When the letter arrived he knew the handwriting immediately. The careful script done with a proper ink pen; the decent stationary with the high rag content; the small flourishes. All of it was familiar. He guessed that if they checked the closure of the envelope they’d find he’d actually licked the glue before sealing it. There were probably fingerprints too if he cared to have it checked.
The envelope had clearly come in a re-mailer; just a single post-mark. He almost smiled when he saw it had been stamped maybe twenty miles away. Yeah. Well. That wasn’t happening. It was just another way for Lecter to jerk him around. Well those days were long past. Long past.
He set the envelope unopened down on the desk in his living room. He’d get to it in a bit. For a moment he debated whether he ought to tell someone. Who to tell though. Now? After all this time. He made a brief check on the rest of his mail, nothing of any interest. Not really. Just the usual bills and circulars. He smiled over a postcard from Zeller. Seemed to be doing ok. Having a holiday at least. Well that was smart of him.
In the kitchen he messed around with the coffee maker and got it going. He smiled ruefully at it. Didn’t matter what he spent on the equipment or what grind he bought he never could make a cup half as well as the doctor had. He shuddered for a second, and decided not to investigate that thought too closely. He puttered around as he waited for it to do its thing. When it was done he added cream and a little sweetener. Bella would have frowned at him, but what was a little sweetness in the day. Been eluding him most of his working life, he could treat himself a little better now.
Back in the living room the envelope worried at the edges of his mind. Well that was just typical. Nothing for fifteen years. Closer to sixteen really, if he thought about it, which he’d rather not. Well, nothing for sixteen years and it just took a letter for it all to come crowding back in like a bad dream that wakes you up swearing and desperate in the sweat of the night. He sat down at the desk and drank from the mug and looked at it. Just a few square inches of paper, but how it seemed to grow.
He set the cup down and reached for a paper knife in the desk tidy sitting on the corner of the blotter. The tidy was an old FBI mug. The gilt had rubbed off in a few places, and whatever process they’d used to apply the logo hadn’t worn so well, years of dishwashing and intemperate use had done for it. But he’d hung on to it through two house moves and it did the job. Why fix what ain’t broke. And it wasn’t broken. Yet.
He slit the envelope open and tipped it up, a little careful of it. He remembered all the letters Lecter had sent before either direct or by proxy and he wasn’t going to get fooled by razorblades taped along the seams. But there was nothing. Just a single folded sheet inside. Well. Maybe razor blades would have been a little hammy. But you never could tell what he’d find amusing, even at this remove. Especially at this remove.
He pulled the sheet of paper out carefully and used the letter opener to flatten it on the desktop. There was just a single line of text. Coordinates. GPS coordinates. Also written out in that fine hand. Well that was something then. Some goddam thing. He closed his eyes briefly. He was getting too damn old for this foolery. But Lecter would be in the same boat. He couldn’t be far off 70 himself. He’d have to make a call, get someone to look at it. He sighed and reached for his cell, all squared away parallel to the blotter.
When the cars drew up he was reminded vividly of a previous visit to a darkened barn. He waited inside the sedan, all smoked tinted windows and smooth riding. He’d been allowed to ‘ride along’ as the Agent In Charge had put it, because of his knowledge and experience of the perp. Lecter might not be in the top ten any more, but he was still on the board, his name popping up all around the world from supposed sightings, unexplained crimes, and the occasional ‘where are they now’ puffs in some rag or other.
Once the building was secured one of the CSIs was sent to fetch him and he got out and slammed the door shut on the car and did up his coat a little more snugly. The AIC was waiting for him. And he guessed this was some kind of courtesy. Some kind of left over respect for when he had been the big guns, not just some old guy whose name used to mean something.
The inside of the barn was clean, everything in it squared away; a few implements hanging from hooks; some old cans of oil or paint or gas, he didn’t look, someone else would; and three wooden covers flat to the floor. Circles. Like the covers of old grain silos. Some kind of storage set down into the concrete. It was a sharp reminder of when he’d found Miriam. He tuned into what the AIC was saying and stood back as one of the CSIs came forward with a crow bar to pry the padlock open on the first cover.
