When Freddie reached her house, the lights were off and a note on the door said Mom and Steve had gone out for drinks.
There’s deli meat in the fridge.
“The torture I endure,” Freddie said, shoving into her house—where she instantly drew up short. In part because it was sweltering (the hill up her driveway was no joke on Steve’s bike). But mostly because she’d had an idea. One that was quite a criminal indeed…
For Bowman’s comment had gotten Freddie to thinking—specifically, thinking about her dad. And when she thought about her dad, her feet tended to carry her down into the darkest corner of the basement where a secret box of files hid.
A secret box that Freddie’s mom didn’t know Freddie knew about.
Freddie had found the box when she was eight. She’d been pretending to be Nancy Drew—specifically Nancy Drew in The Secret in the Old Attic, except that her house didn’t have an attic, so to the basement she’d gone. There, she’d scoured and examined and searched for clues about deceased soldiers and missing musical scores.
What she’d found instead was a cardboard box labeled, Frank Carter, Desk. Freddie had recognized her dad’s name, and instantly, all thoughts of Nancy Drew had fled.
She knew so little about her dad. Mom didn’t like to talk about him, and whenever Freddie had asked Steve, he’d gotten a sad face and said it wasn’t really his place to answer. And once, when they’d gone to visit Frank’s tombstone as they always did on Christmas, Freddie had even overheard Steve tell Mom that she really “ought to tell Freddie more about Frank.” But then Mom had gotten sad and the conversation had ended.
With eight-year-old enthusiasm—and definitely a spike of guilt in her gut—Freddie had torn back the box’s flaps, ignoring all the dust and swatting away the nest (or was it a swarm?) of tiny spiders that had taken up roost inside.
She’d found legal pads, a set of keys, a rolodex, two manila envelopes, and a bunch of pens that didn’t write anymore.
She’d also found her dad’s Sheriff’s badge, gleaming and cold. She would have pocketed it right away if she hadn’t been afraid her mom might one day discover it missing. Although, while Freddie had sat there exploring the box, she had affixed it to the pocket on her t-shirt.
She’d liked the weight of it, even if it wasn’t her name written there.
At the bottom of the box, underneath all the files and pads, Freddie found the most valuable treasure of all: a faded photograph of Dad holding her on the day she’d been born. He’d had a beard then, and he’d been grinning like the happiest man who’d ever lived.
For the next twenty minutes, Freddie had simply stared at that picture, trying to conjure memories of such a face. She had a handful of her own photos with Dad in them, but he was never smiling—at least not like he was here. In all of her photos, he’d looked vaguely haunted. Vaguely lost.
Which was the way he lived in Freddie’s memories too. She could’t summon his face—not precisely—but she could summon the way he’d felt whenever she had been around him. He’d been quiet and withdrawn, his mind always elsewhere, even when he was sitting right beside her.
Again, fear of discovery kept Freddie from pocketing the picture. But for the next year, every time she had played in the basement, she’d snuck out the picture and stared at it. More and more time passed between each visit, though, until eventually, she hadn’t played in the basement anymore.
Now, she only ever ventured down here when she was helping her mom with Christmas decorations. So it had been at least three years since the last time Freddie had snuck out this box and peeked inside—and were it not for Sheriff Bowman’s comment about her dad, Freddie might never have done this again.
But the comment and the water bottle and the poem—it had all collided in her brain in a great Aha! Eureka and Gesundheit! Because she’d suddenly remembered what contents were tucked away within one of the manila envelopes.
Eight-year-old Freddie hadn’t cared about those weird documents; only the picture of Dad and his badge had held her attention.
But seventeen-year-old Freddie knew it was the other stuff that might actually end up being important. So after digging out the correct envelope, she dumped the contents onto the cold, cement floor.
Newspaper clippings, xeroxed articles, and dot-matrix printouts with the edges still on stared up at her. Freddie examined the newspapers first. They were all dated October 1987, the year and month during which Frank Carter had died.
And they all had eerily, toe-curling-ly familiar headlines. Wild Animals Abandoning Local Forests, read one. And another: Suicide by Hanging In City-on-the-Berm. And the three other articles described unseasonable weather, ranging from icebergs on the shore to hot spells a week later.
