I cry all the way home. Kitty tells me I’m a bigger baby than she is, but then from the backseat she grabs my hand and squeezes it, and I know she’s sad too.
Even though Margot isn’t a loud person, it feels quiet at home. Empty, somehow. What will it be like when I’m gone in two years? What will Daddy and Kitty do then? I hate the thought of the two of them coming home to an empty, dark house with no me and no Margot. Maybe I won’t go away far; maybe I’ll even live at home, at least for the first semester. I think that would be the right thing to do.
LATER THAT AFTERNOON CHRIS CALLS and tells me to meet her at the mall; she wants my opinion on a leather jacket, and to get the full effect I have to see it in person. I’m proud she’s asking for my sartorial advice, and it would be good to get out of the house and not be sad anymore, but I’m nervous about driving to the mall alone. I (or anyone, really) would consider myself a skittish driver.
I ask her if she’ll just send me a picture instead, but Chris knows me too well. She says, “Nuh-uh. You get your ass down here, Lara Jean. You’ll never get better at driving if you don’t just suck it up and do it.”
So that’s what I’m doing: I’m driving Margot’s car to the mall. I mean, I have my license and everything; I’m just not very confident. My dad has taken me for lessons numerous times, Margot too, and I’m basically fine with them in the car, but I get nervous when I drive alone. It’s the changing-lanes part that scares me. I don’t like taking my eyes away from what’s happening right in front of me, not for a second. Also I don’t like going too fast.
But the worst thing is I have a tendency of getting lost. The only places I can get to with absolute certainty are school and the grocery store. I’ve never had to know how to get to the mall, because Margot always drove us there. But now I have to do better, because I’m responsible for driving Kitty around. Though truthfully, Kitty is better with directions than I am; she knows how to get to loads of places. But I don’t want to have to hear her tell me how to get somewhere. I want to feel like the big sister; I want her to relax in the passenger seat, safe in the knowledge that Lara Jean will get her where she needs to go, just like I did with Margot.
Sure, I could just use a GPS, but I would feel silly putting in directions to go to the mall when I’ve been there a million times. It should come to me intuitively, easy, where I don’t even have to think about it. Instead I worry over every turn, second-guess every highway sign—is it north or is it south, do I turn right here or is it the next one? I’ve never had to pay attention.
But today, so far so good. I’m listening to the radio, bopping along, even driving with just one hand on the wheel. I do this to feign confidence, because the more I fake it, the more it’s supposed to feel true.
Everything is going so well that I take the shortcut way instead of the highway way. I cut through the side neighborhood, and even as I’m doing it, I’m wondering if this was such a great idea. After a couple of minutes things aren’t looking so familiar, and I realize I should have taken a left instead of a right. I push down the panic that’s rising in my chest and I try to backtrack.
You can do it, you can do it.
There’s a four-way stop sign. I don’t see anyone, so I zip ahead. I don’t even see the car on my right; I feel it before I see it.
I scream my head off. I taste copper in my mouth. Am I bleeding? Did I bite my tongue off? I touch it and it’s still there. My heart is racing; my whole body feels wet and clammy. I try to take deep breaths, but I can’t seem to get air.
My legs shake as I get out of the car. The other guy is already out, inspecting his car with his arms crossed. He’s old, older than my dad, and he has gray hair, and he’s wearing shorts with red lobsters on them. His car is fine; mine has a huge dent in the side. “Didn’t you see the stop sign?” he demands. “Were you texting on your phone?”
I shake my head; my throat is closing up. I just don’t want to cry. As long as I don’t cry . . .
He seems to sense this. The irritated furrow of his brow is loosening. “Well, my car looks fine,” he says reluctantly. “Are you all right?”
I nod again. “I’m so sorry,” I say.
“Kids need to be more careful,” the man says, as if I haven’t spoken.
The lump in my throat is getting bigger. “I’m very, very sorry, sir.”
He makes a grunty sound. “You should call someone to come get you,” the man says. “Do you want me to wait?”
“No, thank you.” What if he’s a serial killer or a child molester? I don’t want to be alone with a strange man.
The man drives off.
As soon as he’s gone, it occurs to me that maybe I should have called the police while he was still here. Aren’t you always supposed to call the police when you’re in a car accident, no matter what? I’m pretty sure they told us that in driver’s ed. So that’s another mistake I made.
I sit down on the curb and stare at Margot’s car. I’ve only had it for two hours and I’ve already wrecked it. I rest my head in my lap and sit in a tight bundle. My neck is starting to ache. This is when the tears start. My dad is not going to be happy. Margot is not going to be happy. They’ll both probably agree that I have no business driving around town unsupervised, and maybe they’re right. Driving a car is a lot of responsibility. Maybe I’m not ready for it yet. Maybe I’ll never be ready. Maybe even when I’m old, my sisters or my dad will have to drive me around, because that’s how useless I am.
I pull out my phone and call Josh. When he answers, I say, “Josh, can you do me a f-f-favor?” and my voice comes out so wobbly I’m embarrassed.
Which of course he hears, because he’s Josh. He comes to attention immediately and says, “What’s wrong?”
“I just got into a car accident. I don’t even know where I am. Can you come get me?” Wobble wobble.
“Are you hurt?” he demands.
“No, I’m fine. I’m just—” If I say another word, I will cry.
“What street signs do you see? What stores?”
I crane my neck to look. “Falstone,” I say. I look for the closet mailbox. “I’m at 8109 Falstone Road.”
“I’m on my way. Do you want me to stay on the phone with you?”
“No, that’s okay.” I hang up and start to cry.