It was the middle of the night. Michelle wanted so badly for sleep to take her and never let go, but her eyes refused to close. The hollow ticking of the kitchen clock pounded in her ears. The red glowing digital numbers beside her bed read 3:32 am. Restless, she sighed and got up, padding across the hall to check on her son again.
She edged the door open a crack. John still slept soundly, his sheets wrapped around him like a coccoon. He looked like an angel in the warm yellow glow from his nightlight. The sound of his deep, peaceful breathing calmed her thumping heart, and she silently closed the door again.
Tears collected in her eyes, but she was too exhausted to cry. She blinked them back.
It had been three years, and still she could feel a hole the size of a fist in her chest. She loathed the person she had become: always sad, always worried, always dreading the night, always reluctant to wake up. Her friends had pulled away, and the ones that hadn't, she had pushed. She didn't want their pity, or their advice. She wanted her daughter. She knew she would never be whole again.
She couldn't remember the last time she had laughed, or even smiled, except to reassure her son. In her mind, she could still hear Sarah's carefree giggle; even the ghost of the sound seemed to light up the dark hallway.
Michelle just stood there, outside her son's bedroom, half-heartedly willing the memories to leave her alone. She didn't deserve to be happy anyway. Not when Sarah was gone.
The night she had reported her daughter missing, she had entered a living hell. She had told the police that she would do anything to have Sarah back. She had believed it.
She had memorized the nine names on the list. Strange, foreign names. Who could these people be? Why did someone want them dead? What had they done?
How could she find them?
Michelle went back into her own empty room. A cold draft reached her feet, exposed by her old flannel pyjamas. She switched on a lamp and reached instinctively under her pillow. When her hand touched nothing but soft cloth, she panicked, gapsing, and, in one swift motion, threw both pillows on the floor.
There, caught between the matress and the headboard, was the photograph. Michelle snatched at it, relieved. She held the picture to her chest, cradling it the way she had cradled Sarah's tiny body the day she'd been born. How could she have let this happen?
"I'm so sorry," she whispered. "Sarah, I love you. I'm so sorry." She wept now, careful not to stain the picture with her tears. Her breath came in quiet gasps.
In the stillness of the night, things were so clear: somehow, somewhere, Sarah was alive. Ten years old. Wondering why her mother had not come for her.
Cold resolve settled in her bones, and she swiped at her tears. Now that Michelle knew her baby was alive, she would do anything to get her back.