By the time she got to Books 'n' Beagles, Natalie wanted nothing more than some good old-fashioned isolation. And where better to find it than a bookstore that saw two customers on a good day?
"Hello?" Natalie called out as she stopped into the store. "Mom? Roberta?"
When only the light tinkle of door chimes answered her, a relieved Natalie retreated to the back room, where Roberta had assembled a cluster of bizarrely colored thrift-store reading chairs. She chose the Barney-purple and sank into the Madeline pillow. A second later, a wet ooze spread over her shin. Natalie shrieked, and the slobbering beagle at her ankles let out a yelp.
"Oh, sorry, Baudelaire. I guess I'm a little jumpy today." Natalie gave Roberta's dog a reassuring pat on the head.
"Can I help you with anything?" came her mother's faux-shopgirl chirp behind her. Natalie turned to see Elena and Roberta coming out of the storeroom with armfuls of books.
Natalie sighed. "I'm not sure you carry what I need."
"Again with the Dark Vampires?" Roberta teased. She put down her load to reveal a completely predictable getup of pleated khakis, oversized denim shirt, and Crocs over tennis socks.
"I wasn't actually talking about books," Natalie said, "but for the record, it's called Dark Shadows."
"Well, I'm afraid we don't permit that type of trash into our little utopia," Roberta clucked. "I leave that to certain chain bookstores that shall not be named."
Natalie clenched her jaw. She was so sick of Roberta acting like she was saving the world by exclusively stocking up on boring books that nobody ever bought.
"Actually, they won't be carrying the next book either," she said boldly. "It's being held until Fiona recovers from her nervous breakdown. She's going to need to be available to sign, like, six million copies."
"Fiona St. Claire," Elena told Roberta. "That's the author."
"I know that, Elena." Roberta smacked her frosted lips at this nugget of insider gossip, and Natalie felt a stab of guilt. Yes, James had sworn her to eternal secrecy, but the truth would come out sooner or later, especially with the slated release date of Dark Passages less than a week away now.
"Take this opportunity to challenge yourself," Roberta said, reaching for a small green hardcover. "Have you heard of The Emperor and the Fig Tree? I met the author at the Montclair Reading Festival. She painted the illustrations using an ancient Japanese watercolor technique passed down from her grandmother. Here, have a look—it's absolutely exemplary." She handed the book to Natalie. "It just might awaken your inner bookworm."
"Natalie's already a wonderful reader, Roberta," Elena snapped. Then, looking at her daughter, she asked, "Wait—aren't you supposed to be at work?"
Natalie shook her head. "No, I already took the pictures. I just have to e-mail them in."
"Great," Elena said. "My lunch is in half an hour. We can get picnic supplies?"
"All right," Natalie said without much energy. Just last week, she'd had plenty of friends in Edgemont, endless options. And now her biggest summer social engagement was a picnic with her mom?
Natalie stood up and shambled across the shop, past the cookbook table and the depressingly scant and librarian-blessed selection of teen books. Her heart clenched when she glimpsed a How To Love Your Layoff! manual on the self-help wall—wasn't that exactly the proposal Teddy had been working on a few days earlier? Ah, well, he could always follow up with How To Love Your Book Proposal Rejection!
"And you told the paper you won't be going in tomorrow, right?" Elena called out. "We're picking Maya up at nine-thirty."
Oh, no. Natalie groaned. So that's what her mom had meant about the picnic. She'd completely forgotten. The next day was June 18, also known as Deathiversary Day, the annual creepfest commemorating her father's life.
Every year, Elena and Maya dragged Natalie out to Nyack, New York, the site of the first house Izzy had designed wholly on his own. They set up a picnic on the grass and feasted on Izzy's favorite foods: artichoke-flecked mac and cheese from Elena, and an igloo filled with super-sweetened coffee from Maya—the only time all year she touched refined sugar. Izzy had loved sugar; emptied four packets into all seventeen cups of coffee he reputedly drank every day.
"I totally forgot," Natalie said with a sigh. "I have to call Tony."
"Can you use the office for that?" Roberta butted in. "B n B is a no phone zone."
Natalie threaded her way to the back office, which was really just a tiny windowless alcove separated from the rest of the store by a batik curtain. She pulled out her cell phone and saw she hadn't turned it back on after arriving at work.
The voicemail icon came on instantly, but she dialed James' number before listening to the messages. Once again, the call went straight to voicemail. Four days now, Natalie thought with frustration. Damn this stupid modeling competition. Damn the entire state of Georgia (Fiona St. Claire's moated castle in suburban Atlanta excepted, of course).
Waiting to leave the fourth message in as many days, Natalie reached for the refrigerator door. She pulled it open to find a Roberta-tilled landscape of store-bought Frappuccinos and Tupperware containers of homemade dog food.
"Hey, it's me, Nat—" she began just as the call waiting beeped. Natalie held the phone from her ear, but didn't recognize the area code flashing on the screen. Wait, maybe it was James from her hotel? That'd be total ESPN, as a pre-downsized Teddy would say. "Oh, hey, hold on one sec," she said, switching over.
