Copyright © 2017 by T. L. Haddix
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No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
…The Old Box
Every spring when the weather got warm, right before the beginning of summer, Sarah Campbell liked to have a purge. An in-depth spring cleaning had been her annual tradition since she was young, and the process was meant to get rid of unused and unwanted items. Too, it was a sheer defense mechanism, preventing the farmhouse she and Owen had called home for fifty years or so from exploding at the seams. After all, with five children, twelve grandchildren, and a growing number of great-grandchildren, “stuff” tended to accumulate.
While she had boxes upon organized boxes of precious mementos tucked away that she’d not part with until the day she died, Sarah had no intention of becoming one of those people who left a mess for her children to deal with when she passed. She fully intended to aim for one hundred years at a minimum, but given that she was approaching eighty, she didn’t want to leave the task of clearing things out until she wasn’t able to do it. Thus, every year, the purge.
In recent springs, the exodus of things had become something of a family event. Being wise and not above using her age as an excuse to spend time with her various offspring and their progeny, Sarah would rope whatever child or grandchild was at hand, or even near to being close by, into the process. The kids were on to her by now, but they didn’t seem to mind. If they weren’t tied up, she’d often get volunteers. All she had to do was announce her plans on Facebook and sit back and wait.
This year, she’d snagged Colin and Easton, as well as Colin’s baby sister, Sadie. The boys were each twenty-three, and Sadie had just turned fifteen. They were helpful workers, cheerful and funny, and their bickering often had Sarah in tears from laughing so hard. So too did Sadie’s almost motherly exasperation with the boys’ antics. As a particularly loud series of thumps and thuds sounded from the attic, along with muttered words Sarah was glad she couldn’t quite make out, Sadie growled.
“What in the world are they doing up there, Grandma? They probably found some more old toys and are having another battle or something. They’re worse than old biddies fighting over two-dollar grab bags at the bargain bin at Goodwill.” She stood at the foot of the pull-down ladder, hands on her hips, and glowered at the attic opening. “Come on already, guys! Daylight’s burning. Chop, chop! You can kill each other outside. We’ve got stuff to do.”
With her head tilted a bit and her long, golden-blond hair pulled back into a sassy ponytail, she looked so much like her mother, Amelia, it was eerie.
A shiny, multicolored piece of fabric floated down in response to the question, landing squarely over Sadie’s head and shoulders despite her efforts to dodge it. As she coughed and swore mildly, promising mayhem and retribution, Colin appeared at the opening.
“Move, squirt. We found a big box stuck behind a rafter, and we had to fight to get it out. Looks like it’s been up here a while, Grandma,” he said as he came halfway down the ladder and stopped. He took the dark gray box from Easton, then descended the rest of the way. “Porch?”
“Please,” Sarah said. “Good grief, there’s an inch of dust on that thing. Sadie, get a damp cloth, please?”
“Sure.” She shot Colin a glare before she dashed down the stairs.
“You’re so mean to her, she’s liable to put a snake in your bed.” Sarah couldn’t keep her face straight, and she chuckled.
Colin grinned, nearly a mirror image of his father. “Nah, she loves it. We can’t let her get too full of herself. She’d be impossible to live with.”
“That little princess?” Easton said, shooing Colin out of the way as he reached the bottom of the steps, then lifted them into place and closed the attic door. “She has every one of you wrapped around her finger, and you know it.”
Colin sighed. “Just don’t let her hear you say that.”
Sarah gestured for Easton to bend down so she could brush cobwebs off his hair. “Boys, I think that secret’s well and truly out of the bag. Let’s head down and see what kind of treasure you’ve found. Where was this again? I can’t imagine how we’ve missed it all these years.”
“The front corner, over the dormer space for one of the bedrooms,” Easton said as the three of them descended to the first floor. He held the door for her and Colin to pass, drawing in a deep breath of fresh air as he stepped onto the porch. “Ah, that breeze feels good. Anyhow, it was tucked kind of to the side, and it’s really dark back there. I can see how it got missed. What’s in it, do you think?”
“We’ll find out.” Sarah frowned as Easton adjusted the compression glove on his left hand. “Everything okay?”
“What?” He glanced at his hand as though he hadn’t realized he was touching the glove. “Oh, yeah. It’s fine. The glove was just a little loose. It isn’t hurting or anything, I promise. No need to shake your finger at me.” He winked and gave her a quick hug. “The glove really helps keep it from hurting when I use it a lot. I’ve almost gotten to the point where I can go without it most of the time, so long as I don’t do any heavy-duty lifting or whatnot.”
