In the quarter-second since launching Hannibal and himself from the edge of a bluff and toward certain death, Will’s discovered that he’s never been this close to dying before. That isn’t to say he hasn’t had more than his fair share of brushes with it; death has filled Will’s dance card more than once when he’d have preferred to stay plastered against the nearest wall. When it comes to living—not surviving, but living— he’s always had three left feet, one of which pretends to be the opposite, like it could somehow cram its way into the remaining right shoe and pass itself off as proper.
Regardless, the fact remains that, though Will has seen his guts in the wrong place and felt his brain shaking within his skull in abject terror, he’s never had a near-death experience. Will has watched his blood run from its tributaries and out to sea, but not once has he followed it.
The plummet reaches the half-second mark, and Will hadn’t been aware that falling head first was more like standing up in a different direction.
Half a second more, and Will doesn’t even feel like they’ve moved. He’s had too much time to think already. The entire point of making an impulsive decision is to not have a chance to reconsider the decision itself. Will has failed at dying as much as he did at living. There’s probably a joke hidden in there somewhere; then again, Will’s never had a socially-acceptable sense of humor.
It fits that here, at the end, the only person who has ever truly understood him, who delighted in the ugly, broken, missing-pieced, garage sale puzzle that comprised Will Graham, wasn’t socially-acceptable, either.
Hannibal would more than likely be discussing quantum mechanics right now, were they sitting across from each other and not plummeting toward the Atlantic. Will hadn’t done more than glare at him when Hannibal brought it up the last time; he’d been too tired to talk, let alone to hold a polite conversation. After Hannibal was taken away, Will had looked at his scribblings. Doodles and designs, like crazed scratchings on a wall. Finding them in his own hands was more perplexing than terrifying, but only because they were Hannibal's.
Astrophysics. Astrogenesis. Astroexodus, perhaps, here at two seconds, though Will swears they’ve only dropped an inch.
He wonders if Hannibal’s noticed that they’re currently defying Newton. Will listens to his heartbeat, but Hannibal would never let something as mundane as anatomy reveal his thoughts or betray him. Only Will, and even that had been touch-and-go.
Glancing over, Will watches a teacup fall alongside them, end over end, spinning its way to glory like an open-faced reel.
Two-and-three-quarter seconds, and Will decides that following an example would be much easier than trying to figure out falling on his own.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was insipid the first two times Will had read it in the last two schools he’d attended. He can’t retain enough of the stylistic elements from English class to English class to get by with not reading it a third time, though, so here he is on the pier, nostrils full of the Mississippi, feeling like an object lesson in irony.
If Mrs. Abbott calls him out on skipping class, Will can shrug and say it was in the spirit of the book. He likes Mark Twain’s other works well enough to believe he’d approve of his perfectly-excusable juvenile delinquency, if only the spirit of it, considering he can’t write an interpretive essay to save what Will’s been told is his soul.
Besides, if his father has his way, they’ll have shoved off and left port before the exam.
Will doesn’t make friends. There’s no reason to, considering how often they move, never mind the fact that no one seems to like him, or else they find him insubordinate at best and a terrible influence at worst. He’s not good enough to be the boy mamas tell their daughters about, and not bad enough to get picked up by the cops. As far as Will knows, he’s nothing more than another boat for his father to pilot haphazardly.
The only locals who’ve taken a shine to Will are the old men that camp out at the end of the pier. Dave and Ollie get there before sunrise, and leave at sundown, wrinkled as their clothes from overexposure. Will’s seen them every time he’s played hooky, and on Saturdays when he can break away from the boat. They bring thermoses full of chicory coffee and a tackle box with nothing but sandwiches, though they do bring fishing rods to give the appearance of belonging, much like Will brings a book and a paper sack lunch.
Everyone calls the three of them strange, though Will gets the feeling it’s for different reasons.
Ollie does most of the talking; Dave usually only opens his mouth to remind Ollie that it’s his turn, or else, to curse. From what Will’s heard, it’s the same board they became friends over in the Pacific Theater. Could be the truth as easily as it could be bait shack mythology. Maybe a little of both.
“Well I think that’s just plain old bullshit,” Ollie says to Dave, who has said nothing. “I almost died, too, you know. None o’ that life flashin’ afore your eyes crap. It all just slows down around you. That’s it.”
“Bullshit,” echoes Dave as he takes his turn.
“Buncha romantic bunk.”
Will watches Dave flip the captured checker like a coin, catching it without looking. It spins, casting the slightest of shadows; the checker stops for a blink’s length at the top, suspending itself, like it had a choice about coming down, as though anything had a choice, at all.
Returning to his book, Will tries to parse the symbolism from the racism and the accents. His eyes keep crossing, and he wonders if it’s only incomprehensible because he’s stuck on the same goddamn river and doesn’t feel the least bit free. He can’t imagine anyone wanting to live on the water for too long. They’d have to have one hell of a reason.
Maybe to fish. He likes fishing.
“Can't put the same lure in the water twice,” Ollie told Will once, when they weren't pretending not to notice him.
“You ain't fuckin’ fished,” said Dave, and he prodded their poles with his elbow, their rusty metal reels rattling.
