twenty-four

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I shouldn't have been to find my house all lit up at midnight. Mom and Dad were waiting up for me. There was no way I could let them see my mud-splattered, shredded dress. I snuck around to the side yard, hiking the gown to my waist so I could climb up the tree. Back in my room, I switched to a T-shirt and jeans. With my heart galloping, I rounded back outside to the main entrance.

"Oh," Mom said, taken aback by my casual appearance.

"I left my dress at Zoe's," I explained. "I'll get it tomorrow."

"Why aren't you wearing it?" Mom asked. "I was hoping for a few more pictures."

"I could only do the whole princess act for a few hours."

"So, how'd it go, Cinderella?" Dad asked.

"It was fun, but I'm wiped," I forced out. "Too much dancing to bad pop music. I think I'll head to bed."

Mom frowned. "But what—?"

"I'll fill you in tomorrow, okay? Right now, I've got a date with my pillow."

She gave a short laugh. I quickly excused myself and darted up the stairs before she could squeeze in some last-ditch questions.

In my room, I stared at my bed. I didn't want to lie down. If I tried to sleep, I knew all the horrible images of the night would haunt me. Instead, I collapsed into my beanbag chair and whispered a prayer for Mr. Reid. Please let him be safe in a hospital. Please let him recover. And God, please keep Justin Bieber away from me.

The next morning, while most of the student population was in REM sleep, I had my ear to the door, listening for the thud of Saturday's newspaper against the front steps. As soon as it came, I ran to my room and tore through the local section. No mention of anything unusual happening at the Kennedy High prom. I didn't know if that was good or bad. At least if the story had broken, I'd know whether Mr. Reid was okay.

My phone chirped. No surprise I wasn't the only one up at this hour. I ran over to it and read the text from Zoe:

just called the hospital. he's being released today.

I breathed a sigh of relief, then went into the directory and deleted the message.

When I came downstairs, Mom watched me too carefully. To her credit, she didn't barrage me with questions. She just disappeared into the kitchen, probably to retrieve one of her megavitamins with extra B-12 for energy.

A minute later, she was back. "Need a lift?" she asked, holding out a steaming mug of coffee. A full cup. The real deal. Coming from her, it was like the elixir of life.

Tears stung my eyes but refused to make an appearance. "You're the best, Mom," I said.

She brought a hand to her cheek. "I haven't heard you say that since you were five years old. If I'd known, I would've put coffee in your sippy cup."

I laid my head in her lap as she scratched my back. She hadn't done that since I was five, either.

"The last few weeks of school are tough on everyone," she said. "I'm not too old to remember."

Her words brought back my problems. If Mr. Reid figured out who his abductors were, none of us would graduate from high school.

I gulped down the coffee, gave Mom a hug, and lumbered upstairs to look for some industrial-strength makeup to hide the circles under my eyes.

I was scared to go to school, for a lot of reasons, but becoming a hermit for the rest of my life wasn't an option.

In chemistry, I sat on the edge of my seat, waiting for the intercom to announce an emergency assembly. It didn't come. No news is good news, I told myself. But that wasn't true; no news could mean they were busy gathering evidence.

While Mrs. Stanton droned on about the definition of kinetic theory, I thought about how Justin got Jenny Carson to kiss him in the woods that day. He'd trapped her with a mix of seduction and fear, the formula achingly familiar.

I drew a map to and from my classes that would put me the farthest distance from Justin. But on my way to orchestra, he materialized from an empty classroom.

"We have to talk. Can you stop by my apartment after school?"

"I don't think so."

"Come on, Ari, we can work this out. I explained it all to Nora. It's just a big misunderstanding. See, I was angry at Reid for all the awful things he'd done to me, but I only wanted Richie to hurt him, not kill him or anything. Just leave a big scratch for him to wake up to."

I focused on his chin, afraid to meet his hypnotic gaze. I'd spent too much time under his spell already.

He glanced around for potential eavesdroppers. "We can't talk here. Please, Ari, for me. For us."

I took a breath, then gave my thoughts a voice. "I don't want to be part of your League anymore, Justin. Leave me alone."

"Nora doesn't mean anything to—"

The warning bell rang. I pushed past him.

"Ari?"

Hugging my books to my chest, I took off, walking as fast as I could to get away from him.

The hallway was jammed with kids shuffling to class like a herd of farm animals. Crowds had never bothered me before, but now I was struggling for air. I barreled into my next class, slung my backpack against the wall, and threw myself into a chair.

I pretended that I didn't see Justin's face peering through the tiny window in the door.

A/N:

Justin cancelled lol

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