Also by Shari Lapena

THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR

A STRANGER IN THE HOUSE

Shari Lapena

TRANSWORLD PUBLISHERS

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www.penguin.co.uk

Transworld is part of the Penguin Random House group of companies whose addresses can be found at global.penguinrandomhouse.com

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First published in Great Britain in 2017 by Bantam Press

an imprint of Transworld Publishers

Copyright © 1742145 Ontario Limited 2017

Cover photography by Arcangel and Getty Images
Cover design by Richard Ogle/TW

Shari Lapena has asserted her right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.

This book is a work of fiction and, except in the case of historical fact, any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Every effort has been made to obtain the necessary permissions with reference to copyright material, both illustrative and quoted. We apologize for any omissions in this respect and will be pleased to make the appropriate acknowledgements in any future edition.

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

Version 1.0 Epub ISBN 9781473541559

ISBN 9780593077405(hb)
9780593077412 (tpb)

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To Manuel, Christopher and Julia, always

Prologue

SHE DOESN’T BELONG here.

She bolts out the back door of the abandoned restaurant, stumbling in the dark – most of the lights are burned out, or broken – her breath coming in loud rasps. She runs like a panicked animal to where she parked the car, hardly aware of what she’s doing. Somehow she gets the car door open. She buckles up without thinking, wheels the car around in a screeching two-point turn, and peels out of the parking lot, swerving recklessly onto the road without even slowing down. Something in the strip mall across the street catches her eye – but she has no time to register what she sees, because she’s already at an intersection. She runs the red light, picking up speed. She can’t think.

Another crossroads – she guns through it. She’s driving way over the speed limit, but she doesn’t care. She has to get away.

Another intersection, another red light. Cars are already crossing the other way. She doesn’t stop. She bursts through it, weaving around a car in her path, leaving chaos in her wake. She hears the shriek of brakes and violent honking behind her. She’s dangerously close to losing control of the car. And then she does – she has one moment of clarity, of disbelief, as she frantically pumps the brakes and the skidding car leaps the kerb and plunges headfirst into a utility pole.

Chapter One

ON THIS HOT August night, Tom Krupp parks his car – a leased Lexus – in the driveway of his handsome two-storey home. The house, complete with a two-car garage, is set behind a generous lawn and framed with beautiful old trees. To the right of the driveway, a flagstone path crosses in front of the porch, with steps leading up to a solid wooden door in the middle of the house. To the right of the front door is a large picture window the width of the living room.

The house sits on a gently curving street that ends in a cul-de-sac. The surrounding houses are all equally attractive and well maintained, and relatively similar. People who live here are successful and settled; everyone’s a little bit smug.

This quiet, prosperous suburb in upstate New York, populated with mostly professional couples and their families, seems oblivious to the problems of the small city that surrounds it, oblivious to the problems of the larger world, as if the American dream has continued to live on here, smooth and unruffled.

But the untroubled setting does not match Tom’s current state of mind. He cuts the lights and the engine and sits uneasily for a moment in the dark, despising himself.

Then, with a start, he notices that his wife’s car is not in its usual place in the driveway. He automatically checks his watch: 9:20. He wonders if he’s forgotten something. Was she going out? He can’t remember her mentioning anything, but he’s been so busy lately. Maybe she just went out to run an errand and will be back any minute. She’s left the lights on; they give the house a welcoming glow.

He gets out of the car into the summer night – it smells of freshly mown grass – swallowing his disappointment. He wanted, rather fervently, to see his wife. He stands for a moment, his hand on the roof of the car, and looks across the street. Then he grabs his briefcase and suit jacket from the passenger seat and tiredly closes the car door. He walks along the path, up the front steps, and opens the door. Something is wrong. He holds his breath.

Tom stands completely still in the doorway, his hand resting on the knob. At first he doesn’t know what’s bothering him. Then he realizes what it is. The door isn’t locked. That in itself isn’t unusual – most nights he comes home and opens the door and walks right in, because most nights Karen’s home, waiting for him. But she’s gone out with her car and forgotten to lock the door. That’s very odd for his wife, who’s a stickler about locking the doors. He slowly lets out his breath. Maybe she was in a rush and forgot.

His eyes quickly take in the living room, a serene rectangle of pale gray and white. It’s perfectly quiet; there’s obviously no one home. She left the lights on, so she can’t have gone out for long. Maybe she went to get some milk. There will probably be a note for him. He tosses his keys onto the small table by the front door and heads straight for the kitchen at the back of the house. He’s starving. He wonders if she’s already eaten or whether she’s been waiting for him.

