Ali's Pretty Little Lies
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When she was finished, Ali gave her a hug. You know that I have sibling problems, too. I can help you. We should come up with something to make him go away forever.
And they had.
“Jenna,” Toby said again, more sternly this time. When he reached the curb where Jenna was standing, he paused, as if sensing Ali was there, too. His eyes narrowed into two iron-cold slits. Ali’s heart thudded in her throat.
Finally, he took Jenna’s arm. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s go in.”
Jenna pulled on her dog’s harness. Tapping her white cane, her dog walking at her side, she disappeared inside the house, not saying another word.
LIKE GETTING WATER FROM A STONE
There was no sound as beautiful, Ali thought as the twangy guitar-note ringtone that announced she had a new text message from Nick.
What’s your favorite subject in school? was the latest one. Ali, who was sitting on her front porch swing waiting for Aria, tapped the keyboard with her reply. It used to be English, she wrote, but now we have to read so many boring books that I guess it’s study hall. LOL. She didn’t want to list her real favorite class—science—for fear that she’d look like a nerd.
Mine too, Nick wrote back, and Ali smiled.
Her phone beeped again. Hey, remember that counselor at camp who got stung by all those bees? Nick wrote. What was his name?
Ali bit down hard on the inside of her cheek. I know who you mean, she typed after a moment. Can’t remember though.
A familiar Subaru rolled up, and Aria got out of the back, carrying Pigtunia under her arm. We’ll talk later, Ali wrote to him. I’ll be here, Nick wrote back.
She glanced at Aria’s father behind the wheel. He wore a ripped T-shirt with printing so faded on the front that it wasn’t even legible anymore. His thinning hair stood up every which way, and he had that half-beard scruff going that some girls thought was sexy but Ali thought just looked dirty. She couldn’t even look him in the eye.
Byron looked away, too, as if he knew Ali knew. Which meant Aria had to know, too, right? If Aria admitted something, then maybe Ali would tell her that she knew how it felt. That she’d seen her mom and that random guy at the mall. The secret felt like a shaken-up can of Coke inside her, its contents fizzing and pressing against her sides. It would feel good to tell someone, especially someone who could commiserate.
Aria walked up the porch steps and sat down on the swing next to Ali. “What’s up?”
“Not much,” Ali said. “What’s up with you?”
Aria pushed off the porch rails to give the swing a bit more momentum. “So I have to talk to you about something.”
Ali’s heart lifted. “What?” she asked innocently.
Aria spun the beaded bracelet around her wrist. “You know the drama class I’m taking after school?” Aria asked. “Well, we had a new student today. Toby Cavanaugh.”
On instinct, Ali gazed across the yard, half expecting Toby still to be standing there, as he had been last night. “He’s back,” she stated, not exactly like a question.
“Yeah.” Aria bit her pointer finger. “He kept staring at me, too. And then we had to do this speech exercise, and we were partnered together. I had to say a phrase, and he had to repeat it back to me until the phrase changed. I picked It never snows in the summer. And we said it back and forth, back and forth, until Toby started saying I know what you did last summer.” She widened her eyes dramatically. “Do you think Toby knows something?”
Ali touched a rusty spot on the swing’s chain. Only Spencer had been there for her confrontation with Toby, and Ali had made her promise to not tell the others. It seemed safer to keep it between them.
“Toby doesn’t know what we did,” she said definitively. “And anyway, The Jenna Thing happened last spring, not summer. He’s just mental.” Then she looked at Aria. “That’s what you had to tell me?”
“Well, yeah.” Aria frowned. “Don’t you think that’s a big deal? Toby’s weird.”
Ali shrugged. “Yeah, but that’s not exactly news.”
She rested her head on Aria’s shoulder, thinking for a moment how she could get Aria to talk. She decided to use her last-ditch plan. She cleared her throat. “Something weird happened to me, too, and I really need someone to talk to about it.” She stared at the lawn. “I think my parents are breaking up.” Just saying the words made a lump form in her throat.
Aria twisted around to stare at her head-on. “Why would you say that?”
“They’ve been arguing a lot.” Ali stared at her palms. “And they’ve said they have something to tell me and Jason—I just know it’s about that.” There was no way she was telling her about her mom, though. Not yet.
Aria looked genuinely sympathetic. It felt good for a moment, but then Ali realized it wasn’t enough. “I don’t know what I’d do if my parents weren’t together,” she said. “It would be even weirder if they were with someone else. Have you ever thought about that?”
Aria folded in her shoulders. “Not really.”
“Your mom’s beautiful, though—and she’s around all those art dealers. Your dad is surrounded by students twenty-four-seven. It’s possible, don’t you think?”
Several expressions—awkwardness, humiliation, shame—crossed Aria’s face at once. “Anything’s possible, I guess.”
Her lips parted, perhaps to spill it all. But then her gaze landed on something just past Ali, and she stood up from the swing so quickly that Ali went careening backward. “Oh! Jason!”
