Later that evening, they sat together in their apartment, wondering if they’d made the right decision.
They didn’t know the couple next door, but they’d passed them in the breezeway a few times. Matt said hello to the man once, but he didn’t respond. Haley saw the woman near the mailboxes one afternoon, but she kept her head low, glanced at Haley through her bangs, then hurried up the stairs.
The couple moved in just before the pandemic began—about a month before the city shut down and everyone was stuck at home.
The woman had a son, apparently from a different relationship. He’d come to visit his mom just a week or so after the couple moved in, and he’d knocked on Matt and Haley’s door by mistake. He seemed to be college age, but he was shy and didn’t say much.
Once the lockdown began, they didn’t see him around. In fact, no one seemed to enter or exit the apartment next door. Food was delivered occasionally, and Haley had seen someone deliver groceries once, but the couple didn’t seem to go anywhere or welcome company. They were definitely home though because Matt and Haley often heard them banging around in the kitchen. And then there was the shouting.
Neither of them thought much about it at first. The last tenants of the apartment—a father and his adult son—screamed at each other all the time, usually after a night of drinking. The apartment’s walls were not thick or well insulated, so it wasn’t uncommon to hear the disagreements of nearby neighbors.
This was different though. The man shouted often; the woman only cried.
“Should we call the cops?” Haley asked one night when the shouting seemed particularly violent. They’d just eaten dinner and were clearing the table.
“Maybe,” Matt said while setting a plate in the dishwasher. “I’m just not sure what we’d tell them.”
The disturbance subsided before they reached a decision, so they let it go and found something to watch on Netflix. Ultimately, they felt good about not involving the police in something that seemed to be a minor argument.
It was just after nine the next morning when they heard more shouting, more crying. With both of their offices still shut down, Matt and Haley were working from home and these kinds of disturbances had become routine parts of their workday. Once again though, the shouting seemed angrier than usual.
Haley gazed at Matt over the top of her laptop monitor. “What do we do?”
“I don’t know.” He let out a long sigh and then said, “I feel weird calling the cops about some crying. I mean, that’s not a crime, right? Crying.”
“No, but something’s clearly going on over there. Maybe it’d be good to have someone come out and check on the woman.” Haley thought it over for a moment and then said, “But they’ll know it was us that called. I’m not looking to start a feud with them.”
Matt agreed and they returned to their work. The shouting lasted about a half hour, then things were quiet the rest of the day.
It became a familiar pattern—the man shouted, the woman cried—but it never lasted long and never seemed to escalate beyond shouting and crying.
Until that summer when Matt and Haley were again watching TV and the yelling began. This time, it was so loud it interrupted the episode of Ozark they were trying to watch.
Matt paused the show as Haley walked to the shared wall. Pressing her ear to the drywall, she heard the man grumbling just before he called the woman a “stupid bitch.” Then they heard a thump that rattled the pictures on their walls. It was followed by another thud, and a shriek from the woman.
Haley hurried back to the safety of the sofa. “Did he just hit her?”
Matt nodded. “I think so.”
Haley reached toward the coffee table and grabbed her phone. “I’m calling.”
Matt again nodded.
Haley dialed and began pacing the living room. The 911 operator answered quickly and Haley relayed the name and address of the complex, but stumbled to find the right words to explain why she was calling. “I’m pretty sure our neighbor just hit his wife. Or his girlfriend. I’m not sure if they’re married.”
The operator wanted to know if she’d witnessed it. Haley felt stupid saying she’d only heard it—or thought she’d heard it, for that matter. The operator asked if anyone’s life was in danger. Haley didn’t know, of course. She’d begun to doubt what she heard, and it was impossible to know what was happening on the other side of the wall. “I—I think so. She was crying really loudly, and the thud we heard sounded really bad.”
Haley’s shoulders slumped as she lowered the phone from her ear.
Matt’s eyes were wide, his eyebrows high on his forehead. “What’d they say?”
“They’re sending some officers.”
Haley wasn’t convinced she’d done the right thing though. “Is that what’s best? Cops?” She pushed a pile of magazines aside and sat down on the edge of the coffee table. “What if we’re wrong about what’s going on?”
“You heard that thud. That’s not a normal thing.”
“Are you sure the noise was part of a fight though?”
“Totally sure. Why are you suddenly doubting what we heard?”
“I don’t know. I just don’t want us sticking our nose into things that aren’t any of our business. We’ve fought before. A bunch of times. How embarrassing would it have been if the cops showed up at the door?”
