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Aria assumed A was implying that Jason’s secret had to do with his and Ali’s “sibling problems,” as Jenna put it, but she wasn’t buying it. There was no way Jason and Ali had had anything but a loving sibling relationship. Aria had tried to mine her memories for times when Jason had been mean to Ali, but she couldn’t come up with a single incident. Instead, Jason seemed fiercely protective of his sister. Once, not long after they’d become friends, Aria and the others had been over at Ali’s house for a sleepover. They were planning to give each other makeovers, and everyone had brought over their makeup bags to share—except for Emily, because she wasn’t allowed to wear makeup yet. As they were oohing over Hanna’s Dior eye shadow, Mrs. DiLaurentis walked into the room. There was a frazzled look on her face.
“Ali, did you feed the cat a whole can of wet food?” Ali’s mom asked. Ali looked at her blankly. Mrs. DiLaurentis lowered her arms to her sides with a slap. “Honey, you’re supposed to mix dry food in, remember? And put a few drops of hairball medicine on top?” Ali bit her lip. Mrs. DiLaurentis let out a groan and turned. “You forgot that too? She’s going to have hairballs all over the new basement carpet!”
Ali tossed Hanna’s blush brush on the table. “Would you chill? I’m in sixth grade now, and we have a lot of homework! Sorry if I’m a little too distracted to remember how I’m supposed to feed the cat!”
Mrs. DiLaurentis had shaken her head, exasperated. “Ali, you’ve been feeding the cat this way since third grade.” Then she stormed away.
An instant later, Jason appeared from the kitchen, a bag of pretzels in his hand. “Mom’s in a mood, huh?” he said gently. “I can feed the cat for you for a while, if that helps.”
He touched Ali’s shoulder, but Ali shook him off. “Stop it. I’m fine.”
Jason recoiled, a wounded look on his face. Aria had wanted to leap up and throw her arms around him. Ali had behaved the same way the day Time Capsule was announced, too—Jason had approached Ali and Ian in front of the bike racks, telling Ian to leave Ali alone, and Ali had shooed him away, mocking him for caring so much. Maybe Jason had sensed that Ian’s feelings for Ali weren’t exactly innocent and wanted to protect her. Maybe Ali knew Jason had sensed it and wanted him off her back. If Ali and Jason had sibling problems, maybe Ali was the one creating them, not the other way around.
Or what if Jenna was lying? Maybe Jenna had made up Ali and Jason having sibling problems. Perhaps that was why Jenna was standing at the edge of Aria’s yard two days ago, a guilty look on her face. Maybe she wanted to tell Aria that what she’d told her in the art room a few months ago hadn’t been quite the truth.
But why would Jenna lie? Could Jenna have something against Jason, some reason to turn the girls against him? Could Jenna be A?
“You’re all set,” the instructor said to Aria, snapping her to the present. He was back, pointing to the large rope that was attached to both the ceiling and the middle of her waist. “Do you need a lesson?”
“I’ll teach her,” Jason said. The instructor nodded and went to get the clamps for Jason’s tethers. Then Jason crept closer to Aria and poked her side. “Don’t look now,” he said in a low voice. “But I think the old school nurse is here. I used to have nightmares about her.”
Aria glanced over her shoulder. Sure enough, a stumpy, bulldog-faced woman was standing in the lounge next to a neon-lit Mountain Dew machine. “That’s Mrs. Boot!” Aria whispered.
Jason’s eyes widened. “She still works there?”
Aria nodded. “Whenever I see her in the halls, my scalp immediately itches. I’ll never forget lining up in her office in elementary school for lice tests.”
“I hated that.” Jason shuddered. They turned back to Mrs. Boot. She was scowling at the rock wall harshly, as if it were a Rosewood Day student feigning a fever. Then a little boy ran out of the locker room, straight into Mrs. Boot’s arms. The crusty old woman smiled slightly, and the two of them walked out of Rocks and Ropes together.
“I had to spend a lot of time in the nurse’s office,” Jason murmured. “Whenever I’d go in there, Mrs. Boot would glower at me with her good eye. I once heard a rumor that her gaze was a laser beam that could melt your brain.”
Aria giggled. “I heard that rumor too.” Then she frowned. “Why were you at the nurse’s office a lot?” She didn’t recall Jason being particularly sickly—he was a star soccer player in the fall and played baseball in the spring.
“I wasn’t sick,” Jason corrected. He flicked the little zipper on the pocket of his warm-up pants. “I, um, went to the school psychologist. Dr. Atkinson. Well, he asked that I call him Dave.”
“Oh,” Aria chirped, struggling to smile. Psychologists were fine, weren’t they? In fact, Aria herself had asked her parents to send her to one when they first moved to Reykjavík—Ali had vanished just a few months before. Ella had suggested Aria do hatha yoga instead.
“It was my parents’ idea.” Jason shrugged his shoulders. “I had a hard time adjusting to the move to Rosewood in eighth grade.” He rolled his eyes. “I was really shy, and my parents thought it would do me some good to talk to someone with an objective point of view. Dave wasn’t so bad. Plus, talking to him got me out of class.”