It was an anticlimax really because there was nothing inside. Someone would have to check it out later for trace but for now it was just a deep empty hole in the ground. Sealed though, there was no damp in the bottom. He watched as the guy moved on to the second cover and got that open with a sharp twist of the metal bar. Same story. Nothing.
Everyone held their breath on the third. And really he thought it could have been the first one they’d opened. It was only chance it was the last. With all that anticipatory weight behind it. Nevertheless he knew they all felt a thrill run through them. Just maybe. And to be sure, he thought, when had Lecter ever left anything to any kind of chance? Even now he was probably sitting somewhere, drinking some good wine, smirking. It was the smirk that really did it for him. Every time he thought about him. Those little secret smiles, the amused look, those goddam puns.
The final padlock gave with a sharp crack and the CSI guy shifted the cover across the floor of the barn in a heave of effort. He couldn’t help it when both he and the AIC crowded over the lip of the silo and peered down inside. He fumbled a torch from his pocket, old habits still dying hard and they both stared down. He blinked into the gloom, it was hard to make out what was huddled up in the shadowed depths until she turned her face up, an arm over her eyes to protect them from the glare.
Not what he’d expected. Not who. Not after all this time. Not now.
Three weeks later she stood at the window of her hospital room looking down over the atrium below. There was a good flush of spring green across the few potted trees and even a few souls braving the weak April sun, desporting themselves on one of the benches dotted around. She had no especial desire to be out there but equally she wasn’t sure if she could stay cooped up inside much longer. It wasn’t the room. The room was fine, in a bland, let’s not startle the horses kind of way. She’d worked out how to keep the television switched off and had resisted all attempts to reintroduce her to the world through the weather channel, or some ubiquitous match or game, or whatever the latest drama was. The small bathroom was clean and adequate. And she was warm enough and fed enough and had just enough visitors to keep her from going stir crazy. But it wasn’t the same.
Truth be told? She missed him. With a sharp-edged longing. And still had the good sense she was born with not to say it out loud. Not to anyone. Not to the Agent in Charge. Not to Jack Crawford, and god knows where they’d dug him up from. And not even to Ardelia. Though she was a tougher call than the others. She should have known they’d save the hard hitters for last. She took a deeper breath and crossed the room to the small table pushed against the wall, a chair shoved in under it.
Across its surface was a scatter of papers. The list of things they wanted to know seemed endless. It wasn’t of course. There was a finite amount of things in their imagining and plenty of ways to skirt that labyrinth. Answer the questions you’re asked Clarice. Nothing more, and nothing less. Don’t volunteer anything else. It had been easy to agree when it had all been theoretical. When they’d played with the notion that one of them might be caught. That he might be. Now though?
She sat down and considered the six tightly typed pages that were clipped together, flipping between the sheets of foolscap. Eleven point type she thought. Eleven point so it was still legible but so that it looked urgent and crowded and dense on the page. Six sides of questions, the what and the who and the where and the how. And all the variations therein. Where had they been? What had they been doing? How did they travel around? Where did they live? How did they live? What did Lecter look like now? How long was she drugged for?
She set them aside and re-read her own pages of notes. She’d been careful, she knew they probably searched her trash for any discarded paper, might even have a trap in the sink or the toilet drain. She remembered the thing with the toilet paper. So the inside of her own head was the safest place for any stray remembrance or whimsy. She’d manufactured a few crossings out, it wouldn’t do to look too polished or rehearsed even if she was pitch perfect. He’d made sure of that. She paused. They all had.
She dropped the yellowed paper onto the table and let the pen fall, then pushed back with a scrape of the chair legs harsh on the easyclean floor, and closed her eyes. This hadn’t been her choice to make but the moment he’d opened the front door she’d seen the inevitability of it. So she’d just have to get on with it. Brave the questions, find some answers that would mostly satisfy, blink in the flash bulbs. Smile. Accept the accolades. Almost a heroic return. Almost a survivor.
Because of course there were whispers; Stockholm Syndrome; Captor Bonding; manipulation; coercion; addiction. All that. She’d like to think she was bigger than all the rumours, that she always had been. But gossip erodes. Whether it’s the kind that worms it’s way round the halls of the FBI, or the insidious creep that circulates on the inside pages of the supermarket tabloids. She was only half interested to learn that they’d all thought she was dead. Hadn’t that been the idea? To disappear so completely no one would find them?
