Vicious, p.5
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       Vicious, p.5

         Part #16 of Pretty Little Liars series by Sara Shepard
 
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  “Okay,” Emily said. And everyone seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief.

  They took their places in line. Aria perused the ice cream choices—they hadn’t changed since she was a kid. When she closed her eyes, breathing in the salty air and feeling the hot sun, she almost felt like a kid again—like that gangly, insecure girl who let her best friend tease her about how no boys liked her because she was so pale.

  She’d go back to that day in a heartbeat—anything was better than what lay ahead. She’d even suffer through the sunburn.

  5

  EMILY TAKES THE PLUNGE

  Emily lay perfectly still on the crinkly mattress in the hotel double bed. Hanna was by her side, sleeping on her stomach, a satin mask over her eyes and headphones in her ears. Aria and Spencer were crammed into the other double bed, breathing softly. The air conditioner rattled in the corner, and the alert light on someone’s phone blinked on the desk.

  The wind had begun to howl, and Emily could hear the crashing waves even from up in the room. It sounded like the storm was rolling in earlier than predicted. Last year, Emily had watched footage of a hurricane like this one. In one video, a man was stranded in his rowboat out at sea. The camera stayed on him as he tried to fight the current again and again, fruitlessly paddling. Rescue helicopters hadn’t been able to reach him. No lifeguard dared to swim in, nor could a rescue boat get close. And still the news kept their cameras trained on him anyway, until the bitter end. Emily had basically watched a man die on television.

  Didn’t like that, did you, Em? Ali giggled in her head.

  Emily glanced at the clock: 5:03 AM. She couldn’t stop thinking about Ali. It’s a trick, Spencer had said about the vanilla. But was it? Was it really?

  Emily ran her hand along her bare stomach. They’d gotten ice cream that afternoon, then treated themselves to a fish fry that evening, even finding a place where the bartender would serve them margaritas. But Emily had barely tasted any of it. She felt like her head was clouded with fog, reacting a split second too late to what her friends said, completely missing jokes, taking too long to even blink. Em, are you okay? her friends kept asking. But it was like they were talking to her underwater; she could barely hear them. She’d felt herself nod, she’d felt herself try to smile. The fish-and-chips she’d ordered had been too hot, but when she’d bitten into them, she barely registered that she’d burned her tongue.

  Maybe she’d never taste again. Maybe she’d never feel again. Then again, perhaps that was a good approach to take for prison.

  Damn right, Ali agreed.

  Emily thought again about the vanilla smell. Ali had been in that house—she knew it. Maybe she’d ordered a Klondike from that same ice-cream truck. Strolled down to the beach, relaxed on the sand, gone for a swim. Slept peacefully, soundly, waking every morning to read more bad news of Emily, Spencer, Hanna, and Aria. Emily could only imagine the satisfaction Ali was getting from knowing that the four of them would soon be locked up forever. She’d probably thrown her head back in laughter, thrilled she’d finally won.

  But Ali would only win if Emily dutifully marched off to prison, like she was supposed to. There was another way. Another darker, scarier answer. Another path Emily could dare to walk down.

  Should I? She pushed back the covers and swung her legs to the carpet, feeling a twinge of déjà vu. She pulled on her swimsuit and her shorts. Paused to listen to the wind as it howled violently, shaking the windows, creaking the walls.

  Then she looked at her friends. Hanna turned over. Spencer kicked in her sleep. Emily felt a guilty twinge. She knew this would devastate them, but it was the only option. She set her jaw, pulled out a piece of motel stationery, and scribbled down the words she’d been mentally composing. Then, she slipped out the door, not bothering to take a key. With any luck, she would be gone before her friends woke up.

  The hallway smelled like beer. She felt along the walls until she reached the outdoor stairs, then carefully navigated down. A gust of wind slammed her from the side, pressing her against the railing. She stood there a moment, bracing herself, thinking again of her friends and the anguish they’d soon feel, before she continued walking to the sidewalk. From there, she fought her way to the beach path, the wind pushing her back with every step. The sun was just rising, the sky a streaky mix of dark blues and pinks. A foreboding red flag indicating that swimming was strictly forbidden had been staked atop the lifeguard stand. The wind was making quick work of tearing it to shreds.

