Breathe Underwater - Preview
The road is unpaved, dusty and narrow, winding through a hazy curtain of summer-brown pine trees, dirt glinting with the occasional spray of smooth white river rock and razor-sharp quartz. There hasn’t been a speed limit posted for at least ten miles, but a huge, sun-stained, billboard-style sign is peeking out from the edge of the woods, plastered with peeling snapshot images of kids in matching yellow t-shirts stacking canoes and sitting around a campfire and pelting each other with water balloons:
CAMP FEATHER PEAK
Memorial Day – Labor Day
“So, uh, refresh my memory,” August starts, peering through the thin layer of grime coating the Jeep’s windshield. “When did that guy say this place got shut down?”
“1988.” Maverick eases his foot off the gas as they approach the entrance to the camp. “And that guy is paying us triple to get this done. His name is Lance.”
August looks askance at the rickety chain-link gate hanging uselessly off a pair of rusted hinges. “Is 1988 when it happened?”
“When what happened?”
“The—the thing,” August says impatiently, flapping his hand before he leans down to rummage through his backpack. His voice is muffled as he clarifies, “The murder.”
Maverick huffs. “There’s no evidence it was a murder.”
“Seriously, man? This again?”
“There was an investigation.”
August swivels his head around, incredulous. “So, what, a generally well-liked college kid goes missing in the middle of nowhere on the Fourth of July—”
“Why does it matter that it was the Fourth of July?”
“—and then thirty years later there’s, like, a malcontent spirit stirring shit up at the very last place he was seen—”
“There was an investigation,” Maverick repeats, more stubbornly. “He’d been drinking, it was dark out—everyone agreed he probably just wandered off and drowned.”
August sits back up, tossing a peanut butter PowerBar and a cherry-red pocketknife into a cupholder, bouncing his knee. “Why’s he still hanging around, then? What does he want? After all this time?”
Maverick spins the steering wheel with the heel of his palm, turning onto the unmarked access road that Lance Radley had mentioned would be there in one of his emails. The trees are spindlier here, branches more brittle, bone-dry swathes of crackling, yellow-green leaves settling on the ground, in every groove and bump and crevice.
“That’s what we’re trying to find out,” Maverick says. “Obviously.”
“Obviously,” August mutters under his breath, alternating between crossing and uncrossing his arms and cracking his knuckles and drumming his fingers against the nearest available flat surface. He’s chewing gum, too. Gnawing on it. “It’s just—it’s sketchy, right? You realize that?”
“Yeah, and? So? What’s your point?”
Maverick swerves off the road and yanks at the e-brake, the Jeep coming to a groaning halt next to a skinny wood-plank path, overgrown with misshapen patches of moss and swaying stalks of river grass. He can see a cluster of basic one-room cabins in the distance, boarded-up and discolored with age, a barren flagpole and a sagging picnic table and a crumbling concrete slab with a dented aluminum drain and a rust-chalky showerhead.
“You’re suggesting something,” Maverick says, flinging open his door and jumping down to the ground. The sun is merciless, glaringly bright and blisteringly hot, and he hooks his keys to a belt loop on his jeans, unclipping his aviators from the collar of his v-neck. “Something specific. What is it?”
August snorts, slamming his own door shut, and comes around the front of the Jeep, his boots crunching and his backpack slung over his shoulder and his expression pinched, twitchy, sour like a pitcher of unsweetened lemonade.
“It’s just,” he says, puffing his cheeks out, “of the two of us, you’re usually the paranoid one.”
Maverick absently pats down his pockets, checking for his wallet, his phone, a stash of pennies and a folded bundle of burlap and the rectangular bulk of an emergency gas station sewing kit. Sweat is already pooling at the nape of his neck, the divot between his collarbones, cotton and denim sticking to his skin as he begins to walk towards the cabins.
“I’m not paranoid,” he says mildly, squinting up at the sky. It’s so blue. So clear. “I’m rational.”
“Okay, then—” August breaks off, hurrying to catch up. “Then rationally, you have to admit that this whole job is really fucking sketchy, don’t you?”
“Stop saying that.”
