“Eyyyyyyye-oh-wahh.” Eighteen-year-old Eden Pruitt drew out the syllables, shaping each one with the exaggerated stretching and contracting of her lips. Over the course of the past few days, she kept saying the word at random times to nobody in particular. In the dark of night, her blonde hair tangling with the ocean wind. In the car by herself on the last leg of a long journey. In the gas station bathroom while staring at her reflection in a dirty mirror. And now, on the threshold of a box-laden bedroom with another one in her arms. Perhaps if she said it enough, this new reality might feel less like a lucid dream.
It was an odd-sounding name, without any consonants to pin it down. A state people probably confused with Ohio or Idaho—somewhere in the middle—if their geography was bad.
“Iowa,” she said again, louder this time. More matter of fact, with a slight Parisian accent. Eden Pruitt wasn’t French, nor had she ever been to France. She did, however, study the language in school with the dream of living there at some point in college. Unlike many of her classmates back in San Diego, her parents were abidingly middle class. While several of her peers had spent spring breaks on the beaches of Tahiti getting tan or the snowy peaks of the Swiss Alps on a pair of skis, Eden and her best friend Erik spent theirs two hours north in Disneyland, the Happiest Place on Earth—a bold tagline when places like Paris and Tahiti existed. Eden understood that if she wanted to see the world, studying abroad was her best shot, and she absolutely wanted to see the world. Sometimes so much, she felt sick with longing for places she’d never been.
Not Iowa. But Paris? Absolutely.
She took a step inside her new boudoir and inhaled deeply. The comforting scent of old maps and gel pens from the box beneath her nose mingled with the newness of a room that was hers, but only just. She set the box on the plush carpet by the window and placed her palm against the white trim, taking in her second-story view. Two rows of brick houses lining an empty suburban street. And beyond that, a cornfield.
An involuntary hum sounded in the back of her throat. For the sake of her parents, she would make a fresh start in Iowa. And this time, she wouldn’t mess up.
Eden watched as her mother hefted a box from the back of the U-Haul, the sun turning her ashy blonde hair lemon yellow. Could a stranger point out the sadness? Or after eighteen years of careful study, was Eden simply seeing what she knew was there? Mom passed Dad midway up the lawn, who was on his way back to the truck. She gave him a brave smile—one that made Eden’s stomach twist with one part shame, two parts fortitude. Her parents said they were moving because Dad received a job offer he couldn’t refuse. It was a lie. Or rather, an excuse. One Eden played along with. She didn’t want to start over at the beginning of her senior year. That wasn’t the kind of adventure she was looking for. Nor did she want to leave Erik one year earlier than planned. But she wasn’t going to make this harder than she already had. She would be good, like her parents raised her to be. They would get through tomorrow, like they always did, and all three of them would return to normal. At least, as normal as life could be in Iowa.
Movement in her periphery caught her attention.
Up and to the left, a pitch-black spider dangled from an invisible web, its legs gracefully turning like an acrobat suspended in mid-air. A blood-red hourglass marked its abdomen—a clear warning. A signal to the world to stand back. Danger. Poison. But Eden Pruitt did not stand back. She didn’t lurch away. Her feet stayed rooted in place, her head slightly tilted. Erik told her once that the female would paralyze its mate during sex and eat it afterward, hence the name—widows of their own making. She’d never actually seen one before, and here one was. Dangling in front of her face. A nocturnal creature doing what it wasn’t supposed to do—basking in the mid-morning sun.
Slowly, she extended her hand. She held out her thumb, an invitation for the spider to climb aboard. It’s eight spindly legs touched her skin like the brush of a feather. She watched it crawl across her knuckles, back and forth, back and forth.
With a start, she shook the spider off.
It landed on its back, legs twisting.
She stared down at it, her pulse skittish in the hollow of her clavicle, and stomped the spider dead.
Dad stood in the doorway—boyish even at fifty, his hair perpetually tousled. “Hiding in here already?”
She tucked her hands into the back pockets of her jean shorts and smiled a little too brightly, a little too guiltily. “It’s a good room.”
Her father smiled back—optimism shining in his eyes—then jerked his head, a handless invitation to join him. “We’re going to start moving the furniture. Your brute strength is required.”
There had never been anything brute about Eden’s strength, but she flexed her arms and left the dead spider behind.
