It was envy, Sister said. The people we lived among were not gifted like us. They were as ordinary as blades of grass, but we were like flowers, beautiful and rare. They suspected our differences and hated us for it. So we had to pretend to be what we were not, so we would not be harmed for what we were.
But they harmed us anyway. No matter how hard we tried to remain unseen, someone would always recognize or suspect us. On our third day in the most recent village, they took Sister as night fell, the way they’d taken Uncle. The way they tried to take me.
Arms pinched my flesh and I was grabbed from my mat. Sister was screaming, begging them not to hurt me, swearing to our innocence, our harmlessness, but before I was even properly awake, her words were cut short. A man had smashed a rock into her head. Just once, but it had been enough.
I went slack in the arms of my captor as the same man raised the rock again to hit me with it. I wanted him to die.
His body shuddered, and something ripped inside him, sending a torrent of blood from his nose. He dropped his rock and moaned, backing away from me.
The others backed away as well. I did not speak to them. I did not scream at them. I looked at Sister, her mouth slack, her body limp, her hair glistening with blood, and I wanted.
I wanted them to feel as she felt. I wanted them to never see another sunrise, since she would not either.
I sat beside her, cradling her crushed skull in my lap. The others formed a wide circle around us. Then someone threw a stone.
It missed me. And struck someone else.
Shouts erupted, and the air filled with fear. The village emptied that night as the men—the murderers—fled, taking their women and children with them.
I saw tools but ignored them. I began to scoop dirt with my hands, and buried Sister when I finished digging her shallow grave, right where she had fallen. I slept there until the following day. Even the insects did not disturb me. When I woke, I began walking to Calcutta alone. I passed the scattered bodies of the villagers on my way. The skin above their lips was smeared with blood, but the flies did not touch them. They did not dare.
I avoided people. I bathed in my bloody, simple shift. The forest would not give up its gifts for me, so I skirted villages and stole from them to eat. I was ignorant of everything but my loneliness. I missed Sister, and Uncle, too, in my way. But they were gone now, and all I had left of them and my life with them was ash and dust and the doll Sister had made me, and the words Uncle had given me, taught me, so that I could speak with my benefactor in England someday.
Someday had arrived.
I walked to the port, to Mr. Barbary, unaccompanied for the first time in memory. He took in my stained clothes and my matted hair. I looked like a wild thing, but I spoke as cleanly and crisply as he did, and in his own tongue at that. I told him my education was complete. He sent me to an inn nearby, and would fetch me when my passage to England had been arranged, he said.
I bathed in clean water that night, and scrubbed my body with milled, formed soap, a luxury I had learned of but not experienced. I marveled at the foam on my skin, the lather in my hair, and when I was finished, I climbed into bed naked, and let the air dry my body. I felt as though I had shed my skin like a snake, and this new skin would carry me to my new life.
The next day Mr. Barbary appeared at the door to inform me that my benefactor had died the previous week, but not to worry as he had provided for me in the event of his death. His widow had been informed of my existence and had agreed to take me in, as he would have someday. Mr. Barbary had booked my passage on the first available ship. It would leave the following week, and I was to entertain myself until then.
And I did. He left me a purse with my own coins, and I bought new clothes and food I did not have to prepare. My body softened after a week in the city, after stuffing myself whenever I wanted with glistening, steaming sweet and spicy foods.
The night before I was to leave, I laid my new things in my new small trunk with great care. I took out my doll from beneath my pillow, where I hid her during the day. I ran my fingers over her seams, touched the spot of Sister’s blood that marked her wrist, and wondered what shape my new life without Sister would take.
“Why does the white man pay for me?” I had once asked Uncle, after a trip to Calcutta for my inspection. The coins jingled with his steps.
“Because he believes you are valuable. And when you go to him, you will be.”
I took this in. “When will I go?”
“When you become,” Uncle said.
But if I am not myself yet, then who am I? I thought.
THE FIRST THING I NOTICED when I woke up was that I was covered in blood.
The second thing I noticed was that this didn’t bother me the way it should have.
I didn’t feel the urge to scream or speak, to beg for help, or even to wonder where I was. Those instincts were dead, and I was calm as my wet fingers slid up the tiled wall, groping for a light switch. I found one without even having to stand. Four lights slammed on above me, one after the other, illuminating the dead body on the floor just a few feet away.
My mind processed the facts first. Male. Heavy. He was lying facedown in a wide, red puddle that spread out from beneath him. The tips of his curly black hair were wet with it. There was something in his hand.
The fluorescent lights in the white room flickered and buzzed and hummed. I moved to get a better view of the body. Its eyes were closed. It might have been only asleep, really, if it weren’t for the blood. There was so much of it. And by one of the hands the blood was smeared into a weird pattern.
No. Not a pattern. Words.
My gaze flicked to the hand. The fist was curled around a small tape recorder. I moved the fingers—still warm—and pressed play. A male voice started to speak.
“Do I have your attention?” the voice asked.
I knew that voice. But I couldn’t believe I was hearing it.
“Noah’s alive,” Jude said.
He had my attention now.
“And you don’t have much time. You probably recognize the dead man on the floor as Wayne Flowers. I’m the one who killed him, in case you were wondering. The good news is that he’s one of two people with access to Dr. Kells’s office—the other one being Dr. Kells. The bad news is that in order for you to get that access, and get out of this room, you’re going to need to cut out his left eye.”
What was this? A trick? A trap?
“I would’ve done it for you but there wasn’t time. I switched the syringe, the one they shot you with before your spinal tap. That’s why you had a . . . reaction . . . when they examined you, which—that was really freaky, by the way. Anyway, whatever. There’s a retinal scanner above her office door, top right corner, just like there is above this one. All the doors in this place auto-lock. When you have the eye, hold it a few inches above where yours are—he was taller than you. There is a video camera—they’re everywhere, can’t help that, she’ll see you, but she’ll see you wherever you are. Wherever you are, except in this room. There are no records made of anything that happens in this room. That’s why I dosed you before she took you in here, slipped in before Wayne could get out. I would’ve taken you too but you wouldn’t let me near you. Anyway, once you’re in Kells’s office, the door will lock behind you. You can get out using Wayne’s eye.