Chapter 17: Laina — hey, Laina!

Laina gave no indication that she’d heard Freddie or Divya. Nor that she’d seen them. She strode steadily onward, oblivious to branches or briars or thickets of mud.

And the closer she got, the more Freddie could see. The more Freddie could hear.

In both hands, clasped before her like a prayer, Laina held a flickering candle, and in time to each measured step across the forest, she called:“Je suis ici. Je suis ici, Ordonnez moi.”

“Um,” Divya said, eyes flashing to Freddie. “What the hell is going on?” Then she scooted forward, arms outstretched. “Laina? Hey, Laina.”

Freddie scrambled after Divya, also shouting. “Laina—hey, Laina!” But the class president still offered no reaction. She simply walked. She simply chanted.

“ Je suis ici. Je suis ici. Ordonnez moi.”

Wherever Laina Steward was, it was not in this clearing.

And now Freddie’s gut was really on fire.

Divya reached Laina first and skidded to a panicked stop, trying to intercept the other girl—trying to stop her forward march. But her efforts were useless. Laina simply sidestepped and circled around.

“ Je suis ici. Je suis ici. Ordonnez moi.” The candle dripped wax onto her fingers.

Freddie didn’t bother trying to stop her. She just fell into step beside Laina, gaze raking up and down.The other girl was not dressed for this weather—her fishnet-clad legs rippled with gooseflesh, and other than a flimsy cardigan with a fat safety pin fastening it together, she had no jacket of any kind.

Divya rushed to Laina’s other side. Over and over, she said the girl’s name—“Laina, hey Laina!”—but still, Laina continued on.

So Divya rounded toward Freddie. “What do we do?”

“I don’t know,” Freddie said, and it was true. Laina was clearly in some kind of trance, which was way outside the realm of her understanding. Shoplifters, she could handle. Even bodies dangling from suicide trees. But girls hypnotized and holding candles was not something she had faced before.

Worse, the wind had changed directions. A frozen, shredding wind now.

And on it was the scent of carrion.

Freddie’s gut flickered a new warning. Danger, danger—not just for Laina, but for everyone involved.

Laina reached the clearing with the tombstones, while Freddie and Divya trailed only a few paces behind. To Freddie’s shock—though not necessarily her surprise—Laina crossed to the tombstone they’d just unearthed.

“ Je suis ici. Je suis ici. Ordonnez moi.”

She knelt.

“ Je suis ici. Je suis ici. Ordonnez moi.”

She held out the candle. Wax fell to the leaves. Then she placed the candle on the tombstone…

And it was like a switch going off. One moment, gray afternoon sun bore down. The next, darkness reigned supreme. Clouds that Freddie would have sworn weren’t there two seconds before suddenly swooped across the sky.

Worst of all, though, was the smell. A scent Freddie was beginning to recognize as a harbinger of fucked up shit on the horizon. A smell her gut screamed was wrong, wrong, wrong—and that made no earthly sense at all.

Carrion. Rot. Death.

“Laina?” Divya asked, cutting in close to the other girl. “Hey, are you—” She brushed Laina’s shoulder.

And Laina screamed. Her hands shot to her ears, she crumpled into a ball, and it was like the night with the crows all over again. But worse because now the darkness was unnatural; now there was a candle burning and nothing scientific that could explain it all away.

Freddie didn’t even think. She just lunged, grabbing for Laina. “Help me,” she ordered Divya. “We need to get her up and out of here.”

Freddie’s fingers connected with Laina’s ribs, and as fast as Laina’s screams had begun, they broke off. She unfurled in an instant, no time for Freddie to react.

Then Laina attacked. A blur of trained speed. Freddie’s whole world flipped upside down. Her back slammed to the frozen earth, punching the breath from her lungs. Black wavered across her vision.

Laina straddled her next, her thighs squeezing against Freddie’s ribs. Choking off Freddie’s lungs.

