Thank you, I mouthed to her. And I was grateful. When we stopped, I could ask Stella the question I wanted to ask, just not in front of Jamie.
At the gas station Stella decided she really did have to use the restroom, thankfully, so the two of us went inside while Jamie filled the tank. I bought tampons I unfortunately didn’t need and followed Stella into the bathroom. She was about to walk into a stall when I stopped her.
“Are you sure it was three weeks ago?”
“Yeah. I remember having to ask Wayne for tampons. His face turned so red, I actually thought steam might start coming out of his ears.” She grinned, but it quickly faded. “Why? What’s wrong?”
I bit my lip. “I’m late.”
“I don’t—I don’t really know. Time is sort of screwed up for me—maybe, maybe two weeks?” Or three.
“That’s pretty late,” Stella said quietly.
I said nothing.
“I’ve never been that late.”
I still said nothing. Apparently, whatever was going on with me wasn’t going on with her.
Stella’s expression quickly changed from curious to concerned. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” But I wasn’t fine. I was a lot of things, but definitely not fine.
“You look weird . . . ,” she said.
I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror. I looked awful, was how I looked. My face was nearly white, and my lips were gray, and the shadows under my eyes were like bruises.
Stella didn’t look like this. Stella looked healthy. Normal. If she was different, like me, why didn’t I look more like her?
“You look like you’re going to pass out.” She glanced back at the door. “Should I get Jamie? I’ll get Jamie.”
I started to protest but the room began to spin, and I couldn’t speak and stand at the same time. I grabbed the sink, but my knees felt shaky, and I slid down to the floor.
AUNT SARAH KEPT HER PROMISE. She treated me as if I were her own child. Better, perhaps. She had always secretly wanted a daughter, she said, a girl who would be docile and gentle, unlike Elliot and Simon, rough young boys, always tumbling in the dirt and battling each other with sticks.
I dined with her at nearly every meal. She would brush and braid my hair, though I had a lady’s maid to do it for me. I was her Indian princess, she said, a gift her husband didn’t even know he had given her, to keep her company after his death. I spent nearly every moment with her as she taught me every rule.
Rules about what to eat and when and how. What to wear and how to dress. How to behave. How to address women, how to address men, how to address men of title, the differences among the servants, among the butler and valet and the different types of maids. She taught me whom I could be seen with, and what I could be seen doing.
We dined together in the morning, took calls together in the afternoon, and she taught me to dance and play cards in the evening before she retired for bed. I could never have imagined a life like this. I became accustomed to the tastes of rich foods prepared painstakingly, of clean linens that I did not myself have to clean. I took long walks with Aunt Sarah. I spent time with the little boys. And three times per week, in secret, the professor came to me during the day.
The first time I met him, I was startled by how familiar he seemed. He was dark and handsome, and I could have sworn I had seen his face before, but he made no mention of it, and it would have been rude if I had.
Mr. Grimsby ushered him into the house without ceremony, and he bowed when I arrived. I bobbed a curtsy, and he smiled. We were to study in the library, Mr. Grimsby said, and showed the professor the way.
It was my favorite room in the house. I loved the smell, and the quiet, and the way shafts of light trapped little motes of dust. It felt like another world.
We sat down. “Well, Mara,” he said to me in English with just the faintest trace of a foreign accent. “Tell me everything you know.”
“How do you know my name?”
“Ask the wrong questions, and you will get the wrong answers. I will let you ask three of them before we begin our lessons.”
I had never been challenged so directly, not since arriving in London, at least, and I was perturbed by it. “Who are you?” I asked warily.
The professor smiled, exposing all of his white teeth. “I am a person. A human. A man. I have been a father and a son, a husband and a brother, and now I am your teacher. Is that really what you want to ask me?”
Frustrated, I blurted out, “Why do you look familiar?”
“Because we have met before. That is three. Now—”
“Wait! You never answered my first question,” I said as I crossed my arms over my chest.
The professor smiled again. “I know your name,” he said, “because Mr. Grimsby announced you before you walked in.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “What’s your name?”
“There is power in a name. That is four questions, and three was our agreement, but for practical purposes, I shall answer. You may call me Professor. Now, let us begin.”
Most days the professor taught me about the world and its people. Which countries were at rest and which cities were at war. He taught me the history of the world and of the universe, about mathematics and science. But every now and then we would do something different. He would play cards with me, and not the way Aunt Sarah did. I never understood the rules of the game. He would have me cut the deck, and then he would lay out his cards, with strange numbers and pictures on them. Sometimes he would give me objects, like bird feathers or stones or, one time, even a sword, which he withdrew from his cane, and he would tell me to write stories about them. Other times he would give me pretend problems and ask how I would solve them. He never answered my questions, about the objects or cards or their purposes. He said I had asked my three questions, and had wasted them. In the future I would be more careful. On those days I hated him.
Every other day I was Aunt Sarah’s doll, to be dressed and played with and entertained. My own doll lay buried but not quite forgotten in the trunk I still kept beneath the skirts of my bed. I scarcely remembered the befores—my days spent with Sister beneath the hot sun, or nights with Uncle as he’d showed me the stars. I became an indoor creature, like Dash, the late Master Shaw’s foxhound, who had been relegated to the servants’ quarters since he’d taken an immediate disliking to me.