Page 27

 Sara Shepard

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“I don’t think so. Why?”
“My mom has one of her paintings in the lobby of this new hotel.” She handed him the invitation. “There’s a fancy party tomorrow for the opening. My mom’s going to be there with her new boyfriend, and I don’t really like him. You would be a lovely distraction.” She tilted her head coquettishly.
Jason smiled back. “I haven’t been to a fancy party in quite a while.” He pulled the invitation closer and read it. Then his face clouded. His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down.
“Is something wrong?” Aria asked.
“Is this some kind of joke?” Jason’s voice was hoarse.
Aria blinked. “W-what do you mean?”
“Because it’s not funny,” Jason said, his eyes wide. He didn’t look angry, exactly, more like…scared.
“What’s the matter?” Aria cried. “I don’t understand.”
Jason stared at her for a beat longer. His expression changed, becoming cagey and maybe even a bit disgusted, as if Aria was covered head to toe in leeches. Then, to her horror, he unhooked the ropes from his harness, pulled it off, strode over to their stuff, and put on his coat. “I—I have to go.”
“What?” Aria tried to grab his arm, but she was still awkwardly tethered and couldn’t figure out how to get the harness off. Jason wouldn’t even look at her. Shoving his hands in his pockets, he breezed by the front desk, nearly bumping into a group of teenagers just coming in.
A few moments later, Aria finally managed to wriggle out of her harness. She struggled to put her coat on and then ran outside. There was a group of guys getting out of a Range Rover. A mother was holding a little girl’s hand, helping her inside. Aria looked right, then left. “Jason!” she called out. It was cold enough to see her breath. An SUV made a squealing left turn into the Wawa across the street. Jason was gone.
Aria stood under the lamp at the front of the facility and stared hard at the Radley invitation. It gave the address and time. A man named George Fritz had been the architect on the hotel’s redesign. There was a list of featured artists, Ella’s name among them. What on this invitation had gotten Jason so spooked? What did he mean, Is this some kind of joke? Did he not want to meet her mom? Was he embarrassed to be seen with her?
“Jason!” she called again, more weakly this time. Just then, she heard a peal of laughter. Aria looked around, startled and frightened. She didn’t see anyone, but the laughter continued, like someone was laughing at her and her alone.
That same Friday night, Emily idled at the curb of Isaac’s house, watching nervously as he slipped out the front door and jogged to her car. “Hey!” he cried, then looked up at the sky. “It looks like it might snow. Are you sure you want to go for a drive?”
Emily nodded quickly. Isaac had texted her after school, asking if she’d come over this evening. At first, Emily had thought it was a joke. But when he texted her again, asking why she hadn’t answered him, she wondered if Mrs. Colbert hadn’t told him that she’d confronted Emily at Applebee’s last night—or that she knew they’d slept together. Maybe Isaac was still under the impression that everything was fine.
But there was no way Emily could set foot in the Colberts’ house, even if his parents were going to be at the Radley opening party run-through all evening. Emily wasn’t the type of girl who disobeyed adults’ orders, even if they seemed harsh and mean and unreasonable. Only, what was she supposed to do, never visit Isaac at his house again? Come up with crazy excuses every time he wanted her to stop in?
Last night, when Emily and Carolyn were settling into their beds in their shared bedroom, Carolyn asked her again why she’d run out of Applebee’s crying. Emily broke down and told her what Mrs. Colbert had said. Carolyn sat up in bed, gaping in horror. “Why would she say you disrespected her home?” she asked. “Is it because of the Maya stuff?”
Emily shook her head. “I doubt it.” She felt ashamed. If her parents caught Emily and Isaac doing it in Emily’s bedroom, they’d probably serve him with a restraining order. “Maybe I deserved it,” she mumbled.
They both fell silent, listening to the cornstalks in the field outside their house twisting in the wind. “I don’t know what I’d do if Topher’s mom hated me,” Carolyn said into the darkness. “I’m not sure we could be together.”
“I know,” Emily answered, a big lump in her throat.
“But you have to talk to Isaac about it,” Carolyn told her. “You have to be honest.”
She blinked. Isaac had buckled his seat belt and was ready to go. Her whole body throbbed. Isaac’s hair was pushed off his face, and he had a dark green scarf wrapped many times around his neck. When he smiled, his white teeth gleamed. He leaned forward to kiss her, but she stiffened, half-expecting a siren to go off and Mrs. Colbert to pop out from behind a bush, ready to yank him away.
She turned her head, pretending to fumble with her car keys. Isaac pulled back. Even in the dark car, Emily could see the little parenthesis that formed at the corner of Isaac’s right eye whenever he was worried. “You okay?” he asked.
Emily faced forward. “Yep.” She shifted the Volvo into drive and pulled away from the curb.
“You excited for the Radley party tomorrow?” Isaac asked. “I rented a tux this time. Better than my dad’s old suit, right?” He chuckled.
