"Things are going to be different around here from now on," Teddy said at breakfast the next morning. His colorful checked button-down shirt was tightly tucked into a pair of suit pants—his typical work getup—but his bushy hair was matted and the circles under his eyes were pronounced. Studying him over her orange juice, Natalie couldn't help think her stepfather looked like an escaped mental patient.
"At least we aren't going into foreclosure like every other home in the country," Nick said helpfully.
"Can it, Nick," Teddy said through a clenched jaw. But then Natalie saw—and immediately wished she hadn't—the single tear that exited his right eye and traveled slowly down his cavernous cheek. How had she not noticed how much weight Teddy had lost recently?
It was nuts, how quickly life could change. The previous weekend, Natalie had bought a random tank top she didn't even really like at Banana Republic, just because it was on clearance and she could. Even two days earlier, if anyone had told her that Teddy would get fired, she would have laughed out loud. Teddy didn't have a job; he was his job.
And now, just like that, his 17-year tenure at the Times was over, in the stroke of a single closed-door conversation with a wall-eyed woman from human resources. Her bubbly stepfather, once a fount of anecdotes from reporting trips in the early 1990s, had gone mute with sullenness. Elena had pulled her emergency supply of manic energy out of storage, the way she always did in moments of distress.
As for Natalie, she just felt numb, as if she'd been dumped in the middle of a dream date. Everything she'd taken for granted was suddenly up for grabs. She could no longer assume her parents would provide her with a private college education or a secondhand Subaru on her 18th birthday. She barely recognized her own life.
After crawling into bed Thursday night, Natalie immediately passed out, pulled into the undertow of unfamiliar emotions. She felt scared and alone in her own home. And old.
Jenna, who learned about the catastrophe via text at 7:35 on Friday morning, summoned every available ounce of sympathy to cheer up her friend. At lunch that day, she surprised Natalie with an indoor picnic of Fresca and Thai delivery, normally Natalie's favorites. Then, after school, Jenna kidnapped Natalie for a sleepover adventure. They filmed an episode of their wildly popular Web show, then stayed up late trying on Mrs. Stecklow's sequined micro-minidresses and watching Jennifer's Body. Over cold pizza the next morning, Jenna, who had appointed herself Natalie's "positive-thinking life coach," offered to come up with plans to keep her friend distracted while Teddy "landed back on his feet."
"Summer's the perfect time for trauma," Jenna declared. "There're so many fun distractions."
"Like what?" Natalie was unconvinced. To her, summer meant more time to obsess over the sudden awfulness of her family's situation.
"Like Briana's dress-up party tonight! It'll be so fun," Jenna said. "Besides, it's the perfect kind of party for you."
"You mean because I don't have to buy an outfit?"
"Er, no," Jenna said. "I was actually talking about how it's an activity party. It'll get your mind off things."
Jenna meant well, but she simply didn't understand that Teddy's downsizing was not merely in Natalie's "head," like a bad dream or her upper-lip peach-fuzz fixation. Teddy had two weeks to vacate the desk he'd occupied for 17 years—longer than Natalie had been alive!—and six months before the family's health insurance expired.
Because she'd been eavesdropping on their whispered conversations, Natalie knew her parents were worried about, among other once taken-for-granted expenses, paying for her visits to Dr. Bhatia, the Von Willebrand specialist she saw on Park Avenue twice a year.
Poor Teddy: Natalie remembered how he'd moped around after his mother's funeral a few years earlier; she couldn't even imagine how he'd acted after the death of Nick's mother way back when. Awful, just awful.
On second thought, maybe getting out of the house was exactly what Natalie needed.
"Fine, I'll come," she told Jenna at last, "but I reserve the right to remain a wallflower. I'm not sure this is the best time for me to be dressing up in some dead lady's clothes."
"Whatever," Jenna said. "You will die when you see them."
"Kind of like Grandmother Wolfe, you mean?" Natalie cackled, feeling better already. She was almost relieved that Josh wouldn't be around that night: He was getting paid to look broodily handsome and play some jazz standards at the cocktail party of some family friends. Natalie had enough troubles without having to fret over the status of their relationship.
"Okay, Miss Hilarious," Jenna said. "The hearse will be waiting outside your house at eight."
After a quick shower, Natalie threw on a boring outfit and hastily dried her hair, resulting in a few kinks near the crown of her head. Then, in lieu of a more thorough makeup job, she reached for her favorite Strawberry Fields lip gloss and daubed some on her lips.
