Kenneth

Title: Kenneth

Author: Elf X

Type: Casefile…

Rating: PG-13; strong language

Spoilers: Folie a Deux

Synopsis: Mulder plays Christmas angel to a man

who’s become a stranger in his own not-so-

wonderful life.

Disclaimer: Mulder, Scully, and their cohorts are

not my property, but are the inspiration of Chris

Carter, 1013 Productions, and Fox.

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Bloomington, Illinois

Christmas Eve

6:42 p.m.

Kenneth sips his coffee, staring silently for the

thousandth time at the digital display at the

base of the Mr. Coffee on the kitchen counter.

Sean and “Brenda” have left quietly for school,

stealing anxious glances at him as they slip out

the door.

“OK,” Kris sings, grabbing her purse from the

table and shrugging into her jacket. She

experiments with a kiss; Ken submits, wanting to

please her, wanting to be pleased by the physical

intimacy. “Try to have a good day, Sweetie.”

“Mm, yeah,” Ken murmurs with a false and fleeting

smile. Kris regards him with worry and something

else, and nods. The door closes, and his

shoulders relax as he hears her Camry ease out of

the driveway.

Alone in the house, he feels momentarily normal.

Ken risks a glance out the backyard window. His

heart quickens as a small, rust-colored creature

scampers across the grass and up a red maple that

one day had appeared on the lawn.

It takes a moment for Ken to stop shaking and

finish his coffee.

**

Ken hopes to pass quickly by the cubicle which

happens to open onto the hallway, hopes “Brad”

has been called into a staff meeting, hopes Brad

has contracted this year’s superflu or has been

caught shtupping his secretary and has been

unceremoniously added to the unemployment rolls.

“Kenneth,” “Brad” calls out, wheeling around from

his PC. Ken freezes, fixes a smile on his face.

“See the Bulls last night?”

“Mm,” Ken shakes his head and moves on,

registering the look of — what, hurt or

contempt? — on his coworker’s face. Ken’s hand

instinctively burrows into his overcoat pocket,

caressing the cool, comforting steel…

From the field report of Special Agent Scully

Bloomington, Illinois

Christmas Eve

11:22 p.m.

The Scotch pine, strung with bold primary colors

and blazing whites, was perched on the roof of

the seven-story concrete and glass Farmstead

Insurance complex, on the building’s public face

— a misdemeanor breach of corporate protocol,

like ripped jeans on Casual Friday or a

graphically incorrect but good-natured e-mail

joke tacked to the coffee cubicle.

For Mulder and I, the tree was a beacon, guiding

the Bloomington P.D. Crowne Victoria down

Veteran’s Parkway and toward its grim

destination. Even a good four blocks away, I

could see Farmstead Insurance’ northern edifice

blush rhythmically with reds and blues, a sort of

perverted Christmas display signaling discord on

Earth and the ever-prevalent ill will of men.

“Shit detail for Christmas Eve, huh?” the BPD

captain empathized, his eyes locked on the

parkway as he wove tightly between the holiday

diners and last-second gift-grabbers. “Really

appreciate you letting us drag you all the way to

Hell and gone.”

The captain’s evocation of damnation on this

sacred night, in the midst of this crisis –

particularly given its lethal potential — caused

me to shudder. I tried to shake it off as

Scully’s perpetual preternatural itch. The

condition always emerged full-blown during the

holidays. All I’d faced, all I’d lost in every

familial, physical, and spiritual sense, came

home to roost each year, like a dark Yuletide

angel haunting my door. Mulder’s agnostic, off-

track faith in forces unseen saw him through the

season, but my nagging doubts about the existence

of anything but molecules and silence beyond this

earthly veil collided constantly with my Good

Catholic Girl angst, forcing an uneasy compromise

of blind, ritualistic faith.

“Not a big deal, probably would’ve just grabbed

some wassail and waffles at the D.C. Denny’s,”

Mulder said from the seat beside me. “What can

you tell me about Kenneth Ralston?”

The captain’s broad shoulders convulsed. “This’s

just a total blast from the blue, Agent. Ken

Ralston’s kind of mid-exec level at Farmstead –

big house with a three-car garage on the east

side of town, Peoria debutante wife, honor roll

kids, runs the company United Aid campaign every

year, that kinda thing. We’re in the local Lions

together, just pretty much know him to see him,

though.”

“Any idea what might’ve caused this kind of

uncharacteristic behavior?” I asked. “Any

personal or professional setback, tragedy in the

family?”

The cop shrugged. “Ralston had a major accident

in September – nearly drowned saving his kid out

at Lake Bloomington. He was under for, Jesus,

maybe 15 minutes before they got to him, and they

had to bring him back at St. Joseph’s.

Hypothermia, they were afraid he might have

suffered brain damage, but he seemed to pull

through just fine. At the time, I suppose.”

Though the unit’s heater was on full-blast, a

chill was spreading from deep within me. The

captain’s unconsciously religious references

sapped the warmth from me, fed my nearly

constant, seldom-spoken fear that Death, once,

Hell, twice or thrice cheated, was circling back

to claim my soul or that of a suitable

substitute.

“…but apparently, there must’ve been some kinda

brain damage or just, what do they call it with

the Viet vets? Post-traumatic syndrome? Cause his

work performance started going in the toilet, the

wife said he started acting distant. Shit, my old

lady says the same thing every NBA tournament.

Sorry, Agent Scully – no gender stereotypes

intended.”

I woke from my contemplations. “As they say,

stereotypes usually have a basis in truth. For

example, the stereotype of the successful

suburban breadwinner, the ideal family man, can

become a mask for hidden fears and insecurities.

A near-death experience can drastically alter a

person’s perceptions of their daily reality,

redefine their essential ethical and emotional

precepts.”

“Whoa,” the captain chuckled amiably. “Dumb cop,

remember?”

“She’s saying it can fuck you up something

awful,” Mulder provided.

“Now you’re talking my language. OK, folks; here

we are.”

**

Mulder accepted the wire and the microcam, but

refused both the ankle holster and the vest.

