Freddie did not go back to school.
Oh, she walked in so Bowman would see her appearing to follow the rules, but as soon as Freddie was inside, she ducked into a bathroom. She counted off a full five minutes before slinking back into the main entrance and outside once more.
She didn’t make it more than ten feet into the frosty fall air, though, when a voice called, “Wait!”
Freddie skidded around—just in time to be enveloped by Divya’s puffer jacket arms. “You must hate me—”
“I would never hate you.”
“—but I had to be honest with Bowman, Freddie, and I didn’t see the bottle.” Divya was squeezing Freddie so tightly, Freddie couldn’t suck in air.
But she also love the ferocity of this Threadsister hug, so oxygen could be damned.
“I told her that I believed you though,” Divya continued, voice muffled by hair and sleeves. “I told her you would never lie about something like this.”
“I’m sure you did, Divya.” Freddie wriggled free (albeit reluctantly) from Divya’s arms and smiled tiredly at her best friend. “I appreciate the apology all the same.”
For several long seconds, Divya eyed Freddie, a frown cinching across her brow. Until at last: “So what do you think happened?” Her words puffed out in foggy gasps. “I did see you take pictures of something.”
“Yeah, and that something was a water bottle.” Freddie’s lips puckered sideways, gauging how much to tell Divya about the Executioners and missing articles and possible serial killers on the loose. Everything was still so nebulous in her brain. Just half formed hunches and clues out of context.
“All I can figure,” she said eventually, “is that someone switched out the film. I don’t know how they did it, but it’s the only explanation I can come up with.”
“You know why they did it, though.” Divya’s eyebrows notched up. “I can tell by the way just said that. You think it was…”
“Murder,” Freddie finished. “Yeah. Someone is trying to cover their tracks.”
“And I assume you told that to Bowman, right?”
“Of course.” Freddie rolled her eyes. “And then she accused me of making it all up.”
Divya winced. “Crap.”
“Okay, then here’s what will do.” Divya looped her arm in Freddie’s and twirled them away from the entrance. “We’ll stop by your house on the way and grab a coat for you and proper footwear for me.” Divya frowned down at her clogs as she tried to walk forward.
But Freddie yanked her back to a stop. “On the way where?”
“Where do you think?” Divya pulled again. “You’re going to search for that bottle, aren’t you?”
“Don’t even try to ‘uh’ me, Frederica Gellar.” Divya grinned sideways. “I can see it in your eyes, and as your best friend, it is my sworn duty to aid you. No one should go into those spooky woods alone.”
“But you have school!” Again, Freddie dug in her heels. “You can’t wreck your perfect attendance!”
“Oh, I already took care of that.” Divya winked brazenly. “The power of cell phones, my Honey Graham Crackers! All it took was a call from the bathroom, and”—she switched to a voice that sounded very much like her mother’s—”Divya’s excused for a dentist appointment for the remainder of the day. We can’t ignore cavities for too long!”
Freddie thought she might burst into tears at those words. “I don’t deserve you,” she said, voice quaking.
“No one does.” Divya hip bumped her. “Except maybe Laina because she’s amazing.”
Freddie couldn’t argue with that.
“Now are you coming?” Divya towed one last time at Freddie, and this time, Freddie complied.
“I’m coming.” She kicked into a half-jog. “And let’s hurry, please. I am freezing!”
Ten minutes later, Divya had traded out her Birkenstocks for Freddie’s mom’s duck boots, and also her lovely umber sweater for one of Freddie’s sweatshirts. Meanwhile, Freddie had slipped out of her misfitting uniform and into jeans and a flannel—as well as her winter coat.
Blessedly warm. Blessedly her size.
Then, with Sabrina in her back pocket, Buffy around her neck, and Divya at her side, Freddie wheeled Steve’s old bike out of the garage.
This time, they also took Freddie’s mom’s bike too. It was even crappier then Steve’s, but it functioned and was decidedly more comfortable than riding on handlebars.
However, before Freddie and Divya could actually set off down the driveway, Freddie squared her body toward Divya. As soul twins and BFFs and Threadsisters until the day they died, Freddie had to do this.
