Freddie had only ever entered the County Hospital twice in her life. Once on the day of her birth. And second, on the day her father had died.
She’d only been five years old when Frank had passed away, but the beige linoleum floors and smell of rubbing alcohol had been forever branded onto her brain. She remembered her mother’s swollen eyes, and the way Mom had hugged Freddie so tightly that Freddie had thought her ribs might break. She remembered Steve’s pinched lips, and how he’d let Freddie have an entire Milky Way all to herself.
Above all, Freddie remembered the way the door into her father’s room had loomed before her. Room 27 with the silver knob at Freddie’s eye level. It had only opened twice the entire time she was there. She had never been allowed through.
She never got to say goodbye to Frank Carter.
They told her it was because it was too awful for a five-year-old to see, and she hadn’t argued. The blanched faces on the doctors, the way they had rushed in and out with scrubs and scowls—she’d been scared of what she might find within that room.
Then at 12:46 (Freddie knew because there was a clock on the vending machine), her mom had come out and told her that her dad had passed away. The heart attack had been too strong; Frank hadn’t been able to overcome it.
Freddie had tried to feel sad about this. It was what people seemed to expect from her. But she hadn’t been sad. In the hospital or at the funeral a few days later. How could she be when she’d barely known the man? As far as she was concerned, Steve was her real dad—and Frank was just a guy in some photos, who occasionally remembered birthday cards and came by on Christmas mornings.
Twelve years since Freddie come to this hospital. The linoleum had since been updated to a cool gray, and they’d added fake plants that did give the space slightly higher appeal. The alcohol smell was the same, though.
Freddie went straight to the front desk and asked to see Mrs. Ferris. The nice old man told her to head to the third floor, so after an elevator ride and two hallways, Freddie found herself walking into a tiny waiting area.
It looked identical to the one from twelve years ago. So much so that her throat closed up, and her feet stopped working midstride.
Over there was the vending machine. Beside it was the muted TV with closed captioning. Even the mauve seating looked exactly as she remembered.
But no. This wasn’t that waiting area. This wasn’t even the same floor.
And now someone else was sauntering into the room from the opposite hallway—someone with tawny hair and a navy blazer.
He caught sight of Freddie right as she caught sight of him, and just as Freddie had done three seconds before, Theo Porter drew up short.
While Freddie found herself gasping—because Theo looked awful. His left eye was swollen and purple, his jaw was worse, and even from across the room, she thought she could make out individual finger marks around his neck.
Without thinking—and completely forgetting the promise she’d made to Divya less than an hour ago—Freddie crossed the room.
Theo didn’t move. He just watched her approach, expression inscrutable. And the closer Freddie got, the worse he looked. Stitches cinched across his eyebrow. A gash marred his right cheek, and the top of his lip was busted too.
She stopped two paces before him and stared up. She itched to reach out, to touch. But her mind was smarter than her muscles. She balled her hands at her sides. “You look terrible,” she said instead.
He huffed a dry laugh. “Thanks?”
His chin tipped up so he could watch her from the bottom of his eyes. Assessing. Until at last answered: “I made the mistake of trying to do a good thing.”
“Oh.” It was all Freddie could say. Especially since she could relate to that sentiment—she’d done the exact same thing the week before, when she called the cops on a bunch of drunk kids.
But that had only earned her the enmity of an entire school. Not a pummeled face.
Theo cut past Freddie, aiming toward a chair (with a backpack upon it), and she followed a few steps behind. After knocking the backpack to the floor, he sank into the seat.
Freddie eased into the chair beside him. “Does it hurt?”
“I mean, it doesn’t feel great.” He picked at a loose thread on his blazer. “I see you got your camera back, huh?”
Freddie blinked, startled by the subject change—but also willing to play along. “Yes, I did.” She held out the Nikon. “Buffy, meet Theo. Theo meet Buffy.” She pitched her voice higher, like she’d just gulped back helium.“Hi, Theo! Don’t get too close or I’ll stake you in the heart!”
Theo did not laugh at this. In fact, he didn’t react at all.
And Freddie sighed. “No snooty retort for me, Mr. Porter?”
“Not today, Gellar.” His tongue flicked over his upper lip. He winced. Then shifted forward to brace his elbows on his knees.
Which left Freddie staring at his hunched profile, broken and defeated. It was so strange to see him that way. This was not the perfectly composed Theo of the Quick-Bis, nor the arrogant Theo from pageant practice. Nor even the restless Theo—the one she’d seen outside of Sheriff Bowman’s house.
This was sad Theo, and for some inexplicable reason, Freddie didn’t like it. “Is…is your grandmother really bad?” It was the only explanation she could conjure.
But he shook his head. “Actually, she’s doing okay. The doctors were able to stitch up the cuts on her back, and they don’t think the knock on her head will leave any permanent damage. Though…” He shrugged one shoulder. “It’s hard to know for sure until she wakes up.”
