Tuesday, 14th January, 12.30pm
Andrew Devall was decorating the front room of his parents house with birthday banners and balloons, setting a table with cakes and sandwiches, ready to celebrate his eldest daughter's birthday when she got home from school in three hours.
He shared a flat with his daughter Mikaela and had a big family, so his parents' four bedroom house was the perfect place for a party. Mikaela was turning fourteen today and since her last birthday had been pretty much cancelled due to her mothers' sudden death, Andrew wanted to try and make this one as special as possible.
Andrew's late wife, Martha, had been in a car accident on her way home from work five days before Mikaela's thirteenth birthday, and had spent a week in intensive care, until she slipped away.
Andrew knew that Martha would want him to move on, and, as she would say 'Stop moping around', but he just wasn't ready. Even when he was ready, he would just feel guilty, like he was betraying her. So he had stayed clear of any woman since Martha's untimely death. She was only thrity-five at the time. What would have been her thrity-sixth birthday was only a week away.
Anyway, being aged thirty-nine with a fourteen year old child, he thought, would be enough to scare any woman away. His sister, Katerina had told him otherwise. She had been married to a man for five years now, who already had a son from a previous marriage, and it had never bothered her.
Just as he was thinking that, thirty-three year old Katerina entered the house with her husband Luke, who was thirty-five, and her six year old step-son, Marshall. She put the young boy's bag down on the table, he always insisted on bringing a bag of his toys with him everywhere he went.
He'd been slightly ill over the weekend, so Luke had decided not to send him to school for these two days. He was a little soft with Marshall since he had been dragged through a nasty custody battle between Luke and his ex, Sharon.
Luke had been awarded full custody of Marshall and Sharon was only allowed to see Marshall in a contact centre because of her drug and anger issues. That, of course, caused a lot of stress for Katerina when Sharon decided to take the anger of losing her son out on her. Threatening texts, phone calls. In the end the police were called and they'd had a restraining order put on Sharon.
The threats soon stopped, but it didn't stop Sharon telling Marshall things she shouldn't while she was at contact with him. The staff there had told Luke that Sharon had been warned about telling lies to Marshall. When Luke asked what was said, the lady took him to one side, away from Marshall and told him Sharon had been telling her son that Luke used to hit her and throw her around. All of it totally untrue though.
"How's the birthday girl?" Katerina asked as she went over to her brother and helped put up a sparkly pink banner with the words, 'Birthday Girl!' sprawled across it in large purple writing, and stars and hearts decorating the rest of the banner.
"She seemed all right this morning when I dropped her off at school. She's good at putting on a brave face though." Andrew replied as he climbed up onto a stool to pin the banner to the wall.
"And how about you?" Katerina asked.
"I'm actually okay. I've been taking my mind off things by concentrating on today." Andrew said, when he had finished and stepped down off the stool.
Marshall ran up to Andrew holding a Spiderman figurine and said, "look! Spiderman!" Beaming, he thrust the figurine at Andrew, who took it and started playing with it, chasing Marshall around the living room.
When Marshall had decided he'd had enough of playing, he took the Spiderman back, sat on the sofa and pulled a comic book out of his bag. He wasn't a great reader, being only six, but he just loved to look at the pictures.
Luke came over to join his wife and brother-in-law, as they blew up balloons for the party. "So..." Andrew said, trying to catch his breath. "How did contact with the witch go yesterday?"
"We didn't take him. He was ill over the weekend so I've kept him at home. He seems better now, though." Luke said, as he tied an inflated balloon at the bottom and threw it at his son, who kicked it high into the air, hit a vase on the fireplace and slowly fell to the floor.
Luke managed to stop the vase from falling and smashing, then glanced up sheepishly, looking from his son to his wife.
"Sometimes I feel like I'm babysitting for two children." Katerina said to Andrew, who laughed lightly, and finished blowing up a purple balloon.
The main birthday cake was fresh out of the oven as Katerina's mother Pearl brought it through to place on the large table they had brought into the front room. Pearl always loved baking, and thanks to having a large family, she always had plenty of reason to. There was always a birthday, anniversary or some kind of family celebration to bake for.
She put the cake down before giving her daughter a hug, "How was the journey here?"
"Fine. Don't forget we moved closer now."
"Oh, yes of course. Sorry, I'm being forgetful. It's hard to keep track of all you lot." Pearl smiled.
She had in her hand a roll of cling film. "You thinking of suffocating us with that?" Andrew asked, pointing at the roll.
"No, don't be so silly, Andrew." Pearl lightly slapped him in the arm. "I'm putting it over the sandwiches to keep them fresh." She jabbed the roll of cling film into his stomach, a little harder than intended.
After covering the sandwiches and small cupcakes in cling film, Pearl went back into the kitchen, where she spent most of her time. Her husband sat quietly at the kitchen table, reading a newspaper, which is what he spent most of his time doing.
