While she doesn’t sleep, he sits at the foot of her bed and thinks about her bookshelves.
This is death in its reality: we can’t take physical things with us when we go. He wonders if we can even take memories. Still, she has full shelves, new volumes shoved into any nook and cranny she can find, everything from medical school notes to classics to puff pieces she would never admit to having read lining her shelves, mostly alphabetized. Or, rather, they were alphabetized a few years ago, but since then, she hasn’t been great about keeping up with the organization, has been haphazard in replacing certain things. If he were to look hard enough, he would find the copies she lent him, all of which aren’t in their alphabetically proper spot. Dana Scully doesn’t hoard, doesn’t own to excess, but he feels dwarfed by the books in her bedroom, by their imposing presence, an old god watching over her. Outside, there is the bone-cold spring rain, no sun in the sky, her window being hit with steady drops. For now, the lights are off so that she can sleep, and the dimness casts them both in the grey-blue of dark days, muted colors over muted sensations. He has watched her vomit into nearly-melted snowbanks. He is watching her die. Sitting at the foot of her bed, looking away from her, he wonders where her books will go when she herself goes. He wants to keep them. He wants to keep everything.
If he leaves her apartment, then she will be gone. It feels only right that, in wake of the horrors of death, he can’t think logically anymore. Though leaving her place right now would be simple, he fears the outcome, feels like a small child in how having her out of her sight, not being able to hear her breathing, would make him think she simply doesn’t exist anymore. Each day, he tells her, Scully, you don’t need to come into work, you don’t need to be here, it’s okay to take a day off, but he’s glad when she comes to work anyway, when she spends days doing mundane paperwork near him, when he can glance up from his own file and watch how she brings her forefinger to her mouth as she flips the page. These are the things he can keep: recordings of her on his voicemail, her signature on their neglected paperwork, the intricate look of her as she turns pages in front of him. Because she can’t keep herself, he’ll keep her for as long as he will live. He’s going to map out all of her that he can, then tuck her away so that she’ll always be a part of him. He's going to put her in scrapbooks, in boxes. He's going to keep her everywhere and nowhere all at once.
However, he doesn’t look at her now, for he thinks she doesn’t want to be seen, and he thinks he doesn’t want to witness either, for looking at her would mean seeing how death is a reality right now, not in the distant-but-near future but right now. Three months ago, she wasn’t given long, and now, the chemotherapy and radiation are beginning to show their true uselessness; she is dying, and she’s dying quickly, and she is going to be gone soon. She is going to be gone by summer. It is spring, and she is going to be gone by summer. He won’t receive any birthday cards this year. She’ll never turn another year older. He’s going to be alone in his office, more alone than he’s ever been, even more alone than he’d been before she’d been assigned to work with him. She is going to be in a casket, and he knows that for sure because she’s mentioned that to him as if it were her phone number or the make and model of the car she drives. He will be at her funeral. She doesn’t want a wake. By summer, she will be gone, and he will be alone in this world, and she’ll be gone.
It shouldn’t feel like truncation, for she’s an accomplished woman, a doctor, an esteemed professional, someone who’s done things with her life, but it’s bitter nonetheless, how young she is, how unknowing. Bunching his trousers in the palms of his hands, he wonders if she ever wanted children, if she expected to be married by now, if the trajectory of her life had been in a different direction that only this cancer disrupted. She’s told him to stop blaming himself for this, so he won’t say this is his fault, but still, what has life kept from her? What has her God kept from her? It’s all in God’s plan, he’s heard, but he doesn’t believe in her God, and even if he did, he would think this God of hers is cruel, insane and cruel, taking her for no good reason, hurting her like this just for entertainment. Shouldn’t she have had some warning, a sign that this year would be her last, a way of knowing that she should’ve made last Christmas really count?
Soon enough, he will have a last memory of her being alive. He almost wishes they could rehearse that last moment so that they would both have something to cling to, something to care about, but instead, he thinks it’ll be dark and uncomfortable, that she’ll be barely aware, that he’ll be asking her to go. It’s okay, he thinks he would say, for she’s too stubborn to give up. It’s okay. It’s okay. And what will he be then, her colleague? Her work partner? A family friend? When he met her at the hospital today, while they were pulling intravenous tubing from her bruised arm, he kissed her cheek and watched her ever-so-slightly smile at that. In a chair that dwarfed her, colored pink like calamine that made her skin in comparison look dead, she leaned her head against an arm-rest, too tired to hold it up herself. She had a blanket over her lap, the kind of blanket made by church-goers for other church-goers when one of those church-goers had cancer, fleece and tied at the edges, not sewn. No blazers, no makeup. Based on her demeanor, this was a bad day, and he had plenty of potential to make it worse, so he kept his distance, waited for her cues. Though she typically walked out with him, sometimes leaning on him but usually managing on her own, this time she asked to be taken out of the hospital in a wheelchair. Hospital policy meant that a nurse had to steer her out; he was left to pull his car around, leaving her behind as she achingly cowered into the chair, as she steadied herself all alone. While taking the stairs, he felt his heart pound, echoed that image of her in his mind, bracing herself, bracing for what she knew was coming, giving in. She's not going to fight this anymore, he knew then, and though that idea make him feel as if he were about to faint, he remembered her exhaustion and knew that giving in was the most valiant thing she could do now.
In bed, she seems too tired even to cry, even to vomit, too sick to be sick anymore. He wants to lie down beside her and say the perfect thing that will make all of this right in some way; he wants to annihilate the delusion that he could ever be capable of such a thing. Soon enough, she’ll be dead, and he’ll be a work colleague, a strange relation. He wishes her illness could’ve physically scarred him so that he could have a reason for his pain; he wants to be able to pull a sleeve back and say right there, that’s where it hurts. It’s going to hurt for a long time. I think I want it to keep hurting because, if it were to stop, then I might forget. And I don’t want to forget. I never want to forget.
He speaks for no good reason, and for the only good reason.
“We could get married,” he says before he can think the statement through.
With his tone quiet, with the room still, with her potentially sleeping behind him, he knows this could go unremembered. He wants it to go unremembered. He wants to know that he did all he could in order to give himself to her, in order to express what he’s felt for so long, but to never really actualize that everything, to have tried and failed to opt for that painful and vulnerable confrontation. If they had more time, he would ask her in five years instead, but it’s spring now, and she’ll be gone by summer. He wants to say he asked so that he’ll know he never left any question unanswered.
A few minutes pass in silence, her breathing strangely even, her exhaustion lumping her onto one side of the bed. For now, they won’t look at each other and instead will close their eyes and feel each other as merely a presence in a room, warmth and soft sound sensed close by but still far away. They both smell like hospitals. If it didn’t require moving, he would get up and find that pillow spray he knows she keeps nearby, taking a smaller bottle with her on their trips so that she has something to spruce up motel room linens with, and cover the room with it, drowning out the unfortunate reality with something lighter, airier, more beautiful. This time, he wants to go home smelling of her pillow spray, not of where she’ll likely die.
“Would you mind making me some tea?” she asks, making him flinch with surprise at the sound of her voice. With her tone low, her speech dry, she sounds drained, too tired even to sleep. “There’s chamomile in the cabinets.”
So he nods and stands, looking back at her as he leaves the bedroom, seeing the curve of her body in bed, the way she sinks into the mattress. Though he’s always seen her as small, as little shoes alongside his, as skirts he could hardly fit a single leg of his in, she’s never been so frail to him, so fragmented. At first, he could deny it all, but now, she looks as if she’s dying. If they were to go out to a park together, others would be able to see that she’s dying. She has nosebleeds on cases now; he’s started keeping little packages of tissues in his pockets in case she forgets her own. As he fills her kettle with water, puts it on the stove, he sits with the question he asked, with what it means now. He’s practically asking her to be his widow, but somehow, he’s okay with that, wants to keep a picture of their marriage in his apartment so that anyone who comes over can ask who she is and have him say oh, that’s my wife, she died this past summer. But he isn’t going to have anyone over, for the Gunmen he’ll surely shut out, and other than them, she’s the only person who comes over. After she found out that they needed to start trying a more aggressive form of chemotherapy, she came over and watched Goodfellas because that was what he had out from Blockbuster, and when she cried on his couch midway through the movie, not even at a sad part, he settled his hand on one of her knees and asked, what’s wrong? She’d shaken her head in response, and he’d let it go, knowing that what she needed most was something normal, not a long talk about how she felt about dying. Before she went home that night, she told him of her next chemotherapy date, asked him if he wouldn’t mind picking her up, and since then, he’s been the one to take her home. That feels, he thinks, like something worthy of marriage.
Taking the kettle off early, hoping she’s fallen asleep and that she missed the question altogether, he pours the water into two mugs, pops teabags in, watches the way the bags float to the surface, how steam rises. He does want to marry her; he meant it when he asked. Still, he hasn’t thought beyond asking, and in all honesty he hadn’t even thought about asking until after he asked, but he does want to marry her, and the more he thinks about it, the more he agonizes over it in her dimly lit kitchen, the more he wants to go back into her bedroom and cautiously ask for an answer. You can mull it over, he rehearses in his mind, but I mean it. And I do want an answer. And I understand and respect if that answer is no.
Back in her bedroom, he finds her still awake, her eyes heavy and tired but still open, her neck moving in an uncomfortable swallow as she watches him set her mug down on her bedside table. There’s a chair at the edge of the room, so he goes to sit over there, to have his own tea at a distance, but she reaches out for him before he can move, her small hand soft against his sleeve. On her nails, there’s a pink paint, pale and almost unnoticeable but still clearly pink. The skin of her fingers looks so smooth.
“There would be consequences,” she says, gaze stuck on their arms together, her fingers and his sleeve, the little hairs on her bare skin and the white fabric of his shirt, “for both of us. Long-term consequences.”
“Okay,” he says, almost unsure of what she means, tracking the intricate movements of her hand. It seems suddenly so pertinent that he know the arc and curve of each one of her fingers.
“It would be legal, not just symbolic,” she says, and for a moment, he thinks her hand might be shaking, and not from the chemotherapy. “I would want it before God.”
“Yeah,” he says, dumbfounded, mind blank, able to hear her but unable to truly understand what she means.
“If you meant it seriously,” she backpedals for a moment, and her grip is loosening, and if he had power, if he could take the place of this God of hers, he would make her tense the muscles of her hand once more, hold tighter, “that is.”
Now, he looks to her, and her eyes are half-hooded and dark, in the grey-blue scale of the rest of this rainy room, and she looks like she’s dying, and she looks like her springtime freckles are just beginning to bloom. This is the face she’ll be buried with, he thinks, not some far-off one with wrinkles and sun spots, with laughter lines and pockmarks and divots from kisses. Though she won’t meet his gaze, this distance feels close enough, as if she’s starting to let him in, as if he now deserves this closeness but will eventually earn more.
“I meant it seriously,” he says, almost panting as he says it, needing the words out. “I meant it-”
“I don’t need a ring,” she says, dismissing the conversation, letting go of his arm. On her bedside table, steam wafts up from her untouched mug; next to the mug is a novel, a lighthearted one, and her bookmark is midway through. The tissue box on the nightstand is full and looks brand new. “Tomorrow, I’ll ask if there’s time during mass this Sunday.”
It’s Thursday. He has to have a ring by Sunday. Though he hates her God for his horrors, he won’t go before her God without a ring.
“Okay,” he says, for there’s nothing else he can say.
The next day, she resigns from her position at work, effective immediately. His office is empty months earlier than expected, and though he asks her to lunch in some kind of celebration or angst, she says no, she’s too sick, she really should head home. There’s Chinese delivery that goes home, right? he asks, and she smirks as if that’s something actually charming to say, and he drives her there, listens while she recites their usual order over the phone, helps her out of the passenger’s seat and steadies her when nausea hits in the elevator.
Over lo mein, she asks him to wear a suit and tie, she doesn’t care what kind of tie, just one that won’t be too insulting to the Sunday crowd. She tells him her mother is baking them a cake, something small, and the tradition is to put two slices into the icebox, share those slices on the first anniversary.
“I know that might seem like a big ask,” she says, tone cautious, not looking at him, “but-”
“I’ll do it,” he says.
And she nods to herself, smiles slightly, and it’s something to hold onto, he thinks. One year from Sunday, he will eat frozen old cake and think of the little smile on her lips as he made her a promise. By then, he thinks, he’ll not even be close to wanting to take off his ring.
On Sunday, she wears a dress that’s pale blue, long-sleeved and to the knee, cinched at the waist, beautiful, making her eyes and darker veins stand out; he wears a suit and a tie without a pattern, and when they’re seated in a pew together, just the two of them and her mother, she whispers to him, I was kind of hoping you’d wear one of the ugly ones. The ceremony is short and to the point, just two people standing before a priest, the vows standard and repetitive, and when he’s asked to speak, when the priest uses his first name, he stills, feeling the suddenness of this union, wondering if he made the right decision. Should he have asked at all? It feels almost like a burden to put on her, his asking. If she only has months to live, then she deserves to spend those months with people who love her; she deserves to spend her time doing what she desires with those more important to her, and he can already think of her brother’s potential reaction, of how such a sudden and sickened decision could be used against her. But as he starts to have doubts, he sees her alongside him, and she has that same look on her face, the one she had when she told him she might beat this, when she told him she wouldn’t give up. By mid-afternoon - maybe before the end of the morning - she is going to be exhausted enough to retire to bed, but still, she looks determined to stay up, to take part in her own life today. Even if they haven’t talked it through yet, it’s clear to him: they both want this, whether or not they’re willing to fully admit to such a thing.
When he shows that they have rings to exchange, she blushes, almost seeming angry. Of course he didn’t listen. Of course he went out and found some on such short notice. They’re generic, just gold bands, but they’re wedding bands nonetheless. Though he wanted to give her a diamond, he knew she would fret over it, and there’s a fine line, he thinks, with the prospect of death: she doesn’t want him to hold onto a dead woman’s ring, simultaneously expensive and useless, but the thought of him selling it - or, worse, reusing it - is too painful to imagine. So, no diamond. He whispers under his breath that they can resize if need be; hers is just a little bit loose but not uncomfortably so. After he puts the ring on her, he looks down at their joined hands and almost shudders, the sight so odd, his crooked and uncouth fingers putting a ring on her pale, dainty little ones; this is a marriage, a wanted marriage, and her words return to him them, legal, not just symbolic. She hadn’t wanted them to pretend to be something different; she’d wanted this to be official, in front of her God, legal beyond meaningful, real in every sense.
As they leave the church, their hands clasped in a bashful and half-hidden way, aimlessly thanking the overheard congratulations as they walk down the front steps, he asks her, So where to now? And she’s quiet as she slows her pace, and she brings their clasped hands behind themselves, as if hiding from herself, as if almost embarrassed, but when he looks into her eyes, he understands the embarrassment, the strange vulnerability of really caring about something, about someone. She looks at him wide-eyed and grows tense because she knows that he will give her whatever she asks for, and as he does so, he’ll remember how much she hates flying, and he’ll keep chamomile teabags in his pockets so that she can have something to calm her stomach while they’re at highway rest areas, and he’ll feel a newlywed enchantment while looking at her half-open suitcase in their rented bedroom, unable to tear his eyes away from it but also unable to pick his way through it. Once, while they were at a Motel 6 outside of San Bernardino, she asked him to grab her spare pair of pants from her suitcase, and he dipped into her room and spent all too long in there before cowering back out and saying, sorry, Scully, but I couldn’t find them. And then, she went into the room and found that, if he had simply moved her folded pajamas aside, he would have found exactly that pair of her pants.
She doesn’t know where he’ll sleep tonight. They’ve kissed exactly once, and in a church no less. She could ask him to take her to the moon, and unfortunately, he would say, Well, I know a guy who….
“The ocean,” she manages, the parish behind her echoing with sentiments that don’t make any sense. This is the most chaste wedding they’ve ever seen, she thinks, then feels as if the exact opposite of that statement is true. “I’d like to go to the ocean.”
“It’s okay,” she says on the bed in the motel room, lying on her stomach and hiding half of her face with a pillow. Her hands are like paws in front of her lips. The light is dim, like a sunset without the glare, like the time as children when one knows to head home. Though he said they could stay in Boston, maybe get a room with a big bathtub at a luxury hotel, she said no, she wanted something normal, no cockroaches but something normal nonetheless. He carried her suitcase in; it’s half-open on top of a stand, bright orange pill bottles peeking out among uncharacteristic floral dresses. “You can.”
The sheets smell like bleach. When trucks pass outside, light flashes in through their thin curtains and highlights her face. He swears that he’s never seen so much of her eyes in all the time that they’ve known each other as he has while changing the audiobook tapes in her car, watching her stare at him from the passenger’s seat. She brought her own pillow because she doesn’t want to get blood on any others; she leaned it against the passenger’s side door and closed her eyes on the interstate, and he drove slower than usual because he didn’t want to jostle her.
So he lies down beside her. It’s supposed to be easy. Reaching over, he turns off the lights, the switch right above the one bedside table, her weeklong pill case and a glass of water waiting for morning there. On his side, he faces her in bed, and she faces him, and she looks down at her hands so that she doesn’t have to look at him directly, and their left ring fingers match.
No one in Maine wants to rent a cottage to newlyweds in early April. It’s not the right season, every listing he called said, we’re not open just yet, can you wait until June? But he couldn’t wait until June, so he called someone else, went through the same explanation: my wife is immunocompromised, so we need the place to be as clean as possible, and we need to be there as soon as possible, and I’ll pay any price for it, absolutely any price. And when he managed somewhere far outside of Portland and right on a rocky beach, he went to her apartment and knocked as many times as it took to get her to come to the front door, and had it all been a movie, he would’ve watched her open the door in her bathrobe, then wrapped an arm around her waist so that he could lift her up and spin her around and tell her where they would spend their honeymoon. Though he first thought of Nova Scotia, she said her doctors didn’t want her out of the country, so, Maine. No planes, just a stopover in rural Massachusetts, a midpoint for the ride. There’s a diner a few doors down; he’ll walk her over tomorrow, and they’ll take their time with breakfast, yes, have coffee with lots of milk, order French toast with powdered sugar and extra bacon on the side. In the evening, they’ll be at the cottage, and he’ll let them take their time so long as they don’t miss the sunset.
She falls asleep before him. In some ways, it’s a burden to share a bed with someone, not a pleasure; if he moves, he fears he’ll wake her, but it’s horrible to stay so still for so long, especially when he can’t sleep. But he can see her eyelashes in the dark, and her cheek is squashed against her own pillow, and she checked the room when they arrived to make sure that there were plenty of tissues. Had there been a couch here, even a divan, he would’ve taken to that instead, let her sleep soundly without him. The day of the wedding - he almost tenses at the word wedding, not because he dislikes it but because it feels so strange and unreal, as if it never really happened even though he remembers it so easily and comfortably - they had a makeshift reception in her apartment, just cutting cake with her mother and then sharing slices with the Gunmen after her mother left. If anything, it felt more like a funeral than a wedding reception, so many questions tiptoed around, everything too urgent and human to be a celebration, but between guests, she grabbed part of her slice with her bare fingers and pressed the cake against his face unexpectedly, and he looked at her with surprise, and she laughed in an inward way that made her shoulders move.
“It’s what we’re supposed to do,” she said, raising her eyebrows in mock-innocence, “right?”
So he took from his own slice and smeared frosting over her cheek and listened to her laugh again, that warm and amazed laugh, he hadn’t heard it in so long that he almost felt as if he could cry, but he couldn’t cry right then, not as she shoved cake in his face, had to stand on tiptoe in order to do so. He wanted to kiss her but wanted to get on his knees and press his face against her legs, begging her to stay just a little bit longer, but in the end, all he did was spend a night on her couch, then make her tea in the morning, and when he asked if she would like cake for breakfast, he wanted to cry because she said yes.
He watches as she sheepishly smiles at a plate of French toast the next morning, wondering when these beautiful moments will stop making him nauseous.
By the time they finish the audiobook, they’re on the one main road of this sprawling town, fields to their left and dense forest to their right. There are roads into the forest every few miles, dark dirt paths with driftwood signs spelling out which families live this way nailed to a tree. Out here, there are few vacation rentals because the houses are too far from Portland to have touristic appeal and too close to wildlife to compel families; the combination of off-season and out-there means that they’ll be staying in a local's summer house with only a woodstove to help them keep warm, and the owner, though he sent over cleaners to ensure that the Mulders’ - he cringes - needs were met, wants them both to update him when they leave on the state of the house, particularly how far the tides come in and whether or not the recent storms have turned the paintings hung on the wall crooked. When Scully rolls her window down, he notices the scent of the sea.
