"Wow, Jonathan's parents must really be … renovating," Natalie said when she stepped inside. The room reeked of wet earth and rotten meat. Layers of dust coated every surface, and the spare bits of furniture in the front room were draped with soggy linens that looked decades old. The cloth dangling from a chandelier overhead had come partly undone to expose glass shards matted with plaster and dirt.
"Renovating—that's a nice way of putting it," James said. "Jon-Jon is such a little liar, I swear. I was wondering why he'd rather stay in the city and style fedoras all weekend, but now it all makes sense. I mean honestly, yuck."
James drew her index finger over the banister and held it up in the air. Her fingertip was black with grime. She looked at it, laughed, and drew a dirt moustache on her upper lip. The line was jagged and thin, more Dalí than Chaplin.
"Pretty good insurance against our throwing a party," she said with a mock-grimace. "I'd rather die than let anybody come within a ZIP code of this dump. BFFs excepted, of course," she added, puckering her lips in apology. And then, seeing Natalie's expression, she cried, "Oh, Natty, I was afraid you wouldn't come if I told you how nasty this place was, and I'm seriously so lonely out here!"
Natalie forced a smile, but she was suddenly seized by the urge to call Maya, to apologize, to beg for an anecdote about Izzy, any old one would do. "Where's the bathroom?" she asked.
"That is an excellent question," said James, who was fumbling with a battery-operated MP3 player on the coffee table. "Most excellent indeed."
From the speaker a woman's voice twined around slow, sultry drumbeats. Natalie had never heard music like this before: It made Lady Gaga sound like the Backyardigans. "The plumbing is kind of … in transition," said James. "I've been following the call of nature outside." James let off a laugh. "
"Oh, um, I'll just hold off then, it's not a big deal," Natalie said. "I should just put my stuff away first. The bedroom's upstairs?"
James nodded and led Natalie up a sweeping flight of stairs, then down along a long, airless hallway and into a tiny box of a room overlooking the woods in the back of the house.
"Nice and private up here," James said. "It's my favorite room in the place. Well, second-favorite. So you should get settled in and then we can head down to the lake. It's really close." She smiled and leaned against the doorjamb. "Can I get you anything?"
Just a working toilet and a house that doesn't look like a ghost-story set, thought Natalie. But to James she just smiled. "I'm good," she said, her voice half an octave too high. "I'll be down in a minute."
As soon as James went back downstairs, Natalie took her cell phone out and turned it on. She waited for the bars to appear on the top left corner of her screen. She couldn't explain why, but she just had to call Maya. Only Maya would understand what had possessed her to come out to this godforsaken outpost, even if Natalie herself no longer did.
Natalie waited and waited, but when she pressed "call," nothing happened. She pressed the green button a second time. The screen blinked twice, and in the top left corner the words "Network Unavailable" flashed. Crap. So she really had been plunged into a past century out here.
Natalie surveyed the room, which was noticeably less filthy than the rest of the house. The twin bed was made, and a vase containing a single yellow tulip sat on the side table. She sat down on the edge of the bed and looked out the window. A trio of identical clouds hovered overhead, angry and dark. Nimbus, that's what they were called, clouds that promised rain; they'd learned that in seventh grade.
With a resigned sigh, Natalie gathered her fake Wayfarers and Dark Passages and headed back downstairs. In the main room, James was lounging face-up on the sofa with her eyes closed. The music was louder than before, the singer's unearthly voice repeating either "Hope in Me" or "Open Me" over and over again.
"You ready to lickety-split?" James asked, popping her eyes open.
"Definitely," Natalie replied, maybe a little too eagerly.
"Cool." But James didn't stir. "C'mere first. I want to show you something." She pointed upward, and Natalie followed James' finger to the strip of plaster hieroglyphics ringing the ceiling.
"Aren't the moldings awesome?" James asked.
They were painted the same color as the ceiling and walls, barely bold enough to register. Natalie studied the row of cabbage roses and diamonds and—she shivered—uneven infinity signs, her father's favorite symbol.
"Let's go outside before it's too late," she blurted out. "It's getting super overcast."
Natalie looked out the window only to see rain had started to fall, swishing against the smudged casement windows. She gripped Dark Passages and watched as, within seconds, the rain intensified, pelting the house until its very foundations seemed to shake.
"So much for fun in the sun." James got up and walked to the door. "Looks like we have no choice but to party inside." She glided out of the room, leaving a sweet tobacco scent in her wake.
Natalie sank into a big club chair and glanced at the book in her hand. It was time to get to the bottom of this mystery. "By the way," she called into the kitchen, "how come you didn't tell me Dark Passages was coming out on time after all?"
The sound of tinkling ice cubes mixed with laughter, but James said nothing until she reappeared in the doorway holding two tall glasses. "Aw, is Fiona St. Claire's No. 1 fan mad at me for withholding important info about her publication schedule? I swear to G, Nat, you are so beyond adorable."
Natalie slid her eyes away in embarrassment. She knew what was coming next: James was sorry, but only mega-dorks like Natalie were actually keeping track of the Dark Passages release date.
Instead James cocked her head, and the left corner of her mouth lifted into a smile. "Did it ever occur to you that I might not have been telling the truth about Fiona's nervous breakdown?" The smile grew broader, more uneven. "That maybe I just made the whole thing up so I could become friends with you?"
"Yeah, I'm sure that's exactly what happened," Natalie said sarcastically. But she didn't quite get the joke. She looked at James, who was looking right back with that same lopsided, not-quite-right smile.
"Would you be mad?" James asked. "Tell the truth."
"I—I … I'm not sure what you mean."
"Ah, sweet pea, I can tell you're freaked out," James cooed. She rose from the couch and crossed the room toward Natalie, who shrank back into her chair. "But not to worry—I have just the thing to boost your spirits."
"I don't want one of your pills," Natalie spat out. "You shouldn't be taking them, either."
James laughed. "That's not what I was talking about." She snatched the copy of Dark Passages from Natalie, then opened the book to the dedication page and handed it back. "Take a look."
Love is composed of a single soul inhabiting two bodies.—Aristotle
"Isn't it beautiful?" James asked after Natalie had read the line and looked back up. "I suggested the quote to Fiona." Her voice was dripping with a sickly sweetness. "For you and me."
Beyond the windows, the wind whistled and howled. Natalie was filled with a sudden longing to be out there underneath it, alone and free.
But when she reached for the arm of her chair to get up, James poked her in the chest and pushed her back down. "I'm afraid it's time to face the facts, missy," she said. "You owe at least that much to Fiona."
Next week: Natalie fights for her life in the epic conclusion of My Darklyng.
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