The Girl from Widow Hills by Megan Miranda

PROLOGUE


I WAS THE GIRL WHO survived.

The girl who held on. The girl you prayed for, or at least pretended to pray for—thankful most of all that it wasn’t your own child lost down there, in the dark.

And after: I was the miracle. The sensation. The story.

The story was what people wanted, and oh, it was a good one. Proof of humanity, and hope, and the power of the human spirit. After coming so close to tragedy, the public reaction bordered on rapturous, when it wasn’t. Whether from joy or pure shock, the result was the same.

I was famous for a little while. The subject of articles, interviews, a book. It became a news story revisited after a year, then five, then ten.

I knew, now, what happened when you turned your story over to someone else. How you became something different, twisted to fit the confines of the page. Something to be consumed instead.

That girl is frozen in time, with her beginning, middle, and end: victim, endurance, triumph.

It was a good story. A good feeling. A good ending. Fade to black.

As if, when the daily news moved on, and the articles ended, and the conversations turned, it was all over. As if it weren’t just beginning.


THERE WAS A TIME when I knew what they were after. Reaching back to that cultural touchpoint, whenever someone would say: The girl from Widow Hills, remember?

That sudden rush of fear and hope and relief, all at once.

A good feeling.


I HAVEN’T BEEN THAT girl in a long time.





CHAPTER 1



Wednesday, 7 p.m.


THE BOX SAT AT the foot of the porch steps, in a small clearing of dirt where grass still refused to grow. Cardboard sides left exposed to the elements, my full name written in black marker, the edge of my address just starting to bleed. It fit on my hip, like a child.

I knew she was gone before I woke.

The first line of my mother’s book, the same thing she allegedly told the police when they first arrived. A sentiment repeated in every media interview in the months after the accident, her words transmitted directly into millions of living rooms across the country.

Nearly twenty years later, and this was the refrain now echoing in my head as I carried the box up the wooden porch stairs. The catch in her voice. That familiar cadence.

I shut and locked the front door behind me, took the delivery down the arched hall to the kitchen table. The contents shifted inside, nearly weightless.

It clattered against the table when I set it down, more noise than substance. I went straight for the drawer beside the sink, didn’t prolong the moment to let it gather any more significance.

Box cutter through the triple-layer tape. Corners softened from the moisture still clinging to the ground from yesterday’s rain. The lid wedged tight over the top. A chilled darkness within.

I knew she was gone—

Her words were cliché at best, an untruth at worst—a story crafted in hindsight.

Maybe she truly believed it. I rarely did, unless I was feeling generous—which, at the moment, staring into the sad contents of this half-empty box, I was. Right then, I wanted to believe—believe that, at one point, there had been a tether between my soul and hers, and she could feel something in the absence: a prickle at her neck, her call down the dim hallway that always felt humid, even in winter; my name—Arden?—echoing off the walls, even though she knew—she just knew—there would be no answer; the front door already ajar—the first true sign—and the screen door banging shut behind her as she ran barefoot into the wet grass, still in flannel pajama pants and a fraying, faded T-shirt, screaming my name until her throat went raw. Until the neighbors came. The police. The media.

It was pure intuition. The second line of her book. She knew I was gone. Of course she knew.

Now I wish I could’ve said the same.

Instead of the truth: that my mother had been gone for seven months before I knew it. Knew that she hadn’t just disappeared on a binge, or had her phone disconnected for nonpayment, or found some guy and slipped into his life instead, shedding the skin of her previous one, while I’d just been grateful I hadn’t heard from her in so long.

There was always this lingering fear that, no matter how far I went, no matter how many layers I put between us, she would appear one day like an apparition: that I’d step outside on my way to work one morning, and there she would be, looming on the front porch despite her size, with a too-wide smile and too-skinny arms. Throwing her bony arms around my neck and laughing as if I’d summoned her.