Photograph by Sara Naomi Lewkowicz, Story by Caroline Mitchell
My name is Maria, and I am seven years old. At least, that’s the lie I have to tell. I relax in the pool, my foam floater wrapped around me as I stretch out on my back. The sun is warm on my skin, my long hair wet as it tickles my neck. I wish I could find scissors and cut it short, but Mama keeps them locked away. I kick out with my feet and the water soothes my sun-tanned skin. I squeeze my eyes shut so I can’t see the fencing around our back yard. There is pointy wire on top, and funny prickly plants line the other side. Mama said they’re called cactus. There are a lot of them around ‘cos we live in a place called Mexico now. Mama drove us a long way to get here. People are looking for us, and she says it’s her job to keep us safe.
I haven’t been to school for a very long time. Mama teaches me at home, and I try hard not to make her cross. I miss my friends. There’s a boy next door, his name is Jacob, but I’m not allowed to speak to him. He’s a baby, only five, two whole years younger than me. Sometimes, when Mama is in bed with a headache, I sneak to the fence and speak to Jacob between the gap in the plants. It’s hard to see him ‘cos he’s afraid of the prickles, but it’s nice to talk to someone else.
I climb out of the pool, grab my towel and leave wet footprints on the tiles as I walk inside. I smile as a tiny green lizard wriggles past. I used to be scared of them, but now lizards are my friends. My tummy rumbles as I walk into the kitchen. Mama’s left me some food. I sit at the table, staring at the framed photo of a little girl. Her name was Maria too. Mama said I look so much like her that it makes her want to cry. Maria fell asleep one day and never woke up.
Mama says it’s just us now, and I should forget everyone else. It makes my tummy ache when I hear things like that. She says that if my old family really loved me, then they wouldn’t have left me alone on the beach. But the sun made them sleepy, and it wasn’t their fault. I shouldn’t have left their side. I remember the big straw umbrella that we sat under, and daddy’s snores as he lay back on his sunbed that day. I can still see Mummy’s book resting on her chest as she fell asleep too. I only left them to splash in the water, and that’s when shefound me. At first, she said she was from the kid’s club and that I had to go with her.
That feels like a long time ago, and I don’t want to live here anymore. I miss my real mummy and daddy. I want to go home. Tears prick my eyes as I think of them. I hear a door creak upstairs. Mama is coming down. Quickly, I clear the crumbs from my plate and tidy up after myself. I think about Jacob, and it makes my heart do a funny little dance in my chest. I wonder what he has done with the note I passed through the wire mesh. I told him to give it to a grown-up, so they could call for help. Jacob’s eyes had opened wide as his lips mouthed my real name. I watched as he scrunched it into his pocket and ran inside. I couldn’t call after him in case Mama heard. I didn’t think he would pass it on, but now I hear a whomp whomp sound over my head.
I’m shivering now, but it’s not from the cold, and I pull my towel tighter around my shoulders. They are here. At last, they have come. But will they get to me in time? The beat of helicopter blades grows louder, sending Mama into a panic. Her face white, her shoes click-clack against the floor. ‘Come away from the doors,’ she shouts, her fingers pinching my skin as she grabs my arm. ‘Go to your room,’ Mama flings me towards the stairs. ‘Now!’
I freeze as strong fists hammer against our front door. ‘Police, open up!’ They shout, their thundery voices making me jump. Scooping me up in her arms, Mama rushes towards the back door, her dark hair brushing against my face. My teeth chatter in my mouth. I’m both excited and scared as police officers burst in through the door and rush towards her. She screams like an animal as I am tugged from her grip.
‘It’s OK,’ a policewoman says, her voice soft as she stares at my face. ‘What’s your name, sweetheart?’ She takes in my hair, my swimsuit, the pink varnish on my nails.
‘Daniel,’ I say, the word sounding alien on my tongue. I haven’t spoken my real name in so long. It doesn’t feel a part of me anymore. I follow the officer outside, and we wait in the police car as Mama is lead away in handcuffs, her head low. She looks over her shoulder at me one last time and I shrink back, afraid. I feel lost and alone. Police talk through their radios, saying my pretend mother has been dressing me up as a girl. I start to cry, but then I catch a flash of mummy’s wavy blonde hair as she wrenches open the car door. Tears stream down her face. ‘It’s him!’ She cries, opening her arms to pull me in. ‘Daniel!’ Her hug feels warm and golden. She is breathless but happy, and I inhale the welcome smell of her perfume. ‘My baby,’ she says, smothering me in kisses. ‘We’ve been searching for so long.’
My heart feels as big as the moon.
Caroline Mitchell is an international #1 and USA Today and Washington Post bestselling author, Caroline originates from Ireland and now lives with her family on the coast of Essex. A former police detective, Caroline has worked in CID and specialised in roles dealing with vulnerable victims, high-risk victims of domestic abuse, and serious sexual offences. She now writes full time, with over three-quarters of a million books sold.
As well as her crime series, Caroline also writes stand-alone psychological thrillers. The most recent, Silent Victim reached the Amazon number 1 spot in the UK, US and Australia and won first place as best psychological thriller in the US Reader’s Favourite Awards. Her previous thriller, Witness, was shortlisted for the International Thriller Awards. Her works have been translated worldwide and her book, The Silent Twin, has been converted as an interactive app in the Chapters Interactive game. Find her here @Caroline_writes
Sara Naomi Lewkowicz is a native and current New Yorker, residing in Brooklyn. Sara received her master's degree in visual communication from Ohio University in Athens. She received her bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her work has been published in Time Magazine, Stern, L’Espresso, Das Magazin, Days Japan, Internatzionale, Politiken, ESPN, and numerous other magazines and newspapers. She has won several grants and awards for her work on domestic violence and LGBTQ families, including two World Press Photo Awards (2014 and 2016) and the Sony World Photography Organization L’Iris D’Or in 2014. She was the first woman to be awarded the Ville de Perpignan Remi Ochlik Award (formerly known as the Young Reporters Award) at the Visa Pour L’Image festival in Perpignan, France. In 2013, she was awarded the Alexia Foundation Student Grant, an honor that sent her to study in London for a semester of school. While studying in London, she was named College Photographer of the Year by COPY, and was awarded a prestigious summer internship with National Geographic Magazine, which sent her to Oaxaca, Mexico for her internship assignment. Other awards and honors have included being recognized by Pictures of the Year International, Days Japan, and the World Report Award by Festival for Ethical Photography in Italy. She is available for editorial and commercial assignments of all kinds, and excels at capturing light and moments with intimacy and humanity, both in her reportage and her portraiture. She specializes in gaining access, intimacy, and trust when dealing with delicate subject matter. When she is not taking pictures, she enjoys yoga, painting her nails, watching films and reading. See more of her work here @saranaomiphoto