Chapter 4: Corn Syrup

NOTE: I have actually split this chapter in two (so now there are 4 scenes below!). But since I didn’t want to have to rename EVERY chapter on here (and adjust the URLs accordingly), I’ve just put both chapters here. The correct numbering will be on Wattpad though, fyi.

********

Freddie expected Divya and Laina to be in the jeep. They were not. Instead, it was Kyle and Kyle alone.

Freddie thought her lungs might punch through her esophagus.

“Thanks for the jacket,” she said as she clambered into shotgun. She slipped it off, and a great wash of cool air and sadness wafted over her. At least she had Buffy back, though, and safely around her neck.

“You’re welcome.” Kyle grinned. “Did it work?”

“Erm.” Freddie wasn’t sure how to answer that question. After all, it was a jacket, not a power tool. “Yes?” she responded eventually.

And he grinned even wider.

“So where are Laina and Divya?” Freddie asked as he shifted into drive.

“Laina’s got her mom’s car tonight, so she’s driving them.”

Oh. Inwardly, Freddie grinned a Dr. Evil grin. Divya, you minx.

“And Cat is driving her and Luis, so we’re all meeting at the cul-du-sac.”

“The…cul-du-sac?” Kyle had spoken as if Freddie should knew the place, even though she had no idea why he would think this. Then again, there was a lot about Kyle that confounded the standard mind.

Like why he was currently bobbing his head when the radio wasn’t on.

“What is this cul-du-sac?” Freddie asked when it was clear Kyle hadn’t understood that her previous repetition was actually a question.

“It’s an unfinished subdivision.” Devastating grin. “If you cut through the woods, you end up right next to RH Prep’s landscaping shed. There’s a gate there, and no one ever locks it.”

“Interesting,” Freddie murmured—and it was. Surely, after years of pranking, the school would have figured this out by now.

They turned off of Freddie’s road, and Kyle’s swoony green eyes latched onto Freddie’s. “Sorry I didn’t come to you locker.” He flashed an apologetic wince. “I forgot I had detention.”

“Oh.” She blinked. “And here I thought I’d missed you because I had…” She trailed off. There was nothing at all she could say that wouldn’t lead to questions or strange looks—and neither questions nor strange looks were what she was after.

“I…stayed late after class. To tutor Divya.” She is going to kill me. “Why were you in detention?”

“I skipped school.” He winced adorably.

And Freddie really didn’t think he could get any cuter. She’d always found Bad Boys appealing—particularly if they wore tight pants and sang about summer nights and greased lightning. “Do you perhaps have a leather jacket?” she asked hopefully. “Or a motorcycle?”

“Huh?” His adorable face scrunched up. “No.”

“Alas,” she sighed.

“I think someone left one at my family’s dry cleaners, though.” He smiled. “A leather jacket. Not a motorcycle.” This made him laugh, a buoyant sound that made Freddie laugh too.

“Do clothes often get left at the dry cleaners?” she asked.

“All the time. People forget to come get their clothes, and then we’re left with them. We’ve got like, three Roberta Hughes uniforms. It’s my job to track down their owners, but if I don’t find ‘em”—he shrugged—“then the stuff gets donated.”

“What a dutiful son,” Freddie breathed delightedly. Hard working and charitable.

Two more turns, and Kyle steered them onto the the curvy road beside Lake Michigan. The sun was almost gone, leaving the road dark and the lake hidden behind trees and shadow.

“Hey,” Kyle said, thumbs tapping on the steering wheel to that melody only he could hear. “Can I get your phone number? That would make it a lot easier next time I want to hang out with you again.”

Next time. He’d said next time.

Freddie nodded frantically, incapable of doing much else. A real boy was showing interest in her! And he was getting her phone number.

She never wanted to give up the Justin Timberlake keychain. Ever.

Of course, moments later when Kyle attempted to type Freddie’s house number into his Nokia as he was still driving, some of the magic of the moment dissolved.

Freddie snatched the mobile—perhaps a bit roughly—from his hands. And then, the moment really spiraled from her control because once she’d added her house number and explained how her mom wouldn’t let her have a cell phone, she caught sight of the road ahead—a road that Kyle was not watching.

