Eva was their only child, a “miracle baby,” conceived after four years of trying, hoping, and praying for a baby. Eva was a beautiful baby. Everyone said so. They lived in an upscale four-bedroom home. Eva had her own room decorated with cartoon animals that her parents painstakingly sketched over several days and then painted on the walls. Until she turned six and began reading on her own, either her mother or father would read aloud to her every night. One or the other of them would stretch next to her on the bed and read whatever story book Eva chose, running their finger beneath the words as they dramatically read them.
When she turned eight, Eva and her mother started baking together every Saturday. Eva would read the recipes and prudently add the precise quantity of ingredients to the bowl using plastic measuring spoons and Pyrex measuring cups. Eva’s mother would mix the batter, pour it into the cake or pie or cupcake pan, and put the concoction into the oven. Whenever Eva’s father impishly crept into the kitchen and winked at a giggling Eva while he licked the bowl, her mother playfully scolded him.
At ten, Eva comprehended exactly what it was about going to church on Sunday mornings that she so especially loved: they entered three abreast, a proud parent either side of her; all of them holding hands. Eva loved how her smaller hands slipped so effortlessly into their larger hands. Eva loved touching the rings they wore on their fingers. Eva loved everything about her parents. She was sure that God had given her the very best parents in the whole world.
At thirteen, Eva Lange’s idyllic, commonplace life was profoundly transformed forever by Chad Matthews, a troubled boy she had never met, or seen, or even knew existed.
Chad Matthews was the only stutterer in his high school so, being a freshman and an easy target, he was the butt of most of the upperclassmen’s jokes and pranks. In the evenings he would roam the town or countryside alone on his bike. His father was dead and his mother and older brother paid no attention to his comings and goings. In town he would steal from shops occasionally, using his elbow to break panes of glass in the doors. He was never caught. In the countryside he would vandalize fences, mailboxes, and highway signs. He was never caught doing that either. Chad Matthews killed Eva’s parents on a snowy evening in January, but he was never caught, or tried, or punished; nor was he ever aware that he was responsible.
That January evening was chilly and the wind whipped the snow around like cavorting ghosts. Trudging along, Chad was playing with his most treasured possession: a Swiss army knife that had belonged to his father. As he passed the intersection of Highway H and Highway C, he noticed it was a four-way stop. Using the wrench tools on his knife, Chad decided it would be quite a funny joke to remove the stop signs and hide them in the nearby brush. The project took more effort than he thought, and he abandoned it after only removing two of the signs: the sign facing east and the sign facing north. By the time he hid the two signs, the temperature had dropped seven degrees, the wind whipping the snow had become ferocious, night had fallen, and he watched his breath like puffs of smoke as he tramped toward home. The intersection had no lampposts, and the pitch-black darkness on this remote stretch of highway was disturbed only by the occasional car or pick-up truck.
Eva’s parents were heading home from a holiday party sponsored by Mr. Lange’s bank and rather than driving back home through town, his usual route, Mr. Lange decided to take a little short cut by heading east on Highway H. He didn’t travel H frequently, but he knew it would get him to his destination, his sister-in-law’s apartment, about five minutes quicker because the speed limit, which was barely ever enforced anyway, was fifty-five miles per hour.
Miss Emil’s seventy-year battle with arthritis had been particularly painful that afternoon, but the church bake sale was an event she hated to miss; after all, she was the chairwoman of the fund-raising committee. After arguing with herself, Miss Emil decided she would brave the weather; moving around and getting out might actually make her feel better. Before leaving the bake sale later that evening she even decided to have one glass of Mrs. Grady’s homemade apricot wine (which usually made her feel better), so she left for home about forty minutes later than was customary for her.
Eva’s parents were actually traveling closer to sixty-five miles per hour when they crossed into the intersection and nearly hit Miss Emil’s northbound car traveling about thirty miles per hour. Mr. Lange saw the other car enter the intersection only seconds before impact and it gave him the precious second he needed to slam on his brakes and swerve his car hard to the right. He avoided hitting Miss Emil’s car, but his own car squealed and spun out of control and rolled completely end-over-end four times before eventually coming to a halt some fifty yards away and bursting into flames. Miss Emil, holding tight to her steering wheel, glimpsed a fleeting flash of headlights out the corner of her left eye and moments later thought she heard something like … an explosion? Her gaze stayed trained on the road ahead, and, as she kept driving home, she supposed that the apricot wine was playing little tricks on her.
By 4 a.m. Eva knew that something was horribly wrong. Her parents never left her alone this long with Aunt Loretta, Mrs. Lange’s younger sister. Loretta was “wild” and “unreliable” according to Eva’s mother, but Eva liked her because she joked about everything and she let Eva stay up late eating popcorn and watching old, black-and-white monster movies on television, something her parents never allowed. Aunt Loretta invited Eva to sleep in the spare bedroom when she got tired, or she could stay on the couch if she’d rather. Aunt Loretta went to her own bedroom around 11:00 p.m. with her friend Mike who had arrived just a few minutes earlier.
“Good night, sleep tight, honey,” Loretta said. Winking, she waved a few fingers at Eva and, with Mike in tow, closed her bedroom door.
It was after 5:00 a.m. by the time Eva heard the loud, insistent knocking on Aunt Loretta’s apartment door. Eva climbed out of the spare-room bed, tiptoed in bare feet to the door, and cracked it open just enough to listen and peek out with one eye. Aunt Loretta was slogging toward the door yawning and scratching her head vigorously with both hands.
Two uniformed state troopers were at the door, and they stepped into the apartment when Loretta stood aside. Eva noticed one of the troopers closed the door behind him. She watched as they both took off their hats and the older, taller trooper spoke in hushed tones to Loretta. Eva couldn’t quite hear what the troopers were saying, but she did grasp most of Aunt Loretta’s responses.
“Yes, I am . . . Yes, she’s my sister . . . What! Oh my God! Are you sure? Are you sure it’s them? . . . Oh, God, no, no, no!”