“Finland! I’ve been looking everywhere for you!”
It was an hour later, and Aria was just stepping out of the photo booth. Noel Kahn stood in front of her, naked except for his Calvin Klein boxers, which were wet and clingy. He was holding a yellow plastic cup of beer and her just-developed strip of pictures. Noel shook his hair around a little, and water from his hair sprayed onto her APC miniskirt.
“Why are you all wet?” Aria asked.
“We were playing water polo.”
Aria glanced at the pond. The boys were batting one another in the heads with pink fun-noodles. On the banks, girls in nearly identical Alberta Ferrari minidresses huddled together, gossiping. Over by the hedges, not that far from them, she spied her brother, Mike. He was with a petite girl in a plaid micromini and platform heels.
Noel followed her gaze. “That’s one of those Quaker school girls,” he murmured. “Those chicks are nuts.”
Mike glanced up and saw Aria and Noel together. He gave Aria an approving nod.
Noel tapped Aria’s photo strip with his thumb. “These are gorgeous.”
Aria looked at them. Bored out of her skull, she’d been taking pictures of herself in the booth for twenty minutes. This round, she’d made sultry, sex-kitten expressions.
“Noel!” James Freed called from across the lawn. “Keg’s tapped!”
“Shit,” Noel said. He gave Aria a wet kiss on her cheek. “This beer’s for you. Don’t leave.”
“Uh-huh,” Aria said drolly, watching him scamper away, his boxers slowly sliding down to reveal his pale, defined-from-running butt.
“He really likes you, you know.”
Aria turned. Mona Vanderwaal sat on the ground a few feet away. Her blond hair was in coils around her face and her gold-rimmed bug-eye sunglasses had slid down her nose. Noel’s older brother, Eric, had his head in her lap.
Mona blinked slowly. “Noel’s awesome. He’d make such a good friendboy.”
Eric burst out laughing. “What?” Mona bent down to him. “What’s so funny?”
“She’s so stoned,” Eric said to Aria.
As Aria scoured her brain for something to say, her Treo beeped. She wrenched it out of her purse and looked at the number. Ezra.
“Um, hello?” she answered quietly.
“Hey. Um, Aria?”
“Oh. Hey! What’s up?” She tried to sound as controlled and cool as possible.
“I’m at home, having a Scotch, thinking about you.”
Aria paused, closed her eyes, and a glow passed through her. “Really?”
“Yep. You at that big party?”
She laughed. “A little.”
“Wanna come by?”
“Okay.” Ezra started to give her directions, but Aria already knew where it was. She’d looked up his address on MapQuest and Google Earth, but she couldn’t exactly tell
“Cool,” she said. “See you soon.”
Aria shoved the phone back into her purse as calmly as she could, and then banged the rubbery soles of her boots together.
“Hey, I know where I know you from.”
Aria looked over. Noel’s brother, Eric, was squinting at her while Mona kissed his neck. “You’re the friend of that chick who disappeared, right?”
Aria looked at him and pushed her hair out of her eyes. “I don’t know who you’re talking about,” she said, and walked away.
A lot of Rosewood was gated estates and renovated fifty-acre horse farms, but near the college there was a series of rambling, cobblestone streets lined with falling-to-pieces Victorian houses. The houses in Old Hollis were painted crazy colors like purple, pink, and teal and were usually split into apartments and leased to students. Aria’s family had lived in an Old Hollis house until Aria was five, which was when her dad got his first teaching job at the college.
As Aria drove slowly down Ezra’s street, she noticed one house with Greek letters mounted onto its siding. Toilet paper wound through its trees. Another house had a half-finished painting on an easel in the front yard.
She pulled up to Ezra’s house. After parking, she climbed up the stone front steps and rang the bell. The door flung open, and there he was.
“Wow,” he said. “Hey.” His mouth spread into a wiggly smile.
“Hi,” Aria answered, smiling back at him in the same way.
Ezra laughed. “I…um, you’re here. Wow.”
“You already said wow,” Aria teased.
