Scully frowned and muttered a curse under her breath as she surveyed the subject laid out on the metal table in front of her. Green and limp on one side, yellow spotted on the other, her plant had flat-lined during Scully's extended stay in the hospital, and no amount of fertilizer, water or cajoling seemed to bring it back to health. She spritzed it again with such force that the leaves fluttered once before drooping unceremoniously onto the table again.
"Face it, Scully," Mulder said from his desk across the room. "If you reanimate that cruciferous corpse at this point, we'll have to open an X-File on it."
Scully cast her gaze wistfully at the filtered sunlight visible through the dirty basement windows. "At least then we'd be investigating something." She turned to give him a pointed look, which he missed entirely because he was bent over the Post's daily crossword puzzle. "Mulder. I've been back at work for two weeks now and we've barely left this basement."
He glanced up with mild surprise, the way he always looked at her now, as though he still expected her to be dead. They'd kissed a tearful goodbye in her hospital room last month, when he'd been about to end up jailed for murder and she was supposed to wither away like her plant. Instead, here they were again in the office, with Mulder free and Scully mostly recovered from the awful side effects of chemotherapy. Her spine was strong and her shoulders set, she was ready to shred any preposterous theories he cared to throw her way.
If only he cared.
"I told you," he said as he returned to chewing his pen and studying the paper. "Nothing's come up."
"That's a load of crap and you know it," she said, marching over to the stack of folders by his elbow. "What do you call this? Or this?" She yanked first one and then another X-stamped folder from the pile. "You have at least two dozen new cases piled up here, Mulder, and that doesn't count the ones gathering dust from before I nearly-." She caught herself at Mulder's stricken look. "Since before I got sick," she finished carefully.
He tried to snatch the folders from her hands but she used her newfound strength to dodge his grasp. "These are a bunch of nothing cases. They're hardly worth our time."
"And this is? Whiling away the hours catching up on paperwork and waiting for the phone to ring?" She spread her arms, a folder in each hand. "This is supposed to be your life's work."
He tilted his chair back and folded his arms across his middle. "And you were always the one telling me it was no life at all."
"No," she said, emphatic. "This is no life, staying cooped up here. One more week of this and we'll end up like that plant, Mulder."
He shook his head and looked away, dismissing her. She gritted her teeth and prayed for the strength not to thwap him.
"Is this about Kritschgau and the hoax?" she asked after a beat. "They tricked you with a rigorously constructed fake and now you're just giving up?"
"Once?" He waved his arms about. "Where have you been for the past four years, Scully? There's more lies in these files than truth, and normally, you'd be the first one to tell me that."
"Not lies." He knew damn well that she'd written most of those reports. "Uncertainties."
He gave her a hard look. "Semantics, Scully. Potato, Po-tah-to. Whatever you want to call it, we've been chasing our tails for years now while the puppet masters sit back and laugh. Maybe I'm tired of everyone yanking on my strings."
"Is that what you think I'm doing?"
He softened fractionally. "No, not you."
"So…what then? We just rot down here, doing the daily jumble and eating out of the vending machine? Last I checked, we're being paid to investigate cases."
"I'm telling you there's nothing worth investigating."
"Well, I disagree." She took the folder in her right hand and flipped it open. Oh, Lord have mercy, it was a report of crop circles out in Nowheresville, Nebraska. She felt Mulder's eyes on her as she skimmed the details supplied by Officer Bradley Gunther. Some farmer's crops had been plagued with unusual depression patterns all season long, and Officer Gunther suspected the work of aliens. "This looks…" She cleared her throat and closed the folder. "This looks serious. I think we should go to Nebraska to check it out."
At least then maybe she'd get some damn sunlight before winter set in.
"Nebraska?" Mulder echoed, aghast. "You mean the crop circle thing?"
She narrowed her eyes at him. "So you have been reading them."
He gave a half-shrug. "I glanced at a few. Scully, that's the worst of the lot. Ten to one it's a bunch of teenage punks playing some sort of mathematical prank on an old, grumpy farmer."
"Officer…" She had to check his name again. "Gunther has requested the help of the FBI. I think it's only reasonable that we supply our assistance. Do what you want, but I'm booking a ticket to Nebraska for tomorrow."
He watched her go to her table, sit down, and open her laptop to call up the Bureau's travel website. "You're sure it's not too soon?" he asked quietly.
She stiffened with her hands on the keyboard. The cancer had vanished from her body, but its footprints remained, leaving her thinner than she should be and more easily fatigued. So far, she was dealing with the after effect the same way she'd treated the disease—by ignoring it. "I've been cleared for fieldwork," she told him crisply without turning around.
