Dawn has begun to cast a pale glow over the edges of the night. Fareed’s alarm goes off, tinkling music to bring him gently into the day. He opens his gritty eyes, feeling as though they have only just closed after the call to action five hours ago. It has been a restless night and this day will be a hard one. He does not wish to get out of bed.
The alarm grows louder, grows more insistent, and Fareed sighs before sitting up and turning it off. It is time for fajr and it would not do to sleep in today. He has been trying to be a better Muslim, trying to be a better man.
The floor is cold beneath his feet as he trudges to the bathroom for wudu, the ablutions before prayer. He shaves first, staring into his toothpaste-spattered mirror, lost in thoughts of what is to come. He imagines the forthcoming spectacle as clearly as he can, as though it might inoculate him against the horror of actually seeing it.
Fareed dresses quickly, quietly, without turning on the lamp. He’d laid out his clothing last night and he is always on autopilot this early. The light would make no difference, and his partner does not care how he looks.
He unrolls his prayer rug, a gift from his mother when he moved in. He’d found the qiblah with an app, but still takes him a moment to get oriented. Fareed jams a Broncos cap on to cover his head and begins to pray.
Scully finds out about the bombing on the news, the way most people do. It’s both urgent and unreal, something from a primetime drama, and she can sense herself dissociating from it already. One must dissociate to stay sane. She sits in the basement while emergency meetings are called upstairs, while phones ring and tires screech and plane tickets are ordered. She misses her sister in times of crisis, so endlessly empathetic. So filled with hope in the face of a stark world.
She reaches to call her mother, then remembers. It is strange to be an orphan, even at fifty-one.
A knock interrupts her thoughts. “Anyone down here?”
“Nobody but the FBI’s most unwanted,” she replies, glad that some things never change.
Mulder opens the door, ambles in with something like his youthful grace. “Cute.”
Scully grins. “I’ve been waiting twenty-three years to say that.”
“How’d it feel?”
He chuckles, puts a stack of manila folders on the desk. “So this nightmare in Texas, huh? It’s bedlam upstairs, Scully.” Mulder turns his computer on, pops a flash drive in.
She pinches the bridge of her nose, staving off a headache. She’d skipped coffee in her rush. “Yeah, it’s why I got in early. What the hell, Mulder? What the hell is wrong with people?” She doesn’t know if she means the bombers or the artist or both. The world is perhaps no madder than it ever has been, but the madness has begun to feel convergent.
Mulder shakes his head by way of reply, then fiddles with the TV for a moment. Loud static blares out, startling them both.
“Mulder, stop, you – no. Here, look the HDMI cable is –” Scully walks over, swats at his hands.
“Cut it out, I’ve got it, see, you just have to jiggle the thing and –”
The screen crackles, then wavers to life with a loud popping noise. Mulder smirks.
Scully watches the shaky picture, sees people wandering the streets of Rome in confusion. Birds of all species cover the buildings, the cars, the street benches, calling and singing to each other. Cats prowl past them, mewing but harmless. The screen shifts to Moscow, to Istanbul, to Toronto, to Mogadishu. In each city, birds are gathered. In each city, predators and prey. A wolf howls at midday in Beijing.
Scully crouches forward, squinting at howler monkeys gathered in a Venezuelan elementary school. “Mulder, what am I looking at here? Is it some kind of….I don’t know. Rabies outbreak?”
He shrugs. “Hell if I know, but footage has been pouring into my inbox. The animals are showing no aggression and simply disperse when provoked.” He touches the screen, pointing at a toucan in the school rafters. “It’s been calling to the monkeys, the monkeys have been calling back.”
Scully shakes her head in wonder as three small goats and a dog trot through a supermarket in Jerusalem. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
A tentative voice from the hallway interrupts their observation. “Uh, hello? Agent Mulder? Agent Scully?”
They exchange puzzled glances as Mulder, rubbing his forehead, goes to open the door.
In the hallway is a tall, dark-eyed man with hair so black it gleams a Superman blue. Beside him, a short woman with close-cropped curls and full lips. She has freckles on her nose.
“Hello,” the man says, holding out his badge. “I’m Special Agent Fareed Malik, with Counterterrorism. This is my partner, Special Agent Willow Weinstein.”
“Einstein?” Scully repeats, both incredulous and intrigued.
“Weinstein,” the woman corrects, arms crossed.
“My partner wrote her thesis on Einstein’s Twin Paradox,” Mulder says. “You’ll have to excuse her misunderstanding. But anyway, Counterterrorism, huh? What are you doing down here? You must have your hands pretty full right now.” He steps aside to welcome them in.
