She was so glad to get out of that house. She felt surrounded and smothered there. It wasnít at all like home, so many kids. But thatís why she was here. Aunt Cindy wasnít well, so she was here to help out with the kids. It was just for the summer, she could handle it. Mom was right, she probably would do a better job than Melissa, she was more practical, and Melissa did have that paying job to help with school costs.
It just wasnít the way sheíd planned to spend her summer. Three kids under five years old, all day, every day. No wonder Aunt Cindy wasnít well. At least they fell asleep early, if she could wear them out every day, then she could bathe them and get them to bed by eight and have a little time to herself.
She sat on the swing, barely moving it with her foot. Okay, she was feeling sorry for herself, but she was homesick and Aunt Cindy wasnít anything like Mom. Too bad sheíd always taken Mom for granted, she was actually fairly cool for a mom. Mom had lived through three kids under five, and four kids under seven if you got technical. Oh please donít let Aunt Cindy get pregnant again! Well, it wouldnít be her problem. Just for the summer, then home and back to school.
"Whoa, a redhead."
She looked up startled. She hadnít been aware of how dark it was getting; she shouldnít be here alone. There were four of them that she could see. What the hell had she been thinking, hanging around the park this late? Donít panic, Dana. Think!
A quick look behind her showed that the boys were all in front of her, she didnít dare let them surround her. She rose from the swing, poised to run. They were closer; her heart was going to jump out of her chest. One of them was trying to get around her, she turned slightly.
The leader came even closer, reaching out to touch her hair where it was escaping the rubber band. She would not cry.
"Leave me alone." She drew herself up to her full 5 feet. Fighting with Bill and Charlie should have taught her something. Sheíd defend herself as best she could.
"Wild cat, huh?" His grip tightened in her hair.
"Leave her alone." The voice came from slightly behind her. Everyone froze. She was able to turn her head slightly. Only one boy, against four, but these guys seemed afraid. Who was this guy?
"Hey, Fox. We werenít going to hurt her. She donít look like no alien to us." A couple of the boys chuckled. The tall boy stood there, no smile crossing his face.
"Let go of her." Her hair came free and she stepped back away from the boy that had been holding her.
"Come on, guys, let the alien bounty hunter have her." The four of them slunk off, the leader having saved face with his last comment.
Dana turned and ran toward her auntís house. "Wait!" She heard him and stumbled, grabbing at the slide to keep on her feet. She pressed her back against the ladder and watched him approach.
He slowed to a walk and approached her cautiously, stopping well back from her, his hands out from his side to show her he was no threat. "Are you okay? Did they hurt you?"
She shook her head, not trusting her voice.
"Are you sure?"
"Iím fine." It wasnít true; she could hear her voice shake. Her hands were shaking too.
"This isnít a good place to be after dark."
"I didnít realize how dark it was. I was thinking. . . " That was stupid. He didnít care and she knew she sounded defensive.
"Youíre new in town." It wasnít a question.
"Iím visiting with my aunt and uncle for the summer. The Richardsonís, over on Poplar."
"Why donít I walk you home, just in case they come back?"
She hesitated; she didnít know him, not even his name. It was as though he could read her mind. He stuffed his hands in his jeans pockets and took yet another step back. "Iím Fox, Fox Mulder."
"I better get you home. Itís getting dark fast." She nodded and let go of the slide. He stepped beside her, leaving plenty of space between them.
She was nervous, she didnít date yet and while she was used to talking with her brothers, she hadnít spent much time alone with older guys. Especially guys as good looking as this one.
"Have you lived here long?"
"My whole life."
"That would be great. I mean living in one place. My Dadís in the Navy so we move all the time."
"Itís not really that great. Everyone knows you and your business."
"Oh, I hadnít thought of that." She was quiet then, he had sounded so sad she didnít know what to say. "Are. . . are you in school here?"
"I graduated in May. Iíll be leaving for university at the end of summer."
"Wow, where are you going?"
"Oxford? Like England?" God, she sounded so young, she was embarrassing herself. Why couldnít she be cool like Melissa?
A slight grin appeared on his face. "Yeah, the one in England. I guess Iím looking forward to it. Leaving here, a whole new start." He clammed up immediately, like heíd revealed too much.
Silence took over again, but not an awkward silence. It was as though he was used to the quiet and seemed to enjoy just walking beside her. She wished again for more experience. Was she making a fool of herself?
Too quickly she could see the house. Three houses away he stopped. "Look, youíre okay. I wouldnít mention this to your aunt. It would only upset her."
"Thatís probably a good idea. Would you like to come in, meet Aunt Cindy and. . ."
