The man’s hand is on her knee under the table, and Bedelia feels like retching.

She stares at her plate. It’s fettuccine Alfredo: pasta, butter, Parmesan. There aren’t many foods that feel safe, any more, but this dish is simple enough not to have featured in her nightmares recently.

Safe enough, anyway. Perhaps some would argue that any long noodle is a risky endeavour on a first date because of the risk of splashing sauce down one’s front, but buttery sauce ending up on her chest has been pushed way down to the bottom of the list of Bedelia’s worries, these days.

That worry is still there, of course. Getting sauce on herself would be mortifying. It’s just impossible to separate the flutter of first-date nerves from the gnawing ache of, well, any other kind of neurosis. And there seem to be a lot to choose from.

Currently, every brain cell that she had hoped to make available for intelligent conversation with the man across the table is focused on his hand. It’s his left hand, his right being still engaged in operating a wine glass, and it’s gentle and warm and uninvasive. It has perched just above her kneecap. Bedelia is wearing a nice pair of slacks, which is all she’s worn since— since. The idea of her wearing a skirt, of someone seeing what’s under it, fills her with simultaneous dread and excitement so intense that she can’t even begin to unpack it.

She doesn’t mind the man’s hand, or at least doesn’t want to mind it. He’s kind and intelligent and handsome— if being a psychiatrist is good for nothing else, it’s at least helpful in picking out high-quality specimens on dating sites. She’d wanted his hand there, even. A longing for escalation of physical contact is a good thing, at the end of a date, and Bedelia feels an echo of that feeling, like it’s something from another lifetime that she can’t quite place.

But the hand is on her knee, just above the joint where flesh and metal join, and Bedelia can’t breathe.

The man from the dating site isn’t pushy, and he has normal levels of empathy, neither debilitatingly high nor sociopathically low. He can see her seizing up at the contact, and he pulls his hand away without comment, adjusting course easily. He’s a good person, she recognizes distantly, and she wishes it made her like him more and not less.

Put it back, she wants to say. Please touch me. Ask what happened. Please make me tell you. I want you to know. Please pity me. Please.

She wouldn’t tell him, if he asked. She hasn’t told anybody. She especially wouldn’t tell him if he tried to make her, which he wouldn’t do anyway. The thought still bangs around in her head, though, and she sucks in a few bits of long, stringy pasta to avoid having to say anything. They feel cloying in her mouth, and she stops chewing and looks down at the half-finished plate.

She pushes it away, and he glances down at the remaining pile of food. “Not a fan?” he asks.

“I’m… not hungry,” she says carefully, trying to give him the kind of smile that will reassure him it wasn’t his behaviour that put her off.

“Oh,” he says, “no problem. Not feeling well? Or just need something else? My mom used to say dinner and dessert go into two different stomachs, when I tried to convince her I was only hungry for dessert.” He smiles, and Bedelia has to admit to herself that the thought of sharing a plate of tiramisu with him is appealing.

And then there’s a flash of concern in his eyes when she just shakes her head. Even though he barely knows her, even though he’ll probably never think about her again after tonight, when they both go home and she fails to pick up the phone to call him again. But for just a tiny moment someone seems worried about Bedelia Du Maurier, and that is better that any dessert.

***

“The problem with being intimately acquainted with the workings of the mind,” says Bedelia, “Is that one can never be truly alone in one’s own head again.”

She is alone, though, at least by the conventional physical standard of there being no one else in her house. A part of her wonders if perhaps, if she talks to herself enough, the inner voice she keeps expecting to talk back will sound like one of them. She isn’t sure who she would rather it be, and most of the time is glad it hasn’t happened yet.

She justifies talking to herself with the reasoning that it’s like a test: as long as she doesn’t hear Will Graham or Hannibal Lecter talking back to her, she’s still OK.

She wonders if Hannibal ever stood like this: in front of the refrigerator, peering in at the contents like he doesn’t already know exactly what’s in there. Probably not. She wonders how much Hannibal thinks about food. Does it occupy his every thought? She had assumed for a while that it must; how could someone organize their life around the conversion of inanimate flesh into fuel for living flesh without some level of obsession?

