“Seriously,” James answered. “You think I could take her to Foxy?”
Aria felt like someone had just thrown her into a bonfire. A girlfriend? Friday night, he’d said he hadn’t dated anybody in a long time. Aria remembered noticing his bachelorish frozen dinners for one, his eight thousand books but one drinking glass, and his sad, dead spider plants. It didn’t look like he had a girlfriend.
James could have his facts wrong, but she doubted it. Aria bubbled with anger. Years ago, she might’ve thought only typical Rosewood boys were players, but she’d learned a lot about boys in Iceland. Sometimes the most unassuming boys were the sketchiest. No girl would look at Ezra—sensitive, rumpled, sweet, caring Ezra—and distrust him. He reminded Aria of someone. Her father.
Aria suddenly felt sick. She stood up, grabbed the hall pass from the peg, and strode out the door.
“Aria?” Ezra called, sounding concerned.
She didn’t stop. In the girls’ room, she rushed to the sink, dispensed pink soap into her hands, and scrubbed the spot on her neck Ezra had touched. She was walking back to class when her cell phone chimed. She pulled it out of her bag and pressed read.
Naughty, naughty Aria! You should know better than to go after a teacher, anyway. It’s girls like you who break up perfectly happy families. —A
Aria froze. She was in the middle of the empty front hallway. When she heard a noise, she whirled around. She was facing the glass trophy case, which had been transformed into an Alison DiLaurentis temple. Inside were various candids from Rosewood Day classes—teachers always took tons of pictures throughout the year, and the school typically presented them to parents when their child graduated. There was Ali as a gap-toothed kindergartner; there she was dressed up as a pilgrim for their fourth-grade play. There was even some of her school-work, like an Under the Sea diorama from third grade and an illustration of the circulatory system from fifth.
A square of hot pink caught Aria’s eye. Someone had stuck a Post-it note on the memorial’s glass. Aria’s eyes widened.
P.S. Wondering who I am, aren’t you? I’m closer than you think. —A
EMILY’S PERFECTLY FINE WITH TAKING ALI’S SLOPPY SECONDS
“Say butterfly!” crowed Scott Chin, Rosewood Day’s yearbook photographer. It was Thursday afternoon, and the swim team was in the natatorium for team photos before the Tate meet started. Emily had been on swim teams for so long, she didn’t even think about having her picture taken in a bathing suit.
She posed with her hands on the starting block and tried to smile. “Gorgeous!” Scott cried, pursing his pink lips. A lot of kids at school speculated about whether Scott was gay. Scott never outwardly admitted it, but he didn’t do anything to dispel the rumors, either.
As Emily maneuvered across the deck to her duffel bag, she noticed Tate Prep’s team strolling to their bleachers. Toby was in the middle of the pack, wearing a blue Champion sweatshirt and rolling his shoulders back and forth to warm up.
Emily held her breath. She’d been thinking about Toby ever since he rescued her yesterday. She couldn’t imagine Ben ever having picked her up like that—he’d have worried that lifting her might pull his shoulder muscles and compromise his race today. And thinking about Toby had triggered something else, too: a memory of Ali that Emily had nearly forgotten.
It was one of the last times Emily was ever alone with Ali. She’d never forget that day—clear blue sky, all the flowers had bloomed, there were bees everywhere. Ali’s tree house smelled like Kool-Aid, sap, and cigarette smoke—Ali had pilfered a Parliament from her older brother’s pack. She grabbed Emily’s hands. “You can’t tell the others this,” she said. “I’ve started secretly seeing this older guy, and it’s a-maz-ing.”
Emily’s smile drooped. Every time Ali told her about a guy she liked, a little piece of her heart cracked off.
“He’s so hot,” Ali went on. “I almost want to go sort of far with him.”
“What do you mean?” Emily had never heard anything so horrifying in her life. “Who is he?”
“I can’t tell.” Ali smiled slyly. “You guys would freak.”
And then, because Emily couldn’t stand it any longer, she leaned forward and kissed Ali. There was a singular, wonderful moment; then Ali pulled away and laughed. Emily tried to pass it off like she was just playing…and then they went to their separate houses to have dinner.
She’d thought about the kiss so many times, she’d hardly remembered what had come before it. But now that Toby was back and he was so cute…it got Emily thinking that maybe Ali’s guy had been Toby? Who else would’ve made them freak?
Ali liking Toby sort of made sense. At the end of seventh grade, she’d been on a bad-boy kick, talking about how she wanted to go out with someone who was “like, bad.” Being sent to reform school qualified as bad, and maybe Ali saw something in Toby that no one else did. Emily thought maybe she could see that same something, now. And, slightly bizarre as it was, the possibility that Ali had liked Toby made Toby seem that much more attractive to Emily. What was good enough for Ali was certainly good enough for her.
As soon as the swim meet broke for the diving competition, Emily pulled her flip-flops out of her Rosewood Day swimming tote, preparing to walk over to Toby. Her fingers bumped against her cell phone, tucked under her towel. It was blinking; she’d missed seven calls from Maya.
