There are so many ways to be a victim! This chapter focused on Hopper as he faces his victim mentality head on!
So let’s talk about what the hell victim mentality is.
Victim mentality is an acquired personality trait in which a person tends to recognize themselves as a victim of the negative actions of others and is primarily developed by family members and situations during childhood. Similarly, criminals often engage in victim thinking, believing themselves to be moral and engaging in crime only as a reaction to an immoral world and furthermore feeling that police are unfairly singling them out for persecution.
So Hopper has seen himself as a victim pretty much through the entire first half of this story. That all gets challenged in this chapter thusly:
I am a victim of my father.
I didn’t want to forget [my mother], because according to my father’s brief, drunken ramblings, she was greater than the heavens and the earth combined. She had a chair at the table that never moved. I didn’t dare use it to rummage through the higher cupboards. I feared the wrath he’d bring down on me for disturbing the dead.
What I do remember, is that he didn’t ask me once for money from the cigar-box under my bed, even though he knew it was there and was often desperate. I offered sometimes, and he took it, but he never stole a penny from my “get the hell out of Louisiana” fund.
I am a victim of my childhood circumstances.
“I guarantee they’re a hell of a lot better than any shit that’s ever graced this table,” I scoff. “Cereal, bologna, tomato soup for a decade, and the rationing – it didn’t seem bad at the time, but now –,” I trail off with a grimace. “Once a week, I’d come home from school and he’d have a stack of cans on the counter and a loaf of bread waiting for me,” I say, shaking my head at the memory. “My neighbor up the road would take pity on me and give me food from her garden in the summer.
The truth is that my father always came back to me. Sometimes he was late, or the day bled into the night and maybe the next; but he did come home. He may have been drunk, or had a split lip, or was yelling about assholes stealing his last nickel, but he was here.
I am a victim of my mind’s inability to cope.
Why can’t I cope with life? I feel lucid right now, but I also feel like I could crumble at any moment. I feel unstable, and it’s not normal.
My ego will have to find something else to worry about, because human contact is currently winning out over pride.
I am a victim of Butcher.
I grit my teeth and his eyes burrow into mine like a rat. He’s waiting for my disgusted scoff or my temper to flare so he can be right. To him I’m just a twitchy, touchy, little boy getting doted on with my favorite meal, the comfort of his warm hands, and my childhood bed.
If it wasn’t for his constant goading of me, I may actually feel bad for him. He is lonely and desperate, but he’s also a big boy, and he certainly likes to make his bed in odd places, like in my childhood room while I’m trying to come to terms with a whole host of grief-stricken realities.
This is not a time for games. This is not an appropriate situation to initiate a power struggle with me. If he’s going to start shit, I will gladly finish it.
This internal struggle is very real and very exhausting, but eventually, he overcomes the victim mentality. He may go overboard, however, when he senses Butcher “taking advantage of him.” He reacts by reaching for a weapon which sets off a chain of intense dialog between he and Hannibal where they both reveal their “distrust” in the other.
Now Hopper is still clearly feeling hesitant around Butcher – he won’t trust him, he’s nervous, he’s intimidated by him, but Butcher’s behavior isn’t really that aggressive. Hopper never questions Butcher’s motives for doing anything as being genuinely good, because he won’t stop seeing Butcher as the villain. This is all over Hannibal too, but I’m going to stay with Unhitched for now.
Butcher disarmed Hopper, and Hopper assumed it was to keep him from retaliating if attacked (he’s the victim of other’s after all). What he refuses to see is the potential for Butcher to be protecting him from himself. It’s not like Hopper isn’t on the verge of self-destruction constantly. Butcher has to talk him off the ledge every other chapter.
There is so much more, from the memories that harken back to Le Petit Prince, to Hannibal treating him like a victim by taking care of him … there is more but I’ll leave it at all this.
One thing I did want to mention was that Will, in this chapter, might be a victim of a whole new problem: a medical condition that causes blackouts.
I have already written in a couple blackout scenes of missing/lost time in previous chapters because I like writing the encephalitis into my Hannibal fics. Whether or not this becomes a plot point depends on the direction the story goes. So far the blackouts fit nicely into my “unreliable narrative” and as I am also an “unreliable author”, it’s all fitting together like square pegs and round holes. Eventually, I will fix it all with a sledgehammer, so don’t you worry.
Hopper’s first option is his natural instinct kicking in: fly or fight. He’s never been a fighter and there is no one to fight, so he flees, back to a world that used to bring him comfort. Of course, 20 years have passed and that world is now long gone.
So he hides under a desk.
There is symbolism here, but I won’t expound because I have four damn chapters to juggle right now.
So Hopper prays. The praying was interesting because he’s terrified. He is not a religious man, obviously. He calls God “the pervert above” and thinks the church is rife with hypocrisy. And yet at his darkest hour, he does what any good southern boy does, he prays. It’s not faith he’s counting on. He’s overwhelmed and has no one to call upon for help. He prays for aid, for death, for a weapon, for his mother … it’s pathetic, but it’s supposed to be. A terrified man does things he wouldn’t do under normal circumstances. When confronted with enough pain, we all do unexpected things.
So Butcher comes and talks to him. This whole conversation goes back and forth between Butcher talking to himself and to Hopper.
My head is engulfed in the flames of his stare, but my lungs feel filled with icy water that aches and burns in my chest. Then that thick, hot, mumbling blanket wicks the water from my chest, dries my back, and dampens that fire as he speaks.
“Even a strong man will run when dealt enough pain,” he says, and I finally inhale with a gulping stutter. “You’re not dead yet, Hop, so I suggest you keep breathing.”
I want to tell him that I don’t want to breathe. I don’t want to be alive any more than I want to be in the black, foggy prison inside my head.
There are these little things I keep mentioning. Butcher’s mouth is an interesting part of this story and Hannibal’s canon. Teeth, lips, chewing, breathing, etc were all parts of canon Hannibal. He was very oral in the books. It doesn’t get as explored in the show, however. The most intimate mouth scenes, for me anyway, were the obvious ortolan eating scene, but also the scene where Hannibal pricks his finger with Will’s fly. In Unhitched, Butcher’s blowing smoke, smiling, baring his teeth. He’s smelling, and tasting, and sucking on fingers and other parts … very oral is all I’m saying. Hopper hyper focuses on his mouth sometimes as he listens to Butcher’s voice and moans. He finds his sexual noises particularly intoxicating. Butcher is constantly telling Hopper to breathe and Hopper suddenly gasps when he realizes he’s holding his breath. There is this fixation on breath like the focus on eating and thriving. Hopper can barely keep breathing in tense situations (he often talks about drowning) and he passes or blacks out a lot. Its all a strange mix of Hopper both losing control of his body while simultaneously hyper-controlling it by holding his breath. It’ll all play itself out.
So we suddenly start talking about torture … this is actually the first peek into Butcher’s past.
