When my eyes drifted open in the morning, Cole and Sam had gone. Only the ticking of the grandfather clock broke the silence. My clothes from the day before, which I hadn‘t changed, felt sticky and rumpled. A headache that began at the base of my neck and ran all the way to my forehead clouded my brain.
I slowly sat up and surveyed the living room. I’d slept on the couch again, and the heat had awakened me. The morning sun glared through the front picture window, silhouetting the duct-taped crack in the bottom-left corner. The house would soon be an oven. Our financial situation had been so dire, for so long, that I didn’t run the air conditioning until the afternoon, just before Sam got home from school.
I stood and stripped down to my underclothes. The heat pummeled me, enough that sweat slicked my skin and I smelled. I needed a cool shower. To clean the house. To check Sam’s computer. I needed to get a handle on my life. On our lives.
Instead, I padded into the kitchen and put on a pot of coffee. The clock on the microwave read 11:05. No wonder my head was filled with fog. I filled a tall glass of water from the sink, drinking back the chemical tasting tap water.
Days like this, I felt paralyzed. I was bored and needed something productive to do, but I couldn’t bring myself to do the things I needed to do. Sam and Cole had added their coffee cups and Sam’s cereal bowl to the pile of dishes in the sink. I stared at the dishes and wanted to scream. But I didn’t have enough motivation or energy to do it. This was my life. Dishes. Laundry. Iron Cole’s uniforms. Go to sleep. Do it over again.
At least when the children were small, they brought meaning to being a stay-at-home mom. But they weren’t little any more. They weren’t mine any more. Brenna was gone. Every time I thought of her it was like a mini-seizure. And Sam had shut me out. I knew nothing about my youngest child. Sam spent too much time locked behind his bedroom door on the computer.
I shook my head a little, trying to shake loose from the oppressive thoughts. The coffee had been ready several minutes, and I’d just been standing here. I poured myself a cup, stirred in a packet of Splenda. I opened the kitchen window, and despite the heat outside, well over a hundred degrees, the slight breeze cooled my skin a little.
The heat, laden with moisture, brought an intense flash of memory. Summer in Georgia, twenty years ago. I still remembered when he touched my skin. When we desired each other. When the heat burned so close to the surface, it took nothing more than a word, a whisper, a breeze for it to flare up and pull us into each other’s arms.
It had been a long time since I’d experienced that. Instead, most of the time a blanket muffled my emotions, dulling the pain, true; but also dulling joy and love and desire, leaving me with nothing but bare existence. Maybe because it had been two years, or because Sam was back in school and I was alone at home for the first time in months, or it was nothing at all, but I squeezed my eyes shut as fresh grief washed over me.
Brenna would be eighteen soon.
If she was alive.
I finally made my way into the shower. I thrust the past out of my mind, trying to concentrate on nothing more than the water beating against my skin.
Head finally clear, I stepped out of the shower and dried off, then dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. I wouldn’t be going out today. Honestly, I hadn’t worked that hard to find a job. Because every day, after Cole and Sam left, I worked on the computer. Searching. Today I would push that off a little, because I planned to get a look at Sam’s computer. I’m no technophile, but I’d learned enough about computers to check his history and cookies.
I didn’t find anything. No cookies on the computer. No history in the web browser. Which meant that Sam had cleared everything before leaving for school.
Not a good sign. If I had found random websites in there, I guess that would be fine. But nothing? That meant he was hiding something. I sighed, shut the computer down and walked out into the living room. Still broiling in here. I sat down out the couch and opened my aging laptop. The battery no longer functioned, so I had to keep it plugged in all the time, and one of the keys had broken off, but it still worked, and we weren’t likely to be able to afford another one for a long time. Once it booted up, I started my daily search.
I started with public arrest records. After two years, the only way I could stay alive was to have hope she was still alive.
But I’d learned so much, so many horrible things about what happened to sixteen-year-old girls who ran away or were abducted. If she still lived, one day she might turn up in these records. Arrested for jaywalking or theft or worse. A thin hope, but it was hope. Not long after she disappeared, I’d learned of the teeming markets that existed online for women. Dozens of sites where you could pick a city, any city, and shop for a woman or a girl. Men who called themselves “mongers“ or “hobbyists“ even operated review websites and discussion boards where they would discuss how a particular woman behaved or what she was willing to do.
Today I found nothing. No new records, nothing with her name on it. Earlier this year, I’d had a terrifying moment, when an arrest record for prostitution turned up in Detroit with her name on it. I’d contacted the National Crime Information Center and the Detroit Police Department. It turned out to be another girl, a different girl.
Someone else’s child. Someone else who was lost.