She spun her chair to face him. "Mulder, I don't care if you come with me tomorrow. If you want to give up the X-Files and go back to chasing psychopaths, I won't blame you. But don't you dare pretend your decisions have anything to do with me. I'm going to Nebraska."
"Fine," he said, an edge to his voice.
The next morning she arrived at the gate to find him already sitting there, sipping coffee from a paper cup. Wordlessly, he handed her a second one, and she eyed him with suspicion and a little bit of resentment. She had to get up early these days to do extra core-strengthening exercises and then spend additional time in the bathroom fussing with her makeup so that she didn't look too pale. Meanwhile, Mulder just rolled out of bed, slid into an expensive suit, and looked like a GQ model. He'd even managed the air of ennui, with his careless slouch and stupid moussed hair.
"You're not coming along just to keep an eye on me," she said.
"Hell, no." He tilted his head at her. "I'm here so that when we fly halfway across the country to find out that this is some bored farm kid's idea of a good joke, there's someone there to say 'I told you so.'"
They touched down around lunchtime, so Mulder purchased some pre-packaged turkey sandwiches from the single counter while Scully retrieved their usual rented Taurus. She pointed the car north toward Lovell, sandwich in one hand with the other on the wheel. Her taste buds had gradually returned over the past few weeks, and they thrilled at even this simple offering. The turkey was moist, the cheddar sharp, and Scully ate every bite.
Mulder's sandwich lay in his lap as he squinted out at the passing scenery. Fields of wheat, waiting for harvest, rippled likes waves on the ocean. "What you do is, you take a board to flatten the stalks," he said. "You lay it down and walk over it a few times until the crop is good and smushed. You do this over again in a repeating pattern until you have a circle in a circle or whatever. If you want to get fancy about it, you can have the computer print out a grid with a more intricate pattern."
"I realize that's how it is typically accomplished."
"Then what the hell are we doing out here?"
Scully glanced out the window at crisp, cloudless sky and the distant russet line of trees. Sunlight spun wheat into gold, guarded by tall silos. "Admiring the view," she told him.
He sniffed the air. "The view stinks. Literally. There be cows out there, Scully."
"Funny, all I smell is an ass."
This earned her a grin as he sat back in his seat. "I just don't get it. For almost five years now, I've had to create a Powerpoint presentation with fifty slides before you'd even agree to look at a case, all of which had dramatically more compelling evidence than this horseshit. Which, by the way, you can also smell."
"You had your chance to pick a case, Mulder. You had weeks of chances. Now we're going to investigate this one." She looked sideways at him. "I did my research, you know. Many of these documented crop disturbances have proven to be the work of mischief-making humans, but not all of them. There are appearances in Scotland and one in Idaho that have thus far defied rational explanation."
Mulder cupped his hand around his ear. "I'm sorry, what? Did Dana Scully say the words 'defied rational explanation?'"
"I didn't say there wasn't one. Just that it hasn't been discovered yet. That's where we come in."
She took the turn for Lovell, a two-lane road that shot a straight line through yet more expansive farms. Thirty minutes later, they pulled to a stop outside a squat one-story brick building that could have housed any number of small businesses over the years. It had a bench outside and a dented green trash can. An American flag flapped in the breeze on the roof, and the stenciled letters on the window proclaimed, "Lovell Police Department."
They walked through the glass doors and stepped onto the worn linoleum floors. There was no one at the counter to greet them, but Scully spotted a young man in uniform playing solitaire on a nearby computer. "You should feel right at home," she murmured to Mulder.
He replied by ringing the bell on the counter hard enough to jostle the officer from his chair. "Oh, forgive me! I didn't hear y'all come in." He scrambled to put on his gray trooper hat and came around the counter to greet them. "Agent Mulder, it's an honor, sir," he said, pumping Mulder's hand. "And Agent Scully, too. Thank you both for coming."
"Bradley Gunther?" Scully asked.
"Yes, ma'am. Sure as I live and breathe." He grinned and Scully nearly took a step backwards in surprise. His teeth were straight enough but he appeared to have too many of them for just one mouth. Add in the thick glasses and the spot of acne dotting his bare chin, and Scully had to wonder if he was a licensed officer or just playing dress-up.
"Gunther?" Another man, this one older and more rotund, emerged from behind a door in the back. He wore the same colored uniform as Gunther, but dressed it in a more casual style, with an open collar and the sleeves rolled up. "How come you didn't tell me we had company?"
"These are the FBI folks I mentioned to you, Chief. Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. Agents, this is our chief, Sam Smith."
