And then . . . thud. The solid slap of a body hitting sand.
The memory whizzed through Aria’s brain in a split second. When her vision focused again, she saw Klaudia’s body pressed against hers. Her hands groped for her, pushing her to the side of the ski lift. She grabbed Aria’s shoulders and started to shake her hard. Her face was mere inches from Aria’s. The same self-preserving impulse coursed through Aria’s veins once more. “Get off me!” she screamed, jerking up. She pushed Klaudia once, lightly, but Klaudia just let out an ugly laugh and covered Aria’s mouth with her mittened hand. Fear and fury raged through Aria’s veins. “I said, get off me!” she hollered, shoving Klaudia’s chest.
Klaudia wheeled backward, letting out a yelp. At that exact moment, the gondola tilted down to let the skiers off the lift. Klaudia’s body tilted with it. Without the bar to protect her, she slid right off the lip of the chair.
“Oh my God!” Aria grabbed for Klaudia’s hand, but it was too late. Klaudia hurtled toward the ground, her hat flying off her head, her arms wheeling wildly, her skis kicking, her face a twisted mask of terror and fury. Three devastating seconds later, her body landed facedown in a pile of fresh, powdery snow.
And, just like it had been with Ali, all was silent after the fall.
Don’t ask, don’t tell
Spencer opened her eyes. She was lying on top of silky sheets in a very, very small room in the Hudson Hotel. Soothing ocean waves from a sound machine played in her ear. Funny, she didn’t remember a sound machine from last night—but then, she had been pretty wasted when she fell asleep.
When she looked over, Zach was lying next to her. He looked so different this morning. His short, brown hair was long and blond. And there were scars on his neck and arms, and a trickle of something red seeping out of his left ear. Was that . . . blood?
She shot up and looked around. This wasn’t the Hudson. She was lying on a long stretch of unspoiled white sand. The sun blazed high in the sky, and there wasn’t a person around for miles. The smell of salt and fish tickled her nostrils. Waves crashed on the shore. Gulls circled overhead. Behind her was a pink stucco resort with a crow’s nest deck peeking out over the beach. A very familiar crow’s nest.
“No,” Spencer whispered. She was in Jamaica. At The Cliffs. She looked at the figure to her left once more. It was a girl. The line of scarlet blood trickled from her ear to the sand. A blue string bracelet circled her wrist. Her yellow halter dress was pushed up almost to her butt, and her legs were bent at an unnatural angle.
It wasn’t Zachary. It was Tabitha. Ali.
“Oh my God.” Spencer leapt to her feet and ran around to stare into the girl’s face. Her eyes were closed tightly, her skin was a washed-out blue, like she’d been dead for hours.
“Ali.” Spencer slapped the girl’s cheek hard. “Ali.”
The girl didn’t answer. Spencer felt for her pulse at her wrist. Nothing. Her head hung limply on her neck like the vertebrae had shattered into a thousand pieces. Blood pooled under her eyes.
Spencer looked around desperately for the others, but they were nowhere to be seen. They had all run down here after Aria pushed her, hadn’t they? They’d been in it together.
“Ali, please wake up.” Spencer screamed into the girl’s face. She shook her shoulders hard. “Please. I’m sorry Aria did what she did. She was just scared. She didn’t know what you were going to do to us. I would have done the same thing.” And she would have. The scene on the crow’s nest deck reminded her too chillingly of the last moments she’d had with Mona Vanderwaal when Mona confessed she was the first A.
Suddenly, Ali’s eyes popped open. She reached forward, grabbed Spencer’s collar, and pulled her so close that Spencer could smell a faint tinge of vanilla on her skin.
“I know what you did,” Ali whispered hoarsely. “And pretty soon, everyone else is going to know, too.”
Spencer woke up mid-scream. Sun streamed through the blinds. A kids’ TV show was on the screen. This time, she really was in the Hudson. Zach was lying next to her, not Ali. But she could still smell the salt and the sand from Jamaica. Her scalp ached from where Ali pulled her hair. It felt so real.
Bang bang bang.
The noise was coming from the door. Spencer blinked hard at it, still caught in the dream.
Bang bang bang. “Hello?” a voice called from the hall.
Zach stirred next to her, pressing his arms above his head. “Hey,” he said, giving Spencer a long, slow smile. “What’s that noise?”
“Someone’s knocking.” Spencer swung her legs around the side of the bed.
Just then, the door burst open. “Zach?” a familiar man’s voice boomed. “It’s nine-thirty. Douglas is waiting to talk to you about Harvard. Get off your ass and get ready.”
Spencer gasped and froze. It was Mr. Pennythistle.
He saw Spencer the same instant she saw him. The blood drained from his cheeks. Spencer quickly wrapped herself up in the bed sheet—at some point in the middle of the night, she’d kicked off her skirt and tights and was now only in her blouse and underwear. Zach shot up, too, groping for his T-shirt, which he’d also stripped off. But it was too late—Mr. Pennythistle had seen everything.
“Jesus Christ!” he screamed, his face contorting. “What the hell?”
Zach pulled his shirt over his head. “Dad, it’s not . . .”
