I found it while I was up in our dusty old attic. It was discarded on the floor, wedged between two cardboard boxes that no-one had touched in years, covered in dust, forgotten. I bent down and picked it up, brushing away the dirt on it with my sleeve. It was a piece of paper, a drawing, obviously made by a very young child; a few stick-people, roughly-drawn trees, a smiling sun. I smiled to myself – this was probably something that I’d drawn when I was younger. My mum must have decided to keep it, and it ended up getting lost up here.
I flipped the piece of paper over – and froze. I frowned in confusion. Written in huge, wobbly, childlike letters were the words “By Emily, age 5”.
Emily. Who was Emily? I didn’t know an Emily… so if this drawing wasn’t mine after all, what was it doing here?
I tucked the picture under my arm, deciding to ask Mum about it. Then I grabbed a blue folder – which was what I Mum had sent me up here to find – switched off the dim lights in the attic, and quickly climbed down the stepladder to the first floor.
I made my way downstairs to the kitchen, where Mum was waiting for me. She smiled. “Oh, you found it, thanks sweetie,” she said, taking the folder from me.
“Mum, look,” I said, holding up the drawing. “I found this.”
I have no idea how I expected her to react. But I certainly didn’t expect her to react the way she did.
All the blood drained from her face, leaving her white as paper. The folder dropped onto the floor with a clatter from her limp hands. For a moment I thought she was about to faint, and I started forwards. “Mum, what’s wrong?”
“Where did you find that?” she asked in a whisper.
“Up in the attic. Mum, what’s going on?”
She didn’t answer, just stared at me and at the drawing. I couldn’t decipher the expression in her wide eyes – fear? Anger? Grief? A mixture of all three? She was starting to scare me. I’d never seen her like this before.
“Who’s Emily?” I asked.
“No-one,” said Mum, still in that whisper. “She’s no-one, Alice.”
“I said she’s no-one!” She lunged forwards and snatched the paper out of my hand. “Forget this. Forget Emily. Please?”
There was such despair in her expression that I had no choice but to agree. But I knew there was no way I could forget this. What was Mum hiding from me?
Over the next few days I tried to forget what had happened, but the drawing and Emily and Mum’s reaction stayed at the back of my mind, no matter what I did. I had to know what was going on. I thought about asking Mum again, but I didn’t want a repeat of what she’d acted like before. So I decided I had to ask someone else.
Dad was away on a business trip, so I couldn’t ask him. My grandad – he might know about this. Yes, he and Mum were close – if there was something she was hiding, he’d probably know. So one day, after school, instead of taking the bus home, I took the bus to my grandad’s house.
He looked surprised when he answered the door, but pleased to see me. “Alice, what a lovely surprise, come in,” he said, ushering me inside. “Is everything all right? Does your mum know you’re here?”
“No, she doesn’t,” I replied as we entered the living room. I cleared my throat. “I… I just wanted to ask you something.”
“Of course.” We sat down on the sofa. “What is it, Alice?”
I hesitated. Grandad was looking at me anxiously, his kind, wrinkled face frowning in worry. I’d always felt I could trust him, but right now I was unsure where to start. Haltingly, I started telling him what had happened, how I’d found the picture with the name on the back, and how my mum had reacted.
He was silent for a moment when I’d finished. Then he sighed and rubbed his face wearily. “Well, you were always going to find out eventually. We couldn’t keep it from you forever.”
“Keep what from me?” I asked impatiently.
He looked me straight in the eye. And then he said it. “Emily was your sister, Alice.”
“My… sister?” I stared at him in disbelief. “But I don’t have a sister. I’ve never had a sister.”
“You did, a long time ago. You had an older sister, at least for a short while.” He sighed heavily. “She died when she was six years old. A car accident. You were just a baby – it’s normal you can’t remember her, and your parents decided it was best not to tell you anything.”
“But…” My mind was spinning. I couldn’t believe this. How could my parents have kept something like this from me for so long?
He seemed to guess my thoughts. “Don’t be angry at your mum and dad. When Emily died, they were almost driven mad by grief. They decided it was better to just… forget her. Get rid of all her things, pretend they only ever had one daughter. That drawing you found is probably the only reminder of Emily that survived.”
I stared down at my hands. They were clenched together in front of me, knuckles white. I tried to imagine what it must have been like to lose a child. “It must have been awful for them,” I said quietly.
Grandad sighed. “It was, for all of us,” he said. “Your mother often told me that the only reason she kept going was because she still had to look after you. And she and your father got divorced a few months after it all happened. Emily’s death split the family apart.” He looked at me, and I thought he looked older than usual. “You’re lucky you can’t remember it, Alice. You’re lucky.”
I still couldn’t quite get my head around it. I’d had a sister. My parents had been keeping this from me all my life. Why hadn’t they ever told me? I could understand them not wanting to tell me while I was younger, but I was fifteen years old. Didn’t they think I could handle it?
“Wait here a moment,” said Grandad, standing up. He left the room, returning a few minutes later holding a piece of paper. He handed it to me, and I saw that it was actually an old photograph, worn and faded. I could see my mum and dad in it, both looking much younger than I ever remembered seeing them. My dad was holding a chubby baby, who I guessed was me as an infant. And there was someone else in the photo; a little girl of around five or six, with round cheeks and fluffy blonde curls, wearing a pink dress and holding my mum’s hand.
“That’s her,” said Grandad, pointing at the little girl. “That’s Emily. I managed to keep this photograph when your parents got rid of everything.” There was a deep sadness in his eyes as he looked down at the photo. “She was the most amazing kid. Kind, sweet, quiet, always cheerful. Always had a smile on her face, no matter what. And she loved wearing dresses and dancing, pretending she was a fairy or a princess.”
A sudden memory resurfaced; when I was younger, my mum always wanted me to wear skirts and dresses, and she signed me up for dance lessons for a couple of terms. I’d resisted: I was always a tomboy who preferred to wear trousers and run around in muddy fields, and I hated anything girly. I remembered overhearing my mum and dad as they sat on the sofa one day, talking quietly together. “She’s not her, Sophie,” my dad was saying gently. “She’ll never be her. You just have to accept it.” They both looked like they were about to cry. My mum hadn’t tried to get me to be girly again after that. Somehow I’d forgotten that memory, but now here it was, clear as day; and I knew that they’d been talking about Emily.
I looked down at the photo again, at the happy, smiling family. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the curly-haired little girl who had been my sister. What would she be like now if she hadn’t died? It was impossible to imagine.
My Grandad broke my thoughts. “You should get home to your mum. She’ll be wondering what happened to you.”
I handed him the photograph back, and he walked me to the front door. As I was leaving, he called me back. “Oh, and Alice? Don’t tell your mum that I told you all this. She’ll want to tell you herself when she’s ready.”
I nodded, and left. I still felt like I was in shock. I couldn’t wrap my brain around the fact that my parents had hidden something so huge from me for my whole life. I wanted to be angry at them for keeping it from me, but I knew that that wasn’t fair; I could imagine how painful it must have been for them to lose a child. Could I really blame them?
As I made my way home I wondered how I was going to be able to look my parents in the eye now that I knew this about their past. One thing was for certain – I would never be able to think about my past in the same way again.
Well, hope you enjoyed this short story. I'd really appreciate comments about it, I want to hear your thoughts!