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Lacuna

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The man has fat slabby cheeks like an overgrown baby, which make his small, piggy eyes look smaller and piggier. He wears sweatpants and two plaid flannel shirts layered over one another, revealing only a glimpse of the Led Zeppelin shirt underneath. It’s a familiar variation on the autumnal couture of transients everywhere.

A segment of intestine peeks from beneath the t-shirt, as he has been impaled with two long spears and one has pushed some of his innards outward beneath his rib cage. Scully, crouching in the leaves, sniffs and detects nothing but the cold flat scent of dried blood. The bowel has not been perforated this time, only snagged on the downstroke. She is aware of the cops around this little tableau, they form a semicircle like children at a play and mumble amongst themselves.

She hears the soft rustle of writhing maggots and, prodding a bit, finds a mass of them inside the gash beneath the man’s chins. The thin leather cord is buried deep, like the others. “First instars, maybe a few seconds,” she says to Mulder, scrutinizing a maggot on her glove. “Given the cool weather, he’s been here maybe five days.” Five days ago she had a dead man’s hands ripping out her heart, there must have been something in the air. She wipes the larva on the grass and considers the abdominal wounds. Scully adds to his injuries by burying a digital probe thermometer deep into the man’s liver, though she knows the readings will not be helpful.

One of the cops says something, she hears anger in it. Something about the missing boy, about the kid in the red jacket whom no one can seem to find. She and Mulder have tracked the tiny son of a bitch through three states in as many months and he disappears like a dream at sunrise.

The cool breeze wafts the cops’ discussion her way.

“Fucking FBI,” says one. “A dick and a chick. Lookit Clarice fucking Starling over there, Jesus.”

“I’ll take her if you don’t want her, Tim. I could put her in my pocket.”

“You couldn’t handle her, all that red hair. Looks feisty, she’d have your balls.”

Guffaws. “I’ll get her number and let you know how it goes.”

Will you, she thinks. She doesn’t need these yokels, she knows her work. Scully bites down hard on her irritation as her eyes search the dead man’s for petichiae. The corneas are clouded and she probes the socket with a fingertip.

Mulder, having eyes and ears only for her at the moment, seems to have missed the horsetrading. Just as well, he’s still touchy about Padgett’s rank assertions. Perversely, the knowledge centers her. “The leather with this one too?” Mulder asks. “He’s so much bigger.”

“Hard to say.” She rocks back on her heels. Cut throats give her a crawly, ticklish feeling. As a kid she needed the blanket up to her chin at bedtime, and she now swallows hard against the urge to duck down into her collar. But not in front of these men, not ever. She pokes at the embedded cord halfheartedly. The cold, the mottled skin of the morbidly obese man makes her task a challenge. The locals knew the dead man as Plaid Pete because of the flannels he always wore. Rolled into town every now and again, picked up odd jobs. Drank some, fought some, never bothered anyone much.

Until the other day, evidently.

Mulder crouches down beside her as the wind changes. She hears his breathing now, smells his hair gel and his good aftershave. “Heinzelmann,” Mulder says, tracing the hilt of the right hand spear with a fingertip. “Also known as a Luring. In German folklore, it-”

“No,” she replies. “Not here.”

He regards her with mild surprise. “You care what they think?” Juts his chin towards the boys in blue.

“I care how what they think will affect the investigation.” He doesn’t understand his male privilege, her burning desire to be taken seriously in the company of men. He doesn’t understand what it is like to have breasts in a world that fits Kevlar by shoulder width.

Mulder all but sneers. “Scully, this is not a posse cut out for a serial killer investigation. They run the drunk tank and hand out parking tickets and write citations to people who pee in alleys. They’re the kind of guys who ask rape victims if they were provocatively dressed. Hell with them.”

Maybe he’d overheard after all. She knows he’s oversimplifying things, reducing them to stereotypes for the sake of convenience, but she is okay with that. “I’m cold,” she says. “I just want to get inside.”

