Continued from Chapter Twenty-One
["The Mastodon Diaries" is rated NC-17 for Violence, Language, and Graphic Sexual Content. Reader discretion is advised.]
The only certain thing was the clutch of Scully’s fingers. They tethered Mulder to reality while chaos bombarded his mind. Memories of his childhood glowed and faded like sparks. He was hunkered over a board game with Sam... He recoiled from the sting of his father’s slap... He blushed at the press of Christy McCarty’s lips on his. The smell of Mom’s gingerbread flooded his sinuses. It was replaced by fearsome smoke. Hot tears coursed down his cheeks. The chill of the Atlantic tempered him. He was outraged, relieved, irritable, hopeful...
“I love you, Scully,” he said, gripping her hand. Was she okay? He wanted to ask what she was seeing and feeling, but another memory snagged him.
“Mom? What’s the matter?”
“Fox, you should be ashamed of yourself.”
“Why? What did I do?”
“You left your sister hiding in the garage all afternoon. She expected you to come looking for her.”
“I went to Paul’s house.”
“You promised her a game of Hide and Seek. Why did you leave her like that? I’m very disappointed in you, Fox.”
Blinking back tears, Mulder was only partially relieved when he suddenly found himself no longer a shamed boy under his mother’s judgmental eye, but a grown man slumped on the couch in his apartment. He was twirling his wedding ring round and round his finger. Grief had worn his throat raw. His chest was hollow and he knew that only minutes before Diana had walked out the door for the very last time. He’d fucked up. Lost her.
In the space of a sigh, his apartment, like his expectations, disintegrated around him.
Images from case files began to swirl past his field of vision like Polaroids caught in the wind. The first few were familiar. A devil woman, a homicidal supercomputer, a vengeful pyromaniac. He felt the coldness of Icy Cape and the sweltering heat of Puerto Rico. He tasted the tang of barbeque sauce and the bitter sting of bile. He smelled fire and vomit and cherry blossoms...combined with Scully’s alluring scent. He watched her eyes laugh and tear up and round with alarm, disgust, and delight. He handed her a crime scene photo, a vial of monkey pee, a birthday present. He held her in his arms, and oh God her heart was pounding, because she’d just narrowly escaped death at the hands of a necrophiliac.
The images that followed these were unfamiliar. In them he saw himself with Scully, but didn’t recognize their surroundings, and could make neither heads nor tails of the context. He guessed these were glimpses of their future, fragments of their life ahead.
Most of them were too grim to bear.
Scully was bleeding on the cobwebbed floor of a gothic mansion, dying beside a counter in a bank, unconscious on his living room rug, her snow-white blouse saturated with blood. He saw her bruised and blinded and...
Sweet Jesus, she was lovely, heavy with their child. He longed to kiss the worry from her brow.
The scene changed again, and she was lying beneath him in an unfamiliar bed, no longer pregnant. He was making love to her. An overly warm blanket covered all but their heads. She looked older, her face lined, but still achingly beautiful. He fingered her hair, thousands of silky strands fanning out across the pillow, some shot with silver. She cushioned his hard thrusts. The bedroom smelled musty but comfortable, like a homecoming. Ecstasy waited only a heartbeat away.
“Dad, where are the car ke--”
Mulder stopped his thrusts to glare at the voice. A redheaded teen wearing a wrinkled T-shirt, faded jeans, and a startled expression blinked at him from the open bedroom door.
The boy’s cheeks darkened and he rolled his eyes. “Sorry,” he said, grabbing a set of keys from the dresser before turning to leave.
“Try knocking next time, son,” Mulder warned.
Scully asked, “Where are you going, William?”
The teen kept his back turned and his fingers on the knob. “Taking Ella and Ginny for burgers,” he said over his shoulder.
“Hamburgers for breakfast?” Scully sounded appalled.
“It’s after 11:00, Mom. We ate breakfast hours ago. Jeesh. Come up for air sometime, would you?” He quietly closed the door, leaving them alone once more.
“Kids.” Mulder shook his head and smiled.
“You might want to have a talk with him later about what he just saw.”
“He knows we have sex, Scully. He’s seventeen years old.”
“You think we might have scarred him for life?”
“Probably not, but I once walked in on my parents.”
“You did?” He laughed at the pinched look on her face.
“It wasn’t funny. I was mortified.”
“It hasn’t seemed to harm you in the long run.”
“No. A hundred Hail Mary’s helped purge me of the awful experience.” Wrapping her arms around his neck, she returned his smile and kissed his nose, his chin, his lips. “Talk to him anyway, please,” she murmured.
She raked her nails across his back, raising gooseflesh. “Where were we?”
“You were about to call out God’s name.”
“Mmm.” He nuzzled her cheek. “I love you, Scully...”
He wanted to savor this moment, but all too soon it whirled away with the others.
His mind cleared and he found himself standing in the cool, dim shadow of a massive aircraft, wearing nothing but a loincloth. Scully was by his side, her fingers interlocked with his. Three Naval officers gaped at them from twenty feet away, while a snowstorm of what appeared to be cottonwood seeds billowed toward the ceiling.
“I love you, Scully,” he whispered, “I love you...”
* * *
Hill Air Force Base
May 14, 1998
Jason Nichols breathed deeply, relieved when the maelstrom of past and future events finally dissipated and he felt himself sitting once again in the pilot seat of the experimental aircraft. He knew even before he opened his eyes that the rescue attempt had been a success. Only the safe return of the FBI agents into the present could account for the restoration of linear time.
“There they are!” Lisa gasped from the co-pilot’s seat. Her face was bone-white and slicked with sweat from her encounter with the distortion.
Jason’s gaze slid to the scene beyond the windshield.
The rift was gone. The only light in the hangar came from the ordinary fluorescent fixtures in the ceiling. Detritus swirled through the air -- gossamer fragments of lost time. It was hypnotizing the way it remained suspended for a moment at the apex of an updraft, before it sifted slowly down again, drawn by gravity.
Agents Mulder and Scully must have materialized while Jason was caught in the confusion of his past and future lives. He’d missed their arrival by only a second or two, he was sure. They were standing with shaken expressions, facing Beck, Linden and Kaback, who looked equally dazed. Scully was wearing an oversized leather jacket and a fur skirt. Mulder was dressed in a loincloth, of all things. His face was darkened by an unkempt beard, which made him look fiercer than the clean-shaven Air Force officers and far more primitive than Jason remembered him. He held a gun in his right hand, which he raised and aimed at the General. His arm was shaking badly, but his stance was fixed and his shoulders squared.
Jason found himself wishing Mulder would fire point blank and drop all three lunatics right where they stood. Not that it would solve anything -- an entire base of airmen was waiting just outside the door.
Already, half a dozen armed guards were scurrying in, surrounding the agents with rifles and shouting: “Put down the weapon!”
Mulder lowered and relinquished the gun with obvious reluctance. Jason hissed with disappointment. “They’ll be coming for us next, you know,” he told Lisa.
