True crime and modern dating! This is Alicia Thompson’s adult debut novel. Spoiler alert: Reading true crime might not actually help with your meet-cutes. But, on the other hand, you’ll never be at a loss for conversation topics. This rom-com gives whole new meaning to “suspicious minds.”
PhD candidate Phoebe Walsh has always been obsessed with true crime. She's even analyzing the genre in her dissertation—if she can manage to finish writing it. It's hard to find the time while she spends the summer in Florida, cleaning out her childhood home, dealing with her obnoxiously good-natured younger brother, and grappling with the complicated feelings of mourning a father she hadn't had a relationship with for years.
It doesn't help that she's low-key convinced that her new neighbor, Sam Dennings, is a serial killer (he may dress business casual by day, but at night he's clearly up to something). It's not long before Phoebe realizes that Sam might be something much scarier—a genuinely nice guy who can pierce her armor to reach her vulnerable heart.
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Obviously a two-hundred-pound Victorian writing desk wasn't made to be moved all by yourself. But it also hadn't come with those incomprehensible IKEA instructions showing a blocky illustrated guy getting help from a buddy, so. There wasn't anything saying not to try it.
I took a step back, assessing the desk where it was strapped to the roof of my car. It was the only piece of furniture I'd brought with me, and it was a monstrosity. My old landlord in North Carolina had helped me load it onto my car in the first place, and it had been the reason I'd made the drive to Florida in one straight shot, stopping only briefly at rest areas and a Taco Bell in Starke.
If I undid the straps, it was possible the desk would slide right off the car. I had an image of trying to catch it and ending up flattened into a pancake like a cartoon character under a piano. But I could brace it against my body, maybe, ease it to the ground. Then I could penguin-walk it up the driveway to the house.
I turned to survey my dad's old house, which had been sitting empty for the last six months, since he'd died back in January. I guessed it was my and my little brother's house now, technically. But this house hadn't felt like mine since the day my mother and I had moved out when I was thirteen, maybe not since before then.
My brother, Conner, could still be awake, even though my phone screen showed that it was already two in the morning. He'd always been a big gamer, and would stay up all hours trying a level one more time or trying to beat the last boss. But that had been before he and Shani had moved in together, before he'd gotten his first postcollege job at a call center. And anyway, I wasn't going to text him to come help me with something as stupid as a desk.
Conner and I weren't that close. We'd barely grown up together, for one thing-when our parents divorced, he'd chosen to stay with our dad, while I'd gone with our mom. He was also seven years younger, twenty-three to my thirty, although that fact alone couldn't fully explain his optimistic exuberance in contrast to my jaded cynicism. We'd spent time together during holidays and select weekends, of course, but still when I thought of him I mostly remembered the way he would eat ketchup by the bowlful when he was six years old.
I typed how to move heavy furniture by yourself into a search on my phone, and scrolled through the results. Ads for moving companies, an article about how to use moving straps and dollies and other equipment I didn't have, another couple of articles that basically boiled down to don't.
"Need a hand?" a voice came from behind me, and I jumped and gave a little scream. My phone flew out of my hand and hit the pavement with a sickening crack.
I spun around, coming face-to-face with the random dude who'd spoken. He was standing on the sidewalk, a decent distance away from me, but still. He'd come out of nowhere. He had dark, shaggy hair and was wearing jeans and a T-shirt that had a huge rip in the collar. When I glanced down, I saw that his feet were bare.
"What the fuck?" I said, as much about the bare feet as about the fact that he'd addressed me at all.
He took a step backward, as if he were scared of me, and shoved his hands deep into his pockets. "It just seemed . . ."
"Well, it's not," I snapped. I reached down to pick up my phone, which, yup, totally had a cracked screen now. Great. My search results for how to move heavy furniture by yourself glowed brightly through the spiderweb of lines, and I had the irrational thought that he'd totally seen them, that they'd called him here like some sort of Bat-Signal to creepy nocturnal dudes looking to accost isolated women in the suburbs.
