The funeral parlor is too bright, and it smells artificial, like someone sprayed the whole place with perfume to cover up the scent of death. It’s a little surprising that Mac’s family wanted to go ahead with the viewing, considering the state her body was in when it was found. But the makeup artist did a fine job - the long claw marks that rake across Mac’s face from forehead to cheek are completely covered up, and with her eyes closed, you can’t even tell that one is totally gouged out.
Austin feels out of place at the viewing. No one in Mac’s family knows who he is, and it must be unnerving to get condolences from some drifter who only rolled into town a few days ago. He had to borrow a pair of Otter’s old slacks for this. They feel wrong on him, a little too big on his skinny hips, like he’s wearing someone else’s skin over top of his own. So many people around him are talking to each other in hushed voices, the conversations all blending together and flowing over him like water. Like he’s drowning.
It dawns on him that the only other funeral he’s ever been to was Richard’s. He was four years old then, Jacob five. Richard’s casket had been closed, but Austin didn’t doubt that photos of the body existed somewhere deep in a Department archive. He’d never wanted to go digging for them. A bad gut feeling told him not to. He had been on the receiving end of everyone’s condolences and tears at that funeral, not an observer like he is now, but he still remembers feeling out of place. There had been too many strangers there - too many people who had known Richard better and for much longer than Austin and Jacob had.
“How are you holding up?”
Austin isn’t sure the words are directed at him at first. He’s been hearing people ask each other that all day. But he looks over his shoulder and sees Monty, her hair pulled back in a tight ponytail, her expression grim. This is the first time he’s ever seen her out of uniform. She’s wearing a white dress shirt and slacks, just like he is.
Austin sighs. “I could go for a cigarette. Or five.”
“I know.” Monty steps around him so they can talk face to face. “I threw all of mine out so I won’t get tempted. Austin, we need to talk.”
Austin restrains himself for saying that maybe this isn’t the time or place for whatever Monty needs to say to him. Probably there’s no good time or place for it.
“Talk about what?” he asks.
“What happened, after I left you in the forest?” Monty’s eyes search his face, like she might find the answer there.
Austin chews the inside of his cheek. He can’t tell Monty about Walker stalking him through the woods with an axe and suddenly snapping the wolf’s neck. Nor can he tell her that he chopped down a tree, extracted the bones inside, and put his bank account into the negatives to buy a small plot in the cemetery to bury them in. So much for his last remaining savings. He’d thought they would last another couple of months, at least.
“I took care of the thing that killed Mac,” he settles for, because that was certainly what he did. “It won’t be bothering anyone again.”
He’s pretty sure it won’t, anyway. Hopefully the spirit that was in the tree is at rest, now. It deserves to be.
“Are you going to stay in Antlers?” Monty asks.
Austin pauses. So much has happened in the past week that he’s barely gotten the chance to think about that. But with Jacob cutting him off from the family money, he needs a job. And he’s already on friendly terms with a handful of people in town. It seems like an obvious answer.
“I think so.”
“Good,” Monty says. She sounds...relieved, maybe. “I wanted to ask if you - if you would mind occasionally consulting on cases.”
“You mean you need someone around who knows how to handle supernatural stuff.” Austin raises an eyebrow. “Do I get paid?”
Monty looks around, and lowers her voice. “Under the table. I don’t know how many of those cases will come up, so if you’re going to stay in town, think about getting a day job.”
“Already thinking about it.”
“I know it might not seem like the best arrangement, but we couldn’t have solved this without your help.” Monty leans closer to Austin. She lowers her voice even more, until it’s as soft as the hushed whispers of the people giving and receiving condolences around them. “We couldn’t have gotten rid of that thing without you.”
Austin clenches and unclenches his hands, still sore and blistered from gripping the handle of the axe so tightly. “I know.”
“Strange things happen in Antlers, sometimes. I’d like it if the sheriff’s department was better equipped to take care of them.” Monty’s voice is even, a normal volume again, and she straightens up. “I have to go and talk to Mac’s parents. You’ll let me know what you decide? You know how to get in touch.”
“I’ll let you know,” Austin says, and watches her walk away.
“You should take her up on the offer.”
The voice winds Austin as effectively as a punch to the gut. His breath feels stuck in his throat, like he can’t get it in or out, and goosebumps start to raise on his arms. The temperature in the funeral parlor feels like it’s dropped more than ten degrees, but that can’t be right. He looks around for confirmation - no one else in there is seeing what he is. Almost definitely. There hasn’t been any great disturbance yet, and he’d expect one to happen when the person whose viewing they’re at just sat bolt upright in her casket.
It’s an illusion, he realizes soon enough. Mac’s body is still in the casket, but her ghost is sitting up in it, staring right at him. The scars on her face are plainly visible without the benefit of funeral makeup, deep, ugly wounds that haven’t fully healed yet, and her missing eye is a black hole set into her face. Her lips spread into a sad smile as she notices Austin looking back at her.
“Stick around, Austin,” she says. “Antlers might need you.”
Austin’s hands are shaking, and he knows he can’t reply to her in a room full of people who will think he’s talking to himself, so he turns and walks out of the funeral parlor. He doesn’t quite know where he’s going, but he knows that the first stop is the convenience store, for a pack of cigarettes. He’ll figure the rest out after that.