Snow and David sit at the kitchen table, a candle safely lit in the middle. A hefty manilla envelope lays before them, secured shut by a safety pin. They haven't dared to open it since Emma set it down and left the room.
They didn't ask for Emma's file. After a few family sessions with Archie, they had all began opening up to one another. Snow was honest about her bandit days not being as romantic as she sometimes made them out to be. David told a few tales of his alcoholic father that even Snow hadn't heard before. Finally, Emma opened up a bit about foster care. She told them that the number of homes had been high and that she had gotten into some trouble. None of these truths were easy for any of them to hear, but according to Archie they were important to move forward as a family.
So, Emma had dug through some boxes she had yet to unpacked and presented them with her file. She told them to look through it and come back to her with any questions. Then, she took Neal and left the loft for a bit.
Now it sits before them. Their daughter's childhood. Everything she's been through.
Everything they put her through.
Snow is the first to lean forward. She removes the clip and the file flaps open. The first thing they see is a picture of Emma. She can't be older than 7 or 8, her curly blonde hair pulled back in a thick ponytail. She's not smiling, rather just staring at the camera with her big green eyes. Snow runs her fingers over the photograph. She has so little from when Emma was small. There's the videotapes but even those, she's a teenager. It's nice to get a glimpse at those times too, but she has practically nothing from before age 10.
David removes the polaroid from the file and the sides of his lips turn up a little. "She looks a bit like I did at that age, with your chin and eyes."
Snow nods. She takes out her phone and snaps a picture of the Polaroid, the memory forever saved.
David glances to the side and his muscles tense at the newspaper clippings.
"The search continues for deadbeat parents that abandoned newborn on side of the road."
It's not their story. Not even close. But it's the one that the world thought of them. It's what Emma thought of them for so long.
"After weeks of searching, Baby Emma has been remanded to foster care."
She'd go into the system where she'd have a family for a few years, only to lose them. At such a young age, their daughter went through a lifetime of pain.
The Smiths are the first ones in her file. She was with them from 6 weeks old to 3 years. For all that time, Emma had a home where she was safe and loved. But according to the documents, there was more to the story than Emma knew. The new baby had a host of medical issues and they simply couldn't afford two children. Since they hadn't formally adopted Emma, she was put back into the system.
She had a couple of good homes after that, but no one got Emma the therapy she needed after such a traumatic event. There were comments of temper tantrums, screaming fits and refusing to sleep. Snow frowns, hating the image of her daughter crying every night, wishing for the family she had for all that time.
Eventually, Emma was diagnosed with ADHD according to her records at age 5. The mark didn't make it easy for her to find a family at all, especially as it wasn't treated. After that, there were 15 homes in a 10 year time span. Some with notes of Emma running away and being found living on the street. Others, with accusations of abuse. David and Snow could feel their blood boil as they read medical records of broken bones, bruises and more.
Their baby had been through so much. They couldn't be there to protect her.
Well, they could've. Snow finds the record for the group home Emma lived in at age 10. There wasn't much on the file, they reported that Emma was attempting to thrive but had trouble with older foster kids that would bully her. Emma tried to move out of the group home, but would stay there for 2 years until she ran away again.
"We could've gone to her," Snow whispers. "The door…"
"We can't think of it like that," David says but his own voice is hoarse.
There's a record of her time with Ingrid, which came to a halt when Emma ran away. Another great home where Emma was asked to leave because a friend of hers stole money.
Lily. They've heard this story. It's another one that feels like their fault. If they hadn't put the darkness in Lily, both girls could've had a normal childhood. At the very least, Emma could've stayed with that family.
David's hand covers Mary Margaret's, his stomach tight. After Bill and Katie, Emma was remanded to another group home where she stayed for a couple of years. Her foster care record ends at age 16. After a myriad of behavioral issues, fights at school and bad grades, Emma slipped through the cracks. No one bothered to try to find her after she ran away that time.
They know the rest of the story. It includes a teen romance in the back of a yellow bug. Pregnancy behind bars. A closed adoption. Emma eventually finding her way and becoming a bail bondsman.
"Her childhood was…" David can't find the words.
"I know." Snow stares at the newspaper clippings. "I can't believe what we put her through."
A voice comes from the doorway. "It's not all your fault."
They look up and find Emma there, holding Neal in her arms. She places her brother in the crib and takes a step forward.
"We put you in the wardrobe and your life…" Snow's voice broke. "I'm sorry, Emma."
Emma shakes her head. "So, you made some choices. So did my foster parents and the system." She sits at the table. "This record also only tells part of the story."
David sniffles, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand. "What do you mean?"
"It doesn't say how Ingrid gave me one of my best homes. That she taught me how to do my makeup and hair. That I was happy with her until I ran away," she says. "Bill and Katie were the ones that gave me stability. There were home cooked meals almost every night. Another group home, we'd go on field trips a lot. I got to see The Sword in the Stone in the movies."
She looks down at the file and shrugs.
"Yeah, a lot of it was bad but there were some good parts too. None of that is in the file, though because it only shows the black and white facts."
Snow and David nod. They wish they could look at it with as much hope as she does. Guilt brews in their stomach and there's a part that will never go away.
"We love you, Emma," David says. "We want you to know that. Always."
"And I do." She gives them a small smile. "I didn't then, but I do now."