She had to, she had to, she had to.
“Before we go, I, um… I need to confess something.”
Divya squinted at her warily. “I don’t like the sound of that.”
“Yeah.” Freddie squeezed her bike brakes; they squealed. Say it, Gellar. SAY IT! Divya deserved to know that Freddie had broken her sacred vow.
“Weellllll,” Divya drawled. “Out with it, Fred.”
“Erm…” Freddie swallowed. Then wet her lips. Then blurted, “Kyle tried to kiss me.”
“Yeah.” Freddie’s eyelids fluttered shut. That wasn’t what she’d meant to say. Like, at all. She was supposed to have confessed to kissing Theo, not confessed to an unwanted kiss from poor Kyle.
God, Freddie had never hated herself more.
“Did you want him to kiss you?” Divya asked.
“No.” Freddie opened one eye. Then the other.
She was a terrible, terrible friend.
“Jeez Louise,” Divya swore, “no wonder you look like a dejected unicorn.”
“And I feel like one too,” Freddie mumbled. Which was true, just not for the reason Divya believed.
“So what happened?” Divya asked.
“Ugh.” Freddie grimaced; her insides grimaced too—both because of the kiss and because this wasn’t the story she was supposed to be telling.
But it was too late to back out now.
“Kyle just leaned in suddenly,” she said, “before I could stop him. Then I turned my head at the last second, so he ended up bumping my cheek with his lips.”
“Oof. Then what?”
“Then I bolted.”
“Oof oof.” Divya squeaked her brakes for emphasis. “I’m a little confused, though, Freddie. I thought…I thought you liked Kyle.”
“I did.” With a moan, Freddie doubled over and draped herself across the handlebars. “But now I don’t think I do.”
Divya leaned over her own bike and peered into Freddie’s dangling face. “Does that mean you like Theo Porter?”
“NO!” Freddie practically screamed, shooting back upright. Then a bit more quietly, she added, “No. Theo Porter is the enemy.” The enemy, the enemy, the enemy.
And you’re a terrible, terrible, terrible friend.
“I hope you mean that about being enemies,” Divya said, but there was definite skepticism in her eyes as she pulled away from Freddie and slung her leg over her bike. “I really like Laina, remember? So…try not to ruin it for me.”
“I would never,” Freddie insisted, and the grimace in her belly only deepened.
“Huh,” was all Divya offered in reply, like maybe she suspected Freddie was hiding something.
And Freddie was certain her guilt must be plainly written across her face. WORST BEST FRIEND, it said. SECRET KEEPER AND VOW BREAKER.
Like, why hadn’t she told her best friend the truth? Why hadn’t she just come clean and made a new promise to stop seeing Theo?
Because, a voice whispered in the back of her brain, you know you can’t follow through. You’ve already made plans to see him tonight, haven’t you?
Scowling, Freddie heaved that thought aside. She would cancel on Theo. The kiss from that morning had just been another one-off. End of story.
As Divya flew down the driveway in an air-whizzing roll, Freddie followed after. She hit the street two seconds after her best friend, and then she kicked her legs faster until she was riding alongside her.
The air between them seemed tense. Filled with Freddie’s guilt, thick and inescapable. So Freddie opted for a hard subject change. “I, uh, never got a chance to ask you about yesterday,” she said, already breathing heavily as they trudged uphill. “When you hung out with Laina—how was it?”
“Ooooh,” Divya crooned, and just like that, Freddie realized it was all in her head. Divya suspected nothing; her best friend trusted her to tell the truth.
And somehow, that only made Freddie feel a million times worse.
Yet as Divya flashed a wide grin and burst into a whirlwind description of every single encounter she and Laina had shared after school yesterday, Freddie was able to briefly forget her shame. She was able to hone in on her best friend’s story and revel in all the savory details. There were so many! And each one was so glorious to hear!
And, based on everything she was hearing, Freddie would’ve wagered all of her Witchlands gold (which was worth so much more to her than real gold) that Laina reciprocated Divya’s feelings—and Freddie made sure to say so five times over the course of Divya’s tale.