“Yes,” Weinstein says, eyeing the office up with frank disapproval. “We certainly do. We are alsorunning late for a flight to San Antonio.”
Agent Malik offers both him and Scully a shy smile. “I won’t take up much of your time, I promise,” he assures them. “But I have a few questions for you, Agent Mulder. Related to the bombing in Texas, in fact. You heard one of the suspects survived the explosion?”
“I heard that, yeah.”
Weinstein makes a disgusted noise. “He didn’t survive, Malik. His heart just hasn’t stopped beating yet.”
Scully frowns. “What do you mean?”
“You’re a doctor, Agent Scully, like myself. Take a look at this picture and tell my friend Malik about brain trauma, since he won’t listen to me. Tell him about Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas, won’t you?” She holds out an iPad for Scully’s perusal.
The image she sees is scarcely human, the cranium sunken in like an aged cantaloupe, mouth a Glasgow smile. She looks up at Malik. “You’re here for Mulder, not me. So I have a sneaking suspicion I know what you want, Agent.”
Malik, well over six feet with a broad chest, looks at the floor. “I’ve been fascinated by your work over the years,” he says, sounding apologetic.
“Fascinated?” Weinstein scoffs. “He’s obsessed with the paranormal! He’s an X Files fanboy is what he is.” Her words are sharp, but Scully is astute enough to hear the affection in them. She resists the impulse to ask Malik if he believes in the existence of extraterrestrials.
Mulder rubs his hands together, unabashedly delighted. “Agent Malik, a man with a mind obviously open to possibility, would like to communicate with the dead, or the near-dead, as the case may be.”
Malik nods. “I believe he may have intel on a larger sleeper cell with an aim to commit more acts of terror. Shiraz Nasir, our suspect, comes from a pretty secular family and we know he was radicalized online. If we can get information from him about who he was talking to, we can find out about other young people headed for the same fate.”
Weinstein throws her hands up. “Which is where our energy would be better spent trying to stop live terrorists rather than stopping to try to speak with dead ones.”
“I have to say I agree,” Scully says. She and Weinstein exchange tentative smiles.
“I may have some resources for you,” Mulder says. “Give me your email address and I’ll send them over.”
Agent Malik passes over his card. “I appreciate it. You two are legendary, you know.”
“Flattery will get you everywhere,” Mulder tells him, batting his lashes.
Scully laughs. “As a cautionary tale?”
“No, I mean it,” Malik insists, his hand on a file cabinet. “Thanks for giving me a few minutes.”
Scully nods, feeling a tenderness toward him. “Good luck in Texas, Agents. Stay in touch, won’t you?”
Weinstein tugs her partner into the hall by his sleeve.
Malik sits in a plastic chair at the airport, half watching the news, half thinking about what’s waiting in Texas. He can already smell the charred flesh, the reek of explosives and burnt hair. There will be limbs scattered about, ragged bits of bone. The odd finger. The odd jaw. He remembers a dozen scenes like it, and that hurts. The uniformity of it.
The talking heads on the news are arguing about self expression. “They hate our freedom!” the woman asserts, as though terrorism is as reductive as a passionate bias against apple pie and democracy.
The man yells something about the First Amendment while she screams about the Second and they’re off again, acting like these problems can be solved with their spitting fury.
Malik thinks about the isolation that could drive such despair, the hopelessness that makes violent despots seem like wise leaders. He’s seen hundreds of kids head down the same road, though most don’t ride it to this bitter end.
“You okay, Malik?” Weinstein’s fingertips are at his elbow.
“Huh? Just thinking, I guess. How Shiraz ended up this way.”
She nods. “I just…I hate the way people will act because he’s Muslim, like Christian good ol’ boys don’t shoot up elementary schools and blow up federal buildings.”
He sighs because she’s right. Because he’ll be called on to apologize as though it has a single thing to do with him. Being the Muslim Guy in Counterterrorism ought to have inured him to it by now, but it’s still a bruise if not quite a wound. “He’s just a kid. A kid needs to be taught this hate.”
Weinstein squeezes his arm. “Wearing that vest, those last few steps, knowing you’re gonna die, must be so strange. You wonder who got in his head.”
“Mulder’s going to follow up with me,” he says. “We’re going to find out who got into that young man’s head, Weinstein. And we’re going to figure out who else’s, and put a stop to it.”
Weinstein drops her head back against the chair. “Well, he’s not gonna tell you, Malik. And neither is any necromancer Agent Mulder can dig up. You think anyone takes the X-Files seriously? That’s why they’ve got them stuck down in that basement office.”
Malik turns to her. “They still cite some of Mulder’s cases at Quantico and Scully taught there! Twice! They came back after whatever that thing was in ‘02. Somebody sure as hell takes the X-Files seriously, Weinstein. They’re downstairs because they want to be.”