It’s obvious that she’s been preparing their supper. A salad is almost finished; she has stopped slicing mid-tomato. He looks at the wooden cutting board, at the tomato and the sharp knife lying beside it. There’s pasta on the granite counter, ready to be cooked, a large pot of water on the stainless steel gas stove. The stove is off and the water in the pot is cold; he dips a finger in to check. He scans the refrigerator door for a note – there’s nothing written on the whiteboard for him. He frowns. He pulls his cell phone out of his pants pocket and checks to see if there’s any message from her that he might have missed. Nothing. Now he’s mildly annoyed. She might have told him.

Tom opens the door to the refrigerator and stands there for a minute, staring sightlessly at its contents, then grabs an imported beer and decides to start the pasta. He’s sure she’ll be home any minute. He looks around curiously to see what they might have run out of. They have milk, bread, pasta sauce, wine, Parmesan cheese. He checks the bathroom – there’s plenty of toilet paper. He can’t think of anything else that might be urgent. While he waits for the water to come to a boil, he calls her cell, but she doesn’t pick up.

Fifteen minutes later, the pasta is ready, but there is no sign of his wife. Tom leaves the pasta in the strainer in the sink, turns off the burner under the pot of tomato sauce, and wanders restlessly into the living room, his hunger forgotten. He looks out the large picture window across the lawn to the street beyond. Where the hell is she? He’s starting to get anxious now. He calls her cell again and hears a faint vibration coming from behind him. He whips his head toward the sound and sees her cell phone, vibrating against the back of the sofa. Shit. She forgot her phone. How can he reach her now?

He starts looking around the house for clues as to where she might have gone. Upstairs, in their bedroom, he’s surprised to find her bag sitting on her bedside table. He opens it with clumsy fingers, faintly guilty about going through his wife’s purse. It feels private. But this is an emergency. He dumps the contents onto the middle of their neatly made bed. Her wallet is there, her change purse, lipstick, pen, a tissue packet – it’s all there. Not an errand then. Maybe she stepped out to help a friend? An emergency of some kind? Still, she would have taken her purse with her if she was driving the car. And wouldn’t she have called him by now if she could? She could borrow someone else’s phone. It’s not like her to be thoughtless.

Tom sits on the edge of the bed, quietly unravelling. His heart is beating too fast. Something is wrong. He thinks that maybe he should call the police. He considers how that might go. My wife went out and I don’t know where she is. She left without her phone and her purse. She forgot to lock the door. It’s completely unlike her. They probably won’t take him seriously if she’s been gone such a short time. He hasn’t seen any sign of a struggle. Nothing is out of place.

Suddenly he gets up off the bed and rapidly searches the entire house. But he finds nothing alarming – no phone knocked off the hook, no broken window, no smear of blood on the floor. Even so, he’s breathing as anxiously as if he had.

He hesitates. Perhaps the police will think they’ve had an argument. It won’t matter if he tells them there was no argument, if he tells them they almost never argue. That theirs is an almost perfect marriage.

Instead of calling the police, he runs back into the kitchen, where Karen keeps a list of phone numbers, and starts calling her friends.

Looking at the wreckage in front of him, Officer Kirton shakes his head in resignation. People and cars. He’s seen things to make his stomach empty itself on the spot. It wasn’t that bad this time.

There’d been no identification on the crash victim, a woman, probably early thirties. No purse, no wallet. But the vehicle registration and insurance had been in the glove compartment. The car is registered to a Karen Krupp, at 24 Dogwood Drive. She’ll have some explaining to do. And some charges to face. For now, she’s been taken by ambulance to the nearest hospital.

As far as he can figure, and according to witnesses, she was travelling like a bat out of hell. She ran a red light and smashed the red Honda Civic right into a pole. It’s a miracle no one else was hurt.

She was probably high, Kirton thinks. They would get a tox screen on her.

He wonders if the car was stolen. Easy enough to find out.

Thing was, she didn’t look like a car thief or a druggie. She looked like a housewife. As far as he could tell through all that blood.

Tom Krupp has called the people he knows Karen sees most often. If they don’t know where she might be, then he isn’t waiting any longer. He’s calling the police.

His hand trembles as he picks up the phone again. He feels sick with fear.

A voice comes on the line, ‘911. Where’s your emergency?’

As soon as he opens the door and sees the cop on his doorstep, his face serious, Tom knows something very bad has happened. He is filled with a nauseating dread.

‘I’m Officer Fleming,’ the cop says, showing his badge. ‘May I come in?’ he asks respectfully, in a low voice.

‘You got here fast,’ Tom says. ‘I just called 911 a few minutes ago.’ He feels as if he might be going into shock.

‘I’m not here because of a 911 call,’ the officer says.

