MARCH 25, 2015
VIRGINIA HIGH SCHOOL
They’ve been waiting forty minutes within the confines of the office’s drab, off-white walls. It’s uncomfortable—the cheap carpet, the worn wooden furniture, the smell of chalk and industrial cleaner—but it’s the poster of a cat dangling precariously from a tree that sets him off. He stares at it, tilting his head one way and the other, before delivering the verdict.
“If I had to stare at that shit every day, the only thing left hanging would be me,” Fox Mulder mutters, casting a sideways glance at his partner.
Dana Scully has come from the hospital, looking every part the doctor minus the white coat. Her turtleneck itches at the collar and she tugs on it, trying to ignore Mulder’s attempts to make her laugh. So far the best he’s managed is a wry smirk.
She checks her watch for the sixth time, unable to shake the feeling that she’s back at the FBI, called on the carpet for breaching protocol, ready to defend her partner’s latest flight of fancy. Meanwhile, Mulder has the audacity to look bored.
Some things never change.
But this isn’t the FBI, it’s a high school, and today they sit in this tastelessly decorated office not to answer for their actions, but their son’s. She has no idea why they’ve been called in so close to the end of the school year, when William Isaac Scully is arguably one of the school’s best students.
“Scully, look,” Mulder whispers, pointing at a shelf behind the principal’s desk, upon which rests a staged family portrait. “It’s Fat Skinner!”
Sure enough, the photo reveals a bald, heavyset man with wire-rimmed glasses who bears a striking resemblance to their former FBI supervisor. She bites the inside of her cheek, barely hiding a smile as she shakes her head.
As if on cue, the principal, looking even more like his slender FBI doppelgänger in person, bursts through the door behind them.
“Sorry I’m late,” he mutters gruffly, “faculty meeting ran long. It’s no damn wonder these teachers can’t get their students to shut up. Alcott himself hasn’t taken a breath since 1973.”
The man even talks like Skinner, she thinks, suppressing a grin at Mulder’s told-you-so smirk.
She moves to stand, but the man waves her back into her seat, so she reaches out to shake his warm, pudgy hand over the mess of a desk between them. “It’s nice to meet you, Mr….”
“Henderson. Principal Henderson. And you must be…”
“Dana Scully, and this is…Fox…Fox Mulder.” The name stumbles off her tongue. They were pardoned years ago, but old habits die hard, and she struggles to recall which cover he’s going by, before she remembers he doesn’t have one.
“Ahh, William’s parents, yes, yes, now I remember.”
“Isaac,” Mulder interrupts with a trace of polite irritation. “He goes by his middle name.”
The man blinks, frowning at his desk. “OK…Isaac, then. Well, I wanted to talk to you about him. He’s a very gifted young man.”
The partners share the same thought in a single, careful look: You have no idea.
“Yes, he is,” Scully hedges, watching Mulder pick at the lap of his Levis, “but I’m guessing that’s not why you called us.”
Fat Skinner—Principal Henderson, she chides herself, although the former moniker has already stuck—sighs and continues shuffling papers on his desk, until he plucks one from the pile.
“About that. See,” he holds up the piece of yellow paper, “this is Isaac’s third altercation in as many months.”
Scully presses her lips together in a thin line, glancing over at her partner, who suddenly seems more interested in the window scenery than the meeting. “Altercation? I don’t follow.”
“I’ve sent home three of these reports. You didn’t get them?” He holds up another yellow slip of carbon paper Scully recognizes as a warning notice.
“No, we did get them,” Mulder interrupts, and Scully’s head pivots on her shoulders so sharply, she can hear the audible crack of a tendon echoing her surprise.
“Then you know Isaac has been caught fighting,” continues Fat Skinner.
“I’m aware there were some ‘altercations’, as you put it. I was told he wasn’t the instigator, though,” Mulder says mildly. “I’m told the other kid had it coming.”
