She’s still in the hospital when she gets the news. She sees it on TV, on the flickering screen mounted high above her head with the sound turned low. The report is a barely-audible hum, a kindness to those who are sleeping. Molly keeps it on for comfort. It’s the middle of the night, and she’s caught between wakefulness and dreams. She’s restless but too tired to get up, so she lets her eyes list to the glowing images.
There’s a house she doesn’t recognize. It’s a pretty house, modern with severe lines, set at the edge of a cliff. Its windows are shattered. The edges gleam where the spotlights hit it. A pretty woman with dark hair and shiny teeth talks into a microphone while the wind whips her hair around her head. Molly just sees the footage and the caption on the bottom, written out in big block letters: Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter escaped from police custody.
She swallows and reaches for the remote without taking her eyes off the screen. She bumps her IV catheter into the bed rail by accident and swears under her breath. She grabs the remote and ignores the dull burn from her wrist. She turns the TV up loud enough to hear it.
“—presumed dead, but sources have been unable to confirm. So far all we know is that both Hannibal Lecter and former FBI consultant Will Graham are missing and wanted for the murder of Francis Dolarhyde. They should be considered armed and very dangerous. If you have any information, please call the—”
Something feels like it’s clawing its way up her throat, and it might be panic. Molly stabs at the remote to turn it off and only manages to change the channel. Some kids’ show about a dog is blaring loud and musical. The bright colors feel as if they’re mocking her. She hits the red power button harder than necessary. She turns it off before someone finds their way in here to complain.
After, she’s panting like she’s run a marathon, panic present and pressing on her chest like the grim reaper. She tosses the remote back onto the table and presses her hands into her eyes until she can see stars.
The digital clock on the wall says 12:04 a.m. It’s pitch black in her room with the TV off. The only light comes from the numbers and knobs on various machines lining her room. It’s quiet in the hall.
Molly’s been scared of the dark since she was a little girl. It’s a silly fear, but she still sleeps better with a light on. She’s gotten into the habit of sleeping with the TV on since Will left. The quiet drone of voices and music feel like company. They make her feel less alone.
She doesn’t think it will help tonight. Tonight, she’ll take the dark.
She closes her eyes and tries not to think of anything. The panic in her head grows too loud, so she opens them and stares at nothing. She thinks about Will. His laugh, warm and teasing. His smile and the smell of his cologne. She thinks of his hands, the way they’re rough and warm. She tries her hardest not to think of a sleek house on a cliff side, windows all blown out and bare.
She must sleep because when she opens her eyes again, a nurse is knocking softly on her door, and it’s morning.
* * *
Molly drives herself home from the hospital.
Will was supposed to pick her up, but Will’s not here, so Molly gets in her car and drives home. She does her best to ignore the disapproving looks the nurses give her as she checks herself out, the pursed lips and, “Oh honey, are you sure there isn’t someone we can call”s she gets while she signs the discharge papers.
“I’m fine,” she says softly, again and again. It sounds a little more convincing each time she says it. I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine. No really, it’s okay.
The pain is better, and she’d refused morphine for the last day so she could drive herself home. She’s on the mend, as they say. She walks without help, and she turns down the wheelchair they want to roll her outside in.
“Do you have someone waiting for you at home?” A grey-haired nurse with a smooth, severe face asks.
Molly likes her. She’s tough and no-nonsense, which is something she appreciates in the face of the way everyone’s been cooing at her for days. She’d turned away a redheaded woman, some tabloid journalist, at Molly’s door. The journalist had gone and not come back.
Molly likes her and so she can’t quite bring herself to lie. She doesn’t know how much this nurse knows—about Molly, about her situation. She wonders if the nurse has been watching the news. It’s all over the news.
Molly doesn’t answer the question, she just says, “I’m fine.” Then she says, “Thanks.”
The engine makes a sticky, protesting noise when she turns the key in the ignition, and she hits the dash with a hand.
“No, no, no. Come on.”
This isn’t happening. Out of all the shit happening in Molly’s life right now, this isn’t happening. Her cell phone died days ago, and she doesn’t have a charger to turn it on. She is not walking back into the hospital to ask the pitying nurses to let her use a phone to call a cab. She is not getting stuck in a hospital parking lot because her goddamn car broke down. It had been making that sound for months, and Will said he would fix it.
Why didn’t he fix it?
She takes a deep breath. Because she’d brushed him off over and over again. There were always better things to do. Breathless afternoons running after a frisbee with the dogs, nights spent curled up in front of a fire. There were PTA meetings and dinners with the family. The car would wait.
There was always more time, until there wasn’t.
Did he know? She wondered. Was there a ticking clock somewhere, seconds counting down until the end—one that he could see but she couldn’t?
Had everyone known except for her?
The engine sputters to life at last, and Molly breathes a tiny sigh of relief. She leans forward to rest her head against the steering wheel and laughs at herself. She’s let herself get so worked up over such a little thing. She laughs more than it’s worth, but it feels good to laugh. She laughs until she’s crying, and at some point hysterical laughter tips over into real grief.
She cries until she feels hollowed out, until her eyes are swollen and her cheeks are splotchy. Some people look beautiful when they cry. Molly’s never been one of them. She takes a deep breath and then another. She blows her nose on a crumpled piece of tissue she finds stuffed in the bottom of her purse.
Breathe. In, out.
She thinks of Will, and she drives herself home.
* * *
Molly gets home and thinks she should change her clothes, wash her face, and get the cloying smell and feel of hospital off her. Instead, she tosses her purse on the counter and dials the number she knows by heart as soon as she gets in the door. She doesn’t bother to plug in her cell phone, and she’s glad she never did get around to canceling the landline.
