Page 29

 Sara Shepard

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There was one girl Mike should be exclusive with—Hanna. It was time to kick Kate out of the picture for good.
Philly Sports was in the section of the King James Mall that contained the non-luxe stores, ghetto places like Old Navy and Charlotte Russe and—shudder—JCPenney. Hanna hadn’t set foot in here for years—acrylic-blend fabrics, mass-market T-shirts, and designer collections by has-been celebutantes gave her hives.
She parked the Prius and forcefully hit the lock button three times, taking stock of the rusted Honda next to her. As she walked through the parking lot, her iPhone blinked, indicating she had a text. She reached for it, her stomach churning. Surely A couldn’t have found her, right?
The text was just from Emily. U around? I got another note. We need to talk.
Hanna slid the phone back in her pocket, biting her lip hard. She knew she should call Emily back—and tell her about how strangely Wilden had behaved when he drove Hanna home from running yesterday—but she was busy right now. Still, the dream she’d had this morning drifted back to her. What was her brain trying to tell her? Did Ali know where her flag had gone? Could it be true that there was something on Ali’s flag that hinted at what had happened to her? And then Ali said, Sometimes, I don’t notice I’m singing, expecting Hanna to know what she meant. Was that something Ali used to say, or was it something someone used to say to Ali? Hanna couldn’t remember either way. She’d even culled through the minor characters in Ali’s life, like the exchange student from Holland who’d given Ali a pair of wooden shoes as a token of his affection, the greasy-haired Jet Ski operator in the Poconos who always told Ali he’d “warmed up the seat just for her,” or Mr. Salt, the school’s only male librarian, who always told Ali he would bring in his first-edition Harry Potters especially for her if she ever wanted to read them—gag. Hanna couldn’t remember anyone saying anything creepy about singing. The phrase was somehow familiar, but it was probably just a stupid line from one of Kate’s show tunes, or some dorky slogan on a Rosewood Day Masterworks Choir bumper sticker.
The techno music inside the gym assaulted Hanna’s ears before she opened the front door. A girl in a perky pink bra top and black yoga pants beamed from behind the gym’s front desk. “Welcome to Philly Sports!” she chirped. “Can you sign in, please?” She held up a contraption that looked like a price scanner to check Hanna’s membership.
“I’m a guest,” Hanna answered.
“Oh!” The girl had wide, unblinking eyes, a round face, and a dopey expression. She reminded Hanna of the Tickle Me Elmo doll that belonged to her six-year-old twin neighbors. “Can you fill out the guest form, then?” the receptionist tweeted. “And it costs ten dollars to work out for the day.”
“No, thanks!” Hanna sang, breezing right past. As if she’d ever, ever pay to use this dump. The front-desk girl let out a small, indignant squeak, but Hanna didn’t turn. Her high heels clicked as she passed the shop that sold spandex shorts, neoprene iPod holders, and sports bras, and the large shelves where the towels were kept. Hanna sniffed haughtily. This shithole didn’t even have a smoothie bar? People probably peed in the locker room showers, too.
Bass from the piped-in music throbbed in Hanna’s ears. Across the room, a stick-thin girl with veiny arms whirled frantically on an elliptical machine. A guy with wet, curly hair mopped sweat off a treadmill. Hanna heard the clanging of barbells in the distance. Sure enough, the entire Rosewood Day lacrosse team was in the corner by the free weights. Noel was doing arm curls in front of a mirror, admiring himself. James Freed was making faces while balancing on a BOSU ball. And Mike Montgomery was lying down on the bench press, wrapping his hands around the bar, getting ready to lift.
Hanna waited until Mike had brought the bar to his chest, then walked right up and shooed away Mason Byers, Mike’s spotter. “I can take over from here.” Then she leaned over Mike and smiled.
Mike’s eyes bugged out. “Hanna!”
“Hello,” Hanna said coolly.
Mike started to lift the bar back up to return it to the stand, but Hanna stopped him. “Not so fast,” she said. “I have something to discuss with you first.”
A few beads of sweat dotted Mike’s forehead, and his arms shook. “What?”
Hanna tossed her hair over her shoulder. “So. If you want to go out with me, you can’t go out with anyone else. Including Kate.”
Mike let out a grunt. His biceps started to wobble. He looked at her pleadingly. “Please. I’m going to drop this on my chest.” His face began to turn red.
Hanna made a tsk sound. “I thought you were stronger than that.”
“Please,” Mike begged.
“Promise me first,” Hanna urged. She leaned over a little farther, offering him more of a view down her dress.
Mike’s eyes slid to the right. The tendons in his neck popped out. “Kate asked me to go to the Radley party before I knew you wanted to be exclusive and whatever. I can’t uninvite her.”
“Yes, you can,” Hanna growled. “It’s easy.”
“I have an idea,” Mike gasped. “Let me put this down, and I’ll tell you.”
Hanna stepped aside and let him return the bar. He let out a huge sigh, sat up, and stretched. Hanna was surprised to see how defined his arms were. She’d been right the other day when she’d guessed that Mike would look way better post-shower than Officer Wilden.