“I’m scared,” she whimpered.
He took hold of her hand. “Me, too.”
“I don’t want my memories erased.” Her fingers trembled beneath his. “M-maybe they’ll leave us alone. We could promise not to tell anyone.”
“They have no reason to trust us.”
“We could say we’ve discovered something new about the Project, something important that would--”
Colonel Beck’s finger targeted them behind the windshield. Four guards peeled away from the squad and scurried toward the craft.
“You said it yourself, Lisa -- they don’t need us anymore. We’ve proved time travel is possible and now our data is right there in the computer for them to use.”
“There isn’t time.”
The sound of boot heels on metal was followed by the appearance of two guards in the cabin door.
“Come with us,” demanded the shorter of the two, his M-16 leaving no room for argument.Jason powered off the ship’s computer and reluctantly rose to follow them out.
* * *
Hill Air Force Base
May 14, 1998
For the past three months Scully had worn little more than a fur skirt and a silk bra, feeling perfectly at ease in her scanty attire. But beneath the glare of modern-day fluorescents, she became the center of attention for a dozen gawping airmen, and their unwelcome stares made her blush hotly. She hugged Mulder’s jacket across her chest and kept her eyes aimed at the floor.
She and Mulder were being escorted at gunpoint down a long hall in a non-descript, one-story building, a five-minute jeep ride from the hangar where they’d first appeared. The tile floor chilled her bare feet and she shivered as they passed dozens of closed, windowless doors. The odors of bleach and ammonia hung thickly in the air, prickling her sinuses, reminding her of the psychiatric ward of Calumet Mercy Hospital where Mulder was held only a few days before they’d left for Utah. Security cameras, spaced every ten yards on the ceiling, tracked their progress.
“How ‘bout we skip the brainwashing this time, Captain, and go straight to our bon voyage party?” Mulder asked.
Stone-faced and silent, the Captain ignored him.
“I was kinda hoping to get home in time for Ally McBeal,” Mulder added.
The guards herded them forward, their boots clomping in unison. Mulder walked out of step, his near-nakedness looking incongruous next to the uniformed men. He remained as close to Scully as the M16s would allow, and she appreciated his obvious desire to protect her. Three months ago she would have acted irritated by his hovering, but now she demonstrated her gratitude by taking hold of his hand in full view of the airmen.
Thanks to her visions, she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that she and Mulder were destined to be together. A “brain drain,” as he called it, would only postpone their reunion, not prevent it. She lamented the precious time that would be lost while they fumbled toward intimacy all over again, but she was certain that, in the end, they would be together.
The guards came to a halt at a security checkpoint. The Captain used a key card to open the locked door. On the other side was an identical hall.
Twin rifles prodded the agents forward.
“Watch where you’re poking that thing,” Mulder growled, and proceeded down the corridor.
A minute or two later, the squad stopped again, this time in front of a windowless, unnumbered door. The Captain unlocked and opened it. “Get in,” he ordered.
Mulder hesitated and Scully peered past his shoulder into the room. It was about twelve feet square and devoid of furnishings or windows. The walls were white. A security camera surveyed the interior from an upper corner. The door had no knob on the inside.
“There’s obviously been a mistake -- we requested the honeymoon suite.” Mulder’s wisecrack earned him a jab in the ribs with a rifle, which forced him across the threshold.
Scully was shoved in behind him, and the door was shut and locked.
“Damn it.” She pivoted with hands on her hips, eyes exploring the ceiling and walls.
There was no removable air vent, no lock to pick, and, with the exception of the door, no possible means of escape.
Mulder rubbed his bruised ribs. “Welcome back to the future, Scully.”
She eyed the security camera and wondered if they could be heard as well as seen. Deciding it didn’t matter, she asked, “Mulder, what do you remember about Yellow Base?”
“At Ellens. The Budahas case.”
“Uh...not much. Which I guess was the point.
“How do you think they did it? Made you forget.”
“Not surgery?” The idea of someone cutting into her brain unnerved her. She couldn’t help but think of Mary LeFante’s MRIs, taken after Gerry Schnauz had lobotomized her with a leucotome.
“You picked me up just a few hours after I got there. No time for surgery. Right?”
“Not using conventional methods. You didn’t have any noticeable incisions.”
He raked his fingers through his hair as if checking for overlooked scars. “What do you remember?”
“I remember being ditched at the Beech Grove Hotel.” She leveled a stare at him.
“Oh...uh...ditched? That’s a bit of an exaggeration, don’t you think?”
“What do you call it when you run off on your own and leave me behind?”
“Well, whatever...I rescued you anyway.”
“And I appreciate that, Scully, I do.”
Turning her attention to the walls, she edged around the room’s perimeter, hoping to discover a hidden means of escape. “You were gone overnight. I picked you up shortly after 7:00 in the morning. You were disoriented. Your speech was slurred. Pupils dilated. You asked me how you got there.”
“I don’t remember any of that.”
“You smelled funny.”
She ran her hand over a crack in the plaster and was disappointed to find it was just an ordinary crack. “Like...chemicals, drugs.”
“Anything you recognized?”
“Well, I don’t see what difference it makes how they took my memories. The end result was the same -- I don’t remember anything about Yellow Base, about how I got there or what I saw. It’s a complete blank.” He came up behind her and placed his hands on her shoulders, stilling her restless search for a way out. “It didn’t hurt. It was just...disconcerting.”
She spun to face him. “I don’t trust these people, Mulder. We don’t know who they are or what kind of training they’ve had. Their motives are questionable, their techniques experimental. I don’t want some quack carving into my brain...or yours. It scares the hell out of me.”
* * *
“Don’t do this,” Jason begged. “Please.” His eyes darted from Pearsall to Stroehmer. Neither man seemed to be listening.
Pearsall drove a needle into his arm and attached an I.V. Stroehmer sorted drugs at a nearby counter. Lisa was lying on the next bed, already unconscious, hooked to monitors, her skin ghostly pale. A rift of worry creased her brow even in her sleep.
Jason struggled against the bindings that bit into his wrists and ankles. He was stripped naked. Cold, amber liquid crawled into his veins through the IV, making his arm throb. “Stop, please. You don’t know what you’re doing.”
Pearsall gave him an unsympathetic smile. “Try to stay calm, Mr. Nichols. Everything will be fine.”
“No, no it won’t. Not unless you do something.”
“End the Project...end the time travel experiments. You’re going to kill everyone,” he warned. “You’re going to end the world. Stop Beck. Stop *him* before it’s too late.” Jason craned to get a better view of Stroehmer. “I know what you are!” he shouted to the Butcher.
Stroehmer crossed the room, hypodermic in hand. He bent over Jason and smiled, exposing a silver eyetooth. Half his face was stained purple with a vascular malformation; the other half was ashen, the skin papery and too thin. “I’m a doctor, young man.”
“You destroy people’s minds.”
