Page 12

 Sara Shepard

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Her desktop computer at the other corner of the room made an angry buzz. Spencer looked up, eyeing the CD she and Andrew had made of her dad’s hard drive yesterday. It was where she’d left it after it finished loading last night, sitting in a paper sleeve on top of her antique Tiffany blotter. She hadn’t looked through the files yet, but there was no good time like the present. She walked to her desk and slid the CD into her computer.
Instantly, the computer made a farting noise, and every single icon on Spencer’s desktop turned into a question mark. She tried to click on one, but it wouldn’t open. Then the screen went black. She tried to reboot, but the computer wouldn’t turn on.
“Shit,” she whispered, ejecting the CD. She had backups of everything on her hard drive, like her old papers, tons of pictures and videos, and her journal, which she’d kept since before Ali disappeared, but without a functional computer, she couldn’t look through her dad’s files for evidence.
A door slammed downstairs. Her father spoke in a muffled voice, then her mother. Spencer looked up, her stomach burbling. She hadn’t really spoken to them since they’d all returned from Nana’s funeral. She glanced at her computer again, then stood and walked downstairs.
The air smelled like the baked brie her parents always bought at the Fresh Fields deli counter, and the family’s two labradoodles, Rufus and Beatrice, were lazing on the big round rug by the breakfast nook. Spencer’s sister, Melissa, was in the kitchen, too, scuttling around, piling the design magazines and books she’d scattered around the room into a paper shopping bag. Spencer’s mom was rifling through the drawer that held all the phone books and numbers for the various people who helped around the house—landscapers, driveway sealers, electricians. Mr. Hastings was pacing from the kitchen to the dining room, his cell phone to his ear.
“Uh, my computer has a virus,” Spencer said.
Her dad stopped pacing. Melissa looked up. Her mother jumped and whirled around. The corners of her mouth turned down. She turned back to the drawer.
“Mom?” Spencer tried again. “My computer. It’s…dead.”
Mrs. Hastings didn’t turn. “And?”
Spencer ran her fingers along the slightly wilted floral arrangement on the island until she realized where she’d seen the flowers last—on Nana’s casket. She pulled her hand away fast. “Well, I need it to do my homework. Can I call Geek Squad?”
Her mother turned and examined Spencer for a few long beats. When Spencer gazed back helplessly, Mrs. Hastings began to laugh.
“What?” Spencer asked, confused. Beatrice raised her head, then put it down again.
“Why should I pay for someone to come fix your computer when I should make you pay for what happened to the garage?” Mrs. Hastings crowed.
Spencer blinked fast. “The…garage?”
Her mother snorted. “Don’t tell me you didn’t see it.”
Spencer looked back and forth from one parent to the other, clueless. Then she ran to the front door and stepped out into the yard in her socks, even though the ground was frosty and soggy. A light had been turned on over the garage. When Spencer saw what was there, she clapped her hand over her mouth.
Across both garage doors, in bloodred paint, was the word KILLER.
It hadn’t been here when she’d come home from school today. Spencer looked around, gripped with the distinct feeling that someone was watching from the woods. Did a tree branch just move? Did someone just duck behind a shrub? Was it…A?
She faced her mother, who had marched up beside her. “Did you call the police?”
Mrs. Hastings barked out another laugh. “Do you think the police really want to speak to us right now? Do you think they’re going to care that someone did this to our house?”
Spencer widened her eyes. “Wait, you believe what the cops are saying?”
Her mom sank onto one hip. “We both know there wasn’t ever anything in those woods.”
The world started to spin. Spencer’s mouth felt dry. “Mom, I saw Ian. I really did.”
Her mother brought her face inches from Spencer’s. “Do you know how much it’s going to cost to refinish those doors? They’re one of a kind—we got them off an old barn in Maine.”
Spencer’s eyes filled with tears. “I’m sorry to be such a liability.” She whirled around, stomped onto the porch, and marched up the stairs without bothering to wipe her muddy socks on the doormat. Her eyes stung with hot tears as she walked up the stairs and flung open the door to her bedroom. Why did it surprise her that her mother was siding with the cops? Why should she have expected anything different?
Melissa poked her head into the room. She was wearing a pale yellow cashmere twinset and dark, boot-cut jeans. Her hair was held back by a velvet ribbon, and her eyes looked tired and puffy, as if she’d been crying.
“Go away,” Spencer mumbled.
Melissa sighed. “I just wanted to let you know that you can use my old laptop if you need it. It’s in the barn. I have a new computer at the town house. I’m moving there tonight.”
Spencer turned slightly, frowning. “The renovations are done?” Melissa’s Philadelphia town house overhaul seemed to have no end—she kept tweaking the designs.
Melissa stared at the creamy Berber carpet that spread across Spencer’s bedroom floor. “I have to get out of here.” Her voice cracked.
“Is everything…okay?” Spencer asked.
Melissa pulled her sleeves over her hands. “Yeah. Fine.”
