‘The tragedy is not that love doesn’t last. The tragedy is the love that lasts.’
— Shirley Hazzard, The Transit of Venus
'How will you manage
To cross alone
The autumn mountain
Which was so hard to get across
Even when we went the two of us together?'
— Princess Daihaku (7th century)
'I feel like I'm back in 'Nam, or at least sitting through a
— MustangSally, All the Children Are Insane
Author’s note: I found this on the ground while hiking in the rain around the old nuclear power plant/disease research facility that was built over that Indian burial ground up in the woods. At first I thought it was a piece of trash, but when I kicked it over I saw it was from 1998; if not quite an antique, at any rate a sodden curiosity from a time when it was always summer. I picked it up; it dripped. Beyond a misty needle-whisk there was movement, down the hill on the gravel turnaround. I huddled up against an old growth and stared down through the trees as a car did something terrible to a woman.
Ours is the wide country, all range and wire fences. Ours are the roads scratched out of the sod. Ours, the sod farmers deep in the soil; ours the Minutemen buried in sand. This is our method: a binary search, two wires twisting like crossbones, helices, this—and with hagedorn needle and preserved bit of liver and photostat prints off the wire. There’s such spare time in Texas, even at night. Half-argued we carry an unwon dispute. The car's face, when I see it—just the face of a car. And I won't forget hers, Van Allen belt-lit. And then into that thundering greenstuff sea she runs.
Mulder's nap ran longer than he'd planned, and he awoke hazy and mapped with sweat. His unconscious mind pleated itself and returned to its dull compartment. He'd come home from the airport and fallen onto the sofa, trying to sleep face down, which didn't work so well when one was longer than the sofa.
He showered with the bathroom window open, skin prickling, drafts curling through the shower spray. Slow and heavy, he drew on jeans and a T-shirt and stood around for awhile, yawning, scratching a bee sting on the back of his hand. There was an argument outside in the hall. As he waited for it to wind down he looked at Samantha's picture while his mind was fresh from sleep, his hand shoved in a box of Wheat Thins. A sweetness stole over him. He suddenly recalled the taste of red Kool-Aid in a tin cup, a tiny pertinent clue to his past.
As the sun was setting he headed downtown, driving with one finger and calling Scully's cell. Soap crackled in his ear. At a long stoplight, windows rolled down, he was drawn in by an earnest young fellow who was sitting on the curb just finishing up 'Norwegian Wood' and launching without pause into the shoot me of 'Come Together', surely the most percussive and tuneless song one might attempt on acoustic guitar. Mulder wished for Scully.
The pavements were cooling in the twilight. Scully's phone rang on and on. John Lennon singing ‘shoot me’ made him think of the Farrow sisters, the Dakota, and then Gerry Schnauz. He was touched by an uneasy guilt, for abandoning Scully to her hearing and not, at least, sitting vigil in the hall.
Kurtzweil wasn't in Casey's Bar & Grill, although he'd said he would be. Mulder circled once, checking the booths, and then went up to the bar and put his hand on it gently.
The bartender was not one to miss a thing, and seemed to have prepared herself for him before she looked up from her lime wedges. Mulder hitched his shoulders, humbled. 'Oh, is it Spooky Hour already?' she asked. She bussed a couple of glasses and dried her hands and reached for the Cuervo Gold on the back bar, all the while regarding his chagrined smile with a steady, still look.
He shook his head. 'You won't have to toss me out for ranting tonight,' he said. 'I’m looking for a man about my height, 70, looks like Grandpa Munster.'
'I don't know, we get our share of munsters in here.' She closed her mouth. Her eyes were like the seawater over sand in Lake Tashmoo, salty and too bright. She appeared to consider several things at once, without giving anything away, her hand polishing the bar. Then she tipped her head towards the alley.
Mulder burst out the fire door, into the hot alley night.
He found himself face to face with the aristocrat’s raptor blink. Mulder waited through the drawing of a slow, single, warm-garbage breath. His soul sank abruptly into his body as he came awake.
The Englishman eyed him angrily, his face lit faintly from above. Even in old age, he was as tall as Mulder, and thinner, almost fragile, but with a meanness about him that kept him from appearing truly delicate.
'Where's Kurtzweil?' Mulder asked pointedly. There was a scuffling in the alley beyond, but the hooded eyes only stared harder into Mulder's.
