TITLE: Christmas in California
AUTHOR: Michelle Kiefer
E-MAIL ADDRESS: MSK1024@AOL.COM
DISTRIBUTION: Archive if you like, just tell me where.
DISCLAIMER: Mulder and Scully belong to 1013, Chris Carter, and to the X-Files. SPOILER WARNING: Extremely vague season 9. You don't need to be watching the season to read this.
CONTENT: Story RATING: PG-13
CLASSIFICATION: Implied MSR, Maggie fic
SUMMARY: "Get her to come to San Diego, Mom. Christmas in California is just what Dana needs to cheer her up."
San Diego International Airport
"Oh my, what a beautiful baby!" the woman says. "You must be a very proud Grandma."
With her tweed jacket and sensible shoes, I peg her as a retired teacher, but perhaps that is stereotypical thinking on my part. She coos over William as he sits on my lap; I can smell White Shoulders perfume and the hint of peppermint on her breath. She's standing a little too close for my taste, but William is such a little charmer--I can certainly understand her interest. He chortles as she tickles his bootied foot.
"Mom! Mom, we better find our bags," Dana calls out as she exits the lady's room and rushes over to the bench where I've been waiting with William. She looks positively panic-stricken as she eyes her son's admirer. The woman releases William's foot and smiles at Dana before walking off in the direction of the food court, probably chuckling over nervous new mothers.
"Dana, she didn't mean any harm. You have to get used to people paying attention to this little guy--he's just too adorable to resist."
My daughter's face is far too pale, her mouth a tense straight line as she hoists the diaper bag and my tote bag onto her shoulder and picks up William's car seat. She nods in the direction of the baggage claim where her brother will be meeting us.
"Mom, I know you think I'm being over-protective, but it's important not to let people get too close to the baby." Dana's words seem carefully chosen, as if there is a lot she doesn't feel she can share with me.
I wish she understood that I'm far more frightened at being kept in the dark over her life than I ever would be of the truth from which she works so hard to shield me. But it seems there is much we don't understand about each other.
Dana has been so withdrawn since Fox Mulder left. Yet another thing I don't understand. I was stunned when she told me he was gone. In all the time I'd known him, I would never have pegged Fox as someone who would run out on his family.
Dana puzzles me these days. She won't hear a negative word about Fox but offers no information about him. She was reluctant to come to California at all, knowing her brother would have plenty to say on the subject. After all, there was never any love lost between Bill and Fox Mulder.
I could never tell her, but in the most secret corner of my heart, for just a moment, I was glad when I heard Fox had left. Don't get me wrong, he's a good man. Well, up to the time he left my daughter, I'd always thought he was a good man, but danger trailed him like a hungry dog following the butcher. And my daughter always seemed to be front and center when bad things happened.
I'd grown to dread hearing his voice on the phone, always it seemed bringing frightening news. Over the years, I'd become torn, hating him for nearly killing her, only to find myself wanting to fold him in my arms when I saw the pain in his eyes. The mothering instinct is hard to ignore, and even now, I remember Fox in my prayers every night along with my children and grandchildren. He always seemed like a man who needed more prayers than he got.
We make our way down the escalator, past the airport shops with their Christmas displays, finally arriving at the baggage carousels. Prompt as usual, Bill stands as if at attention by the information desk. He's not in uniform, but his stance and bearing say Navy, loud and clear. When he spots us, he smiles broadly and strides over.
"Bill, sweetheart. It's been such a long time."
He kisses my cheek, and makes an avuncular fuss over William. "No doubt about it, this one's a Scully," Bill says, taking the baby out of my arms. "Day, he's just beautiful."
"Bill, you didn't need to come all the way down here; we could have taken a cab." There is an edge to Dana's voice, though she smiles and kisses her brother's cheek when he leans over.
"Don't be ridiculous, Dana. I bet you have more luggage than'll fit in the van. No other way to travel with a baby--I can attest to that."
I smile at the truth in Bill's statement. Dana and I could have managed with a small suitcase apiece, but a fifteen pound baby requires more luggage than a Hollywood starlet.
