WHERE I BELONG

By Dawn Hosmer

 

     I flip through the photo albums, looking at the pictures of our family through the years. On family vacations. Celebrating holidays. Normal, everyday moments spent together just living life. There are so many happy memories contained in these pages. Why do I still feel so empty and lost?

     For the first time, I notice that there are no photos of me or my brother before the age of five. And there’s only a few of my sister as a toddler.

     “Hey, mom! C’mere a minute,” I shout into the kitchen.

 

     Mom comes in, wiping her hands on a dishtowel, the scent of garlic and onions wafting in the air behind her. “Yeah?” She sits next to me on the couch.

 

     “I was just looking through the photo albums,” I say and point to the stack sitting next to me on the end table. “And, I noticed something odd.”

 

     “You and those photo albums. You always have liked to look through them,” she laughs and puts her arm around my shoulder.

 

     I clear my throat. “Why are there no pictures of any of us as babies? None of me or Beau as toddlers. And only a couple of Bella as one.”

 

     Her face scrunches. “Let me see.” She reaches forward and takes the book from my hands. She flips through the pages. “That is odd. I wonder what happened to all of them. I know I took plenty.”

 

     She reaches over and grabs a stack of albums, flipping quickly through each page. But no pictures of us as babies grace any of the pages.

 

     “Weird, huh?” I say.

 

     “Very. I wonder where they went. Maybe your father did something with them…God rest his soul. I guess we’ll never know.” Mom puts her hands together as if she’s praying and bows her head.

 

     I drape my arm around her shoulder. “I know…I miss him too. I’m sorry, Mom.” I pause a moment, in thought. “Hey, have you gone through all of his files in the basement? Maybe he tucked them in there for some reason.”

 

     Mom goes rigid beneath my arm. “No, and don’t you go messing around in his things either. I’m not ready to deal with all that yet. He hasn’t even been gone three months. Maybe someday, just not yet.” Her voice catches as tears fill her eyes.

     I wrap my arm tighter and kiss her on the cheek. “Okay, Ma. I didn’t mean to upset you. I’m sorry. We can wait. Maybe you’ll be ready...”

     Mom interrupts by rising. “I need to go finish dinner. Thanks for respecting my wishes. I just…can’t. Not yet.”

     “I understand,” I say. “Anything I can help you with?”

     “You just sit and relax. Put all those old books away when you’re done.” Off she goes, back into the kitchen.

     I hoist the pile of albums into my arms and head back to the bookshelf to put them away. A photo of five-year-old me slips out of the pages. I tuck it into my pocket. It’s one of my favorite pictures. Jake would love to see what I looked like when I was younger. I’ll take it home with me to show him.

 

***

            As always, my time spent with Mom goes way too quickly, and it’s now time to return to the real world. Since Dad died, my siblings and I have been taking turns staying with her so that she doesn’t have to be alone in her grief.

            I didn’t sleep well last night, plagued with the same suffocating nightmares I’ve had since I was young, so I’m really dreading the three-hour drive home from Columbus to Pittsburgh. As I pack the last of my bags, a car door slams out front. I peek out the window. Bella’s here. I rush down the stairs to meet my younger sister at the front door.

            “Bella!” I throw my arms around her neck. “I’m glad you got here before I had to leave.”

            She wraps me in her arms. “Hey, sis! Me too. It seems we’ve been missing each other a lot lately.”

            “My girls!” Mom says rushing to the door. “It’s so nice to have my girls together. Come have a cup of coffee before you leave, Brooke!”

            I sigh. “One cup, but then I’ve got to go. I have to be back at work tomorrow and don’t want to get home too late.”

            We chit chat over coffee–as I knew it would, one cup turned into two. It’s hard to make myself leave but with how tired I am, I don’t want to drive at night. I finally extricate myself, give hugs, load my bags into the car, and head home.

 

***

            The first hour of the drive goes quickly, thinking about Bella and all that’s going on in her life. She’s four years younger than me and has just graduated with her Master’s degree in Business. She’s landed a job that sounds amazing in Chicago. I miss the days when we were all living under the same roof instead of spread out across the country. Beau, the baby of the family, and six years younger than me, now lives in Los Angeles pursuing his dreams of becoming an actor. I hate that he’s so far away.

            The cups of coffee work their magic on my bladder, so I stop at a roadside rest to relieve myself and check my phone. There’s a text from Jake, asking when I’ll be home. I quickly shoot off my reply. There’s also one from Bella.

Hey, you seemed tired. Try listening to a podcast on your drive. It helped keep me awake. I found a new one called True Crime Tales on my drive out. You’d probably love it. Give it a try. Text when you’re home. Love you!

     I type a thank you and love you, too. Then, pull up the podcast app on my phone and click on a random one to try. I’m not sure if it’s something I’ll like or not since Bella’s always been the true-crime freak. Me, I prefer to not know about all the crazy things people do. I’m anxious and depressed enough without it. Even my meds don’t seem to help that much anymore.

     I listen to the first episode and, must admit, I’m hooked. The female hosts are engaging, and the stories keep me interested and awake. The majority of the cases they discuss are crimes from the Midwest, so many of the locations they mention are familiar to me. The first one is about a string of murders of prostitutes along Interstate 71. I remember hearing about these cases through the years and am relieved to know they’ve finally been solved.

     My ears perk up when the next episode begins as my now home of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is mentioned. This case is about a string of child kidnappings that happened in Pittsburgh in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Case after case is discussed – some of the children had been found murdered but there are still three who have never been found. Turns out, this episode is a two-parter which is good because it will keep me entertained the rest of the drive.

