Echoes in an Empty House
by rac / April 2000

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Echoes in an Empty House
by rac

        "One aged man--one man--can't fill a house."
                       An Old Man's Winter Night by Robert Frost

It was an irony of the highest degree. The longer he sat at the bar, the more deeply the truth of it etched itself upon him: Sometimes, the loneliest moments happen when surrounded by the most people.

He wasn't completely stupid. It was a different bar, a different crowd. He harbored no desire for a repeat of the last time, when a combination of sadness, grief, loneliness and fear made him vulnerable to his enemies. Here, there were no well-dressed civil servants crowding into the interior, men and women on the make at a white-collar version of the Friday night meat market. No chance of getting picked up at this place by large, empathetic, knowing eyes, by lush skin smelling of Dior and woman.

In this place, a tv hung over the bar, the night's basketball game between the eastern semi-finalists blaring out over the boisterous arguments of those watching. The bar's patrons were mostly middle-aged, blue-collar workers clad in jeans and work boots, rough work coats still on over flannel shirts and worn tees. Skinner could just as easily have gone home, cracked the seal on the bottle of Glenfiddich 18-year-old Ancient Reserve that was sitting in his liquor cabinet and had a drink at home, for considerably less money. But there was something about that scenario, sitting home alone drinking, that Skinner couldn't bring himself to do. Something about being alone right now that had him automatically arranging his life to avoid it.

The silence and empty spaces of his house echoed his singular starkness, driving home his own solitary state. Sterile white walls and rooms, purposefully barren of the accumulated clutter of a lifetime of memories. He'd successfully avoided unpacking for months. Instead, he'd kept his life and himself boxed up, safe and away from sight. Tightly constricted and under control. So tightly under control, life had risen up in revolt and shaken him awake with the crises of the past months. Made him look at the things he'd put away. Hit him hard with the feelings he'd worked hard at avoiding.

He'd had enough of staring at his reflection in the silent mirrors of his house. There was something comforting, a purely unarticulated feeling, in being surrounded by the normal, the mundane, the everyday chatter of other live, breathing human beings. At work, he was surrounded daily, but there, he had an appearance to maintain, authority to assert, a set role to play.

Here, in the slightly seedy, under-lit interior of the neighborhood bar, he was anonymous. They had no clue about the tumult taking place under his stoic exterior, no clue of the ravaged sense of homelessness that clawed at him at odd moments when he wasn't keeping himself occupied. No clue about the secrets which were locked inside him, the weight of them like leaden chains wrapped around his limbs.

They saw only a middle-aged man in worn jeans, dark sweater, boots and a beat-up leather jacket. He always tipped well and spoke with gruff politeness to the staff. He rarely smiled, but he listened well, and his occasional comments concerning the game or politics, or whatever else the boys were hashing around over their beers, were pithy and sharp, and every now and then, they were terribly funny once the crowd let the words sink in. They knew he wasn't exactly one of them--his skin wasn't weathered and lined from working outdoors and his hands were too clean and too well manicured to be used roughly on a daily basis--but they couldn't have said exactly what he _was_, and in the end, the difference didn't matter because he was quiet and unassuming and he fit in by default.

His phone did ring at home; he wasn't without his friends and resources. But somehow, in the aftermath of the fiasco of getting arrested for murder, then his wife's injury and subsequent death--her murder--there were few eyes he looked into that brought him any peace. Either the people he knew were uncomfortable with what they saw in his, or he was unable to handle what he read in their eyes. So he kept the answering machine on full-time and got into the habit of screening all calls, rarely, if ever, returning any.

It was a spare life, painfully quiet and rote. But he never thought of it like that; he only did what he knew he had to do, to get through each day. An old soldier, soldiering on. Not looking back, for fear of crystallizing like Lot's wife in an attachment to the past. Yet even so, unable to shake the past and move forward, unencumbered by its clutches. He was stuck, stuck in an infinite loop, unable to move past his own coping mechanisms.