Tom leads him into the living room and collapses onto the large white sofa as if his legs have given out, not looking at the officer’s face. He wants to delay the moment of truth for as long as possible.

But that moment has come. He finds that he can hardly breathe.

‘Put your head down,’ Officer Fleming says, and places his hand gently on Tom’s shoulder.

Tom leans his head toward his lap, feeling like he’s going to pass out. He fears that his world is coming to an end. After a moment he looks up. He has no idea what’s coming next, but he knows it can’t be good.

Chapter Two

THE THREE BOYS – two thirteen-year-olds, and one fourteen, just beginning to sprout hair on his upper lip – are accustomed to running wild. Kids grow up fast in this part of town. They’re not home late at night, hovered over computer screens doing homework or tucked in their beds. They’re out looking for trouble. And it looks like they’ve found it.

‘Yo,’ says one, stopping suddenly inside the door of the abandoned restaurant where they sometimes go to smoke a joint, if they have one. The other two spill around him, then stop, peering into the dark.

‘What’s that?’

‘I think it’s a dead guy.’

‘No shit, Sherlock.’

Senses suddenly on alert, each of the boys freezes, afraid that someone else might be there. But they realize they’re alone.

One of the younger boys laughs nervously in relief.

They move forward curiously, looking at the body on the floor. It’s a man, sprawled on his back, with obvious gunshots to his face and chest. There’s a lot of blood soaking the man’s light-coloured shirt. None of them is the least bit squeamish.

‘I wonder if he’s got anything on him,’ says the oldest boy.

‘I doubt it,’ one of the others answers.

But the fourteen-year-old slips his hand expertly into a pocket of the dead man’s pants, pulling out a wallet. He rifles through it. ‘Looks like we got lucky,’ he says with a grin, holding the open wallet up for them to see. It’s full of bills, but in the dark it’s too hard to tell how much is there. He pulls a cell phone from the dead man’s other pocket.

‘Get his watch and stuff,’ he tells the others, as he scans the floor hopefully, looking for a gun. It would be great to find a weapon, but he doesn’t see one.

One boy removes the watch. The other struggles a bit with a heavy gold ring but eventually tugs it from the corpse’s finger and slips it into the pocket of his jeans. Then he feels around the man’s neck to see if there’s a necklace. There isn’t.

‘Take his belt,’ the older boy, obviously the leader, orders. ‘And his shoes, too.’

They’ve stolen things before, although never from a dead body. They’re caught up in the thrill of it, breathing rapidly. They’ve crossed some kind of line.

Then the older boy says, ‘We’ve got to get out of here. And you can’t tell anybody.’

The other two look up at the taller boy and nod silently.

‘No bragging to anybody about what we did. You got that?’ the bigger one says.

They nod again firmly.

‘If anybody asks, we were never here. Let’s go.’

The three boys slip out of the abandoned restaurant quickly, taking the dead man’s things with them.

Tom can tell by the cop’s voice, by his facial expression, that the news is very bad. The police must break tragic news to people every day. Now it’s his turn. But Tom doesn’t want to know. He wants to start this whole evening over again – get out of his car, walk in the front door, and find Karen in the kitchen preparing supper. He wants to put his arms around her and breathe her in and hold her tight. He wants everything to be the way it used to be. If he hadn’t gotten home so late, maybe it would be. Maybe this is his fault.

‘I’m afraid there’s been an accident,’ Officer Fleming says, his voice grave, his eyes filled with sympathy.

He knew it. Tom feels numb.

‘Your wife drives a red Honda Civic?’ the officer asks.

Tom doesn’t respond. This can’t be happening.

The officer reads off a licence plate number.

‘Yes,’ Tom says. ‘That’s her car.’ His voice sounds strange, like it’s coming from somewhere else. He looks at the police officer. Time seems to have slowed down. He’s going to tell him now. He’s going to tell him that Karen is dead.

Officer Fleming says gently, ‘The driver is hurt. I don’t know how badly. She’s in the hospital.’

Tom covers his face with his hands. She’s not dead! She’s hurt, but he feels a surge of desperate hope that maybe it’s not that bad. Maybe it’s going to be okay. He removes his hands from his face, takes a deep, shaky breath, and asks, ‘What the hell happened?’

‘It was a single-vehicle accident,’ Officer Fleming says quietly. ‘The car went into a utility pole, head-on.’

‘What?’ Tom asks. ‘How can a car go into a pole for no reason? Karen’s an excellent driver. She’s never had an accident. Someone else must have caused it.’ Tom notices the guarded expression on the officer’s face. What is he not telling him?

‘There was no identification on the driver,’ Fleming says.

‘She left her purse here. And her phone.’ Tom rubs his hands over his face, trying to hold himself together.

