Natalie waited for Josh to unlock his bike from a tree outside of Briana's house. They were quiet on their walk to Stag Meadow. "So are you going to tell me what else went down tonight?" Josh asked when they were a couple of minutes away.
"Can I just say high-school girls are evil and leave it at that?" Natalie kicked a crushed soda bottle out of the way. Why spoil the moment by bringing Thisbe into it? "Tell me about your cocktail party," she said. "Did they let you drink?"
"It's not like I brought a six-pack and asked." Josh laughed.
"Well, I bet they wish you had. I'm sure all the moms were sweating the cute bassist."
"Does that include my mom?" Josh made a face. "Oh, look! A firefly!"
"Nice distraction tact—" Natalie started, but then she caught a spark out of the corner of her eye. You don't have to be paranoid all the time, she reminded herself, remembering the pep talk James had given her on the phone the other night. "When a guy is sending you mixed signals," she'd said, "what he's really saying is come and get me, sister."
With James' encouragement ringing in her head, Natalie reached over and squeezed her boyfriend's hand. He returned the pressure, and they didn't say anything else until they reached the clearing and settled into a patch of worn-out grass. The air smelled like honeysuckle, and there was just enough moonlight to make out the outline of Josh's body as he kicked out his legs and lay back.
Natalie lowered herself down next to him and for a few minutes they just lay there in silence, staring up at the sky. And soon enough—afterward, she couldn't say who'd started it—they were kissing slowly, tentatively. They were the only people at Blue Stag, and their breathing sounded thunderous in the wide field.
Josh arched his neck as Natalie rubbed her face against it, inhaling his smell close up. It was still new to her, this mixture of soap and citrus with some indefinable tang. She ran her tongue along his skin, rediscovering its slightly metallic taste.
Josh let off a groan. "This feels too good."
Hearing James' raspy voice again—Show me a guy who isn't a little vain and lazy. They all like to be chased—Natalie straddled him. Josh sighed and lay perfectly still as she kissed the corners of his lips. And then Josh rolled on top of her, pinning her down with his not-insubstantial weight. She giggled into his mouth and slipped her hand under the bottom of Josh's shirt, enjoying the uneven rhythm of his panting. The skin on the small of his back was coated in goose bumps.
Natalie pulled him down and moved her hand along the circumference of his jeans, tugging at the belt loops. She could feel his resistance. Then, as her hand made contact with his stomach, Josh pushed her away. "Shh!" he whispered.
"What is it?" she asked.
"N-nothing," Josh said quickly, glancing over his shoulder. "I just thought I heard something."
Natalie stopped moving and listened, but the silence surrounding them was absolute. Josh was playing his part perfectly, lying in wait, exactly as James had said. Now all Natalie had to do was take charge. With that in mind, she flipped onto her side and propped her head on her hand. She smiled wide and watched him take her in. In the dark, with her hair tangling with the grass and the movie-star green dress hiked up to her thighs, she felt almost beautiful.
"I'm sure it was nothing," she said soothingly, then lowered herself back toward him.
"I guess I'm just jumpy tonight," Josh said, looking away from her and out across the empty field.
"Don't worry," Natalie said. "I won't bite. Or, I mean, not in a bad way." She giggled, and he looked at her strangely.
"The thing is, Nat …" Josh paused, and she waited for him to finish. "I don't want to rush things." He sighed. "I really like you."
Her insides warmed at this obvious code for I don't want to be a predator—James really had covered every base. "I like you, too." She didn't take her eyes off Josh's smile as her fingers crab-walked across the grass. Then, slowly but surely, her hand found his zipper and tugged it downward.
Josh flinched and grabbed his crotch protectively. "Take it easy!" His voice sounded almost angry, and Natalie pulled her hand back. What was wrong with him—or, more to the point, with her?
The next morning, Natalie woke up way too early. On the floor was the green gown she'd inadvertently stolen from Briana; she threw her baby blue blanket over it to block out the memories of a night gone terribly wrong. She checked her e-mail to see if Josh had sent her some sort of explanation or even just an MP3 in an effort to normalize things. Instead there was another post on her Facebook wall from the mysterious Risa Baynar—a picture of what looked like a stingray. Maybe it wouldn't have seemed so ugly, menacing even, if Natalie weren't already feeling so paranoid about, well, everything.
