Chapter 2: The Prank Squad

Freddie’s mom had never been one to fuss. Now, though, it was all she seemed able do. Ever since Sheriff Bowman had called and told her to pick up Freddie from the Colonial Village the evening before, Mom had been nonstop fuss-fuss-fuss.

Freddie wanted to murder her.

Especially because Freddie hadn’t even seen the body (which apparently belonged to a middle-aged man). All she’d seen were a pair of dangling Nikes, blue with orange accents. Mud on the tread.

And while yes, the image of those shoes was definitely imprinted on Freddie’s brain for all eternity, cups of tea and Snickers bars were not going to make it go away. Nor was tucking Freddie into bed, stroking her hair every ten seconds, or surprising her with a “real breakfast” of bacon and eggs.

By the time Freddie was supposed to meet Divya to walk to school the next morning, she was desperate to get away. She didn’t even care that it was raining, so her usual Friday outfit of cute tights, a festive fall skirt, and beloved plaid scarf were proving impractical as soon as she stepped outside. Nor did she care that, in her race to leave the house, she’d forgotten to trade her glasses for contacts.

Why, she didn’t care that she couldn’t roll her bike and fit under Divya’s umbrella either. She was free, and it tasted so good. Not even drizzle-frizzed hair or 8th grade glasses could ruin that.

Divya, it would seem, felt the same. She and Freddie had just stepped off Freddie’s leaf-strewn lawn onto the street when Divya tipped back her umbrella and said, “My mom wants me to see a counselor.”

“Mine too.” Freddie’s nostrils flared, and she pushed the bike faster. “Parents don’t know anything.”

Old people don’t know anything.” Divya stomped her feet. “I mean, I didn’t even see the body!”

“And I only saw his shoes!”

“So we definitely aren’t traumatized.” Divya flipped her braid over her shoulder.

“Definitely not.” Freddie mimicked the movement with her rapidly expanding curls. “It takes more than a little murder to scare the likes of us.”

“Murder?” Divya skidded to a halt. “What are you talking about? It was a suicide.”

Freddie squeezed the brakes so her bike wouldn’t keep rolling (inclines and gravity and and all that). Then she angled back to her best friend. “No way that was a suicide, Div.”

“Uh, it was the suicide tree, Freddie. And Sheriff Bowman herself said it was a suicide.”

“But it wasn’t the suicide tree.” Freddie rolled the bike backward, then ducked slightly under Divya’s umbrella. At least far enough to protect her hair. “Plus, the body was hanging twenty feet off the ground.”

“So? Maybe the man wanted a climb before he died.”

“A climb on what ladder? And on what branches? There wasn’t a single thing he could’ve used to get up there.”

“So what are you saying then?” Divya launched back into a march. Rain sprayed Freddie once more. “Are you saying you know better than Sheriff Bowman?”

“Maybe?” Freddie pushed her bike after.

“And let me guess,” Divya went on, “you think your gut knows better. Well, Frederica Gellar, if Sheriff Bowman thought it was a suicide, then why can’t you listen to her? She’s the expert here. Not you or your gut.”

“I never said I was an expert.” Freddie veered her bike into a puddle. It splashed satisfactorily. “But you didn’t hear the screams on Wednesday night.”

“You mean the screams of drunk prep schoolers?”

“But what if that wasn’t what I heard, Div? What if I did hear screams for help?”

“Sheriff Bowman was in those woods arresting people. Surely if there’d been a murder underway, she would’ve heard the screams too.”

“Okay, but how do you account for the dead guy’s clothes? He was wearing jogging shorts. Who dresses up like that that to go kill themselves?”

“I don’t know.” Divya shook the umbrella. Rain splattered. “But I do know you’re not a detective. Just because you solved one shoplifting case when you were riding with Bowman does not qualify you as a pie.”

“A pie?” Freddie cocked her head. “You mean a…P.I.?”

“It can be pronounced both ways.”