"Hello?" Natalie said again. "Hello?" this time louder.
Still nothing. She slammed the phone shut and kicked the refrigerator door closed simultaneously, causing the Frappuccino bottles to rattle loudly.
"Everything OK in there?" Roberta's voice cut through the curtain.
"Fine!" Natalie shouted back. "Sorry!"
Next, she checked her messages, a record-breaking twelve of them. First came two recordings of heavy breathing, followed by three of guys hurling insults. Only one was brave enough to leave his name and number. Midway through the sixth recording, Natalie ended the call and for some inexplicable reason clicked onto Internet Explorer. Like ripping off a Band-Aid: She might as well get it over with all at once.
She was just taking in the usual array of Facebook wall posts—all nasty, brutal, and short—when her mother poked her head through the curtain. "Robbie's letting me off early," Elena said. "You almost ready?"
"S-sure," Natalie croaked out, clicking off the computer.
Amazingly, Elena took no note of the tremor in her daughter's voice. "Meet me up front," she said before disappearing behind the curtain again.
Natalie had just stood up when her cell phone rang. With trepidation she looked down, breathing an audible sigh of relief when she saw James' name. Finally.
"James!" she all but panted into the phone. She really, really needed a friend right now.
"Hey, bunny ears, how are you?" James cried with that roller-coaster emphasis that always made Natalie smile.
She hesitated before saying, "I've … been better."
"Tell me about it," James said with a theatrical sigh. "Atlanta was wack as ever."
"Was?" Natalie asked. "Where are you now?"
"No longer stuck in the glorious Confederacy, praise be," James said. "I swear, these modeling contest things are all such scams—talk about a 20/20 investigation just waiting to happen! I got home late the night before last, just in time to be trucked out to the most ghetto shoot of all time on Long Island, and no, I don't mean the Hamptons. It's for a new book series about mermaid demons—just what the world needs, right? Yesterday I spent 16 straight hours with bloodied gills painted onto my stomach."
In spite of everything, Natalie couldn't help laughing. James. There really was no one better.
"I swear to God," James said, "I'm giving myself another year in this industry and then bailing, while I still have some remaining shreds of dignity."
"At least it's still an option," Natalie muttered. "Dignity, I mean."
"Aw, listen to you, Natty-poo," James clucked. "I'm gone four days and you've turned into a sadsack of potatoes! You missed me that much?"
Natalie gnawed on her lip, trying to figure out how much she should or should not say. Her mother's heavy breathing on the other side of the curtain simplified the decision for her. "I've just, I've been kinda blue."
"Blue-hoo! What's the matter?"
Natalie looked at the computer and clicked the window shut. "Let's just say the cosmos and I are not seeing eye to eye this summer." She turned to face away from the curtain and lowered her voice to a whisper. "Somebody posted this horrible picture of me on Facebook, and now I'm, like, a total leper."
"I can't hear you, but I'm sorry you're feeling blah, pookie-pie. You're in luck, though, because it just so happens I have a proposal that will chase those clouds right away."
"Whatever it is, the answer's yes," Natalie said.
"Well, that's pure sexcellence to my ears! So here's the deal: Jonathan's parents have this country house outside of Woodstock—the place is over-the-top amazing. We're talking glass walls and magical woods and an infinity pool—picture Neverland without the child molesters. Totally peaceful. Can you hear that?" James paused.
"Hear what?" Natalie asked.
"Exactly," said James. "Anyway, Jonathan and I had planned this totally romantic weekend months ago, so I came out here immediately after yesterday's shoot. But—surprise, surprise—Jonathan didn't make it. He was too busy rearranging peonies on a 'fall fedoras' photoshoot. Now I'm stuck out here, going batshit with loneliness after only 12 hours. So I'm wondering how I can wheedle you into joining me in this sylvan paradise?"
James' words jumbled together in Natalie's head: A country house in another state, far removed from the Internet and the prying eyes of her neighbors? It all sounded just—perfect. "Seriously?"
"No, fake-eously. Of course seriously. So I take it you're in?"
Natalie laughed as a breeze hit her cheek. Her mother had opened the curtain again and was signaling at the front door of the bookstore. "One sec," she mouthed, then swiveled to face Roberta's cactus wall calendar. Friday, June 18, was staring her in the face. The day her father had dropped off the face of the earth fourteen years earlier.
"One hundred percent," Natalie whispered, disbelief rippling through her even as she spoke the words.
She'd never missed her father's deathiversary before. She'd never even contemplated the possibility. But who said there was only one way to celebrate Izzy? Surely he would've wanted her to chart her own path, enjoy her own adventures. Wouldn't he have done the same himself?
"I'll have Jonathan drive you up," James said. "He owes me big for skipping out last night. How about you meet him at the Hudson News at Grand Central Station tomorrow morning—say, nine o'clock?"
"You sure? Don't you need to check with him first?"
James laughed. "Homeboy knows he's in the doghouse. Don't worry, he'll be there."
"Then so will I," Natalie said. Nothing could keep her away.
Next week: Natalie sets off for the misadventure of a deathtime.
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