Freddie was defeated. Destroyed. Devastated.
The entire ride to school had been a melancholic affair of soaking clothes and soaking biscuits. No one had said anything. All the fun from before had vanished, and as far as Freddie was concerned, the keychain’s magic must have ended.
Justin Timberlake and his ramen noodle hair had betrayed her. Theo Porter was the actual devil. A pox on him and a pox on Roberta Hughes Preparatory School.
At least she hadn’t been wearing Buffy today—her Nikon F100 that she’d saved up all year to buy. Usually Buffy lived around her neck, but Freddie had loaned it to her mom the day before, and fussy, obsessive Mom had yet to return it.
Freddie stared dejectedly into her locker. Her wool sweater and scarf stank in that manure way that only wool could, and she didn’t have anything else to wear.
She moaned and banged her head against the metal frame. “Where’s a samurai sword to fall on when you need it?”
The gentle beeps emanating from behind her door told her Divya wasn’t listening. She was playing Snake again. Damned video game would be the death of society.
She slammed the door shut. Only to find it wasn’t Divya standing there. It was Kyle, and in his right hand was a letterman jacket. In his left was a Nokia, which he was now looking up from.
“Hello,” Freddie said cleverly.
“Hello,” he responded with a smile. “I brought you this to wear, since I think your sweater might be…” His nose curled ever so slightly.
“You don’t have to wear it, though,” he added quickly, a blush coloring his cheeks. “I just thought you might—”
“Yes.” Freddie snatched it from him with far too much enthusiasm. Then laughed, high-pitched and panicky. “Thank you. I…I’ll return it after school.”
“Sounds good.” He shifted his weight. Tapped his Nokia. Then blurted, “What are you doing this afternoon?”
Freddie’s breath caught. “Uh…nothing. Homework, I guess.”
“On a Friday?” His green eyes widened.
“Er…” Freddie wasn’t about to admit that she and Divya usually played Witchlands or Magic: The Gathering on Friday nights
Kyle angled in closer, and Freddie prayed her breath didn’t stink of biscuits. He was so close—close enough that she could smell him. A soft, manly soap smell that made her want to produce strange, guttural noises in the back of her throat.
“Wanna hang out?” he asked.
She nodded slowly. “Wh-where?”
The bell rang, a blaring sound that pierced her skull. She jumped. Kyle jumped. Then he laughed and drew back. “I’ll come find you after school.” He flashed another flawless smile, and she couldn’t help but notice as he sauntered down the hall, that his white shirt was still damp from the water balloons—and therefore deliciously clingy.
She watched until he was long gone. Until every person in the hall had filed out and Principal Tamura snapped at her get to class. Then she frantically peeled off her sweater and slipped into Kyle’s jacket.
It smelled divine.
She raced down the mustard halls, carried on a cloud of wonderment. Kyle Friedman had asked her out. He had asked her to meet at a place, for some time.
As she coasted blissfuly through trig, then English, then history, she had once again decided Fridays were the most perfect day of the week. Theo Porter hadn’t ruined it—he’d made it amazing. Theo Porter and a Justin Timberlake keychain.
And that was only a fraction of Freddie’s amazing day. Because it wasn’t merely the cross country team or the prank squad who smiled at her (and at Divya too). The entirety of Berm High had something nice to say. She even got high-fives from four teachers, three lunch ladies, and the nice custodian, Mrs. Lenox.
Freddie had basically become a superhero overnight.
Of course, when the final bell rang and Freddie scrambled out of seventh period Spanish to bolt for her locker, she nearly collided headfirst with Principal Tamura.
“Simmer down,” said Tamura, grabbing Freddie’s shoulders. Freddie blinked, thoroughly confused for half a second.
Then she caught sight of a dejected Divya three feet away. Her confusion quadrupled.
“What’s going on?” she asked Tamura, who was—as usual—dressed way too well for Berm High in her tailored pinstripe suit and fire engine red lipstick.
“Follow me,” Tamura responded. “Both of you. You’ll be meeting with a counselor in my office right now.”
“Right now?” Freddie squawked.
“That is literally what I just I said.”
“But…but I can’t.” Freddie flung a wild look at Divya. “I’m meeting Kyle Friedman at my locker.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Tamura said. “You’re meeting a boy? Why that changes everything.”
“Really?” Freddie’s lips began to quirk.
And Tamura glared. “Of course not.” She thrust a pointed finger down the hall. “Walk, Gellar. Now. The nice gentleman is waiting.”