The chief frowned from Scully to Mulder. "You're the alien hunters. Gunther told me he was writing you a pile of nonsense, but I didn't expect you to show up all the way out here. I'd think the FBI would have more important matters to attend to than a bunch of squished rapeseed."
Mulder turned to Scully. "See? He gets it."
"Officer Gunther seems to think there could be malevolent forces at work," Scully said, and Gunther nodded enthusiastically.
"We had the first one late last year, then three more this summer—all of them targeting Grady Benson's place. It's escalation, sir. You know it is."
The chief put a beefy hand on the counter and shot his deputy an exasperated look. "Gunther, if aliens traveled millions of light years to earth, they'd damn sure pick a more interesting place to visit than Grady Benson's farm. Besides doesn't even talk to other people no more. What's a bunch of funny green men going to want with him?"
"Gray men," Gunther corrected, looking to Mulder. "Right?"
"Oyster-colored, really," Mulder replied. "With peppery hints, especially in the forehead area." He gestured at his own face for emphasis and Scully elbowed him in the ribs. Mulder dropped his hand. "What makes you so sure it has to be aliens?"
Gunther gave his boss a hesitant glance before answering. "Well, because I can't see an explanation for how they got there otherwise. I saw the first one last year when I was out flying with my girlfriend, Tracy, and it had to be forty-feet wide at least. Just out in the middle of nowhere." He retrieved a file and pulled out a stack of pictures. He placed the first one out on the counter, and they all moved to take a look. Scully recognized it from the file they had at home. The pattern showed interlocking figure eights, with dots in between. "I asked Grady about it, but he said he had no idea where it came from. He blamed the recent thunderstorm."
"What about the next one?" Scully asked.
Gunther pulled out a second photo. "This one happened in June. You can see it's even bigger and more complicated, what with these concentric circles here and the yin-yang of the overall design. But this next one takes the cake. Damn near crashed my Cessna in the corn when I saw this monster."
He showed them another pattern in the fields, this one designed to look like a dragon's head, complete with fire. "You're saying these are all on one farm?" Mulder asked.
"The Benson place. Yes, sir."
"Then the most obvious answer would be that Benson is creating these circles himself."
The chief let out a guffaw. "Grady? No way he'd destroy his own product like that, and for what? To get a bunch of attention? Grady Benson's happiest when he's working on some old car out in his garage, with no one around to bother him. The local papers have been trying to get him to talk about the crop circles, and he won't even answer the door when they knock."
Scully flipped through the remainder of the photos, one that depicted an intricate crisscross pattern and another with a face—a woman in a habit with a heart next to her. A nun in love? She was inclined to agree with the chief that no alien would travel to Earth just to leave this odd collection of messages, but she had to admit a growing curiosity about which human did. "Tell us more about Grady Benson," she said, and the two cops exchanged a significant look.
"He's never been a big talker," Chief Smith said gruffly, "but he was always friendly enough. Helped set up for the county fair every year. His squash took home the blue ribbon more often than not—much to Joe Kellogg's dismay. Grady never missed a Sunday in church until…"
"Until?" Mulder pressed.
"His wife died," Gunther said. "Cancer."
"Collen got it bad," the chief explained. "Pancreas, I think it was. Took her in under a year. Grady and her went first to Omaha and then to Chicago to try to stop it, but there was nothing the doctors could do. That damned disease ate away at her until there was nothing left." He blinked hard and looked away.
Scully felt Mulder stiff at her side, but she did not glance his way. "That's…unfortunate," she managed after an uncomfortable beat of silence.
"Everyone loved Mrs. Benson," Gunther explained. "She taught fifth grade and music at the elementary school, and boy, could she play piano. I took six years of lessons with her and never sounded half as good. She was a good teacher, though. Always kind. Used to laugh at her own mistakes. She made you want to get better without having to yell about it like some teachers do."
"The whole town turned out for the funeral," the chief said. "Grady put on his Sunday suit and stood there while everyone took turns saying how much they would miss her. Then he went home and shut his doors and hasn't much spoken to anyone since." He took a deep breath. "So you can understand why no one thinks he's doing this crazy stuff for any kind of attention. Attention is the last thing he wants."
"Grief makes people do strange things," Mulder said, and Scully's cheeks went hot. "We'd like to talk to Grady Benson."
The chief shrugged. "I'll take you out there if you want, but he ain't likely to be up for chatting."
Outside, Scully tossed the car keys at Mulder. "Your turn."
He caught them one-handed and halted to look her over. "Are you okay?"
