The boots land beside Isaac with a dull thud, startling him out of his thoughts. Mulder stands at the door, shrugging on his winter coat.
“We’re going out.”
There’s no hesitation in Mulder’s gait as he steps into the cold, expecting Isaac to follow. Isaac waits, wondering if he can pretend he didn’t hear, if he can slip away to his room, but Mulder pokes his head back through the door.
“You’re letting the hot air out.”
Isaac sighs and begins lacing up the boots.
Mulder’s limp seems more pronounced when they’re outside, the ground beneath them slippery and uneven after last night’s snowfall.
Isaac coughs, pulling on his hat. “Aren’t you, uh, supposed to use the crutches?”
“I won’t tell if you won’t.”
He expects him to get in the truck, but Mulder takes a left off the porch, toward the shed. He emerges a moment later with a two-man saw and a length of rope, smirking at Isaac’s alarm.
“If I were going to go medieval on you, I’d find a better weapon. C’mon, let’s go rustle up some holiday spirit.”
They’re trudging through a foot of snow toward the tree line at the back of the farmhouse, past the low, rough rock wall and into the forest.
“Good sledding hill,” Mulder says as they make their way down the slope of the back yard.
Isaac makes a noncommittal sound in the back of his throat. The hill would make for a good time—blinding white for a good five-hundred yards, just the right angle to get up to speed—but he has no sled and no desire to do anything that might make him appear interested.
“What are we supposed to be looking for?” Isaac asks, with a hint of a whine. He doesn’t want to be here, doesn’t know how to say so, and there’s an uncomfortable tightness at the back of his throat. This is the most words they’ve exchanged all week.
“A Christmas tree,” Mulder says, as if this should be obvious.
Isaac snorts. “I thought you were Jewish.”
“Half, never observed. Besides, we don’t have a forest full of menorahs in our back yard.”
“Have you done this before?” Isaac asks, watching his breath swirl in front of him, the wind biting at his nose and cheeks. He never thought he’d miss the dry prairie winters of Wyoming, but the wet, muggy cold of western Virginia is suffocating in comparison.
“Nope,” Mulder replies, not offering more in the way of explanation. He sidles up to an overgrown fir. “This one, you think?”
“It’s a tree,” Isaac shrugs.
“It’s too big.”
“Nah, it’ll fit,” Mulder decides, positioning the saw. “Take the other end.”
The saw is a relic, probably older than the farmhouse judging from the look of it. They begin cutting away at the base, a ragged back-and-forth that doesn’t seem to put more than a dent in the trunk. Eventually two of the saw’s teeth fracture, fragments of rust red on a bed of snow, and they’re forced to stop. Isaac can’t help but feel a little smug until Mulder takes a small axe from his belt.
“Always have a plan B,” he says mildly.
The axe is sturdy, but the blade is dull. They take turns, chopping at the trunk until the tips of Isaac’s fingers tingle from impact after impact. A blister forms at the ridge along the base of his thumb, and he hisses his disapproval into the cold.
“This isn’t working,” he huffs, dropping the tool to nurse his aching hands.
There’s a pause before Mulder picks up the axe and continues working on his own. Eventually the tree cracks and falls, landing with a whoomph, sending up a cloud of needles and flakes.
Isaac hangs back as Mulder winds the rope around the branches, tugging it tight until the tree is bundled like a green torpedo. He knots the loose end in a loop, and offers it to Isaac.
“I’ll need your help getting it back.”
Isaac glares at him, cold hands stuffed in his pockets. A minute passes, then two. After weeks of creeping about like a lost spirit, it feels good to push back, to remember his own solidity.
Mulder doesn’t take the bait. His voice drops, he finally looks away, squinting into the distant forest canopy. “Look, I know things have been rough. I know you haven’t had a lot of options.”
Isaac stiffens, feels the blood rush to his face. He’d hoped for anger; kindness is too close to pity for comfort.
“This is a choice you made,” Mulder says, offering the loop of rope again. It’s rough against Isaac’s blistered thumb.
There’s the shush-shush-shush of the tree as it glides through the snow, the crunch of ice under his too-big boots, and Mulder’s soft breathing next to his as they make their way up the hill, back to the house.