“You are your worst enemy, Hopper – not me, and not your father. You’re not only living in a nightmare of your own making, but you torment yourself because of it. You’re a torturer, and you’ve made yourself your most cherished victim.”
“Stop psychoanalyzing me,” I snap. The last thing I need is this monster putting his own damn spin on my worthless life.
“Why? I’ve witnessed what cowards are capable of doing to other men. They are kings of flawed justification. You, however, are capable of far more than them, because you don’t have to be a coward. You have a very rare gift, friend – choice. It’s a shame that you’ve chosen to waste that gift hiding under a damn desk.”
“I don’t have a gift; I have a goddamn curse.”
“Every gift you neglect becomes a curse. It’s time you stopped neglecting it and started cultivating it. What exactly are you running from?”
Butcher’s past is a sad one but it is similar to canon. More eventually.
But here we see Butcher relishing Hopper’s beautiful gift. Hopper has the ability to choose what to do with his life and he often seems wildly spontaneous to Butcher. On the other hand, Butcher is not necessarily unpredictable, himself. He is very goal focused and likes a certain order. He enjoys each facade he carries, but they are all simply a means to an end. He is controlled ultimately, by his unquenchable desire to trick, eat men, and watch human behavior. His compulsion controls him so when he meets Hopper, a man with a uniqueness about him that mirrors his own, he is intrigued.
Don’t take this to suggest that Butcher is sad. He isn’t. He loves his life. He loves his life so much that he basks in the glory of all that is around him. But that love is suddenly upended when something more important than himself enters the picture, and he will not abide by that.
We see Hannibal stumble when he meets something he desires.
In this chapter we see the object of his desire backslide and struggle to cope with a situation that Butcher finds ridiculous.
Since all my readers want a love story and there is a compulsion to make Hannibal a softy, I give him the very human trait of compassion here, though it is brief. This compassion, however, is in the form of lightening Hopper’s overwhelming morbidity and his hatred for himself. Butcher doesn’t want Hopper to punish himself, but if he must punish something, he might as well do it constructively. So he basically lights a match and flicks it on the diesel drenched man and sees what happens.
If Hopper can control the burn, all the better. He’s betting he’ll be fine. Much like Hannibal waited out Will encephalitis to see where it went.
The hardware store scene is pretty self-explanatory, I think. It’s a bit of a mental exercise for Hopper, like a session. We get to see some of Will’s empathy peeking out but also his fascination with fear and the dastardly deeds of men.
And we wrap up the chapter with them collecting all the tools Hopper had just described being used to torture him in their mental exercise, and they leave.
If you left the chapter creeped out, worried for Hopper’s safety, confused, or slightly aroused, you are right on target.
Isn’t that a nice mood board? So many wonderful memories: the beach, Le Petit Prince, Darwin, their new house on Lake Erie …
I hope I didn’t hurt anyone.
That’s not true. I was trying to gut you, but I have no idea how invested you guys are with Hopper’s past. It means a lot to me, but you all probably don’t care that much.
There is a video of the song Hopper imagines his mother singing at the bottom if you really want to break your heart. I also linked to it in my chapter notes on AO3.
For the structure/feeling of this chapter, I tried to mimic something from the show. Apéritif opens with Will’s walking through the crime scene at the Marlow house. I don’t think he’s ever actually been in the house since he communicates with no one except the off-screen man who hands him the security report suspiciously fast.
He’s actually in his lecture hall speaking about it, having studied the crime scene photos, but we are all lead to believe he’s been dropped into the house. I’ve always loved that scene because it feels weirdly forced. The extras don’t look at Will, Dancy’s acting is pushed because he doesn’t actually want to be doing the walkthrough, and the viewer is left sort of confused but intrigued by this strange scene. It’s very voyeuristic like we aren’t supposed to be in Will’s head with him.
I guess I was wrong. There are some things that bother me – secrets I’m still not ready to share. “One was my mother, and I’ll leave it at that.”
He leans back in his seat, a little perturbed by my enigmatic answer, considering he already knew about my mother, but he’ll have to get over it.
I was kind of blunt there.
So upon seeing his father at the end of Sowing Dragon’s Teeth, Hopper is left in shock. He’s trying to make sense of the horror. The first place he can think of to go is this dreamlike state, imagining the last thoughts his father would’ve had before taking his own life. He empathizes with his dad and recreates in his head the life they could’ve had if he hadn’t killed his own mother and caused them both such immense pain. It’s detailed because this is the scenario he’s meditated on his whole life. This world is presented from a perspective that’s almost child-like in its innocence.
There are bits and pieces of this recreation that I’ve already mentioned or will mention when you learn about Hopper’s actual childhood in the next few chapters – the shells, the word “copper” he says twice because he’s staring at his father’s bloody body, he mentions a redhead that will come up later (no not Freddie), teacups and antique spoon [*waves at Jen!*], and the boa constrictor and the sunrise in France are parts of the book, Le Petit Prince.
So keep all this in mind when you continue reading. You will figure out where all this came from as Hopper explores his past. But don’t worry, it will meander back to sex and stabbing soon enough.
I made this chapter feel somewhat idyllic but still realistic because Hopper wouldn’t imagine a life full of bliss and wonder with no pain; that would be unrealistic. There are still negatives (feeling sick, not getting what he wants, his parent’s fight), but with a lot of warm fuzzies, too. After all, he’s looking through his own childhood filter where things are slightly skewed.
Hopefully, you forgot for a few brief moments that his mother is actually dead, perhaps thinking you read it incorrectly. If you didn’t forget, I hope you got swept up in the peace or were left anxiety-ridden due to the inconsistencies, because all of those feelings are appropriate to have during this chapter.
I wanted it to go downhill fast, first affirming that his mother is, in fact, dead and that this was all just an elaborate fantasy, and then I toss out the reason behind the visualization, seeing his father’s dead body in the shed.
This is a breaking point for Hopper. He wants to move past his old life and has taken many steps to do so: he got a divorce, he left his home to his ex, he bought a truck, he let Butcher sell that truck, he’s killed and started eating people in accordance with Butcher’s moral code, and the final act he needed to accomplish was to relinquish the pain he’s carried since childhood by forgiving and moving beyond his father. And now he can’t. He hit a wall where he has caused one more death.
But it’s not that simple because it’s never that simple – not with me anyway. And you will find out exactly how not simple it is (maybe) next week.
This next update will probably be a little late. It’s creeping up on 12k words. Possibly more; it’s not entirely written yet, so bear with me. But it’s cool and interactive, so subscribe to the fic on AO3 to stay up to date. And don’t forget to comment because that’s what keeps me goin’!
And for your listening pleasure, this is Parlez-Moi D’Amour, what Hopper imagines his mother singing in the kitchen. It is one of my all-time favorite songs, performed by Lucienne Boyer. I fell in love with it while watching the 1998 film The Imposters.
