| Title: Belmont, Ohio, 3:36 P.M.
Author: Sarah Segretti
Rating: PG (two bad words, one inside a "South Park" reference)
Summary: A minivan, some classic rock and a trunk full of baby gear. All is not as it appears.
Archive: Gossamer, Spookys okay, everyone else ask first.
Disclaimer: Not mine. Everything in this story is fictional, especially the real things.
Author's note: I know these roads. I've taken liberties.
Mulder peered into the overstuffed rear of the minivan, the palm of his hand resting against the edge of the open gate above his head. The military didn't pack like this for Normandy, he thought. Who knew someone this small would need all this stuff?
"Ready?" he called, closing the hatch with a whoosh and a muffled slam.
"I think so." Scully backed out of the van, glanced inside one more time, then slid the side door closed. She looked around the alley where they'd parked for easy loading, and Mulder followed her gaze. Nothing unusual, just the standard battered dumpsters, mutated weeds and cracked concrete you'd find in any DC alleyway, even one in Georgetown. He could hear a garbage truck making pickups nearby, and the stop-and-go hum of the morning rush out on Wisconsin Avenue. Nothing unusual at all.
Scully was taking it all in with eyes that glittered a little in the morning sun. Given the right context, Mulder thought, even rotting infrastructure can look ideal. Scully's mood, so easily apparent on her face, threatened to overwhelm him, and he closed his eyes for a second.
A squawk sounded from inside the van, snapping them both out of their reveries. "Well, somebody's ready," Scully said dryly.
Mulder hitched up his still-loose jeans. "Then let's go." He started for the driver's side, only to find Scully heading the same way.
"I can drive, Scully," he told her quietly. "I want to drive."
She regarded him with her doctor's gaze, then relented. "Okay. But you tell me if you get tired."
"Immediately." But he knew he wouldn't have to. For the first time in more than a year, he felt alive.
His car had died while he was gone, from lack of use. Scully had kept a roof over his head, his credit rating intact and his fish alive, but she'd forgotten about his car. Well, she'd had other things on her mind. He could understand that.
Besides, it had been fun to watch her mouth drop open in horror when he pulled up in front of her building in a 1998 tan Dodge Caravan. He'd called in advance to tell her to meet him outside.
"A minivan?" was all she could say, the baby balanced on one hip, as he got out.
Mulder was sure she was having a Falls at Arcadia flashback at that moment, and grinned. "It was that or an SUV, and I know how you feel about those." He leaned against the van. The effort of negotiating the deal had exhausted him, but he was glad he'd done it -- glad he'd done something on his own. It had been too long.
"Gets pretty good gas mileage for what it is, V8 engine, plenty of cargo space, and at least 12 cupholders by my count."
"Cupholders." She gave him the same look he usually got for coming up with lunatic theories that linked vampires, aliens and Janet Reno's deputy assistant attorney general.
The baby seemed to have the same expression on his face as his mother. Man, heredity was spooky. Mulder nodded. "Twelve of them."
Scully processed this for a moment, then cocked an eyebrow at him. "The newer models have more. Plus dual control temperature settings, built-in car seats and rear cargo organizers."
Trust Scully to be armed with data on any topic, no matter how obscure or distasteful. Mulder smiled meaningfully. "Ah, but George Hale had just enough cash for this one." He patted the side of the van, pleased with himself. Scully hugged the baby a little tighter. Mulder wasn't sure she was aware she was doing it.
"A minivan," she finally repeated, and handed over the baby so that she could check it out.
Key Bridge to the GW Parkway to a blessedly brief stint on the Beltway to 270. On the road again. Mulder hummed to himself as the tech companies and townhouse developments rushed past in a blur. The morning's bright sun was fading into a hazy summer glare. Out of deference to Scully, and because the baby seemed to like it, he left the classical music station on.
Gaithersburg, his mind interjected as an exit sign passed by. Emgen. Been there, got the monkey pee.
His attention turned back to the radio. Usually he didn't mind Scully's music; he wasn't that much of a philistine. But this piece he knew mostly because the station played it constantly. He glanced in the rearview mirror as an interesting idea occurred to him. "Hey, Scully."
