Cloud cover blanketed the sky and the air held a thickness like rain would be moving in from the lake eventually, but it was holding off for the time being. I parked in the pharmacy parking lot across the street from The Sandwich Shop and got out of my car. I was about to cross the street when I caught a glimpse of something and stopped. Ethan and a young woman I didn’t recognize walked along the sidewalk and stopped between The Sandwich Shop and the neighboring gift store, almost in the alley that separated the two buildings.
The woman looked to be in her mid-twenties and was beautiful. Her honey-blond hair fell just below her shoulders in an elegantly stylish cut and she was almost as tall as Ethan, even in flats. She wore dark tights under a knee length, chocolate brown, wool trench coat, and her lean, athletic-looking body moved gracefully, in a manner that suggested a privileged upbringing.
From their body language, it appeared as though the two of them were having an argument. She shook her hands in frustration at him, and he had his arms crossed and seemed annoyed by whatever she was saying. From a bystander’s observation, it appeared to be a lover’s spat. She had to be a little older than Ethan, but she didn’t really look it, considering he appeared older than a high school student.
I hurried to the far side of my car and ducked down so I could watch them. After a couple more minutes, Ethan pointed to his watch and she turned and strode away from him. He hesitated, and I thought he would let her go, but then he followed her, jogging until he caught up to her and falling in step beside her. He said something to her and she stopped and glared at him. They stared each other down for a moment, then she shook her head in exasperation and they started towards a silver BMW parked down the street.
The woman climbed into the driver’s seat and Ethan got in the passenger side. They drove off together, leaving me completely confused by what I’d just witnessed. I wished I had time to analyze their actions, to come up with the most likely explanation, but I had to meet Mazy and now I was dangerously close to being late.
I quickly crossed over to The Sandwich Shop, walking through the door at 12:58. I scanned the restaurant for someone that looked like a Mazy holding a file folder or briefcase or something, but there were only two other people in the shop. One was an older gentleman having a bowl of soup and reading the Sunday paper, and the other was a middle-aged woman with multiple textbooks spread out on her table.
The Sandwich Shop was an order at the counter style restaurant with a small dining area dotted with wrought-iron tables and chairs and plush sofas pushed against the walls. The smell of fresh baked bread was tempting, but I ordered a medium coffee and a chocolate chip cookie and grabbed a seat near the back of the restaurant.
While I waited, my thoughts drifted to the girl I’d seen with Ethan. The argument they were having had an intimate feel to it. Could she possibly be his sister? I pursed my lips. They didn’t look similar at all. I’d been sure from the way he had talked about her the other night that she was gone, either through some sort of tragedy or a family falling out, and that he hadn’t seen her in a long time. My jaw tightened. If she wasn’t his sister, then who was she? Maybe she was the reason he’d been turning girls down at school, and why he pulled away anytime the two of us seemed to be getting close. But if she was his girlfriend, then what was he doing hanging out with me, going to Katie’s house, and acting concerned about me? I was very confused, which was quickly turning to anger. My fists clenched on the table.
“Hannah?” I nearly fell out of my seat when a short plump woman in her mid-sixties approached me. Her silvery hair was cut into a spiky, yet feminine style, and she wore a pair of tan-colored pants and a turquoise cable knit sweater, with matching chunky beaded jewelry.
I glanced at the zipped-up binder in her hand before forcing myself to look up again and give her a warm smile. “I’m sorry for jumping like that; you caught me deep in thought and I didn’t notice you come in.”
“That’s okay; a good daydream can be worth a thousand realities, can’t it?” Mazy sat down across from me.
“Definitely,” I agreed. “Can I get you a cup of coffee or anything?” She was meeting me as a favor, and I wanted her to know how much I appreciated it.
“Actually, I would take a peppermint tea, no sugar or milk, if you wouldn’t mind,” she said. I nodded and went to the counter to place her order.
Once I handed her the beverage, we settled in, exchanging polite chitchat about the changing leaves and autumn weather, her drive from Hartford, and the charm of East Halton. I tried to be patient, but I was getting anxious.
Finally she reached under the table for the binder at her feet. “I guess we aren’t here for small talk, are we?” She laid it on the table and began to un-zip it, then stopped.
“I think it would be helpful for you to have some of the back story on The Crestwood Adoption Agency and my involvement with them, before I show you what I’ve discovered.”
