Actions

Work Header

were we unhappy or sublime

Chapter Text

 

 

Margot’s a smart girl, from the tip top of burnished brown hair to little delicate toes that pinch in most riding boots. She spends a lot of time looking at them - little pillars of salt at the edge of the tub sticking out from milky blue water, like they should dissolve or disintegrate. She’s looking at them now. 

 

Her mother says they’re cute once, both of them glancing down admiringly at them while they wait for the cordwainer to return with new shoes. Cognac brown this time; it’s summer, and she’s going to Jackson Hole for a Christian girls’ camp, a misnomer, or perhaps a euphemism. ( You’re thirteen now. Girls’ camps for baby faced children are for fun. Girls’ camps for teenagers are for problems, and you have a few. That’s what you’ve heard, anyway.

 

The black shoes she had at the time were much too formal for a ranch, or so says Mrs. Verger, back-handed repressed bitch that she is. ( This, unlike the camp, is not a misnomer - just a phrase you grow alongside with your problems. You don't say it out loud for a few more summers, not confident enough yet. You still think it sometimes, even with her passing almost five years ago.

 

“Not humble enough. Don’t you think, Margot?” asks her mother, packing her bags before packing her off for this shoe fitting. She smelled of menthols in the nineties, and the department store, but the expensive kind. Her hair was big and bottle-blonde, absolutely tortured but flawless and housewife perfect. 

 

“I guess so,” Margot says quietly from between hands and lips picking at her own simple braid, turning her heels, afraid to crease the untarnished ankles of the leather. It doesn’t matter that they can buy more - when it’s for Margot, it’s an expense. When it’s for Mason, it’s an investment, something to be written on tax forms. With only a couple years between the two of them, and more shoes bought for Mason than for Margot, she doesn’t always understand the difference.  

 

“You have such pretty feet,” her mother sighs, chin in palm, shoulder bag slung to the side. “You should have danced...too late for that, I guess, but then...well.”

 

“Well what?”

 

“Nothing.” 

 

There’s a pause there, where the reason for the trip reinserts itself between them. Jackson Hole. A Baptist girls’ camp for the problems, with more time spent on wearing out asses and ears with lectures than making friends. Margot’s had a few - lectures, not friends, but the bright side she supposes is getting to take her horse which is kind of like one if friends are defined by bribery with fruit and brushing their hair. 

 

She fiddles some more at her braid. 

 

“Dressage is kind of like dancing,” Margot says, pressing the balls of her feet to the floor until she can feel them whiten. Familiar; same as the stirrups. “Your partner just happens to be a horse instead of a man.” 

 

“I guess that’s better than the alternative,” her mother replies with a big sigh without explaining, Virginia Slims carton tapped gently, favorite lighter in hand. The cordwainer won’t mind if the best client in the state smokes a little. Better than the alternative to her leaving. 

 

( A lot of things are just slightly better than the alternative, aren’t they? Better to have you in the stables with the horses, admiring their sturdiness, than to have you admiring willow-armed women who sway at the feet-hips-legs. They touch each other gently at the waists to correct each other’s technique, or that’s what you’ve imagined, and you gently unfurl at that thought like your head could follow sunlight, a green-eyed daisy looking at lilies and wanting to card yourself between them, long and perfect in form. Your feet wouldn’t be so pretty if you would have done your years with them,  but you’ll have to make due for now with horses. Besides, you find your way to them eventually, feet intact and unbruised.

 

“We work with what the Lord provides us,” says her mother in an exhale. “His plan is bigger than ours.”

 

And Margot is. 

 

Working with what she’s got. 

 

Since this consideration of her tiny girl’s feet, there’s been dozens of boots, dozens of camps, facilities, youth programs, and she’s surviving now. Margot’s outlived the menthols, and the hairspray, and the private religious counselling that eventually turns to private medical counselling, like someone might be able to talk her out of her lily-gathering for practical reasons, and she’s not just being a rebellious child who fights with her siblings and tries to break him rather than his toys. She’s taking a bath, fresh off a therapy appointment and watching the little columns of bone, skin, and nail pressed against the porcelain of the tub, and with all due respect, she thinks she might have a better plan for herself, thank you very much. 

 

---  

 

On paper, it’s a terrible idea. Out loud, it’s an embarrassment.

 

I, Margot Verger, am taking my destiny back by finding a man and settling down with what is a 50/50 chance of success, fertility and fathers aside. 

 

She tries it out in the bathroom mirror. She plans how long it takes to get to Wolf Trap, Virginia from where she is - 46 minutes in good traffic. Enough time to say it approximately 276 more times. They say it’s a habit after 30, so maybe between now and Will Graham’s house, it’ll sound better. 

 

Margot doesn’t know him outside a few sharp remarks and a night of trading therapy appointment pointers, but if he’s seeing Doctor Lecter, and Doctor Lecter wants to see him, Will Graham can’t be the kind of moral and mental fiber you want in a parent. Aversion to people, and trouble making eye contact when he’s not trying to make a point or intimidate in his strange, sharp way. Previous tenure in the modern equivalent of insane asylums. Bad taste in grain alcohol. A man. 

 

( Useful biologically, that last bit. You’ve certainly been told enough times that you needed to find one or how are you ever going to continue your prestigious line? Giving your obedience to your father and your future husband is obedience to god. You went on a bender just outside New Haven after the last time you heard that, made it a point to be a woman of the cloth by sticking yourself properly up someone’s skirt and have only the finest natural fibers of a political science major’s idea of a party dress gathered up around your ears, mouth busy with service, fingers busy with skill. You certainly have been giving out something , and now you’re asking for something to be given to you. )

 

Truly magnificent compatibility and planning.  Perfect circumstances for making children, or so she’d assume by all the people she knows from the country club, the church, the stakeholders party, the racetrack, the farms.

 

Even so, Will Graham has a particular hangdog look to him that appeals to Margot. She doesn’t have the egregious fantasy of “fixing” someone by merit of her goodness, so it’s not that. If she can't fix herself, she certainly can't fix Will. He’s decidedly bearded and muscled in concert with his classical handsomeness, so it’s not that either - Margot’s tastes skew decidedly Sapphic, and Will doesn’t even brush the edges of androgyny other than a sort of thinness that speaks more to stress and less to gender ideals. No, if she was making bets, it’s that he looks like he’s perpetually on the edge of being up to something but can’t quite figure out what he should be up to, and that’s a whole attitude and a half for Margot Verger, heiress, family outcast, and ne’er do gooder.

 

The broken front window would suggest some recent commitment to bad behavior, but the miserable twist of the corners of his mouth would suggest unhappiness with it anyway. 

 

“A stag got lost in a storm and broke through the window,” he lies, and he has a pretty liar’s mouth, a man’s or not. It curves smartly at the top-center - one side of a bracket that hasn’t been closed.

 

( Good - hold on to that thought. You’ll need that when you feel the stubble around it, something alien and unattractive when you’re accustomed to the soft pull of plusher lips.

 

“Are you scarred?” she asks when he tries to flesh out his broken window with tales of battle and injury. She almost asks him to show with his arms how big he thinks the deer was, or name how many tines on its majestic head, tell her all about his big fish for his small pond of a house. 

 

“More than I probably know,” he replies.   

 

That sours her on making a joke, because like his expression, that’s also a whole attitude that contrition, obedience, and being decorative is never going to take away from her either, so she may as well be bad and it doesn’t matter how. That’s how all sons are made, right? That’s what she’d presume from the only other son she’s spent any amount of time around, no matter that Will doesn’t share that presumption. She’s wearing vulnerability as a mask tonight. She’s wearing eminent domain as her coat. She’s got privilege for perfume, and it smells like a way out of this mess, and he’s not seeing past any of it.

 

( On purpose, but you won’t know that for a long time. )  

 

Margot’s never entertained pregnancy as anything other than a regrettable accident, and the person she’s picking to entertain it with now is one too, but one makes due with the materials at the artist’s bench, and hers chisel serious mouths and disasters in common. 

 

---

 

The thing with 50/50 chances is that it can only go one way or another. Reading out the double blue lines of a test is like that too. 

 

---

 

“I had sex with one of your patients,” she says, smug, successful, borrowing her own body which is now different - not in the traditional sense of catching feelings for sex partners, but that her uterus is a time bomb that she set a clock on, and now she’s watching from inside the city hall she intends to blow up. Look upon my Motherhood and tremble! 

 

“Will Graham,” she adds, like it isn’t entirely obvious, and she teased at that conversation last time. 

 

Look upon unwillingly given Fatherhood!  

 

(Or please don't. This is your moment.

 

Doctor Lecter doesn’t move, just stares with his stereotypical therapists’ posture and folded hands. He reads like an alabaster bust, not like the decorative bookends that Margot’s father keeps in his study, absorbing the smell of cigar smoke and yellowing from misuse, but the kind they keep in museums that are supposed to be likenesses of men from older legacies. The kind she’s supposed to be perpetuating, cooking up even now if she's lucky. She’s thought about asking before, if he’s a secret cigar twirler himself with indulgences for bad children as long as they’re clever about it, but she never quite has the nerve no matter his supportiveness of self-care.  Or fratricide. Same difference, really. 

 

“What do you think about that?” she asks, leaning into the itchy collar of her blazer, full of gold tinsel like fireworks, celebrating herself. 

 

Not so neutral, as the moment’s pass. He thinks on how to respond too long for the polite academic response. There’s some matter of pyrotechnics going on behind the scenes with him now, lines of gunpowder being laid out but not yet ready to ignite. “Curious,” he says with just enough humor to maybe be earnest, but just enough she knows it’s projection. He doesn’t emote for anything but show, unlike her who has learned to emote for sympathy when all she’d like is that same enviable coolness. She raises her brows - more, surely there’s more. 

 

“Will Graham is not a lesbian,” he adds, and she very nearly scoffs at the obviousness of it.

 

She smiles instead. “He sure made a go of it.” 

 

( And boy did he ever. He lets his hair hang loose to cover his eyes and pretend. He used the uncallused sides of his hands to touch. He kept clear of the things he could do that made you feel small, let you push him around, pull at his bangs, avoid the roughness of his face, and while he’s not a woman, and you don’t find the lines of him attractive, you are appreciative of him in the abstract and in his consideration. There wasn’t a second Will Graham made a motion or a noise that would shock you into the reality of him, and you were grateful even as you relied on liquor, and pluck, and the vaguely nauseous feeling you get any time you try a new way to untangle from whatever you were raised to be into the person you are. )

 

( The satisfaction follows. It always follows - you just need to get past the nausea of waiting for the other shoe to fall.

 

Doctor Lecter tilts his head, flares his nose, and inhales instead of sighs. 

