September 1st, 2009

"Are these cute?" Vanessa Carter asked her best friend, Alison DiLaurentis, as she looked in the mirror. She stood by the sunglasses in Otter—the new boutique in the King James Mall—and surveyed the pink, metal-rimmed shades that covered her brown eyes.

"Let me see." Alison said, walking up to Vanessa holding a metallic−gold clutch in one hand and a red, heart-printed scarf in the other.

Vanessa turned, her sleek, black ponytail swishing around her shoulders, and tilted her head to the side. "Cute or too two-thousand-and-six?" She placed a hand on her hip.

Alison furrowed her thin, blonde eyebrows; her pink, bow-shaped lips pursed in thought. She took a step closer to her friend, blue eyes trained on the sunglasses. The techno song blaring in the silence. "Cute." Alison declared, "Really retro but not tacky enough to be out of style." She nodded her approval.

Vanessa slipped the glasses off, pleased, "Great. I was hoping they'd be nice enough to get." She set them in her basket.

"That's what I'm here for." Alison smirked teasingly, "C'mon, help me decide between a clutch and a scarf." She held up the two items in her hand, weighing them thoughtfully.

Vanessa giggled and followed Alison to the other side of the store.

[ . . .]

After spending more than they had told their mothers they would, Alison and Vanessa sat in a booth at the year-old restaurant, Mellano's, and ate from a basket of fries and drank diet Cokes.

"I wish summer had just started." Vanessa moaned, slumping against the plush, purple booth.

"I know. It completely flew by." Alison nodded as she picked up a fry. "But it was awesome though." She smiled, remembering their months of adventures.

Vanessa smiled back, thinking back to the very start of June. The girls had left their small town of Rosewood, PA, just as the final school bell had rung, ending their eighth grade year. Their mothers, Jessica DiLaurentis and Michelle Carter, had planned a two week trip to Florida. The girls had been so excited that they had brought their luggage to school with them; eager to leave as soon as the school day ended. After Florida it was back to Rosewood were Vanessa and Alison spent the majority of the month out at the pool at the country club. Tanning and sipping pink lemonade in matching Dior bikinis.

Then in July Mrs. DiLaurentis took the girls to their lake house in the Poconos Mountains. Vanessa had spent the whole month of July with Alison and her family. They had swam for hours in the lake, roasted marshmallows over the fire pit, star gazed at night, walked around the small village that was a few miles from the house. They also pranked Alison's older brother, Jason, a few times. Put blue hair dye in his shampoo, turned his underwear pink, refilled his secret stash of vodka with water, so when he'd have friends over their drunken plans would be ruined.

But the fun ended in August when Vanessa had to go visit her father, Elliott Carter, in Richmond, Virginia. Vanessa's parents had divorced at the start of eighth grade and her father had moved to Virginia a few months after. From there the only contact Vanessa had had with him was through e-mails, text messages, phone calls, and the one failed Skype call. August had been the first time she had seen her dad in person.

Truthfully, she had been excited for the trip, she had missed her dad and couldn't wait to spend a few weeks alone with him. Before the divorce they had been close, she was a daddy's girl through and through. So when he had moved away it had destroyed Vanessa. Her best friend was gone and nothing she could've done would've brought him back. So, the trip to see him was important.

Until she got there and realized he hadn't been alone all those months. He had found two new people to fill the spaces Vanessa and her mother had once occupied. Crystal and Alisa Dauner, her dad's new girlfriend and her daughter. Vanessa had been devastated.

"Yeah, it was." Vanessa said now, picking up a fry and eating it. "Despite recent events."

"How was seeing him anyway?" Alison asked, voice soft, "You didn't really talk about it."

It was rare that Vanessa didn't share anything with Alison. But talking about her dad was hard and Vanessa tended to avoid the subject all together. Vanessa took a sip of her Coke, trying to form into words how the trip had been. "Surprising." She answered.

"'Surprising' how?" Alison asked with a raised eyebrow. "Did his house suck? Was he living under a bridge? Had he gotten fat?" Her eyes widen on the last word.

Vanessa rolled her eyes, "No. His house was . . . beautiful. And he wasn't fat, he was skinny. But he . . . he . . . ."

Don't cry. Don't, don't, don't cry! Vanessa told herself firmly as she felt her throat start to close. She felt her eyes burn and she ducked her head and blinked rapidly, as if she had an eyelash in her eye. She didn't like talking about her dad because it made her cry, sob actually, and she hated crying in front of people. Even Alison. It made her feel uncomfortable. Weak.

"He has a – a girlfriend." Vanessa choked out, voice thick with pain.

"What?" Alison gasped, a little too loudly, the other people in the restaurant sending her glares.

"And she has a daughter."