"No, thatís okay. I wouldnít mention that I walked you home either. Well, have a good summer, Dana." There was a strange note to his voice. She should keep this encounter a secret? Well, if she wasnít going to see him again. . .
She tried to keep her disappointment from her face and voice. "You too. And thanks again for everything."
"I donít think those guys would really have bothered you, but Iím glad I was there."
"Me too." She didnít realize how softly sheíd said it. He looked startled for a second, then motioned for her to go on.
"Iíll wait here until you get inside."
"Okay. Maybe Iíll see you around?" He nodded and she turned and headed for the door, mentally kicking herself. If he had wanted to see her around, he would have said something. She turned just before opening the door and waved. He returned the wave and headed back down the sidewalk the way they had come.
"Dana! I was getting worried."
"Iím sorry Aunt Cindy. I didnít realize how dark it was getting. But I was fine, Iíll keep a closer eye in the future."
"Well, Iím just glad youíre okay."
"Sheís fine, Cindy, you heard her. After she meets some people her own age, she wonít have to worry about being out alone." Cindy shot her husband an angry look; Dana wasnít old enough to date in her mind, only fifteen. She didnít need to be hanging out with people her own age.
Dana decided to retreat to her room. Fox had been right, it was a good thing sheíd kept her mouth closed.
The pool could have been fun. There were a lot of kids her age here, but she had to keep an eye on the little kids. This was going to be a long summer.
"Dana, that manís looking at you." Jennifer pulled at Danaís arm.
"What? Where?" She turned and spotted Fox standing at the side of the pool, and smiled. Heíd obviously been swimming laps. She glanced down at the tiny racing suit he was wearing and wondered at the knot that suddenly appeared in her stomach. She refused to let the smile waver and he was coming over! It was like he was drawn to her and now he had a small smile on his face.
"Hi." She realized she was feeling shy, not at all her normal self. What was it about him?
Jennifer was now hiding behind her but Tim was pulling on her leg. "Who? Who?"
"Fox, Iíd like you to meet my cousins. This is Jennifer, sheís five and these are the twins, Tim and Kim, theyíre almost three."
"Pleased to meet you." He solemnly held out his hand to shake Jenniferís, then Timís and finally Kimís hands. Jennifer blushed and giggled, but the twins were fascinated that this man had spoken to them. He sat down on his towel with them and let the twins climb on him for awhile until they got bored and decided to go back into the kiddie pool.
"Thanks. I think Iím getting boring."
"No problem. Thatís a lot of kids to be watching. You like kids a lot?"
"Not as much as I used to." She admitted ruefully and he smiled again. He had a beautiful smile, but most of the time sheíd seen him he looked kind of sad.
"Youíre getting some sun." He pointed to her nose.
"Damn. If you ever see a redhead with a tan, just know the hair came from a bottle." She reached for the sunscreen again. It was better when she watched the kids as they talked, some of the red in her face was from that bathing suit and she knew it, she just hoped he didnít.
"Uh, Dana? I think Kim needs you." She looked over to see Kim holding herself, almost jumping up and down.
"Oh great." She muttered, "Kim, do you need to go potty?" Kim nodded enthusiastically. Dana looked at the other kids, sheíd need to round them up and take them along.
"Iíll be here. I can keep an eye on the other two, if you want."
"Oh that would be great. I havenít figured out all the logistics of this job yet."
"You better hurry." She nodded and took Kimís hand, hurrying her toward the bathhouse.
They made it in time and she redressed the little girl. Coming out of the bathhouse she was struck by the fact that so many people were watching Fox and the kids. Had anything happened? All the mothers had their eye on him. She hurried over; "Did they give you any trouble?"
"No, they were fine."
He had to have noticed the looks he was getting. What was going on? She wasnít comfortable asking, so she decided to shrug it off. The kids were fine and Kim hadnít wet her pants, break it down to the essentials Dana.
He was standing, gathering his towel. "Guess I better be going." She felt a stab of disappointment, which she quickly dismissed. He was older; he wouldnít be interested in her. He was just being friendly.
"It was good seeing you again. Maybe weíll run into each other here again."
"Yeah, I swim Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays here." He seemed reluctant to leave, maybe. . . forget it Dana, youíre not Melissa.
"Sounds like a good schedule. Weíre going to the library tomorrow morning. They have the storyteller every Wednesday morning."
He smiled with just that hint of sadness. "Well, have fun. Bye guys, hope I see you here again." Jenny dipped her head, but Tim waved and at the last minute Kim ran over and hugged his legs. He looked stunned, but managed to put his hand on her head. "Thanks, Sweetie. See you later."
He turned then and was gone. Why had the babyís hug undone him so? What was the story here? There had to be one.