"Ouch!" she yelped, drawing back her hand. She looked in the mirror to see a thin stream of blood dribbling from a triangular shard of glass in her lower lip. Hello, talk about product-recall scandal of the year, Natalie was thinking before she remembered: Teddy no longer covered those sorts of stories, or any others, anymore.
The honk of the Stecklow town car punctured Natalie's train of thought. She rushed outside and slid into the backseat to find Jenna sitting behind the driver (Hisham again), completely dolled up in a hot-pink bandage dress. "What's up with that?" Natalie asked in annoyance. "I thought the whole point was to get dressed up there."
"Good evening to you, too," Jenna said. "So shoot me if I didn't want to attend a social event looking as if I'd just left Gold's Gym." Jenna curled up her lip at Natalie's zero-effort outfit of a rumpled button-down over a jean skirt. "So what do you think?" She smoothed out her dress. "It's returnable."
"Keep it," Natalie grumbled. Because really, why would Jenna return anything? Natalie shifted her body weight so that she was staring at the back of the driver's head. This was going to be a long night.
"Ew, what's wrong with your lip?" Jenna asked. "You look like Mike Tyson's ex-wife."
"Thanks," Natalie said, wiping at the scab that was just beginning to crust on her lower lip. "My lip gloss was defective or something."
"I mean, gross much?" Jenna said. "Seriously, can anyone spell lawsuit?"
When they got to the party, Dave Engwood, Zach Coulton, and Reed Siretti were milling around the living room in skinny pants and skinnier ties. "Everyone's upstairs," Reed told them.
Briana's bedroom was a madhouse, with piles of old clothes strewn everywhere and at least 20 half-dressed girls messing them up like so many leaf blowers. Natalie waved at Heather Grodstein, who was twining a gauzy scarf around Skyler Hutcheson's neck.
"Hey," Taylor Williamson greeted them. "You might need this."
Natalie accepted a purple beverage and took a tiny sip. It tasted repulsive and radioactive and burned the suture on her bottom lip, so when Taylor wasn't looking she placed it on Briana's desk, on top of a Princeton Review Power Vocab book.
After chugging her punch in one noisy gulp, Jenna pushed her way to Briana's bed, where Catherine Holster and Georgina McCall were fighting over a peacock-feather hat, and Vanessa Parker, whose rhinestone cat's-eye glasses and husky sidecracks added hilarity to most situations, was yelling at them to cut it out.
"Can everyone please stop screaming?" screamed Keeley Taminski. "I'm trying to concentrate!"
Unwilling to do battle for the crown jewels, Natalie took a spot near the bay window, where Briana had deposited a load of what appeared to be clothing from Grandmother Wolfe's later and less fashionable stages in life. Every garment was made of either Lycra or polyester: Rather than shirts or tops, these clothes could only be described as "blouses" and "slacks."
Natalie was eyeing a metallic sweat suit that ranked among the most hideous garments she had ever seen when she heard Jenna's voice behind her. "Why don't you try it on?"
"Ha, ha." But when Natalie swiveled around, she saw that Jenna was holding up a gorgeous Jackie O. cocktail dress. It was forest green with a belted cinch waist and fur-lined collar. And then Jenna raised her other hand to reveal matching elbow-length gloves. "I found it under Briana's bed. A total score, right?"
Natalie nodded. "But why don't you try it?"
Jenna smiled and reached for her refill of punch. "I think one of us needs it more."
"Aw, thanks, Jen," Natalie said, leaning in to squeeze her friend's shoulder.
"It's just a dress, cheeseball," Jenna said, writhing out of Natalie's reach. Jenna had never been big on physical contact, with girls or guys. Even the gym locker room was too skin-flick for her tastes; she preferred to change in a locked bathroom stall.
Repulsive trail of tummy hair notwithstanding, Natalie did not share Jenna's modesty: She'd run half-naked around too many tracks in her life. So, before anyone else could snag it, Natalie quickly threw off her clothes and pulled on the green dress.
The dress was tight but fit perfectly. Without even glancing into a mirror, Natalie knew she looked good, especially after Vanessa hooted, "Good lawd, Natalie! I want to have sex with you right here on B-Wolfe's floor!"
"Where did you get that?" Briana cried behind her. "I've never seen it."
"You're on your own here," Jenna muttered. "I'm going to the kitchen for more alkies!"
"It was right on top of this pile," Natalie said, pointing to the gold-lamé sweat suit and prompting the dozen-some girls in the room to descend on Grandma Wolfe's geriatric wear. The frenzy reminded Natalie of the scene in Dark Impaling when Terra flexes her magic just as Imogen releases the royal hounds from the shed and they all leap into the Fire Canyon.
