She caves at the third Waffle House sign they pass on I-95. Her head has been pounding along to their highway rhythm for something like an hour, and she knows Mulder is going to milk every minute of the 48 they’ll have to endure back into the city.
“I don’t know what you have against Waffle House,” Mulder says as they ease off the freeway.
He is bewildered by her objections to most things these days, and it is beginning to lose its naive charm.
Off her lack of response, he nods like she’s agreeing with him anyway. His fingers tap-tap against the steering wheel, faster than the beat of the turned-low radio. The inconsistency is like grating teeth. The car jerks when he parks in the empty lot, awash in yellow light. The Waffle House their own personal late night sun.
He says, “It was Huddle House that made you throw up that one time, anyways. Or Mel’s Diner or something.”
The snap of his seatbelt makes her blink. She used to attribute his uncanny ability to take up space to some unconscious metaphysics. He couldn’t help the effect he had on the world around him. It was a little like dominos, or some game of luck and missed chances. He was elbows and action - always accidentally prone to knocking something down.
Now, though, with her skin still occasionally and unfairly splotchy at her collar and up her ribs from the hard spray of decontamination showers, it is difficult. It is hard to believe that everything is not wholly his fault.
She says, “It was chemo that made me throw up that one time.”
She slams the door, and it makes her shiver as she steps into the sick gold light.
It takes Mulder a moment to follow. She knows she’s hit below the metaphorical belt, the fist her father had taught her to make coming in where he least deserved it. But she keeps careful files, going back years. It is easier to call upon prior injury and add insult to it, rather than having to rationalize the right now.
At the doorway, Mulder touches her in the usual place, overtaking her after he’s finally made it out of the car. His hand against her back embarrasses her. He is too sorry and she isn’t yet, and she can’t stand the idea of anger without context and perimeter. She needs him to stand at the other end of this so she can run up against him. Why can’t he be a fucking asshole when she needs him to be a fucking asshole.
The Waffle House is half-empty. At the counter before the open-grill, a pregnant woman sits alone. There are teenagers next to the window advertising 4.99 Pancakes. Their waitress, Ed, gestures at a booth against the opposite window with a jerk of her head. The slide of Scully’s black coat against cheap vinyl is as familiar as the feeling of her own hands against her skin. This is another place that will barely register, she thinks. You can’t tickle yourself because you cannot surprise your own body.
The menus are large enough to obscure the table, and Mulder leaves his flat. He says, “You know, legend has it that the keys to these places are buried under cement in the front.”
He pauses. She is supposed to ask why. Once, after a long case, when she couldn’t sleep on the long car ride back to the motel, Mulder had run out of things to tell her and had recited the Waffle House menu. Pecan Waffles, 3.45. 2 Egg Breakfast, 6.15.
He clears his throat. “They say that because Waffle House never closes.”
She looks at the coffee section of the menu instead of Mulder. The specialty dark roast here is really just their classic blend but in a different mug. He’d told her that.
He says, “That’s not true though - the legend. Frohike once brought a metal detector out to Dumfries and checked.”
Well, now he was just being pitiful. Debunking his own urban esoterica was the Mulder equivalent of falling to his knees. Her Catholic sense of guilt often bends to his generalized one, but on occasion, when she is feeling particularly righteous, it strikes against it. Flint on stone.
“Why are you only an asshole when it’s convenient for you, Mulder?” she says flatly. She looks up from the menu at his open mouth for a split second. Steak and Eggs, 8.45.
Mulder, with the intelligence of one of his mollies, says, “What?”
Ed says, “How are you folks doing tonight?”
Having appeared almost silently in white sneakers like the kind interns wore in med school, Ed cocks her head at them. Her uniform is crisp. She smells faintly but certainly of nag champa.
Scully says, “We’re fine, thanks. Can we get a couple of coffees?” She looks at Mulder. “The dark roast?”