Someone had found them though. In the end. After all of it.
She looked across the table at the Agent in Charge; another suit, in a dark navy blue this time; another tie, paler blue with a self-coloured stripe; a phalanx of pens clipped in his breast pocket. The lead doctor treating her sat beside her in what she thought was meant to indicate support with a subconscious push towards him being on her side. She paid just enough attention to understand what their plans were; released into the care of a friend; ongoing security (she snorted at that in her mind. If the doctor wanted to come after her he would. Hadn’t he before? Did they learn nothing?); ongoing debriefing dressed up as counselling in case of PTSD; and so on, and so forth. And a pension. She raised her hand at that to stop the flow. The AIC sighed.
“You were on the job when you went missing. The pay is retroactive, and you’ll get the full works as a retiree. They’re talking of rounding it out. Twenty years service.”
He nodded at her, and she glanced at the doctor who didn’t seem surprised by the news so she looked back across the table.
“I was suspended. More or less. At the time.”
The AIC shrugged one shoulder, a reminder that whoever was in charge now or calling the shots it wasn’t Prurnell and definitely not Krendler or any of the people she’d once come up against in the extended hierarchy of Government agencies.
“And you’ve still got friends.”
She raised her eyebrows at him. Who she thought? Who had she got? Apart from Ardelia, and Jack if you could count him, and she wasn’t sure if she could or if she should. And them, and she certainly shouldn’t count on them, not for this. The AIC saw the expression on her face.
“Don’t you remember? The Senator’s kid? The Senator herself, Senator Martin? Former now, but not without some clout where it matters. Even the former President. He took an interest then. Don’t you remember? Well they’ve all piped up now. Catherine? She’d even like to see you if you’re willing. If you’re up for it? She’s doing well. Considering.”
He paused then, sixteen years just to get to ‘considering’. She watched as he skated round the thought.
“So, yes, friends. And a place. They mothballed your stuff, it’s in some storage facility, but we can get that out for you once you’ve figured it out some more.”
She nodded. Ardelia had mentioned something of the sort. That she’d kept the things from their shared apartment. That she hadn’t forgotten or believed her gone. Lost maybe? In more ways than just the physical. Ardelia had seen that, could see it still. But that was alright. Ardelia knew when to be closed mouthed. And even she could see that her friend had a kind of bitterness in her, something tugging the corners of her mouth down, something that had set her eyes in a regretful slope; they’d both got secrets then, things they were carrying with them. Things they didn’t speak out loud but which shaded into their interactions, coloured them, and made them wary.
Maybe she should ask. Maybe the lambs still screamed for her as they did for Will.
A sharp jerk brought the bus to a shuddering halt and woke him. He fumbled for his glasses and saw it was just a wayside stop, some concrete post that bore no marker but which locals knew for what it was. He sat up a little higher in his seat and rolled his shoulders. Above his head he could still see his small backpack tucked into the netting that hung from the roof. The weave had been repaired more than once with different colours of nylon cord. Probably just what the contractor or cleaner or driver had to hand in a pocket or in some wayward drawer at home.
He’d been compelled to leave his larger bag in a locker under the bus. It wasn’t what he’d hoped for but he had at least anticipated the possibility. Nothing he really needed was in there, though there would be a few things he would be sorry to lose in the event of an accident or theft. At the front of the bus in his line of sight there was another small bag, almost a shoulder bag really; he’d tried to get it in into the net along with the backpack and a long cylinder with a strap but had been thwarted, his neighbours tutting and huffing as if he held them up with his attempts.
He tucked his makeshift neck pillow round his shoulders more tightly and tried to settle into the corner the angle of the seat and the window afforded. He checked his watch, his cell had been carefully dismantled eight months ago in a gradual removal of himself from the world of signal towers and remote tracking. Still another hour to go, maybe a little longer. There was no point in checking the paper map folded up in his pocket. He knew, more or less, where he was.
