At nine years old, Will Graham is a scrap of a child flung loose on the waves of summer heat to entertain himself while his father works or drinks on the stoop. His favourite haunt is a particular patch of scrubland, by the train tracks at the edge of his neighbourhood. When his father had told him they were moving to New Orleans, Will had allowed himself a small, private fantasy of a little house by the park, clean white clapboards and trailing ferns in the porch, fun things to do and nice friends to play with.
Instead, they live here. Their street is more akin to a dirt track with a smattering of broken tarmac. The kids are already in their closed-up groups. There isn’t a park, just the jungle of twisted trees and abandoned cars by the train tracks. The neighbourhood isn’t bad, but it’s been neglected and treated poorly, and it breeds neglect and poor treatment in turn.
It’s late August when he kills his classmate, one week of interminable, stifling heat finally broken by the mother of all rainstorms. Will pushes him down in the wet, churned up mud, kneels on his back until the flailing stops. It was an accident, he thinks to himself afterwards, an intrusive thought that he acted on by mistake. The boy wanted to hurt him, and Will couldn’t help but absorb that feeling, his brain being what it was. The mud was actually quicksand, and he got stuck and Will couldn’t pull him free in time. A monster emerged from behind a tree and did it.
He is at once both horrified and enchanted with what he’s done, but he speaks of it to no-one, and a week later his father moves them out of state for a job in Biloxi. He lets the memory of it form a dark stone in the back of his mind, knocking around the inside of his skull. He feels wild, like a changeling child swapped out of his crib in the dead of night and no-one can really tell what’s wrong, they just know that something is off.
Biloxi turns into Pensacola, Pensacola to Jacksonville, and as soon as Will is old enough he leaves to go north while his father remains coasting the Gulf, back and forth.
Fifteen years later, death calls him back south. The detritus of years has built up on Will’s skin, layer upon layer until the feral child turned into the closed young man who stands stoic by his father’s coffin.
Interment will have to wait, the already soft earth having become swollen and swampy with a summer of endless storms and Will having no money for an above-ground vault. He leaves the funeral home feeling not much of anything; his father had been aloof at best, and Will feels his loss as though it were happening to someone else.
The spitting rain turns heavy and relentless, and as he walks down the street to his motel room he can see in his mind’s eye the wet, black earth, heaving and churning and spitting up its secrets. The rain calls forth the buried dead, and swollen coffins breach the mud, the street now a river that carries bodies and bones out into the swamp.
The changeling child who would’ve revelled in this vision is kept tightly under wraps, and Will does not love it now. He promises himself that once his father’s affairs are in order, he’ll not come back to this place.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions, as the principal at one of Will’s several high schools used to say. It was hell to get here, Will thinks, but it’s not hell where we’ve ended up.
A better baptism than plunging from a cliff into the icy ocean, the roiling black clouds that had been threatening all day finally make good on their promise and let fall a deluge. Fat, heavy drops, flowing warm and vital like blood over his skin.
They were in the safest place that Will knew. He’d bought the cabin years ago, soon after he killed Hobbs, a small but well-proportioned thing with a jetty and a ramshackle boathouse, hidden in the midst of the twists and turns of a thousand canals. He had understood then the very real possibility that he may need to disappear, his recent kill having disturbed his skin and made it begin to flake and shed. Maybe the cabin would never see any use, maybe his mind was more stable than he thought, but he furnished it for living anyway, his stalwart Plan B.
Hannibal hadn’t known about it. Molly doesn’t know about it. His dark heart, kept hidden in the bayou.
Will feels free now, in a way he can’t recall ever feeling before. “Becoming” is an ill-fitting word for what has happened, for what is happening. Will was never not this thing. It’s not a cracking or sundering, no sudden great tear in the fabric of what he was to reveal what he now is, no evolution from the lesser to the greater; rather, it’s the final sloughing off of all the layers he has built over himself. It started, years ago, during the quiet evenings in Hannibal’s office. Wine in the leather chairs, or brandy by the fire, Will slowly peeling back layer after layer, almost coy. At first it was easy, like tearing gold leaf, revealing just enough to tease and tantalize. The deeper he got, the more painful it was, and the more he wanted to do it.
It feels like another life, and he supposes it is. The man he was then bore fewer scars but more secrets, head bowed under the weight of what he knew to be true and told himself was false.
He’s light, and air, and he’s fairly sure he would float away were it not for someone else being there to ground him.
Hannibal is awake and out of bed for the first time in days. The journey down here wasn’t easy, and likely set his recovery back by several weeks, but he is nothing if not stubborn and he pulls his aching body through the cabin door to join Will on the jetty.
The rain shows no sign of letting up, but Will sits outside all the while and lets it wash through him. Hannibal imagines he would feel chill to the touch, but when he reaches out a hand and rests it on Will’s shoulder, he feels warmth and life pulsing beneath his skin.