Freddie had just enough time to see Laina’s fists swung in before she screwed her eyes shut, and…

And nothing. The impact never came.

“What…the…hell,” Laina panted, “is going on?”

“You’re awake,” Divya cried, and Freddie finally opened her eyes.

Laina’s fists had fallen. She gaped down at Freddie. Then her gaze shot to Divya, who was rushing in close. And for the first time since arriving, Freddie caught sight of a mark on Laina’s cheek—smudged now, but unmistakable all the same.

A pentagram.

A.k.a. Satan’s symbol.

As Divya helped Laina climb off Freddie, Laina mumbled over and over, “Oh my god, I’m so sorry, Freddie. Did I hurt you? Oh my god, I’m so sorry I did this. I don’t know what happened.”

Freddie didn’t know either, but her instincts were starting to make a few guesses. She hauled herself to her feet. Without bothering to dust off, nor even to check for the definite bruises swelling on her ass and shoulders, she sucked in a ragged breath and declared, “We need to get out of here. Now.

“I agree,” Divya said, already peeling off her coat and wrapping it over Laina’s shoulders. “She’s freezing, and…” She didn’t finish that statement—she didn’t have to. The pinched-lip stare she flung Freddie was more than enough.

Divya was in full agreement with Freddie’s own thoughts: these woods were fucked up. They needed to get out of here. Now.

“Go to the bikes,” Freddie ordered, twisting away from the other girls. “I’ll be right behind.”

“Wait, what?” Divya barked at Freddie’s back. “Where are you going?”

“I’ll be right behind,” she insisted, and without another word of explanation, Freddie darted toward Buffy, safe and sound at the edge of the clearing. Moments later, departing boots stamped through the forest.

For several seconds, Freddie simply scanned the trees. Left, right, left, right. The stench of death was getting stronger, and even if it made no sense and even if Freddie didn’t believe in ghosts or haunting Executioners, her gut had already made up its mind.

Whatever was happening in City-on-the-Berm County Park went beyond normal human killers—and Ibrahim had been right: these woods were not safe anymore.

In quick movements, Freddie crossed to the second tombstone, where the candle somehow, despite the raging wind, still burned.

White wax had splattered across the stone.

After three rapid-fire snaps and cranks of the camera, Freddie knelt and started scooping up soil by the handful. It was dirtier than her shoveling stick had been, but it was also faster—and right now, speed was of the essence.

Scrape, scrape, dig, dig. Time slid past. The wind bit harder. The growing stink pulsed against her.

Snow began to trickle down. Unseasonably early. Absolutely freezing. Her fingers were completely numb by the time she got as deep as she needed to be—deep enough to make out a first name.

Alexandre, the stone read.

And a few frantic digs after that, the last name appeared too. Faded and clogged with dirt, but unmistakable all the same:

Steward.

“Shit,” Freddie whispered. “Oh shit, shit, shit.” There was absolutely nothing logical, nothing out of history books or stolen ledgers or newspaper articles, nothing out of science or common sense that could possibly explain this.

Laina had come with a candle and a pentagram to the exact tomb of her ancestor—all while speaking French, which Freddie would bet Laina didn’t know a word of. Then she had placed a candle on the tombstone, the sky had darkened, and she’d fallen to the earth screaming.

Yeah, nope. That didn’t fit into the usual laws of the universe.

It also made Freddie’s search for the water bottle seem completely unimportant by comparison. Sure, she wanted to clear her name, but ghosts possibly possessing people was definitely a higher priority concern.

Unconcerned with her filthy fingers or Buffy’s sensitive casing, Freddie snapped two more pictures of the tombstone’s face. Then she shoved to her feet and broke into a sprint. Away from the grave, away from the candle still burning.

The rotten stink was so strong now, it felt solid. Cloying against Freddie’s skin as she ran. Sliding down her throat with each gasp for air. But she simply pumped her legs faster.

Twice, she looked back, expecting to see a Hangsman or a Headsman with ropes and blades like in her dream…

But there was nothing there. Only falling snow and a smell like dead things lost.

