Ivy Malone was an orphan. She always thought of herself as one, even though she had two loving step-parents who had raised her as their own. They waited until today, the eve of her eighteenth birthday, to tell her how she had come to them. She had always known that she wasn’t like them. For one, she was tall and slim, with fine corn-silk hair. Both her parents had dark hair, and dark eyes. It didn’t take a genius. They had found her on their doorstep one brisk, yet beautiful and sunny, March morning.
“But not in a bassinet, like you would expect,” said her father Gordon.
“That’s like a basket,” explained her mother, Dorothy, but who everyone always called Dot.
“Yes, a basket,” her father said, waving a hand impatiently. “But no, there you were, lying outside on our doorstep, all bundled up, but in a casket!”
“That’s a-” her mother began, but Ivy butted in.
“It’s a coffin, mother. I know what a coffin is, I’m not a child.” She glared, her large dark blue eyes bordering on violet.
“Yes, of course. I guess everyone knows what caskets are, thanks to the war…” Her eyes shifted to the window that was letting in a watery yellow light. She remained quiet, gazing out at the drab buildings that looked exactly like their own house. A carriage trundled noisily past.
“As I was saying,” her father said irritably, “you were on our doorstep in a casket, with a portion of the lid open at the top, for your head.
“You had a piece of ivy tucked into your swaddling clothes,” her mother said in a faraway voice, not looking away from the window. “It was beautiful, a mix of red and green. That’s why we named you Ivy, you know.”
Ivy hadn’t known. “What about this? Was I wearing this when you found me?” she lifted a small delicate key from around her neck on a thin piece of cord. It was a yellowish-white and hard.
“It’s whalebone,” said her mother, still not taking her eyes from whatever memories held her, whatever ghosts she saw outside the window in the cold city streets that were seen only by her.
Ivy had worn it for as long as she could remember. She ran her fingers across the intricately carved pattern, its ridges and edges. It was relaxing, soothing.
“I wonder if it actually opens anything,” she said in a distracted, thoughtful tone.
“I highly doubt it,” replied her father. Her mother remained silent, watching ghosts of her past roam the streets. A royal guard strolled by, tossing a baton easily back and forth from one hand to the other.
“How do you know?”
Her father patted her on the shoulder and she shrugged it off. “It’s just a necklace. Don’t read too much into something where there is nothing.”
“There was something else in your casket with you. We almost missed it.” Her mother finally tore herself away from the window and moved to the mantle above the large stone hearth. There was a small brilliant blue vial with a stopper. Ivy had forgotten about it. When she was little she remembered asking her mother what it was, and the subject was always quickly changed. Go play outside, she was told. Or, sometimes her mother gave her a cookie, and the vial was quickly forgotten again. Her mother took it from the shelf, and wrapped her fingers gingerly around it. “This was with you, at the bottom of the box.”
“Casket,” her father repeated.
Her mother reluctantly handed it to Ivy. “What is it?” She raised it to her eyes but couldn’t make out what was inside, except that it was a dark liquid.
“I took it to the chemist once,” her father said. “They said it was some type of acid.”
“Acid?” Ivy started, and held the vial away from her as if the bottle itself would burn. “Why would I have a tiny bottle of acid with me when I was just a baby?”
“That’s what we always wondered,” said her father. “We thought maybe one day we would get an answer. It was connected to you, we didn’t want to get rid of it.”
The small clock on the mantelpiece chimed noon. There was a knock on the door. Ivy’s parents looked at each other. Was it fear on their faces?
Ivy stayed where she was, inspecting the vial. She could hear her mother talking to someone softly. “Gordon?” her mother called with a slight quaver in her voice. Ivy’s father joined her mother at the front door.
Suddenly there was a woman standing in their living room. At least Ivy thought it was a woman, but it looked more like a pile of dirty rags than a person. The woman’s hair was a tangled dirty mass that looked like straw. Ivy fought to turn her face away in disgust at the visitor’s appearance and noticed with a shock that she had the same blue-purple eyes as her.
Dot and Gordon flanked the woman on either side, keeping their distance.
“Ivy, this woman says she is your birth mother,” Dot said in a quiet voice.
“She is,” said Gordon. “Don’t you remember the letter that was folded inside Ivy’s blanket? The one that said on her eighteenth birthday she would return.”
Ivy’s jaw dropped and she looked from her mother, to her father, to the worn pile of rags that looked more hermit than human.
The woman under the nest of hair smiled. Her eyes gleamed as they fell on Ivy’s throat and the key that sat there. “You still have the key!” she shouted. “ I’m sure you have many questions, my dear, and I have many answers. Come,” she said, holding a bony hand toward her. “I will tell you everything you ever wanted to know.”
Ivy clutched the vial in her left hand and the key protectively in her right. Today, Ivy Malone’s life would begin.