Natalie stumbled over to her desk and prepared herself for the worst as her computer booted up. But the only message in her inbox had nothing to do with the horrible scene at the dance the night before. It was just a frantic e-mail from her soon-to-be boss Tony, the Express' photo editor/food writer/ad sales manager.
Tony was not writing to apologize for his absence when she'd showed up at the office to meet the team. His note was phrased as if she'd been his underling for the past decade and contained no pleasantries, only an urgent assignment: Natalie was to photograph Edgemont's newest dining establishment, a kosher Chinese joint called Nosh N Roll, and stat.
"We sent Ari to do it last night," Tony wrote—as if Natalie had even the foggiest who Ari was, "and they laid down the law. Sabbath dinner yadda yadda—plus the assisted living center next door closes up show early. So today before 2:30 it is. And try the eggrolls while you're at it. We could use a write-up, too."
Natalie sighed. Her Sunday was already spoken for—the next morning was coach Calabasi's so-called Final Race, the winner of which got to attend training camp at U Penn in August—but she'd expected to have Saturday to herself. At least Tony wasn't giving her the leisure to overanalyze whatever had gone down at the dance.
Natalie checked out her Facebook page, but there was nothing from either Josh or Jenna, just another cryptogram from Risa Baynar—this time a picture of a street sign for St. Marks Place—she'd been there before with Jenna. It had looked comically out of place sandwiched between posts from two of her immature Edgemont classmates: Bree Danglerear's spastic "I Am The Jelly Donut!" and Simon Rostron's obnoxious "You cloth me all night long."
LindenDancer: Hey. U up already?
Natalie glanced at her alarm clock. 9:46. Hardly the crack of dawn, but still too early to deal with an IM session with Jenna.
NatAttackXo94:Y No. I'm sleep-typing.
Natalie couldn't make sense of Jenna's behavior the night before. After shooting Natalie that death-glare from across the gym, Jenna had unconvincingly pretended not to remember James from the Dark Shadows casting call.
"Well, I remember you," James had said. "Not too many people do standing backbends at auditions."
Jenna—who'd told Natalie at least 60 times that she had negative interest in being chosen for a Dork Shadows cover, and that she'd only accompanied her to the pathetic audition as a favor—had no ready comeback. She stuttered out a few denials and then shot her eyes to the floor.
LindenDancer: What did u do after the dance?
So typical. Jenna, feeling threatened, now wanted to tighten her grip. But it was a little late for that, given how rude she'd been to James and how blatantly she'd lied about the whole Dark Shadows cover audition.
When James had dished on the details—Jenna's over-the-top gymnastics, her insistence on giving the assistant two different phone numbers where she could be reached, her professed "obsession with all things Fiona St. Claire"—Natalie wanted to laugh and hurl simultaneously.
Right now, though, she just wanted some space. And so instead of telling Jenna the truth—that she and James had parted long before midnight—Natalie typed a tantalizingly vague response.
NatAttackXo94: 2 tired 2 get into it. Lemme call u ltr.
"Where's Mom?" Natalie asked her brother when she went down to the kitchen. Her stomach was rumbling for some of Elena's chocolate-chip pancakes.
"Out," replied Nick without glancing up. He was tapping out a message on his phone and listening to the classical station, no doubt serenading some uptight girl with his supposed fondness for Viennese waltzes.
"Dad was depressed." Nick didn't bother to brush away the curtain of hair covering his eyes. "She took him to the driving range."
Natalie grabbed a granola bar and plodded back up to her room. Elena hated golf. Why couldn't Teddy go anywhere on his own anymore?
Half an hour later, Natalie was walking slowly down Dyer Street when an Usher song erupted inside her bag. "Love in This Club" was Josh's ringtone. Crap. She hadn't yet figured out how to clean up last night's mess, how to make it all disappear.
As she fumbled around for her phone, she tried to settle on the proper note to strike. After all, his moodiness—horn dog to hound dog to just plain mad dog—had been extreme over the last few weeks, but nothing had prepared her for his eruption at the dance. She was thoroughly confused. Josh was definitely high-maintenance, but he could also be amazing, as in those electrifying minutes before James' arrival.
"Hello?" she said cautiously.
"Is it just me or is last night is a total blur?" Josh sounded very groggy and perhaps a little contrite. Natalie considered this a small victory, and decided to let him off the hook. He was leaving for Treble Camp in nine days, after all; they might as well enjoy their brief remaining time together.
"The blurriest," she said.
"I'm drinking blueberry juice before the next dance," he said, then asked if she wanted to hang out. "Let me pick you up when you're done with your assignment. Noon sound safe?"