It’s clear Fat Skinner didn’t expect this. He takes a breath, making a show of shuffling the papers in front of him again.
“What my partner means to say,” Scully interrupts through gritted teeth, addressing the principal but not taking her eyes off Mulder, “is that we’re happy to talk to him.”
“We have a strict non-violence policy at this school. Strict,” the principal repeats, enunciating the word slowly, dragging it over multiple syllables as if speaking to a child. “We’ve been a bit…lenient in this situation since Isaac is one of our best and brightest.” The man smiles again, an unsympathetic expression that doesn’t reach his eyes. “Normally fighting is an immediate detention, but given the state exams are coming up, we were willing to make exceptions in the best interests of the school. But we can’t allow this behavior to continue.”
“Mr. Henderson,” Scully begins, forcing her lips in a tense smile that feels more like a grimace.
“Non-violence,” the man interrupts, drawing himself up, folding his hands on the desk. “We don’t tolerate fighting at this school. If it happens again, Isaac will face suspension.”
Mulder looks ready to crawl out of his seat, but much to Scully’s relief, her partner bites his tongue.
“We’ll talk to him,” Scully repeats tightly, “Is that all?”
He gives a terse nod. “I don’t mean to pry, but have there been problems at home? I see here in Isaac’s file that you’re…divorced? Have you considered counseling for him?”
Scully blinks. Divorced?
“We’re not divorced,” Mulder mutters, “not that it’s any of your damn business.”
“I just assumed—“
“You assumed what?” Mulder growls.
“No need to get defensive,” Fat Skinner continues cooly. “It says here you’re not married. It’s very common for students with separated families to struggle with behavioral problems, social aggression. Is Isaac’s father in the picture?”
Scully glares at the man in disbelief; beside her, Mulder’s skin glows with rage. “I wasn’t aware the school required a paternity test for admission,” he snaps.
“Mulder!” she hisses, turning to the principal. “Isaac is our son,” she continues in clipped syllables. “There’s been no divorce, no…change in our family arrangement.” She realizes she’s gripping the armrest so hard her fingers hurt, manicured nails digging into the chipped wood.
No change, she thinks, tasting the lie on her tongue, hoping the man doesn’t notice the sudden rush of guilty color in her cheeks.
“Oftentimes acting out like this is a symptom of a deeper problem. I thought if there’d been a change recently, it could explain…but clearly I’m wrong about that.”
“You’re out of line, is what you are,” Mulder fires back, loud enough to draw looks from the office assistant outside. He’s ready to storm out or add physical assault to the day’s to-do list. Scully shoots him a warning look: Let’s make it the former.
Fat Skinner remains unfazed. “I apologize. But please, talk with Isaac. It’s possible he’s just going through a stage of social development that’s common for teen boys, and this, too, shall pass.” He smiles disingenuously, and Scully shares in her partner’s unspoken urge to throttle the man.
“Is that everything?” she finishes, cutting off her partner, who looks ready to open his mouth again.
I’m going to kill him, she thinks dully as they finish with forced pleasantries, making a hasty exit. She’s not sure if she means her partner, or the asshole masquerading as a school principal.
Unfortunately for Mulder, he’s the one within reach. She pinches him at the elbow, steering him down the hall.
“What the hell was that?” she hisses, heels clicking angrily on the concrete tile.
Her partner shrugs mildly. “You heard the self-serving prick, Scully.”
“You didn’t tell me,” she wheels on him as they exit the school and into the brisk spring air. “Why didn’t you tell me he’s been fighting?”
For his part, Mulder looks appropriately sheepish. “He asked me not to.”
“He asked you not to? Mulder! He’s a fifteen-year-old boy! When he asks you not to tell me something, your first instinct should be to tell me!”
“C’mon,” Mulder says, still looking at his shoes. “It’s a playground scuffle. Not unusual for a kid his age.”
“Mulder, Isaac is anything but ‘usual’.”
