Title: The Ghost in the Corner, or Moving On (For Real, This Time. I Promise)
Author's notes: at end.
Lauren enters the house uneasily. She's seen the dark faceless man out of the corner of her eye several times since walking through the gray picket fence, and he somehow seems more sinister than usual. He stands under the cherry tree in the front yard, on the porch, behind a window, but when Lauren tries to look at him directly, he's gone. She's grown almost accustomed to his presence, but tonight he feels darker, emptier, heavier. The fact that no lights are on in the house makes it worse: Lauren doesn't expect her mother to be home yet, but her little sister should be. Lauren hears humming from the direction of Anna's room, but when she calls to the girl, she gets no answer.
"Oh, god," she says when she gets to the doorway, "oh, god."
Anna is sprawled on the floor, motionless, but the humming continues from the darkest corner. Lauren tears her eyes away from her sister's small form toward the source of the noise. The little girl, Anna's omnipresent companion, sits on a small stool. Lauren hasn't realized that ghosts can sit on solid objects.
"Get out!" Lauren screams, aware now that her mascara is streaming down her face. The little girl doesn't answer; she stays where she is, humming an unplaceable tune.
Scully is reading the details of the case to Mulder, who is driving.
"Anna Warren, age seven, found dead by her sixteen-year-old sister, Lauren."
"Lauren Warren?" Mulder asks.
"Apparently. Anna was home alone after being dropped off by her school bus. The mother was working late. She's a waitress. Lauren got a ride home from a friend, says she got home around eight-thirty, and discovered her sister's body in her room. Cause of death is still unclear, but the ME's leaning toward strangulation. No bruises on the neck, though, and no petichial hemorrhaging... that's strange."
"Get to the ghost part, Scully."
"Lauren claims she saw the ghost of a little girl sitting in her sister's bedroom. Says she'd seen her before. The mother thinks it's an evil spirit, that a demon killed her daughter."
"It's been a while since we've had a real haunted house case."
"It's been a while since we've had a real case, period," Scully says, turning to watch the Georgia landscape fly by. Magnolia trees, now-shabby mansions, low mountains, and a light fog not yet burned off by the heat. If she were in a better mood, she could easily be caught up in the mysticism of her surroundings. Even tired and skeptical, she half-expects to see ghostly belles and headless Confederate soldiers step out of the mist.
"I wouldn't call an evil video game a fake case," Mulder says, not even a hint of annoyance in his voice. Scully isn't listening.
"Historic Barnesville," the ornate sign proclaims, "Buggy Capital of America."
"Hotel or interviews first?" Mulder asks when they stop at a streetlight.
"Do I have time for a nap?" asks Scully, sleepily.
"Sure," Mulder says. Their investigative method has become less formal over the past few months; without the constant threat of the division being shut down, they now have the time to take naps if they need to.
"Mmm. Hotel, then."
"I should warn you," Mulder says, "we're not staying in a motel."
"All booked up. Blues and barbeque festival. Manager said we're lucky it's not September - that's when the Buggy Days are. Big tourist attraction. This one's not so big, but still, the only rooms in the city were at the Tarleton Oaks Bed and Breakfast."
"Owned by the guy who played Brent Tarleton in Gone With the Wind."
"It's sort of a theme hotel."
"Just so you know."
Scully's room is painted a painful eggplant color and has a four-poster bed hung with a dangerous-looking red canopy and garlands of fake flowers. An assortment of eerie china dolls sits on each chair. After Mulder drops her bags at the door, she can hear him snickering and wonders if he specifically asked for her to be put in such absurd accommodations.
It's almost dusk when Scully wakes up to a knock on her door.
Shit, she thinks, Interviews.
She trips over the faux-oriental rug on her way to the door, which she flings open to reveal a relaxed-looking Mulder.
"I overslept," she says.
"Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn. Mrs. Warren called; she and Lauren have an unavoidable church event tonight. We're rescheduled for tomorrow morning."
She breathes and pushes her hair out of her eyes, and then smooths her pajama top.
