You’re Going to Live Here
Audrey tells me to step over the shattered glass at the foot of the escalator. “Come on, Emma,” she says. “You can’t get a good Instagram pic without a little risk.”
The rubber handrails have ribboned down the stairs without the glass intact to support them, and the warped metal plating has lifted on one side. Bits of glass litter the steps, caught in their jagged teeth. I balance on the bottom partially raised step as if it will carry me upward.
“Higher,” Audrey says. I scamper up, my sneakers crunching, and stop in a dusty sunbeam from the second-floor skylight. “Perfect. Now look back at me.” I oblige, twisting backward over my shoulder, and she takes a few shots with her phone, first squatting, then standing on her tiptoes.
Next, she wants me to lie on my back, feet above my head, hair cascading down the escalator below me.
“I’m not splitting my head open,” I say. “These stairs are sharp.”
Audrey pouts. “It would be gorgeous. Like an eerie mermaid.”
“Then you do it.” I head back down the escalator and take her phone. Of course, she goes straight for it. Audrey was the queen of dares at the middle school sleepovers where she was friends with everyone, and I was only invited because she insisted. Once, she swallowed a live ant. Once, she called the dweebiest boy in the eighth grade and said she liked him. I always picked “truth” and gave the shortest, most boring answer possible.
It’s like I was absent the day we all decided who we would be. Now it’s too late, and I am no one.
Audrey sits backward on a stair, straddling the rivets where the handrail used to rest, as she goes into a semi-backbend. Her head bumps the step and I cringe, but she calls out “I’m okay!” She fans her hair and adjusts her jean romper, then rests her hands by her sides, bending her knees to the left and tilting her hips to the right. She looks directly at me, eyes wide, lips pursed. She’s breathtaking, a haunting vision in denim. I almost forget to take the picture.
I try three different angles then give her a thumbs up. She grabs at the sides of the escalator and crumples down a few steps, landing in a heap. I run to meet her, but she’s laughing. I haul her up, and other than a few red marks and bits of glass stuck to her upper arm, she’s unharmed. She brushes herself off.
“Totally worth it.”
“There are other places to take cool pictures,” I point out. “Legal ones.”
“No,” she says. “It has to be here.”
“There’s something I need to see again.”
I frown, but I don’t push her. She never makes me talk before I’m ready. This is the first time I’ve had to extend that grace to her.
I’m going to miss Audrey so much in a few months when she goes to the University of Colorado six hundred miles away and I’m stuck here in high school. But it’s only one year. One year of loneliness, and then I’ll be gone too.
When I go to college, I will become someone different. Where I go doesn’t matter, as long as it’s not in boring Missouri where I am boring Emma. I’ve started a list: UCLA, University of Chicago, NYU, Tulane. I stay up late scrolling through websites, studying the faces in the ads. They smile with their arms around a group of friends, frown studiously over a book. I imagine how they have transformed since they left their hometowns. I picture myself dazzling them with my brand-new personality. As soon as I get out of here, I’ll
stop overthinking and start living.
Audrey leads me down the escalator. Obediently, I follow.
When I was in seventh grade and she was in eighth, Audrey and I rode the escalator to the second floor of the Metro North Mall. Her mom had dropped us off with orders to stick together. I looked back as we rose, watching shoppers move among the turquoise tile and mirrored glass and fountains and sunlight. I wasn’t sure if I’d made the right decision accepting Audrey’s invitation.
“This has most of the same stores as my old mall,” Audrey said. She’d moved next door to me from Nebraska a few weeks earlier. “We should go to Claire’s.”
As I followed her into the store, I reminded myself not to set my hopes on Audrey. Friends never stuck around for me. When we talked on the phone, they were the ones who called; when we hung out, they were the one who made the plans. Soon, they got bored with me and moved on. I didn’t know how to explain that whenever I thought about calling, my brain convinced me that I’d be annoying them. That whenever I thought about inviting them to hang out, a little voice told me they wouldn’t want to. I imagined myself shunned until I actually was.
