The sweet relief of summer. Natalie had just walked out of Edgemont High for the last time as a 10th grader when Josh rounded the corner and almost collided with her.
"Hey!" He seemed genuinely, unneurotically overjoyed to greet her. Natalie's insides went goopy and she stole a glance at the maybe 30 kids on the lawn behind them. She still couldn't get over the glory of having a boyfriend for all the world to see.
"What do you say we take a walk?" Josh asked.
"I can't," Natalie said, pulling away from him, but playfully. She and Josh had never continued their elephant-in-the-room conversation from the other night, but at the moment she was too happy to fret over the state of their relationship. "I have to take my passport over to the Express office."
"Oh, no, where are they sending you?"
"I should be so lucky! Nah, it's just for official paperwork stuff."
"Can't it wait? I'm leaving 10 days from now," Josh said, and it was true. The day before, he'd gotten off the waitlist for a super-competitive music camp in the distant reaches of the Berkshire Mountains, which meant that, instead of entertaining Cafe Quixotic's patrons and rebuffing his girlfriend's advances, Josh would be spending the summer jamming with other would-be Coltranes.
"It's not a lot of time to make up for all our lost time," he said now. He'd been giddy since receiving the Treble Camp acceptance letter.
"Our lost time?"
"You know, all the time before we really got to know each other: 16 long years."
Natalie blushed as she felt his belt buckle press into her belly. Josh was almost his old self again, and she didn't know how she felt about it. "I'll call if I get done in time," she said. "Besides, the dance is only five hours from now."
"Five hours? That's an eternity." Josh pseudo-pouted adorably. "Why don't we at least get dinner first? El Dorito, my treat?"
Natalie hesitated, tempted by the prospect of a meal with Josh at El Florito, one of Edgemont's finer dining establishments. So what if she'd already committed to joining Jenna and a bunch of other girls for a prep party? She was still semi-mad at Jenna for blabbing about their secret trip to the Dark Shadows audition. Josh, on the other hand—
"Absolutely no way in hell," said Jenna, who'd magically appeared at Natalie's side. "We're all going to Amy Yablonski's to shave our armpits together."
Natalie cringed—Jenna should know never to bring up the topic of body hair in front of Josh.
"It's a sacred ritual," Jenna added gravely.
"Didn't this 'sacred ritual' start, like, last year?" Josh asked.
Natalie sighed. Much as she hated to admit it, she knew Jenna was right. "A promise is a promise," she told Josh, "and I'm a woman of my word."
"All right, all right, I'll just see you on the dance floor, then." Josh turned and, with a curt, completely unromantic nod, folded back into the sea of students.
"I'll miss you!" Natalie yelled to Josh, who responded by miming drawing a razor down his underarm.
"That was a nice touch," Natalie muttered to Jenna. "Why didn't you just tell him I had to wax my mustache?"
"I didn't realize that was the plan." Jenna giggled. "Josh! One mor—"
"Stop it, you are so evil!" Natalie cried, but she was grinning: She was glad things were getting back to normal, both with Jenna and with Josh. She always underestimated how psycho-stressed everyone got around exam time.
Natalie smiled all the way down Thayer Street. The sun was high up in the sky and all was right in her world. Her phone had just buzzed with an invitation from James to a "big silly party" in the city, but this time she didn't even consider it. Natalie was long overdue for some serious suburban fun.
No can do, she texted James back. Have school dance. Feel free to come lol. Ud fit right in.J
The offices of the Edgemont Express were located on a rundown stretch of Paige Avenue, a block that had little to show for itself except the cluster of tents Edgemont's tiny community of dumpster divers had set up next to Natalie's old orthodontist. The Express was two doors down, on the third floor of a building that also housed an EZ tax-preparation center and a Popeyes. The odor of fried chicken permeated every corner of the Express.
When Natalie had visited Teddy at the New York Times, she'd always marveled at how unglamorous the place was, nothing at all like a newspaper office in a Drew Barrymore movie. The Times newsroom could have passed for a rent-a-typist center, with hundreds of people packed into identical pristine cubicles, all click-clacking away and studiously ignoring one another.
