Cheers erupted all around as graduates threw their caps into the air. Katarina smiled, looking up at the cloudless sky and the falling rain of caps, still clasping her own in her hands.
For you, Mom.
She tossed her cap into the air, along with her thoughts. The mingled shouts from the crowd and graduates calmed as families and friends found their way to one another. It was a beautiful day, the air dry and warm.
Katarina wished her mother were there to see her fulfill her last wishes, but she’d lost her to cancer two years ago. “Katarina, you will graduate.” Her mother’s southern-accented voice played over in her head. Katarina had demanded that she be allowed to leave school to take care of her, but as usual, her mother refused to accept any help. She was very much like Sandra Andersen, stubborn and independent. “You’ve worked so hard and you’re very smart. My only wishes for you, my darling, are that you’ll be the first in my family to graduate college and that you’ll be happy. I won’t be here much longer, and I know you’ll take my death hard, but you can’t let this stop you from living.”
Katarina wiped away a tear at that memory. She knew her mother would’ve been proud of her, but now she was alone in the world, no family to call her own. Her father, whomever he was, had never been in her life. Her mother had refused to talk about him. After her mother died, Katarina had considered searching him out, but put it off to focus on her studies. Now, with one of her mother’s wishes carried out, the only thing left to do was be happy.
She laughed to herself. Happiness. Katarina should be happy in that moment, but finding her father and dragging him over the coals for being an asshole absent father wouldn’t leave her mind. Her mother had struggled, raising her while working two jobs. It wasn’t until Katarina was in high school that her mother informed Katarina she’d been putting aside most of the money she made to ensure a few years of her college education would be paid for.
“Kat,” a familiar voice called out, dragging her out of her thoughts.
Katarina turned toward her, and shouted, “Mary, we did it!”
Mary had been her childhood friend and they’d continued their friendship through college. It seemed very likely their friendship would last for the rest of their lives. They’d worked so hard to be here today and Mary had a bright smile on her face.
Mary wound her way through the crowd, barely avoiding colliding with other students who were hurrying off to see their loved ones. She finally stood before her, breathless. “Kat, I can’t believe it.” She shook her head, her blond hair moving across her shoulders. “It almost doesn’t seem real.” She beamed.
“I know.” Katarina looked around for any familiar faces in the crowd. “Is your family here? We should probably go find them.” The crowd was already thinning out, some people were taking photos, but most were making their way back to their cars.
“Mary, over here.” Mary’s mother, father, and brother were waving her over from the white gates that surrounded the center of the quad. Her dad was smiling brightly, full of pride.
“Dad! Mom!” Mary took off towards them, making her way through the rows of white chairs set out for the ceremony. Her dad pushed the gate aside and made his way over to meet his daughter.
She ran into his waiting arms. “I did it, Dad!”
“You sure did, Mar. Another Wolf Pack alumni in the family.” He pulled away from Mary and looked at his son. “We’re just waiting on you, now.”
Brian sighed. “Yeah, yeah, Dad. I decided to give Mar a head start, that’s all.” He ruffled Mary’s hair.
Mary laughed and shoved him away.
“Enough. You’re messing up her hair.” Her mom stepped up and embraced Mary. “We’re so proud of you, honey.”
Katarina looked on, feeling like an outsider for a moment, a dull ache spreading in her chest, sapping away her joy and sense of accomplishment. She’d been telling herself it had started as she was getting ready today, but who was she kidding? It had been there since her mother passed away.
“Katarina.” She jumped and looked at Mary’s mom. “We’re proud of you too, honey. Come over here.” Margerie spread her arms open and Katarina carefully walked into her embrace. Her warmth surrounded Katarina, and her vision started to swim. “I know you think your mom isn’t here to see you graduate, but she’s watching over you and is so proud.”
“Thanks Mrs. Whalen. That means a lot.” She stepped away and dabbed her eyes, making sure not to smear her make-up.
