Laura is a dead girl’s name. That’s your first thought when she introduces herself, all smiles, telling you about cheerleader tryouts like you aren’t dressed from head to toe in get-the-fuck-away-from-me. Pretty blondes like her are always ending up dead somewhere, in lakes or forests, murdered by someone who insists they did it out of love. No point getting attached to a walking dead girl like that. No point getting attached, period: a few months and your parents will catch a new case, and you’ll be on the road again. It’s better this way: in any relationship, you prefer to do the leaving.
But of course, you do get attached. And of course, Laura ends up in that lake.
Your father finds the body. It’s what he does best: dead flesh sings to him, beckons him forward to the dark and lonely places where corpses wait to be unearthed. It’s four a.m. when he finds her, but you don’t realize it, not then: you’re at home, asleep, dreaming of Laura and the moon.
She’s sitting beside you in a canoe, half naked. There’s nothing sexual about it: your crushes are all fictional characters, heroines in lipstick and menswear, and anyway, you’ve never had a sex dream before. It would be strange to start with Laura, who’s beautiful but miserable, who only laughs to change the subject and smiles at anyone she’s scared of. She stopped smiling at you three weeks ago, when you told her that you’re ace.
The moon is impossibly large. It takes up half the sky.
“I’m a werewolf,” Laura says. “Did you know?”
You didn’t, and it worries you: keeping tabs on people is your best subject at school, the only strategy that makes sense in the dog-eat-dog world of public education, where mean girls taunt queer kids into suicide and every gym teacher is a monster, often literally. Missing that your one and only friend is a lycanthrope? That’s a red F, especially for you: the whole reason you’re in this sad, California backwater is so your mom can stop the werewolf killing off the student body.
But then, you and Laura have always been so careful to speak around your secrets. We move around a lot, but never why you move around. My brother died, but not what killed him, not what your mother sacrificed to avenge him. Not what lives inside her now. Something has always lived inside Laura, too, something reckless and dangerous, hidden under pastels and repression. Maybe you got too dependent. Maybe you just didn’t want to know.
Laura’s bleeding: a straight line from neck to pelvis. Even her hair is dripping blood, droplets that dye the lake dark red. She doesn’t seem to notice. Her eyes are still on the moon.
“I had to do it. You’ll understand by the end.”
Spoken like the guilty. You really shouldn’t warn her: the murders have been grisly but methodical, a monster who means to kill. If it’s Laura, she deserves everything that’s coming. But.
We could run away together. We could leave it all behind.
“Don’t tell me any secrets,” you say. “I know things I shouldn’t in dreams.”
But Laura doesn’t listen. “The witch is on the squad. The proof is in the pocket. The confession is under the pew.”
Laura finally turns. Her skin isn’t the same white as yours; it’s ethereal, beaded with lake water. “You’ll find me, won’t you? Promise you’ll find me, Emily.”
But by the time you wake, it’s dawn, and your dad already knows exactly where to find Laura.
You tell your parents about the dream, most of it. They hear the words “proof” and “pocket” and take off, leaving you with black coffee and powdered donuts for breakfast, and only asking if you knew Laura as an afterthought. They’ve always been happy that you’re a loner. It’s safer, they say, if you don’t make friends. It’s not that they’re bad parents; they’re just not great ones. They love you so much they can’t help but fail.
You love them too, of course. It’s why you’ve stopped begging to go along on stakeouts; it’s why you’ve never snuck out to a party. It’s why you’ll never tell them anything you’re actually thinking. And when Laura—intense and glittering and mysteriously, surreptitiously drunk at ten in the morning—grabbed your hand in the back of church and asked you to run away with her, it’s why you said let’s wait till spring instead of yes, God yes, we could be free.
She’d laughed, said you’ll miss the sermon, as if coming to church had been your idea in the first place. Laura had very complicated rules about when and where you two could meet; she may have been your only friend, but you certainly weren’t hers. You were Laura’s goth little secret, kept hidden far from view. It didn’t bother you: standing up for your true friends was a sucker’s game when those friends would split town by Christmas. Laura was a survivor. You respected that.
