Page 9

 Sara Shepard

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“It’s Aria, right?” Jason closed the paperback book he’d been reading.
“That’s right.” Aria’s insides shimmered. She wasn’t sure if she’d ever heard Jason say her name before. Jason used to refer to Aria and the others as simply “the Alis.”
“You’re the one who made movies.” Jason’s blue eyes were steady on her.
“Yeah.” Aria felt herself blushing. They used to screen Aria’s pseudo-artsy movies in Ali’s den, and sometimes Jason would pause in the doorway to watch. Aria used to feel so self-conscious about him being there, but at the same time, she longed for him to comment on her movies. To say they were brilliant, maybe, or at the very least thought provoking.
“You were the only one with substance,” Jason added, giving her a kind, alluring smile. Aria’s insides turned over. Substance was good…right?
“Are you going into Philadelphia?” Aria blurted, groping for something to say. She instantly wanted to smack her forehead. Duh. Of course he was going into Philadelphia. This train line didn’t go anywhere else.
Jason nodded. “To Penn. I just transferred. I used to go to Yale.”
Aria refrained from saying I know. The day Ali told them Jason had gotten into Yale, his top-choice school, Aria had considered drawing him a Congratulations card. But she decided against it, afraid Ali would tease her.
“It’s great,” Jason went on. “I only have classes Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, and I get out early enough to take the three P.M. bullet train back to Yarmouth.”
“Yarmouth?” Aria repeated.
“My parents moved there for the trial.” Jason shrugged and riffled his paperback’s pages through his fingers. “I moved into the apartment above the garage. I figured they needed me to help them through this…stuff.”
“Right.” Aria’s stomach started to ache. She couldn’t imagine how Jason was dealing with Ali’s murder—not only had his old classmate killed her, but that he’d then vanished. She licked her lips, thinking of answers for what she guessed would be his next questions: What was it like seeing Ian’s body in the woods? Where do you think it is now? Do you think someone moved it?
But Jason just sighed. “I usually get on at Yarmouth, but today I had something to do in Rosewood. So here I am.”
Outside, an Amtrak bullet train roared into the station. The other people who had been waiting stood up and clattered through the door to the platform. After the train roared away, Jason walked across the aisle and sat down right next to Aria. “So…don’t you have school?” he asked.
Aria opened her mouth, fumbling for an answer. Jason was suddenly so close to her, she could easily smell his nutty, spicy soap. It was intoxicating. “Uh, nope. It’s parent-teacher conference day.”
“Do you always wear your uniform on days off?” Jason pointed to the bottom hem of Aria’s plaid Rosewood Day skirt. It was peeking out under her long wool coat.
Aria felt her cheeks blaze. “I don’t usually ditch, I swear.”
“I won’t tell,” Jason teased. He leaned forward, making the bench creak. “You know the go-kart place on Wembley Road? Once I went there for the whole day. Drove that little car around and around for hours.”
Aria chuckled. “Was the lanky guy there? The one who wears head-to-toe NASCAR gear?” Mike used to be obsessed with that go-kart track—before he became obsessed with strippers and lacrosse.
“Jimmy?” Jason’s eyes sparkled. “Totally.”
“And he didn’t ask why you weren’t in school?” Aria asked, curling her hand over the bench’s armrest. “He’s usually so nosy.”
“Nope.” Jason poked her shoulder. “But I had sense enough to change out of my uniform so it wouldn’t be so obvious. Then again, the girls’ uniforms are way cuter than the guys’.”
Aria suddenly felt so bashful, she turned her head and stared fixedly at the row of potato chips and pretzels in the vending machine. Was Jason flirting?
Jason’s eyes gleamed. He breathed in, maybe about to say something else. Aria hoped he was about to ask her on a date—or maybe even for her phone number. Then the conductor’s voice blared over the loudspeaker, announcing that the eastbound train to Philadelphia would arrive in three minutes.
“I guess that’s us,” Aria said, zipping up her jacket. “Want to ride together?”
But Jason didn’t answer. When Aria looked over, he was staring at the television. His skin had turned pale and his mouth was a taut, distressed line. “I…uh…I just realized. I have to go.” He stood up sloppily, pulling his books into his chest.
“W-what? Why?” Aria cried.
Jason maneuvered around the benches, not answering. He bumped against Aria as he passed, upending her purse. “Oops,” she mumbled, wincing as a super-plus tampon and her lucky Beanie Baby cow spilled to the sticky concrete floor. “Sorry,” Jason muttered, pushing out the door to the parking lot.
Aria gazed after him, astonished. What the hell just happened? And why was Jason going back to his car…and not into the city?
Her cheeks burned with sudden awareness. Jason had probably realized how Aria felt about him. And maybe, because he didn’t mean to lead her on, he’d decided to drive into Philadelphia by himself instead of ride the train with her. How could she have been so stupid to think Jason was flirting? So what if he’d said she was the only one with substance, or that she looked cute in a skirt. So what that he’d given her Ali’s Time Capsule flag way back in the day. None of that necessarily meant anything. In the end, Aria was nothing more than one of the nameless Alis.
