Raw — Claire Brown

“Caroline’s blonde. Her eyes are caramel, and she’s even sweeter than that. Her and my daughter are very close, very good friends. They always want to be with each other.

“Because both of Caroline’s parents work at the hospital, her father a neonatal nurse and her mother an ER doctor, I never thought much of the fact that Madison was never invited to their house. They are—were busy parents. We were always the ones doing the hosting: the playdates, the sleepovers, the after-school care. I don’t—didn’t mind.

“Her parents always picked her up on time. They were hardly ever even a minute late. They were so great with her—and with Madi, too. They would sometimes bring Madi candy if there was any leftover in the nurse’s lounge room.

“I would—would’ve trusted them with my daughter.” I look up to make sure they know I mean it. I was paying attention. I’m a good mother. “Before last Saturday, I would have trusted them. They worked in the hospital. They were hardly ever late, and they were so great with them—”

“Okay, that’s enough,” the woman to my right says. I’m crying. I’m crying, but I could go on. I don’t need to stop. Why my husband insists on us having a legal team here is beyond me. We aren’t the ones in question. I know that. I just want to tell the story. I want to explain why I hadn’t seen it sooner.

“Mrs. Morris, when did you first begin to suspect the Daes?” The detective is sitting on the table, body turned halfway towards the door, as if, at any moment, he’ll need to spring towards it and leave the room.

“I never suspected them. I just realized something was off about two months ago, I think. I know I should’ve realized sooner. The girls have been friends for years, I just—”
“As disturbing as it sounds, they are professionals,” he replies assuringly. “This isn’t your fault.” He nods in a way that says go on.

I wipe my raw face on the back of my sleeve. I always hated this sweater. It’s so coarse. I should just throw it out, or donate it—something. I keep wearing it, and I don’t know why. Looking at it now, I realize that it isn’t comfortable or pretty or—

“Mrs. Morris, ma’am?” the lawyer asks with some concern present in her tone. “Yes. Two weeks ago, I was in the kitchen. The girls were playing with their Barbies in the den. Madi likes the one with the red hair, but Caroline likes the classic Barbie—she says she likes the blue eyes. She’s always saying she wishes hers were blue, that she looked just like Barbie.” I look up, and everyone’s eyes are furrowed. I don’t want to miss any details. “Oh, anyway,” I continue, “I was making an after-school snack. They like it when I put the raisins on top of the peanut butter-filled celery, the ants on the log.” I glance up again and smile just a tad at the memory. My husband rubs my arm. I’m shaking a little, tears still coming, sweater still agonizingly rough against my skin. “I heard Caroline ask about one of Madi’s pictures that we
had propped up on the hearth. She wanted to know who it was. I poked my head into the room through the passthrough and told her that it was Madison when she was a baby. Caroline just looked at it. For quite some time, she just looked at it. I realized I wouldn’t be getting a response from her, so I went back to making the snack.

“Later, when the Daes came to retrieve Caroline, underneath her mother’s loud and profuse thanks, which was always given when they came to pick up their daughter after their shifts, Caroline softly asked her father, ‘Why don’t we have pictures of me when I was a baby?’ I stopped speaking to Mrs. Dae when I heard that. I just looked at Caroline, propped against her father’s side. I felt my smile falter a little bit, furrowed my brows, and he looked at my expression, saw the confusion, and something like a flash of fear came across his face before he quickly laughed it off, looking at me, smiling, and whizzing her away to their van. Mrs. Dae placed her hand on my arm and squeezed. She smiled at me and quickly wished me a good evening before following her husband to their Sienna.”

“You thought that was strange?”

“Yes, of course,” I say to the detective.

“When was the next time you noticed something was off?”

“A couple weeks later, I was at the school to pick up Madi and Caroline when my daughter came to the car alone. I asked her where Caroline was, and she said that her mother had checked her out of school early. But Caroline’s parents had never done that—they always scheduled any doctor’s appointments or dentist visits at times when they wouldn’t have to get her from school. It wouldn’t have seemed odd to anyone—sometimes, parents just come and get their kids out of school, ya know?—except it was so completely out of the ordinary for them. I called their house when we got home, and Mr. Dae answered. I asked if everything was okay, and I heard him shush before replying in his usual, cheerful tone that everything was quite all right. He asked if I would be able to watch Caroline the next day after school, to which I, of course, replied that I could and would.

“The next day, Caroline had on jeans. But it was May. In Georgia.”

“May in Georgia,” the detective repeats, looking towards an officer standing by the door.

All eyes in the room are downcast now. “So these strange happenstances, let’s call them, began to happen—”

“Much more often,” I interrupt, affirming with a head nod.

“Okay, so let’s just skip to last Saturday.”

I nod again. My husband rubs my arm. I register the sweater scraping my skin, the usually soothing action being deadened by my top’s coarseness. “The Daes had asked some time back if I could come and get Caroline from their home at 7:30 that day because they’d both been scheduled for the once-in-a-blue-moon weekend day. They usually had weekends off, you see.” I look up, and the detective nods. “They hadn’t mentioned anything about it for some time, but because it was summer and Caroline had been talking about some sort of trip for the longest time, I assumed they were planning and packing and being overwhelmed with vacation details.

“I pulled up to the house a few minutes early, and their van’s trunk was open and full to bursting with bags and a case of water and some other things like shoes and granola bar boxes. Sometimes, they talk about taking snacks to the lounge room, so I assumed—” In my guilt, I meet eyes with the detective, but his look wasn’t accusatory. I almost wish it had been. “I left Madi in the car so that I could go inside to get Caroline. I left my car door open. I was just inside the house. I just walked right in. The door had been left open. I just assumed.” This time, I try to look at my husband, but his eyes are watching his unmoving hand on the table, tears sliding down his nose silently. I swallow the sob that I feel building in my throat. The pit of my stomach went sour. I can taste my own tears when I open my mouth to finish the story. “I went upstairs, I went in the garage, I went everywhere in the house—no one was inside. And then, I—” I have to stop. I can’t swallow the wail anymore. I’m sure no one can even understand my speech at this point. So I just cry. “I heard the van start outs-s-ide—” I can’t even form words anymore.

Another officer comes into the room. I hear the detective whisper to him. When I look up, I see the officer handing the detective a piece of paper as he stands up from the table. He looks at it for a moment and then towards us.

“I’m sorry, ma’am. Can you confirm that this is the girl Caroline? I know the picture’s old, but—” He slid me the paper.

It’s a picture of a little girl, about three. Blonde hair, brown eyes. The woman in the picture had the same dimple beside her left eye that Caroline flaunted. I cry some more, and nod my head yes.

“Go to the Dae house, get the most recent picture of Christine that you can find. Get a picture of the parents, too,” the detective orders the officers in the room. He looks at me again, not changing the seriousness of his tone. “Mrs. Morris, do you have any recent pictures of Madison with you?”

My husband pulls out his wallet and hands him our daughter’s third-grade yearbook photo. “Is this big enough?” he asks. The detective takes the picture without replying. “Get this to the news stations.”

I’m still crying.

“We’ll find them, okay?” He placed his hand on my shoulder, rubs, and leaves my skin there raw. “This is the closest we’ve come to catching Christine’s kidnappers in four years, and we’re not letting them take Madison, too. Okay?”

He rubs my shoulder again.