17. And the Winner Is . . .

On Wednesday morning, just three days before prom, all of the Rosewood Day Upper School students gathered in the auditorium. Girls were texting and playing Plants vs. Zombies and a group of drama kids near the left exit were acting out a duel from Macbeth, which the school had put on the month before. A big banner over the stage read MAY DAY PROM KING AND QUEEN. Two ancient-looking, gold-plated, fake-jeweled crowns that had adorned the heads of kings and queens from years past waited on a table. Two royal scepters, which the king and queen carried to prom, sat on the stage, too. Voting had occurred that morning, and Rosewood Day had tallied the votes immediately. The assembly was to announce the winners.

Hanna sat with the other candidates up on the stage, her heart going a zillion miles an hour. She glanced around the filling auditorium. Where the hell was Mike? He wouldn’t miss this assembly, would he? She’d seen him before first period this morning, so she knew he wasn’t sick.

Then she peeked at Chassey Bledsoe two stools down from her. Chassey kept peering at the crowd, giving everyone hopeful, gracious smiles. Then Chassey turned to Hanna, and her eyes lit up. “Are you excited?” she asked, her voice trembling slightly.

Hanna nodded in response. She was too hyped up and freaked out to speak. All the days of noncampaigning weighed heavily on her. What if Chassey won? Would she ever live it down?

Noel, who sat next to Hanna, stretched his arms behind his head and yawned loudly. Hanna turned to him. “You don’t seem very nervous.”

Noel shrugged. “This isn’t as important for guys.” Then a serious look settled over his features. “Hey, do you know what’s going on with Aria?”

Hanna blinked. “What do you mean?”

“She’s acting . . . strange.” He tugged on the sleeve of his Rosewood Day blazer. “I thought she’d be into the prom decor chairman thing, but it’s almost like she’s pissed that I got her the job.”

Hanna sat back. “You got her that job?” Aria hadn’t told them that.

Noel nodded. “Has she said anything about why she doesn’t want it?”

Hanna studied her nails, avoiding his gaze. “Maybe she just feels overwhelmed.”

“That’s what she said, but I think there’s another reason.” Noel stared into the crowd. “She’s acting just like she did when we got back from Iceland.”

Every muscle in Hanna’s body went still at Noel’s words. What was he getting at? Spencer and Emily had shared their theory that Ali’s helper was a guy, and she’d agreed. Well, Noel was a guy. A guy who already knew too much because of his association with Aria. What was he capable of?

With every passing day, more weird memories about Noel had tugged at her. In sixth grade, after Scott Chin had inferred that Noel and Ali were getting hot and heavy, Hanna had gotten weirdly obsessed with spying on them. During the second week of school, when she was supposed to be in music class, she’d looked out the window and noticed two heads running toward the playground. One of them was Ali, and one of them was Noel.

She’d grabbed the bathroom pass and snuck outside. What would they do when they kissed? Would they close their eyes, or keep them open? Where would their hands go? When—if—Hanna ever kissed anyone, she wanted to be ready.

But when she’d climbed the hill to the playground, they were sitting side by side on the swings. Ali’s head was down, and Noel had his hand on her back. After a moment, Hanna realized she was crying. It was even more shocking than seeing them kiss—she’d assumed that Ali had never cried a day in her life.

“I can’t believe it’s happening,” Hanna had heard Ali say.

“It will be okay,” Noel had answered. “I promise.”

Hanna had had no idea what they were talking about at the time. But what if it had been something to do with her twin sister? Courtney, Their Ali, was still at the Radley then, but the switch had happened only days later. Maybe Ali had found out that Courtney was coming back. Maybe she’d been worried. And maybe she’d confided in Noel about everything.

And maybe, just maybe, Noel had promised to help her—in any way possible.

Everyone in the auditorium began to applaud as Principal Appleton stepped onto the stage. Hanna blinked hard and snapped out of the memory. The girls of the prom committee followed him. Aria pulled up the rear, looking fidgety, awkward, and out of place next to the smooth-haired, lip-glossed, Tory Burch bag–toting clones to her left. Hanna tried to catch her eye, but Aria wasn’t looking in her direction.

Appleton took the microphone. “It’s time to announce the May King and Queen.”

Hanna’s heart started to hammer. She glanced around for Mike again but still couldn’t find his head of dark hair.

Appleton pulled a shiny white envelope from the inside breast pocket of his blazer and sliced it open with his nail. He took great care in unfolding it and then had to spend a few seconds adjusting his glasses. Get on with it! Hanna wanted to scream.

