“Do it rough,” Will grits out.
For a moment the hand holding his chin stills, the needle cold and sharp against the bloodied stubble before sinking into flesh. Will keeps his eyes shut through the procedure, his face turned to the darkened wall. It is near dawn somewhere in rural Pennsylvania. Through a high window, the sky peeks pitch black and moonless, suffused with tiny stars.
Dead light, Will thinks. The sky is little more than a graveyard of astral bodies and dead light.
There is pain and there is discomfort. Will focuses on the feel of his tattered clothes, damp and crusted with blood, half dried on the interstate drive. He focuses on the stars, the scratchy stucco wall, the smell of wet wood and dusty plaster, until all physical pain recedes into the roaring of water in his lungs.
“Do it rough,” he says again, minutes or maybe hours later, when the needle has moved into his collarbone. Neither of them speaks about the implications of that request nor the implications of abiding by it—not during the procedure nor after, not even when their clothes have been burned to cinders in a canister in the backyard.
Silence, Will thinks to himself, at last tucked under pink polka dot sheets, clad in pants too long and a shirt too narrow to comfortably fit. Silence is all that can keep us alive now.
His body itches with new stitches and exhaustion, the aftermath of misfired adrenaline, and for an instant Will believes he won’t be able to breathe again, let alone sleep. The hunting cabin is oppressively quiet, the bedroom menacing with its scattered stuffed animals and porcelain dolls. Will lies alone with the ghosts he made for himself, but more so with the ghosts of those who live still. Like the smiling family of three framed on the nightstand, whose bodies may come to keep their burnt clothes company under the big birch tree.
Will lets himself think of Molly then, and Winston, and Wally, and Francis, in that order precisely. There is a spark of something—of fear or of pride—that flares right before he tips over the edge of unconsciousness. And then all is truly dark and tarry, the feeling of being in the wrong skin deferred for a few more hours.
It is Fall in Western Pennsylvania, where all nature dies a slow, magnificent death. Will thinks that while standing on his own by the shallow stream that opens in front of the borrowed cabin. The thought is not fully his own, but it came into his mind fully formed nonetheless. He can hear dinner being cooked inside the cabin behind him, can see crows and large moths webbing around the golden trees.
The air smells rusty. It smells like blood and fireplaces, he thinks, mildly excited. It must be around Halloween now. Wally would be getting anxious about his costume, and Molly would spend a handful of late nights sewing and hot-gluing and dabbing fake blood. There would be half-eaten candy all over the countertops the day after. The blood would wash right off Wally’s sticky hands and he would laugh his high-pitched ghoulish laughter while the dogs tried to eat his crumbs. He would come out of slaughter vibrant and clean. Like Spring after Winter.
Will looks up at the stormy Pennsylvanian sky, where rain and river share the same iron grayness, the same promise of something tragic and glorious about to implode. He thought of wading in, kneeling down, waiting until there was no patch of skin left unsubmerged. To put rocks in his pockets. To drown in three feet of sweet water after having survived two hundred feet of oceanic roar. He shakes his head and the vision fades like smoke.
His mended shoulder aches, and so does his stomach when the smell of braised meat finds him. Some other hurt rattles in there too, a broader longing, an unnamed heaviness that if he did not know better he would call “grief.” But Will does know better.
With another glance at the stream, he starts walking back to the hunting cabin, just like he does every day for the past seven weeks—slowly, as if dragging his feet could delay, or even change, the inevitable conclusion of his trek.
Silence can make strangers of any cohabitants, Will knew and relied on this, if not for all of his life, then for the majority of those months holed up in the woods.
Routine matched with silence kept his skin in place, tighter but firmer around his brain. It lent him a sense of control he seldom found in the company of people.
Fishing with his borrowed rod in his borrowed waders by the shallow stream gives him a purpose, and purpose always gave Will a measure of control, a quasi-peace. That peace generally culminates with snapshots of his dogs, Molly, and Wally, running in the snow, raking leaves, sharing marshmallows on the porch. Stuff of catalogs and advertisements, stuff he isn’t sure has really happened to him but, like the photo on his borrowed nightstand, seem unequivocally happy and thus harmless. No monster lurking behind that door.