Ollie huffed like he was offended. “I know nothin’ ‘n’ nobody goes out in the water ‘n’ comes back right.”
Dave jumped one of Ollie’s checkers.
“All I'm sayin’, Willy, is that you make damn sure you're ready to put in afore you put in.” Dave snorted, and Will watched Ollie kick his shin under the card table, his foot resting a little too long on Dave's ankle.
They haven't bothered Will yet today, and it's the first time Will’s wished that they would.
Her name was Emily Green. Will wouldn't know if she hadn't sat behind him in French, and again in study hall. On the first day of the term—and how odd it had been, for Will to actually be enrolled at a school when the year started—she’d twice said she was present, and then Will had known about her.
They never spoke to each other, though he'd heard her speak, one of those smooth Southern voices that belonged in the movies instead of a high school. It was obvious that Miss Green practiced her French, though her syllables were stretched thin in the way that everyone's were here, like how Will’s last name was suddenly Gray-um. But she laughed at notes passed back and forth with her friends in study hall, and Will knew exactly why the teacher never called her on it. Who would ever stop so beautiful a sound?
All of his knowledge of her was superficial like that. Emily used shiny strawberry lip gloss, the kind that came in a clear plastic tube with a white plastic applicator. Will knew that because it rolled out of her bag and stopped beside his scuffed leather shoes. He'd picked it up and handed it back to her over his shoulder.
She left her notebook on her desk in French once, pages covered in neat cursive with little hearts over her Is and Js. Will wanted to take it to her, wanted to leave it on her desk in study hall, to break through whatever awkward boundary he'd accidentally set between them, the little invisible box that he lived in like a mime. He put it on Madame’s desk, instead.
Emily wore her hair long; once, in study hall, Jenny Myers—two rows over, black patent Mary Janes—asked to borrow an elastic. Her desk never creaked, which means Emily never slumped in her seat, sitting straight and tall, instead, her shoulders rolled back, posture perfect. She wore glasses just like he did, but kept hers in a case, which meant she didn't wear them like Will, at all.
After the big game, Emily never came back. Her desk stayed empty, though, like she'd return at any moment.
“Did you know that Emily girl that went missing?” his father asked him. They were sitting cross-legged on the deck of their boat, eating boxed mac and cheese and Vienna sausages straight from the jar, sky painted violet and orange.
Will said that he didn't.
Ollie shifts one red piece back and forth on the board indecisively, from one square to another, V formation. Sometimes, Will thinks they only ever play the one game of checkers, that he and Dave are so evenly matched that neither one has ever won.
“There just keep bein’ all these special investigative reports, that’s all,” says Ollie. “Kids are obsessed with near-death experiences ‘n’ all kindsa hocus pocus nowadays.”
Dave opens the tackle box and fishes around for a sandwich. They’re usually egg salad, reeking from inside their plastic wrap shells. It’s a testament to their strong constitution, a preternatural defense against food poisoning.
“You know how Karen is,” Ollie adds. Will doesn’t even know who Karen is. “White lights ‘n’ all that shit. Spiritual crap.”
Ollie’s lawn chair scrapes against the splintering wood of the pier. “Ain’t anythin’ t’ see afore you die. All you got’s enough time t’ think ‘bout how nice it’d be not t’ do it.”
The tackle box clicks shut. “Your goddamn turn.”
“Don’t rush me, Dave.” Ollie’s checker keeps shuffling over the board. “Tryin’ t’ think.”
Dave unwraps his sandwich; it’s noisy enough to keep Will rereading the same paragraph. Old men were cussing everywhere, both on the page and off, a verbal bridge across the Mississippi from Twain to now, like time meant nothing in the face of vulgarity.
“It bothers me,” continues Ollie, “these folks ‘n’ their comfortable ideas ‘bout dyin’. Nothin’ comfortable ‘bout ‘memberin’ all the shit you ain’t done yet.” The checker finds a place to rest. “Not the fall but the sudden stop—you know how it goes. Enough time t’ get pissed that you ain’t got enough time.”
Another checker claps against the board. “Fuckin’ go again,” Dave says around a mouthful of sandwich.
There was a quiet place where the water stood still, more of a large puddle than a pool, though Will’s classmates would inevitably use it as one come summer. Will preferred spending time at the pier, doing his homework and pretending his books were interesting, but the chest deep water called to him sometimes, an invisible siren with an eerie song.
He went once a week—Will would have liked to go more often, but he couldn’t risk it. His father might come looking for him, and Will wanted to keep this secret for himself.
The cops were still looking for Emily Green with her long hair and strawberry gloss. Will couldn’t believe they hadn’t found her yet. Hope made idiots out of all of them; everyone knew the ending to Emily’s story, but no one wanted to finish the book.
Will knew he would be the only one who thought she was beautiful like this, forever watching the clouds through the window pane of the water.