He’d stood on the porch with Skinner awaiting the verdict, the answer that would change the rest of his life. Questions skimmed across the surface of his mind like silver fish, but he’d been too intimidated by the stoic, broad-shouldered man to ask.
Skinner had sensed his hesitancy, tried to reassure him.
“They’ll say yes.”
He hadn’t known what to say, and wished his heart wasn’t permanently sewn on his sleeve. He could have read their thoughts, listened for clues in the rise and fall of their inner voices. He’d picked at the skin around his thumbnail instead, bitten it to the quick.
“I know them,” Skinner had continued, frowning, onyx leather shoes in sharp contrast to the weathered white boards beneath. “You’ll be in good hands. I’m not saying it’ll be easy, but they won’t turn you away.”
On that first day, he’d closed himself in his drafty little room and sat in the middle of his new bed, clutching his backpack to his chest, suddenly full of remorse. The life he’d left behind hadn’t been much, but it had been his.
At least in an orphanage, he could blend in. At least in a foster home, he wouldn’t be expected to care.
He hadn’t bothered to unpack.
It’s too big.
Mulder stands in the center of the room while Isaac waits at the door, the tree at his back. The fragrant needles dig into his hands, piercing his gloves, making his palms itch.
There is the shuffling of furniture, a last-minute rearrangement, and finally the tree is placed at the base of the stairs, forced to lean slightly with its peak curled against the ceiling, the lower branches fanning out until they all but cover the first step. They’ll have to hop to the second riser to get upstairs, but they have a Christmas tree. Mulder looks pleased.
“We’ll have to stabilize it with something, but it’ll hold for now. I think we have some decorations floating around…”
He disappears into the basement, and Isaac throws himself on the couch with a huff. Scully will be home soon, and he wonders what she’ll say about the green monstrosity sitting in their living room.
It looks out of place amongst the sparsely decorated home, a monster rooted in the floor, ready to smother everything around it. The room has been rearranged, upturned, kitty-cornered, made ugly. Nothing seems to fit. Isaac shifts uncomfortably against the couch, sympathizing.
Mulder returns bearing a cardboard box, wisps of leftover tinsel scattering in its wake. There’s a thick layer of dust on top, mildew stains on the corners, and Isaac thinks this particular box hasn’t seen the light of day in a long time.
“We’re not what you’d call Christmas people,” Mulder admits, noting Isaac’s curious expression as he sets the box on the floor at the base of the tree.
Isaac snorts, thinking that of all the things he misses, a lopsided tree and a crummy box of decorations don’t top the list, but when Mulder leaves to get something from the shed, Isaac can’t help but snoop.
The box itself is ragged, but its contents are safe, shrouded in layers of paper. There are strings of multicolored lights, a handful of ornaments, a star for the top. He digs deeper, unearthing glass and strands of tinsel that have long since lost their shine.
“Find anything interesting?”
Isaac gasps at the sound of Mulder’s voice behind him, and the glass figurine he’d been holding drops from his hands and shatters at his knees.
“Shit,” he hisses through clenched teeth, turning an accusing eye to his new guardian.
“Sorry…here, careful, or you’ll get cut.”
Mulder finds the broom and sweeps the shards into a dust pan while Isaac salvages the larger pieces; an arm, a fragmented wing, the razor-sharp tip of a foot. They go into a small paper bag that Mulder tosses into the garbage can.
“Don’t worry about it. Scully won’t miss it.”
Isaac frowns, thinking that he doesn’t care what Scully says about the little glass trinket, but he’s troubled nonetheless; at how something so broken could be so easily swept up and tossed aside.
“Thanks for helping me out there,” Mulder says, softer this time, and Isaac can barely manage a nod.
He thinks of how bright and dangerous the shards looked, how impossible a puzzle they made, how they could never be put back together.
“Damnit, they’re burnt.”
There’s the groan of the oven’s hinges and a faint hiss as Scully’s finger grazes the hot pan through threadbare oven mitts.
“Not burnt,” Mulder offers. “Extra crispy.”
She scowls, scraping the darkened cookies into the garbage can. “At least half of them are edible.”
“That’s debatable,” Mulder grins. Scully has proven more than once in Isaac’s time here that her prowess does not extend to the kitchen.
The kitchen is warm, radiating heat and light. Isaac curls against the back of the couch, basking in its meager privacy, the fabric cool against his cheek. The book in his hands goes unread.