"Get dressed," Mulder says, turning to leave, "there's something I want to show you."
After pulling on a pair of jeans and a sweater, Scully joins Mulder in the hallway, which is encrusted with photographs of Vivian Leigh, Clark Gable, and the Fred Crane, the owner of the inn, and his big-haired wife on their wedding day.
"Watch out," Mulder warns, "Mr. Crane's trying to sell Gone With the Wind souvenirs."
The two sneak down the stairs, carefully avoiding the elderly man's sales pitches, and exit through the inn's grand columned front door. Ten minutes later, Mulder parks the car at the gates of Sappington Cemetery.
"Mulder," Scully says, "You're aware that there's a cemetery right behind the hotel."
"Yeah, I walked through it when you were asleep. Mostly Civil War soldiers. But this one's haunted."
Although the sun is already beneath the horizon and the pink of the sky is fading fast, the April night is warm. The trees (magnolias, willows) that Scully supposes are vibrant with new life during the day are now somber, mourning guardians of the cemetery's inmates. Everything is a deep green and the bugs and frogs harmonize ethereally. Scully feels like she is still dreaming.
Mulder materializes beside her. She doesn't have to turn around to know he's there, and she isn't sure how she should feel about that.
"Hey, catch," he says, throwing something round and light into the air. She reaches out her hand: a peach. She bites into it, juice running down her hand, as Mulder lists the paranormal traits of the cemetery.
"There have been reports of full-body apparitions, footsteps heard in the gravel, extreme cold spots. There's even the occasional mention of physical contact with spirits."
"So, basically," Scully says, leaning against a dark tree, "This is a big high school make-out spot."
"Well, yeah," he says, pressing his back against the same tree, his shoulder bumping hers, "but there have been credible accounts from a number of reasonable people..." he trails off. "Scully," he whispers.
He points into the shadows. A dark figure stands among the gray stones, barely distinguishable from the falling night. Scully shivers despite the mildness of the evening.
"Probably just a local out for a walk," she says.
"He's huge." Mulder is right. While most of the weathered gravestones come up to Mulder's mid-thigh, they hardly reach where the shadowy figure's knee should be. Even more disconcerting, it is not yet dark enough that the man's features should be completely obscured. However, neither agent can see anything but the fuzzy outline of a very tall man.
Mulder heads toward the man-shaped thing, which doesn't move, but is stopped by Scully grabbing his hand.
"Mulder," she says, carefully disguising her discomfort, "Let's go."
The carpet of the stairs is like velcro, like tiny hands. Don't leave us, they say, we know your past. You can't stay, though, or they'll drown you in a pond, a sink, in blood. They remember but you can't. It must be better somewhere else.
Emily Warren is adamant that her younger daughter was killed by demons.
"When Hank left," she says calmly, sipping on tea, "he doomed this family. I don't blame God for this. I blame Hank. God can't just sit by anymore when more and more people fall to the pull of evil and debauchery. Anna's death was a sign."
"Mrs. Warren," Scully says, not yet willing to give up on a normal interview, "Did you notice anything out of the ordinary in the days before Anna died? Any strange people hanging around your house?"
Lauren, who has been sitting quietly on a faded couch, suddenly blanches. Scully makes eye contact with Mulder and then looks back at Lauren, silently urging him to find out what the girl knows.
"Lauren, do you mind coming with me into the kitchen," he says rather than asks.
"They're not demons," Lauren says, her gaze on the floor.
"What are they?"
"I don't know. Ghosts. They've always been here."
"How many are there?"
"There's the little girl. Anna talked to her a lot. Then there was the old man. I saw him when I was Anna's age. I'd talk to him about school and he'd tell me stories. Some others come and go."
Mulder is surprised by the ease with which the teenager discusses her encounters.
"Have you told anybody about these ghosts?" he asks, trying to sound nonchalant.
"Anna knows already. I think my mom does, too, but she won't admit it. I told my friend a few years ago, and then she told everybody I was crazy. I don't talk about them in school any more, just with Anna."