Freddie was drenched in sweat by the time she too crested the hill and caught up to Laina and Divya. Her thigh muscles screamed, but she couldn’t stop now. Freddie might not see anything chasing behind, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t. The smell definitely suggested no one was safe yet.

After stripping off her jacket and shoving it into Divya’s hands, Freddie turned to Laina. “Are you okay to ride a bike?”

“Yeah,” the girl said, clearly still foggy—but also, like she had with the crows, determined to push past it and save face. She shivered from the cold, even in Divya’s coat, but her shoulders were back. Her chin was high.

“Good,” Freddie said. “You take the orange bike, and Divya, hop onto my handlebars.”

Seconds later, they were all on the move again—this time in a squeal of resistant gears and grating pedals.

No one looked back.

#

Freddie sat on the carpet beside Laina. Divya’s flowery comforter was wrapped tightly to Laina’s shoulders and an afghan draped over her crosslegged knees.

Despite the layers, Laina still shivered. Her teeth still chattered.

The girls had gone first to Freddie’s house, but at the sight of Steve’s truck in the garage, they’d powered onward to Divya’s place—empty of parents and impossible questions. After tucking blankets around Laina, Divya had hurried off to make a hot tea. Which had left Freddie alone with Laina.

The tension in the room was thick. Like cut-through-with-a-machete thick. Though that was more Laina’s doing, than Freddie’s. Freddie was too amped up for tension. Her mind was on High Alert with theories and questions and suspicions burning in her gut.

Laina, however, was embarrassed—ashamed even. She kept glancing at Freddie, then a the door, then at her boots folded beneath her thighs.

Silverware clinked downstairs. Water boiled.

“I…have a sleepwalking disorder,” Laina said softly. Her first words since reaching Divya’s house. She gazed helplessly at Freddie. “Sometimes…Well, sometimes this happens.”

“How often is sometimes?” Freddie asked slowly.

“Um.” Laina shrugged one shoulder. “Only a few times. It just started this fall, but… Yeah, I’m seeing someone about it.” She grimaced. Her eyes dropped back to her boots.

And Freddie frowned. Sleepwalkers did weird shit—sure, she could buy that. But did they draw pentagrams on their faces and walk with lit candles to ancient tombstones?

“Do you speak French?”

“Huh?” Laina blinked.

“Do you speak French?” Freddie repeated.

“No.” Laina wagged her head. “I’m in German. Why do you ask?”

Freddie ignored the question. “Do you always go to City-on-the-Berm County Park when you sleepwalk?”

Laina swallowed. “No. I went to the high school once.”

“And do you normally carry a candle?”

“I had a candle?”

That answered that. “And what about the pentagram on your face?”

“What?” Laina recoiled. Then scrubbed at her cheek—the wrong cheek.

“Leave her alone,” Divya ordered, shoving into the room with a tea cup and platter of cookies. “She’s been through enough today.”

“Sorry,” Freddie said, lifting her hands defensively. She wasn’t actually sorry, but she could keep her mouth shut. For a little while, at least.

Besides, she had the answer she needed: Laina had grabbed the wrong cheek, meaning she either hadn’t drawn the pentagram during her previous sleepwalking trips…

Or else someone had removed it before Laina could ever see. And no, none of that made any of sense, but Freddie’s instincts had never been wrong on these things before.

Divya knelt beside Laina, and instantly the lines of Laina’s face relaxed. She watched Divya set the tea before her, watched as she laid out the cookies, and were this any other situation, Freddie would’ve been delighted by such a stare. By the clear longing in Laina’s eyes. The girl was head over heels for Divya.

Right now though, Freddie had other concerns. Big ones.

“Your family,” Freddie said as Laina lifted the tea to her lips. The scent of cinnamon wafted through the room. “Does anyone else sleepwalk?”

Laina winced slightly. “I mean, not that I know of.”