“I pity that poor Agent Scully,” Weinstein mutters. “I’ve heard things about her, about him. A kid.”
“That’s, like, my dream assignment,” Malik continues, not paying much attention to her. He’s imagined himself in that office before, bouncing ideas off of them, pushing the limits of investigative ability and his profiling skills…
“No self-respecting scientist would spend a career toiling away in obscure realms of science fiction!” Weinstein asserts.
Malik snorts. “I didn’t get the sense Special Agent Dr. Scully lacks self-respect. Why else would she do it if she didn’t want to?”
Weinstein looks at him with a kind of pitying contempt. “She’s clearly in love with him.”
“No shit,” Malik says. “They had a baby at one point. But I don’t think that’s why she’s there.”
Weinstein grins. “Well, maybe the real question isn’t why she stays, but why she loves him.”
“Maybe he values her open mind,” Malik teases. “And she can’t resist it, even with his paranormal pursuits.”
Weinstein laughs. “Maybe she challenges his BS and he gets off on it.”
Malik’s phone rings before he can reply. “Special Agent Fareed Malik speaking.”
“Agent Malik, this is Agent Mulder. I think I might have an idea.”
“You cannot be serious,” Scully says, staring at him with the kind of shock she didn’t think he was still capable of eliciting. “It’s unethical, it’s illegal, it's…I don’t think I even need to go past unethical and illegal, do I?”
He sighs, his face softening. “Scully, we both experienced what I’m describing in that underground fungal organism in North Carolina. We had a shared psychic connection, we were able to communicate on another plane while unconscious. The Marsh Chapel Experiment, the studies at JHU and NIDA all support what we experienced.”
She gapes. “I’ve seen research suggesting altered neural states. I have seen studies linking psilocybin usage to ongoing heightened euphoria and general satisfaction. I have not seen anything proving that a cup of shroom tea is the portal to the astral plane!”
Mulder rolls his chair closer to her, taking her hands in his own. “Mycelium are thought to function similarly to neural networks, the way they light up otherwise unconnected parts of the brain mimics their own pathways. This could be the way to talk to the suspect, Scully. This could take down the communication barrier.”
“Thought to function that way, Mulder. By nutcases like Derrick Jensen. Bring me proof that fungi are sentient, or at least heighten it in other organisms and maybe I’ll consider it. Maybe.”
“You saw what I saw,” he reminds her gently. “We’re past the hypothetical here, and you know it.”
She stands, walking around the office with her hands on her hips. “Psilocybin! It’s a Schedule I drug with hepatic metabolism and renal excretion. And you want to give it – without consent, mind you - to a man with liver and kidney failure.”
The fact that she’s continuing to make excuses means she’s softening and they both know it. It’s just a dance now.
“Manner of death, Scully,” he prompts.
She stops walking to stare at the ceiling in annoyance. “Suicide,” she sighs. “In a hospital, so they probably won’t autopsy. And even if they do…”
“Even if they do, no one would be shocked to find psychoactive substances in the body of a man who committed mass murder.”
She covers her face. “I can’t.”
“I’ll do it.”
“I’ll lose my license, I’ll go to prison, why am I even talking about this with you, my God!” Her voice is muffled by her fingers.
“Six by six wound, he had his bowels half hanging out. Broken ribs, damage to every major organ, shrapnel to the spine, and his arm practically shredded to ribbons. His legs are more bone than flesh. A quarter of his brain is gone. He’s going to die, Scully,” Mulder says. “The question is how many more lives go down with him.”
“That’s not fair,” she breathes. “You can’t lay future deaths on me.”
“Scully, you’re not violating your oath. We’re doing no harm here. Weinstein’s picture is not of a man who is ever going to recover. But maybe he can be redeemed.”
Scully presses her forehead against the door, wanting to strangle herself and Mulder. “You can’t give it to him orally. He’ll aspirate it.”
He walks over and rubs her neck. “It’s the right call.”
“Get me his weight,” she mumbles into the wall, “and I’ll see what I can do.”
The crime scene was everything Malik had imagined, evening bags and high-heeled shoes scattered across the floor, trails of blood ending in puddles. Carbonized things that might have been human. The floor was blistered and bubbled, warped as the men who stood in the center of it and unleashed hell. Arterial spray spattered up the walls where canvases hung in scorched rags. He’d pried a bone fragment from the sole of his shoe. Weinstein pointed out an ear to one of the techs.
The astringent smell of the hospital is a balm to him, clean and safe and soothing. Everything is crisp and fresh and sterile. He doesn’t understand why anyone would ever feel nervous in a hospital.
