Title: Shadows of Winter
Author: Jaime Lyn
Email: Leiaj21@hotmail.com or UCFGuardgirl@aol.com
Disclaimer: I do not owneth any characters in The X-Files Universe. I am simply the fanfic social worker who took on the case because the real writers became abusive. All characters will be returned once a report has been filed.
Spoilers: All of everything through season 9 – this includes everything that has to do with the baby, the adoption, and the myth-arc. And references to the story that came before this, ‘Light Moves.’ If you don’t know it, you might be wondering why Mulder and Scully call each other by seemingly odd nicknames from time to time. You won’t be lost, but you’ll wonder.
Rating: PG-13 towards the beginning, R towards the middle, and an NC-17 section towards the end. (Syb – this smut’s for you.)
Feedback: Um, yes. Feed me, Seymour.
Archive: Trying to post the story in its entirety, but it’s long and the newsgroup is a pain in the neck. Once all the parts are up, and out of beta, you may archive wherever you wish. Just drop me a line and let me know.
Small note about this story: The story has been niggling at me ever since the finale aired. And since The X-Files (the actual show and not the fanfic) left the characters, the mytharc, and the entire William saga out to pasture, this author decided that she needed to reel them back in. If Chris Carter wasn’t going to close out the mythology or the question of William’s safety, well, someone had to, right? If you haven’t read the story before this, ‘Light Moves,’ then you might not understand the nicknames, but you won’t have any problems with the plotline. Please be patient as I post this entire thing, as google groups and plain-text documents aren’t my friends. Plus, I might take a nap and have a piece of chocolate cake.
Lots of love goes out to my Super-Betas, Mish and Sybil. They defend the universe against bad characterization, unneeded ellipses, comma-splices, and extra words.
Shadows of Winter
By Jaime Lyn
"It was this moment of love, this fleeting victory over themselves, which had kept them from atrophy and extinction, which, in her, had reached out to him in every struggle against the influence of her surroundings, and in him, had kept alive the faith that now drew him penitent and reconciled at her side."
-- The House of Mirth
The two of them, swept under the carpet, drowning underwater, trapped by the updrafts of limbo like dandelion wisps in a snowstorm. Nameless for a time, they clung to a precarious balance between past and future; the people they'd become versus the people they had once been. To outsiders, they were an anonymous married couple, relocated to Canada but originally from the United States, unfailingly content with their no pet, no children lifestyle. If anyone asked them, they had moved from the Eastern United States to the Lake Ontario area for a change of scenery and a chance to get away from the smog of over-crowded cities. But nobody ever asked them, and so the topic never came up.
Of who they were, who they'd been.
In reality, Fox Mulder and Dana Scully were former FBI Agents, long-time partners, and fugitives from a law that had ousted them from its bevy of untruths and deceptions. Fox Mulder and Dana Scully were friends, and, up until nine months ago, only the most marginal of lovers.
Now, Fox Mulder and Dana Scully were officially un-people: un-married, un-employed, and un-existing, they were un-parents to an un-child: a baby with soft, piercing blue eyes who had been given up for adoption months ago. Little William Mulder was their crux, the unhealed flesh-wound for both of them; his absence reflected in the crevices of dead silences and broken promises. The sadness over his un-presence was un-spoken. Everything about them was un-defined. Had Fox Mulder and Dana Scully been characters in an Alice in Wonderland book, they would have celebrated their un-birthdays and had their own un-mushroom to sit on.
And then one night, as Scully and Mulder sat amongst a scattering of new furniture and a scant congregation of utilitarian belongings, staring into a thick, orange-gold fire, Scully announced to Mulder that they could no longer be who they were. She planned to apply for a job at the hospital downtown, all other methods and options for employment having been considered and discarded, and she couldn't very well go out and introduce herself to personnel as Dana Scully, fugitive from the United States. Their previous passports and papers, stamped with fake names and fake histories, had been burned to cover their tracks, and new identities would necessarily have to be created.
Mulder had considerately suggested that she select the names, just as he had once promised her a millennia ago that the next time they got pretend-married, she could have identity control. The silence that followed this release of control to her was interminable and strange. She'd gone on to bed that night, silent, and the next day, had emptied a box of books below the shelf in the living room, scattering them over the carpet. The books weren't really theirs, though; each book was an un-book that belonged the house's former occupants.
"You want this crap, you keep it," the realtor had said, handing Mulder a tarnished key to a storage closet before relinquishing the rental agreement to them. Nothing in the house physically belonged to them. Old possessions from the old owners were either thrown out or adopted. Mulder and Scully owned little more than the clothes they wore, and even the clothes had begun to fade.
For days, dog-eared, faded books littered the floor of Mulder and Scully's new residence. Scully read by the fireplace, read in the bathtub, highlighted random passages and even ripped out certain pages. Her selection process was excruciating and drawn-out, and whenever Mulder had thrown out a name as a suggestion, she had merely hummed at him and gone on reading. Identity was not a concept she considered lightly.
Finally, on an evening secured in shadow, him trapped, cross-legged, between two oversized couch pillows, and she on her side facing the fire, her back to his front, a decision was made. There was no electricity that night, not since the fuse had popped during dinner; the fifth of six blizzards in a two week period had obscured the comforts of civilization and tossed them about seventy years back in time. Flames from the fireplace burned brightly from behind a mesh screen, and the living room was a flashdance of black and yellow.
"I think I'll call you Paul," Scully whispered. "In keeping with your tradition of ridiculous pop-culture references. Don't say I never did anything for you." She breathed slowly, in and out, like a trumpet player counting the measures between each breath, her back arching with the effort.
"Paul," said Mulder, testing the name. He recalled suggesting a few names from television, and others from old conversations they'd once had. He hadn't thought she'd even been listening, but perhaps she had been.
"And you?" he asked, kissing the inside of her neck, his lips and tongue reveling in her warmth. He imagined her nude, hot with sweat, and squirming beneath him. He wanted to make love to her, right there and then, whether to make himself forget the past or make her forget, he wasn't quite sure. He didn't care so much about particulars anymore.
She hummed with pleasure, seeming to forget what she'd been saying until he prodded, "Scully?"
Her head shifted. "Oh, sorry. I decided on Lily. Like the flower."
Mulder sighed into her neck, considering the name. "My partner the flower," he murmured. "There's something I never would have imagined myself saying."
"It's from a book," she answered, her voice sleepy. She exhaled as if trying to expell the remnants of their professional history from her body. "Last name Selden," she went on, "From the same book."
Mulder nodded into her soap scrubbed skin, breathing in the fragrance of coconut and desperation. "Selden," he repeated, "Kind of like Seldom, but not as often..."
Scully groaned, nudging him with her elbow. She sighed. "Which puts us on a first name basis, I suppose, although I...I've never called you anything but Mulder. And now...it's like I'm living someone else's life."
He nodded, rubbing her back, his head tilted in thoughtful repose. "That's actually...exactly what it's like."
He hummed and then pressed harder, shifting, as he made his way to her chin, and then to her cheek, dancing a circle around the dark heart of her mouth. Her pulse beat a fast, hard rhythm in the jugular of her neck, and she asked him to undress her. Not slowly, but furiously. "Undress me now," she demanded. Do it fast, hard, and now. Right now. Time was slipping past, escaping them, and her bra needed undoing, her underwear was an obstacle...
"Make me feel something," she whispered. "Make me real..."
A deep ravine of hurt stretched between them, and he tasted her skin to ground himself, sucking in deep breaths, long and slow.
When they made love that night, right there on the floor of their new living room, both of them kept their eyes tightly closed. It was hard to see past what had been, and what existed right now, and the future was little more a blank document, a white screen with a blinking cursor. Neither would ever give voice to their greatest fear:
We can never again be who we were.
Verona, Canada, was a small, tucked away community north of Lake Ontario and west of Sydenham. Stretching between Verona and Kingston - the city to the south - was a bog that sloshed for acres. Cameron Bog, as it was called, while formerly an obstacle separating Verona from the rest of civilization, was now nothing more than olive-green sludge underscored with mud, a watery depression beneath the highway that led from Sharbot Lake in the north to Kingston in the south. The village of Verona itself was tightly-contained, close-knit, and nearly cut-off from larger Canadian cities.
While driving without destination on a highway out of Winnipeg, Paul had singled out Verona after reading a tourist blurb on the history of Cameron Bog. Thought to be inhabited by the infamous Kelpie Sea Serpent of Lake Ontario, residents of the area had set up numerous lodges, and fish-and-wildlife shops dedicated to folklore surrounding the monster and the history of the village. Paul had grinned, held out the map for Lily to see. He circled the legend in bold, black sharpie. He told her he'd buy them a camera, and first chance they got, he'd take the both of them out to Cameron Bog by the highway to investigate the mystery of Cam-Kelpie, the Sea Serpent. While Lily had not been of the Kelpie-camp, and had instead ordered her husband to "shut up and eat his hamburger," she had agreed to the choice of Verona for the location of their new home. She had based her acceptance on its secluded atmosphere, for one, and for its Elizabethan name, Verona, for two. Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen of Verona had been one of her favorite early European plays back in college.
After a few days of searching, they ended up at the end of a pocketed cul-de-sac, on a road that twisted like gnarled shoelaces off the main highway. The house was two-story, all brick and stucco and solid wood, and flanked by three large oak trees and several old, needle-less pines. Lily had liked the tented circle of trees; she said they protected the house, the way the branches twisted towards to the bedroom windows like hands. One maple-like creature pressed right up against the second story, its trunk bent wide in an arc at the base. Paul noted that its bark was white, sickly. Positive the tree was diseased, he'd wanted to cut it down after signing the rental agreement, but Lily asked him not to. “It’s so unnecessary,” she said, “going to all that trouble just to cut down a tree.” Paul, of course, suspected the truth; Lily felt bad for the maple and couldn't bear to kill it. Not that she'd ever admit to such irrationalism painting her judgment.
The tree stayed.
