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“So where had Jason hidden the piece, anyway?” Emily tried.
Ali snapped out of her funk and stiffened. “Huh?”
Emily flinched, worried she’d accidentally said something upsetting. “You said a few days ago that Jason had told you where he’d hidden his piece. That’s the one you found, right?” Really, Emily was more interested in the thud she’d heard inside the house minutes ago. Had Ali and Jason been fighting? Did Jason imitate Ali’s voice a lot? But she didn’t dare ask.
“Oh.” Ali spun the silver ring she always wore on her right pointer finger faster and faster. “Right. Yeah. That’s the piece I found.” She swiveled to face the street. The champagne-colored Mercedes the girls often saw picking Ali up after school slowly emerged down the driveway and rolled to the corner. It paused at the stop sign, put on its blinker, and turned right.
Then Ali let out a breath and regarded the girls almost unfamiliarly, as if she was surprised they were there. “So…bye,” she said. She turned and marched back into the house. Moments later, the same upstairs light that had just gone dark snapped on again.
The wind chimes on the DiLaurentises’ back porch clanged together. A chipmunk skittered across the lawn. At first, the girls were too baffled to move. When it was clear Ali wasn’t coming back, everyone said awkward good-byes and went their separate ways. Emily cut through Spencer’s yard and followed the trail to the road, trying to see the bright side—she was thankful Ali had even spoken to them at all. Aria started for the woods, annoyed she’d come. Spencer trudged back to her house, embarrassed that Ali had snubbed her as much as the others. Ian and Melissa had gone inside, probably to make out on her family’s living room couch—eww. And Hanna retrieved her bike from behind the rock in Ali’s front yard, noticing a sputtering black car sitting at the curb right in front of Ali’s house. She squinted, perplexed. Had she seen it before? Shrugging, she turned away, biking around the cul-de-sac and down the road.
Each girl felt the same heavy, hopeless sense of humiliation. Who did they think they were, trying to steal a Time Capsule piece from the most popular girl at Rosewood Day? Why had they even dared to believe they could do it? Ali had probably gone inside, called her BFFs Naomi Zeigler and Riley Wolfe, and laughed about the losers who’d just shown up in her backyard. For a fleeting moment, it had seemed like Ali was going to give Hanna, Aria, Emily, and Spencer a chance at friendship, but now, that chance was most definitely gone.
The following Monday, a rumor swirled that Ali’s piece of the flag had been stolen. There was a second rumor, too: Ali had gotten into a vicious fight with Naomi and Riley. No one knew what the argument was about. No one knew how it had started. All anyone knew was that the most coveted clique in sixth grade was now missing a few members.
When Ali made conversation with Spencer, Hanna, Emily, and Aria at the Rosewood Day Charity Drive the following Saturday, the four girls thought it was just a nasty prank. But Ali remembered their names. She complimented the way Spencer had flawlessly spelled knickknacks and chandeliers. She ogled Hanna’s brand-new boots from Anthropologie and the peacock-feather earrings Aria’s dad had brought her from Morocco. She marveled at how Emily could easily lift a whole box of last season’s winter coats. Before the girls knew it, Ali had invited them to her house for a sleepover. Which led to another sleepover, and then another. By the end of September, when the Time Capsule game ended and everyone turned in their decorated pieces of the flag, a new rumor was swirling around school: Ali had four new best friends.
They sat together at the Time Capsule burial ceremony in the Rosewood Day auditorium, watching as Principal Appleton called each person who’d found a piece of the flag to the stage. When Appleton announced that one of the pieces previously found by Alison DiLaurentis had never been turned in and would now be considered invalid, the girls squeezed Ali’s hands hard. It isn’t fair, they whispered. That piece was yours. You worked so hard on it.
But the girl at the end of the row, one of Ali’s brand-new best friends, was shaking so badly she had to hold her knees steady with the heels of her palms. Aria knew where Ali’s piece of the flag was. Sometimes, after the five-way pre-bedtime phone call with her new best friends ended, Aria’s gaze would lock on the shoe box on the very top shelf of her closet, a hollow, sour pain quickly forming in the pit of her stomach. It was better that she hadn’t told anyone that she had Ali’s flag piece, though. And it was better that she hadn’t turned it in. For once, her life was going great. She had friends. She had people to sit next to at lunch, people to hang out with on the weekends. The best thing to do was forget about what had happened that day…forever.
But maybe Aria shouldn’t have forgotten so quickly. Maybe she should’ve pulled the box down, taken the lid off, and given Ali’s long-lost piece a thorough look. This was Rosewood, and everything meant something. What Aria might have found on that flag might have given her a clue about something that was coming in Ali’s not-so-distant future.
THE GIRL WHO CRIED “DEAD BODY”
Spencer Hastings shivered in the frigid, late-evening air, ducking to avoid a thorny briar branch. “This way,” she called over her shoulder, pushing into the woods behind her family’s large, converted farmhouse. “This was where we saw him.”
