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Magnolia

copyright 2001, by TheRestofMe

Disclaimer:    These characters were created by Thomas Harris.  Magnolia was written and directed by Paul T. Anderson. They are used herein without permission, but in the spirit of admiration and respect.  No infringement of copyright is intended, and no profit, of any kind, is made by the creator, maintainer or contributors to this site.

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9:37 am.

A relatively cold Sunday morning.

Partly cloudy, 82% chance of rain.

No one in Washington DC seems to see it coming.

~*~

Starling drummed her fingers impatiently on the sweat slicked leather of her steering wheel. The traffic jam hadn’t let up for the past half hour. Around her Mustang, cars honked adamantly and thick gray smoke spilled into the morning sunlight. A barking dog, a screaming owner. Two U-Haul trucks up ahead obscured her view of the quandary and her car was too close to the adjacent white minivan to open the door. She growled curses under her breath. Her day off was certainly off to a lovely start- the dentist’s office and now this. Fishing a hair tie out of her coat pocket, she pulled her hair into a rough ponytail, then turned on the car radio, hoping for a traffic update. Beep.

The Sneaker Pimps. Beep.

Ja Rule. Beep.

Tori Amos. Beep.

Glenn Gould. A very quick beep.

Fractured silence.

She grumbled to herself and lowered her head to the steering wheel, over her crossed arms. The monotony of the past few months was driving her to her outer limit. In her momentary lapse from equilibrium (or a sad rendition of it), her mind took an unbidden backward glance at last night’s dream.

‘Dr Lecter?’

‘Yes, Clarice?’

‘I’m not happy.’

The cell phone rang in her purse. Clarice snapped her head away for the steering wheel and retrieved her purse from the passenger seat. She pulled out her cell, snapped it open.

“Starling.”

“Good morning, Clarice.”

~*~

“Where the hell are you?”

“Ardelia, listen, I know I was supposed to meet you at that coffee place, but something came up. Emergency meeting with my client. I’m so sorry, baby, I-”

“Why’re you avoiding me, Martin?”

“I’m not! It’s just a coincidence. Baby, I’m so sorry, I’ll call you back as soon as I’m out of this. Okay?”

“...Okay, Martin.”

“This evening, I’ll take you out to dinner. Chinese, French, you name it, I’ll-”

“Okay, Martin.”

“Love you, hon.”

“Bye.”

“Ardelia. I love you.”

“...Love you too.”

Ardelia hung up and stared at her cell phone. Then she put it away.

Things were not going well with Martin. Charming, cue ball, mocha skinned lawyer Martin Henderson, with his rococo promises and capricious intent. When you got down to it, you couldn’t rely on the man for anything. She sighed, uncrossed her shapely legs, and joined the end of the line in front of the cash register. She ordered a cappuccino.

Ardelia Mapp stared into her lone, steamy cup on a table for two. She sat by the glass wall at the end of the coffee shop, watching pedestrians walk by outside. It had been a bad night for Clarice last night. She’d listened helplessly to the sleepless, miserable pacing on Starling’s side of the duplex, knowing the futility of coming to her aid during the nightmare ridden hours. There were bags under her eyes this morning, but the savage drive in them would never cease. Hopefully. Mapp worried for her. Starling had left right away for her appointment at the dentist’s office before they’d had a proper chance to talk. The years and the FBI had not been kind to her roommate. Neither had her memories.

Aside from concerns about Henderson and Starling, another stale feeling hung in the air. Ardelia, to whom the teachings of her grandmother, and consequentially, her heritage, had been both firmly and lovingly extended, sensed an uncanny clashing in the auras around her. Something slipped out of its unmoving cycle. Something was not still.

Mapp alone sensed this.

She did not cast it off as another might have, but carefully filed it away. Returning to the coffee shop, she watched the slowing of cars outside; there must be a traffic jam up ahead. She stirred her cappuccino before lifting the cup to her lips.

~*~

They were chapped. His gradually decreasing hair looked a bit unkept, and his tie was rumpled. Jack Crawford sighed, wetted another paper towel in the sink, and scrubbed at the stubborn coffee stain on his pant leg. The empty men’s room of the diner smelled sharply of ammonia, and his thigh was uncomfortably damp. It was amusing, really. Here was the illustrious mentor of the Bureau’s newfound death machine- teacher of a monster slayer, doing battle with a dogged coffee stain shaped like Brazil. God, he felt old.

That was the basis of the problem, really. He just didn’t have many reasons to go on. The coffee stain obviously wasn’t going to give up before he did, so he let his gaze return to the mirror. Wrinkles. Chicken neck. Nearly all gray hair. And that tired glaze over his eyes. God, he looked old.

His mind, oddly enough, wandered to his protege, Clarice Starling. That furiously kicking determination in her eyes, and the defeat settling around them, threatening to sink in. She was not made for the mundane tasks that paid her bills these days. He’d lived in the fear that he had been a factor in bringing that reluctant surrender into her. As if he’d left a sinkhole behind in her.

God, he was old.

Crawford turned, looking a bit dejected, to throw away the wadded paper towel, when he bumped into the rickety trash can. The economy sized receptacle knocked over, strewing the contents forth all over the bathroom floor. Wadded paper towels, condom wrappers, cellophane, some bloody napkins, and other waste all in an enormous scattered heap over the gray tiles.

“Fuck,” he muttered to himself, looking around for a janitor’s broom, when his eyes happened upon a metallic glint amongst the trash. He froze, registering the familiar contours, then crouched over it.

Where the hell are evidence bags when you need them?

~*~

“Here they are,” said Margot, handing the ruby earrings to Judy. “They were on the dresser all along.” “Thanks, hon,” said the pleasant brunette, appreciatively taking them from the strongly built woman and walking to the mirror to put them in. Her smile did not reach her eyes. Margot put on her brown leather jacket while she watched Judy put on her remaining jewelry and then put up her wavy hair.

Margot Verger and Judy Ingram had an appointment with their local physician. A few weeks earlier, Ingram had complained of severe headaches in the morning and nausea. She’d been irritable and experienced weakness of feelings in her arms and legs.

Her CAT scan revealed a brain tumor.

Today, they would receive the results of her latest CAT scan; determining whether or not it would be safe to remove the swollen bundle. Their last visit suggested the possibility of edema; which is the swelling and buildup of fluids around the tumor. They’d lost much sleep in the past few days. It was time for closure.

Judy picked up her purse. “Let’s go,” she said, and smiled weakly. Margot walked to her and held her close in big arms. For a moment, time slowed to a crawl as the brunette hugged her back. Margot sighed sadly into her hair. She’d watched enough illness and living decay for one lifetime. Far away in the bowels of the Verger mansion, Mason raved away, lost in his vindictive manhunt for Hannibal Lecter. To watch the sweet, dyslexic, endearingly klutzy Judy Ingram degrade to his level would be... oh god...

Today would mean everything.

~*~

To all of them.

~*~

9:52 am.

