This story is also available at this location on The Archive of Our Own, where all my current stories and comments can be found. I am no longer updating this site.

Classification: XA, UST.
Rating: R for violence and language
Summary: A multiple murder case in Maine tests Mulder and Scully’s partnership.
Spoilers: Fourth season, between Demons & Gethsemane.
Disclaimer: I don’t own the characters and make no claim to anything herein.

Acadia Prologue

The trees were singing in Fox Mulder’s dream.

Their voices were varied, alto and baritone and soprano all rising and falling in a chant like the ones he remembered from long-ago Saturdays, reciting prayers in a language he couldn’t understand. Its incomprehensibility was beautiful.

The trees bent towards him, and suddenly he was in a small clearing, bald dirt surrounded by tall trees and underbrush. It was twilight, but he could still see the bark swirling, gently moving in harmony with the chanting. The sound was like the wash of the ocean. It made him dizzy.

Then he was standing on a rock, and the trees had receded away; the circle had grown larger. Over their heads he could see the mountains around him. He looked down and there was a section of a tree trunk at his feet, displayed on the rock like a sacrifice. Its bark was black and shining with wetness. Liquid had filled the ridges, so that the striations in the bark were traced in silver in the dying light.

Mulder knew with dream-certainty that the tree was soaked in blood. He tried to turn away, but some force drew him down, and he stretched out his hands. When they touched the bark, a great gout of blood rushed up into his face, covering him. He heard footsteps behind him, but could not rise to meet whatever it was that walked the bleeding forest.

And came awake, soaked in sweat and stuck to the couch in a most unpleasant fashion. He blinked at the VCR clock, which told him that it was well after three in the morning, and realized that he had forgotten to turn on the air conditioning even after seeing the report that the D.C. area was due for an unseasonable heat wave. Mulder peeled himself off the couch and staggered over to the thermostat, nearly kneecapping himself in the process, and managed to bludgeon it into producing cooler air.

He found a sheet from the hall closet to separate his skin from the sweaty leather of the couch, and went back to sleep.

I. A Tree Falls

There is the faint tinge of brine in the air, close to the sea. The sound of the waves, never once the same but always familiar. The gulls, whose wings flap and then still as they glide, flap and still until they are out of sight. The spruce, unrepentant and tall, whose new spring needles are as soft and welcoming as the eider duck’s down.

And with everything, the rock. Underneath the trees, the rock. Above the trees, soaring free, rise the bare mountaintops that gave Mt. Desert Island its name. Little orangey rocks on big tan rocks on slabs of grey-pink rock that are mountainsides. The only true fjord on the continent, with its mountain dipping directly to the river.

The rock has been here for a long time. It was underneath the glaciers when they came and it stayed when they retreated. The rock will be Acadia when that name has been forgotten.

There is no Mt. Everest in Acadia; nothing that cannot be tamed by ordinary human perserverance and planning. Perhaps its human scale makes it accessible. Acadia makes itself easily understood.

But in the spring, before crowds choke every road and trail, before the pollution haze rises from the cars to obscure the mountaintop views, Acadia is itself.

Richard Hughes had thought that Thunder Hole would be more interesting.

After all, hadn’t Dad read the description from the guidebook that said that air “exploded” out of the cave mouth when the water had compressed it enough? Hadn’t he said that the seafoam would spray twenty feet into the air when the air roared?

Richard (or Rick, but never, please God, Dick) had run down the path just off the road, nearly flying over the spray-slick granite and ignoring the sturdy metal railings, which would simply have slowed him down. He plunged headlong down the rock stairs, to where the sea-spray could drench him as Thunder Hole earned its name.

But it was high tide. The water was too high to leave the cave thoroughly enough to create a really strong noise. Instead of thunder, what Richard heard was the ocean clearing its throat, sending water running out with a phlegmy cough.

Phlegm was usually satisfying, but this did not cut it. His parents were making the most of the poor show, nattering on about how lovely it was anyway and how it would have soaked them on the upper level of the observation deck if it had been any higher, but Richard was pacing back and forth, wondering how soon he could get back to the car and his Nintendo.

He was about to run back up the stone stairs to the car, but he gave Thunder Hole one last glare, as if it would suddenly turn cool.

That’s why he was the first to point and shout at the arm that came gushing out of the cave when it hacked again.

“The first victim was a little past his freshness date when he was found. At first they thought he’d stayed up on the Bubble of his own volition and frozen to death–it’s still pretty cold in Maine–but then they found the ligature marks.”

Mulder passed Scully the picture from the file. The photo had been faxed, and it twisted in her fingers as she touched it. It showed a man curled up on top of a rock as big as a minivan. Judging by the bluish tint of his skin, he’d been dead overnight. His eyes had the filmy white of beginning decay.

“Where is this again?”

“Acadia National Park, up in Stephen King country–a few hours past Bangor. We’re flying into Bar Harbor, and then driving to the park. This,” he tapped the picture, “is known as the Bubble Rock; this big rock was deposited by a retreating glacier, so it sits on top of a mountain which is made out of completely different rock. It’s supposed to be rather striking, actually.”

“So why are we being called in? I understand it’s a federal park, but where’s the X File?”

“That’s where the second victim comes in. Still unidentified, the second victim’s arm was observed emerging by a young boy who got a little more excitement than he’d expected on his vacation.”

Mulder handed over the next set of pictures, which displayed an arm, two legs, a male torso, and a battered head (missing the eyes).

“The cuts look jagged,” she said. “Do they have any idea what was used to separate the parts?”

“According to the local funeral home–really big teeth.”

They touched down in Bar Harbor midmorning of the next day and staggered off the tiny plane. The weather had been stormy on the way up, and the journey had been enough like a roller coaster ride to make the agents very unhappy indeed. Two people on the plane, thirty-three percent of the passengers, had thrown up, and one had very nearly done so in Scully’s lap.

They picked up the standard rental car and drove straight to the park. It was an hour-long drive, mostly on two-lane state roads. On the straight-aways, cars were allowed to drive in the opposite lanes to pass, and Mulder took full advantage of the opportunity, nearly getting them into head-on collisions twice.

After the second time, Scully spoke up. She’d been trying to ignore him, but something about blaring horns and headlights being flashed in her eyes got to her. “What’s the hurry, Mulder? I bet our victim will still be dead when we get there.”

“This isn’t a legitimate X File,” he said, gripping the steering wheel more tightly and grinding down on the gas pedal. “It’s an excuse to get us out of Washington, where we can’t investigate anything really connected to larger mysteries, and also it’s a feeble attempt to get me profiling again. There’s clearly a killer here, escalating fast, but I’m uninterested in his delusions and I don’t think we have time for this.”

“The job’s the same as it ever was,” she said softly. Dangerous, decidedly unglamorous, and reasonably poorly paid.

“But we aren’t, are we?” He glanced over, just for a second, and then had to turn his attention back to the road as the car rounded a curve at a worrisome speed.

She’d very much hoped that a completely unrelated case could get Mulder’s mind off his past and her future, but that was beginning to seem unlikely. If he was right, at least they could probably finish the investigation quickly and return home.

Anyway, being in an isolated cabin in the wilds of Maine might be the best possible place to have a serious discussion with him. Somewhere he couldn’t run away from her, or claim that a suggestive lead made listening to her at the moment impossible.

They checked in at the gate to the park, and the attendant didn’t know what to do about them. Usually flashing FBI ID was the best way to get service, whether at the dry cleaners’ or at the local library (the local police department being a different matter entirely), but the attendant didn’t seem to grasp the concept that federal law enforcement officers might be interested in crimes on federal land. He thought that maybe Mulder was looking for a discount on the entrance fee, and he wasn’t sure whether that was allowed. Mulder considered just pulling out his wallet and paying the regular car entrance fee, but that probably would just have confused the poor fellow more. A few cars full of kids and harassed-looking adults waited behind them as he called for instructions.

Finally, the park attendant directed them to a small building about three hundred yards down the road. It was a good spot for an administrative building, off to the side so that it wouldn’t be in the way of tourists stampeding to the best spots but would still be locatable if someone’s golden retriever ran away.

The building was the Hulls Cove Visitor Center. It was diamond-shaped, the better to fit into the curve of the hill it sat on. They went inside; there were tour schedules and pamphlets about lobster, ducks, and beaver scattered around the walls. Most of the building was taken up with a large, high-ceilinged room that Mulder inferred was usually used for lecturing to large parties of tourists. A few rangers milled around the space, making it look even emptier. Their mood, frightened and confused, made the room seem larger and more ominous. This was not a security force, he thought grimly; it was a bunch of tour guides in khaki. The head ranger in charge of park security was named Jack Langbein, and he was almost unbelievably grateful to see them.

“We haven’t had a murder since I’ve been here,” he said as he shook Mulder’s hand, hard, then turned his attention to Scully. From her expression, Mulder thought that Langbein had been little gentler with her. “There was a suicide, a few years back, and then that guy who fell from one of the trails…but nothing like this,” he hurried to finish as Scully glared at him.

Langbein seemed unsure what to do once the handshaking was over. Mulder used the uncomfortable silence to evaluate him. He was in his late fifties, one of those lucky people whose hair whitens rather than greys. He’d been unluckier in his haircut–it looked like someone had been at his head with a pair of garden shears, and tufts were sticking out of it at all angles and lengths. He was sweating profusely, and he had to keep wiping his face with a patchy cotton handkerchief as he talked. Scully would no doubt classify him as a huge heart attack risk. His eyes were shockingly blue, and overall he looked as if he should be one of the FBI’s suspects rather than an ally.

Langbein coughed under Mulder’s intense scrutiny. “You know, we don’t even have tape to keep tourists away from the, uh, the crime scenes. We had about half a roll, and then we have another roll that says ‘Construction,’ but–well, Bubble Rock and Thunder Hole are some of our most popular attractions. We’d like to get them back up and running as soon as possible. I can show you how to get there right now.”

Scully gave him a look which Mulder translated as “If you really said what I think you just said, I’d have a better chance of having an intelligent conversation with the thing I just scraped off my shoe.” Scully had very little tolerance for tourist attractions when people were at stake.

Mulder suppressed the indulgent smirk he wanted to give her, so that she wouldn’t get mad at him, and fleetingly wondered whether he really had any idea what went on in her head. His profiling skills worked extraordinarily badly on her; no wonder she didn’t really believe in his skills, when her most direct experience of them was that he couldn’t tell how she was feeling if she hired a skywriter to tell him.

Langbein’s second nervous cough shocked Mulder out of his reverie. “Um, if that’s all right with you. People–folks get mighty mad if they drive a day to get here and they can’t see everything that’s on the map.”

“I get the same way with theme parks,” Mulder replied, and then he did get Scully’s nasty look, but Langbein hastily gave them directions–it wasn’t too hard, inasmuch as there was only one way to go into the park–and all but begged them to give him the all- clear to reopen Thunder Hole.

“I’ll send a ranger out to you, so you can tell us when you’re through,” was the last thing he said as he ushered them out the door.

“Does he even understand that this is a murder investigation?” Scully asked Mulder as they returned to the car.

He got in and shook his head. “Give the guy a break, Scully. Postal employees see more violence than park rangers, usually. It’s not his fault some nutcase decided to play Operation near his most prized attraction.”

They drove to Thunder Hole, a spot a few miles down the road. The park was set up so that cars could only drive one way around most of its perimeter; once you were in, you were in for the long haul. There were a few roads into the center of the park, for better access to the mountains, but to get in and out of the park there was no choice but the scenic route. They pulled over to a small parking lot just off of the road.

Scully followed Mulder to the railings that marked off the Hole.

The sea was calm and gray; the sun was bright, but not hot. The familiar yellow tape surrounding the crime scene looked particularly out of place among the rocks and weeds and white birds, a few of whom were pecking at the tape to see if it was edible. Only a few yards of tape blocked off the access to the ramp down to the throat of the cave; most of the barriers had been created using the orange construction cones that would normally be reserved for road repairs. Rangers were stationed at both sides of the approach to the Point, warning off tourists.

Mulder pried the tape off of one of the metal railings and held it aside so that Scully could pass. They walked down the gray stone steps.

Scully looked out at the ocean, paying no attention to the near-roar of the cave just below her. Far off in the distance, lobster buoys floated, green and white and yellow in distinctive patterns. She wouldn’t be familiar with this shoreline, Mulder thought, but it was the same sea. Near the water, the wind was brisk, and she settled her jacket more firmly around her shoulders.

Mulder hurried ahead, taking the steps two at a time heedless of the fact that they were slick from sea-spray. He vaulted over the guardrails, ignoring Scully’s disapproving noise, and looked into the cave mouth.

He could almost see the arm as it would have appeared to the little boy, something out of a video game or scary movie more than it was real. Moving on top of the water, not waving, but drowning. For a moment, until the jagged, grey edges at the shoulder were processed and understood, it would have looked like a mannequin’s arm, just standard flotsam from a polluted sea. And then with one blink the world would have changed.

A Freudian would attribute the obvious meaning to the location, leaving only the question of whether the killer knew he wanted to fuck his mother or not (though, frankly, a Freudian would ask the same question regardless of the victim’s location; they were nothing if not creative). He looked in and saw darkness, and jagged rocks, and the sea more powerful than any human agency.

A rush of water bursting from the hole filled his vision, foaming white and furious, and soaked him. The salt water made him blink and rub at his eyes, and he couldn’t see clearly for nearly an entire cycle, so when he looked again it was only to see that he should close his eyes against the oncoming water.

The killer would have stood here, sopping wet and very cold, because it would have been nighttime, when there were no visitors, feeding pieces in–would he have known that high tide would create the right suction to take the remains out of the cave? Mulder made a mental note to check if the rangers had noticed any debris recently that would suggest someone testing the wave patterns. He would have held his breath against the shock of the water, and his hands would have slipped against the sharp rocks, acquiring a thousand cuts and bruises before the job was done.

He shuddered from the cold, made worse by the splashes of water that continued to wash over him, preventing him from becoming acclimated to the air. The killer would have had as little regard for his own body as for that of his victim, to come out here and stand until his aim was achieved.

Mulder turned back towards the guardrail and groped for it. Scully’s hand found him and guided first one hand, then the other to the metal rail. It was smooth and strong under his fingers, but colder than her flesh.

“Nothing down there will take prints,” she shouted over the noise of the surf as he pulled himself back to solid ground. “And I don’t think there’s anything left in the cave–the rangers tried to find more parts, but they couldn’t.” Meaning, Mulder, why did you go down there?

The air felt freezing, now that he was soaked.

He tried to explain as she guided him back up the stone stairs, still shivering and miserable, and she made him walk back to the car and take off his shirt and jacket, replacing them with a dry shirt and the sweater he’d remembered to pack. His pants were still wet, but at least he was partly dry, and he wouldn’t leave to go find a bathroom until he’d gotten a better feel for the site.

The sun was white in the sky above. He could see for miles across the ocean; the view was spectacular, even without Thunder Hole roaring below.

Scully, somewhat at a loss without hard evidence to find, followed him as he paced by the railing at the top of the walk. He wanted to see the cave more closely again, to fix in his mind how it would have looked, and so he went down to the first landing, just above where the splash of the water hit. He could feel Scully behind him–when had he grown so comfortable with that? She’d prevent him from falling too far into this nut’s mind. Hell, if she could keep him from falling too far into his own mind, as she’d done within the month, this tree-hugger would be no problem at all.

He frowned. Tree-hugger? Where’d that come from? Water, rock- -no trees, not yet.

Only in his dream had there been trees.

Mulder held onto the railing. It would have been so hard for the killer to touch, this man-made abomination–this intervention, designed to make the Hole accessible to just anyone, regardless of how lazy. Now, going into the mouth of the Hole itself, that was something special. It required skill, appreciation of the dangers, toleration of the extremes of wet and cold.

What did the killer want? Mulder could answer that question easily: He wanted to close down the attractions of Acadia, to defeat the purpose of coming here. He wanted people to recoil from the tourist spots instead of flocking to them like fat sheep. He wanted to show how ugly human intrusion into this pristine environment is–and there’s no ugliness quite like death.

“Et ego in Acadia est,” he said contemplatively, looking down.

“Isn’t it Arcadia?” Scully asked.

“To Horace, maybe. Not to the little boy who’s going to dream about that arm forever.”

“Can you give me some idea what you’re talking about?” a voice asked plaintively. Mulder stiffened and reached for his gun, wet in the sodden holster but still functional.

Scully put a hand on his arm and whispered, “The ranger Langbein was going to send.”

She turned to confront the visitor. “It’s one of Death’s lines, ‘even in this paradise I am here.’”

She walked back up the steps, brushing past the confused ranger and leaving Mulder to contemplate the ocean and the hiccuping surf rushing in and out of the cave. He shook his head and followed her, giving the ranger an apologetic grin as he passed.

At the top of the stairs, there was a footpath extending in both directions, caught between the road and the rocks of the coast. Every twenty feet or so, there was a tree; most bore marks of past pruning to keep them from eliminating the path. In between the trees there were bushes and long grass. Almost every plant sprouted some sign of spring: small green leaves, shoots, or buds, red-veined and furled, waiting for their moment to emerge.

Not really having any particular plan in mind, Scully started walking down the path, away from the parking lot. She heard Mulder peel off in the opposite direction, and then the ranger’s hesitant footsteps behind her. Probably a law-enforcement wannabe.

Almost all of the trees had something wrong with them. Near the ground, or on their limbs, there were odd-shaped protuberances, woody grey goiters that made the trees look horribly pregnant. Most trees just had one, but some had three or four. When Scully looked across the road to the hillside, where the trees flourished in earnest, she saw that not as many were affected, though the deformities were still fairly common.

Maybe Joe Friday could at least assuage her curiosity. She turned and caught his eye. “What’s wrong with these trees?”

He looked at her helplessly. He was tall and broad- shouldered, with dirty blond hair and dimples. His nametag said “Gephardt.” “Nothing’s wrong, ma’am.”

“But what about those?” She pointed.

“Oh, the galls?” He sounded relieved. “Those are just natural. They’re caused by bacteria from the soil that get into the trees through wounds, maybe, or sometimes there are mites or wasps that lay eggs in the bark, and the galls grow around them.”

“Is it dangerous to the tree?”

“No ma’am. It’s not pretty, but it’s like a scar on a person- -just cosmetic.”

She frowned and bent to examine the nearest gall. It was as long as her forearm, bulbous and grotesque. It loomed out onto the path, nearly blocking the trail. “And are there always this many, Ranger Gephardt?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know if anyone’s really looked. Does this–is this part of the investigation?”

He said the last word as if it were an invocation. Scully suppressed a sigh–she’d been right in her initial evaluation. “No. I’m just curious. Can you take me to where the bodies are being kept?”

Gephardt gestured, and she followed.


Mulder considered the park. He’d wandered past the parking lot and onto the rocks facing the sea after Scully disappeared. She’d find him when she wanted to leave.

He was struck by the varieties of grey–in Washington, grey came in shades from concrete to gum. Here there was infinite variety. The sun picked out round bumps and jutting arms, warming the stones and making the individual dots of pink and white within the grey sparkle.

The cliffsides were rifled like the pages of a poorly-cut book on the landward side. In some places, the rock was so broken that he could stand on twenty tiny peaks at once, hoping that his boots would hold up. In other places, the rock was divided into car-size cubes and trapezoids.

Because of the rock’s crystalline properties, it was easy to find nearly-sheer drops only feet from the well-worn, perfectly safe trail. There were many narrow crevices where the water had penetrated deep into the rock.

Mulder walked toward one outcropping, intending to look out at the sea, and suddenly found that the path was blocked by a gap in the rock that was invisible from even feet away. He was lucky he’d been walking slowly enough to notice. He looked down into the shadowed, wet crevice. The white foam where the sea met the rocks in an unending battle was visible, and there were clumps of algae.

There was also motion, a hundred feet below him–human figures, bending over the dank green masses on the shark-toothed shore. He squinted and decided that they must be Japanese visitors, collecting kelp pods to eat as a delicacy. He remembered kelp from the shores of his childhood, salty and shiny, gelid green or rusted red, some kinds as delicately lacy as a fan and other kinds dotted with hollow pods that would snap open and release the scent of the sea.

