A Stranger in the House – Shari Lapena

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.


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