Freddie didn’t think. She just acted. First, she shoved the film canister into her pocket. Then she flung everything back into the box and thrust it into the corner. Last, she bolted for the tiny attic door.
She tried to tiptoe, but she could only move so fast and stay quiet.
Footsteps thumped on the creaking stairs between the first and second floors. Then those footsteps crossed down the hall…And then they reached the end.
It was right as the attic door squealed wide that Freddie reached the dollhouse and switched off her flashlight. She was still exposed though—no time left, no time.
Freddie lurched sideways behind a refrigerator box labeled Rita’s toys. Beside it were more heaps of National Geographic. Enough to block her if she cowered low.
It wasn’t until the person reached the top of the attic stairs and shuffled into the main space that Freddie realized she’d left the door to the secret room open.
SHIT, she screamed inwardly. SHIIIITTTT. But there was nothing she could do now. Nothing except curl as small as possible and cover her mouth to muffle her rough exhales.
The person shambled toward her…Then past. Heavy footsteps. Oblivious and unhurried.
Until they reached the dollhouse.
There they froze, and the room seemed to shrink inward. Freddie stopped breathing. She just listened, listened. Exactly as she knew the other person was doing too.
Her heart was a timpani. Her blood roared in her ears, and in quick, skittering thoughts, she tried to map out an escape route. From this angle, she could run for the stairs, staying behind the magazines the whole way.
But the person would be faster. They would reach the stairs before she could.
After an eternity of frozen time, of listening and screaming in her brain, a new sound scraped out. The person was moving again. Ducking into the hidden room in a whisper of fabric against the doorframe.
The door clicked shut.
And Freddie thought she might pass out from relief. She wheezed in a shallow breath. Let her hand fall from her mouth. And for several long seconds—or maybe minutes—she stayed that way. Still listening, still bracing for the person to realize they were not alone.
But nothing happened. Noises like boxes being moved and papers being shuffled filled the space, but that was it.
Which left Freddie with two choices. She could either wait the person out, leave after they were gone…Or she could make a run for it now. The latter option would be loud. There was no way to get around those creaking stairs or the squealing hinges on the attic door.
So Freddie decided she would wait. Even though every second here was agony, it was her safest bet. Plus, if could angle herself just right, she might be able to glimpse who had come in. Was it Sheriff Bowman or was it someone else?
Yes. That was what Freddie had to do.
After carefully checking Buffy wouldn’t knock into anything, Freddie unfurled and eased onto her hands and knees. Then she crawled ever so slowly toward the stairs, away from the door. If she waited at the edge of the magazines, then when the person descended, she could peek around and see them from behind.
Every inch Freddie moved, she paused. She listened. But the person in the secret room remained unaware; she was still safe. For now.
She reached the last stack of National Geographic. She tucked in her legs, ready to resume her earlier pose…
And that was when it happened.
Doodle-loo doo, doodle-loo doo, doodle-loo doo, doo!
Freddie’s Nokia started ringing. So loud. So unmistakable.
She ripped it from her back pocket, but it was too late. A second round was already blasting out.
Doodle-loo doo, doodle-loo doo—
Freddie slammed down the power button. Her mind had wiped clean, a state of pure, unadulterated terror broken only be the gunfire of her heartbeat.
She had no choice now. She had to make a run for it.
In a bolt of speed, her muscles taking over all thought—flight dominating over fight—Freddie pushed to her feet.
She ran for the stairs, reaching them right as the door to the secret room swung wide. But Freddie didn’t look up. She didn’t slow as she barreled down.
She had maybe a three second head start on whoever was back there, and she had to use those precious seconds well.
She yanked open the attic door and slammed it shut behind her. Four bounding steps and she reached the stairs. She flew down, two at a time before reaching the landing.
The attic door slammed a second time. The house rattled.
No time, no goddamned time.
Freddie leaped across the living room, grabbing the edges of the couch, of an armchair, and using them to fling herself faster.