There were birds below him, floating in the water. Every few minutes, a duck would spot something edible in the water and a whole flock would dive down at once, turning into blurry white lines in the water and then returning en masse to the surface, sated.

There was a crack! a few hundred feet to his left, and he spun around, nearly losing his footing on the rock. He regained his balance in time to focus on the herring gull swooping to eat fragments of sea urchin. It had dropped the green, spiny ball from a height of several dozen feet to crack the shell and get at the tasty flesh inside. He grinned at the bird, wishing it well in the Darwinian struggle. His own feet crackled over remnants of past such meals.

Mulder frowned, realizing he’d lost focus. He could feel the profile crawling around in the back of his head, but he couldn’t quite articulate it.

Was this a long-term consequence of his recent impromptu surgery, he wondered, subtle damage to the linguistic centers of the brain that would make communication even more difficult for him? Usually he could spit out letter-perfect profiles while simultaneously knotting his tie. It was his gift to be fluidly, expressively snide and patronizing about his specialty, even though he was unable to communicate anything else without a thousand false starts. If that facility were gone, how would he maintain the mystique that offset his obvious instability?

God only knew what Scully would say if he told her this fear. Probably remind him that he was lucky to be alive, and then turn around and patronize him for not realizing that the brain tissue ‘that quack,’ as she called him, had penetrated was not generally associated with any linguistic processing functions in any reported research. As if that would reassure him.

She’d told him that the areas potentially damaged were some of the ones suspected to affect visual memory, which might explain the hallucinations/memories/whatever he’d recovered, and in particular might explain how he appeared in them full-grown. Spot damage to those portions of the frontal lobe could produce flashes of memory, or what seemed to be memory, and would certainly be conducive–Scully-speak again–to conflation of one memory with another, or a memory with a wish or a dream.

There was nothing to be done about it now, anyway, and so he wished she’d stop harping on it. She was the one who thought that time was a universal invariant; what did she expect him to do?

Apparently not, if he wasn’t going to be able to produce a profile that would enable them to get back to D.C. and let Smokey the Bear take care of catching the bad guy.

He knelt and picked up a handful of pebbles, pink feldspar and sparkling quartz intermixed with greyish shells. They ran through his fingers and left no trace behind.

Their killer wanted this tracklessness–wanted to leave no mark on the land. Wanted to turn the tables, mark the people instead. He put the bodies on the landmarks, carrion in the midst of stunning beauty–to show how people were corrupt and corrupting? To warn them away?

The symbolism was crude and at the same time inarticulate. It couldn’t be long until he became completely irrational, but that wasn’t as helpful out in the wilderness as it would have been in the middle of a city. Even an irrational person can get along fine if he only encounters one person at a time, and kills that person to boot.

Mulder rose and turned away from the ocean. Picking his way over the rocks, he returned to the path and then crossed the access road, into the forest proper.

The park had thousands of colors of green. There was the dry, mint green of desiccated moss on the rocks. There was the living, but somehow unhealthy, deep and velvety green of the living moss near it. The trees were green and fresh. In some places, the grass was also young and bright green; in others, the grass was green right where it emerged from the ground, but straw-white after about half an inch, as if Mother Nature had her hair frosted by an over- zealous hairdresser. Small ferns emerging from the ground were green; the epicytes that hung from dying trees like fairy hair were a light, minty green.

There were other colors, too: Rocks of uniform gray, or black where they had been exposed to water, or rich brown. Tree trunks were gray, and where a limb had broken off recently, he could see a shocking contrast where the inner wood of the tree, vibrant orange- brown, met the gray of the bark. There were also white birches, their pallor constantly interrupted with round black spots where branches might have grown, or patches where a layer of bark had come off, revealing a gray layer beneath. The soil was black and soggy with water, sprinkled with fragments of leaves. Acadia wore a coat of many colors, as spring worked its alchemy on the detritus of the last season.

He could still smell the ocean, salty and true through the mossy scent of ferns and the odor of balsam. It had been a cold spring, and not very much was growing yet, but he could smell the new life just under the surface.

There were very few insects, not at all as the tourist brochure had promised for summer visitors. Occasionally, he could hear birds: the soft hooting of an owl, the tap-tap-tap of a woodpecker, or other, less identifiable noises. Leaves laced through his field of vision, spiky and round and everything in between, strung on branches that grasped higher towards heaven than he aspired.

Mulder could feel the weight of the forest, pressing in on him even when he was so close to other people. The forest had swallowed him; if Scully began to look for him, as she would undoubtedly do in a minute or two, she would have no idea where to start. He was insulated, protected, alone. He could stay here forever, with the trees. They made no demands of him. They were tall and strong. Maybe he could learn how to be like them.

Mulder shook his head, confused. He stared down at his hands- -familiar hands, though he could barelyy feel them now and he didn’t think it was entirely the cold that was to blame. These thoughts didn’t feel like his own. If they were his own, there’d be more guilt for considering laying down his burden and hiding from the rest of the world.

This peace wasn’t for him; it was the killer’s. Always remember who is doing the hunting, Patterson had said. It’s harder than just existing. Any fool can learn to be someone else, he’d lectured, but the real trick is to be both of you at the same time.

He emerged from the woods and paused on the grassy strip dividing trees from concrete to look both ways before he crossed back to the trail by the shore. He strongly wished for more assistance. This wasn’t a case that required his special talents; what they needed was forty or fifty more rangers and a good manhunt.

As if God heard and wanted to punish him for his presumption, just then he felt it. It was as if colored filters had snapped down over his eyes. The world twisted and shuddered under his feet. He spun around, gripped by the certainty that if he left his back to the forest it would eat him alive. The sky became white and featureless; the trees began to dance, swaying back and forth as if following the rhythm of an unheard waltz. Their branches smoothed and grew liquid and graceful, black against the contrasting sky.

He sank to his knees, trying to understand what had gone wrong.

His head felt heavy, fuzzy. It was so hard to think when the trees weren’t helping him. How had he ever made it this far, without them? He wanted to weep with gratitude, but he was so lonely when they stopped talking. How had he gotten so far away from them? He’d have to get back. He rose carefully into a crouch, looking in every direction to make sure that he was safe.

Across the concrete scar, a young tree waved reassuringly. So much filth around him, filth and corruption; he felt again unworthy, and so grateful, to have been chosen from all the meat in the world to join with them.

He was on his hands and knees, watching the white sunlight sprinkled on the loam, highlighting random places. There, a rock shone, bright as a diamond; here, a patch of moss glowed, green velvet. The face of the last intruder he’d punished shone from the tree’s whorled bark like an object lesson. Moaning with relief, he crawled toward the welcoming tree and buried his face in her beckoning, tattooed lap.

And came back, feeling his face sting where the bark had scratched him. Mulder wiped at the dirt and bark fragments without much hope, trying to make himself minimally presentable. No one was yelling for help for the crazy man, which meant that his performance had probably gone unobserved. He remembered the handkerchief he’d been carrying around for Scully, and used it to wipe off the worst of the grime from his face and hands. The knees of his pants were a total loss, still wet from the surf and now saturated with mud; he’d even managed to generate a tear on that stumble.

He was standing, but he leaned against the tree for support, ignoring the damage to his sweater.

Yuck.

Would he have been so monstrous as to understand the killer if his life had not changed irrevocably when he was twelve? Or was the insight into the death-drive a part of him anyway? After all, he’d planned his first murder when he was seven–his first-grade teacher, the one who always singled him out for special attention because he was so

smart

, thus ensuring that all the other kids would hate him–and, looking back, it really would have worked, except that, in retrospect, he hadn’t been quite coordinated enough at seven to make the door close at just the right time. He’d all but profiled his baseball coach at ten, figuring out what to say to the sadistic bastard to make things a little easier for the team–already, then, he had learned how to irritate adults and draw their fire away from the more vulnerable kids who didn’t understand the dynamics of human suffering. Maybe Samantha was just one more excuse, and he was always destined to live in dangerous thoughts, to understand the evil and damaged half-people whose mission was to make life on earth as hellish for others as it was for them.

He didn’t want to do this anymore. He’d thought that the X Files would protect him. He should have known better. There was no protection for what he was; even if he quit the FBI and became a hermit, he’d still see the murders when he looked around. Hell, they’d probably be drawn to him, because being completely understood by another human being is a dream that few have fulfilled.

He looked around again. No faces in the treetrunks, not at the moment. He’d learned very little from the episode; the killer didn’t seem to plan very far in advance. The forest, with all its presence, felt empty of humans. The man they were looking for had not stayed to watch the ants scurry, so to speak. What was the need to watch meat stumble around?

“Well, that was pleasant,” he informed the forest, and went to look for Scully.


Scully had been working long enough that the powder in her latex gloves had lost almost all of its effectiveness, and as she pulled the yellow material off she experienced a sensation not unlike peeling her bare legs off of a vinyl seat on a hot and sticky day. She shuddered and quickly went to wash her hands, throwing the gloves into the tiny hazmats bin as she went.

Death was always ugly. So much of the beauty of the human form came from motion; even the flush on the most emaciated model’s cheek was at least an imitation of the flow of blood beneath the skin. Still the heart and lungs, and the imperfections began to matter. The pores of the skin gaped more; the wrinkles spoke of hard wear and loss of elasticity rather than experience and passion for living. Ignore that, and the hungry bacteria surging from the gut, the air, the ground around the body still clamored for attention, bloating the flesh in places, collapsing it in others.

Waterlogged dead people, in particular, were close to burn victims in sheer unappetizing grotesquerie. Every lesson had to be literally squeezed out of the body. Most clues had disappeared under the relentless erasure of water. Flesh frayed, contents of arteries and intestines washed out…at least this one hadn’t had many fish at him. Not many.

She’d dictated her findings into her trusty little recorder, for whatever good they’d do. Off the one arm they had, she’d managed to salvage a few partial fingerprints. Dismemberment, in this case, had been an investigative aid; the arm had probably tumbled this way and that in the small cave by the shore. If it had been attached to a body, it probably wouldn’t have changed position as much, and the outstretched hands would have bashed into the sand over and over again, quickly obliterating any useful prints.

Scully sighed and rolled her shoulders back, trying to work out the pain caused by too many hours craning down at bad angles. Bar Harbor, not surprisingly, did not have very extensive investigative facilities, and adjustable tables were out of the question.

So what had all her exacting care told her? She tried to organize a list of important points in her head. It was very important to be ready for Mulder’s questions. He thought so damn fast, and if she wasn’t going to struggle to keep up she had to be completely in command of her side of the story.

Caucasian male, mid-twenties (which, of course, only described about 35% of the visitors to the park, she thought darkly). Blond, almost shockingly so, judging by the arm and pubic hair. Even most natural blonds have darker, even brownish, pubic hair, but not this man, which implied that he was very, very fair. On a hunch, she suspected oculocutaneous albinism, probably tyrosine-positive–though that was just a guess; she’d have to confirm it with hairbulb analysis. She’d taken samples from his arm to send down to the lab in Boston, just to make sure. If he had albinism, that would make him easier to identify in some ways, but harder to track–he’d probably had thick sunglasses and lots of protection from the sun, at least if he had any sense, because one of albinism’s less pleasant consequences was enhanced vulnerability to sunburn and skin cancer. If he’d gone around the park bundled up, it was unlikely that anyone would remember him very well.

He’d been taken apart with a hacksaw, she’d concluded after careful inspection. The park officer who’d called in the FBI had been sure it was teeth, which was why it was ostensibly an X File, but the officer had obviously known more about preventing forest fires than about identifying death mechanisms. Couldn’t blame her, really. After nearly a day in the water, the edges of the flesh looked pretty ragged. Only the scratches on the bone itself, which the poor ranger couldn’t have been expected to examine fully, identified the cutting instrument as a hacksaw.

Scully realized that her hair was soaked with sweat, from concentrating in the closed, airless little room they’d given her. It had been freezing when she came in, but hours of work had bled heat off of her and into the room. She pulled off the elastic band she’d been using to keep her hair back and shook her head like a dog coming in out of the rain.

“Do you serve towels with your showers?”

She started, and opened her eyes to Mulder’s shit-eating grin. “I didn’t hear you come in,” she chided.

“I’m the strong, silent type.”

Mulder looked like she felt. He had a good day’s worth of stubble, except for the patch near his mole where hair wouldn’t grow; she’d diagnose it as alopecia from stress if she didn’t think he’d take her head off for telling him so. His sweater, the nice new one she’d made him put on a few hours ago, was covered with debris, and his pants were ruined. His greyish trenchcoat hung from him like a loose skin about to fall off; even the drooping belt looked dejected. His eyebrows were bunched and lowered over his eyes, so she knew he had a headache. One pupil was still larger than the other. What was the Bureau thinking, sending him out on a case only a week after he’d had a hole drilled in his head? God, it was like a bad joke: Mulder needs another serial killer case like he needs a hole in the head–oh wait, he has a hole in the head. That butcher–she stopped herself and brought her attention back to the case.

“I think our victim suffered from albinism, Mulder.” She outlined her findings quickly, and he took it in.

“Do you think that the victim’s condition made him stand out to our UNSUB?” she asked when she’d finished the recitation.

Mulder shook his head uncertainly. “I don’t see it yet. You said he might have been particularly dressed up? Unnaturally protected from the natural world? I–” He winced.

“Let’s turn in for the night,” Scully said.

“Tired?”

“I could use some sleep,” she conceded, for once letting him use her as an excuse without protest. “Pickled corpses aren’t my favorite.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty ripe, isn’t it?”

Scully looked at him uncomprehendingly.

“The smell, Scully?”

She shook her head. “I–”

Mulder just looked at her, and it made her want to cry. She focused on cleaning up, sealing the body parts into their separate bags, tagging and labeling everything for future reference. So that it could be used at the killer’s trial, if necessary. Or in case someone else had to take over.

He was still standing there, watching. She could feel his gaze on her skin.

“I’ve been expecting this for a while, Mulder. My doctor said that the olfactory nerve was unlikely to survive much longer. I suppose I just didn’t notice. It shouldn’t impair my ability to do the job.”

She did not look up to judge his reaction.

She let Mulder drive, even though she could tell that he had to struggle to keep his attention on the road. The night was completely black; there was no artificial light at all but their brights as they drove down the darkened state road. The woods on either side of the road soaked up the headlights after only a few feet. It was like driving through a trench. Mulder had found the one non-static-filled radio station. “I’m married to a waitress and I don’t even know her name,” the radio sang, and she couldn’t even force herself to smirk along with Mulder.

Scully stared out at the window, into the darkness, wondering if death would look like the cool Maine night. Sometimes she thought that she could feel it moving in her body, growing cell by cell.

Mulder spoke in half-sentences as he drove, telling her what he’d found while she’d been slicing and dicing. He’d taken a look at Bubble Rock. No signs of struggle, further evidence for his conviction that the killings were done elsewhere and then the bodies were moved to prominent tourist spots.

Langbein had wanted to clear away the police tape so that tourists could return to the Rock. He’d already had three Representatives’ offices call and ask why their constituents couldn’t see the wonders of America preserved with those same constituents’ hard-earned tax dollars.

Mulder had told them it was fine, let the tourists scramble over the site and Thunder Hole as well to their hearts’ content, because he didn’t think there was much more to be learned from the sites, and there were plenty of photographs. The setup at Bubble Rock was rather simple: Dead body, left to be found. Minimal planning, zero trace evidence. Rock and tree trunks didn’t take footprints very well, let alone fingerprints, and if their UNSUB was some sort of mountaineer type living lightly on the land he wouldn’t leave many traces at the best of times.

As they pulled up the twisting gravel driveway leading to their cabin, Scully reflected that it was a sign of Mulder’s trust in her that he’d let her hear him thinking out loud. At least there was some trust left between them, however fragile, however limited to the professional.

Mulder had found them a cabin at the top of one of the bigger hills, at a place called the Blue Moon. It was the off season, so even though the cabins didn’t have a government rate, they’d still be able to avoid a fight with Accounting. It had two real bedrooms as well as a minuscule bathroom and a main room that served as a kitchenette and living room. One wall of the main room was taken up with sliding glass doors and a huge picture window; Scully gathered from the promotional literature left on the kitchenette table that the sunset from this cabin was remarkable.

Then she went into her bedroom; Mulder had already chosen the one on the left. She wearily removed her suit and hose. The hose stuck to her feet unpleasantly. Just another rough day.

Mercifully, she slept almost as soon as her head hit the pillow.

Scully woke with the dawn. The bed was positioned so that the first rays of the sun came through the high window, which she hadn’t even noticed last night, and hit her pillow. Scully rubbed at her eyes and checked her watch. It was not yet six. Following the next step of her morning routine, she checked the pillowcase– still pristine and slightly stiff, the cheap hotel cotton blend smelling of pink soap.

She laid back and tried to rest, but it was hopeless, so after a few minutes she got up and put on her robe. She didn’t hear Mulder moving around. As quietly as she could, she opened her bedroom door and entered the main room.

Mulder was outside, leaning on the wooden railing that circled the deck, looking out over the darkened treetops. He was facing west, where the stars were still visible. He didn’t turn, and she thought that she hadn’t made enough sound to travel through the glass doors.

His hands were braced on the railing, as taut as if he were about to swing over and throw himself to the ground below. But his eyes were on the stars. His long, brown-furred legs were bare, though he had a green sweatshirt on. She could see the faint steam from his breath rise over his head and dissipate.

Making a decision, she picked up a blanket from the couch and walked over to the door. She slid it open, then shook out the blanket as she walked onto the deck. The weathered wood was cold against her feet.

Scully wrapped the blanket around Mulder’s hips. She would have put it around his shoulders, but the blanket wasn’t big enough and neither was she. He didn’t react until she put her hand on his right arm–it was cold, too cold–and moved it to hold the blanket up.

“My sister’s blood cries out to me from the ground,” he said, as if he were reading a far-off sign.

Scully wanted to cry. It was too early for this. And too late.

“You’re not God, Mulder. You aren’t responsible for what you can’t know, what you couldn’t have done anything about.”

“But I do know. Somewhere, if I could only remember. I can remember every stupid thing Professor Greeley ever said, even though I already knew it was mostly wrong, but I can’t remember what happened to her.” Now he took the blanket, pulling away from her hands, wrapping it around himself to give himself its fragile protection.

Scully shivered, hugging herself. “You’ll never fix the present by rediscovering the past.”

“Says the woman who refuses to live in either.”

She fell silent. That wasn’t exactly fair, but it wasn’t wrong. Her breath barely created any fog; even the air knew that she was half a ghost already.

“You know, the operative assumption at VCU is that I did her- -in both senses of the word, Scully–annd repressed it, and the guilt is what makes me so good at what I do.”

“I can’t believe they would say something so unprofessional, Mulder.”

“She’s a case study. One of Patterson’s games. You show up for training and you get all the facts and you’re asked for a profile. You’re specifically asked if the brother could have done it. You know what the correct answer is? ‘Cannot be excluded.’ Everyone there thinks I ‘cannot be excluded.’”

Scully reached out and put her hand on his shoulder. She could feel the bones, burning through the sweatshirt.

He half-turned and flicked his eyes down her body. She would have found it insulting in anyone else, but she knew by now that she’d made different rules for Mulder, and in any event he was only evaluating how much weight she’d lost recently. “Let’s play a game.”

She waited apprehensively, letting her hand fall to her side.

“I’ll tell you things about the body on Bubble Rock, and each time you get the meaning right that’s one lecture of yours I’ll sit still for.”

Scully rubbed at her eyes. “Do we have to do this?”

“Why, Scully, whatever happened to that ambition of yours? Don’t you want to know how it’s done, how the sibyl reads the bones?”

She didn’t like the fey, mocking tone in his voice. It was a little too thin and strained; he was trying too hard to be Fox Mulder, the unaffected, the blank wall that absorbed everything and admitted nothing.

“What did you find?” she asked, resigned.

“Our first victim’s a simple beating death–a sharp blow to the back of the head with your standard blunt object. From the dirt and bark fragments embedded in the wound, even Doc Holliday the local sawbones was able to discern that the instrument of death was most likely a big branch. With me so far?”