 

It’s unusual, enough so to catch notice. There’s something animal about it - other, the sort of thing proceeding a kick to the head, or a tantrum that ends in the laming of a horse or a rider alike. She’s seen a few. She thinks she’s thrown a few herself. No work experience, no real career save the shiny collar of affluence, but a professional keenness that makes her turn her head to watch a powerful creature consider its mischief. 

 

“Did Will know of your intention to get pregnant, Margot?” he asks, and she listens.

 

No , comes the instinctual reply, something she could glibly toss out. No, did you call dibs? Did you want to offer that solution first in sessions? Force the issue? Do you not let people play with your things the way Mason doesn’t? She doesn’t say it though, because Margot knows the way she knows a horse tantrum that you shouldn’t ask the alabaster-faced generational aristocracy if they know it’s a person they are messing with. She can’t stable her psychiatrist for an afternoon and try again later. 

 

It surprises her how quickly she goes from successful to defensive, to be known so plainly even if it’s by the person who suggested the entire plan to begin with, even if he probably never intended her to draw her line in the sand with his favorite line in the sand.

 

She keeps her smile on. “Wasn't it your intention for me to get pregnant, Dr. Lecter?”

 

No, Margot thinks again. Not this way. Not this way, says the flinty look in Doctor Lecter’s eyes, oftentimes unknowable, but too akin to Mason’s the first time that he asks her to look at his new pigs, a punishment in mind that he hasn’t shared yet, but will. She listens with half an ear as he grounds his interest in renewal, life, and death, and tries to come back to psychiatry when it’s not what he’s really thinking of. 

 

( “Are you scarred?” you ask, being a smartass, but grasping for common ground. “More than I probably know,” he says, and is somewhere else, the way you are somewhere else in the hours that follow.

 

That last one’s the one he’s trying to get around to. Death. She doesn’t know if he’s decided it, but it’s what he’s thinking of, and the same fervor that takes her watching her mangled clothes come up from the pigpen itches alongside the gold threads of her jacket. 

 

---   

 

Living this long after the passing of the elder Vergers has been an ongoing lesson in observation and the occasional frank acceptance that a lot about her life is really fucked up by design. “Oh well!” has been her catchphrase of choice, covering bruises with hand-milled powders and dabbing watery eyes with Hermes handkerchiefs. If she can’t get approved for that flat in Alexandria,  it's probably Mason. If she's missing a favorite brush, she's going to find it when Mason hits her hard enough with it to break it at the handle. Half the staff giving detailed accounts of how time is spent on the horse trails and beyond? Mason, and before that, old daddy Verger, who Margot sincerely hopes is burning in whatever hell is least acceptable for traditionalist old bastards. Life is a series of repeating patterns, and she’s getting good at spotting them and internalizing. 

 

Observation today observes that pregnancy isn’t a protective foil. It’s something that can be ripped off, a nuisance flyer on the windshield of the car, or an obstacle to be removed from the road, and observation and intuition says Doctor Lecter swats nuisances as readily as all the other men in her life. She had been afraid of the physical changes, maybe the commitments to children and irrevocably fucking them up by accident rather than design, but leaving his office is the first time she contemplates if pregnancy isn’t something also she should frankly accept will probably be ruined like most other things, and it’s just a question if it’s Mason or someone else. 

 

Margot is afraid of that prospect. She’s a little shy to admit how much she’s looking forward to escaping, when this is just another route to have closed in front of her, and she’s perpetually hamstringed and running too slow to jump the barriers and continue on. 

 

Margot taps the steering wheel nervously, sitting in the dark of the street, swallowing down anxiety like if her tongue still works and she can breathe around it, then everything’s fine, and that’s not an exceedingly low threshold for fine. 

  

Work with what you have, Margot’s mother said. 

 

Margot would say she has - regardless of god’s plan, which seems to often be a vast and vague stand-in for actual advice from the other adults in the room, it’s not been enough. It’s frustrating, being clever and it not quite surmounting the hill of Mason’s influence and caprice, or her parents’ resentment. Comeliness and gait are desirable in mares, cleverness a charming brooch, and only the first of those useful in Verger daughters. 

 

The money is not hers, so that’s not something to work with. The psychiatrist is giving her decidedly mixed messages of menace and support, especially now that she's fucked around literally and metaphorically with his favorite pet project, so that’s more of a dynamite stick with the ignition burnt halfway down. The Mercedes is in her name and paid in full, so that’s transportation, but hardly a complete solution. The baby is hers, but it’s also only valuable to her, and it’s probably a danger if Mason hears about it anytime soon, so that’s not either.

 

Well, Margot thinks with a frown, maybe that’s not entirely true. She rubs her middle - nothing of note to see, like it’s something she stole and hid under her shirt to flee the store. Someone unintentionally helped her steal it.

 

---

 

“I have a favor to ask,” she says at the doorway of Will Graham’s house for a third time, snowfall soft, quiet, and cold. 

 

There’s never anyone else out here, just dark snouted dogs and piles of wood in a house with a defunct fireplace. She likes that, the curious calm he surrounds himself in, even with the plastic-covered window and the perplexed frown that draws the bow of his lip deeper. Funny how he doesn’t fix it in the weeks between her visits, but Will seems the type to poke as a scab, and it’s kind of like one, isn’t it? She pushes past, as she did last time, everything in umber and sienna and wood panels in the space beyond, smelling of kindling, and fresh sheets. 

 

And he lets her. 

 

“If it’s the kind you asked for before, I’d be surprised,” he says with a huff and a wry look. “We drank all the whiskey already, and you left like you remembered the carriage is actually a pumpkin.” 

 

In a way, it was - sheets still warm, the sweat between them more from the heater and alcohol than their brief passions. Perfunctory sex, a girlfriend had once described it as before she found her preference for women. It’s a recurring story, and not one she thought to share with them. Margot feels the prickling of awkwardness at that. 

 

She shrugs it off. “Not exactly, though you could say I kicked the tires a little before going home to think about buying.” 

 

“You’re not buying in on me,” Will says like he found it etched in a stone and he’s surprised no one else has bothered to read it. He seems to fall on insights like that - he trips over them, they bruise his ankles a little, and he tries to memorize where they were between snows. That he lets Margot into the house is proof he doesn’t always remember. “Unless you found that whole experience more profound than the exit suggested.”  

 

( Tell him. Fulfill the cliche. )

 

“Investments are weird like that. May I have a seat?” she asks to stall, and he pulls the armchair closer to the heater without asking, because she’s cold. 

 

( And that’s why you’ll do it. You’ve taken the plan as far as you can. You need allies. You need, no matter the bad press and the wrong package, someone who will try to take care of you because you’re out of things by merit of yourself, and you’re selfish enough to tap into someone else. You already did once, so what’s another maxed out line of credit? You have sadness and disconnection in common with Will Graham, and that will be enough. )

 

She declines a drink.

 

He frowns at first, and then he says, “oh.”

 

Margot almost doesn't hear it. Very small, like someone might hear, and he's holding it in his hands to keep it warm. She almost sighs with relief at the obviousness of that. Will’s good at that, finding more of those stones to stumble over. Margot wonders when he’ll figure out that she’s got a whole field of them, and he should be careful kicking around in her snow without protecting himself. 

 

---

 

There are questions, but most are mild. If she’s ok, or if she wants to keep it, does she have a doctor she wants to see or anything that she needs to know about him. 

 

( “Can’t tell you much about my mother,” he shrugs, and you feel an unexpected kinship there, more than the sad looks. You didn’t know your mother either, and you still had to spend years like that before you finally outlive her. “I’m obviously a mess, but most of my and my father’s ailments are self-started and hard won.” )  

 

Will, like the first night she shows up, and the second, takes it in stride. Not a reactionary person, which comes as something of a surprise considering what little of his history she knows, but maybe that’s unfair - he always was the guy who didn’t kill all those people from day one. Margot wonders if he even has it in him looking at him now, tired and gold embossed at the edges from a half a century old space heater that casts an impressive glow. 

 

There’s a long pause in the conversation, he with a dog’s head in hand, pulling at their ears, pressing gently into the tear troughs of their eyes to wipe the matting wetness away. He has scratches across the knuckles and fingers, maybe from his mysterious window breaking stag, but they are pink and harmless next to the carefulness of his thumbs, and the dog’s obvious happiness.

 

( It’s why you’re here. Violence or tenderness for whatever needs it, easily given where you are selfish with yours. You learned that from the best. You don’t know where he did .) 

  

Margot swallows, and says what she thinks she’s supposed to say. “I thought you should know,” she says, turning her mug between her fingers, listening to her fingernails clink against it, barely heard. 

 

“No, you didn’t,” he sighs into the bottom of his. Warm water for them both, no actual coffee or tea at this hour. 

 

“No,” she concedes. “I didn’t.” 

 

Will nods, satisfied with that. “What changed?” he asks, still looking downward into the shimmer of the water. “Big family name, educated, progressive. You didn’t want a man, but you needed one at the last minute or else you would have never come here, at least not once you satisfied your curiosity about our therapist in common.” The way he says therapist sounds tortured, hissed instead of spoken - a sore point for him, a curiosity for her. Unlike Doctor Lecter, Will's feelings are already laid out and ready for ignition.

 

The question doesn’t bear a lot of thinking. She knows why. Margot could tell him he’s convenient, and handsome enough, that he’s got a melancholic and obliging nature that makes her feel safe because she hasn’t done anything to merit whatever it is that he occasionally cuts his words on and draws out his teeth. The bare minimum a man can do to make a woman feel secure, in the flavor of gum Margot likes best. 

 

Looking at him now, politely frowning into the floor, he’d probably accept it.  

 

Margot could also tell him her recent mantra of reclaiming destiny that keeps her moving mile after mile into his living room and onto his cock the last time, but that needs context. That’s about her, not about him. It’s hard to explain grudges against the push and pull of religious agnosticism and antagonizing, a lifetime of the passive aggression of other telling her to ask god to help her instead of helping herself, and how that ends with her giving penetrative sex the old college try, and she’s all out of ideas. 

 

“My brother is going to kill me someday if I don’t figure out how to get away from him,” she says, blank-faced, water in the mug tepid against the bottom of her lip. “And I hoped you would help me, because you seem to understand what that’s like.”  

 

He’s quiet for a long time about that too. 

 

---

 

The last of Will’s questions is easy to answer, and a little harder to admit. 

 

“Do you have somewhere safe to sleep?”

 

She doesn’t, though she has to think over it for a moment with a tight throat before she finally shakes her head and coos a little “no”, like it’s no big deal, and he doesn’t hesitate to make the bed with fresh sheets still a little hot from the dryer, like that’s no big deal either. That’s what she should have told him earlier, why she was here. That would have been the flattering thing to do. 


