31. HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE

Byron Montgomery took a big sip of coffee and shakily lit his pipe. “They found her when they were excavating the concrete slab in the DiLaurentises’ old backyard to put in a tennis court.”

“She was under the concrete,” Ella jumped in. “They knew it was her from the ring she was wearing. But they’re doing DNA tests to make sure.”

It felt like a fist was pummeling Aria’s stomach. She remembered Ali’s white-gold initialed ring. Ali’s parents had gotten it for her at Tiffany’s when she was ten after she got her tonsils out. Ali liked to wear it on her pinkie.

“Why did they have to do DNA tests?” Mike asked. “Was she all decomposed?”

“Michelangelo!” Byron frowned. “That’s not a very sensitive thing to say in front of your sister.”

Mike shrugged and jammed a piece of sour green-apple Bubble Tape into his mouth. Aria sat opposite him, tears quietly running down her cheeks, absentmindedly unraveling the edge of a rattan place mat. It was 2 P.M., and they were sitting around the kitchen table.

“I can handle it.” Aria’s throat constricted. “Was she decomposed?”

Her parents looked at each other. “Well, yes,” her father said, scratching his chest through a little hole in his shirt. “Bodies break down pretty fast.”

“Sick,” Mike whispered.

Aria shut her eyes. Alison was dead. Her body was rotted. Someone had probably killed her.

“Sweetheart?” Ella asked quietly, cupping her hand over Aria’s. “Honey, are you all right?”

“I don’t know,” Aria murmured, trying not to start bawling all over again.

“Would you like a Xanax?” Byron asked.

Aria shook her head.

I’ll take a Xanax,” Mike said quickly.

Aria nervously picked at the side of her thumb. Her body felt hot and then cold. She didn’t know what to do or think. The only person who she thought might make her feel better was Ezra; she thought she could explain all of her feelings to him. At the very least, he would let her curl up on his denim futon and cry.

Scraping back her chair, she started for her room. Byron and Ella exchanged glances and followed her to the spiral staircase.

“Sweetie?” Ella asked. “What can we do?”

But Aria ignored them and pushed through her bedroom door. Her room was a disaster. Aria hadn’t cleaned since she’d moved back from Iceland, and she wasn’t the neatest girl in the world to start with. Her clothes were all over the floor in unorganized piles. On her bed were CDs, sequins she was using to make a beaded hat, poster paints, playing cards, Pigtunia, line drawings of Ezra’s profile, several skeins of yarn. The carpet had a big, red candle wax stain on it. She searched in the covers of her bed and on the surface of her desk for her Treo—she needed it to call Ezra. But it wasn’t there. She checked the green bag she’d taken to the party last night, but her phone wasn’t in that, either.

Then she remembered. After she received that text, she’d dropped the phone like it was poisonous. She must have left it behind.

She stormed down the stairs. Her parents were still on the landing.

“I’m taking the car,” she mumbled, grabbing the keys off the ring by the foyer table.

“Okay,” her father said.

“Take your time,” her mother added.

Someone had propped the front door to Ezra’s house open with a large metal sculpture of a terrier. Aria stepped around it and walked inside the hallway. She knocked on Ezra’s door. She had the same feeling she did when she had to pee really badly—it might be torture, but you knew that very soon, you were going to feel a whole hell of a lot better.

Ezra flung open the door. As soon as he saw her, he tried to shut it again.

“Wait,” Aria squeaked, her voice still filled with tears. Ezra retreated into his kitchen, his back to her. She followed him in.

Ezra whirled around to face her. He was unshaven and looked exhausted. “What are you doing here?”

Aria chewed on her lip. “I’m here to see you. I got some news….” Her Treo sat on his sideboard. She picked it up. “Thanks. You found it.”

Ezra glared at the Treo. “Okay, you got it. Can you leave now?”

“What’s going on?” She walked toward him. “I got this news. I had to see—”

“Yeah, I got some news too,” he interrupted. Ezra moved away from her. “Seriously, Aria. I can’t…I can’t even look at you.”

Tears sprang to her eyes. “What?” Aria stared at him, confused.

Ezra lowered his eyes. “I found what you said about me on your cell phone.”

Aria wrinkled her eyebrows. “My cell phone?”

Ezra raised his head. His eyes flashed with anger. “Do you think I’m stupid? Was this all just a game? A dare?”

“What are you…?”

Ezra sighed angrily. “Well, you know what? You got me. Okay? I’m the brunt of your big joke. You happy? Now get out.”

“I don’t understand,” Aria said loudly.

Ezra slapped his palm against the wall. The force of it made Aria jump. “Don’t play dumb! I’m not some boy, Aria!”

Aria’s whole body started to tremble. “I swear to God, I don’t know what you’re talking about. Can you explain, please? I’m kind of falling apart here!”

Ezra took his hand off the wall and started to pace around the tiny room. “Fine. After you left, I tried to sleep. There was this…this beeping. You know what it was?” He pointed to the Treo. “Your cell phone thing. The only way to shut it up was to open your text messages.”

Aria wiped her eyes.

Ezra crossed his arms over his chest. “Shall I quote them for you?”

Then Aria realized. The text messages. “Wait! No! You don’t understand!”

Ezra trembled. “Student-teacher conference? Extra credit? This sound familiar?”

“No, Ezra,” Aria stammered. “You don’t understand.” The world was spinning. Aria gripped the edge of Ezra’s kitchen table.

“I’m waiting,” Ezra said.

“This friend of mine was killed,” she began. “They just found her body.” Aria opened her mouth to say more, but couldn’t find the words. Ezra stood at the farthest point in the room from her, behind the bathtub.

“It’s all so silly,” Aria said. “Can you please come over here? Can you at least hug me?”

Ezra crossed his arms over his chest and looked down. He stood that way for what felt like a long time. “I really liked you,” he finally said, his voice thick.

Aria choked back a sob. “I really like you, too….” She walked over to him.

But Ezra stepped away. “No. You have to get out of here.”

“But…”

Ezra clapped his hand over her mouth. “Please,” he said a little desperately. “Please leave.”

Aria widened her eyes and her heart started to pound. Alarms went off in her head. This felt…wrong. On impulse, she bit down into Ezra’s hand.

“What the fuck?” he shrieked, pulling away.

Aria stood back, dazed. Blood dripped out of Ezra’s hand onto the floor.

“You’re insane!” Ezra cried.

Aria breathed heavily. She couldn’t speak even if she wanted to. So she turned and ran for the door. As her hand turned the doorknob, something screamed past her, bounced off the wall, and landed next to her foot. It was a copy of Being and Nothingness, by Jean-Paul Sartre. Aria turned back to Ezra, her mouth open in shock.

“Get out!” Ezra boomed.

Aria slammed the door behind her. She tore down across the lawn as fast as her legs would carry her.

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