I've stopped living in a way. I lie awake and pray night after night. I fall asleep thinking tomorrow is going to be the day they find Melissa. Then I wake up in the morning thanking God that at least the worst didn't happen. At least they didn't find Melissa dead.

TAMMY BRANNEN, January 1990

IT IS TESTAMENT TO THE ANGUISH OF the past 17 months that for Tammy Brannen, finding her daughter dead might no longer be the worst that could happen. Worse now is knowing nothing at all. "If I look at the evidence, there's only one conclusion I come up with," she says, alluding to the unbearable probability that her daughter, who has not been seen since she vanished from a Christmas party (PEOPLE, April 9, 1990) in 1989, is no longer alive. And yet, she says, "there'll be a shadow or a sound, and I think it's Melissa coming home." She sighs, the smoke from her cigarette stinging her weary eyes, and adds, "You can believe anything you want in order to get you through each day."

Last month, in Fairfax County (Va.) Circuit Court, Caleb Hughes, 25, a slight, former grounds keeper, sat expressionless as the verdict was delivered: guilty of abduction with intent to defile. He adjusted his wire-rim glasses and stared blankly at the jurors who had condemned him to 50 years in prison. Behind him, Tammy Brannen, a divorced accountant, stared too, as her mother, Janice Pigue, collapsed on her arm and wept. "This isn't a victory," says Tammy, "because I don't have my daughter back. Until I know what happened to her, it isn't over for me."

As it stands, chances are she never will know. Hughes has admitted nothing, and the prosecutor based his case on sophisticated forensic evidence—including clothing fibers and hair strands—which he claimed proved Melissa had been in Hughes's car the night she disappeared. Authorities are convinced the child is dead, but without proof they could not bring a murder charge. From the start, though, both Tammy, 28, and the police suspected Hughes. Then employed at the Brannens' apartment complex in suburban Virginia just outside Washington, D.C., he was a drifter with a troubled past, including two arrests for car theft.

Hughes first met Melissa at the apartment-complex party on the night she disappeared and remarked, "Isn't she pretty?" Tammy recalls. Later, when Melissa went to get some chips before leaving, Tammy saw Hughes approach her. But the girl shyly ignored him, and Tammy watched as Melissa headed back to her. When Tammy turned away for a moment to hug a friend, she glimpsed Hughes hovering nearby. But seconds later, when she turned back expecting to see her daughter at her side, Melissa had vanished—forever.

Less than an hour later, at about 11 P.M., police called Hughes's town house and found that he, too, had disappeared. At midnight, officers again telephoned and spoke to his wife, Carol. A supplies buyer for the Fairfax County public schools, she had married Hughes, nearly 20 years her junior, six months earlier. He was not home, she said. At 5:30 A.M., when investigators knocked on the couple's door in nearby Lake Ridge, Va., Hughes answered. They asked him where he had been for the two hours between 10:10 P.M., when he said he had left the party, and 12:30 A.M., when he said he had arrived home. He replied only that he had stopped for a moment to buy a six-pack of beer, then taken the "long way" home—at most, police say, a 10-mile drive. After an extensive interrogation, an investigator accused Hughes of having harmed Melissa. Said Hughes coolly: "Prove it."

Police and the FBI set out to do just that—gathering fibers from Hughes's car that matched fibers from a Big Bird sweater like the one Melissa was wearing at the party, as well as some uncommon rabbit hairs from the coat Tammy wore. Meanwhile, Tammy ran into Hughes in a local shopping mall and pleaded for help. "Tell me where my daughter is," she begged. "I won't tell anybody where I got the information." Hughes hedged. And yet, remembers Tammy, "he didn't deny anything. He looked at me and swallowed, and his voice broke, and he said, 'I'm in too much trouble. I can't talk to you,' and walked away."

Later, during the trial, Tammy confronted Hughes's wife, who had given birth to their son, little Caleb, in April 1990. "I thought she'd understand, being a mother," says Tammy. "I told her if she heard anything that she could call me anonymously, that all I wanted was to find my daughter." Carol professed to know nothing. But, says Tammy, clinging to hope, "she told me that if she ever did have information, she'd give it to me one way or another."

In the ground-floor apartment she moved into two months after the tragedy, Tammy shuffles her bare feet on the cold wooden door and stares at a framed photograph of her only child. Strained hope is all that remains. "Until they find a body," she says, "I have to believe there's a possibility, however remote, that Melissa is alive." Then, thinking of Hughes, a desperate anger flushes her pale face. "I've never doubled that he did it. He should be punished so he can never do it again. But really," she says, "I just want to know one thing: Where's Melissa?"

KAREN S. SCHNEIDER
JANE SIMS PODESTA in Fairfax County

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