"Then why don't you make one up?" she suggests, her voice clearly implying that this is an obvious solution.
"You don't like Ben's stories?"
She teeters her head from side to side, the straps of her little white cap bouncing on her shoulders. "I do," she replies, sounding almost diplomatic. "They're for boys, though. I want to hear a girl story."
She's looking at me with big, round, eager eyes and it takes me a second to realize she really is expecting me to just make up a story. Right here. Right now.
"Um," I say again. "Okay, I guess I can make up a story for you."
Her lips spring into an ear-to-ear grin, revealing two rows of miniature crooked teeth. One is missing from the bottom. She climbs clumsily onto the bed-hands and knees and elbows everywhere-and sits down right beside me. She places her doll in her lap, wraps one arm around its waist and the other she rests casually on my thigh, clearly thinking nothing of the gesture. As though we've sat like this a dozen times before.
I stiffen at her sudden proximity and her touch, reminding myself of the way that stupid horse reacts every time I enter his stall.
She looks up at me, chin jutted out, blue eyes blinking, mouth curved in a patient half smile. Waiting. Anticipating. I hope she doesn't expect anything as remarkable as one of Zen's stories because if so, she'll be sorely disappointed.
"Okay," I begin awkwardly, racking my brain for something to say. "This is a story about..."
Am I really expected to just create an entire story? An entire life? When I'm still trying to figure out my own? I rack my brain for inspiration. For a single detail I can begin with, but no response comes. My mind is blank.
Zen always makes it look so easy. Effortless. He simply starts talking and doesn't stop until an entire epic saga has been described in painstaking detail. I can't even come up with a single person, place, or thing to be the subject of one lousy story.
Did the Diotech scientists create me with absolutely no imaginative abilities whatsoever?
I suppose that shouldn't surprise me.
Creativity obviously had no function in whatever it was they planned to do with me. In fact, any creative talent at all was probably considered a liability. A threat. A skill that might facilitate an escape plan.
They obviously weren't counting on Zen.
Jane is still staring up at me, waiting for some exciting, perilous tale. Unfortunately I'll have to break it to her that it's just not going to happen. I'm simply not wired that way. She's going to have to get her source of entertainment from somewhere else tonight.
"About a princess," she whispers beside me.
I frown back at her. "What?"
She looks impatient for a moment before letting out a sigh and explaining, "All good stories are about a princess."
"Oh," I splutter. "Right. Yes. Okay, it's about a princess."
Jane nods contentedly, indicating her satisfaction, and then motions for me to keep going.
"It's about a princess who ... who..." But once again nothing comes.
"Lives in King James's court?" she asks, raising her eyebrows hopefully.
"Oh no." I shake my head, confident about something for the first time. "She's from much farther away. A very, very distant place."
Jane's eyes light up. "The New World?"
"Even farther. Farther than you could ever imagine."
She flashes me an encouraging smile.
"So," I continue tentatively, still unsure where I'm going with this, "the princess was ... she was..."
"Special." Jane finishes the sentence. "She has to be special."
"Of course," she replies with authority. "Otherwise why would there be a story about her?"
"Good point. Yes, she was very special."
"Why?" Jane prompts, gazing up eagerly at me again.
I peer around the room for some help. There's none to be found. "Well, she was special because she had these ... these..." I stop, press my lips together, glance down at my wrist, safely hidden behind my sleeve again. I take a deep breath.
"... magic powers," I finally conclude.
"Oooh!" Jane nods her head vigorously in approval. She scoots even closer to me, our legs now touching. "What kind of powers?"
Her excitement unexpectedly invigorates me. Makes me feel giddy. A surge of warmth runs through my body and I suddenly find myself wanting to do anything to keep the feeling alive. To please her.
"Well," I begin. The smile on my face is automatic. Unconscious. "She could run really fast. And she was very strong."
"Stronger than the boys?"
"Stronger than anyone."
Jane's eyes are wide with fascination, her mouth hanging open. Her passion fuels me. Presses me forward. "And she could see in the dark," I add, attempting to give my voice a mysterious lilt, the way I've heard Zen do so many times. "And hear things from very far away. And read very quickly. And speak several languages."
"Like French?" Jane asks.
I nod. "Yes. Like French and Spanish and Portuguese and Russian."
"That's wondrous!" Jane marvels, clearly entranced.
I can't help but laugh. "Yes, I suppose it is."
"She's very lucky."
I let out a sigh. "Actually, no. She isn't. Because you see, she was forced to run very far away from her home. To a place that she didn't know at all. She had to hide because there were bad people chasing her."
"They wanted her magic powers," Jane adds shrewdly.
"Exactly. They wanted to capture her and bring her back to where she came from."
"But there was a prince?" Jane assumes, as though this solves everything.
And I suppose, when you're six years old, it does.
"Yes, there was a prince. And he was..." My voice trails off for a moment and I feel that subtle tingle that covers my skin every time I think of Zen. "Well, he helped her escape from the bad people. She loved him very much."
I can tell right away that this was the correct answer. Jane smiles triumphantly. "So now she could be happy? Because she escaped?"
The expression on Jane's sweet little face causes a splinter to stab into my chest. She looks as though the weight of her existence-everything she knows to be true-is riding on this very answer.
"She was," I say cautiously. "However, because she was so different, she often felt..." I exhale, finding the truth in my breath. "Lonely. And scared. Like she didn't belong anywhere. Like she wasn't..." I pause again, glancing down at Lulu, her tiny handcrafted body tucked into Jane's slender, pale arms. Her faded red lips, permanently drawn into a smile. Her blank button eyes stare back at me. Unblinking. Unfeeling.
The two syllables hang in the air like a puff of stale smoke, waiting for the wind to determine which way they will drift. How long they will stay.
When I look down at Jane again, her forehead is furrowed and I immediately fear that I've failed at my attempt to entertain her. "But she wasn't an animal," she argues, confusion soaked into her small voice.
"N-no," I try to explain, stammering slightly, "I meant, she didn't feel ... real."
Jane is pensive. She appears to be absorbing everything I said. Analyzing it. Deciding whether or not this qualifies as a satisfactory story.
"If she wasn't real," she finally says, "then she wouldn't have been able to run away from the bad people. That was a good choice."
My smile is strained. "I suppose it was."
There's a long silence in which neither one of us speaks or looks at the other. Finally, I feel a soft tug on the sleeve of my shirt. I glance down to see that Jane has ever so carefully peeled away the cuff to reveal the thin, black mark underneath.
She studies it for a moment. Then, with surprising boldness, she reaches out with one tiny finger-barely a twig-and touches it. Sweeps along the length of the line. Delicate. Like a baby mouse running across my skin. Back and forth. Back and forth.
I don't say anything. I don't try to move away. I just watch. And feel.
"She needs to hide really well." Jane finally speaks, her voice quiet but steady. Unusually wise for her age.
She removes her hand, allowing the sleeve to fall back into place, concealing the inside of my left wrist once again. "So they can never ever find her."
She looks up at me, her blue eyes liquid and sparkling.
My bottom lip starts to tremble. I bite down on it hard. Small droplets of blood trickle onto my tongue. I swallow them.
"Yes," I say, trying to ignore the bitter metallic taste in my mouth. "She does."
Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers.