Freddie did not go back into Berm High. She couldn’t stand the thought of her mom’s squealing or the RH students leering. Besides, she was in desperate need of legitimate psychoanalysis, and there was only one person on the entire planet she trusted for that.
Also, she needed to get rid of Justin Timberlake.
“Take him back.” Freddie’s eyes screwed shut and she held out the keychain like a toxic dead thing. “I don’t want him. His magic is broken, and now he feeds off only darkness.”
“Huh,” was all Divya said in reply. She tipped out of her family’s front door and examined the short space between porch and street. “Where’s your bike? Wait—did you just walk here?”
“From the school, yeah.” Freddie shuffled inside, JT still kept far from her person. “It’s only two miles.”
“Yeah, but…” Divya frowned at the sky before shutting the door. “It’s, like, super dark outside.”
“I hardly noticed.” Freddie rubbed the side of her face. “Please just reclaim Justin. I am in great distress, Div.”
Divya’s eyebrows shot high, and for the first time since Freddie’s arrival she took a long, hard look at her best friend. Then her eyes locked onto Freddie’s neck, and her jaw slung low.
“Oh. My. God.” She grabbed Freddie’s chin and tipped it up. “Is that a hickey?”
Heat ignited on Freddie’s face. She nodded miserably. “Probably.”
“Oh my dear Honey-Baked Ham, let’s go to my room.” Divya laced her fingers into Freddie’s and towed her out of the foyer, up the carpeted stairs, and into her bedroom, where sounds of Nirvana drifted through the wall from her brother’s room.
“Aren’t you going to take Justin—”
“Fine.” Divya snatched him back and pushed him into her own pocket. “Though it’s your loss, Fred. Your loss.”
Once the door was shut, Divya flung herself onto her bed and Freddie flung herself onto the floor. Face down. Nose into the carpet. “I’ve made a huge mistaaaaake, Divya.”
“How?” Bed springs creaked as if Divya were shifting positions. “I thought you were madly in love with Kyle. Surely making out with him is what you want.”
Freddie moaned and covered the back of her head with her hands. “It wasn’t Kyle I made out with.”
“Wait, what?” A thump shook the house, and suddenly Divya was on the floor beside Freddie and trying to peel back Freddie’s hands. “Who the heck did you make out with then?”
Freddie groaned into the carpet.
“You don’t know any guys, Frederica Gellar.” Divya tugged and tugged. “Tell me right this instant who you made out with!”
Freddie curled into a sideways ball. “It’s the enemy,” she whispered to her knees. “The Leonardo DiCaprio to my Claire Danes.”
“The…Leonardo?” Divya’s voice pitched upward in confusion. “I don’t understand—”
“Theo Porter, Div. I made out with Theo Freaking Porter.”
Divya gasped—a great in-burst of air that was the loudest gasp Freddie had ever heard. So loud she thought Divya’s lungs might have seized and CPR was necessary.
Freddie unfurled, all ready to try out her best Baywatch life-saving techniques on Divya…only to find Divya was not in need of assistance. Oh no, Divya was lunging in close, grabbing Freddie’s wrists, and now pinning them to the sides of her head.
“Please,” Divya snarled, “tell me this is a joke.”
Freddie cringed and shook her head.
“So you actually kissed Theo Porter? The Theo Porter from Roberta Hughes Preparatory School? The guy who dumped water all over us on Friday?”
All Freddie could do was nod. And nod some more while Divya continued to list all the reasons Theo Porter was a Very Bad Human Indeed.
“The Theo Porter you got arrested last Wednesday? The Theo Porter that’s the Sheriff’s nephew—”
“Wait, you knew about that?”
“Everyone knows about that.”
“Because you’re a terrible pie.”
“Whatever.” Divya released Freddie’s wrists, and pushed back onto her haunches. “You can’t tell anyone about this, Fred. This is worse than…than Cartorrans and Marstoks colluding. Or Marstoks and Dalmottis. Or Nubrevnans and Cartorrans—”
“You’re just naming every Witchlands empire.”
