Note: Takes place in the same universe as my oneshot "Misery, Company and Beer", which is in NO way required reading...it simply establishes how Beverly and Alana became friends after Will's arrest, because their friendship exists in this one, too.
Holding On and Letting Go
Alana Bloom went through an animal phase, like many little girls do.
When she was six, she started telling anyone who asked that she was going to be a veterinarian when she grew up. If she saw stray cats around the neighborhood, she'd try to coerce them into following her home. She preferred stuffed animals to baby dolls, naming every toy cat or dog or bunny rabbit. She devoured books about pets, usually dogs; Alana learned to read before she started kindergarten, and by first grade was checking out chapter books several grades above her reading level, so she learned sooner than most of her friends that the dog always dies at the end of the book.
For her eighth birthday, her parents got her a puppy that was all hers. He was a small white ball of fur with floppy ears and a bright pink tongue, and her father said he would never get very big. She called the dog Hero, because "Hero" sounded like he could be a dog from one of her books. Her brothers all laughed at the name, claiming it didn't fit such a tiny animal, but Alana didn't care. She wrote stories for class in which Hero made good on his name, helping her save her family from a fire, or pulling a lost child out of the river.
In real life, Hero wasn't accomplishing any grand feats, but Alana adored her pet anyway. At her insistence, Hero slept in her bed. She walked him every day after school.
She had the dog for four months. Then, one weekend, her father came to pick her up from a sleepover and there was a wrapped gift sitting in the passenger seat.
"Is that for me?"
"Yes, but don't open it yet. There's something I-"
"Who from?" Alana twirled the ribbon around her fingers, curious. It wasn't her birthday, or Christmas.
She wrinkled her nose, confused. Jamie was her oldest brother. He was sixteen years old, and wasn't in the habit of giving random gifts. "Why's Jamie giving me a present?"
"Al. Sweetheart. Listen..."
The gift turned out to be a stuffed white dog that somewhat resembled Hero. Jamie had gone to the store and picked it out because the previous night, while Alana was at her sleepover, Jamie and his friends had been hanging out at the Bloom house. They'd eventually piled into Jamie's car to go to a movie. Hero had gotten out without anyone realizing it, slipping through the front door amid the parade of teenagers walking in and out.
And then Jamie had backed over him in the driveway.
"Jamie feels so terrible about this, Al." That's what her dad said. "And it really was an accident."
But Alana was eight years old and heartbroken and furious. So she cried the whole ride home, and when she got to the house, she told her brother she hated him.
And she stayed angry for awhile, and in fact didn't talk much to Jamie in the next three weeks, right up until the night someone ran a red light, hit Jamie's car, and killed him.
It was never really a conscious thing, not a decision she made or even something she thought of as significant, but Alana Bloom never owned another dog.
Until of course, over two decades later, when she finds herself with open ended custody of six of them. Not exactly the ease back into pet ownership she might have hoped for in an ideal world.
Two and a half months after Will's arrest, Alana's comfortable letting the dogs run outside. For awhile, she had been terrified that one of them might run off, but now that they've gotten used to their new (temporary, she reminds herself firmly) home, the danger seems past.
Tonight, as usual, Alana lets the canine brood out just before sunset, and as they fan out around her spacious yard, she sinks onto the steps of her porch, beer in her hand, exhausted.
She'd fought with Will's lawyer today. They've been working close together for the last two months, preparing Will's case. Alana had thought it was going fine, but a plea offer had come down the day before: essentially, that Will could plead guilty and accept 25 years, with no chance of early parole, at Baltimore State Hospital.
Alana had nearly exploded upon hearing the offer, but Will's lawyer had thought it was worth considering.
"He isn't likely to get a better deal," the man had told her matter of factly. "And for someone facing either a life sentence or an execution...may not be a bad compromise."
Luckily, it was ultimately Will's decision, and he had unequivocally told his lawyer to reject it, but still the offer - and the defense attorney's reaction to it - had shaken Alana. She's been working so hard to prepare Will's case psychiatrically, to prove that he can't be held responsible for anything that happened during his illness...all under the assumption that Will would be released.