A road upon which a hazy figure stood.

“Look out!” Freddie braced herself, and Kyle’s brakes shrieked. The car swerved right, toward the woods…Trees zoomed in fast and blurred.

The jeep squealed to a stop.

And with her pulse roaring in her ears, Freddie gaped at Kyle. “Are you okay?”

He didn’t answer. He was angling backward to see who stood in the road. “Oh no,” he moaned. “It’s the sheriff. And this is the second time today I’ve almost run over someone.”

“Well, you clearly have a talent for something,” Freddie consoled. Though judging by the confused look on Kyle’s face, she wasn’t doing it well.

Then Sheriff Bowman’s heart-shaped face was at the window, her knuckles rapping against the glass. Kyle emitted another groan and rolled down the window.

“Jesus, Friedman.” Bowman glowered down at him. “I ought to write you a ticket. Are you stoned again?”

Kyle grimaced. “N-no, ma’am.”

The sheriff’s blue eyes slid to Freddie. They were such a pale, crystal blue, like ice on the lake. Terrifying, really, and they made Freddie want to offer up every illegal (or even slightly immoral) thing she’d ever done.

And she just adored Bowman for that. One day, she was going to be just like her.

“Gellar?” Bowman asked, clearly shocked to find Freddie in the jeep. “What the hell are you doing with this guy? And why aren’t the both of you at the football game?”

“I find the sport barbaric,” Freddie said at the same moment Kyle offered, “I was there. The Lumberjacks were winning.”

“So why’d you leave?” She frowned at Kyle. Then at Freddie. “And where are you to going right now?”

“RH Pr—”

“Kyle’s house,” Freddie interrupted.

And somehow, Bowman’s expression soured even more. “God, Friedman. I’m gonna pretend I didn’t hear you.” She pointed at Freddie. “And I’m gonna pretend I believe you. Now move along—”

“Wait!” Freddie lurched her seat-belted body at the sheriff. “What are you doing out here?”

“And what’s that smell?” Kyle’s nose wrinkled.

Freddie blinked. Then sniffed. Sure enough, there was a decidedly dead odor in the air.

“I’m cleaning up roadkill,” the sheriff muttered, obviously displeased by this activity. “And I’m checking the roads for any…unsavory critters.” At Freddie’s and Kyle’s blank looks, she added, “I keep getting complaints of animals—mostly raccoons and turkeys—leaving the woods en masse. So I’m looking into it.”

“But that’s not your job.”

“Nope,” Bowman admitted with a shrug, “but my family has a saying: On’est jamais si bien serve que par soi-même.”

Kyle cocked his head to the side. “Huh?”

“It wasn’t English,” Freddie murmured.

“Oh.”

Bowman just glared. “It means if I want this done right, I need to do it myself. It’s less hassle for me to look into these roaming animals than it is to deal with the knuckleheads over at Animal Control.”

“Have you found anything?” Freddie asked, curiosity building in her belly. Something exciting was going on, even if she had no idea what.

“Not yet.” Bowman knocked the top of the jeep and glanced further up the road. “But you two be careful, okay? Especially you, Gellar.” She leveled a cool stare on Freddie. “You’ve had enough excitement lately. And it’s not just turkeys that are acting weird. I’ve had reports of coyotes and wolves.”

“Cool,” Kyle said, perking up.

Bowman sneered. “Not cool, kid. Wolves can rip you to shreds. Coyotes too, so just stay out of the county park and be smart.” She backed up a step, and then almost as an afterthought added, “And watch the damned road, Friedman. Or next time I’ll arrest you.”

#

The cul-du-sac was exactly as Kyle had described, a gravel spot set at the end of a long, unfinished road. Freddie vaguely remembered this place—there’d been a whole lawsuit about whether the land here belonged to City-on-the-Berm or to the guy who wanted to build a subdivision on it. City-on-the-Berm won, and so the trees had remained and the road had never been finished.

Laina’s mom’s Volvo was already there when Kyle pulled up, and Cat’s old Taurus pulled up three seconds later.

Everyone convened at Kyle’s trunk, where he opened the door with much fanfare and handsome grins. Then a flamboyant, Ta-da!

Stacked side by side were ten industrial jugs of corn syrup.

