Flawless Page 37

He\'d paused, and Carolyn\'s eyes had widened. She ran in to get her cell phone. Meanwhile, Emily stood on the porch, trying to make sense of what was happening. She thought about Toby at her window last night. How he\'d violently banged on the sliding glass door, then bolted for the woods.

She looked at the cyclist. ’’This boy in the woods, was he trying to hurt you?’’ she whispered, her heart pounding. It was horrifying that Toby really had camped out in her woods all night. What if he\'d come up onto her porch after Emily had dozed off?

The cyclist hugged his helmet to his chest. He looked about Emily\'s dad\'s age, with green eyes and a salt-and-pepper beard. ’’No,’’ he said gently. ’’He was...blue.’’

And now, this: a letter. A suicide note.

Toby had seemed so tortured, sprinting into the woods. Had he taken the pills right then? Or could Emily have stopped him? And was Hanna right was Toby not Ali\'s killer?

The world started spinning. She felt a strong hand on the small of her back. ’’Whoa,’’ Spencer whispered. ’’It\'s okay.’’

Emily straightened herself and looked at the letter. Her friends leaned in, too. There, right in the middle, was her name.

Emily, three years ago, I promised Alison DiLaurentis I\'d keep a secret for her if she kept a secret for me. She promised that secret would never get out, but I guess it has. I\'ve tried to deal with it and to forget it and when we became friends, I thought I could.... I thought I\'d changed and that my life had changed. But I guess you can\'t ever really change who you are. What I did to Jenna was the biggest mistake I\'ve ever made. I was young and confused and stupid, and I never meant to hurt her. And I can\'t live with it anymore. I\'m done.

Emily folded the note back up, the paper quaking in her hands. It didn\'t make sense they were the ones who\'d hurt Jenna, not Toby what was he talking about? She handed it back to Jenna. ’’Thank you.’’

’’You\'re welcome.’’

As Jenna turned to leave, Emily cleared her throat. ’’Wait,’’ she croaked. ’’Jenna.’’

Jenna stopped. Emily swallowed hard. Everything Spencer just told her about Toby knowing and Ali lying, everything Toby had said last night, all the guilt she\'d carried about Jenna for so many years...it all bubbled over.

’’Jenna, I should apologize to you. We were...we used to be so mean. The stuff we did...the names, whatever...It wasn\'t funny.’’

Hanna stepped forward. ’’She\'s totally right. It wasn\'t funny at all.’’ Emily hadn\'t seen Hanna look so tortured in a long time. ’’And you didn\'t deserve it,’’ she added.

Jenna stroked her dog\'s head. ’’It\'s okay,’’ she answered. ’’I\'m over it.’’

Emily sighed. ’’But it\'s not okay. It\'s not okay at all. I...I never knew what being...teased because you\'re different...felt like. But now I do.’’ She tensed her shoulder muscles, hoping it would keep her from crying. Part of her wanted to tell everyone what she was struggling with. But she held back. This wasn\'t the right time. There was more she wanted to say, too, but how could she? ’’And I\'m sorry about your accident, too. I never got to tell you.’’

She wanted to add, I\'m sorry for what we accidentally did, but she was too afraid.

Jenna\'s chin trembled. ’’It\'s not your fault. And anyway, it\'s not the worst thing that happened to me.’’ She pulled on her dog\'s collar and walked back to the front yard.

The girls were quiet until Jenna was out of earshot.

’’What could be worse than being blinded?’’ Aria whispered.

’’There was something worse,’’ Spencer interrupted. ’’The thing that Ali knew...’’

Spencer had that look on her face again like she had a lot to say, but she didn\'t want to say any of it. She sighed. ’’Toby used to...touch...Jenna,’’ she whispered. ’’That\'s what he was doing, the night of Jenna\'s accident. That\'s why Ali misaimed the firework into the tree house.’’

When Ali got to Toby\'s tree house, Spencer explained, she saw Toby in the window and lit the firework. And then...she saw Jenna was there, too. There was something strange about Jenna\'s expression, and her shirt was unbuttoned. Then Ali saw Toby go over to Jenna and put his hand on her neck. He moved his other hand under Jenna\'s shirt and on top of the bra. He slid a strap off her shoulder. Jenna looked terrified.

Ali said she was so shocked, she bumped the firework out of position. The spark sped rapidly up the wick, and the rocket launched. Then there was a bright, confusing flash. Glass shattered. Someone screamed...and Ali ran.

’’When Toby came up to us and told Ali he\'d seen her, Ali told Toby she\'d seen him...fooling around with Jenna,’’ Spencer said. ’’The only way she wouldn\'t tell Toby\'s parents was if Toby admitted to lighting the firework himself. Toby agreed.’’ She sighed. ’’Ali made me promise not to tell what Toby had done, along with everything else.’’

’’Jesus,’’ Aria whispered. ’’So Jenna must\'ve been happy Toby was sent away.’’

