One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi … Natalie unclenched her fists and did another chant to clear her head. It didn't work. She glanced around her bedroom, which suddenly seemed alien and unfamiliar. How could the shelf of her father's slightly browning origami masterpieces and the pile of photo albums from her short-lived scrapbooking phase belong to a girl who'd just been—? The vomit rose in Natalie's throat.
Risa Baynar, the seemingly cool stranger who'd been decorating Natalie's wall with pictures of random objects, had finally revealed her true colors. She was evil, beyond the realm of any Half-Cinder. At some point over the previous night, Risa had posted a photograph—an awful, pornographic photograph—that guaranteed an instantaneous (and horrendous) end to life as Natalie knew it.
In the picture, a girl who looked remarkably like Natalie was standing above a much older man. Her shirt was off, and she was swinging her arms in the air, her head thrown forward as she laughed—or screamed—hysterically. The veil of hair obscured her features, but Natalie recognized her favorite denim miniskirt, and she also recognized her breasts, her semi-triangular but still perfectly respectable 32Bs, now up for the scrutiny of the entire World Wide Web. What she didn't recognize was the leering man, or anything about the setting.
Bright shining terror radiated out of Natalie's stomach as she stared at the image on the screen. She felt dizzy: Nothing about this made any sense. The girl in the picture was in some sort of dim nightclub, surrounded by Luke Skywalkerish stripes of light. The lighting on the boat had been fluorescent, uncomfortably bright. Hadn't it?
With trembling fingers Natalie hit "remove," then blocked Risa Baynar from her profile. But who was she kidding? From the string of comments on her Facebook page, she knew that the damage was already done. Diamonds schmiamonds. The Internet was forever.
Next Natalie called James, the one person who might have the perspective to talk her off the cliff. When the phone went right to voicemail, she remembered that James had gone straight from Maya's apartment to the airport. She was now in Georgia judging some modeling competition. Natalie felt a prick of irritation: The one time she really needed a friend.
"Hey, call me when you get this," she said after the beep. "I—I have to ask you something." Maybe, just maybe, James would be able to fill in the gigantic blanks in Natalie's memory of Saturday night.
After that, Natalie just sat there, feeling abandoned and completely, desperately alone. Calling Jenna was out of the question, not after the U disgust me text message she'd sent that morning. Talking to her mother would've required making eye contact and/or uttering the word "topless," so that was another nonstarter.
The Jenna and Natalie Show kicks off its new season:
By the next morning, Natalie was desperate to leave her prison-cell bedroom for her first day of work at the Express. And the job did provide some distraction: She spent the morning fact-checking a story on gardening workouts, and read Fiona St. Claire's recent Etsy.com ode to capes—obviously written pre-breakdown—during breaks. Her brutal return to reality didn't come until 5, when she found her mother stationed right outside the Popeyes, waiting to escort Natalie home like some sort of convicted criminal.
Surprisingly, her one real ally was Nick, who insisted on taking his stepsister on a mall excursion that Wednesday night. "Homegirl's wilting. She needs a whiff of simulated Cinnabons." When at last their parents agreed, Natalie couldn't decide if she felt relieved or even more miserable.
Natalie slumped next to her stepbrother on a bench outside the R & G Plaza, Edgemont's peach-stucco answer to neighboring towns' glitzier malls. She felt sick to her stomach, and her skin had gone all clammy. It was hard to affect indifference when classmates kept skittering by, their whispers subtle as foghorns. A few kids nodded shy hellos to her, though they were clearly just trying to catch a closer glimpse of Edgemont's resident slutburger.
"Hey, Natalie!" cried Rhoda Silver, the warmest sentence any non-relative had addressed to her all week. "I thought you were just another vampire dork, but you're a total vampire slut. ... Awesome."
Natalie had no ready comeback; all she could do was avert her eyes from Edgemont's resident Goth freak. It didn't matter that she had no recollection of the documented event, or that most other girls in her class had done way worse than that picture had shown.
"Where are your manners?" Nick asked his stepsister. "That counts as a high compliment around here."
Natalie made a sniffing noise. "Thanks, but I'm not in the mood for your pity."
"Like I'm in the mood for your self-pity?" Nick leveled his eyes at Natalie. "Can't you at least pretend to have fun?"
"Fun?" Natalie pronounced the word as if it were foreign to her.
"Yes, fun," Nick repeated emphatically. "Look around you. The weather is perfect, hot girls are walking by every ten seconds, and I'm about to buy you a whole dozen chocolate-covered strawberries." He kicked out his feet and leaned back against the bench. "La dolce vida, basically."
Natalie shook her head and regarded her stepbrother with fascination. It was amazing people didn't punch him more often.
"Thinking of something good?" a voice behind them called out.
"Or somebody good?" another tittered."Witt-ay!" Nick called back. "You make Edgemont Community College proud!"
"OK, can we go now?" Natalie asked when she was done wincing.
"Good idea." Nick stood up and turned toward the mall's main entrance. "I could use some AC action."
"I meant home," Natalie said, dragging after her stepbrother. She wanted to hide in the refuge of her bedroom, to try James' phone again. She had to be coming home soon—no modeling competition could possibly last more than three days, and it was over a hundred degrees in Georgia. She'd been trying not to leave too many messages (three, at last count), but her self-control was weakening by the hour.
"And skip out on Barnes & Noble?" Nick was playing stupid. "But that's your jam, Nat! I'm treating you to any trashy novel you choose—the sky's the limit."
"I just want to leave," Natalie protested, though she wasn't exactly opposed to picking up a recent best-seller about a monster hunter's affair with a sheltered Amish beauty.
"Careful! That's my shoulder!" she cried as, a few seconds later, Nick pulled her behind a potted fern near CeeCee's Candy Barn.