Leaving the others to fight over Briana's grandmother's old-age aerobics wear, Natalie clawed through her hostess's closet until she found a pair of gold high heels. They were snug but did the trick.
Downstairs, the crowd had thickened. Natalie couldn't believe how many guys had dressed up—and how good they looked. As her eyes lingered on the normally forgettable John Beeseman, she wondered whether this whole dead-grandmother party had been a ruse to get the Edgemont boys to clean up their act. If so, B-Wolfe deserved serious credit for once.
Natalie had to fight her way through the snarl of classmates to reach the kitchen, where Jenna was leaning against the stainless-steel oven. "Hey!" she cried across the room, but Jenna didn't seem to hear her.
"Thanks for the dress," Natalie said when she finally got over to Jenna. "Me loves it mucho."
"Oh, no prob," Jenna said distractedly. She was looking sideways, toward the living room.
And then Thisbe Grant's head—crowned with a ridiculously oversize silk gladiola—came into view. "This is all I found," she said, handing Jenna a bottle of Smirnoff and helping herself to one of the cups.
"Thanks so much, Thisbe!" Jenna simpered.
"Hey there, Natalie," Thisbe said with an upraised eyebrow. "Nice dress." Like everything that came out of Thisbe's mouth, this sounded like an insult, and that was even before she added, "I mean, it would look totally slamming on a Dark Shadows cover. Jenna here was just telling us about your secret modeling fantasies, which we thought were just … priceless."
As Thisbe sniggered obnoxiously, Natalie's eyes shot over to Jenna, who averted hers in record time. And then she giggled. She'd clearly overdone it on the punch already.
"Hey, anyone know how to say 'awesome' in vampire?" Thisbe asked.
" 'Fangtastic'?" Regina Tramonte suggested with a titter.
Natalie squeezed her fists tight. What she wouldn't give for Terra's power of Finalization. It was a gift that came with great consequences and should only be used once a century, but Natalie was pretty sure this moment qualified.
"Aw, don't be mad, Natalie," Thisbe said. "We think your secret Dark Shadows obsession is sweet—it explains so much. What else do you do in your spare time—play Dungeons and Dragons on the Internet?"
This was just too much. Jenna was now giggling hysterically, seemingly unaware of Thisbe's effect on her friend. And so, without saying another word, Natalie bolted. Screw Jenna and Thisbe and all the rest of them. Coming to this party had been a gigantic mistake.
Natalie was halfway to the front door when she caught sight of Josh. He was standing a head taller than anyone else in the foyer, wearing the sweatshirt he'd let her decorate with permanent ink hearts one lazy study session.
Natalie ran toward him—quite an accomplishment given the tightness of the gown—and, forgetting their recent awkwardness, threw her arms around his neck and kissed him hard on the mouth.
"Whoa," Josh said, staggering backward. "Wow. You look amazing."
"You, too." Natalie's whole body was humming. "You have no idea how glad I am to see you. I thought you were playing at the Meyersons' party tonight?"
"I was," Josh said. "But everyone got blotto by 6 p.m. and the party was over by 8. Must've been all that smooth jazz," he said with a smirk. Then, looking down at Natalie, he asked, "You're not drunk, too, are you?"
If only, Natalie thought, tears pricking the corners of her eyes. "No, just irrationally happy you showed up. This party sucks. Can we ditch?"
"But I just got here," Josh protested.
"Let's go to Blue Stag!" Natalie was suddenly energized. "Please?"
Even after Edgemont High's stoner contingent had colonized its northwest patch, Natalie still considered the Blue Stag Meadow her personal hideaway. She loved the field, where the tiniest violets grew in the grass and moths flitted overhead and the light fell soft and fuzzy all year round. When she was younger and still convinced she had artistic talent, Natalie would go there to draw. More recently, she'd retreated there to catch up on school reading.
Feeling the heat rising from Josh's body, Natalie suddenly decided it was time to put the meadow to yet another use.
"It's right near here," Natalie said, braiding her fingers through Josh's. "Please?"
A look of uncertainty flickered across Josh's face. "Isn't it going to be completely dark?"
The music was so loud the floorboards were vibrating. Over Josh's shoulder Natalie glimpsed Jenna tottering out of the kitchen. The girl could simply not hold her alcohol. In normal circumstances, Natalie would be concerned, but right then she was just too angry to care.
Josh wrapped his arms around her and pulled her in tight, stroking her back while she pressed her cheek against his chest. "C'mon, let's get out of here."