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Rags by J Selby
by Jill Selby ()
Cover art: Kris – Imaginarium
Disclaimer: Characters from the X-Files are the property of Ten Thirteen Productions and the Fox Television Network. All others are the author’s creation. Any similarity to any person, living or dead, is purely coincidental. No infringement is intended.
Summary: Skepticism is put to the ultimate test when Mulder and Scully investigate some bizarre and seemingly unrelated events in a small town.
**Feedback will be sincerely appreciated.**
“Give her back!”
“Give her back right now!”
“Why? What’s so special about her? She’s not very pretty. She’s garbage, Chloë. I’m going to throw her in with the garbage.”
Brian Witherspoon lifted his small hostage up and out of reach and began to back out of the room.
“No — Please! Let me have her!”
Chloë Witherspoon made a leaping grab for her doll, but her older brother used his height advantage to hold the prize well beyond her grasp. Ignoring the futility of her efforts, she jumped again and again until she finally stumbled and fell. Fat tears rolled from her eyes as she began to cry.
“Oh, did Chloë fall down? You’re such a little baby. Here, take your stupid doll.” Brian flung the toy at his sister, not caring in the least that his rough handling had torn the fragile lace on the doll’s dress.
Chloë clutched the damaged doll to her body and smoothed out its yarn hair. When she looked back at her brother, anger shone through the tears in her eyes. “I hate you Brian. I’m going to tell Mom.”
“Go ahead and tell her. I’ll just tell her you’re lying and she’ll believe me because I’m her only real child.”
“She said I’m her real child, too.”
“Oh, c’mon Chloë, you know your Dad made her say that. Mom doesn’t love you. She only loves me. She told me so. And she thinks your doll is ugly. Everybody thinks so, Chloë.”
She could barely speak through her sobs. “She’s not ugly she’s pretty. She has brown hair and blue eyes so she looks like me.
Brian leaned closer and narrowed his eyes in feigned study of his sister’s face, then tilted his head and gave the doll the same meticulous scrutiny. He stepped back and nodded. “Yep, you’re right. This dumb old doll looks just like you. You’re both butt ugly!”
“Go away, Brian. Leave me alone. I’m not ugly and Ruthie Sue isn’t ugly. You’re ugly and I hate you, Brian! I hate you! I wish you’d never been born!”
Chloë trembled with rage and frustration as she turned her attention back to the doll in her hands, fiddling with the ruined lace and straightening the wrinkled dress. She knew her stepbrother was still standing in the doorway to her room but she ignored him.
Until his screams of pain and terror sliced through the silence.
“Okay, Mulder, what’s the joke?”
“You call me at six o’clock on a Sunday morning to come down here and do an autopsy, only when I get here there’s the noticeable absence of a body. So I’m just waiting around here for the punchline.”
Though Fox Mulder knew his partner well, he wasn’t quite sure if the annoyance that was evident on her face was teasing or genuine. It was better, he supposed, to err on the side of caution and treat her carefully until he got a clearer sense of her mood. “I’m sorry, Scully. It’s not a joke. I was told they were leaving the remains in the cooler.”
“What was the name again?”
“Witherspoon. Brian Witherspoon. Eleven years old.”
Dana Scully moved back to the drawers where the bodies were stored and perused the name cards again but still found no match.
She turned around to find Mulder rifling through the lab refrigerator.
“If you’re looking for liquid refreshment in there, I have to warn you that while you may find some natural substances, it’s not exactly spring water.”
“Ah, here he is.”
“Here who is?”
“Brian Witherspoon.” Mulder held up a small glass vial that was half full of a pink viscous material. He tipped the vial sideways and watched in morbid fascination as the goo oozed toward the top.
“What is that?” Scully asked as she moved in for a closer look.
“I think it’s Brian Witherspoon.”
“This?” She took the vial from his hand and held it up to the light. “You think this … this substance, is the body of an eleven-year-old boy?”
“Well, that’s what I think. I’ll leave the final determination up to you, Dr. Scully.”
“Okay then. In my medical opinion, this is not a dead body. So glad to be able to put all that education to good use.”
“Can you analyze it anyway, just to see what you come up with?
I’m going back to the office to do some research.” Mulder moved toward the doors, hoping that if he beat a hasty retreat, she wouldn’t have time to object to his request.
Scully found herself addressing her partner’s back. “Since I’m here anyway, might as well. Do you have any information on cause of death?”
The door was swinging shut as Mulder’s reply drifted in from the hall. “He melted.”
It took them three trips down the four-block-long Main Street to locate the police station, and even then, Mulder wasn’t sure how Scully had spotted it. A small, faded sign in the window of the Salzburg Barber Shop indicated that the police station shared the same building. As it turned out, they shared the same employee.
Chief of Police Stanley Battles, long-time Salzburg, Vermont civil servant, was also the town barber.
As the agents entered the building, Battles was trying to subdue a cunning five-year-old fugitive who had escaped during an attempted buzz cut. The boy, making a blind dash for freedom, barreled into Mulder’s legs and couldn’t recover from the collision in time to avoid capture. Battles returned the wiggly child to the barber’s chair and stilled him with a stern look and a promise of candy.
“Sorry about that, folks. Jake’s a bit of a fidget. Never has been in here that he hasn’t made at least one break for it. The name’s Stan Battles.” He reached out a hand to shake with the agents but maintained a firm hold on Jake’s shoulder with the other. Battles was a grandfatherly looking man with silver hair, bushy eyebrows, and a well-trimmed mustache. His clothing was a none-too-chic ensemble of barber smock over a tan police uniform.
That his shirt buttons remained anchored, despite the fact that the garment was stretched taut across considerable girth, was a testament to the strength of the thread with which they’d been sewn. “What can I do for you?”
The strangeness of their reception had left Mulder uncharacteristically mute, so Scully took over the introductions.
“I’m Special Agent Scully.” She nodded toward her partner. “This is Agent Mulder. We were called in to investigate the Brian Witherspoon case.”
“Already? I didn’t expect you so soon. I have a buddy over in Burlington who said this was something you’d be interested in.
Mighty strange, this thing. Mighty strange.” Battles finished up with Jake and whisked away the cut hair from boy’s neck and shoulders before reaching into a nearby drawer for the candy reward. He lifted the child out of the chair and sent him towards the door with a gentle pat on the bottom.
Mulder once again stepped into the boy’s path. “Excuse me, but where are this boy’s parents? You don’t just send him out without supervision do you?”
“Of course I do. This isn’t the big city, Mr. Mulder. Everybody knows everybody in our little burg. Besides, Jake’s mom runs the restaurant right next door. Don’t you worry. He’ll be just fine.”
Mulder’s protest continued, even after Jake had slipped past him and out the door. “But with the death of —”
“I’ll be honest, I was reluctant to call you people in on this for that very reason. I don’t want the townspeople to get all worked up over this thing.”
“But a boy disintegrated in your town. Surely you’re concerned.”
Battles grabbed a broom and began sweeping up the clumps of hair on the floor with a nonchalance that seemed contradictory to his next words. “Absolutely I’m concerned. Anyone with an ounce of sense would be concerned, but what good will it do to start a panic? I have to admit I have some doubts about the story anyway. The only witnesses were the boy’s mother and his stepsister. Now the sister is just six years old and has always been a bit of a dreamer, and the mother, she’s a nice lady but she hasn’t really been the same since her first husband passed.
I’m thinking maybe the boy ran away and the witnesses are just a little confused.”
Mulder turned to his partner. “Gee, Scully, did you call ahead?”
Despite her findings in the analysis of the remains, or alleged remains, of Brian Witherspoon, she had proposed a theory that had run strikingly parallel.
“I just suggested that as a possibility. Can I help it if other people also have logical thought processes?” she whispered.
Mulder quietly resumed the debate he had started hours earlier with his partner. “That still doesn’t explain the contents of the vial.”
“Maybe not, but until I can get a genetic sample and run a DNA comparison, there’s absolutely no basis …”
The partners found themselves suddenly nudged apart by a broom at their feet. Battles insinuated himself between them, his plump belly forcing them back yet another step. He took on the same low tone the agents had been using. “I think we’re supposed to be working together on this. So what are you whispering about?”
Mulder seemed shocked, then annoyed at the intrusion. For her part, Scully found the man’s curiosity endearing. This mystery was undoubtedly the biggest thing this one-man police department had ever encountered. Perhaps Mulder was so used to the disdain of local law enforcement that he had come to expect nothing else.
Whatever the reason, he didn’t seem as charmed as she by the stout little man, or the quaintness of conducting an investigation from a barber shop.
As Mulder opened his mouth to make what would likely be an acidic and rapport-damaging retort, Scully intervened. “Actually we were discussing the sample you collected from the crime scene.
I’d like to ask you a few questions about it, if you don’t mind.”
“I’d be happy to tell you what I can. Why don’t we go back to my office?”
Scully and her reluctant partner followed behind the police chief to an office in the rear of the shop. The cluttered and cramped quarters in the “police station” portion of the building were not dissimilar to the agents’ own office in the basement of the Hoover Building, except instead of UFO posters and grisly crime photos, cheery crayon drawings and pictures of grandchildren decorated the walls.
The only natural light in the room was filtered through red gingham curtains that hung over a small window in the holding cell. This tiny prison, with its soft bed, handmade quilt, and screened off toilet area, looked at least as comfortable as the hotel rooms where the agents were staying.
His chair creaked under the burden when Battles sat down behind the desk. Scully seated herself in the metal folding chair on the opposite side and waited for Battles to find whatever it was he was searching for through the piles of paper that littered the desk surface. Mulder remained standing and was looking around the room as if he was expecting Munchkins to march in and welcome him to Oz. He looked distinctly uncomfortable, and yet only recently he had commented that he’d like to settle in a tiny town like this one. His behavior now only confirmed Scully’s earlier suspicion that he would quickly grow impatient with the slower pace and lack of amenities. He had already groused about the absence of fast food restaurants, and they’d been in town less than an hour.
“Here it is.” Battles pulled open a ragged case file folder that had obviously been reused many times over the years. “Now, what did you want to know about the sample?”
“I was just wondering where the rest of the material was. We were just sent one small vial.”
“Well, Agent Scully, that’s pretty much all there was. Now some of it may have seeped down into the carpet, but I put everything I could scrape up right into the vial.”
Mulder was suddenly keenly interested in the conversation.
“According to the witness statements you took, Brian Witherspoon essentially dissolved in a matter of minutes.”
“How long was it before you arrived on the scene to take the sample?”
“I was there less than five minutes after I got the call. The Witherspoons just live a couple of blocks from the business district here. It was probably half an hour after that when I collected the remains, or whatever that stuff is.”
“So there wasn’t time for evaporation?” Mulder asked.
“If you mean that there should have been more stuff left after a 100 pound boy dissolved, then I’d agree, but there wasn’t and there wasn’t time for anything to evaporate. But let me say again, I just don’t believe that story.”
“We’d like to talk to the witnesses.”
“Well, Mr. Mulder, the family’s pretty upset. They’re still trying to figure out whether they should hold a funeral or not.
I wish we could hold off on that.”
“I’m afraid that’s not possible,” Scully interjected before Mulder had the chance. “Agent Mulder and I will be considerate of their grief in our questioning, but it’s important that we interview them as soon as possible. If the boy ran away then he needs to be found sooner rather than later. And if, as your witnesses state, he’s dead, we may be dealing with a potential public health risk and should act accordingly.”
“Okay then.” Battles lifted himself out of his chair and shuffled back toward the front of the building. “I’ll go close up the shop and we’ll be on our way.”
Mulder came up behind Scully and tilted her chair back so that her feet and the front legs of the chair were raised up off the ground.
“Bet it gets lonely sitting up there on that fence all by yourself, Scully.”
“I’m reserving judgment until I have more information.”
“You said yourself that the material in the vial was made up of human cells.”
“I said they appeared to be human, but it will be Wednesday before the full analysis comes back, and even then it will have to be proven that the cells belong to Brian Witherspoon, and that the stuff Battles collected is the sum of the remains of this child and not just some sort of waste product. So if you’re trying to talk me over to your side of the fence, you’re going to have to try harder.”
