Tammy, the youngest of three sisters, remembered the phone call as if it were yesterday, even though it was almost three years ago, back in 1977. She was fourteen at the time and had already gone to bed when the ringing from the phone downstairs stirred her from her rested state.
She immediately knew it was her father, John calling from the United States. No one else phoned in the middle of the night. He had moved there shortly after her parents’ divorce, accepting a job promotion he couldn’t refuse as a speaker on artificial intelligence, and now lived on the outskirts of Boston. He had always called late on Thursday evenings because of the eight-hour time difference between America and England. But, on that particular night, he called on a Tuesday—which had Tammy concerned.
Her parents had divorced when she was eleven because of her father’s extramarital affairs. Tammy would never forget the day her family became divided. Like every morning, she had come downstairs wearing her pajamas. The house was silent except for the faint sound of crying coming from the front living room. Tammy tiptoed softly toward the slightly open door and peeked in. Her heart ached with what she saw.
It was her mother, Rose, she had heard crying. She was sitting alone on the green couch with her hair in a tangled mess, wearing her pink satin bathrobe and holding a tissue to her eyes.
Fear swept over Tammy. Why was her mother so upset? She wanted to rush in and hold her and tell her everything was going to be okay. But Tammy felt her mother needed to be alone in her thoughts and stepped away from the door without being heard. Not trusting her older twin sisters, Donna and Jenny, to be quiet, Tammy decided to keep what she had seen to herself.
Later that morning, Tammy’s questions had been answered. In a more composed state, their mother gathered her three girls into the family room. Still dressed in her bathrobe, her hair unbrushed and her eyes swollen from her many tears, she held Tammy and her sisters tight. In a soft, broken voice she told them that she and their father were separating and that he had moved out of the house.
Crushed by the news, Tammy and her sisters clung to their mother, unable to control their tears. She had friends in school that came from broken homes and had listened with pity to their stories of violence and hatred before the divorce. They had told her how they hated spending weekends and holidays with only one parent. Was this how it was going to be for her? Tammy wondered.
Tammy was thankful she never saw violence, but she was devastated that her father was simply gone. No explanation, no goodbye, no hugs of reassurance that everything was going to be okay. She had felt abandoned and unimportant. How could he just leave without saying goodbye? When would she see him again? She had so many unanswered questions. Why did this happen? Why didn’t they love each other anymore? Whose fault was it?
Unable to hold it together for her daughters, Rose was an emotional wreck. The man she had loved for almost two decades was no longer in her life, and she was terrified of being alone.
Left in a garbage bag on the steps of an orphanage when she was six days old, where she remained until she was sixteen, Rose realized John had brought stability and a sense of belonging into her life for the first time.
She had met John in London on a bus on her way to the hotel where she worked as a chambermaid. John was on his way to college where he studied electronic engineering. The attraction had been mutual. He was infatuated with her beauty and her perfectly toned body. Rose was mesmerized by his handsome looks. His strong, defined jawline and his short, thick black hair swept away from his face. Sitting across from her, he made her laugh and sometimes blush with his cheeky grin and the occasional wink directed solely at her.
John was a man with a brilliant mind. Rose admired him for his superior intelligence and his ambitious work ethics. In his younger years and straight out of college, John worked hard and was recognized for his achievements, becoming highly successful in the field of artificial intelligence. He spent his evenings working on his other passion, writing, with the hopes of being published someday.
His plans hadn’t included becoming a father to twin girls at the young age of twenty, and then again to Tammy at the age of twenty-two. Refusing to let fatherhood get in the way of his career, John became the sole provider, traveling a lot and leaving Rose to raise their daughters.
Eventually, his hard work had paid off and he managed to buy the family a beautiful four-bedroom home in the small, quaint northern English town of Tridale, which had lots of charm and history dating back to the Roman era. It was located on the valley floors of the Dales, surrounded by moors and rolling hills laced with heather and bracken.
John had been the backbone of the family. Everyone looked up to him. He provided structure and discipline; he set the ground rules and enforced daily chores for Tammy and her sisters.
The divorce hit each of the girls differently. Tammy missed having the authority figure of her father in the house. Jenny blamed him for abandoning them and became extremely protective and close to their mother. Meanwhile, Donna blamed both parents and began to travel down a road of self-destruction, wearing heavy makeup and skimpy clothes and drinking copious amounts of alcohol. For Rose, it was a constant battle, and she feared Donna was spiraling out of control. No longer able to handle her, Rose discussed Donna’s behavior with their father and between them, they decided she might be better off with him.
For the three years following her parents’ divorce, Tammy spent her six-week summer vacations in America with her father and Donna. She and Jenny hated Donna being so far away. They talked once a week on the phone, but it wasn’t the same. The sisters’ bond had been broken.
Tammy and Donna reconnected each summer, but Jenny couldn’t get past the grudge she held towards her father for breaking up the family. And, because she chose to stay in England with her mother during those summers, she began to grow apart from not only her father but also Donna.