Starling’s now white fingers wound tightly around the steering wheel, pulse skyrocketing. Her voice was steely, albeit incredulous.

“Dr Lecter? Is that you?”

A quiet chuckle on the other end. “Were you expecting the Unabomber? How are you, Clarice? From the looks of things, you’ve been better, yes?”

He could see her?! She quickly unbuckled her seat belt and rose to one knee on the seat, looking around through the windows with the alert speed of a mongoose. Cars, all around, the sign of a cafe over the roof of a truck. He was nowhere in sight. Goddammit! She was stuck here with no way out of her car, under his observation. Except...

“Dr Lecter, where are you?”

“Now, Clarice, you know that really won’t help. Tell me, how are things at work?”

She knew better than to avoid his question, and settled in her seat, limbs still taut. “Monotonous.”

“Mm. Yes. And what of your social life? Any hot dates lately?”

“When hell freezes over, I’ll have some arrangements made.”

“Oh, Clarice. Tsk tsk. A shame, there... though not really. Well, dear, how about a deflection from that humdrum cycle you hold so dear? Want to play a little game?”

The soft rumble of his voice after years of relying entirely on memory was having the intended effect. Clarice’s voice shook.

“What are you suggesting?”

~*~

10:03 am.

“Are you serious?!”

Hannibal Lecter allowed himself a broad smile at this, watching her stiffen in her car and continue to look around nervously. He leaned back in his chair at the cafe table, where he’d been watching her ever since her car stopped in the middle of the traffic jam merely a few hundred yards away. The odd confluence of events again, hadn’t escaped him. He for one did not believe in coincidence, and though he hadn’t planned to call upon her until tomorrow, the situation was just too inviting to let pass.

“By all means, Clarice. You’re quite welcome to hang up anytime you’d like.” Silence on the other end of the line, and he knew he had her.

“All right, I’ll do it.” He saw her eyes squeeze shut, and then reopen.

Quid pro quo all over again, he’d said. You tell me things, I tell you where to go. How to find me.

Wanna play?

He viewed the situation through her eyes. ‘He’d had the courtesy to instruct me first. How lovely. Jesus Christ.’ First injunction of the game: since the doors were useless, she was to exit her car by means of the sunroof. “The things I do for this job,” he heard her mutter softly, and he could see the sunroof opening.

“The things you do,” he chuckled. “Indeed, it makes one wonder. Lovely coat, by the way.”

He saw her hands, then her arms, and Clarice Starling climbed nimbly and quickly out of the sunroof and onto the roof of her car, with her thick black trenchcoat trailing beneath her.

“Good god, I must look like an idiot.”

“Not at all. Has that ever stopped you before?”

“No.”

“What has stopped you before?”

She licked her lips in thought. “Well. The prospect of killing an innocent person while doing my duty. Instinct. And bullets don’t tend to help much.”

“Instinct. Mm hmm... anything else?”

“No.”

He smiled. So her emotional views didn’t stand in her way. Today’s events would either verify or belie that. “Good girl,” he said, absently pulling a few crisp bills from his money clip to pay for his coffee, then rising. “Head down to the sidewalk and proceed to the first stop sign.”

“And leave my car? I can’t do that, doctor.”

“Take your keys out, then.”

“But I-”

“Yes or no, Clarice?”

A deep intake of breath, and he watched her boot twitch from side to side. Her brow furrowed, and the dog started barking again from far away. Sighing, she reversed herself so she was lying on her back, and her upper torso disappeared into the sunroof. No outward signs on his countenance revealed the slight quickening of his pulse at the sight of her gray blouse tightly pressed against her stomach, and her knees slightly apart. When she came up again, her keys were in her hand.

“Lovely maneuvering.”

Crouching, she closed the sunroof, used the remote to lock her car, and then slipped down to the hood. She squeezed between the two adjacent cars and appeared on the sidewalk. When she reached the stop sign, she spoke again.

“Now what, doctor?”

~*~

10:35 am.

Now this, Crawford thought to himself, is something.

The old Bulldog .44 Special in the trash of the men’s room had been hastily tied to a coil of leftover wiring that had been neatly cut at one end, some wooden dowels, all bound together with some friction tape. It was now at the office.

Henry Fjeusak, the best in the field since Jimmy Price, had been called out to dust the gun for prints. Crawford walked down the hall to the water cooler. When the tiny cup had been filled, he swallowed it all at once and returned to Fjeusack’s office.

The door opened and his balding head appeared. Fjeusack and a few assistants were examining the now separated items, smeared with red powder.

“Any luck?” he asked.

“Jack,” said an enigmatic Fjeusak, “I think we may have something.”

“What is it?”

~*~

“Well, It’s just that...”

Margot’s sinewy hand flailed away from her lap in exasperation. “I don’t know. I can’t do this.”

The waiting room at the clinic was bright and cheerful, with its light blue wallpaper and neat furniture and abundant obnoxious toddlers, but did little to help the somber mood clouding the two women. Judy Ingram’s eyes were puffy. A magazine lay open on her lap, forgotten. She squeezed Margot’s hand, but said nothing.

“Ms Ingram?”, inquired a nurse’s voice from across the room.

Margot and Judy exchanged a last glance at each other before rising. Judy squeezed her hand again as they made their way across the room. The colors seemed to be draining. A while after bring seated, Judy broke the long silence.

“So,” she asked with a nervous attempt at enthusiasm, “What’s the verdict?”

~*~

“Bad news.

“I’m stuck in really big traffic jam on Oakland, across from the cafe. So just in case you were wondering, I’m fine. I might be awhile, cuz we’re out of Tylenol. I’ll just stop by at the drugstore. So don’t wait up.”

Clarice’s voice on the answering machine was stressed, irritated. She sounded badly in need of the Tylenol in question. Mapp paid no mind to the time the message had been recorded- 9:34.

She turned back the counter she was wiping. Funny, though, she thought. I’m sure I bought her a new bottle of Tylenol two days ago. She opened the lid of the trash can to drop in the paper towel. The two empty bottles of Tylenol looked up at her from a throne of old lettuce.

Dear god, she thought. Starling, what’s happening to you?

~*~

12:23 pm.

~*~

Martin Henderson pulled into the sun dappled driveway in his cream colored Lexus, and exchanged Marvin Gaye for the sound of crunching autumn leaves under the great black tires. His client’s home, a narrow red brick stronghold, loomed ahead, between a few tight, spidery trees. The estate, albeit costly, was neglected. Tufts of weeds grew between the gravel of the driveway and tumbled over its sides. Crows fluttered away at the sound of the approaching car, from an unnamed thing attracting them between the weeds.

Well, inattentive or no, Lawrence D was certainly well off. Henderson was not one to discriminate the providers of his ample paychecks. He glanced at his cell phone. He had told his lovely Ardelia Mapp a truth- he was indeed off to see his client for an important meeting. However...

He smiled, revealing his pearly whites, straightening his rumpled beige tie over his deep blue shirt. She needn’t know where he’d been for a previous slice of the morning.