“What happened was way more than an argument, babe. He clearly hit her.”
“Are you sure?”
“I can’t imagine what else that noise would be.”
Haley stared at the ground for a moment, then nodded in agreement. “Okay. If you’re sure.”
It took about a half hour, but two officers showed up and knocked on the neighbors’ door. Matt watched through the peephole as the two men stood in the breezeway. No one answered the door, so one of the cops knocked again. After a minute or so with no answer, both men walked away.
Haley had told the operator she didn’t need to be contacted for a follow-up, so they had no way of knowing if anyone ever got in touch with the woman or not.
For almost two days, the couple next door made no noise at all, and Matt and Haley imagined the worst. But around dinnertime the following Friday, they heard the shouting again. An unsettling confirmation that the woman was still alive.
– – –
The couple continued to argue throughout the summer. Matt and Haley nearly got used to the yelling, but that fall, their walls shook again. The disruption was followed by what sounded like the woman saying, “Stop, please stop” while crying.
Matt called the cops. He gave the address, explained what they’d heard, and he too requested not to be contacted in hopes their neighbors wouldn’t know who kept calling the cops on them.
It took nearly forty-five minutes for officers to show up—one male and one female—and again they knocked on the door a few times and left when no one answered.
Within minutes of the officers’ departure, Matt and Haley heard someone banging around in the kitchen next door.
Over the next few months, they called the cops three more times, and each time, the cops came out, knocked, then left when no one answered.
The next time the pictures rattled, Matt and Haley pressed their ears to the wall, hoping to hear something they could pass on to the police.
The man’s words were trenchant. “You stupid whore!” The unmistakable sound of flesh hitting flesh followed.
The woman shrieked, then whimpered.
The man said, “Get up. It didn’t hurt that bad.”
Sobbing, the woman apologized.
Matt told the 911 operator what the man had said, and that he’d struck the woman. It seemed to increase the urgency of the officers’ response because three officers arrived within minutes.
Matt gazed through the peephole as a tall, burly male officer knocked on the door. When no one answered, he made a fist and banged harder. The sound vibrated Matt’s face as he peered through the peephole.
Still, no one came to the door. Another officer stepped closer and yelled—demanding that they answer their door. “We’ve received multiple calls, so we know somebody’s inside this apartment. We’re not going anywhere until you talk to us.”
It worked. The door soon creaked open and the man—short and overweight—stepped into the breezeway to meet the officers. Matt heard him tell them he’d been rearranging some furniture. He told the officers that he couldn’t imagine why people thought he was shouting. “We’re just moving some stuff around the living room. That’s it.”
The officers asked to speak to the woman, and the man yelled over his shoulder for her. Within seconds, she appeared in the breezeway.
She spoke softly and Matt couldn’t make out what she was saying, but she seemed to corroborate the story about moving furniture.
What they’d heard was not furniture being moved, both of them were sure of that. What could they do though? They had no way to prove to the cops that he’d called her awful things, or that he’d struck her, and without evidence, their word meant nothing.
– – –
They’d planned to order from the Thai place that had just opened in the strip mall a few blocks away, then spend the evening catching up on some shows.
Haley grabbed the menu from beneath the magnet on the refrigerator, then plopped down on the sofa next to Matt. She was reading him the noodle options when they heard a loud thud.
A picture vibrated off the wall and fell to the carpeted floor below. Haley gasped; Matt flenched.
The man was shouting—screaming was more like it. Louder than they’d ever heard him before, like the wall wasn’t there to protect them from his rage.
He yelled awful things at the woman; called her terrible names. Then the familiar thud again shook the framed memories hanging on their wall.
Haley reached for her phone just as another thud rattled their world. The man released a loud groan—a pained sound that reverberated through the thin wall.
Matt and Haley looked at each other, then cautiously walked toward the wall and pressed their ears to it.
It was quiet on the other side, like nothing had ever happened. Like no one was home.
Leaning away from the wall, they stared at each other, both afraid to make noise, and both hoping to hear a sound next door—something that indicated everyone was okay.
In a near whisper, Haley said, “What do you think happened?”
Matt shook his head and quietly said, “I’m not sure.”
Haley returned her ear to the wall and Matt followed. The hum of a TV or a radio pulsated through the drywall, but it was difficult to distinguish its origins. It could have been from a neighbor downstairs, or from above them.
Matt pulled away from the wall and went toward the front door.
In a muted tone, Haley said, “Where the hell are you going?”
Matt didn’t answer.
She watched as he reached the vinyl flooring of the entryway where he softened each of his steps toward the door. He leaned in and looked through the peephole.
