Ivy Peterson was not ordinary. Nor was she extraordinary or unusual. Ivy Peterson was More-Than-Ordinary. Despite her self-admitted plain looks, despite the fact she probably could not be picked out of a crowd of other fourteen-year-olds, she was the Most More-Than-Ordinary fourteen-year-old anyone could hope to meet. Ivy was More-Than-Ordinary because once she found herself in a very special place, and had a very special adventure.
But that was long ago, and Ivy was far too old for fairy tales…
* * *
“Come on, Ivy! Get a move on!”
Friday morning, and Ivy was running late. Again. It was the third day in a row. Rain tapped an increasingly fast beat on the windows, as if it, too, were telling Ivy to hurry up. Rubbing her face with her hand and stifling a yawn, she dragged her backpack behind her as she jogged down the hall from her bedroom to the bathroom.
Ivy scrubbed her face, carefully brushed her long, mouse-brown hair, checked her shirt and denim shorts to make sure they were neat and without spots or holes, and applied a bit of pink lip gloss.
She hadn’t always bothered to put so much time into her appearance. There had been a time when she felt invisible, Less-than-Ordinary and Not-Very-Brave, so what her clothes looked like didn’t matter much. Now she was confident, happy, and mildly popular. She couldn’t remember why the sudden change occurred, only that it was right around the time she met her best friend, Lori. Almost three years ago.
“I won’t ask you again, Ivy Peterson! Let’s go!”
Ivy rolled her eyes. Yes, I’m coming, she thought angrily as she tucked a stray piece of hair behind her ear, hoisted her pack onto her shoulder and thumped downstairs into the kitchen. Her mother stood at the counter, drinking a cup of coffee. She pointed to a glass on the counter.
“You need to move faster, Ivy. There’s your juice and your cereal. I don’t have time to make you anything else this morning.”
Ivy grabbed the glass, her mood darkening quickly at her mother’s tone, and sat down with a huge yawn. She was in the mood for eggs, or waffles, or anything besides cold cereal. This was par for the course this morning.
“Sorry I’m late, Mom. I just can’t seem to get it together today. For some reason I don’t seem to be sleeping well.”
“Ivy, you need to get your sleep. Finals are next week. I expect to see good grades.”
“Yes, Mother. I know.”
Ivy shoveled down a bowl of cold cereal without really tasting it and gulped the orange juice. With a quick look at the clock, she hustled back to the bathroom to brush her teeth.
“Your lunch is on the counter,” her mother called just before she appeared in the bathroom doorway. “Sorry it’s only a sandwich today. Alex was up half the night. I’ve got to get him dressed.”
“Okay, Mom, I’ll get it on my way out.” Yeah, I know he was up, why do you think I didn’t sleep?
Ivy’s parents used to be busy, important people with important things to do. They worked all the time, leaving Ivy lonely and wishing they would spend more time with her.
Her wish came true. Right around the time Ivy started hanging out with Lori and caring about things like how she looked, her parents started spending less time working and more time with her, more time as a family. Ivy wasn’t sure why they did, but she welcomed the change. Two years before, her mother cut back to part-time hours, and her father stopped working weekends. Alex, her baby brother, was almost one year old.
Alex. Cute, pink, chubby-cheeked Alex. A huge drain on her mother’s time. Everybody loved Alex. She loved Alex too. And some part of Ivy knew he was just a baby, so of course he needed attention, but her bad mood this morning seemed to color everything, even how she thought about the little bundle of drool.
Her mother kissed Ivy on top of her head as she breezed by. “Have a nice day at school.”
Ivy’s face brightened a little. “Thanks, Mom.”
Ivy heaved a sigh and bowed her head, defeated. She wiped her mouth and ran back to the kitchen, grabbed the brown paper bag and stuffed it into her backpack.
Crap. I forgot my English book. What else could go wrong this morning?
She bounded back up the stairs, down the hall to her room and crossed to the desk. The textbook was at the bottom of a pile of papers and other books. Of course. Ivy was usually much better organized, but she was so tired. It wasn’t just her baby brother that disrupted her sleep. Something danced on the edge of her thoughts, something she knew she should remember, but just couldn’t quite get a hold of, like a dream. It was very distracting.
Ivy carefully pulled the English textbook from under its load – but not carefully enough. The pile teetered, then fell. Papers and books spilled to the floor and scattered, as such things are almost guaranteed to do when one doesn’t have time to clean them up.
“Shoot.” She was late, but if her mother came in and saw the mess, Ivy would hear about it after school. Ivy got down on her hands and knees and hurriedly pulled everything into a haphazard pile.
She lay on the floor and put her cheek to the carpet to make sure she had gotten it all. Far under the desk, almost to the wall, something caught her attention. A small, pink, cloth-bound book.
What is that?
She stretched out her arm, gripped the book with her fingertips, and pulled it toward her.
