On a bitterly cold December day, Tammy Brannen stood before a crush of television cameras outside her Fairfax County apartment. Reading from a piece of paper, her hands shaking uncontrollably, she pleaded for the safe return of her 5-year-old daughter, Melissa.
"She's all that I have," the 27-year-old single mother sobbed, Melissa's grandfather at her side. "Melissa, if you can hear Mommy and get to a telephone, please dial our number like I've taught you to, and call home. We love and miss you very much. Please come back to us. Mommy's waiting."
Ten years after her daughter was abducted from a Christmas party and she made that plea, Tammy Brannen Graybill is still waiting.
Caleb Hughes, a groundskeeper at the apartment complex where the Dec. 3, 1989, party was held, was convicted in 1991 of abducting Melissa and sentenced to 50 years in prison. But Melissa has never been found, and her mother still does not know with absolute certainty that her daughter is really gone forever.
So that Melissa can find her if she is still alive, Graybill kept "Brannen" as part of her name when she remarried 2 1/2 years ago and lists the phone in her name.
"I think that there's a very slim possibility that Caleb met someone and handed her off," said Graybill, who is now 37. "I still have dreams of being reunited with her, especially around this time of year and on her birthday."
During an interview at her Centreville town house, Graybill talked about life over the last 10 years without Melissa, whose disappearance united the Washington area in outrage and disbelief. Hundreds of strangers, including 300 military personnel, helped search for the blue-eyed brunet they had seen night after night on the evening news, smiling shyly for her grandfather in a home video. Parents pulled their children closer.
Graybill has a new family now. She has four stepchildren, including Kimi, who, at 17, is not much older than Melissa would be today. But she still hangs a Christmas stocking for Melissa each year, still makes her a birthday cake every April 13. She still dreams of seeing her daughter again one day.
"I think about her all the time," Graybill said. "I still see her as 5 years old. I would offer him anything to tell me what happened to my daughter," she said of Hughes. "That is the hardest part--the nights. What your imagination can conjure up."
They almost didn't make it to the Annual Yuletide Fest on Dec. 3, 1989, held at the Woodside Apartments in Lorton, where mother and daughter lived, just down the street from Fort Belvoir on Route 1.
Graybill, who worked seven days a week--as an accountant on weekdays and at a jewelry store on weekends--told Melissa that she was just too tired. But the three-foot-tall, 38-pound youngster, all dressed up in her Big Bird sweater and plaid skirt, could be persuasive.
Shy around strangers, Melissa spent much of the evening on her mother's lap, always asking for permission before she did anything, even to go to the restroom. When it was time to leave, Melissa protested, but her mother held her ground.
"I have all this guilt," Graybill says now. "If I had just let her stay on my lap a little bit longer."
Graybill told her daughter that, yes, she could take some potato chips home--but not too many. Melissa gave her mother that kind of "Oh, mom" look, Graybill recalls. That was the last time she saw her daughter.
She stamped out her cigarette, wished a small circle of friends "Merry Christmas" and reached for the rabbit fur coat her mother had given her. She looked around, but didn't see Melissa in the clubhouse. "Melissa, where are you?" she said, checking the bathroom. She peeked in a room marked "private," saw the window open and the blinds up--and panicked. Melissa was gone in an instant.
Almost immediately, Fairfax police focused their investigation on Hughes, 23, the newly hired groundskeeper from Prince William County who had taken an interest in Melissa during the party.
After one of the most highly publicized trials ever held in Fairfax, Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. convinced a jury that Hughes had abducted Melissa with intent to defile her. Horan built his case using evidence found in Hughes's car: fibers from Melissa's Big Bird sweater and plaid skirt and rare rabbit hairs from her mother's coat, which had transferred to Melissa's clothing.
Although police believe Hughes killed Melissa, they had no evidence to file a murder charge. Horan said last week that if her body is ever found in the county, "I would prosecute it in a heartbeat. . . . I would try it as a murder case."
Graybill said she has tried to contact Hughes several times to ask him what happened to her daughter, but he has rebuffed her. She looks with dread toward 2013, the date by which Hughes must be released.
"I hate what he did to me, to my life," she said. "Thinking of the possibilities of what he did to my daughter makes me want to tear him limb to limb."
During the first few years after her daughter vanished from her life, Graybill could not stop saying, "Who can pick up Melissa?"
"Melissa was my entire life," Graybill said during a three-hour interview one recent Saturday. "It was all so focused on her."
Three months after Melissa disappeared from the Christmas party, her mother left the two-bedroom apartment where they had shared so much, moving to a place closer to her job. But she had a difficult time moving on with her life.
Before long, it seemed, Graybill was turning 30, and she felt she had nothing to show for her life. "I've been married, divorced, had a child and lost that child," she told herself.
Perhaps, she thought, she could fill the aching void by replacing what she had lost. She would become a single mom again. Through artificial insemination with her ex-husband, she might even create another Melissa.
Graybill discussed it with Melissa's father, Michael, who was remarried and living in Texas, and with other male friends. She was prepared to go through with it, but finally decided she was not ready to have a child after what had happened.
Her roommate suggested she fight her depression another way, by keeping busy. She took her advice and earned a master's degree in business administration, eventually becoming a controller. She helped families of other missing children with a vengeance, manning hot lines, testifying on Capitol Hill, giving speeches.
She finally bought the house that she and Melissa had always dreamed about, but she did it alone. Now she shares it with her new husband, Leon Graybill, 46.
They met at a karaoke show in 1994 and slowly became friends. Not from this area, he had never heard of Melissa Brannen, but he understood her pain. His first wife died after childbirth.
The couple hasn't ruled out having a child together, and raising stepchildren has given Graybill confidence that she can be a mother again.
Most of Melissa's things are over at her grandparents' house, including the Christmas presents--still wrapped--that her mother bought for her in 1989. Her mother has kept a few of Melissa's favorite things, her Patty doll and her stuffed bear.
So that visitors won't feel awkward when they notice Melissa's smiling face and ask about her, Graybill keeps "my gallery of Melissa pictures" on the wall at the top of the stairs, where they can't be seen from the front door. But there are subtle reminders of Melissa everywhere. "To have a daughter is to know a special kind of joy," says a framed plaque tucked into a little nook in her kitchen.
Each year on the anniversary of her daughter's disappearance, her mother releases into the sky a balloon with a personal message to her daughter. She also takes the day off work and returns to the clubhouse at the Woodside apartments where her life changed in an instant.
Even more upsetting than the upcoming 10-year anniversary on Friday, her mother says, is that Melissa "will be 16 in April." The things that Graybill is missing out on--the learner's permit, the dating, the sweet 16--hit her all the time.
"I'm happily married. I have stepkids," Graybill said. "But I have this empty place that's just never going to go away."