Her tears were gentle rain. Whenever she slipped and scraped her knee, I remember her soft cries. She was never one to scream and shout. She never made a sound, when she was taken away. The telephone rang, which slowly dragged me out of my thoughts. I hoped, prayed, this was good news.
“Have you found her?” I asked, desperately. I didn’t even know who was on the other end. It could have been the gas company for all I knew. Fortunately, it was the police.
“I am very sorry, Mr Stokes, but we’re going to have to discontinue the investigation to find your daughter. We can’t commit any more resources. I’m sorry.”
I stayed silent, as I swallowed all of my emotion.
“Paul? Is anybody there?”
I raised the receiver to my shivering lips. “Can I come into the station, Sergeant Damos? Maybe there’s something we missed?” The questions were tripping over my teeth.
There was a sigh on the other end of the line. “Yeah ok. I’m not sure what good it will do.”
I was sitting opposite Mark Damos. He was part of a group of police who had been searching for my daughter. He was a portly and clean shaven man with curly brown hair. He was also my best friend. Mark had been the most dedicated to finding my daughter, but now the year long investigation was coming to an end.
The policeman shifted uncomfortably, before standing up and walking over to a filing cabinet. “I don’t know why you came here, Paul.”
I shrugged. “I was hoping I could convince you to change your mind. Maybe there’s something you’ve missed. We could have another look over the evidence.”
Sergeant Damos sighed. “All of the evidence points toward Chloe being kidnapped and murdered.”
“She can’t be dead. She can’t be. There has to be something else. Chloe was taken in the middle of a busy supermarket. What about the CCTV?” I knew that I was clutching at straws, but I couldn’t, can’t, give up hope.
“You saw the footage for yourself. It’s too pixelated,” the policeman groaned, as he saw Paul’s eyes drop, “I can’t even begin to imagine how difficult this is for you. I’m sorry, but she’s gone. You’re going to have to accept that.”
“Mark! How you can say that?You were there at the birth. You heard the promise I made to Julie.”
Sergeant Damos uncomfortably spread his hands. “I wasn’t allowed in the delivery room.”
“Before Julie…I promised her that I would never let any harm come to Chloe. I can’t let her down now. I can’t give up on her. She’s my daughter! There has to be something! Can you help me? You have to be able to do something!”
“I’m so sorry mate, but it’s out of my hands. Don’t put yourself through this. Don’t do this to yourself. You should go. I’ll give you a lift home, if you want.”
I thumped the desk in frustration and felt guilty when I saw Mark jump. “I’m sorry. It’s not your fault. It’s ok. I’ll walk home”
As I stepped out of the police station, it started to rain. Perhaps I should have accepted Mark’s offer after all. Too late now. I’ve lost my chance. I sighed. That wasn’t the only thing I lost. I couldn’t go home. There were too many memories. It had been bright sunshine, before I left for the police station, which meant, of course, I had left my anorak at home. I could feel the raindrops worming through my shaggy coat of brown hair. I turned for the high street. I was hoping to become lost in the busy Saturday crowd.
My toe crossed the border, separating the damp concrete of the high street with the floor of the supermarket. The supermarket where Chloe had been stolen. The supermarket where my life had been ravaged. The super-I stamped my foot down to bring myself out of this frustrated rant. Everybody ignored me. This had changed. A month ago, I had received a patronising amount of support and pity. It didn’t take them long to move on or forget. Even the oversized poster of Chloe, which the supermarket had installed, had been replaced with an enlarged photo of a ginger teenage girl.
What am I doing here? I asked myself. I knew that I wasn’t thinking straight. I knew that I was dredging up old memories. I knew that I was damaging myself. I knew…unwittingly I had walked into the tinned food aisle. This was where Chloe had been taken. What am I doing here? I asked myself, again. I picked up a can of creamed corn. I was going to make my little girl her favourite meal. Corn Fritters. I remember seeing her eyes light up, as I reached for the can. I should’ve never turned my back. It only took a few seconds for my daughter to disappear out of my life. One of the initial explanations was that Chloe had run away. I soon ruled this out though. She was only four years old and Mark knew how much she adored me. She would never do something like this. I couldn’t believe how little evidence the police had. They couldn’t find any witnesses or suspects. They described it as, “disappearing off the face of the Earth, without leaving a trace.”
A little girl ran behind me, squealing with delight. I turned around and looked down at her. She seemed to be the same age as Chloe. The little girl looked so much like my daughter. The same wide brown eyes. The same brown pigtails. I was almost tempted to pick her up and hug her, until I came to my senses. Of course, it isn’t Chloe, you silly fool. Before I did anything rash, I left the supermarket. As I stepped out of the building, I stared at the can of creamed corn I had just purchased. I was going to make Corn Fritters tonight, in honour of Chloe.
As I pushed my front door open, I noticed a white envelope on the thatched mat. I picked it up and realised that there wasn’t an address. There wasn’t a stamp either. Whoever delivered this letter knew where I lived. I didn’t have the energy to think about who sent it for the moment. I walked over to the answering machine and instinctively checked my messages. There was one from Mark. As I walked through to the kitchen, I listened to the recording. Until she vanished, me and Chloe had lived in a small flat. Since it was just the two of us, we had never needed a big house. There were a few beeps, before the message began.
“Hi, Paul. I didn’t call to offer my condolences. You already know how sorry I am. I called to tell you that the police has arranged a memorial service for Chloe in a couple of days. I hope you can make it, but I can understand if you want to stay at home. Do you want me to come over? I’ve also posted the details of Chloe’s case through your letter box. I’m not sure what good it’ll do, but I thought you might be interested. Call me back, mate.” An address for the memorial service followed. I smiled at the efforts of my friend and rang him back. Unsurprisingly, the call went to voicemail, as well.