Margerie was like a second mother to Katarina. Her mom and Mary’s had worked together at an engineering firm in town. With young girls the same age, the two of them had playdates almost every weekend. When her mom died when Katarina was nineteen, her parents had tried to talk her into moving in with Mary, but she couldn’t bring herself to sell the house where she grew up.
A few days after her death, Katarina got a visit from a lawyer who explained the house was paid for, and on top of that, her mom had a trust fund set up for her. She knew her mother had worked two jobs for most of Katarina’s childhood, but the amount of money in the fund was staggering. Katarina had no idea where her mother had gotten that kind of money. It was another mystery she longed to solve. The lawyer had also said she wouldn’t have to work while she went to college. So instead of her moving in with Mary, Katarina asked her friend to be her roommate. Mary agreed, of course. It meant having a rent-free place to stay while attending college, and that had probably been a deciding factor for her even if they were friends as well. Katarina was just happy not to be alone in her mother’s house.
“I know you girls are planning a celebratory breakfast in the morning, but why don’t you join us for dinner as well? Katarina, will you join us?” Mary’s father offered. He placed his warm hand on her shoulder, smiling down at her. “You know Mary wouldn’t have graduated with honors if it wasn’t for you.”
“Dad.” Mary playfully swatted her dad and he just laughed. “Anyways.” She lengthened the word, something she always did when she was embarrassed. “Say yes, Kat.”
“I don’t know, Mr. and Mrs. Whalen.” She hadn’t met Mary’s extended family, and she did want to see if her quirky traits were hereditary or if she was truly one of a kind, but Katarina didn’t want to impose. “I’ve been fighting a headache most of the day and thought I’d go to bed early.” She hated lying to her friend and her family, but Katarina had plans she needed to see through.
She felt an unwanted arm snake around her shoulders, and she willed herself not to tense. If Brian could only be happy with their current friendship, rather than wanting more, she wouldn’t feel so uncomfortable by his gesture. “You’re my little sis’s best friend,” Brian said with a laugh. “Come on. I guarantee great food and drinks.”
Katarina looked up at his smiling face and felt a twinge of guilt. “I’m sorry, but I’m not feeling up to it tonight. We can get together to celebrate some other time. I need to get some rest.”
Brian’s smile diminished slightly, but he nodded. “Okay. I understand. You guys have been so stressed the past few weeks. It’s no wonder you’d want some quiet time.”
“You sure, Kat?” Mary asked, looking at her with some suspicion. She’d told her friend about her plans to search for her father months ago and had promised to wait for Mary before Katarina started searching through her mother’s belongings.
“I’m sure.” Katarina rubbed her temple to underline her story about having a headache. “I’ll probably crash as soon as I get home.”
“Okay.” Mary shrugged. Turning to her mother, she said, “Can we go? I’m starving.” Katarina breathed a sigh of relief. She was glad Mary believed her lie, even though the guilt was already starting to eat at her. Katarina didn’t want anyone to witness her breakdown as she combed through her mother’s things.
She walked with them to the parking lot on the other side of campus, enjoying the time with her best friend and her family since she’d be missing out on the celebration later. This will be the last time I climb this hill. The nostalgic thought was cut off by the constant chatter in her ear. Mary talked about where they were going to eat, who was meeting them there, and her future plans, not really expecting a response. That was how it had always been between them. Katarina had never been much of a talker, but listening to Mary had always calmed her and taken her mind off her troubles.
At her small, two-door Honda Civic, Mary turned and said, “I’ll see you tomorrow, Kat.” She squinted at her with just a hint of playful menace and warning. “Don’t start anything without me.”
Katarina hugged Mary’s family and tried to ignore the huge smile on Mrs. Whalen’s face as she hugged Brian. Mary’s mom had always played matchmaker between the two of them, but he was nothing more than her best friend’s brother. Yes, even though Mary swore he liked Katarina.