“What sounds good for dinner?” he asks after he passes one of the dirt roads that isn’t for them.
She’s leaning against her pillow on the car door, the position looking uncomfortable. When he glances to her, he sees that her eyes are closed, but he knows she isn’t sleeping.
“Something light,” she says, eyes still closed. “Something simple.”
“I can cook for you,” he says, and she snorts an involuntary laugh, and he takes his eyes off of the road to watch. “But really, I could.”
“Or you could pick something up,” she says, and she looks to him, giving him a look, and it’s not annoyance but a strange kind of little joy. He turns back to the road before he can call it love.
“Or I could pick something up,” he echoes, and he thinks of general stores with dusty shelves because only the locals come around nowadays, and he thinks of living on Martha’s Vineyard and how the boathouse closest to his home had had an ice cream freezer, and he and his sister would bring over fifty cents to get a Blue Bunny bar that they would split, one quarter in each of their small hands, the teenager working the place rubbing their quarters on his shirt and pretending to inspect them for counterfeiting before saying it’s all good and letting them pick out a strawberry shortcake.
If she had one more summer, he would make it count. He would bring her out on the ferry and show her where he grew up, all of the ugly and beautiful parts of it, all of the rich brats who lived there year-round, all of the preps that came in for the season. If she had more time, he would wait for the hottest day and take her to the beach, the two of them reading books while lounging on towels, her borrowing his sunglasses because she forgot hers and forcing him to rub sunscreen on her back so that she wouldn’t burn but then unclasping the top of her swimsuit so she wouldn’t have tan lines. He would buy her a chocolate-vanilla swirl and when she asks for a kiddie size would insist on a small at minimum, and he would kiss her sticky just so that she would yell at him, and he would build an outdoor shower for them to share, secluded but not very, her bare body under half-sun half-moon, her hair slicked back, her big blue eyes looking up at him. He wanted her to collect seashells that he could line the windowsills of his apartment with, taking the tape off for good, leaving something better in their wake. He wanted to wake up and see her there even when she wasn’t with him anymore.
But he doesn’t have one more summer; he just has this spring, a shitty spring all things considered, and there might be frost on the trees in the morning, and he’ll need to keep putting fire into the woodstove. Instead of seeking out warmth, they went north and found cold instead. When he finds the name associated with their cottage at the beginning of the next dirt road, he slows down and turns, no signal necessary because he hasn’t seen another car for half an hour. These roads aren’t mowed; there are two dirt wells for wheels and tall grasses in the center, the trees on either side so dense that he needs to turn his headlights on in order to see. It still takes them ten minutes to get to the cottage after the turnoff, and once he’s parked, he tells her to wait here, says he’ll bring her luggage in, and she insists that she can do this herself, that it’s alright, she achingly gets up, she can do this herself, but he’s already brought her suitcase in, and she’s leaning against the car because her last round of chemotherapy is still too new, and he wants to carry her over the threshold but won’t because that would only make her feel worse. Grab your pillow, he says so that she doesn’t feel helpless, and the car keys too. He unlocks the cottage using a key beneath the welcome mat, then lets her through the door first.
Because the place hasn’t been occupied, it’s as cold as the outside when they first enter, the refrigerator off and the cabinets empty; the place is small, the little kitchen blending into the television-free living room with its long couch for him and the woodstove for both of them, the furthest wall holding shoved-in books to its greatest shelving capacity, paperbacks back-broken from use. To the left of the books is the doorway to the one bedroom with its attached bath. The paintings on the wall are, of course, seascapes or lighthouses, and the big windows above the couch have blue handmade curtains pulled over them. Between the kitchen and the couch is a glass door leading out to a porch facing the ocean; the owner told Mulder that that was the best spot, that a sunset pair of lobsters from the pound down the road, newspaper around them unwrapped on the porch’s table, was the most romantic thing to do in the area, and he’d said it as if that were complimenting the place. Mulder wishes he could make her hot soup and serve it to her with homemade bread out there, draping his jacket over her shoulders while she looked up at the stars.
She leaves her pillow and the keys on the couch, then presses open the glass door, steps onto the porch, and he follows her because he needs to, and she doesn’t stop at the porch; she goes to the steps down to the beach, and this beach isn’t like the Vineyard, no, it’s rocky and greyish-blue, the solar glare above just starting to turn to sunset, and she finds on large rock and stops short, stepping up on top, looking taller, looking out at the sea. Though there are other houses nearby, most all of them are empty, and they’re probably not going to see fishers or lobster boats while they’re here given the season, so it’s just the two of them, two people on this long beach, two people looking out at the endless horizon, two people dwarfed by things so much more important than them.
Turning her head halfway toward him, chin down, she says, “You mentioned dinner.”
He did mention dinner. He needs to learn to cook. No, he needs to learn to make a bed the right way first. No, he needs to learn how to ask to sleep in her bed before that. He’s getting ahead of himself. If he had more time, he would learn how to keep her. If it weren’t futile, he would do better. He would make her pancakes on Saturdays, using real buttermilk and everything, and not burn a single one, and he’d buy her real syrup and insist she add some because he bought real syrup. He would add chocolate chips and sliced strawberries on Valentine’s Day. He would have a Valentine’s Day with her, absolutely any Valentine's Day at all. He would leave a dozen roses on her nightstand and another dozen on her desk at work and would sneak a chocolate box into her lunch and buy her pearls because she likes them more than she likes diamonds. He would do everything right. If he had more time with her, he would do every last thing right.
She looks up at him, silently tells him that she’d like to be left alone for now, so he nods in understanding, turns back toward the cottage and climbs back up the steps, opens and closes the glass door, but before he can look through the owner’s binder of local attractions, before he can find them a place to get dinner from, he looks back out at the beach to find her, and she’s sitting on that one rock, and the sky’s just started turning pink at the clouds. He watches her shoulders go up slowly, then fall in an instant, a sigh out of necessity. When he sought out a place to stay, he made sure there would be a couch for him to sleep on, but in the back of his mind, he thought, Well maybe I can stay in the bed with her. Maybe she’ll want me to. Maybe that’s something she wants to do. Maybe I’ll be comfortable sleeping next to her. Maybe we’ll never be on this couch at all. But as he watches her on the beach, he knows that he’s ten years ahead of himself, and though he doesn’t have long here, doesn’t have much time with her, he needs to go slowly anyway. For now, he’ll pick up dinner, but he’ll pick up bread, milk, and eggs too so that he can make her more French toast in the morning. He’ll start there. She can have the sunset and the bed, but he gets breakfast.
The general store ten miles away has hot sandwiches; he calls to confirm. He looks back at her once more, still sitting there, dwarfed and shadowed by fiery skies above, and the doors are unlocked because why lock them, and he’s put wood in the stove and left one of his jackets on the couch for her in case she comes in cold. When he picks up the car keys from on top of her pillow, he hesitates, seeing old bloodstains on the case, seeing why she insisted on bringing this one linen, and for a moment, he thinks about putting his face to the pillow and seeing what it feels like to rest the way she rests.
After ten minutes on the dirt road, he turns right on the main road, and he watches the sunset over the horizon and wonders if she’s feeling what he feels right now, just in another spot, somewhere close but somewhere far away.
He brushes his teeth in the one bathroom and takes a scratchy wool blanket and a spare sheet from the linen closet before heading to the couch that evening. She’s sitting on the bed and wearing flannel and picking pills out of her organizer, pale pink nail polish and fluorescent tablets, contrasting colors telling her which drug is which. As he settles the sheet over the couch cushions, fluffs his pillow, he thinks, I could ask. I could ask. I could ask I could ask I could ask I could ask.
When he turns around to grab the blanket, she’s standing in the bedroom doorway, one palm against the jamb, books to her right and crackling woodstove to her left. She’s flushed because it’s so warm to stand right there. He wants to take the ice cubes he set in the freezer’s tray and gently press them to her cheeks.
Though he knows what she’s going to say before she speaks, he acts like he doesn’t so that she’ll have to say the words, so that he’ll have to listen.
monday is update day each week. "but it's not monday today," you may say, but i simply will not listen. i swear i will maintain a schedule. i swear....
with most things i like to attach a playlist because sound vibes paired with writing are important to me. the playlist for this one is here.
No matter where he goes, no matter if he’s married to her or not, he is the same person, and that person is an insomniac.
Though there isn’t a clock in sight, he knows it’s edging on two in the morning, and she fell asleep long ago. Like the night beforehand, he’s still as he lies alongside her, on his side and looking toward her because he doesn’t want to wake her by shifting. The quilt on the bed is blue-grey and looks handmade, pulled up over her shoulders to keep her warm, hands bunching blankets in front of her face. Even while simply looking at her, he feels as if he’s prying, as if he’s going through her suitcase, as if he’s looking up each of her medications in a medical almanac and seeing what each one does; though these aren’t her private moments anymore, he feels as if they still should be, and it makes him want to stand up ever-so-slowly and tiptoe to the couch, then wake as early as he can to come back so that she won’t notice that he was gone. Though she’s letting him in, he still feels as if he should keep away.
But then, he notices a trickle coming from her nostril, oil-slick but thin, and he’s reaching toward his bedside table for tissues with one hand, tapping her shoulder gently with the other. She stirs uncomfortably, eyelids pressing tightly shut, while he holds out a wad of tissues.
“Nosebleed,” he whispers, as if he’s actually trying not to wake her.
Sitting up, she takes the tissues and starts to blot at her face, looks down to see the her pillow miraculously survived this bleed. Her legs crossed, her hands bracing against her face, she tilts her head and closes her eyes in annoyance, in exhaustion; now that she’s given up, these should just stop happening. If she’s already admitted defeat, what use is a spare reminder that she’s dying? Shouldn’t things have gotten easier after she admitted that she was never going to get better? Shouldn’t her God have cut her some slack?
The bridge of her nose, he thinks, so he reaches up to grasp it between his thumb and forefinger. Holding there stops the bleeding, or so he's heard. If he holds there, he’ll stop her bleeding. At the touch, she opens her eyes, looks down at him, and in the dark, she’s punctuated by bloodied tissues, dark eyelashes, the piping edge of her flannel pajamas. Their eyes lock, and he wants to take her face in his hands and kiss her forehead. If he thinks hard enough to remember her scans, maybe he could kiss right over where the tumor is, and maybe he could-
“Mulder,” she says, and he can’t read her tone, can’t tell if she wants to say keep holding me like this or never touch me again, so he lets go, takes his hand back, brings his arms back under the covers.
“I’m sorry,” he says, and he wants to race out of this room and sleep on the couch instead. He wishes he didn’t know what the bridge of her nose felt like between his fingers.
Sighing, she leans toward the garbage bin on the floor and throws out her tissues, makes sure that that’s the last of the blood, and he doesn’t know what to do. Though she’s had nosebleeds on cases before, he’s never been this close to her during one, and he’s never woken her to deal with one before. Of course he’s never woken her to deal with one before. He’s never slept beside her. Or, rather, he’s never slept beside her like this, as someone who can wake her and tell her that her nose is bleeding, as someone who should care for her. Shouldn’t he do more? Does she have pills to take after the bleeds? What did she want from him in all of this? We need to talk about it all, he thinks, but then, she lies down beside him, and he stills because she’s going to fall asleep and leave him to himself again. He should’ve made the most of his few minutes not-sleeping with her. He should’ve paid more attention.
“Mulder?” she says again, tone still so hard to read, and he wishes she would just ask. He wishes she would just say something else.
But instead of saying something, she moves toward him in bed and gets so close that he stops breathing, and she folds her arms up in front of herself in a way that makes him want to wrap his arms around her, so he holds her there gently, his nose brushing against her hair, her eyelashes fluttering against his skin. When he starts to breathe normally again, he feels that she’s shaking.
He won’t be able to sleep like this, but it feels better to not sleep like this. It feels better to stay awake while holding her. It feels better to stay still while she falls back to sleep against him than it ever could to find a couch and sleep there instead.
By the time he manages to drift off, he can see out the window that the sky full of stars has turned bright, the first bit of real morning creeping in, and she hasn’t moved away from him at all.
When he wakes, the blinds are open, the house is chilly because he needs to put more wood in the stove, and she’s taking a shower, the sound of the water offering him comforting white noise. There isn’t any blood on her pillow, and as he gets up, he almost wishes there were, for then he would have solid evidence that she spent last night in his arms, afraid and vulnerable, seeking him out because she needed him. But then, he notices the last remnant of her perfume left on his shirt, and he pulls his collar up to his nose to take in the scent, closing his eyes for a moment, wondering if he’ll see her little bottle on the bathroom sink and run one finger over it lovingly. It’s one thing to call out to her as she leaves work that she forgot her sweater and then catch the aroma as he hands the garment back to her; it’s another entirely to see the bottle she holds to her neck and spritzes.
So, French toast. On the bookshelves in the cottage, there are a few musty cookbooks, the book-jackets dark and fraying; he picks up a Jacques Pépin and flips through to find breakfast, then pays attention to general ingredients and ignores the rest of the recipe. Cinnamon, nutmeg, milk, eggs. It can’t possibly be that hard. As he butters the pan, he wonders why he doesn’t do this more often, cook for himself, cook for someone else, but he’s always liked a greasy spoon and has never been one to have friends over. When he’s with the Gunmen, he sometimes eats what they’re eating, ranch eggs on a good day but instant ramen on a normal one, but at home, he either orders in or scrapes together whatever’s in the kitchen into a makeshift meal. He only started bringing lunches to work after Scully yelled at him about the inadequacy of his diet, but then he had to watch as her lunches grew smaller and smaller, leveling out in the end to a single yogurt cup. This isn’t right, he always thought as he picked up his prepackaged grocery store sandwich, but he never spoke up about it, at least not seriously
And now, he’s making her French toast. He whips the egg mixture in a pie plate left in this cottage, then dunks the bread as deeply as it will go. Though he’s probably put too much butter in the pan, he doubts that’ll be a bad thing. Even if his cooking skills haven’t been exercised in years, he’s still sharp with a spatula. Through the window above the kitchen sink, he watches the tide come in between flips; the ocean is dark grey and brooding, and he’s yet to see another soul on the beach.
Hearing her leave the bedroom, he stills; he doesn’t know what she looks like after she bathes. No, he does, he’s known that for a while, he’s seen her with wet hair on cases, he knows how she looks when she’s red-faced and fresh from a shower, but it’s different now. Did she keep the ring on? he’s desperate to know but unable to ask.
“Morning,” she says, and he listens as she sits down behind him at the tiny two-person kitchen table, beneath a hanging light and pressed against the far wall. If he were to pull out the chair opposite of her, he would hit the refrigerator with its back.
“Good morning,” he says and almost trips over the two words. His shirt still smells just a little bit like her. She uses lavender shampoo. He wants to brush her hair.
“What’s for breakfast?” she asks, and her tone is just as unreadable as it was last night, and he rushes to flip a slice of toast before it burns.
“Toast,” he says.
When he looks back at her, he sees her resting her elbows on the table, leaning forward. She’s wearing a wool sweater, dark green and cowl-necked, and he still hasn’t put wood in the fire yet, damn it. Her hair is shades darker while wet. Her eyes are so much bluer without the red for contrast.
He’s imagined this scene so many times before that he stumbles making her a plate, that he trips over words and doesn’t know how to feel. At night, he would quell insomnia by thinking of waking up next to her, making her pancakes while she sits on his kitchen counter and flirts with him while wearing one of his shirts; on long, tough cases, he would inevitably close his eyes on his motel bed and imagine her coming into his room, crawling into his bed, cozying into his arms. He’s gone through every possibility already, and in each imagining, he does the exact right thing. In each imagining, he’s the proper romantic hero, and she loves him. He cradles her, and she loves him. He kisses her over breakfast, and she loves him. And they’ve exhausted the frivolities, know each other’s deepest secrets and greatest fears already, have gone before her God and professed their love to each other, but he still doesn’t know if he should hold her hand. The burden is greater, he thinks, when someone already knows you love them. In comparison, an awkward first date would be so easy, the permissions customary, the askance typical. Now, she is his wife, and he is her husband, and he wants to kiss her good morning but can’t.
He slides the plate of French toast in front of her, then slips a fork and knife alongside the plate. Looking down, she stares at the breakfast, and he can’t tell if she’s impressed or not, and he remembers how the bridge of her nose felt between his fingers, and he wishes he were still holding her in bed while she slept.
“Are you going to have any?” she asks, looking up at him.
“Yeah, yeah,” he says, then plates his own, then sits across from her. Like the good Christian girl she is, she doesn’t start eating until he has his own plate in front of him.
He can eat in front of her. He’s eaten in front of her plenty of times before. First, he needs to cut a piece, then put that piece onto his fork, then put the fork into his mouth. After breakfast, he’ll do the dishes and meanwhile ask her what she wants to do today, and they’ll do whatever it is she wants to do. A few towns over, there’s a nice restaurant that’s open year-round, and if they drive out in a certain direction on the main road, then hike a little ways, they’ll be able to find a lighthouse. It’s off-season, but he’s trying to do what he can for her. He’s trying-
He stills as she takes one of his hands, as she grips it in her own, as she pulls him back to the current moment. When he looks up at her, he watches as she stares at their joined hands, his left and her right, his ring and her bare finger.
It’s okay, she doesn’t tell him.
Her hand is soft, and when she lets go, he feels a streak of her lotion left behind on his fingertips, and he’s going to hold her hand again today. He’s going to hold her hand again today.
The thing is that they need to talk. As he drives, he keeps a running list of topics: what she wants out of this honeymoon, whether or not he should call it a honeymoon, what the boundaries of their marriage are, why they married at all, why he even has to ask about boundaries in the first place. He doesn’t know what she likes to do on Saturdays even though he’s stolen so many of hers over the past few years. If asked, he wouldn’t be able to say what her favorite food is, or her favorite color, or her favorite shirt, or her favorite book. But he loves her, and that makes it seem as if he’s allowed to ask her every question he possibly could. She married him, so it seems only right that he can ask if he could kiss her again.
In the evenings, she tends to be tired and calm, not looking to go out, so he drives them both out to the nearest big - though the word is used loosely - town, just a four-building main street, a gas station, a general store, and a regional supermarket that seems to have the state’s entire population in the parking lot. While she pulls out a shopping cart, her rain jacket - maroon but more purple than red, it’s misty out today - falls off of her shoulder, and he reaches over to put it back, and she doesn’t flinch away from him, doesn’t even notice what he’s done.
First, they need staples: more eggs, more bread, more milk. Though they’re not in season, she picks up and weighs in her hands four different honeycrisp apples, spinning them in her little fingers to check for bruises. If they divide and conquer, she tells him, then they’ll get through this quicker, and she would like to see that lighthouse today, thinks it might be beautiful in this weather, so he nods to her and takes an outstretched list she’s penned down. So like his Scully, to keep a tiny notebook and a pen in her purse for things like this. He scans down the list: granola, two gallon-sized bottles of water, zinc oxide sunscreen even though the sun hasn’t come out for them yet, turkey and swiss cheese for sandwiches, Snack Pack chocolate pudding.
He stops as he’s walking away from her, furrows his brow. Snack Pack chocolate pudding. She even specified the brand. When he was a child, he would watch as other children had those packed in their school lunches, and though his family wasn’t poor by any means, all he and his sister ever got were little packages of peanuts and a small apple; their lunches were carbon copies, except that he liked his crusts cut off of his sandwiches and Samantha didn’t, and their lunches felt almost sterile in comparison to those of his classmates, practically pulled from an M.R.E. and then placed into a child’s lunchbag. The other children would dip their spoons into chocolate pudding and seem far more affluent in comparison.
Still. Snack Pack chocolate pudding. The last time he saw the inside of Scully’s refrigerator, she had almond milk, spinach, and a rotisserie chicken inside, absolutely nothing else there, not even mayonnaise or mustard, but that was before she was sick. Looking back, he can’t remember if he ever saw her eat cake before their wedding. He’s heard that most couples will do cake tastings while planning their weddings, that they’ll sit down in a bakery and try a little piece of every offering - lemon, red velvet, carrot, chocolate marble - and decide exactly which frosting and batter went best together. For their wedding, they just had a marbled cake, white buttercream, a bright blue Congratulations Dana & Fox scrawled on top in her mother’s script. He should’ve taken a picture of it. He should’ve pushed down the anxious nausea he felt that day and actually enjoyed the slice cut for him.
