Natalie unclenched her jaw and fell back into the chair, her head pounding with a thousand questions. "But," she finally managed, "I thought you barely knew Fiona."
"There are a lot of things you think about me that aren't true." James raised her upper lip and her diamond-sharp incisors seemed to be pointing straight at Natalie.
"What are you talking about?"
"Let's just say I have access," James said with a conspiratorial chuckle. " 'A single soul inhabiting two bodies,' " she repeated the Dark Passages epigraph from memory. "It has quite a ring, doesn't it?"
Natalie stared at James, whose dark eyes, once keyholes to some magical, glittering place, now looked flat and dead.
"I have a question for you, Natalie." James reached for the standing lamp to dim the bulb. "Do you believe in fate?"
"Um, I guess so." Natalie shrank back into the chair.
"And what about infinity?"
"I—I'm not sure." Natalie glanced up at the infinity signs on the ceiling. Her father had never seemed more remote than he did at that moment.
"Well, I do," James said. "Otherwise, what would be the point?" She slid down the armrest and squeezed her body—so thin it was almost two-dimensional—into the crook next to Natalie. Her tea and cigarette smell flapped through the heavy air. "Don't you think people go on living forever, at least on some level?"
Natalie flinched. "You mean, like, after they die?"
"Exactly." James was massaging Natalie's shoulders now, kneading her muscles in smooth practiced motions. "God, you're so tense, gumdrop. You've got to relax. Here." James tightened her grip, and the proximity of her body—the heat of her breath, the firmness of her grasp—felt almost suffocating to Natalie.
"Oh, and since you asked, I happen to be a big believer in infinity," James said. "And fate and destiny and all the rest." She breathed in deeply before continuing: "I also believe you and I were meant to be together—don't you? I mean, isn't it strange to think of how long we were kept apart? It's almost criminal."
Natalie's temples pricked with sweat. She didn't understand a lot of things, but she was pretty sure this wasn't how friends talked to each other. This wasn't even how boyfriends and girlfriends talked to each other. She boinged suddenly out of the chair. "I just realized I forgot my medicine. It's upstairs."
"I'll come with," James said, a slow smile spreading across her lips. "Pills and thrills, you know me."
Natalie's stomach was seized with panic, no less urgent for being so amorphous. She had to get her phone. Somewhere around here she'd get bars—surely—and then someone could come rescue her. But who exactly? Maya? Jenna? Josh? If only she hadn't alienated every single person who mattered to her.
"You know what I love most about this place?" James murmured behind Natalie. The rain was coming down harder now, in fast rhythmic drumbeats. "It's so completely remote, just so far away from everything. Do you know how rare that is these days?"
Natalie had reached the top of the stairs and stood at the end of the hallway, facing a passage of identical doors. Dust motes floated in the air, and she could no longer remember which door led to her bedroom.
"GPS much?" James giggled. "That one, babe." She pointed at a door on the left side of the hallway. Natalie took a shaky step forward and turned the handle. The first thing she saw when the door swung open was an enormous mauve dollhouse filled with furniture as elaborate as it was minuscule. This was definitely not the small, tidy room where she'd left her stuff.
Natalie was about to turn back around when she noticed a vaguely familiar object on a floor rug. She took another step inside the room and then she was sure. It was the picture of the trees pierced by a ray of light, the very first photograph Risa Baynar had posted on her wall.
Natalie took another step inside the room, and that was when she saw a trail of photographs from Risa Baynar's other wall posts—the sheet music, the goofy record cover, an old French poster from the movie Sabrina. And last of all there was a contact sheet.
Natalie lunged forward and grabbed at the photo paper. She recognized the frames on the top row, of Natalie and James and the other girls in their lab coats. The bottom half of the page contained a series of frames that showed Natalie, hands in the air, laughing hysterically with her wild hair thrown over her face. She was naked from the waist up, and she was standing in a circle with half-a-dozen other models in Alison's Williamsburg studio. It was the exact same image of Natalie that had appeared on her Facebook page, before it had been Photoshopped beyond recognition.