Scully rocked forward to free herself from the chair but Mulder yanked her back and kept her captive. He leaned down close to her, giving her an unintentional view up his nose and thereby negating the effect of his seductive tone. “I bet there’s something I could offer that you would find tempting.”
“Said the spider to the fly.”
“There’s an intriguing medical mystery on my side of the fence.
You play your cards right and they might name a disease after you.”
“Ooh, Mulder, stop or you’ll make me swoon.” Scully twisted around in the chair and was able to get her feet on the ground and stand. “Let’s go. Maybe it’ll be easier to choose sides after we talk to the family.”
Jake was anxious to get home to show his father his new haircut.
Everyone at the restaurant had told him how much older it made him look. And so he had begged and pleaded and whined until his mother finally relented and let him walk home by himself. He had made a solemn promise that he wouldn’t take the shortcut and that he wouldn’t make any stops along the way.
Part one of that promise had been abandoned as soon as he was out of his mother’s sight. The shortcut would take him right through the Henderson’s yard and he could spend a minute playing with their new puppy and still be home before his father got worried.
On the way he saw the Henderson’s neighbor, Mrs. Ragsdale, sitting outside in an old weathered porch swing. Today, as usual, she was sewing. He thought it was funny that she was always sewing and yet her clothes looked all worn out and raggedy. He figured that was how she got the nickname “Rags.”
Maybe someone should tell her to sew herself a new dress.
Jake had heard lots of stories about her from his friends.
They said she didn’t like anybody.
They said she ate cat food.
They even said she was a witch.
But he didn’t believe those tales. She had always been friendly to him, smiling and waving whenever he passed through her backyard.
Today though, she spoke to him for the very first time. Asked him to come inside her house because she had a surprise for him.
He didn’t think any of his friends had ever been invited into Rags’ house.
It was an irresistible invitation.
Battles was gone. The police chief/barber had left for his shop fifteen minutes ago after having “suddenly remembered” an appointment. Now Mulder saw his opportunity for escape and took it without a second thought for his partner who was, at the moment, trying to calm the hysterical Hilary Witherspoon. He would deal with Scully’s wrath later, when she would make the oh-so-rational argument that as a psychologist, he was better equipped to handle grieving family members. But for now she was trapped in the clinging embrace of a sobbing witness and could do nothing more than glare at him as he slipped away.
He made his way down the hall, studying the architecture and appreciating the finely carved woodwork of the grand old house as he went. Every detail of the structure had been lovingly maintained over the years and Mulder found himself wrapped in a sense of history, wondering if the spirits of past inhabitants still resided within these hundred-year-old walls. The modern yellow crime scene tape barring the entrance of one of the bedrooms looked shockingly out of place in such a setting.
As he neared the doorway he noticed a small ring, maybe three inches in diameter, drawn with white tape on the floor — the outline of the “body.” He kneeled to study the area but was able to see only a slight discoloration on the beige carpet. When he looked up to examine the room, he was mildly startled to find himself staring directly into the button eyes of a cloth doll.
Raising his gaze further, he discovered that he was face-to-face with the doll’s owner, Chloë Witherspoon.
“Chloë was jealous of Brian.” Hilary Witherspoon reached for a tissue and blew her nose before continuing. “He always tried so hard. You should have seen how sweet he was with her. But she would make up all these wild stories about how he teased her and called her names. I knew it wasn’t true, of course. I could see how Brian doted on Chloë. If I’d had any idea how unhappy Chloë would be about my husband adopting Brian, I wouldn’t have gone through with it. It’s just that Brian’s father had died several years ago and —”
“What happened to your first husband, Mrs. Witherspoon?” Dana Scully was supremely relieved that this woman had pulled herself together enough to respond to her questions, although so far she had only learned some sketchy family history and that Brian Witherspoon was as saintly a young man as had ever lived.
“Jim was killed in a car accident. I met Kirby about a year later and he was so good with my son. We thought it best that he adopt Brian and become his father in every sense. Chloë’s mother lives in California now.” Hilary said the word “mother”
as if it left a vile taste in her mouth. “She sends Chloë money for her birthday and Christmas and that’s about it. But she’s still her mother and my stepdaughter loves her, although God only knows why, so my adopting Chloë wasn’t an option. At any rate, I don’t think Chloë ever accepted Kirby’s adoption of Brian.”
“Are you suggesting that Chloë had something to do with what happened to Brian?”
Hilary looked genuinely surprised that she might have implied such a thing. “No. Oh, no. I mean, she said it was her fault, but it couldn’t be.”
“Why does she think it’s her fault?”
“I don’t know. She says she’s to blame, but she won’t say anything else, at least not to me. I don’t think she’s talked to my husband either, but you can ask him when he gets home. I told you, didn’t I, that he’s meeting with our priest to decide how we should handle the services?”
Scully nodded. In fact Hilary had told her three times now, but at least this time the explanation wasn’t accompanied with an apology for his absence and the disclaimer of “We had no idea you’d be coming …”.
“Mrs. Witherspoon, I know this is difficult to discuss, but I need you to tell me what happened to Brian.”
With hands clutched tightly together and head bowed, Mrs.
Witherspoon pulled in a deep breath and began to speak. “Okay.
Um, I was in the kitchen and I heard Brian scream. It was awful, like he was in terrible pain.” She took the tissue that Scully offered to dab at her fresh tears. “By the time I found him, he was … he was … oh, God, my precious baby …”
The agent was once again caught up in a desperate hug and could only sit and watch as her chances of getting any useful information out of this interview crumbled right along with Hilary’s composure.
Mulder prayed that his partner didn’t come looking for him just yet, because he didn’t want her carrying around a mental snapshot of him balanced precariously on a tiny chair, sipping imaginary tea from an invisible cup.
A small china tea service graced the table. One of its two cups was set in front of his hostess. The other was placed before Ruthie Sue, the doll to whom he had been formally introduced, and who evidently ranked above him in order of importance at this little soiree. But Agent Fox Mulder had never been one to put personal pride over his search for answers, even if it meant interloping on a make-believe tea party.
“Why are you doing that with your pinky?” Chloë asked. She had grudgingly allowed him to participate when he had taken a seat at her table, but had only spoken to him in terse sentences since they began. Evidently the old “Mulder charm” only worked with post-pubescent girls.
Mulder looked at his hand and realized that, even had he been gripping a real teacup, he really wasn’t the pinky-extending type.
He set the “cup” down and leaned forward to rest his elbows on the table. “There. Is this better?”
Chloë didn’t answer. She went on with her party, occasionally refilling Ruthie Sue’s cup and lifting it to the doll’s stitched mouth, all the while ignoring Mulder.
Finally she set the china teapot down on the table. Hard.
Mulder thought it was amazing it hadn’t broken. She looked up at him with an odd expression on her face: sort of a mixture of anger and fear.
“Are you going to take me to jail?”
“What?” Even for an accomplished logic-leaper like Mulder, this was a jarring transition from the tea party.
“For killing my brother. Are you going to take me to jail?”
“Did you kill your brother?”
“I guess so. But I didn’t mean to.”
“Can you tell me what happened?”
“I made a wish. I made a wish — and it came true.”
Scully had finally extracted herself from Hilary. She was in the kitchen getting the distraught woman a glass of water when Battles barged into the house and bellowed out her name.
She ran to the foyer and found the Chief of Police leaning heavily against the wall, sweating and panting. For a moment she feared he was having a heart attack but realized it was just fatigue from having run the two blocks from his office.
“What’s the matter?”
“Do you have some medical training?”
“I’m a doctor. Why?”
“Thank God. It’s Elaine down at the restaurant.” Battles paused for a moment to suck in another breath. “She’s gone into labor.
You have to come and help her.”
“Don’t worry, Chief Battles, if her labor just started, it’ll be hours before she delivers. You should have plenty of time to get her to her regular doctor.”
“No. Nearest doctor’s twenty miles away and he’s gone on vacation this week. Come on. We have to hurry. I don’t think there’s much time.”
Scully still resisted. Small town or not, they weren’t exactly in the middle of nowhere. She felt certain that plans were in place for such contingencies. “Surely she’s made some arrangements.
Who’s her obstetrician?”
“She doesn’t have one.”
“Okay, her general practitioner then. Who has been handling her prenatal care?”
“No one. That’s just it, Agent Scully. She hasn’t been to a doctor, because up until about ten minutes ago, she wasn’t pregnant.”
“You’ve seen contortionist mutants, insect-eating geeks, and a highly evolved flukeworm. Trust me, Mulder, you can do this.”
“You’re not getting out of it. Remember yesterday morning when you called me before sunrise and asked me to come in to autopsy what turned out to be the contents of a test tube? I believe your words at the time were ‘Thanks Scully. I owe you one.’ Well, it’s time to pay up.”
Mulder raised his hands in surrender. “Okay, okay. What do you need?”
“Get my medical bag out of the car and grab a lab coat out of my suitcase. You might want to borrow a smock from Battles.”
“Why?” Mulder asked warily.
“I wouldn’t want you to get anything on your clothes.” As soon as the words left her mouth, Scully realized she should have kept quiet now and paid for his dry cleaning later. She had been trying to coax her partner into the restaurant to assist her in delivering Elaine Closkey’s baby, but upon first glimpse of the very pregnant woman writhing in pain on a makeshift bed of blanket-covered tables, he had practically grown roots and would not budge from the welcome mat.
“What will I be getting on my clothes?”
Her reply was interrupted by a screamed obscenity from Elaine.
Battles had been right. This baby wasn’t going to wait for another doctor to arrive. Scully moved back to her patient, confident that Mulder would carry out her requests, no matter how reluctant he might be.
For long seconds there was absolute silence in the room, save for Elaine Closkey’s panting breaths.
Battles was holding the concerned townspeople at bay outside the restaurant. Given the abnormal circumstances, he likely shared Mulder’s concern that this woman might be giving birth to something, well, abnormal. No discussion had been required; the police chief had just taken control of the crowd and herded them out the door, leaving the agents alone to provide care for Elaine.
Mulder had spent the last 45 minutes fetching supplies, following instructions, and cheerleading the frightened young woman through the final minutes of labor and delivery. His hand still tingled from her crushing grip. Yet his contribution had been nothing compared to his partner’s.
She amazed him.
As with everything she did, Dana Scully had approached this situation with a clear head and a calm demeanor. She had been steady in her reassurances to both Elaine and to him in his role as impromptu nurse. No one would ever have suspected that obstetrics wasn’t her specialty.
He was unable see Scully’s face from his vantage point near Elaine’s head. What was she seeing? He knew she wouldn’t gasp or shriek, no matter how horrible the sight. Not in the presence of this exhausted and bewildered woman. She was leaning down, working on something, and then he heard the sound.
A shrill wail. An infant’s cry.
When his partner looked up, he saw the relief flash across her features before being replaced with a confident smile.
“Congratulations, Elaine. It’s a girl.”
The ambulance attendant lifted Jake Closkey up to sit on the edge of gurney next to his mother.
“Are you sick Mommy?”
Elaine looked at her son. He was dressed in a soiled softball uniform, his too-large cap falling over his eyebrows, but she could see his eyes. They were huge with worry.
“I’m fine, sweetie.”
“They came to the game to get me and Daddy. They said you were having a baby. Did you have a baby, Mommy?”
“Yes. Yes, I did. Where’s Daddy?”
“I’m here.” Wade Closkey was standing several feet away. Even after all these years of marriage, Elaine couldn’t read his expression. “What’s going on, Elaine?”
“I don’t know. I can’t even begin to explain “Well, I’d like an explanation. The doctor said we couldn’t have any more … said I couldn’t … so explain to me how you suddenly became pregnant.”
An EMT finished his examination of the baby and handed the wriggling infant to Elaine. She drew the child up into the safety of her arms and met her husband’s emotionless gaze with tear-filled eyes. “Wade, I swear to you, I have no idea how this happened.
Please! You have to believe me!”
Jake lowered his head and started to sniffle. “Daddy, don’t be mad at Mommy. It wasn’t her fault. I thought you’d be happy.”
“What are you talking about, Jake?”
Jake flinched at his father’s harsh tone, but continued. “I heard you say that you wished you and Mommy could have another baby. So that’s what I asked for. I’m sorry, Daddy.”
