Mrs. Grunwald warned me that I had to stop. As much as I loved those four girls whose lives I had incidentally ruined, they were direct shots to "A," the obsessive psychos who controlled peoples' lives pretending to be me. As if I hadn't done enough damage, made enough people upset on A's behalf, A became a proxy for me when I went into hiding. He or she or it or they all pretended they were me. They sent my friends texts with secrets only I would know (or should know). Even as I watched them from the shadows over the past year and a half, I never knew for sure who it was, or who they were. Now, I was starting to. One piece of this puzzle was my old frienemy, Cece Drake. The girl who felt like my evil twin, as if I weren't evil enough. The baddest of bad influences, who always dared me to be something more than I was. In her world, more always meant worse. It was horrible, thinking about her now, but it didn't stop me from following her from time to time, hoping to find out where she went. Cece's trail led me directly to Ezra Fitz, that teacher Aria was smitten with.
Today it was ten p.m. My hair, or my wig at least, was brown and I wore sunglasses. It shouldn't have been enough to make me inconspicuous, but I pretended to be absorbed in a newspaper whenever they looked my way. If my friendship with Cece had taught me anything, it was how to be invisible. I didn't make a sound the whole night. I watched him put his hands on her, and I felt my skin start to crawl. The instinct to go to her, grab her away from that monster, and steal her back to me was overwhelming. I had to remind myself of logic, once or twice. She wasn't ever mine. Aria was heterosexual, as was I (on most days), but she was mine enough to want his hands off her body. They all were.
As reluctantly as I had once admitted to myself that I loved Emily, that night when I found myself buried alive and expected instant death, I found myself thinking about Aria. Kissing her. Not the current, Ezra-obsessed Aria. The crazy, weird, pink-haired Aria who would never have been popular without me. The one who admired Noel Kahn of all people from afar and needed me to get him. I liked to be needed and now, absolutely no one needed me or even wanted me home. Sure, the girls might miss me, but they had all moved on in one way or another. Even if I hated Toby, Caleb seemed likely to bail someday, Emily could do better than Paige, and Aria was with "A" of all people, my four friends were all trying to be loved. They were all making themselves vulnerable to people they thought could make them happy. Something I had never learned to do.
I watched their lips touch again as they looked starved for one another and felt my eyes grow wet. She did need me. Not to get her into a party or teach her not to be a fashion victim, but maybe to save her from making the same stupid kind of mistake I did that got me where I was. To save her from telling the truth to the wrong person at the wrong time and losing her freedom forever. Just as surely, I needed her. Spencer had told me I was dead to her long before I was dead to anyone else in Rosewood. I was to blame for Hanna's eating disorder. Emily would probably hold onto Paige as long as she possibly could, even though she knew it wasn't working out, because she was tired of losing people. Aria didn't have half the reasons to resent me now that the rest of them did. Maybe, maybe if I stopped her at the right time I could convince her to leave. To come with me. To kiss me instead.
I knew, deep down, that I couldn't. Even in some alternate universe where Aria was bisexual and I was allowed to exist, "A" existed too and would always find a way to take her, or any other boy or girl I tried to love away from me. It was why, for now, I was dead and would likely stay dead for a long time.
When I noticed my focus drifting, I quickly returned my eyes to the newspaper I was reading. It was too late. His eyes looked up, just long enough to see my face. If I knew Ezra from watching him, he wasn't one to be fooled by sunglasses.
"I remember reading that story you wrote, Lost but Found," Ezra said. "I think it was about Alison."
Now was not the time to wonder what kind of story Aria had devoted to me. "Yeah," Aria agreed. "I don't think I knew it at the time."
The look in Ezra's eyes said he had always known it, and whatever I was to him, it was anything but dead. I should have felt fear, dread, or even just resignation, but nothing like that came to me. All I felt was relief. Just like Aria needed someone to push her away from Ezra, I needed someone to chase me out of hiding. To force me to be a real person again, something that always seemed too good to be possible. Maybe it was time.