This is your plan?” Freddie chewed her lip. All this time, they had been driving with sugary contraband in the trunk, and she’d had no idea. Thank goodness Sheriff Bowman hadn’t seen this. There would have been no plausible explanation that Freddie could have conjured for possessing so much corn syrup, and knowing Kyle, he would have just blurted out the truth.

“It was one of the ideas in the Official Log,” Cat explained. She leaned into the trunk, looking enviously stylish and totally Bond-worthy in her pleather pants, black boots, and fitted turtleneck. She lugged out the nearest jug.

Kyle swooped up a second and third. “We’ll pour it all over their bleachers. Just in time for the big soccer match with Grayson High.” He offered Freddie a green-eyed wink. “Sticky asses for the rich shits!”

Freddie’s heart fluttered.

“What do you think of the plan, Gellar?” Laina asked. She moved to Freddie’s left while Divya moved to her right. Laina wasn’t dressed so differently from earlier, except for the edition of a black leather jacket. Divya, however, had traded in her jeans for black cords and a black hoodie that Freddie didn’t recognize.

She hoped that meant Divya had borrowed it from Laina.

“Yeah, got a better idea, prank wizard?” This was from Luis, who was hauling out the next two jugs of syrup.

And Freddie bit back a smile. Prank Wizard. She could get used to that.

“We need to take RH down,” he went on. “They hit us hard this morning, so we can’t fuck around right now.”

Freddie’s smile fell away—because the disappointing reality was that this did feel like “fucking around.” After all, it was just sugar on the bleachers. A hose could wash it away in five minutes.

She had no better ideas, though, so she simply shrugged and said, “Let’s do this.”

“Sweet.” Luis clapped his hands. “Boys can each carry two jugs, and girls can snag one—”

“I can snag two, thanks.” Laina bowed into the trunk and plucked up two. She made it look so easy, that Freddie was shocked when she grabbed one and oh my god, it was so heavy. Freddie had never considered herself weak, but she suddenly felt deeply inadequate.

“One jug leftover, I guess.” Kyle slammed the trunk shut, locked the doors with a key fob (how fancy!), and then turned to face everyone. “Ready?”

“Not without these.” Cat held out six black masks. They were just cheap paper and really did nothing to hide anyone’s faces. Not to mention, once everyone had slipped them on, they looked vaguely Hamburgalar-esque (which made Freddie’s gut rumble in a different way).

Still, she couldn’t help but grin at Divya, who grinned right back. And when Divya slipped her fingers around Freddie’s forearm and squeezed, Freddie recognized it right away for the physical touch version of Eeeeeeeeeeee!

Freddie fully agreed.

“Everyone grab your syrup,” Laina ordered, and without waiting to see if people complied (of course they did), she set off into the trees.

It was creepy. There was no denying it, what with the night’s breeze to clatter through dead leaves and the moon hidden behind clouds. Freddie understood why, from a stealth perspective, they hadn’t brought flashlights…

But she was starting to think it might have been a bad idea.

Especially because it was a much longer walk than she’d anticipated. And the further they went, the more her gut expanded and churned—not in a way linked to hamburger hunger or faulty pranks, either.

This was the boiling she’d felt on Wednesday night when she’d heard those screams. It was the boiling she’d felt yesterday in the woods.

The others seem to sense it too. No one spoke, but everyone kept checking over their shoulders. Again and again, sideways glances into the woods and behind. The only thing Freddie saw was darkness though; the only thing she heard were their footsteps stamping over autumn detritus.

Until a screech ripped through the night.

Freddie jumped; Divya dropped her jug.

Then a thousand screeches laid claim to the forest, and the darkness moved—a great upward explosion of shadows.

Crows, Freddie realized after a stuttering, terrified heartbeat. Countless crows were erupting from the branches and taking to the sky—and all of them cawed in a grating, mind-melting cacophony.

Freddie had never seen anything like it, never heard anything like it. And even after all the birds were gone, the screaming didn’t stop.

Because Laina had fallen to the ground now, hands clutching her face.

Divya reached her first. “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” Then Cat was to her and dropping to her other side.

But still, Laina shrieked—though now that Freddie was lurching in too, she could make out words: “My head, my head!”

