As the song goes, there are "miles and miles of Texas." Miles of desert to the west, miles of piney woods to the east, miles of highway and byway streaking every which way in between, and Austin, the sparkling jewel nestled at the center, a kaleidoscope of color and movement ... and weird. Those of us lucky enough to move here from Houston, Dallas, and beyond hung on like runner weeds, determined to stay whether we really belonged or not.
But who could say, really, who belonged and who didn't—conformance was a dirty word here in the capital city, where the unofficial slogan, emblazoned across T-shirts in all-capped, bold white font, was "Keep Austin Weird." I didn't own one of these shirts. Not yet. I'd held off, waiting for the moment when my own personal weirdness factor justified the purchase. Otherwise, I'd just be a poseur, part of the problem. Geeky not being synonymous with weird, I'd been under the impression I still had a long way to go. But as of approximately ten seconds ago, I think, just maybe, I might have crossed over into the realm of "weird."
Having lived in this city for eight serious-minded years as somewhat of an outsider, skulking on the fringe in T-shirts from Old Navy, you'd think I'd be excited, giddy even. But honestly, I was getting more and more panicky by the minute. All because of a journal.
The journal had been intended as the perfect Austenesque birthday gift for my vintage-obsessed younger cousin. I'd found it lying alongside a worn copy of Pride and Prejudice in a quirky antiques shop down on South Congress and simply couldn't pass it up, hobnobbing, as it was, with greatness. I had a bit of a soft spot for Ms. Austen and all she touched. The book was even inscribed with a quirky and rather perplexing dedication in an old-fashioned script:
"... I dedicate to You the following Miscellanious Morsels, convinced that if you seriously attend to them, You will derive from them very important Instructions, with regard to your Conduct in Life."
Charmingly vintage, with its elaborately detailed antiqued brass key plate and burnished doorknob affixed to the front, not to mention its slightly batty hint of shrewdly dispensed life advice, it seemed a perfect choice for a secret diary. I figured the absence of clasp and key could be remedied with a good hiding place. Evidently mine hadn't been nearly good enough. But then, I'd never planned on needing one.
My delight in finding the perfect gift had lasted all of five minutes—long enough to treat myself to a chai tea latte and settle into a café chair to admire my purchase. Slightly envious, I'd splayed my fingers over the bumpy black leather cover and even gone so far as to dip my unpolished, trimmed-short fingernail into the tiny keyhole. I'd instantly felt an unexpected little zing that had sent goose bumps chasing each other up my arms and nerves spiraling down like a roller coaster into the pit of my stomach. Startled, I'd jerked back, jostling my full-to-the-brim cup and sending a cascade of warm, spiced tea down onto the little book, staining the pages, buckling the edges, and rendering it ungiftable all in one fell swoop.
I'd chalked the whole situation up to general journal incompatibility and carted my newly ruined journal home with me, not having any clue what I'd do with it. I'd always been more of a clipboard kind of girl, and not much had changed recently. After four years of engineering at UT–Austin, and another few getting my MBA, I was anxious to keep the momentum going. Having just purchased my first house, a little fixer-up bungalow in the city's über-hip West Sixth Street neighborhood, I was now gunning for a management position with its boost in salary and prestige, and I was spending my weekends on carefully planned and executed DIY projects. Men were a distraction. They were also the meat and potatoes of journaling, and for the time being, I was dieting. Looking back on it now, and ever so modestly casting myself as Elizabeth Bennet, I could see that discovering this journal had been like the arrival of the Bingleys: a call to adventure. And, in my own clumsy manner, I'd answered. Eventually.
The charming little book had sat, waiting patiently on the shelf with my own, marginally less dusty, treasure trove of Austen novels until I could no longer resist the allure of that miniature door and those tea-stained, cinnamon-scented pages. Clearly I'd jinxed myself.
Glancing somewhat nervously toward the kitchen timer digitally counting down the seconds ... 9:56 ... 55 ... 54 ... 53 ... I shifted my gaze back to the seemingly innocuous book that was quickly becoming quite the little nemesis. With cupcakes in the oven (my signature contribution to next door's weekly karaoke shindig), I had time to kill ... and no legitimate excuse not to take another look.
One wide-eyed glance was all it took—now I was officially freaked. The page looked exactly the same as it had fifteen seconds ago but distinctly, disturbingly different from the way it had the day I wrote it. And therein lay the rub—not to mention the weirdness. Because how could it be different?
Goose bumps cropped up on my arms as I tried to focus on the scattering of words remaining. As I read them in order, left to right and down the page, my heartbeat kicked up in my chest, deep, ominous thuds. There were twelve words left.