( But the other answer was true too, and maybe closer to it. )  

Chapter Text

 

 

 

“Just...consider it,” her mother says quietly while pushing loose hair behind Margot’s ears. It’s the night of college graduation, and she’s brought with her the entire entourage - Margot’s mother, not Margot. 

 

( You would have brought your current paramour - a middle-aged adjunct at the university that calls you her green-eyed monster, and thinks the bottom rib on either side of the chest is where you hold a young woman, rather like holding a vessel full of something. Your parents are the last on a list of invitees - they only know how to bottle things up. Your adjunct knows how to pour them out. )  

 

Margot’s father, Mason, business associates, smiling social contacts that are afforded seats at the commencement ceremony because this is one thing that Margot has done that makes him proud, and at last he can speak of her, if only for the night. With them also comes the son of a son of a client, one of the largest the family has ever had. He is blonde, and clean faced, and he smiles from the teeth and not from his eyes. He is single. He is looking to settle down. He makes her nauseous to look at, how certain he is that he must be wanted. 

 

( You’re too wild for stillness, especially now in the days before things got really bad. You haven’t needed to go aground yet, some poor pheasant waiting out the hunter’s gun or the forest fire.

 

“I’d rather not,” she says, and straightens her graduation cap, bobby-pinned to her chignon and pulling at it until it hurts. The tails of her bangs fall back into her face, and ruin all the stage photos from the college photographer, but she likes those ones better because there’s not all those people in them. Just her.

 

---

 

It’s funny to think in hindsight that her parents would be absolutely ecstatic to hear she was moving in with a man to secure the future of her one-night stand baby. 

 

The image of her mother presents itself - perhaps in her Saturday morning best, when the housecoats and the still iron-fried hair of Friday night is sticking around with a wine sour mouth, and Mrs. Verger is full of advice and keen regrets. “I’m moving in with a boyfriend,” Margot would say, and the sleep-creased frown on her mother’s face would fade.  It’s easier to say boyfriend, even if Margot doesn’t know exactly what Will is to anyone. A boy, in that he has watery eyes carded by eyelashes that brings to mind someone younger than the scowling, tired man that he is. A friend in that he gives her things unthinkingly, and seems to accept her company like a breeze passing through, inescapable, coming through all the cracks in his house.  

 

“Answered prayer,” she thinks would be the first words out of her mother’s mouth as though it’s the only thing she’s ever asked God for, like out of wedlock fornication ( explicitly forbidden by the Holy Bible ) is better than the fact that she’s known to appreciate a pair of flirty kohl-lined eyes and how best to unsnap a bra clasp ( not explicitly forbidden - very much a grey area. ) Maybe the act of carrying a baby would sell her on the idea of traditional heterosexual marriage even if she’s going about in the wrong order, and Margot Verger will finally be over this rebellious phase of her life that has occupied about two-thirds of it thus far. 

 

As far as phases go, Margot thinks she might deserve some sort of prize for longest run, as though the entire thing was a conspiracy to irritate her parents. If asked, they would have said it was. 

 

That’s common, how they think it’s about them instead of her. 

 

She’ll happily take their fortune for her trouble. If there’s one thing Margot thinks she deserves for a lifetime of small and large put-downs, it’s the money that she was waiting for in exchange for putting up with them. Margot just needs someone to make sure she survives long enough to qualify for the prize. 

 

Staring at the ceiling of the farmhouse, from the awkward bed in the living room where she submits to the idea of reproductive biology and broader hands than she trusts at her breasts ( very tender tonight - bruised by pregnancy with nary a mark to prove it ), Margot listens to Will sleep in the dark. 

 

Or not sleep - she’s not quite sure with him. He took a while to settle himself once Margot is seen to. The dogs shuffle in the dark, and there’s an owl somewhere in the beech trees along the front drive, but otherwise there are no cars, or wild-eyed brothers, and Will is silent from the armchair that he takes as a gentlemanly gesture, because “you don’t want to sleep next to me - not really”. 

 

That makes her frown to herself, thinking of his face twisting up and her relief. She supposes maybe she should pray about it, or meditate, or whatever makes it cosmically ok in her soul to be where she is, and do what she’s committed to doing. 

 

---

 

(Be honest. You’re a little afraid to admit to your avarice in exchange for his fatherhood, when all you see is someone trying to just do something right for once. You used to want to do that too. To please someone, gender and social designations irrelevant. )

 

---

 

Morning comes for them the way hangovers do - nagging, sore-headed things that demand consideration of the night before. Margot watches Will rise from the chair with cracking joints and dark circles under his eyes, dressed from head to toe in nearly prudish amounts of consideration. “Seeing you wear pajamas is hardly going to offend my feminine sensibilities more than the ejaculate,” she wants to tell him. “Thanks for that, by the way, all joking aside. I only winced initially - everything comes out in the wash, I think is the saying.”   

 

It’s unkind, but she thinks it anyway. 

 

He looks at his cell phone like it troubles him, watches the driveway suspiciously, and generally gives the impression of someone expecting a storm to descend at any given time. He doesn’t know Mason well enough to suspect it from that quarter, so his trouble must be his own. Maybe some more deer to tear out the windows, or marshals to draw more muddy ruts into the gravel just below the front porch. 

 

“What’s got your goat today?” she asks, and tries to not flinch, a phrase she’s heard a thousand times from her father, and later her brother. 

 

“You keep showing up on my doorstep,” he says with a raise of his brows, padding barefoot from one side of the living room to the other to find his glasses. The coffee maker is hissing. Four of the dogs tail him, two others sleep, one scratches behind its ears. It’s very domestic - she only feels out of place half the time, instead of all of it. “Got to keep an eye out for any more like minded individuals.”

 

“Fathering a lot of children this month?”

 

“No,” he drawls with a frown. “Even if I have an accidental aptitude for it, intentionality aside.”

 

“Always a pleasure to find a new talent,” Margot says with a stretch of the arms, and sees him fight a little half-smile, the same little one that she feels when he talks, like he’s adopted that too. 

 

“No,” he sighs, and hands her a mug of her own, glasses found and askew across the bridge of his nose. She fights the impulse to fix it. “It’s that I’m finding private property has a lot less meaning these days, with increasing frequency.”

 

“Sovereign nations are only as sovereign as the bordering countries allow,” Margot snipes, shrugging her way through the cup of black coffee. Better than plain water, steaming hot. This too he gives her without much thought behind it, and she takes it black with three heaping spoonfuls of sugar, only a little sorry at the way he laughs.   

 

“So choose your neighbors carefully?” Will asks. 

 

“Something like that. If you can.” 

 

He thinks about that for a while, restless at the windows of the house. The plastic covering the broken one sways sometimes in the breeze, crinkling in intervals between sips of the coffee, her leaning against the counter, him pressing at the tape holding everything in place. Seven dogs with twenty-eight feet between them all dance around him, begging for breakfast, or attention, to be let outside, to nip at each other’s ears, whatever they can get. “I can’t,” Will says when he finally puts his shoes on to let them out. “Used to try to. I’m sure you see how effective that’s been. Seems like everyone knows where to find me.”

 

Margot can’t really argue with that. 

 

Fortunately for them, no one comes today. Will puts her car on the backside of the house where no one can see it. He has to shovel the snow to do it - blade down, foot crushing down on it, heaving slush and ice over to the side. Thunk, shhhhhhh . Thunk, shhhhhhh . Thunk, shhhhhhh . Two hours of that in the early morning, sweating, wiping at his face with calf-skin work gloves. Not obvious to anyone who doesn’t come right up to the porch, clear enough that she can leave if she changes her mind. He covers it with a tarp to keep the worst of the frost and snowmelt from it, and it makes her think of summer houses with cotton covers on all the furniture, waiting for warm days.

 

Will still doesn’t seem satisfied with it, but it works for the moment, and centers him on something to do. At the very least, they can pretend she’s not here if anyone decides to check in on her, or another SWAT team shows up to check in on him, judging from his unhappy glances to the end of the gravel drive.  

 

She mostly listens to this, legs crossed at the knee, and phone tapping against her thigh as she holds it between thumb and forefinger. Thunk, shhhhhhh . Thunk, shhhhhhh . She supposes she can do something too. She checks her email. She clears her text messages. When that’s done, she turns the phone off, in dread of a call or a text, just in case. She’s a bad liar where Mason’s involved, as though her deceptions are a change in the weather and he feels them in his joints. The little screen going black is safety, as long as it stays like that. 

 

---

 

“I don’t know if we should stay here,” he tells her honestly. 

 

( “I’d like to explain why, but I don’t know how, I don’t think most people understand me even when I do,” is what his face also says after he’s done talking, and you know exactly how he feels. )

 

Margot taps the quiet phone against her thigh more frantically, weighing that. 

 

“Then let’s go somewhere you do know,” she concedes, pushing unbrushed hair over a shoulder and pretending that it’s always what she had planned. The drama of running away, and the fantasy of it working out.  

 

He offers to marry her that night before they leave and before her takes his armchair again in deference, if that’s safer for her, or a better buffer against Mason.

 

Margot purses her lips, thinks of the calculation in Doctor Lecter’s eyes, and tells him it’s probably not, not even to play pretend. 

 

---

 

Whether it’s from her own general life experience of succeeding downward, or her low expectations of men in general, or how humbly he lives in his house, Margot finds herself having to correct herself in regards to Will Graham and what he’s capable of.

 

She’s not a snob. Margot says this again - she’s not a snob, perfectly happy to pile into the front seat of his worn but well-kept Volvo, seat down in the back with seven dogs in little vests and collars at the ready to go, pressing against the back of her arm like she’s forgotten to touch them, and there’s nothing they like so much as a new person. Will throws a small and scuffed suitcase into the footwell behind his seat, but otherwise doesn’t keep much other than a manila folder full of papers, his laptop, and his phone, clearly comfortable with traveling light and often. All his things are maintained and clean, and even she steals a white shirt to wear under her cream and gold wool blazer, while he just nods, unbothered, thirty others just like it tucked into tidy, bleached rolls in the house, six taken with him. 

 

( But.

 

She brings a hand up to the collar of the blazer, and the tailored line of her slacks and little pointy black shoes. That’s it. That’s all she has, except for a quiet phone and the keys to her car which she throws into the glove compartment like she’s concerned someone might steal it while they’re gone to wherever it is that seems like a good idea to someone like Will. It’s both more and less agency than she’s ever had. 

 

“You look like you’re going to vomit,” Will says when he turns on the engine.

 

She hums, stubborn. “Must be the morning sickness,” she says, knowing full well it isn’t, and for all that Will is good at finding things out, Margot sits in the absolute certainty that he can never really know her body, shared offspring or sexual advances or not, and she can have her secrets. 

 

( You shared it the way someone lends things they want back. )  

 

They turn down the road, house forgotten with her car, and with it one of the few things that’s hers. The nausea gets more intense, but it’s quiet, and she can at least melt down in abject mute silence. 

