sat staring at the screen of Verity's laptop for a long time, scrolling through page after page of the website, reading e-mails from people offering sympathy or what they thought might be clues as to where I was, clicking on links to what seemed like hundreds of newspaper articles about the kidnapping. I wondered if she'd kept a paper file of those articles too. And I read all of the statements she'd written, from the time the website first went up until . . . until the morning after she learned I was alive and well and living in Arizona.
My dream has come true. My child has been found. I offer my heartfelt thanks to everyone who has helped me to keep the flame of hope alive all these years. I'll keep this site updated for the next few days, but for the sake of my daughter's privacy, it will be shut down after that.
Most people would say that here was proof of my mother's love for me, of her desire for my safe return. But just because she wanted me back doesn't mean I wanted to come back. Verity is a stranger to me, in spite of the fact that she thinks she knows me. In spite of the fact that she thinks she's got a right to me.
As I scrolled through each page of thisâthis tributeâto me, I wanted to shout,
missing! I never was missing! I was right there all the time, being me, with my father!
But then I thoughtâ
Wait a minute, I
missing. I was missing to myself.
And then it occurred to me, sitting there at Verity's kitchen table in Maine. Not once in my life did I suspect that my name, or Dad's for that matter, were false. Yeah, he'd told me he'd run off with me, but he'd also made it plain that my mother hadn't wanted me and that with no family on either side, there was no one to come looking for us. There was no one who cared. Stupid. Why didn't I put it all together long ago!
Looking at all those drawings of me-but-not-me, all based on a few not very good photographs taken of me as an infant, a gallery of Gemma Through the Ages . . . It gave me the creeps. Some drawings were pretty accurate, and some were way off the mark. And none of the images lookedâalive. I mean, every single image looked to me like the portrait of a dead person. Flat. False. Or maybe not a dead person but a puppet or a doll. They gave me the chills. The people who make those missing person pictures like the ones Verity had commissioned aren't painting idealized portraits to hang in some museum. They're essentially making shit up, aren't they?
Dad wasn't one to take a lot of photos of usânow I know whyâand we weren't on Facebook (he'd tried to stop me from getting an Instagram account, but I'd figured out how to get one without his knowing; you don't need the details), but I'd seen enough photos of myself in the early years of my life to know what I looked like in first and second and third grade. But those sketches. I don't know, it was like I was on display in some creepy museum, what's that place, that famous wax museum. All these strangers staring at imagined images of me . . . I felt kind of violated, even though I understand why Verity built the website.
I think I understand.
I exited the website and closed the laptop. Then I went back to my room.
lay awake for a long time last night, wondering how Gemma felt about all I'd told her, and about what she'd seen on the website. When I came back downstairs and into the kitchen to start dinner, my laptop was closed and she was out back, her arms on the rail of the deck, her head held toward the sky. I let her be and went about preparing two chicken breasts for the oven.
I didn't mention the website at dinner, and I didn't really know how to ask what she had thought about it without seeming to put pressure on her to tell me what a devoted mother I'd been for all those years. I did ask if there was anything she needed immediately for her room, like another lamp or lightweight blanket (it's not quite summer weather here yet and could continue to be cool through the end of the month), and she said that no, she was fine. Again she ate ravenously, and right after dinner she went to her room and I was faced with another lonely evening.
You know, before Gemma came home to me, I sometimes wondered if I'd be able to tell if an imposter showed up on my doorstep, someone pretending to be my daughter. Why anyone would do such a thing, I have no idea, but still, the weeks and months and years were so long and there was so much time to imagine.... I never believed for one second that those forensic sketches I commissioned were all that accurate. How could they be? The first image was based on the face of a two-month-old and two-month-olds all pretty much look alike. Really, how could anyone create the future from such a poor source? And even if the first artist had had a more fully formed, individual face from which to work, people might be a lot thinner or fatter than the artist imagined them to be. A broken nose might not have been mended. Hair might have been cut or dyed.
Now Gemma is home with me, even if she's calling herself Marni. I don't at all doubt that this young woman is my biological child. But what if the real Gemma died long ago, you might ask, and Alan snatched someone else's child as his own? Anything is possible in this crazy world, but I refuse to consider that scenario. Besides, the only way Gemma's biological connection to me could be finally proven would be through a DNA test, and even if I had the nerve (the cruelty?) to ask her to take one, I doubt she'd comply. And if she did agree, and if such a test should prove that Gemma was not really my child, what then? Would I throw her out? Or would I accept what had been given to meâsomeone I could take care of.