He chose to ignore the knot of guilt at his belly.

He stepped out of his car and locked it, walking briskly in the cool afternoon sunlight towards the oak doors. More crows fluttered away from the knee high weeds, cawing angrily from a safe distance. He paused for a moment to peer at the shape embedded in the dirt.

A dead roller pigeon, neck twisted backwards, and covered with crawling ants, peered back at him.

Disgusted, Henderson returned to the walkway and raised a fist to knock, when he noticed the small white note taped to the door, with blue lettering hastily scribbled.

Mr Henderson,

I’m sorry I couldn’t be here in person; I’ve some errands to run that came up at the last minute. Please meet me at the cafe on Oakland and Sheridan; if I’m not there, just get us a table on the outside balcony and wait for me.

- LD

He paused, considering the note. Lawrence D was recently released after his 8 year sentence after being charged with sexual assault; an expert on bombs, a pervert and a compulsive liar. Something about leaving one’s attorney, who had failed him, alone next to a busy intersection just didn’t seem right. Henderson smelled a rat. (Considering his locale, this could also be taken quite literally). It wasn’t difficult to suspect foul behavior from his client, upon meeting him.

But what the fuck. He’d go. Henderson turned to walk back to his car, when a glint of metal on the porch distracted him. An large empty spool, with a leftover ring of shiny cut wiring. Tossed on its side at the edge of the porch, it rolled back and forth, propelled by the gentle breeze, threatening to tumble off the edge.

He returned to his car and casually tossed his small stack of folders into the passenger seat before backing out of the driveway, still disregarding the guilt souring at the pit of his stomach.

A single name appeared on the top folder.

Lawrence T. Dolarhyde.

Henderson turned on his radio.

~*~

“--ffic jam on most of Oakland Street has finally begun to let up, having been engendered from a false bomb threat at the home of Julia Kellerman. After a thorough search of the duplex, the SWAT team found nothing and the blockades have just recently been removed, allowing traffic to move along again. Kellerman, daughter of Judge Erwin Kellerman, has sought the company of her parents for relief from emotional turmoil and is staying with them, five blocks away, for the remainder of the day. If you’re just tuning in, --”

Click.

Ardelia turned off her car radio. Poor Clarice, she must still be waiting at the end of the dissipating traffic jam.

Again, the unsettling feeling of impending hurt. Mapp was no psychic, but she had long since learned to trust, if not rely on, her hazy premonitions. But it was too flimsy to be credited as worthwhile substance.

Well, ok. Today’s plans. The nail appointment, lunch, then (disaster) going home and having a stern talk with Starling about her absurd Tylenol consumption, (the rain is coming) and finally, dinner with Martin at that new French restaurant.

Though with the unpleasant tingling beneath her skin consuming her thoughts the way it was, she wouldn’t have noticed if they opted to dine on sheet metal.

~*~

Or leftover wiring to be exact. Crawford switched off his car radio, marveling at the unusual clarity in his analytic thinking today. It was, however, more than compensated for by the aching of his newly diagnosed arthritis in his hands.

The prints on the gun in the men’s room would not be identified for awhile, having not yet been linked to any urgent points of the FBI’s interest. All the same, he picked at the highlights of the day as he would a chicken bone, possibly for lack of anything better to do on his car ride home. His very thoughts ached; diluted by the burning onslaught of age. He inwardly struggled to focus. Let’s see here... A bomb threat on Oakland that turned out to be a false alarm. A gun, some wooden dowels, and cut wiring all wrapped in friction tape. The three other items were most likely leftovers. He reflected on the articles he’d read in the past that mentioned them.

Articles on the Unabomber.

His hands throbbed.

~*~

But not as much as his gut. In his hotel room, Lawrence Dolarhyde writhed on his bed in feverish agony. His hands were red from the rusty pliers he’d been using; having not been in use for several years. But they did their job, and that was enough.

As for the sickness consuming his body, he had no probable explanation.

Lawrence was a lazy eyed, plain faced man of average stature with brown eyes, light brown hair, and adulterated fantasies. He allowed his eyes to close in memory of the news coverage. The lovely redheaded 28 year old Julia standing outside her home, holding a squirming cat in her smooth, bare arms, with her head on her mother’s offered shoulder while her house was thoroughly searched. When her face raised, her eyes were red and screams of fear threatened to tear from her throat.

Lawrence pushed aside his corporeal pain and smiled. He’d like to give her something to scream about. Anytime.

More importantly, she was now in the company of her family and quite likely, siblings to offer solace in a time of fear. One big happy family, all together in the same house. Most importantly, Judge Kellerman, who, once upon a time, refused Dolarhyde’s proffered... compensations and sentenced him as he did.

Kellerman and his dearly beloveds, all together.

The whole system was timed and relatively easy to build. The Kellermans being esteemed and prepared beforehand for the holiday season, their living room was decked out with talking Santa and wife dolls, a baby Jesus and manger, and at the center of it all, like a great monolith, the enormous decorated Christmas tree. The manger was set on a large hollow pedestal structure that could be opened, so as not to be shadowed by the kneeling figure surrounding it.

Perfect.

Not to mention that idiot attorney of his; all those damn niggers were the same. He'd round off the list nicely. For now, all he had to do was wait. Rather than parking his car near the house and arousing suspicion as he had the last time, he’d decided to rent a hotel room where he could view the house with binoculars.

Dolarhyde mused. He was never without his memories of his uncle, Francis, whom he’d never actually met. His grandfather never spoke of his sister, Marian. It was not until Lawrence’s teens that he heard of the atrocities committed by the deformed bodybuilder, later shot full of holes. He’d pored over the records with enthusiasm, ever intrigued by the madness obligatory to murder whole families and then *eat* a famed painting.

Uncle Francis had over time, become a comparative figure in his musings and judgment. As the years of his own sexual abuse, inflicted upon and inflicted by, wore on, Uncle Francis became an icon of depravity acceptable in one’s own world. Now, he was something of a role model.

It didn’t all really seem like madness now.

He’d been particularly intrigued by his uncle’s correspondence with Hannibal the Cannibal Lecter, who’d, as it seemed, betrayed him. Such disloyalty was intolerable. It was to be contended with. But for now, he would try and put aside the immense feverishness flushing through him enough to enjoy the day’s theatrics.

Felicity could still be won.

~*~

And it was.

Margot couldn’t resist the whoop of joy tearing from her throat, as she grabbed Judy and fiercely hugged her. Ingram’s eyes were flooded with tears of relief as she returned the frenzied embrace. The balding man holding a heavy clipboard offered a smile, but internally fumed in both standard disgust and unascertained lust at the sight of their straightforward homosexuality.

But he does not matter.

He cleared his throat to reclaim their attention, and only after prolonging their hold on each other for a moment longer did they turn to him, ecstatic. “So,” he said at last, “The operation should go smoothly. You’re lucky, Ms Ingram, that the tumor was found at such an early stage. If left unchecked, the swelling... damage... brain...”