But Laura didn’t survive, and you can’t just sit here, drinking coffee and waiting for your parents to return home with another dead monster to bury. Your dreams happen for a reason. They happen to you for a reason. Proof is something your mom needs—she won’t make a kill without it, no matter how much the beast inside her threatens and claws for release—but it’s not what you’re looking for. You’re not sure what you’re looking for, but “pocket” means zilch to you.
But then, that’s not all Laura said.
The witch is on the squad. The confession is under the pew.
The pew is at St. Vivian, and the only squad that matters in this town? The Kiss-Kiss Girls.
Your parents don’t understand these things. No point in telling them now. Laura is dead, but she still needs something from you.
First, you need something from her, too.
It’s a mistake, of course.
She’s not the first dead body you’ve seen. Your parents freak over your physical safety, but a little emotional damage is just common sense: how will you learn to steer clear of monsters if you don’t see just how much flesh they can pull away with their teeth? And dead monsters have to be disposed of quickly. More hands on deck means less time red-handed. You’ve held what’s left of the bodies, once your mother has completed her work.
But this is different; this is Laura. This is—
Part of the job. You wanted to be a detective, didn’t you? Morgues are for clues, not closure, and Laura is a case file now.
It’s the only way to survive.
So. Laura Young. 18. Kiss-Kiss Girl. Werewolf. Found in the lake, a few feet from shore. Viciously torn apart: torso split open, neck to pelvis, and covered in claw marks. Bitemarks, too. The rib cage shattered, the sternum snapped straight in half. Face untouched, no defensive wounds. Bled out in ankle-high water. How long did it take? How long did she suffer?
There’s something strange about the claw marks.
You can’t quite figure what. You blink, but then it’s not a body anymore, just piles of inside-out meat and chunks of things still tucked inside. Organs, they used to be organs, and you can see them, and you can smell—
You don’t make it outside before you vomit up Hostess: bile and white powder, everywhere. Can’t be helped now. Hastily, you clean it up and take off before Sheriff-Coroner Valento comes back, not that you expect him soon: the whole sheriff’s department is a dangerous mix of incompetent, understaffed, racist, and corrupt, and the morgue—about the size of your parents’ RV—is often left unattended. Breaking in was child’s play. Literally: you could’ve done this when you were nine.
Your dad texts as you hop on your bike. Third text in an hour. It’s always one of your parents, even when you’re at school: everything ok, they ask; are you alive, they mean, and sometimes, there’s this quaking inside you, this unsteady, vibrating force that threatens to explode—but you get it. Today, especially, you get it.
It was your father, of course, who found your brother’s body, piece by bloody piece. Really, it’s surprising your parents are as sane as they are.
Emily, everything ok?
Safe at home, you tell him, and ride your bike to St. Vivian.
The locks are better at St. Vivian. Have to like a town where the church has better security than the cooler. Six seconds more, and you’d have gotten it; instead, Father Gene nearly opens the door in your face, with the flushed and very married Mrs. Wickman two steps behind. Both are immediately defensive at the sight of you. We were just and why aren’t you and I won’t report you to the principal this time. Infidelity is so predictable, so sweaty, so boring.
You let Father Gene think he’s blackmailing you, rather than the other way around, then get what you wanted in the first place: the church all to yourself. You sit in the back pew, just like the last time you saw Laura alive. The confession is scrawled on pink pages and taped underneath the seat.
No one will understand this. Maybe no one will even find it. Message in a bottle, lost at sea. Probably for the best.
Five people are dead. He said it’s because he loves me, but that’s not what love is. Please believe that I wanted to stop him. I thought if I was perfect, I could keep him from killing anyone else, but I don’t know how to pretend anymore. I think I’m going crazy. It’s like I can feel my blood all the time, like any second, I might start screaming and never stop. He doesn’t want me like that. He’ll turn on me eventually.
I know I should have told someone. But no one will take my word over his, and anyway, nobody believes in werewolves. I have to leave. I have to do it tonight.