Mulder decides to let the girl's usage of the present tense in reference to her sister go.
"They sound pretty benevolent, Lauren, and you looked pretty scared."
Lauren grows even paler.
"Is there someone you haven't told me about?"
Lauren moved her head up and down: a nod.
"God punishes the wicked," Emily says.
"You think Anna was wicked?" Scully wants to put her head in her hands, but knows she can't.
"No. Her father is. Lauren might be."
"Why is Lauren wicked?"
"She's a pagan. A nonbeliever. I'm having her exorcised next week."
Scully focuses her eyes on a particularly gruesome crucifix behind Emily's head. Underneath it hangs a childish painting of a smiling Jesus holding a sheep. She wants to tell Emily Warren that her logic makes no sense, that God wouldn't kill an innocent to punish somebody else, that even if he would, he wouldn't send demons to do it.
"Lauren Warren sees dead people, Scully," Mulder says over a greasy hamburger.
"Something horrible is going on in that house, but it doesn't have anything to do with ghosts. Mrs. Warren's anger at her husband is making her practically delusional. I wouldn't be surprised if the Warren girls needed to make up these ghosts to get through each day."
"That's possible," Mulder says.
Scully senses a 'but' coming. When it doesn't come, she adds it herself.
"How did Anna die?"
"I wouldn't be surprised if the mother did it. She believes that her family needed to be punished for Hank Warren's sins. She could have gotten tired of waiting for God to intervene."
"That's very rational."
"Okay, Mulder, what's your theory?"
"Lauren sees the mysterious dark man."
"The man in the cemetery. You know who I mean."
She does, but she pretends not to, because that's what she is supposed to do.
Scully walks around the inn's grounds after lunch. There are gardens and a large gazebo, and she understands why, in the front hall, there is an entire wall filled with photographs of weddings taking place right where she is standing. It is still mid-April, but here there are brilliant flowers almost obscuring the small graveyard behind the white mansion's gardens. The little graveyard is the final resting place of over three hundred Confederate soldiers, most of whom died in a train wreck. She finds it ironic that, during the bloodiest war on American soil, so many men willing to die for their country ended up dying from something so pedestrian as a transportation accident.
When her legs tire, she walks back to the veranda, which is home to several comfortable chairs. She curls up in one and watches the breeze blow through the flowering trees and closes her eyes.
When she wakes up, Mulder is in the chair beside her, watching her.
"Are you okay?" he asks.
She has no idea why he's asking.
"I'm fine," she replies, turning away from him.
"Because you're acting like something's wrong."
She sighs. He really is the worst Oxford-trained psychiatrist she's ever met. If you want to seem nonconfrontational, you use "I" phrases. Everybody knows that.
"I'm fine," she repeats.
"We're okay?" he asks, sounding like he is very far away and very small.
I don't know, she thinks. We're different. Your crusade is over. Samantha's dead in every possible way. The men responsible for her death are either dead themselves or essentially powerless. Why are we still here, she asks him in her head, why are we where we were years ago, but without the hope?
She stays silent, though, and reaches for his hand, and holds it until the sun goes down.
Darkness. Stones with men underneath, young ones, no, very old, but with young eyes. They glare into the night, challenging Death to take them, but he already has. Wet grass. A bird crying in the night. Heavy air, but it's lighter out here than inside. That's where you should be sleeping, but really it's where they watch you, and you can't get away from their weight.
The next day, Mulder gets a call from Emily Warren.
"Agent Mulder," she says, "I am having my preacher and members of my church over to rid my home of demons. Would you like to come?"
