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“Wait!” Aria called, but Jenna kept walking. Her dog’s tags jingled. Her shoes made no sound. After a moment, all Aria could see of her was her glowing white cane, slowly drifting from side to side to the end of the street.
OFF WITH HER HEAD!
Wednesday evening, Emily placed four cream-colored dinner plates around the square farmhouse table in the Colberts’ dining room. When she got to the silverware, she paused, puzzled. Did knives go next to forks, or spoons? Her own family’s dinners were casual free-for-alls. Emily and her sister Carolyn often ate later than their parents because of swim practice.
Isaac strolled in from the kitchen, his eyes looking extra blue in his shrunken V-neck sweater and dark denim jeans. He took Emily’s hand and pressed something smooth and round into it. She stared into her palm. It was a teal blue ceramic ring. “What’s this for?”
Isaac’s eyes were bright. “No reason. Because I love you.”
Emily pressed her lips together tightly, overcome. No one she’d dated had given her a gift before. “I love you too,” she said, and slid the ring onto her pointer finger, where it fit best. She couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened between them yesterday. It felt surreal…but wonderful, too—a great distraction from thinking about A’s return. All day at school, she kept sneaking into the girls’ bathroom, inspecting herself in the mirror, looking for changes. It was always the same Emily staring back at her, with the same sprinkling of freckles, the same wide brown eyes, the same slightly upturned nose. She kept waiting to see a special glow or a knowing smile, something to indicate a transformation. She wished she could grab Isaac’s shoulders, kiss him hard, and whisper that she wanted to do it again. Soon.
A loud crash in the kitchen shattered Emily’s thoughts into a million pieces. Not that she’d dare tell Isaac now, of course. Not with his parents around.
Isaac took the silverware from Emily and started placing it next to the plates—spoons next to knives on the right, forks alone on the left. “You look nervous,” he said. “Don’t worry. I told my parents not to bring up Ali’s trial.”
“Thanks.” Emily tried to smile. Prying questions about Ali’s trial were the least of her problems tonight—she was more worried about what exactly Mrs. Colbert had heard about yesterday. When she’d arrived at the door, Mrs. Colbert had greeted her stiffly, as if she wasn’t pleased to see her. And after Emily came out of the powder room just now, she swore Mrs. Colbert was watching her judgingly, as if she thought Emily had forgotten to wash her hands.
Emily scurried into the kitchen to help Isaac’s mom carry the pot roast and casserole dishes of broccoli, garlic mashed potatoes, and rolls to the table. Mr. Colbert blustered into the dining room, loosening his tie. After the family said grace, Mrs. Colbert passed the pot roast in Emily’s direction, looking at her squarely for the first time of the evening.
“Here you go, dear.” The corners of Mrs. Colbert’s mouth curled up. “You like meat, don’t you?”
Emily blinked. Was it her, or did that statement seem…loaded? She checked Isaac for his reaction, but he was innocently selecting a roll from a wicker basket. “Uh, thanks,” Emily said, pulling the platter toward her. She did like meat. The kind you, um, eat.
“So, Emily.” Mr. Colbert dug a large spoon into the bowl of potatoes. “I asked some of my catering employees about you. Apparently, you have a reputation.”
Mrs. Colbert snorted quietly. Emily’s fork clattered to her plate. The only sound in the room was the vent fan over the stove. “I-I do?”
“Everyone says you’re a great swimmer,” Mr. Colbert finished. “Nationally ranked in butterfly? That’s amazing—it’s a tough stroke, right?”
“Oh.” Emily took a long, shaky drink from her glass of water. “Yeah.” What had she expected, that Mr. Colbert was going to ask her what it was like to make out with girls? “It is a tough stroke, but for some reason I’m naturally fast at it.”
And then Mrs. Colbert murmured something else under her breath. Emily could have sworn it was, “You’re naturally fast, all right.”
Emily lowered her glass. Mrs. Colbert chewed calmly, watching Emily. It felt like her eyes were beaming into Emily’s skull. “What was that, Mom?” Isaac asked, squinting.
Mrs. Colbert’s expression morphed into a sweet smile. “I said Emily’s naturally modest. I’m sure she’s worked very hard to become such a good swimmer.”
“Totally.” Isaac smiled. Emily stared at her pile of mashed potatoes, feeling a little like she was going insane. Was that what Mrs. Colbert had said?
For dessert, Mrs. Colbert brought out an apple pie and a pot of coffee. Mr. Colbert looked at his wife. “By the way, we’re set for the opening this Saturday. I thought we weren’t going to have enough people to work it, since the party is so big, but we’ve got enough.”
“That’s great,” Mrs. Colbert said.
“That party’s going to be sweet,” Isaac murmured.
Emily grabbed a plate of pie. “Party?”
“My dad’s catering the opening of a new hotel outside town,” Isaac explained. He took her hand under the table. “It used to be a school or something, right?”
“A mental institution,” Mrs. Colbert interjected, wrinkling her nose.