Only a long, hard run could help her sort through the damage. Luckily, it was 6:30, still early enough to tiptoe downstairs without encountering any family members. When Natalie opened the door, she kicked the Sunday New York Times out of her way and took off. The sun was inching up into the sky, and the air felt crisp and bracing.
Jogging down Marieden Avenue, Edgemont's main commercial street, Natalie quickened her pace when Cafe Quixotic came into view. True, Josh probably wouldn't even be awake for another several hours, but still—she didn't even want to be reminded of him that morning. He'd been chivalrous but totally awkward on their walk back home, pushing his bike and holding her hand but offering no words of reassurance. He'd left her at the door with only a shy peck on the cheek and no promise to call.
So much for all guys wanting to get it on. They only wanted sex with the girls who wouldn't give it to them, girls who were saving themselves for their wedding nights or just plain old way out of their league. Now that Natalie unambiguously wanted Josh, he was retreating. He was put off by her eagerness, grossed out by her aggressiveness. Or maybe he was just grossed out by her, period.
And what about Jenna? Could Natalie ever forgive her for telling Thisbe about the Dark Shadows audition? Drunk or sober, Jenna should have known never ever to spill any confidential information about Natalie to Thisbe. But maybe it wasn't that grave a sin. Maybe Natalie was just being overly sensitive in the aftermath of her stepfather's … Ugh, she couldn't even think about that.
She kept running and running, past the housing development on the eastern edge of town and through the woods that led back to the highway, and by the time she was back on Maple Crest Lane, Natalie had no idea how many miles she'd clocked. Coach Calabasi would've been proud of her endorphins-induced oblivion.
The New York Times was still in the same spot where Natalie had kicked it, which she took to signal that her parents were still in bed. But then she opened the door and heard Teddy's voice coming from the kitchen: "Those bastards completely blindsided me—I never saw it coming for a second!" Natalie frowned and went back outside to stuff the paper in the recycling bin, under a leaflet for an obese city councilman, then re-entered the house with trepidation.
"Hi!" Natalie called out way too brightly. She paused in the doorway to give her parents a moment to wrap up their grim conversation.
"That you, Jenna?" her mom yelled back.
Natalie felt a rush of confusion. "Um, sorry, no, it's your daughter," she said.
"Too many teenagers to keep track of," Elena said as she came out of the kitchen and set what looked like a double-layer honey walnut cake down on the table. Uh-oh: Her mother only cooked Greek food when she was borderline suicidal.
If only Natalie could wake up as James and get paid fantastic sums of money just for standing around and looking unfairly hot, then she could swoop down and save her family and all would be right in the world. Natalie grabbed the Cornell sweatshirt from the coat rack and wiped it across her extremely sweaty face.
"I invited Jenna over," Elena said. "She sounded really upset."
"You can't just do that," Natalie said indignantly. "She's my friend!"
Elena laughed bitterly. "You think I'm trying to steal your friends? She's coming over to talk to you."
This was even more infuriating. "Couldn't you have consulted me first? Jesus, Mom!"
Elena sighed and went back into the kitchen. The door swung behind her so hard that Natalie felt a blast of air hit her face.
"Why do I sense now is a bad time?" The words came from the front hallway.
Jenna was standing in the living room. Lit from behind by the fringed reading lamp, her face was all crevices and shadows.
She took a small step toward Natalie and then stopped. Her cheeks turned slime-green and her eyes were about to pop out of her head. Natalie charged at her and pushed her through the living room and out the door, just in time for Jenna to puke all over the lawn.
When she was done ejecting her insides, Jenna still had little chunks of what looked like bubble tea dribbling down her chin. Her face was so disgusting it was almost impressive. She reminded Natalie of Prince Emory after his spirit-letting encounter in the Stone Atrium with a rabid Malachai in Dark Sinister.
"Are you OK?" Natalie said finally, dabbing her sweat-soaked sweatshirt at the corners of Jenna's mouth. For once Jenna didn't squirm away from her touch.
"Ugh," Jenna said, gripping her forehead. "I don't know. I think I might be … poisoned or something."
"I've been there," Natalie said, inching closer. "Want a napkin or something?"
Jenna placed her head between her knees and came back up a minute later. "I promise not to get wasted like that in Nantucket," she said.