Without warning, a gun discharged above and Mulder half-crouched in panic, drawing his own weapon, his knuckles scraping the bricks. He could see movement through the treads of the fire escape above him.
'Good God!' snapped the Englishman, turning away. He gestured sharply, without looking up. The bullet had ricocheted off the opposite wall, and Mulder had the uncommon feeling that for once he wasn't the target.
He remained against the wall, one hand on the door, staring up at the soles of the feet over his head. The Englishman turned around. 'Mr. Mulder,' he said, 'if you value your life, you'll go back inside and forget what you've seen here.'
'All I've seen is you,' Mulder said stubbornly. The old man, glaring, stalked away down the alley, permitting himself one menacing glance upward. Mulder let go of the door's safety and dashed the other way, gun in his hand, past a dumpster. He found Kurtzweil flattened against the wall with his eyes closed. 'Run!' Mulder gasped, getting Kurtzweil in front of him and swatting him into a sprint.
With a painful precognition, he knew the bullet was coming just as it kicked up sparks in the pavement ahead of them and shredded into a bag of trash. Mulder's scalp rose. He whipped around and almost weeping with anger aimed upward into the dark, squeezing the trigger as many times as he could, laying down some cover for Kurtzweil. He screwed up his face against certain death, but there were no more shots, and he turned and fled, tipping into a sprint, hands knifing the warm air. The dark curved protectively around him, as panting, inhaling sun-warmed trash and cordite, and still alive, still skin-crawling and shivery alive, he made it to the corner.
They were well out of the neighborhood by the time the first prowler shot past them, its siren set on fast whoop. Mulder was still riding out big relieved sighs, both hands on the wheel, feeling just a hair of detachment. 'Are you all right?' he asked again. Kurtzweil was sunken into the passenger seat, hands trembling in his lap, watching the side mirror. Something had faded in his eyes.
There was a shock that sank in slowly after one's first experience in a gunfight, and he wasn't surprised that Kurtzweil had nothing to say about it. Mulder himself felt a bit wired, and suddenly he was very hungry. He got a drive-through spicy chicken sandwich and a nice icy soda before they left Washington.
They headed south on 95, the night black, the AC vents puffing warm mildewed air. Kurtzweil refused the idea of a safe house, but mentioned that he had a sister in the Greensboro area, and Mulder offered to drive him there. Kurtzweil had risked his neck for the X-Files; it was nothing to whisk him to safety. Mulder could drive tirelessly all night. He and Scully were night owls. He felt so galvanized and alert that Scully's reassignment hearing seemed minor in its outcome; he was sure he could talk her out of it. After five years of taking on the world together one of them walking off the team just didn’t compute.
Still, the whole night, as he drove the spectral freeways, he felt that Scully was running off to his left, invisible to him and just out of reach, even as he yawned and tried to pop his ears, and turned his face to Kurtzweil.
Kurtzweil wasn't hungry. He took Mulder's fast food napkin and blotted his face, looking around rapidly, his froggy mouth pinched. His bony legs shifted ceaselessly. Mulder entertained himself for a while imagining some Bette Davis-type sister who lived in a leaky mansion with a flock of Shih Tzus and never changed out of her nightgown. She and Kurtzweil would drink mai tais and play a version of gin rummy they'd invented in childhood. After too many mai tais they'd play duets on an untuned baby grand and sing ‘Mairzy Doats’ and ‘Aba Daba Honeymoon’.
Half an hour out, his cell phone rang. Kurtzweil started and touched his heart. Mulder's spirits gladdened even more, for he was alive, he was still alive, and Scully was calling him.
He was about to say 'I thought you'd be asleep,’ and then saw it wasn't Scully.
'Mulder, we got it,' said Frohike.
'We got one of them,' Langly said on the speakerphone.
'What is it, guys?' Mulder asked, intrigued in spite of himself. He found a french fry in the bottom of the bag and stuffed it in his mouth. He exchanged a look with Kurtzweil, and tried to make a reassuring face.
'Those trucks you wanted us to trace.'
'We've got an overturned tanker holding up eastbound on 85 south of Charlotte. Got a spill,' said Byers.
'Yeah, a tanker that was transported by rail from Amarillo to Atlanta,' Langly interjected.
'Great, fellas, I'm on my way,' Mulder said easily. He wasn't even on the X-Files anymore, which, if anything, was more freeing. Scully was undoubtedly sleeping like the dead. He could nip down and check this out before anyone was the wiser.