“Sketchy,” Maverick mimics snidely. “You sound like a fucking sorority girl.”
“Sure, fine, whatever, I sound like a fucking sorority girl,” August concedes, tripping over a half-rotted wedge of plywood jutting out from the path, jostling Maverick’s elbow, “but do I sound wrong? Huh?”
Maverick rakes his fingers through his hair. “We deal with dead people. With Death. That’s what we do.”
“Yeah, no shit, what does that mean?”
“It means that by definition, every job we take is a little fucking sketchy,” Maverick says, rolling his eyes behind his sunglasses as they pass through the cluster of cabins. They all mostly look the same, mealy and musty and weather-beaten, but one of them—the one farthest away from the path, on the opposite side of the clearing—seems different.
There’s a lingering frisson of energy—of magic, maybe—swirling through the atmosphere like a late-morning mist. It’s making Maverick’s gums itch, has him glancing around more thoughtfully, more suspiciously, than he normally might. It isn’t Death—not quite, at least—but it’s close enough.
“Hey,” he says slowly, “do you feel that? Should we—”
A series of loud, buzzing chirps pierces the air.
August startles, leaping backwards a couple of steps, and then fumbles for the zipper on his backpack, digging through the crinkling mess of pens and lighters and loose change and chip bags and notebook paper and greasy fast food wrappers, hunting for his phone. He finds it eventually, staring down at the screen with a furrowed brow and a decidedly unhappy slant to his mouth.
“Charlie?” Maverick asks, carefully neutral.
August grunts, but otherwise doesn’t respond.
Maverick kicks at a stray pebble, sending it skittering into the woods. “Listen, you can’t keep doing this to him. It isn’t fair.”
There’s a beat of tense, disbelieving, almost dangerous silence. “It’s not fair? Are you joking?”
“No, I’m not joking, and yes, it’s not fair. You have to either break up with him or—”
“Or what?” August switches his phone off and unceremoniously stuffs it in his back pocket. “What do I have to do?”
“Or,” Maverick goes on, kicking more viciously at another pebble. It hits a gnarled tree stump with a satisfying ping. “You have to quit all the passive-aggressive bullshit.”
“Right. Since it’s not fair.”
“To your relationship.”
August’s lip curls. “What the fuck do you know about relationships? You’ve never even been in one.”
“You told him you forgave him.”
“Because I did!” August exclaims, arms flailing. “I do! I’m not—Charlie’s fine, okay, Charlie’s great. This isn’t about Charlie.”
“Then what’s it about?”
August averts his gaze, jaw working and shoulders slumping as he starts to walk a little faster, visibly struggling to come up with an answer—to come up with a lie, Maverick suspects, biting down on a grimace.
Because it’s been like this for months.
Because August has been like this for months.
Since Louisiana; since Hazel; since Nicholas.
And Maverick isn’t sure how to verbalize it—how to question it—how to confess that he’s fucking worried, worried about August’s strange, unpredictable outbursts, his mood swings, how he can, practically instantaneously, go from fidgety and talkative and annoying and normal to sullen and defensive and belligerent and angry. There’s a volatility to it, a snap-quick helplessness that reminds Maverick a lot of himself, of all the bloody scabs and patchwork scars he’s accumulated over the years, the thicker, tougher skin he’s had to grow just so August didn’t have to.
Abruptly, Maverick stops walking.
His nose twitches, his scalp bristles, and he holds his arm out to motion for August to stop, too.
They’re on the last bend of the path, worn wooden planks giving way to sticks and rocks and a cool layer of shadow-moistened earth, a gradual, sloping descent to what Lance Radley’s email had said would be the lake. Maverick can hear the quiet lapping of the water against the shore, the sand, the boat dock, just as he can sense the faint, tingling whisper of magic—of Death. Faint because it’s ancient, tingling because it’s been recently tampered with, and he swallows hard, whipping his sunglasses off, closing his eyes and taking a deep, penetrating breath and concentrating, focusing, searching—
They’ve learned, since Louisiana, how to do this.
How to be good at this.