On the ground it looked as though his journey had taken just a few weeks, a short stop here, a double back there, nothing too obvious as he made smaller and smaller cash purchases for travel tickets and accommodation. If anyone had asked he’d have felt like a walking encyclopaedia of South American bus and train timetables. In his head though? In his head the journey had been either five years or twenty in the making. Twenty since that first day in Jack’s office, five since Wally had finally left home and Molly had simply gone.
He stretched again, various aches and pressing pains asserting themselves. They tugged at him, reminded him that not all the reasons for being here, perched looming in his mind, were sensible or healthy, even if they had grown increasingly compelling, increasingly loud.
A small child in the seats in front of him turned and poked her head through the gap and stared at him her eyes round and brown and solemn. He shifted his face round a little further, no point in scaring the child, or in drawing attention if the mother decided to scold the kid for being insensitive or unkind. He knew what he looked like, the thin silvered lines distorted the corner of his eye, pulled it down and made him look like a doleful clown. The slight upturn of his lip gave his face a sarcastic tilt. It wasn’t a happy combination and he usually kept his face averted in conversation. Another reason not to give anyone his eyes.
He must have dozed off because the bus jerked him awake again and he blinked to find everyone gathering packages and parcels and coats. He waited while some folks who had been sat behind him nudged their way down the central aisle and then shifted across from his corner and rescued the backpack and cylinder.
At the front of the bus he collected the shoulder bag, and then stepped down into the dust of the civic square. A short call to him and he remembered to tip the driver when he pulled his wheeled bag from the hold under the bus. He’d had nearly sixteen years to decide which language to learn. He managed the short exchange in Spanish as he handed over the coins.
He dragged his bag over to the single concrete bench in the centre of the square. There were a few men seated at a table outside one of the cafes but no one seemed to pay him any mind, more interested in their own conversation or games, or drink. He sat and pulled a wax wrap of sandwich from his bag and ate it as he studied the paper map a little more carefully. Somewhere around a mile he reckoned. Not too big a road but not desolate either. It wasn’t a large town, but it had its attractions, he could see that. All the big international guide books listed it; a small cathedral; a tiny museum with some interesting prehistoric finds; two decent fiestas and smaller feast days; some annual exhibit; some music. Enough to be attractive to someone generally used to a more cosmopolitan crowd but now seeking something smaller, more intimate.
He could see how it might suit.
He hoisted the backpack on, not too heavy, he couldn’t stand much on that shoulder after all, crossed the shoulder bag across his chest, picked up the handle of the roll along and then stooped to grasp the long cylinder in his spare hand.
He could see the house from at least half a mile out. It was up on a small elevation though the twists and small rises and falls in the road meant his view wasn’t constant. The stone was a dull honey colour, more or less as he had expected, and the terracotta tiles the same colour as the earth of the fields it sat in. He wondered if anyone would see him approach, if anyone kept a weather eye on the traffic and pedestrians just passing through.
At the end of the driveway he adjusted his grip on the roll along and the cylinder and took a deep breath. He still wasn’t sure if this was a good thing to do, he only knew that he had no other options left. That he had never had other options. It had just taken him a while to see it all for what it was.
There was a short flight of stone stairs up to the door at the front of the house, so he set his bags down and took them one at a time, a liquid moment when he knew if he wanted to he could turn back and nothing would change. He knocked before some foolishness stayed his hand. And then listened to the approaching footsteps within.
The silver streaks suited him he thought, the white in his hair, longer now than the last time he’d seen him. He saw his eyes flick down to the case he’d dropped at the bottom of the steps. The shoulder bag resting atop it, the backpack, the long cylinder with a carrying strap which could be anything but actually contained a fly fishing rod. All testimony to a visit that was more than just a cursory stop or an ill considered one.
He smiled. It could only ever be a lopsided thing now, the dragon had seen to that, but even twisted he saw the effect it had on the man holding so hard onto the door jamb his knuckles had turned white. He breathed the name out. Hadn’t used it for so long. Maybe too long.
He sat at the long dining table and poured the third cup of coffee into one of the blue pottery cups. They’d appeared in the cupboard overnight a few weeks previously and he’d recognised them as some kind of peace offering. A replacement. He’d kept the broken piece of porcelain, the fine shards swept up and secured in a small box that now sat in the bottom drawer of his desk. They’d come to a tacit agreement not to paint over the stain the coffee had left when the cup hit the wall during some argument. They had both been reduced to silence by the sudden violence of the act. Until then it had only been words they had thrown at each other.
