His eyes rest on mine. Pinpricks of sweat break out on my forehead.
I break the gaze, lower my eyes. Resist the impulse to check, to see if he still stares.
He’s just a man. A nasty one.
He would bleed red just like anybody else. He should!
Assembly begins. The Head drones on about student accomplishment, then sprinkles his usual warnings. His injunction to live up to your potential…or else.
But I am somewhere else.
In my mind, it is Coulson who drags Ben’s pain-wracked body away from his mother.
It is Coulson who holds a lit match. Tosses it to Ben’s house.
Coulson who plucks Lucy from her family.
Rage fills me inside: roiling, hot rage. Outside, my face is calm, attentive; inside is something else.
If I had a gun in my hand, right now, I could raise it. Shoot him. He deserves it. They all do.
The hard seat under me, the drone of the Head’s voice and the hall full of listening students all fade away. My hands grip cold metal, my eyes take sight, careful aim. Index finger pulls the trigger. A blast of noise, a recoil as the gun slams back in my hands. The bullet flies across the room too fast for normal eyes to follow, but mine watch its progress to target.
It strikes his chest. His heart explodes: a red wave ripples out in all directions like a stone dropped in still water. He falls.
I smile, then realise Assembly is over; everyone is filing out of the room. I’d stood and followed along without realising. Cam has dropped back slightly from his tutor group, and walks beside me. He must think I’m totally mad to smile, here, now.
The spell, if there was one, is gone. We approach the doors of the hall. The other Lorder stands there, watching students leave, one by one. Coulson stays at the front, door duty beneath him. I’m relieved. And then lunch twists in my stomach as images of Coulson’s bloody body replay in my mind.
‘Are you all right?’ Cam whispers as we step out of the hall. ‘You’ve gone all pale.’
I just shake my head, run to the toilet in the next building and throw up, again and again. When I’m finally sure there is nothing left to come up, I splash water on my face, stare in the mirror.
What the hell happened in there?
My hands are shaking. I’m not that person, I couldn’t do that. Could I? I wouldn’t cry if he died, but not by my hands.
But then what was all that training for?
And visions flow through my mind like a movie on fast forward. Shooting practice. Targets. Knives and their uses. Faster it spins. I was a good shot, the best of my cell. A cell that was, itself, the best.
Yes. What is being a terrorist about? Political discussions over cups of tea? The Lorders are evil. He deserves to die. They all do.
I look at my hands. I can feel the cold weight of a gun in them. I know what to do with one. He deserves to die. Why not?
* * *
‘I’ll let you in on a secret.’ Jazz is smiling so I’m guessing this isn’t bad news.
‘Before you asked this morning, I was planning on us going to Mac’s today, anyhow. He’s got a surprise for you.’
My stomach jumps. Jazz is still smiling, he must know what it is, and it must be good.
‘It’s not Ben, is it?’ I whisper, quietly. Knowing it won’t be, it can’t be, but unable to stop myself from asking the question.
Jazz’s smile falls away. ‘I’m sorry, Kyla. If I find out anything about him, you’ll be the first to know.’
I lean back against his car, unable to stop the wave of disappointment, however unreasonable. Aiden promised he’d send news through Mac if he found out anything about Ben – so my brain instantly flipped to that. Wrong.
Amy appears across the car park. She walks to us, and slips her arms around Jazz. He turns and kisses her and I try not to watch.
‘Are you all right?’ she asks me.
‘A friend of mine saw you running to the loo, looking sick.’
‘Oh. I just had a tummy upset, no big deal. I’m fine now.’
‘Sure you don’t want to go straight home?’
‘Don’t look so fierce! We’re going already.’
‘In you get, ladies,’ Jazz says, holding the car door open.
We drive down back country lanes, through stubbled fields. Past farms and woodland, to Mac’s place. It is down a narrow lane, isolated. His huge back garden is full of bits of cars that he scavenges and salvages for parts, to build into new cars. Like the one he made for Jazz. But he isn’t just a mechanic.