Ed nods. She floats back to the other side of the restaurant on her silent intern shoes. Scully closes her eyes.
After long minutes during which the kids across the restaurant loudly attempt to order five orders of five kinds of grits, their voices overlapping with some old Rickie Lee Jones track on the stereo, Mulder says, “You’re angry.”
She blows a breath up towards her hairline, then rubs her eyes in a similar fashion. “You should have always been a profiler,” she says.
“You’re angry…with me,” he says, but slower. He’s narrowing his eyes like he does at crime scene evidence. It’s how he looks when the victims are dead but he still wants answers. It’s his “I’m going to solve this” and “nail me to the cross” face all rolled up in one.
“Did you want to make that a Daily Double?”
Ahab taught her to hit with her thumb flat across the knuckles so it wouldn’t break her own fingers. Still, she feels the impact when Mulder rubs his face with his hands.
“I don’t get it, Scully. This case was fine, I mean, it was good, other than the bed bugs thing, but I really don’t think that affected our rooms and if you’re worried about - “
Ed puts their mugs down, and Scully almost expects the familiar ring of ceramic on plastic not to make a sound. If a waitress walks up and no one hears it, was she really there at all?
“You ready to order?”
Ed taps her pen carefully against her pad, and the existence of sound within her orbit is somehow comforting. Even Waffle House does not exist outside the realm of auditory laws, does not make its own gravity.
Scully clears her throat. “I’ll have the two egg breakfast. Over medium with wheat toast.”
Ed nods and looks at Mulder. His hands are still flat on the wide menu, but he repeats his order in the same way he’d once recited out all the items in the car.
“I’ll do the chocolate chip waffles.”
Ed shakes her head. Nag champa, definitely. “Sorry, sweetie, we don’t have the chocolate chip waffles anymore. Menu change.”
For a moment, Mulder looks so lost that Scully feels the muscles down from her shoulder into her wrist tense in an animal urge to take his hand. He blinks, blindsided. She thinks: Chocolate chip waffles, 3.20. Thinks of his voice in a highway bound car. She almost forgives him, just then. Almost forgives him for everything.
He clears his throat. “I’ll just have what she’s having, then.”
Scully would have teased a When Harry Met Sally reference out of him, hand on her chin, if this were 1996. But they’re long months shy of a new millennium, and she keeps her hands wrapped around her coffee mug.
Ed is gone the way she came.
Mulder says, “You know, the specialty roast is just - “
“The daily roast, but in darker mugs. I remember, Mulder.”
He looks startled again but somehow resigned. Like he’s used to her sweeping the rug out from under him and has started planning accordingly, stepping lighter. His shoulders tense and then relax. Elbows on the table, he sinks closer towards the mug of coffee until steam blurs his face.
He says, “We come here a lot, don’t we, Scully.”
And in the same way: “This isn’t about the bed bugs, is it, Scully.”
The heat from the coffee is creeping through the ceramic and into her palms. She wishes she could see him better.
“Sometimes,” she says carefully. “Sometimes, Mulder, when physicists put together a chemical reaction, it yields immediate results. And sometimes, it is a chain of related circumstances that produce the final reaction. That’s how we get nuclear fission. A uranium-235 atom absorbs a neutron, and fissions into two new atoms, which releases new neutrons and binding energy. No factor is isolated in a chain of chemically produced events.”
He says her name like he’s talking around something sweet, making him careful and slow to avoid it going down the wrong way. “Scully.”
She’s not trying to be cryptic, just precise in her own way. Binding energy. On the mug, she can feel her hands tense.
“The longest chain reaction includes over one hundred elements. It spans three thousand six hundred and thirty-eight miles and would take fifty-four hours to travel by car.”
Mulder nods. The door chimes as the group of teenagers push their way out the door, stumbling and laughing.
Quietly, he asks, “Then how do I fix this?”
She shrugs. Suddenly, in a sad, back-of-the-throat-crawling kind of way, she wants to cry. She takes a sip of coffee instead. It’s weak and hot and burns her throat.