Though he shouldn’t be paralyzed by four words, he has to force himself to walk through the snack aisles because he can’t even picture Scully eating chocolate pudding. He can’t picture her licking a spoon. Sure, he’s seen her eat yogurt, but there’s a great difference between dessert on a spoon and lunch on one; he’s never watched her savor something sweet like that, has never watched her scrape the bottom of a pudding cup in hope of getting every last bit. On the shelves, there are multi-packs, some cups half vanilla and half chocolate, but she said chocolate specifically, so he takes down a four-pack of chocolate cups. Is that enough? He doesn’t know how she feels about chocolate pudding. Two packages would be better, wouldn’t they? Two packages, eight cups, that should be enough.
But when he returns to her, when he opens his arms and lets all of the pudding cups fall - he neglected to get the other items on the list, he apologizes, he says he’ll be right back - there are not one or two but ten packages of pudding in the cart. Then, he pulls his wallet from his pocket, stretches out his American Express toward her, says this is on me very insistently, and maybe they should have a joint credit card. Maybe they should have a joint bank account. Maybe, when they get home, they should apply for a tax break together. Is that how it all works? Because he never thought he’d be married, he never really looked into such things. Maybe they could buy a house together and have both of their names be on the deed.
Alright, she concedes, taking the credit card. Though she’s not off-put, she furrows her brow in confusion anyway, looking down at the pile of pudding cups, and he looks down too, and the cups mountain on the inside of the shopping cart, and everyone else here sounds like they’re from New England and buys more than just the bare essentials and chocolate pudding. And - his eyes narrow in on them, he didn’t realize that grocery stores sold such things, he always found them at drugstores back when he needed to buy them - she found condoms somewhere, and she nestled one package beneath the carton of eggs, not flaunted but certainly not hidden. Looking up at her, she meets his gaze, then forces out a little laugh, crinkles forming around her eyes.
“I didn’t need that much pudding,” she says, but she isn’t angry and instead is charmed, cheeks warm, hair held back in a clip, eyes so disconcertingly blue. “You’re not very good at following a list.”
“Right,” he says, then looks back down at the list in his palm, at her forest green rainboots beneath her jeans, at his own shoes. “Yeah, right. The list.”
And she looks down at the cart and laughs again, shaking her head, and they have so many things that they need to talk about, from what they’ll spend the rest of the day doing to why there are condoms in their cart, but he doesn’t want to talk right now, doesn’t want to think at all, so he shoves the list into the pocket of his coat and goes to her, and she looks at him and furrows her brow and asks what he’s doing, but before she finishes her sentence, he kisses her, and it’s intense because he’s only ever kissed her once before. It’s intense because he loves her in ways he’ll never be able to explain or describe, and she’s so short when she isn’t in her work attire, and somehow the white-shelved aisle of this little supermarket frames them perfectly, void now of chocolate pudding, the people in the background buying butter for dinner and windshield fluid for the rain, the radio’s hits of ten years ago playing over the loudspeaker, fluorescent light, linoleum floors. He doesn’t know what to do with his hands. Is this too much? he wonders, then feels that stabbing sensation in his gut, that shame, but then one of her hands comes to his chest, the crease of his collarbone, and she’s gentle, too gentle for him to deserve, and the only thing more incredulous than her marriage to him is the fact that she likes being married to him.
They still need to talk, but when she touches him, he understands.
rip the update schedule. listen i tried...
It’s staunch, how simultaneously American and un-American rural places can be. He’s accustomed to neon signs and twenty-four hour diners, so a lighthouse painted in a red and white candy cane swirl looking out over a misty sea seems as if it should belong in another country. Elsewhere, or so he’s heard, lighthouses are merely little shacks on the top of seaside cliffs, and there are plenty of lookouts from wars leftover, lights semi-operational, the instructions for use probably impossible for locals to understand. As he shuts his car door, he tunes out the “Gladiolus Rag” they just heard on Maine Public Radio and wonders if what he’s looking at is an American kind of beautiful or not.
“This is beautiful,” Scully says, shutting her own door, and that answers that question.
Though the path they drove toward the lighthouse was gravel, there are long seaside grasses everywhere else, all bowing in the breeze, damp from the rain and mist. He locks the car while Scully walks toward the lighthouse; when he looked the place up, he saw that in the summer there are tours by the owner, so Scully knocks, the image almost comical, red hair next to red paint, the cowl of her sweater peeking out of her raincoat, her wellies muddy at the bottom, one gloved hand against the door. When he looks up, he can tell that the light is on, rotating in a foggy harbor, likely just ornamental nowadays but lit nonetheless. To his surprise, the door opens, and an older man in a sweater answers, furrowing his grey brow at the two of them, not unfriendly but rather unnerved by a pair of people knocking in April.
“We were wondering if you still do tours,” Scully gives, shrugging off the statement.
The man sizes them both up, then says, “I don’t see why not.”
So he leads them through the tight ground floor of the lighthouse, then up the steep and spiraling staircase toward the light. He’s owned this place for as many decades as each of them has been alive, and though it isn’t in active use anymore, is now a tourist attraction more than anything else, he still likes to spend time beyond that for maintenance here. Town’s a bore, you know? And the view from up top is a better view to eat lunch by than that of my television or - worse - my old kitchen table. Throughout the lighthouse, the white-painted wood splinters in odd spots, and Scully trails a lone finger along the railing, looking out through all of the wide windows, the fog obscuring any kind of view.
“It’s usually prettier than this.” The man laughs, shaking his head. “Come back some other day when it’s sunny, and you’ll get to really look out at the ocean.”
Alongside him, Scully says, “Where we’re staying, we can see the ocean from our porch. It’s nice to wake up to. And the sunset last night was so beautiful.”
“Was the rental cheaper in the off-season?” the man asks, a halfway kind of joke. “The weather nowadays wouldn’t agree with most vacations.”
“Spring wedding,” she says. “Honeymoon. We’re cold weather types.”
They aren’t, so far as Mulder knows, but then again, he can’t picture her on a southern beach, can’t imagine her comfortably wearing shorts. When he called every rental he could, trying to gauge driving distance and whether or not he could feasibly give her a real honeymoon in somewhere like Florida, a wicked drive but one to the ocean nonetheless, he felt a pull in the opposite direction, going further north. All along, he thought he was doing her a disservice by denying her the picture-perfect honeymoon, one spent lounging in a beachside resort, pina coladas served every few minutes and sunset sex on a balcony almost a commodity in and of itself, but he knows that she likes the sweater she’s wearing - she told him about buying it when she did in January, how she treated herself to it even though it wasn’t work-appropriate, how she wanted it so badly even if just for weekends - and thinks maybe, just maybe, he’s done right by her.
And she said the word honeymoon, and his mind goes blank when he realizes that, and his mind stays blank as Scully thanks the man for the short, foggy tour, then promises to come back on a better day, and his mind continues to be blank as he unlocks her car door and looks out on the little beach before them, grey and overcast, waves coming in, seafoam being the brightest color around, long grasses drifting in the wind.
Maybe their marriage isn’t about a series of proper events, a checklist that makes them proper and good, and maybe no marriage is. Instead, it’s about starting the car and letting her pick the radio station, though admittedly there are so few here that it's not really a choice at all. Maybe it’s about coming back on another day when there’s less fog. The rushed trip, the last chemotherapy session, the wedding night spent falling asleep side-by-side on her couch, still in their good church clothes, the sleeve of her dress skimming his arm, seafoam blue, silky, he can remember its soft touch so distinctly, the sensation of her fluttering eyelashes on the skin of his neck, his thoughts willing her to go back to sleep so that they wouldn’t have to talk about it all - he thought all of it was inadequate, a parody of what she really wanted, but maybe this is what she wanted all along. Maybe this is what he wanted too, and any other option - a planned-ahead white wedding, a honeymoon in the Bahamas, an engagement ring and a bachelorette party and bridesmaids and rice thrown at the end - would be wrong.
She stops the radio dial on a staticky classical station playing piano music. With the car’s speakers on such a low volume, the waves outside sound louder than the individual sounds of the piano keys.
“Lizst. Liebestraum,” she says. “A dream of love.”
He puts the car in reverse and backs away from the lighthouse.
Back at the cottage, she says she’s going to lie down before dinner, would he mind waking her for the sunset? And as he boils water on the stove, he looks out the kitchen window and wonders when exactly sunset is on most days.
Normally, he doesn’t like windows. When he spent the majority of his time outside of work studying his sister’s case, he saw windows as a woeful reminder of what was to come: a tired day at work, an even more tired evening at home, and dinner out of a can as he stayed up until the small hours of the morning yet again. Without windows, he could do his closest trick to stopping time: he could mark the hours only by yellow flickering numbers on a digital clock, and if he didn’t bother setting an alarm for the morning, he would feel his afternoons spread like water out of an opened dam, filling his apartment and letting him soak it all in. But here, the windows are different. In certain ways, time is different too. Two low tides, a sunrise and a sunset, misty mornings making the world around him look perpetually midafternoon. There is enough time in the day to stop and pick wildflowers by the road. He can build his schedule around her being able to watch the sun set.
Though he’s not a good cook, anyone can handle penne pasta with jarred vodka sauce. He already asked if the alcohol would interact with any of her medications. In the cabinets, there’s a pomodoro cook-timer, and once he pours the pasta in, he twists the timer and sets it on the windowsill, lets it tick as beyond the glass the tide ebbs and flows and engulfs little rocks on the beach. Tomorrow, there’s supposed to be more sunshine, and he’ll ask her what she wants to do with that brightness while they eat together.
Dinner conversation. Leaving the pasta to cook, he goes to the bookshelf and scans over the titles, mostly classics, some guides to local flora and fauna, an atlas from 1980, a stack of torn-up vinyl album covers. Back home, she has so many books. He can’t remember the last time he picked up a book and read for pleasure, barely even makes it through books pertaining to cases and skims even on stuff that matters to him. When he was in college, he used to read so much, perused the books in the Bodleian for hours, kept a paperback in his everyday bag, but as time passed, as he worked more and slept less and used his home for isolation and almost nothing else, he stopped reading. He stopped doing much of anything. If he never stopped working, then he never thought of things that hurt, so he never stopped working, and then, a woman entered his office one day and made him think that, in theory, he could slow down. He could slow down if she wanted to stop for coffee on a long trip. He could slow down if she needed to eat something. He could slow down if she was tired and needed a place to sleep for the night. He could slow down as he picked the exact perfect bouquet to bring to her in the hospital, knowing that whatever news she would share would be dire at best. He could slow down if she wanted to marry him.
So, classics. The kitchen timer sounds; he returns to the kitchen, turns off the burner, drains the pasta. When he looks out the window, he can see the very start of the sunset; he’ll wake her, then finish dinner while she watches. That seems like a marital thing to do, finish dinner while she does something else. In the future they won’t have, she’ll come home from her work at a private practice to him making dinner while the kids do their chores, and he’ll kiss her cheek and tell her to get out of clothes that smell like a hospital, and he’ll call out mom’s home and listen as to sets of feet race down the hall and into the entryway. Now, when he looks out the window in the kitchen, he’ll be able to see her watching the sunset from the beach below. He can build a life out of looking out a window and seeing her beyond him.
Gently, he knocks on the bedroom’s door, then waits a moment before turning the knob. It’s his space too, after all, but he’s unaccustomed to going into his bedroom and waking up his wife. Though he’s woken Scully plenty of times before, he hasn’t had many opportunities to wake his wife, so he’s overly cautious, practically tiptoeing toward her in bed. She’s curled up facing away from him, and for a moment - he illustrates the room differently, turning the waves beyond the windows into rain, changing the color in her cheeks from a lively pinkish to a disconcerting grey - he can remember being in her apartment, driving her home from chemotherapy, bringing her a cup of chamomile tea and wondering why he dared to ask. But it feels right, he thinks as he crouches alongside the bed, her head level with his, it feels right it feels right it feels right.
He reaches out to touch her wrist; she wasn’t really asleep, so she opens her eyes with ease, cheek against her pillow, skin bare and a little wind-bitten.
“It’s less cloudy,” he says, voice softer than he expected it to be. “I think the sun’s about to set. I’ll finish dinner in the meantime.”
She furrows her brow, asks, “What do you mean?”
“It’s pasta. I just need to heat the sauce.”
She looks down, and he feels as if he’s said the wrong thing. Of course, there’s more to a marriage than having dinner on the table when she returns home, but he can’t figure out where exactly he’s gone wrong.
Looking back up at him, lips almost pursed with the awkwardness of want, she asks, “Would you mind going down to the beach with me?”
So he watches as she aches out her limbs, as she slowly stands, and she’s wearing pajama pants that she doesn’t want to get sandy, so he excuses himself, says he’ll tend to dinner, puts the floral-patterned stovepot lid over the strained pasta, figures he’ll warm it along with the sauce. Somehow, miraculously, he has yet to mess up dinner. When she comes out of the bedroom, she’s in jeans again, still wearing that same sweater from this morning, curled up and warm, he wants to wrap his arms around her and grip the knit between his fingers. She looks good in green. Freckles, bright blue eyes. One of her eyebrows, the one that rested on her pillow, is askew; he longs to gently brush it back into place.
Following her down the steps to the beach, he watches the bounce of her now-down hair, the way it flits in the light wind, the ends meeting the cowl of her sweater. He wants to remember every part of this. He fans his fingers, stares down at them, mentally outlines each hand, now with a ring on his left, the strangest but most proper thing, basic gold band, he’s never going to take it off. In his head, he hears her words again, I don’t need a ring, and though he didn’t believe her then, he thinks that maybe he was the one who needed the ring, that maybe he never really overruled her in the first place. Though they have pictures of their marriage, though they have documents proving it’s legal, there’s something about a ring that encapsulates everything he feels as he watches her small shoes step down onto the rocky beach, as he sits down alongside her a few feet from where the water comes in.
He likes in-between kinds of places. Over the years, he’s shared meals on the road with her, and there’s a certain charm in those, a package of M&M's at a gas station, the way she always ordered the lighter fare until now, the contrast between his plate and hers. Though the cottage is beautiful, he thinks he’s loved her best in middle-of-nowhere towns, the motels flaunting that they have HBO, the greatest attraction nearby being the twenty-four hour grocery store. He’s someone meant for the driver’s seat of a car going almost nowhere, directed to a final destination that he can later blur out in his memory, following highway signs to the nearest major city and then little nailed-to-a-tree hand-painted ones to a local phenomenon. Had she not so drastically altered her career path, they never would have met, but he likes the intersection they have when they’re together in small town America and searching for something to do. Once, they went bowling in Des Moines while waiting for a toxicology report to come back. They hiked a portion of the Appalachian Trail together in order to reach a remote cabin where an interviewee lived, and he insisted on piggybacking her over the muck and puddles. Last summer, he tried to convince her that they had time for miniature golf before they met with the local police, but she gave him a single look that said a loud and clear no, and he never had a chance to propose such a thing again. When they’re in sterile American places, he knows how to love her, how to jokingly ask if she wants to take a dip in the green motel pool, how to pour half a cream cup into her coffee and the rest into his, how to wake her when she falls asleep in the car on a stakeout. Since she married him, he’s felt as if, without those moments, he doesn’t know where to begin with loving her.
But there’s something about the natural world that’s starting to bring him in. Though he usually spends weekends tucked inside, blinds drawn, television casting light into his living room, the overwhelm of the outdoors has started to feel like a good thing, like a solid thing, like something that will help him once she’s gone. Above them, the sky goes yellow at the edges, then orange, then pink, and the breeze ruffles his hair, goes right through his shirt, pushes around the pine trees up on the ledges. When he looks to the right of their part of this ocean inlet, there’s smoke coming from the chimney of a house across the water, their first sign of life near their rented cottage. He almost wants to stand up and wave to the windows of that house, announce their arrival, say that they’re together on their honeymoon, ask if they could come over for dinner sometime, but when he turns toward her to comment on the smoke, he stills, the look on her face too enraptured to disrupt. While he seeks out different things, searches for something to stimulate his mind, she looks at the world like someone who won’t be able to look much longer, like someone about to leave for a long trip to a very foreign place. She’s focused, hands folded in her lap, staring up, staring out, not looking for something more, not looking for anything. She’s listening because for her there’s plenty to listen to.
The sky turns pink, and he’s getting cold. She must be so cold. At the hospital, she was always cold, but she couldn’t wear a jacket, not with a catheter in her arm, so she would pull a sweater over the front of her body, using it like a very small blanket. Other people there had a sick person’s kind of blanket, made by a church parish most likely, fleece and tied around the edges, but she resisted that kind of thing, he knew she would, he imagined that there was a stack of such gifts tucked away in the back of her closet or donated to those she believed had a greater need. When nurses came by to ask if she needed anything, she would always say no, and though he knew better than to do so, he wanted to ask for them to turn up the heat, it was winter after all, she was cold, at least heat her fluids if possible. At most, she would ask for an antiemetic, but he watched her grit her teeth and count her breaths enough times to know that she only asked for such things during her most painful moments. The last time he watched her have an intravenous catheter placed, she looked away from the nurse, furrowed her brow with the pain, her visage showing more resignation than pain, and though Scully didn’t see any of it, he watched as the nurse panicked with some unexpected bleeding, the absorbent pad beneath Scully’s arm soaking with it, the nurse wiping up what she could with alcohol swabs.
“Did you get a good vein?” Scully asked. The week beforehand, the nurse had missed three times and had had to put the catheter in a vein on top of Scully’s hand, an unpleasant spot, and he watched as Scully fidgeted with it the whole time, clearly wanting to rip the thing out.
“Yeah, yeah,” the nurse gave, still flustered, “there’s just some bleeding.”
“Bleeding?” Scully asked, then looked down at her arm to see blood dripping off of her elbow, the used needle - those needles looked so much longer than they ought to be, so much more painful than they actually were - and the stained alcohol swabs. Then, she looked up at him, and the fear he saw in her eyes rivaled any fear he saw in her when she accepted that she was dying.
For the rest of her infusion - the last one, they were meeting with a hospice coordinator in two hours even though they’d tried to reschedule for a different day - he could tell that she was anxious, still upset from watching herself bleed, but he didn’t know how to love her right then. His Scully, so stubbornly independent, sweater on her lap because she wouldn’t admit to being cold, dried blood on her arm keeping her from blanketing herself with the garment. She took the antiemetic only five minutes into her drip because she was done trying to overcome. While she propped up her infusion arm on her purse, she covered her face with the other hand, willing herself to calm down, and he didn’t know how to love her then. It seemed like such a basic human sensation, the want for a loved one to feel warm, but he couldn’t warm her up, couldn’t figure out what to do that would make her feel better.
He went to ask if she was alright, but before he could, she said, voice uncomfortably small, “Mulder?”
And he was attentive because he needed to be, not because she asked but because he needed to be.
“Would you mind, um,” she pulled her hand away from her face; he pulled his seat closer to hers, closer to the pump administering her medication, “holding my hand?”
“No, not at all,” he said, taking her small hand in both of his, smoothing his thumbs over top, grazing the vein she once had a catheter placed in, soothing that spot.
While he stared down at their hands, at their wedding bands, at the horrible and wonderful and morbid and peaceful thing they were doing together, she forced out a sigh, willing her body to relax. He wanted to bring her chamomile tea again and rub her back. He wanted to blow off the hospice appointment altogether and take her home, tuck her in, make her something simple and light for dinner, kiss her goodnight. He wanted to hold her hand so well that she would know wordlessly how much he loved her. He didn’t know how to tell her otherwise. Words felt empty when he could hold her hand instead and feel from the pressure in the veins beneath his fingers that she was starting to calm down.
And the hospice appointment wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been even though the social worker there frowned when she heard about their marriage, didn't even fake a smile when she saw the ceremony picture that Scully kept in her purse. After their trip, Scully would start having a home care nurse come in once a week for checkups. She signed a Do Not Resuscitate order. Afterward, they were both grim, and she was exhausted, so they went home - her home, the only real one - and tried to take their mind off of it all. Something from Blockbuster in the VCR, their strange marriage putting a gap between them on the couch, and midway through, she told him she was going to die.
“Yes, I…” he trailed off, unsure of what to say.
“I just don’t know when it will happen,” she said, staring ahead on the couch, not looking at him. “They say a certain amount of time, but really, it could be any time. I have no idea.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, instantly regretting the statement, cheeks warming with embarrassment.
“I just…” she tried to find words, closed her eyes with tired frustration. “I just don’t know when it’ll happen.”
“Okay,” he said, throat dry.
“If it happens suddenly,” she said, looking down, “I’m sorry.”
And he flushed with the meaning behind her words, with her discomfort, for she was apologizing to him for dying without warning him first. Or, rather, she was trying to warn him about something he could never really prepare himself for. They both knew that there was a high enough probability that she could go to sleep and simply not wake up. Though he wasn’t sure if he’d made it up or actually heard her say it, he thought that a good enough jostling, maybe going over a pothole while driving, could push the tumor in a way that would kill her in a matter of seconds. They had seen enough horror in their lifetimes to not need a doctor to explain how ugly, painful, and unpeaceful death would be.