“But we don’t need counseling,” Divya moaned, as Freddie fell into shambling steps beside her bestie. “I didn’t even see the dead body.”
“And I only saw his shoes.” Freddie gazed, grief-stricken, behind her. Bodies flooded the hallway, but she could neither see Kyle nor even her own locker.
She hugged his letterman jacket more tightly to her. It still smelled like manly man soap, so at least she still had that.
“Your parents both think you’d benefit from talking to someone.” Tamura strode ahead and upon reaching her office door, shoved it wide. “Now go on in and be good, okay? Show the nice man what our Lumberjack spirit is all about.”
The girls shuffled in. Freddie scowled at Divya and Divya scowled right back. Then they were in the office and facing a handsome man with gray hair and bright blue eyes. Like an older, less goofy Ross from Freinds, but with a silver beard.
“Hello, girls,” he said with a smile. “I’m Dr. Born.”
“Hi,” they mumbled in sullen unison.
“Thank you, Principal.” He nodded toward Tamura at the door. “We won’t be more than an hour.”
“An hour?” Freddie turned in horror to Divya.
“Shoot me now.” Divya buried her face in her hands.
“I can hear you, you know.” Dr. Born circled behind Tamura’s desk while the door clicked shut and cut off the sounds of all the free students who weren’t trapped in purgatory. They got to meet their crushes at their lockers and live happily ever after.
Dr. Born sat at Tamura’s desk and waved for the girls to sit too. So Freddie and Divya complied, dropping stiffly onto the matching black armchairs. Tamura’s office was as sleek as she was. Freddie had no idea where she’d gotten the modern style furniture, but it definitely wasn’t Berm. And it definitely didn’t match the rest of the ancient school.
“So,” Freddie began at the same time Dr. Born said, “I want to begin…” He trailed off, smiling once more. “Go on, Freddie.”
“Thank you.” She sat taller. “Who hired you? My parents or Divya’s?”
“And who found you? Are you, like, local or did you come from out of town?”
“I live an hour away, but I practice here once a week.”
“And do you normally work with teenagers or—”
“Freddie,” he interrupted, his voice as gentle as before, “we aren’t here to talk about me. We’re here to talk about you two, and what you saw.”
“Is that normal?” Divya inserted, donning her laser beam glare. “Interrogating two people at once?”
“Well, we don’t call it ‘interrogating,’ but yes. While I wouldn’t call it normal to work with two clients at once, I wouldn’t call it abnormal either. You witnessed something traumatizing, and you witnessed it together.”
“I didn’t even see the dead body,” Divya repeated.
“And I only saw his shoes,” Freddie chimed.
“Tell me about that, Freddie.” Dr. Born lifted a fancy pen off the desk. The kind of pen that Freddie thought people only gave as gifts but never actually used. “I want to know what you saw, and more importantly, what you felt seeing it.”
“Well, here’s what I want to know, Dr. Born.” Freddie folded her hands on her lap. “Why is it that our parents hired you when there are other counselors right here in Berm?”
“Freddie.” A hint of warning on the man’s voice now.
“And how much do you charge? Is it by the hour? Or is there some kind of two-for-one special?”
“Freddie.” No hinting now. He was annoyed. “I see what you’re trying to do, and you aren’t going to succeed. I won’t let you deflect this session onto me—and note: the fact that you are attempting to do so is going into your file.” He started scribbling on some unseen page. “And beside that, I’m going to write that you do need counseling.”
“She does.” Divya nodded gravely and stood. “But I do not, Dr. Born. And thank you so much for understanding—”
“Sit back down, Divya.” Now he was really annoyed. His eyes were flashing in a way that Freddie normally didn’t like seeing on adults’ faces. But she didn’t like counselors, and she didn’t like Dr. Born.
“Your dad is the one who reached out to me, Divya, and this session isn’t over until I say it is.”
Divya plunked back into her armchair. “Fine. Interrogate us.”
“Still not an interrogation.” He tipped down his chin so he could stare at Freddie from the tops of his eyes. A classic adult look of condescension. “And what about you Freddie? Will you cooperate?”
She hesitated, knowing she really had no choice. Every second she wasted was a second lost with Kyle. Plus, Freddie doubted this guy was going to care if she told him she would one day be sheriff, and so it took a lot more than a dead guy to disturb her nerves of steel.
But she really didn’t want Dr. Born to know he had won so easily.
One Justin Timberlake. Two Justin Timberlake. Three Justin Timberlake.
“Alright,” she declared, pulling back her shoulders. “I will cooperate.”