* * *
In the kitchen, Eden’s father had already connected the small flat screen and found a station that televised a constant loop of all the latest headlines. Dad was a news junkie. He’d always been that way. So much so that by the age of six, Eden could talk more intelligently about current events than most adults.
Mom plopped a box marked “crockery” on the countertop and gave Eden the same brave smile she’d given Dad. Then the three of them got to work—hardboiled to return the truck before 3 pm—making trips in and out, lugging furniture, mattresses, and bed frames while the sun reached its pinnacle in the sky and began its slow decent westward, all while Concordia News ran in the background—a highlight reel of the good and the bad, the happy and the sad, the triumph and the troubling that marked humanity.
There was a national manhunt for a missing boy named Barrett Barr—the same age as Eden. An interview with the paraplegic man who took his first unassisted steps since a car accident five years ago. Another with the neurosurgeon who made it happen. A press conference with the director of the FBI regarding the latest pipe bomb—this time in Texas—spreading fear through the country like ripples across a pond. And the approaching Prosperity Ball, an annual event going on its second year. Established and hosted by America’s own self-made billionaire—CEO of SubTech, founder of SafePad, and beloved philanthropist, Oswin Brahm. A man who not only helped rebuild the country after its near collapse two decades ago but donated millions to its recovery.
At ten to three, they emptied the back of the truck.
Eden jumped into one of their two family cars to follow her father to the nearest U-Haul location, getting her first real look at the mid-sized town of Eagle Bend while Concordia Radio played in the background.
“At this time, we are urging the public to report any package that has not been delivered via postal drone.” The loud voice belonged to Kendra Cruz, America’s Chairperson of the Board. “We have surveillance teams working around the clock to identify the culprit. Until then, please know—”
“Quiet,” Eden said.
Chairwoman Cruz’s voice turned into a whisper. Outside, the sidewalks filled with students emerging from the school day. They passed an elementary school named Truman, where a severe-looking crossing guard policed the corner and kids shouted and ran around like maniacs—making the kind of noise unique to playgrounds, the kind that could just as easily be horrified panic as unencumbered delight. They passed the one and only junior high, a large, industrial-looking building with kids practicing football in the grass. And a little further along, the high school.
A bottleneck of cars squeezed their way out of the crowded parking lot with no apparent method to the madness—just a honking, gesticulating, mostly good-natured fight for the exit. Nearby, on the expansive front lawn, a digital sign advertised Kick Off Week. A parade tomorrow evening. A football game Friday, the first of the season. Eden had seen parade signs on the drive into town on their way to their new home—tacked onto storefront windows, decorated with blue and silver balloons.
Beyond the student chaos, past a few more stoplights, Dad pulled the truck into the U-Haul parking lot, three o’clock on the nose. Eden parked while he jogged through the lot and disappeared inside the building. The quiet voice of Ms. Cruz had been replaced by that of the radio host.
“Mr. Brahm has officially confirmed that the ball will be open to fifty members of the general public via old-fashioned lottery. Fifty tickets, folks! And of course, those of us unlucky enough to win will be able to join virtually.”
“Off,” Eden said, cutting the engine.
She sat for a moment in the silence, battling a strong bout of loneliness. Seeing all those students—all those cars—had done it to her. Tomorrow, she’d be in that chaos. Amongst them, but not a part of them. A stranger in their midst.
She climbed out of the car into the sunlight. She pulled her long hair into a messy topknot using the tie she always wore on her wrist. She propped the bottom of her sandaled foot against the car door, folded her arms, and leaned back. It smelled different in Iowa, with no salt on the air from the sea. She didn’t like being so far from the coast. She felt closed in, claustrophobic. Something told her the Mississippi River—as large as it was—would not be the same as the Pacific. Perhaps this was what she would miss the most—the sound of waves, and the smell of brine.
Her phone dinged in her pocket.
She pulled it out and found a text from Erik.
We have a 1 in 6.5 million chance of attending.
Eden smiled. She knew exactly what he was talking about. Erik was always computing random probabilities. Today’s statistic featured the recent news surrounding the Prosperity Ball and the chance that either of them would snag a ticket.
Before she could reply, a video appeared of Erik sitting on his bed playing the Ukulele next to Jeb—the one-eyed bulldog he’d rescued from a kill shelter last year. Jeb panted happily with his tongue lolling, a bowtie wrapped around his thick neck while his skinny owner sang an excessively pained rendition of Ain’t No Sunshine by Bill Withers.