“You’re mistaken. I’m a military surgeon, perfectly qualified to do what I do.” Stroehmer injected his neck.
Almost immediately, Jason felt his tongue thicken. Pins and needles prickled his palms and the soles of his feet. Panic hammered his chest. “Stop him,” he begged Pearsall, before a mask was fitted over his mouth and nose.
The Butcher cackled, causing the folds of his neck to vibrate. He squirted stinging drops into Jason’s eyes.
The world blurred. Stroehmer’s laugh clanged inside his ears, sounding hollow and cruel and too damn close. He could no longer see Lisa or Pearsall.
It’s over, he thought. I’ve failed. I didn’t end the Project.
Defeat sucked him into the shadows. Dread squeezed his heart, while his last shred of hope vanished into a swirling mist of fading memory.
* * *
“What’s taking so goddamn long?” Mulder paced the room again. They’d been cooling their heels for the better part of two hours. He pounded his fist against the wall and shouted at the surveillance camera “Get on with it already!”
“Are you really in such a hurry to have them come after us?” Scully was standing in the middle of the room, watching him with arms crossed.
Swathed in his oversized coat, she looked small and vulnerable. He recognized fear behind her irritation.
“There may be some benefits to it, Scully.”
“To what? Losing our memories?”
“Not everything that happened to us during the last three months is worth remembering.”
She inhaled sharply. The sound was something between a gasp and a sigh. “The swap.”
“I told you he didn’t hurt me.”
“But nothing! It’s over, Mulder. Don’t make it more than it was.”
“I wasn’t traumatized. I’m not emotionally crippled. Can’t you just drop it?”
“No?” She was clearly struggling to maintain her composure. “I’ve told you I’m okay. Why can’t that be enough for you?”
“Because...” Teeth clenched, fists balled, he was surprised at how angry he still felt...at Dzeh...at himself. “Because *I’m* not okay.” Lingering jealousy burned his throat. Unable to stop himself, he grabbed her, wrapped her in a crushing embrace, and audibly forced the air from her lungs. “Scully, I don’t think I can ever forgive myself for what happened. Allowing another man to touch you...that way... I want to forget it. I want you to forget it. It’ll be a relief to never think about it again.”
She said nothing as he tried to steady his breathing. Only when her arms slid around his waist did his desperation begin to ebb.
“I know,” she soothed, rubbing his back. “It’s just...”
“If I lose my memories of Dzeh, that means I lose my memories of you, too.” She sounded close to tears. “I-I don’t want your love taken away from me.”
“No one can do that, Scully. I loved you before we went back in time. I love you now. I will love you for the rest of my life. I don’t have to remember it -- it just is.” He loosened his bear hug, but kept her within the circle of his arms, his chin resting on the crown of her head. After a moment he said, “I saw him.”
“Our baby?” She drew back, eyes burning with eager curiosity.
“He wasn’t exactly a baby.” He decided to skip the part where their son walked in on them while they were making love. “He asked me for the car keys.”
“The car--? Mulder, when did this--”
The door suddenly slapped open, banging on the outside wall, startling them apart. The Captain, flanked by his guards, hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “Let’s go.”
“Where to?” Mulder corralled Scully protectively in the curve of his arm.
“No thanks. We’re fine.”
“It’s not negotiable.”
The guards lifted and aimed their guns.
“I guess I could use a bath.” Mulder guided Scully into the corridor.
They were escorted several doors down to a washroom, where Scully paused at the door, evidently brought up short by the international symbol for “men.”
“Inside,” the Captain insisted.
She did as she was told, pushing open the door and entering the room. Mulder and the others followed her inside.
The washroom was divided into three sections: lavatory up front, lockers beyond that, and showers at the back. It resembled a typical high school locker room, except for the fact that it was antiseptically clean.
They walked through to the back, where a dozen showerheads projected from a tiled wall.
“Airman Taylor will take your clothes.” The Captain nodded at an expressionless young man with blond bristle and a deeply cleft chin.
Taylor stepped toward Scully.
Mulder’s arm shot out, stopping him. “Back off.”
Immediately the Captain’s pistol pressed into his cheek.
Mulder met the Captain’s unwavering stare. “How about giving the lady some privacy?” He nearly choked on the next word. “Sir.”
Squinting with suspicion, the Captain thought for a moment, then relented and lowered his weapon. “You’ve got ten minutes. We’ll be waiting outside.”
On the Captain’s order, the men retreated to the hall.
“Thank you,” Scully whispered, when the guards were gone. She undressed quickly and crossed to the nearest spigot. Fingering the gleaming faucet, she said, “I hardly remember how to use these.”
“Your tattoo...” Using his best Poltergeist II imitation, he said, “It’s baaack.”
She turned to face him. “So is your scar.” Her eyes dropped to his thigh. “Both of them.”
He fingered the old wound on his chest. “Whaddaya know? I must be so used to it being there, I didn’t even notice it’d reappeared.”
“It answers your question about whether or not our bodies are going to revert back to their original forms.”
“Not really.” He ran his hand over his beard. “Why do I still have this? Or these?” He held out his arms, displaying the cuts and bruises he’d received during his fight with Klesh.
She shook her head. “As far as I know, there is no scientific explanation for it.”
“I told you we’d find an X-File in Utah.” He tapped his bare wrist. “How we doing on time?”
“Oh!” She glanced at her watch. “Damn it. We’re down to seven minutes.”
He quickly stripped out of his loincloth and joined her at the shower.
Twirling the knob, she stepped beneath the streaming jet. He moved in behind her.
“I’ve got your back,” he murmured into her ear as he leaned past her for a squirt of soap from the hanging dispenser. He used it to lather her shoulders and spine.
Her muscles began to unknot beneath his sudsy caress. “Thank you again,” she said, “for...for everything.”
Hot water pounded his neck and arms, making his blood race. Or maybe it was the feel of her flushed, wet skin beneath his fingers that warmed him. This might be his last opportunity to touch her like this -- at least for a while. Might as well take advantage of it. All six and a half minutes worth.
“Face me,” he said.
“We don’t have that kind of time, Mulder.”
“It’s okay, my intentions are honorable...for the most part.” He chuckled and reached to fill his palm with shampoo. “Wet your hair.”
“You, too,” she said, evidently understanding what he intended to do.
Together they ducked beneath the spray.
His knees went weak when she began to briskly massage his scalp with sweet-smelling shampoo. Then she soaped and scrubbed his beard. When she was finished, he reciprocated and lathered her hair.
“Mmmm, feels good,” she hummed as he rubbed her.
He kissed her beneath the steaming water.
“I promise we’ll do this again,” he said against her lips, “when we have more time.”
“I’m going to hold you to that.” She wiped soap from his left brow. “Turn around and I’ll do your back.”
As much as he hated to give up the view, he turned away. His eyes closed when she ran her hands from his neck to his buttocks. Suds crawled down his legs, tickling the backs of his knees, swirling around his toes. Fragrant steam heated his sinuses, his lungs, the tips of his ears, his closed lids.
