Home > Newest Books > The Child Next Door

The Child Next Door
Author:Shalini Boland

The Child Next Door

Shalini Boland



For my babies who are growing up too fast.

I’m proud of you xx





One





I’m jolted awake by a sharp cry.


I inhale and open my eyes wide, glancing around, trying to work out where I am. My legs are cramped, curled beneath me on the sofa. I must have fallen asleep. That cry. Was it…? No, it’s okay, nothing to get in a panic over. It’s just the Swedish crime drama I was supposed to be watching – I can’t even stay awake for my favourite programmes these days.

I stretch my legs and pause the TV, listening, just in case the noise didn’t come from the television. Outside, the sky is bruising, a purplish glow spreading above the horseshoe-shaped road that forms our little cul-de-sac of six houses. A stillness seems to settle over everything, and the sky darkens further.

Another sound makes me catch my breath. Not from the TV then… There it is again – this time there’s no mistake that it’s a tiny whimper from the baby monitor. My little girl Daisy does that a lot, those little short cries. I bet if I were to go upstairs now, she’d be fast asleep. I try to relax, smiling to myself at the thought of her round cheeks, and those tiny fists up around her ears like a miniature boxer. I count to ten in my head, wait a moment more, then exhale in relief at the continued silence. I pull my feet up under me once more and press rewind on the remote.

Daisy is already six months old and we moved her into her own room last week. But I don’t like her being so far away from us. It was comforting to have her next to me, and easier for the night feeds. Now that she’s in her own room, I have to drag myself out of bed and go to her when she cries instead of reaching across and bringing her into bed with me. Moving her was more for Dominic’s sake. My husband is a light sleeper and her little movements, cries and snuffles throughout the night kept him awake. He’s also training for a triathlon, so a good night’s sleep is important to him. That’s where he is this evening – out running. I don’t know how he can stand it in this heatwave, it must feel like running through treacle.

I frown at another cry, louder this time. With a sigh, I pause the TV, reach for the baby monitor and curl my hand around the chunky white plastic device, waiting to see if she wakes properly this time.

The monitor is suddenly full of static like an old radio, dots of red light flashing across its front. I wish we could invest in a new set of super-duper monitors with a video screen and thermometer and night vision and all the other extras, but money is tight at the moment. Mum got us this second-hand set from a car boot sale; they’re basic, with just sound and lights, but it’s better than nothing.

The static clears and the lights pulse again, and I hear a different sound through the speaker. Not a cry this time, but a cough. Not a baby’s cough. An adult cough. A man’s cough.

What?

No!

Fear clutches at my belly. Sweat breaks out on my upper lip and prickles my scalp. The thump, thump, thump of my heart beats in my ears. I must have been mistaken. Surely it can’t have been… but there… what’s that? Whispering. And then, clear as day, a man’s hushed voice:

‘Quick, let’s just take the baby now and go.’

Terror turns my blood to ice and freezes my brain. There is someone in my house.

Daisy! Someone’s trying to take Daisy!

My legs are concrete, but I have to move. I have to stop whoever is trying to steal my child. I lurch to my feet, a scream forming in my throat, but I press my lips together to stop it escaping.

Without any kind of plan, I race up the stairs, my mind projecting forward. I’m already imagining my scream as I discover my baby has gone. I’m already feeling the anguish and heartbreak. I’m even imagining Dominic and me on TV giving a press conference – him stoic, me in tears. I’m already imagining that my life as I know it is over. This can’t be happening…

As my bare feet hit the carpeted stairs, I dismiss the fact that I’m a small, slight, thirty-five-year-old woman in a cotton sundress with no self-defence skills and no weapon to use against a dangerous intruder. I’ll do whatever is necessary. I won’t let them take my child! They’ll have to kill me first.

The most awful thoughts crowd my mind: kidnappers, child slavery, illegal adoption, sickos… Maybe I should have called the police immediately, but there’s no time, and anyway, it’s too late now. I’m already approaching Daisy’s bedroom, ready to tear and lunge at whoever is there. Ready to stop whoever is trying to snatch my baby. I shove open the door to the room, panting like an animal, terror clawing at my skin. I’m not scared of the intruder. I’m scared that they might harm my child. That they might take her. That I might be too late to save her.

Tensed to attack, I take in the scene.

There’s no one here. The room is empty.

With a sob, I race over to my daughter’s white cot. My heart jolts and lifts. She’s here. My baby is here, sleeping. I drop the monitor onto her mattress and scoop her familiar shape up in my arms, stroke her dark hair with trembling fingers, drop grateful kisses onto her soft forehead, the milky scent of her helping to quell my panic. I glance over at the window, heart still knocking against my ribs. The light from a violet sunset stains the closed curtains. I draw them apart and stare out of the open window, convinced I will see two figures making their escape across the garden or the playing fields beyond. But the hazy August evening is muggy and still. Silent, apart from a slight sighing breeze through the trees and the distant growl of a car engine. As I pull the double-glazed window shut with a scrape and a thud, I notice a new blanket of windfall apples strewn by the back gate.

I stare down at Daisy’s face, reassuring myself that she really is okay, she’s safe. The thump of my heartbeat gradually slows, my skin cools, my breathing steadies. Did I imagine that voice in the monitor? No. I heard it clear as a bell. With a new sense of dread, I check behind the bedroom door, then fling open the wardrobe doors.

No one there.

But then I hear the unmistakable mewling cry again. The sound of my baby. Only it can’t be her – my daughter is in my arms and she is quiet. The sound is coming from the monitor which I dropped in the crib. It’s not the sound of my baby. I realise it must be someone else’s child. The baby monitor must be picking up another signal.

And now I can hear the voices again – a hushed, frantic whispering, broken up by static. Are the voices coming from a neighbour’s house? With a racing mind, I think about the other five houses in my cul-de-sac. There are no other babies in the road as far as I’m aware. I would know about them. Unless someone is visiting one of my neighbours. Which would mean that another child is in danger. Heart hammering, I know I have to warn my neighbours.

Daisy is a warm weight against my chest. Still sleeping, unconcerned by the drama unfolding, unaffected by my racing heartbeat. I reach into her crib and pick up the discarded monitor. Noiseless now. I turn up the volume, but there’s nothing, no static, no voices or cries. Am I too late to save the other child?

I rush downstairs with Daisy in my arms and locate my phone on the arm of the sofa. One-handed, I dial 999 with my thumb before flinging open my front door and scanning the cul-de-sac. Everything looks normal: front doors shut, familiar cars parked neatly in their driveways, no visitors’ cars that I can see. The ring tone in my ear stops abruptly. A woman’s voice:

‘Hello, emergency services, which service do you require? Fire, police, or ambulance?’

‘Police,’ I say, my voice sounding thin and hysterical. ‘Please hurry.’

‘Connecting you now.’

A man’s voice comes on the line. Composed and assured. ‘Hello, can I take your name please?’

‘Kirstie Rawlings.’