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Her shoulder muscles screamed at the tension that had twisted into them, the hours of hunching over the paperwork of the case and his profile notes etched out sloppily across lined sheets. The rolling of her neck did little to pacify the muscles, instead they coiled tighter and burned like fire up to base of her skull.

The keypad above the doorknob beeped twice and flashed a green light as Mulder swiped the card and unlocked the door to their motel room, then stepped aside, allowing her to cross the threshold first.

“I’m exhausted,” she said as she dropped her coat onto the chair. Neither of them made a move towards the lamp, content in the quiet that the darkness offered. Instead, he pressed his chest to her back, his arms wrapping around her waist, and a deep sigh reverberated through her signaling to him that her eyes had drifted closed and she was finally allowing herself to relax. The past few days had gotten to her just as much as him, though she’d never admit that to him. Always the strong one. Always ‘fine.’

“I’m sorry you got as wrapped up in this case as you did,” he whispered in her ear, his arms tightened around her. “As much as I appreciate that you were there, I hate that you had to see me that way.”

She turned in his arms, running her hands up the length of them to the back of his neck, pulling his face close enough so that she could press a kiss to the tip of his nose.

“Stop that,” she whispered. “He’ll be in federal prison for whatever is left of his life, thanks to you and that beautiful brain of yours. It’s over, Mulder.”

She kissed him quickly on the mouth as she disentangled herself from his embrace, and walked into the bathroom. The sharp grey of the bathroom light immediately bled into the rest of the room, its eeriness adding to the unease that had settled into his bones over the last 72 hours. He lay in a heap onto her bed after toeing off his shoes, his arms hanging as limp at his sides as the slackened tie around his neck. His weary eyes followed an imaginary line along the puckered stucco of the ceiling to a crack in the far corner.

They’d received the call to head to the town of Findlay, Ohio four days ago, where a seemingly average, middle-aged man had decided to wreak havoc on the roughly 40,000 residents that resided there. The request for their presence came from one of the higher up’s in the Bureau calling in a personal favor, he’d been told. Mulder had begged for Scully to stay behind, man the office until he returned, but Skinner had been adamant that she stay by his side. Her expertise in forensic pathology was in dire need, he’d insisted.

The deceased bodies of four young, brunette women had begun to surface in the outskirts of town within days of each other, each bearing the same triangle burn mark on their face just below their left cheekbone. They’d been missing for 8 days, and now lay branded, naked, and cold in the Hancock County Morgue. According to Scully’s autopsy reports, the cause of death was the same with each victim; suffocation over a long period of time, the bastard dragging out their death from what should have taken just minutes, to hours of torture before finally allowing them release in death. The intoxicating power that he’d felt while watching their innocent life slip away, only to bring them back again was intense. Mulder shuddered at the recollection, the remnants of that monster’s psyche that remained within him still not totally dissolved.

The three nights they spent on the case were dark, brutal. He’d attempted to warn Scully early on of what was to come, but he knew deep down that nothing he said could truly prepare her for where his mind went when he spiraled into the murky depths of another’s twisted mindset. Control was nearly non-existent, and it was best for him to be alone. He couldn’t hurt anyone when he locked himself in his motel room, but when the love of his life that had a penchant for saving him from himself had a connecting room with paper-thin walls…

Hearing her gasp when she stepped into his room, knowing she’d just seen the wall covered floor to ceiling with crime scene photos. Seeing the fear in her eyes as she mentally took in his disheveled appearance, just before hearing himself mutter “get the fuck out of here, Scully.” These are things he never wanted to experience, and likely would never forget.

He was happy it was over.

The distant calling of his name broke through the thick barrier of his thoughts, jolting him back to the present. She had a habit of that, of reaching into whatever darkness he’d delved into and pulling him back to reality. Dana Scully, his anchor, his life line. He padded softly to the door, opening it slightly, careful not to let out all of the steamy warmth. She despised getting out of the shower to a cold room.

“Come in here, and let me wash your back.”

He stripped quickly, and within moments was standing under the hot spray of the shower, his skin immediately reddening in defense of the heat. His head tipped back and he let the water trail down his face, as small soapy hands began the task of washing away the sins of the world and the disgust he felt with himself for pushing his mind into the polluted depths of a serial killer’s subconscious.

His desire to dull his own conscious into a mind-numbing state was betrayed by his hands that seemed to have a plan of their own, seeking out the softness of her skin, craving the feel of her under his fingertips. A hitched gasp escaped his lips as the shampoo was massaged gently from his hair, the green apple aroma hanging pungent and tangy in the air. Inch by inch of his body, her fingers molded and massaged him back into a man she’d recognized, and he could feel his cock thickening in response.

He felt his knees buckle slightly as she grazed her fingernails gently up and across his scrotum, the skin so soft and sensitive, sending a shiver up his spine. Grimy wet tile greeted his hand as he grasped for something, anything to hold onto to keep him upright. His eyes remained closed as her fingers wrapped around his shaft, eliciting a grunt as she gripped him tightly for a moment then softened her hold. He wavered as the blood from his head rushed south, as grew harder under her maneuvering, the rhythmic squeeze and release of her fingers.

It had been nearly a week since he’d allowed himself to be touched like this, as he couldn’t trust himself to be with her in that frame of mind. : The profiler’s frame of mind, where sanity became difficult to maintain, and the truth became convoluted. It was a line he’d drawn long ago, one of the few but one he’d respected nonetheless. The painfully slow stroke she’d begun to make from base to tip was already threatening to send him over the edge, her grip tight and confident, days’ worth of aggravation and stress moments away from pulsating out of him and into the palm of her hand. He mentally chastised himself for going this long without orgasm as she moved at a quicker pace, her fingers tightening around the head of his cock before sliding back down to the base of him.

“Scully,” he said hoarsely.

Her only response was a low hum and a tighter grip. His hips bucked forwards slightly, meeting her stroke for stroke as she worked more furiously.

“Fuck…Scully, you gotta stop,” he pleaded half-heartedly, opening his eyes just enough to register the wanton look in her own. Her normally bright blue eyes were now darkened with arousal as she watched him enjoy the pleasure she was giving him. Her free hand was at her breast, her taut nipple rolling between her fingertips, as her other pumped a little more life back into him with each swipe of her thumb over the sensitive spot just under the tip of his dick. Christ, she was good at this. Water pelted on his face as he threw his head back again, his jaw muscles clenching as he ground his teeth. He could feel the tension building, growing, as a vibrated from deep within his throat. Just a few more strokes and-

And she was gone. His cock throbbed with need at the sudden loss of her touch and his mind swam with confusion as he watched her wrap herself in a towel and exit the bathroom in a swirling puff of steam.

“Come to bed, Mulder.”

Droplets of water streamed down the length of his body dampening the carpet with each step he took to meet her next to the bed. The bedside lamp had been turned on, casting a yellow glow and giving her a warm and angelic ambiance. His hands found her waist as she rose to her tip-toes and pulled his mouth to hers, sliding her tongue in to press against his own.

Her skin was still warm and slick from the shower as his fingertips trailed down her hipbone to her lower abdomen, her hips thrust forward slightly as his fingers slid between her folds, already slick with arousal. His cock twitched against her belly at the feel of her in his hand, so ready with wanting.

“God,” she moaned into his mouth as two of his fingers slid inside of her with ease. The palm of his hand moved smoothly against her, her freshly waxed skin was silky to the touch. It never ceased to amaze him how gloriously soft she was. In a world that was often so coarse and calloused, she was always perfectly delicate. Her hair, her skin, her scent, her touch…

“Mulder,” she whispered against his lips. His mouth pressed feather light kisses across her jaw line to her neck, and her head tilted to the side to give him the access he was searching for. He could taste remnants of the soap from the shower as his tongue slid languidly into the dip of her collarbone.

“No, Mulder, wait.”

His mouth and fingers stilled immediately, confusion flashing across his face.

“No, no, I’m fine. Just…” Her hands cupped his face in reassurance. A smile spread across her face before she backed away from him a step, inching towards the bed that lay just behind her. She turned and crawled atop of it, then pulled a pillow to rest just under her stomach and breasts.

The breath hitched in Mulder’s chest as she then thrust her ass in the air and lay her face on the bed, her legs spread a few feet apart, putting herself fully on display for him.

He desperately wanted to just appreciate what lay before him, but he couldn’t help but grasp her hips, his hands drawn to her like magnets. The tips of his fingers pressed gently into her skin, curving around her hipbones, as she shifted her weight slightly preparing herself for him.

“Mulder, please,” she whispered. So quiet, so delicate.

He stood finally, grasping one of her hips as he guides himself into her. The moan that vibrated through his body was unavoidable. She was warm and tight, enveloping him. He pushed into her methodically, his thrusts shallow and gentle, determined to make this last as long as possible.

Her hips rotated backwards, meeting him thrust for thrust. She was drunk with desire, intoxicated with the feeling of him inside of her.

“Deeper,” she said, her voice muffled by the blanket. “I want all of you.”

“Scully.”

“I’m here, baby.”

Her arms extended out before her and her knuckles drained white from gripping the bedspread, her face covered, buried into the blanket. He thrust deeper, eliciting a primal moan from her as he filled her with every inch of him. A muted smacking noise of skin meeting skin punctuated each thrust. He ran his hand from the top of her ass up her spine to grip her shoulder, pulling her onto him with each push of his hips, the tip of him brushing against her cervix.

Her hand snaked around and wrapped around his wrist, holding him tightly. Little crescent moons pock marked his skin as her fingernails dug into the sensitive skin of his wrist. The biting pain intermingling with the pleasure made him thrust faster, losing his tempo.

He watched with heavy lids as her hand disappeared underneath her, excitement flooding through him at the thought of her touching herself for him, and was met with surprise when he felt her fingers grazing his scrotum. They wrapped around them, tugging slightly, and his head started to swim. He was going to orgasm too soon if she continued doing that.

“You’re gonna make me come,” he said through gritted teeth.

“Yesss,” she hissed.

“No,” he said, grabbing her wrist. “Not yet.”

She gasped as he removed her hand from his scrotum swiftly, and pinned it against her hip. His other hand reached down and around her hips, his fingers searching out her clitoris, and began to rub in a circular motion vigorously. He thrust his hips and stroked her in tandem. Thrust, swipe, thrust, swipe. Her pinned hand balled into a fist as the moans emitted from her, no longer muffled by the blanket, grew louder each time he delved into her, deeper with each swipe of his fingers across her clit.

His gaze slipped down to where they met, watching as he lost himself inside of her over and over again. His eyes trailed up the delicate line of her spine, her back graceful and elegant as her breasts pressed firmly into the mattress below them. Her free hand clenched, a fist full of the gaudy comforter, with her eyes squeezed shut tightly.

Suddenly, she lifted herself up with her free hand, arching her back towards him into a curve that would make most ballerinas jealous while thrusting herself back into him, opening herself to him. He could feel her tightening around him as he watched her hair fall between her shoulder blades.

The clenching of her muscles over the length of him sent him over the edge soon after, and he pulled her to him as closely as possible, burying himself deep inside her as he poured everything he had into her.

The pillows offered little restraint as they fell into them, the covers pulled up loosely around them. He pressed his face into her neck as she pulled him close, wrapping her arms around him as his leg lay lazily over the both of hers. A genuine smile spreads across his face as he feels her press a kiss to his temple.

Within just a few minutes her breathing deepened and her muscles had relaxed, but sleep evaded him like a thief in the night. Insomnia wasn’t a stranger in his bed, but it was one that hadn’t paid him a visit for some time, since he’d started sharing a bed with her. Normally, the warmth of her body and her slowed breathing would lull him to sleep, but tonight he lay there listening to the thrum of her heartbeat as details from their case hemorrhaged into his thoughts.

A familiar restlessness stirred within him, and he pressed a kiss to her lips before rolling cautiously out of bed. The utter peacefulness that graced her face was something he longed for, something he’d experienced recently, but knew was out of his reach tonight. He dressed quietly so not to wake her, donning his running shorts, an old t-shirt, and sneakers, then snuck out the door.

The air was surprisingly cold and damp, and he quickly regretted not throwing on a hooded sweatshirt for the run as goose bumps prickle up the skin of his arms. The asphalt of the parking lot is well lit and glossy with freshly settled frost as his feet pat pat pat across it. It was well after midnight, and the streets appeared to be empty. Most businesses were dark, closed for the night as he turned onto the sidewalk of the main strip into town. Up ahead, a square sign for a bar blinked blue like a beacon, his direction altering as it called to him, like a flame beckoning a moth.