Eden snorted with laughter as a Tesla blasting loud music whipped into the parking lot. Instead of turning left toward U-Haul, they veered right, toward a squat, brick building called The Roast. A breeze danced with a strand of loose hair around her temple. She tucked it behind her ear, sent a laughing gif back to Erik, then shot her dad a text.
Caffeine withdrawal. Coffee shop next door. Pick your poison.
A scrolling ellipse appeared, and then:
Surprise me. :)
She trotted toward the storefront, which also had a sign. Kick Off Parade. 6 pm. Starts and ends at the High School, followed by a Pep Rally. Come support the Eagles! With a slight roll of her eyes, she pulled open the door and scooted inside, where the cool air encircled her legs and the kids from the Tesla stood at the counter. Two guys and a girl—future classmates? Eden stepped in line behind them, pretending not to notice the way they kept peeking at her over their shoulders. The door opened and shut at her back, most likely letting in more students. An after-school rush. Her skin prickled with the distinct sensation of someone’s stare—so invasive, the tiny hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. She bit the inside of her cheek, her jaw jutting forward. The open stares exacerbated her loneliness.
The kids in front of her finished their orders and shuffled off to find a table. Eden smiled at the gentleman working the cash register and placed an order for two iced coffees with cream and a chai tea for Mom. She paid with a crumpled twenty-dollar bill, then turned around to wait in the back when an older lady holding a cane fumbled with her change purse.
Coins clattered to the floor.
On instinct, Eden bent to pick them up. Next to her, another good Samaritan did too. Their fingers brushed over a fallen quarter. She jerked her hand away and looked up. Into the face of a young man. They were crouched so close, she could see the black of his pupils expanding inside dark butterscotch irises. For the briefest of moments, the connection between them simmered with heat. He was attractive. Distractingly so. But then his gaze gave way to something else. Something like … animosity, as though he was angry at her for helping.
Blood rushed into Eden’s cheeks as the boy surrendered the quarter. She stood—a little dizzy, a lot confused—and poured the change into the woman’s coin purse with a kind smile.
The lady was touched. Very touched. Like she didn’t run into kindness often. Nobody else in line had reacted at all. Nobody else but herself and the boy. In fact, a girl at the end had groaned, making Eden feel protective of the elderly woman. She wanted to help her to the counter. Sit with her at the table. Ask her about her day. Show her the video of Erik and Jeb, who were always a hit whenever the duo joined her at the nursing home she used to visit in San Diego.
The greeting belonged to her father. He’d come inside and scooted beside her.
“What’d you order me?” he asked.
“Iced coffee with cream,” she said.
On cue, a worker called her name.
The two of them collected their drinks and exited the now-crowded coffee shop. When she reached the door, she paused and glanced at the line. But the young man was no longer there. She couldn’t find him anywhere. It was like he had vanished. It was like he’d never been there at all.
Eden was supposed to be in first period study hall, filling out college applications with Erik—the significance of today’s date not lost on him. He would do his best to distract her. And if she wanted to talk, he would listen. Instead, she was here—opening her locker in this busy, unfamiliar hallway. It was a different setting, the same story. Girls and boys shoving their way up the ladder of social hierarchy, wondering where the new girl fit. The only other time she’d been in this position—when her family moved from Seattle to San Diego at the beginning of sixth grade—she’d made her disinterest in the ladder abundantly clear. On her very first day, when a group of pretty girls waved at her in invitation from the other side of the cafeteria, Eden pretended not to see. Instead, she chose a table occupied by a skinny, Filipino boy wearing a t-shirt with a black rook on the front.
When she’d plunked her tray onto the table, he’d looked up from his tattered copy of 1984 by George Orwell—a book he’d been reading under his desk during first period Health class—and gaped, as if nobody had ever sat across from him before.
“I’m Eden Pruitt,” she’d said, matter-of-factly.
His cheeks had flamed red. He’d stammered for a moment or two, and then finally—returned her introduction. “I’m Erik Gaviola.” And then, as if she’d had a pen and wanted to write it down, he added, “That’s Erik with a K.”
