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Rachel actually felt her heart stop in her chest- after almost four years of searching; they might be able to hold their little girl in their arms once more. After countless sleepless nights and the thousands of tears they had shed, Kelsea Jean could be coming home.
"Its only speculation", the police officer reminded them, "There's been no proof that either girl is who we think they are. They disappeared right now, but the city is crawling with police, hoping to tie us into both Ava Owen's and Kelsea's cases".
(Jake and Rachel had met up with little Ava's parents and younger brothers, and the two families had spoken of the sudden disappearances of their little girls. While it had been speculated that the two were together, there was no evidence to back them up.)
"We're doing our best, but we needed to notify you", Officer Dixon piped up.
The pair were speechless, at the thought of holding and hugging Kelsea, afraid to ever let her go again. While they claimed to never give up hope, they both knew that they were expecting the call, to tell them that their daughter's remains had been found.
It was a tiny whisper of hope.
The next three days were spent waiting anxiously next to the phone, their poor three year old ultimately confused at her parents' actions.
Their families only knew a certain amount- that there was a lead in Kelsea's case- because they had built up their own hopes, and needed people to lean on for support.
As Rachel peeled potatoes for their dinner, she found images of a seven year old wandering into her head. At the age of three, Kelsea had looked a lot like she did when she was that age- in her mind, Kelsea was the little girl portrayed in the old photos in the shoeboxes Julie kept. Smiling, laughing, the perfect little girl.
"Eat up bugalug", Jake said cheerfully, setting down the pink princess plate in front of Tayah. "Your favourite!"
Mashed potatoes smothered in gravy and chicken schnitzel- a favourite in the Barton house. Sitting down around the kitchen table, a glass of orange cordial in front of Tayah, a glass of wine in front of Rachel and a beer in front of Jake, they ate, conversation dwindling in and out, Tayah making them giggle with her knowledge.
But the phone ringing made them all jump, as Rachel and Jake leapt off their chairs to answer it, all but killing each other in the process. Tayah giggled hysterically as Rachel took a swipe at her husband, Jake clambering onto the bench, standing far out of her reach, to speak to whoever was on the other end.
"I hope you fall", Rachel griped bitterly, taking her seat beside Tayah once more. "Daddy's silly, Tay".
"He is", the little girl agreed, nodding cheerfully, spearing a piece of chicken and nibbling seriously.
Rachel laughed at the little girl, kissing her on the top of her head and glancing over at Jake. All the colour in his cheeks drained away and for a moment, Rachel thought he was going to crash off the kitchen bench and onto the tiles. Jumping to her feet once more, Jake made the announcement Rachel never thought she'd hear.
But not the once she necessarily wanted to hear.
"We're going to Perth- Rach, pack our bags".
Rachel jumped into action, running into the hallway and yanking out a suitcase- the faster she moved, the faster they would get to Perth. Jake took Rachel's laptop down from its spot (Tayah, very much like Kelsea had been, had a problem with staying still, and would run everywhere. Therefore, all loose cords had to be either taped down to the floor or put away, to prevent the little girl from seriously injuring herself), logging onto the internet.
Tayah looked around, bewildered, at the chaos that had suddenly become their house. her parents were running around, packing suitcases and booking flights, completely abandoning their chicken schnitzel and mashed potatoes.
"Mama, where's Perth?" she called.
"Oh my God, Tay, I forgot all about you!" Rachel apologised, shoving a pair of Jake's jeans into the suitcase. "Sorry, baby, Mummy's sorry- Jake, Tay's coming?"
"We aren't taking Tay". Jake shook his head and Tayah screwed her face up in a complaint.
"Daddy! Can I come to Perth?"
"Baby, you won't like Perth", he told her, tossing the rolled up pairs of socks from the washing basket to where Rachel was packing their suitcase.
"Is there a beach?" she said curiously.
"Not where we're going". He shook his head, and watched as the cogs in his daughter's head whirred.