She’d examined the wound herself. It had required considerable force; depressed skull fractures aren’t easy to create. She scowled at him. He knew she’d seen it. If she humored him too much, he’d sense it and get even more resentful.

“So, a wagonload of happy campers hikes up the hill to the famous Bubble Rock, and they find themselves staring at the dead man’s face. Eyes open, face slack.” He paused. “Comments?”

God, how she hated this.

She didn’t expect him to know science, actually it was better when he didn’t try, and she’d even let that silly lecture on ‘punctual’ equilibrium slide. She closed her eyes, imagining the photos of the scene, trying to compare it with others.

Her eyes snapped open and she looked up at him defiantly. “He didn’t know the victim. Didn’t need to cover the face or close the eyes to apologize or depersonalize–the victim was already just a symbol to the killer.”

Mulder mock-applauded, letting the blanket slide from his shoulders. “We’ll make a profiler of you yet.”

Scully opened her mouth to point out that she probably wouldn’t have too much time to become comfortable with the skills, but bit the comment back. That was too cruel, even for this game.

“So how’s the man look to you, all curled up on the Rock. Remind you of anything?” He stared fixedly into the distance. His eyes didn’t follow the birds that soared in the near-darkness, still searching for dinner.

She frowned.

“Here’s a hint: What did the killer do? What did he need to have happen to make the scene right?”

Again, the black-and-white photographs rose from her memory. The balled-up corpse, staring eyes and trailing hands, perched like a thrill-seeking contortionist on top of that rock. The sun coming over his uncaring shoulder, but he’d never be sunburnt again.

The rock on top of the mountain. The man on top of the rock.

“He’s–formed into the shape of the rock. Before rigor set in, probably right after the murder, the killer arranged the body into the shape of the rock,” she said wonderingly. The real world was fading, the photographs taking on an increasing reality. “That’s what had to happen–he needed a symbol.”

She tried to focus on Mulder. A few blinks, and the blurriness cleared. Some color leached back into the world: midnight green trees, lightening sky as blue as absinthe, Mulder’s bark-colored hair.

Mulder turned and smiled at her, pleased; it was heartbreakingly genuine. The storm had broken, and he was ready to forget it had ever happened.

She had an insight: He thought she was water, through which he could rage without leaving marks. This, in its way, was his testament to her strength, the strength he believed he saw in her. For her own sake, she tried to believe it as well.

Mulder stretched, letting the blanket fall to the wooden planks beneath him, and turned to go back into the cabin.

“Ready for breakfast?” she asked, bending to pick up the blanket. She shook it, raining fragments of leaves and twigs onto the deck, and refolded it.

She let him wave her through the door, holding the blanket in front of her like a shield.


II. Secret Operations of Nature

Some say that people find themselves in the forest. They discover, away from the babble of the city, what they are without constraint.

Others maintain that people lose themselves in the forest. Humans are social animals; they are not fully human in the absence of companionship. Falling trees may make whatever noise they like, but people exist only in the plural. Alone, truly alone, something vital is stripped away. Whether this loss is a detriment or a benefit is a question on which commentators are divided.

Acadia, as is its wont, keeps its own counsel on the issue.

The call about the latest body came just after seven a.m.

They dressed quickly; Mulder had warned Scully to bring layers, so she dressed carefully, with thermal underwear to wick away sweat from her body, a Polar fleece shirt over that to keep warm, and a Gore-tex parka on top, to shield her from the wind. Heavy jeans, thick socks, and sturdy boots completed the outfit. When she met up with Mulder in the main room, she was mildly amused to find that they’d even chosen the same dark colors for their parkas; they looked like they came from the same scout troop.

The Blue Moon cabins were only fifteen minutes away from the park, and it was a much easier fifteen minutes with the thin sunlight guiding them. They were waved through the entrance this time, and they drove around the loop road just long enough to get to the entrance to Cadillac Mountain. The rental Taurus protested against the thirty degree grade, but Mulder just called it a piece of shit and stepped on the gas.

Scully had never before been on a mountain from which she could see the sea. She scanned one of the ubiquitous brochures as they climbed upwards. Cadillac Mountain was the highest mountain on the East Coast, and also the easternmost. According to the park’s self-congratulatory literature, visitors who wait for sunrise at the top of the mountain could be the first people in the continental United States to see the sun in the morning. The brochure made it sound, Scully thought, as if the Park Service itself had erected the mountain, just so the God-fearing tax-paying citizens of America could see an early sunrise.

They pulled into the parking lot, almost empty except for the park vehicles. It had over a hundred spaces, by her quick appraisal, and apparently that wasn’t enough to satisfy the demand, because, according to the rangers, during the summer cars were backed up all the way down the mountain, couch potatoes waiting for their turn as King of the Hill. There were restrooms and a small gift shop, too, she noted, though the latter bore a sign that it was closed for the season.

The mountain was flat near the top, flat enough that making the parking lot probably hadn’t been very difficult. Above the grey concrete, the mountain sloped upwards in smooth lumps, bare of most vegetation except for a few scattered bushes. The flat yellow-brown of the stone was punctuated by wooden signs indicating the directions of various trails down the mountain.

A circle of rangers surrounded the tallest hillock. They were all facing outwards, as if they were unwilling to look again at what they were guarding.

Mulder shouldered past them, opening up a space for Scully to slip through. They were standing around a trail marker. Since the ground was solid rock, and wood doesn’t penetrate very well into rock, the marker was supported by a cairn of stones. Scully could see that there were at least three trails that passed this point. She couldn’t see their names, though, because of the entrails hanging off of each pointed sign.

Scully estimated that enough viscera to constitute one human being was strewn over the wooded post.

“I don’t see the rest of the body,” she said, assuming that one of the rangers would reply if the rest had been found.

Her faith was rewarded when one, still not looking inward, stiffened and said, “It’s under the rocks.”

Scully looked down at the stones keeping the pillar upright, but couldn’t see anything.

“Over here,” Mulder’s voice came. “On the other side.”

She walked around and found him kneeling between a hand, outstretched in one final, pitiful attempt to find release, and a head. It was cool on the mountaintop, and there were as yet no visible signs of decomposition; she could see that the victim’s eyes had been blue.

Mulder looked up at her. “He’d have to have an incredible sense of balance to keep the sign upright while he stuck this guy in among the rocks.” He pointed to a spiderweb, littered with the husks of insects, stretched in between the pillar and a few of the rocks on the top of the pile. One section of the web was stained where a splash of gore had hit it. “The sign didn’t move at all. He’s got a real feel for this.”

“For murder?”

“That too. He’s got a real feel for the park, Scully. I think he’s more at home here than he’s ever been anywhere else.”

Mulder stood, brushing dirt from his knees. “They’ve sent someone to get a camera, to get pictures of the scene. I guess you can do an autopsy of whatever they can scoop up, but I don’t think we need to wait to decide the cause of death.”

Scully nodded. Mulder’s eyes were unfocused, and she left him to his work. She confirmed with the rangers that a photographer was coming to record the scene, and that they would take all the body parts to the local police office as soon as the mortician showed up. Her quick examination of the scene produced no immediate leads, and if Mulder was right about their UNSUB, it wasn’t likely that they’d find any evidence to connect him with a house or a job.

She returned to Mulder’s side when she was sure that each of the rangers knew what he or she was responsible for. If everyone had a task, the whole thing would seem more manageable, less sickening. It was odd for her to be managing people; it wasn’t one of her best skills, but Mulder would have left the rangers standing there like trees all day. Actually, he was paying more attention to the trees.

He acknowledged her return by beginning to speak.

“I want to walk the trail. To see what he sees when he looks around.” His head was turning, scanning the scene in short, sharp jerks. Tracking.

“You think that hiking will give you clues to our killer?” To Scully, this mountain looked very much like the others they’d seen. Trees, stone, dirt. Irregularity and disorder, quite natural of course, but civilization was built to conquer the natural. If Mulder thought the madman was enamored of natural chaos, he was probably right.

“Hiking couldn’t hurt–he’s picked some of the park’s main attractions–Thunder Hole, Bubble Rock, Cadillac Mountain. I want to see why the park’s important to him.”

Scully sighed and checked her fanny pack. The canteen was full; she had trail mix and binoculars, and a Swiss Army knife, gauze, and antibiotic cream if anything went moderately wrong. Planning around Mulder, she knew, would admit of no more preparation than that. “So, let’s hike.” She hurried back to exchange a few last words with the silent ring of rangers, then followed Mulder’s retreating form down the trail.

“The rangers say we should be careful,” she told Mulder when she caught up. “About a third of the trails are impassable in places, because of waterfalls from melting snow or snow cover that’s still hanging on. None of them knew about anything dangerous on the main trail here, but don’t go running anywhere. They say these rocks get slick.”

He just looked at her; she gave up, embarrassed. He didn’t need to tell her that she wasn’t his mother. Though, come to think of it, his mother didn’t exactly seem like the overprotective type.

They traveled mainly in silence. It was apparently still the off-season for birds as well as tourists, for there were very few noises from the forest around them. Scully only saw one bird in the first hour of the hike. She didn’t recognize it. This was much further north than she’d ever come as a child.

The forest was almost all evergreen. When they traveled over soil, the ground was as spongy as a mattress underneath their feet. The long winter finally over, rotted leaves had absorbed the melting snow and were at their richest. “Forest green” was a misnomer for the color, Scully thought as she looked around; the forest had a thousand shades of green at least, more when the light changed.

The trail was well-marked, and years of hikers had left it mostly bare, with thick roots crossing it at intervals, breaking the descent into large natural steps.

On lower ground, the forest floor was covered with last season’s pine needles, reddish-brown and straight (like Scully’s hair, Mulder said, just to tick her off, though she had to admit that the color was close). Runnels of water divided the ground in some places, runoff from the ice melting higher above.

Everywhere she looked, it seemed, she saw trees with bulbous projections from trunk or branches. Some of the goiters were bigger than her head. They were smooth as eggs, roughened like basketballs, round and oblong and bulbous like clusters of insect larvae. They were far more varied than their uniform, upright hosts.

Other trees were covered with white and brown fungus, growing like tiny shelves from the trees, some so thick than the underlying bark was invisible. Moss coated exposed roots, climbed up trunks, frothed over the path. Sickly green-white strands of something she could not name, but feared to touch, hung from other trees. Sometimes a tree’s branches would be draped with the stuff while the trunk was covered with half-mushrooms or moss, so that there was very little tree left, as such; it had been completely converted into a host.

The roots looked to her like arthritic fingers, curled over in pain, ugly from their lack of symmetry. Where they’d encountered obstacles to direct growth, they’d simply curled around–threading through rocks, crossing each other, and following the ground where it dropped sharply. The roots sought life, no matter how deformed.

She had never hated an investigative site so much.

Mulder looked back once, saw she was having trouble keeping up, and stopped, sitting down on a sizable rock by the side of the trail. “Do you need to stop for a while?”

Pride and common sense warred briefly in her, and the victor was preordained. “I’m fine,” she panted.

He looked at her almost indulgently and blinked slowly a few times. He was all but batting his eyelashes at her, begging her to be a little easier on herself. She walked the last few steps down to him and sat heavily on the rock, her back brushing his. “Want some water?” she asked, pulling the canteen from the bag at her waist.

“I’d be delighted,” he said, accepting the bottle. He only took a few sips before handing it back to her. Sometimes his desire to deny himself made life a little easier for her, after all.

“So,” Scully said, after she’d drunk her fill, “what have you found out?”

“Acadia’s a beautiful place. It must be nice in the summer.” Mulder was sweating lightly. Her covert glances at his face showed that the pupils were back to normal. His eyes were green today, complementing the forest.

“In the summer there are hikers up and down this mountain like ants on an anthill.” She sounded bitter, and that was unfortunate. She was unlikely to make it to summer, so she shouldn’t begrudge the tourists their vacations.

“Yeah, I guess the people aren’t too pleasant.” He was distracted. She was distracting him. He’d be better off without her.

Scully slumped a little. Usually she was better at pretending that he needed her investigative skills. It involved an astonishing amount of denial, inasmuch as he’d relied on those skills oh, maybe twice in their partnership. But his voodoo for today would obviously work better if she were gone. Maybe there was a polite way to extricate herself from it. And she was so tired, already.

“Would you come here for a vacation?” Mulder asked, breaking into her silence.

She thought about it. “In the summer, the bluebottle flies and mosquitoes are everywhere. One of the rangers told me last night that he ends up dunking himself in a bathtub full of ice at least once every summer, to bring down the swelling.”

“You sure he wasn’t trying to get you to help bring down his swelling?”

A rush of goodwill surged through her.

She tilted her head back, bumping him in the shoulder, and snorted. “Mulder, I know your vision’s still for shit, but even before last week you should have been able to tell that I’m not at my most attractive. I’ve got Bloomingdale-size bags under my eyes and, what’s worse, they clash with my hair, which is doing its best string impersonation. None of my clothes fit anymore. I look like Little Orphan Annie.”

She realized that she’d said more than she had intended to, and fell silent, the momentary contentment draining from her.

Mulder shifted awkwardly on the rock, turning to touch her shoulder. She didn’t look at him. “I–you look like you always do. I mean–”

She forced a smile and reached up to grasp his hand. “I know what you mean.” She let the silence settle back over them, and then shook her head to clear it. “Let’s get going. I’m sure the rangers are worrying that we’re the next victims by now.”

Mulder rose and set off down the hill again. Scully might have imagined it, but she thought that his shoulders slumped a little more.

It was another half hour before he spoke again. Scully entertained herself with looking for the few living things with which they shared the trail–two birds, one squirrel, and a few slow-moving beetles were all that she could find. Then, finally, he cursed. Once again, she sped up to stand beside him, panting a little with exertion.

Mulder looked down at the stone steps that had been carefully arranged on a steep part of the trail for hikers to use without endangering their ankles. The steps led between two old, well- entrenched trees; without them, the narrow path would have been too sharp a drop, and too uneven.

“They cheated, ” he said, and his whole body was stiff with outrage.

“What do you mean?”

“This isn’t natural. This isn’t showing people a trail through the forest. This is no better than paving a road through– look, the stone isn’t even from this part of the park, it’s from the other side, look how pink it is compared to the stone on the sides of the path. They rebuilt it so it would be easier, just like they built a road to the top of the mountain so you can drive up and be the first to see the sunrise without ever doing any honest work yourself.”

Scully stared at him. “I didn’t know that you felt that strongly about preserving the natural environment.”

Mulder shuddered and put his hand on a nearby sapling. His hand encircled the trunk easily. “I don’t feel that way. That’s how he feels–he thinks it’s cheating.”

He set off again down the hill, easily outpacing her. Scully took a few deep breaths and followed, trying not to lose sight of him. She got to the bottom of the stone steps, but then her foot hit a patch of rotting leaves and she skidded down the trail, only preventing herself from falling by grabbing on to a tree with all her might. The trunk hit her solidly across her upper left arm as her right swung around to embrace the tree, and she was grateful that Mulder didn’t look back to see her communing rather too intimately with nature.

She’d grabbed onto a tree covered with greyish fungus, and several of the dry things crumbled onto her arm as she pulled herself away. She brushed at the fragments, which had a texture like styrofoam. Under her jacket, the flesh of her arm crawled, overshadowing the pain of the impact.

Scully regained her footing and continued down, realizing from the twinge in her arm that she’d added another bruise to the catalog. She bruised so easily now, whether from the drugs or the cancer itself she wasn’t entirely sure. She told time less by the calendar these days, and more by what parts of her body were blue- black, or deep crimson, or brown-yellow as the healing slowly took place.

She was going to die looking like an abuse victim, she thought sourly, still brushing absently at the dusty residue of the impact.

God damn those trees.

“Come on!” Mulder’s voice was excited, impatient, his concern for her mercifully vanished because of whatever scent he’d picked up. Scully shook her head to clear it of self-pity and hurried down to where he was.

“Look at this,” he pointed to a hollow at the base of a large tree. Erosion had exposed many of the roots on the downward-sloping side, and a space large enough for a man had opened up. The roots and stony ground were partially covered inside the wooden cage by what looked like dried grass. Mulder knelt down and pawed at the faded green strands.

She sighed and knelt down next to him, pulling out her gloves in case it wasn’t too late for any evidence. Mulder produced a small flashlight and flicked it on; when she adjusted to the sudden brightness, she saw that the hollow went even further back than she’d first imagined. Something was killing the tree–the mini-cave not only went into the hill, it burrowed into the trunk as well, and the wooden ceiling was rough with decay. Small strands of pulpy wood hung down into the space, giving it an oddly furnished look, as if someone had carpeted the ceiling.

Scully ducked her head down under the highest roots–she was able to lean further into the hollow than Mulder–and went in, trying to keep the tree-rot off of her hair. Keeping her head close to the ground made it easy to see the discolorations on the grass and underlying dirt. The stains had the familiar color of old blood (it could, she supposed, be spilt coffee, but somehow she was willing to bet on the obvious).

She glanced around. It would be a claustrophobic space to sleep in, even for her, but probably better than staying outside where there was still snow. There was a churned patch of soil at the very back, and she was suddenly very grateful that her sense of smell was not all that it might be–it looked like their suspect’s latrine area. “You think this is our suspect’s nest or something?” she asked Mulder.

“Or something…I don’t think he’s too big on wiping his feet before he comes in, that’s for sure. I’m betting there’s blood here from the Thunder Hole victim, and maybe even the one this morning– the first one was a little neater, we might not find anything from that one.” Scully was scraping samples into evidence envelopes as he spoke; he would give her a new one whenever she held out her hand.

“We should call for backup, have the rangers watch this place for him to come back,” she suggested.

He shook his head. “He won’t come back. It’s his nest and we fouled it; he’ll find someplace else.”

“How will he know?”

“Maybe the trees will tell him.”

She frowned. “Mulder…”

“I think he knows we’re here.”

She paused in her evidence collection efforts and looked at him. “I sense a theory coming on.”

“You’re not going to like it.”

“That’s a given, isn’t it?… So, what do you think?”

“I think…I think he senses me here. I knew we’d find this, I mean not just that we’d find a nest but that it would be here, about this far down the mountain. I think I can see through his eyes, some–and that means he can see through mine.”

Scully got the last of the blood-soaked soil and began to crawl backwards out of the tree’s guts.

“I know you think that what happened with Roche was a fluke, was me profiling in my sleep, but I don’t know this guy’s work, Scully, and I can still see him.”

“Where’s the weapon, then?” It came out sharp and querulous.

“Hanging from his belt, I guess. Look, I’m sorry, it’s not like I’ve got a transmitter stuck in him, okay?” He paused, as if realizing that he hadn’t made the most tasteful possible analogy. “I just…I get flashes, and sometimes I can interpret them, that’s all. I wish–if I could make it work better so we could just go grab him and go home, believe me, I would.”

Mulder said that he wanted to keep looking, but she needed to get the soil analyzed to see if it really was stained with the blood of the victims. The tests were simple, even with the primitive equipment immediately available, so she took advantage of her freedom to go do the autopsy of the latest victim in the local funeral home. The building was a converted house still painted pink, perhaps to make the neighbors feel better about it, with a discreet sign and a scalloped awning over the front walk that signaled its current function.

The room they gave her was in the basement, cold and clammy with the chill rising from the concrete floor and through the walls. They had a decent table, but she was glad that she’d brought her own knives.

The victim was a trace technician’s dream–or nightmare, for the lazy ones. He was covered in gravel and smaller fragments of dirt, leaves, shells, and other detritus. The blood had helped him collect his evidentiary cargo. She was almost grateful that her sense of smell was barely working; unlike the victim in the water, who’d been somewhat washed clean, this man was still covered with the wastes released when his sphincter and bladder muscles went slack.

The killer was improving: He’d taken fewer practice cuts, gone for the joints with more confidence and success. She was willing to bet that the same hacksaw had been used, though confirmation would have to wait until they found the weapon.

As she worked, weighing and recording, she considered the emerging pattern. He hadn’t cut up the first one, but two dismembered in a row was beginning to look like he’d developed a strategy. Then she chided herself for trying to do someone else’s job; mentioning her thought to Mulder would be worse than teaching her grandmother to suck eggs, whatever the hell that meant.

Nearly ready to close up now. She bent over the torso.