  Emily struggled down the beach steps and planted her feet in the cold sand. The waves whipped to and fro with no discernible pattern. They crashed angrily, caustically, with such power that they were sure to rip apart anything that got in their way. All at once, she thought she heard something over the surf and the wind. A laugh? Someone breathing? She whipped around, eyeing the dark beach stairway, glaring and glaring until her eyes began to play tricks on her. Was that a girl crouched in the dunes, watching? Could Ali be here?

  Emily stood up straighter, staring hard, but as much as she wanted to see something, there was nothing there. She shut her eyes and pictured what Ali would do if she saw her right now. Would she laugh? This wasn’t part of her plan, after all. Maybe she’d respect Emily for what she was about to do. Maybe she’d even fear her.

  Like the other girls, Emily had an Ali Cape May memory, too—but she and Ali hadn’t come here together. Her memory was from fifth grade, before Emily and Ali were friends—so the memory was of the Real Ali, not of Courtney. Ali had sat a few towels away from Emily’s family, looking mysterious in her large-framed sunglasses, whispering and snickering with Naomi Zeigler and Riley Wolfe. Emily had stared at her hard, feeling a spangled sensation inside her. She didn’t just want to be Alison DiLaurentis, the girl everyone adored. She wanted to be with her. Touch her. Braid her hair. Smell her clothes when she stepped out of them at bedtime. Drink her up.

  Ali had looked up at Emily and smirked. Then she’d nudged Naomi and Riley, and all three of them had laughed. Certain Ali had sensed her desires, Emily had jumped up and run for the water, then dived under the waves. She’d swum hard and fast, into the roaring breakers, ignoring the lifeguard’s whistles that she’d gone too far. That sort of girl would never be friends with you, a voice in her head pounded. And she’d certainly never be into you.

  A wave had caught her and pushed her under. When she’d surfaced, she was sputtering and winded. Everyone was staring at her, probably knowing her impure, ridiculous thoughts. As she’d walked back to her towel, Ali was watching her again, although this time she looked a little bit awed. “The water doesn’t scare you, does it?” she pointed out.

  The question had taken Emily by surprise. “No,” she said calmly. It was the truth. It wasn’t the waves she was afraid of.

  Nor was she afraid of them now.

  Emily turned to face the waves again, holding that memory of Ali—the Real Ali, the crazy Ali—tight inside her. Little did she know then that someday, that beautiful, horrible girl would be the center of her life. Little did she know that Ali would take everything from her.

  “I’m not afraid,” Emily whispered, pulling off her tee. She waited for the Ali in her head to answer, but surprisingly, the voice was silent.

  The waves tumbled, kicking up white foam. Emily understood the power of the ocean; she knew that it might take her down fast, even faster than it had in fifth grade. In these conditions, it would pull her under, spin her like a pebble. She pictured her head hitting rock, or the nearby jetty, or simply sinking down, down, down, until she felt nothing.

  I’m not afraid, she thought again, stepping out of her shorts. And with that, she walked down the beach and into the sea.

  6

  RESCUE EFFORTS

  Crack.

  Spencer sat up in bed. At first, she had no idea where she was . . . and then she saw Aria next to her and felt the scratchy motel comforter. The digital clock on the side table said it was 5:30. The room was still dark
, though the wind outside was howling fiercely.

  She stumbled for the bathroom, not bothering to turn on the light. After she flushed, she stood by her bed again, sensing something was wrong. It didn’t take her long to realize what it was.

  Emily wasn’t there.

  Spencer rushed to Emily’s side of the bed and patted it, but the lump of pillows and blankets wasn’t concealing a girl. She slid open the closet door—apparently, after Jordan died, Emily had taken to sleeping in her closet—but Emily wasn’t there, either. Spencer spun around the room, breathing heavily. Something was off. Where could Emily have gone this early in the morning?

  And then she saw it.

  A stark white piece of paper, folded, on the desk. Spencer, Aria, and Hanna, it read in Emily’s handwriting. Spencer snatched it up, ran to the bathroom, and turned on the light. She unfolded the paper with shaking hands. There, in messy scrawl, were four terrible sentences.

  I just can’t do this anymore. You guys are much stronger than me. Please don’t come after me. I’m sorry.