She hit the kitchen. And again, she grabbed the edges of furniture—but this time, to slow down her pursuer. One chair. Two. She knocked them over. They crashed sideways, maybe buying her one extra second.
Then she reached the backdoor, and thank god it wasn’t locked. The time Freddie would have needed to turn the bolt would have been too much, too slow.
Especially because, as she turned the knob—its cold, brass scratched and worn—her eyes caught on the yellow raincoat beside the door.
Freddie grabbed it, wrenched the door wide, and burst out into the frozen afternoon. Again, she yanked the door shut behind her. Then she ran, pulling on the raincoat.
Freddie didn’t think her pursuer had gotten a good view of her. She didn’t think she’d been in their line of sight, and as long as she didn’t look back, then maybe this person would never see who she was.
She towed the hood in place and sped for the patio. Buffy slammed against her chest.
Snow dusted everything now, turning the world white—and meaning no matter which way Freddie ran, she left tracks.
She flung the gate wide and raced into the snow-laced woods. But she didn’t take the route she’d taken before. This time, she cut right and crouched low. Low enough that the fence blocked her from view as she sprinted forward.
The fence ended.
The door to Mrs. Ferris’s house banged shut—which meant Freddie’s pursuer was coming.
Freddie straightened. Then she picked up her knees, and she flat out ran. Faster than she’d ever known she could run. Her camera banged and thumped. Her breath came in panicked gasps.
She didn’t look back, even though she wanted to. Even though she was desperate to know who had been in that attic with her.
Had it been Sheriff Bowman? Or someone else? And how close behind were they now?
Freddie just ran, arms swinging. Buffy bruising her ribs.
Three houses streaked past. Two more fences. Then Freddie reached a street. If she cut right, she could loop down onto her own street, but that was too obvious. Right now, she just had to keep running away. Nowhere anyone would think to look for her. Nowhere someone like Sheriff Bowman might know to go.
Freddie crossed the street. Hopped the curb. Cut over someone’s lawn—someone she didn’t know. Someone whose backyard should hit a small strip of woods, which would lead to downtown Berm.
When at last Freddie was behind this unknown beige house and almost into those woods, she risked a glance back.
But no one was there.
At least no one that she could see. But Freddie wasn’t stupid enough to slow. Her pursuer might simply be in a car now, preparing to cut her off ahead. Or maybe they’d taken a different route and would pop out from the other side of one of these houses.
She couldn’t stop. She couldn’t slow.
It wasn’t until Freddie reached the edge of downtown Berm, where the line of “antique” shops (a.k.a. junk shops) marked the outskirts, that she finally eased her pace. She had to. She could barely breathe anymore, and her legs had turned to jello.
With a whispered apology to Mrs. Ferris, Freddie ducked inside the first antique shop she found, tore off the yellow rain coat, hung it on a coat rack by the door, and then dipped back into the early evening. The sun was almost gone behind the horizon now.
Snow clotted thicker as Freddie strode ahead, keeping her pace casual. She dug her hands into her pockets, like she was cold but not too cold. Like she always walked around in downtown Berm with a camera around her neck and no jacket.
By the time she reached the central block—where the Frame & Foto stood—the sun was setting. Freddie was shivering, but it was a vague, unimportant problem. One her mind barely registered because it was clotted too thick with memories and theories and a constant play-by-play of what had just happened.
At a slender alley, Freddie cut left to circle behind the stores. A small parking lot served the city of Berm when the limited street parking could not. It was also where the back door to the Frame & Foto waited—and where Greg kept a spare key in a lock box.
The lot was almost completely empty; stores closed early downtown, and Greg’s Lexus was nowhere in sight. Upon reaching the three steps leading up to the Frame & Foto, Freddie hopped up, giving her reflection a cursory glance in the glass back door. Her nose and cheeks were pink. Snow dusted her hair, and all the moisture had drained it of its usual buoyancy.
She didn’t look like herself.
And Freddie didn’t like that.
Leaning in close—and with breath to fog up the glass—she tried to squint inside. The lights were out in the back hall. She knocked. Then knocked again, but when Greg didn’t appear in the hall after thirty freezing seconds, she gave up and twisted to the lockbox.
