Chapter 1: A Body
Freddie Gellar hadn’t meant to get half the student body of Robert Hughes Preparatory School arrested. It wasn’t like she’d woken up that morning and thought, You know what? I feel like ruining lives at the rival high school today.
Not at all. The fact was that she’d heard shrieks coming from the woods, so she’d called the cops.
Like any normal human with a normal conscience would do.
“I mean, how was I supposed to know they were drinking in the woods?” Freddie stabbed her broom halfheartedly at a swarm of daddy longlegs who’d taken roost inside the smithy’s hut. “I heard screams of distress, Divya, so I called the cops.”
Divya sighed from her spot at the hut’s entrance, where she leaned casually (and uselessly) against the doorjamb. Then Divya pursed her lips, and her eyes settled into a familiar Something does not add up here squint.
“Something does not add up here,” she said.
“Hmph.” Freddie stabbed a bit more forcefully at the longlegs—though not forcefully enough to knock any down. She didn’t want them on her head, after all. With hair as wild and dark as hers, all those arachnids would get lost in a heartbeat.
“Surely you know what a bunch of rich kids drinking sounds like.” Divya slunk into the shadows of the musty historical hut.
“I mean, not really,” Freddie admitted. She paused mid-sweep to glance back at her best friend. “It’s not like I’ve ever been to a party. Have you?”
This earned her a laser glare. “You know I haven’t. Unless you count our Witchlands meet ups in Grayson county. Those do get rowdy sometimes.”
“I guess,” Freddie said, even though she was unconvinced. A drunken teenage party was not the same thing as an animated RPG campaign in Frida Richardson’s basement.
Divya crossed two more steps, reaching the barrier that blocked the general public from the museum display. “Still, I think you should be able to tell if someone is screaming bloody murder or just screaming for more beer.”
“Can I, though?” Freddie asked mournfully, turning back to the longlegs. “Because it sounded like bloody murder to me—and my gut thought so too.”
“Your gut?” Divya tensed against the barrier. She, like everyone else, knew that Freddie’s gut was foolproof. Freddie had sensed three tornadoes and a kitchen fire. Plus, she’d known Divya’s cat was dying before anyone else had.
“But I guess…” Freddie sighed. “I guess my gut miscalculated this time.”
“Maybe.” Divya murmured, though she didn’t sound like she really believed that.
Freddie had set out for City-on-the-Berm Colonial Village at 9:30 the night before. She’d left her scarf in the main office, and seeing as it was her favorite scarf (and very important to the completion of any fall outfit) she had grabbed her stepdad Steve’s rickety bike after dinner and cycled down the shortcut that would take her straight through the forest and to the Village parking lot.
She never made it to the parking lot, though—or to the Village or to the main office. The trail had been dark, even with a headlamp, and there’d been an awful stench like dead animals in the air. It had given Freddie the wiggens before she’d even lost sight of her neighborhood’s street lights.
So the instant she’d heard frantic shrieking coming from the woods, she had needed no urging whatsoever to turn around and pedal straight back home.
And once there, she’d called the cops.
Of course, instead of finding a Person in Distress being slowly dismembered in the old logging forests of City-on-the-Berm, Sheriff Bowman and her deputy had found an unauthorized bonfire and a lot of underage drinking.
“I mean, alcohol isn’t allowed in City-on-the-Berm, Div.”
“Pretty sure those kids don’t care about rules, Fred. I mean, they’re also under twenty-one.” Divya gave a low whistle. “I really hope they don’t know that it was you who called.”
Freddie’s stomach flipped. She hadn’t even thought of that.
And for that matter, she really didn’t want to.
“Are you going to help me?” she snapped, glaring at Divya’s sleek black braid and unruffled corduroy dress. “Or are you just gonna watch me brave these fearsome beasts by myself?”
“Definitely just watch you.” Divya grinned. “And you’re doing a great job. Keep up the good work.”
“You’re useless,” Freddie declared. She turned back to the daddy longlegs. There really were a lot of them. A veritable nest, and if she didn’t clear them out, then she was going to get an earful when she got home.
Having the head of the City-on-the-Berm Historical Society as your mother really sucked sometimes. Especially because no matter how many times Freddie pointed out it was illegal to force her to clean up the Village after the season ended, her mom just laughed and said, “Great. In that case, you can find somewhere else to live and someone else to cook for you.”
Tyranny, Freddie thought. Absolute tyranny.
When at last the beasts were vanquished and crawling out the crack behind the forge (where they’d probably first come in by)—and when at last Freddie had plugged that hole with duck tape and pine needles, she joined Divya before the hut’s mossy front.
The fall wind had picked up, lifting leaves and adding a lovely glow to Divya’s brown skin. The Indian American girl shivered while she stared down at her Nokia upon which, judging by the regular beeps, she was playing Snake.
