30. Digging His Own Grave

Even though the Rittenhouse cemetery was off a busy section of the Ben Franklin Parkway, there was something about the way the buildings hemmed it in that made it seem like Aria and Noel were in the middle of the countryside. Twisted vines surrounded the small space. Centuries-old gravestones jutted out of the ground like crooked teeth. Mist swirled around a large stone statue of an angel. An old, rusted fence surrounded the whole place. A loud squeak sounded from the hinges when Noel and Aria opened and shut the wrought-iron gate.

Aria gazed at the names on the gravestones, then ran her fingers along a large stone cross. Her bracelet glittered in the dim light. She ran her fingers along the links again, and they tinkled together.

Noel came up behind her and snaked his arms through the crooks in her elbows, lacing them around her front. “So what did you want to talk to me about?”

“Well . . .” Aria touched the top of an angel’s wing. A bit of her confidence had flagged since sitting at the bar. Was this place really private? It certainly wasn’t a panic room. What if A was listening?

But then she turned around and tried to focus. This would bring them together. And they could fight A as one. “You know I love you, right?” she began.

Noel’s eyes softened. “I hope you do. You’ve been acting so strangely.”

“Of course I do,” Aria breathed. “I’ve been acting strangely because I’ve been keeping things from you, though.” She spoke into her chest, too afraid to look Noel in the eye. “Big things. For your own good. I didn’t want anything bad to happen to you.”

Noel nudged Aria’s chin back up so she would look at him. “Haven’t we gone over this? You can tell me anything. No matter how bad it is. No matter if it puts me in danger.” Then he stepped away. “Are you in danger?”

“I . . .” At that very moment, her new cell phone beeped. Aria peeked into her clutch at the message that had popped up on the screen. Get away from Noel! Spencer wrote in all caps. He was Ali’s secret boyfriend! We have definite proof!

Another text popped up from Emily: Noel visited Ali in the hospital. Iris knows it for a fact.

And then from Hanna: Graham just told me that Noel was the one who was watching you on the boat!

Aria clapped her hand over her mouth. No. It couldn’t be. There had to be an explanation.

“Aria?”

When she looked up, Noel was staring at her. His gaze drifted down to her open clutch, too. Aria snapped it shut, the breath leaving her lungs. Had he seen the texts?

She backed away, running into a grave marker. Noel stood where he was, his hands crossed over his chest, a weird smirk on his face. Or was it just the light? She closed her eyes tightly, trying to recenter herself. As much as she tried to purge the texts from her mind, to twist this into something innocent—a misunderstanding—a siren rang in her head again and again.

She swallowed hard and looked up at Noel, who still hadn’t moved. “Do you remember that s?ance we did together?” she blurted out.

Noel smiled. “What do you think? That’s where I got you to like me.”

Aria winced. She didn’t like that wording. “Do you remember when I got locked in that bathroom? Someone turned out the lights on me, maybe trying to freak me out?”

Noel nodded. “I guess.”

“When the light came back on, I saw Ali’s Missing flyer. For a while, I thought she had done it to me. But later, I figured it was someone else.”

Noel searched her face. “Yeah, I don’t know,” he said finally. “Maybe that place was haunted.” He leaned over and smelled a bouquet of flowers someone had left on a grave.

“Why did you come to that s?ance?” Aria demanded.

Noel righted himself and squinted at her. “I told you—because of my brother.”

“But why that s?ance. Did you know I’d signed up? Were you following me?”

Noel shrugged. “So what if I was?”

Aria stared at him. Because it matters, she wanted to say. That was how I fell for you. I need to know if it was for real or not.

All she saw, in her mind, were those texts from Noel’s phone. Anything you need. And, Thanks for helping me. What if Ali made Noel follow Aria? What if Ali had whispered, Go in there, Noel, and hit on her. Get on her good side. You have to do what I say. Then I’ll love you forever. Maybe he’d balked when she told him to shut her in the bathroom and turn off the lights . . . but he’d done it anyway.

