A stray turns up at his house, sitting in the dirt alongside the road, just another one of many. It’s a man this time, bipedal and upright, all silver hair and wild eyes. He was a doctor, Will figures from his clothes. It doesn’t really matter to him. Doesn’t really matter to anyone, for that matter. Strays that find their way to him usually do so because they don’t have any other choice.
This one can walk, so that’s something. It still takes some coaxing to get him to stand up. More coaxing still to get him to move away from the road. A lone car approaches in the meantime, headlights illuminating something that’s probably blood caked all over the man’s hands, crusted on his face.
The car zooms by, and its speeding comes perilously close to their bodies, close enough to ruffle hair and make an unzipped jacket flap in the breeze. Neither of them care.
“I can’t remember,” the man says.
Will can’t see his face, but he doesn’t need to in order to extrapolate, filling in the blanks with clues tucked away in tone of voice—stricken eyes, a forehead weighed down by sorrow, lines etched around a mouth that’s been pressed thin for too long.
“You don’t need to remember to come inside.”
Will won’t say please. He will stand here for as long as it takes, patient and radiating harmlessness in every stationary line of his body. No quick movements. No harm or malice.
Eventually the man edges close enough that Will can wrap a blanket around him. He has no idea how long it takes; he wasn’t wearing a watch when the sound of burning rubber and shouting had pulled him from his bed, but the moon has climbed higher in the sky while they’ve been standing in the dark.
It’s the middle of August, and it isn’t cold, but then, that’s not what the blanket is for. Will ushers him inside, murmuring soothing nothings and holding the screen door open.
His house is a mess when he bothers to see it through someone else’s eyes. The innards of a boat motor are strewn over the table and chairs, so Will sets the man down on his bed, amid twisted blankets and rumpled sheets. He sinks onto the mattress heavily, like the weight of the world is pushing him down.
The light inside is garish compared to the soft, dreamy glow outside. His guest’s face looks gaunt and skeletal under the harsh glare. Now Will can see that what he’d mistaken for blood is more likely paint or motor oil.
“You look like hell,” Will says.
It doesn’t quite get a laugh out of his unexpected visitor, but Will thinks he can see a twitch at the corner of his mouth.
“You want to take a shower or something?”
The man shakes his head once.
“Suit yourself.” Will grimaces, but he guesses it can’t be helped. What’s a little motor oil added to the growing collection of dog fur on his bed?
He goes in the kitchen to find a drink to offer—he’s a long way gone from the skinny kid who’d grown up in the bayous, but some of that ingrained Southern hospitality hasn’t managed to rub off. He roots around in his cupboard. He doesn’t have any tea, but he does have plenty of hot water. Will pours a generous splash of whiskey into a mug and doesn’t bother asking if the guy drinks. He looks like he could use one.
Will tops off the mug with tap water and sticks it in the microwave. While it warms, he pours more whiskey in another glass, neat, and keeps an eye on the man sitting on his bed. The microwave pings, and he takes both their drinks to the living room.
“It’s probably not good, but it’s what I have,” Will says.
The man wraps his fingers around the warm porcelain and doesn’t let the cup fall when Will lets go, but otherwise he doesn’t move. One of those.
“What’s your name?” Will asks.
Will hopes he isn’t a mute. He doesn’t like it when they don’t talk at all. He sips his whiskey and waits.
“Cliff,” the man says finally. His voice sounds rusty from disuse.
“Cliff,” Will repeats, trying the name out. He settles on the ground in front of the bed, close but not too close. His dogs come over to investigate, trying to stick their noses in his drink until he pushes him away. He sends them to their beds with pointed finger and a clipped hey, and they all go with the exception of Buster, who curls up on his lap.
Will takes another sip of whiskey and pets his dog. “What brings you to Wolf Trap, Cliff?”
Cliff shakes his head. “I don’t remember. I don’t remember anything. I remember… red lights. Singing. I think I remember singing.”
Cliffs hands have tightened on his mug while he spoke, and his knuckles look bone-white where skin peeks out from beneath black stains. Will studies him, his hands that don’t tremble at all, the certain cruel set to his mouth.
He nods at the cup in Cliff’s hands. “Drink your tea before it gets cold.”
Cliff stares at it a while longer before finally taking a sip. Will feels a small sense of satisfaction, the way he does when any stray eats from his hand.
“Tea?” Cliff raises an eyebrow at Will, and now he finally does smile, a little. His teeth are charmingly crooked.
Will laughs. “Well. Kind of tea.”
The smile fades as quickly as it arrived, and they lapse into silence that is tolerable if not comfortable. Cliff finishes his drink anyway. He sets the mug on the floor and seems unsure of what to do with his hands. Unsure of what to do with himself, maybe. Will can relate.
He glances at the digital display of his clock. It’s already past 3 in the morning. He has to get up for work in a few hours.
“Hey, do you like dogs?”
Cliff frowns like it’s a trick question. Will thinks he’s probably handsome, somewhere under the weight of all that misery.
“Just, do you like dogs, yes or no?”
“Yes,” Cliff says.
Will scoops up a sleepy Buster and sets him on the bed next to Cliff. “This is Buster. He’s a good dog. He’ll keep you company.”
Buster grumbles at the indignity of having his nap interrupted but curls up beside Cliff in short order, unconcerned about where he’s sleeping so long as he gets to do so.
“You can sleep here tonight and figure out—whatever you’re trying to figure out in the morning. I work for the FBI, so uh, probably don’t try to steal anything.”
He doesn’t mention that he only teaches for the FBI. He doesn’t mention that whatever kind of trouble Cliff is, he can tell it’s way worse than petty robbery.
“Where are you going?” Cliff asks.
“Upstairs. Believe it or not, I actually do have a bedroom up there, current appearances aside.”
He picks up his own empty glass and bends down to grab Cliff’s as well. Cliff’s hand darts out, sudden and sure. It’s the fastest Will’s seen him move all night. The hand fastens around Will’s wrist to keep him from leaving, and Will just raises an eyebrow.
“You don’t understand,” Cliff says. “I lost someone. I lost—”
He can’t say it. They can never seem to say it.
“Yeah,” Will says, pulling his hand back as quickly as he can without being rude.
This one looks so tired, bone-weary and broken. Will can feel tendrils of the man’s madness encroaching on his own, prying at the edges. It strikes a discordant note in the chambers of his heart, moves him to something like pity.
It’s probably pity that makes him reach out to stroke the hair from Cliff’s forehead, fine and matted with sweat and something black and sticky as tar. Will rarely touches them, but he supposes there’s always room for exceptions.
“Haven’t we all?” Will says.
There’s a moment where something could happen, but doesn’t.
Will hears the rustle of bedclothes and the click of a lamp as he trudges up the stairs. He wonders if Cliff will still be there in the morning.