Page 23

 Sara Shepard

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Emily fiddled with the red straw in her vanilla Coke. She hadn’t told her family or swimming friends about Isaac yet.
She took a deep breath and looked at the others. “Actually…it’s a guy.”
Carolyn blinked hard. Lanie and Gemma smiled, puzzled. On TV, the Eagles scored a touchdown. The whole room cheered, but none of them turned.
“I met him at church,” Emily went on. “He goes to Holy Trinity Academy. His name’s Isaac. We’re sort of…dating.”
Carolyn placed her palms flat on the table. “Isaac Colbert? The hot guy in that band, Carpe Diem?”
Emily nodded, pleased color rising to her cheeks.
“I know him,” Gemma said, swooning. “We worked on the same Habitat for Humanity project last year. He’s gorgeous.”
“Is it serious?” Carolyn’s eyes popped wider and wider.
Emily nodded again, gazing at her sister. “I plan to tell Mom and Dad. Don’t break the news to them first. I just needed to make sure it was…for real.”
Carolyn picked up a piece of garlic bread that had just arrived. “Go you.” Gemma gave Emily a high five, and Lanie patted her on the back.
Emily breathed out, relieved. She’d worried about how that would go. And she’d especially fretted that Carolyn would make a face and ask her why she’d put the family through the lesbian stuff if she was going to eventually date guys again.
But now that her thoughts had turned to Isaac, she couldn’t help but think about what had happened at dinner last night. All those awful, jabbing digs. All those bitter looks. And that photo in the drawer, the one of Emily beheaded. Would Emily and Isaac be able to go to the Radley party together, if Mrs. Colbert knew what they’d done?
She’d left Isaac’s house soon after seeing the photo in the drawer, not telling Isaac a word about it. But she had to say something. They were a couple. They were in love. Surely he would understand. She could say, Are you sure your mom likes me? Does your mom like to haze your new girlfriends? Did you know your mom is a psychopath and beheaded me in a photo?
Their dinners came, and the swimmers scarfed them down. As the waitress cleared their plates, Emily’s phone rang. Spencer Hastings, said the name in the Caller ID window. A flutter of nerves streaked through Emily’s stomach. She glanced apologetically at her friends, slid out of the booth, and walked down the hall toward the bathrooms. It was way too loud in the bar area to even attempt a phone conversation.
“What’s up?” Emily said when she pushed through the bathroom door.
“I got another note,” Spencer said.
Emily placed a shaky hand on the marble sink and stared in the mirror. Her eyes were round, and her face had gone very pale. “W-what did it say?”
“Basically that we have to keep searching or pay A’s price.”
“Searching…for the killer?” Emily whispered.
“I guess. I don’t know what else it could mean.”
“Do you think it has to do with that photo I got? The one of Ali and Jenna?”
“I don’t know.” Spencer sounded hopeless. “That doesn’t make much sense either.”
A toilet flushed, and a pair of loafers shuffled behind one of the stall doors. Emily tensed. She hadn’t realized anyone else was in the bathroom. “I have to go,” she hissed into the phone.
“Okay,” Spencer said. “Be careful.”
Emily clapped her phone shut and stuffed it back into her pocket. When the stall door opened and the woman emerged, Emily’s blood went cold.
“Oh.” Mrs. Colbert stopped short. She was dressed in a silk blouse and black pants, as if she’d come from work. The corners of her mouth turned sharply down.
“Hi,” Emily chirped, her voice an octave higher than it normally was. Her hands shook. “H-how are you?”
Mrs. Colbert whisked past her to the sink and turned on the hot tap. She plunged her hands underneath the stream of water, rubbing so vigorously it was a wonder her skin didn’t peel off in curls. She was blocking the paper towel dispenser, but Emily didn’t dare ask her to move.
“Are you and Mr. Colbert having dinner here?” Emily asked, mustering a smile. “I love their burgers.”
Mrs. Colbert whirled around and glared at her. “Cut the sweet act. It’s insulting.”
Emily sucked in her stomach. Another cheer erupted from the bar. “I’m…sorry?”
Mrs. Colbert turned off the tap and tore off a piece of paper towel violently, wadding it up in her hands. “I didn’t want to say this in front of my son, which is why I tolerated you at dinner the other night. But you’ve disrespected me and my home. As far as I’m concerned, you’re trash. Don’t you dare set foot in my house again.”
Emily paled. All other sounds fell away. Dizzily, she backed out of the room butt-first and sprinted back to her table. She snatched her coat off her chair and darted for the door. “Emily?” Carolyn called, standing halfway up. But Emily didn’t answer. She had to get out of here. She had to get away from Isaac’s mom before she could say anything else.
Bitter wind swept across her cheeks as she walked into the parking lot. Carolyn was right behind her, tugging at her sleeve. “What’s wrong?” her sister asked. “What happened?”
Emily didn’t answer. She wasn’t sure she could answer. You’ve disrespected me and my home. Mrs. Colbert had said it all.
She stared at the bright Applebee’s sign, cursing her terrible luck. Why did Mrs. Colbert have to eat at Applebee’s tonight of all nights? And it was 8 P.M., not exactly the normal dinnertime hour. It was bitter cold out, too, a good night to stay indoors.