And now he knew where I lived. I was tempted to get back in the car, to drive to a local gas station and sit in the parking lot for one full podcast episode, then circle the block a few times before pulling into the driveway again. Although, to be fair, it was probably the podcast episodes that were making me so paranoid in the first place. I could rationally recognize that with one part of my brain while the other part of my brain screamed, This is the exact scenario two post-Evanescence goth podcasters will one day use for their cold open.
"This isn't my home," I blurted.
He blinked at me, obviously confused. The more he stood there in his stupid bare feet, the more harmless he seemed. He was only a few inches taller than me, I realized. And he probably weighed less, all wiry and lean where I was curvier.
But wasn't that exactly how guys like him broke through your defenses? By appearing helpful, like the Zodiac Killer telling you your wheel was wobbling and offering to "fix" it for you, only to sabotage your car and take you hostage. Or by appearing helpless, like Ted Bundy with his fake casts, needing help carrying something to his car.
Fuck that. I'd rather be seen as a little rude than risk being taken to a second location.
He gestured toward the desk. "That looks heavy," he said.
Driving ten hours straight must've scrambled my brain, because his words made me snort and then break into full-out laughter. It was absurd-this random conversation that barely hit polysyllables, the giant desk strapped to my Camry, the fact that I was here at all, standing in front of a house that I had very few fond memories of. It was two in the morning and I was wearing coffee-stained pajama pants because I'd thought it would be brilliant to dress so I could roll right into bed when I arrived, only I hadn't factored in my stunning inability to drink from the right side of a to-go cup.
"My dude," I said. "If you think this desk looks heavy, you should see my trigger finger on my Mace in about five seconds if you don't back off."
He looked at me for a moment, almost as if he were about to say something else. And maybe it was coming up on time to reread The Gift of Fear again, because I realized that the butterflies in my stomach weren't from anxiety but from . . . anticipation. Like there was some quiet watchfulness in his expression that pierced through my armor, and I wanted to know what he saw there.
But instead I turned back toward the desk, making a show of tightening a strap even though that was the opposite of what I was trying to do. When I glanced over my shoulder a minute later, he was gone, as stealthily as he'd arrived.
My forehead dropped to the roof of the car, my grip around the legs of the desk relaxing. I was so tired. I doubted anyone would be interested in stealing a desk, and it wasn't supposed to rain that night. I should go inside and go to bed and let this be a problem for rested, freshly caffeinated future me to solve in the morning.
I grabbed my backpack out of the passenger side, hauled my bigger duffel out of the back seat, and locked up the car. My dad's neighborhood was older, somehow escaping the homeowners association restrictions that would regulate things like streetlights, so it was dark, too. I gave one last sweeping glance around the street-to the left, where an outside cat looked up from its position laid out on my neighbor's driveway, to the house to the right, where a single light still shone through one window. Satisfied I was alone, I headed up to the front door of my dad's house.
The first thing that hit me was the smell. Musty, like a damp towel that had been left on the bathroom floor too long, with a slight antiseptic undercurrent like that same towel had been sprayed with Windex a couple times. This must've been what Conner meant when he said he'd been coming by once a week to "clean."
The place sure didn't look clean. That wasn't completely Conner's fault, I knew-my dad had been a bit of a pack rat, not so bad they'd put him on a TV show but definitely hoarder-adjacent. Even as I walked in, I stubbed my toe on a plastic tub filled with magazines and mail in the entryway, and then knocked a broom to the floor. The bristles of the broom were covered with cobwebs, lest I think Conner had been using it.
I set my bags down on the first empty expanse of floor I could find in the living room. My dad's room was to the left, but there was no way I could sleep in there. He hadn't died in there or anything-it had been a heart attack at the grocery store, mercifully quick, the doctors had told us-but still. It was my dad's room.
I opened the door anyway, just to see inside. More magazines, stacked next to the bed and fanning out from where they'd toppled over. What had it been with him and magazines? I'd never even thought of him as much of a reader. But he'd been such a sucker for those commemorative magazines at the checkout aisle in particular, 100 Greatest Films or Remembering D-Day or Photographs That Changed the World.
