She feels her hair fluttering around her face. Her bare feet are slightly tickled by the grass every time the swing makes the descent. A few more minutes and she will go inside. She doesn’t want to.
On the horizon vast, deep green of the forest is trying to conquer the mountain tops, but cannot move over the icy capes. Misty morning air fills her lungs and tastes like spring. Rusty colored bricks fall into her preliminary vision every time she swings back. Maybe they’ll forget about her and she can stay outside all day? The swing is starting to slow. She tries harder to push back and forth but it’s like she is no stronger than the breeze. The swing stops. She doesn’t want to go inside.
She takes care not to step on any wildflowers while walking up to the house. They are white and pretty and she could get her mom to make some flower crowns together if only she had been here. Maybe she could make one now by herself, that would be a pretty good excuse for not going inside.
She grabs a flower but the stem doesn’t give. She tugs and tugs but it won’t come out. She has to go inside.
The vines slide up in between the brown bricks like thin snakes, their thorns are venomous fangs. The windows stare at her, unblinking. The cracked white porch is smiling toothlessly. The house wants to swallow her up. She has to go inside.
Scully woke up, her pyjamas sweaty. She couldn't move a finger.
The morning sunlight was pouring in thick beams through the tiny basement window bathing the flecks of dust in the air.
Scully set a styrofoam cup on Mulder’s desk and took a sip of her own coffee. The kid from the shop downstairs went too heavy on cream again, it was nice though, in an indulgent kind of way. Melissa liked lots of cream just like that.
Mulder was nowhere to be seen, although the coat on one of the hangers indicated his early arrival. She went to stack the filed reports they’d been catching up on over the weekend. It’s been nice like that lately, he’d come over with the files and take out and they stayed up late working and bickering over a Twilight Zone episode. A cooperative nap even took place a couple of weeks ago, all cuddles and beer drowsiness. Scully sighed and let herself revel in the memory of warmth and safety of his embrace. The crook of his neck was the best thing to rest her head upon and she had a slight suspicion the bastard knew that, beckoning her with his soft shirts, good aftershave, and warm skin. She woke up that night with the world gently spinning only to realize he was carrying her to the bed. She tried not to smile feigning sleep and by the time he tucked her covers and left she was out cold again.
The familiar sound of footsteps in the hall prompted her to hide the dreamy expression in the coffee cup just as Mulder stepped in carrying a massive projector in his arms.
“Good morning, Scully. Ready for a taste of this week’s entertainment?” He cautiously pushed her staked files to the side, put the projector down, and went for the coffee she brought him. “Thank you.”
“What time did you even get here? It’s barely 8.”
“You know me, the bureau’s model employee.” Mulder punctuated the sentence with a yawn.
Scully hoped he’d slept at all. Maybe she’s not the only one who needs those cooperative naps after all. She went to plug in the projector while he struggled to unroll the whiteboard. It was crooked and they kept forgetting to do something about it. Mulder sighed and relented.
While he dealt with the slides, Scully mused some more over their recent dynamics. Diana’s death seemed to soften both their edges, yet the tension was still present. Mulder seemed to put more effort to “entice” her in the cases, not that she needed any enticing to do her work. However, that meant he substantiated the cases with more care and wasn’t as quick to ditch her and run off on a wild goose chase at the first sign of her incredulity. And if the slide show was any indication, this case was pretty exciting to him, so she made herself comfy in her chair, took a sip of her coffee, and raised her brows at Mulder in an “I’m all ears” look.
“Maplecrest, a picturesque little town in the north of Georgia. One thousand eight hundred eleven people.” The screen showed a spread of neat buildings bunched up in a sea of green, yellow and red trees, surrounded by mountains. “Located far enough from Atlanta to feel secluded and breathtaking nature, prospering community and convenient infrastructure attracts many families and-”
“Mulder, are you reading from a real estate listing?”
“Why, Agent Scully, we all have to think about retirement plans from time to time. And these do have pretty coherent info on the schools, shopping, and medical facilities there. There are even carpentry classes!”
“Sure. Go on, please.”
“Three random disappearances in the past month. All women, all in their early thirties. Their bodies haven’t been recovered as of yet, but the local deputy I’ve been talking to suspects serial kidnappings or murders.” The slideshow progressed to a series of images of young women. “Gloria Ortiz, a high school principal. Well-loved by students and peers, active in the community, family members stated no reason or inclination to leave town. Mary Pleshko, a freelance photographer. And Eleanor Briggs, a successful real estate manager. It was her brochure I’ve been reading from. All people close to them say they had no intention or reasons to leave. And by all accounts doing well in their respective careers.”
“I get it, Mulder, they have no reason to leave, since they have nice lives there. But did you see the forest in the first picture? The one that doesn’t seem to end? And the mountains? And, well, even if the prospect of serial murders or kidnappings warrants an investigation, how is this an X-file?” She put her cup on the table, grinning. “Any saucer sightings you’re holding on to? Men in black? Lost time? Radiation burns, temperature, light or sound anomalies, toxic blood, black oil, any other trace evidence?”