Wade pulled his son down off the gurney as they wheeled Elaine and the baby to the ambulance. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, son, but you’re being foolish. Now let’s go home and get cleaned up and then we’ll go visit your Mommy at the hospital.” At Jake’s uncertain look, Wade softened his tone and laid a gentle hand on the boy’s head. “It’ll be okay, Jake. Everything will be fine.”
“What are you going to name her, Daddy?”
“Now, how do you know it’s a girl? Nobody told us.”
“‘Cause that’s what I wanted. I wished for a baby sister.”
“Did you hear that, Scully?”
“What Jake just said to his father. About wishing for a baby sister.”
Scully continued repacking her medical bag, clearly not as intrigued by Jake’s comment as Mulder had been. “So? Kids make those kinds of wishes all the time.” When her partner didn’t continue speaking, she got an eerie sense that he had latched onto a new and wildly implausible theory about the case. The gleam of anticipation she saw in his eyes was confirmation.
“Don’t even say it.”
“What if these kids’ wishes are coming true?”
“Listen to what you’re suggesting, Mulder. Babies aren’t created from wishes. Do I need to go over the ‘birds and bees’ lecture with you?”
He leaned into her personal space. “Okay, but I’m more of a hands-on learner.”
Scully ignored the bait and resumed organizing her supplies without so much as a raised eyebrow in response. “There are documented cases of women going into labor who up until that moment had no clue they were pregnant.”
“I’ve heard of those cases too, but weren’t those women obese? You saw Elaine. She wasn’t much bigger than you. You think you could be nine months pregnant and not know it? That other people wouldn’t notice?”
“Look, I won’t try to explain what happened here until I have some additional facts, but I’m not going to submit an article to an obstetrics journal suggesting conception by wishing upon a star, or whatever the hell it was.” She snapped her bag shut and pulled off her lab coat. “I don’t know about you, but I would really like some dinner, and since the one and only restaurant in this town is closed for maternity leave, I’m going to the grocery store for some bread and lunch meat.” She was almost to the door before she realized he wasn’t following. She kept her back to him as she spoke. “Aren’t you coming?”
“Will you listen to what I have to say?”
She sighed and turned, letting her body sag against the door frame. “I always listen, Mulder. Really, I do. But I won’t disregard my search for rational explanations in order to cling to your bizarre theories, no matter how many times you’ve proven to be right. That’s just not who I am.”
“Hey, that’s all right. You don’t have to apologize.”
Mulder moved to her side and opened the door, guiding her gently outside into the warm June evening. “How about I buy the sandwiches — I’ll even throw in some milk and cookies — and then I will regale you with my latest bizarre notion.”
“What kind of cookies?”
“What kind would be most apt to soften your resistance?”
“Chocolate chip. Definitely.”
As they walked, a movement in the shadows caught Mulder’s eye.
There she was again. The blonde. He had seen her several times today — standing outside the barbershop, lingering on the sidewalk a couple of houses down from the Witherspoons’, and now listening in on their conversation from an alleyway. If she was trying for stealth, she was failing pitifully.
For tonight though, he chose to ignore her presence. He had already eliminated her as any sort of threat, although not as a source of information. In fact, if there was any validity to his theory, someone like her could be invaluable.
He looked back, expecting another glimpse of shiny blonde hair, but she was gone. He wasn’t worried. He knew her type. She’d be back tomorrow.
The morning sun found its way through a gap in the drapes and hit Fox Mulder squarely in the eye. He groaned and turned over to look at the clock just as the digits rolled over to 6:30 and the alarm’s dissonant buzz shredded the silence. Somehow an alarm always seemed more unsettling if he was awake when it went off. He gave the clock a forceful smack as punishment.
He had been up late with his partner, batting theories around, refuting, defending, debating. And in the end they weren’t any closer to solving the case than when they’d started, although he was now certain that chocolate chips had no effect on his partner’s skepticism.
He couldn’t say he blamed her really. His arguments were pretty weak, based on confessions of very young children in very emotional situations. And Scully had been right to point out that nearly every child who has ever had a sibling has wanted at some point to be an only child. She had told him of a wrecked science project and the subsequent revenge wrought on her older brother. And he knew that even though he had spent his entire adult life in constant hope of finding his sister, there had been times in his childhood when, in anger, he had said some regrettable things to her.
So Chloë Witherspoon’s wish was not unique, or even uncommon. Nor was Jake’s wish for a baby sister. On this, he and Scully were in complete agreement.
Things got stickier from there, with him insisting that somehow these children had found a way to make their wishes come true, and her insisting that the wishes were coincidental to the dramatic events that unfolded around them.
Shortly after midnight she had retreated to her room after agreeing that their next course of action should be to interview the Closkey family. Scully, he knew, was hoping that the discussion would yield a reasonable explanation for these events. She would probably be surprised to find out that he was hoping for the very same thing.
Because if he was right — if these children had somehow found a way to make wishes come true — that could be a very dangerous thing.
The Closkey house was modest in comparison to the Witherspoons’
elegant home. Still, the small Cape Cod style home was freshly painted and the flower beds that lined the front walk had been lovingly maintained. With its white picket fence, it was the epitome of the “happily ever after” cottage: that legendary dwelling place of marital bliss.
And in a way it was.
Once the initial shock had worn off, Wade Closkey had accepted the miraculous birth of his new daughter without further question.
When Scully had phoned him to arrange an interview, the man’s joy had radiated down the phone line right along with his voice. “This child was a blessing,” he had said. “A wonderful, unexpected gift from God.”
By the time she unlatched the front gate, Jake was tearing down the path to greet her.
“I have a new baby sister!”
She smiled at the little boy, still dressed in pajamas, but obviously wide awake. “I know.”
He grasped her hand and tugged her along toward the front door.
She glanced back to see if Mulder was following and was chagrined to discover that not only was he not following, he was nowhere to be seen.
“Come look at her room. Me and Daddy worked on it until real late last night so it’d be ready for her when she comes home. Guess what her name is.”
“It’s Christine. I got to help pick it out.”
“That’s a very pretty —”
“Daddy said he didn’t know your name but that your name could be her middle name since you helped my mommy. Unless your name is Christine, I guess. Is your name Christine?”
“No, it’s Dana.”
“Good. Cause Christine Christine Closkey would sound funny.
Christine Dana is okay though.”
Jake let go of her hand long enough to pull open the screen door and allow her to enter the house, then grabbed it again to lead her to the nursery. The delicately carved nursery furniture looked to be a family heirloom, but the bedding and decorations were all brand new and riotously pink. Wade Closkey was on a ladder hanging a wallpaper border of pink bunnies near the ceiling. Scully suspected that had the man had more time, even the walls would have been pink, but the white paint had fortunately been spared.
Even so, she felt like she was looking through a haze of cotton candy.
The former tomboy was trapped in the too-girly room for another half hour, trying to find some explanation for the unanticipated birth. Finally, reluctantly, she followed up on her absent partner’s theory about the wish.
Wade laughed at the idea. That was expected.
What she didn’t expect was for Jake to once again pull on her hand and steer her into his room. She sat down on the edge of his bed while he dug down deep into his toy box. From the very bottom, where it had been hastily buried yesterday afternoon, he produced the most unlikely piece of evidence she had ever seen.
Mulder was going to love this.
Scully was going to hate this.
No doubt about it.
But his informant had told him a convincing story that would seem to solve both the mystery of Brian Witherspoon’s death, and Elaine Closkey’s pregnancy. This new information opened up a whole new set of questions, but it also gave him some direction. A place to start. A suspect … of sorts.
He would still have to convince his partner that it was worth pursuing; that he hadn’t just been taken in by a fanciful tale told by a pretty blue-eyed blonde. First, of course, he’d have to apologize to Scully for ditching her. He wanted to say something when he noticed the blonde following them again, but was afraid any suspicious gesture on his part would frighten her away. So he had slipped off as his partner was reiterating her stand of his wishes-coming-true theory.
Evidently the caution toward the blonde was unnecessary because she had walked right up to him once she realized she had been discovered.
“Are you a policeman?”
Mulder pulled his badge from his pocket and showed it to her. “Not exactly. I’m with the FBI.”
“Have you figured out what’s going on?”
“I have some ideas, but I’m not really sure yet.”
“I could tell you.”
She brushed the dirt and grass off the street curb and sat down.
Apparently this was going to be a long story if she was making herself comfortable. She cleared off a spot beside her and Mulder sat down.
“My name is Elisabeth. With an S. E-L-I-*S*-A-B-E-T-H. Lot’s of people are Elizabeth with a Z, but I think the S makes it prettier.”
Mulder just nodded. He didn’t actually see that it made much difference, S or Z, but he wasn’t about to tell her that.
“I’m eleven. Well, not quite eleven. But I’ll be eleven next month, so I’m closer to eleven than to ten. I have a sister named Catie — with a C, not a K — she’s eight. She’s such a retard.”
“You know, she’s just really stupid sometimes. Like with the wish thing.”
“You know about the wishes?”
“Well, duh. That’s what I’m trying to tell you.” She gave him the same look that he’d received a thousand times from Scully, although it wasn’t nearly as tolerable coming from a precocious almost-eleven-year-old.
“I’m sorry. Please continue.”
“There’s this weird lady who lives next door to us, and she’s doing it.”
“She’s granting wishes?”
“Kinda. She started making these rag dolls. And she’s been giving them to some of the kids in town. And everyone who gets a doll can make one wish that’ll come true.”
“Do you believe that?”
“I saw it. My friend, Ashley, she got the first one, and she wished for a bike, and when she got home there was a new bike on her front porch.”
“Maybe her parents bought it for her.”
“Nope. They said they didn’t. They figured it was a gift from this crazy uncle she has, but Ashley and I knew it was because of the wish doll. And then Chloë got one and I bet Jake got one too.”
“And your sister has a doll?”
Her lips pursed and her eyebrows drew together in a much-practiced pout. “No. I didn’t get one. I want one — really bad.”
“What did your sister wish for?”
“She says she’s saving her wish until she can decide what she really wants. She does that kind of stupid stuff all the time.
Saves her allowance, too. Mom and Dad say she’s being frugal, like that’s a good thing or something.”
“So, tell me, Elisabeth-with-an-S, if you had one of those dolls, what would you wish for?”
“I’d wish to be a princess, and I’d rule the whole world, and everyone would have to be nice to me and give me whatever I wanted.”
If there was even a remote possibility that this story was true, Mulder was immensely relieved that Elisabeth wasn’t in possession of a wish doll.
“I’d like to talk to the lady who makes the dolls. What’s her name?”
“Myrtle. Myrtle Ragsdale. But everyone calls her Rags.”
Mulder arrived at the Closkey house just as Scully was exiting.
She gave him an acid look before turning to say a polite goodbye to Wade and Jake. She tucked a package under her arm and walked swiftly toward him, and then swiftly past him as he swung the gate open for her. He fumbled with the latch for a few seconds but was still able to catch up to her in a few long strides.
“Hey, Scully. I got a lead.”
“So did I.” Icicles practically formed on the words.
He nudged her arm and tried to catch her eye, but she kept her gaze focused straight ahead. “There’s someone I want to talk to.”
“A woman who lives around the block. Her name is —”
Scully stopped, pulled the parcel from under her arm and removed the paper wrapping. She displayed an intricately sewn cloth doll to Mulder. “Rags?”
It was too much to take in all at once. A complete sensory overload. A masterpiece in the art of chaos.
There was something on every available surface: trash on the floor, glossy magazine pictures tacked to the walls, knickknacks cluttering the coffee table and mantle, balls of yarn perilously balanced on the arms of the couch awaiting the inevitable plunge into the dark abyss under the cushions.
The unpleasant stench that had assailed them at the door intensified inside the house. It was a combination of mildew, spoiled food, and an unwashed human. But even among all the other foul odors, the reek of cat filth took front and center.
It was no surprise.
There were cats lounging on every piece of furniture, crawling lazily across the kitchen counters, and slithering like snakes around the agents’ ankles. A dozen of them, maybe more. A warped Dean Martin record spun on a dusty turntable in the corner, but the crooner had to compete with a chorus of meows and purrs and territorial hisses.
