Ali's Pretty Little Lies
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“H-hey,” Emily blurted. “I’m sorry.”
Ali sank into her hip. “Sorry for what?”
“Interrupting. It seemed like you and Cassie were having fun.”
“Uh-huh.” Ali flicked the ash. “She’s awesome.”
Emily’s gaze fell to the cigarette. “You guys smoke?”
Ali shrugged. “So?” She exhaled.
Emily swished the smoke away, then looked embarrassed by the gesture. “I just thought . . . I mean . . .”
Ali tapped the mailbox. It made a hollow, metal sound. “So were you stealing my mail, Em?”
Emily’s mouth fell open. “No! Absolutely not! Actually, I—”
“Because that’s a federal crime, you know,” Ali interrupted. “You know what else is a federal crime in some states? Kissing people in tree houses.”
Emily’s eyes widened. She took a small step back.
Ali breathed out. “I’m kidding.”
“Oh.” Emily licked her lips. “I knew that.”
She turned back to the mailbox, running her fingers over the plastic red flag. A plaintive look settled over her features, and she took a deep breath as if she was about to say something important. All of a sudden, Ali had a horrible thought: What if Emily wanted to talk about things? What if she wanted to, like, get all touchy-feely—literally?
“You know what would be awesome?” Ali cut her off before she could speak. She pointed to the girls down the street. “If you told Mona to stop catwalking. She’s giving fashion a bad name.”
Emily frowned, then gazed at the girls, too. “Now?”
A pained look crossed Emily’s face. “Ali, I really don’t want to.”
Ali lowered her chin, anger at Emily’s disobedience curling through her veins. “Oh, Mona!” she called, sotto voce. “Guess what Emily likes to do in trees?”
Emily’s eyelashes fluttered. She opened her mouth, but no sounds came out. “Okay,” she squeaked, ducking her head and trudging down the sidewalk.
Ali trailed behind her, watching as Emily intercepted the girls. At first, Chassey’s, Phi’s, and Mona’s eyes lit up when they saw Emily coming. They closed in around her in the same way the alpacas at the garden center Ali’s mom always dragged her to flocked around people at the fence. Even though Ali was standing some distance away, she could see the precise moment when Emily delivered the blow. Mona’s mouth clamped shut. Phi puffed out her cheeks. The corners of Chassey’s mouth turned down. She almost looked like she was going to cry.
Emily stormed back to Ali. “Well, I don’t think they’re going to be catwalking anymore.”
“Thank God,” Ali said. “They were totally bringing down the whole neighborhood, don’t you think? Good work, Em.”
Emily glanced up at her, her chin wobbling. “How’s it going between you and that guy?”
“You know. The one you told me about. In the tree house. The boy you like.”
Ali pressed her lips together. She’d refrained from sending Nick too many begging texts because she didn’t want to sound desperate, hoping that he’d come to his senses instead. Only, he hadn’t. And when she tried to send him an IM last night, he blocked her from his list.
“Things are going great,” she said, smiling broadly.
Emily’s throat bobbed. Her gaze darted to the mailbox again. She lunged for it and opened the little door, the metal squeaking. Ali put a hand on her arm. “What are you doing?”
Emily blinked. “I . . .”
“Tampering with mail is a federal offense, Em,” Ali said in a saccharine voice.
Emily nodded, then wheeled around and walk-jogged to her tipped-over bike and threw her leg over the bar. “I should go.” Her gaze didn’t leave the mailbox, which she hadn’t closed properly. A single letter sat inside. “I’ll see you later, Ali.”
Ali watched her pedal down the street, then turned toward the mailbox. Her fingers curled around the long, thin envelope. It had Ali’s name on the front in Emily’s handwriting. She waited until Emily’s reddish-gold hair disappeared around the corner, then tore it open. It was all one paragraph, the writing on both sides of the page. Emily’s print seemed more harried than usual, as if she had written it quickly, before she lost her nerve.
I need to get something off my chest. I know I told you that the kiss we shared in the tree house was a joke. But it really wasn’t. I meant it for you and only you.
Ali lowered the letter to her waist for a moment, a strange taste in her mouth. She had a weird feeling Emily might have wanted her to read this in front of her so she could explain it, line by line.
She scanned the rest of the letter.
I’m so thrilled that we’re friends. I love staring at the back of your head in class, I love how you chew gum whenever we’re talking on the phone together, and I love that when you jiggle your Skechers during class when Mrs. Hat starts talking about famous American court cases, I know you’re totally bored. I don’t want anything to come between us, but I don’t think it will. You felt something, too, didn’t you? I could tell.
Ali shut her eyes and took a few deep breaths. When she opened them one more time, she read the rest.
. . . and I’ve done a lot of thinking about why I kissed you the other day. I realized: It wasn’t a joke, Ali. I think I love you. I can understand if you never want to speak to me again, but I just had to tell you.
