The room she was escorted to appeared almost empty at first glance, white-walled and echoing with her solitary steps as she made it past the threshold. It was impossible not to feel out of place in a room like that as a civilian. Something about the stark contrast between the blank nothingness and her vibrant burgundy coat, a color that had felt fairly muted in the world outside the BSHCI. Here, it made her otherness glaringly obvious. She could see it reflected in the thick glass wall separating her from the man she had come to see. Dressed in anonymous beige with his hair cut shorter than in the pictures circulating online, it took her a moment to assemble his features into something she might recognize.
“Good morning, Dr. Lecter.”
“Good morning. Ms. Boudreaux, I presume?”
“That’s right,” She took a step forward. Her hesitance was only apparent in the quivering steel of her eyes. “I was honestly surprised to hear you agreed to the interview.”
“You deliberately told me just enough to spark my curiosity,” There was mild amusement written on his face that did nothing to soothe her frayed nerves. His gaze held no malevolence, but it was the look of someone watching a child in the midst of a silly game. “Consider me informed and consenting. I have no time for formalities. What exactly is the topic of your research?”
“I’m writing a thesis about the evolving nature of your crimes,” She formed her mouth carefully around the words she’d memorized. “More specifically, the alterations to your MO after you joined forces with former special agent Will Graham. Post-fall, as it were.”
He tilted his head. “Much has already been said on the topic of those alterations. What do you intend to contribute to the conversation?”
She exhaled through her nose. “Many hesitate to explore the underlying themes of the murder tableaus you and Mr. Graham created, since those themes are potentially controversial. I don’t. I want to explore the angle of internalized homophobia as it is made evident in your crime scenes, when studied alongside what we know about you and the environments in which you spent your formative years.”
As she spoke, he went very still. She was unsettled by that too; the unnatural stillness that made her realize the extent to which his sparse yet deliberate micro expressions animated him.
“What are these environments you speak of?”
“Do you mind if I record this?” He signaled his approval and she fumbled with her equipment for a moment before hitting the record button. “You asked what environments I was referring to. Europe during the AIDS epidemic. The rural south, blue collar America. All fertile grounds for homophobic rhetoric.”
“I was never part of blue collar America.”
“Will Graham was. Did he ever talk about that?”
“No. Even before his attempted double suicide, Will did not like to linger in the past.”
She had heard him speak Will Graham’s name on countless occasions, but now that the smooth drone of his voice wasn’t a tinny recording filtered through busted speakers, she was struck by the sheer amount of affection he was able to pour into a single syllable. Will Graham’s name was spoken with something akin to homesickness.
“Has your thesis proposal truly been approved, Ms. Boudreaux? This sounds, for all intents and purposes, like an extension of tabloid journalism.”
“Do you object?”
A slight pause. “Not necessarily,” He gestured toward a chair in the middle of the room. “Ask what you came here to ask. I will let you know if I have any objections.”
She sat down, smoothing her hands over her thighs as if she was wearing a skirt. She wasn’t. She was wearing a pair of slacks she didn’t usually wear and worried that the way they rode up to expose her calves made her look somehow foolish. She couldn’t remember whether the color of her socks clashed with her coat. Being in his line of sight made such worries surface automatically.
“People always say that you respond best to politeness. I think that’s an oversimplification. My guess is that you’d prefer it if I was blunt rather than polite.”
“You can be polite while being blunt.”
“I can try,” She took her notes out of her bag. She’d more or less memorized those too, but the weight of them on her lap was calming. “My first question is a given. Was your relationship with Will Graham romantic?”
“Romantic,” The word was held against the roof of his mouth for a moment. “We were never inclined to label or categorize what we shared. It was intimate.”
“Is there a difference?”
“Your incompetence is flagrant. Obviously there is a difference. Sometimes we touched. Often, we did not. Regardless, it was intimate.”
“What was the nature of this touch? If you would humor me.”
He gave her a long look. “You should know that my memory is not what it once was. My information processing has become a finely woven sieve. Supposedly, I have an early onset of Alzheimer’s. They have been saying that for almost ten years. I usually have the mental presence required to keep myself moored. I don’t forget. I jumble.”
“Give me something jumbled.”
“The beat of his heart against my palm. The snow crust scratch of his voice next to my ear as his legs wrapped around my waist. Blood and semen and tears. All mine. His attraction to me was multifaceted and nothing if not complex. He could never sustain an erection with me. But we would kiss. On rare occasions, we had intercourse. All sorts of physical closeness was important; parts of me in parts of him, and vice versa. Do you understand?”
“Maybe. I don’t know. Touch can be affirming. The simplest form of affirmation there is.”
“No. No. Affirmation was never the point. It was a was a blurring of individuality, the act of physically merging. It would close the final distance between us when our minds were already connected. Do you understand?”
“Theoretically. I’ve only ever had casual sex.”
Something shifted behind his eyes. “Sexual intimacy without emotion is a debasement of everyone involved. An act verging on bestial.”
“Not bestial. Casual. Almost polite.”
