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The Loneliness Creeping Up Your Spine

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QUANTICO, VIRGINIA
OCTOBER 26, 1981

He goes to work.

And he doesn’t do a lot of talking. Interactions and relationships are still frayed at the edges. Holden wishes it were getting better, but it seems be deteriorating instead. Not between Wendy and Bill or Wendy, Bill, and Gregg, but between Wendy and Holden, Bill and Holden, and Wendy, Bill, Gregg, and Holden. It’s been over four months since the Atlanta cases ended, a year and a half since Holden’s hospitalization and diagnosis of panic disorder, four months since Bill’s wife left him, but he isn’t sure any amount of time will fix what is this level of broken.

He heads to the basement.

Wendy judges him silently for what went wrong in the past, and it’s as if she will never let it go. Maybe she shouldn’t. He gets that he fucked up in irrevocable ways, but he apologized. He said sorry for jeopardizing their entire unit and project. Since he got back from Atlanta, he hasn’t been acting on his instincts. He isn’t myopic or impulsive. He thinks carefully and calculatedly about the way he speaks during interviews. There hasn’t been one mention of ‘pussy’ or ‘ripe cunts’ or victims ‘looking tasty.’ Of course, he only stooped to that level of vernacular to glean a greater understanding of why killers like Richard Speck kill n the ways they do, but he shouldn’t have said those things. Phrases, statements, and questions of that nature are sensitive.

“I never want to hear something again where I can’t tell the difference between some lowlife degenerate and my agent.”

So, he changes the way he approaches these interviews. It’s simply a transaction between co-workers. No longer is he trying to speak their language or mimic their mannerisms. If they want cigarettes, he gives them cigarettes. If they don’t want to talk about the murders or if they gain nothing from the interview, Holden doesn’t push. His confidence has taken blow after blow the last year and a half, and it’s almost like the fight in him dissipated. He leaves the shop talk, the bullshitting, the ignorance, the directing to Bill; Holden prefers to take notes now instead. He stays mostly silent. No one seems to like it much when he talks anyway.

He sets his briefcase on his desk.

Bill barely looks him in the eye, much less holds conversations with him. It took almost a month for Bill to mention, in passing, that Nancy left and took Brian with her. When Holden offered to buy him a drink, Bill turned it down hastily, mention dinner plants after work. Holden’s tried quite a few times to engage his partner, but Bill seems to like pushing him away more than anything. On the days where they’re in the basement, Holden now stays at his desk unless he is directed otherwise. Bill and Wendy gab back and forth in Wendy’s office. Sometimes, Gregg joins in too if he finds the conversation fascinating. Holden hears all of it, but stays uninvolved.

When they’re on the road, Holden spends his time staring out the window at the trees, hills, and lakes passing by. He watches the season change from summer to autumn, the leaves fall, the sun hide behind the clouds, the frost on the windows. Bill sometimes makes offhanded comments about the price of cigarettes in a particular city, but that’s about it. Holden gave up on trying to make Bill open up to him a long time ago, especially after Bill told Holden that what Holden was going through was ‘insignificant’ compared to what he was going through.

Holden understands. He just has panic attacks, but Bill lost his wife and son. Based on Wendy and Bill’s conversations through Wendy’s half-open door, Bill talks to Nancy on the phone occasionally to get updates on Brian. Apparently, they live in Ohio near her parents; Brian is still quiet and has a hard time socializing, but he talks more at home since he started at his new school. He stopped wetting the bed and is slowly becoming more respondent to people around him, like his teachers and grandparents and, one time, another kid his age.

And he sits down.

Their two new interns who help with transcriptions are already here. They know better than to ask Holden for instruction.

He pulls out case files from yesterday and begins going over them, pen in hand. He is only through the second page when he hears footsteps and laughter approaching. Bill and Wendy, with Gregg trailing closely behind them, enter seconds later.

“I can’t believe you said that to him,” Wendy laughs, a coffee in hand.

Bill shrugs. “He had it coming.”

“Remind me to come to breakfast with you guys more often,” Gregg says.

Holden keeps his eyes on the file in front of him. Every now and then, he notes, this – the comradery he misses – hurts. It’s a stinging in his stomach that boils over and swells. It used to really bother him, to the point of crying alone in his apartment after hours, but it’s different now. He knows where he stands. The clarification is good, and it puts him in his place.

“We’re going over some new subjects in half an hour,” Wendy says. He doesn’t look up; he isn’t sure who she’s talking to. “Holden?”

He snaps into attention. He nods but offers nothing else.

And he wishes there were windows down here. He misses being able to look outside. At home, he sits and watches the trees sway and the bird fly, hypnotized by the beauty of nature. It never disappoints, and it doesn’t ask him for anything in return. But it’s just so dark and bleak down here. Sometimes, it’s hard to stay focused in the dreary stillness. Sometimes, it makes the things he tries so hard to keep at bay resurface.

He drops his pen. He hears Wendy and Bill talking in Wendy’s office. He tries to ignore the loneliness building in his gut, sitting square on his chest, gripping him by the shoulders. He pushes himself up, shaking and stumbling as he leaves. No one stops him or says anything. Nausea bubbling in his throat, he spies the red exit sign down the hall and lets his feet carry him there. He pushes the door open. The brisk, frigid autumn air welcomes him home. He takes a deep breath in, followed by another. The cold on the tip of his tongue opens his lungs. He sits on his favorite bench, hunched over and hands folded together. He counts.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven eight.

His psychiatrist has him do this now when he gets overwhelmed. The counting keeps him present in the moment. Holden is prone to disassociating when he panics. Counting is a much healthier coping mechanism than drinking or regurgitating every meal he half-eats. Holden doesn’t mind it. It keeps him focused. Being outside helps too.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven –

“Wendy wants to see you in her office.”

Holden sits up, eyes wet and heart hammering in his chest. It’s Gregg. He didn’t even hear him come out this way. He needs to pay more attention.

The last thing he needs is for his co-workers to think less of him than they already do.

Holden nods. Gregg goes back inside.

And he wipes his cheeks quickly, tears slipping between his fingertips. Breathing quickly, he straightens himself out, smoothing his hands over his button up. He hasn’t been ironing lately. His clothes are wrinkly. It bothers him distantly. It used to overwhelm him and cause anxiety, but it feels so pointless to care about now. His psychiatrist says he’s depressed. She gave him trazodone, 100 milligrams, that he’s supposed to take once a day, but he usually doesn’t. Even though Valium makes him tired, he prefers it. Trazodone knocks him flat on his ass within an hour and doesn’t improve his moods; instead, it makes him sick to his stomach and sleepy.

Holden is inside once again, following Gregg. Gregg sits at his desk, but Holden heads toward Wendy’s office. The door is half-open again. He knocks.

“Come on in, Holden,” Wendy says. She almost sounds pleasant.

He opens the door all the way. Bill is sitting on Wendy’s small sectional. He’s smoking a cigarette. There’s an open file in his lap. Holden carefully takes a seat in a chair in between the door and her desk. He squirms. He bounces his heel up and down. He gulps. Sweat forms on his brow. He runs a hand through his hair. He isn’t sure what he did wrong this time.

“How are you, Holden?” Wendy asks.

Holden blinks. Bill is looking at him.

“I’m fine,” he answers, voice quiet from disuse. “How are you?”

That’s how he’s supposed to answer that question, right? Then he follows up with repeating the question? That’s what his mom taught him.

Is that strange? Is he being strange right now? He feels strange.

“We’re doing pretty alright,” Wendy says. “We just received some great news.”

Holden nods. He isn’t sure how to respond to that.

“Don’t you want to know what the news is?” Bill asks, voice teetering on the edge of irritation, exasperation.

He nods again. “Yes, please.”

“What’s wrong with you?” Bill inquires, abruptly. Holden nearly jumps out of his chair. He feels like he is about to crawl out of his skin.

“Nothing’s wrong,” Holden says softly.

Bill crosses his arms over his chest. “You’ve barely said a word to us all month.”

“We’re not here to talk about that, Bill,” Wendy points out.

“Why not? I, for one, am getting a little tired of this level of unresponsiveness from him. What? Are you better than us now, kid?”

Holden’s mouth immediately becomes as dry as the Sahara Desert. He clenches and unclenches his hands, palms sweating and pulse racing. It’s the first time in over four months that Bill has addressed him directly, the first time in over four months that Bill has called him ‘kid,’ the first time in over four months Bill and Wendy acknowledged his change in attitude. His mind spins. He doesn’t know what he’s supposed to say, so he just shakes his head.

How is he to respond to this?

Sometimes, he wishes his mom were still alive so she could tell him.

“No,” he manages to squeak out. “I… I’ve been listening.”

Bill stares at him. “That’s it? Listening? What about that arrogant input we’ve all been missing so dearly?”

“We’re not doing this right now. I called you in here, Holden, to tell you that the LEAA has expanded their funding on our project.”

Holden nods. He still doesn’t know what to say.

“See?” Bill asks. “Nothing. It’s like talking to a brick wall.”

What more can he say that hasn’t already been said? The LEAA extended their funding, meaning they received more money for the work they do. Isn’t that all there is? What is he missing? He knows he’s rather socially stunted, but he can’t figure out why Bill is always so hostile toward him. He doesn’t remember being annoying recently; he lets Bill take the lead during interviews, drive, pick the music and diners, stay up all night drinking while Holden tries to sleep. Holden remembers apologizing, albeit months ago, profusely for his behavior.

Holden glances at his folded hands. “I’m sorry,” he says, trying to hide the fear in his voice.

“I don’t need an apology,” Bill tells him. “I need you to actually give a shit about the work we’re doing here.”

“I think what Bill is trying to say is,” Wendy interjects, “you’ve been very professional the last several months. It’s a far cry from the Holden we know.”

Bill scoffs. “A far cry? He barely speaks.”

“It is a little like you’re a completely different person,” Wendy says.

Tears prick the corners of his eyes. This is the most Bill and Wendy have spoken to him since Atlanta. He swallows his anguish. He rubs his fingers over his face to wipe away what will very shortly be full-sized tears.

“Do you still have panic attacks?” asks Wendy.

Holden takes a deep, shaky breath. Come on. Keep it together. “Every once and a while,” he lies.

It’s more like everyday.

In fact, it’s more like at least five times a day.

“What about the Valium? Are you still taking it?”

“Yes.”

Holden fidgets as Bill continues to stare at him. He wants this conversation to be over, if one can call this a conversation. Holden isn’t really in the mood to talk, not with his emotions so close to his sleeve. He can’t recall the last time he even wanted to talk. Everything is so blurred and dulled around the edges, each day bleeding into the next without him noticing an end in sight. But this makes him squirm. He doesn’t want to be the center of attention, with all eyes on him, with people waiting on responses from him and not someone else.

And he doesn’t pay attention when Wendy and Bill go back and forth on discussing how to handle their ‘Holden problem’ right in front of him. He doesn’t get it. He’s professional and does his work. He’s here on time and doesn’t complain. He takes notes and lets Bill take the reins. He tries not to be annoying and doesn’t interrupt when someone is in the middle of a sentence. What more can they possibly want from him? Not to mention, he doesn’t need a babysitter, not anymore at least. He doesn’t handle or present himself in that manner. He doesn’t need it.

He doesn’t need it he doesn’t he already feels so strange so awful about Bill and Wendy being put up to the task of watching him like a hawk during Atlanta Gunn was so convinced that Holden needed blinders that Holden needed extra supervision because he’s such a screw up he knows he is a screw up Bill tells him Wendy tells him his own father used to tell him that he was a fuck up a waste of space a good for nothing spoiled brat a fag a piece of shit he knows he knows he knows he isn’t sure how much more of this he can take before doing something bad

Bad he wants to be bad he wants to do bad he thinks about the killers they interview how they thought they were born bad from the beginning how others thought the same but Holden isn’t so sure evil is born evil can be made what if he was evil or what if he just didn’t care he doesn’t want to care anymore it hurts too much he wants to quit he honestly does as much as he loves his work there is something irrevocably broken inside of him and he doesn’t want to fix it

It almost feels good faintly like a chilly breeze on a summer day here one second then gone the next –

“Holden, are you alright?” he hears.

And he nods.

 


He goes home.

Books a flight. Throws out his ‘autographed’ copy of Helter Skelter. Tosses his own copies of their transcripts. Burns Kemper’s cards, opens his window, watches the ashes fly into the air. Shoves his favorite sweater, a couple pairs of slacks, briefs, socks into a suitcase.

Pretends he doesn’t hear his livelihood shatter in the distance. Pretends he doesn’t hear his heart break in the muffled silence. Pretends he doesn’t hear it because he doesn’t. He doesn’t hear it, not anymore.

Gets on the airplane. Takes two Valium. Let’s himself snooze in the altitude.

He’ll go back to Quantico, soon. But, for right now, he has to deal with the loneliness creeping up his spine.

And so he goes to visit the one person who can help.

Chapter Text

SIBLEY, MISSOURI
OCTOBER 27, 1981

The house at the end of Chapel Road stands proudly, centerstage like the Statue of Liberty on the 4th of July.

And the trim is electric blue, stark in contrast to the grey body, but it catches Holden’s eye right away. The grass is cut so evenly, as if someone measured each strand individually to make sure it’s absolutely perfect. There’s an apple tree in the front yard. Holden wonders if a kid’s ever left his mid-spring bike ride to grab a golden delicious before peddling off to a little league game.

Despite the suburbia mantra that everything is the same as its neighbor, the house at the end of Chapel Road remains vigilant that it will be seen.

Holden fixes his sweater. He stops halfway up the driveway to tuck it in. Heart hammering in his throat, he pats around his torso like a dog chasing its tail. His hands shake as he knocks. Shit. There’s a doorbell. Are doorbells too loud? Will that bother them? Should he ring it anyway? But he already knocked… If he knocks and then rings, it’ll be strange. It could make him seem as if he’s a stalker, hunter, predator, criminal.

He bites his bottom lip and looks down. There’s a speck of mud on his left shoe.

And Holden is still staring at his shoe when the door opens. Out comes a greying, balding, and very tall man. Holden gulps. Breathe. It’ll only be odd if he makes it odd.

“Hi,” he says softly, extending his hand. “My name is Holden. I… I, um, used to live here when I was a kid.”

Was that too loud? Or too quiet? Did he stutter? He doesn’t think he stuttered.

The man crosses his arms over his chest; Holden shoves his hand in his slacks pocket and fiddles with the bottle of Valium nestled there. “And?”

“I was wondering… Um, if it’s okay to take a look around? I’m only in town for a few days, and… I think I want to see this place. I haven’t been back here since I graduated from college.”

The man continues staring at him. Holden focuses his energy on maintaining eye contact, despite the fact that he thinks he is about to jump out of his skin. “You some kinda weirdo?”

He shakes his head. “No… Definitely not. M-My family moved here right after I was born. I’ve been meaning to come back to visit.”

“You seem like a strange kid,” the man says. He offers out his hand this time. “Rich Wyszynski.”

Holden shakes it. “Holden Ford.”

Rich Wyszynski invites him inside, and that’s how Holden finds himself inside the house at the end of Chapel Road for the first time in almost ten years. It smells like lavender and vanilla now, but that’s not what it used to smell like then. He inhales deeply, trying to place the scent of warm liquor and his mother’s freshly baked oatmeal cookies. Of leather and rubber. Of sweat and bleach. Holden looks around, fighting with the awkward nature of this visit in his mind. It’s the reason he took two Valium on the drive here. He knows this isn’t normal. He knows he isn’t normal, but he’s here. For the first time in nearly a decade. And it still feels like home.

“So you used to live here?” Rich Wyszynski asks.

Holden doesn’t feel like conversing, but he has to. He has to talk in order to stay here and just… look. He’s looking for something, not physical but mental. “Yes, sir. I was actually born in New York, but my parents moved here when I was a couple months old."

And he hears Rich Wyszynski ramble about when he and his wife bought the house, how many renovations they did to it, how nice the new backyard is now compared to when they bought it, but Holden doesn’t take it in. It’s hard to pay attention while he’s here. He remembers his mom cooking spaghetti over on that stove top to his right. Remembers sauce splattering on the floor; eight-year-old Holden spilled the jar while trying to help. Father wasn’t too thrilled about that, but, don’t worry, Holden paid for it later in the evening. Remembers sitting on the floor in this living space right where he’s standing, waiting eagerly for Mom to come out of her bedroom and play Legos with him. Remembers sleeping on the sofa long since removed when he didn’t feel well, Mom nestled protectively around him, shielding him from the world.

Being here is like a punch to the gut, but also the best he’s felt in months. A lot of not so great things happened here, but it’s still his home. When he walked through the front door, it still felt like he did when he was nine, getting off the school bus and coming inside for a snack. There’s so much history tied to this building, a little monument to his childhood; it amazes him.

And this is what he came here to find. That sense of belonging. Unlike at the Bureau, Holden knows he belongs here. Sure, he doesn’t necessarily feel wanted because it isn’t his home anymore, hasn’t been for almost ten years, and his mother isn’t around, but he needed this. He needed to know if he can still function in the outside world, away from serial killers and manila envelopes and jail cells. He can. He did. He’s doing it right now.

Rich Wyszynski graciously allows him to explore the house, as long as he doesn’t go into the master bedroom. Holden shoves away the thoughts, the curiosity, building inside him. What is Rich hiding in there? What if it’s something important? Or… what if it’s nothing at all? This is his world, and it’s made him paranoid. Holden wanders down the hallway to the last room on the left, right across the way from the master. To his old room.

His old room has been turned into a frilly sewing room. Light pink wallpaper brightens the space, but it seems fake and tasteless to Holden. Not that it looked much better when he was a kid. They didn’t have a lot of money, so Holden just remembers a twin sized mattress and an old desk Father found in someone’s trash, but he did have a library card, which was free. Holden remembers checking out six books – the maximum – at a time, absorbing them, holding them tightly, inhaling them quickly before moving on to the next six. He remembers reading and taking notes on stories, essays, non-fiction works, autobiographies, plays, all sorts of things. Father ripped his library card in half more times than Holden could count, but Miss Lottie, the librarian with big red glasses, was always so nice and just made Holden a new one when he would come in teary eyed.

There are two sewing machines in the corner, along with patches of a soon to be assembled quilt on a table. He wonders briefly what kind of work Rich’s wife does or if this is simply a hobby, but then he sees it, and the thoughts vanish from his mind.

Near the closet door, right on the trim, he spies it, where his mother used to measure a young Holden’s height. He kneels down, knee in the plush carpet, and puts his hand there, right by ‘H – 3/26/55 – 5 yrs today! – 40.25 in.’ It’s faded, a hushed memory in the wind, but a piece of it remains. He runs his fingers over the faint markings, over the ticks on the wall, over the dates and height of a growing boy. He doesn’t know why Rich and his wife didn’t paint over them, but he is grateful they didn’t. Tears swell in his eyes as he continues touching the light pencil strokes. In a distant way, he feels closer to his mother.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.

And it’s a lot it’s too much he lets himself sink to the floor completely melting into the carpet around him he is ice cream on a summer’s day it is a strange sensation a strange feeling to be home after all these years Mom is dead Father isn’t here and it feels somehow as if he never even left as if he never went to become an FBI agent in Quantico it’s as if his roots are so deeply embedded here in this small house that he can’t remember living anywhere else

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.

Mom would hold him when he got overwhelmed which was easily by the smallest of inconveniences he remembers the house next door being built when he was eleven and the construction keeping him up for weeks at a time remembers Mom consoling him when he cried out that it was too much it was too loud he couldn’t sleep unless she was close by but she was always with Father and she wouldn’t say anything wouldn’t do anything when Father grabbed him by the ear by the collar by the wrist and harshly yanked him to the garage wouldn’t say anything wouldn’t do anything when Father whacked him with a belt for asking a question at the dinner table for reading too much for not making eye contact for being strange for not having any friends for having fun in the backyard by himself for anything she wouldn’t say anything wouldn’t do anything wouldn’t say wouldn’t do why didn’t she ever try to help him –

“Are you okay, son?” Rich Wyszynski asks suddenly, and Holden has no idea where he came from, how long he’s been here, how long he watched.

Holden blinks blearily, lifting his chin from his chest. He wipes the tears away. He ignores the disconnect shooting blanks in his brain. “Yes. I’m sorry. I just… remembered some things.”

“Good things, I hope,” Rich says. “Where your folks at these days?”

Holden breathes. Breathe. Keep breathing, and it’ll be okay. “My dad’s in a retirement home. My mom is dead.”

“Shit. Sorry, son. It been a long time since?”

It isn’t like it’s Rich’s fault Holden’s mother is dead. He will never understand why people say sorry for such odd things, things that are way beyond their control, but he does the same when he hears of something like this. His mom said it’s the polite thing to do.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.

Holden inhales and nods. “She… died a few years back.”

December 15, 1976. Stage four liver cancer. She was only 52.

“That’s rough, losing her when you’re so young. How old are you anyway? 25? 26?”

He shakes his head. His heart beats rapidly in his chest. “Thirty-one.”

And Holden slowly pushes himself to his feet. He can’t do this, not right here and not right now. He ignores the trembling of his hands and knees, how terribly queasy he feels, the deep-seated terror muted in the back of his mind. He wipes his palms on his slacks, exposed and uncomfortable, skin itching and eyes watering.

“Thank you for letting me come inside,” Holden says robotically. “I think I have to –”

“I understand, son. Memories can be tough and sometimes tricky,” Rich says, extending his hand. “If you’re ever in town again, feel free to drop by.”

Holden extends his hand too, but his grip is weak, and his fingers are freezing. “Thank you,” he whispers.

And he makes his way back outside, tears streaming down his cheeks as he walks to his rental car in the brisk autumn air.


KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI
OCTOBER 28, 1981

He doesn’t know what possesses to come here.

But it doesn’t really matter now.

He’s in front of a small, long brick building. Mums blooming with dulled oranges, yellows, browns, and purples line the outside. Carved pumpkins sit outside the door. Holden waits to be buzzed in. He is given a visitor’s pass that he must pin to his sweater and is lead down a narrow hallway. He gulps, and he runs his fingers through his hair repeatedly before settling biting the skin around his thumbnail. He’s only been here one other time, right when it started.

When he reaches a door with a name that reads ‘Arthur Ford,’ he halts, takes in an impossibly deep breath, isn’t sure why he decided to do this in the first place.

Closure? As a part of his experiment to see if there’s life beyond the Bureau? Forgiveness?

Holden shakily walks inside behind a nurse. He bites his bottom lip. The room is small and cramped, and there’s an IV pole, a TV, and a chair beside the bed. It’s dimly lit despite being sunny outside. It smells like death and decay and dread.

And his father lies in the hospital bed, staring straight ahead. He doesn’t blink, and, by Holden’s estimation, only breathes visibly every ten seconds. He is pale and balding just on the top of his head and has a wild, dark, scruffy beard. He doesn’t look how Holden remembers him, but maybe it’s because it’s been so long. Ten years ago, he only saw his father briefly, and he hadn’t seen him in five years before that. Holden’s picture of him is permanently trapped by the memory of a seventeen-year-old kid being stood over by a grown man with a butcher knife.

“Hello, sir,” Holden says quietly. His teeth are chattering. “It’s me, Father. Holden.”

There is no response.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven eight.

“I’m not in town for very long. Just… I just t-thought I’d come see you, sir.”

His father scoffs. “Still got that stutter, huh?”

And Holden frowns. He doesn’t know if he expected anything else.

“I guess so, sir,” he says. “How’re you?”

He doesn’t want to fight. He doesn’t want to fight. He doesn’t want to fight.

“How’s it look like I’m doin’? You have one Goddamn stroke, and suddenly people think you need to be locked up like some Goddamn animal.”

But he isn’t locked up. He isn’t, even though he should be.

And Holden isn’t sure what to say, isn’t sure what to do, isn’t sure what to think or what to feel. He doesn’t know why he came here. He didn’t have to. It’s not as if his father would’ve ever known he was in town. But… There’s something about being here that makes him so vulnerable, so guilty; it’s palpable in the air in this room right now.

He remembers the butcher knife. The slashes to his abdomen. The crazed, raged look in his father’s eyes.

And he shouldn’t be here. He shouldn’t.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.

“Why’d you come here?” his father asks.

Holden nearly shrugs, but then remembers his father hates uncertainty, timidness, just Holden in general. “I’m having some issues at work, sir. I just… thought maybe coming home for a little bit would help, maybe give me some insights.”

“Work? You still workin’ for the FBI?”

He nods. “Yes, sir.”

“And your pussy ass is all the way out here in Fucksville, Missouri, to see your old man so you can ‘get insights.’ I see you haven’t changed much.”

Holden glances down at the floor. He bounces his heel up and down. He tugs at his ear.

Remembers the blood running down his flesh, the scent of iron filling up the air like poppies in springtime, the police sirens, red and blue flashes echoing off Father’s skin. Remembers the knife, pointed at his heart. Remembers the fear penetrating each and every muscle, fiber, neuron in his body. Remembers Mom watching from the other room, never stopping him, never asking him to put the knife down, never doing anything other than observing.

And he remembers this much because it’s all he can do.

“I don’t know why I came here,” Holden squeaks out.

His father scowls. “Sir.”

Holden’s eyebrows furrow.

“I don’t know why I came here, sir,” his father says. “And look at me when you’re talkin’ to me. Disrespectful little shit.”

And he remembers Father hovering over him, his belly dangling to the floor, a nasty smirk on his face as he inches the knife closer. He remembers whimpering with hot tears spilling over his bruised cheeks. And he remembers Father slicing open his skin instead of plunging the knife into soft flesh. He remembers Father telling him he should’ve aborted him when he had the chance. And he remembers his pulse vibrating through his veins.

The walls close in on him. His breathing becomes shallow as bile rises in the back of his throat. He wants to crumble crumple into a ball on the floor as he remembers but Father is right here watching his every movement analyzing him the same way Holden analyzes serial killers he can’t he can’t he doesn’t know why he’s here his father never apologized for almost killing him his mother never apologized for not standing up for him no one has ever done anything like that for him and it hurts it hurts it hurts he needs to leave he needs to leave

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven –

“Jesus Christ, you’re still such a little fag, aren’t you?” he hears.

Holden gets up and bolts out of the room as quickly as he can.

And his insides squeeze out of his body like spaghetti in a colander. He makes it halfway down the hall before he collapses, knees giving out and head smacking against the floor with a sharp thud. Breathe breathe breathe he feels for the Valium in his slacks fishes three out and chews them frantically heart pounding pounding pounding in his chest stop please stop he doesn’t know why he came here he should’ve stayed home back in Virginia he didn’t need to come out here to do this there is a life outside Quantico there is he’s seen it he doesn’t believe in it but he sees it

He’s alone there’s no one out here for him his mother is dead his father hates his guts for an inexplicable reason he will never understand or try to understand again Wendy looks at him like he is a walking problematic child whose only goal in life is to get them in trouble Bill won’t talk to him anymore no one talks to him anymore he’s never felt like this before he’s felt a lot of ways he can’t describe but this is it this is the worst he doesn’t feel right –

It isn’t right this isn’t right he doesn’t feel right

Holden squishes his palms to his eyes so hard it hurts he sees spots he flinches when someone kneels down in front of him

“C-Can’t br… C-C-Ca-Can’t br-breathe…” he manages. “C-Can’t bre-breathe…”

There’s movement and shuffling and scuffing and there’s something warm draped over his shoulders and he lies down on the floor and he closes his eyes and he tries to breathe to gain access to his lungs to tell his brain that he’s okay even though he knows he isn’t

And then there’s a switch flipped off in his brain like raw electricity in the air. A dense fog of numbness, a tidal wave of bleakness, shakes him to his core. He gains control of his breathing. Valium. It’s the Valium. There is a blanket covering him, and he’s on the floor in the hallway of his father’s retirement facility. He is here. He is present.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.

“Are you alright, sweetie?” he hears.

Holden nods. He catches his breath, slowly down from hyperventilation. “Yes. Thank you.”

The blanket falls to the ground as he stands, trembling violently all over.

“You should really just relax here for a bit,” he hears; it’s the same voice. “Is there anyone I can call to come get you?”

Holden shakes his head. He wipes the tears away, but his face is still unbearably hot. “No. There’s no one.”


SIBLEY, MISSOURI
OCTOBER 29, 1981

Before he goes back to Quantico, before Wendy and Bill scold him for an unannounced, long absence, before he presses this entire experience into a grain of sand in his gut, before he pretends this blip on his radar never happened, Holden visits his mom.

The cemetery is cold on this October morning. The sun is just starting to rise. He can see his breath. He isn’t wearing anything but his favorite sweater and a pair of grey slacks, the same attire he’s been adorned in for three days in a row now. He doesn’t remember showering this morning, is too faint and dizzy to do much about it, but there’s something inside him that just makes it hard for him to care. And that’s just it; he doesn’t care.

Not anymore.

He shouldn’t care. He shouldn’t care about the interviews with Ed Kemper or Richard Speck or Charles Manson or Tex Watson. He shouldn’t care about his past or his father. He shouldn’t care about what Wendy and Bill and Gregg and Ted Gunn think of him, because he doesn’t think anything of himself. There is a life outside Quantico, he decides, but it isn’t a life worth living. Vaguely, he aches for his apartment, to be far away from Missouri, to go back to work and be normal. Normal is relative, yes, but work is all he has now.

