Outside, the air was unseasonably warm for February. She trudged around the side of the house to the Hastingses’ backyard, tears rolling silently down her cheeks.
The view in Spencer’s backyard was so different now. The historic barn that had stood at the back of the property was gone—Real Ali had burned it down last year. Only scorched, black dirt remained. Emily doubted anything would ever grow in that spot again.
Next door was the DiLaurentises’ old house. Maya St. Germain, whom Emily had had a thing with junior year, still lived there, though Emily hardly saw Maya anymore. In the front yard, the Ali Shrine, which had stood for so long after Courtney’s—her Ali’s—death on the DiLaurentises’ old curb, was gone, too. The public was still obsessed—the newspapers were already running Alison DiLaurentis Fire Anniversary features, and then there was Pretty Little Killer, that awful Alison biopic—but no one wanted to eulogize a murderer.
Thinking about it, Emily slipped her hand into her jeans pocket and felt for the silky tassel she’d carried with her for the past year. Just feeling that it was still there calmed her down.
A small cry rang out, and Emily turned. Just twenty feet away, almost blending into the trunk of the Hastingses’ giant oak, stood a teenage girl bouncing a bundled baby. “Shhh,” the girl cooed. Then she glanced over at Emily, smiling apologetically. “Sorry. I came out here to keep her quiet, but it’s not working.”
“It’s okay.” Emily covertly wiped her eyes. She glanced at the tiny baby. “What’s her name?”
“Grace.” The girl shifted the baby higher in her arms. “Say hi, Grace.”
“Is she . . . yours?” The girl looked about Emily’s age.
“Oh God, no.” The girl laughed. “She’s my mom’s. But she’s inside, schmoozing, so I’m on nanny duty.” She shifted for something in the big diaper bag on her shoulder. “Would you mind holding her for a second? I have to get her bottle, but it’s way at the bottom.”
Emily blinked. She hadn’t held a baby in a long time. “Well, okay . . .”
The girl handed Emily the baby, who was swaddled in a pink blanket and smelled like powder. Her little red mouth opened wide and tears dotted her eyes. “It’s okay,” Emily told her “You can cry. I don’t mind.”
A wrinkle formed on Grace’s tiny brow. She shut her mouth and stared at Emily curiously. Tumultuous feelings rushed through Emily. Her memories pulsed close, ready to break free, but she quickly pushed them down deep.
The girl raised her head from the diaper bag. “Hey! You’re a natural. Do you have young brothers or sisters?”
Emily bit her lip. “No, just older ones. But I’ve done a lot of babysitting.”
“It shows.” She smiled. “I’m Chloe Roland. My family just moved here from Charlotte.”
Emily introduced herself. “Where are you going to school?”
“Rosewood Day. I’m a senior.”
Emily smiled. “That’s where I go!”
“Do you like it?” Chloe asked, finding the bottle.
Emily handed Grace back. Did she like Rosewood Day? So much about the school reminded her of her Ali—and of A. Every corner, every room held a memory she’d rather forget. “I don’t know,” she said, then inadvertently let out a loud sniff.
Chloe squinted into Emily’s tear-stained face. “Is everything okay?”
Emily wiped her eyes. Her brain conjured up the words I’m fine and It doesn’t matter, but she couldn’t say them. “I just found out I didn’t get a college swimming scholarship,” she blurted. “My parents can’t afford to send me without it. It’s my fault, though. I . . . I dropped out of swimming this summer. No team wants me now. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Fresh tears cascaded down Emily’s face. Since when did she go around blubbering about her problems to girls she didn’t know? “I’m sorry. I’m sure you didn’t want to hear that.”
Chloe sniffed. “Please. It’s more than anyone else has said to me at this party. So you swim, huh?”
Chloe smiled. “My dad’s a big donor at the University of North Carolina, his alma mater. He might be able to help.”
Emily looked up. “UNC is a great swimming school.”
“Maybe I could talk to him about you.”
Emily stared at her. “But you don’t even know me!”
Chloe shifted Grace higher in her arms. “You seem nice.”
Emily peered at Chloe more closely. She had a pleasant round face, sparkling hazel eyes, and long, shiny brown hair the color of a chocolate Pudding Pop. Her eyebrows looked like they hadn’t been plucked in a while, she didn’t have much makeup on, and Emily was pretty sure she’d seen the dress Chloe was wearing at The Gap. She liked her instantly for not trying so hard.
The front door to the Hastingses’ house opened, and a few guests emerged onto the porch. A zing of fear bolted through Emily’s chest. Coat check!
“I-I have to go,” she cried, spinning around. “I’m supposed to be working coat check. I’m probably going to be fired now.”
“It was nice to meet you!” Chloe waved, and then made Grace wave, too. “And, hey! If you’re that eager for money, want to babysit for us Monday night? My parents don’t know anyone yet, and I have a college interview.”
Emily paused in the frosty grass. “Where do you live?”
Chloe laughed. “Right. That would be helpful, huh?” She pointed across the street. “There.”
Emily stared at the large Victorian and swallowed a gasp. Chloe’s family had moved into the Cavanaughs’ old house.
