11 Years Before
There’s a knock at the door. It’s loud and insistent. It’s after nine o’clock at night. It’s dark outside, the moon and stars hidden behind storm clouds. The only time I can see outside is when lightning strikes, flooding the world with a sudden burst of light.
I’m in the kitchen, home late from a long day of work. I’ve just opened a bottle of wine and am waiting for leftovers—Bea’s stuffed shells that she made hours ago, when I was still under the impression I’d be home on time—to warm in the microwave when the knock comes. I look up from my glass at the sound of it, my blood running suddenly cold.
People don’t show up out of the blue at nine o’clock on a stormy night.
Bea is out back in the detached garage that she uses as a music studio. Her phone lies on the counter beside my glass of wine. From the kitchen window, I look out into the backyard, where it’s dark and raining. The rain pours down from the sky, a sudden blitz. I have trouble seeing out the window because of the rain. It hasn’t stopped raining for days. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I’m not the only one who’s contemplated building an ark. Even Bea, the more even-keeled of us, has contemplated building an ark. Severe flooding is expected, and every day of the next week calls for more rain. Rivers have overflowed their banks, wreaking havoc. The grocery store parking lot is a swimming pool. Roads are impassable, and some of the schools have been closed. There was footage on the news of canoes in towns not far from ours, paddling down the middle of the street.
There’s talk of the apocalypse, a quiet hysteria arising that maybe these rains are indicative of the end of times. I’m not some doomsday prophet, but still, I went to church and told the priest my confession just in case. You can never be too careful about these things.
The wind has picked up in the last few hours. I turn on a light in the backyard, flicker it a few times. Outside the branches of trees sway, scratching against the side and the back of our house. It’s horrible to listen to, the stuff of nightmares, the rasp of tree limbs like claws against the wood siding, scraping to get in. Outside, trees lose their leaves in the storm, getting blown about. Power is out in parts of town, due to downed lines. Thankfully we still have ours, though there’s no telling how long that will last. We stocked up on candles, flashlight batteries, just in case. By now, they’re impossible to find in stores.
This morning there were fallen trees in the street, casualties of last night’s violent storm. In the middle of the night, the tornado sirens howled. Bea and I sat crouched in the first-floor bathroom with Zeus in our arms, waiting for the storm to pass. Zeus hates to be held almost as much as he hates thunder. There are marks on my arms because of him.
I continue to flicker the backyard light, but Bea doesn’t notice because the door to the garage is closed. The only window is in the attic portion of the garage, where Bea doesn’t go.
It comes again then, the same insistent battering on the heavy wood. My teeth clench; my shoulders tense. I tell myself that it’s nothing to worry about. Bea is the more bold of us. If she were here, she’d answer the door unflinching. But without Bea, I force myself to be an adult, to go to the front door and open it up. Zeus is on the bottom step when I come into the hall. He runs upstairs at the sound of another knock to hide, an incompetent guard cat.
The front door is edged by windows. I turn the porch light on and have a look out the window before opening up the door. A man stands there in the glow of the porch light. He’s dripping wet. At first my heart starts, but then I breathe a sigh of relief when I see that it isn’t some stranger showing up unsolicited at this time of night.
My body physically relaxes at seeing him, the tension I was carrying in my shoulders melting away. Josh is our neighbor. He lives next door with his wife, Meredith, and their two kids.
I pull open the door and the wind rushes in. The rain has drenched Josh and his son, Leo, who stands at Josh’s side shivering and wet. Both of their hair is limp, falling into their faces. Water runs down their foreheads and cheeks. Their clothes hang heavy, shapeless. The rain can’t reach them under the porch’s wide roof, but that doesn’t matter now that they’re thoroughly soaked. They’ve walked here in the rain. It’s not far, but they must have a good reason to be out on a night like tonight. Josh has his arm around Leo’s shoulders and he’s pulling him into his leg, Leo’s head barely surpassing Josh’s knee in height.