In the center of the disorder stood Myrtle Ragsdale, dressed in a dirty and torn housecoat, long yellow-grey hair hanging in matted tangles, and yet somehow radiating warmth and welcome. Her age was almost impossible to determine; the deeply carved lines on her face could represent long life or long suffering, or both.
Scully, unsettled by the sight of a big orange tabby draped across the stove and idly brushing his tail across the kettle’s spout, politely declined the woman’s offer of tea. It would, however, have been the height of bad manners to refuse the offer to sit, so the agents sank down onto the shabby sofa. Both instantly had a lap full of cat.
Mulder began the questioning since his partner was busy fending off the kitten who had taken a sudden and unshakable interest in her left earring.
“Mrs. Ragsdale, there have been some rather odd occurrences in town, and we were hoping you could shed some light on them.”
“First off, you may call me Rags. Just about everyone does.” The old woman settled into a chair across from them. “But I don’t know how much help I can be to you. I don’t get out much — just to the market every now and again. I’d probably be the last person who could tell you about what goes on in this town.”
Mulder watched as she absently pulled straight pins from the padded arm of the chair, then poked them back into the upholstery. “I see you do some sewing.”
“Oh goodness, yes. I’ve always enjoyed it, but ever since my Emmett passed on, well, it’s about all that keeps me sane.”
“I understand you’ve made dolls for some of the children in town.”
Something dark flashed in the woman’s eyes, but only for an instant. Mulder threw a surreptitious glance at Scully in hopes that she’d seen it too, but she was still tussling with the determined little kitten. Rags’ benevolent, guileless countenance had returned during the split second he’d looked away, and Mulder was almost convinced that it had never left. Almost.
“The dolls? Well, yes, I’ve made a few. Just something to do to pass the time.”
“Are you aware that the children believe those dolls are making their wishes come true?”
Rags threw her head back and let go a loud, gravely cackle. She slapped her knee and rocked a little in her chair as if this was the most hilarious joke she’d ever heard. After a moment she wiped the tears of laughter from her eyes. “I hope, young man, that you don’t believe that.”
At Mulder’s “I don’t know” shrug, she laughed again, and probably would have continued had she not been interrupted by a coughing spasm. She gestured for Scully to sit back down when the agent stood to offer assistance. “I’m fine, dear, don’t worry. Just a touch of the croup.”
Scully didn’t think so. She suspected the cough was indicative of a much more serious health problem. It was not, however, the time or the place to lecture the woman on the importance of routine medical exams. Instead, she resumed the interview but changed the subject. “Do you have any children, Mrs. Ragsdale?”
This time there was no mistaking the change in her demeanor. Rags bowed her head sadly and clasped her fidgety hands together over her belly. “I had six babies, but they were all taken from me.”
“Taken by whom?”
“By God, I suppose. And I’ve never been able to forgive Him for it. Three of them were stillborn, and the other three died early on, from crib death. I made those dolls as tributes to my babies.
Each one is named after one of my own children.”
To Scully’s dismay, Mulder jumped back into his earlier line of questioning. “When you gave your dolls away, did you tell the children that the dolls would grant wishes?”
“I did as a matter of fact. I told them that if they held the doll tight and made a wish, and if they believed — really believed their wish would come true. It was just a silly story I made up.
These are old-fashioned rag dolls. They don’t walk, or talk, or any of those things that toys do nowadays. I thought it would make my dolls seem more interesting.”
“Do you believe these dolls can make wishes come true?”
Mulder had noticed that she was becoming increasingly agitated.
Her fingers had resumed their grabbing and poking of pins, but with an increased violence: pluck – stab – pluck – stab. “For Pete’s sake, young man, didn’t you hear me? It was a made up story. Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like for you to go.”
“I’ve always believed company was just like fish — keep either around too long and they’ll start to smell bad.”
Rags pulled herself out of the chair and leaned over to pick cats off the agents so they could stand. When Mulder didn’t take his cue, she hauled him up by the elbow. They were almost out the door when she held up a crooked finger to stop them. Reaching a wrinkled hand toward Scully, she brushed it across the agent’s cheek and into her hair, lifting the auburn strands away from Scully’s face and watching as the hair fell back into place, as if mesmerized by the display.
Mulder was instantly on guard. He regularly encroached into Scully’s personal territory, but when a stranger dared to cross that boundary, he was as proprietary about her space as he was his own. Maybe more so.
The old woman patted Scully affectionately on the cheek. “Just a second, dear. I have something for you.”
The agents shared a baffled look as Rags scuttled out of the living room. When she returned, she placed a doll in Scully’s hands. It was as beautiful and intricately sewn as the one that had belonged to Jake, except instead of short brown hair and boyish overalls, this one was adorned in a dress of ivory silk with orange yarn hair styled in long braids.
“Here. There aren’t any redheaded children around here, and my little Priscilla Louise was born with hair just as red as yours.
You keep her, or give it to one of your little girl babies, and you can tell her that made up story about the wish if you want to.”
Scully shook her head and started to hand the doll back. “That’s very thoughtful, but I don’t —”
Mulder prodded his partner forward and out the door with a hand on her back. “Thank you, Rags. Agent Scully appreciates the gift.”
Stanley Battles listened to every syllable Mulder said. He’d mumble a “go on” or a “that’s interesting” between bites of meatloaf. He would tilt his head as a hint that he would like elaboration on some point or another and nod when he understood.
All the while, he gave the agent his respectful attention.
When Mulder concluded his story about the dolls and the wishes and the reclusive Myrtle Ragsdale, Battles set down his fork, wiped his mouth with the napkin, took a long sip of coffee, and began a refutation that would have put the most bloated FBI bureaucrat to shame.
That Mulder was a fool, he said, was obvious. That the Bureau allowed agents to waste valuable resources only to put forward shoddy, ill-conceived theories was a shock to him, but perhaps explained why his taxes were so high. That someone intelligent enough to get through medical school could sit idly by and allow her partner to ramble on about magic baby dolls was appalling.
And that for them to implicate Myrtle Ragsdale, a kind, if unfortunate soul, in these incidents, was a grievous misstep on their part. He spouted a brief summary of the woman’s history, an explanation of her unusual psychological condition, and his opinion that such a woman would be incapable of causing any harm, even unintentionally.
End of conversation.
End of comfortable working relationship with local law enforcement.
Scully winced as the police chief slapped a few dollars down on the table to pay for his lunch, then made his way through the maze of tables and lunchtime diners with more speed and agility than she would have thought possible for such a portly man. Every pair of eyes in the restaurant looked up in alarm when Battles forcefully slammed the door behind him, then turned to stare accusingly at her and Mulder. If she’d had any confidence in her partner’s theory, Scully would have scooped up the rag doll from the seat beside her, and made a wish to become invisible.
“Well, Mulder, at least he didn’t order us out of town by sunset.”
“How was I to know that Myrtle Ragsdale was his high school sweetheart?”
“He was right that we should have come to him before we talked to her. If we’d known about her phobia, we would have been a little better prepared to deal with it.”
“I’ve read about people with sociophobic tendencies, but you don’t tend to meet them too often, just because of the nature of their disorder. But didn’t you think she seemed happy to see us at first?”
“Maybe she was. It must be lonely living like that. She must long for company sometimes, but then just can’t handle being around people for more than a few minutes. She said she goes out to the store, so it must not be completely debilitating.”
“So now what? Do you agree with Battles that Mrs. Ragsdale had nothing to do with all this?”
Mulder gripped the table for support and took on an appropriately shocked expression. “So you’re saying you agree with me?”
“Not exactly. But,” she continued before Mulder could launch into opposing arguments, “I do think there is reason to be concerned about Myrtle Ragsdale, and not just because of her anti-social tendencies. Well, maybe it is related, I don’t know. But the death of six infants raises a question in my mind. I suspect that Myrtle, or perhaps her late husband, were responsible for at least some of those deaths.”
“How could we prove something like that? Those children would have been born, what, twenty, thirty years ago?”
“This many years later, it would probably be impossible to prove murder. My point is, that the nature of those deaths casts a shadow on the good name of Myrtle Ragsdale, and I don’t think we should rule her out as a suspect in Brian Witherspoon’s disappearance.”
“You mean his death,” Mulder corrected.
Scully straightened in her chair and took a cleansing breath. Body language that told Mulder she really didn’t want to debate over semantics.
“What about Elaine? You think her pregnancy was unrelated?”
Scully grabbed “Priscilla Louise,” slid from the restaurant booth and dropped five dollars on the table as payment for her soup with a generous tip for the waitress doing double duty in Elaine’s absence. “I need to do some research before I answer that question. I’m going to go back to the motel and do a little internet surfing.” She looked down at the front of her suit in distaste. “And I’m going to try to get some of this cat hair off my clothes.”
“Wait up and I’ll come with you.” Mulder slung his suit coat over one arm, and followed her outside.
“What are you going to do?”
Mulder pulled the doll from her hands and tossed it casually into the air, catching it by one braid. “I’ve been thinking, Scully, that it really has been too long since I played with dolls.”
Scully yanked an unruly lock of hair out of her eyes and, as her brain registered the tiny pain, realized belatedly that she shouldn’t be taking her frustrations out on her own scalp. The urge to grab a handful of Mulder’s hair and give it a good, hearty tug, did however, hold a certain appeal.
But that wouldn’t be fair. It wasn’t his fault that this case wouldn’t organize itself into a nice, coherent little package that could be stamped “solved” and neatly filed away. He was just a handy target.
Her phone conversation with Elaine, her interview with Wade, her research — everything pointed to the fact that the impossible had happened; Elaine Closkey had gone to work on Monday decidedly un-pregnant, and less than eight hours later had given birth to a healthy, apparently full-term infant.
The only theory that seemed to explain the event was the nonsense about Mrs. Ragsdale’s dolls.
Well, she wouldn’t believe it.
Couldn’t believe it.
She would work day and night if need be to find the truth.
And as frustrated as she was by this case and her partner’s far-fetched theory, she knew Mulder was equally frustrated with her. So, what else was new? She was two steps behind him trying to unravel a mystery that, as far as he was concerned, had been solved with the discovery of the dolls. He’d checked in on her frequently throughout the afternoon to see if she’d learned anything that could scientifically explain the events of the case, and seemed almost to be gloating over her failure.
Dana Scully had a high tolerance for Mulder’s cavalier disregard of sound investigative technique, but she wasn’t completely immune to its effect on her. It would start with a small irritation — an offhand remark about her stodgy scientific leanings — days, even weeks earlier. And with each new injury — an “I told you so” or his disappearing act before an interview — the wound would fester. Until at last, when guilty of nothing more than giving Mulder some free reign to pursue his whacked-out theories, she was verbally lambasted by a gun-toting barber in a restaurant full of people. Then she reacted. An instinctive, self-preservation response. A wounded animal baring its teeth to warn away anyone who ventured too close.
Should she be held responsible if he had ignored the warning and suffered the bite of her frustration?
Mulder had been leaning over her shoulder, reading the information on the laptop. The words on the screen — “Sorry, no matches were found to your query” — mocking her as surely as the soft chuckle behind her.
“I’d think,” she’d said, “that you would want something substantive to back you up on this.”
“Scully, you could bury your head in that computer for the next month, and you won’t find a scientific explanation for this.”
Why did it always seem like he was afraid someone would wash his mouth out with soap if he used the word “scientific” in a sentence?
“You don’t know that. There’s a reason these events happened.”
“Yes. And I’ve already told you what it is.”
She had closed her laptop, pushed it away, and stood to better look him in the eye, or at least get as close as her height disadvantage would allow. “Oh yes. You’ve told me. And you’ve told Battles.
And now he thinks we’re both complete nutcases.”
“You should be proud. That’s not a distinction enjoyed by the rank and file of the FBI.”
“Get out, Mulder.” She had even pointed to the door for emphasis.
“Go back to your own room. Go write up your case report, slap a ‘paranormal’ label on it and call it closed. But don’t get under my feet while I’m trying to find a more reasonable solution.”
Her hands pushed against his chest and propelled him backward toward the door and over the threshold.
“What if I come back with cookies?”
“You can keep your cookies to yourself. Just stay out of my room.”
She’d swung the door closed with more-than-necessary force, but not before she caught a glimpse of his confused and slightly hurt expression.