Xxxx

The bar was dimly lit, smelling faintly of cigarette smoke and peanuts, with slow jazz playing softly in the background. It sat nearly empty, the only other patron, he realized upon his observation at the door, was an older-looking gentleman who had planted himself at the end of the stools near the handmade sign for the restrooms. His flannel covered arms sat heavily atop the slick, dark wooded bar; his grey hair was stringy and a few months overdue for a cut. The man looks as if he’d sat in that seat every Friday night for the last 10 years. The bartender, a slender man in his late 30s, bustled around behind the bar, then rang a rag out over a bucket.

“That’s not how it went and you know it, Phil,” the bartender said while wiping the bar top lazily.

The old man, Phil, lifted his glass of beer a few inches just as the cloth was swiped underneath.

“What I know is you heard wrong, son, which ain’t much of a s’prise since you youngin’s don’t seem to know how to listen,” he chuffed.

“They were inbreds from northern Ohio who were set loose by their families. Retaliation on the townfolk. And don’t start in on me about that ‘your generation has gone to shit’ again. I listen just fine, you stubborn old mule.”

“Inbreds? Who’s been tellin’ you these stories? You got ‘em all twisted up.” He took a long swig of his beer, then licks the froth from his top lip. “They’re in Michigan, and they ain’t inbred. They came into this world just the same as you and I.”

The bartender tossed his rag into the bucket before walking over towards Mulder.

“Hey, man, take a seat wherever. What can I get ya?”

Mulder sat a few stools down from Phil. “I’ll take a scotch on the rocks.”

“Now that’s a man who knows how his poison!” Phil yelled, lifting his beer towards Mulder in salute. “Bet he listens as well as he drinks.”

Mulder smiled and nodded once in his direction as the bartender poured his drink, shaking his head.

“Don’t mind him. He’s about 5 beers deep, and a marble or two short.”

Mulder chuckled. “What were you two arguing about?”

“That? Oh, nothing really. Just an old story my granddad used to tell me; an old wives’ tale to scare kids from drinking too much and drowning in the local lake. Phil over there thinks his version is the right one, and I say he’s wrong.”

“Your granddad told tall tales, sonny,” Phil said while tapping his now empty glass on the bar. “I speak the truth.”

“There’s a difference between telling the truth, and just yelling louder so you’ll be heard,” the bartender said as he crossed towards a black door labeled “Office” that sits near the back behind the bar. “I’ll be right back.”

Mulder took a sip of his scotch, glancing quickly at the man a few stools to his left.

“You ever been to western Michigan, son?” Phil asked.

“Can’t say that I have.”

The old man gave a somber nod, then glanced at the door the bartender had just disappeared behind. He shuffled himself out of his seat, empty glass in hand, and cautiously maneuvered himself behind the bar.

“You see, I’m a trucker by trade. Been doing it all my life, it’s all I know,” he said while filling his glass to the brim with one of the beers on tap. His glass expertly tipped to minimize the amount of head at the top. “I ain’t from around here, I live in Michigan. West side, just a few hours south of Grand Rapids. Been living there all my life,” he said as he slowly waddled his way back around the bar. The stool creaked as he eased himself onto it, shifting side to side until he was content.

“Inherited the land from my daddy, who inherited it from his daddy. Nice wooded area, quiet. Every couple of years we get some big business wanting to buy us out, build condominiums or strip malls or the like. Always said ‘no thank you.’ Land like that needs to stay in the family, know what I mean, son?”

Mulder nodded absently, suddenly aware that his glass was a few drops away from empty. He should have asked Phil to top him off as well while he was back there.

“Ain’t much in the way of neighbors. Closest one we got’s about a mile or so down the road. Sure, we get the occasional teenagers that don’t know no better, and like to play their pranks and go drinking in the woods and such. That’s gotten less and less through the years, now with everyone being all concerned about technology and Facespace and the google. Folks just don’t go camping anymore in this day and age.” He paused only to take a large gulp of his beer. “It’s probably for the best, ‘cause ya see, son, people that don’t know the area well, they have the tendency to turn up missing.”

“Missing?” Mulder asked, his interest piqued.

Phil nodded. “Gone without a trace. Disappeared.”

“Were they kidnapped? Abducted?”

“Like by aliens? No. No, son, aliens ain’t the problem.” He took another swig of his beer, drawing out his pause for dramatic effect. “You got time for a story?”

Xxxxx

It was 1:37am and two scotch on the rocks later by the time Mulder was sneaking back into her room. The room sat quietly as he locked the door behind him. She lay on her back with her arms outstretched, her small form motionless except for the slight rise and fall of her chest as she breathed deeply, having finally found solace in sleep. He tip-toed silently to the edge of the bed. His space next to her was open and inviting, but instead of climbing in, he stood there and watched her in her slumber, her face clear of any lingering tension.

With a forced, deep sigh, he pushed down the all too familiar guilt that began to resurface within him. Guilt over the last week, the last few months, the last 6 years. He was old friends with this feeling, the weight on his shoulders that he carried with him daily as it pricked around his edges, threatening to seep into him deeper and snuff out any glimmer of happiness he’d managed to grasp onto. But she was here; breathing, content, understanding.

He undressed down to his boxers and slid carefully slid under the covers, her body immediately sensed his presence and scooted towards him seeking out his body heat. An unexpected flicker of excitement passed over him as he wrapped his arm around her, pulled her tighter against him, and her muscles relaxed in his embrace.

He thought he remembered Scully saying she’d loved camping as a kid. He hoped he remembered correctly. If his estimations were correct, they would be in western Michigan just after lunch tomorrow.

xxxxx

Kaya cursed under her breath as her long brunette ponytail got caught between her shoulder and the shoulder strap of the heavy backpack she was carrying. She shifted the weight of it while shaking her hair free, as she trailed a handful of steps behind Jacob who was leading the way through the woods, using a long grey branch he’d found about a mile back as a walking stick, punctuating each step with a stab to the ground. The excitement was practically radiating off of him, as he pushed his way through the tall weeds and between tall trees that provided little shade. The trees were dense, but their leaves had already begun to fall in the midst of autumn, covering the ground in a sea of crimson and orange.

Her boyfriend of two years wasn’t one to stake claim in much of anything, but he had proven to be a good leader. Resident Advisor, the football team’s up and coming star, and the president of a handful of volunteer clubs on campus. Always one to have a multitude of friends, and everyone knew his name. Completely opposite of herself, she mused for the umpteenth time. Kaya, an introvert at heart, had instead chosen the more artistic route; drawing and acting courses, Assistant Director for the Theater Department’s fall production, and the occasional independent study course. She reveled in her time spent alone, excelling in areas where she could hide in the shadows, float under the radar.

 

How Jacob had managed to sweet talk her into a coffee date two years ago, she’d never begin to understand. He wasn’t her ‘type’ at all, not that she claimed to have much of a ‘type.’ He just wasn’t who she’d envisioned herself falling in love with freshman year of college. He wasn’t dark and mysterious, or into reading classic literature. He couldn’t name one foreign horror movie that he hadn’t fallen asleep to. And yet here she was, head over heels with a man who taught her the in’s and out’s of a football game, who watched old episodes of Ren and Stimpy in his boxer shorts, and had a Star Wars poster hanging above his bed.

 

A man who was quickly picking up his pace, she’d realized suddenly, and she’d quickly lose track of if she didn’t pick up hers. He stood taller as his legs moved faster, his chest puffed out with pride. Sir Jacob, King of His Uncle’s Cousin’s Best Friend’s 20 Acres. She chuckled to herself as she imagined him with a crown made of leaves, sitting atop a throne of broken branches and pinecones.

 

“What’s so funny back there?” He asked while slowing his steps to take a glance at her. His blue eyes shone with excitement of the weekend, as a smirk spread across his face.

 

“Oh, nothing,” she said as she fell into step with him. “Are we getting close? I think Becca and Kev are about spent.”

 

They both looked back to see the other couple had fallen behind, a few yards back. Kev’s hands were gesturing wildly, his face equally as animated, as Becca picked at the ends of her blonde hair, clearly disinterested.

 

Kaya felt Jacob’s fingers intertwine with hers, drawing her attention back to him.

 

“Just a few more minutes. Up there, just past that big tree,” he replied, nodding in the direction up ahead of them.

 

“You’ve memorized the location by a tree? There must be hundreds, no thousands, of trees out here. That could be any tree, Jacob.”

 

He laughed and pulled her forward, urging her to walking faster. “No babe, that’s not just any tree. That’s the spot, I promise. We’re really close.”

 

“How can you tell?”

 

“I just can.”

 

A few minutes later they were in a small clearing, just a few yards wide in each direction with a fire pit in the center. More than enough room for two tents, Kaya thought as she dropped her pack to the ground.

 

“Bro, where’s all the campsites?” Kev asked as he walked up, also dropping his pack. He removed his baseball cap and ran his hand through his dark, wavy hair, now slick with sweat from the 3 mile hike.

 

“I told you, there aren’t any. This isn’t a campground. It’s just a spot on my grandpa’s property that I used to come to as a kid,” Jacob replied. The cooler was shoved to the side as he made quick work of pulling out the tent and it’s thin rods, lining them up in a neat row. “Might wanna get to workin’ on your tent, though. It’ll be dark soon, and you’ll be bummin’ if you have to do it by flashlight.”

 

Kaya walked over and nudged Becca’s thigh with the toe of her shoe. She lay on her back with her arm slung over her face. Her hair splayed around her face, leaves tangling themselves into the blonde tresses.

 

“I’m so tired,” Becca whined. “You guys said it was a quick, easy hike. That was like 40 miles of rough terrain through the backwoods of hillbilly central. Liars.”

 

They hadn’t known each other for very long, but they’d become fast friends in the recent few weeks. Partly due to the fact that their boyfriends were best friends since childhood. Kaya nudged her again. “Come on. The faster we get the tents up, the faster we get to relax next to a fire and drink a beer.”

 

Becca sighed and threw her hand in the air. Kaya grasped it, and pulled her friend up to her feet. “Now you’re speaking my language.”

Xxxxxxx

The sun had fallen behind the trees at a steady, rapid pace, like the big ball in Times Square on New Years Eve. The two couples sat comfortably on the ground forming a half circle around the fire pit, the flame burning orange and bright against the inky darkness of the night, as shadows flickered and danced along the foliage that surrounded them. The temperature had dropped just as quickly as the sun, leaving the air crisp and chilly, smelling rich and heavily of dried leaves and damp dirt.

 

“You should have brought marshmallows,” Kev stated before drinking what was left of his beer, then pulled another out of the cooler that sat next to him. The crack and hiss of the opening can echoed loudly in the stillness of the woods.

 

“Mmm, and chocolate,” Becca chimed, pulling her wool blanket tighter around her while nuzzling closer to Kev. Kaya watched as he swung his arm around Becca lazily, tucking her dainty frame into the crook of his arm. She fit into his side perfectly, as if that’s where she belonged. Strange, considering that they’d only been dating for a short while. A few months earlier they’d been introduced at a 80s themed campus party. Her long blonde hair had been crimped and pulled into a side ponytail, emphasizing the oversized tee, fishnets, and leg warmers that covered half of the heels she was wearing. Four inch heels she’d borrowed from a girl down the hall that were a half-size too big, causing her to slip and fall into Kev, promptly knocking the solo cup of ‘pop’ he’d been holding. It had been love at first crash. They’d been inseparable ever since.

 

He pressed a quick kiss to the crown of her head, before bringing his beer to his lips.

 

“You could have brought some,” Kaya suggested, sipping the little bit of beer that had collected at the rim of her can.

 

“We brought breakfast,” Kev said, shrugging.

 

“We supplied the festivities and the location,” Jacob retorted, holding his Bud Light up high.

 

“Well we brought-“ Kev started.

 

“Ok, ok, enough,” Kaya said, interrupting the conversation before it turned into a full fledged argument. Her boyfriend loved to argue, and his best friend loved to egg him on. They could go for hours, talking circles around each other, voices rising, before finally forgetting what they were bickering about in the first place. “Kev, tell us a story.”

 

Becca groaned, and shuffled her hand around the blanket blindly until finally stumbling across what she’d been searching for. Her silver flask. She twisted off the cap and proceeded to take a large gulp.

 

“Hey,” Kev said laughing, while jostling his girlfriend a bit. “My stories aren’t that bad.”

 

“Oh, honey,” she said sweetly before taking another long swig, and passing it to Kaya. “Whiskey. You’ll need it,” she said as her friend brought the flask to her nose, taking a tentative sniff before letting the liquor stream smoothly down her throat, settling warmly in her belly. “And they are terrible, baby. They really are.”

 

“No, I got a good one this time.”

 

“Not the one with the guy with the hook for the hand,” Jacob pleaded. He reached for another beer, shaking the small bit of ice from the top.

 

“Why not? That’s a great one! There’s suspense, sex, and gore. The horror trifecta,” Kev said.

 

“No, tell the one about the guy in the backseat of the girl’s car,” Becca suggested. “And she doesn’t know about him and his murderous ways until after running away from the creepy gas station attendant.”