“What do we do?” Kyle had to shout to be heard. His eyes bulged white in the darkness. “Should I call 911?”

“I’m on it,” Luis said, already yanking out his Nokia.

But before he could hit send, Laina’s shrieks abruptly stopped.

For several long seconds, no one spoke. Everyone simply stared at Laina. Freddie’s heart bumped against her ribs. Her gut positively roiled, a volcano about to erupt.

Until at last, Laina whispered, “I’m fine. I’m fine.”

A great exhale of air whooshed from everyone’s lungs. Divya and Cat helped Laina rise; Luis interrogated her on how she was feeling. “What’s my name?”

“Luis Mendez.”

“And how many fingers am I holding up?”

“Three, you ass. And I’m fine, guys.” Now standing, Laina shook off Cat’s and Divya’s arms. “Stop looking at me like that.”

“Um, you just fell to the ground screaming,” Cat pointed out. “I think we’re allowed to look at you like this.”

“It was just the crows.” Laina dusted herself off. “It hurt my head.”  For half a moment, her glower was replaced by confusion. The tiniest of frowns that passed in an instant—but Freddie noticed.

And Freddie noted it.

Something wrong was happening in these woods.

While everyone continued fussing over Laina and she continued insisting that they “piss off,” Freddie turned slowly away.

She squinted into the trees. There was something else in the woods. Something that had sent a thousand cries into the sky. Something that made turkeys and wolves act strangely.

Something man-shaped and hazy and scarcely two hundred paces away—

A hand landed on her arm.

Freddie flinched so hard, she dropped her jug.

“You okay?” Divya whispered.

“Yeah,” Freddie said, pumping more enthusiasm into her voice than she felt. “I just…I thought I saw something.”

“More crows?”

“Let’s go,” was all Freddie said, hefting up her syrup again. She didn’t even bother to brush off the leaves stuck to the jug’s bottom. She just nudged Divya, and together, they kicked off into not-so-quiet jogs toward the rest of the prank squad.

Laina was already marching away a top speed, and it was clear she was starting to get really angry, thank you that Luis was still insisting they call 911.

Freddie did throw a final look back, though. Toward whatever it was she thought she might have seen.

But there was nothing there now. Just darkness and shadows and a whispering wind unseen.

 

NEXT CHAPTER:

The access to Roberta Hughes was exactly as promised: a fence with an unlocked gate, beyond which stood a small hut. Outdoor lamps washed it in a very, very welcoming glow that went bzzzt-bzzzt every few seconds. There was no movement around it, and the only remotely suspicious shapes turned out to be enormous bags of birdseed.

“Come on,” Laina hissed. Since the Strange Incident With The Crows, she had become something akin to a drill sergeant: hellbent on proving she was fine and pushing everyone twice as hard, twice as fast.

Freddie—and Divya too—were panting by the time they’d reached the gate.

Laina scooted through first, while everyone else crept behind a bit more slowly. Freddie and Divya brought up the rear, their corn syrup jugs glugging and glooping with each step. And for the first time since abandoning the cars, Freddie’s sixth sense reared back enough for her BFF awareness to slice in.

“Hey,” she whispered, “where do you get that sweatshirt?”

Divya smiled slyly, and the frown that had folded across her brow since the Strange Incident With The Crows briefly smoothed away. “Laina lent it to me.”

Freddie’s grin stretched almost to her ears. “Eeeee,” she squealed softly. “You two have moved very quickly, haven’t you?”

The smile faded. “I…don’t know.” Now it was back to the frown. “I’m not sure she…you know. Likes girls. She did date that guy from Grayson High last year.”

“Maybe she likes girls and boys.”

“I hope so,” Divya said, and the look on her face—the earnest hope…It made Freddie’s heart tighten.

She only wanted the absolute best life for her Threadsister forever and ever.

The gate squeaked slightly as Freddie nudged it a bit wider to slip through last, and a split second later, she stepped onto the grounds of Roberta Hughes Preparatory School. The elite boarding school for families with too much money.

Freddie had seen it before—she’d come to a few soccer matches. And there was always at least one football game here every season. But she’d never seen beyond their fancy field, and she’d certainly never been in the spooky woods outside.

