Thursday, June 13
For the past two months, we spoke of little other than the Langleys.
“Did you hear? She’s gone!”
“No! It can’t be true.”
“If they can’t make it work, none of us stands a chance!”
“Allison and Christopher Langley? Oh, it’s over. Totally. Someone saw him jogging with the dog. Just the two of them. That’s a first.”
“How long do you figure he’ll be alone?”
“Less than a minute. Look at him! I bet he won’t even have to set up an online dating profile.”
“How fast do you think he’ll decide to move back to the city? That house has to have, what, four bedrooms at least? And so close to the elementary school! Let me know the second he decides to sell! I know a couple who’d kill for that location.”
On and on it went for weeks as May slipped into June. Nearly everyone within a three-block radius of the Langleys’ well-maintained Colonial whispered about them over hedges, in the parks and playgrounds, while walking their dogs and toddlers around the pond in the heart of our otherwise sleepy town.
Some refused to believe it.
“The Langleys? No way!”
“I’m sure she’s just off filming another commercial. Probably somewhere fabulous. I wonder what she’s pushing this time? Toothpaste? Rental cars? What a life!”
That might have seemed plausible if Mary Alice Foster’s son, Phil, hadn’t seen Allison hurry into an Uber at four o’clock in the morning without a suitcase.
“Can we trust Phil? No disrespect, I’m just saying, he hasn’t seemed quite right since he got back.”
“Yeah, no offense, but Phil’s not exactly credible. And why is he watching their house? That’s creepy.”
Others insisted they’d seen it coming.
“I saw Allison looking teary at the drugstore a few weeks back, but I chalked it up to allergies. Trees budding and all. Show me a person whose eyes aren’t watering, right? Anyway, I said hello, and she sort of waved back. It wasn’t like we had a conversation. We didn’t really know each other. Did anyone really know the Langleys?”
“I bet she met someone else, maybe a hedge fund guy with a fat bank account.”
“Chris’s got money, doesn’t he? Royalties from that song? Wasn’t it in the background of those beer commercials? Plus, she’s probably made a bundle from those acting gigs.”
“I’m talking about private jet, fuck-you money. She’s what? Thirty-two? Thirty-four? Her window to bag a billionaire’s closing, and she knows it. Probably got tired of life in the ’burbs. Can you blame her?”
Finally, we were able to purge every ill-formed, mean-spirited thought we’d ever harbored about them. Neighborhood-scale vomiting. Sickening. And delicious. I was part of it too. The gossip. It was wrong yet impossible to resist. Some of us were almost rooting against them from the start. You couldn’t help it. So much to envy. Even their names—Allison and Christopher Langley—sounded clean, rich, regal.
With her thick dark hair, perfect smile, and bone structure that implied she’d still be gorgeous at eighty, everyone in the neighborhood treated her like royalty. Our very own Kate Middleton.
And him? His rock-star status, though faded, had even the most aloof mothers in Oak Hill swooning as they dropped off their budding musicians for the piano, guitar, and voice lessons he gave in the afternoons. Nannies, too, left minivans idling at the curb to walk their charges to the door for a chance to see him up close, maybe even talk to him, drink in a few sips of his voice, which carried the faintest hint of a Southern drawl, a souvenir from the years he lived in New Orleans.
Last summer, when Frank Chadwick convinced Chris to join the town softball team, women who’d never watched their husbands play suddenly appeared on the sidelines. They pretended to cheer while admiring Christopher’s butt, round as two firm cantaloupes, beneath the thin polyester of those uniform pants.
“Is he wearing a cup, or is that, er, natural?” one woman whispered to another.
All the running they did left the Langleys enviably fit. How many mornings had I looked out the bathroom window and nearly been blinded by their radiance as they jogged past the house? Good health oozed from their pores, the opposite of the image reflected back at me in the mirror. Graying hair sprouted at my roots and temples. My face, most days, appeared pale and puffy as an angel food cake. My tongue felt sandpapery as a cat’s and tasted faintly of the wine I’d downed quickly the night before to take the edge off the day and force my evenings to blur into something more bearable.