Work, home, the bar. The gym. He endured the all too frequent social obligations his position at work necessitated, social events where politics and back room deals were the norm over dim sum and cocktails. Where power lines were drawn and redrawn, a human chessboard of players in the game. The power lines had withdrawn from him; he now stood alone, a pariah underneath the surface chatter. Like animals everywhere, the others sensed when one of their kind had been singled out, cut from the pack by predators bent on feeding. And they'd let him go, a sacrifice to the continued well-being of the pack. The law of the jungle. Survive at all costs.

He may have been knocked back; they may only think him a pawn in the game they played, but there existed within him still a spark of bright anger which refused to give in. Refused to let the bastards win. He'd not abdicated all of himself. He might taste the humiliation they'd dished out to him, bitter and sharp in his mouth; but he also could feel the heat of anger, however much it was buried inside under the layers of ice that coated his surface.

That spark of flame was nurtured by each look and every interaction with his peers and superiors. They saw only a dead man walking, saw only the ice and the lack of nurturing power lines connecting him to the group. But they didn't see inside.

And as long as the fire burned, however small, it generated heat.

Heat melts ice.

Combustion is its own power.


The TV over the bar was loud, competing with the cacophony of voices from the patrons. It was early yet in the baseball season, still only spring, as the pennant contenders jockeyed for an early advantage by gaining distance far ahead of the pack. Boston and Baltimore were battling it out at Camden Yards, the misty, rainy-drizzly, cool weather forcing the crowd to sport their umbrellas and rain gear. Bottom of the third, Baltimore down 1-0, and the umps had not yet called the game. The bets were flying fast and loud over drafts at the bar and the tables.

Skinner listened to the argument going on full-bore in the group at the end of the bar. They were regulars, men who liked nothing more than to yell and make fun of each other, calling each other obscene names and laughing long and loud in the process. Their camaraderie grounded him; his occasional inclusions into their circle reminded him of his days in the Corps. Reminded him of his basic humanity.

He reached for another peanut, cracking it open and discarding the shell on the small but growing pile near his beer mug. Sweat from the glass trickled down and accumulated on the scarred wood, dampening the shells. Odd how he'd never before really liked peanuts, but for some reason, they tasted good here; salt and tart earthiness crunching between his teeth, followed by the cool, bitter tang of hops sliding down his throat. Crack, crunch, crack, crunch.

"...and it's a ground ball to second base, sharp off the end of Belle's bat. Offerman can't get to it, looks like he's fumbling in the water. Surhoff rounds third, there's the throw in...and he's safe! Baltimore ties it up at 1 all in the bottom of the third!"

"Oh, baby! That's my boy!" The bar had erupted in cheers as the ball scooted out of the infield, and they went wild when Surhoff crossed the plate. Speculation ran heavy; with one out and a man on first, Harold Baines, the Orioles' designated hitter, was up. What would Boston's manager do?

Somebody slid into the empty stool next to Skinner at the bar. He felt him brush past, felt his body heat and heard the slight squeak of the vinyl-covered stool as he sat down while Skinner kept his eye on the television.

"So, do you think they've got half a chance this year?" The familiar, distinct voice came from next to Skinner.

He swiveled his head and took in the sight: damp, dark hair, mussed from the weather; black leather jacket open and glistening with rain, tight jeans and a white tee-shirt underneath. Smoky eyes lazy as he reached for a peanut from the bowl by Skinner's elbow.

"They haven't had much luck in the past three weeks. Lots of strike-outs," he continued. There was a crack as the peanut split, and Mulder popped it into his mouth.

Skinner frowned. Actually, the Orioles had done very well the past few weeks, tying with Boston for first place, battling for position in this weekend's series. Sliding his eyes sideways, he caught Mulder's intense look--and immediately, he understood.

The bartender ambled down the bar from where he'd been watching the game. "What'll it be?"

"Draft is fine."

Skinner drained his glass, scooting it up to the edge of the bar. "Another here, Johnny."