"Perfect," she said, and got off the phone feeling much cheerier.
Nosh 'n' Roll was crowded with wheelchairs and walkers when Natalie got there, and she kept getting elbowed aside by klutzy waitresses bearing trays of hot teas and eggrolls. Yet, per Fat Tony's instructions, she couldn't leave until she'd photographed the owner, who was slated to return any minute.
"Hey," Josh said just as Natalie lowered her camera from the close-up she'd been taking of the menu. He looked adorably disheveled in his wrinkled Zoo York T-shirt as he slid into the bright red booth opposite Natalie. "So, just to clear the air, I'm sorry last night was a total disaster."
"It's OK," Natalie said. "I won't hold it against you."
"You won't—" Josh started to say, but he was interrupted by Ida, the waitress Natalie had photographed almost burning herself on a pu pu platter.
"What can I get you folks?" she barked.
"We're eating here?" Josh asked doubtfully. In its previous life, Nosh 'n' Roll had been a Taco Bell, and the current management had done little to transform the orange and turquoise color scheme.
Natalie nodded. "I'm still waiting for the owner, so we might as well."
After Ida had taken their order, Natalie drummed her fingers on the tabletop. "Right, so where were we?" she asked Josh.
He looked at her. "You were forgiving me for last night, when I sort of thought you were the one who was going to apologize."
This wasn't what Natalie had expected at all, and she felt disoriented, defensive. "What—you mean apologize on behalf of my boyfriend who got really loaded and lost his temper for no real reason?"
"For no real reason?" Josh repeated. "Sorry, but where I come from, total strangers don't try bullying people they've never met before into a threesome!" His voice had risen, and the few diners whose hearing aids worked turned to look at them.
"God, you thought James was being literal? She just has a funny sense of humor, that's all. She was just surprised to find us, you know …" Natalie swallowed. Why was he staring at her like that? "C'mon, Josh, it's not like we were in the habit of hooking up anymore, not for real."
He shook his head. "You seriously told some wackjob girl I've never seen before the intimate details of our relationship?"
Was he serious? "God, Josh, I'm not exactly babbling to randoms on the subway. James is my close friend. Of course I talk about my love life with her. That's what girls do, we talk about our problems."
"I certainly don't talk to my friends about that sort of stuff."
"That's because your friends are too busy conversing with their imaginary cloths," Natalie snapped. Then, seeing the expression on his face, she backpedaled: "Listen, Josh, I'm not trying to be mean, but you have to admit our recent hookups have been more like . . . me trying to get it on and you playing the part of, like . . . one of those Japanese pillows."
"Wow." Josh's mouth rounded into a sour pucker Natalie had never seen before. Ida chose this opportunity to show up with a shimmering platter of egg rolls.
"That came out totally wrong," Natalie said once Ida had left. "I'm totally sorry, I just meant that—"
"No, I'm the one who's sorry," Josh said. "It must suck going out with a ... Japanese pillow."
"Josh! That's not what I meant."
"I was taking things slow with you because I liked you." He picked up an eggroll, snapped it violently in two, then placed it back onto the table.
His choice of verb tense wasn't lost on Natalie. Liked. Because he'd liked her. "So then last night, is that why you were all over me? Because you no longer liked me?" she hazarded.
Josh shrugged. "I'm going to camp in a few days, and I thought I might as well loosen up, see what happened. But what does it matter now? It's obviously been over ever since you first started throwing yourself at me. No offense, but that kind of killed it for me."
"What?" Natalie said. Where had that come from? "Jesus, Josh, why don't you just be honest and admit you have some sort of issue?"
"Because I don't. My only issue was that I took things too fast with Chloe, and I saw where that got me. It's funny," he went on quietly, "I actually came here hoping we could make up. I wasn't expecting to be mocked for my hook-up skills."
"Jesus, Josh, that's not what I was doing!"
"Am I interrupting anything?" a voice came from a few feet above the table. Natalie looked up to see that Jack Rosenbaum, the CEO of Nosh 'n' Roll, was finally ready for his close-up.
"Perfect timing." Josh tossed his napkin on the vinyl seating and rose to his feet. "I was just leaving." He turned to get one last look at Natalie. "Have a good summer."
"OK, Melanie, let's make this snappy," Jack said to Natalie, whose blood was slushing in her ears as she watched Josh stride toward the exit.
"Glad you stopped by!" she finally summoned the courage to call after him.
"I'm going to assume you're done eating," Jack said as he helped himself to an egg roll.
Next week: Natalie runs off to lick her wounds ... only to come home to a fatal injury. Like the My Darklyng Facebook page to see Natalie's life unravel in real time.