Leo isn’t crying. But I can see on his face that he’d like to cry. Leo is four. We celebrated his birthday with Josh and Meredith last month, at a circus-themed party in their backyard, where they hired a clown and a man who made animals out of balloons. People came in costume.
Josh says hello. There’s a half smile, but it’s weighed down with something like worry. He’s wearing his work clothes, though Josh, invariably, is home by dinnertime. He keeps bankers’ hours when he isn’t wining and dining clients, so that by now he should be relaxing in front of the TV in pajamas.
“What’s going on?” I ask, seeing that something is wrong. I pull the door open wide enough to let them both in, to get them out of the rain. But Josh, with a firm hand on Leo’s shoulder, doesn’t come.
He looks to his house and then back at me. “Have you heard from Meredith, Kate?” he asks. “Do you know where she is?”
Lightning flares behind Josh and Leo, the kind that stretches from the sky clear down to the ground. A second later, thunder booms. Leo leans in closer to Josh, clinging to his leg now. The rain pummels the porch roof, gathering in the gutter, running out the downspout and into the lawn, where it collects.
I shake my head. “No. I don’t know. I haven’t heard from her,” I say, speaking loudly over the sound of the pelting rain. “You can’t find her?” I ask, and my gut reaction isn’t the same worry as Josh’s. Meredith works odd hours. She’s a doula, always disappearing in the middle of the night to help support some woman in labor. At a pinch, Bea or I—though mostly Bea, who works from home—have watched Leo and his sister because Meredith needed to run to a birth and Josh wasn’t home. It’s not uncommon.
Josh tells me that he can’t find Meredith and he hasn’t heard from her.
“She must be at a birth,” I say.
Josh’s reply is irresolute. He’s of two minds about it, saying, “Maybe. I don’t know. But I don’t think so. She would have called me if she was heading to a birth. She always calls. And then there’s Delilah…” he says, voice trailing.
I ask him, “Where’s Delilah?” Delilah is Josh and Meredith’s daughter. She’s six.
Josh is shaking his head, the rainwater spraying off. “I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t know where Delilah is, either.” There’s a panic to his voice. He shouts over the rain.
I ask him again to come inside, but he won’t. His eyes swing back and forth from his house to me, and I know that he’s watching for Meredith, waiting for her to come home.
Josh goes back to the beginning. He fills me in on the details of the day. He was at work, he says. He took the train home and went to the babysitter’s house to pick up Delilah and Leo, same as he always does. He took the 5:46 out of Chicago, which gets into town at 6:26. “It was probably around 6:45 by the time I got to the sitter’s house,” he says. The sitter lives in the neighborhood, about a mile from here. Bea and I don’t have kids, but I know where she lives. I know which house is hers.
“When I got there,” he says, “the sitter told me only Leo was there. She said that Meredith had kept Delilah home for the day because she was running a fever. She said Meredith had called Delilah in sick to school, and had canceled her own classes.”
Meredith teaches at a yoga studio in town. She does it to supplement the income she makes as a doula, not that she and Josh need it because Josh does well enough for both of them. He works in wealth management, dealing with high net worth clients. But Meredith’s schedule is irregular, with peaks and valleys. Some weeks are overladen with births. Then she goes weeks without a single birth. She used to complain that she needed stability in her life, a sense of purpose during those times she had nothing to do. That’s what drew her to yoga.
“You tried calling?” I ask.
“Ten times at least.”
“When is the last time you talked to her?”
He looks at me and runs his fingers through his dark hair. “When we went to bed last night,” he says. He tells me he saw her this morning. She was there lying in bed beside him, but she was asleep. He didn’t want to wake her. He kissed her on the forehead before he left. His day was busy; it got away from him. He never had time to call or text Meredith but, to his defense, she also didn’t call or text.
“That’s not unusual,” he says. “That’s the way it is with Meredith and me. Sometimes we’re filling each other in on the minutiae of the day. Other times we don’t have time to check in. I didn’t see Delilah today, either,” he says regretfully. “I left for work before she was up. For the life of me I can’t remember if she looked run-down last night. I’ve been racking my brain trying to remember.”