As his wounds healed, the borrowed clothes did not settle more comfortably around his body, but irked more severely, to the point where Will would wake up whimpering and clawing at pink sheets. After the third night, there were pills and tea left on his nightstand. The vials were all neatly labelled with stock cards. “Ibuprofen,” “Valium,” “Amoxicillin,” they read, handwritten in aggressively flamboyant script. As unsure about the origins of his pain as the man who wrote the labels, Will took them all.
As he lies in his child-size bed waiting for chemicals to take over, Will realizes that, though he had long perfected the art of weaponizing silence into social alienation, he had never found himself having a co-conspirator in that plan.
How startling it is for Will to conclude that he is not playing a game of silence against Hannibal Lecter. Instead, he is playing it with him.
Less than a week later, Will stood by the river without his fishing rod. It had rained heavily for three days and his nightmares had thinned out. The sky looked bruised, filling Will with a wistfulness akin to mourning.
Will went out to be alone, which was unusual. Though they shared a cabin smaller than a studio apartment, contact was minimal. Will lived somewhere else, always, regardless of where his body lay. This was something understood between them and, Will suspected, Hannibal followed the same protocol. He too lived somewhere else far, far away from the cramped kitchenette, the polyester rugs, the mounted deer heads. The wounded, slowed-down flesh, and the too-small loafers.
As the afternoon bloomed, Will heard footsteps behind him. He didn’t turn, not even when body heat could be felt through his windbreaker, all down to his back. Will tried to conjure dread, the panic of being caught, but it wasn’t there. Not after so many days dreaming of a quiet drowning, fantasizing about an exit easier than the one he had to make for himself.
Still his body jolted when a hand fell against his shoulder, warm and pressing, resting there for the first time since a needle was between them.
There was an instant when all Will could hear was the breath in his lungs, the blood rushing to his head. And then the voice over his shoulder, not too close but unbearably intimate. Time and silence had done nothing to dull its power, Will realized distantly. Maybe even sadly.
“Are you leaving soon, Will?” Hannibal asked.
Will shrugged. It had been unspoken for a while, he thought, with hindsight.
The hand bit into his injured shoulder.
“You’ll be missed.”
The hand fell away. They stood side by side gazing at the ominous sky, indigo and steely.
When Hannibal spoke again, his tone was even, revealing nothing short of commonsense and practicality.
“Should I make arrangements for my arrest?”
“No.” Will replied, startling himself with the absolute finality in his voice.
“I need to go. What you do is up to you. I have no interest in knowing.”
Hannibal hummed, bringing both hands to rest on his hips. The pose of a man considering the myriad of options opening suddenly before him.
The polite reasonableness of it all seemed preposterous, infuriating to Will, but he let it simmer and steam away like he did with so many of his untrustworthy thoughts.
“Should I pack you something to eat? The woods are treacherous around this area. It might take you a while before finding rescue.”
Two images visited Will at the same time:
1) Hannibal under his hands, teeth soaked crimson, a black crack on his forehead where the rock would have released brain matter; and
2) Wally in a top hat and fake fangs, smiling through a mouthful of cherry-flavored blood.
Reeling, Will took a step back, away from the images as from the man beside him. The movement forced him to face Hannibal for the first time in months. Night was falling fast. Covered in shadows, his eyes had a strange calmness, old and worn as if he had read the last page of their story and accepted its conclusion. When Hannibal reached out to steady him, Will let him hold his elbow.
“I am okay,” he stammered, breathless. “I’m okay. I just, I need to go home. I need... They need. I must...I must go. Before it’s too late.”
Hannibal regarded him for a long moment before moving his hand from Will’s elbow to his cheek. Something passed between them then—fast, bright, and slippery, too slippery for Will to catch it properly. He leaned into the touch anyway.
“Of course you do, Will.” Hannibal whispered gently. He cupped Will’s jaw and traced the mangled skin there, up and down, over and over, until scar tissue felt chewy and oversensitive. Their eyes met and Will felt caught, the kind of shock that freezes you from the inside out, forces you to lose time. A tight seam inside Will threatened to rip. He jerked back and his feet found water. Hannibal let his hand fall again but his eyes stayed on Will’s. They felt relentless and threatening like lightening must feel to trees. The air between them turned coppery as if blood had been spilled. Then Hannibal blinked and turned away, a puppet on a string.
Will saw him retreat into the cabin, measured steps, a straight line across the gravel. Spooked by a sensation he could not place, Will tightened the borrowed windbreaker against his waist and headed into the woodsy slopes.