It was just one little lie but it cost her everything.
“Aw, come on, mom! All my friends are doing it! Please?” Haylee had been on her mom for months and today was no exception. “Jenna’s mom left her do it. Why can’t I?”
Tessa pushed a lock of hair from her eyes as she reached for another towel to fold. “Jenna’s mom left her use Chatterbox?”
Haylee rushed on, “Yeah, she’s TOTALLY cool with it! Please, Mom! All my friends are doing it and Jenna’s mom wouldn’t have left her do it if it wasn’t safe!”
“But aren’t you supposed to be thirteen to get on it?” Tessa hesitated.
“That’s just something they say to cover their butts.”
“Cover their butts?” Tessa gave Haylee THE LOOK.
“Aw, come on, mom. You know what I mean! Pleeeeeease?”
Tessa sighed, “Okay, but I will set the password and you cannot change it without asking me.”
“Oh, mom, thanks you! You’re the greatest!” Haylee was practically prancing.
Tessa called up Chatterbox on her computer and then clicked on the registration link as Haylee’s younger sister, Carlee, came walking into the room, “What’s going on?”
“Mom is letting me get my own Chatterbox!” Haylee announced.
“I thought you can’t get that until you are thirteen?” Carlee asked, puzzled.
“Don’t worry about it!” Haylee rolled her eyes, “Kids!”
Tessa looked up and smiled and Carlee protested, “You’re only ten!”
“Haylee, it says you’re not old enough.” Tessa glanced at Haylee.
“Oh, just go back and change my birth year,” Haylee suggested.
“Isn’t that like lying?” Carlee accused.
Tessa nodded, “She’s got a point.”
Haylee groaned, “Mooom!”
Tessa paused to think about what she was doing, “Haylee, don’t you think they make those rules for a reason?”
Haylee crossed her arms and huffed. Tessa looked back to the computer and sighed, “Okay, but remember, only people you know.”
Haylee squealed, “Thanks, mom! I promise! No strangers!”
“Don’t make me regret this!” Tessa warned. “There, all done! I wrote the password down in our book.
She arose from the chair allowing Haylee to slip into it. She watched Haylee for a moment before returning to her laundry.
A month later Tessa was checking Haylee’s account when something began to trouble her, “Haylee! Can you please come here?” She called.
A moment later Haylee stepped into the room, “What’s up?”
“Haylee, in only a month you already have 654 friends? Do you even know them all? Who is this Jake Becker?” Tessa pointed.
“Oh, he was Jenna’s Chatterbox friend. He’s cool!”
Tessa still wasn’t convinced, “Does Jenna know him?”
“Sure, ” Haylee replied, rolling her eyes”she is friends with him!”
“Well, I don’t know about that but I think I do think I need to call the eye doctor and schedule an appointment for you,” Tessa pretended concerned.
Haylee was confused, “Why? My eyes are fine.”
Tessa shook her head, “I don’t think so. Your eyes keep doing that rolling thing. I think we should check that out.”
Tessa laughed and turned to leave, “Don’t forget. No friending anyone-“
“-unless I know them!” Haylee finished. Don’t worry, Mom! I got this!”
Tessa tossed the last pancake on the serving platter and walked to the stairway, “Pancakes are ready! Haylee! Carlee!”
Tessa was sitting down looking at the newspaper when Carlee arrived at the table rubbing her sleepy eyes, “Smells good, mom!” She helped herself to two pancakes.
Tessa grabbed two as well, “I hope Haylee gets down here soon so we can eat.”
“She’s not upstairs.”
“What?” Tessa asked, confused.
“I looked in her room and the bathroom and she wasn’t there.” Carlee spat out between bites.
“How can she not be there? Where else would she be?” Tessa asked, furrowing her brow. Carlee shrugged. Tessa pushed back the chair and headed for the stairs, “Haylee!” She got to Haylees’s room first and took a quick look around. Seeing no one she headed for the bathroom and other bedrooms. Still not finding Haylee, she marched back to her room, “Haylee, this is not a game! If you’re hiding!!!” She flung open the closet door. Empty. Fear started to creep into her as she turned around to survey the room. Then she saw it. The window was broken. Shatters of glass lay around it. Tessa began to tremble, “Carlee!”
“What’s wrong, mom?” Carlee called up the stairs, “Did you find Haylee?”
Tessa raced to the hallway, “Carlee, listen. I want you to run outside and check the garage and the shed and see if you can see anything or anyone.”
“Just do it, okay?”
Tessa frantically began searching the house even though she knew in her heart she wouldn’t find Haylee. She finally collapsed in a heap in the foyer, crying, which was where Carlee found her, “Mom. Mom! Are you okay? What’s wrong? Where’s Haylee?” Tessa immediately began gasping for air. “Mom!”
“Get me the phone!”
“Okay.” Carlee raced to the portable and brought it to Tessa.
Tessa quickly pressed 9-1-1. When she got a voice she immediately burst into tears.
“Ma’m? Are you okay? Do you have an emergency” Tessa cried harder but then finally calmed down. “Ma’m, I don’t know what is going on but I already have officers dispatched to your location. Can you tell me what’s going on?”
Tessa tearfully croaked out, “My daughter is gone! I think someone took her!” She heard a gasp and looked over at Carlee who was pale and trembling. She reached over and grabbed her hand.
“Okay, ma’m. From what I understand, you are saying your daughter is not in the house?”
“How do you know she was taken and didn’t run away or sneak to a friend’s house?” the dispatcher gently asked.
“The window,” Tessa fought back more tears, “It’s broken in her room.”