“Might as well wear a red cape and jab him with

sharp sticks, don’t you think?” he posed, making

permanent pals with the Peoria PD Tactical Unit

commander BPD had called in to deal with this

rare instance of white-collar mayhem.

“Guy asked specifically for you, huh?” the

commander asked drily, as if the very idea was

both absurd and offensive. “What makes you such a

big deal?”

Mulder smiled broadly – he was used to such jibes

from his “brothers” in law enforcement. “Must be

those commercials I’m running during Judging Amy,

I guess. Hey, I think we’ve got enough tape on

the mike here, Sergeant, unless you want to take

me to dinner and a Julia Roberts movie.”

I bit on my inner cheek. Making friends and

influencing people in the face of danger – that

in itself was ample evidence of Mulder’s faith in

something larger than human foible and the

acceptance of macho cohorts.

“I don’t like the camera,” I murmured, staring at

the small device, no larger than a lapel

microphone, being affixed to poke through one of

Mulder’s buttonholes.

“Digital, with infrared transmission, totally

wireless,” the captain said, as if I’d asked to

see the new 2001 Hondas. “Got it on a pilot

basis, some big Japanese company hopes to makes

some bucks with the metro cop shops.”

“I don’t like it. Ralston trips to the fact

Mulder’s taping him, he could go ballistic.”

“Evil bellybutton eye steal man’s soul,” Mulder

chanted ominously. He caught the look in my eye,

and grinned reassuringly. “Look, Scully; if

Ralston is that attentive, he might be a little

more interested in why I have about five pounds

of duct tape wrapped around my pale torso. I

think the camera’s a moot point. Besides, if you

can track Ralston’s reactions and assess the

risks up there, maybe there’s less chance Lance

here” – he nodded at the tactical commander –

“will blast a few holes in either Ralston or me.”

“Ordinance costs too much to waste on a fed,” the

commander stated. “And the name’s not Lance. It’s

Captain Slaughter.”

Mulder’s brows rose. “Charlie Babbitt made a

joke,” he muttered in a perfect Dustin Hoffman.

The tactical commander sighed. “Button up and

haul ass, Rain Man.”

**

The picture was sharp, if somewhat grainy, and

the camera angle, from navel level, was

disorienting. The view of the elevator button

panel was abruptly interrupted as Mulder panned

to the commander, who just looked blankly ahead.

“Lance is wearing the latest in tactical law

enforcement gear, from Kevlar Klein,” my partner

observed with a faintly British accent. “From the

fashionably rakish Sig nine millimeter to the

reinforced Green Beret boots and accessorized

Mace canister, Lance is ready for a night of

hostage negotiation or the hotdog line at a

Detroit hockey game. This ensemble says no to

wadcutter bullets with a capital ‘N.'”

“Think Ralston’s going to need more protection

than you,” the commander responded.

**

Kenneth Ralston had struck at about 4:45, as the

end-of-the-day crowd was thinning out but his own

departmental team continued to toil on a tightly-

deadlined project. He had two semi-automatic

pistols and far more backup ammunition than

appeared warranted to subdue a 56-year-old

supervisor, two fellow mouse-pushers, and an

administrative assistant barely out of community

college. Within an hour, after Ralston had made

his unusual and very specific singular demand, it

was obvious his judgment regarding weaponry had

been sound.

The tactical commander hung back at the elevator,

covering Mulder’s back as he approached the

departmental suite where Ralston had set up shop.

As I leaned forward at my makeshift monitoring

station in a board conference room, I heard the

hollow ringing of Mulder rapping on the glass

suite door.

A disheveled face appeared as the door swung

partially open. Ralston was fairly young, early

30s, slightly receding hairline fringed with an

obviously expensive cut. The digital microcam

captured only grays, but I could make out a dark

Polo pony against Ralston’s light sports shirt.

What had pushed this man from his likely world of

sports and investments and cookouts into a dark

universe of reprisal and burgeoning violence? As

a physician, I had only my experience to help me

hazard any psychological theory, but I could see

even though the digital grain the stress that

tugged at Ralston’s eyes and mouth and placed

Mulder in a volatile, perhaps deadly, situation.

“Two extra larges, half sausage, half Canadian

bacon, and an order of wings?” I heard Mulder

ask. The Bloomington P.D. captain rustled behind

me.

The man blinked. “You have to be Mulder, right?

Thanks for coming, man; get in here, please. I

don’t trust Dudley Doright at the elevator.”

“Ah, he’s OK, just watched a little too much NYPD

Blue, maybe,” my partner said as he slipped into

the office suite. Mulder trained his buttonhole

cam immediately on the four hostages on the floor

near the receptionist’s desk. Their wrists were

bound before them, and their fear transcended the

depersonalization of computer imagery. I heard

Ralston lock the suite door with a sharp snick.

“Guess you never heard of 1-800-COLLECT?” Mulder

inquired as Ralston gestured him to a chair.

Ralston slumped into a chair facing Mulder,

pistol gripped tightly in his right hand. “Man,

I’m sorry, I really am. I know this is a shitty

way to do this, but I’ve got no options anymore.”

“Everybody in good shape, I trust?”

Ralston glanced back at the quartet on the floor.

“Oh, sure, yeah. I don’t want to hurt any of

these people, I really don’t.”

I frowned as I stared at the computer monitor. It

had been a curiously phrased remark. “These

people,” who according to Ralston’s personnel

file, had worked with him over the past five

years. A coworker had told the captain Ralston

and his colleagues had shared a close

camaraderie, at least until recently.

I thought of a case a few years back, a similar

desk jockey hostage-taker, convinced his

supervisor was some form of monster who was

draining the life from his fellow wage-earners. A

rather transparent delusion, giving literal

meaning to our essential feelings about

authority. Except Mulder had shared the man’s

suspicions, nearly losing his badge and life in

the process, and Skinner generously wrote the

case off as a folie a deux – a delusion shared by

two.

What had flavored Ralston’s delusion?