Moving Donna to the States hadn’t helped. For the next three years, she continued to act in a destructive manner, skipping school most days and spending her time drinking instead; John suspected she was also using drugs. Unable to control his daughter anymore, he was at his wit’s end and didn’t know what to do.
Arrested one night for under-age drinking, Donna was escorted home in a patrol car. John expressed his concerns about his daughter’s behavior with the officer, and they decided between them it might be better for her if she was placed in a juvenile home until she turned eighteen.
At the time, she was seventeen, which meant she would only be there for a year. John thought it was a good idea—after all, a year wasn’t that long—and he pursued it the following day. Without having discussed it with Rose first, he found an all-girls home for troubled teens called New Beginnings.
A week later, after Donna was settled, he called Rose and explained to her that their daughter was out of control and needed professional counseling and guidance; something he couldn’t give her. With the thought of her daughter being in a home tearing at her heart, Rose protested and objected to his decision, but it did no good. John was comfortable with his solution and the choices he’d made.
Within three weeks of Donna being admitted, John received a phone call from the director, telling him Donna had run away and couldn’t be found. John had intentions of visiting her soon, but now that his book had finally been accepted for publication, he had been spending every spare moment trying to reach the deadline and the days had turned into weeks. The director went on to tell him that she had never really settled in. She rarely talked to the other girls and spent many hours sitting alone in isolated corners. He mentioned they had called and left numerous messages regarding Donna’s behavior, but he had never returned their calls. John remembered those messages; there were three of them. He had planned on calling back after the deadline.
After apologizing profusely, Susan, the director, informed John that they had never had a child run away before and suspected Donna had left through the kitchen door, where the staff come and go and deliveries were made. She added that they pride themselves in providing an excellent home for all their children and emphasized again that Donna was the first case of a runaway.
John appreciated her sincere apology and had no harsh feelings. The only person he felt anger toward was himself. An unhappy seventeen-year-old would always find a way to leave if they really wanted to. No one was to blame but himself. He had selfishly ignored his troubled daughter’s cry for help.
The lady on the phone told him the authorities had been notified and if they had any news, he would be informed immediately. John thanked her, hung up the phone and even though it wasn’t Thursday—his day to call—he knew he had to tell Rose and reluctantly dialed her number.
Tammy had gotten good at eavesdropping on her parents’ weekly conversations without being detected. She remembered on this particular Tuesday night how she quietly peeled back her sheets and tiptoed barefoot across her bedroom. Pinning her ear to the door, she heard her mother’s voice echoing in the foyer below. Holding her breath, Tammy slowly pulled down on the door handle, praying the door wouldn’t squeak when she eased it open. Thankfully, it had not, and Tammy released a sigh of relief. The light from the foyer lit up the landing outside her room, allowing her to find her way to the top of the stairs. Without making a sound, she had taken her usual spot on the last stair, pulled her white nightgown over her knees to keep out the chill, and peered down between the railings.
Her mother was dressed in her usual night-time attire: a pink bathrobe, matching slippers, and her hair pulled back into a ponytail. Her back faced Tammy. Grateful her mother and father had remained friends after the divorce, their calls were usually pleasant, filled with jokes and laughter, but this phone call was different. Her mother sounded scared. Tammy sensed the fear in her voice. Only hearing one side of the conversation, Tammy had a hard time understanding what they were talking about. She only heard the strange questions her mother was asking.
“What do you mean she’s gone, John?”
Who was gone? Tammy wondered.
Her mother became angry. “She can’t just disappear, John! Someone must know where she is!”
Glued to the railings, Tammy was dying to know who and what they were talking about.
Then her mother began to cry hysterically while she held the phone tight and screamed into it, “She’s still a child, John. She’s just seventeen. You should never have put her in that home! She isn’t an object you can just discard because she’s in your way. She’s your daughter!”
Tammy remembered how her heart sank to the floor when she suddenly realized they were talking about Donna. Her sister had run away and was now missing. She wanted to race down the stairs and snatch the phone from her mother’s hands and ask her father WHY? Why had he put her in that awful place?
Donna had written a letter to Tammy and Jenny, telling them how much she hated being in the home. How no one wanted her anymore and she was going to run away. Frightened by what she had read, Tammy showed the letter to their mother. As upset as she was by both the letter and the fact that Donna had written to her sisters and not her, Rose never believed Donna would actually run away. “I’m sure she’ll be okay. She just needs time to adjust. It’s all new to her. We have to trust your father’s judgment. He said this would be good for her. I have to believe that. She is a very troubled young girl and needs help,” her mother had told her. But she had run away, and now no one knew where she was.
After spending her first summer in the States, Tammy had known she wanted to someday live there. Since the disappearance of Donna, she wanted it more than ever. She needed to know what had happened to her. Waiting for the authorities to call wasn’t enough. She needed answers. Why hadn’t Donna contacted any of them? Was she in trouble? Was she hurt? Tammy didn’t even want to consider her worst fear. The fear that maybe she was dead.