"Some woman's gone missing a few towns over." He mumbled. "Forty-one year old Charlotte Lewis... last seen on Friday the 10th of January. Pretty recent." He wasn't even sure Pearl was listening, but he said it anyway.
"Oh." Pearl put down the cake tin she was about to wash and walked over to her husband. "Is there a picture?" She looked at the newspaper over his shoulder as he pointed to a small square, black and white picture of the missing woman. "Right... Well -"
"Are you all right, love? You're shaking."
"Uh, Yes, I am fine. Just..." She paused. "It's just a little bit chilly in here. I'll put the heating on."
Pearl hurried from the room, leaving her husband, Harvey, sitting wondering what was wrong with his wife. The heating was already on; he had put it on half an hour ago, and the kitchen was warm from all the baking.
Tuesday 14th, January. 15:10pm
Mikaela left school with her best friend, Bethany, who lived in the same block of flats as her, the floor above Mikaela. Andrew always gave them both a lift to school in a morning, knowing full well that if it was left to them, they would almost definitely be late. They laughed and joked, and obviously as teenage girls do, talked about a boy from their class. "Isn't he just gorgeous though?!" Bethany beamed, as he walked up the other side of the road.
"I guess. Anyway, you going straight home or coming to my grandma's for my party? By the way, a warning, my dad will be there." She giggled, knowing her dad wasn't really that bad.
"Yeah, sure, I'll come. Saves spending time with my family. My brother has the flu and is in a really bad mood so I'll take anything to get out of the flat."
"Oh, so my party is 'just anything' now?" Mikaela said, giggling.
"You know what I mean. And hey, your dad isn't that bad. Stop complaining. At least you know your dad. I don't even know my dad's name!" She had never been bothered about that. She'd grown up with just her mother and brother, it was all she knew.
In fact, people having fathers seemed alien to her, because her mother never spoke about her dad, or told her his name, how they met or whether he was still alive. And Bethany never questioned. She was with her mother and older brother Darren, and that was all she needed.
So at three forty-five that afternoon, Bethany had changed out of her school uniform, while Mikaela spoke to Sally, Bethany's mother, in the front room.
"Okay, we're off." Bethany told her mother.
"All right, have a nice time. And happy birthday, Mikki." Sally said.
Mikki was Mikaela's nickname. Sometimes even her father called her Mikki. Unless she was in trouble. They made their way from Bethany's flat and walked about half an hour until they got to Pearl's home. When they got there, Pearl was outside, putting some rubbish in the bin.
"Hey, grandma." Mikaela said. She smiled at her grandma.
"Happy birthday Mikaela!" Her grandmother beamed. "You're homemade cake is all ready. Strawberry icing because I know it's your favourite." Pearl smiled.
"Thanks. This is Bethany." She gestured to her friend standing quietly by the side of her. "My best friend from school."
"Oh, hello, love. Mikaela's told me about you. Nice to meet you." She smiled at the blonde fourteen year old.
"Nice to meet you too, Mrs Devall."
"Oh, please. Call me Pearl."
"Okay, nice to meet you Pearl." Bethany smiled.
"Go on inside, it's cold, and your dad had spent all day preparing the front room for you. He even set up one of those CD player things so you can have some music." Pearl said.
"Okay, thank you grandma." Mikaela let her friend follow her into the house where she was greeted by her Aunt Katerina and her husband, Luke, and her father. Obviously no one else had turned up yet.
Suddenly little Marshall ran over to her and said, "Mikki! Look at my Spiderman!"
"Oh, wow! That's so cool. Can i have it?"
"No!" He shouted and clutched it close to his chest. "It's mine. Kat gave it to me."
Kat was what he called his step-mother, Katerina. "So leave it alone!"
"Okay, I was only joking!" Mikaela said.
"He's not been well." Katerina said as she approached her niece. "Happy birthday, missy." She gave Mikaela a hug. "How was school?"
"Same old. You know, a fight kicking off in the field, a teacher getting shit for being a di-"
"I don't think your father would approve of that language." Katerina interrupted, glancing behind her at her brother. "But he can't hear, so go on..."
"A fight in the field, a teacher getting shit in the hall for being a dick. Dinner ladies having snowballs thrown at them and being told to 'shit off'. Never heard that one before but I think I'll claim it." Mikaela said, and shrugged.
"I take it you're Bethany?" Katerina asked the blonde girl standing shyly behind Mikaela. "I'm her auntie, call me Kat." She smiled.
"Okay, nice to meet you Kat." Bethany said quietly. At school she seemed so outgoing, and confident. But secretly she was shy, and quiet.
They continued with the party as soon as more of Mikaela's school friends and family arrived. There was music, cake and they all sang 'happy birthday' to "Mikki".
