The Girl Behind the Door (2 page)

BOOK: The Girl Behind the Door
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We pulled into the parking lot at the north end of the bridge at 7:20 and there it was—my red Saab. A black California Highway Patrol cruiser was parked behind it, its engine idling. We stared in disbelief at the Saab and the CHP cruiser as I killed the ignition. She
come to the bridge.

We both got out. A CHP officer got out of the cruiser to meet us. “Mr. and Mrs. Brooks? I'm Officer Shipman.”

My mind was in overdrive. “Officer, has anyone seen Casey?”

“I got here about twenty minutes ago,” Shipman said. “The engine was warm to the touch, so it probably hasn't been here that long.”

Erika's voice was high, strained. “What are you doing to find her?”

Shipman remained calm and businesslike. “Mrs. Brooks, we've sent out an APB for a juvenile risk. The U.S. Park Police, Coast Guard, Bridge Patrol, and CHP have all been dispatched to look for your daughter.”

The doors to the Saab were locked, so I used my key fob to open them. Casey's new iPhone—a Christmas present from my mother—and a lighter were on the front passenger seat. A pack of Camel Lights was stowed in the center console cubbyhole. I hated the fact that she smoked.

Her pocketbook was on the floor in front of the passenger seat. I emptied its contents onto the seat—her wallet, makeup, lipstick, Kleenex, Orbit gum, wads of blank notebook paper, matches, loose change—but still no clues. Likewise, nothing in the trunk.

I grabbed her phone and clicked Contacts
I knew a few of Casey's friends, but never said much more than a polite “hello” or “goodbye” as they hurried off through the living room to her bedroom. We were under strict orders to never talk to her friends.

I saw her friend Max's name under Recent Calls. I remembered Max. He was a tall, skinny kid with wild, curly hair. They'd been friends since kindergarten. My thumb punched furiously at his name on the glass screen and finally connected, but the call went to voice mail.

Then I saw her friend Julian's name. He was a nice kid, slightly built, cute. They were best friends and hung around a lot. Casey would often head over to his house when she needed to dowse the fire from the pain of one of her meltdowns.

“Yo, Quasey. 'Sup homes?” He sounded wide-awake and ready for school.

“Julian, it's Casey's dad, John. Listen, Casey disappeared this morning. She took the car to the Golden Gate Bridge. I'm here now. Do you know where she might be?”

The phone was silent for a moment. When he spoke, the playfulness in his voice had vanished. “Wow. No, I'm sorry. I have no idea. What's going on?”

“Thanks, Julian. I gotta go.”

Shit! Shit! Shit!

My BlackBerry rang. “Mr. Brooks, it's Officer Gilbreath. We need you to come back to the house . . . now.”

Without even asking why he wanted us to come home, I replied, “Okay, we'll be there in about ten minutes.” I couldn't detect anything in his voice that indicated whether he had good or bad news. I tried to be upbeat. He didn't say anything. Maybe it wasn't what I feared.

We drove home in tense silence. Erika clung tightly to her pocketbook in her lap, her knuckles white. As we pulled up to the house, we saw a second white-and-blue Tiburon Police cruiser parked on the street.

We walked through the door to find more people inside. In addition to Officer Gilbreath, there was a more senior officer, Sergeant Hayes. They stood stiffly in the living room, their eyes locked on us. Our neighbors Jerry and Laura stood next to them in a semicircle. They stared at us, pained looks on their faces. Something ominous.

Officer Gilbreath motioned with his hand for us to sit down. Erika took a seat on the sofa next to Laura while I sat next to Jerry. I felt light-headed, disconnected from the people around me, as if I were watching a movie.

The pale yellow of the living room walls captured what little daylight filtered through the clouds. The fireplace in the corner was framed by a mantelpiece that Erika had painted in a bird's-eye maple pattern. Behind the two police officers was the media cabinet filled with books, family photographs, and a wide-screen TV.

Gilbreath had a slight tremor in his hands as he looked down and read from his notepad. He'd spoken with the Golden Gate Bridge Patrol. Homeland Security surveillance videos recorded a dark-colored Saab pulling into the Dillingham parking lot at 6:15. A female exited the car dressed in jogging attire. She took the pedestrian walkway that led under the Golden Gate Bridge to the bay side, which was the more popular destination for joggers, walkers, and tourists to soak in the dramatic view of San Francisco Bay and the city.

I stared unblinking at Gilbreath, with no awareness of anyone else in the room, as he stuck to his notes. I labored to breathe as my heart rate accelerated. My car keys slipped from my hand.

“The female was seen smoking a cigarette while walking. She put it out near the Vista Point parking lot. Then she jogged onto the bridge and stopped in the middle.” Gilbreath stopped to clear his throat, his eyes darting up to meet mine before snapping back to his notepad. “She climbed over the four-foot railing to the narrow maintenance platform, stood on the platform for ten to fifteen seconds, and stepped off.”

It was 6:40 when Casey jumped, just about the time I called 911. She left the keys to the Saab behind on the railing.


atarina was thirty-six, unmarried and pregnant. She already had two children. They lived in her parents' house 160 miles north of Warsaw in the Masurian Lake District, a resort area known as the “summer capital of Poland.”