She had everyone settled at the library. Even Tim was paying attention, at least for the moment. He did like being read to, but he liked running around even more if it took too long. Dana took a seat at the little yellow table behind the crowd and to the side. They could see her if they needed her and she could let her thoughts drift a little.
She looked up and up to see Fox standing beside her. She felt an instantaneous surge of pure pleasure. He had come to see her. The pool was just a coincidence, theyíd run into each other by accident. But he had known she was coming here and when. He had come to see her.
"Hi. Iíd offer you a seat, but I donít think you could fit into it."
He smiled, "I think youíre right. Do you have to stay right here?"
"No, just in the library."
"Think we could sit in some adult chairs, while weíre waiting for them?"
"Yeah, I think thatís possible." She got Jennyís attention and motioned that she would be at another table. Jenny nodded, smiled shyly at Fox and turned back to the story.
"A big fan of Beatrice Potter?"
"Me? I can take her or leave her." She grinned
"What do you like to read?"
"Mostly biographies, but lately I found some thrillers that were kind of good."
"Robin Cook, I like his medical thrillers and his research. Havenít read many others."
"Any science fiction?"
"Never tried any, you like it?"
"Yeah, I bet you could get into the Foundation Trilogy by Asimov. Itís a classic." She smiled again, she couldnít help it when she was with him and he was excited about this. She would be reading Asimov before the day was over.
He was easy to talk to, and he really seemed interested in talking to her and listening to her as well. She decided not to care that he was older and could be with friends his own age, just to enjoy his company which was wonderful.
She couldnít believe it when the kids ran up to them. Had it really been an hour? It felt like just minutes since theyíd sat down.
"Park, Dana! Park!" Tim had hold of her leg.
"Guess where I promised weíd go after story time."
Fox smiled at the kids jumping around them now. "Could you use any help?"
"Iíd love some, if youíre not busy." He rose and only hesitated a moment when Kim raised her arms to be lifted by him. They piled the kids in the stroller, got Jenny on her bike with the training wheels and headed for the park.
For the first time since sheíd arrived, Dana hated to take the kids home for their nap, but it was obvious they needed one. They had played their hardest and were already drooping and hadnít even had lunch.
It had become almost habit for Fox to show up wherever she and the kids were playing each morning, the pool, the library, or the park. The kids had become used to his presence and enjoyed playing with him and of course Dana was more than thrilled that this man was interested in her.
She saw Fox wince as Tim climbed up on him. "Are you okay?" She sent the kids over to the sandbox to play.
"Yeah, Iím fine." He wouldnít look her in the eye.
"Fox, what happened? Did you hurt yourself?" He wasnít fine, and he was leaving his shirt on. He never did that when they were outside.
"Let me see." She reached for his t-shirt, and he caught her hand. She blushed as she realized what she was doing. She couldnít treat him like one of the kids and she certainly had no business trying to take his shirt off. He was watching her, following her thought processes exactly.
He exhaled and tugged his shirt off. She gasped. Heíd obviously been beaten. She couldnít stop herself from reaching out. He backed away. "Itís okay, Dana."
"Tell me what happened! Oh please, it wasnít those guys from the other night?"
"No. Those guys are cowards, donít worry. . . " He saw her eyes and closed his own. He finally took a deep breath. "My Dad got a little too drunk last night."
"Oh Fox." She reached out again. This time he didnít draw away. "Does this happen often?"
"Not as often as it used to. I think heís afraid I can take him now." Still that hint of defeat in his voice, he didnít think he could.
"Did you?" This was so far outside of her experience. Her father had never hit her, not even the boys. Their punishments were so trivial compared to this.
"Whatís the point? Iíll be leaving in a few weeks and weíll be out of each otherís hair, probably forever. Iím just ready to go, I donít need an assault charge on my record."
She wanted to say she was sorry, but he didnít want to hear that. "Iím really glad you came here today."
"Me too." He slipped his t-shirt back on and rose. He held out his hand to help her to her feet. She didnít let go when she was up, holding his hand as they walked over to the kids.
"Dana, I have some questions for you." Cindy stood over her; the kids had left the table. Well now sheíd find out why Cindy had been so pissed off all evening. "Is it true that you have been spending time with Fox Mulder?"
Dana glanced over at Uncle Charlie. He was surprised too, but seemed more annoyed at Cindy than her.
"Well, yes. I mean weíve run into him at the pool and the library. He went with us to the park." She wasnít about to mention that first meeting. "The kids really enjoy playing with him, and heís real good. . . "
"Youíve let the kids be around him?!" Her voice had risen at least an octave. "Charles!"
"Now calm down, Cindy. The kids are fine; Danaís obviously been very good with them.
"I donít want that boy around my children."
Dana looked over at Charlie, her brow furrowed. What was Aunt Cindy so upset about? Charlie looked at her sympathetically. "Dana. . . " He began.
