Page 30

 Sara Shepard

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The driveway was empty, and the main house looked dark, the curtains pulled shut and the lights turned off. The structure that housed the three-car garage and Jason’s second-floor apartment was separated by a low stone wall, and on the other side of that was a high wrought-iron fence. Surprisingly, there weren’t any Ali shrines in the yard or at the street—but then, maybe the DiLaurentises had asked the media to keep quiet about them living here. And maybe, amazingly, the media had respected their wishes.
Aria started up the driveway toward the garage, an excited burn in her stomach. Then she heard a clink and a loud woof. A Rottweiler ran out from the narrow space between the garage and the wrought-iron fence, dragging a long metal tie-out chain around its neck.
Aria jumped back. Froth sprayed from the dog’s mouth. Its body was thick and sturdy, all muscle. “Shh,” she tried to say, but it came out barely more than a whisper. The dog growled viciously, no doubt smelling her paralyzing fear. She glanced desperately at the apartment on the garage’s second floor. Jason would come down and help her, wouldn’t he? But there weren’t any lights on up there, either.
Aria splayed her hands out in front of her, trying to appear calm, but it only seemed to rile up the dog more, making it snort and plant its feet and bare its long, sharp teeth. Aria let out another helpless whimper and stepped back again. Her hip hit something hard, and she squawked, startled. She had bumped smack into the railing of the stairs to the apartment. With horror, she realized the dog had cornered her—the stone wall behind her that separated the garage from the main house was too high to scale quickly, and the dog was blocking the narrow path that led to the backyard as well as the rest of the driveway. The only possible route to safety was up the wooden garage steps to Jason’s apartment.
Aria swallowed hard and dashed up, her heart beating like mad. The dog scurried up behind her, his paws slipping on the wet wood stairs. She pounded on the door. “Jason!” she screamed. No answer. Frantic, Aria wiggled Jason’s doorknob. It was locked.
“What the hell?” she cried, flattening herself against the door. The dog was only a few stairs away. Aria spied an open window next to the door. Slowly, she inched her fingers toward the windowsill, pushing the window open wider. Taking a deep breath, she whirled around and squeezed through. Her back hit something soft. A mattress. She pulled the window shut. The dog barked and scratched at Jason’s door. Aria’s chest heaved in and out as she listened to her heart pound. Then she looked around. The room was dark and empty. There was a coatrack near the door, but the hooks were bare.
Aria reached into her pocket for her phone and dialed Jason’s number. It went immediately to voice mail. Aria hung up, laid the phone on the bed, and stood. The dog was still barking; she didn’t dare try to leave.
The apartment was basically a big studio divided into a bedroom, a dining area, and a small TV nook. There was a bathroom at the far end of the room, and a bunch of bookshelves off to the right. She walked around the room, inspecting the Hemingway, Burroughs, and Bukowski books on Jason’s shelf. He had a little print of a drawing by Egon Schiele, one of Aria’s favorite artists. She crouched down and ran her finger along the spines of his DVDs, noting the many foreign films. There were pictures on his little kitchen island, many of which looked like they’d been taken at Yale. Some were of a petite, smiling girl with dark hair and dark-framed glasses. In one of the photos, they both wore matching Yale T-shirts. In another, they were at what looked like a football game, holding red cups of beer. In another, she was kissing him on the cheek, her nose squished into his face.
Bile rose to Aria’s throat. Maybe this was the secret A had told her about. But why had Jason asked her to come over? To make it clear that he only liked Aria as a friend? She shut her eyes, limp with disappointment.
As she returned to the bookshelf, she noticed a bunch of Rosewood Day yearbooks, lined up by year. One stuck out slightly more than the others, as if it had just been leafed through. Aria pulled it out and looked at the cover. It was from four years ago, the year Jason had graduated. The year Ali had gone missing.
She opened it slowly. The yearbook smelled like dust and old ink. She flipped through the senior pictures, hunting for Jason’s photo. He wore a black suit, and gazed at a far-off point behind the photographer. His mouth was very straight and thoughtful, and his blond hair grazed his shoulders. She ran her fingers along Jason’s nose and eyes. He looked so young and innocent. It was hard to believe how much he’d gone through between then and now.
A few pages later, she found Melissa Hastings, Spencer’s sister, who looked nearly the same as she did today. Someone had written something above her photo in red ink, but had then crossed it out so heavily Aria couldn’t make out any of the words. Ian Thomas’s picture was almost last. His wavy hair was longer, too, and his face was a little thinner. He was smiling his signature crinkly Ian Thomas smile, the one that used to assure all of Rosewood that he was the smartest, most handsome guy around—the one who would always have good luck. When this picture was taken, Ian had been fooling around with Ali. Aria shut her eyes, shuddering. The idea of them together was so wrong.
At the bottom of the page was another picture of Ian, a candid of him sitting in a classroom with his mouth slightly open and his hand raised. Someone had drawn a penis next to his mouth and devil horns on top of his curly head. There was a message written beneath the photo in black ink. The handwriting was small and lopsided.