“Okay, ma’m. Now you should soon be hearing sirens as they are close by.” the dispatcher instructed, “Do you have someone with you?”
“Yes, my other daughter, Carlee.”
“I’m going to stay on the phone with you till they get there but you tell Carlee to open the door for them.”
“Okay.” Tessa could hear blaring sirens getting closer. She nodded toward the door indicating she wanted Carlee to open it.
The house was soon filled with officers. The whole day seemed like a bad dream as she repeated the story over and over. Finally a female officer approached her, “Ma’m. Do you have someplace you can stay? We are going to need to go over every thing and we will probably be here all night….. No? Well, we will put you up in an area motel if you would both like to go and pack a few things.” They were suddenly interrupted by a group dressed in suits who seemed to take charge.
“Who are they?” Tessa whispered.
The words no sooner left her mouth when a woman from the group approached her, “Excuse me, are you Tessa Miller?”
The woman smiled,” I am Special Agent Janae Harrison.”
“FBI?” Tessa’s eyes widened.
“Yes, ma’m.” The woman nodded.
“Why is the FBI here?”
“Ma’m, your daughter is the fifth girl to be abducted in the past three months.” Janae answered quietly.
“The ones on the news…..” Tessa suddenly remembered. “They were all found d-” She burst into tears.
“How do you like your coffee?” Janae asked as they met later in the police station assembly room.
“Black,” Tessa answered, “Thank you.”
They settled down to drink their coffee. Tessa didn’t actually taste it. At that point she wasn’t sure if she tasted anything.
“Can I ask you questions about your daughter?” Janae asked gently. Tessa nodded slowly. “We discovered your daughter was using Chatterbox. Did you know that?”
Tessa nodded again, though it pained her to do so, “I know she wasn’t thirteen but her friend’s mother allowed her on it and she always seemed tech savvy and all so I figured it would be okay.”
Janae nodded and was quiet a few seconds before continuing, “Tessa, I want you to know that one out of every three children who are a few years under thirteen have a social media account like Chatterbox? That doesn’t make it right but the problem with children using it so young is they lack the wisdom and maturity to use it safely.”
“I know but Haylee was smart and we taught her not to talk to strangers.”
“Tessa, did you know that Haylee was friends with many people she probably didn’t know and often gave out pertinent information about where she lived?”
“Did you know she was sending messages to people and that some of those men were actually pedophiles?” Asked Janae gently.
Tessa paled, “No.” She burst into tears. I knew I shouldn’t have let her. We even had a discussion about her lying about her age.”
Janae handed her a tissue, “Hindsight is 20-20. Too bad foresight isn’t.”
Tessa wiped her nose, “She wanted to be like her friends and when I heard a friend who was pretty tech savvy let her daughter on, I thought it was okay. It’s been so hard since the girls’ dad died a few years ago. I guess I gave the girls more leeway than I should have.”
Janae patted her arm, “I’m sure it’s been rough. Losing a spouse often is.”
Their conversation was interrupted by what sounded like a crowd of people in the Commons Area. Both women looked up. Janae patted Tessa on the arm again, “I’ll go see what is going on. Stay here.”
Janae disappeared out the door and Tessa thought she heard Haylee’s name. She slipped to the doorway. She heard a lot of excitement in their voices and then suddenly they looked her way and quieted. Finally Janae walked back over to Tessa and steered her back inside.
“What is it?” Tessa’s voice was shaking, “Did they find Haylee?”
Janae cleared her throat, “A body was discovered near Hempton River….. They think it’s Haylee and they want you to go and identi-“
“Noooooo!” Tessa shrieked, “No, it’s can’t be her! My baby cannot be dead! No!”
“I’ll go with you.” Janae offered.
She steered Tessa through the door. Tears were streaming down her cheeks. They went out the door and across the parking lot to the morgue. The coroner led them to a room with a table. Janae put her arm around Tessa as the coroner lifted the sheet back. And just like that, Tessa’s worst fears were realized. She sank to the ground wailing. The coroner covered Haylee’s body and quietly vacated the room as Janae tried to comfort Tessa.
After an hour, they vacated the morgue and returned to the police station. Tessa was surprised to find the room full of reporters as the chief and Police and the FBI Team leader were holding a press conference. When the reporters spotted Tessa, they immediately converged upon her. The Police chief and Janae tried to deter them from questioning Tessa, but she waved them off, “I want to make a statement.”
The Police chief put up his hand, “Ma’m I don’t know if it’s a wise idea.”
Tessa looked at him, head held high, “It’s okay. This is something people need to hear.”
Tessa made her way to the podium. She looked around nervously and then opened her mouth, “A few months ago I made a choice. My daughter was only ten, almost eleven. She wanted a Chatterbox Account because her friends were on it. Chatterbox has rules that you should not be on it until you are thirteen. They have that rule for a very good reason. Children do not have the experience or the maturity to make wise decisions. I helped her to lie and say she was thirteen. That is on me and I will always regret it, but if I could save another child, Haylee’s life would not be in vain. Parents, by allowing your children to break the rules to be like everyone else, is not doing them any favors. I helped my daughter lie to be like her friends. That decision cost me my daughter and I will live with that decision the rest of my life. Do your child a real favor and teach them that rules are there to protect them. They are only young once. They won’t die if they aren’t on Chatterbox but they may die because they are. They have plenty of time to utilize it when they are mature enough to handle it. Lastly, go home and hug your children really tight. Tell them you love them. Do it today because you may not get that chance tomorrow.” Tessa stepped back from the podium and toward the door as the crowd of reporters broke into spontaneous applause.