Paul had liked the space between the houses; only four, tiny, Canadian-style cottages sat on their block, and all inhabited by elderly neighbors who had been gracious enough to bring by cakes and bread and lasagna during Paul and Lily's first week at home. Since neither of them cooked and the nearest Chinese food restaurant was one town over, both Paul and Lily had been grateful for the meals; they stretched everything out until there was nothing left but empty casserole dishes and scraped tin plates. Only then had they gone food shopping, and at the grocery store, had disagreed on nearly every item that went into the cart. Paul refused to buy any food item that looked or smelled remotely like Tofu, and Lily insisted that Mallowmars were not a food group.
Their third week in Verona, Paul had taken a trip down highway 401. A light brown package had been delivered to a post office box in Kingston, post-marked from A.D Walter Skinner of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, United States of America. Inside the package were credit reports, birth certificates, social security cards, secondary-school, college, medical, and graduate school reports, references from previous places of employment, references from friends, contacts, names that never existed and never would again. All of it un-real, and Paul never asked how the papers had been obtained so quickly. Or at all. He didn't want to know. And if he tried to call the man and ask, he'd never get a straight answer. But he called Skinner that day anyhow, from a payphone outside the post-office. He expressed his thanks, insisted that they'd "be in touch," and drove home to his wife. That was the last time he attempted to contact A.D Walter Skinner of the FBI.
Four months passed, and while Summer eroded on the deep bite of Autumn, Paul noted that he and Lily had not been followed. Or, at least, all signs pointed towards evasion. Even still, his and Lily's real names remained distant memories locked behind closed doors. And Lily still prowled the hallways at night, checking each room and every lock before she crept into bed. Paul kept their weapons in his nightstand drawer, ready and loaded if ever the time came for he and Lily to recapture the pieces of themselves that time and domesticity had chipped away.
Forced familiarity created a sense of daily habit, and Paul slowly but grudgingly grew used to the icy snow that insisted on killing his grass and making everything crunch beneath his feet. He hated it, but he accepted it. Washington D.C, it seemed, made much better use of their snow-plow, road safety system than Verona did. This Paul complained about every morning when he watched the weather report.
Lily dropped hints about perhaps buying an actual, real-live turkey for Thanksgiving and cooking it in the actual oven. Paul dropped hints that he'd be buying new fire-extinguishers and leaving them by the refrigerator.
Lily's impressive, albeit fake, medical background proved useful in obtaining a job at University Medical Center, which sat on a hill two blocks from the main highway. UMC was a small but lovely facility, with an on-staff roster of about twenty doctors (who worked solely out of the Emergency Room) and four nurses, who worked wherever anyone needed them. Since Lily's specialty was listed as pediatric medicine, and since her bedside manner with children was as impressive as it had always been, she easily fit into the daily grind as a pediatric specialist in the emergency room. Her work tired her out, and rare was the day she worked less than ten hours. But the smile on her face was palpable and real when she talked about her patients.
"Benjamin had a broken finger, and he was so upset," she'd say, "but I asked him to tell me all about his new tree-house, and by the time he was finished telling me about the swing he made with his father's old Firestones, I had splintered his finger. I gave him a purple dinosaur sticker, and he was so happy, P.I - you should have seen the look on his face."
The purple dinosaur stickers she bought herself. She kept them in a green Rubbermaid container that she brought with her to work. Paul's contribution to the container was a roll of red and yellow alien stickers with googly eyes. Lily stuck one of them on the wall, along with his goldenrod portion of the Private Investigative Practice Loan Application. Beneath the sticker, a post-it note stuck to the contract. In Lily's neat cursive read, "I want to believe."
Lily loved children, which made the fact that she could never have any of her own all the more tragic. Once, Paul had offered to buy them a dog - a Pomeranian, perhaps, just as she'd owned during her life before - but Lily had refused. Besides stating the obvious, that Paul hated yippy little dogs more than he hated rush hour traffic during a blizzard - neither of them truly wanted a dog anyhow. What they truly wanted was captured forever in a photograph, a tiny child with big blue eyes and a round, tiny nose. The hole he'd left was sizeable, pronounced.
The things he and Lily wanted but could never have were unspoken but real, so real the absence left black spots in the stretches of silence between them.
In the end, they settled for only each other, and their tiny house in Verona, Lake Ontario, and they went on as they knew life should.
Paul Selden glanced at his watch, perused the wavering sea of white coats, blue scrubs, and pastel-checkered candy-stripers. His wife's lunch break would be coming up any minute now, and he'd braved sub-zero temperatures and concrete roads filled with slush and black ice just to have bad sandwiches with her for lunch. He had hoped that his 'despite-the-ice-sheet zeal,' coupled with his irresistible boyish charm, would earn him a broom-closet-medical check-up of the afternoon-quickie kind. Not that his wife was generally predisposed to afternoon quickies, but more than any other despicable meteorological condition, Paul hated the cold. He especially hated driving in the cold, and his wife knew this. But more than that, of course, Paul loved his wife.
Not that Paul Selden's afternoon routine was anything much to start parades over, despite his unannounced foray into the cold. Today he'd picked up a box of office supplies, on nothing more than a whim, really --he didn't even have any office space to put the supplies in, yet-- and he'd dumped the box in the backseat beneath a half-inflated basketball and a Ziplock bag of floppy disks. The computer monitor he rested on a blanket below the seat, its black screen smudged with his thumbprints. In the trunk was an HP hard-drive buried amongst a pile of unwashed towels, and Paul had hoped to butter his wife up with quirky conversation and a cup of coffee before telling her about his latest afternoon purchases.
More likely than not, she would first admonish him for his transport-position choices; It's five-below, she'd say, and you should have put the box in the trunk and set the hard-drive in the backseat, because the electrical equipment will certainly freeze up, and what good will it be to you then? But when it finally hit her, what he had done with their money, her eyes would go all round and over-sized, and she'd demand to know what business he had buying a new hard-drive when they hadn't even been approved for a loan yet. His plan was actually to stuff her full of Jell-o before she could finish him off with her inevitable, Do you enjoy wasting what little money we have before we even have it? speech.
And then he'd never get laid.
"I'm so sorry, sir," said one of the nurses, jarring him from thought. She slid past Paul and through the flip-doors of the nurses' station, pulling herself up to the desk. Half a dozen files sat unopened and splayed about the messy station like forgotten UNO cards, and one file slipped off the edge and fell to the floor.
"Fucking receptionist," muttered the harried nurse. She ran stick-thin fingers through frizzy black hair, barely contained by a pink scrunchie, and frowned at the state of her desk-blotter. The phone rang and she picked up the receiver with one hand, tossing a brown clipboard at him with the other. "Just fill this out and have a seat, and when you're done leave it in the box--" She pointed to the far wall, "And then someone will call you into triage."
Paul took the clipboard and set it back down. His nose was still red and cold from the wind, and the air in the waiting room felt familiar, but in a strange way. Paul had almost forgotten that he'd never actually been to this hospital, and that nobody his wife worked with actually knew who he was. He wondered if she'd even told her colleagues she was married. He knew Lily wasn't much for personal conversation, at least not with random coworkers, but he was pretty sure she wore her wedding ring to work.
"Ah, no, I'm not here as a patient," said Paul, forcing a smile. The nurse glanced up with an un-amused glint in her eyes, as if she had a weapon behind the desk she planned on using against him, and Paul shrugged in explanation. "I'm actually looking for... for my wife..." The word still sounded strange coming off his lips, and he clucked his tongue a few times, swishing saliva around in his mouth to get used to the sensation. "She's a doctor here. Ah, somewhere, here, that is...Lily? Lily Selden?"
The nurse paused for a moment, and seemed to run the name against her mental rolodex. After a few seconds she nodded, brown eyes scanning him up and down in unconcealed, unimpressed appraisal. "You're Dr. Selden's husband?" she asked, with a raised eyebrow. The nurse looked wholly unconvinced.
Paul smiled half-heartedly. "Guilty as charged."
The nurse turned back to the phone and smacked a few buttons on the keypad, pressing the receiver to her right shoulder, waving him through the station doors with the air of one who had been on her feet for five days straight. "Whatever floats your canoe, I guess," she said, pointing. "Never would have guessed Dr. Selden for marrying a tall guy. You can wait in there." And she swiveled in her chair, not giving him a second thought.
Paul smiled in silent thanks, and pushed his way through the flip-doors to the left of the not-so-happy-nurse. A familiar melody floated from the speakers and lodged in his ears; the musak version of Muskrat Love. Shuddering, Paul glanced at his watch again; one-oh-five. An awfully long one-oh-five, for that matter.
Paul tapped his watch and held it to his ear. He was about to remove it and check the battery, when he felt a slender hand wrap around his shoulder.
"Paul?" asked a familiar, befuddled voice.
Paul turned and found himself face-to-face with his wife's wide, sleekly eye-lined, blue-green eyes. One auburn eyebrow raised in silent question, and Paul brushed a chunky lock of hair out of her face in response. Paul's wife, Dr. Lily Selden, while almost an entire foot shorter than he, had a firm, no-nonsense manner that made her appear taller than her actual size of five-foot-three. She was beautiful in an unassuming manner; with pale, summery-freckled skin, dark red hair, a small, arched nose, and aquamarine eyes, she stood out not as a dazzling example of perfection and symmetry, but as the type of woman that once might have been an impressionist's daydream. For Paul, she was practically perfect in her imperfection.
"What?" he asked, leaning down and pressing a kiss to the underside of her chin. "I can't join my wife for lunch?"
Lily eyed him warily as he pulled himself back to his full height.
"You broke something," she said, searching him for an explanation that wasn't bullshit.
Paul chuckled and shook his head. In his peripheral vision, he caught the exhausted looking, front-desk nurse eyeing them. Resolving not to appear as guilty as he felt, Paul cleared his throat and put his hand on his wife's shoulder, guiding her a few steps out of earshot. "What makes you think I broke something?" he asked.
"You're here, aren't you?" Lily cocked her head to one side and brushed lint affectionately off the shoulders of his overcoat. "Oh no..." Her eyes widened. "You're not actually hurt, are you?" She scanned him for a moment, concerned. Warm fingers brushed his half-frozen forehead. "You don't feel warm.... Cough? Sore throat? Misplaced bullet?"
Paul shot her a wry grin. "You're funny, Criminal," he said, using her nickname to dispel her wary thoughts. She let her hands fell back into her pockets. He shook his head. "No, no, and no."