Her mom picks up on the second ring, and Molly knows she’s been waiting by the phone.
“How are you doing, sweetheart?”
The sound of her voice is soothing in a way Molly feels right down to her bones.
“I’m okay,” Molly says. She shifts the phone to her ear so she can take down a cup and fill it with water from the tap. “The doctors say I’m lucky. I’m supposed to make a full recovery if I do all my PT.”
“Lucky,” her mom huffs over the phone. “I’ll show them lucky.”
“It’s all right,” Molly says. “It’s fine. I mean I am—lucky, I guess. And fine.”
She’s not making a lot of sense, and she thinks maybe she should have taken that bath after all. Her mom makes a small noise of displeasure but lets it drop.
“I can keep Wally for a few more days if you need some time for yourself,” says the voice over the line. “If you need to get yourself settled.”
Molly closes her eyes. She tips her head back to study the cracks in the plaster on the ceiling. What would settled even feel like now?
“Thanks, but you don’t need to. I just really want him home.”
Molly knows the expression her mom is making, even without being able to see it—the pursed lips and pinched brows—the face she makes when she wants to say something and knows Molly won’t take it well. It’s an expression Molly remembers all too well from her teen years.
It’s nice to know someone that well, even if it’s just her mom. It’s nice to know she still can. That her ability to know people isn’t totally shattered. That she’s not broken.
“If you’re sure,” her mom says.
“I am. Just—give me a couple hours? I can be in Ashburn by nightfall.”
“Take as long as you need. I’ll make dinner?”
Molly isn’t hungry, but Wally has to eat anyway. “Yeah, okay. That sounds nice.” She holds the phone to her ear a while longer, just listening to the sound of her mother’s breath. “Thanks, mom.”
“Of course, sweetie.”
She says goodbye and hangs up the phone. She sets the empty glass in the sink.
In a minute she’ll shower and get dressed. She’ll sort through the mail that’s started to pile up on the counter. She’ll call Susan to thank her for feeding the dogs and tell her she doesn’t have to come by tonight, and then she’ll make the drive to pick up Wally. Just. In a minute.
Molly rests her head against the cool linoleum of the counter and kind of wants to scream. She counts to ten instead, forward then backward. She watches her breath fog the eggshell surface and wonders how she got here.
Then she collects her keys and walks out the door, forgetting the shower she’d meant to take. She’ll do it later. Tomorrow, maybe. One more day won’t kill her. She scratches behind dogs’ ears on the way to the door, petting indiscriminately, because someone ought to be happy.
* * *
Molly drives for hours. She has time to kill. Her parents eat early, but it’s barely noon, and dinner won’t be ready for a while yet. Molly loves her parents and she misses Wally, but she can’t imagine sitting in her mom’s pristine living room looking at neat ceramic figurines of shepherdesses and sheepdogs. Not right now.
Molly is fine, but the kind of fine that doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny. She feels as if she might shatter if someone looks at her the wrong way.
She cranks the music as loud as it’ll go and drives by cornfields that are still fervently green, that are just starting to give way to the russet brown of winter. They sprawl past, and Molly rolls down the window. The sound of the highway is deafening when mixed with AC/DC, and the wind plucks at her hair. She drives aimlessly, stopping once to fill gas at a lone gas station on the side of the road.
A cherry red fire truck whips by while she has her hand on the pump, sirens whining, FAIRFAX COUNTY FIRE AND RESCUE on its side in block gold letters. She’s ended up in Wolf Trap and doesn’t even wonder how.
She hopes they stop the burning in time.
Twenty minutes later, Molly arrives at a familiar white house and pulls into its dirt driveway. It’s technically trespassing, and she doesn’t care.
She wonders if she’ll see him. She wonders if he’s dead.
Molly puts the car into park and lets it idle. She scrubs her face with her hands and just looks. Same rickety porch, but it’s been given a new coat of paint. The rail is cornflower blue, and there are flower bushes dotting the lawn. It looks nice. She remembers drinking beer on this porch, remembers towel-drying dripping dogs and falling into the water by accident. She remembers Will hauling her out of the basin laughing. She’d wrapped her arms around his neck and pressed her smile onto his.
She huffs a tiny laugh at the memory. The dogs had barked and jumped and thought it was a game. They ended up soaked and laughing and covered in dog hair, and everyone had needed another bath once they were done.
Will won’t come back here. He can’t. He doesn’t even own the house anymore.
She doesn’t know if she hoped she’d see him. Doesn’t know what he’d do if he saw her.
Is he a killer? Was he always? Would he kill her now?
Was the man she’d loved even real?
She wonders when the memories will stop hurting.
Molly is jolted back to reality by knuckles rapping at the driver side window. A man she’s never seen before is standing there with curly black hair and a scruffy beard. For a second she thinks it’s Will, and her heart hurts. She rolls down the window.
“Hi,” she says.
He sticks his hand in his pockets. “Hey. Can I help you?”
“Do you live here?”
“Yeah, I do. Listen, are you lost or something?”
Or something, she wants to say, but that’s cryptic and weird and unkind, and she’s parked on this man’s lawn. “Yeah,” she says instead. “I’m lost.”
Like she hadn’t driven this way over and over again for two years. Like she doesn’t know it by heart.
“All right, so you’re going to want to get back on Dulles and turn right. Keep going until you hit a service station. Make a left, and you’ll find yourself on the highway back into town.”
Molly tunes out his directions, taking one last look at the house instead.
“Thanks,” she says when he’s finished and looking at her expectantly. She smiles, and it feels jagged in her mouth.
“No problem,” he says. “You take care of yourself.”
Molly doesn’t say anything. She just drives away.