And he sits on the frost covered ground on a blanket he found in the rental car in front of his mother’s grave. Her headstone is ambiguous and feels impersonal. He picked it out, decided what would be written on it. It doesn’t feel like her, but it does feel like him.

Lynette Ford
1924 – 1976

He stares at the words and is sick to his stomach. He wraps his arms around his torso, shivering as he watches his breath escape dry, cracked lips. It is odd to be close to her, to know her decaying body is only six feet under him, but the hollow hole he has inside him is wider than ever. It swallows him alive. He doesn’t want to care about this anymore. He doesn’t want to.

And he doesn’t know why his mother never tried to help him, but he supposes it doesn’t matter. It’s a motif with the times, with the 1950s and 1960s when Holden grew up. A ton of kids had their noggins rung by their father. He’s seen it time and time again with the young serial killers he’s interviewed. It doesn’t matter what happened to him. No one else cares, and neither does he. It’s almost liberating to see it that way. He’s just going to go to work, do the interviews, and let Bill take the lead. He’s going to do whatever he can to stay out of the way.

That’s it. That’s all there is. He has to find some way to live with himself after fucking up so many times.

Selfish. Arrogant. Even his thoughts are trivial and pointless.

Instead of acknowledging the pleas inside his chest to feel something, to cry, to scream at a headstone sticking out of the ground, he doesn’t.

Holden sits in front of his mother’s headstone, hunched over and hands folded in his lap.

Chapter Text

FREDERICKSBURG, VIRGINIA
OCTOBER 30, 1981

Holden gags into the toilet bowl.

He tells Wendy and Bill he had personal matters to attend to during the days he was gone, that he’s exhausted after the flight home, that he will be at work first thing tomorrow morning. He doesn’t feel like explaining himself, but the Bureau is his place of business, and they are more or less his supervisors, so it is it is necessary for him to speak. Talking hurts. It hurts his throat, his head, his chest. It hurts his pride, his ego, his soul. It hollows him from the inside out like a chocolate bunny on Easter.

He sniffles, flushes, and strips. He has to wash this – seeing his old family home, visiting his dad, sitting at his mom’s grave – off of him.

So he cranks the water temperature as hot as it’ll go. The water stings. It reminds him he’s alive, still buried somewhere deep inside. Showers are usually his go to as a stress reliever, right alongside running, but he can’t run today. Doesn’t have it in him. Is too tired to even find his tennis shoes. He’s too tired to even shower. Everything is taxing. He just wants to lie down on his couch and stare out the window at the nature, the trees, the birds, the falling leaves until he falls fast asleep.

Getting out of the shower proves to be just as difficult. He doesn’t know how long he stays in there, but the water is brightly cold, and he shivers violently. He finishes up and ignores his shaking hands as he throws on a hooded sweatshirt and flannel pants. He’d much rather not bother at all, is so painfully numb, but he gets cold at night. It’s chilly enough outside as it is.

Holden turns on the TV for background noise and settles on some cartoon. He lays down on the couch, huddling his knees toward his chest and crossing his arms as he squishes his cheek into the pillow from his bed. This pillow is fluffier than a throw pillow, but it feels hard as a rock. His head really hurts. He wishes he’d taken something for it before settling down. But he is dragged into a lull soon enough, hypnotized by the fallen leaves dancing in the wind. Tomorrow is Halloween. A lot of kids go Trick or Treating in this apartment complex. Holden typically has a giant bowl of candy, but this year it feels like too much. Or too little. He doesn’t know.

Nausea pools in the pit of his stomach. He doesn’t know why or how, but tears stream down his cheeks. He breathes. He doesn’t feel particularly panicked or anxious. It’s almost as if his eyes are just leaking. But there’s nothing behind it. No meaning. No mystery. Holden ignores this – ignores everything – and focuses on the leaves. They are striking; vivid oranges, browns, yellows, and reds light up the evening sky like lanterns. He feels his heart beat sluggishly in his chest cavity. But the tears are hot and fast. There’s a boulder on his chest.

He dissolves into a puddle of his former self. He picks at a fraying strand on the couch. He draws patterns on the fabric with his index finger.

Later on, when the sun is gone and the night stars shine, Holden peels himself off the couch, skin slick with sweat and head pounding brightly. He pukes again, takes two Valium and a trazodone to be safe, and hides his face in the mattress.

He doesn’t bother getting under the covers. It feels pointless to do anything but sleep.


QUANTICO, VIRGINIA
OCTOBER 31, 1981

On Halloween, Holden wakes up with a stuffy nose and fever.

There’s a palpable ache hidden in his joints, lighting his muscles on fire and sending his brain on a wild goose chase to find the part of him that cares. It doesn’t feel worthy of calling in for. Besides, his unexpected absence has, undoubtedly, left Wendy and Bill with a sour taste in their mouths. Nothing Holden does is ever up to satisfaction, but he knows he’ll have to answer for where he’s been and what he’s been doing the last three days that justify missing work.

Holden gets to the basement fifteen minutes early. He sits down, his back spasming uncomfortably, and begins to read about their newest subjects. The least he can do for their morning meeting is be prepared. His eyes itch, and his vision blurs, but he inhales the information with ease. It is fairly basic and mundane. Nothing about it proves to be taxing or difficult, which in itself is a relief. He can’t formulate an opinion or theory to save his life right now. Maybe he can get through today without being pestered about his whereabouts.

“Where the hell were you?” Bill asks the second he enters their conference room, tie ruffled and coffee in hand. He sounds angry.

Holden doesn’t make eye contact. “I had some personal matters to take care of.” His voice is quiet and riddled with congestion.

“Like what?” Bill asks. “Last I checked, you didn’t have a personal life beyond this place.”

He doesn’t understand the necessity of that comment, but he’s tired. Frustratingly tired. He wants to go home. “I’m sorry,” is all he says.

And he can hear Bill inhale and then exhale, trying to come up with something to say. But, luckily or unluckily depending on how he looks at it, Wendy graces them with her presence. She places a box from Marvin’s Bakery on the table and immediately begins taping pictures on the whiteboard. Gregg joins them not a minute later, a newly drawn picture proudly in his grasp.

“Did Audrey draw this one?” Bill asks as Gregg shows off the scribbles. It looks sort of like an apple tree mixed with the Loch Ness Monster.

“Actually, this is Anna’s, if you can believe it,” Gregg says.

Wendy looks at it too. “Isn’t Anna only three?”

“She’s got a lot of talent. She gets it from Catherine,” Gregg informs. “I can’t even draw a stick person right.”

That earns a small chuckle from Bill and Wendy. Holden doesn’t look up from where he is pretending to be enthralled with case files. It’s easier this way. He doesn’t have to feel as much if he acts like he isn’t here. He doesn’t want to be here. Not anymore, at least. The tension is too high, and Wendy and Bill hate him, and Gregg is superior to him now, and no. No. He cannot spiral right now. Save it for later. Remember, he doesn’t care about it. He doesn’t care.

“Did you enjoy your days off, Holden?” Wendy asks. She still stands at the whiteboard.

Holden nods. “I’m sorry about the late notice. Some things came up.”

“Are you sick?” Gregg inquires. “Because I can’t get sick. I’ve got kids.”

Bill rolls his eyes. “We know you’ve got kids, asshole. And he’s fine, right, Holden?”

“Perfectly fine.”

And the subject is changed just like that. Holden keeps his eyes trained on the papers in front of him, but he feels relief in every sense of the word.

“We have a new batch of predators,” Wendy says. She extends two files, one to Bill and one to Gregg. Holden doesn’t say a word. “I figured this time we would split them up by geographic location. Three for you two,” she says as she motions to Bill and Holden, “and three for us.”

Wendy and Gregg have been getting better at their interview techniques lately. It only makes sense to split them up. Saves time and energy. It’ll make Ted Gunn happier. They’ll progress quite a bit. And Gregg isn’t as squeamish and squirmy as he used to be. Wendy is never one to hold back, and that shows during the entire process. She almost reminds Holden of himself, before he was knocked so far off his high horse that he is still eating dirt a year and a half later.

“Since you gentlemen went to the south last time for an extended period, Gregg and I will take Texas, Georgia, and Alabama. Bill, you and Holden get two New Yorks and a Delaware."

He doesn’t understand why she is talking like this is a game, and she’s dealing the cards, but he doesn’t understand anything, especially not their jobs, these days.

“We can condense this into a ten days total between the four of us. Two teams with three subjects in different states will be difficult to say the least, but time is money.”

Bill folds his arms over his chest. “So this is about money? Didn’t the LEAA just expand their funding?”

“Ted wants the interview process to slim down,” Wendy says. “It’s a perfectly reasonable timetable.”

Bill scoffs. “Guess it’s a good thing my wife left me and took my kid with her, right?”

Holden glances up from his papers to see Bill staring at Wendy, a mildly angry look in his eyes. “Why would you say that?” she asks.

“’It’s a perfectly reasonable timetable,’” Bill repeats. “It’s only reasonable if you don’t have a life like this kid over here.” He motions to Holden.

Holden quickly averts his gaze. There’s a faint ache where his heart used to be. It’s nothing. This is nothing.

“I’d still like to be able to see my son. And Gregg has kids too, remember?”

“Ten days is hardly a large commitment, Bill,” says Wendy.

He tunes out the rest of the disagreement until Wendy gets to the good parts. The perpetrators. Holden didn’t get any information on this, so he relies entirely on word of mouth.

Matthias Berger. New York. 49 years old. Killed his uncle when he was 11. Sent away. Let out the day he turned 18. Killed five women between the ages of 20 and 24 before being caught 29 days after his last victim. He already had a sixth woman picked out when police picked him up.

Eldon Bright. New York. 67. Strangled 18 boys between 1959 until his arrest in 1976. He claims to have over 30 victims in total.

Clive Deegan. Georgia. 29. Killed his mother with a garden hoe. Penetrated her anus with the end of a shovel.

George Robert Mason. Delaware. 40. Decapitated three young girls, ages 15, 17, and 18. Displayed their shoes in his house. Made wigs from their hair. Grandiose behavior. Likes to talk to police. Says he has more than three victims, but there is no evidence to support otherwise.

Denver Sutton. Alabama. 23. Raped four girls before turning himself in.

Rudy Ward. 81. Texas. Death row. Butchered a family of five in their sleep. Raped the mother and two daughters, ages 11 and 14.

Wendy tells them these are straightforward, textbook interviews. Bill still has his arms crossed over his chest. Gregg thumbs through the files carefully, as if they’ll disintegrate before his eyes. Holden swallows heavily. Snot dribbles down the back of his throat. Every part of his body feels raw and exposed. The darkened room makes him sleepy. He props his head up with his hand, drooping further into exhaustion as the conversation continues.

“Is this boring you?” he hears Bill ask.

Holden blinks blearily. “No… Sorry.”

“You should go –”

Wendy doesn’t finish her thought.

Ted Gunn makes his way into the conference room, sucking all the air from Holden’s lungs. He sits up the rest of the way. He tries to straighten his shirt, but he leaves it because it takes too much energy to fix.

“I hope I’m not interrupting,” Gunn says.

“Not at all, sir,” says Bill. “We were just discussing our latest subjects.”

“Ah, yes. You have George Mason on your list, right?”

“Isn’t he the guy who decapitated those girls?” Gregg asks. “In ’78?”

Bill nods. “That’s him. He’s a sick fuck.”

“I’m afraid he won’t be the only sick fuck you’re gleaning insights from,” Gunn says with a wry chuckle. “We have a very long road ahead of us. But Wendy has enlightened you on the new timetable, yes?”

“We just discussed it,” Wendy tells him, head high. “We’re all in agreement.”

“So ten days is enough time to do all six interviews?”

Bill looks ready to interject, but Wendy eyes him. “So long as we get time to digest the materials here afterword,” she says.

“Of course.”

“Then it’ll be great, sir,” Bill says.

“I’m looking forward to it,” Gregg tells him. “I’ve never gotten such a vast caseload that needs to be tended to so quickly. It’ll be a great way to utilize new skills.”

Gunn nods. “And hopefully learn something along the way, yeah?”

Gregg smiles; Holden internally rolls his eyes. “Yes, sir.”

He doesn’t listen to the rest of the conversation. It’s something about George Mason and what he did to those poor girls. But it’s not gripping him. Nothing is. It’s like everything his co-workers say washes off of him like waves on a shore. He can’t absorb it. It’s small talk. Bullshit. Shop talk. Blah blah blah. Holden pushes it deep down in his gut and reads through an old case file on the notorious Charles Manson instead. He’ll do anything to not be pulled into talking.

Holden almost lets his eyes close, but that would be rude and unprofessional, and he can’t have that following him around anymore than it already does. He has to be reliable. He has to get his work done completely. He has to pay attention and listen. He can do all of that without speaking. He’s been doing it for months, and Wendy and Bill have only just drawn attention to it. But he can’t find himself to care what they think. His head hurts, and his eyes tear up because of the strain combined with the fever. He hugs his torso and keeps reading the same sentence over and over again, fighting off the chills and thinking about crawling into bed under the covers.

Eventually, Gunn leaves. Holden doesn’t know how long he was down there, but he doesn’t care. All he cares about is getting up and making his way to the cafeteria for an extra shot of espresso in his coffee. He is in the hallway ready to get on the elevator when he hears Bill’s voice.

“What the fuck was that?” Bill questions bitterly, motioning behind him.

Holden fidgets. “What was what?” His voice is strange and foreign and doesn’t belong to him.

“You selfish, disrespectful asshole. Our boss is down here with us for once since we got back from Atlanta, and you downright ignore him?”

Holden nearly shrugs, but he thinks that would get him into a lot more trouble. He doesn’t care, but he cares a little about that. “I didn’t know what to say.”

Bill throws his hands up in the air. “Just talk! It isn’t that hard. You used to never shut up!” he shouts. “You made a fool out of us in there. Do you know how bad it looks when a fellow FBI agent refuses to even speak to his superior?”

“I didn’t mean to –”

But Holden gets cut off. “I don’t care what you didn’t mean to do. Jesus Christ. I don’t know what’s wrong with you anymore, but I’m fucking sick of it.”

Holden opens his mouth but clamps it shut. His heart is beating out of his chest. He counts.

And he flinches hard he suddenly feels two hands on his shoulders. Holden flinches hard when he feels his back shoved against the cold, brick wall of the basement. Holden flinches hard when Bill stares at him, disgust written on every inch, every surface, of his face. Holden flinches and gulps and… He… He can’t

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five –

And he can’t breathe he shrugs away from Bill’s touch sinks down to the floor hides his face in his knees he can’t do this he can’t do this he doesn’t want to feel enclosed he doesn’t like to be touched he doesn’t know how to handle this this oppressiveness this pretending not to care when every time Bill talks to him it’s negative and degrading and loathing he really can’t stand Holden can he Bill hates him Bill hates him he is the one person Holden thought could even like him but it’s untrue he built himself a lie a façade no one cares no one cares

He hates himself he hates himself he hates –

“Great. Just great. You can’t even talk to me without throwing a fit.”

He hears Bill walk away he’s pathetic he knows he’s pathetic he wants to hurdle himself from a balcony and watch his flesh scatter like raindrops on pavement he wants to die he doesn’t want to be here anymore can’t handle speaking can’t handle being spoken to can’t handle the way Bill looks at him like he’s already gone like he’s done with him before Holden even tries he stopped trying a long time ago but nothing works nothing ever works and he doesn’t know what to do he doesn’t know how much longer he can go on like this he doesn’t know

“Kid’s freaking out in the hall again,” he hears Bill say in passing. But he doesn’t hear it not really his ears fill with remorse regret humiliation he is gutted he is nothing but a hollowed out pumpkin on the day after Halloween Bill is so full of disdain toward him and honestly Holden can’t blame him he understands Holden doesn’t like himself either he doesn’t want to be around himself he doesn’t want any of this to be here to be in this hallway to be on this planet

His dad is right his dad is right he isn’t cut out for this world

Through his tears, through his ragged breathing, through his inner turmoil, Holden hears Wendy sigh. “Go home, Holden.”

She can’t stand him either.

No one no one no one no one he has no one

Holden doesn’t remember picking himself off the floor, doesn’t remember driving through early morning traffic, doesn’t remember sitting on the couch in his apartment. Doesn’t remember getting a glass of ice water. Doesn’t remember wiping his runny nose on his suit jacket.

Doesn’t remember doesn’t remember it is so much easier to not remember.


FREDERICKSBURG, VIRGINIA
NOVEMBER 1, 1981

But Holden isn’t here, not really.

He floats above his body, happier in outer space than he’s been on Earth in a long time. It’s been ages. After he ruined Roger Wade’s life, after he visited Ed Kemper in the hospital, after his first panic attack, after coming back from Atlanta, things just blur together. Tears stream down his cheeks, and he’s crying again, and why can’t he be normal? Why can’t he be normal for once?

And his heart is going to leap out of his chest. He can feel it in there thump thump thumping around. It’s driving him crazy. This place – his home – is driving him crazy. Why the fuck are hearts so fucking loud? He slides a hand through his hair. Stop. Stop it. Calm down. There’s literally nothing going on around him, and he’s already taken three Valium and two trazodone to sleep. It isn’t safe, and it isn’t healthy, but he can’t breathe. He can’t breathe. He wants to be able to breathe again without knowing he’s going to throw up.

He doesn’t feel right. Displaced. Like there’s a gaping hole in him that everyone can see. He’s drowning underwater, but he can’t really feel it – not actually – when he pinches himself. His fingers are numb; his skin tingles. He can’t. He can’t. His head hurts his body hurts he can’t handle the hurt it swallows him whole eats him alive chews him up and spits him out he’s done he’s so done he’ll resign tomorrow if it means never experiencing this again

And his eyes won’t focus he’s sweating he doesn’t feel good and he doesn’t understand how he’s still alive how the enormity of life can just be scrunched together in a few short meaningless years on a planet he isn’t cut out to survive on his teeth chatter he can’t help it he’s wrong and disgusting and awful and a grain of sand by the ocean he’s lifeless a tomb a ghost there’s so much Goddamn panic stop it has to stop Holden’s nose is stuffy but he remembers smelling chamomile tea and eucalyptus and beer when he stayed home from school

It hurts it hurts he clutches his chest because it hurts pain is supposed to make him feel alive but he feels dead

Everything shakes his skin itches for something to make the hurting stop he tugs the blanket closer to him snot and tears pool on the fabric stop he has to calm down he has to calm down breathe in and out in and out just like always just breathe

Just breathe

Lather rinse repeat

Another breath won’t come Holden’s heart explodes inside his chest this isn’t happening this isn’t happening his head spins it’s almost hard to tell where he is his pulse throbs is this what dying feels like he is dying is he his tongue sticks to the roof of his mouth sweat pours off him in waves he flinches at the ghost of Bill’s touch of how his dad used to throttle him against walls counters cars when he misbehaved how his dad would keep his thumbs so close to his windpipe that he could break –

Something like glass falls to the ground.

Holden doesn’t know how, but he’s standing in front of the fridge.

A cup. A cup was in his hand, and now it’s on the floor. Holden wiggles his socked toes and frowns, tears hot against his skin.

It’s broken. Not shattered. But a shard of it is missing near the top. Holden drops to pick it up. He holds the glass carefully in his hands. He doesn’t feel it when he unbuttons the cuffs of his shirt. Doesn’t feel it when he slides the shard over his wrist like writing with a ballpoint pen. Doesn’t feel it when blood pours from his veins. Doesn’t feel it until his arm is marred with dark red streaks and marks, and it feels good. It feels good. It feels good.

And it feels good to feel something again.

He doesn’t realize he is this desperate to feel something. He slashes open his left forearm, carving his pathetic story from A to Z on the broken skin. The constant worry he built high in his bones like a castle made of titanium bleeds out of him. The control is ecstatic feeling, almost otherworldly. Holden’s butchered arm grows numb to the pain, but there’s a release. A release of anger, of frustration, of loneliness, of sadness that escapes with each cut.

Suddenly, the events of the last several days don’t matter to him. It’s a delight to feel this empty, this pure, this calm. He robotically washes the blood down the sink, watching with fascination as it swirls and mixes with water. He messily wraps his arm with gauze he stores under the bathroom counter in case of emergencies, not caring enough to clean them properly. He swallows a fever reducer. He fiddles with the bandages once he sits on the couch, noting that some of the deeper cuts are still gushing pretty heavily. He doesn’t think it matters.

He stares at the world passing by around him. He sighs and remembers the shard of glass in the trashcan. He wants to rip himself to shreds.

And Holden carefully removes the bloodied shard from the trash. He sets on the coffee table, close by in case he needs it. Holden lies down, squishes his face into the pillow, and, for the first time in ages, sleeps like a rock.

Chapter Text

FREDERICKSBURG, VIRGINIA
NOVEMBER 4, 1981

“How are you today, Holden?”

And he doesn’t have the strength to meet her eyes. He squirms in his seat and fiddles with the strings of his hooded sweatshirt. Bites the skin around his thumbnail restlessly. Stares at the mahogany desk in front of him. Watches his knees bob up and down, up and down, up and down.

“Why don’t you talk much anymore?” Dr. McCarthy asks suddenly, as if she pulled the question out of thin air.

Holden’s eyebrows furrow, but he doesn’t look up. Doesn't feel like it. “I talk,” he says simply, quietly, ghostly.

“Of course you talk, Holden,” she says. “But do you remember when you first started coming here? I could hardly get you to calm down and listen. Now, I have to pry everything out of you.”

His heart clenches tightly inside his chest. “I’m sorry…”

And he doesn’t know what else he’s supposed to say, is unsure of the proper etiquette for this situation.

“You have nothing to apologize for. I’m just wondering if something has happened to bring on this change in personality.”

He said four words, and now he’s entirely exhausted. And he has to say more. What else is there? He doesn’t care. He only comes here to get refills, particularly on the Valium. Playing this game of head doctor with his therapist got him nowhere in the last several months. If anything, his colleagues hate him more than ever, and his own distaste for himself is out of control. The only way he can keep himself present in the moment long enough for it to matter is when he presses a straight razor to his wrist. It’s the only thing that helps.

“I’m okay,” he says.

“Are Bill and Wendy still giving you a hard time?”

Immediately, Holden shakes his head. Feels the ghost of Bill’s fingers on his shoulder. Shudders and swallows. “No. Everything’s fine.”

“Holden, this will only help if you allow it to,” Dr. McCarthy says.

He ties the grey string in a knot. Unties it. Ties it again. Unties it.

Dr. McCarthy sighs.

It’s about time she gave up on him.

He gave up on himself at his mother’s grave.

“You don’t have to help me,” Holden whispers. Guilt gnaws at his chest, roars up his spine and spikes through his skull. It’s the most he’s spoken in days, and it’s only a sentence.

“Why do you think I don’t want to help you?”

He shrugs again. He doesn’t offer anything else. He wishes he could disappear, melt into a puddle, slide underneath the door and run away.

I’m thinking about quitting my job.

He wants to say this, to tell Bill and Wendy that they win, that he gives up, that this project will be better, more efficient, less hazardous with him, but he can’t bring his mouth to form the words. Working as an FBI agent is all he’s ever wanted; it’s his dream job. But his dream job is a nightmare, and he keeps hurting himself, and he doesn’t like who he is. He’s never been a great man. He’s never had money or girls or nice, fancy clothes. But he thought he had friends who cared about him, especially Bill. He thought he found his own little spot in the world where he could be completely himself. He thought he could have it all, but he can’t.

I’m thinking about quitting my job.

And it would be so easy to throw in the towel. But he’s too invested. He enjoys what he does, but he doesn’t like who it turned him into. He probably is more suited to teach, whether it be hostage negotiation or just road school. The project may have been his idea, but he isn’t the brains or the brawn or the power behind it. He’s just Holden Ford, nothing but an inconvenient screw up.

I’m thinking about quitting my job.

He rolls the Valium bottle around in the pocket of his ill-fitting jeans.

“I can’t make you talk to me, Holden,” Dr. McCarthy tells him. “But it is very hard for me to gauge where you’re at without a little help.”

He props his head up with his other hand. “I’m just tired,” he whispers.

“Tired in general? Or tired of something?”

“Both.”

“Have you been sleeping recently?”

Holden nods. “A lot, actually.”

“Too much?”

“I’d say so. I can sleep for around 12 hours at a time without a problem and still wake up feeling like I never fell asleep at all.”

“How would you say your depression’s been the last couple weeks? Better? Worse?”

He shrugs. “I don’t know.”

“I personally think it’s gotten worse, Holden,” she tells him.

“What does that mean?”

She sighs. “I think it means you need to be honest with me about how you’re really doing.”

There’s a heavy weight on his chest. He breaks eye contact and stares at the mahogany desk instead. He doesn’t… He doesn’t want to talk about his problems. Or his lack of problems. There’s nothing even going on. He’s tired a lot, and sometimes he gets carried away when he hurts himself, but he can handle himself. No one wants to hear his self-centered, bullshit whining; that’s what Bill told him a couple months ago. And Bill is right. No one wants to hear it, not even his psychiatrist. Holden doesn’t understand why she can’t just give him the pills and send him on his way. They’re all he needs.

Eventually, their session ends.

Dr. McCarthy wants to see him again in two weeks. Their visits are becoming closer and closer together. She wants him to focus on what he wants to get out of therapy.

He doesn’t know how to tell her nicely that he really only wants the Valium, so he just nods.

Holden pulls his coat on over his sweatshirt in the hallway. He covers his head and ears with a soft hat before shoving his hands in his pockets.

And he is nearly out the door of the medical building when a man runs right into him.

“Shit. Sorry.”

Holden is about to tell him not to worry about it, but then he catches glimpse of who it is. Military haircut. Late forties. Grey. Gruff.

“What the hell are you doing here?” Bill asks, eyeing Holden like he’s lost his mind.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four - 

He counts because it keeps him from crying. He hates just how close his emotions are to his chest. He can’t even look at Bill without losing it.

But he has to talk. Bill already hates him enough.

It’s best not to give him another reason.

“I had an appointment,” he says softly.

“For what?” he asks. “You still sick?”

Holden shakes his head. “No, sir.”

“Sir?” Bill inquires. “Since when do you call me ‘sir?’”

And Holden gulps. Shit. Fuck. “Sorry… I’m not sick,” he changes the subject. “I had an appointment with my psychiatrist.”

“You see a psychiatrist?”

He nods. He messes with the loose change in his coat pocket. He wants to go home. He needs to shed this skin and bury it underground until springtime comes.

“Good for you,” Bill says, and it almost seems like he means it. Holden blinks. “Listen, I just gotta get this kink in my back worked out. Why don’t you hang out til I’m done, and then I’ll buy you a drink?”

Buy him a drink? What game is Bill playing? Bill hates him. Bill loathes and despises him. He and Bill used to be pretty close, before the whole panic attack business, followed by the Atlanta cases, followed then by Nancy leaving Bill and taking Brian. He gets it; Bill is busy. Bill doesn’t have time for Holden. But Bill has gone out of the way repeatedly in the last several months to let Holden know that his problems are much larger, of much greater significance than Holden’s. And it’s true. Holden’s shit is garbage. And he can’t figure out why Bill would want to be seen with him anywhere other than at work.

Yet, he still finds himself tearing up at the offer. He swallows thickly, trying to keep the emotion out of his voice. “Thank you, Bill, but no thank you,” he says. “I have plans.”

Bill scoffs. “Since when do you have plans? Don’t you live for your work?”

And that’s it. The animosity. It’s back. It was all just a façade. Bill doesn’t care.

“Thank you anyway,” Holden says quickly before he heads outside.

He is grateful for the fat raindrops pelting him in the face. He is grateful for the breath of fresh air. He is grateful for the below average temperatures and clouds.

And he tries not to think about it. How strange it is for Bill to offer to buy him a drink after all this time.

His mind wanders back to June, when they were still in Atlanta and near the end of the case.

“Can I talk to you for a minute?” Holden asks Bill, eyes like daggers on his partner. “Twenty-one victims. No suspects. And the guy I’m supposed to lean on, if he’s even around, has to be brought up to speed?”

Bill stares a hole right through him. “Holden, this is not the time or place.”

He’s being inappropriate. He’s saying the wrong thing. He knows this. He knows this.

“You’re only half here when you are here, and you’re only here half the time.”

So why does he keep talking?

“I’m asking you nicely –”

Holden stops him. “I’m sorry that you’re having family issues, but you’re either in, or you’re out.”

“I’m doing the absolute best I can.”

He is treading through dangerous waters. He knows this. He knows this.

But hot acid expels from his tongue anyway. “Well, it’s not enough.”

And Bill pinches his nose. Takes a calculated, measured breath. “First of all, you may lean on me, but I don’t work for you,” Bill says. “And the family issue I’m dealing with happens to be that my seven-year-old son watched three other children murder a toddler. So, when I’m not in Atlanta, I’m taking him to a child psychiatrist, dealing with the commonwealth attorney, enduring visits from social services, and trying to keep the marriage to the woman I love from crashing and burning.”

Holden’s eyes widen. It makes sense now, why Bill is constantly torn between two places, two lives, two scenarios with sickening similarities. But why didn’t he tell him? Holden would’ve understood. He could’ve tried to understand. But Bill didn’t even give him a chance, and now they’re here, teetering on the edge of disaster.

“Bill, I’m sorry.”