The French lyrics translated into English:
Speak to me of love
And say what I’m longing to hear
Tender words of love
Repeat them again
I implore you speak to me of love
Whisper these words to me, dear
I adore you. I want to hear,
to hear those words that are so dear
I want to hear you say I love you
By all the little stars above you
Your voice is like a fun caress
It thrills me till I must confess
I long to hear the voice that brings me
Such thrilling love and happiness
This chapter is a good example of what happens when you panic as a writer.
This was originally the “going home to see dad” chapter and that’s what it ended up being, only it was way too long – like 10k words long – so I had to slice it up. Then it was too short, so I poked at it and chipped away, and added as much as I could, and then I got scared because I only had 700 words left and no dialog between the boys! I didn’t want to cut up the flow of his interactions with his dad, so I reworked it, and then I fucked it all up again, and it made no sense! Then it was a pile of notecards, and I went back to the drawing board. I stared and stared and grew monumentally frustrated and I threw the cards away.
I dug the discarded cards (?) out of the trash after a cup of tea and a hot bath and then writing magic happened.
I sat back down and wrote out the whole damn thing, and it now contains one of my all-time favorite scenes: Hopper’s conversation with Red Dragon. It’s brief, but I love it.
Backstory: I recently explained to a friend what it’s like to write like this (without a complete story and publishing as I go). I don’t have 30 chapter outlines waiting to be fleshed out. I have 5 or 6 random ideas and a pile of prompts and that’s it. You’re all literally watching this overly complicated story unfold in real time.
I, as the writer, am tasked with providing you, the reader, a story that you can follow. But as I write, I’m leaving two distinct trails of crumbs from the first page to the last. The bread is for you and follows the plot. The corn is for me and allows for plot stitching and continuity.
You, the reader, are stepping closer and closer to me as I walk backward through my own story. I’m trying not to fall, though I can’t see where I’m going. I leave you bread as I go, but I have to be careful. If I dump too much, you’ll flock and feed and I won’t be able to coax you to continue. If I space the crumbs too far apart, you won’t know where to go and you’ll get lost.
I want you to follow me, but not catch me so I have to stay a few steps ahead. I am the blind that’s not only leading the blind, but I’m feeding you and taking care of you when you falter.
If I do my job, the bread should lead you out of my deep, dark forest alive, though hopefully, catastrophically gutted – a noble but terrifying goal.
The corn trail, however, that’s different, and this is where Red Dragon comes in.
All through my story, I talk about events, characters, objects, and places that may or may not seem relevant at the time. I mention Hopper’s childhood, Vegas, John Lennon, Hop’s bible toss, Vonnegut, Junebug, and more … with absolutely no idea if it will come up later. I’m not joking, it’s all a crapshoot.
I’m literally leaving a trail of prompts for myself to follow because I’m publishing this bastard as I go. This is both monumentally difficult and incredibly satisfying! When I get to call back to a crumb that I left myself and have it make sense, it feels amazing, like it was meant to be! Fate loves me! I’ve done it with a bunch of shit already, but the Red Dagon thing slays me (pun your goddamn right intended).
So back in Missouri (in A Bunch of Fives), if you remember correctly, Sin was chatting with randoms on the radio. He was changing his handle and being weird and Cowboy was noticing the ease with which he drops in and out of character.
Side note: Sin’s handles in that chapter, reflect his first 5ish kills in the book Hannibal Rising.
Butcher (Paul Momund) – Momund’s profession was a butcher
Sweet Cheeks (Enrikas Dortlich) – first willful cannibalization of cheeks
Looter (Zigmas Milko) – one of the looters to cannibalize Mischa
Shotgun (Mueller) – Hannibal shoots him in the chest with a shotgun
Acid Mouth (Vladis Grutas) – who was put on trial but walked due to a witness “having acid poured down her throat”
So back on I-55, Hero talks to Red Dragon as Butcher, and they resume their conversation about “Japanese women having sideways pussies”. That’s the exact nonsense that made Hannibal kill Momund in the first place if you all read Hannibal Rising. Momond insulted Hannibal’s Japanese aunt so Hannibal beat him with a frozen leg of lamb and then followed him out to a lake where Momund was fishing. Momund threatens to rape Hannibal (why?) who then guts him with a sword.
Thomas Harris was a maniacal madman when he wrote Hannibal Rising, but it is so much fun pulling this shit out and reusing it.
Moving on … Butcher is back at it with Red Dragon on the CB, finishing their conversation, and Hopper’s disgusted by it (naturally) and snaps. I love this because it’s Hopper that calls him “one ugly bastard”. You would not believe how long I laughed at that. Days. DAYS. Mr. Empathy calling the cleft-affected Red Dragon an “ugly little pissant” who has to take Butcher’s sloppy seconds! God damn, I’m laughing like a little bitch right now because we all know where this is going!
Or … do we?
Can I get a high five for A+ usage of that gif?
But seriously, Butcher is playing with Red Dragon on the radio when Hopper gets pissy and instigates all this tension, and Butcher hands him the mic and says “do as you will”. OMG, I just can’t with these boys. It’s too much! I wasn’t even going to bring Red Dragon into this, and fuck, now I’m committed!
So yadda, yadda, we get a few pieces of backstory …
“You, uh, you get along with your folks?” I ask. Tread lightly, Hop.
He snaps out of his daze and lights his smoke. “I did, somewhat,” he says before stopping.
“I’m betting that fruit’s a bit too high for me to reach, eh, Butch?”
He snickers and nods, taking a long drag. “I’ll say, my family didn’t deserve the hand they were dealt,” he sighs. “They fought a war on all fronts, and I’ll leave it at that.”
That reality hits me like a sack of bricks. He would have been maybe ten when the war broke out. “I, uh, … I’m sorry to hear that. We had the luxury of four thousand miles of water keeping us safe. Hell, you grew up on the front line.”
He slowly nods and presses his hand tight against his mouth as he inhales his smoke through his fingers. He’s holding back an avalanche of something, but I don’t have the heart to press it.
Why does this make me want to hug them both? *Sigh* Oh, because I know what happened to Butcher and you don’t. By the way, I gave him a backstory using pieces of Harris’ shitstorm (OMG, I’m sorry, Mr. Harris! I just feel like it wasn’t as good as your other work! I loved it though! Please don’t hate me!), but I twisted Harris’ origin story to make Hannibal a little less vengeful, though I may keep all the fart jokes. (Seriously, TH?! I love you, though.)
All the Johns Hopkins stuff was researched so Butcher could be a student surgeon in the 1950s. Hopkins was pioneering better hygiene in medical facilities at that time, so I mention that.
As for Hopper’s backstory, you don’t learn a lot but you do get the fact that a neighbor helped pay for his education. My mom is the one that actually yelled at me about his story. “How the hell did a poor Cajun boy go to college and have a car? That’s ridiculous!”