Emily had no idea how to respond. She turned to look at Jenna, who was standing across the lawn with her mom, talking to a reporter. What must that have felt like, having your stepbrother do that to you? It had been bad enough when Ben went at her what if she had to live with him? What if he was part of her family?

But it tore her up inside, too. Doing that to your stepsister was horrible, but it was also...pathetic. Of course Toby had just wanted to get past it now, to get on with his life. And he had been...until Emily scared him into thinking it was all coming back to haunt him.

She felt so horrified, she covered her face with her hands and took huge, gulping breaths. I ruined Toby\'s life, she thought. I killed him.

Her friends let her cry for a while they were all crying, too. When Emily was reduced to dry, shuddering sobs, she looked up. ’’I just can\'t believe it.’’

’’I can.’’ Hanna said. ’’Ali only cared about herself. She was the queen of manipulation.’’

Emily looked at her, surprised. Hanna shrugged. ’’My seventh-grade secret? The one only Ali knew? Ali tortured me with it. Any time I didn\'t go along with something she wanted me to do, Ali threatened to tell you guys and everyone else.’’

’’She did that to you, too?’’ Aria sounded surprised. ’’There were times when she\'d say something about my secret that made it so...obvious.’’ She lowered her eyes. ’’Before Toby...took those pills, he outed that secret about me. The secret Ali knew, and the one A Toby was threatening me about.’’

Everyone sat up straighter. ’’What was it?’’ Hanna asked.

’’It was...just this family thing.’’ Aria\'s lip trembled. ’’I can\'t talk about it now.’’

Everyone was quiet for a while, thinking. Emily stared at the birds fluttering in and out of her dad\'s feeder. ’’It makes perfect sense that Toby was A,’’ Hanna whispered. ’’He didn\'t kill Ali, but he still wanted revenge.’’

Spencer shrugged. ’’I hope you\'re right.’’

It was calm and bright back inside Emily\'s house. Her parents weren\'t home yet, but Carolyn had just made microwave popcorn, and the whole house smelled like it. To Emily, microwave popcorn always smelled better than it tasted, and despite her lack of appetite, her stomach growled. She thought, Toby will never smell microwave popcorn again.

Neither would Ali.

She glanced through her bedroom window toward the front yard. Just hours ago, Toby had been standing there, pleading with Emily not to tell the cops. And to think, what he\'d meant was Please don\'t tell them what I did to Jenna.

Emily thought about Ali again. How Ali had lied to them about everything.

The funny but sad thing about all of it was that Emily was pretty sure she\'d started loving Ali the night of Jenna\'s accident, after the ambulances left and Ali came back inside. Ali was so calm and protective, so self-assured and wonderful. Emily had been freaking out, but Ali was there to make her feel better.

’’It\'s all right,’’ Ali had cooed to her, scratching Emily\'s back, her fingers making large, slow circles. ’’I promise you. It\'ll be okay. You have to believe me.’’

’’But how can it be okay?’’ Emily sobbed. ’’How do you know?’’

’’Because I just do.’’

Then Ali took Emily and laid her down on the couch, propping Emily\'s head in her lap. Ali\'s hands began to softly rake her scalp. It felt spookily good. So good, Emily forgot where she was, or how scared she felt. Instead, she was...transported.

Ali\'s movements got slower and slower, and Emily began to fall asleep. What happened next, Emily would never forget. Ali bent down and kissed Emily\'s cheek. Emily froze, jolted awake. Ali did it again. It felt so good. She sat back up and started scratching Emily\'s head again. Emily\'s heart beat madly.

The rational part of Emily\'s brain put the incident out of her mind, figuring Ali had meant it in a comforting way. But the emotional part of her let the feeling bloom like the tiny capsules her parents put in her Christmas stocking that slowly formed big, spongy shapes in hot water. That was when Emily\'s love for Ali took hold, and without that night, maybe it never would have happened at all.

Emily sat down on her bed, staring abstractly out the window. She felt empty, like someone had scooped her insides right out like a jack-o\'-lantern.

Her room was very quiet;the only sound was of the ceiling fan\'s blades whapping around. Emily opened the top drawer of her desk and found a pair of old left-handed scissors. She placed the blades between the strings of the bracelet Ali had made for her so many years ago, and in one swift chop, she cut it off. She didn\'t quite want to throw the bracelet away, but she didn\'t want to leave it on the floor where she could see it, either. In the end, she pushed it far under her bed with the edge of her foot.

’’Ali,’’ she whispered, tears running down her face. ’’Why?’’

A buzzing across the room startled her. Emily had hung the pink bag Jenna returned to her on her bedroom doorknob. She could see her phone glowing through its thin fabric. Slowly, she got up and retrieved her purse. By the time she pulled her phone out, it had stopped ringing.

ONE NEW TEXT MESSAGE, her little Nokia said. Emily felt her heart speed up.

Poor, confused Emily. I bet you could use a big warm girl hug right now, huh? Don\'t get too comfortable. It\'s not over until I say it is. A

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