Josh is getting emotional now, worked up. He isn’t crying. But I can see the weight of worry in his eyes and in the lines of his forehead. “It isn’t like Meredith not to call. Not after all this time.”
I feel it in my gut then: something is wrong. I’m not just thinking about Meredith and Delilah. Because it would be one thing if this was an isolated incident, then maybe I wouldn’t feel so concerned. But there’s Shelby Tebow to consider, a young woman who went for a jog in our neighborhood ten nights ago and never returned.
“What are you thinking, Josh?” I ask, setting a hand on his arm.
“I wasn’t worried when the sitter told me Delilah wasn’t there. Not at first,” he says. He thought it was weird that Meredith hadn’t called to tell him about the fever—or at least tell him he didn’t need to pick Delilah up. That seems like something Meredith would have done.
“But Delilah,” he says, “gets sick all the time.” Kindergarten wreaks havoc on an immune system. They call her a germ magnet because of it. And maybe, he rationalized, Meredith’s day had gotten away from her and she hadn’t had time to call, because she was too busy taking care of Delilah.
“When I left the sitter’s, I was sure I was going to come home and find Meredith and Delilah there. So I didn’t think much of it. Truthfully, Kate,” he says, “it didn’t cross my mind that they wouldn’t be home. I tried calling Meredith before I left the sitter’s, to ask if she needed me to pick anything up from the pharmacy. Medicine, juice. Popsicles,” he says, telling me how much Delilah craved red popsicles when she was running a fever. It was the only thing she’d eat.
“What happened?” I ask.
“It went to voice mail,” he says.
He drove home. He pulled down the alley and opened the garage out back, finding it empty, though he knew he would because the house was also dark. The sun hadn’t yet set. But with the storm, it was dark enough outside to warrant turning a light on, especially since Delilah is afraid of the dark.
That’s when the worry set in for him, about two hours ago. He parked the car and ran inside to find the house empty. Only the dog was waiting for Leo and him, food and water bowl both empty, like he hadn’t been fed since morning.
“Now I’m thinking the fever is way worse than the sitter made it out to be,” he admits. “It seems too late in the year for the flu. But what about meningitis? A burst appendix? Sepsis?”
“Or an ear infection,” I offer, thinking of a less frightening alternative to his.
I squat down to Leo’s height and ask in a soft voice, “Hey, Leo. Can you tell me what Delilah was like today? Was she not feeling well?” I ask. “Do you remember if anything hurt?”
Leo just stares, gripping his wet security blanket in his hands, saying nothing. He’s shy. But he’s also four, maybe too young to know or remember if Delilah was sick. The fever is concerning to me. But so, too, is what happened to Shelby Tebow, who still hasn’t been found. There are also the weather conditions to consider. The thunder, the lightning, the threats of tornados. Add to that the fact that the current river levels are high. We’ve been under a flash flood warning for days, so long it feels like it will never lift. I’ve been hearing reports on the news that cars have been getting stuck in water on the streets. Flooded roads, the reporters keep saying, can be extremely dangerous. It only takes a couple feet of water to carry a car away. In the last few days, a month’s worth of rain has come down. In the city, raw sewage is leaking into people’s homes. It’s awful.
Suddenly I hear movement in the hall behind me. I turn to see Bea making her way to us through the arched doorway that cuts between the kitchen and foyer. Bea is barefoot as always, the calves of her jeans wet from the rain. “I thought I heard voices,” she says, smiling down on me because Bea is tall. I haven’t seen her since I left for work this morning. Today was long, nearly twelve hours spent on my feet. There were surgeries, a euthanasia. Then, just as I was about to leave, a dog walked in with a rectal prolapse. I could have sent the owners to the after-hours emergency clinic, but I didn’t, prevailing instead on a couple vet techs to stay and help me push the tissue back in and suture it up, saving the owners hundreds of dollars. Those emergency clinics aren’t cheap, and they didn’t have the money for it. I doubted they would go. I imagined the dog in that condition all night, how uncomfortable he would have been.
