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The stranger, p.7
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       The Stranger, p.7

          Harlan Coben / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime / History & Fiction
"Then buy them," she snapped. "Those boys are yours. You know that."

They stood on either side of the kitchen island. Even now, even in the midst of his anger and confusion, he could not help but see how beautiful she was. He couldn't believe that with all the guys who wanted her, she had somehow chosen him. Corinne was the girl men wanted to marry. That was how guys foolishly looked at women when they were younger. They broke them down into two camps. One camp made guys think of lust-filled nights and legs in the air. Camp Two made them think of moonlight walks and canopies and wedding vows. Corinne was squarely in Camp Two.

Adam's own mother had been eccentric to the point of bipolarity. That had been what foolishly attracted his father. "Her crackle," Dad had explained. But the crackle turned more into mania as time passed. The crackle was fun and spontaneous, but the unpredictability wore his father down, aged him. There were great ups, but they were eventually decimated by the growing number of great downs. Adam did not make that mistake. Life is a series of reactions. His reaction to the mistake of his father was to marry a woman he considered steady, consistent, controlled, as though people were just that simple.

"Talk to me," Adam said.

"What makes you think I faked the pregnancy?"

"The Visa charge to Novelty Funsy," he said. "You told me it was for school decorations. It wasn't. It's a billing name for Fake-A-Pregnancy.com."

She looked confused now. "I don't understand. What made you go through a charge from two years ago?"

"It's not important."

"It is to me. You didn't casually decide to start checking old bills."

"Did you do it, Corinne?"

Her gaze was down on the granite top of the island. Corinne had taken forever to find the exact shade of granite, finally finding something called Ontario Brown. She spotted some dried debris and started working it free with her fingernail.

"Corinne?"

"Do you remember when I had two school periods off during lunch?"

The change of subject threw him for a moment. "What about it?"

The debris came loose. Corinne stopped. "It was the only time in my teaching career I had that big of a time window. I got permission to go off school grounds for lunch."

"I remember."

"I used to go to that cafe in Bookends. They made a great panini sandwich. I'd get one and a glass of homemade iced tea or a coffee. I'd sit at this corner table and read a book." A small smile came to her face. "It was bliss."

Adam nodded. "Great story, Corinne."

"Don't be sarcastic."

"No, no, seriously, it's gripping and so relevant. I mean, I'm asking you to tell me about faking a pregnancy, but really this story is much better. What kind of panini was your favorite, anyway? I like the turkey and swiss myself."

She closed her eyes. "You've always used sarcasm as a defense mechanism."

"Oh, right, and you've always been great with timing. Like now, Corinne. Now is the time to psychoanalyze me."

There was a pleading in her voice now. "I'm trying to tell you something, okay?"

He shrugged. "So tell me."

She took a few seconds to gather herself before she began speaking again. When she did, her voice had a far-off quality to it. "I'd go to Bookends pretty much every day, and after a while, you become, I don't know, a regular. The same people would be there all the time. It was like a community. Or like Cheers. There was Jerry, who was unemployed. And Eddie was an outpatient at Bergen Pines. Debbie would bring her laptop and write--"

"Corinne . . ."

She held up her hand. "And then there was Suzanne, who was, like, eight months pregnant."

Silence.

Corinne turned behind her. "Where's that bottle of wine?"

"I don't see where you're going with this."

"I just need some more wine."

"I put it in the cabinet above the sink."

She headed over to it, opened the door, and snatched out the bottle. Corinne grabbed her glass and started to pour. "Suzanne Hope was maybe twenty-five years old. It was her first baby. You know how young mothers-to-be are--all glowing and over-the-top happy, like they're the first people to ever get pregnant. Suzanne was really nice. We all talked to her about the pregnancy and the baby. You know. She'd tell us about her prenatal vitamins. She ran names by us. She didn't want to know if it was a boy or girl. She wanted to be surprised. Everyone liked her."