 

“Not that one again, he told that last weekend,” Kaya whined. “Bloody Mary.”

 

“Come on, Kaya,” Jacob said laughing. “That one’s not even scary.”

 

“It is!” She exclaimed, nudging him in the chest. “It gives me the creeps every time.”
Jacob wrapped his arm around her, squeezing her arm gently. “That’s just ‘cause you’re easy to scare, babe.”

 

“Am not,” she whispered while crossing her arms over her chest, attempting to appear angry. The giggles that bubbled from her lips, however, gave away her act. Her boyfriend leaned over and pressed his lips to hers, pulling her closer to deepen the kiss.

“Oh, come on,” Becca yelled. “Get a room.”

 

“Or a tent,” Kev added. “I got it. I’ve got a story.”

 

Jacob broke the kiss, but kept his arm firmly around Kaya. The heavy flannel jacket felt soft against her cheek as she molded the side of her body against his, her head resting on his shoulder. She relished in the warmth of his body heat that bled through the thick layers of clothing.

 

“Once upon a time, in a far away land,” he started.

 

“Are you kidding me?” Jacob said tossing an empty beer can at him.

 

“I am, I am, I’m kidding,” he replied, laughing. “Ok. So I heard this story a few years ago from my brother’s friend Keith. He swore up and down that it was true, that it happened to a few kids that he went to high school with. They’d decided to go camping one summer, there was like 5 or 6 of them. This one guy, Jeff, said he knew of a place off the beaten path. Secluded.

 

So, they all pack up their shit and head out there. It was your usual camping extravaganza. You know, swimming at the lake, makeshift beer pong in the afternoon, hotdogs for dinner. They were all drinkin’ that first night, having a good time, before finally chilling out and relaxing around a little bonfire.”

 

Kaya smirked. “I’m sensing a similarity here, Kev.”

 

“Just listen.” Kev shifted on the ground a bit, drained the rest of his beer, and then continued. “It was quiet as hell out there once the sun set. There weren’t any animals making noise, no wind to shake the trees, nothing but the sounds of this dude Jeff and his friends. After a while the beer started to kick in, and nature was calling. Jeff got up and left his group to do his business when he heard a shuffling off to the side. It caught him off guard, because as I’d just said, it was eerily quiet most of the night. He looked around the best he could, but couldn’t make anything out but tree trunks and bushes. He tried to brush it off and finish his business, but the shuffling got a little closer. So he did what any strong man would do in that situation: he zipped up and boogied back to his friends.”

 

“Sounds brave,” Becca said, her voice dripping with sarcasm.

 

“Curiosity killed the cat, babe. Anyways, when he got back to his friends he told them that something was hanging around their campsite, but they all just laughed it off and handed him another beer. Probably a raccoon or something, no biggie.”

 

Just then a large crack of a branch sounded behind them followed by a rustling of leaves, evoking a screech from the girls.

 

“You did that on purpose!” Becca yelled at Kev while hitting him repeatedly in the arm.

 

“What? How?! I’ve been here the whole time,” he said while putting up his arms to fend off her slaps and punches.

 

“It must be one of your friends then, trying to scare us while you tell us a creepy story about the woods. While we’re in the woods, I might add!” Kaya said. “Jacob, you said no one else knew we were out here.”

 

“No one else knows, babe, calm down. It’s probably just a-“

 

“A raccoon?”

 

The boys laughed. “I was going to say deer,” Jacob amended.

 

“Seriously, Kaya, chill,” Kev said. “So later that night- it’s cool that I continue, right? We’re all good?”

 

Kaya sighed and rolled her eyes. “Yeah, go on.”

 

“Later that night, everyone went to their tents and passed out. Jeff woke up suddenly, but wasn’t sure what it was that had pulled him from his sleep. He sat there for a few, listening for any signs that one of his friends were awake, but it was quiet outside. Suddenly, he hears someone calling his name in the distance. He quickly unzipped his tent, thinking one of his friends might need help, but when he walked outside the campsite was quiet. Peaceful. He checked everyone’s tents, and everyone was accounted for, still sleeping. Then he heard it again, the calling of his name.”

 

The rustling of leaves behind them caused Kaya to turn suddenly, knocking over Jacob’s beer.
“Hey, easy there,” he said, setting it upright.

 

“I heard something. Give me the flashlight.”

 

“You guys gonna let me finish this story, or what?” Kev said.

 

“Just wait,” said Kaya as she flicked on the mag light and shone it behind them into the woods. She swept the beam slowly from left to right, then back again.

 

Nothing.

 

“I told you, it’s probably a deer. They’re stealthy animals,” Jacob said while rubbing her knee.

 

Kaya shook her head. “Well, they’re being pretty noisy for being so ninja-like.”

 

The four of them gathered around the flashlight, watching intently as Kaya swept the light back and forth in a fluid motion. It was quiet, save for their shallow breaths. The leaves rustled off to the left, though just as the light was focused in that direction, they stilled.

 

“This is bullshit, guys,” Kev said, standing. “Come on, Becca, let’s go for a walk.”

 

She turned to look at him, her eyes wide. “Now?”

 

He crossed over to her and pulled her to her feet. “Yeah, now. It’s just some stupid animal.”
A pocket knife and bottled water fell out of his backpack as he dug deep, before finally pulling out a spare flashlight. “Plus, Jacob said there was a lake nearby.”

 

“Don’t you wanna finish your story?”

 

“Nah,” he replied. “I’ll finish it later. We’ll be right back.”

 

Becca took his hand, shot her friend an apologetic look, and Kaya watched them traipse off in the distance. She could still hear their bickering about skinny dipping as their light faded slowly behind more trees, the deeper into the woods they went. Her stomach felt uneasy as she settled back near the fire, tucking the mag light snuggly into her lap.

 

“They’ll be ok, right?” She asked.

 

Jacob smiled and nodded. “Of course.”

Xxxxx

Becca took another potato chip from the bag and placed it softly on the stump of the fallen tree. The woods were darker than either of them had expected. What leaves were left on the trees created a thick canopy between the ground and the sky, efficiently blocking out the majority of the moon light that lit up their camp site. She’d never been one to be scared of the dark before, but being out in the wilderness and having nearly zero visibility made her nervous.

 

“What are you doing back there?” Kev called, shining his flashlight in her direction, illuminating her and her immediate surroundings. “Hey, are those my potato chips?”

 

“Yes,” she replied, giggling. “I’m using them as markers, so we know how to get back.”
“I was planning on eating those.”

 

“You still can, silly, there’s plenty left,” she said before putting one into her mouth. The salt made her mouth water instantly, satisfying a craving after one too many beers and a few sips of liquor.

 

Kev walked up beside her, poking his fingers into her waist, eliciting more giggles. “You’re drunk.”

 

“And you’re cute,” she replied, throwing her arms around his neck. He leaned down and wrapped his arms around her waist as he pressed his lips to hers. Slowly, his fingers slid under her sweatshirt and danced up the soft skin of her lower back.

 

“Oh no you don’t, mister. There’s no way I’m having sex- did you hear that?”

 

He kissed the tender spot below the line of her jaw, “there’s no way you’re having sex.”

 

Becca gasped as dry leaves crunched a few yards away, followed by a dull thump.
“No, that.”

 

“Not this again,” he groaned into her neck.

 

Thump thump thump crack

 

“I heard that,” he said, turning his face towards direction of the sound. “Jacob? That you, bro?”

 

Muted footsteps thudded sporadically around them, as leaves rustled.

 

“Seriously, this isn’t funny anymore. You’re scaring Becca.”

 

Becca grabbed his hand and held it tight. “Let’s go back, Kev,” she whispered. He nodded and began to lead her back the way they came. The beam from the flashlight lit their way, as they followed each marker she had laid out. When suddenly they ended.

 

“What the fuck?” she whispered, looking around anxiously.

 

“Just keep moving,” he said, trying to pull her along.

 

“No, Kev, someone stole my markers.”

 

“Doesn’t matter, I know the way back. Come on, babe, we have to keep moving.”

 

Thump thump thump thump

 

Becca gasped as Kev shone the light behind them, but they saw nothing besides tree trunks and brush.

 

“It’s following us,” she whispered. Kev tightened his hold on her hand and jerked her towards him, pulling her into a sprint.

Xxxxx

Kaya pulled the hooded sweatshirt over her head quickly, thankful for the immediate warmth it offered. They should have planned this for an earlier weekend when the nights weren’t so cold. Their tent offered little in the way of heat, though it fended off the majority of the wind that sliced right through you and burrowed deep into your bones. They would be lucky if it managed to hover anywhere above 60 degrees tonight, which meant sleeping in layers and waking up damp with dew. She shuddered at the thought.

 

“Shouldn’t they be back by now?” she asked, pulling at the hem of her sweatshirt.

 

Jacob shuffled their bags to the other side of the air mattress, then pulled the sleeping bag loosely on top. “Probably not. You know how they are,” he said with a smirk.

 

Kaya fought the urge to smile back. She did. She remembered what it was like to be in a new relationship, and not be able to keep your hands off of each other. They were probably off screwing around on the beach of that lake. She shuddered at that thought as well. It was far too cold outside to be lying naked on a bunch of dirty sand, especially considering they had blankets and an air mattress at their disposal here.

 

“Well,” she said as she wrapped her arms around his waist, “if they don’t come back soon, I might need you to keep me warm until they do.” She leaned into the kiss that he pressed to her lips.

Xxxxx

Her lungs were burning, and she was finding it difficult to breathe as her head swam from lack of oxygen.

 

“Please stop,” she barked. “Please, Kev, I think we lost them.”

 

She pulled roughly at his hand, urging him to slow down. When he finally let go of her hand, she bent over, resting her hands on her knees as she struggled to slow her rapid breaths. Kev stood next to her with his hands on his hips, his chest heaving.

 

“Probably just some fucking Michigan rednecks screwing with us for being on their property, anyways,” she added with a forced laugh. “Playing a practical joke, stealing my chips, trying to scare us.”

 

“We’re not on anyone else’s property, Bec. It’s Jacob’s grandpa’s property. He’s so rickety that he don’t have it in him to chase us around like this.”

 

Kev turned to his right with his head perched high, then his left, then back to his right again.
“We’re lost aren’t we?” Becca asked.

 

“Nah, I know exactly where we’re at,” he said, still turning in place. “We just, uh…we just gotta watch for the light from the campfire.”

 

A branch snapped behind them, and Becca gasped loudly.

 

“We gotta move,” Kev whispered, reaching for her hand. She gripped it tight as they started jogging.

 

“Shouldn’t we be back already?”

 

“I don’t know babe, we were walking for a while. Just watch for the light of the fire.”

 

Kev pushed on, his legs burning just as much as his lungs. He was out of shape, nowhere near where he needed to be to outrun whoever was fucking with them. When they got back to camp, he was going to give Jacob so much shit, and then tell him they needed to leave-

 

The first thing he registered was hearing was a high-pitched squeal, and then his face was planted into the ground. A burning pain surged through his chest as he inhaled sharply, dirt and grit vacuumed into his lungs through his nostrils and mouth. He turned his face quickly, his body pushing him to forcefully cough out the foreign material. With each hack that racked through his body, his nose throbbed, sending a sharp pain radiating throughout his face. Twigs and leaves poked at his arms and hands as he reached around, before bringing his hands to his nose. His fingertips felt wet and sticky, he didn’t need light to see to know that it was blood.

 

“Bec,” he called as another cough ripped through his ribcage. He pulled himself up onto his hands and knees, attempting to scan the area for her as tears from hacking filled his eyes blurring his already limited vision.

 

Nothing.

 

“BECCA!” He hollered. “Jacob! Kaya! Fuck, ANYONE!”

 

Becca had to be close, he thought. It was only moments ago that he’d tripped, she couldn’t have gotten that far.

 

His gait wavered slightly as he hoisted himself to his feet and attempted to walk, grasping at tree trunks to help stabilize himself. The woods had gone completely silent as he concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, each step bringing on a wave of nausea worse than the last. He swallowed the bile that had collected at the back of his throat.

 

“Bec,” he whined. “Please.”

 

A sharp pain exploded across the back of his skull, then his world went black.

Xxxxx

“Let’s just go look. It’ll only take a few minutes,” Kaya said as she sat tying the laces to her shoes. “They couldn’t have gotten far, and they’ll freeze out there if they’re lost. It’s cold out.”

 

Jacob reluctantly agreed, and within a few minutes they were deep into the woods, yards away from their campsite. The foliage was dense along either side of them, making the pathway they walked along more narrow as the beam from Jacob’s flashlight lit their way.

 

The chilled wind blew in breezy gusts, the scattered leaves remaining on the trees bristling above them. Kaya lifted her eyes to the canopy as Jacob led her by hand, the moonlight filtering through the roadmap of branches that stretched overhead. Thin and spindly, they criss-crossed and weaved throughout each other.