In early spring, through the window screen, I could hear their laughter, the way they held a conversation and bantered easily, never out of breath, and I despised them. Golden and good-natured, even Murphy, their dog, was beautiful. If he stopped to chew grass, one of them would command, “Keep it moving, Murph!” and the dog obeyed.
How could you not loathe this couple? We were merciless in our constant need to dissect them. Like hawks circling, we waited to spot their weaknesses.
They had no children. Some chalked it up to that “selfish millennial” stereotype. Others felt sorry for them. “Such a shame! Their kids would be stunning!” But a group of us, the ones who’d fallen into codependent friendships, ones forged for survival at Mommy and Me classes or preschool drop-offs and pick-ups, envied the Langleys. United in our easy-to-maintain haircuts, comfortable shoes, and yoga pants, we resented them as we imagined the perfect pair doing all the things we no longer could: staying awake past ten o’clock on a Friday night, sleeping in on Saturdays, savoring Sunday brunches.
Deflated balls and mold-speckled riding toys weren’t ruining their lawn. Their driveway wasn’t littered with crushed-up pieces of forgotten sidewalk chalk or pulverized Goldfish crackers covered in ants. Phantom whiffs of vomit didn’t waft up from their couch cushions.
Sometimes, after too many glasses of wine, we’d speculate, “They probably still have sex in the shower. Remember that? Remember shower sex?”
“Ever see them stretching in the park? They’re so fucking limber!”
On and on we’d go until, even to our drunken ears, we heard how jealous and ridiculous we sounded.
At the annual block party or the neighborhood holiday cocktail gathering, the Langleys had their own gravitational pull. Necks swiveled. Heads spun in their direction. And the way they looked at each other? We were the spellbound audience catching the joyous final scene of a Hallmark movie.
“Don’t forget, she’s an actress,” the more bitter among us reminded the group. But most of us believed it wasn’t an act. They seemed so insular, as if all they needed was each other. It had to be real.
So, naturally, the shock of Allison’s abrupt exit left us reeling, clamoring for answers. What went wrong? Had she met someone else? Maybe he wanted to get the band back together and tour again? Did they disagree about starting a family?
No one knows what goes on in someone else’s home. I know this better than anyone. And, of course, it was none of our business. But after living so long in our quiet town, people craved news beyond soaring property values and preferred preschool teachers.
How could Allison’s decision to suddenly run off in the early hours of a late-April morning not become breaking news that worked its way into nearly every conversation? What else did we have to talk about? The Petersons’ new shed? Who might get a Labradoodle?
The Langleys would’ve continued to be our primary topic until Allison returned, Christopher moved away, or another couple’s shocking divorce came to light, forcing our jaundiced eyes to shift in a new direction.
The thing that brought the gossip to a shameful halt wasn’t a reconciliation, a departure, or another couple’s demise. It was the disappearance of Billy Barnes. Billy, who would turn six in July, vanished as he was walking home from kindergarten on a perfectly ordinary afternoon. Not a trace of him was left behind. Not the house key that dangled from his Yankees keychain. Not a sneaker. Not the dinosaur backpack that had his initials monogrammed just above a Tyrannosaurus rex’s roaring mouth. W. E . B. William Edward Barnes. He’d wanted “Billy” in navy blue block letters, but every parent knows putting a child’s name out there constitutes an open invitation for a pedophile to attempt to lure them into their van.
And yet, even without his name stitched there for all the world to see, he disappeared. Had a predator been watching, waiting for the right time to make a move? There’s no evidence to suggest that’s what happened. But what other explanation could there be?