Of course. She was so stupid, so pathetically sheltered and naive.
Natalie whipped around. "Where—where'd you get all this? How did you—?"
James—Terra—Risa Baynar—whoever she was—exploded in laughter, as if she'd just heard the joke of the century. "Sorry—I know I shouldn't be laughing," she said. "I just, it's just—you're just too completely adorable for words, Natique. If you didn't exist, somebody would've had to invent you."
James emitted another animal laugh. "I brought all this stuff up here because I wanted to show you everything. But frankly, I'm disappointed that such a measure was even necessary. God, Natalie, I tried to make it easy for you, let you in on my dark secret. I mean, for Christ's sake, I spelled it right out on your wall."
Natalie could feel the corners on her mouth twitching as they did when she was trying not to cry. She knew that James was talking about the strange postings on her Facebook wall, but she was no closer to understanding what any of the clues meant. "What are you even talking about?"
"I figured it out right away—that first day—but Jesus, you're the one who lived with him," James said, sounding almost annoyed now. "You're the one who inherited his last name and precious photo albums and everything else the world values. I was left to extract all my intel from Google and my mother's disjointed monologues. But you—well, I didn't think it'd be that hard for you to put two and two together. Granted, I have this pesky tendency to overestimate my own flesh and blood."
Lived with him … two and two together … own flesh and blood.
Natalie gripped the dollhouse roof to keep from toppling forward. "You mean—you're saying—your father is—"
"Yeah, duh, genius bar! Don't tell me you hadn't already guessed—somewhere deep down. I mean, not even you could be that clueless."
Natalie's insides froze; all of a sudden, she was terrified, more frightened than she'd ever been in her life. "I—I've gotta go," she said. Her stomach sloshed around, on the verge of vomiting, as she careened out of the room.
James caught up with her right at the top of the stairs, grabbing Natalie's arm and clenching tight. "And here I was, thinking it was so hospitable of me to invite you up here on Daddy Dearest's stupid deathabration day, or whatever you call it." With her free hand, James tilted Natalie's chin up, a gesture more aggressive than tender. "I think it's time you started showing some gratitude, Natalie. I mean, let's face it: I'm the best thing that's ever happened to you."
"More like the absolute worst," Natalie said, trying to writhe free of James' grip. "You're a total psycho!" she yelled. "Let go of me NOW!"
"No need to scream, sweetheart." James was still holding tight and her voice was eerily soft. "I can hear you fine and dandy, and there's nobody else within earshot."
"Just leave me alone!"
"Oh, don't worry, when I'm good and ready, I will," James said. "I'll leave you alone for all eternity—or should I say infinity?"
Natalie tried to look straight at James, to reconcile this savage monster with the hilarious new best friend who'd set her life on fire, who'd sponged up all her pain. But tears stung the corners of her eyes, blurring her vision as she kicked James hard in the shin.
James keeled over and staggered back a few steps. Then like a wild animal she leaped forward to tackle her prey. The next moments were a fog of fast-moving limbs and flying spit and blood. Natalie ducked, but not fast or low enough. James succeeded in wrestling her to the ground, grabbing wildly at her hair. Then there came a ripping sound, followed by a dizzying burst of unfathomable pain. When Natalie opened her eyes, she was stunned to see a clump of her hair ringed with little droplets of blood on the ground.
"What is it you want from me?" she panted, rising onto her hands and knees.
"Have you really not figured that out yet, you imbecile? You're what I want," James said, landing a solid kick in Natalie's ribs. "And what I want, I get."
The impact of the kick made Natalie lose her balance. She flailed wildly for a banister rail, but it was too late. Her shoulder twisted as the rest of her flew up into the air, not a bird but a boulder, a gigantic heavy rock rolling, rolling, rolling to the bottom of her brief and worthless life.
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