Weinstein is staring at the shell of what used to be Shiraz. “What a waste,” she says, scanning his chart. “What a stupid fucking waste.”
Two men walk into the room, sporting nice suits and federal haircuts.
“Special Agent Weinstein, with the FBI. This is Special Agent Malik. Can we help you gentlemen?”
“Special Agents Brem and Navarro,” the taller one says, and they flash their Homeland Security badges.
“I don’t guess he’s woken up,” Navarro remarks. “You here in case he does?”
“The hell is that supposed to mean?” Weinstein snaps.
Navarro holds his hands up, defensive. “I just, I meant, maybe he could talk to him in Arabic or something.”
Weinstein’s eyes narrow into slits. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” she mutters. “Fucking ignorant.”
Malik, more even-tempered than his partner, sighs. “First of all, this man is from South Texas. Any Arabic he knows won’t be half as good as his Spanish. Secondly, my parents are from Pakistan. I speak Urdu.” The fact that he’s studied Arabic and Farsi in addition to learning Urdu as a kid seems beside the point. No need to encourage these idiots in their belief that all Muslims speak some secret terrorist mother tongue.
Brem shrugs. “No offense intended, Agent.”
“Of course not,” he replies.
“Must just come naturally,” Weinstein observes. She follows this with a sweet smile to show they’re all good friends here, good terror-fighting pals.
Navarro glares. “So what’s the prognosis on this piece of shit? Do we get to question his ISIS-loving ass or what?”
“I’m working on it,” Malik says. “Two specialists coming in from DC.”
Weinstein gives him a knowing look. “The, uh, 'specialists’ we spoke to earlier, Malik?”
“The very same.”
“Oh boy,” she says, and returns her attention to the chart.
Mulder stares out the window at cloud banks, cities peeping between. He thinks of the people below him and wonders why so many want to look up to see such angry gods. He and Scully might have argued over that, had they raised William. Another mystery for the list.
Next to him Scully is staring at the medical report Malik had emailed her. In her bag, injectable psilocybin disguised as a tiny vial of perfume.
He puts his hand atop hers, squeezing lightly. Scully hates to fly, she hates to steal, she hates to commit felonies, she hates to violate the Hippocratic oath. She is not in a good humor.
“We’re going to be sav –”
“Don’t,” she says.
They enter Shiraz’s room and find a crowd.
“I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” Mulder says, holding up his badge.
Brem and Navarro eye him with suspicion but seem charmed by Scully. She unbuttons her jacket against future difficulty.
“You two the communications specialists?” Navarro asks.
Scully nods. “Agent Mulder is really more of the, ah, specialist. I’ll be overseeing the patient to make sure he remains stable during our attempts.”
“The patient,” Brem snorts. “You know, there’s a large unassimilated Muslim community in the area, with one shared wish.”
“Ponies and an Easy Bake Oven?” Mulder inquires. “And the community is pretty assimilated if you ask me. Shiraz’s mother, for example, is an accountant with Wal-Mart. His father’s a dentist in Austin.”
Malik looks away, smirking.
“They wish to wipe you and America off the map,” Navarro says, without a trace of irony. “To honor their hero, Osama bin Laden, whose picture we find all too frequently on their refrigerators.”
“Right next to Mom,” Malik pipes up.
Brem coughs. “Not all Muslims are extremists, certainly.”
“No offense intended,” Weinstein mimics. “Of course.”
Brem adopts a pious expression. “There are other people who want to see this young man dead. I’m not one of them, Agents. Last thing I want is for this killer to die and go to paradise or to his 72 virgins in the sky.”
“Sounds like torture to me,” Scully sniffs. “Keeping him alive out of spite.”
Navarro squints at her.
“Look,” Mulder interjects. “This boy can hear everything you’re saying, and we’re trying to win his trust and talk to him.”
“Keep the killer alive,” Brem says, right next to Scully’s ear.
She raises her chin and stares him in the eyes. “You do your job; we’ll do ours.”
The men from Homeland Security leave, grumbling.
Scully slumps into a chair, shaken by the fear and hate suffusing the small room.
It took them nearly fifteen minutes to talk Weinstein down after she learned what they had all planned behind her back. Mulder wondered idly if even Scully could take her in a fight.
“Are you fucking insane?” she hisses. “We are federal agents; Scully and I are doctors.” She paces the room with a hand to her forehead.
“We’re going to keep him stable,” Scully reassures her once again. “Monitor his EEG to see if there seems to be any brainwave change while he and Mulder are, uh, under.”
“What if his family shows up?”
Malik shakes his head. “They’re still being questioned, and I’ve made sure that medical professionals are only going to come in here if there’s an emergency. But we need to hurry, Weinstein. Are you in?”
