“Someone finally bought the DiLaurentises’ old house,” Emily Fields’s mother said. It was Saturday afternoon, and Mrs. Fields sat at the kitchen table, bifocals perched on her nose, calmly doing her bills.

Emily felt the Vanilla Coke she was drinking fizz up her nose.

“I think another girl your age moved in,” Mrs. Fields continued. “I was going to drop off that basket today. Maybe you want to do it instead?” She pointed to the cellophaned monstrosity on the counter.

“God, Mom, no,” Emily replied. Since she’d retired from teaching elementary school last year, Emily’s mom had become the unofficial Rosewood, Pennsylvania, Welcome Wagon lady. She assembled a million random things—dried fruit, those flat rubber thingies you use to get jars open, ceramic chickens (Emily’s mom was chicken-obsessed), a guide to Rosewood inns, whatever—into a big wicker welcome basket. She was a prototypical suburban mom, minus the SUV. She thought they were ostentatious and gas-guzzling, so she drove an oh-so-practical Volvo wagon instead.

Mrs. Fields stood and ran her fingers through Emily’s chlorine-damaged hair. “Would it upset you too much to go there, sweetie? Maybe I should send Carolyn?”

Emily glanced at her sister Carolyn, who was a year older and lounging comfortably on the La-Z-Boy in the den watching Dr. Phil. Emily shook her head. “No, it’s fine. I’ll do it.”

Sure, Emily whined sometimes and occasionally rolled her eyes. But the truth was, if her mom asked, Emily would do whatever she was supposed to do. She was a nearly straight-A, four-time state champion butterflyer and hyper-obedient daughter. Following rules and requests came easily to her.

Plus, deep down she kind of wanted a reason to see Alison’s house again. While it seemed the rest of Rosewood had started to move on from Ali’s disappearance three years, two months, and twelve days ago, Emily hadn’t. Even now, she couldn’t glance at her seventh-grade yearbook without wanting to curl up in a ball. Sometimes on rainy days, Emily still reread Ali’s old notes, which she stored in a shell-top Adidas shoe box under her bed. She even kept a pair of Citizens corduroys Ali had let her borrow on a wooden hanger in her closet, even though they were now way too small on her. She’d spent the last few lonely years in Rosewood longing for another friend like Ali, but that probably wasn’t going to happen. She hadn’t been a perfect friend, but for all her flaws, Ali was pretty tough to replace.

Emily straightened up and grabbed the Volvo’s keys from the hook next to the phone. “I’ll be back in a little while,” she called as she closed the front door behind her.

The first thing she saw when she pulled up to Alison’s old Victorian home at the top of the leafy street was a huge pile of trash on the curb and a big sign marked, FREE! Squinting, she realized that some of it was Alison’s stuff—she recognized Ali’s old, overstuffed white corduroy bedroom chair. The DiLaurentises had moved away almost nine months ago. Apparently they’d left some things behind.

She parked behind a giant Bekins moving van and got out of the Volvo. “Whoa,” she whispered, trying to keep her bottom lip from trembling. Under the chair, there were several piles of grimy books. Emily reached down and looked at the spines. The Red Badge of Courage. The Prince and the Pauper. She remembered reading them in Mr. Pierce’s seventh-grade English class, talking about symbolism, metaphors, and denouement. There were more books underneath, including some that just looked like old notebooks. Boxes sat next to the books; they were marked ALISON’S CLOTHES and ALISON’S OLD PAPERS. Peeking out of a crate was a blue and red ribbon. Emily pulled at it a little. It was a sixth-grade swimming medal she’d left at Alison’s house one day when they’d made up a game called Olympian Sex Goddesses.

“You want that?”

Emily shot up. She faced a tall, skinny girl with tawny-colored skin and wild, black-brown curly hair. The girl wore a yellow tank top whose strap had slid off her shoulder to reveal an orange and green bra strap. Emily wasn’t certain, but she thought she had the same bra at home. It was from Victoria’s Secret and had little oranges, peaches, and limes all over the, er, boob parts.

The swimming medal slid out of her hands and clattered to the ground. “Um, no,” she said, scrambling to pick it up.