“Hey,” Mulder greeted the hostages. “I’m Special

Agent Fox Mulder, and we’re going to see if we

can’t resolve this as quickly as possible, OK? So

what are your names?” I applauded the gesture:

Mulder not only was reassuring the frightened

knot of captives, he was reminding Ralston of

their humanity. I wondered again at Mulder’s

ability to keep his own humanity in the face of

the cosmic truths and colossal doubts he tilted

daily at.

Ralston calmly allowed the hostages to respond to

Mulder’s roll, tensing visibly as a small but

muscular and well-groomed man – one of the two

fellow drones – stammered out his name, Brad

Scheffler. Mulder settled back into his chair, as

if preparing for a 60 Minutes interview.

“So, they tell me you’re not quite yourself these

days,” he said casually.

“Shit,” the captain murmured behind me. He and I

both knew it wasn’t good negotiating strategy to

immediately question the hostage-taker’s mental

state or sanity.

“Exactly,” Ralston responded happily, surprising

us all.

**

There’s a famous psychological case study – a

young boy so emotionally detached from those

around him, so alienated from the joys and

feelings of others, that he had come to believe

he was a robot. Dissociation was a not uncommon

response to the pain and emptiness of feeling

untethered from the mass of humanity. My – a

psychotherapist had explained it to me once: When

we cannot adapt or fit in, we tend to erase

ourselves through passive surrender, others

though dismissal or negligence, or, in too many

of the cases Mulder and I have investigated,

both, bottling our pain inside until it explodes

in resentment and agony and irreparable damage.

Ken Ralston’s story was a magnum opus of

dissociation.

“I realized something was seriously fucked up a

few days after the accident, after they put me in

a private room at St. Joe’s,” he told Mulder.

“I’m not like a news junkie or anything, but the

soap operas and the trash talk shows were driving

me out of my tree, so I started watching CNN. So

anyway, they’re doing some newsbriefs, talking

about President Bush’s trip to China or

something, and they show the president getting

off the plane. And it’s not him.”

“What?” the captain muttered rhetorically.

“It’s not him?” Mulder probed.

“It’s not Jeb Bush.”

“Jeb Bush is the president?” Mulder asked it

without a trace of irony or ridicule.

“Except he’s not anymore,” Ralston said, reliving

what must have been the world-shaking impact of

his “discovery.” “And that wasn’t all. Like I

said, I’m not a current events guy, but there

were all kinds of screwy things going on. Anwar

Sadat wasn’t the president of Egypt any more, and

there was no mention of the Bosnian peace accord.

It was all that was on CNN for weeks before it

happened.

“I tried to write it off to some colossal case of

post-traumatic disorientation, maybe even some

brain damage – I was underwater for a godawful

long time. When I got home, things seemed better,

at first. Yeah, the furniture seemed a little

different in places, the kids were a little

rowdier than I had remembered. But, hell, what

happened to us was kinda rattling, you know. But

then, a few weeks later, Kris – my wife – and I

got in bed, and she started, well, you know. She

wanted to make love.”

“And you couldn’t,” Fox said sympathetically.

Impotence wouldn’t have been an unusual response

in the aftermath of Ralston’s accident.

As if he had read my mind, Ralston sighed. “Kris

was very understanding about it, said it would

take a while after what had happened to get back

to, well, to normal. But the thing is… Fuck.”

“Hey, take your time.”

“The thing is, there isn’t any normal,” Ralston

said, through his teeth, “I haven’t been able to

get it up for more than a year. You could ask my

doctor, but he says nothing was wrong before the

accident. So I’m wondering what the fuck’s the

matter with everybody, maybe with me. Sean, my

eight-year-old, suddenly is great at math and

sucks at reading, the opposite of what it was

before. And Brynda, my girl, is now Brenda, and

the goddamned birth certificate in our fire safe

says so, even though I picked the fucking name

myself.”

I felt a growing sense of apprehension. Ralston’s

carefully civilized conversation was

deteriorating into erratic cursing. Contain the

chaos, I willed Mulder.

“And when you came back to the office here,” my

partner concluded, “These people were waiting,

including him.”

I tried to determine who “him” was, but one of

the hostages beat me to the punch.

“Kenny, man, it’s me,” Brad Scheffler wailed. “We

went to fucking high school together!”

My chair squeaked back as I gripped its arms and

the captain leapt to his feet. Ralston had

knocked his chair over and trained his automatic

on Scheffler. The supervisor squeezed his eyes

shut as the administrative assistant whimpered.

“Brad,” Mulder asked, politely. “Give us a few

minutes here. I want to hear Ken’s version right

now, OK?”

The courteous banality of Mulder’s response

seemed to defuse the situation, but the tactical

commander appeared in my peripheral vision. “He’s

losing it, you can hear that. I think we need to

start devising come alternate responses.”

I wheeled around. “I disagree. Agent Mulder’s a

behavioral scientist – his methods are a

little…unorthodox…but he has control of the

situation.”

The commander planted his left cheek on the

table’s edge. The monitor jiggled. “I know about

Mulder. And you. I know who you both are, and

what. It raises serious questions about whether

you should even be sitting here.”

“Can we stay on task here?” I snapped. He seemed

unfazed by the ice in my voice, but he rose and

moved temporarily away. The commander hadn’t been

the first to do his homework, nor had he been the

first to register his disapproval about Mulder

and I’s place in the Bureau.

“Does he?” the Bloomington captain asked with no

discernable emotion. “Have control?”

“Yes.”

He nodded and looked back to the monitor.

“So I walk in, and here’s this guy I’ve never

seen in my life sitting in the next office,”

Ralston continued. “I introduce myself, and he

just looks at me like I’m fuckin’ insane. Asks

how I’m feeling, asks about Kris and the kids. I

ask about Ted, where he went to. I hadn’t heard

anything about Ted getting fired or quitting or

anything. Brad here just keeps looking at me,

which I’ve gotten incredibly tired of getting

from people, so I just shut my mouth and get back

to work.