The two adults sit at opposite ends of the kitchen table with bowls of frosting, the smell of cinnamon and flour heavy in the air. Isaac gets the impression this is something new, an activity designed to draw him out, to entice him into joining them, as if they could win his favor with sugar and spice.
There’s the clink of knives on the bowls and their soft talk in the background, punctuated by long stretches of silence. It would be comforting if it weren’t so contrived.
“Look! A zombie.”
“Mulder,” Scully scolds, but Isaac hears the smile in her voice. There’s laughter, a pause. Isaac senses their mental reach, can feel their pull through the wall of the couch.
“Hey, over there. Sure you don’t want to join us?” Mulder says, his voice muffled around a pilfered cookie. “Plenty of frosting.”
Isaac frowns, pretending to focus on his book. “I’m fine.”
Another pause, this one less comfortable.
That night they talk in hushed tones, always with the whispering when they think he’s not listening.
“Go easy on him, Scully. Kid just lost his mom.”
“I know that,” she sighs. “I know. Jesus, this is hard.”
“Yeah, and imagine how hard it is for him.”
Strained silence dissolves into dreams.
He tiptoes into the kitchen after they’re asleep, finds the tray of cookies covered with Saran wrap. Mulder’s undead atrocity sticks out alongside its merrier companions, trails of red frosting dripping down the gingerbread face, raisin eyes like gaping hollow sockets over a gray-green backdrop.
He picks up the cookie and takes a bite; head first, arms, body, and finally legs, eaten for spite, and he half hopes it will taste burnt and bitter.
The frosting melts against the roof of his mouth, sweet vanilla and spicy ginger, the taste lingering long after the satisfaction of his small offense has passed.
“Why are you doing this?”
He’s finally worked up the nerve to ask the question that’s been burning on the back of his tongue.
Mulder grunts from his place on the floor, repositioning a segment of two-by-four against the fir’s trunk. It has begun to lean precariously to the right.
“So the tree doesn’t fall over.”
Isaac scowls, scuffs his foot on the floorboards. “You know what I mean.”
Mulder scoots out from underneath the tree to look at him, sitting up, brushing the dust from his hands. From here, he looks worn out, older, lines around his eyes and mouth betraying his age.
“Why do you think?”
Isaac takes a deep breath, words following in a rush. “It doesn’t matter how many stupid decorations you put up. Nothing will make it better.”
“No…you’re right,” Mulder acquiesces.
“I’m not a little kid. You don’t have to…you know…pretend.”
“So…why, then? Why bother?”
“Maybe it’s not just for you.”
Scully chooses that moment to walk through the door, bringing with her a draft of cold air and an armful of shopping bags, a dusting of snow across her shoulders.
“I got a few things, they were having a—”
She stops, sensing the tension in the room. “Everything OK?”
“S’fine,” Mulder says, hoisting himself off the floor with some difficulty, as Isaac feigns interest in a length of garland.
“Well,” she says with forced cheer, looking back and forth between them. “I’m going to freshen up, then we can start decking the halls.”
When she’s gone, Mulder goes to poke through the bags left by the door. There is fresh tinsel, more lights, more ornaments. If it were up to Mulder, they’d be little green men wearing Santa hats, but Scully’s choices are tasteful, delicate, reminding Isaac of the kinds of decorations his late mother would have chosen.
Thinking of his mother brings a fresh wave of grief. Christmas at home meant mass; the glow from the candles and the faint whiff of sulfur from the match as each was lit. Prayers were said with reverence, songs were sung, blessings spoken. It was one of the rare times his mother seemed genuinely at ease.
He may not have believed in her god, but there was comfort in the routine, the tradition of it. Those traditions died with her, ashes on a whitewashed floor.
He can’t stop thinking about it, even when Scully returns, even when she puts him to work stringing garland and fastening hooks, even as he wills the steady motions of his hands to still the frantic stumbling of his thoughts.
With the lights are untangled and strung, the new decorations swaying back and forth precariously on their green-tipped branches, the tree looks almost comical; a massive figure with a brightly lit, baubled center, like a Muppet turning itself inside out. Mulder stands back to admire their handiwork.
“You want to do the honors?” he asks, handing Isaac the plastic tinsel star.