“No, it definitely cannot.”

“That’s not the point!” Divya shook the umbrella again, and this time, rain splattered Freddie’s face. “The point is that you aren’t a Pee Eye, and you also aren’t your dad.”

Freddie’s fingers instinctively tightened on the brakes. The bike gave a skittering skip. “I know I’m not my dad,” she said softly. “And I’m not trying to be.”

Freddie knew next to nothing about her dad, who had been sheriff before Bowman, so why would she want to be like him? He and Freddie’s mom had divorced when she was two, and then he’d died of a heart attack when she was five. Twelve years ago.

And Freddie couldn’t help it if she—as her mom had once put it—had an “inquiring mind like Frank’s” or “those same damnable instincts.”

“I’m the answer finder, though,” Freddie pointed out to Divya. “You know I’m the answer finder. Everyone at school asks me to get them sources at the library.”

This earned one of Divya’s oh, you sweet innocent child faces. “First of all, Honey Bunches of Oats, they’re just using you. Second of all, being good at the Dewey Decimal System does not qualify you to investigate murders.”

“Ha!” Freddie cried. “So you do think it was a murder!”

“Silence.” Divya’s eyes narrowed in a way that spoke of great violence in Freddie’s future.

Fortunately Freddie was saved the indignity of not getting in the last word by an engine roaring behind her. Loud and getting louder—and belonging to a black Jeep revving this way.

It was moving way too fast for the twenty-five mile-per-hour speed limit.

Just as Freddie opened her mouth to screech, Slow down, you giant jerkface!, Divya’s arms flung around her waist and yanked her backward.

But the bike anchored Freddie in place. She couldn’t stagger out of the way in time.

The jeep stormed past. Muddy water sprayed upward in a geyser. Freddie’s entire body was soaked.

And cold—suddenly, she was really cold.

“Asshole!” Divya bellowed, launching herself at the jeep. “I’ll rip you a new one!”

The jeep screeched to a halt.

Divya froze midstride. “Uh-oh. Maybe I should have considered my words more carefully.”

A door slammed. Then a voice called out, “Are you okay?” A boy scrambled around the back of the jeep. “Shit, I am so sorry! Are you okay?”

“No,” Divya snarled, resuming her march toward the jeep. “You almost killed us.”

Freddie grabbed for her best friend. “That’s Kyle Friedman,” she hissed.

“So?” Divya glared at Freddie before lifting her voice again. “You should watch the freaking road—” Her words broke off with a yelp. Freddie might bite her nails too much, but she could still stab a wrist if needed.

“I’m so sorry,” Kyle said again, coming toward the girls with arms raised. Freddie couldn’t help but notice how well the slightly panicked and disheveled look worked for him. His white button-up was turning dark with the rain, and his brown curls looked shower fresh. “I didn’t mean to splash you like that.”

“It’s fine,” Freddie said, surprised by the strange syrup layer on her voice.

“No, it isn’t fine.” Divya gaped at Freddie. “These jeans are new, and your sweater is drenched.”

Kyle flinched. “I really am sorry.” Then his eyebrows drew together. “Wait…aren’t you Freddie Gellar?”

Freddie nodded mutely. Kyle Friedman had said her name. She didn’t think he had ever said her name before despite four years in the same homeroom.

It was glorious.

Then it became even more glorious when he said, “Awesome! I was looking for you.”

I was looking for you too, she thought. All my life. She sent a silent thank you to Justin Timberlake in her pocket. This had to be his doing.

“Laina told me you lived on this street, but I didn’t know which house.”

“Laina?” Divya repeated, anger giving way to shock. “As in Laina Steward?

Kyle beamed. “Exactly. I’m supposed to pick you up.”

“Pick who up?” This was Divya again because Freddie had lost all ability to speak. Kyle was just so pretty with his green eyes, golden tan, and floppy dark hair. Part surfer, part preppy, part athlete, and all perfection.

