“My darling, look at you, you’re all healed up!” Odette said. Ingrid stood with her back to her at first as she gazed out the window. With arms open wide, she rushed at the girl. Her little ear was surrounded by bandages, but she stood up as healthy as she ever was, which is not to say much.
Ingrid cowered, covering her head with her arms. She dashed behind the curtains, hand clutching her ear. Odette froze in her tracks.
“Ingrid, dear, I’m not going to hurt you. Are you quite well?”
She peeled the curtain back. “It doesn’t feel right.” Ingrid’s voice sounded like the squeak of a mouse. Her eyes caught the light, shining like prismatic crystals, obscuring the misery welling up inside them.
Odette knelt on the ground a short distance from Ingrid. “What doesn’t feel right, dear?”
“My ear, it’s not my ear.” She moved her hand away, dragging it down off her face. “See? It doesn’t look the same. It’s darker and bigger.” She thrust out the offending object, displaying an ear that did appear larger and darker than the other. They once matched, being one of the few features of Ingrid’s that corresponded with each other.
The body that Odette saw down in the basement now made sense. Ingrid had received an ear transplant, sure, but why did they need the whole body for just one little ear? More alarmingly, where did they procure such a body? Odette swallowed her suspicions to comfort her pupil. “What matters is that you have two ears and that you can hear just fine.”
“But whose is it? Didn’t they need their ear?” She dropped down to the floor and pulled at her hair with her hands. “I stole it from them!”
“No, Ingrid, you didn’t steal anything. You didn’t conduct your own operation.” She chewed on her lip, pondering what to reveal to her. “I’m certain that no one was hurt during your transplant, that no one is missing anything they need.”
“How much more of me is made out of other people’s parts?” Her fingers traced down the length of her hair. “Is this even mine? I thought hair was supposed to grow, and mine never gets any longer!” She touched each part of her body. “Are my eyes mine? What of my stomach, or my heart, or my brain? Who did it all come from?”
Odette cradled Ingrid’s hands in her own. “I don’t know, dear, but I do think that you’re mostly made of you. You’ve only received a few transplants here and there, but it’s all you, it’s all Ingrid underneath it all. And all I care about is you.” Odette placed a finger over Ingrid’s heart would be. “But I’m trying to learn what happened to you, for your sake. Would it give you peace of mind to know?”
She nodded. “I want to know why I’m different, why everyone thinks I’m a monster.”
“I don’t think you’re a monster. You know that. Come now, if you’re feeling up to it, we should read a for a little while. Let’s get back to Alice in Wonderland, why don’t we? That always brightens your spirits.”
“I don’t feel like much like reading.” She sank further onto the floor.
“I know,” Odette said, springing back to her feet. “Why don’t we go outside?”
Ingrid’s head shot up. She looked between the window and Odette, her jaw slack. “I’m not allowed outside. Mr. Kohler says I’ll get hurt out there.”
“Oh, it will be fine. I’ll be with you, so nothing’s going to hurt you. It’s perfectly safe.” Odette threw open the wardrobe doors and rifled around. “Where’s a coat for you? Do you have a coat? Ah, here we go, let’s use this.” She tossed a brown jacket with ribbons and fur trim upon the floor. “Now if only I could find a hat. No matter, we’ll tie this scarf around your head.” She whipped out a white silk scarf and covered Ingrid’s hair and ears with it.
“Won’t Mr. Kohler be angry if we go outside?”
“I’m not particularly worried about him.” She tied a bow underneath Ingrid’s chin. “You see, he’s left you in my care and trusts my judgment, I think.”
“You only think?”
“There’s a good many things I’m uncertain of these days. But one thing I am certain of is that sunshine makes everyone feel better!” She tossed on her own shawl and pulled Ingrid out by the hand.
Sunlight trickled through the twigs and branches of the trees. The leaves fluttered to the ground with a ballerina’s grace. And Ingrid’s mouth never stopped.
“What happened to all the birds?”
“I don’t think this is a great idea, Miss Dufour.”
“Who knew it was so bright out here?”
“Is the ground always this squishy?”
“What happens if someone sees me, Miss Dufour?”
Odette scanned the hills for any signs of life. Save for a few hares and encircling hawks, nothing stirred through the withering woods. “There’s no one here to see you, dear. And if there is, we’ll keep you concealed behind me. Perhaps I could even make introductions for you, if you wanted. You’ll find that not all people are cruel and judgmental.” She laid a hand on the girl’s shoulder, deciding whether she were shivering or trembling. “We needn’t stay out long. At any time, we can go back inside.”
