thursday, may 1, 1941
In the basement of Ackerbee's Home for Lost and Foundlings, two young girls were at work. One had a pair of glasses perched on her nose and her pet tarantula, Violet, perched on her head. In each hand she held a piece of thin wire that she was gradually-and very carefully-bringing closer together. The other was watching, breath held, and trying not to get in the way.
"Steady," said the first girl, her dark eyes fixed on the gap between the wires. "Almost there . . ."
Unfortunately her friend-lost in admiration for the science taking place before her very eyes-chose just that moment to nudge some glassware with an unwary elbow and a round-bottomed beaker crashed to the floor.
There was a sudden spark as the wires the first girl had been holding met unexpectedly quickly, followed by a babble of apology from the other, who was already dropping to her knees to collect the shards of broken glass.
"Sorry! she said for the tenth time in as many seconds. "I really am! I didn't mean to, Tess, I swear."
Tess sighed before joining her friend on the floor. "I know, Wilf. Your timing is perfect, though. As usual. She picked up the larger pieces of beaker with the skill that comes from long practice; Wilf averaged two breakages a week.
Wilf-who had discarded her given name, Wilhelmina, as soon as she was old enough to say it and long before she was old enough to know how to spell it-reddened. "I'm never going to be a scientist if I can't stop destroying my equipment," she muttered.
Tess looked at her friend. "Don't be silly, you goose," she replied. "You're already a scientist. Just think of it as a study of gravity. Or," she continued, holding up a shard and peering through it, an examination of the smashiness of glass."
"That's not a word," Wilf scoffed, though her green eyes shone with amusement in her pale face.
"I just said it, didn't I? Tess retorted, placing the shard carefully in her palm. As she reached for the next piece, her tarantula stirred on her head. "What's up, girl? she murmured, glancing upward.
"Is something wrong? asked Wilf, but before Tess had a chance to answer, the door to their lab was opened. Tess felt Violet relax, settling back into the tangle of Tess's hair.
"Girls? came a voice they both knew.
"Miss Whipstead," Wilf said, getting to her feet. "We're down here."
"Ah. Wilhelmina. Another breakage? their teacher said with a fond smile.
"Just a small one," Wilf replied, blushing again.
"Never mind, eh? Miss Whipstead said, throwing her a wink. "Now, Tess? Miss Ackerbee needs you upstairs."
Tess clambered to her feet. Violet began to thrum a bit, sensing her worry. "Miss Ackerbee needs to see me?"
"As I said. Can you come now, please? It's a bit of an emergency. Leave that clearing up to Wilf-I'll come and give her a hand in a minute."
"An emergency? Tess echoed. She took off her lab coat (really an old raincoat that she liked to imagine was white and that was equipped with many very useful pockets) and threw it over a nearby chair. Then she closed her experiments notebook, which had been sitting open on her workbench (really a spare classroom desk used mainly for detention), and folded it in two before sliding it into one of those very useful pockets. Violet skittered about a bit on top of her head. "Shush, girl. It's all right," Tess muttered to her, reaching up a finger for the spider to cling to. She met Wilf's worried gaze and tried to give her a reassuring smile.
"Is there anything I can do to help? Wilf asked. Miss Whipstead glanced at her and shook her head.
"Miss Ackerbee just needs Tess for now, Wilf. Don't worry," she lied in a too-bright voice.
"See you later," Tess said, giving Wilf's arm a quick squeeze as she passed. Wilf nodded, frowning.
"It's nothing to worry about, girls," said Miss Whipstead, holding the door open as Tess and Violet ducked under her arm. She glanced back at Wilf as they left the room. "You'll be back to your experiments in no time, I'm sure. Wilf sighed, turning back to the clear-up as her teacher closed the door.
"Do you know we're this close to doing it? said Tess, turning to Miss Whipstead wide-eyed. The teacher smiled, even as she shooed Tess up the corridor. "Actually making a faradic spark-real electricity-from seaweed!"
"If anyone can do it, it's you pair," said Miss Whipstead. "I have no doubt."
"What does Miss Ackerbee need me for? Tess racked her brain quickly, trying to see if there was anything she'd done recently that she hadn't yet owned up to.