Miss Nicola James will be sensible and indulge in a little romance.
It was either an extraordinary coincidence ... or not. And the "not" was what scared me.
I had to admit, I hadn't taken particular notice of my choice of words when I'd penned the one and only entry almost a week ago, but now that they were gone, I wanted them back. It was the damn principle of the thing! Well, that and the creepiness.
I forced myself to slow down and think calmly. I peered more closely at the page, running my fingers over its unmarred smoothness. Tilting the little volume back and forth, I noticed nothing but pristine blank paper spanning the gaps the missing words had left behind. There was nothing—no marks. No smudges, smears, eraser marks, nothing. No sign that the rest of the words had ever been there. My words—some of them anyway—had completely disappeared. But how? And equally curious ... why?
I skimmed ahead a few pages, just checking—for what, I had no idea—and then suddenly, rabidly obsessed, whipped through every single page, searching for any sort of marking at all. Common sense didn't bother to kick in until I'd finished. What was I thinking? That somehow my words were playing hide and seek, waiting for me to come searching?
8:13 ... Timing myself definitely wasn't helping!
Focus. What did I know? I'd written a single entry, stashed the journal in the bookcase to be guarded between the Misses Bennet and Woodhouse, and it had been hijacked.
I think that about summed it up: Basically I knew absolutely nothing other than this was my journal, and somebody was messing with me—and doing so at their own peril. But who? No one knew about the journal, and no one of my acquaintance had the skill set necessary to pull something like this off. They'd need dodgy breaking-and-entering skills to get the journal (having somehow first discovered its existence), an impressive knack for wordplay, and access to Mission Impossible–style office products to obliterate all superfluous words into mind-blowing nonexistence. By now, I was leaning heavily toward adopting Vizzini's "Inconceivable" mantra. (And it totally meant what I thought it meant.)
7:22 ... Think ... think! It occurred to me that Nancy Drew would have had this case solved by now, so what was I, a top-ofmy-class engineering major and MBA grad, missing? I let my eyes roam around the room. This wasn't the sort of place where unexpected, magical things happened. Everything that happened here was practical and preplanned. And until tonight, it all made complete sense! I needed a connection, an explanation ... basically a "Why Me?"
I dragged my eyes back to the page to scan it yet again, and this time, I made myself focus on the words themselves.
Ms. Nicola James will be sensible(!) and indulge in a little romance?
It would seem that the journal had been soaking up inspiration as it sat, unsupervised, alongside my much-loved collection of Austen novels all week long. Now I just needed a single man in possession of a good fortune, and I was good to go. To continue the metaphor likening the appearance of the journal to that of the Bingleys, this snarky bit of commentary could be viewed as the introduction of Mr. Darcy, spouting off unnecessarily.
Forgetting for a minute the stranger-than-fiction details of this whole situation, I was offended now on a whole other level. I was nothing if not sensible, but I wasn't about to be prodded into "indulging" until I was good and ready. And yet, perversely, I was impressed. I didn't remember using half of those words in my own entry, but obviously I had, because there they were, big as life, taunting me in my very own handwriting.
A glance at the clock had me thudding back into a near stupor of helplessness. The antiques store was a no-go until tomorrow afternoon. Surely there was something I could be doing about this predicament right now.... Then it hit me: I'd re-create my original entry and get it back, fully intact. How that might help, I couldn't imagine—I was simply driven by a desperation to put things back the way I'd left them, the way they made sense.
Thrilled to have a specific task to perform, I scrambled to get a pen, then changed my mind and grabbed a pencil instead—one with a good chunky eraser.
My ringtone blithely sounded off from the kitchen counter, and I jerked nervously away from it. Glancing at the journal, my decision was instantaneous: I was sooo not telling anyone about this. Scrabbling for the phone, my greeting came out as something of a croak.
"Good, I caught you." As usual, Gabe was oblivious. I could hear his fingers clicking over a keyboard and assumed he was still at work. My gaze shifted curiously to the timer yet again.
Gabe was my best friend, and maybe that should have entitled him to a juicy divulgence, but he was also an engineer, not to mention a coworker, and his mind worked, more or less, the same way mine did. Seeing as I'd already classified this whole situation as un-freakin'-believable, I really didn't need, and couldn't stomach, his second opinion. I decided to stay mum, perched against the counter, a watchful eye on the journal.
"I assume you're aware that South by Southwest kicks off tonight," Gabe continued when I hadn't spoken.
"Aware, yes; indifferent, also yes." I wasn't the type to get excited about the city's annual movie slash music fest, no matter how prestigious.
Gabe ignored me. "So the music part of the festival doesn't start till next week, but some of the bands arrived early and scored some extra gigs."