Hey, dude. Cheers to beer bongs at the Kahns’, the time we nearly wrecked Trevor’s car, to four-wheeling on the weekends behind the property, and that time in Yvonne’s basement…you know what I mean. There was another arrow drawn to Ian’s head. I can’t believe what that asshole did. My offer still stands. Later, Darren.
Aria held the book outstretched. Darren? As in Wilden? Licking her finger, she flipped a page and found his picture. His hair stood up in spikes, and he had the same leering look on his face as he had the day Aria caught him stealing twenty dollars from a girl’s locker.
Were Wilden and Jason friends? Aria had never seen them together in school. And what did Wilden mean, I can’t believe what that asshole did. My offer still stands?
“What the hell?”
The yearbook slipped from Aria’s fingers, making a dull thud as it hit the floor. Jason was standing in the doorway. He wore a bright red scarf and a black leather jacket. The dog was nowhere to be seen. Aria had been so intrigued by the yearbook, she hadn’t even heard him walk up the stairs.
“Oh,” she breathed out.
Jason walked over to Aria jerkily, his nostrils flaring. “How did you get in?”
“Y-you weren’t here,” Aria squeaked, starting to tremble. “Your dog broke free…and he cornered me. I couldn’t even go back to my car. The only way to get away from him was to run up the stairs and squeeze through the window.”
Jason’s lips parted. “What dog?”
Aria pointed out the window. “The…the Rottweiler.”
“We don’t have a Rottweiler.”
Aria stared at him. The dog had been dragging a heavy chain. She’d assumed he’d broken free from his tie-out post…but maybe someone had cut his chain instead. Come to think of it, the dog hadn’t barked once since she’d gotten inside. A horrible thought began to take shape in her mind.
“You didn’t send me that e-mail this morning?” she said shakily. “You didn’t ask me to meet you here?”
Jason’s eyes narrowed. “I never would’ve told you to meet me here.”
The floorboards squeaked as Aria took a step back. How could she have been so stupid? Of course that e-mail she’d received this morning hadn’t been from Jason. She’d been so relieved to hear from him, she hadn’t remembered that he didn’t have her e-mail address until this very moment. The note had been from…someone else. Someone who had known when Jason wouldn’t be home. Someone who maybe even orchestrated sending a strange dog to chase her into his apartment. She gazed at Jason, her heart beginning to pound.
“Did you come in here only, or did you go into the main house, too?” Jason demanded.
“J-just here.”
Jason loomed over her, his jaw clenched. “Are you telling me the truth?”
Aria bit her lip. Why did it matter? “Of course.”
“Get out,” Jason barked. He stepped aside and pointed at the door.
Aria didn’t move. “Jason,” she stated. “I’m sorry I came in here. It was a misunderstanding. Can we please talk?”
“Get. Out.” Jason whipped his arm to the side, knocking a bunch of books off the bookshelf. A glass plaque fell too, breaking into sharp, angry shards. “Get out!” Jason roared again. Aria ducked and let out a trapped, terrified wail. Jason’s face had transformed. His eyes were wide, the corners of his lips were pulled back, and even his voice sounded different. Lower. Meaner. Aria didn’t recognize him at all.
She rushed out the door and bolted down the steps, slipping a few times on some of the wet treads. Her cheeks were streaked with tears. Her lungs burned with sobs. She fumbled for her car keys and threw herself into the front seat, as if something was chasing her.
When she looked in the rearview mirror, her breath caught in her throat. Far off in the distance, she saw two shadowy shapes of a person and a dog—a Rottweiler?—slipping safely into the woods.
Spencer leaned back in her plushy seat aboard the Amtrak Acela train to New York, watching the conductor sway through the car taking tickets. Even though it was only Saturday, and even though Michael Hutchins, the Realtor, had said the landlord was using the weekend to clean out her brand-new Perry Street apartment, Spencer couldn’t wait until Monday afternoon to see it. She might not be able to get inside the place today, but that didn’t matter—merely sitting on the stoop, checking out the stores on her block, and getting a cappuccino at her soon-to-be-local Starbucks would be enough. She wanted to hit the furniture shops in Chelsea and on Fifth Avenue and put a few things on hold. She was eager to sit in a café and read The New Yorker, now that she would soon be one.
Perhaps this was what Ian felt once he’d escaped from Rosewood, free from his troubles, eager to start over. Where was Ian now? Rosewood? Or had he wised up and skipped town? She thought again about the person she’d seen in the woods outside the barn last night. It had definitely looked like Melissa…but wasn’t she in Philly? Perhaps Ian had left something behind after his dead-body stunt, something he’d asked Melissa to retrieve. But then, did that mean Melissa knew something about where he was and what he was doing? Maybe she knew who A was too. If only Melissa would call Spencer back—she wanted to ask her sister if she knew anything about the photos Emily had received. What did a photo of Ali, Naomi, and Jenna have to do with a photo of Wilden in church? And why hadn’t Aria or Hanna received any missives from A, just Spencer and Emily? Was A focusing on them first? Were they in more danger than the others? And if Spencer moved to New York City, would she finally leave this A nightmare behind? She hoped so.