You Are Here

You Are Here
Jennifer E. Smith

Chapter one

Still somewhat to her surprise, Emma Healy had started off the morning by stealing her older brother’s car.

This was not an impulsive decision. It wasn’t something she’d come up with the night before while lying on the couch in his New York City apartment, watching the numbers on the microwave clock shift and re-form as the light outside the window paled to gray. Though the last thing she’d ever stolen was a pack of bubble gum in the third grade, and though most of her plans had a habit of fizzling out along the way, Emma had already known with a kind of solemn certainty that as soon as the sun was fully up, she would slip on her shoes, tiptoe out the door, and drive off in Patrick’s car.

What she hadn’t known was that it would break down so quickly, not fifty miles out of the city, at a New Jersey rest stop, where she now sat perched on a picnic table, regarding the smoke seeping from the hood of the blue convertible, trying to figure out her next move.

She probably should have known better. The Mustang wasn’t exactly the most obvious choice for a getaway car. Patrick had bought it when he was her age, nearly fifteen years ago, which made it not quite old enough to be vintage, though not new enough to run properly. It was like a moving junkyard, a clanging chorus of coughs and belches, and it had a baffling tendency to stall, though it wasn’t even stick shift. Patrick was practically a full-fledged mechanic at this point for the number of times he’d paged through the manuals, trying to fix the ornery vehicle himself.

But even so, almost from the moment he’d arrived home in it just a few days ago, sputtering up to the house nearly an hour late for the Fourth of July party, a plan had begun to take shape in the farthest corners of Emma’s mind, like an itch she couldn’t quite scratch.

“It sounds like your car ate a lawn mower,” she’d said, traipsing down the front path to greet him.

“I keep telling her to stop chasing smaller machines, but she never listens,” he said, thumping the hood with a grin. Like all three of her older siblings, Patrick was in his thirties and spectacularly odd in his own way. He had more diplomas and less common sense than anyone she’d ever known. He was working toward a second PhD in some obscure field that combined philosophy and math, but when she’d last visited him in New York, he’d barely been able to load the dishwasher or manage a grocery list. Emma often wondered whether the price of such intelligence was losing all normal logic. It seemed to be the case in her family, at least, and she’d long ago given up trying to understand their peculiar tendencies. That was a science in and of itself.

“Sorry I’m late,” he’d said, looking off toward the backyard, where the annual cookout was underway, the smell of hot dogs heavy in the air and the smoke from the barbecue twisting skyward.

“Oh, yeah, I’m sure you are,” Emma said, and Patrick laughed.

“It’s nice having an unreliable car,” he said, giving the tire a little kick. “Gives you an excuse to be unreliable yourself.”

The party was, as always, a sorry affair. Nobody was throwing water balloons or waving sparklers or even wearing red, white, and blue. Nobody was fishing through the cooler for another can of beer, and nobody had spilled any ketchup, aside from the eighty-eight-year-old former dean of the college, who had fallen asleep holding his hamburger.

Instead, a few members of the English department were arguing with a new history professor over the relevance of texts from the time of the Revolutionary War, two men in shirtsleeves were debating the exact words of a long-dead poet, and Emma’s parents were holding forth on their recent trip to Patagonia, where Mom had done fieldwork on historical burial sites and Dad had put the finishing touches on his latest collection of poetry.

Down the road the last stragglers from the parade were making their way past the rows of houses that lined the main street into town, where small clapboard homes like the Healys’ began to give way to fraternity row, each mansion bigger than the next, with columns and gabled roofs displaying fading Greek letters like badges of affluence. Beyond them the college sat high on the hill, and Emma could see the sun glancing off the bell tower of the chapel.

“I’m probably too old for this thing anyway,” Patrick said, turning back to the car.

“You should get a new one then,” Emma suggested. “You could leave this one up here for me.” She knew it was a long shot, but she was sixteen—almost seventeen—and stranded in upstate New York for the summer, the first inklings of a plan already springing to life as she regarded the balding tires of the convertible. If old was what it took to convince him to give up his car, then she had no intention of contradicting him.

“For you?” he said, trying not to smile. He rapped his knuckles on the rearview mirror. “This thing would be toast in under a week.”

“No way,” Emma said, straightening her shoulders. “I’m a really good driver. You’re just never around to see.”

She’d grown used to her family underestimating her. It was like this with everything. Emma had never even been allowed so much as a hamster, because her parents always insisted she was too irresponsible to care for a pet. Instead she’d had to make do with a series of seemingly suicidal goldfish, whose rapid succession of deaths did little to help her case in lobbying for a puppy.

“Don’t think so,” Patrick said, glancing down at the car. “Besides, I can’t afford another one. I can barely even afford this one. I mean, do you have any idea how much it costs to keep a car in the city? If you add the price of gas to the cost of parking—obviously adjusting for the days when I mange to actually find a spot on the street—plus the insurance, not to mention all those stupid tickets …”

Jennifer E. Smith's Books