Walter Skinner had thought death would change him. He didn’t know if that was true yet. What he did know was that it had scared him.
He’d been asked, ordered rather, to take three weeks away from work, with pay, even though he told them he felt fine. That morning, after being discharged from the hospital, he went home. The hallway felt abandoned, everyone at work, getting on with their lives. His key clicked loudly in the lock, his footsteps echoed around the empty apartment. There was nothing waiting for him – no mail, no messages on his machine. He dropped his keys on his table and sat on the edge of the couch. Dust hung in the sunlight that shone through the break in the curtain and warmed his foot. It felt as though he hadn’t been in this apartment for months. Not twelve hours before he had been dead. Now he felt as if he didn’t exist.
He didn't know how long he had been sitting there, staring at nothing, but when he looked up the streak of sunlight had disappeared. Skinner rubbed his hands over his face. In the stillness he could hear his own heart beating, steadily, normally. As he focused on the sound, he felt his pulse speed up and his palms start to sweat. Quickly, he tried to distract himself. He looked at the clock on the wall. It was already one. A lifetime had passed in the blink of an eye with nothing to show for it. He stood up, paced to the window, back again, looked outside. The sun was high now, but weak behind a layer of cloud. He grabbed his keys and left.
It was cool outside, and he zipped his jacket up automatically. He started walking, directionless, moving his legs because he couldn't stop. The sun had disappeared almost completely; he shoved his hands in his pockets, kept going. More clouds gathered, he could see his breath. His ears were cold. Buildings gave way to greenery. Further and further he walked, his feet sorer and sorer. Wind blew off the river, people and bicycles passed him, but he noticed nothing. His shins were aching, and he started to slow his pace. Above him, trees shielded the misty rain that was trying to fall. Below, the path was dirt, mud in places. Finally, he emerged from beneath the canopy onto pavement again. In front of him was the place he had been led to. The memorial, a dark gash against a colourless sky, stood out boldly.
He approached in spite of himself, wanting at every moment to turn away, heat flushing his face with shame that he had let himself come here, of all places. But his blood pulsed through his veins, and here he was, alive, and he had to confront this, finally. He moved along slowly, dragging his fingertips over the grey names, leaving a trail in the mist that stuck invisibly to the wall. He stopped a quarter of the way down, under a list of soldiers Killed in Action. He crouched down and pressed his hand against the cold marble. Among the names, his fingers found one: Peter C Doyle. Briefly, his heart clenched. Droplets streaked down the black from under his hand like tears. He bowed his head.
He was eighteen, just barely. It was his first tour in Vietnam, drafted as a private with the Marines. Only two months into his tour, they met. They were on leave in Saigon, a group of people from Doyle’s battalion, one of them who knew someone from Skinner’s. Just a bunch of guys looking to have fun on a short leave. A sergeant named – he couldn’t remember his name, it wasn’t important – but he organized everyone, led them to a 'good time.' That first evening they started early, found some place to eat, then moved on to somewhere they could get American beer. Skinner felt awkward, left out, as everyone shared stories of girlfriends back home, or prostitutes here in Saigon. Doyle came to sit next to him, asked him if he’d left anyone back home. He shook his head, wishing that this attacker who had imposed himself on his loneliness would go away, but he persisted. Whatever they talked about, it didn’t matter, all Skinner knew was that soon he was smiling, laughing, actually enjoying himself. The party moved onto another bar, dancing here, but they sat back, more loosened up now. They’d lost two members already, unsure whether it was to fatigue or the working girls dressed in silk and red lipstick covering their sad lips. The more the group moved, the more people they lost, but he and Doyle barely noticed. They only stopped talking when they realised everyone else had disappeared. All the way back home they talked and stood close to each other in the hotel hallway and laughed and parted only when a greasy fat bald man in a yellowed undershirt yelled at them probably about the noise and slammed his door behind himself. They lingered over a whispered goodnight, then slipped back in their own rooms.
The next day Skinner was restless from the moment he got up. He paced the near-empty streets, had a hasty breakfast at the hotel, and then, not knowing exactly what he was doing or why, loitered around the lobby. He was halfway through a newspaper before noticing that he didn’t understand the language it was written in, when Doyle approached him. After a moment of speechlessness they couldn’t stem the flow of words. The day passed unplanned, the backs of their hands brushing for a moment in a stone garden, a hand placed earnestly on his arm while their gaze held briefly enough to go unnoticed, long enough for a moment of ecstasy, until they found themselves back at the hotel with everyone else as evening fell.
