“We’re going to give you another drug now so that you won’t even remember today’s unpleasantness. Won’t that be nice?” A smile snaked across her lips, but then her eyebrows pinched together. “Wayne, what’s the current room temperature?”
Wayne moved over to the left, pressing a spot on the mirrored wall with his thumb. Numbers appeared in the glass. Fancy.
Kells pressed the back of her hand to my forehead. “She’s hot. And sweating.” She wiped her hand on the blanket.
“Is that . . . normal?”
“It’s atypical,” Kells said. “She hasn’t reacted this way to any of the previous tests.”
Previous tests? How many had there been?
Kells withdrew a penlight from her pocket and said to me, “Don’t squint.”
I didn’t squint. She shined the light into my eyes; I wanted to close them but couldn’t.
“Her pupils are dilated. I don’t understand. The procedure’s over.” Her voice wavered just slightly. “Wayne, the Amylethe, please?”
He withdrew something from the black case. Another needle. But he must have been sweating too, because he fumbled with it. It fell to the floor and rolled.
“Christ,” Kells muttered under her breath.
“Sorry, sorry.” He reached for a new syringe but stopped when the monitor by the bed beeped.
Kells looked over at it. “Her blood pressure’s falling. She’s having some kind of reaction. Could you be any slower?”
I’d never heard her sound anything less than completely composed. But looking at her now, her body was tense. The tendons in her neck were corded. I was probably imagining it, but I could practically smell her fear.
She was terrified. Of me? For me? I didn’t know, but I liked it.
Wayne clenched his jaw shut and unscrewed the cap on the syringe. He reached for my arm and stabbed my shoulder with the needle.
My vision swam, and my head went thick. “Take her to the examination room,” was the last thing I heard before I blacked out.
India, Unknown Province
THE DAY AUNTIE DIED, OUR neighbors watched warily as we walked from the village bearing her body. The air was as dead as she was; the river sickness had taken her just days after Uncle had brought me home. Auntie had been the only reason they’d tolerated him, in his different clothes, always blue, with his different words and different looks. She’d been special, Uncle had told me. When she would assist at a birth, the baby would rush out of its mother’s womb to meet her. Without her we were unprotected. I did not understand what he meant until he died.
Word of us spread from village to village. Wherever we went, plague and death had already struck, and we followed in its wake. Uncle did his best for the people, sharing remedies, making poultices, but whispers followed in our footsteps. Mara, they called us. Demons.
One night Uncle roused us from sleep and told me and Sister to leave at once. We must not ask questions, just obey. We crept from our hut in darkness, and once we set foot in the jungle, we heard his scream.
A column of smoke rose in the air, carrying his cries with it. I wanted to go to him, to fix it, but Sister said that we’d promised not to, that we would suffer the same fate if we did. I had taken nothing but my doll. I would never leave it behind.
My long, tangled hair stuck to my neck and shoulders in the damp nighttime heat as Uncle’s screams were replaced with the sounds of the forest, rising with the moon. We did not sleep that night, and as the sun broke through the clouds and hunger gripped my belly, I thought we would have to beg for bread, like the orphans. But we did not. Sister spoke to the trees, and they gave up their fruit for her. The ground gave up its water. The earth nourished us, sustained us, until we reached the city.
Sister took me straight to the tallest building at the port to see the man with glasses. He called himself Mr. Barbary, and Sister walked straight toward him. We were dirty and tired and looked very much like we did not belong.
“Yes?” he said when we stood before his desk. “What is it you want?”
Sister told him who she was, who her father had been. He saw us with new eyes.
“I did not recognize her. She has grown.”
“Yes,” I said. “I have.”
I had never spoken to him before, or anyone except Sister and Uncle. I had never needed to. But I knew why we were here, and I wanted to impress him.
It worked. His eyes grew wide, and his smile spread beneath the funny bow of hair above his lip. “Why, she talks!”
I could do more than that.
He asked me questions about what had happened to us, and about other things too—what I had learned since I had last seen him, what talents I had developed, whether I had fallen ill. Then he measured how much I’d grown. After, he gave Sister a pouch, and she bowed her head in gratitude.
“I must inform her benefactor of your change in circumstances, you understand,” he explained.
Sister nodded, but her face was a mask. “I understand. But her education has not yet been completed. Please inform him that I will take over for my father, if I am allowed.”
Mr. Barbary nodded and then excused us, and Sister led me out of the building by my hand. I wondered at how she knew the city so well. She had never come with Uncle and me before.
Sister paid a man to find us lodging, and then she bought us clothes, fine clothes, the sort Uncle used to wear. She purchased a meal for us to eat in our room.
It was like nothing I had ever seen, with tall beds carved from trees that were dressed in linens as soft as feathers. Sister washed me and dressed me, and then we ate.
“We will leave after dark,” she said, scooping up fragrant yellow rice with her bread.
As my belly filled, I began to feel pleasant and drowsy. “Why not stay?” The room was solid, empty of dust and drafts, and the beds looked so clean. I longed to bury myself in one.
“It is better to go unnoticed for as long as we can, until we find a new home.”
I did not argue. I trusted Sister. She had taken care of me when I was little, as she would take care of me until she died.
It happened long after Uncle had been killed, though I don’t know how long. Time held no meaning for me—it was marked only by my visits to Mr. Barbary for inspection. Uncle kept no calendars, and neither did Sister. I did not even know my age. We moved along the outskirts of villages like ghosts, until we were driven even from the fringes. Then we moved to the next.
“Why must we keep moving?” I asked her as we walked. “Why won’t they let us stay?”