“You’re so good with her,” Chloe said. “It’s amazing.”
Those few, kind words tore painfully through Emily. She looked up, suddenly unable to hold something inside any longer. “I have to tell you something,” she whispered. “I had a baby this summer.”
Chloe’s hand froze half-extended to her mouth. “What?”
“I got pregnant from my last boyfriend, Isaac. And . . . I had a baby girl,” Emily repeated, glancing at Grace. The words felt so surreal coming out of her mouth. She hadn’t planned on telling anyone, ever. “That’s why I didn’t swim this fall—I wasn’t up to it, afterward. It’s why I’m scrambling for a scholarship now.”
Chloe ran a hand through her hair. “Wow,” she whispered. “Is the baby okay? Are you okay?”
“The baby’s fine. As for me . . .” Emily shrugged. “I don’t know.”
Chloe’s eyes darted back and forth. “What did your parents think?”
“My parents don’t know. I spent the summer in Philly, basically in hiding. My older sister knew, but she hated me for it.”
“Did you have anyone to rely on?” Chloe asked, grabbing Emily’s shoulder. “A counselor, a doctor, someone you could talk to?”
“Not really.” Emily shut her eyes, her chest tight. “I don’t really want to talk about it anymore, actually. I’m sorry to burden you with this.”
Chloe pulled Emily to her, careful not to squish Grace. “I’m so glad you told me. And I won’t say anything, I swear. You can say anything to me, okay? I promise.”
“Thanks.” Emily’s eyes filled with tears again. She buried her head in Chloe’s soft hair, which smelled like Nexxus hair spray and a variety of styling gels. Grace snuggled between them, silent and content. It felt so good to hug someone. To tell someone. Even more than a BFF necklace or a champagne toast, this felt like the most meaningful friendship ritual of all.
Emily opened her eyes with a start. Her mouth felt sticky and swollen.
She was on an unfamiliar couch. Out the windows, she saw the big, distinctive pine trees that lined the center island of the street Ali and Spencer lived on. The room smelled strongly of vanilla soap. She sat up, disoriented.
Footsteps sounded in the kitchen. A cabinet opened and closed. The floorboards creaked, and a figure stepped into the living room and sat down next to Emily. The vanilla odor seemed to multiply. It was Ali. Her Ali. Emily was sure of it.
Wordlessly, Ali leaned over Emily, almost like she was going to tickle her like she sometimes did in the middle of the night. A split second later, a pair of lips touched hers. Emily kissed back, fireworks exploding in her stomach.
But Ali’s chin felt scratchy, not smooth. Emily opened her eyes, waking up for real.
It was a man’s face pressing up against hers, not Ali’s. He smelled like cigars, alcohol, and, most prominently, vanilla pudding. His weight was more than double that of Ali’s, pressing down on her stomach and flattening her boobs.
Emily jerked away and squealed. The figure backed off, then snapped on a light. The golden bulb showed off Mr. Roland’s salt-and-pepper hair. Of course Emily wasn’t at the DiLaurentises’—she was still at Chloe’s; they’d been babysitting.
“Wake up, sleepyhead,” Mr. Roland said. His smile was like a jack-o’-lantern’s, all scraggly and mischievous.
Emily cowered behind the couch. “What are you doing?”
“Just waking you up.” He lunged for her again.
Emily leapt back. “Stop!”
Mr. Roland lowered his eyebrows and looked toward the stairs. “Shhhh. My wife is up there.”
Emily stared across the room. Not only was Mrs. Roland upstairs, but Chloe was, too. She grabbed her coat from the back of the chair and backed out of the house without even tying her shoes. “Emily, wait!” Mr. Roland whisper-called after her. “Your payment!” But she didn’t go back.
It was deathly still outside, the air crackling with coldness. Emily rushed to her car, fell into the driver’s seat, and hyperventilated. It’s just a dream, she chanted to herself. She looked out on the street. If a car passes in the next ten seconds, it’s just a dream. But it was after midnight; no cars passed.
Emily’s phone lit up inside her jacket pocket. The seat belt strap went limp in her hands. What if it was Chloe? What if she’d seen? She pulled out the phone. It was something worse: a text from Anonymous. Shaking, she opened the message.
Naughty, naughty! Don’t you just love to be bad, Killer?
“Killer?” Emily whispered, her hands trembling uncontrollably. She looked out onto the dark, empty street. That was Ali’s secret name for her. A name very, very few people knew.
A picture’s worth a thousand tears
On Friday morning, after wedging herself into a jam-packed SEPTA train, Hanna huffed and puffed her way up to Patrick’s fourth-floor photography studio. He’d sent her a note late last night saying that he wanted to see her ASAP. Luckily, she had the day off school for the long weekend, which meant she didn’t even need to come up with an excuse to the front office.
In the light of day, Patrick’s building didn’t seem nearly as charming as it had the other night. The stairwell smelled like rotten eggs. Someone had left a pair of muddy running shoes outside their door. Behind another apartment, a couple was screaming at each other. The door slammed in the lobby, followed by a high-pitched, tinkling laugh. Hanna whipped around, her heart pounding hard. But no one was there.