But she’s certain that, if Hannibal does think about food more than the average person, it’s different from Bedelia. Because Hannibal Lecter is happy, and that fact comprehensively rules out the idea that his thought processes around food are anything similar to… this.

Bedelia’s stomach turns and her mouth waters as she imagines sitting down to a feast, a proper meal, with the relish that Hannibal does. In her mind, she is free. She eats anything and everything. She’s not certain if the meat in her mind is human flesh, and she doesn’t care. She can spend hours imagining eating.

Eating in reality is a different story. Some foods are still safe. Vegetables, provided they don’t touch one another. Vegan protein bars that taste like chalk dust. Bread, if eaten for lunch, and in the absence of any other grain-based foods for lunch or dinner.

“You’re not fooling yourself,” Bedelia says quietly. She tucks herself into her chair, the same one she used to sit in to talk to Will and Hannibal, but she’s curled up with her toes underneath her instead of the relaxed posture she affected for sessions with other people. Her toes and fingers are freezing. She knows why, and chooses to ignore it. “And doesn’t it just make it all the more painful, to be able to see exactly where this is going, and barrel ahead anyway?”

Most of the time she’s still glad that she doesn’t hallucinate them, but there are exceptions. Right now she almost wishes that she could call up an image of Will, sitting across from her like he did just a few days before eating pieces of her. Maybe it would be easier if she were his kind of crazy, the kind that can talk to people who aren’t there and believe it so intensely that the world seemed to warp around his visions.

But she isn’t Will’s kind of crazy, which is the entire problem. “You’re jealous of him,” she whispers to herself, hating both the part of her that says it and the part of her that resents being told the truth. “Will Graham was always broken, and everyone always saw it. And you never had that, did you? Nobody ever looked at you and saw something needy and helpless and unstable. Not even Hannibal. So you’ll show them. You’ll show them what they did to you with your ribs poking from your body and your hair falling out in clumps and your blue fingers and your yellowed teeth. So that people will shake their heads sadly when they look at you. Pity you. Know how fragile and broken you are.”

Now, it’s Hannibal she wishes she could conjure up a hallucination of. At least if it were him saying this to her, she could feel properly angry.

She doesn’t. She’s stuck in glass, not hallucinating, not eating, not living, not yet dying.

***

A letter arrives from Hannibal.

Bedelia isn’t exactly surprised. Hannibal always did love his fucking letters. She’d watched him writing them in Italy, his even, looping cursive looking like something out of another century. Some were polite, thoughtful missives to people who didn’t know he’d harmed them. Some were to people who did know he’d harmed them, and they were no less kind and polite than the others. The complete lack of malice was the entire point, Bedelia knew: his honesty and kindness and genuine affection made the knowledge that his goodwill would have no impact on his actions all the more terrifying.

Many of the letters, of course, had been to Will. They’d ended up crumpled up and thrown into the fireplace without her having ever had the chance to sneak a glance at one. Hannibal probably could have found a way to send something to Will in the middle of the fucking ocean if he’d wanted to, but as far as she could tell, he’d never quite settled on anything to say to him.

She opens it, because she knows she’s going to eventually and she might as well get it over with. It’s more of a postcard than a letter, actually; on the inside of the envelope is a piece of expensive cardstock, and the side facing the envelope’s flap contains a pencil drawing of what looks to be the backyard of a country home. There’s the wooden railing of a verandah, and beyond that a garden hemmed in on two sides by trees. In the distance, a small stream winds its way through the landscape.

Bedelia has no doubt whatsoever that Hannibal had sketched this from exactly what he saw in front of him. He’d basically sent her a picture of whatever slice of secluded paradise he and Will had escaped to, and he’s entirely certain that she isn’t going to show it to anyone.

Bedelia wishes she were the kind of person who would phone up the FBI and offer this as evidence. Maybe once— before Neal Frank swallowing his tongue on her office floor, before Hannibal, before everything— she was that kind of person. But now her head is fuzzy, and her heart races and skips crazily every time she changes positions, and the edema in her legs makes it painful to even stand, though she forces herself to do so anyway for most of the day. The idea of talking to Jack Crawford is beyond her capacity. And now that she has his letter in her hands, the idea of not doing exactly what Hannibal Lecter wants her to is equally beyond her capacity.

