Ali's Pretty Little Lies
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She had Ali, after all, and Ali was all that mattered.
THOSE SUMMER ROMANCES ARE ALWAYS THE BEST . . .
“Bring it in, ladies!” Ali’s field hockey coach, Mrs. Schultz, called as the two scrimmaging teams jogged in front of the field. Even though the season was long over, Mrs. Schultz liked to get the girls together to practice every once in a while to stay in shape for next year. Ali tramped toward the bleachers. The scent of fresh-cut grass tickled her nostrils, and as she got closer, she saw that Mrs. Schultz was setting out a big jug of fruit punch–flavored Gatorade, her favorite.
“You girls play great defense,” Mrs. Schultz said when Ali and Cassie reached the stands. “You’re going to be a force to be reckoned with next fall.”
Cassie nudged Ali. “You’re going to be an MVP even before you’re a freshman.”
“That’s because I’m awesome!” Ali chirped, forming her arms into a V. But deep down, she couldn’t even believe she’d made the team. She’d barely walked the grounds at the Radley, much less ran field hockey drills, but as soon as she heard that the high school team was opening up JV tryouts to two outstanding junior high players—Ali and Spencer—she’d made it her goal to make the cut. When her family later visited the hospital and “Courtney” found out that Ali had made the high school team, “Courtney’s” face had paled. Who’s the better Alison now? Ali had wanted to yell at her.
Ali grabbed a plastic cup from the stack and poured herself some Gatorade. Then she changed her shirt, threw her gear into her bag, said good-bye to Cassie and the others, and started toward the auxiliary parking lot, where Jason was supposed to be waiting to pick her up. Only a Honda Civic, a random school bus, and the rent-a-cop’s Ford were parked there, the driver’s seats empty.
She sat on the edge of the fountain to wait. Two cheerleaders whose names Ali didn’t remember flounced out of the upper school and headed to their cars. An eighth grader who was always on the morning video announcements stood near the flagpole, talking on her cell phone. And standing by the doors to the gym were Naomi Zeigler and Riley Wolfe. They looked up and stared at her at the same time, then quickly turned away.
Ali’s stomach flipped. It had been a year and a half since she’d ditched Naomi and Riley without an explanation, but she still felt uneasy in their presence. At first, the two girls had begged Ali’s forgiveness for whatever they’d done—they just wanted to be friends again. They offered to do Ali’s homework for the year. Whatever clothes in their closets she liked, she could have. They mentioned a place called the Purple Room and something called Skippies, which was exactly why Ali had dropped them—she didn’t know what they were talking about. They would have sniffed her out as the Fake Ali so fast she would have been locked up at the Preserve in no time.
Her phone chimed, and she jumped. It was a text from Aria: Want to come over tomorrow night? My parents are going on a date. Liquor cabinet, here we come!
Yes and yes! Ali typed back.
She pushed her phone back into her pocket. Suddenly, she felt eyes on her back again, and goose bumps rose on her skin. Was it Naomi and Riley? But when she turned, it was a boy about her age, standing where the trees met the parking lot. She had no idea where he’d come from, and he was staring at her so intensely that Ali worried he could see into her thoughts.
“It’s Alison, isn’t it?” he called out as he moved closer.
Ali squinted. The boy was tall and lanky, built like the guys who swam butterfly on Emily’s year-round competitive swim team. He wore a fitted black T-shirt, slim-cut seersucker shorts, and laceless canvas sneakers. His brown hair stood up in spiky peaks, and his eyes were an even more arresting shade of blue than hers. They had to be colored contacts.
“Alison?” he repeated when he was closer. His voice was gravelly and deep.
“Uh, yeah,” she said slowly, pushing her hair behind her ear. “And you are . . . ?”
He looked astonished. “You don’t remember me?”
Ali blinked. It has been a long time since she couldn’t answer a question as her sister, and it made her feel dizzy, unmoored, and transparent. “Refresh my memory,” she said, hating her words.
“It’s Nick Maxwell.” He sat on the edge of the fountain and placed his hands on his knees, which were tanned and had just the tiniest bit of dark hair on them. “From Camp Ravenswood.”
That explained why Ali had no idea who he was. Her sister had gone to that camp the summer after fifth grade, a few months before the switch. “Of course!” she said brightly, hoping she sounded convincing, that dizzy feeling not going away. “How are you?”
Nick chuckled. “You have forgotten me. I guess you write stuff about guys on cabin walls all the time?”
“I . . .” It felt like Ali had been plopped into a foreign country without any knowledge of the language. She’d memorized her sister’s journals word for word, and there’d been no mention of anyone named Nick in her diary. Maybe she’d worried her parents would read it and kept him a secret.
Nick ducked his head. “I’m sorry—you probably didn’t know that I saw what you wrote.” He drummed his fingers on the concrete. “The counselors made me wash it off. I think they thought I made you write it or something.” His gaze returned to her, and he smiled appreciatively. “Maybe I should have paid more attention to you back then, though. You’ve really grown up.”
“You should have paid more attention,” Ali repeated, the pieces slowly coming together. Had Ali written something desperate on a wall about a boy who she’d had an unrequited crush on? Had this guy actually said no?
