At the Express office the next morning, Natalie nursed a Snapple at a desk littered with real estate listings and old Jets calendars. Not for the first time that week, she felt grateful that the newspaper had only one computer with a functioning Internet connection. She'd woken to yet another mix of obscene one-word messages and sleazy-mean "call me" invitations from seniors on the football team. Brianna Wolfe had taken the cruelty a step further: "Saw u at B&N last nite. Way 2 keep ur shirt on!" Only Maya had left a vaguely comforting voicemail heavy on terms like "perception" and "the sacred." Natalie had no idea how, but her aunt's third eye really did see everything.
As she waited for Fat Tony to finish his breakfast burrito, Natalie seethed with rage at Brianna and Thisbe and all the rest of them. She should just quit Facebook, change her e-mail address, maybe go offline forever, and be done with all the horrors—or would that be, as Teddy would say, letting the terrorists win?
Right as Natalie was thinking this, her phone beeped. With a sigh, she pulled it out of her purse and clicked on the text message from an unknown area code. Great; now she'd have to change her cell-phone number, too.
But if she was expecting another lewd come-on, what she got was lines and lines of garbled computer code: Alt+221eAlt+221eAlt+221eAlt+221eAlt+221e … Over and over to the bottom of the screen. Her phone beeped again, and the next message was an identical row of Alt+221eAlt+221eAlt gobbledygook.
After pressing delete twice, Natalie pulled her new Fiona St. Claire/Loretta St. Marks book out of her bag and picked up where she'd left off: a "love" (OK, sex) scene between Demeter and Icarus, set in the manager's office of a Sunglass Hut at Miami International Airport. Which reminded her of James, who'd flown to Atlanta what felt like forever ago. She'd called Natalie back the night before to complain about the horrible reception "out here in Hicksville, USA," but Natalie had been half-conscious in the bathtub at the time and hadn't heard the phone.
"I'm appalled!" Fat Tony's gigantic hand landed on the desk, sending Natalie's Snapple bottle flying. "Do your parents know about this?"
Natalie slammed the paperback shut—it was true that the passage she'd been reading bordered on the pornographic.
"Peach Snapple has more chemicals in it per ounce than any other iced tea in existence!" Tony yelled. "It was just on WFMZ—stay far away from that stuff if you want to see your eighteenth birthday." Tony paused, grabbing the bottle and scrutinizing its label. "Hey, maybe we should do a big pullout feature on healthy soft drinks for summer?"
He scribbled into his reporter's notebook, then boomed on: "But first up is the big swim test at Holy Trinity this afternoon. Holly's writing the story. You'll do the snaps. No topless shots this time, por favor!"
Natalie's throat went dry, and not on account of the unfunny joke at her expense; she was almost getting used to that. Had Tony just said Holy Trinity? As in the horny-Christian day camp where Jenna would be working before traipsing off to Nantucket? Thanks, but over my dead body.
"Sorry, I can't go to Holy Trinity," she told Tony. "I have a … conflict of interest."
"Conflict of interest?" Fat Tony guffawed. "Honey, you're in the real world now. Your conflict has to be pretty interesting to get you off an assignment!"
Tony was still cracking himself up when Holly Ryan appeared jangling a set of car keys. "Ready?" she chirped at Natalie.
With a little groan, Natalie slipped Finding Demeter back into her bag and followed Holly down the chicken-scented stairs. Holly Ryan was the Express' relentlessly perky features editor/religion writer/graphics designer. She was also quite possibly the weirdest person on staff, and not simply because she color-coordinated her purses, belts, and shoes. It was more Holly's outsize ambitions that set her apart. She'd won a few reporting awards at Rutgers and saw the Express as her launch-pad to a mantel crowded with Pulitzers.
In the grubby parking lot behind the building, all the Express staffers' cars were parked like snaggleteeth; only Holly's Maxima was at a perfect parallel to the spray-painted lines. "So your dad's a bigwig at the Times, huh?" Holly asked before the seatbelts were even on. "Willy and Beatrice were talking about it the other day," she added quickly.
"They were, were they?" Natalie wriggled in her seat. She wasn't up to telling Holly that Teddy was actually "figuring out his next chapter," as he'd started calling it, while her mother was busy shelving picture books with titles like The Itty Bitty Kitty and The Great Ship—Ahoy!
The night before, Elena had come into Natalie's room bearing a depressingly large tray of spanakopita. She'd tried to broach the subject of "privacy and the Internet" (Elena hadn't been able to bring herself to say "your sex photo").
"OK, got it!" Natalie had said, ending the conversation before her mother could start it.
"All right. I guess I hear the dishes calling." On her way out, Elena had paused in the doorway. "When you were a baby, I had no idea what the world would be like, absolutely none at all." The sadness in her voice had been harder for Natalie to bear than all her classmates' taunts.
"I've always dreamed of working there," Holly was saying. "Maybe sometime I could—"
"He's been really busy lately," Natalie cut in none too politely.
Holly's thin lips turned down and Natalie felt a stab of guilt. Holly wasn't a bad person. She was just a little—delusional. Besides, Natalie didn't have much to gain by entering Jenna's turf with an enemy in tow. Yet another enemy, that is. And so she said, as gently as she could, "But maybe after things quiet down. He has a soft spot for young journalists."