 

They get about three lights into a suburb, and one away from the entrance to the highway before Will speaks again. 

 

“It’s ok to be afraid of what’s going to happen,” he says, and she can barely hear him over the engine of the car, and the gravel and ice popping under the tires. He doesn’t try to be anything but quietly conversational in the bluelight hours before dawn.  “I am all the time these days. I don’t know the last time I felt like I had the whole story.” 

 

“It’s a good thing we’re going to be parents,” she murmurs around a tight throat. 

 

“Yeah, that irony seems to keep coming back for me,” he sighs as well, and turns a palm to scratch at one of the dogs, pressing the cold dark of their nose into his shoulder, anxious for reassurance and Will reassured in some way for being able to provide it. More subtext she can’t read, same as her. 

 

There’s nothing really to complain about. He drives smoothly. He asks her if she needs to make a stop. He talks to her like an adult, no head games, no condescension, fading carefully into the lining of his seat and the tree lined eastern seaboard, headed south.  

 

---

 

( “Family property in St. Augustine. Not exactly the Hilton, but it’s a good place to get away for a bit, and if I don’t die in the next couple of years, hopefully I’ll get to retire there. Maybe tan a little.” )  

 

( “Oh, Florida,” you reply, surprised. “Good plan - throw me in a bikini and put me out to sun with all the other reptiles.” Will grins a little at this, smile stealing it’s way onto his face, and you raise a hand to your middle again, thinking of yolks turned to claws and scales in the safety of shells. )

 

---



It’s a long way to St. Augustine - a day and a half of straight driving, and nothing but the sad looking wintertime groves of trees and marshlands between cities. Lots of damp looking beach houses with widow’s watches on top of them, so that wives cam aimfully grieve lost sailors explains Will. Nice to watch a storm roll in, not so nice for morosely watching for boats to come into harbor. ( “Something my dad taught me. He sails - think he’s kind of sad to not have had a watcher sometimes, but he’s an asshole, more so than me, so it’s not surprising he didn’t have anyone.”

 

Margot scoffs at this, eying the little grey and blue cottages, and their peeling cheery paint, terraced porches cut into the sides of their roofs - like it’s a woman’s duty to think about that for the rest of their days and that there’s no joy save for staring out into the grey-green of the Atlantic from a balcony. Margot can’t imagine. She’d have long ago found a way to shack up with her fellow widows, and protected herself in the security of modest bereavement. She wonders how many did just that.

 

But it does make her think more about Will - one living parent who’s reclusive in common with him, some experience living on the coast with an aesthete mouth for words and trivia. She’s never seen a wedding band, or photos of someone in his house, but she guesses she’s never really asked what he’s leaving behind to do this...whatever this thing is he’s doing for her. She doesn’t really know him. She’s not really tried.

 

What are his ground rules? How far does the kindness go? Where does the train line end and she needs to take a cab or walk herself to the nearest street light, and through the dark to the next one? It’s suspicious how easily he takes to her needs, like he doesn’t have any of his own.

 

So she presses on that, to see if it hurts. 

 

“What kind of fixture do you see me as?” she asks, somewhere south of Raleigh - it takes her a bit to summon her courage, afraid he might change his mind if she doesn’t wait until it’s almost too late to turn around. “On the subject of watching, and expectations.” 

 

Will puzzles a little at that, tongue rolling between cheek and teeth. “Are you so accustomed to being a fixture that you think that you have to be one, or do you just think I’m in need of one?”

 

Margot shrugs, forehead pushed to the glass of the passenger window. They pass a trucker or two, a school bus, and a state trooper, which she gracefully pretends to not see Will flinch a little at. Guilty conscience, or maybe just bad memories - the man who didn’t kill all those people, but enough people thought that he did that it didn’t matter. “I have a decorative bachelors degree and once held a summer job at a coffee shop to prove a point. What do you think I’ve been to my family other than a fixture?” she says between sips of soda. 

 

Will nods, mouth moving to frown again. “What do you want to be?”

 

( Other than a mother goes unsaid. Will’s just along for the ride. He’s driving you hundreds of miles away from the things that might keep you from it. But what do you want other than that? )

 

“I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about it,” she hums. “I think I might have wanted to be a mountie when I was nine. Red coat, jodhpurs, and all - renounce the United States and become Canadian, like it’s joining the circus instead of an actual career path for people and I can just ride my way into it.”

 

“With your family’s money, you probably could have,” Will says with a hand that reaches up and around his shoulder to softly press at the snout of the german shepherd mix, long head resting against the top of the car seat. He does it thoughtlessly and throughout the drive, and all seven of them jockey for his attention in rounds like this. Margot envisions herself as a particularly pedigreed dog herself, the front seat her bed, her pregnancy her way of pushing into his space, and him attending to it without hesitation. A real pretty bitch in the background.

 

Margot sits up, recrosses her legs, and caps her soda until it’s twisted too tight. “Maybe,” she frowns. Maybe she should have. She can hear it in her head - my liberal, lesbian daughter that moved to Vancouver to go into law enforcement her father would say with a laugh, a big joke between associates and legal underwriters who bequeath a singular dollar to her in the will for not playing along in that universe, but far enough away from home that it merits humor and the occasional stilted call instead of disappointment or the constant barrage of comparisons and expectations up until his death. ( Hypertension, poor diet, family history with heart disease. You’d laugh all the way to the cemetery about his literal bad breeding if people hadn’t been watching you.

 

She sighs. “It’s the kind of thing you think is cool when you’re a kid and find to be pretty stupid when you’re an adult. Just a job, subject to all the same mundane inconveniences and disappointments. No horses either, unless it’s for an event, which is every bit as decorative as my current esteemed position of trust fund kid.”

 

Will nods, eyes fixed on the road, right hand still pulled up behind him to scratch around short white fur and a lolling tongue. “But for a few years it was something to look forward to,” he says. “Aspirational.”    

 

( What he means is precious, naive, a part of you replies snidely. )  

 

“Is this what we’re circling around to? Shoot for the moon and land among the stars?” she asks, suddenly angry and struggling not to show it. What about her reality is aspirational? The idea of red coats are dissolving into loose-fitting clothes and cocoa butter. The rides through the highlands are replaced with pushing strollers and playing at heterosexual normalcy with someone she doesn’t really know. Only running away is the same. “Wouldn’t you rather have something you want instead of trying to help me figure out what that is for me?”

 

Will thinks on that for the space between two freeway exits, chewing at the corner of his mouth. 

 

“You’ll be unsurprised to hear the things that I want as an adult are still mostly stupid,” he says, “and the low hanging fruit is to be a supportive father.” 

 

He doesn’t talk for a while afterwards, and Margot’s stomach is upset and full of bubbles, so she doesn’t either. 

 

---

 

Finding a hotel to accommodate seven dogs sounds difficult, but Will knows a little motor court in Savannah that he’s stayed in before - some kind of family friend that knows Will and his little entourage and is able to put them up last minute for a price Margot thinks sounds sketchy, but Will assures her is a favor, as long as they pay in cash. 

 

( He does - he whips out that little manila folder and hands off a few crisp bills, and accepts the keys given with a “thank you, baby - call your daddy, tell ‘em I hope he comes home safe” and you blink at the brief affectionate look he gives her in kind, a perfect match that takes him like an unexpected rain. “Empathy disorder,” he had told you two nights ago, something he prays the Punnett squares aren’t trying to hand down, the way you pray they don’t hand down your inability to fully commit to difficult decisions. )  

 

( You didn’t really commit to this. You let someone else do it for you.

 

Even at this time of year, the air is balmy and sticks to her skin underneath the shirt and the blazer, and the roar of the tiny window-mounted air conditioner fights it as best it can, a room as large as her closet at home, and half as well lit. 

 

There’s a single queen bed in the room. Neither fusses over this - a quick negotiation of who should be closer to the AC unit, or where the dog beds should be clustered on the ground, but otherwise another white shirt handed off without complaint, and another night in what is now her two day old underwear in her own hand after a shower, and borrowing a spare toothbrush from the overnight bag while Will stands outside the motel door to talk to someone on the phone. It’s humbling. 

 

They’ll be able to take some time tomorrow to get settled and get her clothes and toiletries of her own in Florida if she doesn’t want to make due with gas station ones, so for now she just needs to treat it like a party gone a little too late into the night. One continuous walk of shame to America’s oldest city, subject to womanhood’s oldest trap. She knows those walks well enough, the kind of comfortable filth she can accept, though she typically leaves them smelling like a new perfume on a foreign counter instead of travel toothpaste. The trap is new, and cramps her stomach tonight. 

 

While she brushes her teeth, she listens. 

 

“Thank you for the invitation, but no...I won’t be available tomorrow or the night following...no, no profile or crime scene, just other plans to attend to. I’m sure you and Alana will enjoy your gift.” 

 

When she’s done, Will is done too. 

 

They stare at the blue glow of the parking lots lights on the ceiling until someone falls asleep. Margot keeps her hands over her middle, and dreams of sons that are made up of everything except herself, and do exactly as she asks, and wakes up startled several times to Will still staring at the ceiling, checking his phone hour by hour. 

 

---

 

The change from Georgia to Florida is imperceptible, save for the sense of arrival sneaking up with each exit on the highway. Margot wakes up with frizzy hair that breaks two of Will’s comb teeth, and a cup of decaf with a wilting egg sandwich from the drive-in near the motel is sitting in her stomach about as well as it sounds, and the nagging dread that this isn’t going to work, this isn’t going to work playing a tune with the weather forecast on a tube TV.

“Still nervous?” asks Will, sipping at burnt coffee, sitting at the foot of the bed. He could be her husband. They could just be going on vacation - travelling cheap, getting ready for sandals on the beach, comfortable nights on the couch thinking about what do they need to do to be ready for a baby, what should we name them, what does dinner on Friday night look like-   

 

“Aren’t you always?” she asks, and considers throwing up.   

 

The cheery mishmash of palm trees and beach homes is something she’s liked in the past - exotic family vacations after Christmas to get away from the chill, back when those could be fun, or spring breaks taken in cross country drives with sorority sisters, best friends, the occasional lover. These taste like Shirley Temples as a young girl, and daiquiris as a young woman, and salt around the mouth both ways. Today tastes like Sprite and unflavored chewing antacids that WIll keeps with his aspirin, which Margot assumes is part of the menu for expecting mothers, like a secret gluten-free option that is all just varying amounts of acid reflux.

 

Saint Augustine isn’t very far from the thoughtlessly blue and orange state sign that welcomes them to the state. Home , she tries on for size, but driving beneath the tangle of red roofs, palm trees, and scrub oaks that ambulate between novelty restaurants and gift shops with shells glued to things like that is the entirety of a vacation here summarized in neon dyes and flip flops, it doesn’t quite fit.

