Two days after her son disappears, she gets a call from Leroy Berry.
"Please tell me where she is," Leroy pleads. "Hiram and I are going crazy. She left everything - barely packed enough clothes for a week."
Carole's back hits the wall, and she sinks into one of the kitchen chairs. Finn had done the same thing; a few changes of clothes thrown into his backpack, his father's dog tags missing from their usual place hanging on his bedframe, the last of his birthday money from his bank account and a twenty he'd taken from her purse the only cash he had to his name.
She thought nothing would ever compare to losing Chris. That phone call, two dour-faced men in dress blues, the two medals in their velvet boxes (Purple Heart, Bronze Star). Feeling her entire world tilt on its axis and a gaping hole open within her. The military funeral two days later, feeling her heart shatter at the three-gun salute and that so-serious young man kneeling in front of her and Finn with a thirteenfold flag.
What got her through it was her baby boy, and now he's gone too.
"I wish I knew," she whispers, head tilted back, trying not to sob the way she has been for the past 48 hours. "Leroy, I'm so sorry. If I'd known he were planning this, that Rachel was involved, I would have told you. I'd never have let Finn out of my sight."
She keeps going over and over the days leading up to their disappearance. If she can just find the thing that set them off, the one thing that made everything come crashing down and made them believe that running away was the only solution, she'll find her son.
Leroy exhales, and Carole has never heard him sound so beaten. He's a music teacher, goes to the same coffee shop as Carole does, and when Finn and Rachel had first started seeing each other, she'd gotten to know Rachel's fathers. Leroy's partner Hiram is a character - talks a mile a minute, and you can tell where Rachel gets it from - but Leroy is a bit more down-to-earth.
"I miss her so much," he says.
Carole nods. "I know. I miss him too."
They both hear what she doesn't say: We'll find them. We'll bring them home. She doesn't make promises like that anymore.
She blames herself, of course, in that constant and if-only sort of way.
If she'd been a better mother. If she had been able to provide more for them. If Finn had grown up in a stable house with a father-figure who loved him and stuck around. It's no wonder he thinks running away will solve his problems - it's what every other man in his life has done.
When she's finished blaming herself, she blames McKinley.
That school eats children alive, and she should know. Once, Carole Hudson had been Carole Millhouse, and she'd been a band geek at McKinley High School. Sung in the choir - the regular one, they didn't have glee when she was there - and played the trumpet in the marching band. She'd wanted desperately to be a majorette, a cheerleader, but that was for girls like Judy Fabray and Cecilia Azimio. Pretty and popular, dating the quarterbacks and cartwheeling in their red and white skirts.
Chris Hudson hadn't looked twice at Carole when they were at McKinley. He was a fullback, and he'd been dating Patti Freeman since day two of freshman year. Carole was "that pudgy trumpet girl", which got her car TP'd and egged by the likes of him. He'd calmed down by junior year, but he and his friends still wouldn't bother giving her the time of day until she got stuck as his lab partner in chemistry. Slowly, he decided she wasn't so bad, and even asked her out the night before the first day of senior year, lying in the back of his truck on an old tarp and stargazing. They'd missed out on prom king and queen, but only a few months after graduation, they'd been married. She doesn't regret marrying him, but she might just regret letting him run off and join the army.
Sometimes she used to look at her son and see the worst of his father, because Finn had fallen victim to McKinley, too. She remembers nights when Finn and Noah Puckerman had come in with matching "haha we got away with something" looks and hiding cans of shaving cream or tubes of superglue in their gym bags. When Finn had begun dating Rachel Berry, Carole could have turned cartwheels herself. Rachel had been sweet and eager and nothing at all like Quinn Fabray (who is polite and charming, but so was her mother, when people were looking). She'd been proud of her son turning that corner and doing something outside McKinley's social "rules". But either she's severely misjudged Rachel, or she's not seeing the whole picture.
Maybe she's right, because she blames her son's friends, too. Blames Noah for not telling her and Quinn for avoiding her and Kurt for ignoring Finn and even Will Schuester and Ken Tanaka for not keeping a closer eye on their students.
She's running out of things to blame.
A month has gone by with no word, and she finally goes to see Finn's friends. She drives to McKinley around 3 pm and walks through the doors of the choir room. It's not nearly as crowded as she'd thought - only five students are milling around the piano. Carole gathers her courage and approaches the one she knows she can get a straight answer from.
"Can I talk to you, Noah?" she asks, and the room falls silent.
Noah is fiddling with his guitar - she remembers how he'd scrimped and saved for that thing, doing odd jobs and pretending like he wasn't eating at her house every night - and he places it atop the piano. He ducks his head as she comes over.
"Yeah, Mrs. Hudson. Of course."
The black girl next to Noah looks like she wants to say something, but Kurt elbows her and hisses into her ear. Mercedes, then - Kurt doesn't talk about too many people, but his best friend is one of them.
"Actually," Carole says, turning to include the Asian girl in black and the boy in the wheelchair - she remembers him from some field trips, can't think of his name. "I was hoping to ask all of you. Has anyone heard from Finn? Or Rachel, even? I understand if you didn't want to say anything, but I'm really worried about them."