After saying goodbye, Katarina drove home on autopilot. In her driveway, she got out of the car and locked it, looking at the house longingly before she turned back to the road. Walking down the driveway, she retrieved the mail even though the exhausted part of her just wanted to go inside and climb into bed.
Once inside, she stepped out of her heels and sighed with relief. Locking the door behind her, she stood there in the silence of her house, wishing to hear her mother’s voice calling out to her and asking about her day. The silence was deafening. She shook her head and placed the stack of likely bills and junk mail onto the counter. She could look through them later. There were more important things to do.
Katarina quickly changed into some lounge pants and a tank top, then made her way into the closed off room at the end of the hall. Her mother’s office. With her hand on the doorknob, she braced herself for memories to overwhelm her.
The smell of dust assaulted her senses when she opened the door, but under all of that there was a hint of lingering citrus. Katarina closed her eyes and imagined being hugged by her mother again and inhaling the scent of her perfume. She blinked her eyes several times to prevent any tears from falling. It was no time to cry, she needed to do what she’d come here for.
Flicking on the lights, she scanned the room, trying to figure out where to begin. There was a large bookcase on the right side, it’s shelves full of mystery, romance, and fantasy novels, the old textbooks her mother had used when she had gone to college still right where she’d left them. A small pang of guilt ran through her at the sight of them. Her mother had dropped out of college when she became pregnant and talked about going back after Katarina finished her own degree. Katarina remembered trying to talk her into taking a few classes once she finished high school, but her mother refused. She’d always been stressed over their finances.
She tore her eyes away from the shelf and focused on the center point of the room, her mother’s desk. It was a large, dark wood monstrosity her mother had found at a garage sale a decade ago. It had been beat to hell when she found it, but she spent days in the garage restoring it, sanding and staining the desk to give it new life. Katarina ran her fingers over the desktop, creating streaks through the dust. Wiping it off on her pants, she walked behind the desk and sat down in the creaky leather chair behind it.
Looking around from her new perspective, her eyes landed on a photo of the two of them placed on the corner of the desk. Her mother’s arm was around Katarina’s shoulders and they were both smiling broadly. They’d gone up to Lake Tahoe to ski. Windburned and exhausted, but happy to complete one of the hardest slopes either of them had ever tried in the past. Her mother had sweet-talked one of the Lodge’s employees into snapping the picture when they returned. That’d been two months before she’d been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Focus, Kat. If she kept falling into memories, she wouldn’t find anything of use. She opened the top-center drawer and rifled through pens, erasers, and loose papers. Only office supplies seemed to have been stored there. After the same luck with two of the other drawers, she ran into her first roadblock. The bottom right drawer was locked. After tugging on it, to no avail, Katarina ran into the kitchen and opened the junk drawer. She’d seen a set of keys on a ring that her mother kept there. After a few minutes of searching, her fingers gripped the hard metal of several keys on a ring.
Back in the office, she tried the first couple with no luck. She disregarded three of the larger keys and then finally found a smaller key that could’ve been for a desk. The key slid into the lock but refused to turn. After a few jiggles, she felt the key finally slide home and allow her to click open the lock. Katarina’s heart was racing. What had her mother locked away from her? The only thing her mother refused to speak to her about was her father, so could the only locked drawer in their house have something about him in it?
She tried to get her racing brain under control and not to get her hopes up. Opening the drawer, her shoulder’s drooped. It was empty. She reached all the way back to be sure but didn’t feel anything in there. As she was shutting it, she heard something metal sliding against wood. Pausing, she leaned down and opened the drawer once more. There it was again, something was sliding. It sounded like a pen or some other metal object moving along the bottom of the drawer.
Katarina pulled the entire drawer out of its spot and placed it on the desktop. Then she used the light of her phone to inspect the empty space where the drawer had been, searching the sides and bottom panel, but found nothing. She focused back on the drawer itself. Picking it up, she shook it. The shifting noise was even louder now. Not only was there the small metal sound, now it seemed there was something softer in there as well.
