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Suspicion

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Good luck on your first day of school! I’ll be watching! Kisses! - A

Spencer chewed on the knuckle of her pointer finger on her left hand, something she hadn't done since she was little. Her parents had scared her into believing she'd grow up with grotesquely shaped teeth if she continued the bad habit. She'd been too young back then to decide if misshapen teeth was something she wanted, but they'd painted it in such negative terms that she'd had no choice but to believe it to be true.

"Is this seat taken?"

Spencer looked up from the screen on her phone. Her eyes met warm, inviting hazel irises.

“Uh, no.”

She stood up from the lab stool so quickly that it nearly toppled over. The legs screeched against the old linoleum of the science lab floor. She could feel other students' eyes on her and her cheeks burned at the attention.

The girl was beautiful: sunny blonde hair that curled at the ends just before it touched the tops of her shoulders, a perfect upturned nose, and high, elegant cheekbones. She wore a sundress and light cardigan that went three-quarters down her arms. Her pale knees peeked out from the bottom hem of her dress. Even without the wheelchair she looked fragile, like a dancer – long limbed, willowy, and vulnerable.

Spencer felt an odd, unexpected urge like she needed to protect this girl.

"Should I move this chair someplace else?" Spencer felt helpless, unsure of what to do. The lab table was slightly elevated and if the girl wheeled into the space where the lab chair was currently positioned, the elevated table would be too high for her chair. But it wasn't like the girl could sit on the rotating stool, could she?

The blonde gave her a rueful smile, almost as if she could read Spencer's thoughts. "I'm not going to be using it."

Spencer shoved the spare chair out of the way to make room for the new student. She moved her notebook and textbook more on her side of the long lab table even though it wasn't really on the other girl's side.

"Thanks." The girl maneuvered her chair so she was positioned parallel to Spencer. The table was a few inches too tall and it made Spencer uncomfortable from her lofted chair.

"I'm Quinn, by the way."

"Spencer. Nice to meet you."

Despite growing up in the shadow of a country club, Spencer had never been good at small talk. She flipped her notebook open and wrote the date on the first page. When she didn't know what else to do, she traced the tip of her pen back over the date and wrote it again.

"What year are you?”

"Junior," Spencer answered, not looking away from the lines of the notebook. She kept writing over the date, again and again, with her blue-ink pen. "You?"

“Senior.”

Spencer finally looked away from her notebook after realizing it would be the polite thing to do. She set down her pen with some purposefulness to keep from wearing a hole through the page. "You’re new, right?”

The girl – Quinn – Spencer remembered, nodded. “I just moved here from Ohio a few weeks ago.”

Spencer racked her brain for facts she knew about the state, but came up empty. “Do you like Science?” The question fell stupidly from her mouth.

The girl shrugged. "Not really. English is more my thing. I like books.”

Spencer nodded as if Quinn had just said something revealing or profound. She didn't know how to continue the conversation, but thankfully their teacher stepped into the room at that moment and started class so she didn’t have to.

++++

They sat at their usual lunch table outside in the courtyard, heads bent together and speaking in hushed tones. Gossip about celebrities and significant others had been replaced by all things Alison and A.

“Hey guys!” Aria’s voice rose above the whispered murmurs of their current conversation.

Spencer, Hanna, and Emily snapped to attention.

Aria jerked her head in the direction of a blonde girl in a wheelchair positioned beside her. “This is Quinn. We have AP English together. She’s new, so I invited her to sit with us at lunch.”

“Hanna, move your tray,” Emily immediately instructed.

The seated girls shuffled their belongings and their bodies to make room for the two newcomers. Lunch trays were collaborated and phones were put away. With their technological connection to A tucked away in their respective purses and school bags, it provided a momentary reprieve from their lives, a semblance of normality to a group of friends who were anything but.

Quinn maneuvered to the end of the table where the built-in seating wouldn’t get in her way of her chair. “Hi, Spencer,” she greeted.

Spencer’s lips twitched. “Hey.”

“You guys know each other?” Aria asked, looking between the two girls curiously.

“We had AP Biology together this morning,” Quinn supplied.

“Wow. AP Biology and English? Watch out, Spencer,” Hanna chuckled as she absently played with a French fry. “Looks like you’ve got some competition.”

“I’m a senior,” Quinn gently corrected. “Spencer’s class standing is safe from me.”

“Your parents made you move your senior year of high school?” Aria wondered aloud. “That’s rough.”

Quinn pulled a packed lunch out of the backpack that hung on the back of her wheelchair. “I’m staying with my aunt for the school year. My parents thought my hometown was getting a little…small for me, I guess.”