His partner shakes his head. “I don’t need your sympathy. And you’re right; I should be out, taking care of my issues. But Ted Gunn sent me down here to make sure you don’t do anything stupid to jeopardize our debut on the big stage. So you want to help me? Show some fucking professionalism so we don’t look like we got off a plane with a suspect we’re tailoring to fit all of our insights to support. And you look anxious; take a fucking Valium.”

And he doesn’t know how he gets there, but somehow he’s home, soaked to the bone as he presses a straight razor against his skin. He lets it – this – fill him up, feeding his stomach and cleansing his soul. Tears prick his eyes. His hands shake. He chokes back a sob. Doesn’t make sense doesn’t know why Bill wants to make amends doesn’t he know Holden is vile doesn’t he know Holden is a piece of shit he can’t handle it anymore he can’t he guts himself like a pumpkin pumpkins don’t have to worry about anything and he’s constantly worrying about everything and he can’t do it alone he can’t do it alone he needs control craves it wants so badly to be inside his own body again but he isn’t and never will be and isn’t even sure he ever was

A puddle of blood forms on Holden’s jeans his butchered arm grows numb he doesn’t feel pain he doesn’t feel anger he doesn’t feel remorse or guilt or sadness or loneliness he doesn’t feel anything he feels nothing

And he knows he is rubble he is ash failure stabs into his muscles deeply straight down to the bone he hasn’t had a profound in ages his screams turn into sobs locked in cages so he bleeds until the world makes sense again not gone but here where golden orange skies and rust-coated tombs uproot his life like plucking a flower breathes in stale, cold air and stares at the skin marred with recent self-inflicted scars there may be blood spilling over his dying flesh but no notices no one is there to notice and that’s okay he’s just a warm bundle of logs roasting in an open fire outside the trees sway in the chilly breeze he is debris he is wreckage

Holden thinks back and remembers

“Panic attacks? Visiting Kemper?” Bill asks. “What the fuck?”

Holden nods, eyes closed as he fights off a wave of dizziness. “I know,” he says softly.

“Why’d you go?”

“I don’t know, Bill…” he says. “Sorry. There wasn’t anyone else I could call.”

And there isn’t. There isn’t anyone else. He tries not to let that sink in right now.

“It wasn’t a great time for me to leave work. And you don’t walk out on OPR. You get that, right?” Bill asks, and Holden nods. “I’m assuming you want to keep doing this, Holden, that it’s not too stressful for you.”

“Yes,” he answers immediately.

Bill sighs. It’s punctuated by an air of anger that makes Holden shiver. “Then here’s what’s going to happen. You’re gonna take the weekend, get your shit together, and, on Monday morning, you’re gonna present yourself as able, ready, and fuc –” The flight attendant cart rolls by. “Professional. And no one need ever know about this… episode. But, from now on, it’s my rules. If I tell you to shut your mouth, you shut your mouth… Nod your head if you understand.”

And he can’t he can’t he can’t he can’t he can’t breathe he hates himself he hates himself

He draws the razor over the skin on his right forearm less diligent less elegant to try to jar something loose he watches patterns like flowers and mazes grow and they bleed and Holden almost laughs because he’s so delighted watching it is transfixing an illusion it’s like being hypnotized but it makes him feel empty empty empty he needs to be able to breathe again if he can breathe then everything will be alright things can get better they will get better he just has to stay on the straight and narrow and maybe even quit his job

Because he isn’t sure how much longer he can handle it

And Holden slices until both of his arms are oozing red, the color of loneliness, of insecurity, of doubt.


There’s a knock at the door.

There’s a knock at the door, and Holden peels himself from his bed, wincing as he moves his broken skin, barely mended together by bandages and gauze. Through the haziness of Valium and trazodone, he throws on his robe to cover the bloodstains on his white long sleeved shirt. No one ever comes here, he realizes, but he just wants the knocking to stop.

He swings the door open, eyes bleary and vision blurry. He stands up a little straighter once he sees who the knocker is.

Bill.

Again.

“Were you asleep?” Bill asks incredulously.

He really doesn’t want to talk. He really doesn’t want to talk.

So, he nods and leans heavily against the doorframe. He doesn’t know why he keeps seeing Bill today, but he wishes he were alone again because being alone is so much easier. And it’s not as if he’s mad at Bill. His feelings were – are – hurt, but he’ll get over it. He’s trying the ‘not caring’ thing, which, granted isn’t going so well, but he’s only been viewing the world this way for about a week. It takes longer than a week to change a lifetime of habits and qualities.

“It’s only 6:30,” Bill points out. “And you’re in your pajamas.”

Holden shrugs, scratches his cheek, and yawns. His arms scream in pain. He wiggles in discomfort. His head aches, and he wants to go back to sleep.

Why is Bill even here? Is it because Holden turned him down for a drink?

“You gonna invite me inside?” Bill asks.

Holden rolls his eyes, pushing himself off the doorframe and moving out of the way so Bill can come inside.

Luckily, there’s nothing relating to his latest activity left out. This time, Holden was functioning enough to clean the blood and himself up before taking his medicine.

But this doesn’t mean anything to Bill, who seems to have latched onto something else.

“What’s with the blanket cave?”

Holden squints and spies the six or seven blankets sprawled on the couch, two haphazardly draped on the floor. “I get cold,” he whispers. His voice is hoarse from chronic disuse. He isn’t sure when the last time he and Bill had an actual conversation. Probably when they were in Atlanta. Most likely Atlanta. But he doesn’t understand Bill’s sudden interest in wanting to be involved in his life. It’s not like and Bill are friends anymore; they’re barely even work partners.

Bill stares at him. Holden sheepishly rubs the back of his neck. He feels exposed. “Are you on something?” Bill asks, airing on the edge of caution.

“What? No,” Holden says immediately. “I mean, I took a couple Valium a little while ago, but that’s it.”

“What’d you take the Valium for?”

Holden raises an eyebrow. “I was feeling nervous.”

“Panic attack nervous?”

“Yes, Bill. Panic attack nervous.”

“How was the appointment with psychiatrist? He any good?”

“She’s a she,” Holden corrects quietly. He almost adds, “why do you care?”

But, ultimately, he opts against it. He just… He really doesn’t want Bill to be mad at him.

“Is she any good?”

Holden shrugs. “She’s alright.”

“But she keeps prescribing you Valium? Do you actually need it?”

He takes a step back from where Bill sits on the couch. He tries to pull his robe closer, to make it part of his skin. His movements singe his shredded skin, but he vaguely likes the sensation.

“I have a panic disorder,” Holden reminds Bill.

“Is that would you would still classify it as?”

Holden shrinks away even further, leery about where this is going.

“Yes, Bill. Why are you asking?”

This time, Bill shrugs. “I’m just trying to figure you out, kid.”

Kid.

Holden’s insides shrivel up. His heart clenches into a ball. He hiccups.

“You’ve been really quiet lately,” Bill says. “Really really quiet. It’s starting to worry Wendy and I.”

Holden swallows. “You don’t have to worry. I’m okay.”

“Will you sit down? You’re making me anxious now.”

Holden sighs and takes a seat in the chair cattycornered to the couch. He plucks a discarded blanket from the floor and covers his legs. He focuses on keeping his mind out of this conversation. Bill may be here to try to make amends or apologize or, most likely, try to feel Holden out, but Holden is done. Holden is empty. He doesn’t feel anything right now other than exhaustion and burning from where he held the knife to his skin.

Bill hasn’t tried to understand Holden in a long time. Holden knows it’s too late.

His partner sighs. “What is going on with you?”

“I already told you, Bill. There’s nothing going on.”

“I’m just trying to make sense of it is all. When I first met you, you hardly ever shut up. I had to beg you to can it. Now, I can barely get more than three words outta you at a time. And I’m sorry for pushing you the other day. I was irritated – am still irritated – that you were so disrespectful to Director Gunn, but you were sick. I have to take that into account.”

Holden fights the urge to laugh. He’s too far gone for this.

“I’m sorry for worrying you,” is all Holden says.

“Jesus Christ, enough with that already. I know you’re sorry.”

Holden flinches and looks away.

Bill exhales deeply and pinches the bridge of his nose. “You gotta start talking more, Holden. Interacting. Participating. And, trust me, I wouldn’t ask that unless it were absolutely necessary because I know how utterly annoying you can be, but it’s getting bad. You’re leaving all the work to me and the others, and it’s not fair to any of us.”

Leaving all the work to him? Leaving all the work to the others?

Holden takes a sharp breath in and feels a familiar tug on his heartstrings, so vulnerable and so palpable in his veins. He doesn’t… He can’t do this right now. He is so fucking hurt over the things that Bill is saying to him, and he just can’t. But he tells himself he can’t care. He has to let it slide off of him. But it’s hard. He’s hurt. This hurts.

But he’ll do anything to make this stop. He’ll swallow all of this and just compress it because that’s what he has to do to survive.

“You’re right,” Holden says. He doesn’t have the strength to go on.

But Bill pushes. “I’m right?”

“Yes. I’m sorry I’ve been putting you guys through so much. I didn’t know.”

“Just remember the people around you, okay? We all have to pull our weight.”

Holden forces back the tears threatening to spill over in tidal waves. “Got it.”

“That’s it,” Bill says. “That’s all I came over here for.”

And he sounds cheery, almost pleasant, happy now that he got that off his chest.

But Holden can’t get anything off his chest. He’s just going to let it pile higher and higher until he explodes.

I’m thinking about quitting my job.

Bill stays fifteen or twenty minutes more, and then he leaves because Holden falls asleep in his chair.

Holden isn’t actually asleep, though.

The moment Bill is out the door, Holden hides in the bathroom, pulls down his flannel pajama pants and briefs, and slices his thigh open.

It’s so much easier this way.

Chapter Text

AUBURN, NEW YORK
NOVEMBER 11, 1981

He does his best to breathe.

All he has to do is breathe.

But breathing is difficult, and Bill is in the driver’s seat, and Holden can’t get enough air into his lungs. It’s unsafe to take anymore Valium, but, vaguely, he itches for the bottle tucked carefully inside his coat. The car is cold. Frost pools on the windows; Bill has to keep wicking it away with the wipers. Holden scrunches in on himself, crossing his arms over his chest. His heart keeps thumping, like beats on a drum, and nausea swarms deep and centered in his gut. They’ve been in the car for almost seven hours. He wonders how much further until their shitty motel pops up in the distance, fueled by garish 1960s décor and an old, haggard owner.

He should be comforted by the things around him. Familiarities like Bill’s car, a staple of their groundbreaking work thus far. New York, where he was born. Falling leaves, browns and yellows, scattered and whirling; autumn is his favorite time of year. He’s got the window cracked just a tiny bit because he likes the way it feels. Bill smokes cigarette after cigarette and busies himself by blowing puffs of smoke into the brisk November air. The radio plays Crazy Little Thing by Queen softly; it’s almost enough.

It’s almost enough to fill the gaping hole in his chest.

But Holden isn’t sure he’ll feel safe, content, happy anywhere he goes ever again. And it’s hard to live his life like that. Ever since Bill pushed him a couple weeks ago, Holden can’t get the ghost of his touch to go away. It’s like his father’s, poisonous and detrimental, and Holden never thought Bill to be a man capable of anything more than verbal slander, but that shove hurt in more ways than he’s capable of admitting. He doesn’t want to make Bill angry, and this is as if he’s living at home with his father all over again. Holden can’t walk on eggshells forever.

His chest is tight, and he can’t make his hands stop shaking, and he wheezes with every shallow attempt at breathing. Dense, dreadful, dampening terror sweeps through his brain like a storm gaining tenacity rapidly. He shoves a hand in his coat pocket and twists the Valium bottle in between his fingers. He wants to swallow a couple to take the edge off, but he just took two an hour and a half ago. They aren’t working. He’s sure it’s because he takes them so often; he’s at the point where he can’t function without them. The way they dull the horror is magnificent but also costly; this is what happens when you take a drug on almost a constant basis for nearly two years. They start to lose their effect, and no. Holden doesn’t want to think about that.

Without Valium, he has nothing.

Bill pulls into the motel parking lot at 11:10 PM. He checks them in while Holden attempts to reign himself in. He takes calculated, measured breaths, in through his nose and out through his mouth. An uncomfortable swell of dizziness causes his mouth to dry. And he flinches when Bill slams the door, and he doesn’t remember coming back with a key in hand, and he isn’t sure how he ends up in their shared room. He drops his suitcase and sits on the bed. Bill moves around. He doesn’t want to watch, is fighting intense nausea, so he screws his eyes closed instead.

Everything is wrong. Everything is broken. But no one is dead or dying, and Bill isn’t acting like he’s mad at Holden.

His ears ring. Static broods. Bill is on his own bed in his underwear and shirt, flipping through channels and nursing a scotch.

“What do you make of this guy?” Bill asks, shattering the silence and busting through the thick glaze of fog in Holden’s skull.

Holden doesn’t want to answer, doesn’t want to talk, but he can’t make Bill angry at him. He toes off his shoes and plants his hands on either side of him, dragging a sock-covered toe across the dingy carpet. “He reminds me of another Gacy… or Williams.”

Bill scoffs. “18 boys. That’s pretty impressive.”

In truth, Holden doesn’t want to interview Eldon Bright tomorrow. He remembers how excited, ecstatic, enthralled he used to be by his job, but that feeling of joy disappeared a long time ago. It feels like an eternity, even though it’s only been this bad since Atlanta. He doesn’t understand how someone like Wayne Williams can get away with 28 counts of murder and only formally, officially, be charged with two. What a waste. They did went through that for nothing.

And now he’s positive this is for nothing. Why bend over backwards to cater to low lives just so they can ask them questions? It seems so pointless and trivial. The most intelligent conversation they ever had is with Ed Kemper, and Holden can’t think that name, much less say it, without immediately breaking out in a sweat. It scares him that he’s afraid of his job. He shouldn’t be afraid. But it feels like the perp always has the upper hand in any situation.

Gleaning insights from killers? He’s a naïve piece of shit to think this will ever work.

But he doesn’t have a choice right now. He’s already here. He won’t be able to go home for another ten days.

“What do you think we should start with tomorrow?” Bill asks. “How it felt to choke the life out of an 11-year-old boy? Or how Daddy beat him within an inch of his life every single day?”

He shrugs. He knows it’s just going to irritate Bill, but sleep tugs on his shirtsleeve. Holden lies down on the bed, facing Bill so he knows he’s listening. He curls his knees toward his chest and crosses his arms. He remembers Bill coming over last week and telling him he needs to pull his weight, and he agreed. It’s hard, but he manages to speak a couple sentences to Wendy, Bill, and Gregg during their meeting before leaving to interview their newest subjects. Father used to tell him all the time to shut the fuck up, and Bill always acted so annoyed when Holden spoke, so he thought he was giving everyone what they wanted, but he guesses not. He is very confused by people and their reactions and by Bill saying he leaves all the work to them.

And Bill sighs loudly. Holden knows he screwed up. He didn’t respond. Shit. “You gotta talk, Holden. I’m trying to make conversation with you.”

Holden nods, shoving away the exposed vulnerability lighting up his core. “Sorry.”

“Tell you what; I’ve been thinking about something. You’re having a hard time right now, and I understand that, but I thought of a way that may help. I know you don’t want to talk, but you have to. So why don’t we cut the small talk for now, and you just talk about the case? You love this work, Holden; I know you do. If that’s all you can talk about for a couple weeks, then that’s fine. But you gotta start by telling me your insights right here, right now, okay?”

Holden breaks eye contact with Bill, even though he tries really hard not to. He pinches his forearm. It stings. He hope it’s hard enough to make his skin bleed, seeing as it’s barely mended together with cheap Band-Aids as it is. But he doesn’t get that instant satisfaction his brain craves. He wants to bolt to the bathroom, lock himself inside, and scrawl on his thighs or abdomen or the humerus of his left arm with his razor until the world stops spinning so madly.

“Kid?”

Bill’s voice is gruff but light. Not irritated like Holden expects.

Holden nods, gulping. “Eldon Bright. Auburn, New York. 67 years old. Born June 4th, 1914. Convicted of strangling 18 boys between the ages of 11 and 19. First known victim was Bobby Lawrence in 1959. Last one was Leroy Barnett in 1976. He was only convicted of 18 murders, but he claims to have over 30 victims. His murders mimic Gacy in that he hid the bodies on his property and, otherwise, lived a normal life. He didn’t have a criminal background. He had a wife and two daughters. But his approach mimics Wayne Williams; Bright would often lure boys into his car by promising them five dollars for helping him mow and weed eat his lawn.”

And he stops. He can’t talk anymore. It’s the most he’s spoken in months. His Adam’s apple bobs up and down, and a drop of sweat rolls down the side of his face. He inhales shakily. But a small part of him feels liberated. Being able to speak instead of blatantly choosing not to is strange but very welcome in a way. He isn’t sure whether he likes this idea of only talking about cases, but it’s better than having to come up with random things to say to Bill just so he doesn’t go mute on everyone again.

“Sounds like you did your homework,” Bill says. “Good job.”

He’s such a little kid. It makes him so sick to his stomach. He doesn’t know how or why anyone, especially, Bill puts up with him. He doesn’t need to be coaxed into talking, but maybe he does. He doesn’t need to be praised for being well informed on their subjects, but maybe he does. Maybe this is what he needs? Maybe the stability and the expectations are what he needs to snap himself out of this funk. Maybe the old Holden is in there somewhere, begging to see the light.

Bill doesn’t seem irritated. He seems like he wants to help. Maybe he will help him.

And, for once, Holden falls fast asleep with the help of only one Valium and without the urge to break his skin open.


AUBURN CORRECTIONAL FACILITY
NOVEMBER 12, 1981

Eldon Bright is a big man.

He’s pumpkin round. He’s got a full grey beard that extends toward his chest. He’s 6’5” and weighs almost 300 pounds.

And he stares at Holden the moment he and Bill are escorted into a conference cell.

Holden gulps and sits down at a cafeteria table, as close to Bill as he can get without sitting practically on his lap.

“We’re conducting interviews with people who have been convicted of violent crimes. Anything we discuss cannot be used against you in your appeals or applications for parole. We’ll be asking you about your family history, antecedent behavior, and thought patterns surrounding the crimes. Our goal is to publish a statistical analysis which will not include your name,” Holden rattles off quickly, not stopping to take a breath because breathing means having to spend more time in here with bushy Eldon Bright staring a hole right through him.

Bright leans across the table. His fingers extend out toward Holden. Holden scoots back. “You have a wonderful voice. Very sweet and soft.”

Holden breaks eye contact and finds a clock on the wall behind Bright. 12:35 PM.

“We’re here to discuss –” Bill starts, but Bright cuts him off.

“I don’t want to talk to you,” Bright says hastily. “I want to talk to this cutie.”

Holden and Bill exchange glances. Holden clears his throat. Every single part of him is uncomfortable, but he can’t waste Bill’s time. It’ll just make Bill that much more disappointed in him. “We’re here to discuss your crimes, Mr. Bright.”

“Oh, please, darling, call me Eldon.”

He nods. “Okay, Eldon. We’re here to discuss your crimes, specifically starting with August 2nd, 1959.”

“Is this about Bobby again? I already told the cops and ‘veryone else that boy had it comin’.”

“What do you mean by –”

“I’m not talkin’ to you,” Bright says, glaring at Bill when Bill speaks once again. “I’m talkin’ to him. Anyways, as I was sayin’, that boy had it comin’. Always askin’ to get his baseball outta my yard, shirtless, flirtin’. It’s a wonder he didn’t just come out and say it to my face.”

“Say what?” Holden asks.

Bright stares at him. “Say that he wanted to fuck me. I could tell he did.”

“How could you tell?”

“’Cuz of his smile. He was always smilin’, wavin’, offerin’ to mow my lawn to make a lil’ cash durin’ the summer. So, I’d give in, y’know, eventually, just to help the kid out.”

Holden glances down at the file in front of him. “I’m guessing that’s how Bobby ends up mowing your lawn on the morning of August 2nd?”

“I told the cops I hadn’t seen him since he finished mowin’ my lawn.”

“But you had?”

Bright shakes his head. “No. Aint you listenin’ to a word I’m sayin’? I didn’t see Bobby no more after that. But the boy had it comin’. It’s a wonder no one did it to him before.”

“The police found Bobby’s body buried in your backyard,” Holden points out neutrally.

Bright nods, smiles; Holden shivers. “I know. It was the strangest thing.”

“What about Tim Fischer? Or Scott Milbourn? Or Joshua Peters?” he asks. “They were found in your backyard too. The cops said they’d been buried there for at least a decade.”

“Oh, believe me, honey, I know what they said, but you can’t listen to no cops. No offense. But they’d been settin’ me up for one thing or ‘nother since I was just a boy myself.”

Holden looks at Bright curiously. “What kind of things?”

“Oh, y’know, petty theft, arson, things like that. They said I’d blewn up my daddy’s car when I was small. My baby brother Bertie was inside.”

And Holden’s eyes widen. His stomach swishes uncomfortably inside his gut. He read a lot about Eldon Bright before he got here. Eldon’s parents are Esther and Eldon Bright, Senior. Eldon had an old sister Gertie and a younger brother Bertrand, who died during infancy from a fire. This was 1921, when Bright was seven. Records weren’t kept, and, according to the files, no one accused Bright of murdering his brother. He volunteered than information on his own.

He inhales shakily. Fights the urge to fidget or squirm. He inches closer to Bill, his only safety net in this entire world. He knows this. He knows this. He has to stop making Bill so mad at him all the time. He wants to get out of here, go back to the motel, and split his skin until the world makes sense again.

I’m thinking about quitting my job.

“What about your other victims?” Holden finds himself asking. “Greggory Lomax? Walden Emery? Henry Carter?”

Bright raises an eyebrow. “I don’t know nothin’ about none of them.”

“You confessed to murdering them on February 8th, 1976,” Holden informs, “along with 15 other boys, including Bobby Lawrence.”

“I didn’t confess to nothin’. Cops just said I did.”

“But you also told the cops you strangled more than 18 boys. You talked about strangling more than 30.”

“The cops made me say all that shit. Like I’d ever say somethin’ as awful as that. I love boys. I wouldn’t want them gettin’ hurt.”

Holden gulps. “But you said Bobby Lawrence had it coming.”

“You know what? You’re really startin’ to annoy me here? You got a pretty face and all, but you gotta learn to respect your elders. How old are ya anyway? 25? 26?”

The question digs at Holden’s heart.

If this were two years ago, with Ed Kemper or Richard Speck or Jerry Brudos, Holden would have no issue expelling his personal information left and right, but he isn’t the same as he was back then. He’d like to think he isn’t as naïve. And, honestly, he sees no reason for these men to know the truth. Bright is a liar, a compulsive, shitty liar with a low IQ, and he confessed to these murders, and now he takes them back because it’s convenient for him.

“That’s not important,” Holden says. “What about the other boys, Eldon? What about the other boys you confessed to strangling?”

Bright crosses his arms over his chest. His smile turns into a frown. His staring becomes more intense. “I’d love to take you home. Pretty. young thing like you? You wouldn’t stand a chance.”

“Alright. That’s enough,” Bill steps in. “Do you want to talk about the murders or not? Because this schtick you’re pulling here isn’t landing.”

Bright turns his unending gaze toward Bill; the relief Holden feels is palpable in the air. “You think you’re his boss or somethin’?”

“No, I don’t think I’m his boss, Eldon. But we aren’t here to listen to your sick fantasy about fucking an FBI agent, are we? No. We’re here to talk about your past. So, either you talk, or you don’t. No skin off our backs either way.”

“Fuck you,” Bright says. He stands up. Luckily, he’s still wearing handcuffs. Bill and Holden couldn’t meet with him unless they stayed on. “Guard!”

The guard comes back slowly, no sense of urgency in sight.

Before he is escorted back to his room, Bright stops and says, “You can come back any time, honey. Just you.”

Holden keeps his face neutral. He doesn’t want to be here anymore. Wonders briefly if he ever did. He knows, at one point, he was obsessed with his job. It was all he could think about, and it took over every aspect of his life. His relationship with Debbie fell apart because of the work. His co-workers hated his guts; Holden isn’t sure it’ll ever go back to the way it was before he screwed up in such a huge, ridiculous manner. But that obsession with being present and doing the work has turned into an inkling of wanting to get out the work no matter what the cost.

Bill and Holden leave Auburn Correctional Facility. Outside, light, fluffy snowflakes cling to the pavement. Holden shoves his hands in his pockets as he makes his way to the car. Bill turns the heat on and immediately lights a cigarette. Holden lets his eyes drooped closed. It’s easily the most he’s talked and interacted in months. He knows Bill is right, that he must pull his weight, but conversation is a lot of work, and Holden knows now more than ever he isn’t any good at it.

“So, what’d you think?” Bill asks once they’re on the road. The car heats up bit by bit.

Holden frowns. He doesn’t want to speak. His throat and head hurt. “I think he denied killing those boys because it’s easier for him that way,” Holden says. “He doesn’t have to remember it. He doesn’t have to feel guilty if he compartmentalizes enough.”

Bill nods. “Anything else?”

Holden massages the bridge of his nose and in between his eyes. He feels heavy and weighted and like he can sleep for a week. “I’m tired, Bill.”

It almost comes off as a whine. Holden inhales sharply and tries to change his wording, but Bill stops him. “That’s okay. You did really well in there, kid. Why don’t you take a nap when we get to the motel, and we’ll talk about it tonight?”

And he nods. He is grateful that Bill understands.

Maybe things aren’t as bad between them as Holden thought. Maybe.

He isn’t 100% convinced, but Bill gives him a small smile, and Holden soaks it in.

When he gets to the motel, he takes off his shoes, bundles up under the covers, and sleeps.


He wakes up alone.

There’s a note on the bedside table that reads: “Went to a bar. Be back by midnight. – B.”

And there’s a lump in his throat, and a rock in his chest, and he has nothing and no one and no one is here he’s alone he’s always alone he doesn’t know what causes this sudden vulnerability to surge through his core to light him up like a Christmas tree but he hates it he hates it he hates himself for being so scared so alone so isolated so used to blocking the world out that it hurts him this much every time he lets someone else back inside

He misses Bill he wishes Bill were here even if he was just smoking a cigarette and watching TV Holden doesn’t want to be alone right now he can’t bring himself to do anything other than drag himself out of bed with tears streaming down his cheeks he grabs his toiletry bag finds a razor sits on the tiled floor of the bathroom and stares he can’t bring himself to make the first cut even though his shirt is gone and the feeling of slicing open his skin is always enough to calm him down but he doesn’t want to do this to himself he doesn’t want this for himself

It hurts it hurts a lot it’s a pain in the ass it’s messy and leaves scars and Holden doesn’t want it

He lets the razor clatter to the floor

And he draws his knees to his chest and hides his face in them

But it isn’t enough. Holden isn’t sure it’ll ever be enough again.

Through tears, he finds the razor. Slices horizontally across his upper arm. Watches blood ooze sluggishly from the wound. He breathes out a shaky sigh of relief. He cuts again and again and again. His fingers tremble. Sweat trickles down the side of his face. He shivers in the November chill. The ground welcomes him home, and he desperately wishes he could just disappear from this life he built for himself. He doesn’t want this anymore. He doesn’t want to be alone anymore.

He can’t breathe. His chest hurts. He –

A sob erupts from his esophagus like its molten lava. He covers his mouth with his hand.

Stop stop stop stop stop

He can’t do it he can’t do it he can’t do it he can’t he can’t

He’s alone, and maybe he’ll be alone forever, and maybe isn’t a reason he’s still here.

Tears pour down his cheeks, and he chokes as he pinches the skin on his mangled forearms. He needs help. He needs help. He needs to stand, throw up, take his meds, and go to bed. He knows this. He knows this. He quivers and shakes and barfs in the toilet. Fuck. Why the fuck is he so stupid? He clenches wads of his hair in his hands and screams until the screams turn into sobs.

Holden takes a deep breath.

He’s okay he’s okay he’s okay he’s okay he’s dying

He’s dying

Holden clutches his chest stop stop stop stop

Get a grip

Relax

Breathe

None of these things come easily to him, though. He’s high-strung. When something becomes too much or too little, he breaks. Shatters. Starts building his insanity up higher and higher until it reaches the sky

Just breathe

All he has to do is breathe

Holden breathes and pulls himself off the floor. He washes the blood off his arms and covers the worst of the cuts with Band-Aids. He brushes his teeth and changes into pajamas. He swallows his medicine and breathes shakily. He looks at himself in the mirror and hates what he sees. He lies back down in bed and clicks on the TV. The laughter behind The Jefferson’s makes him no feel so alone. He cradles his aching head with a pillow and curls himself into the tightest ball he can.

And he watches two back to back episodes before he hears the door unlock. Bill comes in, but Holden can’t quite make out his face. It’s dark, and he’s tired, and he can’t fight this anymore.

“You okay, kid?” Bill asks. He sounds drunk and foggy and far away.

Holden nods. “I’m fine,” he whispers.

Bill unzips his suitcase. Holden hears him piss and flush the toilet. Brush his teeth and spit. Yawn and grumble.

“Goodnight,” Bill murmurs after turning off the TV.

Holden’s eyes water. A few tears leak down his cheeks. “Goodnight, Bill.”

And Holden is alone again.

Chapter Text

SMYRNA, DELAWARE
NOVEMBER 18, 1981

Matthias Berger reached across the table and touched him. Touched him. He touched him, and he didn’t react. He didn’t move. He didn’t do anything. He was powerless to it all. He only realized – fully comprehended – what had happened when Bill shoved the hand away and ripped Berger a new one about keeping his hands to himself. But Holden just stared. He looked past Berger, past the wall behind him, past the guards and the cells. He didn’t want to be there anymore.