'Except it's not oil, Mulder,' said Frohike.
'It's not?' Mulder asked.
'They're saying it's honey,' Byers said faintly, and Mulder wasn't sure he'd heard him right. Kurtzweil was watching him, hungry for information.
'Honey?' Mulder asked.
'Does that make any sense? And get this, Mulder, the manifest has it listed as a tanker of corn oil,' Frohike said.
'Curiouser and curiouser,' Langly said in the background.
'You guys have the scanner on?' Mulder asked. 'Can you do me a favor? Just let me know if you hear my name mentioned.' He tossed his phone into the cup holder. There was a pretty good chance ballistics would embroil him in the Casey's gunfight. 'You okay?' he asked Kurtzweil. 'You want to swing down to Charlotte and take a look at a little hitch in the cloning operation?'
The carnival lights of an overpass softened the night. Kurtzweil stared at him, evil black brows working, and smiled widely and humorlessly. 'I'd be delighted,' he said.
Mulder and Kurtzweil came upon the wreck at sunrise. They had to pull off the freeway and walk down an off-ramp and beneath an echoing overpass, traffic on the other side of the median zipping past in pale streaks.
The glossy white tanker had rolled off the on-ramp. It lay on its side, honey leaking from split seams. Honey spread in a resinous lake across two lanes, buckling against the concrete meridian and coasting slowly, silently north, as if with agenda.
A crew wearing rubber boots and plastic face guards sprayed at the highway with high-pressure hoses.
'Now all we need is some peanut butter and a big old slice of bread,' said Mulder.
Kurtzweil hunched, elbows out, frowning, his eyes moving quickly across the cleanup crew.
'Funny, I didn't know corn oil was so sticky,' Mulder said. 'They don't transport honey in tanker trucks, do they?'
'They're sabotaging their own project,' Kurtzweil said, shading his eyes.
'Why do you say that?' Mulder asked.
'They're stalling,' said Kurtzweil. 'They've been stalling for years.'
A news helicopter came in at the sun's angle and stood off, thrumming, its downdraft riffling the amber slick. Mulder waved at it, in case Scully was watching the news. He grinned, picturing her face. Just the thought of Mulder in front of a news camera gave both Scully and Skinner the quailing heebie jeebies.
Mulder crouched and dipped thumb and forefinger through the dusty skin of the lake.
'It may be contaminated,' said Kurtzweil, hunchbacked and morose, his hands in his jacket pockets.
'Maybe it was intended as a form of transmission.'
'You think this honey's carrying the virus?'
Kurtzweil shrugged. 'These men are capable of anything.'
Mulder pulled his hand up slowly, strands of pale sweet-corn honey drawing out longer and longer. He thought about it for a moment, squinting up the freeway, then put his fingers in his mouth. His tongue flooded, salty-sweet.
'Then again, maybe it's just plain old honey,' Kurtzweil said.
Mulder stood up too fast and went spacey, holding Kurtzweil's shoulder for balance. The shining tanker and the bright blue sky looped around. Kurtzweil frowned, startled at being touched. Mulder licked honey from his lip, feeling kindly toward him. 'If Scully and I hadn't been caught at the Texas facility, they wouldn't have traced it all back to you.'
'I'm past the point of worrying about what they're going to do to me.'
'Yeah, well, you put your ass on the line for us, for the truth.'
Kurtzweil didn't seem to hear, his hair tufting in the wind as he watched the cleanup crew. His neck sagged tortoise-like and his suit looked more ill-cut than ever. This was his quiet war. And this was what Scully worried about, Mulder knew, this was what she thought Mulder would be like in thirty years, a discredited laughingstock, writing books that nobody read.
Mulder detoured to wash his hands in the high pressure leak spurting up from a rocker lug. Kurtzweil was waiting in the car, hand slowly rubbing his thigh.
'You're an obstetrician?' Mulder asked suddenly, as they pulled onto the freeway. He found a bit of honey at the corner of his mouth.
'OB-GYN,' Kurtzweil said briefly.
'That's great. How many babies have you delivered?'
'Over two thousand.'
'Amazing. Any that showed unusual characteristics?'
Kurtzweil's brows protruded, menacing, sliding together like arrows. 'I had nothing to do with the hybridization program.'
'So you know about it.'
Kurtzweil examined him. 'You have to understand your ignorance, to see the world properly. You have to put aside everything you know. You're one of the few people I've met that actually comprehends that, Agent Mulder.'
