Chapter 20: Caught

One day, Freddie would write in her journal about this moment. About the way she’d known, like a puzzle piece snapping into place, that this was right. That she and Theo were right.

She would tell him that too—one day—and Theo would smile. Then he would tell her how he thought she had that effect on everyone. To which she would roll her eyes and say, “Obviously, Mr. Porter. But only you have have this effect on me.”

Of course, Freddie knew none of this was coming. Not while she kissed Theo in a parking lot full of snow. All she knew in that moment was that the world made a lot more sense when she was with him.

Safe. Grounded. No broken pinball machines to scuttle her brain. It was just Freddie and Theo, finding each other in a storm.

And this time, when Theo bent slightly to cup his hands beneath Freddie, she was ready for it. This time, when he hefted her up, her legs instinctively slung around his waist and her arms clung to his neck.

Theo carried her around the car door, still kissing her. Like he could never stop. He kicked the door shut as they passed—which was a stupid sexy move, and Freddie found herself kissing him all the harder for it.

Then he pressed Freddie onto the car’s hood and pressed himself against Freddie. The car was warm beneath her. Damp with melted snow too, but the blazer protected her.

His blazer that he had given her to keep her warm.

Her legs squeezed more tightly around him, and she slid up her hands to rest on Theo’s chest. He had such a nice chest, and Freddie especially liked the way his heart thumped against her palm.

Distantly, she realized Theo’s shirt was now wet with snow. And distantly, she realized he must be freezing without his coat on. She certainly was, and she was the one now wearing it. Of course, that was a cursory, unimportant problem.

All that mattered right now was Theo.

“Just…to clarify,” Freddie murmured between kisses. “This does mean you like me too, right?”

“Yes,” Theo breathed, a ragged sound. “Wasn’t that obvious?” He dragged kisses over her jaw. Onto her neck. “I told you, it’s tearing up my heart when I’m with you, and when we are apart, I feel it too.”

“Ah,” Freddie replied, and she couldn’t help it: she laughed. An irrepressible sound that fizzed up from her lungs.

Because really—no boy should be allowed to quote N’SYNC and kiss her neck at the same time. It was like having every fantasy come true at once. All that was missing was Justin Timberlake, and honestly, she wasn’t sure she wanted him anymore.

Theo Porter was more than enough.

Theo stopped kissing Freddie’s neck and looked at her. “You’re laughing at me.”

“No.” She tugged him back to her. “I’m laughing with you.”

“Except notice I’m not laughing.”

“You should be, though. I mean, look at us: a few days ago, you hated me.”

“No, I didn’t.” Theo rested his forehead against hers. “I never hated you, Freddie. At least not after meeting you at the Quick-Bis.”

“Oh?” This was news to Freddie. Good news that she liked very much. “Why is that?”

“Because you made me laugh. Not many people can do that. Also”—Theo offered a cocky grin—“I have a thing for girls in glasses.”

Now this was really news to Freddie. Her eyebrows shot high. “You could have told me that sooner, you know. Then I would have worn them everyday.”

“And then you would have killed me.” He bit his lip—swollen and red. “I mean, glasses and this hair? Do you have any idea what power you wield over me, Freddie Gellar?”

“You…like my hair?”

“Do I like your hair?” Now he was the one to laugh while he brushed a stray curl from Freddie’s face. He tucked it behind her ear, and for half a frozen moment, Theo stared at her. Lips parted, gaze hungry, and…

And there was something more, Freddie realized—a reverence on his face that she had never seen anyone wear before. That she’d never known she wanted to see.

It was like Theo couldn’t believe his luck; like he was afraid that if he moved, it would all come crashing down. And there was that vulnerability too—the sad, haunted Theo from that morning. The one that, Freddie supposed, always lived beneath his smooth words and smiles.

She had no idea who moved first after that. All she knew was that one moment, she and Theo were a few inches apart. The next, their lips were crushed together.

Fast, vicious kisses with his fingers tangling in her hair—hair she now knew he loved. Freddie clutched at his busted, beautiful face while they pushed harder against each other. No cold, no rising night, no empty parking lot to encircle them.

She could feel Theo’s desperation. He wanted distraction, salvation, and relief from whatever it was that tormented his blue eyes. His need filled each kiss, and god, she liked it.

Except no, this was more than just liking. She needed it. As badly as he did, she needed distraction and salvation and relief. But until right now, she hadn’t realized how much she hungered for them.