She glares. “Am I in? I was in the second you opened your stupid mouth, Fareed. Because I either report you all or I implicate myself. FUCK.”
Scully reaches for the woman’s shoulder. “I don’t like it either, okay? I don’t. But the toxicity’s very low. And Mulder and I have had an experience that suggests this may not be entirely farfetched.”
She glances at him with twenty-three years of compassion, and Mulder remembers being drawn from the earth with her, feeling her hand reaching toward him in the dark.
Weinstein presses her palms to her eyes.
Scully goes in for the kill. “My mother was in a coma recently, and I wasn’t able to communicate with her, either. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to think of this when she was still alive. It might’ve solved a mystery that I may never know."
Weinstein looks defeated. "Let’s do it,” she says.
Scully bites her lip, then pulls the vial from her pocket. “Time for your magical mystery tour, Mulder.”
The sky is the color of a marble he had as a kid; a blue-gray one that Samantha avowed contained a thunderstorm. The clouds are heavy and unbroken, deep-bellied with rain and the promise of roaring thunder. The air is sour with ozone.
Mulder is in the center of a long highway, walking along the yellow lines. Far out to either side of the road, steep red stone walls wind through the desert, beautifully striated and unbroken. The rock formations feel Martian, otherworldly. Mulder wonders which of them has conjured this place.
He is barefoot, wearing jeans and a loose white shirt that does little to shield him from the hot breeze. “Shiraz!” he calls, and his echo is the only reply. He walks on for another mile or so, calling. Waiting.
Next to him, a small coyote appears, trotting purposefully. It looks up with human eyes and Mulder follows it in silence.
The coyote lopes ahead to a green bench and hops up, sitting as daintily as a house cat.
Mulder sits down next to it.
“You’re one of the men in my room,” the coyote says, and Mulder admits this is so.
“Why are you a coyote?”
Shiraz looks down. “I don’t want to be in my body right now.”
Mulder nods. “You didn’t detonate your vest, did you, Shiraz?”
“This is my ride,” he replies. “I’ve got to be going.” A long way down the road, a bus appears.
Mulder fights the wave of panic. He can’t lose him, not now. “Let’s talk first. And hey, you can always take the next bus, huh?”
Shiraz only blinks.
“Tell me about home,” Mulder says. “Tell me how a middle-class kid from a secular upbringing in a small Texan town ends up in a suicide vest in a San Antonio gallery.”
The coyote’s hackles rise, his lips curled in a snarl. “They disrespected the prophet!” he growls.
“Fuck that,” Mulder snaps. “You don’t believe in that. You tell me how it happened and you tell me now. You didn’t detonate the vest, Shiraz, so pardon me for not believing this is about your faith. Who made you so angry?”
The coyote turns to him and he isn’t a coyote now. He’s a young man missing chunks of himself, his head uncomfortable to look at. “Who made me so angry? Walk with me, Agent Mulder, and I’ll show you.”
They rise from the bench and head down the road in the direction from which Mulder came. The bruised sky rumbles, the clouds slowly swirling into a funnel. The wind stirs his hair.
Mulder hesitates but Shiraz strides purposefully ahead on his shattered legs and so he does too.
The funnel touches down, widens into mist before dissipating. Mulder sees a classroom full of six-year- old kids. There’s lots of artwork tacked up on the walls, lots of stick figures in front of triangle-roof houses. Lots of brown kids too, but not Shiraz’s brown.
Mulder scans the classroom and picks him out, a cute big-eyed kid in jeans and a Spiderman shirt.
“Okay, class!” the teacher says. “We’re going to practice our letter-writing skills today by writing letters to Santa.” She passes out photocopies of Christmas trees, boxes of crayons. “Remember your salutation!”
Little Shiraz swings his feet, squirming.
The teacher crouches next to him, sweet-faced and kind. “What’s wrong, honey?”
“He doesn’t believe in Christmas!” shouts the little girl next to him. “Santa doesn’t come to his house!” The class howls with laughter.
Mulder averts his gaze as fat tears appear in the child’s eyes.
“Watch,” says the ruined mouth of the man next to him. “You don’t get to look away if you want this truth, Agent Mulder.”
Shiraz is ten now, listening to his parents fight. His mother wears a beige suit and thin heels, her hair polished as a newscaster.
“He doesn’t play sports, he doesn’t belong to any clubs, he doesn’t do anything!” the boy’s father snaps. “It would be one thing if he were succeeding in school, but he’s barely doing that!”
“Well, what do you expect, you make us live in this shitty town where the neighbors think we burn American flags in the basement and wonder where my burqa is!”