Rationally, she keeps the worst case scenarios in her mind, constantly reminding herself of them. And yet it had still been a shock to hear it out loud that twenty-five years of incarceration might be considered lucky.
So Alana sits and drinks, absently watching the dogs run and wishing she could learn the trick of quieting her brain, even only for a few hours.
When the sun's almost down, Alana stands up, opens the door, and calls the dogs in, clapping her hands together twice. Most of them come running up the porch and past her into the house. She no longer has to do a head count, or run through the mental list of their names; she simply notices if one is missing, in this case Charlie, the black, white and brown dog that she's pretty sure is some sort of border collie mix.
"Charlie?" Alana closes the door after the other animals and walks down the steps, eyes scanning her yard.
There's a feeble whine in response to his name, and Alana turns around to see he didn't get far; Charlie's curled up against the side of the porch steps, his head on his paws.
"Hey, buddy." She kneels down, scratching behind his ears for a moment before standing again, snapping her fingers at her side. "C'mon, boy, let's go in..." He doesn't move to follow her, and Alana eventually has to tug gently on his collar to coax Charlie to his feet. He's slow as he follows her up the steps and back in the house.
Frowning, Alana skims through memories of the last few weeks, acknowledging that Charlie has seemed more lethargic and low energy than normal. It's hard to monitor appetite when you have six dogs crowding around a cluster of bowls, but Alana makes a mental note to keep a closer eye on him.
But there's already a vague sense of foreboding, brewing somewhere in the pit of her stomach.
A week and a half later, on her third visit to the veterinarian's office in two days, after a slew of blood tests and biopsies, Alana is informed that Charlie has lymphoma.
"Unfortunately, there's no cure for this, and at this more advanced stage, with more agressive tumors, chances of remission are fairly low. But you do have options...chemo can slow the progression, and I've seen it add anywhere from a couple months to a year to a dog's life expectancy. Alternatively, we can simply put him on a prednisone dosage that will keep swelling down and apetite up, just so he's kept comfortable for as long as possible." The vet, Dr. Gold, a middle aged woman who manages to simultaneously exude warmth and practicality, pauses. When Alana doesn't react, Gold adds, "Obviously, I'm sure you'll want to talk to your friend before making any decisions."
Alana had to tell her the dog wasn't hers, due to her somewhat limited knowledge of Charlie's history. She'd claimed she was dog sitting for a friend who was out of the country for an extended time. "Right," she replies dully. "And what's the prognosis? In terms of timeline?"
"Untreated, the average survival time is about sixty days. But canines can deteriorate quite rapidly, so you should be prepared to bring him back sooner rather than later, out of kindness sake."
Alana blinks at her for a moment. Her head feels like it's made of glass, too heavy and thin walled to properly process the implications of what's happening. Charlie's stretched out on the vet's examining table, and she's absently rubbing a spot behind his right ear. "Bring him back, you mean, um...to be put down?"
"But...there's chemo, you said?"
"That is an option." Dr. Gold hesitates, then says, "I will tell you, it's quite expensive, and at best, it buys time. Some dogs tolerate it quite well, while others suffer and become very lethargic. Right now, your priority will be quality of life and pain management."
But Alana's mind has snagged on the phrase buying time. She is thinking of Will's trial, how it's still months away. She knows from her first several visits to prison, when the only thing Will seemed okay talking about was the dogs, that Charlie is the dog he's had longest of the current bunch.
She doesn't care what it costs. She can't let one of Will's dogs die without him.
"What's the chemo regimen like?" Alana asks, adding, "Obviously, I'll talk to Will, but...what would that entail?"
"You administer him the drugs at home, once a week in Charlie's case, though you'd need to bring him in for blood tests before, to make sure his white count can tolerate it."
"Great." Alana nods, and then asks more questions, pressing for all the details of Charlie's illness, all the while knowing she's only putting off what she'll have to do next.
She drops the dog off at her house and then drives to Baltimore.