“But there are things, you know? My Windows isn’t

working quite the same – the keyboard commands

are slightly different, and I damn near delete a

major report the first week back trying to print

it. The company claim procedures are a little

wacky, though I admit they seem to work better,

and the paperwork is just slightly out-of-whack.

That’s the thing, man: Most of the changes are

just little things, like somebody went with ALT-F

for the Word File menu instead of the Format

menu, or the Coffee Butler is now Mr. Coffee, and

there’s no such fucking thing as a Coffee Butler

machine, and everybody looks at you like you

ought to be committed for even suggesting there

is.”

Mulder leaned forward, with the effect of zooming

in on Ralston’s face. “So it’s as if the world

you’re living in now has been revised – like the

choices people have made were different, but not

drastically.”

“Like a parallel universe,” Ralston sighed.

“Somehow I came back from the dead to a world

where Bill Gates decided to make the Save key a

Delete key and Ted is off somewhere, probably

playing on the PGA tour like he always wanted

to.”

“But no Woodrow Wilson dimes, huh?”

“Woodrow Wilson –?”

“Story by Jack Finney about a man who finds

himself in a parallel world where Wilson’s on the

dime instead of Roosevelt. Nothing like that,

huh?”

Ralston was silent for a second, and I wondered

if Mulder had pressed some hidden and deadly

button within the displaced corporate family man.

But Ralston slumped back in his chair, his eyes

haunted.

“Just one thing,” he said.

**

“Um, Agent Scully,” the captain coughed. “This is

Kris Ralston, Mr. Ralston’s wife?”

My irritation at being drawn from the monitor

dissipated immediately. “Mrs. Ralston.”

She was blonde and trim and as wholesomely

Midwestern as a Wisconsin extra hand-picked by

Steven Spielberg to play a farm-raised suburban

housewife. “Are you people going to get him out

of this alive?” Kris Ralston asked tremulously.

“He’s not a violent man; he never was. There’s no

need to hurt him, because I know he won’t hurt

those people.”

“Mrs. Ralston, my partner is a trained expert in

psychological behavior, and I can assure you his

one and only objective is to bring your husband

and his coworkers out of that office, alive and

well.”

Kris virtually collapsed into a chair. “It was

all so good before we almost lost him. Now, it’s

like he’s…”

“A different person?”

“That’s what he seems to think, isn’t it? Except

he’s not different; we all are.”

**

“I was really thinking about seeing a shrink –

the hospital had recommended it, and Kris

supported the idea. Then, one morning, I was

having a bagel. A round bagel.” Ralston chuckled

bitterly at the notion. “I look out the window,

and there it is, sitting on the fence. Like

seeing a dodo or a tyrannosaurus eating out of

your bird feeder. I don’t know how I avoided

seeing them before.”

“What?” Mulder asked.

“It was a squirrel. A red one. Just sitting there

as if nothing was wrong.”

“And that was unusual because?”

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“Because they’re all fucking dead, every single

red fucking squirrel in North America, or the

world, for that matter. I remember when I was a

kid, when that disease hit all of them. You’d

find them lying on the ground, even falling out

of trees. They blamed it on some new strain of

rabies or avian influenza or something. But

here’s one sitting in my backyard, like he just

came out of a fucking 25-year hibernation. I

start yelling for everybody to come see. The kids

are like bug-eyed at Daddy waving his arms like a

bloody lunatic, and Kris… Kris is just…standing

there crying, man. And that’s how I knew it

wasn’t me, Agent Mulder. Because of the

squirrels.

“So I started doing some research on the

Internet, which wasn’t easy because it seemed

like every word I keyed in brought up some porno

site, which isn’t how it is…well, you know.”

“Yeah, I know, it’s awful.” Mulder coughed.

“I checked the Library of Congress, history

sites, the White House home page, old ’60s sitcom

fan pages, anything that might help me understand

and, I guess, ‘pass’ for whatever normal is in

this world.”

“Did Gilligan get off the island in your world?”

Mulder inquired.

Ralston then laughed, a release of tension and

dread that made me relax as well. Kris was biting

her lip, her eyes welling.

“Yeah, matter of fact,” Ralston replied, showing

me a glimpse of the nine-to-fiver who’d seemingly

been left at the bottom of a lake somewhere.

“They get back to the mainland, hate how much

things have changed in the five years they were

gone, and move back to start their own society.

With a resort hotel, of course.”

A thought had been formulating in my mind, one

spiked with too many pre-med psych courses and,

possibly, too many years basking in the

brainwaves of Fox Mulder. I took a breath, and

turned to Kris. “Mrs. Ralston, what happened?

Right before the accident? What changed?”

**

“I think it started in 1945,” Ralston said.

“That’s where the differences start, where things

start to peel off.”

“Peel off?”

“Things start to develop differently than I

remember them. Joe McCarthy has those horrible

Communist witch hunts here; he got caught with a

young boy in my world before things really got

going. Nixon almost beat Kennedy in my world. The

Watts Riots never happened where I came from.

Disco never happened in my world.”

“Yow, can I go?”

“And, of course, there’s the squirrels. Nothing

changed before 1945, that I could find, that is.

Then I found your theories. I was visiting a lot

of the paranormal discussion forums on the Web,

and I came across your theories about time,

parallel planes of existence. It didn’t take long

to track the messages to you, through some of the

others.

“You said you thought it was possible that there

might be several, maybe infinite timestreams that

split off into different probabilities, and that

maybe cosmic calamities or events could cause

disruptions in existing streams.”

Mulder grinned. “Shoulda stuck to the Britney

Spears chatroom, just knew it. Look, Mr. Ralston,

Ken, that was just my wildass speculation, a

little Einstein, a little Stephen Hawking, a

little Sliders, probably. The good Fox episodes,

not the sucky Sci-Fi Channel ones.”

“What does 1945 mean to you?” Ralston probed

abruptly.

Mulder was silent for a second. “The end of World

War II? The A-bomb…”

“August 6, 1945, the Enola Gay drops the first

bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. Some 130,000 people

killed, injured, or missing, and 177,000 made

homeless. Three days later, we drop the second

one on Nagasaki. A third of the city’s wasted,

and another 66,000 people are killed or injured.

