Interlude: Theo

Theo Porter wasn’t in the mood to watch his fellow students get drunk again.

Yet here he was on the lakeshore, sitting on a piece of driftwood, freezing off his ass, and wishing he hadn’t come.

Every one of these people—Davis, Kelly, Mark, Tiana, and all the rest—had gotten arrested last week. Yet not a one of them seemed to care because their rich parents could wipe their records clean with a bit of cash.

Theo didn’t have that. In fact, the school was currently reviewing his scholarship, and any day now, he was going to find himself back in Chicago. Back in his dad’s shitty apartment and the shitty school three blocks away that he’d worked so hard to get away from. The money he’d saved selling booze wasn’t enough to get a place of his own—and he wasn’t old enough anyway.

And that was just one more shitty thing: if Theo moved back home, then it would be the final proof that he’d screwed up everything. Because he couldn’t get a full ride to the Northwestern Journalism program anymore. Not with this arrest record to haunt him. So really, why had he even bothered saving for expenses?

Madison joined Theo on the log. The wind off the lake pulled at her thick curls. Her black skin gleamed beneath the moonlight.

She had the tolerance of someone twice her size, and the one bottle of grain alcohol that Garrett had brought was, apparently, not doing the trick. She looked as pissed as Theo was about being here.

“Cigarette?” she offered, holding out a box of menthols.

“Sure.” Theo didn’t like smoking, but sometimes, you just needed an outlet that killed you a little.

She lit it for him, and together, they sucked their lives away. It burned Theo’s throat. Mint-flavored death.

“Not drinking tonight?” Madison asked, eying the ruckus twenty feet away. Davis had insisted on a small bonfire, even though Theo had told him it was a mistake.

“No.” Smoke twined between his teeth as he spoke. “Not tonight.”

“Not feeling it?”

“No,” he said, even if that wasn’t true. He’d worked hard to cultivate an image. He was one of them; he belonged here; he too lived a life free from consequence.

Madison flicked ash onto the beach. “I heard you made out with that Berm High chick.” She grinned sideways. “Trying to break her heart?”

Theo didn’t answer that question. He just drew in another long drag, and then held it there. Smoke poisoning his lungs and shredding his tonsils.

The truth was, he had no idea what had happened between him and Freddie Gellar on that stage.

The truth was, he had no idea what had happened between him and Freddie Gellar at those picnic tabes either.

And the truth was, he knew absolutely nothing about her, yet he’d barely thought of anything else for the past three hours.

Which wasn’t right. She was the enemy. She had gotten him arrested. She was the reason his entire future had dried up in a single night.

He was supposed to hate her. It made no sense to him that he didn’t.

Theo exhaled, a haze to hide the dark waves and darker sky.

Beside him, Madison fell into silence. He appreciated that, and they reached the ends of their cigarettes without conversation.

“Give me your cig,” Madison said, after rubbing hers out in the cold sand.

“Why?” Theo snuffed his out too. “What’re you gonna do with it?”

“There’s a trash can by the cars.” She smiled slightly. “Don’t wanna litter and all that.”

“I can take ‘em then.” Theo plucked her cigarette from her hand and pushed to his feet. “I want a walk anyway.”

“Thanks,” she called after him.

He didn’t respond. Tonight words just weren’t worth the effort.

Theo aimed for the dark trail that led to an abandoned logging road. He didn’t know how Davis had found this place. He didn’t know how Garrett had gotten the grain alcohol either. Two months ago, when he’d still been new here, Theo would have panicked at that. He couldn’t stay on top if the popular kids found other sources for their booze. But now…

Now, none of it mattered. He wasn’t long for this town anyway.

Theo tromped over pine needles. The full moon leeched the woods of color and depth, but he had no trouble seeing the way.

He wondered what Freddie was doing right now.

Theo reached the cars, his own Silver Sweetheart and Tyson’s Wrangler. Beyond them, he found the trashcan. It stank like death. Like someone had left a carcass in there to slowly decompose.

Or, so he thought, but when he actually lifted the lid to drop in the butts, he found the metal canister was empty.

Chills slithered down Theo’s spine. He thought back to Wednesday night. To the baby raccoons and the figure he’d seen by the road.

There were noises in the woods now too. Hard to distinguish against the ceaseless wind, but there all the same. Rhythmic and steady.

Someone was walking this way.

Then a scream split the night. Theo jerked around—it was so loud, so bloodcurdling and close. A woman’s vocal cords stretched to their ends.