“I’m supposed to pick up Freddie,” he said. “And take her to the Quick-Bis.” He paused and wet his lips, as if realizing this sounded very strange. “I mean, you don’t have to come…Or you both could come, if you wanted.” He glanced questioningly between them.

“We will definitely go,” Freddie breathed at the same instant Divya said, “Divya. My name is Divya.”

“And his name is Kyle.” Freddie grabbed Divya’s bicep in a vice grip. “Can we please get in the car now?”

Divya glared. “What about your bike?”

“We can fit it in the trunk,” Kyle said, and Freddie only nodded. Then her heart ramped up to light speed because suddenly Kyle was touching her. He was resting one of his perfect hands on her muddy shoulder and guiding her toward his car.

She could die a self-actualized person now.

But then Kyle released her to stride toward her bike, and Freddie’s shoulder was left a barren wasteland of misery. While he shoved it into the back, Freddie hunkered into the passenger seat and started cleaning mud splatter off her glasses.

Divya leaned in before she could shut the door, though, and whispered,  “Where are your survival instincts, Miss P.I.? The most popular guy in school just shows up to find you—at the command of the most popular girl in school—and you don’t think that’s weird?”

“Yes,” Freddie whispered back. “I do, but he’s just so handsome. He looks like that guy on Roswell.”

“If you’re drunk.”

“And you know I’ve had a crush on him since fifth grade.”

“A crush that ended in sixth grade!”

“But has now resumed with heart-stopping force.”

Divya emitted a half-grunt, half-scoff as she stormed away and got in the back seat. Then Kyle hopped in and swung the car door shut.

“Are you sure you’re not hurt?” He shot Freddie a nervous glance while he cranked the car into gear.

“No.” She swallowed and forced her tongue to work. She would somehow have to summon coherent words and get them to leave her tongue—despite the concerning fact that her entire brain had been invaded by white noise.

And that her dry-clean only wool sweater was starting to smell like a barnyard.

“I…I was just surprised,” she finally squeezed out. “You were going so fast.”

Divya snorted from the back seat.

Kyle cringed. It made his forehead pucker in the most adorable way. “Did you guys not see all the crows? There must’ve been thousands of ‘em. They’d totally blocked out the sky.” He motioned vaguely to where the sun was just beginning to peak out over the red and gold hills. No crows flew there now.

“I thought it was an eclipse,” Kyle went on, flicking the turn signal as they slowed to a stop at the main road into downtown Berm. “But then the darkness kept on moving, so I realized it was birds. And then…” He  glanced at Freddie. “I splashed you. And I’m really sorry about that.”

Freddie felt her cheeks erupt with pink. “It’s okay.”

“No it isn’t,” Divya cut in, leaning between the two front seats. “And how do you know they were crows? Like, how do you know they weren’t a flock of sparrows or something?”

“Is it a flock?” Freddie asked. “Or is it a swarm of sparrows?”

Kyle’s face scrunched up—and Freddie thought her heart would melt. He just oozed with that I-don’t-ever-know-what’s-going-on sort of handsome.

“I guess it could’ve been something else,” Kyle admitted, though his tone was decidedly skeptical. “I just assumed it was like in that poem, you know? ‘The Executioners Three.’”

Freddie blinked. Then sat up taller. “You know the poem?”

“Yeah.” Kyle offered a grin. It made his green eyes crinkle and forehead relax. “My house is right down the road from City-on-the-Berm Colonial Village, so we used to go there when I was a kid. I really liked it.

“Plus,” he added, “that poem totally gave me nightmares. Next are the crows to block out the sun—so creepy.”

Twice rings the bell,” Freddie quoted, more sigh than real words. “To warn everyone.” Gosh, she and Kyle had so much in common.

Kyle bared another smile, and Freddie wilted into her seat. Then she only half listened as Divya plied him with questions about “speed limits” and “safety laws.”

Kyle Friedman had almost run over her in his car, her sweater was possibly ruined, and her best friend clearly thought her selection in boys was lacking.