The father throws his hands up. “I have to pay back my loans for dental school, the cost of living is low here. When they’re paid off, when I can sell the practice, we’ll move. For now you have to get Shiraz involved in something, you have to get him connected, Noora!”
Noora begins to cry.
The mist blurs and Shiraz is older, maybe thirteen. He’s with a motley assortment of other kids behind an abandoned gas station.
The kids are passing around a joint and taking swigs from a bottle of Mad Dog 20/20. Mulder grins in spite of himself. Fucking kids.
“Thought you couldn’t drink booze,” says a tall boy with sandy hair. “I thought you’d go to Muslim hell or some shit.”
Shiraz snatches the bottle from his hand. “Gimme that!” He closes his eyes and takes a swig, then wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. “Fuck you, Trip.”
“No 72 virgins for you, bro!” Trip crows.
The boys laugh. “Hey Shiraz, I heard Muslim porn’s just a bunch of girls with their hair uncovered.”
Next to Mulder, the adult Shiraz clenches and unclenches a fist, blinks his burned eyes.
The moments continue. Shiraz on the fringes of the high school social scene, his parents’ divorce, his dad’s move to Austin. Shiraz graduates high school, flunks out of community college after three semesters.
His mother takes up with a guy in her office who calls Shiraz “sport.”
Mulder watches a Shiraz close in age to the one now. He’s thin and old for his age. His skin looks greasy and has a grayish cast underneath. Dark shadows ring his eyes. He’s in his basement bedroom, frantically texting. His eyes are feverish and he smiles.
Daytime, different clothes. Shiraz prays, mumbling to himself. He’s Skyping with other hooded men, kneeling on prayer rugs.
Mulder shakes his head in confusion. “But your family was never religious. You were never religious. So if you found an interest in your faith suddenly, why this? This isn’t worship, and you know it. These guys aren’t in it for Allah, Shiraz.”
Shiraz shrugs his charred shoulders. “Why the Knicks? We all want to be a part of something greater, don’t we? My voice wasn’t loud by itself, but it was joined by so many others it became powerful. And, honestly, because they wanted me. Religion was just a starting point.”
In the mist, Shiraz wears a rubber horse mask and Skypes with a man who also wears one. There’s a lot of laughter between the violent rhetoric.
“Social identity model of de-individuation effect,” Mulder says.
“I just know he became my friend, Agent Mulder. He became my family.”
“Give me his name,” Mulder says. “Let me stop this.”
The burned man disappears and the coyote returns. “There’s a lot of lonely people. A lot of voices with no one to understand them. It’s a deep river with a lot of feeders.”
Mulder hears the bus in the background, feels his chest tighten. “Come on, Shiraz. This is not what you want. This is not how you want to go down. You showed me this for a reason, and I think that reason is because you wanted to stop this tributary at least.”
The coyote lays down, rests his nose on his paws. “So I die a traitor twice over, huh?”
Mulder fights to stay calm. “You didn’t detonate your vest.”
Whimpering at his feet as thunder shakes the world. Lightning strikes the road ahead.
“Shiraz, please. You have a chance to make this okay.”
The coyote paws the ground, keening. “I want my mother,” he cries. “Please, my mother.”
“Give me the name, Shiraz, and I’ll get your mother, I swear.”
“The bus…” Lightning again, this time closer. It splits a scrubby tree.
“Give me the name!” Mulder shouts over the searing wind.
At last the coyote gets back to his feet. He howls a name as the bus roars past them both.
The world goes black.
Scully’s cool hands on his face, the scent of her perfume in his nose. He gasps, awakening in the hospital chair.
“Mulder, are you okay?”
“I promised we’d get his mom,” Mulder says, still disoriented. “I swore.”
“On her way,” Scully tells him. “She’s being escorted by some US marshals. Dad’s still being interviewed but Noora, his mom, should be here in a few.”
He turns to stare at the prone form in the bed. “Is he okay? Things got bad at the end.”
Weinstein is staring at the monitor. “Unreal,” she says. “Absolutely unreal. He’s in low-voltage delta coma –”
“Very bad,” Scully clarifies for Mulder and Malik.
Weinstein waves her hand. “But the whole time you two were…tripping, I guess, he showed beta waves, and even some gamma patterns just at the end. But the second you awoke, it was gone. Low delta again, he’s back to being a vegetable.”
Malik looks smug. “Looks like you owe me a burger,” he says.
“I’ll take one if you’re buying,” Mulder says. “And a Coke. My mouth’s all weird.”
“The implications of this are huge,” Weinstein continues. “Tremendous. And I can’t say a thing about it unless I want to be stripped of every accomplishment I’ve made. I really hate you two.”