Margot gradually tuned him out, her thoughts returning to the woman, rosy with alleviation, eclipsing the sterile room. They would live. They would surpass this rocky phase, they would have a future and maybe even kids, they would exceed and break the boundaries of a constrictive society too tumultuous to pose any real threat. They had passed one of the biggest tests. They would go on.

If only that were true.

“...should be fine within two weeks.” said the doctor.

“By the way, I’ve noticed something unusual,” said Judy. Margot raised an eyebrow. “You know the headaches I always used to have, and the pain in my arms? How irritating I used to be? The uh, symptoms? Well...”

She drew her breath. “They’re gone. Everything. I feel perfectly fine. It’s all just... disappeared.”

The doctor stared at her.

~*~

She could feel his gaze, even alone on the cracked sidewalk. He was somewhere nearby, watching her and following her. For the past two hours, she’d reluctantly divulged recollections and freshly pulled closet skeletons; experiences as a child at the Lutheran orphanage as well as an awkward teenager. He'd always stopped just shy of her sexuality but never hesitating in light of the profound. He’d led her through the streets, around buildings and through a narrow alley or two. She was quite sure that he was prolonging the instructions to gather more from her, and resented her eagerness, uncomfortable on this verbal dissection table.

She hadn’t stopped once to question her motives; odd coming from someone given to never hesitate to ask ‘why’. But here she was, a federal agent abandoning the safety of her vehicle to simply follow the directions of one of the most dangerous men in the world, who was currently in the process of simply leading her to his lair. Christ, Starling, she thought to herself. You’re like a sitting duck, except that you're walking.

(...That was really stupid.)

But come to think of it, was she ever safe from him at all? Did her sheetrock and sheet metal protect her from anything but the wind? He’d had five years to savage her and elected not to. That should count for something, shouldn’t it? If not death, what did Hannibal Lecter have in store for her, upon reaching their destination?

Well, there are things worse than death. And just in case... she patted the gun safely hidden behind her coat. She hoped desperately that she wouldn't need it, and could only wonder about the implications of this thought.

“Now Clarice,” he was saying, “Name one thing you’ve found odd about the past week.”

Weird question, but she was used to that by now. Her boot dug into the ground in thought, as if crushing a cigarette.

“I’ve been having these... migraines. Really horrible ones. And all my limbs keep feeling jangly. I get nauseous if I stand up too fast, and Ardelia keeps telling me that I’ve been a real bitch lately.”

“Is that right?”

“It gets worse.”

A pause.

He watched her from between the mannequins in a struggling men’s apparel store across the street, quietly committing her frustrated stride to memory.

“I’ve been taking a lot of Tylenol. I think I’ve finished four bottles this week. And nothing is happening. Absolutely nothing. At night, I’d keep waking up with that same migraine and taking more, practically in my sleep. By all rights, I should be dead by now. But it’s had absolutely no effect whatsoever.”

She turned, holding the cell phone like a gun to her head, looking around suspiciously as if the nearby homeless man, the woman parallel parking her car by the curb, and the dog urinating on the fire hydrant were all co-conspirators in one big sad scheme to thwart the righteous.

“I don’t know what’s happening to me.”

The sky rumbles.

~*~

2:26 p.m..

The blue above has become gray.

It is singing.

~*~

Clarice’s speech was becoming slurred.

“Doctorr Le’ter... my migraine’s getting w-worse.” She leaned against the stop sign, no longer concerned about the raised eyebrows of pedestrians in passing. “And my cell phone battery’s... battery’s low.”

“Only two more questions, Clarice.”

By no means did excitement pronounce itself in his iron clad voice. But the thrill of the chase was indeed speeding through his veins; a sensation Hannibal Lecter had not felt in years. Circumscription of thought was of no value to him and his contemplations over the years, especially of the only person he’d met in the asylum worthy of such musings, were almost inclined to foment him to concern. Given the context of their tiny personal sparrings back in Baltimore, intimacy was horribly fettered. Alone for five years, he was left to nurse the small wound of loss, and was inclined to branch on those revelations by means of that all too dangerous question, “What if...”

(Do you think it’s because I like to look at you and think about eating you up- about how you would taste?)

The mind’s power of invention is a beautifully frightening thing.

He held no delusions of indestructible grandeur. Stalwart or no, he was facing an uncanny individual. Albeit her locale at the opposite end of the spectrum in some respects, she was too much like him for comfort. She was as dangerous to him as he was to her, and he was aware of the trail of freedom left behind as empathy is sought out. There are no second chances.

Last week, back in the anonymity of Paris, he’d come across one of his old clippings from the Buffalo Bill case; a layout of the dead butcher’s basement, and a photo of the room where he was killed. And in a single moment, the same question that had rained it’s threats upon his celibacy - What if? - turned on him once again. In his mind’s eye, he saw Clarice Starling lying on the smooth basement floor, bloody holes in her torso, and her hair neatly lopped off, clenched in the fists of Jame Gumb. It was only a matter of time before her chancy line of work claimed her, in spite of the skills she, the only woman who’d interested him in a very, very long time, had proved to him.

Strong will set aside, he did not want to be alone forever.

And now, the pain he’d once feasted on was tearing at him. Watching Clarice’s motions slow and jumble, her words lose their cadence and training as her migraine hammered at her, was both effective in easing her inhibition towards his questions as well as effective in burning him. Damn pathos. Damn it to hell.

His questions held copious variety, in consideration of her answers.

My name is Clarice. I am alone. I am 29 years old and I work for the FBI. My roommate worries about the nightmares I have all the time. The night my father died, I watched the same crack in the hospital tiling for three and a half hours. I still do that sometimes. There is something apparently wrong with my painkiller tolerance. At work, I carry a shred of a famed serial killer with me and my superiors hate me for it, because I hold in my wounds but they cannot. The good guys tend to lose. I could say that with aplomb if I knew who the hell the good guys were. I wanted, my whole life long, to be one of the good guys.

But I am just Clarice.

And I am alone.

“One point of curiosity for me, Clarice, that you never quite answered... how do you manage your rage?”

Her head was reeling, the world meshing and contorting in a medley of tastes to smell and sights to taste and pain to comprehend. She took a step back, bracing herself against the wall, feeling as though someone were bludgeoning her over the head with a sack of wet cement. Her pupils were losing their gunslinger focus, and black spots were appearing in her vision.

Quick! Focus your thoughts! Reinhold Niebuhr was an American theologian! Sodium nitrate - NaNo3, a crystalline... nnnngh.... crystalline compound often used in pottery enamel as well as explosives! David Selznick produced Gone With the Wind!

“My rage, Dr Lecter?”

Her body was becoming so heavy, the colors melding in the bleed of watercolors. Erebus odora - the Black Witch moth! The Madre de Dios flows from the Andes to the Beni river! I... oh fuck... Buffalo Bill issss not a sad... sadist!

“It manages...”