Lily studied him again, but this time, both eyebrows sunk in towards her nose and her mouth screwed into a thinned line. "Oh God," she said, pressing a palm to his chest. "It's the heater, isn't it? You finally set the house on fire and now we have to live out of the car."
The nurse at the desk snorted, and Paul groaned, pulling Lily farther away from the triage area. "Good grief," he admonished. "When did you become so negative?" He exhaled through his lips. "Can't I just come in and meet my lovely wife for a plate of macaroni surprise and steal her away for--" He stole a glance at his watch. "An hour or so, before I go back to brave the Arctic Circle?"
Lily folded her arms and shot him what he'd always referred to as her "wary-look-of-death." Lily had that odd look about her, that squinted-eye, silent accusation stare, when she could tell by his expression whether he'd done something incredibly stupid or was simply holding back information. Her shiny lips stretched taut into a patronizing smile. "Alright," she said, extending a you-go-first hand towards the hallway leading to the cafeteria. "All right, that's fine. Don't tell me."
Paul shrugged. Lily stood, waiting for Paul to take the lead. When he didn't, she nodded to herself, scratched the bridge of her nose, and pushed ahead of him.
"'There isn't anything to tell," said Paul, pressing a hand to the center of her back and leading her down the hallway.
"Sure there isn't," answered Lily, glancing back at him as they stole down the shiny stretch of linoleum. The pungent odor of bleach and antiseptic hung stiffly in the air, stealing into his nose, and Paul remembered suddenly why he had always hated these places. Ironic, he thought, that Lily would want to work in an ER after years of being a patient in one ER or another.
Lily pulled the black stethoscope from around her neck and stuffed it into one of her front pockets. The upper right hand corner of her white lab coat read, "Selden, M.D," and an ID badge hung loosely from around her neck. The first time Lily had showed him her official ID, the laminated card dangling off her index finger and thumb from a bright, orange lanyard, he’d read her official information out loud and curled his lips awkwardly around her full name: Dr. Lily Selden, ER physician and wife of Paul Selden.
"There isn't anything to tell," Paul insisted, thinking back to the computer and the box of office supplies that might, in all honesty, set them back at least a month in expenses.
"Uh huh," she said, righting her under-turned ID badge. "Just do me a favor, P.I." She glanced at him over her right shoulder, and smiled a smile that stretched the ivory expanse of her smooth cheeks. "Don't ever again refer to me as 'your lovely wife,' okay? It sounds insulting."
Paul opened his mouth to wittily retort, when she finished, "Or your Sweetie Pie, or your Poopsie Woopsie, or your Bunny-Hunny--"
"Or what, Bunny-Hunny?" he challenged. "You'll bop me over the head for scooping up the field mice?"
Lily stopped a foot short of the pale brown cafeteria doors, turning to him with her hands on her hips. Her blue eyes sparkled like heat from a butane lighter. "I'm a doctor, Hubby-Wubby. Don't think I wouldn't know what poison to use to finish you off." Paul pressed a palm to his chest as if wounded, and then raised the other hand clear over her head, pushing open the doors. "Or where to hide the body," she finished. "I still know my way around a morgue, you know."
"Really," he said. "Then would you mind cutting my mystery meat for me this afternoon, Dr. Slice-and-Dice?"
Lily fought back a smile. "Just walk, darling husband."
"As you wish, Mrs. Selden," answered Paul, leaning closer to whisper in her ear, "Not that I would ever underestimate you, Sugar Lips."
Lily snorted, and Paul tried to hide the yelp that escaped him when Lily "accidentally" stepped backwards in her heels and landed on his foot.
Lily picked at her sandwich with the edge of her thumbnail, while Paul bit down with relish into his apple and nearly swallowed the whole thing in one chew. Lily frowned at the ravenous way in which he ate, as if his grand show of starvation was somehow a reflection on her poor cooking skills. Paul remembered the way she'd burned a steak the night before and nodded at his apple, while Lily shook her head at his silent question. The red ones weren't nearly as good as the green ones, he thought, but they were juicy enough, and beggars couldn't be choosers.
"So, seriously," said Lily, pushing half of her sandwich onto his plate. It was an unasked for but appreciated gesture. Paul's stomach was twice the size of his wife's. "Why did you stop by? I don't think you've ever stopped by during one of my shifts. Or at all, for that matter."
Paul shrugged. "I told you," he said. "I was in the neighborhood."
"It's November," said Lily, rubbing the corner of her eye with her pinkie, "And you hate the cold. The only way you'd be in the neighborhood now was if a snowdrift crashed through the windows and dumped you here."
"You make me sound ridiculous," he said.
"I don't. I just know you."
Paul grabbed her sandwich and took a bite - turkey and cheese - a favorite of his, but not of hers. "Were you even going to eat this?" he accused around a mouthful of food, knowing full well why she'd bought it, and that, in fact, she hadn't planned on eating it.
Lily shrugged. "I haven't been feeling all that great lately."
While Paul knew his wife wouldn't deprive herself of the proper nutrients, not as a doctor who worked nine to ten hour shifts at a time, he wondered for a moment why she'd suddenly lose her appetite for no reason. Something was on her mind. Either something was bothering her, or his presence had disrupted her individual balance more than she let on, and he wasn't sure which option he found more appealing. Or less appealing, as the case was.
"So." She folded her hands on the table. "You going to talk or do I have to beat an explanation out of you?" Her eyes twinkled, the color an alluring shade of sapphire.
"Mysterious, mid-afternoon beatings. A woman after my own heart," he said, chewing.
"Don't talk with your mouth full," she advised. "You'll choke." With a quirk of her eyebrow, she reached over and stole a piece of bread crust, popping it into her mouth. In all honesty, she did look slightly green.
Paul shot her a glare, shielded his sandwich with his arms, and nodded silently for her to 'get her own'. Lily chuckled, and a stream of red hair slipped over the left side of her face.
"I was looking for some office space in the area," Paul finally admitted, choosing to omit certain details and relay others. "And while I was out, I thought I'd stop by and see you. And, you know, scope out the possibility of some help-- a partner, maybe. Or two. I thought I'd scatter some fliers for the firm up around the ER. See who came-a-calling. Hospital's a good place. I could always hire someone medically trained and teach them the investigative ropes later on."
Lily glanced at him from the corner of her eye. "A partner," she said, as if she didn't really care at all, but was only asking to be nice. "Funny, I thought I was your partner." Her tone was flippant, her gaze almost completely hidden beneath a curtain of red hair.
Paul frowned and glanced up at her from behind his sandwich. He hadn't planned on exactly what he'd say when he finally told her - that he thought she might be happier continuing to practice medicine, instead of coming to work with him at his as-of-yet unnamed P.I firm - and he was unsure, right now, of how to explain himself satisfactorily. Certainly, they'd both need Lily's moderate salary as an ER medic to help cover expenses, especially since any kind of investigative practice wouldn't generate nearly enough money to live off of, at least not at first. And anyway, he thought that she liked her job. She seemed to like it.
But still, she had a point. Lily was his partner, had always been his partner, and Paul had never wanted or needed any other.
"Well...you know what I mean," he said, dropping the sandwich back to his plate. "I won't deny you're the best of anything anyone's got to offer. But we both know you can't quit your job to come work with me." She opened her mouth to protest, and he added, "Not just yet, anyway. Give it some time. You're doing good work here, aren't you? You're happy?"
Lily nodded, looking thoughtful. She was silent for a moment before answering, "In that case, considering expenses, perhaps you should just wait on a partner until you've got the loan secured, and an actual office space to put the practice in." She stole a potato chip off his plate and popped it into her mouth. "You can't very well interview people from our living room, and we haven't got enough money to pay someone else's salary. Get the loan, buy some office equipment, and find yourself a building, and then we'll discuss possible partners."
He pursed his lips, taken aback by the non-argument. "We?" he asked. "You mean you don't mind me working with someone else?"
"Annoyed I'm not jealous?"
She shrugged, licking the tips of her fingers. "Seriously, if it's not going to be me, it has to be someone, right? You'll get yourself killed otherwise."
He smiled, rolling his eyes. "Thanks for the vote of confidence, Criminal."
"What can I say? I know you."
"Nah." Paul smiled with a waggle of his head. "You only think you do." He popped a potato chip into his mouth, pleased thus far with the friendly exchange.
Suddenly, Lily paused in mid-chew. She seemed to consider him, as if rolling the conversation around in her head for plot-holes. Another moment passed and her eyes narrowed, and she leaned back against the seat, her palms on the table. "Oh no," she said. "Please tell me you didn't."
Paul's head tilted to one side, alarm bells going off in his eardrums. "Didn't what?"
"You did," she said, her tongue in cheek. "You already bought something, didn't you? Is that why you're here?"
Trying to force all traces of guilt from his face, Paul scooped up the sandwich once again and bit off an especially hard slab of turkey. He worked the meat around in his mouth and licked potato-chip salt off the fingers of his free hand. He'd forgotten how good Lily was at deciphering him. "Good sandwich," was what he said.
"How much?" she asked.
Paul swallowed, and the lump of turkey stung as it went down. "So," he sidestepped, waving around the hand with the sandwich, "Tell me about your day..." He waggled his eyebrows and added, "Snuggle Bunny."
"How much?" Lily repeated, tight lipped.
"Anything exciting? Any amputations, lethal contagions, babies with tails...." he trailed off, his elbow smacking the table. Paul winced, nose scrunched, and shook out his arm.
Paul bit his lip. Lily had that shoot-it-and-be-done-with-it look on her face, and the last time he had seen someone on the end of that look, she'd actually gone and shot the poor bastard. At first glance, Lily Selden had the delicate loveliness of the flower she'd named herself after, but in the same breath, she wouldn't hesitate to put her husband through a wall if she thought the action best suited his interests.
"Seven hundred," he said, trying to flash her his best sheepish smile.
"Seven hundred dollars!"
Lily slammed her hands on the table, rattling the plates and glasses.