She'd started the trip in the back seat, hoping to keep the baby amused. He could see her dangling plastic, primary-colored keys where the baby could play with them, but she was staring out the window at the retreating exurbs instead of into the car seat. Mulder couldn't see the baby -- he was still small enough that he had to ride backwards. "What, Mulder?"
"Have you ever considered that 'Scheherazade' might be the 'Freebird' of the classical music format?"
For a brief second, she didn't answer, and he held his breath. Then he heard her snicker softly. "I like to think of it as the 'How Soon is Now,' frankly."
"You're dating yourself, Scully. The Smiths are *so* '80s."
She ignored him, as he expected. The familiar pattern was comforting, even if she did seem to be going through the motions. "It's a more interesting work than you give it credit for."
"I didn't say it was bad, just overplayed." Mulder paused and honked at a motorcycle that was drifting into his lane. "Besides, 'How Soon is Now' was once the 'Freebird' of the alternative music format."
He glanced in the mirror again. Despite the scolding tone in her voice, her gaze was affectionate. The baby's hands were visible over the top of the car seat, batting at the keys Scully still held. The magnitude of the miracle in the back seat hit him, as it did every so often -- my family, I have a family again.
Scully sighed, and the sound chased the feeling away. "Go ahead and change the station, if you want," she said.
"Thank you, Jesus." Mulder hit the scan button immediately, and hoped for something upbeat.
They drove into the mountains of the Maryland panhandle (zombies, Mulder thought, and absently scratched the old scars on his arm) with the bright haze turning to full overcast. He wasn't tired, he really wasn't, but the baby was hungry, so they stopped. He staggered a little when he hopped out of the van.
"Mulder!" Scully exclaimed from inside the van, where she was unbuckling the baby. And then she clapped a hand over her mouth.
"I'm okay. Just sat for too long." He looked around. The parking lot was amazingly empty for a Bob Evans at midday. "It's okay," he added. "Let me have Cartman."
She plucked the baby out of the car seat, handing him over. "Please don't call him that."
"Well, look at him." Mulder took the baby and turned him around to face Scully, holding the wiggling boy under his armpits. "He looks like an inflatable doll, and he weighs a ton. Look at that round face."
The baby protested, and Mulder gathered him back into a more comfortable hug. "Yeah, I'd complain, too," Scully said to her son, who was now bumping his face desperately into his father's chest. "Let's eat."
"Hey, Scully?" Mulder said, and pitched his voice higher, Cartman-like. "This baby smells like ass."
For the first time all morning, Scully smiled faintly. "Good thing you remember how to fix that."
"Darn those ineffective memory wipes," Mulder said, but he felt a little of his good mood slip away.
He remembered staring into the beady eyes of the bounty hunter, feeling his will drain away in the light.
He remembered waking in a hospital room to see familiar blue eyes in a startlingly round face, and the brilliant smile that illuminated it shortly after.
Between those moments, he remembered nothing.
He'd been surprised to find that he was grateful.
What frightened him more was the possibility that old memories had been stolen in the process of making him forget the new ones. So he had Scully grill him on the details of old cases. He chanted along with "Plan 9 From Outer Space" and "Star Wars" and old "Star Trek" episodes. He pored over the single photo album that had survived his mother's still inexplicable barbecue of the family pictures. He walked the streets of his neighborhood once he learned to walk again, searching out the familiar among the renovated row houses and changing storefronts.
He sang along with the radio.
Finding a decent station in the hills of West Virginia (lots and lots of files, his mind supplied) was no mean trick. He reached around Scully's water bottle, parked neatly in Cupholder #2, and punched the "tune" button again. There. The digital numbers froze on a frequency, and mid-80s Prince came bubbling out of the van's elaborate sound system, a gift from the Gunmen.
"Raspberry beret!" Mulder thought he had a pretty fair falsetto, for a baritone. "The kind you buy in a second-hand store!"
Scully, riding shotgun again while the baby slept, groaned. "The guys would rip those speakers out if they knew how they were being abused."
"Raspberry beret!" he sang directly to her. "And if it was warm, she wouldn't wear much more!"