It’s stupid, Isaac thinks, suddenly furious at his own sadness. So much effort for such an ugly payoff.
He shakes his head and escapes to his room, leaving Mulder to put up the star himself.
Scully doesn’t have to work on Christmas Eve, which Mulder drily claims is some kind of holy miracle. She is, however, on call for emergency consults, and the phone rings in the middle of dinner.
“Sorry,” she murmurs, bringing the phone to the stairs. “Have to take this.”
When she’s out of earshot, Mulder clears his throat. “We haven’t done this in a long time.”
Isaac doesn’t look up from his plate, where he’s pushing his food around in lumpy circles. “Haven’t done what?”
Mulder gestures with his fork. “This. The holiday thing. Merry merry, ho ho ho, etcetera,” he says.
As if you couldn’t tell, Isaac thinks, recalling the mildewed cardboard box.
“I tried, after we bought this place,” Mulder continues. “I thought we could start over, but it was too much.”
Too much? Isaac thinks, shifting uncomfortably, and Mulder reads the question in his eyes.
“Scully got one Christmas with you before it all went to hell. And after you were gone,” there’s a pause as his voice drops. “Let’s just say we didn’t have many reasons to celebrate.”
The image is sudden and powerful, coming through in such vivid detail that the memory could almost be mistaken for his own. There’s the glow of a television screen and a sadness that’s painful in its familiarity. It’s the same room, the same home, with an emptiness that makes Isaac’s stomach sink.
“But now you’re here.”
Mulder’s voice brings him out of the illusion.
“You asked why, and the answer is…you’ve given us something we thought we lost a long time ago.”
Isaac swallows hard. Scully’s soft words carry from upstairs, she’s wrapping things up.
“I know you didn’t ask for this. You can resent us for surviving. You can even hate us; whatever you need to do to get through it. But I won’t say we’re not happy to have you,” Mulder finishes.
There’s the unassuming clink of his fork against his plate, and then Scully’s footsteps on the stairs.
“You two look like you’re plotting something,” she says, arching an eyebrow as she resumes her place at the table.
Mulder opens his mouth, but Isaac interrupts.
“Um…we were just saying…this is really good,” he says, in a voice that’s barely a whisper. “Thanks.”
Scully beams, and Isaac surprises himself by returning her smile.
He creeps into the living room when he thinks they’re in bed, surprised to find they never made it.
A week of holiday preparations appears to have left the two former agents exhausted, and they’re passed out on the couch with less than an hour ’til midnight. Mulder’s head is tipped back, mouth open, snoring. Scully is curled against him with a blanket draped over her legs, a half-finished glass of wine on the coffee table, a plate of cookies reduced to crumbs.
There’s a sled—one of the new models, sleek and red and probably fast as hell—sitting under the monster tree, amongst a pile of carefully wrapped packages that hadn’t been there when Isaac went to bed.
The tree glows, seeming to take on a life of its own. He’s well past the age of believing in fat elves that drop down through chimneys to grant wishes and bestow the gifts of dreams, but the sight sends an unexpected shiver of anticipation through him nonetheless; even the dark times haven’t fully wrought the magic from his subconscious.
A shimmer catches his eye, calling to him from across the room. He edges past the couch and the coffee table, careful not to disturb his sleeping guardians. The silver face sways gently back and forth on its branch with the tremors from his footsteps on the uneven hardwood floors.
It’s an angel. He turns it over to find the back engraved with initials that would have been his—WFS—birth day, and time. There had been something similar on his mother’s tree—a silver bell maybe, or was it a bear? He can’t remember, but the initials had been different.
Which one is true? he wonders, shaky fingers tracing the letters, the long slope of the W, the smooth belly of the S.
What makes his eyes sting is not the memory of his mother, or the disquiet of his identity, but that he may never work up the courage to ask why they kept it, this fragment of an interrupted past.
He nearly trips over the coffee table in a hasty retreat, pausing to glance over his shoulder and take in the sight one last time before retreating.
His own room is still drafty and foreign, uninhabited in spirit. His hands clench and unclench at his sides, restless, waiting for a sign that will never come.
But now you’re here, he thinks.
He reaches for his backpack, upturning its meager contents onto the bed.
One by one, he puts his things away.