Discover more from Antlers, Colorado
Austin takes his shoes off in the foyer, depositing them on the mat near the door. The Jones house is dark and quiet, and he flips the light switch at the bottom of the staircase, illuminating the second floor landing before ascending up towards it. It’s almost a reflex. Austin doesn’t have to think about where the panel on the wall is, or which switch will turn the right lights on. It just happens, barely even a pit stop on his way up the stairs.
He’s surprised, that he remembers so much. He lived at the Hart mansion for longer than he lived here - fourteen years, between the ages of four and seventeen. His time in the Jones house was an even split between immemorable toddler years and angry adult years, though for the latter Austin was away from the house more than he was ever in it. When he was a teenager, he used to sneak across the street and into the backyard, to talk to Richard. But once Austin and Jacob moved back into the house, there were too many memories of Richard. Not just his ghost - family photos smiling in every room, mementos locked in cabinets and desks, Richard’s bedroom that neither brother wanted to claim. Too many memories of a family legacy for a family that barely existed anymore.
The last time Austin was in the Jones house, it felt suffocating. The walls felt like they were constricting around him, ready to squeeze him until something inside him gave, or popped. But it feels different now, almost too vast. He feels like he’s the ghost here, a stranger in his own home, drifting through hallways and rooms he hasn’t occupied in four, almost five years.
Austin trudges up the stairs, stomping his feet on the wood. He winces as he realizes his mistake: the sound of his footfalls echo through the house unobstructed, reminding him just how alone he is. The door of his room is still ajar from earlier - he slips inside and throws himself down on the bed, squeezing his eyes shut.
What the fuck was that, with the journal? He looses a long sigh, curling his fingers against his palm, feeling along the scar that bisects the heart line and head line. I’ve never seen something - felt something - so vivid before, that didn’t exist. But I didn’t feel any kind of presence in the apartment - didn’t see any ghosts or anything. So what - it was a hallucination? Seems a little coincidental, that I would suddenly start hallucinating, in Abbott’s apartment.
But if it wasn’t a hallucination…what was it? There’s a persistent itch in his green eye, not skin-deep like the symbols on his skin, something he can ignore if he focuses on anything else, but an annoyance nonetheless. Austin rubs it with the heel of his hand. It feels sensitive - not painful, but tender. He closes his brown eye experimentally, and finds, with a start, that he can see the threads of magic in the room. It’s easier than it was when Naberius taught him, barely any effort to see the green strands branching away from him, reaching out into the ether.
What the fuck? Austin wracks his brain for reasons this could be happening, and comes up with only one possible answer, an answer that makes him sit up in sudden, cold horror. Passive possession. If I’m passively possessed, it could increase my magic ability, and make me see things - or make me more attuned to psychic visions.
Keeping his brown eye closed, he fixes his gaze on his cell phone, on the dresser across the room, and envisions a thread of magic stretching towards it. He takes a breath, makes sure the strand holds, and twitches his index finger down by his side, squeezing slowly. Like pulling the trigger of a sniper rifle.
The cell phone pops into his hand, all in one piece, no strange void goo on it. Austin exhales in relief. He opens his other eye and flips the phone open, punching in a number that’s more muscle memory than memorization by now. He lies back against the bed as the dial tone turns to ringing, trying to ignore the uneasy churning in his stomach.
The line rings once, twice, three times, then clicks with the noise of someone picking it up. Austin sits up again in spite of himself, his heart fluttering in his chest.
“Hello?” Landis says. His voice is tinny, even softer than usual over the phone, but it’s good to hear it.
“Landis,” Austin says, his mouth twitching into a smile. “Hey.”
“Austin!” Landis nearly yelps in surprise, his voice cracking. “What - how - how are you?”
“I’m alright,” Austin says cautiously. “I’m at home, In Havenwood. I just got here this morning. Stuff has - uh, it’s been crazy.”
“Is your brother okay?”
“Yeah, yeah.” Austin runs a hand through his hair, pushing it back and away from his face. “He’s getting released from the hospital soon. I’ve been trying to work with the DPR, tracking down the guy who stabbed him.”