“First, prom king.” Appleton adjusted the microphone, and a screech sounded through the speakers. “The winner is . . . Noel Kahn!”

Everyone cheered. Noel rose and strode toward the podium, giving everyone his easy, I’m-cool-and-I-know-it smile. Hanna glanced at Aria. She was clapping, but there was something off about her expression. Hanna thought again about how Aria hadn’t told them that Noel had gotten her the decor chairwoman job. Was that all she hadn’t told them?

After the crown was placed upon Noel’s head and the applause died down, Appleton faced the students once more. “And now for the name you’ve all been waiting for: prom queen.” He squinted in the bright lights. “The winner is . . .”

The hot lights beat on Hanna’s forehead. A bead of sweat trickled down her back. She peered out at the crowd. Everyone’s eyes were on the stage. A zillion thoughts zinged through her head at once, and none of them had anything to do with A: Did she look flushed and nervous, or poised and amazing? What if she won? What if she didn’t?

“Hanna Marin!”

Hanna placed a hand over her mouth to control an excited squeal. The audience applauded thunderously. As she rose to shake Appleton’s hand, her legs trembled. Suddenly, a hand grabbed her arm. “Congratulations,” a voice said. “You make the perfect queen.”

Chassey’s eyes were watering, but there was a wide smile on her face, like she was actually glad for Hanna.

“Th-thanks,” Hanna stammered, taken off guard. Most runners-up trash-talked the winner. It was practically mandatory.

She turned and headed to the podium. With a snap, hundreds of blue-and-white balloons fell from the net on the ceiling and bounced onto her head. She batted them away, laughing. The crowd roared. The prom committee girls beamed. Aria strode forward and gave Hanna a hug.

As Hanna turned around and accepted the crown, the scepter, and even a little faux-fur, royal-blue shrug for her shoulders, all her troubles drifted off. For one shining, brilliant second, she was prom queen and nothing else—not a secret-keeper, not a victim, not a framed killer. A couldn’t touch her. Her life was simple, and charmed, and absolutely perfect.

The assembly adjourned, and Hanna walked down the aisles to hundreds of congratulations. When someone grabbed her hand at the back of the auditorium, she assumed it was another well-wisher. A woman in a dark blue suit frowned down at her, her eyes flinty and sharp. A scream froze in Hanna’s throat. Agent Fuji.

“Congratulations, Hanna,” Agent Fuji said smoothly. “I don’t mean to sully the moment, but I have a few more questions for you, and you’re a hard girl to track down. Would you mind if I stopped by your house tomorrow afternoon, maybe about four thirty?”

Hanna’s bottom lip trembled. Why did Fuji want to speak with her again? “I-I probably have prom queen stuff to do after school tomorrow.”

“I’m sure they can let it slide. It will take only a few minutes, I promise.” A weird smile swam across Fuji’s face. “Besides, you want to get all of this out of the way before prom, don’t you?” She shifted her briefcase strap higher on her shoulder and gave Hanna a nod. “See you then!”

And then she was gone. Hanna watched her go, her heart thudding. But suddenly, something occurred to her: Agent Fuji was going to meet Hanna at her house . . . but she hadn’t said which house. All Hanna had to do was hide out at the mall for a few hours. Whichever house Fuji called from to ask where she was, Hanna would just say she was at her other parent’s for the day.

It was brilliant. Hanna’s mood buoyed again, and she practically skipped down the hall. Until she realized: Newly crowned prom queens did not skip, they glided. Which was exactly what she did.

Later that afternoon, Hanna was still gliding. This time, though, it was down the burn clinic hallway with a bottle of Mr. Clean swinging from her hand.

“I’m gonna be prom queen,” she chanted melodically, pausing in the middle of the hall to do a pirouette. She thought of perks other prom queens had enjoyed. Last year’s queen, Angelica Anderson, had gotten her picture in the style section of the Philadelphia Sentinel. The paper even interviewed Angelica about her prom dress and pre–prom day, like she was an It Girl on Oscar night. Would Hanna get that opportunity, too?

She peeked into Graham’s room. Today he was sleeping so soundly he almost looked dead. But even that didn’t sully her mood.

Someone sure is happy to be on bedpan duty.”

Hanna looked up. Kyla lay on her cot in the same spot in the hall where she’d been the other day. There were fresh bandages on her face, and she’d taken off her socks to reveal coral-painted toenails. The last summer before Mona became A, she’d been obsessed with the exact same shade.