He passed the second cup along the table and she accepted the unadorned drink. In the room above they could both hear his footsteps back and forth across the floor, advancing and then receding. He appreciated that she hadn’t asked, was still not asking, was willing to endure this limboed existence, neither one thing or another.
It was almost too late. And it had taken several months for him to accept that he’d not disappear as suddenly as he’d arrived. It reminded him of that liminal time in Baltimore when he had been seduced into believing they would all leave together. It was still a dull ache, betrayal, still with the ability to render him grief stricken and bone wearily angry. But here he was now and he seemed stubborn in his insistence on seeing it through.
They sat and drank their coffee, the third cup slowly cooling. If he came for it he came, if he didn’t he didn’t, he was sufficiently used to the rhythms and rituals of the day to know what he was missing if he didn’t manage it, if he couldn’t cudgel his thoughts into an acceptance of what the day wrought. They heard a drawer pushed shut hard and then footsteps on the staircase.
He watched as Will fitted the cup to his mouth, sorry that he always angled the wrecked lines of his face away from him. They had both survived and the scars were a reminder of that. More than survived. They lived. And he had begun to believe another transformation might occur, that there might possibly be more. And, perhaps ruefully, that he must resist the temptation to push, to whisper through the chrysalis.
The three of them settled into quiet contemplation of their drinks, murmurs of offer and acceptance for a second pouring, a passing of the small plate of petit fours, a fuss of napkins. Despite the apparent ease there was an echo of the paced steps from the room above and rippling through their exchange was a reminder that something was still shifting and had not yet settled. There had been a slow migration since he arrived from the couch to a guest room, and what was yet unspoken was whether there would be a further move, whether they would find a way to puzzle together.
The coffee held a rich spiced note countering the bitter on the tongue, the rim of the cup was just thick enough to make you notice it. He’d admired them when they had walked slowly round a local craft market, circling the stalls and each other. Will must have doubled back to buy them as they had been as unexpected as the fight which led to their appearance. He’d wondered if they’d been intended as a gift to mark some particular moment. Well, he supposed, they marked a fight both of them had walked away from and neither of them had lost. Only a broken teacup to bear testimony to their mutual intransigence. Even bitterness was its own savour, something that rounded out the palate, countered the too sweet, brought a balance to a taste.
He quirked a small smile. His thoughts were still reeled in by memories of their early encounters, by remembrances of things present as well as past. He watched as Will read their future in the grounds at the bottom of his cup a query on his face, a strangled brow; he regretted that he had not always been able to see past that countenance, especially when it mattered most. Now at least they were together and he was beginning to believe himself familiar with the ways in which he parsed the seconds and each eternity they held. But he’d been wrong before.
“Clarice. I’m moving my things today. Will you help?”
Ahh, he still had the capacity to surprise him then.
He knew he was hovering, just a little, touching too much. Skimming his hands over shoulders, a clasp there, a grasp here, a side by side embrace. He was touching as though he was afraid that what he had would slip through his fingers. It had before and he was still unsure if it would again. It was a troubling thought. Troubling and inconvenient and he forced himself to be amused and not blunted by the recollection.
He still woke with a fear that that space beside him would be empty, and had to both recognise and lament his own gaping need. The first time it happened he’d got out of bed and walked across the room to the window as though he might see a distant departing figure trudging along the road in the dust. Instead he’d had to turn and smile faintly, his heart banging against his ribs when the bedroom door opened and Will nudged through it with two cups and a paper bag in his teeth.
“Breakfast. Those croissants you like. Get crumbs in the bed. Live a little, why don’t you.”
He had held a hand out and was pleased when it was taken and warmed almost casually. He’d realised he was trembling. Just a little.
They were easing into it he thought, not mixing together but coexisting like oil and water, of similar consistency but each distinct in their make up and structure. Perhaps it took her to emulsify them, perhaps she had done what could be done, perhaps the rest would just take time. Perhaps they needed to be alone now, to lick each other’s wounds, to rest in some place, like Ithaca. That was their myth he thought. No longer the sharp loss at the walls of Troy, or the children cast upon the waves, but some steady resolve weaving and undoing what was made before.