“Because they’re all enemies!” Divya countered. “Although,” she murmured to herself, “this does give me a good idea for that campaign I’m working on. Maybe a kiss with the Imperial Prince is in order…”
“Oooh,” Freddie crooned. “You could make it part of my Truthwitch’s conning abilities: a Distracting Kiss.”
“Oh yeah.” Divya grinned. “I like that…but hey, wait. You can’t distract me so easily, Frederica Gellar.” She zoomed in close again.
And Freddie screwed her eyes shut.
“We just made some actual friends, and if they find out what you’ve done, they’ll question your loyalty.”
“And I really like Laina, okay?”
“I know.” Shame coiled in Freddie’s lungs.
“You haven’t told anyone about this, right? So no one has to know?”
“Uh…” Freddie chewed her lip and squeezed open one eye. “Actually, a whole swarm…or is it a nest? Doesn’t matter.” She shook her head. “A bunch of RH Prep students saw us and—”
“Nooooo, Freddie. Say it isn’t so.”
“—but, they didn’t see all of it.” Pushing Divya back, Freddie hauled herself into a sitting position. The room spun. “All they saw was the part that looked like a prank. By me.”
Divya wagged her head. “Just tell me everything that happened, please.”
“Okay, yeah. I can do that.” Freddie’s head rolled back. She stared at Divya’s ceiling (covered in glow-in-the-dark stars), and began, “So my mom is making me do the Lumberjack Pageant right? And today was the first rehearsal…”
It was well after dark by the time Freddie left Divya’s. She borrowed a jacket (it had gotten super cold), called her mom (on Sabrina!) to tell her where she was, and then set out for a brisk walk home. It led her through downtown Berm, where people were out on the sidewalks, peering into closed shop fronts or gliding into the town’s only “fancy” restaurant, Amore’s.
Freddie hurried past Mr. Binder’s wine shop (closed) and the Frame & Foto (also closed), and then one block after that, she left downtown behind. She had just reached the intersecting road that would lead up to her house when she spotted a figure further on, hunched and hustling.
Freddie instantly knew who it was: Mrs. Ferris—who also happened to be Sheriff Bowman’s mother.
And, now that she was considering it, she supposed that also made her Theo’s grandmother.
Wow, she really should have made all these connections sooner.
Everyday, Mrs. Ferris power-walked around the neighborhood. “You don’t stay healthy at age eighty-one otherwise,” she always said. Then she’d ask if Freddie had a boyfriend—or a girlfriend because she was Very Progressive for her age—and when Freddie inevitably said no, she would laugh and say, “Good. Stay away from love. I went through three husbands, and not a one was worth the hassle.”
Of course, this wasn’t Mrs. Ferris’s usual strolling time (early afternoon) and she wasn’t moving at her usual pace (a turtle’s speed at best).
In a heartbeat, Freddie’s gut started growling. She kicked into a jog. “Mrs. Ferris!” she called. But the wind gusted against Freddie and carried her words away.
So she just dropped her head and pumped her legs harder until at last she’d caught up to the ancient lady further uphill (and well past Freddie’s own house). “Mrs…Ferris,” she panted, slowing to a walk. “Are you…all…right?”
Mrs. Ferris didn’t even glance at her. “Frederica, you should get home.”
“So should you.” Freddie dragged a sleeve over her forehead and wiped away sweat—though the wind was doing a serviceable job of drying it. “It’s after nine. Don’t you go to bed then?”
The old lady didn’t answer the question. Instead she asked, “Is the old path to City-on-the-Berm still there? The one that cuts through at the end of this street?”
Freddie’s face scrunched up. “Yes, but it’s not lit. And it’s also not safe.”
“Doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter. I’m already too late as it is.”