I’m thinking about quitting my job.

And it’s easy enough to compartmentalize in the heat of the moment. He can’t express himself because his feelings, more often than not, make Bill angry. He doesn’t want Bill to be mad at him anymore. So, Holden does what he does best. He shoved it deep down and hurt himself for hours on end while Bill drank at the hotel bar. He carved his skin like a prized turkey. And, then, when it was over, when he felt purged, he curled up in bed and slept for 12 hours straight.

Today, he drags himself out of bed slowly. His body sore and head aching, he takes two Valium and a pair of Tylenol to go with it. His eyes feel like they’re made of sandpaper, and his throat is the equivalent. His bones are exhausted. All of this traveling, talking, sleeping in a bed that isn’t his, is toxic. Luckily, he only has three more full days of this before he can go back to Fredericksburg, go back home, go back to sleep in his own bed.

He never used to feel the sting of traveling for work. Even, distantly, Atlanta wasn’t bad. But, now, he’s 31 years old, and his back hurts constantly. He never gets enough rest. He can’t handle the new sounds, smells, senses of dread and terror and fear every night. He’s sure it’s this job. He doesn’t want to go interview George Robert Mason today, especially not after interviewing Eldon Bright last week and Matthias Berger on Monday and Tuesday. He yearns for a break, just a day to get his bearings and stop talking so Goddamn much.

And he gets in the shower. The hot water singes his broken skin. He winces as he lathers body wash into open wounds. He finds the different levels of healing fascinating. There’s this cut near his pulse point on his left wrist that is mangled and pink. There’s this scar on his forearm that is fresh and new and bleeds sluggishly each time he runs the washcloth over it. There are so many lines scattered on his body now, and he stares at them like it’s his own sickening museum of self-mutilation. Vaguely, he realizes he shouldn’t get a kick out of doing this to himself, but, ultimately, he decides he doesn’t care. He doesn’t care anymore.

He doesn’t care about Eldon Bright or Matthias Berger or George Robert Mason. He doesn’t care about Ed Kemper or Richard Speck or Jerry Brudos or Charles Manson or Wayne Williams. He doesn’t care about his childhood or his father. He doesn’t care because caring hurts too much. It’s better this way. He refuses to get too close to anyone – isn’t sure he has the social skills in the first place to do so – and only talks to Bill about the cases. Even that, though, is tiring.

Before, he loved his job. He loved coming to work each morning with a case to look at or, occasionally, solve. He loved interviewing criminals and dissecting their motives, behaviors, ticks, personalities. He loved getting into their heads and getting a glimpse at the life they lived prior to being locked in prison. He loved it.

Now, he freezes when someone touches him and melts down when the stimulation is too much.

He knows he’s a far cry from who he used to be, but no one liked that Holden. Bill found that Holden irritating and talkative. Wendy found that Holden to be a smart ass and know it all. Shephard found that Holden to be overly eager and confident. Criminals like Ed Kemper found that Holden to be approachable and worth talking to, someone who would give as well as take, and Holden can’t fucking stand the old him. There is something inside him that is so broken.

“Are you almost done in there, kid?” Bill asks through the closed door.

Holden stares at his fingertips coated in blood. Looks at himself in the mirror. Hates his reflection. Messily rips open one Band-Aid and then wipes his forearm with toilet paper. Flushes the toilet to get rid of the evidence. He dresses and brushes his teeth and styles his hair and gathers up his dirty laundry. He opens the door, and steam follows him out. Bill is there, a cigarette dangling from his lips as he bends over to tie his shoes.

“Jesus, you look like shit,” Bill points out.

And he doesn’t say anything. He hasn’t been talking lately. Since the interview with Berger, he prefers to stay silent.

“You ready for this guy?” Bill inquires. The sound of his gruff voice rakes through Holden’s ears. “Kid? You gotta talk to me.”

He nods, but he doesn’t offer anything else.

Bill drives them to the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center.

And Holden knows these criminals are all the same. Eldon Bright was a closeted homosexual male who lived out his fantasies by strangling and murdering young boys. Matthias Berger killed five women between the ages of 20 and 24, all within a month. George Robert Mason abducted and decapitated three girls in the summer of 1968, ages 15, 17, and 18, displaying their shoes in his house and making wigs from their hair. They’re the same. Ed Kemper killed co-eds. Richard Speck killed students. Charles Manson drove his Family to kill.

They’re the same, and it’s sickening, and Holden isn’t sure he can handle it anymore.

Outside, snow pelts hard and fast against the windshield. Bill mumbles and murmurs about the atrocious weather, all while trying to get Holden to talk. But Holden doesn’t want to talk. He isn’t sure he ever wants to speak again, honestly. The act is ridiculous when it just makes Bill angry. It makes everyone angry. And he thinks back to Berger’s hand sliding across the table, his fingers making contact with Holden’s skin, and not feeling it. Not really being there to feel it.

He still can’t feel it.

“Are you just not gonna say anything today?” Bill asks directly, when he parks the car.

Holden flinches. He scratches his cheek. He doesn’t know how to answer.

“I cannot have you going mute in there, okay? It’ll make us look bad. Remember, you said you’d share the workload.”

And Holden nods. But he is too numb or deflated or tired to do much more than that.

But then Bill reaches over. Grabs Holden’s chin with his fingers. Forces Holden to look him in the eyes.

“You with me?”

Holden nods frantically, heart hammering in his chest. His father used to do that, force him to make eye contact, all the time. But Bill is not his father, and this isn’t the past. He tells himself this. He tells himself this. But it doesn’t matter. Holden’s airway clogs, and he tries to breathe, but nothing will come out. He stumbles as he gets out of the car. He grabs a handful of snow. It’s cold and slushy, but it’s not enough. It’s not enough to bring him back.

Nothing will ever be enough to help him.

Bill and Holden turn in their guns and sign their releases.

“I have to use the restroom,” Holden says robotically out of nowhere.

Bill lights another cigarette. “Make it quick.”

And he slides down the bathroom wall head in his hands grabbing his hair he can’t move he can’t move there’s something holding him down there’s nothing he can do to get out of this but nothing is wrong Bill always says that his problems are nothing and they are this is nothing he is nothing Father always said he couldn’t fight his way out of anything he’s a pussy go for nothing fag who can’t tie his own shoes without pissing himself and he’s right he’s right he’s right he is scared there’s warmth on his cheeks from crying but they’re silent because no one listens no one hears he thrusts his hand to his chest so he can feel his heartbeat he’s still alive but he doesn’t know if he wants to be he’s still alive but doesn’t know if he wants to be

He fishes the Valium from his pocket and chews three up breathe just breathe it’s hot and freezing and cold and sticky and his skin is on fire there’s something wrong with him there’s something wrong with him he breathes but it’s crooked and his stomach swims violently like the ocean during a hurricane he’s dizzy his body shakes he breathes in deeply forcefully so he doesn’t forget and massages his scalp with his fingertips the panic slowly fades, like a fire burning out in the middle of the night, but his headache returns.

And he dares to open his eyes. Everything is blurry, but he sees that he’s still in the bathroom and has no idea how long he’s been here. He wipes his face with a wet paper towel and sniffles. He straightens his button up as best as he can.

Bill is going to kill him.

Holden runs a hand through his hair as he approaches Bill, who is glaring at him with an intensity Holden wishes he doesn’t recognize.

“Sorry,” Holden whispers. His throat hurts.

Bill rolls his eyes. Holden shrinks away. He hates this. He doesn’t know what he did wrong. What is different about this week compared to last week? “Are you okay to do this?”

He nods. “I’m fine.”

But he isn’t.

He doesn’t feel well, and his body demands sleep, and the Valium are kicking his ass.

George Robert Mason is a meaty man with sandy blond hair and a missing front tooth. He crosses his arms over his chest the moment Bill introduces them.

“We’re conducting interviews with people such as yourself,” Bill starts.

Mason scowls. “Such as myself? Who? Killers? Murderers?”

“People who have committed violent crimes,” Bill says with a nod.

“Nobody’s ever done anything like me,” Mason says, and he almost sounds proud.

Holden flinches hard when Bill nudges him, trying to coax him into saying something, but Holden is positive he will cry if he speaks, so he doesn’t.

Bill gives up. “What makes you say that?”

“You ever met a man who took off the heads of those beautiful girls?” Mason asks. “You ever met a man who used parts of his victims’ identities as his home décor?”

Bill rolls his eyes. “You’re not special because you murdered three teenagers. In fact, that makes you less than special.”

“Who the hell says it’s only three?”

“The evidence. The police. The reports.”

Mason scoffs and leans back in his chair. “It’s way more than three, pal. I’m better than three. Trust me. You’ve never dealt with anyone like me before. I have more up my sleeve than you could ever imagine.”

“See, you say things like that, bragging about more victims, but there’s nothing to suggest that claim is true. So, either you’re in denial, or you just want people to think there are more victims, that the number is higher, because you’re a sick fuck.” Bill lights a cigarette and mimics Mason by leaning back in his chair.

“Tanya Roster. Elizabeth Nichols. Terri Shaw. Patricia Harring –”

“What are you doing?” Bill asks harshly; the tone of his voice makes Holden fidget in his seat. “Naming your victims?”

“Well, I was, until you so rudely interrupted.”

“Instead of this delightful dialogue, why don’t we focus on your family life instead? What was your father like?”

But Holden doesn’t hear anymore, not really at least. He isn’t here. He’s somewhere floating just above his body. He tries to snap out of it, to come back to reality. He is prone to disassociating when he has panic attacks. Dr. McCarthy says that to him a lot. He knows this, can rationalize it, but he can’t feel it when he’s like this.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven eight. One –

And, somehow, he’s outside again. Snow falls around him. It’s getting dark out. Bill stares at him.

“You didn’t say a single word in there, Holden,” Bill points out. Holden looks down until Bill forces him to make eye contact with his hand again; Holden flinches and backs away. “Not a single fucking word. I tried being nice. I tried understanding, and I’ve been trying to help you learn to talk more again. But you’re not interested. You have zero interest in these cases. Do you know how bad this looks? Do you know how this can come back to you once Gunn hears the tape? Or do you not care about that anymore either?”

Holden shakes his head. “I… I don’t know… I-I’m sorry, Bill.”

“I’m about three seconds away from losing my shit. So, I need you to get in the car. I need you to think hard about whether this is what you want to do with your life. And I need you to step up with whatever your decision is. I can’t keep doing this, kid. It’s not worth it.”

Not worth it.

He knows he’s not worth it.

And Holden nods. He gets in the car. He does exactly what Bill says.

Except he wills himself to fall asleep on the twenty minute drive back to the hotel. He can’t handle being conscious anymore. He doesn’t want to feel it. He doesn’t want to feel it.

Holden is in the room and under the covers when Bill sighs. He feels a hand on his forehead and then on his cheek, and he twitches, but he doesn’t pull away because he is powerless. He is useless. He is not worth it. He deserves this.

“You’re burning up, Holden,” Bill informs softly. “Is that why you’re not talking?”

And Holden succumbs to whiplash. He doesn’t understand why Bill keeps changing his tone, his attitude, his behavior toward Holden. One minute he’s okay with him and the next he is pissed off, and he can’t keep doing this. He can’t.

“Jesus Christ. Can’t you just tell me how you’re feeling?”

Holden stares blankly at the wall. He shivers and shakes and wills his body to calm down.

Eventually, Bill says he’s going to grab a burger and drink at the hotel bar.

And Holden is seventeen years old again.

He remembers blood dripping down his flesh, the scent of iron staining the air like poppies during springtime. Red and blue flashes echo off Father’s skin. There is a knife pointed at his heart. He feels the fear, the pain, the raw electricity of a nightmare penetrating his muscles, fibers, neurons. Mom watches from the other room and doesn’t stop him. She doesn’t ask him to put the knife down.

And he remembers Father hovering over him, his beer belly dangling toward the floor, a nasty smirk on his face as he inches the knife closer. He whimpers with hot tears spilling over his bruised cheeks. Father slices open his skin instead of plunging the knife into soft flesh. He hears Father tell him he should’ve killed him sooner when he had the chance, before Holden grew into a 5’11” fag with no social skills and zero interests in anything other than being an FBI agent.

Holden is there. It’s the night of Thursday, March 23rd, 1967. He turned 17 twelve days prior. Holden is on Spring Break and re-reading In Cold Blood by Truman Capote at his desk. He hears Mom and Father yelling and plugs his ears with his fingertips. He turns the page, and Father kicks in the door without warning. Drags Holden out of his room. Puts him on display in from of Mother. Slices a knife through the flesh on his abdomen, arms, back, sides. Kicks him in the chest. Screams until his face is red and sweaty. Mother stands sullen and silent, as if she doesn’t see – or care about – what is happening. She doesn’t hear or see –

And Holden doesn’t either. He doesn’t hear the door click closed or the TV turn on. He doesn’t hear. He doesn’t see. He doesn’t. He doesn’t he doesn’t he doesn’t. It’s so much easier this way. He doesn’t want to care. He doesn’t want this life. He doesn’t want any of this, and he doesn’t know what to say or how to say it, and he’s so beyond hope that no one trusts him, and he understands. He is an unfathomable screw up, and he must live with that.

He itches for his razor. It makes more sense to maim himself than it does for him to tell Bill or Wendy or his therapist how he feels. It’s irrelevant.

But he doesn’t get up because he can’t his feet won’t work his body doesn’t work his head is full of cotton balls and he feels it he feels the anxiety trying to squeeze its way out through capillaries he feels the static electricity humming loudly in his ears he feels his hands shake his lungs constrict he failed he failed he failed he failed –

He hears his heart beat beat beat in his chest he needs to breathe he needs to breathe but breathing is hard when he’s sucking air through a clogged straw when his chest is so tight there’s a boulder sitting on top of him crushing his sternum he needs to breathe he needs to breathe tears stream down his cheeks and hiccups tears at his hair pleads for this to be over for his life to end because no one would care he doesn’t care he wouldn’t mind if it all just stopped for a while –

“Calm down,” he hears, but it’s muffled and distorted. There is something on his forehead, and he shoves it away. “It’s just me.”

Bill. It’s Bill.

Holden shrinks in on himself. He dissolves into a puddle. He makes himself disappear. “I’m okay,” he manages to whisper.

And he can’t. He can’t have Bill touch him. He doesn’t want Bill to touch him.

“You’re not okay, kid,” Bill says. Holden wants to scream. “Just let me help you.”

And Bill touches his arm, and it burns a hole through his skin, and Holden yanks back violently.

“Don’t touch me,” Holden says, heart beating in his sore throat and stomach rising up his esophagus.

“Jesus Christ. What the fuck did I do that was so wrong?” Bill asks. “As a matter of fact, what did any of us do that was so fucking wrong?”

Holden shakes his head. “Please, B-Bill… I don’t wanna –”

“I don’t care what you ‘don’t wanna’ do. This is ridiculous, Holden. You’re a grown ass man, not a toddler. You’re acting like a spoiled princess.”

And he remembers Matthias Berger reaching across the table and touching him. Eldon Bright telling him he has a pretty voice. Ed Kemper hugging him. He remembers his father screaming at him to stand up straight, to make eye contact, to stop reading so much, to quit being such a fag, to be nonexistent because Holden is nonexistent. He isn’t here. He wishes he weren’t here.

“What is wrong with you?”

And Holden isn’t here. He’s back in Wendy’s office three weeks ago.

“Nothing’s wrong,” Holden says softly.

Bill crosses his arms over his chest. “You’ve barely said a word to us all month.”

“We’re not here to talk about that, Bill,” Wendy points out.

“Why not? I, for one, am getting a little tired of this level of unresponsiveness from him. What? Are you better than us now, kid?”

“No,” he manages to squeak out. “I… I’ve been listening.”

Bill stares at him. “That’s it? Listening? What about that arrogant input we’ve all been missing so dearly? See? It’s like talking to a brick wall.”

Holden glances at his folded hands. ‘I’m sorry,” he hears, masking the fear in his voice.

“I don’t need an apology,” Bill tells him. “I need you to actually give a shit about the work we’re doing here.”

“I think what Bill is trying to say is,” Wendy interjects, “you’ve been very professional the last several months. It’s a far cry from the Holden we know.”

Bill scoffs. “A far cry? He barely speaks.”

“What happened that was so fucking bad?” Bill inquires. The harshness of his words, his tone, snaps Holden back into reality.

Holden shakes his head. Tears stream down his cheeks. He tries to smash his cheek harder into the pillow so this will go away. He doesn’t want this. He doesn’t want this. He doesn’t want Bill to be mad at him anymore.

“Forget it,” Bill says, walking away and heading toward the door. “I’m done with this.”

I’m done with you.

Chapter Text

SMYRNA, DELAWARE
NOVEMBER 19, 1981

He locks the bathroom door and grabs his razor. He runs a couple fingers over the blade to make sure it’s sharp enough and discards his shirt. He carves the skin on his right humerus and notices he is almost out of real estate to mutilate. And the cuts aren’t deep, but they sting terribly, and blood pools on the towel he draped over his lap, and Holden can finally breathe again for the first time all day. It’s cathartic is the worst way possible. He knows he shouldn’t do this to himself, to harm himself with drastic measures, but it helps. It fills up the empty hole in his chest, even if it’s only momentarily. He slices and writes with the razor like it’s a ballpoint pen.

And it’s strange how normal this is becoming. Holden wakes up. He gathers his clothes for the day. He cuts. He showers and brushes his teeth and goes to interview a psychopathic criminal with Bill. He comes back to a shitty motel. He cuts. He showers and brushes his teeth and falls asleep with the TV on. Holden wakes up and does it all over again. Hurting himself is just as typical as brushing his teeth. He isn’t sure if it should worry him or not; he feels like it definitely should, but he doesn’t have enough energy to look into it that deeply.

Bill is mad at him. He knew that last night, but it’s even more apparent this morning. He won’t even look Holden in the eye. Holden understands; he’s disgusting and angering and frustrating. There isn’t anything remotely good about him. But today Holden is less emotional and intensely numb around the edges. He tends to do better – to be better – on days where his emotions are hidden below the surface, when he isn’t wearing them on his sleeves. He can’t feel much today, and he prefers it that way. Today, he has to step up, conduct a proper interview with George Robert Mason, and apologize to Bill. Maybe it’ll be enough so that Bill won’t be mad at him anymore.

He doubts it.

And, really, he has no faith in himself anymore, but he has to try, otherwise Bill will get angrier and angrier until he snaps.

His father used to do that often. Snap. Holden doesn’t want that for Bill. It’d be a waste of his time, a hassle, an inconvenience. Holden isn’t worth the trouble.

Bill deserves more than him.

Holden finishes cutting and getting ready. He sits on the edge of his unmade bed while Bill smokes a cigarette and drinks his coffee. He waits until he’s given instruction. He doesn’t flinch or fidget or squirm; it's nice to be in control of his body.

Maybe today will go alright. He is so brightly and brilliantly numb that he can’t see how it could go wrong.

That is, until Bill starts talking to him.

“You’re on your own today,” Bill says, and Holden tries to keep any and all emotion off his face. “I can’t handle this shit anymore. You’re going to go do this interview alone, and you’re going to do all the work; that way, you’ll see how much shit you’re leaving me to do by myself.”

Holden nods. “Okay. That’s fair.”

Bill’s eyes widen. “He speaks.”

Holden shrugs and pulls on a coat over his suit jacket. He tells Bill goodbye without a second thought. He feels oddly energized this morning. But in an off-putting way. He doesn’t want to interview Mason; that’s for sure. But he wants to make Bill happy, or at least content with him, and he knows he can do that if he makes up for yesterday. Bill was irritated and had every reason to be. Holden is selfish. Holden is panicky. Holden is a know it all. Holden is annoying and talkative and awful.

And he now he knows this. He can do the interviews without such a struggle. So what if he has a panic attack – or two or ten? So what if he wants badly to find a way out of this job? So what? He is fully capable of talking and interacting, even if it is poorly. He isn’t good at either of these things, but he can’t keep alienating Bill. Bill is all he has, and Holden isn’t sure he can handle Bill being this mad at him much longer. He has to do what’s right.

Holden hands off his gun and signs the release forms.

And he’s across the table from George Robert Mason, the murderer of three girls: Tanya Roster, age 15, Elizabeth Nichols, age 17, and Terri Shaw, age 18. The abductions and decapitations all took place within 29 days. Mason would display his victims’ shoes in his house and make wigs from their hair. He kept the heads in a garage freezer. He already had a fourth victim – Patricia Harrington, age 13 – under surveillance. He was going to take her the day he was caught.

Mason looks like a man who could commit such monstrosities. He isn’t as large as Ed Kemper or Eldon Bright, but his face is far more seasoned than the other two. He seems like he’s seen some shit. And, Holden guesses, that is what he’s here to find out.

“I thought you were mute,” is the first thing Mason says after Holden greets him.

Holden shakes his head. “Definitely not mute. But I am very interested in your story.”

“It’s not a story if it’s true, Agent Ford,” Mason points out. “What year did you graduate high school?”

“1968,” Holden informs. He doesn’t care anymore what these criminals know about him. It’ll either be useful to indulge, or it won’t. It isn’t any skin off Holden’s back regardless. It’s not as if any of this matters.

Mason leans back in his chair. “Jeez. You were just a boy when I killed those girls. You were what? Eleven? Twelve?”

“Twelve,” Holden says, glancing up from the case file and questionnaire. “I want to start off by talking about your family.”

“Pretty sure everything you need to know is in your file. I have three older brothers. Middle class family. Ma was a schoolteacher. Pop was a drunk. Boring shit. If you wanna know where the real fun is, you should ask me about why I did those horrible things to those poor girls.”

Holden nods. “We’ll get there. You’re the youngest of four, all boys.”

“Yes, sir. Donnie’s the oldest, then there’s Harry and Michael, and then little old me.”

“And Donnie was a little more ‘flamboyant,’ correct?”

“If you mean ‘queer,’ then yes,” Mason states. “But it didn’t bother us.”

Holden’s eyebrows furrow. “It bothered your dad though, right?”

“What do you mean?”

Douglas Mason was astounded that his eldest son Donnie was a homosexual. On July 16, 1961, Douglas caught Donnie masturbating to one of his mother’s pornographic magazines. Douglas stormed in and fought tooth and nail with Donnie. He then proceeded to shoot Donnie in the head with a .22 without hesitation. He claimed that he couldn’t handle having a ‘faggot’ son. The day after Douglas went to prison for Donnie’s murder, 24 year old George Robert Mason kidnapped and murdered Elizabeth Nichols.

“You know what I mean,” Holden says.

“Hey, man, I’m not gonna talk about this, okay?” Mason informs. “I’m cool with answering your little questions about why I killed those girls and such, but I don’t want to talk about my pop.”

Holden keeps his face neutral, emotionless. “Your past can be highly influential over you as you get older. Do you think your dad murdering your brother stirred up something inside you that made you want to hurt people? Maybe take your anger out on others?”

“Shut your faggot mouth,” Mason says. He grits his teeth and stares at Holden harshly.

But Holden is unstoppable. Holden is unflappable. Holden is unglued and unhinged, and he feels nothing. He feels nothing. He is empty and reckless, and he wants Mason to feel that. For once in several months, Holden is finally free enough to pull useful information about motive out of a murderer. And, honestly, he doesn’t care what Mason says one way or another, but he has to make Bill not so angry at him.

“Do you think Elizabeth Nichols might’ve felt the same way Donnie did before your father –”

Mason reaches across the table and grabs Holden by the collar, a sick and angry look in his eye. He slams Holden’s head against the thick wooden table. And Holden doesn’t say anything. Doesn’t move. Doesn’t shout out. Because it doesn’t hurt, and he can’t really feel it, but he isn’t sure moving would be the best thing to do right now. Maybe if he plays possum Mason will leave him alone.

But Mason stands up, and Holden wants to gulp, to scream for help, to run away, but he can’t because Mason is on him in an instant, knocking him to the floor and hovering over him.

Remembers Father hovering over him, his belly dangling to the floor, a nasty smirk on his face as he inches the knife closer.

Mason kicks him in the stomach many times; he loses track. Does it matter? Isn’t this what he deserves for opening his mouth?

But then there’s a blow to the head just below his ear that rattles him. He can’t see well. He feels blood trickle down his neck. But he doesn’t feel pain. He doesn’t feel anything. It is robotic and calm in nature. Shouldn’t it be more dramatic?

Mason laughs as he stomps harshly on Holden’s right hand, squishing it into the ground with the heel of his heavy boot like it is garbage. Holden gasps, and tears stream down his cheeks, and he doesn’t know why… He can’t feel it he can’t feel it he can’t feel it he doesn’t care he doesn’t mind this is all for nothing all for nothing he doesn't know how he could be so stupid so naïve to blatantly disregard Mason telling him to shut up but that's the kicker isn't it Holden doesn't learn he's useless a screw up he's nothing but -

Chapter Text

DOVER, DELAWARE
NOVEMBER 19, 1981

He doesn’t feel it.

And, really, he can’t feel anything.

He stares at the bright florescent lights above.

When he was small, maybe three or four, Mother put yellow glow in the dark stars on his ceiling. He was scared of the dark, of the way the trees rattled his windows when it rained, and, especially, of the monster in his closet.

“Baby,” Mother would say, voice calm like a crisp autumn morning. “There’s no such thing as monsters.”

Of course there are monsters. Ed Kemper. Richard Speck. Jerry Brudos. Wayne Williams. BTK. They’re all monsters. People who kill are monsters. People who defile another human being are monsters. People like his father… It doesn’t matter. It’ll never matter.

He stares up at the ceiling. The ER smells like antiseptic and blood.

If he looks hard enough, he can see the faint, cheap yellow stars.

But the stars are peeling. Eventually, they won’t have anything left to give. They’ll fall from the sky and plunge down to earth. They’ll be part of the world again. When they come back, maybe he can come back too, from where he’s hovering just above his body. He watches the yellow stars in hopes that they can teach him how to be real again.

Except the stars are fake. He’s in a hospital. There aren’t any stars, and he’s delusional.

But no one’s here.

No one is here.

No one is here to tell him how he should behave, how he should talk. No one is here to slap him around or yank his chin to make eye contact or shove him into walls.

No one.

He is unglued, unhinged, but massively out of touch with the universe. He watches himself lie quietly, lifelessly, in a foreign bed. It isn’t him.

The yellow stars blind his eyes as the world darkens around him. It’s as if he’s been here his whole life, staring at these stars, waiting for one of them to fall. If it falls, he knows he can too.

“Do you have anyone you want us to call, sweetie?” he hears.

Holden blinks. Tries to register the question. Isn’t sure he understands. Everything is fuzzy and blurry around the edges. Vaguely, he realizes his head aches, and there’s something warm over one of his arms. He can’t remember what happened.

And how did he end up here was there an accident is Bill okay he can’t handle it if anything happened to Bill he’s all Holden has in this world even if Bill hates him that’s okay it’s okay as long as Bill is okay then maybe he can be okay too he can’t remember why can’t he remember he hopes there wasn’t a car crash a couple years ago they got hit head on by a speeding driver neither of them were hurt thank God but now Holden feels a little hurt and can’t place where or what or why or how he thinks something happened no he knows something happened

He scrunches his eyebrows. “Bill?” he manages.

“Who’s Bill, honey?”

There’s yellow hair close to his eyes. It falls in strands. Yellow, like the stars.

“Bill… Is Bill okay?”

“Is he your brother? Friend?”

Holden shakes his head and chuckles. “Bill hates me,” he says, tearing up.

“His emergency contact is a Special Agent William Tench,” he hears.

And he jumps. Needs to move. Needs to get out of here. He wants to go somewhere dark; he doesn’t know why it’s so Goddamn bright in here. He wants to go somewhere safe, like the bathroom or his bedroom. He wants to be cornered so he can see everything, hear everything, feel everything. The lights are so loud. His head hurts.

“My head hurts,” he says. He doesn’t know why.

“I’ll give you something else for the pain, sweetie,” he hears. “We’re going to call William Tench right now, okay?”

Holden lulls his head to the side. He’s sleepy.

And, as he drifts off, he hears, “how long have you been doing this to yourself?”

But he’s tired. He doesn’t answer. Doesn’t know what they mean, anyway.


“What the hell happened?”

Holden flinches. Cringes.

“An inmate named George Mason attacked him.”

“Jesus Christ. I knew I shouldn’t have made him go alone… Alright, what’s the damage? Is he gonna be okay?”

Bill? Is it Bill? Is Bill here?

“Well, he needs surgery. His right ulna is essentially shattered from the boot, so we need to mend the bone back together and place a rod in it to keep it stable… Two of his fingers are broken, along with all of his carpal bones and two more places in the wrist itself.”

“I should’ve been there for him. I shouldn’t left him alone.”

Shouldn’t have left him? Alone? He doesn’t remember being alone.

“Agent Ford was also, for the lack of a more elegant phrase, kicked in the head, directly below his left ear. There is a small crack in his skull. It will heal on its own. Seeing as he lost consciousness twice for moderate lengths of time, he does have a grade three concussion. And he has a few broken ribs.”

He has a concussion. And broken ribs. That makes sense. His head hurts a lot. His abdomen hurts vaguely.