Last summer, he’d had a severe injury that had resulted in lasting damage to his hand. Though he was finally rebounding mentally, Sarah still worried.
Sadie joined them, tray with lemonade and glasses in hand, at the small table where they’d set up a sorting area. “I thought this might be nice. I could use some calories after all that work. I’ll grab some cookies and be right back.” She handed Sarah the damp cloth before she went.
“How’s the apprenticeship going, Colin?” Sarah poured their drinks while they waited for Sadie to return. “Is Emma a good teacher?”
“She is. I like it so far. I’m learning a lot. It’s sure not as simple as point and click like I thought,” he said with a smile. “I’m taking tons of notes to pass on to Sean, and I think our video quality is going to undergo a drastic improvement.”
He was spending the summer working under Emma at her photography studio, learning the basics of the trade. He and his brother Sean had a burgeoning online channel where they uploaded videos of camping and survival gear and techniques, as well as product reviews of the tools related to such.
“It isn’t his calling either,” Easton added, his blue eyes sparkling with mischief, “but he’s meeting all the ladies in town, so he doesn’t mind.”
“Shut up.” Colin snorted, his cheeks turning red. “Grandma, don’t pay him any attention.”
Sarah laughed. “Oh, honey, I’m taking notes!”
After they finished their snack, Sarah handed Sadie the damp rag. “Do the honors?”
“Please and thank you,” Sadie said with a wink. “If there’s a million dollars in here, I’m claiming half.”
Colin tossed a wadded-up napkin at her. “Half? Squirt, there are four of us here. Your math is off.”
She scoffed as she laid the dirty rag aside. “No, it isn’t. Consider your quarter my reward for putting up with you two. You and Easton can split his part. Right, Grandma?”
“Absolutely. That sounds like a solid plan to me.”
Sadie scooted the box closer to Sarah, then lifted the lid. “Treasure! What is it?”
“Oh, goodness. It’s a cap and gown.” Sarah picked up the cap and flipped it over. “John’s, from his eighth-grade graduation. I thought this disappeared years and years ago.” She held up the gown with a fond smile. “He hit a growth spurt that spring, and the gown ended up being at least three inches shorter than it should have been. You could almost see the knees of his pants, it was so short.” She handed it to Easton to fold.
“Aww, look! Pictures that your mom drew.” Sadie held up the stack of papers, then handed it to Easton. The faded, yellowed sheet on top featured a crude drawing of a family of seven shown from the perspective of a then-four-year-old Rachel.
But what captured Sarah’s attention was the intricately carved box that had been hidden beneath the papers. When Sadie reached for it, Sarah stopped her with a gentle hand. “Let me. Oh. Oh, my.”
With fingers that shook, she traced the flowers carved into the top of the wooden box. A foot square and around eight inches tall, it was a box Sarah had thought was truly lost and gone forever, a box whose contents she and Owen had mourned. Almost afraid to breathe, Sarah lifted the box onto her lap, then closed her eyes briefly, saying a prayer the contents were intact, before she opened the lid. When she saw the neat stacks of envelopes, dozens of letters tied with ribbons, lovingly tucked away so many years ago, she gasped.
“Grandma?” Colin’s concerned voice interrupted her thoughts. “Are you okay?”
Though her smile trembled and fell apart before she could stop it, Sarah nodded. She wiped her damp cheeks, chasing the tears that slowly fell with a clean napkin. “Yes, I’m fine. Sweetie, go get your grandfather. He needs to see this.”
Colin hesitated only a second, evaluating her words, then hurried off the porch, heading for the studio behind the house. Owen was working there with Sophie, their granddaughter by marriage and his assistant.
“What is it?” Sadie asked quietly.
“Letters. Beautiful, wonderful letters.” Sarah rested her hand on the girl’s head then sighed. “What else is in the big box?”
Sadie kissed the back of Sarah’s hand, then sat forward. “Looks like an old afghan and a raggedy doll with a bad haircut.” She pulled the items out.
“That doll is Emma’s,” Sarah said with a soft laugh, regaining some of her equilibrium. “She didn’t have a single one with normal hair. If she wasn’t trying to dye it or curl it, she was cutting it to their scalps, the poor things. As for the afghan, I have no idea where it came from.”
