Natalie pinched the skin on inside of her arm. It was all she could do to keep from passing out right in the middle of third period.
It wasn't the lecture Mr. Teague was reading off a coffee-splattered legal pad that she found so unendurable. It was the atmosphere: how all the girls displayed their identical iPods out on the top left corners of their desks, how all the guys wore their hair in the same lame Justin Bieber shag. And Thisbe was doing what she always did: tapping her fingertips against her desk to showcase her middle finger's ever-growing totem pole of Tiffany stacking rings. Did nobody else see how tired it all was?
"Ms. Pollock, do you agree with your colleague?"
"My—colleague?" Natalie repeated, her eyes adjusting to the oversize walrus nostrils of her English teacher.
The class erupted in laughter as Mr. Teague smiled morosely and caressed the corners of his bushy red mustache. Natalie flinched, less than psyched for a cold shower of cornflakes and whatever other disgusting detritus was lodged in her teacher's facial hair.
"Dreadfully sorry to disturb your reverie, but I was wondering what you made of Ian Miller's account of the accident?"
"The accident," Natalie said slowly, trying to awaken some association. No dice. She was in no state to be answering questions about a homework assignment she hadn't even started. She'd barely caught the 12:45 bus back to Edgemont the night before; Mr. Teague should be applauding her for showing up. Her eyes snapped across the room at Ian, who grimaced apologetically at her.
"Ian was talking," Mr. Teague drawled, "about the last chapter of Ethan Frome, and what happens when we get exactly what we wish for in life. You have been keeping up with the reading assignments, have you not?"
Natalie's head felt heavy as she nodded slowly. The only sounds in the room were the tick of the second hand on the wall clock and the slower rhythm of Mr. Teague's wheezing.
"Mr. T?" Thisbe Grant's voice came from the front of the room. Nobody called their superserious, fluent-in-Greek-and-Latin, Ph.D.-from-Fordham teacher "Mr. T." Nobody, that is, except Thisbe Grant. "Mr. T, can I say something?"
And Mr. Teague never tolerated interruptions—unless they happened to come from Thisbe Grant. He loved Thisbe, worshipped at her feet. The entire Edgemont faculty did. Thisbe never said anything remotely interesting or thoughtful, but teachers obviously weren't in the market for authentic insights or intelligence.
"You'll have to excuse her, Mr. T," Thisbe said. "Natalie's literary attentions are currently occupied by Dork Shadows!" And then she laughed, and the rest of the class—lemmings, all—joined in.
Natalie felt her morning oatmeal rise in her throat. But then of course Thisbe would revel in broadcasting her Fiona St. Claire obsession to the entire 10th grade. Jenna was in big trouble; huge.
"You don't seriously read those, do you?" Sophie Reese asked Natalie over the din of hecklers. "Those books are, like, pornographic!"
"Dude," Simon Rostron said, "don't knock the porno. It's total cloth reading material."
"Maybe your cloth can visit Natalie's lending library," Thisbe suggested wryly. "Unless, of course, Natty sleeps with her treasured books at night—I wouldn't be surprised."
Once again, the class busted up. Natalie wanted to crawl under her seat, or underground. As if reading vampire novels were that heinous a crime! As if Natalie alone were responsible for placing Fiona's series on every best-seller list on the planet!
Mr. Teague wasn't having much success bringing the class to order until Rhoda Silver raised her hand.
"Ms. Silver has some thoughts on the reading assignment," Mr. Teague said with a grateful bob of his head. It was maybe the first time Rhoda had voluntarily spoken in class all year, and her classmates all went silent in anticipation. "Do divulge."