If you find this, take some free advice: don’t trust anybody who uses their love to tame you. And if Emily Abbott is still around, tell her I’m sorry I couldn’t wait. I think she’ll understand. I think we both knew it always had to be this way.
With shaking fingers, you fold the letter in half, and half again, and slide it into your backpack.
We could run away together, she’d said, words breathy, desperate. You could smell the booze on her lips. We could leave it all behind. Go anywhere we want. Be anything we want.
But running takes money that neither of you have, and anyway, your dad would collapse. Your mom would lose control. A lot of people could die. It’s a terrible power, being the only thing keeping your parents alive.
Would Laura still be alive if you’d said yes?
It’s too much right now. You can’t think about it.
Your phone chimes.
Everything’s fine, Mom. Find the killer?
[Jake Valento. You know him?]
Well. That’s predictable.
Jake Valento. 18. QB. Smug asshole. Abusive, killer werewolf, apparently, and the Sheriff’s only son. AKA, Emily’s boyfriend.
You’ve watched him, of course. Taken a few pics. Entitled, aggressive, a charmer, like every other football god you’ve ever met. But your paths rarely crossed: you didn’t share any classes, and Laura would never have allowed you two to talk.
Suffer with me at church, she’d said, when she’d meant Jake won’t see us here. Laura hadn’t been protecting herself. She’d been protecting you, all along.
[Early suspect, but had alibi. Proof now it’s fake. Hunting him down. Not at the HS. Dad got arrested.]
[Arguing w/ cops. They caught real wolf in woods, insist it’s the killer. You know your father.]
You do. It’s one of the things you like best about him. He’s not much of a fighter—the actual monster killing is all Mom—but look sidewise at an animal, and he’ll do his best to fuck your shit up. Need me to bail him out?
[Not yet. Doing some UC from jail. Need to confirm Sheriff is just incompetent, not involved. May be out late. Money for pizza in drawer.]
You sigh. Your mom doesn’t really need backup, but you’d still feel better if she had it. You’re not totally useless in a fight. Your parents made sure of that: the taser in your backpack isn’t ideal against a werewolf, but apply an electrical charge to the testicles, and most anything will feel it.
But Mom will never let you come along, and even if she did, you have another lead to track down, a date with a Kiss-Kiss girl.
It’s tempting to storm into school and shakedown every cheerleader you can find, but that way lies truancy write-ups and afternoon detentions; best to wait until after school practice. There will be practice, after all, even though the team’s best base just got disemboweled: murder has become commonplace at Kissinger High, and there’s a big game tomorrow night. Nothing gets in the way of football in a football town.
If you had a car, you’d park across school and wait; instead, you ride home and sink into the couch. You wish it would eat you. It doesn’t. Instead, you blink, and blink again, and then you’re back in the church, Laura at your side.
She’s wearing her Sunday Best: long sleeves instead of tank tops and cheap jeans without holes in them. Her eyes are yellow instead of blue. Blood still drips from her hair. There’s no one else in the church, but you can hear Father Gene’s sermon flickering in and out: the wantonness of women, the sin of adultery. What an asshole.
“I’m not what you think,” Laura says. It’s something she’s said before. You’d thought she meant I’m not the mask I wear, but you know better now.
“I hate this town.”
I don’t want to die here.
“You’re my only friend who gets it.”
You’re a timebomb, too, ready to go off.
“I think about a butterflies a lot.”
That, you’re not so sure how to translate.
She tapes her confession under the pew. “Do you think they remember being caterpillars? Do you think they regret it?”
But you don’t want to talk about caterpillars. You have your own confession. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry I couldn’t find you in time.”
“But you haven’t even started looking. Here. Take this.”
It’s a scarf, black and glamorous and absurdly long. There’s pink lettering stitched into the silk: don’t let them tame you.
But then the scarf is wrapped around your throat, choking you and choking you, and when you wake up, it’s still there, and Dead Laura is the one tightening the noose, all her insides spilling outside, and that smell, that smell—
Until it dissipates and you can move again, breathe again, if too rapidly. Until your dead friend vanishes back into your own head.