Mulder’s brow furrows; she knows he has been concerned about her since the katabatic winds in Antarctica, since the cancer stripped her down. “Wrapped to go, then?”

She glances up at the officers again. They’re overgrown boys, most of them. Young, younger than she remembers being and most of them so handsome. She knows what the small town girls see in them. Strong jaws, big hands, good pensions. Scully judges the girls for this, though it’s been two years and Ed Jerse remains the last man whose hands were tight against her sweat-slicked body. She closes her eyes for a beat, thinks of how he gripped the opisthotonic arc of her back as she drowned in him and died a little death.

Thinks of Padgett’s book and wondered if she would have allowed him to-

Mulder coughs, stage right.

Scully turns to him, considering, and knows he would turn down the cosmetology students and local Harvest Queens. Porn habit aside, Mulder is discriminating in his own way. “I’m done here,” she says, rising. She removes her gloves and tosses them on the body, into which her thermometer is still spiked.

She waves one of the cops over, the pissed off one who called her Clarice. She doesn’t ask him, she tells him, to have the body sent to her lab. Opens her wallet and hands him $50 for gas. She’ll get reimbursed later but he doesn’t need to know that. She enjoys the sting of humiliation in his high school quarterback face.

She cares more than she admits, maybe more than even Mulder – even Padgett – could see.

The officer, unsure, folds the bills neatly in his hand. “It’s an honor to help the FBI, ma’am.”

Scully, in perfect agreement with this statement, gives him a crisp nod.

Mulder walks past her, a couple of orange leaves on his dark coat. He sits in the passenger’s side of their car and waits.

***

She drove to her apartment with Mulder still riding shotgun, deciding to wait until morning for her appointment with the impaled man. It is night now, though still early, and the stars are bright and hard in the late October sky.

Scully shivers at the thought of getting out. She scrubs her face with her hands to wake up. “You headed home, Mulder?”

He yawns. “Might get a burger, but yes.”

Scully stares up at her dark windows. “I could eat.”

“Oh, are you off your no red meat thing? I knew it would never last, you like ribs too much.”

Scully looks at him archly. “Chicken sandwich.”

Mulder groans. “You need iron, Scully. You drink all that tea, it causes malabsorption. If I prick you, you will not bleed.”

“I put raisins in my oatmeal. I eat spinach. Kale.”

“Not liver?” he asks, and she knows what he wants her to say.

“Tooms ruined it for me.”

Mulder looks a trifle smug. “Let’s go grab some food and we can talk about Heinzelmann.”

She pulls back out onto the street, thinking of the boy in the red coat. She wonders where he sleeps.

***

They’re in a booth at the Georgetown Café, Scully with grilled chicken on a Kaiser roll and Mulder with an elaborate hamburger involving guacamole and onion rings. They pushed aside the plastic vase of plastic flowers and had the waitress replace it with a pot of coffee.

Mulder squishes his sandwich with the palm of his hand. Scully watches the pinky-clear juices run out and leave high tide marks on his fries. The smell makes her stomach rumble.

“Heinzelmann,” Mulder says, “is a creature of German folklore who performs useful tasks for a household in exchange for tributes and tokens. But if he is ever chased out, evil will befall the residents.”

“A kobold,” Scully says, remembering the term from her German class. She takes a bite of her sandwich.

“The stories have become intertwined over time,” Mulder says. “Heinzelmann is said to take the form of a small boy in red velvet. But when he wants to frighten people, he appears as the same boy, though nude save for a leather thong around his neck and two spears or swords piercing his chest.” He gestures with his hands. “One of iron from shoulder to the bottom of the opposite ribcage, the other of bronze from side to side below his armpits. Sound familiar?”

“All three victims,” she acknowledges, as Mulder eats. “But why the swords and the leather strip? Why a child?”

“Mmmm… the Heinzelmann story is thought to originally be from the pagan Iron Age tribes in the Black Forest. They engaged in child sacrifice to create tribal gods. The word Heinzel is a pet form of Heinrich.”

“Home ruler,” says Scully.