Freddie frowned down at her hands, guilt unspooling in her belly. “So she hasn’t woken up yet?”
“No.” Theo glanced her way. His expression softened. “She’ll be all right, though. Thanks to you. You are the one who found her, right?”
“Yeah,” Freddie tried to say, but it came out tight and low. “The thing is, though… I just…” She wet her lips. Fidgeted with Buffy.
“You just?” Theo nudged gently.
“It’s just…Well, it’s basically my fault she’s here at all.” Freddie covered her face with her hands. Then in a torrent of words, she told Theo all the terrible things she hadn’t had the guts to admit to Divya.
About how she should have stopped Mrs. Ferris. About how she should never gone back to get Steve. About how if she had just been stronger or smarter or a little bit faster, Mrs. Ferris wouldn’t be in the hospital at all.
Freddie didn’t know why she told Theo. Maybe it was because she didn’t feel like she deserved his gratitude, or maybe because the guilt was finally boiling over.
Or maybe it was just because he looked like shit and she felt like shit. There was something kinda comforting in that.
Either way, she reached the end of her story and without rising, she mumbled into her hands, “So you see? If I just been more forceful, then maybe she would never gone down that trail and whatever attacked her—”
A hand landed on Freddie’s shoulder. She broke off, lungs cinching.
“You know everything you just said is really stupid, right?” Theo bent over and tried to meet her eyes.
He smiled—the first smile since Freddie had walked in here. It was nice. “Most people would’ve gone by and ignored her, Gellar. In fact…” He straightened, pulling Freddie upright with him. “I bet people did go by and ignore her. But you didn’t. You saved her life and I’m grateful.” He shrugged. “I don’t have much family left.”
“Huh,” Freddie replied. Not her most clever retort, but it was hard to think straight when Theo was looking at her like he was right now. He had a very intense stare (clearly, that ran the family).
Plus, his fingers were still on her shoulder. They were warm.
“Do the police know what happened to her? Or the doctors?” Freddie was relieved she sounded like normal human. She didn’t feel like a normal human with his hand touching her like that.
“They’re saying it was a bear.”
“That was not a bear.” The words slipped out before Freddie could stop them. But Theo didn’t contradict her. If anything he seemed to agree.
And his hand was still resting on her shoulder.
“Whatever it was,” he said slowly, “I’m not sure we’ll know for certain until Gramma wakes up. My aunt is kinda preoccupied with something else right now.”
Not just your aunt, Freddie thought. Something was bothering Theo too—something more than his injured grandmother. Something that explained the shiner swelling around his left eye.
“What happened to you?” she asked softly.
Theo’s lips parted, as if he might answer. As if he wanted to even. But a heartbeat later, he only wagged his head. Then his hand fell away, and his gaze did too.
For some reason, this made Freddie sad.
“Hey, Theo,” she said before he could retreat within himself completely. “Can I ask for a favor?”
“Maybe.” A smile crossed his lips. He tapped his thumbs against his thigh. “Although my favors don’t come cheap.”
“Is that so?” Now Freddie was the one smiling. “Then how much would this cost: I need you to call me when your grandmother wakes up.”
“Ah.” His smile dissolved. “That I will do for free.”
“Oh.” Freddie swallowed.
“Here.” He crooked over and yanked a spiral-bound notebook from his backpack. After flipping to the last page and slipping a pen from his blazer pocket, he offered both to Freddie. “Write down your phone number.”
“Oh,” she repeated—though it came out more squeaky this time. This was the second instance in one week that she had given her number to a boy. And sure, Theo only wanted it because she had just asked him to call. But still, something about the way he was looking at her made it feel different.
Remember your vow to Divya! STAY STRONG.
Freddie was extremely careful not to brush Theo’s fingers as she took the paper and pen. Then, after scrawling down Sabrina’s number, she glanced up. “What’s your phone number?”
“No number,” he murmured, watching Freddie and not the paper. “I lost my phone last night.”
“Does that have anything to do with the black eye?”
“Okay, then.” Freddie ripped her gaze away from his. Heat was gathering in her belly, and she liked it a little too much. “Well, here’s my ICQ name, just in case.”
“ICQ?” He laughed. “Who the hell uses ICQ?”
“What do you use?”
“AIM, like normal people.”
“Pshaw.” Freddie rolled her eyes. “But fine, you don’t have ICQ, so here’s my email too—though I swear to god, Mr. Porter, if you use this information for anything nefarious, I will destroy you.”
“First of all, you couldn’t destroy me if you tried.” He bent toward her. His hair flopped over his eyes. “Second of all, I won’t misuse your info. I told you I’m not a Very Bad Human Indeed.”
