TUMWATER, Wash. -- Seven months ago, a garden gnome wearing the green and blue of the Seattle Seahawks took up residence in this quiet suburb about 60 miles south of Seattle. The cedar mulch in the corner of Dana and Branden Smith's front yard was fresh, and a diminutive Japanese maple helped protect the gnome from the winter elements.
There were other outward signs that the mid-30s couple -- seven-year season-ticket holders -- adored the Seahawks. A 12th Man sign hangs above the door, and a Seattle doormat (no longer a metaphor for the local team) lies below it. Blue and green daisies decorate the living room. On a recent fall afternoon, the Smiths enthusiastically answered that door wearing matching Marshawn Lynch jerseys.
The month before the Seahawks won Super Bowl XLVIII in smashing fashion against the Denver Broncos (a spectacle the Smiths were fortunate to witness firsthand), Branden's mother, Kathy, was browsing in a knickknack shop -- in Denver, of all places -- when she found the gnome.
"We put him in the front yard, and then three days later somebody stole him," Branden said. "I did think about making flyers and putting them up on the houses around because I was pretty upset about it."
Dana shrugged. "I really thought some kids had taken it ... or a Broncos fan," she said.
Today, the evidence suggests it was neither. In fact, if the Smiths are to be believed -- and they are eminently believable -- the abduction was a curious, exceedingly clever act of Seahawks love.
There was no ransom note, no responsibility claimed on social media. But on Sept. 4, the Thursday the Seahawks kicked off the 2014 season against the Green Bay Packers, the gnome mysteriously reappeared.
Dana, an emergency room nurse who had worked the night before, was sleeping when Branden pulled into the driveway after working a bartending shift. There was the gnome, on the doorstep sitting on a small brown package.
"Wake up, wake up," he shouted to Dana while running up the stairs. "Our gnome is back."
She had been asleep for only two hours but described herself as instantly delirious. Although Branden was nervous about the anonymous package, Dana -- thinking her husband was playing a joke on her -- ripped it open.
It was a standard 2014 calendar, with all of the Seahawks' games and television information duly noted. But there was a picture of their house on the cover, with the gnome visible in the lower left corner.
"I don't know why people are taking pictures of my house," Branden said with a nervous laugh. "It's a little creepy."
Said Dana, "It's pretty crazy. Someone definitely put some thought and effort into this. Took him on a nice little vacation."
It was more -- much more -- than that.
Included in the 16-month calendar are no fewer than 46 pictures of the gnome. He is virtually everywhere in the western portion of the country:
• In September, he's seen in a rest area at Washington's Gee Creek, part of the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge.
• In February, he is perched on the edge of the Grand Canyon in Arizona.
• In May, he stands in front of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge.
• In October, it's Old Faithful at Yellowstone National Park, which spans three states -- Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
• Sprinkled throughout are "The Hangover"-esque snaps from Las Vegas -- including an arresting pose between two showgirls.
The Smiths went to Vegas over the summer, but nothing like that.
"A little jealous," Branden said a little sheepishly.
"Yeah," Dana said, "they fed him pancakes and gave him beer. Yeah, girls. What's not to love about all that?"
The gnome is sometimes pictured in the hands of smiling, seemingly random couples. But what if they're not random? What if the culprits actually included a shot of themselves?
"That's an interesting theory," Branden said. "I'm not sure how we prove that."
The only obvious visible clue is part of the thumb holding the gnome in several shots.
After the local ABC affiliate got hold of the story, it went national. As several observers quickly pointed out, the roaming gnome scenario was a subplot in the 2001 French movie "Amélie" and has been around since the 1980s. Believe it or not, there are organizations devoted to kidnapping garden gnomes and photographing them at famous landmarks. The Garden Gnome Liberation Front is the best known. In 2004, Travelocity began a campaign featuring a garden gnome. Today, he is their mascot, and his Twitter feed -- @RoamingGnome -- has nearly 81,000 followers.
The Smiths profess to not know who took their gnome.
"We still are wondering who and why and when and where," Branden said.
Really? Is it possible they cooked up the stunt to get themselves on television or create a slice of social media immortality?
"No," Branden said while shaking his head. "It's out of my realm of cleverness, I would say."
His wife added with a laugh, "I could not have come up with something as clever as this."
They seem genuinely baffled. Most likely, a friend of a friend -- or friends -- orchestrated the elaborate takeaway. There were at least eight states involved, so it's quite possible there were accomplices.
In retrospect, even the Smiths think the whole thing is genius.
"It really is," Branden allowed. "But it still scares me at the same time. I don't know ... that's why he stays inside now."
The gnome -- he doesn't have a name, just "The Gnome" -- sits inside their foyer, looking out a window to the left of the front door.
Branden and Dana spent a day at the Seahawks' facility with an ESPN camera crew, which shot the gnome in various spots: answering phones with the receptionist, getting a broken foot repaired by the equipment manager, at Pete Carroll and Russell Wilson's press podium, and on the indoor practice field. They even got a private tour that cameras weren't allowed to record.
The gnome has become something of a local celebrity and visited both Dana and Branden at their respective workplaces. Their only wish? That they had gotten him earlier and brought him to the Super Bowl in New Jersey.
"Maybe we will go to the Super Bowl in Arizona," Branden said. "Get some pictures."
Dana smiled. "He's seen parts of the world now," she said. "I feel like he'll want more."