An adopted girl receives a rusty, old key. Will it unlock her life's mysteries?
“I have a right to be angry, Mom-Mom!” Achy and stiff, Samantha gripped the steering wheel with white-knuckled hands. “I mean, you do realize? All the answers to my questions – the big mystery of me – they’re gone. Buried forever, with her.”
“I know,” Marla said softly. “I know you’re hurting, sweetie.”
“How could she?” Samantha slammed her hand on the side of the wheel, aware of how Marla jerked in her peripheral vision at the sound.
The lush, wildflower-speckled countryside beyond the windshield suddenly reduced to a roiled rainbow as bitter tears stung Samantha’s eyes. When was she going to get a grip, stop being so needy? You’d think a year of university under her belt would have morphed her into some semblance of a grown-up; and yet, one little gust of fate had blown and sent her spinning in circles, again. Then again, how is a person supposed to move forward when she doesn’t know from which way she came?
Marla shifted her feet on the passenger side floorboard and sighed, the sounds rousing Samantha from her chagrin. Samantha swiped at her face, denying a tear from running its course down a cheek that burned with shame. She hadn’t meant to shout at Marla. And she knew how that ugly, hard edge in her voice sliced at Marla’s heart. Then Marla’s warm hand touched her shoulder, and Samantha savored the forgiveness in its gentle squeeze.
“These past couple days have been, well, unbearable at best,” Marla said. “But, honey. Your prayers were answered. After all this time, you know who your birth mom was. That is a gift.”
Samantha kept her eyes on the road but let her head drop to her shoulder, pressing her cheek against Marla’s plump hand. No adoptive mother loved a child more than Marla loved her. “I’m sorry. I know you’re right.”
Marla was the one person Samantha could always count on. Sweet Marla, who’d raised Samantha from infancy, had always called herself Mama Marla, never hiding the fact that she wasn’t Samantha’s biological mother. As the story went, when Samantha had begun to talk, 'Mama Marla' came out ‘Mom-Mom,’ and the name stuck. In a way, it fit perfectly. Marla was twice the mother anyone could ask for. Her unconditional love filled Samantha’s heart and offered her security from a cold world where mothers gave their daughters away.
“I’m so glad you came up here with me. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
Marla’s fleshy bosom rose and fell as she chuckled. “Honey, I wouldn’t be anywhere else.” She paused and then added, “It is strange, though. Your mother blocked that adoption agency from opening your file all these years, but then her final request delivered an attorney right to our doorstep.”
Samantha set her jaw. “It just proves she knew where I was. All this time, she knew.” The white around her knuckles on the steering wheel returned. “Why didn’t she contact me before? Didn’t she imagine for a second that I might like to meet her? Didn’t she wonder what kind of person I was?”
Marla fingered the envelope on her lap then lifted her chin in Samantha’s direction. “Do you remember that first night I found you out on the roof? You must have been what, eleven?”
Samantha sighed. Typical Mom-Mom, changing the subject to distract Samantha from a full-blown emotional meltdown. It was her super power. Well, she had her work cut out for her today.
“Answer me, please.” Marla’s voice oozed patience. “Do you remember that first time, or not?”
“Why do you keep saying, ‘first time’? That was the only time. You forbade me to be up there, remember?”
Samantha glanced over to find Marla staring at her with one eyebrow noticeably higher than the other. A guilty blush crept across her face in the glow of that stare. “Okay, so I spent a lot of time out there. Actually, it became my favorite place.”
Marla nodded. She poked the air in Samantha’s direction with a manicured finger, tipped in candy-apple-red. “You told me that the second you stepped out your bedroom window that night and sat on the roof, you started thinking about your mother.”
A corner of Samantha’s lips twitched, easing into half a smile. Damn she was good. “You know, I used to lie up there, higher than the treetops, and it felt like I was floating in a sea of stars. I stared into that black, flecked ocean for hours, thinking about my birth mom. Wondering where she was. And, I imagined her looking into the sky at that moment and thinking about me. Silly, I know.”
“Well, honey,” Marla said softly, holding up the large envelope, “this proves she did think about you.”
Two days ago, Samantha had answered the doorbell to find a tall man in a suit standing on the porch, asking for her by name. He identified himself as an estate attorney for the late Ms. Donna Tracey. That name had meant nothing to Sam, until the lawyer explained he’d been directed to carry out a stipulation in Ms. Tracey’s will, instructing the delivery of an envelope to Ms. Tracey’s daughter, Miss Samantha Langford. That was pretty much the last thing Samantha remembered of the conversation. Marla had found her on the threshold, envelope in hand, staring into space. She'd coaxed Samantha indoors and led the stunned girl to a chair at the kitchen table. With a fresh pot of coffee between them, they’d opened the envelope.