In the Warrens' front hall there is a table with coffee and homemade doughnuts, which reminds Scully of church get-togethers she'd attended as a child, and she pictures her mother gossiping with neighbors while the men talk about sports and the children play in the backyard. The Warren gathering is not so benign, though: the entire population of the small city seems to be packed in the living room, something that strikes Scully as odd: there are just over five thousand people in Barnesville, and almost fifty churches. That makes for a congregation of a hundred people a church, assuming every man, woman, and child in the city is a churchgoing Christian. There are well over a hundred people in this house: those in the living room, and many Scully can't see, in the kitchen, Anna's room, Lauren's room, the basement, the backyard. All are in a religious fervor. It reminds Scully of a film clip she once saw of voodoo practitioners in Haiti; the members of the congregations worked themselves into a near-apoplexy and ended up writhing on the dusty ground. They believed that a great spirit had taken over their bodies, a belief that these people share, Scully realizes. She is skeptical of rapture, of possession; she attributes them to seizures or fear or simple fraud.
Scully looks to her left, where Mulder had been, and finds that he has disappeared into the crowd. After cursing her vertical deficiency and craning her neck uncomfortably to no avail, she pulls out her cell phone.
"Mulder," he says over the chorus of Amens.
"Where are you?" she yells.
"Kitchen. Lauren-" the connection cuts out.
There is a considerable amount of people in the kitchen, but fewer than in the living room. Lauren is sitting on the floor in a corner, her shaking knees pressed to her chest, her heavily-lined eyes squeezed shut, her face turning blue, and Mulder is frantically trying to get her to speak. When Scully walks through the door, he feels calmer. She will fix this, he thinks.
"They said I had the Devil in me," Lauren says, still nervous, on the Tarleton's white veranda. "They said I was evil."
"You're not evil," both agents say at the same time.
"Something here is," Lauren says before resting her head on her knees, revealing a yellowing bruise on the back of her neck.
Scully pulls Mulder into the big white house, up the stairs, into her mockingly bright room.
"Mulder, we need to call Child Services."
"I think I'm understanding this."
"You can explain it later. Right now I want to make sure this girl is protected."
She moves to pull out her cell phone.
"I think I know what role the ghosts, the apparitions, the figments of Lauren's imagination are playing here, Scully. Listen to me. They might not be haunting her. I think they're her protectors. What if-what if they were protecting Anna, too? Saving her from something worse?"
Scully drops her phone onto the desk.
"We've seen this before. With-"
"No. Mulder, I know where you're going with this."
"We never fully investigated walk-ins. I think we could get some answers. Answers we need."
Scully shakes her head. She wonders when she stopped wondering where Samantha was and started wondering when the child would leave her partner - and her - alone. Images of Mulder broken and guilt-wracked flood her mind. She will not let him go down this path again.
She picks up the phone and calls the police, who direct her to Child Services, while Mulder sits on the garish bed, a look somewhere between embarrassment, devastation, and anger on his face.
Lauren does not put up a fight when Scully tells her she should spend the night at the children's shelter in Macon. She also does not ask to go home for clothing, so Scully goes for her. There is still a crowd at the Warren house, albeit more subdued. An aging preacher stands in front of his flock and discusses, in grand words, the eternal war for souls between good and evil and the necessity of every Christian in the fight against evil: the evil that comes in from the big cities, from politicians, from little girls who see demons. The mob offers up a quiet but obviously heartfelt amen or hallelujah from time to time, and Scully is able to slip upstairs to Lauren's room unnoticed. This is the easy part.
"Mrs. Warren," she says, as calmly as she can, "We're taking Lauren into protective custody. We have reason to believe she's been abused."
Mrs. Warren looks at Scully and then turns back to the preacher.
"Amen," she says.
This is not the reaction Scully expects.
"I'll, um, I'll have someone call you."
Beyond the carved stones there are smaller rocks. Pebbles, almost. You're still not alone, though. They watch and the birds cry and the air is like a wall and there's no way through. The hum of motors. A road. You're saved, but you stand dumb like a statue.
Lauren's mother does not care about her remaining daughter's absence, but her preacher, Reverend Gallagher, does. He camps outside the shelter, screaming through the night, until, at dawn, two sleepy policemen drag him into a patrol car.
"I don't know if this is y'all's jurisdiction," the young cop says when he calls the agents in the morning, "but you might wanna get down here."