 

“What-“ she squeaked as she was suddenly struggling to keep upright, her feet fumbling beneath her. Her fingers tightened around Jacobs hand for support as she stumbled into some brush.

 

“You ok?” he asked.

 

“Yeah,” she said, laughing. “I’m so damn clumsy that I trip over my own two feet.”

 

Jacob chuckled. “Babe, you trip over air.”

 

He shone the light at her feet to prevent any further tripping. “Wait, did you get hurt?”

 

Kaya glanced down at her sneakers to see smears of blood streaked across the sides. “Not even a scratch,” she said. Her stomach turned at the thought of possibly stepping through the remains of an animal carcass. “It’s not my blood.”

 

Her eyes flicked around, attempting to find a fresh leaf to wipe it off, when Jacob gasped and stumbled away from her. “Kaya, we gotta go.”

 

“Just a minute, let me-“

 

“No, babe we gotta go.”

 

She sighed in frustration, the argument on the tip of her tongue when she saw what he was moving away from.

 

A female’s white tennis shoe lay on its side just on the edge of the path, blood pooled around it and smeared across the leather, soaking the stitching of the seams. Bits of dirt clumped along the edges of the sole.

 

“Oh my god,” she whispered as she bent at her knees to get a closer look.

“Kaya,” he said, his tone low with warning.

 

She clutched a small twig and tipped the shoe upright, then screamed.

 

Dried mottled blood and lumps of tissue pooled out of the opening of the shoe, the actual foot still nestled in place. What was left of the ankle was ragged, chunks of flesh still torn and hanging around the edges, the bones jutting out at an odd angle.

 

“Becca,” she cried through a sob.

 

Jacob grabbed her by the arm and pulled her away. “We gotta go, now.”

 

Tears streamed down her face as she continued to stare at the shoe. “It’s Becca! That’s Becca’s shoe! We can’t leave them!”

 

“We have to!” he yelled, and began to lead her swiftly back the way they came down the trail. Her vision blurred with fresh tears as she stumbled to keep up with him through the uneven terrain. Her voice was weak as she began calling out her friends’ names, begging for them to yell out their location.

 

“Stop,” Jacob whispered harshly, squeezing her hand. His chest was heaving with deep breaths. “Stop yelling, we have to be quiet.”

 

“But Jacob,” she cried. “We have to go back. We have to help them.”

 

He ignored her as he continued the walk back to their campsite, dodging branches in their path, moving quickly. She thought she heard him mutter it’s too late, just before he stopped suddenly, sending her crashing into his back.

 

Their camp lay just a few feet ahead of them and was dark, deserted. The smell of the smoke that billowed upwards from their recently snuffed out campfire filled her nose.

 

“Did you put it out before we left?” she whispered.

 

“No.”

 

Kaya could feel the muscles in his back go suddenly stiff as the dead foliage rustled roughly behind them. The sound spread to the sides of them, off a ways in the distance but close enough to hear. They both look around wildly, his flashlight whipping to the source of the noise only to see the brush shaking.

 

A twig snapped behind them.

 

Whatever was surrounding them was getting closer.

 

“Get in the tent,” he whispers harshly, as he flicked off the light.

 

“No, Jacob, we need to run!”

 

“We don’t have time.” He grabbed her by the arm roughly, and pushed her in the direction of the tent. “Get in. Hurry. And be quiet.”

 

Her sneakers shuffled in the dirt as she tripped over herself in an attempt to move quickly, her hands and knees bearing the load of her weight as she fell to them forcefully. What little bit of moonlight filtering through the trees quickly died out as she crawled hurriedly into the tent and zipped it shut, plunging herself into complete darkness. The pitter patter of footsteps could be heard all around her, like small waves of rolling thunder.

 

This was such a bad idea, she thought to herself. She shouldn’t have left him alone out there. Her heart raced in time with the scattered footsteps as she held her breath.

 

A deep, loud wail suddenly filled the night air, sounding off like a siren, warning of the threat of a disaster. She covered her ears as the voice wailed, pleaded for it to end, pressing harder as it screamed to the heavens for mercy. She rocked back and forth, shaking her head as muffled sobs escaped her lips.

 

“Please stop,” she whispered. “Just stop.”

 

She had to get out of here, she suddenly thought.

 

She winced as she took her hands away from her ears, now sore from the pressure and force she’d used against them, and crawled slowly on her hands and knees to the door. Her hand shook rapidly as she reached out blindly to search for the clasp, absently raking her fingers along the fabric of the tent. The cold metal grazed her fingertip, she grasped it tightly, and she tugged upwards only to be stop mid-zip.
“KAYA,” Jacob screamed. “RUUUUUUN!”

 

She froze.

 

It was amazing what the human brain will do in the event of something sudden and tragic, shutting down any logical response, causing one to freeze. Paralyzed with fear, unable to think straight or process the next move they should make.

 

She sat there unable to move, praying to anything holy for the screaming to end, when his voice finally died out with a gurgle. The sound of clothing being ripped and wet gnashing filled the audible void that his screams had filled just moments before. Ringing shrilled in her ears as her eyes strained to try and search out shadows, figures, anything through the material of the tent as her heart beat wildly in her chest.

 

Her brain screamed at her to escape, her body twitched in response, in anticipation. She had to go. She had to run, get help. NOW.

 

After a deep breath, she began to lift the pull tab when a solid thump on the ground directly in front of her startled her backwards. She launched herself to the rear of the tent, the elastic in the lining ricocheting her forwards a few inches, the poles shaking violently in an attempt to stay in place. Her blood-curdling scream filled the small space as the zippered door ripped open.

 

Xxxxx

 

The sun sat high and bright in the sky as Mulder and Scully walked leisurely through the woods, armed with backpacks, and a large blue cooler on wheels that held the sleeping bags. The ground was covered by a thick layer of dead, dried leaves and miscellaneous vegetation, causing the cooler to catch every so often, resulting in frequent breaks to unclog the little plastic wheel wells for smoother travels.

 

“This is it, Scully. This is the spot,” Mulder said triumphantly as they entered a small clearing, his arms outstretched.

 

Scully groaned as she sets her backpack to the ground. She was feeling every minute of the two hour hike in her shoulders and lower back. “What makes this spot better than the one we saw a mile back?”

 

Mulder ignored her question with a smirk, instead busying himself with gathering and arranging their supplies. His blatant refusal to even make eye contact with her drew up the edges of her lips. She’d accepted his reliance on hunches and gut feelings long ago, but it never stopped her from questioning them, whether it be in the field or their personal life.

 

Their personal life.
The fact that they shared anything personal still managed to surprise her sometimes. The progress of their relationship had been natural, organic, but the gravity of it all still had the tendency to catch her off guard from time to time, occasionally leaving her wondering how they got here. From partners to friends. From friends to best friends. From best friends to lovers.

 

She watched as he stacked the few pieces of pretreated firewood into a perfect pyramid, his attention to detail exceptional. Her father would have liked him, she mused.

 

Smiling, she grabbed the bag that held the tent, and began to pull the cord loose. “You know, Ahab used to take us camping as a family when we were young. It was infrequent, since we moved around a lot, but every summer he always tried to plan a trip. Said it was good for us.”

 

Mulder placed bottles of water in the cooler, as Scully shook out the tent and continued.

 

“Missy was always the first to complain. She always hated the idea of camping, of sleeping in the wilderness, getting dirty. She’d lag behind as we hiked to Dad’s spot that he’d picked out, drag her feet as we encouraged her to walk faster. But as soon as we’d set up camp, she’d set herself in the middle of a clearing with her eyes closed. I remember I would ask her what she was doing, beg her to come play, but she always said the same thing, ‘I’m becoming one with nature, Dana, buzz off.’” She chuckled.

 

Mulder laughed quietly and began feeding the slim poles through the loops of the fabric, the simple two-person tent finally starting to take form. The sun had started to set behind the trees that lined the clearing, casting a tangerine glow onto them and their surroundings. Her auburn hair looked like fire against the earthy backdrop, and in that moment, his breath caught in his chest and his heart ached at the utter beauty that radiated off of that woman.

 

“My brothers and I loved every minute of it,” she continued, her voice interrupting his thoughts. “We loved playing outdoors all day long, hiking, exploring, fishing. Mom would sit on the beach or the dock, nose deep in a romance novel while Ahab just sat back and watched us, content.”

 

“Did you bait your own hook?” Mulder asked.

 

“Of course I did. Grab the stakes.”

 

He grabbed the bag and tossed it in her direction. “Even as a youngster, slicing and dicing.”

 

“More like poking and prodding.”

 

“Stabbing and sticking?” Mulder asked.

 

Scully smirked. “Yeah, something like that.”
Mulder hammered the stakes into the ground while Scully gathered their sleeping bags and backpacks full of amenities.

 

“What about you, Mulder?”

 

“Um,” he said between each smack of the hammer against the plastic stake, driving it deeper into the ground. “Once. I went camping with a kid from class for a weekend.”

 

Scully stood watching him, her arms crossed in front of her as she waited for him to continue.
“That’s it?” she asked when he didn’t.

 

“Yeah.” smack “Wasn’t really anything to write home about.”

 

He stood suddenly, tossing the hammer to the side and brushing the dirt from his knees. “All done, Scully. We are officially up and running.”

 

Xxxxx

 

They spent the rest of the evening preparing and eating a simple dinner over a campfire, as the sky faded from rich jewel tones to an inky black.

 

Once the stars twinkled overhead, Scully pulled the flashlights from his pack muttering something about having to go to the bathroom later in the dark, needing the light, and avoiding a broken ankle. With a flick of her thumb, she tested each one, but was rewarded with only one working properly. The other shone dim, half of the light of the other.

 

“Mulder, when was the last time you changed the batteries?”

 

Mulder sat idly next to the campfire, leaning back against the log he’d discovered earlier hidden in the brush. The bark had worn off over time, leaving the surface smooth. He’d been thrilled with his find, telling Scully it was a ‘camping couch.’ She’d gently tried to explain that they wouldn’t use it, that the ground would be softer on their rear ends, but he had been insistent. After about ten minutes of utilizing his ‘camping couch,’ Mulder had begrudgingly shifted to the ground and leaned against it.

 

“Recently,” he answered slowly.

 

“How recently?”

 

“Um…definitely at least once since Clinton has been in office.”

 

She sighed. “Well, then just grab me the spare batteries.”

 

“Dana Scully, girl scout extraordinaire, saves the day again. Not only are you good looking, but your camping preparation skills are unparalleled,” he said with a wide smile on his face.

 

Scully looked at him blankly.

 

“What?” he asked.

 

“Mulder, you were supposed to grab the extra batteries.”

 

He raked his memory for their trip to the sporting goods store earlier in the day, and the list of items she’d given him to obtain. She’d insisted they would be more efficient if they split up, meaning they could get on the road quicker, as she handed him a small scrap of paper with a list written in her precise writing: A case of bottled water, bug spray, a package of toilet paper, his smile began to fade, and C-cell batteries.

 

Shit.

 

“Scully...”

 

She shook her head. “So, we’re down a flashlight. This one will be dead after the first bathroom break. We will have to use the other sparingly.”

 

Mulder stood and crossed the few feet to the cooler to retrieve a cold bottle of water, then sits atop of it. “So, now what, Scully? Do we roast marshmallows? Tell scary campfire stories? We could sing a round of Kumbaya, but, I mean, personally I still prefer your rendition of Joy to the World.”

 

Scully walked over and stood in front of him, then slid her sweatshirt over her head to reveal a thermal long sleeved tee underneath. “Come on, city boy. I know you grew up on Martha’s Vineyard, but you have a lot to learn about fun in the great outdoors.”

 

Her nipples budded tightly behind the soft fabric of her shirt. The wanton look in her eyes and the realization that she wasn’t wearing a bra caused a stirring in his groin.

 

“And you’re planning to teach me?” he asked. Plastic crinkled as his hand gripped the water bottle tightly, his fingers flexing around it, gripping, as her fingers slowly unbuttoned her jeans.

 

She nodded.

 

Her fingers maintained their tantalizing pace as she continued to strip herself of her clothing, piece by piece, teasing him, taunting him, until only her thermal top remained in place. The hem of it skimmed just below the V of her legs, quivering enticingly in the gentle breeze. The chill in the air nipped at her exposed skin sending gooseflesh to ripple across her bare thighs. The fire popped behind her, its heat radiating around them in easy waves as Mulder eagerly undressed himself. He sat back down on the cooler with his shirt strategically placed beneath him as a barrier against the frigid plastic, and drank in the sight before him. Bathed in the light of the flames, her hair and skin were set ablaze under their glow, giving her a goddess-like appearance. Pagans around the world should assemble in line behind him to bow to her and worship her beauty.