"Yes. Fine." When he didn't stop staring, she folded her arms and looked him in the eyes. "I got us out here. You can pull some of your weight for a while."
They got into the Taurus and Mulder started the engine, still eyeing her as he did so. She looked straight ahead and tried to ignore the burning, itching sensation at the base of her neck. She touched it in the dark sometimes when she alone in bed at night, fingering the tiny raised bump. We used aspirin for decades before we understood how it worked, she tried to reassure herself. Human knowledge isn't linear.
"So, you're still thinking aliens?" Mulder asked loudly, making her jump. They followed the taillights on chief's car as he drove out of the downtown.
"No, of course it's not aliens. That does mean we can't find answers."
"My money is on Benson. I don't buy this song and dance about how he doesn't want attention. Those circles mean destruction of his crops, no doubt thousands of dollars, and yet he's not the one banging on the police station doors demanding the culprit be caught?" Mulder shook his head. "No way. Small farms operate on thin margins, Scully. If Benson isn't trying to stop the circles, then that's as good as admitting he's behind them. Maybe he'll fess up right away and we can catch the next plane out of here."
"Why? You have a hot date?"
"A date with destiny," he replied with flourish, grinning at his own humor. Another time she might have tossed back a remark about Destiny starring in one of those movies on the tapes that weren't his, but now she wasn't sure how the joke would land. Mulder these days joked near her, but not with her. "Aw, come on, Scully," he said with a sigh. "You really want to spend the night in this one-horse town? The motel probably has plywood walls and 70s décor."
"That never seemed to bother you before."
This shut him up fast, and Scully sat back with grim satisfaction. If he was going to pretend to her that everything was just the same between them, then he had better come prepared to do the full song and dance.
"This must be the place," he said as the Chief took a sharp right turn into what seemed like the middle of an empty cornfield. The access road was long and bumpy, the surrounding fields brown and barren. A white farm house with green shutters appeared on the horizon, and the Chief pulled to a stop alongside it. Mulder glided in behind him, and Scully got out of the car.
She knew from the information Gunther provided in the initial X-File report that the Benson farm measured just over 1200 acres, but standing there, the countryside seemed to stretch on forever. There was a white barn in the back and a scattering of chickens pecking at the ground under the slit gaze of a black-and-white cat lazing on the porch wall.
The place seemed functional. Scully heard the distant hum of a combine harvester, and the animals seemed well cared-for. But the paint peeled on the house, and there were empty barrel planters on either side of the steps. The upstairs shutters were drawn, the front door pulled tight, and a film of dust on the downstairs bay window prevented them from peering inside.
Chief Smith rang the bell and waited. No reply. He rang it again, longer this time, but still got no answer. He turned to Mulder and Scully with a shrug just as a large man came around the front of the house, holding a bucket of feed. "Can I help you with something?"
"Grady," the chief said with relief. "It's good to see you. It's been too long."
Grady wore mucking boots and a disgruntled expression. "What's all this about, Sam?" he said, looking past the chief to Mulder and Scully. "I've got work to get to."
"This here is Agents Scully and Mulder from the FBI. Seems Gunther called 'em in about the crop disturbances you've been having out here."
Grady scowled and started toward the stairs with his bucket. "Gunther should mind his own damn business. I filed no complaint."
"Why is that?" Mulder asked. "I'd think you'd need a record for any insurance claim."
"I didn't file any insurance claim either." Grady halted and stared Mulder right in the face. "I didn't need any suits out here trampling about the place."'
"Well, they're here now," the chief said. "May as well let us in for a few minutes so they can ask their questions, hmm?"
Grady grumbled something under his breath and set the bucket on the porch with more force than necessary. The cat stretched and jumped down from its perch, rubbing against Grady's legs as he opened the front door. Scully took the opportunity to study their subject and decided he looked much like the farm—functional but frayed around the edges. The ends of his dark hair curled into his collar, and the hem on his shirt had unraveled in the back.
He led them down a short hall to a dim living room jammed full with furniture. A well-worn easy chair sat in one corner, while a floral-patterned sofa with a hand-knit blanket took up much of the middle. Two wing back chairs and an upright piano rounded it out. The end tables were piled high with clutter—books and newspapers, empty beer cans, junk mail, a basket of yarn with what looked like an unfinished project laid atop the skeins.
In the back, up against the dingy windows, sat a hospital bed. It had been stripped and the sheets lay neatly folded on top. Scully saw a slim blue vase with fake flowers—posies, maybe—sitting on the sill in view of the bed.