Inside there were just two papers. The first was a sheet of loose leaf on which an old, rusty key was affixed with scotch tape. Beneath the key, a handwritten note read, “What this key unlocks is now yours to keep forever.” It was signed, “Your loving mother, Donna Tracey.” The second paper was a computer printout of a series of directions that began at the Boulder Municipal Airport, where they’d flown in this morning.
As they passed a road sign announcing ten miles to a town called Talmo, Marla unfolded the glasses hanging around her neck and perched them on her nose. Consulting the computer printout, she said, “Sweetie, keep your eye out for a right hand turn, coming up. It says we need to take Lake Shore Drive, and that it’s an unpaved road.”
Samantha glanced at the torn envelop resting in Marla’s lap. “You know what I don’t get? Why isn’t there any explanation included on that paper? No address -- just directions and a rusty, old key. What the hell?” The edge was back in her voice.
Marla shrugged. “Beats me, but there’s the road we need.”
The tires crunched on gravel as Samantha turned off the highway and onto the dirt road. She lowered both front windows and the fresh smell of sun-warm grass flooded the car. Samantha felt her body relax. She looked over at Marla, who smiled. “It’s beautiful out here, isn’t it?”
The road traversed a tall, grassy field flanked on all sides by evergreen-dominated forest. The drone of insects hung in the perfumed air. When the road entered the woods, sunlight filtered through the dense trees in radiant beams.
“There’s only one instruction left on this paper,” Marla said. “‘Take the first left’.”
A minute later, Samantha pointed. “There it is!”
As Samantha steered the car from the dirt road onto a still narrower path, both women gasped. Into view appeared a quaint, white building with large windows overlooking a lake. A sandy beach lined the shore, and a narrow, wood-plank dock stretched thirty feet into the water. Gentle mountains rose in the distance.
“No way,” Samantha exclaimed. “Do you think...?”
Marla tore the key off the paper. “Let’s see what this baby unlocks,” she said with a roguish smile.
Samantha led the way up the steps. Her stomach fluttered with that delicious sensation of fear-mingled excitement, like she was about to board a roller coaster. The key quivered in her hand but slid fluidly into the lock. It turned with a loud click, and the door swung forward a few inches. Samantha’s hand sprang back, indecisive. She looked over her shoulder at Marla, who gave her a reassuring nod. With one finger, she pushed the door open.
Light flooded the cottage’s main room. Out the lakefront windows, dazzling sunlight flickered on the gentle waves near the shore, reflecting fiery flecks that danced across the ceiling. The space was divided into areas of function: one corner housed a kitchenette outfitted with a sink, gas range, refrigerator, and café-style table and chairs; the opposite side sported a seating area with overstuffed armchairs and coffee tables stacked high with glossy books. A rustic oak table dominated the center of the room. One end served as a desk, indicated by writing implements and stationery. The rest of the table was littered with tubes of paint, jars of gesso, and vases that sprouted paint brushes of every size and shape from their necks. A large easel holding a half-covered canvas stood at the table’s edge.
Marla made a bee-line to the table, exclaiming her inexhaustible admiration for old, hand-hewn furniture with a breathy ooh, a sound Samantha had heard her make in countless antique stores. Samantha grinned but continued on, to inspect the back wall.
There, overlapping paintings covered every inch from ceiling to floor. Metal and plastic frames surrounded some, while others hung border-less. There were paintings on stretched canvas, on paper, and on wood. Samantha sucked on her lower lip, brows furrowed. The corner-to-corner cluster appeared at the same time haphazard and intentional. Whether Donna Tracey had simply ignored the fact that she'd run out of display room, or she had set out to create a collage that transformed the wall into one astounding work of art, Samantha could not decide.
Tilting her head, Samantha stepped closer. Something was odd about the wall. At first she thought it was the sheer number of paintings. But that wasn’t it. Samantha’s focus narrowed in on the subject of the painting directly in front of her, then to the one next to it, and above that. Her mouth fell open.
Each work portrayed a female child, though no two were alike. Some girls had chestnut hair, or blonde, or auburn. Features ranged from heart-shaped visages with widow’s peaks to fleshy, cinnamon-flecked faces; from piercing eyes the color of mahogany to blazing baby blues. Whether she was long and lanky or cherub plump, every girl looked radiant within her setting.
Heart drumming in her chest, Samantha rocked back and forth on her heels. She twisted a lock of wavy blonde hair around her finger as her gaze zigzagged the wall in search of her hazel eyes and childhood ringlets. She jumped when Marla called her name.
“Come over here!” said Marla. “Look what I found.”
Marla handed Samantha a leather-bound journal. She turned the heavy book in her hands, eyeing the way the pages bulged between stiff, top-grain cowhide. A unique, buckle-stud closure strained to contain the book's contents.
“I’ll bet my dessert there are pictures in this thing.” Marla put her glasses on and looked over the rim at Samantha. “What do you say, sweets? You ready to see your mother?”