She flips the postcard over.

Bedelia,

I had hoped that, by the point that it was timely for me to write you a letter of thanks for our excellent meal together, you would have found a more effective method of self-defense than an oyster fork.

I cannot say I am surprised that you now find yourself in the position of requiring defense mainly from yourself. All of us are our own primary antagonists on Earth. You know intimately that I am no exception, so I hope my advice on the subject can carry the weight of both our long mutual companionship, and a certain amount of authority.

It is, admittedly, aesthetically appropriate that you attempt to move past the horrors of your past by rejecting the vessel in which they came packaged. To renounce entirely the connection between food consumption and the spiritual self that is nourished by one’s meals would indeed be a victory over me.

In the absence of that particular victory— which you know, Bedelia, you cannot achieve— I suggest that your decision to sink into this frankly uninteresting and self-absorbed form of neurosis, anorexia, achieves nothing at all. It cannot touch me.

I have enclosed a list of inpatient treatment centres, appropriately far removed from Baltimore to protect your privacy and reputation. You could, of course, have put this list together yourself, but you did not. If there are further steps in this process that you cannot bring yourself to take, I can of course arrange for them to be taken for you.

Hannibal Lecter

***

She chooses Vermont.

She had considered, for about three terrifying hours, saying an enormous fuck you to Hannibal and his discretion, his consideration for her career, and simply checking herself into Johns Hopkins, where half the staff know her, Hannibal, or the both of them, from their residencies. She doesn’t. Hannibal had known she wouldn’t; you can’t make grand gestures fuelled solely by raw vegetables and vegan protein bars. She puts the question of how Hannibal knew anything about her entirely out of her mind.

It’s a private, expensive clinic, and Bedelia waits with her breath catching in her throat as they process her fee. She half-expects them to come back and say that it’s already been settled anonymously, but they don’t. A small kindness from Hannibal: one tiny piece of dignity and freedom, to be allowed to pay her own bill.

There is another envelope waiting for her in her room when she checks in. It contains no note, merely a stunningly detailed drawing of the view from their window in Florence. Bedelia no longer even bothers wishing for the strength to throw it out; she is here, after all, and therefore she still belongs to Hannibal completely. She might as well have something to decorate the bare white room with. There is no way to win this game with him.

The social system of the clinic, though— that, Bedelia discovers to her surprise, is a game she can win. She was entirely right about the demographic likely to show up at a pricey, upscale place like this: young daughters of rich parents, transposing the pressures of adolescence in the upper class into a slavish devotion to the kind of darkly beautiful fragility that very specifically excludes the possibility of growing older. She had expected to be scorned and feared, and possibly she is.

But she is also a psychiatrist, and— it turns out— just as capable as Hannibal is of turning her professional insight to her own advantage, given the right situation. If anorexia is one thing, it’s a competitive disease. It’s not the only pathology of her experience where patients compete for the prize of being the sickest and wear hospital admissions and near-death experiences like badges of honour, but it’s the most extreme.

Bedelia can recognize that, and see the utter absurdity of it, and still want to participate.

So when a girl turns to her over (strictly supervised, heart-pounding, nauseating) lunch one day and says “Is this your first time here?” and a dozen other gaunt curious faces turn towards her, Bedelia affects a listless smile and says, “Here, yeah,” with all of the worldly experience she can imply with two little words, and she feels a warm glow inside her when she knows she has them.

The main activities among inmates are figuring out ways to secretly eat less, and figuring out ways to secretly move more. It is not difficult, with the benefit of an entire career probing into some truly fucked-up minds, to come up with plenty of ways to achieve both, and have every girl in the ward convinced that Bedelia is the sage voice of experience.

