- Andrea Anderson
melting point - preview
Updated: Sep 9, 2021
The unmarked gravel road that the GPS sends them down dead-ends right between two sprawling, dried-out, wildly overgrown grapevines, about twenty feet back from a crumbling red-brick archway that’s half-hidden beneath a blanket of crisply browning ivy.
“Isn’t the weather supposed to be nice here?” Maverick asks. He crosses his arms over his chest, his head tilted back, studying the wide-open expanse of the sky. It’s not quite clear; not quite blue. The murkiness has a tint to it, a grayish orange haze that seems to be only partially due to the heat. “Wine country?”
“It’s an El Niño year,” August says absently. He’s squinting down at his camera, fiddling with a dial, using the back of his wrist to wipe the sweat off his face, where it’s dripping down his forehead, beading along his upper lip. “Just put on some Chapstick.”
“You’re talking about the wind, right?” August holds the camera up, pointing it at Maverick. “Say hi, Ricky!”
“Hi, Ricky,” Maverick deadpans. He clips his keys to his belt loop, pats down his pockets, and kicks the heel of his boot against one of the Jeep’s tires, shaking off the dust. “Quit filming me, it’s weird.”
“It’s called B-roll,” August says, bending down to grab his backpack, still waving the camera around. “I’m putting together our video intro later—title cards and stuff—so I need some more candid shots of you looking like . . . you know. A grumpy long-lost Hemsworth brother.”
Maverick scratches at his jaw, turning to stare out at the rolling hills, the rustling yellow grass and the off-kilter telephone poles—there are intermittent clusters of rusting farm equipment and ramshackle tin-roofed buildings, skinny dirt paths snaking through what’s left of the vineyard, long, stretched-out, once-neat rows scattered with the skeletons of age-blackened wooden stakes and dented metal tubs.
“We’re supposed to be staying under the radar,” Maverick says. “Especially after all that pirate shit in North Carolina.”
“I just think it’s stupid,” August goes on, tapping a button next to the viewfinder on his camera, chewing on the inside of his cheek. He’s replaced the industrial bar in his eyebrow with a trio of tiny jet-black rings, added a single Roman numeral and a jagged Greek letter to the hieroglyph tattooed on his throat; he’s been growing his hair out, too, and it’s now in that awkward almost-mullet stage, dyed an obnoxious shade of bright, sickly green and sticking up at odd angles, chopped unevenly around the nape of his neck. “Like, yeah, okay, maybe it’s a little harder for Gatherers to find us if we’re off the grid all the time, but don’t you ever—” He breaks off and rubs at his nose. Thoughtful. Frustrated. Thoughtfully frustrated. “It’s just, like, how convenient is that for them? Us being off the grid?”
Maverick frowns. “What do you mean?”
August flaps his hand. “If they really wanted to kill us—”
“They don’t want to kill us. They want to collect us.”
“No,” August says, sounding exasperated. “Not seriously.”
“What the fuck are you talking about, then?”
August thumbs at the strap of his camera. “Who’s going to report us missing if we actually go missing?” he asks. “Mox? Charlie? How is anyone official going to track us—where we were, where we’ve been, where we could’ve gone—without credit cards or phone records or tax returns or bank accounts or anything?”
Maverick cracks his knuckles, clenching and unclenching his jaw. “It goes both ways. That’s the point.”
“Okay, sure, but—you see the problem, right?”
“Yeah, I do, and I also see that your idea of a solution is to . . . post videos of us doing necromancy?”
Maverick pinches the bridge of his nose and shoots a disbelieving glare at the camera. “August.”
“My idea of a solution is to post videos of us doing fake necromancy.”
“How is that better?”
“How is it worse?”
“Where do I fucking start?”
“Speaking of starting,” August says loudly, belligerently, coughing into his fist, hitching his beat-up canvas backpack higher up on his shoulder, pressing another button on his camera, double-checking that the ominous, ambulance-red RECORD light is on. “Hi. Hey. Hello.” His voice wavers. Squeaks. Maverick winces. “I’m August, and before we really, uh, really dig in to our first case, I wanted to address my comrade Maverick over there—"
“Brother. I’m your brother.”