* * *
Dinner with her parents is exhausting, and it’s no one’s fault.
Her mom makes all of her favorite foods, sweet potatoes with butter, meatloaf and string beans, and pineapple upside down cake for dessert. She doesn’t taste any of it.
“Did you have a good time with grandma and grandpa?” Molly asks Wally, and he nods.
“We went to the museum yesterday.”
“That sounds fun. Did you see anything cool?”
Wally shrugs. “I guess.”
“There’s an outstanding dinosaur exhibit in town,” her mom says. “It’s visiting from New York.” She carries the conversation damn near single-handedly for the rest of the meal, and Molly is glad for it.
It’s no one’s fault, but Molly is relieved when the dishes are dried and put away and it’s time to leave. She buckles Wally into the backseat of the car, something she hasn’t done since he was a baby. She presses a kiss to his forehead, and he makes a face ( “Mom, I’m not a baby.”) but he lets her.
Her own mother makes her promise to call if she needs anything, and Molly knows she won’t. She promises anyway. Her dad squeezes her hand on her way out the door.
The drive back home is long and quiet. The cornstalks look ghostly in the dark, and streetlights cast patterns over the car’s interior.
“Did you really have fun a grandma’s?” Molly asks softly.
She hears Wally’s shrug in the rustle of his jacket. “It was boring,” he says. “It was okay.”
“I know, bud. I know. Thanks for being a good sport.”
He shrugs again.
Later that night Molly is in bed alone with her thoughts. The emptiness beside her isn’t as jarring as it could be. She’s gotten used to sleeping alone since Will left to work on that case. She settles onto her back and sighs.
It’s easier to admit to things in the dark. Certain things.
Like he’s dead or he’s dead to her. Neither is a promising option. There’s no comfort to be had here. That she still loves him is the worst part—that she wishes he were here, even knowing what he might have done.
Some part of her still thinks he could make it better, and ain’t that a bitch.
* * *
Molly watches the news despite her better judgment. She can’t help it. Some people drink; she does this.
The story comes out in parts. Will—or former Special Agent Graham, as the reporters of the world would have it—was part of an undercover FBI operation to catch Francis Dolarhyde. The details get fuzzy after that, but what everyone seems to agree on is that shit went sideways, Dolarhyde died, and Will and Lecter killed him, together.
Whether one man died that night or two or three is anyone’s guess. Whether Will is a hero, a villain, or a victim depends on who’s telling the story.
The manhunt takes up the airwaves for weeks. For weeks, Hannibal Lecter’s face is all she sees whenever she turns on the TV.
She’s seen him before, of course. His trial was widely publicized. It was before she knew Will, and she’d hardly been invested in the outcome. It was just another bit of bad news. Just another piece of tabloid gossip to look at while waiting in line at the grocery store, but impossible to miss all the same. Molly tries to remember what she’d thought of him then. She’d surely seen his face at the time, Hannibal the Cannibal, but it hadn’t been compelling enough to stick itself to her memory.
She knows his face now. Cutting cheekbones and dead eyes, a finely sculpted face that manages to be nothing so much as reptilian. He’d haunt her dreams, if she had any.
The news cycle is obsessed, but so is she. For every four pictures of Hannibal Lecter, there’s one of Will. She recognizes some of them—his passport photo, the awful picture from the DMV taken while she waited with Wally. There are other pictures she doesn’t recognize, though. Pictures of him and Lecter standing close together, shoulder to shoulder. He looks younger and thinner. He’s smiling in some of them. She doesn’t know if he ever smiled that way at her.
She’s beginning to hate the phrase “armed and dangerous” almost as much as she hates the phrase “presumed dead.”
Mostly it’s strange to see someone who was just yours suddenly belong to everyone else.
Even knowing what he’s done—what they think he’s done, what she fears he has—some part of her still wants his name out of their mouths. (Her name too, now.)
He was a good man, she thinks, and it’s always past tense in her head. She tries not to dwell on the way she says was.
Eventually CNN and NBC give up on the story. Time marches on and so does the news. There’s a hurricane in Guatemala. A bad flu bug fills hospitals. A nutjob in Florida starts killing people.
Jack Crawford shows up at her house. Natural disasters abound.
She thinks about spitting at him, and it’s the first thought that’s made her honest-to-god smile in days. She settles for asking, “What do you want?” through the screen door instead.
“Can we talk?” He asks, hat in hand. It looks so much like a parody.
“Is it about Will?”
Stupid question. Of course it’s about Will, but Jack only says, “Can we talk inside?”
Wally is upstairs playing video games, probably won’t emerge for hours, but she still doesn’t want this man in her house. She crosses her arms. “No. And unless you have some news for me, I don’t want to talk at all.” She presses him. “Do you have news?”
“There’s been a possible sighting in Pennsylvania, Mrs. Graham. We think your husband may be alive.”
There’s ringing in her ears; it’s the strangest thing. She grips the doorknob so hard that flecks of rust peel off beneath her fingers.
“What does that mean?” she asks. “Is he a hostage? Is he all right?”
“It means there’s a warrant out for his arrest. Has he attempted to contact you at all?”
“No, he hasn’t. I thought he was dead.”
He hesitates. “If there’s somewhere you can stay, you and your son—somewhere Will doesn’t know about—I’d suggest you go there.”
“No. This is our home, Wally’s and mine, and we’re not being chased out of it. Not by dragons or cannibals, not by Will, and certainly not by you, Agent Crawford.”
Jack sighs, but he doesn’t try to convince her. From the resignation in his voice, Molly doesn’t think he actually expected a different answer. “I can get a patrol car out here and have your house monitored for a few weeks.” He reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out a business card. “Call me if you see or hear anything, no matter what time of the day or night.”