Because Freddie’s world was also a fucking mess. There were ghosts and murders and secrets tangled so thick, she didn’t know where one knot ended and the next began. Yet right now, none of that mattered. Not while Theo Porter was kissing her.

Theo slid a hand into the blazer, moving toward Freddie’s back. Her shirt had ridden up, though; his cold fingers brushed bare skin.

She stiffened with surprise.

Theo stiffened too. “I’m sorry.” He yanked his hand back. “I didn’t mean to—”

“Wait.” Freddie caught his wrist. Then ever so slowly, she returned his fingers to her skin.

“I like it,” she told him.

“Oh,” he replied.

“Now kiss me,” she commanded.

And Theo did. A sweet kiss this time—slow and thoughtful while his fingers traced gently across her hips. Up her spine.

Freddie had never been touched there before. She had always been too shy with Carl. Perhaps ashamed even. After all, none of the models in Seventeen magazine had the same softness or curves that she had.

But with Theo, she found she didn’t care. He enjoyed the shape of her, and that knowledge was…Well, intoxicating. Freddie’s heart thudded in her abdomen. In her skull. Then a moan left her throat, the softest of sounds.

And it was like a fuse going off. Suddenly the kisses were no longer sweet. Suddenly she and Theo were clinging to each other like the world was about to end.

They would have gone on like that forever too, if headlights hadn’t beamed over them. If an engine hadn’t abruptly filled the air.

Freddie and Theo pulled apart, startled. Confused. Then they squinted into the headlights blazed toward them through the snow.

A jeep, Freddie realized as it skidded to a stop.

The driver’s door flung wide. “What the hell are you doing?” a voice bellowed. Then Kyle Friedman materialized through the snow. He was charging their way. “Get off of her!”

Before Freddie or Theo could fully react, Kyle reached them. He slammed into Theo, and crashing him the slick pavement.

Freddie almost crashed too, but somehow she managed to scrabble backward onto the car—just in time. Then she shrieked, “Stop it!”, and vaulted off the hood after them. “Stop it!” She grabbed at Kyle’s shirt and pulled with all her strength. But it wasn’t enough. Not even close.

Kyle was flailing and Theo was flailing and punches were flying everywhere.

More jeep doors open. Then voices zoomed in—and people came with them. First was Luis, grabbing for Kyle along with Freddie. Cat followed next, shouting at Kyle to calm the fuck down!

And last was Divya, shouting at Freddie, This was why you didn’t answer your phone?

Freddie didn’t respond to her best friend. She couldn’t. Not through all the chaos, not with everyone yelling and Kyle still wailing on Theo and Theo still wailing on Kyle, and both of them tumbling over snow-sudden asphalt. They were a tangle of shadows spotlit by headlights.

Only with Luis’s help and three more grunting tugs, did Freddie finally wrench Kyle off of Theo. Then while Luis towed Kyle away, Freddie dropped to the ground beside Theo. His white uniform shirt was soaked through and streaked with parking lot filth. And his eyes…

Oh, his blue eyes were wild with rage.

Freddie offered him a hand. He didn’t take it. Instead he shoved to his feet unaided and barked, “What the fuck, Friedman? What the fuck?”

“What the fuck to you!” Kyle roared, trying to break free from Luis. But Cat lunged in and grabbed him too. “What were you doing to her, Porter?”

Doing to her?” Theo huffed a laugh. “It’s called making out, Friedman. See, when a guy and a girl like each other very much—”

“Freddie doesn’t like you,” Kyle interrupted. “Right?” He swung his gaze to Freddie. “Tell him that you don’t like him and that you…” Kyle trailed off. Then abruptly stopped struggling against Cat and Luis.

And for the first time since his arrival, he looked at Freddie. Like looked at her. “You’re wearing his jacket,” he said slowly.

Freddie gulped. Then nodded.

“So you wanted…”

Another nod. “Yeah, Kyle. I did.”

“But I thought…I thought we were…” He motioned between them. “I mean, shit, you wore my jacket on Friday, Freddie.”

“I’m sorry,” she replied, even though she actually wanted to scream: THAT DOES NOT MEAN WE ARE TOGETHER. Because holy crap, it was just a jacket! Kyle had ruined her sweater, so she had accepted his letterman to stay warm.

And yes, she might’ve had a ridiculous crush on him last Friday, but as far as she could tell, she had done nothing to show him that. Nothing whatsoever to lead him on.