“I don’t intend for it to be like that,” she forced out, tone growing anxious. “I-”
And he pulled her close to him because he needed her close, because he needed her alive right now, because he didn’t want her to see that tears were stinging his eyes, and her palms were flat on his back, her chin against his shoulder, cheek to cheek, hands balling shirts, bodies together, cars passing outside her window, the rest of the world going on, time stopping only for them.
The sky turns dark blue above them, and Maine skies are so shockingly clear, so filled with stars, and he can name the constellations above, more than just the obvious ones. If it weren’t so cold out, if they weren’t on a rocky beach, he would lie back with her, sides flush, and point each constellation out while she rolls her eyes and says of course I know that one, Mulder. He looks to her, and despite the sweater, she looks so cold. Now, he can take her inside, get the woodstove going, feed her, pull a blanket over them both on the couch. Now, he can warm her up.
“Dinner?” he asks, standing up and reaching a hand down toward her.
She takes his hand, and once he helps her up, she doesn’t let go like he expects her to, instead holds his hand as they head back up the steps, going single-file because the railings make the stairs so narrow.
“Mulder?” she says from behind him as he steps onto the porch. He turns around, and the constellations feel even closer up here on the bluff, and her face in the darkness is so unrecognizable yet familiar, like a long-lost but loved photograph, like a childhood memory so graciously brought to the present.
He looks to her, pauses on the deck. Dinner is going to be late, but he doesn’t care at all.
“Thank you,” she says, looking down. “For last night. For waking me up.”
“No need to thank, Scully,” he says, leading her into the house, but she stays put, pulls him back.
“It’s been on my mind all day,” she admits. “And I wanted to thank you for being there.”
She looks down at their joined hands, then brings her open hand over them, the smallest of embraces, and across the inlet, the living room lights of another house click on, and he thinks she might really love him.
apologies for the time between updates, virgo season decided to whoop my ass, etc
After he brushes his teeth, he leaves the bathroom to find her in the half-dark bed, only his bedside lamp and the stars beyond the window casting light into the room, her body nestled beneath blankets and against pillows, maroon flannel pajamas, the coziest and drowsiest woman in the world. She reaches out one arm, resting it on top of his side of the bed, looking up at him in askance, so he climbs beneath the covers, lets her into his arms like he did last night.
It’s almost like how he imagined it would be, with him on his back and her arm over his chest, with her holding onto his side. He knew she would fit so well right there, and though for now the sensation is too new to be wholly comfortable, he’s starting to soften into this life. Despite how he spent the last few years of his life sleeping on a couch, that kind of arrangement is starting to seem so foreign to him, as if he’s only ever slept in borrowed beds beside her, as if she always slipped into his motel room at night and curled up against him, as if the bureau-required rooming arrangement was a pure waste of government spending. Before she dressed for bed, he filled a glass with water for her pills, and when he set the glass down on her bedside table, she gave him a small, bashful smile and thanked him. While he brushed his teeth, he thought about how the weather tomorrow might be and wondered if the rain would clear so that they could have lunch on the porch before heading out to do something.
And though there are hard parts - she took a Zofran tonight, a tiny but recognizable pill, a sign that things aren’t quite right - there are parts within those too, like letting her sit on the couch while he read off book titles on the shelves because she was too tired to stand and do that herself. Apparently, she first read Anne or Green Gables when she was in medical school because her boyfriend had broken up with her right after she struggled through an examination on muscles - her absolute least favorite topic, to this day she struggles to remember the smaller ones - and she needed something that felt homey, innocent, childlike, warm. She read Don Quixote when she went on a high school Eurotrip at seventeen, plowing through while on a bus from Sorrento to Rome. When he mentioned Jane Austen, Scully called such books overrated but held a small smile that made him think she believed otherwise.
When he came across Moby Dick, he pulled the book from the shelves and sat down beside her, watched as she furrowed her brow and squinted down at the title.
“First chapter?” he asked, and she nodded even though she seemed not to know what he meant.
So he read the first chapter to her, sides flush on the couch, woodstove warming her cheeks red, day-clothes tired on their bodies, the world beyond them dark, dark, dark. Eventually, she leaned her head against the back of the couch and brushed his shoulder - intentionally or unintentionally, he didn’t know - and before they could finish the chapter, she gently put her palm down on the pages, looked to him and asked if they could go to bed. When he met her gaze, he saw how tired she was and wished he could say yes and then carry her to bed, tuck her in, kiss her goodnight and let her sleep as late as she possibly could, but she liked having her independence, needed it especially now, so he nodded and dog-eared the page, went to stand up but stopped as she took the book from him, opened up to their page, and flattened out the top corner almost obsessively. No dog-ears allowed.
He wishes there were some way to tell her everything he feels, but there’s no way, at least not one within this language. Sometimes, he’s wondered about that, about how other life forms communicate their emotions, for there must be better methods than the ones human beings have come up with. Despite countless languages among the species, he can sit beside her knowing she hasn’t a clue what he’s feeling, and that feels particularly inadequate. Though he could try to speak, the constraints of language make the words feel both too vulnerable and too stark, aimless and empty but also visceral and frightening. He doesn’t know what he could say that wouldn’t sound both too real and too unreal.
“I’ve dreamt about this,” he says, voice so quiet that even her God can’t hear, and she smells like herself. Not like hospitals, but like herself, like the bits of perfume she leaves behind when she heads out of the office for the day, like the hand cream she offers him when it’s winter and his knuckles start to crack.
And feeling her breathing against him is something he never knew he needed to feel. She’s so small, so uncharacteristically gentle, so warm. She’s perfect, here in his arms.
“Me too,” she says.
He’s starting to learn how to live with someone. He’s starting to learn just how to love her. He closes his eyes and feels her breathe against him, and sleep feels the closest it’s felt to him in years.
He wakes when the mattress dips, then looks to find her sitting by his feet, dressed and ready for the day, cardigan over her floral dress, holding a ceramic mug full of coffee.
“You slept in,” she says, cheeks warm with color, hair pulled back in a little bun.
He can’t remember ever having seen her in florals, let alone a pattern. Tiny white flowers, seafoam-colored linen, a tie at the waist, wedding band against the handle of the mug. Reaching out as he sits up, she passes him the mug, the coffee inside milky. Of course, she’s known how he likes his coffee for a long time, maybe even from the first case onward; they sat in diners together as he poured specific proportions of tiny creamer cups into his chipped mug, and she could probably make a mug to his taste without thinking about it at all, but there’s something different about having his wife reach out to him, handing him a morning cup of coffee. There’s something about it that makes the first sip taste far better than any coffee should ever taste.
“What time is it?” he asks, wondering when she got up, wondering when she moved away from him in bed last night, wondering if she’s taken another Zofran.
“Ten-thirty,” she says, then folds her hands on her lap. “I had energy, for once.”
He hums a response, takes another sip.
“I thought we might stay in today,” she says, “so to speak.”
“Walk along the beach for a while, maybe pick up dinner somewhere,” she says. “Let me make you some toast.”
“No need.” He sets the mug down on his bedside table, right next to the tissues he keeps for her.
“Not a breakfast person.”
She furrows her brow a little, then excuses herself while he starts to sit up in bed, closing the bedroom door behind her, no pantyhose, toenails painted an opaque pink that he hadn’t noticed yet, knees pale, legs two days unshaven. As he picks through his suitcase, stares out the bedroom window in search of the weather, he thinks, what other clothes did she bring? And then, he remembers the sweaters she wore in casual moments after cases, cardigans buttoned up when he came over unannounced, tee shirts that weren’t work-appropriate. During their impulsive, makeshift wedding, he looked at her dress, shimmering grey-blue fabric, long sleeves, and wondered if she’d bought it specifically for the occasion. She couldn’t have, he thought, but he'd had two rings in his hands then, purchased as quickly as he could, provided even though she told him they weren’t necessary, so she could’ve gone out in search of a dress, but did she? Did she take her mother to a department store, or did she reach into the back of her closet and say that this would do?
How much of her has he really seen? Though it feels like he’s seen everything, the reality is that he knows almost nothing about her. Let me see you, he wants to say, and because she’s not here right now, he could very easily go through her suitcase, but at the same time, he doesn’t want to know. Not yet, part of him says. Not yet not yet not yet.
But when, another part asks, if not now?
On the beach, she stands on tiptoe more often. She climbs on top of the bigger rocks and looks out at the ocean, murky in comparison to that around tropical islands, dark and almost ominous, cold, but she grew up in cold places. Whenever a case has taken them to a naval base, he’s watched the way her body and mind recognize such places, generic houses made into homes, all of the children playing together in exactly one place, all of the mothers having parties intended for selling cosmetics, Christmas trees placed in the same window of each of the houses down the street. She could make a home out of a hostel bed if need be, hanging her pressed suit off of the headboard, keeping a book she’s sorely neglecting beneath her overstarched pillow. She’s not afraid of desolate places. If she wants to, she’ll take off her little white sneakers and step into the ocean, maybe even go for a swim, but instead, she reaches out from up on a tall rock on because she wants to hold his hand.
Maine is different from the beaches of his childhood. Back then, everything was sandy and upscale, rich even though he didn’t realize it at the time, summer crowds littering the ocean, children running amuck because their parents couldn’t be bothered to pay attention to them, but here, there are pine trees along the coastline, lobster traps bobbing in the dark water, rocks and shells covering up any possible sand. Because of the winds coming off of the ocean, she had to button her cardigan, but the sun makes the day seem deceptively warm, the water shimmering and the open mussel shells on the ground sparkling and her little bun looking so very red. Along the coast, the houses are small and thematic - buoys hanging on the outsides of cabins, overturned sailboats on the lawn waiting for summertime - and likely seasonal, for the grasses there have grown tall and billowy, and they’ve yet to see another soul. Though it’s off-season, he didn’t think they would be so alone.
She lets go of his hand, then walks toward the waves, crouching down on the wet rocks, fingering through the pebbles. When she finds something, she holds it up, looks up at him. A scallop shell, ivory-colored with yellowing tips, shimmery on the inside. He would’ve never seen it buried there beneath the pebbles.
“I had this thought,” he forces out, and his face feels hot with the admission, even his back aching with embarrassment.
Standing back up, she looks up at him, scallop shell clasped in her fingers. Go on, she doesn’t need to say, and he swallows hard because he doesn’t want to say it. He doesn’t want to say it at all.
But when, if not now?
“I thought maybe,” he says, looking down, looking away from her, “while we were here, you could find shells for us to take home. I thought about keeping them on my windowsill for when you’re…”
If he finishes the sentence, he’ll start to cry, so he doesn’t finish the sentence, doesn’t look at her, instead focuses on the shell clutched in her hand, yellow tips, ivory body. He can picture it so easily; that one would go in his bedroom, for he’ll have a bedroom then because he’s a married - widowed, it doesn’t matter - man, and married men have bedrooms. Yes, he’ll clean out that room, get rid of every last box. He’ll quit his job, even. But first, he’ll start with the bedroom. He’ll clean out all of the boxes, and then, he’ll finally buy a bed, and he’ll stay over at her place one night so that he can peek at what kind of mattress she has, then buy exactly that one. And he’ll start keeping better food in the fridge for when she comes over, Snack Packs and whatever else she could fancy, chamomile tea, almond milk even. He’ll take a few of her books before she dies so that he won’t have to wonder if he should give them away. And he’ll have that little scallop shell on the windowsill in his bedroom, and when he wakes up each morning, it will be the first thing he looks at, and he will remember her, and he will remember how much he loves her.
“Okay,” she says, but she doesn’t sound right. “Yeah, I can do that.”
Airy, she sounds airy, as if her voice isn’t entirely there, as if she’s sick. When he looks up at her, her brow is furrowed, lips slightly pursed, and he’s said the wrong thing, the exact wrong thing, he’s always been so good at saying the wrong thing. He’s always been so good at hurting others. He shouldn’t have said anything.
She turns away from him, continues to walk along the beach, doesn’t turn back to face him, doesn’t wait, and he wants to apologize, but he doesn’t know how to. Isn’t he supposed to say what he feels? Shouldn’t she do the same? But that was too much, too much for right now, but how was he supposed to know that? What could he have done instead? Does he have enough time left to love her, or will they be like this for as long as she lives, drifting together and apart like the tides to the beach, joining and unjoining, eternally drawn to each other but for such an indifferent reason?
And she’s upset with him, but upset in a way that makes her set seashells in a straight line on top of his open suitcase, meandering over unfolded shirts and stuffed-in socks; she’s upset in a way that makes her say she’d like to walk down the driveway, see if any of the other houses are lived-in at all, and she’s upset in a way that tells him not to follow her as she surely doesn’t do exactly that. And he should make her lunch, but he stares into the half-empty fridge and doesn’t know how to. There are pudding cups in the garbage, red lids peeled back, spoons in the dishrack. Closing his eyes, he tries to remember their last case, whether she had had mustard or mayonnaise on her sandwich back then.
When she’s not back in half an hour, he gives up on lunch, goes back into the bedroom, stares down the shells on top of his clothes. He doesn’t want to move them. If anything, he wants to photograph them. He wants to remember her anger. He wants to remember everything. He wants to remember how the wheels of his suitcase crest on the top handle of hers, how she folds her clothes in a neat way that keeps them from coming unfolded in travel, how her pajamas are all together in one section, how she rolled up her socks in a certain way to conserve space. And because he can’t ask, at least not yet, he peels apart the layers of fabric, softer than her suits, no long black coats or kitten heels, just flannel and silk pajamas along with little dresses and blue jeans and woolens. She brought three hair clips with her, seven barrettes, four scrunchies, and he doesn’t know the thought process behind those choices, doubts he ever will, but because it's Scully, he knows she has a reason. Underneath her pajamas, she keeps her underwear, and though it goes against everything he knows about himself, he finds that he’s horribly afraid of her underwear, closes his eyes while he puts the pajamas back, waits until everything is covered up before opening again, but when he opens his eyes, he finds a black-bound book at the bottom of her bag. Her journal, he thinks, then opens it without a second thought, the page marked with a ribbon because she’s Scully, and the page is dated yesterday, and she only wrote one sentence, no period at the end.
For the first time since the diagnosis, I am afraid of dying
He turns the page back, and the entry there is much longer, and because he’s too tunnel-visioned to read it all, he hones in on just a few parts.
no blood on my pillow
kissed me in the supermarket
not alone at night
The next page back isn’t dated.
It feels too good to be a mistake
Turning again, the paper feels different, for she’s taped in a photograph, a copy of their wedding picture, a different one from the one she showed the nurse on her last day of chemotherapy, for that one ended up with a bloodstain on it. They’re in front of the church, and her little strappy heels are sinking into the springtime mud, and his arm is around her back, and they look like they’re on their first date. In a way, his smile looks posed, and she’s squinting because the sun is in her eyes. The gold of her cross clashes with the silvery tones of her dress. When they kissed for the first time in that church, he’d been so afraid to bump her nose, and though he knew a Catholic parish had likely seen plenty of poorly executed kisses, he wanted the small but momentous gesture to say more, to express what he couldn’t yet say in words. I have loved her for years, he wished he could say, since she stood before me in a cemetery while it poured rain and told me I was crazy. And I’d take so many years off of my life and give them to her if only I could. And he knew that a nose-bump kiss could never convey that.
When he looks up, she’s in the bedroom doorway, arms folded across her chest, staring down at him as if she’s about to cry, and he didn’t hear her come back inside. He didn’t hear her come back inside. He didn’t hear her come back inside.
The one long, straight road leading into and out of this desolate town gets tired after one or two drives. When she’s not in his passenger’s seat, not fiddling with the radio when an advertisement comes on, his only stimulation is the sway of the long grasses on the sides of the road, the dips of the pines in the wind, the cloudless but darkening sky above him, the nailed-on handpainted signs depicting who lives down each driveway. It’s almost a joy when he finally passes the local high school, for they have a lettered sign out front, and he can actually read words for once. A football field, two big white field goals, grass trimmed properly, one or two cars in the lot because it’s after hours. He’s been tasked with finding them dinner, and in order to do so, he took the cottage’s phone book out to the car with him, then used his cell phone to call from there. Given that it’s not the proper season, only one lobster pound nearby is open, but thankfully, they’re within a reasonable distance, not hours away like some of the places he tried and failed to call. When they drove out through Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, she mentioned that it wouldn’t be a trip to Maine without a lobster dinner. This, at least, he can do right.
While he looked up at her in the bedroom, he thought she would yell, but that assumption was just another testament to how poorly he knows her. No, of course she didn’t yell, for she doesn’t talk about her feelings. Instead, she left and went out to the porch, down the steps, to the beach, and she sat down there for a long time, not even seeming to cry, and though he could’ve followed her, he didn’t, for he’d been the one to violate her, the one to hurt her. And once she came back in, she didn’t say anything, didn’t act as if she was angry, instead just subdued herself and went along with whatever he said, trying not to take up too much space, turning up her lips slightly whenever he sought out emotions betrayed by her visage. Of course she isn’t openly angry. Of course she doesn’t want to talk about it.
When he passes the grocery store from yesterday, he grimaces. After they put their bags in the backseat, she got into the car and was still smiling. They went to a lighthouse together. She held his hand. If he were to sit in the passenger’s seat, he would find the cushions smelling like her. Her cassettes are in the console, her little package of tissues in the glovebox. He kissed her forehead in bed last night. She wore a dress today, and he never even told her how beautiful she looked, not even in a small and bashful way, not even awkwardly. He never even said good morning.
When he pulls into the lobster pound, he’s one of three cars there, the place’s yellow sign lit up to say yes we’re open and the decor flaunting buoys on driftwood walls, a pier out back where boats can dock. If he wants to, he can walk down to the rocky shore of this inlet and find broken-off pieces of crab traps like the ones he and his sister found as children. A bait bag was a pocket to carry things home in; finding a snail shell without someone in it was finding a treasure. When he walks inside of the pound, there’s a pair of people sitting at one of the many tables in the restaurant, but the rest of the place is empty. He follows signs to where he can order at the kitchen, then stutters through the menu.
Want a beer while you wait? the man taking his order asks, and he shakes his head, for he needs to drive back, and he doesn’t know if he can drink a beer that fast anyway. In that case, the man offers, we have a gift shop across the street. Got tee shirts and a bunch of those popular stuffed animals. So Mulder walks out, order slip in hand - the name he gave was Mark because Fox doesn’t fare well for order pickup - and stares down the gift shop, a ramshackle bit-bigger-than shed with a neon open sign hanging up. Sure enough, Beanie Babies line the windowsill, and when he walks in, bells on the door ring out his entrance, and the older woman at the cash box blinks awake.
“You startled me,” she brushes off, which Mulder ignores.
If they were on a case, he would look at this place differently. He would drag Scully in here, and he would hold up the shirts printed with lobster comics and call them funny, maybe even buy one just to spite her. When he found a baseball cap with a dirty sea pun on it, he would point it out to her and make her roll her eyes. Of course, they would question the shop owner, and he would bring up one of his integral points within the case - one that she, of course, contested when he first brought it up - and the shop owner would either agree with Mulder’s statement, making Scully raise her eyebrows in annoyance, or disagree, making Scully give Mulder an I told you so look. Then, as they left, Mulder would say that he didn’t understand the Beanie Babies craze, and Scully would mention how her niece - he doesn’t even know if she has a niece - absolutely loves them, how it was so fun to give her one last Christmas and watch as her face lit up.
The cubbyholes of stuffed animals in the back of the store flaunt handwritten signs remarking how many retired models they have in stock. There are pastel-colored rabbits, horses with fluffy manes, donkeys and pigs and frogs and baby chicks, and he wishes Scully were here to say something. He wishes she could see this and say what she thinks about it. But then, he sees a calico cat, and it reminds him of her for reasons he can’t even begin to describe, so he picks it up to purchase it, the thing small enough to fit easily in his hand, little threaded whiskers, hangtag brushing his palm.
“For your kid?” the cashier asks as she handwrites him a receipt.
“My wife,” he says, reaching into his pocket for his wallet.
“Is she a collector?”
He passes her a ten. “No.”
“Well.” She gives him his change, rips off his copy of the receipt, and he ducks out as quickly as he can, unlocking the car and setting the cat down on the passenger’s seat, heading back inside to wait on his order.
When he sits down in the pound to wait, he looks at the receipt before pocketing it, staring too long at the words for reasons he can’t pinpoint.