Spencer shifted in her seat. She’d tried to talk to Melissa about Ian’s body at Nana’s funeral on Sunday, but Melissa kept waving her away. Her sister had to have some thoughts about it—when Ian was released on house arrest, Melissa had seemed sympathetic to his plight. She’d even tried to convince Spencer that Ian was innocent. Maybe, like the police, she believed that Ian’s body had never been there. It would be just like Melissa to trust a bunch of possibly crooked cops over her sister, all because she didn’t want to accept that her beloved might be dead.
“Really, I’m fine,” Melissa urged, as if she could read Spencer’s thoughts. “I just don’t want to be here if there are going to be search parties and news vans.”
“But the cops aren’t searching here anymore,” Spencer told her. “They just called it off.”
A startled look crossed Melissa’s face. Then she shrugged and turned around without answering. Spencer listened to her padding down the stairs.
The front door slammed, and Spencer could hear Mrs. Hastings murmuring quietly and kindly to Melissa in the foyer. Her real daughter. Spencer winced, gathered up her books, shrugged into her coat and boots, and walked out the back door to Melissa’s barn. As she crossed the cold, vast yard, she noticed something to the left and stopped. Someone had sprayed LIAR on the windmill in the same red paint as the graffiti on the garage. A glob of red dripped from the bottom edge of the L to the dead grass. It looked as if it were bleeding.
Spencer glanced back at the house, considering, then pulled her books into her chest and pressed on. Her parents would see it soon enough. She certainly didn’t want to be the one to break the news.
Melissa had left the barn in a hurry. There was a half-drunk bottle of wine on the counter, and a half-filled water glass her normally anal sister hadn’t washed out. A lot of her clothes were still in the closet, and there was a big book called The Principles of Mergers and Acquisitions flung on the bed, a University of Pennsylvania bookmark wedged between the pages.
Spencer hefted her cream-colored Mulberry tote onto the brown leather couch, pulled the CD of her dad’s computer from the front pocket, sat down at Melissa’s desk, and slid the CD into the drive of her sister’s laptop.
The disc took a while to load, and Spencer clicked on her e-mail while she waited. At the top of her in-box was a message from Olivia Caldwell. Her potential mother.
Spencer raised her hand to her mouth and opened the message. It was a link to a prepaid ticket on Amtrak’s Acela line, the bullet train to New York City. Spencer, I’m thrilled you’ve agreed to meet me! said the accompanying note. Can you come to New York tomorrow night? We have so much to talk about. Much love, Olivia.
She peered out the window to the main house, not sure what to do. The lights in the kitchen were still on, and her mother passed from the fridge to the table, saying something to Melissa. Despite how pissed her mom had been just moments before, there was now a loving, comforting smile on her mother’s face. When was the last time she had smiled like that at Spencer?
Tears welled in Spencer’s eyes. She’d been trying so hard for her parents for so long…for what? She turned back to the computer. The Acela ticket was for 4 P.M. tomorrow. That sounds great, she wrote back. See you then. She hit send.
Almost immediately, a little bloop sound filled the room. Spencer closed her in-box and checked to see if the CD had finished loading, but the program was still running. Then, she noticed a flashing IM window. Instant Messenger must have automatically logged on to Melissa’s account when Spencer had turned on the computer. Hey Mel, a new message said. You there?
Spencer was ready to type, Sorry, not Melissa, when a second message came in. It’s me. Ian.
Her stomach flipped. Right. Whoever wrote this didn’t have a very good sense of humor.
Another bloop. You there?
Spencer looked at the unfamiliar IM screen name. USCMidfielderRoxx. Ian had gone to USC, and he played midfield in soccer. But that didn’t mean anything. Right?
The bloops kept coming. I’m sorry I left without telling you…but they hated me. You know that. They found out that I knew. That’s why I had to run. Spencer’s hands began to shake. Someone was messing with her, just like they’d messed with Ian’s parents. Ian didn’t run. He was dead.
But why was there no trace of his remains in the woods? Why hadn’t the cops found a single thing?
Spencer waved her fingers over the keys. Prove it’s really you, she typed, not bothering to explain that it wasn’t Melissa. She shut her eyes, trying to think of something personal about Ian. Something that Melissa and Spencer would know. Something that wasn’t in Ali’s diary, either. The press had done an exposé of everything Ali had written in her diary about Ian, like how they’d gotten together after a soccer game the fall of seventh grade, how Ian had crammed for the SATs using a Ritalin pill a friend had given him, and how he hadn’t been sure if he really deserved being named the Rosewood Day varsity soccer team’s MVP—Ali’s brother, Jason, was far more talented. Whoever was pretending to be Ian would know all that. If only she could think of something super private.
Then the perfect thing came to her. Something she was pretty sure that even Ali didn’t know. What’s your real middle name? she typed.
There was a pause. Spencer leaned back, waiting. When Melissa was a senior in high school, she’d gotten drunk on eggnog on Christmas Day and confessed that Ian’s parents wanted him to be a girl. When Mrs. Thomas popped out a boy, they decided his middle name would be the girl’s name they’d chosen for him. Ian never, ever used it—in old Rosewood Day yearbooks Spencer had leafed through when she was yearbook editor, he hadn’t even listed a middle initial.