“Christ. I’m sure that’s the worst kind, huh?”

“It is the most severe. We’ll have to keep an eye out for swelling and brain bleeds… But that, the broken arm and concussion, isn’t what we’re most concerned about.”

Is there more? Is he bleeding internally? Was his spine damaged? Does he still remember how to talk? He should speak up, say something, say anything. But his vocal cords don’t cooperate, and he doesn’t open his eyes, and there are feelings inside of him that won’t go away. Anger. Sadness. Displacement. Repression. Guilt. He feels all these things, and he can’t place where they came from or why his brain is misfiring so badly. Whatever happened can’t be that bad. He’s been told that he’s insignificant before, and it’s alright with him.

“Agent Ford appears to be… harming himself.”

Harming himself?

He doesn’t think he’s ever done that before in his life.

“What do you mean?”

Bill sounds angry. He doesn’t like it when Bill’s angry.

“There are multiple – several, in fact – wounds and slash marks on Agent Ford’s thighs and sides. They’re even worse on his arms… He’s carved his skin from wrist to shoulder… Is he suicidal?”

Suicidal suicidal is he what happened to him he doesn’t know doesn’t remember how he got here but he remembers a sharp pain in his arm like nothing he’s ever felt before he remembers blue and red lights he remembers frantic running and yelling he knows he’s in a hospital that much is obvious but he doesn’t remember how or why and he certainly isn’t suicidal carving his skin from wrist to shoulder that isn’t him he wouldn’t do that they’ve got the wrong guy

“Honestly… I don’t know. I don’t think so. He’s been having some problems, sure, but I never thought they were… this bad.”

Bill sounds sad. Guilty. Upset. He doesn’t want Bill to be any of those things.

“Some of the wounds are fresh.”

“As if he did it before all this happened?”

“It appears that way.”

“Christ. I knew he was taking too fucking long in the bathroom.”

What are they talking about?

Holden blinks. He clears his throat.

“I’m… confused,” he manages.

His voice echoes through his skull. He winces. Why does his head hurt so much?

“Jesus, kid. You’re awake,” Bill says.

Bill and a lady – presumably the doctor – come into his line of vision. He can’t see a whole lot. Is having trouble making out facial expressions.

“What h-happened?” Holden asks. “W-Why am I here?”

“Mason attacked you. He could’ve killed you,” Bill says.

And that name sounds familiar. He ponders until it hits him like a freight train going 200 miles per hour.

“Do you think Elizabeth Nichols might’ve felt the same way Donnie did before your father –”

Mason reaches across the table and grabs Holden by the collar, a sick and angry look in his eyes. He slams Holden’s head against the thick wooden table. And Holden doesn’t say anything. Doesn’t move. Doesn’t shout of for help. Because it doesn’t hurt, and he can’t really feel it, but he isn’t sure moving would be the best thing to do right now. Maybe if he plays possum, Mason will leave him alone.

But Mason stands up, and Holden wants to gulp, to scream, to run away, but he can’t because Mason is on him in an instant, knocking him to the floor and hovering over him.

Mason kicks him in the stomach many times; he loses track. Does it matter? Isn’t this what he deserves for opening his mouth?

But then there’s a blow to his head just below his ear that rattles him. He can’t see well. He feels blood trickle down his neck. But he doesn’t feel pain. He doesn’t feel anything. It is robotic and cold in nature. Shouldn’t it be more dramatic?

Mason laughs as he stomps harshly on Holden’s right hand, squishing it into the ground with the heel of his heavy boot like it’s garbage. Holden gasps, and tears stream down his cheeks, and he doesn’t know why… He can’t feel it he can’t feel it he can’t feel it he doesn’t care he doesn’t mind this is all for nothing all for nothing he doesn’t know how he could be so stupid so naïve to blatantly disregard Mason telling him to shut up but that’s the kicker isn’t it Holden doesn’t listen Holden doesn’t learn he’s useless a screw up he’s nothing but –

And he’s here.

He’s here in this hospital, and he doesn’t know what snaps him out of it, but he tries to move and gasps in pain.

“Calm down, Agent Ford. You’ll aggravate your injuries.”

But he doesn’t want to calm down he can’t calm down everything happens so quickly he should’ve listened to Mason he should’ve listened to Bill about talking more he wouldn’t always get himself into situations liked this if he just listened God what the fuck is wrong with him he can’t do anything right and now Bill is staring at him like he’s fucking broken and maybe he is broken but maybe he isn’t broken maybe he just doesn’t want Bill judging him staring at the scars mocking him for being weak and a pussy and insignificant

There’s acid on his tongue… He’s gotta… He’s gotta… He goes to move, but his body screams, and he expels the sickness inside of him on his chest. If he looks closely, he can see the humanity spewed up in chunks. There he is. He’s right there.

“Don’t worry about it, kid. You’re okay. You’re o –”

A sob ruptures out of him, alien and inhumane, like hunks of volcanic rock.

Choking to death he can’t breathe he tries to count tries to distract himself to keep himself here because here is better tries to do anything to think of anything to do anything to make it stop just make it stop it’s gotta stop but his stream of consciousness lapses and relapses he wishes he were dead he’s wished it before had plans of doing it before but this is probably the first time he means it for sure 110% he should’ve slit his wrists or taken pills he should’ve tied a knot and made a noose he should’ve done it he could’ve done it he could’ve been nothing more than a rotting body in the ground this is good this is good just keep thinking just do something just do anything because it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts and he wants it to stop nothing ever stop his brain doesn’t stop and this won’t fucking stop why won’t it stop stop stop stop stop –

“Holden,” he hears. “Just breathe. Just breathe. You’ve got this.”

And he glares at Bill with hazy, unfocused eyes. “You don’t care. Stop pretending you do.”


NOVEMBER 20, 1981

The next time he wakes up, he shifts the bed into sitting position with a remote he grabs clumsily with his left hand.

The next time he wakes up, he stares the scars marring his flesh, standing out against ghostly skin.

The next time he wakes up, he sees the splint on his right hand, encasing his arm from knuckles to elbow. His pointer and middle fingers are taped together.

The next time he wakes up, he curses himself for being alive.

The next time he wakes up, he remembers.

He remembers every detail. Not being able to speak when spoken to. Bill getting mad at him. Bill ignoring him. Bill shoving him. Bill making him do that interview with Mason alone. It’s so easy to be bitter, especially since there’s nothing else for him to do. He itches for his razor, but that’s clearly not an option right now. But his skin crawls, and he shakes, and there’s something inside his chest, clawing him from the inside out.

“Nice to see you, sleeping beauty.”

Holden glances to his left and sees Bill with his legs crossed, reading a magazine with a cigarette dangling from his lips.

But he doesn’t feel like talking.

And, suddenly, he remembers that none of this matters. Bill will get mad at him. Ignore him. Shove him. Make him be alone when he needs someone the most. But it doesn’t do Holden any good to get mad or to lash out; it doesn’t do anything even when he just speaks. He knows it isn’t normal, to talk as little as he does, but he has to do something to preserve himself, to keep himself safe. He doesn’t have hopes for this long-term, but he has to do something to get out of here. Maybe once he does, he won’t be a screw up anymore.

It’s hard to fuck up when you’re dead.

“You okay?” Bill asks. “Are you in pain?”

Holden shakes his head.

And he doesn’t feel it.

He can’t feel anything. Not really, at least.

It’s all blurred around the edges, like a pair dulled scissors.

“Holden, you know I care, right?”

And he doesn’t have the strength to answer. It doesn’t matter anyway.

“Because I do care,” Bill says. “And I know I’ve been especially shitty about showing it. I shouldn’t have made you interview Mason alone. I just… I didn’t realize how much you were struggling… how much you were hurting.”

Holden breaks eye contact and fiddles with a loose thread on the hospital blanket.

“Hey,” Bill says. He moves to place his hand on Holden’s arm, but Holden flinches and pulls away. “I’m sorry, kid.”

If I tell you it’s fine, will you leave me alone?


NOVEMBER 21, 1981

He learns the hard way that he still has to speak to the doctor and nurses.

When he doesn’t answer their questions, they threaten to take him to the psychiatric ward. They have the right to do that, he knows, because of the marks on his arms. They’re obviously self-inflicted, and it’s obvious there’s something wrong with him. But, if he answers and complies, he finds he’s left alone a lot of the time.

Except he hasn’t been alone since the incident.

Bill sits in the chair by his bedside and refuses to leave. A nurse set up a cot for him and gave him an extra blanket.

And Bill can’t understand that Holden doesn’t want to talk. Bill apologizes, tells Holden he cares, rambles on about the weather, has one-sided conversations about music or movies that he can’t follow along with.

Luckily for Holden, his head injury makes him tired. He can fall asleep without three too many Valium or trazodone like a rock, and he doesn’t wake up from nightmares. Luckily for Holden, he had surgery on his arm to piece it back together as if it were some kind of fucked up puzzle, and the pain medication makes him drowsy. He sleeps without scratching at his wounds or feeling the goose egg under his ear or tugging at his hair with one hand.

Except, today must be different.

Today, there’s a TV wheeled into his room. An episode of One Life to Live rattles his brain. The noise is a lot. There are people fighting, doors slamming, car horns blaring in the show, and Holden can’t look at the screen without wanting to vomit. He shuts his eyes so hard he swears his blood vessels pop. He clenches his fists together, but he yelps when he tries to move his right hand. It’s still not in a cast. It’s too swollen.

Bill is there in a heartbeat. “What’s wrong?”

And Holden can’t. He can’t deal with the noises or the light or the urge to scream. He whimpers. A few tears fall. “Head,” he squeaks out.

“Shit. Okay.”

And the TV is turned off. He doesn’t hear it anymore. And the lights are dimmed considerably. He doesn’t open his eyes, but he can tell the difference.

Bill sits down in his chair. Holden creaks open one eye and immediately looks away when Bill notices. He swears he sees Bill smile.

He doesn’t know what’s going on. What Bill’s angle or how this is going to bite him in the ass, but it will. It always does. Holden’s grown to expect very little out of himself and his life. It’s only a matter of time before things get worse.


NOVEMBER 22, 1981

He cries into a rubbery Salisbury steak, and he doesn’t know why.

He cries when he gets his cast, his buddy for the next twelve to sixteen weeks, and he doesn’t know why.

He cries as Bill clicks off the light and tells him goodnight not too long ago, and he doesn’t know why.

And it’s a lot. It’s too much. He isn’t sure what to feel about any of this. Should he just let Bill off the hook? Should Holden apologize for being a bad partner? Should he start talking again? Because he doesn’t feel ready to do that – not really, at least. But maybe it’ll be good for him? He doesn’t know. He is lost and confused, and he wishes Bill would just tell him what to do, what to think, how to act, when to talk and when to shut his mouth.

Holden cries as Bill gets out of bed, swiftly at his side, hair mussed and feet bare.

“Shh… It’s okay, kid. It’s okay…” he consoles. There are gentle, warm fingers massaging his scalp, combing through his hair, and, for a brief moment, it’s enough.

He shakes his head. “N-No, it is-isn’t,” Holden manages. It’s as if he’s speaking underwater. He has to fight for every word. “I… I don’t w-want to be here.”

“You gotta get a little better before the doc will let you go.”

And Holden shakes his head again, wildly and raggedly. He sobs. Hysterics flood his body. “No… I don’t w-want to be h-here,” he says again.

Bill stops massaging his head and pulls away, staring Holden in the eyes. Holden shrinks back, frowning. “We’ll get through this, Holden.”

“We?”

“I’m not letting you go through this alone,” Bill says. “Not anymore. Not again.”


NOVEMBER 23, 1981

He gets headaches. Bad ones. It feels like his skull will split open and explode. He’ll leak brain matter and bodily liquids, and he’ll be nothing but a memory. Sometimes, the headaches are so fierce he pukes, usually on himself because his broken ribs protest every time he moves a muscle. It isn’t fun or enlightening or a little funny; it’s humiliating. He doesn’t have control over his own body. He is 31 years old and throws up on himself.

There are splatters on the front of his hospital gown. They’re green because of the lime Jell-O he ate for dinner.

And, instead of getting a nurse, Bill removes the gown without messing with the IV line or heart monitor. He wipes Holden’s chin. He tosses the soiled garment in a sterile hamper and grabs a new one from inside the medical cart, kept in Holden’s specifically because of his nausea and vomiting from his head injury. Briefly, he wonders if his brain is even a brain, or if it’s just this damaged hunk of mass and muscle that has taken residence inside his skull.

What if he fucked himself up permanently?

But Holden’s skin shrivels up and soaks with sweat. He is a roasting pig on a July afternoon. His stomach is sick, and he needs to go to sleep.

Once more, he finds himself having to speak.

“No,” he says slowly, carefully. “I c-can’t wear that right now…”

Bill sighs. “You’ll get cold, Holden.”

“Hot.”

“I’m gonna get you some ice. Then you have to wear the gown.”

And Bill is good for his word. Holden gets pain meds and eats a whole cup of ice – round like cylinders; his favorite – before he agrees to put the gown on. Bill leaves the back untied so he doesn’t have to sit up and put pressure on his ribs.

Before Holden drifts to sleep, pulled under swiftly by muscle relaxants, he asks, “W-Why are you being so n-nice to me?”

And Bill just looks at him. “I’m not letting you go through this alone.”

Holden isn’t sure if he should believe Bill, but he’s too exhausted to question it anymore; to be honest, that answer helps.


NOVEMBER 24, 1981

One two three four five six seven eight one two three four five six seven eight one two three four five six seven eight one two three four five six seven eight one two three four five six seven eight one two three four five six seven eight one two three four five six seven eight one two three four five six seven eight one two three four five six seven eight one two three four five six seven eight one two three four five six seven eight one two three four five six seven eight one two three four five six seven eight one two three four five six seven eight one two three four five six seven eight one two three four five six seven eight one two three four five six seven eight one two three four five six seven eight one two three four five six seven eight one two three four five six seven eight one two three four five six seven eight one two three four five six seven eight one two three four five six seven eight one two three four five six seven eight one two three four five six seven eight one two three four five six seven eight one two three four five six seven eight one two three four five six seven eight one two three four five six seven eight one two three four five six seven eight one two three four five six seven eight one two three four five six seven eight one two three four five six seven eight one two three four five six seven eight one two three four five six seven eight eight eight eight eight eight eight eight eight eight eight eight eight

He dissolves into a puddle of his former self rocks himself back and forth back and forth back and forth as best as he can he has to regain control of his sense of self but his self gallivants in the stars far away from this wicked vile life he sobs until the sobs turn into silent pleads for help for forgiveness for absolution but he decides pleading is pointless so he tries to rock himself to sleep instead

Bill is there sitting on the edge of his bed a warm hand on his shoulder Holden clutches his broken wrist to his chest and stares blankly at the wall in front of him when did things get so bad when did he drop his walls and let Bill see him like this it’s probably because he has no choice it’s probably because he knows Bill feels guilty and at least seems like he wants to make amends it’s probably because he’s a pussy and a baby and he doesn’t want to be alone anymore

Having Bill here is nice even though he knows Bill will get tired of him eventually as soon as he gets out of the hospital Bill will go back to hating him to wanting nothing to do with him to despising and judging every word he says or doesn’t say

“I’m not going anywhere, Holden,” he hears Bill say.

And Holden just sobs harder.


NOVEMBER 25, 1981

The day before Thanksgiving, Wendy and Ted Gunn show up to visit them.

Holden pretends to be asleep, and Bill knows this but doesn’t give him away. He’s grateful for that. He doesn’t want to see them, and he doesn’t want them to see him in such a state. He’s done enough shit to the Behavioral Science Unit as it is; he doesn’t need a beating to hold over his head too. Bill covers him up with a blanket. Holden understands why. Gunn doesn’t need to know.

“Is he talking more?” he hears Wendy ask.

“Did he stop talking?” Gunn inquires.

“He’s just… going through a tough time. That’s all, sir,” Bill explains.

Later on, Gunn leaves, and Wendy stays. She apologizes for getting out here so late. Bill and Wendy talk while Holden fakes exhaustion. He can blame it on the head injury or the surgery to rod his hand back together or just that he’s tired. He tries not to listen and successfully avoids doing so until they start talking about him.

“He was hurting himself, Wendy,” Bill says. He sounds… stressed? Worried? “With a razor blade. Sometimes a shard of glass or a kitchen knife.”

“Is he suicidal?”

He guesses that’s the question of the year.

Bill lets out a deep sigh. “I don’t know. I honestly don’t. He’s hard to read. Most of the time, he still won’t talk to me.”

“You have to break him out of his shell,” Wendy says. “He’s built a very high wall around himself. It’s a self-preservation technique.”

“I know. I know.”


NOVEMBER 26, 1981

On Thanksgiving, Holden eats two slices of deli turkey, a helping of mashed potatoes with suspicious brown gravy, and a few spoonfuls of green bean casserole. It is hollow and leaves a tight knot building in his stomach.

But Bill is watching, and he has to keep Bill happy with him.

“You didn’t have to eat,” Bill says randomly, out of the blue.

Holden removes his attention from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and looks at Bill, eyebrows scrunched.

“You don’t have to eat if you’re not hungry,” Bill says. “That’s all.”

And Holden nods. “I would’ve rather had Jell-O.”

“You’re obsessed with Jell-O, Holden. It’s off-putting,” Bill teases.

Holden rolls his eyes. “Jell-O is better than cheap turkey or greasy gravy. It never disappoints.”

“Whatever you say, kid.”


NOVEMBER 27, 1981

He gets released from the hospital on Black Friday.

And he can go back home to Virginia, permitting he feels well enough to get on a plane.

But he doesn’t think he can handle a plane today, is still fiercely sick to his stomach 75% of the time, so Bill books a hotel room. There are two beds but soft carpet, and it smells like cinnamon everywhere. Bill helps guide him gently on to the mattress. He takes Holden’s sling off and cradles his wrist with a giant, fluffy pillow instead. Holden leans back against his mountain of cushions and drifts off to sleep while Bill showers.

“Sorry you missed Thanksgiving,” Holden whispers later on, when the sun is down and Bill is nursing his third beer.

He glances over to see Bill shake his head. “Not like I was missing anything.”

“Does Brian still –”

But he stops himself. Bill doesn’t want to discuss this with him. He’s been avoiding it and actively not participating in conversation with Holden about it since June.

“You can ask your question.”

Holden’s body shakes, and he fights for the words, but, luckily, they’re here, right on the tip of his tongue. “Does Brian still live with Nancy’s parents?”

“Brian and Nancy moved into their own place last month.”

“Are they still in Ohio?”

“Maryland.”

“Oh. Sorry. I don’t mean to intrude.”

Bill sits up and swings his legs over the side of the bed. He clicks on the bedside lamp and looks Holden right in the eyes. “I want you to ask questions. I want you to talk again. I’m sorry I didn’t realize how badly I was hurting you before.”

Holden nods and licks his lips. He isn’t sure what to say next, so he doesn’t say anything.

Not every silence is a bad silence.

For once, it feels like he’s breathing in the fresh air of hope.

“Get some rest, kiddo.”

Bill lies back down.

Holden is snoring peacefully minutes later.

Chapter Text

NEW CASTLE, DELAWARE
NOVEMBER 30, 1981

The airport buzzes with electricity. Holden hears the static piling in his mind.

He sits as close to Bill as humanly possible, until he’s almost in Bill’s lap, but Bill doesn’t seem to mind. He keeps flipping through a magazine. Holden gulps and squirms, trying to make himself comfortable. His arm aches; he holds under his elbow to provide better support. But the movement jostles his head and ribs, and he whimpers.

Bill glances over at him; Holden shrinks away from the worried stare. “You good?”

Holden nods. He bites his bottom lip.

“Kid, you gotta tell me when something’s wrong, okay?”

He almost nods again, but Bill’s been on him the last few days about talking. It’s strange because he’s actually being nice about it. He encourages him to speak up and articulate his emotions, but there’s something about his answers that feel… false, as if he’s lying, as if his words don’t belong to him. He is having trouble with that. He wants to disconnect that part of his brain that tells him Bill doesn’t care, but it’s hard, especially after many months of animosity and uncertainty. Most of the time, he still doesn’t know where Bill stands with him.

“I…” Holden starts. He shakes his head and scratches his cheek. “I just want to go home.”

His stomach lurches. He breathes in through his nose and out through his mouth. His heart hammers in his chest. He tries to level out his pulse, control his breathing, to return back to normal, but he knows he’s never been normal. His insides squeeze out of his body like suds leaving a sponge. He blinks and inhales and covers his eyes with his one working hand. And his heart picks up the pace. Thump thump. Thump thump. Thump thump thump thump it doesn’t matter he fucked up he fucked everything nothing will ever be the same up he’s all alone and no one’s here and he can’t stop watching George Robert Mason kick him in the gut echoing off like a shotgun in his brain his heart’s made of cobwebs and dust and this is his life this is his life now he deals with serial killers and dead bodies and children strangled and murdered and hidden and thrown away like garbage this is his life it’s his world and it’s made him paranoid

“Holden?”

And he’s choking to death on his insecurities his inability to talk his panic disorder and his depression and his broken wrist and his broken ribs and his grade three concussion no one is going to want him again Ted Gunn will fire him the second he recovers he has to find a new job

I’m thinking about quitting my job.

He’s thinking it and thought it but now he isn’t sure he wants it being an FBI agent is all he’s ever wanted.

“Kid?”

Holden looks up from where he’s crumpled in on himself. Every inch of him is on fire. His cheeks wet with tears, he can make out the blurry shape of Bill crouching down beside him. He flinches when he suddenly feels Bill’s hand on his shoulder, but Bill keeps his hand in place, warm, calloused, firm. Holden heats with embarrassment, coughing to clear his throat and sniffling to lessen his congestion.

And Bill’s going to tell Wendy he’s going to tell Gunn he’s going to tell Gregg he’s going to tell everyone they work with that Holden Ford can’t handle his shit can’t keep his shit together he ruins everything Bill’s going to –

“Calm down,” he hears Bill whisper. “You’re getting worked up over nothing.”

Over nothing? This isn’t nothing. It doesn’t feel like nothing. This is his life. This is –

There’s something tiny, round pressed into his palm. “Here. Take that,” Bill says. Holden chews the pill, but it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work. Why won’t it work? “Jesus Christ, Holden. You have to breathe.” 

Breathe? Is he not breathing? He thinks he’s breathing.

He inhales shakily, fingers trembling and body aching. His heart hurts, but he feels more… here. More grounded. He breathes in and out, in and out, in and out, forcing the panic to melt away.

“Sorry,” Holden whispers, voice cracking. “This is just…” He trails off.

“Overwhelming?”

He nods. “And scary… I haven’t, um, talked this much in… months,” he says. “It’s a lot.”

“I know. But you have to trust me. Holden, I’ve seen how much pain you’re in, both mentally and physically, and you have my word; I won’t let you go through anything else alone.”

“You can’t say that, though, Bill,” Holden says. He shudders. “I… I’ve done bad things. I’ve done horrible things, and I know I deserve to be punished.”

Bill shakes his head and gives Holden a sad smile. “You’ve done nothing wrong, kid. Not a thing. I’m the idiot for making you feel that way.”

“But Atlanta –”

“Atlanta fucked with our heads. But this bullshit is just part of what we have to live with. We did our best, and we can’t discredit ourselves because we didn’t get the results we wanted.”

Holden shrugs. His head really hurts. He squints and falls forward, a dizzy spell catching up to him. Luckily, Bill is there to catch him. Holden leans his forehead against Bill’s shoulder as Bill rubs the small of Holden’s back. It irritates his ribs, undoubtedly forcing them in positions they shouldn’t be in, and the goose egg under his ear throbs in rhythm with his heartbeat. Nausea swims in his stomach, crawling up his throat and threatening to spew out.

“Okay,” Bill says. He helps Holden sit up. He opens three of his four different prescriptions from the emergency room and gives Holden the coffee he’s drinking. Holden downs the pills but gags at the coffee. It’s black. Just black. Who the fuck drinks black coffee? “Don’t even start.”

He cringes. “That is disgusting.”

“Yeah? Well, not everyone dumps a gallon of cream and sugar into their coffee.”

Holden shrugs. The pain medication washes over him instantly. The fuzzy warmness from the Valium rolls in too. He leans his head on Bill’s shoulder wordlessly. He lets his eyes close when Bill doesn’t push him away or tell him to get off.

Eventually, they board their plane. Holden sways and rubs his eyes repeatedly. He keeps trying to move his right hand, but it’s carefully strapped to his chest by a sling, and it won’t budge, and he’s tired, and he doesn’t want to fuck with any of this right now. Bill guides them to their seats. He lets Holden take the window, but Holden isn’t sure he can look at the world passing by without throwing up. Bill thrusts a paper baggy toward his chest and points the vents at Holden’s face. Sweat pools on his forehead. He shakes and trembles and fidgets. A wave of heat washes over him like a tsunami. He kicks off his shoes and leans his head against the seat.

He isn’t a faithful man, but he prays the anti-nausea medicine Bill gave him half an hour ago starts to work soon.

The plane takes off. Holden lulls his head against the window. He tries to focus on something – anything – else than the nausea sweeping through his core.

“Hey,” he hears. He flinches, but it’s Bill. It’s just Bill. “If you need to puke, just puke.”

“Don’t wanna do it here,” he whispers. “Not in front of all these people.”

“No one’s looking. They won’t even know it’s you.”

Holden rolls his eyes. He grips the baggy harder. “I’m so ready to be home. I haven’t slept in my bed in almost a month.”

“And it’ll be longer than a month,” Bill says.

His eyebrows furrow. “What do you mean?”

“You’re staying with me til you get better,” Bill informs. “There’s no way I’m letting you take care of yourself like this.”

“I have a broken wrist and a concussion, Bill. That’s it.”

“That’s not ‘it,’ Holden. You can’t walk more than a couple feet without passing out or vomiting. You’re in no condition to monitor yourself.”

“I’ll be fine.”

He doesn’t… He doesn’t want Bill to worry about him, to fuss over him, to stress about him. Holden is 31 years old. He can handle himself.

Besides, having someone else take care of him is… embarrassing. He doesn’t need charity. He’s been doing okay by himself for months now. Trust him, he won’t be using a razor any time soon, mostly because he isn’t left-handed, and every muscle in his bone aches. Maybe time to sort this out and recover will be just what he needs to kick his nasty habit. After all, this way of living isn’t sustainable. He knows that now more than ever.

“You’re not fine,” Bill says. “And quit acting like you are. People who are ‘fine’ don’t slice up their skin with razors, okay?”

Tears sting Holden’s eyes. He nods furiously and looks out the window.

Outside, the world passes by, shades of blue blooming in the distance, and Holden doesn’t know how to feel.


DULLES INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT

He must’ve fallen asleep because, when he opens his eyes, his head is on Bill’s shoulder. It’s warm here, like a nice spring afternoon in the sun. Holden doesn’t feel like moving. But a flight attendant tells Bill that they’re last to get off due to Bill not wanting to aggravate Holden’s injuries. Holden folds up the blanket, the one he borrowed at some point during the flight, the best he can with one hand and smiles shyly when the flight attendant takes it from him instead.

Bill helps him up. Blurs cloud his vision, and he wavers unsteadily on his feet, but Bill gently takes ahold his left arm and lets Holden go in front of him in case he falls. He makes it off the plane without incident, but he immediately frowns when he sees a wheelchair waiting for him right near the loading gate.

“I don’t need that,” he says, tone flat. He is still fiercely tired from the medicine.

Bill rolls his eyes. “You’re half-asleep, kid. Just sit down.”

“Not hurt that bad…”

“Tell that to your head.”

“Fine,” Holden says. “But I don’t really need it.”

Holden falls asleep as soon as he sits in the wheelchair.

And he wakes up the moment Bill opens the passenger door of his car.

He blinks and tries to focus his eyes, but he can’t. There’s a familiar wooziness that drapes over him like a warm blanket. He gets in without another thought. They leave the parking garage, the last bit of their time in Delaware, behind. It’s snowing peacefully, but Holden doesn’t watch. Bill murmurs about the heat, and he gives Holden a coat in the backseat. Holden tucks it in over his torso the best he can. The extra padding from the harsh elements helps briefly, but then a violent shiver races up his spine from the very tips of his toes.

“B-Bill…” he whispers. “It’s… I-It’s really cold i-in here…”

And he hears the words escape his lips. And it’s a strange feeling.

He can’t pinpoint it, but it feels good.

“I know, kid. I know. We’ll be home soon,” he says. “Are you good to go to your place? Just to pick up some clothes and stuff? Or do you need to stop and rest for a while?”

Holden squints. He tries to focus on the question, but it’s blurred around the edges.

“Rest.”

“Okay. No problem. We’ll head to my house, and then you can take a nap.”

They make it to Bill’s house at some point. Holden can’t keep his eyes open. He slings his left arm around Bill’s shoulder and lets himself be manhandled inside.

“Bill?” he manages.

“Yeah, Holden?”

“My arm hurts,” he squeaks out. “And my head… and my stomach.”

And he hears the words escape his lips. And it’s a strange feeling.

He’s vocalizing what’s wrong, what he needs, how he feels.

“I know. I’ll give you some meds once we get you horizontal.”

They stumble down the hall. It’s bare in here. That’s all Holden notices before he sees the queen-sized bed.

“Your room…” Holden murmurs.

“Now it’s your room,” Bill says. “I’ll take the couch or find another bed at some point. You need an actual bed to sleep in.”

