(formerly *Part One*)
|It was 85 degrees in the shade,
cloudless and blue, and we barreled across the I-40,
thirty miles an hour over the limit. The sun beat down
through the windshield and the passenger side window,
while the air conditioning ran at full Arctic blast, so I
had the distinct displeasure of being way too hot on my
right side and way too cold on my left. Unlike my brain,
my bladder seemed to be in fine working order, and I had
reached the point at which it was all I could do not to
bounce up and down in my seat and mewl *I gotta goooo*
like some four year old on the road trip from hell.
I suppose I could have asked him to stop at one of the service stations we passed every hundred miles or so, and he'd probably have agreed. But I didn't want to have to live through that tight-lipped laser-eyed hard-done-by glare that he'd shared with me when I'd asked for a rest stop back in Galesburg, four hours before. In two hours we'd be changing places - I'd drive, though maybe not quite at this speed, and he'd try to sleep, just as I was failing to do now.
I wish I'd packed better for this trip, I thought, leaning against the too-hot window and shivering, anyway. Wish I'd packed better, planned better. Planned at all, in fact. At the next scheduled stop, two more-or-less hours down the road, I might be able to buy a ball cap to cover my three-days-without-a-wash-and-looking-every-minute-of-it hair. And maybe a tourist-trap sweatshirt, one that read something like *Souvenir of Dungheap, New Mexico,* or *See Beautiful Armpit, Oklahoma* or *My Partner Took Me To East Podunk, Utah, and All I Got Was Really Pissed Off. . . And This Crappy Sweatshirt*. Or, I considered, feeling my bladder attempt to kick its bloated way free of my body and shifting my weight as inconspicuously as I could to relieve some of the pressure, I'd get just half a sweat shirt, as only half-of me seemed to be cold at any given time.
I closed my eyes and tried to rest, then. Really I did.
About twenty sleep-free minutes later, we passed a sign promising gas, Dunkin' Donuts, and clean restrooms just seven more miles down the road. Before I could even wonder if this might be the time to completely debase myself, Mulder turned off the already-quiet radio and, in a voice thick from hours of disuse and artificially chilled air, asked "You need to stop?"
Yes, I needed to stop, and no, for some sudden, perverse reason, I wasn't going to give him the satisfaction of saying so. "Won't that interfere with your schedule?* I wondered aloud, completely failing to keep sarcasm from flowing off each syllable. He gave me a quick glance, his utterly expressionless face expressing plenty before he turned his attention back to the seemingly endless stretch of blacktop before us.
"Do you need to stop?" he asked again, enunciating each word with deliberation bordering on disdain.
"Whatever," I shrugged, the useful part of my brain wondering why I was trying now, of all times, to pick a fight. Too little sleep, I suppose, too much caffeine, too full a bladder. Too many questions, maybe, and too few answers.
"Well, I need to stop," he replied, his eyes straight ahead, "so we're stopping."
"Fine." I folded my arms over my chest, aware that the conversation was over. That exchange had been the first thing we'd had resembling a conversation since our last pit stop, when he'd asked what size Coke I wanted and I'd grunted something non-committal. The last conversation we'd had before that one had occurred three nights before, in front of my apartment, and had consisted solely of my reiterating that I thought this was a bad idea, and of Mulder, for the first time in memory, telling me to, "for once already, shut up."
Mulder veered right at exit 47A, and as permanently annoyed as I was becoming, I had to stop myself from kissing his feet in gratitude when I saw the Shell sign spinning on its tower not too far down the road. He pulled up against the curb and I got out of the car and did not run to the counter to ask for the ladies room key, although I wanted to.
I smiled at the pimply geekboy clerk who'd been kind enough, or maybe just young enough, to check out my chest, even with the state I was in, and brushed past Mulder without a backward glance, knowing he was just as deliberately not watching me leave the store.
That phrase again, "for once already, shut up," coiled through my mind even as I noted with the delight known only to women who travel too frequently by car that the restroom was indeed clean and that generous spirals of toilet paper wound round the roll. He'd apologized ten minutes out of Georgetown, reaching for my hand and stumbling over words as familiar to him as his own name. He was sorry. He *was* sorry, genuinely. But of all the things he'd said to me over the years, kind and less so, I had to hear the least easily forgotten, the most dismissive, possibly the most telling, again and again.
Or maybe, I considered, locking the stall, I was just missing the sound of his voice.
I did what I had to do, washed my hands once, and, remembering the public toilet horror stories my mother liked to share with the family on long car trips, twice. The now crumpled paper towel swished into the bin first shot, and I took a few more of the brown, rough sheets from the dispenser, folded them, and slipped them into my hip pocket, thinking they might come in handy somewhere along the line. Knowing I'd have to face the ugly truth eventually, I pulled off my sunglasses and looked up into the dull grey steel mirror. Stringy, greasy hair in a sloppy pony tail, worse than the last time I'd dared check; dark rings circling my eyes and a matched set of bags under each; a frown that was becoming a permanent scowl. *Join the FBI,* I thought, noticing the grey dirt wedged into the creases of my wrists as I cupped my hands and splashed tepid water onto my face, *It's not a job; it's an adventure.*
I pumped some more cloyingly floral soap into my palm, scrubbed at my wrists, dismayed by the contrast between the tiny clean patch I was creating and the sweat, grime, dead skin, and God-knew-what-else tone that covered the parts of me my T-shirt did not. Wondered when I'd get to shower again. If I'd get to shower again.