“But mom, it’s just what happened.”
“Well, it’s wrong.”
“What about the murdering and cannibalism?!”
“That’s a different kind of wrong. Anyone can kill, cut up, and eat a person. But no kid that poor would’ve gone to college and had a car.”
“But you did!”
“That was the 70s! Not the 50s!”
“Oh, shit; you’re right! Help!”
Then she helped me work out how this could all be possible. Bless you, my dear sweet mama who puts up with my Hannibal nonsense. (She whispers, “Do they have sex in your fiction?” And I lean in close and say, “Not really; you should totallyreadit.”)
And then Will-Hopper-Rocket-Cowboy muses …
I’d been imagining him as a phantom – a creature that simply materialized one day in Detroit when I was having a breakdown over a cold breakfast. He’s felt as abstract as the shadow, and as surreal as the night we killed the mugger. You can slaughter a man alongside a monster; you can dine with a devil; hell, you can fuck a shadow, but you can’t open up to these creatures. The more pieces he gives me – the further back his timeline spreads – the more I’m forced to see him as a person with a face and a name, despite our ever-changing epithets.
My mind must have wandered too far away for too long, because he clears his throat. “Are you building another prison?” he asks, and my attention is drawn back into the truck.
“No,” I sigh. I was tearing one down.
My chest. Fuck. Every time. *gathers pieces of heart from the ground like nothing’s happening* I’m good … I’m fine … just don’t look at me!
Then we finally make it to Baton Rouge. I hope it doesn’t feel like it ends abruptly. I had to split the chapter due to the overwhelming length. Here’s Hopper’s house inspiration!
Hop’s home isn’t that close to the woods though (you know, in it), but I thought you may be curious to see where I drew my descriptions. BTW, it’s for sale. It’s a gem, and also full of amazing opportunities to photoshop crime scenes!
Beautiful hardwood floors and a free mattress with no obvious stains! Okay, some are obvious – still free.
Clean up after your murderous rampage in this cozy cottage kitchen!
I made another book reference, too. The bar his dad frequents, The Hateful Snake, was in Red Dragon,
The Hateful Snake bar was in a storefront with the windows painted dark green. The vehicles parked outside were an odd assortment, big trucks looking bob-tailed without their trailers, compact cars, a lilac convertible, old Dodges and Chevrolets crippled with high rear ends for the drag-strip look, four full-dress Harley-Davidsons.
Sound about right for a bar in Baton Rouge.
On a funny side note, did you guys notice how I kept making Hopper disgusted by all the shit his dad does that he, himself, does in the show? Of course you noticed – sleeping in his living room, fixing motors on the carpet, working on his the boat in the shed … I just thought it was fun.
Nothing looks different, except for the quantity of rubbish piled next to all the rusted boat trailers and cinder blocks.
Hopper wouldn’t have said rubbish. He’s American and would’ve most likely said trash or garbage. I made him say rubbish because I wanted to imagine Hugh in this role, accidentally slipping into his British accent for a second. Don’t judge me. This all literally plays in my head like a mini-series.
You know what I have yet to discuss? All my chapter titles. Do you guys know what “sowing dragon’s teeth” refers to? It’s an idiom that means to do something that inadvertently leads to trouble.
The phrase refers to Cadmus, from Greek mythology, who killed a dragon and, on instructions from Athena, sowed its teeth. The soldiers that grew from the teeth fought each other until only five remained.
I was given a challenge by a fellow writer who happens to enjoy fluff. I am not a lover of these things, and as such, I do not write or read fluff. Can you tell? That said, I took (AO3′s) Purple_Girl’s challenge because I will never get better at something by avoiding it. With some brainstorming, I decided to add my take on a classic “fluffy” scene and incorporate it into my fic. Note that all the images below are just so this doesn’t end up being a huge block of text.
So let’s look at what fluff actually is.
Fluff (n.) is fanfic without angst. But it could be any pleasant, feel-good story. The focus is not sex, but displays of affection between two or more characters, whether their relationship is romantic or not. It may also indicate a mood piece with warm, uplifting descriptions. WAFF is also used to describe fluff (an acronym for Warm and Fuzzy/Fluffy Feelings)
That is not Unhitched. Unhitched is angst and probably hurt/comfort and the only thing warm about it are Hero’s hot hands and burning eyes. But you can’t write solid angst, at least not with the story is as long as Unhitched. You need some softer moments to give readers a mental break. So this brings us to:
TAFF (n.) an acronym for Twisted and Fuzzy/Fluffy Feelings. Usually used to describe angsty or dark but occasionally romantic fics.
TAFF would more accurately describe, for example, the sex scene in Boulder in chapter 5. Rocket was trying not to obsess over the organs in the tub and starts crying while they fuck for god’s sake; it can’t be fluff; hurt/comfort maybe or TAFF, as I said.
As for this chapter, I was determined to add a non-angst fluff scene. Obviously, I didn’t do the entire chapter fluffy because that would feel horribly out of place. But I took the fluff trope of “looking longingly and romantically into each other’s eyes” and Unhitched it instead. This is what Bryan Fuller calls a long romantic eye fuck …
… and we all saw how that ended.
My scene in Unhitched … I’m sorry, I can’t get that GIF out of my head. Let’s scroll past that and take a look at the beautiful lake that I set as my background while I wrote this chapter. It is serene …
Ah. Much better.
My scene in Unhitched is brief but intense, and I love how it developed which is why I based the chapter graphic on it (you will see it later or have already seen it posted with the update).
Moving on to the meat of the chapter. Like the last chapter, I chose another piece of literature to focus on. This time Hamlet.
Why Hamlet? Because Hamlet is the grandest of literary enigmas. Every time we see him in the play, he is changing. His opinions change, he is torn with indecision, he is morally suspect and guilt-stricken. He is an amazing character and here is a better summary from Cliffnotes:
The paradox of Hamlet’s nature draws people to the character. He is at once the consummate iconoclast, in self-imposed exile from Elsinore Society, while, at the same time, he is the adulated champion of Denmark — the people’s hero. He has no friends left, but Horatio loves him unconditionally. He is angry, dejected, depressed, and brooding; he is manic, elated, enthusiastic, and energetic. He is dark and suicidal, a man who loathes himself and his fate. Yet, at the same time, he is an existential thinker who accepts that he must deal with life on its own terms, that he must choose to meet it head on.
Anyway, if Hero is the Cheshire Cat, Cowboy is definitely Hamlet in this crazy little fic, so I explore that with what Cowboy says and thinks by drawing parallels to the same verbiage and rationale that Hamlet uses throughout the play.
HAMLET Denmark’s a prison.
ROSENCRANTZ Then is the world one.
HAMLET A goodly one; in which there are many confines, wards and dungeons, Denmark being one o’ the worst.
ROSENCRANTZ We think not so, my lord.