Time seemed to slow; she saw the shining drop of blood halfway between her face and the body, and dropped the knife she was holding in a desperate attempt to catch it. But her body was sluggish and gravity insistent, and it landed with a soft ploshing sound right where the man’s navel had been.

Scully reared back, trying to limit the damage. She almost put her hand over her nose, but just in time remembered what was on her gloves and pulled off the outer pair, letting her blood soak into the concrete floor, where it was indistinguishable from the other fluids of the dead. Still wearing the second pair of gloves, she tilted her head forward to keep the blood from going down her throat and choking her, pinching her nose closed to aid clotting.

She kept the usual five-minute count, taking the chance to look around the basement. It could have been anyone’s basement; the water heater hummed in one corner, the industrial-strength refrigerated units in the other. As suited the primary tasks of an undertaker, most of the tools on the tables around the sides of the room were cosmetic, designed to improve upon death and even, in some cases, on life. Wigs, lipstick, small plastic inserts that could fill out a face, larger ones for replacing the chest cavity, ties, scarves, even a few boxes of cheap earrings.

She shivered, waiting for the flow to stop. The soil on all sides of her, behind the walls, transmitted its chill to the room, which was no doubt efficient but was still claustrophobic. The concrete walls had a few damp cracks in them, and occasional stains as if fungus had been scraped off. The floors were made of the same dark stuff, stained with runnels of dried fluids that stuck to the bottom of her boots as she walked around.

Scully checked her watch and released her nose. Nothing more trickled down; she found some paper towels and wiped herself off, using her distorted reflection in the metal dispenser to guide the clean-up.

Then she allowed herself to consider what had just happened.

This wasn’t like bleeding on a file folder. Everyone spilled things on case files; chocolate stained just as badly as blood, and coffee was worse because it was more likely to make ink run. But this was evidence she’d just compromised. Letting this go on endangered the investigation. What if, next time, it happened at the beginning of the autopsy and confounded vital trace evidence?

Her shoulders hitched, once, twice, and then she controlled herself. She’d known that she’d have to quit eventually, when she could no longer perform up to the high standards the Bureau demanded, but she’d thought that it would be some sensory failure, or even dementia, that stopped her. Not a stupid nosebleed, not a symptom.

Mechanically, she put on a new pair of gloves and finished the last few tasks, sewing the torso back together. Neat, even stitches. Would the pathologist who sewed her up be so careful? He’d better, or Mulder would–her vision blurred and she felt the sudden stab of a headache from holding the tears in. She prayed to God, automatically, for strength, feeling the futility even as she mouthed the words.

When the body was back in its refrigerated cabinet, she took the samples she’d collected and headed up the rickety wooden stairs towards the ground floor and the Maine evening. At the top of the stairs, attached to the back of the door, there was a mirror. She’d gotten almost all of the blood; she licked her finger and wiped at the remaining spot. The dried blood was only faintly coppery to her reduced sense of taste.

Aboveground, Scully called the rangers’ station for a lift, and they said they’d send someone right along. The funeral home had a porch, like the homes that surrounded it, and she sat on a wicker chair, waiting to be picked up. She stared into the road, watching an occasional car go by and following leaves as they tumbled across her field of vision.

There were arrangements that she should be making, that she should have made already, but she hadn’t had the courage. She wanted an autopsy done, of course, and the tumor dissected and studied if it could do any good. But then what? A cremation, as her father had done? A memorial service for a few friends and family– which would make it less evident that she didn’t have a large crowd of mourners, maybe.

Cremation would be a good idea, she decided. Burning, disappearing, gone–and returning to the world, idiot dust, to be breathed in by thousands of people all around the world, carried by water and currents of air. It would be more influence than she’d achieved in life. And then there would be no rotting for her body. She’d seen enough rotting that she knew she’d rather avoid it. She’d leave a note for her mother, who didn’t want to talk about it (she thought wryly) but would have to face facts soon enough.

She imagined the memorial service. Mom would have a priest, no matter what she asked. The man wouldn’t have known her, and would mouth meaningless generalities. She could see Skinner, Mom, Bill, Charlie and his wife–they didn’t bring the children, who were too young to understand. Where was Mulder? She looked around in the church of her imagination and found only a dark nothingness.

Tires chuffed on gravel; she opened her eyes and saw a Jeep with a grim-faced ranger waiting for her.


Mulder was not yet back at the cabin when she arrived. She decided to shower, because she could no longer tell how much of the autopsy odor lingered about her. The ranger hadn’t winced or had any obvious reaction, but he’d also driven with the window open.

She shampooed twice, just to be sure to get at the scent, and sprayed perfume on her wet hair when she got out. she thought.

When she emerged from the bathroom, Mulder had returned. He was making grilled cheese sandwiches. He handed her a plate and they ate in silence. She was grateful for that, grateful that he felt comfortable enough with her to return to their older patterns.

After dinner, they moved to the couch by mutual, unspoken consent. The couch itself was a seventies relic, covered with a scratchy brown plaidlike fabric with little pills of material poking up from it every few inches. With a pink acrylic blanket from the linen closet thrown over it, it was a little more comfortable. Scully looked at Mulder, knowing that she needed to reach out to him. Just so that she could say, honestly, that she tried.

He spoke first. And said something utterly unexpected.

“It’s important to me that you acknowledge the possibility that I have precognitive dreams.”

“Mulder,” she said helplessly, then stopped, unsure how to continue. Where did this come from? She took a deep breath to gather her thoughts and began. “I believe that you have a unique ability to extrapolate from minor clues, imperceptible to most observers, and find a pattern where others see only chaos. Or, at times, the reverse. Your ability is so far away from the center of the bell curve that I’m not sure ‘intuition’ is the proper term. Should I call that ‘precognition’? I don’t know. Yes, it’s extraordinary. Yes, it’s predictive. I…I believe in you, and I believe in what you say about our suspect. I can’t in good conscience tell you that I believe that your ability is the result of extrasensory perception, and I think you shortchange your own mind when you describe it that way.”

Mulder smiled, with a small sardonic twist to the left side of his mouth. “I’m not entirely sure if I’ve been insulted, or complimented.”

“Yes,” she said, and he smiled at her for real.

“Why this? Why now?”

He shrugged. “Because it’s been between us, since…since Roche. Because I dreamed about you last night, and–I believe that you’re going to be all right.”

Scully turned her head, looking at her nearly black reflection outlined in the glass door. The trees were visible around her half-image, penetrating through it.

She couldn’t tell him everything, not after that.

The decision was reassuring, in a twisted way. She relaxed and leaned back into the scratchy old couch. “Sometimes I just wish your talent were more in the area of predicting the stock market.”

“Oh, but it is,” he said, sounding surprised. “How do you think I afford this wardrobe?”

Scully shrugged. “I never thought about it. So, you hold a pencil over the financial pages and invest in what you’re drawn to?”

“Not quite. Actually, I wanted to talk to you–a few years back I set up a trust fund for you, in case something happened to me, so you could continue to work on the X Files, unofficially or officially. If you wanted. I guess you could move to Maui, too.”

“How much money are we talking about, Mulder?” She stared at him intently.

“If you started using it tomorrow, about thirty thousand a year. But it’s building principal. Anyway, I just had some of the terms changed–there’s a medical emergency clause now. If there’s anything that the insurance won’t pay for, no matter how experimental or far-away, you can draw on the trust fund. I wanted you to know that you don’t have to discount any options.”

Scully’s eyes were wide and disbelieving. “I don’t know what to say…Mulder, I–” It was too much. She didn’t want this solicitude. What could it pay for? Maybe she could have her blood drained somewhere in Mexico and replaced with some street kid’s. Surely some mail-order diploma doctor would tell her to do so.

“I have to do this.” He looked away, toward the tiny fire he’d coaxed out of the fireplace. “I have to.”

Scully lowered her head. She couldn’t tell him that it was too late, too late by far. Instead, she put a hand on his arm, forcing him to look at her again. “Thank you.”

He shook his head, but she leaned toward him and stilled his head with her other hand. She was kneeling precariously on the sofa and there was a good chance she’d fall into his lap, but it was important to her that he pay attention.

“It’s not your fault and you’re not making up for anything you did. Thank you for giving me the options. Thank you for helping me through this. I know it’s been hard for us both, and I’m probably not going to be able to say this again. But I want you to know how much it means to me.”

She paused, and then began again, needing to get it out. “This is probably going to be my last case, Mulder. The tumor–the latest scans suggest that the optic nerve will soon be compromised. I might be allowed to work in the lab for a while–but the field will be out of the question, then.”

Mulder could not speak. He stared at her, trying to memorize her, maybe, absorbing her with his eyes until she could disappear. When he looked at her like that, eyes as hard as stone, she thought that living in his memory might be enough.

The air changed. It got darker, somehow, or the smell changed, or it began to vibrate in the way that air vibrates between two people who are finally, after a long time, going to take a significant step forward in their relationship.

Scully leaned toward him, dizzy with the knowledge that this choice was the first serious acknowledgment of her impending death. It was not difficult, after all: no harder than cupping her hand around a candle flame and blowing it out.

Mulder blinked rapidly, then left his eyes closed as his mouth came closer to hers. His hand brushed her shoulder, tugging her towards him.

Then he groaned and bolted for the bathroom, pushing Scully aside so that she fell back onto her side of the couch.

He was already vomiting before he reached the white tile floor. He fell to the floor as soon as he crossed the threshold; the bathroom was so small that he ended up leaning over the toilet, retching helplessly.

Shocked, Scully followed him, stepping over the worst of the spatters. She wedged herself in the small space between Mulder and the sink and reached around him to feel his forehead.

He was sweaty, not feverish; his pulse was racing. He was still vomiting, though there was nothing left in his stomach and he was spasming pitifully.

After five minutes of his hacking, Scully was concerned enough to go to her medical bag.

“Mulder,” she said when she returned, “I have some anti- nausea medication I want you to take.” She knelt beside him and ran her hand down his back, from his neck to his sweat-sodden T-shirt.

“I’ll be–ugh–fine,” he said, then had to lean his cheek against the toilet seat as the wave of nausea took him again.

“It’s going to make you sleepy, but I think it’s worth it to break the cycle,” Scully continued, sympathetically. She kept rubbing his back, hoping to relax him.

Mulder nodded infinitesimally.

“It’s a suppository. I’m sorry.”

He moaned, this time with humiliation. She was embarrassed for him. “It’s okay. It will just take a second, and it’s the only way to keep it in your body. It’s just medicine.”

Mulder snorted against the porcelain; the set of his shoulders communicated clearly that it was easy for her to say that.

She didn’t offer to help him with his pants, even though his fingers were shaking and he had to pause twice as fresh spasms wracked him. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t seen him naked and helpless before, but usually he’d been unconscious, or at least in shock.

She inserted the suppository as quickly as possible, and then did help him pull up his boxers and get his pants completely off, leaving them on the bathroom floor as the two of them retreated to his bedroom. The bathroom was so narrow that she had to push him in front of her as they passed the shower. The small size of the cabin was a great help once they’d cleared the bathroom, though, as Mulder only had to stagger a few steps to get onto the bed.

Scully left him and quickly tried to clean up some of the mess. The worst were the spots of vomit that had landed on the carpet before Mulder had made it to the bathroom. She soaked them in water and cleaned them up as best she could with the thin paper towels provided by the management. The bathroom was slightly easier to clean, though she had no doubt that it still reeked; even she could smell it.

When she returned to the bedroom, the anti-emetic was already working. Mulder was lying on his back, breathing carefully, but not retching any more.

“You okay?” she asked quietly.

“I saw him, how he sees himself.” She should have known that it had something to do with the killer. Mulder’s brain never really shut off when it had a puzzle, no matter what the distractions.

Mulder closed his eyes and continued. “He was jacking off.”

Scully raised an eyebrow; so that’s what triggered the association.

“He…oh God, this is so fucked up. He thinks he’s a tree– no, not a tree, a weird cross between a tree and a person, the spawn of a dryad or something like that. He looks down and he sees branches and bark and he thinks that his seed is something sacred. He masturbates onto the corpses. He thinks it’s some kind of fertilization. He’s not very smart, but his delusion is elaborate and complex.”

Mulder’s voice was slipping between the dry tones of a lecturing academic and the haziness of a man wakened too quickly from a dream. Some of it, Scully thought, was the drug; the rest was pure Mulder.

She sat down on the bed and smoothed his hair where it was standing on end. “I want you to take off that shirt–it’s soaked– and get under the covers.”

“You’re not listening,” he said, a hurt little boy.

“I am and I believe you, but you need to rest.”

“I can see what he sees. I don’t think he bathes–trees don’t bathe–that’s something we can use.” His voice was getting lower. He did raise his arms to let her pull the T-shirt off, which she counted as extreme cooperation. Scully took the extra blanket from under the bed and put it on him, rather than trying to extract the covers from underneath his bulk.

She sat on the edge of the bed, waiting for him to sleep. When he was still, she left him and went to reexamine the pictures. It was something to do; maybe it would give her an insight.

Several hours later, Mulder plodded out of his bedroom. He’d thrown on a clean shirt and a pair of jogging pants, but he looked as if he could still use a shower.

He sat down at the small kitchen table across from Scully and glanced at the autopsy reports strewn across it.

They stared at each other for a minute; then Mulder caved in and began to talk.

“Don’t tell, Scully. After last time–lithium was the least psychoactive substance they wanted to give me.”

She shook her head. “This isn’t healthy. You can’t keep doing this. You’re not able to distinguish reality from what you envision. Just days ago you had a hole put in your head on the off chance that you’d remember something from your childhood. I don’t know, maybe you thought fresh air would do your brain good.” Fighting dirty. “I, I don’t know whether you’re psychic or psychotic.”

“Why do you have to choose?” he said, trying to smile.

She looked out the window, over his shoulder. The sun was going down, and they had a glorious view. The sky was cloudy enough near the horizon to turn the air a lovely, delicate pink, against which the sun was a blazing orange ball.

“They really did give us the cabin with the best view,” Mulder said, following her gaze, trying to distract her. She was pleased that he was capable of noticing.

“Can’t you just be the victims for a while?” she asked hopelessly. “Just to give yourself a break?”

He shook his head, smiling ruefully. “It doesn’t work like that, you know better. Anyway, the victims here are opportunistic– three men, all white but that’s not surprising given the demographics of the park’s visitors, ranging in age from twenties to forties–he’s not interested in the standard indicators of victimhood. If you want, I’ll try to have nightmares about the last things they saw–the knife, the hammer, the indifferent trees against the evening sky–but I don’t think it will help much.”

Scully dipped her head, acknowledging that there was no way to get him to change his methods at this late date. She picked up one of the autopsy photos that she’d wanted to show him. She had to demonstrate to him that worrying about his mental health didn’t amount to a lack of trust.

“The man on the Bubble,” she said. “There was dirt on his hands. The funeral director’s report didn’t note anything unusual about it, but I took another look, and there were fragments of mussel shells and sand in it. I think the dirt came from the shore, maybe very close to the water–there isn’t really very much ‘beach’-type sand here, it’s mostly rocks. The victim was clutching the ground violently, as evidenced by the abrasions on his hands, in which sand and shell fragments are also embedded. I think he was killed elsewhere and brought to the site. By contrast, Victim 3 has some defense wounds on his hands and upper arms, and there’s also dirt under his nails, but that dirt is consistent with the soil found at the site; it has some shell fragments, but no more than you’d expect from soil within walking distance of the ocean. I believe that the third victim was killed where he was found. There was a blood-soaked patch of soil near the cairn; he could just have been dismembered there, but I think that’s where he died.”

Mulder stared at the photo.

“Usually they move from opportunity to planned killings,” he said. “I think…he killed the first two because they triggered some reaction in him. Then he moved them to places that would make a point, places that people like to visit. The next one, I think he just waited for. He knew that someone worth killing would come along if he waited long enough. Somebody who was polluting the land just by standing on it.”

“But most visitors to the park are more ecologically conscious than the average American. It doesn’t make sense–seeing this sunset–” she waved a hand at it–”must do more to make people appreciate the wonders of the natural world than leaving it isolated.”

“He’s not a utilitarian, Scully,” Mulder said tolerantly. Then a wave of thought, almost a shudder, passed over him, and he spoke again, in the dead tones of a recitation. “These houses of the dead. They breathe still, but they are dying, dying with every tainted step and every piece of trash tossed over a careless shoulder. Ah, Scully,” and he came back to her, shaking his head, “I almost wish that multiple murderers were smarter. Bad prose and I think I’m losing IQ points just sharing his head.” Then his face slackened again and he was gone.

“How much more of this can you take?” she asked, reaching out for his hands.

He jerked away, and his eyes were as brown as woodchips, and less alive.

She waited, and after a few minutes he was coherent again, and she put him back to bed.

Scully woke slowly. There was a noise, scratching at the edge of her consciousness. Constant, rising and falling, low and pained and very close by.

Mulder was sobbing uncontrollably. He was trying to muffle the noise in his pillow, but he had to breathe and when he raised his head to gulp air she could hear him clearly.

He sounded as if he’d been going for a while–too tired to continue, but too tired to stop.

She put her feet down on the cold floor and opened her bedroom door. It was pitch black in the cabin; a sliver of moon provided the only light. Two steps took her past the bathroom door and into his bedroom.

She heard him roll away from her as she entered. She put her hand out, grateful that the small size of the room precluded the presence of any treacherous furniture, and leaned onto the bed, reaching until she found his shoulder.

Scully knelt on the bed. “Mulder, don’t. It’s okay.” He was rigid as steel under her hand. He didn’t respond at all.

She lay down in the darkness and put one hand on Mulder’s waist. She couldn’t get the other under his body, so she rested it on his neck, trying to stroke away some of the tension. “Shh, shh. It’s okay. I’m here.”

He rolled around in her arms so that they were facing each other. She couldn’t see him, but she was so aware of every inch of him that she could have described his expression, as if she were sensing him by infrared.

Mulder choked out something–it might have been her name, but he was too upset to be coherent–and crushed her to him. She felt his nose at her throat, forcing her to tilt her head up as he pressed against her. Her nightgown was quickly soaked with his tears.

She talked in nonsense phrases as he quieted, running her hands up and down his back until he was no longer shaking.

Scully had almost fallen back to sleep when his voice, wrapped in darkness, came from below her chin.

“I dreamed about the trees…They were bleeding, and the blood was so red…They’d been slit open with blue knives. There were red knives sticking out of them too, but they were old, and the blood on them had turned black and begun to flake off…Blue knives everywhere, and you weren’t there…”

“It was just a dream, Mulder,” she whispered. “I’m right here.”

He took a deep, ragged breath. “Yeah,” he said wryly. “Uh, Scully?”

“Yes?”

“Can I ask a, a favor?”

“What is it?”

“I just…I want to hear your heartbeat.”

Scully’s hands stilled. “All right,” she said in a small voice.

He sighed and slid further down, pressing his ear into her chest right over her heart. His hands pulled her closer to his body, so close that it hurt. They were each lying on their sides, bent towards one another so that their knees were brushing. Tentatively, Scully moved her hands to his head, running them lightly over his hair. She could feel her heart pounding and wondered how he heard it. There was a wet patch growing on her nightgown where he was drooling, just a little.

She fell asleep that way, and woke to the shrill of a cellphone.

Scully blinked, unsurprised that she didn’t recognize the room but a little more confused by the whining, unfamiliar ring of the phone. She snagged the phone from the floor by the side of the bed–it was Mulder’s phone, that’s why she didn’t recognize the tone of the ring–and spoke into it: “Scully.”

“Agent Scully? I thought this was Agent Mulder’s number?” She vaguely recognized the voice of the head of Acadia’s park service– Langbein, that was his name.

“Is there something you need to tell us?”

“There’s been another body found, near the top of Mt. Sargent.”

Scully arranged to meet them at the bottom of the trail leading up the mountain in an hour, and went to look for Mulder.

He wasn’t in the cabin. She assumed that he’d gone running, so she showered quickly and when she got out, he’d returned. She told him about the latest victim and then toasted some English muffins while he showered.


III. Whose Woods These Are…

Acadia is God’s country. Not the mild God of the New Testament, but fierce Yahweh whose covenant was made with slaves and desert wanderers. Yahweh, who promised to save Sodom if five righteous men might be found there, but was not disappointed in his intentions.