“Better rinse,” she said. “Our time is almost up.”
“Already?” He turned to see her combing soap from her hair with her fingers. Her movements were graceful. She glistened like a mirage. He’d give anything to hold time still and make this moment last.
“Hurry up, Mulder.”
He quickly rinsed. When he was soap-free, she turned off the faucet. Water rained from their hair. “Damn, I don’t see any towels,” she said.
“Great. How are we supposed to dry off?” He swiped at his eyes with the backs of his hands and, dripping wet, walked through to the locker room. “Captain? Cap--”
The guards burst through the door from the hall, guns held high. They aimed at his chest and he raised his hands slowly over his head. “You wouldn’t shoot a naked man, would you?”
The Captain strode forward. “Time to go. Dr. Stroehmer’s waiting.”
“Who?” Scully appeared behind Mulder, wearing his leather jacket.
“Base physician. He just wants to make sure you’re okay, ma’am.”
“Right.” She shouldered past him.
The Captain signaled Mulder to follow her.
This is it, Mulder thought as he fell into step, Yellow Base all over again.
* * *
Simon Pearsall loved his country. He was proud to serve as an esteemed surgeon in the United States Air Force. His record was spotless. He’d received numerous commendations, medals, and praise from high-ranking officials. Yet as far as he was concerned all his good deeds and all his acts of heroism were negated the moment he helped Oskar Stroehmer essentially lobotomize two civilians under the pretext of protecting national security. It shamed him to think he hadn’t tried to stop it before it was too late and his complicity in Stroehmer’s experiment was more than he could stomach.
Lisa Ianelli lay on one of the room’s four operating tables in a permanent vegetative state. Only an hour ago, she had been a vibrant, intelligent woman with a lifetime of love and achievement ahead of her. A career in science, and perhaps a family of her own. Oskar Stroehmer ended all of that when he injected her with an overdose of drugs, which expurgated her mind and left her with the mental acuity of a twenty-week-old fetus.
Jason Nichols had fared slightly better. Stroehmer had regressed his mind to that of a preschooler. It was possible he still retained a capacity to learn, and might, after a time, reacquire his education, if not the benefit of his experiences.
The human mind is too delicate for this type of razing, Pearsall thought. They had no right to be playing God this way.
He patted Lisa Ianelli’s limp hand. “Take her away,” he ordered the transport crew.
Paramedics covered her with a white cotton blanket and lifted her onto a gurney. They did the same with Jason Nichols, who was bawling like an infant.
His caterwauling set Pearsall’s teeth on edge. Stroehmer was at the sink washing his hands, seemingly immune to the pathetic cries. Pearsall recalled Nichols’ final plea. “Stop him,” he had implored before Stroehmer put him under.
If only I’d listened, Pearsall lamented.
A commotion at the door drew his attention. Captain Linden was there with several armed guards, a petite redheaded woman in a black leather coat, and a naked man with wet hair and a pissed off expression. They looked familiar, but Pearsall wasn’t able to place them.
The naked man was shouting to be heard over Nichols’ cries. “What the hell did you do?” he demanded, struggling to break free from the guards who held his arms.
The woman’s eyes were wide with disbelief. One of the airmen bullied her across the room, which seemed to enrage the shouting man even more.
“Don’t touch her!” he howled.
“Get them out of here,” Captain Linden ordered the paramedics, referring to Nichols and Ianelli. He glared at Pearsall. “I was told you’d be finished by now, sir.”
Evidently the new patients weren’t supposed to see what was in store for them.
The lab was in chaos. The shouting man was thrashing so violently he knocked into a cart, which hit the counter. Surgical instruments clattered to the floor. “Leave her alone!” he bellowed when a guard tried to wrestle the woman’s coat off her.
She threw a punch. The guard retaliated by shoving her against a bed.
The naked man tried to tear free from his captors. “Let go of her!”
His shouts were silenced when Stroehmer jabbed a hypodermic into his upper arm. The drug had an immediate effect; he slumped between the guards. They dragged him to an empty bed.
“Captain, get your men out of here,” Pearsall demanded. He waited for the room to clear before he went to the woman and asked gently, “What’s your name?”
“Special Agent Dana Scully. I work for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”
The FBI? He glanced at Stroehmer, who shrugged.
“Do you know why you’re here?” he asked.
Glaring at him, she stepped backward toward her unconscious partner, grabbed his wrist and felt for a pulse. “I’ve been told you plan to steal my memories.”
“Not quite. The procedure is called SCD -- Selective Cognitive Draining.”
“As I said, not quite. But it’s true you’ve seen some things you shouldn’t and--”
“Don’t talk to me like I’m five years old.”
“All right,” -- he hardened his tone -- “you’ve witnessed a classified military experiment. We can’t allow you off the Base with that information.”
“We didn’t see anything. We were sent back in time.”
Back in time? Suddenly Pearsall remembered where it was he’d seen these two before: right here in this lab, earlier in the afternoon during what Stroehmer called a time distortion.
Dread skittered down his spine.
Everything was becoming clear. The ultramodern lab that had replaced his glimpse of the two agents wasn’t a figment of his imagination or a place that existed...at least, not in the present. It was the future. As was his vision of the shocked men and women in the lab, secured by restraints, all screaming incoherently...like Jason Nichols. Pearsall was beginning to understand what Nichols had meant when he’d said, “End the Project...end the time travel experiments.” Before the young scientist’s mind was wiped clean, he had begged Pearsall to stop Beck and Stroehmer. “You’re going to kill everyone,” he’d warned. “You’re going to end the world.”
These weren’t the ravings of a terrified man, as Pearsall had originally thought. They were the truth.
Beck and his minions were playing with fire. Somehow they’d discovered a way to manipulate time. Only...they must have messed up. The experiment had evidently gone awry, sending the agents back in time.
And now Pearsall was helping Stroehmer cover up the blunder.
He glanced again at Stroehmer. The man held up a hypo, indicating he wanted to get started.
Haunted by the images of screaming men and women, Pearsall tried to control the tremor in his hands.
“Don’t worry, Miss Scully.”
“Is that what you told Jason Nichols?”
“You’ll be fine.” Would he be able to stop Stroehmer before he went too far? “Please, try to relax.”
* * *
Her most recent memories were the first to go. It was impossible to pinpoint the exact moment they disappeared, but it happened sometime after Scully felt a needle prick her inner elbow. An IV was inserted. Anesthesia began to nibble away at her consciousness, making her fingers numb and her limbs too weighty to lift. A mask was fitted over her mouth and nose, allowing cool air to flood her sinuses, thickening her tongue and fogging her mind. She closed her eyes, but they were pried open a moment later by gloved fingers. Drops were inserted and she blinked against their sting. She tried to focus, wanting to locate Mulder in the next bed, but her pupils were dilating, and the room became too bright to see.