"You're right about that, dear. Good thing I shipped the Christmas presents ahead or the plane wouldn't have been able to get off the ground. Oh, I see one of the bags now."
"I'll get them," Dana says as she puts the car seat down. Bill places William in my arms and sets off after Dana.
"Day, let me help you with those," he says as he follows Dana into the throng at the carousel.
I think back to Bill's phone call a few weeks ago. "Get her to come to San Diego, Mom. Christmas in California is just what Dana needs to cheer her up."
I pray that Bill is right, but I'm afraid Dana's sadness is just too deep to be cured by a mere change of scenery. She tries to hide it, but I recognize the signs of depression. Dana's thinner now than she was before her pregnancy, almost as thin as in the days she battled cancer.
I don't think a new baby is the only thing causing her to lose sleep, either. There are shadows under her eyes and a weariness in her every step that worries me.
The crowd thins as passengers retrieve their luggage and move out of the area. Finally, I catch sight of Dana's bright hair from my vantage point. She and Bill pull the last suitcase off the conveyer belt and make their way back to William and me.
Insisting on carrying the lion's share of luggage, Bill is out of breath by the time we arrive at his minivan. My arms are beginning to ache a bit with the weight of my grandson. Dana must be tired, too, her arms full of bags and baby gear, but she keeps her eyes forward and her shoulders back, as her father taught her long ago.
"Looks like your mom packed your favorite rocks, Buddy," Bill says to William. "Let's see if we can get your car seat rigged up here."
I watch my children fuss at each other as they load the luggage into the van and secure the car seat. Dana reminds Bill that an inadequately anchored seat is useless, while Bill insists he's certainly experienced with car seat installation and would she please give him a little room. I shade William's eyes against the sun and wonder if all siblings revert to adolescence or if my children are unique.
The car seat is finally installed to Dana's satisfaction, and we make our way from the airport to my son's new house. Bill and Tara moved to off base housing last year after Tara inherited a small estate from her grandmother. Better schools, they told me, and more room for Matthew to play.
If they had asked me, I would have advised they save the windfall for Matthew's college education, but Tara felt cramped in base housing. Cramped. Try base housing with four children under seven years old after a week of rainy days and you understand the real meaning of cramped.
We drive through a neighborhood of lovely homes, pulling into the long driveway of a large Spanish style home. How on earth does Bill keep up with the yard work and maintenance? We drive into the attached garage where Tara waits in the doorway to the house.
"Dana! Mom! I'm so glad you're here. Oh my, let me see that baby." Tara lifts a sleeping William out of my arms, resting her face against his head. "I miss that baby smell. Matt is such a big boy these days."
The big boy himself appears at the kitchen door, launching himself into my arms. "Gramma! I missed you so much."
"I missed you too, Sweetie. Say, doesn't somebody have a birthday coming up? Is it Daddy? Is it Mommy?"
"No, Gramma. It's me! Don't you remember?"
"Why, yes. My big boy is almost four, isn't he?"
Dana's expression clouds over, and my memory flies back to Matthew's birth. I'd felt powerless to do more than watch my daughter's heart break as she mourned a child she barely knew.
When they are small, your children come to you with scrapes and hurt feelings and you kiss the boo-boo and make it all better. When they grow up, you can only stand by and witness their pain.
"Why don't we all go into the house. You both must be exhausted," Tara says, and I wonder if she, too, is remembering.
Hours later, having retired early out of deference to our east coast internal clocks, Dana sits in bed and nurses William. His satisfied little grunts bring a smile to Dana's face, and, once again, I thank God for this sweet, miracle child. His fist curls against his mother's breast, and his eyes are closed in baby bliss.
"He's quite a little piggy, isn't he?" I ask, as I stroke William's leg. "Dana, you didn't eat much at dinner. Why don't I fix you a sandwich?"
"I'm fine, Mom. I think I was more tired than hungry."
William's suckling slows to intermittent bursts, finally ceasing when his slack mouth falls away from the nipple. I lift him from his mother's arms, kissing his sweet, peachfuzz head before laying him in the porta-crib at the foot of the bed.