It was as if the book called to her, compelled her to open it. Forgetting completely about her mother, brother, the mess, and the bus, Ivy pulled her long legs close in a tailor’s seat and opened the little book. On the first page was a drawing she made when she was eleven years old.
A tiny girl with shoulder-length blonde hair, wearing a knee-length tunic the same shade of blue as her large eyes. A pair of delicate wings, like those sported by dragonflies, sprouted from the drawing’s back. The girl was not a girl at all, in fact, but a fairy.
She shut the book and stood, turning around in her room, as if she looked for something. Next to the bedroom door was her dresser, and on top, a small wooden jewelry box. Ivy felt drawn toward it, like she had with the journal. As if guided by some unseen force, she flipped open the lid of the box and sifted through the tangle of bracelets, pins and necklaces. She pulled out a thin gold chain. On the end dangled a key. It was not an ordinary key, like the one for her bicycle lock or the front door of her house.
It was a long, gold, old-fashioned skeleton key; the kind that always opens treasure chests in stories about pirates or unlocks the door to the tower where the princess is being kept by the wicked witch.
It had also nearly been forgotten. Ivy slipped it over her head and felt a small charge, like static electricity, the second it touched her skin.
“Ivy!” Her mother’s voice sounded tired and frustrated. “Are you still here? I can’t drive you to school if you miss the bus.”
“What else is new,” Ivy muttered.
“Excuse me, young lady?”
Ivy didn’t realize she said it loud enough for her mother to hear. “Nothing.”
“No, you have something to say, so let’s hear it.”
Before Ivy knew it, a torrent of words rushed out of her mouth. “You never have time to do anything for me, okay? You’re always too busy with Alex. You don’t have time to make breakfast, you can’t drive me to school. I realize he’s a baby, and he needs you more than I do, but we used to do things together. Do you even remember? Do you even care?”
Her mother’s face was stark white. She opened her mouth to speak, but was cut off by a baby’s wail.
“We’ll talk about this later, young lady. Get. To. School. Now.”
Ivy, tears pricking the corners of her eyes, stuffed the journal and her English book into her bag. She was mad at herself for exploding like that. What is wrong with me today?
She ran down the stairs, and with a glance into the kitchen, where her mother now fed her baby brother, Ivy stormed out the door.
Some days I wish I could get away from this place.
* * *
The morning continued to be wretched. Amazingly, the bus had been late, too, so she hadn’t missed it. But it was a close call; she had to run flat out to make it.
Her English and History teachers each added two chapters to what would be covered by the exam, which meant she would have to study all weekend. She was late to Biology, which garnered her a stern lecture by the teacher and a tardy slip – something else to argue with her mother about later. To top it off, she couldn’t concentrate – in addition to her troubles and bad mood, lack of sleep made it hard for her to keep her eyes open.
By the time she got to lunch, she was ready to scream, thinking again about how nice it would be to leave her life behind and start over.
As she munched a soggy sandwich, she looked over the journal. She turned to the page with the drawing of the fairy and ran a finger over it. Ivy found herself smiling in spite of her miserable mood. Kaia. It was Kaia who led Ivy to Zandria. Kaia, while trying to avoid becoming a troll’s lunch, accidentally flew through a magical gate that separated Ivy’s world from her own. Kaia led Ivy on the adventure that changed her whole life.
Ivy paged through the journal and suddenly remembered everything. Zandria. The long walk across the Great Plain, a perilous ride on the back of a dragon, and an empress with the face of an angel, trapped deep in an enchanted sleep. The memories were distant, faded like an old photograph.
Ivy wrote it all in the diary almost immediately after her trip so she wouldn’t forget. Now it seemed she had anyway.
How could I forget? Why didn’t I ever go back? She thought about the last three years. She spent most of the time with her family, made friends, and started High School. She supposed teenage worries replaced childhood adventures. That didn’t sound right, though. She should have gone back, even if for just a short visit.
Suddenly she felt guilty. Great, something else to add to my list.
* * *
What seemed to Ivy to be an interminable day was finally over. By afternoon there was no sign the rain had ever been, except for a few small puddles that clung desperately to the ruts along the side of the road. It left behind sunshine, blue sky and harmless, wispy white clouds. With the sun came a sticky heat, a preview of the upcoming summer.
Ivy shuffled home from the bus stop, her rain jacket draped over her arm. She felt a little better. Only a little. Her best friend, Lori, walked beside her.
“I’m so glad it’s Friday.” Lori tossed her jacket into the air and caught it. Lori was a popular girl, and pretty, with a small, upturned nose, violet eyes and straight, dark hair. Beside her Ivy always felt a little plain, like a dandelion that grew beside a rose bush.
Lori spun in the middle of the street, her arms outstretched. “Only one more week of school before summer vacation. Total freedom for two and a half months.”
Even though Ivy generally liked school, after today she was ready for a break too. They approached her house, and her stomach tied itself into a knot. She had never spoken to her mother like she had that morning; she knew she was in trouble. She couldn’t face her mother. Not yet, not until she had a chance to breathe and clear her head.