Then, from deep inside her purse, Emily’s phone chimed. Suddenly, it hit her. Maybe it wasn’t luck or coincidence that Mrs. Colbert was at Applebee’s tonight. Maybe someone had told her to come.
“Just…give me a sec,” she said to her sister. She walked over to the curb near the takeout door and lowered herself down. Her cell phone’s greenish window glowed in the darkness. One new photo message, the screen said.
A picture appeared on the Nokia’s screen. But it had nothing to do with Emily, Isaac, or Isaac’s mom. Instead, it was of a big room with stained-glass windows, glossy wooden pews, and thick red carpeting. Emily frowned. It was Holy Trinity, her family’s church. There was Father Tyson’s confessional, the little wooden alcove near the lobby. Someone was emerging from the confession booth, his head bowed. Emily brought the phone close to her face. The guy in the photo was tall, with short, dark hair. A Rosewood Police Department badge glowed on his jacket, and a pair of handcuffs dangled from his belt.
Then she noticed the text at the bottom of the photo. Even though she wasn’t quite sure what it meant, an uneasy shiver rippled from the top of her head down to the soles of her feet.
I guess we all have stuff to feel guilty about, huh?—A
Friday morning, as the sky was turning from dark blue to pale purple, Hanna zipped up her green Puma running jacket and did a couple of calf stretches against the big maple tree in her front yard. Then she set off running down her driveway, listening to music on her iPhone. She’d been an idiot not to get an iPhone sooner—armed with a new unlisted phone number, she hadn’t received a single text from New A.
New A was certainly texting Emily up a storm, though—Hanna had received a forward from Emily early this morning, a photo of Darren Wilden skulking around a church. What do you think this means? Emily wrote, as if Hanna really would know. Lots of people went to church. She didn’t buy that A was sending Emily texts as all-important clues. More than likely, A was just messing with poor Emily’s already addled mind.
But Hanna had received quite a few texts from Mike Montgomery. Like the one that came in right now: U awake?
Yes, Hanna typed back quickly. On a run.
Sexy, Mike wrote back. What R U wearing?
Hanna smirked. Spandex. Super tight.
Mike: Run by my house!
You wish, Hanna answered, giggling.
Mike had even texted her last night, presumably after he’d returned from his date with Kate. Hanna considered scolding him about double booking, but then she worried she might sound whiny and insecure. Did Mike think Kate was prettier? Thinner? Did he take her shopping and try and bust into her dressing room, too? What did Kate do? Laugh…or freak?
What time do U want me to pick U up for the Radley party 2morro? Hanna texted.
She was at the bottom of her street before Mike responded. Do U mind if we add a third? Hanna came to an abrupt stop at the corner. It was obvious who the third person Mike wanted to add was—Kate.
She kicked the metal post of the stop sign hard. It made a loud clanging sound, startling a few birds from a nearby tree. Her dad might have relaxed the all-Kate-all-the-time punishment, but he was still trying to coerce Hanna and Kate into being BFFs. Like yesterday, when Kate had returned from her date with Mike, she’d joined Hanna and Mr. Marin in the kitchen, where Hanna was proudly showing her father her decorated Time Capsule flag. Mr. Marin studied it, then Kate, and then gently asked Hanna if Kate could have some of the credit for finding the flag too. Maybe Hanna could let her draw a little decoration in one of the corners?
Hanna’s mouth had dropped open. “It’s my flag,” she cried, astonished her dad could even suggest such a thing. “I found it.” Her father looked at her disappointedly, then walked away. Kate didn’t say a word the whole time, probably figuring that a silent, humble daughter was better than a screechy, bratty one. But Hanna knew Kate was thrilled that Hanna and her father’s relationship was dying a slow, painful death.
There was a swish behind her, and Hanna whirled around, suddenly struck with the distinct feeling that someone was on her tail. Only the narrow road was empty. She let out a long sigh and decided not to answer Mike at all, sliding her iPhone into her pocket and cranking up the music. She ran down the hill from her neighborhood, cut across a narrow footbridge between two yards, and found herself at a familiar intersection. There was an old gray farmhouse on the corner, set back from the street. Two cinnamon-colored horses and one spotted Shetland pony stood calmly next to the wood fence. This was the turn to Ali’s.
The first time Hanna stood at the crossroads was the day she’d tried to steal Ali’s piece of the Time Capsule flag. Hanna remembered gazing into the pony’s big, soft eyes, wishing she could ask its opinion about what she was about to do. Who did she think she was, assuming she could march in and snatch Ali’s flag? What if Naomi and Riley were there and they all laughed in Hanna’s face? Maybe I should face the fact that I’ll never be popular, she’d almost said out loud to the pony. But then a car had passed, and she’d squared her shoulders and biked on.
Now she jogged into Ali’s neighborhood, breathing hard. Mona’s house was one of the first houses on the street, its grand circular driveway and gabled six-car garage painfully familiar. Hanna looked away. Next came Jenna’s house, the red colonial with the big tree off to the side, the one that had once held Toby’s tree house. Then Spencer’s estate, which sat aloofly behind a large wrought-iron gate. Hints of the KILLER graffiti were visible through the repainted barn garage doors. Ali’s old house was last, looming at the end of the cul-de-sac.