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“It doesn’t mean that this A won’t,” Spencer said firmly.
Hanna clamped her lips together, looking annoyed. “Well, if Ian is A, I guess we won’t have to worry. Because Ian has no way of getting my new phone number.”
Emily gazed at Hanna, not quite sure how Hanna could be so certain…especially if Ian really was still here in Rosewood.
“So do we search, or not?” Aria said after a moment.
The girls stared at each other. Emily had no idea how they could even attempt to search for Ali’s real killer. They weren’t cops. They didn’t have forensic experience. But she understood why they couldn’t turn to the cops—after the Dead Ian Scandal, the cops would just laugh at them and tell them to stop wasting their time.
She stared across the courtyard. More sixth graders paraded toward the classrooms. A few gathered around a sign hanging outside the door, talking giddily. “I’m going to find a piece,” said a brunette girl with sparkly clips in her hair. “Yeah, right,” said her friend, a petite Asian girl with a high ponytail. “You’ll never figure out those clues.”
Emily squinted at the sign’s block letters. TIME CAPSULE IS HERE! HAVE YOU STARTED SEARCHING YET?
“Remember how excited everyone was for Time Capsule the first year we were able to play?” Hanna murmured, watching the girls too.
Aria pointed to the bike racks near the sixth-grade entrance. “That was where Ali announced that she knew where one of the pieces was.”
“That was so annoying.” Spencer groaned, making a face. “She cheated—Jason told her where it was. She didn’t even have to solve the clues. That’s why I wanted to steal Ali’s piece—I didn’t think she deserved it.”
“Except you didn’t get to steal it,” Hanna singsonged. “Because someone stole it first. And we’ll never find out who.”
Aria coughed loudly. Bottled water spewed out of her mouth. Everyone turned to look at her. “I’m fine,” she assured them, wheezing.
The high school bell rang, and the girls broke apart. Spencer walked off quickly, barely saying good-bye. Hanna lingered, tapping her iPhone. Emily fell in step with Aria. For a while, the only sound was their shoes crunching through the icy crust of snow on the commons. Emily wondered if Aria was thinking about the same thing she was—could Ian be telling the truth? Was someone else behind Ali’s murder?
“So you’ll never believe who I ran into yesterday,” Aria said. “Jason DiLaurentis.”
Emily stopped short. Her heart started to pound. “Where?”
Aria knotted her scarf tighter, seemingly nonchalant. “I cut school. Jason was waiting for the train to Philly.”
A gust of wind kicked up, sneaking down the collar of Emily’s shirt. “I saw Jason the other day too,” she mustered, her voice raspy. “I parallel-parked in back of him, and he accused me of denting his car. He was kind of…angry.”
Aria gave her a sidelong glance. “What do you mean?”
Emily fiddled with the ski lift ticket that was affixed to her jacket’s zipper. She suspected that Aria used to like Jason, and she hated bad-mouthing people. Then again, Aria needed to know. “Well, he kind of screamed for a while. And then he lunged at me, like he was going to punch me.”
“Did you dent his car?”
“Even if I did, it was tiny. Definitely not worth freaking out about.”
Aria shoved her hands in her pockets. “Jason’s probably really sensitive right now. I can’t imagine what this must be like for him.”
“That’s what I thought, too, but…” Emily trailed off, gazing concernedly at Aria. “Just be careful, okay? Remember what Jenna said to you. Ali said she had ‘problems’ with Jason. He could’ve been abusing Ali, just like Toby was abusing Jenna.”
“We don’t know if that’s true,” Aria barked, her eyes darkening. “Ali wanted to find out Jenna’s secret about Toby. She would’ve told Jenna anything to get her to talk. Jason was nothing but sweet to Ali.”
Emily looked away, staring blankly at the flagpole at the end of the school commons. She wasn’t so sure about that. She remembered the shouts coming from inside Ali’s house the day they’d sneaked into Ali’s backyard to steal her Time Capsule flag. Someone kept imitating Ali’s voice. And then there was a shattering sound and a thud, as if someone had been pushed. Jason stormed out of the house moments later, his face fiery red.
In fact, now that she thought about it, the very first time Emily had ever seen Ali, Jason had been teasing her. It was a few days before she started third grade, and Emily and her mom were at the grocery store, picking out juice boxes and mini bags of Doritos for school lunches. A pretty blond girl about Emily’s age bounded right past them, skipping up the cereal aisle. There was something intoxicating about her, probably because she was everything plain, introverted Emily wasn’t.
They saw the girl again in the frozen foods section, peering into every case, trying to decide what she wanted. Her mother trailed behind with a cart, and a boy, probably about fourteen, followed, staring at a Game Boy. “Mom, can we get Eggos?” the girl cried, opening up a freezer door, her smile big and gap-toothed. The teenage boy rolled his eyes. “Mom, can we get Eggos?” he imitated, his voice sharp and mean.