Though it might seem hard to believe, there were times over the long and lonely years when I felt that it might not be such a good thing if Gemma came home to me. It might, I thought, be too painful for us both, a relationship doomed to failure. There were times when I thought that if only I could know for
that Gemma was well, I would be content to live without her. There were times, in the depths of despair or sheer exhaustion, I felt willing to let go of hope.
Hope. I wonder if Gemma feels at all hopeful about her life right now.
She won't tell me anything about the last time she saw Alan before she got on that plane to Portland. I know it took place in prison. Soledad Valdes told me that; I suppose she thought I should know. Anyway, this morning I made the mistake of asking Gemmaâover a breakfast of pancakes and local bacon, prepared to whet her appetite for something more substantial than Froot Loops and hopefully to soften her moodâif she wanted to talk about the last time she spoke with her father face-to-face. She shut me down pretty quickly with a sharp no. I wasn't stupid enough to try again.
Whatever exactly happened at that last meeting, whatever exactly was said and whether there were tears of anger or sadness, whether there were slamming doors or desperate hugs, it can't have been a success. Gemma can't have left that prison building feeling positive about the future, uplifted, optimistic. She probably felt depressed, sad, and maybe even furious at what Fate (and her father?) had thrown at herâan uncertain future with a total stranger halfway across the country.
erity wants to know if I need to talk about the last time I saw Dad, before I was shipped off to stay with her. Is she crazy? What does
have to do with Dad and me? How can it make any difference to her what went on between us? How can her knowing what we said to each other change anything for me now?
Anyway, it was a disaster, that meeting. First off, let me tell you there's pretty much nothing that can prepare you to see your fatherâor your mother, I guessâin
. I thought I'd be okay, that I could handle the whole thing without freaking out like some girly girl, but the minute the social worker woman driving the car pulled into the visitors' parking lot outside this big ugly building that looked like a fortressâlike it's supposed to, I guessâmy stomach fell into my sneakers and my heart started to race and it took every ounce of self-control I possessed not to fling myself out of the car and run off. Which is a good thing, because I'd probably have been mistaken for an escaped prisoner and been shot to death by an alert guard. Shit like that happens, I'm sure.
It was amazing how quickly the police found out Jim Armstrong, my father, was not really Jim Armstrong but Alan Burns. A man who had been on the run from the law for seventeen years. The wheels of justice might turn slowly, but when it comes to running fingerprints through a database, bingo, a match can turn up in a matter of seconds. At least, that's how it seemed to me.
Anyway, the social worker people had already told me about my abduction shortly after Dad's arrest. Would there ever have been a good way for anyone to tell me that my entire life was a lie? Would there ever have been a good time for me to hear it? No.
At first, I didn't believe them. Maybe, I thought, Dad had been hit over the head during the arrest and was suffering a concussion or some other type of brain injury that was making him talk gibberish and claim to be a deranged kidnapper when he wasn't that at all, just my sometimes stupid father. But the social worker people had the proof. My father had abducted me from my mother when I was just two months old. No doubt about it. And my mother, my birth mother, was alive and well and living in Maine.
Now, a few days later, I was finally going to see Dad face-to-face. My criminal, lying father. In a visitors' room in jail. No bail, as he's considered a flight risk.
I had questions. A lot of questions. And I wasn't going to make this conversation easy on him.
“Tell me this, Dad,” I said, before I said hello or
Are you okay?
In fact, I never did say those things. “How can I be sent back to live with my mother if my mother is dead? You told me that she died when I was six.”
“She isn't dead,” he said. He looked awful, like an old man. “I was . . . mistaken.”
I thought. How could you be mistaken about something like someone being dead? He was wrong, is what he was. But did that mean he had lied to me, or had someone told
Don't let him off the hook
, I told myself.
He screwed up your entire life
He's got to pay for it.
“You told me she was a violent drug addict. If that was true, how could I be sent to live with someone dangerous like that?”
Dad said nothing. Silence.
“Were you lying?” I asked. Of course I knew he'd lied. But I wanted him to admit that to me.
More silence. Then, he cleared his throat and said, “I acted for the best.”
I felt a wild rage overtaking me. “For whose best?” I shouted.
If that was all he was going to say to justify his actions . . .