That night, they outlasted everyone. They had to. That night, then the next and the next it happened in the same way: they’d slowly lose the rest of their group, either to alcohol, to sleep, or to women. After that, Peter would guide him through side streets, back alleys, until finally they’d end up back at their hotel, sneak in the side entrance and silently climb the stairs to one of their rooms, it didn’t matter which. They made love quietly enough so that no one heard, passion heightened by silence, the breath of desire loud in each others ears.
Their leave was over before they noticed, but they wrote to each other, planning the next time they could make their leave coincide. They met a month later, and the time passed just as quickly, their embraces more familiar now, the touch of skin more anticipated than the sex.
Back with his own unit, Skinner counted his time by the days left until they’d next be in Saigon. He felt foolish, but he wrote letters, love letters, as embarrassed as he was to admit it, page after page, even though they could never pass before the censor's eyes. He thought to keep them, deliver them in person, but no; he ripped them up, burnt them. Every time he sent something short: “Everyone’s looking forward to next month.”
Peter, he called him. Peter, not Pete, Peter, though he said he thought it sounded like his parents calling his name. But Skinner couldn’t help himself: Peter – he rolled it off his tongue, savoured it.
Doyle teased him, tried to make him stop, called him Wally, Walt, his Walt Whitman… he would never let him live down the poem he’d penned for him, the only one, since he’d rather die of embarrassment before trying again.
More letters. “We’re getting quite a reputation,” Doyle wrote. Skinner wrote back: “The crazy pair. Partiers. Out 'til all hours of the morning. Not a word of a lie.”
Together again, they slept and woke, their bodies touching. The white shirt and khaki pants folded neatly somehow over the back of a bamboo chair all looked grey in the rain-veiled light. Others ventured outside to keep occupied with alcohol, they occupied themselves only with each other. Doyle spoke of Going Home, a story Skinner listened to like a child a fairy tale. They’d have no one to answer to, he said, they could start their lives wherever, however they wanted. San Francisco. Work for a while, open a shop, whatever, it didn't matter.
Doyle would talk on and on, he had a plan, he knew what he wanted. Skinner would just listen. He bought in to it. He had no plan of his own, he let life take him wherever it did. It had brought him here, he hadn't questioned it. But Doyle made him promise, even if one of them didn't go back. Skinner closed his eyes and pretended not to hear whenever he said that.
“Leave won’t coincide this month.” He wrote: my heart aches. He burnt it. He sent: “Bummer. Maybe next time. The guys will be disappointed.” The last words he would ever read. Notice came just days later from other friends in Doyle's unit, KIA, that was it.
That evening, the mood in the mess had been sombre. Doyle had made friends. Everyone picked at their food. They gave Skinner their condolences, not knowing how much it hurt. Alone in his quarters, Skinner cried, something he would never admit to anyone. He couldn’t stand the sound of himself doing it. He fell silent, and stayed that way.
In the end, he did more than just broke his promise. He served another tour, as an enlisted soldier this time, and what started as an accident became a career. He faced life with determination, but as to what end, he didn't know. At the very least, he was determined to forget. He found Sharon, married her, not that he didn't love her, but convinced himself it was right. Finally, though, he couldn't even keep that up. Aloneness, loneliness, he persuaded himself, was what he needed. What he deserved. Even if he didn't want it.
Finally, he stood up, unaware once more of how much time had passed. It was enough for his knees to ache. Before he knew it, he was walking again, again not knowing where to. The streets were darker now, and the more he walked, the more street lights turned themselves on. At first he didn't recognise the building he entered, but in the muted light found himself in front of an apartment door. The number on the front was familiar: forty-two. He held himself up against the door frame and leaned his head on the door. Why was he here? It was late, but he heard the television, muffled. An old movie. Mulder was still awake. Skinner ignored his quickening pulse again as he raised a fist to knock on the door. It was a stupid idea, being here, based on nothing more than a note in Agent Mulder's file, background check, harder to hide a relationship as an undergrad than it was to live and work in a don't ask, don't tell environment. There was one small speck of hope left in him that Mulder hadn't wanted to hide it, didn't, after all, care who knew. Skinner's palm was clammy. He knocked.
Mulder opened the door with a look of surprise and concern.
"Sir? What is it? Is everything all right?"
Skinner was grateful that Mulder ushered him into the dim apartment, made him sit on the couch, sat beside him, but Mulder's concern only grew as Skinner remained silent.
Skinner felt foolish, felt the pleading in his own eyes, heard the desperation in his own voice.
“Please..." he whispered finally, "I don’t want to wake up alone.”