Sitting next to Erik had been a strategic move, one that took Eden off the ladder instantaneously. It was also the best move of her sixth grade year. Because once she got past Erik’s painful shyness, he was one of the wittiest, most interesting people she’d ever met. Eden should find another Erik. An ally to get her through her final year. Instead, she found herself searching for the boy from yesterday. The boy who disappeared inside the coffee shop. She couldn’t stop wondering why he’d looked at her like that—his expression filled with accusation, as if she’d personally offended him by helping an old woman with her fallen change. It didn’t make sense, and things that didn’t make sense had a way of pestering Eden. Like a small chip on a fingernail otherwise perfectly painted. She would pick and pick until the polish was gone altogether. For whatever reason, he didn’t like her. And yet, he didn’t know her.
The injustice of it rankled.
His face was stuck in her mind like gum on the bottom of a shoe, and yesterday—while she helped arrange furniture and reconstruct bed frames, and smiled along with her father in a joint effort to distract Mom from her encroaching grief—Eden kept pulling it up for inspection. His was a face that lacked even the subtlest remains of boyhood. All chiseled lines and strong jaw and full lips. And those eyes. She wasn’t sure she’d ever seen eyes quite like them. Not because of their color—a rich, deep gold—but because of their intensity. It was as though he had bionic vision, used every ounce of it to appraise her, and decided he didn’t like what he saw. Before slipping off to sleep, she figured he was too old for high school. More than likely, he attended Eagle Bend’s community college.
Even so, she couldn’t help looking a little. Or wishing she had the talent to draw him from memory—make the picture as sharp on paper as it was in her mind and start showing it around. Do you know this person? If so, does he look at everyone like they’ve offended him in some egregious way? Surely the upperclassmen attended some of the same parties as the local college students. Eagle Bend wasn’t so big that someone wouldn’t recognize a face like his.
A kid stood behind her—tall and lanky with floppy hair and a straight, white smile that was a little too big for his narrow face. He glanced over his shoulder at a group of his peers off to the right, all of them watching with interest, then back at her, his smile widening. “I’m Colbie.”
“Like the cheese?”
He blinked at her, like no one had ever said those particular words before.
She forced a smile, talking herself out of her irritation. Colbie No-Relation-to-Jack seemed like a nice enough fellow. At least he wasn’t looking at her like he loathed her for no good reason. “Eden,” she said.
He stuck out his hand. “It’s nice to meet you, Eden.”
She shook it.
He held on for a moment longer than necessary, then leaned casually against the locker in front of hers, his thumbs looped beneath the straps of his backpack. “So … you’re new.”
“Where’d you move from?”
“No kidding?” He gave a subtle jerk of his head, a gesture that flicked the hair from his eyes. “That’s a brutal transition. Especially for someone like you.”
She quirked an eyebrow. “Someone like me?”
“You look like you belong on a beach.”
Eden grabbed two notebooks and a pencil. “How do you feel about pi, Colbie?”
His forehead puckered. “The dessert?”
“The ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter.” Erik had memorized the first hundred numbers. Every March Fourteenth, he insisted they go out for actual pie and when the waitress came to their table, he’d rattle off as many numbers as possible before the waitress could ask for their order. Last year, he reached thirty-six. The poor girl had looked from Erik to Eden like he was having some sort of seizure before finally catching on.
Colbie laughed, like Eden was being funny.
Her face remained impassive, cutting his laughter short.
“Um … I guess I don’t really think about it.”
“That’s too bad.” She shut her locker and started on her way to first period. Colbie would not be her new Erik. But he quickly followed after her, inquiring about her schedule. As he talked about Mr. Timmins—her teacher for first period Anatomy and Physiology, who apparently handed out king-size candy bars in class—she considered asking him about the acrimonious stranger from The Roast. But then, what would she say? So Colbie, do you happen to know a guy who’s a little older than us, with really intense eyes?
“You said second period is French? That’ll be right here. Ms. Bell’s a little scary at first, but pretty cool once you get to know her.” They passed the classroom, then walked into a stairwell, up the stairs, and back out again—into a locker bay bedecked with posters advertising the parade.
Colbie caught her looking at one. “Are you going tonight?”
“You should come. Everyone goes. Literally, the whole town shows up. I’m walking during the parade part, but afterward, a bunch of us will head to The Point to have a bonfire.”
“You’re walking in it?”
“The whole football team does.”
“Ah. The football team.”
“I play wide receiver. We should be pretty good this year.” He did another hair-flick without any hands, then stopped in front of a classroom at the beginning of the hallway. They’d reached Anatomy and Physiology with Mr. Timmins.
Colbie had escorted her the whole way.