"Cup of cocoa?" I ask. "Pie?"
"Mom, please. I don't want anything, okay?"
"Honey, I'm worried about you. You look so tired these days." I choose my words carefully, wanting to say so much more.
"I'm fine. All new mothers are tired. Doesn't that come with the territory? I'm sure you were tired, too, when we were babies."
"I wasn't trying to hold down a demanding job and care for a baby all alone."
I know instantly that I've overstepped. The look on Dana's face is more than I can bear.
"I was waiting for someone to bring that up. I expected it from Bill. It's amazing that he kept quiet during dinner. He must be elated that Mulder is gone."
"Your brother only wants what is best for you. That's all I want for you, too."
"Mom, you don't understand."
"Honey, how can I understand, when you won't share anything with me?" I sit on the bed and cover her hand with mine.
"I know. I'm sorry I haven't been able to explain things. It's safer for you not to know more. But please understand that Mulder didn't abandon us. He's only doing what is necessary to protect William and me."
"Is he alright?" She nods carefully. "Have you been in contact with him?" I probe further and wonder if she can even tell me that much.
"Yes, but unfortunately, it's been pretty sporadic. It's killing him to be away from us. Mom, this is just as hard on him as it is on me," she says with a bitter little laugh.
"What's so funny?"
"I'm just thinking back. When I was a kid, I watched you and the other women on the base. I saw you all struggle to be both mother and father, to handle the home repairs and keep up everyone's spirits. That wasn't going to be my life. I was going to be the one that went off and did things. I vowed that when I grew up, I would never be a Navy wife."
William stirs in his crib, making little mewling sounds. Dana lowers her voice so as not to wake him. "But that's exactly what I've become. Mulder's out there, somewhere. I don't know where he is or if he's safe. My heart stops every time the phone rings. Here I am, unable to do anything but worry and hold down the fort. Ironic, huh?"
"I guess it is," I say, sliding back next to Dana, my back to the headboard. "May I offer you some advice, from an old Navy wife?"
Dana nods, her eyes brimming with tears.
"When I was a little girl, my father was away in the Pacific during World War Two. My mother took care of my sisters and I and babysat the children of women who worked in the factories. But every Friday night, no matter how tired she was, no matter how tight the budget was, we went to the movies. She said she could get through the whole dreary week, if she could have those two hours of magic on a Friday night."
"Mom, I don't think a movie night is going to do the trick for me," Dana says, her voice rough with emotion.
"Well, movies may have been better in those days," I say, stroking her hair. "Honey, you need to take care of yourself. Fox needs you to be strong. William needs you and you need yourself. Working half to death, not eating, not sleeping...what happens if you become run down and get sick? I know it isn't easy being left behind, but the best thing you can do is be good to yourself and let others help you."
The tears slip past her lashes to slide down her cheeks, and Dana brushes them away. She leans into my arms.
"Thanks, Mom," she says against my shoulder. "Um...Do you think you could make me that sandwich?"
15827 Amanecer Circle, San Diego, CA
"Run, run as fast as you can," I sing as I guide Matthew's hand on the cookie cutter.
"You can't catch me, I'm the Gingerbread Man." Matthew finishes, his voice full of two-days-before Christmas excitement, amplified by too many cookies before lunch. Lifting the tan-colored dough body off the table, I deposit him onto the cookie sheet.
The kitchen is spice-scented, warm and snug. I enjoy the giggly child at my side and the sight of my daughter, her cheeks pink with the heat of the oven. Dana slides a pan of toasty brown little men out of the oven, pausing briefly to inhale their aroma.
We've spent the morning busy with holiday baking, holly jolly music drifting from the stereo in the next room. Dana seems lighter this morning, more present among us. Only occasionally do I catch her gazing out the kitchen window, a flicker of sadness crossing her features.
A series of thumps and the rattle of the kitchen doorknob signal Bill's return from the market. He elbows his way through the kitchen door, a grocery bag in each arm.
"I got the two pounds of walnuts you asked for, and the eggnog, but I couldn't find any nutmeg."
