twenty-three

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My high heels sank into the sloppy earth as we trudged up the path to Lowell's. I squeezed Justin's elbow to keep from stumbling backward. Near the top, he changed course, scrambling up a short but steep hill using exposed tree roots for leverage. I tried to follow, but the toe of my shoe caught on the bottom of my dress. He reached down and pulled me up.

Under the hazy light of the moon, I took stock of myself. The hem of my dress was in shreds, and my left heel was missing. The pearl ring Nonna had given me on my thirteenth birthday was a clump of mud on my finger. At least I fit the theme for the Prom with the Dead.

Justin was on all fours, scrounging around a fallen tree. He pulled out a flashlight. The beam hit the top of a tombstone. It glistened in the mist. But when the ray of light lowered, I gasped.

Mr. Reid was slumped on the ground, tied to the gravestone with rope. His legs twisted beneath him in an unnatural way. His head lolled to the side, and a thin stream of drool dripped from his chin onto his red-and-white Kennedy High logo tie. A purple bruise, shaped like the state of Texas, spread out from under a blindfold.

My hands started to shake as I stared at him. How could the principal be here? Why was he here? He should be at the prom, breathing down the necks of kids smoking in the bathroom. No matter what he'd done to Justin, the man didn't deserve this.

I shrieked in fear. "Is he dead?"

Justin kicked him in the shin. Mr. Reid moaned like a foghorn.

"Relax, Ariana. He's got enough drugs in his system to keep him in la-la land for another four hours."

Mr. Reid gurgled, and then his chest went still. I held my breath until he sucked in air again. I wondered what Justin had given him.

A branch snapped behind me. I turned to find Zoe leaning against a tombstone, eyes on me. I stared at her purple satin bodice, the neckline a weave of white ribbon. Her chiffon skirt swept up at the hem. Lavender pumps, dotted with dirt. And Richie, beside her, decked out in a baby-blue tuxedo. He huddled on the ground, rocking slightly. About ten feet back, Nora, dressed in black, blended into the night.

"I didn't know he was going to be here," Zoe said, looking at me. "I didn't know."

Nora didn't say anything. I could tell from the look on her face that she hadn't known, either. Richie just stared at his feet and kept rocking.

Justin wriggled his fingers into a familiar pair of cotton gloves, the same ones he'd used to break into the school. Then he thrust his hand into Mr. Reid's suit pocket, pulled out the principal's iPhone, and tossed it over his shoulder without watching where it landed. "He won't be needing that tonight."

I watched as Zoe, her eyes on Justin's back, bent down to retrieve it. She slid it under the belt of her dress, unnoticed.

Justin turned around to face us, his expression eerily serene. "After my meeting with Reid yesterday, I didn't have a choice."

He sat down on a bed of moss. Like a game of Simon Says, we joined him, forming a half-moon circle around our school principal. My eyes shifted back to Mr. Reid's chest, rising and falling in spasms. I was afraid if I looked away, he'd die.

"He says that I'm behind a lot of things that have gone wrong at Kennedy High," Justin said. "All conjecture, of course, which isn't very fair."

It is fair, I thought to myself, because it's the truth. "He's going to know this was your idea, Justin," I said softly.

His laugh was hollow. "Now he's trying to expel me over something that happened before the League formed."

Richie tilted his head. "What was it?"

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