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Watch Me As My World Burns Down

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The monotonous tone of the clerk behind the counter echoed through the room but didn’t penetrate the haze saturating Will Graham’s awareness of his surroundings. Mindlessly, he collected the items she laid before him but didn’t inventory them, then accepted the pen she proffered and signed where she indicated across several pages of the documents admitting his release. The formality would normally have garnered more of his interest, though he was certain she was used to the indifference with regard to the matter. The haste with which she shuffled them away into a neat folder and offered them back allowed him to ignore the significance entirely. 

With a placid expression, she finally looked up to meet his eyes and said evenly—“Would you like me to call you a cab?”

He didn’t dwell on her look for more than a mere moment before shaking his head with a soft frown. His belongings pocketed and documents under his arm, he turned without a word and made his way down the long hallway leading toward the exit. He didn’t consider his lack of response at all as he pushed the doors open and stepped out into the midday sun. It vaguely warmed him, but not enough to dispel the cold that had spent months seeping into his pale limbs and burrowing into his chest until he couldn’t breathe without feeling the rasp in his bones. With a stuttering sigh, he brought his arms across his chest and made for the sidewalk.

The suddenness of his release was the only reason he could attribute to the lack of a press party there to greet him at the doors. He fully expected at least Freddie Lounds to be there. Her absence was noted but quickly forgotten as Will realized he didn’t care. He didn’t care about any of it. Whether the media decided to lambast him one more time and plaster his newly minted innocence across their pages held no interest for him one way or the other.

Though his steps took him farther away from the institution, the solemnity remained. It tapped beneath his breastbone with an ache that burned and burned and begged for release, but Will hadn’t the first clue how to let it out. It was relentless. He made it almost a mile before he felt like he could breathe again. The fifteen minute walk dumped him out on the 144, and he let his shoulders relax incrementally as the sounds of the busy intersection took prominence, giving him a moment of respite from the shadow struggling frantically to keep purchase within him. The whispers ebbed into a dull hum that he finally felt he could perhaps ignore if he could focus enough on what his next steps were going to be.

The freedom of being outside, alone, unshackled, and whole didn’t bring him any peace. There was no catharsis or certainty. It lacked punctuation at the end of a sentence—his sentence, which had disappeared overnight. He wondered if this would be one of those moments he would look back on later and remark about the before and after. It surely didn’t feel like it. It had a surreal quality that might have concerned an earlier version of himself, but the version that stood in his shoes now shrugged it off with only mild discomfort. He didn’t concern himself anymore with what was real or not, if he was dreaming or awake. Months in prison had shaken that doubt from him so quickly as if it were a rite of passage for being there.

But he was standing here at the corner of Wade and Frederick—and it was real and he was alive and no one was coming after him. It was a regular Tuesday afternoon for everyone else and he wondered how difficult it would be to let it be the same for himself. To move onward as if the last few months hadn’t ripped apart his life, page by page, and crushed the last few years of his ambition to a fine dust that was steadily disappearing in the Baltimore wind. It left him bewildered, unsteady breaths catching in his throat. He wanted to panic. But the panic refused to escalate beyond a bothersome itch that made his hands twitch with the effort to appear calm.

He couldn’t remember the last time he truly felt calm. Not that it mattered. He wasn’t calm when he accepted the job from Jack. He wasn’t calm when he let Dr. Lecter into his life. He wasn’t calm when he killed Garret Jacob Hobbs. He wasn’t calm when he slept alone at night, wakened by disturbing nightmares and sweaty skin. Not when his dogs nestled in close. Definitely not when he looked.

You know what looking at this does.

He reached up with an unsteady hand and rubbed it across his eyes, closing them silently against the torrent of afternoon sights and sounds creating a cacophony of discordant feelings threatening to overpower him. He wanted to welcome it. Let it conquer whatever it was that was pressing a steady tick-tock behind his eyelids, like the barely-there footsteps of a specter who doesn’t care that it’s been discovered—wants to be, in fact—steadily inching behind him, keeping distance just so Will would never forget it was there, waiting and waiting and breathing and looking.

He turned west down Frederick Road and continued walking even though he wasn’t sure where he wanted to go. His house was an hour away and the city bus wouldn’t take him there. The house he’d called home ever since he had left New Orleans years ago. The house where he kept his family—his dogs—and everything he’d ever owned. The house where Dr. Lecter had implemented Will’s downfall. He wasn’t sure it would even feel like home anymore. If he would ever be able to call it home again.