Freddie had also never trespassed before, much less done so while wearing a Hamburgalar mask, and to her absolute shock, it was exhilarating. The panic of the woods melted away in a surge of adrenaline that made Freddie reconsider everything she had ever known.

All these years, she’d thought she’d wanted to be Sheriff—to use these instincts she’d gotten from her dad and follow…Well, not in his footsteps, since she didn’t know enough about him for that. But in Sheriff Bowman’s footsteps for sure.

Except right now, the allure of crime was so strong. Freddie was definitely going to have to reconsider her ten year plan when she got home tonight.

With Laina at the lead, the prank squad tiptoed over maple and oak-lined paths (where nary an acorn or fallen leaf dared to disrupt the view), and past benches with plaques in classic Rich People style.

“The RH cross country team runs here,” Luis whispered, pointing to trails that snaked into darkness. “But,” he added with a toothy grin, “they’re mostly flat. Which is why they always lose, and I always win.”

“And always will, baby,” Cat offered with a boyfriend-indulging smile.

A few more bends in the path and a new light filtered their way. Everyone slowed. Then, at Laina’s silent swat-team motion toward the trees, they all ducked off the paths.

“It’s the field lights,” Kyle said, frowning his ever-confused frown as they gathered beside a barren willow. “Why are they on? There’s no game.”

“Yeah.” Cat nodded, a more intelligent frown to mar her brow. “It’s an away game tonight. The students should be gone.”

Except, Freddie thought, I did get them arrested. It was possible a lot of them were bound to campus now.

“Well, shit,” Laina swore at the same moment Luis dropped his corn syrup to the ground. They both ripped off their masks.

“What the hell are we gonna do now?” he asked. “We have all this syrup, and we have to retaliate somehow. This morning can’t go unanswered.”

Someone’s been watching too much Romeo and Juliet, Freddie thought. But this isn’t Verona Beach, buddy, and you aren’t a Capulet.

“We could…pour it out here,” Cat suggested. “It’s not as effective as on the bleachers, but it would make the path all sticky.”

Freddie’s forehead wrinkled, and while Cat, Luis, and Laina debated the best course of action, she spun in a slow circle. Searching for inspiration. Trusting her gut to guide her…

Her eyes landed on a trash can beside one of the benches. And just like that, she knew exactly what they needed to do.

“Guys,” Freddie cut in. She dropped her jug to the ground as everyone’s attention cut to her. The Prank Wizard. She grinned. “If half of us start dumping the syrup on the path—and the lawns and the benches and that…that statue of a…”

“It’s a woodchuck,” Divya inserted. “That’s their mascot.”

“Loooosers!” Kyle slapped L-shaped to his forehead.

And Freddie had to wonder how he could be so beautiful, yet so empty inside.

“Yes,” Freddie agreed politely. “They are indeed losers. And also, that statue is indeed a woodchuck. If we cover it in corn syrup, and then cover the corn syrup with trash, it’ll be a lot harder to clean up.”

“And bird seed,” Divya inserted, eyes widening.

“Yes,” Laina breathed. “There were bags of it back at the shed.”

“Fucking A.” Luis punched the air. “They’ll have raccoons and birds crawling all over everything.”

“Bugs too,” Cat said gleefully.

And,” Laina eased something from her pocket “These black and red streamers will be really hard to clean up if they’ve dissolved beneath cold sugar.”

Kyle whooped (albeit softly) and everyone else gave approving nods.

“Boys,” Laina said, standing taller, “go fetch that birdseed. Cat, you’re in charge of streamers. Divya, Freddie?” She slid her mask back into place. “Let’s dump some corn syrup.”

#

It was a work of art. Freddie could safely say she had never created anything so beautiful, and they weren’t even finished yet. Once all the bird seed was scattered—and all the trash that Cat and Divya had pulled from the bins nearby were tossed out too—this whole yard would be a Grade A disaster.

Already, two raccoons and three possums had scrabbled from the woods to feast. Freddie wished she’d brought Buffy with her, to capture this moment for all eternity. But she’d left her precious Nikon in the car (corn syrup and lenses didn’t mix).

To make the night even better, Kyle had called Freddie Prank Wizard three separate times, and she’d thought her heart might burst from inner screaming.