Yet as far as Freddie was concerned, none of that really mattered. Not as long as Kyle kept glancing her way and smiling, just like he was doing now.

Thank you, Justin Timberlake. Oh, thank you, indeed.

#

The Quick-Bis on Redbud Highway was the closest thing to fast-food in Berm. As such, it was always crowded. No matter that it only served a handful of items (none of which were very good), nor that it was dirty and hadn’t been updated since the 1980s. The cuisine was cheap, and as the name implied: it was quick.

It was also one hundred percent verboten. Freddie’s mom never let her eat there—not even when Freddie and Divya’s Witchlands party sometimes met there before game night. “More like Heart-Attack-Bis,” Mom would say whenever they drove by—and then Freddie would point out that this wasn’t a very clever joke and that one biscuit every now and then wouldn’t kill them.

Originally called BisQuick, the actual Bisquick company had been quick to swoop in for trademark violation. So the local owner had simply rearranged the sign outside, and voila. Problem solved. Quick-Bis it was.

As was usual in the AM, the parking lot was full—both with cars and puddles. And the rain was really dumping down when Freddie, Divya, and Kyle bolted from the jeep into the greasy building of blue and yellow decor. But Freddie scarcely noticed any of it. She was floating too high on Kyle’s smile.

His hair just looked so good all wet like that.

It wasn’t until they reached a booth by the window that Freddie’s euphoria finally cracked—and the first hints of terror set in. For sitting before her were the most popular kids from Berm High.

And every one of them was smiling at her.

Luis Mendez, his red letterman jacket almost as bright and gleaming as his smile, sat against the window, one arm slung easily around his girlfriend Cat Nguyen. Cat’s mustard turtleneck, umber sweater vest, and perfectly matching plaid skirt looked exactly how Freddie wanted to dress (yet could never manage to pull off).

Across from Cat and Luis sat the crowning queen of them all: Laina Steward, a Black girl who wore fishnets and combat boots no matter the weather. Who carried nunchucks in her backpack and knew how to use them. Who was also a competition cheerleader and class president—but who listened to punk rock and regularly debated Mr. Grant on the merits of socialism in a democratic state.

Laina was not only the coolest girl at Berm High School, but the coolest girl who had ever lived. This was a widely known fact, and no one who had ever met her could argue otherwise. Like, if Freddie were to cast her in the Witchlands, Laina would totally be the Ironwitch Empress NPC that Divya had crafted for their latest campaign.

“I found them!” Kyle beamed at the table of fellow nobility and snagged two free chairs from a nearby table.

“Them?” Cat repeated, smile faltering at the sight of Divya tucked behind Freddie. “It was supposed to be just Gellar.”

“They’re fine,” Laina said. Then her eyes slid past Freddie and her grin widened. “Divya right?”

Divya choked softly, and Freddie turned, alarmed—only to find her best friend flushing furiously and looking as lost as Freddie had felt at Kyle’s arrival on the street.

“Yes,” Freddie chimed in. “This is Divya Srivastava.”

“Eep,” Divya agreed.

“Sit,” Laina ordered, sparing another smile for Divya.

And when Divya simply stood there stiff as stone, Freddie had no choice but to grab her forearm and shove her into the booth. Then Freddie chose a chair on the end, and to her absolute elation, Kyle looked down at her and asked, “Want a biscuit? I’m gonna grab one.”

Now it was Freddie’s turn to eep and Divya’s turn to take action. “She does. And I do too, thanks.”

With a nod, Kyle sauntered off—and Freddie thanked JT in her pocket once more. He really was on a roll today.

“Relax, Cat,” Laina said. She braced her elbows on the table and stared at her friend. “They’re harmless.”

“How do you know that?” Cat stared pointedly at her leather pocketbook, placed primly atop the table. “I take my job very seriously.”