It's become so familiar, that walk from security to Will's cell, but it's still so strange seeing him there, on the other side of the glass. It still hurts, and in a way Alana's glad: Will in a padded prison cell isn't a sight she wants to start considering normal.
"Hey." Will gets up and walks to the glass, heavy eyed and too thin.
Alana has long stopped asking how he is, how he's sleeping or eating. The short, dull fine was always the same.
"I took Charlie to the vet." She'd mentioned a few days ago that she was planning on doing so, that the dog wasn't eating or running around much; she'd told Will partially because discussing the dogs was often a default topic, but also because she'd wanted to prepare him. Alana tightens her jaw, forcing herself to look at Will when she says "He's got lymphoma."
That's it: oh. Alana worries sometimes that Will's losing words; he gets quieter every time she visits, as if the lack of occasion to speak is actually harming his ability to do so. But something dims behind his eyes when he says it.
"But there are treatments. I'll have to give him pills once a week, and the vet will check his blood count regularly." She is picking and choosing her words so carefully, downplaying it all. But why the hell not? If there was ever a time to spare Will, it's now.
Will's quiet for a moment; it often takes him awhile to formulate replies now. His voice is flat when he finally speaks. "Is it worth it?" Alana must seem a little startled, because Will adds, "Is he in pain?" Will's eyes dart around his cell, a little unfocused. "Does he want to live like this?"
Alana's whole body goes cold, like her muscles and bones have been doused with ice water. Something in Will's voice frightens her; more than anything, she's afraid of him giving up, shutting down and losing himself to this place.
"The vet says we can manage that," Alana tells him firmly. Definitive.
Another few beats of silence. Then, finally, Will nods. "I know it costs-"
"Don't worry about it."
"I have money."
Alana nods and says, "Okay," knowing full well she won't take it.
Will stares blankly somewhere over Alana's head for a moment, but after a bit his eyes actually flick to her face and he asks, "Is he okay?" Asking that question, he sounds more like himself than he has in weeks, and it makes Alana want to cry with some strange combination of sadness and relief.
"He's tired a lot. But they're gonna put him on steroids to help his appetite." Alana lifts her hand and presses it against the glass, wishing futilely that Will would lift his hand to match hers, the way he used to at the beginning of all this. The gesture had always filled his eyes with a deep, aching sort of longing, but that was preferable to this broken down emptiness. It was at least proof that he was in there somewhere.
Will doesn't move. He looks at the ground. "Okay. Well. Thanks. For taking care of him."
"If it gets to be too much, don't feel obligated."
She hates when he's like this; it makes Alana want to yell, fight, provoke him. Through clenched teeth, she tells him fervently, "It's not an obligation."
Will just nods his head once, jerkily. "Alright. Thanks."
He doesn't ask about the trial anymore. Doesn't try to convince her about his theories on Hannibal. He just goes quiet and waits for her to run out of reasons to stay.
And yet he always looks disappointed when she goes.
"Long time, no see." Beverly gives Alana a pointed look as she slides onto a barstool.
"Yeah. Sorry about that."
Beverly's taken to kidnapping Alana for dinner or drinks at least once a weekend, ever since Will's arrest, but for the past three weekends she's made excuses to refuse.
Beverly hands Alana the beer she already ordered for her and gives her a quick once over. "You've lost weight," she observes matter-of-factly, tone making it clear that isn't a compliment. She knows Alana's spending far too many of her lunch hours taking Charlie to the vet, or going home to check on the dog, or going to Baltimore to visit Will. She doubts Alana uses more than one lunch break a week to actually eat lunch.
"Oh, shut up," Alana says mildly, sipping her beer. They've fallen into a definite ease with their friendship.
"How's Charlie?" Beverly asks next.
Rolling her eyes, Alana says, "Don't say it like that."
"I'm serious! Just checking on him."
"They switched him to injections, instead of just the pills, so I have to take him into the vet for that. He's not doing as well on it, either...he gets sick a lot, but just for a day or so after the treatment. Gets tremors sometimes."
Beverly doesn't reply for a moment, and Alana glances sideways at her. She sighs, then says challengingly, "What?"