Freddie bit her lip. She had no worthy response for this, and like yesterday, his declaration was making her whole chest ignite with sparklers. She very much wanted to lean in and—
She jerked up taller.
BAD. BAD. BAD. She’d sworn a sacred best friend vow, so what was she doing acting like this? Smiling and…and flirting? Divya would literally kill her, and it would be a completely appropriate punishment if she did.
“Listen,” Freddie said, her voice strained. “About the, um…” She swallowed. She couldn’t bring herself to say the word kiss, and now she was blushing like a summer tomato. “About what happened yesterday.”
“Yes.” Theo’s voice was low, and he was staring at her very, very hard. “About that.”
“I didn’t mean…That is to say…” Oh god, why was this so difficult? Freddie had made a promise; now she had to draw up boundaries. “We’re enemies, yeah?”
“We are.” His eyes thinned.
“So yesterday was just…” Spit it out, Gellar. SPIT IT OUT. “It was, um, just a one-off. Right?”
Theo tensed. An almost imperceptible movement. Then his thumb started tapping. “Obviously.” He shifted in his seat. Tap, tap, tap. “I mean, what is it you said on Saturday? You have that effect on everyone.”
Freddie’s mouth went dry. She had no idea how to respond to a statement like that. Once more, it felt like he was complimenting her—and once more, it left her heart fluttering strangely.
It didn’t help that he was looking at her again with a face that had gone very still.
“Thank you for understanding,” she forced out.
“Yep,” he replied, and he finally—finally—looked away.
Freddie handed the notebook back to him. “I hope I hear good news about your grandmother soon.”
“Yep,” he repeated, completely withdrawn now. Like a statue on a gravestone.
They were enemies. This was what Freddie had wanted. Capulets and Montagues, alike in dignity but never, never getting along.Yes, yes, yes, it was what she wanted.
Still, though—even though she knew it shouldn’t—her heart sank when she left the waiting area, trilling a goodbye…
And only stony silence followed after her.
Freddie tried very hard not to think about Theo Porter while she cycled away from the hospital. All the way through downtown Berm and into the drugstore to buy new film. Then while she huffed past the cemetery, and finally to the old church-turned-library that always flooded during storms. She even sang “I Want You Back” in time to her pedaling.
Not that it helped. N’SYNC could not erase Theo Porter from Freddie’s mind, and neither could her solemn vow to Divya.
When she reached the library, Freddie tried even harder not to think about Theo—while she chained her bike. While she dug up old books on the Executioners Three. While she tried (and failed) to figure out the microfiche reader, and then went searching for Miss Gupta in order to figure out said machine.
Even while Miss Gupta showed her how to insert the microfiche into the lenses, switch on the proper lamps, and print the resulting pages, Theo was still stuck in Freddie’s head.
The way he’d looked, all broken and beautiful, with his black eye and stitches. And the way his whole face had gone still when he’d said she had that effect on everyone…
“No,” Freddie groaned at the microfiche screen. Berm Sentinel headlines from October 1978 glared back at her. “No, no, no—”
“Is everything all right?” Miss Gupta asked from a few aisles away. Her tone, as always, was cheery and helpful.
Freddie tried to mimic it as she called back, “I’m fine! Just fine, Miss Gupta!” Because of course she was fine. Theo’s gorgeous, beat-up face might’ve taken over her common sense, but she had come here on a mission. And when Freddie Gellar was on a mission—when there was an answer out there that needed finding—she did not rest until it was complete.
Today, her mission was to acquire books on the Executioners Three (check!). And also to look at newspaper articles from 1978 and 1987. Anything that her father might’ve missed, anything that her gut felt was connected to the current chaos. She started with the Berm Sentinel, but she also grabbed newspapers from the neighboring towns.
There wasn’t much to find. Her father had been thorough, and she only came across the same articles he’d uncovered from 1978. Which…was…well, strange. Looking at the exact same article but within the context of the whole paper—it made Freddie’s joint stiffen weirdly. And her lungs roil like she had heartburn.
It also made her instincts sit up and take notice, and after working through all of the Berm Sentinel, she moved to the County Weekly. Here she found a few wild animal reports that corroborated what Frank had found, and an account of icebergs forming close to shore that made goose flesh trickle down Freddie’s arms.
There was also a report of a missing person, but they had been from Grayson County twenty miles away. Not connected, Freddie decided.
After thirty minutes of scouring articles, Freddie had all but given up on finding anything new. Until suddenly she came across a copy of the Grayson Gazette (a paper that didn’t even exist anymore) dated the first week of November 1978.
City-on-the-Berm Lumberjack Pageant Leaves Colonial Village, the headline read, and right away, Freddie’s gut set to squishing.
She hadn’t known the pageant had ever been hosted anywhere outside of the high school auditorium. And although this was a fun and interesting fact, the truly interesting part was why the pageant had moved.
