Chapter 1: A Visitor

     PRESENT DAY
     OUR LADY OF SORROWS HOSPITAL
11:37 P.M.

     She walks the narrow hallway, the gentle click-click-click of her heels echoing on the faded green tiles. The patient rooms emit a faint blue glow, shadows dancing on the walls from televisions and monitors, LED lights flickering and beeping dutiful rhythms.

     She rounds a corner, makes her way through two large swinging doors at the end of the hall, and steps up to the nurse’s station, distracted by the file she holds in her hand—a young woman, not quite twenty, recently diagnosed with renal failure, cause unknown. Her mind is churning away at possible causes—an untreated UTI, possibly a tumor—when the head night nurse greets her, startling her out of her thoughts.

     “Evenin’, Dr. Scully. You working late again?”

     “Hi, Lola. Yes,” says Dana Scully, holding up a thick brown file folder, “…paperwork.”

     Lola is familiar with Scully’s unusual office hours as of late. The nurse scowls in mock disapproval. “Shame, shame…pretty lady like you, cooped up in this dreary ol’ place. Don’t you have a handsome young man to tuck you in tonight?”

     Scully is pushing fifty, and tonight she feels every year of it, but she smiles. “Young, he’s not…but he’s not missing me.”

     “Well, he should miss you, doctor lady. Don’t waste a good man. You go home and give him a big ol’ sloppy kiss for me,” the nurse howls at her own private joke, the laughter following Scully down the hall and around the next corner, through the lobby, and into the crisp autumn air.

     Fox Mulder is the last thing she wants to think about right now, if she’s being honest with herself. Her enigmatic partner, friend, and lover—their relationship an intense battle of wills. He, the restless explorer, and she, always trying to reel him in. Lately it was more exhausting than fulfilling, this dance of theirs, and she wonders if they will ever find their rhythm.

     She stops outside the door for a moment, taking a deep breath, letting the stillness of night settle around her. She’s been on call since morning, and a warm bath is calling her name, but the day isn’t over. She heads for the office building across the hospital campus’ grassy lawn, fall leaves swirling at her ankles.

     The offices are empty at this hour. Even her most ambitious colleagues have gone home to their families, the unlucky ones left to sleep in the hospital’s uncomfortable bunk, awakened periodically to deal with the handful of cases that will come through the ER tonight.

     But she remains of her own volition, not with a mind to prove herself, or advance her career. She’s past the point of climbing that proverbial ladder. No, work has always been a convenient escape. It was true at Quantico, it was true working with Mulder on the X-Files, and now it was true here, at the hospital. Some things never change.

     But what was she trying to escape? That point had yet to make itself clear.

     The building is dark. Her key turns easily in the lock, and the familiar scents of printer ink and antiseptic greet her as she opens the large oak doors that lead to the physicians’ private suites. She climbs a flight of stairs to where her office waits at the end of a long, dark hallway.

     The door latches behind her with a soft click. Her heels, as offensive to her feet as they are attractive to her petite stature, are the first to go, followed shortly by her lab coat. She collapses into her chair, letting her head loll against the uncomfortable headrest, rolling it back and forth on her shoulders in a futile attempt to ease the tension there.

     It’s going to take more than a hot bath to untie these knots, she thinks, wincing. 

     She gathers herself, assessing the thick stack of papers in front of her. The brown file she’s been carrying joins its brothers and sisters on her desk, which is lost in a sea of identical brown folders, crumpled napkins, and empty styrofoam coffee cups.

     The mess is easy to ignore once she starts reading through the files, losing herself in the work. She’s no stranger to less-than-ideal working environments; the cluttered corner of a certain basement office at the J. Edgar Hoover building comes to mind. This office, with its glossy oak panels and soothing blue-gray walls, is a big step up from her past life as an FBI investigator—even if the state of her desk doesn’t agree.

     She works her way methodically through lab sheets and notes from her daily rounds, copying them into the hospital’s digital records. It’s tedious work, typically reserved for medical clerks and interns, but mind-numbing data entry is a welcome respite from what has otherwise been a horrible week. The swift and decisive motion of her fingers on the keyboard is comfortable, familiar. She pauses here and there, trying to decipher the notes scribbled hastily in the narrow margins of each file, cross-referencing each patient’s history with the new additions and filing everything away in the cabinets behind her desk.

     As she works, she happens upon the file that’s given her so much grief this week. Amelia, a young girl of four, diagnosed with a rare blood disorder not three weeks ago. Scully’s proposed treatment plan was aggressive, pushing the limits of the hospital administration’s recommendations, but she was hopeful. The girl stood a chance.

     A chance, she thinks, staring sadly at the little girl’s preschool picture—all pigtails and rosy cheeks.