Could Billy have wandered off? Possibly. Like most five-year-olds, he was insatiably curious. He asked a thousand questions a day, even ones he already knew the answers to, a habit that irritated his father. Billy fancied himself an explorer—the pockets of his cargo shorts bursting with a plastic magnifying glass, compass, and miniature flashlight. But would he have ventured far from the sidewalk that led him home every afternoon? No. Never. He’d been told that if he wanted the privilege of walking to and from school by himself, he had to be back on his porch by 3:15 pm every school day. No detours.
Of course, there were times when he wasn’t completely alone. His neighbor and classmate Oliver Jordan frequently walked with him. Behind him, really. Because of Oliver’s short stature and tendency to stop to crush ants or leap in the air to shake raindrops off low-hanging leaves, he typically trailed Billy by at least ten paces.
“Hurry up! We’re going to be late!” Billy would call over his shoulder, though they usually had plenty of time.
“Um, it’s kindergarten. Who gives a shit?” Oliver, raised with older brothers who lived on a steady diet of offensive YouTube videos and memes, would respond.
Billy had a half brother, Evan, from his father’s first marriage. But even when he was in college, before he’d officially moved out, Evan had barely taken the time to say hello to Billy, let alone offer him swearing lessons the way Oliver’s siblings had.
The classmates often walked home together. But on the afternoon Billy went missing, he was by himself. Oliver had been picked up by his mother, who was whisking him to an emergency dental appointment. One of Oliver’s brothers had tripped him that morning, and he’d fallen face-first into a metal radiator. He’d arrived to walk Billy to school with a bag of frozen peas covering his mouth. It was a baby tooth. Still, his mother wanted assurance there wasn’t root or nerve damage that would cause the next tooth to come in gray.
So Lindsay Jordan had scooped up Oliver in her black SUV. She told police she’d offered Billy a ride home, but Billy had simply called back, “No, thanks!”
Another mother thought she’d seen Billy take a lollipop from Veronica Baker, the crossing guard, before disappearing into the crowd of kids busily counting down the days until summer break. They skipped alongside mothers or nannies who were far less excited about the weeks of endless togetherness.
One au pair thought she remembered seeing Billy turn the corner onto Cherry Lane. From there, it was just three short blocks home. Even if he dawdled to study a ladybug or look through a sewer grate, he should have arrived no more than ten minutes later.
That was seven hours ago.
And no one had a clue where he was.
Parents marshaled to help search. Now they were hanging posters from every telephone pole in town as well as on bulletin boards in the post office, library, and even the supermarket, I’m told—not that I’ve been there.
Billy’s photo appears below the word “Missing.” His smile beams above information about his height and weight. The picture was taken a week ago on the kindergarten field trip to the zoo. Even in the black-and-white copies, his bright brown eyes shine. If you look closely, you can see that his cheeks are dotted with freckles from getting too much sun at a T-ball game. An untamable cowlick pokes up from the back of his head.
The gossip, which had been so focused on the Langleys, shifted, settling swiftly and decisively on the Barnes family.
“Did you hear about Billy Barnes?”
“Oh my God, I did! It’s unimaginable!
“Do you really think he was taken? Abducted? In this neighborhood?”
“A nightmare. An absolute nightmare.”
“He was a sweet kid, right? Always friendly. Betsy told me his mom is in shock, walking up and down streets screaming his name.”
“Kindergarten is too young to walk home alone, right?”
“I said the same thing to Pete as soon as I got the alert that Billy was gone.”
I heard their hushed, urgent voices as together we frantically searched the neighborhood this afternoon, believing maybe Billy had followed a chipmunk and wandered into a garage, hoping perhaps he’d accepted a last-minute invitation to a classmate’s home, praying he’d simply gotten lost trying to corral a stray dog.
Their fervent whispers floated over hedges, through picket fences, around corners. Their words traveled across lawns and hung in the branches of oak trees like poisonous fruit. But all conversation stopped as soon as I came into view.
This time I’m not part of the chatter. I’m on the outside. Not included. No one wants to talk to me now.
Because I’m Rachel Barnes.
I’m Billy’s mother.
Thank you for reading!