Her eyes, dark and round like Polly’s, close as she tells the story. The fingers of both hands tighten around her coffee cup. She pauses for long moments, searching for words to explain the unexplainable. “You know, you can’t grow a new heart,” says Eve Nichol, who refers to the death of her daughter in 1993 as “Polly’s tragedy.” “But when you have a big piece torn away, you can either fill it with anger and rage, or you can fill it with love. I just have to try and choose love.”
In the difficult years since Polly Klaas, 12, was abducted and strangled, Eve Nichol has rarely spoken publicly about those terrible events. Now, to mark the 10th anniversary of Polly’s death, she and Polly’s half sister Annie, 16, agreed to share with PEOPLE the story of how they are coping. “We talk about Polly probably every day,” says Eve, 54, who plans to have a private gathering of close friends and loved ones on Oct. 1. “We will read out of her journal in front of the fire. We will go through a photo album together. We tell stories all the time. It’s like we just take her with us. It’s not like we put her on a shelf and bring her out on an anniversary.”
To get through her grief, Eve has had to build a wall between what she remembers of Polly and what happened to her. On Oct. 1, 1993, Polly was enjoying a slumber party with two friends while her mother and Annie slept in another room of the family’s home in Petaluma, Calif. (Eve and Polly’s father, Marc Klaas, divorced in 1984.) Sometime that night, ex-convict Richard Allen Davis, then 39, broke into Polly’s bedroom, bound and gagged her friends and abducted her. Polly’s disappearance galvanized the public and prompted thousands of volunteers to search for her over the 65 days she was gone. The case helped create a blueprint for how to respond quickly to kidnappings. “The FBI told Eve her job was to do interviews and get Polly’s picture out there, and to do that she had to remain centered,” says her cousin Becky Reed, 51. “We only saw Eve cry publicly twice during all that time. But as soon as she went into her bedroom, she cried every night.”
Finally, on Dec. 4, Davis admitted to strangling Polly just hours after taking her. Not much later police dug up her remains from a shallow grave near Highway 101. Convicted of first-degree murder in 1996, Davis remains on death row in San Quentin; his appeal process could take years. “I didn’t go to the trial except for the conviction,” says Eve. “The minute I knew this guy could never hurt anyone else, I forgot about him.”
This has been her choice all along: to focus on the positive, for Polly’s sake. She sits on the board of the Polly Klaas Foundation (www. pollyklaas.org), which raises awareness of child abductions, and she helped raise funds to refurbish the Polly Klaas Performing Arts Center in Petaluma to honor the child who dreamed of being an entertainer. Polly’s father, Marc, 54, runs the KlaasKids Foundation and has been a visible advocate for missing children. His daughter’s death “is something I thought I had been able to set aside,” he says. But as the anniversary nears, “I have been awfully focused on the events of that evening 10 years ago.”
Since the tragedy, Eve has drawn much of her strength from Annie (she and Annie’s father, Allan Nichol, divorced in 1999). After Polly’s abduction Annie hung a cow bell on her bedroom doorknob and rigged ropes across the windows to keep “any bad guys from coming in,” she says. Years later a middle school classmate told her she couldn’t come to a party because, as she recalls, “you’re Polly Klaas’s sister, you’re bad luck.” Today Annie always travels with a cell phone and usually with Ozzie, the standard poodle trained to grab anyone who touches her. “My mother and I have both gone through every range of emotion in losing Polly,” says Annie, who like her mother refuses to dwell on the negative, even though she misses Polly terribly. “I miss having a best friend and a sister,” she says. “I miss all the joys and sadnesses that could have come with that.”
Eve’s resolve to keep things as normal as possible was tested around the time Annie turned 12—the age Polly was when she vanished. “We’d be chit-chatting about something, and I would think, ‘What if I only had her for another 10 days?’ ” says Eve. “I couldn’t help it. The thought just came into my head.” That led her to see a therapist, who treated her for posttraumatic stress disorder. Her several months in therapy, she says, helped a great deal. “I no longer feel that I have to be brave every day,” she says.
Eve quit her job as a manager for a children’s catalog after Polly disappeared and now designs and sells jewelry. She and Annie live in West Marin County, in a two-bedroom house filled with pictures of Polly. These days, Eve “laughs, she has fun, she has tons of friends,” says Becky Reed. “But there is also a huge, huge hole that can never be filled.” It was only three weeks ago, for instance, that Eve finally got around to going through boxes of Polly’s things a friend had stored for her.
Then there is that odd little thing that has been happening all the time. “I’ve been calling Annie ‘Polly,’ ” says Eve. “And Annie smiles when it happens. It’s not a sad thing, it’s a good thing. It’s like Polly was still here.”
Vickie Bane in Marin County