HOW IT ALL STARTED
Imagine it’s a couple of years ago, the summer between seventh and eighth grade. You’re tan from lying out next to your rock-lined pool, you’ve got on your new Juicy sweats (remember when everybody wore those?), and your mind’s on your crush, the boy who goes to that other prep school whose name we won’t mention and who folds jeans at Abercrombie in the mall. You’re eating your Cocoa Krispies just how you like ’em—doused in skim milk—and you see this girl’s face on the side of the milk carton. MISSING. She’s cute—probably cuter than you—and has a feisty look in her eyes. You think, Hmm, maybe she likes soggy Cocoa Krispies too. And you bet she’d think Abercrombie boy was a hottie as well. You wonder how someone so…well, so much like you went missing. You thought only girls who entered beauty pageants ended up on the sides of milk cartons.
Well, think again.
Aria Montgomery burrowed her face in her best friend Alison DiLaurentis’s lawn. “Delicious,” she murmured.
“Are you smelling the grass?” Emily Fields called from behind her, pushing the door of her mom’s Volvo wagon closed with her long, freckly arm.
“It smells good. ” Aria brushed away her pink-striped hair and breathed in the warm early-evening air. “Like summer. ”
Emily waved ’bye to her mom and pulled up the blah jeans that were hanging on her skinny hips. Emily had been a competitive swimmer since Tadpole League, and even though she looked great in a Speedo, she never wore anything tight or remotely cute like the rest of the girls in her seventh-grade class. That was because Emily’s parents insisted that one built character from the inside out. (Although Emily was pretty certain that being forced to hide her IRISH GIRLS DO IT BETTER baby tee at the back of her underwear drawer wasn’t exactly character enhancing. )
“You guys!” Alison pirouetted through the front yard. Her hair was bunched up in a messy ponytail, and she was still wearing her rolled-up field hockey kilt from the team’s end-of-the-year party that afternoon. Alison was the only seventh grader to make the JV team and got rides home with the older Rosewood Day School girls, who blasted Jay-Z from their Cherokees and sprayed Alison with perfume before dropping her off so that she wouldn’t smell like the cigarettes they’d all been smoking.
“What am I missing?” called Spencer Hastings, sliding through a gap in Ali’s hedges to join the others. Spencer lived next door. She flipped her long, sleek dark-blond ponytail over her shoulder and took a swig from her purple Nalgene bottle. Spencer hadn’t made the JV cut with Ali in the fall, and had to play on the seventh-grade team. She’d been on a year-long field hockey binge to perfect her game, and the girls knew she’d been practicing dribbling in the backyard before they arrived. Spencer hated when anyone was better at anything than she was. Especially Alison.
“Wait for me!”
They turned to see Hanna Marin climbing out of her mom’s Mercedes. She stumbled over her tote bag and waved her chubby arms wildly. Ever since Hanna’s parents had gotten a divorce last year, she’d been steadily putting on weight and outgrowing her old clothes. Even though Ali rolled her eyes, the rest of the girls pretended not to notice. That’s just what best friends do.
Alison, Aria, Spencer, Emily, and Hanna bonded last year when their parents volunteered them to work Saturday afternoons at Rosewood Day School’s charity drive—well, all except for Spencer, who volunteered herself. Whether or not Alison knew about the other four, the four knew about Alison. She was perfect. Beautiful, witty, smart. Popular. Boys wanted to kiss Alison, and girls—even older ones—wanted to be her. So the first time Ali laughed at one of Aria’s jokes, asked Emily a question about swimming, told Hanna her shirt was adorable, or commented that Spencer’s penmanship was way neater than her own, they couldn’t help but be, well…dazzled. Before Ali, the girls had felt like pleated, high-waisted mom jeans—awkward and noticeable for all the wrong reasons—but then Ali made them feel like the most perfect-fitting Stella McCartneys that no one could afford.
Now, more than a year later, on the last day of seventh grade, they weren’t just best friends, they were the girls of Rosewood Day. A lot had happened to make it that way. Every sleepover they had, every field trip, had been a new adventure. Even homeroom had been memorable when they were together. (Reading a steamy note from the varsity crew captain to his math tutor over the PA system was now a Rosewood Day legend. ) But there were other things they all wanted to forget. And there was one secret they couldn’t even bear to talk about. Ali said that secrets were what bonded their five-way best-friendship together for eternity. If that was true, they were going to be friends for life.
“I’m so glad this day is over. ” Alison moaned before gently pushing Spencer back through the gap in the hedges. “Your barn. ”
“I’m so glad seventh grade is over,” Aria said as she, Emily, and Hanna followed Alison and Spencer toward the renovated barn-turned-guesthouse where Spencer’s older sister, Melissa, had lived for her junior and senior years of high school. Fortunately, she’d just graduated and was headed to Prague this summer, so it was all theirs for the night.
Suddenly they heard a very squeaky voice. “Alison! Hey, Alison! Hey, Spencer!”
Alison turned to the street. “Not it,” she whispered.
“Not it,” Spencer, Emily, and Aria quickly followed.