Get out of here, don’t pass out where he can get to you! There is no boundary between the sane and merciless here! Covalent bonding! The summer equinox! Unnhhh... The Black Dahlia!

“It manages me.”

Everything went black.

~*~

3:42 pm.

Then the yard lightened again as the cloud passed. Jack Crawford shielded his eyes with his big, arthritis ridden hands as he watched the sparrows pecking at the birdfeed tray before flying off as he approached.

The neighbor’s cat had been here again. Evidence of last night’s romp through the yard lay scattered about in fluffs of feathers and twisted limbs scattered amongst the grass. Crawford held two bags; one full of wild bird seed and a small grain scoop. The other was a gallon sized Ziploc to hold the tiny carcasses.

He didn’t bother to clean up the spattered excrement and seed hulls on the bottom of the tray, simply filling it with more bird seed. These tired days saw more and more procrastination out of him. Not that the birds would care.

He’d continued to feed the birds after Bella’s death. After his home became a house again. He tried to avert his thoughts to the bomb equipment in the men’s room, the fingerprints that would take from six hours to six months to match, the recent bombings in the past few months. Unbeknownst to him, the department store sales associate, the bookstore manager, and the travel agent dead under old shrapnel, merged in their lives only by performing the same jury duty one fine week eight and a half years ago. But his thoughts returned unbidden, again and again, to the late Bella Crawford, and the death lingering in her home.

He would die a lonely, lonely man.

Crawford hung his head, placing the scoop back in the bird feed bag, and opened the Ziploc. He kneeled down to pick up the gray-black fluff on the grass.

The dead European starling lay in two small ragged pieces, torso gone entirely.

Crawford stood up, closed the empty Ziploc bag, and retreated to the house. The sliding door closed behind him, and did not open again.

~*~

It was rather hard to open, actually. Either the hotel installed the sliding doors sometime after the invention of the wheel, or his arms really were as weak as they felt. Lawrence Dolarhyde shoved the door open the rest of the way and walked out to the small concrete balcony. The view was wonderful, and he felt like shit.

He’d dreamed fleetingly, of sweat, abandon, and duct tape again. This was nothing new and nothing of great concern. Let them worry about his fucking sheets. He had bigger things to attend to. Like destruction and his dire need to retch.

A pang of guilt. The cold, impenetrable affect he’d wished to convey was still largely an intangible thing. His vindictive crusade was no small matter, regardless of its bloated benefits. It added to the twisting already in his belly. Without warning, Dolarhyde’s gorge came up. He turned, ran inside, and barely made it into the toilet before his Budweiser and turkey sub greeted the world again.

The sound of his retching was a paper cut into the quiet room.

~*~

But by now, it really wasn’t that quiet. The bistro was filling up rapidly for the lunch hour, but Margot and Judy had been seated at a small table with a superb view of the whole restaurant as well as out the large window. They were celebrating, and had damn good reason to embrace a day thought lost.

Waiting for their entrees to arrive, Margot and Judy engaged in light conversation about the weather, going ons amongst Ingram’s family, and the immense liking David Cronenburg would undoubtedly take to Mason’s head.

They both glanced outside at the sound of thunder, to the clouds wandering now rapidly through the tract of the sky.

“We’re gonna get caught in the rain,” said Judy.

Margot smiled. “Like we care.”

A moment of comfortable silence. Then, Judy raised her crystal glass of white wine over the vase of magnolias.

“To life.”

Margot raised her glass as well.

“And to us.”

Clink.

~*~

The sound brought Martin Henderson out of his reverie, as he thanked the waitress and accepted his second expresso. Rampant coffee buzz and no willpower to ward off the cause. Fuckola. He blew on the steamy beverage and waited for it to cool down.

A tall woman walked by; arm ornament to a relatively short man. Martin recognized the puff of perfume that breezed by; Red. Which Ardelia had worn on their first date.

The guilt hammered at him.

Then, without warning, it began raining. Martin yelped, grabbing his expresso, which scalded his brown hands, and shot off into the covered interior of the small, elegant cafe across from the doomed Judge Kellerman’s house.

It rained hard.

~*~

4:05 p.m. - A moment of peace.

It’s not what you thought when you first began it...

Clarice Starling is unconscious, between the cool hotel sheets. We cannot know what she is dreaming.

You got what you wanted, and you can hardly stand it though, but now you know...

Hannibal Lecter checks the still woman’s pulse for the umpteenth time, then allows his fingers to gently sweep a few strands of hair behind her ears. We cannot know what he is thinking.

You’re sure... there’s a cure...

Judy Ingram sips her chilled white wine. We cannot know what her tongue and her mind are tasting.

And you have finally found it...

Margot Verger watches her companion. We cannot know why her breath has stopped.

You think one drink...

Martin Henderson, at his new, dry table, puts his cup down. We cannot know why his eyes are closed.

Will shrink you till you’re underground and living down...

Ardelia Mapp examines her nails, sitting in the driver’s seat of her car. They are perfect. We cannot know why she is still frowning.

Prepare a list for what you need...

Jack Crawford runs a scabby finger over his dog eared honeymoon photo. He has recovered from Bella’s death to function somewhat. We cannot know why he is still crying.

Before you sign away the deed...

Lawrence Dolarhyde’s eyes open. The pain and a rising guilt squeeze him. We cannot know why he does not bother to lift his head from the tiles.

But it’s not going to stop.... Till you wise up... No, it’s not going to stop...

So just... give up.

The same rain falls over them all.

~*~

6:13 pm.

The natural precipitation ceased through all of Washington DC exactly forty three minutes ago.

But the storm of irrationality and the storm of its consequences have yet to be.

~*~

Guilt sours the senses. Awash with issuing tension, colors become muted and blurred. Sounds become echoes, and the meaty bulk of human remorse whisks away structured thought. Sitting on the hotel bed with tufts of his greasy hair between his fingers, Lawrence Dolarhyde had stared at the cut between his toes for a full eleven minutes before noticing it.

Dolarhyde was not a man of strong conviction. The worst possible mindset to accompany his capacity for building finely crafted explosives was his flighty manner of contemplation. Given his wild outbursts of transitory passion, he was ill equipped for making logical decisions.

He’d had several years in incarceration to adjudge suitable retaliations for his ‘injustice’. During his trial, he’d memorized the faces of the jury, the attorneys, judge Kellerman, and his flitting focus wandered from the accusations spilling from their maws to mentally undoing the skirts of the women and the facial structures of the men. But now, back in the free world, his penchant for unpredictable changes of heart was coming into play. A strange realization of his mortality slapped him as well. Just because the murders of the jury had gone unconnected wouldn’t mean an authoritative figure with half a brain couldn’t connect Judge Kellerman’s power over many fates with his own murder. It was clawing at him, writhing over and around the lump of abused meat that served him as a heart.