Several nearby doctors turned to stare at them, and Lily's shoulders sagged as she lowered her voice and bent her head towards her husband in thinly veiled annoyance. "Mu--" she caught herself quickly, took a breath, and went on, "Paul, just where the hell do you think seven hundred dollars is supposed to come from? I've been working myself to death just to cover our tracks on past expenses. For crying out loud, we have expenses for expenses! We--we've got a rent payment on the house, grocery charges on the Visa, electric bills...Whatever we had before we came here is gone. You promised you'd wait for the loan, and once the loan came in - "
"Could you not talk to me like I don't know," he interrupted, his voice a hiss. His eyes were deadly serious, and the weight of his stare seemed to stop her cold. "I'm not your dependent."
Their eyes connected and held, searching, wondering at the other. Paul had to ponder, in the span of that moment, if Lily had ever considered what it was like for him. To sit at home and do nothing, like a useless house pet. He and Lily had made a list of possibilities, of things he could do to pass time while he waited for the loan, but none of the choices seemed to fit right. He tried to write, but, nauseous, could somehow never make it past the first paragraph. He thought about applying to teach as an adjunct, but found he had no patience for a classroom full of inexperience. He entertained the notion of getting a job at the local precinct, but being a cop and a fugitive, Lily pointed out, teetered the line of danger.
He could kid himself into infinity, but what Paul really wanted was the hunt, the investigation. And the bank seemed to be killing him with the hold up.
For almost four months now he'd sat in their quiet, Lake Ontario cottage, turning the heat up and down, answering emails, surfing the net, and watching snow collect in lazy drifts outside their living room window. He ran around the block in his overcoat. He watched Oprah, the Canadian BBC, reruns of Monty Python, and read enough novels and mythology volumes to fill several bookshelves. While Lily went to work, Paul Selden stayed at home, pacing the floor, waiting for truths that could never come to him while standing so still. After years of constant running, of chasing after shadows, reality and circumstance had finally dictated that his truth-seeking legs be cut-off beneath him, and what was left was agonizing in its emptiness.
"I needed to get out," he finally said, annoyed at himself for snapping at her. "Even if just to buy some damned office supplies. If I could pull some money out of my ass, I would, but I can't. I can't do anything. We don’t spend all that much. Seven hundred dollars we can put back."
Lily nodded slowly, as if forcing herself to understand something she almost, but really didn't, understand, and she raised a smooth, warm hand to his cheek. Her fingers brushed over his stubbled skin as if in a whispered kiss, and she breathed a sigh through dark pink lips. "Do what you need to do," she said, lowering her index finger to his upper lip. "Just..." She shook her head. "Seven hundred dollars?" His mouth found the inside of her palm and he opened his lips over her skin, tasting her. Lily closed her eyes and exhaled. "Couldn't you just have gotten some printer paper?"
"I did," he said, clutching the inside of her hand to his lips. "And I got you an eraser that looks like Buzz Lightyear. Don't say I never think of you. But if you don't want it, you can return it."
Lily finally smiled. "Eighty-five cents out of two seven hundred dollars we don't have," she said, shaking her head. "That's great, just great."
"Hey Criminal, did I ever tell you the story of Loch Ness?"
Paul patted the bed beside him, waggled his eyebrows. Lily blinked, expressionless, toothbrush in her mouth, her lips creased with white foam. She wore the blue pajamas, the silk ones that clung to her breasts in all the right places, and buttoned with little pearly circles that caught the light. She frowned, padded back into the bathroom, unimpressed. The sink ran for a moment, and Paul could hear rustling.
"Oh come on," he said, gathering up the remnants of the day's newspaper and depositing the pages on her night-table. "It's a good one, I swear."
Lily poked her head out from the bathroom, locks of russet hair dangling in freshly brushed waves over her shoulder. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. "If this story ends in 'we leave for Europe tomorrow at seven am,' I don't want to hear it."
Her head disappeared again.
Paul clucked his tongue, folded his arms. "Do you really have to suck all the joy out of my life?" he asked.
The bathroom went dark and Lily re-emerged, brushed, washed, and exhausted. Her eyes were rimmed with slight creases of purple. She'd worked eleven hours that day, ten the day before, and had been called in during the middle of the previous night to perform an emergency something-or-other on an eight year old who'd been injured in a serious car accident. There were occasions that Paul thought her using work to avoid him - or perhaps just the idea of him - and then there were other times when Paul understood the distraction and decided to simply not ask her; he needed his investigative practice just as badly as she needed her middle of the night surgeries. After years of non-stop movement, of saving the world before lunchtime, they were now stranded at the door of monotony and neither had been built for such a life.
Lily sighed, crawled into bed and leaned against the headboard, knees drawn into her chest. "Is there a particular reason you're suddenly so interested in Loch Ness?"
"Didn't I tell you I'd take you out to the bog so we could take pictures of the Kelpie?"
Lily groaned, rubbed her eyes with the heel of her palm. "Again with the Kelpie?"
Paul grinned. "Think of it as a romantic weekend getaway. Just you, me, the bog, a couple of sandwiches - "
"And mud, and snow, and, before the day is over, a hefty fine, a ruined pair of clothes, a cold, a headache, and a lot of pissed off locals."
"Is that a no?"
Lily shot him an exasperated look, settled back into her pillows and fiddled with the alarm clock on her nightstand. With a backwards motion, she scooped up the newspaper and pressed the crumpled international section into his chest. Paul pretended to cough in the defensive, and fell back onto the bed.
Lily wanted to go out to the bog - he knew she did. She just didn't know it yet. After all, with her occasional weekend freed up from work and hours of nothing that stretched on like an endless string of melted mozzarella, he'd have plenty of time to either charm her or confuse her into a drive. When in doubt, he could simply pretend he was lost on highway 38.
"All right," she said, clicking away at her alarm clock, her back to him.
"All right, let's go hunt sea monsters?"
Lily turned, her blue eyes alive with amusement. "Alright, I'll listen to your Loch Ness mythology."
Paul pressed a hand to his chest as if struck. He folded his arms behind his head, gazed up at the ceiling. In another moment, Lily was beside him, her chin atop his ribcage, her fingers tracing swirls over the planes of his biceps. Her breaths were warm, her lips wet and soft. The arcs of her hair lilted with the scent of banana - Lily owned about fifty bottles of shampoo, each with a different scent. She had arranged each bottle just-so on the tiled alcove in the shower.
Paul cleared his throat. "Back in the mists and greenlands of Scotland, there was a benevolent community of people living off the land, tilling the soil, fashioning their lives under the fair rule of a Druid priest. They had a sweet water well from which they collected the entire village's drinking water, but The Druid, far wiser than the commoners he ruled, had devised a strict rule that the well must always be covered after drawing water."
Lily snorted. "You really do admire the sound of your own voice, don't you?"
"You are positively killing the mood, here."
With a chuckle, she pressed a kiss to the underside of Paul's shoulder. "Go on," she said.
"The rule was followed by all who lived in the village, for not one of the villagers dared disobey the words of a holy man. But one day, a young woman was in the middle of drawing her waters when she heard her baby screaming from the house. Frantic, she rushed off to see what was wrong and left the capping stone off the well."
Lily drew a breath. "Was the well cursed?"
Paul laughed, and Lily's hair drifted over his chest, her cheek bobbing along his ribs. "You've been hanging around me for too long," he said. "You know that?"
"I should have it written on my forehead," Lily muttered, elbowing him with one arm. Paul took a final breath, exhaling on a sigh. Lily yawned into the springy hairs on his skin.
"So, what happened?"
"Well," said Paul, "The well was deep, almost bottomless. The water was said to be ancient, springing forth from the core of the Earth itself. The pressure from beneath was great, and had been building for years and years. The Druid who founded the village had studied the area, and he knew of the water's purity, its propensity for bringing luck and prosperity. But he also knew of the danger that existed if the villagers left the well uncapped.
"When the woman dropped her bucket to tend her to her child, she had freed the well from its bindings. Within a few short minutes the water had risen up and overflowed, bursting forth from the ground below. The Druid, upon hearing the explosion, ran outside to see, and realized immediately what had happened. And even though the naive young woman had caused the catastrophe, the priest rushed to her cabin to save her. Soon, the valley began to flood and the villagers had to flee to the hills. From that very flood Loch Ness was birthed, and it's said that the ancient sea monster is the result of a spell cast by the Druid, who wished nobody else to claim his waters."
Lily hummed, and her arm draped across Paul's abdomen, her palm on his hip.
"The sea monster was actually not a serpent, but a water horse," Paul went on, plucking a page of the newspaper off Lily's side of the bed. "Complete with saddle and bridle. When the weary off-roaders paused for a drink from the Loch's clear waters, the horse would appear to him, natural and real. But when the unsuspecting rider got into the saddle, the horse would revert into its monstrous self, and drag its victim down into the depths of Loch Ness and devour him whole."
Paul paused, folding down the corners of the newspaper. The pratfalls of being an insomniac and having a wife who was exhausted by ten pm meant long nights staring at the ceiling, or re-reading the newspaper, or folding the classified ads into Origami hats, or else brushing up on every volume of 'Outer Signs' that he'd purchased from the occult store off Main Street.
"So, of course, the villagers were terrified of the Loch," he said, waving the newspaper in explanation. "But then, years later, Saint Columba caught the beast attacking a swimmer who had gone to fetch a boat for the day's activities. The saint raised the sign of the cross and told the beast to turn and go back with all speed - and of course, the beast complied, which is why tourists can go visit the Loch unscathed every year. Although, if it were me, I would have left a clause in the agreement for eating tourists..."
Paul frowned, folded the newspaper in half, and then in fourths, and brought the smudged newsprint closer to his face. He hadn't read this section, had actually been saving it for when Lily fell asleep and the inevitable boredom would chew at him. He ran his finger over one of the articles:
"Four U.S CIA Operatives Missing in the latest string of U.S government disappearances."
Paul lowered his fingers to his wife's hair, brushing his thumb and index finger through the smooth, silk strands. A strange tingling began at the back of his brain, sprung forward and then down, catching him square in the chest.
"Hey Lily," he whispered, squinting at the headline, "Have you seen this yet?"
There was no answer.
Nothing but the low, evened sounds of breathing, of hot air pulsing into his skin.
Paul frowned, and then yawned. Perhaps he was more exhausted than he'd first imagined. He felt tattered, paranoid. Lily often called him restless. With a shake of his head, he folded the newspaper and dropped it onto the wooden nightstand beside the bed.