"I'm sure it's nothing," Miss Whipstead reassured her. "You're not in trouble is all I know. Though goodness knows you ought to be. Tess glanced up at her, but the teacher's eyes twinkled.
They climbed the basement stairs into the house's large kitchen and Miss Whipstead paused for a minute to evaluate Tess's appearance. After telling her to clean her glasses, wipe her breakfast off her face and pull up that one sock that insisted on slipping down, Miss Whipstead deemed Tess fit to appear in the parlor. "Remember," whispered Miss Whipstead as she knocked on Miss Ackerbee's door. "You're not in trouble."
"Thanks," Tess replied, smiling up at her. Then she stepped through into Miss Ackerbee's domain, feeling knock-kneed. There wasn't often cause to stand in this room, and Tess found it was rarely a good thing for anyone to be summoned before the housemistress.
"Tess," said Miss Ackerbee, turning from a tall filing cabinet in the corner. "Why don't you take a seat."
Tess did as she was asked, feeling somehow untethered, like she could just float right up into the corner of this tall room. She glanced out of the window, hoping that would help to keep her steady.
"Now. Miss Ackerbee sat behind her desk. A short stack of paperwork topped with a blanket was within her reach. She folded her thin brown hands and took in a deep breath. "I suppose I'd best begin in the most obvious place. A man came for you today, Tess. A man who has laid claim to you and wants to take you away from here."
Tess swayed in her chair. She grasped its arms, fearing she might fall headlong onto the carpet otherwise.
"My-my father? she croaked.
Miss Ackerbee shook her head, closing her eyes momentarily. "No. I don't believe so. In fact, I don't believe he is any relation to you, despite his assertions to the contrary. Tess listened, hauling breaths in and out, hoping she wouldn't be sick. Violet reached down a forelimb to stroke her forehead and she began to calm.
"So-who was he?"
"Before we get to that, Tess, let's have a chat. Have I ever told you properly about the night you arrived here?"
"Well, you said I was found in a blanket, on the doorstep . . . Tess's words trailed away as her eyes found the blanket on Miss Ackerbee's desk again. "That blanket? She looked up at the housemistress.
"This blanket," Miss Ackerbee replied. "And it contained more than just you, though you were gift enough by yourself. She smiled at Tess, who was too overwhelmed to return the smile. "There was an envelope full of money, which was useless as it was in a currency nobody had ever seen. And there was this."
Miss Ackerbee's hand slipped between the folds of the blanket. When it reemerged, it was clutching an object small enough to nestle in the hollow of her palm. The object was made of metal but Tess couldn't have said what sort-it looked dark, like brass. It was a short cylindrical thing like you might keep buttons in, though it was far too elegant for that, and the swirling weblike pattern that swept across it made it look like something that had been grown, not made. There were markings around its upper circumference, a bit like those on a clock face to denote the hours, or a compass to indicate direction, except there were eight of them. Each was a different color and one seemed to be discolored or tarnished somehow. It looked out of place.
"Is it-is it for false eyeballs? said Tess, her gaze fixed on the small metal box.
Miss Ackerbee froze. "I beg your pardon? she said.
"It's just something I read once. A man kept his false eyeball in a tin exactly like that one."
Miss Ackerbee's lips twitched. "I have no idea what this object is, Tess, but as far as I'm aware, it has nothing to do with eyeballs of any sort. She paused to place it on the table in front of her. "And remind me to monitor your reading material a bit more closely," she murmured, sliding the box toward Tess.
"So-what is it? said Tess, who hadn't moved from her chair.
"I made a thorough examination of it when you arrived here," said Miss Ackerbee. "In case there was a clue to your identity or your family. But when I discovered I had no idea what I was looking at, I put it away and it's been in that filing cabinet for the past twelve years."
"And why are you giving it to me now?"
"I had intended to give it to you when you reached eighteen, or as soon as you decided to move away from this house to forge your own life," said Miss Ackerbee. "Along with every last note of the money we found with you, in the hope you could make use of it somewhere. But that's just the problem. Miss Ackerbee sighed, taking off her spectacles to rub at her eyes.