She stood up and hiked her field hockey skirt higher on her thighs. All of a sudden, she really, really wanted Nick to like her. Imagine telling that to her sister in the hospital. She’d have a brain aneurysm.
“So what did you think about what I wrote?” she cooed flirtatiously.
Nick’s eyes sparkled. “Well, it was really flattering, obviously. It’s not every day a guy reads a message about how good of a kisser he is—especially when a girl he’d never kissed wrote it. I was wondering how you could tell.”
“Oh, I’ve always had a good sense of how people will kiss just by looking at them,” Ali said, eyeing his lips. They were pink and bow-shaped.
“Really?” Nick grinned.
They remained that way for a moment, grinning at each other. Then Ali reached for her camera. “Can I take a photo of you?”
“Only if I can get your phone number in return,” Nick said.
Ali snapped a photo, then wrote down her cell number on a piece of paper ripped from her math notebook. Then Nick took off, saying only “See you around, cutie.” As he tilted away from her, Ali felt unsettled. Why hadn’t he asked her to do something? He didn’t want her yet in the way that he should. She thought of how she’d learned to hypnotize people recently, a game Matt’s older sister had taught her one afternoon. Count down from one hundred, touch someone on the forehead, and then say they’re in your power. Ali wished she could try it out right now and make Nick ask her on a date.
Then she saw a familiar figure cut across the hockey field. It was Ian Thomas, dressed in khaki pants and a kelly-green polo. He looked like a cross between a frat boy and a golfer, but a hot guy was a hot guy. Maybe there was another way to get Nick in her power.
She put herself in his path. And, like any good pawn, Ian grinned when he spotted her. “Hey, Ali!” he called, waving.
Ali blew him a kiss, and he teasingly blew one back. She didn’t even need to turn around to know that Nick had stopped and was staring.
Maybe she was a better hypnotist than she’d thought.
SOMETHING’S ROTTEN IN THE ANTIQUE BARN
Saturday afternoon, Ali parked her bike on the grass between the large, crooked wooden sign that read ANTIQUE WAREHOUSE and Aria’s parents’ battered, blue, bumper-sticker-plastered Subaru wagon. Aria had called her about a half hour ago—her family was coming here to shop for a table, and did Ali want to meet her? Ali had nothing to do, so she’d agreed. Besides, it was tense inside her house—doors kept slamming, her parents passed each other without speaking, and at one point her mother answered the ringing phone, said nothing but sighed, and then slammed it down. Ali needed to get out.
Ali pushed open the barn door and blinked in the darkness. The antique store smelled like a strange mix of mildew and freshly squeezed lemonade. An oldies station was playing on the radio, and everywhere she turned were piles of junk. Old toys, ugly rugs and blankets, and chairs that would definitely collapse if someone sat on them. More clocks than Ali could count sat on every available inch of counter space. Aria’s brother, Mike, who was in sixth grade, banged on the top of an old pinball machine to get it to work. Then he turned to Ali and gave her a long, amorous stare, just like he always did. Aria’s brother was so into her—he’d once even tried to kiss her at one of Aria’s sleepovers.
“There you are,” Aria said, touching Ali’s shoulder. Ali spun around and took in her friend. It seemed as though the pink streaks in Aria’s hair had multiplied, and she wore long feather earrings that grazed her shoulders. Tucked under her other arm was her stuffed pig puppet, Pigtunia, which her father had brought her from Germany.
“Only babies carry stuffed animals,” Ali chided.
Aria spun around and shrugged, holding up the puppet and making her oink. “Pigtunia wanted to go for a ride. How could I say no?”
Because she’s a puppet? Sometimes Aria was such a freak.
“Hey.” Aria touched a Tiffany-style lamp on the table with Pigtunia’s snout. “What do you think? Aren’t these things worth a lot of money? And look—it’s only twenty-five dollars!”
Ali snorted. “I’m sure it’s a knockoff.” This was the Main Line, after all. Even junk shop owners knew what a real Tiffany lamp was worth.
Up ahead, Mr. Montgomery, who Aria called Byron, turned to a smaller, round table with a tile top. “How about this one?”
Mrs. Montgomery—Ella—sniffed. “That won’t fit all four of us. Or is that the point?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Mr. Montgomery demanded, crossing his arms over his chest. His tweed blazer had a hole in the elbow.
Mrs. Montgomery pushed a lock of her brown hair behind her ear. “Forget it.”
“I don’t want to forget it.” Aria’s dad guided his wife around a corner. They spoke in whispers. Mike looked up from the pinball machine, his brow furrowed.
Ali turned to Aria. “What’s up with your parents?”
Aria shrugged. “They always get like this when they shop for antiques.”
By the way Aria’s throat bobbed when she swallowed, Ali knew she’d hit a nerve. But you had to be blind not to notice that Aria’s parents’ relationship had changed. In sixth grade, Mr. and Mrs. Montgomery spoke French at the dinner table when they wanted to say romantic things in front of their kids. These days, they barely ate dinner at the same time. And once, not that long ago, when Ali had slept over at Aria’s, she’d gotten up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom and noticed that Aria’s mom was sleeping in the guest room. Aria said it was because her dad snored, but the house had been awfully quiet that night.