at that age. Our little Joey is eight.”

Mulder shifts in his seat and glances at Scully, watching her eyebrow raise. “Eight?” she asks.

“We know that he’s a little old to be sleeping with his parents,” Claire says quickly. “Normally we wouldn’t condone it, but you need to understand what’s been going on, why he won’t stay in his own bed.”

“What exactly has your family experienced?” Mulder asks.

Jack and Claire look at each other momentarily, then Jack sighs. “Go on, hun. Tell ‘em, that’s why they’re here.”

“I swear,” Claire says, turning her gaze to Mulder and Scully, “we aren’t crazy.”

“Trust us, we’ve heard some pretty crazy things,” Mulder says with a reassuring smile. “Why don’t you just start from the beginning?”

“It started with the kids hearing footsteps. They would hear them at night, thinking it was Jack, but he was still at work.”

“I work third shift at a plant a few towns over,” Jack says.

Claire leans forward and rests her elbows on the table, folding her hands in front of her. “The footsteps gradually became louder, more...forceful.”

“You live in an old house,” Scully says. “Do you think it could be a result of the house settling?”

“We considered that,” Claire says, nodding. “But when we tried to ignore it-”

“We?” Mulder asks, interrupting. “I’m sorry, but you said ‘we.’ Have you heard these footsteps as well?”

Jack and Claire both nod.

“And what happened when you tried to ignore it?” Mulder asks.

“It, um…” Claire chews on her lip, then releases a breath through pursed lips. “Well, it sounds ridiculous saying it out loud.”

“That’s okay,” Scully assures her.

Claire’s eyes dart around the room before she says finally, “It knocks on the door, like the insistent tap of someone wanting to come in. And when you look, there’s no one there. But when you ignore it, the knocking gets more aggressive, it turns into beating.” She pauses to sigh and bring her hands to the sides of her face, her fingers rubbing circles over her temples. When she speaks again, her words come quickly, her voice strained. “A constant pounding that feels like it’s never going to end. And Joey has been having nightmares, which isn’t normal for him, really, and he’s woken me so many times in the middle of the night, terrified, telling me someone is in his room. I’ve checked each time, but I never see anyone, but Joey swears ‘he’ is in there. Lindsey refuses to sleep without a light on, my fifteen year old daughter is suddenly afraid of the dark, and when I try to tell her-” Claire puts her hand to her mouth to stifle the sob that breaks her voice. Tears fill her eyes as Jack rubs his hand up and down her back.

“It’s alright, hun,” he says softly. “It’s ok.”

“No, it’s not,” Claire whimpers, her voice muffled by her hand. “How can I make my babies feel safe if I don’t even feel safe here, Jack?”

Scully glances at Mulder who offers her a tight-lipped smile. “Claire?”

“Oh, Dana, Mulder, please forgive me,” Claire says as she dabs at her eyes with a napkin. “I’m just at my wit’s end.”

“We understand,” Mulder says, his voice smooth and soothing. “It sounds like your family has been through a lot.”

“We really have been,” Claire replies.

“How long you two been with the FBI?” Jack asks.

“We have over twenty years of experience between the two of us,” Mulder says.

“Have you ever heard of anything like this?”

“There are many cases of unexplained phenomena documented and recorded,” Scully says. “A few of which we have investigated.”

“Any hauntings specifically?” Claire asks.

“Claire,” Scully says while folding her hands in front of her on the table, “we can’t be sure that what you are experiencing is, in fact, a haunting.”

“But we are sure!” Claire says, nearly yelling. “I told you what my children and I have experienced, and there’s more. Just the other night Jack was woken from a dead sleep by the footsteps down the hall and the knocking on the door. There was no one there when he looked, Dana. No one.”

“I understand that, and we aren’t trying to diminish what you’re family has been experiencing. If you do feel that it is truly a haunting, why won’t you at least consider getting the church involved?”

Claire looks down into her lap, twisting her napkin between her hands. “How do I even begin to explain to Father McCue what’s been happening? Where would I even start? If this got around the church, we’d be the laughingstock of the entire congregation.” She looks up directly at Scully. “Please understand, I’m asking for your help because we can’t go to the church. Not even to ask for a blessing. I won’t put my family through any more humiliation.”

“Have you considered any alternative methods?” Mulder asks.

“It goes strongly against our beliefs, but I did research a few... ‘other-worldly’ ideas,” Claire says with a huff and then shakes her head, dismissing the ideas as quickly as she’s spoken them.