Scully has been sitting and brooding on the east side of the veranda while Mulder sits and broods on the west side. Occasionally they glare at each other.
This is supposed to be over, Scully thinks, we're supposed to be moving on.
I need to know, Mulder thinks.
Both nearly sprint to the car when the call comes, anxious to get away from the morning's silence.
Reverend Gallagher sits in the drunk tank and yells about how the FBI is interfering with God's plan. He does not stop when the interferers arrive.
"The child's soul is in danger!" he booms, "You are dooming her to hellfire!"
"Reverend," Scully says, "The girl's life may be in danger. She's here for her own protection."
Gallagher raises an eyebrow when he sees Scully's cross glint in the dim light, but he passes her over in favor of the tortured-looking man beside her.
"Could you live with the knowledge that your playing God condemned Lauren's soul? Would you rather save her life or her spirit?"
Scully rolls her eyes and leans in to whisper in Mulder's ear.
"I'm going to check on Lauren. Finish up here."
She leaves the prison, her heels clicking like bones against the concrete floor.
"Her spirit," Mulder says, after a pause, "I'd rather save her soul."
Gallagher stared pointedly at the door of the cell.
"You know what you have to do."
Mulder calls for the guard, who opens the sliding barred door with only slight urging by way of Mulder's badge.
"What do you need?" Mulder asks.
"I need a young man of the cloth, a woman, and something purple."
An old priest and a young priest, Mulder thinks, and almost laughs. Not quite, though: he will not let another young girl suffer so much that there is nothing left on Earth for her. Not after the so many he couldn't save. He will find Lauren and heal her and she will be happy, and his nightmares, the ones he thought would stop when he learned the truth about Samantha, they will really end and never come back, and he will stop being this man who Scully can barely look at any more.
It doesn't even occur to him, not even after they've left the prison, that he never even believed in demonic possession. Or God, for that matter.
Scully is sitting on the front steps of the children's shelter.
"Get up," Mulder says, "We need a woman in the room. To avoid scandal."
"What?" she asks, not sounding very curious.
"Lauren. I'm going to help her, Scully."
Scully looks up at her partner and the aging preacher, who is draped ina purple paper tablecloth. He is carrying candles.
"Mulder," she says, "Gallagher's not Catholic. He's following the Rituale Romanum, the Vatican's official exorcism procedure. As far as I know, most Protestant faiths don't even believe in demonic possession. This man has no idea what he's talking about."
"Scully..." he tries. Now he can't think of a valid reason to rid Lauren of demons that most likely exist only in Emily Warren's head, especially not with Scully impersonating an encyclopedia. He's sure there's a reason somewhere.
"What can it hurt?"
"It couldn't hurt if she were still here," Scully says bitterly. "She's gone. Vanished from a locked room into thin air."
Mulder says nothing, but Scully has an idea of the questions forming in his mind.
"Exactly like Amber-Lynne LaPierre, Mulder. Exactly like Samantha. I don't know what this man thinks he can do, but he can't help Lauren. I don't know that anybody can."
He wonders why she is still sitting there on the gray steps. She doesn't believe in walk-ins. She should be out tracking down leads, knocking over men twice her size, reading medical records. Something. She stares at the ground.
"Scully," he says, "Are you okay?"
He gets the answer he's been expecting. "I'm fine."
More words, words he hasn't expected, follow. "I think we should leave."
The preacher has, by now, wandered off to the streetcorner to convert a pair of unsuspecting tourists. Mulder moves closer to Scully, sits down next to her, and remembers kissing her not so long ago, really, in geological time, at least.
"Why?" he asks after an eternity. "That girl..."
"She's gone. I don't know how, and honestly, I don't want to know how. Mulder, let's just go home."
"What?" he asks, suddenly aware of the heaviness of his limbs, the lead weights that seem to be attached to his eyelids.
"I'm worried about you," she says, showing no intention of saying more.
"Okay," he says, wracking his brain for a reason why. He's been handling his mother's and Samantha's final departures from his life incredibly well, he thinks. He hasn't even shot anybody.