"Sure thing." That glass and another were scooped up and held at an angle under the taps as Johnny built two glasses with perfect heads.

"Thanks." Mulder took his and took a long swallow.

Skinner drained nearly a third of the glass in one gulp, his eyes back on the game.

Mulder persisted. "So, seriously, what do you think? If you were a betting man, what would you bet?"

Skinner placed his glass back in the pool of water precisely where it sat before, twisting it around in circles. "Persistence is a key factor. Persistence and talent together are hard to beat. Do they have what it takes?" Skinner shrugged. "I don't know. Hard to say, it's too early."

The bar erupted as Baines hit a hard line drive to left field, then groaned when it fell neatly into Oleary's glove. Two out.

"I thought you weren't hungry tonight, that you wanted to go home and catch up on some personal things."

Skinner continued to ignore him, his jaw working as he looked between his glass on the bar and the tv.

"You weren't hungry last week, either."

That split open the silence. "Mulder--"

"And you weren't hungry the week before that. A guy could get a complex, asking three times to go out for some beer and pizza, shoot the breeze, get away from the crap at work, and he get excuses for an answer each time." Mulder stole another peanut.

"Now, it can't be because you're not a beer and pizza kind of guy," Mulder turned around on the stool and leaned back against the bar, looking pointedly around the room. "And I know it's not because you want to live 24 hours a day at work, fun place that it's become."

Skinner looked up, mouth open, ready to recite the facts of life as they pertained to Assistant Directors and the Special Agents under their aegis when Mulder burned him with a look.

"And don't hand me the party line on fraternizing with subordinates. This isn't the damned military, thank God. They can't court martial you."

"No, but they can do just about everything else in the book." Skinner was surprised at the bitter sound of his own words.

Mulder turned on his seat and leaned in, facing Skinner now. "Yeah. And they have. They've tried. And we're still here. Still alive. Our names are still on the office doors."

Skinner looked up and saw a nasty grin spread on Mulder's face.

"Fuck 'em, sir. Just...fuck 'em. I've taken a pretty fatalistic approach to it all recently. If the bastards haven't stopped us yet, then maybe it's just not in the cards." A dark cloud passed over his face. "And I refuse to give up any more of my life to them than they've already claimed."

Skinner thought of his empty house, his empty life. The only thing they hadn't successfully claimed from him was his job, a miracle indeed.

"So...I haven't eaten yet. The Thai place down the block has great pad thai. How 'bout it?"

Skinner thought about it for a moment, then drained his glass of beer. He pushed back from the bar and settled the leather around his shoulders against the weather. "Let's go." He flung a twenty on the bar for his tab before he turned and walked toward the door, not waiting to see if Mulder was coming.

The moisture in the air was thicker than mist, finer than rain: water hanging in the air and defying gravity. It gathered on his glasses as he walked down the street. Mulder's footsteps skidded up behind him, then settled into rhythm with his own as they walked the block downhill to the restaurant.

He felt a warmth, Mulder's hand closing around his arm. "You never did tell me if you thought the home team had half a chance." Mulder's voice echoed around him eerily in the air, warm and enclosing.

Skinner thought of the barren walls of his place, the echoes of silence that weighed him down. Thought about Mulder's voice echoing off those walls, filling in the spaces with vibrant life. Messily coloring in the bare pages of his life, running over the lines in bold strokes of blue, red and yellow. Chaotic, uneven.

But...alive. Warm. Bright.

He sighed, turning to look at Mulder through water-spotted lens. "Yeah, actually, I think they do. Put your money on the home team, Mulder. I think they just might have what it takes."

Mulder's expression reflected his surprise at Skinner's answer; it caught him off guard. One of his rare, full-blown smiles followed. The heat of it sparked Skinner's own hidden flame deep inside. As they reached the restaurant, Mulder pulled open the door, letting Skinner precede him inside, out of the weather.

The footsteps he left behind on the sidewalk were wet with water--ice water, slowly melting and merging with the spring's gentle rain.

~the end~

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