Audrey and I dug through the clearance bins, weeding through backless earrings and necklaces missing rhinestones. Audrey told me about the time she saw Taylor Swift coming out of a home furnishings store at her mall in Nebraska and followed her all the way to the food court before realizing it wasn’t her. As she talked, I laughed at appropriate moments and nodded to show that I was listening. When she finished, I realized I needed to reciprocate. I could tell her about a time I saw a celebrity. No, that had never happened to me. Maybe I could make something up? No, she would think I was copying her. Perhaps I could tell her about the camping trip to Estes Park my family had gone on last month? No, changing the topic would be self-centered. I picked up a pair of earrings shaped like turtles, pretending to consider them.
But Audrey didn’t notice my internal panicking. She told me about burning herself on a hot glue gun, and she showed me the white scar on the side of her left index finger. “Touch it,” she told me. The burnt skin was silky soft. “Do you like crafts?” Audrey asked me. “I love crafts. You should come over to craft sometime.”
At Topsy’s, we bought limeades and a kettle corn to share, then carried them downstairs to the amphitheater-style steps in the atrium. Below, a pool of water lined with wish-pennies was broken by four tile islands, each home to a hot air balloon. I licked salt and sugar from my fingers, breathing in the smell of chlorine and listening to Audrey talk as the billowing giants rose and fell on wires extending all the way to the arched ceiling two stories above. They swelled their patchwork-quilt sides just out of sync, one taking off the moment another touched down.
I follow Audrey away from the unraveling escalator. We pass brick planter boxes, now home to dead trees, their skeletal branches dropping yellow leaves in a year-long descent from fall to winter. Time feels slower here. The air is still and thick. A mall directory has a red graffitied squiggle on one side and a faded ad for a perfume called Fantasy on the other.
The stores closed one-by-one, then all at once. The last few months the mall was open, Audrey and I passed lines of grated storefronts between the department stores where we searched picked-over clearance sales. But we still came—it was our place. One weekend we went into Dillard’s, and they were selling the empty racks. Caution tape cordoned off the back rooms, empty except for a lone ladder or shopping cart. Audrey picked out a metal hoop that had once held shirts for an art project, but the cashier wasn’t sure how to ring it up. “I don’t even care,” he said and gave it to her for free.
The mall has been closed for a year, although the decay inside looks like it’s been a decade. I would have never snuck in on my own, but now that Audrey is leaving, I’m even worse at telling her no.
Audrey contorts her body to fit beneath a buckling grate on an unlabeled storefront, bending low to the floor, one leg jutting out, like she’s competing in the final round of limbo. “Come on,” she says from the other side.
“I’m good,” I say, but I take a picture of her hanging on the grate, her fingers gripping the metal. I’d rather Audrey be in the pictures than me, anyway. She disappears into the darkness, and suddenly I’m alone. The mall gapes behind me. It’s like floating in the ocean and imagining the depth beneath you, all the things that could be lurking unseen. I glance back, but everything is still.
“Nothing interesting. Just dust,” Audrey says when she returns, sliding back under the grate. She fidgets nervously with her fingers. She looks one direction, then the other, turning her head dramatically as if searching for her next photo op, and I realize all at once why we’re here. Audrey’s never been a very good faker. She’s using the pictures to stall—she’s had a destination in mind this whole time.
“This looks like the place I didn’t see Taylor Swift,” Audrey said as we passed a storefront with zebra-print pillows and a golden pineapple lamp in the window.
Inside, the store was full of ornate plush rugs and dark wood furniture. I felt guilty walking through it in my ratty sneakers, but Audrey acted like she belonged, inspecting vases large enough for us to fit inside and bookcases full of volumes with glued-together pages as if she might actually buy them.
“I have a game,” she said, pointing at a globe on a wooden stand, textured mountains protruding like pimples from its papery skin. “It’s called ‘Where are you going to live?’” She spun the globe until it was going so fast that there were no longer separate continents and oceans, only blurs. “Then you go like this.” She jammed her finger onto the globe, bringing it to a sudden halt. She looked at the position of her finger. “I’m going to live in Russia!” she said. “Now you go.” She spun the globe again.