“Touch me,” she whispered as she moved to straddle his legs, her fingertips dancing across the skin of his shoulders.

 

His hand slipped between her legs as she lowered her mouth to his, and he relished in her warmth as his fingers and tongue entered her simultaneously. Within moments she was ready, and he was moaning into her neck as she pulled her shirt up and lowered herself onto him. His hands gripped her ass tightly as he thrust into her, attempting to maintain the near frantic pace she’d set riding him, grinding her clitoris into his pubic bone with every roll of her hips.

 

The ice and water inside the cooler sloshed in time with their movements, bottles of water thunking against the sides as her nails dug deeper into the back of his neck. Her legs trembled with exertion as her back arched, her inner muscles tightening around him as her breasts bounced with her quickened breaths. He gripped her tighter, pulling her hips into place as he drove himself into her harder, deeper, before he finally hearing the deep moan vibrate throughout her chest, feeling her muscles spasm around him, sending him over the edge.

 

Her arms wrapped around his neck as he pulled her chest flush against his, burying his face in her hair as her head lay against his shoulder.

 

“I’m not sure your teaching methods would be approved by the Boy Scout Association,” he mumbled.

 

“This was a student specific, once in a lifetime lesson in exhibitionism. The Association will be none the wiser.”

 

“Did I earn my patch?”

 

She chuckled. “I’d say so.”

 

The comfortableness they’d settled into post-coitially was interrupted by a faint snapping sound in the not so far distance, followed by the sound of dry swish of dead vegetation.

 

“Did you hear that?” Mulder asked, his head turning towards the sound.

 

She hummed softly against his neck in response.

 

“Sounded big, Scully” he muttered as his arms tightened around her small frame. His eyes flicked across their surroundings, looking for evidence of an encroaching predator. Or predators.

 

He felt her lips press against his jawline before hearing her whisper, “Let’s go to bed.”

 

Her body swayed a little as he helped her stand on unsteady legs.

 

“You know,” he said while escorting her to their tent. “There have been reports of bear sightings in Michigan, specifically the black bear. They’re generally more active at dusk and dawn, but it’s not unheard of for them to search out food at night if the opportunity strikes. They’re opportunistic feeders.”

 

“All of our food has been packaged and sealed, Mulder. We’re safe. It’s probably just a raccoon.”

 

“Did you know that there are records indicating that between 1856 and 1915, approximately 59 black bears were killed in the state of Michigan? That’s a year, Scully,” he said while pulling the heavy sleeping bag over the two of them as they lay down for the night. “Granted, that was before regulations were put in place years later. And while they’re generally a shy and elusive animal, they have been known to attack upon feeling threatened. We’ve all seen “When Animals Attack,” and I don’t know about you, but I’m not likely to forget that episode. That’s why experts suggest carrying bear spray with you at all times. They also say not to climb a tree in the event that you are under attack by a black bear, because black bears are excellent climbers. Did you know that, Scully?”

 

“Mulder,” she replied, pulling the blanket up to her chin, her eyes closed. “While I normally find your pillow talk enlightening and insightful, your topic for this evening is relatively unbearable.”

 

“Did…” he started, staring at her intently. “Did you just make a bear joke?”

 

An amused smile spread across her face. “Goodnight, Mulder.”

 

“Night, Scully,” he said quietly, as he closed his eyes. Exhaustion from a day spent outdoors finally bled any reserves of energy he had left. It wasn’t long, however, before he was awoken out of sleep that he hadn’t realized he’d fallen into.

Their fire had died down as the night wore on, though it still cast flickering shadows across the front of the tent. Scully lay next to him, her breaths deep and even. Confused, he listened intently as he tried to figure out what had woken him.

 

Snap, swish swish

 

It had come from behind their tent and sounded close, closer than what he’d heard earlier that night. He held his breath and listened as the noises continued sporadically, flanking slowly around what he assumed were the outer edges of their camp.

 

Thud thud thud

 

“Scully,” he whispered, nudging her with his fingers. “I think there’s something out there.” He shook her shoulder gently, so not to startle her.

 

Swish thud swish

 

“S’fine, Mulder. R’coons,” she mumbled, burrowing herself deeper into the covers.

 

“Is that your scientific theory, Agent Scully?” he asked. Her light snoring resumed,signaling that she’d already fallen back asleep. Mulder pursed his lips in mild frustration and rolled over onto his back. “Must be some big raccoons.”

 

He was out of his element here in the woods, and past experiences left him feeling uneasy, vulnerable.

 

Swish thud thud snap

 

He laid there with his eyes fixed on the dimly lit tent wall before them, his body now buzzing with adrenaline. Whatever was in their camp, it was curious. Eventually, he figured, whatever was out there would cross in front of the light of the fire effectively casting a shadow for him to see. He listened intently as he tried to gage the size of the animal by the weight of their step. Smaller than a bear, but larger than a raccoon. Heavy, but evenly paced. Wolves, maybe? No, he thought to himself. The spacing of the steps, the rhythm they created sounded as if it was from multiple pairs of feet.

 

Other than the sound of their movement, their predators had remained quiet. No huffing, grunting, or growling. The movement seemed to shuffle all around them in an unorganized pattern, and he marveled at Scully’s ability to sleep through all of it. She’d always been a heavy sleeper, something he’d teased her about since their early days. “You’d sleep through an atomic bomb,” he’d told her one night during a stakeout. Tonight was no different.

 

Thud thud thud thud

 

The thin tent wall was all that separated him from whatever had walked confidently just over to his left, promptly stopping just a few feet from him. Had the barrier not been there, he could have reached out and touched the mysterious culprit. He desperately wanted to wake Scully again, to tell her to grab the gun that sat tucked in her backpack in the far corner, but he lay there completely still, holding his breath, silently willing the creature to go away.

 

This was too close.

 

He could feel its weighty presence on the other side, sitting there just waiting for him to move, and his heart quickened as he watched four fingernail impressions press into the thin fabric just inches from his face, scraping painfully slow down the length of it to the ground. The long, vibrating sound it produced was nearly deafening in the quiet of the night, followed by a staccato clicking, like stone tapping against stone, repetitively.

They were outnumbered. Greatly. His eyes flicked to the location of the gun, as he mentally calculated the length of time it would take for him to get to it, and dig it out of the bag. It would create too much commotion, probably take too long, and he’d risk Scully getting hurt or attacked in the process.

 

The clicking grew louder as it got closer to the tent wall.

 

Careful to keep still, he shifted his eyes towards a still sleeping Scully, his eyes pleading with her to stay asleep, to keep quiet. He’d wait it out, he decided. The animals would lose interest eventually, he reasoned to himself. They had to.

And suddenly all he could hear was receding footsteps, growing quieter and quieter, then nothing but the crackle of the fire outside.

 

With a sigh of relief and one last look in the direction of the gun, he turned towards Scully and pulled her close. It would be a long night.

Xxxxx

By the time Mulder and Scully woke the next day, the woods were buzzing with energy and alive with activity. Birds chirped merrily as critters scurried, and a gentle breeze of crisp autumn air fluttered through the colorful leaves that still hung from the branches of the surrounding trees. After a quick breakfast of instant coffee and muffins, Mulder was dressed and wandering around the small campsite, seemingly on a mission.

 

“What are you looking for?” Scully asked, while rinsing out their travel mugs with a bottle of water.

 

Mulder squatted down next to the side of the tent, staring intently at something on the ground that was just out of her view.

 

“Did you notice these before?” He asked, pointing.

 

“Notice what?”

 

“These bundles of sticks and kindling scattered throughout our site?”

 

Scully wiped her damp hands on her jeans as she crossed over to Mulder to take a look. Just a foot in front of him sat a small cluster of broken branches about 6 inches long, placed a few feet away from the opening of their tent. The branches were thin, about the same diameter of a plastic straw, each of them covered with dark chipped bark. The tree they came from was clearly dying, as no fresh growth was present under the bark.

 

“I’ll admit that it’s odd, but there are plenty of animals out here that like to gather and hoard specific items for various reasons. Squirrels have been known to scatter hoard, collecting nuts for impending cold weather; birds have been known to collect twigs and feathers for their nests. Winter is just around the corner, Mulder.”

 

Mulder stood slowly, one hand on his hip while the other rubbed briskly at the first day stubble that shadowed the lower half of his face.

 

“I found six other piles,” he said, pointing to the others that were in their vicinity. “All within just a few feet of our tent, all roughly the same size, all containing the same type of branches. And is it a common practice for animals to leave what they’ve gathered out in the open, almost as an offering? As you said, winter is just around the corner. They would be collecting and cacheing food, not sticks, in preparation for the season change. It doesn’t make any sense, Scully.”

 

She resumed tidying up their area, placed the leftovers from breakfast into the cooler and shutting the lid with a bit of extra force, and sighed. “You said yourself last night that you thought you heard something rummaging outside our tent. You’re making nothing into something-“

 

Mulder interrupted her. “Our camp was rearranged, too.”

 

Scully’s eyes immediately scanned their scarce belongings.

 

“I first noticed when I went to relieve myself this morning, and I tripped over the cooler that wasn’t supposed to be there. We specifically placed it out of the way on the opposite side of the tent, yet this morning it was over here next to this cluster,” he said gesturing to the sticks at his feet.

“A jostled cooler hardly suggests a completely rearranged camp, Mulder. What are you suggesting? A haunted campsite? Squirrels gone rogue, plotting to take over the world one pile of sticks at a time?” She smirked, amused with herself. “ It could have been any number of things, maybe we neglected to shut the lid completely, and the smell of the food attracted an animal capable of moving it.”

 

“Our ‘camping couch’ was on the opposite side as well. I moved it back before you woke up.”

 

“Again, any number of things-“

 

“And now with these sticks…” His voice trailed off as his gaze shifted to the surrounding woods.

 

“So? What’s your theory, Mulder?” She’d tried to keep her voice light, struggling to keep the sudden onset of irritation from seeping through. After last week’s case all she’d wanted was a little bit of a reprieve. Some room to breathe and collect their bearings. Reconnect. Leave it to Mulder to turn a nice trip to the woods into another case, another X File. Again.

 

“You don’t want know,” he muttered under his breath.

xxxxx

“It’s really beautiful out here. Very picturesque,” Scully mused a few hours later as they walked side by side down a natural trail that led to a broad clearing. Beyond the thickness of the trees, the world seemed to open up in a glorious, richly colored wonder. The green and yellow grass came to her knees, thick and stringy, brushing her jeans gently with each step, and seemed to stretch for acres before rolling into the horizon. The earth felt soft beneath her boots, spongy.

If we become blinded by the beauty of nature we may fail to see its cruelty and violence.

 

The words spoken by Jeff Glaser a few years prior resonated in the back of her mind, laced with the weight of underlying truth of how unknowingly correct he had been in foreshadowing what was to come of them in those few short days in the forest of Northern Florida. Stranded in the middle of nowhere with an injured Mulder while running from ‘invisible’ assailants hadn’t been her ideal way to spend a weekend together. To be fair, neither had a weekend spent with other agents at a Team Building Seminar. If given a choice, the former seemed to be the lesser of two evils.

The conversation that had taken place just hours earlier between them bled into her thoughts, a quick exchange in regards to the seemingly unexplainable occurrences that had happened between last night and this morning.

 

“I can feel you thinking,” Mulder said. He gave her fingers a squeeze, pulling her attention to the present, as he continued. “And I’d bet season tickets to the Knicks that it’s not just about the beautiful scenery.”

 

She glanced up at him with a smile on her face. Sometimes she swore he could still read minds.

 

“You’re ready to hear my theory.”

 

“You didn’t seem to have much of one earlier,” she stated.

 

“I needed to chew on it a little longer before sharing. I’ll admit, even now, it has a few holes.”

 

“When has that ever stopped you from sharing previously?”

 

“Touché, Scully.” He paused momentarily. “Melonheads.”

 

“I’m sorry, what? Like the candy?”

 

He chuckled. “No. A few nights ago when I was still coming down from the case, I went for a run, and ended up at a bar down the street. My brain had been going haywire, and I figured a nightcap might help turn down the volume. I hadn’t even made it to the bottom of my glass of scotch before meeting a man who told me a story about some local folklore.”

 

“Is that why we’re out here?”

 

“No, no. We’re here for a weekend getaway,” he said. “I didn’t believe the story, it was far too fantastical. It was interesting though. A captivating tale about a group of children turned cannibalistic, though the reasons why seem to be up for debate.”

 

“Mulder,” she started. She tugged on his hand to pull him to a stop, turning to face him.

 

“I know what you’re going to say, Scully.”

 

“It’s just the wildlife, Mulder. We’ve encroached on their territory, and they’re reacting accordingly,” she explained. “I don’t know what these Melonheads are, or anything about the folklore surrounding them, but I assure you this isn’t that.”