Easton grinned. “Knowing Aunt Emma, I’m surprised she didn’t try to blow her dolls up.”
Sarah pursed her lips. “Oh, she did. I think that phase started when she was about ten or eleven. She put those dolls through the torments of the damned—much more so than the boys ever thought about doing with their toys. Owen didn’t know whether to be worried or proud.”
Voices sounded from inside, and a moment later, the door opened. Out came Owen, Colin, and Sophie, who carried her daughter, baby Owen. Judging by the looks on their faces, Sarah hadn’t managed to convince Colin she was okay after all.
“What’s wrong?” Owen asked, looking her over carefully.
But before Sarah could answer, he spied the box in her lap and went still. Even from a distance, Sarah saw his throat working. He looked at her, the question in his eyes easy for her to understand.
“They’re here,” she said.
He cleared his throat and slowly approached, moving as though he was afraid the box would disappear if he went too fast. Once he’d pulled a chair close and sat down, Sarah handed him the box. The kids were all silent as he laid his hands flat on the top.
“Where was it?” he asked after a minute.
Easton answered, his voice quiet. “The attic, tucked into a corner.”
Owen tipped his head in acknowledgment, then took a deep breath and lifted the lid. He stared at the contents for a moment, two, then closed the box. After a minute, he huffed, staring out over the pasture between the house and the newly renovated barn, blinking fast. “Well. Well, then. I wasn’t expecting to ever see these again.”
“What are they?” Sophie asked softly as she rubbed the baby’s back. “If you don’t mind telling us, that is.”
Sarah held her hand out to Owen, and he clasped it tightly. “You all know how prolific a letter writer this man is, and you probably all know about the letters each child and grandchild receives at a certain point in their lives.”
Everyone except Sadie nodded. “Fill me in?” she asked.
“Grandpa writes letters when we’re all born or when we officially join the family,” Colin said, looking at Sophie. “When we turn eighteen, we get those letters as a gift.”
“Or in my case, on my wedding day,” Sophie added. Her eyes widened and she gasped. “Oh, wow! Are those the lost letters I’ve heard about?”
Sarah smiled. “They are. See, when Amelia was about a year old, maybe? This box disappeared. It has all the letters Owen wrote the kids when they were born or anytime something momentous happened and he wanted to remember it on paper for them.”
Owen cleared his throat. “It also has all the letters Sarah had written me. We turned this house and the studio upside down when the box vanished. It was just gone one day. I kept it in the studio, you see, high up on a shelf and behind some things so that it was safe from a horde of curious little Campbells. I didn’t realize it was gone until I went to put a letter inside and the box wasn’t where it was supposed to be.”
That had been a somber day, Sarah recalled. The weeks that followed had felt a bit hollow as realization set in that the letters were truly gone. “We were devastated. After a while, Owen tried to recreate the letters for the kids, but it was still a big loss for both of us.”
“So this really was a treasure box,” Sadie said around a sniffle. She leaned her head against Owen’s leg. “That’s better than a million dollars any day.”
Everyone laughed, but Owen was nodding, solemn. “Yes, it is. Kids, I don’t know what to say other than thank you.”
Easton waved the words away. “You know that’s not necessary. I’m glad that Colin tripped on the corner of the box and found it.”
“No kidding,” Colin said. “We wouldn’t have seen it otherwise. It blended right in.”
“All these years…” Owen sighed. “I don’t think I realized how much I missed this box until just now, or maybe it’s more accurate to say I’d pushed aside the heartache. I wonder how it got up there.”
“What will you do with the letters?” Sophie asked, lightly bouncing the baby. Baby Owen was teething, and as a result, she was fussy. “Shh, sweetie, it’s okay. Oh, she’s so miserable. Poor thing. Mommy can’t seem to do anything to help you either.”
“Want me to try?” Easton asked.
“You do seem to have the touch.” Sophie handed him the baby, who promptly curled up on his shoulder with a contented sound, chewing on the frozen ring she held for all she was worth. Sophie exhaled and shoved her hair back, slumping against one of the porch posts. “So you’re moving in with us tonight, right?”
Easton glanced at her. “If you’ll fix me up with some of Noah’s marinara, absolutely. Though I don’t know about leaving this hoodlum alone in my house.” He gestured to Colin, who snorted. They were rooming together in Easton’s rental while Colin was in town.