He had nowhere to go forward, but he didn’t have anywhere to go back to either. Nothing lay before him that he felt he could reach out and grasp. Just a tendril of cool air that felt to him like the whisper of his own name spoken from a dying breath. If he could give it a name, it would be despair. He might have been a person known to wallow, but he didn’t find comfort in it anymore. It lay before him like a lukewarm blanket, as if the familiarity would be enough to draw him in. But he wasn’t that person anymore, no matter how deep the claws of his shadows were embedded. If he looked back, he could see that person, curling in on himself, wrapped in the darkness of his past. He may have not divested himself of the ruins that crushed him beneath the walls of the BSHCI, but he wasn’t the same person who allowed them to fall. Without those walls looming around him anymore, he could see the person who stepped out from underneath them. And that person—him—was orphaned.

It was not an unfamiliar feeling. Nor was it entirely unwelcome. He’d never given much credit to the sense of belonging since it concealed itself from him for most of his life. But the reality of being utterly lost surrounded by the impressions of his former life filled him with dread. He wasn’t good at making decisions for himself—the big ones. And here he stood on the precipice of tomorrow and next and had no idea what to do. It was so close he could touch it—the decision to go home, return to his life, and move on as if the last few months hadn’t happened. As if he hadn’t been falsely accused of such heinous deeds that had painted him as a villain in the eyes of everyone he knew. But so also was the thought of going forward, of embracing the opportunity that was gift-wrapped and singing like a siren with no ulterior motive except that he could start over. He had done that once before. The results left him wanting, of course, but at least he knew it was entirely possible. He wasn’t the same person who left New Orleans to pursue a new path. That young man had been filled with ambition and determination and it had gotten him far—far enough to set him in the FBI’s sights and into Dr. Lecter’s path. 

I don’t find you that interesting.

He didn’t know if he could even go back. There was something still there, but there was also more. No one would be able to forget the last few months and accept him the same way again. Not that he ever felt accepted by them before. But if looking was hard then, he knew it would be harder still. Every doubt, regret, grief, and fury would be simmering below the surface for him to see. Every hesitation. Every distrust. He could steel himself for only so long.

Lifting his gaze from the sidewalk below, Will watched as the city center came into view with each step. The architecture crowded around him in a way not unlike the walls of the institution had. But the refracted light across the windows gave way to a sense of personality and other. He didn’t feel the claustrophobia of his incarceration. He felt as if he was being taken by something, something other than himself. That if he waited long enough, the path would be laid out before him without the need to even make the choice he dreaded having to make. He felt guilty. He was pushing forty years old and nothing would make him happier than to have choice entirely removed from him right now.

He had spent months being told when to shower, when to eat, when to sleep, what to think. The idea of having control of anything—of everything—was especially unnerving. He thought he would be pleased to finally be given what he wanted, control, but now with it in his hands, it seared into his palms like a sin. It wasn’t a sense of deserving; it wasn’t even because he had gone without. It was the conditioning. And he hated it. He hated seeing the evidence of someone else’s work. He hated it the moment he had been arrested, when all of Dr. Lecter’s ministrations came to fruition. He hated it when the verdict was handed down, when the helplessness finally settled in. But he hated it especially now, because he had seen this one coming.

I don’t know what anyone is capable of anymore. Even myself.

He wasn’t unaware of the impact of long-term incarceration, though he would hardly call his own long-term. But it was long enough to deal the penalty in full. Given his own agency, he was unsure what to do with it. He wanted to keep his feet walking to see where it led. He wanted to trust that what stood before him wasn’t a cliff, wasn’t a moment in time that he would look back on and regret or grieve. He wanted to trust that all the events that had come before were inevitable in leading him here. He wanted to trust that he could even make a choice. He wanted to trust something.

But Dr. Lecter had seen to that. Months of manipulation and digging had left Will a husk, devoid of familiar feeling and hope. He could hear him in his head even now, goading under the guise of guiding. Carving a Hannibal Lecter shaped hole in his soul, adamant that if he wasn’t there to fill it, then nothing else would. As if his art would never be complete, left wanting and hoping and needing. The most frustrating part, Will felt, was that after months of isolation, he was fully aware of it. He felt disgusted at the feeling of Dr. Lecter’s fingerprints burning shapes into every part of his mind and flesh. The residue of his influence echoed through every thought, every step, every breath. Once, he had thought his empathy had made it difficult to separate himself from every person he encountered. But now, the coupling of this with Lecter’s actions left him feeling converged. A part of him surmised it was all part of Dr. Lecter’s plan—that he wanted Will to become him. Then again, that didn’t sound right at all. Lecter didn’t want a mirror; he didn’t need one.