"What-what is? said Tess after a minute.
"My dear, I don't quite know how to put this. Miss Ackerbee kept her eyes shut as she paused to think. Eventually she opened them again to gaze at Tess. "It is my considered opinion that neither you, nor the money you arrived with, nor indeed this object, comes from anywhere on this earth," she finally said, settling her spectacles back on her nose and fixing Tess with a look that was, given the circumstances, surprisingly calm.
Tess gaped at the object on Miss Ackerbee's desk as Violet trembled in the midst of her hair. She wanted nothing more than to get up, walk out of the room, run up the two flights of stairs to her own snug dormitory and pull her blankets over her head.
"I don't . . . ," she finally managed to say, I don't know what you mean."
"My girl, I hardly know what I mean myself," said Miss Ackerbee with a sigh. "All I know is this object is somehow inextricably tied with you, and that you are an extraordinary girl. A most extraordinary girl indeed."
"Am I? Tess was dazed. She'd never imagined she was extraordinary, and wondered how extraordinary people were supposed to act. Probably, she thought, they weren't supposed to go about with one sock down and their glasses smudged, and she wondered if Miss Ackerbee mightn't be mixing her up with one of the older girls.
Then Miss Ackerbee began to speak again and Tess did her best to focus.
"When you were very little, Tess, you used to disappear. Just-vanish, like that, out of the blue. You'd only be gone for five or maybe ten seconds at a time, but it was enough to make my heart skip. Miss Ackerbee gazed at her with steady brown eyes.
Tess blinked at her. "Um. Miss Ackerbee, I don't think that's-"
"Possible? Miss Ackerbee finished Tess's sentence. "I didn't think so either. Not until I met you, at least."
"But where did I go?"
Miss Ackerbee licked her lips and took a deep breath. She stared at her desk and it looked to Tess like she was trying to find a pattern in the swirl of knots in the wood. Finally she looked up. Her kind face was earnest, as though she hoped Tess would believe what she was about to tell her.
"The night you came to us, I was here. In this parlor. Drinking a cup of cocoa. The entire house was asleep and I was standing by my window, gazing out at the river and indulging in a bit of thought. She smiled at the memory. "And then, out of the blue, a shimmering circle appeared in midair-just for a second, you understand. Had I blinked at the wrong moment, I would have missed it. It hung right in front of the door before winking out of existence again. But it was there long enough for me to see."
"See what? Tess asked.
"A man. Young and thin, and frightened. He looked up at the door of Ackerbee's. Snow was falling all around him. And then he was gone. The next thing I knew, there was a wail. I put my cup down on the windowsill and ran to the door-and there you were in the porch, wrapped in this blanket."
"And where was the man?"
Miss Ackerbee smiled, but there was sadness beneath it. "He wasn't there, Tess. And all around you was snow, tiny flakes in your blanket and even one on your baby eyelash, which I wiped away. Miss Ackerbee rubbed her forefinger with her thumb, as though reliving the moment. "Except it wasn't snowing that night. Not in this world, at least."
Tess fought to understand. "You said that before-'this world. What does that mean?"
"I think," Miss Ackerbee began, speaking carefully, 'that you have the ability to move between our world and other worlds, Tess. I'm not sure how, but that's my theory."
"Other-other worlds? Tess scrunched up her face. "Like-different planets?"
"No, I don't think so. Other versions of this planet is what I mean. Different realities might be a better way of putting it, perhaps."
Miss Ackerbee lifted the blanket off the pile of paperwork, opened the topmost folder and began to flip through some documents until she came to a collection of letters, speaking to Tess all the while. "When you were very small and your extraordinary abilities began to appear, I made some discreet inquiries of a scientific nature. Over the course of making those inquiries, I made a friend who, until a few years ago, was a professor of physics in a university in Ostravica."
She glanced at Tess and smiled. "Several years ago he wrote to me about an idea he was working on, something he was calling the many-worlds theory, which basically means, as far as I understand, that all possible versions of our world might exist simultaneously. They don't interact because they can't-or at least that was his thinking at the time."