“Well look, who is feeling playful today.” Mulder’s expression was beyond delighted. He changed the slide to an image of a figure sprawled on gold and brown leaves. “Here you go. During the search instead of finding the lost women police recovered two different bodies. Interestingly enough they don’t match the missing girls’ dental records and haven’t been identified so far, including records of tourists seemed to never have visited the town previously.” Another flick of changing the slide. “Both Jane Does were found in the vicinity of the home of one Jodie Moore who is rumored to be…What is it, Scully?”
She could barely breathe over the sudden wave of fear, washing over, hitting her everywhere at once. Mulder at her side in an instant and she grabbed for his hand in panic. “What’s wrong?”
“No, no…” She could not explain where it came from. Momentarily it was gone, leaving a weak tremble of exhaustion behind. She closed her eyes and cleared her throat, steadying herself. “This house, Mulder. I think I’ve been dreaming of it.”
He frowned and squeezed her hand harder.
“Or maybe it’s just similar.” She swallowed, lowered her head, and willed herself to get a grip. “It was just…a very strong Déjà vu, maybe. I’m fine, Mulder. It’s okay.” She let go of him and patted his arm gently.
Mulder frowned deeper, but let go. He cleared his throat.
“So, the house. It’s a former hotel, pretty secluded from the rest of the city on the mountainside. Jodie Moore, the owner, is the only one currently residing there and she claimed to be abducted several times, which did not earn her any popularity in the town. She apparently had suffered from severe PTSD and closed down most of the hotel in favor of more calm private existence.”
Scully tried to compare the building on the picture with the one in her mind, but it was of little consequence. She could barely remember the dream, and, thinking about it, her brain could easily be feigning non-existing similarities, trying to conjure a clearer picture in her head. Still, the undeniable trace of terror remained, and somehow a part of her was sure that there was something off about the hotel.
“Do you think there are abductions happening? It’s still a lot more plausible that all of these are hiking accidents. The terrain is sure challenging in the mountains, the forest is easy to get lost in. They probably get a few of lost hikers a year.”
“Well, five of those – three missing and two bodies – in a month seems a little far-fetched to me. Then there’s an absence of a cause of death on the two of Jane Does.” He struggled to continue. “Women found in the middle of nowhere with no cause of death is quite up the X-files alley, I mean.”
“You mean like I was found. When they found me after my abduction.” Her tone turned cool.
“Maybe. Then the hotel, you recognized it. Could it be where you were held? Maybe you’re remembering something?”
“I’m not-” She swallowed a lump in her throat. “I’m not sure I’d even want to remember if I could.”
He approached her and took her hand in his again. Tentatively rubbed his thumb on the back of her palm. “I know, Scully. I know. We don’t have to go.” He looked like he wanted nothing more than to take the pain away, but it was hers to nurture from, to fight and overcome. It made her who she was in a sense, but she will not be reduced to it.
“You know we do. One step forward, two steps back.” Scully smiled bitterly and closed the hug, resting her temple on his chest.
It wasn’t supposed to rain, according to the weather channel. Mulder cringed in disgust as the tiny cold water blades bit his face. He turned to grab the pizza box from the car and threw a look to Scully in the front seat, who was taking her time putting the file folders into her briefcase, seemingly reluctant to leave the car. He couldn’t blame her; it was so much warmer there. There was a vending machine near the parking lot though and Mulder spied some seed bags there earlier.
He patted his pockets for the wallet as Scully came up to him.
“My room or yours?” They had to go over the witness and medical reports the deputy gave them, she reminded him. The water drops shined and slid prettily off her hair. One hit her nose and she flinched.
“Witness and medical reports? Won’t fool me, I know you only got eyes for this bad boy” he balanced the pizza box in one hand and wiggled his eyebrows suggestively.
“Oh, I do like them cheesy sometimes. Your room then.” She took the box from him and headed towards the building, her shoes leaving small prints in the thin layer of mud on the parking lot.
“Sure, partner.” God, who even flirts like that? They needed help. And his room was going to smell like pizza.
He stopped to get the seeds and a couple of sodas from the machine, then grabbed a few cereal and dried fruit bars for Scully. He was planning to go talk with Jodie Moore the next day and the hike might turn out to be lengthy in this weather. He didn’t want them to separate during the case considering his abduction theory, but he’d have to prepare his arguments to lure her away from the morgue for a day. He went over his reasoning: fresh air, scenery, and snacks might just do the job. And being partners with the obligation to provide each other back up yada yada yada. He’d better not try and drop that one on her though.
When he entered her room Scully was nowhere to be seen, but the bathroom light was on and he heard the water running. He dumped his loot onto the small table next to the pizza, spotted her trench coat bunched up on the floor under the hanger, and went to pick it up. It was soft but a bit scratchy against his hands at the same time, a bit moist from the rain. He brought the collar closer to his face and breathed in, not thinking about what he was doing. It smelled earthy and rainy and so so much of the mix of Scully scents; her floral perfume with a hint of spice, her shampoo, the coffee consumed over the car ride, and, though maybe he was imagining it, a trace of gunpowder. He hanged it back on the rack followed by his own when Scully emerged from the bathroom.