Fleming tilts his head to the side. ‘Is everything okay between you and your wife, Mr Krupp?’

Tom looks at him in dismay. ‘Yes, of course.’

‘You haven’t had a fight, things got a bit out of hand?’

‘No! I wasn’t even home.’

Officer Fleming sits down in the armchair across from Tom, leans forward. ‘The circumstances – well, there’s a slight possibility that the woman driving the car, the one who had the accident, may not be your wife.’

‘What?’ Tom says, startled. ‘Why? What do you mean?’

‘Since there was no identification on her, we don’t actually know for sure at this point that it was your wife driving the car, just that it’s her car.’

Tom stares back at him, speechless.

‘The accident happened in the south end of the city, at Prospect and Davis Drive,’ Officer Fleming says, looking at him meaningfully.

‘No way,’ Tom says. That was one of the worst parts of the city. Karen wouldn’t be caught there in broad daylight, much less be there by herself after dark.

‘Do you know of any reason why your wife, Karen, would be driving recklessly – speeding and running red lights – in that part of town?’

‘What? What are you saying?’ Tom looks at the police officer in disbelief. ‘Karen wouldn’t be in that part of town. And she never goes above the speed limit – she would never run a red light.’ He slumps back against the sofa. He feels relief flood through him. ‘It’s not my wife,’ he says with certainty. He knows his wife, and she would never do something like that. He almost smiles. ‘That’s someone else. Someone must have stolen her car. Thank God!’

He looks back at the police officer, who continues to observe him with deep concern. And then he realizes, the panic instantly returning. ‘So where’s my wife?’

Chapter Three

I NEED YOU to come with me to the hospital,’ Officer Fleming says.

Tom can’t quite follow what’s happening. He looks up at the officer. ‘I’m sorry, what did you say?’

‘I need you to come to the hospital with me now. We need to get an identification, one way or another. We need to know if the woman at the hospital is your wife. And if it isn’t, we need to find her.’ He adds, ‘You told me you made a 911 call. She’s not home and her car has been in an accident.’

Tom nods rapidly, understanding now. ‘Yes.’

He quickly gathers his wallet and keys – his hands are trembling – and follows the officer out of the house, where he gets into the backseat of the black-and-white cruiser parked on the street. Tom wonders if any of his neighbours are watching. He thinks fleetingly of how it must look, him in the backseat of a police car.

When they arrive at Mercy Hospital, Tom and Officer Fleming enter through Emergency into the noisy, crowded waiting area. Tom paces nervously back and forth across the smooth, polished floor while Officer Fleming tries to find someone who can tell them where the accident victim is. As he waits, Tom’s anxiety climbs. Almost every seat is full, and there are patients on gurneys lining the hall. Police officers and ambulance attendants come and go. Hospital staff work steadily behind Plexiglas. Large TV screens hang from the ceiling playing a series of mind-numbing videos about public health.

Tom doesn’t know what to hope for. He doesn’t want the injured woman to be Karen. She may be very badly hurt. He can’t bear to think about it. On the other hand, to not know where she is, to fear the worst … What the hell happened tonight? Where is she?

Finally Fleming beckons to him across the crowded waiting room. Tom hurries over. There’s a harried-looking nurse by Fleming’s side. She says gently, looking at Tom, and then back at the officer, ‘I’m sorry. They’re doing an MRI on her now. You’ll have to wait. It shouldn’t be too long.’

‘We need to make an ID on this woman,’ Fleming presses.

‘I’m not going to interrupt an MRI,’ the nurse says firmly. She glances sympathetically in Tom’s direction. ‘I tell you what,’ she says, ‘I have the clothing and personal effects she was wearing when she came in. I can show them to you if you like.’

‘That would be helpful,’ Fleming says, looking at Tom. Tom nods.

‘Come with me.’ She leads them down a long corridor to a locked room, which she opens with a key. She then rummages through several overstuffed cupboards until she pulls out a clear plastic bag with a tag on it and rests it on a steel table. Tom’s eyes are immediately glued to the contents of the bag. Inside, there’s a patterned blouse that he instantly recognizes. A wave of nausea overwhelms him. Karen had been wearing it that morning when he left for work.

‘I need to sit down,’ Tom says, and swallows.

Officer Fleming pulls out a chair and Tom sits down heavily, staring at the transparent bag containing his wife’s effects. The nurse, now wearing latex gloves, gently pulls the items out onto the table – the patterned blouse, jeans, running shoes. There is blood splattered all over the blouse and jeans. Tom throws up a bit into his mouth, swallows it back down. His wife’s bra and panties, similarly bloodstained. A separate ziplock baggie holds her wedding band and engagement ring, and a gold necklace with a single diamond that he’d bought her for their first wedding anniversary.