Mulder was touched. The night had gone on a bit too long. They had woven abandoned construction zones of orange barrels and loose concrete barriers, the whispered promise of doubled fines, and out into darker pockets of starlight. It seemed that they rode a chariot together through gloom and fireworks. They had witnessed the heartbreak of mustelids chancing expressways, and they had pissed together behind a rest stop, in the breeze of dawn, looking out across the lights of a valley, with deer browsing nearby. They seemed to have lived a lifetime together. Mulder said, 'You know, when the Ancient Greeks wanted to talk to the dead, they pounded on the ground with their fists.' He felt that he was talking about love, and the subject, like any subject he was putting to serious study, seeped easily up through the gravel of his soul and was proffered for input from other like minds.
Kurtzweil nodded, as if this were a perfectly logical response. 'People don't stay in touch like they used to,' he said.
Tequila was always the way to go in these situations. It was the closest thing to a wild man drink, hacked from the desert floor with a machete, toxic and wormy, nothing civilized about it. A greyhound also sounded really good, although it would be a bad idea to switch now. A salty dog. He remembered the way men in suits exercised a familiarity with such drinks and the way they stood around on the deck in the sea wind. His elegant mother with her unflinching eyes lying back in her Adirondack chair with a gimlet the color of the sea.
This is why I don't drink, he thought. If she leaves I’ll become a Borneo wild man. I'll start drinking the ayahuasca, the Aztec morning glory cold-water tea. I'll live with a tribe until I'm the world's most embedded anthropologist. The wizard of the Upper Amazon. They want extremes? I'll show 'em extremes. Nothing will touch me. I'll have a kind of jaguar magic wrapped around my heart. In visions I'll glide over it all like a condor. I'll never have to think of her again.
Mulder made a pass through Scully's neighborhood as soon as he hit town, swinging around the Safeway and roaring up West 53rd. He was whipped and his T-shirt had a streak of honey across the front, but it was uncommon to go more than twenty-four hours without comparing notes with her when they were in the middle of an investigation, and just as often when they were not. He had a ritual—turning his head at just the right moment to watch for the light in her window. Through the dark and floundering trees arrived the sense that Scully herself was warmth and light. Mulder bit into the rim of a waxy paper cup, and the cup cut pleasantly across the bridge of his nose as he watched for a parking space.
Her windows were dark. His cell phone rang. Mulder dropped the cup and drove past the building, distracted, groping for his phone on the passenger seat.
'Mulder. Is Agent Scully with you?' Skinner asked in his ear. He sounded like his teeth were gritted.
'Why?' Mulder stomped the brake and stirred the wheel around sharply, cell phone tucked under his chin. He didn't mean to make the tires squeal.
'She was supposed to get back to me on something...' Skinner paused. 'Is that your driving?'
'Illegal U-turn,' Mulder said, a crawling feeling at the back of his neck as he parked. 'Why do you need her this late?'
'She hasn't been answering her phone,' Skinner said. 'Agent Mulder, have you two been out of town again?'
Mulder looked up at Scully's building, something going very still inside of him.
'Mulder?' The cell phone sizzled angrily in Mulder's hand. He pressed a random button and flung it at the seat. Slowly he drew his hand down his face. Where was her car? How many days had it been? He'd last seen her at the airport before her hearing. Tuesday. Yesterday, around nine in the morning.
She was probably fine, probably working, but something in a broader sense felt dreadfully wrong, and he was a mass of nerves by the time he reached her door.
His cautious knocking escalated into pounding. He paused and pressed his ear against the door, listening, watching the crack at the bottom for light. There was only a hollow silence, an empty, ticking space in which he endured Tooms coming for her and Duane Barry and Cardinale, and then the flashing retinal imprint of every crime scene he had ever witnessed.
The tension wrench trembled in his fingers. He didn't have the key because she'd changed the locks more than once, not that it deterred anyone. He was unable to summon the concentration needed to properly pick the lock, and so he simply raked from the back of the plug, the less precise way to do it, hoping to bounce up most of the pins. He picked the remaining pins individually, listening for the click as each dropped into place, still hoping to be interrupted by Scully's sleepy shuffle.
Then he flung the door open and it rebounded off the wall, knocking him in the shoulder. As he reached for the switch he could already see that she was gone in a more final, shocking way, the walls bare and white, and the space before him absolutely empty, where nothing real as he knew it would ever exist again.