“You sick bastard.” Mr. Pennythistle narrowed his eyes at his son. He yanked Zach up by the arm and slammed him hard against the wall. “She’s going to be your stepsister! What the hell is wrong with you?”
“It wasn’t what it looked like,” Zach protested weakly. “We were just hanging out.”
Mr. Pennythistle shook Zach’s shoulders hard. “You just can’t keep it in your pants, can you?”
“We were just sleeping!” Spencer cried. “Honest!”
Mr. Pennythistle ignored her. He shook his son again and again, making Spencer wince. “You’re a twisted pervert, Zachary. A sick, disgusting pervert not worthy of anything I do for you.”
Mr. Pennythistle’s hand drew back and slapped Zach’s face. Zach reeled backward, struggling against his dad, but Mr. Pennythistle threw his whole body against him, holding him there. The worst part was that it looked like he’d done this many times before.
“Stop it!” Spencer screamed, wriggling into her skirt from last night and catapulting over the bed to the two of them. “Just stop it! Please!”
Mr. Pennythistle didn’t seem to hear. Zach crumpled against the wall, but Mr. Pennythistle only shook him harder. “When will you listen?” he growled. “When will you understand?”
Spencer tugged Mr. Pennythistle’s arm. “Please stop! It wasn’t what it looked like! I swear!”
“Spencer . . .” Zach eyed her over his father’s shoulder. “Just go. You don’t need to see this.”
“No!” Zach was Spencer’s soon-to-be stepbrother, and she needed to protect him. She pulled at the back of Mr. Pennythistle’s oxford shirt, tearing it. “Zach didn’t touch me! He’s gay!”
Mr. Pennythistle immediately let go of his son and whirled around to stare at her. “What did you say?”
Spencer glanced at Zach’s stricken face. He shook his head desperately, like he couldn’t believe what she’d said either, but what was she supposed to do, let his father whale on him some more?
Zach covered his face with his hands. His father turned back to him. “Is what she said true?”
A gurgling sound emerged from between Zach’s lips. His dad stepped away from him as though he were toxic. Then, abruptly, he reached out his arm and punched the faux-wood wall next to Zach’s head. Spencer jumped back and yelped. Mr. Pennythistle punched the wall again and again. Plaster flew everywhere. When he was finished, he bent over at the waist and placed his bloody fists on his knees. His face twisted with anguish. He looked like he was about to cry.
A small, timid knock sounded on the door. “Nicholas?” Spencer’s mother called. “Is everything okay?”
No one said a word. After a moment, Mr. Pennythistle turned and stormed out of the room, slamming the door so hard that the walls shivered. Spencer could hear him talking to her mom in the hall.
She dared to peek at Zach. He looked rattled, but okay. “What the hell is wrong with you? Why did you tell him that?”
Spencer reached out to him. “I thought he was hurting you!”
Zach’s lips warped into a sneer, and he took a step back from her. He looked at her with utter hatred, a look she thought she’d never see in him. “I asked you to keep it a secret, but I guess that was too much to ask of a Pretty Little Liar,” he snarled. “Rot in hell, bitch.”
Before Spencer could protest, he scooped up his coat, shoved on his shoes, and stormed out of the room, too. The door slammed once more. And then, silence.
Spencer sank to the mattress, knocking one of the pillows on the bed to the floor. It still had an indentation from Zach’s skull. The mattress was still warm from his body.
Another chunk of plaster fell from the wall to the ground. Mr. Pennythistle’s blood dripped onto the carpet from the hole he’d created. It reminded Spencer of the dream she’d had that morning: the line of blood trickling from Ali’s ear. I know what you did.
It was Spencer’s BlackBerry, which she’d set on the nightstand before falling asleep last night. Even from across the room, she could tell that the screen said ONE NEW TEXT.
No, Spencer thought. Please. Not now. But she couldn’t ignore it. She had to press READ.
Watch out, Spencer. Eventually, all secrets wash ashore. I
think you know exactly what I mean. –A
She’s smarter than she looks
The Lenape medical center was nothing but a squat, square building that smelled like antiseptic and cough drops. A TV in the corner silently played an infomercial about a magical potato peeler, the chair Aria was sitting on was making her butt fall asleep, and she was about to lose her mind from the constant drone of the automaton-like National Weather Service voice on the radio. Apparently, this area was due for two more feet of snow tomorrow. Not that they’d stay the extra day to ski. Not after what had happened with Klaudia.
Aria strained to listen for anything coming from the examination room—moans of pain, screams of agony, a heart monitor flat-lining. The room was deadly quiet. Eric and Christopher Kahn lounged on the couches, reading old copies of Sports Illustrated. Noel paced around the small space, on the phone with his mother. “Yeah, Mom . . . she just fell, I don’t know . . . the ski patrol got her . . . we’re at the med center now . . . I hope she’s okay, but I don’t know.”
Just hearing Noel rehash the event made Aria feel shaky and sick. The last few hours had been ugly and surreal. After Klaudia fell off the lift and didn’t move, several skiers stopped around her. A ski guard appeared next, and then a snowmobile with a rescue sled. Someone knelt down and felt Klaudia’s pulse. They screamed in Klaudia’s ear, but Aria couldn’t tell if she answered—that was about the time the lift reached the top of the hill and she’d stumbled off.