"I didn't say anything.."
"You've got that look on your face."
"I just...I worry you're fighting the wrong battle here," Beverly says, as gently and with as much tact as she can manage. "It's been almost three months of this, Alana. Saving that dog won't save Will."
Alana's throat narrows, and she immediately looks away. It takes her a moment to formulate an answer. "I know that."
"Do you?" Beverly gives her a shrewd look. "I get it, okay? I do. You're worried about the trial. And I visit Will sometimes, too, ya know. I know what he's like lately."
Alana's quiet for a moment, picking at the label of her beer bottle. "He's scaring me," she says eventually in a low, quiet voice.
"Yeah. Me, too."
Alana shakes her head a little. "But that has nothing to do with this."
"Are you sure? Because if you're not doing this for the right reasons, it's not fair to him."
"To Charlie. He's suffering, Alana, and the trial's still two months away. And even then-" She stops talking abruptly.
Alana swings around to look at Bev, fire in her eyes. "What?"
Beverly looks Alana dead in the eye. "Will might not even be coming home after the trial."
This is something they have talked about before, but today Alana doesn't want to hear it. Can't. She feels like someone's lit a match in her lungs, and she lurches off the barstool to her feet, gritting out angrily, "Don't," before turning on her heel and walking out of the bar.
Sighing, Beverly waves sarcastically to Alana's retreating back. "I'll call you later."
"... unfortunately, it has spread to his lungs." Dr. Gold gives Alana a sympathetic look, then says tentatively, "If I'm being perfectly honest...keeping him alive with medications is no longer for his benefit."
Alana digs her teeth into her lower lip, stroking her hand over the thinning fur on Charlie's belly, and makes a noncommittal sound. "Mmmm."
Dr. Gold scrutinizes her for a moment. "I know you were hoping he could hold out until his owner gets to see him...how long until he comes home?"
The question provokes an unexpected rush of tears to Alana's eyes. "Um, I don't..." She closes her eyes briefly, banishing the reminder of what Beverly said a few nights ago. "Two months?"
"Ah." Gold frowns. "Well, we can continue with the chemo meds, but even on that he might not have that long. You may want to get on the phone with your friend and talk this over."
Alana nods, eyes drifting down to the dog, asleep on the examination table. He sleeps a lot lately, and that's a preferable state; when he's not sleeping, he's usually sick, or whimpering in pain. It feels like something leaden is slamming into Alana's chest, and she has the sudden urge to apologize to the dying animal for dragging this out.
"Alright," she says softly. "I'll talk to Will." She looks up at meets the vet's eyes. "But I'll go ahead and schedule an appointment."
"Hi." His voice sounds hollow and far away; these days, Will doesn't even get up from his bed when she comes to visit.
Silence stretches out between them; Will never has much to say, and today at least, Alana isn't looking forward to what she has to tell him.
"Listen," she says finally. "I was at the vet's earlier. It's, um. Metastasized to Charlie's lungs." She waits; no reaction. "The vet says the treatment's probably hurting more than it's helping at this point. She...she thinks it might be time."
Will still doesn't look up, and he takes his time before answering, "If you think that's best."
Alana can feel anger pooling hot and thick in her gut, sending out tendrils that twist throughout her whole body. Silently, she counts backwards from ten, but by the time she reaches "one" she feels dizzy and sick with it. "Do you even care?" Will cranes his neck to look at her finally, but there's nothing in his face. It's empty behind his eyes. Terror laces the anger now, and Alana sends her palm slamming against the glass. "Godammit, Will, SAY SOMETHING!"
His tone is unchanged. "He's your dog now. It's up to you."
The anger drains out of her, just like that, and Alana drops her forehead against the glass. She stays like that for a few minutes, tears rolling slowly, silently down her cheeks.
When she straightens up, swiping the heel of her hand under her eyes, Will's sitting up on the bed, staring at her with an inscrutable expression. She turns away and mutters, "It's in two days. In case you wanted to know."
She doesn't look back at him when she leaves.