Only Adonai, I Am Who I Am, could have carved these mountains and the fjord out of the coast with His mighty hands. He broke the earth and divided it, weighing one part down while lifting the other up. He blew and the rocks formed a wall against the ocean, smoothed and shaped by His breath. He turned His gaze on the soil and flowers bloomed; animals formed from dust and began their assigned duties in the life cycle He ordained. He crowned the mountains with bare rock, to signify the destructive power He had used to make the land below so fertile and to show that He stands alone at the top of all creation.

Yahweh did all this and then gave the land over to sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. From the mountaintops, the visitors can see how much He loved his creations, to allow them this beauty, green and blue and grey, life in every crevice and branch.

Many men (and a few women) have since claimed stewardship of Acadia. So it is written and so it shall be, until He again searches for the righteous few.

Until then, Acadia waits.

The body lay where it had been found, near the top of one of the hiking trails. The rangers had long ago run out of crime scene tape, so they’d simply stationed people below and above on the trail, just out of sight of the body. Scully thought about telling them to call Bangor for some tape, so that they wouldn’t run out of rangers, but considered that her advice would not inspire confidence in the crime-solving skills of the FBI and kept her mouth shut.

They’d driven to the top of the mountain and hiked about a quarter of a mile down. Scully had kept pace with Mulder fairly well when they were above the treeline, among the variegated brown rocks, but when they hit evergreens she went more slowly and he pounded ahead of her.

When she passed the ranger guarding the top of the trail, she saw Mulder examining the trees, reaching up to touch branches. He ran a finger over the grey lichen choking one evergreen, and shuddered.

She moved closer and her attention was drawn away from her partner, toward the figure on the ground.

If the woman had been upright, Scully would have said that she’d been crucified. But she’d been pinned to the ground.

She had been a woman in her early thirties. Her face had the blankness of the newly dead–Scully could see the face clearly, since the victim’s body had been positioned with her head pointing down the trail. Blood had swirled around her face and puddled into a depression in the rock a few feet beyond her body; her hair was plastered to the ground with dried blood, and only the hair closest to her temples revealed that the woman had been a brunette.

Scully put on her gloves and knelt to examine the body in situ. She crouched just outside the channels cut by the rivulets of blood in the light layer of dirt that covered the rocks.

The preliminary inspection indicated that the woman had probably died of blood loss and shock. She didn’t recognize the metal squares that had been driven into the victim’s wrists and ankles, hammered through flesh into the rock beneath.

Scully bent to get a closer look and silently commended herself for skipping the trenchcoat; it would have gotten soaked in blood-damp dirt, and probably destroyed any trace evidence.

“We’re going to need pliers or something to remove these metal disks from the rock, so that we can move the body,” she told the ranger who’d followed her down, probably against orders but as driven by morbid curiosity as anyone else. He was standing a discreet distance away from the corpse, looking at it only in his peripheral vision as if that would somehow make the victim less dead, the horror less intense. She thought–but wasn’t certain– that he was the same ranger who’d come to Thunder Hole with them on the first day.

“Yes ma’am,” he responded, and moved off to carry out her instruction.

Scully tapped the protruding edge of the metal that was sticking out of the victim’s right wrist with a finger. The edge was fairly dull, though not wide enough to take fingerprints. Underneath the blood spatter, she could see faded blue paint. What did that remind her of?

She raised her head and looked around for her partner. Mulder was circling the clearing, looking at all of the trail markers and conversing with the ranger who’d been first on the scene, summoned by a near-hysterical pair of hikers. All the hikers had wanted was an early-morning hike, free from distractions. They’d gotten a nightmare instead. A twinge of sympathy for them flared, then subsided. She and Mulder would have to interview the hikers, of course, but first she wanted to get the scene fixed in her head.

Scully fumbled for her voice-activated recorder and began describing the setting.

When she’d circled halfway around the victim, some Mulder- sense told her that her partner was doing something significant, and she turned from the corpse to see him point at a tree. The ranger nodded, and walked over to the tree to pull at a blue metal square. It was a trail marker, Scully realized, embedded in the bark by one corner so that most of it stuck out, to guide hikers down the park-serviced path.

She looked again at the body.

Trail markers, hammered into flesh instead of wood.

How appropriate.

The woman had probably been conscious through most of it, able to watch as her killer inexorably went about the business of her death. With her feet elevated above her head, she would not have lost consciousness as quickly as if she’d been pointed the other way. She could have felt her heart turn into her worst enemy, as it pumped ounce after ounce of blood to her limbs, never to return. Near the very end, she would have slipped into unawareness as shock granted her a mercy her killer would have denied her.

The arms had been first, Scully thought, judging from the blood splatter on the metal and the rock at the victim’s sides. The near-black lines indicated a velocity consistent with initial, fast-pumping wounds, whereas by the time the killer had reached the victim’s legs, she’d lost enough blood that the spatter was rounder, more sluggish.

Scully took the camera out of the large pocket in her pullover and took several pictures of each of the spatters. She could have an expert look at them if Mulder thought the order of insertion was relevant; blood wasn’t her area of expertise, and if the victim had been elevated in this position for a period of time before the killing, maybe the legs could have been first. If Scully had been doing the killing, she surely would have gotten the legs secured first. Especially with a woman, the legs were by far the most powerful limbs, and quite dangerous to a person standing above a downed victim.

It was a measure of the great variety of horror that Scully had seen that her other predominant thought about the crime itself was: Why not at the top of the trail? She heard the murmur of Mulder’s voice a few yards away, and rose to give him assistance if he needed it.

“Why didn’t he do it at the top of the trail?” Langbein, who at least had the integrity to show up and see what his inaction was doing to people, was asking Mulder as she joined them. “I mean, your profile said–”

“Because the top of the trail is above the treeline,” Mulder said impatiently, squinting into the rising sun as he looked up the hill. “See, just above us there are no more trees, it’s all rocks. All of the trail markers there are just piles of rocks, and sometimes streaks of paint on the trail itself. The paint’s bad, but it’s hard to kill someone by painting her to death, so he chose the treeline, where the metal trail markers begin.”

Scully followed Mulder’s gaze, and sure enough, about ten feet above them was the last tree.

Mulder’s words made her look more carefully at the landscape. Sand-colored rock, marked in places with the black of dead moss and the varied greens of living moss, was visible, first in great flat expanses and then farther above in increasingly varied and interesting formations shaped by centuries of wind. Scully could see the trail, twisting and turning above them, marked by the stone cairns Mulder had mentioned. In places, they were just four or five large stones piled on an even larger stone, but she could see a few that had to be at least two feet high, elaborately arranged.

“The stone markers are okay with him,” Mulder said, as if he were following her thoughts. “Not great, but not offensive. The paint marks are offensive, but he probably wouldn’t have killed anyone if that was all. It’s the poor trees that put him over the edge. The bleeding trees…”

Scully looked down the hill, mirroring Mulder’s stance. The harsh morning light made every leaf and twig stand out distinctly. She saw a clump of what should have been pine needles fused into a lump, like a deformed, fingerless hand. Young oak leaves sagged under the weight of dirty brown warts–more galls, she supposed. There were healthy trees, too–more healthy than sick, if she had to count. But the healthy ones were mere background.

There seemed to be no end to the variety of trees: pine, spruce, cedar, birch, oak, and many others. Lichen grew on the rocks, spotting them green as if a bucket of paint had been spattered over the mountain. There was black among the green; Scully thought and realized that it must be the mineral deposits from deceased lichen. If she tested the black stains, she knew, their content would reflect the various pollutants in the air. Ego in Acadia est.

The sun came slowly up through the sky. Its light seeped through the young pines growing around the trail, and the trees looked as if they were on fire from within, green fire. Where the needles converged on the branches, they were dark green, but they turned translucent as they spread out and received the light, so they glowed. Even their gentle motion as the wind swept down the mountain from above the treeline was reminiscent of a flickering fire.

It might have been beautiful, if she hadn’t seen all the imperfections up close. she realized.

“Let’s get the victim out of here,” Scully said. Her voice carried through the clearing, and several of the rangers turned in her direction.

Mulder looked over at her. “Are you worried that leaving her here desecrates this place?”

“I leave that fear to the killer. Leaving her here is disrespectful to her.” She looked at Langbein, who was hovering in between the two agents. “We’re going to need pliers to get the metal out of the rock. Can you get a pair?”

The man gulped and nodded, and Scully returned to the body, trying to get as many pictures as possible before moving the victim.

She heard Mulder walk down the hill behind her. “Why is he killing so many, so quickly?” she asked him, hoping to trigger a lecture that would make this gruesome task a little easier to do on autopilot.

“I suspect that he’s been working up to this for a while, maybe at other parks, certainly more slowly. He’s deteriorating and accelerating as his delusion gets more complex. He may think that he’s invincible, and that the time for humans to dominate the earth is ending, so he’s both free to kill more openly and commanded to do so. I’d like to look at all the deaths in the national parks over the past few years, but I don’t know if he’ll give us the time to do so.”

“We could ask someone in DC to gather the records, at least,” she suggested. Mulder didn’t respond. “This isn’t a conspiracy case.” More silence. “Is it?” She snapped a picture of the blood trails under the victim’s head.

That brought a chortle. “Not at the moment, Scully, unless you can think of a reason to kill people in national parks in order to further an agenda of influencing world events.”

“If it’s not a conspiracy case, there’s no reason not to let someone at the Bureau help us out with this.” It was time for a new roll. She stepped back and reloaded.

“I don’t think we’re supposed to get help on this one.”

Scully put the camera down and turned to look at him. “What do you mean?”

“I mean that the clock is ticking, and I think we’re supposed to flail around here, eventually catch this guy, and go back with another case solved and another week or two gone.” Mulder spun away from her, kicking fallen leaves away and grabbing onto the trunk of a tree. If he did not hang on with all his might, she thought, he’d run heedlessly down the mountain until he fell.

She nodded, finally understanding what he meant. They were supposed to bring the killer in, but only at the cost of a few more cubic millimeters of tumor. She didn’t know if she believed Mulder’s conspiracy theory in its entirety, but she did understand that the X Files had lost a substantial amount of credibility in the Bureau over the last year’s antics–her time in jail, Mulder’s little detour with the pedophile, and let’s not forget the most recent hole in the head –all that could isolate an already rennegade pair of agents, even if they’d also saved the nation from another Oklahoma City.

“If we’re on our own in this, I’d better finish the photos,” she said, more to reassure herself than because anyone was listening, and turned back to the less complicated corpse.

Half an hour later, Langbein returned, toolbox in hand. He looked excited.

“Well, we’ve got someone who identified the very first body,” the ranger said. “Only problem is, she’s deaf. She can speak, but not real well. We need to call for an interpreter. We have one during the summer season, but…” He shrugged.

Mulder’s head came up. He really didn’t want to look at this scene any more, and he’d just been given a way out.

“I can sign,” he told the world at large.

Scully stood up, abandoning the search for fibers or other clues around the site. The work was tiring her out, Mulder could tell; the sun was not yet overhead and she was ready for a break. She wouldn’t admit it, but she was moving more slowly than usual, taking extra time recording the appropriate information on all the evidence bags. “I didn’t know that,” she said. “When did you learn?”

He shrugged. “Martha’s Vineyard was settled by a group of people with a very high incidence of deafness, and for a while everyone on the island could sign. When I was growing up, that universal knowledge was dying out, but a woman who lived near us taught me Martha’s Vineyard Sign. It was one of the dialects that merged to form ASL when the first American college for the Deaf opened. She had to borrow a bunch of ASL vocabulary, but I’m told my accent is still very much Martha’s Vineyard. I guess it’s a little like having someone talk to you in Shakespearean English. I can talk to the witness, anyway.”

“Well, come on, then,” Langbein said impatiently. Scully took the toolbox from his unresisting fingers. Mulder glanced at her, and she nodded, giving him permission to go.

Mulder and Langbein drove down the mountain to the park ranger station. Langbein pulled into his reserved space, right by the back door to the tiny building, and they went in.

Johanna Hathaway had fiery red hair, almost the same shade as Scully’s, except for a two-inch strip from the center of her forehead all the way down the back that was pure white. It was quite striking; each color was well within the range of human variation on its own, but together they gave her the look of an exotic creature. She had a pleasant enough face, and light brown eyes, but the hair was the most memorable thing about her.

She was scribbling angrily on a pad when Mulder approached her. She looked up when his shadow fell across the paper, obviously prepared to put up with another clumsy attempt at communication.

“I’m with the FBI,” he signed, and her face brightened as the irritation left it. “Can I ask you a few questions?” His mind translated the questions into English as he went along; his memory was accurate for words, less so for gestures, and the internal translation allowed him to remember more details. He wasn’t exactly sure why, but probably Scully could explain that it all had to do with the hippocampus, or something.

“What do you want to know?”

“I haven’t talked to the others. Why don’t you tell me about your missing friend?”

“His name is Pierce Reddy.”

Mulder almost guffawed–he was pretty sure he’d seen a movie with a star who’d used that name. But he kept his face straight, and Johanna continued.

“I don’t really know him that well. He’s a friend of two friends of mine, from Gallaudet. Janet and Chris introduced me to him, they thought we’d like each other, but it just didn’t work out, so Pierce decided to go camp on his own, to do more hiking than the rest of us wanted to do. We were supposed to meet yesterday, but he didn’t show up at the cabin.”

“Why did you wait until today to ask around?”

Her upper lip curled and she tossed her striped hair back dismissively. “Because we didn’t want to be patronized by hearing people who think we’re dumb or that Pierce must have gotten into trouble because he’s Deaf.”

Mulder nodded. His situation was different, but he understood the desire to avoid scrutiny.

“Where are Janet and Chris?”

“They had to get back for exams. I just had papers, so I stayed to look for Pierce.”

“What did Pierce look like?” Damn, that telling mistake in tense was a problem. Johanna didn’t react, probably just assuming that his wording reflected insufficient knowledge of the language rather than a significant clue.

“Brown eyes, brown hair, shorter than you.” As she described the young man, Johanna’s eyes swept up and down Mulder’s body, comparing him with her erstwhile date and finding Mulder more to her taste.

“Did you meet anyone unusual when you were out hiking?”

She shrugged.

“I’m sorry to tell you this, but Pierce may have run into trouble. I need you to take a look at some pictures of a body, to see if you can identify him.”

The woman’s face tightened in surprise and distress.

“Was there an accident?” she signed.

Mulder shook his head. “Not an accident. A murder. That’s why I need to know if you met anyone unusual on the trail.”

He turned to the ranger who’d been trying to appease Johanna before Mulder arrived, and asked for the photos of the victim.

“Does she think she knows him?” Langbein asked.

“I don’t know yet, but I think so.”

Langbein rummaged in his desk for the photographs. Mulder turned back to Johanna, whose face was twisted with concentration.

“There was one strange man,” she signed, “all alone on the trail. He hadn’t shaved in a while. He was angry at us for dropping some candy wrappers on the trail, I think. I can lipread some, but he wouldn’t look at my face. He was staring at my breasts, so I just said that I couldn’t understand and we hurried on by. It was really awful. He followed us for about fifteen minutes, saying something, and finally I just shouted at him that we were Deaf. He looked horrified, not as embarrassed as people usually are, but upset, and then he turned and went the other way. Is he the killer you’re looking for?”

“We don’t know yet. What did he look like?”

A helpless look. Like many people, Johanna tried not to look too hard at someone who was ranting at her in an incomprehensible way. “He had a beard. Dark hair, I think.”

Mulder sighed in resignation. Langbein handed him the photos, and he flipped through, tilting the pile away from Johanna’s field of vision until he found a shot of the victim’s face, as calm as if he were simply asleep. He held the picture out to her, and she took it, staring at it with an odd fascination.

After some time, she put it down on the counter, next to her abandoned pad, and signed, “That’s him. He’s really dead?”

Mulder nodded.

“Someone killed him?”

He nodded again.

Johanna leaned against the counter, awestruck. She was young enough, and distant enough from any real friendship with the victim, to be excited by the thought of Murder in a National Park, though she seemed smart enough to try and conceal the part of her that enjoyed the excitement.

Mulder wished that he’d had more experience with conveying emotion in sign language–he was sure that there was some way to sign gently, but he didn’t know what it was. “I think you should call Janet and Chris and see if they know how to contact his family.”

The young woman nodded, eyes distant, planning how to explain this sudden tragedy.

“Can I go?” she asked. “Do I have to look at him?”

“You can go, if you leave us a way to contact you,” Mulder replied, and she scribbled an address onto a piece of paper. He gave her a card, in case she remembered anything else, and she mechanically collected her pad and pen, put them in her purse, and headed out the door, her path almost steady.

After the door slammed, a sudden thought struck Mulder, and he followed her out into the gravel-covered parking lot.

Mulder ran after her, and put a hand on her shoulder to get her attention.

She spun around, looking none too pleased at first, but her expression softened when she recognized him.

“I just thought of something else,” he signed. “You and Pierce, it didn’t work out between you–was he a native ASL speaker?”

She looked surprised. “How did you know he wasn’t?” she asked. “He worked hard at it, but his parents sent him to a hearing school until he was fifteen. They kept thinking he’d start to do better. They even tried to get him cochlear implants, but they didn’t work. They started too late. It was a crime, what they did. They made it so that he couldn’t communicate fully with his own people.”

“The rest of you were native speakers?”

“I’m Deaf of Deaf,” she signed proudly, “and so is Chris; Janet was diagnosed as a baby, and she grew up with ASL.”

“Was Pierce able to talk to him?”

She shrugged. “He said the guy was mad. I could tell that.”

Mulder thanked her and hurried back to into the building.

Langbein was flipping through the photos, as if the record of the killer’s work was easier to look at than the real thing–or maybe, to someone who did not work with death as a rule, the photos seemed more realistic.

“I think you should close the park until we catch this man. He’s escalating fast, and I don’t think anyone’s safe right now. In the off-season, too many people are isolated; if it were summer, I wouldn’t be as worried, because it would be hard for him to single someone out. But not now.”

“One man can’t shut down an entire park!” Langbein’s already ruddy face reddened further; Mulder could see a vein near his nose pulse, and his large pores looked even worse as the man became agitated. “Look, Agent Mulder, the last time Acadia closed was during the budget furlough, and what closing means is that the non- essential rangers go home. Six of my seventy-five employees are law enforcement. Here, that means giving tickets and telling people not to litter. Once in a while we confiscate beer and have a little party in the afternoon. We don’t keep people out. We can’t. Aside from the main access road, there are three or four roads near town that people use when they don’t want to pay the car access fee. And unless we build a really big fence, there’s nothing to stop anyone from hiking in.”

“Then we should at least announce that there’s a dangerous killer on the loose.”

The ranger manning the desk was listening to this exchange with intense interest, though he was studiously watching the door. Langbein grabbed Mulder’s arm and pulled the agent into his small office. “You’re joking, right? A few years ago, a man visiting with his family went on an evening jog. He fell off a hill and died; they found his body the next morning. It was in all the papers around here. The next month, what do you think happened? Three times as many hikers went on that trail as usual. Joe Citizen can be one dumb fuck when he tries to be.”

“Can’t you just tell people to turn around when they get to the gates?” Mulder could tell that it was futile, but he had to try. It was his lot to be a modern-day Cassandra, telling people what would happen if they ignored him–but of course if they didn’t ignore him, his predictions wouldn’t come true, so he was in a bit of a bind.

Langbein was breathing heavily, working on his answer. “We’re telling them to stick together, not to go anywhere alone, and avoid the smaller trails because there’s still ice on a lot of them– true, actually–because it’s dangerous, and that’s as much as I’m authorized to do.” Langbein produced a handkerchief and swiped at his face, trying to get the sweat out of his eyes.

“Authorized?” The word triggered a realization. “Who told you not to close the park?”

“Someone with more power than you, Agent Mulder.” The ranger’s full lips turned downwards in a scowl. He wasn’t thrilled with the order, but he’d obey it.

One last try. “More people will die. Or is your pension worth more than that to you? Guess you only have a few more years before the full benefits, right, and isn’t that worth a few fat tourists?” He could hear his voice rising, his tone turning shrill. If he were Langbein, he’d ignore Mulder. But he couldn’t help it.