Sophie touched Easton’s shoulder. “I’m serious. Do you know how long it’s been since we slept? I can pack you a bag and get the playpen… you can take her home with you.”
The senior Owen laughed. “I remember those days all too well. You know we’ll be happy to keep her if you and Noah need rest.”
“I know, but I hate to ask the two of you. She’s so fussy lately, except when Easton holds her.”
Owen raised an eyebrow. “Young lady, I think you just came one hair of telling us we’re too old to babysit.”
Sarah could tell he was amused, not offended, and she laughed.
Sophie huffed. “I would never say that. But you’ve certainly earned the right not to be disturbed by a teething baby. We’re fine. Just… sleep deprived.”
Easton glanced at Colin, who nodded. “We can stay here tonight, and you can leave her with the five of us. That way the experts are here to supervise, and you and Noah get some much-needed rest. How does that sound?”
Sophie placed a smacking kiss on his forehead. “That, I can live with. Name your price.”
“You have it—marinara. And maybe a jar of pesto, if you have any.”
Noah’s concoctions were famous within the family, and they were often used as bartering items.
“Deal. So… the letters?” Sophie asked, sinking down to sit cross-legged on the floor.
Owen traced the edges of the lid. “I’ll read them, and the ones I wrote for the kids, I’ll give to them. The rest…” He glanced at Sarah, his eyes full of warmth and love. “Well, those will stay with us.”
“Exactly where they belong,” Sarah said softly. “I think this might just be the most successful purge we’ve ever done.”
He picked up her hand and laced their fingers together. “I’d say it definitely is.”
…October 3, 1960
Sunlight flooded the room when Owen rolled over, coming awake slowly to the sounds of birds chirping. The open windows carried their cheery song inside to greet him, borne on the back of the soft breeze loaded with the unique crispness of fall air, and a bit of a chill as well. The bed was empty—no surprise given that Sarah had left for work hours earlier. A bleary-eyed glance at the clock showed Owen that he’d slept well past noon again, and he let his head fall back to the pillows with a muffled curse.
He was tempted to simply roll over and go back to sleep, but he had a list of chores that seemed miles long, tasks that had been accumulating and wouldn’t take care of themselves.
For the past week and a half, he’d been on a tight schedule, working from morning until the wee hours to finish up the final bits of the first draft of his latest H. O. McLemore book. This would be the first installment he’d completed since becoming Sarah’s husband, and working around the needs of a wife and the logistics of having his writing studio in their home, largely in their bedroom, had presented a unique set of challenges he naively hadn’t been expecting.
They’d muddled through things, not without some bumps and bruises, and he’d finally been able to close the lid on this latest book last night. He knew Sarah would be relieved.
“Thank God,” he said around a yawn, sitting up to rub still-tired hands across his face. “You’re going to have some fence-mending to do, I expect. At this rate, you might not even get a birthday cake.”
Deciding a hot shower was first on his list of priorities, he padded naked to the bathroom as he considered how to make amends to his wife.
He knew he wasn’t really in the doghouse—Sarah was irritated, not angry. She was as eager for their trip to Laurel County tomorrow as he was. They planned to spend a couple of days with Owen’s uncle and aunt, and Owen figured one of the reasons for that was the birthday party he suspected she’d been setting up with his aunt Amy. It’d be his first birthday since they were married, and that fact alone made it special.
While the first months of their marriage hadn’t been easy, what with dealing with Sarah’s grief over losing her niece and nephew earlier that year, they’d been good months. So good, in fact, that Owen still expected to wake up and find everything had all been a dream, that Sarah wasn’t real, that none of this life he was coming to cherish existed outside his dreams.
If that happened, he didn’t know if he’d be able to stand it. With any luck and a lot of effort, that wouldn’t ever happen.
As he toweled off, mentally running through the list of things he needed to do, a familiar scent wafted into the bathroom to tease his nose. Stilling, Owen sniffed, then he inhaled more deeply. “Coffee?”
With the towel wound around his waist, he opened the door and listened. A soft rustling sounded from the bedroom.
“Hello? Sarah? Are you here?”
She met him at the door with a soft smile. “Morning, sleepyhead. I brought you coffee.”
Owen kissed her, distracted as he tried to puzzle out what was going on. “What are you doing here? Is everything okay?”