Guilt had been relentlessly nudging her for the past hour, urging her to go to him. To apologize. Not for refusing to believe his theory. If that was the case, she would have been apologizing non-stop for the past four years. But for dismissing him so callously.
Her mind painted a picture of a woeful, sad-eyed Mulder, staring longingly at his door. Waiting for her to come and reaffirm her faith in him. To reaffirm their partnership.
So she wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or disappointed when a gleeful Mulder burst through her door and tossed Jake’s doll at her. “Scully, I have another theory and I need your help.”
Evidently he hadn’t been pining away next door.
“Sure. What is it?”
“I need you to do an autopsy.”
She was instantly alarmed that something dire had happened to another member of the community. Yet if that were the case, Mulder wouldn’t be acting so glad about it. She asked her next question with no small amount of trepidation. “On whom?”
“Him,” he answered, pointing to the doll in her lap.
Mulder took her hand in his and guided her fingers. “There. Do you feel that?”
“This little lump? It’s probably stuffed with sawdust, Mulder. I imagine it’s just a wood chip.”
“You don’t think it feels like a tooth?”
“A tooth? What is it with you and teeth, Mulder? Have you revised your theory to include a lake monster now?”
Mulder smirked at her joke and handed her a pair of scissors.
“C’mon. What’s it going to hurt to check?”
She sighed in resignation. She’d learned early in her partnership with Mulder that it was important to choose her battles carefully.
Since the only casualty here would be a de-stuffed rag doll, she could afford to forfeit.
She undressed the doll, laid it face-down on the dresser, and with painstaking precision, used the tip of the scissors to snap the threads along the seam in the doll’s back. If she was careful, she could sew the opening closed once the stuffing contents had been determined.
“Jesus, Scully, it’s just a doll. I’ve seen you rip open the chest of a 300-pound dead guy faster than this.”
Scully ignored his protest and continued using the same tedious method until she had made a three-inch opening in the seam. She laid the scissors aside, delicately pinched the fabric edges and pulled them apart.
Mulder hovered over her, but she blocked his line of sight. “So, what is it?”
“Oh, my God.”
Convincing Scully to do this had been easy. Convincing Scully to do this without first informing Chief of Police Battles was considerably more difficult. In the end, Mulder wasn’t certain whether it was his debate prowess that had won her over, or simply Scully’s fear that he would proceed without her if she didn’t agree.
Whatever her motivation, Mulder was glad to have her beside him.
As unpleasant as this house had been in the light of day, it was even more forbidding in the darkness. There was no welcoming porch light; the nearest street lamp was broken. Even the moon was stubbornly hiding behind a thick veil of clouds.
Mulder peered up at the house, which seemed somehow larger when painted in nighttime shadows. He half-expected to see the specter of some disembodied soul floating across an upstairs window.
He slowed his gait, cautiously avoiding the long-dead shrubs and decaying remains of unwanted newspapers that threatened to trip him as he made his way up the narrow sidewalk to the front porch.
Scully had taken no such care and was already at the door, pounding heavily with the side of her clenched fist.
She was upset by her lack of progress on this case.
She was embarrassed by the discovery she’d made when she cut open the doll.
And she was angry.
Heaven help anyone or anything who got in her way at a time like this. Mulder wasn’t sure the battered old door could take much more of her abuse.
He arrived on the porch just as the doorknob began to turn. The door opened slowly, and with the security chain in place, just enough for the home’s occupant to peer through the crack.
Mulder opened his mouth to speak, but once again, Scully jumped ahead. “Mrs. Ragsdale, we’d like to speak with you. Could you come outside please?”
In a voice that crackled like dry leaves, the old woman answered.
“It’s terribly late, dear. Can’t this wait until morning?”
“No, ma’am. Now if you could just step outside.”
Rags closed the door, presumably to remove the chain. But instead of the sound of the chain sliding from its track and dropping against the wall inside, Mulder was astonished to hear the click of the deadbolt.
His partner grabbed the knob and shook the door furiously, but found it to be quite securely locked. She reached beneath her jacket to unholster her gun, instructed him to keep trying to get in through the front, and jumped off the porch to race around to the back.
So much for their plan of calmly persuading the woman to accompany them to the police station. It was unfortunate, but if Mrs. Ragsdale was going to resist, they would have to employ a more forceful approach. The evidence they’d found, combined with her subterfuge just now, should be enough to constitute probable cause.
The first obstacle — this door — could be overcome easily enough. He’d broken down a few doors in his FBI career. This poor, splintery specimen should be no problem.
Mulder lunged forward, shoulder-first, into the door.
And bounced off.
He tumbled gracelessly into a rusty lawn chair.
Obviously it was a little more solid than he had expected, but a well-placed kick should break it from its hinges. The agent pulled himself out of the chair, braced his arm against a porch post for support, bent his knee, and thrust his leg forward with all the force he could muster.
The house rattled with the impact as Mulder repeatedly bashed his body against the front door. That, mingled with his rather colorful cursing, served nicely to conceal the soft creaking noise from the kitchen window as Scully pushed it upward. She had climbed onto an old crate she’d found in the backyard and was able to pull herself through the window with one hand while maintaining a grip on her weapon with the other.
Although the countertops were piled high with unwashed dishes, the sink right below the window, with the exception of one rugged-looking tomcat who’d claimed the spot as his bed, was empty. The animal gave Scully a disdainful look as she shooed him from his resting place.
The maneuver wouldn’t win her any gymnastics prizes, but she was able to swing her legs around and drop noiselessly to the floor.
That, however, pretty much marked the end of her stealth. It was impossible to be completely quiet as she moved through the back of the house. Almost every time she set her foot down she heard a crunch, or a pop, or, worst of all, a pitiful yowl when she accidentally landed on a tail.
Scully regretted the absence of a flashlight, but hadn’t thought one would be necessary when all they were doing was taking an old woman into custody for questioning. Hindsight, they say, is 20/20.
But in the here-and-now she could barely see two feet in front of her face. All that disrupted the black canvas before her was the glowing flash of the cat eyes that followed her slow progress.
A squeaking floorboard in a room to her right caught her attention.
She nudged a cat out of the way with her foot and stepped inside what looked like a sewing room. There were bolts of cloth leaning against the wall by the door and a dressmaker’s form standing in the middle of the room like a headless sentry. She recognized the outline of a sewing machine against the window on the far wall.
The agent took careful, halting steps into the room, but inadvertently bumped a hip against the ironing board. She steadied the apparatus with the heel of her gun hand and slid her other palm over the surface in search of the iron, hoping to catch it before it could tumble to the floor.
Her brain didn’t have time to take in the fact that there wasn’t an iron on the ironing board. Nor did she have a chance to react when she felt the rush of air against her cheek, right before the iron was slammed into the side of her head.
Mulder was tugging on the sash of the front window when he heard her cry out from inside the house.
He’d wasted time in stubborn, ultimately futile, combat with the front door. He had eventually retreated to rethink his strategy, but the delay was not without cost.
And Scully was paying the price.
An inner reserve of strength he didn’t know he owned surged through him, and he turned back to the door.
With one forceful kick to its center, the door surrendered.
As a child, Dana Scully had been startled by a red wasp that had flown by her nose as she sat on her grandmother’s front porch.
In retribution for the wasp’s unintentional trespass, she had rolled up a newspaper and swatted at the insect.
Up until that moment, the wasp had been willing to deal with her peacefully, but suddenly, it was war.
She had realized, right before the wasp had swooped down to sting her arm, that she should either have left it alone, or hit it harder. Because in the end, she had only served to rile the creature and had suffered the painful result of its wrath.
At this instant, Dana Scully was the wasp.
The old woman who had wielded the iron had barely managed to get two steps away before Scully lunged from the floor and tackled her assailant to the ground. The agent had twisted the woman’s arms back and snapped the thin wrists into handcuffs before the pain from the gash in her scalp even registered past her rage.
As she sat astride her captive in the dark room, she was able audibly to follow Mulder’s progress through the house: first the thunderous crash of the front door ripping apart, then the pounding of his steps as he made his way to her through cats and debris.
“I’m in here,” she called to him, but couldn’t put much power behind the words.
He heard her anyway, either with his ears, or with that more vague sense they seemed to share that would lead them to each other in times of danger.
He filled the doorway, looming like an avenging angel above her.
Even with the paucity of light, their eyes connected and held long enough for him to ask if she was all right and for her to answer that she was fine.
“Mulder, see if you can find a light.”
He felt along the wall until he found a switch. A bare light bulb flickered to life overhead.
Scully squeezed her eyes closed against the sudden brightness.
When she opened them again, Mulder was kneeling beside her, sweeping the blood-soaked hair back to look at her wound. The drag of hair across the cut made her flinch.
“Oh, God, Scully. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“You didn’t. It hurts all by itself.”
“We’d better get you to a hospital.”
“No. Really, Mulder. It’s okay. Head wounds bleed a lot. You, of all people, should know that.” She managed a slight smile in spite of the circumstances, and that, more than her words, seemed to convince him that she was telling the truth.
Myrtle Ragsdale chose that moment to remind them of her presence.
She pushed herself upwards, trying to buck the agent from her back.
The movement sent a fresh jab of pain through Scully’s head.
When Mulder saw the color leave her face, he gently helped her stand. He maintained his hold on her upper arm until he was sure she could stay upright on her own, then in a much less gentlemanly display, wrenched the old woman up off the floor.
He shoved the dollmaker down the hall, through the living room and out the front door, but glanced behind him every few seconds to make sure his partner followed and didn’t falter.
Stanley Battles was blocking the entrance to his shop. His normal girth was imposing, but somehow when angry, he managed to puff up even more. With his fat stomach pushing at the thin fabric of a white tee-shirt, he looked to Scully like a marshmallow. The scowl on his face made it clear that mushy sweetness was the last thing they should expect.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” His tone matched the bitter expression he wore.
Mulder wasn’t phased in the least and pushed Myrtle Ragsdale forward until she stood pressed between the two men.
“We are bringing a prisoner to your holding facility. Please step out of the way.”
“On what kind of lame-ass charge? I thought I explained to you, Agent Mulder —”
“Assaulting a federal officer for starters.” Scully felt a little self-conscious as Mulder gestured back in her direction and Battles took in her appearance. She was fairly certain the bleeding had stopped, but her hair was still matted and sticky.
Great. Bedraggled and bloody federal agent: exhibit number one.
At least she made a convincing enough illustration that Battles stepped away from the door and let Mulder proceed inside with Mrs. Ragsdale.
The police chief reached for her with a solicitous hand. “Agent Scully, are you all right? What happened?”
It was a purely chauvinistic response on his part, this concern for a damsel in distress. Scully was grateful, though, that it had taken the edge off his anger toward them … well, at least toward her. Maybe it would be possible to have a civilized conversation with the man after all.
“I’m fine. I think it looks worse than it really is. I just need to get cleaned up.”
“Why don’t you come inside? I could help you wash the blood out of your hair.”
At first Scully resisted the idea. She would have preferred to head back to the motel for a shower. But if Battles was busy tending to her in his capacity of hair-care professional, he couldn’t interfere with Mulder’s questioning of Myrtle Ragsdale.
And if Mulder was otherwise occupied, she could explain the evening’s events to Battles without throwing in any inflammatory paranormal filler. She supposed she could play the damsel for a few minutes, as long as it was for a worthy cause. Taking the hand he offered, she allowed him to lead her inside. “Thanks. That would be very kind of you.”
There was something incongruous about the sight of Myrtle Ragsdale in a room as neat and tidy as this holding cell. She was sitting huddled at the head of the bed, pressed as far back into the corner as she could manage. She clutched the pillow to her chest. Her eyes were downcast.
Rags was certainly pitiable. Yet Mulder’s mind kept showing him the image of Scully when he’d first turned on that light: her pretty face marred by streaks of blood that dripped from her hair and ran down her cheek. Pity had no power over the emotion that picture evoked.
Mulder pulled a metal folding chair up close to the locked cell door and sat. “Mrs. Ragsdale, I know that Agent Scully read you your rights. Do you understand them?”
The woman nodded.
“Did you kill Brian Witherspoon?”
She mumbled her answer, but still didn’t look up from her study of the pillow in her arms. “No.”
“Did you kill your children?”