She shook her head, and bent over the open atlas in her lap. "Northbound 79 is coming up, oh Artist. You'll want to pay attention to the road."
He remembered every mangled, murdered note she'd croaked at him in a Florida swamp, grinned, and changed lanes for the exit.
The Olympics. The start of the NBA season. Another goddamn World Series. A presidential election. Well, he didn't mind missing that, although he'd been shocked to learn who was president now. That news, though, didn't compare to the stunning sight of Scully, seven months pregnant. Oh, if he had missed that ... He couldn't even begin to imagine the havoc he would have wreaked on whoever, whatever was responsible for his disappearance.
He had questions for her once his unused voice returned. She had no answers, but one. To his great surprise, Scully had not had one single prenatal test done. "Not even an ultrasound?" he'd croaked at her, furious. When she hit him with a barrage of data showing that ultrasounds were unnecessary in a normal pregnancy, which she seemed to be having, he found himself feeling sorry for her obstetrician.
"I didn't want to know," she'd said, apologetically, after the baby was born. "I wanted to believe it was yours. And what could I have done if it wasn't?"
He knew what he would have suggested, but that was irrelevant now. Benjamin Fox Mulder was a hybrid of nothing but his parents: his mother's eyes and nose over his father's mouth, his round head covered with sparse dark hair Mulder liked to think was a gift from Samantha. The roly-poly body was apparently a Scully trait; he and Sam had been scrawny, gangly babies.
And the kid could sleep. Heaven knew where the child of insomniacs had inherited that ability. "It's been three hours," he said to Scully. "Doesn't he need to eat?"
Scully pressed the tops of her breasts experimentally. "I'm not too full. We'll be okay for a while. Let him sleep. Besides, there's nowhere to stop."
That much was true. They were in an odd no-man's-land where it wasn't clear if you were in Ohio or Pennsylvania or West Virginia. Mulder was pretty sure they were in West Virginia, even if the radio station was from Pittsburgh --
He pushed that memory away, although he was happy to have kept even the bad ones, and turned his attention back to the road, the radio. The music seemed to be getting even older; he remembered this one from the blur that was high school.
"...but you're trying, you're trying now..."
Scully shifted in her seat. "Could you just lip sync for a while? I'd like to take a nap, too."
He hesitated, wondering, feeling her emotions again, but decided she really was just tired. "No problem."
"That saxophone always made me so sad," Scully said sleepily, her voice gone girlish. "Missy thought it was romantic, but I never ..." She paused. "Could you change the station?"
Mulder swallowed. He'd been right about her mood the first time. "Sure," he said.
"Wake me up when we get somewhere I can feed Benjy."
I-470 picking up 70 again, and an unexpected thing happened. Mulder drove under the sign that marked the West Virginia-Ohio border, and the landscape ... relaxed. The craggy Appalachians melted away into small, soft foothills. The highway widened from two lanes on a side to three. Even the median strip suddenly grew wide enough to build a small townhouse development on.
Space. Elbow room. He realized he'd only ever lived on islands: the Vineyard, England and that unnatural, isolated place known as Inside The Beltway. And he hadn't known how hemmed in he'd felt until he wasn't any more. Hemmed in by what, though? The job? The knowledge that came with it? His own emotional walls? The memories? No, but maybe ... the reminders, the dark shadows that haunted the interrupted life they were trying to rebuild. He turned to Scully, to talk out his theory, to see if she felt it too, but she was still dozing.
Well, maybe she wouldn't feel that way. She'd lived in more places by the time she was eight than he had his whole life. And she's lived in one place for the last eight years, he couldn't help but remind himself. That was important to her.
A motion in the rearview mirror caught his eye -- Benjy's little hands, appearing and disappearing behind the top edge of his car seat. Awake and stretching. An exit sign magically appeared: Belmont, Ohio, 1 mile. Gas food lodging.
Excellent, Mulder thought, and pushed the gloomy thoughts away.