"Bill, how could they be out of nutmeg?" Tara asks, her voice rather shrill. "You bought whole walnuts, honey. I wrote down shelled nuts."
"So, shell the nuts for Pete's sake. What's the big deal?" Bill asks, annoyance creeping into his voice.
"It'll be fine, dear. Tara, I'll get started on these, if you can find me a nutcracker," I say, trying to smooth things over. No point in falling apart over silly things like nutmeg.
William wakes from his nap in the living room, drawing Dana to his side with his cries. The squall stills in an instant, and I picture Dana putting the baby to breast. If only all life's problems could be solved as easily.
I put the last batch of cookies into the oven while Dana nurses William. The walnuts will have to wait until later after all, if we are to have lunch and get to the mall this afternoon.
Tara fixes a simple meal of grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup. The five of us sit at the kitchen table, the smell of the soup competing with the scent of gingerbread. William on her lap, Dana eats her sandwich with one hand.
"'Mato soup is my favorite, Gramma." Matthew says, a red drip clinging to his chin.
"I can tell. Eat your sandwich, Honey." He's lost interest in the grilled cheese after two bites. I'm not surprised, after the cookies Tara let him eat this morning.
Bill and I clean the kitchen while Dana and Tara get the boys ready for the mall. Matthew and William have new holiday outfits to wear for a special Christmas photograph together, a special gift for me.
The mall is the madhouse one would expect so close to Christmas. Holiday music plays in the background, and shoppers rush all around us. Dana seems very nervous, her eyes darting around the crowd, William clutched in her arms. Bill offers to carry him, but Dana insists on keeping her arms around her child.
"Dana, your back is going to kill you later. Why the heck didn't you use the stroller?" Exasperation is clear in Bill's voice.
"It's too crowded in here, Bill. I don't mind carrying him, really," she says, shifting William's position in her arms.
The photographers are earning their money today, the studio crawling with small children. We have to wait forty-five minutes, during which Matthew squabbles with another child over a toy truck, and William falls asleep. Both children have flushed faces in the overheated studio. Finally, it is our turn.
Our photographer, an animated young woman, has her hands full trying to get a fidgety Matthew to sit still. William is cranky after being awakened from his unplanned nap. Many toys are waved in the air, and many silly noises made before both children are calm and smiling at the same time. By the time we get back to the house, adults and children need a little down time. We retreat, like boxers, to our separate corners, coming together again for supper. Unfortunately, the air of tension continues through the meal.
Bill seems strangely jittery at dinner, dropping his fork and nearly knocking over his water. He's been exceptionally patient in his dealings with Dana, and I wonder if keeping his opinions to himself is a strain for him. He barely finishes his meal, sneaking repeated glances at the clock on the wall.
Matthew eyes are drowsy as he picks at his dinner. He wavers in his chair before falling face forward onto his plate. Bill chuckles, picking his limp child up. "Just like Charlie, huh?"
"Charlie fell asleep in his dinner plate at least once a week when he was Matthew's age," I explain to a puzzled Tara. Bill carries his sleeping son out of the kitchen.
"Ah, so that's where it comes from," she says as she clears Matthew's plate from the table.
"Bill used to count down while Charlie swayed in his chair, trying to hit blastoff just as Charlie's face hit the plate," Dana says. "It was funny, in a kind of mean way."
Half an hour later, Bill returns to the kitchen.
"Well, I got him washed up and into his pajamas. I think he's down for the count tonight. Day, I checked on the baby, and he's still asleep." Bill leans over and kisses Tara on the cheek. "Hey, babe, I'm going to the store. I want to get a couple more strings of Christmas lights for the porch."
"Bill, you've got to be crazy. We have more than enough lights out there now. Besides which, tomorrow's Christmas Eve. I doubt there is a light set to be found in the stores."
"Well, then I'll drive around until I find a store that has them." Bill has his coat on, and is out the door before Tara has a chance to respond. Puzzled, I look at Dana, who shrugs in confusion.