Fingers clumsy with cold, Freddie punched in the key code. Her knuckles were bright red, her sleeves sodden with snow as she hammered in 8-1-2-6-7 (Mr. Binder’s birthday). A click sounded; the lock box swung wide.
Freddie snatched out the key, and relief surged through her. Warmth and safety waited on the other side of that door. And maybe answers too, if she could develop the film currently burning a hole through her pocket.
After fumbling open the lock, Freddie shoved the door in. Heat gusted against her, along with the pungent odor of dark room chemicals. No 80s rock, though, which meant Greg had definitely gone home for the day.
Before she could push all the way inside, a voice called her name. A voice from behind—from the parking lot.
Freddie snapped around, throat closing off. Fear whooshing in.
But it wasn’t Sheriff Bowman or a deputy or a murderer striding her way across the parking lot. It was Theo Porter. He stood beside his Civic, a plastic shopping bag dangling from his left hand.
And now he smiled.
Now he waved.
For several seconds, Freddie had no idea what to do.
Theo Porter was Sheriff Bowman’s nephew. He knew where Freddie was now, which meant he could tell his aunt.
Maybe he’d already told his aunt.
But no, no. That didn’t make any sense. Freddie had only just arrived here, and Theo seemed surprised to see her.
She forced a smile from her spot, half squeezed through the open door. “Just a sec!” she shouted, then she slipped all the way inside and let the glass swing shut behind her.
She would have to go back out there. She would have to talk to Theo, even if she didn’t know what to say. Hey, your family has some scary shit going on, didn’t seem like a good plan. Nor did: Any idea why your mom’s name would have been horribly scratched off the family tree? Also, is your aunt possibly a murderer?
Obviously Freddie couldn’t breathe a word of any of that. She had made a promise to Mrs. Ferris, and she intended to keep it.
Besides, if not for Theo’s aunt—if not for whatever had just happened at his grandmother’s house—then Freddie would want to go see him. She would be giddy and buoyant and flushing all the way to her core that Theo was right over there and smiling at her.
Freddie’s hands trembled slightly as she removed Buffy from her neck and hung the camera on a coat rack by the door. Snow melted off her duck boots and onto the linoleum. Next, she withdrew the film canister from her pocket, then the flashlight too, and placed both items on the flat square top of the coat rack.
Satisfied that her items were safe—and knowing that if she took much longer, it might set off alarm bells in Theo’s brain—Freddie thrust back into the late afternoon.
Cold. Snow. The dregs of a gray sunset. It all swept against her in a slurry of sensations. Yet standing stark against it was Theo.
He still waited by his car, the driver’s door open and the plastic bag no longer in hand.
“What are you doing here?” he called as Freddie hurried toward him. His blue eyes were bright, even the swollen one, and his lips were quirked handsomely to one side. Despite the fading bruises, he looked polished, he looked poised, and he looked…
It was strange, actually. So completely at odds with the Theo that Freddie had kissed only a few hours earlier. The one who had needed distraction because his life was a fucking mess right now.
“Why are you here?” Freddie countered, hoping he wouldn’t catch her blatant deflection. She was just her Perfectly Usual Self: Frederica Gellar, obsessed with Justin Timberlake, the Witchlands, and any mystery that might need solving.
This Freddie had not just found a secret room in Theo’s grandmother’s house, and this Freddie had not just fled someone who was probably Theo’s aunt.
Freddie came to a stop several paces from him. He still wore his RH uniform, but no tie now. And he’d loosened his shirt collar too. It looked good.
Like, really good, just that glimpse of a collarbone and pale skin.
“Beef jerky,” he said simply.
And all Freddie could do was kick up an eyebrow. “Huh?”
“Beef jerky,” he repeated, and this time he nodded toward the open car. “My grandmother’s awake, and she has a hankering for it. So I just stopped in the drugstore before it closed.”
For half a breath, Freddie didn’t react to this statement—because how should she react?
