Connie, fifteen, is preoccupied with her appearance. Her mother scolds her for admiring herself in the mirror, but Connie ignores her mother’s criticisms. Connie’s mother urges her to be neat and responsible like her older sister, June. June, who is twenty-four and still lives at home, works as a secretary at Connie’s high school. She saves money, helps their parents, and receives constant praise for her maturity, whereas Connie spends her time daydreaming. Their father works a lot and rarely talks to his daughters, but their mother never stops nagging Connie. Connie is often so miserable that she wishes she and her mother were dead.
Connie is grateful for June for setting one good precedent: June goes out with her girlfriends, so their mother allows Connie to go out as well, with her best friend. Connie’s friend’s father drives them to a shopping plaza in town and returns later to pick them up, never asking how they spent their time. The girls often sneak across the highway to a drive-in restaurant and meet boys.
One night, a boy named Eddie invites Connie to eat dinner with him, and Connie leaves her friend at the restaurant’s counter to go with him. As they walk through the parking lot, she sees a man in a gold convertible. He smiles at her and says, “Gonna get you, baby.” Connie hurries away, and Eddie notices nothing. They spend three hours together, at a restaurant and then in an alley.
Connie spends the summer avoiding her mother’s prying questions and dreaming about the boys she meets. One Sunday, her parents and June leave her at home alone while they go to a family barbeque. Connie washes her hair and dozes while she lets it dry in the sun. When she gets hot, she goes inside and listens to the radio. She is startled by the noise of a car coming up her driveway. From the window she sees that it’s a gold convertible, and she grows afraid. She walks into the kitchen, looks out the screen door, and realizes that the driver is the man she saw in the parking lot the night she met Eddie.
The man grins and begins talking to her. Connie is careful not to show any interest and tells him several times that she does not know who he is. He gets out of the car and points to the words painted on the door. His name, Arnold Friend, is written next to a picture of a round smiling face, which Connie thinks resembles a pumpkin with sunglasses. There is another man in the car, whom Arnold introduces as his friend Ellie.
Arnold asks Connie to get in the car, but she says she has “things” to do. He laughs, and Connie notices he seems unsteady on his feet. She asks how he knows her name, and he says he knows a lot of things about her. He rattles off the names of her friends and tells her where her parents are. He demands to know what she is thinking and tells her that today she is going for a ride with him. He asks whether she saw his sign, and he draws a large X in the air. Connie thinks that she recognizes parts of him, but she does not know how or from where. When she asks him how old he is, he stops smiling and says they are the same age, or maybe he’s just a little older, which she immediately knows is a lie. To distract her, he makes fun of Ellie, who is listening to music in the car. He too looks much older than Connie, which makes her feel dizzy with fear.
Connie tells Arnold he should leave, but he insists on taking her for a ride. She recognizes his voice as the voice of a man on the radio. She tells him again to leave and again grows dizzy with fear as he starts telling her what her parents are doing at that precise moment at their barbeque. She is both horrified and fascinated by his accurate descriptions. Arnold tells Connie that she is his lover and will give in to him and love him. She screams that he is crazy and begins to back away from the front door. She tells him to leave and threatens to call the police. Arnold, moving unsteadily toward the porch, tells her he will not follow her into the house—unless she touches the phone and tries to call the police. She tries to lock to door, but her fingers are shaking too much. Arnold points out that he could break down the door. She asks him what he wants, and he says he wants her, that after seeing her that night, he knew she was the one for him. He becomes more threatening, telling her that if she doesn’t come out of the house, he’ll do something terrible to her family when they come home.
Arnold asks Connie whether she knows one of her neighbors, a woman who owns chickens. Connie, shocked, replies that the woman is dead. Arnold says again that she should come outside or her family will get hurt.
Connie runs from the door and grabs the telephone. In a rushed, blurry scene, something happens: Connie is sweating and screaming for her mother; she can’t dial the phone; and Arnold is “stabbing her . . . again and again with no tenderness.” Oates does not say exactly what happens, but at the end of the scene, Connie is sitting on the floor, stunned and terrified.
From the door, Arnold tells her to put the phone back on the hook, and she obeys. He tells her quietly where they’re going to go and tells her to come outside. She thinks to herself that she will never see her mother again and tries to figure out what to do. At his command, she stands up. She feels as though she is watching herself walk toward the door, open it, and walk outside toward Arnold. He comments on her blue eyes, even though she has brown eyes. Connie looks out at the vast expanses of land behind him and knows that’s where she is going.