"A daughter?" Alison looked shocked, like she herself was betrayed too. "A new girlfriend and a new – new kid! Why?"

Vanessa shrugged, her teeth biting into her lip. "I don't know. They met when my dad moved to Richmond."

Ten months ago.

"Oh my God." Alison frowned, "So he meets a new woman just three weeks after divorcing your mom?"

Vanessa nodded, worried that if she spoke she'd start sobbing.

"I mean I know they were separated for a few months—"

Nine months, Vanessa thought.

"—but still, you'd think he'd need time to process it. Like your mom is—did." Alison corrected herself, wincing.

Vanessa's mom had taken the break up pretty hard. She had heard her mom cry herself to sleep more times than she'd like to admit. It hurt Vanessa to see her mom in so much pain. Pain that her dad had caused her, had caused them.

"Does your mom know?" Alison leaned forward, eager for an answer.

Vanessa swallowed, "Yes. She knew before I did."

"Why didn't she warn you? Tell you what you were about to walk into? She could've saved you the shock." She looked annoyed now, pissed that her friend was hurt.

"She said that . . . that he wanted to – to tell me himself." Vanessa explained, voice dry. "He didn't want me to know from anyone but him." Tears welled in her eyes and Vanessa rubbed them, pressing her knuckle into her sockets roughly.

"Oh, honey." Alison's voice was soothing, Vanessa felt her hand touch hers. "You can cry if you need to. Maybe it'll make you feel better."

Vanessa dropped her hand, Alison's moving away as she did so, and took a ragged breath. "No, no, it's fine. I'm fine." She straightened her shirt and tightened her ponytail. "I don't care."

"Vee, it's—"

"I said I'm fine!" She snapped, the sorrow turning into anger, "I don't want to talk about it. It's stupid."

Alison looked at her friend as if she wanted to snap back but then thought better of it. Instead she nodded slowly, her face calm. "Okay."

Vanessa stood from the booth, "Let's go look at Prada before it closes."

"Okay." Alison stood up and set a twenty dollar bill on the table.

Grabbing their bags the girls headed out of the restaurant; leaving the empty plate of fries and talk of Mr. Carter behind.

[. . .]

September 10th, 2009

There it is. Aria Montgomery thought as she looked up at the tall Victorian house in front of her. The house was dark blue with moss−green shutters, the porch was wide and had a bench−swing, the windows in the front of the house could see into the back of the living room and part of the kitchen. The second story windows had their curtains drawn. This house belong to the DiLaurentis' and Aria was about to trespass right through the backyard.

Nerves slid down her spine but she shook them off. It's for a good reason. She reasoned with her guilty mind, I want to get that time capsule flag. The time capsule flag was a piece of the Rosewood Day flag that had been hidden as part of the school's game. Each year the upperclassman cut up the school's flag and hid it around Rosewood for the lowerclassman to find. It was a Rosewood Day tradition and now that Aria was a freshman she could participate.

If you found a piece of the flag then you could decorate it however you wanted and then have it stored in the time capsule that got buried at the end of the month. Your name and achievement immortalized. It was a big deal. Getting a piece of the flag was like winning a Nobel Prize or an Oscar.

Which was why Aria had to get it—or steal it thanks to the stealing clause. If she had a piece of the flag then her social status at school would jump up. She'd no longer be the lonely, weird, kooky girl that people teased and excluded from their lunch table. If she had a piece she'd be in for sure.

Taking a deep breath, Aria made her way into the backyard.

As Aria was sneaking toward the bushes near the right side of the back patio, Spencer Hastings was lurking in the trees at the edge of the backyard. She too was here to steal Alison's flag. But not for the glory of finding it, but for the satisfaction of taking something from Rosewood's Golden Girl.

Spencer remembered how Alison had stood on the steps of Rosewood Day, her entourage beside her, and had gloated about finding a piece of the flag. She had grinned out at the faces of her jealous classmates and teased them with the fact that she had found a piece already. That was two days ago and in that time Spencer had figured out a way to steal that bitch's flag for herself. Let's see how great you are when someone steals from you.

While Spencer waited for her chance to strike, Hanna Marin was crawling behind the fence to the left of the yard. She had gotten here five minutes ago and was trying to figure out a way in.

Looking up she noticed that the latch to the fence was unlocked. Relieved that she wouldn't have to climb the fence, Hanna pushed opened the door and crawled into the yard. Moving toward the couch in the little sitting area in front of the fence, she hide behind it and held her breath.

She couldn't believe she was about to steal from Alison DiLaurentis. The most popular girl in school. A wave of excitement hit her and she let out a nervous giggle; if this worked then Hanna would be popular too. Maybe even more popular than Alison herself. She'd have the flag and the hearts of everyone at Rosewood Day.