 

“So why Saint Augustine?” she asks. 

 

“Grandparents,” Will replies, “both dead, by the way, so there’s not any sort of heartwarming reunion and introduction waiting here. Only thing I have from my mother is a propensity to sunburns and the back half of a duplex on the island here. Not very likely that your brother would look for you here. It’s a bit...” he hesitates here, trying to flavor it correctly, “rustic.” 

 

“They’re going to find my car eventually,” she says, closing her eyes to the traffic. It’s stop and go, heading out onto a long expanse of bridge. Two lions stare them down from either side in plaster, gateway to Anastasia Island. Appropriate for missing plutocrats, especially discarded ones, she thinks with a hum. A good place for heirs and heiresses to come back unlooked for from social upheaval - she even has her very own Rasputin in Mason. ( He never does seem to die, but you also haven’t made a good effort of it, soft handed girl that you are with a taste for other soft handed girls. ) It’s an unexpected boost of confidence in the washed-out color of the ocean, creeping up on either side, like she should be here for the sake of irony if nothing else.   

 

“And I suspect I know who will find it,” Will replies in a sing-song voice. “One of three options, anyway. I did say that my house was popular lately.” 

 

“You don’t think Mason’s going to look for you, or is he in your math?” 

 

“I’m sure somebody will,” he shrugs. “But he’s not going to look for the holdings of a family trust that names another trust instead of a person. If he shows up, it’s someone else’s fault, not mine.”

 

Margot smiles. “I guess it’s dumb of me to assume byzantine estate planning is a province of only the wealthy. Or island retreats.”    

 

“Living on the water used to be the province of the poor,” Will rebuts, and pulls into the narrow roads of the neighborhood, the dull water of the bay disappearing with the white pillars and maws of the statues. Grass splits the concrete at the corners - winter vacationers mill between stop signs and the waving poles of fishermen at the walkway edges. “So I guess we’re both welcome, depending on who you ask.” 

 

---

 

The duplex is old - lilac purple with white filigree trim, an Easter egg on a boulevard of other absurd pastel buildings that are brined with marine salt. It’s charming, in that half a disaster kind of way, but people describe her that way, and she would describe Will in similar terms, so really the whole thing seems like the perfect place for them to add a half disaster baby and half disaster trauma bonding merkin relationship. 

 

( “Just...consider it,” your mother is saying, and the field lights are bright outside the stadium and you cut your eyes  away from her, and her guests, not yours.

 

“Cute,” she says, like that should cover it.

 

Will snorts, and throws the car into park to let the dogs out to roam in the paved drive. They’re good that was, never straying far and made loyal by Will’s attention. Margot feels cross again at the idea of not being so different, but pets the shepherd mix when he sticks his nose in her hand anyway. Brotherhood, with both more and less teeth than what she’s accustomed to. 

 

The key to the house is behind the deck and under one of the shake shingles, a pulled tooth with a filling. It makes sense Will wouldn’t keep something this specific on a keychain where he can reach it anytime, but perhaps that’s not right either - maybe it’s weird that he thinks so little of it that he’s ok with keeping the only way in behind a mildewing wooden slat. He looks at it like it surprises him, and rolls his shoulders before ascending the stairs to unlatch the metal screen door.

 

( He said it was his mother’s family - you can sympathize with that kind of casual disdain for unwanted inheritance. You save yours for your toothy smile; you want the money, not the resemblance.

 

“It’s probably musty,” he warns. “I haven’t been in for a few years, and my father is notorious for smoking where he’s not supposed to.” But Will walks in like he’s comfortable in that, opening old windows as he goes, flipping light switches until he thinks that’s good enough for company. 

 

He didn’t lie. It’s rustic, insofar as it’s trapped somewhere between an old cottage and the 1980s, complete with ugly seafoam formica countertops and a white couch, hazardously close to a large ashtray that isn’t empty. The kitchen sink maybe holds a pot and a half, and the chintz carpet looks like it escaped an airport terminal where it’s featured, and the wooden floor like it’s survived one too many storms where it isn’t. Two bedrooms, he tells her, one bathroom, probably the kind of wallpaper that makes you think you’re trapped in a nursing home. It’s a movie set more than a home to her. This is a stage, not where she’s expected to sit through months of feeling foreign in her own body - now she can feel foreign inside and out, she thinks with a frown.  

 

“Too busy to take a vacation and work on it?” she asks, sidestepping a glass side table, watching the palms at the other end of the lane waving at her. “Why didn’t you ever sell it, if you don’t like it?”

 

Will runs the kitchen tap for a moment, filling a glass and looking at it in the window light, before dumping it and filling it again. “Nostalgia. Passive equity. The novelty of owning a beach house,” he says. “Do you think that you’ll ever sell the Verger Estate when you outlive your brother?” 

 

Margot sighs, and drops herself onto the couch. It smells like stale cigarettes and potpourri. It very nearly smells like menthols if she turns her head the wrong way, and rather than spinning out into nausea as many other things do to her in the early weeks of pregnancy, it sits familiar and strange in her mouth. Two of the dogs jump up to sit with her - the long-haired one, Winston with the sad eyes, and a small spaniel mix that patiently noses at the back of her elbow with huffing sniffs. 

 

“Probably not,” she says, absently petting the curling hair of the smaller dog. “It would bother them more for me to have it than to sell it, and besides,” she sighs, Will handing her a glass of water that she holds it for a moment, “it’s mine.” 

 

The water here tastes limey, and is slow to uncloud. There are more dogs than sense, she can hear the street from the front windows, and she thinks the floor is liable to give way if she jumps hard on the corners, but out in the car, her cell phone is quiet and dead, and the address proudly shows no ownership that anyone would think to check for Margot Verger, and maybe not even Will Graham. If she can survive all the rest of her life up to this point, she can survive living with a stranger in a tiny townhouse long enough to get to pick what happens next.

 

( When you outlive your brother, Will had said. Not if. That makes you feel safer than the anonymity of 800 miles.

 

---  

 

The front property belongs to a nice middle-aged couple that lives in Wisconsin who winter on the coast like migratory birds, and things are still orderly from their occupancy. It’s not likely they’ll see them very much, but Margot should decide how she wants to be introduced “to keep them from asking too many questions.” Will explains this between checking sinks for water damage, and windows for sticky panes, like he expects all of it to be in disrepair and must plan at once how to fix these. An irony, seeing the giant tarp holding his actual house together in the chilly Virginia winter. She’d laugh, but the handyman routine is a mask the way the socialite is Margot’s. A safe face to wear. 

 

Much like pulling the car to the back of his house, he’s not quite content, and palms at his pocket where his phone sits periodically, but never actually reaches for it where she can see. He places no calls, and sends no texts of his own. Whoever he’s expecting to hear from, he’s not in close enough confidence with Margot to share. 

 

She considers he’s avoiding someone too, and that maybe he doesn’t know what to refer to the two of them as either. 

 

( You also can’t picture that there’s no faults beneath his surface, waiting to rupture the same as the floorboards beneath the carpet. You’re smarter than all get out, even your hateful father said so, and Will Graham is undoubtedly doing this for you because he is compelled in some way to do that instead of something else.

 

Margot spends this time drifting from room to room, exploring in the corners where here there’s an old secretary desk and matching twin bed, petite and long in the middle of a tiny spare bedroom, and here there’s a pink jet tub that was probably expensive in its day, and if she squints between the upstairs window and more palms, she thinks the masts of the harbor boats are waving to the west. 

 

There are pictures - yellowing rectangles in old gold-foil frames. One is of Will, or she thinks it is - a boy with wide blue eyes, big ears, wet curling hair gone flat with its own weight above a round face and body wrapped in a big blue towel. He looks very small and thin, suspicious of the camera. He doesn’t smile. Margot thinks that’s why she thinks it’s him. 

 

Everyone else staring out from the walls she doesn’t recognize. Glamour shots from the 70s of a young woman with even white teeth to match the shingles of the house, an aging couple in matching collared shirts and bolo ties, nighttime sparklers that pick up the whiteness of feet beneath them but nothing else.  

 

It’s easy to forget Will is a person, that maybe his own mother blew smoke over celebrity rags on Saturday mornings too, or that he’s been called a disappointment before, or that college was an escape from people he knows to people he doesn’t. He lacks her social ease, or maybe her bluster, content to go with her suggestions, so probably not those things, because those are Margot’s things, and he’ll have his own behind the developed film, maybe a few more windows in need of an explanation. Not everyone is in therapy for attempted murder - a few of them have to be successful ones, surely. What kind of fucked up do you have to be to be the psychiatrist’s favorite in a progression of fucked up minds? 

 

She should ask him, Margot thinks and turns a frame in hand, hanging it back on its nail when Will appears in the hallway, dogs following with clicking nails.   

 

“You were a cute kid,” she says, and bends to scratch the shepherd mix behind the ears. Jack , she thinks he called him, like he hates the name but that it can’t be helped. 

 

“Cute like the house, I’m sure,” Will huffs, and Margot can’t help her own smile at that. Self-deprecating to the last. He looks at the frame with a squint. “Summer vacation, back when my grandparents still asked for me to come over. I think I’m six here,” he adds, tapping the glass. 

 

“Good memories, being six?” she asks.

 

“No, but the size of the ears say I’m not ten yet,” he says matter-of-factly. “That’s something I hope our theoretical combined genetics leave behind, for everyone’s sake. Having to grow into their ears.”  

 

“You could always just say ‘the baby’. Seeing as that’s what it is.” 

 

“In abstract for me,” he says. 

 

Margot feels heat in her cheeks and neck - embarrassment. “Do you not believe me?” she asks. Sometimes she doesn’t believe it herself, but that’s between her and the empty spaces of rooms, and glances in the mirror, and when she remembers she can’t unwind with a drink or go home.

 

“I don’t have skills with professional detachment,” Will interjects, scratching at the back of his head. “Or maintaining it, I guess. I keep finding that out, day by day, but sometimes it feels safer to start from there. I believe you,” he adds. “I just want to know where you want me to fall before it happens anyway.” 

 

Margot does too, but she doesn’t say that. 

 

---

 

Once it’s established the place is intact and hasn’t self-destructed in its long solitary wait for visitors, it’s time for groceries, and dog food, and hopefully some new clothes. Chinese takeout if they can find it. Margot feels lacquered with her own layers of sleep and unfamiliar utilitarian cotton. It’ll feel good to be clean and in her own things, even if Will won’t let her pay for them in anything but cash. 

 

( Another handful of crisp bills for her to carry before they leave. Not more than she’s ever had, but a near thing that leaves her awkward with confusion and gratitude - “you should have something in case something happens to me; we’ll figure out some more in the morning.”