My first three tries, I got ocean. “You’re going to live in Atlantis,” Audrey joked. The fourth time, I got Russia too. I didn’t point out that this game had a bias toward large countries. “We’ll be neighbors again!” Audrey said.
Soon, we were playing the game as fast as we could, picking countries back and forth. “You’re going to live in Bolivia!”
“In Papua New Guinea!”
We were startled by a saleswoman behind us, asking us to leave. We clutched each other, giggling, on our way out.
“I’ve never been outside the Midwest,” Audrey said once we were back walking the mall’s peripheral loop. “Isn’t that pathetic?” I was relieved that she didn’t stop for an answer. “Have you ever been anywhere else?” she asked.
“My family went to Colorado over the summer,” I said.
Audrey asked me a hundred questions, made me tell her everything I could remember about the mountains—what the air smelled like, what the wind sounded like, what they looked like from every angle. “Wow,” she said after each new detail.
“I’m going to remember exactly what you described, and when I get home, I’m going to paint it,” she said when I’d finished.
“Really?” I started to worry that I’d been boring, and she was making fun of me.
“I’m serious,” she said. “I want to live in the mountains someday, so I can look out my window and be inspired to make something beautiful.”
Audrey stopped at one of the big plastic funnels that collect coins for charity, then pulled a dime from her purse and let it go. We watched it circle as if caught in a miniature tornado, lowering toward the center with each revolution.
Perhaps the mesmerizing whirl of the coin lowered my guard, or maybe Audrey’s sincerity had given me courage. “I’m afraid I’m going to live here for the rest of my life,” I said. “No one ever leaves. It’s like Missouri has its own gravitational pull. But I don’t want to stay here just because of momentum. I’m going to apply to college far away.” The coin dropped into the dark center of the funnel and vanished.
Audrey nodded as if she understood, but I was shocked at myself. I’d never said that to anyone. I’d always thought that if I shared my dreams, other kids would say I was stuck-up or delusional. But here was Audrey, accepting me.
“I can’t believe I told you that,” I said.
“This is our special place,” Audrey proclaimed, flinging her arms out as if it were somewhere grand and glorious. “This is where we tell each other our secrets.”
And just like that, the donation funnel became a magical location, a real-life wishing well. As soon as a coin was spinning, our walls fell. It became the place where Audrey would tell me how hurt she was when her parents got divorced, where I would tell her the sadness of watching my grandma forget me. Where she’d reveal that she’d lost her virginity, where I’d admit that I’d been diagnosed with anxiety. The place where our true selves would rise up through all of Audrey’s words and all of my silences.
I know where Audrey’s leading me, but I don’t rush her. In the atrium, the shallow pool is empty of balloons and water. It’s surrounded by brownish puddles, and there are dark streaks on the underside of the balcony above. Audrey makes me lie down on my back inside the pool, then she stands on one of the balloon platforms to take my picture. “Give me a mysterious, sexy look,” she says, which makes me laugh. I’m surprised to find that it’s a real laugh, even though I know what’s coming. Around Audrey, I can’t help it.
She lies in the pool beside me, and we link pinkies and stare up at the skylight. The way the sun breaks through the grime looks almost like stained glass. I’m going to miss this more than anything. Audrey taught me how to talk more, but I taught her about silence. How to just be together, no pressure.
I know what Audrey’s going to say in our secret-telling place, what she’s going to divulge while a coin twirls toward the abyss. She’s going to tell me that it will be too hard to stay friends when she goes to Colorado and I’m still in high school. She’s going to make new friends, have a new life. People move on. That’s the way it goes.
I try to tell myself that I can survive loneliness. I’ve done it before.
I breathe in our last happy moment together, fading chlorine and dust and the floral notes of her hair, and when Audrey stands, I follow.
But when we get to our special place, the donation funnel is gone, leaving only a discolored circle on the tile. I close my eyes, wondering if the magic is still here, but I don’t feel anything. Instead, Audrey drops a penny over the balcony, and I listen for a satisfying plink, but it doesn’t come—the coin too small, the ground too far away.
She takes a deep breath. “I’m not going to Colorado.”