“Burden,” he whispers. Tears swell in his eyes and spill over his cheeks.

Bill guides him to the bed, and Holden relaxes against the pillows anyway.

“Stop. I wouldn’t do this if I thought you were a burden.”

“Do you really care?” Holden asks, eyes big and filled to the brim with sadness.

Bill nods. He soothes Holden’s hair back from his forehead.

“Yeah, kid. I really do care.”


FREDERICKSBURG, VIRGINIA
DECEMBER 1, 1981

He sleeps from four PM Monday until ten AM Tuesday.

And he does it seamlessly, without any nightmares or dreams. It’s the best sleep he’s gotten in months.

He showers with a trash bag tied tightly over his cast. He massages shampoo into his hair, wincing as he makes contact with the goose egg. He stares at the mirage of blues, purples, and reds on his abdomen. He notes that there’s a slight bulge on his left side, exactly where his ribs are. He wonders vaguely if one of them is displaced. Maybe that’s why it hurts so badly.

But then he sees Bill’s razor hanging in the shower. But then he grabs it clumsily with the fingers of his left hand. But then he slices just a tiny bit above his elbow. It isn’t very big or exciting, but the sting feels refreshing, and, fuck, he hasn’t done this in almost two weeks. Blood dribbles and leaks down his arm, but then he stops it. He can’t explain this to Bill, no matter how horribly he wants to keep cutting. It’s not as if he’s been alone or hasn’t been talking. Not lately, at least. But there’s something so vastly familiar, and he aches to watch blood pour from his veins.

Stop. Don’t think like that. It’ll be okay.

“You okay in there?”

Holden blinks. He puts the razor down. He ignores the dark bruises on his face and gash above his eyebrow in the mirror. He finds a Band-Aid in Bill’s medicine cabinet and places it over the cut. It bleeds through the fabric in seconds. But he covers that up quickly enough with a hooded sweatshirt he packed for their time in New York and Delaware. The sleeve suctions around his wrist, and it hurts brightly, so he rolls it to his elbow, right where the cast ends. He manages to put on briefs and jeans, surprisingly, without much difficulty.

And Holden opens the door. Steam rushes out of the bathroom. Bill is standing right there, close and waiting.

“Were you…” Bill trails off, but his hand gesture speaks more than words ever could.

Holden shakes his head. He shakes off the lie. “No.”

“Promise?” Bill asks. “I really don’t want you to hurt yourself anymore.”

“I swear.”

Bill moves out of his way, and Holden digs out a pair of thick socks from his duffle bag. He bites his bottom lip. It’s frustrating. His middle and index fingers of his right hand are broken and taped together, and his entire lower arm is in a cast, which makes things like putting on his socks impossible because he has no grip. He resigns to letting Bill do it, just as he’s done every time since Holden got out of the hospital a few days ago.

And Bill kneels down, grey thermal socks in hand, and slides them over Holden’s feet. There’s a bruise on his ankle he didn’t notice before. Bill fastens the sling around his chest and back.

Holden messily eats half a bowl Honey Nut Cheerios before he drops the spoon in the bowl. He rolls his eyes and leans his head back against his chair.

“Don’t tell me you still need me to hand feed you?” Bill asks with a gruff laugh.

And… yes. They don’t talk about that. Holden was so loopy at the hospital and at the motel in Smyrna that Bill had to feed him because he couldn’t. Holden is sure he wouldn’t have been able to do it anyway, with his dominant hand or not, with how poorly he was feeling.

Holden rolls his eyes. “It’s annoying,” he says. “Not being able to use my hands. I never realized how much I rely on both.”

“You’ll get better at doing things left-handed. You’ve only been coherent for a couple days now. It’ll get easier as more time passes,” Bill says.

Holden shrugs again. He picks the spoon back up and eats four more bites before he pushes the bowl away. Bill eyes him. “I’m full. Can we just go get my things?”

“Yeah, Holden. We can go get your things.”

And then they’re in the car. Bill’s heat barely works. Holden’s teeth chatter as he tries to get a grip on his emotions. He just feels… clogged. Stopped up. As if he needs to release his frustrations on himself. He knows what he needs to do, what he wants to do, but there’s no way to get away with it when Bill’s so close all the time. He’s horrified it’s come to this, that he can’t even function without harming himself. Maybe he should tell Bill.

But he doesn’t. He shivers and groans. “We can take my car,” Holden says. “The heat…”

“It’s not working too well, huh?”

Holden shakes his head.

“We’ll use yours for a bit, okay?”

When they arrive at Holden’s apartment complex, Bill takes Holden’s left elbow to help him up the entrance stairs. He nearly shrugs away, and he flinches hard, but he lets Bill keep his grip. He doesn’t want this. He doesn’t want this right now. He wants to be alone in his own apartment, not surrounded by unfamiliar motels and chaotic hospitals and a guilty partner. Holden doesn’t need this… He isn’t sure he can handle this much closeness without imploding.

But he does it anyway.

He doesn’t mention that he wants to stay here because there’s no way Bill will say yes. He doesn’t mention that Bill left him alone, completely alone, for all those months. He doesn’t mention that they’ve barely spoken since Atlanta, and he doesn’t mention that he thinks Bill is just doing this for him because he feels bad about what happened.

It was Bill’s idea to make him interview Mason alone.

It was Bill’s idea to cut Holden off after getting back from Atlanta.

Should he be bitter about this? Should he let Bill know what it was like for him when he had no one? Should he show Bill the scars littering his body, the ramifications of what he resorted to?

He guesses the best thing to do is move past it.

And it’s not worth bringing up anyway. He himself doesn’t have much worth. It’s nice having Bill back in his life, so why would he ruin it?

His apartment is exactly how he left it. Spotless. Tidy. His pile of blankets are folded and sit neatly on the far left couch cushion. His fridge is empty, save for a half-used bottle of ketchup and his Brita filter. His bed is made to satisfaction without any wrinkles. It is far from chaotic here. It’s controlled. Holden knows that’s why he loves is so much. He doesn’t have to impress anybody or put on a show. He just likes being clean and un-cluttered.

But… there’s three razor blades on his coffee table, right beside his remote.

He finds two more on his bathroom counter; he knows there are several under his sink.

The last one in his bedside table drawer as he grabs some of his favorite books.

He carefully tucks the blade in between the pages of In Cold Blood. It’s ripped and torn and tattered, but it’s his. Mom got it for his 17th birthday.

And he watches Bill reach up to grab hangers with his basic shirts and such on them while Holden sits on the edge of the bed. He spies his favorite sweater, wrinkly white undershirts, – he hasn’t ironed in months – and his assortment of thick long-sleeved shirts. He takes the jeans he left here and the one pair of sweatpants hanging up. He carries them to Holden’s car while Holden sorts through his briefs and socks and pajamas. He tosses them into his duffle bag.

They don’t stick around long. They’re in the car before Holden even realizes it.

He is dazed, trembling in the early December snow. His body is not his own. Bill cranks up the heat, and, for a brief moment, Holden feels warmth storm through his body.

But it’s not enough.

It’s not enough.

“Hey, kid?”

Holden glances over at Bill, eyes drooping. His soul is deflated. He doesn’t have energy to speak. He wants to be alone.

“Can I ask you something?”

Holden nods cautiously.

“What made you do that?” Bill inquires. “Why did you hurt yourself?”

And he doesn’t know.

He doesn’t know if it was the loneliness creeping up his spine and taking control of his every muscle and ligament. He doesn’t know if it was the crippling panic attacks he had several times a day. He doesn’t know if it was the worsening depression or the isolation or the each and every day he spent utterly alone.

“I’m not sure I have an answer,” Holden says softly. He leaves it at that.

Bill nods. Holden watches his face carefully for signs of disappointment or anger, but there are none. “Okay, Holden. That’s okay.”

Chapter Text

FREDERICKSBURG, VIRGINIA
DECEMBER 1, 1981

It’s snowing.

He can see it through the blinds. He should dust them, the blinds. Let Bill know he isn’t useless and can at least do minimal housework, seeing as his Bill looks at him like he's broken, and he has to stay here. He should ask Bill if he wants new blinds. But there aren’t any pictures on the walls; Nancy must’ve taken those too. No decorations despite only being three and a half weeks away from Christmas. Not a single holiday card on the fridge. Bill doesn’t have magnets or coasters or more than two bathroom towels, so they had to take a couple from Holden’s place.

But his dirty clothes are piled in a heap three feet from the basket Bill placed in the room. He can’t bring himself to put them away, and Bill doesn’t ask him to. The TV is dusty. He idly wonders if there’s anything in the fridge, not because he’s hungry but because he’s curious. His insides are hollow. He hasn’t cried in a few days. It’s weird, to not cry. But it’s nice not to allow that compulsion. Holden stares at the clock on the wall, watching the seconds tick by. And Bill’s shitty leather recliner puts knots in his back while taking the pressure off his ribs.

Holden rocks back and forth in the recliner, using the ball of his socked foot to create a soothing, steady motion. The sling rubbed the skin on his neck raw, so Bill removed it when they got back from Holden’s apartment and replaced it with a fluffy pillow nestled in his lap. There’s a space heater cranking out warmth in front of his legs, and it’s just enough to keep Holden comfortable. Bill told him earlier he likes it cold, and Holden told Bill that that’s ridiculous, that it’s practically winter, that Bill must be a crazy person. Bill rolled his eyes and smiled.

And it’s the small things, he realizes, that matter. He missed Bill a lot, exponentially more than he is willing to admit. But, now, it’s almost like no time has passed, and they’re right before Holden went to see Kemper and fucked everything up. It’s nice to have someone around, even if it’s just to watch TV with or read with someone else in the room instead of by himself. He doesn’t know how he lived without talking to Bill for this long.

But, then, he remembers.

“What the fuck was that?” Bill questions bitterly, motion behind him.

Holden fidgets. “What was what?” His voice is strange and foreign and doesn’t belong to him.

“You selfish, disrespectful asshole. Our boss is down here with us for once since we got back from Atlanta, and you downright ignore him?”

Holden nearly shrugs, but he thinks that would get him into a lot more trouble. He doesn’t care, but he cares a little about that. “I didn’t know what to say.”

Bill throws his hands up in the air. “Just talk! It isn’t that hard. You used to never shut up!” he shouts. “You made a fool out of us in there. Do you know how bad it looks when an FBI agent refuses to even speak to his superior?”

“I didn’t mean to –”

But Holden gets cut off. “I don’t care what you didn’t mean to do. Jesus Christ. I don’t know what’s wrong with you anymore, but I’m fucking sick of it.”

Holden goes to open his mouth but clamps it shut instead. His heart is beating out of his chest.

And he flinches hard he suddenly registers two hands on his shoulders he winces when he feels his back shoved against the cold brick wall of the basement he looks away when Bill stares at him disgust written on every inch every surface of his face he gulps and he can’t he can’t

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One - 

And he can’t breathe he shrugs away from Bill’s touch sinks down to the floor hides his face in his knees he can’t do this he can’t do this he doesn’t want to feel enclosed he doesn’t like to be touched he doesn’t know how to handle this oppressiveness this pretending not to care when every time Bill talks to him it’s negative and degrading and loathing he really can’t stand Holden can he Bill hates him Bill hates him he is the one person Holden thought could care about him but it’s untrue it’s false it’s a lie it’s a façade no one cares no one cares no one cares

He hates himself he hates himself he hates –

“Great. Just great. You can’t even talk to me without throwing a fit… Kid’s freaking out in the hall again.”

He remembers Bill shoving him against the wall. He remembers Bill’s harsh and unforgiving touch, and it reminds him of his father.

And he… he doesn’t know what or how he’s supposed to feel. He’s been locked away inside a narrow shell of his former self for months, ever since Atlanta. And he’s hurt, not physically, but emotionally. Can he trust Bill? He can trust Bill, right? Bill wouldn’t lie to him about this. Bill is a man of his word. It’s just that Bill’s ‘word’ has been scattered at best up until this incident. Since then, he’s been here for Holden in every conceivable way, including but not limited to hand feeding him when he wasn’t feeling well in the hospital and putting on his socks for him.

Believe him, he already knows how useless he is, with or without broken bones and a concussion.

It doesn’t make him feel any better. Dragging himself – his emotional psyche – through the mud doesn’t help.

The only thing that will help is hidden in between the pages of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

But Bill glances into the living room every time Holden so much as breathes. He’s in the kitchen defrosting a pot roast and vegetables Nancy made who knows how long ago. Holden tested the waters earlier by getting up and heading to the bathroom. Bill noticed immediately and offered to walk him there, to which Holden declined. Holden really did have to pee, so that’s good, but he could see the shadows of Bill’s shoes outside in the hall; he knew he couldn’t get away with it.

It’s just that he feels so… clogged. Stuffed. He needs to rip his skin to shreds in order to bury this… thing inside him deeper.

Bill takes a seat on the couch, flipping channels until he settles on the six o’clock news. He sighs and lights a cigarette.

“Dinner should be ready soon,” he says. “Or at least I hope so.”

Holden’s eyebrows furrow. “I can cook, if you want me to. It’s the least I can do.”

“Do you even know how to cook?” Bill asks, but Holden knows he’s just pushing his buttons.

“As a matter of fact, I do.”

When his mother and father went out or were simply fighting, young Holden would boil water for pasta and make a homemade tomato sauce he found in a recipe book. Young Holden would sneak into the kitchen in the middle of the night after not having lunch or dinner and fry an egg over easy and brew his own coffee. Now, 31 year old Holden makes salads, soups, pastas, sandwiches, and steaks he finds in cookbooks. He owns two of them, actually. They’re back home, back at his apartment, collecting dust on a bookshelf. He hasn’t been hungry lately.

“Well, aren’t you handy,” Bill comments with a smirk, cigarette dangling from his lips.

“Seriously, Bill,” Holden says, “I can do my share of the work. You know, clean up or cook or whatever.”

“Can it, kid. You’re not gonna lift a finger any time soon, okay?”

Holden rolls his eyes. “I’m not invalid.”

“I never said you were.”

“Then why are you treating me like one?”

Bill stares right at him; Holden shudders and looks away. “You’re hurt, Holden. You need to rest. I’m sorry; I’m not trying to make you feel like you’re less than what you are. But this is serious. You have a head injury, a bad one at that; there’s a crack in your skull for Christ’s sake. I cannot risk you passing out while doing household chores, okay?”

“I’m already tired of this.”

“Of what?”

“This,” Holden says, voice trembling. “I can’t… handle having you watch over my shoulder when I take a piss or limiting what I can and can’t do. I’ve been taking care of myself my whole life. I think I know what I’m doing.”

Bill huffs. “If you knew what you were doing, then explain all the scars on your arms, kid. Explain to me why you have panic attacks four or five times a day. Explain to me why you’re here in my living room right now.”

“It’s the only thing I know how to do,” Holden answers simply.

“What do you mean?”

“I only know how to panic and hurt myself. It’s been that way for months. And, if I recall correctly, you didn’t care about that until Mason beat the shit out of me.”

“That’s not fair.”

“Great. It’s not fair,” Holden says. “It’s not fair to me either.”

Bill leans forward and stubs out his cigarette. Holden checks for signs of irritation or anger, but, again, comes out emptyhanded. “How am I supposed to know what I don’t know? I’m not a mind reader.”

“You could’ve asked!” Holden shouts. The frustration reverberates through his ribs, his brain, his hand.

He doesn’t… like this. He doesn’t want. There’s only one thing that’ll make him feel better, or, at least, more in control.

Something like glass falls to the ground.

Holden doesn’t know how, but he’s standing in front of the fridge.

A cup. A cup was in his hand, and now it’s on the floor. Holden wiggles his socked toes and frowns, tears hot against his skin.

It’s broken. Not shattered. But a shard of it is missing near the top. Holden kneels to pick it up. He holds the glass carefully in his hands. He doesn’t feel it when he unbuttons the cuff of his shirt. Doesn’t feel it when he slides the shard over his skin like writing with a ballpoint pen. Doesn’t feel it when blood pours from his veins. Doesn’t feel it until his arm is marred with dark red streaks and marks, and it feels good. It feels good. It feels good.

And it feels go to feel something again.

He doesn’t realize he is this desperate to feel something. He slashes open his left arm, carving his pathetic story from A to Z on broken skin. The constant worry he built high in his bones like a castle made of titanium bleeds out of him. The control is ecstatic, almost otherworldly. Holden’s butchered arm grows numb to the pain, but there’s a release. A release of anger, of frustration, of loneliness, or sadness that escapes with each cut.

The world passes by around him. He sighs and wants to rip himself to pieces.

Holden sets the shard on the coffee table, close by in case he needs it. He lies down, squishes his face into a pillow, and sleeps like a rock.

It’s all he wants. It’s all he wants.

“You could’ve asked,” Holden whispers again, unable to help himself.

And Bill just nods. Holden sinks further into the recliner. He does not want to continue this conversation.

“You’re right, kid,” Bill says. “You’re right.”


DECEMBER 2, 1981

He’s been prone to nightmares his entire life. He turns shadowy shapes into monsters that will devour his brains. He turns rustling next door into an intruder, male and in his late 40s, with a knife. He turns his shoes peeking out from under the bed into hands that grab his ankles and slice his Achilles tendon. When he was a kid, his father would whip him for screaming in the middle of the night, so he just sort of stopped sleeping. It’s been like this for as long as he can remember. He’s slept more recently because of the anxiety than he has his whole life.

Bill is down the hall. Holden can quietly, almost silently, hear him shuffling around from the safety of his – Bill’s – bed. It’s enough to lull him to sleep.

And Kemper is there, saddled with darkness and riddled with rage. Holden’s in a yard by a flower bed. Only there aren’t any roses or petunias or daffodils growing in the brown, wet soil. He sees three fingers sticking up, planted there proudly, with reason. The reason is… Kemper points down at the ground; Holden looks. A head. There’s a head in between his bare feet. A head in between his bare feet that… that isn’t real this isn’t real none of this can be real only Kemper walks toward him now and his hands wrap around Holden’s neck and muscles tear and his larynx shatters and he’s writhing on the ground with his heart outside his body sitting there beating pumping thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump

“You wanted this,” Kemper says. Holden can’t see him. He isn’t there. “You wanted this.”

His eyes snap open, and he moves to wipe his eyes, but he screams out instead. Stop okay just breathe just breathe this shouldn’t be so hard it shouldn’t be so hard to lie here in bed and not panic don’t panic don’t think don’t panic don’t think don’t panic but he’s thinking he’s thinking a lot about Ed Kemper’s embrace the car accident he and Bill were in the eight ripe cunts breaking up with Debbie panic attacks Wayne Williams strangling little boys Matthias Berger reaching over to touch his hand George Robert Mason smashing his hand into the ground about dying about breathing he should breathe he should breathe he should breathe he should –

“Hey hey hey,” he hears. “It’s alright.”

Holden blinks, tears streaming down his cheeks. His gives a watery, empty smile. “I’m fine.”

“Stop saying that, kid. You’re anything but fine.”

Holden swallows the bile in his mouth. He really doesn’t feel well. His stomach dances like a ship in a storm, and his head throbs, and the intense stabbing sensation deep in his arm doesn’t help. “I’m okay, Bill. But I appreciate the concern.”

“You don’t have to do that,” Bill asserts.

Holden’s insides clench. “Do what?”

“Deflect. Act like you’re okay.”

“But I am okay.”

It sounds more like a question than a factual statement.

Bill sighs; Holden bites his lip. “You just got out of the hospital a week ago,” Bill says. “Now, either you’re way tougher than you’re letting on, or you’re struggling.”

Holden shakes his head. He runs his fingers through his hair and winces when he trails over the swollen goose egg. His arteries, veins, muscles, bones are in knots. He can’t do this. Can’t do this. Can’t do it. “I’ll be fine. You can go back to sleep… Sorry for waking you.”

“Kid,” Bill says softly. It’s the gentlest he’s ever heard Bill sound. “Don’t push me away.”

Bill soothes his hair back, and Holden flinches before leaning into the touch. His face scrunches, and tears stream down his cheeks. He sobs and shudders and hiccups, and he thinks remembers his mom rocking him to sleep in her arms. He remembers his mom whispering sweet nothings in his ear until he could finally speak without sobbing. He remembers his mom holding him, shielding him, protecting him from the world but never from Father. A wrecked cry squeaks out, and Holden feels every single ounce of himself shatter.

He doesn’t want this he doesn’t want this he doesn’t want this but Bill hushes him and lies beside him on the bed and wraps his arm over Holden’s waist tugging him close and rubbing the small of his back the position hurts his arm his head his ribs distantly but there’s warmth seeping into his bones and a shield from the world outside that he hasn’t had in many years not since he was a kid and he doesn’t want this but he has it and it’s selfish to need it this badly but Holden soaks into the touch and shakes against Bill until Bill hushes him again he doesn’t know where this is coming from doesn’t know how Bill of all people can possibly be so kind to him he’s crying all over him and Bill’s there letting him do it and he doesn’t know why he doesn’t –

“You have to breathe,” he hears.

Holden sniffles, and reality filters in a sliver at a time. “Sorry…” he whimpers. “I’m sorry… I’m s-so sorry…”

And he repeats this apology over and over again, hoping it sticks, hoping Bill doesn’t hate him, hoping this will be over soon.

Eventually, the crying jag dissipates and leaves Holden trembling in its wake.

But, the moment Bill sits up, the world stops spinning, and he’s alone he’s alone he’s alone he’s alone again –

“Relax. I’m just getting your medicine.”

Bill returns and clicks on the bedside table lamp. Clutched in his hands are six prescriptions. He shakes out the trazodone and Valium first. Holden chews those without water; he is more than used to the taste at this point. Bill gives him the anti-nausea, anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, and his pain medicine next. It’s a lot to swallow, both mentally and physically. Holden doesn’t even bother sitting up. Bill lets him drink through a glass with a plastic straw so he doesn’t put any strain on his abdomen or hurt his head by moving too much.

And Bill sits on the edge of the mattress. “You should sleep.”

Holden immediately shakes his head. There is something deeply, immensely broken inside of him. He doesn’t want to be alone. He’s afraid of what will happen if he is alone. He’s proven to himself one too many times how brutal things can get if he’s alone.

“Can’t,” he whispers.

“Why not?” Bill asks. “You’re already halfway there.”

Exhaustion tugs on Holden’s shirtsleeves, but so does terror. He… He’s prone to nightmares and panic attacks and disassociation and talking too much and not talking enough, and he can’t… He can’t handle that – any of it – right now. He wants a break from himself. He wants to sleep without thinking anything of it. Normal people sleep when they’re tired, but Holden… Holden just shoves it deep down inside and hurts himself in order to find what he’s searching for.

“Bill,” Holden manages to squeak out. “Please.”

And Bill nods. He clicks off the light and lies down wordlessly. “Okay, kid. Whatever you need.”

“Are you upset with me?” Holden whispers, voice teetering between delirium and hysteria.

“Not at all.”

Holden nods, scoots closer, and presses his forehead against Bill’s bicep.

Chapter Text

FREDERICKSBURG, VIRGINIA
DECEMBER 9, 1981

His heart pleads to leap out of his chest.

He can feel it in there thump thump thumping at a quickening pace.

It’s driving him crazy.

This place – and everything else – is driving him crazy.

Why the fuck are hearts so fucking loud?

He slides his working hand through his hair. Stop. Stop it. Calm down. There’s literally nothing happening, absolutely nothing is wrong, but try telling his brain that. It’s just an ordinary, typical, boring night at the Tench household. He fell asleep early after an episode of M*A*S*H; Bill helped him to bed. He isn’t alone. He’s safe. But he can’t breathe. He wants to be able to breathe again without knowing he’s going to throw up. He threw up a little earlier in a bowl Bill filled with chicken noodle soup. He hasn’t been feeling great since then.

And he doesn’t feel right. Displaced. As if there’s a piece of him missing. He’s barely treading water, and he can’t really feel it – not actually – when he pinches himself or bends his broken fingers. He is hollow and numb; his skin tingles. He can’t. He can’t. His head hurts his body hurts he can’t handle the hurt it swallows him whole eats him alive chews him up and spits him out because he’s done he’s so done he’ll resign tomorrow if it means never experiencing anything even remotely like this again he can’t do it he can’t do this

His eyes won’t focus he’s sweating through his pajamas his head aches furiously but Bill is here right down the hall –

But Bill might’ve had a beer or eight while they lounged in the living room. No. Holden doesn’t want to bother him. Bill’s been doing a lot for him lately, and Holden is perfectly capable of taking care of himself. Holden pushes himself up until he’s sitting against the headboard, tears streaming down his flushed cheeks and wincing at the change of position. It’s as if he’s been sucker punched in the abdomen. He clutches his hand to his chest. Breathe. Breathe. Just breathe.

And it doesn’t get any easier.

Everything shakes. He wants Bill. He wrings his left hand in the comforter over and over again. His stomach is at his feet. He is outside his body. He breathes and breathes and breathes until he isn’t breathing at all, until he’s hunched over the side of the bed, head pounding and struggling against himself. He’s a failure he’s a disappointment he’s nothing but a waste of space Bill doesn’t actually want him here he feels pity because Holden fucked up and got himself hurt Bill is feigning kindness to get Holden to man up to own up to what a screw up he is to show him that he’ll be alone for the rest of his life if he doesn’t get his shit together –

Holden robotically pulls his copy of In Cold Blood out of his bedside table drawer. He snags the razor blade from in between pages 157 and 158. He ignores the trembling of his weak knees as he walks to the bathroom. He locks the door behind him. He shucks off his shirt and watches it land in a heap. He traces the blade messily over old scars. Blood pours from the wounds, but he thinks nothing of it. The pain is supposed to make him feel alive, and it does.

It works. It always works.

And he is gone.

He’s smart enough to know this will never work. He’s smart enough to know that he’ll die alone, working in a job where there’s no trust and drowning in the misfortunes he created for himself. He bundles illusion around him like a quilt. He can live like this. He can function like a normal human adult. It’s too much. He cringes and flinches when he tells himself that he’s fine, that he can quit his dream job, that he can work at a bookstore and live a quiet existence not making waves. He sinks against the bathtub with an anchor pressed against his heart. He hiccups and cards his hand through his hair, but just the brief, slight sound of his fingertips scratching his scalp is enough to make him swallow the nausea brewing in his gut.

And he wants the earth to crash into the moon so he doesn’t have to deal with this anymore. He can’t handle being in his body for another second. And he wants to hurdle himself at the sun. Jump off the roof of his apartment building and let his flesh scatter like raindrops on concrete. Gut himself like a pumpkin, picking and plucking his arteries and veins until there’s nothing left but a hollow shell. There is nothing left. There’s nothing.

He clenches his jaw so hard he nearly breaks his teeth. He mashes himself into a tiny, caged corner of his mind, only letting himself out to explore when no one has a chance of looking. He doesn’t talk unless he needs to. He doesn’t do anything because he can’t do anything because doing anything means doing something, and he doesn’t have the energy to deal with that. It’s amazing how lazy one can become after a beating and a week-long hospital stay.

The night hurts so bad. It crawls inside his chest and won’t let go.

His arms are bloody and itchy, and his skin shakes, and he wants Bill.

Almost shouts for Bill. Almost pleads for Bill to come in here and save him from himself.

He wants to tear off his skin and bury it underground until springtime comes.

The pain rips at his chest and strangles his lungs, and he can’t breathe from crying. He is broken and shattered, and no one could ever love him now. And he doesn’t blame anyone. He doesn’t blame Mother or Father or Bill or Wendy or anyone else. He hates himself. He did this to himself. Tears pour from his body. He lets the heartbreak, the sorrow, settle in deeply, carving him straight to the bone. He uses the blade to slash open his arm above the cast. He watches the blood soak into the material and smiles. He feels better. This is better.

Eventually, he calms down.

The razor does the trick. It always has. He stares at the wounds, at his grotesque self-mutilation – and feels a swell of pride blossom in his chest. It’s been nine days since he resorted to this, and what a hellish nine days it’s been. He doesn’t understand how he lived before without this open, freeing feeling. He lets his hatred of himself go briefly. He lets his emotions of immaturity and inadequacy flee his body. He stops internalizing his emotions, lets them bleed from his skin, and turns his attention to more important matters at hand.

Every muscle in his body is on fire. His fingers hurt from where he bent them, trying to make himself feel something other than pure, unaltered panic. His ribs throb brightly, and he knows he needs to take the pressure off of them before his injuries worsen. The goose egg under his ear is long gone, but he still fights through the crippling headaches that come with a cracked skull and concussion. His right arm is worst of all, with the lower half being encased and the upper half littered in oozing cuts. He uses his shirt to stop the bleeding and wipe off his skin.

And then he spies the blood that pooled on his cast near his elbow. His heart races. It isn’t a lot of blood, sure, but it stands out against the faded blue fabric. Shit. He fucked up again. What else is new? He can’t find it in himself to care, not really at least. He’s positive he’ll feel differently – definitely guiltier – in the morning, but, right now, he is peacefully numb.

Holden gets to his feet. He washes any and all traces of his self-harming tactics away from Bill’s bathroom. He throws on a baggy sweatshirt to hide the marks and still healing bruises. He tucks the razor blade back in between pages 157 and 158, safe and sound. He puts on his shoes – he hasn’t worn shoes in a little over a week; there’s been no reason to – and tucks his bloody shirt under his arm. Bill is snoring loudly and passed out on the couch, lying on his back with a hand dangling toward the floor. The TV is snowy static in the background.