“And do you know how long your family has lived in this region?”

“Um.” Laina’s forehead bunched up. She glanced at Divya. “No. I have no idea. Does…does it matter?”

“Of course not,” Divya murmured. She shot Freddie a glare.

Freddie ignored it. “What’s the last thing you remember before you woke up in the woods?”

Laina took another sip and gave another frown. “I was in AP Chem, and then…” Laina’s hand started trembling. Her eyes squeezed shut. “I don’t remember.”

“Try.” Freddie leaned toward her.

“I think…I went to the bathroom, and…” She shook her head. “I don’t know.”

“Please,” Freddie pressed.

“I can’t.” Tea sloshed out of Laina’s mug.

Please, Laina. Try to remember —”

“Enough,” Divya snapped. With shocking strength for someone so small, she grabbed Freddie by the collar and hauled her to her feet. Then Divya dragged Freddie all the way into the hall.

“You need to take a chill pill,” Divya spat. “What the hell, Freddie?”

Freddie grimaced. She knew her best friend was right. Laina had been through some serious shit…But Laina was also the only one who might be able to fill in all these gaps in Freddie’s brain.

And there were a lot of gaps. A lot of dots that needed connecting, and Laina was the one with the lines.

Before Freddie could apologize though, and explain why she’d pushed Laina so hard, a familiar Nokia refrain split the air. Freddie rifled out Sabrina and found an unfamiliar number lighting up the screen.

“Hello?” she answered while Divya gazed, still glaring.

“Is Theo Porter available?”

“Uh…” Freddie’s brows drew tight. “May I ask who’s calling?”

“This is Kathy, a nurse at the County Hospital. Mr. Porter told me to call this number when his grandmother woke up.”

“Oh.” Freddie’s brows relaxed. Theo must’ve given the nurse her number, since he no longer had a phone.

And wow, that was some serious followthrough on his favor. She really owed him for that.

“Can you pass on the message to Mr. Porter?” Kathy asked.

“Yeah, I’ll be sure to let him know.”

“Great. Thank you —”

“Wait,” Freddie cut in. “Is she allowed to see anyone? Mrs. Ferris, I mean. Can she have visitors?”

“Yes,” the nurse answered primly. Then with a comparably prim goodbye, she hung up.

“Who was that?” Divya asked, scooting in close while Freddie pocketed Sabrina. Her earlier frustration was gone, replaced by frowning curiosity.

“It was the hospital,” Freddie murmured. Her mind was already elsewhere. Already racing ahead to a hospital room. “Mrs. Ferris woke up, and I have a lot of questions for her.”

Divya’s lips pressed into a grim line. “Why? What do you think she’ll tell you?”

“No idea,” Freddie mumbled, and it was mostly true. She had yet to update Divya on all the weird stuff Mrs. Ferris had said on Sunday night, and now there was no time.

After ducking into Divya’s room to grab Buffy and offer Laina a soft, “See you later,” Freddie met Divya back in the hall. She hooked her arm in Divya’s and towed her toward the stairs. “Listen,” she whispered. “Don’t let Laina out of your sight.”

Divya bit her lip. “I mean, she has to leave sometime, Fred.”

“Does she?” Freddie countered, pulling Divya down the stairs. “Because I don’t think she should be alone right now. Like at all. So try to find a way to keep her here. Maybe an impromptu slumber party or something.”

Now Divya was really chewing her lip. “Freddie,” she said quietly, “tell me straight: is Laina in danger?”

Freddie’s mouth opened. Then clamped back shut. She couldn’t lie to her Threadsister. She’d done enough damage by not admitting to her second kiss with Theo; she refused to do any more. So even if Freddie had more questions than answers, she knew what her gut was telling her.

“Yeah, Div,” she said when they reached the foyer. “I think Laina might be in danger. But hey,” she added before Divya could start plying her with questions that she didn’t have time to answer, “I’ll call you soon, okay? Just keep Laina here and everything will be alright.”

 

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