 

It feels good to have plastic bags full of things to wear, every bit as exciting coming from the local department store as it is coming from a high street shop. They’re all practical things - shirts of her own, underwear, socks, a few beach dresses that she thinks will grow with her. It’s kind of a relief to still be able to enjoy that, that the value isn’t predicated on the cost but instead the newness. Maybe she’s not totally broken by her upbringing. She enjoys a shower, and exceedingly soggy sweet and sour chicken that is neon red in its pool of sauce, and even manages to laugh a little when Will suggests that it’s probably carcinogenic and they’re both well on their way to being terrible parents.

 

They sleep in separate rooms this time - Will insists on her taking the larger bedroom with the larger bed, but Margot lays down on the creaking twin frame, watching the line of the gold frame with the blue-eyed boy glow in the light sneaking between the blinds of the window, and ignores him, waving him off with a “good night, thank you, this is fine for tonight, I’ll keep the door open in case I need you.” There’s only one bathroom, so it’s not like there’s an inherently superior space, and it’s quieter in here. All the noise comes from her - rolling on the bed frame, long sighs when she thinks her heartbeat is faster than she wants it to be or when the tag of her new nightgown itches at the base of her neck, shuffling her legs beneath starchy old sheets that smell of hall closet and artificial vanilla. 

 

It’s practically like staying in the same room with the doors open anyway. She watches the dim light of his cell phone come on and off until she falls asleep, a sort of lighthouse just down the hall looking for some kind of response. 

 

---

 

Margot wakes in the night, like the hotel the night before. This time, there are whispers.  

 

“I don’t have to be at your disposal. You should have left me in prison if that’s what you wanted.” 

 

A pause - the flashing of the phone screen down the hall, barely more than the glow of a digital clock, or a lamp from the far end of a long, dark house. She’s not entirely sure she’s awake, but she cuts her eyes to the hallway, and the sparse silhouettes of cheap frames shining dully, and the people are still in them, nameless and hidden in her disinterest in asking who they were. Will sighs, slow and measured, like he doesn’t want it heard by anyone and that’s how she knows she’s not dreaming, because the sound is honest. Whatever he was waiting on seems to have arrived.

 

( You wonder if he ever sleeps for fear of it.

 

“Of course there are questions. Of course I know what it looks like -...Thank you for considering me ...I had thought maybe you didn’t know how to do that. No, I think, no-

 

There’s a clicking sound. Teeth coming together, grinding.  A longer pause, so long that she thinks that maybe he’s hung up. Maybe he’s fallen asleep waiting for a reply. Maybe he’s died, or closed the door, and it’s all the same for the moment.  Margot shuts her eyes to the outlines in the hall, and shuts her ears to the sound, and tries to sleep and trust that the teeth aren’t for her, and he’ll be there in the morning to not explain, the same way she doesn’t explain either. 



Chapter Text

 

 

 

It’s the mirror that does it for her, really. 

 

Surprising that it would be the last straw when the straws were already not very numerous, but the mirror is relentless and worthy of its distinguished position. Margot’s looking more bedraggled than she’s ever been in a fairly manicured life, and she hates how obvious it is in the glass. Some of these things she can see - others not. The unrelenting square of herself each morning and night insists on showing what it can and let her fill in the blanks. 

 

Bandanas around the top of her head while walking in the humidity because she has her grandmother’s thick, sometimes frizzy hair. Nails chewed in spots, and overlong in others, hormones battling nerves for supremacy. Acne takes parts of her face, and stress takes the others. Cocktails are replaced with supplements. Walks to the coffee shop are replaced with walks to the docks and back because she needs to keep her fitness up and her feet from swelling. Her breasts become two stones stuck to her chest, pressing painfully against her ribs. There are no horses here, or she's sure that would be taken away too. 

 

(Don't think about your horse. Don't think about things that you like that are left behind, and might not be there when you get back.)

 

Where’s the glow? she thinks, staring into the little medicine cabinet, prodding at the bags beneath either eye. When does she round out and become invulnerable to criticism, when she is vulnerable to everything else? she thinks, eying its edges that are flecked at the bottom corners with toothpaste, behind the tops of fish oil capsules, folate, the largest container of Pepto Bismol that a person can legally buy. 

 

( The spots annoy you, because you put them there. You are a graceless spitter. You apologize to Will about this once while trying your best to clean it with warm water and a face towel and he stops you because you’re making it worse. “Sold me on the idea that boys weren’t for me - I certainly don’t intend to swallow,” you hum around embarrassment, and he gives one of those pretty frowning smiles he makes when something is funny and he doesn’t want to show it but he can’t help it, he tears at the seams with it. )

 

Margot looks at it, and it looks back at her with her own face. The dark circles under her eyes, sprinkled with red dots are both new and old, burst capillaries from vomiting. The back of her throat tastes like bile and pretzel crackers in turns, and she thinks it would probably be more efficient to maybe not eat, but the nausea comes then too, and she’s been told by a very nice nurse practitioner that sees her in Jacksonville without the necessity of family health care plans and pressing questions about her income or why she’s paying in cash that she should try to get some nutrition in her even if it doesn’t stay for long. 

 

( “There’s medications for that,” she says, sunny as a spring day with her nitrile gloves and sonogram wand, and you marvel at that. Your parents used to throw that around, thinking antidepressants and vitamins would solve a lot of things for you, until they didn’t. “Isn’t there something we can give her?” they’d ask, and much like pregnancy, the only real cure is time and space. )

 

She turns out the light and closes the door. She’ll be back in a few hours to do away with dinner, and after that, more crackers. 

 

---

 

The first time Margot breaks up with a girlfriend, it’s on the downlow in a private girls’ high school at the edges of Arlington. Not her decision, mind you - Margot keeps things until they are taken from her. Letting something go is foreign. She thinks it was about being seen by a teacher, but the girl just says she’s changed her mind, that they’re doing something wrong, and she’s got college to think of , after all.

 

At the age of fifteen, still not driving, ( just starting to drink but no one knows or wants to ), there’s not anyone to talk to about it, or places to hide and lick at her wounds. Her girlfriend was who she had, other than a few people she hangs out with but hesitates to say she’s close to. Friends are for people who don't change schools like she does, and Margot’s parents are a non-starter. So erase that from the teenage fantasy, the drama and romance of the first time you get dumped. There’s no comfort from her mother, little pints of ice cream, talks about how she can do better, or how some people “just aren’t meant to be”. Those are for prom kings and queens, and other youths living manicured suburban lives that their parents have imagined for them, and Margot’s never fully been able to envision the same for herself. 

 

“What’s got you all bent out of shape?” Mason asks like it personally inconveniences him over waldorf salads and chicken marsala. He’s picked around the walnuts, left in a pattern matched to the china’s rim. 

 

( He’ll bitch about it before getting up and heading out to do whatever things Mason does as a young man coming into his cruelty. You avoid asking. You don’t really want to know what those things are yet. He’s still in the pulling your pigtails phase, and you’re smart enough to know that’s better than what everyone else gets. “I hate these greasy little bastards,” he’ll sneer, smacking chicken fibers between perfectly straight teeth, and your mother will sigh and scold half-heartedly. You keep your head down. )   

 

“Just tired,” Margot replies, and she is. 

 

Heartsickness look like a bad night of sleep. Heartsickness looks like biting the inside of a cheek, or stubbing a toe, and the wincing sticks in place, freezes there just like adults claim it will when children pull funny faces. At this stage, there’s nothing to suspect other than the usual things, assumptions made that there’s nothing she could be up to because the older, prouder Vergers have done everything they think they need to do to make a normal child out of their doe-eyed daughter. 

 

Will is always wincing, and that’s how she knows he’s pulling the same trick. He didn’t listen to the adults about keeping his face smooth either, and now he doesn’t know how else to look. He’s done everything he thinks he needs to do to act like a normal man, all the way down to making an honest woman of Margot Verger, the perennially dishonest. 

 

---

 

Will makes pancakes almost every morning for the first month, trying to push past her constant nausea in the afternoons and evenings with soft foods. When he finishes with that, he finds things to fuss with around the house, like they embarrass him, and he can hide them if he covers them up fast enough. 

 

“That’s what you make for guests,” he shrugs with that little wry smile of his when she asks on the third appearance of the steaming pile of dough in one week. He calls them flapjacks and insists on using the white corn syrup already in the cabinets to glaze his own with, this person she’s heard rattle off entire stanzas of Emerson and and doesn’t so much as blink at her scars and her stories about how she gets those scars, like he needs to make this veneer of wholesomeness and a blue-collar origin story over how entirely strange he actually is. Pastoral habits are his Clark Kent glasses, when every other word out of his mouth is Superman’s laser vision.

 

( You wear masks too. His just don’t always fall into place right, sort of like the glasses, constantly being pushed back up, straightened, pressed into the bridge of his nose like bruising force will help him. )    

 

“You’re pretty good at this domestic stuff,” she compliments him one day, mouth half full of syrup and dough. She has her own syrup, something blackberry that she picks up in a fit of impracticality while walking through a corner store. Not her first time in them, of course, she’s in her thirties now and there’s thousands in every county, but the chances to buy bright and cheap trash food come further and further apart as she loses opportunities to control her day. Will raises an eyebrow when she takes it from the bag alongside big oranges and lemons, but silently pulls it out morning after morning anyway.

 

“I am, contrary to the court of public opinion, perfectly capable of benignly feeding myself and others,” he snorts, and takes a bracing sip of coffee.  

 

“As opposed to malignantly?” she teases off-handedly, staring out the front window to the neighbors and the street. He’s making a face when she turns to look at him again that he doesn’t hide quickly enough.


Will sighs through his nose, takes a bite, clear syrup shellac gleaming in the too bright fluorescents of the kitchen. “Plenty of meals with bad intentions,” he says. “Shouldn’t break bread with people who don’t have your best interests in mind.” 

 

“Cheers to that,” she snorts, and drinks freshly made orange juice that makes her stomach a pit of acid, but everything does that anyway, and she needed something to distract her hands between the first time they nod at each other in the mornings and when the food is ready. She settles the empty glass, and that same face he was making falls back into place, like he doesn’t know it’s there. They’re both tired.

 

It’s hard to tell if it’s more than that. 

 

---

 

( That’s not true, though. It’s pretty easy to know it’s not that for him. You listen in the darkness, sometimes in the stillness of a golden lit afternoon like now, where you lay on the long but narrow line of your bedroom mattress, resting, while he frets down the hall. It’s almost like clockwork.

 

( “I’m sure you’re fine without me. You’ve avoided Jack for a literal decade.”

 

( “This is what I should have done anyway.”

 

( “I’m retired from your sort of artistry. One piece, and my last.” )

 

( “Stop calling.”