But the utilitarianism of the doctor’s motivations dug into Will like a rusty nail. It festered in a way that made him feel on the verge of retching, and that wouldn’t be the first time. He’d spent months dwelling on the events that led up to his incarceration, and every small detail was put under the microscope as if each day was a scene from a play of Dr. Lector’s own canon. He wanted to trust that he was better now because of it, that his intuition had learned and adapted from the advances of a predator in its prime, but he wasn’t entirely sure. He couldn’t blame it solely on letting his guard down. Dr. Lecter had seen him; and because of that, he was able to insinuate himself into the crevices Will had taken decades to hide. But those carefully crafted hatches were adeptly maneuvered by the older man with relative ease. And stealth.

When he thought back to the developing relationship they had acquired, he wanted to blame everyone involved: Dr. Lecter, Alana, Jack. Especially Jack. He had been the one to introduce them, after all. He had been the one who had made him dig into the part of himself he had spent years burying under the walls and trappings of Will Graham, professor and dog lover. It bothered him how easily each of them was able to slip inside. It made him feel weak. That his efforts were blinded by his own desperation and thus inadequate in fortifying the parts of him that could keep him standing. That no matter how long he spent stacking the bricks, they were made of cotton anyway. All they did was dull the noise, doing nothing to prevent an ambush, let alone the right person from simply walking right in.

He wanted to blame the encephalitis. But he had to admit that it wasn’t his illness that weakened him or allowed his forts to crumble. The encephalitis only served to accelerate Dr. Lecter’s inevitable plan and he had succeeded with a fantastic flourish. In his vulnerable state, Will was given an opportunity to question some of the finer workings of his own mind, to see the parts of him that were tired of hiding, tired of being pushed down and shaped into what they were not. The unstable parts. The darker parts. And instead he felt crushed by the parts of him clamoring to be the loudest voices, telling him that the darkness was nothing more than remnants of others, vestiges of the malevolent creatures beating down the door of the FBI. It was easy to attribute those whispers to something other, especially when he was constantly bombarded by their presences whether he wanted to be or not. The encephalitis only put the whispers and the voices on even ground until he couldn’t discern between them enough to hold back the flood.

As he waited at the next intersection, he could feel every person around him as if they were sitting down to a dinner party and he was the guest of honor, each pair of eyes trained on him, waiting for him to make his move. Their thoughts surrounded him in a fog, but he kept his eyes low and pushed past the tide hoping one day he’d feel like Moses in the Red Sea. But today was not that day.

With a frustrated exhale, Will continued across the intersection. He wanted to feel relief. But it wouldn’t come. He wondered if anything from now on would ever provide that feeling again. If he was conditioned to feeling empty and used forever. He marveled at how even though he felt like an orphan, adding homeless to it did not add any additional anxiety or fear. The picture was coming together more fully, however bleak, and Will simply accepted it. His house still existed. It still stood in Wolf Trap, full of all his possessions and fears, but he was on a different path—a new path. And just like stepping out of prison and into the sun, he still felt like it provided him with nothing.

He didn’t know when he’d made the decision, or if he had even made it at all. Was this the natural path that had already been laid out before him as the judge signed for his release? He felt like Job. Not because of suffering. Will didn’t want to think about what he may or may not deserve, though he’d argue his innocence to his last breath. But his lack of agency gnawed at him. It breathed down the back of his neck like a sinister prank where everyone knew it but him. And once the veil pulled away, he stood in the center of the play as its protagonist, following the carefully crafted words of its author across the page. Being out of prison didn’t make him feel any freer.

If he could control anything, he would try. And at the moment, it felt futile and unjust, but the little pieces that fell like dust through his fingers at least felt like a gift the universe was bestowing in order to make something right. Not puzzle pieces to be fit together to paint a perfect picture—but particles of dirt on a mountain that would never be complete, no matter how far back you stepped and looked upon it. He didn’t trust himself enough to take consolation in the feeling. He knew it stood on a foundation of brittle stone eaten away by years of decay and destruction. He didn’t trust himself enough to feel anything anymore. He wasn’t even sure he knew who he was anymore. The influences of the last few years had tailored him in such a way that his own inner voice even felt suspect after months of rumination.

