This New Novel Asks: When Do You Step In If a Child Could Be in Danger?

When Amy Townsend's daughter Emma Grace goes missing, she's not sure how much she wants her back. Knowing that Emma's mother is cruel, her kidnapper begins to believe that taking her was for the best. A story about what it really means to be a mother and the hardships women face when it comes to children, this shocking novel takes an honest look at a complicated mother-daughter relationship. Ahead, read an exclusive excerpt from Not Her Daughter (out Aug. 21) by Rea Frey.

I stepped through the full-body scanner, my arms held above my head as they searched my body for hidden weapons. While I waited for confirmation that I wasn't smuggling anything illegal, I saw Emma reach for her brother's toes. Her mother wrenched her fingers backward, prying them free. She turned her back to the girl, but Emma clutched her sore hand and jumped up and down in an attempt to get her mother's attention. The woman fussed with the toddler and snapped at the dad. And the girl, truly unable to get her mother to notice, finally gave up and stared off into space, disconnected, her hand folded protectively in the skirt of her red dress.

On the other side, I collected my belongings and looked at the guards, who were too busy directing, swiping, and yawning to notice. I waited for someone to acknowledge the mother's aggressive behavior, while my boots and laptop sagged in my fingers.

I remembered so much about my mother then, the way she always walked ahead of me in parking lots, at the grocery store, or even crossing the street. I never knew if she was embarrassed by me or if she simply didn't care. I always trailed behind her as an afterthought, trying to pepper her with compliments: "Mama, you look so beautiful today. Mama, I love your hair. Mama, I love that skirt."

She would sigh in disgust and insist the only reason I was saying those things was because I was afraid of getting in trouble and not because I meant them. I could never do anything right, and it's something I recognized in this little girl now, as she dragged her feet, kicked at the airport carpet, and waited for someone to just pay her some attention.

Having worked with children for years, I knew parents had off days. I knew the airport was the definition of family stress. I knew how little beings could take hold of your psyche and ravage you. I knew there were rare breaks and little explanation as to how they could suddenly, without warning, push you to the edge and shift you from pleasant to monstrous. I knew all of that, but seeing this outright act of cruelty for no apparent reason made me want to punch this woman in the face.

I moved out of the way, zipped my boots, and replaced my computer in my bag. I walked past the foursome, the dad busy pulling their bags from the conveyor belt. I slowed even more as I passed, my fingers so close I could touch the girl's head. "I like your red bow," I said. The three of them turned, the baby's reflexes not yet up to par with his family's. In that moment, Emma's face relaxed back into a little girl's, and she began to smile. "It's so pretty," I said. I kept walking, not looking back, trying to shake these people from my conscience.

After waiting in a line that snaked around the Starbucks kiosk, the brain fog disappeared as I took my first hurried sip. I bought a few magazines to go along with my novel, checked to make sure the flight wasn't delayed, and let myself sink into ridiculous celebrity gossip. Halfway through my coffee and an article about Hollywood women caught on camera without makeup, I looked up. There, at the gate to the left of mine, stood the couple. Arguing.

"Go!" Amy pushed Emma. She snagged her red shoe on the carpet and pitched forward, skidding to a stop on her knees and elbows.

The mother, rolling her eyes, hoisted the baby higher and jerked Emma up by her elbow. I watched the red splotches erupt on her arm, splotches that would later bruise and turn purple. Emma pulled herself up and rubbed her sore elbow and carpet-burned knees.

The couple harrumphed about and sat in chairs on the other side of the gate. They moved around each other with such agitation, it was as though someone were on the verge of detonating. Only Emma, the victim in all of this, seemed unruffled, humming and playing with her shoes, while her mother sighed so loudly, you could hear it across the terminal. She bounced the baby up and down until he looked sick.

I flipped through the glossy magazine pages, my mind fixated on the girl. I checked my phone. Still thirty minutes to board. As though on cue, the mother grabbed Emma by the wrist and started yanking her to the bathroom. Emma half-walked, half-ran behind her as the woman balanced the baby on one side and her daughter on the other. I waited a few beats, shouldered my carry-on bag, and followed.

Emma's red shoes swung back and forth under one stall, her mother and brother at the end of the shotgun space, a dirty diaper being ripped off and shoved to the side of the fold-out changing table.

"Emma, hurry up."

"Okay, Mama."

I eyed the stalls — mostly empty — and ducked into one. The tops of the girl's shoes strained to touch the ground. She kicked the front of the toilet with her dainty heels and hummed, which made me smile. After some maneuvering with the toilet paper dispenser, Emma flushed.

"Come into this stall. I need to go too. Watch Robert. Make sure he doesn't hit his head or touch anything. I cannot afford for either one of you to get sick right now."

They piled into the handicap stall on the end, the family's shoes shuffling and shifting against the dirty tile. I flushed and prepared to exit, then stopped.

"Watch out for his foot, Emma! You almost stepped on him."

"No, I didn't."

"Yes, you did." The little boy began to cry, and I could hear the mother struggling to pee and handle her two children. "Can you — Jesus, get him, Emma! He's falling! Get out of the way!" A loud bang rattled the stall, and then Emma's voice morphed into a whine.

"Listen to me right this instant, young lady! I have had it with you today, do you hear me? Stop this dramatic behavior, or we are going to cancel our trip. Do you understand?"

I leaned over the sink and started washing my hands. The door swung open and slammed against the wall. Emma's face was red, her bow askew, her breath coming in shudders. I scanned her body for physical wounds but just saw the tears. "Are you okay, sweetheart?"

The mother jerked her head at me, jowls quivering. "Emma Grace, stop talking to strangers and wash your hands."

We all washed our hands, and I locked eyes with the mother. She had sad eyes, as if her whole life were a lie. She looked away first, and I watched them go, hoisting my carry-on higher, unsure of what to do. A woman moved to the sink beside me and pumped the soap a few times.

"Did you hear any of that? Or did I just imagine it?"

The woman, older, tattooed, shook her head and rinsed her hands. "I heard it, but hey, it's not your child, right? What can you do?"

What could I do? Report her to airport officials? Child Protective Services? Even I wasn't that idiotic to think an incident in an airport bathroom stall under stressful conditions would warrant anything other than a mother's right to scold — or possibly spank — her own child. I nodded at the woman and returned to the concourse, waiting for my group to board. I busied myself with my magazine, but I could still hear the mom, could see her pushing and pulling her daughter like an unwanted puppy on a fraying leash.

When it was time to board, I waited for them to call my seat. At the next gate, the family was lining up for their own flight, all of us going our separate ways.

I glanced once more at Emma, who looked almost glassy-eyed, her mother bumping her from behind to move faster, walk faster, go faster. A few heads swiveled as the family corralled at the boarding line, obviously surprised at the woman's brash behavior and the girl's tear-stained face.

I handed over my paper ticket — I refused to use my phone for any sort of travel in case of technological malfunctions — and craned my neck to the left to see Emma, waiting behind her mother to board a big steel bird and go to who knows where. Home? A vacation? Boarding school? I strained to see the destination listed on the board with her flight number, but couldn't quite make it out.

I kept sight of her as long as I could before turning back toward my own gate, the temperature shifting as I walked closer toward the open mouth of the plane. But I couldn't get that red bow out of my mind, or the girl's eyes, or her sore elbow, or the loud bang, or her mother's crusted, hateful face.

I couldn't forget Emma.

I couldn't forget.

From Not Her Daughter by Rea Frey. Copyright © 2018 by the author and reprinted with permission of St. Martin's Press, LLC.