“Why'd you steal the car, Dad?” I pressed, leaning across the table where we were sitting. “Why'd you do something so stupid
?” I really have to know the answer to that
, I thought.
Because if he hadn't stolen it and gotten caught, none of this crap would be happening to me
He mumbled something about needing money, a sure thing, a guy had promised him it was all arranged.
In other words, bullshit.
This man sitting at the ugly metal table across from me, not meeting my eye, was not the man I had thought him to be all my life. But what had I thought him to be? Not a hero. Not a great man. Just my father.
All the questions I still had to ask him!
Had she, my mother, my normal, not-drug-addicted mother, ever tried to find me? Oh yes. There was a massive search, an intense manhunt. Every house within miles of Yorktide was searched from attic to basement and back again. Ponds were drained and rivers were dragged. There were volunteer search parties and official search-and-rescue teams, complete with dogs. Even the FBI made an appearance. (How did my father know all this? I wondered. Maybe he had followed the news somehow? Or maybe he was telling me a story again, creating a tale of what probably happened based on a TV show he'd seen.) People were questioned over and over again. But the police could find no hard evidence and no trace of my father and me, so after about a year the case was declared cold. Not closed, not solved, justâdead.
Had we ever come close to being found out? Yes, he told me. A few times. At least, he'd thought someone might be on to us. It was what kept us moving, the
reason . . . A lot became clear to me then. Like the time we were living in the nicest place we'd ever lived, a really cool private house we were renting with a garden full of cacti of all kinds and a small swimming pool. We were happy there. And we still had months on our lease and the landlady had already told us she'd let us sign another one. So why did we suddenly leave, losing our first and last months' security deposit and probably doing something illegal by just walking away from a signed contract? Because Dad thought someone was on to us. I see that now, but then I believed his story that the landlady was upping the rent to a price we couldn't afford and it was “best to get out while we could.” I know. It makes no sense. But I was a kid. A kid who for a long time kind of worshipped her father, the only family she had, and who believed every piece of crap that came out of his mouth.
“What is my mother's name?” I asked him. “You told me it was Sabrina. It's not, is it?”
“No. It's Verity.”
I laughed. Verity. In other words, truth. How ironic.
“So Marni Armstrong isn't my real name, is it?” I asked, though by now I knew the truth about this, too. Thing is, I wanted to hear the truth from
, for once in my life. “The name she gave me when I was born.”
“No. Gemma. That was your name. Gemma Elizabeth.”
I thought. Gemma. How freakin' weird.
“And your real name is Alan,” I said. “Too bad. I kinda liked Jim.”
He attempted a smile, if you can believe it.
“How old am I, really?” I asked.
“Only a few months older than you think you are. You were born in March. The twenty-sixth.”
“What else did you lie about, Dad?”
But he would say no more. He just sat there, eyes shifting slowly from one side of the room to the other, never alighting on mine.
My father is a crazy person.
“Why, Dad?” I persisted. “Why did you do it, if my mother wasn't trying to kill me, and she wasn't, was she?
The guard then asked me to leave. I mean, he told me I had to go. I was upsetting people, I guess. The social worker put her hand against my back and kind of guided me out of the room. I didn't look back.
Since that day I sometimes think it would have been better if I'd never learned the truth about the kidnapping. Ignorance is bliss, right? If Dad had to go to prison for stealing that car, then fine. I'd be there when he got out, pissed at him but also glad to have him back so we could pick up our life where we'd left off. The same old me, Marni Armstrong, not who I am now, a total stranger to myself. At least, that's the way it feels. A stranger with an entire history of what might have been dogging her every footstep.
But that could never have happened, the past remaining a secret, because my idiot father's fingerprints were on file from some silly offense when he was a teenager, and there was no way he could run away from
When I left the prison that day, I didn't care if I never saw my father again. Part of me still doesn't, but that part gets smaller every day, now that I'm thousands of miles away from him. I
want to see him again, and I worry it's going to be years before I'm able to. It's not cheap to fly almost all the way across the country, and I'm not sure if Verity would allow me to go even if I did have the money. And would the social worker people let me see him again? I just don't know. I try not to dwell on stuff like that. I try to stay calm and tell myself to be patient. Dad's lawyers will tell him what to do and say when he gets to court. He'll do and say what they tell him to, serve his time, and, if he focuses and has a little bit of luck, he'll get out early on good behavior. And then we can be together again.
That's what I want.