“He didn’t hurt anyone, Scully, he was defending himself. Besides, you heard the man; they’re not going to do anything to him. His test scores are probably one of the few things keeping this school’s funding intact.”
“That’s not what Fat Skin—I mean, Principal Henderson said,” she says. The slip of her tongue gives Mulder an edge, and now he’s smirking in the face of her fury.
They find themselves standing beside her car. Mulder’s beat-up pick-up is parked next to her more conservative Prius, and he leans against the tailgate, looking the part of a back-country farmer, everything but the hat and the pick in his teeth.
You’d never know he used to wear Armani, she thinks, brushing aside a momentary flush of affection, despite her irritation.
“Mulder,” she continues, softening, feeling the pull of his quiet indifference even as an angry fire, one born out of fear, burns beneath her breastbone, “we need to be careful here. He needs to be careful. We know what he’s capable of. Someone could get hurt.”
Mulder ducks his head in assent. “Yeah, I know.”
She sighs. “I’ll talk to him. I’m good at being the bad cop,” she mutters, biting her tongue against an unwelcome flush of resentment.
“No, I’ll talk to him,” Mulder says, surprising her. “No, really,” he continues, smiling a little at her dubious glare, “I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
“You’re sure? I need you to be with me on this, Mulder. He can’t get suspended. If the school gets an idea, if he lets it slip—”
“They won’t. We’re just your normal, happy family. White picket fence, two-point-five kids—hell, I’m considering getting a puppy to top it all off,” Mulder smirks.
She snorts in response, but he’s earned his smile. “The perfect picture of domestic bliss.” There’s a pause as she wonders how to ask the question that lingers on the tip of her tongue. “Isaac…he’s OK, right? He hasn’t said anything to you?”
Mulder considers this. “No. But he doesn’t say a lot.”
She arches an eyebrow. “What do you two talk about when I’m not around, anyway?”
“Oh, you know. Sports. Chicks. Alien autopsies gone awry. The usual,” Mulder replies, but his smile doesn’t carry its usual trace of humor.
She debates with herself, wondering if she should press him, but as always, she has to run away in the middle.
“I need to get back,” she says finally.
He looks relieved. “Roger that, Doc. I’m going to hang around, wait for Isaac to get out.”
“And you’ll talk to him, right? He needs to know this is serious, Mulder, no jokes, just—“
“I got it, serious, no jokes. He’ll get the picture. Go save the world, Scully.”
She wrinkles her nose. “I have a cholecystectomy on my table at four…hardly saving the world.”
“Well, save someone the pain of a gallbladder attack, then,” he chirps, still leaning against the cab of his rusted Ford. “I’ll talk to the brat. Dinner’s at 7 if you’re home, I’m making grilled cheese.”
“Mmm, too much of your cooking and I’ll need a cholecystectomy of my own.”
“At least you know a good surgeon.”
“Bye, Mulder,” she finishes, getting into her car with a fleeting smile. She doesn’t have the heart to tell him she probably won’t make it home for dinner.
It’s been eighteen months since Isaac came to them, upturning their lives just as suddenly as he had when the E.R. doctor spoke those two impossible words—you’re pregnant.
Fourteen years later, Skinner dropped him at their doorstep an orphan, everything but the basket and note. Where William had once been a distant memory to be reached for but never grasped in Scully’s dreams, now he is solid, tangible; flesh and blood and something otherworldly, but still, she can’t seem to touch him.
Scully’s car speeds toward Our Lady of Sorrows, the soothing drone of classical music playing the background to her wandering thoughts.
We’re adjusting, is what she tells people when they ask about the child they didn’t legally adopt, the child who was lost and found again. The story changes for everyone.
Her family knows the pretty version, the one without shadows and little green men.
If she believes the gossip, her coworkers think Scully had a mid-life crisis and adopted a wayward teen, and she hasn’t bothered to correct them.
Their friends…well, she thinks, we don’t need to worry about that. Friends are difficult to keep when you harbor as many secrets as they do. She has a difficult time keeping the half-truths straight herself.