Haley awaited an update, but when he didn’t offer one, she quietly said, “Anything?”
Matt turned away from the door shaking his head. “No one’s out there.”
“What should we do?”
“I guess we should call the cops.”
Haley stared at the floor as she twisted her wedding band back and forth. “What if…” She released a deep breath. “Do you think that was what it sounded like?”
He shrugged. “What’d it sound like to you?”
Matt nodded in agreement. “We don’t know what it was for sure though.”
“Even if it was…” Haley twisted her ring in circles. “I—I don’t want to get her in any trouble.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean. If that’s what happened, he…” She released another deep breath. “She was just protecting herself.”
“Yeah, I guess.” Matt nodded. “So? No cops then?”
Before she could respond, they heard voices next door.
Matt returned to the peephole just as the woman stepped out of the apartment carrying a small suitcase. She paused, like she’d forgotten something, then her son exited the apartment, his white T-shirt spotted with what looked like blood.
Haley whispered, “What’s going on?”
Matt waved his hand behind his back at her, hoping she’d be quiet. She took the hint and Matt watched the son take the suitcase from the woman as the two walked down the breezeway, then out of Matt’s sight.
Matt turned toward Haley and exhaled the air he’d been holding in his lungs. “It was the son. He and the woman just left, and I think he had blood on him.”
“Are you sure?”
“It looked like blood to me. It was a white shirt with dark red splotches.”
She stumbled backward to the arm of the sofa and sat down. “What would we even tell the cops? I mean, can you say for sure that he was covered in blood?”
Matt shook his head. “I wouldn’t say ‘covered,’ exactly. There were just some splotches on his shirt. I can’t even say for sure it was blood.”
She nodded as they stared at each other in silence. They’d reached a decision, even if neither had said it out loud.
– – –
Their apartment was illuminated by flashing lights from the parking lot below. Other neighbors must have called, and the manager or someone in the office had apparently let the cops into the apartment next door.
Most of the complex’s residents were either on their patios, in the breezeway, or standing in the parking lot—all of them trying to figure out what was going on.
Then came the knock on their door.
Haley jumped, the loud noise a reminder of months of turmoil next door.
Matt gazed through the peephole and let out a long sigh. Turning toward Haley he said, “You ready?”
She nodded as she drew in a deep breath to steady her nerves.
Matt opened the door and peeked around it. “Yes? Can I help you?”
The officer wore no expression as he introduced himself and explained that they were investigating an incident next door, as he put it. He wanted to know if they’d heard or seen anything.
“Like what?” Matt asked.
The officer provided a short list of vague things like yelling or the sounds of a struggle.
“Nothing like that,” Matt said. “Sorry.”
“Were you in your residence around 6:30 this evening?”
Matt nodded. “Yeah. We’ve been here all night.”
“And you didn’t hear any loud noises. Anything that seemed unusual?”
Haley stepped closer and said, “We’ve been watching TV in the bedroom. We only came out because we saw all the flashing lights.”
The officer glanced at the notebook in his hand.
Haley attempted to sound calm as she said, “Is um… Is everything okay?”
The officer’s face remained expressionless. “I’m afraid a man was stabbed in a nearby apartment. We don’t believe any other residents are in danger, but the man did succumb to his injuries.”
“That’s awful,” Haley said.
The officer nodded. “So if you think of anything that you saw or heard, would you please give me a call.” He handed Matt a business card.
Matt took it from him, sliding it into his pocket without looking at it. “We will. For sure.”
The officer left and Haley collapsed onto the couch the moment the door was closed. “He knew we were lying.”
“He didn’t know anything.”
“We just helped someone get away with killing another person. I know that woman is free now, but… Should we have told them what we know? Wouldn’t that help her more?”
“Maybe. Or maybe they’d never consider any of what we heard in the past, and just call this a murder.”
The word hung in the air between them. Murder. Until now, Haley hadn’t thought of it that way. She stared at her bare feet. “Where do you think she is?”
“I don’t know.” Matt shrugged. “Her son seemed to have a plan. He probably got her out of town. Maybe even out of the country. Wherever she is, it’s better for her now.”
“I hope so.”
Matt sat down beside Haley, resting his hand on her leg. Setting her hand on top of his, she interlaced their fingers and stared toward the apartment next door, the wall illuminated by alternating red and blue light that pulsated at increasingly predictable intervals. It was oddly beautiful in a way. A mottled reminder of the decision they’d made. A decision they’d have to live with forever.