“Um, sure. Yeah.” Emily waved good-bye and sprinted back toward the house. As she passed by the thick line of shrubs that separated the Hastings property from the DiLaurentises’, she heard a high-pitched giggle.
She stopped suddenly. Was someone watching her? Laughing?
The giggling faded into the trees. Emily shuffled up the front walk, trying to shake the sound from her head. She was just hearing things. No one was watching her anymore. Those days were thankfully long, long gone.
Just another perfect political family
That same Saturday night, Hanna Marin sat with her boyfriend, Mike Montgomery, in an old glass bottle warehouse turned photography studio in downtown Hollis. The high-ceilinged industrial space was filled with hot lights, multiple cameras, and several different backdrops—a blue cloth, an autumn scene, and a screen covered with a big, waving American flag, which Hanna found unbearably cheesy.
Hanna’s father, Tom Marin, stood amid the throng of political advisors, adjusting his tie and mouthing his lines. He was running for U.S. Senate next November, and today he was filming his very first political commercial that would introduce Pennsylvania to just how senatorial he was. His new wife, Isabel, stood next to him, fluffing her brown, chin-length hair, smoothing down her red politician’s-wife power suit—complete with shoulder pads, ugh—and inspecting her orangey skin in a Chanel hand mirror.
“Seriously,” Hanna whispered to Mike, who was helping himself to yet another sandwich from the food cart. “Why didn’t someone tell Isabel to lay off Mystic Tan? She looks like an Oompa Loompa.”
Mike snickered, squeezing Hanna’s hand as Hanna’s stepsister, Kate, glided past. Unfortunately, Kate wasn’t a clone of her mom—she looked like she’d spent the day in the salon getting her chestnut hair highlighted, fake eyelashes glued on, and teeth whitened so she’d look absolutely perfect for her father’s big commercial. Stepfather, not that Kate ever made the distinction. And not that Hanna’s dad ever did, either.
Then, as if sensing Hanna was thinking nasty thoughts about her, Kate pranced over. “You guys should be helping, you know. There’s a ton to do.”
Hanna took an apathetic sip from the can of Diet Coke she’d pilfered from the cooler. Kate had taken it upon herself to be her dad’s mini assistant like some eager intern on The West Wing. “Like what?”
“Like you could help me run my lines,” Kate suggested bossily. She reeked of her favorite Jo Malone Fig and Cassis body lotion, which to Hanna smelled like a moldy prune left out in the woods too long. “I have three sentences in the ad, and I want them to be perfect.”
“You have lines?” Hanna blurted, and then instantly regretted it. That was exactly what Kate wanted her to say.
As Hanna predicted, Kate’s eyes widened with fake sympathy. “Oh, Hanna, you mean you don’t have any? I wonder why that is?” She whirled around and sauntered back to the set. Her hips swung. Her glossy hair bounced. No doubt there was a huge smile on her face.
Shaking with fury, Hanna grabbed a handful of potato chips from the bowl next to her and shoved them in her mouth. They were sour cream and onion, not her favorite, but she didn’t care. Hanna had been warring with her stepsister ever since Kate reentered Hanna’s life last year and became one of the most popular girls at Rosewood Day. Kate was still BFFs with Naomi Zeigler and Riley Wolfe, two bitches who’d had it in for Hanna ever since their Ali (aka Courtney) ditched them at the beginning of sixth grade. After Hanna reunited with her old friends, Kate’s rise to popularity didn’t bother her so much, but now that she, Spencer, Aria, and Emily weren’t speaking, Hanna couldn’t help but let Kate get to her.
“Forget her.” Mike touched Hanna’s arm. “She looks like she has an American flag shoved up her butt.”
“Thanks,” Hanna said flatly, but it wasn’t much of a salve.
Today, she just felt . . . diminished. Unnecessary. There was only room for one shining teenage daughter, and that was the girl who’d received three whole sentences to say on camera.
Just then, Mike’s cell phone pinged. “It’s from Aria,” he murmured, texting back. “Want me to tell her hi?”
Hanna turned away, saying nothing. After Jamaica, Aria and Hanna had tried to remain friends, going to Iceland together because Noel had already bought the tickets. But by the end of that summer, there were just too many bad memories and secrets between them. These days, Hanna tried not to think about her old friends at all. It was easier that way.
A short guy in thick geek-chic glasses, a pink pinstriped shirt, and gray pants clapped his hands, startling Hanna and Mike. “Okay, Tom, we’re ready for you.” It was Jeremiah, Mr. Marin’s number-one campaign advisor—or, as Hanna liked to call him, his bitch boy. Jeremiah was by her dad’s side at all hours of the day, doing whatever was needed. Hanna was tempted to make a whip-cracking noise whenever he was around.
Jeremiah bustled about, positioning Hanna’s father in front of the blue screen. “We’ll do a few voiceovers of you talking about how you’re the future of Pennsylvania,” he said in a girlish nasal voice. When he ducked his head, Hanna could see the growing bald spot on his crown. “Be sure to talk about all the good community work you’ve done in the past. And definitely mention your pledge to end teenage drinking.”