It wasn’t Emily’s end that fascinated him. He would walk back through all the steps that led her here, back when there was tape across her mouth (the man removed it once she stopped struggling, when she no longer bucked beneath the water) and the rope was new (hands like she was praying, arms bent in Baptist supplication; thighs bound, tied below and above the knee, shins and ankles) . Emily’s killer left her dress torn apart (bodice ripped, like in his uncle’s pulp crime magazines) and her underwear down (not to rape her, only to see how it looked) . She floated there, weighed down by a pillowcase of bricks (the man had taken them from the stack in his mother’s backyard, for the patio she would never build, fastened them to a rope behind Emily’s chest as she begged him not to from behind her gag) , like an unwilling Ophelia, until the man came back for them. Like many waterlogged corpses, she’d returned to the womb, knees bending up toward her chest, but Emily never stopped looking up.
Her death was quick, scientifically-speaking, four minutes at most. Emily knew the man who had murdered her, chosen her only because she looked like the girl on the cover of his favorite issue. Will knew her cousin wouldn’t kill again. There would never be another girl that was perfect like Emily. One taste was enough.
Will should have said something, but who would have believed the loner who drifted up and down the river? The police would arrest Will more than likely, even though he had never seen Emily’s face before now, until his brain had supplied all the details of her death, until his hands felt like they had been the ones to kill her. They would take him to prison for a crime he only walked through once a week; Will would be punished for being able to see.
He tried to forget about her, but Emily’s face haunted him. Will thought he should look up her photo in the last yearbook to see what color her eyes were before they began to bulge out, but that felt strangely like cheating. Emily’s hair came loose from her head as the scalp pulled away from the bone, and Will wondered what it had looked like pulled back, if she’d worn one pony tail or two braids or something else entirely.
It was fascinating, the way she became more than herself in death, how she was elevated and deified. People cared more about her than they did when she was alive; Will had seen it in towns up and down the river, how obsessed a population became when a white girl went missing, even the plain ones who no one would’ve noticed before. Their photos would pop up everywhere—in the newspaper, on posters, on milk cartons, on the TV. For a short while, each one would hit the local prayer lists, names lifted up to heaven on a Sunday-Wednesday basis.
Emily became her own ecosystem as the algae built up on her skin and the fish came to nibble at her legs. The falling leaves caught in her hair like so many tiny teacups, catching the rain and the morning dew until the weight became too heavy. Once, when he came to check on her, a lilypad had broken off from its stem and floated over her face; Will pushed it along the water with a stick to give Emily a clear view of the sky once more.
Eventually, Will convinced himself that reliving her death on a weekly basis was too disturbing. He stopped visiting her, stopped wading out into the water to stand beside her and keep her company, stopped seeing her face in every standing body of water. She was beyond unrecognizable now, anyway; the face that stared back at Will wasn’t even hers.
A student with the last name of Gilbert transferred to their school between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Will was moved one seat back in French class, reassigned to the desk that had been Emily’s. After that, Emily Green didn’t exist, at all.
“Ollie’s fulla shit.” It’s the first time Dave’s ever addressed Will, and it makes sense that he’d wait to talk until Ollie left to use the bait shack’s bathroom.
“Why?” Will remembers that he should look up when someone speaks to him, so he makes himself stare at Dave’s nose, sitting on top of a full white mustache.
“When you’re ‘bout t’ fuckin’ die,” Dave begins, “you don’t see anythin’ new, ‘n’ you don’t regret shit. What you do do is ‘member.”
Will swallows. His throat is dry, and his tongue feels too big for his mouth. He clutches Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in one hand, rolled up, the pages fanning out until Will’s at risk of papercuts on his palm. “Remember what?” Will asks Dave’s mustache.
“All the shit you forgot, the shit that became you, that made you a man to begin with. Every fucked up ‘n’ godforsaken second that told you what you were really fuckin’ about. ‘N’ when the dark starts to swallow you up whole, there’s—well I reckon there’s three things that could happen, but only Jesus ‘n’ I know mine.”
“What about the other two?”
The corners of Dave’s lips disappear into bushy white hair; his teeth are yellow-stained from chewing too much tobacco. “You either liked the ‘memberin’, or you wished you’d ‘membered it quicker, ‘cause what you lived weren’t you.”
They’re three seconds down now, he and Hannibal preparing to exit the air and enter the sea. Will had forgotten all about Ollie and Dave, their checkers and their bickering and their strange brand of wisdom. He can barely recall a time where he didn’t love the water; if he’s being honest—and if this isn’t a time for honesty, then he isn’t sure that such a time even exists—Will did his best to forget his childhood entirely.
His eyes are closed, and all he can see is Emily’s face, distended, meat sloughing off of her skull.
That’s what he is, Will decides as they catch up with the falling phantom teacup. He’s a curious adolescent boy, wading into marshy water to commune with the dead, reading the most important part of the story: the way it ends.
This is the conclusion, the final chapter. He knows that, because Dave said as much; sure enough, he wishes he’d remembered it sooner. Maybe Dave knew about him all along, knew Will’s secret, that he’d found himself in the rotting eyes of a dead goddess, then declared himself an atheist.
“Thanks,” Emily whispers to Will.
Hannibal’s chest expands in the circle of Will’s arms as he takes one last breath.
“‘All right, then,’ Will says to himself as he flips them so as to take the brunt of the sudden stop. “‘I’ll go to hell.’”
And Will tore up the book.