October 22, 2012 12:00 PM

It’s not the birthdays or the holidays, not the day-to-day moments-not even the missed milestones. For the families of the missing, it’s the ache of the unknown that gnaws at their insides and keeps them awake at night. “It’s the worst thing you can imagine, for your child to be gone and to not know what happened,” says Yvonne Stewart, whose daughter Michelle Parker, then 33, a mother of twin toddlers, vanished in Orlando last November. Of the 700,000 adults and children reported missing in America each year, few make headlines. But the ones that do have a way of gripping us so completely, we remember the names and faces long after the trails go cold. “PEOPLE are captivated by these cases because many of us are parents, and it’s a parent’s worst nightmare,” says John Ryan, CEO of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. From Kyron Horman to baby Lisa Irwin, People revisits four memorable cases.

An Infant Disappears From Her Crib

Lisa Irwin

Reported Missing: Oct. 4, 2011

Last Seen: In her bedroom in Kansas City, Mo.

Person of Interest: No one

It’s hard sometimes, says Debbie Bradley, not to stare. “But everywhere we go, we look at every baby,” she says. It’s been a year since she opened the door to her daughter’s room and found her baby, Lisa, gone. Since then police and the FBI have chased down 1,600 tips, including 500 infant sightings-among them three separate reports of a man nearby carrying what looked like an infant in a diaper that cool October night-to no avail. Though she hasn’t been named a suspect, Bradley, 26-the only adult home with Lisa and sons Blake, now 10, and Michael, 6, that night (fiance Jeremy Irwin, 30, an electrician, was working)-is someone investigators want to talk to one-on-one but haven’t been able to since immediately after Lisa disappeared. In a tearful interview, the stay-at-home mom, who was told she failed an early lie detector test and admitted she was drunk when Lisa vanished, maintained her innocence. “I had nothing,” she tells PEOPLE, “to do with it.”

If Lisa, nicknamed Pumpkin Pie, returns, she’ll come back to a room full of gifts like Barbies and a princess playpen. “Every few months we buy another size outfit for her,” says Bradley. “We still believe we’ll bring her home.”

Two Years Later, His Family Still Prays

Kyron Horman

Disappeared: June 4, 2010

Last Seen: In a school hallway

Person of Interest: No one

It may seem strange, but Kaine Horman takes comfort in donating his son Kyron’s clothes, which he knows wouldn’t fit Kyron if he were home. “He’s not the same child anymore,” he reasons. “Keeping pace with him makes me feel like he’s still there.” It’s been more than two years since Kyron, then 7, vanished from Skyline Elementary in Portland, Ore., after his stepmom, Terri Horman, 42, dropped him off. Since then Kaine, 38, and Kyron’s mom, Desiree Young, 40, have come to believe Terri has something to do with Kyron’s disappearance. In June, Young filed a civil suit against her, seeking $10 million in damages; Kaine, meanwhile, who has filed for divorce, thinks “someone helped her” abduct his son. (Terri has always denied involvement.)

It’s an agonizing position to be in, waiting for answers with no end in sight. Often Kaine imagines what his son, who would’ve turned 10 Sept. 9, might look like now: how many inches he’s grown and what his voice sounds like. More than once he’s heard a little boy call “Hey, Dad!” and mistaken him for Kyron. “It’s enough for me to turn and look,” says Kaine. “My heart is with him all the time.”

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