Her old best friends Aria Montgomery, Emily Fields, and Hanna Marin followed quickly behind. All of the girls teetered haphazardly in their high heels, holding the hems of their party dresses—it was Saturday night, and before this, they’d been at a Rosewood Day benefit at Spencer’s house. Emily was whimpering, her face streaked with tears. Aria’s teeth were chattering, the way they always did when she was afraid. Hanna wasn’t making any sounds, but her eyes were huge and she was brandishing a large silver candlestick she’d grabbed from the Hastingses’ dining room. Officer Darren Wilden, the town’s youngest cop, trailed after them, beaming a flashlight at the wrought-iron fence that separated Spencer’s yard from the one that had once belonged to Alison DiLaurentis.
“He’s in this clearing, right down this trail,” Spencer called. It had started to snow, first wispy flurries, but harder now—fat, wet flakes. To Spencer’s left was her family’s barn, the very last place Spencer and her friends had seen Ali alive three and a half years ago. To her right was the half-dug hole where Ali’s body had been found in September. Straight ahead was the clearing where she’d just discovered the dead body of Ian Thomas, her sister’s old boyfriend, Ali’s secret love, and Ali’s killer.
Well, maybe Ali’s killer.
Spencer had been so relieved when the cops arrested Ian for Ali’s murder. It all made sense: the last day of seventh grade, Ali had given him an ultimatum that either he break up with Melissa, Spencer’s sister, or Ali was going to tell the world they were together. Fed up with her games, Ian had met up with Ali that night. His fury and frustration had gotten the best of him…and he’d killed her. Spencer had even seen Ali and Ian in the woods the night she died, a traumatic memory she had suppressed for three and a half long years.
But the day before Ian’s trial was set to start, Ian had broken his house arrest and sneaked onto Spencer’s patio, begging her not to testify against him. Someone else had killed Ali, he insisted, and he was on the verge of uncovering a disturbing, mind-blowing secret that would prove his innocence.
The problem was, Ian never got to tell Spencer what the big secret was—he vanished before the opening statements of his trial last Friday. As the entire Rosewood Police Department sprang into action, combing the county to find out where he might have gone, everything Spencer thought was true was thrown into question. Had Ian done it…or hadn’t he? Had Spencer seen him out there with Ali…or had she seen someone else? Then, just minutes ago at the party, someone by the name of Ian_T had sent Spencer a text. Meet me in the woods where she died, it said. I have something to show you.
Spencer had run through the woods, anxious to figure it all out. When she came to a clearing, she looked down and screamed. Ian was lying there, bloated and blue, his eyes glassy and lifeless. Aria, Hanna, and Emily had shown up just then, and moments later they’d all received the same exact text message from the new A. He had to go.
They’d run back into Spencer’s to find Wilden, but he hadn’t been anywhere in the house. When Spencer went out to the circular driveway to check one more time, Wilden was suddenly there, standing near the valet-parked cars. When he saw her, he gave her a startled look, as if she’d caught him doing something illicit. Before Spencer could demand where Wilden had been, the others ran up in hysterics, breathlessly urging him to follow them into the woods. And now, here they were.
Spencer stopped, recognizing a familiar gnarled tree. There was the old stump. There was the tamped-down grass. The air had an eerie static, oxygenless quality. “This is it,” she called over her shoulder. She looked down at the ground, bracing herself for what she was about to see.
“Oh my God,” Spencer whispered.
Ian’s body was…gone.
She took a dizzy step back, clutching her hand to her head. She blinked hard and looked again. Ian’s body had been here a half hour ago, but now the spot was bare except for a fine layer of snow. But…how was that possible?
Emily clapped her hands over her mouth and made a gurgling sound. “Spencer,” she whispered urgently.
Aria let out a cross between a moan and a shriek. “Where is he?” she cried, looking around the woods frantically. “He was just here.”
Hanna’s face was pale. She didn’t say a word.
Behind them was an eerie, high-pitched squawking sound. Everyone jumped, and Hanna gripped the candlestick tightly. It was only Wilden’s walkie-talkie, which was attached to his belt. He gazed at the girls’ expressions, and then at the empty spot on the ground.
“Maybe you have the wrong place,” Wilden said.
Spencer shook her head, feeling pressure rising up into her chest. “No. He was here.” She staggered crookedly down the shallow slope and knelt on the half-thawed grass. Some of it seemed flattened, as if something weighty had recently been lying there. She reached out her fingers to touch the ground, but then pulled back, afraid. She couldn’t bring herself to touch a place where a dead body had just been.
“Maybe Ian was hurt, not dead.” Wilden fidgeted with one of the metal snaps on his jacket. “Maybe he ran away after you left.”
Spencer widened her eyes, daring to consider the possibility.
Emily shook her head fast. “There was no way he was just hurt.”
“He was definitely dead,” Hanna agreed shakily. “He was…blue.”
“Maybe someone moved the body,” Aria piped up. “We’ve been gone from the woods for over a half hour. That would’ve given someone time.”
“There was someone else out here,” Hanna whispered. “They stood over me when I fell.”