Bea was in her studio when I came home; I didn’t want to disturb her. Most days Bea and I are like ships that pass in the night, because even tonight, long after Bea goes to bed, I’ll be working on my records. Leave it for the morning, she always says, wanting me to go to bed with her. But if I leave it for the morning, I’ll forget.
A cold gust blows in from outside. It’s late May. It should be much warmer than this, but it’s an El Niño year. The summer is expected to be cooler than normal, and wet. So far, the weather forecasters have been right.
Bea tugs the sleeves of her shirt down to the wrists. Her hand settles on my lower back. It’s warm, a nice contrast to the cold air. She kisses me on the top of the head.
I look at Bea. “Josh can’t find Meredith and Delilah,” I say. “You haven’t heard from them today, have you?”
Bea thinks. “Meredith came by this morning,” she says. She looks at Josh. “You were out of milk,” she says, and he asks her what time that was. “It was early, maybe eight o’clock. The kids wanted cereal for breakfast. Cinnamon Toast Crunch, wasn’t it, Leo?” she asks, smiling down on him. He smiles shyly back. “Meredith left them at home and ran over to grab a cup.”
“Did she say anything about Delilah being sick?” he asks.
Bea shakes her head. “She came quickly. Just grabbed the milk and left. The kids were home alone—she didn’t want to leave them more than a minute. She apologized for being a bother. I told her you two are never a bother. Delilah’s sick?” she asks, looking concerned.
I fill Bea in on the details of the babysitter. I tell her about Delilah’s fever. “I’m so sorry, Josh. Meredith didn’t say anything about it. I’m sure it’s nothing. Could her cell phone be dead?” she asks.
Josh says, “It is. But that still doesn’t explain why they aren’t home now.”
“You found her phone?” I ask, surprised. It isn’t like Meredith to leave her phone behind.
“No,” Josh says. “We have that app, where we can track each other’s phones. It was the first thing I checked. It says her location is unavailable, so her phone must be dead, I think, or shut down. But Meredith’s clients are so dependent on her. She wouldn’t shut her phone down. Not on purpose.”
Josh looks at his watch to see what time it is. Delilah, he tells us, goes to bed by seven-thirty most nights, eight latest. It’s nearing nine-thirty now. “By now,” Josh says, “both kids should be asleep, and Meredith and I should be catching up on TV.”
Josh tells us that in the last two hours he called the pediatrician’s office to see if Delilah had been there. But it was late; the office was closed. All he got was their answering service, who didn’t have access to the schedule and wouldn’t have told him even if they did. He called the hospital in town and a handful of convenient care clinics, but there are dozens of those. He doesn’t know if he got them all, and even those he connected with weren’t willing to give patient information over the phone.
I go back to the possibility of a birth. If Meredith had a client in labor, would she have taken Delilah with her if she had no other choice? Childbirth can be fast and furious, not that I would know. But on the nights that Josh, Meredith, Bea and I shared a drink on the porch after their kids were asleep, Meredith regaled us with her most bizarre tales of birth: the women who refused to push, the fathers who threw shit fits when their sons turned out to be daughters. There were times Meredith missed or nearly missed births, when a laboring woman advanced from two centimeters to ten in the blink of an eye. Maybe this was one of those times. Meredith didn’t have time to call Josh or to leave Delilah with Bea. She had to go.
“Still,” Josh asks, “if the birth was fast, wouldn’t she be home by now?”
Bea looks at Leo standing there in the glow of the porch light. He looks so small. Every time lightning strikes or thunder booms he shudders, clinging tighter to Josh’s leg. But Josh is so concerned about Meredith and Delilah, he doesn’t notice.