The night before Charlie's appointment, Alana lets the other dogs out early, loads their bowls with food and water, then locks them in the house. She lifts Charlie in her arms, carries him to the car, and then she drives to Will's house.
She'd gotten keys from Jack, from way back when she first took the dogs and had wanted to retrieve leashes and bowls, and find out what kind of dog food Will bought them. Tonight, she leaves Charlie in the car as she goes to unlock the front door, then returns to carry him into the house.
"Here you go, buddy," she tells him in a soft voice. "Welcome home."
She sets Charlie down, and he lets out a feeble bark, snout quivering. With what these days constitutes a burst of energy, he begins padding stiffly around the room, sniffing excitedly, probably searching for Will.
He tires himself out quickly, though, curling up on in the center of the living room, and Alana goes to sit beside him, rubbing his belly. "Sorry he's not here, boy," she tells him. "But it's the best I could do, okay?"
After an hour or so, Alana carries Charlie up the stairs to Will's bedroom. She lets him stretch out on the comforter, and she lies beside him on Will's bed, not bothering to unmake the covers. She's unprepared for the way the unmistakable scent of Will overwhelms her the second her head hits the pillow, and there's a throbbing pain in her chest as she thinks, inevitably, of everything that could have been but never was between them.
She made the right decision, that night he kissed her, and Alana knows that, but what the hell good does it do her now? She can't imagine it could have possibly hurt more than it already does to watch Will slowly fade away.
She strokes Charlie's fur until he falls asleep, which doesn't take long, but Alana lies awake for hours, cloaked in dread.
She's sitting alone on one side of the glass, though there are empty folding chairs all around her. Through the glass she can see a white, sterile looking room with a gurney in the center. Charlie's lying on his side across it, strapped down. Dr. Gold stands beside him, sticking an IV into the dog's paws. There's a heart monitor beside him, beeping very slowly.
Gold moves to the other side of the gurney, obscuring Alana's view of Charlie. She stands up and moves to the glass so she can keep her eyes on the dog.
The doctor moves again, and Charlie's gone.
Will lies in his place. Orange jumpsuit. Lying flat. Strapped down.
Will turns his head slowly. He looks her directly in the eye. Alana lifts a hand, pressing it against the glass. Will moves his hand toward her, but the straps stop him. He mouths her name, followed by one word: please.
Something liquid begin to move through the cannula. It reaches Will's arm. His eyes flutter shut.
Alana lets out a scream, her fist slamming against the glass, shattering it.
The heart monitor lets out a long, monotonous note.
Alana wakes up in tears, shaking uncontrollably and soaked in cold sweat.
It takes her a moment to pull herself out of the nightmare. Charlie's asleep beside her, his chest slowly rising and falling, and Alana blinks back another wave of tears as she stares down at the dog.
"I'm sorry, buddy," she whispers thickly. "I'm so, so sorry."
She sits in the waiting room among a few other owners and their pets, Charlie draped over her legs like a blanket. Alana scratches him behind his right ear, his favorite spot, until Gold's vet assistant opens the door, quickly scanning the lobby until she meets her eyes. "Alana?"
There's something different in her voice, solemn and sympathetic, to indicate the nature of this visit, and a few people glance over at her as she lifts the dog and carries him inside.
Alana settles Charlie on the examination table; that used to confuse him, always provoking the clatter of claws on metal as he scrabbled for purchase against the slick surface, but today he's limp as a ragdoll when she lies him down.
The vet's assistant stays in the room, and soon Dr. Gold comes in, hypodermic needle in her hand. She gives Alana a look of genuine sympathy. "Ready to go?"
Alana nods wordlessly. The assistant looks up at her. "Want to help me hold him?"
Nodding again, she gives Charlie one more scratch behind his ears and spreads her arms parallel to the assistant's, still rubbing gentle circles against his fur.
Dr. Gold approaches and nuzzles Charlie on the neck. "You put up a good fight, bud," she tells him quietly, then lifts her eyes to meet Alana's. "He won't feel this; it's like going to sleep."