“I’m aware.” Laina twirled her hands apart. She had such an easy confidence, like a mob boss mixed with Glenda the Good Witch. “But I’ll vouch for ‘em.”

“I think,” Luis inserted, shifting so he could pull Cat closer, “that Gellar’s record vouches for itself.”

My record? Freddie almost said—but then it hit her. Of course. “You mean the arrests.”

“Here, here!” Laina drumrolled the table.

“A stroke of genius,” Luis declared.

And even Cat thawed slightly to say, “You knocked out two thirds of their football team.”

“About that.” Freddie pushed her glasses up her nose. “There seems to have been a bit of a misunderstanding—oof.” Freddie’s shin erupted with pain, and when she glanced Divya’s way, the laser beam stare was at maximum power.

“A misunderstanding?” Laina’s drumrolling paused.

Another kick. A harder glare, and Freddie was left with no choice but to say, “Erm, yes. You see….you see, it wasn’t my idea alone, but Divya’s too.”

“Heyyyy.” Luis grinned Divya’s way, and Cat finally thawed—even offering Divya an approving once-over.

Laina just nodded like she’d known this all along, and Divya blushed prettily.

“Should we wait for Kyle?” Cat tugged her purse over and unbuckled the clasp. Then, at Luis’s, “Naw, he can catch up,” she withdrew a worn, blue-bound book. In faded script on the spine, it read, Official Log.

And at once, everyone bowed in across the table. Even Freddie and Divya. There was a reverence in the way Cat held the book—and in the way she, Luis, and Laina gazed at its canvas cover.

“This,” Cat said dramatically, “is a log of every prank ever pulled by Berm High Seniors.” She creaked back the cover, where sure enough, the first page read, October 27th, 1978: Stole the RH Prepatory mascot.

“It all started when the RH kids took the Golden Bell that used to hang above the Berm High entrance. We retaliated by kidnapping their woodchuck.”

“He died, though,” Laina inserted. “It was an accident, of course, but it happened all the same, so after that, the rivalry was on.”

“Exactly.” Cat flipped pages. “This journal contains twenty-one years worth of pranks. And we”—she stopped two thirds of the way in—“are right here.” She tapped at the bottom of the page, where it now read, October 13th, 1999: Freddie Gellar got half of RH Prep arrested.

“Oh,” Freddie exhaled, heart pattering ever so slightly. Her act of terrified conscience had landed her in the Official Log.

She felt very exalted indeed.

In fact, for the first time since Wednesday night, she felt like she might have done a good thing.

“And when we graduate,” Luis said, speaking as solemnly as Cat and Laina had, “we’ll pass this log on to a select few juniors, just as the class of ’98 passed it on to us.”

This time, both Freddie and Divya sighed, “Oh.” No wonder everyone looked so serious. It was tradition.

Yet before Freddie could ask why they were actually telling her all of this secret information, a figure moved into Freddie’s periphery. Kyle, she assumed, and instantly her body flooded with heady flames.

But then she realized no one was smiling. In fact, Cat was suddenly closing the Official Log, Laina’s teeth were bared, and Luis had puffed his shoulders to twice their size. Divya blinked Freddie’s way, so Freddie blinked her neighbor’s way.

To find that he was not in fact Kyle Friedman. This boy was a head taller than Kyle. Lankier too, and where Kyle’s hair was chocolate brown and wild, this boy’s was flaxen and combed into side swept perfection.

And the biggest difference of all: he wore a Roberta Hughes Preparatory school uniform. Navy blazer with the school’s sigil, a matching scarlet tie, and fitted khakis—all of it impeccably tailored and ironed.

He looked like he’d stepped right off the TV—and not in a hot way like Kyle, but in an I am a stereotypical rich mean dude way.

Freddie instantly disliked him. Especially because he was looking at her with recognition when she had no idea who he was.

“Gellar, I presume?” He plunked into the seat beside Freddie and offered a hand. “Theo Porter.”

She didn’t shake his hand. She didn’t move at all except to mold her face into a glare. Clearly, he was the enemy.