They had been broken both of them. And this was what their particular restoration looked like. There was something to be said for regaining what you thought was broken beyond repair or lost beyond finding, even if, when remade or found it no longer looked as you recalled.
He stood up from the chair in the living room and was aware that they both watched him as he left and walked across the room and through the door into the study. When he returned he was carrying the box with the broken teacup in it. He offered it to Will who opened it and smiled.
“Do we need it anymore do you think.”
It wasn’t even a question. More a slotting into place. Clarice stood and he watched as she straightened her shirt.
“I’ll start to pack. We should give some thought as to how I’ll get back.”
“Recalled to life?”
He watched her smile, a little at him, but mostly to herself.
“I’ve my own teacup to mend.”
Yes he thought. Fragments to pull back together. To restore. Ardelia.
She heard the timer ping in the otherwise quiet house and got up from the couch to slide into the kitchen. When she checked the oven everything looked crisp and gold so she picked up the nearest dishcloth and opened it up and pulled the baking sheet out. She shoved the door shut with her hip and balanced the sheet over the sink where it would cool fastest.
They were just raisin and oatmeal, but the raisins were good, blackened, sun dried things which tasted of last year’s summer, and the oatmeal was some specially ground consistency, with a rough dark texture that made you feel noble when you chewed hard. Together, with some decent sugar and some honest butter and the magic of fire they made a damn fine cookie if she said it herself.
She opened the kitchen window to let the scent waft down and out into the yard at the back of the house.
She leaned against the counter top next to the sink and watched her friend stand by the bird feeder off to one side of the lawn that covered the ground of almost two thirds of the backyard. When she’d bought the place she’d had it set to grass knowing she’d not have the time, or, if she was honest with herself, the inclination, to tend to vegetable beds or rows of flowers. It was easy enough to get someone in to run a mower over it, there were plenty of kids in the neighbourhood willing to earn a few bucks. The bird feeder was a concession to the ways in which she felt she was doing them out of a decent meal from the shrubs or bushes or flowers that her more conscientious neighbours provided.
It was the wrong time of the year to be putting food out anyway; nuts and seeds and even dried fruit were the wrong kind of thing for baby birds and fledglings fighting to make it on their own. She’d researched alternatives, wondering about meal worms, or cicadas, or even grubs from a bait store but in the end she left it mostly bare. The birds still came though, habits developed over a long winter were hard to break.
She looked beyond the perimeter of her own small yard; there was a small lot of scrubby trees to the rear, you could see deer sometimes, in the evenings, when the sun confused the shadows and their dappled hides; off to one side there was the Logan’s place, always tidy even if their two kids left bright primary coloured toys ‘non-gendered you see’ scattered across the lawn on a regular basis; on the other side was Mrs Baker’s low level house, she probably spent more time in the garden than she did indoors, winter, spring, summer and fall, she loved her some green, though she had to give her some credit she’d been polite since Clarice had arrived and taken to standing outside just looking.
“You want some coffee?”
She pulled the kitchen window shut and put it on the latch and set to busyness around the grinder and the stove top percolator. Whatever she’d been doing, wherever she’d been doing it, and whoever she’d been doing it with, Clarice had come back with opinions about good coffee. That was alright. She’d got opinions about good coffee as well.
On the countertop she set out a pair of decent mugs. The red ones with the gold band at the top and a gold feather draped around the sides. A peacock’s feather, the ones with the eye. Clarice had murmured something about them being sacred to Hera, someone who sacrificed themselves, did something for some god, gave them selves over to a divine transformation.
This was how it went. She was learning to divine Clarice’s transformation from these dropped comments and asides. She didn’t think it was calculated. Not as such. But she could see the gold thread leading her through the labyrinth like any kind of mythological hero. Did Hannibal Lecter still fancy himself as the Minotaur? She smiled to herself. Well he could think what he liked couldn’t he? All she’d cared about was winding up that spool and following the thread out into the light. Golden threads run in both directions after all.