OK – so what if by splitting the atom, they did

something else, something more, um, more cosmic?”

More silence. “Well, scientists suppose a

relationship between matter, energy, and time,

and they’ve found subatomic particles with some

pretty strange properties that defy physical law

as we know it. You’re saying that when we split

the atom on that massive a scale, we might have

started some other kind of subatomic chain

reaction? Two timestreams ‘peeled off’ from each

other? Only one problem I can see: The bombs

dropped on Japan weren’t the first atomic blasts,

and, of course, Earth isn’t the center of the

universe. Major natural nuclear events must

happen every day somewhere in the universe. By

your theory, alternate timestreams would be

splitting off all over the place.”

“How do we know I’m not just the first guy to

cross over between timestreams?” Ralston

demanded. “Or how do we know other people

haven’t? Look at all the psychos and lost souls

out there. These people on the street who

could’ve just dropped out of nowhere. Maybe I’m

just the first one who knows what happened to

him. What? That’s funny?”

Kris and I straightened at the new note of

tension in Ralston’s voice. Mulder’s

unpredictable responses could short-circuit the

violence in a room or, in the wrong circles,

bring on a minor shitstorm.

“No, it isn’t what you said,” Mulder mused. “You

ever see It’s a Wonderful Life?”

Ralston leaned back, struck dumb by my partner’s

non sequitur. Then he grinned. “Jesus, haven’t

seen that one in years. I love it at the end

where Jimmy Stewart comes running into the house

hugging everybody, even though he thinks they’re

about to haul his ass off to prison.”

“Jimmy Stew–?” Kris murmured curiously. I held

up a hand.

“It’s a wonderful movie,” Mulder agreed. “I

always thought it was one of the most underrated

sci-fi flicks of the ’40s.”

“Sci-fi?”

“Sure. The whole concept of alternate realities –

the chain reaction of interpersonal and cosmic

changes resulting from George Bailey’s sudden

non-existence. A Christmas Carol explores some of

the same territory, in some ways in an even more

philosophical –”

“Uh, Agent, pardon me, but what the fuck does

this have to do with anything?”

“Well, look around. Here we are on Christmas Eve;

you got pulled out of the water to find yourself

in this strange new world where everything’s

turned out different than you remember. I’ve been

summoned to make sure you don’t take yourself out

along with these folks.”

Ralston shook his head and smirked. “What, that

makes you Clarence the Angel or something?”

“Teacher says, ‘Every time a witness sings,

another agent gets his wings,'” Mulder recited.

“Hey, you called me, right? Pretend you’ve been

touched by an angel for a second, and cut me a

little slack. You got your folks’ phone number

handy?”

Ralston leaned forward, the gun still tightly in

his grip. “There’s just my mom now. Why do you

need her number? I can tell you anything you want

to know. She’s been through enough — don’t bug

her, man.”

“From what you’ve been saying, she’s not your

mother, anyway.”

“She’s my mother, just in another, Jesus, life?

Even if she wasn’t, I wouldn’t dump this on her.”

“Listen, Ken,” Mulder said placidly. “I want to

help you, but more than that, I’m here to make

sure nothing happens to these people. Way the

media is, if your family hasn’t called your

mother, the Action News Team has filled her in.

At the risk of being tactless, you’ve made this

omelette; what eggs are broken are broken. Can I

have the number, please, Ken? Trust me.”

Ralston sighed and rose, backing to his desk.

“Let me check the Rolodex. For my own mom’s

number. Jesus.” He rifled through the cards,

glancing frequently at Mulder. My partner didn’t

budge, thank God.

Finally, Ralston reluctantly handed him a

relatively new card. Mulder propped it on his

knee and punched out a number.

“By the way, Ken, when did your dad die?” he

asked before hitting the send button.

“Here, you mean? About a year ago, hit his head

in the tub. In my timestream, he’s been gone

since I was about 12.”

I nearly jumped a yard when the phone rang at my

elbow.

**

“Mrs. Ralston?” Mulder inquired. I remained

silent – I’d learned long ago to ride his rhythms

and just trust his odd instincts. “This is

Special Agent Fox Mulder with the Federal Bureau

of Investigation. I’m with your son right now…No,

ma’am; he’s just fine, Mrs. Ralston. Nobody’s

been hurt, and he doesn’t want to hurt anyone. If

you could answer just a few questions for me,

maybe we can resolve this real soon. Yes, it’s

very important. Thanks.

“First off, how did Ken and his dad get along?

It’s crucial that you’re absolutely straight with

me.”

“Mulder, I was talking to Kris Ralston, the wife?

What she told me may cast some light on the

situation.” I filled him in as quickly as his

unrelated question allowed.

“That’s interesting. They do a lot of things

together? Oh, like fishing, baseball, hunting?

Ah, really. What kind? Uh huh. And when did they

start doing that?”

“I’m sure you realize this isn’t an X-File,

Mulder. I think Ralston’s a victim of a

dissociative fugue, except where a person in a

fugue state normally forgets his personal

identity or wanders away to establish a whole new

identity somewhere else, Ralston has dissociated

his environment rather than himself. Here’s the

kicker: Dissociative fugue usually occurs after

serious psychological stress of some kind, such

as the death of a family member, the loss of a

job, or a failed relationship.”

“That’s very illuminating, Mrs. Ralston. One last

question, if I may. Is Ken a movie buff? I mean,

does he follow movies, actors. No? Hmm. OK. Yes,

ma’am; I will certainly tell him that. Yes, I

believe I can. Just try to relax, Mrs. Ralston.”

“Mulder, you have to be careful here. If you just

tell him–”

With a click at my end and a beep from the

monitor, he was gone. “Damn it, Mulder,” I cried

out. Whatever game he was playing, I was now

‘out.’

“He won’t want to hear that,” the tactical

commander said blankly. “If your ‘partner’ tells

him he’s a Section 8, it could push him over.