“Thanks for the help,” Freddie said with as much sarcasm as she could muster.
It was entirely lost on her best friend. “Any time,” Divya murmured. Then she snarled, “Damn,” switched off her phone, and grinned Freddie’s way. “Can we go to the Archives now?”
“No.” Freddie sniffed. “The agreement was that you’d help me clean, and then I would take you to the Archives.”
“I did help!” Divya shoved her phone into her pocket. “Every lackey needs a supervisor. Plus, my paper is due Monday. You gotta help me!”
“Well, maybe you should have thought of that before you spent the last two nights writing our next Witchlands campaign—”
“But that is my solemn duty as Game Master!”
“—or before you started playing Snake just now.” Freddie cocked her chin high and sashayed past Divya onto the main path. “It’s a stupid video game anyway. You’re just a chasing dots around a tiny screen.”
“You’re only saying that ‘cos you don’t have a phone.” Divya kicked into a jog, catching up to Freddie in seconds. Though two inches shorter than Freddie, she had about three inches on her when it came to poise. Everything Divya did, she made graceful and cool.
And when she hooked her arm into Freddie’s, batted her lashes, and said, “Please, Freddie? I’ll lend you my Justin Timberlake keychain,” there really was no way Freddie could refuse.
Especially since it was a very enticing offer. The key chain was magical, and this fact had been empirically proven at least twenty times since Divya had bought it at the N’SYNC concert two years before.
Whenever Divya (or sometimes Freddie) had it with her, good things happened. Magical things, like getting natural twenties on every dice roll in the Witchlands. Or finding twenty dollar bills in the middle of the street.
“Okay.” Freddie stopped walking, slinging Divya to a stop beside her. “Deal.”
Divya grinned. “One week,” she said. “You get him one week, and no more.” She withdrew her arm from Freddie’s and with a smug smile, she slipped the sacred keychain from her pocket. The face of Justin Timberlake gleamed up at Freddie.
And with great reverence, Freddie accepted that flawless face. He fit so perfectly in her palm. Like a little slice of boy band safety, accessible whenever she needed it.
She slipped him into her puffer vest. Right as she zipped up the pocket, footsteps crunched on the gravel path.
Freddie’s heart lurched into her throat. She jerked around to find Luis Mendez barreling toward her. “Gellar,” he panted, flashing a wide smile. Then he was past Freddie in a gust of sweaty air.
“Um…” Divya wiggled a pinkie in her ear. “Did Luis Mendez just say your name?”
“I think so.” Freddie was as stunned as Divya. Everyday, the Berm High cross country team ran the park’s paths. Sometimes they’d nod her way, but 99.9999% of the time, they completely ignored her existence.
“Gellar!” cried a new voice. Then another and another, and suddenly an entire swarm (a veritable nest) of boys was charging past Freddie and Divya. Zach Gilroy and Darius Baker even slung out their hands for high fives.
Freddie complied, though she wasn’t entirely sure how. Her brain had basically disconnected from her body, and she could feel her jaw dangling low.
In seconds, the entirety of the boy’s team had jogged past. Which meant any second now, the girls would—
“Freddie!” shrieked Carly Zhang as she bounded by. “Nice job!”
“Nice job on what?” Freddie tried to ask, but Carly was already past, and now cheers were rising up as a second stampede of bodies rushed closer.
Never had so many people smiled at Freddie—never had so many people acknowledged her measly existence.
“We have officially entered the Twilight Zone,” Divya said as the feet and ponytails thundered past, and Freddie could only nod in agreement. She was too shocked to even return all these sudden smiles.
Then as fast as the Berm High cross country teams had appeared, they vanished again. Only the faint musk of sweat and deodorant gave any sign they’d been there at all.
“I think,” Divya said slowly, slipping her arm back through Freddie’s—but this time with stiff, almost detached deliberation, “that…that you’re popular now.”
“But how?” Despite Freddie’s greatest belief in her own fortitude, she found that here knees were quaking inside her jeans. And her stomach was quaking too, and her fingernails were curling with a certain animal ferocity into Divya’s forearm.
Because she knew what Divya was going to say before she even said it. She knew that Divya would open her mouth and utter exactly what she was uttering now: “I think they know you got the RH kids arrested.”
And she also knew Divya would then bite her lip and add, “Which means the RH kids must know too.”
Leaves rattled beneath Freddie’s boots as she trekked down one of the many sloping hills in the county park. Beneath the thick layer of autumn leaf litter, mud squicked, and every few steps, water had the audacity to splatter. Good thing Freddie always wore her duck boots in the fall.
Divya was not as well prepared.
“Are you sure this path is a short-cut?” she asked, ten paces behind Freddie, and lagging further each second. Her feet, clad only in formerly-beige-but-now-mucky-brown Birkenstock clogs, were not faring well—and Divya had made sure to point this out at almost every step through the forest.