“You can take any of it. See the sign?”

“No, really, it’s okay.”

The girl stuck out her hand. “Maya St. Germain. Just moved here.”

“I…” Emily’s words clogged up in her throat. “I’m Emily,” she finally managed, taking Maya’s hand and shaking it. It felt really formal to shake a girl’s hand—Emily wasn’t sure she’d ever done that before. She felt a little fuzzy. Maybe she hadn’t eaten enough Honey Nut Cheerios for breakfast?

Maya gestured to the stuff on the ground. “Can you believe all this crap was in my new room? I had to move it all out myself. It sucked.”

“Yeah, this all belonged to Alison,” Emily practically whispered.

Maya stooped down to inspect some of the paperbacks. She shoved her tank top strap back onto her shoulder. “Is she a friend of yours?”

Emily paused. Is? Maybe Maya hadn’t heard about Ali’s disappearance? “Um, she was. A long time ago. Along with a bunch of other girls who live around here,” Emily explained, leaving out the part about the kidnapping or murder or whatever might have happened that she couldn’t bear to imagine. “In seventh grade. I’m going into eleventh now at Rosewood Day.” School started after this weekend. So did fall swim practice, which meant three hours of lap swimming daily. Emily didn’t even want to think about it.

“I’m going to Rosewood too!” Maya grinned. She sank down on Alison’s old corduroy chair, and the springs squeaked. “All my parents talked about on the flight here was how lucky I am to have gotten into Rosewood and how different it will be from my school in California. Like, I bet you guys don’t have Mexican food, right? Or, like, really good Mexican food, like Cali-Mexican food. We used to have it in our cafeteria and mmm, it was so good. I’m going to have to get used to Taco Bell. Their gorditas make me want to vomit.”

“Oh.” Emily smiled. This girl sure talked a lot. “Yeah, the food kind of sucks.”

Maya sprang up from the chair. “This might be a weird question since I just met you, but would you mind helping me carry the rest of these boxes up to my room?” She motioned to a few Crate & Barrel boxes sitting at the base of the truck.

Emily’s eyes widened. Go into Alison’s old room? But it would be totally rude if she refused, wouldn’t it? “Um, sure,” she said shakily.

The foyer still smelled like Dove soap and potpourri—just as it had when the DiLaurentises lived here. Emily paused at the door and waited for Maya to give her instructions, even though she knew she could find Ali’s old room at the end of the upstairs hall blindfolded. Moving boxes were everywhere, and two spindly Italian greyhounds yapped from behind a gate in the kitchen.

“Ignore them,” Maya said, climbing the stairs to her room and shoving the door open with her terry-covered hip.

Wow, it looks the same, Emily thought as she entered the bedroom. But the thing was, it didn’t: Maya had put her queen-size bed in a different corner, she had a huge, flat-screen computer monitor on her desk, and she’d put up posters everywhere, covering Alison’s old flowered wallpaper. But something felt the same, as if Alison’s presence was still floating here. Emily felt woozy and leaned against the wall for support.

“Put it anywhere,” Maya said. Emily rallied herself to stand, set her box down at the foot of the bed, and looked around.

“I like your posters,” she said. They were mostly of bands: M.I.A., Black Eyed Peas, Gwen Stefani in a cheerleading uniform. “I love Gwen,” she added.

“Yeah,” Maya said. “My boyfriend’s totally obsessed with her. His name’s Justin. He’s from San Fran, where I’m from.”

“Oh. I’ve got a boyfriend too,” Emily said. “His name’s Ben.”

“Yeah?” Maya sat down on her bed. “What’s he like?”

Emily tried to conjure up Ben, her boyfriend of four months. She’d seen him two days ago—they’d watched the Doom DVD at her house. Emily’s mom was in the other room, of course, randomly popping in, asking if they needed anything. They’d been good friends for a while, on the same year-round swim teams. All their teammates told them they should go out, so they did. “He’s cool.”

“So why aren’t you friends with the girl who lived here anymore?” Maya asked.

Emily pushed her reddish-blond hair behind her ears. Wow. So Maya really didn’t know about Alison. If Emily started talking about Ali, though, she might start crying—which would be weird. She hardly knew this Maya girl. “I grew apart from all my old seventh-grade friends. Everyone changed a lot, I guess.”

