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The Caged Bird's Song

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Tommy holds the paper with the address up, comparing the numbers on it to those on the side of the building. Frowning, he sees that the tremors in his hands are still there. The little shakes and quakes that are his almost constant companions always come out to play when he even thinks about people being close enough to be in his space, close enough to touch him.

That’s one of the reasons that they told him he needed to see someone. Or a symptom or the reason, anyway. He can’t help it if his damn nerves get so twisted up in the pit of his belly that it starts trying to rock him apart. And it’s not that he’s afraid. It’s really fucking not. He just doesn’t trust anyone not to try and hurt him anymore. He’s been told that’s another sign he needs help.

Right now, all the people in all the cars going past are starting to make him twitch and jump. His mind is flying in twenty-seven directions at once, and he’s ready hide his fucking head in the sand, if there were any goddamn sand around.

But he’s surrounded by nothing but asphalt and concrete, exposed and vulnerable, with no place to hide. Why the hell did he think coming alone was a good idea, anyway? There might not be anyone to see his fear and judge him for it, but there’s no one to shield him from anything any of those people passing by in their cars might do, either. There’s no one safe to hide behind.

He doesn’t even have his own car to go back to. He hasn’t been able to drive since all the shit happened. He really doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to again. This is the first time he’s been outside since he got home from his forced hospital stay, and he’d called an Uber to take him where he needed to go. Getting in a car with a stranger was the hardest goddamn thing he’d done, but he knew it was a test. He’s just not sure he’d passed the damn thing or not. He’d sat in the backseat, earbuds in, more to block the sounds of the world than to listen to music, and his hands over his eyes. He hadn’t cared if he’d looked like a lunatic to the driver. The guy got paid not to question shit like that, didn’t he?

Tommy knows this next step is a test, too. Maybe one of many, but one he has to pass to keep whatever life he has now. People have been saying things, hinting at things, telling him that he has to find a way to work this shit out. Even though they try to make it sound like they’re worried about him and it’s for his own good, he knows if he can’t get it together on his own, they’ll sure as shit put him away somewhere where he won’t be a constant reminder to them that his life is fucked beyond repair.

Right now, the choice is simple. Push that little button next to the door, trusting that the person who answers it will be able to help him in some way, or let the people who are supposed to fucking care about him hide him so deep in an institution that he’ll never be seen again. But simple doesn’t equal easy, at least not in Tommy’s mind. He’s a little short on belief in basic human goodness and hope just now.

Turns out that it’s not even his choice, not that much is these days. While he’s still mentally berating himself for being too much of a chickenshit wussy to even reach out and push the damn doorbell, the door opens, and Tommy sees a man so immaculately dressed that the only word that comes to his mind is dapper.

“Mr. Ratliff, I presume. I’m Dr. Lecter. Won’t you come in?”

The voice matches the look, Tommy has to admit - cultured and accented in a way that he can’t quite place, but it feels like European dignity. He doesn’t think his thoughts would make much sense if he tried to put them into words, but he doesn’t really care. His whole life quit making much sense when he was put in a cage.

Tommy thinks that the polite thing to do - the normal thing - would be to answer the man somehow. Maybe nod or offer his hand to shake in the age-old male greeting ritual. He can’t seem to force himself to do either, and as the seconds tick by, he can feel this man, this doctor, inwardly judging him for it, even as he projects outwardly that it’s perfectly natural behavior.

Tommy’s reaction is complicated. On one hand, he’s relieved as hell that he’s not being called out for his behavior; on the other hand, he’s glad the problem was noted and not ignored. He can respect this way of handling the situation, and he can even feel the tiniest of bonds forming. It’s just a hint, really, and if he’s honest, maybe even a little bit of trust is starting to grow again.

Opening a door that Tommy hadn’t noticed before and gesturing him inside, Dr. Lecter tells him, “I have something in the kitchen that requires my attention. You can make yourself comfortable in my office, and I’ll be with you momentarily.”