He looks up in disbelief at the police officer by his side, and says, his voice breaking, ‘Those are hers.’

Officer Fleming returns to the police station and meets up with Officer Kirton in the lunchroom a short time later. They grab coffees and find a place to sit.

Kirton says, ‘So the car wasn’t stolen. That woman was driving her own car like that. What the hell?’

‘It doesn’t make a lot of sense.’

‘She must have been high as a kite.’

Fleming sips his coffee. ‘The husband’s in shock. As soon as he heard where the accident occurred and how it happened, he didn’t believe it was his wife. He almost had me convinced it had to be someone else.’ Fleming shakes his head. ‘He looked stunned when he recognized her clothes.’

‘Yeah, well, lots of housewives have a secret drug habit that hubby knows nothing about,’ Kirton says. ‘Maybe that’s why she was in that part of town – then she got high and freaked out in the car.’

‘Maybe.’ Fleming pauses and takes another sip of his coffee. ‘You never know with people.’ He feels bad for the husband, who looked like he’d taken a punch to the stomach. Fleming’s seen a lot in his years on the force, and he knows that some of the people you’d least expect are hiding serious drug problems. And hiding seriously sketchy behaviour to support their habits. Lots of people have ugly secrets. Fleming shrugs. ‘When we can see her, maybe she’ll tell us what the hell she was up to.’ He takes a last gulp and finishes his coffee. ‘I’m sure her husband would like to know, too.’

Still in the Emergency waiting area, Tom paces fretfully and waits. He tries to remember if there was anything different, anything unusual, about his wife in the last few days. He can’t think of anything, but he’s been so busy at work. Had he missed something?

What the hell was she doing in that part of town? And speeding? What the cop had told him about what she did tonight is so out of character that he can’t bring himself to believe it. And yet … that’s her in there with the doctors. As soon as he can talk to her, he will ask her. Right after he tells her how much he loves her.

He can’t help thinking that if he’d been home earlier, like he should have been, instead of—

‘Tom!’

Hearing his name, Tom turns around. He’d called his brother, Dan, when he got to the hospital, and now Dan is walking toward him, his boyish face etched with concern. Tom has never been so grateful to see anybody in his entire life. ‘Dan,’ Tom says with relief.

The brothers hug briefly and then sit on the hard plastic seats across from one another, away from the crowd. Tom fills him in. It feels odd to Tom to be leaning on his younger brother for support; usually it’s the other way around.

‘Tom Krupp,’ a voice calls out loudly across the bedlam of the waiting area.

He stands up immediately and hurries over to the man in the white coat, Dan right behind him.

‘I’m Tom Krupp,’ Tom says anxiously.

‘I’m Dr Fulton. I’ve been treating your wife,’ the doctor says, sounding more matter of fact than friendly. ‘She suffered trauma to her head in the accident. We did an MRI. She has a serious concussion, but fortunately, there’s no bleeding in the brain. She’s very lucky. Her other injuries are relatively minor. A broken nose. Bruising and lacerations. But she’ll recover.’

‘Thank God,’ Tom says, and sags with relief. His eyes well up with tears as he looks at his brother. He only now realizes how tightly he’s been holding himself.

The doctor nods. ‘The seat belt and the air bag saved her life. She’s going to be sore for a while, and she’ll have a hell of a headache, but she should be fine, in time. She’ll have to take it easy. The nurse will go over with you how to manage the concussion.’

Tom nods. ‘When can I see her?’

‘You can see her now,’ the doctor says, ‘just you, for now, but not for too long. We’ve moved her to the fourth floor.’

‘I’ll wait here,’ Dan says.

At the thought of seeing Karen, Tom feels a new prickle of anxiety.

Chapter Four

KAREN CAN’T MOVE. She’s been drifting in and out of consciousness. With her increasing awareness of the pain, she moans.

She tries hard – it seems to take a tremendous effort – and forces her eyes to flutter open. There are tubes going into her arm. She is propped up slightly, and the bed has metal rails on the sides. The sheets are institutional, white. She knows immediately that she’s in a hospital bed and is filled with alarm. She turns her head ever so slightly and feels a painful thudding. She winces and the room begins to spin. A woman who is obviously a nurse enters her blurry field of vision and hovers there, indistinct.

Karen tries to focus, but finds she can’t. She tries to speak, but she can’t seem to move her lips. Everything feels leaden, like there’s something heavy weighing her down. She blinks. Now there are two nurses. No, it’s just one; she’s seeing double.