“Hey Lori, wanna go hang out somewhere?”
“What’s wrong with you, huh? You’ve been, like, grumpy all day.”
“I’ve had the worst day. And I, uh, I had a fight with my mom this morning. I don’t want to go home and deal with her yet.”
“That sucks. Uh, okay, sure. Where do you want to go?”
The key suddenly felt warm against Ivy’s skin, and Ivy remembered the wish she made that morning. “Wanna go for a walk?”
Ivy’s yard, like the others on the block, was large. It was dotted with tall trees whose branches spread across the sky in a canopy of green. The sunlight that did break through painted the lush, green grass with speckles of gold. In a few short weeks, summer would arrive, and the lawn would grow brown and dormant, despite her father’s heroic attempts at lawn care.
The girls quietly dropped their books beside the back door and Lori followed Ivy’s long strides across the lawn. At the very back of the property grew a deep, thick wood with a narrow path.
The path led from Ivy’s backyard to her old elementary school. She traveled it many times, but not recently. When she was younger, she hadn’t been allowed on it at all. Ivy remembered the day she broke that rule, the day she went in search of Kaia.
She hadn’t found the fairy; instead three bullies chased her off the path and deep into the woods. Nearly blind with panic she tripped, fell, and rolled through the open Forest Gate that stood between this forest and the Enchanted Forest in the north of Zandria.
Ivy and Lori stood at the path’s end. The woods were thicker and overgrown, another sign to Ivy she had been away too long.
“Whoa. Um, you want me to go in there?” Lori said, incredulous.
Ivy ignored her – her mind single-tracked and her mission clear. I just want to see if I can still find the gate. I won’t go to Zandria. She didn’t really believe she wanted to run away from home, but she needed to know there was somewhere she could go if she ever really wanted to get away, an anchor she could cling to in the storm that raged inside her.
Maybe it would serve my mother right – make her realize what life would be like without me. The selfish thought echoed in her head for a long while before Ivy pushed it aside.
“Come on.” Ivy took three steps into the woods and beckoned her friend to follow. It was dim and cool beneath the trees, and they blocked out the noises of the world – cars, trucks, people – and left only the soft noises of nature. Her dark and dreary mood ebbed away, and she felt a sense of peace, as if she had already stepped into another world.
Lori interrupted the calm. “Uh, why are we back here? When you said you wanted to go for a walk, I thought you wanted to, like, go to the store or something. Or the mall. I could so go for a trip to the mall.” She swatted at the swarm of tiny gnats that swirled around her head. “I’m not really the outdoors type. I’m allergic to poison ivy. And sumac, and… bugs.”
Ivy almost wished she hadn’t invited Lori along. Lori really did fit in better at the mall than the forest. Ivy just didn’t want to be alone. Not today. She scanned the trees and the ground. “I don’t see anything like that, Lori, except for the bugs. There’s only a few. Go back if you want.”
Lori tossed her head in an indignant way, her hair flipping almost as if it too, were upset. “Don’t be snippy. I guess it’s fine. You never answered my question. Why are we in here?”
Ivy gazed deep into the wood. She was here because she wanted to get away from the world. Now that she was here, however, something tugged at her, called to her. It was the same feeling she had in her room that morning. “I told you, I just don’t want to go home yet.”
“Too bad my pool’s not open yet.” Lori cracked her chewing gum. “We could have gone for a swim instead of this nature walk.”
“The water’s probably freezing.”
“Could have put on our suits, and like, laid out or something.”
“You know all that sun isn’t good for you.”
A pink bubble formed on Lori’s lips and popped. “I know, but I look awesome with a tan.”
Ivy found a small path, one that led away from the main path and deeper into the wood. The sound of their sneakers crunching through the underbrush sounded so loud, as if they were intruding on something sacred.
“Hey, do you hear something?” Lori said.
“I hear lots of things. Birds, bugs…”
“No, I mean something weird.”
“I dunno. It sounds kind of like…little bells.”
Ivy came to a sudden halt. She didn’t dare hope. No. It can’t be. Could it?
A small, bright ball of light that could only be one thing zoomed through the woods to the left. Ivy sucked in her breath when she heard the distinctive bell-like tinkle of female fairy wings.
Lori stopped swatting the gnats, her hand in mid-swat, and stared at the light. “What the heck is that?”
Ivy suddenly felt eleven years old again. “It’s a friend.” She hoped it was the one friend she longed to see.
The little ball of light darted toward them. Lori threw her arms over her head and ducked. “It’s coming right at us!”
The fairy shot toward Ivy without slowing. Her body came into focus just before it plowed into her chest. A pair of tiny arms wrapped around Ivy’s neck.
“Thank Fortune I found you!” said a small voice Ivy hadn’t heard in three years. “Ivy, we need you. You have to come back!”