That question startled her enough that she jerked her head upright. She shook her head. “No.” Her wide, frightened eyes broadcast another message entirely. Either she had killed them, or she knew who did.
She continued to speak, yet her voice thinned. Even she recognized the flimsy stuff from which her story was spun. “It was crib death with three of them. Three of them died right as they were born.”
“Agent Scully and I have examined the stuffing of the doll you gave to Jake Closkey. Can you explain to me why we found what we found?”
She was shaking her head from side to side. It was a nervous motion, and Mulder didn’t know if it was intended to answer his question or if she was even aware she was making it.
“That doll was filled with ash — cremated human remains — bits of bone and teeth. Whose remains were those, Myrtle?”
The head movement continued and increased in speed. Tremors began to wrack the rest of her body.
“Jeremiah.” There was an almost tangible pain in her whispered words. “My little Jeremiah. He was only six months old when he passed.”
“Did you kill him?”
She was weeping now. The answer was close. He only needed to push a little more.
“What happened, Myrtle? Did they cry too much? Could you not bear the company?”
“God, No! I loved my babies. I had wished for them with all my heart. But Emmett …”
Mulder leaned forward. A signal to her that he was listening, that he wanted to hear what she was saying.
“Emmett said they were evil. That it was unnatural how they came to be.”
“What do you mean?”
“I have a gift, Mr. Mulder.” She turned her face away from him.
“Or a curse.”
“You can make your wishes come true?”
Her head whipped around and she gaped at him in surprise, as if it were the first time in her life that anyone had ever believed her story. Mulder wondered if perhaps it was.
“It started when I was young. It was just little things, you know. I’d wish for a new dress, and somehow there’d be one hanging in my closet. Or I’d see a toy I liked, and there it’d be in my toy box. Finally my father accused me of stealing. He threatened to beat me black and blue if I didn’t stop. I didn’t wish for anything else for a long time after that. Not until Emmett.”
“What about him?”
“He was the most handsome man, Mr. Mulder. He looked like you a little. Tall, dark hair. He had blue eyes, though. The most beautiful blue eyes.” She seemed to lose herself in the memory of those eyes for a moment, but brought herself back to whisper a confession. “I wished for him to marry me.”
“And he did.”
“Oh yes. He did. Right away. But I learned a terrible lesson.
It seems I can only wish for a thing once, and I can’t go back and fix it if I asked the wrong way. I wished for him to marry me … but I forgot to wish for him to love me.”
How she’d changed — his once-beautiful Myrtle.
No one would suspect that she was once the belle of Salzburg, Vermont. He remembered though. When viewed through the hazy lens of memory, he still saw her as the flaxen-haired enchantress who had so enraptured him in his youth.
Not that Stanley Battles regretted the direction his life had taken. No man could ever hope for a better wife than his Thelma, God rest her soul. But a man wonders things, and he wondered what life might have been like if Emmett Ragsdale had never come to town.
Stanley was too late in learning he had taken Myrtle for granted.
She’d been his best friend since childhood. Everyone, including himself, had assumed they would marry once they graduated from high school.
Funny thing was, even after Emmett Ragsdale blew in to town, he still hadn’t been concerned. Myrtle was obviously attracted to the man. But Emmett was older and, well, just didn’t seem the type to stay in one place for very long. Besides, he’d seemed much more interested in one of the other girls.
So when Stanley kissed Myrtle on that Friday and told her he’d see her when he returned on Tuesday, he hadn’t realized he was kissing her for the last time. By Tuesday she was married to a man she’d known less than a week.
Right from the start it seemed that Emmett didn’t pay proper attention to Myrtle. To give the man a modicum of credit, Stanley never knew him to cheat on his wife. But in other respects, he didn’t treat her like a wife at all. They never made or accepted social invitations, and were rarely seen together in public.
In fact, as the years went on, Myrtle was seen less and less.
Everyone in town knew about the tragedy of her lost children, but offers of sympathy and aid to the family were all bitterly rejected by Emmett.
Eventually, people stopped making the effort.
He himself had tried once more, shortly after Emmett’s death. When he’d gone to visit Myrtle that first time, he hardly recognized her. She was worn down, unkempt, skittish. He’d tried to chat with her, but she was so clearly uncomfortable that he left after only a few minutes.
A few weeks later he’d returned to her home with a couple of kittens. He hoped they would ease her loneliness. She’d seemed pleased by the gesture and had accepted his gift, but hadn’t invited him inside. It was the last time he’d spoken to her until today.
That Myrtle, so exquisite as a girl, had come to be the object of ridicule in her old age, disturbed him deeply. Watching her now, in his jail, trying to draw so tightly into herself that she might disappear, he thought he had never seen anyone more tragic. The only consolation he could find in her lowly state was that it left nowhere lower to go.
“So she claims they never had sex?”
“Never. In 30 years of marriage.”
“Why didn’t he divorce her?”
“According to her, the wish somehow bound him to her. He was never unfaithful, but they had a completely celibate relationship.”
“They had children, Mulder.”
“Only because she wished for them. And Emmett killed them out of outrage over their ‘artificial’ conception.”
Scully’s head was pounding, and not just from the head wound she’d received. “Okay, just for the sake of argument — let’s say everything you’ve told me is true — what does that have to do with the dolls?”
“The dolls were representations of her dead children. Tributes.
Evidently through some sort of psychic transference phenomenon, her wish-making ability was passed through the ashes. When she told us that she made up the story about the wishes to make the dolls more interesting for the children, that was the truth. I think she was genuinely surprised that it worked.”
Scully was exhausted. She was sore. And, damn it, this was starting to make sense to her: a sure sign that she was overtired. “Mulder, I think my brain is shutting down. Can we talk about this in the morning?”
“We have to get those dolls back.”
“They’re dangerous. One of them especially.”
She shook her head. He’d lost her.
“Mrs. Ragsdale told the children that the dolls would only grant one wish, and that if they absolutely believed in the doll’s power, their wish would come true. If it’s belief that makes it work, Chloë Witherspoon, and the other girl, Ashley, have used their wishes. They won’t believe it can work again. But the last child, Catie Henderson, hasn’t used her wish yet.”
“So we’re going —”
“To take toys away from children.”
This was a perilous situation for Myrtle Ragsdale. It would be so easy to wish herself out of here, even though she had vowed after the death of her last child that she would never make another wish.
Yet the pain of being away from home and surrounded constantly by people was almost too much to bear. Agent Mulder had promised that he would try to help her, but she would still answer to the assault charges for her attack on his partner. Which meant she could be here for a week. Maybe longer.
Even a day would be unendurable.
She knew Stanley was watching her. He hadn’t taken his eyes off of her all night.
How things might have been different if she’d let herself fall in love with plain, good-hearted Stanley, instead of Emmett Ragsdale. Even after all these years, it was obvious that he still cared for her.
She cringed a bit at the sound of his voice. He hadn’t spoken to her in over an hour.
“I’m sorry to startle you, Myrtle. I just wanted to know if there was anything you needed.”
With some effort she uncoiled her body and sat up to face him.
“Do you have some sewing I could do? I really need something to keep myself occupied.”
She could see that he was thinking it over. Then he nodded. “You know, I am missing a few buttons on my uniform shirts. They’re up front. I’ll be right back.”
A few minutes later, he returned with an armful of shirts and smocks — anything he could find with a torn seam or a loose button. On top of the stack was the needle and thread he kept stashed away for emergency mending jobs. He crossed to the cell, unlocked the door, and set the clothes on the end of the bed.
“I’ll need some scissors, too,” she reminded him.
“Of course. Just a second.”
Battles came back with a sharp pair of shears from the front of the shop. He handed them to her handle-first: safe scissor-handling technique.
Unfortunately, Myrtle Ragsdale didn’t demonstrate the same regard for safety when she plunged the scissors point-first into the policeman’s belly.
Mulder’s suave G-man approach was working flawlessly tonight.
A bleary-eyed Hilary Witherspoon, obviously roused from the midst of a much-needed rest, retrieved “Ruthie Sue” from Chloë’s room and gave her over without protest. She even offered the address of the other child, Ashley, and called ahead to inform the parents that the agents were on their way. By the time Mulder and Scully had traveled the three blocks to Ashley’s house, the robe-clad parents were waiting for them by the curb, doll in hand.
Things rarely went this smoothly during X-Files investigations. It was fate that it would end soon.
The moment Willie Henderson answered the door.
Mulder fumbled for his badge. The smooth federal agent facade had disintegrated at his first glimpse of Elisabeth and Catie’s father.
The linebacker-of-a-man before him was nearly seven feet of solid muscle. A stern face with a lantern jaw was anchored atop a thick neck.
“Uhm, we’re Federal Agents … Mulder and Scully … and we’re here working on the Witherspoon investigation, and —”
“I’m aware of who you are and why you’re in town. Although I’m damned curious as to why you’re standing on my porch at …” The man looked behind him at the clock on the mantle and then turned back to Mulder. “At 1:30 in the morning.” He folded his arms over his shirtless chest in a patently obvious gesture of impatience.
Mulder glanced to Scully who told him without words that it was he, not she, who would explain to this man that they were here to confiscate his little girl’s doll.
“Well, we’ve been able to link Brian Witherspoon’s, um, disappearance, with a doll that his sister received from your neighbor, Myrtle Ragsdale. And I understand that one of your daughters, Catie, has a similar doll.”
“And how, exactly, are these dolls responsible for the disappearance of that little boy?” Irritation vibrated through the deep bass voice.
“Well, we have evidence … it seems that …” Mulder drew in a deep breath and straightened to his full-but-less-than-imposingunder-the-circumstances height. “These dolls can make wishes come true.”
Willie Henderson looked from Mulder to Scully. “Is he kidding?”
Scully took the high road with a simple, nonpartisan answer. “No.”
The man turned back to Mulder, looking down on the agent speculatively. “And so you’re here to take my little Catie’s doll away from her?”
Mulder, who had been trying to regain some of his earlier panache, went for the authoritative approach. “It’s an important piece of evidence in a federal investigation, and for your own family’s protection, we are seizing the item.”
“You have a warrant to come into my home and take the doll?”
“No sir. We were hoping we wouldn’t need one.” Mulder hoped his “let’s be reasonable” approach was effective because there wasn’t a chance in hell a judge would issue a middle-of-the-night warrant based on their shaky evidence.
“Then get one, and don’t come back until you do.”
Willie Henderson switched off the porch light and stepped back inside his house.
“Wait — Mr. Henderson, the dolls are stuffed with —”
Mulder’s words were drowned by the deafening slam of the door.
Despite the fact that it was probably unprofessional of her, Scully had enjoyed the little spectacle on the Henderson’s front porch.
She quickly turned away and headed toward the car in the hope that Mulder wouldn’t catch sight of her amused expression.
“Did you get the impression he wasn’t taking us seriously, Scully?”
“No. I got the impression he wasn’t taking you seriously.”
When she didn’t receive the expected retort, she glanced back over her shoulder. He had stopped and was studying the ominous old house on the next lot.
She knew what he was thinking. He was practically broadcasting his thoughts right into her brain:
It’s the middle of the night.
We’re in a strange town.
There’s a crumbling old house filled with cats and filth.
The strange woman who lives there and spends her time stuffing dolls with human remains is conveniently locked up.
Let’s go exploring.
She answered the question he hadn’t yet asked. “No, Mulder.
Absolutely not. I’m tired. Really, really tired. Let’s go to the motel and we can come back in the morning.”
“It’ll be fun. Didn’t you ever skulk around a scary old house when you were a kid?”
“I’ll have you know I’ve never skulked.”
“No, I don’t suppose you have. But come on anyway. It’s not like there isn’t electricity. We’ll turn on the lights, comb through for evidence, and be out in a couple of hours. It’ll give us a head start on closing the investigation and going home.”
Now that was a real temptation. She could probably push her weary body for a few more hours if it meant she’d be sleeping in her own bed tomorrow night.
She made one more half-hearted protest. “We’ll need evidence bags and gloves.”
“Your briefcase is in the car, remember?”
Oh, yeah. Her fine leather briefcase, currently stuffed to overflowing with confiscated rags dolls. How could she have forgotten?
Mulder took her silence as assent and retrieved the briefcase before she could formulate another objection.
