One

Dad warned me to stay away from girls like Eden Rhodes. On the first day of cross-country practice, I hung back and let her set the pace so I could keep an eye on her. She was a good six inches shorter than me, but her thighs were thick with muscle. She glanced over her shoulder and caught me watching her, but I played it off like I was pacing the runner in front of her.

For someone so short and athletic her stride was smooth, almost graceful. She ran track last year, setting a new record for the 100-meter—the best in the tri-county region. And here she was running cross-country. When we were near the end of the run, I blew right past her.

“It’s the first day of practice, Christa. Don’t push it,” Coach Paul said, looking sort of impressed and sort of irritated with me.

“I know,” I said, finding my breath. The final sprint winded me, but I tried to hide it in case Eden was watching.

“Cool down and hit the showers,” Coach Paul shouted. “Good work today.”

As I walked, I rubbed my quads and shook my legs out, searching for Eden while trying to look like I wasn’t. Soon, I felt someone beside me, someone short with messy brown hair. She was out of breath, almost wheezing, and soaked with sweat. I fought the urge to study her mannerisms.

“This is tougher than I thought it would be,” she said, gasping for air.

At the end of junior year, Eden got caught hooking up with a guy under the bleachers. Some jock on the football team recorded it on his phone and passed it around to the other guys at school.

“Giving up already?”

“Don’t get excited. I just don’t like losing.” She eyed me then jutted her chin in the direction of the school. “Race you to the locker room?”

“You must like being humiliated.”

After the bleacher incident, the slut shaming haunted Eden all summer—whispers behind her back at the mall, guys coming to the restaurant where she worked, hoping to hook up with her. It never got her down, though. She shrugged it off, and by the beginning of senior year, it was like it had never happened.

Eden dug the shoe of her push-off leg into the ground. I crouched down, preparing to sprint.

“Go!”

Eden took off like a cat that had gotten its tail stepped on, but it didn’t take much effort to catch up with her. With my long legs, she had to take double the strides to even keep up with me. I wasn’t going to let her win no matter what. I owned cross-country. The sooner she understood that the better.

“I win.” I threw my arms in the air and pranced about. I always win.

“Dammit.” Eden leaned on her knees to catch her breath.

I copied her moves as if it would somehow transform me into her.

“Next time I’ll beat you.” She put her hands on her hips and walked in circles. “I’m so out of shape.”

“You’ll get there.” I reached to pat her on the shoulder just as Janel Fowler rushed out the locker room door and shoved me out of the way. “Watch it.”

Janel ignored me and focused on Eden. “Something came up. An emergency with my little brother, so I can’t drop you off.”

“Oh no. I hope it’s nothing serious.”

“Not sure, yet, but I have to go like five minutes ago.”

“I can take her home.” The words came out of my mouth with a little too much enthusiasm, but I had to take this chance to talk with Eden. With the chaos of school and practice, she wouldn’t listen to me, and we weren’t exactly friends, so I had to find a way to be alone with her. “It’s no problem.”

Janel flicked her eyebrows. “Christa Pierce doing something nice for someone? Color me shocked.”

“Don’t you have an emergency to go to?”

“God, you two.” Eden threw her head back and growled. “You’re worse than the women on those reality shows.”

“I gotta go.” Janel shot me a nasty look and stormed off.

“Are you sure it’s not a problem?” Eden smiled, weakly. “I think we live in opposite directions.”

“It’s no big deal.”

“If it’s no big deal, then okay.” Eden shrugged and headed to the locker room.

“You want to come over and study?”

“Today? Well, I—”

“If you’re busy then—”

“I mean, sure.” She turned toward her open locker and dug inside her backpack. “It’ll be fun.” She threw a towel over her shoulder and disappeared into the steam of the showers.

This was perfect. My dad was going to hate her. I could almost see it. Eden and I would be studying at the dining room table and he’d walk in after work, take one look at her, and make that disapproving face I knew so well. He wouldn’t cause a scene right then, but later he’d talk shit on her. It was easy to do.

Her curly brown hair always looked like she had just rolled out of bed. She must have bought her clothes at the thrift store. The few times I stood near her, I caught a whiff of cheap perfume and stale cigarette smoke. Dad gagged at the smell of smoke on someone’s clothes. I sat near her table at lunch whenever I could. She was usually loud, snorted when she laughed, and burped like a sloppy drunk. Everyone at the table thought it was oh so cute. She could probably spit on the sidewalk and no one would even care. But my father would.

 

On the drive to my house, Eden talked nonstop about her new boyfriend, Kyle Jenkins—the one she got caught with under the bleachers. Sometimes she got explicit with the details. It was a little gross to listen to, but I kind of enjoyed it. Not in a perverted way. It was just that no one ever talked like that around me, and here the coolest girl in the whole school was sitting in my car, sharing her secrets with me. Unfortunately, I couldn’t squeeze a word in about what I wanted to talk about—the whole reason for offering her a ride home.

