The force of my shovel hitting a hard object caused me to jump back. I crept a little closer, inspecting the strange, black item. I figured it could be a piece of metal in the ground; pretty strange, even for a construction site.
I soon exposed the object enough to pull it out of the ground, and found that it was a metal box. I looked around the construction site; nobody was near me or noticed what was happening. Making my decision, I bent down and pulled the box out of the hole.
The box opened easily. Lifting the lid, I found five objects inside, along with a note. Smiling up at me was a well-loved teddy bear wrapped in a lilac blanket, which also looked very worn. A pair of black ballet shoes with scuffed toes rested beside the teddy’s head, as well as a moldy package of gummy bears. A little dog figurine completed the collection. I picked up the crinkled note and unfolded it. Smoothing it out, I deciphered the messy handwriting:
“When you find this, call me. This is only phase one.”
Underneath these words was a phone number. I was curious about the note and the items in the box, but worried about what would happen if I called the number. I closed the lid, slipped the note in my pocket, and checked my watch. I had six minutes until my break. I set the box aside and continued my work.
Soon I was heading to the break area. I tried not to stand out while carrying the box, which was a bit of a challenge. Once I had found a place to sit down, away from everyone else, I pulled out my phone. A wave of fear rushed over me as I dialed the number. I held the phone up to my ear and suppressed the emotion.
“Um, hi,” I answered. I wasn’t sure how to begin. “I, uh, found your box and your note.”
“Oh, that,” said the young girl’s voice on the other end of the line. “Yeah. Phase one was to call me.”
Duh, I thought, rolling my eyes. “And phase two?” I pushed.
“Is there a teddy bear in that box?”
“Phase two. You’ve got to take the teddy bear to the nearest post office and mail it to the address on the back of the note.”
I flipped the note over. In tiny scrawl in the corner was an address that I could just barely make out. “Really?”
“Okay, and then what?” I asked.
“I’ll call you back when it’s done.”
“Wait, what do you m-”
It was too late; she had hung up the phone. I decided that it was no use calling back, so I headed down to the post office and did as she had told me.
A few weeks later, I was on phase four. Phase three had been to bring the lilac blanket to a coffee shop and give it to a child in the corner, which I had done yesterday. Phase four was to leave the ballet shoes in the broom closet at a dance studio. Doing this without raising suspicion involved my pretending to be a mother whose child had left her bag at the studio, and I found out something interesting.
After leaving the shoes in the broom closet, I called the number again. Instead of answering with, “hello” or “hi”, I said, “I didn’t know you used to take classes at the dance studio.”
“Uh, yeah,” the girl answered nervously. “So?”
“Why did you stop taking classes all of a sudden?”
There was a long silence. A teacher whom I had met had asked if my daughter knew someone named Summer, and I had answered that I wasn’t sure. The teacher had explained to me that Summer had loved to dance, and suddenly dropped her ballet classes. I had guessed that Summer was the person I was calling, and wanted some answers.
The voice broke the silence. “How did you find that out?”
I decided to go out on a limb. “I have my sources, Summer.”
Again, a long pause. “I don’t know how you found so much out about me, but just forget about it.”
“I was just wondering,” I said truthfully. “The teacher that I ran into said that you used to love your dance classes and want you to come back.”
“Oh,” she mumbled. “I can’t ever come back,” she said, probably more to herself than to me, “but it’s nice that they miss me.”
“Um, okay. So, is there a phase five?”
“Oh, yeah. That.”
Phase five involved throwing the moldy gummy bears into a very specific trash can. I completed that, and finally completed phase six, which was to leave the dog figurine on the counter in an ice cream shop. On my way home, now holding a caramel coffee ice cream cone, I called Summer.
She didn’t answer right away, but I could tell that she had picked up the phone because it had stopped ringing. I heard breathing and quick footsteps on the other end of the phone. “Hello?” I asked.
No response. “Hello? You there?”
Again, no response. I hung up the phone.
Around five minutes later, my phone rang. It was the mysterious number again. I picked up. “Hello?” I asked.
“Hello,” the voice answered.
“What was that?”
“What was what?”
“I heard breathing and footsteps when you picked up the phone. Like someone was running. Are you okay?”
“Oh, that.” She paused. “Um, I’m fine, don’t worry about it.”
I didn’t really believe her that everything was okay, but I figured that I wasn’t going to get any more information, so I dropped it. “I did what you asked,” I said. “Is there a phase seven?”
She paused. “Phase seven,” she said slowly (and I got the impression that she hadn’t figured out what it was going to be yet), “is to go to the beach in one week. You have to go to the boardwalk by the hot dog shop and wait. You’ll know what to do.”
At this point, I had completed enough weird tasks that going to the beach seemed pretty normal. “What time?” I asked.
As usual, she hung up the phone without another word. I sighed. I felt like something was wrong with Summer; her voice had sounded pretty young so I assumed that she was a child. I hoped that she was okay. I decided to make a cup of coffee; it would help me de-stress from this insane situation and mentally prepare myself for whatever was going to come.
One week later, I was sitting on the boardwalk at the beach, wondering what was going to happen next. It was busy; kids were running through the sand and splashing in the waves. Parents played games with the kids or helped them build sand castles. I watched families eat ice cream cones, laughing as they tried to catch runaway drips from falling onto the sand. I could see surfers in the distance that looked like tiny dots soaring through the waves. As I looked around, taking in the scene, I caught a pair of blue eyes staring at me.
A little girl around the age of 11 was sitting by herself on the edge of the boardwalk, just a few feet away from me. She had waist-long, ash brown hair and a button nose. When she noticed me looking at her, she quickly looked away.
After a moment, I stood up and walked over to the girl. “Hi,” I said as she looked up at me. “I’m Susie. Not to sound creepy, but… Are you Summer?”
She looked up at me with her curious blue eyes. “What was phase three?”
“Bringing the blanket to the kid in the coffee shop,” I replied.
Summer nodded. I sat down next to her. “So what was this all about? All the phases and stuff?”
She sighed and looked at her hands. After a moment of silence she spoke.
“My stepmother was horrible to me. After my father died, she yelled at me and treated me horribly. A couple of years ago, she made me get rid of everything that made me happy. I took the things that I loved the most, put them in the box, and buried them in a field. Then I put the phone number inside so that maybe someday I would get my things back.” She looked up at me again. “I ran away from home earlier this month. I’ve been homeless ever since.”
“Oh my gosh,” I breathed. “I’m so sorry, Summer.” I gave her a hug, which she nervously accepted.
“It’s okay,” she replied. “I got my stuff back in the end.” She opened up the blue backpack that she was wearing and showed me the items from the box (minus the gummy bears), which were now inside her bag.
“Summer,” I asked as she zipped up her bag, “how would you like to get away from your stepmother?”
“I would love to get rid of her forever,” she said eagerly.
“Maybe we can go to court,” I said. “If she’s been treating you badly, we might be able to take custody from her.”
“That sounds great,” she said, smiling for the first time since I’d seen her.
“Come on, let’s go get some food,” I said, standing. “If you don’t feel comfortable coming to my house, that’s okay, but we’ll find somewhere for you to stay.” Summer stood up and grabbed my hand. She smiled up at me, and we walked down the boardwalk together. The day was just beginning to end; children ran past us and families trudged through the sand towards the boardwalk, loaded with toys, chairs, and umbrellas. People threw away the remainders of melty ice cream and walked close together, hand in hand, heading home. I considered myself and this new little girl, and I could see the beginning of a family.