Page 15

 Sara Shepard

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Aria stuffed the papers back in the envelope, her heart sinking. Maybe avoiding Xavier was going to be harder than she thought.
She climbed the stairs and ducked into her small, cozy bedroom. It was the bedroom she’d always wanted, with skylights over her bed, a cushy window seat, and slightly slanted wood floors, the kind where she could place a pencil at one end of the room and it would roll slowly to the other end all on its own. Boxes from her old bedroom were stacked to the ceiling, and Aria’s stuffed animal puppets were strewn out on the platform bed her parents had bought for her at a warehouse in Denmark. She’d hung up most of her clothes in an old armoire Byron had bought off Craigslist, putting her T-shirts, bras, undies, and socks in the bottom drawers. She still had to find a place for the boxes of yarn, extra blankets, too-small shoes, and board games from her old closet.
But she didn’t feel like doing any of that right now. All she wanted to do was flop down on her bed and puzzle over yesterday’s encounter with Jason DiLaurentis. Had he been flirting with her? Why had his mood changed so quickly? Was it because of the Ian Dead Body news report on TV?
She wondered if Jason had friends in the area anymore. In high school, he used to spend a lot of time by himself, listening to music, reading, or brooding. Ali had gone missing the last day of Jason’s senior year, and Aria had barely seen him since. After the summer, he’d hightailed it to Yale, and she had no idea if he ever came home to visit after that.
So how was he handling this Ali stuff now? Did he have anyone he could talk to about it? She thought about what Emily had said this morning at the swings—that Jason had screamed at her for denting his car. Emily had seemed worried about it, but Aria couldn’t imagine what she might do if someone murdered Mike. She’d probably fly off the handle about dented bumpers too.
Then, a familiar Puma shoe box on the floor caught her eye. Old Book Reports, said the label. Aria breathed in sharply. The box was dented, the lettering on the sides faded. The last time Aria looked inside this box was the Saturday she and the others had sneaked into Ali’s yard to steal her flag.
Aria had buried the memory of what happened that day for so long, but now that she was allowing herself to think about it, every sensory detail flooded back to her, crystal clear. She remembered Ali wheeling around and walking back into her house, the smell of her vanilla hand soap wafting behind her. She remembered stomping through the woods to get home, the ground still wet from the rain a few days before. She remembered how the leaves on the trees were still very green and thick, providing ample shade from the late-summer sun. The woods smelled like pine and something else…perhaps a cigarette. Far off in the distance, a lawnmower snarled.
Then twigs cracked. Bushes rustled. Aria saw Jason’s black T-shirt and blond hair and held her breath. She’d fantasized about seeing Jason that day…and there he was. She didn’t know what made her eyes go to the piece of the flag hanging out of his pocket. When Jason saw what she was looking at, he shoved the piece at her, saying nothing.
One minute it was in my bag, the next minute it was gone, Ali had told them. Why had Jason taken it from Ali? Aria wanted to think it had been for a practical and ethical reason, not just to be mean. There was no way Jason abused Ali, as Jenna implied and as Emily wanted to believe. In fact, Jason had always seemed fiercely protective of Ali. He’d jumped out of nowhere to intervene when Ali and Ian were talking in the courtyard the day Time Capsule was announced. Even the day they’d tried to steal Ali’s flag and Emily had shushed them to listen to a fight taking place inside Ali’s house, Jason had stormed out moments later, upset about something. When Ali came out to talk to them, she still seemed worried, nervously peeking over her shoulder toward the house. If she’d had issues with Jason, wouldn’t she have been relieved that he was gone?
This morning, Spencer had said she wanted to steal Ali’s flag because she thought Ali had cheated her way to winning. Maybe Jason felt guilty about cheating too. Maybe he’d told Ali to keep quiet that he’d told her where he’d hidden his piece, and had gotten annoyed when he heard Ali bragging about it to everyone in the courtyard.
Aria crouched next to the shoe box, her body tingling. It had been so long since she’d looked at Ali’s piece of the Time Capsule flag, she’d nearly forgotten what Ali had drawn on it. The lid bent as she pulled it off. A cloud of dust dispersed into the air.
“Aria?” Byron’s voice floated from downstairs. “Come down for Meredith’s shower!”
Aria paused. The very edge of the shiny blue flag poked out from underneath a bunch of old papers. “I’m coming,” she called, a little relieved she’d been interrupted.
Meredith, Byron, a bunch of scruffy men Aria recognized as Byron’s colleagues at Hollis, and a few twentysomething girls in yoga pants or paint-spattered jeans were milling around in the living room. A French press coffeemaker, bottles of wine and sparkling water, and a large plate of cucumber-hummus sandwiches sat on the table, and there was a big pile of gifts next to the sofa. Then someone to Aria’s left coughed. Mike was sitting in the corner of the sectional, a pretty brunette by his side. Aria blinked, temporarily speechless. It was Hanna’s soon-to-be stepsister, Kate.
“Um, hi?” Aria said cautiously. Kate smiled smugly. Mike smiled even more smugly. He put his hand on Kate’s thigh, and Kate let him. Aria frowned, wondering if her brain had been damaged from the dust in her new attic bedroom.