“I appreciate anything you can tell me about the Agency. I wasn’t able to find very much on the Internet, especially since my father couldn’t give me much to go on.”
“I’m not surprised. The Crestwood Adoption Agency was an incredibly secretive organization specializing in ultra-anonymous adoptions. Many of the people that put their children up for adoption with them were from powerful families who would have been publicly disgraced by an illegitimate pregnancy. As such, pseudonyms and falsified information were normal and expected.”
My eyes widened.
Mazy clucked her tongue. “It sounds terrible, I know, but they did have incredibly high standards as to who the recipients of these children would be. Both adoptive parents had to be highly educated, from well-to-do families that could provide a stable family life both financially and socially. Candidates had to go through extensive screening, from the most intimate psychological evaluations, to providing copies of family histories going back at least four generations on both the mother’s and father’s sides, including any medical history they could find on each family member. That way, if any children did track down their biological parents one day, they would have access to any medical or genetic information they might need, and know that they had been provided a similar upbringing to the one they would have had with their birth parents.
“I had my reservations about working for a place that catered to those types of families, and the ethics of it all, but if I’m going to be honest, they paid very well and I knew that the children were ending up in good families so I went along with it.
“No one will say for sure why the agency shut down, although I’ve always suspected it had something to do with one of the adoptions, and extreme paranoia on the part of the family—obviously an extremely powerful one—involved. When a fire ripped through the storage facility where the agency’s legal documents were being held soon after that, well, I feel like my suspicions were more than confirmed.
“My superiors never knew I kept some files. I think part of me wanted to be able to do what I’m doing right now: Give deserving children a chance to know where they really came from, as convoluted as the information might be to sort through.” Mazy took a sip of her tea, while I sat there with my mouth open, speechless.
My adoption had been set up by some sort of crazy secret adoption agency, and chances were that I had been given up by some wealthy powerful family that didn’t want the embarrassment of my existence being discovered by the public? How could my parents have kept something like that from me all these years? Why wouldn’t Dad have tried to prepare me for this sort of news? He had to know that, at some point in my life, I was going to want to look for my biological parents. Maybe he’d believed that I would just keep hitting dead ends and eventually give up. Had he been lying about my adoption files getting destroyed in an attempt to keep the truth from me? Is that why he had possibly been snooping through my emails? To make sure I wasn’t getting too close to the truth? I tried to put that out of my mind. For the sake of our relationship, I had to believe my Dad wouldn’t do that to me.
“Did you tell all of this to Josie?” Why wouldn’t she have shared such surreal information with me when we’d spoken?
“No, her adoption was fairly straightforward. There was no need to get into the dirty details with her, which leads us to what I found out about you. I searched through the files from around the time you would have been adopted, and I found one file that, well, it will probably give you more questions than answers, but I figured you had a right to look at it.” Mazy finished unzipping the binder and handed the file over for me to read.
“This is the adoption record for an Annie Serton, given up by parents Leesa Serton and Moses Canter to a Rick and Juliette Wright, address is listed as unknown, simply in the state of Connecticut. I realize that none of this information matches exactly what you gave me, but if you look at the names of your adoptive parents, and your first name, it is likely a case of pseudonyms being used. The other thing that makes me think this file could be for you is that your birthday matches, down to the year, and that is the only match I have for you in all of my files.”
I looked over the file I was holding. The pages had yellowed a little with age and smelled a bit musty. I stared at the words, trying to take it all in and make sense of what she was telling me. “So, you think my real name is Annie?” I tried to think of myself as an Annie, but it felt strange.
“No, I think your name has always been Hannah, but your biological parents listed you as Annie to try and conceal your real identity. When pseudonyms were being used, it was a common practice of Crestwood to make them similar to the actual names of the parties involved. That way, if the adopted child ever did discover the file and make the connection to him or herself, the pseudonyms could be explained as typos or misheard information, such as Annie and Hannah.” Mazy hesitated then drew in a deep breath. “I should tell you, there is one piece of information in the file that makes it seem unlikely it actually is your adoption record.”
“Annie Serton is dead,” I declared, looking up from the pages in the file. “It says that she died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome just before she was supposed to be adopted; this is an inactive file.” I had just noticed the faded stamp at the top right corner of each page noting that the adoption had been cancelled.