Charlie barely twitches his leg as Gold lifts it and injects the needle. Alana feels him gives a deep, shuttered breath and then, seconds later, go still.
She looks down the peaceful, sleeping face of the animal, and several images assault her in rapid succession: Charlie in his cage at Animal Services, the day she went to retrieve the dogs; Will the first day in jail, ashamed and scared and angry; Will the last time she saw him, empty eyed and barely recognizable; Will on the execution table in her dream last night; and, for the first time in so many years, the look on her brother's face when she came in after learning he killed her dog, so guilt ridden and apologetic and stricken.
It's fast: her face crumples, the tears begin, and a loud, whimpering sob lurches out of her. She shakes her head, taking a shaky gasp of a breath, but as soon as she exhales she's sobbing again, each one ripping from her chest without her consent, like her body's betraying her.
If Dr. Gold thinks it's strange that Alana's falling apart over a dog that isn't technically hers, she gives no indication. She simply gives Alana a gentle squeeze on the arm, places a box of tissues in front of her, and motions her assistant to follow her out, saying, "Take as long as you need."
So she stands in the middle of the room and cries, still desperately petting Charlie's body, overwhelmed by some huge, all encompassing sorrow.
Alana finds a shovel in the mudroom at Will's house, and goes out back to dig. After fifteen minutes, she hears a car pull into Will's driveway. Soon after, Beverly walks around the side house.
Alana nods, though her eyes are still burning and swollen into slits, her face streaked with tears, sweat and dirt. "Will you help me get him out of the car?"
Together they carry the wooden box with the dog's body from Alana's car to the hole and lower it in. Alana grabs the shovel, but Beverly takes one look at her and gently pries it from her blistered hands, silently shoveling dirt over the hole while Alana watches.
They find some larger rocks to mark it for now, and for a few moments they stand there, looking at the fresh dirt until Alana breaks the silence, her voice quiet and hoarse.
"I've gotta go see Will."
Beverly nods. "Want me to come with you?"
"No. Thanks." She draws a breath. "I need to do this."
Alana doesn't speak when she approaches his cell, just stands there, just stands in front the glass until he's finally forced to look up at her.
As soon as he does, Will sits up on the bed, facing her. "You've been crying."
"Yeah." Then, immediately, "Charlie's dead. Just thought I'd tell you." She leans her shoulder against the glass, eyes on the ground, going silent.
It's two minutes before she hears it: a sharp, jarring intake of breath, followed by a low, keening note. She lifts her head to see Will, on his knees beside his bed, his head in his hands, his whole body shaking.
"I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, I didn't..." His words are lost as he gasps for breath, nearly hyperventilating.
"Will," Alana's voice somehow manages to combine utter authority with deep concern. "Come here." He lifts his head to look at her. "Now."
She kneels down as Will crawls the small gap to get to the glass, head still lowered. "Look at me," she tells him, gentler now.
He does; there are tears on his face, expression pained, and it both breaks her heart and fills her with unspeakable relief. Alana puts her hand to the glass, and this time he doesn't hesitate before lifting his own to the same spot on the other side. He drops his forehead beside his hand, and for awhile he just cries quietly. Eventually, Will looks up at her. "I'm sorry," he whispers, his voice sounding like it's coming from underwater. "I didn't...I do care. I didn't want to, but..."
"Will, I need you to care. Not just about this, about everything..." Her voice catches. "I'm scared you're giving up. I'm fighting sohard, but it terrifies me that there's nothing left to fight for. Please don't let this destroy you."
He's quiet for a moment, his eyes fixed on their mirrored hands. "Okay." He gives her about an eighth of a smile, looking weary. "I'm sorry."
Alana sighs, feeling weak with relief. "No. I'm sorry." Her eyes fill up yet again. "I, I put Charlie through too much..."
"No," Will says simply. He's quiet for a moment, then adds softly, "I...I'm glad you were with him." His fingers flex unconsciously against the glass, like he wants to squeeze her hand. "And I'm...glad you're with me. In all this, I...I'm glad you're here."
"So am I."