“I know lots of people who went to Dave,” Aria said fast, although truthfully, she didn’t know anyone. Maybe this was the big secret Jason was hiding. It was hardly anything to get panicked about.
The instructor returned, hitched Jason up, and walked away. Jason faced Aria and asked what type of climb she wanted to start on—easy, medium, or hard. Aria snorted. “That’s a pretty stupid question, don’t you think?” She giggled.
“Just checking,” Jason said, grinning. He led her to the easy section of the wall and showed her how to place her left foot on one rock and pull herself with her right hand to the rock above it, climbing up a few feet to demonstrate. When Jason climbed, it looked easy. Aria stepped onto the first rock, her muscles twitching. She reached for the rock above it and pulled herself up. Amazingly, she didn’t fall. Jason had his eyes on her the whole time. “You’re doing great!” he cried, grinning.
“That’s what you say to all the girls,” Aria groaned. But she continued up a few more rocks. Don’t look down, she repeated to herself. She used to get dizzy just standing on the edge of the low diving board at the local swimming pool.
“So you told me the other day that you just moved in with your dad and his girlfriend,” Jason called, keeping pace with her. “What’s that about?”
Aria reached for another rock. “My parents separated when I moved back from Iceland,” she started, wondering how to word this. “My dad had an affair with his old student. Now they’re getting married. And she’s pregnant.”
Jason glanced at her. “Whoa.”
“It’s weird. She’s not much older than you.”
Jason made a face. “When did they start seeing each other?”
“When I was in seventh grade,” Aria admitted. She scanned the rocks above her, looking for the best handhold. It was nice that they were talking—it took her mind off how hard climbing was. “I caught them kissing in my dad’s car.” And then, maybe because she’d remembered the time Ali had snapped at Jason so heartlessly about the cat, she added, “Your, um, sister…she was with me. And she wouldn’t let me hear the end of it.”
She peeked at Jason, wondering if she’d overstepped her bounds. He had a neutral expression on his face, one she couldn’t gauge. “I’m sorry,” she called. “I shouldn’t have said that.”
“No…I get it. My sister was like that. She knew everyone’s precise button to push.”
Aria hung on to the wall, suddenly too tired to move. “You had a button, too?”
“Uh-huh. It was girls.”
Jason nodded. “Sometimes she used to tease me about girls. I could be…awkward, I guess. She used to needle me about it.”
“She knew all of our weaknesses, all right,” Aria said. She looked up again, radiating with guilt. “I still feel bad talking about her to you.”
Suddenly, Jason pushed off the wall, swinging freely from the tether. “Come down to the ground for a minute,” he called. “Slide down with your harness.”
Aria slid down as he instructed, landing clumsily on the mat. Jason studied her very seriously, and Aria wondered if she’d made a mistake bringing up Ali. But then he said, “Maybe it’s good we’re talking about her. I mean, right now, Alison’s this big elephant in the room that no one will discuss with me. When I’m at home, my parents don’t bring her up. When I’m out with friends, they don’t say a word. I know people are talking about her, but whenever they get around me, they shut up. I know my sister had faults. I know some people didn’t like her. Some people more than…” He mumbled something else and then trailed off, pressing his lips together tightly.
“What was that?” Aria asked, leaning forward.
Jason fluttered his hand, waving away what he’d just said. “I’d like you to talk about Ali with me.”
Aria smiled, comforted. Talking about Ali with Jason would give her a whole new perspective on who Ali really was. She wondered if she should tell Jason about how Ali had spread rumors about him to Jenna Cavanaugh—or how Jenna had spread rumors about Jason to Aria. Or how Ian had reached out on IM, saying someone had forced him to flee. Or how New A had helped Ian escape.
Something else took hold of her. This was why A was trying to seed the idea that Jason was hiding something—A wanted to make Aria paranoid and scare her away. If Aria began dating Jason, it was pretty likely that she’d tell him not just that A was sending them notes, but that A was in on Ian’s evil plan. The cops might not believe that A was real…but Jason probably would. This was his sister’s murder they were talking about.
Aria curled her toes, furious that someone was yet again trying to manipulate her. Ian probably had done it, and now was crafting some elaborate game. She looked at Jason, ready to tell him everything.
“You climbing here?” a junior high–age boy interrupted, making Aria jump. He gestured to the spot on the wall that Aria was leaning against. Aria shook her head and moved out of the way. Then three girls strolled past, gazing suspiciously at Jason and Aria, as if they recognized them from the news. Even the music seemed quieter, as if everyone sensed an important conversation was happening.
Aria shut her mouth. This didn’t seem like the right place to talk about the Ali and Ian stuff. Maybe she could tell Jason about it in the car going home, when they were alone.
Then she remembered the invitation that was wedged into the front pocket of her yak-fur bag, which she’d left with her and Jason’s coats at the side of the wall. Still tethered, she tottered over to her bag and pulled it out. “Do you have plans tomorrow?” she asked Jason.