 

( Stop answering, you think, and watch the sun glint blonde-red-brown through your loose hair, crushed against the pillow in places, hiding your face like an overgrown vine in others. But like you couldn’t stop pressing against the desire to be a part of a family and the desire to follow your long-armed graces and muses, he can’t stop pressing against the desire to be a good man and the desire to be a terrible one with whoever’s on the other line.

 

---

 

“Are you sure you don’t want to go home?” she asks him on a Tuesday, worrying at the edge of the wallpaper where it meets the frame of her bedroom door. 

 

From the floor, Will shoots her a glance that is something between wounded and ponderous. 

 

It’s as good a time as any to ask, while he’s tied up with a task, and doesn’t have somewhere to dodge the question. Will has been industriously painting the hallway until the whole of the house stinks of latex and a curious shade of morning glory blue takes over the liminal space between open bedroom doors that seems less for his benefit and more for hers. The cheap gold frames will practically glow from atop it, little yellow stars on an evening sky, Venus in the shape of the picture of the young woman that Will never identified properly, but Margot has come to suspect is his mother.  Very Mother Mary appropriate, very Spanish village of him, made all the more bizarre by not knowing if it’s intentional or not.  

 

The question seems to surprise him - not pleasantly, or even just out of inobservance, but like a bee sting and his first instinct is to swat at it. His brows draw low, and he recoats his roller brush as an excuse to look away for a moment and compose an answer. 

 

“What makes you think that?” he asks delicately.

 

Margot shrugs, rolling an ankle idly. Without the riding boots, it’s a little too easy, foot pivoting smoothly, none of the resistance of leather to keep her together at the joints. With how swollen her feet have been in the last few weeks, she’s not sure she’d even fit in them. 

 

“It’s been two months but you still act like an animal sniffing out a new stall. Lots of skittish looks at the door, waiting for all the other animals.”  

 

Will very nearly rolls his eyes, a half-grin taking his face captive. “You’ve been spending too much time with the dogs,” he snorts. “Or me. Probably that.” 

 

“Think I’m not capable of making a sentence scream like you do?” Margot hums. “What do you think that decorative private college degree is for if not sounding like all the other assholes at the shareholder dinner?” 

 

Will shrugs, and rolls a broad stripe of blue onto the bare wall. The ugly chintz paper and musty  wood of the hall fall away with each pass. It’s almost more alien than the dated pattern to watch it disappear - covering up the rightful owner. “Traditions are important to parents. If you’d asked me why I had to go turkey hunting at twelve years old when I was still afraid of guns, I would have told you it was because my father is a macho asshole, but he saw it as some kind of shared ritual.” 

 

Margot looks to the hall light, and back to the wall, considering that image - gangly boy, growing into his hands, thinking he might grow into his feelings too, but not before having the loudness of a rifle startle him, feathers flying. 

 

She sighs. “Pontifying about ROI is probably the shared ritual more than the prestigious college, but it sure makes a nice bragging point at the women’s luncheon.” 

 

( It did. You dressed in something scratchy and wool and sat quietly with your legs crossed and tried not to look at anyone and let people talk about your upcoming experiences like they were their own. “Did you hear that Margot’s attending Wellesley?” says your mother, smiling big like that’s something that actually matters to you. You care insofar it means that you can leave. You can be somewhere else, lines of states making fences between you and your family that you’re terrible at making with words. Filial piety, your advisor called it. Foolish, you said instead.

 

Will nods, looking at his work. 

 

“You haven’t wanted to go home for a while,” he says, considering that and the paint in equal measure. He’s not wrong. “I don’t know why you’d think I’d want to. Not just because of this -” and he waves at the hall, “- though if you didn’t contemplate asking me to drive back on the first day after seeing it, I’d be surprised.” 

 

“I’m not choking up silver spoons at the prospect of some seasonal mildew and formica countertops, or old florals in the powder room if that’s what you’re implying. Not enough to get homesick.”

 

“I am,” Will replies, and frowns like he’s misspoken. “Choking, that is, not implying. This isn’t one of the memories I want to share - I want better for my child than what I had. That means no formica countertops, or peeling hallways. Those are easy to fix. It also means no Wolf Trap, or FBI, or any of the other things that like to go bump in the night. Those are...less easy to fix.”

 

Margot shuffles on her feet. “They don’t go bump in the night as much as they call, yeah?”      

 

There’s an awkward moment where Will doesn’t have a response to that anymore than he did to his wanting to go home. He doesn’t look away, but she thinks if he could do it without feeling like it was surrendering something, he would. 

 

A few breaths between them - a little wave of the usual nausea comes and goes, probably more from the paint than the topic. 

 

“Is there something you need from this conversation?” he asks. In turn, Margot feels a little embarrassed, the same way the first time she introduced herself and pushed a little too hard for him to introduce himself.

 

Instead, Margot runs a hand through her hair - tied at the bottom to keep it from blowing out in the spring humidity, sticking to her fingers when they get caught in the knot. “I just wanted to know if you knew what you wanted. You’ve been...” and she sucks her teeth for a moment, “...good about checking in on me. The mature co-parenting thing to do is to make sure you have the same. Or I’d guess so. Healthy relationships aren’t my wheelhouse.”   

 

“We should make a club,” he says in a low snide tone, pouring more paint into the tray, hands kept busy with work. “Thank you,” he adds, quietly and gentler now. “I don’t know what I’d even ask for, but it’s...nice to know I have the option.” 

 

Margot’s startled to feel that’s the truth, and pushes past a sudden shyness that makes her want to retreat. Show’s over, introverts return to their respective corners of the arena. “Whatever it is, you’d still have to pay for it,” she teases, and rocks on the back of her heels, turning to look at his work. 

 

“So, what is this anyway?” she asks. “You don’t strike me as having a passion for interior design - maybe projects, but not color theory.”   

 

“I’m nesting, I guess,” Will replies. “Got to start somewhere, and the hallway’s as good a spot as any. You’re welcome to do the same whenever you’d like - anything you want.” 

 

“Except to repaint the hallway.” 

 

“Not a fan of the color?” he asks, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand, roller brush turning and turning in his hand. He doesn’t sound disappointed, but Margot feels it anyway, like he thinks he’s misjudged what she’d want, or that what he wants is offensive.

 

( Maybe it is; it just happens to not be the paint color.

 

She shakes her head, smiling, and doesn’t know how to explain it doesn’t feel like her place to make changes. In a weird way, Virginia is still home, but the kind that’s a perpetual warzone. Margot knows to leave, even when things inside her want to stay, and there’s nothing that Will said that makes her think he doesn’t feel the same.  

 

“Blue for boys, right?” she asks, and crosses her fingers. "If you care about those kinds of things." 

 

---

 

Local family asks for investigation into disappearance of popular socialite , says the article header, with her smiling secretively in Mugler black beneath, eyes smoked at the edges, nothing of her poor relationship with the local family to be seen in them. She looks good in the photo - maybe a charity event, where the charity should have been the generous donation of whatever money was spent on the event and outfits directly, but the rich couldn’t bear to not be seen in their altruism. What’s a generous donation without a donor? 

 

Balancing Will’s laptop on her thighs, one of his white shirts pressed into the keyboard edge and erasing the edges of her in the vast brightness of the chenille couch, Margot thinks it’s a good thing no one would recognize her with the way she looks these days. 

 

She made it a long time without asking, but she gets curious eventually about Mason. Not that Margot isn’t always curious, but like the first mile on an unfamiliar path, she follows Will’s lead, she keeps the disaster percolating in the background and tries to train the compulsion of looking at a phone or the lifestyle pages out of herself and look forward to other things. Margot would commend herself on a job well done, reading paperbacks left in Will’s bedroom and going on walks with seven tethered dogs jockeying for his attention and hers, playing at newlyweds, or siblings, or friends - whatever fits the audience.  

 

( “Oh, who’s this?” asks the woman in the front duplex unit, smiling while Will looks at Margot with a tight mouth, never sure where the boundary lies here between you. “This is Margot,” he says, neatly sidestepping. “We’re staying together for a while.” )

 

But Margot is curious; about Mason and what people are saying about her. No good trying to claim a family fortune if they declare you dead before you can triumph over their convoluted rules to get it. 

 

( “How nice,” says the woman, looking between the two of you, two feet apart, too early in your pregnancy to show anything other than the yellowish tinge of someone that’s sick. The speculation is probably more exciting or wholesome than the reality - just old fashioned bad decisions. But maybe that makes it easier to guess, the more likely thing.

 

She reads on, eyes glazing over descriptions of her finer qualities, pleasantries that make her sound more interesting than she is and more beloved than she ever has been. Mason calls her a “delicate sort”, like she’s waifishly wandering the streets of Baltimore just waiting to be crushed underfoot. Which, if she’s honest about it, she supposes she is, with Mason at every corner with his shiniest loafers on waiting for the privilege to be first. “My sister struggles with harmful thoughts sometimes. She gets these ideas about running away, you see, but we’re worried if that’s what happened here,” he’s reported to say. “We’ve made multiple attempts to make contact, but all of it has gone unanswered - very unusual. She needs my support, and a stable environment, and we pray that she or God forbid whoever’s taken her will come back, no questions asked.”  

 

Margot wants to just scoff and close the screen, but the phrasing is weird, how he beseeches more than just her as a silly girl, a stupid woman, a cat that’s slipped the door and gotten lost just down the street. No questions asked about what?

 

Well the car, of course. 

 

Given recent incidents reported and investigated at the David Dunlap Observatory, there’s concern that the location of the car may suggest foul play rather than psychiatric issues. Only recently reopened following the discovery of the body of Beverly Lynn Katz, and infamous for grisly dismemberments that have kept the building locked away from the public for the majority of the winter months, the white Mercedes-Benz belonging to Margot Verger was discovered a week ago sitting in front of the facility when the city parking enforcement ran the plates for a tow. 

 

Margot frowns at that.   

 

“They didn’t find my car at your house,” she says to the room, Will somewhere in the hallway and fussing with a lightswitch plate that never lights quite fast enough for his taste.

 

“Not yet anyway,” Will says unseen. 

 

“Not at all. Someone moved it somewhere more conspicuous,” she adds. “Maybe a week or two ago. Maybe you’re off the hook after all and they did you a favor - much more exciting people associated with the observatory than Will I-didn’t-kill-all-those-people Graham.” 

 

There’s no reply to that, only the thump of tools placed on the ground and the sounds of socked feet padding down the hall. Will is a breeze blowing in, standing behind the couch and uncomfortably close when a hand comes down to push the screen upwards. 