Tara's eyes remain on her plate for long seconds, and I wonder for a moment if she is fighting back tears.
"Mom, why don't we clear the table?" Dana asks. I pop up to help her, as she begins to scrape plates and stack them. Tara rises with a sigh and starts to cover the leftovers. We don't speak while we work.
Two hours later, Tara and I sit at the kitchen table over mugs of tea. "Honey, I'm sure he's okay," I say as I cover her hand with mine. "I think he just needed a little time away from all this togetherness."
"He's just never acted like this before. He insisted that you and Dana had to come out this year. Not that I wasn't happy to have you visit, of course, but he was so emphatic." With a glance at the next room, Tara lowers her voice. "I knew he was worried about her, after...well, after Mulder left."
Music drifts in from the living room, "I'll Be Home For Christmas," always such a sad song, so damn ironic tonight. I'm pretty sure Dana can't hear our conversation as she wraps presents in the living room.
The sound of the garage door opener grinds through the kitchen, and both of us sit up a bit straighter in our seats, listening hard. A car door slams, followed by perhaps the trunk. I wonder if Bill found his Christmas lights.
The kitchen door opens, and Bill enters, his hands empty. He rubs his palms along his thighs.
"Where's Dana?" he asks, eyes searching the room.
"She's wrapping presents in the living room," Tara says. "What's going on, Bill?"
"Just get her. Okay, Honey?"
Tara backs her way to the living room door, puzzlement showing on her face. "Dana, can you come in here?"
Under the sound of the music, we listen to the rustle of wrapping paper. A moment later, Dana enters the kitchen, a question in her eyes. Bill steps further into the room, opening the door wider behind him.
Fox Mulder steps into the kitchen, and time stops. No one moves, no one speaks. As if made of stone, Dana stands with one hand covering her mouth. She makes the tiniest of sounds at the back of her throat.
Fox is thinner than when I saw him last, deeply tanned as if he's been working in the sun a lot. His hair is mussed and his clothes are a little bit rumpled. It's the look in his eyes that breaks my heart. It is the look of a starving child.
The only sound is the music playing in the living room: *I'll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.* I watch my daughter tremble, her eyes swimming with tears.
In an instant, Dana breaks out of her frozen state flying across the room and into Fox's arms. Her arms are around his neck, her feet inches off the floor as he clutches her to him. Dana's face is buried in the curve of his neck, and I can hear muffled sobbing. Fox's eyes are squeezed shut, his face turned into her hair.
For just a moment, we all stare, as if our eyes had never seen anything so sad or beautiful. Tara recovers first, touching Bill gently on the arm. I follow Bill and Tara into the living room.
"Bill, I don't understand," I say, as I watch my son run a shaky hand through his hair.
"I couldn't say no. He called and said he needed to see them, and I couldn't say no. I picked him up in Tijuana and drove him here in the trunk of the car. I still don't know if I did the right thing."
"So what made you do it?" I ask, reaching up to cup his cheek.
"I kept thinking that a guy should be there for his kid's first Christmas. No matter how I tried to tell myself not to get involved, I just couldn't get past that."
I've always been proud of my son. I felt pride when he took first place in the county-wide spelling bee and I was proud when he joined the Navy like his father and prouder even when he got his first command. But all that pales next to my what I feel for my son right now.
Later that night, I lay awake in Matthew's room, on the cot that we moved here to give Fox and Dana some time alone. I listen to my grandson move restlessly in his sleep and to the voices in the next room.
I can make out Dana's soft voice, not the words she says, but the sound of happiness. Fox's melodious drone answers her, warm and hypnotic. They talk late into the night until finally they fall quiet, and only the occasional moan drifts through the wall.
Too soon, Fox's brief liberty will be over and he will leave, smuggled out of the house in the trunk of Bill's car. Too soon, Dana will feel the pain of another goodbye and the knowledge that she may never again see the man she loves. I know this all too well.
But I know something else. Dana will find the core of strength that she needs to wait for the man she loves. After all, she comes from a long line of Navy wives.
End Note: This story wouldn't have been possible without the beta talents of Tippi and Dawn.