"Sorry, but you've got to check this out. In there—see those quasi-gangsters?" Nick pointed at a trio of guys in gigantic sweatpants who were loitering in the store's gummy-bear section. "The one in the yellow and black stripes is in my class. His dad is a gazillionaire hedge-fund dude, but it looks like he's not sharing the loot with poor Kevin. Homeboy can't afford his own Milk Duds."
Natalie watched dully as Nick's classmate scooped a large handful of Swedish Fish and dropped them down the front of his parachute pants. "Ew," she said, entertained in spite of herself. "Do you think they landed in his underwear?"
"Looks like he's got a sticky situation on his hands," Nick drawled.
"Or thighs." Natalie was starting to smile as, inside the store, Kevin dared his friend to grab an oversize psychedelic lollipop from the Fourth of July chocolate display.
"And sorry, but is there anything less 'street' to lift than candy?" Nick said, and then: "Oh, shit, no way!"
Two uniformed officers had appeared from behind the fudge bar and collared Kevin and his two friends. A third officer came out from behind the register with handcuffs, which she expertly slipped onto Kevin's wrists.
Natalie was staring slack-jawed when Nick elbowed her hard. "Aren't you supposed to be some sort of news photographer? Get to it!"
"Shit, did I bring my camera?" Without thinking, Natalie upended her bag and dumped its contents on the bench. Her trusty SureShot was right there and she grabbed it, then pointed, aimed, fired.
Studying the digital screen a few seconds later, Natalie marveled at the image she'd captured of the two officers cuffing Kevin and his cohorts. Fat Tony would go crazy for it. This whole power-of-a-picture thing could cut both ways, it seemed.
"Nice work," Nick said as the officers led the three shoplifters away. "For a second there, I almost forgot your life was ruined."
"Don't worry, I didn't," Natalie said, but she was smiling, really and truly smiling, for the first time in days.
"Oh, hey, let's get out of here," Nick said suddenly. "I mean, before B&N, let's hit the Ninja for some tuna rolls. I'm totally starving." He indicated CeeCee's next-door neighbor, the Hungry Ninja, AKA the "Nasty Ninja," notorious for using a house blend of mayonnaise and Tabasco sauce on most of their week-old offerings.
"How about anywhere else?" Natalie asked, shaking free of his grip and bending down to shovel her belongings back into her purse.
"No, I'm really jonesing for some sushi."
"Hold on," Natalie said, checking the bench to make sure she wasn't leaving anything behind.
"It looks busy. I want to make sure we get a table," Nick said insistently.
And at the same instant Natalie saw exactly what Nick had been trying to spare her: Jenna and Thisbe Grant, each lugging gigantic shopping bags and laughing like they'd been BFFs since birth. When Jenna's eyes fell on Natalie, the smile on her face froze. She stood still for a second, then looked away and kept going, as if she'd just seen a ghost. Natalie stood there frozen, snippets from the ridiculous YouTube videos they used to make on Jenna's Flip cam scrolling uselessly through her head.
Limp and defeated, Natalie let Nick steer her into the sushi joint, where through a dirty fish tank she watched the happy couple saunter into Faye's Fashions, the cheesiest accessories emporium in the history of New Jersey. Maybe they were just stocking up on sarongs for their upcoming trip to Nantucket. Natalie bit back the tears.
As she followed Nick to the table, her head spun with the questions that had been tormenting her nonstop since the dirty photo had surfaced on Sunday. Who had taken it, and why? Jenna seemed the likeliest suspect, but Natalie wasn't at all convinced. Yes, Jenna had a crazy mean streak, but not that mean. What Natalie really needed was to talk to James, to find out what had happened on the boat that night.
"Look, Nat," Nick said after the crab-and-mayonnaise puffs arrived. "I know this has been . . ."
"A shitstorm?" Natalie cringed. Talk about understatement of the century. She felt like Terra in My Darklyng confronting the demon memories Queen Fariel's servants had implanted in her head. Except Natalie had no memory of anything at all.
"But maybe it's for the best," Nick told her. "I mean, people will see you differently now."
Natalie lifted her head. "And what was so wrong with how people saw me before?"
"Nothing." Nick shrugged. "But that's just it. Did you really want to live your whole life as Jenna's second banana?"
"That's not fair," Natalie said, though she knew he had a point.
"Besides," Nick went on, "people will have forgotten all about you within the week, once the Kevin arrest hits the headlines. Try not to stress so much—suburbia just loves its scandals."
After a dinner that managed to be simultaneously spicy and tasteless, Nick took his still-protesting sister to Barnes & Noble. "Choose any piece of trash your heart desires—it's on me," Nick said, installing himself next to a willowy blonde in the spirituality section.
Natalie couldn't find The End of Heaven, so she ended up getting Finding Demeter, the final installment of the "Circle of Seven" myth-based urban fantasy series Fiona St. Claire had written under the pseudonym Loretta St. Marks. The Circle of Seven books weren't nearly as good as Dark Shadows, but Natalie enjoyed picking out common themes in Fiona's work—for example, the Sky Games were definitely an early version of the leagues-more-spectacular Cloud Wars.
Afterward, clutching her crinkly green B&N bag tight to her chest, Natalie followed Nick down the escalator and into the parking lot. Back outside, the weather had gone foggy. The sun was hanging low in the sky, a flattened gray coin. The guy locking his bike to the rack next to Natalie did a double take when he saw her, or maybe she was just being paranoid.
"Next time I'll take you somewhere really exciting." Nick hopped on his bike. "Ever been to Fonzie's Falafel in Montclair?"
Natalie shook her head lamely as she mounted her bike. She didn't need a falafel, or anything else her brother had to offer. All she wanted was for James to call her back. And really, was that asking too much?
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