 

It’s not very often that Margot sees Will as anything other than a quiet and unobtrusive roommate that has a talent for verbal barbs, but a general preference to be seen as kind, or at least self-possessed. Now, inches from her head, a different animal inhabits the musty Floridian townhouse that she hasn’t seen. The reflection of his face in the glass is blank, but hawk-eyed, angry. He doesn’t look at her own shocked face in front of his, fixated on the words instead. His thumb at the corner whitens the pixels with the force of his grip. 

 

She wonders if he’s ever broken one of his toys like Mason. 

 

“I didn’t ask for the favor,” Will sneers, pushing himself back and towards the hall once more. “If it’s a favor at all. It’s not, by the way,” he continues, and disappears.

 

( “A stag got lost in a storm and broke through the window,” says he, and you laughed at the idea of its violence, or that he’s even capable of matching it. You didn’t ask what the stag was, but as time passes you know now it wasn’t a deer.

 

Margot supposes she doesn’t often consider the possibility of people being interested in messing up someone else’s life. It’s so often her own that it’s almost unthinkable that someone else has a dark star in their skies, with smothering intentions, that threats are endemic to a small square of land she puts her feet on step by step. Again she considers that Will is running too - theirs is a relationship of survival, safety in numbers.

 

Again she considers that Will shares similar dark impulses, with less of a tether, maybe cut shorter still with no outlet. They’re both without therapists now, except each other, and that’s less therapy and more the kind of conversations you have late at night and hope the other person forgets, and you wonder party after party if they’ll tell, if they’ll remind you.  

 

She stares at the screen, and her own fair face smiling vacantly for the camera above rows and rows of useless words, until one of the dogs knocks her hand from the keyboard and she turns to scratch at their ears. 

 

---  

 

Before dinner, same day, same glass table with the scratch on the side closest to the window and pock marked with syrup she can’t be bothered to mop up, Margot listens to Will tap nails into the framework of wainscotting for her room - something elegant for a space tied somewhere between a grandchild’s bedroom and the final resting place of a single woman. Maybe another relic of Will’s unseen mother, never mentioned next to his strained relationship with his father. Margot considers if Will feels like he’s erasing her. Or if he thinks about her at all. 

 

( You try not to think about yours, but her bleached hair is near most doors. The smell of the menthols in every bar, like she’s watching you palm the side of someone’s waist beneath a blouse .) 

 

Margot’s supposed to be on a walk, but she’s tired today - the expectant kind, not the standard, frowning kind, and expectant mothers should take it easy or something, if the nurse practitioner is to be listened to the way she listens to the afternoon. The palms are shushing each other outside in the wind. The commuters drive by on the street, humming down narrow lanes.

 

“How is that better? How? ” Will asks the empty space of her room above all this, echoing down the furnitureless hall. Tap, tap, tap , the hammer goes. “You’re not an arbiter of my intentions and needs, and your alterations are, as always, unwanted. Do you have to insert yourself in everything?” 

 

Yes , thinks Margot, drumming her fingernails in time with hammer swings. Tap, tap, tap.  

 

--- 

 

Will’s caller is who moved the car. Margot’s not stupid, not at this point in her life, and she knows this the way she knows threats. 

 

( Maybe you’re stupid a few times. You’re prone to error. You’re as vulnerable as the next person to the machinations of people you grew up around, always hoping that they might come around to the reality of you, not the glossy print idea that they have of what that is.

 

His absolute reluctance to name who it is makes Margot not...nervous, per se, but healthily skeptical. She doesn’t like being sheltered - that’s how you spend a decade convinced you’re doing relationships with other women wrong, only to find it was important after all, sorry about the years of contradictory statements, sorry about the disowning if you try to do something to fix that. That’s how you get stuck living with a sociopath for a caretaker in  your thirties when you really could have made a stronger argument that living away from home is character building, and that Margot may yet fall in love with a man if she could just have more than a week to herself to meet one. Her parents would have bought it. Mason might have forgotten about her if she had. 

 

She supposes she’s doing that now, sans Mason forgetting. Margot rolls a shoulder, and flops onto the couch only to sit with knees together, head upright, cheap beach dress bunched at mid-thigh and a thrifted knit sweater that hides her shoulders and neck, as she likes. 

 

Mason clearly feels deprived with nothing to distract him in the months that have passed, or else he wouldn’t have bothered with the press statements. Margot rather thinks he’s always thought she would make a better case number than a person, but Mason is fickle. Maybe he thought he’d murder her if he found her, and it’s a terrible inconvenience to now have to rely on law enforcement and let them know she’s gone at all. Margot Verger could have disappeared, by her own hand or his, and no one would say a word, save to ask where she was at for the derby parties  - “doesn’t she like these kinds of things?” they’d ask, and forget, and that would be it. 

 

( He wasn’t always like that - well, not entirely anyway. You think in some atrophied way, Mason loves you. Like an object he keeps forgetting about but can’t seem to throw away as an adult, but as a child, he showed you parts of his world, shared some small things about his life with you, before he knew he had the privilege of power over you. )

 

( When Doctor Lecter implied you lacked conviction to kill him, he was right. You don’t know if  you’ll ever fully have it, but maybe just enough to get it done when the time is right, six months from now. )  

 

Margot rolls her shoulder again - the one with the once broken arm. It’s healed now. It only hurts occasionally. Down the hall, she can hear the pages of a book turn. She can imagine the little black phone sitting unused and quiet in the side table. A dog sneezes - probably Harley, maybe Buster. This is all familiar now. It’s restful. In most respects when she thinks about it, Will has kept his promise. Mason hasn’t found them, and it just so happens that someone found her car and moved it before Mason could connect it to Will, so maybe he never will. 

 

Margot guesses she owes them a favor. 

 

Will seems to owe them something else. 

 

At night, Will reads in his room, dogs pressed against him. This is him at his most peaceful, curled bodies crowding his bed, little wheezing snores music with the black crickets that come in from outside. The small white dog, Zoe, takes a liking to Margot and sometimes foregoes this to settle into Margot instead, hot bodied and softer to press up against, but tonight finds Margot alone and thinking. 

 

She reads the article a few more times, enjoying the heat of the laptop on the top of her legs until it burns a little. She thinks about whether she needs to eat something. She thinks about Will’s thunderous look. 

 

She thinks on that again. If that look feels safe. If she can manage another six months alone, and years after that if it’s not. 

 

It’s not uncommon, the thought to leave. Daily, in fact. She’s a flighty creature by nature, allied to herself, occasionally diplomatic with others, and the domesticity of their arrangement occasionally chafes. Margot doesn’t know where she’d go, but it wouldn’t be especially difficult. She doesn’t have a lot, Will’s generousness aside, and three months pregnant doesn’t show anymore than a night of drinking. ( Something you sorely miss - no one will blink at a moon faced Margot - you’re a regular after all.

 

She comes back to what little good advice she has: work with what you have, Margot’s mother says. 

 

The money’s not hers, but that hasn’t stopped her from using it before. 

 

Margot taps the black cover of the laptop, before sliding it out. She uses it all the time, but now, it feels like sliding a bottle out of the nightstand on her Daddy’s side of the bed. Something to anticipate, turned in careful fingers to make sure it goes back exactly how it was. 

 

If Will’s as bad an idea as what sets her in his orbit, or as bad as the other things spinning around him alongside her, Margot guesses she’s always got what she trusts - money. 

 

That solves most things.

 

She checks her credit accounts for closures, or inquiries, or payments, just to be sure. Margot won’t use it, not now, but it’s good to know if she even can . How like Mason it would be to just wave his hand and have the accountant cover all those foolish things she comforted herself with through the winter ( shoes, an arm brace, therapy ), always expecting that she’ll come crawling back. But how like him it would be to close all of them in a fit at her absence for so long, nothing to follow up on, no indulgences to suggest what she’s up to. 

 

Is this you? the page asks, stupidly. Please confirm with the code we’ve emailed to your account.

 

She does. 

 

She sighs in relief when it loads, and with that, all the familiar numbers. Everything in its right place, balances auto paid, nothing of note since the day she goes to the drug store, and confirms that she’s got a plan, no matter how ill-thought out or wonderful it feels from day to day. 

 

---

 

“I’m thinking of starting to get a few things for my room,” she says in the morning, leaning on the counter. Testing Will’s mood.  

 

It takes a few minutes to show itself. The bag of pancake mix hits the formica. The mixing bowl is at the ready, and Will’s hands turn a milk carton like he expects to find a missing child printed on its side - jury out on if it’s Margot or Will. They’re kind of like neighborhood kids playing house, so why not. 

 

He nods cautiously. “Whatever you need,” he says, as he always does when she needs support. “I should be done with the wood paneling at the end of the week if you want to pick a color?” 

 

She shakes her head. “I meant more like baby stuff. A crib, maybe, though I guess it’s a bit early for that. Maybe a chest of drawers or something to start putting away stuff as I get it.” 

 

He nods again, more earnest. “Whatever you need,” he repeats. 

 

In the fluorescent light of the kitchen, he always looks paler than he is, sun spots and freckles normally hidden coming out to dance in tiny pinpricks across his nose the way the broken capillaries do on hers. She wonders if he can empathize with that too, body echoing hers because that is what he does and can’t stop himself from doing.  

 

“What do you need?” Margot asks. 

 

He stirs the batter, whisk hissing against the walls of the bowl. 

 

“This is good,” he says, almost too quiet to be heard over his work. He sounds like he’s smaller than her. Not entirely true, she thinks, but maybe Will measures good the way she does: in periods of quiet, not necessarily happiness. That's fair. That's hardly worth calling out when she can't be equally honest. He shifts in front of her - “...Maybe the occasional confirmation that it is for you too. As long as you’re happy with it, this is good.” 

 

It is, she admits. A period of quiet. It’s better than she’s had in years, since she was away for school. Margot considers the half-finished pieces of the house, the comfortable but seawater scented old ones  that linger, Will’s chameleon face that sometimes reminds her of her own. She wonders if he ever tried to explain away what he was feeling at the dinner table here, hiding between plates and emotional distance, those yellowed faces in the paper photos watching and wondering if he needs to just sleep or if there’s something broken, and him unable to ever say. 

 

( You already know he does that. He did it last night. He’ll do it today, and you’ll be shy of poking at that, like he might frown at you the way he frowns at the phone, or the laptop, or the empty wall when no one can see and he doesn’t think to hide. )

 

Margot says nothing for a long time, leaning on the heel of her palm. “Just white, I think,” she says. “For the walls. Keep the wood grain down low. Seems a shame to cover up the bones of all your hard work when you’ve put so much into it.”

 

Will smiles, another boyish one that sneaks on his face. “Traditionally you want to cover up the bones, but hey, out and proud, right?”

 

“Out and proud,” she huffs with amusement, the joke ambushing her, and forgets that she wanted to leave, or that she doesn’t know what she’s doing, and that he doesn’t either or what he wants at all, or what's "good". There's time enough to answer that.