Though the afternoon was sunny and warm, 7-year-old Brendan Sanchez was inside, watching a sing-song television program from his place kneeling on the brown carpet was that so old and worn that the floor was exposed in places. He looked up from the screen every so often, to cast a worried glance at his mother.
Michelle Sanchez watched her son just as carefully as he watched her, through eyes that were red from rubbing and lack of sleep. In front of her was a chaotic mess of papers, spread out over the kitchen table. She pushed them around anxiously.
"Mommy, can I please go play outside?" Brendan asked for the second time.
Michelle looked up from the piles of bills, about to refuse again, but the innocent sadness in her son's wide blue eyes melted her resolve.
"Okay, Brendan, but please stay in the yard where I can see you."
The boy jumped up and dashed out the back door, abandoning the TV characters, who were still singing their too-cheerful song:
We are going to play a game
This is how we play a game
Michelle stood and went to look out the window over the kitchen sink, where she had a complete view of the yard. The grass was unruly and too long - the old pushmower had given up and died long ago. At the far end of the yard, the remains of a garden was overgrown with tall weeds. A lone, apparently dead oak tree in the far corner added to the wild mess. Michelle knew she should get back to the pile of bills, but she stayed, unable to turn away from the window, even for a moment.
Instead, she turned on the tap and filled the rusting sink with warm water, tossing in the dishes that were piled on the counter. Absently, she washed and rinsed them, stacking them to dry on a rack beside the sink, all without taking her eyes from the window.
Brendan played in the yard, collecting leaves, squishing ants, all the while humming softly to himself.
Guilt hung heavily on her shoulders. She knew her son was unhappy. She knew she was being paranoid and overprotective, but she did not know how to stop. She couldn't let him leave her sight.
His dirty blond hair shone gold in the sunlight. His sad blue eyes lit up when he found a beetle on the porch.
When he laughed, it reminded her so much of-
A sudden crash and a startled cry jolted Michelle out of her thoughts. Her eyes travelled to her soapy wet hands, then flew instinctively to her son, but he was still playing with his new beetle friend. The cry, she realized, had been her own. On the floor, next to her bare feet, were shards of a plain white ceramic bowl that had slipped off the overcrowded drying rack.
The broken dish was all it took to set her off. A familiar choking feeling swelled in her throat, and she let the tears come. Violent sobs attacked her chest; her breath came in shaky gasps. Michelle ran to her daughter's untouched room and opened the door, breathing in the familiar stale, dusty smell.
It had been three years, and she still had not found the courage to move anything in the room. A thin layer of dust covered everything like a veil. The pale yellow walls were still marked with Sarah's crayons, her bed still exactly the way she had left it that morning. The morning that she didn't come home.
Sarah would be ten now. She is ten, Michelle corrected herself. Though the police had long given up, a mother's hope did not die so easily. Her friends and her own mother had told her to let go, but instead she had clung tighter, and eventually stopped responding to their calls and emails altogether. She did not want their pity or their advice. She wanted her daughter.
Though she rarely opened the door to Sarah's bedroom, and almost never entered, Michelle bravely stepped inside. Fresh tears flowed softly. She ran her hand over the pillow. Her fingers came away with a film of dust.
She approached the window slowly and spread the curtains. For the first time in three years, direct sunlight filled the room. Outside, Brendan had moved on to digging in the garden with a faded orange plastic shovel.
Something on the dresser caught Michelle's eye in the new light. Unlike the dusty, muted flavours of the room, it shone stark white, hurting her eyes. Michelle picked up the unmarked envelope and pulled out a letter. Something dropped to the carpet - a photograph. She bent down to pick it up, then gasped, nearly dropping it again.
She stood frozen in her daughter's room for what felt like years, staring at the picture, memorizing every detail.
The soft face of a young girl showed little expression. It was framed by golden hair, hanging straight and longer than Michelle remembered. Calm blue eyes watched some unknown object to the right of the camera. Sarah's face had lost a bit of its youth. Her nose, a bit too long for her face, reminded Michelle of her ex-husband. She wore a too-big white t-shirt, the broad shoulders draped around her thin elbows. The background was a plain concrete wall.
In Sarah's hand was a small white object. It looked hard and glossy and sharp, like a piece of... Michelle frowned, confused.
She glanced compulsively out the window once more to check on her son, before walking back to the kitchen, as if in slow motion. She scanned the room with new worry in her eyes, as if someone or something lurked around the corner.
Michelle knelt cautiously, placing the picture on the floor beside her. Picking up the biggest piece, she began to reconstruct the bowl. Her hands shook, but she was determined. She fit the curved pieces together, struggling to hold them all in place with one hand. When she was finished, some of the finer shards remained on the floor. A sizeable hole remained in the side, the matching piece nowhere to be found.
Michelle stared through the hole, disbelief in her red, watery eyes. It was the exact shape of the piece her daughter held.
Michelle set the broken bowl gently on the floor, then ran back to the bedroom and picked up the letter, skimming the printed words, then re-reading more carefully:
Concerning Ms. Michelle Sanchez,
Do you want to play a game?
1.Godfrey De Vries
Kill these people and your daughter will be returned to you, just as she left.
There was no signature, no identifyable marking of any kind. Questions and emotions exploded in Michelle's mind. What kind of sick joke...?
She dropped the letter onto the already crowded table and hurried to the window, scanning the yard for her child.
Her breath stuck in her chest, heart stopped mid-beat.
Brendan was gone.