She gave him a nod of thanks, then walked inside, where Mr. Timmins—a man who was almost as wide as he was tall—handed her a school-issued laptop and welcomed her to Eagle Bend. She found a seat up front and off to the side, avoiding the board, where the date was displayed in big, obnoxious print. She opened her new computer, logged in with her student ID, and opened the online material for Anatomy and Physiology. After perusing the syllabus, she scrolled through the textbook, pausing occasionally to glance at a diagram and admire the complexity of the human body until the bell rang. Class had officially begun. When there was five minutes to go, Mr. Timmins clapped his meaty paws and grabbed a King-sized Hershey bar perched on the ledge of the board Eden was avoiding.
Glazed-over expressions went sharp and attentive.
“Who’s ready for a challenge?” He waggled the chocolate like a carrot. “The person who can name the most muscles in the human body wins. Computers closed. And no peeking at your phones.”
Hands shot into the air.
Mr. Timmins called on a boy named Weston who was wearing a shirt one-size too small. Or maybe his muscles were one-size too big. He seemed to flex his own corresponding muscles as he recited the ones he knew aloud. “Biceps. Triceps. Abs. Traps. Pecs.” He leaned back in his chair, his attention sliding to the ceiling—like there was a cheat sheet hiding in one of the fluorescent lights. “Gluteus Maximus.”
The class laughed.
Mr. Timmins held up his hand. “Our calves are made up of two muscles, neither of which are called calves.”
“This is anatomy class, Mr. Jones. Not Weightlifting 101.”
More laughter ensued.
Weston smiled good-naturedly and shrugged.
“Does anyone happen to know which two muscles make up the calves?” Mr. Timmins asked, holding the Hershey bar aloft.
“The gastrocnemius and the soleus.” The words tumbled from Eden’s mouth, every bit as surprising to her as anyone.
Her classmates turned to stare.
Mr. Timmins visibly brightened. “Well done, Ms. Pruitt. Do you know any others?”
“The vastus lateralis, the vastus medialis, the vastus intermedium, the rectus femoris.” Those were the four muscles that made up the quadriceps. Four muscles she had no idea existed until she saw them on a diagram in her online textbook. Somehow, it was crystal clear in her mind, like she was staring at a physical copy. She found that she could keep going. If she wanted, she could list every muscle that had been on her computer screen. It would be as easy as reading from a list. But Eden didn’t keep going. Eden was too caught off guard to keep going.
Her classmates gaped.
The room had gone quiet.
“Did you study anatomy in your previous school?” Mr. Timmins finally asked.
“Uh … yeah.” She smiled sheepishly. “I did.”
It was a bold-faced lie. The only anatomy Eden had ever studied was forty-five minutes ago, when she scrolled through her Anatomy book. And it hadn’t been more than a glance.
“Ah-ha! Well, even so, I’m impressed.” He looked around the class, bouncing a little on his toes. “Does anyone think they have a better handle on the muscular system than our new student, Ms. Pruitt?”
Nobody raised their hand.
Mr. Timmins tossed Eden the bar.
It sailed across the room, and despite being cursed with butterfingers, she snagged it cleanly from the air.
Someone bumped Eden from behind.
“So sorry!” The apology belonged to a woman with flyaway hair and was quickly proceeded by the bark of a name. “Daniel! I told you to watch where you’re going.”
She tossed Eden a contrite glance over her shoulder as she ushered Daniel, along with two more boys down the otherwise deserted street. All three kids clutched small bags in their hands and talked excitedly about all the candy they were going to get.
Eden glanced around, as if awakening from a long dream.
She was standing in front of a place called Guppy’s. Through her reflection in the storefront window, she could see bins of candy and an ice cream counter and an old-fashioned soda fountain. In the distance, she could hear the unmistakable sound of a marching band.
She reached into the back pocket of her jean shorts, but all she found was the king-sized chocolate bar she caught at the end of first period. She patted her front pockets. Her phone was nowhere.
“Excuse me, ma’am?” she called.
The frazzled woman looked over her shoulder without stopping.
“What’s the time?”
“Just after five!”
Crap, crap, crap.
Eden stood frozen with uncertainty. She’d lost track of time—on this day, of all days. Her parents would be worried—freaking out, in fact—and she couldn’t call them to let them know she was fine because she didn’t have a phone to call them with.