In fact, his green eyes kept flicking her way—and Freddie caught him looking at her twice, which led to a bright grin from him and a shy one from her.

Why, she was positively effervescent by the time she’d finished her own part of the prank.

Which was probably what pushed her to elevate this new Life of Crime. Hormones made people do foolish things.

Freddie reached the edge of the work zone, where Divya was hastily dumping garbage. Everyone had split up, starting at the center and working outward toward the safety of trees—and always avoiding the brightly lit field and the main school building, a monstrosity of Victorian architecture and an excess of gables.

Or were those pointy things called steeples?

“I’m going to the dorms,” Freddie whispered, jerking her thumb toward a hazy path that led to the RH dormitories (or Laina had said when Freddie had asked two minutes before). “If I’m not at the gate when you leave, then wait for me at the cars.”

“What?” Divya snapped her garbage bag shut and shimmied in close. The stench of trash curled into Freddie’s nose. “Why would you go to the dorms?”

“Because if I can figure out which room Theo is in, then maybe I can get back the Log.”

“By breaking in? We’re already committing enough crimes here to permanently smear our college applications, thanks. And I’m pretty sure future sheriffs can’t have marks on their records either.”

“I know what I’m doing.”

“Oh really? How?”

“Instincts, Div. Instincts.” Freddie reached over the trash to pat Divya’s shoulder. “It won’t take long.”

“And what if we’re not at the gate when you get back? Are you gonna walk through those spooky woods all alone? You do remember the crows, right? And the way Laina screamed?”

Freddie gulped. “About that.” Freddie leaned in. “You think she’s okay? Ever since we left the forest, she’s been a bit…”

“Intense?” Divya filled in.

Freddie had been thinking “possessed” but Divya’s word was probably better. “Yeah,” she murmured. “Keep an eye on her while I’m gone, okay?”

Then before Divya could stop her, Freddie spun away.

“This is why you always find dead bodies!” Divya hissed after her. “You have no common sense.”

Freddie didn’t argue with that (there was no time!), but she did think that assertion was wholly unfair. After all, she’d only ever found the one dead body, and really, it had only been his shoes.

After a quick skip down more perfect pathways and some sideways slinking to avoid lamps, Freddie found the dormitories exactly where Laina had said they would be. A two-story brick building, shaped like an L, was surrounded by low bushes and red-leafed maple trees. Half the dorm rooms were empty and darkened. But half were not, as Freddie had predicted—and as she’d hoped too.

She cut in close to the hedges (holly, ouch) and with her gaze snapping left to the windows then right to the sidewalk, she slowly made her way around the dorm. Laina had mentioned she thought the first floor was for boys only, and so far, that was proving true.

With each step, she whispered the room numbers she could see into and that did not have Theo in them. “Two, four, five, eight, ten, eleven, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, twenty, twenty-four…”

At the bend in the L, music drifted into Freddie’s ears. It made the counting easier: a rhythm to mutter by. But then it got louder, and the lyrics started messing with her memory.

I never want to hear you sa-a-ay!

“Two, five, eight….uh, eleven?”

I want it tha-at way!

Cursed Backstreet Boys. Freddie tried again. “Two, five, eight…ten. That was it. Eleven, fifteen…” Her counting died on her tongue. Her footsteps dragged to a stop.

For Freddie had reached the source of the music. It blasted down from a second story room. But that wasn’t what made her mouth gawp open. No, that was Theo Porter.

She had found his room.

And she had found him dancing.

Not just any dance, either, but the actual choreography from Backstreet Boys’ actual music video.

A laugh burst from Freddie’s lungs. She had to clap a hand to her mouth to hold it in. Oh my god, oh my god. This couldn’t be happening. Mr. Perfectly Polished was a BSB fan—and not just a low-grade one, either.

Dammit, why hadn’t Freddie brought Buffy? There was enough fodder here for a lifetime of pranks.

She crept as close to the holly hedges a she could, craned onto her toes, and peered cautiously into his room.

Theo didn’t notice her. His eyes were closed, and he was really belting the song now.

You are, my fire! My one, desire!