“Late for what? Mrs. Ferris, please.” Freddie grabbed for the old lady’s arm. “Stop walking.” Freddie’s fingers closed around Mrs. Ferris’s jacket, the down compressing until she reached a feeble elbow.
And the woman finally paused, turning her wrinkled face toward Freddie. “I can’t stop, don’t you see? I must put an end to this.”
Freddie shook her head. “An end to what?”
“Someone is already dead because I got lazy. I thought…” She lifted a gnarled finger to scratch at her chin, her gaze turning distant. “I thought it was over. Four cycles came in my lifetime, and yet they never called to me. They never woke up.” Her eyes honed in on Freddie’s face again. “Why didn’t they wake up?”
“Who?” Freddie asked.
“I never taught my children how to shut them out, and none of the other families did either.” Mrs. Ferris’s lips trembled, as if she might cry. “I was a dithering old fool, Frederica. We all were, and now the whole town will pay. They’ll kill us all, you know. Just like they did in the beginning.”
“Who?” Freddie cried, desperate now. Her stomach felt like tentacles, and it was squeezing the life from her lungs. “Who will kill us all?”
“You know who, Frederica. I can see it in your eyes that you know. The Three have returned, and I am much too late.” With far more strength than Freddie would have though possible, Mrs. Ferris yanked her elbow free and set off up the street once more.
“Let me give you a ride,” Freddie shouted. Yet Mrs. Ferris didn’t slow, and Freddie hadn’t really expected her to.
With a gulp, she spun around and aimed once more down the hill. She needed help. She could never convince Mrs. Ferris on her own and she couldn’t justify tackling an old woman.
In seconds, Freddie skidded to a stop before Sheriff Bowman’s house. But the lights were off and no cars filled the driveway. So she shoved back into a sprint, and moments later, she slung through her own front door and shouted, “Mom! Steve!”
Steve’s head popped out from the kitchen. “What is it, Fred?
“I need to take…your…truck.” She was gasping for air—partly from exertion, but mostly from fear. “It’s Mrs. Ferris. She’s walking up toward the park trail, and she’s being really weird. Can I please take your truck?”
Instantly, Steve’s jaw set, and though it was clear he had no idea what Freddie was talking about, he abandoned whatever he’d been doing and strode toward her. “Let’s go.”
By the time they had backed out of the driveway in his Silverado, Freddie had managed to offer a slightly coherent explanation of Mrs. Ferris’s behavior—and Steve had also started to panic a bit. “She’s always been cooky, but this could get her killed. The trail entrance is almost a mile away, and people drive really fast on that road.”
Freddie only nodded. She wanted to puke. Her gut was screaming at her to hurry—that she was probably already too late. Blood and claws and dead men hanging.
In a squeal of tires and a cough of exhaust, Steve veered onto the main road. Freddie strained to see ahead, but all the blips of light beneath street lamps were empty. There was no one on the road, and soon enough the truck had zoomed the full mile to where the trail began.
But still Mrs. Ferris was nowhere to be seen. Steve yanked up his parking break, and the car sputtered into silence before the trail’s shadowy entrance. “She probably went down there.” He kicked open his door and hopped out. He had to yell over the wind. “I’m going to look for her, and I want you to call the Sheriff!”
Freddie nodded. “Be careful!” she shouted, already plugging in the number to the police station—and cursing herself for not having done this sooner. She wasn’t used to having Sabrina.
The driver’s door slammed shut, rattling through the truck. “Pick up, pick up, pick up,” Freddie murmured, her knees bouncing like crazy. “Pick up!” But no one did and she got Bowman’s answering machine.
Which left her calling 911.
Yet before she could hit send on that call, her phone screen lit up.
“Yeah?” she said after after hitting the answer button.
“I found her, Fred.” Wind roared into the phone. “She’s unconscious, just beyond the tree line. Someone…or something attacked her.”
Freddie’s breath choked off. “I’ll call 911 right away.”
“Do it. And let’s hope we’re not too late.”