The other man shook as if trying to throw a weight off. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of pictures. “This is my little girl Diane. See her?”

The shots were professional-quality black and white. Hopscotch on a playground, a walk through the forest, waiting at a bus stop. There were other children in the pictures, but the center of each one was the same blonde girl, probably nine years old. She was as fair as Langbein, but she looked lovely with it, not overstressed.

“Yeah, the victims were somebody’s kids too. So what?”

“I didn’t take these pictures, Agent Mulder. I got them with the same message telling me not to close the park. When this is over, I’ll probably lose my job. I deserve to lose my job. But that’s my baby girl there. I pray that God forgives me–” He broke off.

Langbein turned away, breathing deeply and struggling for control. “You’ll just have to catch this psycho before he kills again. Isn’t that what you do?”

Mulder’s superego, that lovable little voice with its mix of Bill Mulder and Patterson, chimed in. That’s right, Mulder. If you do your job, then no one has to die. And if you don’t–well, bug- hunting takes its toll on those real skills of yours, doesn’t it? So sad, that these people had to die for your obsessions.

He shook his head. He wanted to blame Langbein for his cowardice, but that smiling round face from the surveillance photos stopped him. She walked home through the forest every day, of course, like every other kid around here. The forest was her companion, even though it held killers. Langbein’s love controlled him–as it should; the world shouldn’t reward love with blackmail, and Langbein must have thought that it didn’t until he’d seen those photos. Langbein hadn’t thought that park rangers would get caught up in intrigue and danger, so he’d allowed himself to make promises and commitments. Mulder couldn’t fault him for the accident of becoming part of a useful diversion from real X Files.

Mulder left the office, stalking past the curious ranger at the front desk, and headed back to find Scully.


Over lunch at one of the tourist traps, about twenty minutes from the park itself, Mulder discussed the new information with Scully, who’d conducted her own investigation as best she could with the limited facilities available.

Mulder told her about Johanna, including a description of the woman’s hair for entertainment value, and then described the conversation, including the addendum in the parking lot.

“I was right–Pierce was the only non-native ASL speaker; the others were either Deaf of Deaf or exposed to sign from very early on. Pierce signed badly; he probably didn’t get the syntax exactly right. Our UNSUB could tell. He knew Pierce was a failure, even within the group of defectives.”

Scully looked dubiously at him. “Defectives?”

Mulder waved a hand. “What he sees. And I think Pierce could understand the killer, unlike the others. I think maybe he was able to separate Pierce out because the killer can influence the people he talks to. If those kids weren’t Deaf, they might all be dead now.”

“Excuse me?”

“Look at it this way. If you were a tree, what would you most lack? If you wanted to have an impact on the world, I mean.”

“Mulder, if I were a tree I wouldn’t give a damn about ‘having an impact.’”

“But if you did–you’d need someone who could move around. But more than that, you’d want that person to talk for you.”

“I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues?”

“Very good, Scully, I didn’t know you were a Dr. Seuss fan.”

“So you think the trees talk to our killer, and then he talks to the victims and gets them to go along with him.” She said it without the usual tone of disbelief, as if that would be overkill.

He sighed. “Let’s just say he thinks the trees talk to him, and that he can do things for them they can’t do for themselves. Including influence other people even though he looks crazy and kills them.”

“You got all that from talking to one witness who’s not even sure who she saw?”

“I think he’s killed everyone he’s met since the spree started, except for three people who were fully Deaf. That’s a good enough lead for me.”

Scully reacted not at all. “So are you going to go out with her?”

Good grief, Scully must have some sort of radar that told her when attractive women were around him. “Nah. I don’t date women whose hair requires or receives more attention than mine.”

He’d got her. She couldn’t resist. A small smile, but a smile nonetheless. It felt like a huge victory, until he realized that it felt like such a victory and got depressed all over again.

Scully finished her salad and pushed the plate away. She was trying so hard to force down food that would give her energy, he could tell. He remembered meals not so long ago when she’d easily eaten everything in front of her, and left the table hungry. She’d gained weight during the abduction, and every pound reminded her of the unknown in herself, he thought. Her dieting had been fierce and successful. But now she was dropping weight again, this time against her will. He watched her bring the napkin up to her mouth and clean herself with small, methodical movements. She didn’t even have to think about it. She looked up at him and dropped the napkin into her lap.

“I took another look at the first–at Pierce Reddy, based on what you said last night,” she reported. “There were traces of what might be semen on his clothes; since there was no sign of sexual assault, the clothes were overlooked after they’d been removed from the body. They put the socks and the underwear in the same bag, can you believe it?” Mulder shrugged; his evidence control procedures weren’t any better, since there was no accepted procedure for managing the kind of evidence he liked. “I sent a sample to Boston,” Scully continued, undaunted, “and with any luck we’ll get a DNA profile and have a way to screen any suspects we apprehend.”

Mulder put the last of his fries in his mouth and nodded enthusiastically.

Mulder spent the rest of the day walking the trails, trying to get a deeper sense of what Acadia was like, letting it fill his senses and his thoughts. Maybe he could find the killer’s new lair- -it would have to be hastily constructeed, which could make it easier to find.

The interesting thing about the mountains here was that they were so small, relatively speaking. They were the tallest on the East Coast, but that wasn’t saying much; their treelines were fairly low (which, Mulder recalled, was what led the Frenchman who’d first mapped the area to call the island Mt. Desert). It was as if the whole area had been compressed in size, to bring it down to a more manageable, human level.

That was what made it so attractive to tourists–they could bring their kids and still make it to the top of a mountain. Especially if they just drove, of course. Not very easy on Mt. Everest, but perfectly simple in Acadia.

It was peaceful. Not even birds or squirrels disturbed his wanderings, much less other people. People were so problematic. They littered, they chattered, they hunted and they destroyed. He wondered what the aliens saw in humans, that they would bother experimenting on such imperfect creatures. Maybe humans are the equivalent of lab rats, he mused, pestilent and disgusting unless kept under firm control.

The soil was a thin skin over the mountainside; it was rough and full of large chunks of decaying matter. Time and earthworms had not yet worn down all the components into a fine, rich dirt. As he walked, his boots exposed large fragments of last season’s leaves, wet and brown. Earthworms seemed as rare as birds–there were a few when he poked at thicker patches of soil, but not many.

Was the system breaking down? If Acadia were dying, that might explain the killer’s twisted attraction to the place: an emblem of human failure. In attempting to preserve the park for recreation and enjoyment, the government had neglected to note that nature was not about human vacations. Parts of an ecosystem can’t survive in isolation. Hadn’t he read that the beavers, one of the park’s perennial attractions, were dangerously inbred because there were no beavers in neighboring areas with which they could interbreed? The same was true of the spruce grouse, whose habitat was now down to a few isolated stands of spruce within the park. And there was the smog that, during the summer, would obscure the views from the mountaintops; he’d seen pictures in the rangers’ station comparing days without pollution to days with. In the latter, the nearly infinite vistas from Cadillac Mountain had been cut off after a few miles.

Vacations for the masses–Rockefeller, in his charity and wisdom, had decided to make Acadia available to the proletariat and had donated thousands of nearly pristine acres to the government. But the proletariat was never content with visiting, or even possessing. It had to alter. So in summertime Park Loop Road would be a parking lot, and people would wait patiently in their cars, sometimes looking out over the ocean and sometimes just fighting over who got the Game Boy next, until the line crawled forward and they were two car lengths closer to a real attraction. And then they’d wonder where the dolphins and the beaver went.

As for the hikers, they were better than the drivers, but there would still be so many that the mosquitoes wouldn’t have to choose or chase; they could just wait, and their prey would arrive. One party would never be out of earshot of at least one other group. And as careful as they were, they’d always break a branch or crush a water strider or leave a plastic bag somewhere on the trail. It was inevitable. It was human nature.

And the best maintenance the government could afford wasn’t helping. Rockefeller had hired a hundred and thirty men to maintain the more than sixty miles of car-free carriage roads he’d constructed through the park. Then he’d given it to the United States, and Uncle Sam paid six people to do the job. Was it any wonder that trash collection ran a little slow?

Acadia was being stomped to death.

Mulder could imagine the trees seeking a champion. Birds could fly away if necessary; beavers could migrate. But the trees were stuck with their location, exposed to the grubby hands of whoever cared to slash through the trails. Were the trees calling the killer’s name? Did he hear the summons to combat when he saw the faces moving through the bark?

If Mulder watched out of the corners of his eyes, he thought he could see the faces too. Their expressions were grave and concerned. They were not sure if he could be trusted. The patterns in the bark were as individual as fingerprints; no two were alike. He was reasonably sure that even Scully would have to agree, though she wouldn’t care.

He could feel that the killer was walking through the forest. Alone, searching for another victim, walking the trails with loving attention. He understood the difference between each tree and the next; he cared about the trees and their infinite variety, more than most people care about their children. Maybe that solicitude had roused the trees to speech.

What would trees sound like, if they did call out? Trees fall, and perhaps they make noise whether people are in the forest or not; it’s just that meat is deaf to wood. And so few people care about bridging the gap, more comfortable with small cute flowering plants than the kings of the forest. Phallic, larger than men, capable of taking care of themselves or destroying cars and houses when they topple in a storm, trees are disconcerting unless they are ignored, excluded from thought and attention.

If the trees had found a champion, should Mulder really be trying to lock him up?

He shook his head in disgust. Being alone in the madman’s milieu was making him stupid, making him sympathetic. If only he and Scully were getting along better, she’d be able to manage him and keep the voices from getting too strong. But if he tried to describe what it was like, she’d just dismiss it and demand another look at his head, as if cells and blood could explain the mysteries of consciousness.

Their idiot killer, anyway, was only making it worse for the trees. Langbein, much as Mulder hated to admit it, had a point. He and Scully would never have infested Acadia if not for the killings, let alone the curiosity-seekers who’d now be able to follow a ‘Murder Trail’ with all the best death spots. Acadia didn’t need an executioner; it needed a perimeter guard.

Well, he thought with grim humor, at least no one would be likely to believe the killer that the trees made him do it. There would be no treehunts as a result of this case, which was better than some of their other investigations, where people feared witches and attacked women.

Scully had returned to the newly-identified Pierce Reddy, who had not yet been allowed to rest in peace, right after she’d finished with the latest victim. With only a funeral-home director to assist her, it had been a difficult and unpleasant job, without much to recommend it. They knew how these victims had died; the question was why, and she felt useless in making that determination.

As with any investigation, different parts of the analysis were proceeding at different paces. She had confirmed that Pierce Reddy was deaf from a congenital defect. The Boston lab had also called her. The semen sample was degraded by time and exposure, but might still prove useful. And the lab had analyzed the samples of hair and skin from the Thunder Hole victim, and agreed with her that he had been an albino. The research technician there, who apparently had not heard that the X Files were the kiss of death, had agreed to run a search of all missing persons reports looking for albinos; Scully thought that he found it a bizarre and therefore fun task. There was still no word on the disassembled man from the stone cairn. The crucified woman, whose blood-stained credit cards had identified her as Genevieve Golden, had at some point been in a major accident, probably a car crash, that had left her with multiple scars and a right leg over an inch shorter than her left. She would have walked with a pronounced limp. It must have taken so much work and strength for her to go hiking in Acadia, and all it had gotten her was killed.

All in all, it had been a day spent on minor details, too much work for too little effort. Mulder’s theory about the various defects in the victims seemed plausible, but the man from the stone cairn’s disability remained unexplained. It might have something to do with one of the parts they had not yet found.

She returned to the cabin, too tired to do any more investigating. Night still fell early at this time of year, and she had even less desire to look around the trails in the dark than during the day. The gravel in the tiny parking lot behind the cabin got into her shoes, and she stumbled inside as she tugged at the thick leather. They were good for hiking, but not very easy to get off. Or maybe her coordination was going.

Relieved of her irritating shoes, Scully sat down at the small kitchen table. She was too tired to do anything about dinner.

Mulder came in a few minutes after she’d returned. He didn’t say anything about finding her staring into space; probably he figured she deserved to be able to act like him once in a while. Taking the initiative, he rooted around for a passable meal. She tried to focus on the table, to make the world concrete again. It was fake wood-grain, on top of cheap pressed wood. It swirled and darted across the tabletop, almost as if it was real.

The weariness started at her toes and radiated upwards. She felt as if every cell had worn itself out. The bones in her arms ached. Her hair was limp and sticky. Her clothes chafed against her. Her head drooped down until her nose was inches from the table. Mulder, as usual, radiated energy. Invariably, in the past, proximity to him had energized her, but this time it just made her feel more inert.

He’d gotten some vegetables out of the refrigerator and was preparing to cut them up. Her eyes closed, and it was as if she were alone. She resented his ability to keep going like a damned wind-up toy. At least he’d gotten to spend the day in the forest. It was alive, however deformed. Let him put Humpty Dumpty together again, next time.

Her eyes snapped open as she realized once again what was happening to her. It was Dana With Cancer thinking those unkind thoughts, not the person she’d always thought she was. She felt a rush of fear-inspired adrenaline, her standard response to thinking about her impending death. Whether it was tragic irony or poetic justice, her resentment was about to be rewarded: Quite likely, he would be alone, next time. Even if he did find someone else to do the forensics, he wouldn’t trust another person. At least not for a while.

“I need to tell you something.”

Mulder turned, taking out a soda as he closed the refrigerator door. She had his total attention, like a beam of sunlight.

“I wasn’t–there’s more, about the cancer.”

He lurched downwards, into the folding chair on his side of the table. The can in his hand slammed against the table and foamed over. Mulder cursed and looked around for a napkin. Scully reached down beside her feet and got some from the bag of supplies she’d brought in earlier. While he mopped, she spoke again, struggling to keep her voice even.

“Blindness and other sensory deterioration is only the beginning as the tumor expands into my brain. There will be mental, emotional changes. Deterioration. I, I can’t live like that. It’s not acceptable to me as life.”

Mulder looked up. Soda was running over his hand as he squeezed the sopping napkins, undoing all his good work. His lower lip was trembling. “Please don’t ask me–I can’t. I can’t.”

“I know,” she said, as gently as possible, knowing that he’d take it to mean that she thought he was weak. “Bill and I have talked about it. It’s the one thing we agree on, actually. He’ll– take care of it, when it’s necessary. I’ve written a prescription and he’ll help me take it. No one will know that anyone but me was involved, so he won’t get into legal trouble. But, I need you to know.”

Mulder’s fists clenched. He threw the wet napkins away from him; they landed against the side window with a splat. He slammed his right hand against the table once, twice, three times. She expected him to stop but he didn’t, even though he was obviously doing damage.

“Stop it! Stop, please, Mulder, please!” Scully reached out, tried to grab his hand. He wrenched it free and kept pounding.

Scully was as scared for him as she’d ever been. This was nearly autistic behavior. Uncontrollable self-destructiveness while she was still alive was a terrible sign of what to expect later on.

She had to stop him while he still had bones left. She put her left hand directly in his fist’s path, splaying her fingers across the table. He was looking down, but his eyes had that unfocused look that told her that he wasn’t completely home.

His fist came down like a wrecking ball. Her hand was instantly on fire with pain; every nerve in her body, it seemed, had migrated to that part and begun screaming. Each of her knuckles had its own special song of damage.

Even as she pulled her hand into her lap, cradling over it by instinct, Mulder’s pounding ceased, and she was able to grab him with her unmarked right hand.

“Oh, Scully,” he said, and was up and around the table instantly, kneeling beside her to look at her hand.

“Don’t–think–anything’s broken,” she gasped. “Can’t–say– same for you.”

He leaned his head against her knees and she could feel him trying not to cry. With great effort, she lifted her yammering hand, telling herself that it would hurt the same wherever the hell she put it, and pulled his head forward, into her lap, with her right hand. He resisted for a second, then came, a child needing comfort.

She bent herself over him so that their heads were close together. “I hate this too,” she whispered into his hair. She remembered that it usually smelled sweet, like coming home. She rocked back and forth in her chair, reassuring herself as much as him. “I hate this too.”


IV. The Pathetic Fallacy

In springtime, Acadia is underappreciated. The air bitesa sharply, to be sure, but there are methods of protection. The sunlight comes through the leaves and dapples the ground. Streams swollen to bursting rush down the mountains, gleaming like glass where the light hits them, rounding brown boulders and feeding the trees’ roots as they wake from winter.

The trails are so nearly empty that each person might possess the park, ruler alone of this ungovernable wilderness. Or, if assistance is needed, the rangers have so little else to do that they are perfectly attentive, and again the visitor is king or queen.

Mulder had to leave. He didn’t say so, but she could tell that he had to run, to get away from her for just a little while, trying to get used to this latest betrayal. That’s how he’d remember her–always leaving him, even when he was the one running away. She didn’t try to stop him. His hand, remarkably, was undamaged, though it would ache for a few days.

Scully was engrossed in the autopsy photos, trying to understand the common thread, when she was startled by a thump against the picture window.

She shot to her feet, grabbing her gun out of the holster on the table, and aimed with a perfect two-handed grip directly at a highly dazed owl, who was flapping weakly on the rough planks of the deck.

Scully froze, then laughed ruefully at herself. She watched the owl struggle to right itself and fly woozily back into the night.

It was an easy mistake for the owl to make, she thought. The room was almost as dark inside as the forest outside. A few electric sconces put precisely defined cones of light onto the brownish walls. Her laptop screen glowed blue, a shade oddly technological among the simpler furnishings of the cabin.

Through the window, she could see the black outlines of trees, swaying gently in the wind. Between their branches, stars winked out and reappeared.

She could not hear them whispering; the glass insulated her, just as the cancer kept her from smelling the wet life rising from the ground. If there was a message in the silent, sterile beauty of the leaves, she could not comprehend it.

Her fingers traced the swirls of the imitation wood table. Manufactured design masquerading as reality–wouldn’t it be better to be honest about it, if real wood was too expensive? The photos pulsed in front of her eyes. Each was incomplete, showing only one angle or even one object. Even when she autopsied these bodies, they refused to yield up their greatest secrets.

Angrily, she turned the pictures face down. Her inefficacy on this case was no greater than usual, after all. When was the last time her work had solved a case? She saw her own precise handwriting on the backs of the Polaroids, noting date, time and position, and it seemed worthless.

They were dead, she was dying, and the forest didn’t give a damn. The forest would be here forever, and that didn’t matter either.

She recognized the signs of depression; she’d have to be an idiot not to, inasmuch as her doctors constantly reminded her about the importance of monitoring her mental state. But whenever she tried to move out of depression, the only emotion she could feel was a deep and overpowering rage. It burned in her throat, in her stomach, collected at the inside of her elbows and on the soles of her feet. It dripped from the ends of her hair and floated on her exhalations. It made her want to kill someone–anyone–someone in particular–and so she had to go back to the dullness of not caring.

Scully gave up on the photos and stared out the window. In the darkness, the trees looked perfect.

When Mulder came back, he’d exhausted himself physically. Mentally, he’d managed to convince himself that her impending death was a matter of her failure of faith, and he was spoiling for a fight.

He came out of the shower, hair still dripping because they’d only been provided two towels, and started talking. “The Gunmen have a line on a new treatment in Canada. It’s experimental, derived from the bulbs of some rare orchids…they think it could really mean something.”

She shoved the pictures she’d been toying with back into their folder. The corners stuck out, but she didn’t take the time she normally would have to align them all. “I’ve seen the reports on that, Mulder. It doesn’t even work in white mice.”

He took two steps forward, and they were almost touching. “The medical establishment doesn’t want people to believe that cancer could be cured using natural methods.”

“That’s ridiculous, Mulder.” She kept her voice even with an effort. She knew he’d hate the lecture, but it was the only way she could keep from breaking down. “Even if you accepted that hundreds of dedicated researchers were willing to violate their oaths, it’s still true that scientists can get as much funding for researching drugs like taxol, derived from plants, as for researching purely synthetic drugs.”

“So you’re not even going to check it out?”