Holly was smiling again as she turned down Oakhurst and into the Holy Trinity parking lot. Natalie took a deep breath as she stepped out of the car. Why was she so scared, anyway? This was Jenna, not Grigor, the remorseless wolverine royal bent on destroying the immortal love Terra and Nicolai had spent three centuries nurturing.
"What's that on your leg?" Holly asked as she pulled the car to a stop. "Looks like it hurt."
"Oh, nothing, I just bruise easily," Natalie said, glancing down at the now-faded splotch on her calf. If Holly found that minor discoloration impressive, she should've seen it last weekend. And then Natalie realized: On Saturday night, the bruise, while already faded in color, had covered a good half of her lower leg. And in the infamous picture taken that night—which Natalie had studied for hours and hours—the girl's leg had been an unbroken expanse of ivory. So what did that mean?
"Natalie?" Holly was scrutinizing her companion with unconcealed curiosity. "You OK?"
Natalie's head hurt with all the insane hypotheses racing through it. For the first time, it occurred to her that the terrible picture could possibly have been of someone else. But if so, what about the silver ring she wore on her right middle finger, and the unfortunate triangular tilt of her breasts in motion? None of it fit together at all.
Natalie nodded quickly, bringing herself back. "Sorry, I was just … Sorry."
"Don't worry—even I can be a space cadet sometimes," Holly said kindly. "My senior year, I was so stressed out over finals that I forgot my own birthday!"
Natalie sighed. This was going to be a long hour, with or without Jenna.
Just as she was thinking this, Natalie spotted her ex-best friend Jenna Stecklow leading a pack of squealing 7-year-olds outside the front gates of Trinity.
It amazed Natalie, how a person could look both familiar and strange at the same time. Jenna was wearing a strappy pink tank top and cargo shorts slung low enough to reveal a band of skin over her hips. Only Jenna could dress like that and not give off the slightest slutty vibe.
When Jenna noticed Natalie, she hushed her kids and stomped over. She didn't hesitate, not for one second. "What, now you're trying to stalk me or something?"
"Why would I want to stalk you? I know you." Natalie's eyes were stinging. Oh, no, not with the tears again.
"It sure seems like stalking," Jenna said with a snarl. "I'm the one who works here, and I sure don't remember inviting you for a visit. And no offense, but I don't exactly feel comfortable having you around children these days."
Jenna was just so unbelievable. But Natalie had grown a thick skin over the last couple of days and composed herself quickly. She said, in an expressionless voice, "I'm here for work, too." She reached in her bag for her camera, but her hand just brushed against her balled-up sweatshirt and book.
Jenna's eyes narrowed as she shook her head. "Sorry, but you really need professional help."
And with that, Jenna marched right back over to her hyperactive charges, leaving a shell-shocked Natalie to wonder how such a diminutive, pink-clad creature could be so completely terrifying. The ache of missing her hit Natalie right in the solar plexus.
"What was that all about?" Holly asked as she and Natalie walked through the church gates and into the main building.
"Nothing. The pool's this way," Natalie mumbled, her eyes still tearing. "C'mon."
Natalie stood underneath the lifeguard stand, photographing the fourth-graders splashing one another, while Holly "interviewed her sources." Natalie felt unsteady as her slow-burning urge to cry grew into an acute, all-consuming need. The absolute last thing she could handle right now was another car ride with Holly.
And so, keeping the camera lens half over her face, Natalie walked up to the reporter, who was busy studying Trinity swim-team stats from the last three summers. "I'll be back in the office later," Natalie said. "I'm going to see if there's anything worth photographing at this event at Books 'n' Beagles."
"What kind of event?" Holly's head snapped up from the spreadsheets.
"Oh, nothing, just a reading by Rodney Kenji," Natalie said, naming the first of Maya's colleagues to come to mind. "He's this, um, chiropractor in Parsipanny who self-publishes motivational guides."
"Sounds kind of weird." Holly made a face. "So you'll be OK getting back without me?""Sure," Natalie said. "I know this town like the back of my hand." Unfortunately.
Her chest unclenched a little as she waved goodbye to Holly, but Natalie hadn't made it five steps down Glenridge Avenue before a skater kid smoking outside of Café Quixotic called out: "Nice rack!"
"Nice life!" she called back like an idiot. She prayed Josh wasn't at the café to overhear her tormenters that morning. She'd die.
The tears were streaming down her face as Natalie kept walking. In the three and a half blocks between Holy Trinity and Books 'n' Beagles, she was the lucky recipient of one hiss and three more catcalls, while approximately five drivers slowed down their cars to ogle her. This was all getting too crazy to compute.
Now she understood how Terra felt in Dark Impaling when she fell asleep by the Dawny Brook and woke up in the Observacon, encircled by shriveled wardens and towering telescopes, and under the leering gaze of the king's son Victor.
Natalie looked up to the sky, her wet eyes fixing on a flock of blackbirds undulating in and out of their V formation. Even under the blinding-bright sun, she felt enshrouded in permanent darkness.
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