Especially if he gives him any details.”

“Mulder’s a behavioral scientist,” I said through

my teeth. “He knows what buttons to push and when

to push them.”

“Gotta man in a window across the courtyard with

infrared and a long-range rifle in case the wrong

button gets pushed. Thought you ought to know

that.” The commander sauntered away.

I glanced back at the Bloomington captain. He

sighed deeply and shrugged. Under the

circumstances, it was probably as strong a vote

of confidence as Mulder could get.

Then I made some connections I supposed Mulder

wanted me to make. I turned to the anxious woman

beside me.

“Mrs. Ralston, is your husband a movie buff?”

**

“What do you do here, Ken, specifically?” Mulder

asked.

“We all work in death claims – investigations,

mostly,” Ralston answered slowly.

“Pretty shitty work, I’d guess. Buffy slips some

rat poison in Aunt Sarah’s chamomile tea. Marge

shoves Earl down the trailer steps, then tries to

cash in on the big lotto. Joe puts a bullet

through his brain, not realizing he’s canceling

his family’s ticket with the insurance company.”

Ralston’s gun hand elevated an inch or so.

“What’s your point?”

“My point is, you’re a trained insurance

investigator who witnesses the dank side of

humanity and the darkest grief imaginable on a

daily basis. When your – or his dad, if you wish

– died in what I have to believe is a rather

unusual household accident, I have to think that

would rouse an investigator’s suspicions. It

would mine. What do you think the other Ken

Ralston might’ve found out?”

“I don’t know,” Ralston responded, tersely.

“OK. Now, do you recall how your dad died, when

you were 12?”

“Heart attack, plain and simple, no question. It

devastated us – he was a wonderful guy.”

Mulder was silent for a second. “You know, it’s,

well, just, strange.”

“What?”

“Your mother, his mother, whatever, said you and

your father had your issues. Like a lot of guys

who were raised in a rural environment in the

’50s, she said your dad was very concerned about

raising you according to his own very specific

definition of a real man. Her words, not mine. It

seems that when Alternate Ken turned 13, his dad

initiated him into the grand Central Illinois

tradition of squirrel hunting. According to his

mother, he didn’t much take to it. Ken’s dad

practically had to force him to go.”

Ralston sat rigidly, staring at Mulder.

“And now you tell me you come from a world where

the squirrel has been wiped from the face of the

Earth. Bear with me, Ken. You tell me you live in

a world where McCarthy never hunted Communists,

never killed the careers and souls of hundreds of

men and women. Where Anwar Sadat was never

assassinated right at the height of hopes for a

Middle East peace treaty. Where the war in Bosnia

was about to come to an end after centuries of

civil strife. Where Gilligan, Skipper, and the

rest found their way back to society, found it

wanting, and chose to return to their island

Eden. And your Dad died of natural causes before

you would even have turned 13.”

Ralston looked tightly at Mulder. “So you think

I’m a mental case, too?”

“I’m stating another possible scientific

explanation for your situation. See, I don’t know

if you realize it, but in addition to being

versed in the paranormal, I’m also a behavioral

scientist. You’ve given me one possible rationale

for what’s happened to you, within the context of

physical science. I view psychology as merely the

laws of physics as regard the human mind. Mental

stimuli, emotional trauma, and guilt influence

our actions just as physical forces affect matter

and energy. You want me to go on?”

Ralston breathed deeply. “All right. Just in

English, please.”

“First, I want to ask you to release these

people.”

Ralston laughed harshly. “You’re shitting me,

right? You do think I’m whacko, don’t you?”

“Labeling you as whacko makes as much sense as

labeling a quark or a tachyon as an aberrant

personality. No, I have a very specific reason for

wanting these people out of here, so we can talk

candidly. Look, you still got Clarence the Angel

here as a hostage.”

“Good man,” the captain murmured behind my

shoulder. I was reserving judgment; I didn’t like

Mulder going mano-a-mano with an emotionally

distraught, armed, delusional man.

“This works, I’ll eat my baton,” the tactical

commander said tactlessly.

“I’ll supply the salt,” I offered, my eyes

riveted on the monitor.

“There’s something wrong with this,” Ralston

hesitated, rubbing his temples.

“I have no desire, nor hopefully do any of the

officers downstairs, to see my brains decorating

these tastefully appointed walls,” my partner

assured him. “Nobody’s going to pull a Steven

Seagal just because it’s me instead of four

taxpayers.”

“Pull a who?”

“Wow, that must be a wonderful universe you come

from. What do you say, Ken? You called me; you

trust me. Trust me for a few minutes longer. A

few more minutes won’t really matter either way,

will they, Ken?”

I felt a pang at the intimate nature of Mulder’s

last comment. Something was going to happen we

hadn’t planned for, and Mulder was the only one

who knew what it was.

“Sure, let ’em go, sure,” Ralston finally

announced, wearily.

“Thanks. Let me call down, let ’em know they’re

coming, OK? After I send these guys down the

hallway – that way, you know there aren’t any

tricks, no cops waiting outside the door.”

“Sure.”

“Shit, he’s giving away the goddamned game!” the

tactical commander shouted. “I can’t possibly get

anybody into position before he releases those

hostages.”

“I believe that’s the new game plan,” I

suggested. “Everybody comes out alive.”

The commander planted a hand a foot from my elbow

and leaned dangerously close to my left ear. “I

don’t know how many NYPD Blues you’ve seen,

Agent, but that’s my game plan, too. I just have

a lot more moves and a lot more experience on the

field.”

“I don’t see any point to this,” the captain

snapped. “The man’s done what he’s done, and at

least he getting the hostages out of the firing

line. As for the rest, I’d suggest we do what I’d

be doing at St. Mary’s Christmas Eve Mass right

now, if this day hadn’t gotten so totally fucked

up.”

This bit of theological counsel, coming from such

an incongruous source, knocked the fight out of

the tactical commander, and transported me

momentarily to a place I’d repressed, of candles

and icons and rosaries, of the basso-profundo

rumbling of my rough military man father reciting

Latin phrases I had no doubt he understood

perfectly, of freshly scrubbed good Catholic

girls with simple and unsullied faith.