Bill is a heavy sleeper. Holden knows this from experience.

He makes his way outside, into the freezing winter night, and lets the chill sink in. He walks two houses down and tosses the shirt in the dumpster. Bill will never know about this, and that’s a good thing.

And Holden feels the exhaustion tug at his sleeves. He props himself up with plenty of pillows to keep the strain off his ribs and cradles another pillow under his throbbing arm. His work stings vividly beneath his sweatshirt, but he feels accomplished. He feels good.

He drifts off to sleep without a single worry in the world.


DECEMBER 10, 1981

The next morning, Holden wakes up with a fierce ache in his joints.

He goes to sit up, to shake off this horrid drowning sensation, only to cough wetly the instant he tries. His chest… It hurts.

And he remembers last night. Hurting himself. Going out in the below freezing temperatures to dump his bloody shirt without socks or a coat.

Fuck him.

He’s so hot. He’s sticky and sweaty, and he kicks the comforter away harshly. He breathes, in through his nose and out through his mouth, except his nose is clogged, and exhaling makes him cough. He drags his hand over his cheeks, runs his fingers through his hair, kneads the flesh around his skull. The pressure on the right side of his head builds. He groans and hiccups. His ears are so full it’s as if they’re going to drip blood any second. He chokes back a sob.

No.

He isn’t a baby. He can handle this. He can handle himself.

Everything is so vibrantly bright, explosive and tangible and close. Invisible walls enclose him, circling around him like members of a cult ready to perform a ritual sacrifice.

And he can’t move. He can’t move he can’t move something is holding him down there’s nothing he can do to get out of this it’s going to happen again no matter what no matter how hard he fights back Father always said he couldn’t fight his way out of anything he’s a pussy good for nothing queer son of a bitch who can’t tie his own shoes without getting scared and now he can’t calm down can’t calm down can’t calm down it’s stifling him and killing him and there’s warmth on his cheeks from crying but they’re silent because no one listens he thrusts his hand to his chest so he can feel his heartbeat to know he’s still alive he’s still alive he’s still alive he’s still alive just breathe breathe breath breathe breathe

Breathe just breathe it’s warm and cold and his skin is on fire he wants to scream but nothing works and he’s choking to death on his own spit and he can’t do anything to make it stop make it stop it hurts it hurts it hurts and he wants it to stop he just needs this to stop –

“Holden, stop,” he hears.

There’s a dip on the mattress. Holden sniffles and opens his eyes. Sees Bill next to him.

He feels wrong and dirty hollowed from the inside out like a chocolate bunny on Easter Sunday he breathes but it’s hot and crooked and his stomach swims violently like the ocean during a hurricane he wants to act like this never happened just put a Band-Aid over it like the cuts on his arms and go to sleep maybe then he won’t wear his emotions on his sleeve so much –

“You have to breathe,” he hears.

He breathes. He’s dizzy. His body shakes. He leans heavily against the pillow. He breathes deeply, forcefully so he doesn’t forget. The panic vanishes slowly, as if it were a fire burning out in the middle of the night. But his headache returns, and he coughs up mucus into his palm.

And he dares to open his eyes.

“Relax,” Bill says gruffly, wiping his hand with a tissue. “I’m gonna get your Valium, okay?”

Holden nods.

Bill shakes out two tiny blue pills and hands Holden a glass of water. His throat is sandpaper, the Sahara Desert, the driest place on earth.

“Feeling pretty lousy, huh?” Bill asks.

He nods listlessly.

A violent shiver wracks through his body.

And he doesn’t expect it whatsoever, but Bill settles on the mattress beside him. He moves until Holden’s head is on his shoulder. Holden sags hard against him, his chest throbbing and head spinning. At one point, Bill wraps his arm around his shoulders, and Holden presses his face against his bicep. He doesn’t know why this brings him so much comfort, but it does.

Eventually, Bill squeezes his shoulder. Holden coughs and blearily opens his eyes.

“You’re burning up, kid,” Bill says.

Holden shivers and hides his face.

And he guesses this is the universe’s payback. Karma. He didn’t used to believe in it, but, maybe, what goes around really does come around. It’s been nine days since he hurt himself. Before that, there was an eleven day stretch when he was in the hospital, at the hotel, and flying home to stay with Bill. So, really, he’s only done it twice in 20 days; he doesn’t know why that feels like an accomplishment. But it’s not that bad. He’s nowhere near as bad as he used to be.

“Want me to get something for your fever?” Bill asks after a few moments of silence.

But he’s hazy with Valium and dizzy from the incessant coughing. He doesn’t bother moving, much less answering. Bill is warm. Bill is solid. Bill is sturdy. He can’t even feel embarrassment for being a 31 year old man leaning on another fully grown adult right now. All he feels is the heat radiating from Bill’s body, and it’s enough to calm his nerves for the time being.

“Stay,” Holden whispers, clutching on to Bill’s arm with his one working hand.

“You should take something,” Bill says. “And drink some water. You’re gonna get dehydrated.”

“Later,” he mumbles. He slumps against his partner even more.

Bill sighs. “Holden.”

He sniffles and coughs. “Please?”

“Fine,” Bill relents. “Half an hour, and then I’m getting up.”


“You gotta let me help you, kid,” Bill pleads.

But Holden shrinks away from the touch, heart hammering in his chest and brain kicking into overdrive. He doesn’t… He doesn’t want this. It’s too much. This is too much. He’s a burden, and he doesn’t understand how or why Bill can’t see it. He’s intruding on his life, and Holden knows he isn’t worth the time or stress. Bill’s got better things to do than look after him.

It’s just a concussion and a broken wrist.

“For fuck’s sake, Holden,” he hears. “There’s a crack in your skull. It’s not ‘just’ anything.”

Did he say that out loud? He doesn’t remember saying anything out loud.

“You’re mad at me…” Holden whimpers.

“I’m not mad at you. I’m frustrated because you won’t settle down and let me help you.”

Holden flinches. “P-Please… no.”

And he feels large hands yank him out of his seat. Shoving him against the wall. Fingers on his cheeks. Look at me. Look at me. Look at me when I’m talking to you. Jesus Christ, what a faggot. Lynette, how’d we get a queer son like him? Stand up straight. Tuck in your shirt. Stop reading. Stop talking. Stop blinking. Stop fucking breathing. Nuisance. Annoyance. Waste of space. Tears stream down his cheeks, and he’s six waiting for his father to get home to show him a picture he drew. He’s six waiting for his father to walk through the door. He’s six waiting to jump into his arms for a huge. But he’s six, and Father slams him to the floor instead. What’s for dinner? Not cooking yet? Jesus fucking Christ. Do I have to do everything around here? All you do is sit around all day and watch this spoiled brat.

“What’s going on, Holden?”

And he’s crying. Sobbing. Bawling. Because nothing makes sense, and he wants to go home. Home. Where no one is here to judge him or make him talk or not talk or confuse him even more than he already is. He doesn’t want to be a burden. No one wants to take care of him. Not him. Maybe someone else, but not him. He isn't worth it. He doesn’t want to be like this. And, after all this time, Bill acts like he likes him, but he really doesn’t, and he’s just doing this because Holden got a little banged up. He’s Holden’s babysitter. Nothing more.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.

“Kid.”

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.

Remembers sauce splattering on the kitchen floor; eight year old Holden spilled the jar while trying to help get dinner ready. Father whipped him to make sure he learned his lesson. Remembers sitting on the living room floor, waiting eagerly for Mom to come out of her bedroom, to stop fighting with Father, so she could play Legos with him. Remembers sleeping on the sofa when he didn’t feel well, Mom nestled protectively around him, shielding him from the world. Remembers wishing she would do that for him all the time.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.

Remembers a twin sized mattress, an oak desk, a free library card. Remembers checking out the maximum of six books at a time. Remembers books being his best friends. Remembers the stories, essays, non-fiction works, autobiographies, crime novels, plays, all sorts of things. Remembers Father ripping his library card in half more times than he can remember.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.

He sinks into himself. He melts. He is ice cream on a summer’s day.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.

Remembers construction on the house next door. Remembers it keeping him up for weeks. Remembers crying until the cries turned into sobs when it was too loud. Remembers Father grabbing him by the ear, by the collar, by the wrist, and harshly yanking him into the garage. Remembers being hit for asking a question at the dinner table, for reading too much, for not making eye contact, for being strange, for not having any friends, for having fun in the backyard by himself.

And he remembers Mom not saying anything. Not doing anything. Just turning away from it.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.

Why wouldn’t she help him?

And why is he spiraling?

He feels a hand pressed against his chest, and he lets out an alien, inhumane sound. It’s warbled, somewhere between a sob and a scream.

“Breathe with me, kid. I know it’s tough, but you have to breathe.”

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.

Holden opens his eyes. He is so queasy.

Bill is here, sitting on the edge of the mattress.

His hand is on Holden’s chest.

And Holden coughs. He nods. He blinks. He takes a careful, measured breath.

“Good. That’s good. Try another.”

He inhales shakily, and his stomach is in knots, and he splutters before yellow bile coats his sweatshirt.

Tears flow freely down his flushed cheeks. His face is red with embarrassment, but he can’t find it in himself to do anything about it. He can’t breathe. He can’t breathe. But he has to breathe. He has to breathe.

“Hey, it’s okay. You’re fine.”

Holden whimpers. He covers his eyes with his hand.

And he just wants this to stop.

“Let’s get you cleaned up.”

And there’s movement, and Holden is dragged into the bathroom as gently as possible, and he sits down on the toilet seat. The shower water turns on. Damp heat penetrates his soul. He wobbles in place, and another sob wracks through his body. Bill drops to his knees and immediately wraps his arms around Holden. He cries harder.

He hears Bill sigh. Bill combs his fingers through Holden’s hair. He relaxes against Bill’s touch. It’s been a long time since anyone’s held him like this, especially when he’s just coherent enough to know there’s vomit on his shirt. And he feels bad. Bill shouldn’t have to go through this. Bill shouldn’t have to deal with him, but he is, and he promised he would never make him go through anything alone ever again.

And, when Bill pulls away and goes to remove Holden’s soiled shirt, Holden winces. He flinches. He pulls away suddenly and harshly.

Because he remembers.

His arm.

“I’m not gonna hurt you. We need to get your ass back in bed, and we’re not doing that until you shower first.”

Bill moves in again.

Holden’s entire body is in knots.

“Calm down. You’re alright.”

But he isn’t alright nothing is alright he’ll never be alright again because he sliced his arm up with a razor in the middle of the night and now karma’s a bitch and Bill will see it he’ll see it and hate him and leave him and he knows he can’t handle –

And he can feel it. His body seizes. His shirt is gone.

There’s blood on his cast. His arm is sliced manically from the razor blade. He didn’t even bother to cover any of them with bandages.

Holden looks at Bill briefly before glancing away, bottom lip quivering and eyes pooling with tears.

And he can see it. The hurt, the fear, the confusion in Bill’s eyes.

“I thought… I thought you stopped.”

He doesn’t answer. He isn’t sure anything he says will matter anyway.

Bill stands back up. He wipes his hands on his striped pajama pants. He runs a hand through his hair.

“Let’s get you cleaned up,” Bill says; Holden’s eyebrows furrow. This is it. Bill’s officially done with him. Done. “And then we’re gonna have a talk.”

Chapter Text

FREDERICKSBURG, VIRGINIA
DECEMBER 10, 1981

Bill is mad at him.

Holden can tell.

Bill makes the minimal amount of eye contact while helping Holden in the shower. Yes, on some level, that makes sense because Bill is a grown man helping another very grown man undress. But he frowns and waits listlessly outside the curtain for Holden to finish up. Holden doesn’t need this. He doesn’t need Bill to check for missed suds in his hair. He doesn’t need Bill to help him change into his warmest pajamas. He doesn’t need Bill to take most of his weight on the way to living room. But he lets Bill do it anyway. Maybe it’ll help.

Maybe these moments will make this conversation less of a disaster.

Bill helps him settle down in the recliner, placing a pillow on his stomach and another under his right elbow. Holden permanently stares at his re-taped fingers, wiggling them every now and then. It hurts, but so does all of this. He just… He knows he fucked up, and Bill’s going to make him talk about it. He doesn’t want to talk about it. Believe it or not, Holden is not in denial. He knows there’s something horribly off with him, otherwise he wouldn’t resort to carving up his own skin so he couldn’t feel anything as opposed to feeling everything the world has to offer.

He coughs so hard it shakes his entire core. He shrivels in on himself, melting into the fabric. Bill gives him Tylenol and a painkiller. No Valium.

Bill drapes two blankets over his reclined body. He tugs them to his sternum.

Holden barks, quick and sharp, tears coating his eyes. His chest hurts.

And Bill stops fussing over him long enough to go into the kitchen. He hears the thermostat click, and the heat kicks on. It’s the beginning of winter, but Bill is a warm-blooded American male. Holden wants to scoff, but he’s too weak to follow through.

It’s pointless, anyway.

Bill is mad at him.

Holden can tell.

“Okay,” Bill says, taking a seat on the couch, hunched forward and hands wringing together. “Talk.”

He glares. “Talk about what?”

“Cut this shit, kid. I’m done playing games. We’re gonna get to the bottom of this right here, right now.”

But Holden remains firm. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

It’s self-preservation. If Holden admits to every single terrible thing he’s done, he’ll collapse in on himself like a detonated building. It’s bad enough in his mind as it is. Bill… Bill doesn’t need to know. He wants to spare Bill the responsibility of knowing. Because knowing means helping, and Holden doesn’t want help. He doesn’t see anything inherently wrong with how he’s coping, other than the fact that it hurts, and no one else – especially Bill – seems to think it’s a good idea.

Not that it’s a good idea. He isn’t naïve.

“How long?”

His eyebrows furrow. “How long what?”

Bill sighs and scrubs a hand down his face. “How long have you been doing this?... Hurting yourself?”

Holden shrugs. “Few months, I guess.”

“Did it start after we got back from Atlanta?”

He shakes his head. “A while after that.”

“Is this what this conversation’s going to be like?”

“What?” Holden asks.

Bill rolls his eyes. “Jesus Christ. It’s like pulling teeth,” he says; Holden breaks eye contact. “I need more than just four word answers, kid.”

“It isn’t really important,” Holden says.

Bill scoots forward. “How can you say that? After all this shit, you seriously still think it isn’t important? That you’re not important?”

Holden shrugs. Exhaustion tugs at his shirtsleeves. He wants to go back to sleep.

“You don’t think you have a problem?”

He inhales sharply, coughs wetly, and squeezes his eyes shut. “Of course I have a problem, Bill. Is that what you want me to tell you? Do you want me to tell you how fucking lonely I was once Atlanta was over? How depressed I was when you wanted nothing to do with me? I mean, you lost your fucking family, and you mentioned it to me in passing two months after it happened. Do you want me to tell you how shitty that made me feel?”

“Yeah. I want you to tell me, Holden,” Bill says. “So, let’s just lay it all out on the line, okay?”

“I don’t know where to start,” he mumbles.

Bill is determined. Holden can’t see much in the dimly lit living room at 2:30 in the morning, but he can tell by Bill’s tone that he means business.

“Just… start at the beginning.”

He frowns. “What? Like when I was a kid?”

“Sure.”

Bill just wants to get the ball rolling; Holden understands, even if he knows this is pointless.

“I guess I was a weird kid,” Holden starts. The words don’t feel like they’re forming right on his tongue. He gulps and sucks in a deep breath of air, spluttering before continuing. “My father always called me a queer or a fag or some other slur with derogatory, homophobic language. He would get mad at me for everything, even if I was just sitting in my room reading a book. I didn’t have any friends, so I read a lot. My parents fought daily. My mom loved me, but sometimes I wonder how much. She never defended me when my father…” he trails off.

“When your father what?” Bill presses.

Holden rubs his eyes with his working hand. He already feels tears swelling in like a tidal wave. “Beat me.”

Bill nods sympathetically.

“He… He used to… p-pin me against a door or the garage floor, whatever surface area he could find, and… spit on me. Kick me... O-One da-day, when I was s-seventeen, he tried to st-stab me…” he whispers. Tears stream down his cheeks. “I w-was on spring break and re-reading I-In Cold Blood by Truman Capote a-at my desk. Mother and Father we-were fighting again. T-Then, Father kicked in m-my door. He dragged me out of m-my room and s-shoved me down on the floor in fr-front of my mother. H-He cut me… on my abdomen, m-my arms, my s-side. But my mother… sh-she never helped m-me… Not once.”

Remembers blood dripping down his flesh. The scent of iron staining the air like poppies during springtime. Red and blue flashes echoing off Father’s skin. Remembers the knife pointed at his heart. Mother watches and doesn’t stop him. She never asks Father to put the knife down.

Remembers Father hovering over him, a nasty smirk on his face as he inches the knife closer. Remembers Father choosing to just slice open his skin instead of stabbing him. Remembers Father screaming, ‘I should’ve killed you when I had the chance!’

He sobs through the story, head full of cotton bolls, anxiety squeezing its way out through his capillaries, static electricity humming in his ears.

“It’s okay, Holden,” he hears. “You’re safe.”

He isn’t in total hysterics yet, mind numbed in a painkiller-induced haze. He wipes his tears on a blanket. More fall, but he doesn’t bother hiding them.

“Where are your parents now? Are they still married?” Bill questions.

Holden clears his throat and shakes his head. “My dad had a stroke in ’71. He’s been in a nursing facility ever since. My mom died in ’76.”

“Jesus, I’m sorry. That’s rough. Was it unexpected?”

“N-No, not really. She had stage four liver cancer. She only lived six months after her diagnosis.”

“Shit, kid… I can’t imagine you do, but do you ever talk to your father?”

Holden scoffs. “No. Actually, um, I-I went to back to my hometown during those days I was gone a few months back… Saw my old house. My mom’s grave. My father.”

“Hello, sir,” Holden says quietly. His teeth are chattering. “It’s me, Father. Holden.”

No response.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.

“I’m not in town for very long. Just… I just t-thought I’d come see you, sir.”

“Still got that stutter, huh?”

Holden frowns. He doesn’t know if he expected anything else.

“I guess so, sir,” he answers. “How are you?”

He doesn’t want to fight. He doesn’t want to fight. He doesn’t want to fight.

“How’s it look like I’m doin’? You have one Goddamn stroke, and suddenly people think you need to be locked up like some Goddamn animal.”

But he isn’t locked up… even though he should be.

“Why’d you come here?” his father asks.

Holden nearly shrugs, but then he remembers his father hates uncertainty, timidness, just Holden in general. “I’m having some issues at work, sir. I just… thought maybe coming home for a little bit would help, maybe give me some insights.”

“Work? You still workin’ for the FBI?”

He nods. “Yes, sir.”

“And your pussy ass is all the way out here in Fucksville, Missouri, to see your old man so you can ‘get insights.’ You haven’t changed a bit.”

Holden glances down at the floor. He bounces his heel up and down. He tugs at his ear.

“I don’t know why I came here,” Holden squeaks out.

His father scowls. “Sir.”

Holden’s eyebrows furrow.

“’I don’t know why I came here, sir,’” his father corrects. “And look at me when you’re talkin’ to me. Disrespectful little shit.”

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven -

“Jesus Christ, you’re still such a little fag, aren’t you?”

“How’d that go?” Bill asks.

Holden laughs, cynically and harshly. “Not well… I had a panic attack in the hallway.”

“You’re doing well, kid. You know that, right?”

He searches to find Bill’s eyes in the dark room. He can’t find them. “Doing well how?”

“At this. Talking to me. That’s gotta be hard after everything you’ve been through.”

Holden shrugs. “I guess… But this feels very clinical to me, Bill. I’m not a criminal you’re gleaning insights from. I’m just… Holden.”

“I know, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

He sighs, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “I don’t know how much longer I can do this.”

And his skin shakes. He’s itching for a blade. He is so vividly and wonderfully uncomfortable. He wants to bolt into the bathroom, lock himself in, and escape for a while. He… He’s been talking more lately, a lot more, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. He’s hit his daily quota with Bill today. He just doesn’t want to have this conversation – or any conversation – until he gets a chance to recharge his batteries.

“Do what?”

“Talk,” Holden says simply.

His throat hurts. His head hurts. His fucking soul hurts.

Bill has to understand; Holden’s barely spoken more than three sentences at a time since they got back from Atlanta. This is huge for him. But now it’s time for a break.

Before he breaks.

He hears Bill move around in the blackness.

The overhead light comes on. Holden squints and shields his eyes.

“We’re not finished yet,” Bill informs.

Holden nods and shrinks further away from Bill. “Okay.”

“That doesn’t mean you have to be scared of me, Holden. I just… I want to know what’s been going on with you. Why don’t you like to talk anymore? Because you used to love to talk and irritate the shit out of me. This is the most I’ve heard your voice in months.”

He shrugs. “Didn’t think anyone wanted me to talk. Annoying.”

“You can be very annoying sometimes, but that doesn’t mean people – doesn’t mean I – don’t want to hear you’ve got to say.”

“It’s not important. It’s easier this way.”

“It’s only easier because you’ve compartmentalized yourself, kid. You shoved yourself into a box, taped it up, and poked holes in it so you can breathe. That’s no way to live.”

Holden rolls his eyes. “Yeah, well, you seemed to like me living in a box up until Mason attacked me.”

“That’s not true, and you know it.”

“Oh, do I really, Bill? Then why did you go out of your way to ignore me for months after Atlanta? How come you didn’t tell me about Brian and Nancy, but you told everyone else? Why didn’t you see what was happening to me? Why?”

“I don’t have x-ray vision, Holden.”

“Yeah. Joke. Deflect. Don’t accept that this is on you just as much as it is on me.”

“And why is that?” Bill asks.

“Because I don’t have anyone else!” Holden shouts.

The words vibrate through his skull, bounce of the walls, disappear into thin air.

“I don’t have anyone else, and I thought you were my friend,” he whispers. “And, so, sure, I don’t want to talk. What’s the point of talking when no one’s there to listen? You think that everything’s okay now that you’re here, but you weren’t there when I needed you most. I… I almost killed myself more times than I’d like to admit. I almost sliced my arteries and veins until I was bleeding out onto the floor… And going through that a-alone really hurt me. And I know you’re just doing this until I get better, and it’s okay; I understand.”

The silence eats a hole through Holden’s heart.

“This is permanent, kid,” is all he says.

Holden’s eyebrows furrow. He coughs and sniffles. Bill reaches over and hands him a box of tissues.

“This, how you’ve hurt yourself, and how I’ve hurt you… The damage will always be there, just like a scar, but that doesn’t mean I’m not in this for the long haul. I know I screwed up. It took something awful happening to you for me to realize it. But don’t you ever think I don’t care about you.”

A few tears stream down Holden’s cheeks. “I’m scared.”

“Of what?”

He shrugs. “Of you.”

“You shouldn’t be.”

“I should be. I… I can’t handle much more of this, Bill. The animosity, the shoving, the resentment…”

“Holden, I’m right here telling you point blank that I’m not going to leave you again.”

“What if you’re not, though? What if you’re not there the next time I go too far?”

“There won’t be a ‘next time,’ okay?”

And the thought of going even a day without his razor blades is enough to make his skin crawl. Sure, he made it work without them after Mason, but, in his defense, he had a cracked skull and a shattered hand. He wasn’t up to doing much else other than sleeping and being plagued by nightmares. He doesn’t… He doesn’t know if he can make it work. He doesn’t know who he is without them. He sniffles coughs rubs his tired aching eyes but nothing helps Bill kneels down by his left side and takes his hand but it isn’t enough will anything ever be enough again Bill soothes his fingers through his hair and Holden melts into the touch he shouldn’t trust this every time he trusts someone it blows up in his face and he can’t –

“You don’t know that,” Holden whispers, voice faltering and teetering over the edge.

“You’re gonna have to trust me,” Bill says.

An alien, inhumane sob ruptures from him like a vat of battery acid. “I don’t know if I can.”

I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know

Calm down it’s okay breathe breathe breathe re-center re-focus

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four - 

“Then I’ll prove it to you,” Bill says.

And he’s just vulnerable, just messily crumbling enough, to let the words sink in.

“You can trust me, Holden.”

Tears cloud his vision, but Bill is here, holding his hand and carding his fingers through his hair. But Bill is here, reassuring him when no one else ever will. But Bill is here, whispering sweet nothings as if it’s the end – or beginning – of the world because it may very well be.

“Can you promise me something?”

Holden nods, swallowing thickly.

“Promise me you won’t hurt yourself ever again. No matter how badly you want to,” Bill pleads. “If you feel like doing it, tell me. I won’t lecture you or belittle you because that’s how you feel… But you have to talk to me about it. We can only get through this together if you open up to me again.”

“I’m scared,” Holden repeats.

Bill nods. He wipes Holden’s tears away with his thumb. “I know, but don’t be.”

A whimper ripples through him, and he shivers. He doesn’t know if he can handle this.

“I’m right here, Holden, and I’m not going anywhere.”

Chapter Text

FREDERICKSBURG, VIRGINIA
DECEMBER 19, 1981

Exactly one month after George Robert Mason attacked him, Holden finds himself re-reading The Michigan Murders for the umpteenth time, cozied up in Bill’s recliner.

Bill finally gave in and turned the heat on for the winter, but Holden runs cold, so he keeps the space heater close by just in case. They watch TV in the comfort and privacy of Bill’s house. It’s quiet here, but a relaxing kind of quiet. Holden’s lived in one apartment complex or another since he moved out of his parent’s home when he was 17, so he’s used to noisy neighbors, walls pounding from sex or fights, doors slamming closed at 3:30 in the morning. But he prefers it here at Bill’s. He can get a lot of reading done without a constant stream of interruptions.

It’s better overall here.

There are plenty of blankets, magazines, cans of soup, and books to read. Bill brings him back a National Geographic when he goes to work or to the grocery store. Holden is still on lockdown after being diagnosed with pneumonia on Tuesday; the doctor chalked it up to a massive dose of stress combined with going outside at below freezing temperatures. Bill usually brings home takeout, Chinese or pizza or sandwiches. Holden prefers cooking; fast food reminds him of being on the road, which is not all bad, but that lifestyle made his cholesterol rise, and he’s only 31 years old.

But Bill is bringing home a chicken breast, parmesan cheese, and noodles, amongst other ingredients, so Holden can prepare chicken alfredo tonight. It’s not ideal for Holden because he’s craving a Caesar salad or chicken wraps (Bill never remembers to bring home spinach or salad dressing). Bill is a strict meat and potatoes guy, so it’s remarkable he’s eating pasta at all. But it’s a universal meal for everyone. Bill is confident Brian will eat it, and Bill knows Holden will shut up and eat it, especially since he’s getting free range of the kitchen.

Brian is coming over to spend the weekend before Christmas with Bill.

Nancy thinks it’s important for Brian to still have a relationship with Bill. Apparently, Nancy and Bill talk often, mostly about Brian but sometimes about their failed marriage, and their divorced finalized in late November while Bill was busy taking care of Holden. Their conversations are mostly amicable now. Holden is grateful for that. Bill still hurts after Nancy left; he told Holden this a couple days ago. But he thinks it’s a good thing they’re both moving on, or at least trying to, and that Nancy is on the fence about seeing someone else. It’s progress. They’re not fighting constantly, and Bill says he doesn’t have to worry as much about the shit he brings home from work. Bill doesn’t wear his emotions on his sleeve like Holden does, but Holden can see these topics aren’t easy for him to talk about, their full-length conversations weigh on him heavily.

So, Bill set up a Christmas tree, lights and all, in the living room. He put lights up outside while berating Holden for watching through the window. He bought Brian new bedding, toys he can open before their miniature Christmas celebration tomorrow (Holden is making a turkey, stuffing, green beans, mashed potatoes, the whole works), toiletries, and his favorite cereals. The house seems warmer now, less clinical and sterile and more like a home for an eight-year-old boy.

Bill is due to be home any minute.

There’s a lot of stuff Holden could do with his free time, but he swore he’d never hurt himself again. He is going to keep that promise, even if sometimes his brain won’t stop panicking or his body won’t stop rebelling. He never realized how deep of a habit he formed until he went cold turkey from it. It’s been ten days since he last butchered himself. Bill threw out the razor blade tucked between pages 157 and 158 of In Cold Blood. For the time being, he checks Holden’s arms when he arrives home from work. Holden hasn’t slipped up once. Bill brings him case files and discusses interviews with him, but Holden can’t be in the field again until his arm is healed.

Holden is in the middle of a paragraph when he hears the lock turn. He glances behind him as Bill walks in, snow in his hair and huffing about the weather. “Hey,” he says.

“It’s fucking cold out,” Bill tells him. “And I’m definitely gonna have to shovel the driveway this weekend. We’re supposed to get three more inches by Sunday morning.”

Holden closes his book and sets it on the side table, where his prescriptions and stack of novels live. “I can help if you –”

“Your arm is broken, kid. Plus, you’ve still got that cough. No way.”

“Don’t say I didn’t offer.”

Bill sheds his coat and suit jacket. He ruffles Holden’s hair as he walks into the kitchen with three grocery bags.

“Did you drink that whole two liter of Sprite already? I just bought that,” Bill calls; he sounds like his head is stuck in the refrigerator.

Holden shrugs, even though Bill can’t see it. “I was thirsty.”