The percolator signalled its job was done with a hiss of steam, and she got to pouring the coffee into the red mugs. She got out some cream from the fridge and poured it into a small jug. It didn’t match the mugs but Clarice had judged the red flowers on the cream background as a good enough fit for it to be acceptable. This was another thing, she thought as she put the milk carton back in the fridge. Clarice was more certain now, more confident in what did or didn’t please her, and far more willing to say.
Their early room sharing she’d always been the one to suggest, to display, to choose. And it wasn’t as though she objected to her friend having opinions, it’s just if she had them she kept them locked up, or expressed only in the faintest crease between her brows. She’d learned to read between the lines, so to speak. And she still was. It was just that the lines were sharper and more clearly defined.
She picked up her mug and added a single sugar lump. She didn’t stir it in, somehow she liked the sudden surprise of sweetness when you came across it dissolving in a lump in an incautious mouthful. Clarice came in through the back door, wiped her feet carefully and still bent to take off her shoes.
“Thanks. It smells good in here.”
“There are cookies. On the sheet. They should still be warm.”
They stood there companionably in the stove warmed scented silence. And drank their coffee. She couldn’t help but smile when the sugar surprised her in a burst of joy across her tongue.
In the evenings they let the room darken with the advance of twilight. It was almost always fully dark before one of them would get up and switch on a light. This was a change she thought, from when they were younger. You didn’t need to turn on the lights to read these days; it was all tablets, or kindles, or on the tiny screen of a cell phone. Although one long room of the living room was insulated by books the turn of paper inhabited the diurnal hours. The faint blue backlight of the screens seemed to suit the night.
“I appreciate that you haven’t asked. Not since we got home.”
She nodded. Home? Well that was something, wasn’t it.
“You might want to talk to someone though. I’m not minded if it isn’t me. You say enough with me.”
She could see she understood what she meant.
The silence stretched long enough for her to go back to her reading and they finished up the evening that way. That was another thing about a screen she thought, you could never tell just how much someone was actually taking in, with a book there was at least the verisimilitude of pages being turned, of progress being made. With a screen you had to pay more attention to the eyes, or the breathing, or the expression, just to see what might be going on, or going in. Maybe books were a better distraction. In which case she appreciated the honesty.
“I did ask Jack if I could talk to someone.”
She looked at her friend, her face an eerie colour, washed by something on her tablet. Maybe she wasn’t reading after all.
The corridor she walked along was a washed out buttercup yellow with a dark green kickboard and a pale blue stripe about a third of the way up the wall. She’d watched countless people run their hands along it on their way to the library, or group, or the dining rooms. The stripe only ran along one side and although she’d asked no-one seemed to know the answer as to why; maybe it’d been as simple as they’d ran out of paint. Or someone realised it was too easy to botch the job, waiver, drip.
With the flow of ‘traffic’ the blue was on the wrong side for her so she never followed the line with her prosthetic, there’d be no satisfaction in it somehow. Still, she could appreciate the visual demarcation it offered, the boundaries it reminded her of.
The orderly that walked just apace of her was one of the nicer ones with maybe a mite more demonstrable compassion than some of the staff usually showed. It wasn’t like hers was an open and shut case after all. She was still on half pay, and there was an injury claim still going through some appeals process. And she was staying here, in the nicer place, on the Bureau’s dime. Even if Chilton’s lawyers occasionally fussed and spat about it. The mills of god do indeed grind slowly and exceeding small, and he was still petty, even now.
On balance she’d probably rather be here than on the outside. She wasn’t even sure she could manage the ‘real world’ now, even the TV programming could leave her agitated and stressed. And those adjustment trips they’d had her make to see if she might be not just eligible but suitable for release. Those busy malls. The traffic. The noise. The ephemera. Just. No.
She stood back to let the orderly get the door open ahead of her and followed close behind. Her guest was stood up near the window looking out through the safety glass. Neither of them seemed in any hurry so she sat at the table and smiled a goodbye to her escort.
“Jack said you’d come. I admit I’m surprised it took this long. They get you anything? Water? Coffee?”
Clarice turned and looked at her, a small swivel of the head which implied she wasn’t quite done with the view just yet.
“They said they’d bring something.”