He holds out the card, and Molly looks at it, biting her lip. At last she swings the screen door open and takes it.
“Have a good evening, Mrs. Graham.”
Molly does not say thank you. Her fingers feel numb when she closes the door.
* * *
Just because she stays doesn’t mean she’s not afraid. Molly checks the locks on the doors obsessively. She slides the deadbolts and does up the latch. She gets out of bed not once but twice, just to check and recheck. She buys a gun.
Will is alive.
Will is alive, which means he’s a murderer. Which means he’s a fugitive, which means he left her, and he’s really, actually not coming back.
Her first thought, and the stupidest one, is that she thought he would have called. But he’s alive and breathing, and apparently walking around somewhere not even two states over. He just didn’t call. He just kissed her goodbye in a hospital room, acted like he was coming back, and left without a word.
Even her ex-husband wasn’t that much of an asshole.
(Her ex-husband wasn’t a murderer either. Her ex-husband didn’t run off with a notorious, insane, serial killing cannibal. Christ.)
She needs a drink. She probably needs several drinks.
She glances at the clock. It’s 11 p.m. It’s late, and Wally is asleep. It’s as good a time as any. She tiptoes down the stairs and finds her way to Will’s liquor cabinet where a fine layer of dust has begun to settle over everything. So far she’s left all his things undisturbed, right where he left them, as if he might walk in the door and back into their lives at any minute. As though she were holding his place open for him.
She feels like a sucker.
The whiskey’s as good a place to start as any. Molly picks the most expensive one out of spite, a gift from her father to Will last Christmas. She grabs a tumbler, wipes it out with her shirt, and pours a few inches in the glass. She’s about to leave the bottle but takes it upstairs with her on a whim. Might as well. Molly is feeling long overdue to make some bad decisions.
She’s been handling this all so well, everyone says so. By ‘well’ they mean diminutive in her grief—she doesn’t bother people with it. She holds it in and shoves it down and gets on with it. She has a kid to raise and a mortgage to pay, and she doesn’t have time to fall apart. But maybe just the once, she could.
Wally is sleeping so she can’t blast music like she used to do after breakups, when she was younger, before life got so weird and hard, but she does put on Ani DiFranco. She closes the door and plays it softly so only she can hear. The whiskey is smooth and slides down easy, and Molly drinks it fast enough that the room spins pleasantly when she lays on top of the covers. She lets the music wash over her and stares at the ceiling.
The record ends, and she plays it from the beginning and refills her glass. By the time she’s on her third (was it fourth?) cup, the room is starting to spin more heavily. Somewhere along the way she decides it’s a good idea to take a trip down memory lane. She pulls the shoebox from her closet, the one filled with photographs and letters from ex-lovers. She’s always been sentimental, and she’s feeling maudlin tonight.
There’s a picture of Will and Wally in there, both grinning as they wrangle a squirming fish—Wally’s first catch. It had barely been bigger than her hand, but Will had cleaned and cooked it and made much of Wally’s success. He’d acted like it was the best fish in the world. Wally had been on the moon for days.
There’s a picture of the both of them at their wedding. There’s cake on their faces, and they’re laughing, totally oblivious of the camera. They look like they’re in love. Molly traces a finger down the side of her own likeness’ smiling face, thinking of how much she didn’t know then.
Her phone rings, and she’s blinking back tears when she picks up.
“Good evening, Molly.”
It’s a voice she doesn’t recognize, thick with an accent and coolly cordial.
She narrows her eyes. “Who is this?”
“Molly,” he chides, as though she’s being purposefully obtuse. “I think you know.”
Her fingers tighten around the cell phone, and maybe it’s because she’s spectacularly drunk, but the next thing out of her mouth is, “Fuck you , you—you homewrecker. ”
A moment of stunned silence stretches out between them, until Molly startles herself into laughter. Jesus Christ, she’s just called the most notorious serial killer in America a homewrecker.
“Do you feel better?” he asks. He doesn't sound angry. More amused than anything.
She thinks it over. “Yeah. A little, actually.”
“Glad to hear it. Have you been drinking?”
She blinks. That wasn’t a question she’d been expecting. She raises her whiskey in a toast he can’t see. “Seemed like the thing to do. It’s been a crap few weeks.”
“And today harder than most, I imagine. Jack Crawford paid you a visit.”
“How do you know that?”
He ignores the question. “What did you tell him?”
“To leave me alone.”
She thinks she hears a faint chuckle over the line. “Good for you.”
“Where are you calling from?” Molly asks, feeling out the edges of this conversation. She’s met with silence and prods at it. “Are you in Pennsylvania?”
“You know I can’t tell you that,” he says easily.
She blows out a breath. “Right, I guess you couldn’t.”
More silence, then Doctor Lecter speaks again. “Do you have any questions I can answer?”
Molly thinks, taking the time to choose her words with care. She’s caught between what she wants to know and what she doesn’t, what he’ll answer and what he won’t. Despite his open, breezy words, she doesn’t think he’ll tolerate all that many questions from her.
She’s aware he’s playing with her. There’s a moment when she’s aware that she should hang up the phone, but it passes, and she doesn’t.
“Is Will with you?” The words leave her mouth as barely more than breath.
“Is he okay?”
She hears a rustle and imagines he’s looking at Will. It’s late—is he sleeping? Do his nightmares still bother him, or have they stopped now that he’s given in and walked into the nightmare of his own free will? Are they laughing at her together? The thought makes her crumple the bedspread in a tight fist.
“I believe he will be.” Doctor Lecter sounds… soft. Sincere. She feels sick.
She swallows, treading on dangerous ground. “Has he killed for you?”