And Sean's heart. She thought dreamily. Sean Ackard had been Hanna's crush since elementary school when he had been her partner for reading time. If she got this flag then Sean would defiantly have to go out with her.

As Hanna was dreaming up her perfect date with Sean, Emily Fields was crouching near the hedges that were to the left of the yard.

Her heart was beating loudly in her chest and her palms were starting to sweat. But she stayed still, not wanting to let her nerves get the better of her today. Today she was going to take the time capsule flag from Alison. Alison, the It Girl. The girl everyone boy wants and every girl wants to be. Or in Emily's case be with. Emily had had budding feelings for the gorgeous blonde ever since seeing her in line at the grocery store when she was eight. If Emily got the flag then maybe her and Alison could decorate it together, make a not-so-good thing, stealing, into a great thing. They could make it their own and then put it in the time capsule to be eternalized.

Maybe they could even become friends because of it. Emily would never tell Alison of her true feelings but what she'd like is to be friends with her. It was certainly better than nothing.

In the front of the house stood Vanessa, she had texted Alison that she'd come over and help her decorate the flag with her. She was not surprised that her friend had found a piece this early in the game, Alison always knew how to get things others couldn't. She probably bribed her brother into giving it to her or flirted it out of Ian Thomas.

Walking up the steps of the porch Vanessa paused, something catching her eye at the edge of the backyard. She peered around the side of the porch and raised her eyebrows in confusion. Aria Montgomery was hiding in the bushes, her black and pink hair pulled into a high ponytail, and her army−green pants riding low to show the waistband of her panties.

Vanessa covertly snapped a photo, snickering softly as she typed out a new message to Alison.

Dork Alert 5 o' clock. Gotta a stalker I don't know about, A?

Slipping her phone back into her pocket she continued up the steps and knocked on the door. Maybe Alison and her could catch Aria and ask her why she was peeping on Alison. That girl was so weird; but Vanessa had never taken her to be stalker−level weird.

As Vanessa waited for Alison, the four girls in the backyard gathered around, arguing about who had been there first.

"I got here way before any of you." Hanna argued, arms crossed over her pink Juicy hoodie—the same hoodie she had seen Alison wear on Thursday.

"Please. I was here first, my house is closer to hers." Spencer narrowed her green eyes at Hanna, pissed that she had to deal with three more competitors.

"If you were here first then where is the flag?" Aria piped up, ponytail swinging as she turned toward Spencer. "If you had gotten here first then you would've gotten the flag by now, right?"

Spencer opened her mouth to argue when Emily said: "Guys." And pointed behind Spencer and Aria.

The girls turned and froze. Alison DiLaurentis stood on her patio, arms crossed and blonde hair lifting in the light breeze. The sun made a halo around her head and she was giving the girls a confused, yet annoyed, look.

"Shit." Hanna whispered, cheeks going pink.

"What are you guys doing out here?" Alison asked curtly, "This is trespassing." Her sapphire eyes went from Spencer to Aria.

The girls shifted awkwardly, not sure how to explain that they were trying to steal Alison's flag. Would they seem pathetic? Thinking they were smart enough, good enough, to steal her prize.

"We—" Spencer started to say but a new voice interrupted her.

"They were trying to take your flag." Vanessa said as she walked through the gate and went toward Alison. "As if they could even try." She rolled her eyes and stood beside Alison.

Alison smirked, "True." She gave the others a teasing look, "Like I'd let you guys take something from me." She took a step off the porch, "Who the hell even are you?" She eyed Aria first.

Vanessa frowned a bit at her friend's question. Why was she making them introduce themselves? Was it a power move? Or was she messing with them, acting like she didn't know them despite them knowing her?

As each girl said her name, Vanessa saw that they looked just as confused as she did.

"Emily Fields." The strawberry blonde answered meekly.

Alison nodded, "Well, ladies, I'd invite you in but I'd rather not." She placed a hand on her hip. "Now scurry along before I tell my parents, who will tell the police that you guys were breaking into my house."

"But we—" Spencer stepped forward but Aria held her back.

"We'll go." She murmured and started leading the girls away.

When they were gone Alison turned back to Vanessa and rolled her eyes, "Idiots." She sighed and walked up the steps of the patio.

The girls went into the house and stopped at the kitchen, grabbing two water bottles and a bag of popcorn. As Vanessa waited for Alison she noticed the family's glass case of china was broken. A long, jagged crack went down the middle of the glass. A few plates and bowls were shattered on their shelfs.

"What happened?" Vanessa asked, eyes going from the broken case to her friend.

Alison shrugged, "My stupid brother fell into it. Mom was pissed." She handed Vanessa her bottle.

