Needing to drop off my books and grab my English text for homework, I headed to my locker with Linds, crossing paths with Gavin, who ended up tagging along. The black shirt he wore had more wrinkles in it than an elderly home.
“You should volunteer to help out with the haunted farmhouse this year.” Linds eyed Gavin like he needed to have a reason to be where he was.
“Huh?” He frowned, appearing distracted.
“The haunted farmhouse,” Linds repeated, sighing as I stopped in front of my locker. “You know. The thing we do every year that you never help with.”
“Also the thing that Linds cons me into doing every year,” I added, hiding my grin when she shot me a dirty look.
“Oh yeah. That.” Gavin leaned against the locker beside mine. “You know, not interested.”
Linds frowned, but like one of those tenacious small dogs, she wasn’t ready to drop it yet. “You know, you should be interested. Volunteering builds good karma. And you want good karma, right?”
“I’m pretty sure volunteering for Habitat for Humanity brings good karma,” he reasoned, glancing over at me with a slight smile on his face. “Not volunteering for a stupid haunted attraction on the other hand . . .”
“You’re going to Hell for that,” Linds replied.
“I’m not sure that’s helping your case.” Laughing, I opened my locker door and came face to face with a wide smile and black, empty eyes. A scream burst out of me as I leaped back, dropping my bookbag on the floor.
“What the hell?” Gavin pushed off the locker, swinging around so he faced mine. “Jesus.”
Linds clapped both of her hands over her mouth.
Hanging from a rope off the small hook in the back of my locker was a nearly identical replica of the mask the attacker had worn—the same kind of mask I’d found on my bed but had disappeared as if it had never been there.
It had the same wide, red smile and large, empty eyes.
My heart kicked in my chest as I squeezed my eyes shut. Arms went around me, turning me away from the locker. It was just a stupid mask, but good God, seeing it again froze the blood in my veins. All I could see was the mask inches from my face and feel the hands around my neck, squeezing the life right out of me.
Someone smothered a laugh behind me. Or attempted to. Another person issued a harsh curse. I pressed my face against Gavin’s chest, wanting to wash away the image of the mask. The trembling edge of panic crept over me.
“What’s going on?” boomed the deep voice of Mr. Holden, our English teacher. “Hey, what is . . . ?”
Gavin stepped back, pulling me with him, and I knew the moment the teacher had arrived. I opened my eyes as Mr. Holden stopped in front of us.
“This is ridiculous!” shouted Mr. Holden, snatching the mask out of my locker. “Masks? Dead birds? These are not funny, people. Have some common sense.”
As Mr. Holden raged on about the “seriously disappointing level of maturity” in the school, Gavin and Linds quickly ushered me away. We made it to the stairwell by the time I realized my face was still planted against Gavin’s chest and his arm was around me. There was something too intimate about the embrace, so I pulled away, slipping out of his arms. I was a little embarrassed, because I felt . . . it felt weak, but maybe I was being too harsh on myself. I did almost die in the hands of someone wearing that mask.
“You okay?” Linds caught my hand, her dark eyes flashing.
“Yeah, it’s just, I saw that and all I could think of was what happened. I wasn’t prepared for that.” As the initial shock of seeing the mask in my locker faded, anger grew like a fire-breathing dragon. “Who would do that?”
“I don’t know.” Gavin reached for the door, opening it. “Someone with an extremely sick sense of humor.”
My hands were shaking as I went down the cement stairs. “It wasn’t there before lunch. Someone had to have gotten in to my locker and put it there afterward.”
“It wouldn’t be hard to do.” Linds tucked a tight curl behind her ear. “I mean, you hit those lockers in the right spot and they pop right open.”
That much was true, but I didn’t get why someone would do that. Like the dead cardinal, it was the kind of prank that was unnaturally cruel and not funny.
“They shouldn’t have given the description of the mask in the news,” Linds commented. “I get why they did it, but every idiot knows what it looks like now and they’re doing shit like this. Kind of like that old movie in the nineties, where the killer wore the mask and then everybody at school started wearing one. Who knew people in real life would be just as stupid?”
Gavin snorted. “I would’ve wagered they would be that stupid.”
“I don’t get it, though,” I said as we stepped into the warm air outside, my heart still beating too fast. “It wasn’t funny. Knowing what happened to me, why would someone do that?”
Linds looked away, nibbling on her lower lip.
My breath caught as anger and a tangy fear warred inside me. “What if it wasn’t a prank?”
She stopped, folding her arms around her waist. “What else could it be?”
“Maybe a warning?” I shivered in spite of the warm air.
“What kind of a warning?” Gavin found my hand, gently squeezing it when I didn’t answer, because there was none. “It was a prank, obviously a really bad one, but that’s all it was.”
I squeezed his hand back, but the knot below my ribs had grown. I glanced over my shoulder, back at the school. Deep down, call it instinct or good old paranoia, but I knew that mask wasn’t just a prank.
And maybe the cardinal wasn’t either.
“WANT TO TRY something different?”
I nodded as Jensen’s arms slipped from around mine. He stepped back as I faced him. We’d been practicing the whole bear hug thing again, and I was pretty sure I got it, but according to Jensen practice made perfect.
“What?” I asked.
Wearing nylon blue sweats and a white shirt that would’ve looked average on anyone else, he looked like a young celebrity caught leaving the gym. He brushed a lock of light brown hair off his forehead and grinned. Immediately, I was suspicious.
“Want to hit me?” he asked.
A surprised laugh escaped me.
“Hit me.” He walked to where I stood and then laughed as I gaped at him. “Not every attacker is going to come from behind you. Some are going to come right at you, and you said you wanted to know how to fight so you’ve got to know where to hit.”
“Oh.” I placed my hands on my hips. “So kicking a guy in the balls and running isn’t the best method?”
Jensen winced. “That would work, too, but I’m sure you’ll want a little more in your bag of tricks.”
I grinned, surprised by how relaxed I was. One would think this kind of class would be stressful, but since we’d begun, I hadn’t thought about what happened with my locker or the nightmare I’d had last night. There really was something empowering in making a conscious decision to protect myself.
“I want to see what kind of punch you pack,” he continued. “And don’t worry about hurting me. I can take—”
Cocking back my arm, I punched him in the stomach. Dull pain lanced over my knuckles as I drew my hand back, shaking my fingers. Damn if his hard stomach didn’t give one centimeter, but surprise did widen his eyes.
“How was that?” I asked, massaging away the twinge in my shoulder.
He tipped his head back and laughed. “You hit like a girl.”
I scowled at him. “Well, I am a girl in case you’ve forgotten.”
Lowering his chin, his gaze started at the tip of my bare feet and slowly made its way up to my lips. “Oh, I haven’t forgotten. Trust me.”
My frown slipped away. I had no idea what to say to that, because I felt like the kind of girl who would break out in a fit of giggles at any given moment around him, and right then, I wanted to be that girl.
“Nah, you actually did pretty good. I’m honestly just pretending that didn’t hurt. You’re throwing a punch wrong, though.” He moved so that he stood behind me. “You have to throw from your stomach—not your arm. Doing it wrong is a sure-fire way of injuring yourself. See?” He placed his fingers on my right shoulder, over the tight muscles. “Aches, doesn’t it?”