Scully wears a knowing smile. “So, Mulder, welcome back to Earth. How was it?”
“I’ll give you the details later, but Malik, I have a name for you.” Mulder writes it down on the back of his business card, then passes it over.
Malik stares at the card, holds it like a talisman. “You really got information from him?”
They all turn to the bed again, watch the rhythmic movements of Shiraz’s chest. The respirator pumps life into him like it pumped it into Margaret Scully, into her daughter, keeping them bound in the mortal coil. Mulder has an inkling now of what dreams may come.
“I got a lot,” Mulder says slowly. “A whole lot.”
Two US marshals enter the room, half carrying a woman in her late forties, her face puffy and pale with grief. The sound that comes from her when she sees Shiraz is raw, animal.
Mulder thinks of the coyote that was Shiraz, howling for her.
Noora slumps over her son, sobbing. Her thick hair is spread over his ruined face, her arms cradling him to her chest. She rocks him, wailing, asking him why.
“We didn’t raise him like this, we never, we never…” she trails off into guttural noises that are nothing human.
The agents file quietly out, and Mulder wonders when Shiraz will catch his bus.
Malik sits in the airport again, Weinstein sprawled across three chairs with her head on her carry-on.
“You’re not staying for the attaboys?” she asks, grinning.
He shrugs, examining his hands. “I didn’t really do anything.”
“Ah. Nothing but provide the name of an ISIS recruiter ready to kill untold numbers and radicalize disenfranchised youth.” Weinstein winks and he is pleased that she is proud of him.
“That was all Agent Mulder, although I’m at a loss in explaining it. Maybe some things are unexplainable, Agent Weinstein.”
She looks at him with mock horror. “What an appalling suggestion! Although perhaps the most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious, the source of all true art and science.”
He regards his partner with surprise. She is not of a poetic temperament. “That’s… beautiful, Weinstein.”
“Like you, I take no credit. As Agent Scully would undoubtedly tell you, Albert Einstein said it, Malik.”
“Agent Scully,” Malik says with a smile. “She isn’t quite what I expected.”
Weinstein tosses a crumpled napkin at him. “She’s taken, champ. And not quite what I expected either, given what I’d heard about her background. Although I confess, something is clearer to me now, as a result of the experience.”
“The value of an open mind?”
“The value of being proven wrong on occasion. But don’t tell anyone or I’ll hurt you.”
Malik laughs. “I won’t let it go to my head,” he promises.
Six deer, a mother black bear, two cubs. They have been skirting the edge of the woods for hours, disappearing in and out of the foliage. The cubs tumble heavily, like puppies. The deer flick their ears, unperturbed. Sometimes the small herd makes bleating sounds and the bears answer by grumbling softly. Mulder’s been watching them from the porch, enchanted by their fairy tale complacency.
An SUV bumps along the road, kicking up dust. The animals tense, but lose interest when the car parks and presents no threat. Mulder smiles at the sight of it, at her too-big, gas-guzzling monstrosity that she handles like an F1 driver.
Through his earbuds, Warren Zevon assures him that the storm will never find them here. He ends the music on that sentiment, puts his phone way.
Scully emerges, her foxy hair bright against the treeline, against the dried stalks of grass in the meadow. She is dressed down – for Scully, anyway – and as she walks up the steps he catches a glimpse of the woman she might have been in another life.
“Talk to me, Mulder,” she says, and he thinks, Oh, Scully, there’s nothing on this Earth I love doing more.
“Oh… where to begin?”
She smiles. “Tell me where you went through the looking glass, Alice.”
He frowns, considering. “I saw things, Scully. Powerful things. I saw how much we crave deep and unconditional love.”
Scully nods. There is sadness her eyes. “I witnessed unqualified hate that appears to have no end. That boy was a killer, Mulder, or at least an accomplice to mass murder. But that was only part of why they hated him, wasn’t it?”
He sees the pain it causes her and adores it, adores her for it. If she knew the pedestal he keeps her on, she’d leave the porch in an instant; she’d drive away and never return. “Yeah,” he says. “But how to reconcile the two? The extremes of our nature.”
She smiles sadly. “That’s the question, isn’t it? But hate is just love disappointed, I think. Love thwarted and turned against itself.”
He considers this. “We hate that which rejects us. We hate the objects of our unrequited affections.”
“Good thing you finally got me in bed, then,” she quips.
Mulder smiles, gets to his feet. He holds his hand out to her and she takes it, her cool little paws in his palms. “Walk with me, Scully.”
She follows him as she always has. They head down into the meadow, into the golden grass where he’d made love to her on a plaid blanket after they looked up the names of constellations. Those days seem like a long time behind them and yet he senses they may not be far into the future. Something is ripening.