     Two days ago, Amelia fell ill with pneumonia. The combination of the disease, the treatment, and the infection were too much, and she lapsed into a coma, passing away hours later. Scully recalls sitting at the girl’s bedside at the start of her treatment, telling her everything would be OK, she would feel better soon.

     And that was a goddamned lie.

     The memory leaves an acidic taste in the back of her throat. The file falls onto the desk as she places her head in her hands, fatigue and defeat washing over her. She lets her mind wander, ambling over the events of the week until exhaustion wins, and she drifts off.

#

     She’s sitting in a strange bed in a small, dark room, alone. No…not alone. There’s something in her arms, something heavy, moving, wrapped in blankets. She turns her head as though pushed by an unseen hand, finds herself drawn to the writhing bundle, yet paralyzed with fear.

     The blankets fall open slightly, revealing a small, pink fist, and sweet relief floods her.

     A baby. Her baby. William. Emotion wells, her throat tightening.

     Relief turns to revulsion as the small pink hand morphs, turning dark gray and brittle and sharp like a claw, reaching for her. There’s a wail, but it is alien, a horrible, screeching, gnawing sound.

     She tries to scream but she can’t get enough air—all she can do is let out a strangled screech, recoiling, dropping the squirming bundle onto her lap.

     Unable to stop herself, curiosity mixed with horror, she unfolds the corner of the blanket. The gray, withered fingers slash wildly, angrily at empty air. She lets out a strangled moan, “No, no,” and the eyes that gaze up at her are huge and black and empty. Not human. Not…

#

     Scully’s head slips from her hands, slamming painfully into the desk.

     Shit!

     She winces and gasps, rubbing the tender spot on her scalp with growing unease, but memories of the dark dream are already fading. There had been a baby…William? But no, something was wrong…

     Before she can recall the dream, there’s movement in her peripheral vision, followed by what she thinks is a soft footfall outside the door. Her head snaps up, alert, waiting. Night security? But something about it feels off…the last vestiges of her nightmare lurk in the shadows, leaving her edgy, paranoid.

     “Who’s there?”

     No response; only the rhythmic thud of her heartbeat in her ears.

     She shifts uneasily, fear mounting. Is that a shadow? She reaches for the first plausible weapon, sliding open her desk drawer to reveal a small letter opener, wishing it had the comforting heft of her old SIG Sauer.

     Yes, there was definitely a faint shadow under the doorway. Then another footfall, backing away at the sound of her voice.

     “Who is it?” Scully demands, fear giving way to ire. The footsteps retreat down the hall as she stands, back and shoulders protesting as she approaches the door. She eases it open, a surge of adrenaline coursing through her as she crosses the threshold and into the darkened hallway, the letter opener clenched in her fist.

     There’s a faint shadow at the end of the hall, the shape of a man standing just beyond the glow of the Exit sign. She squints, eyes adjusting to the dim light.

     “Hey!”

     The shadow hesitates for a second before darting around the corner toward the exit. She runs, exiting the fire doors into the stairwell in pursuit, stocking feet slipping precariously on the waxed tiles. Below her, she can hear the strange figure’s hasty retreat, the echoing thud of his footsteps on the concrete risers; he’s already on the first floor.

     By the time Scully reaches the exit, the intruder is gone. There’s only the trees, the wind, the leaves rattling against the building. She whirls around, breathing hard, but no amount of staring into the darkness beyond the building produces a human form. She groans, fuming, annoyed that she’s let this encounter spook her.

     Jumping at shadows again, aren’t you Dana? It’s probably just kids sneaking around, looking for cheap thrills and drugs.

     Exhaustion catches up to her. She’ll call security to let them know to keep an eye out for suspicious activity, then grab her things and get away from this place; it’s too cold, too sterile. The paperwork can wait.

     Maybe I’ll take that bath after all.

     She broods, lost in thought as she makes her way up the stairs, so much so that she almost doesn’t notice the folder beside the door. It’s difficult to see in the shadowy hallway, but the light from her office falls on its corner. She frowns. I dropped a file…but no, this is different. It’s black. Thin.

     She picks up the folder, suspicious, carrying it into her office. The letter opener, still gripped in her right hand, makes quick work of the seal. She doesn’t realize she’s holding her breath until the sound of the knife slicing through the thick paper makes her jump.

     Jesus. Shake it off, Dana.

     She taps the folder’s edge, shaking out a piece of paper the size of an index card. Printed on one side is a mailing address she doesn’t recognize. 

     776 East Park Way
     Riverton, WY. 82501

     Puzzled, she turns it over, and the words on the other side of the card make her mouth go dry. In the same neat, unassuming type, she reads:

     He needs help, Mama.

     An involuntary shudder runs through her, the fleeting memory of her earlier dream flooding her with irrational fear.

     He needs help, Mama.

     She rushes from the office, forgetting her belongings, and heads for the car.

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