He bit back the sarcastic rejoinder. Instead, he replaced it with an obvious observation. "I thought you were there for quiet and reading."

"I was. I mean, that's how it started. But somewhere along the way, I started to cherish this social circle. I know it sounds pathetic, but I looked forward to seeing these people. And it was like they only existed in that time and space, you know? It's like when you used to play pickup basketball. You loved those guys on the court, but you didn't know a thing about them off it. One guy owned that restaurant we went to and you didn't even know, remember?"

"I remember, Corinne. But I don't see the point."

"I'm just trying to explain. I made friends. People came in and out without warning. Like Jerry. One day, Jerry disappeared. We assumed he got a job, but it's not like he came in and told us. He just stopped coming. Suzanne too. We figured that she had the baby. She was way overdue. And then sadly, when the new semester started, double lunch ended for me, and so I guess I faded away too. That's how it worked. It was cyclical. The cast rotated."

He had no idea where she was going with this, but there was no reason to rush her either. In a way, he wanted things to slow down now. He wanted to consider all options. He glanced back over at the kitchen table where Thomas and Ryan had just eaten and laughed and thought that they were secure.

Corinne took a deep sip of her wine. To move it along, Adam asked, "Did you ever see any of them again?"

Corinne almost smiled. "That's the point of the story."

"What is?"

"I saw Suzanne again. Maybe three months later."

"At Bookends?"

She shook her head. "No. It was a Starbucks in Ramsey."

"Did she have a boy or girl?"

A sad smile toyed with Corinne's lips. "Neither."

He didn't know what to make of that or how to follow it up, so he simply said, "Oh."

Corinne met his eye. "She was pregnant."

"Suzanne was?"

"Yes."

"When you saw her at Starbucks?"

"Yes. Except it was only three months after I last saw her. And she still looked eight months pregnant."

Adam nodded, finally seeing where she was going. "Which is, of course, impossible."

"Of course."

"She was faking."

"Yes. See, I had to go to Ramsey to check out this new textbook. It was lunchtime again. Suzanne must have figured that there'd be no chance one of us from Bookends would be there. That Starbucks is, what, a fifteen-minute drive from Bookends?"

"At least."

"So I was up at the counter ordering a latte and I heard that voice and there she was, sitting in the corner, telling a rapt group of patrons about her prenatal vitamin regimen."

"I don't get it."

Corinne tilted her head. "Really?"

"You do?"

"Sure. I got it right away. Suzanne was holding court in the corner, and then I started walking toward her. When she spotted me, that glow just vanished. I mean, you can imagine. How do you explain being eight months pregnant for, like, what, half a year? I just stood there and waited. I think she hoped that I'd leave. But I didn't. I was supposed to go to school, but later, I told them I got a flat tire. Kristin covered my classes for me."

"You and Suzanne eventually talked?"

"Yes."

"And?"

"She said that she really lives in Nyack, New York."

That was about thirty minutes from both Bookends and that Starbucks, Adam figured.

"She told me a story about having a stillborn. I don't think it's true, but it could be. But in many ways, Suzanne's story is simpler. Some women love being pregnant. Not because of the hormonal rush or because they have a baby growing inside of them. Their reasons are much more base. It is the one time in their life they feel special. People hold doors for them. People ask them about their day. They ask them when they're due and how they're feeling. In short, they get attention. It's a little like being famous. Suzanne was nothing special to look at. She didn't strike me as being particularly smart or interesting. Being pregnant made her feel like a celebrity. It was like a drug."

Adam shook his head. He remembered the wording on the Fake-A-Pregnancy website: "Nothing throws you in the spotlight like being pregnant!"

"So she faked being pregnant in order to maintain the high?"

"Yes. She'd slap on the fake belly. She'd go to the coffee shop. Instant attention."

"But there was only so long that she could get away with that," he said. "You can't be eight months pregnant for more than, well, a month or two."