‘You’ve been in a car accident,’ the nurse says quietly. ‘Your husband’s outside. I’ll get him. He’s going to be so happy to see you.’ The nurse leaves the room.

Tom, she thinks gratefully. She runs her tongue clumsily around the inside of her mouth. She’s so thirsty. She needs water. Her tongue feels swollen. She wonders how long she’s been here, and how long she will be here, immobilized like this. Her entire body hurts, but her head is the worst.

The nurse comes back into the room, delivering her husband to her as if she’s brought her a present. Her vision is growing less blurry now. She can see that Tom looks anxious and exhausted, unshaven, like he’s been up all night. But his eyes make her feel safe. She wants to smile at him, but she can’t quite manage it.

He leans over her, gazing at her with love. ‘Karen!’ he whispers, and takes her hand. ‘Thank God you’re okay.’

She tries to speak, but nothing comes out, only a kind of hoarse whimper. The nurse promptly holds a plastic glass of water with a bent surgical straw to her mouth so that she can drink. She sips greedily. When she’s done, the nurse takes the glass away.

Karen tries once more to speak. It takes far too much effort, and she gives up.

‘It’s okay,’ her husband says. He lifts his hand as if to brush the hair away from her forehead, a familiar gesture, but he drops his hand awkwardly. ‘You were in a car accident. But you’re going to be okay. I’m here.’ He looks deeply into her eyes. ‘I love you, Karen.’

She tries to lift her head, just a little, but is rewarded with a sharp, searing pain, dizziness, and a wave of nausea. Then she hears someone else entering the doorway of the small room. Another man, taller and leaner than her husband, almost cadaverous, and wearing a white coat and a stethoscope around his neck, approaches her bed and looks down at her as if from a great height. Her husband lets go of her hand and steps aside to give him room.

The doctor bends over her and shines a small light in her eyes, one after the other. He seems satisfied, and puts the light away in a pocket. ‘You’ve sustained a severe concussion,’ he says. ‘But you’re going to be all right.’

Karen finally finds her voice. She looks at the dishevelled, careworn man standing beside the doctor in his white coat and whispers, ‘Tom.’

Tom’s heart is full, looking at his wife. They’ve been married just under two years. Those are the lips he kisses every morning and every night. Her hands are as familiar to him as his own. Right now, her lovely blue eyes, surrounded by all the bruising, look full of pain.

‘Karen,’ he whispers. He leans closer to her and says, ‘What happened tonight?’

She looks at him blankly.

He presses her; he must know. His voice takes on a note of urgency. ‘Why did you leave the house so quickly? Where were you going?’

She starts to shake her head, but stops and closes her eyes for a moment. She opens them again and manages to whisper, ‘I don’t know.’

Tom looks back at her in dismay. ‘You must know. You had a car accident. You were speeding and hit a pole.’

‘I don’t remember,’ she says slowly, as if it takes every bit of her remaining energy to say it. Her eyes, looking into his, seem alarmed.

‘This is important,’ Tom says almost desperately, leaning closer. She pulls back, deeper into her pillows.

The doctor intervenes. ‘We’re going to let you rest now,’ he says. He speaks in a low voice to the nurse, and then gestures for Tom to come with him.

Tom follows the doctor out of the room, casting one last glance back at his wife in the hospital bed. It must be the head injury, he thinks, concerned. Maybe it’s worse than they thought.

His mind racing, Tom follows Dr Fulton down the hall. It’s eerily quiet – Tom remembers it’s the middle of the night. The doctor locates an unused room for them behind the nurses’ station.

‘Have a seat,’ the doctor says, and sits down in an empty chair.

‘Why can’t she remember what happened?’ Tom asks, frantic.

‘Sit,’ Dr Fulton says firmly. ‘Try to calm down.’

‘Sure,’ Tom says, taking the only other chair in the cramped space. But he’s finding it difficult to be calm.

The doctor says, ‘It’s not unheard of for patients with head trauma to suffer from retrograde amnesia, for a short period.’

‘What does that mean?’

‘After physical trauma to the head, or even emotional trauma, a patient can temporarily lose memories of what happened right before the trauma occurred. The memory loss can be mild, or more catastrophic. Generally, with a blow to the head, we also see another kind of amnesia – problems with short-term memory after the accident. You’ll probably see that for a while, too. But sometimes it can be retrograde as well, and more extensive. I think that’s what we’re seeing here.’

The doctor doesn’t seem too concerned. Tom tries to tell himself that this should be reassuring. ‘Is she going to get her memory back?’

‘Oh, I certainly think so,’ the doctor says. ‘Just be patient.’

‘Is there anything we can do to help her get it back more quickly?’ He’s desperate to know what happened to Karen.