"I want to talk about the assignment?" Rhoda said, tugging at the hood of the sweatshirt she always wore tightly zipped over her head. "But first I want to say something about Dark Shadows? I happen to think Fiona's books are totally awesome, too. Thisbe might agree if she ever bothered giving them a chance. "
Ignoring the now stadium-loud laughter that filled the room, Rhoda turned to beam at her fellow Fiona devotee. Natalie felt a burning sensation spread across her cheeks. Was this really happening? Rhoda Silver—a plankton in the Edgemont High food chain, best known for her devotion to banana-colored nail polish and history of hooking up with the entire staff of the QuikMart across the street from school—had broken her decade-long silence to defend Natalie in front of 30, maybe 40, witnesses. Man alive. This was truly the stuff of nightmares.
If only Owen would show up outside school in full-on Nicolai regalia and announce that the Regals had convened in the Night Shack and determined to rechristen Edgemont "Hypocrite High"—Natalie would pay a small fortune for that vindication. Oh, but wait, she didn't have any money, and neither did anyone in her family.
The rest of the day ground on and Natalie had nothing to look forward to except track practice after school. Out on the track, she could let off some steam and, with any luck, momentarily forget her problems.
Somehow, though, her body was out of tune, and for once she didn't have stupid Von Willebrand to blame—maybe the two cocktails she'd had the night before were slowing her down? Natalie cringed as Samantha Horton lapped her at the end of the first mile. Samantha Horton had barely made J.V. that spring, and now she was beating Edgemont's so-called track star. It was a good thing Thisbe Grant had a Botox appointment, or whatever it was that was keeping her from practice that day.
Natalie panted as she tried to speed up. With this type of shabby performance, coach Calabasi might actually choose another sophomore for the end-of-summer national training camp at the University of Pennsylvania, an honor Natalie had counted on since the first day of high school. And, as if reading her mind, on her way out of the locker room after practice, the coach stopped her
"You know I have a zero-tolerance policy for sloth, Pollock," she said sternly.
"Sloth?" Natalie was too exhausted for this B.S., even if she knew the coach was right. "You'd better pick up the pace if you want to stay on my shortlist for Penn in August, do you hear me?"
"Loud and clear," Natalie responded, but she didn't take the coach's threat seriously: She was a shoo-in for Penn and even Thisbe Grant knew it.
When Josh called later that afternoon, Natalie was face-down on her bedroom floor, still in her grimy track clothes, her history textbook tented on the carpet next to her. She must've passed out right after she'd come home. To judge by the deep amber glow outside her window, she'd been asleep several hours.
Josh chuckled at her groggy hello. "Don't you have an all-important American History final to be studying for?" he said, sounding disconcertingly normal. How he kept the Stag Meadow catastrophe out of his voice was a mystery to Natalie, but she certainly wasn't complaining.
"Yeah, I was just … resting up." Natalie rubbed her eyes. She didn't feel like detailing the reason for her exhaustion, i.e., her late night of cavorting with James and a pair of impossibly hot guys, one of whom was the real-life Nicolai.
"I'm just leaving Café Quixotic and was heading over with a special delivery," Josh said, "but I'll go back to put an extra shot of espresso in it."
"You should have it yourself," Natalie said. Much as she typically loved Josh's "special deliveries"—a white chocolate latte with extra whip—she wasn't totally up for a visit from the one adolescent male in America who had no interest in getting it on with his girlfriend. It had been a rough day; one more drop of rejection could undo her. "I shouldn't see you till I've studied some more."
"Oh, c'mon, can't we study together?" Josh pressed. "What if I ask super nicely? Because FYI, I happen to have a real memory for useless Civil War trivia. Especially in the company of a babe such as yourself."
Natalie smiled, caved: "All right, come on over then." Maybe James was right: Josh just needed a girl with a little extra oomph to get him going.
Just as Natalie hung up the phone, her computer made a dinging sound to announce the arrival of a new message. She walked over to her desk and saw yet another new wall post from Risa Baynar. This one was a fuzzy picture of a pretty girl with blue eyes. It was definitely cool-looking, if not all that heroin chic.
It made no sense. What could this woman possibly want with Natalie Pollock?
Next week: Natalie comes face to face with some profoundly unsettling
truths about her father.