“I did check it out,” she said, impatience seeping into her voice. “But I’m not going to spend a substantial fraction of my remaining life visiting out-of-the-way places on the chance that one of them might have a miracle. I have just as good a chance of going into spontaneous remission in D.C., more if you consider the stress.”

“I see–just another one of Mulder’s crackpot ideas, right?”

She stood up, unable to be so close to him. Outside, the trees murmured unceasingly. Birds and insects were eating; roots were sucking up water and feeding new leaves, preparing for the new season.

“I appreciate your concern,” she said, in the flat, bored tone that branded her a liar, “but I have to be sensible. And your suggestion just isn’t sensible.”

He was silent for so long that she almost caved in and turned to look at him.

When he did speak, the anger in his voice startled her enough to make her spin around. “The sad thing, Scully, is that I picked you for this. I looked around the world to choose the one person whose opinion really mattered to me and picked someone who will never, ever approve of what I do.”

Scully gaped at him, not understanding the sudden transformation. Her regrets surged, and she used them to feed her own anger. “Mulder, no one could approve of what you’ve been doing lately! Is it so surprising that I find it hard to trust your judgment when you just put two holes in your skull and your dura mater, for God’s sake, you let a complete stranger–”

His voice was rising with hers. “What, you would have done it for me if I’d asked?”

“Of course not, because it was idiotic! I don’t expect you to listen to me any more, but–”

“Oh, I listen, believe me. I go to you for support and you do exactly what I expect, you don’t give it to me. I guess it’s a good thing I picked Mom for a partner; if I’d tried Dad he would have beaten on me and traded away the one thing that mattered to me–”

“At least that explains something about Krycek,” she said nastily.

His head rocked to the side as if she’d physically hit him.

“Forgive me, Mulder, if I need some distance from what you’ve become. It’s–it’s a little hard for me to deal with the fact that you let this quack stick an icepick in your head. I mean, your brain was fine until you chose to have that done. You leave me behind to do this makework, that has nothing to do with the present, and then you expect things to pick up just where they left off. Well, it won’t work, not any more, because one of these days you’ll come back and I’ll be gone. Gone.”

She wanted to say more, but he was already crying. She felt the familiar emotions rise, in a familiar order: guilt, resentment, shame, sadness.

“I don’t want to be your mother, Mulder. I wish I knew how to be your friend. But I don’t even understand how to be your partner any more.”

She pushed past him and went into her bedroom. She laid on the bed, trying to cry, willing the tears to come. But they stubbornly refused.

The worst of it was, she wasn’t crying precisely because he was so right. The therapist crap about wanting his respect was ridiculous. The relationship was exactly the opposite.

That’s why she didn’t want him to see her weakness; if she weren’t strong she might lose the power to evaluate him. She’d set herself up as bearing the Scully stamp of approval, and the one certain thing about it was that nothing Mulder would ever earn that mark. That was the standard of judgment, wasn’t it?

He’d let her do it–encouraged it, really. But she’d gone along willingly enough, wanting some power in this strange relationship where he was always, uncannily, right and there was never enough evidence to prove anything to the outside world and he was just too damn smart. To keep on top, or to keep even, she had to be able to judge him.

Not a very pretty picture of herself.

Well, fine. She’d been a bitch in life, and she was going to be a bitch in death, too. She was too busy dying to change. No going gentle into that good night for her, and no carefully maintained dignity, either. She was going to go messily, kicking and screaming and bleeding from her nose until everyone turned away, ashamed to look. If dying was an art, she was going to do it resoundingly, unhesitatingly badly. They might remember her, that way.

Eventually, the soft sounds from the main room stopped. She heard Mulder enter his room–changing, she thought with the certainty their years together had given her–and then the sliding glass doors opened and he left to go out again. Maybe he could run away from some of the anger and the pain.

But no, she’d still be here when he got back.

They did not speak until the next morning at the rangers’ station, when they had to put on the appearance of Agents in Charge. Even then, it was more that Scully would answer one question, and then Mulder would field the next.

Finally, Mulder announced that he needed some peace and quiet, and Scully went out to the parking lot with the rangers. One of them, a tallish blond, offered her a cigarette, and she almost took it. She felt the desire for the nicotine rush as if she’d never given it up, sweet and seductive in her blood, and she had her hand out–thinking, — when she realized that this was the same funeral urge she’d felt two nights earlier with Mulder, and refused to avoid being so predictable.

Mulder stayed inside, studying the map, for almost fifteen minutes, and then emerged and announced that the next body would be found at–maybe even killed at–Jordan Pond, a large, placid pond at the bottom of several of the moderate-sized mountains. He seemed almost glad to see her there among the tall khaki-clad men, so the two of them went to Jordan Pond House, a visitor center with the usual overpriced snacks and souvenirs, to survey the layout and see if Mulder could get a more specific location before the next victim announced him or herself.

They looked for the locally famous Jordan Pond House popovers, touted by the park brochure, but it was too early in the season and the kitchen was closed. Mulder settled for maple sugar candy and Scully stuck to pretzels. They wandered through the public areas, looking for good places to leave a body. As usual, they made up by discussing the case. Mulder’s theory was that the killer wouldn’t break in anywhere, because he wouldn’t want to be surrounded by evidence of civilization for the length of time necessary for a serious penetration into the House, so they scouted the perimeter.

When he was convinced he’d found the best places, they left the walkways of the House and went back into the sunlight. The day was bright and clear; the grass was stiff and vibrant under their feet. They drifted back behind the House, where various hiking trails converged so that weary travelers could find a parking lot and a drink.

The lawn turned into forest easily, Scully thought. There was definitely a line between the two, but there was interaction– bushes, greedy grasping branches, hard grey roots venturing into lawnmower territory.

Mulder was not getting the appropriate vibes, so they went back to the House, climbing the back stairs to a patio where, in season, the tables would doubtless be packed as families took breaks and young people sucked down a few beers. Right now, the umbrellas for the tables were furled, and the white plastic chairs were all stacked against one wall. Scully was glad that there weren’t many people here. It would complicate the investigation, and give the UNSUB too many targets.

And she didn’t like the idea of sharing all this with a thousand others. In the sunlight, near the well-tended walks and trails by Jordan Pond, she liked the park much better. It seemed more organized down here than it did at the top of the mountains. But from the rangers’ descriptions, at season’s height Acadia had more campers than trees. That lovely access road with all its breathtaking views of the ocean could get pretty boring, if you were parked in the same spot for an hour because of a traffic jam.

Mulder motioned her over to the low brick wall protecting them from falling off the patio. He was looking down at the ground they’d recently traversed. Scully hurried over.

“I’m never having children.” Mulder stared down at the picnic area beneath them, where two toddlers, hair blond as cornsilk, gamboled under their parents’ watchful eyes.

Well, goody. What was there to do with a Mulder revelation? So rare, so unexpected. Was this some sort of peace offering, telling her his personal secrets? She did what she did best–she probed for what lay beneath. “Because they’d get in the way of your search for the truth?”

He grimaced. “Because I couldn’t trust myself with them.” His arms were braced against the railing. Veins stood out in from his forearms with the strain he was putting on them, as if he were trying to push the iron bars over. “Because I was raised by a man for whom love had a leather edge and a buckle, and a woman who was a ghost town all by herself.”

“But you know that was wrong. You’d make an excellent parent, if you allowed yourself.”

He looked up at her; his face was suddenly drawn and vicious. “On what evidence do you base that, Scully? On my stellar behavior when dealing with you?”

She took a step backwards, but he continued. “You may find it hard to remember that I have a psychology degree, but I don’t. Surely it hasn’t escaped your attention that we have a bit of a, what do they call it these days, co-dependency? Look, now I’m hurting you. My words, my meaning, my existence–it all hurts, doesn’t it? And tomorrow I’ll be very very sorry and take such good care of you and need you so much you’ll say it doesn’t really matter, not in light of what we have.

“What I don’t entirely understand is where you learned your part. My guess is that it has something to do with Daddy being gone all the time, and how he really liked the boys better when he was home–not that anyone would ever be so crude as to admit that, but I bet you knew it anyway. You crave the approval you don’t think you deserve, isn’t that right? And cleaning up after the messes I make shows the world that Dana Scully can hold it all together, just like she did when Mom was mooning after Daddy and the boys were off being irresponsible, because boys don’t need to worry about keeping the family together, and Melissa was sneaking the sailors in through her window. Am I getting close, or do you want to talk about death next?”

Scully turned away, wrapping her arms around herself to stop the shaking.

“See,” he said, just loud enough for her to hear as she walked away, “I know exactly what I’m doing. That doesn’t mean I can stop it.”

Scully didn’t know where to go. The rangers had finally gotten hold of the Mt. Desert Island Search and Rescue, a group of about thirty volunteers, to search the various trails–always in pairs or threes, never alone, in the hopes that they’d be safer that way. Armed and nervous, they were crawling up and down the mountains, looking for trouble. She didn’t want to go out with them; she didn’t know enough about what she was doing to leave the trail, as might become necessary. They were taking Mulder’s word that the killer was too disorganized to behave normally for any extended period of time, and so they were checking the ID of anyone they found and engaging in conversation, giving friendly warnings about the danger of the trails at this time of year.

That was the kind of routine hackwork that she liked least about being a field agent, and in this case it was local law enforcement’s job and she wasn’t going to join them. But she certainly didn’t want to stay with Mulder. She’d walked down the access road from Jordan Pond House back towards the ranger station rather than be with him, hand on her gun the entire time in case she was surprised. The risk of becoming the killer’s next target seemed less important, when she started walking, than the risk that she’d blow Mulder’s fucking head off if she had to look at him again.

As she calmed down, she remembered the dangers of solo adventuring more clearly, but it was too late–going back would be just as dangerous, since she was just as alone no matter which direction she walked, and anyway Mulder probably had gone on without her. He’d have to take the car all the way around in the other direction, miles of miles of driving, because the Park Loop Road was one-way only by Jordan Pond House. She realized she felt some satisfaction from the idea that he’d have to circle the entire park without her. Let him worry, if he cared to.

She felt so useless. Mulder might complain about the indignity of being assigned to tracking a killer on an extended spree, not even a proper serial murderer in his expert opinion, but at least the magic word ‘profiler’ got him plenty of attention and even respect from the rangers. She was doing little more than improving upon the undertaker’s skills. If there had been useful evidence to find, she was confident that she could have found it, but there was nothing there. She wanted to be back in the city, any city, where everything had a meaning and a purpose and evidence actually led somewhere.

The sun was high overhead, and she didn’t have sunglasses, so every time she emerged from under the shade of the trees she winced. And then scanned the area, nervously, in case someone had watched her momentary lapse. In the shade, it was about ten degrees cooler than under direct sunlight. The grass was lush and green by the roadside, except for brown patches near the trees where lack of sun–or something else–was inhibiting spring’s rebirth. She was inured to the goiters and galls scattered through the trees; even the warts and boils on the new spring leaves failed to surprise her. They were unattractive, but meaningless. The sun made patterns on the ground and the grass like fine lace.

Even this walk was make-work for herself, her observations so banal as to bore even her. Unless she took up a second career as a tree surgeon, Acadia embodied everything in which she had neither competence nor interest.

It was enough to make her wish for a new body to examine, though that would undoubtedly prove as frustrating as the last few. Coming to Acadia had been a bit of genius on the killer’s part, genius that he was probably too whacked-out to appreciate: With no home, no job, and no contacts with the human world except for his victims, gathering information about him was singularly useless. If she’d found some pollen or soil or lichen that only grew in one place in the park on the corpses, they might have a breakthrough, but so far she’d gathered nothing of the sort. And Acadia’s resident botanist was on safari in Africa, address unknown, so more subtle tracking was impossible.

There was a crack from somewhere within the forest, probably about twenty feet away from the road. Scully froze in her steps and slowly, carefully, pulled her gun from underneath her jacket, turning so that it would not be visible from the trees. She was standing in the sunlight, a perfect target but for the fact that the killer didn’t seem enamored of distance weapons. The real problem was that she couldn’t see into the relative darkness of the forest.

“Is someone there?” she called.

She squinted and tried to see further into the trees. A dark face leered out at her–then resolved into a part of a tree trunk, a scar from a long-lost branch.

Scully remembered to breathe. “Are you lost? Do you need help?” She called louder this time.

A bird cooed and fell silent.

“If anyone is there, please come out.” Her voice sounded frightened. She was vaguely ashamed of the weakness.

Slowly, she began to back away from the forest, gun still clutched firmly in her right hand, half-raised to fend off a sudden attack. No movement caught her eye. And surely the debris on the forest floor would make some noise if a person were truly walking there.

She glanced down at her feet just in time to avoid falling on her ass when she reached the curb. She dared a glance down the road to see if any cars were coming. There was nothing, and so she walked into the road.

Scully walked in the center of the road all the way back to the rangers’ station. No cars passed her way.

Mulder had not returned to the rangers’ station. Scully sat there for a few hours, listening to the search and rescue teams check in every fifteen minutes. The rangers had taken the opportunity of a park-wide search to have the teams look for roads in bad condition, so most of what she heard was about routine maintenance. A carriage road hard-hit by spring runoff here, a wooden footbridge rotting there. Some trails too slippery to traverse because of water on the lichen or a remaining layer of ice. It was, she concluded, pretty boring to be a park ranger.

Finally, one of the rangers took pity on her. It was the man who’d shown them to Thunder Hole on the first day; he offered Scully a ride back to the cabin. Ranger Gephardt, that was his name. She was grateful that his uniform included a nametag; she should have tried to remember the name, because it wasn’t as if she was going to run out of storage space in the time she had remaining, but by the same token learning new information was seeming less and less important to her these days. The price was that she had to answer Gephardt’s questions about the glamor and glory of the FBI; Scully trotted out the raid on the militia and the Flukeman, as two ends of the spectrum of danger and excitement, and was rewarded by the fact that the ranger’s excitement made him hit the gas hard, so the trip took only ten minutes. She thanked him and went straight into the shower.

Miracle of miracles, Mulder had returned when she got out. As she dried off, she could hear the familiar rise and fall of his voice as he was being denied something by the person on the other end of the cellphone.

Scully leant against the bathroom door, trying to decide whether to face him or not.

“Hey, Scully,” he called, rapping his knuckles on the other side–it sounded as if he was hitting right by her face, and she reared away. “Are you okay?”

Oh good, she thought, relieved. We’re just going to ignore it. “I’m fine, Mulder.”

There was a brief silence. She heard him moving away, giving her space to emerge. “The rangers are hopeless. Forty people isn’t enough–a hundred would be a minimum. With forty, he can just keep moving around. He won’t even need to get off of the trails to evade them. He’ll hit the Precipice next, after Jordan Pond. I think that he’d prefer to have a victim present him or herself to him–it will be fate, if he just stumbles into the next one. I’m going to Jordan Pond–those rangers have no idea how to approach him, and they’ll just scare him away.”

Mulder’s voice came through the door muffled, and Scully had to strain to understand him.

“Hold on,” she called out. “I’ll be ready in a minute.” Her hair would look bad, but she wasn’t dressing up for anyone in particular.

“It’s all right,” he said, and she heard him slide the glass doors open, “you just wait here and see if Boston comes up with anything on the semen or the trace evidence.”

“Wait!” she yelled. The door clunked into the frame, and she heard the key turning in the lock.

Scully ripped the towel from her head and tossed it on the floor, opening the bathroom door just in time to see Mulder leave the deck. She searched frantically for her shoes, shoving them on without socks, and ran outside. He was starting the car; he couldn’t avoid seeing her in the rear view mirror, but he didn’t stop.

Scully watched the car pull away, feeling sick to her stomach. She trudged back up the wooden deck that ran around the side of the cabin and went back inside. Methodically, she dressed.

This was a regular case. He needed her.

This was a regular ditch. He’d never admit his need, not that way. He was still angry or afraid of her anger, and he didn’t want to deal with it until they’d caught the madman.

This was worse than a regular ditch, because it was about the cancer. It was about losing her vision, maybe her mind, and he was taking away the last thing–the only thing–she had.

Fuck this, she thought, and pulled out her cellphone.

He picked up on the third ring. “Ranger Langbein?”

“Agent Scully?”

She was impressed. He’d only known her for a few days. “Agent Mulder took the car to get another look at Jordan Pond, but I just realized that I need to examine some of the sites again. In particular, I’d like to get a look at the Precipice. Is there any way you can send someone to take me into the park?”

He cleared his throat. “I’d be happy to drive you there. You’re at the Blue Moon?”

“Yes.” She looked out the huge glass panes that showed her the ocean of forest. Last year, maybe, she could have had a very nice vacation here, full of color and life. Never noticing the imperfections that were normal parts of life.

“I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”

“Thank you,” she replied, a little dazed–she’d almost forgotten about him, right there on the phone–and hung up.

Scully sank into the folding chair with its back almost touching the refrigerator and looked out into the sunset. Above the dark green of the massed trees, the sky was pink. Distant clouds drifted near the horizon, fluffy and outlined with orange where their tops hit the sunlight. Higher above, the sky was still blue, darkening slowly into cobalt as the sun faded away.

I’m coming for you, she thought. This is not yours to own or to deny me.


There was a rustle in the bushes beside her, louder than a squirrel would have caused, and Scully jerked toward the sound, pulling her gun out as she spun.

She couldn’t explain it, but the noise sounded like Mulder. Maybe he’d found out her location from calling Langbein. “Mulder?” Her voice was high and nervous in the darkening forest.

He emerged a few feet to the left of where she thought he was. As she turned to greet him, she realized that Mulder looked oddly short, and he was moving his hands–

She turned into the blow. It would have hit her in the back of the head, probably would have knocked her out, but she took it across the cheek and fell backwards. Her gun spun away into the leaves as she fell.

If it hadn’t been for the cancer, she would have smelled him.

From the ground, he looked ten feet tall. His hair was shoulder-length, stringy and caked with dirt. There was a smudge on his left cheekbone that looked like blood.

He was holding a wicked-looking hacksaw, probably the same instrument he’d used to dissect the two men.

She couldn’t see her gun, though she knew it had to be within a few feet of where she lay, pulling her knees up, getting ready to strike out.

Her vision was too blurry. Her chances were not good.

Scully had never been the type to gamble. But she looked into the killer’s face and wagered it all.

“These dead houses–” she said, and he swooped down like a hawk and jerked her to her feet with one sharp tug at her arm.

“What did you say?”

She looked into his eyes, which were dilated with surprise or perhaps just insanity. “Do you think you’re the only one who’s called?”

He shook his head. “You’re polluted.”

God, did everyone and his dog know that she had cancer? She should have gotten a tattoo that admitted it, for all the world to see. A cold gust of wind hit her back, and returned her attention to the problem at hand.

“Who better to see the truth than someone damaged by it?”

He looked her over, moving closer to her. She could smell him, finally, rank and unwashed, the ammonia tang of urine under sour sweat. “I dreamed about you,” he said, and she almost thought that he was going to kiss her.

She shivered, not just from the wind. If the connection with Mulder went both ways–she couldn’t think about it. “You trusted me,” she stated, and he nodded slightly.

“Then let me help you.” Her gun was gone, and she was about a hundred pounds lighter than he was, but if he turned his back she could probably knock him down.

“What’s your name?” he asked, as formally as if he were introducing himself at a party.

She forced herself to smile. “Dana. What’s yours?”

“Jonathan.”

“Nice to meet you, Jonathan.”

“If I let you go, I have to find someone else.”

“But I’ve come to help you. It will be easier with both of us–there are rangers all over right now; I could say I’ve sprained my ankle when one comes by, and then we could take him. To Jordan Pond, right?”

Jonathan nodded, and she thanked Mulder again. He stared at her, scrutinizing her face as she tried not to move a muscle.

He sighed. “I’m sorry I grabbed you like that,” he said finally. “I didn’t recognize you at first, and then I thought you’d come to cut me down. They’re looking for me, down at the Pond. I don’t think I want to go yet.”

“I came because I see you as you are,” she whispered, and he smiled beatifically.

He reached out with his free hand and touched the side of her face. His fingers traced the line of her jaw, then moved up to her forehead, killer communing with killer. She forced herself to stay completely still, though every part of her wanted to cringe away from him. She’d have to play along for a bit, maybe even fake a sprained ankle as she’d said to draw a rescuer near.