Loathe as Freddie was to admit it, he wasn’t a half bad performer. Very swoony, if you could look past the devil horns and forked tongue.

Log, she reminded herself. Find the log. And with every ounce of self-control that she possessed, Freddie tore here eyes away from Theo Porter and searched his room.

Fortunately, he was tidy. Almost too tidy, actually—perhaps even borderline sad. There were no knickknacks on his desk. No photos or posters on the wall. Just a lofted bed and a desk with a computer and a stack of textbooks…

And at the bottom of the books was a familiar blue canvas spine.

“Bingo,” Freddie murmured, a grin splitting her face. She couldn’t get into his room now, but she’d find a way to come back.

Freddie was all set to turn away and bolt for the landscaping shed, when the music suddenly cut off from the room above.

Theo paused mid-croon. His eyes opened. He looked directly at the window.

He looked directly at Freddie.

For a split second, Freddie thought he’d seen her. Then she realized, he was covered in light while she was not—so certainly that made her safe. Science and all that.

Then she realized that her calculation was completely wrong, and that Theo most definitely saw her—and now he was most definitely rushing toward the window.

For a split second, Freddie simply stood there and watched him come. Like some slow motion, life-flashing-before-her-eyes moment.

Even when Theo shoved open the window, Freddie simply stared.

So much for her nerves of steel.

He squinted down at her, separated only by a hedge. Fury hardened the lines of his face. “Gellar?” he sputtered. “What the hell are you doing here?”

At the sound of Theo’s voice, Freddie finally snapped out of her Shutdown Mode. “Mr. Porter,” she cried, opening her arms wide. “Fancy meeting you here!”

“What’s going on?” Theo’s gaze darted up, down, sideways—clearly estimating if he could climb out of the window and over the hedges.

But he couldn’t. Not without a body full of leaf-stabs.

“Do you really want to know why I’m here?” Freddie asked. She smiled her boldest smile, and with all the melodrama she could squeeze into her body, she mimicked Theo’s dance moves. “You are, my fire! My one, desire!”

He looked like he was going to murder her. He lifted a foot onto the windowsill—and even if he did decide to jump (which she suspected he wouldn’t), Freddie had time for at least one more dance move.

She flung her arms to the sky. “I want it tha-at way!”

Then Freddie Gellar spun on her heel and she ran.

Theo’s shouts chased behind her. Something about, “This isn’t over!” and yada-yada, insert Shakespearian rage monologue here. Empty threats, she knew. Even if he made it over the holly, he could never catch up to her. Plus, the prank squad had already worked its magic—there was no stopping the birds and the buggies now.

Wow, the life of crime was really quite a thrill ride.

By the time Freddie reached the gate (having sprinted the entire way), she was gasping for air, sweating through her turtleneck, and barely able to contain her glee.

Everyone else was just arriving when she did. Their eyes glittered, their faces were flushed, and when Freddie told them she’d figured out where the Official Log was—oh, how the excitement broke loose then.

Laina thrust a fist into the air and whisper-shouted, “Lumberjacks, ho!” just like the Thundercats. And Freddie, along with everyone else, whisper-shouted it back. Lumberjacks, ho! Lumberjacks, ho!

The boys chest bumped, Cat did an impromptu handspring, and Freddie and Divya danced the Macarena. Then, because that pesky risk of getting caught still remained, they pushed through the fence and hurried into the woods.

Where the excitement instantly died.

It was worse than when they’d been doused with cold water that morning. One moment, everyone was as rowdy as a pack of five-year-olds on Christmas morning. The next moment, they were silent and stiff, glancing over their shoulders every few steps.

Laina still took the lead, marching at a speed that left everyone half-jogging to keep up. Freddie didn’t mind the speed though. Her gut was waking up, and she wanted out of here. Cold fingers to tickled inside her belly, then drag slowly down her spine.

Only once, halfway through forest, did anyone speak. “Stop looking at me like that,” Laina hissed at Cat.

“I’m not looking at you like anything,” Cat insisted, but even Freddie could sense the lie in that statement. Because everyone had been looking at Laina “like that”—whenever they weren’t squinting into the creepy shadows, at least.

“Bull shit,” Laina muttered. “You’re looking at me like I’m gonna freak out again. I mean, not that I freaked out before. My head just hurt.”