She laid down a towel on an empty leg-press bench next to him and sat down. “Okay. Spill it.”
Mike grabbed a towel that was sitting on the floor next to the bench press and mopped off his face. “I can be bought, if you’re interested. If you do something for me, I’ll uninvite Kate.”
“What do you want?”
“Your flag.”
“No way.” She shook her head.
“Okay, then take me to prom,” Mike said.
Hanna’s mouth hung open, temporarily stunned. “The prom’s four months away.”
“Hey, a guy needs to lock down his date early.” Mike shrugged. “It’ll give me time to find the perfect pair of shoes.” He fluttered his eyelashes girlishly.
Hanna ran her hands over the back of her neck, trying to tune out the other lax players, who were catcalling her from the weight circuit. If Mike wanted Hanna to take him to her prom, that meant that he liked Hanna best, right? And that meant she had won. A smile spread across her lips. Take that, bitch. She couldn’t wait to see Kate’s face when she told her.
“Okay,” she said. “I’ll take you to my prom.”
“Nice,” Mike said. He glanced at his wet T-shirt. “I’d feel you up right now to celebrate, but I don’t want to get you all sweaty.”
“Gracias,” Hanna simpered, rolling her eyes. She sauntered out of the weight room, making exaggerated movements with her hips. “I’ll pick you up tonight at eight,” she called over her shoulder. “Alone.”
Tickle Me Elmo girl was waiting for Hanna by the snack bar. A bald man with tattooed biceps and a handlebar mustache loomed behind her. “Miss, if you want to use this gym, you’re going to have to pay a guest fee,” the girl said haltingly. Her cheeks matched the bright red sweatband on her forehead. “And if you don’t want to do that, then–”
“I’m done here,” Hanna cut her off, skirting around both of them. The girl and her bouncer whirled around, watching her go. Neither moved. Neither stepped forward to apprehend her. And that, of course, was because she was Hanna Marin. And she was unstoppably, unbelievably fabulous.
That afternoon, a UPS truck pulled up to the curb of Aria’s father’s new house. The deliveryman, wearing blue long underwear under his short-sleeved brown UPS shirt and shorts, handed Aria a box. Aria thanked him and looked at the mailing label. Organic Baby Booties. The return address was from Santa Fe, New Mexico. Who knew such little baby booties could leave such an adult-size carbon footprint?
Her phone beeped, and she reached into the pocket of her bulky-knit sweater coat to grab it. She’d received a text from Ella. Are you coming to the Radley party tonight? Another text quickly followed. I hope you can…. I’ve missed you! And then another. It would mean so much!
Aria sighed. Ella had been texting Aria like this all morning, begging her for an answer. If Aria said she didn’t want to go to the Radley party, Ella would inevitably ask why, and then what would Aria do? Tell her that she didn’t want to be within six feet of her creepy boyfriend? Concoct a lie, which might make her mom think she didn’t want to support her art career? It was bad enough that Aria hadn’t been to Ella’s house even once this week. There was no way out of it—she’d have to suck it up and deal with Xavier as best she could. If only Jason were coming with her.
Her phone beeped again. Aria clicked on the new message, expecting it to be another missive from Ella. Instead, it was an e-mail. The sender’s name was Jason DiLaurentis.
Aria’s heart leapt. She opened the note fast. Listen. I’ve been thinking, Jason wrote. I overreacted at Rocks and Ropes yesterday. I want to explain. Want to meet me at my house in an hour?
Beneath it was his address in Yarmouth. Don’t go in the regular entrance, Jason explained. I’m up the steps in the apartment above the garage.
Sounds good, Aria wrote back. She hugged herself, giddy and relieved. So there was an explanation for this. Maybe Jason didn’t hate her.
Her phone rang once more. Aria glanced at the screen. It was Emily. After a reluctant pause, Aria answered.
“I need to talk to you,” Emily said in an urgent voice. “It’s about Jason.”
Aria groaned. “You’re jumping to conclusions. Ali lied to Jenna about him.”
“Don’t be so sure.”
Emily was about to say something else, but Aria cut her off. “I wish I’d never told you what Jenna said. It’s caused nothing but trouble.”
“But…” Emily protested. “It was the truth.”
Aria smacked her hand to her forehead. “Emily, you have Ali on such a pedestal. She was a lying, conniving, manipulative bitch—to me, to Jason, and to you too. Deal with it.”
Then Aria hit end, dropped her phone into her bag, and walked back inside for the keys to the Subaru. It was maddening how clouded Emily’s judgment was. If she even considered the notion that Ali had lied to Jenna about her brother just to get Jenna to spill her secrets, Ali would no longer be the perfect girl of Emily’s dreams. It was easier for Emily to believe that Jason was the bad one, even though there was nothing supporting that whatsoever.
It was funny how love could make people believe anything.
The DiLaurentises’ new house was on a quiet, pretty street, far away from the grungy Yarmouth train station. The first thing Aria noticed were the leaf-shaped wind chimes hanging from the front porch—they’d been on the front porch at Ali’s old house, too. When Aria used to stand on Ali’s welcome mat, waiting for Ali to come downstairs, she’d always make the chimes clang together, trying to compose a song.