Noel leaned against a tall headstone. “What does this have to do with what you had to tell me? Is this what you’ve been keeping from me?”

Aria shut her eyes. “Kind of.”

When Noel touched her arms, she tried not to flinch. “Whatever it is, just tell me. I love you, Aria. I can take it.”

I love you, Aria. Something about the way Noel said it right then ignited a memory in her mind. Aria remembered lying in that little bed in the Icelandic guesthouse the night everything happened. Feeling the throb of guilt for kissing Olaf and stealing that painting. Sensing Noel shift beside her, trying to get comfortable. There had been an ocean of space between them, emotionally as well as physically. She had felt, in that moment, that they might never reconnect.

But then Noel had rolled over and taken her into his arms as though everything was right between them. “I love you, A . . .” he’d murmured into Aria’s ear. Aria had thought he’d meant to say Aria, but he hadn’t. He’d said someone else’s name instead.

I love you, Ali.

Aria studied his face in the dim light. She suddenly felt like she was looking at a stranger. I love you, Ali. It was as clear in her mind as though it had only been a few moments ago. Maybe he had loved Ali. Her heart felt like it was tumbling down a long, dark grave. Noel had betrayed her, really betrayed her. She had trusted him, and, deep down, he hated her guts.

Slowly, she unclasped the bracelet and let it fall to the ground. Noel stared at her, his brow crinkling. “What did you do that for?”

“Do you love Alison DiLaurentis?” Aria whispered haltingly.

Noel froze. “What?

“You visited her in the hospital after she killed Courtney, didn’t you? The Preserve.”

Noel turned away sharply, placing his palm on the flat part of a headstone. “Why does it matter?”

Tears began to cascade down Aria’s cheeks. “What is that supposed to mean? Of course it matters! Did you realize she was the one who killed Courtney? How long did you visit her? How long have you loved her?”

Noel turned around to face her, his mouth an ugly triangle. “No one else was. I felt bad for her. She didn’t seem crazy at the time. And of course I didn’t know she’d killed her sister.”

Aria was so angry and scared she was actually trembling. She’d never heard anything so insane in her life. And suddenly, it dawned on her: That was what the Thanks for believing in me note on the back of the ticket stub meant. Noel believed all along that Real Ali wasn’t crazy. He was the only one who thought she’d been locked up unfairly. He’d been the only one on her side.

She raised a shaky finger at him. “You didn’t visit her because you felt bad for her. You visited her because you loved her. Just admit it.”

Noel blinked at her, his mouth hanging open. But he didn’t deny it.

“And you know, don’t you?” Aria whimpered. “You know she’s still alive. And you knew Tabitha Clark long before we went to Jamaica. That’s why you didn’t want me to hang around with Graham—you were afraid he’d say something to me, connect you to her. Or that you and Ali were secretly together.”

Noel made a strange noise at the back of his throat. “Yeah, I knew Tabitha Clark. But it was only in passing years ago. She seemed familiar to me in Jamaica and on the news, but I didn’t really know, and—”

“And you’re working with Ali,” Aria cut him off. “All this time you’ve been with me, it was only because she told you to be. She made you go to that s?ance. She had you scare me in the bathroom. She had you get close to me and then betray me so I’d go to the Poconos with her.”

“Whoa.” Noel stepped toward her, his arms outstretched.

She ducked away. “You’re the one we’ve been after all this time. You’re the one who tormented Spencer and Emily and Hanna and now even me with the stuff we did last summer. And now you’re framing us for killing Tabitha—even though that was something you did. You told Agent Fuji on us, too. For Tabitha? The painting? Maybe everything—because you’re A!”

“Aria!” Noel darted toward her again.

Aria lurched out of the way. Her gaze swung around the cemetery, but there was only one way out—the closed gate. She shot for it, but her heel twisted in the wet grass. Noel clamped a hand around her ankle and tumbled on top of her. He pressed all his weight on her. She struggled beneath him, kicking and clawing.

