Jennifer E. Smith
The Geography of You and Me
To Allison, Erika, Brian, Melissa, Meg, and Joe—for being such great company during the real blackout
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)
On the first day of September, the world went dark.
But from where she stood in the blackness, her back pressed against the brassy wall of an elevator, Lucy Patterson had no way of knowing the scope of it yet.
She couldn’t have imagined, then, that it stretched beyond the building where she’d lived all her life, spilling out onto the streets, where the traffic lights had gone blank and the hum of the air conditioners had fallen quiet, leaving an eerie, pulsing silence. Already, there were people streaming out onto the long avenues that stretched the length of Manhattan, pushing their way toward home like salmon moving up a river. All over the island, car horns filled the air and windows were thrown open, and in thousands upon thousands of freezers, the ice cream began to melt.
The whole city had been snuffed out like a candle, but from the unlit cube of the elevator, Lucy couldn’t possibly have known this.
Her first thought wasn’t to worry about the violent jolt that had brought them up short between the tenth and eleventh floors, making the whole compartment rattle like a ride at an amusement park. And it wasn’t a concern for their escape, because if there was anything that could be depended on in this world—far more, even, than her parents—it was the building’s small army of doormen, who had never failed to greet her after school, or remind her to bring an umbrella when it was rainy, who were always happy to run upstairs and kill a spider or help unclog the shower drain.
Instead, what she felt was a kind of sinking regret over her rush to make this particular elevator, having dashed through the marble-floored lobby and caught the doors just before they could seal shut. If only she’d waited for the next one, she would’ve still been standing downstairs right now, speculating with George—who worked the afternoon shift—about the source of the power outage, rather than being stuck in this small square of space with someone she didn’t even know.
The boy hadn’t looked up when she’d slipped through the doors just a few minutes earlier, but instead kept his eyes trained on the burgundy carpet as they shut again with a bright ding. She’d stepped to the back of the elevator without acknowledging him, either, and in the silence that followed she could hear the low thump of music from his headphones as the back of his white-blond head bobbed, just slightly, his rhythm not quite there. She’d noticed him around before, but this was the first time it struck her how much he looked like a scarecrow, tall and lanky and loose-limbed, a study of lines and angles all jumbled together in the shape of a teenage boy.
He’d moved in just last month, and she’d watched that day from the coffee shop next door as he and his father carried a small collection of furniture back and forth across the gum-stained sidewalk. She’d known they were hiring a new superintendent, but she hadn’t known he’d be bringing his son, too, much less a son who looked to be about her age. When she’d tried getting more information out of the doormen, all they could tell her was that they were somehow related to the building’s owner.
She’d seen him a few more times after that—at the mailboxes or crossing the lobby or waiting for the bus—but even if she’d been the kind of girl inclined to walk up and introduce herself, there still was something vaguely unapproachable about him. Maybe it was the earbuds he always seemed to be wearing, or the fact that she’d never seen him talking to anyone before; maybe it was the way he slipped in and out of the building so quickly, like he was desperate not to be caught, or the faraway look in his eyes when she spotted him across the subway platform. Whatever the reason, it seemed to Lucy that the idea of ever meeting him—the idea of even saying something as harmless as hello—was unlikely for reasons she couldn’t quite articulate.
When the elevator had wrenched to a stop, their eyes met, and in spite of the situation, she’d found herself wondering—ridiculously—whether he recognized her, too. But then the lights above them had snapped off, and they were both left blinking into the darkness, the floor still quivering beneath them. There were a few metallic sounds from above—two loud clanks followed by a sharp bang—and then something seemed to settle, and except for the faint beat of his music, it was silent.
As her eyes adjusted, Lucy could see him frown as he pulled out his earbuds. He glanced in her direction before turning to face the panel of buttons, jabbing at a few with his thumb. When they refused to light up, he finally hit the red emergency one, and they both cocked their heads, waiting for the speaker to crackle to life.
Nothing happened, so he punched it again, then once more. Finally, he lifted his shoulders in a shrug. “It must be the whole building,” he said without turning around.
Lucy lowered her eyes, trying to avoid the little red arrow above the door, which was poised somewhere between the numbers 10 and 11. She was doing her best not to picture the empty elevator shaft below, or the thick cables stretched above them.
“I’m sure they’re already working on it,” she said, though she wasn’t at all sure. She’d been in the elevator when it got stuck before, but never when the lights had gone out, too, and now her legs felt unsteady beneath her, her stomach wound tight. Already, the air seemed too warm and the space too small.
She cleared her throat. “George is just downstairs, so…”
The boy turned to face her, and though it was still too dark for details, she could see him more clearly with each minute that passed. She was reminded of a science experiment her class did in fifth grade, where the teacher dropped a mint into each of the students’ cupped palms, then switched off the lights and told them to bite down hard, and a series of tiny sparks lit up the room. This was how he seemed to her now: his teeth flashing when he spoke, the whites of his eyes bright against the blackness.
“Yeah, but if it’s the whole building, this could take a while,” he said, slumping against the wall. “And my dad’s not around this afternoon.”
“My parents are away, too,” Lucy told him, and she could just barely make out the expression on his face, an odd look in her direction.
“I meant ’cause he’s the super,” he said. “But he’s just in Brooklyn, so I’m sure he’ll be back soon.”
“Do you think…?” she began, then paused, not sure how to phrase the question. “Do you think we’re okay till then?”
“I think we’ll be fine,” he said, his voice reassuring; then, with a hint of amusement, he added: “Unless, of course, you’re afraid of the dark.”
“I’m okay,” she said, sliding down the wall until she was sitting on the floor, her elbows resting on her knees. She attempted a smile, which emerged a little wobbly. “I’ve heard monsters prefer closets to elevators.”
“Then I think we’re in the clear,” he said, sitting down, too, his back against the opposite corner. He pulled his phone from his pocket, and in the dim light, his hair glowed green as he bent his head over it. “No signal.”
“It’s usually pretty iffy in here anyway,” Lucy said, reaching for her own phone before realizing she’d left it upstairs. She’d only run down to grab the mail, a quick round trip to the lobby and back, and now it felt like a particularly bad moment to find herself completely empty-handed.
“So,” the boy said, tipping his head back against the wall. “Come here often?”
She laughed. “I’ve logged some time in this particular elevator, yes.”
“I think you’re about to log a lot more,” he said with a rueful smile. “I’m Owen, by the way. I feel like we should probably introduce ourselves so I don’t end up calling you Elevator Girl whenever I tell this story.”
“I could live with Elevator Girl,” she said. “But Lucy works, too. I’m in 24D.”
He hesitated a moment, then gave a little shrug. “I’m in the basement.”
“Right,” she said, remembering too late, and she was glad for the darkness, which hid the flush in her cheeks. The building was like a small country in and of itself, and this was the currency; when you met someone new, you didn’t just give your name but your apartment number as well, only she’d forgotten that the super always lived in the small two-bedroom flat in the basement, a floor Lucy had never visited.
“In case you’re wondering why I’m on my way up,” he said after a moment, “I’ve figured out that the view’s a whole lot better on the roof.”
“I thought nobody was allowed up there.”
He slipped his phone back into his pocket and pulled out a single key, which he held flat in his palm. “That’s true,” he said with a broad grin. “Technically speaking.”
“So you have friends in high places, huh?”
“Low places,” he said, returning the key to his pocket. “The basement, remember?”
This time she laughed. “What’s up there, anyway?”
“You’ve got keys to the sky?” she said, and he knitted his fingers together, lifting his arms above his head in a stretch.
“It’s how I impress all the girls I meet in the elevator.”