The white-shaded lamp cast a long oval of light across the mattress, and over the carpet. His brain turned the headline over again, and for a moment he considered calling Agent John Doggett over at The X-Files, just out of curiosity, just to see who had been put on the case, and what the exact circumstances of the disappearances had been.
Paul's lids lowered like heavy drapes begging closure, and he decided that calling anybody over in D.C was a bad idea wrapped in what his wife would insist were misguided intentions. Even if nobody had followed them out to Canada, calling The X Files office over in D.C would certainly be a mistake. Chances were high that it was nothing; another series of murders in the heartland of false federal prosperity and hidden, governmental conspiracies. They could burn for all Paul cared.
He flicked off the light with his fist, and the room was thrust into darkness.
One half of the bed was empty, the simple gray comforter and ivory sheets tossed over to Paul's side of the mattress with careless abandon.
It wasn't unusual for Paul to awaken like this in the middle of the night; nightmares were frequent, chaotic as they had always been: jumbled slices of reality that twisted his wife's face into bizarre forms of untruth. He called out for her in his sleep, called another name from a lifetime ago, and awoke to hollow discomfort; he could smell her scent on the pillows.
Lily wasn't always there when he searched for her. Sometimes, she lay just on the other side of the bed, her soft body curled next to him but her thoughts, her dreams, eons away. Other times, she sat upon the mattress' edge, her bare back to his front, her skin bluish from rays of moon-shine.
Tonight, Lily was gone from the room altogether. And while Paul wasn't sure she necessarily wanted to be found, he missed her in a way that constricted air-flow to his lungs.
After having once been yanked from Lily like a bandage, ripped clean away for months, and then reunited with her in a dark, pungent jail cell, Paul often felt an overwhelming sense of possession when it came to his wife's whereabouts. Certainly, Dr. Lily Selden would contest that she belonged to no one except herself, but Paul Selden had no qualms about belonging only to her.
Often, in the low belly of night, Paul recalled the months he'd spent alone, collecting his thoughts on a dusty cot in New Mexico, the air thick with straw and bramble. He'd dreamed about the sound of her voice, the way her heels clicked when she walked into a room, the way she drove rental cars like a lawless mercenary. How he could have loved her without ever telling her; the idea was unthinkable.
Rubbing the last vestiges of sleep from his eyes, Paul slipped from the master bedroom and crept down the stairs, feet following the faint glow of yellow-auburn that glittered the steps. The house was 'S'more-Toasty,' as Paul liked to describe it, perhaps even warm enough to lay out in and perfect a tan. But Lily's piece-de-resistance was her fireplace, her prized, brick and marble fireplace, which she dusted at least three times a day (to keep the finish shiny, she insisted,) and which, despite the warmth of their home, was a favored spot of hers to think.
Lily once told Paul that her father had always required, of each house that her family had ever lived in, an old fashioned hearth to bloom smoke from the chimney. Captain Scully liked the bellow of gray clouds puffing from his roof - a familiar signal to greet him when returning home from the sea. A symbol of life ambling forward, she'd explained, as life had and always should. "Keep them home-fires burning, Starbuck," was what Lily often quoted.
The auburn glow got stronger at the bottom of the steps, deeper, warmer, as if alighting the path directly into the sun.
Sure enough, in front of the fireplace his wife stood like a back-lit garnet statue, her arms wrapped tightly around her middle, her russet hair a burnt ochre against her pale skin.
"Hey," he said, his voice smoky from sleep.
She turned to gaze at him over her left shoulder, nodded in return. "Hey yourself."
He took a few steps closer, but stayed a good foot and a half behind her. Paul had known his wife long enough to know when she didn't mind conversation, but preferred not to be touched.
"Can't sleep, Criminal?"
She waved her hand as an afterthought. "Restless. A little nauseous, actually."
"Sick?" he asked.
"No," she said. "Just overtired."
"Okay, I know what this is about - if I giggle like a girl in my sleep, just roll me over and poke me. You don't have to come down here to get away."
"I'll keep that in mind," she said.
Paul pursed his lips and straightened the waistband of his sweatpants. "Is it the cold?" He smiled lopsided and gestured towards the thermostat. "I could turn up the heat, maybe play some Hawaiian music, get a luau going..."
Lily shook her head. "Bad dream," she explained, distracted, turning back to the fire. Her posture gave away nothing but silent resolve, and Paul took the opportunity to press.
"Ah," he said, nodding. "I had one, too." This time, Paul took a few more steps forward until they stood side by side, not touching, but individually gazing into a fire that burned from behind a wire-mesh screen.
"What about?" she asked, not breaking her gaze from the flames.
"I was tied to a board and forced to watch Full House reruns."
That one finally got through. Lily laughed in a way that was more breathy exhale than chuckle. Silence blanketed them in the wake of his joke, and the crackle-snaps from Lily's fire seemed to applaud their ability to stand side by side and discuss the 'personal' without spontaneously combusting.
"I'm alright," she said, answering his unspoken question. She sighed to herself, and when he turned to face her, her eyes were framed by heavy lids, and gently upturned, auburn lashes.
Paul nodded, but said nothing.
"I was in a car," Lily finally admitted. "In the backseat. I don't know where I was going, but I think it was important that we got there. The roads were slick. It...We were driving fast."
"You and I?" he asked.
She shook her head. "No. Not you and I. I don't know who was driving."
"Ah," he said, scratching spiky wisps of brown hair behind his ear. "But you were going fast?"
"Too fast," she replied. Her fingers pressed tightly over her sides, and her pajama top crinkled beneath her fingertips. "I remember a tree...." she squinted. "Yes, there was a tree. And tires squealing. I... I was afraid we would crash, and I think I was going to scream, but..." She turned to him with a forced smile, tears jabbing at the corners of her luminous eyes; Dr. Lily Selden wasn't always as brave as she liked to think she was. "It was so dark and cold and I... I couldn't scream." She inhaled through her nose, and the sniffle echoed. "I tried, but I couldn't get it out."
"And then you woke up?" he asked.
Paul frowned. Briefly, he tried to remember back to his psychological profile training days, and what had been said about the phenomena of REM sleep, about nightmares pertaining to real life. Paul had, of course, been of the camp that believed dreams were simply a form of truth, a baser form of it too disturbing for waking reality. Generally speaking, dreaming about one's own death usually pointed towards either a morbid curiosity with the phenomena of death, extreme dread or apprehension garnered from everyday stress, or a deeper, more subconscious depression. If Paul had to guess, he would hazard to say that a cross between the latter two was the problem, although he wouldn't rule out a subconscious longing to return to the post-mortem work Lily had engaged in before relocating to Verona.
Not that he was trying to profile his own wife, of course.
Forcing back a sob, Lily twined a lock of hair back over her ear, and her age molted off her like overused skin. If his wife was actually thirty-eight years old, as Paul knew her to be, then her brain had somehow forgotten to relay this important information to the rest of her body. With her un-styled red-hair and her unmasked freckles, she was eighteen, perhaps, maybe twenty-one, but definitely not thirty-eight. So very far removed from the version of Lily Selden that had once made police officers cry.
Lily smoothed down some fly-away strands, her hands working a little too quickly. "What are you thinking?" she asked.
Paul took a deep breath. His arms folded over his chest. "I'm thinking..." He squinted into the fire; the deep tangerine flames licked ribbons of smoke up through the fireplace. "I'm thinking... Full House is worse." His eyes darted back to her, and then to the fire, and then back to her. He smiled with a tilt of his head. "Much worse."
Lily nodded with a soft "hmm" sound, smiling a ghost of a smile through half-shed tears. "That Bob Saget can be scary," she said.
"You stand in front of him, then," Paul returned, "Be my hero, scare him away."
"When have I not?"
He directed an outstretched hand to an invisible audience: "The lady has a point."
Lily's eyes glistened through heavy lashes; adoration peeked from behind abject exhaustion. When they turned back to the fire for the last time, Paul felt the tips of her fingers nudging his. Her palm pressed over his knuckles, angling, seeking, and her index finger grazed his folded arm. He squeezed her hand with two of his fingers, and together they stood in the companionable silence of their darkened living room.
Together but separate, as always.
Sun squinted through the windows with the autumn scarlets, oranges, and violets of sunset. At the very least, thought Paul, there wasn't any snow tonight - which was always a plus- even though it was cold enough to freeze-dry pork chops on the front stoop. And at the very most, Lily was home for dinner, a rare occurrence in her nine-ten-twelve hour shift existence.
Paul rushed into the kitchen waving a piece of paper and nearly slid to his death on a puddle of warm liquid. His arms pinwheeled backwards and he flailed forward, one leg kicking up towards his chest, the other scarcely holding grip with the floor. Paul gasped and struggled for hold of the kitchen counter. He hissed furiously, bit his lip, and skidded about a foot and a half until the pantry broke his fall. "Holy shi--"
"I spilled some water," said Lily, and when Paul glanced up from his twisted-limbed position at the counter, he saw she wasn't even facing him. She was bent over the sink, and the answering splash of liquid informed him that she'd either been drinking something or cooking something. And the latter worried Paul enough to consider calling the fire department for reinforcements.
"You don't say," said Paul, untwining his legs to stand fully upright.
Lily nodded without turning. "I was going to make some spaghetti," she said, wiping her hands on a dishtowel. She sounded vaguely annoyed. "Anyway, you might want to look in the drawer for an Italian menu. I think I picked up all the noodles but I haven't yet wiped the floor, so watch your step."
Grimacing, Paul reached down and grasped his ankle to massage away the 'ow.' For a woman who had once boasted a ninety-eight percent accuracy average on the bureau shooting range, she was an unbelievable disaster with a pot and a spatula. "Maybe you should just, um... not cook from now on?" he suggested. He pulled himself to his feet and straightened the wrinkled sheet of paper.
"I can cook," his wife grumbled, and she finally turned to him, slipping past with a large dish-rag to mop up the floor. She bent down in front of him and ran the towel in circles along the tile, scooping up smudges of water and several remains of cork-screw pasta. She muttered something he didn't quite catch and slapped the floor, glancing back up at him with a dangerous glint in her eyes. "Did you need directions to the menu drawer or something?"