Emily pulled in her bottom lip, astonished. He still assumed they could go to the Radley party? “Sure,” she said.
“My dad’s totally stressed about the catering, and he keeps ribbing me about how I’m not helping yet again because I’ve got a date.” Isaac grinned and poked her in the ribs.
Emily squeezed the steering wheel, her eyes welling. She couldn’t take this anymore. “So…your parents haven’t said anything about us not going together?” she blurted out.
Isaac looked at her curiously. “Well, I’ve barely seen them the past few days, they’ve been so busy. But why would they have a problem with us going together? They were there when I asked you.”
A car passed going the other direction, its xenon headlights blinding. She said nothing.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Isaac asked again.
Emily swallowed hard. She tasted peanut butter in her mouth, the sensation she always got when she was about to have a fight-or-flight reaction. There was a Wawa off to the right, and before she knew what she was doing, she was jerkily pulling into the parking lot and driving around to the back near a green Dumpster. After she shoved the car into park, she rested her head on the steering wheel and let out a pent-up sob.
“Emily?” Isaac said, concerned. “What is it?”
Tears blurred her vision. As much as she didn’t want to say this, she knew she had to. She turned the blue ring he’d given her the other day around her finger. “It’s…your mom.”
Isaac traced figure eights on her back. “What about my mom?”
Emily ran her palms along the legs of her jeans, heaving a sigh. Just be honest, Carolyn had said. She could be honest with Isaac, couldn’t she?
“She knows we…you know. Slept together,” Emily moaned. “And she said all these weird things to me at dinner. Like, she kept insinuating that I was…fast. Or loose. And then when I was doing the dishes later that night, I found a photo of you and me from the Rosewood Day benefit last week. Your mom had cut my head out of the picture. Only my head.” She swallowed hard, not brave enough to look up. “Still, I thought maybe I was overreacting. I didn’t want to say anything. But then, last night, I was at Applebee’s with Carolyn. And…your mom was there. She came up to me and said I could never come over to your house ever again.” Her voice broke on the word again.
The car was silent. Emily squeezed her eyes shut. She felt awful and relieved at the same time. It was a weight off her shoulders to say it out loud.
Finally, she looked at Isaac. His nose wrinkled, as if he had smelled something rancid from the Dumpster. A new worry filled her. What if this ruined Isaac’s relationship with his mom for good?
He blew air out his cheeks. “Emily, come on.”
Emily blinked. “Sorry?”
Isaac shifted in his seat, facing her. His expression looked hurt and disappointed. “My mom wouldn’t cut your head out of a picture. That sounds like something a kid would do. And she would never confront you at Applebee’s and say those things. Maybe you misunderstood.”
Emily’s blood began to pulse. “I didn’t misunderstand.”
Isaac shook his head. “My mom loves you. She told me so. She’s happy we’re together. She never said anything about banning you from the house. Don’t you think she’d tell me that?”
Emily barked out a laugh. “Maybe she didn’t want to tell you because she wanted me to. She wanted me to be the bad guy. Which is exactly what’s happening.”
Isaac was quiet for a long time, staring at his hands. The tips of his fingers were callused from years of playing guitar. “My girlfriend last year did this exact same thing,” he said slowly. “She said my family was telling her to stay away from me.”
“Maybe your mom was doing the same thing to her!” Emily cried.
Isaac shook his head. “She told me later that she made it all up. She did it to get attention.” He gazed at her evenly, as if waiting for her to get his drift.
Emily’s skin went from steaming hot to ice cold. “What, like seeing Ian’s dead body in the woods was a way to get attention?” she squeaked.
Isaac raised his hands, helpless. “I’m not saying that. It’s just…I wanted to go out with someone who wasn’t into drama. I thought you did too. Whoever I go out with has to like my family, not battle against them.”
“That’s not what I’m doing!” Emily pleaded.
Isaac shoved open the passenger door and stepped out. Icy air swirled in, harsh against her bare skin. “What are you doing?” Emily demanded.
He leaned over the open door, his mouth small and solemn. “I should go home.”
“No!” Emily cried. She lurched out her own door and followed him across the parking lot. “Come on!”
Isaac was walking toward the little wooded path that led from the Wawa lot to the street. He glanced over his shoulder. “This is my mom you’re talking about. Think about what you’re saying. Think really hard.”
“I have thought about it!” Emily shouted. But Isaac kept going, not answering. She came to a stop in front of the store, going limp. Above her, the neon Wawa sign buzzed fiercely. There was a line of kids at the counter buying coffees and sodas and candy. She waited for Isaac to turn back, but he didn’t. Finally, she walked back to her car and got in. The inside of the Volvo smelled like the Colberts’ detergent. The passenger seat was still warm from Isaac’s butt. For at least ten minutes, she stared numbly at the Dumpster, not knowing what to make of what had happened.