“What?” I’d braced myself for the wrong blow, and Audrey’s words punch the air out of my lungs.
“I’ll do a year of community college, then transfer to a local university.”
I stare at her, waiting for her to say she’s joking. “Why?” I ask.
“Even with the scholarship I got to Colorado, I’d have to take out loans, plus spend all my free time working. When would that give me time to see the mountains? To make art?”
These types of practical details sound absurd coming from Audrey. I’m supposed to be the worrier. She’s supposed to pull me along for her wild, impossible adventures.
“You should be happy,” she says. “I’m staying here with you.”
“How could you do this to me?” As soon as the words are out of my mouth, I know they’re selfish, but I can’t help it. I’m the follower. As much as I dreaded being without Audrey, I needed her to go first. If someone like Audrey can’t leave, someone like me certainly can’t.
“How can you give up?” I ask her. My face is hot, blood pounding in my ears.
“I’m not giving up,” she says, in a voice like she’s the adult and I’m the child who doesn’t understand. “I’m growing up. Everyone hates where they’re from when they’re fifteen.”
I gesture toward the devastation around us. “But we’re from a fucking dump!” I’ve never yelled at Audrey before, or at anyone. Salt stings my eyes.
“No, we’re not.” Audrey says. “This strange, beautiful place shows how everything is changing. There’s no home to stay in anymore.”
I can’t even look at her. My eyes trace a crack running along the ceiling where some of the metallic tiles are missing, and I wonder if it might cave in and crush us to smithereens.
“I saw online that developers are bidding on it,” she says, as if this were really about the mall. “They’re finally going to tear it down and build something new. I can create here too.”
I open my mouth, then close it again. Audrey waits. Even now, she gives me time to figure out my words. “I’m still leaving,” I say, my voice firm. I realize that I mean it. “I’m going to research until I find schools that offer big enough scholarships, and I’m going to find out what test scores I need, and I’m not going to stop studying until I get them. I can do it.”
“I know you can,” she says. “I hope you do.”
I glare at her. I wanted her to argue with me. But my anger isn’t directed toward her, not really. I’m terrified of myself, of my determination. I’m walking into the unknown.
Audrey pulls me into a hug, and I marvel at how we can be so close together and so very far apart at the same time.
We sit together for a long time on the dirty tile floor. After a while, Audrey starts cropping and applying filters to the pictures we took, her phone illuminating the contours of her face in brilliant white, and I watch over her shoulder. I study the photo of me in the pool. I hadn’t realized that she’d zoomed in so close. My laugh fills my face, my eyes crinkled at the corners. The picture is beautiful, but it’s not me. She flips back to the photos I took of her peering through the grate and reclining on the escalator, and I feel the same way. These are instants in time, but Audrey and I are in constant motion. The girls in the photos are already gone.
Audrey and I stood outside the Dillard’s entrance as we waited for her mom to pick us up. Even though it was September, it was still summer-hot, and sweat developed along our hairlines. I’d broken my own rule. If I acted like I didn’t care about having friends, I could be happy alone. But now I was imagining a future where Audrey and I ate Topsy’s and watched the balloons every weekend. A future where she would talk and I would listen, and that would be okay. Except when I had something really important to say. Then we would go to our secret-telling place, and she would wait while I got my thoughts in the right order in my head.
As Audrey’s mom’s minivan turned into the parking lot, I got an idea. I couldn’t tell Audrey how I felt about her, but I could show her. When they dropped me off at my house, I would tell them to wait in the driveway for a moment. Then I would dash up the stairs to my bedroom and pull the postcard I’d bought at the visitor’s center off my bulletin board, the words “Estes Park” swirling over a panorama of the Rockies. I would thunder back down the stairs, and I would race back out to the car, and I would give it to Audrey. And I wouldn’t need to say anything at all because she would know what it meant: “You’re going to live here.”
Jenna Wengler holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Indiana University, where she served as the Fiction Editor of Indiana Review. An alumna of the Tin House YA Fiction Workshop, her fiction for young readers has appeared in Hunger Mountain as the winner of the Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult Literature. She is at work on a YA novel.