In this respect and quite a few others, the Express was the polar opposite of the Times—yet it, too, had nothing in common with a Drew Barrymore set. The office was shaped like a lightning bolt, with no two walls parallel. Arranged along the zigzag were about 10 desks and about as many personal refrigerators.
The two Express staffers on hand that afternoon were making noise enough for a dozen toddlers. A heavyset African-American man was humming along with the Bette Midler song playing from an ancient radio as he cut photographs from a back issue of the Newark Star-Ledger. Two desks over, a petite blonde with a lopsided bob was having an intense argument with somebody on speakerphone. "Don't you dare do this to me again!" the woman roared. "I'm sick of this horse manure!"
The man looked up and flashed Natalie a gap-toothed smile. "Our metro columnist and her computer back there have been fighting like cats and dogs all day." His statement was punctuated by a bark. Natalie assumed he'd provided the sound effect himself until she noticed the big curly-haired dog collapsed by the man's old-school Reeboks.
"Let me guess, you're Natalie?" the guy said warmly. "I'm Big Willie, but you can call me Willie."
"He's also William Dobbs, our sports news writer," the blond woman called out.
"And in my spare time, I manage the paper's IT and clip art department."
"When you're done ooh-ing and ah-ing over his trenchant piece about the Little League bakeoff," the woman said, "you can bring your Xeroxed ID over here, and I'll do my best to misfile it in a timely fashion." She issued a moist snort-laugh.
"In addition to covering the police and education beats, Bea runs our human resources department," Willie explained. "Here, let me help you with the Xerox machine—it can be a little flighty."
"Somehow that doesn't surprise me," Natalie said with a giggle. Unable to locate her wallet with a quick sweep through her bag, she emptied its contents onto a nearby desk littered with police reports, gum wrappers, and potpourri sachets.
"Nice-looking," Willie said as at last Natalie pulled out her ID.
Natalie was puzzled—her passport photo was beyond hideous—until Willie scooped up the vintage Dark Shadows paperback that had fallen out of her bag, the cover of which showed a bloodstained James clawing sultrily out of a computer-generated Emerald Forest. Whoopsie—Natalie had told the internship coordinator she was a fan of the classics.
Luckily, Willie didn't seem too appalled. "That girl," he said, pointing at the image of James. "She's pretty, isn't she?"
"Extremely," Natalie said proudly, handing Willie her ID.
"A-ha!" Willie nodded as he studied Natalie's mug shot. "Looks like you'll fit right in around here. Lemme make a copy. Uh-oh, hold that thought," he said as his cell phone started to ring.
"Delilah!" Willie's eyes twinkled when he answered the phone. "Now let me guess—you're either calling to say you'd like to marry me, or your cable box is acting up again."
Ten minutes later, Willie handed Natalie's ID back to her, then ambled over to the bathroom. He was still on the phone with Delilah.
A vibration came from Natalie's bag, and a quick glance around the room confirmed that she was free to open the text without insulting her future colleagues. The message was from James.
I'm so bummed, Nat. I cant c u ever again.
What r u tlkn abt?!! Natalie's barely decipherable response betrayed the hastiness of its composition. Her head was swimming with a thousand terrible explanations as she made her way toward the exit.
"Bye, hon!" Beatrice called out to Natalie. "Watch out for the—" She didn't bother finishing, for Natalie had already taken a step forward and toppled over the thick red leash.
"I told you we don't need to keep Winchill tied up like that," Beatrice shouted at Willie, who may or may not have heard her from behind the bathroom door. "You OK, hon?"
"Yeah," Natalie said, the dull pain shooting up her leg. The fall hadn't been that hard, but she knew from long experience that a gigantic bruise was about to blossom on her calf. Which meant that the adorable BCBG minidress she and Jenna had picked out for the dance would go unworn tonight. Before Natalie could burst into tears, her phone beeped with a new message. Still prostrate on the floor, she clicked it open.
I lost my contacts. Blind as a wombat J
With great effort Natalie rose to her feet, glaring at her medical bracelet as she bolted out to the stairway.
Coming up next week: Natalie's two loves, Josh and James, come face to face. Like the My Darklyng Facebook page to see Natalie's life unravel in real time.