“What happened to you?” Hanna asked with her usual subtlety. “Why can’t you walk?”

“Hanna!” both Aria and Emily exclaimed, horrified and embarrassed by their friend’s lack of tact.

“You don’t just ask that,” Emily hissed, dark eyes flashing.

“No, it’s fine. Usually people just stare at me and whisper about me behind my back.” Quinn seemed to appraise the other blonde girl with a new look of appreciation. “It takes the really brave ones to actually ask me that question.”

“See?” Hanna said, tilting her nose in the air. “She doesn’t mind.”

“So what happened?” Spencer pressed. She didn’t want to appear too eager, but her curiosity was winning the battle over propriety.

“I got in a car accident. A truck blew through a stop sign and I got t-boned.”

“That’s horrible,” Emily sympathized.

Quinn shrugged elegantly beneath the thin material of her cashmere cardigan. “I was texting. I probably would have still gotten hit, but if I hadn’t been so focused on my phone, maybe it would have turned out differently.” She barked out a humorless laugh. “I’m a walking PSA – well, rolling, is more like it.”

Spencer looked down at her half-eaten lunch, now having lost her appetite. She gathered her tray and her messenger bag. “I’ve got to stop by the library before next period,” she said, standing up. “I’ll see you guys after school.”

++++

Spencer left the library with heavy books a new burden in her school bag. She needed to start making note-cards for the SATs soon and finishing entrance exams for college essays. It was only the first day of school, but she was already starting to experience that familiar feeling of being overwhelmed.

She turned a corner and stopped to refill her water bottle at one of the filling stations on campus. She wiped at her brow and felt the perspiration that had accumulated from her short walk from the library to the hallway. The weather was still warm for early fall and for that Spencer was thankful. Pennsylvania winters were too long and too harsh to take this Indian Summer for granted.

She turned down the hallway in the direction of her next class: Physics. She would have preferred a less science-focused schedule this first semester, but she needed these classes on her high school transcripts for her college applications this year instead of waiting for her senior year.

She walked into the classroom a few minutes before the bell and looked in the direction of where she usually sat. Quinn’s wheelchair was parked at one of the long lab tables with her notebook and textbook unpacked in front of her.

Spencer sucked in a breath as she crossed the room to the table. She couldn’t very well avoid the other girl in such a small classroom. Quinn looked up from reviewing her notebook when Spencer sat down at the vacant chair beside her. The tall stool squeaked against the linoleum.

"Hello again, Spencer.”

Spencer tugged at the collar of her button-up shirt. Even on warm days sometimes the heat was on in the school building, but she didn't think the trickle of sweat she felt going down the center of her lower back was the result of that.

“Hi. I didn’t realize we’d be in this class together, too.”

“Don’t worry,” Quinn smiled mildly. “I’m not stalking you.”

The bell rang, sounding the beginning of class and the end of their conversation.

Despite it being the first day of school, their AP Physics teacher was hitting the material fast and hard. They went over the course syllabus briefly before the instructor launched into a lecture.

Spencer was half-focused on whatever the teacher was talking about and diligently copied the information down in her notebook. The rest of her attention was spent observing the girl who sat beside her. Quinn didn't appear to be equally curious about the woman seated beside her, however. Instead, she looked focused and intense, scribbling down everything the teacher said.

Rosewood, Pennsylvania didn't see too many transplants, but in the years following Alison's death, new students to Rosewood High had started to become commonplace. Spencer couldn't imagine what kind of connection this new girl, Quinn, might have had to Alison, and she hated that her brain even went there. The first day of school was supposed to be filled with excitement over new outfits and breaking open new packages of school supplies – not scoping out the student body to see what new threats had appeared over the summer.

Why couldn't she see a transfer student without immediately becoming suspect? Oh, right— because you and your best friends have been tortured for the past year by an anonymous threat. That might have something to do with it, Spencer.

Spencer frowned when she thought about how much her life had changed since Alison’s disappearance – none of it for the better.

The bell rang at the end of the period, shaking Spencer from her thoughts. Students around them began collecting their things, packing them up into their bags. Quinn too already had her notebook in her bag and was just putting her textbook away.

"Do you mind if I take a peek at your notes?" Spencer blurted out. "He started to talk pretty fast at the end of class, and I just want to make sure I got it all."

"Sure thing." Quinn twisted at the waist and pulled a purple notebook from the backpack slung over the back of her chair. She didn't look annoyed that she'd just put her books away. "Just get it back to me whenever.”