He blinked several times to ward off the clouding over his eyes and checked his watch. The bomb in the manger was set for 6:30 pm. 17 minutes left. Roughly 5 minutes to drive to the house, less than that to disarm the device. It could be done, if he hurried. Tossing the consequences of disclosing such a thing to Kellerman to the wind, his mind closed over the ragged details. All he knew in that moment was the car keys in his fist, the door a few feet away, and the feverish pain coursing through him. Dolarhyde rose.

Time was of essence here.

~*~

She had no rational idea of where the thought originated, but did not ignore it. She knew better than that.

Upon waking, Clarice did not allow herself to move, just carefully took in the room around her. Panicking at her unfamiliarity with her surroundings, she chose to carefully garner the details. She was in a very comfortable bed, in a very dark, very large, and very quiet hotel room of refined ambiance. The pleasant taste of strawberries lingered on her tongue, and her hands were arranged neatly on her flat, full stomach. The back of her head ached, and she suddenly recalled the day’s events; Dr Lecter leading her around the city, the cultured, metallic rasp at her ear and the nameless tingling at the base of her spine it induced, the growing migraine that swelled to a full force air raid style invasion in her head, and the dilating black spots that swelled over her vision. Lastly, the thwack! of her skull connecting with the pavement. From there on, she drew a blank. Her migraine had stopped, but sleep left its veil of confusion. Where the hell was she?

Hey, genius! Guess who’s been following you all day! Guess who was possibly two feet away from you when you passed out, who’s hotel room you’ve awoken in, who probably even fed you when you were half asleep! Guess who’s been keeping tabs on you for five years even after you lied to him, who simply *eats up* every new fact he learns about you! You’ll never guess! You fucking idiot!

She gritted her teeth. Her analytic voices were cruel indeed, but were equivalent to pinching oneself, inducing straightforward thought from the pain. All right. She was in Hannibal Lecter’s hotel room. Be calm, don’t panic. He’ll hate it if you panic. Just clear your head and confront him; that’s probably what he expects you to do. Clarice stilled the stab of fear at her belly. If he wanted you dead, he’s had five years. If he wanted to rape you, you wouldn’t be so comfortable at the moment. And that’s just not his style- you’re lucky. Shit- where’s the gun? And the handcuffs? Her purse, in fact? She propped herself on her elbows as quietly as she could; the sound of rustling covers oppressive in the silent room. Her muscles ached. She could barely make out her coat, casually draped over one of the four chairs encompassing a small coffee table. Her worn, scuffed boots and socks were aligned neatly by the chair. She was wearing her blouse and slacks; the top two buttons of the former were undone. Her gun and purse were nowhere in sight.

A figure, now, at the foot of the bed.

“Did they scream?” inquired a gentle, yet oddly restrained voice.

She opened her mouth to either reply or shriek, but was cut off by the parched dryness of her throat and burst into a coughing fit. With a single deft movement, the figure was at her side. One wiry hand delicately tilted her chin back; they other pressed a cool glass of water to her cracked lips. Without invoking argument, she gratefully drained half the glass.

When the glass came away, she was able to compose herself slightly and faced the expectant gaze of Dr Hannibal Lecter.

She found her voice again. “No,” she said, barely managing to control the quivering of her voice. “They did not.”

She did not tell him what she’d dreamed.

“Good,” he purred. He’d anticipated as much. Though the concept of hypothesis was sometimes rendered laughable in his dealings with the charmingly drowsy creature staring up at him, it was eclipsed by the fact that Clarice Starling was indeed here at all; in his bed for that matter. To keep her warrior spirit at bay, however, was the tricky part. But disarming was a craft he’d honed since childhood. Adulthood simply allowed for new... planes... to practice the art.

“Would you like to try your feet? There’s a charming terrace outside, facing the sunset. I expect we’ve much to discuss.”

He offered his hand.

~*~

She took it in her mouth, tongue encircling it lightly, and her eyes fell half closed.

“Christ, woman,” said Judy, smirking. “Could you at least open a window?”

Smiling, Margot took her last drag and then tossed the cigarette out the car window.

Today, they’d been assured of their survival as a couple, dined at an elegant bistro, and paid no attention to a David Fincher movie. The day felt whole. They were uncomfortably close to the Kellerman residence, with less than two minutes before the time set for annihilation.

Margot opened her mouth to comment on how today’s meal was the first all week that did not taste like flavored cardboard, when they were startled by an unceremonious thump on the roof of the car.

Judy looked at Margot. Margot looked at Judy, hands now firm on the steering wheel. Judy unbuckled her seatbelt, and craned her neck out the window to see what it was.

~*~

There were only two messages on his cell phone. Martin Henderson, tired and irritated from waiting for Dolarhyde in the now crowded cafe, took out his wallet to pay his bill. Opening it at hazard, he happened upon a photograph in the plastic bind over his credit cards.

Ardelia Mapp and himself, bright and less than dapper, laughing broadly, sprawled across the Christmas snow.

Ok, that’s it. Martin picked up his Nokia. No more of this. He’d bitten off more than he could chew. The ladies’ man persona, in the light of his blossoming relationship with Mapp, had to go. He would tell Sheila Roberts they were quits right now, this very minute, and dedicate himself fully to his Ardelia like he should have in the first place. The guilt was unimaginably potent.

So distracted was he, by the sudden gray thing falling from the sky outside, that he did not realize he was dialing the last three digits on the wrong row.

The phone rang.

~*~

The kitchen cordless phone was off the hook and left behind somewhere in the bowels of the house. The nearest phone, the first one he heard, was the white corded thing under the green awning outside in the back yard. Crawford sighed, sopped up the last of the spilled Southern Comfort from the kitchen floor, and with a solid effort, heaved himself up. He tossed the wet rag in the sink and walked to the sliding glass door.

He’d been drinking again, to banish the memories that had flooded him all day. Suddenly, every corner, every wall, every photo, every floor tile, every vase or knickknack, every towel, every window, every inch of the house bore whispers of Bella’s essence. She’d explicitly returned at full force at once to make up for the emptiness over five years, it seemed. He could not survive this; the monstrous bleeding between the untouchable, knobby clots of his heart.

He opened the door and went outside.

~*~

The air was cool and smelled of rain, up on the grand balcony of Hannibal Lecter’s suite. Clarice stood, barefoot, unarmed, less than a yard away from the man who had ripped out a woman’s tongue with his bare teeth, eaten it, and slept soundly afterwards. He was also the man who was serving as a tourniquet for her drive, not to mention her long lost libid-

STOP IT!!!

“I don’t have hypoglycemia.”

“Do you faint often, Clarice, or does your oxygen debt simply have excellent timing? We never did get around to that last question, you know.”

His voice was smooth, calculated. She bit her lip. She couldn’t afford to make him angry; not out here, without a leg to stand on. Funny how her duty to apprehend him was being propelled farther and farther away. Funny how the dying sunlight played over his features; adjusted by collagen, sunshine, and health but trivial in the light of his essence. Funny how her inherent, generic fear was rapidly being replaced by something else.

“I already know where you are. I believe that was the point of the exchange.”

