They stare out at us from billboards, newspaper ads, posters, Web pages, even milk cartons.
They are always smiling, their eyes twinkling, their gazes earnest and open.
They are mostly young, many just children, but they are of every age, both sexes and a rainbow of colors.
Their one unifying trait is, they are missing.
Some vanished years ago, others more recently. Their absence has left a bottomless void in the lives of friends and family.
The most recent FBI statistics available are for 2011. On Jan. 1, 2012, there were 85,158 active missing person entries on the National Crime Information Center database. An astounding 2,300 adults and children are reported missing every day in the United States.
Some of them are names you know, like Kyron Horman, the boy who disappeared from his Portland, Ore., elementary school in 2010 at the age of 7. Most are names you don’t, like Barbara Blount, a 58-year-old Louisiana woman who went missing from her home in 2008.
When someone vanishes, their families and friends go through hell. The only thing that keeps them going is hope. But as the months and years pass, hope must inevitably begin to fade.
But then, something truly astounding happens, like it did Monday in a neighborhood near downtown Cleveland, when three women missing for about a decade were located.
Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight emerged from a nondescript home in which they had been prisoners for years. Berry and DeJesus were featured on the FBI’s list of kidnapped and missing persons. Tuesday, their photos appeared with the word “recovered” across the bottom.
Knight was not on the FBI’s list, however. Family members thought she had left home on her own in 2002 at age 18 because she was angry at losing custody of her young son.
Her mother never believed her daughter would simply walk away, never making contact with any members of her family. She never lost hope.
Hope is a powerful thing. It can help stave off the demons of despair, the icy needles of melancholy, the cold embrace of wretchedness that can leach into your soul.
Many missing persons cases end badly, with a visit from a grim-faced member of law enforcement and news reports of remains located in a shallow grave or found in some wild area.
But there are happy endings, like the case of Jaycee Dugard, who was kidnapped in 1991 and found alive in 2009; Elizabeth Smart, kidnapped in June 2002 and located nine months later; Shawn Hornbeck, taken in October 2002 and found in January 2007; and others.
Look across the breakfast table at your family. Now imagine their chairs empty, imagine they are missing, gone without a trace. You can’t, of course. Those emotions come from dark places in our psyches we never want to visit, and can’t make ourselves, even if we try.
People all across the country live in those places, every hour of every day. Today, the families of Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight have left those places behind, hopefully forever.
Many others are not so lucky, but the story of the three young women being found after a decade of captivity has lit the faint, flickering candle of hope, a small but warm beacon in the inky cavern of misery.
That flame of hope has been sparked, no doubt, in the hearts of those still searching for missing loved ones, as well as those whose photos stare silently from those posters, Web pages and billboards.
Mullin is senior writer of the News & Eagle. Email him at email@example.com.