"Right. So she moved lunch spots. Who knows how long she'd been at it--or if she's still doing it. She said her husband didn't care about her. He came home and went right to the TV or stayed at the bar with the guys. Again, I don't know if that's a lie. It doesn't matter. Oh, and Suzanne did it other places too. Like instead of going to the supermarket in her hometown, she'd go to ones farther away and smile at people and they'd always smile back. If she went to the movies and wanted a good seat, she'd use it. Same with airplane rides."

"Wow," Adam said. "That's pretty sick."

"But you don't get it?"

"I get it. She should see a shrink."

"I don't know. It seems pretty harmless."

"Strapping on a fake belly to gain attention?"

Corinne shrugged. "I admit it's extreme, but some people get attention because they're beautiful. Some because they inherited money or have a fancy job."

"And some get it by lying about being pregnant," Adam said.

Silence.

"So I assume your friend Suzanne told you about the Fake-A-Pregnancy website?"

She turned away.

"Corinne?"

"That's all I'm willing to say right now."

"You're kidding, right?"

"No."

"Wait, are you telling me you crave attention like this Suzanne? I mean, this isn't normal behavior. You know that, right? This has to be a mental disorder of some kind."

"I need to think about it."

"Think about what?"

"It's late. I'm tired."

"Are you out of your mind?"

"Stop."

"What?"

Corinne turned back to him. "You feel it too, don't you, Adam?"

"What are you talking about?"

"We're in a minefield," she said. "Like someone just dropped us right in the middle of it, and if we move too fast in any direction, we're going to step on an explosive and blow this whole thing up."

She looked at him. He looked at her.

"I didn't drop us in the minefield," he said through gritted teeth. "You did."

"I'm going up to bed. We can talk about this in the morning."

Adam blocked her path. "You're not going anywhere."

"What are you going to do, Adam? Beat it out of me?"

"You owe me an explanation."

She shook her head. "You don't understand."

"Don't understand what?"

She looked up into his eyes. "How did you find out, Adam?"

"It doesn't matter."

"You have no idea how much it matters," she said in a soft voice. "Who told you to look at the charge on the Visa bill?"

"A stranger," he said.

She took a step back. "Who?"

"I don't know. Some guy. I'd never seen him before. He came up to me at the American Legion and told me what you'd done."

She shook her head as though trying to clear it. "I don't understand. What guy?"

"I just told you. A stranger."

"We need to think about this," she said.

"No, you need to tell me what's going on."

"Not tonight." She put her hands on his shoulders. He backed away as though her touch scalded him. "It isn't what you think, Adam. There's more to this."

"Mom?"

Adam spun toward the voice. Ryan stood at the top of the steps.

"Can one of you help me with my math?" he asked.

Corinne didn't hesitate. The smile was back in place. "I'll be right up, honey." She turned to Adam. "Tomorrow," she whispered to him. There was a pleading in her voice. "The stakes are so high. Please. Just give me until tomorrow."





Chapter 10


What could he do?

Corinne simply shut down. Later, alone in their bedroom, he tried anger, pleading, demanding, threats. He used words of love, ridicule, shame, pride. She wouldn't respond. It was so frustrating.

At midnight, Corinne carefully took off the anniversary diamond studs and placed them on her night table. She turned off the lights, wished him a good night, and closed her eyes. He was at a loss. He came close--maybe too close--to doing something physical. He debated ripping off her covers, but what would that do? He wanted to--dare he even admit it to himself?--put his hands on her, to shake her and make her talk or at least see reason. But when Adam was twelve, he had seen his father put his hands on his mother. Mom had egged him on--that was how she was, sadly. She would call him names or insult his manhood until eventually he cracked. One night, he saw his father wrap his hands around his mother's neck and start to choke her.

Oddly enough, it wasn't so much the fear, horror, and danger of seeing his father use force against his mother that bothered him. It was how pitiful and weak this act of dominance made his father look, how, even though she was on the receiving end, his mother had manipulated his father into becoming something so pathetic that he had to resort to doing something so out of character, so not him.