“Mmmmuller...” Had she called his name aloud?
A pair of rough hands rearranged her legs. Electrodes were taped to her chest, icy at first but then quickly forgotten when other less pleasant sensations taunted her nerves. A puncture to the back of her hand. Pressure in her throat. Was she being intubated?
She imagined drills penetrating her cranium, allowing the insertion of needle-thin scalpels, which would be used to excise her memory one microscopic synapse at a time. She almost hoped her captors would take such a careful, methodical approach, rather than hacking indiscriminately, like Gerry Schnauz hunting for Howlers.
Whatever the process, she worried it would be frightening. Like the way the first stages of dementia are for Alzheimer’s patients, when they are still aware of their failing cognition, but frustrated by their limited ability to recall facts and events.
In the end, it turned out to be nothing like she expected. There was no snip-snip-snipping of brain cells, resounding inside her skull like Mulder’s wire cutters clipping a hole through the Base’s chain link fence. The images from her past didn’t fade away, blur or wink out. The process wasn’t comparable to flicking off a light switch or tearing out the pages of a book.
Instead she was reminded of a time when she stayed late in Conference Room C, long after the other agents had left Skinner’s briefing. She was seated at a sun-drenched mahogany table, leafing through autopsy reports, and the room was so quiet she could hear the wall clock ticking. Skinner’s secretary arrived to clear the team’s abandoned coffee cups and gather up the pens and pads of paper. Arlene tiptoed around the room, trying her best to be unobtrusive. But, caught off-guard by the faint, unexpected smell of the secretary’s freshly ironed clothes, Scully looked up, her concentration broken. She stared at the crisp, bright creases in Arlene’s snowy sleeves, and noticed her nails were pink and neatly manicured. One stray hair wavered out of place at her part as she walked to the white board to erase Skinner’s notes. Place names, chronology, and a list of victims, coded in shades of red, purple and green -- colors too cheerful to represent a killer’s wicked intentions -- disappeared beneath her silent eraser one by one, until the board was restored to its original, pristine innocence.
Dr. Stroehmer used a potent combination of drugs to erase Scully’s memories. As each recollection vanished there was no way to know it had ever been there. Whole thoughts became no thoughts at all. Scully didn’t miss them. Their going caused her no torment. It was impossible to grieve something that seemed to have never existed in the first place. Like asking a man born blind if he missed his sight.
Incrementally, painlessly, the Ice Age was expunged from her consciousness. Every past event, every feeling, every insight into the future was meticulously wiped clean, and her knowledge of Mulder’s love vanished along with the rest.
* * *
Hill Air Force Base
May 15, 1998
Colonel Beck fought the urge to pace. He stood on the shoulder of the road beside the opened front door of the agents’ rental car. His driver waited at the rear bumper, eyes trained east. The Crown Vic had been washed and waxed, its tank filled. New keys had been cut before it was moved out of storage -- apparently the originals were lost somewhere in the past. The car was returned to the exact location where Captain Linden’s security team had discovered it the morning after the bungled flight test. Jesus, that was only two days ago. It seemed like a fucking lifetime.
Heat rippled up from the pavement despite the early hour, baking right through the soles of the Colonel’s spit-shined boots. Sweat oozed from beneath the brim of his hat.
“Here they come, sir.” Beck’s driver nodded at an approaching jeep.
Sunlight backlit the vehicle, making it impossible to see who was inside. If there was a God in Heaven, Captain Linden would be at the wheel with the two FBI agents in the seats behind him.
Pearsall’s report had arrived on Beck’s desk an hour ago and indicated the SCD had been a success. Evidently the agents remembered nothing about trespassing on Base property or their detour into the past. Yet their other memories remained miraculously intact.
Nichols and Ianelli hadn’t been so fortunate and the loss weighed heavily on Beck. Although his specialists assured him they could continue the time travel experiments, using the data collected by Nichols during the retrieval of the agents, he knew the Project would move at a snail’s pace without the two civilian scientists.
The jeep pulled to the side of the road and parked behind the rental car. Captain Linden climbed out, marched up to Beck, and saluted.
“They’re all set, sir.”
“Then get them on their way.”
The Captain signaled to Beck’s driver, who went to the rear of the jeep and removed the agents’ overnight bags. He loaded them into the trunk of the Crown Vic, beside Agent Mulder’s wire cutters. Then he returned to escort the passengers to their car.
“Lady’s out cold, sir,” he said.
“Help him, Captain,” Beck ordered.
Captain Linden joined the airman and together they hauled Agent Scully from the jeep. She was wearing a change of clothes from her overnight bag. Her head lolled when they lifted her. Beck could see Mulder watching them, eyes blinking, mouth open. He was shaking his head, but seemed glued to his seat.
Linden and the airman carried Scully to the car and worked her into the front. Beck shut the trunk. The noise startled a snake out from beneath the vehicle. It must have been looking for respite from the godawful heat and crawled into the shadows. Beck watched it skate into the weeds, where it disappeared.
Just like the clues to the agents’ recent whereabouts, he thought. Care had been taken to eliminate all evidence that might prove they’d been anywhere but right here. The Black Sox baseball cap had been destroyed -- although after seeing the strange garments the agents were wearing when they returned, Beck wasn’t altogether sure they’d been watching ballgames in the 30s. Their absurd fur clothes were burned along with the cap.
They were allowed to keep most everything else: cell phones, the Smith and Wesson, a pair of binoculars, and the few other items Mulder had been carrying in the pockets of his worn leather coat...including a delicate gold necklace and a strange bone carving.
Beck assumed additional items, like the car keys, must have been lost in the past. Agent Scully was carrying no gun. She was wearing a wristwatch, but Mulder was not. Neither agent had shoes, or any other modern apparel, except for the one jacket. Beck hoped that whatever they’d left behind wouldn’t cause serious repercussions.
Linden helped Mulder out of the jeep. The agent was dressed in slacks, shirt and necktie. His face was clean-shaven, his hair neatly trimmed to match his file photo. Guided by the Captain and the airman, he walked stiffly, occasionally tripping over his own feet. His eyes were glassy and his expression dazed. The drugs would wear off soon enough; in ten or fifteen minutes he’d be alert enough to drive.
Mulder pointed a drifting finger at Beck as he stumbled past. “Y’woan giddaway wi’thisss,” he warned before the men dumped him unceremoniously into the driver’s seat.
“You’re wrong, Agent Mulder,” -- Beck turned away and headed for Linden’s waiting jeep -- “we already have.”
* * *
2630 Hegal Place, Apt. 42
Two Days Later
“I’ve seen ghouls and hobgoblins and witches...” Mulder sang while he showered. “And some moth-eaten werewolves with fangs...” He grabbed the soap and lathered his armpits for the third time. He couldn’t remember ever enjoying a shower so much. Except...
A vision of Scully beneath steaming spray, naked and soapy and sexy, came to him like a recent memory. For just a moment he swore he could feel her slick, heated skin beneath his palms.