“Not exactly,” Mr. Colbert corrected her. “It was a facility for troubled kids called the Radley. The hotel’s going to be called that too. The owners are kicking themselves for scheduling the opening party for this weekend—renovations aren’t all done. But the rooms they haven’t gotten to yet are all on the upper levels—the guests won’t even see them. But you know hotel people—everything’s gotta be perfect.”
“The hotel is really gorgeous,” Isaac said to Emily. “It’s like an old castle. There’s even a labyrinth maze in the garden. I’d love it if you would come with me.”
“Sure,” Emily said, beaming. She popped a bite of pie in her mouth.
“So it’s a dinner,” Isaac explained. “But there will also be drinks and dancing.”
“But they’ll only serve you virgin drinks, Emily,” Mrs. Colbert clarified.
Emily’s skin prickled. Virgin? She glanced at Isaac, unable to control the muscles around her mouth. She knows, she thought. She definitely knows.
Isaac smiled appeasingly. “Don’t worry. We won’t drink.”
“Good,” Mrs. Colbert said. “I worry about you guys going to these adult functions. A lot of the bartenders don’t even ask for IDs.” She sighed dramatically. “I thought you’d be more excited about the church trip to Boston next week than the Radley opening, Isaac. You were never interested in going to fancy adult parties until a few weeks ago.” She glanced pointedly at Emily, as if to say that Emily’s partying ways had corrupted him.
“I’ve always liked parties,” Isaac defended quickly.
“Oh, let them have some fun, Margaret,” Mr. Colbert said gently. “They’ll be good.”
The phone rang, and Mrs. Colbert jumped up to get it. Isaac excused himself to go to the bathroom, and Mr. Colbert disappeared to his office. Emily sliced her pie into tinier and tinier pieces, her hands slick and her cheeks hot. What was wrong with her? Was she being unreasonably sensitive? This had to be all in her head. Mrs. Colbert didn’t have it in for Emily and wasn’t trying to mess with her mind. She wasn’t A.
She gathered the plates and carried them to the sink, hoping she’d seem helpful. After a few minutes of scrubbing, she felt in her pocket for her cell phone. This would be an opportune time for A to write a snarky message about Mommy Dearest’s behavior. In fact, maybe Mrs. Colbert hadn’t known about Emily and Isaac yesterday…but A had tipped her off just in time for tonight’s dinner. Just like the old A, New A always seemed to know everything, after all.
But the little screen on Emily’s Nokia was blank. Suddenly, Emily realized she actually wanted a text from A. If A was behind this, then at least Isaac’s mom would be a victim of A’s manipulative wrath instead of simply being a passive-aggressive ogre.
As Mrs. Colbert let out a peal of laughter in the other room, Emily looked around the kitchen. Isaac’s mom collected cow stuff in the same way Emily’s mom collected chickens. They had the exact same refrigerator magnets of a thatched-roof French cottage, a tall-steepled church, and a boulangerie. Mrs. Colbert was a regular mom with a regular kitchen, just like Mrs. Fields. Maybe Emily was overreacting.
Emily gathered the washed forks, spoons, and knives and dried them on a dish towel, wondering where the silverware drawer was. She tried the one nearest the sink. A double-A battery rolled to the front. There were scissors, scattered paper clips, a cow-print oven mitt, and a bunch of takeout menus held together by a purple rubber band. Emily started to close it, but a picture shoved to the back of the drawer caught her eye.
She slid it forward. Isaac was standing in the family’s front foyer, wearing the slightly oversize suit that belonged to his father. He had his arm around Emily, who was wearing a pink satin dress she’d swiped from Carolyn’s closet. This had been taken the week before when they were on their way to the Rosewood Day benefit. Mrs. Colbert had flitted around them, her cheeks pink, her eyes shining. “You two look so cute!” she’d crowed. She’d adjusted Emily’s corsage, reknotted Isaac’s tie, and then offered both of them fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies.
The photo told that happy story…except for one thing. Emily no longer had a head. It had been cut out of the picture entirely, the scissors cleanly removing every last strand of her hair.
Emily shut the drawer fast. She ran her fingers over her neck, then up her jaw, then around her ears, cheeks, and forehead. Her head was still attached. As she stared out the kitchen window, trying to figure out what to do, her cell phone chimed.
Emily’s heart sank. So A was involved. She reached for the phone, her fingers trembling. One new picture message.
An image appeared on the screen. It was an old photo of someone’s backyard. Ali’s backyard—Emily recognized the tree house in the big oak off to the side. And there was Ali, her face young and smiling and bright. She was wearing a field hockey uniform from Rosewood Youth League, meaning the photo was from fifth or sixth grade—after that, Ali played JV for Rosewood Day. There were two other girls in the picture too. One had blond hair and was mostly concealed by a tree—it had to be Naomi Zeigler, one of Ali’s best friends at the time. The other girl was in profile. She had dark hair, pale skin, and naturally red lips.
Emily held the phone outstretched, puzzled. Where was the blackmail about her? Where was the gleeful, Gotcha! Mommy thinks you’re a big dirty slut! message? Why wasn’t A behaving like…A?
Then she noticed the accompanying text at the bottom of the photo. Emily read it four times, trying to understand.