Heels clacked down the foyer, and Aria turned just in time to see Hanna enter. She wore a green silk halter-neck dress with her decorated Time Capsule flag looped around her waist as a belt. She carried a box wrapped in stork-printed paper. Aria was about to say hello, but Hanna wasn’t looking in her direction. She was staring at Kate. Her mouth tightened. “Oh.”
“Hi, Hanna!” Kate waved. “Glad you made it!”
“You weren’t invited,” Hanna blurted.
“Yes, I was.” Kate’s smile didn’t falter.
A muscle beneath Hanna’s right eye twitched. A bloom of red traveled from her neck to her cheeks. Aria swiveled back and forth between the girls, feeling both confused and fascinated at the same time.
Meredith looked amused. “Mike, you brought two dates?”
“Hey, it’s a party,” Mike said, shrugging. “The more the merrier, right?”
“That’s what I say!” Kate crowed. When superthin Kate smiled a certain way, she reminded Aria of the screeching gibbon on her National Geographic Animals of the World poster that still hung on her old bedroom door. Hanna was definitely the prettier of the two.
Hanna rolled her shoulders back, strutted over to Meredith, and stuck out her hand. “Hanna Marin. I’m an old friend of the family.” She proffered her gift to Meredith, and Meredith put it in the pile with the other things. Hanna glowered at Kate, then settled on the other side of Mike, squishing in so that their butts shared a couch cushion.
Kate ogled Hanna’s Time Capsule flag belt. “What’s that thing?” She pointed at a black blob Hanna had drawn.
Hanna shot her a haughty look. “It’s a manga frog. Duh.”
Aria sat down on the rocker, overwhelmingly weirded out. She caught Hanna’s eye, pointed to her cell phone, and started typing Hanna a text—Hanna had reluctantly given Aria and the others the number to her iPhone that morning. What R U doing here?
Hanna’s iPhone beeped. She read the text, glanced at Aria, and typed. Seconds later, Aria’s phone buzzed. Y didn’t U tell us U were moving 4 drs down from Ian?
Aria opened up a reply text. Hanna couldn’t dodge the question that easily. I just found out myself, she wrote back. So do U like Mike?
Maybe, Hanna wrote. He’s the one guy you can’t steal from me.
Aria gritted her teeth. Hanna was referring to the time last fall when Aria had dated her ex, Sean Ackard. To this day, Hanna seemed certain that Aria had stolen Sean from her.
Meredith began unwrapping her large pile of gifts, displaying everything on the coffee table. So far, she’d received a bunch of baby toys, a receiving blanket, and a breast pump from Mike. When she got to a gift wrapped in striped paper, Kate sat up straighter. “Oh, that one’s mine!” She rubbed her hands together gleefully. Hanna’s scowl deepened.
Meredith sat back down on the couch and unwrapped the box. “Oh my God,” she breathed, lifting a cream-colored onesie from a layer of pink tissue paper.
“It’s organic Mongolian cashmere,” Kate recited. “Completely fair trade.”
“Thank you so much.” Meredith pressed the onesie to her face. Byron felt it between his fingers, nodding sagely as if he were a cashmere connoisseur. Frayed cotton T-shirts and flannel pajama pants were usually more his thing.
Hanna abruptly stood up, letting out a small squeak. “Did you snoop in my room?”
“Excuse me?” Kate asked, widening her eyes.
“You knew,” Hanna shrieked. “I searched for hours for the perfect thing.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Kate shrugged.
At that moment, Meredith was unwrapping the stork-wrapped gift that Hanna had brought. Inside was another box from Sunshine. “Oh,” Meredith said pleasantly, lifting an identical cashmere onesie out of identical pink tissue paper. “It’s beautiful. Again.”
“One can never have too many of those,” Tate, one of Byron’s Hollis colleagues, guffawed, a glob of hummus falling into his scraggly beard.
Kate tittered good-naturedly too. “Great minds think alike, I guess,” she said, which made Hanna’s face contort with rage. Mike’s head swiveled from one girl to the other; he was obviously lapping up the catfight drama.
Suddenly, Aria noticed a dark shape moving outside the front window. Goose bumps rose on her arms. Someone was standing in the yard, watching the party.
She looked around the room, but no one else seemed to notice. Clearing her throat, she rose from the couch and crept down the hall. Her heart pounded as she turned the doorknob and stepped outside. The neighborhood was deathly quiet, and the air smelled like a woodstove. The sky was getting dark, and the lamp at the end of Aria’s new driveway cast a pale gold circle on the grass. When she saw the figure again by the mailbox, she jumped back. Thankfully, it wasn’t Ian. It was…
“Jenna?” Aria cried softly.
Jenna Cavanaugh was wearing a heavy quilted black coat, black mittens, and a gray hat with earflaps. Her golden retriever’s tongue dangled from his mouth. She cocked her head toward the sound of Aria’s voice. Her lips parted.
“It’s Aria,” Aria explained. “I moved here with my dad yesterday.”
Jenna nodded faintly. “I know.” She didn’t move. There was a guilty look on her face.
“Are you…okay?” Aria asked after a moment, her heart pounding. “Do you need something?”
Jenna pushed her big Gucci sunglasses up the bridge of her nose. It was strange, seeing someone wearing sunglasses at dusk. She looked as if she was about to say something, but then she turned, waving her hand. “No.”