Adam could never lay a hand on a woman. Not just because it was wrong. But because of what it would do to him.

Unsure what to do, he slipped into bed next to Corinne. He pounded his pillow into the right shape, laid his head on it, and closed his eyes. He gave it ten minutes. Uh-uh, no way. He headed downstairs, pillow in hand, and tried to sleep on the couch.

He set his alarm for 5:00 A.M. so he'd be sure to get back upstairs into his bedroom before the boys woke up. There was no need. If sleep paid any visit, it was too brief to register. Corinne was deep in sleep when he went back up. He knew by her breathing that this wasn't an act--she was out cold. Funny, that. He couldn't sleep. She could. He remembered reading somewhere that cops could often tell guilt or innocence by suspects who slept. An innocent man left alone in an interrogation room, the theory went, stayed awake because of confusion and nerves about being falsely accused. A guilty man fell asleep. Adam had never bought the theory, one of those things that sounds cute but doesn't really hold up. Yet here he was, the innocent guy staying awake while his wife--the guilty?--slept like a newborn.

Adam was tempted to shake her awake, catch her in that cusp between dream and consciousness, maybe get the groggy truth out of her, but he had come to the conclusion that it wouldn't work. She had a point about being careful. But more than that, she was going to work in her own time frame. He couldn't push it too much. And maybe that was best.

The question was, what was he going to do now?

He knew the truth, didn't he? Did he really have to wait for her to confirm that she'd faked a pregnancy and a miscarriage? If she hadn't, he would have heard the denials by now. She was stalling--perhaps to come up with a reasonable rationale or perhaps to give him time to calm down and consider his alternatives.

Because what could he do here?

Was he ready to walk out the door? Was he ready to divorce her?

He didn't know the answer. Adam stood over the bed and stared down at her. How did he feel about her? He told himself, right now, without thinking about it, answer this: If it was true, did he still love her and want to be with her for the rest of his life?

His feelings were jumbled, but his gut reaction: Yes.

Take a step back. How big a deal was this deception? It was huge. No question about it. Huge.

But was it something that should destroy their lives--or was it something that they could live with? All families ignore the elephants in the room. Could he one day ignore this one?

He didn't know. Which was why he would have to be careful. He would have to wait. He would have to listen to her reasoning, even if that seemed almost obscene to him.

"It isn't what you think, Adam. There's more to this."

That was what Corinne said, but he couldn't imagine what. He slipped under the covers and closed his eyes for a moment.

When he opened them again, it was three hours later. Exhaustion had sneaked up on on him and dragged him down. He checked the bed next to him. Empty. He swung his legs out of bed, his feet landing on the floor with a dull thud. From downstairs he heard Thomas's voice. Thomas the talker. Ryan the listener.

And Corinne?

He glanced out the bedroom window. Her minivan was still in the driveway. He crept quietly down the stairs. He probably couldn't articulate exactly why--probably something to do with sneaking up on Corinne before she had a chance to leave for work. The boys were at the table. Corinne had made Adam his favorite--she was big on making favorites all of a sudden, wasn't she?--a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich on a sesame bagel. Ryan was eating a bowl of Reese's Puffs--health food--reading the back of the box as though it were religious scripture.

"Hey, guys."

Two grunts. Whatever their personalities might be like later in the day, neither boy was big on pre-school conversation with his parents.

"Where's your mother?"

Two shrugs.

He stepped fully into the kitchen and looked out the window and into the backyard. Corinne was out there. Her back was turned. A phone was pressed up to her ear.

Adam felt his face redden.

When he pulled open the back door, Corinne spun toward him and put up a "wait a sec" finger. He didn't. He stormed toward her. She hung up the phone and slipped it into her pocket.

"Who was that?"

"The school."

"Bullshit. Let me see the phone."

"Adam . . ."

He put out his hand. "Give it to me."

"Don't make a scene in front of the boys."

"Cut the crap, Corinne. I want to know what's going on."
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