That was an understatement. Of Emily’s other best friends, Spencer had become a more exaggerated version of her already hyper-perfect self; Aria’s family had suddenly moved to Iceland the fall after Ali went missing; and dorky-but-lovable Hanna had become totally undorky and unlovable and was now a total bitch. Hanna and her now best friend, Mona Vanderwaal, had completely transformed themselves the summer between eighth and ninth grade. Emily’s mom had recently seen Hanna going into Wawa, the local convenience store, and told Emily that Hanna looked “sluttier than that Paris Hilton girl.” Emily had never heard her mom use the word slutty.

“I know how growing apart is,” Maya said, bouncing up and down on her bed as she sat. “Like my boyfriend? He’s so scared I’m going to ditch him now that we’re on different coasts. He’s such a big baby.”

“My boyfriend and I are on the swim team, so we see each other all the time,” Emily replied, looking for a place to sit down too. Maybe too much of the time, she thought.

“You swim?” Maya asked. She looked Emily up and down, which made Emily feel a little weird. “I bet you’re really good. You totally have the shoulders.”

“Oh, I don’t know.” Emily blushed and leaned against Maya’s white wooden desk.

“You do!” Maya smiled. “But…if you’re a big jock, does that mean you’d kill me if I smoked a little weed?”

“What, right now?” Emily’s eyes widened. “What about your parents?”

“They’re at the grocery store. And my brother—he’s here somewhere, but he won’t care.” Maya reached under her mattress for an Altoids tin. She hefted up the window, which was right next to her bed, pulled out a joint, and lit it. The smoke curled into the yard and made a hazy cloud around a large oak tree.

Maya brought the joint back inside. “Want a hit?”

Emily had never tried pot in her entire life—she always thought her parents would somehow know, like by smelling her hair or forcing her to pee in a cup or something. But as Maya pulled the joint gracefully from her cherry-frosted lips, it looked sexy. Emily wanted to look sexy like that too.

“Um, okay.” Emily slid closer to Maya and took the joint from her. Their hands brushed and their eyes met. Maya’s were green and a little yellow, like a cat’s. Emily’s hand trembled. She felt nervous, but she put the joint to her mouth and took a tiny drag, like she was sipping Vanilla Coke through a straw.

But it didn’t taste like Vanilla Coke. It felt like she’d just inhaled a whole jar of rotten spices. She hacked an old man–ish cough.

“Whoa,” Maya said, taking back the joint. “First time?”

Emily couldn’t breathe and just shook her head, gasping. She wheezed some more, trying to get air into her chest. Finally she could feel air hitting her lungs again. As Maya turned her arm, Emily saw a long, white scar running lengthwise down her wrist. Whoa. It looked a little like an albino snake on her tan skin. God, she was probably high already.

Suddenly there was a loud clank. Emily jumped. Then she heard the clank again. “What is that?” she wheezed.

Maya took another drag and shook her head. “The workers. We’re here for one day and my parents have already started on the renovations.” She grinned. “You just totally freaked, like you thought the cops were coming. You been busted before?”

“No!” Emily burst out laughing; it was such a ridiculous thought.

Maya smiled and exhaled.

“I should go,” Emily rasped.

Maya’s face fell. “Why?”

Emily shuffled off the bed. “I told my mom I’d only stop over for a minute. But I’ll see you in school Tuesday.”

“Cool,” Maya said. “Maybe you could show me around?”

Emily smiled. “Sure.”

Maya grinned and waved good-bye with three fingers. “You know how to find your way out?”

“I think so.” Emily took one more look around Ali’s—er, Maya’s—room, and then stomped down the all-too-familiar stairs.

It wasn’t until Emily shook her head out in the open air, passed all of Alison’s old stuff on the curb, and climbed back into her parents’ car, that she saw the Welcome Wagon basket on the backseat. Screw it, she thought, wedging the basket between Alison’s old chair and her boxes of books. Who needs a guide to Rosewood’s inns, anyway? Maya already lives here.

And Emily was suddenly glad she did.


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