They ate cake, danced a little more, and Mikaela talked and gossiped with her friends until they had to go home at eight pm. Her dad helped tidy up and Mikaela went home at about nine p.m
When her dad awoke the next morning, Mikaela wasn't there.
So he assumed that had walked to school, then got himself ready for his part-time job at Tesco.
09:50 am, Wednesday 15th January
At work, Andrew's boss came to him and informed him that Mikaela's headteacher had called, and asked him to call back as soon as possible. So, ten minutes later, he was in the office, calling the school's reception. He spoke to the receptionist and a moment later the headteacher came to the phone, "I was just a little concerned that Mikaela hasn't turned up for school, Mr Devall."
"She hasn't? Well when I woke up this morning she was already gone, so I assumed she made her way to school with her friend. She lives in the same block as us."
"Which friend is that, Mr Devall?"
"Okay, I'll see if she's in today and try to figure out what's going on. It's really not like Mikaela to be off school without warning. Am I all right to call back, maybe leave a message to get to you right away?"
"Yes, ma'am. That's absolutely fine." Andrew said. He went back to work, but couldn't keep his mind off his AWOL daughter. She isn't the kind of kid that bunks off school, in fact, other than doctors and optician appointments, she's never had a day off, unless she was actually ill. Half hour later he got the worst news a parent could hear.
"Bethany says she hasn't seen Mikaela today, and has no idea where she might be. If you can't get in touch with her, Mr Devall, I suggest you go home and check, if she's not there then call family and friends to see if they have seen her, then the police."
"Yes, Mrs Greenworth." Andrew said, his heart pounding and his breathing in short bursts. "I will do that... Thank you."
It was unusual that Andrew was allowed to leave work early, but since his daughter was presumed missing, it was allowed today. He'd called his family, Katerina, his parents and his two brothers. He'd attempted to call his sisters but they must be at work, he assumed, as there was no answer from any of them.
He even tried Bethany's mother, but she claimed that Bethany left for school alone, and had text her to see if she knew where Mikaela was.
There was every chance she had bunked off, and maybe got her best friend to lie for her, so he had told Bethany's mother that it was important, that Mikaela was missing and the police may have to be called. Just in case she was covering for Mikaela.
Still Bethany insisted she had not seen or heard from Mikki. The last she saw of her was the night before when the birthday party was over and she had gone home. She had tried to call her that morning to see where she was, as she had waited for her at the school gates, but there had been no answer.
She presumed she had been allowed a day off for her birthday, because after last year had been so bad for her, her father may have been easy on her.
Katerina was on her way back from picking up Marshall from school with her husband when she got another call from Andrew. "I might have to call the police. No one has seen her, Bethany insists, even after telling her the police will have to be called, that she has no idea where Mikki is." Katerina could hear his voice break as he tried to fight back bursts of tears. But it didn't work. He broke down, and almost wailed. "Kat, where is my little girl?"
"I'm sure everything will be all right, Andy. Let's face it, this part of town is pretty much crime-free. She most likely has bunked off school. Like you said, she puts on a brave face sometimes, but maybe today she felt like she couldn't any more so wanted some alone time to, I dunno, grieve in a way." She sighed, hoping that was the case. "Please try to calm down. I'll be over at your place as soon as possible."
After she hung up the phone, she turned to her husband in the drivers' seat. "Can you drop me off at Andy's? He's absolutely out of his mind with worry."
"Off course, honey. Do you want me to see if my parents can look after Marshall so we can go out an look for her?"
"I'll let you know later. You never know, she might turn up. But if the police do have to be called I will tell you."
Katerina had always been a positive person. Always expected the best outcomes, always saw the best in people to the point she got walked all over, a lot. But this time even she felt a twinge of negativity at the situation, but she had to stay strong for her brother. He needed it right now.
Her sister Yvonne agreed to meet her there. Once at Andrew's block of flats, they found they were locked out. He wasn't home yet. He was probably out looking for young Mikaela, so Yvonne, thirty years old with no children, decided to call him.
Despite not having any children of her own, she could almost feel the worry and pain Andrew would be in right now. It was horrible. So distressing, and she just hoped with all of her heart that she would come home. Soon.
With Mikaela being the one niece she had most contact wth, as she lived just around the corner in a run down little two-up two-down house she had managed to get when she applied to the council when she was pregnant, but unfortunatley had a miscarriage, she almost felt like she had a responsibility.
The council would soon move her to a one bedroomed place seeing as she is no longer expecting a baby, and has no need for the spare room anymore. She just hoped, now, that when and if she was moved she will still be close by so she could still help look for little Mikki.
Mikaela may be fourteen now, but she will always be Little Mikki. Where in the world was she? She never takes off like this. Maybe, just maybe, and hopefully, she will be just fine, like Katerina said.