She acknowledged my warning with the typical teen reply, "Mom, I know. I know. I'll be careful..."
Natalee had never had a boyfriend per se, as in going steady, or "going out," as it's referred to these days. But she had plenty of "friendboys," as we called boys who were just friends. At Mountain Brook High School it seemed most of the boys and girls were part of big groups. Only a very few had actually paired up as couples. Natalee and I always talked very openly with each other about sexual matters. She confided to me that she was a virgin. And I let her know that I was very glad about that. I continued my lecture and explained that some men might try to engage her. "People who go on these exotic trips are generally there to have fun, but there are others who may have another agenda. You could be a target. They might try to get you drunk and take advantage of the situation. You need to be on your guard at all times and stay with people you know." It would be very difficult to identify a time when Natalee was not with her friends. She was always with her group. We joked about how they all traveled in a pack. She promised to be careful. And I had absolutely no reason not to believe her.
Parents teach children about the dangers of the world not to make them live in fear, but because it's just not safe anywhere anymore. It might not be safe in your own home on the Internet in a chat room, and it might not be safe on an exotic island trip with a hundred friends. I made sure Natalee heard me when I warned her to guard her personal safety.
A former Mountain Brook student had returned from his senior trip to Aruba two years prior and told about an experience he had in the popular nightspot there called Carlos 'n Charlie's. Some locals were trying to get a couple of his female classmates to leave with them when this young man stepped in. He said he believed that he had helped abort a potentially dangerous situation. My recollection of his chilling account of this experience gave me my first feeling of apprehension about the trip. Natalee and I discussed what happened to this former student, and I felt better after reminding her about the possible dangers she could face. She had proven to be very responsible all of her life. I trusted her to be able to take care of herself.
As the countdown to graduation and her senior trip ticked down, the time moved very fast. On Friday night Natalee danced at the senior prom. The following Tuesday night she walked across the stage and accepted her high-school diploma. Two days after that she left for Aruba. And by the next Monday morning she was missing.