 

“Rearranging our camp is reacting accordingly?”

 

He waited while she stared at him, chewing the corner of her mouth. He could practically hear the gears turning within her mind, preparing and categorizing all of the facts into one neat monologue that would fall expertly from her lips. Mulder glanced over her shoulder, his gaze skimming the deep pumpkin and crimson colored tree line that lay a few hundred yards behind her, then gasped.

 

“Do you see that?” He asked, pointing.

 

Scully turned and peered over her shoulder, her fingers coming to rest over her brow shielding her eyes from the afternoon sun.

 

A few hundred yards in the distance was a gray, concrete building. Or rather, what was left of it. The once two-story concrete structure had crumbled into itself over time, with shards of its fallen walls jutting haphazardly out of the ground appearing as if they were rising forcefully from beneath the earth, rather than disintegrating into it.

 

As they walked towards it, numerous piles of stone and large wedges of rock came into view, scattered around the derelict building like a hastily placed mine field. The foliage stood taller around the edges, grossly overgrown, casting awkward shadows across what remained of the stone walls.

 

“What was this place?” Scully asked.

 

“I’m not sure. It wasn’t on the map.”

 

Keeping mindful of the fallen debris, they kept their distance as they cautiously walked the outer perimeter of the premises. As they turned to loop around the back of the building, they had to weave through large branches from an adjacent tree that hung low, disappearing into what should have been the ceiling of the building. The walls, however, stood surprisingly high with very few cracks. Windows sat evenly spaced a few feet apart, covered with flat boards to ward off any trespassers. The last window gaped open, however, void of any glass or covering.

 

Mulder jogged a few steps ahead to the far window and peeked his head inside as Scully trailed slowly behind him.

 

“No, Mulder.”

 

She watched from behind as his face turned from one side to the other as his hands gripped the window sill. “I haven’t even suggested it yet, Scully.”

 

Testing the stability, his hands jostled the edge of the windowsill as his eyes cast downwards.

 

“Mulder, no,” she had started to warn, but was too late. He’d already hoisted himself up and slid head first through the opening, disappearing momentarily with a thud before appearing on the other side of the wall, brushing the dirt from the front of his jacket.

 

“Mulder, yes,” he said with a wide grin on his face. “Come on, Scully. Your turn.”

 

Her arms crossed tightly across her chest and she shook her head. “No, we have no idea what’s even in there. It’s in shambles, quite literally falling apart at the seams. Wild animals could have made it their home and want to protect their territory.”

 

“That’s the point, to investigate the unknown. Come on, I’ll make sure you don’t get dirty.”

 

She sighed exasperatedly. “I’m not afraid of getting dirty, Mulder.”

 

“Then what are you afraid of?”

 

“Not a dirty, abandoned building, I assure you.”

 

“I dare you,” he said, smirking.

 

“Mulder-“

 

“Double dare you.” The challenge instantly provoked her competitive nature , and in his voice she heard echoes of the same taunting she’d endured countless times before from her own brothers that had goaded her into ridiculous japes and capers over the years against her better judgment.

 

She pursed her lips and stared at him for a moment. His persistence, while normally something she appreciated, was astounding. With a roll of her eyes she followed him through the opening of the window, allowing him to ease her to her feet on the other side. Her eyebrow peaked as his hand grazed her ass, followed by a squeeze.

 

He smiled. “Just giving the lady a hand.”

 

Once settled, Mulder clicked on their single flashlight and shone the first light the building had probably seen in decades. Scully released a slow breath as she took in their surroundings. It was as if they’d been transported to another time, another world. They had entered the last window in a hallway which offered the only other source of light besides their flashlight.

 

Tall, cinder block walls stretched out before them. Their once pristine white sheen had now faded to a vanilla wafer tan with thick brown grime spreading up from the floor and misshapen spots of grey from chipped paint freckled throughout. Aside from the filth, they appeared to be bare. Several deep blue steel doors lined the length of the walls on either side, most of them closed.

Their footsteps echoed throughout the wide passageway, loudly announcing their arrival. Scully pulled her jacket taut around her middle as a chill ran down her back. It had been warm and comfortable outside under the sun, but in here the temperature felt at least 15 degrees cooler. She wondered if she exhaled slowly if she would see her breath. The air around them, stale and damp, carried the putrid smell of mold and mildew that seemed to grow heavier with each step they took. The sound of water dripping could be heard faintly somewhere in the distance.

 

Specks of the white asbestos flooring tiles peeked through the blanket of grime like stars in the night sky, gleaming brilliantly under the beam of the flashlight.

 

“Mulder, this is a hospital.”

 

“Was a hospital, Scully.”

 

Together, they slowly continued further into the chilled darkness of the barren hallway, hesitantly approaching the first door. Mulder shone the light directly at the doorknob, its surface and keyhole appeared brittle with corrosion as if it would disintegrate upon first touch. He grasped it firmly but gently, but it remained still. Whether it be locked or frozen in time, he couldn’t be sure. The large door didn’t budge when he heaved his shoulder against it, instead remaining perfectly in place as Scully watched from off to the side in amusement.

 

Upon closer inspection, he noticed that a dried, black sludge coated most of the exterior. Mulder swiped his index finger across a small section of it, then rubbed the remnants of the substance gently against the soft pad of his thumb. He brought his finger to his nose, sniffed, then cocked his head to the side.

 

Scully stepped back from him, easing herself just out of the reaches of their sole source of light, her eyebrows crinkled in disgust.

 

“No odor,” he mused aloud.

 

Clang clang clang

 

Mulder promptly directed the flashlight down the hall as the residual hum from the deep sound of metal banging against metal reverberated around them. They passed several doors that appeared to be locked tight, before one stood open a few inches as if in invitation.

 

“Are you carrying?” Mulder whispered.

 

“Yes,” she answered simply, unholstering her pistol and holding it low. She gave him a nod.

 

He gave the door a swift push, and it opened widely with ease. The room illuminated instantly as Mulder swept his light throughout the small space.

 

“It’s clear,” he said.

 

Scully’s eyes went wide. “Oh my God.”

 

The room was small and windowless. An empty twin sized bed frame sit tucked against the back wall, and a singular sink was bolted to the wall a few feet away. The top edges of a broken mirror hung above the sink, shards of glass lay cluttered in the basin and strewn about the floor.

 

While the cinderblock walls of the hallway were covered in filth, the walls of the room were smothered with scribbles. Black, jagged lettering scaled every inch of the walls from floor to ceiling, as if someone’s thoughts and inner ramblings had exploded and splattered chaotically across the surface.

 

Scully stepped over a fallen IV pole, delving deeper into the room, as her eyes took in what had been written larger, more obviously.

 

"Save the tortured soul" was in the upper far left corner.

 

Under the sink, "He comes in the dark" was scrawled thickly, with watery drips of ink that had bled to the seam of the floor, eventually drying darkly along the edges of the tile.

 

"IT WON’T END" stood out boldly in the center of the back wall, the letters large and ragged, surrounded by small, fine print that was unintelligible from a few feet away.

 

She could faintly hear the scuffle of Mulders shoes against the floor before she felt him step behind her, placing his hand on her shoulder.

 

The words "Lord help me" were written diagonally next to the head of the bed frame, just over the leather wrist restraint that hung by chain from the iron rod, as if the author had been laying in the prone position while fervently branding the surface with their cry for help.

 

“My God, Mulder,” she muttered.

 

Clang clang clang

 

They both looked out the doorway as the sound rung again throughout the corridor. He gripped her free hand, and led her back into the grim hallway, the lingering hum luring them deeper into the sketchy underbelly of the hospital.

“I think it’s a dead end,” Mulder whispered.

 

“No,” she said as they approached the far end. “It turns just up there to the right.”

 

As they turned the corner, small bits of rock crunched under their boots as they were met by a wall of concrete debris that piled high up to the ceiling. Just before the blockade, two doors sat directly across from the other, one on either side. The wooden door to their left rested tightly in its frame, while the steel door to their right sat unlatched.

 

Scully led the way through the door to the right, using the toe of her boot to edge it open as Mulder shone the light from behind her.

 

This room was much larger than the last, at least six times as big with a high ceiling and thick black cable wires that hung loosely from the broken tiles above.

 

“Careful, Mulder,” Scully warned as he brushed past her.

 

“I doubt they’re hot,” he said gesturing towards the wires.

He scanned the entirety of the room with his flashlight. Multiple empty bed frames lined the length of the walls, with their dingy mattresses stacked high in the far corner. The frames in this room, however, were shorter and more narrow. Small piles of discarded iron rods were placed on the floor with precision at the foot of each bed.

 

“Scully, look at the piles. The metal on the floor.”

 

“Oh, Mulder, they kept children in here,” she said. “Children.”

 

“Tuberculosis?”

 

“I don’t think so. The hospital appears to be too modern, suggesting something more recent, and, regardless, TB isn’t known to have psychological effects in children that would warrant four point restraints,” she said with disgust as she lifted one of the chains that sat connected to the corner of the bed frame. Her throat tightened as visions of sickly children lying restrained in a foreign bed flickered in her mind. Their cries for help, for their parents, as they pulled roughly at the chains in this once sterile setting. The sickening fear and abandonment they must have felt every minute of the day.

 

“You saw the walls in that last room. Maybe they went mad.”

 

“But so many of them? All of them? Mulder, at one time there must have been over 20 beds in here,” she said incredulously.

 

“Scully, take a look at this,” he said, pointing again at the stack of rods. “Pretty similar to what we found at our campsite.”

 

Clang clang clang

 

Mulder looked up at the ceiling, then shifted his eyes to the doorway. “Where could that be coming from? We’re at the end of the road down here.”

 

“There’s one room left to check.”

 

“That’s if it’s even unlocked,” Mulder said. He crossed towards the doorway to the hall while Scully followed, cautiously dipping beneath the drooping wires. Just as he stepped over the threshold he came to a halt suddenly, stopping dead in his tracks, and she placed her hand on his back to keep herself from crashing into him.

 

“Mulder, wha-“

 

“The door is open.” He shone the light on the wooden door that now sat ajar a few inches. “When we turned the corner a few minutes ago, that door was closed.”

 

The butt of the gun felt cool to the touch as Scully cupped her hand beneath it, readying herself in a defensive stance. Her stomach fluttered as she locked eyes with him, a slight nod of her head telling him that she was ready.

 

Mulder stood off to the side, then pushed the door open and immediately lit up the room, the darkness washing away under the wide beam of his flashlight. Scully thrust herself inside, her weapon drawn.

 

The broad wooden desk that sat in the center of the small room commanded their immediate attention with its dark cherry wood, sleek surface, and large size. It sat sturdy and solid amidst the havoc that surrounded it. Loose leaf sheets of paper lay scattered across the floor and across the seat of an overstuffed armchair that sat in the corner like an afterthought, an oversight, with an egg-shaped glass paperweight resting against its leg.

 

“Looks like someone left in a hurry,” Mulder said as the tip of his shoe toed the edge of a picture frame, its sharp glass shards scraping against the movement.

 

“We should be as well,” Scully said, leaning her weight against the frame of the door after holstering her weapon. “It’ll be getting dark soon, and we only have the one flashlight. We don’t know the area well enough to be traipsing around once the sun sets.”

 

He hummed in response and nodded absently, his focus trained, instead, on a 4x6 picture that he’d pulled from under the broken frame. The edges had yellowed over the years, but the sepia captured moment stood timeless between his fingers.

 

A man wearing a long, white coat over a dark suit stood tall in front of a large cement building. Even with the slight fading of the picture, his posture and broad smile exuded confidence and pride, as he held hands with a young boy whose smile was equally as wide.

 

“Doctor and patient?” Mulder asked.

 

Scully’s foot slipped on a piece of debris as she crossed to lean over his shoulder. “Could be,” she muttered as she glanced down to find another photograph under her boot. She squatted next to him, picking it up and flipping it over. The photo in her hand was in similar condition, worn and weathered from years of handling, but the snapshot was significantly different.

A young man sat awkwardly in a wheelchair, his knobby knees pressed together while his malnourished frame was swallowed beneath an oversized hospital gown. His hands were held loosely to his face, but they couldn’t hide what the camera had managed to capture. Deeply sunken eyes that sat above dark circles. Cheekbones that protruded sharply in stark contrast to his bulbous, grossly misshapen cranium.

 

“Scully,” Mulder said just as Scully brought her hand to her mouth to stifle a gasp.

 

“This is by far the worst case of hydrocephalus I’ve ever seen,” she said. Her fingertip traced the outline of the man’s enlarged skull. Lumps and bulges protruded from the normally smooth surface like goose eggs one would get when bumping their head as a child.

 

“Hydrocephalus?”