Scully looks up at him, her eyes darting to meet each of his, left, right, left, like they always do when she's about to do something for his own good, something that he won't like.
"You've been sleepwalking. For the past two nights, at least, but maybe longer. You woke me up both nights walking down the stairs."
"Somnambulism's not that uncommon," he says, trying to remember the rasp of the carpet against his feet.
"It is when you're thirty-nine and have no history of it," she snaps. "In adults, a sudden onset of somnambulism can indicate a drastic change in brain function or severe emotional trauma. Which is it?"
At his silence, her voice softens. "Mulder, you just lost your mother, and, in many ways, your sister, and it seems like you've bottled it up. I respect that you're trying to deal with all of this yourself, but you shouldn't be here right now..."
She is worried about him. That is true. And he has been sleepwalking, and that frightens her. But she is willing to exaggerate his condition's severity to get them out of Georgia. Something is wrong. She tells herself it's that this case is too close to home, that Mulder can't handle it, but every so often she sees clearly that this is not the full truth. She is every bit as lost as he is. The center of their work, the center of their reason for staying partners so long, is not only gone; it was never there to begin with. She should be angry at him for holding onto so ludicrous an idea as his sister's survival. This idea - entirely unsubstantiated, she tells herself - got her own sister killed. It controlled her life. What is left now? she forces herself to ask.
The truth is, she's still scared to lose him. Before, she was frightened that his search for Samantha would take him somewhere she couldn't reach him. Now she's terrified that the vacuum left by the girl will do the same.
"...could result in permanent brain damage. The changes in your R.E.M. cycle alone are dangerous. Mulder, you need to be somewhere familiar, if not under twenty-four-hour medical supervision. You need to be home."
Where did this come from? she wonders. She has never been a good liar.
To her surprise, he doesn't argue.
On the flight home, Mulder sleeps like an incredibly heavy redwood log. Scully makes sure his seatbelt is fastened tightly; sleepwalking and air travel do not seem like a fortuitous mix. As she watches him sleep, a wave of guilt washes over her. She has used his trust in her to manipulate him. Every other woman in his life has done the same at some point, and she promised long ago to never do that. To be honest with him to the extent that her heart, carefully guarded since she accidentally broke a home, and inexplicably shy when concerned with the snoring man beside her, would allow.
Mulder stirs, his head having dropped to Scully's shoulder, and looks up at her.
"Twenty-four-hour medical supervision, Scully? If I'm not mistaken, you're a doctor." He wiggles his eyebrows.
She snorts at him, but does not fight the euphoria that rises from her toes.If he's making weak innuendoes, they haven't changed. They're okay.
She rests her head against his. Beneath them, the few states between Georgia and DC blend into one green mass. When he reaches for her hand, she feels just as lost as she did several hours ago, only infinitely better. The center may not be there any more, but, like planets orbiting far enough away from a black hole not to be sucked in, they still are.
I know nothing about the state of Georgia. I was once stuck in the airport in Atlanta overnight, but I don't think that counts. So I apologize, because most of the places I used (such as Georgia, Barnesville, and the Tarleton B&B) are real, but I've never been to any of them, and therefore am probably absolutely wrong about any details. On that note, no offense to people who believe in demonic possession and who enjoy revival-style exorcisms is intended. Also, parts of this were inspired by events that the Discovery Channel says are true. I'd give more information about those events, but I honestly can't remember the names of the people involved, so if you recognize Lauren's ghosts somewhere, it might not be a coincidence. Besides the reenactment-filled Discovery Channel documentary, this story was inspired by the fact that, after "Closure," Mulder lets go of Samantha pretty fast. In fact, the rest of the season is almost completely angst-free (except for "all things" and "Requiem"). I mean, the two episodes after "Closure" are "X-Cops" and "First Person Shooter." So basically, this is me dealing with that sudden shift in tone, five years after the fact. This wasn't betaed (yes, I'm a writing rebel), so any mistakes, especially those concerning tense, are absolutely mine.