Bill settles down on the couch, cracking open a beer and clicking on the TV. He nurses his drink while flipping to the five o’clock news. Nancy should be here any time now.

“Are you nervous?” Holden asks. He almost flinches when the question leaves his mouth, but Bill encourages him to ask question and to talk more everyday.

“A little,” Bill answers. “Not about seeing Nancy, but about seeing Brian. Spending the weekend with him. I haven’t… Shit, I haven’t even done that yet, and we’ve been separated for almost six months.”

Holden nods. “You’ve both been busy. Nancy just got settled in Maryland. It’s a transition for everyone, but especially for Brian.”

“I guess you’re right,” he says. “Me and Brian have never had much in common, though. After the… incident, I tried to make him talk about it, you know, open up about what it made him feel, but I never got any answers.”

“And you’re wondering if things will be different this time around,” Holden finishes.

“Yeah. Pretty much.”

“Well, he’s at a new school. Nancy said he made a couple new friends already and is talking more… Maybe things are looking up.”

Bill scoffs. “Maybe.”

Just as Bill finishes his beer, the doorbell rings. Holden moves to answer it, but Bill pushes his shoulder lightly.

“Hi,” he hears Bill say as he opens the door. A freezing waft of air sweeps through the house, and Holden burrows deeper into the recliner, coughing and tucking his chin against his chest. “Come on in.”

Holden watches Brian walk into the living room. He immediately takes notice of the tree, with presents already underneath it, and then his eyebrows furrow when he sees Holden. Holden smiles and waves with his left hand. Brian just shrugs and plops down on the floor in front of the TV, changing the channel to cartoons.

And Holden shrinks away as much as he can after that. This is not his family. This is not his house. It’s strange to be here while Bill is visiting his son. It’s strange to be here while Bill and Nancy talk in the doorway. He doesn’t know if he belongs here. He offered to go back to his apartment once Bill told him Brian was coming, but Bill told him to can it and finish his book. He thinks Bill wants him to stay, so he does.

“How are you doing, Holden?” Nancy asks suddenly, stepping into his line of vision. “A friend told me about what happened. I hope you’re doing better.”

She seems sincere. But Holden wonders how it looks to see a grown man in her former home, staying with her ex-husband. He’s in his thickest pajamas and bundled in blankets, a big pillow supporting his arm. He probably looks as out of place as he feels.

“I’m doing a lot better now, thank you,” he says politely.

“That’s great. I figured you would be here. You two have always been close,” she says, gesturing to both him and Bill, who is standing there sheepishly with his hands in his pockets. “I’m glad he’s helping you out until you feel better.”

Holden nods and smiles. “I am too.”

“Bill, can we talk?” Nancy asks suddenly, or at least it’s sudden to Holden. “In private.”

He watches Bill rub the back of his neck. Holden isn’t sure he’s ever seen Bill nervous until now. “Sure.”

“Will you watch him?” Nancy asks Holden, motioning to Brian.

“Of course,” Holden says.

Holden gulps as Nancy and Bill trudge off into another room. He thinks it’s the bedroom. It’s closed off and quiet, the perfect for a chat between former lovers.

“You thirsty?” Holden asks Brian, who turns around immediately and nods. “I’ll be right back.”

Holden gets to his feet, arm close to his chest, and winces. His ribs are almost healed, but the sudden change in position sparks pain in his abdomen and in his head. He coughs and grabs two cans of Coke (he’s grown increasingly fond of soda these days), stacking one on top of the other and holding it in between so they don’t fall. Holden hands one to Brian and sits down on the couch in the spot closest to the TV. A rerun of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! plays quietly. Holden crosses his legs and gets sucked into a tale about the ghost of Captain Cutler.

Before he knows it, the episode is over, and something else comes on. Brian sighs and stands up, wiping his hands on his pants, something Holden’s seen Bill do a million times.

“Do you wanna play Legos with me?” Brian asks. He doesn’t look Holden in the eye.

“Sure. Sounds fun,” Holden says. “Mind if we do it at the dinner table?”

Brian nods and brings out a brand-new Lego kit that hasn’t even been opened yet. “My mom gave it to me,” he offers.

It’s progress. Holden can definitely see that. Brian is talking without being prompted, and Holden wishes he can say that for himself.

Brian opens the tiny building blocks and scatters them across the table. Holden’s middle and index fingers are still taped together, but he finds a way to put pieces together using his other fingers. He is halfway through building a pirate ship, small but intricate with whites and yellows and blacks, when Brian speaks again, completely on his own.

“What happened to you?”

“Do you think Elizabeth Nichols might’ve felt the same way Donnie did before your father –”

Mason reaches across the table and grabs Holden by the collar, a sick and angry look in his eyes. He slams Holden’s head against the thick wooden table. And Holden doesn’t say anything. Doesn’t move. Doesn’t shout of for help. Because it doesn’t hurt, and he can’t really feel it, but he isn’t sure moving would be the best thing to do right now. Maybe if he plays possum, Mason will leave him alone.

But Mason stands up, and Holden wants to gulp, to scream, to run away, but he can’t because Mason is on him in an instant, knocking him to the floor and hovering over him.

Mason kicks him in the stomach many times; he loses track. Does it matter? Isn’t this what he deserves for opening his mouth?

But then there’s a blow to his head just below his ear that rattles him. He can’t see well. He feels blood trickle down his neck. But he doesn’t feel pain. He doesn’t feel anything. It is robotic and cold in nature. Shouldn’t it be more dramatic?

Mason laughs as he stomps harshly on Holden’s right hand, squishing it into the ground with the heel of his heavy boot like it’s garbage. Holden gasps, and tears stream down his cheeks, and he doesn’t know why… He can’t feel it he can’t feel it he can’t feel it he doesn’t care he doesn’t mind this is all for nothing all for nothing he doesn’t know how he could be so stupid so naïve to blatantly disregard Mason telling him to shut up but that’s the kicker isn’t it Holden doesn’t listen Holden doesn’t learn he’s useless a screw up he’s nothing but –

Holden blinks the tears away from his eyes and clears his throat. “A bad guy attacked me.”

“Bad? Like the ones you and Dad talk to?”

“Yes, exactly like that.”

“Was he in jail? Did you remove his handcuffs?”

Holden blinks. How does he know about that? He chooses not to ask. “He’s in prison. The guard removed the handcuffs. I said… something that bothered him, and he hurt me.”

“That’s why your arm is in a cast,” Brian says matter of factly.

And Holden nods, spluttering after. He isn’t sure what more there is to say.

They build together in silence. Holden finishes his pirate ship and moves on to a police car. Brian builds a large rocket ship at a speed that reminds Holden of himself. When he was young, Legos and books were his escape tools. He’d spend hours piecing them together, only to take them apart and start on something new once he was done. He’d spend hours curled up on his bed, a true crime novel or play or autobiography in hand. These were the only ways he could tone out his parents’ fighting and his dad’s almost-daily beatings. He wonders if Brian uses Legos as means to escape too. He’s been through a lot more than an eight-year-old boy should.

“How do you like your new school?” Holden asks eventually, after working up the courage to form words. It’s not a hard or difficult question, but it leaves Holden’s chest clenching it on itself, lungs tightening and constricting with every word he utters.

Brian shrugs. “It’s alright. I made a friend in my class. His name’s Billy, you know, like Dad’s name, only Dad’s name is Bill. We draw a lot together.”

“You like to draw?”

The small boy nods. “We draw when Mrs. Reilly talks. She talks too much.”

And Brian is just so… much different than Holden remembers. He remembers coming over to meet Nancy and Brian with Debbie two years ago, and Brian wouldn’t say a word, much less make eye contact. But here Brian is, tiny and sitting with his legs tucked beneath him in a chair almost too big for him, and he’s the one driving the conversation. He’s the one inviting Holden to play and asking questions about why he’s here. He’s the one who is doing well.

“Sounds like this new school is good,” is all Holden says.

Brian nods and then turns to Holden, frowning. “I miss my dad.”

“He misses you too. He talks about you everyday.”

“I wish we could come home, but my mom says she and Dad are divorced now, and that means I have to live with her.”

Holden doesn’t understand how an eight-year-old can comprehend all of that, but Brian is Bill’s son, smart and intuitive. Holden isn’t sure what to say, and it seems like Brian doesn’t expect him to say anything. They go back to building after that. It’s a nice, quiet activity, only broken by Holden’s coughing, until Nancy and Bill exit the bedroom.

Nancy’s face is red and a little puffy. Bill looks flushed and teary-eyed himself.

“You be good for your dad,” Nancy says, wrapping her arms around Brian from where he sits in the chair. She kisses his head several times. “I love you.”

“I love you too,” Brian answers. He turns around and kisses his mom on the cheek.

Holden watches Bill tightly smile. He has his hands back in his pockets.

“Feel better, Holden,” Nancy says.

She picks up her purse and is out the door in no time. It’s like she was never here at all.

“Does this look like a clownfish to you?” Brian asks, showing his 3D fish to Bill.

Bill sits down at the table across from Brian. He grabs a handful of Legos. “Definitely. Maybe add more dimension to the fins.”

Brian nods with a look of determination in his eyes, and Holden stares at police car with a shy smile.


Holden flips a piece of chicken in the pan. It’s almost done. He stirs the sauce and then the noodles.

He coughs into the crook of his elbow, chest aching and arm endlessly sore. He didn’t realize how weak he still is until making this much less than complicated meal. It worries him. He doesn’t know how he’ll ever be able to go back to the Bureau if he can’t stand for more than 30 minutes without getting winded or exhausted. He knows if he sat down in the recliner or laid down in bed, he’d be out like a light in five minutes tops.

It’s… unsettling.

Brian moved on from Legos to the Millennium Falcon Spaceship Bill bought him a while ago. He begs Holden to play with him, but Bill offers to instead. Brian is noticeably hesitant at first, but Bill gets into it, pretend playing with his eight-year-old. Honestly, Holden isn’t sure he had it in him to cut loose and be a kid with his son, but maybe, just maybe, the separation and divorce has allowed for Bill and Brian to now grow closer together instead of being strangers.

“You doing okay?” Bill asks as he enters the kitchen to grab a drink. “You’re really flushed.”

Holden shrugs. “I’m fine. Keep playing with –” he coughs harshly, “Brian.”

“Why don’t you let me finish this?”

And Holden rolls his eyes. “You can’t even microwave soup correctly, Bill. I’m not letting you anywhere near my chicken alfredo.”

“Yeah? Well, I don’t want you coughing all over it either.”

“I’m covering my mouth,” Holden says. “And it’s not even that. It’s this sling. It’s rubbing my neck raw.”

Bill grabs a fingerful of grated parmesan. “You have to wear it.”

Holden pouts. “You never make me wear it any other time.”

“That’s because you’ve been either in bed, on the couch, or in my recliner. You haven’t been up and moving around. The doctor said letting your arm dangle or whatever isn’t going to do you any favors.”

“That’s dumb,” Holden grumbles. He stirs the sauce and noodles again.

Fifteen minutes later, dinner is done. Holden’s shoulder aches tremendously, and his whole neck is on fire, but it’s worth it to see Brian slurping up noodles happily and Bill watching him from the head of the table. Brian is by no means a chatterbox, but he tells Bill about his friend Billy and the new Legos his mom bought him and how Grandpa always used to give him a miniature Butterfinger every time he brought home a 100 on a spelling test.

And it makes Holden feel warm and fuzzy inside. Really, it seems Brian is doing a lot better at this new school, even though the distance from his father has been rough both Brian and Bill. Maryland isn’t that far away, and Bill was talking earlier about taking the weekends to go up there and see him or meet Nancy halfway so Brian can come back here. They’re making steps in the right direction, especially as a newly separated family.

It’s moments like these that Holden wishes he had a family.

He misses his mom, even though he knows how toxic she was during his childhood. She protected him, but only when it was just the two of them. She didn’t do anything to protect him from his father. He’s never had friends until Bill. He doesn’t know why. He thinks he’s friendly enough, but he’s strange and obviously lacks social skills, as he’s been told numerous times before.

But, after laying it all out on the line with Bill, he is trying hard not to dwell on things he can’t change nor control. It eats him alive to nitpick his existence, question his beliefs and motivations as if they’re so easy to throw away or gain. Bill says he will drive himself crazy if he keeps being so hard on himself, and he’s probably right. His self-confidence is shattered, and he knows it, but something about his conversation with Bill makes him feel different about himself.

More than anything, he believes he’s capable of moving forward from this.

He’d be lying if he didn’t think about not talking or self-harming. Sometimes, it’s just simpler to do the bad or negative things instead of the positive ones.

“Keep eating, kid,” Bill says, shaking Holden out of his trance. Bill taps his fork against Holden’s plate.

He nods and swirls more pasta on his fork.

Later on, Holden is on the edge of sleep in the recliner, but not before noticing Brian laying on Bill’s lap on the couch. He smiles and lets his eyes droop closed.


Holden lies awake in bed, staring up at the ceiling and coughing every few seconds.

And he is exhausted but unable to fall asleep, eyes wide open.

Brian is asleep in his bedroom, and Bill is down the hall in the living room. He almost has the urge to go sit with Bill, but he doesn’t want to be irritating. Bill might need time to himself after a long day of work and spending time with his son.

Holden makes friends with the ceiling. He is making a design with the popcorn pattern when he hears a light knock on his half-opened door.

“You okay?” Bill asks, sticking his head in.

Holden nods, even though he isn’t sure he is okay. His chest hurts.

“I keep hearing you cough. Trouble sleeping?”

Reluctantly, Holden nods and sighs deeply. “I’m feeling anxious, but not anxious at the same time, which makes no sense to me.”

“You probably just need to rest, Holden. You’ve been doing a lot more moving around than you’ve done in the last month, and you’re not completely better from the pneumonia yet.”

Holden squishes his cheek into his pillow. He feels better already, just having Bill in the same room as him.

“Do you… think you can stay til I fall asleep?” he asks shyly, acutely aware that he sounds more like an eight-year-old boy than the actual eight-year-old boy staying in this house for the weekend.

Bill nods. He doesn’t seem irritated or bothered in the slightest. He lies down on the opposite side of the bed, getting comfortable before gesturing for Holden to scooch closer. Holden does so without hesitation. He places his head on Bill’s chest. Hearing Bill’s heartbeat beneath his ears is much more comforting than he ever realized was possible. This isn’t the first night Holden’s fallen asleep like this on Bill, and he’s sure it won’t be the last, especially not until he goes back to his apartment.

“Dad?”

Holden cracks open his eyes and sees Brian standing at the foot of the bed.

“What’s up, buddy?”

“I can’t sleep.”

Bill keeps his slight grip on Holden’s shoulder. “Come here.”

And Brian bundles into the bed too, sandwiching Bill between the two of them. Holden stays close, head on Bill’s chest as Brian curls into Bill’s side. It’s warm. It’s comforting. Holden doesn’t understand how he went from depressed and suicidal last week to his heart feeling full and almost happy for the first time in his life. He doesn’t understand how he ended up here, in Bill’s bed with Bill this close by, but he can’t imagine himself anywhere else right now.

Bill’s been here through every tear, every hiccup, every insomnia-filled night.

And, for once, Holden knows that is enough.

“Goodnight, Brian,” Holden whispers. “Goodnight, Bill.”

Bill rubs Holden’s shoulder. “Goodnight, boys.”

It’s the best sleep Holden’s got in months.

Chapter Text

FREDERICKSBURG, VIRGINIA
FEBRUARY 23, 1982

Holden hasn’t driven in three months.

It’s not because he can’t but because Bill won’t let him. Bill’s paranoid about Holden wrecking the car due to him drive singlehandedly. The old Holden would understand that with no questions asked; it’s a safety hazard and could easily cause an accident, after all. But this new Holden, the Holden of today, is gearing up for some independence. It’s not as if he doesn’t appreciate Bill’s worry, but Bill worries too much about him, and Holden often has to remind him he’s nearly 32 years old.

Except…

It makes sense to worry about him.

As much as he doesn’t want to admit it, he recognizes why Bill feels the way that he does. Holden hasn’t self-harmed since the night of their talk two months ago. As much as he thinks about it, he hasn't put his thoughts into actions, which Bill considers progress. His skin is healed and now littered with scars, mostly harmlessly small and white, but some are mangled and pink, especially near the pulse point on his left wrist. But he has trouble sleeping every night. Even with the Valium, Holden’s eyes won’t close unless Bill is in the room with him.

Bill made him start going back to his therapist, Dr. McCarthy, in January. She recommended lowering the dose of trazodone to help manage the depression and give him flurazepam for the insomnia. He knows it’s supposed to work. He’s supposed to be able to rest peacefully, but it doesn’t work unless he’s out in the living room where Bill is watching TV or if Bill is lying next to him in bed reading. He thinks Bill gave up trying to leave Holden alone at night a long time ago. Holden tries to feel guilty about it, but, every time he brings it up, Bill tells him to shut up, that it’s fine, that he wants Holden to sleep without any nightmares.

Long story short, maybe Holden is naïve for thinking he’ll get his independence back.

He can’t even fall asleep unless Bill is close by.

“You ready to get this thing off?” Bill asks.

Holden’s trance breaks, and he looks over to see Bill motioning toward his arm. He clears his throat. “Very ready.”

After three months, Holden is finally able to get his cast off.

It’s a step in the right direction. He can’t be complacent with Bill doing everything for him, even when Holden doesn’t want him to. Bill insists on cutting his food since Holden doesn’t have much control of his left hand. Bill folds his laundry so Holden doesn’t irritate his arm by twisting it in the cast; he isn’t sure he understands that one, but he lets Bill win the argument. The only thing Holden is allowed to do is cook, and he’s certain that’s just because Bill can’t do anything kitchen-related to save his life. He always somehow overcooks soup in the microwave.

With the cast gone, Holden will be able to do everything for himself. He’ll have no reason not to. No more Bill shooting him down when he offers to shovel the driveway. No more Bill telling him to take it easy when he plays with Brian on his bi-weekly visits from Maryland. No more Bill reinforcing he wears a sling every time they leave the house, which, granted, isn’t often because he can’t go back to work just yet, but still. It’s a little irritating to not have the freedom of movement.

Bill drives. Holden stares out the window at the snow falling in puffy flakes around them. He longs for spring, where the air is warm, and the flowers are blooming. Winter always fills him with a sense of dread, of impending doom, of a blizzard bound to knock out the power. It’s quiet, serene, on the way to the doctor’s office. Holden could fall asleep easily if he wanted to.

“Showtime,” Bill says, after they park and are loaded into the elevator.

Holden nods, short and sweet.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Bill asks, hand on Holden’s shoulder.

He shakes his head. “I’m just nervous.”

“About what?”

“This. I know I’m not supposed to, but I have high hopes for this. I want to go back to work on Monday. Having full use of my arm will solidify my chances of returning.”

Bill nods and gives him a small smile. “I’m sure everything will be fine. Try not to stress yourself out too much.”

Holden accepts this answer; usually, Bill is right. It’s just that his heart is trying to squeeze out of his chest cavity, and his skin is crawling with an extreme amount of anxiousness. Vulnerability seeps out of every orifice in his existence. The walls close in. This isn’t good this isn’t good he doesn’t like being trapped he’s been more or less a shut in for several months he doesn’t know how to deal with people anymore much less deal with himself why is he doubting everything why can’t he hold it together why is it so hard for him to be normal why –

“Hey, look at me,” he hears. Bill’s voice is gruff but equally soothing. He touches Holden’s cheek gently, and Holden makes eye contact. “You’re gonna be okay.”

“What if I’m not?” he asks, broken and detached. He feels very far away from here.

Bill, unexpectedly, wraps him up in his arms. Holden immediately hides his face in Bill’s neck, protected and shielded from the world outside. His heart rate begins to slow down, one thump at a time. “Then we’ll get through it together.”

In the doctor’s office, Holden is calmer, with two Valium in his system and Bill by his side.

The saw buzzes in his ears, shaking his arm back and forth, drilling out a whole in his brain. He waits for it to hurt, but then remembers he wouldn’t be getting the cast off in the first place.

When his lower arm is finally free, he stares numbly at it. The limb itself seems so much smaller than his left hand. His skin is ashy, sore and sensitive just to look at. There is a strange odor emanating from the cast, resting in two pieces on the table beside Holden. He makes a fist and finds that he can’t do much more than bend at the joints of his fingers. He moves his wrist from side to side, and panic traces through his veins as he feels just how stiff and rigid it really is.

“The breaks you experienced were very severe,” the doctor explains, but Holden doesn’t feel like he’s here. He tries to focus on the doctor’s moving lips. “You will have about 75% use of your hand, unless we do another surgery down the line.”

Holden looks down at his arm. He doesn’t say anything.

“This can make day-to-day tasks a little more difficult than what before the accident. Your arm will likely be numb near the wrist bone itself, along with a few of your fingers as well, particularly the ones that were broken.”

He doesn’t hear anything after that. He knows Bill talks to the doctor for a while, whether it’s two minutes or two hours, he isn’t sure, and the doctor answers his questions or concerns. Holden spaces himself out to where there aren’t any uncertainties, that he can go back to work on Monday without a care in the world, that life will return to normal.

Before he knows it, they’re in the car.

Holden idly looks at his hand, now cradled in a bulky black brace instead of the cast.

He gulps and starts to cry.

But he can’t feel it, not really at least.

“Breathe, bud,” Bill instructs, and Holden hiccups but tries. It’s as if he’s drowning in his own lungs. “Wendy gave me the name of a great occupational therapist.”

Holden sniffles. “I don’t want therapy, Bill.”

“I know you don’t, but you need it. It’ll make your range of motion come back a lot faster.”

“I’ll still need another s-surgery to fix it.”

Bill soothes his fingers through Holden’s hair; Holden lets out a shaky breath. “It’s not completely better right now, Holden, and I know that stinks, but the doctor is confident after this next surgery that you’ll have 95% use of your hand back.”

“I was at 100% before Mason,” he murmurs.

“Shit happens,” Bill says, and Holden can tell he doesn’t mean it in a condescending way, as if he isn’t understanding the true gravity of this situation. “But the best we can do is try to make it better. So, occupational therapy for now, and then your last surgery in a few weeks.”

Holden lets a few more tears fall. “I want to go back to work.”

“I know you do. Which is why I talked to Wendy, and she is letting you come back starting Monday. You’re on light duty. Nothing outside of the office. Certainly no interviews.”

“Really?” he asks, voice quiet. “I can come back?”

“Of course. We want you back, kid. You can still consult on cases, but we can’t… I can’t risk you going out in the field just yet.”

Holden nods, staring at his hands, one significantly smaller than the other, even with the brace on. “Because you don’t trust me.”

Bill taps his chin, and Holden looks up to find him smiling sadly. “Because I’m worried about you.”

“I know,” Holden whispers. “I’m sorry, Bill.”

“There’s nothing to be sorry for.”

Holden bites his bottom lip. “I’m a burden.”

“Stop it, bud. You’re not a burden. Not even close to it.”

“I’ll move back to my place.”

Bill makes him keep maintaining eye contact. “Are you not hearing a word I’m saying?” he asks. “You’re not a burden. You’re not a problem. You’re not putting me out. In fact, I was gonna suggest something completely different than what you’re insinuating.”

Holden’s eyebrows furrow. “Like what?”

“Well, it makes no sense for you to keep paying rent for your apartment when you’re staying at my place.”

“You… don’t want me to move out?”

Bill shrugs; Holden can tell he’s trying to play it smooth. “I’m used to your constant, incessant snoring.”

Holden smiles. “Are you sure?”

“I wouldn’t suggest it if I wasn’t sure,” Bill says. “You belong in that home with me, kid.”


FEBRUARY 24, 1982

It’s an unspoken agreement.

Bill sleeps next to Holden at night, closest to the door. They usually sleep back to back, but sometimes Holden has a bad night, and Bill lets him sleep on his chest instead. They don’t talk about it, which is fine by Holden. He already knows it’s strange. But Bill shoots him down every time he offers to sleep on the couch now that he’s healed. And, honestly, Holden is confident he still can’t sleep without Bill by his side. He doesn’t want to think about trying.

Today, Holden stretches awake. He scratches his head as he rolls out of bed. Bill is already in the kitchen, wearing boxers and a robe. It’s winter, so Holden is much more properly dressed; there’s a reason the space heater follows Holden around the house instead of Bill.

Bill looks over his shoulder from where he’s pouring a cup of coffee. “Want some?”

Holden nods. He grabs the box of Honey Nut Cheerios from the top of the fridge and some milk. He grabs the spoon with his and starts munching, relishing the taste. He doesn’t know why cereal is so good in the mornings now, especially when he never ate cereal before. Actually, he never used to eat breakfast until Bill insisted on him getting something in his stomach.

“Why don’t you try using your right hand?” Bill asks.

Holden frowns, mouth full of Cheerios. “Huh?”

“You’re using the spoon with your left hand. Switch to your right. It’ll help build back some strength.”

Of course. He knows that. It’s just habit at this point. He puts the spoon in his right hand and cringes at how uncomfortable it still feels. There’s no pain, but there’s numbness and tingling, and his thumb shakes relentlessly.

Still, he shovels the cereal in one bite at a time.

Their agenda isn’t big today. Holden has his first occupational therapy session. Bill wants to go grocery shopping so Holden can make lasagna tonight.

Holden showers quickly and efficiently, not stopping once to stare the scars riddling his skin. He throws on his favorite hooded sweatshirt and a pair of jeans. He bends down to put his own socks on for once in three months; he is so used to Bill doing it.

“Well, that’s progress if I’ve ever seen it,” Bill comments from his spot hovering in the doorway.

Holden nods. “Guess so.”

Occupational therapy is alright. His therapist’s name is Jeanie, and she talks a lot. Holden wants to plug his ears; her voice is so grating. The exercises make his whole arm tired, and, by the end, he’s sweating and doesn’t realize how. Bill straps the brace in place while Holden guzzles water as if he’s a thirsty camel. He doesn’t know what’s wrong with him. He doesn’t know why he can’t take care of himself. He doesn’t know how Bill puts up with him.

The grocery store is a blur. He remembers throwing stuff - breakable stuff - into the cart and Bill staring at him. He remembers Bill taking over when it became obvious Holden isn’t in the mood for any of this. He remembers the disgusted feeling flooding his core. Here he is just giving Bill more reasons to hate him.

And they go home. Their home. Bill and Holden’s home.

Bill puts the groceries away while Holden locks himself in the bathroom. He sits with his back against the wall and puts his head in his hands.

A tidal wave of his failures presses him underwater. He struggles for air and drowns on his own shortcomings. Bill doesn’t want him. Bill doesn’t want this. How could Bill possibly want him? Look at him. He’s pathetic. Weak. A waste of space. A total –

He stops. There, on the sink, is Bill’s straight razor. He only just now started keeping them in sight. He trusts Holden enough to know that he won’t hurt himself.

But Holden grabs the razor anyway.

It’s electric in his palm. The smooth blade running over his skin would fill him with such peace, such calmness. He wonders if one little nick is enough to sooth the hurt swelling through his soul. He wonders if one little nick will set him back even further than he already feels. He wonders if one little nick will make a difference.

“What’re you doing?”

He doesn’t know how he doesn’t hear Bill come in, but Bill’s here, standing practically on top of him, gently prying the razor from his hand.

Holden shrugs. “I don’t know,” he answers honestly. “I don’t know.”

Bill sits on the other side of the bathroom, back against the tub. “You have to talk to me, buddy.”

He inhales dangerously shakily, breath teetering on the edge of panic. “I don’t want to let you down.”

“What do you –”

He cuts Bill off. “This is… This is j-just a lot. It’s a lot for me t-to handle, Bill. And it’s stressful, and I’m so hopeless and lost. I-I… I don’t know what I’m supposed to do or h-how I’m supposed to do it, if I’m even cap-capable of doing it.”

“You take it one step at a time,” is all Bill says.

Holden rolls his eyes. “I’m being serious.”

“So am I.”

“I can’t deal with your cryptic messages right now,” he says, voice muffled with his hands.

“Holden, all we can do – all you can do – is take one step at a time. Whatever you’re feeling, whatever you’re doing, whatever is going on, can only be dealt with one step. Then you take the next. And the next, and the next. It’s a process. It’ll always be a process.”

“I used to know what I was doing all the time,” Holden points out.

He remembers how tenacious and precocious he was when he first met Bill. Remembers the never-ending fire under his ass to fix things, solve cases, understand motivations, create profiles, all this stuff that seems minute in comparison to battles he’s been fighting with his own brain. He’s never been more unsure of himself in his entire life.

"Believe me, I remember,” he says. “But you’re still that kid, okay? Somewhere deep inside there is the Holden you remember.”

“What if I never find him again?”

“You will. And I’ll be here to help you along the way.”

Holden shudders and shivers. His emotions are just as scattered as his thoughts.

“Can I hug you?” Holden asks suddenly, feebly.

He doesn’t know where that come from, but he doesn’t care once Bill gestures for him to come here.

And Holden presses himself against the bathtub too, head on Bill’s shoulder as Bill engulfs him in an embrace so utterly familiar. He feels most at peace when he’s like this, close to Bill while being reassured on the way. He knows he’s a lot to handle, but Bill doesn’t see him that way. Bill is the only thing – the only person – that can save him from himself.

“We’ll get through this together,” Bill says softly. “You and me, buddy.”

“You and me,” Holden whispers.

And, for the very first time, Holden believes him, wholeheartedly.