And deep, deep in the back of Theo’s brain, a single word unfurled: Come.

So without thought, Theo went.

He strode into the woods, moving toward the scream. Moving toward the strange word that fired from neurons at the base of his skull. A word that coiled around his muscles and commanded them. Not once did he find it strange; not once did he really consider.

Theo Porter simply moved.

His feet thrashed over unseen roots and saplings. His ankles rolled. Branches sliced at his cheeks, and the screams grew louder with each step. Until finally he ran into Felicia, sprinting through the pine trees toward him. At the sight of Theo, she screamed again.

This time, there were words though. “Body!” she shrieked. “There’s a body in the woods!”

“No head,” Tyson stammered, stumbling up behind her. His enormous eyes gawped at Theo. “He’s got no fucking head.

Of course not, said the voice in Theo’s mind. But he didn’t hear that voice, so much as obey it.

“Go,” Theo told them, detached. “Go back to the car.”

Felicia and Tyson needed no urging, and though the front of Theo’s brain told him he ought to chase after them, the back of Theo’s brain thought otherwise. Those neurons would not let his body comply, and his feet just kept on carrying him into the trees. Over more unseen roots and saplings, through more razor-sharp branches.

Until at last, Theo stumbled from the trees and into a moonlit clearing.

Where a massacre met his eyes. Blood everywhere, sprayed on tree trunks, splattered across the fallen leaf carpet. And at the center: a rigid male body leaning against a fallen pine.

A male body without a head.

And just like that, the cool detachment fled. The voice that commanded Theo released him, and the reality of what waited before him whooshed in.

He staggered backward, unable to control his gag reflex. His vision blurred. He shouldn’t have come—why had he come?

And now other people were running this way. He could hear them approaching. They shouldn’t see this, though. No one should have to see this.

“Stay where you are!” His voice cracked. He tried again, louder. As forceful as he could make it. “Don’t come this way! Go back to the cars.”

Then he saw Madison through the trees, and beside her was Davis—a hulking linebacker.

“Go back!” He shouted again, and this time he hurried toward them. “It’s not safe!”

He reached Madison, who was asking, “What is it? What happened, Theo?”

Theo just shook his head and pulled his phone from his pocket. He should have done this from the start. He never should have followed those screams.

Theo plugged in 911, and the call connected. “911. What’s your emergency?”

“There’s a body,” Theo said, and Madison clapped a hand to her mouth. “It’s by the lakeshore in City-on-the-Berm county park—”

Theo didn’t get to finish. Davis slammed into him, so hard Theo crashed to the ground. The phone went flying through the woods.

“What are you doing?” Davis roared. He climbed onto Theo, drunk and wild-eyed. “You can’t call the fucking cops!”

“There’s a body in the woods!” Theo tried to shove off Davis, but Davis was twice his size. He just buried his knee in Theo’s chest.

“We’re out here drinking!” Davis shoved harder. “D’you wanna get us all arrested again?”

Of course Theo didn’t want to get arrested again. But there was a fucking body in the woods. Before he could bellow this at Davis, though, red brake lights flooded the forest.

Which meant Tyson must be fleeing.

Theo used the moment—the brief surprise on Davis’s face—to swing. A hard hook to the jaw, then a bucking of his hips. Davis tipped sideways, enough for Theo to flip him onto his back.

“Call 911,” he told Madison in the brief moment he had before Davis swung. Then Davis’s fist connected with Theo’s nose, and suddenly Theo was punching back too.

He and Davis rolled. They writhed. They clawed and wailed and Theo lost all concept of how many hits he landed—or how many hits he took. It wasn’t until a shrieking Madison shoved between he and Davis, and then Garrett thundered in too, that Theo finally managed to break free.

He dragged himself away, limping and panting. Everything was on fire. His face, his ribs, and above all, his brain.

There was a body in the woods. A hundred yards behind them—a fucking body with no fucking head.

And something still sparkled at the nape of Theo’s neck. A single command he didn’t quite hear.

“The cops are coming,” Madison said, pitching her voice over Davis’s swears. “I called them,” she added, “and we need to leave before they get here. But your car is the only one left, Theo. Are you good to drive?”

“Yep,” he muttered, even though he wanted to leave Davis here. Even though he wanted to see that rich prick get arrested all over again and deal with some fucking consequences for once in his goddamned life.

But Theo knew that would only make his own life hell in the long run. So after wiping blood off his face and knuckles, Theo shambled to his Civic and drove everyone—including Davis—back to campus.

He didn’t sleep that night.

 

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