"Oh." She nodded before following Alison upstairs.

[. . .]

June 20th, 2010

"Drink up, girls." Ali giggled as she passed the red cup toward Aria.

Aria giggled nervously, already having taken a few sips before, "Trying to get me drunk?" She asked, taking a sip of the vodka. The liquid burned her throat and she wrinkled her nose.

The others—Hanna, Spencer, Emily, and Vanessa—laughed at the pink−haired girl's expression.

"Oh, no I think you've done that on your own." Ali said with a raised eyebrow, taking the cup back.

"Not all of us can hold their liquor like you, Ali." Vanessa teased from beside her.

"Just another thing I'm better at than you." The blonde smirked and took a drink, wincing slightly. "Ugh, why vodka though?" She passed the cup to Vanessa.

"It was the only thing my mom had that she wouldn't notice was missing." Hanna answered. "If I had taken one of the wine bottles she would've killed me."

The girls passed around the cup, laughing at the various looks of disgust on each of their faces. They talked about the school year ending and how exciting their summer was going to be. How exciting their whole year had been since becoming friends.

Alison had befriended Hanna, Aria, Emily, and Spencer just two weeks after the girls had tried to steal Ali's flag. She had told them their courage in trying to take the flag had been impressive. She had seen them as worthy of being part of her clique. Despite backlash from her now ex-friends, Naomi Ziegler and Riley Wolfe. They had been angry that Alison had ditched them but had kept Vanessa; reason being that Vanessa had been fine with adding new members and hadn't argued with Ali about it further.

So with her new group, Alison and the girls had become the new It Girls of Rosewood Day. Everyone wanting to be them or be with them—or both. They got invited to the best parties; got the best table in the cafeteria, given the best gifts during the holidays, and shown the utmost respect by all who encountered them.

Memories were made, from weekends at the Poconos house and trips to the King James Mall; to the time they had gone camping and had failed at trying to canoe; to sneaking into clubs and getting as close to the front of the line till they were turned away. But for each good memory they all had, a bad one followed. Like that night they had played a prank that had gone horribly wrong, causing an innocent girl to be hurt.

They had vowed to never to talk about that night for the rest of their lives. A secret that they would take to their graves. But that wasn't the only thing they were hiding. Each girl had something that they desperately wanted to keep hidden. Something that would ruin their lives if it ever got out. Only one person knew about them. Alison.

And she used it against them whenever she could. Hanging it over their heads like a sword. Teasing them with it. Threatening them. Yet no one had the guts to stand up to Alison; doing so would mean ending what they all had with her. What they had with each other.

It was hours later and all the girls were asleep, knocked out by alcohol and the excitement from the day. Well, at least four of them were. Two girls were missing and the door to Spencer's family's barn was wide open; sending a warm breeze into the room.

A breeze that woke Aria up. She opened her eyes and sluggishly looked around the barn. In the dim light she saw Hanna and Emily asleep on the navy couch and Vanessa sleeping in the leather love seat. But where was Spencer? And Alison?

"Guys." Aria croaked, standing up, her legs a little wobbly, her head hazy. "Guys, wake up." She stumbled over to Hanna and pushed her shoulder.

"Mmm . . . ." Hanna moaned, slouching into the cushions, "What?" Her eyes squeezed shut, mouth puckered.

"Wake up, Spencer and Ali are missing?" Aria shook her friend's shoulder again, more urgently this time.

"What?" Emily whispered, rubbing her eyes and blinking, "Missing?"

"Spencer and Alison are gone." Aria repeated, grabbing up the flashlight from the table and clicking it on.

"Who cares?" Vanessa grumbled, blindly picking up the blanket that sat by the love seat. "Just go to sleep."

Aria rolled her eyes at them and went toward the barn door, shinning the light into the dark, empty yard.

"Alison?" She called lowly, stepping out onto the grass. "Spencer?" She moved the light around the yard, near the corners and the patio.

"Guys?" She took another step away from the barn, the flashlight feeling heavier than usual in her hand.

After a few more steps, Aria was in the middle of the Hastings yard, moving the light this way and that, hoping she'd find her friends. But there was nothing, every time she called out their names she'd be met with silence.

Did they ditch us? Aria thought a little bitterly. Ali had been doing that lately, ignoring the girls to spend time with other, cooler, older people.

"Whatever." Aria murmured as she turned back toward the barn. Let Alison and Spencer have their fun.

"Aria." Spencer's voice called from across the lawn.

Aria whirled around, the light beaming on Spencer's face, "Where were you? Where's Ali?" She walked toward the blonde, worry clear in her voice.

"I don't know." Spencer's voice had grown quiet, her face pale in the harsh light. "I – I think I heard her scream."