HAMLET Why, then, ‘tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so: to me it is a prison.
Hamlet believes Denmark to be a prison, so to him, that’s all it takes for it to become one. He doesn’t need outside forces telling him what his truths are. He will believe his own truths. Cowboy feels similarly about his own lot. In fact, he draws the prison comparison a lot in previous chapters. But in this chapter, he focuses on his own personal truths and no one else’s:
I finally relax enough to close my eyes and just drift. This feels far more like basking than what Hero accused me of doing. I can bask in total silence, floating in a cool, clear lake. I’m not a blood-thirsty murderer here, but I’m also not a high school teacher. I’m not a perverted savage with a penchant for ass-fucking any more than I am a shamelessly devoted husband – unless I believe myself to be either, neither, or both. I could think myself good or evil, but I don’t. I’m just a body floating in nothingness … until my head bumps into something, and a darkness falls over my face, forcing me to open my eyes.
He’s letting his pent-up “Hamlet anxiety” temporarily go so he can bask in silence. But let’s not forget that Hamlet didn’t just think Denmark was a prison. Words serve as Hamlet’s greatest prison. He overanalyzes and examines every nuance of his life until he has exhausted every angle. Who else does that? I’ll give you one guess. You got it.
This causes Hamlet to be indecisive and confused by his own mind. He frustrates himself with his inability to make clear and rational choices. This is what makes Hamlet such a compelling character! He is human and as such acts irrationally, he gets confused, he makes poor decisions and says the wrong thing.
This is another running theme in my story, Cowboy’s constant pressure to choose. He has to choose routes, food, whether or not to attack, what room, what to say, what step to take, where he’ll drive, will he run or not? Hell, he can’t even decide if he wants to use the word sexy to describe Sin in his own damn head!
There are a million little decisions that he feels never work out, which gets discouraging. He even has a roulette wheel in his head that he spins just to take the pressure off himself when he has to make a huge decision.
Meanwhile, Cowboy looks at Hero and guess what? Hero makes few, if any, decisions. Hero has no complicated process to decide anything, and everything he does seems to work out and cause him no anxiety at all.
There are subtleties here and in other chapters, that show you just how deep this runs in my characters. Hero asks Cowboy a ton of questions: how he feels, what he wants, what he prefers, where he’s going. Cowboy kisses first, he initiates sex (though Hero does prompt it by telling him that he wants him) but Hero then lets Cowboy reject him if he wants. Hero even stops before ejaculating, waiting for Cowboy to nod before allowing himself to indulge. He gives Cowboy every option so the man can choose the best one for himself without influence. Cowboy power bottoms for their first time having anal because he gets to stay in control and Hero gets to watch what he does.
This is not so much Hero catering to Cowboy, but rather Hero enjoying the unpredictability of Cowboy’s behavior. Hero doesn’t live like this. He can’t make these crazy impulsive decisions. He is stuck in this rut of believing that the world at large will take him where he needs to go. This is correlated to his past which will be revealed later. It is also in stark contrast to the way Cowboy lives, feeling responsible for every tiny fucking thing. This is why book/show Will cordons himself away from society. He can’t take that inundation of social interaction. He can’t take the pressure and that feeling of responsibility to be “good” and “normal”.
Hero asks if Cowboy wants help in Boulder and only acts when Cowboy agrees. Hero makes his own decisions, sure, but he relies on his environment to show him what decision to make. Cowboy, on the other hand, feels like life only moves forward when you move it yourself and that is a Herculean task.
This seeming indifference that Hero has toward life, is mind boggling to Cowboy and it feels like Hero is trying to control him (forcing him to make all the decisions), which couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Back to Hamlet:
HAMLET … O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain! My tables,–meet it is I set it down, That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain; At least I’m sure it may be so in Denmark.
So in Will’s mind prison, he makes a similar comparison … Hero is this villain in his head. He calls him “the murderer” in the last chapter, comparing him to himself, “the only decent person in this dark triad”. He also alludes to Hero being the villain that he needs to keep an eye on. But then he looks up at him from the water:
Those moving lips smile a lot more than I do, but if I recall correctly, I’m quite funny according to him. In my head, I can hear his low scoff and snicker, and I find it infectious, so I smile up at him for no reason. His mouth stops moving and he smiles back, and I can now see that his eyes aren’t black, or red, or empty – they’re amber and bright, and they’re finally realizing that I’m not listening to a damn word he’s saying.
He’s literally seeing Hero in a different light and from a different angle. This is my “fluff” or TAFF as I mentioned earlier. It’s Hero and Cowboy ogling one another while naked in a lake. Cowboy sees him as this smiling villain, a confusing enigma, a Cheshire Cat, if you will.
Will’s rumination (and new view) brings me back to color saturation (which I mentioned in my previous writer’s notebook post). Remember seeing the Wizard of Oz for the first time? Your mind is used to decoding black and white for the first half hour and the boom! You get hit with a wonderland of color. That was the direction I went with this chapter. Things are colorful and lush after their orgy. The sky is bright and open. The lake is cold but relaxing. He wants to fish. He wants to bask. He is literally turned on by all of this freedom from pain and choice but also the smile of the man he just called the villain of this story.
So Cowboy basks and relaxes. And he has his own take on this second half of Hamlet’s “To be …” soliloquy:
HAMLET … To die, to sleep; To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub; For in that sleep of death what dreams may come When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause: there’s the respect That makes calamity of so long life; For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay, The insolence of office and the spurns That patient merit of the unworthy takes, When he himself might his quietus make With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear, To grunt and sweat under a weary life, But that the dread of something after death, The undiscover’d country from whose bourn No traveller returns, puzzles the will And makes us rather bear those ills we have Than fly to others that we know not of? Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
Hamlet waxes on and on about suicide, basically wondering why men fear death when they have no idea what it brings. Life is inherently shitty and yet we fear the unknown even more, having no idea if it’s better or worse. Cowboy’s betting on better because he perpetually teeters on the verge of suicidal depression himself, and thinks:
If I drift to sleep in this ethereal peace, all the better. I’d welcome both dreams and drowning at this point, as both provide the mind with the greatest of reveries. There can be nothing on the other side to fear since life happily provides us with the worst of bodily torment. If death brings the destruction of the body, how bad could it really be?
Of course, Cowboy forgets about how much mental anguish could be waiting for him on the other side, but as Hamlet says, why fear death when we don’t know what it brings? And … “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,” he says, and this will come up later in Lousiana.
This Hamlet inspired still from the show was brought up by a member of my Hannigram FB group. Very “Hamlet holding Yorick’s skull” even though Hannibal is Hamlet here. Will’s head would be to Hannibal a physical reminder of the finality of death.
So the boys fight (leaving Fluff-town and entering the outskirts of Angst-ville):
“I was trying to get to know you,” he says. “ You brought up the girl. When I heard your twitchy little voice on the radio, I just said hello. There’s no mystery here – no malicious intent. I was offering to help a friend. You’re obsessed with being dramatic, Cowboy. You’re touchy. Makes me wonder why you’re still here.”