"Oh, I could just copy them here, if you don't have to run off." She choked over the final words. Why had she said that? Quinn couldn’t run. "I just mean, I don't know your schedule, but I don't have any place to go."

Quinn gave her a smile she'd come to recognize. It was accommodating, almost reassuring, or at least to make Spencer feel more comfortable about her word choice. The smile killed Spencer. Quinn shouldn't feel sorry for her; she was the one in the wheelchair, after all.

"My aunt is supposed to be picking me up. You can give me the notebook back tomorrow in class.”

"Oh, um, yeah. I can do that."

Quinn left the classroom leaving Spencer behind, feeling like an idiot.

The classroom was entirely empty now and it made Spencer uncomfortable. As it was the end of the school day there wasn't another class using the room, but she didn't want to spend more time by herself than necessary. Again, she frowned. She shouldn’t feel unsafe in her own school.

Spencer compared the careful, legible handwriting in Quinn’s notebook with her own frazzled scribblings. She always felt so frantic while trying to take notes in class. She was amazed by the thoroughness and neatness of Quinn's notes.

She finished copying the parts of the notes she had missed and tucked her notebook and Quinn's back into her bag.

She hustled to the front of campus, hoping to catch Quinn before she took off for the day. The parking lot wasn’t terribly large, but it still took her some time to scan for the familiar flash of blonde hair.

She suddenly felt a hand on her hip. “Ready to go?”

Spencer looked away from the parking lot and into pale blue eyes.

“Yeah,” she nodded. “Let’s go.”

+++++

Spencer fumbled slightly with her keys before pushing open the door to her house with her shoulder. Summer was fading into fall, but the humidity was still oppressive, causing the wooden door jam to swell. She tossed her keys on a small wooden table in the front foyer and removed her shoes, setting them in a straight row with the rest of her footwear.

Toby followed closely behind and shut the front door. “I could plane that down for your parents,” he offered when he too noticed how the door stuck.

“It’ll be fine once this heat goes away,” Spencer dismissed. She tossed her school bag on the living room couch and went to the kitchen to pour herself a glass of water.

Toby wrapped his arms around his girlfriend and kissed her on the lips. “I missed you all day today.”

Spencer wrapped her arms around his cinched waist and smiled. “You too. I’m excited to spend some time together this weekend, just the two of us.”

She went to kiss her boyfriend again, hoping for a longer, lingering kiss, but Toby wiggled out of her eager grasp.

“I need to brush my teeth,” he laughed, holding his hand in front of his mouth. “I had coffee this afternoon and my mouth tastes gross.”

Spencer rolled her eyes. “You’re ridiculous.”

Toby didn’t stick around to defend himself. “I’ll be right back.”

Spencer’s eyes followed her boyfriend as he ran up the stairs, no doubt in the direction of her en suite bathroom. Her phone buzzed on the kitchen counter with an incoming text message and her stomach tensed. Her phone had become a weapon of mass destruction.

I just wanted to let you know that I won’t be in class tomorrow after all. I have physical therapy.

Spencer’s brow furrowed at the message. She didn’t recognize the number or the out-of-state area code. Who is this? she typed out.

The response was immediate. The girl in the wheelchair.

You could have just said Quinn, Spencer replied.

Another message blipped back: I didn’t want you to mistake me for someone else. Who knows how many Quinn’s you know?

I can honestly say you’re the only one. Spencer chewed on her lower lip as her fingers flew over the text messaging board. How did you get my number?

Your friend Hanna. Sorry. I just didn’t want you to freak out about getting my notebook back to me. You seem pretty intense.

Heavy steps echoed on the wooden staircase and Toby appeared in the kitchen shortly after.

“Who’s that?” he asked around his floss.

Spencer shoved her phone in the back pocket of her pants. “Aria. She wanted to know if I had an extra copy of a book she needs for AP English.” She didn’t know why she felt the need to lie; telling falsehoods had become all too easy and too natural these days.

Toby frowned slightly. “Are you sure it wasn’t from A, Spencer? It wouldn’t be the first time you’ve tried to keep something like that from me.”

Now it was Spencer’s turn to be annoyed. “I only did that to protect you.”

Toby brushed his sideways bangs out of his dark eyes. “And look how well that’s turned out,” he pointed out.

Spencer stuck out her bottom lip in a well-practiced pout. “I promise it wasn’t from A. It was just about school.”

At least that part wasn’t a lie.

Toby leaned in and pressed his lips against Spencer’s pouting mouth, and their conversation was forgotten for the moment.

++++

TBC