When he’s alone in the office, Tommy looks around and counts off the possible seating arrangements. There’s a desk on one side, with severe office-type chairs facing it. There’s a grouping of four more comfortable looking chairs arranged in an arc with a low table in the middle. There are two huge wingback chairs facing each other in a corner. And then there’s the traditional shrink’s couch, with a chair near one end. He knows picking a place to sit is just another fucking test. He also knows that he’s goddamn likely to fail it.

Not wanting to make the wrong decision, Tommy makes no decision. Instead of choosing a place to sit, he wanders around the room, looking at books without actually seeing them, absently letting his finger run along the edges of shelves, picking up framed photos and putting them back down. Somehow, along the way, he bumps the wrong thing or some shit, because music fills the room. It’s way too orchestrated and classical for him, but there’s something there, right under the surface, that he can’t quite put his finger on. It feels familiar.

His heart races, and he almost jumps right out of his skin when he hears Dr. Lecter’s voice right behind him asking, “Do you find it pleasing? It’s Nonet by Rudolf Karel. It was composed while he was in Prague's Pankrac prison. I’ve always been fascinated by the human mind’s ability to rise above horrific surroundings to create something of beauty.”

Tommy’s heart is nowhere close to back to a normal rhythm. He can feel it pounding so hard, it feels like it’s going to bust a rib, but he tries his damnedest not to let the doctor know how shaken up he is over letting someone sneak up on him. He can’t look the other man in the eye, and he doesn’t think his voice is much above a mumble when he answers. “It’s not my thing. I’m not into that kind of music. Sorry, man.”

“No need to apologize. I enjoy it for its ability to weave all the individual instruments and emotions into one cohesive piece. It is, however, from World War Two, and it’s over seventy years old. I read in your file that you’re a composer of modern music, but some things have a timeless undercurrent. There’s a sense of searching in this that I’ve heard in your own music, but this has a feeling of ecstasy, despite, or possibly because of, the desolation of the composer’s situation. Perhaps we should leave this on while we talk. It may help you to see your recent experiences in a different light. Please, take a seat.”

It’s only after Dr. Lecter motions to it that Tommy realizes that he hadn’t even noticed this seating arrangement before. There are two chairs, facing each other. They’re low and modern, and look like they were designed for just this purpose. When Tommy sits down, he’s not really surprised that the chair, in all its simplicity, somehow makes him feel cocooned and protected. He thinks that’s probably the very reason it’s here. Not much in this room seems to be as random as it appears on the surface.

The doctor doesn’t waste any time on small talk or false pleasantries, and Tommy’s grateful for that. “The police have asked me to help you work through your recent experiences, to perhaps find clues hidden in your mind as to who the perpetrator was. I understand you never saw his face or heard his actual voice, correct?”

Tommy’s not ready for the avalanche of images and impressions that particular question brings with it. No, he never saw his captor’s face, not when he was taken, and not while he was held. He’d been walking back to his car after a late session. Someone must have come up behind him. That’s the only explanation that could make sense. He’s not exactly clear on shit, though. They found drugs, mostly sedatives, in his system when he was found (He hates the word rescued. Every damn time he hears it in relation to himself, he feels like some helpless damsel in distress, or some shit.) and taken to the hospital. All he thinks he really remembers is a hand over his mouth and someone dragging him back into the alley he’d been passing.

He tells the Doctor that he’d tried to fight. He thinks he must have, at least. But the way this Lecter guy is looking at him, with one eyebrow raised like he doesn’t fucking believe Tommy, he’s not so positive anymore. All those drugs still have his mind and his memories of that time so damned fucked up that he can’t be sure of anything. Tommy’s just about to ask the Doctor if he thought Tommy had fought, when he catches himself. That would be a damn stupid thing to ask. How the hell would the Doctor know anything, when the only two people who have any right to know anything are him and whoever had taken him.

Whatever. He just wants to get through this, tell this shrink his disjointed story, see if he can remember any details, and get his family and friends off his goddamn back. He’s not here to win any kind of approval from this doctor.

Doctor Lecter looks at him with his expressionless face, and Tommy can feel all the lies it hides. The edges of the facade are there, if he looks hard enough. Tommy knows that if it were peeled back, there would be an intensity hiding behind the public expression. Something strong and maybe dark coiled behind those icy eyes. It isn’t like a snake, exactly, but that’s as close as Tommy’s mind can pin it down.

