The people I live with aren’t my parents. They aren’t even related to my parents, as far as I can tell. They’re just people—cold, ruthless, angry people who wanted to have a daughter of their own and didn’t care whose lives they destroyed to get one.
I’ve always known there was something strange about them. Martha (”mom”) looks nothing like me. She thinks nothing like me. She’s always blithering about her precious china plates or sorting her collections of pristine dresses and shoes that no-ones allowed to wear. Tyler (”dad”) is an auto-mechanic who smells like gasoline all the time, always mumbling and looking away as though he’s ashamed to be alive. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do or who I’m supposed to be when I grow up, but I’ve lived with them long enough to know what I don’t want.
They treat me like a possession. I speak when I’m spoken to. I wear what I’m told to wear, go where I’m told to go, and even at 15, I’m never, ever allowed to go out alone.
And you know what really makes me sick? The fact that I’d looked past all of their manipulative, controlling habits for my whole life. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t allowed to go play with friends. “Dad” wanted to keep me safe, and he knew best. It didn’t matter that “mom” forced me to spend countless hours sitting on the floor to sew lace into her clothes. It was all I’ve ever known, and I trusted them. But not anymore.
I found out when I stumbled across a personal ad in the local paper. I don’t read the news, but I’d picked up a big stack for a school paper-mache project and there it was on top:
Missing: 15 year old girl. Birth date: 06/04/02. Brown hair, green eyes.
We haven’t given up. We will never forget.
Last seen: 12 years ago, abducted from Bakersfield Park. Pink bow in her hair.
Below that, two pictures. One of a baby girl, about 3 years old. Another one that looked like a computer-generated prediction of what she would like now. The hair was all wrong, but other than that it felt like looking into a mirror.
My birthday. My description. My picture! I couldn’t breathe. I’d never gotten along with the people I lived with, but I’d tolerated them this long because I thought underneath all their self-absorption they were my family. I was supposed to love them. Imagining them snatching me out of a park—imagining the countless nights my real parents must have searched and prayed and cried—it made my blood boil.
I started flipping through the stack of papers. There the ad was again, another month back. And another month before that. Always the same words: We will never forget.
“Are you making a mess in there?” It was Martha. Her beady little eyes tracking me from the living room, judging every move I made. I did my best to keep my trembling hands from betraying what I found as I neatly stacked the newspapers once more.
“Do you have any baby pictures I could look at?” I asked innocently.
Martha’s face crinkled with distaste. “Of course, but I don’t want you looking. You never put anything away properly.”
“I mean when I was really small. Like two years old.” I scrutinized her face for any sign of discomfort, but it was difficult to read when she was always scowling like that.
“I shouldn’t think so,” she huffed, turning back to her magazine. “There was that flood when you were—oh but you’d be too young to remember.”
It was all I needed to know. I went back to my room and dialed the phone number in the ad. I was actually in tears when the voice crackled through the other line.
“Mom?” I whispered as loudly as I dared. “Mom are you there?”
We didn’t call the police. We figured that anyone who could live their entire lives as a lie were capable of anything. Instead we were just going to do it as quietly as possible.
I packed my favorite clothes in a backpack and hid it under my bed. I let Tyler tuck me in, somehow resisting the urge to spit in his face when he leaned in to kiss me goodnight. I let Martha watch me from the crack in the door, pale orbs glowing where they reflected the moonlight. I pretended to be asleep, my whole body flushed and throbbing in anticipation.
Finally the coast was clear. I grabbed my backpack and snuck out in my pajamas, not wanting to spend a second longer in that house than I had to. There was a car waiting for me at the end of the block. For the first time I could remember, I was going back to my real home.
A woman got out of the passenger side and waved to me. Not just any woman—it was my mom. I knew it before I even saw her. I was running without realizing it, and she was running too. We didn’t slow down until we collided, hugging and crying, utterly abandoned by words. She smelled like warm cinnamon. Then a man got out of the driver’s side, but before I could approach him the deck lights behind me turned on.
“Tyler! She’s running away! I told you something was wrong!”
I flew into the car and didn’t look back. My parents — my real parents — were tearing up the road, and I was giggling like a maniac the whole way.
“We never stopped believing,” my father was saying from the front. “That’s not to say that it didn’t get hard sometimes, but—”
“The other children are going to be so happy too!” Mom squealed with adrenaline.
“I have brothers and sister?” I couldn’t stop smiling. Two complete strangers, and already they seemed closer to me than my old “family” ever was.
“Something like that.” My parents exchanged a knowing look. “And they can’t wait to meet you.”
Barred windows. A padlock on the front door. Concrete floors. I don’t know what I was expecting home to be, but this wasn’t it. A dozen frightened faces lifted to greet us when the door opened.
“Run!” A little girl screeched, about 12 years old. She jumped up as soon as she heard us, but I was so bewildered that I didn’t make the slightest move.
I was shoved hard from behind and fell to my knees. The door slammed shut behind me. My parents were on the outside, and I could hear the padlock snap back into place.
“I’m sorry,” the little girl said. “I’m so sorry.”
“Mom? Dad?” It wasn’t that I refused to believe what was going on. I was incapable of believing. I had built this fantasy up in my head so long that, for the moment at least, it was still stronger than whatever reality tried to break through.
“We will never forget.” It was my mother, but the voice was wrong. I couldn’t see her on the other side of the door, but I knew that sound could only come through a snarl. “And neither will you.”
“Forget what? Mom? Dad? What’s going on?”
I felt a small hand in mine, and I jumped. Everything was moving so fast. I let the girl guide me back to the far side where the others were sitting. The walls were decorated with newspaper clippings. Personal ads — hundreds of them. All for missing children, all promising that they’d never forget.
“That’s mine over there,” the little girl pointed at her picture in one of the ads.
“Stop talking to her,” an older girl said. “You’ll be punished for it.” I scanned the other children. All teenagers, I think. All girls. Some of them looked like people I might bump into the street, but others were stranger. Their skin was drawn tight and riddled with bruises and sores. Their eyes were hollow, and I got the impression that they didn’t see me even when they were pointed in my direction.
“I don’t care,” the younger girl insisted. She steered me up against the wall and sat cross-legged in front of me. I could barely see her face through the matted hair. “They hate girls. That’s why we’re here.”
“That’s not the reason,” the older girl sighed. “It’s because they’re crazy. There doesn’t need to be any other reason.”
“They lost their own daughter,” the younger continued. “She was a hooker or something, and she got killed. I don’t know the details, but I guess they started collecting girls after that. Every once in awhile a foreign man-”
“He’s from Russia,” one of the others interjected.
“Foreign man comes and chooses some of us. Then they go with him.”
“What happens to the ones who aren’t chosen?” I asked, but looking around I already knew the answer.
“Don’t worry about it. You’re a pretty one. They’ll pick you,” the older girl said. I don’t know why she thought that – I could barely even see her face in the gloom.
“Here,” the little girl handed me a notepad and a pen. “You can have this if you want.”
“What am I supposed to write?”
She shrugged. “Anything you want. At least then there will be something left when you’re gone.”
The first thing I wrote was:
I love you mom. I love you dad.
The second thing I wrote, you’re reading now.