The sun glinted off the storefront glass, too low in the sky. She shook her head, as if that might remove the fuzz inside. Ever since first period, she’d floated through the hours in a daze—spending lunchtime not in the cafeteria, but in the library on her new laptop, searching things like “sudden onset of photographic memory”. She’d found nothing helpful. Mostly articles and blog posts from naysayers. It was not possible to suddenly develop a photographic memory, the experts said. And yet, when she looked up pi, glanced at it for not more than a second, then turned away, she could rattle off every number that fit on the screen. More numbers than Erik. Wicked smart, headed for Ivy League, passionate about pi Erik.
Now the parade was starting. Guppy’s was closed, along with every other store along the street. Apparently, Colbie didn’t lie. Everyone went to the parade—even business owners. Eden began to jog. Slow at first, then faster—guilt propelling her forward. And the urgent need to assure her parents that she was okay. Everything was okay.
The evening air was sticky. By the time she reached her new street, the cotton of her t-shirt clung to her sweat-dampened back and her white sneakers chaffed against the inside of her left foot. She fully expected to find her parents out on the lawn, waiting. She half-expected flashing lights in her driveway. But her front lawn matched all the others—empty and quiet.
She cut through the grass and flung open the door.
“Mom? Dad?” she called. “I’m home!”
Cool air clashed against her skin as she stepped all the way inside, rousing an army of goose bumps. Except, maybe it wasn’t the cool air rousing them. Maybe it was something else. Something … off. She stopped mid-stride, the floorboards creaking underfoot.
The bench they’d placed in the small foyer was tipped on its side.
Eden considered that fallen piece of furniture—caught by the sight of it like she’d been caught by the black widow spider dangling in her window. Dread seeped into her stomach as she took a hesitant step forward and tried to make sense of the scene in front of her.
The living room. In complete disarray. Every box they had placed there—boxes full of things that didn’t fit into any particular room—upended. Smashed and torn. As if someone had ripped them open and dumped the contents. Dad’s books lay in splayed, haphazard piles across the floor. And the glass coffee table had been smashed to pieces. Shards of it glinted like splashes of water on the carpet.
Frozen—unable to move—she called for her mom and dad again. Only her voice didn’t sound like her voice. It had gone shaky. Uncertain. And there was no response but silence.
The air conditioning unit rattled to life.
Air from the vent sent the sheer, taupe drapes fluttering.
The back of Eden’s neck prickled like it did yesterday when she stood in line at the coffee shop. Like someone was watching her.
Dread morphed into fear. Sharp and cold.
She took a step back, stumbling over the bench behind her. She caught herself before falling, stared for one last heart-stopping moment at the carnage in front of her, then turned on her heel and ran. She tore across the lawn, hurdled a shrub, and knocked frantically on the neighbor’s door with her heart pounding in her temples, her throat, her knees.
The house erupted with barking. The deep, rumbling kind that made most people back away.
But not Eden.
She punched the doorbell button with her thumb, willing someone to answer—shooting looks at her house as though whoever broke in might step out at any second and smash her next. The barking turned ferocious. Maniacal. But nobody answered. The windows were dark.
Eden ran to the next house.
And the next.
And the next.
But nobody was home.
Like Colbie said, everyone was at the parade.
A mile later—filled with adrenaline and urgency—Eden reached the parade route.
Tiny drones circled overhead as little girls in matching sequined leotards shook glittery pompoms, marching in front of a pair of old-fashioned cars honking funny-sounding horns. The drivers tossed handfuls of candy out from opened windows like they had a never-ending supply. Children made a mad scramble for their favorites while adults supervised with varying degrees of vigilance. Behind them, teenagers stood in scattered pockets—watching, laughing, cajoling.
Eden frantically searched the crowd, and just as the two cars passed—horns blaring ahooga!—she spotted help. A police officer across the street. In the short gap of distance between those two cars and a Little League team sponsored by Guppy’s, Eden made a break for it. On the other side, she wound her way through the throng like a salmon swimming upstream until she reached him. Officer Smith, according to the name badge he wore on his breast pocket.
“Excuse me, sir. I need help.”
As soon as his attention swiveled to Eden, his expression went from jovial to alert. His hand moved unconsciously to his baton, as if she, herself were dangerous. “Are you okay?” he asked through the noise.
She shook her head, working to catch her breath. “Someone broke into my house. I-I don’t know where my parents are. I can’t call them. I don’t have my phone.”