Chip the cat - $5
When he arrives back at the cottage, the sunset is in full bloom above them, not a cloud in the sky, warm and buttery colors, her favorite. He knows she must be down on the beach, wonders if she’s strayed from there at all since he left. Leaving the foil-wrapped lobster dinners on the kitchen counter, he reaches into the cabinet for chipped floral plates and lobster crackers left in the cottage, then opens every drawer in search of a vase.
The roses were an impulsive decision, his foot hitting the breaks as he almost passed the grocery store on the way back; he doesn’t know how to apologize for her, but he can bring her flowers in hope that they’ll make her feel better. Red roses, a dozen of them, and he trims the stems with kitchen scissors the way his mother taught him to, and he sinks them into the one vase he could find, leaving the flowers on the counter and waiting for her to come back inside. At the grocery store checkout, the cashier asked if these were for someone special, and he said yes, they’re for my wife, and when she asked if it was their anniversary, he said yes, something like that.
Peering out the window, he watches her on the beach, wrapped up in her coat because the day grew cooler, sitting on one specific rock that he’s deemed her own. She would sleep down there if she could; he knows that for certain. Last night, she wanted him down there with her during the sunset, but now, he knows she doesn’t, so instead, he sits on the couch and stares at his fingernails, reads through the long list of titles on the shelves, puts fire into the woodstove because it’s getting cold, and when he’s done puttering, his foot hits something beneath the couch, so he looks down to find an old record player shoved under there, a strange kind of storage space. Gently, he crouches down, pulls the thing out, and the only surface free for it is the tiny kitchen table, so he dusts the thing off, sets it down, goes back to all of the records on the shelf.
Like everything else here, the records are old-fashioned and unpopular, blends of classical music and unknown singles, but he recognizes Glenn Miller, so he pulls the record from the sleeve, brings it to the turntable, brushes way dust using the hem of his shirt. By the time she slides open the door to the porch, the house has grown dark for the evening, and he startles because he wasn’t expecting her just yet.
“Hey,” she says, sounding indifferent, sounding like she used to. A younger Scully, one of their first cases together, and she’s coming into his motel room uninvited to update him on whatever she went off to research. A Scully who works with him, travels with him, but certainly doesn’t love him. “I thought we might have dinner on the porch.”
“Okay,” he says, and the house feels suddenly too warm, and the record is on a love song, and he wishes he could disappear, if only for a moment. If only so that she could see the flowers and think, he’s apologizing to me. He wishes he hadn’t said anything. And he loves me a dozen. If I were to kiss him now, I would hold nothing back. But she stares at their foil-wrapped dinner instead, at two plates and two crackers and two sets of tiny forks set out on the counter. She stares at anything but him.
Awkwardly, he passes her her own dinner and dishware, then follows her outside to the table on the porch, woefully unused in this off-season, dark because the sun’s set and he neglected to turn on the living room lights, even most of the kitchen ones. I’ll be right back, she tells him, then goes into the house in search of something, and when she comes back, it’s with two half-burnt citronella candles for buggy summers and a lighter, placing each on the table and lighting them in the dark, and the light is more orange than any lamp could cast, and when she turns her face, she’s illuminated and shadowed in new ways. The arc of her cheekbones, the sharp line of her jaw, the slight and breathtaking slope of her nose - he misses her even though she’s only a foot away from him. He’s going to miss her every day. He’s going to lose her, and he can’t even hold onto her now, can only push her away, can only divide themselves and give her more reasons to find someone else to spend the rest of her life with.
She’s better at cracking lobster claws than he is, but she doesn’t like the claw meat. Oh, but that’s the best part, he insists as she puts hers onto his plate, but she likes the tail better. On the topic of the liver, she bunches up her face, so at least they can agree on something. Little cups of melted butter, he remembers her in a bib while they had barbecue together, she’s still wearing the same dress from before but is snuggled into her cardigan, she cuts a piece of tail and then dips it in butter, the movement so intricate and dainty that he wants to study it, if only for a moment.
If it were summer, they would still have sunlight at this hour, and he would’ve waited in a long line while ordering their dinner, and she wouldn’t need a sweater, and she would be warm, sunkissed, jubilant, bigger. She would have gone for a swim in the ocean today, maybe even without clothes on, and he would’ve followed her because he follows her when she asks him to, because he would hear her laughing at how frigid the water was and need to feel it for himself. And when they found seashells on the beach, they would store them in a suitcase together, probably putting them in a memento box once they got home, only unearthing them again when they next moved house. There wouldn’t be any windowsills, no citronella candles and no black journals and no nosebleeds and no fear, not of losing their jobs, not of hurting one another, not of death, not of anything. If it were summer, she wouldn’t be upset with him, for he would never give her a reason to be.
But when she takes her last bite, he realizes: this is a candlelit dinner with his wife. Inside, he has a dozen roses for her, and they’re eating lobster, an expensive and elegant dish. She married him with gold rings. It’s all enough to stop his thoughts from cycling, so he sits back and watches instead, watches how she chews, watches her set her fork down, watches how she folds the old foil around the now-empty lobster shell. This is a date, and one with his wife in a beautiful place no less, so why isn’t he thinking of that? Why is he fixated on the summer he won’t be able to give her?
Because if it’s just a fantasy, he knows, then you’ll never have to go through the vulnerability of turning it into reality. And you’ll never have your expectations crushed. And you’ll never fail her or hurt her because the version of her in your mind is one you can’t possibly harm.
“Thank you for dinner,” she says, and it’s genuine but detached, friendly, a pleasantry and nothing more.
“You’re welcome,” he says, then takes her dish along with his own, starts to head inside.
“Mulder?” she interrupts as he reaches the door, so he turns to look at her, and it’s so dark that she’s just a candlelit face, a bit of ocean-colored fabric now in greyscale, a sweater for warmth because it’s April and frigid. “Thank you for the flowers.”
“You’re welcome,” he says, then forces open the door and ducks into the kitchen, the record stalling as it comes to its end, the roses on the counter so brash in color that they look like bloodstains on the walls.
Something he knew about her before now but has become uncomfortably acquainted with since arriving in Maine: she can’t leave a bed unmade. During their cases, she would always leave motel room beds done up while his were astray in any way possible. Though he always knew she was tidy, she would make her bed even when her laundry was in a heap, even when he’d had her working nonstop for a month straight, even when she’d neglected all of her other worldly duties. And now, they share a bed made with perfect corners, quilt folded over at the top, pillows facing in a specific direction, and he feels guilty about pulling back the covers. He doesn’t want to destroy anything she’s done. He doesn’t want to invade.
She’s brushing her teeth, and he thinks he should go to the couch instead, claim it’s easier on his back or something like that. She deserves a good night’s sleep, and he doubts she’ll have one if he’s there, but then, she’s out of the bathroom and crawling into bed, and he’s still because he doesn’t know what he’s allowed to do now. Only her bedside lamp is on; once she turns that off, it’s time for bed, and her actions will determine whether or not he can touch her.
Turning off the light, she settles into bed on her side, faces away from him. He still filled a glass of water for her to take her pills with tonight. Because he put too much wood in the stove, she’s wearing silk pajamas in favor of flannel. Out on the counter, there are a dozen roses in a vase she’s barely looked at, and he forgot the stupid stuffed cat in the car and, upon remembering it, found himself too embarrassed to actually give it to her, so he didn’t go out to retrieve it, figured he'll pocket it and offer it to the first child he sees. It’s terrifying how big a queen-sized bed can be when the two people trying to sleep in it huddle at separate edges of the mattress and face away from each other.
He cringes at the sound of his voice, at how raspy it is, at how he seems as if he could cry.
“I’m sorry about what I said earlier,” he gives. “I shouldn’t have said it. I shouldn’t have-”
“It’s fine, Mulder,” she huffs, voice quiet.
“It isn’t, though,” he says, and it’s a misstep, but he needs to apologize, and he needs to do it right.
She’s quiet. Of course she’s quiet. They don’t talk about anything, never have and never will. He’s seen it in others before, even mocked it, how they thought that a marriage or a child would solve their relationship, how they believed that something monumental and concrete would bind them together eternally and make all of the little grievances fade away, but it’s not true. It’s not true in the least. Instead, he fears how she makes her bed every day, and he buys her stupid stuffed animals she won’t like because he doesn’t know how to apologize, and he thinks roses can end a fight, and she just won’t talk to him. She’s never going to talk to him. If he wants to know what she’s thinking, he has to rifle through her suitcase and open up her journal, for only in there will he learn what’s on her mind. When he asked her to marry him, she wouldn’t even say yes, instead asked him to clarify and then said she didn’t need a ring. She’s never going to tell him the truth.
“We need to talk about it,” he pushes on, feeling his voice shake. “I need to know what went wrong. I need to know-”
“I can’t have this conversation right now,” she says, and then she pushes back the covers, gets out of bed and leaves the bedroom before he can even sit up, shutting the door behind her and making his heart pound with anxiety.
He knows exactly where she’s going. Though it’s cold out, she’ll head down to the beach, and she’ll sit there until he falls asleep - a gamble, given what an insomniac he is, but she’s stubborn enough to wait for hours, and he already knows she would love to sleep on the beach anyway - and once he’s sleeping, she’ll sneak back into bed because she isn’t one to stay the night on a couch, and she’ll be sure to wake up early so that they won’t see each other in the morning. And tomorrow, they’ll be a few steps behind each other, friendly but just friends, not talking about the big things because they simply don’t want to. Or, rather, because she simply doesn't want to.
So he climbs out of bed, goes to his suitcase for a coat and a spare sweater for her, and he sits on the bedroom floor for a moment, gives her just a little time to herself, some time to think, and then, he follows her outside.
He’s unaccustomed to two toothbrushes left on the same sink. If he’s honest, he’s unaccustomed with voluntarily brushing his teeth at night and knows he wouldn’t do it if she weren’t here with him. Two plates stacked on top of each other in the sink, two suitcases pressed against the wall, two pairs of shoes toed off in the entryway, two coats hanging by the door. She was always a room away, never this close, never sharing her spaces in their entirety with him; he’s unaccustomed to sharing a life with someone he loves, even these small parts, even toothbrushes on a sink. In the main room, he stops short because he didn’t even have to think about bringing out warm clothing for both of them. Had they been on a case, he wouldn’t have done that, would’ve heard Scully lament about how cold she was and regret not having brought something, would never have had the thought of warm clothes cross his mind, but now, he holds one of his sweaters out for her, bulky wool knit, too big for her, enough to drown in.
Secretly, he’d hoped she would start taking his clothes, but that’s yet to happen, and given how presentable she always ends up being, he doubts she’s going to take any of his near-threadbare tee shirts, his grease-stained sweatshirts, his warm jackets. Though he’s not following her for good reasons, he can’t deny that it thrills him, the thought of dressing her in his clothes, seeing her dwarfed by one of his sweaters, watching her tuck it into her jeans tomorrow and insist on wearing it as day-clothes. But I doubt she would do that, he thinks as he flicks on one of the kitchen lights, then gently slides open the door to the porch. She doesn’t want that from me. She wants other things, I know it, but she doesn’t want that from me.
To his surprise, she didn’t make it down to the beach, instead sits on the first porch step leading there, looking down at her lap, her legs pressed together, her arms held closely to her side, making herself as small as she possibly can be. She doesn’t look back when he steps onto the porch, boards creaking, tides shifting. Though it’s too dark to make out much around them, she’s shaking with shivers, so he sits down beside her, reaches out with his sweater. Of course, she’s resistant at first, gaze downcast to the space between them, cheeks flushed with the cold, but then she takes the sweater from him, no typical thank you as she pulls the sweater over her head and eases her short arms through the long sleeves.
“I’m sorry,” he says because he doesn’t know what else to say, because he knows that his default with her should be an apology. I’m sorry that you married me. I’m sorry that I stole the best years of your life. I’m sorry that you’re going to die as a woman you never wanted yourself to become, and that it’s all because of me.
But he can’t lament about it because doing so would make him cry, so he looks up instead, not paying attention to her anymore. He can’t force a conversation, so he maps the different constellations in the sky, so many above them, he should’ve traveled to see a Maine night sky sooner, he feels so small in comparison to the galaxy here. To the left, he can see the Seven Sisters, a thumb-smudge in the sky, and the Great Dipper of course is obvious, and if he really looks, he can find Cygnus - she has a similar constellation on her wrist, freckles arranged in what astronomers would call a swan, and over breakfast during their trip to Maine, he watched the way she held a fork, wrist reaching out of her shirtsleeve, and wished he could take a pen and draw out the constellation on her skin - and Orion’s Belt and maybe even Cassiopeia. However, there are so many clear stars above that he has to squint to differentiate which stars are parts of which constellations, and it almost makes him laugh, the sheer privilege of having trouble determining which constellation is which. He doesn’t get this kind of view from his apartment window. He hasn’t seen a view like this and really stopped to look at it for years.
“Why did you ask me?” she asks, voice hollow, the sound of it shaking him from his stars.
Though he knows what he’s asking, he pretends he doesn’t, for he needs to hear her say it, the exact words, the exact meaning. He needs her to mean it.
“Ask you what?” he says, and she huffs, and she’s upset, and he doesn’t know how to hold them both accountable without making either of them upset. Is this what love is, a series of calculated attempts to make each other as comfortable as possible with unsettling topics?
“To marry you,” she says quietly.
Looking over at her, he notices how the sweater fits her, the way she hunches over slightly, how she folds her hands on her lap. She doesn’t wear earrings or other jewelry to bed but keeps her wedding band on nonetheless. He wants to know if she wears it in the shower.
“I just don’t get it,” she says, brows coming together, forehead tense. “I thought…”
She tries to find words but can’t, so she brushes it off, gives, “I thought a lot of things.”
“I want to know why you asked in the first place,” she says, her tone making it clear that she won’t elaborate.
And the answer to that question is so easy: he loves her and can’t live without her. No, that’s a horrible sentiment, he knows for sure it is, but there’s a mark of truth in it, how life without her is going to be painful, how he wanted to symbolize that with a ring. Was that selfish of him, to ask to be her widow? Is widow even the correct term? When he was a child, he had a pair of elderly neighbors, and one - the husband - died of a heart attack midway through the summer, and the wife followed suit the day after the funeral, old age the cause of death but sadness the reason her life ended. Trying to think of autumn this year, Mulder can’t picture it, for his office is going to be empty, and maybe he’ll have a new partner, some spunky scientist trying to prove him wrong, and he’ll hate that scientist with a burning passion, yell at them and put them through hell because they’re the wrong person for this job, anyone but her is the wrong person for this job, no one could ever fill the little kitten-heeled shoes of his Scully. He doesn’t have the excuse of age to cease living without her, but he does have the excuse of marriage. Though there’s no suicidal element, he feels that being able to mark his grief in such a concise, respectable way will make it easier to bear. Now, when he acts out against the scientist in his imaginings, his colleagues will say to the scientist behind his back, He doesn’t mean it, it’s just that his wife died this summer, and he’s struggling right now. Don’t take it personally. At least he now has a reason to be unreasonable with his grief.
But that’s a selfish reason to ask someone to marry him, and he knows it, but the other obvious answer is impossible to tell her, at least not yet. It’s so simple: he loves her, so he asked her to marry him. Had they had more time, he would’ve waited for the proper time to take her on a proper date, then asked her to marry him in a proper way, on one knee, big diamond, her mother there to capture her surprise in a photograph, but they don’t have more time. No, all they have is this spring, and then this summer, and if they’re lucky, extremely, horribly, woefully, disconcertingly lucky, then they may have a week or two of autumn together. He asked prematurely because he needed to. He asked prematurely because it was the only way he could truly tell her that he loved her, that he loves her, that he’s still going to love her even when she’s not here anymore.
But he can’t tell her any of that, at least not yet. It’s not the right time. But when would the right time be, then? he wonders, and that’s the conundrum of living like you’re dying, how knowing one has less time here doesn’t make certain proclamations suddenly acceptable. He shouldn’t have brought up the fact that she’s dying while they were on a walk on the beach, for she had been joyful on a sunny day before he mentioned it, and he subdued her joy by bringing up what she spent that morning trying not to think about. He can’t tell her that he loves her in order to win an argument, even if not telling her makes him wonder if he’ll even have time to tell her before she dies. Timing is still important. Even when she has little time left, timing is still important.
“If you pity me, it's okay,” she says, and it must’ve been a while since she last spoke, for she’s louder now, more demanding, more anxious. “I can accept that.”
“No, no,” he says, shaking his head, “absolutely not. Never.”
He swallows, trying to come up with an explanation that isn’t selfish or wrong for the moment.
“I would’ve done it right, had I had the time,” he says.
“What do you mean?”
“You know,” he brushes off, not wanting to elaborate.
“No, I don’t know.”
“A date or something,” he says and feels his cheeks flush with embarrassment. A date. The smallest and most arbitrary pair of emotional words.
“You could’ve just done that instead. Mulder, I...I thought we were both taking this seriously. I thought we both meant it seriously.”
“We do,” he says quickly, wishing he'd never given her a reason to doubt such a thing. “I do.”
“It all feels so unnecessary.” She covers her mouth with a fist, leaning her elbow against her knee.
“Not to me,” he says, dumb tears stinging his eyes. “Not at all.”
And then she looks at him, and he would tell her everything if he could. He would tell her everything if it meant that she would feel comforted by that everything, not suffocated by it. He would tell her everything if doing so meant that she would feel safe with him again.
“I wanted to,” he insists. “I wanted...I wanted this life with you, this whole life with you.”
She looks out at the sea, at the gentle stir of the waves the reflections of the stars on the water. If he were an artist, he would capture this moment in its entirety, watercolor paints and jewel tones, his wife as he tells her he loves her in the most fragmented way.
“I thought about it plenty of times,” he says, and maybe he’s overstepping, but maybe she needs to know. “I thought I’d wait a few years, just in case.”
“To ask me to marry you?”
“To ask you on a date.”
“Oh,” she says, laughing incredulously.
“It seemed right,” he tries to defend, but she’s shaking her head and laughing, and he knows there’s no way to defend it. Though he won’t call it cowardice, he knows now that that was a bad idea, that the timing was so arbitrary, that he should’ve just asked her out long before he thought about someday marrying her. A year into their time together, that’s when he should’ve asked her out, but it’s alright in the end, for they’re here, and they’re together, and she married him. She married him in front of her God, her parish, her mother. She married him because she wanted to. Maybe she married him because she loves him.
And she reaches out to hold his hand, and he weaves his fingers between hers, her skin warm out in this cold, dark night, and he wants to go back to bed, curl up with her and leave the big words for another day. For now, she’ll know that he wanted this all along, that it wasn’t so much an impulsive decision as it was one he’d meant to make years from now, and if she wants more in the future - two days from now, maybe a week - he’ll let her know. He’ll wait for the right time, knows that he’ll be sure when he’s found that right time, but for now, he’ll hold her hand while she thinks things through. The stars are beautiful tonight; he wonders how she feels about wearing his sweater.
Darting her hand away from him, she huffs, “Sorry.”
When he looks over at her, she’s covering her face, her fingers smeared with blood, and didn’t she just have one? Do they happen this often? Back when they were still working together, she hadn't had this many in front of him, but he knew that she liked to hide how she felt, liked to appear healthier than she was, so maybe they’ve been this frequent all along. Thankfully, he has tissues in the pocket of his coat, so he pulls them out for her, hands her a few.
“Thank you,” she says, tipping her head back and drying her face, mouth-breathing in the cold air. He imagines the weather must hurt her throat.
“Should we head inside?” he asks, and she nods ever-so-slightly, trying not to cause any more bleeding, so he stands, reaches down for her hand, helps her up.
The kitchen still lit, he guides her over to the sink like two moths to the only light in deep darkness, then wets a paper towel as she leans against the counter, the roses in a vase behind her, tendrils of her hair resting atop the petals. Though her clothes seem to have been spared, she has a smear of blood going up her cheek, so he leans down to blot at the smear with the towel, his strokes gentle, his hands cautious. She’s so much smaller than she was in her work suits and shoes, but since he’s followed her through this trip, since he’s spent time with her barefoot in her apartment, he’s started to see her more as this size, not as her work size. Though she’s small, she’s his perfect kind of small, someone who fits so well in his arms, and when he dabs at the blood on her face, she doesn’t flinch away, doesn’t move at all. No, she’s okay with having him help her. She’s okay with being loved by him.
By the time she’s stopped the bleed, he feels his feet start to ache, the day too long, the small hours of the morning coming. She washes her hands in the kitchen sink, looking over at the roses as she does so. Should he go back to bed and wait for her? Does she need something more?
“Mulder?” she asks as she dries her hands on a dishtowel, as she still wears his sweater even though the cottage is much warmer than the porch outside was.