"You will not have anything to do with that boy, Dana! I donít want him around you or the children. Do you hear me?"
"But why!" Dana finally found her voice. "What do you think heís done?"
"He murdered his sister! They never even found the body!"
Dana gasped and turned to Charlie. It couldnít be true. Thatís why everyone had been staring at him at the pool. Oh god, and sheíd put him in that position by helping her out.
"Cindy! Get a grip. He was never charged, no one knows what happened to that little girl."
"Everyone says. . . "
"Everyone doesnít know. There was no evidence. . . "
"His fingerprints were on his fatherís gun!"
"Which hadnít been fired. Enough Cindy! Drop this." He caught sight of Danaís strained face. Cindy shoved back her chair and stalked from the room.
"Uncle Charlie, please. Fox has never done anything. . . Did they investigate his father? I mean he beats Fox, maybe he. . . "
"How did you hear about that?" He hadnít been aware there was actual physical abuse. It made him ache inside for this boy he had never given much thought to previously.
"I saw what he did to Fox. And Fox didnít fight back, he just took it. He wouldnít hurt anyone."
"Let me talk to your aunt. Donít make any changes yet. Youíre doing a great job with the kids. Cindyís just nervous." Dana was really getting tired of that excuse.
After she had cleaned the kitchen, since Cindy had not returned, Dana went out to the backyard and sat at the picnic table. The moon was only a sliver tonight and the stars were out, but she really didnít see them. Why would anyone think such things about Fox? He was the most sensitive, intelligent man she had ever met. There was no way he could have done anything to harm his sister. These people hadnít seen him with the kids, hadnít seen him put himself in possible danger to protect her when he didnít even know her.
She didnít hear him approach, but felt his presence as he stood watching her.
"Dana are you okay?" She looked over and saw him, worried about her without even knowing why. She stood and they walked over to the sandbox, at the far end of the yard, near the fence. In the growing darkness they couldnít be seen.
"Iím fine, I. . . Aunt Cindy found out Iíve been seeing you, and. . . " She watched Foxís expression go carefully passive. No hurt would show through that face.
"Fox, talk to me. Please tell me what happened to your sister."
He rose abruptly and she scrambled to her feet, her hand on his arm. "Please donít go. I want to help."
"Sheís not going to let you spend any time with me, so it doesnít matter."
"It matters to me. And I will see you. Uncle Charlie is working on her for me. Please Fox."
He slumped back down on the grass. "I donít know what happened to my sister. I just donít know."
"Tell me what you do know. Let me help."
"No one can help. Itís why Iím so anxious to leave this place. Go where no one knows me. No one thinks I killed. . . "
"Fox." She took his hand, "I know you didnít hurt your sister."
"How could you know, I donít even know."
"You couldnít. You just couldnít. Talk to me."
"She was my responsibility. I was in charge that night. Our parents were next door at the neighbors. The power went out and she screamed. I woke up in the hospital two weeks later."
"Hospital? Were you hurt?"
"I donít know. The doctors said whatever happened was so horrible I blocked it out. Nobodyís going to change your auntís mind about me. You shouldnít even be out here."
"I wouldnít be for anyone else."
He didnít have an answer for that; he couldnít even form a response.
"How long ago was this?"
"And you canít remember anything?"
"Sometimes, at night, I dream about it. Thereís something there, but it doesnít seem human and I see her floating, but I canít move. I wake up with my heart pounding, covered in sweat. I donít know if I still cry out. No one comes if I do."
"I would." Heíd been looking at the ground during his recitation, now he looked up at her startled. "Iíd come, if you needed me." She had her hand on his arm.
"I know you would." He whispered it. He was staring into her eyes; the intensity was almost frightening Ė would have been with anyone else. He made himself look away. "I better get home." He rose and pulled her up beside him. "Thank you, Dana. No oneís listened to me for a long time." He leaned down and brushed a quick kiss across her lips. "Let me know if you want to see me."
She nodded mutely. Her first kiss, and it had been perfect. Absolutely perfect.
Uncle Charlie had gone to bat for her and mowed down Aunt Cindyís objections to her seeing Fox. She had not taken it well, and treated Dana with even more distrust than she had before. This continued to puzzle Dana, why would a woman who felt that way about her want her watching her children? But Cindy took less and less time with the kids every day, declaring her nerves were on edge and she needed the quiet.
Dana found herself actually relieved when Uncle Charlie took her aside and told her that Cindy would be "going away" for a few days to rest and get herself together. Euphemisms Dana recognized immediately for what they were Ė Aunt Cindy needed the rest cure again. Leaving, of course, Uncle Charlie and now her, to handle everything until her nerves were better.