He pauses long enough to let the words ring, to let them twist and knot in her mind, to let them cut at her heart.
Then he says, “Goodnight, Molly.”
“Goodnight,” she whispers, and the line goes dead.
* * *
She doesn’t tell anyone about the phone call. In the morning she thinks she could have dreamed it, except for the call from a private number in her call log. They talked for seven minutes.
She thinks about calling Agent Crawford, even going so far as to fish his business card out of the junk drawer in the kitchen, but in the end she doesn’t. She doesn’t know why she doesn’t. Maybe she just wants everyone to leave her alone. Maybe she’s afraid he’d come after Wally if she did.
Maybe she just wants to see what happens next.
The days go by, and there’s dinner to cook and Wally to drive to school. There’s shifts at the vet clinic and occasionally calls with Susan, and Molly doesn’t forget about her late night chat with Hannibal Lecter so much as she pushes it to the back of her mind. She’s got a life to reassemble. It doesn’t really bear dwelling on.
Except he calls her again a week later.
She stares at the smooth, glassy surface of her smartphone for long seconds before picking up. Unknown Caller, it says. She thinks about letting it ring. Just before it goes to voicemail, she picks up.
“Hello,” she says.
“Hello, Molly. You’re up late.”
“I could say the same to you.”
“My schedule is a bit irregular these days. This is the best time for a phone call.”
“I’ve always been a night owl,” Molly volunteers without entirely meaning to. It’s strange, making small talk with a killer. “Why are you calling me?”
“Perhaps I have a curiosity. Perhaps I believe I owe you a debt, and you could use someone to talk to.”
“I have friends.”
“Do you talk to them about what keeps you up so late at night? The reason sleep so often eludes you?”
Molly chews on the inside of her cheek. “No.”
“Therapy is so valuable because a psychiatrist wants nothing from you. Is nothing to you. You’re free to express yourself and say what you will without fear of reprisal, without compromising the relationships on which you rely.”
Molly snorts. “Are you offering to be my therapist?”
“I’m not sure I could afford your fee, doctor.”
“But you’ve already paid, haven’t you?”
The heavy truth of it sinks like a stone in her gut.
“Is that how this works? I give you Will, and you give me this?”
“He was always coming with me, one way or another. He belongs to me, and we belong to each other. At least this way, you might get something out of it for yourself.”
It’s a little fascinating, how he can say such things that rip her apart while sounding like he’s discussing the weather. And yet there’s a kind of undeniable logic to it, twisted as it is. She finds herself almost, almost wanting to agree.
Almost, but not quite.
“It’s kind of sick that you talk about him like that. He’s a person. You can’t own people.”
“Will is of course his own person. I never meant to imply otherwise. And yet I’m calling to talk about you.”
She laughs. As if there’s any way to talk about her without talking about Will anymore. Even in his absence, he’s still so very present. “What about me?”
“Are you well? ‘How are you holding up,’ as they say?”
“I’m…” she trails off. “This is so fucked up. It’s fucked up that I’m talking to you, of all people. I can’t do this.”
“Try,” he encourages.
“Mostly I’m angry. I’m angry at you, and I’m angry at him. That he would just leave. Just leave me in the hospital, run off without saying goodbye. Leave me to deal with Jack Crawford and all this bullshit. That he’d leave Wally without a dad again.”
She leans her head against the wall to catch her breath. Her blood is pounding in her ears. She didn’t think she had this much anger in her, didn’t expect to get so worked up. It’s not like she has much of a chance to indulge it. She hasn’t touched alcohol again, not since she spoke to Doctor Lecter last week. It’s not a habit she can afford. All she can do is smile, stuff it down, make it work.
“Is that all?” Doctor Lecter asks, voice infuriatingly mild. “Do you blame yourself at all?”
“Of course I blame myself,” she hisses. “I married a man who ran off with a serial killer. A serial killer who tried to kill him and framed him for murder, and apparently that’s still better than being with me. I let him around my son, and I didn’t see it. I didn’t see any of it.”
“You may not think so right now, but your choice does you credit. Will is exceptional in many ways.”
Molly can’t help the rude snort that escapes her at that. It’s that or cry, and she’s not about to start crying to this man. Talking to him is bad enough.
“And if it’s any consolation,” Doctor Lecter says, “Will is frightfully good at concealing that which he wants concealed. It’s unlikely you could have known. He wouldn’t have let you.”
Molly hummed. “You sound like you’ve found yourself on the wrong end of that particular skill once or twice, Doctor Lecter.”
There is often silence during their phone calls, but something about the quality of this particular silence makes Molly feel as though she’s scored a point. They talk about everything and nothing for a few more minutes. Molly doesn’t remember who ends the call first.
* * *
“Our wedding anniversary would have been on Sunday,” Molly says as soon as she picks up the phone.
The same perfectly polite voice answers back. “It’s your anniversary still. You aren’t legally divorced.”
“Legally, no. I can’t rightly say we’re still married, though.”
“No, I suppose not.”
She wonders where he sits, when he talks to her. She won’t ask. Her mind fills in the details instead. Somewhere expensive, probably. The newspapers all said that Hannibal Lecter was a distinguished psychiatrist and a Baltimore socialite. She imagines him sitting in a leather chair in front of a fire. She doesn’t know if he drinks, but she imagines he sips whiskey as they talk—probably because she associates him with Will, but she lets the mental picture stand. It’s comforting, in a way, to imagine him doing ordinary things. It makes him seem more human and less monstrous.
“Will you do anything to commemorate the occasion?”
“No,” Molly says. “I don’t think so. Seems a bit morbid, like dancing on a grave. Happy things are meant to be commemorated. Not this.”
