Today's Reading

A flash of disappointment crosses their faces. Their smile dimples smooth away, and Bretta, who currently wears corkscrew curls (while Emma has long braids), says, "Oh, but we want to see your reaction."

Winnie tenses at those words. Fear spikes up her arms, as if the box is made of banshee tears. They've pranked her. It's probably dog poop inside, and when she opens the box, they'll snap a video with their phones to show everyone at school.

Except no. Winnie shakes her head. The twins aren't like that. Besides, contrary to the rest of Hemlock Falls, they have always been genuinely nice to Winnie. The Luminary rules are pretty clear on how to treat outcasts: 'ignore them.' Yet the twins never have.

Winnie pushes her glasses up her nose, inhales a steeling breath, and finally tears into the wrapping paper. It rips loudly across the silent dawn, and in less than a second the name 'Falls Finest' peers up at her in the same swirly gold lettering as the store windows wear downtown.

She gulps, hating that she's suddenly excited. Hating that the twins have probably gotten her something expensive, judging by the box's heft, and that she's probably going to like it. She almost prefers the dog poop.

But she can't stop now. Emma and Bretta are bouncing with excitement.

She pries off the box's lid and discovers a leather jacket. The sort of item that Winnie will never be able to afford unless it's 'very' used. And the sort of style that will look good no matter its age, no matter the decade.

She gulps a second time. It's the perfect shade of cinnamon brown to complement her auburn hair.

"Because you're always cold on corpse duty," Emma explains. "This will keep you warm!"

Though she doesn't say it and definitely doesn't mean it maliciously, the subtextual reality is inescapable: 'You're always cold and will continue to be cold because while we will stop doing corpse duty soon, you, Winnie Wednesday, will keep doing it forever.'

"Try it on!" Bretta urges, dimples returning. "We'll exchange it if it doesn't fit."

Winnie obeys, and of course the jacket fits perfectly. Even over her green hoodie that says SAVE THE WHALES. She bends her elbows. The new leather squeaks. She tries the zipper. It slides up and down like a scalpel through vampira viscera.

She should refuse this. Yes, she should refuse this. Thank the twins politely, but say it's too nice a gift for her to ever accept.

Winnie doesn't refuse it. She feels too badass, like a photo her mom has of Grandma Winona, bow in hand, nightmare viscera splattered across her body, and a wide, vicious grin bright as the sun rising behind her.

Winnie summons a similar smile, one with actual teeth, and says: "Thanks. This is really & well, nice of you. Thanks."

Emma beams, Bretta claps, and not for the first time Winnie wishes they were the stereotypical mean girls they're supposed to be. She knows where she stands with the rest of the town—with brats like Marcus. With the twins, though, who are 'almost' her friends, but not quite &

That uncertain "between" makes her gut twist uncomfortably.

She clears her throat, unzipping the jacket. Then zipping it again. And again and again, because for some reason her fingers won't stop. It just moves so easily.

"When's your birthday?" Marcus asks the twins with an eagerness that suggests there might be awkward flowers in their future.

"Next week," Emma replies—at the exact same moment as Bretta. They laugh, a bubbly sound that erupts whenever they speak in unison.

Winnie's fingers freeze on the zipper. Next week doesn't give her much time to find them a gift in return.

"We're hoping to have a party," Emma continues. "You'll both be invited." Marcus looks like he might swoon with joy. Winnie just feels faintly nauseated. Outcasts aren't exactly welcome at the various Luminary parties.

So she changes the subject. As the oldest of their group, Winnie is in charge of corpse duty. "We've, uh," she begins. 'Zip, zip, zip.' "We've got a halfer near the Friday estate. Let's start there?"

"Aye, aye, Captain." Bretta pops a little salute. Then she, Emma, and Marcus pile into the flatbed. Winnie cranks the engine. Exhaust puffs, melting into the fog.

Dawn has arrived, pearly gray above the trees. Winnie flips on the headlights for good measure. Forest shadows scatter. The winter gray does not.


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