Emily’s throat tightened. Maya had called, IM’ed, texted, and e-mailed her all week, and Emily hadn’t responded. With every new missed phone call, she felt more confused. Part of her wanted to find Maya in school and run her hand through her soft, curly hair. To climb on the back of her bike and ditch school. Kissing Maya had felt dangerously good. But part of her wished Maya would just…disappear.
Emily stared at her cell phone window, a lump in her throat. Then, slowly, she snapped it shut. It kind of felt like the time when she was eight and decided to throw away Bee-Bee, her security blanket. Big girls don’t need blankies, she’d told herself, but it had been awful to close the trash can’s lid with Bee-Bee inside.
She took a deep breath and headed for Tate’s bleachers. On her way there, she glanced over her shoulder, looking for Ben. He was over on Rosewood Day’s side, slapping Seth’s shoulder with his Sammy towel. Since the Tank on Tuesday, Ben had stayed out of Emily’s way, acting like she didn’t exist. It was certainly better than attacking her, but it made her paranoid that he was saying stuff about her behind her back. She kind of wanted Ben to see her right now, just as she approached Toby. Look! I’m talking to a guy!
Toby had laid his towel on the natatorium tile and had headphones over his ears and an iPod on his lap. His hair was slicked back from his face, and the royal blue sweats he wore over his Speedo—which Emily hadn’t been brave enough to peek at during his first event—made his eyes look even bluer.
When he saw Emily, he brightened. “Hey. Told you I’d see you here, didn’t I?”
“Yeah.” Emily smiled shyly. “So, um, I just wanted to say thanks. For helping me yesterday. And the day before.”
“Oh. Well, it was nothing.”
Just then, Scott appeared with his yearbook camera. “Gotcha!” he cried, and snapped a picture. “I can see the caption now: ‘Emily Fields, flirting with the enemy!’” Then he said to Emily in a lower voice, “Although I thought he wasn’t your type.”
Emily looked at Scott questioningly. What was that supposed to mean? But he fluttered away. When she turned to Toby again, he was playing with his iPod, so she started back for her team’s side. She’d taken three steps when Toby called out, “Hey, you want to get some air?”
Emily paused. Quickly, she glanced at Ben. Still not paying any attention. “Um, all right,” she decided.
They walked through the Rosewood Day natatorium’s double doors, past a bunch of kids waiting for the late buses, and sat down on the edge of the Founder’s Day fountain. Water gushed out of the top in a long, shimmering plume. It was cloudy out, though, so the water just looked dull and white instead of sparkly. Emily stared at a bunch of pennies on the fountain’s shallow, shiny bottom. “On the last day of school, seniors push their favorite teacher into this fountain,” she told him.
“I know,” Toby said. “I used to go here, remember?”
“Oh.” Emily felt like a moron. Of course he did. And then they sent him away.
Toby pulled a package of chocolate chip cookies out of his bag. He held them out to Emily. “Want one? Pre-race snack?”
Emily shrugged. “Maybe half.”
“Good for you,” Toby said, handing her one. He looked away. “It’s funny how it’s totally different between guys and girls. Guys want to out-eat each other. Even guys I know that are older. Like my shrink, in Maine? One time, at his house, we had a shrimp-eating contest. He beat me by six shrimp. And he’s, like, at least thirty-five.”
“Shrimp.” Emily shuddered. Because she didn’t want to ask the obvious—You had a shrink?—she asked, “What happened after your, um, shrink ate all that?”
“He threw up.” Toby skimmed the surface of the water with his fingertips. The fountain water smelled even more like chlorine than the pool did.
Emily ran her hands over her knees. She wondered if he had a shrink for the same reason he’d taken the blame for The Jenna Thing.
A luxury bus pulled into the Rosewood Day parking lot. Slowly, members of the Rosewood Day band trooped off, still in their uniforms—red jackets with braided trim, flared tuxedo pants, the drum major in a goofy furry hat that looked like it would be really hot and uncomfortable to wear. “You, um, talk a lot about Maine,” Emily said. “Are you happy to be in Rosewood again?”
Toby raised an eyebrow. “Are you happy to be in Rosewood?”
Emily frowned. She watched as a squirrel ran circles around one of the oak trees. “I don’t know,” she said quietly. “Sometimes I feel kind of wrong here. I used to be normal, but now…I don’t know. I feel like I should be one way, but I’m not.”
Toby stared at her. “I hear that.” He sighed. “There are all these perfect people here. And…it’s like, if you’re not one of them, then you’re messed up. But I think, inside, the flawless-looking people are just as messed up as we are.”
He turned his gaze to Emily, and her insides turned over. She felt like her thoughts and secrets were 72-point-font newspaper headlines, and Toby could read all of them. But Toby was also the first person who’d expressed something close to how she felt about things. “I feel pretty messed up most of the time,” she said quietly.
Toby looked like he didn’t believe her. “How are you messed up?”
A clap of thunder exploded overhead. Emily slid her hands inside her warm-up jacket sleeves. I’m messed up because I don’t know who I am or what I want, she wanted to say. But instead, she looked directly at him and blurted, “I love storms.”