"Sit if you want to," Grady said, lowering himself to the easy chair. The chief took one end of the sofa, and Mulder sat on the other. Scully wandered to study the wall of pictures, frozen snapshots of happier times.
"Officer Gunther says you've had at least four crop disturbances now," Mulder said. "Is that right?"
Grady snorted. "Why're you calling them 'crop disturbances'? Makes it sound like someone woke up the corn from a nap."
"What would you call it?"
"Vandalism, pure and simple."
"Vandalism," the chief repeated with some surprise. "If you felt like someone was destroying your fields on purpose, Grady, then why didn't you call us in?"
"Like you're going to arrest Kellogg any time soon. He's your son's godfather, Sam. Not to mention the best player on your bowling team."
"You mean Joe? What's he got to do with this?"
Scully listened with one ear as she examined the pictures. To her, they showed several decades of a happy marriage. There was a younger Grady, grinning from the seat of a tractor, shot from below and taking up the whole frame. To the photographer, Grady was the whole world. Colleen Benson posed with different groups of children. In one shot, she sat at the piano bench—the one just to Scully's left—with a dark-haired boy about ten years old. In another frame, she and Grady stood arm-and-arm behind an enormous pumpkin, both of them pleased as punch. The pumpkin bore some sort of ribbon.
Colleen seemed to radiate kindness in every frame. Scully noted the way that other people in the pictures leaned into her, how they would rather look at Colleen than the camera. Grady especially. She smiled sadly at the photos and drifted to the piano.
"Joe Kellogg has been wanting to buy this place for years now," Grady was saying. "He even came around here last year, when Colleen wasn't even cold in the grave, asking if he could take the east-side acreage off my hands. I told him to get lost, so now he's trying to spook me into selling."
"That doesn't sound like Joe," the chief said.
"Sure, it does. He always thinks bigger is better. And look at that fancy new car Charlene's driving. He's got to pay for that somehow."
"You mean the black Chevy Suburban? She's had that three years now."
Scully turned to look at Grady, who made a face. "Time goes by quicker than you think, I guess," he said. "But my point stands—Joe Kellogg wants to buy this place, and if he can make folks think it's haunted or whatever, then he could swoop in and grab it for pennies on the dollar."
Scully turned around again and pressed one finger down on the piano keys. A middle C rang out, perfectly in tune. Grady jumped up. "Hey, that's Colleen's," he called out to her.
"It's beautiful," Scully said. "I love the carvings in the wood here on the front."
"Her daddy made it years ago."
An old black-and-white picture of Colleen, maybe her high school senior portrait, sat on top of the piano. It was one of the few things in the room not coated with dust. "The piano is in tune," Scully said. "Do you play?"
"I pick and peck. Colleen tried to teach me but I've got no rhythm." He crossed the room to shut the piano so that Scully couldn't touch it anymore. "I don't see what my piano has to do with anything."
"Maybe nothing," Scully said lightly. She squinted through the dirty window. "Where are the circles appearing on your property. Are they visible from the house?"
"Naw, they're out in the western field, mostly. Farthest from the house."
"And you never witnessed anyone on the property? Nothing suspicious or unusual?"
Grady heaved a sigh. "Miss, I don't know how you do your job, but mine takes me from sunrise to sunset, three hundred sixty-five days per year. I come in, eat my supper, maybe watch a program or two, and then I go to bed for a few hours until it's time to get up and do the whole thing again. When I'm in bed, a whole passel of aliens could be doing the Daytona 500 outside and I wouldn't be the wiser."
"Aliens?" Scully raised her eyebrows. "Why do you mention aliens?"
Grady echoed her surprise. "You're here, ain't ya? I don't think the government comes out asking questions just because of a feud between farmers."
"You'd be surprised," Mulder muttered.
"You're saying you believe the government purposefully investigates aliens?" From her experience, no one ever took them seriously.
"I read the papers in the supermarket, same as everyone else. But you can go back to Washington and tell them from me—this ain't no aliens. It's Joe Kellogg."
"Well, then," Mulder said, rising from his seat. "Let's go have a word with Mr. Kellogg."
"Let me just wash up first," Grady said as he pushed to his feet.
Mulder looked at him. "You're coming too?"
"Hell, yes, I'm coming too. I want to be there when the jackass admits it."
"Jackass," the chief repeated. "Joe Kellogg was your best friend."
"That was before," Grady retorted. He stomped his way to the back of the house, and Mulder turned to look quizzically at the chief.
"Before what?" he asked.
The chief spread his hands at the room, at the pictures and the piano and the empty cot with the folded blanket on it. "Before she was gone."
To be continued...