Fucking sleep paralysis. Fucking bullshit metaphors.
Practice has already started by the time you get back to Kissinger. You find a good spot, scope out the likely suspects.
Ana Alba, AKA, Double A. 17. Flier. Tiny and vicious. Student Council VP, won on empty campaign promises like gelato vending machines. Serial Snapchat cyberbully, and—oh, that’s surprising: she’s landed badly, falling backwards. She’s—
Caught by Veronica Liu. 17. Spotter. One of only two Asian kids in all of KH. Sits to your right in Remedial Math, where she ignores the daily lesson to work on English papers for anyone who will pay. Clever, and clever enough to hide it. Just the kind of girl you try to avoid—although not as much as you avoid Jessica Cassidy, 18, Cheer Captain and bleach-blonde giraffe. Also: Academic Decathlon star, Glee Club washout, and UCLA hopeful—or, at least, determined to land somewhere more prestigious than a state school or local JC. Basically, a mega-bitch, type A on methamphetamines.
You’re sure Jessica will scream at Ana for her sloppy landing; instead she just sighs and calls for a break. The whole team seems out-of-sorts today. Maybe the murders are getting to them, after all. Maybe cheerleaders are more human than you thought.
Five minutes into the break, and you spot it: Ana on the grass, rubbing her ankle, and Veronica palming her something on the sly. Drugs, you think at first, but no: it’s a charm bag.
That’s good enough for you.
You leave the Kiss-Kiss Girls, wait for Veronica by her ancient deathtrap of a Fiero. It’s another forty minutes until she arrives, back in her civvies, hair still wet. She isn’t intimidated, of course. Why would she be? She’s a witch, and popular, and she’s got six inches on you. “Something you wanted, Marceline?”
You don’t know the reference. Don’t care enough to ask. “Did Laura come to you for a spell?”
That stops her, but only briefly. “What are you—”
“I’m psychic, you’re a witch, and my friend was a werewolf, only now she’s dead. Can we skip the denial bullshit, please? I need to know why I dreamt about you.” She opens her mouth, and you hold up a hand. “Please don’t say it’s because I’m a lesbian. I am, it’s not, and you’re smarter than that.”
Veronica sighs. “Look, I can guess about the killer, but—”
“Already got that covered. He’ll be dead soon enough.”
There’s too much satisfaction in her voice. Is it possible she and Laura were true friends, after all? “Did she come for a spell? Did you meet her at the lake?” Maybe it wasn’t witchcraft Laura wanted, but a ride; hard to skip town without one. Did she ask for a lift? Did Veronica show up too late? At all?
Veronica leans against her car, pulls out a Juul. “Sorry,” she says, exhaling. “Don’t think I can help you.”
So much for friends.
You don’t have the cash to buy her off, so you lean beside Veronica instead and show her a few pics you took in Remedial Math. “Hate for these to show up in the wrong inbox,” you say. “Didn’t you just apply for some fancy writing scholarship?”
Veronica tilts her head, lips curled. Helpful, seeing what anger looks like on her face. “Yeah,” she says. “All right. Laura needed a spell. Dangerous magic, existentialist shit. She said it was her only way out. Looked like she meant it, so I helped.”
You snort. “And how much did that cost?”
“As much as she had,” Veronica says, matter-of-fact. “Dangerous magic isn’t cheap, and even fancy writing scholarships aren’t full rides.”
She has a point, but you’re either too exhausted or too petty to concede it. “What was the spell?”
“The anima bisection,” Veronica says. “I don’t know; I didn’t name it. Some old auntie must’ve really been into Jung. Anyway, it’s not something most people survive. Can’t be a stock character.”
A normal person, she means. “What does it do?”
“What it sounds like: it splits your essence in half.”
“Like . . . a Horcrux?”
Her lips twitch. “More like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. You read that in DeWitt’s class yet?”
Well. You got assigned it, anyway. “I know the basics.”
“Right. Look, it’s not a split between good and evil. Not even id and ego, more like . . . your past self and some possibility hiding inside you. Between the wild—”
“And the tamed.”