 

“It’s a condition in which there is excessive accumulation of cerebral spinal fluid in the brain,” she rambled matter-of-factly, her eyes still pinned on the photo. “It results in an abnormal widening of the brain’s ventricles. But Mulder, this…this is an extreme case.”

 

He stood and began to shuffle through the papers that lay scattered around the desk.

 

“What are you searching for?” She asked.

 

“More information.”

 

“Information on what?”

 

“This hydrocephalus, these patients,” he said as he held a sheet of paper in the light, discarded it, then grabbed another.

 

“Mulder, it’s one case. One patient. I doubt you’ll be able to find anything in here-“

 

“Patient 6-003: exhibiting signs of obsessive compulsiveness at approximately 41 weeks into treatment,” Mulder read, interrupting her. “Nurses have stated when making nightly rounds they discovered patient 6-003 has begun to collect small, cylindrical items and placing them in an organized heap. When 6-003 was confronted with this information and questioned, 6-003 remained quiet and refused to speak. Physical condition stable/unchanging. Cranium circumference: approx. 62.5cm. Lack of appetite continuing. No other known changes.”

 

“62.5? That’s abnormally large even for an adult. Does it state an age for the patient?” Scully asked.

 

Mulder scanned the page then shook his head. “No ages listed. Just ‘notes’ at the top, then a list of identification numbers followed by information regarding those patients. It looks like a rough draft in chicken scratch, Scully.” He turned the page in her direction as she stepped closer.

“Patient 6-008: Physical condition stable/unchanging. Cranium circumference: approx. 61.75cm. Lack of appetite worsening. No other known changes,” she read.

 

“Scully, look at this one. Patient 6-013: exhibiting extreme signs of acute aggression. 6-013 attacked and assaulted Nurse Hendricks at approx. 0715 during A.M. medications distribution, severing her carotid artery with its teeth, resulting in her death. 6-013 was found on floor next to nurse, masticating on nurse’s left forearm. Incident report filed. Prefrontal lobotomy scheduled for 0800 May 13. Physical condition stable/unchanging. Cranium circumference: approx. 60.5cm. Appetite increased. No other known changes.”

 

A door slammed somewhere off in the distance, the thunderous boom startling both of them.

“We should go,” Mulder said as he quickly folded the piece of paper and stuffed it into the back pocket of his jeans. “Do you have the pictures?”

 

“Why do we need the pictures?” Scully asked, but held them out to him anyways.

 

He pocketed them as well, and then grabbed her arm, leading her from the abandoned office to the gaping hallway. “I’ll explain later. Right now, we gotta go.”

 

“Explain now, Mulder.”

 

He ignored her demand, and instead continued to pull her as he picked up his pace from a brisk walk to a steady jog, nearly dragging her along with him as he turned the corner. Scullys eyes widened as they jogged by each room they had passed just a short while before, every steel door that lined the corridor now stood wide open. Mulders flashlight bounced sporadically with each step, occasionally throwing light into a previously closed room for a brief moment, allowing her a mental snapshot of what lay behind the locked barrier. Her eyelids the shutter of her internal camera, snapping the picture for her brain to process and register moments later.

 

Single bed frame. Wheelchair. Writing all over the walls. Thick, black ink. Help me. Help me. Help me.

 

BOOM

 

A door slammed somewhere far behind them, the sound thriving within the acoustics of the cement walls, growing viciously as it approached them, before rolling over them like a tidal wave of vibration. Scully chanced a glance behind her, only to see complete and utter darkness. The thumping from their hurried footsteps echoed to a deafening decibel as the light from the last window finally came into view.

 

It had felt like they’d been running for hours, their chests heaving with exertion as the hallway seemed to stretch out to impossible lengths as they rushed down it. Within mere seconds, however, they found themselves standing before the opening. Mulder guided her through first, thrusting her into the warmth of the sunset, then tumbled out quickly behind her.

 

Together, they scrambled a few yards away from the wall of the building, then collapsed onto their backs in the tall grass.

 

“What the hell was that?” Scully asked, panting. She brushed errant strands of damp hair from her face while squinting into the brightness of the sky.

 

“Must have been the wind,” Mulder deadpanned.

 

She turned her head to look at him, unable to hide the disbelief that had washed over her face. He met her gaze momentarily, his features devoid of any emotion, then began to laugh. Scully laughed with him as she pressed her body along his side, burying her chuckles in his shoulder as his arm pulled her close.

Xxxxxx

They must have been walking in circles; they’d been walking for at least an hour and didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. The woods seemed to grow thicker with each passing minute, denser as the blanket of darkness smothered the last bit of natural light. Downy clouds hung heavily in the sky as branches picked at the skin of her hands and pulled at her hair while they pushed their way through the heavy brush.

 

“Mulder.”

 

“Don’t say it, Scully.”

 

“I think we’re lost.”

 

“No, we’re just taking the long way back,” he said as he attempted to sidestep a bush with thorns that scraped against his jeans.

 

“Maybe we should turn back and find the trail you insisted we leave of because you knew of a short cut.”

 

“You don’t trust in my Indian guide abilities to get us back to our camp?”

 

Scully sniggered. The temperature had plummeted once the sun had finally set, and she fought the urge to let her teeth chatter in response. They’d been walking slowly, cautious of anything hazardous along their trek, but she still had managed to work up a cold sweat during the hike. Cooler weather and sweaty, damp clothing meant one of them would end up with a cold next week, and she had to stifle a groan at the thought of dealing with a sick Mulder. Give the man a bit of congestion and a case of the sniffles, and surely the world was ending. God help her if he ended up with a fever.

 

Mulders flashlight flickered twice then dimmed suddenly, the bright beam fading to an eerie glow. He tapped the end of it against the palm of his hand, groaning softly when it failed to fix the problem.

 

“I suppose now is a terrible time to bring up the fact that someone forgot the spare batteries,” she said.

 

“We are lost in the middle of the woods in the middle of October, and have no idea how to get back to our warm tent. Now is the perfect time to mention the fact that someone forgot the spare batteries.” He chuckled as Scully squeezed his hand, her fingers cold against the warmth of his skin. “Don’t worry, we’ll get back soon, and I swear, Scully, as soon as I get you in that tent, I’m gonna- woah, watch out!”

 

Mulder pulled both of them back a step and cast his light directly to the ground in front of them. A filthy white tennis shoe sat upright, caked with dried blood, on the opposite side of a well-beaten path.

 

“Scully?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“The foot…”

 

She nodded. “It’s still in the shoe.”

 

“Jesus, it looks like it was ripped off at the ankle. What could have done that?”

 

“I don’t want to find out,” Scully answered, suddenly backing away. “Let’s go, Mulder.”

 

“Just a second.” He stepped closer, squatting next to it. “I don’t see any tracks.”

 

Brush shuffled roughly a few yards in the distance.

 

“Mulder,” she whispered. She grasped the back of his jacket and tugged. “Now.”

 

He got to his feet, and they started on the narrow dirt path. The woods had gone silent, the only sounds were their ragged breathing and the thumping of their boots against the soft dirt, the gentle swishing of weak branches as their bodies rushed past them. Mulder shifted left, then right, pulling her along with him as he led them down the winding trail.

 

“I see our tent,” he said quietly. “Almost there.”

 

Relief flooded through her as they closed in on the camp site ahead of them, the peak of the tent came into view. They were so close, just a few more feet.

 

And then she saw the peak of the other tent.

 

Camping gear and coolers sat abandoned around the cold, lifeless fire pit. The two tents stood tall in front of them, the zippered flap of one ripped open and hanging limply to the side. A wide trail of dark blood began at the entrance and continued off to the side of the camp, disappearing into the woods. No one could lose that much blood and survive, Scully thought.

 

Behind her, she thought she heard Mulder mutter ‘holy shit,’ as she crossed to peek inside, and immediately shared his sentiments. The rancid odor of decay had assaulted her before her face was even in front of the opening. Blood and organic matter had been thoroughly splattered across the inside walls, streaks and smears painting the fabric, staining the sleeping bags that lay crumpled on the ground.

 

“Scully, over here,” he called, his voice sounding strained. Her stomach sank at the gruesome scene as she stepped up beside him.

 

“Is that what I think it is?” he asked.

 

“It appears to be a section of the large intestine.”

 

“Human?”

 

Scully nodded. Suddenly, Mulder pointed the flashlight behind them.

 

“What? What is it?” she asked. He swept the light back and forth in a swift motion, although the woods remained still.

 

“I heard something,” he replied.

 

The loud crack of a branch snapping behind them elicited a sharp gasp from Scully. They whipped around to see brush shaking with movement, and heard the fall of fast, retreating steps. Scully felt a tug on the back of her jacket, then the warmth of his body heat as he pressed himself against her. Her hand slid behind her, and pulled her pistol from its holster in a smooth motion.

 

“We’re being surrounded,” Mulder said.

 

“Wolves?”

 

“Doesn’t sound like it.”

 

“How would you know what wolves sound like?” she asked, her eyes darting in all directions. Camouflaged behind the darkness of the woods, the footsteps grew louder, closer.

 

“Discovery Channel,” he whispered. “Scully, run!”

 

She could barely feel the ground under her boots as her feet carried her past the massacred tent and deeper into the thick of the forest, with Mulder close behind her. Branches swatted her face, her cheeks stinging with each whip across the sensitive skin, but she pushed herself to run faster. Her heartbeat pounded in her ears in time with the drumming in her chest, as the light from the flashlight whipped around wildly from behind, its glow flashing like strobe light before her, offering brief glimpses of a well-worn pathway.

 

Then suddenly it all went dark, and she couldn’t hear him behind her.

 

“Mulder?!”

 

Her pace slowed at his lack of response, before finally stopping to turn around. He was gone. Her eyes strained as she struggled to find him in the darkness.

 

“Scuuulllllaaaaayyyyyy!”

 

“Mulder!” She ran towards his voice, blindly, attempting to trace her previous steps. “Mulder, where are you?”

 

A few feet ahead in a pile of leaves she saw the last glow of the fading light from the flashlight before it died, and sprinted towards it. Her hand fumbled along the ground, pushing away decaying leaves and twigs before feeling the cold metal of the mag light. She slammed the butt of
it to the ground, jerking out what little life it had left in it, casting the last bit of light around her, frantically searching for Mulder.

 

“Scully, my legs!”

 

He lay on the ground, kicking viciously at the people attempting to tear at his limbs. Time seemed to slow as their white gowns fluttered loosely around them while their arms flailed, their hands clawing wildly at his jeans. There were five of them, pushing at each other to get to him, with their bulbous heads gleaming under the light.

 

She felt her arm rise, her finger squeeze the trigger, and fire six shots.

 

They scattered into the darkness.

 

“Scully,” he panted. She rushed to his side, and her hands skimmed his body as she began to check him over for wounds. His head, neck, and torso were unscathed. “My legs,” he repeated.

 

Her hands worked their way down his thighs, across his shins to the tops of his boots, his jeans and her hands saturated with his blood. Leaves and brush rustled viciously a few yards away.

 

“Mulder,can you walk?” she asked, helping him to sit up.

 

“I think so.”

 

He stumbled as he got to his feet, then threw his arm around Scully’s shoulders. The weight of him sank into her already exhausted body, a dull ache forming in the lower muscles of her back, but she forced herself to remain upright as they started walking blindly into the night. Soon she would have as much energy as the dead battery in their flashlight. They needed the safety of a shelter to rest and recuperate, and for her to be able to tend to Mulder’s wounds.

 

“Did you hit one of them?”

 

“I’m not sure. I think so,” she said. She kept her voice light in an attempt to sound positive.

 

“Well, you definitely scared them off.”

 

She chewed her bottom lip, and gripped his waist tighter. “But for how long?”

Xxxxx

“A cabin!” Mulder nearly shouted, pointing. After hours of walking aimlessly with minimal visibility, fueled by nothing but hope and desire for safety because adrenaline had dissolved half a mile ago, the clouds had finally parted allowing the moon to throw its silvery lunar glow to illuminate the farthest of reaches of darkened forest.

 

A few yards ahead of them stood a wooden shack. The exterior was dark and rickety with a single dirty window in the middle of each wall, while its tin roof sat glimmering under the moonlight like a calm, stilled lake. A surge of energy rushed through both of them at the discovery, and Scully quickly led the two of them to the front door. Mulder leaned heavily against the door frame while Scully peered through the front window.

 

Inside she could see just the one room with a single sized cot, two cardboard boxes, and a heavy wooden table with two chairs. Unsophisticated with no frills. “No one’s home,” she said.

 

Once inside with the door closed, Scully placed a thick 2x4 horizontally over the door, fitting it into the L shaped brackets that were bolted to the outer frame of the door. Normally, she might scoff at the barbaric home security system, but she had to admit it felt more secure than a simple padlock or deadbolt. Mulder eased himself onto the cot, hissing as he pulled up his legs while Scully shoved the table in front of the door.