His eyebrows pulled tight, like a drawstring being cinched together. He escorted her off to the side, beneath the awning of a bicycle shop. “You said your house was burglarized?”
Eden swallowed and nodded. “Yes. I mean—I lost track of time, and when I ran home, my house … somebody must have broken into it. We just moved in yesterday, and there were boxes everywhere. Books, too. Our coffee table was broken, and I-I can’t call my parents because I don’t have my phone. I must have left it in my bedroom.”
“All right,” Officer Smith said, holding up his hands in a gesture of calm. “You’re going to be okay. Just take some deep breaths.”
She tried to obey his orders.
“What’s your address?”
“3235 West Buckle Lane.”
He pulled a pen and a miniature notebook from his shirt pocket just as the Eagle Bend High School football team came into view, riding in the back of a large trailer, dressed in clean white jerseys with blue lettering. The crowd broke into riotous applause. So loud, it made her want to clamp her hands over her ears.
As if noticing, the officer ushered her inside the bike shop. As soon as the door closed behind them, the noise dulled. But only just. He lifted his hand in a polite salute to the employee behind the counter. “We just need a quiet space for a bit, if that’s all right.”
“Not a problem.”
Officer Smith turned back to Eden. “Could you give me the address again?”
This time, he jotted it down while her heart rate and breathing returned to something closer to normal. She’d found help. Everything was going to be okay. He’d contact her parents, who were most definitely out looking for her. In their worry, they probably forgot to lock up—and then, by dumb luck, someone decided to break in. Her parents would be upset that she’d gone AWOL, upset that some of their things had been ruined, but their overriding emotion would be relief. Everything was going to be okay.
“Was anyone in the house when you arrived?”
“I-I don’t know for sure.” She recalled the feeling of being watched. Had the burglar been there, hiding in the shadows? The thought sent a shiver down her spine. “As soon as I realized what happened, I left. None of the neighbors were home, so I ran here.”
“How far did you get into the house?”
“I walked into the foyer, and I noticed that the bench was tipped over, and then I saw the living room. Please sir, I need to call my parents.” For a flash of a second, Eden imagined them at home when it happened. She imagined a burglar barging through the door, wielding a gun. But she quickly banished the thought. If that were the case, the burglar would have told her parents to get down on the ground, and they would have listened. They would have obeyed. They would have let the robber take whatever he wanted, and then as soon as he left, they would have called the police. They wouldn’t have abandoned the crime scene. “They’re probably out looking for me. I’m sure they’re worried.”
Officer Smith wrote down Eden’s information. Her name. Her parents’ names. Their phone numbers. Then he unclipped his walkie-talkie from his belt and radioed dispatch.
“Mercer County, EB. Joe Bravo, 141.”
There was a quick burst of white noise, and then, “Go ahead, 141.”
“I was just approached by a female juvenile reporting a burglary, possible burglary in progress. Address is 3235 West Buckle Lane, EB. Juvenile’s name is Eden Pruitt. Break.”
“I need a call to one or both parents to let them know there’s been a disturbance at their home, their daughter is okay, and we’re headed there now.”
“Roger that, 141. Go ahead with the numbers.”
Officer Smith gave the dispatcher the two phone numbers, then the dispatcher assigned backup. When he was finished, he clipped his radio to his belt, thanked the bike store employee for the quiet space, and motioned for Eden to follow him outside. He’d parked on a side street. When they reached his squad car, he opened the back door for Eden to climb inside—a Deja vu if ever there was one.
“I’d let you sit up front with me if it wasn’t against protocol.”
Eden laughed nervously. What was happening now was not a repeat of what happened in San Diego. Losing track of time wasn’t a crime. With that thought firmly in place, she forced herself to climb inside.
Plexiglas separated her from Officer Smith. He slid it open once he situated himself behind the wheel, then began maneuvering around the parade route to get to Eden’s new street, asking more questions along the way. Did she have any dogs? How recently did they move? What brought them to Eagle Bend? Eden was fairly certain the majority of his questions were for her benefit—an attempt to distract her. He didn’t seem too bothered by a break-in, or by the fact that the dispatcher felt as though back up was necessary. Eden, on the other hand, was having a hard time concentrating on her answers. Why did this have to happen—on this day of all days? She balled her hands into fists so tight her fingernails bit into the flesh of her palms. Her knee bounced up and down like a jackhammer as she craned her neck to see if her parents had come home while she went running for help.