“Did you get him?” Landis asks.
“Uh, no. We didn’t.” Austin sighs. “I’ve been running around all day with agents, and we keep hitting dead ends. He might have left town yesterday, for all we know.” He pauses. “How are you, though? How’s everyone there?”
“We’re good,” Landis says, sounding happy for the change of subject. “I’m good. Everyone’s been asking about you. When you’re coming back. Walker, uh, he drove off somewhere a couple days after you left, and I don’t know if he’s been home since. I think he’s on vacation.”
“Sounds about right.” Austin laughs. “Have you seen Naberius around?”
“No, I…I haven’t,” Landis says. “Not since the thing at the motel. Why?”
“Just curious.” Austin bites his lip, glancing at the clock across the room, trying to count back in his head to what time it is in Antlers. Nearly midnight in Havenwood, so nearly ten in Antlers. Otter should be done with work at the hospital by now.
“Listen,” he says, “is Otter there? Can you put him on for a second?”
“Oh, uh, sure,” Landis says. “He’s around. One sec.”
There’s a shuffling sound on the line, muffled footsteps, a door creaking open. Two faraway voices, having a conversation Austin can’t quite strain his ears enough to hear, then the noise of the phone exchanging hands.
“Hi, handsome,” Otter says, and Austin can hear the smile in his voice.
“Hi yourself,” Austin says back. “Uh, listen - I’m dealing with something here that I, I’m not totally sure what it is, and I think I could use your help.”
Otter laughs. “That sounds ominous. But sure, lay it on me.”
“I have to ask you something kind of personal.”
Austin sucks in a breath, steeling himself. “What did it feel like when you were being possessed? I mean, did - did you feel out of the ordinary at all? Did you see things that weren’t there? Did your psychic powers feel, I don’t know, stronger at all?”
Otter is quiet for a moment that stretches out longer and longer, to the point where Austin is afraid he’s hung up.
“You don’t have to answer,” Austin says, hastily.
“No,” Otter says, “it’s fine. I was just…there’s some stuff from when, uh, when that was happening that I don’t really remember. Like, I would get these - these impulses to do things I don’t think I would have done, otherwise. Sometimes I could control them, and they were just thoughts, but sometimes I felt like I had to act on them. That was what happened when I, you know, took you and Rabbit into the mines.”
“You didn’t have any visions or anything?”
“No, I didn’t see anything.” Otter’s voice is tinged with concern. “Austin, are you alright? What’s going on?”
“I’m…fine.” Austin blinks his green eye experimentally, and winces a little at how tender it still feels. His heart is beating a little slower now. I don’t think I’ve been feeling weird impulses. Whatever’s happening to me - maybe it’s not possession. Maybe it’s some magic bullshit like my danger sense. Wish I had one of Naberius’s calling cards, so I could ask for help figuring out what this is. He’s gotta have something about it in that library of his.
“You don’t sound fine,” Otter says.
“I’m a little better now.” Austin lies back on the bed. “Is Landis still around? I’d rather tell both of you what’s going on, so I don’t have to repeat it.”
“Yeah, I can grab him.”
There’s a soft noise - it must be Otter cupping his hand over the reciever, because he yells Landis’s name, and Austin can barely hear it. A door, probably the door to Otter’s bedroom, opens. Austin imagines Otter and Landis sitting shoulder to shoulder on the bed, crowded around the phone, some of the ghosts probably hovering overhead. He can feel homesickness like lead in his chest, a thick, dark weight hovering between his chest and back.
Stupid, Austin thinks, blinking away the tears that start to sting the corners of his eyes, to be homesick while you’re sitting at home.
“I’m here,” Landis says quietly, somewhere near the phone.
“I, um,” Austin stammers, swallowing, his Adam’s apple more of a lump in his throat. “I miss you.”
“You had me drag Landis in here for that?” Otter asks, his voice gently teasing.
“Shut up,” Austin groans, throwing an arm over his eyes. “I do, though.”
“We miss you too,” Landis says. His voice is still soft, but Austin has listened to Landis enough to hear the tonal shift from worried to happy. “When do you think you’re coming back?”