Paul cleared his throat, confused. "What?" She raised an eyebrow at him and he remembered her request: Italian food. "Oh, no," he said. "That's not what I wanted to ask you."
She frowned. "What you wanted to ask me?"
Paul nodded. He grinned and waved his crumpled holy grail in front of her, waggling his eyebrows. "What are you doing tonight, Doctor Lady?"
Lily squinted and tilted her head, as if waiting for him to drop a heavy object on her.
"I've got my first case," Paul explained, smoothing the piece of paper clean enough to skim and paraphrase the information. "Invisible man breaking into a garage."
"Invisible man breaking into a garage," he clarified, slower this time.
Lily sat back on the kitchen tile with her arms folded beneath her breasts. She opened her mouth once, closed it, and then started over with a deep breath. "First of all, all invisible men aside, you don't even have a base of operations, nor do you have any proper equipment."
When Paul opened his mouth to protest, Lily went on, "Buzz Lightyear erasers don't count as equipment, P.I."
Paul closed his mouth.
"Second of all, you don't even have a license to practice private investigation yet. The paperwork hasn't gone through. How - "
"Office supply store," said Paul, quite satisfied with himself. "You always told me my communication skills could use some work, and I think I made a breakthrough today. Done my little woman proud, I did."
Lily narrowed her eyes. Paul licked his lips, swallowing back the urge to continue drawling in his bad rendition of a southern accent. While Lily's expression was completely unreadable, he could've sworn she was twisting the towel in her fists in order to strangle him with it.
Finally, she sighed. "Go on."
He cleared his throat. "Like I was saying, I made friends with this guy in the manila envelope aisle. Nice guy, a mechanic, works somewhere around here. Anyhow, we got to talking, and the conversation shifted to what he did for a living, what I did... You get the idea. I mentioned what I specialized in, and he mentioned that something strange had happened in his garage. Someone broke in and screwed around, killed the cat -- maybe poisoned the cat -- he's not sure, but he didn't see anything, and he couldn't find any sign of a break in."
Lily said nothing, simply squinted her eyes as if trying to process this, and so he went on, "And since I said I was a private investigator, and that my practice specialized in strange phenomena, I guess he felt comfortable enough to ask about emailing me with the details. In case I wanted to look into it..."
Sill nothing from his wife.
"And, um... I, I do... want to look into it, that is..."
Lily blinked and tilted her head to her left shoulder, and then to her right.
"So it's actually... it's a good thing that I went to the supply store today and bought that computer."
She nodded and cracked her neck. For the life of him, Paul couldn't make her out.
"Are you even conscious?" he bit out, finally.
Lily worked her tongue around in her mouth, shooting him a dark look.
"So what you're saying," She waved a hand, "Because I want to get this perfectly square, is that some guy just asked you to come and investigate his garage for him?" Lily's eyebrow raised upwards into full-attack-mode. "A man you don't know, who doesn't know you, asked you to come by and poke around his private property without requesting any proof that you're even qualified to do so?"
"Anyone ever tell you you're a real buzzkill, Criminal?"
Lily's answering silence told him that she either wasn't bothering to hear that, or else she was just considering the pros and cons of busting a kitchen chair over his head.
"Look, I insinuated that I was an ex-cop," Paul tried to rationalize. “I didn’t specify anything in particular – but I gave off an LAPD sort of connection. Or maybe I sounded more NYPD. I’m not sure - one of those big city jurisdictions, with the haughty types. I think I gave off the right amount of arrogance.”
And at the sight of her stunned expression, Paul immediately regretted opening his mouth.
"You told him what?"
Paul swallowed and cursed himself, realizing he could have worded that better.
Ever since leaving Washington D.C, Lily’s preoccupation with being followed had grown from understandable fear, to compulsive paranoia, to an almost all-consuming obsession. She chewed her cuticles raw with worry, and some nights, couldn’t even sleep. For the house, she’d bought three sets of locks for the doors, installed them herself, and re-locked each one over and over, every night.
Paul, meanwhile, although paranoid as he’d ever been, had grown wary of feeling… well, wary.
Threats of being found existed, just as they always had, and all he and Lily could do now was turn tail and hide. And thus far, nobody had come looking, not then and not now, and after months and months of peering over his shoulder and finding only his shadow, Paul refused to run anymore. Before, in an effort to thwart both the government and the supersoldiers, both he and Lily had backtracked all over the United States, twisted down side-streets and dirt-roads, switched cars, stockpiled cash, utilized aliases, and spent months covering their footprints. They’d burned all their old IDs and passports. They never uttered their real names. He swept the house for bugs at least four times a week. There wasn’t anything else he could do, and surrendering back to the road was unfathomable.
Paul put up his hands, and Lily stood and advanced on him slowly, dish towel stretched between shaky fingers.
At least in Washington, thought Paul, they’d been able to fight. Paul and Lily could defy their adversaries in plain sight, could tilt their chins to the wind and scream, “If you want me, come and get me, you motherfuckers.” But all the lost months and running made Paul feel like a coward. He was sick, and Lily’s nightmares had grown worse. He wanted one place, one destination. He wanted a base of operations, a home. They deserved that much.
Paul shrugged, tried to win her over with a coy smile, but backed away from her until his hip jabbed the dishwasher.
"Are you crazy?" She went on. "Are you completely out of your fucking mind?"
"Not any more than usual," Paul tried, waving his hands to somehow pull his drowning argument to the surface. "Come on, Lily. I didn't incriminate anyone. I only insinuated that I once worked for some as-of-yet unnamed police department. So, in essence, I’ve actually cemented a phony background for us -"
Her eyes were wide and dead serious. "Is that supposed to make me feel better?” She swatted the dishtowel at him and missed by half an inch. "This isn’t funny. You – you keep doing these things, taking these obscene risks to get at the truth. You’ve done it for years. But now it’s not just you anymore. It’s us – you and me. When are you going to realize that? What is and isn’t worth dying for - "
He grabbed her shoulders to still her, and came dangerously close to getting punched in the face. She pushed against his stomach in an effort to free herself, and he clenched her biceps harder, pressing her arms to her sides to keep her from injuring both of them. Their eyes met and clashed over her thrashing arms, and when she quieted enough to hold his stare, Paul searched her watery gaze for answers. He still feared she'd knee him in the groin for grabbing her, despite her body having gone still, her mouth half-opened with breath. He needed to know what was going on inside that head of hers.
In the back of his mind, Paul recalled driving cross-country with Lily in their tiny, battered car, flooring the gas when she ordered him to go faster, propelling the both of them through miles upon miles of cornfield and ruddy earth until she finally okayed him to stop. She'd gripped the back of her seat and gazed into the rear windshield, her eyes a mix of contorted emotions. He'd just kept his mouth shut and driven them faster, winced at the sound of green-plant hitting metal, of tires squealing off-road, her voice, commanding him forward, words filled with apprehension and intense paranoia: "They're behind us, Mulder - faster."
"I’m not stupid," said Paul slowly, waiting for a reaction. “I wouldn’t have said anything if I thought I would endanger us. I’m not going to get us killed. You believe me, don’t you?” She looked away, and he prodded on, taking a dangerous risk. "Scully?"
Lily's face snapped to his in rubber-band quickness, her breathing still uneven, and she regarded him maliciously.
The uttering of their real names, he knew, was strictly forbidden.
Safety was a priority, and real names might be un-safe, but he had to get through to her somehow. His wife had a great many unspoken rules, and while Paul could only guess that following these rules kept her from losing her tenuous hook on normalcy and sanity, he was starting to lose his. Somewhere, someplace in between facsimile and reality, a fine line needed to be drawn in the sand.
"There are things I need to do in this life, parts of me that aren’t going away," he said, pushing an escaped strand of red hair from her eyes. "I've spent my life looking for the truth and I want to keep looking for it. I need to. You taught me that."
At this, Lily's gaze met her husband's, and her expression steeled. She gave the appearance of a woman scorned, of a baseball coach annoyed at taking pot-shots from the worst player on the team. She said, "I know you’re restless. That you can’t take the waiting around anymore. But we need to be careful."
Her gaze darted about the room as if searching for eyes and ears embedded in the wall. Her voice lowered to a whisper. "Because that man in the supply store doesn't know, and he doesn't give a rat's ass one way or the other about how dangerous it could be if he finds out. And do you honestly think he couldn't do it?" Her eyes watered with purpose. "Let's say that he decided to check up on your claim. Let's say he got lucky and stumbled on the right branch of law enforcement, or just on our pictures on some federal web site." She shook her head. "There are still people looking to arrest both of us. It's not just these shadow men or these supersoldiers I’m afraid of. The unknown has been after us for years. It's the FBI. It's the US justice department. It's not paranoia if everyone really is after you, is it?"
Paul stilled. Much as it hurt for him to replay her words in his head, he knew she had a point.
"All right," he said, releasing her from his grip. "You're..." He fought to say the word 'right,' but found that his ego had problems releasing such words to his mouth. "You're not completely wrong."
That last part earned him another raised eyebrow.
Exhausted from honesty, Paul tilted back into the counter. Lily rubbed her arms to revive the circulation, and she breathed as if trying to deflate herself. Paul's wife never broke, but she certainly cracked from time to time, and he couldn't blame her for that. Whose fault was it that they'd been forced to run in the first place? Who'd broken into Mt. Weather, who got thrown in jail, and who couldn't leave well enough alone? Lily had long ago adopted his ideals, had searched relentlessly with him for his answers, but he searched harder, like a man on a suicide mission. Even now, he wouldn't stop. Even if he risked endangering both of them. He was who he was, and whose fault was that?
Paul took a deep breath, feeling suddenly foolish. "Look," he said, "I'm sorry that I - "
"You know..." Lily rubbed the back of her neck, avoiding his eyes. "Much as how you went about this bothers me, I can’t say that you're completely wrong, either."
Paul cocked his head to one side, scratching the side of his temple for understanding. "Wow." He pursed his lips and gazed, with raised eyebrows, at a point just above her head. "That's so strange. I think my hearing aid's going out on me. I just heard --"
"Look, P.I, daylight's burning and I don't feel like standing around. Are we going to just sit here or go or what?"