“Precisely. So anyway, these tribes, they’d take a baby - flawless of course and the mother was probably some kind of fifteen year old vestal virgin impregnated in a tribal ceremony for the express purpose of carrying this doomed child and they’d –“ he pauses and looks at her.

“It’s fine,” she says, a little sharply. Softens it with, “Go on.”

Mulder nods. “They’d take this baby and leave him in his own darkened hut, interacting with him only to feed him and take care of basic hygiene. No one would speak to him or hold him or do anything other than ensure he survived. No taint of the world, that’s the important part. And then, on Midwinter’s Night when he was four or five, they’d lead him out with the leather strap around his neck. Garrote him, then, before he passed out, spear him with two long swords or spears the way we’ve seen.”

Scully is aware of a sick feeling low in her belly that has nothing to do with her disappointing sandwich. “And?” she breathes.

Mulder looks sad. “And they’d preserve the body with woodsmoke, make a mummy of it, and worship it. The sacrificed boy became the god of the tribe, it would protect them as long as they protected and honored the remains. They would sacrifice things to it. Lambs, birds, parts of the harvest, other children…” he trails off.

She swallows against the tight thing in her throat. “And the kobold?”

“As the tribes became assimilated, the idea of these mummy boys became entangled with the folklore of the settled Christians in the area. Heinzelmann, the kobold, the tribal god, they were all figures who demanded sacrifice for protection.”

“My German teacher indicated kobolds wanted dishes of milk, slices of cake, that sort of thing. Children weren’t being sacrificed.”

Mulder shrugs. “Think about the original endings to most fairy tales, Scully. Dancing in red-hot iron shoes, eyes gouged out with pokers. We sanitize these stories for children, but that wasn’t always the case. I bet you that for hundreds of years, little children around the Black Forest were told that if they weren’t good, their nurses would give them to the kobold. To Heinzelmann.”

Scully shakes off the creepy feeling left by Mulder’s story. “So why do we have three dead adults? If someone is drawing from these stories, shouldn’t there be dead little boys?” She tries to say this as though the dearth of brutally slain children is nothing but a flaw in his theory instead of a relief.

“Still working that out,” he says. “But there’s the boy…”

“The boy in the red coat.

“The boy in the red coat. He’s been seen around all three crime scenes. Georgia, Florida, and now Delaware.”

“And no one knows him,” Scully sighs. “Isn’t it likely that he’s traveling with the killer? I mean, wouldn’t that be part of the, you know, the fantasy he’s acting out?”

“Could be,” Mulder says. “But there were no footprints found around any of the scenes. None but the victim’s, anyway. No tire tracks.”

She remembers climbing trees with her brothers, scrambling up the rough trunks to pelt Melissa with acorns and English walnuts. “All three men were found in wooded areas, Mulder. A five year old kid could go over rocks and leaves and roots pretty easily without leaving prints. It doesn’t mean he’s the vengeful spirit of an Iron Age murder victim.”

“Indian Guide says maybe,” Mulder concedes. “Still though, three modern-day nomads in the woods, pierced by spears and garroted. We need to find that kid.”

“Indeed.”

They eat for a while, thinking. Scully steals some of his fries and dices them into her spinach salad.

“Those cops today,” Mulder says. “They got to you.”

Scully shrugs. “They were useless and it bothered me.”

He doesn’t say anything. Just looks at her.

She knows it’s an old psychologist’s trick, an interrogation technique. Stay quiet long enough and the subject will start talking to ease the tension. She gives in anyway. “Look, Mulder. You don’t get it. Men, even educated men, so often there’s just this…” she shakes her head. “You underestimated Karen Berquist. You didn’t think she could manipulate you, but she did and she did it very well. Those men, they saw me out there and they just…it would be one thing if they thought I was bad at my job, but they just never even considered it. I am a woman and I stole their case because of Title IX or some crap.”

Mulder sips at his beer. “Their dismissal of you was sexualized. In Padgett’s book, he wrote-“

Fuck Padgett,” she snaps, surprising both of them. “He didn’t know anything about me, about you. And you got in the passenger’s side like a…like a whipped dog. I had to adjust the seat, they knew it was an act.”