“And what is this?”
“A death. A reason to mourn.”
“But we mark deaths. We do it all the time. What are funerals, if not a way to commemorate the dead?”
He does this, she’s noticed. He runs her in circles until she wants to agree with him without really considering what she’s agreeing to. Molly takes extra care to think before she speaks, when she speaks with him.
“I’ll consider it,” she says. “How is Pennsylvania?”
“I hear it’s unseasonably warm this time of year.”
“Imagine that,” Molly says.
“Yes, I suppose I’ll have to.”
They both know he’s in Pennsylvania—that he and Will both are—but Doctor Lecter will never admit it.
Will. There go her thoughts again, doing things entirely without her permission. Her mind is wandering that way, and she doesn’t feel inclined to reel it back.
“Do you talk to him about me? Does he know we talk?”
She wasn’t really expecting a different answer, but she’s surprised that it still stings. “Why not?”
He hesitates. It’s so slight, but they’ve talked enough times now that Molly is learning to recognize it. “It wouldn’t be good for him.” A pause. “And I suppose I don’t want to.”
“You don’t like sharing,” Molly translates.
“I don’t, no.”
She nods even though he can’t see it. A possessive serial killer, who would’ve thought? It would’ve been weirder if he wasn’t, she supposes. Although nothing about this is normal to begin with. Molly bites her lip and asks before she can talk herself out of it. “Does he think about me?”
“I can’t say that I know.”
He sounds colder, more distant. He ends the call quickly.
* * *
Sunday dawns, and the sun rises the way it does every day. The dogs bark at the postman leaving the paper. Wally wakes up late, and Molly makes pancakes. It’s a day utterly unremarkable in every way.
After breakfast, Wally helps clear the dishes. She does the washing up while he watches TV. She can hear the sounds of canned laughter and sound effects drifting in from the living room. They go to the park and let the dogs run. Molly throws sticks for them again and again until her arm is sore, then switches to the other arm. Wally rides his bike in circles around them, peddling faster and faster when the dogs decide chasing him is more fun than chasing sticks.
Wally’s grin is contagious, and they stay out longer than she’d planned. By the time they walk back to the car, they’re both breathless and laughing. Molly’s hair has escaped from its braid, and wisps of it are tickling her face and neck. The light’s grown orange and dim, and the shadows stretch long to reach for them all.
Molly loads Wally’s bike in the trunk while he cajoles the dogs into the van, talking excitedly about the cool catch Buster made. He keeps talking for most of the ride home, and Molly lets herself float in his happy chatter. When he grows silent, Molly glances back in the rear view mirror.
Wally’s fast asleep with his tipped back against the passenger window and mouth open. Winston has his head resting in Wally’s lap, and her son’s fingers are tangled in his fur. Molly smiles.
When they get back home, she lets the engine idle for a few more minutes, not wanting to disturb the peace that Wally’s found. It’s just such a nice moment. It feels like a respite, fragile as a soap bubble. Like this one day was cut out from their lives and set apart somewhere calmer and more gentle. Finally, she rouses him. She gets him and the dogs into the house amid half-hearted grumbles and tired tail wags. She makes Easy Mac for dinner, and it’s an early night for everyone.
After everyone’s in bed, Molly’s left alone in the kitchen. Her hand hovers over the light switch before she relents. She goes to the freezer and opens it, pulls out packages of vacuum-sealed fish and frozen peas, stacks them all in a pile on the counter.
Sitting in the back of the freezer is their wedding cake, hers and Will’s. She takes it out and sets it on the counter, just looking at it.
They would have eaten it today, she thinks. It would have tasted like butter, sugar, and freezer burn. They would have eaten it anyway while reminiscing about the wedding— do you remember when and your cousin wore and can you believe we cried. They’d have eaten it with hot toddies, maybe. Or with wine. They would have gone to bed and made love, whispered happy anniversary in the dark.
Now they’ll do none of these things. It still feels like someone’s stolen something from her.
Molly thinks about what Doctor Lecter said about commemorating loss, and she unceremoniously dumps the cake into the trash.
I did it! I dusted off this six-month old WIP and finished it. :)
Wally’s angry lately. He’s angry, and he’s been snapping—at her and his teachers—and Molly can’t say she rightly blames him. She’s angry too. Still, that doesn’t mean he gets a break from acting like a civilized human being. Neither of them do, and it’s still her job to make sure he grows up to be a decent person.
It just seems right to cut him some slack, is all. He’s a kid. He’s a kid surrounded by other kids, and she remembers how awful they can be. She can only imagine the things they must say to him on the playground, after school. He came home with bruised knuckles and a fat lip one day and refused to talk about it, but she could guess well enough.
She should cut him some slack because the world sure as hell won’t.
Molly takes a deep breath. She counts to ten. She lets go of the first thing that wants to come out of her mouth, the I can’t take this from you too lurking there.
“Do you want to talk about it, kiddo?” she asks instead.
“No thanks,” Wally says without looking up.
He disappears back into the world inside his cell phone, tapping out messages and smiling at things that only he can see. Once upon a time she’d have insisted on no screens at the dining table, but maybe they can both use a break, just for a little while. It’s not a hill she wants to die on.
She wants to make him tell her what’s wrong, to make him talk to her. She wants to say more, to explain. To apologize, god how she wants to apologize. For letting him into their lives, for doing this to the both of them. She does neither of those things. “Okay,” she says. “But I’m here if you need me. You know that, right?”
She looks at Wally until he meets her eyes, much too serious for 7 o’clock on a Wednesday morning over empty cereal bowls and yesterday’s mail sprawled across the kitchen table. He ducks his head.