Paul bent his head to meet her expression, venturing for whatever truths she was willing to give.
"Seriously?" he asked. “You’re okay with this?”
"Seriously," she said, with a jut of her chin.
Paul grinned, and felt a definite surge of adrenaline, a pumping of energy that he hadn't felt in months. "Then let's make tracks, Bunny-Hunny," he said, extending an arm for her to lead the way.
The house was a brown, two story cottage not unlike Paul and Lily's own rented property, and it had a slanted wrap around porch that blistered in spots where inclement weather had gnawed away the wood. Two large trees stood like proud pillars out front, guarding a black and gray stoned walkway leading to the front steps. A Gibbous moon cast undulating shadows on the pavement leading from the gutter: long rays of inky black that danced over the grass and flower beds. The flowers were dead, and they had been, if looks were any indication, for a long time. There was never a lack of cold weather in the Verona area, and the bite of consistent winter seemed to suffocate anything straining for warmth and sunlight.
Paul pulled open an outer screen door and knocked on the heavy wooden one with the heel of his palm. Lily stood a few feet away, her back to him, studying the outlines of houses across the street. She ran her hand along the framework of a rusted porch swing, and bent over the railing to search the side of the house. She turned to Paul and inquired, "Garage on that side?"
Paul nodded, and the door opened before him with a creak of hinges and a flood of light.
"Paul Selden," exclaimed a gray-haired man at the door, who smiled as if inviting in the warmth of summer. He extended a hand to Paul like they'd been old friends, and shook heartily, shivering at the cold with a seizure of his shoulders. "So you found it okay, did you? It's good to see you again - glad you could come by on such short notice, I know it's not that early anymore... Goddamn, but it's cold out here--come in, come in, this shit's deadly."
"No arguments there, Jake." Paul nodded and reached out a hand to Lily, who had crept up behind him and stood with her hands clutching the collar of her overcoat. "Jake Walker, This is Dr. Selden, my partner in crime for this sort of thing."
Lily reached out a gloved hand to Jake and smiled thinly. "Lily Selden," she said. "How do you do?"
"Ah yes," said Jake, standing sideways in the doorway to allow them entrance. Lily shivered the remnants of night from her shoulders, and Paul guided her into the entryway. Jake grinned at them with his hands clasped in front of him. "Sister, wife, or coincidence?"
"Wife," said Paul, shooting a grin at Lily, who seemed only mildly interested in grinning back. While Lily had no problem playing the part of dedicated spouse, he couldn't imagine her ever feeling comfortable with being introduced to others that way. Especially not in a professional setting.
Paul took a deep breath, sucking in the warm air of a heated foyer, and waited for Jake to close the heavy wooden door behind them. The house blossomed with a eucalyptus fragrance, and a large brown pot by the door held several tall green stems with tiny buds exploding from each side.
Jake nodded and extended an arm towards the living room, leading them both through a wide, dimly-lit corridor splashed with mismatched family portraits and framed Crayola drawings, each one signed in scratchy block letters with a different name: Annabelle, Joshua, Lucas. Paul glanced back at Lily and caught her running gloved fingers over one of the encasements, a red stick person standing with a green cat outside a brown house. The sky had been scribbled in light purple, and the clouds were orange; a child's version of life.
When Lily caught him watching her, she ducked her gaze and focused on playing with her gloves, her posture giving away nothing but stoic focus. Paul lingered a bit on the play of light over her red hair, and for only a moment, he wondered whether his son's hair was that same color.
"So what kind of law enforcement were you two involved in?" Jake asked, craning his head to regard them as he guided them through the house.
Paul swallowed, and he felt his wife bristling behind him.
"I'm a medical doctor, and I was involved in forensics for a time," said Lily, forgoing a real explanation in lieu of vague generalities. "And Paul was..." She paused, thoughtful. "Paul is... a behavioral psychologist."
"You mean like a profiler?" Jake asked, intrigued.
"Something like that, yeah," answered Paul, and the look that Lily shot him while pretending to study the photographs on the wall told him that if he let too much slip, she would kill him in his sleep.
"Anyway, I really appreciate the two of you coming by like this," said Jake, thankfully putting an end to the background check. He turned at the end of the hallway and lead them into a wide, sweet smelling, carpeted living room. A wooden entertainment center sat against one wall, the embedded television flashing rays of light over the floors and ceiling. A VCR beneath the television blinked out the hour in short bursts of digital red, and several Disney movies lay unopened on a side shelf.
"Oh, we do this all the time," said Paul, turning to face to Jake so that the two men and Lily formed a triangle in the middle of the living room.
To the right of Paul, two green armchairs bookend-ed a faded, brown couch, and the couch aligned a wall opposite the entertainment center, where more family snapshots were arranged in a pyramid. Adjacent to the wall of photos was a wooden door, and, to the right of the door, a kitchen.
"Really?" asked Jake. "Just the weird stuff?"
Lily and Paul exchanged glances, Lily's eyebrow raising just a hair.
"We only like the weird stuff," explained Paul, and he winked - more at his wife than at Jake. Lily caught the gesture, and Paul warmed at the sight of her lips twitching to conceal a smile.
"So you mentioned something about ghosts?" Paul asked, fighting back the urge to tap dance around the living room in celebration of his and Lily's return to the field.
"Well, I don't - I mean, I'm a religious man and all, and I believe in the afterlife, but I don't know what the hell is going on around here and I..." Jake cleared his throat uncomfortably. "See, my wife's out of town visiting her mother, took the kids with her, you know? But since I have to work, pay the bills and all, I stayed at home to take care of things. And I've been here by myself for, oh, about a week now."
"And something strange happened?"
"Yeah, something. I think it's the ghost of a dead football rival," said Jake, eyes wide with apprehension. He shook his head as if embarrassed and shrugged. "Or someone. I don't know what live person could have done this."
"You're thinking someone broke in," Lily said, changing the direction of the conversation.
Paul grinned at her, and Lily pretended to ignore him. Some things just never changed.
Jake nodded. "It was the damndest thing. I was sitting in bed and getting ready to turn the lights out, when I heard this ridiculous crash--" He raised his arms and pressed them downwards, mimicking. "And I thought it was the cat, you know, because the cat's always getting into shit and making trouble. The garage's kind of my office, see, and I let Aluiscious--the cat--I let him out there at night because the garage is heated. It's also closed off--door's sealed good and shut. Nobody parks the car in my office, know what I'm saying?"
Paul exchanged a glance with his wife, and Jake went on. "So I went out there to go yell at the cat...drove me crazy, that cat did. One of my kids brought him home one day and I let her keep him, but I made him sleep out there at night. Anyway, thing didn't deserve the end it got."
The man sighed, ran a hand through his wavy gray hair. "So, ah, I go out there and I open the door, and I see all my oil cans lying all over the place. Just everywhere. But no oil on the ground. Whoever broke in took the oil and left the cans. And whatever was blocking the cans was on the ground, and the damn cat wasn't anywhere."
"And how long had you been in bed?" asked Lily. "Away from the main part of the house, before you heard the crash?"
"Oh, I don't know..." Jake squinted. "An hour, maybe? Maybe more?"
Lily nodded, and Jake began walking again, until all three of them stopped simultaneously at the wooden door next to the kitchen. Jake unfastened the brass deadbolt at the top, and went on, "So I start calling the cat, I said, 'Aluiscious, Aluiscious.' And there was nothing. Usually, he meows. So I went looking, and that's when I saw him. He was in the corner, dead as a post. Don't have any idea what the hell could have killed him."
Jake opened the door, and motioned for Paul and Lily to step through. "So I didn't want to call the cops because the whole thing sounds crazy - at least it does to me. And besides that, my wife's good friends with some of the detectives, and I don't know how I'm going to explain thinking that a ghost screwed with my office. Besides that, I have to do something about the cat. My kids are gonna be heartbroken. And I know I don't know you folks all that well, but this is a nice area with nice folks, and since you live around here too, I thought... well, if you want to come take a look, be my guest, you know?"
Lily nodded, and stepped past both men into the garage.
There was the faint smell of rotted garbage, of decimation of skin and decay...something not quite living. Lily glanced back to her husband as if to confirm her suspicions, and Paul nodded that he smelled it, too.
"Gotta get rid of that cat," said Jake, and he pressed two fingers over his nose, coughing.
Lily stood in the center of the room, perusing the space with her eyes, and Paul stepped past her, a hand pausing on her shoulder as he went.
The walls were gray, splotchy, and dented in dirtied, water spots. One gray wall was lined with brown shelves, each brown shelf containing various boxes of car-parts or cans of motor-oil, or else metal tubes filled with some sort of liquid. Some of the boxes and cans had been knocked to the floor, ripped from their symmetrical piles, while others had been overturned, or scattered like candy to the far edge of the garage.
The retractable garage door was sealed shut to the ground (as per Jake's explanation) with some type of grout, or else some type of cement, and a white wipe-away board was posted over the door; customer names were written over the board with check marks and 'X's, and awkward lines divided into vertical rows.
An L shaped, wooden desk sat front and center in the room, and its mottled surface was littered with files and papers and office supplies, and tiny, jeweled picture frames protecting the likenesses of children dressed as lions and baseballs players and princesses for Halloween. An I-Mac computer sat off to one side, and a box of printer paper sat next to the desk. Three metal filing cabinets stood like stout skyscrapers protecting the shelves above them, and a fourth lay on its side beneath one of the shelves, dented, bruised.
"Were they all upright before?" asked Paul, pointing towards the cabinets.
Jake nodded. "Everything was ship-shape in here when I went to bed. I like to keep the office organized. The crash must've been that cabinet falling."
Paul squinted, and then turned back to the cabinets. "Someone looking for information?" He glanced at Lily. "Files, maybe?"
"I don't have anything interesting," said Jake.
"Perhaps someone else feels differently," said Paul.
"No, I don't think so." Lily stepped forward and pressed a hand to the metal, running her fingers along an oblong, blackened dent. "They weren't looking for something. More like standing, trying to get leverage." She smoothed her hand around the outside of an uneven depression. "See this, right here? This looks like the indentation of a foot. Someone using the cabinet as a footstool."
"Does that mean something?" Jake asked, furrowing his brows.