She nodded. That was usually the way. It was a neat tactic. Introduce the two people, leave them together for a few minutes, and then return and fuss around with the drinks, give everyone a chance to form a second opinion, catch their breath. She could appreciate the psychology of it all.
“Did you come just to not look at me?”
She watched as her visitor smiled to herself and glanced back out the window.
“Did you see? There’s a cocoon here, attached to the window frame. Outside.”
She waited. As opening gambits went this wasn’t a bad one.
The orderly brought in the coffee, the best that could be said about it was that it was hot and probably not the worst you’d ever drunk. She even quite liked the polystyrene cups. Though she’d learned not to dismantle them or leave imprints in the side with her fingernails. Like some kind of etched Rorschach signifier.
“You better drink it, it gets cold fast.”
They sat and drank. And as silences went it wasn’t the worst she’d endured in the company of another. And she was pleased with herself when she managed not to shy away from that thought. She’d underestimated how sharp a reminder this might be.
She settled the cup on the table between them and tilted her head to one side.
“Overall I think you’re doing better than I was at this point.”
“Re-entry?” She shrugged. “I guess. Maybe.”
She finished her cup of coffee and pushed it a little away from her across the table. She watched as Clarice finished her’s and set it down and then mirrored the gesture. And caught herself doing it.
“I’d imagine you’ve got more than just muscle memory going on? Jack says you’re sharing with that prosecutor? Who you knew before?”
“Aredelia? Yes. We roomed together, we were friends back in training. And first year out. She went down a different path.”
She paused then. Not just a different path. More like a different highway. A different plane of existence altogether.
“You miss it don’t you?”
She watched as the other woman nodded. She got it. She really did. Of course she missed it. The music and food and conversation and the beauty of it, the sheer unimaginable beauty of it all. She didn’t really speak of it, she knew that no one could really understand. That even in the midst of the cruelty he was kind and had created the circumstances for the kindness. Even when he’d taken her arm he had been kind.
“When did he stop drugging you?”
She saw a brief shine in the woman’s eyes. A long time ago then.
Around about the fourth visit they walked the winding paths through the grounds of the residential hospital. The trees had moved from a spring fuzz into something approaching denser summer foliage. The cocoon that had been tucked into the window frame of the visitors’ room had split and whatever had been inside had gone. She’d faintly thought to ask Clarice to look it up, the library had no entomology books. Will Graham would know she thought, that had been his kind of thing once upon a time. Maybe Clarice’s too.
“Didn’t you date some guy who was into moths and fritillaries?”
“Wow. A long time ago. Yes. Just afterwards. Where’d you dredge that up from?”
They paused on the gravel path and she watched as her almost friend turned a pebble over with the toe of her shoe.
“It’s funny you mention him. He got in touch. Saw the story, even wrote to Jack care of, can you believe it. Didn’t want to hassle me, just wanted to send his best.”
She laughed and it was the first time she’d heard her do so without a little wrench of noise at the end, as though she wasn’t sure if she was allowed the outburst.
“I’m thinking of having coffee with him. Catch up.”
She paused then.
“Ok. Maybe not exactly catch up, but talk, he was a nice guy. I remember liking him.”
They carried on walking, making the occasional comment, remarking on the plants. At the French doors that let you into the building from the garden she paused.
“You don’t have to come back. I think you might be ready. Where he used to be? There’s a little space in your head now. For new things. That’ll grow if you cultivate it. So, I’m not saying don’t visit again. I’m just saying you’ve got options.”
She watched as Clarice walked away. To have Hannibal inside your head unmediated, was a hard piercing thing, and yet once you’d known it, to not have it might be worse. She knew some of what it must be like to be Clarice, or even what it might be like to be Will. She wondered how he was doing now. Clarice might not have been very forthcoming but she’d gathered that they were together. Both of them, all of them, for a long time had been sacrificed on the altar of that particular love. But she didn’t ask, and Clarice only spoke of it sparingly.
She wondered though just how much Clarice had told Jack.
Thanks very much for reading!
For those of you on tumblr, I’m one of the many jumping ship in light of the forthcoming changes so I won’t be posting updates to anything there after the 12 Dec 2018. I can be found on twitter as electra_rhodes and on pillowfort as ElectraRhodes just like here. I hope we stay in touch some way. xxx