How to be cautious in their approach to a deathplace, how to be thorough in their preparation for a Raising, how to protect themselves from rogue Gatherers and nosy cops and other people’s mistakes, burnt supermarket sage and malfunctioning toy Ouija boards; because not all spirits are restless, embittered assholes, but not all of them are particularly eager to be helpful, either. There’s a fine line—a necessary, bicycle-on-a-tightrope kind of balance—a trick, really, to dealing with them. To dealing with their Banishments.
Sometimes it’s easy. Grief-stricken family members with fucking GPS coordinates to the deathplace and cardboard U-Haul boxes full of stuff, personal stuff, comic books and gardening gloves and big amethyst paperweights, stuff that reeks of Death, of magic, stuff that August sways towards and gravitates to as his nostrils flare and his eyes flash bronze—other times, though, it’s more complicated. More difficult. Murder victims who died in the trunk of a moving car, or in a commercial storage locker that belongs to someone else, or in a house that’s been torn down and replaced with a senior living facility.
There are rarely any real mysteries to solve. The Banishments are almost always for the peace of mind of the living, not the dead. But Maverick never forgets that they only get one question—one real, meaningful question—and how important it is not to waste it.
“Here,” Maverick says now, taking the last few steps towards the lake slowly enough that his boots drag through the dirt a little. The water is expansive, a wide, wind-chopped sheet of silver-green-blue that glitters ominously in the sunlight, and the dock is splintered and spongey, old wooden planks bleached a pale, stony gray, stretching out in a mostly straight line from the pebbled shore. “This is where he is.”
August frowns. “I thought you said he drowned?”
Maverick shakes his head, distracted, already zeroing in on a nearby patch of sand that’s buzzing, thrumming, teeming with magic. With Death. “He might have fallen in the water, I guess, but his spirit—he came back here. Right over there.”
“If the deathplace doesn’t match the actual cause of death, that’s—”
“Yeah,” Maverick interrupts, bending down to sift through the rock-rough sand, biting his lip as chalky beige sediment coats the beds of his fingernails. “Yeah, that means he was murdered. I know.”
August hasn’t moved from the mouth of the path, shifting his weight back and forth, side to side, his arms crossed over his lower abdomen. “Well, shit.”
“Yeah,” Maverick repeats, his jaw working. “Shit.”
“What do we do?” August asks, more tentative than usual. “We didn’t really . . . plan for this. Did we?”
Maverick thinks back to Lance Radley’s emails, the friendly, professional tone of them, the inherent promise of a relatively easy Banishment. Lance didn’t have any magic of his own, of course, but his family did. His sister, especially. This shouldn’t have been a secret. This shouldn’t have been a problem. Maverick and August were here for one weekend, tops. Today was supposed to be about mapping the deathplace, getting an idea of how far out the drowning occurred, not—this. Whatever the fuck this actually is.
“No, we didn’t,” Maverick says, scrubbing the heels of his palms into his eyes. “Right. Okay. What do you want to do? Stay or go?”
August pauses. “What?”
“What do you want to do?” Maverick asks again. The stench of magic—of Death—is beginning to bother him. Like it’s dizzyingly, overpoweringly everywhere, all at once, but also concentrated exclusively in the uneven square foot of space he’s currently occupying. “Stay or go?”
A longer pause. “Nah. What do you want to do?”
“I think,” Maverick says, finally dropping down onto the sand on one knee, “that we aren’t fucking detectives, and we probably shouldn’t try to Nancy Drew a thirty-year old murder by ourselves.”
“We’d be the Hardy Boys,” August says, too reasonably. “Not Nancy Drew.”
Maverick pinches the bridge of his nose. “Seriously?”
An even longer pause, and then: “He was our age,” August says quietly. “And someone—someone killed him. Right here. And got away with it. Who gives a shit how long ago it was?”
Maverick stares out at the water, at the murky, timeless shimmer of it—for one heartbeat, and then another, and then another—and then nods, jerky and fast, helpless and resigned and honestly a little mad about it, about all of it, about how often the undeniably right thing to do is also the undeniably hard thing to do. His scalp is still prickling. His senses are still blaring. Because August is the one who kills the spiders, sure, but Maverick is the one who notices them.
Maverick is the one who finds them.