Wicked Page 37

The bushes across the clearing started to shake. Heavy footsteps crunched through the leaves. Hanna\'s heart began to thump. ’’Aria?’’ No answer.

A twig snapped. Then another. Hanna stared in the direction of the noise. Something was looming in the bushes. Hanna held her breath. What if Ian was hiding right here?

Hanna pushed herself up to her elbows. A figure burst out from between the trees, shaking off branches. A scream lingered in Hanna\'s throat. It wasn\'t Aria or Emily...but it wasn\'t Ian, either. Hanna couldn\'t tell if it was a guy or a girl, but whoever it was seemed thinner, maybe a little shorter. The figure paused in the middle of the clearing, staring straight at Hanna, as if startled by her presence. With its hood pulled tightly over its head and its face completely in shadow, the person reminded Hanna of the Grim Reaper.

Hanna tried to scuttle backward on her butt, but her body sank uselessly into the mud. I\'m going to die, she thought. This is it.

Finally, a hand moved to the person\'s lips. ’’Shhhhh.’’

Hanna dug her nails into the cold, half-frozen ground, her teeth chattering with terror. But the figure took three big steps away from her. Then, just like that, whoever it was turned and vanished, without the slightest sound of footsteps. It was as if Hanna had dreamed the whole thing.



The whimper kept growing closer and then farther away, as if it were being bounced around by a mirror. Aria ran through the woods without looking where she was going or checking to see how far she had gone. When she turned around, she realized that the Hastingses\' house was far in the distance, just a minuscule glowing yellow light through the thick, tangled branches.

When she came to a small ravine, she froze. So many of the trees were twisted and knotted, growing improperly. One tree right in front of her split into two, forming a seat between the two trunks. Even when Aria, Ali, and the others had been friends, they\'d rarely come back here to hang out. One of the few times Aria had been back here was when she\'d staked out Ali\'s house to steal her Time Capsule flag.

After Ali had marched to the back of her yard and told the four of them that someone else had already stolen her piece of the flag, the girls had gone their separate ways, disappointed. Aria cut through these woods back to her house. As she was passing a clump of particularly eerie-looking trees maybe these very trees exactly she\'d seen someone running right for her from the other direction. Her insides had crackled with excitement when she realized it was Jason.

Jason had stopped, a guilty look washing over his face. His eyes immediately dropped to something dangling out of his hoodie\'s front pocket. Aria looked too. It was a piece of blue cloth, the same bold cerulean as the Rosewood Day flag that hung in every classroom. There were drawings all over the cloth, too, and words in familiar, bubbly handwriting.

Aria thought about where she\'d just been, what Ali had just told all of them. You\'re too late, she said. Someone already stole my piece. I\'d decorated it and everything. She pointed at Jason\'s pocket, her hand shaking. ’’That\'s not...?’’

Jason looked from Aria to the flag, disarmed. And then, wordlessly, he thrust it into Aria\'s hands. He disappeared through the trees, back toward the DiLaurentis house.

Aria sprinted home, Ali\'s piece of the flag burning in her pocket. She didn\'t know what Jason wanted her to do with it give it back? Redecorate it for herself? Was it somehow tied to the weird fight Jason and Ian had had on the Rosewood Day common just days before? Over the next few days, she\'d waited to see if he\'d tell her what he\'d been thinking and what she should do. Maybe Jason had realized they were soul mates, and had given it to Aria specifically because he thought she deserved it. But no instructions ever came. Even when the Rosewood Day administration made an announcement over the PA that one piece of the Time Capsule flag hadn\'t been accounted for and that whoever had it should please come forward. Was it some kind of test? Was Aria just supposed to know? If she passed, would she and Jason be together forever?

After Aria became friends with Ali, she felt too embarrassed and ashamed to explain the whole debacle, so she\'d hidden the piece of the flag in her closet, never looking at it again. If she opened the shoe box at the back of her closet marked Old Book Reports, there Ali\'s piece of the flag would still be, completely decorated and ready to go.

Footsteps crunched behind her. Aria jumped and swiveled around. Hanna\'s eyes glowed in the darkness. ’’You guys,’’ she breathed heavily. ’’I just saw the weirdest ’’

’’Shhh,’’ Aria interrupted. A dark shadow on the other side of the ravine caught her eye. She clamped down hard on Emily\'s arm, trying not to scream. A flashlight clicked on, sliding across the ground. Aria put her hand to her mouth, letting out a relieved, shuddering sigh.

’’Spencer?’’ she called, taking a tentative step through the slush.

Spencer was wearing a rain slicker that came to her knees and big riding boots that flapped around her skinny calves. She beamed her flashlight up at them, looking like an animal caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck. The whole front of her black dress was covered in mud and slush, as was her face. ’’Thank God you\'re okay.’’ Aria took a few steps forward.

’’What the hell were you doing out here?’’ Emily cried. ’’Are you crazy?’’

Spencer\'s jaw trembled. Her eyes lowered toward whatever it was on the ground. ’’It doesn\'t make any sense,’’ she said tonelessly, as if she were hypnotized. ’’I just got a note from him.’’

’’From who?’’ Aria whispered.

Spencer pointed her flashlight at a massive object next to her. At first, Aria thought it was just a fallen tree, or maybe a dead animal. But then the light danced over something that looked like...skin. It was a large, pale, human hand, curled into a fist. There was what looked like a Rosewood Day class ring on one of the fingers.

Aria took a huge step back, clapping her hand to her mouth. ’’Oh my God.’’

Then Spencer shined the light on the person\'s face. Even in the darkness, Aria could tell that Ian\'s skin was a ghostly, oxygenless blue. One eye was closed and the other was open, as if he were winking. Dried blood pooled at his ear and his lips, and his hair was matted with dirt. There were big purple welts around his neck, as if someone had grabbed him hard and squeezed. There was something about him that seemed very cold and stiff, as if he\'d been like this for quite some time.

Aria blinked rapidly, unable to comprehend what she was looking at. She thought about how Ian hadn\'t shown up at his trial yesterday. The cops had run out of the room, vowing to find him. Ian could have been here all along.

Emily dry-heaved. Hanna took a huge step back, crying out. It was so quiet out in the woods, it was easy to hear Spencer\'s shaky swallow. She shook her head. ’’He was like this when I got here,’’ she whimpered. ’’I swear.’’

Aria was afraid to move any closer to Ian, and kept her eyes fixed on his immobile hand, almost certain he was going to spring up and grab her. The air around him was absolutely dead and still. Far off in the distance, she swore she heard someone giggle.

And then Aria\'s cell phone, tucked inside her small, clam-shaped clutch, started to ring. She let out a small ’’eep,’’ surprised. Then Spencer\'s buzzed, and Aria\'s chimed. Hanna\'s cell phone, which was nestled inside her now-muddy clutch, let out a bleat.

The girls stared at one another in the darkness. ’’There\'s no way,’’ Spencer whispered.

’’It can\'t....’’ Hanna held her phone by the very tips of her fingers, as if afraid to really touch it.

Aria stared at her Treo\'s screen in disbelief. One new text message.

She glanced back at Ian, his stiff limbs twisted, his beautiful face vacant and lifeless. With a shudder, she looked down at the screen again and forced herself to read the text.

He had to go.


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