“Hey!” Hanna said brightly, surprised and pleased by how excited she was to see her. “I just got the best news at school.” She plopped down on a metal chair next to Kyla’s bed. “I was voted prom queen!”

“Are you serious?” Kyla squeaked. She groped for Hanna’s hand. This time, Hanna let her hold it. “That is so incredible!”

“I know,” Hanna gushed.

“And I bet you have a super-hot date, too, huh?” Kyla asked, propping herself up a little on the bed. “You are so lucky.”

Hanna blushed. “I’m going with my boyfriend. And, yeah. He’s pretty hot.”

Kyla squealed. “Spill it! What does he look like? How long have you been going out? I want to know everything.”

Hanna felt another rush of pleasure at Kyla’s interest. “I’m actually pissed at him right now,” she admitted. “He missed the assembly where they announced that I won. He’s going to have to give me back rubs for hours to make up for it.”

Kyla clucked her tongue. “You deserve better than that.”

“I know.” Hanna rolled her eyes. “But usually he’s amazing, and . . .”

Someone tapped her on the arm, and she stopped. “Miss Marin?” It was Kelly. “There’s a call for you at the front desk.”

Hanna frowned. The only people who knew she was here were her parents. She glanced at Kyla. “I’ll be back in a sec.”

“I’ll be here,” Kyla trilled.

A receiver was sitting on the front desk when Hanna arrived. “Hello?” Hanna said worriedly into the phone, wondering why her parents were trying to track her down.

“So you are there,” Mike’s voice boomed over the line.

Hanna’s blood went cold. “O-oh!” she chirped after a moment. “Um, hi, Mike! What’s up?”

“What’s up is that you’ve been lying to me. You haven’t been doing stuff for your mom or going to hair appointments. You’ve been at the burn clinic.” His tone was clipped and accusatory.

Hanna wound the cord around her finger. The sharp smell of the bleach they used to clean the floors stung her nose. How did Mike find out she was at the burn clinic? Had A contacted him? But that made no sense—A didn’t know about this, either. Right? She hadn’t received a single note.

“It’s to be with Sean, isn’t it?” Mike said when she didn’t answer. “I don’t get it. What do you see in him? He wasn’t even nice to you.”

Hanna slumped into the leather chair next to the front desk. “Wait, you think I’m with Sean?” she whispered. “Why would you think that?”

Mike scoffed. “Why have you guys been talking a lot? Hugging?

Hanna blinked hard, remembering the tender moment she and Sean shared about Ali. “Okay, we hugged once,” she admitted. “But it was totally platonic. Who told you that happened?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Mike said stiffly. “It just matters that you’re lying to me.”

“I have a good explanation for why I’m here!” Hanna cried.

“Great. I’d like to hear it,” Mike demanded.

Hanna’s gaze drifted toward the circular drive. At that very moment, the nurse who’d changed Graham’s IV bag the other day swept past the lobby, her lips pursed tightly. “I can’t.”

“Why not? Are you having top-secret treatment for a burn?”

“No . . .”

“Are you having plastic surgery?” Mike sounded incredulous.

“Mike, no. It’s just . . .”

“It’s Sean,” Mike concluded. “That’s the only reason that makes sense.”

Hanna’s head was starting to hurt. “It’s not Sean! It’s just . . .”

“You know what, Hanna?” Mike sounded weary. “I don’t really want to have this conversation. Until you actually give me a reason, I’m not taking you to prom.”

“Jesus, Mike!” Hanna shouted into the phone, so loudly that a nurse at the station gave her a sharp, there-are-no-personal-calls-allowed-in-here look. “Wait! Don’t be like that!”

Then he hung up. Hanna wheeled around, tempted to kick the side of the desk, then noticed a piece of paper stuck to her shoe. Frowning, she kneeled down and picked it up. A familiar smiling face stared back at her. Ali. Hanna could almost hear her giggle echoing through the air.

Hanna faced the receptionist. “Who was standing here before me?”

The woman blinked at her. “No one,” she said after a beat.

Hanna’s heart thudded hard as she looked at the paper. It was the picture of Real Ali that ran in the Philadelphia Sentinel when she’d returned to Rosewood last year. Someone had drawn a crown on her head with a pink Sharpie. And underneath her chin was:

You don’t deserve the crown, bitch, and you know it. Here’s the real queen.

—A

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