In her head, meanwhile, she made sure to promise, she would not screw it up. She would end things with Theo. It would be like the vow had never been destroyed. No one would be the wiser, and soon Laina and Divya would be kissing in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G.
When at last Freddie and Divya pedaled up to the yellow police tape marking City-on-the-Berm County Park, both girls were smiling ear to ear about all the gushy Laina details.
And they were panting too because, after all, exertion.
Their brakes squealed in earsplitting harmony as they slowed to a stop. Then they swung off their bikes and rolled the final steps to the tape. It rattled in the wind, very bright and very insistent that people keep out.
Freddie unzipped her jacket (all that cycling had made her hot). Then she pinned Divya with her most serious stare. No more giggling over Laina, no more Kyle or Theo or feelings of shame. What they were doing here was serious, and Freddie couldn’t in good conscience let Divya walk in without knowing all the risks.
“Div, we could get in a lot of trouble if we get caught.”
“I know.” Divya shifted her weight. Her smile faded away.
“Like, a lot of trouble,” Freddie reiterated. “Like get arrested and charged with stuff trouble.”
“And I know,” Divya repeated. She drew back her shoulders. “But I can’t let you go in those woods all alone—and I know you’ll go all alone if I don’t go with you. No matter how terrifying or dangerous things are, you always charge right in.”
This was true, and Freddie didn’t even try to deny it.
“I don’t think we’re in any danger,” Freddie said. “But it is super spooky.”
“Yeah.” Divya gave a little tremble as she scooted her bike closer to the police tape. “These woods are wiggins-central.”
“Well,” Freddie pointed out as she inched her bike after Divya, “the only way to make fear go away is to get to the bottom of it, you know? We have to face it head on. Like a mosquito bite: the more you scratch it, the faster it heals.”
“Um, that is not how mosquito bites work.”
“Sure it is.” Another few inches toward the flapping tape. Freddie reached it first. Her numb fingers brushed plastic.
Then in a swoop of speed—before she could lose her nerve—she yanked up the tape and held it high. Divya slunk under, bike wheels crunching over leaves. Freddie followed two seconds later, and after furtive glances all around (no one was in sight), the girls set off into the trees.
They were in. Freddie and Divya were officially in City-on-the-Berm County Park.
And they were also officially breaking the law, and unlike the exhilaration that had sparkled in Freddie’s veins whenever she pranked Roberta Hughes, she felt only determination now. She was going to make this transgression worth it; she was going to clear her name; she was going to prove that Sheriff Bowman had it all wrong.
Somewhere in these woods was either a missing water bottle—or some other kind of evidence that a murderer was at large in Berm.
Freddie knew it was out there; her gut knew it was out there; she just had to find it.
“So what’s the plan?” Divya asked, her voice a half-whisper, like she was afraid of being overheard. She even rolled her bike with extra caution.
“We’re gonna find the bottle,” Freddie replied. She refused to whisper. Yet despite this internal promise, her voice still came out strangely subdued. “Then we’re going to take a million photographs that I will develop. After that, we’ll put the water bottle in a ziplock and bring it straight to Bowman.”
Divya glanced back. “Do you have a ziplock?”
“Uh, duh. Always.” Freddie forced a grin.
“My, my, aren’t you quite the Keylime P.I.”
Freddie barked a laugh—too loud, too false. “That was clever,” she squeezed out, pushing her bike faster until she was ahead of Divya. “And hey, this was the spot, wasn’t it?” She stopped walking and toed down her kickstand.
“Yeah,” Freddie continued, “I’m ninety-nine percent sure this was it.” She spun in a circle beside the branch where only four days ago, there had been a red water bottle. “There were more leaves before the windstorm, but otherwise, that tree looks exactly like I remember.”
“Yeah,” Divya agreed from the path, knocking down her own kickstand. “Assuming your bike had been parked here”—she patted her handlebars—“and that I had been dumped on my ass over there…” She skipped two steps sideways and squatted. “Yep, that definitely looks the way I remember it.”
