I wasn’t sure how I would manage staying sane while I was constantly being told that I was crazy. “That’s really interesting,” I said slowly.
“Can I ask you something, Mara?”
Do I have a choice? “Sure.”
“What do you want?”
I tilted my head. “Right now?”
“No. In general.”
“I want . . . I want.” I tried to think. What did I want?
To go back? To when my biggest problem was that Claire was trying to steal my best friend? To rewind to before I even met Claire? And Jude?
But that was also before Noah.
I saw him in my mind, kneeling at my feet. Tying my shoelaces. Looking up at me with those blue eyes, flashing that half-smile I loved so much.
I wouldn’t want to go back to before him. I didn’t want to lose him. I just wanted—
“To be better,” I said finally. For my family. For Noah. For myself. I wanted to worry about things like early admission, not involuntary commitment. I would never be normal but maybe I could figure out how to live a somewhat normal life.
“I’m so glad to hear you say that,” Dr. Kells said, and stood up. “We can help you be better, but you have to want it, or there’s nothing we can do.”
I nodded and tried to stand too, but stumbled. I tried to lean against the desk to steady myself, but my synapses were slow, and I just hunched.
Dr. Kells rested a hand on my back. “Are you feeling ill?”
I heard an echo of her words—in someone else’s voice.
In my mind.
I blinked. Dr. Kells’s eyes were full of concern. I managed to nod but the movement blurred my thoughts. What was wrong with me?
“What’s the matter?” Dr. Kells asked. She looked at me curiously and I felt strange. Like she was waiting for something to happen.
I felt paranoid. Suspicious.
As I tried to speak, she shifted out of focus.
“Water?” she asked, and I heard an echo again, from far away.
I must have nodded because Dr. Kells helped me sit and said she’d be right back. I heard the door open behind me, then close.
And then I blacked out.
I RESTED MY CHEEK AGAINST THE OPENING OF THE carriage and peeked out from behind the curtain at the creamy wax blossoms that sprouted from the trees and the thick green growth that clung to their trunks. Creepers hung from the branches above us, low enough for me to touch, but I did not care to. I knew that world, the green world of moss-covered rocks and glistening leaves, the jewel colored world of jungle flowers and sunsets. It no longer interested me. It was the tiny world of this carriage that was fascinating and new.
“Are you feeling ill?”
I heard the white man’s words, the question in them, but I did not understand their meaning. His voice was weak from deep within the carriage. I did not care to look at his face.
The carriage jerked, and my small fingers sank deep into the plush seat. Velvet, the man said when I first ran my fingers over it in wonder. I had never felt anything so soft; it did not exist in the world of fur and skin.
We moved at a slow pace, much slower than the elephants, and we crept forward relentlessly, for several days and nights. Eventually the wet forest gave way to dry earth and the green gave way to brown and black. The sharp smell of smoke filled the air, mingling with the scent of sandalwood in the carriage.
The horses slowed, and I peeked outside again. I was shocked by what I saw.
Huge, still beasts—larger than any I had ever seen—rose from the water. Their skinny trunks stretched up to the sky and they swarmed with men though they themselves did not move. There were noises I had never heard, foreign and strange. The taste of spices coated my tongue, and my nostrils filled with the scent of wet earth.
The white man reached up to point out at the large beasts. “Ships,” he said, and then dropped his trembling arm. His muscles were slack and weak, and he sank back into the shadows, his breathing heavy.
Then we stopped. The door to the carriage opened, and a kind-faced man in bright blue clothing held his arm out to me.
“Come,” he said to me, in a language I understood. His voice felt like sun-warmed water. I was not afraid of him, so I went. I waited for the white man to follow behind me as he had when we left the carriage on our journey, but he did not. He did shift toward the door, though his face was still in shadow. He held out a small black pouch to the man in blue, his arm shaking with the effort.
“Return here on the last day of each week and my clerk will fill it, so long as the girl is with you.”
The Man in Blue took the pouch and bowed his head. “The Raj is generous.”
The white man laughed. The sound was weak. “The East India Company is generous.” He beckoned me back to the carriage. I moved closer. The white man gestured for me to open my hand.
I did. He placed something cold and gleaming into it. I was repulsed by the dry texture of his skin.
“Let her buy something pretty,” he said to the Man in Blue.
“Yes, sir. What is her name?”
“I do not know. My guides have tried to coax her into telling, but she refuses to speak to them.”
“Does she understand?”
“She will nod or shake her head in response to questions asked in Hindi and Sanskrit, so I do believe so, yes. She has an intelligent eye. She will take to English quickly, I think.”
“She will make a lovely bride.”
The white man laughed, stronger this time. “I think my wife would take exception. No, the girl will be my ward.”
“When will you return for her?”
“I sail today for London, and business there will keep me occupied for at least six months. But I do hope to return soon after, perhaps with my wife and son.” The man coughed.
The white man’s coughs grew violent, but he waved his hand.
“Will you be well enough for the journey?”
The white man did not answer until his fit had ended. Then he said, “It is just the River Sickness. I need only clean water and rest.”
“Perhaps my wife could make a tincture for you before you go?”
“I shall be fine, thank you. I studied medicine after the Military Seminary at Croydon. Now then, I must be off. Do look after yourself, and her.”
The Man in Blue nodded, and the white man withdrew back into the darkness. The door of the carriage closed.
The Man in Blue walked to the front then, to the horses, and spoke to the man seated at the top in his own language. Ours.