“Of course,” Cat murmured, and once more, the crew descended into silence.

Until they all skittered out of the woods.

Until they all saw what had happened to the cars.

Blood covered everything. So much blood, that at first Freddie thought it was red paint. A prank from the RH kids.

But then she saw the carcass, lying at the heart of the cul-de-sac: a deer with its belly gouged open and organs splattered across the gravel.

“Oh my god,” Cat choked, hand flying to her mouth.

“Who did this?” Luis stumbled two steps forward, then his foot squelched on something solid. He froze.

“Porter?” Laina asked, but Freddie quickly shook her head.

“Can’t be.” Her voice sounded very far away. “He was just in his dorm room.”

“And this is some next level shit,” Luis squeezed out. Then he doubled over, braced his hands on his knees, and started dry heaving.

“The Sheriff said their were wild wolves around,” Freddie offered. She felt strangely detached. Like someone else was staring at the blood-covered cars and watching a dead deer’s innards steam into the night.

“So you’re saying we just walked through a forest with wild wolves?” Cat gaped toward the trees. “Thanks for warning us.”

“We didn’t know they could do this,” Kyle defended. He looked at Freddie. “Did we?”

“No,” she said calmly. And it was true. She definitely hadn’t anticipated this when Bowman had described animals acting strangely.

Freddie turned to Divya, who had a hand clasped to her mouth, but otherwise seemed okay. “Div, can I have your phone? We need to call the Sheriff—”

Instantly, Kyle lunged. “No,” he blurted. “You can’t do that.”

“He’s right,” Laina agreed, eyes pleading. None of her earlier drill sergeant/swat team demeanor remained now. “We were just breaking the law, remember?”

“And it’s only a dead deer,” Kyle added, “that got killed by some wolves.”

Or not, Freddie thought, but she kept that thought to herself. She had absolutely no evidence of anything—nothing save that familiar fist closing around her gut.

“Luis was going to call 911 earlier. When Laina…” Freddie trailed off. Partly because Laina was giving her a look that said, Please don’t mention that, okay? And partly because it was different, she supposed, to call prior to a crime versus after.

Plus, Laina had spoken true: they had just broken the law. Trespassing, property damage, vandalism, and who knew what else. Calling Sheriff Bowman might just land them all in handcuffs.

“Come on,” Cat said. Luis had finally stopped his dry-heaving, and Cat was helping him rise. “We’ll go to Kyle’s house and clean our cars.  Your parents are still out of town, right?”

“Yeah,” Kyle said. He was wincing toward the dead deer. “We can…we can go to my house.”

As everyone picked their way across the blood and strips of torn flesh, Freddie pressed in close to Divya. Everything stank of copper. “We should still call the Sheriff, Div. Anonymous tip.”

Divya nodded. “I agree.” Then she deftly slipped her phone into Freddie’s pocket. “Don’t let Kyle hear, though.”

Freddie did exactly as ordered, and as she picked her way toward Kyle’s blood-streaked passenger door, she dialed the number and whispered a message into Bowman’s answering machine.

Before she could actually get in the car to leave, though—while the door still hung open and she was sliding in—a bell tolled.

Distant yet unmistakable, the sound cut through the hum of Cat’s and Laina’s engines, the crunch of their tiles racing over gravel back to Berm.

Freddie’s breath hitched and Kyle gulped from the driver’s seat. “Twice rings the bell,” he said.

“To warn everyone,” Freddie murmured. The Headsman is coming.

Then, before Kyle could stop her, she grabbed Buffy off the passenger seat and darted toward the massacred deer. From a safe, blood-free distance, she snapped three, full-flash photographs—and stoutly ignored Kyle’s shouts of protest and alarm.

She couldn’t pinpoint why she needed this pictures, just like she couldn’t say why she knew this wasn’t the work of wolves. It was like staring at one of those 3D pictures, trying to find the hidden image—because there was something hidden and meaningful here. Something connected to crows and screams and animals on the run.

And when Freddie’s instincts directed, she obeyed.

“Drive,” she commanded Kyle, once she was back in the car.

“Gladly,” he replied, and in a squeal of tires, they sped the hell away.

 

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