I'd tease him for using the word "gig," but I needed to speed things up here.
"So ... ?" I heard myself asking, my feigned interest the closest I intended on coming to any plans he might have for me that evening.
"So I'm heading down to Fadó with a couple of expats and a guy in from Glasgow, and I thought you might like to come. It's a Scottish band." With Austin nicknamed Silicon Hills and Glasgow dubbed Silicon Glen, many companies operated sister facilities, here and across the pond, creating somewhat of a foreign exchange program for the high-tech set.
"You are not trying to set me up." Less of a question, more of a stern reminder.
"God no. I'm just offering you an evening of men with accents."
And here I'd thought my best chance of going international tonight was a lawn full of lesbians salsaing to a karaoke rendition of "Livin' La Vida Loca."
"I think I'll pass, but you get points for a good, solid effort."
"Ah, come on, Nic—don't pass. You can't expect to earn a Weird shirt by missing eight consecutive years of South by Southwest."
"Why not? In this particular instance, I'm the epitome of weird." My eyes skimmed over the journal and quickly darted away. "Who else would choose questionable backyard karaoke over a legitimate Scottish band?"
"You're going next door?" Cue massive sigh.
"Of course. I've got cupcakes baking as we speak."
"Never mind that you need an intervention more than you need another cupcake." I started to react, but it quickly became clear that this was just his starter jab. "You're. Not. A. Lesbian. Nic. And you wouldn't karaoke for a hundred bucks." That was true. Sad, but true. "So what in the hell are you doing over there every Friday night?" And then he lapsed into absurdity: "Are they brainwashing you? Luring you into some sort of sexual cult? Should I come over?"
I rolled my eyes and responded accordingly. "Don't worry—it's nothing I can't handle. Just a little girl-on-girl action."
After a couple beats of uncharacteristic silence, Gabe eventually surfaced. "Okay, I'm getting a sarcastic vibe here, and it's throwing me off."
"Wishful thinking doesn't make it so, Gabe. Remember that."
"Damn. I thought not. So how exactly do the weekly lesbian potlucks fit in with the Nic James Life Plan?"
By now immune to Gabe's (and everyone else's) disdain for my carefully considered, down-to-the-detail life plan, I answered matter-of-factly. "It's actually a rather elegant solution. As you've just pointed out, I'm not a lesbian. As a result, I'm relatively immune to their charms. So no strings attached. Ingenious, huh?"
"I guess. Define `relatively.'" I ignored this too. "Are there gonna be any guys there, trying to coax a few back to our team?" He sounded positively titillated over such an opportunity.
"Nope. And I consider that a definite draw." My patience was drying up.
"Are men even allowed?"
"Only for the occasional ritual sacrifice. Now I really—"
Gabe's laugh blasted back over the phone line, and I imagined him throwing back his head to punctuate the jocularity. For someone so obviously opposed to my attending these Friday night gettogethers, he seemed vicariously enthralled.
"Gabe, I gotta go."
"Okay, but I hear these guys are good. If, as you claim, you are still playing for our team, maybe they could get you off the bench."
The corners of my mouth began to curl despite my best efforts. "I'll suit up next season," I parried, nudging a spatula through the bowl of ganache sitting beside me on the counter, looking dangerously delicious.
"Are you telling me that men are on your agenda for next year?"
"I thought I was being lured out for a night of Austin culture and camaraderie?" As opposed to a night of Austen culture and camaraderie with my traitorous journal.
"Just sayin' ..."
"Anything's possible," I allowed, suddenly distinctly uncomfortable with that admission, given what I'd been dealing with for the past quarter hour. "Bye, Gabe. Have fun tonight." I hung up before hearing his reply, just as the timer went off.
Retrieving the cupcakes, I set them on the baking rack to cool, swiped a finger through the ganache, and dropped back down at the kitchen table. I glared at the offending journal page and its few remaining survivors and underlined each of them with a short, sharp motion.
Then suddenly I remembered. My one-entry stint as a journaler had sprung from plans to attend a coworker's wedding this weekend—tomorrow, in fact. And the reality that I'd been going alone.
Miss Nicola James, 1 will attend.
Tentatively at first, I let my mind play through some possibilities. I mouthed the words and tapped my pencil over the page, checking the spacing. Within seconds, I was feeling very déjà vu.
I'm going solo. As per The Plan. Sure it'd be kinda nice to have a date, but I'm not sure I'm ready for the complications just yet. Besides, I'll do just fine on my own.
Excerpted from Austentatious by Alyssa Goodnight Copyright © 2012 by Alyssa Goodnight. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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