“Go wash your hands, Mulder, I’ll unpack the dinner. Did you get extra mushrooms on there?”
“Yes, ma'am. Leave some for me, would ya?” The picture of Scully annihilating the giant pizza just to spite him warmed his heart, but after the flight and the long drowsy car ride he was ready to fight for some calories.
She was on the bed finishing a slice when he came out of the bathroom. There was a smudge of tomato sauce on her cheek and he didn’t know if he was a hungry or a horny bastard for wanting to lick it off her. Maybe add some sauce on the soft underside of her breast, a peck on her tight little nipple, yep, horny dickhead it is. He grabbed a slice for himself and opened a witness statement.
“It says in her colleague’s statement that one of the latest Eleanor Briggs’ projects was the Moore residence, the former hotel that you recognized from the picture. However, no contract of any kind was signed with Jodie Moore by the real estate company. Apparently, she was reluctant to sell it.”
“So you think it used to be a temporary place where they kept abductees? Has the house search been conducted? And why disregard Jodie Moore herself as a possible culprit?”
“She is under suspicion, actually, but they have nothing substantial on her. The Moore house is the closest building to where Jane Does’ bodies have been recovered, within a mile’s distance each. It’s not enough to warrant the house search, of course. And even though Jodie Moore was supposedly in contact with Eleanor Briggs, the missing realtor, in a small town like this most people are somehow familiar with each other.”
“I see that the recovered bodies have been cremated. Since no ID has been made in over 72 hours they had to eliminate them in accordance to the state guidelines.” Scully frowned.
“No playtime for you this time, huh?”
“You mean I won’t have to spend a day in an autopsy bay? Bah-waah.”
Mulder rubbed her shoulder in mock sympathy. She swatted at his arm.
“I don’t see why not accompany you to the Jodie Moore’s residence tomorrow morning. My appointment with the medical examiner is at 3, and we can go talk to the local detectives after that.” It appeared Scully was more than happy to go through this one while joined at the hip.
Could it be she shared his anxiety about the abductions? Was she scared for her life? Mulder felt his stomach turn a bit. He brushed her hand.
“I promise I reviewed my Indian guide handbook. This trip to the forest has to be a success.”
The hike indeed was turning out to be one of their more enjoyable rendezvous with Mother Nature. Even with the rain from yesterday making the ground slippery and opulent flora wet – the colors were stunning. Scully walked a few feet ahead, bravely conquering the mountain trail. She was wearing her hideous blue cyan and pink jacket, which he thought she already parted her ways with since he hadn’t seen it in many years. It made her look even more huggable, he dared to think. He couldn’t help but wonder how nice it would be to cuddle up in front of a fire together. She seemed cheerful and playful that morning, not caring much about her hiking jacket getting dirt stains, and giggling delightfully when he failed to dodge a springy branch getting a face full of wet leaves in the process. That event instigated a debate on whether she gave him heads up on branches in time and if they were on the right path (Mulder had started to regret volunteering to read the map right about the time they found themselves on the thinner trial). There wasn’t any animosity in the air though.
“Well at least this way we might be a help to the search party. You know, stumble upon a research facility, an abductee here and there.”
“You do seem to gravitate towards such things a lot during a case. You’re welcome to venture there alone however; I happen to quite enjoy the spectacular outdoors here.”
Mulder spotted a leaf of a particular shade of copper on the ground and lifted it to make a comparison to Scully’s hair. It was a close match but not perfect. He thanked higher powers he wasn’t color blind or anything. Sense of color, after all was imperative for appreciating Scully’s hair, autumn-scapes and being employed as an FBI agent.
Scully spotted him waving decomposing biomaterial near her head and huffed.
“You know Mulder, even though you were prophesied to pass from autoerotic asphyxiation it still can be coupled with exposure in a wet cold forest up in the Georgian mountains.”
“As long as you get a hand in it.” This earned him another fast-flying branch, but he caught it in time.
What they thought to be wind turned into a roar of water as they came near a waterfall. It wasn’t big, but babbling streams coupled with the whole sweeping sea of colors before them was quite a breath-taking sight. They sat on a log to take it all in, a long-needed break. Scully imagined letting the clear current rush through her fingers, clutched her already freezing hands, and leaned into Mulder’s side. He took her hands in his, warming them. It never ceased to amaze them both how their hand seemed to fit together so well, not that they’d remark on it out loud.
It was nice that they did more things like that lately. Scully thought it’d be wonderful to lift her head, look him in the eyes and feel his lips on hers. The thought sent a shiver through her and sent her heart racing. It all seemed so easy and yet after their previous accidents she was afraid a tree might fall on their heads. Or another ex might make an appearance. Wouldn’t it be fun if her high school boyfriend Marcus started sourcing them with UFO sightings and locations of black oil deposits?
She felt Mulder’s lips on the crown of her head, breath warm and steady. It is enough, she thought, not quite fooling herself.
They sat in silence for a few minutes, drank some water and went on.