YOUR MOVE, ALI
Have you ever played chess with someone really good? Perhaps with your cousin on a rainy afternoon? Or with that cute guy at camp after lights-out? The game seems easy, but chess experts formulate their strategy dozens of moves in advance. That way, they can hit you with sneak attacks, leaving you thinking, What just happened? You might feel manipulated when the game is done. Blindsided. Like you’re the biggest idiot ever.
A certain someone does that to four pretty girls in Rosewood—again and again.
Once upon a time, there was a girl whose mind was like a never-ending chess game. Even when she seemed beaten, she always had a plan. Everyone was her adversary—especially the people who adored her most. All she wanted was her pieces to be the only ones left on the board at the end of the game.
And she wouldn’t stop until she’d won.
One week after the fire in the Poconos that almost killed her, Alison DiLaurentis sat with her boyfriend, Nicholas Maxwell, on the floor of an empty town house in Rosewood, Pennsylvania, a suburban Philadelphia town in which she’d spent several years of her life. The room was dark, and the only items in it were a mattress, ratty flannel blankets, an old TV someone had abandoned, and food Nick had shoplifted from the nearby Wawa mini-mart. The air smelled dusty and sour, which reminded Ali of The Preserve at Addison-Stevens, the mental hospital in which she’d been trapped for years. Still, it would do for a while. It just felt good to be free.
“Turn it up,” she said, gesturing toward the television.
Nick adjusted the dial. They were stealing electricity and cable from the main transformer in the complex—for a rich kid, Nick was great at ripping off The Man. The screen showed a live feed of police officers searching through a pile of rubble at Ali’s family’s vacation home in the Pocono Mountains. Ali knew full well what they were looking for: her. Or, more specifically, her bones.
“We’re still searching,” the chief of police said to an interviewer. “There was no way Ms. DiLaurentis survived that blast.”
Ali snickered. Idiots.
Nick looked at her worriedly. “Are you okay?” He took her hand. “We can watch something else if you want.”
Ali pulled the hoodie Nick had stolen from Target over her head, still self-conscious about the oozing burns on her face. They would heal—Nick had arranged for a nurse to come once a day—but she would never be as pretty as she once was. “Don’t change it,” she demanded. “I don’t want any more surprises.”
She’d already been surprised enough. Her foolproof plan of incinerating her sister’s old friends, along with Melissa Hastings and Ian Thomas’s body, inside her family’s mountain house and then slipping into the night, never to be seen again, had backfired. Spencer Hastings, Emily Fields, Aria Montgomery, and Hanna Marin had escaped the house virtually unharmed. Somehow the cops had found the letter Ali had slipped under their door—it was in the grass outside the house. The letter confessed everything—that she wasn’t Courtney, her twin, but the real Ali, a girl falsely imprisoned in a mental hospital. That she’d killed Courtney on the night of her seventh-grade graduation. That she’d killed Ian Thomas and Jenna Cavanaugh. And that she’d duped the girls into trusting her, and that she was going to kill them, too.
As luck would have it, the reporter on TV, a waxy-looking idiot with ugly fuchsia lipstick, was rehashing what the news was calling the Dark DiLaurentis Secrets—everything in that letter. “If she had lived, Miss DiLaurentis would be going to prison for the rest of her life for all the crimes she’d committed,” she said gravely.
Nick bit his thumbnail. “I wish that letter hadn’t been so definitive.”
Ali rolled her eyes. “I told you to write all of that. Quit worrying.” Nick had been the one to write the letter to the girls, not Ali. She’d begged him to, saying he was better with words and could imitate her handwriting. Nick was always a sucker for flattery. His writing it was a key piece of a plan she’d hoped she would never have to put in place, one she didn’t even like thinking about.
She peered at Nick now, and he stared back hungrily. Even in her ugly state—she also had a broken nose and horrid bruises, and she was missing a back tooth—there was such love and devotion in his eyes. She thought about the day she’d met him at The Preserve. It wasn’t long after her sister made the fateful switch a few days into their sixth-grade year, sending Ali to the new mental hospital in her place. Ali had been at her first group therapy session, sitting in a circle with bona fide mental freaks.
“I shouldn’t be here,” she’d complained to the therapist, a tool named Dr. Brock. “I’m Alison, not Courtney. My sister tricked me, and now she’s living my life.”
Dr. Brock looked at her with his sad, dopey eyes. “Your doctors at the Radley said you had trouble with this. But you’re Courtney. And it’s okay to be Courtney. Hopefully we can work through that together.”
Ali had stewed for the rest of the hour. After the session ended, someone touched her hand. “I know you’re telling the truth,” said a soft voice behind her. “I’m on your side.”
Nick Maxwell had been staring at her fervently. Ali had noticed him at meals; he was a few years older, with wavy hair and strong shoulders. Every girl had a crush on him. Ali had also heard that he was in the hospital for borderline personality disorder. She’d been so bored during one-on-one therapy sessions that she’d read parts of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in her therapist’s office; borderline-personality people were impulsive and reckless and extremely insecure.