twenty-six

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That afternoon, I forced myself to look at the notebook on my lap. Facts and dates that would be on the history final swam upstream in my head. Without warning, my anger bubbled to the surface. I lunged for the mug that was sitting on the windowsill and hurled it across the room. It hit the wall and broke in half. My hand swept across the desk, sending pens and pencils flying through the air like short-range missiles in search of a target. At last, I crumpled to the floor and buried my head in my arms.

I guess we'd all considered ourselves losers before Justin Bieber had come on the scene. Nora, the smartest of us all, had turned out to have the least common sense. As for Richie, I had no doubt that Justin believed he was still out there, bobbing aimlessly at sea. A flick of the wrist, and he could reel his friend back in. And Zoe had been too busy taking care of her mother to watch out for herself.

Then there was me. Sweet, lonely Ariana. Another bullet point in Justin's outline. Except that I'd turned out to be a surprise ending, and if there was one thing Justin Bieber didn't like, it was surprises.

As I cleaned up from my tantrum, I promised myself that I'd never be a pawn in someone's game again. Reaching under the desk for my computer mouse, my fingers stumbled over a familiar object. Hard, cold, round. I yanked my hand back as if I'd touched a burner. I waited a moment, then scooped up the ring on a chain.

FRANCES FOREVER, 1985.

Mr. Reid's words bounced around my head: She was a volunteer counselor who tried to address Justin's truancy problems.

The perpetrator stole something from her.

The police didn't believe robbery was the motivation. He wanted to terrorize her.

It all made sense now. Justin had snapped the chain from Mrs. Johnson's neck and stashed the ring in his shoebox. A symbol of victory. I uncurled my fist and stared at the evidence. Justin Bieber had done this one all on his own.

Of course, if I turned Justin in, it might lead to more discoveries—discoveries that could reveal the League, but I couldn't dwell on that part. I had to focus on the one, tiny piece of proof in my hand. I owed it to Mr. Reid. I owed it to people I hadn't even met—those who would one day cross paths with Justin. He had to be stopped, no matter what.

I put the necklace down on my mouse pad, turned on the computer, and started typing.

Justin,
I'm returning the ring you gave me. I know it's Mrs. Johnson's from the inscription. I hope you'll give it back to her. No matter what she did to you, she deserves her memories.

I printed it out, then taped the chain to the bottom of the note. The ring dropped down, jumping like oil in a skillet. Across the front of an envelope, I wrote "URGENT!" and slipped the letter inside.

Justin wasn't the only one with a plan.

...

"Ah, Miss Grande," Mr. Reid said when I walked into his office at lunch the next day. "Are you here to confess something?"

My stomach churned. "I've decided to help you."

I squeezed my hands together to stop them from shaking. I was risking everything—my relationship with my parents, the last vestige of friendship with Zoe and Richie, graduation. I hadn't even allowed myself to think about the two police officers, Price and Henderson, who'd spent so much time at Kennedy that they'd practically been added to the payroll. If I did, it would be even harder to go through with it.

"I have something for you." Before school, I'd fingered the wedding ring one last time, running my pinkie around its smooth interior, the inscription worn down from years of wear. The ring was a symbol of eternal union, something precious that Justin had no right to take. "It's the proof you need. Not for everything he's done. But it's enough."

Mr. Reid straightened in his chair, waiting for me to explain.

"I want Mrs. Johnson to get her husband's wedding ring back," I said. "She didn't deserve any of this. No one did."

"How'd you get ...?"

"Justin gave it to me after the fact. His warped idea of a present."

Mr. Reid tugged on the collar of his starched white shirt. "May I see it?"

"It's in Justin's locker. He'll stop there after lunch. I put it in an envelope with a letter. When he opens it, the ring will drop down. Anyone who's walking by will see it."

He cast his eyes to the ceiling. It was several seconds before he spoke. "I've wanted to catch Justin for a long time. I think the ring will serve that purpose. Thank you, Ariana."

Guilt, pain, sorrow, grief—they'd hardened to stones and lodged in my heart. But here was a new feeling, rushing to the surface—gratitude.

"Thank you, Mr. Reid," I whispered.

He glanced at the clock over the door. Twenty minutes left until the bell rang, signaling the end of lunch. He rose to his feet, the way people do when they want you to leave, and unhooked his walkie-talkie from his belt.

"Mrs. Roach, please cancel my appointment with the vice president of the PTA." He switched it off and looked at me. "When I'm done, Mr. Bieber will have only me to blame."

He gave my shoulder a single pat as he passed by. I followed him to the door of the school office. We shook hands, a secret deal sealed between us.

Twelve minutes later, Mr. Reid left the office. As he turned the corner toward the hallway, I slipped into the crowd behind him.

A/N:

sorry for this short crappy filler but I just wanted to make y'all extra excited for the next chapter

al though I'm not really sure if you should be excited..............

okay y'all I have said this so many times but some don't seem to catch on: THERE WILL BE NO SEQUEL bc I'm okay with the ending and don't want to make it cliche so yeah..

sorry babies, but I'll start posting new books! :)

okay love ya <3

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