When my parents finally enter the room, I am sitting in a chair, waiting for them. My mom comes in first. Her face crumples as soon as she sees me, and she rushes across the room, tears streaming down her face. My dad is right behind her, and soon they are both hugging me, chattering a mile a minute, and sobbing with joy.
I smile widely, hug them in return, and do my best to reassure them that I’m all right, that all of my injuries are minor and there’s nothing to worry about. I don’t cry, though. I can’t. Everything feels dull and distant, and even my parents seem more like beloved memories than real people. Nonetheless, I make an effort to act normally; I already caused them far too much stress and anxiety.
After a little while, they calm down enough to sit and talk.
“He contacted you, right?” I ask, remembering Julian’s promise. “He told you I was alive?”
My dad nods, his face drawn tight. “A couple of weeks after you disappeared, we got a deposit into our bank account,” he says quietly. “A deposit in the amount of one million dollars from an untraceable offshore account. Supposedly it was a lottery that we won.”
“At the same time, we received an email,” my dad continues, his voice shaking. “The subject was: ‘From your daughter with love’. It had your picture. You were lying on a beach, reading a book. You looked so beautiful, so peaceful . . .” He swallows visibly. “The email said that you were well and that you were with someone who would take care of you—and that we should use the money to pay off our mortgage. It also said that we would be putting you in danger if we went to the police with this information.”
I stare at him in bemusement, trying to imagine what they must’ve thought at that point. A million dollars . . .
“We didn’t know what to do,” my mom says, her hands anxiously twisting together. “We thought this could be a useful lead in the investigation, but at the same time, we didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize you, wherever you were . . .”
“So what did you do?” I ask in fascination. The FBI didn’t say anything about a million dollars, so my parents couldn’t have spoken to them about this. At the same time, I can’t imagine my parents simply taking the money and not pursuing this further.
“We used the money to hire a team of private investigators,” my dad explains. “The best ones we could find. They were able to track the deposit to a shell corporation in the Cayman Islands, but the trail died there.” He pauses, looking at me. “We’ve been using that money to look for you ever since.”
“What happened, honey?” my mom asks, leaning forward in her chair. “Who took you? Where did this money come from? Where have you been this whole time?”
I smile and begin answering their questions. At the same time, I watch them, drinking in their familiar features. My parents are a handsome couple, both of them healthy and in good shape. They had me when they were both in their early twenties, so they are still relatively young. My dad has only traces of grey in his dark hair, though there is more grey now than I remember seeing before.
“So you really were swimming in the ocean and reading books on the beach?” My mom stares at me in disbelief as I describe my typical day on the island.
“Yes.” I give her a huge smile. “In some ways, it was like a really long vacation. And he did take care of me, like he told you he would.”
“But why did he take you?” my dad asks in frustration. “Why did he steal you away?”
I shrug, not wanting to go into detailed explanations about Maria and Julian’s extreme possessiveness. “Because that’s just the type of man he was, I guess,” I say casually. “Because he couldn’t really date me normally, given his profession.”
“Did he hurt you, honey?” my mom asks, her dark eyes filled with sympathy. “Was he cruel to you?”
“No,” I say softly. “He wasn’t cruel to me at all.”
I can’t explain the complexity of my relationship with Julian to my parents, so I don’t even try. Instead, I gloss over many aspects of my captivity, focusing only on the positive. I tell them about my early morning fishing expeditions with Beth and my newfound painting hobby. I describe the beauty of the island and how I got back into running. By the time I pause to catch my breath, they are both staring at me with strange looks on their faces.
“Nora, honey,” my mom asks uncertainly, “are you . . . are you in love with this Julian?”
I laugh, but the sound comes out raw and empty. “Love? No, of course not!” I’m not sure what gave her that idea, since I have been trying to avoid talking about Julian at all. The more I think about him, the more I feel like the wall of ice around me might crack, letting the pain drown me.
“Of course not,” my dad says, watching me closely, and I see that he doesn’t believe me.
Somehow both of my parents can sense the truth—that I’m far more traumatized by my rescue than by my abduction.
Over the next four months, I attempt to pick up the pieces of my life.
After another day in the Bangkok hospital, I’m deemed healthy enough to travel, and I go home, back to Illinois with my parents. We have two FBI escorts on our trip home—Agents Wilson and Bosovsky—who use the twenty-hour flight to ask me even more questions. Both of them seem frustrated because, according to their databases, Julian Esguerra simply doesn’t exist.