“You, um…you must be so happy,” Freddie said eventually. Not an admission of having met Mrs. Ferris, nor quite a denial.
“I am indeed.” Theo’s head tipped sideways. “But didn’t the hospital call you? I gave them your number.”
Oh. Right. He knew about that part because he’d set it up.
Freddie’s lips pressed shut. Then parted. Then pressed shut again because the reality was that she sucked at this. She wasn’t good at gauging whether a lie would make things better or worse. And she really wasn’t good at the actual lying part.
So Freddie did the only thing she could think of to sidetrack Theo. The only thing she could think of that would stop this conversation dead in its tracks.
Freddie marched up to Theo, grabbed his blazer collar, and kissed him.
It was a simple kiss. Freddie’s lips against Theo’s, and nothing more.
Or that was the plan, at least—the haphazard, slapped-together plan of an adrenaline-crazed mind. She would kiss Theo; then she would flee back into the Frame & Foto. But unfortunately for Freddie, this plan was dashed to pieces as soon as it could begin.
Because Theo tasted like honey. Like honey and boy and breathless moments by a picnic table.
So instead of pulling away, Freddie just stood there, her fingers wound into Theo’s jacket. Her lips resting against his.
She actually would have stayed like that forever if a car hadn’t rumbled past and distracted her. Distracted him too, and forced them both apart.
Blinking, Freddie watched the SUV prowl by. It had been the last vehicle in the parking lot, save for Theo’s.
“What,” Theo began roughly, “was that for?”
Freddie glanced back at him, dazed. Her brain, which had hardly been organized before, was now a pinball machine of chaos, noise, and ringing obstacles everywhere she turned.
She slowly released his blazer. Then she brought her cold finger to her lips. Honey.
Freddie swallowed, knowing she needed to say something. Theo was staring at her, and each second that slid past sent his brow slanting further. His lips pressing thinner.
Find words, Gellar. Any words.
“I like you,” she said.
Not those words, though.
Freddie rocked back a step. Then two, and oh god, what had she just done? She pressed her fingers harder against her lips, as if this could somehow suck her confession right back in.
It couldn’t, though and now the damage was done: Theo’s thumb was tapping against his thigh. His face—his handsome, broken face—had gone very, very still.
“Oh,” he said. More exhale than actual word.
And Freddie’s heart sank low.
Low, low, low. All the way down to her toes and into the asphalt—because oh god, what had she just done?
She must look like a royal idiot, soaked through with snow and confessing feelings that appeared to be one-sided.
Which, of course Theo didn’t like her back. Obviously. They were enemies—Romeo and Tybalt. Not Romeo and Juliet. And Freddie had just let her fear-addled mind erase all common sense.
“I know we don’t know each other well,” she croaked out, scrambling for something to fix this. Something that would undo this implosion of her own design. Her hands fell to her sides. “But I feel like…like if we got to know each other, then maybe we would…”
No, no. This was making it worse. Freddie could see Theo retreating. She could see him flinging up walls, and at any moment, he would scrub a hand over his hair and then stuff both fists into his pockets.
“I mean,” she blurted, voice lifting. Words coming faster and edged with panic now. “I…I feel like we’re a lot alike. We both like finding answers, you know? And we both like plotting pranks…And you like boy bands, and I like boy bands. And sure, there is the issue of Nick Carter versus Justin Timberlake, but I don’t think that’s a dealbreaker, do you?” Oh my GOD, Gellar, STOP.
But Freddie couldn’t stop. Her ears were ringing, and her blood was positively boiling—both with adrenaline from earlier and now new surges to muddy the water even more. Meanwhile the pinballs in her brain were flinging so fast in every possible direction, that she couldn’t keep track of a single coherent thought.
The only thing that made sense or stood out clearly right now was the truth. And the only truth that she was actually allowed to talk about was the one that was currently tumbling from her mouth.
The truth about how much she liked Theo.
The truth about how much she wanted to see him when he wasn’t around and how kissing him made everything in the world fall away. About how he made her laugh, even if he was the enemy, and how his lips tasted like honey.