Mulder shakes his head. “They didn’t. It’s why we have these cases. They can’t see what we can.”

Scully finishes her sandwich. “I need to go home,” she tells him. “Take the car. I’ll walk, I need the air.”

“You’ll be cold,” he says. “Stay, please. I think we should talk.”

Scully pulls on her gloves and stands. “I’m always cold,” she says. She leaves the keys and ten dollars on the table.

***

The night bites at her, but she walks fast and fierce towards her apartment, the sharp click of heels a clave for her thoughts to dance to.

they murdered little boys into gods they raised them like lambs like Emily like Samantha is love always a sacrifice I love him I love him not this isn’t love Dana it’s quantum entanglement two particles dancing across a galaxy like Naciamento and Padgett together they wanted your heart and your body who wants your mind Dana those country cops would have raped you in a different scenario they wanted to call you a cunt a bitch Karen Berquist that bitch loving bitch with her goddamned canids and her lupus and her lies to Fox who names their son Fox it’s ridiculous I will never have a son whose son is the boy in the red coat

A neon sign on the corner catches her eye. BAR it says, unpretentiously. BA when the R flickers.

Scully pauses and peers into the window. It will be warm if nothing else, and she can warm herself from the inside too. She could bum a cigarette. The bartender is a solidly built dishwater blonde with spectacular breasts that nearly spill from her cheap Lycra bustier. Scully longs for wine, or for one of the sugary frou-frou things she’d sneak when her mother had girlfriends over for canasta. But this is not that kind of bar. Gin and tonic, lime twist. Maybe a beer.

There are men at the bar, nine or ten of them, and a couple of women. No suits. No redheads. She will attract attention.

She does not want attention.

Scully resumes her walk home, thinking about the dead man.

Loneliness is a choice.

***

She beats the sunrise to the day and, muzzy with sleep, puts on her running clothes. She stretches her legs, her muscular calves, Jesus, against the wall. Limbers her core with twenty-five pushups and one hundred crunches. She has a 5k route mapped out. Scully likes attaching numbers to things.

She sees the Big Dipper when she leaves her building. She starts out at a light jog, building up speed as she moves past street lamps and benches, heaps of crisp leaves. There are sleepy dogwalkers trudging past, little bags of poop dangling from their hands while the dogs snuffle and circle and decide. Scully does not miss having a dog.

Mulder’s ideas usually have something in them, she allows, as she passes the Metro station. It does appear that this Heinzelmann legend is involved somehow. Someone tortured as a child, maybe, acting out a revenge fantasy. He’d be strong and fit, of German heritage, and have some kind of van to transport the spears and the victims in.

Mulder already knows this, why is she bothering?

Scully turns her attention back to the body as she rounds the corner by the news stand, thinks back to the man’s hands. Something is nagging at her there, something was –

She staggers back, gasping as hot liquid spills down her chest, at the shock of her sudden stop.

“Jesus, I’m sorry!” A man in a dark coat is staring at her, appalled, a crumpled Starbucks cup in his hand. “I didn’t see you around the corner.”

Scully realizes it’s his latte down her front. “My fault,” she says, panting. “I took the corner a little tight.”

“I’m so sorry,” he says again, and reaches to dab at her shirt with his handful of napkins before thinking better of it. “'Did I burn you?”

“I’m fine.” Now that the shock’s worn off, she sizes up her companion in the ambient glow of a streetlamp. He’s over six feet tall, light hair and dark eyes. Clean shaven, handsome in a ski instructor sort of way, dark suit under a dark knee-length coat. She estimates him to be her own age or slightly younger. Lawyer, maybe. The tailoring says a good K Street firm. The hour says he wants to make partner by 40.

The man looks at his ruined cup, at Scully’s steaming shirt. “Listen, I’m going to go get a refill. Why don’t you come with me, let me buy you some coffee and you can, uh, dry off I guess. I’m really sorry.”