“I don’t know,” Austin says. “I guess whenever we catch Abbott - the guy who stabbed my brother. Which could be tomorrow, or next week.”
“You could let other agents take care of it,” Otter suggests gently.
“I could,” Austin concedes, trying not to sound frustrated. “But it’s a personal thing. I want to help catch him.”
“I get it,” Otter says. And obviously he does - he knows what it’s like for someone to hurt your brother, to feel that same need for recompense. “Just don’t work yourself to death over it, okay?”
Austin grins, even though Otter and Landis can’t see him. “Okay.”
There’s a silence, a comfortable one, in which Austin closes his eyes and imagines himself to be on the bed with Otter and Landis, almost able to sense their presences in the room. He closes his eyes and breathes in deep, the unfamiliar smell of the Jones house drawing him out of the illusion.
“I think something’s happening to me,” he says.
“What kind of something?” Landis asks.
“Something weird,” Austin says, fishing for the right words to describe it, coming up short. “Maybe magic. I don’t know. It’s like my psychic vision is enhanced or something. I can see the magic attached to stuff - the strings, like Naberius taught me - a lot easier than usual. And when I was searching Abbott’s apartment, an hour ago, I had a - a weird vision, that felt real. It was like one of the dreams I have, but I was awake. I thought maybe I was possessed, but I don’t think that’s right - it feels like my powers are getting stronger. Like something in me is waking up.”
“Are you worried about it?” Otter asks. He sounds like he doesn’t quite know how to react, like he wants Austin to tell him how to feel.
“I don’t know,” Austin says. “I don’t think so. I mean, the vision hurt, but it wasn’t real.”
“Maybe your powers really are getting stronger,” Landis suggests. “It happened to Grace. And you use yours about as often as she does, though you don’t really train them or anything.”
“I guess.” Austin rubs his arm over his eyes and sits up again. “I just wanted to let you guys know. In case something happens. I don’t think anyone here would really get it.”
“Well, whatever it is, we’ve got your back,” Otter says. It’s a hollow statement, given that he and Landis are hundreds of miles away, but it still somehow rings entirely earnest.
“Thanks,” Austin says, smiling a little more. “I think I might just get some sleep, and see how I feel in the morning.”
“We’ll let you go,” Otter says. “Keep us posted on how your investigation goes, okay?”
“Okay,” Austin says. “I love you.”
“Love you, too,” Otter says, just as Landis mumbles out a hasty, excited “Love you.” Both laugh - they’re still laughing as the phone disconnects with a soft click.
Austin presses both hands down into the bed, levering himself up to his feet. His head is hurting in earnest now, in a way easily identifiable as being from dehydration. He can’t really remember the last thing he had to eat or drink today. Hopefully the kitchen is stocked.
Slipping out of his bedroom, Austin pads down the staircase and foyer into the kitchen. The pantry door screeches as he opens it, and he winces, the sound just as strangely familiar as everything in the house. Jacob should oil that hinge.
Austin feels around the inside of the pantry, switching on the ceiling light. The shelves are stocked, but predictably sparse, lined with boxes of cereal, crackers, trail mix, a single loaf of challah. Austin checks the sell by date on the challah before bringing it out into the kitchen proper and opening it, sliding the loaf a few inches out of the bag.
Bread knife. Right. Austin chews his bottom lip, glancing at the drawers and cabinets around the relatively large room. For as many memories of this house as he has, you’d think he’d be able to find the fucking bread knife. He opens the long, square drawer next to the sink, making an educated guess, and finds nothing but junk inside. Shit.
The kitchen is still dark, illuminated only by the light seeping through the cracks in the pantry door. Austin crosses the room to the panel of switches, flipping them all up without stopping to think about it. He turns around, reinvigorated in his search for the bread knife, and freezes, his heart leaping up into his throat.
Filling the open doorway to the backyard is the tall, skeletal frame of Abbott Kilganon.
“Austin,” he says, his thin lips twitching into a lopsided, wan smile. “I wasn’t aware you were already home.”