She heard Tabitha’s voice again, loud and clear: I bet you weren’t always gorgeous, were you?
Hanna clapped her hands over her ears and scampered to Patrick’s floor. Music pumped softly within his studio. She rang the bell, and Patrick flung the door open immediately, almost as if he’d been watching for her through the peephole.
“Miss Hanna!” He grinned, dark hair falling in his eyes.
“Hey.” Hanna stepped into the room, taking deep, even breaths. The eerie laugh still echoed in her ears . . . as did A’s note from her dad’s screening.
“You look beautiful today,” Patrick said, standing close to her.
Hanna’s insides flipped over. “Thanks,” she whispered.
They stood there for a moment, Hanna’s heart pounding faster and faster. She was dying to kiss him, but she didn’t want to seem like an overeager high-school student. “So, um, where are my photos?” she asked in the most casual voice she could muster.
“Hmm?” Patrick gave her a dazed look.
“You know, those things you took with your camera the other day?” Hanna teased, pantomiming snapping a picture. She was eager to send them to agencies. IMG was her top choice, and then maybe Next or Ford.
“Oh!” Patrick rubbed a hand through his thick hair. “Yes. Of course. I’ll go get them.”
He wandered off into the next room. Artists, Hanna thought with an adoring smile. Always so absent-minded and lost in their own world.
Hanna’s phone started to buzz. The call was from Emily.
Sighing, she pressed her ear to the receiver. “What?”
“I’ve been getting more notes from A,” Emily said in a shrill voice. “Have you?”
A horn honked loudly outside. Patrick bumped into something in the other room and let out a loud shit. “Um, maybe,” Hanna answered.
“Are they about . . .” Emily cleared her throat.
Hanna knew exactly what Emily meant. “Yeah.”
“What are we going to do, Hanna? Someone knows!”
Hanna winced. If A knew—really knew . . .
Just then, Patrick emerged from the back room. Hanna gripped the phone with both hands. “I have to go.” She stabbed END like she was killing a spider.
“Everything okay?” Patrick asked from the doorway.
Hanna flinched. “Of course.” She dropped the phone back into her leather bag and whirled around to face him. Strangely, Patrick wasn’t holding anything in his arms. No photos, no digital camera, no leather portfolio, nothing.
Patrick strode over to the leather couch in the corner and plopped down. He patted the seat next to him. “Come sit next to me, Hanna.”
The floorboards creaked as Hanna crossed the room. She slid onto the couch, and Patrick scooted over to her. “You’re stunning, you know that?”
Hanna’s stomach did another flip. She ducked her head bashfully. “I bet you say that to all your subjects.”
“No, I don’t.” He turned Hanna’s chin toward him and stared deeply into her eyes. “To tell you the truth, I’m not that great with girls. It carries over from when I was in high school—I was kind of a loser. And you . . . well, you’re like that popular girl I lusted over but couldn’t have.”
Hanna’s insides melted. “I used to be a loser, too,” she whispered. “I used to be so ugly I couldn’t stand to look at myself in the mirror.”
Patrick cupped her face with his hands. “I doubt you were ever ugly.”
Then, he leaned forward and kissed her. Hanna leaned in, too, giddy with anticipation. But as their lips touched, something felt . . . wrong. The kiss was slimy and frantic. Patrick tasted like wheatgrass, and his hands felt like heavy paws on her body, not gentle and sweet like Mike’s had always been. As he eased her down on the couch, an image of Mike flashed in Hanna’s mind, and she felt a twinge of longing.
She pushed against Patrick’s chest. “Uh, can we look through the shots right now? I’m dying to see your work.”
Patrick chuckled lightly. “Let’s worry about that later,” he said, then buried his face in Hanna’s neck.
A sour feeling welled in Hanna’s stomach. Patrick’s weight pinned her on the couch. “But we can do this later too, right?” she said, still trying to sound light and carefree. “Please can I see the photos? Please?”
Patrick continued to grope her. All at once, Hanna noticed how his lips made smacking noises. His hair looked oily, and there was a smattering of dandruff on his shoulders. A horrible thought struck her: What if Mike was right about him?
She shot off the couch. “Patrick, I want my photos. Now.”
Patrick leaned back and crossed his arms over his chest. With a cruel sneer of his lip, he instantly transformed from a lovestruck photographer into something far more sinister. “So you’re nothing but a tease, huh?”
Hanna blinked hard. “I just think we should keep things professional. You asked me to come over to look at my photos. I thought you were going to send them out today.”
“Come on, Hanna.” Patrick rolled his eyes. “Are you really that naïve?”
In a sweeping motion, he leaned down and pulled out a large manila envelope from under the couch. He undid the string fastener and revealed six glossy photos of Hanna. They weren’t the shots of her at the Liberty Bell or City Hall, though, but six almost-identical photos of her at his studio. The wind was in her hair, there was a slutty expression on her face, and her dress had fallen down her chest to reveal most of her lacy, strapless bra.