Humiliated, Aria slowly turned back to the TV. To her surprise, a news broadcast had interrupted Regis & Kelly. The headline caught Aria’s eye. Thomas’s Body a Hoax.
The blood drained from Aria’s face. She whirled around and scanned the line of cars in the parking lot. Or was this why Jason ran off so quickly?
On television, the Rosewood chief of police was speaking to a bevy of microphones. “We’ve been searching those woods for two days straight and can’t find a single trace of Mr. Thomas’s body,” he said. “Maybe we need to step back and consider other…possibilities.”
Aria frowned. What other possibilities?
The feed cut to Ian’s mother. A bunch of microphones were shoved under her chin. “Ian e-mailed us yesterday,” she said. “He didn’t say where he was, just that he was safe…and that he didn’t do it.” She paused to wipe her eyes. “We’re still verifying if it really was from him or not. I pray that it wasn’t someone using his account to play a trick on us.”
Then Officer Wilden popped onto the screen. “I wanted to believe the girls when they told me they saw Ian in the woods,” he said, looking contrite. “But even from the start, I wasn’t really sure. I had a terrible feeling this might be a ploy for our attention.”
Aria’s mouth dropped open. What?
And finally, the camera focused on a bearded man in thick glasses and a gray sweater. Dr. Henry Warren, Psychiatrist, Rosewood Hospital, the caption below him said. “Being the center of attention is an addictive feeling,” the doctor explained. “If the focus has been on someone for long enough, they begin to…crave it. Sometimes, people take any measure possible to keep all eyes on them, even if that means embellishing the truth. Making up false realities.”
An anchor came on again, saying they’d have more on this story at the top of the hour. As the broadcast broke for a commercial, Aria placed her palms flat on the bench and took heaping breaths. What. The. Hell?
Outside, the eastbound SEPTA roared into the station and screeched to a halt. Suddenly, Aria didn’t feel like going into Philly anymore. What was the point? No matter where she went, baggage from Rosewood would always follow her.
She walked back to the parking lot, scanning for Jason’s tall frame and blond hair. There wasn’t a person in sight. The road in front of the station was empty, too, the traffic lights silently swinging. For just a moment, Aria felt like she was the only human left in the world. She swallowed hard, a peculiar feeling creeping down her neck to her tailbone. Jason had been here just now, hadn’t he? And they had seen Ian’s body in the woods…right? For a moment, she felt like she really was going crazy, just like the psychiatrist had insinuated.
But she quickly shook off the thought. As the train pulled out of the station, Aria walked back to her car. Not having anywhere better to go, she finally drove back to school.
Hanna set her venti skim latte on the sugar and milk counter at Steam, the coffee bar adjacent to the Rosewood Day cafeteria. It was lunchtime that Tuesday, and Kate, Naomi, and Riley were still in line. One by one, Hanna heard each of them order an extra-large mint tea. Hanna had missed the memo, but apparently, mint tea was the drink du jour.
She ripped open a second Splenda packet with her teeth. If only she had a Percocet to go with her latte—or, better yet, a gun. So far, lunch had been a disaster. First, Naomi and Riley had fawned over Kate’s Frye boots, saying nothing about Hanna’s far-cuter Chie Mihara sling-backs. Then they’d babbled on about how much fun they’d had at Rive Gauche yesterday—one of the college-age waiters had sneaked the girls tons of pinot noir. After they’d drunk their fill, they popped into Sephora, and Kate bought Naomi and Riley gel-filled eye masks to ease their hangovers. The girls brought the masks to school today and put them on during an extra-long bathroom break during second-period study hall. The only thing that lifted Hanna’s spirits was seeing that the cold mask had turned the area around Riley’s brown eyes a harsh, chapped red.
“Hmph,” Hanna sniffed quietly. She tossed the empty Splenda packet into the little chrome trash can, vowing to buy Naomi and Riley something far better than a stupid mask. Then she noticed the flat-screen TV above the big jug of lemon water. Usually, the TV was tuned to the closed-circuit Rosewood Day channel, which showed recaps of school sporting events, choral concerts, and on-the-spot interviews, but today, someone had turned it to the news. No Thomas Body in Woods, said the headline.
Her stomach churned. Aria had told her about this story earlier this morning in AP English. How could the Thomases have received a note from Ian? How could there be no trace of Ian in those woods, no blood, no hair, nothing? Did that mean they hadn’t seen him? Did that mean he was still…alive?
And why were the cops saying Hanna and the others had made it up? Wilden hadn’t seemed to think they’d made it up the night of the party. In fact, if Wilden hadn’t been so damn hard to find that night, they could’ve gotten back to the woods faster. Maybe they could’ve even caught Ian before he got away—or got dragged away. But no, the Rosewood PD couldn’t look like screwups…so they had to make Hanna and the others look crazy instead. And all this time, she’d thought Wilden had her back.