“Aria, just stay still!” Noel pleaded. “Just listen to me!”

Aria wrenched around to look him in the eye. A memory suddenly flooded her mind: a time at Noel’s house when he’d flopped on top of her, yelling, “Steam roll!” and they’d both laughed until there were tears in their eyes. But he’d loved Ali the whole time.

When he accompanied Aria to all those cooking classes, dutifully making sauces and chopping vegetables, he’d loved Ali, too. When they first had sex, which had been so tender and sweet and important that Aria could barely imagine it now. The whole time, Ali, Ali, Ali.

He’d helped almost kill them.

Noel’s body was heavy on top of her, and Aria gasped for a breath. “Where is that bitch?” she bellowed. “Tell me where she is so I can kill her!”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Noel said.

“You do, and you know it!” Aria shrieked, flailing her arms and legs. “Just admit you love her! Just admit you know where she is!”

Noel let up for just a moment, resting on his elbows. His head twisted away, shrouded in darkness. “I loved her.”

Aria scrambled out from under him and stared into his eyes. “And is she alive?”

Noel looked pained. “Aria . . .”

Is she alive?

A brisk wind made the gate bang. Cars honked on the streets. Far up in the sky, a jet’s headlight blinked. Noel turned away. “I don’t know,” he said quietly in a tone that indicated otherwise.

It was as good as an admission. Fury flooded Aria’s veins. She leapt to her feet and headed for the gate, stumbling over the haphazard gravestones, the hem of her dress filthy from the mud. Strong hands wrapped around her waist, and she fell again, then felt the crush of Noel’s body on top of her. Noel breathed hotly into her ear.

Aria screamed and tried to get out from under him, but Noel was too heavy. “Stop acting so crazy so I can explain everything,” he begged.

“I hate you,” Aria wheezed, Noel’s weight crushing her lungs. “I will never, ever listen to you again.”

Damn it, Aria,” Noel said, holding Aria steady beneath him. He sounded feral and dangerous. Aria swiped at him some more, but without oxygen, her limbs started to tingle. A desperate wail escaped from between her lips. She was going to die. The boy she thought loved her was going to be her murderer.

Whack.

Noel screamed in pain and rolled off Aria. Aria staggered to her feet and scurried behind a gravestone, unsure of what had just happened. As she gulped in breaths, several figures swam into view. Spencer stood next to Noel, the prom scepter raised over her head. Emily and Hanna loomed behind her, their eyes wide.

Emily spotted Aria and ran to her, hugging her tight. “Are you okay?”

Aria tried to nod, but her gaze was still on Noel. Spencer raised the scepter to hit him again, but he jumped to his feet and moved away. “Don’t you dare run!” she warned.

“What the hell?” Noel’s voice cracked. “You people are insane!”

He wove through the gravestones toward the entrance. Spencer tried to chase him, but her dress prevented her from moving too fast. She stopped a few paces past a row of gravestones and blinked in the darkness. Noel was gone.

Then Spencer ran to Aria. “Oh my God. Did he hurt you?”

She was staring in horror at Aria’s cheek. It was wet—Aria hadn’t even realized. When she pulled her hand away, she saw blood. Tears flooded down her face. “I’m sorry, guys,” she blurted. “There were things I knew about Noel, things I didn’t tell you. I should have. And now it’s too late.”

Hanna hugged Aria tight. “Don’t say that. It’s okay.”

“I just didn’t want it to be him!” Aria sobbed. “I wanted it to be anyone but him.”

“We know.” Spencer ran her hands through Aria’s hair. “We wanted it to be anyone but him, too.”

“But at least you’re safe now,” Emily whispered. “At least he didn’t hurt you for real.”

Aria sniffed and nodded, then looked into the dark distance where Noel had disappeared. She wasn’t sure if what Emily said was quite true. Noel had hurt her for real.

He had broken her heart into a thousand pieces.

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