Hanna frowned. “Shit. ”
It was this game Ali had stolen from her brother, Jason, who was a senior at Rosewood Day. Jason and his friends played it at inter-prep school field parties when scoping out girls. Being the last to call out “not it” meant you had to entertain the ugly girl for the night while your friends got to hook up with her hot friends—meaning, essentially, that you were as lame and unattractive as she was. In Ali’s version, the girls called “not it” whenever there was anyone ugly, uncool, or unfortunate near them.
This time, “not it” was for Mona Vanderwaal—a dork from down the street whose favorite pastime was trying to befriend Spencer and Alison—and her two freaky friends, Chassey Bledsoe and Phi Templeton. Chassey was the girl who’d hacked into the school’s computer system and then told the principal how to better secure it, and Phi Templeton went everywhere with a yo-yo—enough said. The three stared at the girls from the middle of the quiet, suburban road. Mona was perched on her Razor scooter, Chassey was on a black mountain bike, and Phi was on foot—with her yo-yo, of course.
“You guys want to come over and watch Fear Factor?” Mona called.
“Sorry,” Alison simpered. “We’re kind of busy. ”
Chassey frowned. “Don’t you want to see when they eat the bugs?”
“Gross!” Spencer whispered to Aria, who then started pretending to eat invisible lice off Hanna’s scalp like a monkey.
“Yeah, I wish we could. ” Alison tilted her head. “We’ve planned this sleepover for a while now. But maybe next time?”
Mona looked at the sidewalk. “Yeah, okay. ”
“See ya. ” Alison turned around, rolling her eyes, and the other girls did the same.
They crossed through Spencer’s back gate. To their left was Ali’s neighboring backyard, where her parents were building a twenty-seat gazebo for their lavish outdoor picnics. “Thank God the workers aren’t here,” Ali said, glancing at a yellow bulldozer.
Emily stiffened. “Have they been saying stuff to you again?”
“Easy there, Killer,” Alison said. The others giggled. Sometimes they called Emily “Killer,” as in Ali’s personal pit bull. Emily used to find it funny, too, but lately she wasn’t laughing along.
The barn was just ahead. It was small and cozy and had a big window that looked out on Spencer’s large, rambling farm, which had
its very own windmill. Here in Rosewood, Pennsylvania, a little suburb about twenty miles from Philadelphia, you were more likely to live in a twenty-five-room farmhouse with a mosaic-tiled pool and hot tub, like Spencer’s house, than in a prefab McMansion. Rosewood smelled like lilacs and mown grass in the summer and clean snow and wood stoves in the winter. It was full of lush, tall pines, acres of rustic family-run farms, and the cutest foxes and bunnies. It had fabulous shopping and Colonial-era estates and parks for birthday, graduation, and just-’cause-we-feel-like-it fêtes. And Rosewood boys were gorgeous in that glowing, healthy, just-stepped-out-of-an-Abercrombie-catalog way. This was Philadelphia’s Main Line. It was full of old, noble bloodlines, older money, and practically ancient scandals.
As they reached the barn, the girls heard giggles coming from inside. Someone squealed, “I said, stop it!”
“Oh God,” Spencer moaned. “What is she doing here?”
As Spencer peeked through the keyhole, she could see Melissa, her prim and proper, excellent-at-everything older sister, and Ian Thomas, her tasty boyfriend, wrestling on the couch. Spencer kicked at the door with the heel of her shoe, forcing it open. The barn smelled like moss and slightly burned popcorn. Melissa turned around.
“What the fu—?” she asked. Then she noticed the others and smiled. “Oh, hey guys. ”
The girls eyed Spencer. She constantly complained that Melissa was a venomous super-bitch, so they were always taken aback when Melissa seemed friendly and sweet.
Ian stood up, stretched, and grinned at Spencer. “Hey. ”
“Yeah you did. ” Ian smiled flirtatiously. “You were spying on us. ”
Melissa readjusted her long blond hair and black silk headband, staring at her sister. “So, what’s up?” she asked, a little accusingly.
“It’s just…I didn’t mean to barge in…,” Spencer sputtered. “But we were supposed to have this place tonight. ”
Ian playfully hit Spencer on the arm. “I was just messing with you,” he teased.
A patch of red crept up her neck. Ian had messy blond hair, sleepy-looking hazelnut-colored eyes, and totally gropeworthy stomach muscles.
“Wow,” Ali said in a too-loud voice. All heads turned to her. “Melissa, you and Ian make the kuh-yoo-test couple. I’ve never told you, but I’ve always thought it. Don’t you agree, Spence?”
Spencer blinked. “Um,” she said quietly.
Melissa stared at Ali for a second, perplexed, and then turned back to Ian. “Can I talk to you outside?”
Ian downed his Corona as the girls watched. They only ever drank super-secretively from the bottles in their parents’ liquor cabinets. He set the empty bottle down and offered them a parting grin as he followed Melissa outside. “Adieu, ladies. ” He winked before closing the door behind him.
Alison dusted her hands together. “Another problem solved by Ali D. Are you going to thank me now, Spence?”
Spencer didn’t answer. She was too busy looking out the barn’s front window. Lightning bugs had begun to light up the purplish sky.