 

The musky smell pervaded the small space, and the window above Mulder that sat open two inches offered little reprieve. Scully tried to pull it shut, grunting with each pull until her fingers were sore. If it couldn’t be shut, then it couldn’t be opened.

 

“This is the epitome of simple living,” Mulder said. “Any hope for food and water?”

 

Scully eyed the room. “Don’t think so. We’ll be lucky to find candles and a first aid kit.”

 

In the moonlight that cascaded through the small window, she perched herself on the end of the cot and began to look over his wounds. Long tears marred his jeans, with blood soaked through and already drying around the frayed edges. On his skin underneath lay long, jagged scratches and puncture wounds in the shape of a circle.

 

Scully gasped. “Bite marks.”

 

“Yeah,” Mulder said through clenched teeth. “They were really gnawing on me before you shot at them. I don’t know when my last tetanus shot was.”

 

“Probably within the last few weeks,” she said as she raised an eyebrow, his knack for frequent trips to the hospital remaining unsaid. Mulder chuckled, then groaned at the pressure of her fingers around his wounds. “Sorry, Mulder. You’re okay, I don’t think anything’s broken, but I need to clean and dress these or they’ll get infected. You’ll need to take off your jeans.”

 

“We just get a roof over our head, and you’re already trying to get me out of my pants. I’m in no mood for hanky panky, Scully,” he said as he unfastened his jeans.

 

“Mulder, even on your deathbed you would still be in the mood for hanky panky. A few scratches couldn’t tame that libido.”

 

She ransacked the cardboard boxes looking for a first aid kit, finding what was left of one tucked under hunting magazines and a folded wool blanket. Inside the plastic box was half of a roll of gauze, a travel size bottle of peroxide, and surgical tape. Working quickly, she covered his half naked body with the blanket and began to tend to his wounds as best as she could, starting with the worst of them. The bites.

 

“It was them, Scully,” he whispered.

 

Her eyebrows knit together as she poured a cap full of the peroxide over the broken skin, the liquid bubbling upon contact. “Tell me the story.”

 

“About fifty years ago, there was a small town in western Michigan; the kind of small town where everyone knew everyone’s name, everyone knew everyone’s business. The residents were very proud of their Mayberry-type of appeal, the façade of perfection they had created, but they were also cursed with a dark secret. Women had started bearing children that were born with a certain condition. We aren’t talking colic or pigeon toes.” His voice was low, barely a hum above a whisper.

 

“It started with a woman in her forties by the name of Mildred Black. The town gossiped that it was because of her late age that her son had been born with an enormous skull. The Black family hid their son away out of embarrassment, away from the judgmental eyes and whispers of their neighbors, never allowing him out of the house to be seen. But that changed when Helen Pierce, a healthy young woman in her twenties, also gave birth to a son with the same condition.

 

“Soon after, every other woman in the small town who’d been or become with child began hiding their babies after birth. For a few years, women would become round with pregnancy, and then suddenly they weren’t. After time, their bodies would return to their original size, but the newborns remained unseen. It was unknown exactly how many families had been affected by this plague, but it was enough for an out-of -town doctor to make the long journey to Michigan and set up a practice at a psychiatric institution a few miles away. The doctor secretly met with these parents, and promised treatment and a cure.

 

“Desperate for help, parents eagerly agreed to transport their deformed children to this facility in the middle of the night, handing them off to the care of this doctor. Within a few short weeks, the morale boosted throughout the community. But the parents were oblivious to what they had signed their children up for.

 

“The doctor wasn’t this miracle worker he’d made himself out to be. He performed horrific tests on the kids, his methods of finding a cure were far less than ethical, not even humane.”

 

Scully taped the last piece of gauze around his lower thigh, just above his knee. “The doctor’s notes we found…”

 

Mulder nodded. “Lobotomies, starvation, shock therapy, and who knows what else.”

 

“What became of them?” she asked quietly, while helping Mulder back into his jeans. They sat closely together on the cot, and pulled the blanket over them before he finally continued with the story.

 

“Late one night, after years of torture and abuse, they broke out of their rooms. No one knows how they were able to manage that, since their doors were locked and only the nurses and doctor had access to the keys. The kids found the doctor in his office, and they slaughtered and fed on him, and then ran off into the night. Since then, they live in the woods, and have resorted to cannibalism for survival.”

 

“You were right,” Scully said. “That story is fantastical. It sounds like a B-rated horror movie.”

 

Tap tap tap

 

They both went still at the sound of someone lightly rapping on the door.

 

“Think it’s the cabin owner?” Mulder whispered.

 

“Why would they knock on their own door?” Scully whispered in response.

 

Tap tap tap tap tap

 

He pulled her closer to him, deeper into the shadows against the wall, and pressed his lips to her ear. “We have to keep quiet.”

 

Above their heads, a crisp breeze flowed through the cracked window carrying the sound of heavy footsteps. It was like a stampede, disordered thumping circling around them and the cabin.

 

Bang bang bang bang

 

Scully jumped as the tapping on the door graduated to a hard pounding, and placed a hand over her mouth to stifle the yelp that threatened to burst from behind her lips. The heavy wooden door shook violently under the beating, thumping against the board that held it in place, and the windows rattled in their frames as the noise began to spread like wildfire. Taps and knocks spread from the front of the cabin along each wall, and soon they were surrounded by the thunder of it, smothered by the noise as it came from all directions.

 

“How many rounds do you have left?” Mulder asked as his eyes flicked from window to window.

 

“Not enough.”

 

The pounding continued around them, the wall behind them vibrating against their backs.

 

“Laaaaaaaayyyy.” The shrill voice sliced through the air, like a hot butcher knife through cold butter.

 

Scully’s eyebrows furrowed as she glanced at Mulder. “Did you hear that?”

 

He nodded.

 

“Ullaaaayyyyyy!” The voice grew louder, more prominent as the thunder surrounding them began to die down before fading to a dull rumble.

 

“Is it…” Scully began to ask, her eyes wide. Mulder held his finger to his lips and shook his head before it all went quiet, and all they could hear were the shallow breaths coming from their own chests. Mulder’s grip around her waist slackened slightly as he looked around. Scully closed her eyes, and rested her head against the wall behind them, taking a deep breath.

 

Her eyes opened immediately.

 

The scratching against the wall behind them started low, as if it was coming from under the cot they sat on, like thick nails desperately attempting to burrow through the wooden barrier. Scully’s heart beat faster, through the wood she felt the scratching gradually work its way up to her lower back, clawing up behind her spine to just above her head, then stopped. A chill ran the same path up her spine as a whisper came from just above their heads.

 

“Skuhhhh.”

 

The whisper was followed by a vigorous clicking sound, the same sound Mulder had heard the night before; like stone tapping against stone repeatedly. Their faces turned upwards simultaneously to see a face in the window staring back. It’s mouth was positioned in front of the scant opening with its lips pulled back to reveal large, staggered teeth gnashing against each other. Moonlight cascaded off of the bulbous lumps that rippled over its skull, casting dark shadows over its sunken eyes.

 

Scully gasped. “Oh my God!”

 

“What the…”

 

“Skuhhh...Laaayyyyyy...Scuullllaaaaayyyyyyyy!!”

 

The creature banged his bony fists against the window as he screamed, thick condensation spread across the glass as it jolted in its frame, while drool trickled from the corners of his gaping mouth. Throaty whoops and piercing screams erupted outside, a chaotic chorus of voices swirled around like a whirlwind and penetrated the thick wood of the cabin, reverberating around them. Scully pressed her hands to her ears and tucked her face into Mulder’s shoulder as the sound of her name rang into the night.

 

Time seemed to tick by in slow motion as they waited for it to pass, seconds turning to minutes, minutes turning to hours. The cries finally faded and a buzzing silence had fallen over the woods, all of the wildlife remained quiet as if they too were waiting for the relief of morning. Scully groaned lightly as she stretched her legs out in front of her, flexing her stiff muscles and joints. She and Mulder hadn’t dared to move, agreeing the cot in the cabin was the safest place for them for the duration of the night.

 

Her eyelids were heavy as she struggled to keep them open. Her muscles laden with exhaustion, while her mind raced with the highlights from Mulder’s story. Afflicted children. Abuse and torture. Cannibalism for survival. But was it truly a matter of survival? She wondered. It would stand to reason that everything those children had endured fifty years earlier had instead forced them to psychologically evolve over time; altering their once placid mental state, transforming them into…

 

“Monsters,” she whispered. Mulder pressed a kiss to the crown of her head.

 

Tap tap tap tap

 

Scully’s fingers gripped the pistol that lay in her lap at the sound of a light rapping on the door. She felt Mulder’s warm hand settle over hers, his thumb brushing her knuckles, and she turned her face to look at him.

 

Save them, he mouthed. She nodded once, feigning understanding, but inside she was conflicted by the meaning of his words.

 

Save the bullets, or save the children?

 

In the distance, a wail resonated through the quiet, the wind that rushed into the cracked window carrying with it the distorted calling of her name.

 

Mulder held her tight against him over the remaining hours as the voices finally disappeared with the daylight that crept over the horizon.

 

“They’ve been quiet since the sun came up,” she said as she rose to look out of the window behind them. “I don’t see them, Mulder, I think it’s safe. Time to go.”

 

“You got it, G-woman.”

 

xxxxx

 

Epilogue

 

1 week later

 

Scully eyed the photograph of the boy in the wheelchair for a moment before slipping it into the manilla folder that held the rest of the documentation, then absently ran her finger over the label that read:

 

Melonheads, Western MI / Northern OH.

 

A shiver down her spine as flashes from the event flickered through her mind. Mulder on his back, being attacked. The bite marks on his legs. The scratching up the wall. She shuddered. The first few nights after they’d returned to Washington, she’d awaken drenched in sweat in the middle of the night, hearing them faintly calling her name.

 

“Ready to go?” Mulder asked from the doorway. “We’ll have to hurry to make our 4 p.m. flight.”

 

She smiled at him and nodded, before tucking the file into place in the filing cabinet while he waited for her. They were lucky the to have found the car a quarter of a mile away that day. They were very lucky he’d still had the keys in his jacket pocket, she thought.

 

She grabbed her coat and purse, and as she crossed the threshold she felt his hand slide over her ass, then squeeze. She looked at him pointedly, her eyebrow raised.

 

He smirked, then walked leisurely towards the elevator. “Just giving the lady a hand.”

 

xxxxx

 

The flames popped and hissed in the hearth as he shifted his weight in his armchair, pulling the hem of his flannel up, before getting comfortable. The scotch glowed under the light from the fire as he brought the glass to his lips, the ice tinkling as he sipped. He inhaled sharply, hissed as the liquor burned its way down to his belly, then placed the glass on the table that sat next to him.

 

He wasn’t much of a Scotch man himself, but tonight it seemed fitting.

 

Sheriff Kelley had show up early Monday morning with that scrawny deputy and a bug up their ass. He’d invited them in for coffee, but they declined, instead they stood in the kitchen as they questioned his whereabouts over the weekend. He’d explained that he’d been working, had a run down to Tennessee and didn’t get back until late Sunday night. They didn’t stay long, just long enough for him to find out the happenings in the woods.

 

Federal agents, they said. Been attacked in his woods and made a bunch of accusations. They didn’t mention that his grandson had gone missing, or all of the camping gear that sat in a heap next to his truck. He didn’t mention it either. After taking up thirty minutes of his only day off, they finally left with a warning to stay close to town. Hard to do when you make your living trucking.

 

He snorted at the memory of their request and reached over for his glass of Scotch, choosing last minute instead to grab the photograph that lay next to it. The photograph he’d found near the old cabin while making his weekly inspection of the woods. He brought it close to his face, studying the man in a white coat with a young boy intently. It had been decades since he’d seen his father’s face after all the pictures had been destroyed, all those years before when they demolished the old hospital.

 

His father had been a great man, a brilliant doctor whose methods were going to heal the sick, but he had been misunderstood. His father would have changed the world, had he been given the chance, had his life not been taken too soon.

 

Had they not turned on him.

 

Memories of his father rushed back to him. Being taken from school for the day, so that he could spend it with him learning his methods. Helping the nurses pass out medication. His father leading him by hand to peek into the patients’ rooms, sitting him by the door as he taught him the process of performing a lobotomy.

 

Tears flooded along the rim of his lower lashes, and he briskly brushed them away with the back of his hand before they had the chance to fall.

 

The Scotch warmed the back of his throat as he took another sip. It was wrong to send innocent people out into those woods, he knew that. But like his father said all those years ago, a hunger like that must be fed to maintain control over the situation, otherwise the situation can spread like wildfire.

 

He held his glass up in the air. A salute, to the man and woman who survived, against all odds.