Not to mention, they had spent all of high school in the same homeroom and Kyle had never noticed her before. Now suddenly he liked her and was jealous?

But that was problem to be dealt with later. Right now, Freddie had five people gaping at her—and all of them waiting for her to do something.

Divya was the one that Freddie turned to first. She hated the confusion knitting over Divya’s brow. She hated the disappointment sloping across her lips.

“I’m sorry,” Freddie said again, and unlike with Kyle, she meant it this time. “I was going to tell you.”

“Going to tell her?” Cat demanded. “Tell her what? That you’re consorting with the enemy?”

“I have a name,” Theo muttered.

“Yeah,” Kyle snarled.” Asshole.”

“Fuck you,” Theo puffed out his chest—which prompted both Kyle and Luis to puff out theirs.

And suddenly it was all too much. The male posturing. The pointless hatred between two sides. The cold and the headlights and the snow. It was stupid, stupid, stupid. But before Freddie could bark ENOUGH! at all of them, Divya stepped in and beat her to it.

“Stop!” she screeched, rounding first on Kyle and Luis. Then on Theo. “Just stop, all of you.” Lastly she turned to Freddie. Her cheeks were flushed with cold—and with emotion too. “Laina is missing, Fred. That’s why we’re here. I down went to my kitchen and when I came back up, she was gone.”

No. Freddie’s lungs inverted. Her gut swept down to her toes.

“I tried calling you,” Divya went on. She walked toward Freddie. Snow flickered across her black hair. “But your phone was off, and your mom didn’t know where you were. Since the library was closed, I figured you had to be here.”

Good detective work, Freddie thought, and if the moment had been anything but this one, she would’ve said so. Instead, she asked: “And you tried Laina’s house?”

“Of course, but her mom hasn’t seen her, and she’s not answering her phone. So I called them.” Divya waved to Cat, Luis, and Kyle. “I didn’t know who else could help me.”

“Right.” Shame spiderwebbed through Freddie’s belly. Her friend had needed her, and she hadn’t been there. “And…and did you explain to them what’s going on with Laina?”

“You mean that Laina sleepwalks?” Cat folded her arms over her chest. “She did.”

Okay. Okay. Freddie could figure this out. She had to figure this out. Although first…

She turned to Theo. He had been watching this whole exchange, stiff and closed off. Freddie approached him, and though she didn’t want to, she removed his blazer. Cold rushed in. “You should go, Theo.”

He wet his lips, expression unchanging. “So you’re choosing them?”

“I’m not choosing anyone.” Freddie offered him the jacket. He didn’t take it. “But I have to deal with this, and you have to see your grandmother.”

He winced, a tiny movement around his eyes. As if, in all this madness, he had forgotten Mrs. Ferris and the beef jerky. Freddie almost had.

“Okay,” he said softly. Then before Freddie could stop him, he leaned in and kissed her on the forehead.

It was a curt movement, like he didn’t want to do it in front of everyone, but rather had to. Like it was very important that Freddie see he wasn’t upset with her. “Keep the jacket,” he whispered, “and I’ll call you later.”

Theo stalked away.

“Fuck you, Porter!” Kyle shouted at Theo’s back.

And Theo answered with an expertly flicked middle finger before slinging into his Civic. A heartbeat later, the car revved to life. Two heartbeats after that, and it was pulling away.

“Alright,” Freddie said, once Theo was out of the parking lot, “the first place we should look is at the high school.”

“Um.” Luis barked a laugh. “Are you serious right now, Gellar? Because you’re not going anywhere.”

Freddie blinked. “What? Of course I am.”

“Definitely not,” Cat chimed. She planted her hands on her hips. “We don’t need your help, Freddie, and we don’t want it.”

“Seriously? I sacrificed myself to the sheriff earlier so you and Kyle could get away, and now this is how you treat me?”

Cat cringed, but before she could answer, Kyle declared, “That was before we caught you hooking up with the enemy.” His lips curled back and Freddie wondered how she had ever found him cute. “Now we’ve seen your true colors.”

“Roberta Hughes colors,” Luis added.

To which Freddie could do nothing but gape—because how could this be happening right now? “Laina is missing,” she sputtered at them, “and you guys are worried about some stupid rivalry?”

“Stupid?” Cat repeated. “You’re part of it, remember? You were the Prank Wizard!”

“Of course I remember!” Freddie opened her arms. “But none of that matters right now. Divya, tell them that I can help you find Laina.” She whirled toward her best friend.