He hums a response, looks to her, waits for a small and inconsequential question. Can we sleep in tomorrow? Can you kiss me goodnight? Would you mind if we didn’t do much tomorrow?
“I don’t know if this is an unreasonable ask,” she says, looking at the roses rather than looking at him, “but it’s been on my mind.”
She swallows, and though he wants to reach out for her, hold her hand and tell her that he’ll do whatever she asks, he doesn’t want to coddle her, not when her brows are furrowed like this and she's so uncomfortable with having to be serious.
“When it happens,” she says, and he can fill in her blanks this time, “I may not know in advance, but there’s a chance it’ll be obvious. There’s a chance that I'll know how many days are left. I may at least have a best guess.”
“Okay,” he says, and his chest tightens, and the cottage now feels too hot, and he’s still wearing his coat, and he needs her closer to him, but he doesn't know if that's right.
“I know that this is a bit much,” she qualifies, and he wishes she wouldn’t, “but I would appreciate it if you promised to be there when it happens.”
For a moment, he’s too stunned to respond, and she adds, “Only if there is any reasonable foresight-”
“Yes, of course,” he says, reaching for her, taking both of her hands, needing her close. “Of course I’ll be there.”
“Do you promise?”
Looking up at him, she has such big blue eyes, so endless, and there’s a constellation of a swan on her wrist, and there are even more constellations on her cheeks alone, and he could never deny her anything, not ever.
“I promise,” he says.
And he takes her into his arms and holds her because he needs to, and she wraps her arms around his midriff because maybe she loves him too.
When he wakes, he turns toward her and sees her flattening herself to the bed, burrowing beneath the comforter. The stove hardly needs wood, he’s too warm, but she looks almost like she would start shivering if only her body had enough energy to do so. Based on her breathing, she’s awake.
“Hard day?” he whispers, staying soft. Though he can hear the sea outside, the rest of their world is quiet, just the stove crackling on, the sounds of her breathing, the calm waves coming to shore; he doesn’t want to wake the rest of the world up just yet.
She hums in response, so he takes that as an affirmative: whatever they had planned for today isn’t going to happen. Though he pulls up low-energy ideas like sitting on the beach or taking down one of the weathered board games from the stack in the living room, all he needs to do is look at her in order to know that today is a bed day and nothing else. He’ll cover the basics while she rests, putting on fresh clothes, starting breakfast, portioning her pills and making her take them with chocolate pudding instead of water. He’ll bring her her book if she can manage that. He’ll rest beside her even though he has plenty of energy, pretending that he doesn’t so that she won’t feel so alone. He’ll rub her back, if she’ll let him.
But before he leaves the room, before he finds a new shirt and figures out what to make her to eat, he hesitates by the bed, feels it would be wrong to leave. Though their partnership has never been conventional, and though their marriage has been ruled by the line-blurring of terminal illness, he still feels that he should do something, tries to think of what he saw on TV of husbands waking wives, a bite of breakfast before picking up the briefcase and pecking the missus on the cheek, a honey I’m home that was met with a tepid response. He loves her, and to whatever degree she can right now, she knows that he loves her, but it feels suddenly so important that he reinforce such a thing. He has to say something, anything to make her realize that he loves her.
But she doesn’t want to hear that right now, for she doesn’t want to hear anything, so he walks to her side of the bed, crouches alongside, reaches for her exposed left hand. To conserve what energy she can, she’s kept her eyes closed, so she doesn’t watch as he grips her hand ever-so-gently, as he leans down to kiss her knuckles where they rest on the bed. She looks proper with a wedding band, so proper that he can edit the ring into all of his memories of her, their first meeting in which she knocked twice as he made a bad joke, the times she passed him his stakeout lunch, her hands against the steering wheel as she braked hard. All along, he’s known that she's someone worth caring about, someone to watch your kids while you go on a much-needed night out, someone who volunteers to help with Easter egg hunts on the grounds of the church after mass each year; she’s competent, yes, and she’s highly educated, but she possesses something unteachable beneath both of those things, a vulnerability of spirit, a kind of loving. Still, that vulnerability inevitably led to fear, so she keeps herself at a distance, avoids deeper connection, but now, she’s opening to him because she has no other choice. She’s opening to him because nothing can really hurt her anymore.
I never want to hurt you, he thinks as he stands, hopes she understands that without hearing it directly. I never want to be the source of your pain.
He makes her toast with butter, something tolerable. The pile of Snack Packs in the fridge makes him smile each time he looks for a cup. Whenever he’s at her place, he inevitably ends up opening the fridge, looking for a beer or a snack and oftentimes coming up short when he finds only boneless skinless chicken breasts, unsweetened almond milk, the world’s biggest box of spinach, and three takeout oyster pails that may not even be from this year; the contrast of pudding cups - plastic-bound, red-capped pudding cups that aren’t low sugar, low fat, low carb, low anything - is cute. On cases, he’s watched as she’s denied herself everything from half of a candy bar shared with him to a coke at midnight when she’s about to fall asleep at the wheel, so this indulgence, this minor, almost quotidian, completely mediocre indulgence, makes him giddy. Next week, he’s going to try to get her to eat a slice of chocolate cake.
No, they just had cake. Wedding cake. He has two slices in his freezer at home, one for each of them, a first anniversary tradition. Next year, around this time, he’ll eat two slices of old cake. He doesn’t even think he’ll want to eat them, not because of the meaning and associations attached but because year-old freezer cake sounds gross. But he promised her he would, so he’s going to, but still, the minor fantasy creeps in, the idea that they would sit on his couch together and eat each slice, feeling blissful in the haze of their luck, overwhelmed with thankfulness because they made it to one year after never thinking they would. But the toast has popped, he has to butter the slices, and he needs to get a spoon for her pudding; the fantasy ends as quickly as it started, and he’s left alone again, his marriage temporary, his life with her a mere glimpse at what could have been. If he imagines things, he’ll only hurt himself. He spreads butter onto the toast so hard that he sends crumbs flying onto the kitchen counter and falling to the floor.
When he returns to the bedroom, her eyes are open, and she’s trying to lift herself from the bed, not sit up but not blend in with the bottom sheets either. She hasn’t taken her pills yet.
“Here,” he says, holding out the pudding cup and spoon. “No need for water.”
And she stares down at the red-capped cup in her hesitant hand, then looks at him with defeat.
“I’m really nauseous, Mulder,” she says, the statement sounding like an apology.
“Just some toast, then.”
Sitting down at the foot of her side of the bed, he presses the plated toast toward her, breakfast in bed. If it were Valentine’s Day, and if she were healthy, he would’ve made her pancakes, then sliced strawberries on top even though he doesn't know how to slice strawberries.
“I can’t,” she says, the hand that doesn’t hold the pudding pushing the plate away. “I’m sorry.”
It’s not supposed to be an insult, but he feels a twinge at the refusal; maybe his cooking is fine, but she won’t let him care for her, and he feels smaller than he did before. No matter what he imagines, she won’t be next to him as he pulls cake from the freezer. He should’ve just left one slice like she told him to. He should’ve listened.
“I’m going to stoke the fire,” he says to excuse himself, for he doesn’t want to look emotional in front of her, not now, not in the morning and while she’s in pain. He’ll take a few minutes to center himself, then come back in when he’s sure his feelings won’t betray his exterior. Because he needs to, he shuts the bedroom door behind himself, fingers hovering over the knob a moment too long, his hands shaking.
He lifts the lid of the stove, but the fire’s fine, and the house is plenty warm enough even for a sick day, so he walks carefully toward the bookshelf - if he’s light on his feet, then maybe even creaking boards won’t betray him now - and looks at the titles again. In a house so far from the town and so void of entertainment - the radio here looks like the ones cars had when he was a small child and barely reaches the local Maine Public Radio station, there’s not even a rabbit-eared television, and he only discovered the record player by accident - he can’t hide from himself, let alone from her, but he’s willing to seek out a distraction nonetheless. He makes a mental list of the books he’s read: Little Women, for an Oxford professor teaching introductory psychiatric principles had had a disconcerting sense of humor; The Secret Garden, for it had been Samantha’s favorite; 1984, because who hadn’t; and Moby Dick, for she mentioned her father’s nickname for her after they left work one day in their first year as partners, and in a strange slow-motion fugue that he would later learn to call attraction, he drove not to his home that day but to Barnes and Noble, picking up a brand new copy before realizing that classics like this one deserved to have had their backs broken long before one’s first read of them. Which of these has she already read? Last year, she took Great Expectations on four flights with him, and he charted time in the movements of her bookmark, only ever reaching halfway before she packed a different book in her suitcase. It feels strange now to think that she must’ve finished a book without him knowing, not because he feels possessive but because she never told him what she thought of the ending, how the book made her feel. He wishes he’d asked.
Because he hasn’t read it yet, he takes down The Count of Monte Cristo from the shelves, an old Penguin classic with cracks along the spine, the pages yellowing, and sits down on the couch to read. Just a few pages, and then he'll go back into the bedroom and lie down with her, see if she'll at least eat a little bit, and though he doesn’t know what to do on sick days with her - if there were a television here, it would be on, and he would go out to the local Blockbuster and pick up three tapes to share with her, Steel Magnolias and Back to the Future and a new one that neither of them has ever seen, but he can’t do any of that now - so he’ll just stay with her. If he can, he’ll coax her out for the sunset because he knows she doesn’t want to miss it, and for dinner he’ll make soup with ginger to calm her stomach. He’ll do his best.
And he’s reread the first page three times now and has retained nothing from it, his mind too full to focus on anything but her, so he closes the book and leaves it on the couch while he goes to the bedroom, gently opens the door. When he sees her curled up in bed, her body on her side of the bed but her head on his pillow, her eyes closed and the quilt pulled up to her chin, he’s glad he stayed quiet, tiptoeing over creaky boards, opening the door slowly. The pudding cup sits unopened and abandoned on her bedside table, and though the plate of toast hasn’t moved, there’s half a slice missing, and the sight of crumbs left on the plate is enough to make him sigh in relief.
Her hair is just long enough that he can take it all in one hand and hold it back while she vomits. Though he asked if he could tie it back for her, she said she had a headache, didn’t want to aggravate anything else today. Two or three bites of toast, just two or three bites, and she took a Zofran too, but they’re in the bathroom together nonetheless, her hunching over the toilet and him kneeling alongside her. By the time she starts breathing easier, pulling down the lid of the toilet, flushing with the last bit of energy she can muster, she’s spent enough to shamelessly lean against him, forehead to his chest, lips warm and wet against his body. She’s shivering.
“I’m sorry,” she manages, and he clutches her awkwardly toward himself, tries to cradle her, and he realizes that the last time he watched someone other than her vomit, he was a child sharing a bedroom with his sister, and Samantha was sick onto the carpet and too nervous to tell their parents, so Mulder had to clean it up instead. I’m sorry, she’d said back then too, and he must’ve complained and made fun of her for it. He palms the back of Scully’s head and echoes, I’m sorry too.
Twenty minutes, an hour, he’s lost track of time, he wonders if the sun will set anytime soon; she manages to stand up and brush her teeth, still in her pajamas, still bracing herself against the bathroom sink because not even the good drugs can touch this kind of nausea. It’s just a side effect of the chemo, she told him earlier, but when he watches her leave the bathroom, when she pulls herself beneath the covers of their bed and nestles in so deeply that he wonders if she has enough energy to breathe, his mind starts to wander. Is it wandering if it only approaches the inevitable truth? He won’t let himself think certain words, fearing that they could invoke horrible spirits or create bad omens. Though he’s not a spiritual or superstitious person, he wants to pour salt in a circle around their bed, then climb in alongside her and promise that nothing will hurt them, not spirits or ghosts, not tumors in her skull. He wants to promise her that everything will be okay, but he can’t.
But he climbs into bed alongside her nonetheless, and she leans toward him in bed, her forehead cresting his pillow, her arm draping over his stomach, she likes to hold him in this way, and the copy of The Count of Monte Cristo is on his bedside table, and before she was sick, he read the first twenty pages to her, squinting because he hadn’t taken his reading glasses out of his suitcase beforehand. Apparently, she’s never read this book either. He wishes he knew all of the books she’s ever read, then wishes he only knew the important ones, the ones to pull from her shelves and keep forever, the ones he can’t let her family send to Goodwill instead. Taking the book from his bedside table, he opens up to the last page he read, starts from the very top.
“We were past there,” she says, voice hollow, eyes closed. Though she’s not looking, she’s positioning in such a way that she could stare through their wide bedroom window looking out at the sea. He wishes she would open her eyes. “Go halfway down the page.”
So he follows her instruction, but she says, “No, that’s too far.”
He compromises on a midpoint paragraph, and then, she settles in, breaths soft, body warm despite her shivers. Though he’s too hot underneath all of the blankets, it would hurt to go above them, to be that far from her, so he stays underneath, reading to the end of the page, using the hand farthest from her to turn the page. If he pauses long enough, he can hear the waves outside, feel the slow, steady beat of her heart, listen to the crackling of the woodstove, but if he waits too long, she’ll whisper for him to keep going, and he’ll pick up right where he left off, continuing the story for her. By the eightieth page, he finds himself growing hungry, but eating without her would be uncomfortable, so he denies the feeling, takes long pauses as he reads in hope that she’ll fall asleep, then wonders how he could pull himself away from her in bed without waking her in the process.
But when she falls asleep, she falls hard, so he manages to shimmy away from her, leaves the bedroom door open while he heads into the kitchen for a sandwich. On the kitchen counter, the roses from yesterday look glum, their bright, sultry red stark against this classic kitchen, floral dishtowels, generational dutch ovens, cook timers with the second lines fading away. Should he make her lunch? Should he take one of the roses from the vase and set it on her pillow so that, when she wakes up, the first thing she sees is a pretty red flower? Should he call her mother and say that things aren’t looking good right now?
She isn’t going to die today. He knows she isn’t going to die today. But as he spreads mayonnaise on bread, puts turkey and swiss on top, he steps back every so often to look toward the bedroom, make sure he hasn’t missed anything in there. Though he’s not sure how true the stories are, he’s heard that plenty of terminally ill patients will hold on for days longer than any doctor could expect, only dying once their loved ones were out of their hospital room even if they only left for a few minutes. He plates his sandwich, then carries the plate with him as he walks back toward the bedroom, looks in at her sleeping figure, watches until he’s counted three of her breaths before sitting in the bedroom doorway, plate on his lap, and eating lunch. Though she isn’t going to die today, he insists on sitting there and keeping watch.
Where does care end and harm begin? She doesn’t eat dinner; he doesn’t force her through any more toast. Though he tells her that she feels warm to him, feverishly warm, she says that she always gets too warm when she’s tired. She washes up for bed half-hunched, her back in pain from the vomiting, skin pale, cheeks hollow. How is it that she looked so much better yesterday?
She slept through the sunset. They’re 200 pages into the book. When she sits down in bed, ready to take her pills for the night, she hesitates, holds the glass of water to her chest, stares down the pill bottles and waits.
“It’s just water,” he says, taking to his own side of the bed. She had a Zofran four hours ago; he planned for this. “You’ll be fine.”
“I’m not so sure,” she says, turning halfway toward him, her expression exhausted, emotions unreadable.
“Take them,” he insists.
After a few minutes more of silent deliberation, she pops open the first bottle of pills, swallows little gulps of water, tries not to test fate. First, he turns off his bedside lamp, and in quick succession, she turns off hers, nestling into bed alongside him, not touching. Tonight, she stays to her own pillow, and he stays to his. Though part of him wants to move toward her, wrap his arms around her and hold her even if just for a moment, another part of him thinks of how she must feel right now, the dizziness, the nausea. They’ve spent enough time together today; he wonders how she hasn’t tired of him yet, how she hasn’t yelled and pushed him away and asked him if he could leave her alone for a few hours. He wonders if he’s taken care of her well.
Though there were times in Oxford when he nursed hungover friends back to health, and though he tends to get the flu every winter because of his poor diet, his poor hygiene, his poor sense of self, whatever explanation the Tamiflu pusher at the urgent care near his apartment decides on that year, he’s never had someone bring him cough syrup and soup to help him feel better, and he’s certainly never given care to someone else. Had his sister not disappeared, he knows he would’ve done those things for her, bringing her a capful of syrup while their parents did who knows what, placing a cold washcloth on her forehead to ease her fever, but instead, he’s been forced to do those things for himself, going to the closest drugstore on his own, dizzy with fever on the walk home. So far as he knows, Scully doesn't get sick except in short, life-threatening spurts, capture or abduction, ventilators and x-rays and pulling-the-plug diagnoses, but last spring, her seasonal allergies had taken her by surprise and led her to keep saline nasal spray in her purse along with Benadryl that she would take only if he insisted on driving her home. Even if he’d watched her be sick before, he still wouldn’t know what she needed most in such times, for she's never told him. Maybe she doesn't want anything. Maybe she’s never told him because all she’s ever wanted in those times is to be left alone.
But she’s not angry with him. He doubts she has the energy to be angry right now. Tomorrow, he’ll ask what she needs instead of standing passively by, reading paragraph after paragraph to her, sneaking away for meals that she won’t share. Tomorrow, he’ll care for her in the right way.
That night, he dreams of her bookshelves, this time lined with black journals like the one in her suitcase, anonymous and powerless, a sea of dark leather in her apartment. He reaches out for one, picking at random, and opens up to find words he can’t read but her handwriting for certain, and though he can’t decipher the messages, he knows instinctively, This one is from last year. This next one is from this year. The one after that is from next year. She won’t be alive next year, but he reaches out for that journal nonetheless, and paging through, he stills, for this one is empty, lined but uninked pages, the story she was never able to tell spread across white pages. From the first page to the last, the notebook is empty, so he frets, puts that one back and takes out the one from this year, and, yes, the notebook has writing, writing, writing, but a quarter of the way through, the writing ends, and the expanse of blank pages begins, and a quarter of the year, that’s March, April? It’s April now. How frequently does she write? Though he tries to read the dates at the tops of the pages, he can’t make out the numbers. If she writes every day, then a quarter is nothing, a quarter means she’ll die in her sleep tonight, a quarter means she’ll take her last breaths at five in the morning while he dozes beside her, a quarter means that he’ll wake up to find her body cold and her eyes cloudy with cataracts. If she writes once or twice a month, then he has time. He has time. He could take her to Martha’s Vineyard in the summer. He could see her in a swimsuit. He could watch as she walks away from him on the beach and toward the sea, then watch how she turns halfway around, meets his gaze, and smiles, her eyes so warm and so blue.
And he takes down another notebook - empty - and another - empty - and another until he’s ripping apart this bookshelf, the wooden planks falling, splintering, collapsing, and then, her entire apartment’s collapsing, the striped couch's cushions ripping open, her bathtub cowering in on itself, her little rice paper lamps torn in two. The place falls apart and buries him in rubble, in unfilled pages, in years of life she was never able to live. If she writes once a day, then she’ll be dead when he wakes up. If she writes once a month, then he’ll watch her smile on the beach this summer.
Shaking himself from the dream, he takes a deep breath, panting with the effort, and when he dares look over at her in bed, he finds her side empty, covers pulled back, pillow cold. And then he hears her retching in the dark, and he stumbles as he climbs out of bed, fugue state, he touches the walls to ground himself, the house is dark and there’s no smoke coming from the chimneys of the other houses along this inlet. When he slaps at the light switch in the bathroom, he finds the toilet stained, her head resting on a bathmat, blood on her face and dripping down onto the floor. He’s frozen for a moment, then counts them: one, two, three breaths.
“Scully,” he says, kneels before her, shakes her shoulder, too fast and too much but he needs her to open her eyes. Did she faint? Did she hit her head? Is she asleep? But then she blinks awake and looks up at him, and he reaches out, feels her forehead, still warm, he’s not listening to her about temperature anymore. “Scully, what happened?”
“Nothing,” she manages, but she won’t wipe at the blood from her nose, won’t move, and he knows it’s not nothing, and he knows that if he doesn’t take her to a hospital, she’ll die. She’ll die, and it will be his fault.
So he leans down over her, wraps his arms around her, and lifts her up against her inconsequential protests, carries her out of the bathroom, the bedroom, the main room, the cottage, and it’s so dark outside that he trips on gravel in the driveway, that he bumps her back against the car door as he pulls it open. She’s slack in the passenger’s seat, and though his instincts tell him to get into the car and drive, he can’t go without certain things. He needs to go back inside. He needs to go back inside. He repeats to himself as if that will force his legs to move, I need to go back inside.
