Ashley seated herself on the azure sofa that evening after the concert. Each parent sat in a deep plum recliner across from her. She reached toward the end of her mousy braid with trembling fingers, then dropped her arms on her lap. Two sets of eyes stared at her with some mixture of dismay and concern.
"So what do you know about me? I mean, where I came from."
Robert Clarke cleared his throat. He smoothed a hand over his brown hair with its gray streaks at the temples. "To be honest, Ashes, we decided to adopt you and close the book behind us. We don't know much about your circumstances."
Ashley swallowed back her tears."So I might never know anything?"
He stared at her with surprise, then sneered and shook his head. "You know, I had always hoped we had provided enough love and support that you would not ever need to know."
His statement sent a pang of pain into her heart.
"Daddy, I am not asking because there is any void," tears started to spill down her cheeks and her tone started to resemble pleading. "You are my family. But the people I am related to by blood are also family, so is it so bad that I might want to know something about them?"
Katie Clarke rested her forehead in the palm of her hand, elbow planted on her knee.
"Ma," Ashley directed her eyes toward her mother. "You realize I only want to know about them. You know I am not looking to replace you two or anything, right?"
Mrs. Clarke raised her misted eyes and rested her chin on her palm, but before she could answer, Mr. Clarke shook his head again.
"What I don't understand," he began earnestly, "is why you even want to know?"
"Like I said, that part of my family is still part of my family as well."
He groaned and rose. "Well, I am not going to get too much into this at ten at night. Get some sleep. I am going to bed myself."
Ashley stared desperately after him as he disappeared down the hall, then threw her desperate eyes toward her mother. She swallowed back the approaching tears as much as she could.
"I never said this to your father," Mrs. Clarke met her eyes at once, "and I do not want you to, either: I remember when I was a practicing psychiatrist, there was a woman who reluctantly came to see me every week. She was a heroin addict and that was all she cared about. I am really not even sure who convinced her to come and see me, but anyway, she was pregnant."
Ashley stared at her, mesmerized.
"She, um," Mrs. Clarke sniffed back her own tears, "she stated very plainly, once I got her to talk about something, that she had multiple children and gave them all up. She said that and then looked me in the eye like she wanted to see how I would react. When I did not look shocked, she rattled off when they had been born and when her current child was due.
"I was surprised she remembered so clearly, until she told me that her sister had written them down for her so she could tell me. She looked again to see if I was shocked, but I pretended I wasn't. But I remember that she said her current child was due October 10th of that year."
"What year was that?" Ashley asked, breathless.
Ashley dropped back in her seat. That was the year she was born. And the month, and the date. And the woman gave up all her children. She could be one of those children.
"She must have given birth when she said she would, because right after that, she stopped coming in. I realized she must have relapsed. And that was during the time when your father and I were looking into adoption. We were so pleased to see you the first time," she continued with tears in her eyes. "You were the most beautiful, precious creature. You still are."
The woman dissolved into shoulder-rattling sobs. Ashley rose out of her seat and wrapped her arms around her shoulders, rocking her gently back and forth.
"You will always be my ma," she promised. She kissed the brown curls and sat back down.
"You even look like her," Mrs. Clarke continued, gesturing her index finger around her daughter's head. "In the face. You have the same facial features."
Ashley could sense her heart pounding. She was almost sure that she would topple over at any moment. She breathed in and out a couple times.
"What was her name?" she managed. "How many kids did she have?"
Mrs. Clarke shook her head suddenly. "I cannot break confidentiality. Not even now."
"But Ma –"
"I could get sued, honey!" Mrs. Clarke exclaimed with dismay. "I'm sorry, but I can't risk that. And what would that do to your father? Not only me giving you that information without his consent, but he is a lawyer. That would tarnish his reputation forever."
Tears streamed down the girl's cheeks before she could stop them. She smeared them away with the palm of her hand, but they started streaming fast enough that she stopped trying to withhold them. What a massive revelation! And to have it railroaded so early on!
Mrs. Clarke sighed and leaned her elbows on her knees. "Listen to me," she met the eyes of her daughter. "One could describe a client in my office without mentioning any identifying information. Let me sort out my old case files after you go to sleep. I might be able to extract some information that you can read, if you are sure you want it. I will set it on your nightstand later."
"Thank you," Ashley breathed. She rose and kissed her mother's cheek.
It was impossible for Ashley to get to sleep that night. She lay beneath her dense indigo cover and lavender sheets with her palm under her cheek, staring into the darkness. The idea that her parents and relatives were not actually related to her was too much to get her mind around.
Not that they were not her family. But they were not her relatives. So who were her relatives? What kind of people were they? What was her heritage? How many siblings did she have? What were they like? Could they be friends? She would have to find them first. What would her parents think of that?
Sometimes past midnight, the door creaked open and spilled the hall light across the room. Ashley could hear her mother creep closer and set something on her nightstand behind her. She crept out the door and closed it behind her.
Ashley twisted around to look over her shoulder. The room was pitch dark again. She waited until it sounded like her mother made it to the end of the hall, where her room was, then propped herself on one elbow and switched on her lamp.
On her nightstand were a couple sheets of yellow lined paper stapled together. The notes written with a black pen were clearly penned by her mother. She picked them up and dropped back down on her side. After her eyes adjusted, she scanned the first page:
"Heroin addict. About 32. Mentions that her sister had to remind her of when her children were born. Refuses to speak of much else. Does mention a man on some occasions. May be the father of the children. Also mentions her mother. Sounds like they might have still been in touch. Says her sister has one of the girls, but the rest are gone."
Ashley reread the page several times until she decided she had almost memorized it. She sure wished the woman would have said more about her life. She also wished her mother could disclose the names mentioned. Although, would she really want to meet a woman like this? But then, there were siblings.
Girls. Plural. Were they all girls?
She turned to the second page and saw a hastily scrawled list:
The last one. That must have been her. Somehow, she knew that was her. Tears pricked the corners of her eyes when she reread the list several times. Those might be the birthdates of her relatives. She was not actually an only child. She had four older siblings, and at least one was a sister.
She shut off her lamp and made herself close her eyes. But all night, her mind was plagued with curiosity: what was March like? Perhaps December could be married by now. Maybe even May. What about June? Could their surnames be harder to trace?
Was she going to try and trace them?