“So calm your waves and slow the churn, and you may have my precious bones on my return.”
- The Decemberists, “Annan Water”
If there was once a time when he could smell anything other than permanent marker fumes, Austin can’t remember it. He’s been sitting for hours, systematically blotting out the Dewey Decimal numbers on the spines of books and the Antlers Library stamps on their title pages so that there’s nothing that can tie them back to ever having belonged in a library to begin with. It’s so no one will try to return them. They’re all old books, being donated to various places, and Channery has been clear that she doesn’t want any of them making their way back onto the shelves for any reason.
Austin doesn’t mind the work, aside from the marker smell and the ink that’s smudged all over his fingers. He doesn’t mind answering the phone, either, or reshelving books, or helping library patrons when no one else is around to answer their questions. Working at the library is, and has been for the past six months, remarkably uneventful.
In fact, all of Antlers has been uneventful since Austin chose to stay. Not that he feels like complaining. He likes the quiet library job, likes living with Otter and splitting up the rent to make it affordable, likes eating lunch at the diner so often that the waitresses know him by name. He even likes the blanket of snow that drifted in over the town sometime in mid-December and has stayed put ever since. But now it’s verging on spring, and the snow is starting to melt away into gray slush that drips from rooftops and piles up along the edges of the road.
“Are you just about done with those?”
Channery’s voice startles Austin from his robotic book-destroying routine. He looks up at her, shaking the hair from his eyes, and nods.
“Yeah. I was gonna take off around,” he checks the clock on the wall, “now, if that’s okay. You don’t need me for anything, right?”
Channery shakes her head. “You’ve done more than enough today. I’ll see you tomorrow, Austin.”
Austin caps the large marker he was using, slotting the book in front of him back into place on the to-be-donated cart before he stands up. Walking home after work is one of his favorite parts of the day. If nothing else, it means an opportunity to stretch his legs after seven hours of menial librarian tasks (which are sometimes exacerbated by the appearance of Richard, complaining about the valuable books Channery is donating all willy-nilly). Walking home also means that he can go straight through the cemetery on the way back to the apartment.
The cemetery is across the street from the library, divided only by the driveway that leads to the library’s parking lot. It’s the smaller of the two cemeteries in Antlers. Austin doesn’t know where the other one is. He doesn’t think he needs to - or, rather, it isn’t particularly relevant. He generally tries to steer clear of cemeteries in the off chance that he stumbles upon excitable gaggles of dead people eager to talk to someone who can see them. Of course, it’s never happened to him before, but Austin figures it’s bound to at some point. And he doesn’t do well with crowds, real or ethereal.
There’s only one reason why Austin cuts through this particular cemetery as often as he does, and she’s there today, sitting in midair half a foot above her own headstone. The sloshing of Austin’s boots in the slush-thick grass heralds his arrival, and Mac looks up at him with her good eye, grinning fit to burst.
“Long time no see.”
“Sorry,” Austin grunts, shoving his hands in his pockets to keep them from getting cold. “Had to wait for all the snow to melt. Weather’s been shitty.”
“I was just kidding.” Mac’s eyebrows furrow. She reaches out like she wants to touch Austin’s shoulder in concern, but stops short, apparently remembering that reaching a hand through his body won’t feel pleasant for either of them. “Are you okay?”
Austin’s heavy jacket shifts around his body as he shrugs. “I guess. I’ve been antsy this whole week. Like I’m waiting for something to happen, but I don’t know what.”
“Something is going to happen,” Mac says. She sounds so sure of herself that it gives Austin pause. He looks up at her, tracing the marred features of her face with his eyes while he thinks up a reply.
“How do you know?” he asks eventually.
“I don’t.” Mac shrugs, mirroring Austin’s own action from just a moment ago. “I just feel it, same as you do. I’ve been feeling it for weeks now. It’s like a noise that started off really small, but now it’s getting louder and louder and way harder to ignore. You know?”
“Something’s coming,” Austin mutters.
Mac nods. “Something’s coming. And it feels big.”
“Of course. Just as I get all comfortable not having to fistfight monsters, something shows up.” Austin grinds his teeth together. God I wish I had a cigarette. He’d tried to follow Monty’s example and throw all of the ones he’d bought out in the week after Mac’s funeral, so he wouldn’t get tempted. It had worked, mostly, but he still craves them off and on. “So what do you think? Better or worse than the forest spirit? There are big, benevolent supernatural creatures out there, right?”
Mac avoids his eyes. “Not benevolent.”
“Of course it isn’t.”
“You aren’t going to like it,” Mac says, entirely too earnestly for Austin’s liking. “It already doesn’t like you. It can feel you here, in the town, and it wants you to stay out of things. For your own good. You have to stay out of things. You have to stay out. You. Have. To.” Her good eye unfocuses and rolls wildly in its socket. Her mouth opens too, too wide. Austin can hear her jaw cracking and straining with the effort. “It has fingers, Austin. It has fingers, and it’s hungry…”
Mac trails off into a high, keening sound that Austin has never heard any living being make before. Her eye continues to roll, the pupil and iris no longer visible at all. Her whole body shakes like a scarecrow caught in a hurricane.
Then, all at once - she’s back to normal.
Even though he knows better, Austin is about to loudly question what the fuck that was, but the feeling of a presence behind him makes him reel around instead. It’s Channery, again, and she jumps back in surprise.
“What,” Austin says, maybe a little more gruffly than he means to. He clenches his hands into tight fists to bring himself back to reality. Stop. Breathe. His breath comes out in wispy little clouds of condensation in the air. “Sorry. Sorry, Channery. You startled me.”
Channery is a little pink in the face, and it’s hard to tell if she’s embarrassed or just cold. She smiles at him. “No, I’m sorry. I should have said something, not just walked up on you like that. Are you all right?”
Austin manages a weak grin. “Yeah. Could do with a warning next time, though.”
“Understood.” Channery laughs a little. She fidgets with the hem of her sweater, looking past him at Mac’s headstone. “Do you come out here often? I would have expected you to be halfway home by now.”
“I come out here to be alone sometimes. It’s pretty much the only way I can get some peace and quiet.” Austin feels relief, almost a giddy kind, swell up in his chest once he realizes Channery hasn’t said anything about how this is the grave of that young deputy who died. He’s so tired of talking to people who want to know all about the investigation that Mac died working, who want to hear what she was like from someone who met her during her last days. “Anyway, what did you need me for?”
“Oh!” Channery perks up suddenly, her gaze drifting back to Austin’s. There’s a gleam in her eye that suggests she’s about to let him in on a particularly juicy bit of gossip that she can’t wait to share. “Sheriff Maxwell called the library desk just now, looking for you. She needs you to come down to the station as soon as you can. They arrested Landis Holliday for trying to kill Hettie Paige in the convenience store parking lot, and he’s saying some kind of spirit told him to feed her to it.”