  The note fluttered from her hands. Spence rushed back into the room and grabbed her flip-flops, shoved them on her feet. “Oh my God, oh my God.”

  Aria shifted sleepily. “Are you okay, Spence?”

  Spencer didn’t answer. Staying here, explaining—it would take too long. “I’ll be back,” she blurted, then darted out the door and dashed down the motel stairs.

  It was just getting light outside. The first place Spencer checked was Hanna’s car, but it was still in the parking space; Emily wasn’t inside. She ran to the pool; the surface was windswept, but no one was swimming. She gazed up the sidewalk, then in the other direction. The streets were empty. Clearly the storm was rolling in early; most people had probably left. No one would be on the beach on a day like today.

  And then it hit her.

  Spencer raced around the side of the motel toward the beach path. She scrambled up the steps and down them again, tripping over the dunes. When she saw Emily’s clothes in a jumbled heap near the stairs, she let out a choked, muffled cry. She couldn’t. She wouldn’t.

  “Spence?”

  Spencer whipped around. Hanna and Aria were behind her, still in their pajamas. Both were pale. “What’s going on?” Aria croaked fearfully, staring at Spencer like she’d gone crazy. “Why are you down here? Where’s Emily?”

  “She’s . . . ,” Spencer said, but then she noticed the look on Hanna’s face. Hanna was looking past them at the water. She extended a shaky finger, and Spencer whirled around to follow her gaze. There, beyond the breakers, very visible, was a girl’s sleek, dark head.

  “No!” Spencer screamed, tearing down the beach toward the water. Emily floundered in the waves, her arms extended. A wave pounded over her, and she vanished.

  Spencer turned to her friends, who’d run down, too. “She’s going to die out there!”

  “We should call 911,” Hanna said, pulling out her phone.

  “There’s no time!” Spencer whipped off her shorts. “I’m going after her.”

  Aria caught her arm. “You’ll die, too!”

  But Spencer had already kicked off her flip-flops and was sprinting toward the foamy water. There was no way she could let the ocean swallow Emily up. This was her fault: She’d seen how out of it Emily was. She knew how hard this Ali stuff had hit her, and she’d sensed the turbulent storms that were brewing in Emily’s head. Emily had attempted suicide once before—of course she was going to try again. Spencer should have stayed up all night to watch over her. She should have known Emily was going to do something like this. They all should have.

  The water was cold, but she pressed forward into the depths, barely feeling the temperature on her feet and calves. The first wave knocked her sideways, almost to the sand. Spencer glanced over her shoulder at Hanna and Aria on the shore. Hanna was yelling something into her phone. Aria had her hands cupped around her mouth, probably calling for Spencer to come back in. Spencer turned back around, catching sight of Emily’s head in the distance. “Em!” she screamed, wading toward her. She thought Emily heard her, because she turned and seemed to stare in Spencer’s direction. But then a wave crashed over her head, and she vanished.

  “Em!” Spencer screamed again, diving under the next wave. The current knocked her sideways, and she did one full spin before spluttering to the surface. She peered at the horizon again. There was Emily’s head, bobbing above the breakers for a split second. “Emily!” Spencer roared, paddling out. Another wave dragged her under. The force of it shoved Spencer to the very bottom, tumbling her without popping her up. Suddenly, she had no air left in her lungs. She clawed and groped, but the current was too strong. Oh my God, she thought. I really could die.

  She finally made it to the surface. Breathing hard, she peered into the distance. Was that Emily way out there? Spots formed in Spencer’s eyes. She was already exhausted. She couldn’t swim that far. The others were right: This was a terrible idea. She had to go back in.

  But when Spencer turned for the shore, her friends seemed so far away. A rip current had pulled her far out to sea. Spencer’s mind scattered. You were supposed to do something to get out of a riptide—but what? She started to paddle for the shore, but the current shoved her back. She tried again—no luck. Her muscles burned. Her lungs ached. The waves pounded over her head, and her eyes stung from the salt.

  Hanna and Aria looked more and more frantic on the shore. More people had gathered, too, their hands clapped over their mouths. Spencer paddled hard, knowing that if she kept trying, she would get in. But when the next wave crashed over her head, her body sank like a stone. Her arm twisted awkwardly behind her back, slamming into the ocean bottom. She blew out through her nose and tried to fight for shore, but her arms wouldn’t work anymore. The current tossed her back and forth.