Apparently the performance in 1978 had been disrupted by a teenager—drunk off his ass and screaming of satanic monsters in the woods. He had been partying with his cousin in the county park when both boys had been attacked. The cousin had been “taken” (according to the drunk boy), and though the cops found the boy’s body, they never found his head.
But that was all the article said: just a vague summary of a horrible murder and a traumatized drunk kid.
Freddie needed more.
After printing out the article, she dove back into the microfiche filing cabinets in search of more information. Somehow, in her gathering of articles, she had missed this specific day.
Except that when Freddie search for papers from October 22nd, 1978 (the day after this event had supposedly happened) there were none.
Absolutely none. No papers from any town or county for the day of October 22nd were anywhere inside this library.
“Uh, Miss Gupta?” Freddie called. Her gut wasn’t just awake now, it was hyped up like a chihuahua on crystal meth.
“Yes, Freddie?” Miss Gupta popped up beside her.
And Freddie flinched. (That woman could be a ninja, with stealth moves like those.) “There seem to be some days missing.” Freddie pointed at the gap in articles. “Could they have been misplaced? Or maybe loaned out to another library?”
Miss Gupta’s forehead wrinkled. As she flipped through all of the yellow microfiche folders, her frown only deepened. “How strange,” she murmured to herself. “There’s no reason these articles shouldn’t be here. Look.” She tapped a series of barcodes along the tops of the folders. “If these had been loaned out, the entire folder would be gone. But they aren’t. Very strange.”
Very strange was right.
“Maybe they got damaged and were removed?”
“Maybe,” Miss Gupta murmured, though she didn’t sound convinced.
And Freddie definitely wasn’t convinced. Those articles were important to her fact-finding mission—and really, what were the odds that they had all vanished on their own? “Is there somewhere else I could go, to read articles from that date?”
“You could go to all the newspapers’ offices,” Miss Gupta suggested, slipping the empty folders from the cabinet. She was frowning in a very un-Miss-Gupta way now. “They should all have archives—well, the ones that are still in business. Or,” she added, finally looking at Freddie. “The Roberta Hughes library keeps an extensive archive of periodicals.”
Of course they did. Freakin’ rich kids.
“It isn’t open to the public,” Miss Gupta went on, “but they offer special research key cards for people who want access. It only takes about a week to get one.”
A week? Freddie’s nostrils flared. She didn’t have a week. There were weird things happening in Berm that dated back actual centuries. Plus: dying animals, a suicide that definitely wasn’t a suicide, an injured Mrs. Ferris, and now another dead body.
“Do the students at RH have access to the archives?” Freddie scratched the back of her neck. So innocent. So casual.
“I presume so.” Miss Gupta’s smile returned. “The school is famous for its journalism program. Did you know that?”
No, Freddie hadn’t known that, and once more, she was left rolling her eyes at freakin’ rich kids. They had no idea how lucky they were.
Theo has no idea how lucky he is.
Then again, who was Freddie to fault the wealthy chosen ones? Particularly when they could help her. Noblesse oblige and all that.
After printing off a few more articles and checking out her Executioners Three books, Freddie hurried back into the overcast cold of midday. A few minutes later, and Divya’s dulcet tones were filtering through Sabrina.
“There you are, Fred! I’ve been waiting for hours.”
“It’s only been two hours since we left the school.”
“Where are you?” Freddie asked while she unlocked her bike. “Are you still with the prank squad?”
“Yeah. We just came up with our plan for tomorrow.”
“Oh?” Freddie pause, one leg swung over the bike. “What did you decide?”
“Crickets,” came a new voice. Laina. “We’ll release them in the school.”
“All that noise will drive everyone bananas,” Kyle chimed.
“And,” Divya picked back up, “we’ve already sent Cat and Luis out to every pet store and bait shop in a twenty mile radius. By tomorrow we should have a lot of crickets.”
Freddie had to admit: this was actually a brilliant idea. No, it was not on par with dead fish in the air ducts and a hell-blasting furnace, but that was what the Prank Wizard was for. Freddie could work with this baseline—and she could squeeze it to fit her own archive-researching needs.
“We’re just stuck,” Laina said, “because we don’t know how to get into the school. A night time sneak attack won’t work a second time.”
“And no one wants to go back through those creepy woods anyway,” Kyle muttered.
No one argued with this.
“So you got any ideas?” Divya asked.
Freddie summoned her loudest, most bellied-fueled laugh. “Do I have any ideas? Oh, Divya, never doubt the Prank Wizard.”
“Great. Then, let’s all meet at the Freidmans’ dry cleaners in ten minutes. Does that work?”
“Sure thing. See you in ten.” The call went dead (oh, the wonders of technology!) and after slipping Sabrina into a pocket and checking that Buffy was safely attached, Freddie set off once more into the autumn breeze.