It took me four days after Brenna’s birthday before I finally came out of the deep emotional hole I’d fallen into. But I finally got up. I had to. I lectured Cole on the fact that he was never home and never did anything with Sam. But I was home, and I hardly ever did anything with Sam. I called Lori that morning, and after a hard cry, I made a promise to reengage with my son and get moving.
I had to do something, anything to break the depression. So I started in the kitchen, windows open, fan going. Mechanically washed the dishes, rinsed them, racked them up. The counters were filthy. I sprayed them down and began scrubbing. Sugar was encrusted on the counter near the coffee pot. Gross. I couldn’t do this anymore. I couldn’t live like this anymore.
I was on my hands and knees, cleaning some god-awful spill from the floor, when my phone rang. I leaned back on my knees and wiped my hands on a paper towel, then reached in my pocket, my mind running through who it could be. My sister again? Cole, calling from work?
He rarely, if ever, called from the restaurant, unless it was to tell me he was going to be late. Sam’s school?
I wasn’t prepared for the number I saw, but I recognized it immediately. My heart instantly started pounding in my chest, my throat closing up in fear.
It was the number for Stan Wilcox at the FBI.
I fumbled, dropping the phone. It landed on the floor with a loud crack and I dived for it. It rang again, and I hit the answer button.
“Hello?” I said frantically.
“Mrs. Roberts? It’s Agent Wilcox.”
“Yes,” I choked out.
“I’ve got some news.”
Time froze. In less than a second, my mind ran past all the incidents where Wilcox had given us news. When they found her car, with the broken phone. When they found the bracelet Lori gave her in Chase’s apartment. The weekly calls for a year, then less often since then. But he still called, and he almost always prefaced those calls with the statement, “I don’t have any news, I’m just checking in.”
Today he’d said, I’ve got some news.
“Yes? Tell me.”
“Three weeks ago, a young woman going by a, uh … street name … of Strawberry … she was picked up in Portland, Oregon. Arrested for prostitution. Apparently there was some kind of mix-up, the links to the National Crime Information Center were down, so the fingerprints didn’t get matched up until this morning. But, Erin, it was Brenna. She’s alive.”
I swallowed and sank back against the cabinet, my numb legs splayed out in front of me. I couldn’t breathe. I tried to say something. Anything. Tears ran down my face.
“Mrs. Roberts? Erin?”
“I’m here,” I whispered. She’d been arrested for prostitution. One of my worst fears had come alive, but I didn’t care. I just wanted her back. I just wanted her back.
“Did you understand what I said?”
“Brenna’s alive. And in Portland. Can I talk to her? I can fly up today.”
He was silent for just a moment, taking a breath, and replied, “Erin … she was released on bail. We’ve alerted the Portland PD, and they’re treating it as a trafficking case now. They didn’t know she was a minor when they picked her up, and … well … we don’t know exactly where she is.”
I screamed into the phone, “My daughter’s alive after two years missing and you can’t tell me where she is?”
“I’m sorry, ma’am. But I promise you, we’re putting every resource we have into the search. We’ll find her.”
“Who bailed her out?” I demanded.
“I’m working on getting the details.”
“I’m going to Portland.”
“Mrs. Roberts, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
I hissed into the phone. “I don’t care anymore what you think. My daughter’s been missing for two years and she turns up alive and you can’t even tell me where she is? I’m going to Portland and finding my daughter.”
I hung up the phone, unable to think clearly. I’d have to fly to Portland, it was too far to drive and get there in a reasonable period of time. We didn’t have money, not any money at all, but maybe my sister or Cole’s parents could help. I tried to get my mind in order then took out my phone and dialed Cole at work.
He didn’t answer, so I moved to the bedroom and began wildly throwing clothes into a suitcase, not paying any attention to what I was putting in there. It didn’t matter. What mattered was getting to Portland as quickly as I could.
I dialed again five minutes later. Still no answer. Damn it.
I threw the suitcase into the back of the minivan then went back in and changed into clothes that weren’t completely filthy from cleaning. On the way back out to the van, I dialed again.
This time he finally answered.
“Hey,” he said.
The second I heard his voice, I fell apart again. My knees let go, and I sank to the ground. For just a second, I wanted nothing more than to have my husband back, because I needed him. I needed to be able to lean on him; I needed him to be able to help.
“Cole?” I wailed.
“Erin? What’s wrong?” he asked, his voice suddenly panicking.
I broke down instantly, sobbing. Then I said the words. The words I’d been desperately wanting to say, to hear, to believe.
“Cole. She’s alive. Brenna’s alive!”
Note: This is an unedited preview of my upcoming novel Winter Flower, releasing June 22, 2019. Pre-orders are available at all major retailers.