“This whole thing has got me thinking. Thinking about God,” he confesses, starting small.
Her face is impish, hair like the ghost of autumn. “You, Mulder, thinking about God? Shall I confess to recent musings on Giorgio Tsoukalos and Elvis?”
“Haha, my clever maid. The archetype of an angry god, I mean. Old Testament-style vengeance.”
Scully looks up at him, her eyes no harder than the day he met her, despite the things they’ve seen. “Why do humans have Daddy issues, you mean?” She laughs at her own joke.
“When you put it like that, Scully, you may be exactly the expert I need.”
She smacks his arm.
They continue walking, Mulder pacing himself to her stride. “I don’t know what I mean exactly. I was just…hmm. I was thinking about the Tower of Babel, scattering people violently, so they’re never to speak a common language. Seems like a rigged game, doesn’t it?”
Scully rests her head against his bicep, their arms snugged together. “Well, if you want to be a biblical literalist, we brought it on ourselves. The animals were at peace and everything was peachy until we showed up on the scene and broke the rules.”
“It seems pretty lousy to punish the clock for the clockmaker’s poor design.”
“Goodness knows I’m not defending it; I went through childbirth. I’m just addressing your current source material.”
“It’s your book,” he points out.
Scully rolls her eyes. “It’s got some nice ideas, but I think we’re overdue for a remastered edition by the author instead of the publisher.”
“Fair. But until then, I just struggle with the question of what exactly is this god saying? Worship me and my great anger? It’s not a lot to go on.” He wraps his arm around her shoulders, twirling the ends of her hair.
“I guess that’s what Jesus is supposed to represent, right? Like if God is your strict dad, then Jesus is his friend who calms him down and wants to be your gentle mentor.”
Mulder looks down at her. “Does this end in a pitch for guitar Mass?”
She laughs, kisses the back of his hand and holds it again. Her fingers are so small between his.
Mulder’s stomach lurches, the small patch of skin burning with the heat of her mouth. He forces himself to keep moving instead of laying her down in the grass. Perhaps in spring, when the stalks are soft and green again.
“I don’t know where I’m going with this, honestly. I just, I feel like there has to be some reason we invent angry father figures to please and to disappoint. There has to be some other thing that satisfies whatever urge that fills.”
Scully shrugs, swinging his hand, and he pushes away the image of them doing this with a small boy between them.
“We want to be loved,” she says. “We want to connect and be understood. We want unconditional love, yes, but we also feel satisfied when we are accepted by those with high standards who have rejected others. So there’s something else in us that craves finite approval. It’s a strange paradox of the human condition.”
He stops walking then. Scully looks up at him, curious and expectant. “Scully,” he says. “Come home. And your little dog, too.”
She bows her head. “Mulder, don’t.”
But this time he does. “You left because it was too dark. Well, shine a light with me, Scully. That’s what we’ve always done, you and I. We’ve shined a light.”
He takes her by the shoulders, turns her so that he can see her completely. Behind her are the bears. The deer.
“You have to know I love you,” she says, searching his face. “You must.”
“I know,” he says, and there is no hesitation. “But it’s not enough.”
“It’s been so hard,” Scully murmurs. “William, my mom, I…” She shakes her head. “I’m sorry, I’ll stop.”
“No, no, please. Scully. This is where people fuck up. We don’t communicate, and then we misunderstand. We disconnect.” He grasps both of her hands, tugging her to him with the emphasis of his words.
Scully gulps in air. “Stop being a psychologist and treating everything like it’s repressed emotion. Sometimes things just can’t be how we want them to.”
He touches the fine angles of her cheekbones. “Stop being a pathologist and treating everything like it’s dead.”
She laughs at that, then sniffles. “It’s safer if it’s dead. It can’t die, then.”
This woman will likely break his heart again. “Oh, Scully,” he whispers, drawing her close. “Please come home.”
She nestles her face against his chest, slipping her hands beneath his shirt. She stays there for a long time.
Mulder thinks of her in his arms over the years, how many times he’s clutched her this way with dust from the valley of the shadow still clinging to their feet. But today they are acutely alive and the world, possibly, is not as terrible as it was the day before. Perhaps they dammed a small trickle into the great river. Perhaps they shined a light.
She’s his witness, he’s her mutineer.
He takes her face in his hands, strokes her temples with his thumbs. “Come home,” he repeats, as vulnerable as he’s ever been.
“I am home,” she replies, her voice rough. “It’s just my things that are somewhere else.”
Mulder tips her chin up then and kisses her beneath the great upturned bowl of the sky. Above them, a murmuration of starlings wheels and twists.
In the west, a coyote howls.