Natalie walked out of school on Thursday afternoon, past the Young Conservatives bake sale and the pimply kids playing card games on Jaron Fireman's disgusting pilled-up Star Wars comforter, and straight to the fat maple tree where she and Jenna always met.
Jenna was already waiting in tight black corduroys and a pink cashmere wrap. "Everything okay?" she said. "You look so sulky."
"You meant sultry, right?" Natalie joked. That was pretty much the last word she'd apply to herself since Josh had triggered hookupus interruptus the other night at the Landaus'. He'd been nice enough over the last couple of days at school, but shyer than usual, more withdrawn.
Jenna didn't respond. Her eyes had refocused on something behind her friend.
Natalie grimaced as she saw Thisbe Grant striding over with her No. 1 sycophant, Briana Wolfe, in tow. As Thisbe fawned over Jenna, Natalie tried—and for the most part succeeded—in ignoring the conversation about the totally amazing retro party Briana was having that weekend.
Natalie snapped to attention only when Thisbe addressed her directly. This was pretty much unprecedented. "Hi, Natalie," she said, flashing a too-bright smile.
"Howdy." Natalie waved without enthusiasm.
Thisbe raised her hand to her head to make sure the red silk flower she'd pinned to her bun was still in place. Two stray tendrils framed her face like upside-down devil horns. "You weren't by any chance on a bus coming back from the city Sunday afternoon, were you?"
"Er, yeah, I was, actually," Natalie said uncomfortably.
As if she hadn't already been punished for sneaking off to have brunch with James. Jenna still hadn't acknowledged Natalie's text from the city, even after she'd sent a half-repentant What's up? Want 2 hang 2nite? follow-up later that afternoon.
And even worse: The phone had exploded the silence of the Pollock-Pendleton household at 2 that morning. "Natalie? NATALIE?" a slurred voice repeated over and over into the receiver, sending Elena into a tailspin of panic.
While Elena was ripping off her daughter's duvet to ensure she hadn't been abducted, a friendly, if slightly drunk, Bar Six waitress explained to Teddy that she'd found a wallet belonging to one Natalie Pollock and what should she do with it?
A messenger from Teddy's office picked up the wallet the next day, and the only lasting damage was a $400 charge on Natalie's emergency credit card. "Visa's refunding it!" she had to keep reminding her angry mother, as if she would charge six rounds of drinks at a bar called Death & Co!
Natalie sensed more bad news was on the way. Her eyes clicked into Thisbe's. "Why do you ask?"
Thisbe shrugged. "No particular reason. My mom was on a power walk, and she just said she thought she saw you getting off outside the Mobil station," Thisbe sounded bored with her own reply. "I wasn't sure she was right, that's all. I mean, you look like a lot of people."
Why was Thisbe so awful? The lameness of the insult only made it more insulting somehow, as if Natalie didn't merit any real effort. Natalie's cheeks were still burning when Thisbe and Briana ambled off in a cloud of laughter. And Jenna just stood by in silence.
Without commenting on the exchange with Thisbe, Natalie and Jenna cut across the lawn to the bus stop en route to Regal Street. They were going to the Salvation Army to pick up interview clothes for Precious First Impressions, the back-to-work community-service program Jenna co-chaired.
"Thisbe really gets to you, huh?" Jenna observed after a few minutes.
"What do you mean?"
"Because you're obviously in a horrible mood," Jenna said.
"I am not," Natalie said.
But Jenna was right: Natalie was in a bad mood, but it wasn't because of Thisbe. Mostly she was stressed about Josh, who had been distant toward her all week. She was also bummed that four days had passed since her brunch with James without a single call or text.
"You're totally invited to Briana's," Jenna said once they'd boarded the bus. "It's a costume party—Briana's grandmother just died and left behind all these amazing clothes from the 1960s."
"Wow, and she didn't just hand them all over to Thisbe?" Natalie asked sarcastically. With her stovepipe jeans and over-the-top updos, Briana Wolfe took all cues, fashion and otherwise, from her Bitchy Highness.
Jenna's mouth twitched. "Well, I for one think this party will be awesome. You're supposed to show up in your normal clothes, and Briana will have all the costumes laid out. First come, first dibs. Way to honor your dead grandmother, huh?"
"I don't know." Natalie shrugged. She hadn't visited her father's grave in years, so she wasn't one to judge. "We all have different coping mechanisms, I guess."
"Right, sorry." Jenna's eyes dropped to her feet. Her family certainly had its share of issues—her dog Barnaby's cancer scare, her mother's bizarre sexual behavior, her own never-discussed stint with anorexia, her dad's occasional congressional testimony—but nothing in the death category. Even her grandparents were all still alive.
Once inside the Salvation Army, Jenna tore through the racks while Natalie hung out by the men's tops, idly considering a faded Mickey Mouse T-shirt as an air-clearing present for Josh. It was natty but also soft, perfect for Josh's broad shoulders.
Natalie knew better than to shop for herself there. She did what she could, but vintage was not a universal right. Chinchilla jackets and parrot-hued polyester dresses only worked on girls who needed "interesting" accessories to balance out their boringly perfect genes. Girls like James.
"It's so great that they have so many plus sizes," Jenna shouted from across the room. "Because not to be rude, but some of our ladies tend to be on the sort of heavy side. Omigosh, look at this one!" She held up a blue piece of fabric that belonged on an airport tarmac.