All day, the weather forecast, no matter what state they'd been in, had been classic August: hazy, hot and humid with a chance of late afternoon thundershowers. As they walked out of their second Bob Evans of the day, Mulder could tell the latter was about to come due somewhere. The air was thick and liquid in the eerie yellow-white light, the sun a flat coin behind the haze. He raised his arms over his head for a good stretch and an unexpected yawn that fortunately Scully didn't see. God, this light was creepy. The air was too still. He'd be driving in a storm before long.
Scully was already in the van when he climbed in; she'd rigged some kind of scaffolding over the baby that had toys dangling from it for him to play with. She was staring out the windshield at the strip mall across the access road -- Mulder couldn't tell if she was actually seeing anything or not. She'd been even more quiet than she'd been all day as she nursed Benjy and he'd mainlined some apple pie and coffee. She was still quiet.
Somehow he knew it was best for him to stay quiet for a while, too.
Mulder maneuvered the van out of the maze of access roads linking the various fast-food restaurants with the strip malls, and glanced at the dashboard clock as he waited at a stop sign. 3:36. They were making good time, as far as he could tell, what with stopping every couple of hours for baby-related matters.
Not that they had any particular place to be at any particular time, but he liked to keep track of their progress.
"...chance of late afternoon thundershowers." The deejay's voice cut into his thoughts. "That's the weather from Classic Rock 107.3, hits from the 70s, 80s and 90s. Now here's Johnny Nash." And a very familiar old song burbled out of the speakers:
"...I can see clearly now, the rain is gone..."
Mulder lunged for the volume control, forgetting his vow of silence. "Scully! Sing backup!"
He was watching the road, but he could see her head turn towards him, and he could almost hear that eyebrow go up. No matter. He remembered this song from junior high, hearing it in the dark days after Samantha had vanished. The knowledge in the singer's voice had always caught his attention. He'd overcome something huge; underneath the bouncy Caribbean rhythm was a man singing his way out of the depths of darkness and loss. It had struck a chord with Mulder then. It struck one now.
"Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind," he sang, failing to even get within hailing distance of Nash's much higher voice. "It's gonna be a bright --"
He pointed at Scully as the backup singers echoed, "Bright." She just stared at him.
"Bright," he sang, and pointed at her again.
"Bright," Scully said flatly, and Mulder smiled.
"Sunshiny day!" he finished, and tapped his fingers on the steering wheel as he waited for the next verse. Scully put her elbow on the armrest in the door, the pad of her thumb pressed against her lips. Mulder sang on.
"I think I can make it now, the pain is gone." He heard Scully inhale. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her turn her head quickly to look out the window.
"All of the bad feelings have disappeared...." Thumbs hooked under the steering wheel at 11 and 1, he gestured out the windshield with his fingers, keeping watch on Scully in his peripheral vision. "Here is that rainbow I've been praying for..."
In reality, it was an orange road sign promising construction and a single lane of traffic half a mile ahead, but he was on a roll.
"It's gonna be a bright --"
Scully covered her mouth with one hand and her shoulders rose. Mulder recognized the posture -- he saw it so rarely that it was burned into his memory -- and he felt his own fragile facade begin to slip.
"Bright, sunshiny day," he finished, his voice trailing away.
Scully's hand moved to cover her entire face, fingertips pressing hard against her forehead. The song still chugged along -- "Look all around, there's nothing but blue skies..." but Mulder stopped singing. He wanted to turn off the radio, but that felt inadequate. Instead, he reached over the wide space between their seats and put a hand on Scully's knee as she sniffled and gulped quietly. Eventually, she put a hand on his.
"Do we know where we're going yet, Mulder?" she asked, her voice still thick with tears.
He had to admit it. "No."
Scully sighed. "I don't know that I can get used to calling you George."
Mulder said nothing. He hadn't called her Katie -- the name she'd chosen -- once since they'd left Georgetown.
"But this is the right thing to do." She said it as a statement, but he heard the unspoken question. He glanced into the rearview mirror. The red butterfly dangling from Scully's baby scaffolding spun around the bar like a gymnast to the accompaniment of little baby noises.
"I hope so," he said. "I hope so."
The song list:
Music curator: Mr. Segretti. Other research assistance from amazon.com, getlyrics.com, Napster and Washington's Only Classic Rock Station, 94.7 FM.
Beta Band: Haphazard Method,