“Are you okay, Scully?” “I’m fine,” she said automatically.

Jonathan made her start up the path in front of him, so that he could watch her. Apparently the voices in his head weren’t entirely trusting yet, though they wanted to believe. She did not go for her gun. There was a moment when she might have made it, but the moment passed.

It took five minutes of slow, careful descent for her to realize that she’d never told him her last name.

“Where are we going?” she asked, to avoid thinking about it.

Jonathan looked at her, eyes widening. “Can’t you tell?”

She shook her head, stuck with her mistake. “I haven’t been here very long. I’m still learning.”

He stared at her, eating her with his eyes, then looked to the trail again. “The Precipice.”

The Precipice, she remembered from the map, was only about three quarters of a mile long.

What the map hadn’t explained was that it measured the length of the trail as the crow flies, but that most of the trail went straight up.

It was an older trail. Iron bars, twisted like rope for better purchase, had been driven into the slabs of rock that made up the path. Some were ladders and others were railings; Scully used every one she could reach. The trail was probably about eighteen inches wide on average, when it was on flattish ground. It was covered with small white and grey pebbles, exactly the kind of rocks that could trip someone up if she were trying to run.

While they climbed, he talked. About the beauty of trees, the pollution of humanity. How he wanted to choose people who’d really leave a message–he’d chosen the damaged, but redeemed them by connecting them with the one thing that really mattered, the glorious forest. He’d chosen people who would be missed (“I should have known it couldn’t be you,” he said, and she almost stopped walking), so as to make his point perfectly clear: Not the most loved person is worth one tree.

He told her about the first time he’d heard the voices, back when he was still taking that soul-stealing medication from time to time. He’d gone into his back yard one night and he thought the stars were talking, but it turned out that it was just the trees, he’d been a silly fool to think it was the stars.

He’d slipped, somehow, from living out in his back yard in Massachusetts to living in Acadia. He didn’t really know how.

But one day living in the midst of the trees wasn’t enough any more. They wanted a greater proof of his loyalty; it was so hard to trust things with legs.

They came to a rock wall that stretched at least two stories upwards. She couldn’t see the top in the growing gloom. A wave of dizziness passed through her, and her vision failed at the edges.

It can’t be much further, she told herself. We’ve gone at least a quarter of a mile–there’s half a mile left at most.

Half a mile up.

There was no chance that they’d stray from the trail. The iron bars and railings, not to mention the sheer drops on one side and the rock towers on the other kept them on the trail far more efficiently than trail markers could have. That meant that Mulder could find them, if he figured out that Jonathan had decided to bring his victim to Jordan Pond rather than finding her there.

“How did you know they were looking for you?” she ventured.

He laughed. It sounded wrong, as if something were out of order in his chest. “I saw you. I saw all the rangers, beating the bushes as if I were an animal. An animal,” he repeated, outrage growing. “Why would I run? My friends here won’t run. But they don’t see me, they don’t really look, and so they won’t find me. You should stay away from the roads, too, or they’ll see you.”

They climbed for what seemed like hours. She didn’t dare check the technological impurity on her wrist to find the true time–he was still watching her, judging every move. She hoped his suspicion would make him fall, but he seemed to have an innate sense of where his feet should go.

Dusk deepened into near-dark, and even in the cool air she began to sweat. She could barely see the trail at her feet. How did he expect to find anyone in this darkness? He didn’t seem to have trouble with his footing, no matter how dark and rough it got.

He didn’t have enough time sense to tell her how long he’d been in Acadia, but he spoke with intimate familiarity of every area in the park, listing where he intended to strike next.

If they came upon another group of hikers, Jonathan would want to take one. Maybe more than one, now that he had an ally. She’d have to choose, then.

The path was so narrow that the only way past Jonathan was through him. The slippery gravel made the situation even worse. Where the bare mountain peeked through the pebbles, it was often dotted with the ever-present black-green lichen, damp and slick with snowmelt. More than once, Scully stumbled, and would have fallen if she hadn’t had such a deathgrip on the iron railings.

If this was Acadia, she was willing to skip it.


Scully was out of breath by the time they reached the top. She’d been moving too slowly for Jonathan’s taste for a long time; when she gasped, he’d look at her suspiciously, checking for fakery. But he seemed to believe that she truly had a stitch in her side, and he even offered her his arm over one particularly bad patch of ground.

They climbed one more ladder, and suddenly the trail ended. There was one more rock to climb, for purists who wanted to say they’d reached the very top of the mountain, but they were essentially at the top. Scully could see the outline of a trail marker against the violet-grey sky, pointing to easier trails down the mountainside, and more trees dotted the skyline. In front of them, the mountain sloped down gently, creating a much easier descent. She wanted to sit on a nearby rock and rest, but Jonathan seemed impatient.

“How are we going to find anyone tonight?” she asked.

“They’re looking for me. If you help, we could get two at once.” He laughed, then, a strange sound, responding to a private joke.

“Where will we sleep?”

The question angered him; he grabbed her roughly by the arm and dragged her to one side of the rock, where the trail went up just a little further, and pushed her forward.

Scully tried to figure out what had gone wrong. Maybe trees didn’t sleep? If Jonathan were denying himself sleep, which seemed plausible from his hollowed-out eyes and rabid manner, he could be suffering from sleep-deprivation psychosis on top of whatever imbalance had brought him to Acadia in the first place. If she could afford to wait, sleep deprivation would eventually kill him.

She was reminded that she had very little time when he pushed her so hard that she fell, scraping her knees on the gravel. She felt the abraded skin begin to bleed, but there wasn’t even enough time to brush off the debris adhering to the wounds, because he cursed and forced her up, again, and forward. They were climbing the last peak; she couldn’t see anything higher around them.

They were nearing the top when he stopped, apparently forgiving her as her defiance seeped from his memory. Jonathan absent-mindedly let go of her wrist as he scanned the valleys below them, his eyes softening as he surveyed the massed trees like a general reviewing his armies.

The evening was nearly silent. There were no birds, just the faint sound of tree branches scraping against one another in the light breeze and the whisper of gravel.

Everything happened at once: The light flashed in her eyes, blinding her, and Mulder was there screaming her name, and Jonathan was screaming back, ranting.

When she could see again, Jonathan had his arm around her throat, dragging her backwards. She couldn’t stand up; she was unbalanced, leaning back against him and his voice was roaring in her ear, but the words were unintelligible.

She choked, and realized that if she vomited she’d die like that, his arm cutting off her air supply. With a massive effort she stilled herself and breathed as evenly as she could against the pressure of his arm.

Mulder wasn’t screaming any more. His gun was aimed, almost casually, at the two people standing a few yards above him. His voice was calm and rational; Jonathan wouldn’t be able to hear the desperation underneath.

“Let her go and everything will be all right.”

“Meat liar,” Jonathan growled and dug his arm in a little harder. Scully’s arms flailed, finding no purchase against his body or the rock wall they were pressed against.

“Oh please. ‘Meat,’ what is that, some kind of insult? Did the trees teach you that? You don’t know a thing about them, you idiot.”

“I know everything! I’m the one they asked–”

“You wanted to be asked by them, you mean. You’re too ridiculous for them to give you the time of day. I’d be disgusted by you, if I weren’t too bored for that. We’ve seen a lot of monsters, and you’re not even the worst this week. You’re stupid and no one will remember why you killed because of that.”

Scully’s eyes darted between the two men. She had no idea what Mulder was thinking, taunting Jonathan like that.

“Meat will remember and it will stay away,” he said petulantly. “Just like they told me.”

“Bullshit, Jonathan. You’re doing this in springtime because you can’t face all the people in summer, people who’ll come and think of you as just another bit of local color–just another attraction.”

Jonathan shoved Scully roughly against the stone wall; she stumbled and nearly slid upon the night-black lichen, but managed to grab a hunk of rough granite protruding from the mountainside. Mulder shrunk back, almost imperceptibly. Jonathan was no longer choking her, but he still had his hacksaw and a hundred-foot drop, if he cared to wrench her away from the wall and throw her down the mountain.

Scully looked at Mulder in near-fury. She knew he could tell what she wanted, just as she could tell that he wouldn’t fire as long as Scully was in any danger.

Scully’s anger seemed to help her partner recover. “You don’t really hear the trees,” he began.

Jonathan laughed. “Now I know you’re just trying to delay this.”

“I know,” Mulder said. His voice was low and hoarse, cruel as barbed wire. “You just think you hear them because you want to, but you’re not worthy. How do you think I found you here? They like me better.”

“Liar!” he screamed, spittle flying from his mouth and landing on Scully’s face. Scully simply gaped at Mulder, for whom she had simply ceased to exist. His eyes were locked on Jonathan, not even scanning for her safety in his peripheral vision as he’d always done before.

“Ask them, then,” Mulder sneered. “Ask them what they want you to do, Jonathan. They’ll tell you: Go away. You bore them like you bore me.”

Jonathan hit her again, still not understanding that Mulder was so focused that he didn’t care about her anymore. This time the blow landed on her back, and she landed bruisingly against the wall, clutching for fingerholds to prevent herself from falling down. One foot slipped, and she landed hard on her knee, but she didn’t move from the wall. She tried, but she couldn’t do it. It was as if iron bands were pinning her right where Jonathan had thrown her. She turned her head from the dirty rock and saw Jonathan, his head tilted back, face contorted in a silent yowl of anguish and rage.

She heard Mulder’s feet on the gravel as she struggled to stand, turning to fend off any further assault from Jonathan.

Mulder had almost reached the insane man when Jonathan stiffened–like a tree trunk, Scully couldn’t help but think–and wailed. He was looking up at the sky, but by the sound of his voice he was seeing straight into Hell.

A faint look of surprise appeared on his face. “My brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground,” he said, and half-turned towards Scully. He shook his head once, as if stunned by a sudden blow, and pitched over the rock face backwards.

Scully saw the look on his face for just a second, before he disappeared from view. He was relaxed, accepting. Not happy exactly, but as close as he was going to get.

There was a muffled whump as his body hit the trees far below. Mulder flinched.

The pressure was gone, and she shot to her feet almost fast enough to unbalance. She grabbed the rock, and it was over.

When she got back to the cabin after the autopsy, Mulder was out on the deck again. His feet dangled off it, swinging gently, banging into the wood with every few movements. Probably the pain reminded him he was alive.

He was staring into the sunset as if he hoped he’d go blind.

She missed the old days, when she and Mulder could at least take turns breaking down. Resentment flooded her, as intense as it was unjustified. Why did he get to be the one who needed care? She was the one dying, and somehow he was the focus of both their solicitude.

She walked over to him and put her hands on the railing, flexing and tightening them rhythmically, releasing the anger into the dead wood. It absorbed her emotions without complaint, and in a few moments she was ready to talk. She sank down beside him, letting her legs swing free.

“It seems that there are tumors everywhere, these days. Jonathan had a tumor in the hippocampus. It had spread to the left brain, which might explain the increasing grandiosity of his visions. If…if what we’ve experienced before is any guide, it might have enabled him to influence other people, so that he could separate them from their companions and begin his assaults before they understood what he was doing. It might explain why Genevieve Golden didn’t struggle as he was nailing her to the mountain, anyway.”

Mulder grunted.

“How did you find us?” she asked him, genuinely curious.

He waved a hand in the air. “When Langbein said you’d gone to the bottom of the mountain, I thought you’d look at the Precipice. And when I found your gun–I knew he’d take you there. I told them to look on all the other trails–didn’t want them to spook him.”

She nodded, satisfied. She should chastise him for ignoring backup, but the trail had been too narrow for more people to give any assistance, and his successful taunting had worked, after all.

“Scully,” he began, then hesitated. She stared at him, and finally he met her gaze. “I’m sorry…what I said…”

“You said you’d say you were sorry, too.” Why couldn’t she control what came out of her mouth? Why did it always have to be cold whenever he was ready to open up?

“I think–Jonathan Reiker was a very angry man. I, I tapped into that anger–one way or another, and–”

“Did you say anything you didn’t believe? Did you lie to me, Mulder?” A direct hit, and he actually flinched. She folded her arms across her chest, seeking some sort of protection, and wished for a regular business suit.

He stared down at the trees. “You know better. Anger–it makes the world look different.”

“Yes, and so does regression hypnosis and so do psychoactive drugs,” she said, “not to mention getting a hole drilled in your head, that certainly can change your outlook. You demand a fierce honesty from me, Mulder, but you don’t seem to be able to achieve it yourself unaided.”

His face twisted up, lips pouting, eyes folded into labyrinths of regret. And it was like kicking a puppy, one who knew he’d been bad and that was worse because then he thought the intensity of the retaliation was what he deserved, one who couldn’t tell the difference between rebuke and torture.

She deliberately let her arms fall to her sides. “That was unfair of me,” softly, so he had to lean forward to hear her. “Let’s go home.”

Mulder attempted a smile, bravely, and she appreciated the effort. He stood and turned around, presumably to go to his room and pack.

A final thought struck her–the last thing she wanted to think about this case. A loose end. A piece of evidence that didn’t fit her most careful hypotheses about Mulder’s deductions.

“It was just a coincidence, what he said when he was falling,” she said, more to herself than to him. He heard the question she didn’t speak, though, and turned to her. He took her hand between his own, and pulled her up from the deck, bringing her palm up to caress his cheek.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I just don’t know.”

His uncertainty frightened her as much as anything she’d seen in Jonathan’s head.

Mulder stared at the white computer screen and the accusing stab of the cursor. Scully had written her part of the report, but protocol demanded a profile, so that Jonathan could be studied and entered into a database whose correlations would someday put profilers out of a job. At least, so the programmers claimed. He wondered if the computers would begin to dream, whether they’d hum at night alone in their secure buildings sensing the slipperiness of blood that was only imaginary.

He began to write: “Jonathan Reiker misunderstood the meaning of Acadia. Acadia doesn’t have a meaning, not one that we can make our own. His vendetta against humans was just more of the human arrogance he believed he was condemning. These mountains are not symbols. They are mountains. The trees do not speak to us, nor do they have a reason to do so. Whatever meaning we make from them is our own. To attribute responsibility to them is not so much monstrous as it is tragically, misguidedly human.”

He scratched at his chin, erased the paragraph, and tried again. “Jonathan Reiker was a non-standard spree killer, whose spree lasted longer than most because he operated in an isolated area. This made it difficult for him to find victims, but equally difficult to catch him. The violence of his murders–each distinctly, probably spontaneously, different–indicated a desperation; he struggled for control in a world that would allow him none. He had no ritual that needed to be followed in each killing. Instead, there was a theme: He was protecting the land against the intrusion of humans who were, he believed, defective. He chose particularly ‘defective’ people to highlight the point. For him, it was ‘culling the herd.’ His thinking was illogical and magical. I expect that school records will show low-normal intelligence and achievement, and that his employment history was sporadic and concentrated in unskilled jobs. A broken relationship or a death in the family may have precipitated his flight to the wilderness, where his isolation from people would help him sustain the illusion that the trees were communicating with him.”

There, that had all the stereotypical features and none of the philosophy, so it would fit well on the standard form. Short, but years of resistance had trained the folks at ISU not to expect more than that from him.

Mulder leaned back, tilting the folding chair precariously. He felt as if he’d lost IQ points just getting into this idiot’s head. Wouldn’t it be a better talent if it only allowed insight into genius? Though the world was undoubtedly better off having its multiple murderers be mostly dumb folk rather than Hannibal Lecters.

He tilted his head and looked at the trees through the side window. It was so beautiful here–the trees ranged from the tiniest one-leafed six-inch high saplings to decades-old boles, each one unique in pattern and coloring. Each one could sustain thousands of tiny lives.

Here, death was a point on the continuum. Trees died; the forest lived because of it. He understood why Jonathan Reiker had wanted to be one with the trees, the doof, but Mulder felt that his own desire was more complex. He wanted to be like the trees because they were self-sufficient and self-satisfied. They grew or died regardless of how their fellow trees were doing. A tree doesn’t care when the tree next to it dies; it just basks in the extra sunlight. A tree does not require the esteem of its compatriots. And when its relatives are cut down and taken away, the tree knows nothing about it.

Scully was tidying things up with the locals, helping them construct a forensics kit to keep at the rangers’ station in case something like this happened again. No more running out of crime scene tape or evidence bags for Acadia. More innocence lost.

“I can’t keep doing this,” she said into the phone. She’d stopped the car at the main cabin to use the pay phone, because she had to talk to someone about Mulder. Someone who wouldn’t have him committed to prevent the Bureau from facing a large liability suit, which pretty much eliminated her therapist. So she’d called her mother.

Her mother’s answer, though, surprised her.

“You keep saying that to me. I suppose you say it to him, too. You’re like a girl on a date who keeps saying no when the man does something. She says no, but she doesn’t do anything to stop it. And at the end of the night she feels violated and used, and maybe she has been. But she can’t be surprised when no one else sees it that way. Fox is not the only one who bears the responsibility for what goes on between you–for what he does to you.”

Scully gaped. For a second, she had no idea what to say.

“This is about my cancer, isn’t it?” she asked. “You can’t blame him.”

“You keep saying that, too. I never did. What are you so worried about–that you might blame him, deep down? Yes, I want you to stop traveling and stay near. I need to see you. I need you more than he does, so come home and stay.”

“I’ve got to go now, Mom.”

Her mother sighed heavily. “Of course you do. You’ll come by when you get back?”

Scully mumbled assent and hung up.

She decided to leave the car at the bottom of the hill; they didn’t have much to carry, and turning the car around on the narrow gravel path was tricky. She’d nearly scratched the paint several times before, and they were both so tired; she knew that she’d have to repay the Bureau for any damage and that she was just tired enough to let it happen.

On the way up the hill, she stopped to look at the trees. She’d never really thought about trees before. They were scenery, obstacles, leaf-droppers. Ominous at night, in the dark, but nothing more than big plants. She understood animals; plants had always seemed too simple.

She stopped to touch one scaly grey bole, fingering the black crevices between the patches of outer skin that protected it. A beetle, shiny brown and round, scooted out of one of the cracks, right next to her finger. Give me a sign, she implored, if it’s true.

The tree said nothing to her.

Scully sighed and let her hand fall, silently cursing herself for entertaining the insane notion for a moment. She turned–

And felt a sudden stabbing pain in her right hand, and in her head at the same time.

Her nose was bleeding, gushing, and she tried to staunch it, but there was something in the way when she brought her hand up to pinch her nose. She tried to focus through the headache and the dizziness; it felt as if a steel needle had been driven into her right hand, and she pawed at it with her left. The foreign object came free and she pinched her nose closed.

Standing still on a hillside waiting for the flow to stop was more of a challenge to her balance than it should have been, but she perservered, and after a few more minutes there was no more new blood. Her forearm was covered in gore where blood had run down, but the majority had dripped onto the ground and quickly merged with the rest of the detritus. Scully looked down, saw that it would take a forensics team to discover that she’d bled there, and took a moment to appreciate the fact that her poisonous blood would actually be able to help something else grow.

Then she looked at the object in her left hand.

It was a spruce needle, the longest she’d ever seen, wickedly sharp. From the blood on one end, she guessed that it had gone into the heel of her hand nearly half an inch.

She looked back at the tree, eyes widening.

If she believed now, everything up to this point would be worthless. And everything after–well, there wasn’t going to be much after, so ultimately there was hardly any uncertainty in the matter.

Scully wiped the tender flesh between her nose and her upper lip and headed back to the cabin to clean up.

She feared death. It had taken her a long time to accept that. More than death, though, she feared the erasure of her life when she was gone. She could no longer believe that Mulder would be able to find the truth for both of then. She wished that she had more time to adjust to this new conviction. For so long she had striven to make a mark on the world. Now it seemed that Mulder stood behind her, erasing every track she made.

The mountains would last. Even Jonathan Reiker’s acts would live on in the memories of those who had loved his victims, but Dana Scully was about to disappear.

She had no idea where she’d find the strength to write the report. How would she summarize it? “I don’t like the forest.” No, better yet: “This case brought me four days closer to death.”

The wind moved the branches as she walked under them, and the shade from their leaves made her shiver. The wind through the trees was not so cold as death, perhaps. But she would recognize death when it came.

End.

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