She took a moment to settle in the tall chair opposite the cage, set ten feet away and well out of any reach. Some hadn’t wanted her there at all, but legally they couldn’t refuse. Detective Graham had encouraged the visit. One of the attendants from the institution stood beside her, helped her into the chair incorrectly, hand gripping her upper arm and her expression flickered in a grimace before settling back to neutral. She sat stiff, but could not see his eyes on her, and so he allowed himself to study her. Her hair was shorter, the burned ends cut away.
There was a long silence, her head tilted to the side to catch the sound of his breathing. He only watched. Then with a nod to herself she straightened, turning her head towards the cage to address him.
“Reba. I wasn’t expecting you to come.”
“I wasn’t sure I would. You scared me real bad there, D.”
The cage creaked. He must have shifted, leaned against the bars. The orderly had described the set up to her: a row of man-sized narrow cages, his hands cuffed. She thought of the tiger, asleep on the table, and thought of it awake and in its cage, the muscles and quick lightness of Dolarhyde’s body now contained in a space where he could barely stand.
“Then why did you come here?”
She swallowed. “I read the case file. They read it to me. About what you did. Graham says I shouldn’t blame myself. Says you got a freak on your back and you were trying to shake it off.”
“THE DRAGON IS NOT–” the words with their unearthly timbre suddenly cut off, and there was a sound like a pained animal. Her fingers twitched in her lap, reached forward, but she did not move from the chair. “The Dragon is not real. They tell me he isn’t, the doctors. They say they can help him go away for good.”
“The Dragon.” She chose her words carefully. “He’s the one who wanted me dead?”
“He is. Was. I couldn’t watch you die, Reba, but he would have hurt you. He would have bitten you to death, and I couldn’t let that happen.”
It was what he had told her in the burning room, just before the shotgun went off and she had groped her way to the door, face streaked with soot and tears. At least he was consistent.
“Do you want him to go away?” Reba said. She wasn’t sure why she asked, why she was treating this Dragon as if it was something that existed. Why she cared, when this man had almost killed her. Only a memory of strong hands offered to steady her, never taking control. A voice without pity.
“I was Becoming something greater.” She could hear the capital letter on the word. His voice was sorrowful, slow with the memory of awe. “He won’t forgive me. And I can’t forgive him for hurting you. In the end, I was just a man.”
“A man who did some awful things, D.”
“That’s what the doctors tell me. My Becoming has halted. It won’t return, no matter what I offer him. He is angry. He may leave me on his own, find another more worthy.”
She shivered at the thought. Impossible as it was, his unshakeable belief was a contagion of its own. He no longer hesitated over the ’S’, but no longer spoke it with such crispness as when he used that awful roar. There was a faint lisp over the letter, which he spoke with resignation. She wondered if she could help with that, then wondered at herself for already thinking of another visit, for not being nearly as afraid of this man as she knew she should be.
“If he does,” she paused, not sure what she was saying, what she was offering. If she was one of those nutty women who fell for serial killers and married their men through the bars. Or if she was just curious to see what was there underneath the freak, the strong hands of a man without pity, who believed he had fought a dragon to save her life. “If he does go away, you call me, ok? I’ll be here when he’s gone.”
They say the blind can hear better than others, but that is not true. They only pay more attention to what is there. So Reba knew she had not imagined the sharp intake of breath, the harsh fluttering exhale, and a small voice like a child just gaining the courage to speak.