And just like that, the girl wilted. Her bottom lip wobbled, and she shut the door with a disheartened thud. The mother grabbed the boy’s arm. “You know better.” The boy shrugged and slumped down, but Emily thought he deserved being yelled at. He ruined the girl’s fun, simply because he could. A few days later, when third grade began, Emily realized that the girl in the store had been Ali. She was new to Rosewood Day, but she was so pretty and bubbly that everyone instantly wanted to sit next to her on the rug during show-and-tell. It was hard to believe anything would make her sad.
Emily kicked an icy ball of snow down the sidewalk, quietly debating whether she should tell Aria this. But before she could, Aria mumbled a terse good-bye and walked briskly toward the science wing, the tassels at the ends of her earflap hat bouncing.
Sighing, Emily slowly climbed the stairs to her locker, ducking out of the way of a bunch of younger boys from the wrestling team who were bounding down the stairs in the other direction. Yes, she’d learned that Ali had a way of manipulating people to get their secrets. And yes, she could admit that Ali had a nasty streak—Emily had been the victim of it too, especially when Ali teased Emily in front of the others about the time she kissed her in the tree house. But Jenna wasn’t popular, she wasn’t Ali’s friend, and she didn’t have anything Ali needed. Sure Ali was mean, but there was usually a grain of truth in what she said.
Emily stopped in front of her locker. As she was hanging up her coat, she heard a small snicker behind her. She whirled around, gazing into the flood of students walking down the hall to homeroom. A familiar girl swam into view. It was none other than Jenna Cavanaugh. She was standing in the doorway of the Chem II room, her golden retriever guide dog at her side. Emily’s skin crawled. It was as though by just thinking about Jenna, Emily had conjured her up.
A shadow moved behind Jenna, and Emily’s ex-girlfriend, Maya St. Germain, appeared in the doorway too. Emily had barely spoken to Maya since they’d broken up when Maya caught her kissing Trista, a girl she’d met when her parents sent her to live with her aunt and uncle in Iowa. By the livid look on Maya’s face, it didn’t seem like she’d forgiven Emily yet.
Maya whispered something in Jenna’s ear before gazing across the busy hallway at Emily. Her mouth curled into a nasty sneer. Jenna’s eyes were hidden behind her dark Gucci sunglasses, but her face was drawn and unsmiling.
Slamming her locker door hard, Emily scampered down the hall without even retrieving the books she needed for her morning classes. When she looked over her shoulder, Maya was waggling her fingers. Bye, Maya mouthed overdramatically, her eyes sparkling with mischief and amusement, as if she knew precisely how much she was making Emily squirm.
THE MOST DECKED-OUT BABY IN ROSEWOOD
On Wednesday afternoon, Aria stood in the foyer of the new house Byron and Meredith just purchased. She had to admit that the place was really charming. It was an old Craftsman-style bungalow on a secluded corner of the street with walnut-colored hardwood floors and quirky brass chandeliers and sconces. As Meredith had promised, there was a little attic bedroom with great light for painting.
The only glitch was that she could see the weather vane on top of Ian’s house from her bedroom window. She also had a view of the barren woods where they’d found Ian’s apparently fake dead body. The police vehicles and search equipment were gone, but the ground was torn up in spots, and there were lots of boot tracks in the mud. Now that she knew Ian was probably still alive—and still hanging out in Rosewood—she couldn’t even look into the woods without feeling queasy. And when she’d stood on the front porch earlier, waiting for Meredith to unlock the door, Aria had sworn she’d caught a flash of someone disappearing behind a house at the end of the cul-de-sac. But when she stepped back to get a better look, no one was there.
Byron had sent a moving crew to Ella’s house this morning to pick up some things from Aria’s bedroom. Last night, Aria had finally called Ella and broken the news that she was going to move in with Byron for a while to get to know Meredith better. Ella paused, probably remembering the time Aria had painted a hateful, adulteress A on Meredith’s blouse, and then asked if Aria was upset about something. “Of course not!” Aria cried quickly. Ella replied that she’d really like Aria to stay; was there something she could do to make Aria happier? Yeah, you could get rid of Xavier, Aria wished she could suggest.
In the end, Aria backpedaled, telling Ella she’d leave some of her furniture and clothes in her old bedroom and shuttle between Ella’s and Byron’s houses instead. She didn’t want Ella to think that Aria was abandoning her, specifically. Anyway, how difficult could it be to avoid Xavier? Aria would stay at Ella’s on the days she was certain he wouldn’t be there—like when he was out of town for an art exhibition.
The movers had left the lighter boxes in the front foyer, and Aria was in the process of bringing them upstairs. As she was bending down to pick up a box marked Fragile, Meredith slipped a white envelope into the back pocket of Aria’s skinny jeans. “Mail for you,” she sang, and then flitted down the hall, dust mop in hand.
Aria pulled out the envelope. Her name was printed on an anonymous green address label. She shuddered, thinking about what Emily had said to Hanna today. A has gotten in touch with us in other ways. She wasn’t ready for a new barrage of notes.
Inside, she found an invitation and two orange tickets for a party at a new hotel called the Radley. A Post-it was attached. Aria, I miss you already! When will you be back with us? Anyway, one of my paintings was chosen to hang in the lobby! Here are two invitations to the opening. Please join Xavier and me there! Love, Ella.