“Alright.” Freddie rubbed her hands together; it was really getting cold out, and the sun hadn’t even set. “For argument’s sake, let’s assume a psycho murderer—”
“—didn’t steal the water bottle and it simply got knocked by the wind. That means it would go…” Freddie squinted at the leaf-covered earth. Then pointed to a spot where the ground turned sharply downward.
Divya’s footsteps thudded over to Freddie’s side. Once again, her face had settled into a familiar Something does not add up here scrunch.
“Something does not add up here,” she said. “Like even if the wind knocked the bottle off the tree, it’s still pretty flat. It would have to have fallen a full ten feet to even hit that drop-off.”
“Well,” Freddie declared tromping ahead, “let’s assume that’s exactly that happened. If we don’t find anything at the bottom of the hill, we’ll trek back up here and head in the other directions.”
“What about the bikes?”
“Leave ‘em. It’s not like there’s anywhere to hide them, now that all the leaves are down.” Freddie reached the descent and in a very graceless—and very noisy stumble forward—she thundered down the hill. Divya crashed a few paces behind.
By the time the ground flattened out again, both girls were red-faced, muddy-booted, and wild-haired. Even Divya’s flawless braid had not survived the clawing branches and gnarly underbrush.
“Now,” Freddie said, scrambling over a decomposing pine, “let’s search. It’s gonna be tricky with all the fallen leaves, but hopefully the red of the plastic will still stand out.”
For several minutes, the girls scoured the area in silence. They peeked under rocks and inside rotting tree trunks. They kicked up leaves and rustled around in hedges. Freddie was moving in a very meticulous counterclockwise course, letting her eyes move and her gut guide her, when suddenly Divya cleared her throat.
“So, uh, I know you’re not going to like what I’m about to say—”
“Oh-kay,” Freddie muttered, still scanning, still moving.
“—but I think it’s worth mentioning.” Divya plunked to a seat nearby. “Have you considered the possibility that maybe Sheriff Bowman is the one who moved the water bottle?”
Freddie barked a laugh, grinning Divya’s way. Then she caught sight of her friend’s expression and realized Divya was Very Serious Indeed.
“Are you on drugs?” Freddie straightened. “You think Sheriff Bowman—the Sheriff Bowman who protects this town—moved the water bottle?”
“Think about it.” Divya hugged her knees to her chest. “She had access to both the bottle and the film. Plus, you called her on Wednesday night. If she was out here murdering someone, then she could have easily skipped over finding the dead guy—and instead found the drunk party.”
Freddie’s face wrinkled with a frown. Like, sure, if she cocked her head at just the right angle, she could maybe see what Divya was saying…
But no. Just no. There was no way her hero, the Blue-eyed Badass of Berm was the murderer. Bowman had no motive. Plus, “Explain why would Bowman attack her own mother.” Freddie planted her hands on her hips.
“I don’t know.” Divya shrugged. “But you said yourself, the Sheriff wasn’t home when you tried to find her for help.”
Shit. Divya was right about that too.
Freddie grimaced, and rubbing her eyes, she shuffled toward her best friend. “I refuse to believe Sheriff Bowman is out here hanging people.” Her hands fell. “And she’s definitely not decapitating them.”
“Decapitating?” Divya squawked. She shot to her feet. “What the hell? When did that happen?”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because,” Freddie began, “I didn’t know until today…” The words died on her tongue. Her attention was suddenly snagged by whatever Divya had just been sitting on.
“What is that?”
“A trail marker.” Divya waved the question aside. “But you didn’t answer me, Fred—”
“But there aren’t any trails out here.” Freddie pushed past her best friend and dropped to a crouch before a foot high stretch of stone. Granite, maybe, and definitely carved by humans.
And also definitely not a trail marker. If anything, it looked more like a…
“Tombstone,” she blurted. Then louder, excited, “Oh my god, Div, I think you just found a tombstone!”
“Look, you can even see the tops of letters here! We need to dig around it and see.”
“Um, do we?” Divya recoiled. “I thought we were out here for water bottles. Not graves. Also, can we please get back to the decapitation?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Freddie mumbled, searching for a suitable shovel. “A body was found by the lake without its head. That’s all I know.”
