Extract: The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena
The Couple Next Door is the exciting debut thriller by Shari Lapena.
Your neighbour told you that she didn’t want your six-month-old daughter at the dinner party. Nothing personal, she just couldn’t stand her crying. Your husband said it would be fine. After all, you only live next door. You’ll have the baby monitor and you’ll take it in turns to go back every half hour.
Your daughter was sleeping when you checked on her last. But now, as you race up the stairs in your deathly quiet house, your worst fears are realized. She’s gone. You’ve never had to call the police before. But now they’re in your home, and who knows what they’ll find there.
The Couple Next Door publishes in July, but we’ve got an extract for you right here! Enjoy…
The Couple Next Door
Anne can feel the acid churning in her stomach and creeping up her throat; her head is swimming. She’s had too much to drink. Cynthia has been recklessly topping her up all night. Anne had meant to keep herself to a limit, but she’d let things slide – she didn’t know how else she was supposed to get through the evening. Now she has no idea how much wine
she’s drunk over the course of the interminable dinner party. She’ll have to pump and dump her breast milk in the morning.
Anne wilts in the heat of the summer’s night and watches her hostess with narrowed eyes. Cynthia is flirting openly with Anne’s husband, Marco. Why does she put up with it? Why does Cynthia’s husband, Graham, allow it? Anne is angry but powerless; she doesn’t know how to put a stop to it without looking pathetic and ridiculous. They are all a little tanked. So she ignores it, quietly seething, and drinks more chilled wine. Anne hasn’t been brought up to create a scene, isn’t one to draw attention to herself.
Cynthia, on the other hand.
All three of them – Anne, Marco, and Cynthia’s mild-mannered husband, Graham – are watching her, as if fascinated. Marco in particular can’t seem to take his eyes off her. Cynthia leans in a little too close to Marco as she bends over and fills his glass, her clingy top cut so low that Marco’s practically rubbing his nose in her cleavage.
Anne reminds herself that Cynthia flirts with everyone. Cynthia has such outrageous good looks that she can’t seem to help herself.
But the longer Anne watches, the more she wonders if there could actually be something going on between Marco and Cynthia. Anne has never had such suspicions before. Perhaps the alcohol is making her paranoid.
No, she decides – they wouldn’t be carrying on like this if they had anything to hide. Cynthia is flirting more than Marco is; he is the flattered recipient of her attentions. Marco is almost too good looking himself – with his tousled dark hair, hazel eyes, and sensual mouth, he’s a handsome devil. They make a striking couple, Cynthia and Marco. Anne tells herself to stop it. Tells herself that of course Marco is faithful to her. She knows he is completely committed to his family. She and the baby are everything to him. He will stand by her, no matter what – she takes another gulp of wine – no matter how bad things get.
But watching Cynthia drape over her husband, Anne is becoming more and more anxious and upset. She is still more than twenty pounds overweight from her pregnancy, six months after having the baby. She thought she’d be back to her pre-pregnancy figure by now, but apparently it takes at least a year. She must stop looking at the tabloids in the grocery store checkout and comparing herself to all those celebrity moms with their personal trainers who look terrific after a couple of months.
But even at her best, Anne could never compete with the likes of Cynthia, her taller, shapelier, neighbour – with her long legs, nipped-in waist, and big breasts, her porcelain skin and tumbling jet-black hair. And Cynthia always dressed to kill, in high heels and sexy clothes – even for a dinner party at home with one other couple.
Anne can’t focus on the conversation around her. She tunes it out and stares at the carved marble fireplace, exactly like the one in her own living-dining room, on the other side of the common wall Anne and Marco share with Cynthia and Graham; they live in attached brick row houses, typical of upstate New York, solidly built in the late nineteenth century. All the houses in the row are similar – Italianate, restored, expensive – except that Anne and Marco’s house is at the end of the row, and each one reflects slight differences in decoration; each one as an individual masterpiece.
Anne reaches clumsily for her cell phone on the dining table and checks the time. It is almost one o’clock in the morning. She’d checked on the baby at midnight. Marco had gone to check on her at twelve thirty. Then he’d gone out for a cigarette on the back patio with Cynthia, while she and Graham sat rather awkwardly at the littered dining table, making stilted conversation. She should have gone out to the back yard with them; there might have been a breeze. But she hadn’t, because Graham didn’t like to be around cigarette smoke, and it would have been rude, or at least awkward, to leave Graham there all alone at his own dinner party, so for reasons of propriety, she had stayed. Graham, a WASP like herself, is impeccably polite. Why he had married a tart like Cynthia is a mystery. Cynthia and Marco had come back in from the patio a few minutes ago, and Anne wants to leave, even if everyone else is still having fun.
Anne glances at the baby monitor sitting at the end of the table, its small red light glowing like the tip of a cigarette. Suddenly she has doubts, feels the wrongness of it all. Who goes to a dinner party next door and leaves their baby alone in the house? What kind of mother does such a thing? She feels the familiar agony set in – she is not a good mother.
So what if the sitter cancelled? They should have brought Cora with them, and her portable playpen to put her down in. But Cynthia had said no children. It was to be an adult evening, for Graham’s birthday. Which is another reason Anne has come to dislike Cynthia, who was once a good friend – Cynthia is not baby-friendly. What kind of person says a six-month-old baby isn’t welcome at a dinner party? How had Anne ever let Marco persuade her that it was okay? It was irresponsible. She wonders what the other mothers in her mom’s group would think, if she ever told them. We left our six-month-old baby home alone, and went to a party next door. She imagines all their jaws dropping in shock, the uncomfortable silence. But she will never tell them. She’d be shunned.
She and Marco had argued about it, before the party. When the sitter called and cancelled, Anne had offered to stay home with the baby – she hadn’t wanted to go to the party anyway. But Marco was having none of it.
‘You can’t just stay home,’ he insisted, when they argued about it in the kitchen.
‘I’m fine to stay home,’ she said, her voice lowered. She didn’t want Cynthia next door to hear them arguing about going to her party.
‘It will be good for you to get out,’ Marco countered, lowering his own voice. And then he’d added, ‘You know what the doctor said.’
All night long, she’s been trying to decide whether that last comment was mean-spirited, or self-interested, or whether he was simply trying to help. Finally, she had given in. Marco persuaded her that with the monitor on next door, they could hear the baby any time she stirred or woke. They would check on her every half hour. Nothing bad could happen.
It is one o’clock. Should she go check on the baby now, or just try to get Marco to leave? She wants to go home to bed. She wants this night to end.
She pulls her husband’s arm. ‘Marco,’ she urges, ‘we should go. 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 is 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 getting 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 looks at 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 look that drunk at all, but she feels dizzy. Are they going to argue about this? In front of the neighbours? Really? Anne begins to look around for her purse, gathers up the baby monitor, realizes then that it is 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 are ganging up on her, seeing her as a spoilsport. She feels tears start to burn and fights them back. She does not want to burst into tears in front of everyone. Cynthia and Graham don’t know about her post-partum 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 mother. 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, and it makes her feel like a fraud.
While her back is turned, she hears Marco’s change of heart.
‘You’re right. It’s late, we should go,’ he says. She hears him set his wine glass down on the table behind her with a clunk.
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. The two of them say their goodbyes – Cynthia looks annoyed at their swift departure, Graham is neutral – and make their way out the impressive front door and down the steps. Anne grabs hold of the elaborately carved hand rail to help her keep her balance. It is just a few short steps along the sidewalk until they are at their own front steps, with a similar hand rail 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, his voice tight, ‘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, Marco right behind her.
When she gets to the baby’s room and sees the empty crib, she screams.