Bea says to him, “Hey, buddy. I made cookies. You like chocolate chip?” and he nods a hesitant yes. “They’re in the kitchen. On the counter. You go help yourself, okay? You know the way.”
Leo looks to Josh for approval. Josh forces a smile. “Go on,” he says. “Just take your shoes off.” Stepping timidly inside our home, Leo does as told before scampering off in wet socks for a cookie, his blue blanket trailing behind.
With Leo gone, Bea asks Josh, “Did you call the police?”
Josh shakes his head. There’s something frantic about it. His eyes are wild.
“Josh,” she asks, “did Meredith have a reason to leave?” Bea doesn’t mince words. It’s not her way. She gets right to the point, asking, “Were you guys fighting?”
His reply is resolute. “We weren’t fighting,” he says. “Not like you might think. But Meredith wasn’t herself lately. She was stressed out all the time. She was quiet. I wanted to know why. She wouldn’t tell me. All she’d say is that it was nothing, that she was fine.”
“How long had this been going on?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” he says. “Maybe two weeks.” It’s been about two weeks since I last saw Meredith. I remember that night, Bea’s thirtieth birthday. I don’t remember Meredith being particularly quiet or stressed. That said, we all put on a good face when we need to.
“It’s not like Meredith to keep secrets from you,” I say. Josh and Meredith have a marriage others would envy. By their own account, they’ve always tried to be honest with each other. They made a promise before they got married to never go to bed angry. It’s the kind of promise most couples make and then easily break. But not Josh and Meredith.
That said, I overheard the occasional snarky remark from time to time. Sometimes, in summer, with windows open, the sound of angry, arguing voices carried from their house to ours. But that’s a marriage. They’re not all happy, all the time. Bea and I argue, too.
“Meredith came from a broken family, you know,” Josh says. “I did, too. We wanted ours to be different. But I could tell something had her down lately.”
“Like what?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I thought maybe she was seeing someone else. Maybe she was falling out of love with me.”
His eyes move from Bea to me and back again. He’s looking for one of us to either substantiate or disprove his theory. I can’t honestly do either because I don’t know. Neither can Bea. We know Josh and Meredith well enough, but not enough to know if she was being unfaithful. We’re not that kind of friends, and we’re just as close to Josh as we are to Meredith. We don’t have a loyalty to one over the other. If Meredith was cheating, it isn’t the kind of thing she’d tell us.
“That’s unlikely,” I say. I say it to appease him, but the truth is I never had any reason to believe Meredith wasn’t madly in love with Josh.
“Even if that’s the case and—worst-case scenario, Meredith is leaving you—why would she take Delilah and leave Leo behind?” Bea asks. “She wouldn’t do that, Josh. She adores those kids. Both of them. You know that.”
Josh shakes his head. He’s at a loss. He asks, “You think I should call the police, or is it too premature for that? Maybe I should give it the night and see if she comes home on her own. I don’t want to blow this out of proportion.”
Bea tells him, “If you’re worried, Josh, I don’t think a call to the police would hurt.”
I echo Bea’s sentiment. Between the fever, the weather, Meredith not answering her phone, there’s plenty of cause for concern. The sudden scourge of missing women also has me worried. I can’t get Shelby off my mind.
We convince Josh to come inside. With one last glance at his own home, he grudgingly does. He sits down on our sofa, and while Bea disappears into the kitchen to keep Leo company, Josh calls the police and reports his wife and daughter missing.
Shelby Tebow is the first to go missing. Not long after, Meredith Dickey and her six-year-old daughter, Delilah, vanish just blocks away from where Shelby was last seen, striking fear into their once-peaceful community. Are these incidents connected? After an elusive search that yields more questions than answers, the case eventually goes cold.
Now, eleven years later, Delilah shockingly returns. Everyone wants to know what happened to her, but no one is prepared for what they’ll find…
In this smart and chilling thriller, master of suspense and New York Times bestselling author Mary Kubica takes domestic secrets to a whole new level, showing that some people will stop at nothing to keep the truth buried.