  She let go, opening her eyes under the water. At first, all she saw was blackness, but then a figure emerged. It was a girl with milky-white skin and buttery-blond hair. Light emanated from behind her, creating an eerie halo. She swam up to Spencer deftly until she was so close their faces were almost touching.

  It was only then that Spencer realized it was Ali. She was here, somehow. Maybe she’d brought this storm.

  “Go away!” Spencer screamed out, extending her hands toward the girl. But just like that, Ali dissolved into a thousand water molecules, into nothingness. And seconds later, all Spencer saw was nothingness, too.

  “Spencer. Spencer.”

  Spencer swam up to consciousness. A circle of white nearly blinded her, and she covered her eyes. Then a silhouette appeared. All at once, she remembered the mermaid in the water—Ali.

  “Leave me alone!” Spencer screamed, thrashing her arms. But the person standing over her wasn’t Ali, but her father. He looked sick with worry.

  And then she remembered what really happened: the storm, Emily’s note, chasing Emily into the waves.

  Spencer stared down at herself as everything rushed back. She was no longer struggling in the ocean. In fact, she was wearing a hospital gown and lying in bed with a bright light over her head. A monitor beeped steadily a few feet away.

  She shakily ran her hand over her hair. It was completely dry, crusty with salt. She tried to use the other hand, but couldn’t move it. She heard a clanking sound and looked over. She was handcuffed to the bed. “W-what’s going on?”

  “You’re at a hospital in Philadelphia,” Mr. Hastings said. “You were pulled out of the ocean a few hours ago.”

  Someone else appeared over her. It was a woman in a police uniform. “Miss Hastings?” she said sternly. “I’m Lieutenant Agossi with the Philadelphia bureau. You were not supposed to leave the state, Miss Hastings. What were you doing in New Jersey? Did you have a liaison who was helping you to escape?”

  Spencer’s mind felt clouded. “W-where are my friends?” she whispered. “Where’s Emily? Is she okay?”

  “Miss Marin and Miss Montgomery were escorted home to await the s
tart of the trial,” the officer said. “Now, are you going to answer my question?”

  She glanced at her father, who was peering at her curiously. Surely he had questions about what Spencer was doing in New Jersey, too, especially after he’d gotten them clearance to visit Nick in prison. She’d told him they wanted to visit Nick to get closure, but her father was way too smart to buy that.

  Then she realized what the officer had left out. “What about Emily?” she whispered, her gaze flicking from the officer to her father. “Did they rescue her? Is she here, too?”

  A strange look came over Mr. Hastings’s face. He was about to say something, but then his phone rang. He glanced at the screen. “It’s your mom,” he told Spencer. “I’ll be right back.” He disappeared through the door.

  Spencer looked at the officer. “Is Emily okay?” she asked again.

  The officer glanced at the walkie-talkie on her belt. “It was wrong of you to go to New Jersey, Miss Hastings,” she said robotically. “For the duration of the trial, you’ll have to wear a tracking bracelet. You’ll have to forfeit all your identification. You will not be permitted to drive.”

  Spencer’s heart pounded, and a horrible feeling seized her body. This wasn’t right. Why wasn’t anyone answering her? She sat up in bed as best as the handcuffs allowed. “What. Happened. To. Emily?”

  The officer pointedly cut her gaze away. Feeling sick, Spencer grabbed her arm. “Please,” she growled. “If you know something, you have to tell me.”

  The officer yanked her arm from Spencer’s grasp. “Miss Hastings,” she said sharply. “Do not touch me. You don’t want to be sedated, do you?”

  Spencer felt wild. “Why won’t you tell me what happened to Emily?” she shrieked.

  Suddenly, the door swung open. “Is she awake?” a male voice asked.

  The cop turned, looking relieved. “Yes. And she’s very agitated.”

  “Would you mind stepping out? I’ll speak with her.”

  Spencer frowned. There was something oddly familiar about the doctor’s voice. But certainly it was just her mind playing tricks—her brain was still messed up from the near drowning, right? She buzzed with anger—why the hell wouldn’t anyone tell her about Emily?

 
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