I reached for another paper towel and my water-spattered reflection caught my eye, her expression a nice compromise between accusation and loathing. Self-loathing, I guess. I wondered if it would do me any good, psychic or otherwise, to tell her to, for once already, shut up, too.
When I emerged, Mulder was leaning against the passenger door, long legs stretched out before him, arms folded over his chest, fine lines at the edges of his Ray-Bans telling me that he was squinting in the glare of the mid-afternoon sun. Waves of heat billowed up from the black top around him, making his image shimmer. For a second, I half-hoped he was a mirage. But a mirage's T-shirt wouldn't be stuck to its chest with sweat, and its hair wouldn't be a couple of inches too long.
He straightened as I approached, trying to be casual about it. I circled to the driver's side door, surprised to find it locked.
"I've still got a couple hours to go." He moved to lean on the roof of the car but pulled back quickly; the metal was probably hot enough to fast fry exposed skin. "And I know you haven't slept."
"I'm fine," I told some point in the distance over his left shoulder.
"Yes, you are," he replied, rounding the front of the car and beside me in an instant. "You are more than fine," he started again, his voice just a whisper above the sound of the busy truck stop. He turned his mirrored lenses on me. "But, Scully, you haven't slept, and you need to, and it's still my turn to drive," his voice as intimate as any touch. I looked away, marveling at how one rash act in a New Zealand hospital when she thought she was going to die anyway could really mess a girl up. Had really messed a girl up.
I looked away. "Mulder, I. . . "
But he interrupted me with a hand on my shoulder and what argument I was going for was gone. If the voice was as intimate as a touch, the touch itself was almost lethal. I shrugged half-heartedly, expecting him to remove his hand, not surprised when he didn't. Surprised, instead, when his other hand stole across my stomach, fell to my hip and he pulled me to his side.
"You wanna go home?" he murmured into my slimy hair, half-question, half-statement, and I thought of how ordinary a couple we must have looked then, how plain and normal. Jeans, t-shirts, perspiration and bad hair, just two people stopping for coffee and Cheetos and a quick grope before heading off to the rest of their lives.
I couldn't say yes, which was the truth, and I couldn't say no, equally true. I exhaled, maybe I sighed, into the soft cotton below his shoulder and turned my head away, not willing to breathe in any more of him.
"I don't know. . .Scully, I. . . " He shifted himself and shifted me, his left arm stretching across my back to meet his right and pull me to him, belly-to-belly. "We can stop in the next town with a decent-sized airport. You can be back in D.C. in a couple of hours."
I listened for malice, for accusation, for that *I-told-you-so* tone that he did so well but that just wasn't there. All I heard was a little regret, a little fear, a lot of honesty. He was genuinely offering. It was up to me to genuinely decline.
It took a while, but I remembered how to speak. "No." The word was heavy on my tongue, muffled by his shirt and sweat and skin. I swallowed some of the thickness away and repeated, "No."
I think we both held our breath, then. I know I did, waiting in anticipation, but of what, I didn't know. He pulled me closer. We waited.
In the perfectly calm, rational, uninflected tone that meant the answer was too important for him to waste any emotion on the question, he asked, "You ever going to speak to me again?"
At one time, not long before, he wouldn't have asked, wouldn't have dared, and wouldn't have acted as if it mattered. I'm not sure that had been a bad thing. It had always been hard work loving Mulder, but the universe had changed, and it had become even harder.
I leaned far enough back that I could speak without his T-shirt and essence overwhelming me and my words. "Yes," I assured him, probably telling the truth. "When all this is over."
He pulled me tighter and I felt his lips brush the top of my head. "When all this is over," he echoed my words, maybe my sentiments. I had begun to believe *all this* was ever going to be over.
I pulled myself from his embrace, gently, so he'd know there was no spite, and made a show of checking my reflection in the mirror and pulling my pony tail tighter. "We could stand here in a clinch all day, Mulder," I said, noting that my reflection looked less bitchy now, though no more confident, "But we're burning daylight, as they say."
I walked around to the passenger side, and waited for him to pop the locks. I saw a bag of supplies in the back, a box of Twinkies and a bag of Doritos visible out of the top, a tetra-brick of sterilized milk and a jug of juice on the seat next to it, two large jugs of bottled water on the floor.
Mulder must have noticed my interest. "Best I could do," he offered and I wondered how our money was holding up.
"Looks great," I said, trying too hard, maybe, but I was out of practice.
"We can stop tonight, if you want."
"I want," I replied. "But I know we don't have time."
He nodded, pulled off his sunglasses, rubbed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. "This has got to be done, Scully," he said without looking at me and I wondered if he really could read my mind. "There isn't any other choice, now."
I knew. I'd had the better part of three days to think about nothing else. And somehow my capacity for denial, for refusing to see the obvious had taken a beating. Too much had happened in the days and weeks before that I couldn't explain away, try as I might, and I did try. Suddenly, there was no time for my well-rehearsed rounds of self-deception, self-delusion, self-absorption. Mulder and I, we had other things to do.
We had to get to Las Vegas, Nevada.
We had to find Walter Skinner.
And we had to kill him.