Lily rose to her full height and motioned at the splay of discarded cans and boxes. "It means, more likely than not, that we're looking at someone shorter than I am, if the intruder wasn't tall enough to reach those shelves."
"But how'd he do it so fast?" asked Jake. "I swear I was out here right after I heard that crash."
Paul clasped his hands together and rubbed, still feeling slivers of winter slice through him. "That... I don't know yet."
"Oh." Jake nodded, but seemed wholly unconvinced.
Paul returned his gaze to the floor, searching the disarray for answers.
Overturned cans of oil lay everywhere, dozens of them, lids pried loose, but there were no stains on the concrete, not a drop of oil anywhere.
Paul bent forward and scooped up one of the cans with gloved fingers. "Were these originally empty?" he asked, peering into the can as if it was a kaleidoscope.
"Nah," said Jake. "Those are stock from work. I take them back here at the end of the night. None of them ever been used. The oil's just...gone." Jake shivered, and scrunched his nose at the dull, lingering scent of barely set-in rigor mortis.
"Was anything other than the oil stolen?" asked Lily, circling the room and eyeing Jake with the precision of a trained investigator.
"No, just the oil. That's the other thing."
"The other thing?"
"Yeah." Jake scratched his head and pointed towards the computer. "Nothing's smashed or broken. That computer's worth about a thousand bucks, but it's still here. And all the doors were locked, so I don't know how anyone even got in."
"Could it be you forgot to lock the door?" asked Lily, always one to look for the most logical answer. She bent to the desk and examined one of the files.
Jake shook his head. "No, I remember locking it. I was on the phone with my wife and she told me specifically to lock the front door. She's always reminding me to do that stuff." He shrugged good-naturedly at Paul as if searching for confirmation of this type of wifely behavior.
Paul granted an answering smile at Jake and dropped the oil can to the ground in favor of another. Each one he looked at had been licked clean. The oil completely gone, with not a single trace left behind. There was something niggling him about that, about the oil going missing without the cans. It was as if the oil just...walked right out.
Paul shivered, his imagination whipping him quickly through a mental stamp of a telltale checklist. Missing oil, missing oil...
The black oil virus had that type of signature, but was more or less contained only in certain oil rigs, in certain parts of the country where prehistoric caves had been dug up. It didn't survive long without a host, and if it needed a host, Paul was reasonably sure that Jake Walker would not have been left standing. Besides that, there weren't any digs in this area, and the air was too cold for the virus to awaken and survive. It just wasn't possible.
Or was it?
"Any irate customers, Mr. Walker?" asked Lily. "Disgruntled neighbors, perhaps someone looking to set you back in funds?" She glanced up from the desk, where she'd been rifling through papers, and finished, "Or perhaps someone with a key to the house? Maybe a friend or a relative playing a prank, looking to scare you?"
Paul bent down again and reached back behind one of the file cabinets as far as his arms would let him. The oil cans in the middle of the room were too clean, too perfect. Something was not right about that, something important. There had to be a can with residual traces of oil still left inside. Especially since the time-frame between the crash and when Jake got to the door didn't seem to mesh with the compulsive neatness required for this professional type of job. Either someone was looking for something in the oil... or else the oil itself was looking to get out.
And that last part was unacceptable.
"Can't think of anyone," said Jake, answering Lily's question. "Especially not someone who would want to kill my cat."
"Right, the cat," Lily murmured, as if to herself. She paused. "The cat's still out here. Can you show me where?"
Finally, Paul's fingers closed around the rim of a can, and he wriggled around between the cabinets and the opposing wall in order to yank the object free. Sitting back on his folded legs, Paul turned the can over and over in his hands and examined the inside.
Unlike the others, the shadowed depths of this can were most definitely not clean, and the color of the liquid left clutching to the sides was most definitely not black. Paul's jaw moved stiffly, compulsively, as he considered the familiar color of this liquid: deep, emerald green. Congealed. Speckled with black and yellow in certain places, but mostly green, and hugging the circular tin can in thick, soupy blobs. A dusty ray of yellow light poured through one side of the can, where a rusted, jagged hole had eaten the metal clean away.
"Cat's crumpled up behind one of those boxes," said Jake. "I'll go move them for you."
Paul cleared his throat and tried to push back an encroaching wave of unease. "Lily," he said, gazing into the can with disbelief. "I think you'd better take a look at this."
Lily frowned, and her questioning gaze was accompanied by a raised, russet eyebrow. Paul said nothing further, and long accustomed to the way that he worked, Lily was at his side an instant later, with Jake standing not far behind her, both of them peering over Paul's shoulder to get a good look at the evidence.
"What does this look like to you?" Paul asked, tipping the can so she could better examine the inside.
The room fell silent, and his wife's breath caught dead in her throat.
Paul glanced backwards and saw that she'd gone almost completely white, her dark pink lips and blue eyes no more than angry streaks of color across otherwise colorless skin. Her mouth opened as if to postulate a theory, but no sound came out, and only Jake's voice was audible in the silent garage.
"What in the hell is that?" he asked. "Doesn't look like oil to me."
"No," said Paul, unable to break his gaze with his wife, his stomach churning into twisted knots. "It doesn't, does it?"
Lily finally cleared her throat, but her cracked tone was unsteady when she spoke. "It's an acid solution," she lied, her gaze never wavering from the green substance in the can. "Not a highly volatile one, but acid nonetheless. The solution's corroded part of the metal right there--" She pointed to a gap in the metal and made a circling motion with her index finger. Only Paul noticed that her hand trembled as she explained. "Which means that the user most likely was forced to wear gloves. Further, I'd say that the compound was homemade, amateur, because you certainly don't have a mess on your hands here. Chances are you won't find any fingerprints, but I can assure you that this was in no way supernatural. Unless ghosts have started utilizing chemical compounds to haunt houses. Do you have an alarm system, Mr. Walker?"
Too fast, she was talking too fast. She barely breathed in between sentences. Paul caught her nervousness like a quick moving contagion, but said nothing.
Jake shook his head but seemed relieved, nonetheless. "Not a ghost, then," he said, clasping his hands together. "Well, this makes more sense."
Lily swallowed, and her throat bobbed. "I'd recommend checking the locks on your windows," she said. "If an acid solution was used, it's possible that the intruder melted the window locks and crept in without using force." She took a few deep breaths, as if she stood two inches short of tilting her head back and screaming up at the sky. Her voice filtered in and out. "The cat? You said it was around here?"
"Oh... right, right." Jake stood back and allowed Lily to sidestep him. He turned and made for the opposite wall, and Lily finally met the gaze of her husband, her eyes naked with fear, filled to the lashes with abject horror.
Lily's breathing was ragged, uneven, and if Paul hadn't been so assured of her not-so-easily-forgotten professional comportment, he would have insisted on removing both of them from the house until they could safely figure out just what the hell all of this meant.
Lily's brows furrowed, and suddenly she looked like she wanted to curl up into the floor and melt into nothingness, disappear like hot, sticky wax from a birthday candle.
Paul removed a key-chain and a small plastic bag from his pocket, and flipped up a retractable Swiss army knife. With careful precision, he scraped along the inside of the tin and gathered a thin film of green liquid on the tip. The liquid bubbled for a moment, and shone like olive juice, splotched with ugly pebbles of forest green and black.
Paul held the knife in front of his face, tilted it from side to side, and waited. When the liquid didn't eat through his knife, he nodded to himself and smudged the coagulated substance into the inside of the bag, his hands surprisingly calm and controlled. His eyes watered but didn't sting, and he assumed that any and all poisonous effects wore off in increments, as the actual substance met with oxygen and died.
Lily watched all of this with that pasty, numb expression on her face, her blue eyes darting about the room as if looking for hidden cameras, or waiting for Jake Walker to shape-shift into something else entirely. Something terrible. Something she'd seen in her nightmares, perhaps. Her voice echoed in Paul's skull: "Walls are listening."
"Cat's over here if you're interested," called Jake, and his voice startled both of them.
Paul blew out a breath, and Lily raised a palm to her throat and closed her eyes, inhaling and exhaling slowly.
When her lids fluttered open, Paul nodded at her and she broke their silent connection.
Paul stood and placed a guiding hand on her back as she made her way through the sea of overturned oil cans. Ribbed and dented tin reflected prism-ed shards of light, scattering rays of white-yellow across the walls; a disco ball gone insane. Lily didn't turn back to him, but Paul was positive she was aware of his thumb, tracing rough circles over her spine. Touching Lily made him feel grounded, tied to this world, as if she alone could keep him secured to Earth.
"Here we go," said Jake, his eyes watering as he shoved aside some empty boxes. "Holy Jesus, that's rancid."
Lily paused at the foot of a molehill of boxes and gasped, and Paul peered over her shoulder. The stench of life-ebbing-away was heavy and floating, and it stilled both of them in their tracks. Paul had to turn his head so that he could cover his nose and keep out the stink. The irrational feeling that he'd be swept away again, taken from her again, just because he'd breathed in the odor of that dead animal, was nearly paralyzing in its totality.
"It's the damndest thing," said Jake, holding his sweater over his nose to eradicate the smell. "When I found him I thought he'd been poisoned, but.... look at his eyes."
Lily's back had gone stiff, and Paul didn't need to see her to know what she was thinking.
The cat's small, sunken eyes had been welded shut, and mucus seeped from the edges with congealed blobs of dried, brown blood. The gray and white fur of its torso was slicked back, damp with a foggy, grayish film, its legs frozen in a deranged pantomime of broken movement; the cat had been running, clawing for its life when it died.
Only one known substance could have done that kind of specific damage in so short a time, and the idea made Paul literally sick.
"You think someone sprayed the cat with that acid you were telling me about?" asked Jake, and his voice was muffled by his sweater.
"I, ah...Yeah.... It's possible," said Lily, but her voice was far away.
Paul swallowed back the taste of lunch rising in his throat. He felt dizzy, disoriented, like he would drop through the floor and keep going until he reached the core of the Earth.
At her sides, Lily's fists balled as she clenched and unclenched her slender fingers. Had she taken off her gloves, Paul was positive her knuckles would be three shades lighter than the rest of her.
The air was thick with unspoken horror:
They had been found.