Ingrid spun around, her face turned to the sky in awe. “But it’s so big out here. So free. I feel as if I’m in Wonderland.” She plucked a leaf from the ground and studied it. Then she scooped up full piles of leaves and tossed them into the air. The girl, once sullen and pain-addled, dashed about with new life, like a normal child. Odette relished in this minor victory and joined her pupil in gathering and scattering leaves.
“But shouldn’t I be learning something, Miss Dufour?”
“Yes,” Odette said, her arm full of leaves. “I have a very important lesson for you. This is what it feels like to have giant pile of leaves dropped on you.” She set her leaves free upon Ingrid’s shoulders.
Ingrid squealed and dropped to the ground to roll about in the excess foliage. Once tired out, she laid upon her back to marvel at the clouds rolling in. “I’ve never felt the rain before,” she said, holding out her hands lest she should miss a drop if it were to fall. “I wish it would come.”
“You aren’t missing much,” Odette said, bunching up her skirts to sit upon a boulder. “You stay out for too long in it and you’ll be shivering and sniffling and will eventually take ill. In fact,” Odette peered up at the charcoal gray blotting out the sun, “we should probably get you back inside.”
“I don’t want to go back!” Ingrid stumbled back to her feet. “I’ll never be let outside again. Can’t we just live out here? Make a little home out of the branches and weave the leaves like blankets?”
Odette rose up to adjust Ingrid’s scarf. “I think you’ll find that leaf blankets will be very itchy. This won’t be the last time we come outside. I’ll bring you out for a visit whenever I can.”
“But what if Mr. Kohler finds out that we went outside? He’ll lock me inside forever!”
“I’m not going to let him lock you inside forever. Especially now that I know you like it outside so much.”
“Then why did you let him lock me away for this long?” Ingrid stepped back once her scarf had been retied.
“I didn’t know better. You seemed so ill that I thought they were quarantining you. But I haven’t caught anything, so I thought it must be safe.”
“I’m not going back!” Ingrid stepped back until she tripped over a tree root. “If I have to be kept away from everyone, I want to be kept out here!”
Odette drew forward as though she were coaxing a frightened cat. “Ingrid, please, come back with me, we’ll come out every time that Mr. Kohler is away for the day.”
Ingrid eyed the hand that Odette extended. Before it came close enough to seize her garments, she bolted into the woods. Odette chased after her, shocked by the speed Ingrid mustered. She swerved around trees and stomped through the creek, Odette nearly losing her several times. Could the motivation truly have been enough to keep her energy up? Is this how much she loathed the thought of going back? Could it really be so horrendous living in such luxury? Is a velvet lined cage of gold no better than a rusted cage of tin?
After several yards, Odette’s skirts got the better of her and she fell flat upon her face. She wasted no time in wiping away the mud, yet some how Ingrid had already disappeared. Her heart pounded with such volume that she couldn’t distinguish the sound of the brook from the fluttering of a bird’s wings. Rain drops splattered against the leaves as Odette spun around scanning the landscape for her pupil. Her feet tripped over each other and her eyes could not focus. She squinted through the forming mist, wiping raindrops from her eyelashes. Every sound blended into one. Every sound save for one childish shriek. Ingrid? No. But who? Odette rushed towards the source: A group of young boys gathering kindling, staring slack-jawed at a ghastly little figure in a white scarf, its back facing Odette. Ingrid. She crept closer, the wet ground masking the sound of her footsteps.
“What are you?” the oldest boy asked. Two of the smaller ones backed away behind him. A trembling fourth boy fumbled to gather the branches he had dropped.
Ingrid stood stiller than the trees, mouth unmoving.
“She’s a ghost,” one of the littler boys murmured.
“Julian told you these woods were haunted,” said the trembling boy with a glare at the eldest.
The smallest boy stuck out a chubby little finger and shouted, “And look, a muddy angel’s come to claim her soul!”
Odette paused in her tracks now that the boys had spotted her. Thoughts whirled around her head like the wind that whipped up the wet leaves. This could be Ingrid’s chance to make a friend her age. But the introduction that was welling up on Odette’s lips evaporated as she recalled signing her name to the privacy contract in the dim candlelight. And her eyes landed on the knife on the boy’s belt. Perhaps this chance meeting should become nothing more than another myth of the old mansion.
“It’s time to go home, dear,” she said to Ingrid, extending her muddied hand.
Ingrid placed her palm on her teacher’s and the two fled from the woods, disappearing into the mist.