“Naahhh.” He shrugged it off. It was one of his favorite fantasies. He must have dreamt it last night.
“There were creatures that chattered and others that clattered...” Squeaky clean he let the water run, pounding his neck and spine. The tenant in 44 was going to be pissed when she discovered he’d used up all the hot. “And Japanese monsters with bangs.”
He turned off the tap and reached around the curtain for a towel. “Frankenstein gives me the shakes, and Count Dracula’s driving me batty...” The towel smelled nice and he attributed it to that new “springtime fresh” detergent someone had left behind in the laundry room. He dried his arms and chest before stepping out onto the mat, which cushioned his feet in a way he’d never really appreciated before this morning.
“But they’re not on a par...” -- he draped the towel over his head and scrubbed -- “with the worst one by far...”
A swipe across the bathroom mirror cleared the steam and he stared at his reflection as he deadpanned the final line, “The cockroach that ate Cincinnati.”
Out in the bedroom his cell phone rang. He tossed the towel on the floor and went to answer it.
“Mulder,” he announced when he had the phone trapped between shoulder and chin. Back in the bathroom, he grabbed his razor and shaving cream.
“Mulder, it’s me.”
“Hey, Scully. What’s up?” He sprayed foam into his palm. Had it always puffed like that? It seemed fluffier than he remembered and smelled more...minty. He checked the label on the can to assure himself he’d bought his usual brand.
“I’m thinking about getting my tattoo removed.”
“That’s weird, ‘cause I’m thinking about growing a beard.” Shaving cream at the ready, he faced the mirror and eyeballed the stubble on his chin and neck.
“Do hairy guys turn you on at all, Scully?”
His shoulders slumped and he lathered one cheek, moved his phone to the other ear and coated the rest of his face. “Why do you want to get rid of your tattoo?” He let the sink fill with water.
“It seems...inappropriate now.”
He wanted to say it always had struck him as inappropriate, but refrained from doing so. Scraping the razor across his jaw, he marveled at the smooth stripe of skin it left behind. “I thought you said it represented a need to move forward with your life.”
“That’s just it, Mulder. I feel I’m exactly where I should be at this point in time.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means...nothing. Forget it. That’s not why I called.”
“Why did you call?” He tilted his head and shaved underneath his chin.
“To tell you I’ve got an 8:30 meeting this morning.”
“Just you? I’m not invited?”
“Why’s that?” Finished with his razor, he set it on the edge of the sink and reached for a hand towel.
“Maybe because...you don’t play well with others?”
“It’s possible Skinner is punishing you.”
“Do I really need to spell it out? How about disregarding Bureau protocol, losing your gun, our badges, and two pairs of handcuffs, or, if nothing else, wasting my time?”
“A visit to Seven Peaks Water Park -- ‘the place where families play in Utah’ -- is never a waste, Scully.”
“While we’re on the subject, where the hell are my apartment keys?”
“I’m guessing with your badge.” He used a corner of the towel to dig shaving cream out of his left ear.
“The super had to let me in yesterday.”
He grimaced at the mirror and wondered if he could hold the phone and floss his teeth at the same time. “What’s your meeting about?”
“I don’t know yet, but I’ll fill you in as soon as I can,” she promised before she hung up.
He released the water from the sink and returned to the bedroom. Tossing the phone onto the bed, he went to his closet.
“But the worst one it seems,” he sang as he slid a gray suit from its hanger, “haunting all of my dreams,” -- he selected a tie -- “is the cockroach that ate Cincinnati.”
* * *
“I was afraid I’d miss you before you went to your meeting. I seem to have lost my watch.”
Scully paused at her typing to glance at Mulder as he entered the office and crossed to his desk. “I’m guessing it’s with your badge,” she repeated his own words back to him. “No beard?”
“Nah. I decided to wait and grow it out when I go on vacation.”
“You never go on vacation.” She double-checked her last line of text before saving and closing her document. “You don’t know the meaning of the word.”
“I was thinking I might travel to Maine, maybe go wilderness camping, live off the land, do a little fish-- What?”
She couldn’t help but stare. Something was different about him, yet she couldn’t quite put her finger on what. It was more than his uncharacteristic yearning to abandon the city for the northwoods. Was it something about his face? It looked too...too...smooth, and his clothes were too...neatly pressed. He seemed...overdressed, somehow, although he was wearing a familiar suit. She blinked at his silk tie as if she’d never seen one on him before. And the faint scent of his morning shower tickled her sinuses in the strangest way -- shampoo, aftershave, deodorant, all familiar and yet...not. She was on the verge of going over to him and touching his hair where it brushed his shirt collar with perfect uniformity. She wanted to prove to herself that he was real, not a mirage or daydream or whatever it was about him that was giving her goosebumps. “Who are you and what have you done with my partner?” she half-joked.
A small grin nudged his too smooth cheek as he settled into his chair and started sorting through the files on his desk. “You don’t know me as well as you think you do, Scully.”
“Oh no?” The peculiar feeling began to diminish as she watched him shuffle papers. She was being silly, imagining things that weren’t there. She smiled and said, “You’d have to join a twelve step program just to go two minutes without your cell phone.”
“I only use it because it’s available. I could survive just fine without modern conveniences -- if I had to.” He powered up his computer. “As a matter of fact, I bet I could outlast you.”
“In your dreams.” She checked her watch. “Damn, I’m late.” She stood and gathered her files. She was halfway to the door before she remembered the carving. “Oh, I meant to ask you...” She reached into her pocket and pulled out the small figurine. It was made of bone or ivory, and it reminded her of the primitive carvings she’d seen in Dr. Diamond’s anthropology classes as an undergrad.
She crossed the room and set it on the desk in front of him. “That yours?”
He picked it up and twirled it between his fingers. “No. Where did you get it?”
“I found it in my overnight case. You don’t recognize it?”
“It looks like a fertility idol, like the Venus of Willendorf.”
“Yes, but where did it come from?”
“Don’t look at me. I’m not trying to get pregnant.” He started to give it back, then evidently changed his mind and hung onto it, caressing its voluptuous curves, pendulous breasts and swollen belly with his thumb.
“Is something wrong?” she asked.
“Well, it’s been in my pocket.”
“Hm. Can I borrow it?” He sounded distracted.
“Sure. What are you going to do with it?”
“I know a guy at the Smithsonian. I’d like him to take a look at it...see if it’s the real deal.”
“Mulder, it’s a reproduction. It has to be.”
“Maybe.” He set it back on his desk. “I’ll let you know.”
“Fine. I have to go.” She headed for the door.
“Oh...wait.” He stood and fished into his pants pocket. “Um, I believe this is yours.”
Her necklace dangled from his fingers.
“Where did you find it?”
“It was in the pocket of my leather jacket...which looks like crap by the way.” He came around the desk. “The clasp was broken, so I stopped at Friedman’s yesterday and got it fixed.”