‘Not really. Rest is what she needs. The brain has to heal. These things happen in their own time.’

The doctor’s pager buzzes and he looks at it, excuses himself, and leaves Tom alone with all of his unknowns.

Chapter Five

THE NEXT MORNING, Brigid Cruikshank, a close friend of Karen’s from across the street, sits in the lounge on the fourth floor of Mercy Hospital with her knitting on her lap, unspooling the soft yellow yarn from a cloth bag at her feet. The lounge, brightened by large windows that look out over the teeming parking lot, is not far from the bank of elevators. She’s working on a baby sweater, but she finds herself dropping stitches and getting angry at the sweater, when really, she knows, it’s not the sweater she’s angry at.

She spots Tom – in jeans and a plain T-shirt, tall and angular, his hair wild – walking toward the elevators. When he sees her, he seems caught off guard. Perhaps he isn’t that happy to see her here. She’s not entirely surprised. Maybe he and Karen want their privacy. Some people are like that.

But she needs to know what’s going on, so she catches his eye and holds it, and he makes his way slowly over to where she’s sitting.

She regards him with concern. ‘Tom. I’m so glad to see you. I’ve been trying to call you. I’m so sorry about—’

‘Yeah,’ he cuts her off abruptly. He sits down beside her, leans forward, and puts his elbows on his knees. He looks like hell, as if he hasn’t slept for the last twenty-four hours. He probably hasn’t.

‘I’ve been so worried,’ she says. Tom had called her twice the night before – the first time to see if she had any idea where Karen was, and the second time, later, from the hospital to tell her that Karen had been in a car accident. But that call had been brief, and he’d cut it short without giving her any details. Now she’s desperate to know. She wants to hear everything. ‘Tell me what happened.’

He faces straight ahead, not looking at her. ‘She drove her car into a utility pole.’

‘What?’

He nods slowly, as if he’s unbearably tired. ‘The police say she was speeding, that she ran a red light. Somehow she went into a pole.’

Brigid stares at him for a minute. ‘What did she say happened?’ Brigid asks.

He looks at her now, and she sees a kind of helplessness in his eyes. ‘She says she doesn’t remember. Not the accident, or anything leading up to it,’ Tom says. ‘She doesn’t remember last night at all.’

‘Really?’

‘Yes, really,’ Tom says. ‘The doctor told me it’s normal after an injury like hers.’

Brigid shifts her eyes away from his and back down to her knitting. ‘So – will she get her memory back?’ Brigid asks.

‘They think so. I hope so. Because I’d sure as hell like to know what she was doing.’ He hesitates, as if he’s not sure he wants to tell her something more. Then he says, ‘She left without her purse, and forgot to lock the door. Like she was in a hurry.’

‘That’s odd,’ Brigid says. She’s silent for a moment. Finally she adds, ‘I’m sure she’ll be fine.’ It sounds so inadequate. He doesn’t seem to notice.

He sighs heavily and says, ‘And I have to deal with the police.’

‘The police?’ Brigid asks quickly, looking up at him again. She notices lines in his face now that she hadn’t noticed before.

‘They’re investigating the accident,’ Tom tells her. ‘They’re probably going to charge her with something.’

‘Oh!’ Brigid says and puts her knitting aside. ‘I’m so sorry, Tom. It’s not what you need right now, is it?’

‘No.’

Her voice softens. ‘If you need a shoulder, you know I’m here for you, right? For both of you.’

‘Sure,’ he says. ‘Thanks.’ He stands up. ‘I’m going to go get a coffee. Want one?’

She shakes her head. ‘No, thanks, I’m good. But can you let Karen know I’m here?’

‘Sure. But you might be wasting your time. I don’t think she’s up to seeing anybody today. She’s in a lot of pain so they’re giving her heavy-duty pain meds. She’s pretty groggy and disoriented. Maybe you should just go home.’

‘I’ll wait a bit longer. In case she feels up to it,’ Brigid says and picks up her knitting again. Once Tom has turned his back to her and is headed toward the elevators, she looks up from her knitting and watches him. She can’t believe Karen wouldn’t want to see her, just for a minute. She won’t stay long. When Tom disappears inside the elevator and she hears the doors slide closed, she gathers up her things and heads for room 421.

Karen shifts her legs restlessly in the white sheets. She’s propped up against the pillows. This morning, she already feels somewhat better and is thinking and speaking more clearly. She wonders how long she’ll be here.

There’s a light tap on her partially open door and she smiles weakly. ‘Brigid,’ she says. ‘Come in.’

‘Is it okay?’ Brigid says quietly, approaching the bed. ‘Tom said you might not want to see me.’