“Yeah, mom. I know.”
* * *
When Wally was a little boy, he had trouble tying his shoelaces. He struggled and struggled, and when he came to her, Molly had wiped the tears from his cheeks with the corner of her sleeve and peppered kisses on his face until he was squealing with laughter. When he’d finally settled, Molly sat him down in the crook of her lap and guided his fingers with her own.
“You make two bunny ears and loop them together,” Molly said. “There! See?”
He nodded, and Molly pulled on the end of one shoelace to pull it free.
“Now you try.”
“Two bunny ears… into the hole… there!” Walter looked up at her, beaming with pride. “Like this?”
Molly kissed the top of his head. “Just like that. Things get easier with practice. One day you’ll be a pro.”
She rested her cheek against the top of her little boy’s head and breathed him in, squeezed him tight until he squirmed. “Mooom,” he’d complained.
“Sorry, sorry,” she said with a little wistful grin. She let him go, and he leapt up.
“I’m going to see if Johnny wants to play.” He looked at her, looking for permission, and Molly nodded. “Go,” she said with a smile, and then he was off. The screen door banged behind him as he went.
She felt warm, strong arms wrap around her from behind and looked up, smiling into her husband’s face.
“He’s growing up so fast,” she’d said.
“He really is,” Jim had said, kissing her cheek.
In the present, Molly blinks and dashes tears from the corner of her eyes. Wally will be home soon, and she doesn’t want him to see his mom crying. She doesn’t know where that memory came from. She hasn’t thought of Jim in years.
If practice makes perfect, she thinks bitterly, I must be getting really good at marriage. I’ve done it so many times.
She starts dinner, because what else can you do?
* * *
“You’re not what I expected at all,” Molly says the next time they speak on the phone.
“And what were you expecting?”
“A monster. Someone who would cut my heart out as soon as look at me.”
“I might still.”
Molly chews her lip. “If I ever think you’re going to hurt Wally, I’ll go to straight to Jack Crawford and tell him everything.”
“All of nothing is still nothing, Molly.” She doesn’t have an answer to that. He’s right, and she hates it. “You promise retribution for Wally’s life and not your own. Tell me, do these conversations make it harder to hate me?”
She snorts. “No. I can hate you just fine, Doctor Lecter.”
“That’s excellent. Hatred brings clarity.”
She cocks an eyebrow that he can’t see, cradles the phone in between her ear and shoulder as she washes the dishes that are piled high in the sink. “You aren’t going to tell me that hating someone is like swallowing poison and expecting the other person to die?”
Doctor Lecter sounds genuinely perplexed. “Why would I say that?”
“It’s—” she huffs. “Never mind.”
“Hatred and the resultant clarity are fine qualities,” He continues in that bewitchingly smooth, pleasant tone. She thinks of him as a snake charmer, tries not to think about what that makes Will. “Life is easier when you know how to feel.”
She never knows what to think when he does this. He says things no one else does, doesn’t feed her platitudes about forgiving and forgetting . He tells her things she wants to believe, things that make a horrible, twisted kind of sense. It’s too easy to find herself nodding along if she isn’t careful.
“This is what you do, isn’t it? You get people to agree to things, horrible things, and you make them think it was their idea, just by dripping poison in their ear a little at a time. You’re so well-dressed, so well-mannered, I bet people fall for it all the time.”
“Is that what you think I do?” He sounds pleased. Proud. Of her, of himself, who’s to say. She doesn’t know Doctor Lecter well enough to tell, and she doesn’t want to.
There’s a clatter and a crash in the kitchen, and Molly sighs. “I have to go. I think one of the dogs got into something.”
There’s a rustle over the line.
“Goodnight,” she says.
* * *
Molly takes them on day trip to the beach. God knows they could both use a vacation.
Thinking of the ocean still gives her hives. She gets the heebie-jeebies when she thinks of a modern house with broken glass windows, a dark smear on the patio that might be blood—and maybe that’s why it has to be the beach. Molly is tired of being afraid of things.
She puts on a bathing suit that’s a little looser than it used to be—skipping meals because you’re afraid your ex-husband is going to turn up at your door is apparently a really great dieting technique—and she loads Wally into the car along with a gaggle of dogs. They drive to the shore. Winter is rapidly approaching, and the water must be freezing. It’s a deep, glacial blue capped with white peaks of foam, beautiful and remote.
She spreads a big blanket out over the sand and throws their beach bag down over the top of it. It’s harder to put sunscreen on by herself—there are places on her back she’s not sure she manages to get, but she takes her time and does her best. She resolutely does not think of Will, except to think that it’s strange they never went to the beach together in all those years. She makes Wally sit still for his turn with the sunscreen, grumbling the whole time.
When she’s done, he’s off like a shot. He jumps in the water, fearless as anything, whooping and jumping at the feeling of seawater against his skin.
“I like your dance!” she teases from the shore.
“It’s cold!” he hollers back.
The dogs follow him in, paddling sideways against the current. Molly shields her eyes against the sun and watches. When they get tired of swimming, Wally runs along the shore with the dogs, splashing in and out of the water. He finds a stick somewhere, a long, gnarled bit of wood as long as his arm. He looks like the pied piper of dogs as he raises it, faking the dogs out once, twice before giving a throw that sends them bolting down the shoreline. He chases after them, running barefoot on the sand.
They’re almost alone. Not many people decided to brave the beach in this weather. The few who had look up at the racket their family makes—Wally laughing, the dogs barking—but Molly can’t bring herself to care.
It’s too good to see him laughing. To see him happy, finally. He deserves some happiness. They all do.
She leans back against the sand and lets the cold winter sun kiss her skin all over.