In the top pocket of her suitcase, she packed her medical information, a folder done up by her hospice care team, the proper counts and prescriptions and prognoses for her; he tears at the zipper and pulls out the folder, then finds her fresh pajamas, a big sweater of his, socks because he knows her feet get cold. And her handbag, and spare Zofran, and his wallet, his keys, where are his keys? On the counter, next to the roses, why did he leave them there, it doesn’t matter know, he runs back out to the car and forgets to lock the cottage and turns the key in the ignition and drives.
“Can you pull over?” she asks quietly ten minutes later.
He doesn’t know where the nearest hospital is. While she vomits out the open passenger’s side door, he squints down at an atlas and tries not to cry.
At the moment when John Lennon was pronounced dead, his surgeons heard “All My Loving” over the hospital loudspeaker. Tonight, the hospital has Lou Reed on instead, the place like its Maine surroundings in its muted near-silence. Linoleum floors, acrid chemical smells, white sheets, why do they use white sheets? To bleach, he assumes, and the room, room being a generous term, holds that scent, white towels in his family’s home in Martha’s Vineyard, hotel smells paired with the chlorinated pool on the first floor. Once, he and Scully were put up in a Hilton for a team-building conference that had made him want to gouge his eyes out with the Workplace Weekend 1994 signature pencil every attendee received, and their rooms adjoined, and when they checked in, she asked about the pool on the first floor, was there a lap lane? For reasons he would never understand, she’d been trying to lose weight. Yes, there was a lap lane, the pool was open from ten in the morning to ten at night, would she like a tour? Of course she wouldn’t, she leaned on her little suitcase, the same suitcase as always, the scratch on its side having appeared sometime after Christmas 1993, they rolled their suitcases into the elevator while other business-casuals piled in, and because of the tight proximity, her side had been pressed to his, their suitcases touching, her little shoe dwarfed alongside his bigger one. She’d asked someone toward the front to press for floor four, please. He’d held his breath.
If he closes his eyes, then the bleach smell reminds him of hotels, not of hospitals. She liked to use one towel for her hair and one for her body, so she opened their adjoining doors and asked for any of his spares. Afterward, he heard the door to her room click shut, and though he hadn’t brought a swimsuit with him, he wanted to follow her down three floors to the pool, look at her mild and pretty swimsuit, conservative and covering her belly, meant for doing laps at the Y and nothing else. Vacations? She didn’t take vacations, but he wanted to follow her down to the pool and pretend they were sharing one, children for whom a hotel pool was the most mystical place in the world, back-floats and closed eyes, diving down and letting the air out of their lungs so that they could sit at the very bottom. He wanted to know what color her hair turned when it was wet, but then again, he already knew, didn’t he? Brunette, just a little, and dark, but as her hair dried, he started to see the warm flecks of red, and it was frizzy naturally, she used thick, creamy products to tame it down. Plastic lounge chairs, a hamper of used towels, leftover magazines from the last patrons, families hoping desperately to tire inexhaustible children out. And then they would go back upstairs, and they would shower in separate rooms, and they would come together on his bed and buy pay-per-view on the Bureau’s dime. Her hair would be put up in a towel, wrapped around in that way women knew how to do while men had no clue, her toenails painted light blue because in winter she sought out happier colors kept secret underneath boots, the scent of her shampoo so familiar because, even though he didn’t mind using the tiny hotel bottles, she insisted on bringing her own on every trip. He would hope she would fall asleep midway through, and he would turn the volume all the way down, and he would wait a few minutes before waking her, keeping still alongside her, breathing deeply and making these moments count. Remember this, he would tell himself. Remember this. You’ll need this to tide you over. And then he would wake her, and she would rub her eyes as she walked back to her own room and said, We’ll watch it tomorrow instead.
But when he opens his eyes, he’s in an emergency room, and she’s in a bed in front of him, and they put her in a gown because her clothes were stained with vomit, and he can’t tell if she’s asleep or not, finds himself too worried to ask. He can’t wake her, not now. Starched sheets pulled too tightly, hospital corners, Scully makes the bed whenever they leave a motel room. Though the hospital had been empty when they arrived, though he managed a parking space tantalizingly close to the entrance, there was still a line in the emergency room, a line they promptly hopped when he came in carrying her bridal-style in his arms, her body too warm, the binder with all of her medical information left in the car for now because he couldn’t wait to bring her in, pulled the keys from the ignition and raced out of the driver’s seat and toward her, asking her if she could walk and wincing as she shook her head. When the nurse tried to place an intravenous line, Scully had to turn her head away, keep her eyes closed; though she could do such a thing to a patient, she couldn’t watch one be inserted into her own vein. This time, she hadn’t bled. Because she has a penicillin allergy, her left wrist sports a red band on top of the standard white one. Above her, an almost empty bag of saline hangs, she’s dehydrated, they’ll hang some antibiotics for her shortly, and because her veins were tired of tubes and medications and pain, the pump for the fluids kept getting blocked and sounding off in loud beeps that only the nurses could turn off; finally, the machine has quieted, and he can’t stand the thought of waking her.
“Take off your coat,” she says softly, giving him his answer.
Their makeshift room is just a hospital bed, a single chair that forces his knees against the bed, and a curtain for privacy. Eventually, she’ll be brought to a real room on another floor, admitted to treat whatever nasty infection her weakened immune system let fester, but for now, they’re stuck in emergency, the lights on overheard and the hour well past four. Looking at her, he sees the exhaustion, the overwhelm; the bags under her eyes puff out like bruises, her hair is a mess, and the thin blankets are pulled up over her shoulders both because she’s cold and because she feels exposed in a too-big gown made for someone twice her size. He wishes he could hold her.
“You look strange,” she says.
He went out for the binder after Scully was in a bed, his thoughts racing as he unlocked the car, grabbed what he needed, and froze as he noticed on the passenger’s seat the Beanie Baby cat he’d bought at the lobster pound’s gift shop. Opening up the hang-tag, he read the name and the little poem inside, the birth date, why give a stuffed animal a birth date? But people were crazy about Beanie Babies nowadays, children and collectors alike, he didn’t understand the craze and doubted Scully had noticed the cat against the small of her back as he drove too fast down winding Maine roads. Pocketing the cat in his coat, he headed back inside with the binder in his hands, and he hasn’t taken off his coat since.
“It’s cold,” he says while he takes the coat off, a contradiction, and she smiles uncomfortably when she sees his clothes, heavy pajamas and a sweater over top, neither of them planned a trip to a hospital tonight. He hangs the coat off of a pointed piece of something on the wall that he probably shouldn’t hang his coat off of, and then the nurse returns with broad spectrum intravenous antibiotics, something to start on while they wait for Scully’s bloodwork to come back. And some intravenous Zofran, thank goodness. He doesn’t have the strength to ever watch her vomit again.
And Scully makes easy small talk with the nurse, we’re from out of state, this is our honeymoon, we’ve both been to Maine before, we weren’t expecting this to happen, and he stares down at his shoes. Is it a violation to watch the nurse tear open an alcohol swab, twist together two new tubes, throw away the bag of saline? He folds his hands together, and his wedding band feels particularly cold.
The nurse walks out, slides the privacy curtain back into place, and then, Scully asks, “What’s in your pocket?”
He looks down at his pants, but they’re flannel pajamas, no pockets.
“No, your coat pocket,” she specifies, and he looks over at his coat and grimaces.
The cat, it’s bulging right there. Though he could pretend it’s just his gloves all folded up, she would catch him in the lie so easily - you never wear gloves, that’s why your hands are chapped all winter - but he doesn’t want to tell her the truth. He impulse-purchased a stuffed animal at a gift shop while waiting for dinner. Even though he finds nothing shameful in that objective statement, he cringes anyway. Chip the Cat. For wife. It echoes in his mind over and over again. Chip the Cat. For wife.
He can’t lie to her, but it hurts to pull the stuffed animal from his pocket, to lean forward and bump his knees on the side of her hospital bed, to set the cat alongside her cathetered arm, soft fur against her bare skin, and she furrows her brow, runs her pointer finger gently along the stuffed animal.
“Where’d you find one of these?” she asks, looking up at him; he stares at the cat instead, embarrassed.
“A gift shop,” he says, a blush coming to his cheeks. He should’ve said the lump was his gloves.
“It’s such a big craze,” she says, an incredulous laugh bubbling over her lips, and he’s tense in his uncomfortable chair, in a whitewashed hospital, in this place where neither of them can rest because machines keep sounding off, in this cursed and wretched building that took him forever to find while she closed her eyes and worked through breathing exercises in the passenger’s seat, trying not to be sick.
She didn’t bleed this time. He thinks back to her last chemotherapy treatment, the hot red stain on her arm, the look on her face as she realized she was bleeding, the fear. Then, he stares down at her arm, the catheter making him wince, but there’s no blood this time. There’s no blood. There’s no blood.
“You’re sweet,” she says, voice quiet, a secret between them, and he watches as she strokes her finger from the top of the cat’s head to its little button nose, petting it.
Though he wants to say so many things - I saw it and it make me think of you but that’s ridiculous because everything everywhere makes me think of you, I’m sorry that this is so strange, I love you - he can’t find the words, his hands tense in his lap, his body rigid. He really hadn’t wanted to show her this, had hoped he would find a child downtown maybe to pawn it off on, had thought it was such a stupid purchase. But when he looks up at her, his thoughts fade away; there are little tears on her cheeks, resigned tears, happy tears, and somehow, despite their surroundings, despite the night she’s had, she’s smiling.
“Thanks,” she says, the word lackluster, and she reaches out with her untethered hand to dry the tears, and he wishes he could hold her. He wishes she could move her arm without setting off alarms. He wishes they could go back home and curl up together, plenty of wood in the stove but the bedroom window open from time to time so that she could listen to the waves, their book in his lap, her eyes closed as he reads to her. Or on the couch, her legs tucked up while he makes dinner, something palatable, something easy, and he has old records playing, and as he’s putting on finishing touches, she walks up behind him and wraps her arms around him, her cheekbone against one of his vertebrae. He wishes he could kiss her one more time.
She splays her fingers next to the cat, so he reaches out, does what she asks, holds her hand, and her fingers are so small against his, and he looks down at their joined hands, bleached hospital sheets and not-warm-enough blankets, plastic tubing and skin, the little cat against their fingers, and he thinks, I wish I could take a picture.
She asked for her toothbrush, plus mouthwash from the store if he could manage it. And a fresh pair of pajamas because she vomited on the spare pair he brought with them, and something warm to wear, and a blanket, something cozy, she’s been so cold all night that he had to put his coat over her to help her sleep. At eight, they moved her upstairs to a real hospital room, thankfully a private one with a window that looks out at trees and the very distant Portland, and she asked for her toothbrush, plus mouthwash if he could manage it. He didn’t have a chance to write each thing down, so he pulls them from his memory as he drives. Toothpaste, mouthwash, blanket. Something warm to wear. As soon as she mentioned something warm, he thought of his own sweatshirts and sweaters, then wondered if maybe, just maybe, she alluded to those.
Before he left, he told the on-call nurse about the medical binder left it on a chair in Scully’s room, took a piece of paper from the nurse’s station and wrote down his phone number just in case, would they mind calling him if Scully so much as woke up? And he’s driving too fast now because he’s far away from her and she’s alone and he promised. He promised...he promised plenty of things. He promised he would be there. He promised he would.
He stops for mouthwash first because the thought of going to the nearest grocery store after finishing up at the cottage makes him wince, and is there anything else he can bring her? Flowers? No, he doesn’t want her to stay in the hospital long enough to need flowers; he won’t so much as look at the display as he walks by. A card? He doesn’t know what people bring to loved ones in hospitals, and all she really wanted was her toothbrush, and some clothes, and maybe but maybe not one of his warmer shirts. Still, the grocery store is similar enough to the hospital to numb his mind, so he walks down the aisles, starts to feel less on-edge as he looks at air fresheners, laundry detergent, cleaning products. Is there bathroom cleaner at the cottage? Because he doesn’t know, he puts some into his basket and adds paper towels too. What else? He could bring her a magazine, but he doubts she wants to read a magazine. Then, he finds disposable cameras, Kodak with the signature yellow and red paper over top telling him to wind up after every shot. The most recent photograph of them together is their wedding picture, the one she stuck in her journal. They need more pictures, so many more.
And the house is too cold and smells like vomit; he winces as he walks in, as he looks at the rushed mess he left the place in. So, the bathroom. He’ll need to wash the bathmat and all the towels; he breathes through his mouth and thanks himself for not eating anything so far today. And he opens every window in the cottage, and he flushes the toilet, and he turns on the bathroom fan, and he puts the bath mat and towels and all of her stained clothes into the washer, and he scrubs the bathroom floor. He scrubs the rim of the toilet, the insides, the seat, it’s all stained, and by the time that his arms tire enough for him to take a break, he realizes that his ragged breaths aren’t from the work; no, he’s crying, hiccuping with the overwhelm, and he drops his rags and against better judgment holds his head in his hands, hunched over on the bathroom floor, the emotions flooding out of him all at once. Scully on the bathroom floor, had she hit her head or fainted or fallen asleep, she was so sick in the car, and all she needed was an anti-emetic and specific antibiotics that would be administered as soon as they knew what infection she had, with broad spectrum ones already circulating through her body. She would be okay. For now, she would be okay. They still have time. Against all odds, they still have time, but that time comes as no comfort now, not while he’s consumed by the memory of her on this bathroom floor, fine only hours earlier, holding him in bed, telling him that they were past that point in the book. Would it all come on that quickly in the end? Would either of them truly know when it was time?
The washer sounds off, done with the cycle. He has no idea what time it is. Peeling himself from the floor, he goes to take the clothes and towels and mat out as he realizes that this place doesn’t have a dryer. Of course it doesn’t, this is a summer rental, there must be a clothesline somewhere, there’s a box of pins next to the laundry detergent on the shelf above. And when he walks outside to find the clothesline to the far left of the driveway, close enough to a thicket of trees for him to miss it altogether, the world outside is just as cold as the cottage is inside, the fire having gone out, all of the windows left open, but the sun is bright and warm, making him squint. He sets the box of clothespins on top of one of the line-posts, then gracelessly - he’s never done this before, and he’s still hiccuping with the tears - hangs up her pajamas, their towels, the bathmat that’s no longer stained. Once he’s done, he watches for a moment how the light breeze picks up her clothes and makes the garments look as though they’re floating.
Going back inside, he finds the disposable camera he bought and reads the instructions on its label, looks through the viewfinder, tests the thing out by accident and ends up taking a picture of the ground. Then, he heads back outside and frames the laundry in the morning light, clicks the button, winds up the dial. When they head home, he’ll have the pictures developed, and he’ll show her what she missed.
When he returns to the hospital, she’s awake, and the window in her room lets in plenty of light, and she softens as she watches him come in, holding in one hand a paper shopping bag filled with the things she asked for and in the other a big, warm blanket from the cottage. The cat is set down next to her pillow, keeping watch.
“Thank you so much,” she says, using her arms to help her sit up in bed. “I’m freezing.”
And because the door is shut, because she’s stuck in a hospital gown and exhausted and too cold, she stands and starts undoing the ties on her gown as he sets the paper bag down beside her. Quickly, he turns away and faces the door, trying to give her privacy, but he can hear her piecing through each item in the bag, wishes he could pick out the flannel pajamas for her, then hand her his sweatshirt to keep her warm. Instead, he gives her a moment, then two, then three, and does she have what she wanted? She’s being too quiet. Should he look?
He cranes his neck, just barely peeking, and thankfully, she’s dressed, the right sleeve of her pajama shirt rolled up to keep her intravenous catheter from tangling up in her clothes. So, she can’t wear his sweatshirt, even if she wants too. Why didn’t he think of that? Still, he’s holding a blanket for her, maybe he thought of enough, maybe he brought her everything she needed. Then, he watches her reach down into the bag and take out his sweatshirt, a nicer one for casual weekends, not oil-stained or unwashed for months, this one he wears on his way to the track on cold fall mornings and doesn’t put back on afterward for fear of sweatstains. She holds the sweatshirt to her face, and he looks away, staring at the door, staring at anything but her.
“You can turn around,” she says, and she’s taking her toothbrush, toothpaste, and mouthwash into the little bathroom while dragging the IV pole behind her, leaving the door open as she washes up. “Maine hospitals have HBO, apparently. The remote’s on the bed. Find us something good.”
So he sets the blanket down, sits at the foot of the bed, and picks up the remote, turning the little television hanging opposite of her bed on, flips through the news, daytime talk shows, soap operas, and then, shockingly enough, HBO. Just like old times, he half-jokes to himself, motel signs advertising a service they had that others lacked, another motor court, another case, another piece of small town America. Though Mission: Impossible is on one channel, The English Patient on another, he pauses on Lady and the Tramp, the right tone for their morning, something light, something comforting. As she leaves the bathroom, he sets the remote back down on the bed, offers to help her climb back into bed but is unsurprised when she rejects his help. She keeps to one side of the bed, the side closest to her cathetered arm, then taps the open side of the bed, inviting him in. He takes off his coat first, slips out of his shoes, then lies down beside her, careful not to touch her. Reaching for the blanket, he pulls it up over both of them, helps her warm up.
“A Disney movie,” she says in an are you serious tone, but he can sense that she’s relieved, happy even. Alongside him, she relaxes, her body slack and tired, no more frustration, no more pain.
“It sounded familiar,” he says, and when she laughs, he’s glad she got the joke.
“I don’t know how long I’ll stay awake.”
“I want you to kiss me.”
And it’s forward enough to make her voice crack but normal enough that he doesn’t think as he turns toward her and kisses her, surprising her as he does so, but she eases against him, exhales, closes her eyes, and for a moment they’re not in the hospital anymore, they’re at the wharf in Portland, and she’s making fun of him for asking if they can see whales from here, and he’s squinting over a map in an attempt to find a bookstore to shop at. Then, he buys her a cup of hot tea and a chocolate croissant at a cafe, and she pushes her hair behind her ears before she tears off a piece, and he takes out the disposable camera and photographs her before she can protest.
Instead, he breaks off the kiss and turns toward the little television, the volume loud enough to hear but soft enough not to keep them from falling asleep. She reaches beneath the blanket for his hand; he takes hers in his, squeezing gently.
On screen, the two dogs order spaghetti and meatballs.
He’s holding a cup of coffee for himself and a bag with two doughnuts in it, breakfast for them both. Standing in her doorway, he stares at her in the hospital room and feels like he’s going to be sick.
When she sees him, she smiles, beckons him in, says, “You’re late.”
Though he’s not technically late, it’s half past nine, and he meant to show up at seven-thirty, maybe eight, but last night, he stared at the ceiling above him until the small hours of the morning, then paced the living room until four, then forced himself into bed and squeezed his eyes shut in hope that he would sleep. When he left the cottage, he’d wanted to go straight to the hospital, but he pulled into the grocery store instead, remembering that they had coffee, and bought himself a cup and two doughnuts. He doubts she’s eaten yet. As of last night, she hadn’t eaten anything at all since being admitted, and now that he knows what the nurses think of her, he understands why no one forced her to.
“Sorry,” he says, but he’s shaken, and his words sound dishonest, and it takes all of his energy to step forward once, then twice.
She’s out of the bed today, instead sitting in an armchair by the window and looking out at the skyline. This morning, she has another big bag of intravenous fluids hanging, her hair is tied back in a scrunchie, and she’s wearing a pair of his socks, toes peeking out from beneath the blanket over her legs.
“Good morning,” she says, reaching out her good arm, asking him to come closer. It turns out that she likes kissing, likes being kissed. “How did you sleep?”
Without her, he couldn’t sleep, managed maybe an hour or two after so much tossing and turning. Do all human beings sleep better when a loved one is nearby? Yesterday, they spent the whole day trying to turn her hospital bed into a home while they watched movies and half-slept. She thinks Tom Cruise can’t act. He knows exactly where to place balled-up sweatshirts and pillows beneath her arm in order to keep the intravenous pump from occluding every few minutes and sounding an alarm. She trembles whenever he kisses her neck.
“I slept fine,” he says, taking one of the chairs in the sparse room and pulling it toward hers. Sitting down, he watches as her hand goes slack. No kiss good morning. Furrowing her brow, she knows something’s wrong. “How did you sleep?”
“Fine,” she says, staring at him, skeptical. “What’s going on?”
The nurse bombarded him in the hallway. He hasn’t had a sip of the coffee yet, but he knows it’s going to taste bad nonetheless. In movies, people in these situations go to the hospital cafeteria or to the grounds outside and experience every kind of emotional turmoil before coming back and speaking to their loved one in a level-headed manner, but he was bombarded in the hallway, just a few yards away from Scully’s hospital room. He had three feet, then three feet, then three feet more to prepare himself. Though he could wait until they hear back from the local oncologists, from Scully’s hospice team, he knows he can’t hide anything from her. He knows he can’t hold back.