Scully smiles in her polite and detached way. “I appreciate that, thank you, but I don’t live far from here.”

He sighs. “Come on, I have an Italian Catholic mother. The latent guilt will eat me alive.”

She feels a kinship to this sentiment. Goodness, it’s a cup of coffee, not a paid sex act. And the wet shirt is freezing. She tries not to think of Ted Bundy, how suave and manipulative he was. “You know what, sure. I could use some caffeine.”

The man grins, then heads back around the corner to the Starbucks down the block. Scully follows him with her arms crossed over her chest. He holds the door open as she walks up, releasing warm air scented with coffee and cinnamon.

“Didn’t want to hold you up on the sidewalk,” he says, taking a spot in line, “but my name’s Raphael.” He throws his squashed cup away to extend a hand.

She gives it a firm shake. “Dana.”

The girl at the counter takes their order, which Scully is content to let him pay for. She’s not going to make herself ridiculous with protests. In the light his eyes are deep gray, his hair the color of ripe wheat shot through with both lowlights and strands of white blonde. If his mother is Italian, his father must be a Viking.

“So you live in Georgetown,” Raphael says, once the drinks arrive. They make their way to a small table by the window.

“I take it you live here too,” she says, waiting for the coffee to cool.

“For now. I’m doing some work with a local firm, they’re putting me up in an apartment for five months. I’ve been here for two, and I like it a lot.”

Scully is drowsy in the heat now that her endorphins are wearing off. She is disinclined to talk, but too polite for silence. “What kind of firm?”

“Accounting.” He makes ironic jazz hands beside his face. “What about you, what gets you up so early?”

“Uncle Sam.” Sometimes she feels shy about telling people she is an FBI agent. Sometimes it feels like a story she made up to sound exciting, knobby-kneed Dana Scully with her pretty sister and her popular brothers and her stacks and stacks of secondhand books.

“CIA? NSA?” He takes a long swallow of coffee. “FBI? AT&T?”

“I need to see your security clearance before I divulge that information.”

“I’ve been in this town just long enough to believe you,” Raphael says, checking his watch. “Hey, I’ve got to catch the MARC to Baltimore, or I’d stay and talk. I know I’ve already said it, but I’m really sorry for dumping coffee on you. Compulsive apologizing, it’s part of my heritage.”

Scully smiles. “Irish Catholic, I understand.”

He grins back. “Dana O’…?”

“Scully. No relation to Vin.” They almost put that under her yearbook picture.

“Ha, I guess you hear that a lot. If you’re willing to give a guy another chance, here’s my card.” He sets it on the table, looking sheepish. ”I’d like to talk to you again, Dana No Relation.”

“I might just do that,” she lies. “Thanks for the coffee.”

He gets up and goes to the door, waving at her as he walks out. Scully takes the card then. It is a heavy cardstock and identifies him as Raphael Thaler, an economist with some firm she’s never heard of out of New York. All right, so not a K Street lawyer, but she wasn’t so far off.

He’s handsome in a completely uninteresting way, not like -

He’s handsome, okay? He’s perfect, he would have been out of your league not too long ago, don’t be such an idiot.

Scully flicks the card against her thumbnail, thinking.

Nails, what was it about his nails, bloated and dead and impaled, why had she noticed…

They were clean.

Homeless men, drifters, transients: they do not have clean hands. Clean hands mean they are washed somewhere. Clean hands imply other, more basic needs are being met.

She needs to know where he washed his hands.

Scully downs her coffee in a few scalding draughts, jams the card in her pocket, dashes outside. The air hits her still-damp shirt and the chill spreads across her flesh, a sensory negative of Naciamento’s hands as they covered her breasts in her own hot blood.

***

Mulder comes in around mid-afternoon, humming the bridge from White Wedding as she’s breadloafing the liver. “Puncture in the distal portion of the right lobe due to probe,” she says into the microphone. “Tissue appears cirrhotic.”

“What’s cooking?”