One headline was especially gruesome: Headless Body Found in County Park. It described an unidentified corpse, decapitated, discovered near the beach by a jogger. No head had been located, and other than reporting the victim’s gender (female) and approximating her age (thirty-four), there were no leads as to who the person might have been. Police were, on that day in 1987, asking for people to report any missing persons.
Please call Sheriff Frank Carter, it said at the bottom, with any leads. Anonymous tips accepted.
Meanwhile, the xeroxed articles and printouts had almost the exact same headlines—except that they weren’t from 1987. They were all dated October 1978.
Freddie’s hands shook as she skimmed each one. At some point, her mouth went dry too. She kept swallowing. Kept wetting her lips. Because this was evidence she simply couldn’t ignore.
Maybe, if she and Divya hadn’t just found those old ledgers in the Archives, Freddie could have chalked it up to coincidence. Sure, it was a reach to say that three times over thirty years, there had been similar hangings, similar weather, and similar animals on the prowl, but the mind could be convinced of anything.
However, Freddie couldn’t convince her mind, skeptical as it was, that it was all mere coincidence. Not when it had also happened in 1788. No way in hell.
Of course, that left one big question: how could she possibly explain it all? She really, really, really didn’t believe in ghosts or the supernatural. Buffy and X-Files were fun, but nothing more.
What Freddie did in believe were in her instincts—instincts that she’d inherited from Frank Carter, who had also noticed a pattern twelve years before.
The house trembled. A squeal split the basement, and Freddie’s heart lurched. The garage door was opening, which meant Mom and Steve were home. She could not be caught down here.
With frantic speed, she shoved the papers back into the envelope, shoved the envelope back into the box, and shoved the box back into its shadowy corner.
She reached the living room and snapped on the TV right as Mom pushed into the kitchen and called, “I hope you didn’t eat yet! Because we got pizza! And I even ordered pineapples on it, just for you.”
“Great,” Freddie called back, her pulse thudding against her ribs. Don’t breathe hard. Don’t breathe hard. “You guys made it home just in time for Nick at Nite!”
Freddie stayed up too late watching I Love Lucy and The Munsters with Mom and Steve. She had felt so guilty about snooping in the basement and stealing from the Archives that she’d been too ashamed to skulk off to her room early—even though she had a perfectly good excuse of polishing her RPG dice, since the purple sparkly plastic had gotten a bit fingerprint-y as of late.
But she hadn’t cashed in on her dice excuse. Which meant Freddie hadn’t gotten to explore the stolen Archives books until well after midnight. By two AM, after finding seven more incidences (all of them translated in the margins like the first document) that matched up with her dad’s articles, Freddie’s eyes simply would not stay open any longer.
She passed out in an instant, but her sleep wasn’t restful. Instead, her dreams were filled with massacred animals and foggy shapes in the woods. Of bells pealing and screaming teenagers and blood on the leaves.
The final dream she had was of the Hangsman.
Made entirely of shadows, he stalked her through a starlit forest. She ran and ran, but never gained ground. And she never lost sight of him or his rope.
It did not have claws, but it did have flames, as if the Hangsman and his tool had been summoned straight from the pits of hell.
On Freddie clambered, the world a blur of black and white, until at last she reached the lakeshore and could go no further.
Then she had no choice. She had to stop. She had turn and face the Hangsman. Her dream-heart thundered; her mind was white with panic. Each step he stalked closer—a pulsing mass of darkness—the brighter his fiery rope burned.
Then he reached her. His hand outstretched.
And the shadows around him sucked inward. Like watching a tornado form, but in reverse. Until suddenly, it was not an ancient executioner standing before Freddie.
It was Theo Porter, frowning, restless, and offering her something clasped in his hand.
Freddie looked down.
He held a heart made of stone.
“Take it,” he said. “Only you know what to do with it.”
He was wrong, though. Freddie had no idea what to do with it. But she took it all the same, cold and beating and glinting in the darkness.
Then she awoke, sweaty. Panting. Confused by the sunlight flickering through her blinds. Perhaps most startling of all though, was that she had “I Want It That Way” stuck on repeat inside her brain.
“My profoundest apologies,” she croaked to the N’SYNC shrine in the corner of her room. Then she dragged herself from bed, turned on her CD player, and skipped ahead to track eight. It wasn’t until Justin Timberlake’s beautifully nasal crooning filled her bedroom that she finally felt safe again.
