"I swear to God, I'm going to die," Heather Grodstein groaned into the phone. Her older brother, Jake, had just told her that people could see who'd looked them up on Facebook, and she was freaking out.
"He's just messing with you." Natalie reached forward to grab the lone coarse hair on her right big toe. So disgusting. "If it were true, how come we don't know who's looking us up?" She braced herself and yanked the hair out.
"Because we don't have the software," Heather said. "Obviously."
"There's really software for that?" Natalie was now a little nervous. "Tell me you're not serious."
Josh was a tech-savvy guy as these things went; could he possibly know how many hours she'd spent drooling over his pictures last semester, back when she was oh-so-casually doing her homework at Cafe Quixotic and waiting to bump into him? And what about all the pretty senior girls whose spring-break pictures she could practically draw from memory?
Natalie looked up suddenly to see Josh poking his head through the doorway. His cheeks were flushed from what must've been a very brisk walk, and his too-short haircut had officially started to grow out.
"Shit, I'll call you later," she told Heather, and shut her phone.
"What was that all about that?"
"Heather—she's just stressing about finals." Natalie tried to sound chill, but she knew she hadn't kept the apprehension out of her voice. "She's getting, um, study software."
"Maybe she should just consider study-ing."
Natalie forced a chuckle and concentrated on picking off the pills on the yoga pants she'd just changed into. Her toe was still pink, but at least it no longer sported that repulsive alfalfa sprout. When she looked back up, Josh was leaning against the doorjamb, holding a brown paper bag and watching her with a dim smile. "What're you doing, weirdo?" she asked.
Josh shrugged. "You just … you look super cute."
Natalie flushed and trained her eyes on the floor.
"Oh, and here's your study buddy." Josh removed a coffee cup from the bag and handed it to Natalie. He crumpled up the bag, then sank into her wheelie chair and rolled right underneath Natalie's Man Ray poster of the naked woman with a cello on her back.
"Thanks." Natalie took a sip. "It better not keep me up all night."
"Ah, c'mon, live dangerously." Josh smiled and raised his eyebrows.
Natalie's tired brain spun in confusion. What exactly was Josh trying to do here? First he tells her she's super cute, next he encourages her to "live dangerously"—and this was the same guy who'd so forcibly fended off her advances on Saturday, as if he were Edward in Eclipse, holding out till Bella would marry him? She remembered what James had said at the Boys and Girls Club the night before: "That whole play-it-cool thing is so prehistoric. Guys want a girl who knows what she wants and how to get it."
Appropriately, "Paper Cup" by the Swell Season came on right then, and Josh nodded his head appreciatively. "Not bad for indie trash," he joked.
"Hey, I actually have a music question for you." Natalie stretched out her arms, looked down at her hands. She'd painted her nails sky blue the night before and couldn't tell if they looked pretty or hideous. "Have you ever heard of a song called 'Clair de Lune'?" Risa Baynar had posted the sheet music on her Facebook wall, and Natalie had no clue why.
"Yeah, me and every other second-grader who's ever taken a piano class. Why—is it on the Twilight soundtrack or something?"
"I wouldn't know," she said. "My musical taste is way more advanced than Bella's. Anyway, no real reason—I was just curious."
"Expanding your musical education, I approve," Josh said as he slid off the chair and settled right next to Natalie on the carpet. Her stomach convulsed: Maybe there was some hope for this so-far-totally-craptastic day after all? But as he dug his spiral notebook out of his backpack and flipped it open, Natalie realized he really had come to help her prepare for her exam. Of course. Ugh.
"You're in pretty good shape, right?" he asked. "I mean, in American history," he added quickly, lest she think he was referring to her body.
"I guess?" Natalie looked at Josh and wondered how he could be sitting this close without even trying to kiss her. She leaned back onto her elbows and flipped open her spiral, sighing too quietly for Josh to hear.
An hour or so later, when the evening wind was making owlish sounds outside her window, Natalie was lying on her back and listing the five main accomplishments of what Josh called the "greatest hit" presidents from George Washington onward.
"You're solid through early 20th century," he said. "Now gimme some JFK." He picked up her head to slide his crossed legs underneath her skull. It was the first time he'd touched her all evening, and it felt enormously good.
"OK," Natalie said, resolutely ignoring the goose bumps that were spreading over her skin as Josh stroked her hair. "JFK did … Marilyn Monroe."
"You're hopeless, Pollock," Josh said. He was smiling down at her as he slowly massaged her temples. Then, while she held her breath, he bent over and planted a feather-light kiss on her forehead.
Without even thinking about it, Natalie flipped onto her chest and arched her back to bring her face level with his. "I learned this pose from Maya," she said, suddenly aware of the awkwardness. "It's called, um, cobra."
"I see why. You look very dangerous." Josh gave off a dry chuckle, and a look of intensity flared up in his eyes.
"Natalie!" Elena hollered from downstairs at the worst possible moment. "Come set the table!"
Elena clearly didn't realize that Josh was over; if she had, she would've definitely softened her voice. Then again, in the wake of Teddy being fired—sorry, "laid off"—Elena probably wouldn't have noticed if Lady Gaga had come over to rehearse in the living room.