“Jack, Claire, I’m sorry but I’m just not sure what you’re hoping we’d be able to do for you,” Scully says.

“Just stay one night,” Jack insists. “We have a guest room, and a couch. Please, it’ll put my wife’s mind at ease. While you’re here, I can show you around the house, prove to you both that we’ve exhausted every other explanation.”

Scully glances at Mulder who’s looking back at her. They hold their stare for a moment, before Mulder shrugs off his leather jacket and asks, “Should we start with the furnace?”

xxxxx

It’s over an hour later when Mulder finds Scully in the guest room.

“Knock, knock.” He closes the door behind him, and brushes his hands across his chest swiftly. His black t-shirt is littered with flakes of lint, the only physical evidence of his ascent and descent from the attic.

“How’d everything go?” Scully asks as she pulls back the blankets that lay across the bed.

Mulder lays his jacket on the back of a plush chair, then sits down. “Furnace checks out, he even showed me the receipt from the HVAC technician’s visit two weeks ago. The attic seems well insulated, roof is in good condition, hell Scully, even all of the windows are shut tight and locked.”

She nods, chewing the side of her mouth, and takes a seat at the edge of the bed. She’s surprised to find herself disappointed. Generally, she thinks, hauntings can be written off as faulty air flow from the furnace, or noisy beams in the attic expanding and contracting because of the fluctuating temperatures. She sighs lightly and closes her eyes, internally chastising herself for being foolish and hoping for an easy solution, less of a challenge. Nothing in their lives comes easy, she reminds herself with a smirk.

“Jack confided in me while we were in the basement,” Mulder says as he shifts to his side in the chair, then pulls his belt from the loops with a quick yank and lays it over his jacket. “Which also checked out, as well I might add.”

“Oh?”

“He mentioned that they have been experiencing financial hardship over the last few months. He’s been picking up extra shifts at the factory where he’s employed, so he’s not home very much.”

“I’d gathered as much from Claire.”

“You think there’s something more to it?” Mulder asks, his voice low.

“Extramarital affair?”

Mulder nods.

“No, I really don’t. We could always speak with his supervisor, get a copy of his time cards just to verify.” She tilts her head, then says, “He did, however, make a comment that I found a little odd.”

“What’s that?”

“That they may be downsizing. Mulder, you mentioned financial hardship. Did he mention if they were on the verge of filing bankruptcy?”

“No, he didn’t. I’m not sure that filing for bankruptcy would have anything to do with a haunting…” Mulder pauses, watching as she avoids his eye contact by concentrating on fluffing the pillows, then his eyes widen. “Wait, you’re not...Amityville Horror? Scully, if I’d have known you had such a penchant for horror movies, I’d have swapped ‘When Harry Met Sally’ for ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ ages ago. Are you actually suggesting that Jack’s taking notes from the Lutz family?”

“Don’t look at me like that,” she says with a smirk and a shrug. “I’m just saying that it’s happened before, and has become a very well known and thoroughly documented experience. A family falsifying a haunting with the sole purpose of escaping their financial burdens.”

“George Lutz has gone on record denying the accusation that his claims were bogus.”

“While his attorney at the time,” Scully argues, “confessed to creating the story with the Lutzes over 4 bottles of wine.”

“Scully, multiple mediums investigated 112 Ocean Avenue, all of them in agreement that the house was, in fact, haunted by an evil entity. The same entity that oppressed Ronnie Defeo, telling him to murder all six members of his family.”

Scully brings her fingertips to the bridge of her nose, pinching the soft tissue between her eyes. She’s acutely aware that his voice is bordering on the tone that he adopts when forcing her through another one of his slideshows. The fact that they are currently out of the office and without the slide projector elicits a small sigh of relief. “Ronnie Defeo has changed his story multiple times over the years. Multiple, Mulder. If he had any credibility, and I stress the word ‘if,’ it’s been shot to hell.”

“He was coerced.”

“By whom?!” Scully snaps. “Mulder,” she says, dropping her voice to a near whisper, “you’re missing the point. What I’m saying here is that I don’t expect to see an excess of flies congregating around a window or green sludge dripping down the walls. Financial stress can become burdensome for a family, to the point that it could lead the head of the household to falsify information out of desperation to get out from under it.”

“Touche.” Mulder nods absentmindedly, pondering her words. “Stress itself can wreak havoc on a family, both mentally and emotionally,” he adds. “I mean, it’s clear that they’re under some sort of emotional duress.”