* * *
She keeps talking to Hannibal fucking Lecter. She’s not sure if the therapy is actually helping or if she’s just relieved to know there’s somebody out there who’s objectively more fucked up than she is. Either way, she keeps picking up the phone. Tonight she’s in a mood. She should know better than to talk to him when she’s been drinking, but then, she should know better than to do a lot of things.
“I know what you do. You turn people into killers. Is that what you want with me?”
“You're not a killer, Molly.”
She blinks back tears and blames it on the wine. It’s actually kind of fascinating how he can always say the exact worst thing.
“Is that why he left?”
She hears a soft hushing sound, imagines he’s sipping from a glass of wine of his own. “I believe it’s one reason of many.”
The fact that he can’t actually see her crying is a small consolation.
“Could I have ever been enough?”
“I honestly don’t know.” There’s a pause, the first hint of hesitation she’s ever heard from him. It makes him seem almost human. “I do believe that if Will had sent Jack Crawford away that day he came knocking, he would still be with you now.”
She hangs up the phone before the sob has a chance to tear its way out of her throat.
* * *
The bills are piling up. Have been for a while now, but it’s getting to the point where she can’t ignore it any longer. She’s behind on the mortgage. Collections are starting to call.
“Damn vultures,” she hisses as she slams down the phone.
Wally looks up from where he’s doing his homework at the table, and she sighs. “Sorry, baby.”
“It’s okay,” Wally says. He’s gotten so damn good at rolling with the punches. She’s proud of him, but she wishes he didn’t have to be. “Is everything alright?”
“Yeah. Everything’s fine,” Molly says, brighter than she feels.
* * *
She’s all but stopped picking up the phone—increasingly persistent collections calls will do that to a person; there should really be a law against that—so it’s a wonder she takes his call. They’ve been fewer and farther between lately, and Molly finds herself wondering what he and Will have been up to. It’s hard to fit together what she knows of Will—grumpy before his coffee, happy with his family but loathe to talk to strangers Will—with what she’s gathered of Doctor Lecter. He was some socialite who threw dinner parties and went to black tie events. She could barely get Will to come visit her parents.
She tries to imagine flat-eyed, smirking Hannibal Lecter covered in dog fur. Tries to imagine him helping nurse a sick puppy through the night like she had once, and finds that she can’t. But then, she couldn’t picture Will running off with a killer either, so maybe her imagination’s just a dud.
“Hello, Doctor Lecter.”
“You sound tired.”
She snorts. “Yeah, well. What else is new?”
“Have you been sleeping poorly?”
“Not for the reasons anyone expects. Everyone expects that I’m terrified. That I lie awake in bed at night worrying that you’ll come kill me, or that I cry myself to sleep over Will leaving.”
She shrugs even though he can’t see it. “I dunno. I just—you can’t be terrified of the big stuff for that long, you know? And there’s only so much grief you can feel before you get sick of it and sick of yourself.” She lies on her bed and looks up at the ceiling. She’d changed the lighting in the months since Will’s been gone—exchanged harsh, utilitarian bulbs for soft, moody lamplight that casts a pink glow across the room. “I can’t sleep for normal reasons. I worry about bills. I think about something stupid someone said to me at work. I hope my son grows up to be good and happy and wonder if I’m doing enough to make it happen.”
“For whatever it’s worth, I think you’re doing an admirable job. You provide your son with a safe place to live, enough food to eat, and a parent who loves him. That’s more than many can say.”
It shouldn’t be worth anything. It shouldn’t make her feel better to be given affirmations from a serial killer, but of course it does. Not for the first time, she thinks that Hannibal must have been a hell of a therapist. He probably could have helped a lot of people if he didn’t decide to kill them.
“Why did you turn out the way you did? I don’t think people just wake up one day and decide to eat other people.”
“That is something the illustrious doctors at the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane attempted to puzzle out at length.”
“Did they figure it out?”
He chuckles softly. “No. Why are any of us the way we are? What causes one man to become an artist and another to become a banker? Is it nature or nurture, or some combination of both? I decided. What will you decide?”
She raises her hand and stares at it, the place where her wedding ring used to be. She considers his question.
“I’ll go to sleep, wake up in the morning and get ready for work, drive Wally to school. I’ll do it again and again, and things won’t change until maybe one day they will. One day I’ll feel better. I’ll meet someone who makes me smile.” She laughs softly to herself. “Maybe I’ll get a new dog.”
“Is that all that you aspire to?”
She shrugs. “It’s not such a bad way to spend a life. It sounds peaceful. Happy, even.”
She doesn't tell him about the foreclosure, the mortgage she can't quite cover on one salary. It turns out she doesn't need to. An unmarked envelope arrives on Christmas day, with a check inside so large that Molly swears a blue streak and has to sit down.
She almost keeps it. She wants to keep it. It’s a lot of money, and it would solve so many of her problems. It would help her sleep at night.
It wouldn’t, though. Not really.
There’s no such thing as a free lunch, and Molly’s never taken handouts from anyone. She certainly doesn’t intend to start now—certainly not from him of all people.
She takes one last look at the check with a wistful sigh, all those zeroes. She rips it up and throws it in the trash, then bundles it up and puts it out on the curb for good measure. She passes Wally playing outside with the dogs. He looks up and grins as she walks by, and she raises her hand in a small wave.
When she gets back inside, she watches him from the kitchen window for a while, sipping coffee that’s stale and cold from this morning.
They’re going to lose the house.
They’re going to lose the house, and it’s not that it doesn’t matter—it matters a lot. It’s just not the only thing that matters.
She laughs softly to herself as Wally skids into a snowbank only to emerge whooping and crowing, eyes and cheeks bright.