Excerpted from The Hidden Child by Camilla Lackberg. Copyright © 2014 by Camilla Lackberg. Reprinted by arrangement with Pegasus Books. All rights reserved.
All summer Erica had tiptoed around the issue that constantly occupied her thoughts. She had weighed the pros and cons, decided to go up to the attic, but she had never gotten any far- ther than the stairs. She could blame it on the fact that there had been a lot to do over the past few months. The aftermath of the wedding, the chaos at home while Anna and the children were still living with them. But that was only part of the truth. She was quite simply afraid. Afraid of what she might find. Afraid of rooting around in something that might bring things to the surface that she would rather not know about.
Erica knew that Patrik had been on the verge of asking her several times. She could see that he was wondering why she didn’t want to read the books they had found in the attic. But he hadn’t asked. And she wouldn’t have had an answer to give him. What frightened her most was the idea that she might have to revise her picture of reality. The picture she had of her mother, who her mother was and how she had treated her daughter, was less than positive. But it belonged to her. It was familiar. It was a picture that had stood the test of time, like an irrefutable truth, a part of her life. Perhaps it would be confirmed. Perhaps it would even be reinforced. But what if it was turned upsidedown? What if she had to come to terms with an entirely new reality? Until now, she had lacked the courage to take that step. Erica placed her foot on the first stair. From downstairs in the living room she could hear Maja’s joyous laughter as Patrik teased her. The sound was reassuring, and she placed her foot on the next stair. Five more and she had reached the top. The dust whirled around in the air as she pushed open the hatch and climbed into the attic. She and Patrik had talked about remodeling it at some point in the future, perhaps as a den for Maja when she was older and wanted her own space. But at the moment it was just a storage area, with wide wooden planks on the floor and a sloping roof with exposed beams. It was half full of clutter: Christmas decorations, clothes Maja had already outgrown, various boxes crammed with things that were too ugly to put on display but too valuable or too imprinted withmemories to be thrown away. The chest was right at the far end. It was old, made of woodand metal. Erica had an idea that this kind of thing was called an American trunk. She went over and sat down on the floor. Ran her hand over the chest. She took a deep breath, then lifted the lid. A musty smell rushed toward her, and she wrinkled her nose. She wondered what it was that created that characteristic, heavy smell of age. Probably mold, she thought, and immediately her scalp began to itch.
She could still remember the feeling when she and Patrik had discovered the chest and gone through the contents. Slowly she had lifted out one object after another. Drawings she and Anna had done. Small trinkets they had made in craft lessons at school. Saved by their mother, Elsy, the mother who had never shown any interest when they came rushing up to give her the things into which they had put so much effort. Erica carefully took out one item after another and placed them on the floor beside her. The thing she really wanted was right at the bottom. She could feel the fabric with her fingers, and she gently picked it up. The child’s dress had once been white, but now, when she held it up in the light, she could see that it was yellow with age. But she couldn’t take her eyes off the brown marks. At first she had mistaken them for rust, but then she had realized they had to be dried blood. There was something heartrending about the contrast between the tiny dress and the spots of blood all over it. How had the dress ended up here? Who did it belong to? And why had her mother kept it?
Erica gently laid the dress down on the floor beside her. The object that had been concealed in the dress when she and Patrik first found it was no longer in the chest. It was the only thing she had removed. The soiled fabric of the child’s dress had been wrapped around a Nazi medal. The feelings aroused within her when she first saw the medal had surprised her. Her heart had begun to pound, her mouth had gone dry, and images from all the newsreels and documentaries she had seen of the Second World War had flickered past her mind’s eye. What was a Nazi medal doing here in Fjällbacka? In her home?Among her mother’s possessions? The whole thing had seemed bizarre. She had wanted to put the medal back in the chest and close the lid, but Patrik had insisted that they should hand it over to an expert to see if they could find out more about it. Reluctantly she had agreed. It was as if she could hear whis- pering voices inside her, ominous, warning voices. Something told her that she ought to hide the medal away and forget about it. But curiosity won the day, and at the beginning of June she had taken the medal to an expert on the history of the Second World War; with a bit of luck they would soon find out more about its origins.
However, the most interesting things that Erica had discovered in the chest were four blue notebooks right at the bottom. She recognized her mother’s handwriting on the covers. Thatelegant, right-slanted handwriting, but in a younger, more rounded version. Erica took them out and ran a finger over the top one. “Diary” was written on each book. The word aroused mixed feelings for Erica. Curiosity, excitement, eagerness.But also fear, hesitation, and a strong sense of invading someone’s private life. Did she have the right to read the diaries? Did she have the right to share her mother’s innermost thoughts and feelings? By its very nature, a diary is not intended for anyone else’s eyes. Her mother hadn’t written them so that someone else could read the contents. Perhaps she wouldn’t have wanted her daughter to see them. But Elsy was dead, and Erica couldn’t ask her what she thought. She would have to make her own decision, decide what she was going to do with them.
“Erica?” Patrik’s voice interrupted her thoughts, and she shouted back, “Yes?”
“Our guests are arriving!”
Erica glanced at her watch. Goodness, it was three o’clock already! Maja was celebrating her first birthday today, and their closest friends and family were coming over. Patrik must have thought she had fallen asleep up here.
“Coming!” She brushed off the dust, and after a moment’s hesitation she took the notebooks and the child’s dress with her as she clambered down the steep staircase. She could hear the hum of voices from below.