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Jen Lancaster

If you were here

For the man who defined a generation.

Godspeed, Mr. Hughes.

Author’s Note

Dear Reader,

This is not a true story, but was inspired by our adventures in suburban real estate. However, we quickly came to our senses and realized that buying a crumbling home by the lake was an incredibly stupid, potentially hazardous, ridiculously expensive, and almost-certain-to-end-our-marriage idea.

We did not purchase the house in this book.

We moved elsewhere.

This didn’t occur.

(Yet.)

XO,

Jen

P.S. I feel it’s important to note here that I love Stephenie Meyer. This might not make sense now, but it will later, I promise.

Prologue

I blame HGTV for what happens next.

Chapter One. THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT ORNESTEGA

“No. No. Oh, hell, no.”

I’m standing upstairs in my office when I spot someone in an oversize hoodie and low-slung pants paint ORNESTEGA in puffy silver letters on the flat red bricks of the building across the street.

Which is a church.

I imagine the Lord probably has His own way of dealing with little thugs who deface houses of worship, but I can’t just stand here waiting for Him to scramble a swarm of locusts or turn rivers to blood. I imagine He’s got a lot on his plate right now, what with war, poverty, the Sudanese situation, and all those reality-show contestants asking for His divine guidance as they navigate their way through the obstacle course and into the Jell-O pit.

The other thing is, if He does take notice and sends down hail mixed with fire, it’s going to ruin my lawn. I think sometimes God expects us to act as His emissaries; ergo, I will fix this.

I press the “indoor talk” button on the intercom system. “Mac! Maaaaac! There’s a tagger outside and…” Before I can even finish my sentence, my husband, Mac,1 has exited his basement office/lair and flown across the street.

When it comes to wrongs that need righting, Mac fancies himself a modern-day Batman. I mean, if Batman were pushing forty, with a hint of spare tire around his waist, seven gray hairs, and a job in middle management for the phone company. The truth is he’s more like Dilbert, only with a fully stocked arsenal.

Back in college, after we became friends, but before we started dating, Mac appointed himself my personal bouncer. Mac thought I was too hung up on being polite, so I’d always find myself cornered by some asshole I couldn’t graciously escape whenever I’d go out. After Mac stepped in, woe be to any guy who hit on me or hassled me, because Mac was right there at my back. Eventually my friend Ann Marie pointed out that I could do — and had done — a lot worse than dating someone so anxious to keep me safe and happy, and we’ve been together ever since.

Anyway, despite the sixty tons of brick and cement block that comprise our house’s exterior walls, and regardless of the soundproofed, supersealed, triple-hung windows, I can still hear every syllable of profanity Mac hurls at the aspiring gangbanger. I quickly search for some footwear, because I don’t want to run barefoot into the snow to monitor the situation. My dog Duckie has the bizarre and annoying habit of taking one shoe and hiding it under the covers, so I have to tear through the unmade bed to find my flannel clog’s mate. As soon as I can, I dash downstairs and outside just in time to witness… nothing.

Mac’s cheeks are flushed and he can’t suppress his smile. I’ve never met anyone who enjoys an altercation as much as this man.2 “Mia, you should have seen that little bastard try to get away in those pants. He pretty much hobbled himself. Looked like he was running a potato-sack race. By the way, he disappeared into that building.” He jerks his finger toward the dilapidated apartments a few doors down. I hate that complex; they cut their grass only twice last summer, both times at six a.m. on Sunday. “Apparently he’s our neighbor.”

“Who’s stupid enough to tag a building in broad daylight? And then bravely run home across the street?” I wonder out loud. “Also, if that little shit wants to claim this block in the name of ORNESTEGA, then maybe he should be paying our rent.”

“Not for long,” Mac corrects. “Pretty soon he can pay our property taxes. Hey, ORNESTEGA,” he shouts in the direction of the six-flat, “you owe us twelve thousand bucks!”

Mac and I are in the process of buying our house. Rather, we’ve started the process; we’re currently waiting for the results of our appraisal so we can write a formal offer.

We moved into this neighborhood a year and a half ago. Originally our plan was to get out of the city of Chicago and into the suburbs. Honestly, I’ve been dreaming of the bucolic towns ringing the north side of Chicago ever since I started watching John Hughes movies on VHS with my older sister, Jessica.

I grew up in one of the bleak and depressing Indiana steel towns that ring the wrong side of Lake Michigan. Jess and I would snuggle into our rump-sprung plaid couch located in the drab ranch house my family shared with my grandmother, located down the street from the mill.

Jess and I were enamored not only by the characters in the movies, but also the backdrop. We were astounded that people lived so. . nicely. I guess we assumed everyone had a yard full of rusty patio furniture and broken swing sets, with neighbor kids running around with dirty faces and stained pajamas well into the night.

We’d spend hours fantasizing about what it might be like to live on a quiet, well-manicured street like Samantha Baker in Sixteen Candles, rather than being within earshot of the clamoring from the blast furnace. While everyone else lusted after Cameron’s dad’s car in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, we’d sigh over the darling downtown shopping district filled with Tudor-style pizza joints and charming shops and big, leafy trees. As far as we were concerned, Shermer, Illinois, was Shangri- la.3

Jess and I weren’t unhappy, and our parents worked hard to make sure we never went without, but aesthetics were never a consideration for them. When we suggested they paint the walls or buy some new couches, they’d tell us we could have a pretty house or we could have a college education, our choice.

I went from my parents’ run-down ranch to an austere dorm room, to a claustrophobic five-person suite in my sorority house, then to a practically condemned apartment off campus.

After graduation, Mac and I moved to Chicago together. He had a well-paying job and upper-middle-class

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