After I had explained to Mrs. Manning that I needed a ride, I had to wait ten minutes before she was ready to leave. The ride to the hospital was unbearable. Mrs. Manning tried to talk to me, but I just wanted her to shut up. I didn't want to talk about Natalie or whether or not this girl was Natalie. It wasn't like we could do anything about it now.
When we finally arrived at the hospital, I barely waited for Mrs. Manning to park the car as I ran ahead of her into the lobby, asking for Officer Reilly to be called as my escort to the girl's room. As she met me and spoke briefly with Mrs. Manning, Mrs. Manning asked hesitantly, "Caryn, do you want me to go with you?"
I knew she didn't want to go, but I didn't' want her to go either. I didn't' want her to watch any reaction I might have. Though I'd been steeling myself for this, I wasn't sure that when I saw for myself that Natalie wasn't alive, I would be able to hide my feelings. I might slip up and let sadness show. She didn't need to see…it was bad enough Officer Reilly would.
"No," I said firmly. "I'm fine."
The children's wing was quiet as we stepped off of the elevator, with no kids running around. There were bright murals on the walls, but its quiet was eerie. It was so unnatural for kids to be sick, hurt, and silent, but it was everywhere. It had happened to Natalie. Even to me.
"She's in room 308," Officer Reilly said, steering me to a room to our right. I noticed the patient chart on the door had Jane Doe in place of a name on it.
"Before we go in," Officer Reilly said, "I want to remind you not to be shocked. This child is in bad shape. She likely won't speak or even look at you. And she may indeed not be Natalie. But if she is Natalie…she's been through hell."
"I'm not shocked by much anymore," I said dryly.
Officer Reilly looked at me for a long moment, then opened the door. I followed her inside. The sight that greeted my eyes froze me…I couldn't even breathe. I could only stare with numb horror at the child lying in the raised hospital bed.
The little girl was propped up in bed, pillows plumped behind her. She was lying on top of the covers, so I could see how emaciated she was. Her knobby arms and legs were sticks, her torso barely thicker than her limbs. She was wearing a green hospital gown that exposed her gashes, bruises, and burns on her arms and legs. Some were old and healed, others fresh and raw.
The child's left arm was in a cast, her right hooked to an IV. But the child's face was the most heavily damaged. She had a black eye, a swollen lip, a gash across one cheek. Her head was bandaged, so only a little of her dark hair showed. Most disturbing were her eyes. Large in her gaunt face, she stared straight ahead, not focusing on anything. She looked blind.
As I stared, Officer Reilly went to the child's side, taking her hand. "Hello, sweetie," she said softly. "How are you?"
The little girl didn't acknowledge her. I could not draw my eyes away. It was not so much the wounds shocking me, I had seen them before on Mom, though never all at once. It wasn't the child's terrible thinness or even her vacantness.
It was the fact that this injured, starving, mute little girl was my sister, was Natalie, that froze me to the spot. Even with all of it, I only had to take one look into her eyes to know she was my sister. She was Natalie.
I had prepared myself for the disappointment of seeing the girl was not Natalie. I think I would have handled the situation well, but I had not prepared myself for seeing Natalie, never like this. Never, had I ever imagined she could look like this when I was reunited with her.
Giving Natalie's hand a squeeze, Officer Reilly looked over at me. "Caryn?" she let go of Natalie's hand and walked over to me, putting a hand on my shoulder. "Is this Natalie?"
From somewhere far away I heard myself reply. "Yes."
Officer Reilly sighed, shaking her head. "I see."
"Five months," I whispered, my voice raw. "Five months with Michael. Alone."
Still staring at Natalie, who stared back, blank, I could no longer hold back my emotions. I began to cry. Tears streamed down my face, but I didn't try to hide them. My body shook, but I couldn't stop. Natalie…this little girl was Natalie.
Officer Reilly reached for me, but I shoved her hands away, stumbling out of the room, away from the reality of what Natalie had endured. I had to get away. I couldn't take this, any of this…
I stumbled down the hallway, sobbing as I ran. This was our fault she was like this, my fault, the police, we had given her up for dead long ago, stopped looking. If we had not given up, maybe we would have found her sooner. If we had not given up, maybe she wouldn't be like this today.
Furious now, I stopped running in the middle of the hallway. Sobbing, I began to scream, cursing Michael, myself, the police, the world in general. I shouted loud enough to hurt my throat. I beat my fist against the wall, not feeling pain, just the need to hit something, anything.
"DAMN IT! DAMN YOU, MICHAEL! How could you do that to her? GO TO HELL! I'll kill you, you bastard!"
People were coming out of their rooms now, gawking at me. Children with casts and bandages stared, wide-eyed in fright. Parents hustled them away, avoiding me. I paid them no mind. I was so out of control I couldn't have stopped if I wanted to.
A nurse ran up to me, staying a distance away, probably afraid I would attack her.
"Young woman, this is a hospital! People are trying to rest! You must be quiet and stop immediately or you will be escorted out!"
Let's see her try.
"Go away!" I yelled. I turned to glare at her just as I saw Officer Reilly running up to me.
"Wait, I'll handle this," she called to the nurse. "She's with me."
The nurse didn't like that. She looked from me, still glaring at her and sobbing uncontrollably, to Officer Reilly in her uniform. "She has to leave. She's frightening the patience and disturbing them."
"She's in shock. I'll take care of it," Officer Reilly insisted.
The nurse looked uncertain, but she couldn't argue when Officer Reilly flashed her badge. "You better keep her quiet or I'll get security."
It took her a few more minutes before she left, shaking her head. I had stopped screaming, but not because I didn't' want to. It was just that I was crying so hard I didn't have breath to scream too. Officer Reilly reached to take my arm, not letting me shrug her off. I swore at her, trying to peel her fingers off, but she held her ground.