Natalie shrugged, still unable to shake a feeling of loss. Her life was totally turning into a "Greatest Letdowns" compilation album. She wasn't sure which was the crown jewel of disappointments—the joke her relationship with Josh was becoming, the modeling callback that failed to materialize, or her already-over friendship with James.
As she was thinking this, a buzz went off in Natalie's bag. When she unearthed her phone and saw who the message was from, she let out a loud gasp—so loud that Jenna, from across the room, looked up with interest. "Josh?" she asked. Jenna didn't know the details of Natalie's night at the Landaus', just that the hookup hadn't gone exactly according to plan.
"No, James," Natalie said without thinking.
"That weird model girl from the city?" Jenna walked briskly across the store. "Your brunch date?" It was the first time Jenna had acknowledged getting Natalie's text the previous Sunday.
"Yeah," Natalie said as casually as she could, though she felt obscurely guilty, as if she'd been caught cheating on Jenna. Well, it wasn't so far off.
"So what, you guys are all BFF all of a sudden?" Jenna asked. "Let me see that." She snatched Natalie's phone and opened the message. "Riiight," Jenna said after reading it, her face returning to normal.
And when Natalie saw the words on the screen, she understood why.
Hey contact pple my ghettofab phone is all messed up txt me your name and number if u ever want to hear from me again
Natalie knew she should probably play it cool and wait an hour-plus before replying, but she was weak and sent over her info while Jenna was paying. She didn't get so much as a thanx in reply.
Natalie was still thinking about James, or rather, trying to push James from her mind, in her room later that night. Eventually, she gave up on her algebra homework and opened up her to computer to Google her new would-be friend. That's when she realized she didn't even know James' last name.
Natalie typed in "James" + "Terra" + "Dark Shadows" and instantly had her answer: Kay. James Kay, the most musical name Natalie had heard since Elody Brook, Torquil's half-Cinder love interest in Dark Sinister.
Natalie clearly wasn't the only Terra/James Kay fan out there. She soon found herself on one of the many Fiona St. Claire fan pages, where she scrolled through endless comments along the lines of "22 days? I CANNOT TAKE IT!! :p"
Natalie felt sorry for the fans who didn't know about the publication delay and even sorrier for Fiona. Amazingly, her nonstop Twitter feed still hadn't betrayed her dark secret. Her tweets were the same mix of silly banter with her sister Tilly and random musings about life, literature, and the magical properties of the No. 17—she'd just bought 17 love-themed votive candles in the hopes of luring back her ex-lover.
"Dinner!" Elena shouted from downstairs.
"Give me five minutes!" Nick's reply came out like a yelp, which could only mean—gross—that he had a naked girl in his room.
Before getting up, Natalie clicked on her Facebook page one last time. Her friends' status updates were the predictable mix of complaints about homework/fatigue/boredom. Natalie felt a prick of interest only when she noticed the strange new wall posting Risa Baynar had left. It was a picture of an old saint, a woman—the kind of painting Natalie remembered seeing way uptown at the Cloisters, where Maya had taken her once for a "meditative luncheon."
"Now means now," Elena said sternly, sticking her head through the door.
Natalie quickly clicked off the image, as if caught in some illicit act. Teddy's Internet policing be damned: This Risa Baynar was definitely too intriguing to defriend.
"Why is Teddy still working all the time?" Natalie asked at the dinner table, during the first course of chilled vichyssoise sprinkled with matchsticks of home-cured bacon. "Isn't one of the perks of being a senior editor getting to tell other people what to do?"
"Maybe in a good economy," Nick piped up. "But if you ever pulled your head out of that vampire porn, you might have heard that the Times is about to lay off a shitload of workers." His thick eyebrows shot up into know-it-all arches.
"Seriously?" Natalie was too startled to chafe at her stepbrother's obnoxiousness. "So Teddy has to choose who to fire?"
"If he's lucky," Nick said with a half-smile, half-sneer. "I read about it on Gawker," he went on. "They were making fun of the Times for bringing on a team of fancy consultants to reorganize the paper."
"They're in the process of some cost-cutting at the Times, as well as at most other businesses in this economy," Elena said. "They're rejiggering expense account limits and travel budgets—minor stuff like that."
"Yeah, whatever you say," Nick scoffed. "That's all that's going down over there. How often do editors come to work to find a box of newspapers with blood—"
"That's enough, Nicholas!" Elena barked.
Nick was still smirking when Natalie's cell phone beeped. She looked down and was startled to see James' name in her inbox. Twice in one afternoon!
I'm in New Jerseyland—didn't realize the Olive Garden was the state flower. U ever been 2 Montclair?
Natalie stared at the message until the words went blurry. Montclair was the next exit on the turnpike! She shot up from the table and headed for the bathroom. "I'll be right back," she called as she composed her reply.
OMG where r u? We have 2 meet!
Natalie waited, and just a few seconds later her phone lit up again.
Awes what's ur addy?
Uh-oh. Natalie bit down on her lip, trying to think fast. She'd rather come home with pink hair than some off-the-charts beauty she'd picked up at a casting call Elena knew nothing about.
She finally settled on There's a coffee shop near here, then tapped in her old hangout's exact coordinates and suggested they meet in 10 minutes. It was unlikely Josh was at Cafe Quixotic this late, and if he were, he'd surely be too distracted by James' radiance to ask Natalie how they'd met.
IDK. I might be longer. Not sure yet … maybe another time.
Natalie could feel the folds forming on her forehead. It could be decades before James happened to find herself in New Jersey again. And so, breathing in a deep sigh, she tapped out Maybe easier 4 u 2 come here, followed by directions to the Pollock-Pendleton home.