From there, I moved on. This was the difficult part. Every day I picked a different city, mostly focusing on the larger ones, because that’s where the market for young teenage girls existed. Craigslist once, and Backpage, and worse. I read the headlines and looked at the pictures.
Toe Curling * Highly Skilled * $60 Incall * 18 years old.
Busty tantalizing blonde * Outcalls * 20
Brunette College Girl * Let me be your fantasy * 180/hour
Scanning through the pictures, I saw hundreds of girls and women. Some of them were undoubtedly still children, though all of them claimed to be at least 18. I looked into their faces and their eyes, and whenever I came across one close to my daughter’s age and build I’d peer into their faces if they weren’t blurred out. This one? Was it her? I tried to picture her at 18 and match her features up to the pictures.
I’d learned the patterns. In the big cities, like Atlanta and New York and Washington, the girls were younger, dressed more provocatively, and charged less. The Asian girls worked in massage parlors mostly, and the young white girls worked hotels and outcalls, and sometimes the street. I’d spent two years researching the fates of missing girls, and I still couldn’t look at it, think about it, envision it without horror catching my throat.
The statistics were harsh, horrifying. Impersonal, until you realized each one was a person. Twenty-three hundred Americans reported missing every day, and all but a small fraction were children. Half of those were family abductions; many more runaways. Only a tiny fraction were “stranger” abductions.
But the stranger abductions had a pattern. A few hundred each year. Nearly all were young women, 12 to 17, just like Brenna. Most were abducted by men. Virtually all of them sexually assaulted. I knew the numbers. Far too many of these girls ended up abused or dead. And so, I kept looking. I kept peering into those faces, those bodies, wondering if one day I’d open up this computer and see her face staring out at me.
I’d know my daughter anywhere, at any age. Today I didn’t find her amongst these women. But, as always, my rage stoked, a slow burning coal in my gut that threatened to boil over at any moment. As always, I found myself sick to my stomach. The first time I did this search, I vomited. Because those girls on those pages had mothers somewhere. Because I’d learned hard facts in my search.
Nothing today. I checked my email to see if any Google alerts had come, mentions of her name on the Internet. Nothing. I closed my laptop and leaned my head back against the couch, the images of those contorted, barely dressed women running through my mind.
For a few moments I toyed with the idea of getting a glass of wine or four. I felt exhausted. That was nothing new—I was always tired these days.
My phone rang while I was still considering the possibilities. Despite the expense we couldn’t afford, we’d kept our cell phones, and added a new one, which we transferred our old home number to. We’d kept the same email addresses, kept as many lines of communication open as possible. Any way for Brenna to reach us. The one exception was the house, and we’d stayed there until the bank, followed by the Sheriff’s department, threw us out, and the only option for employment was to come to this shithole of a town in the middle of nowhere.
The caller was my sister. I sighed. Lori would be full of concern, wanting to know how I was. But if I didn’t answer, she’d keep calling, and eventually she’d break down and call Cole. That had happened twice in the months since he’d gotten out of prison, and neither time went well. Lori hated Cole and the feeling was mutual.
I didn’t need that kind of hassle. I answered the phone.
“Erin? I wanted to check in and see how you’re doing.”
“I’m all right,” I lied. We both knew I was lying.
“I haven’t heard from you in a couple weeks.”
The silence grew uncomfortable when I didn’t respond.
“I’m worried about you,” she said.
“Please don’t, Lori. I’m doing the best I can.”
“Listen… I was thinking… maybe you can come visit again.”
“Lori. Stop. We just moved here a few months ago. Sam started school today. I can’t go anywhere.”
“I could come visit you,” she replied.
My eyes grazed across the house. The dirty walls and ragged carpet. The cracked front window. Neither Cole or I had put family pictures on the walls. No art. Nothing that represented us. Most of our things remained in boxes in the shed out back, at least what we hadn’t discarded when we left Virginia.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I replied. “I’m really okay, Lori. We’re just getting settled in. I’ve been busy.”
She stayed silent for a few seconds, then said, “Erin… it’s okay to grieve. You have to. But it’s been almost two years.”
My lips turned up in scorn. “What do you want, Lori? To just let it go? Forget about my daughter and move on? Is that what you want?” As I said the words, my voice rose.
She sighed at the other end. “I… I want my sister back.”
My eyes watered. “Well, we can’t get what we want, can we? I want my daughter back.”
My words hit her. She sobbed, then said, “I’m sorry, Erin. Please let me help.”
I pulled my legs up and leaned my forehead on my knees and said, “There’s nothing you can do, Lori. Nothing.”
I disconnected the phone.
Note: This is an unedited preview of my upcoming novel Winter Flower, releasing June 22, 2019. Pre-orders are available at all major retailers.