“Hey Mark. Thanks for the support mate, and for sending over the details. Yeah, I’ll be there. I appreciate the offer, but I’ll just prefer to be alone. Thanks again, mate. I’ll see you in a couple of days.”
I put down the phone and opened the envelope. Chloe’s personal information had been typed up and printed out in a cold and cheerless way. Even though I knew the details off by heart, I read through them again, anyway.
Name: Chloe Stokes
Age: Four years old and 4 months.
Date of birth: 14/01/08
Place of birth: St. George’s Hospital
Appearance: (See attached photo) I shifted my attention to the photo of Chloe for her nursery school calendar. She looked so innocently naive. I smiled at her cute little dimple on her right cheek, before I read the rest of the report.
Parents: Mother: Julie Stokes (deceased, aged 26) Father: Paul Stokes (30) Julie had died in childbirth, leaving me to bring up Chloe.
Location of disappearance: Sainsbury’s Supermarket in Ilford, Redbridge.
Details of circumstance: On the twentieth of May 2012, in Sainsbury’s Supermarket in Ilford highstreet, Redbridge, Chloe Stokes disappeared. The CCTV footage has proved to be inconclusive and everybody present within the store at the relevant time, including the father, have been questioned, to little gain. Even though some fingerprints have been gathered from the child’s cuddly toy, they have also proved to be inconclusive.
Chloe took her toy dog with her everywhere. She was always clutching him, as if her life depended on it. When Chloe had been taken, Growlithe, this was the name that had appeared on the box, was all that had been left behind. This was how I knew my daughter had not run away. She would never leave behind her beloved canine. I read the rest of the report.
After a year’s investigation, an index finger with the same DNA as Chloe Stokes has been discovered. We have to assume the child has been murdered and to conserve resources, this case is to be terminated.
As I read the last word, a single teardrop fell onto the report, making the ink run down the paper, as if it were trying to escape from life. I knew how it felt.
I had been lying on my sofa for hours examining four photos and writing a little speech. I still hadn’t cooked dinner. The can of creamed corn lay by the cooker. I had been drowning in the pity and apologies and condolences and sentiments and sympathies and sensitivities of my friends and family, who offered to come over and comfort me. I politely declined all of them. I still needed some time alone. Of course, I was wondering about what happened to Chloe and where she was, as well as who took her, but the worst scenarios kept coming to mind. I decided it would be healthier to concentrate on our happiest memories together. Perhaps, I could speak about them at the memorial. The photos were of Chloe, me, and of course Growlithe, on her individual birthdays. Growing up.
Everybody had their eyes on me. Why were they watching me? I wasn’t even talking. Chloe’s grandfather was giving a little eulogy. My head was pointing at the ground. I couldn’t stomach the pitying glances, that my friends and family were offering me. After my father had finished, Sergeant Damos stood up and gave his eulogy. Chloe used to call him ‘Uncle Mark.’ Memories of my daughter were flooding my mind. Drowning my senses. Images of her mischievous grin crashed down in front of my eyes. Her innocent laughter was filling up my ears. I was mindlessly playing with Growlithe. I thought that I could leave him as an offering. It would be difficult to part with him, Chloe had always said it was a boy. In the days since my daughter had…I had slept with the toy. I clutched him close to my chest, just as Chloe did. Some people might have called this behaviour stupid or obsessive, but it got me through the lonely nights. Due to my mental lapses, I only heard a few words of Mark’s speech.
“A woman…brilliant…she…adorable…… was…thoughts…Paul Stokes. Coming up, buddy?”
My head snapped up, as I realised it was my turn to speak.
“Don’t worry, mate. You’ll be fine.” Sergeant Damos comforted. I smiled my gratitude, as I staggered to my feet and stumbled over to the podium. I was so nervous. An earthquake had sent tremors rippling throughout my body. Hesitantly, I swallowed and looked over the crowd of thirty people. On one side were my relatives and on the other were Julie’s. All of them were dressed in black. Why? This wasn’t her funeral. It was her memorial. Everyone was patiently waiting for me to speak. Nervously, I undid my top button. It felt like my throat had been lined with cardboard. “I…Chloe…we.” The words were tumbling out of my mouth. A single teardrop fell onto my prompt cards. Tears of silence. Chloe never made any noise when she cried. The cardboard had turned into sandpaper. Scraping my throat. “Chl…I’m sorry.” Mark came up behind me and put a comforting arm around my shoulders. He guided me back to my seat and signalled to the Vicar to make the final proceedings. I took a photo out of my pocket and rested it on Growlithe. Again, I had become lost in thought. After the service my parents and a few of my friends tried to console me. As I had told him to, Mark politely swatted them away. Instead, my parents decided to lay some flowers on Chloe’s memorial stone. Afterwards, they stood to one side and spoke to Julie’s mum and dad. Mark stayed by me, until the crowd had dispersed, which was when I asked him to leave me alone. I knelt by Chloe’s grave… no not grave. This was not her funeral. I laid down Growlithe, as well as a photo of me and Chloe on her fourth birthday. Afterwards I stood up and walked off from the funeral, no, not funeral, memorial. Oh who was I kidding? This is Chloe’s funeral. She’s dead and she’s never going to come back. I sighed and resisting the urge to look back, I carried on walking to lose myself in another crowd.
I wrote this for a contest which was about people disappearing and I wanted to explore the effect on the people left behind. This is an idea that I’ve had knocking around for a while and I’ve finally done something with it.