About the Author
Jennifer E. Smith is also the author of The Comeback Seasn and The Statistical Improbability of Love at First Sight. She grew up outside of Chicago and graduated from Colgate University. She earned her master’s in creative writing from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and lives in New York City.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
You Are Here 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 ...”
He paused, his mouth still half open. “Yeah?”
“Can we not calculate it just now?”
He nodded, his face slipping into the kind of distant smile her whole family used when regarding Emma, like she was a foreign object that had somehow fallen in their midst.
“Must be tough being the baby, huh?” he said eventually, and Emma shrugged.
“It’s a lot tougher being the only normal one.”
Later, once Mom and Dad finally dragged Patrick off to the backyard to regale their colleagues with stories of his program at Columbia, Emma wandered off on her own. She was fairly certain nobody would notice her absence. It was surprisingly easy to get lost in her family, and not just today; their home was constantly filled with other professors and neighbors, visiting writers, and students with questions about their essays. There was always a fire going or a kettle of tea on the stove or a book available for borrowing. Theirs was a house where independence was encouraged, where coming in past curfew didn’t result in any punishment other than the possibility of getting roped into a late-night discussion about the origin of a certain plant.
Emma had learned early on how to make herself scarce. It wasn’t terribly difficult; her parents were often lost in the library for days at a time, and all three of her older siblings had moved out when she was little. She’d never known them in the way other kids know their brothers and sisters; there was no fighting for seats in the car or playing tag in the backyard until it was too dark to see. Her oldest brother, Nate, had left for college soon after she was born, and the others followed shortly afterward.
Emma saw them now only on occasional visits or major holidays, and she felt as undone in their company as she sometimes did with her parents. Nate, the ecologist, was always lecturing her on a range of impressive but boring subjects, and Annie—her only sister, who should have been the one she called for advice about boys, but who instead made her so worried about saying something stupid that Emma could barely talk around her—was a government engineer in Washington. And then, of course, there was Patrick, who collected degrees like baseball cards and had an exasperating habit of calculating everything out loud.
Her mom and dad had spent much of their academic careers moving from one university to the next, and their children ended up settling in the various places they’d once lived, landing in North Carolina, Washington DC, and New York City like passengers stepping off a northbound train. Emma was grateful her parents had managed to get tenure here—at this small liberal arts school just a stone’s throw away from absolutely nothing at all—or else it was just as likely they’d have continued moving north until they hit a tundra somewhere in Newfoundland.
But even when she was very young, Emma could recognize the differences between herself and the rest of her family. They’d lived an entire life without her, countless birthdays and family squabbles and summer vacations—but it wasn’t just that. When she first started school, instead of getting notes with smiley faces in her lunch box, Emma used to find slips of paper with quotes from famous philosophers. Instead of a new sweater for Christmas, she’d get a heavy volume of poetry or a rock-polishing kit. At the dinner table her parents talked about Proust or pi rather than anything normal, like baseball games or plans for the weekend. They couldn’t comment on the weather without remarking on the low air pressure or the worsening state of the ozone layer, and when Emma once broke her arm on the swing set, her dad had recited the poetry of W. H. Auden on the way to the hospital in an attempt to calm her down.
All her life Emma had felt alone in her family. She’d perfected a look of detached but polite interest, had developed a basic vocabulary to survive dinners when her siblings were home, and had resigned herself to her role as the youngest and least bright of a slightly odd but inarguably brilliant family. And though this was all a bit exhausting, it had never occurred to her to question it. Until last week.
Just six days earlier Dad had asked her to go up to the attic to find his early editions of W. B. Yeats for an article he was working on. Even after eight years in this house it seemed that very few of her parents’ books had actually made it to the shelves where they belonged. There were books in the attic, the basement, the garage; books stacked to create tables and footstools and doorstops all over the house. Each time a quote was needed, a vaguely remembered reference or a line from a novel, Emma was sent off in search of its source, a task not unlike a scavenger hunt.
And so, at her dad’s request, she’d climbed the ladder to the attic, then set about rummaging through the assortment of cardboard boxes, crouching on the wooden planks of the crawl space and trying not to sneeze. There were bags full of old stuffed animals and shoes, a faded globe and a tiny rocking horse. The afternoon light filtered in through the lone window, and though she could see the boxes of books tucked way in the back, Emma soon got sidetracked picking through the ones with photo albums and scrapbooks.
She sat cross-legged on the floor of the attic, paging through pictures of her siblings when they lived in North Carolina, the three of them nearly unrecognizable as kids, running through sprinklers in saggy bathing suits, playing in the backyard of the house where Emma had once lived as a baby. After a while, Dad seemed to give up on her—his footsteps receding back down the stairs—and so she reached in and fished around for something more, rare glimpses of a past that didn’t include her.
There was another box within the bigger one, a small shoebox that opened with a little cough of dust. Inside was a stack of papers, some of them wrinkled, others pressed flat, and Emma held them up to the light one at a time: old school reports and handmade birthday cards, a love letter Dad had written to Mom before they were married, and various announcements of honors and awards. Toward the bottom she discovered Nate’s birth certificate, and she traced a finger over the letters and smiled, already reaching for the next one. She glanced at Annie’s and then Patrick’s, too, and when she got to her own, she studied it carefully, fingering the edges of the rough paper, the announcement of Emma Quinn Healy’s arrival into the world. It wasn’t until she twisted to pick up the pile she’d made on the floor beside her that she noticed there was still one left in the box.
The name on the paper said Thomas Quinn Healy. And his birth date, printed in neat black letters along the bottom, was exactly the same as hers.
Emma’s thoughts assembled themselves slowly in her head, and she had, for the briefest of moments, a fleeting sense of understanding. Finally, she thought, looking at the fifth birth certificate in her hands. There was finally an answer to all those years of loneliness, a reason for the vague feeling she’d always had that something was missing.
But before she had a chance to wonder all the things she would have wondered—a mysterious brother, a long lost twin, all the deep, dark secrets of childhood revealed—she found the other piece of paper, the very last one in the box: a death certificate dated just two days later.
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