Now: Eighteen

They didn't let me see Lewis, after they took me away from him…after they took me back. I wasn't allowed to go to court to testify, during his trial. I wasn't allowed to use the internet to look up articles, or read the papers, or even turn on TV. For most of the time that it took for his trial to come to a conclusion, I was almost in as much isolation from the world as he was, in jail.

It was for my protection, they said, for my own good. I needed time to recover, time to heal and process everything that had happened, the way my world had changed. I needed time to adjust to the truth, to bond with my true family and shake off the lies that Lewis had been feeding to me for almost half my life time.

It might have been for my protection, but in my opinion, it was more a result of their fear. They feared that I would somehow break, if I was reminded, that the less I knew and saw of Lewis, the faster I would recover, the faster I would accept what they told me to be true. The faster I would forget.

They didn't realize that nothing they did to me, short of death, could ever make me forget. They didn't realize that I would never want to.

There were so many people nosing into me and my life, back when they took me back. I wasn't even fourteen yet, and every day, for weeks, there were people questioning me, prodding me, trying to force me into being what I wasn't, into answering what I didn't believe to be the truth. I was examined by doctors, by psychiatrists, by trauma specialists, interrogated by the police and by lawyers, and of course, by my parents…everyone wanted to see into my mind, into my soul, but no answers I gave them were the ones they wanted to hear, and after a while, I stopped answering altogether. And that was when they decided that maybe it was best if they just kept me away from it all, just tried to let me forget.

For over a year I was kept mostly at home; if I left, both my parents were with me, watching my every move. But it was different than the way that Lewis had watched me, the way he had always been with me. This was suffocating, uncomfortable, an invasion and distortion of the love that had been in Lewis's watching over me. They were not keeping me safe, though that's undoubtedly what they thought. They were keeping me prisoner.

I didn't go back to school until I was fifteen years old. They had tutors for me, putting me on homebound, like I was a kid who was too sick, too emotionally disturbed, or too bad to go to school with the other kids. They said it was to make sure that I caught up to where I needed to be, to make sure that I was given individual attention in my learning. Again, it was because of their fear. I could have easily caught up with the other kids; I was ahead of them in a lot of areas. Lewis had taught me well. What they were all afraid of was that I would be so disturbed that I couldn't cope with the daily routine of middle school, when I had last attended school in the third grade. And more than that, they were afraid if they dropped me off there, I would run away.

I almost wished they kept me on homebound, when they finally let me go to a public school like every other teenaged girl. The classes were easy and dull, the schedule changes confusing and unnecessary, the halls and cafeteria loud, bustling, suffocating in their largeness and activity just as much as my bedroom at my parents' house was in its smallness and quiet. I had no interest in making friends with any of the others. They all seemed so young and immature, lacking any sort of interest or understanding in anything beyond themselves and their own small lives. After the girls figured out that I didn't have designs on their boyfriends and the boys figured out I had no interest in them, they pretty much dismissed me as a quiet, weird new girl and left me alone. And that was how I preferred it.

Of course, even before they had put me on homebound, they had put me in therapy. It was an older woman that I saw once a week, a woman who tried, just like my parents, to convince me that what had happened with Lewis was kidnap, that what he told me was a lie, and that the way he was with me was verbal manipulation and emotional abuse. She tried to get me to admit that he sexually abused me too, but the thought was so wrong and disgusting that after that, I wouldn't speak to her for three weeks, no matter how she tried to get me to say something. I saw her for maybe five months before I finally told my parents that it wasn't helping me to talk about Lewis and remember, and that all I wanted was to forget. Since that was exactly what they wanted me to do, they agreed, and I didn't have to go back anymore. Of course, what I said was untrue, but it was one less thing I had to deal with.

All of them, the shrink, my parents, the police, the lawyers, the doctors, even the kids at school, not one of them believed me when I spoke the truth. Not one of them believed that it was my parents who were the liars, that Lewis told the truth, that Lewis was good, the best thing that ever happened to me…not one of them believed that Lewis had loved me. They said he was a sick man, that he had taken me because he thought that he wanted and needed me, even though I wasn't his- which was exactly what he had said about them. They couldn't accept the possibility that he really did love me. They couldn't accept the truth that I loved him.

And I wouldn't believe them either, at first. I didn't believe that my parents were really my parents, that Lewis really was mistaken, or deluded, or just plain lying. It wasn't possible. The man I loved, the man who had smiled at me with his heart in his eyes and told me that I was his world, the man who had held my face like it was fragile porcelain in his hand and called me his Caroline, his reason for life…this man couldn't NOT be what he said he was. He couldn't NOT be my father.

But they showed me my baby pictures, from the day I was born, in my mother's arms in the hospital. They showed me my birth certificate. They showed me my fingerprints from when I was a baby and matched them with my fingerprints at thirteen, and then to top it off, when I was fourteen, they both took a DNA test and matched it against mine.