Dr. Born’s posture drooped ever so slightly, and suddenly his kindly smile was back. “Thank you. Both of you. Now, as I said before: I want you to take me through what you saw, paying particular attention to how it made you feel.”
An hour after therapy, Freddie found herself wandering into her family’s living room while Steve scanned the TV Guide. He’d lately taken to shaving his balding scalp, and Freddie thought it looked Much Better Indeed. Her mom, meanwhile, sorted through a heap of muslin on the couch. Like Freddie, her dark curls were wild and no amount of product or scrunchies could keep them in check.
“No Witchlands tonight?” Mom flung Freddie a scrutinizing eye.
“I’m not feeling it,” Freddie muttered. Having missed her special time with Kyle, she didn’t feel up to anything beyond moping, moaning, and the occasional wallow.
“In that case,” Mom declared, “you get to help me mend these gowns for the pageant.”
Freddie sighed. “I’d rather not.”
“And I’d rather you did.”
“But I’m a terrible seamstress.”
“And no one will notice from stage.”
“I am helping,” Steve chimed.
And Freddie stuck out her tongue. “You’re also a suck up.”
“Well, you don’t have to share Patricia’s bed.”
“Ew.” Freddie’s nose wrinkled. But she did end up plopping onto the carpet and holding out her hand. “Hand it over, Ma.”
Her mother did exactly that, passing off a 1600s-style gown in a deeply unflattering brown. Every year, to raise money for City-on-the-Berm maintenance and repair, Patricia Gellar put on a play in the Berm High auditorium known as the Lumberjack Pageant. And every year, Freddie had been forced to participate.
Although this year, her mom had sworn she wouldn’t have to perform.
Steve flipped on the TV, his gaze once more fastened on the TV Guide. “Would you rather,” he asked, “watch Boy Meets World or Murder She Wrote or there’s a documentary on squid—”
“Murder She Wrote,” Freddie and Mom said in unison, and soon the dulcet tones of Angela Lansbury filled the tiny living room. But after five minutes of the episode, when Mom and Steve noticed Freddie hadn’t sewn a stitch on the gown’s hemline, Steve muted the TV and eased onto the floor beside his stepdaughter. Then Mom dropped down on Freddie’s other side.
“Is there something you want to talk about?” Steve asked in his preschool teacher voice. “The incident at the park, maybe?”
As a rule, Freddie loved her stepdad—she really did. But when he used his preschool teacher voice, she kinda wanted to rake her fingernails across his face. The urge only grew when her mother leaned in and whispered, “Are you traumatized? Is that what Dr. Born said?”
Freddie let a long moan escape her throat. She had desperately hoped she could make it through the entire evening without any mention of Dr. Born. Or any mention of the suicide-that-might-not-be-a-suicide. Like, good god, there was only so much fussing a gal could take in a day.
Freddie lolled her head back and stared up at the popcorn ceiling. “I told you I was fine last night, and I meant it. I also meant it when I said I didn’t need counseling, and”—her head snapped down—“thanks to you, I missed meeting Kyle Friedman at my locker!”
There. She’d said it. The truth was out there, just like on the X-Files.
“Who is…Kyle Friedman?” Steve asked slowly.
Mom, meanwhile, had instantly perked up. “Wasn’t he in your fifth grade class? He was a real charmer.”
“Yes,” Freddie said, surprised her mom remembered that. “And he asked me to hang out with him after school, but by the time I got there, he was gone. And that is your fault.” She poked Mom’s shoulder. “And I shall never, ever, ever forgive you.” She poked Steve’s shoulder.
“Oh my.” Steve rubbed the spot. “This is serious.”
“When you say ‘hang out,’” Mom asked, “do you mean like a date?”
“Maybe?” Freddie flipped up her hands. “But now I will never know. And again: your fault.”
“Oh.” Mom looked slightly panicked now. “How can I make it up to you?”
And Freddie smiled inside. While she hadn’t intended to make her mom feel terrible, she was not so foolish as to pass up this perfect opportunity for… “A phone?”
Mom’s panic fell away. She snorted. “As if,” she said.
And Freddie’s lips parted to point out that Mom was way too old to say As if, and that Cher from Clueless would be appalled by this performance. But then the house phone rang, cutting her off.
“It’s Divya,” Steve said after glancing at the caller ID. He passed the cordless phone Freddie’s way.
She snatched it up, scrabbled to her feet, and marched dramatically from the room.
“Hey, Divya.” She flung a final glance at her mom as she stomped into the hall. This isn’t over, she mouthed.