She waited while he hooked it around her neck. Her fingers went immediately to the tiny cross. “Thank you, Mulder. That was a thoughtful thing for you to do.”
“I figured I owed you...you know...for dragging you to Utah.”
“Mulder, about that. I don’t exacrtly remember...”
It embarrassed her to admit it, but she remembered almost nothing about their trip. “Mulder, what happened in Utah?”
“We drove to Hill Air Force Base and...”
“Uh...fell asleep in the car?”
“For two days? Mulder, we arrived in Salt Lake City on the 13th.”
“And woke up in the car the morning of the 15th. Mm, I know. I’ve been wondering about that myself. I have a theory, if you care to hear it.”
She glanced again at her watch. “Make it quick.”
“Remember the Budahas case?”
“Ellens Air Force Base, our second case together... Wait...you’re not going to suggest what I think you’re going to suggest.”
“Two words, Scully. Brain drain.”
“No. I’ve got to go.” She headed for the door.
“Then what’s your explanation?” he asked, bringing her up short at the threshold. “And don’t give me that folie a deux crap again.”
The truth was, she didn’t have a logical explanation. And she’d been trying to come up with one for the last two days. “I’ll have to get back to you on it,” she said, and hurried from the room. Missing a day or two certainly wasn’t the strangest thing that had ever happened to her and Mulder, but it was disconcerting just the same.
She jogged to the elevator, her mind already switching gears to the meeting upstairs.
* * *
The elevator hummed beneath her high-heeled shoes as she watched the floor numbers rise. Alone in the car, Scully reviewed Skinner’s case. The background information that he’d sent down to her this morning described a sniper hit on a Russian chess player named Anatole Klebanow during a world championship match in British Columbia. The shooter worked for the National Security Agency, which was why the FBI was involved. It wasn’t an X-File, which could explain why Skinner might not assign Mulder to the case, but then why had he tagged her for the investigative team? Maybe the A.D.’s reluctance to invite Mulder had more to do with his recent stay in a psychiatric ward than with the specifics of the Vancouver shooting. Or maybe Skinner was still pissed about Mulder’s unauthorized trip to Utah.
The elevator came to a stop on the third floor to pick up more passengers. Scully edged to the back as Agents Spender, Edwards and Maier blustered inside, clipboards in hand and scowls on their faces.
“Hold the door, please,” a woman called from the hall behind them. Spender held out an arm to prevent the door from sliding shut. “Sorry,” the woman apologized as she hurried inside. Her perfume flooded the car and she brushed her dark hair into place with a quick swipe of her fingers.
Scully didn’t recognize her, but there was something familiar about her just the same. She was tall and a few years older than Scully. She stood with her head tipped slightly back, giving her a haughty demeanor. Her suit was well tailored and looked expensive. It showed off her busty figure and long legs -- the type of legs that always attracted Mulder’s attention. Her nails were well manicured, her lipstick freshly applied. She wore a Bureau ID, but the glare from the elevator’s overhead light prevented Scully from reading it.
The woman caught her staring.
Scully forced a polite smile. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to...” For some reason she disliked this woman on sight, although she had no excuse for it. Nothing but a vague sense of deja vu that was making her feel uneasy and inexplicably...what? Jealous? That was ridiculous. She didn’t even know the woman. Did she? “Do we know each other?”
“I don’t think so.” The woman extended her hand. Her expression remained stern. “I’m Agent Fowley.”
“Agent Scully,” she identified herself. “I swear we--”
The elevator dinged, indicating their floor. The doors slid open and everyone shuffled into the corridor.
“Nice to meet you.” Agent Fowley nodded crisply, before turning toward the briefing room.
* * *
Mulder returned from the men’s room to find Skinner flipping through a file folder. The A.D. hadn’t brought it with him; it was the file for the Pincus case, which had been lying on Mulder’s desk. His internal warning bells began clanging. Skinner rarely made his way down to the basement. The A.D. had purposely excluded him from whatever was going on upstairs, and yet here he was poking around.
“Wow, you know you’re going places in the Bureau when the Assistant Director tidies up your office for you. What’s up?”
Skinner smiled sheepishly. “I was just, uh...looking.”
“For anything special?” Mulder stepped into the room.
“I came down to ask you something. I, uh, I guess I was nosing around...wondering about you...your, uh, long-term plans.”
“My long-term plans? You’ve got them right there in your hands.” He took the folders from the A.D., who relinquished them without argument. Mulder crossed to the file cabinet and cracked open the drawer.
“What do you hope to find?” Skinner asked. “I mean, in the end.”
“Whatever I hope to find is in here.” He waggled the folders before dropping them into the drawer. “And maybe I’ll know it when I find it. Is that what you came to ask me?”
There had to be more. Skinner never asked stuff like this.
“No. There’s a case -- nothing I’d send you normally -- a murder...the assassination of a Russian chess player. The shooter is former National Security Agency...one of ours. It’s got a lot of people upset. This kid, Jeffery Spender -- Special Agent Spender -- he’s been given the case. He’s running it.”
This surprised Mulder.
“You give it to him?”
“No. It came as an order from somewhere outside the Bureau,” Skinner said, making it clear that he wasn’t punishing Mulder by denying him access to the briefing. “His team’s assembled upstairs right now. He was very specific that you be excluded.”
Mulder couldn’t hide his smile. “Looks like I’ve got a party to crash.”
The A.D. nodded. “Just remember you didn’t hear anything from me.”
“You know me, sir. I can be quiet as a church mouse...when I have to be.”
He headed for the door, feeling cocky and optimistic. There was a fresh conspiracy to uncover and A.D. Skinner was in his corner this time around. Now if he could just get Scully to admit that she’d seen the cockroach that ate Cincinnati in his room at Calumet Mercy Hospital last week, life would be damn near perfect.
Office of the Lone Gunman
College Park, Maryland
Three Weeks Later
“Got it!” Langly announced. “Our headliner for next month’s issue.”
“What d’you find?” Frohike stood at the stove, stirring a pot of black bean soup. A few steps away, Byers was peeling an avocado.
“Check it out.” Langly carried his laptop into the kitchenette. He tapped the monitor and smiled proudly. On the screen was one of his favorite community message boards. “Voila!”
“Reliable source?” Byers asked without looking.
“D’uhhh, yeah -- paranormal.com.”
“Read it to us,” Frohike said, glasses steamed by the heating soup.
“The thread was started by ‘not_alone’--”
“Old Faithful,” interrupted Byers.
“It’s in the UFO Forum--”
“Always a treasure trove,” said Frohike, nodding approval.
“It starts out: ‘They’re here. Or to be more precise, they *were* here. Archeologists recently unearthed incontrovertible evidence of ancient extraterrestrials in a cave in northwestern Utah. Ice Age petroglyphs, carbon-dated 11,550 B.P. and depicting common modern day items such as a bicycle and a television set, were found alongside traditional Paleo-Indian images of mastodons and saber-toothed cats. This one ain’t no hoax, folks!’” Langly turned the laptop toward them. “Feast your eyes on this, dudes...there’s a photo.”