Now Divya was the one to exclaim, “Oh my god.” She clapped a hand to her mouth. “Maybe we should go back to the bikes,” she said though her fingers.
“The lakeshore is nowhere near here.” Freddie snatched up a sturdy branch.
“Nowhere near?” Divya demanded. “It can’t be more than half a mile!”
“Yeah.” Freddie nodded because clearly this proved her point. “Nowhere near. But look, if you help me with this”—she waved to the tombstone—“then we’ll get out of here faster.”
Divya seemed to realize Freddie wasn’t leaving until she’d uncovered this rock, so seconds later, she too was clearing away soil. Until at last, the letters were fully visible.
“Holy crap,” Divya breathed. “Wasn’t Justin one of the…?”
“Yeah,” Freddie breathed back. “He was.”
“So does that mean…does that mean this is his grave?”
“Maybe.” Freddie compressed her lips in a line, thinking back to what she’d read last night in A Murderous Legend. In the 1950s, archaeologists had searched for both the bones of the slaughtered villagers and the supposed Executioners, but nothing had ever turned up—and funding had quickly run dry.
Plus, because the park forests grew on dunes, the ground was constantly shifting. The assumption was that the bones of that past had been buried by sand and time, and that was the end of that.
Without thought, Freddie popped off Buffy’s lens cap and started snapping away. The front of the tomb, the top of it, the side, the clearing as a whole. Six pictures later, she fixed Divya with a hard eye and said, “There might be another grave around here somewhere. If we could find it and read the name, then we’d know for sure that we’d found the Executioners.”
“On it,” Divya chirped. She seemed to have briefly forgotten her horror over the decapitation, and together, she and Freddie frantically scrambled around the clearing.
They were Daphne and Velma on the case. Threadsisters braving the dangers of the Witchlands, and Freddie’s earlier transgressions—she would fix those. She would fix all of it, and then this guilt in her belly would melt away.
With forceful kicks, she and Divya knocked leaves left and right. Until Freddie’s toes kicked stone—hard. “Ow!” She crumpled to the earth. “Ow, ow, ow.”
“Did you find another?” Divya scurried to her side.
“I think so,” Freddie groaned. “But don’t worry about my health or anything! Or poor Buffy.” She frowned down at her camera, but the Nikon (thankfully) seemed unharmed by the tumble.
Divya, meanwhile, just rolled her eyes. “What happened to channeling our Witchlands characters, Miss Tough Truthwitch?”
“Yada, yada, yada.” Freddie slung off Buffy and passed it off to Divya. Then she moved onto all fours, and after clearing away the leaves, a second stretch of stone peered up at her.
“Whoa.” Divya grinned, eyes bright. “We should uncover more.” She snatched up their former shoveling sticks, and after placing Buffy safely on the sidelines (at Freddie’s insistence), the girls cleared away cold soil in a frantic spray of detritus, a handful of earthworms, and some roly-polies.
The wind picked up speed as they worked, numbing Freddie’s fingers and ears. Twice, Divya paused to rub her hands together and puff into them. On the third pause, she tensed mid-puff. Then straightened.
“Hey,” she hissed, “do you hear that?”
Freddie stilled, head tipping into the frostbitten wind.
A voice. Coming this way.
Heart thumping, Freddie pushed to her feet and angled toward the sound. It rode the wind that swept up from the lake.
And hazy shape was coalescing amidst the trees.
“Oh god,” Divya whispered, launching to her feet. “Let’s get out of here.”
“Wait.” Freddie lifted a flat-palmed hand. Her gut was swelling, but not with a sense of danger or death.
This was the keen of someone else in trouble. Like when she’d sensed Divya’s cat was dying.
The wind kicked against Freddie. Leaves clattered, briefly drowning out the voice—briefly hiding the walker behind a curtain of gold and russet.
Then the wind cleared; the leaves fell; and Freddie saw who approached.
“Holy shit,” she said at the same time Divya cried, “Laina? Is that you?”