“Why don’t we split up — you take high, I’ll take low.” Mulder couldn’t get past his association of the downstairs sewing room with Scully’s earlier trauma. However irrational it might be, he didn’t want her to go back in there.
She shrugged. “Whichever.” She pulled a pair of latex gloves and some evidence bags from her briefcase, leaving it open for Mulder, then picked her way through the rubble as she climbed the rickety staircase.
He called to her. “Oh, and Scully, remember to look for another doll. Rags said she had six children, but we only know of five dolls.”
Her monotone responses indicated either a lack of enthusiasm or a lack of energy. Mulder felt a twinge of guilt. She probably had a whopper of a headache. He made a silent vow to work quickly so she could get a few hours of sleep tonight.
The noticeable reduction in the household cat population was a big help toward meeting that goal. Mulder thought perhaps several of the resident felines had ventured out the now-gaping front doorway.
While a few of the homebodies remained scattered throughout the house, they didn’t seem the type to hang about underfoot. One scruffy animal had taken up residence on the ironing board and playfully slapped Mulder’s head with her tail as he bent to pick up the iron from the floor.
There was a smear of Scully’s blood near the tip of the appliance.
It was damning evidence of the crime. He slipped it inside a clear plastic bag, wrote a note on the label, and set it aside. A thorough search of the rest of the room revealed nothing else of interest.
The cat on the ironing board leaped from her perch, meandered across the room, and disappeared into a closet. Mulder followed, hoping to find the missing doll stashed inside the little space.
His hand closed over the knob just as Scully called to him from upstairs.
“Mulder, get up here. There’s something you need to see.”
Put in Mulder terms, it was like opening a door to another dimension.
The upstairs rooms she had searched thus far were as neglected and dirty as those she’d seen downstairs.
And the bathroom —
— Even with all the horrific things she’d seen in the course of her career, she feared the memory of that bathroom would linger in her nightmares.
With a newly heightened sense of dread, she opened the last door.
The hinges squealed their objection to being disturbed after a long spell of disuse.
It was the sound of old horror films. The kind that featured a lovely if unaware ingenue entering the monster’s lair. She’d see his terrifying countenance, bite the back of her hand to stifle her frightened scream, and inevitably faint right into the monster’s waiting arms.
Dana Scully, however, was no timid flower of a girl who fainted at the sight of something horrible. If she was, she’d be lying in a heap back at the bathroom door. So she didn’t hesitate to swing this door wide open and reach in to slap on the light switch.
Only to see the last thing she would have expected to encounter in this house.
A clean room.
It was a tastefully decorated bedroom with decidedly masculine touches. Emmett’s room, she realized.
A beautifully carved bed took up most of one wall. A matching wardrobe and chest of drawers filled space on the other side. The bedspread, though plain, was of a rich old-gold color that complemented the autumn hues in the drapery fabric.
Beside her, on the wall near the door, was a gun cabinet. This, too, was meticulously carved by the same hand that had made the bed and other furniture.
But something was amiss.
The rest of the room was immaculate. Not an object disturbed or out of place. Yet there were shards of broken glass strewn across the floor in front of the cabinet.
Scully moved in for a better look. The door was closed and secured with a combination lock, but the thick glass in the door had been shattered. Inside was an exquisite collection of firearms rifles, shotguns, pistols. Among the pistols, though, was a vacant space. A ghostly imprint in the velvet behind the display testified to one gun’s absence.
Scully bent over to open the ammunition drawer at the bottom of the case. Rows of neatly labeled boxes filled the drawer, but one small box was open, and some of its contents had been spilled on the floor by the cabinet.
The ammunition for the missing gun, no doubt.
As she stood up, she noticed something else: a tiny dark stain on the edge of the broken door glass. She ran a gloved finger along the jagged edge and then held her hand up to the light for a closer inspection.
It was blood.
And it was fresh.
It was time for a second opinion.
“The door was open. Someone probably just walked in and took it.”
As Scully followed Mulder back down the stairs, it crossed her mind that she rarely found herself in the position of speaking to the top of his head. Whereas for him, talking to her part line was an everyday thing.
“But why wouldn’t they take all the guns?”
“I don’t know.” She sighed. It was a puzzle she didn’t feel mentally equipped to solve tonight, but might have to anyway. This kind of weapon, in the wrong hands, could have consequences far more deadly than anything wrought by rag dolls. “I guess we’d better call Battles.”
“And won’t he be thrilled to get another delightful piece of news from Agents Mulder and Scully? But he can’t come over until one of us relieves him at the jail. You go tell him what happened and send him back.”
“Why do I get to be the bearer of bad news?”
“Somehow I think he’ll take it better coming from you. I don’t know why, but the man has no tolerance for my theories.”
“Hmm, imagine that.”
Mulder cast a playful glare back at his partner, right as his foot hit the last stair. The rotting wood gave way beneath his weight and he pitched forward onto the soiled carpet.
Scully, who had lost her own balance trying to catch her partner, landed on his back. She groaned as she rolled off of him. God, she couldn’t wait to put this house a few states away from her.
“Are you okay, Mulder?”
He pushed himself up off the floor, and brushed bits of paper and something that looked like a dehydrated hairball, off his jacket.
“Yeah. Last step’s a doozy.”
“I’m going to talk to Battles about this. The house is dangerous.
There are some structural problems —” She gestured behind her.
“— The stairs for example. And with all this squalor, who knows what kind of pests and disease could be thriving.”
“But it’s her home.”
It was clear that Rags brought out some sort of sympathetic response in Mulder, but Scully stuck to her argument. “No one should live like this. It’s not healthy. She’s not healthy, physically or mentally. If we called for a psych exam, I’m sure she could be institutionalized.”
“You say that like it would be a good thing.”
Scully laid a consoling hand on Mulder’s arm. “It would be a good thing. She needs help. And she’s not going to get it living here.
She doesn’t have anyone, Mulder.”
Pulling her hand back, she looked up at him, trying to convey with her eyes as well as her words just how strongly she felt about the issue. “I know you feel compassion toward this woman. Maybe when I heal from being blind-sided with an iron, I’ll feel it too.
But, trust me, the best thing you can do for her is to get her the care she requires.”
“It will be hell for her at first.”
“Yes, it will. And then every day it will get better. Maybe, after some prolonged treatment, she could live on her own again.”
“You’re right. I know, Scully. You’re right.”
A wretched, agonized scream filled the house.
The startled agents both whirled around in the direction of the sound, instinctively grabbing for their weapons.
Rags emerged from the sewing room. Her hair was in wild disarray; her threadbare dress was sweat-soaked and wrinkled from time spent huddled in a tight ball, first in the jail, then in her sewing room closet. There was blood dripping from her right hand.
And in that same hand, there was a gun.
He had lied to her.
He’d told her he would help her get home, and it was all a lie.
It really shouldn’t matter any more. She’d been betrayed all her life. First by her father, then her husband. Even Stanley, who had long been kind to her, had kept her locked in that horrible prison. Now this handsome young man who had listened to her so intently, and had seemed so earnest in his desire to help her, had agreed that she would be better off in a hospital with strangers around her. Strangers watching her. Strangers touching her.
She’d overheard his partner telling him that poor old Rags didn’t have anyone to love her. Well that wasn’t true. She had her cats.
They loved her and needed her.
Who else did she need?
If they thought she would just leave her pets and her home and her sewing and go off like some docile little lamb to a slaughter house of an asylum, they were dead wrong.
Some life-changing events happen slowly.
Weddings can take months of preparation with each little detail carefully planned out, reviewed, changed, and finalized. A couple typically has nine months to prepare to bring a new baby into their lives. A worker may spend forty years or more anticipating the day of his retirement.
And some events happen so quickly they have to be measured in parts of seconds.
Increments of time so small that they can’t even be considered before they’re gone.
In a miracle of timing so precise, three fingers pulling back on three triggers managed to discharge three weapons at the same instant.
In less than a heartbeat, three bullets succeeded in their deadly mission.
Why aren’t you saying anything?
Don’t you know this isn’t the way it’s done?
Haven’t you seen all those stage plays and tear-jerker movies?
It’s time for you to make a speech, and I’m waiting to hear it.
I’m expecting a whispered entreaty to carry on with our work. To fight the good fight.
I wouldn’t be surprised if you were angry at me. I certainly deserve it. The least you could do is choke out one last reprimand. Blame me. Tell me I failed as a partner to protect you.
I even thought perhaps you might use your last breath for a declaration of love.
Damn it, Mulder, why the silence?
You can’t resist making long-winded orations on the most obscure of topics. Why now, of all times, do you let this most significant of moments slip by without comment?
You know what this means don’t you?
It means your very last words were “You’re right, Scully.”
You aren’t seriously considering leaving it at that, are you?
Everything in Dana Scully’s scientific, medically-educated brain was telling her it was hopeless. Her partner was dead. The bullet pierced his heart. He had died instantly. All this pounding on his chest and breathing into his mouth wasn’t doing anything.
But it was her heart that was issuing orders, and it told her to keep trying. To try anything to bring him back.
So her heart kept up its conversation with him while her hands and mouth did their futile work.
Her arms ached with the force she was using against his chest. Her lungs were burning under the strain of breathing for two.
It was her body that finally overruled both mind and heart to call a stop to her efforts. She sagged across him in irrational hope that he would absorb some of the heat and life from her and come back on his own.
He did not.
She finally pulled herself upright so she could look at his face.
He looked peaceful and relaxed. It was so different from how she usually saw him: animated, curious, recalcitrant. That was how she wanted to see him.
Not like this.
She shot a glance over at the body of Myrtle Ragsdale. The woman was almost certainly dead, although Scully hadn’t checked for a pulse. There were two bleeding holes in the woman’s chest, and no sign of respiration.
Scully had never felt such hatred for any person as she did for this woman. Who would have thought it could end like this? The ridiculous case of Rags and her silly wish-granting dolls.
Scully shook her head. No.
It couldn’t work.
Of course not. In her mind she knew how utterly implausible it was that anything — four-leaf clovers, stars, or rag dolls — could make a wish come true.
But her heart was begging. Try. Please. For him. Just try. You have nothing to lose. You have so very much to gain.
And so she reached over to the briefcase and dug to the bottom to pull out the finely-dressed redheaded doll: Priscilla Louise.
She remembered Rags’ words: “I told them that if they held the doll tight and made a wish, and if they believed — really believed — their wish would come true.”
Scully clutched the doll to her chest. She held it as if it were a baby needing to be soothed by its mother: one hand on the back of its head, the other down low for support. Then she closed her eyes.
And she made a wish.
Scully’s eyes flew open when she heard the gasp.
She didn’t know how long she’d been kneeling on the floor, cradling the doll, and concentrating on nothing except the wish she was making.
It seemed like a long time.
Mulder was still lying, still lifeless, in front of her.
She turned her head toward the sound and saw two little girls. It took a moment for her to reconcile their presence here. Elisabeth and Catie Henderson, she assumed. They must have heard the shots next door.
Elisabeth, the older child, was just as Mulder had described: a beautiful blonde child, although her hair was slightly mussed from sleep. Catie was dressed in a football jersey that nearly reached her ankles. The chocolate brown curls on her head were mashed down on one side. Pillow hair. She was holding her own rag doll in much the same manner as Scully.
The children were both staring at the carnage before them with mouths agape.
Scully’s brain was trying to get the message through to her body that the children shouldn’t be here. That she should get them out of the house.
And yet her body wouldn’t move. She was bound to Mulder by an invisible tether.
She was saved from further internal struggle by Willie Henderson who barreled through the door.
“Girls! Good God, what are you doing in here? I told you to wait in the house!” He swept Catie up in his arms and prodded Elisabeth toward the door.
He was only gone for a moment, then returned, sans children.
“Ma’am? Is there something I should do? Is there someone I should call?”
Scully looked up at him from her spot on the floor. “Uhm, call Chief Battles, if you can get him, and tell him … and tell him …” She couldn’t get the words out. She couldn’t say that Mulder was … “Tell him there’s been an accident.”
“Why don’t you come outside and wait?”
“There’s nothing you can do in here.” Willie Henderson reached down and closed his big hands over Scully’s shoulders. He pulled her to a standing position, then wrapped one arm around her waist when it appeared she would collapse back to the floor.