“Touchy?!” I scoff. I am not touchy!
“You pick fights faster than I can squelch them.”
“Oh, of course. I forgot. You’re the one in control. I’m just an unpredictable bomb ready to explode, and you’re keeping me nice and stable, right?”
“You’re doing it right now,” he says.
“Looking for excuses to hate me. You’re at odds with yourself, and you’re taking it out on me.”
This is basically Hero declaring, “The lady doth protests too much, methinks.” Why is Cowboy sticking around if he’s going to keep throwing Hero’s villainy in his face? Cowboy will eat Hero’s suspicious food, accept his help committing crimes, and fuck him to boot, all the while being sure to tell him just how wrong and horrible he is. Way to have DOUBLE STANDARDS, YOU BOOB.
Crisis of conscience activated!
But then, after Hero pushes past him and walks away, Cowboy reflects on all this and his role in their predicament and spins that roulette wheel …
I kind of want to dive back in the lake. I kind of want to run away. I kind of want to curl up into a ball and pretend this whole conversation didn’t happen. But that would be the coward’s way out, and I’m not feeling particularly cowardly at the moment. I could go pick another fight – he never did answer me honestly about Junebug – but that just makes me the victim of his little mind games, a touchy drama queen who can’t let the past stay in the past. It strands me out here at his whim and mercy, and that doesn’t feel quite right either. I’m now left with surviving this mess and just getting through it, morality be damned.
Hey, you growing up, buddy? Yeah? Well don’t get too attached to feeling hopeful, this is an angsty story after all.
So he decides to rejoin Hero and asks what he was saying in the water when they briefly eye fucked.
“Ophelia,” he says. “I was saying you looked like Ophelia.”
“Hamlet’s Ophelia?” I snicker. Med school and a lover of Shakespeare … the mysteries abound. Ophelia, though … how cryptic. “Do I seem suicidal?”
“You purposefully drown yourself in thoughts and rationality, and that is a dangerous practice.”
“I suppose I should just stop thinking, then – less water to swallow.”
“Or, rather than a dog, be a shark – then it doesn’t matter what you swallow.”
I huff out my amusement and release a pent-up, nervous sigh. If only it could be that easy … become a shark by simply believing that you are one.
To be or not to be … a shark.
Oh Cowboy, make up your damn mind. What tis nobler, fool? Are you a blood-thirsty murderer, a high school teacher, a perverted savage with a penchant for ass-fucking, a shamelessly devoted husband, a dog … perchance a shark …
Oh boy, those choices are back. Hero knows what Hero is, but Cowboy … well, Cowboy has his own idea of what kind of man he wants to be … he just has no clue how to be it.
Sometimes when I write, though I have yet to mention this, I like to pick a piece of literature and then sprinkle bits of it throughout a chapter. It’s not necessarily relevant, but since Cowboy was an English teacher, he’s well read and often thinks in terms of metaphors and similes, drawing comparisons between the physical world and his unending mental anguish. I have done this with The Sirens of Titan a lot, as well as the Bible, but they are both much more obvious in their inclusion.
I insert literary references for three reasons:
It helps to flesh out the text and enrich it with lots of symbolism.
It gives me a concrete jumping point for each chapter so I can experiment with thematic elements.
It’s fun and I get to revisit famous literature. Pro tip: get public domain Kindle books on Amazon for free and search for keywords rather than doing it all by hand. I ended up buying all of Harris’ work because I couldn’t take the page flipping.
Does it make the story cumbersome? Sometimes. Does it add some confusion between chapters and an overabundance of metaphors? Absolutely. But I’m enjoying the hell out of it, and so are my readers, so that’s all that matters.
I went with Alice in Wonderland for this chapter, not for any real parallel between the subject matter and the book, but more for fun. You can draw parallels, though, since Cowboy feels at odds with himself and is plummeting into a dark hole where he feels like he’s going crazy. There is also this disjointed nature to the chapter where you feel like you should be more horrified by what’s happening (bloody sex – ew), but for some reason, you don’t, at least that was my intent. If you were horrified, I apologize.
I turn over to find him lecherously prowling behind me, a Jabberwock waiting to confuse and attack me with his forked tongue. He hauls me to his chest and his mouth devours me as I slay him with my own.
I’ll never fully understand his desperation when we touch. He seems trapped in an unending abstinence of carnal pleasure, forced to find his only sexual gratification in the heat of a smoke brushing his lips, or a spoon lazily dragging over his tongue – that is until he finally has me at his whim.
Calling Hero a wolf or a bear would have made more sense in the grand scheme of the story, but fuck that; I cater to no man. And besides, The Jabberwocky is a nonsensical poem by Lewis Carrol and sometimes Hero feels a little nonsensical in his logic, at least according to Cowboy. At this point in the story, Cowboy is reallyconfused, not just about his waning moral compass, but also his desires to fuck around with Hero and eat man flesh – the actual eating of human, not sucking dick. Cowboy has no qualms about sucking dick.
His eyes don’t leave mine as I drag my hand down his other cheek until his face is as black as the shadow’s. My fingers slip across his forehead, painting down his nose until he has no face in the blackness, just two white eyes and a mouth filled with sharp teeth that smile up at me like the Cheshire Cat. His fingers are drawn to his lips as I gawk at this erotically perverse scene: a tongue bathing long, white fingers in the depths of our darkened coffin.
So then the action starts (thank God, right?). They’re fucking around and Hero watches Cowboy paint his face with blood. Now in Alice, the gardeners are painting the white roses red while Cowboy paints Sin’s white face black with red blood. Why? Well in Alice, they are placating the temperament of the Queen. In Unhitched, they are placating both of their whims (but mainly Princess Dancy’s, hey-o!). Hero’s allowing Cowboy to reenact the kill and fully captivating his sexual desires by equating blood-lust with cock-lust. Cock-lust … just wanted to type that again.
And then I call Hero the Cheshire Cat … a very distinctive creature with his own set of rules who is drawn to Alice when she’s feeling a bit blue. From Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:
The Cat only grinned when it saw Alice. It looked good-natured, she thought: still it had VERY long claws and a great many teeth, so she felt that it ought to be treated with respect. ‘Cheshire Puss,’ she began, rather timidly, as she did not at all know whether it would like the name: however, it only grinned a little wider. ‘Come, it’s pleased so far,’ thought Alice, and she went on. ‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’ ‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat. ‘I don’t much care where—’ said Alice. ‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat. ‘—so long as I get SOMEWHERE,’ Alice added as an explanation. ‘Oh, you’re sure to do that,’ said the Cat, ‘if you only walk long enough.’