She’s good at it, and it feels good to be good at something again. Bits of food end up pressed into the space inside shoes, where they squish around for the mandatory hour after meals when the bathrooms are locked, until they can be disposed of. Bedelia organizes a clandestine swap that leaves nearly everyone on the ward with too-big shoes, plenty of room for contraband. She teaches isometric exercises that can make you sweat from exertion all while looking like you’re not doing anything at all, and enjoys the girls’ wide, trusting eyes as she names each muscle. She recites half-remembered statistics about the effects of shivering on base calorie burning, and they all crank their shower heads to the coldest setting.

She knows that Hannibal would be disgusted by how uninteresting and self-absorbed they all are, and she doesn’t care. She is miserable, but she can finally see the possibility of winning at something: being the sickest on the ward is something she can do that has nothing to do with him.

Now, each moment of misery is no longer about Hannibal. Instead, the misery and sickness refer only to more misery and sickness, curling in on themselves like an ouroboros. Hannibal is irrelevant, and Bedelia no longer cares if this kills her: she loves it.

***

Véro is exactly like all of the other competitive, self-absorbed young women on the ward, but with a thick Quebecois accent and a bent for social justice that speaks of a coming-of-age spent churning through reams of thinly disguised eating disorder encouragement on the internet. Bedelia likes her immediately. She wants to ruin and be ruined by her, and Véro obliges.

They’re sitting in a group after dinner, being watched by nurses as they clench their fists and jiggle their feet and wait to be able to go to the bathroom and dispose of the bits of food tucked anywhere into their clothing they could get away with. Véro has a binder full of pictures of slaughterhouses, and the girls gather around with horrified faces.

“Cows mourn the deaths of and even separation from those they love, sometimes shedding tears over their loss,” Véro is reading from a pamphlet. “The mother/calf bond is particularly strong, and there are countless reports of mother cows who continue to call and search frantically for their babies after the calves have been taken away and sold to veal or beef farms.” She looks around with wide eyes. “Can you imagine having your baby taken away from you to be slaughtered?”

None of you are ever going to gain enough weight to even menstruate, let alone have a baby, Bedelia wants to say, but she can read the room— has been doing nothing but— and refrains. Instead she leans in and coos over the pictures of cows and pigs and chickens dying en masse in horrifying ways.

“They’re no different from us,” says Véro again, brandishing the literature. “Eating meat is just socially sanctioned cannibalism.”

Wise nods, sympathetic glances at the photos from the entire assembly. They would never stoop to such things, they all tacitly agree. If they eat meat— if they eat anything, sully the purity of their sickness with messy, uncomfortable nourishment— it is only because they are forced.

And Bedelia stares out the window, watching the passing cars and people outside the hospital, feeling triumphant. Because Véro is right, and that changes everything.

Cannibals, she thinks.

She locks her eyes on an upscale restaurant, a street meat vendor, a man walking by with a lunchbox. Cannibals. Cannibals. I would never descend to your level, all of you. And if I did, it was only because I was forced.

She looks at the nurse sitting on her phone by the door, the one with a timer to unlock the bathroom, who had watched Bedelia eat a cup of chocolate pudding (gelatin, made from animal collagen; cannibals, cannibals) at evening snack the previous evening.

She grins, sharp toothed and terrifying. At least I know what I have done, she thinks viciously. The rest of you have no idea. Cannibals, every one.

She tears the drawing of Florence off of the wall before she checks herself out. The strip of tape she’d used to put it up tears both the drawing and the paint on the wall, and she crumples the expensive paper and tosses it in the trash. You’re not special, she thinks at Hannibal. You’re just another cannibal like all the rest of them.

The program director tries to convince her to stay— she hasn’t gained any weight, and she knows he’s telling the truth when he says she’s at risk of a heart attack. Cannibal, she thinks at him, and perhaps this is what it’s like for Will, perhaps the boundaries between metaphor and reality are finally starting to blur, because she has no idea if she’s said it out loud or not, and he signs her discharge papers and hurries her out of his office with a worried expression that she can’t quite place.

She doesn’t care what he thinks. He is insignificant, just like every other cannibal.

Bedelia walks out of the hospital where Hannibal Lecter sought, arrogantly, to save her life. The cannibals of the world cannot touch her. She is free.