It's the boy in the wheelchair who speaks up. "I wish we had. We're worried about them almost as much as you are."
"Doubt that, Abrams," Noah mutters, and Kurt elbows him this time.
"I don't want to ask again, but did they say anything to anyone?" she asks, not caring if she's begging. She needs her son to come home. "Anything? Even something as stupid as 'we should run off somewhere'?"
A firm no from Mercedes, Abrams, and the goth girl. Noah won't meet her eyes and neither will Kurt. Slowly, playing with the strap of his designer bag, he spits it out.
"Me, Finn, and Puck were hanging out a week before he left. Well, Finn and Puck were hanging out, I was there because it was my house and they were watching the Buckeyes game with my dad. And Finn had been weird all day. Distracted and quiet and un-Finn-like."
"And he started talking about weird shit," Noah says, cutting off Kurt. "He asked if we'd ever heard about someone hurting Rachel. Of course, we thought it was St. James, but he said-"
"Who's St. James?" she asks. She doesn't recall hearing the name, but by their reactions, it must mean something.
The goth girl speaks up for the first time. "Jesse St. James, Mrs. Hudson. He used to be Rachel's boyfriend, when her and Finn were broken up because of the whole baby thing."
Noah rolls his eyes. "Thanks, Tina. Really needed that reminder that it's technically my fault she dated the jackass."
"Where can I find him?" Carole asks, excited. The first new possibility she's had in a month. "I'd really like to see if he knows anything."
None of the kids will look at her.
"He's gone, Mrs. Hudson," Mercedes finally says in a soft voice. "He took off the same time as Finn and Rachel."
Two months have gone by, and still nothing, so she and Burt, and Hiram and Leroy Berry drive over to Carmel. The drive to Indiana is a long one, but any news, any leads on their kids will be worth it. Besides, she can't stand the idea of Jesse's parents being as worried as they are and not sharing everything they can.
As it turns out, they shouldn't have bothered; Gregory and Marilyn St. James have barely noticed their son is gone. They say things like "oh, he'll turn up when he runs out of money", and "he's simply doing this for the attention". They dismiss Rachel as "that silly little Ohio girl" and Finn as a non-entity. Burt is furious and Leroy is frustrated, and she and Hiram are just sad.
The more she learns about Jesse St. James's life, the more inevitable she thinks it was that he'd do something like run off. It's not just the rocky relationship with his vocal coach (Will Schuester doesn't like to tell tales, but even he'd noticed how much time Jesse and Shelby Corcoran spent together). It's not just the insane stories she'd heard from the Vocal Adrenaline kids (singing in a freezer? incidents of skin cancer from their stage lights?). It's not just the neglectful parents and the class issues you can see from space.
It's that Carole Hudson knows an abused kid when she sees one.
Sixteen years of letting Noah Puckerman sleep on her couch and teaching him to do laundry, of picking up Sarah Puckerman from dance class and cutting bubblegum out of her hair. Two years of watching Rachel Berry lie about where she was going after school and spotting bruises on her wrists. Two years of convincing Quinn Fabray that she wouldn't be yelled at or thrown out of the house. Carole wonders if there was anyone in Jesse St. James's life who'd seen the warning signs (the dark circles under his eyes in the footage from his last concert with Vocal Adrenaline, the unquestioning loyalty toward Shelby Corcoran, the sharpness to his cheekbones that isn't from genetics so much as weeks of starving yourself), and realizes there probably wasn't.
Apparently, no one's paid attention to this kid for a long time. Vocal Adrenaline claims they kicked him out over his relationship with Rachel - and she doesn't even have the words to express how insane that is, exiling a sixteen-year-old boy from an extracurricular club based on his love life - and Shelby gives her a polite "I'm sorry, Mrs. Hudson, but I don't know where he is".
That is, until Carole tells her that Rachel is missing, too, and hears a stunned - "my daughter's gone?"
She wasn't expecting that bombshell.
"Mrs. Hudson? Your neighbor said I could find you here."
It's pouring rain, and the only people out are the homeless and Shelby Corcoran. She's dripping all over the Hummel's entranceway, with Kurt and Noah (who's just sort of migrated over along with Carole and, before he left, Finn) staring in shock from the dinner table. Burt recovers first and gets up from the table, coming over to take Shelby's wet jacket.
"Kurt, do you think we could get Ms. Corcoran some dry clothes?" he asks, practical as always. "It's freezing out."
"You really don't have to-"
He shakes his head. "It's no trouble at all. Kurt will find you something to wear, and once you've changed, I hope you'll join us for dinner. It's just chicken salad wraps, coleslaw, and iced tea from Catallo's. You're not vegan, are you? I know Rachel is."
Shelby stutters a surprised "no", and Burt shooes his son off to get her something to wear. Kurt takes off toward the guest room - where Carole keeps half her wardrobe and ostensibly sleeps - and Carole digs a towel out of the laundry basket. She hands it to the embarrassed Shelby, who wraps her dripping hair in it and gratefully takes the yoga pants, purple wrap shirt, and socks that Kurt returns with.