Frohike stopped his stirring to wipe his glasses and study the unlikely petroglyph: an image of a television set with a spear through its screen. “Wow. Is that for real?”
“One hundred percent.”
“Wait’ll Mulder sees it.” He returned to his cooking. “I say we run it.”
Byers shook his head. “Forget it, guys. It can’t be genuine.”
“Looks real,” Langly said.
“So did the Piltdown Man.” Byers reached for a tomato. “We don’t need that kind of embarrassment. We’ve got a reputation to uphold. I say we wait until we’ve had a chance to thoroughly check it out. If it’s the real deal, we’ll run it next month.”
“Byers is right,” Frohike agreed, blinded again by steam. “It’s not too likely ancient extraterrestrial astronauts watched TV.”
“Fine. Whatever. We’ll wait...and miss the scoop of the century.” Langly hit his back button and the petroglyph vanished.
* * *
Season of the Howling Wolf
“Auntie Gini, tell us a story,” whined Dibeh, Klizzie’s eldest girl. Her pleading eyes were as big as goose eggs.
“Yes, a story, Mama, please, please!” Tse-Le jumped up and down on the balls of his small feet.
Content to be surrounded by her family, Gini stirred the coals in the hearth and added another stick of wood. This was their thirteenth winter in Ye-tsan Basin. Their village was small, but growing. Eight large shelters currently lined the riverbank below the cave. The occupants were an unexpected mix from various clans, linked by a common desire to start anew, more than by any long-standing blood ties.
“Stowwy, peese?” begged Yo-Ih, the younger, yet more outspoken of Gini’s two children.
Unable to resist her little girl’s demands, Gini drew Yo-Ih into her lap and gave her a hug. The toddler looked so much like her father the sight of her could steal Gini’s breath away. Yo-Ih had Chal’s sly grin, his determined chin and mischievous hazelnut eyes.
Gini glanced across the cave at Chal, who was sitting beside Dzeh at the windbreak. The men relaxed with their backs to the half wall, while they talked in genial tones about the proper way to knap chert into spear points. Dzeh massaged the deep scar at his temple as he pondered Chal’s latest innovative ideas.
“A new story or an old one?” Gini asked the children.
“A new one,” Dibeh said, her sewing needle held mid-stitch.
“No, no. An old one! Tell the one about the magic medicine necklace and the secret words!” Tse-Le begged.
Gini fingered the totem at her neck. Muhl-dar had been right; the necklace had brought her good luck. She had survived the awful Yellow Sickness, and five summers later, she became Joined with Chal.
Sharing Chal’s sleeping skins had turned out to be surprisingly pleasant, not disgusting and painful, as she had once feared. He was a wonderful mate, fair-minded, generous and affectionate. The Spirits evidently thought so, too, because they had blessed him with two healthy, cheerful children. A third, due in the spring, was turning somersaults in her belly right now.
“Tell us about the day Snake Spirit came to Turkey Lake,” said Nilchi, Klizzie’s firstborn, the son who had been growing in her womb during that frightening time. Now he was a handsome youngster, recently Promised to a girl in Otter Clan. He sat cross-legged beside the hearth, carving a pretty hair comb to give to her as a Joining gift
Klizzie and Ho-Ya sat on either side of him, softening deer hides. Ho-Ya was an old woman now, her face deeply lined and her hair snowy white. Her mate, Chal’s father, had died four winters ago, a few months before Tse-Le was born. Ho-Ya’s swollen hands often pained her on cold days like this one, but she still managed to work hides until they were as soft as chicks’ down.
Lin had passed into the Spirit World, too, after a fall through thin ice at Tacheene River last spring. He was sorely missed, as a hunter and a leader. His two sons, able hunters and wise men in their own right, lived with their mates and children in the shelter beside Gini’s.
Shortly after settling in Ye-tsan, Lin had wanted to designate the cave as a place where the men could offer prayers, but Gini had insisted it be available to all people. Since she had been the one to lead them to it in the first place, Chal sided with her, and Ye-tsan Cave became a communal area where the entire Clan could gather to celebrate special occasions, sing songs, offer prayers, or just tell stories.
“Gini, tell us one of the old Eel Clan tales,” Klizzie suggested.
“Stowwy ‘bout baby Sam come home!” Yo-Ih demanded.
“But I have told that story more times than I can count,” Gini said.
“Tell it again,” Tse-Le begged.
The other children grew excited and chanted, “Yes, yes! Tell it again.”
“All right.” Gini hushed them. “I will tell it.”
Tse-Le clapped his hands and skipped around the hearth. His exuberance caused lively shadows to dance across the cave’s walls. Countless carved images appeared to come to life in the flickering firelight. The pictures included representations of family and Clan members, as well as every kind of animal found in the Basin. These traditional paintings had been fitted around and in between Muhl-dar’s old drawings, which showed wondrous things like bicycles and TVs and foreign games called baseball and Kick the Can and Hide and Go Seek. The pictures reminded Gini of the many pleasant evenings she had lain beneath her beaver blanket, listening to Muhl-dar talk in his strange Eel language. //“I’ll help you,” said Horton. “But where are you? Where?” He looked and he looked. He could see nothing there...//
Gini’s eyes grew misty as she recalled her long-ago friends. Where was Muhl-dar now? she wondered. And Day-nuh? Were they together with the Spirits?
“Once upon a time,” Gini began, savoring the familiar story, “there was a boy named Fox who lived with his mother and father in an old house by the ocean.”
“What ‘howz’?” Yo-Ih interrupted.
“It is like a cave.”
“Why not say cave?”
Yo-Ih’s questions had once been Gini’s own, and the answers felt as comfortable as her old beaver skin blanket. Her summer with Muhl-dar and Day-nuh had been a significant one in her life, and for as long as she lived she would remember each and every detail.
She gave her daughter’s hand a gentle squeeze. “A house is not a cave...not quite.”
“What is it?”
“It is a shelter made of wood, like our smokehouse, only bigger.”
Yo-Ih nodded, then asked, “What is ‘o-shun’?”
How curious the way life repeats itself, Gini thought.
Her journey had brought her full circle, back to her family and to Ye-tsan Basin. Yet she was no longer a naive girl of eight, hoping to find happiness by running away from her troubles. Two compassionate strangers had shown her the truth: Happiness requires no arduous search -- it is always within reach, wherever you choose to open your heart.
She kissed her child’s dark, flyaway hair. “An ocean is a very big lake...”
Special thanks to mimic117 and jeri for beta of Chapter 22.
See The Mastodon Diaries Dictionary for an explanation of the paleo-indian terms and names.
AUTHOR'S END NOTES: Acknowledgments, an Effusive Show of Gratitude, and Other Assorted Ramblings