“Yeah.” August coughs again. “Yeah, I don’t know why I said that. I’m not even really a communist. Or, well, I’m a little bit of a communist, I guess? If we’re being totally transparent? But I’m also not—”
“Okay,” Maverick interrupts. He jerks his chin at the closest building, roughly a quarter-mile past the red-brick archway. It’s big, rectangular, almost like a warehouse, the old white plaster on the exterior walls chipped and flaking, exposing faded wooden beams and rust-stained cinderblock. “I’m going over there.”
“Right. Um.” August trips over the chalky corner of a small rock as he tries to walk backwards and speak at the same time. “Yeah. Uh. Maverick, my brother, he asked a question about the weather out here that has a pretty cool answer? So, it’s an El Niño year, like I said earlier, and there’s, um, there’s a fascinating potential connection between seasonal El Niño patterns and what climatologists call—this is my favorite part, it’s so, so rad—they call them Diablo Winds, and they’re kind of like a vaguely distant cousin of the Santa Ana—”
“You know what’s actually fascinating about this place?” Maverick calls out, gesturing broadly, sarcastically, to the surrounding scenery. “All the dead bodies they’ve been finding here for the past sixty years.”
August’s shoulders slump with something like relief as he spins the camera back around, hurrying after Maverick. “Right. Exactly. Dead—dead people. Lots of dead people. Talk about the dead people, Ricky.”
“But you just—come on.”
Maverick sighs, breath whistling through his teeth. “The police think it’s a serial killer.”
“Spooky,” August says encouragingly.
“Except there aren’t any obvious similarities between any of the victims,” Maverick continues. “And there aren’t any obvious indications they’ve even been murdered.”
“They all had clean tox screens. No detectable poisons, no defensive wounds.” Maverick’s nostrils flare. “And . . . sixty years. It’s been happening for sixty years.”
August pauses, lowering the camera, idly scrubbing the heel of his palm against his thigh. His shorts are fucking ridiculous; knee-length, acid-wash cutoffs with neon pink stitching around the button-fly and all the pockets. There’s a threadbare patch on the front of them that he keeps plucking at, catching a fingernail on.
“Seems kind of unlikely, though, doesn’t it?” he muses. “That a serial killer would not only dump bodies in the same spot for sixty years—but dump bodies in the same spot for sixty years and never get caught?”
Maverick glances around, narrowing his eyes. “Unlikely, yeah,” he agrees. The path that winds through the archway is rugged and bumpy, a gnarled welcome mat of rocks and weeds and dying tree roots. It leads straight to the warehouse, to where billboard-sized black lettering, vintage-blocky and very slightly off-center, is painted across one of the walls. A name? Most of it’s been scraped-off, sun-bleached. He can’t make it out. “Hey, are we going the right way?”
August startles. “What?”
“I can’t . . .” Maverick licks his lips, hunting fruitlessly for that wispy, live-wire tendril of magic that usually wraps itself around him like a sleepy cat, like a hungry boa constrictor, that usually tugs at his brainstem and tells him where to go, which clues to follow—it’s the connection he has to Death, the connection that feels like it’s always been there, even if he logically knows that can’t be true. Unless it can be true. Maybe Death has always been there, dormant and festering, and he just didn’t understand what it meant. What it wanted. “I can’t feel anything.”
August’s footsteps falter. “You can’t . . . feel anything.”
“That’s what I said, yeah.”
“I’m just—what?” August’s mouth is open, his cheeks hollow, his tongue curled up, like he’s just barely holding in a second question, a different question; words already thought, formed, dismissed. “Is it all just muddied together? All the Death? Since there’ve been so many bodies?”
“How do you—”
“That isn’t a thing,” Maverick snaps, flicking his gaze over to the camera, which is still on, still recording. “Christ, will you—can you turn that off?”
August fumbles with the camera, blinking owlishly down at the buttons, the switches, the dials; his eyelashes are fluttering, his teeth digging into his bottom lip, the worn rubber soles of his slip-ons skidding against the ground. They’re checkered black-and-white, like the linoleum tile floor in a greasy truck stop diner, some of the white squares scribbled on, filled with green or blue marker. He isn’t wearing socks. His ankles are bony and hairless and slender and pale; bizarrely delicate, bizarrely unfamiliar.
It’s a jarring observation—that any part of August is delicate—that any part of August is unfamiliar.
Maverick clears his throat. “Thanks.”
sequel to GRAVEDIGGERS and BREATHE UNDERWATER