Jason walked up the front steps, his backpack slung over one shoulder. “Hey,” he said gruffly.
“How are you?” Aria’s voice was high-pitched and strange. “Are you excited to graduate?”
“Not really,” Jason said, opening the door and banging it shut again.
Aria sank back into the swing, looking disappointed. Ali pressed her fingernails into the meatiest part of her palm, feeling humiliated. Had Aria just changed the subject on purpose? Did she know . . . and not want to tell? Ali had just told Aria something true and scary and terrible. Didn’t Aria have the decency to reciprocate? Wasn’t that what friends did?
Nastiness settled over her like a heavy black cloak, and she poked Aria hard. “Do you still like Noel?”
Aria’s eyes lit up. “Of course! Did you talk to him about me?”
“I did, in fact,” Ali lied.
Ali allowed a slight pause, then laid her hand on Aria’s knee and squeezed. “Well, I went over to his house. But something kind of . . . weird happened. I told him about you, and he said he likes you as a friend.”
The corners of Aria’s mouth turned down. “Oh.”
“And then he said he likes me. And I think I like him back.”
Aria sat back. “Oh!” Her voice was unnaturally bright. “Okay. Wow.”
“But I won’t go out with him if you don’t want me to.”
The pain was obvious in Aria’s face. “Um, okay,” she said after a moment.
For a moment, Ali almost regretted the lie. Noel probably would have gone for Aria if Ali had asked. And she really had planned to talk to him about her. But why should she put herself out for a friend who wouldn’t even tell her what was going on in her life? Friendships were tit for tat—what was she getting out of this?
The corners of Aria’s mouth wobbled. She looked at her phone screen urgently, even though it hadn’t chimed. “Um, I have to go,” she said. “My mom needs me.”
“Trouble at home?” Ali asked as a final attempt. If she admits it now, I’ll tell her I made it all up, she decided. I’ll tell her I’ll talk to Noel for real.
But Aria just scrambled down the porch. “No,” she said, breaking Ali’s heart just a little. And then she sprang up and headed across the backyard. Ali watched her disappear into the woods on her way to her development. Her head was down, her shoulders hunched, and, after a moment, Ali was sure she heard a low, uncontrolled sob emanating from the pines.
Ali pressed her lips together and tried to swallow her regret. It wasn’t sad. It was good.
NOTHING LIKE HEARING YOUR BFF SING YOUR PRAISES!
A few days later, the last bell of the day rang, and all the students in Ali’s English class leapt to their feet and headed to the door. “Don’t forget, people!” Mrs. Lowry, their English teacher, bellowed. “Your Hemingway parodies are due on Monday! I’m not taking any lates!”
“Have you started yours yet?” Spencer asked Ali as they walked through the door and into the hall, which was crowded with kids at their lockers.
“Nope,” Ali answered, shaking her head. “Wanna do it for me?”
Spencer sniffed. “I have a huge history paper, Ali. Sorry.”
Ali crossed her arms over her chest. Not long ago, Spencer would have done Ali’s homework in a heartbeat without complaint. I saw you, you know, she wanted to say. I know what you did with Ian. Every day that passed without Spencer saying anything made the betrayal seem worse and worse.
Ali’s phone rang. She dove for it inside her bag. Unknown Caller. She was about to hit IGNORE when Spencer cleared her throat beside her.
“I hate when I get calls from blocked numbers,” she said. “Usually it’s my mom checking up on me, but she doesn’t want me to know it’s her calling.”
The phone rang again. Ali glanced at Spencer. “Can you block any number?”
“I think certain phones don’t allow it.” Spencer stopped at her locker and began to spin the dial. “Pay phones are usually good for it. Cell phones, too.”
Ali nodded. She remembered seeing a bank of pay phones in the Preserve lobby—maybe her sister had somehow gotten to one of them without the nurses noticing. Or maybe she’d borrowed someone’s cell phone.
Spencer gave Ali a suspicious look. “Why do you want to know how to block calls?”
Ali opened her mouth, then shut it again. Spencer sniffed. “Fine,” she said sharply, facing her locker again. “Don’t tell me.”
Finally, the phone went to voicemail. Ali stared at the screen, waiting for the little message icon to appear, but it didn’t. Suddenly, she felt like she had to get away from Spencer, and fast. She pushed through the crowd of kids to the double doors that opened out onto a small courtyard that connected the middle school to the high school. It was mostly high-schooler territory; junior high kids were ostracized if they sat on the courtyard’s three benches or lingered there after school. Ali got a pass, though, especially if Cassie or any of the others were around, but she didn’t see them anywhere. She did see, however, a petite, slightly chubby girl standing in the corner of the courtyard, talking animatedly with her hands. She stood up straighter. Was that Hanna?
Josie stood next to Hanna, nodding sympathetically. Ali crept closer, ducking behind a potted tree so that Hanna didn’t see her. When she was only a few feet away, she caught strains of Hanna’s conversation over the din of the other students.