"I don't want to hurt you, Caryn," she said. "It would be easier for you if you just followed me to the bathroom instead of fighting me."
She began to propel me down the hall, her hand an iron grip on my arm. I resisted, but as she dragged me, undaunted, I gave up, too drained to resist further. She was right, it was easier to follow.
She opened the door to the bathroom, pulling me inside. It had a row of sinks and a row of stalls, pretty cramped together. we were the only ones in there. Once inside, she finally took her hands off me, standing in front of the door to block my escape. Now free of her, but too tired to attack, I slumped against the sink, sobbing and cursing.
Officer Reilly just watched me for a while, saying nothing. After a few minutes she came to stand beside me.
"Did that make you feel any better, Caryn?" she asked. "I doubt it. And it certainly didn't make things better for Natalie. All you managed to do is frighten children and hurt your knuckles and throat."
I glared at her, wanting to hit her but not having the energy. Who was she to talk to me like that? It was my sister in there, my little sister…of course I didn't' feel better. But I had to do something or I would die from the pain I was feeling.
"I'm not trying to lecture. I'm just stating the facts. I am sympathetic, believe me, I'm very sorry for you and Natalie. I know how much it must have hurt for you to see her like that. I know you must feel angry and helpless. I felt sad and sick and furious too when I saw what had been done to her. And I know you must feel worse."
I shook my head, not wanting to hear her. She didn't know how I felt. No one could know how I felt. No one…I was the only one in the world who ever had felt what I felt now. No one could say they understood and mean it.
"I know you're in pain. But that doesn't mean that was the best way to let it out. It's not good to keep feelings bottled up until they explode like that. You need to find a safer release. One that doesn't hurt others, or you."
She looked directly into my eyes as she said that, and I looked down, refusing to play along. Who did she think she was, my mother, my shrink? Why didn't she spend one day in my life before she judged me?
"You don't know anything," I choked out.
She continued to look at me intently. I felt small, exposed…could she not look away, go away and leave me alone? Why did she always seem to want to know everything about me that I tried so hard to hide?
"I have had a lot of training on how to relate to, understand, and interact with teenagers and children. I care for you and Natalie whether or not you believe it. I care about what happens to you, your feelings, about how you are coping. I admire you, Caryn. You're stronger and tougher than most adults. You've been through terrible things and survived unbroken….I know how upset you are. But you need to pretend otherwise, for just fifteen minutes, you need to focus on your sister instead of your pain. That was Natalie in there. She is in terrible pain, and when you react as you did, you make it worse. She saw and heard you, Caryn. Just because she acts as though she's deaf and blind doesn't' mean she is. Natalie has been exposed to intense pain, and she doesn't need to hear or see more violence."
She paused to take a deep breath, still watching me. She was making it hard not to listen, the way she spoke so intensely, not taking her eyes off me. I was starting to think she did care…but she didn't' have to be so nosy. She was a cop. Not my mother, and yet here she was, acting like she was, while Mom lay in the hospital unwilling and unable to mother me.
"Natalie has had no one for so long, Caryn. Now, when she's found, she has no parents to be with her and comfort her. Her mother is not well. Her father is dead. She needs someone, Caryn. She needs you. You are the one who can love her and reassure her right now. That's always been the case, hasn't it?"
I didn't reply, letting my hair cover my face.
"Natalie has been through terrible things, but she has survived. She has a second chance. And so do you, Caryn. When Natalie was kidnapped, your worlds stopped. Now they can start over. It won't be easy. It may not even seem a good thing to have found her as she is. But Caryn, life is always good. I have seen too much death to think it could be better. No matter how much a person goes through in life, in life itself there is hope. You and your family have hope now…you just have to use it."
As I thought about what Officer Reilly was telling me, my tears slowed. It was true. It was wonderful that Natalie was alive, even though she had been so badly abused. Maybe I could help her get better. Who else could? Who else loved her like I did? If anyone could help Natalie, it was me.
"You're right," I said softly, staring at the floor. "I have to."
"You have to show her you're not going to let her down or give up on her," Officer Reilly said gently. "You have to show her you love her. You have to let her see it's a good thing to be alive. Make her want to be alive, Caryn. Make her want to be better."
Standing up, she extended a hand to me. I hesitated, then took it as she pulled me to my feet. Looking in the mirror, I made a face at myself. My hair was tangled, my face mottled, my knuckles torn. I couldn't go to Natalie looking like this.
I washed my face, pressing a paper towel against my eyes, and then combed my fingers through my hair. Once I was satisfied, I turned back to Officer Reilly.
"Okay. I'm ready."
She smiled. "You can do it, Caryn. I know it. It might not happen today, but eventually, you can make her want to come back."
I wanted to say thank you, I opened my mouth, but somehow I couldn't' find the words. Instead I reached past her and opened the door of the bathroom. We began to walk down the hall to Natalie's room, me feeling self-conscious after the scene I'd made.
As we walked, my mind drifted back to Michael. He was still out there. No one had found him. I supposed he was keeping his distance, afraid. He better…he better stay far away, because if I ever saw him again I would kill him, no matter what it cost me. If I ever saw him again he would be sorry.
But for now, I stopped thinking about Michael. I had Natalie, against all odds. I had a second chance, a chance to make our lives better. Maybe, if I could make Natalie want to live again, I could do the same for Mom. Maybe…maybe I could do it for myself.
Nothing could erase what had happened to my family. Nothing could make us like we were. Nothing would be okay…but maybe it could be better.
After all, life has no guarantees.
Written June 2002-March 2005