Natalie jumped up, shouted, "It's Nick's turn!" and then closed her bedroom before she could hear her brother's aggrieved response.
She crossed back over to Josh and positioned her face inches from his, then centimeters. And then Natalie could no longer measure the distance, because she closed her eyes, opened her mouth, and looped both arms around Josh's neck. Her lips rested on his and he kissed her back gently, always so gently.
She slipped her tongue into his mouth, then tugged his hair and traced the inside of his ear with her index finger. And then it happened. As if electrocuted, or severely allergic, Josh shuddered away from Natalie. It was exactly what he'd done in Stag Meadow, only this time without the provocation of any crotch-grabbing on her part.
"Sorry!" he said, looking down at his hands, which were no longer stroking her back in those wonderful little circles. When, after a few awful, frozen seconds, he raised his eyes to Natalie, his face was etched in an expression of abject fear.
"You don't have to look at me like I'm some kind of monster!" She could barely choke back the tears.
"That's the last thing you are. It's just …"
"It's just what? Tell me!" Natalie demanded, though she wasn't sure she really wanted to know. Her mind raced: Did Josh like her as a friend but find her physically repulsive? Did he have another girlfriend? Or was Josh—OMG!—gay and merely using Natalie as, what was that word, a beard?
"OK, I will then," Josh said, looking away from her again. "It's about my ex. Chloe."
Natalie froze. Chloe. Josh had never mentioned her before. But Edgemont was a small town, and she knew the basics. Chloe Miller was a year ahead of them at Dover High and had long blond hair, mournful green eyes, and ridiculously large boobs—the complete male-fantasy package. She and Josh had gone out last spring, and Natalie used to see them hanging out around the shops on Lockner Street, looking cool and bored together.
It was Chloe who'd made Natalie start to think differently about Josh: to notice how much cuter he'd become since their brief stint as Life Sciences lab partners in seventh grade, to wish she was the one holding his hand outside the 1-Hr Photo Shop. Josh and Chloe had broken up the previous summer, and it had taken Natalie an entire semester to gather the courage to start "running into him" at Cafe Quixotic.
"I never exactly explained what happened with us," Josh said. He paused again and tried to pull Natalie close to him, but she resisted.
"You told me she dumped you for that guy on the baseball team, Drew."
"She did." He stopped, as if entertaining an unpleasant thought. "But there's more. The thing is, about a month after we started to go out, Chloe and I sort of, um, had sex."
Natalie got up to turn off the iPod—Paramore's angsty ballad seemed out of place in the circumstances. A cold silence settled over the room, and she moved over to the windowsill to rearrange the super-elaborate origami creatures her father had folded into existence during long-ago business meetings. She had to busy her hands somehow.
There was a banging on the door, followed by Nick's rendition of "Suppertime" to the tune of "Summertime."
"One minute!" Natalie all but screamed. So Josh wasn't a virgin. Which meant—wow. What she said to him was "So?"
"Well, like, I definitely don't think I was ready at the time," Josh said. "I mean, I was barely 15."
"A lot of people do it at 15," Natalie said. "Most people."
Josh grimaced, nodded. "Yeah, but Chloe was already a lot more experienced than I was, and that made it extra awkward. I must have acted, I don't know, nervous or something, because like a month after the first time, without even informing me of her decision, Chloe started going out with somebody else."
Josh pushed himself up and joined Natalie by the window. He knocked his hip into hers and draped his hand around her waist. She just stood there. She wasn't sure what she felt about this whole turn of events, not even sort of.
"I just don't want to move too fast this time," Josh said. "Because I really, really like you, Natalie. But the thing about Chloe was that—"
"I really like you, too."
"But I want to tell you this, Natalie—"
"Are you guys getting back together? Is that it?" Natalie pre-empted him.
"No—God, no—anything but." Josh looked horrified at the thought. Good.
There was another knock on the door. "Um, Natalie?" Nick said. "Roberta just called to announce one of her famous 'drop-bys,' and our parents are fighting. Help. Please?"
It had been less than a week since Elena had started working part-time at Books 'n' Beagles, the independent bookstore her friend Roberta ran, and Teddy's wry prediction that Elena would soon regret the decision had already come true. Roberta was the neediest person on the planet, and the love of her devoted beagles, Baudelaire and Rimbaud, could only help so much. Now that she was doing the Pollock-Pendletons a favor, Roberta felt entitled to barge into their house whenever she pleased to rave about whatever fellow bibliophile she'd just "connected with" on the Internet.
"OK," Natalie said, then turned to Josh. "You want to stay for dinner? Roberta nights are always super exciting."
Josh shook his head. "Sorry, I can't—my mom's making her special burgers."
Natalie barked out a laugh. So now she was being turned down for a burger, too?
She felt numb as she walked Josh downstairs.
"I—I'll explain the rest soon." He kept his voice at a quiet mumble, not wanting to attract the attention of the grown-ups in the kitchen.
"Whatever." She opened the front door, letting the darkness seep in.