"Are you sure you have enough?" she asks. "I wouldn't want to impose."
Noah replies before anyone else can. "Catallo's has monster portions, Ms. C. Pull up a chair."
Carole has to smile and "accidentally" ruffle his hair. It wasn't that long ago that Noah was skipping meals because he thought he wouldn't be welcome at the Hummels' house the way he was welcome at the Hudsons'. Of course, it wasn't that long ago that he actually wouldn't have been - Burt didn't approve of inviting bullies to eat with you, especially ones who nailed your lawn furniture to your roof.
As Kurt directs Shelby toward the bathroom to change, Burt takes Carole by the elbow. "I know you're angry, but hear her out."
"You are. I know that look." His voice softens and he kisses her on the cheek. "For Finn, huh? We haven't heard anything in two months, and it's been four. Let her explain why she came to see you."
Carole reminds herself that this is for her son, and that this is Burt's house, and that she has absolutely no ground to stand on to judge Shelby Corcoran. She sits down and digs into more of her sandwich, arm-wrestling Noah for the last Dorito (which is Kurt's concession to the need for junk food to balance out the healthiness of the meal). Shelby emerges from the bathroom a few minutes later, doing Carole's purple shirt more justice than Carole herself ever has.
"I wanted to talk to you," Shelby says as she sits down crosslegged in the chair Noah's pulled in from the kitchen. "I'm sorry I haven't been more forthcoming, but Jesse - well, he's not my son and I know how our relationship looks."
Everyone is studiously quiet, Kurt snagging a bottle of Diet Snapple and giving Noah a Significant Look. They take a fresh bag of tortilla chips down to Kurt's room, leaving Shelby, Carole, and Burt in the kitchen.
"Do you know where they might be?" Carole asks.
"If it were only Jesse, I would bet it was New York or Los Angeles. But with Rachel and Finn, they could have gone just about anywhere."
Los Angeles is a stretch. They'd need plane tickets or a better car than any of them have access to. She's kept an eye on Finn's bank account - it got drained the day before he left, and there's nothing going into it. New York is a possibility.
"Finn wouldn't care," she says to Shelby. "He'd go wherever Rachel and Jesse wanted to go."
"So why don't we start scouring bus terminals and theatres in New York?" Burt asks, and she loves him for including himself in that group.
Shelby shakes her head, defeated. "New York isn't Ohio. A kid could disappear there within days . . . I should know."
They finish the rest of the meal in silence.
Five months, twenty-nine days, and fourteen hours after her son goes missing, Carole Hudson picks up the phone.
"Mom? I need help."
And she doesn't care that it's been five months, twenty-nine days, and fourteen hours of silence. She doesn't care that he'd run off without a word, that two other kids have done the same thing. Because her baby is on the phone, sounding younger and more scared than she's heard him in a very long time.
"Where are you? Tell me where you are, and I'll come up to New York and find you."
He actually sounds surprised. "How did you know we were in New York?"
"Two of the biggest theatre kids in Ohio?" she says, trying not to sob. "I'd have been shocked if you weren't. What do you need?"
Haltingly, it comes out: squatting in a third-floor walkup near Midtown, Rachel and Jesse doing things Finn won't admit to for money and chorus parts, Finn taking odd jobs and trying to keep food on the table, how they haven't had heat in weeks and it's December. With each word out of his mouth, Carole has to try harder and harder not to break down and cry.
"Give me the address. Burt and I will come get you," she says, interrupting him. She doesn't let him protest that no, all they need is some money, all they need is enough for food and space heaters. "Finn, you are my son, you are sixteen years old, and from what you're telling me, the three of you haven't eaten properly in months and have possibly been prostituting. I am driving to New York, and the three of you are coming home."
Finn, predictably, is upset, but the next voice out of the phone is high and reedy. Rachel.
"Will you - will you make sure Shelby comes for Jesse? And that my dads - that they know I'm okay?"
She wishes she could reassure Rachel - no, it would never happen again, they'd find out who'd been hurting her and bring them to the police, that Jesse could stay with Carole or Shelby instead of his parents. She wishes she could wave a magic wand and make it all right.
"Rachel, sweetheart," she says, instead. "Your dads have been worried sick. We wish you would have come to us. We would never have let that happen."
"I - I know," she says, and the phone is passed to Jesse.
All he says is a quiet "100 East 28th St", and hangs up.
Six months and two hours after her son goes missing, she knocks on the door of their tiny little apartment in New York. Burt, Kurt, Noah, and Shelby are down in the back of the van they'd rented, having agreed it might be best not to overwhelm the kids. Finn opens the door, sweatshirt hanging off his frame, and through the door, she can see a shaking, much too thin Rachel and Jesse sitting on the floor, holding hands.
"Mom?" Finn says, and hugs her tightly.
Finally, finally, it's like her world's back on its axis.
Her son is home.