"I wanna stay with Grandma", she decided, sliding off her chair to pad towards her bedroom. "I like beaches and we're not gonna go to a beach".
"Tayah Elyse, what about your dinner?"
"Had enough!" she called, dragging out her own little pink suitcase. "Mummy where's my jarmies?"
"Top drawer, you know where your jarmies are", Rachel said absently, rifling through the top drawer of the kitchen cupboard (the drawer that accumulated all the junk that no one else wanted, but weren't going to throw out).
"Can I go to Grandma's tonight?"
"Not tonight, baby, tomorrow morning", Jake told her. But then it dawned on him, amidst the panic. "We've gotta call Jules".
"Can I talk to Grandma?"
The little girl was brighter than they gave her credit for, Rachel had to admit.
"In a minute". Plucking the phone off its dock once more, he dialled the number they all knew. "Hey Jules, its Jake".
"Hi darling", Julie said cheerfully.
"Listen, something's come up, Rach and I were wondering if Tay could stay with you for a couple of days. Or Mum. It's a spur of the moment thing". He shrugged.
"Of course, she's more than welcome here- is everything alright?" she asked suspiciously, her mother's intuition catching on. "Are you two alright?"
"We're fine, Julie", he laughed shakily. "It's just something's come up, and we don't really think bugalug needs to come with us".
"Are you fleeing the country?" Jake heard Ben bellow.
"Just the state!" Rachel shrieked back. "Mind your own business Benny!"
Tayah exploded into a fit of giggles (she loved the banter between her mother and uncles), as she shoved her pyjamas into the pink suitcase.
"You're leaving the state?" Julie said in surprise.
"We're going to Perth…" his voice trailed off.
"Oh my God, is this about Kelsea?"
"Mum, put them on speaker!"
"Shut up, we can't hear!"
"What did the cops say?"
"Oh my God, did they find her?"
"What about Kelsea?"
"I wanna talk to my SISTER!"
"Guys, shut up, Mum's on the phone!"
"Mum gimme the phone I wanna talk?"
"Is that Jake and Rachel?"
"Give me the phone!"
"Crowd 'round, we can all hear!"
"BE QUIET MUM'S TRYING TO TALK!"
(Jake knew that both he and Rachel were bad when it came to visiting her parents- and his mother- but they almost always went home at the end of the night. Sammy and Nathan, Carbo and Retta and Ben and Melissa seemed to live there, where in reality, their house was on the other side of the Colourbond.)
"We don't know, all we know is that we're going to Perth", Rachel said in exasperation, snatching the phone from her husband. "And we'll be depositing our three year old on your doorstep for an uncertain period of time tomorrow morning".
"You're not coming back?" Tayah's bottom lip quivered and Jake laughed, scooping her into her arms.
"What do you think, Rach, should we come home or just leave bugalug here?"
(Snapping his mouth shut, he realised how close to home he had just hit. He was not going to lose another daughter.)
"I'll talk to you in the morning, alright Mum?" Rachel said conversationally. With the promise of telling her everything in the morning (Julie having to shout of the cacophony of her own house), she put the phone down to join her husband and daughter. "I don't know, Jake, I think we'll leave her here for a while, we'll go to Perth…"
"No!" Tayah insisted, struggling to stand up on her father's legs. "You can't leamme here!" she wrapped her arms around his neck, threatening not to let go. "I don't wanna be all alone!"
"We'll never leave you, baby", Rachel said gently, pulling Tayah into her lap and kissing the top of her head. "We'll be back, we promise. Hopefully with some good news".
"With my big sissy?" she wanted to know, leaning back into her mother's embrace, throwing her feet into her father's lap.
Tayah had never known her big sister- something that her parents ultimately regretted- but it didn't mean that Kelsea Jean hadn't been a part of her life.
"Hope so, munchkin", Jake told her, and Tayah smacked a kiss to his cheek. "I really, really hope so".