“Which why, ” she demanded, “why do you taste like honey? That doesn’t make any sense, Mr. Porter, and that was not mentioned in the PG-13s. Neither was the fact that hormones would make me so stupid.
“But then that makes me wonder if these are just hormones—or if maybe they’re something else, you know? Like, I’ve been so fixated on fulfilling my sacred vow to Divya, that I haven’t really considered all the angles. All these…these feelings roiling inside.” Freddie clutched at her stomach; it was on fire in a very, very bad way. “And look, I don’t care if you don’t feel the same way about me.”
“Freddie,” Theo said. Twilight swept over his face.
“ Actually, that’s not true,” she amended. “I do care if you don’t feel the same. But no matter what happens, I need to tell Divya the truth. Because best friends aren’t supposed to lie to each other, you know? And I did. I lied by omission.”
“God, I bet this is what Y2K feels like.” She shook her head. “Like someone stuffed cotton in my brain. But underneath all the cotton, there’s a pinball machine, and it’s broken so the bells won’t stop ringing and ringing and ringing.”
“Freddie,” Theo repeated again. Now he looked slightly annoyed.
“Don’t say anything. Please.” She lifted her hands, half-beseeching, half-defensive. “In fact, can we please just pretend this conversation never happened? I’ll go my way and you can go yours.
“And…I’m sorry,” she finished. “Really, I am.” Then Freddie turned and she ran.
She only made it two steps, though, before Theo’s voice cut out, “Stop.”
Freddie froze. Not because she wanted to, but because deep down in the farthest corner of her gut, she was hoping that maybe, just maybe, Theo would still tell her he felt the same way.
Of course, as soon as she glanced back and saw his expression, she realized that he definitely wasn’t going to say he felt the same way. He looked fully annoyed now.
He also had removed his coat and was holding it out to her. “Here,” he said curtly.
“Um.” Freddie frowned. “What should I do with it?”
“You should put it on.” He shook it at her. “You’re freezing.”
“Oh.” She swallowed. Then shrugged. “It’s fine. I’m going inside now, so I don’t need it.”
“You do need it,” he insisted.
“Can you just stop asking questions and put on the damned jacket?”
“Absolutely not.” Now Freddie was getting annoyed too. She thrust out her jaw. “That’s how people get murdered, Mr. Porter.”
“By school uniforms?”
“By doing what strange men tell them to do!”
“I’m not a strange man.” He scowled. “You just told me how much you liked me.”
“And you didn’t respond!”
“Um, I tried to respond, but you were like a fucking freight train going over a cliff. Now please put on the jacket.”
“Oh my god!” He flung up his hands—and the blazer. “I want you to put it on because I’m going to kiss you for a very long time. And I don’t want you to be cold, okay?”
Freddie’s eyes widened. Her mouth fell open. Because this was definitely not what she’d expected Theo to say—though it was definitely something she’d hoped he would say.
“I had all these plans to be super smooth,” Theo continued, stepping in close. “You were going to put on the jacket and I was going to tell you that I finally understood that stupid N’SYNC song.”
“You mean…’Tearing Up My Heart?’”
“Obviously.” He opened the blazer and swooped it around Freddie’s shoulders. It smelled like newspapers and detergent.
And it was warm.
She slid her arms into the loose sleeves.
“But of course,” Theo went on, “you refused my jacket because you are stubborn, and now the moment for my smooth words has passed.”
“Oh.” Freddie blushed.
“Yeah. Oh.” He eyed her for several seconds, tongue running over his teeth and hands still holding the blazer collar. He was close enough for Freddie to kiss him. For her to roll onto her toes and resume what they’d begun.
“Theo,” she said softly.
“Freddie,” he replied. Then he moved closer—just an inch, maybe two. Enough that Freddie had to tip her head back to hold his gaze. Enough that she could feel the heat off his body and see just how large his pupils had become.
And then that was it. The point at which the air between them shifted, and suddenly they were kissing again.