The Couple Next Door Page 2

She pulls her husband’s arm. “Marco,” she urges, “we should leave. It’s one o’clock.”

“Oh, don’t go yet,” Cynthia says. “It’s not that late!” She obviously doesn’t want the party to be over. She doesn’t want Marco to leave. She wouldn’t mind at all if Anne left, though, Anne is pretty sure.

“Maybe not for you,” Anne says, and she manages to sound a little stiff, even though she’s drunk, “but I have to be up early to feed the baby.”

“Poor you,” Cynthia says, and for some reason this infuriates Anne. Cynthia has no children, nor has she ever wanted any. She and Graham are childless by choice.

Getting Marco to leave the party is difficult. He seems determined to stay. He’s having too much fun, but Anne is growing anxious.

“Just one more,” Marco says to Cynthia, holding up his glass, avoiding his wife’s eyes.

He is in a strangely boisterous mood tonight—it seems almost forced. Anne wonders why. He’s been quiet lately, at home. Distracted, even moody. But tonight, with Cynthia, he’s the life of the party. For some time now, Anne has sensed that something is wrong, if only he would tell her what it is. He isn’t telling her much of anything these days. He’s shutting her out. Or maybe he’s withdrawing from her because of her depression, her “baby blues.” He’s disappointed in her. Who isn’t? Tonight he clearly prefers the beautiful, bubbly, sparkly Cynthia.

Anne notices the time and loses all patience. “I’m going to go. I was supposed to check on the baby at one.” She looks at Marco. “You stay as late as you like,” she adds, her voice tight. Marco looks sharply at her, his eyes glittering. Suddenly Anne thinks he doesn’t seem that drunk at all, but she feels dizzy. Are they going to argue about this? In front of the neighbors? Really? Anne begins to glance around for her purse, gathers up the baby monitor, realizes then that it’s plugged into the wall, and bends over to unplug it, aware of everyone at the table silently staring at her fat ass. Well, let them. She feels like they’re ganging up on her, seeing her as a spoilsport. Tears start to burn, and she fights them back. She does not want to burst into tears in front of everyone. Cynthia and Graham don’t know about her postpartum depression. They wouldn’t understand. Anne and Marco haven’t told anyone, with the exception of Anne’s mother. Anne has recently confided in her. She knows that her mother won’t tell anyone, not even her father. Anne doesn’t want anyone else to know, and she suspects Marco doesn’t either, although he hasn’t said as much. But pretending all the time is exhausting.

While her back is turned, she hears Marco’s change of heart in the tone of his voice.

“You’re right. It’s late, we should go,” he says. She hears him set his wineglass on the table behind her.

Anne turns around, brushing the hair out of her eyes with the back of her hand. She desperately needs a haircut. She gives a fake smile and says, “Next time it’s our turn to host.” And adds silently, You can come to our house, where our child lives with us, and I hope she cries all night and spoils your evening. I’ll be sure to invite you when she’s teething.

They leave quickly after that. They have no baby gear to gather up, just themselves, Anne’s purse, and the baby monitor, which she shoves into it. Cynthia looks annoyed at their swift departure—Graham is neutral—and they make their way out the impressively heavy front door and down the steps. Anne grabs hold of the elaborately carved handrail to help her keep her balance. It is just a few short paces along the sidewalk until they are at their own front stairs, with a similar handrail and an equally impressive front door. Anne is walking slightly ahead of Marco, not speaking. She may not speak to him for the rest of the night. She marches up the steps and stops dead.

“What?” Marco says, coming up behind her, his voice tense.

Anne is staring. The front door is ajar; it is open about three inches.

“I know I locked it!” Anne says, her voice shrill.

Marco says tersely, “Maybe you forgot. You’ve had a lot to drink.”

But Anne isn’t listening. She’s inside and running up the staircase and down the hall to the baby’s room, with Marco right at her heels.

When she gets to the baby’s room and sees the empty crib, she screams.


Anne feels her scream inside her own head and reverberating off the walls—her scream is everywhere. Then she falls silent and stands in front of the empty crib, rigid, her hand to her mouth. Marco fumbles with the light switch. They both stare at the empty crib where their baby should be. It is impossible that she not be there. There is no way Cora could have gotten out of the crib by herself. She is barely six months old.

“Call the police,” Anne whispers, then throws up, the vomit cascading over her fingers and onto the hardwood floor as she bends over. The baby’s room, painted a soft butter yellow with stencils of baby lambs frolicking on the walls, immediately fills with the smell of bile and panic.

Marco doesn’t move. Anne looks up at him. He is paralyzed, in shock, staring at the empty crib, as if he can’t believe it. Anne sees the fear and guilt in his eyes and starts to wail—a horrible, keening sound, like an animal in pain.

Marco still doesn’t budge. Anne bolts across the hall to their bedroom, grabs the phone off the bedside table, and dials 911, her hands shaking, getting vomit all over the phone. Marco finally snaps out of it. She can hear him walking rapidly around the second floor of the house while she stares across the hall at the empty crib. He checks the bathroom, at the top of the stairs, then passes quickly by her on his way to search the spare bedroom and then the last room down the hall, the one they have turned into an office. But even as he does, Anne wonders in a detached way why he is looking there. It’s as if part of her mind has split off and is thinking logically. It’s not like their baby is mobile on her own. She is not in the bathroom, or the spare bedroom, or the office.

Someone has taken her.

When the emergency operator answers, Anne cries, “Someone has taken our baby!” She is barely able to calm herself enough to answer the operator’s questions.

“I understand, ma’am. Try to stay calm. The police are on their way,” the operator assures her.

Anne hangs up the phone. Her whole body is trembling. She feels like she is going to be sick again. It occurs to her how it will look. They’d left the baby alone in the house. Was that illegal? It must be. How will they explain it?

Marco appears at the bedroom door, pale and sick-looking.

“This is your fault!” Anne screams, wild-eyed, and pushes past him. She rushes into the bathroom at the top of the stairs and throws up again, this time into the pedestal sink, then washes the mess from her shaking hands and rinses her mouth. She catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror. Marco is standing right behind her. Their eyes meet in the mirror.

“I’m sorry,” he whispers. “I’m so sorry. It’s my fault.”

And he is sorry, she can tell. Even so, Anne brings her hand up and smashes at the reflection of his face in the mirror. The mirror shatters, and she breaks down, sobbing. He tries to take her in his arms, but she pushes him away and runs downstairs. Her hand is bleeding, leaving a trail of blood along the banister.

? ? ?

An air of unreality permeates everything that happens next. Anne and Marco’s comfortable home immediately becomes a crime scene.

Anne is sitting on the sofa in the living room. Someone has placed a blanket around her shoulders, but she’s still trembling. She is in shock. Police cars are parked on the street outside the house, their red lights flashing, pulsing through the front window and circling the pale walls. Anne sits immobile on the sofa and stares ahead as if hypnotized by them.

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