Mazy took another sip of tea, and set her cup down gingerly. “I know this doesn’t make a lot of sense, but I don’t think you should rule anything out yet. The names are too similar to dismiss the birthday as coincidence. The reason that I think this file has credibility is from experience. It was very rare for an adoption to be cancelled in this way; actually, I can only remember one other case with those circumstances, a baby boy whose adoption had been set up by the Crestwood Adoption Agency but who died just before the adoption went through.” Mazy leaned in closer to me, and lowered her voice. “But here’s the thing. He didn’t die. The nature of the adoption was so sensitive, and the desire to obscure the path of the baby to the biological parents was so great, that a lie was created. No one would think to link a baby that had died to a person who was looking for their biological parents, and yet, if it became absolutely necessary, the truth could be revealed and chalked up to a clerical error of miscoding the file.”
I thought about her words. Mazy sounded convinced that the same thing that had happened to that little boy had happened to me as well. What could my heritage possibly be, if my real parents were willing to lie and say I had died as a baby, just so I would never find them?
“This all sounds insane.” I sagged against the back of my chair. I pushed the folder across the table towards Mazy, trying to create physical space between me and the bizarre information it contained.
Mazy nodded. “I know.” She looked down at the papers in the file and then back at me, her expression full of sympathy. “I wish I could definitively tell you whether this file is yours or not; unfortunately there was no other information in any of my files. I know it all sounds strange, and completely unbelievable, but I think that this file for Annie Serton is yours. Your adoptive parents’ first names are almost an exact match. Normally they would have changed them a bit more, but I think since they made the last names a play on the words read and write they weren’t that concerned. If you add that to the matching birth date, I think it’s pretty safe to say your biological parents’ names are some version of Leesa Serton and
Moses Cantor.” She leaned back and rested her hands on the table.
“If they are my parents, how am I supposed to find them if they didn’t use their real names?” I threw my hands in the air in frustration.
“I’m not sure, dear. I’m sorry that I’m not able to give you more helpful information. I have to admit that there are usually more clues to make the real information somewhat discernible, but your file is very thin, basically the minimum amount required from both sides to process an adoption. At least you have a direction to start off in now. You know that your parents’ biological names are probably very similar to these, and you might be able to come up with a combination of similar-sounding names of distinguished families on the Internet,” Mazy suggested.
“Wait, did the adoptive parents know the circumstances behind these adoptions, or did they just believe they were getting normal children?” I needed to know just how much my father and mother had been keeping from me about my birth parents.
“The adoptive parents were usually aware that these children were from extraordinary families, but not much more than that. It’s very likely your parents don’t know who your biological parents are, only that they were from a wealthy family trying to avoid some sort of scandal. The fact that your parents haven’t told you much probably means they were trying to protect you from all of this madness. I’m sure they had the very best intentions.” Mazy’s nose wrinkled. I nodded slowly, knowing she was trying to be helpful.
I turned back to my coffee, trying to convince myself that Mazy was right; my parents would only ever do what they thought was best for me. Still, the truth was hard to accept.
Mazy left shortly after. I remained in my seat, the file still on the table in front of me. I studied the closed folder for a few minutes, not sure I wanted to look at it again, before I finally reached for it with a sigh.
If I was the dead but not dead Annie Serton, what did that mean? I wasn’t any closer to finding the truth. All I’d done was confirm that my adoption was anything but normal and there was a good chance my father knew more about it than he had let on. And if my birth parents had faked my death on paper to keep me, or anyone else, from tracing an adoption back to them, how happy would they be if I was able to find them?
One thing seemed certain: whoever Leesa and Moses were, they hadn’t put me up for adoption because they didn’t have the means to take care of me themselves, but because they couldn’t be bothered with me. That was the hardest part to accept, that I had clearly been unwanted. I felt a little sick to my stomach, and I almost threw the file in the trashcan, leaving the whole matter settled at The Sandwich Shop.
If my parents had gone to so much trouble to make sure I wouldn’t find them, fine, I wouldn’t bother looking. Richard and Julia Reed had been the best parents anyone could ever hope to have anyway. I held it over the bin for a moment then changed my mind. I was going to stop my search for now, but there was a chance that sometime in the future I’d want to start it up again. At the moment, this was all too strange for me to deal with.
It had started to rain while Mazy and I had been talking, a cold October rain, and I ran to my car with the file tucked under my jacket to keep it dry. Even with the rain pounding down on the car and the windshield wipers at full speed I wasn’t in a hurry to get home. I wasn’t sure how I was going to face my dad. He was probably the one person I could get more information from, but if he had been unwilling to tell me anything before, I didn’t know what he would do when he found out what I’d learned. Part of me was worried that if I did confront him, he still wouldn’t tell me the truth.