“…and lead us not into temptation…” The hairs on

the back of my neck bristled at the whispered

invocation. I looked to my side, where Kris

Ralston sat, head inclined, eyes squeezed shut,

lips moving softly. The captain looked up at the

tactical commander, who nodded curtly and walked

away.

Mulder and Ralston were done untying the

hostages, who they now herded to the suite door.

Mulder’s micro-cam swept the hallway outside,

then panned back to the group. “Move as fast as

you can to the elevators, and go to the cafeteria

floor. OK?”

The hostages nodded numbly and allowed themselves

to be ushered into the hall. Ralston’s supervisor

had to help one of the traumatized desk jockeys

along, but they finally disappeared into the

elevator car, and I heard Mulder exhale.

“I think we’re alone now,” he told Ralston, who

frowned at the joke. “They don’t know that one in

your universe, do they? You must be hell on

karaoke night. Let’s call downstairs now, OK?”

“OK,” Ralston said in a new voice, one I didn’t

like.

My phone rang a few seconds later. “Hostages are

on the way down – don’t let Lance exercise

extreme prejudice on ’em,” Mulder advised.

“Mulder,” I said, my voice dry and high. “I don’t

know what you have in mind, but make damned sure

you know what the hell you’re doing. If you get

yourself killed, I’ll dog you into Eternity.”

“If this is going to turn into a personal call,

I’m afraid we’ll have to terminate the

discussion. You know company policy.” The line

went dead.

**

“Under my theory, this started about a year ago,

when Eugene Ralston died in a household accident.

Ken Ralston worked in death claims; it was only

natural he’d be curious. Maybe he picked up on

some bad vibes or an off-tone. Maybe he found out

his mother had a role in his father’s death;

maybe he found out his father had been drinking;

maybe there was a fight. Whatever happened, it

hit Ken hard, all the more so because he’d never

gotten along with his father.”

“Look, don’t patronize me,” Ralston said.

“OK. Bad blood plus death frequently breeds

guilt, and it isn’t unreasonable to assume a

daily litany of death and deceit at the office

added to the stress. But I believe things came to

a head just before your accident at the lake.”

“Before?”

“I don’t know how it happened, but you found out

about your wife.”

“Mulder,” I barely uttered, my heart beginning to

pound in my ears. Ralston raised his weapon, his

eyes locked on Mulder’s.

“What about Kris?”

“Think about it, Ken: If indeed Brad Scheffler’s

been working in this office with you for more

than five years, why would he be the only person

to vanish from your world when you came back from

the dead? The man your wife’s been having an

affair with over the past several months.”

“God,” the captain murmured. “Glad he got

Scheffler outta there.” Kris’ face was buried in

her hands as she wept silently.

“That’s a bit much to ask of even cosmic

coincidence, isn’t it, Ken? Couldn’t it be the

final blow to your emotionally fragile state,

combined with your brush with mortality, your

second chance, as it were, could’ve spurred you

to mentally erase Scheffler from existence?”

Ralston leveled his gun, his face locked in

knotted muscles.

“You got a shot?” the tactical commander demanded

urgently into his radio, I assumed to the

infrared sniper across the courtyard.

“Roger,” the radio crackled. I sat mute before

the monitor; I knew I should try to delay the

execution order, but I couldn’t speak or move.

The gun wavered, then moved swiftly to Ken

Ralston’s temple.

“Fucking shit,” the commander murmured.

“Ken,” Mulder said with a maddening serenity. “I

thought I just explained to you why that won’t

get you anywhere. That is why you asked me to

come here, right?”

Ken Ralston’s electronic image began to shake,

and even through the microcam’s relatively low-

resolution transmission, I could see his irises

disappear in a sea of welling tears.

I jumped as Ralston dropped his weapon with a

clatter, and remembered again to breathe as

Mulder engulfed him in his arms…

**

My partner came through the cafeteria door a few

minutes later, his arm around Ralston’s shoulder.

The Bloomington captain accepted the man gently,

then handed him off to Kris Ralston. As Ralston

collapsed into his wife’s embrace, she began to

sob, out of relief, remorse, release, I don’t

know.

The Peoria tactical commander clamped a hand on

Mulder’s shoulder and turned him around. “You

must use a powerful antiperspirant, ‘Lance.'”

Mulder grinned. “Merry Christmas, General.”

I moved quickly around the desk.

“Hey, Scully, hope you saved some eggnog for me–

And that’s when I slapped him, as hard as I

possibly could.

**

“Your face feel any better?” I asked timidly as

Mulder and I hurtled through the stratosphere

somewhere over the Eastern Corn Belt or the

Appalachians. The Peoria tactical commander,

whose name in fact was Ted, threw us both a curve

by volunteering his weekend flying skills to get

us back to D.C. and Christmas dinner. Under the

circumstances, the combined influence of the

Bloomington and Peoria P.D.s and Farmstead

Insurance were enough to get us early morning

clearance out of Bloomington Airport.

Mulder waggled his jaw. “You hit like a girl.

Then again, I take pain like a 5-year-old.”

“You frightened me. You took an unnecessary

chance, and charged headlong into what could have

been a tragic outcome. I could have…” I looked

out into the black sky.

“Look,” Mulder said calmly. “I had to slap

Ralston, shock him into accepting what I was

telling him. That’s why I got Scheffler out of

the office. If I was going to get Ralston out of

there alive, I had to convince him his condition

was psychological, not physical.

“Don’t you see where this was going? Why do you

think Ralston asked for me? He could have e-

mailed me, called me, and the odds were his story

would have intrigued me enough to meet with him.

So why force this dramatic scene? Was I going to

get him out of this hostage situation clean? Too

late for that. Did he honestly believe I’d have

the answer to his dilemma, that I could teleport

him back home? Of course not. The only possible

reason for Ralston to summon me was to confirm

his worst suspicions. I’m the FBI’s loose cannon,

the guy who values the truth over the

consequences, who’ll buy into anything — except

of course Ben Affleck’s acting ability. And once

I’d confirmed his theory, Ralston felt he could

take the step he had determined was necessary to

return to his ‘world.'”