“Oh my God,” Samantha said. She pressed the journal to her chest; her eyes shut. A slow, steady breath issued through her pursed lips. She opened her eyes and whispered, “Okay.”
Cradling the journal with her right arm, Sam unsnapped the clasp and gingerly lifted the front cover. On glossy paper that covered more than half the page, her eyes locked onto long ripples of sandy tresses next to a shock of disheveled brown hair, and two pairs of laughing eyes. The air left Samantha's lungs; every molecule in her body froze. Equally frozen in time, her parents grinned up at her from a photograph glued to the paper.
"Oh, Sam! There they are, honey." Marla draped an arm around Samantha's trembling shoulders, giving her a squeeze. "My Lord, she was a beauty, wasn't she? Look at those cheekbones! Reminds me of a Greek goddess."
Samantha didn't answer, couldn't. This day had come; not like she'd fantasized those nights out on the roof, but it had come. And knowing what her mother and father had looked like changed everything. Silly as it sounded, up until now she'd only half believed they'd actually existed. But here was proof they had. They'd been real people. They were real.
Marla nudged her. "What'd she write?"
Underneath the photo, the first entry spilled across the page in the same handwriting as the note with the key. Samantha's throat closed on her first attempt to read it aloud, but after swallowing several times, she found her composure.
“June 28th: Dear Baby, I can’t wait to meet you! I’m Donna, your mommy, and your daddy’s name is Seth. We found out today that you are on the way, coming into our lives, and we are so excited! I am going to write in this journal daily so when you read it someday, you’ll know exactly how you came into this world!”
Stunned, Samantha looked up. “I don’t get it?” she whispered. Batting away new tears, she turned to the next page.
Marla said, “One thing’s for sure. She liked having her picture taken.” She snorted. “Of course, if I looked like that, I probably would too.”
For Samantha, the abundance of photographs, several on every page, was a cloudburst ending the parchedness of a lifelong drought. She scrutinized each photo, unable to rush through despite the questions that burned in her brain. She drank in her mother's milky skin, marveled at the sparkle in her pale, khaki eyes, and admired the confident smile of a woman aware of her own beauty. The more pages she turned, the more pictures she discovered. Over her shoulder, Marla read aloud the captions that offered detailed descriptions of doctor’s visits, sonograms and morning sickness.
"She journaled with such enthusiasm, it's clear she was happy with her pregnancy. So mysterious...Sam," Marla suggested, “skip ahead to your birthday.”
“Good idea.” She flipped through the months, looking for March 10th; but following the February 17th entry, the pages were blank. Shaking her head, Samantha turned questioning eyes on Marla. She thumbed the remaining pages and discovered more writing further into the book. Opening to where it recommenced, Samantha noted that there were no photographs in this part of the book. She read:
“December 5: I haven’t had the courage to write since the fire.”
She gasped, her hand covering her mouth. Marla slipped an arm around her waist, sending waves of comfort up Samantha’s back. Samantha took a deep breath and read on.
“I lost everything that night. Seth is gone. The baby is gone. And what’s left of me is hideous and repulsive. All that’s left for me is pain.”
Samantha stopped. Marla said softly, “Why don’t you take your time with this?”
Without a word, Samantha took the journal to an armchair and began to read in silence. In her mother’s words, she learned of the fire that erupted in their suburban house that terrible night. Trapped, she and Seth had fought through the flames to escape. Both were badly burned. Seth passed away the first night in the hospital. The doctors had performed an emergency cesarean section, fearful her mother would die but hopeful they could save her baby. Three months later, conscious but immobile and in constant, excruciating pain, her mother made the heartbreaking decision to put her baby up for adoption. Tears blurred the words when Samantha read:
“What kind of selfish person would I be to condemn my daughter to life with a monster? What hope of a normal life would she have?”
When she finished reading, the aroma of brewed coffee still hung in the air, but the mug Marla had set next to Samantha was long cold. Out the windows, evening waned and the last glow of sunset lit the sky over the lake.
“Why don’t we spend the night here, sweetie? There’s a second bedroom in the back, and I found food in the freezer. With some creativity, I think I can whip us up some supper.”
“Sure, Mom-Mom, I’d like that." Sam stood and twisted, her back releasing a progression of pops. "Do you mind if I get some air?”
Samantha listened to the hollow fall of her steps as she walked out to the end of the dock. The sun had slipped into the lake, and the first stars were visible. The water’s surface was still and peaceful, like her soul. She kicked off her sandals and sat on the end of the dock, letting her toes sink into the cool water as the last light of day extinguished.
Samantha lay back and stared up at an ocean of twinkling stars. At this elevation, the sky seemed closer to earth; the stars looked bigger. Suddenly, an orb of light streaked across the heavens.
As Samantha watched the shooting star fade into the velvety sky, she whispered, “Thank you.”
(WC without title: 2851)