“Of course it’s a short-cut.” Freddie laughed as if to say Divya was ridiculous for suspecting otherwise. She did not mention, that “this path” wasn’t actually a path at all but rather an ephemeral stream that tended to fill with mosquitos in the summer.
“We’ve been out here five minutes—”
“Oh god, five minutes.” Freddie rolled her eyes. “Really, Divya. You’re the one who wanted to go the Archives. It would have taken us much longer to go to the parking lot, then down the road and allllllll the way around.” Freddie made a big circle with her hands.
“But at least in the Village, my phone had service.” Divya’s face was now as rosy as the cross country team’s had been. “I mean, we could die out here and no one would know! This is how horror movies start, Freddie.”
“Pretend you’re Iseult, then.” This was Divya’s Threadwitch character from their Witchlands game—for those times when Divya actually got to play and wasn’t acting as Game Master.
“Iseult,” Divya retorted, “would not be foolish enough to walk in creepy woods without—”
Wind burst through the trees. It swallowed Divya’s words and gusted against Freddie’s back. It grabbed hold of leaves and spiraled them upward.
Freddie’s hair sprayed into her face, and for half a moment, all her senses were engulfed by the roar of the wind. By the clatter of the leaves.
Then the wind settled. Freddie swiped her hair from her face to find Divya was standing just as she had been before—though now she was gawping down at her muddied clogs.
Which spiked Freddie with the teensiest bit of guilt. They were expensive shoes, and Divya had saved up all summer for them working at the Dairy Diner. The instant Freddie opened her mouth to apologize, though, a loud creaking split the trees. It was like groaning wood, but subtler. Higher pitched.
And cold trickled down the back of Freddie’s neck, an unseen finger to trail through her hair and over her spine.
Freddie locked eyes with Divya. “Did you hear that?”
“The wind?” She shivered. “How could I miss it? I should’ve worn my winter coat.”
“That’s not it.” Freddie turned toward the sound. It came from further down the hill.
The creak repeated, shuddering deep into her ear. She knew that sound, and yet she couldn’t pinpoint how.
It made her skin crawl.
Footsteps stamped behind her. Divya scampered in close, worry pinching her forehead. “What do you hear, Fred?”
“Something isn’t right.” As soon as Freddie said that, she knew it was true. Deeply, terrifyingly true. She launched into a quick clip. Her boots kicked up mud and decomposing leaves.
Divya scampered just behind, though Freddie barely noticed. The creaking sound was getting louder. It grated against her skin.
“How do you know something’s wrong?” Divya asked.
“My gut,” she said, hopping over a low root.
“Oh,” Divya breathed, and she didn’t say another word.
Freddie’s mom always said Freddie inherited this sixth sense from her dad, and maybe that was true. Freddie hadn’t known him well enough to compare before he’d died. And right now, it didn’t much matter where her instincts had come from. Something was wrong; she intended to find out what.
Freddie pushed her feet faster. The stream bed was flattening out, and the sound was coming from the left. Then Freddie saw where they were headed and drew up short.
She threw a hard look at Divya. Her best friend’s flush was gone; her lips were pale. “Div,” she said softly, “I need you to go back to the Village, okay? And I need you to call 911. Or better yet, call the Sheriff. She needs to be here.”
Somehow, Divya’s face went even whiter. “What about you?”
“I’ve got experience with this kind of stuff.”
“A few weeks riding with Sheriff Bowman does not mean you can waltz through the woods looking for trouble”
Freddie wasn’t just waltzing. If her ten year plan worked out, the she’d be sheriff one day. And that meant, she needed to handle this—whatever it might be. “Please, Div. Just go.”
“Absolutely not.” Divya took Freddie’s hand in hers.
And Freddie swallowed. Then squeezed. She did feel safer having Divya there, and she supposed every sheriff needed a deputy. “Come on, then.”
They resumed their march, hands held and eyes watering against the wind. The trees blurred. The creaking grew louder.
Then the forest opened up, and the girls skittered to a stop. Together, they gaped at the tree before them.
Divya was the first to speak. Just a whisper, really. “That’s…that’s the suicide tree.”
“Yeah.” Freddie nodded. The bone-white oak before them had a long jagged cross carved into its trunk. Yet no body hung from the crooked branches, even though she could hear the groaning of the rope. The gritting of fibers against each other as a body towed downward and swung on the wind.
They inched into the clearing, and Freddie released Divya’s hand, frantically scanning the suicide tree’s branches. Then all the other nearby trees. She spun and spun, but there was nothing there. Nothing but raging wind and spraying leaves—
A crow cawed. High and just beyond the clearing.
Freddie’s gaze lurched up, to a sycamore hidden behind the suicide tree. To a branch so high, no human could possibly have reached it.
Yet someone had.
“Divya.” Freddie clutched her stomach. “Cover your eyes. We’re leaving.”