He smiled faintly. “People have often likened me to an animal. I always found it amusing. Will reminded me more of an animal than anyone I’ve ever known.”
“I could never figure out whether the scale tipped in favor of design or instinct. He would pounce like something starving, with every bit of impersonal fury he could muster. Chest heaving, eyes that were all pupil. I would taste blood between his teeth and there was no telling where it came from. Him, me, someone else. Above all else, he acted on mindless drive. Transparent like an animal in intention.”
“With all due respect, that sounds like wishful thinking on your part, Dr. Lecter.”
“He was animal-like in that as well. The way he would adapt and evolve to suit my preferences. I did the same for him. I often tried to be what he thought I was.”
“But not what he wanted you to be?”
“Will never knew what he wanted. I forgave him for that early on. Eventually, he came to forgive himself as well.”
“For wanting an intimate relationship with you or for not wanting it enough?”
His eyes narrowed. “Will’s struggle with internalized homophobia rendered him unable to fully reciprocate. Is that what you meant to imply? That his desires were thwarted by self-loathing, born from the suffocating press of traditional values?”
She replayed the exchange in her head to pinpoint when and why his voice had sharpened with offense. All too late, she realized her mistake.
“I don’t wish to speak to someone who doesn’t listen to what I have to say, Ms. Boudreaux. You have a fixed idea of our involvement with each other and your questions have been prepared according to your assumptions. A tedious novice mistake.”
“I am listening. I am.”
“No. You aren’t. Your thesis is moronic. I don’t want what we shared to be contextualized. Context is irrelevant. Did you honestly think we were unable to move past such trivial notions after everything that transpired between us?”
For the first time since she walked into the room, she felt certain that she knew what the flicker behind his eyes meant. She recognized it from her reflection in the mirror, the vague yet palpable anger that arose from having been bereft. She didn’t soften her voice deliberately when she spoke, but found that a note of compassion bled into it anyway.
“I would understand it if that was the case. Are you a romantic, Dr. Lecter? You sound like a romantic.”
“I am opposed to searching for an explanation for that which defies explanation. With the right theoretical framework, any tangle of events can be arranged into something linear and logical. Fitting neatly into your little discourse. We do not fit there. Moreover, we do not belong there.”
“No,” He paused. “I will not be pitied for things that never were. We did what we could with what we had, and I would not change a thing. Everything mattered. Every cause and its subsequent effect. He gave me everything he had and I did the same.”
“I understand. I do. May I ask you something else?”
“No. You may not. I don’t wish to speak to you any longer, Ms. Boudreaux. I’m afraid you have overstayed your welcome.”
“I didn’t mean to step out of line. I promise. When did your relationship start to progress into the intimacy you talked about? I want to hear it from you. Please.”
When he didn’t answer, she sucked her lower lip into her mouth and deliberated quickly. Finally, she released a small breath. “Alright. Alright. I’ll leave. Thank you for seeing me, Dr. Lecter. I appreciate it. I’m sorry to have offended you.”
Just as she was putting her things away and slinging her bag over her shoulder to leave, he took as step closer, fixing her with that unnervingly attentive gaze.
“He resonated with me. Like the echo of blood and breath in a seashell. I made the conscious decision to perceive that echo as the sound of the ocean. Do you understand? That intimacy was always there, from the very beginning.”
“Sometimes an echo is just an echo.”
“But love is dependent on elevation of the prosaic,” He stepped back again. “I can no longer stand it. The sound of the ocean. When he was alive, it was my favorite sound. It is where we were born and where we could have died. I regret that the ocean did not take him. I should have drowned him there. I should have laid myself to rest beside him. Did they tell you what happened to the nurse that played the sound of the ocean on a white noise generator?”
“They told me. Should I get someone, Dr. Lecter?”
“I admit that was rather bestial of me. Though I was never what Will was. Don’t get anyone, it would not be to my benefit.”
“Then I won’t,” She decided to go out on a limb. “It’s been nearly five years since Will Graham’s execution. Right? It’s understandable that the upcoming anniversary of his death makes you miss him. That’s why you agreed to see me. You want to talk to someone about it.”
“Are you a romantic, Ms. Boudreaux? You sound like a romantic.”
“Takes one to know one,” She ventured a hesitant smile. It wasn’t mirrored in the even lines of his face, but his eyes softened ever so slightly. “Thank you for your time. I mean that. May I visit again? I won’t bring my notes, just my ambition. And my company. An arrangement like that could benefit the both of us, I think.”
“Thank you for your blunt politeness,” He looked just past her head, as if his gaze was drawn by something behind her. “Let me know in advance when you want to visit. My memory is not what it once was. I need to separate to refine. Sieving is time-consuming work.”
“I will. Thank you.”
As she walked down the long corridor, she thought about the look in his eyes as his gaze fixed on that spot beside her, just above her head. It reminded her of the flourish of violets in his voice as that single, delicate syllable rolled off his tongue. Absentmindedly, she considered the fact that Will Graham would have been almost exactly a head taller than her, if the information she had come across was correct.