When she finished, she folded the letter in half and pressed it deep into her pocket. But then, because that felt too intimate, she pulled it out and shoved it into the bottom of her bag, under her math book. She pulled out her phone, ready to compose a text to Emily saying something like, I found your letter, weirdo. Ha ha, funny joke. Except maybe it would be better just to not acknowledge it at all.
She threw back her shoulders and walked into the house. As soon as she stepped through the foyer, the hair on her neck rose. Something felt different. The knickknacks on the table in the hall were the same. There were two caps and gowns hanging on the banister, a blue one that was Jason’s, and a white one for her own seventh-grade graduation. Her gaze fell to a flowered suitcase on the ground. It was her suitcase—from back when she was Courtney.
She smelled freshly brewed coffee and baked cinnamon rolls, the thing her mom always made for her when she was little and needed cheering up. It was what she would make for her, not her sister. Her sister, in fact, used to complain that cinnamon rolls made her teeth hurt.
All at once, Ali knew what had happened. But this couldn’t be happening. This wasn’t supposed to happen until tomorrow. And then she thought about Mona and the others hanging out in the driveway, Emily lurking near the mailbox. When had she gotten here? Had anyone seen?
Her first instinct was to run up to her bedroom and never come out, but then her mother stuck her head around the corner and smiled. “Ali?” she said gently. “Your sister’s home.”
Mrs. DiLaurentis set a pan of zucchini lasagna on the table. “Careful, it’s hot,” she warned, and then proceeded to pour lemonade into everyone’s glasses. “It’s fresh-squeezed,” she crowed. “It tastes better that way, don’t you think?”
It was a few hours later, and the family was sitting in the dining room, which was usually used only for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Each seat had a gold placemat, and they were drinking out of the good crystal goblets. Mrs. DiLaurentis had even lit candles, and the light made eerie shapes against their faces. And there they all sat: Mr. and Mrs. DiLaurentis at the heads of the table, then Jason, then Ali . . . and then the third daughter. The twin. “Courtney.”
“So dig in,” Mrs. DiLaurentis announced as she took the oven mitts off. “The lasagna’s nothing fancy, but the ingredients are all fresh.”
“It looks superb,” Mr. DiLaurentis said, reaching for his fork.
“Absolutely,” Jason agreed, taking a hearty sip of lemonade.
Ali shot him a look, but Jason didn’t glance her way. Jason had actually set the table today. And offered to get the bread out of the oven. And volunteered to bring her sister’s stuff upstairs, to which “Courtney” had smiled and said that would be great. All traces of Elliot Smith were gone.
Then Ali turned to Courtney. Her sister was politely waiting as their father spooned a rectangle of lasagna onto her plate. Her parents had picked her up while Ali and Jason were at school, saying today worked better for Mr. DiLaurentis’s work schedule. She’d arrived home just before the buses pulled out of the Rosewood Day parking lot, which meant it was fairly unlikely that anyone Ali’s age had seen her. Not that it made her feel much better.
Courtney’s hair, which was just about the same length as Ali’s, was swept back from her face with little bobby pins that had tiny stars on the ends. She wore a striped halter with a ruffled neck that Ali had never seen before, one neither from her closet now nor her packed things from a year ago, and black skinny jeans. Away from the harsh light of the hospital, her sister’s skin had an extra healthy glow, as if she’d just gone on a hike. And she seemed to be smiling a lot, which set Ali on edge. She’d even smiled at Ali when she’d walked in the door, stepping forward and giving her a huge hug and saying how good it was to see her. But when her lips were close to Ali’s ear, she’d whispered it again: Say your good-byes.
“Thank you so much,” Courtney said now, in a gracious tone. “This is all so nice of you.” She raised a modern-day Polaroid camera to her eyes and took a picture of her mother. “Say cheese!”
“Cheese!” Mrs. DiLaurentis said, smiling. The camera made a whirr sound, and a photo spit out. At first, Ali had thought it was her Polaroid camera, but Mrs. DiLaurentis had quickly said that Courtney had noticed Ali’s in the kitchen and had seemed interested in it, so they’d gotten her one today, too.
Ali cleared her throat. “Funny you’re interested in photography, Courtney. That’s my favorite hobby, too.”
Courtney blinked innocently. “Don’t worry, sis. I’m not going to pretend I’m you.”
She tilted her chin down and winked. Ali curled her toes inside her shoes. What if that was exactly what her sister had planned?
Mrs. DiLaurentis took a square of lasagna. “Lots of people can like photography, girls.”
Courtney smiled bashfully, then reached for the Parmesan, which was in a little silver bowl Ali had never seen—usually, they just used the shaker.
“Oh, I’ll do that for you,” Mr. DiLaurentis said, spooning a bit of cheese onto Courtney’s lasagna. As if she was an invalid and couldn’t do it herself.
“So we had a very nice chat with the doctors today,” Mrs. DiLaurentis said between bites, staring at Ali as she spoke. “Courtney was a model patient this past year at the Preserve. She made a lot of friends, really participated in the group programs, did great at her studies. . . .” She clapped a hand on Courtney’s shoulder.