“Nice to meet you too.” He grinned a devastating grin, hand lowering as his other hand whipped up a soda cup. He took a long drag; it rattled. “No need to stop what you were doing on my account, friends. Continue, continue!”

Laina was the first to speak. “Why are you here, Porter?”

He batted his eyelashes—thick, pale, and framing blue eyes. “I just wanted to see the new prankster. She,” he motioned toward Freddie with his cup, “got a lot of us into a lot of trouble on Wednesday night. Myself included.”

He smiled again, and this time, there was a layer of respect to mingle with the mocking. “But listen.” He bent conspiratorially toward everyone. “If you’re going to escalate things over at Berm High, then we will gladly escalate things on our end. Just be warned: we don’t pull our punches.”

“Bring it,” Luis snarled while Laina intoned, “We. Will. Destroy you.”

“You sure about that?” Theo’s eyebrows bounced high. “There’s still time to say you’re sorry…” His eyes flicked to Freddie.

And this time, she was smart enough not to blurt out, “It was all a misunderstanding!”

Divya clawed a warning on her thigh anyway. Or maybe that was a claw of solidarity.

Either way, Freddie didn’t need it. Theo Porter made her lungs expand with heat, and there was an odd rumbling happening in her gut. Part fury, part…part something she didn’t recognize.

Something that prompted her to declare in her primmest, most unfazed voice: “I hope you know, Mr. Porter, that soda is not a balanced breakfast. You should really consider orange juice instead. I’m told they sell it here.”

To her surprise—and seemingly to his—he laughed. Just a punch of air, but a laugh all the same. He pushed to his feet. “Great.” He knocked the table. “So glad we had this talk.”

Then without another word, Theo Porter shoved into the crowd and left.

For several long seconds, no one at the table spoke. Then everyone erupted at once. “Did he see anything in the Log?” “How could he walk up and no one noticed?” “Where the hell is Kyle?” “What a douchebag.” “I hate his guts.” “I hate his face.” At least twenty variations of these comments and questions were shared before Kyle finally returned.

“Sorry it took so long. There was whole crew of RH kids in front of me…” Kyle’s precious face bunched up. “Why is everyone so angry?”

As Cat explained what had happened, the crew slid out from the booth and abandoned their seats. It was time to get to school; Divya and Freddie would have to eat their biscuits in the car.

Unfortunately, Quick-Bis was really crowded now, and Freddie lost Divya on her way to the exit. She arrived there with Cat, and while Freddie held open the door, she gazed covetously down at Cat’s shoes (knee high riding boots that would never fit over Freddie’s calves). Freddie was fighting so hard to keep the envy off her face, that she didn’t notice the giggles coming from above as she let the door swing shut. It wasn’t until someone barked, “NOW!”, that she finally looked up.

And straight into a bucket of water.

She screamed. Cat screamed. The water connected, and both girls were silenced by cold, cold, cold, and wet, wet, wet. Then it stopped, and the girls had just enough time to start screaming again when RH Prep students erupted before them with water guns.

Luis launched from the Quick-Bis, bellowing like a bull, and charged the nearest kids. He was completely unconcerned by the water—and Laina, who followed a split second behind, also didn’t care. Even better: she had her nunchucks out.

That sent the kids dispersing.

Then Divya shouted a warning behind Freddie. She spun around just in time to see Theo darting away from Cat, a blue book gripped in his hands. “I got it!” he crowed, and before anyone could chase him, the RH kids doubled down on their attack.

This time, it was guns and water balloons. And this time, two trucks squealed into the parking lot before anyone could fight back.

Soon enough, all of RH Prep was gone, leaving Freddie and the prank squad shivering from the cold—and also from an unquenchable, bone-deep rage.

Laina was right, Freddie decided while she sat miserably in Kyle’s front seat. We will destroy those RH Prep kids.

And Freddie was going to do everything in her power to ensure it.

 

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