“Folie á deux?” Scully asks as she climbs into the bed, turning to face Mulder as she tucks a pillow under her head.

Mulder smiles. “Not this time.”

“You’re thinking this could be an actual haunting?”

“I don’t know what to think. All Jack was able to provide me with was proof of what it isn’t. Did Claire offer anything else?”

“No, not really. And we haven’t talked to the kids yet,” Scully says before she yawns.

“Their daughter, Lindsey, should be home tomorrow. We can talk to them both then,” Mulder says as he pads across the floor and leans down to press a kiss to her lips. “The couch is calling my name.”

“I’m sorry,” she groans.

“The couch and I have a long-standing relationship. I’ll be able to make do for one night.”

They’re interrupted by the shrill of Scully’s cell phone.

“That would be my mother.”

“Give her my love,” he says kissing her once more, then whispers, “I’ll see you in the morning.” The door snicks closed behind him as he leaves.

Scully grabs her phone from the nightstand and presses ‘talk’ just before the call is sent to voicemail.

“Hi, Mom.”

“Hi, sweetheart. Sorry to call so late, but I just wanted to check in and see how things were going.”

Scully sighs. “It’s alright. Claire and Jack seem nice.”

“They are, they’re such a lovely family. Have you met their children?”

Scully rolls onto her back, pressing the phone tighter to her ear. “No, not yet; we arrived here a little too late. We’ll be meeting them tomorrow.”

“You’re still there?” Maggie asks.

“Yeah, they insisted that we stay the night. I’m in the spare bedroom, Mulder’s on the couch in the living room.”

“I can’t thank you enough, the both of you.” Maggie pauses. Her voice is low, near a whisper when she asks, “Have you...well, experienced anything?”

“We’re happy to help, but no, nothing. We’ve only been here long enough to talk with them, hear their side of the story. We’ll know more once we-”

Her explanation is interrupted by the distant sound of a muffled thud outside of her room, followed by weighty footfall leisurely making it’s way down the hallway.

“Mom? Hang on a sec, I think Mulder needs something.”

She faintly hears her mother say ‘okay’ as she pulls herself from the bed, and crosses to the door. She opens it, and glances down the empty hallway. Dim light pools out from the bathroom, casting a warm glow down the vacant corridor.

“Sweetheart?”

“Yeah, Mom, sorry. I thought I heard…”

“Is Mulder there?”

 

“No,” she says shutting the door. “I thought I heard him...Nevermind. What was I saying?”

“That you would know more once you…”

“Oh, right. Yeah, we’ll know more once we’re able to sit down and talk with their kids. Get their versions of the situation, hear what they experienced.” She pauses for a moment, then asks, “Mom, I hate to ask you, but have you heard anything about them considering filing for bankruptcy?”

“Not that I can recall, but I think I’d remember hearing that. Oh dear, that’s dreadful. I know a few weeks ago the congregation talked about collecting donations for their family, but-”

Three quick raps on her door jarr Scully’s attention, once again, from her mother.

“Come in,” she calls quietly. “I’m sorry, Mom, just a second.” Scully watches the door, waiting for the person to enter, but it remains closed.

“Is everything alright?” Maggie asks.

“I’m not sure,” Scully mumbles as she crosses the room again. She pulls the door open expecting to see Mulder standing there with a lopsided grin and an excuse of wanting to check on her, but is surprised to find the hallway empty and dark. The glow that had lit the corridor just moments before now absent. The tiny hairs along the back of her neck raise as she casts her gaze down the hallway.

“Mulder.” The lamp behind her switches off, the hallway’s darkness hemorrhaging into her room like a severed artery, just as her harsh whisper scratches into the silence. “Shit.”

“Dana?” she hears her mom ask.

“Mom, would you mind if I called you back tomorrow? It’s just,” she sighs, brushing a few errant strands of hair from her face, “it’s been a long day, and I think the exhaustion is getting to me.” She flits her eyes to the ends of the hallway one last time before shutting the door. Her thumb grazes the front of the doorknob, searching for a lock that isn’t there.

“Of course, of course,” her mother replies.

The call is ended with promises to talk soon, and Scully climbs into bed, burying herself under the heavy blanket. Her fingers twitch anxiously against the silky duvet as she struggles between relieving the acute uneasiness with the dark by turning on the lamp, and chastising herself for her ridiculousness.

Even as she lay there assuring herself that it was Joey walking to his parents’ room, that there must be a short in the lamp’s wiring, her hearing remains piqued as her eyes stay fixed on the door before finally succumbing to sleep.