“The nurses were concerned about your white blood cell count,” he says, folding his hands on his lap. What is he, a priest? He flattens his palms against his legs, breath held. He’s not going to cry.
“Is it too low?” she asks. “One of my medications tends to do that. Do you remember if they took a complete list? It should’ve been in the binder.”
“Not too low,” he says, shaking his head. “It was high.”
“That’s normal,” she shrugs off. “I was admitted to treat an infection. High white blood cell counts are common with infection.”
“But it was really high, Scully,” he says, his chest feeling tight. “They said they’ll have an oncologist here talk to us this afternoon. They said we should call your team.”
“My team,” she echoes, and he doesn’t want to say the word hospice. He won’t curse her. He can’t hurt her like that.
“There’s still a chance the antibiotics could change things,” he says, but he’s unsure if he’s reassuring her or himself. He’s unsure if he even believes what he’s saying. “They’ll redraw the labs, and then-”
“I know, I know,” she says, and he wants to put his head in his hands but can’t, and he wants to go outside and get some space but can’t, and he wishes the nurse in the hallway hadn’t so gently tapped his arm, looked at him with big, consoling eyes, the kind that could speak of tragedy and then return to a comfortable home at the end of the day, the kind that weren’t haunted. He wishes he didn’t know. He wishes neither of them knew. He wishes he could repeat yesterday, feeling her laugh against him while Ferris Bueller's Day Off was on the television, knowing when she fell asleep based on the way she breathed, kissing her forehead when she woke up, keeping her warm. He wishes they could go back to the cottage and climb into bed together, pull the quilt over their heads, hide there until it all ended. He wishes they were both asleep on the striped couch in her apartment, each waking up midway through the night but pretending to stay asleep so that the other wouldn’t leave.
And when he looks at her, he feels as if he’s the one who made her sick, as if he’s the one who caused the cancer to spread to her bloodstream, her bone marrow, the rest of her body. Before, they thought it was the inoperability of her cancer that would kill her, but no, the cancer will spread elsewhere, and that spreading will cause her pain, and she’ll die in a haze of morphine, unaware of her surroundings, bruised and infected and in pain and unable to understand whether or not he’s next to her. But he’ll be next to her, he knows he will be, he’ll stay the whole time, he’ll be there the whole time, but now, he needs to prepare himself to watch her die. Now, he knows they won’t have a summer together.
Her face is pale and blank, and she’s avoiding his gaze, and though she could ask for the exact number in the high count, though she could go over all of her labs with a doctor, though she could tell him what every serum test meant, she knows what this means, has the education to understand exactly how she’s dying. The infection, she wouldn’t have had the infection if the cancer hadn’t spread to her blood, and maybe that’s why she’s not hungry, why she’s bruised, why she looks so thin. She’s dying. Why hasn’t he truly realized that until now? Before, he knew she was dying, but now, the revelation that she’ll die soon feels like a slap in the face, like the wind being knocked out of him. Their days are numbered. He’ll only be able to sleep next to her a certain number of times more. Someday soon, he’ll be sleeping next to her for the last time.
He sets the coffee down on the linoleum floor. Of course today would be sunny, right when they’re both stuck indoors, right when they’re forced to miss out. He wants to take her to a restaurant. He wants to take her outside so that they can both lie down on the warm grass and close their eyes.
“Do you think-”
But her voice wavers, and she can’t finish the sentence, and she covers her face with her hands, cowering over, not numb anymore, and he reaches for her, holding her elbow in his palm, trying to hold something, and he should’ve kissed her good morning. He should’ve kissed her good morning. He should’ve acted as if everything were normal, and he should’ve kissed her good morning.
“Mulder,” she manages, her chest shaking with sobs as he squeezes into her chair, as he pulls her against him, as he holds her as much for her comfort as for his own.
And it hurts that she can cry against him. In his fantasies, this always felt good, holding her, consoling her, taking care of her when she stayed home from work with a cold, keeping her close, but now, he wishes he never asked. He wishes they never met. He wishes she never came into his life, and simultaneously, he wishes they could die together instead, for he doesn't know how to live without her. As she grips the fabric of his shirt in her hands, as she clings so him, he holds his breath, for if he moves at all, if he looks at her, then he’ll cry too, and if he cries now, he doubts he’ll be able to stop. And he needs to be strong for her. He needs to be there the whole time. He needs to be there when she dies. He promised.
“I don’t want to die, Mulder,” she says, tone so soft and quiet, she doesn’t want anyone else to know. She doesn’t want anyone else to see her scared. “There’s supposed to be more.”
The echo of her laughing not at Stripes itself but at how bad a movie it was, the way she grimaced when a nurse offered her lime Jello. She told him yesterday that she’s never seen the last Star Wars, and that she hid that from him out of naive hope that one day she could tell him and have him be so aghast that he would trot them both over to Blockbuster, rent the tape, and go back to his apartment to watch it. But you’ve seen the first two? he asked, and she said yeah, I’ve just never seen the last one, and he asked why not, and she told him about how there are books on her shelves that she’s gone years without reading and not for any good reason, not because she was busy but simply because she never got around to them, and then, she would pick up those books and realize that, had she read them when she’d first bought them, they wouldn’t have impacted her in the same way. Though she could never say why she’d strayed from those books in the first place, she felt some kind of pull nonetheless, and maybe it was God, or maybe it was something else, she willingly conceded that there were parts of the world that she didn’t understand, and she thought maybe that had been a sign. That if she could imagine Mulder forcing her to watch it, then maybe they actually would watch it together. And then she scrunched her face up, sick of Stripes, and asked if they could change the channel.
He takes a deep breath and stops holding back.
“What would happen if I lived?”
Half an hour ago, the oncologist left, and the nurses updated Scully’s hospice team, took more labs, asked if she wanted anything specific for lunch. Of course, she doesn’t want to eat lunch, so she had no requests, but he wished he could say chocolate pudding on her behalf, wished he could feed her himself. Now that the nurses are gone, he’s back in bed with her, the hospital room’s door closed, both of them on their sides and reaching for each other. He doesn’t want to be far from her. She held his hand so tightly all morning while they sat in separate chairs; he hopes she left a bruise.
“I’m not being unrealistic,” she clarifies, but the question makes his heart pound nonetheless. She wants his fantasies, and though he wants hers too, he finds himself wishing he didn’t. No, the mystery is better, especially when they’ll never have such things. “I do want to know, though.”
“If we were to have a life together?” he asks, for he can’t deny her anything, not now, not ever.
“A bigger one,” she says, and he tenses. Yes, a bigger one, because they do have a life together right now, and when they return home, they’ll continue to have a life together. The oncologist said she could still have six more months, though everyone in the room - and everyone on Scully’s palliative care team - found that prognosis a bit too optimistic. But they do have a life together. They do.
The blanket is pulled up over her shoulders because she’s been so cold, and they have a new antibiotic drip running, something more targeted than the broad spectrum ones. Once they leave the hospital, though they have no idea when that will be, they’ll need to pick up two new prescriptions for her. Her doctors will do what they can to prolong her life, even if they can’t prolong it by much. He’s scared of how much he’s willing to sacrifice for just a few more minutes.
“Do you want children?” she asks, looking up at him, eyes so blue, skin so pale, and somehow, the answer feels so obvious, so real, as if he’s thought about it for hours on end, as if he spent much of his life deliberating upon this choice.
“Yes,” he says, and though the statement feels unreal, though he’s never thought about being a father before, he knows that he’s telling the truth. He wants children with her. In the back of his mind, he’s always known he wants children with her. Two, he thinks, an even number. He wonders if he’ll need to fight her when she wants three, then four, just like her family growing up. He wonders if her brothers know that she’s married now.
“Me too,” she says, but he knew that already. Of course he knew that. Despite the circumstances, he’s not sure he would’ve married her if he hadn’t wanted kids while she had, even though he hadn’t yet acknowledged that he wanted them too.
“I want a house,” he says, and he can picture it all, carrying her over the threshold, a kitchen with an island table and bar stools, an old-fashioned stovetop that needs to be lit with a match. “Not in the city. Somewhere with a backyard.”
“And a wraparound porch,” she says. “And a big, warm fireplace.”
“Do you like dogs?”
She smirks, asks, “Would you be willing to walk a dog?”
And though he knows he’s not telling the truth, he says, “Of course I’d be willing to walk a dog.”
“Not too different from fish.”
“No, not at all.”
“Would you stay at the Bureau?”
And he hesitates long enough that she pushes that question away, says, “I’d want to go on vacation once a year.”
“Somewhere like here. Somewhere soft.”
“Soft?” he says, laughing. “Maine winters aren’t so soft.”
Rolling her eyes, she says, “Somewhere without the pressures of city life. Somewhere where I don’t have to wear makeup.”
“I hate the feeling of being too hot.”
“What about an ice storm?”
“I think we’ve both had enough of ice storms.”
“So a gentle summer, then.”
“Yes, something gentle.”
“Would you like a bigger wedding?”
She furrows her brow, meets his gaze, and her eyes are still bloodshot from this morning. Though they both held their composure during the talk with the oncologist, they couldn’t conceal their emotions altogether. He wants her to close her eyes so he can kiss her eyelids, one after the other.
“We’re already married,” she says.
“But would you want a ceremony with friends and family?” he asks. “A white dress, a bridal party. You know.”
She pauses, then manages, “I’ve never really thought about something like that.”
“Oh, come on,” he says. “Little Dana Scully never planned her future wedding?”
“Little Dana Scully never planned for anything except to anger her parents,” she says, half-joking.
“We could do it all again, if you want. The whole nine yards.”
“I’m not sure we could.”
“I have the money.” Well. “We have the money.”
But she grimaces, meets his gaze, and he knows her answer before she speaks.
“I don’t like the sound of that at all,” she says.
“Does the rest of your family know?”
“That we’re married.”
“Charlie knows,” she says. “Mom called him the day after you asked. She thought he might fly up.”
“Was he working?”
“I don’t think so.”
“And Bill?” he asks, changing from one uncomfortable subject to the next.
“He knows,” she says, leaving it at that. “Did you tell your family?”
“No,” he says, then blushes uncomfortably. He should’ve said something. Why didn’t he tell them? But then again, would they even care?
She reaches out for him, takes his hand in hers, runs her thumb over his knuckles, and beyond her, the window brings in bright light, a springtime warmth, no clouds in the sky.
“I don’t know how you feel about it,” she says, “but I thought that day was perfect.”
Because he can’t find words, because he doesn’t know how he could possibly respond, he says, “Yeah.”
“I’m glad you found rings,” she says. “I didn’t think we would be able to find any on such short notice.”
He had to go to four separate jewelry stores, for he couldn’t find one that was willing to size down a ring to fit her with such a close deadline. In the end, he paid an extra three-hundred dollars for his so-called rush order. When the priest asked if they had anything to exchange during the mass, she stared in shock down at the rings, but even then, he’d known it was a good kind of shock. He watched as she carried her hand differently for the rest of the day, a new weight, a welcome weight. He never thought he’d enjoy wearing a piece of jewelry so much, but last night, he slipped the ring off so that he could sleep but promptly slipped it back on again, missing the cool, grounding feeling of it, missing the reminder.
“What did you bring in the bag?” she asks, and it takes him a moment before he realizes that she means the bag of doughnuts, a paper bag from a lifetime ago, this morning feeling as if it happened in another lifetime. “I’m starting to feel a bit hungry.”
Though she must be understating - she didn’t eat anything yesterday - he pretends she isn’t, says, “I picked us up doughnuts for breakfast.”
She nods once, asks, “Could you bring them over?”
He doesn’t want to get up, doesn’t want to leave her, but he wants her to eat, so he climbs out of the bed, walks over to the chairs by the window, picks up the paper bag from atop one of the chairs. In the end, he never drank the coffee, but at least he has something sweet and enticing to share with her, two classic doughnuts, big enough that he’s willing to call them lunch. When he’s settled down next to her again, he pulls one of the doughnuts from the bag, tears off a piece, holds it toward her mouth. Furrowing her brow, she looks incredulously at him, then takes the pastry between her teeth, covering her mouth with her hand as she chews.
“I’m going to regret this,” she says after she swallows, but she reaches out to tear off another piece anyway.
The powdered sugar sticks to his fingers and her lip. The last time they had doughnuts together, they were on a case in upstate New York in the fall, and the local sheriff, in his too-kind-given-the-circumstances manner, insisted that Mulder and Scully go to the local apple barn for hot cider and a doughnut, and though Scully protested the whole time - she could spout off the number of grams of sugar in one cup of cider with ease, and the one cider doughnut contains the calories of three whole apples sign encouraging patrons to make healthy choices certainly didn’t help - they sat in their rental car and covered themselves in cinnamon sugar, spilling cider on their coats and making the car smell like the most vibrant of autumns. As she dusted off her seat - she hated handing back messy rental cars, a pet peeve exacerbated by how Mulder tended to hand back messy rental cars - she said that she hadn’t had a yeasted doughnut in forever, there was a diner near where she attended medical school that had the best yeasted doughnuts, she’d never had one until then and had been hooked from the first bite. And then her roommates would bring home a dozen while they studied gross anatomy, and the pile would dwindle, and their textbook pages would stick together from the sugar, and everyone gained enough weight that they forced each other into an intervention.
“You have to understand,” she said, “we were under a lot of pressure. We all did what we needed to do to get by.”
“Scully, it wasn’t war.“
“How about you go through it,” she said in a mocking tone, “and then judge accordingly.”
No one in the apartment - two bedrooms, one bathroom, four women, a mathematical disaster, piles upon piles of hair - was allowed to bring home doughnuts. If anyone wished to eat a doughnut, they were required to do so in the diner itself, and they were only permitted to eat one. Just one. If the doughnut was paired with coffee, then no sugar should be added to the coffee.
“And either way,” she said, brushing off her seat, shrugging away the story, “I studied for most of my exams that year in a red vinyl booth, doughnut in hand. It kept me sane, I think. I almost broke the one rule we all had for each other. When everything around me felt so final, so regimented and frustrating and challenging, I was glad that I could think of ordering another and see that going against the arbitrary wishes of others wasn’t the end of the world.”
She buckled her seatbelt, the sign that they needed to get back to work, lunch break over. Looking at the dashboard, he saw that thirty-two minutes had passed and smirked; she was making them late.
“You should’ve just ordered another doughnut,” he said, buckling his own seatbelt, checking the rear views.
“I’ve been thinking about that, actually. About the rules we set for ourselves.”
“And what are yours?”
“That’s a little personal.”
“Since when have we strayed from all things personal?”
She rolled her eyes, thought for a moment.
“I don’t know,” she gave. “I’m in my thirties, and all the milestones have passed me by. I didn’t even realize I’d known them until I aged out of them. All of my friends have children, Mulder. I don’t know why I didn’t stop and think along the way.”
“Along what way?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Just...when it’s the weekend, and you have nothing better to do than sit at home,” she gave. “Or when I wanted to be the youngest, the first woman, the most advanced. I thought I would be happy once I became a certain kind of person, but when I reach those milestones, I’m still me. It’s been a letdown.”
“I like you.”
“But I’ve spent so much time trying to outrun what I don’t want to know about myself,” she said. “I feel like I’ve ruined my own chances at being okay.”
“It’s just doughnuts, Scully.” He turned off onto the main road. “It’s not that big a deal.”
She sighed in the passenger’s seat. Beyond the windshield, the mountains were covered in bright red and orange, the leaves at peak, the day just cloudy enough to make the hills glow.
“I don’t want to check off accomplishments and abstain from all else, Mulder,” she said. “When I look back on my life, I want to remember feeling joyful.”
And then she went on about something within her case notes, and though he could sense that something was weighing on her mind, something bigger than a medical school story, he didn’t ask. He wishes he had asked.
“You told me that college story forever ago,” he says, the first doughnut almost gone though he hasn’t taken a single bite. “The diner where you studied.”
She closes her eyes, embarrassment flushing her cheeks, and he remembers that feeling well, her body against his in their first motel room together, her on his bed as he tells her about his sister, him alone afterward kicking himself for letting her know so much. The inherent pain of showing others the small, childish, aching parts of oneself has never impacted him so greatly as it has while they’ve sat in the car together, high beams reflecting off of highway signs, atlas open, two hours until they reach their destination. He didn’t stop the car because he didn’t want to lose those gentle, vulnerable parts of her that hid in the glovebox, beneath the passenger's seat. He didn’t stop the car because then she would fill the tank while he went inside for snacks and bottled water - Diet Coke sometimes, but she tried her best not to, especially at night - and when he returned, she would shrug into the passenger’s seat, her guard back up, we’re fifty miles out, Mulder. Do you want me to drive instead?
“Sorry,” she says, then reaches for the last of the doughnut in his hand. He would make a joke if he weren’t so relieved to see her eating. “I was...things had happened that week, and I wasn’t in my right mind.”
“What had happened?”
“One of my roommates from then died.”
He wishes he’d asked. He wishes-
“But she hadn’t died that week,” she says. “It had been months beforehand. I only heard about it by accident. They’d already had the funeral, and her other friends all attended. The only reason they couldn’t tell me was that they couldn’t find me. I’d changed my phone number, my address, and how could they have known I would be at the Bureau? They’d expected me to go on to work at a hospital, not the F.B.I. While they all took a day off from work and brought their husbands and families to the funeral, you and I were off God knows where. I felt…”
She trails off, but he understands.
“I wondered if I was a good person,” she says. “I didn’t want to be someone who missed funerals. But beyond that, I was scared of…”
There’s no use in clarifying, not when their reality is last fall’s nightmare, back when she was covered in cinnamon sugar and anxious from the sweetness of the cider and uncomfortable because she didn’t want her future to look the way it does now. Chewing the last piece of the doughnut, she lets an uncomfortable silence settle between them; he watches the way her jaw moves, how it clicks every so often, muscle and sharp bone beneath pale skin and freckles. When she isn’t wearing makeup, her eyelashes look so lightweight, soft and intricate, and the flush in her cheeks becomes more prominent after he kisses her.
Pointing to the bag, she asks, “Are you going to eat that?”
“I’m not really hungry.”
He’s starving, and if she stops talking, he thinks he might fall asleep, but he pulls the doughnut from the bag anyway, hands it to her whole. She tears off a piece, holds it up between them like some kind of communion.
“Cheers,” she says halfheartedly, then takes a bite.
“Anything you want,” he says, his arms wrapped around her, his sweatshirt warming her up now that her medications are finished for the day. He can hold her close without fighting off a plastic tube. He doesn’t need to mind the pump now. “I want to give it to you.”
“Mulder,” she says disdainfully, the vibration of her voice making his chest shake. He wants her to keep talking.
“The house,” he says.
They watched the sun set an hour ago; because he won’t get out of the bed to turn in a light, they both exist as silhouettes, quiet, simultaneously vulnerable and safe. In the dark, he can tell her he loves her without fearing her reaction.
“A wraparound porch,” he says, tone soft. “A big fireplace. It’s still cold out in April.”
“I have the money,” he insists. “I have-“
“I won’t let you live in an empty house,” she says uncomfortably. “I don’t want that at all.”
When a nurse comes in to check on Scully, Mulder will be reminded of when visiting hours are. He only has so much time.
“What would you want, then?” he asks. “When we go home.”
“I don’t want to go home,” she says. “They’re not going to discharge me for a while. I don’t want to go home at all.”
“We could up and leave,” he says, caught in the moment. “Go against medical advice. Check out and go back to the cottage right now.”
“Mulder,” she says, tone quiet and frustrated.
“I don’t want to leave you here,” he says, shaking his head. “I’m sorry. That sounds so ridiculous. I’m-”
“Let’s not go home,” she says, “at least not yet.”
“Anywhere. I don’t care where.”
“For how long?”
“Just to replace the days we’ve lost,” she says, “so that I didn’t ruin it all.”
“You haven’t ruined anything,” he insists, shaking his head.
“And I want to go outside,” she says, ignoring him. “I need fresh air.”
“Yeah, right now.”
“Okay,” he says, nodding to himself, trying to devise a plan. “Okay.”
And he presses the button for the elevator and gazes down the hallway, waiting until the place is empty, waiting until no one’s watching, and then, he nods to her, signaling an all-clear, the elevator doors opening, and she’s bundled up in her coat, his sweatshirt’s hood covering her hair, the closest thing to a disguise that they could manage. Alongside him, she slips into the elevator, hiding toward the back, trying not to be caught while the silver doors slip shut. He presses the button for the ground floor, then leans against the back wall of the elevator.
Bringing her hand to his, she holds him there, looks up at him, and when their gazes meet, they both can’t help but laugh.