She says, “Fifty-four hours is a lot of driving.”
He smiles, small and slow, and she sees it clearly, the steam clearing as the coffee cools. She feels something in her relax, a release of stiffness like a cracking joint.
He says, “We’ve always been good at logging miles.”
At the bar stool across from them, the pregnant girl drops her water glass and it shatters against the ground. She is shaking her head at something Ed is saying as she leans against the counter. Mulder swallows. He taps his fingers again, off beat, but quiet, and for some reason, the sound is almost relaxing now. Like rain.
He says, not looking at her, but at the girl, “Did you really throw up that one time because of the chemo?”
“Yes,” she says. “Also at work once or twice.”
Mulder nods. “I’m sorry.”
They are always meaning to invent code languages for each other. After multiple counts of mistaken identity, she’d told him they need to have a list of buzzwords, of facts, of things they could say to each other that would mean something else entirely. That would mean “I’m not myself.” They never got around to it.
She says, “You didn’t know.”
The coffee is growing on her. The heat creating its own kind of taste. Chain reactions are like dominos, sometimes. Success is often an accident and failure no one’s fault.
Mulder says, “You know that FEMA has a Waffle House index?”
She shakes her head. Ed ghosts up with their plates, and Mulder dictates the stages over runny eggs and stale toast. There are three of them: green, which indicates the restaurant is open and serving its full menu. Yellow, which means that the restaurant is serving a limited menu due to power outages. And red, which, of course, means the place is closed.
“And that’s bad?”
Not that she is planning on admitting it, but Mulder is her favorite off-the-cuff pedant. There is a childlike thrum to his over-explanations that makes them the gentlest lectures she’s ever been on the receiving end of. He’s never a fucking asshole when she needs him to be a fucking asshole. And sometimes, he is pitch-perfectly himself when she doesn’t realize she needs him to be at all. Lulling her into a sense of peace with Waffle House factoids. She blinks slowly.
He’s nodding seriously. “Red is bad, because Waffle House isn’t supposed to close. If they’re shut down, it means the whole area has probably been evacuated.” He looks up at her. “It means they’re waiting for the storm to blow over, or that its so bad, they don’t know when they’ll be able to open again.”
She blinks his stare out of her eyes, looking past him out the corner of the window. Outside, it’s too dark to see if the sky is anything but clear. They’ve been to a Waffle House for every third case they’ve been on, and she’s never seen one closed. The sign outside is still casting its circle of yellow glow, lighthouse constant, a tool against tough weather.
Mulder believes in telepathy. As they pay the check, he says, “How many Waffle Houses have we been to total, do you think?”
She thinks seriously about it for a long minute. On the door’s threshold, the smell of grease and burned batter mixing with the night air, she says, “Between forty and seventy-five.”
He nods. The margin of error is too big, but it’s almost three in the morning. He doesn’t care. The yellow light from the sign somehow doesn’t make him look sickly, just comic book colored.
“They’ve never been closed.”
She says, “Guess we haven’t hit a red zone yet.”
She believes in a lot, even if he thinks she doesn’t. She believes in reverse engineering. In nuclear fusion and the ability to trace a thing back to its origins. She believes that Waffle House might be a true example of immortality. Believes that there is no effect without cause. There is no killing thing that she can’t suss out and list as cause of death. She believes in walking backward. In trust falls. In dominos and beginnings.
Mulder looks at her as he puts the car into drive, and she wants to tell him to watch the road but doesn’t. She believes in binding energy.
He says, because they’ve never confirmed their status as code talkers, and he likes evidence, too: “Are you sure, Scully?”
She doesn’t answer. He doesn’t tap his fingers on the wheel, but she lets him turn the radio up high.
The Waffle House is still lit up behind them, doors unlocked. The OPEN sign in the window flashes blue and red, and they drive with it in the rearview mirror for a long time.