“Did your captor display any mannerisms that stand out in your mind?” the doctor asks in that flat voice that Tommy thinks all shrinks must use. It’s like keeping the inflection out of his voice will make Tommy feel like this was all just some normal Thursday shit that he’s being asked to remember and not the start of a nightmare that went on for more than a week.

That’s how long he was held. Nine days. Not quite a week and a half, but long enough to completely rip his whole damn life apart. It was long enough for him to see others come and go. There were four cages, total, and they were rarely ever empty. He’d tried talking to the others at first, but those that were there ahead of him didn’t seem to want to have a conversation. Especially when they knew HE was coming.

That’s how they kept track of time passing. The one sure thing in their limited new world of the cage was that their captor was almost slavelike in his devotion to structure and schedule. The lights went on at exactly six-thirty every morning. The overhead hoses that served as both showers and a source of fresh water were turned on from six forty-five until seven. Their captor brought in food at seven-thirty, two pm and seven forty-five. If he took anyone from the cages, it was at precisely nine o’clock at night. The lights went off at ten, and then the whole thing started again.

For some fucked up reason Tommy still hasn’t been able to figure out, meals were elaborate - almost formal, or as close to it as the situation would allow. Food was always served on china, with genuine silver utensils. Music always played during meals, the same type of music that was playing now. Maybe that’s why he’s fixating on it, he thinks. He can almost smell the dank, musty, cellar smell that took over his senses while he was being held.

All he tells Dr. Lecter is, “He was kinda compulsive, I guess. Rigid, like.”

Tommy doesn’t think he imagines the ghost of a frown that crosses the doctor’s face, but it’s gone too quickly for him to be sure.

Tommy knows he’s not imagining the tiny bit of ice that mingles with the doctor’s detached tone when he asks, “What do you remember of your surroundings and how you and your captor interacted with them?”

Tommy thinks back to his first night in captivity It was the first time he’d seen someone taken out of the cages. The captor had come in an hour later and fastidiously cleaned the cell. Tommy had assumed from the smell and damp feeling in the air that they were in a basement, but extra lights had been brought in so that no corner or crevice was spared. Every surface had been sprayed and scrubbed and swept. With the cleaning finished, the man had brought in a fresh mattress pad for the cot and new sheets. When he was done, the man in the mask and plastic suit - the same thing he always wore when he was around them, almost like he was more interested in keeping himself from touching any part of them than he was in protecting his identity - had set about making sure the cell was ready for the next occupant. A notebook and pencil were set out on the the desk that matched the desks in the other cells. Tommy thought they were in the exact same position as the ones in his room were when he’d first woken up. A bowl and pitcher for water are placed on the shelf built into the wall right next to the bed, just like it is in Tommy’s cell. The cover for the hole in the floor that they’re supposed to use for a toilet is checked to make sure it pivots while still being firmly attached to the concrete floor.

The whole cleaning and freshening takes less than half an hour, and all the while their captor hums tunelessly, tapping his fingers to the rhythm in his head. That’s what Tommy has nightmares about now. Not so much about the time in the cage. Not even about what happened to those who were taken out and never brought back. It’s the dead sound of that humming and tapping that visit him when everything around him is dark and quiet.

“He was detached,” Tommy tells the doctor. “It was almost like he couldn’t really feel, like he wasn’t really alive or some shit. Everything was muted. They told me he was drugging us the whole time we were there. It must have been in the food or something, but no one ever refused to eat. The food was the only part of the day that felt real. Whoever he is, he’s a hell of a chef. Whatever, no one ever fought when he came to take them away. They all just followed him.”

“Very good, Mr. Ratliff. The more you fill in, the more I can help you see a clear picture of who he is.”

Tommy had almost missed the creases that had formed between Dr. Lecter’s brows, but he’d caught a glimpse of them. He thinks it’s probably because he’s doing a shit job of actually telling the guy anything worth the time they’re spending here, and besides, the Doctor had seemed to pick up by the time he’d finished talking. That ‘Mr. Ratliff’ shit had to stop, though. “It’s Tommy. I don’t feel up to being Mr. Ratliff right now.”