Now she just needed some coffee to wake her up. She had research to do on the Executioners Three today, and she needed her senses keen for that.
She wandered into her kitchen to turn on the Mr. Coffee, only to find Mom and Steve already sitting at the table. They were both fully dressed, and Mom had even brushed her hair.
“Uh…” Freddie said, rubbing her eyes. “Is this a mirage? Am I still asleep? It’s not even ten AM yet. Why are you two awake?” Mom and Steve were not early risers on the weekends.
“We thought we’d go to the Quick-Bis for breakfast.” Mom smiled with a degree of perkiness that suggested she’d already been up for at least an hour.
And then Steve matched that smile, and all Freddie could think was, The mind, it reels.
“Shall we go?” Mom asked.
“Uh,” Freddie repeated eloquently. She did want a biscuit, and it might even be worth the price of a Mom-fuss. But she also really wanted to scour her stolen documents—and maybe make a trip to the library too.
But once again, her guilt twinged a bit brighter than her hunger for answers. So with a sigh, she answered, “Alright. To the Quick-Bis we go.”
This earned a giddy clap from Mom and a soft, “Mmmm, biscuits,” from Steve.
“Just let me put on real clothes,” Freddie called, already rushing back to her room. One pair of tan corduroys, her favorite white peasant top, and an olive green cardigan later, she headed into the bathroom to put in contacts and brush out her hair (just in case she ran into Kyle).
Five minutes after that, Freddie found herself climbing into Steve’s trunk, and another fifteen later, they were all sinking into the same booth Freddie had shared with the prank squad only two days before.
It was weird.
It was extra weird watching her mom eat a biscuit. Steve did so with gusto—actually, he ate three biscuits with gusto—but Mom kept wincing and muttering about her arteries and how this was what had killed her grandfather.
Of course, after two bites, she shut up and just wolfed the whole thing down. And when Steve suggested ordering another, she nodded sheepishly. “Please?”
As soon as Steve was out of sight, Mom rested her hands on the table. “I have a proposal,” she said, expression Very Serious.
“Okaaaay,” Freddie drawled warily.
“I would like you to be in the Lumberjack Pageant—”
“Mom, no!” Freddie groaned and dropped her forehead to the table. “You promised me I wouldn’t have to do it my senior year,” she said into the linoleum.
“I’m aware. But,” Mom said, slipping into her terrible Godfather voice, “I’m gonna make you an offer you can’t refuse.”
Something tapped Freddie’s head. Something with sharp edges.
She lifted her head ever so slightly…and found the words, Nokia 3210 staring at her. Freddie jolted upright, joy swelling in her chest. “A phone? I get a phone?” She grabbed for the box.
And her mom yanked it back.
“First you have to promise to do the Pageant.”
Freddie hesitated, arms outstretched. “Why do you need me so badly?” Her eyes thinned. “I’ve been begging you for a phone for a year.”
Now it was her mom’s turn to hesitate. Then she sighed, shoulders deflating. “I’m worried we won’t have any volunteers, Fred. Normally we get at least a few phone calls asking about it, but I haven’t heard a peep this whole fall. And when I went around this week to make sure the fliers were still up where I’d put them”—she motioned toward a tiny board of local bulletins and business cards near the soda machines—“I found them all missing. So then I put up more, but look! They’re gone again.”
Freddie’s brows pinched tight. That was weird. “But that doesn’t mean no one will volunteer.”
“Freddie.” Mom placed the Nokia box back onto the table. “Do you want the phone or not? This is a one time offer—”
“Yes.” Freddie snatched it away. “I do, I do, I do!” Then before her mom could change her mind, Freddie tore it open. By the time Steve made it back to the table, she had it unwrapped and turned on.
“What are you going to name it?” He set down a fresh tray of biscuits and orange juice and then slid into the booth beside Mom. “Willow? Angel?”
“But that’s a different show,” Mom said, grabbing at her biscuit with velociraptor speed. “Shouldn’t you keep to a theme?”
“I am.” Freddie grinned. “Kickass ladies who don’t need stupid men.”
“Thanks,” Steve said through a mouthful of crumbs.
“You’re welcome,” Freddie replied. Then she turned to the phone, opened up Snake, and embraced the future of video games.