“You don’t believe that at all, Clarice. Only your galling ties to that parasitic organization are satisfied with such a feat. Though if you insist, an adequate compensation will be in order, pending your compliance.”

Her shoulders slumped and her eyes returned to the sunset. “Go, doctor.”

“Look at me.”

She did. Sparks of maroon, flying to his center as he quietly her screamed her injustice. Summoning his steely restraint, he resisted the urge to simply grab her by the shoulders, hold her an inch away from his face, and shake her. While he was at it, he resisted the urge to hungrily lock his mouth over hers, to slam her against the railing, to pull her close to him, or to grind his teeth into her flesh- to make her scream, one way or another, to celebrate the life in her, the sum and substance that had taken too deep a root in his own mentality to be ripped away without irrevocable damage.

Enough of the world knew the damage he expelled in compensation for his own.

When he spoke, his voice was at once courteous and demanding.

“Clarice. In the past five years, how many days have you awoken in anticipation of the rest of your life? How many sacrifices have you made for a transparent rendition of your conviction? How many ties to what defines you need be severed before your plight to protect the flock is appeased? You have managed to convince yourself that your career stands as an invaluable component of your constitution.”

“I haven’t actually tried to arrest you.” It immediately came off as a weak argument.

“Of course. The rules of the trade are temporarily suspended after fainting spells, yes?”

Yes, as well as certain Canadian holidays. She fought the urge to burst into idiotic laughter. The situation was simply too absurd to contemplate properly. Better to laugh, kiddies, laugh your thick little heads off and weave your facades than face the pain the big bad man’s truths induce.

“The impediments barring your duty to apprehend me are stacked too high, emotionless as you’d like to be. You are, after all, a woman of common sense, if not whole, intact rationality.

“Speaking of which, Clarice... do you see yourself as a weapon of the Bureau, as opposed to the tool they would have you become? Out of your sense of obligation, you’ve allowed your own needs to be hammered away. In the political battlefield encompassing your adult life, only the innocent bystanders are scarred.”

Emphasis on innocence. Clarice, before him, was looking as nervous as a schoolgirl. He fought himself to keep from touching her.

“Your colleagues assume that you twist your professional life to your personal gain because the abstruse, yet simplistic nature of your morality is unheard of. It is a reflection of what they cannot be, and it pains them to contemplate it. So they choose to simply look and walk though you because they feel that it empowers them. Because they can.”

She cut him off; a dangerous move. But to do otherwise would be as deceitful as outright lying, and that was a taboo between them.

“Oh, for Chrissakes, don’t you think I KNOW that? Don’t you think I ever stand back and contemplate the bottom feeder lifestyle? I know what I am, what I’m reduced to! I know that I’m running in circles and that I’m probably gonna die as a tally in a drug raid, that I’m gonna die poor and lonely and no one will be overly concerned. I know I don’t *need* the Bureau. It doesn’t constitute me.”

A silence, as he processed her words. They burned him.

“Then I give you my question, Clarice- Why? You’ve clearly defined the root of your dilemma and yet you’ve no desire to seize your potential. Why are you, of all people, allowing your concept of right and wrong to diminish you to a battered housewife?”

“Because it kills me to think that I’ve sacrificed everything I’ve ever regarded as worthwhile and valuable as a child; my social life and such an enormous part of myself for nothing.”

Her hands flailed helplessly. “Take my career out of the picture, and I’m still more or less the same person. It’s just that I have ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.”

He was silent again, sipping the pain clouding her eyes, the crease of her furrowed brow and the contours of her face, hardened by misery. Empowered by the empathy she provoked; she was beyond beautiful to him in that instant. She eclipsed her own helplessness.

“Oh, Clarice. What do you imagine I responded to, back in Baltimore? Certainly not the epitome of machinelike dogma you’ve made yourself out to be. No, Clarice, you are far above that. You’ve simply never taken the liberty of shifting your perspective.”

He allowed his hand, tense with a desire to touch her, to languidly rise to her face, delicately caressing the underside of her jaw, pleased when she did not flinch. He leaned in closer, till he could feel her quickening breath on his face.

“You don’t NEED the deadweights, Clarice,” he said, voice barely above a whisper. “You just can’t imagine life without them to the point where you've come to believe they’re not really there.”

A long pause, until she finally whispered her reply, voice shaking with dubiety. “Take the deadweights away and what are we left with?”

“We are left with you, Clarice Starling. And we are left with that dangerous question of questions...” he leaned in closer, voice directly next to her ear, hungry maroon eyes never leaving hers.

“...What if?”

The moment, swollen nearly to the breaking point with promise, suddenly shattered as a gray projectile smashed into the terrace straight from the sky. Clarice shrieked, and even Dr Lecter jumped, in utter shock at the speed of the thing.

The thing was a gray, fluffy mass of fluff mottled with blue and now rapidly issuing blood. It had hit the balcony with the speed of a cannon ball, hard enough to leave small cracks in the plaster.

Clarice, whose jaw had dropped, managed to bring herself to words. “What... what the hell is that?”

Dr Lecter knelt down, studying the pink-red legs and the broken wings of the things, judging the wing span, approximate height (or as much as could be gleaned from the now headless creature) and the spiraling somersault of its bomb dive into the balcony. It was not long before his wizened eyes soon registered with comprehension.

“It’s a roller pigeon.”

Suddenly, his head snapped up to look up at the sky. Clarice scarcely had the chance to do the same before he’d closed the space between them, grabbed her, and pressed her hard against the sliding glass door, slightly sheltered by the edge of the balcony above theirs. She barely had enough time to cry out as his body pressed against hers, when suddenly another pigeon crashed hard into the balcony. Then another. And another. This one was a pinkish color, this one half black, this one still alive and fluttering, injured. And with that, the open air surrounding the balcony was suddenly thickly clouded with thousands of falling roller pigeons, deep rollers crashing to the ground from some unnamed source amongst the clouds. Some, miraculously, were still somersaulting, while others simply plummeted. Feathers, excrement, blood, dismembered limbs flailing through the air along with the millions of birds. It was raining roller pigeons. It was raining fucking roller pigeons.

BUT IT DID HAPPEN.

Clarice suddenly felt Dr Lecter tugging at her as the sliding door behind her moved away, and he quickly pulled her in with him, then closing it behind them. It was just in time, too, as a fluttering legless pigeon smacked right into the glass, leaving a trail of thin avian blood as it fell to the terrace.

Very slowly, his hand, a hand that had slaughtered and maimed and touched and healed, took hers and squeezed gently, as he was still at a complete loss for words. Relishing the touch of another human being in this strange world, she squeezed back.

They watched the birds.

~*~

“They’re WHAT?!” screamed Margot.

“I said they’re bir-” Judy began.

Without warning, one of the projectiles smashed into the windshield glass. Margot’s hands left the steering wheel as she shrieked, and the dry crunch of wheels skidding over a carpet of tiny skills became louder, louder, until the sudden white, blinding crash of the car connecting hard against a lamppost, snapping the spared Judy Ingram’s neck.