Scully drops a chunk of the meaty tissue into a specimen jar. “Funny you should ask that. His stomach contents were rather interesting.” She selects a plastic container from the stainless steel counter, brandishing it at her squeamish partner. His nose wrinkles obligingly.

“Make it good, Scully. Let us remember that I lack your comfort with the internal organs of strangers.”

“This appears to be fried chicken, mashed potatoes with the skin left on, and fresh broccoli.” She returns the container to the counter. “For a transient, that’s a bit strange.”

Mulder regards Plaid Pete, who lies in ghastly repose with his organs peeled out from tongue to rectum. Scully’s bloody pruning shears rest at his feet. “No Vienna sausages? No Tastykakes? What kind of self-respecting vagrant is this character?”

“I checked with local restaurants. None of them served a meal like that to him in the past week.” Scully begins stuffing wadded up newspaper into the cavity of Pete’s torso. “He lives somewhere, Mulder. He cooks, he washes his hands. His clothes were relatively clean and he was in overall good shape. I get the impression that he roams the region a bit, but there’s somewhere stable that he lives, and lives reasonably well. Pete’s not hanging out under bridges.”

Mulder drums his fingers on the autopsy table. “Is his name actually Pete? Do we have an ID?”

Scully hands him a printout with only a smudge of blood on the corner. “Francis Peter Morran, age 37. Did some time for grand theft auto, lots of drug and petty theft charges. A few bar brawls that got dropped. Smacked around a few girlfriends. Some second and third degree sexual assaults.”

“The standard variety pack,” Mulder says, looking bored.

Scully snips at a portion of the pancreas. “I’m thinking searching his house will give us some idea on motive. The other two were clearly homeless and in much larger metropolitan areas. We may have gotten lucky with Pete here.”

“Our definitions of ‘getting lucky’ have become downright depressing, Scully.”

“Still better off than Pete,” she replies, wiping sweat from her forehead with her sleeve. The gesture pulls a large section of hair loose from the blue surgical cap she’s wearing, and it obscures her vision. She begins to deglove when Mulder tucks the hair behind her ear.

“Do you want it back under the lunchlady thing?” he asks.

She is mortified by the goosebumps his fingers have raised on her arms, on the back of her neck, at the cauda equina where her flesh is branded. “No,” she whispers, then clears her throat. “No, thanks.”

His hand lingers a second longer, then amuses itself with the smooth weight of a skull key. Mulder, jock that he is, tosses it up in the air and catches it while he talks. “I’m thinking we’ll head back up to Delaware in a few hours, maybe. Poke around, see where old Pete was frying hisself some chicken.”

“No water or electricity in his name. He’s not listed in any tenant agreements that I could find, but you know how that goes. Sublessees and so forth.”

Mulder makes an admiring sound, catches the skull key around his back. “You’ve been a busy lady.”

“It’s an intriguing case, Mulder, I must admit. And I’m eager to find the boy and get him somewhere safe.” Does that make it sound like she wants him? She thinks it might. “I mean, someone must be missing him, family or friends. He should probably be enrolled in kindergarten. We can check kids missing from rosters in Georgia, where he first appeared.”

“I don’t think this boy has been missed by anyone for a long time, Scully.” He places the skull key next to the slices of brain. It looks alien and strange next to the organic mushroomy frills of the cerebellum, which always reminds her of a scrotum.

Scully begins scooping the segments of Pete’s organs into a plastic bag to pack inside his abdomen along with the newspaper. “Because he’s a malevolent German spirit?” she asks, her voice rich with scorn. “Come back from the Black Forest to wreak havoc for unknown reasons upon the white trash of the Eastern seaboard?”

Mulder bats his lashes, lets out a girlish and dreamy sigh. “Oh, Scully,” he breathes. “No one understands me like you do.”

***

It’s late evening by the time they make it back to Felton, Delaware. The car smells of the turkey sandwiches they ate on the road, of coffee and toiletries and the weight of a seven year itch. Scully flips open the visor mirror and checks her eye makeup to make sure her mascara hasn’t flaked.