I still tried to explain it all away. There was no guarantee that baby in the pictures was me. What if they'd had another baby named Madeline Brinkerman, another girl they called Maddie, and she had died, and they had replaced her with me? What if the Maddie on the birth certificate was that baby? What if they'd forged the fingerprints somehow? What if the man who did the DNA test screwed up, or they paid him to say the wrong information?

But as time passed, I did begin to believe them…I couldn't deny that there was a lot of evidence, and I began to believe, if not to accept, that they were my parents. And that meant that Lewis was not.

Lewis was not my father. Lewis had lied, or been mistaken, or deluded. Lewis had taken me from my real parents. It was he who had committed a crime.

But he loved me. I knew he had loved me. And even if I knew everything else too, the fact that he had loved me was all that I could bring myself to care about.

I told my parents when I started to believe that they were telling the truth. I thought it would get them off my back, get them to start trusting me more, letting me have more independence, and I was right. They got all smiley and tearful, and they hugged me and said how much they loved me, how much they were grateful to have me back. But I never felt in their touch or heard in their voices even a fraction of the love that I felt every time Lewis had even smiled in my direction.

I started to answer to Maddie then, and to never insist to them that I be called Caroline. I obeyed what they asked of me, and they let me go to school, and occasionally out for an hour or so on my own. When they referred to me as their daughter, I smiled, and I nodded as if it were an identity I had accepted as mine.

But every day I woke, I kept my eyes closed for a few seconds, praying when they opened I would see Lewis's form close to mine in bed. Every time I ride in a car, or read a book, or pass a forest or eat a bag of M&Ms, pain fills my chest and thickens my throat until I can barely breathe. When I lie awake at night, I see the desperation in Lewis's eyes as they pulled him away from me, the anguish in his eyes as he saw my shattered thirteen-year-old features, the tears spilling down my cheeks, and I wish for nothing more than to feel his arms around me, to be with him again, to be his daughter again…to be his Caroline.

I was his world. I was his world, and they took me away. And whatever the truth is, whatever is real, I want that back…I want to be with him.

The day I turn eighteen, my parents have a party planned for me, in the evening after I come home from school. One of the first things I think, before I even get out of bed, is that when I was Caroline, I would have been eighteen already. Caroline's birthday was earlier than Maddie's.

They greeted me in the morning with hugs and smiles, and my father had flowers out at the breakfast table for me. They were never like this before I was taken, back when I was a little girl. Back then, they had never been the demonstrative types of parents, never even seemed to really notice me. When I came back, though, they had seemed unable to get enough of touching me and hugging me, giving me things and paying attention to me, maybe out of guilt, maybe out of fear that it was that initial lack of effort that had made me be taken from them, made me doubt their relationship to me. Maybe they were right, I don't know. But I do know that four years after my return, it still took effort to endure their attention, much less their touches.

I intended to go to school, like always. I intended to get through the day as quickly as possible, to think as little as possible. But instead, I found myself turning in the direction of the public library. I found myself looking up on one of their computers the name and location of the prison that Lewis Danson was incarcerated at. And then, I found myself taking down driving directions, getting in my car, and heading off for the seven hour drive that would bring me there, just a couple of hours before prisoner visiting hours.

I had a cell phone, but of course, I didn't call my parents. I drove, stopping only for gas and a quick lunch at a drive through, and the closer I grew, the less nervous I was, and the more certainty blossomed in my heart. And by the time I was less than an hour away, I couldn't stop smiling.

They could keep him from me, but they couldn't keep me from him. I was eighteen now, Maddie as well as Caroline. I was an adult. It was my prerogative to make a choice…and whatever was the truth, whatever was the past, I chose him.

It seemed a very long time for me to arrive, for me to be checked in by the prison officials and searched for anything I could be smuggling in to the building. But finally I was lead into the long room of glass windows and connecting telephones, with small dividers between each set. And as I sat with shaking legs, already reaching for the phone, I waited with bated breath for him to be brought in.

He looked older than I last remembered, thinner, the gray in his hair more prominent. There were deep lines in his forehead and dark circles under his eyes, and the orange jumpsuit was a sharp contrast to the paleness of his skin. But it was him. It was Lewis. It was my father.

He looked at me with his eyes open wide, a slow light coming into the dullness that had spread across their surface, and his mouth began to tremble, tears coming into his eyes as he slowly sank into his chair, his gaze never leaving my face. I was older too now, my body taller and more mature, that of a woman instead of a barely adolescent child. But I knew that in that first split second he had recognized me, that no matter how old I was or how different I looked, Lewis would always recognize me as his.

He pressed his hand against the glass, and I set mine against it, imagining that I could feel its warmth even through the glass as tears pricked my own eyes. I swallowed, my hand tightening around the phone, as Lewis picked up the phone, his voice crackling raspily through the receiver.

"Caroline…oh, my Caroline. Caroline…"

"Hi, Daddy," I whispered, blinking back my tears, smiling even so. "I'm here. It's your Caroline…I'm here."

The end