She bit her lip. “I think so. I’d planned to take half the day off as a surprise, but when I got there, the power was out, so we didn’t open. I went ahead and did the grocery shopping and a couple of other things, then I came home.” She trailed him to the dresser, taking the towel and holding it in front of her as he pulled clothes from the drawers. All the while, she observed him. “That never gets old, you know.”
“What? Watching me?”
She nodded, her cheeks turning a bit pink. Though she was smiling, tension was plain in every line of her body.
Owen decided to play it light. “Yeah, well, you’re the lucky one, I guess. I’m always asleep when you get ready for the day. Most of the time anyhow.” Once he had pants on, he went to her and tossed the towel aside. Wrapping her in a loose embrace, he studied her. “What’s wrong?”
Sarah closed her eyes and laid her cheek against his chest, over his heart. “I wrote you something.”
After a moment, she pulled back with a huff and took an envelope from the back pocket of her jeans, but she didn’t give it to him right away. Instead, she clasped it tightly, biting her lip so hard that Owen winced.
“Here,” she finally said, handing it over. “Read it. Please.”
Mouth dry, Owen took the envelope and moved to the bed, easing onto the side. He had a gut feeling he needed to sit down to find out whatever was going on.
As he carefully split the seal, Sarah crossed her arms and walked to stand in front of the door that opened onto the deck outside the bedroom. He stared at her back, wondering if this was the moment every dream he had would come crashing down around him, and pulled the folded paper from the envelope. Opening it took every bit of mental strength he could muster, and still, for a few seconds, he couldn’t bring himself to look at the words.
When he did, they didn’t make sense. Two words, written in Sarah’s neat and feminine hand. Two words that, yes, completely changed everything, just not in the way he’d been dreading.
Stunned, Owen stared at the paper, barely aware that he was shaking his head with befuddled shock. “You… wha… how?” Memories of one exceptionally torrid, steamy night where things had gotten out of hand a couple of months ago popped into his mind with what he could have sworn was a ding. “Oh.”
Sarah turned, her countenance somber and concerned. “Yes, oh. I’m sorry.”
Owen didn’t know what to say, but he did know what he had to do—if he could get his body to cooperate. He got to his feet, embarrassed to find them a bit weak, and managed to cross the distance between them. Without a word, he folded her into a hug and held on tight, his nerves settling as soon as he felt the realness of her in his arms.
After a brief hesitation, she hugged him back.
“Pregnant. As in… with child. My child. Our child,” he whispered, lifting his face to gaze down at her. He cupped her cheek, pushing back a stray hair. “Are you sure?”
She nodded. “I went to the doctor this morning to find out. Is this… I know this isn’t what we’d planned.”
Solemnly, Owen kissed her forehead. “No, it isn’t. I’m not angry, if that’s what you’re worried about. Are you okay? What’d the doctor say? It’s a boy, right?”
She ducked her head and chuckled. “That, we don’t know. He said I’m fine and that everything looks perfectly normal. I’m about two months along, we think. I’m almost certain that I know when we, uh… when we conceived. I kind of figured we were in trouble as soon as that happened, but it was worth it.” When he laughed, she raised her head, surprised. “What’s funny?”
“We are. And yes—it was worth it. Oh, Sarah Jane,” he whispered before kissing her. “I love you.”
She clung to him as tightly as he was holding her. “You mean that?”
“Yes, I do. All of it—that night being worth this result and that I love you. A baby… I can’t grasp what that means fully. We’re going to be parents.” He was grinning too widely and probably looked like a fool, but he didn’t care. “We’re gonna need a bigger room.”
Sarah laughed softly, and her voice was tight with emotion when she spoke. “Probably, yes. I was so afraid you’d be upset. I know the idea of children scares you a bit.”
He held her close, relishing the feel of her. “No. I couldn’t be happier. How could a baby be a bad thing?” he asked in a whisper. Owen brushed his mouth against hers, then came back for a deeper kiss. “I’d say that’s the best birthday present anyone has ever given me. Hands down, I know it is.”
Her lips curved. “Does that mean my note is going in your box?”
“Oh, yes. One of these days, many years in the future, we’ll look back through that box and fall in love with each other all over again. I can hardly wait.”
“That implies we’re going to fall out of love at some point,” she said, tracing his lower lip with her fingertip, her eyebrows arched.
Owen shook his head and captured her hand, kissing the palm. “Never. Not for the rest of my days and beyond.”
Her smile was beautiful and full of happiness and love. “Sounds good to me.”
~ * * * ~