“Women used to put belladonna drops in their eyes to widen the pupil,” Mulder says. “It’s meant to simulate sexual arousal.”

“Or an impending stroke,” she replies, snapping the mirror closed.

“The two are not mutually exclusive. There are far worse ways to go,” says the man fated to die by autoerotic asphyxiation.

“True, but not very dignified.” She thinks about dying of cancer, of her body cannibalizing itself. She thinks of Emily, dissolving from the inside, of her murdered sister who probably died in pain and panic. Ed Jerse’s hands at her throat, the leucotome headed for her lacrimal bones, garrotes, impalements, disemboweling….

A man presenting you with your own beating heart.

“What would you pick, Mulder, if you could? Other than old age,” she stipulates, knowing him.

He smirks. “You’re no fun, Scully.”

“I’ve heard as much.”

His brow furrows. “I would like to be shot at 104 by the jealous husband of a beautiful woman.”

Scully shakes her head. “Never mind.”

“What? Is that not a grownup answer? Okay, I want to die in a canopied four-poster bed surrounded by friends and loved ones and my faithful hunting dogs Bob and Lester. I want a long, lingering illness so that everyone has time to prepare for their grief while I waste away, asking nothing but peace on earth for those I leave behind. Norman Rockwell Goes To A Deathbed.”

She is surprised by the bitterness in him. The way his father died, his sister’s disappearance - shouldn’t he understand the importance of a long goodbye? Then it hits her. “Is that what it was like while I was…”

“Dying? Yes.” His knuckles are white on the steering wheel.

“It was hard for me too,” she says. “Dying.”

“Well, how about we both just avoid doing it again, then.” His grip relaxes, one hand dropping to his thigh. “You’re over your quota this year.”

“Why 104?”

“Huh? Oh, I once saw an article about this guy who was the oldest man in his town or something, he was 103. And he said living until 104 would be okay, but that 105 was such a trite number he wanted to cash in before that.” He chuckles at the memory. “Had the whole George Burns thing down, you know. Stogies and scotch.”

Scully smiles at the thought of Mulder at 104, cranky and paranoid with a cigar hanging from his mouth. “If no one else steps up,” she promises, “I’ll shoot you again.”

“You’re a good friend, Scully.”

Gravel crunches beneath the car as they turn into an unpaved driveway. The El-Car motel has twenty-five rooms, and one of them is available. The El-Car rarely serves people who do not wish to enjoy the company of one bed, so Scully signs for the QN SIZE CLR TV NOSMKG before being issued an unpleasantly sticky key.

There is no tension in sharing a room, they are old pros at this. Scully rolls the spare blanket into a log to fill in the tired mattress. She turns the hair dryer on the linens to kill things that thrive at body temperature. Mulder emerges from the bathroom, toothpaste foaming at his mouth like a rabid dog in a cartoon. “Earwigs in the shower,” he warns. “They look vengeful.”

“Splendid. Left side or right, I always forget.”

“You like the passenger’s side,” he says. “Did you know most women do? I mean, in terms of beds.”

Scully, wearing gray flannel pajamas, gingerly lowers herself to the bed. “Is it reversed in England?”

Mulder cocks his head. “I don’t know.” He returns to the bathroom and finishes his toilet before joining her. The springs creak, which makes her think of the many prostitutes that have been here. She prays the walls are thick, sparing her the sound of $50 trysts.

She does not think Mulder has ever employed a prostitute, but cannot definitively rule it out. This unsettles her, and she closes her eyes against the idea.

“What about you, Scully?” His voice is muffled because they are facing away from each other. Making the beast with two fronts, as it were.

“How do I want to die? Other than not at all?” Though that’s not as true as it used to be, not since Fellig.

“It was your question.”

Scully’s brain runs through the thousands of deaths she has seen, a Victorian album of mementos mori. “Carbon monoxide leak while I’m sleeping.”

“That’s a pretty good one, I guess.”

She feels him settle under the blankets, work his head into the pillow. “Good night, Mulder. Don’t let the earwigs pinch.”

