It was her. This wasn't like the other times. The times she had been mistaken. Granted, there was the initial quick-glance-double-take-heart-skip, like times before. But this time there was no sinking in the stomach, a stab reminder of cruel reality and, again, the deep sadness. No. There was no mistake this time. It was her.
It had been a long day. A nice day, but long. Kate Thomas's family was taking their five hour drive back home to Gardenville when they pulled off at a gas station. The sun was slanting pleasantly through the windows of their SUV. A playful breeze ruffled her light brown hair. Alan had gone inside to pay for gas. Claire and James were back from their trips to the restroom and the candy aisle and were already enjoying their quest to cavities when it happened.
Kate was slumped in her seat, half-dozing and reflecting on their lovely vacation to her aunt's lake house and thinking what a blessed life she led. She glanced back at her two children. Claire, 16, shy and smart- a little bookish with her glasses, but with a beauty that one day, Kate knew, would blossom into something everyone would notice the first moment they saw her. James was 17, nearly 18, and outgoing. He had dark hair like his sister (and their father) but with her own gray-green eyes. Once again she thanked God for her children, that they were healthy and safe, and at that moment as she was turning back in her seat her eyes fell on the girl sitting in a pick up truck four parking spaces away.
This had happened before. A cruel jolt of recognition after a glimpse at a some young girl, Claire's age, with just the right shade of hair. Just the right bouncy walk. Kate was expecting that same routine: It only looks like her. It isn't really her...It will never be her. She looked more closely at the young girl. Her eyes were downcast, a weary expression that was out of place on a face so young . Kate's eyes widened as she stared at the girl. She felt the blood drain from her face. Her body went numb, her mouth dry, and for a moment she was incapable of speech. A strangled noise escaped her throat and her heart felt like a frightened bird trapped in her chest. She began to shake.
“Emma?” she breathed. Then louder, she could her the tremble in her own voice, a voice that sounded strange even to her, “Emma!”
“Mom...?” Claire had noticed her mother's behavior and she sounded afraid. “Mom, what's wrong?”
Kate stared at the girl in the truck. Copper colored wavy hair, brown eyes...a girl the same age as Claire... it was her.
Kate felt herself beginning to hyperventilate, but knew she had to pull herself together. Now James was concerned as well, “Mom, what's wrong with you, your face is all white.”
Finally Kate sprang into action. She dug her cell phone out of her purse and threw it at James, wishing she had more than one phone in the car, and one tiny part of her mind snorting at the irony of Alan's and her flat refusal to buy the kids their own phones no matter how they begged.
“Ow! Mom, What 're you-”
She was trying to unbuckle her seat belt, but her hands didn't seem to work.
“Do it!”, she ordered.
Claire's voice sounded more frightened than before, Kate could hear the tremble of tears when she spoke, “Mom, please, tell us what's wrong.”
Just then Alan returned, he opened the door, his body obscuring Kate's view of the girl. She tossed her body back and forth in irritation, not wanting to lose sight of her. As if losing sight meant really losing. Again.
“Sorry it took me so long, the guy -”
“We can't let her get away!” she gasped, “We've got to keep her - keep her here, Dear God, stop them, stop them!” she babbled.
She knew she wasn't making sense, but she also knew there was no time. Alan looked at her as if she had sprouted antlers.
“What are you talking about?”
All three of them were now looking at her with fear and concern, James still holding her phone, forgotten, in his hand. She ignored their expressions and flailed her hand in the girl's direction. Kate was reaching true panic.
“It's Emma! There! It's Emma Leonard.”
Each of them had a different reaction to Kate's words. James leaned around his sister to see the girl his mother said was Emma, and after a moment of open-mouthed shock, began to dial 911 with trembling fingers. His breathing was fast, his eyes wet.
Claire had burst into hysterical tears and was trying to escape the car, presumably to fly to the girl the the truck, but was restrained by both her parents.
Alan, bewildered now by all three of his family members looked at his wife. He struggled to keep a hold on his squirming sobbing daughter. He, obviously preoccupied by the emotional bedlam, wasn't listening.
Claire's sobs became a wail. Kate thought she might scream in frustration. She let go of Claire's knee.
“Emma!” Kate shouted at him. Suddenly, memories of the past two years were a snowball fight bouncing around inside her skull. She wanted to shake him. “Emma Leonard. Look at her!”
Somewhere in the world James's voice was stammering. He was getting help. Help should be coming. Dear Father in heaven, let help be coming.
Alan turned to see the girl for himself. He turned back and looked at Kate with a mask on his face that she associated with physical pain.
“Claire's friend Emma?...The one who-”
By now Claire was beside herself, “Daddy, please we have to get her!” she turned toward the girl, her breath ragged, “Emma!” , she choked out.
“Now hold on a second we can't just...we have to think, we don't know what kind of people-”
“They're on their way!” James shouted, clutching the phone as if he were trying to crush it.
“The people she's with will be back any second,” Kate whispered.
Alan met Kate's eyes.
“Let's go” he said, reaching in his pocket for his pocket knife. “You two stay here,” this he commanded in his Most Serious Dad Voice. Claire reached over and clung to her brother, they watched as their parents got out of the car and made their way toward the girl they knew was Emma, Mom wobbling slowly toward the girl, Dad heading to the rear of the pick up.
Kate felt as if her legs were made of jelly. She thought her heart may burst. As they got closer to her she looked up and saw them. Her face passed from it's dispirited aspect to slow recognition to something very like fear and disbelief. She began to shake her head slowly. Her look of bewilderment intensified when Alan stabbed the rear tire of the truck with his knife.
Kate held out her hand, she moved gently as if approaching a frightened animal that might scamper away and disappear. She didn't bother to wipe her own tears as the girl framed in the window began to cry.
“Emma? … Sweetheart?”
Emma Leonard looked from Kate to Alan and then behind them toward the SUV. Seeing Claire and James seemed too much for her and she curled in on herself, wrapping her arms around her head as if trying to ward off an attack. Her shoulders shook. Kate reached through the open window and brushed back the girl's soft hair with her fingertips.
“It's okay, it's all right. It's okay now”, Kate heard herself repeating over and over, not sure who she was trying to convince.