Next, I checked out the kitchen, not expecting anything edible, but just hoping that there wasn't some open bag of sugar that had fallen over in the pantry and been allowed to attract ants for the last six months. When I opened the fridge, it was surprisingly clean-and with a large bag of Kit Kats and a twenty-four pack of Mountain Dew inside.
There was a Post-it stuck to the Mountain Dew: WELCOME BACK, PHOEBE! written in sloppy capital letters. It wasn't signed, but of course, there was only one other person who had keys to this place. And only one person who loved Mountain Dew so much he'd been arrested once trying to steal a six-foot-tall cardboard cutout of a two-liter from a gas station. He'd wanted it for his dorm room, he said.
I smiled to myself, shaking my head as I closed the fridge. It was actually kind of sweet that Conner had thought to leave me something. Sweet being the operative word, since I'd be in a sugar spiral in five seconds if I tried to subsist on his gifts alone. I'd have to go shopping in the morning.
But for now, I was exhausted, and all I wanted to do was peel off these coffee-stained pajama pants and fall into bed. I only hoped that my dad had kept the bed in my brother's or my old room. My brother had lived in this house more recently than I had, leaving only three years ago when he'd transferred from community college to a campus a few hours away. But when I checked out his room, I saw that he must've taken his bed with him at some point, or else my dad had gotten rid of it. There were still some signs that he'd lived there, like the huge Red Dead Redemption poster he had hanging on one wall, but otherwise it was just an old table pushed to one corner, a couple laundry baskets filled with household items and not a piece of laundry in sight, and the pieces of a computer laid out on the floor like someone had been interrupted in the middle of putting it together.
It did something to me, seeing the computer like that. I could picture my dad working on it, could imagine him trying to explain to Conner how some of the parts went together and then getting impatient when Conner kept asking questions about some aspect of the process my dad hadn't gotten around to explaining yet.
For all I knew, it hadn't happened like that at all. But for a moment, I could see it as clearly as if he were still alive and in this room. My dad, smiling gently as he described what a microprocessing chip did or whatever. My dad, slinging the motherboard across the room and leaving a dent in the drywall as he yelled at Conner to listen, just fucking listen.
I took a deep breath before opening up the door to my old room. I hadn't stepped foot inside it for fifteen years, not since I was fifteen and said I wouldn't come here for weekend visitation anymore. My dad wasn't the type to want a home gym or even a guest room, since he'd eschewed most physical activity and never welcomed a single guest. I had no idea what to expect.
It was exactly the same. My twin bed with the wrought iron frame, the blue-and-yellow quilt from Walmart, the black painted walls, the collages of eyes I'd cut out from magazines and tacked up everywhere. A desk in the corner where I'd spent most of my time, chatting with friends on my laptop. A vase of dried flowers on my dresser, a stack of my favorite movies on DVD. So that was where my copy of Heathers had gone.
I found some more sheets in the linen closet-they had that closed-up scent of mothballs and neglect, but they had to be better than what was on the bed-and changed them out. Then I carried my bags into the room, plopped them on the floor, and made as quick work as I could of brushing my teeth and getting ready for bed.
The last thing I did before clicking off the light was rip every single eye collage off the walls. If I had to deal with old America's Next Top Model rejects staring down at me as I slept, I'd have nightmares of Tyra trying to "edge" me out by bleaching my eyebrows.
Well, the second-to-last thing. After I lay in bed for a few minutes, I sat up again, switching on the nightstand lamp and reaching down into my backpack for my bullet journal, where I'd been writing all my dissertation notes.
Encounter w/ strange man June 3, approx. 2 a.m. White, 59, slightly scruffy, shaggy brown hair. Ripped T-shirt, jeans, no shoes. Origin and destination unknown, believed to be night wanderer.
I chewed on the end of the pen, wondering if I should include any other details. It had been too dark to tell what color his eyes were. His voice had been deep, with a rasp, almost . . . but I couldn't write that. If my body was found in the woods behind the house, and investigators were competent enough to do a forensic analysis of this notebook, I didn't want editorializing words complicating the narrative. Words like compelling, or god forbid, sexy. I set the notebook on my nightstand, and switched back off the lamp.