I mean, come on. That IS Hero – 100% Hero in a nutshell, but also Hannibal, I might add. In my story, Cowboy is drawn to Hero’s primal nature for reasons he cannot understand. There is this stability inside Hero that he wants to grab ahold of, and there is unpredictability within Cowboy that Hero finds intoxicating and worthy of further exploration. I’ll get into all that later … perhaps when they are back in Colorado.
All I want to do is fuck this monster – I want to fuck his mouth so hard that I split his skull with a wet crack when I come. I want to expose the bloody seeds lodged inside his murderous mind. I want to hear him eat his goddamn words and beg me to show him mercy. With every thrust into him, he tightens his mouth until I can’t take it, and I fill him with my cum and whatever’s left of my integrity.
God, Cowboy, get a grip. So this was my “off with his head” rant, à la the Queen of Hearts if you can believe it! It was much more literal in the first 27 drafts. What I ended up with was a call back to Cowboy wanting to kill Hero when he was lost in the cornfield, but also it refers to the luscious tableau with rotting fruit he presented to Hero when he killed the shadow, and Hero’s head is now a metaphorical pomegranate.
I don’t know either. Don’t question my fucked up rationale.
So, Alice aside, there are a few other bits I wanted to dive into.
But if all the world’s a stage, and all the men merely players, then maybe I should feel fine, because this is my act to shine. Maybe this is my time to enter the production and add a supporting role to Hero’s wicked little performance. I’m not going to change him – I know that – but maybe I can speak to him on a more carnal level, offer a fresh perspective to this corporeal perversion of his. His life – according to him – is nothing but ecstasy; mine, nothing but tragedy. Surely it has to even out after enough exchanging of bodily fluids.
This stage bit is actually a little foreshadowing to the next chapter so I won’t ruin it, but I did find that it fits more in tune with how I, personally, feel Will would rationalize pairing himself with Hannibal (in the show). People like to think that Will just drops everything at the end of the show and falls madly in love with Hannibal and that they die together because “it’s beautiful” and they have tons of water sex and run away together. I can’t get on board with that thinking, but this is just me. While yes, they both change each other (Hannibal drops his guard, and Will can see and begin to understand Hannibal), I really don’t think it’s just love at play. I think intimacy is very much at work, sure. They are incredibly lonely individuals who are in desperate need of carnal pleasure and partnership, but I don’t see anything they do as motivated by love for each other as much as obsession and a strange possessiveness they feel toward the other. Hannibal has opened up to Will and refuses to let the object he opened up to flee or betray him, and Will feels morally obligated to keep tabs on the monstrous man he knows so incredibly intimately. Sounds like an abusive and controlling husband and his wholly devoted wife who won’t leave because “he’s only cruel when he drinks, and if I stay with him, I can make sure he doesn’t hurt anyone”. I mean sure, love – but toxic love, unhealthy love, a love that can only be accepted by Will moments before he throws them off a cliff … but love. I’m a cynic and I digress …
All this is irrelevant to my story because this is not how Hero or Cowboy behave. There is a camaraderie that is developing, absolutely, but they have a much deeper give and take of their moral codes. Hero is not quite as selfish as Hannibal and what he does is almost motivated by a self-fulfilling prophecy that he feels he can’t escape (nature), whereas Cowboy is motivated mainly by self-loathing and neglect (nurture).
I only included that long-winded quote above because of the last line: “Surely it has to even out after enough exchanging of bodily fluids.” Haha, Cowboy, you love his dick. But he does have a point. Maybe S4 Will and Hannibal will feel the same way.
Moving on to color theory …
I had one more objective in mind when writing this chapter. I was intending to desaturate the chapter entirely (or at least stifle color in my reader’s mind) writing it in grayscale, while only alluding to a few reddish words (copper, blood, fire). I’ve been reading about and messing with reader visualizations, to see how much control an author actually has in a reader’s head. Leave a comment on AO3 if you noticed or if you think I’m being obnoxiously pretentious. I am a shameless comment whore.
Bryan Fuller used this desaturation technique a lot in the show, using pops of red to force you to focus your attention exactly where he wants it. It’s a great visual tactic and made for amazing cinematography. There are better examples than these images, I’m just lazy. As for writing, it’s difficult to capture this feeling because readers are going to imagine their own world the way they want it, but Unhitched is so atmospheric, I was hoping to control you all like the puppets I wish you were. No one is reading this so I can say that without worrying about backlash.
So wrapping up, Cowboy’s satiated and Hero’s thirsty (af) and they “decide” to go to Lousiana next. Whew, what a whirlwind. We’ll see in the next chapter how everyone behaves after such a gluttonous evening and maybe we can get back on the road (spoiler: no we will not).
I used a specific method of describing artwork to write this chapter of Unhitched. When you discuss art, you tend to go in stages: discuss mastery of techniques used, then describe subject matter, then delve into the emotions invoked by the piece.
I started this chapter focused on Japanese woodblock prints like those of Katsushika Hokusai.
Above is the most famous, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, mainly because I have a print of it on my wall and it conveys that overwhelming succumbing Cowboy is feeling.
Waves will crash upon you. Water will gorge you, rising to overtake the world that brought you such agony. You will soar and sing with the boom of tidal currents breaking on rock, and it will feel as glorious as if you were moving mountains with your bare hands.
I describe the cutting of troughs and the like because that’s how you make the wood blocks from which you print. Clean lines, and they are very cold, and wet, and somewhat harsh (moving mountain, crashing on rocks) and those artworks rely heavily on waves and water. And this is also where I start describing how Cowboy killed the shadow; his technique.
From there I flow into the works of Otto Marseus Van Schrieck – damp and dark and humming with insects on the forest floor.
Through the dense, dampening fog, I smell dirt. It is the marshy smell of sod that was once alive – decaying earth, like peat. Rotting logs … fungus … the floor of a living, breathing forest carpeted in deep, red soil – that is what I smell and taste on my tongue. This living earth is drinking blood like a fine wine. It lets it pool on its tongue before swallowing it in a gluttonous gulp, allowing its rich, metallic notes to bloom and captivate its senses – a true earthly delight.
His work is very deep and visual and his subject matter is like a living still life because much of his work includes images of snakes, insects, and plant life. They are dark and feel marshy. You can almost smell the earth and taste the dampness of the air in his paintings. They just happen to describe perfectly the backdrop of the attack, hella damp Mississippi.
Then I fall into more baroque pieces like the still lifes of Jan van Huysum who painted life and death in the form of dying flowers and bursting fruit. Love the inclusion of insects. I don’t bring flies into the fic because I didn’t want to lose the “beauty” Sin was witnessing but I did mention cicadas to set the sound stage.
My humming ears finally clear, only to be overcome with the symphony of cicadas that surround me. The shrill chirps sing to me though the haze and the murky veil lifts, returning me to the earth and the dark pile of flesh on which I perch. My belly growls, and I’m suddenly overwrought.
