It was time.
Emily Anderson had waited all her life for this moment.
The box on the floor in front of her held the hope of a lifetime . . . her lifetime. Inside could be a window, a glimpse, a pathway to the past, to a time still littered with question marks. But what if it wasn’t? What if it was nothing?
For a moment Emily could only sit, stone still, and stare at it. Doubts gathered around her like summer storm clouds. This was her last chance. If the box held only high school mementoes, framed photographs, and old stuffed animals, then she’d know she’d reached her final dead end.
And barring a miracle, her search for her parents would be over.
She laid her hands on the dusty cardboard top and traced her fingers across the words. Lauren’s Things. The box would be nearly nineteen years old now.
A lump stuck in her throat and she swallowed, forcing it down. “Mom . . .” she stared at her mother’s name. “Did you leave me a trail?” She closed her eyes and hugged the box. “Please, God, let there be something here.”
Downstairs her grandparents were fixing dinner. They’d given her this time. Her tender old papa had found the worn box in the garage stashed away in a cobwebbed corner with a dozen other forgotten cartons. He had known how much it would mean to her, how long she’d been waiting for a breakthrough like this.
“Emily, honey,” he’d told her when she came home from college that day. “This belonged to your mother.” He held the box in his hands. As tall as she was, she still felt tiny next to him. He had to look around the brown edges of the box to see her. “I’ll take it to your room. You’ll need some time.”
She opened her eyes and stared at the box, hard and long, drilling imaginary holes through the flimsy cardboard. As if maybe she could see inside before she tore into it and found out for sure. Panic tap-danced around her, and she grabbed two quick breaths. What if she went through the whole thing and found no clues at all? Two more breaths. Come on, Emily. Exhale.
She tightened her middle, pursed her lips, and blew out. God, get me through this. There has to be something.
How many times had she prayed for a clue or a sign? A trail that would lead her to her parents, even for a day? Then she could ask them why they’d left and how come they never cared to find out what happened to their little girl?
Emotion flooded her, tightening her throat, closing her eyes. Memories rushed back like forgotten classmates — hateful ones, who used to laugh when you weren’t picked at recess.
Suddenly she was in kindergarten again, at the Mother’s Day luncheon. She and the other boys and girls had made place mats with bright green handprints and pretty painted flowers coming from the top of every finger. They sang a song, and Emily could hear their young, off-key voices booming out, “Thanks for all you do . . . Mommy, I love you!”
As with everything around Mother’s Day, Emily directed the words to her grandma.
Even back then, she’d known. She was the only kindergartner without a mother. The only one whose mommy left when she was just a few weeks old. Now she watched her kindergarten self as the memory of what happened next played back, every painful detail intact . . .
“Grandma,” she asked, “where is my mommy? Do you know?”
Her grandmother got sort of nervous. “No, sweetie. Papa and I tried to find her but, well, we haven’t had any luck.”
Emily had felt suddenly lost. Like the day she was at the park and couldn’t find her papa. Then an idea came to her. She smoothed her fancy dress and swung her legs, setting her patentleather shoes in motion. “Maybe I could find her!”
“Honey.” Her grandma patted her hair. “I don’t think she wants to be found.”
And that was that.
Emily drew a shuddering breath, relieved that the memory was over. But on its heels came another. The time she was thirteen and all of eighth grade was getting “the talk.”
“I feel funny talking about girl stuff in school,” she told one of her friends at lunch that day. “Seems like it should be private.”
“So talk to your mom.” The friend smiled. “Moms are great for that.”
The emptiness and loss were so terrible, Emily felt like an actual hole in her heart, a hole so thorough she bet her friend could see straight through her. That afternoon, Emily went home and made a promise.
Someday, I’m going to find my parents. No matter what. Emily brushed a hand across her face, as though she could free her mind from the haunting thoughts. She opened her eyes and stared at the box.
Eventually her grandparents got Internet access. After that there were days of typing in her mother’s name — L-a-u-r-e-n A-n-d-e-r-s-o-n — and searching through lists of schoolteachers and scientists and track stars, but never — not in all the thousand entries that popped up, making her breathless with possibility — did she find her mother. Same with her dad. She’d spent hopeless afternoons looking for him any way she could imagine.
And now, at eighteen, she was no closer to finding them than when she first started. What she wanted — what she’d always wanted — was the truth. Because the sketchy details she knew made up barely a handful of dots. Nowhere near enough to connect.
Cobwebs stuck to the top of the box, and Emily brushed them off. She let her hands rest on the old, worn carton, wondering.
Could it be? Did this box hold the secrets — secrets that would answer the questions that had haunted Emily all her life? Why did her mother leave? Where was she? Why hadn’t she been in touch since she ran away? Had her parents ever connected again?
She gripped the top of the box. Maybe . . . maybe she was about to discover enough pieces to put together a trail. And maybe the trail would lead her to the story.
She couldn’t wait another minute as she opened the side flaps. It was really happening; she was about to see her mother’s things, touch them and read them and breathe them in. Her heart beat so hard and fast she wondered if her grandparents could hear it downstairs.
She peered inside. The first few items were framed photographs of her parents. Emily reached in, lifting them with careful fingers. Beneath them were yearbooks and folded handwritten letters. Emily’s heart jumped. Hours of exploration stretched before her. As she pulled out the contents of the box, she lay each item on her bed, staring at it even as she reached for the next item.