‘Why would Tom say that? Of course I’m glad to see you. Come, sit.’ She pats the bed feebly.

‘Gosh, look at all the flowers,’ Brigid says.

‘They’re all from Tom,’ Karen says. ‘He’s drowning me in roses.’

‘I can see that,’ Brigid says, sitting lightly on the side of the bed. She studies Karen closely. ‘You look awful.’

‘Do I?’ Karen says. ‘They haven’t let me near a mirror. I feel like FrankenKaren.’ The banter is an attempt to keep at bay the fear she’s felt ever since she became aware that she’d been in an accident – an accident that she can’t remember anything about. Karen’s grateful to see Brigid, her best friend. It’s a distraction and a relief from her almost overwhelming anxiety. It feels normal, at a time when very little else does.

She doesn’t know what happened last night. But she knows that whatever happened, it was terrifying, and it still threatens her. Not knowing is making her crazy. She doesn’t know what to do.

‘Thank God you’re going to be okay, Karen. I’ve been worried sick.’

‘I know. Sorry.’

‘Don’t be sorry. You had an accident. It’s not your fault.’

Karen wonders how much Brigid knows, what Tom’s told her. Probably not much. Tom has never particularly liked Brigid; she has no idea why. They just never seemed to hit it off. It’s made things awkward at times.

‘It’s awful, Brigid,’ Karen says hesitantly. ‘I don’t remember what happened. Tom says I was driving erratically, speeding, and he keeps asking me—’

At that moment, Tom enters the room, carrying two coffees in paper cups. Karen sees him stifle his annoyance at finding Brigid sitting on the bed, but he doesn’t fool her. She feels the temperature in the room drop a couple of degrees. Tom hands Karen one of the coffees.

‘Hi, Brigid,’ Tom says casually.

‘Hi,’ Brigid answers, glancing at him briefly. She turns back to face Karen. ‘I just wanted to see you with my own eyes, make sure you’re all right,’ she says, getting up off the bed. ‘I’ll go now, leave you two alone.’

‘You don’t have to go,’ Karen protests.

‘You need your rest,’ Brigid says. ‘I’ll come back tomorrow, okay?’ She smiles at Tom and slips out of the room.

Karen frowns at Tom and says, ‘Why do you dislike Brigid so much, anyway?’

‘I don’t dislike her.’

‘Really? You obviously weren’t happy to see her here.’

‘I’m just being protective,’ Tom protests. ‘You know what the doctor said. You need quiet.’

She looks at him over her coffee cup, not quite believing him.

Later that afternoon, when Tom has gone home to get some rest, Dr Fulton returns. Karen remembers him from the night before.

‘How are you today?’ he asks.

He keeps his voice low and quiet, and she’s thankful for that. Her headache has been getting worse throughout the day. ‘I don’t know. You tell me,’ she says cautiously.

He gives her a professional smile. ‘I think you’re going to be okay. Other than the concussion, everything else is pretty minor.’ He goes through his routine of looking in her eyes with his little light, while continuing to talk to her softly. ‘The only worrying thing is that you can’t remember the accident, but that’s not too uncommon. Your memory will most likely come back in a bit.’

‘So you’ve seen this before,’ she says slowly, ‘where people lose their memory?’

‘Yes, I have.’

‘And does it always come back?’

‘Not always, no.’ He’s taking her pulse now.

‘But usually?’

‘Yes.’

‘How long does it take?’ she asks anxiously. It must be soon. She must know exactly what happened.

‘Depends. Could be days, weeks. Everybody’s different.’ He checks something on a chart and says, ‘How’s the pain?’

‘Bearable.’

He nods. ‘It’ll get better. We’ll keep you in for observation for another day or two. You’re going to have to take it easy when you get home. I’ll give you a prescription that you can get filled here at the pharmacy before you go. And I’ve given your husband instructions on how to manage a concussion like yours.’

‘Is there anything I can do to help me get my memory back?’ she asks.

‘Not really.’ He smiles at her. ‘Just give it time.’ And then he leaves her alone with her simmering panic.

Later, a new nurse comes in, calm and pleasant, acting as if everything is all right. But everything is not all right.

‘Can I have a mirror?’ Karen asks.

‘Sure, let me go fetch one,’ the nurse says.

She returns with a hand mirror. ‘Don’t be too shocked by what you see,’ she says. ‘There’s some superficial damage, but nothing that won’t heal. It’s not as bad as it looks.’

Karen takes the mirror with trepidation. She’s stunned to see that she is almost unrecognizable – her normally fine features and good skin are disguised by horrific swelling and deep black bruises. But it’s her own confused, frightened eyes that bother her most. She hands the mirror back to the nurse without saying a word.