     I’m about thirty minutes from home when the mother of one of the missing girls shares her story on the podcast.

 

     “Thanks for having me as a guest. I was shopping at Kmart on the southside with my five-year-old daughter in June 1994. She always played hide and seek in the clothes racks, and I’d pretend I couldn’t find her. It was such a silly game, but she’d squeal and giggle with glee every time. She loved it so much.”

     I smile. I used to love doing the same thing. I have distinct memories of peeking out from racks of clothes, feeling like I was hiding in a cave and that my mom would never find me.

     “Lanie hid, and I saw exactly where, but I needed to talk to a salesclerk. I needed a navy-blue zipper to make her a dress for her first day of kindergarten,” the guest says, her voice hitching with a sob. “The clerk and I were talking for only four or five minutes before I started searching for Lanie. I called out her name, playing along, and acting like I couldn’t find her. But when I got to the rack where I knew she was hiding…oh my God…” The woman’s sobs fill my car. “I’m so sorry. She wasn’t there.”

     My eyes fill with tears at hearing the raw pain and emotion in this woman’s voice. That poor mother. I can’t imagine her panic.

 

     She clears her throat. “Anyway, of course, I freaked out. I started screaming her name. The salesclerk I had been speaking with ran to help me search. The store was locked down within five minutes of me discovering her gone. But it was too late. Someone stole my precious baby girl.”

     Flashes of a memory come to me. This story doesn’t just sound familiar, it feels familiar. Just like the woman’s voice. Bile rises in my throat, but I force it back down. 

 

     The podcast host takes over the conversation. “Lanie Brook is still missing. Her body has never been found. She would be thirty-one now. We will be posting pictures of her on the website, so please, please take a moment to look. We’ll also include age-progressed photos. Mrs. Brook, are there any final words you’d like to say?”

 

     “Yes. Lanie, if you are out there, know your daddy and I have never stopped looking for you, loving you. I still sleep with your stuffed dog, Bones, each night. A few more details about Lanie which I shared with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children…she had a heart-shaped birthmark on the inside of her right knee. Her favorite song was ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ and…”

 

     The woman’s voice fades away as I pull up in front of our house. I throw the car into park and can’t catch my breath. My heart feels like it’s going to explode or jump out of my chest. Her voice…I know her voice. It sounds as familiar to me as my own. I pull up the leg of my shorts and stare at the heart-shaped birthmark on my right knee. My mind fills with images of a stuffed dog named Bones. He was tan, with dark brown ears, and so soft. The fur was rubbed off on one of his feet. ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ is still one of my favorite songs–the one I sang to try out for the choir ensemble in college.

 

     I grab my phone. My hands shake so badly that it’s hard for me to pull up the True Crime Tales website to see the pictures of missing Lanie. Finally, I get the correct site punched into my phone and click on the episode photos. There are pictures of Lanie as an infant. One of her taken two weeks before she went missing. I dig in my purse and pull out the photo from Mom’s album. There is no mistake. Lanie is me. The age-progressed photo is like staring into a mirror.

 

     My chest feels like it’s being crushed as memories wash over me. My mom and dad tucking me into bed with Bones. Me rubbing his foot each night as I fell asleep. Mama and I singing and dancing to ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ in the living room. My mom’s kisses and hugs. The oaky scent of my father. Oh my God! How can this be? How could I have blocked all of this out before now?

 

     I scroll until I get to my parents' faces. The memories wash over me like a hurricane. These are my real parents. I remember peeking out of the clothes rack and seeing this woman, my mother, on the other side. I remember a hand grabbing me from behind, pulling me out of the rack. Another hand clamping down on my mouth as I tried to scream. Being rushed out of the store into a waiting car, where my “father” sat behind the wheel. Crying and screaming until I had no voice. The man hoisting me from the backseat and putting me in the trunk of the car. Lying there trapped, feeling like I was suffocating in the small space. Being freed from the trunk and led into my new home, with a room decorated just for me. Insisting to these strangers that my name was Lanie Brook until my new family finally gave in and agreed to call me Brooke. My whole life has been a lie. No wonder I’ve always felt so lost. So empty. So scared. So alone.

 

     I dial my “mother.” As soon as she says, hello, she knows something is wrong. “Brooke, honey are you…”

     I don’t let her finish. With tears streaming down my cheeks and a voice so shaky it’s hard to spit out the words, I say, “I know the truth. I know who I am. I know what you did.”

 

     I hang up before she has the chance to speak.

 

     The next call I place is to the police to tell them that I am the missing Lanie Brook. 

***

     As much as we tried to keep the press away, it was impossible. Now, gracing the front page of every newspaper in the area, and perhaps the country, are the headlines: RECOVERED MEMORIES–HOW A TRUE CRIME PODCAST HELPED REUNITE THREE FAMILIES.

 

     Finally, I’m back where I belong. With the people who loved me and searched for me all this time. Now, I remember everything. And the woman who stole me will pay for her crimes. The one I called “Mom” for decades. The one who had every article about the missing Lanie Brook tucked away in boxes in the basement of the home where I grew up.  The woman who was also responsible for the kidnapping of two other children, four-year-old, Jeffrey Beaumont (known to me as Beau), and two-year-old, Jennifer Bellamy (my sister, Bella).  One podcast shattered the illusion of the perfect family my “parents,” the kidnappers, tried to create. It also was the catalyst for healing three family’s broken hearts. For making sure that three lost souls made it back to where they were always meant to be.

2019 Dawn Hosmer, Author

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