They may be his biological parents, but the last eighteen months have taught her that blood is not always thicker than water. In Isaac’s case, there’s no earthly substance that can compare to the life that runs in his veins.
“Why’d you have to tell him my name?” Mulder griped to her one day after a particularly abrasive exchange between father and son, the offender holed up in his room after dropping a three-letter F-bomb.
She’d looked up from her book, brow arched. “I didn’t. You forget, he can read minds.”
“Thought we had a rule about that,” Mulder muttered.
It was one of the first things they’d agreed on after Isaac moved in, carrying little more than his blue backpack full of books, an iPod, and a single picture of his late adoptive family, tragic as a character in a modern-day Dickens novel.
“You don’t peek, and we don’t give you a reason to peek,” Scully had said, hoping to establish a sense of authority over the kid whose supernatural talents put ordinary rules to shame. “We don’t keep secrets, but you need to respect our privacy.”
The boy had nodded mutely and retreated to the spare bedroom, where he’d stayed for the rest of the day. They’d paced the house, pretended to read, exchanging laden, worried looks.
What the hell do we do now?
Scully had lain awake that night, wishing she had an open view into his mind as he did into hers, that she could find a way through the boy’s carefully constructed armor.
She’d gone so far as to pick up a copy of the latest self-proclaimed parenting bible, Raising Your Spirited Teen. When in doubt, Scully turns to studies, to journals and books, but this one is missing the chapter on “Connecting with your Estranged Child”, never mind the ones on “How to Encourage Your Child’s Unique Telekinetic Abilities” and “How to Stop Your Telepathic Teen From Reading Your Mind.”
Mulder scoffed when she brought it home. She, of all people, should know that the mysteries of the human heart can’t be found in the self-help section at Barnes & Noble.
The problem is, Isaac’s heart, like the rest of him, is not entirely human.
Now she catches him ferrying his dishes to the sink with his mind. They’ve lost more china to the kid’s experiments in the last year than she can count on two hands.
After one such incident, Mulder had grinned and said, “At least he cleans up after himself.”
She’d glared at him, then back at the shards of yet another shattered glass. “The kid could throw a semi-truck the length of a football field by looking at it, but he can’t get his socks in the hamper when it’s two feet away.”
“It’s the challenge,” Mulder replied, cracking a sunflower seed between his teeth, and she’d had to smile. He’s spent a lifetime with incredible talents that turned out to be useless in giving him what he desperately wanted.
He knows what it’s like to stare at the stars and feel like he could almost touch them, if only he could reach a little further.
Now it’s envy that keeps her awake at night. After months of caring for William alone and agonizing over the adoption, it’s a personal affront that Isaac is drawn to Mulder rather than her. This is her punishment for giving him up; she can have his presence, but not his love.
He is her son, but he could be anyone’s child.
In all other respects—the aloofness, the attitude, the lack of foresight—their son is perfectly normal, according to Your Spirited Teen.
Scully flicks off the radio with a snap as she pulls into the hospital’s parking lot, sagging back against the seat, eyes closed.
Normal, except not even remotely normal. The story of my life.
Mulder meets Isaac outside the school, catching his attention with a wave. The boy looks up, suspicious and vaguely unhappy at the sight of the rusted truck, Mulder leaning against it. He climbs into the truck’s cab, sullen and distant.
“Hey, kid. How’d it go?”
“Alright, I guess,” Isaac responds cautiously. There’s a pause, both of them wondering who will make the next move.
“So…Scully and I had a little conversation with Principal Henderson. He said you got into another fight.”
Isaac frowns into his lap. “I told you, it was self defense.”
“Yeah, I believe you. But I’m thinking we need to find another way for you to defend yourself, one that doesn’t involve throwing a punch.”
“The guy won’t leave me alone. Can’t help it if he gets in the way of my fist sometimes.”
“Isaac…” Mulder’s tone is a warning, “just…avoid him.”