“So, it looks like I’ll have a date for prom,” Eden said. “I have to start saving money for the dress now, though. You need to find a date. Most of the senior class will be there. We have to leave this dump on a high note.”

“The prom isn’t my thing.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Eden studying me. “I get that vibe. But you should go, anyway. At least try.”

“We’ll see. Anyway, here we are.”

With her mouth hanging open, Eden gawked at my house. “I heard you had money, but I didn’t know you were this rich.”

A lot of people assumed I was a spoiled rich kid because of my dad’s position at Milford University. If we had a lot of money, I didn’t know it. Dad kept a tight grip on the finances, and I got a small allowance of about $100 a week.

“I guess that was a dumb thing to say.”

“It’s all right. My dad won’t be home for a few more hours so you can look around if you want. Just don’t touch anything.”

Eden jerked her head back, smirking. “Are you serious?”

I nodded and pretended not to notice when she raised her eyebrows while mumbling, “ooookay,” under her breath.

I took her in through the garage into the mudroom, because, God forbid, I got any dirt on the floor. “Leave your shoes by the door. Rachel gets bitchy if I don’t take my shoes off after school. She thinks schools are full of germs.”

“Who’s Rachel?”

“My stepmom. Dad married her after my mom ran off with some guy when I was two.” I made sure to emphasize the important words, so it would pique her interest.

“That’s sad. My dad took off when I was seven.”

Good. She took the bait. I had heard this story of Eden’s many times, mostly while eavesdropping in the halls at school or sitting in class or near her at lunch. She treated each mention of her father as if it were the first time out of her mouth, adding more to the story each time. It came up at least once a week.

“I didn’t know your mom took off when you were a baby. It sucks, doesn’t it?”

“I never knew her, so it doesn’t bother me. I don’t even know what she looks like.”

“You’re lucky, then.” She grew quiet, looking sad enough to cry. “Wow. This is so weird.”

“What is?”

“I never thought I’d have anything in common with someone like you.”

“Someone like me? What does that mean?”

“Well, you’re rich.” Eden tugged at the zipper tassel on her backpack. “And I’m not.”

“I don’t know what to say to that.” I grabbed two bottles of water from the fridge and passed one off to her.

“I’ll shut up. I’m the queen of saying dumb shit.”

“Princess?” My dad’s voice boomed from upstairs.

I fumbled with the bottle, spilling water down the front of me. “Dad? I didn’t know you were home.” I looked at Eden, scrambled for the bottle cap on the floor, and grabbed a towel to dry my shirt. “Crap.”

Before I could get myself together, my father was in the kitchen, straightening his shirt and tie. “Hello,” he said to Eden. “Are you a school friend of my daughter’s?”

“This is Eden Rhodes.” I managed to get the words out of my mouth in one complete sentence, my jaw and throat automatically clenching when he was around. No matter what he was saying, I stiffened up at the sound of his voice. “She runs cross-country with me.”

“Nice to meet you.” My father greeted everyone the same way, whether it was an old lady or a kid: his hand was out, palm facing downward, ready to shake. His loud voice carried the weight of promises if only you’d vote for him.

Eden took his hand and smiled. “And you.” She didn’t cower in his presence or act like she should bend her knee and bow her head, which was how I felt most of the time. Why couldn’t I be more like her?

“I didn’t know you were home,” I said, my voice cracking. “I didn’t see your car anywhere.”

“Christa.” My dad’s syrupy voice filled the kitchen. He put his arm around me, his hand squeezing the back of my neck, letting me know I better behave myself. “You can have friends over any time you want, especially Eden Rhodes.”

That wasn’t the rule, and we both knew it.

“We’re going to study,” Eden said, unapologetically.

“That’s all right. I’m glad you’re here. I see she did something right in offering you a beverage.”

A door slammed shut upstairs. My father’s eyes followed the noise, but the smile never left his face.

“Is this place haunted?” Eden giggled and winked at me.

“I must’ve left the window open in my room and a breeze caught the door.”

“I was kidding.”

Dad’s face grew pink. My stomach flipped with excitement at this reaction. He doesn’t allow others to embarrass him. I liked that Eden didn’t give a shit about his fragile ego.

“Well.” He clapped his hands together and rubbed them vigorously. “It’s getting late. Maybe you should take Eden home. It was nice meeting you. Don’t be a stranger.” My father stood in the doorway like a guard, barring our entrance to the rest of the house.

Eden slung her backpack on her shoulder and glanced from my father to me. “Okay. It was nice meeting you, too.” I could tell by the sound of her voice she was confused and offended by the polite suggestion that she leave.

Out in the car, I apologized, even though I was satisfied with what had happened. I invited someone over without asking permission first—something which was never allowed—and the person just happened to be the type Dad didn’t want his daughter associating with, and someone who cracked a joke at his expense. “I didn’t know he was home. Honest.”