On the night of May 3, 1990, Katarina went into labor six weeks early. Her father bundled her into the family car for the short trip to the nearest public hospital in Giżycko, the Samodzielny Publiczny Zakład Opieki Zdrowotnej. Her mother stayed behind with the children. Soon after they arrived in the emergency room, Katarina gave birth to a girl, small and weak, weighing only three pounds, struggling to breathe through lungs that hadn't yet fully developed. The triage nurse rushed the baby to an incubator.

Within seconds, the doctor realized that there was another baby, a twin. She was dead.

The baby in the incubator was named Joanna. She remained in the hospital for two months, protected from human touch until she could breathe on her own. Katarina's parents had persuaded her to give the baby up for adoption. She signed away parental rights to her surviving daughter.

When Joanna was well enough to breathe on her own, she was sent to the Dom Dziecka, the State Home for Children, in the nearby town of Mrągowo. This would be her home for the next year.


n July 1991, I had my six-foot-two-inch frame folded into the backseat of a dusty, red Nissan as it headed toward that same State Home for Children. Poland was in the grip of a heat wave, and the Nissan had no air-conditioning, let alone seat belts or legroom. Erika sat next to me, glistening with sweat from the suffocating heat.

Renata, our Polish adoption attorney, sat in the passenger seat in front of me. She was probably in her forties, but the deeply etched circles under her eyes made her appear older. Still, she was an attractive woman, slender with dirty blond, shoulder-length hair. Her husband, Marian, was at the wheel. He acted as chauffeur, concierge, and legal assistant. With his wiry build and angular features he reminded me of a character actor on a 1980s TV show about lawyers in L.A.

He'd been a judge but gave up his career because Renata's adoption practice was so lucrative. Her fee was $15,000, whereas a judge's salary was about $150 a month. Despite the stress that hung over us, they were both pleasant, persistent, and totally professional, practiced in managing jet-lagged and anxious Western parents-to-be.

It's a familiar story. After two years of invasive fertility tests, hormone injections, and sex timed to ovulation cycles, Erika and I had accepted that a biological child was probably a long shot for us.

What about adoption?

One bitter cold January evening, we'd attended a support group at a Unitarian Meeting House near our home in Simsbury, Connecticut, for couples seeking alternatives to infertility. We were eager for good news, but the reality was quite different.

We learned that the waiting list for a traditional adoption through a public agency stretched up to ten years. An independent adoption arranged through an attorney was not only costly but risky because the birth mother could change her mind. A foreign adoption was another alternative, especially for parents willing to consider an older or special needs child, but this was not entirely risk-free. The adoption window could arbitrarily open or close based on political whims and public opinion, and the process could take a year or more while a child we would have begun to love as our own stayed behind in an orphanage. The list of available countries was also limited to a smattering of Far East, Third World, and former Soviet Bloc countries—South Korea, Colombia, Guatemala, Ethiopia, and Romania.

At the conclusion of the presentation, we dragged ourselves toward the door of the Meeting House contemplating an empty life without children—careers, nieces and nephews, hobbies, travel, pets, anything to fill the void of a childless life or, as some called it, a
Then a brochure for a charitable group caught my eye. One word leaped off the page about their list of host countries:

Erika's family was from Poland. Maybe this was our chance.

We'd met Renata through a chance connection with our adoption agency, Family & Children's Agency of Greater Norwalk, Connecticut. Another of their clients, a couple in New Haven, had recently adopted a two-year-old Polish girl. Renata was initially hesitant to take us on as clients. Not only did she have a large caseload, but she'd face strong resistance with two American couples because the Polish government had a strong preference for placing its orphaned children with Polish families. Yet in this conservative, Catholic country, orphaned children outnumbered willing adoptive parents. Two Americans were better than no parents at all.

Erika persisted. In late-night phone calls, she told Renata about her parents' experience growing up in occupied Poland. They were teenagers, well educated, with high aspirations when the Nazis—and then the Russians—overran their country. Heavy artillery on the streets became the new normal. They adapted to negotiating with abusive soldiers over seemingly minor things, such as crossing the street to get to the butcher. One brother disappeared, resurfacing later in England. In her textbook Polish, Erika summed up her family history to Renata:

“My parents watched as their country was torn apart by Germans and Russians. They jumped at the chance to take a boat to America, settled in Detroit, where my father made a good living in the radio business, selling advertising.”

Perhaps Renata was impressed with the story or Erika's efforts to communicate in the difficult Polish language, something Erika's parents insisted she learn from childhood, rather than default to English. Then Erika played our trump card, something we'd agreed to if it meant that we could adopt a child more quickly and shorten the yearlong wait we'd been warned about.

“We'd be interested in a special needs child.”

It was then, after some reflection, that Renata told us about the little infant girl Joanna, then ten months old, in the Dom Dziecka in Mrągowo. She was a preemie, very underdeveloped, and her medical history was limited, but she was available. We couldn't believe our good fortune—a ten-month-old Polish girl was

BOOK: The Girl Behind the Door
7.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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