“Good night, Scully. Don’t let the Feejee mermaids bite.”

She sense, after a time, that Mulder is asleep. She turns to her left side, mindful not to stir him in this rare state, and regards him in the streetlight that filters through the cheap curtains. Ever practical, he is sleeping in his t-shirt and boxers. His back is a swimmer’s back and it rises and falls with the tide of her own lungs. With a practiced eye, she admires the spare elegance of his physique. There is a Spartan grace about him that appeals to her, that serves as an unshakable scaffold for his wilder imaginings.

It has been years since she ever doubted that she loved him, her mother knows that. But in love…that’s something else. What does it mean? Scully, nearly orthodox in her empiricism, is hard pressed to define the idea.

She considers her prior relationships, the component pieces of them against what she imagines being in love is like. Affection, surely. Life without him has been tried and found wanting. Respect, of course. She thinks of Daniel - the near reverence she had, was that love? Likely not. She trusts Mulder with her life, but why shouldn’t she? He held her dying daughter, he dug her from a frozen tomb, he withstood her brother to sit at her deathbed. There is attraction, but that too must be evaluated. Mulder is good looking by anyone’s standards, and she’s well into her sexual prime. Is it passion or proximity that makes her breath catch now and again when he touches her, that holds her eye when he rolls his shirtsleeves up his forearms and loosens his tie?

Scully thinks of the last time she slept with Mulder, the two of them tucked in like this in Kroner. She remembers all the platitudes she’d thrown at that idiot Sheila, some flowery Hallmark thing about friendship and love. Sad, stupid Sheila who, under that fluffy topknot, had ideas that she and Mulder could ever possibly understand one another. Had it actually meant anything, her little friends-and-lovers speech? Had it come from anywhere inside her other than a burning desire to get the hell out of flyover country and back to the civilized coast?

Outside, a woman’s voice, shrill. A man’s voice shouts something back, then a motorcycle revs. Scully tenses, thinking of Kitty Genovese, but there is no further sound. This is who she is now, murder always on her mind.

Is she in love with Mulder, or in love with the idea of someone understanding that? Someone who will not judge her scars and empty places. Who gave her some of them.

Sometimes, when the night is long like this and she gives herself to her darker fancies, Scully imagines that she willed her brain tumor into existence by longing for a child. Some metastatic force in her answered that base need and multiplied by dividing itself, trying to fill a void with flesh.

She is afraid that her penance for the snobbish disappointment with Emily’s dull animal eyes means that she will never, ever have a child of her own. One that grows in her body and rounds her flat belly with life, a baby that comes screaming into the world to lie bloody and gorgeous upon her chest. She wants to cup its peachy head against her palm, to have her breasts aching with milk. She has considered asking Mulder for assistance on this front, but not yet. She needs context first.

Margaret Scully still has the crib last used by Charlie as a baby. She’d offered it to Bill for Matthew, but the cost of having it shipped exceeded buying a new one, and so it was left to languish in storage. Melissa is dead and Charlie considers children to be a particularly virulent form of sexually transmitted disease.

Scully knows her mother is disappointed. Melissa was the wild one and she, Dana, was meant to do all of things that daughters do.

Next to her, Mulder turns onto his back, his arm draped across the blanket roll between them. He mumbles something vague, his lower lip pouting even in his sleep.

This is not what she wanted for herself, sharing an awful bed in an awful motel in an awful town with this man who has no tidy role in her life. She’d almost respect herself more if she stripped her pajamas off and woke him, just to see what he’d do. Taking action instead of waiting like a fairy tale princess for some damned thing to happen. That hallway after Dallas, what if they had just…if she had leaned up a second sooner…

But she can’t, of course she can’t, she is severe and unreachable and polished and pale. She has crafted this image of herself since her diagnosis, cashing in on the nameless mystique of the terminally ill. God in his mercy lent her grace, the Lady of Shalott.

An owl calls across the night and Scully remembers that there are predators for her to hunt. She turns back to her right side and lets sleep pull her down.