Officer Smith pulled up to the curb.
Eden peered at the house. It looked quiet, unthreatening. Like every other house on the block.
She tilted her head.
The front door was closed.
She hadn’t closed the front door, had she? No, she hadn’t. She’d been too busy running for her life to close it.
Another squad car pulled up behind them.
“All right.” Officer Smith gave her what was probably meant to be an encouraging smile. Only she didn’t feel encouraged. She felt off-kilter. Discombobulated. Like she was staring at a beloved painting by Claude Monet that had been subtly altered. “Sit tight.”
He climbed out into the humidity and met the other officer—a female officer—at the end of her driveway. She watched them confer, her heart thudding like a dull, pulsing ache in her temples. Eden’s attention swiveled from them to the length of the empty street, willing her father’s car to appear. The dispatcher would have called them by now. They would know she was okay. They’d be desperate to get to her, and they had to be relatively close. She looked back at the officers. Joe was heading to the porch, when suddenly, the front door swung open.
A man stepped out.
The officers drew their guns and yelled at him to freeze.
The stranger lifted his arms into the air. It was the burglar. He was still there. Which meant he’d been there when Eden was there. She bit the inside of her cheek, waiting for the man to put his hands behind his back so they could cuff him. Waiting for the two police officers to read the man his rights. But the man didn’t put his hands behind his back. He was too busy talking. Judging by the severe set of his gunmetal-gray eyebrows, his words weren’t happy ones.
Officer Smith and his female counterpart brought down their guns.
Eden pressed her face against the window.
The man gesticulated to the front door behind him.
What was he doing? What was happening? He was the burglar, right? But then, he didn’t look so much like a burglar as he did a strict, physically imposing grandfather. Maybe he was one of Eden’s neighbors. Maybe he was the owner of the mean, barking dogs. Maybe he realized her house had been broken into, and he was inside looking for the burglar when the police arrived.
She spread her hand flat against the glass, desperate to know.
The man walked back inside. Into her house.
Officer Smith turned and squinted at her. He unclipped his radio and spoke again to the dispatcher. Eden rapped on the window to gather his attention. But he turned away and kept speaking on his radio. She twisted in her seat, toward the empty street. Still no sign of her parents. And now the man had returned. He had something in his hand.
Whatever it was, he showed it to them.
They talked some more. There was a lot of nodding. A lot of weight shifting. A lot of brief glances over their shoulders, at her. And then—shockingly—they shook hands. The officers turned around and walked away.
Eden sat with her back ramrod straight, her breathing shallow.
As soon as Officer Smith opened the driver side door, her questions flew—tumbling over one another in a rush. “Who was that guy? What’s he doing in my house? Why are you letting him go?”
The officer tugged on the bill of his hat. “Are you positive that’s your house?”
Eden leaned back, her chin pulling inward. “What?”
“3235 West Buckle Lane. You’re sure that’s your address?”
“Of course I’m sure.”
He twisted his lips to the side, studying her like she’d gone from victim to suspect. “Ms. Pruitt, do you have any identification?”
She blinked a few times. “Yes, I have ID. But it’s inside my house. Along with my phone.”
Officer Smith stared at her for a long moment, the corners of his mouth pinched. Then he looked back at the house, sucked on his teeth. “Miss, that gentleman has lived at 3235 West Buckle Lane for the past twenty-three years.”
“What?” she said again, the word escaping like a yelp.
“And the phone number you gave us for your mother went to a pizza place in Seattle. The other one was disconnected.”
“I—I don’t understand.”
“Have you taken anything recently?”
“No! Of course not. I haven’t taken anything. I’m … there’s been some sort of mistake. That’s my house. I told you, we moved here yesterday.”
“My friend there—Officer Tammy? She’s familiar with this neighborhood, and she doesn’t remember seeing a For Sale sign in the yard recently.”
“Th-that’s because it happened really fast. My dad was looking for houses, and while he was online, the listing popped up. The lady who sold it to us joked that she didn’t even have to put up a sign.” Eden cupped her forehead, her mind spinning. He didn’t believe her. She could tell he didn’t believe her. It was written all over his face. “Please believe me. That’s my house. I don’t know who that man is, but he’s lying. Go inside, and you’ll see. You’ll see the mess. You’ll find my phone and my ID. I swear.”
Officer Smith looked down the street, still empty from the parade. “How about we drive to the station, and see if we can’t get this all sorted out?”