Veronica exhales. Her smoke rings look more like wormholes. “Whatever half you lose,” she says, “you lose for good.”
You think about that.
You think about those strange claw marks, all that inside-out meat: torn apart, obviously, but from outside or from within?
You think about Laura, who couldn’t be perfect anymore. Laura, who had something dangerous and reckless living inside, Laura, who wanted to live, who couldn’t wait, who knew you wouldn’t follow. Couldn’t, for more reasons than one.
You think about the memories of butterflies, and of all their left-behind caterpillar friends.
“You understand now,” Veronica says. “Don’t you? You get what really happened?”
There’s a very fine tremor in her fingers. You didn’t notice it before, but some lingering signs of trauma are understandable. She was at the lake. She saw it all.
Laura was right. In the end, you do understand why she did it.
“I get it,” you say. “I know how to find her now.”
It may require a mask and bolt-cutters and tasing some hapless Animal Control officer, but eventually, you sneak the wolf out of the impound and into the passenger seat of Veronica’s car. She helpfully loaned it to you, after you deleted any incriminating photos from the Cloud.
You drive to the edge of the woods, open the door. The wolf quickly jumps, making a beeline for the trees, before stopping and looking back at you.
Her eyes are yellow, fierce and unforgiving.
“We could still leave it all behind,” you tell her. Your voice is scraped raw. “We can take Veronica’s car, go anywhere we want. Be anything we want.”
But that was always a pipe dream, wasn’t it, one that belonged to the Laura who died in the lake. Whatever’s left of her now has dreams of her own, and they’re not yours to share.
You did what she needed. You found her. But you knew from the start: you would always be too late.
You never had time to save the Laura that loved you.
She blinks at you once, twice, then turns away and disappears into the woods.
You go home.
No one’s there. You order pizza, take a bite and immediately start crying. Who knows why. Laura didn’t even like pizza.
You cry until you fall asleep.
It’s the church again. No one else is inside, but you can hear Laura’s howls flickering in and out. Hopefully, she ate Father Gene.
There’s another letter taped under the pew.
You could be a butterfly too, it says, if you wanted.
But Laura isn’t a butterfly. She’s a caterpillar who cut herself in half to survive. And maybe that would keep you from imploding, too; maybe you could buy the spell off Veronica, somehow, save yourself. Shed this sense of suffocating responsibility, this skin of obedient daughter, of teenage girl, and embrace whatever wondrous possibility hides inside you. Maybe you could be some wandering spark, pure investigative inspiration: a muse that loves briefly, then moves on. Always the one who leaves first, and is never left behind.
But that makes your parents dead caterpillars, doesn’t it, in this bullshit metaphor? You still can’t stand for that, and anyway, you don’t want to be half a thing.
You turn the paper over. I can be wild, you write, without being killed by my own scarves.
Your phone wakes you up. Coordinates. Your mom has finished the hunt. You grab her a change of clothes and bike back to the fucking woods.
She’s covered in blood, of course, eyes still black. There are two corpses at her feet: Jake and Sheriff-Coroner Valento. Jake died mid-shift. They both died screaming. Their skin hangs off their bones, like ribbons.
You nod at Valento. “Human?”
More human than your mom, then. The kind of monster who covers up his son’s murders, time and again. Not the kind desperate to avenge her own son—Kyle Abbott, 14, skipped-a-grade-smart and helplessly goofy—not the kind who sings her eight-year-old daughter to sleep, then sneaks out to the crossroads and agrees to house a devil. More human than your dad too, who’s always been drawn to the dark and lonely places, who found the Old Ones cultists, piece by bloody piece, and helped your mom bury them, rather than locking her away.
More human than you too, maybe, as you pick up a shovel and casually bury what’s left. Split apart or stitched together, that’s always been the person you are: you’ll bury or blackmail anyone in order to survive, to follow the clues, to help your family, to save what’s left of a friend.
But you can’t stay caged anymore. You have to open your mouth.
You wait until your dad is released, until you’re all back home, celebrating with milkshakes. You say, “I love you both, just so goddamn much, but put me in the game, or I walk.”