But as soon as she caught sight of Divya, she knew her best friend wouldn’t help her. Couldn’t help her, rather. Freddie might have the knowledge, but Kyle had the transportation. And no matter how much Freddie wanted to be included in this—no matter how responsible she felt about it all—she wouldn’t withhold critical information.

Kyle, though, would definitely withhold his jeep.

Freddie swallowed. There was no point in arguing. Time was of the essence. “The high school,” she said quietly to Divya. “Start at the high school. It’s closest, and Laina said she’d gone there before. After that, check the tombstones from earlier. But be careful, Divya. I mean, really careful. Those woods are not safe.”

“I know.” Divya gave her a sad smile. “Thanks.” Then she turned to go.

“Wait,” Freddie called.

Divya glanced back. “Yeah?”

“I’m sorry.”

“I know.” Divya shook her head, a sad movement. A disappointed movement. “But you could have told me, you know.”

“I swear I was going to. I even tried to, but then…then I wussed out. And I’m so sorry for that, Divya.”

“Yeah.” Divya wet her lips. Then nodded once. “Me too.”

#

Freddie didn’t watch the jeep leave. She didn’t watch her best friend walk away or her ex-squad vanish into the snow.

For one, she was freezing and just wanted to get inside. Even slipping back into Theo’s coat hadn’t been enough to fight the cold.

For two, there was just so much she had to do now. Film to be developed, theories to be spun, and evidence to be catalogued. Plus, if Laina wasn’t at the high school or at the tombstones in City-on-the-Berm, then Freddie needed to figure out where else to send the Prank Squad searching.

She pushed into the Frame & Foto, briefly reveling in the heat that blasted against her. Then she turned to the coat rack to grab Buffy.

Except Buffy wasn’t there.

Freddie gawped at the hook for a full two seconds, while that information settled in. No thought in her head. Just empty confusion. One Justin Timberlake. Two Justin Timberlake.

Then reality hurtled into her. She rocked back a step, still gawping—because Buffy was gone.

Freddie jolted for the coat rack, flinging her hands onto the flat top. But nothing was there either. No film canister. No little flashlight.

Which meant someone had moved them.

Which meant someone had been here.

Maybe it’s Greg, Freddie thought wildly, spinning toward the hallway—only to find no light shining through the cracks of his office. And no light came from the main store either, at the end of the hall through the archway.

Freddie’s heart picked up speed. Her gut spun and spun and spun. And now every one of her super-charged instincts was waking up—and screaming at her to leave.

Right now, while she still had a chance.

So Freddie obeyed. She twisted for the back door. Her knees kicked high.

But she only made it two steps before a figure stepped into view outside. Hulking and vague through the glass, their arm was reaching for the handle.

Not Greg, her mind processed. Too short. Now run.

Freddie did exactly that. She turned heel and darted the other way. Away from the door and straight for the main shop.

She heard the door open behind her. She heard footsteps squeak inside. Definitely not Greg, or he would have called her name.

She reached the archway and veered left to circle around the main counter. Everything was dark. Just shadows and shapes in her way. But Freddie knew this store. She had spent countless hours at the Frame & Foto, learning how to use the fancy darkroom and watching Greg develop his photos.

Which was why she knew that on the walls, meticulously hung, were Greg’s most popular photographs. And it was why she knew that to her right was the Nikon display (where she’d gotten Buffy), while straight ahead was the Canon display.

Freddie glanced behind her as she cut around the Nikons, certain she’d find her hunter just reaching the archway.

Except no one was there. No shadows, no figure.

Freddie slowed, feet skittering with confusion. Then she squinted back, trying to see where her hunter might be.

But there was definitely no one there now.

She slowed even more. Her pulse thundered in her eardrums. Where could they be? Where could they be? Had she just imagined everything?

No, her gut told her. Keep running.

So once again, Freddie obeyed, launching back into her sprint around the Nikons.

And that was when it happened—that was they stepped in front of her, a human shape that just melted out of the tripods.

Freddie toppled into them. Her fingers touched a sleeve, but before she could snap up her head to see who was attacking her, a cloth slammed against her nose. Sweet fumes barreled in.

Instantly, darkness rippled across her vision. Instantly, her entire body went limp.

It was, as she tumbled to the floor though, that Freddie had just enough time to spot two things.

First: a gleaming sheriff’s badge.

And second: another figure moving into Freddie’s vision.

Two people, she thought hazily as she hit the floor. Not one person, but two.

Then the world went black.

 

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