“Where’s his car?”

“Who knows?” I did, actually. It was still at the university. As I drove along the street, just a block away from the house, I spotted the car of the woman he had been sleeping with. He’d walk home from his office on campus to meet her there by cutting through the soccer field and a small grove of trees. He thought no one knew, especially Rachel, but everyone did.

“That’s okay. I need to get home to make dinner for my mom anyway.”

“Maybe we can do it another time,” I said.

“If you want.”

“It’ll be fun.”

“Big fun.” Eden flipped through the radio stations, mindlessly. “I’m sure you get this a lot, but you’re the spitting image of him. Like twins.”

“You’re right. I do get that a lot.”

“I mean, it’s freaky scary.”

“How do you think I feel?” Long legs, broad shoulders, same blonde hair. If my hair wasn’t long, no one could tell us apart from behind. This was the perfect segue. “I don’t know what my mother looks like, so I can’t tell if there is any of her in me.”

Eden stared out the window as I drove along the streets of the subdivision, craning her neck as we rode past some of the prettier houses in the neighborhood. “Do you ever wonder what she’s doing and where she is?”

“I shouldn’t, especially after what she did to me. I mean, who leaves a toddler behind to chase after a man?”

To be honest, I wondered about her a lot lately. Something happened to me over the summer. Something clicked, something changed. I was tired of not knowing the truth, tired of life at home, tired of everything, really. I wanted to know where my mother was, what she was doing, what she was like. And if I could get back at Dad in the process all the better.

“Do you think about your dad?” I asked.

“All the time.”

There was no better time than that moment. “We should search for our parents. Together.”

“No. Way.”

I had a feeling she’d say that, but I had hoped I dropped enough hints to warm her up to the idea. “Why not?”

She let out a sharp breath. “Because if my dad wanted me in his life, I would be.”

“Maybe he has a good explanation for what he did. Did you ever think of that?”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know. I always thought my father was lying to me about why my mother left.”

“Why would he lie to you?”

“Just a hunch.”

“And, so, you think my mother is lying to me?” She waved her hands around wildly, like she was getting pissed off.

“No, but there are always two sides. You know your dad, so only you can tell if what your mother told you is true.”

“I suppose. I was only seven when he left.”

“At least you knew him. I mean, it’s hard to miss someone I don’t even remember, but…” I took a deep breath. “I still wonder about her.”

Maybe I needed to hear myself say it out loud. Somehow putting those words out there made it real, and there I was trying to convince another person to help me search for her. Sure, I could do it on my own, but Eden had something I didn’t have: confidence. She didn’t give a shit about much of anything, least of all getting in trouble. The whole bleacher incident proved to me that she was stronger than most of us at school, and I wanted some of that, too.

“What are you thinking?” I said, breaking the silence.

“You said your father lied to you. How do you know?”

Because he lies a lot, was what I wanted to say, but I settled for something simpler, something that wouldn’t derail the direction of the conversation. “I refuse to believe my mother would leave her two-year-old when she could’ve taken me with her.”

“Maybe she couldn’t.”

I didn’t want to hear or believe that. “I was a baby. What do babies do wrong? Except for the pooping thing, not much.”

She let out a long sigh. “You know what? I change my mind.”

I nearly drove off the side of the road when I heard the words come out of her mouth. “Do you mean it?”

She pressed her lips together and nodded, fighting back tears.

My chest swirled with energy. I couldn’t remember the last time I felt this happy. I was about to turn seventeen and wanted to know what really happened to make my mother leave.

“What if my father doesn’t want to see me at all?”

“You have a right to know.”

I pulled into the driveway of Eden’s rundown, double-wide trailer. She stared out the window and laughed. “After seeing your house, mine looks like a shack.”

“I’m not here to judge.” But it was hard not to. The white vinyl siding was now a dingy grey, with splotches of green algae near the overgrown shrubs used to hide the cinderblock foundation. The front screen door had strips of silver duct-tape holding the screen to the door frame. I bet her house smelled like an ashtray or sour milk or soup. Places like that always made me think of a can of vegetable soup.

“Listen,” I said, “let’s keep this idea between the two of us. Do not mention—”

“Do you think I’m nuts? My mother would be pissed if she found out I was looking for him.” She took a deep breath. “There’s no one else I can talk to. No one ever takes me seriously or maybe they just don’t want to hear about it anymore. You’re the first person at school to ever act interested.” Eden wiped her cheeks with her hand. “Now that I know about your mom, I know you get it.”

I tried so hard not to smile. She took the bait like a hungry fish.

“How do we do this?” she said, solemnly.

“We’ll go online in the computer lab and see what we can find, I guess.”

“Perfect. We can keep it at school so no one finds out.”

“Not a word to anyone. Promise?”

“I promise.”

 

~Princess was previously published with the title Daddy’s Girl under the pen name L.E. Falcone.~

Chapter One of my upcoming book
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