“I can’t! He’s been held back twice. He’s a giant asshole—“
Isaac rolls his eyes, but continues. “He’s a giant jerk to everyone, and I’m fresh meat,” the boy glowers, sliding lower in his seat.
“So, walk the other way. Ignore him.”
“I could’ve done worse,” Isaac murmurs, causing Mulder to shift uneasily in his seat, waiting out an uncomfortable pause. They both know Isaac’s fists can’t do nearly as much damage as his mind.
“If you do, you bring yourself to his level. It’s not a fair fight.”
“It’s not fair, period.”
“Yeah, well, life’s not fair,” Mulder snaps, ire getting the better of him. Isaac flinches, and Mulder softens his tone. “Look…make it through the rest of the semester and then we’ll look at another school. OK?”
Silence. Mulder bites back frustration, whether for his own parental incompetence or Isaac’s stony front, he’s not sure. He’s been on the wrong end of another’s fist too many times to count, but he has no sage advice for staying out of trouble; only for finding it.
Not that the kid would take it if I did, he thinks with a sigh. It’s like talking to a goddamned brick wall.
An idea presents itself, and the words are out of his mouth before he can fully consider the consequences. “So…I had the guys look up some info for me.”
Isaac’s head snaps up, eyes wide, the change so sudden and dramatic, Mulder wonders if he imagined the first part of their conversation. “What? What is it?”
“First you have to promise: No more fights. Just walk away. Deal?”
The boy hesitates, but the answer is automatic, plain on his face. “K. No more fights. Promise.”
Mulder ducks his head in a slight nod, fingers tapping along the edge of the steering wheel, a nagging voice whispering at the edge of his conscience.
Don’t ask him to make a promise he can’t keep, Spooky.
He’s good at ignoring that voice.
“The guys recovered the names of some of the scientists who worked on the project…the one you were part of. It’s not a complete list, but it’s a start. The question is what we do with it.”
The boy’s eyes shine. “You think we can find them?”
Mulder considers this as he starts the truck. The engine chugs half-heartedly before turning over on the third try, all the while Isaac is staring at him, waiting without mercy. Mulder is again struck at how much the kid reminds him of Scully.
And what would she say?
The thought gives him pause. He’s never been good at self-restraint in situations like this. Scully was the one to reel him back in, a safety net for the times he went too far.
Isaac is looking to him with a familiar intensity, and Mulder realizes with a certain laughable horror that he’s supposed to be the net.
The blind leading the blind.
“We can,” he says after a beat, fiddling with the broken fan knob on the console, “but Isaac…you need to think about this. There could be consequences. And I don’t mean a suspension,” he narrows his eyes, met with his son’s blue flint gaze.
“I know, I get it,” the boy spits out, barely able to contain himself. “So what do we do?”
Mulder swallows, reaches for a sunflower seed, watching from the corner of his eye as Isaac does the same. The salt on the shell is sharp with the taste of unease. He’s suddenly certain that they’re setting in motion a series of events that could change the course of his son’s life, for better or worse.
The nagging voice gets louder.
He’ll do it. Whatever it takes, he’ll do it.
“Well,” he says carefully, “that’s up to you, Isaac.”
The boy stares at him, considering this, teeth working the seam of his own hard shell. Mulder continues, “Think about it. And…let’s not share this with the doc yet, k?”
Isaac raises an eyebrow, a smile teasing at his lips. “You said no secrets.”
“You’re right, no secrets,” he says, shifting the truck into first, wincing as the worn gears grind out in protest. “I’ll let her in on it. Just let me be the one to tell her.”
The boy shrugs. “K.” He pulls a book from his backpack and tugs his headphones on, ending the conversation.
“Glad we had this talk,” Mulder mutters. He pulls out of the school parking lot, heading for home, unable to shake the feeling he’s just handed a child a loaded gun with the safety off.
Be careful, Fox. He is the loaded gun.