I can’t hear you, her mom mouthed back.
“You have five minutes to get dressed in something black before Kyle gets there to pick you up.”
Freddie stopped dead in her tracks. “Say what now?”
“You heard me. Kyle Friedman, who makes you all woo-woo like a Level 25 Wordwitch is going to be at your house in five minutes. We’re all going to RH Prep for…Well I didn’t actually hear that part. Retribution, I assume.”
“How do you know all this? Did Kyle call you?” Freddie shoved into her bedroom and dove for the closet. Black, black—what did she have in black that also made her look like the most appealing girl who had ever lived?
“Laina called me.”
Freddie choked. “Say what now? How does she have your number?”
“I gave it to her.” Divya’s voice went breathy. “In Econ, she asked me for it.”
Freddie gasped. “You minx! You didn’t even tell me.”
“I was distracted by Dr. Born.”
“There was time before that! Or after!”
“Oh, shut up and get dressed, will you? You’re down to four minutes now.”
Before Freddie could squawk out any further indignation, the line went dead—and she was left with only four minutes to make herself beautiful.
She failed. Miserably. She just didn’t own enough black, which left her wearing dress pants with sneakers. And though she had a decent black turtleneck, the black sweatshirt she pulled on over it was…Well, she had been much smaller when she’d gotten it from the Lumberjack Pageant of ‘95, and the bell emblem had started to flake off.
Freddie traded her glasses for contacts, and finally, last but never least, she slipped into Kyle’s letterman jacket. No doubt he would want it back, but she would milk it for all it was worth until that moment arrived.
Mmmm, manly man soap smell.
“Hey Mom!” she roared, swinging out of her room—only to barrel straight into Mom and Steve standing right there. They looked sheepish.
Though only slightly.
“Were you just listening to my call?” Freddie demanded.
Mom gave an appalled gasp that Freddie didn’t believe for one second. Then, in a deft change of subject, Mom reached out and pinched Freddie’s collar. “Where did you get this jacket?”
Freddie couldn’t keep from smiling. “Kyle lent it to me. And now he’s on his way here. To pick me up.”
“So I guess this means we did not ruin your life?” Steve asked.
Freddie pretended not to hear. “Me and Divya are going out with him and his friends.”
“Did you hear that, Steve?” Mom threw him an exultant smile. “She has friends!”
Freddie grimaced. “I’ve always had friends.”
“More like friend, singular,” Steve countered. “And the occasional meet up with those kids in Grayson County.”
Once more, Freddie stuck out her tongue. Then she turned to her mom. “You have Buffy?”
“Oh, yes!” Mom scooted for the kitchen. “Thank you so much for letting me use her.”
Freddie followed right on her heels. “Did you replace the film?”
“Of course.” Mom snagged the familiar Nikon F100 off the counter and handed it to Freddie.
Freddie instantly hugged the camera close. “Did you miss me, little slayer?” she crooned. “I missed you, my sugar wookums.”
Steve cleared his throat. “You do know it’s inanimate, right?”
Freddie side-eyed him. “Don’t listen to the mean man, Buffy.”
“When will you be back?” Mom asked. She was bouncing on her toes. “Late? Teenagers should stay out late.”
“I don’t know, Mom. You’re the parent here.”
Mom blinked. “Okay. Then just be back in time for Y2K. No one knows what’s going to happen. It could get dangerous.”
“That’s two and a half months away.”
“Yes, it is.”
“Be serious, Mom. My ride is probably here by now!”
“Her ride, Steve. Did you hear that? She has a ride.”
“Okay, okay. Does one AM seem fair? Maybe two is better.” She tapped her chin.
And Freddie’s eyes widened. “Only if you want to get me arrested. The city has a curfew of midnight for anyone under 18.”
“Well, then midnight it is!” Mom slapped her hands onto Freddie’s shoulders and twirled her toward the front door. “Although,” she whispered as she pushed her daughter forward, “I won’t tell the city if you’re a bit late.”
“Your parenting skills are questionable, Mother.”
“And your teenager skills are even worse, Daughter.”
“You’re cruel,” Freddie said.
“And you love me,” Mom replied. “See you at midnight—or later.”
Freddie opened her mouth to say goodbye, but the words never came. Kyle’s jeep gleamed on the street below, and instantly her heart lurched into her eye sockets.
The world is such a magical place, she thought as she floated toward the road, all thoughts of curfew or her mother long gone.
And the world could only get more magical as long as Justin Timberlake still remained in her pocket.
Tonight was going to be awesome.