I pulled into the driveway and headed into the house. I’d stopped off at the grocery store and picked up some chicken and the oil I needed for dinner, to keep with the story I had told Dad, and to buy myself some time. The rain teemed down and in the time it took me to run from the car to the house with the food I was soaked. I put the groceries in the fridge and then trudged up the stairs to my
room to change.
Thankfully, there wasn’t a sound from Dad’s office so he must have gone already. Once I had dry clothes on and had run a towel over my hair, I flopped down on my stomach on the bed and studied the file. The third time going through, I noticed one thing I hadn’t before: the supposed date of the baby’s death. It was the same day that I had come to live with my parents. Through the years I’d asked for details about my adoption, and although they hadn’t told me much, my parents did share the day that I had come to live with them, March twenty-first, the first day of spring. I always remembered that because Mom had said spring was about new beginnings, and I was their new beginning. Could that be another connection between Annie Serton and me?
Something else Mazy had mentioned wasn’t sitting completely right with me though: her description of the prospective adoptive parents. My parents were amazing people; they were both educated, and financially doing okay, but they weren’t rich, and they hadn’t come from prestigious backgrounds. My mother’s parents had been immigrants from Scotland that had led very ordinary lives; my grandfather was a police officer and my grandmother a secretary in a doctor’s office. My father’s parents had a similar story; they had owned a third generation butcher shop, and had worked incredibly hard to put my father through school. They were all individuals that I loved and admired, but I couldn’t see how they provided the lineage required to become adoptive parents through Crestwood. Maybe Mazy had been exaggerating, I couldn’t be sure, so best not to dwell on it.
As I looked around my room, trying to find the most secure place to hide the file folder, my cell phone rang. I wasn’t in the mood to talk to anyone, but curiosity got the best of me and I reached over and grabbed the phone.
“How did it go?” Katie asked.
I wasn’t sure whether I should laugh or cry at her question, as I settled back down on my bed to talk.
Should I give her all the details Mazy had shared with me? Katie would love all the drama, but for some reason I hesitated. “Mazy was really nice, but unfortunately there wasn’t a lot to tell. Adoptions are set up with so many layers of anonymity that she couldn’t even tell me my parents’ real names.” I decided to leave out the pseudonyms and faked death stuff.
“So she couldn’t give you anything concrete to go on?” Katie sounded disappointed.
“Not really. She did suggest a direction for me to go that might lead to me discovering my birth parents’ names. I’m still deciding whether I want to keep going down that trail.” I sighed as my fingers ran over the aged file folder in my hands.
“Well, I’ll help you look if you decide you want to.”
“Thanks, that’s good to know. At the moment though, I’m thinking of putting it off. From what Mazy told me, it sounds like I really wasn’t wanted by my birth parents.” Katie was the only one I would ever admit that to.
“If they knew you, there is no way they wouldn’t want you. Don’t worry about that. And besides, there’s someone else that you are very much wanted by.” Katie’s voice was layered with mischief.
I’d completely forgotten about the encounter I’d witnessed between Ethan and the mystery girl. When Katie brought him up, the image of him arguing with the blond beauty came flooding back, adding to all the confusion and frustration in my mind.
“Katie, we’re just friends. He does not see me that way, and that’s that. It’s not worth talking about anymore, okay?” My voice carried more force than I’d intended, and the silence that followed my statement let me know I’d hurt her.
“Whatever you want,” she muttered on the other end of the line.
“Look, the stuff with Mazy was disappointing, and I’m just in a weird mood. I’m sorry I took it out on you. Tell me something good that’s going on with you; cheer me up a bit.” Bringing the conversation back to Katie was always the fastest way to jostle her out of being wounded.
It took a while, but soon she was talking a mile a minute again, about Luke, movies and other random topics. It was nice to just listen to Katie; it felt familiar and normal, and with all the unanswered questions starting to pile up in the other areas of my life, normal was exactly what I needed.
When I got off the phone, I hid the file in my closet so Dad wouldn’t stumble across it, and grabbed my biology textbook to do some reading. The front door opened just before nine, and I turned off my light and pretended to be asleep. I needed a little time to figure out what I would say to Dad if I got up the nerve to confront him. And with his trip to Oxford coming up quickly, a little time was all I had.