The doll was still caught up in her protective embrace.
Before she would allow Mr. Henderson to lead her out of the house, she took one last look at Mulder.
Then she looked at the doll. The worthless doll who had betrayed her only remaining hope.
With all the strength she had left, she flung the useless thing away. It landed a twisted lump of cloth and yarn at the end of the hall.
There were at least a dozen people on the lawn when they emerged from the house. Neighbors, most likely, who had been awakened by the sound of gunfire. With all their flashlights and lanterns pointed in her direction, Scully felt like she was on stage.
She asked them to go home, but her typical authoritative demeanor was buried under her grief. No one obeyed. These kind people all wanted to care for her.
She wanted to be left alone.
If one more person came up and told her how sorry they were about her loss, she wouldn’t be held responsible for her reaction. They didn’t know Mulder. They didn’t know about her loss. How could they be sorry? It was all just words. Meaningless, stupid words.
Just like Myrtle Ragsdale’s meaningless story about wishes.
Catie Henderson was standing across the yard, staring at her. The child’s dark eyes were filled with sympathy. Scully’s sister, Melissa, had been that kind of child. A deeply empathetic little soul who was always trying to make a grown-up’s hurt feel better with a gentle pat or a soft hug.
If she’d made any overture of welcome, Scully was certain Catie would have run to her and wrapped her in tiny arms to try to soothe the pain. Instead, Catie stayed still and kept her arms wrapped around the doll.
Had an ounce of energy remained in the agent’s body, she would have marched over, ripped that doll right from Catie’s grasp, and torn it into a million pieces.
As if sensing Scully’s anger, the child closed her eyes. Maybe there was something to this empathy thing, because the little girl’s forehead wrinkled like she was trying very hard not to cry.
Wonderful, Scully thought. Now I’m making little girls cry with psychic signals. I can’t manage to make wishes come true, but I must be making some kind of paranormal progress.
The child’s eyes opened again and the tension eased in her face.
Eventually the sadness faded completely and was replaced with a timid smile. Her eyes stayed on Scully for a few seconds longer, and then shifted to a point somewhere behind the agent.
Just curious enough to want to find out what had so captivated the girl, Scully began to turn her head to follow Catie’s line of sight.
But was paralyzed by the voice she heard.
It sounded like his voice.
But she wouldn’t turn to look.
Because if she looked, she’d be disappointed.
It felt like his hands on her shoulders, pulling her back against him in an awkward embrace.
But she wouldn’t allow herself to touch him.
Because if she touched him, this fragment of hope she was feeling would disappear.
“Scully? Are you all right? God, I was so worried when I didn’t see you in the house.”
She squeezed her eyes shut, physically willing back tears. She knew in a second she would turn around and face the man who held her, and the tears would fall. Only then would she be able to give them the proper label. Tears of joy. Or tears of unbearable sorrow.
Two strong arms pulled her around. A gentle hand slid under her chin to lift her face.
She opened her eyes and her vision was filled with all the color that had so recently been bleached from her life.
Fox Mulder. Alive. Whole. And looking at her with the most concerned expression.
He had been worried about her.
Aside from the very real possibility that she might faint, she could honestly say she’d never been better.
Her hands, unwilling to believe what her eyes were telling them, did some of their own investigating. They touched his face. His chest. They felt the scratchy fabric of his jacket. Slipped inside to run across the crisp cotton of his shirt.
There were no tears or imperfections in fabric, or in the skin beneath.
For his part, Mulder’s concerned look had given way to confusion.
He was probably wondering why his partner was touching him like a blind woman trying to read braille. “Scully, are you sure you’re okay? What happened in there?”
“Are you hurt?”
“I don’t think so. I must have bumped my head when I tripped on the stair.”
“Is that the last thing you remember?”
“Until I woke up and I saw Myrtle’s body on the floor. You weren’t around and I got scared that you …” He didn’t finish the sentence. Just pulled her closer as if to reassure himself that his partner was in one piece.
She returned the embrace, seeking the very same reassurance.
When they separated she turned back to look at Catie. The little girl was being lifted into her father’s arms and carried back to her house. The beloved little doll was clutched tightly in one hand. With the other she gave a little wiggly-finger wave to Scully, and then she laid her head sleepily on her father’s shoulder.
“Do you know that little girl, Scully?”
“No.” She reached up and touched his cheek, felt his warmth, made sure he was still real. “But I think she must like me.”
Mulder would be the first to admit that, for all his skills in psychological profiling, he’d never really been able to get a bead on Dana Scully.
And her behavior over the past 24 hours or so had left him completely mystified.
When he first emerged from that house, she had gazed at him with an expression of such awe and joy that he’d been tempted to look behind him to see if it was someone else who had her so transfixed.
Certainly she’d never looked at him that way before.
But after a little coaxing, she had finally told him the story: He’d been shot and killed during a gunfire exchange with Myrtle Ragsdale. She had been unable to revive him. But then, Catie Henderson, the little girl who had been hoarding her wish until she could decide what she most wanted, had used that wish to save his life.
To be honest, he had been astounded that Scully believed it was a wish that saved him. The Scully he knew — or thought he knew would have said that she made a misdiagnosis. That she, a doctor who specializes in finding out what killed people, had mistakenly believed him to have a fatal bullet wound to the heart, when it turned out that he’d only knocked himself out. In her distress, she’d imagined him to have a gaping, bleeding hole in his chest.
This sudden alteration of a very well-defined character trait was his first concern.
The second was that she’d closed herself off from him.
Not that she was ever the most open of individuals, but this was odd. Especially since, for the first few hours after his “return from the dead,” she hadn’t been willing to let him out of her sight.
Now she wouldn’t look him in the eye.
There was something wrong, and if he was half the investigator he believed himself to be, he would find out what it was.
“Scully? You all packed?” Her door was standing slightly ajar, which he took as his invitation to enter the room.
“Almost. I was going to call the hospital again to check on Chief Battles. He was just out of surgery when I called earlier, but they said he was doing well and they didn’t expect any complications.”
“That’s good. But, before you do that, do you have a second?”
Her tone and expression made it clear that she was suspicious. No problem. She had a right to be suspicious of him, because she absolutely was not leaving this room until he found out what was bothering her.
“I want to know what’s wrong, Scully.”
“What do you mean? Nothing’s wrong. You’re alive and well. What could be wrong?”
“I don’t know. Why don’t you tell me.”
“I’d rather not. Now, could you hand me the —”
There. She’d slipped. “So there is something.”
She unzipped her overnight bag and started tossing cosmetics inside with little regard for the glass containers. “Can we talk about this later?”
“No. If we say we’ll talk about it later, we’ll just keep putting it off. We both do that. A lot. Not this time.”
“What do you want me to tell you? That I failed? That I couldn’t save you? That I feel guilty about that? Fine. I do.” She zipped the bag and threw it toward the door next to her suitcase.
She was angry. That was a start. At least she was talking.
He pressed on. “Is that all?”
“Isn’t that enough?”
“Not if it’s not the truth.”
“And what makes you think I’m lying?”
“You are, aren’t you?”
“Don’t play your mind games with me, Mulder.” She grabbed for her briefcase and was clearly intent on getting out of the room.
Mulder stepped in front of the door. “What happened in that house?”
“Nothing.” She was a terrible liar. She couldn’t look him in the eye and lie. And that’s how he knew she was lying now.
Now she looked up, but she wasn’t talking. He thought she might resort to putting her hands over her ears and singing in order to block him out.
“Please. Tell me.” It was a gentle request, and it was the one that got the response.
She walked back to the bed and sat down on the edge. “It wasn’t my wish that saved you.”
Mulder sat down next to her, hoping his physical presence would lend her some strength. And, for a more practical reason, because she’d taken to whispering her answers and he couldn’t hear her from across the room.
“I tried to make a wish, too. But it didn’t work.”
“I don’t know.”
“I think I do.”
She didn’t respond. Just waited for him to explain.
“You didn’t believe it would work.”
“I wanted it to work.”
“I know you did. But you didn’t believe it could. And that’s why it didn’t.”
“It makes me angry, Mulder, that it took some little girl who didn’t know either of us, to save you. And I couldn’t. And it damn well should make you angry too.” She finally looked up from her study of her lap. She was challenging him. Daring him to be angry at her. Daring him to deny that he was.
“If some situation came along, and the only way I could help you was to use a logical 1-2-3 thought process, do you think I could do it?”
“Well, I’d hope to God that you’d try.”
“Believe me, I’d try. But I might not be able to do it, because that’s not the way I’m put together.”
He pulled one of her hands out of her lap and enfolded it in both of his. “You tried. You were willing to shuck everything that makes sense to you and try something that didn’t. I could ask no more of any partner — any friend — than that.”
She didn’t break their eye contact. She was studying him.
Measuring the sincerity behind his words. Looking for any sign that his faith in her had been damaged. Ascertaining whether or not she was truly forgiven.
Mulder knew there was nothing for him to forgive. She’d done nothing wrong in his eyes. But it might be a long time before she could look in a mirror and forgive herself.
“So what now, Mulder?”
“Well, we’ve been able to collect all five dolls. There was no sign of a sixth, so I’m assuming Rags never got around to making the last one. I’d say we go home.”
“And everything’s okay with us?”
“I’ll show you how okay it is. If we hurry, we’ll be back home in time for the buffet at The China Garden. I will ply you with so much greasy Chinese food that you’ll be bloated for a week.”
A bit of sparkle seemed to return to her eyes as she accepted the offer. “Okay.”
He released her hand and she resumed her packing. Her next softly murmured words were filtered through the noise of a suitcase zipper and his own sigh of relief. “What more could a girl wish for?”
“Hey, Larry, come look at this.”
Larry Milstead climbed down from the ladder and set his paint tray and roller on the floor. It had been like this all day. Denise, bless her heart, had been finding one treasure after another in this old place. They’d been lucky. He’d heard about the house through a buddy at the Humane Society who’d come here to rescue a bunch of cats. The previous owner had passed away and the property was in such poor repair that they’d been able to buy it for a pittance. But with a little elbow grease and some tender loving care, the house would be a showplace in a few months.
“Where are you?”
“I’m in the sewing room.”
He weaved his way through sacks of trash to get to his wife, who was on her knees, digging through a closet.
“Honey, did you know there was a little cubby hole in here? The last owner must have kept some of her personal papers and things in it. There’s a wedding certificate, and some old photographs.
And look at this.”
Denise held up a lovely hand-sewn doll for her husband’s inspection.
He shrugged. “That’s nice.”
“Isn’t she pretty?”
“Dolls really aren’t my thing, baby, but if you say so.”
Denise hopped up, crossed the room and grabbed Larry’s hand, pulling him along behind her. “I know just what we should do with her.”
They stepped out on the front porch. Sure enough, she was still there. She’d come over this morning and offered to help collect some of the trash in their yard — for a small fee.
“Hey there, we have a surprise for you.”
She looked up from her work. “Me?”
“Yes. Come here.”
She eyed them curiously, trying to catch a glimpse of the item Denise was holding behind her back. When she arrived on the porch, Denise held out the doll for the little girl.
The child’s eyes widened in the most dumbfounded expression. “Oh my gosh! This is for me?”
“If you’d like it. We found it in the house.” Denise smiled. She had no idea her gift would make the little girl so happy.
“Oh I love it! Thank you! Thank you so much! I have to go show my sister.”
The child scampered down the sidewalk, and was almost out the gate before Denise called to her. “Sweetheart! I don’t think we ever asked your name.”
“Oh. It’s Elisabeth Henderson. That’s Elisabeth with an ‘S’.”
The little blonde looked lovingly at the doll she held in her arms, then back at the couple on the porch. Her eyes were gleaming with mischievous fire.
“But you can call me Princess Elisabeth.”
Author’s Notes: Sincere thanks and a lifetime supply of cyberchocolate to my beta-readers: Vanessa, Nancy, Jo-Ann (truly above and beyond the call, my friend), Debbie, Sarah, and all those terrific editors over at the Beta Readers Circle. Also, loving gratitude to my husband, who has been more supportive of my writing efforts than I ever would have expected. The man is just one surprise after another.
Your feedback will be much appreciated 🙂
“What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.” — Samuel Johnson
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