Katarina looked inside the empty drawer, trying to see if there was a false bottom. She ran her fingers along the edges, but found no way to open it, if it could even be opened. She flipped the drawer over and froze at what she found.
A small shallow box was affixed to the bottom of the drawer. Katarina sat back in the chair and stared at it for what felt like an eternity. It could’ve been put there by the previous owner. Perhaps it had nothing to do with her mother. She shook her head. Her mother had taken the desk apart when she was refinishing it. She would’ve found anything suspicious like that, but would she have used it to hide something of her own?
Katarina reached out with a shaky hand and slid the cover off the small box. There were several folded papers and what looked like a photograph. When she grabbed the stack of papers, a ring fell out of them and clanged at the bottom of the box. She set the papers down and picked the object up. It was a small gold engagement band with what looked like a diamond attached. She carefully picked it up, pinching the metal between her fingertips and bringing it closer to her face.
Turning on her phone’s flashlight again, she examined the ring with more care, looking to see if there were any engravings or identifiers on it. The only symbol she could find was a 24k marked inside the band. Katarina knew nothing about rings, and even less about diamonds. It could be worth a hundred bucks or a few thousand. That wasn’t what had her stumped. Why did her mother have an engagement ring? Had someone proposed to her or was it a family heirloom?
It was more likely to have been given to her by someone other than family. Why else would she have hidden it away? Maybe in case they were ever robbed? Katarina gently put the jewelry down on the desk next to the papers she’d set aside to look at the ring. Perhaps those documents could shed some light on the jewelry.
She grabbed the top one and opened it to see it was a letter. There was no date written and the deep wear on the creases showed it had been opened and folded back up many, many times. It had even started to separate at one of the folded sides.
I’ve missed your smiling face these past weeks. I cannot wait until I have you in my arms once again. It has been busy for me here, but the time seems to drag without you by my side. I’ll be back at the beginning of next month and hope we can meet up again. I have some news to share with you. I know you needed to think about my proposal. I won’t rush you, but I think you could be happy here. With me. I want to give you the world.
Petyr? She’d never heard her mother speak that name before. Could he be her father? Or did her mother have another suitor Katarina was unaware of? She reached for the other letters to find them much like the first, but with no mention of any proposal. This Petyr seemed to be trying to talk her mother into moving in with him, wherever he was. He never mentioned what he did for work, only that he was very busy, and he missed her. The letters didn’t seem to be in any kind of order. Then she finally came across a letter that still had its envelope. There was no sender information on it, but it was postmarked in Las Vegas, Nevada and sent to a Sandra Moore at an address in Sacramento. Moore? Their name was Andersen. Wasn’t it?
Katarina sighed loudly. Every time she thought she was getting closer to finding the identity of her father, more questions arose. Now she questioned her mother’s identity. She opened the envelope to read more ‘I miss you’ and talk about the future. She wished she could read her mother’s responses.
Finally, in the last of the letters, Katarina found mention of her mother’s classes in college. That was the first time she was able to give a date to the letters in relation to her mother’s life. Her mother got pregnant with Katarina while she was in college. There was a decent chance, in her mind, that Petyr could be her father. And at that time, he lived in Vegas.
Before going to get her computer, she decided to make sure she’d seen everything the mystery box had to offer. There was a photo lying face down with her mother’s writing on the back. Katarina lifted it out of the box and came face to face with her mother. The image swam in Katarina’s eyes as tears filled her vision. She closed them and took several deep breaths. When she could finally open them and see the picture clearly, she saw that her mom was being held in the arms of a man a foot taller than her with dark hair cut short to his scalp. He was handsome and her mother looked so happy. Katarina’s heart hurt.
She reluctantly turned the photo over to see the handwriting on the back. Sandra and Petyr 1995. The photo was taken some time in the year before Katarina had been born.