Margots, shaking her head as the pigeons fall around the car, wiped the blood from the glass cuts out of her eyes with her strong hands, skin prickling with pain and whiplash. She turned to her companion, full of glass and quiet.

“JUDY!!!”

~*~

Inside the Kellerman house, a copy of Dogma was spinning in the DVD player, slaughter scene drowning out the noise of the car crash outside. Judge Kellerman was asleep, Marianne Kellerman was berating her sons for their choice in entertainment.

“Did anybody notice a kind of ticking noise?” asked Julia. “One that just stopped?”

“Honey,” said Marianne, “now you’re doing it deliberately. Just relax. You’re hearing things.” She listened to the bushes rustling outside. “Hmm... raining cats and dogs out there, isn’t it?”

The manger was silent.

It was 6:31 pm.

~*~

Lawrence Dolarhyde could not move. His car sat, idling, under the rain of fluttering birds, the sound of tiny claws clicking hard against the sheet metal and the slamming of tiny bodies against the hood.

He was oblivious to them, knowing only the gorge coming up again. He was powerless to even bend over and vomit. His whole world was reduced to the clammy, white grip like an alligator clip over him. He could barely muster enough thought to comprehend the fact that he was going to die, that he was going to choke on his own vomit, absorbing only the pain... the pain...

The pain...

~*~

And the memories. Jack Crawford brushed it off like a fly off the picnic table that returns before the hand has even finished its sweep. Opening the door at last, he turned to the ringing phone and reached for it.

A sudden thwump! against the green and white striped awning covering the back yard phone, and the metal rod holding the central beam of the structure was shoved out of its loose bolt, slipping loose, swinging down, and crunching against the base of Jack Crawford’s skull, eliciting a strangled cry from him, knocking him to the ground in a sprawling, unconscious heap, banishing his memories away forever.

His last coherent word as the Jack Crawford the world knows was “Bella...”

Stillness.

~*~

But the second woman was still moving. Ardelia bolted out of her car through the surge of screaming people, flying feathers, scraped in the side of her cheek with a sudden flailing claw, and ran to the car. Her conviction was strong, though paling in comparison to her roommate’s. The driver’s side was facing the covered entry to the store, and the muscular woman was screaming, trying to rouse awake the dead woman slumped over beside her.

Mapp took in a deep breath as though jumping into a pool of sharks, grabbed the door handle and yanked it open, grabbed Margot Verger’s muscular forearm, and hauled her, sobbing and incoherent, out of the car. “Come on!” shouted Mapp, tugging at her arm. Margot protested, blubbering madly, reaching for Judy, but Mapp pulled her inside, away from the rain. Once inside, they both watched, bloody and speechless, at the spectacle outside

~*~

The same rain fell over them all.

part 6

The time right now does not matter.

It’s been awhile since that day; when, once upon a time, eight lives snapped simultaneously into distanced planes segregated by death, desire, compunction, and stillness. Cut through the jumble of quarantines, however, and we’re left with a tightly wound blur of governed damage.

Some just accept it differently from others.

In the evening mist, a tall figure walks between graying, crack tombstones. The woman unknowingly walks at a respectful distance from the ground over the bodies beneath the sparse grass, though if she notices, she does not really care. There is only one thing of value to her here.

She stops in front of an ornate marker and crouches, extending a wiry, weary finger to stroke the protruding letters; the smooth line and curve of the J, the consolidating loop of the U, the half circle of the D...

Her finger comes away to rest of her muscled thigh, and her brow furrows. Perhaps it is in anger. But then it relaxes again in mournful languor.

Perhaps we hear words from her. Perhaps she whispers, “I had so much love to give. Now I just don’t know where to put it.”

Or just as likely, it might have merely been the wind.

The woman stands up, brushes off her hands and walks away in the direction of the main cemetary gates. Though it’s hard to say how much of her is still weeping phantom tears over the patch of dead earth, growing farther and farther away.

In a similar setting, another body beneath a less elaborate marker, serves as fodder for the worms.

No one seems to mind much.

In a white room, a nurse wheels an inert man in cottom pyjamas to a sunny patch by the window. His hands are clasped neatly in his lap. There is stitching across the back of his head. His eyes are glazed and unmoving, staring unintelligibly into the distance.

His expression does not change as a car screeches by on the street, avoiding collision with the adjacent honking pickup by a millimeter or so. Nor do they change at the sight of a slate gray pigeon alighting on a birch branch a few feet from the window.

His lips move. Perhaps to mouth the word “Bella”.

He is still again.

In a barren duplex, a woman tapes a large cardboard box shut. She pulls off the cap of the permanent marker with her small white teeth and writes in glaring capital letters on the side of the box, “SHEETS”.

She looks around the towers of cardboard boxers and suitcases, sealed bags, and memories. She is alone in here, and will remain so until the movers arrive tomorrow. The thought has elicited sobs and agony from her too often before. Given a chance, the human imagination will gladly rend an offered scab to shreds, with the onslaught of possibilities and likelihoods. Now, she sweeps the bedroom with only a weary glance.

The doorbell rings. The woman brushes the dust off her pullover, then descends down the stairs to the front door and opens it. A tall man with a smoothly shaved head, a tie, and a careful expression in reception to pathos, is holding a bouquet of roses.

He says hello.

In a warm place, a black car pulls into the driveway of a cottage with many windows.

A man and a woman step out to admire the large house; a comfortable distance from their nearest neighbors. The house is in need of a bit of refurbishing, but otherwise looks promising. The woods nearby look far from overbearing; rather pleasant, actually, like a heavily diluted Grimm setting. In the past month, out couple has learned and shoved further away the boundary into the overbearing.

“We’re here at last,” says the man.

“Refresh my memory a bit,” says the woman, stretching her arms high over her head, arching her back to exorcise the stiffness of a six hour drive. The man watches her every motion carefully as he comes around the front of the car to face her. “Where are we, now?”

The man allows the introspective stretch of silence to weave around them, as he often does.

Perhaps this could be taken as an opportune segue into a discussion on their new life; all triggered by the bizarre circumstances of a single 24 hour period lopped out of time. On how coincidence has been unblushingly burned out of their small, intimate world. How their present is rendered helpless without the reinforcement woven from their grisly past. The likelihood of destiny as opposed to chance. The peculiar and unknown filaments merging humanity, and the still acrid trouble spots between himself and his companion that have yet to be penetrated, mastered, and cast away. That which they’ve learned from each other- to saute, to throw a knife, the locations of many U.S. helicopter bases, and the peculiar art of touching without maiming.

To trust.

To accept.

And to forgive.

At last, the man replies, “Someplace we’ve individually never been accustomed to.”

“And what is that?”

He leans in very close so his lips will brush against her ear when he speaks. The woman feels the faintest urge to mask the sensual pleasure she feels as his hands come around her. But it is no longer a concern to her. Prescience is welcome at last.

He whispers, “We’re home.”

She smiles.


FIN

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