Frans Snyders also came to mind. He painted a lot of still lifes of food presented with dead hares and deer.
… those fiery pits are studying me like a painting. They flow down me, consuming every inch of me, and I feel nude, like he’s disrobing my red-stained body as I sit poised with a pile of overripe fruits between my knees. Those eyes slowly tip and lean in to absorb the details of my work, and the head shakes in awe at what the human hand is capable of creating.
Artemisia Gentileschi also influenced some of it with Cowboy’s poised position over the body. Gentileschi painted many figures killing other people, mainly women beheading men, so I found it fitting. There is a lot emotion in Gentileschi’s work, the faces are contorted, hands are raised, and you get this feeling of pain, fear, regret, but also joy and a little pleasure from the deaths the figures caused. Plus she plays with chiaroscuro (the sharp contrast between light and dark in many Renaissance pieces) so I tried to describe that a little.
What I ended up with is this dark tableau of delicacies – Cowboy presented to Sin as this thing of beauty, a literal tray of opportunities and overindulgences.
I draw you back somewhat to Cowboy’s first plunge into Sin’s eye wells at the diner in Boulder (the muddy bottoms where he dropped his rationality), before ending the chapter on the classic canon Will/Hannibal exchange in the car, the whole “alone in the darkness” dialog, except Cowboy comes to the conclusion on his “own” with no prompting from Sin other than the kiss.
I am free-falling from grace, and there is no ground on which to crack my skull and end it. I am overflowing with an insatiable appetite, and my belly is begging to be fed. I am plunging into oblivion, a hot black hole of destruction, and it is terrifying; but at least he is with me in that darkness.
In the end, it was 900ish words that took over a week to construct. Why I made it this complicated, I don’t know, but I hope you enjoyed.
This was created in January 2018 for the 12 Short Stories writing challenge. The title is pronounced “git-chee goo-mee.”
I first saw Cookie while I was being shoved against a dumpster behind a shitty bar in Duluth. Cook hated that name about as much as I hated my own. My head was ringing and I was left crawling around, hiding from an unpaid tab that had left me fucked up and bleeding from the nose. He’d watched his buddy deck me and drag me outside, and then Cook flipped a coin. He helped me after that, because, apparently, it was my lucky day.
I remember his deep voice yelling at me to stay on the ground while his buddy paced, looking for a reason to finish me. I could barely tell what he was saying through his thick accent and the shaggy gray beard covering his lips. His buddy walked away like a good man. Cook did not.
I was too lost to care and too drunk to notice where I was being led, or by who, so when I woke up in a motel room, sore and still bleeding, there was no shock to be had.
Cook was a chef, a good one, and he fed me that morning and the next. He’d worked for twenty-five years in a boatyard – a familiar haunt for me, seeing as I grew up on one just off the Gulf. We ended up smoking and drinking and sharing more than just a bed for a few nights. We shared memories.
I was a kid during the war, thank God. He’d served and said he loved every bloody minute of it. I’d always wanted to be a cop when I grew up. He laughed because he’d never been anything but a cook and a crook.
When it came time to share the deeper, darker parts of me, I choked, but there was something in his lonely eyes that egged me on. I told him who I was and from where I’d run, and he listened with such rapt attention that I thought I might be speaking the words of God. When I described how I’d snapped and killed them all, he didn’t look at me like I should be thrown in the clink or a nuthouse. He just nodded and said welcome to the club.
He got me a job on his boat – the big one, according to the locals. I had nowhere to go and the earth was burning my feet, so I figured the sea might just wash away some of my sins.
It was a clear day in November when we set off hauling ore from some mill in northern Wisconsin. We were part of the twenty-eight-man crew plus the captain. He was a good captain – well-seasoned, as Cook called him – who stayed on the bridge, piping music through the intercom. The crew fucking loved it; hell, every port loved it. They were a treasured attraction on Superior. People came from miles away just to watch them dock: a salty, drunken family that danced and sang across the deck.
After what I had done, I had a hard time believing life could be as happy-go-lucky as a clear blue sky and careless merriment on a barge. I’d been branded a hero. They gave me the key to the city and a hefty raise without knowing the truth. They cocked eyebrows and shook heads when I turned in my badge and gun the next week. They said I was out of my mind to leave my post. They offered me more money and a better position – in an office rather than patrolling cells – but I couldn’t go back. They thought I had saved my boys, and I had. But I was also who’d started the fire.
They burned for days but screamed for what felt like longer. They smoldered and smoked – tall black plumes reaching for the heavens – until all that was left was a big brick box filled with a hundred locked coffins. It was declared an act of God, and maybe they were right. God does have a penchant for watching his children burn.
When people heard my name, they beamed and wanted to shake my hand – the hand that had chained doors, flushed keys, and sloshed gasoline across the floor. I was apparently made in God’s vengeful image, but no one was the wiser. I left town after that.
The lake afforded smooth sailing for my maiden voyage, and I felt free for the first time in years. The solid ground had carried too much weight for my taste, but the water and the breeze gave me life. I could’ve learned to love that.
Cook took me on deck and told me of the ports, kitchen, and who onboard had new wives or new babies waiting for them in Detroit. He didn’t care, but he knew. He called me a clever boy and a good friend. When my eyes glazed and my attention waned, he clapped my back and told me murder was a relative term used only by men. We were not men there. We were something different. We were divine, but caught between the devil and the deep blue.
That evening brought with it gray clouds and a dangerous wind. Cook called the gales a bad air. The gusts picked up, and the waves beat their fury on the sides of the boat. We rocked and the great hull bellowed into the night. The crew battened down but the good captain forged on despite the warnings. I, the coward, prayed like a child in Cook’s bunk. He didn’t like it, but he let me.
God came knocking on that boat, throwing our bodies and teasing the hungry water. We could hear him in the bones of the ship. We could see him in the flickering bulbs and the panicked faces of the crew. We could feel his wrath when he pelted us with an icy rain and twisted her so far that she finally cracked open.
A pitch black void howled above and a damp doom laid beneath, and no coin would let us pick which direction we preferred. That night we were all left drowning.
I could hear the tears and the frantic calls of dying men locked in their fate. I was one of them this time, and I welcomed the dark waters into my mouth and lungs, because you cannot play or battle God and expect a fair fight.
Days passed, and when I peeled open my eyes, I was staring at the hazy light filtering through the window of Cook’s motel room. My chest burned and my body shook, and he was studying me from the corner, smoke pouring from his broken nose like a serpent.
He didn’t smile or scoff, or tell me why my face was bloodied and my hair gritty with sand. He just helped me redress, tucked a map and his wallet in my back pocket, and said fortune favors the bold. He donned a pack, lit me a smoke, and opened the motel door. The room was flooded with the healing fire of the mid-morning sun and the gongs of a church ringing through the streets. Twenty-nine bells of mourning rang through Detroit, and I’ve yet to hear a sweeter sound.