I looked at Mulder, dimly lit in the tiny

passenger compartment. “To go back the way he

came in.”

“Exactly. The only solution Ralston could reason

out was to leave this existence and take the

chance of passing through the same wormhole or

corridor or rift he’d entered through. I don’t

believe Ken Ralston would have taken my life back

there, but I think he was willing to take his own

life on the off-chance he could return home.”

“So the realization that he was profoundly

delusional actually saved his life.”

Mulder breathed. “The Big Lie for the greater

good. I guess I’ve learned well. Call it my

Christmas gift to Ralston and his family. I’ll

testify as to his emotional state; maybe he’ll

get a light sentence for treatment. Every day,

some headshrinker plants a false memory in some

willing patient’s skull — maybe a misguidedly

talented therapist can persuade Ralston that this

is his home, that Kris and the kids are his

reality. God help him and me.”

“Mulder, you don’t really believe Ralston’s story

is true, do you? Parallel universes? Alternate

realities?”

My partner leaned back in his seat. “Who’s to

say, Scully? In our world, Joe McCarthy throws

’50s America into a state of Cold War panic,

helping form young Eugene Ralston into a macho

role model intent on making his son a ‘real’ man.

Maybe a real man who can’t emotionally connect

with his wife, who then takes up with Brad

Scheffler. In another, McCarthy is disgraced and

Eugene dies young, leaving his son to grow up in

a kinder, gentler world where Nixon’s darker

nature doesn’t emerge and he almost wins against

Kennedy. In their world, Jeb Bush gets interested

in politics rather than banking; in ours, Laura

Bush becomes our first woman president. And in

the world our Ken Ralston dropped in from, Brad

Scheffler shows an aptitude for Renaissance

literature instead of actuarial tables.”

I smiled at the idea of Jeb Bush in the White

House instead of his far-brighter sister-in-law.

Might as well have the president’s goofy, tongue-

tangled husband, George, in the Oval Office.

“If there are parallel realities, maybe we’re not

talking about dinosaurs evolving into the master

species instead of humans, or the U.S. becoming a

monarchy ruled by France. Maybe the differences

for the most part would be incremental — a

different path taken here, a different roll of

the dice there.”

“My God, if that were true, what happens to our

basic spiritual beliefs, to our concept of a

higher power guiding the universe?”

Mulder shrugged. “Why are our concepts of science

and religion and psychology and faith so rigid

and mutually exclusive? From a theological view,

humanity is tested every day. Racial attitudes,

tolerance, charity — maybe these are that higher

power’s way of putting us through the rat’s maze.

Maybe there are a hundred, a thousand, a million

test groups out there, all vying to become some

sort of golden people. In a universe of black

holes, quasars, and Paris Hilton, why is that an

impossible notion?”

It was just like Mulder, deconstructing the

entire Judeo-Christian precept while arguing for

the existence of God. “You presented such a

compelling case for dissociative delusion,” I

pointed out. “What could possibly make you prefer

such a fantastic alternative?”

Mulder smiled. “Did you ask Kris Ralston if her

husband was a film buff?”

“As a matter of fact, he is not.”

“All right, then. Do you remember Jimmy Stewart?”

“A little before my time, Mulder. He was a

promising young actor back in the ’30s and ’40s,

right?”

“Who, like many Hollywood stars of his era,

enlisted to serve his country during WWII. In the

final days of the war, following the bombings of

Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Stewart, a U.S. Army Air

Force pilot, experienced engine failure and

crashed into the Pacific Ocean. You ever seen

It’s a Wonderful Life?”

“Gary Cooper, Donna Reed? It’s a classic. They

used to show it, what, 200,000 times every

Christmas. Now the network promotes the shit out

of it. Who hasn’t seen –?” I stopped. “But Ken

Ralston said…”

clip_image006

“That Jimmy Stewart starred in It’s a Wonderful

Life, which Frank Capra’s Liberty Films produced

after Stewart died. And that’s the kicker. Maybe

Ken Ralston might’ve had his head in a cave and

not seen one of the cinema’s greatest Christmas

stories, next to Lethal Weapon, of course. But

it’s a little-known fact that Stewart originally

was the studio’s prime pick to play George Bailey

in It’s a Wonderful Life, before his tragic

death. That isn’t general knowledge. Where would

Ralston have gotten such a piece of information,

even to help formulate another piece of his

fantasy?

“I believe that in Ken Ralston’s alternate world,

Jimmy Stewart survived the war to portray George

Bailey. But had I backed up Ralston’s theory,

where would he go from there? Stranded in a

strange world among strangers who were near

approximations of those he loved? Even in our own

world, there’s often little keeping even the

sanest person anchored in place.”

I took Mulder’s hand, feeling him stroke the gold

band on my left hand, the one he’d given me a

year after I’d joined the X-Files.

“Well, one other good thing came out of this,” I

suggested. “I think Ted up there has changed his

view of married agents, even if Assistant

Director Doggett hasn’t. The whole time you were

with Ralston, he kept grumbling about knowing

‘what we are,’ and questioning my ability to back

you up. Now, he’s chauffeuring us back to

Washington.”

Mulder winced. “Which reminds me, Scully: You

were supposed to bring the dessert for Christmas

dinner, weren’t you? You know Samantha loves your

French silk pie.”

“I can rustle up something from the side of the

Gello Pudding box,” I assured him. “Mr. Spender

can have a pack of Morleys for dessert. I know

he’s your parents’ oldest friend, but I wish he’d

find another family to scrounge Christmas dinner

from or get on the patch or something.”

Mulder just smiled and squeezed my hand. Below, I

could see the lights of Washington’s Charlton

Heston Airport.

“Merry Christmas, Fox,” I murmured.

“Merry Christmas, Melissa,” he responded before

dozing off.

END

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