He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do next. He wasn’t sure what he even could do. Or what would happen when he did. And the fear that would normally follow that thought process still evaded him. He wanted to be afraid of the unknowing his future presented him with, because he could still feel the fragments of others occupying every shadow and corner and the control with which they waited for him. It was exhausting.

At one point, he had wanted his dogs back. Alana had left him a message a few hours before his release that he could come by at any time to pick them up. He was sure they had been adequately taken care of. Alana may have been blinded by her own feelings and presuppositions, but she was a good person. He wanted to fault her for not trusting him, for thinking the worst of him. But he felt he hadn’t given her enough reason to trust him, especially after revealing just how unstable he’d become at the time. He could see the workings of Dr. Lecter’s machinations in every word she said, every doubt she gave. Another part of Will’s life that his psychiatrist had infested with his charm and propriety and purpose. It haunted him. Even now, as he pictured the sweet adoring faces of his canine family, he felt the shadow of Dr. Lecter’s specter, the metronomic footsteps an even and sure sound like the unshockable rhythm of a patient’s heart in asystole.

The only conclusion Will could make was that nothing was his. There was nothing in his life anymore that belonged to him alone. His relationships were soured, no matter how earnest any of them would prove to be in their steps toward forgiveness. And he no longer had anything tethering him. It was an interesting place to be, one that brought him to the cusp of floundering, but he craved the struggle. He longed for something to push back against him so he would have a direction to frame his next move. But nothing did.

As he continued down the sidewalk, he watched as the sun began to dip below the western skyline. It continued unabated, unaffected by Will’s internal struggle. He ached to be that consistent. But as he watched it continue its decent, it began to remind him more of Dr. Lecter instead. The breadth of the man’s influence was astonishing, like the rays of the last light of day. And no matter what the day brought, it continued its path—Dr. Lecter had proven himself capable of defending his position and power regardless of how close Will had gotten to the truth. Regardless of how close Jack got to finding his white whale. It had infuriated him at one time, back when he sat in his cell contemplating how effortlessly the man had sent him there.

And now that he was out, his desire to escape, to helplessly grasp at any sliver of freedom, had not subsided. He wasn’t sure what else he could still escape from, now that he had nothing, but he desired it all the same. The yearning to walk toward the ebbing light, and keep walking until his feet were too sore to continue. To see how far he could get before everything became completely unfamiliar. He needed something, somewhere that wasn’t him. That wasn’t Will Graham, or the FBI, or Jack Crawford, or Dr. Hannibal Lecter. He knew that he wouldn’t be able to breathe properly again until he found that place. To clutch something in his hands that was entirely his. His own body no longer felt his own. It had been violated in a way he could no longer trust it. Not his mind, not his flesh, not even his voice.

I don’t want to be here.

Then you have a choice.

His choices were stained by influences out of his own control. It was no secret that Dr. Lecter had wanted Will out of prison. He had orchestrated it, like he had everything else. But Will was certain in at least one thing—Dr. Lecter wasn’t finished with him. In fact, he was sure the man was waiting, biding his time until the young profiler returned to him. For whatever reason, Dr. Lecter believed Will would seek him out. He wondered what Dr. Lecter’s next steps would be. If he would wait patiently for Will to come to him for answers. If he felt he’d dropped a deep enough anchor in the young man that Will would not be able to resist his pull. If Will would be guided by some sort of righteous anger, a vengeance to make everything even. But Will knew nothing could ever be even. He could not get even without becoming something more. And though it appealed in a way nothing had in a very long time, he was repelled by the thought of playing right into the other man’s hand.

He could remember the day they first met, and the moment he had realized Dr. Lecter was already attempting to infiltrate the judiciously fashioned barriers in his mind. He remembered the smallness he felt at being seen, deconstructed, and then played in as little as three minutes. And here he was again, sitting across from the man, but this time he was in his mind and he had the same expression he’d had before—the veiled interest and motive. He couldn’t stomach it. Now having experienced the extent of Hannibal Lecter’s interest, he couldn’t allow himself be the target of it any longer.

Will watched the last light disappear and the darkness enfold him once more, but he still felt the residual warmth. No matter how far Will walked, he knew Dr. Lecter would be there, reaching his hands into the fluid of his mind until the marionette’s strings took over completely. And those strings, he imagined, would doubtless reach him no matter where he ended up.

He felt like he was trapped in an Ibsen play—the yearning to be able to exercise control over his own life was quickly becoming overwhelmed by the realization that he wasn’t sure he would ever be able to again.