“As you wish, Tommy. Perhaps you can tell me what feelings this sense of detachment on the part of your captor invoked. How did you react to it?”

Thinking back, Tommy remembers the edge of rage and indignation of that first day. It was only the smallest edge, though. He’d wondered about that at the time, but now he knows it was the drugs they’d been given. At least, he hopes to hell it was the drugs. By that night, when the man in the cage next to his had been led away, Tommy hadn’t been able to mount much of a protest over it. He’d stood there, holding the bars of his cell, asking what was going on, where the man was being taken. Their captor had been more robotic than ever as he’d taken the passive man out of the room they were in. It’d all had a fucked up sense of inevitability to it, like it was destined to happen, so why fight. When the man hadn’t been returned that night, when their captor had come in to do his cleaning ritual instead, that had felt somehow right, too.

“It made me feel lacking,” Tommy tells Dr. Lecter. “It made me feel like he was looking for something that we didn’t have to give him. It made all of us feel like it was our own fault that the ones who left never came back.”

“This feeling of inadequacy, did you feel like he was trying to mold you into what he did need? Did you ever feel like he was trying to make you more than you were?” Dr. Lecter asks, and Tommy notices that the Doctor has stopped writing in his notebook. Instead, his hand holding the pen is starting to tap out a rhythm on the book, and it’s a rhythm that Tommy thinks he should know. Something in that beat is messing with Tommy’s brain in ways he can’t face right now, so he concentrates on the question instead.

“He took me out of the cage once, after the first five days. I was the only one who left and came back. He took me into another room. I didn’t fight him. I didn’t have a lot of energy to fight, but it was more than that. I wanted to go with him, to do whatever it took to help him find what he needed.”

The next part is still a little cloudy in Tommy’s mind. It’s fucked in ways he can’t quite grasp, and he’s not sure exactly how much is real and how much is due to the drugs. He tells Lecter how he’d been led into a room with a sink and a tub, and not much else. There were candles for light, and he thinks the water had some kind of scented oil - roses, maybe, or at least that’s what his mind is trying to say. It was light and barely there, but it felt right and relaxing.

He knows he didn’t resist when his captor took off his clothes. He’d had them on for so long, and he thought the smell must be damn offensive. He didn’t fight at all when he was helped into the tub or when he was washed. He tries his best to explain how good it felt to be touched again. How important he felt when his captor took off his gloves to bathe him. How gentle and thorough he was. And when he was clean, those strong, sure hands had picked up a straight razor.

Tommy had never even seen one outside of a barber shop. He didn’t flinch, though. He knew that his captor could decide to end his life with one stroke, but if that was his decision, there was no use fighting.

He’d let himself be shaved all over. The only hair he’d kept was on the top of his head. He’d hoped it was the drugs that made him feel that it was a perfectly acceptable thing to happen, but now he’s not so sure about that. He just knows, and he tries his damnedest to tell Dr. Lecter, that he knew he was a puppet then, and his captor had control of the strings.

Doctor Lecter asks him, “Did you mind that? Was it unacceptable to you to give absolute control of your life to someone else? Or was it something that felt natural for you? Did you enjoy it?”

Tommy knows what he should say, what he thinks he wants to say, how fucking much society demands that he say that he wasn’t even one damn bit okay with what happened, but he’s not exactly sure anymore if that would be the truth. His world and his truth and even his fucking reality have all been turned upside down and inside out. There’s nothing left but a kaleidoscope of wants and needs with no colligation. He doesn’t have one clue how his entire life has come undone in such a short time, but Lecter has been pulling the threads that held him together, and now he’s frayed and unraveled. He realizes that he doesn’t really have an answer to that question about the same time he realizes that the Doctor is humming tunelessly and tapping his fingers against Tommy’s shoulder in the rhythm of what he now recognizes as Nonet by Rudolf Karel, the same thing he’d hummed when he cleaned the cages.

This time Tommy doesn’t fight at all when he feels the tiniest prick of a needle in his neck. He just welcomes the familiarity of the floating and the knowledge that someone else is in control of his life.