Natalie knew this was as close as her friend would ever come to an apology, since Jenna was as averse to heart-to-hearts as she was to cuddles. Still, she couldn't stop herself from saying, "I'm not sure Nantucket's going to work this year."
Jenna's face went from yellow to pink. "What do you mean Nantucket's not going to work?" she demanded. "Is this some kind of punishment for the whole Thisbe thing last night, which I don't even really remember? God, Natalie, you can hardly blame her for hating you."
"This has nothing to do with Thisbe," Natalie snapped. As if she should apologize for being a better runner!
"Yeah, right," Jenna said. "I'm really and truly sorry you and Thisbe don't get along, but if you want my opinion, it's because you're so much alike."
Natalie snorted at this. "Why, because I spend an hour messing up my hair every morning?"
Jenna rolled her eyes. "Whatever. Just stop taking out your resentment on me. I seriously cannot believe you'd threaten to boycott Nantucket—it's totally immature and bitchy of you."
"God, Jenna, do I really have to spell out the reason I can't come? It's m-o-n-e-y. We don't have it."
Even though Nantucket was only a 45-minute plane trip from Newark, tickets usually cost upwards of $400. Given what was currently going down in the Pollock-Pendleton kitchen, Natalie didn't dare ask her parents to sponsor the trip.
But this admission did nothing to calm Jenna down. "Oh, come on," she said. "It's not like your parents suddenly don't have a penny to their name. Teddy was, like, the head of the New York Times. Of course they're giving him a, what's it called, a settlement. And you don't have to pay for a single thing once you get to the island, obviously. You'll actually save money if you think about it. A week of free living."
When Natalie sighed at this logic, Jenna only got madder. "Seriously, Natalie, you need to stop feeling so sorry for yourself. No offense, but it's not a very attractive personality trait."
Natalie rose to her feet, barely noticing the Dayglo-yellow Mr. Bozo birthday van as it honked down the street. "My personality is unattractive? Sorry. Why don't you invite Thisbe then? I hear she has a really attractive personality, and we all know she won't have any trouble paying for her ticket."
Now Jenna stood up, too. "Do you know what, maybe I will! I mean, Thisbe may have her issues, but at least she doesn't question my motives at every turn or make me feel bad just because my dad happens to make a lot of money." With that, Jenna let off an exasperated huff and spun toward the street.
"Make sure to send me a postcard!" Natalie sputtered at Jenna's retreating figure. "I'll cherish it! The way you cherish your friends!" Natalie had no idea what she meant; she was too outraged to think straight. "Bon voyage!" she screamed at the top of her lungs.
Something smacked her head from above. Gross—as if having Jenna shit on her wasn't enough, now a bird was in on the fun as well. But then a pair of red socks rolled onto the lawn, and Natalie looked up to see Nick's head hanging out of his bedroom window.
"Nat, you know I have nothing but love for the gays, but can you keep your lovers' quarrel down? It's ass early." He slammed the window shut.
Natalie stormed inside to her room. It was a little after 9 o'clock and already the worst day ever. She may as well experiment with heroin or streak through town naked—everything would end in disaster, anyway.
Just as she flopped back on her bed, Natalie's cell phone rang. When she saw James' name on the little screen, she couldn't suppress a little thump of excitement.
"Hey!" she said, but evidently her voice still carried traces of her fight with Jenna.
"Hey yourself," James said. "Somebody wake up on the wrong side of the crypt?"
"More like the wrong side of the world." Natalie cringed at her lame-o reply. What was she even talking about?
"Well, before you end it all, I have to tell you about this amazing photo shoot." James sounded excited.
"A shoot, cool," Natalie said, not quite sure why James was bragging about her jobs. "OK, shoot." Har, har, not.
"It's my friend Alison. She's this really awesome photographer who usually does found-object stuff, but she's working on a new project and needs some extras. So I thought you might be up for it?"
Natalie's heart quickened. "Me? Really? Like, as a model?"
"No, as a janitor. Of course as a model! It'll just take an afternoon, and tragiquement, she's only paying, like, a hundred bucks."
"No way!" Natalie cried. "I'll totally get out of bed for that!"
"Excellent." James sounded amused. "Do you know how to get to Williamsburg?"