They entered into a hallway. Ahead of her, a creaky staircase with a different swatch of carpet on each step wound its way upstairs. On the right, a door was ajar. “This apartment’s mine.”
Aria walked in and noticed a claw-foot bathtub in the middle of Ezra’s living room. She pointed at it.
“It’s too heavy to move,” Ezra said sheepishly. “So I store books in there.”
“Cool.” Aria looked around, taking in Ezra’s gigantic bay window, dusty built-in bookshelves, and yellow crushed velvet sofa. It smelled faintly of macaroni and cheese but there was a crystal chandelier hanging from the ceiling, a funky mosaic tile around the mantel, and real logs in the fireplace. This was so much more Aria’s style than the Kahns’ million-dollar duck pond and twenty-seven-room estate.
“I totally want to live here,” Aria said.
“I can’t stop thinking about you,” Ezra said at the same time.
Aria looked over her shoulder. “Really?”
Ezra came up behind her and put his hands on her waist. Aria leaned slightly into him. They stood there for a moment, and then Aria turned. She stared at his clean-shaven face, at the bump at the edge of his nose, the green flecks in his eyes. She touched a mole on his earlobe and felt him shudder.
“I just…couldn’t ignore you in class,” he whispered. “It was torture. When you were giving that report…”
“You touched my hand today,” Aria teased. “You were looking at my notebook.”
“You kissed Noel,” Ezra said back. “I was so jealous.”
“Then it worked,” Aria whispered.
Ezra sighed and wrapped his arms around her. She met his mouth with hers and they kissed feverishly, their hands crawling up each other’s backs. They backed up for a second, breathlessly staring into each other’s eyes.
“No more talk about class,” Ezra said.
He guided her into a tiny back bedroom that had clothes all over the floor and an open bag of Lay’s on the nightstand. They sat down on his bed. The mattress was barely bigger than a twin, and even though the comforter was made of stiff denim and the mattress probably had potato chip crumbs in the cracks, Aria had never felt anything so perfect in her life.
Aria was still on the bed, staring up at a crack in the ceiling. The streetlight outside the window cast long shadows across everything, turning Aria’s bare skin a weird shade of pink. A stiff, chilly breeze from the open window blew out the sandalwood candle next to the bed. She heard Ezra turn on the faucet in the bathroom.
Wow. Wow wow
She felt alive. She and Ezra had nearly had sex…but then, at exactly the same time, they’d agreed that they should wait. So then they’d snuggled up to each other, naked, and started to talk. Ezra told her about the time he was six and sculpted a red squirrel out of clay, only to have his brother squash it. How he used to smoke a lot of pot after his parents got divorced. About the time he had to take the family’s fox terrier to the vet to have her put to sleep. Aria told him about how when she was little, she kept a can of split pea soup named Pee as a pet and cried when her mom tried to cook Pee for dinner. She told him about her furious knitting habit and promised to knit him a sweater.
It was easy to talk to Ezra—so easy she could imagine doing it forever. They could travel together to faraway places. Brazil would be amazing…. They could sleep in a tree and eat nothing but plantains and write plays for the rest of their lives….
Her Treo beeped.
Then it beeped again. And again and again.
“Jesus,” Aria groaned, leaning her naked body off the bed to pull it out of her bag. Seven new text messages. More kept beeping in.
Opening her inbox, Aria frowned. The messages all had the same title: STUDENT-TEACHER CONFERENCE! Her stomach turned as she opened the first one.
Aria read the next text message and the next and the next.
No. She had to get out of here.
“Ezra?” She frantically peered out Ezra’s windows. Was she watching, right this second? What did she want? Was it really
“What?” Ezra called from behind the bathroom door. “You’re leaving?”
Aria couldn’t quite believe it, either. She yanked her shirt over her head. “I’ll call you, okay? I just have to go do something.”
“Wait. What?” he asked, opening the bathroom door.
Aria grabbed her bag and tore out the door and across the yard. She needed to get away. Now.