What could the surprise be?
It knocks me over when we go through Mac’s front door.
Skye! Ben’s dog, a gorgeous golden retriever, jumps up and covers my face excitedly with great sloppy dog kisses. I drop to my knees and wrap my arms around her, sink my face into her fur. Fur that smells smoky.
Jazz takes Amy for a walk to get her alone as usual. Mac watches me and Skye, her tail thumping on the ground, sprawled half on my lap. Something is hiding behind the careful look on his face.
‘How?’ I ask him. A one-word question that covers so much. How did she survive? How is Ben’s dog at Mac’s?
Mac sits next to us on the floor. He rubs Skye’s ears and she flops down between us, her head on my knee. ‘That’s the happiest I’ve seen this dog look since she got here last night.’
‘Do you know what happened?’
‘Some. The rest I can fill in. What I can’t figure out is how come you don’t look surprised to see her here, and why you are the one asking me if I know what happened.’
‘I heard something,’ I say, guardedly.
Mac puts up one hand. ‘You don’t have to tell me how you know about Ben’s parents. You do know, don’t you.’
I nod, slump into Skye once again.
‘Skye here is a lucky dog.’
‘Yeah. First the boy she loves then the rest of her family are gone: very lucky.’
‘She’s a survivor. Not sure if she was out, or got out, or what. But Jazz’s mate found her the next day. Jazz brought her round here. None of the neighbours wanted to be seen to keep her in case anyone official got offended she escaped.’ The way he says the words I can tell he thinks about as much of that as I do.
‘Stay there,’ he says, and gets up, goes into the kitchen. Comes back a moment later with a bowl in his hand. ‘See if you can get her to eat.’
And so I sit on the floor with Skye half on my lap, feeding her bits of meat. She eats some, then closes her eyes and goes to sleep.
Her solid warmth and doggy smell, even with smoky undertones, feel good, real, and I don’t want to move. But I have other business with Mac. I ease her off my legs, and find him in the kitchen.
My breath catches when I see the owl on top of a cabinet: the metal sculpture Ben’s mum made from a drawing I did once, then gave to me. So beautiful, and deadly. So much talent she had, and this is all that is left of it now. I run fingertips across its feathers; inside, pain is welling up, wanting out.
I fight to contain it, hold it inside. I’m here for a reason.
‘Can I look at MIA?’ I ask.
Mac stares levelly back at me, then nods. I follow him to the back room and he uncovers his highly illegal, not government-issue computer. It doesn’t block websites Lorders don’t want seen, like legal computers do. Soon the MIA website fills the screen: Missing in Action. Full of missing children.
It was me asking Mac about Robert that made him show me this computer the first time. Mum’s son Robert is on the memorial at school as having been killed on a bus with thirty other students when they got in the way of an AGT attack. But Mac was there, too. He knew Robert didn’t die on the bus, and thought he was probably Slated. It was when he was showing me on MIA how many children go missing in this country without explanation that we first stumbled on Lucy. Me.
Somehow I have to do it, to check again. I enter into the search box: girl, blond, green eyes, seventeen. Hit the search button.
Pages of hits come up but it isn’t long before I spot her, and click on her image to enlarge the listing.
Her face – my face – fills the screen. Lucy Connor, ten years old, missing from school in Keswick. Seven years ago now, but you can still tell it is me. She looks absurdly happy, smiling at the camera holding a grey kitten.
A birthday present.
I gasp as the knowledge hits me. The kitten was her – my – tenth birthday present.
‘Are you all right, Kyla?’ Mac asks.
Tears are smarting my eyes. I’ve never had a memory like that, of Lucy’s life, just appear in my mind before. Ever. Only snippets in dreams. Mostly nightmares of horrible things, until the chess-playing dream the other night. But dreams access the unconscious. This time, I was awake. She should be gone, completely gone; Nico said so. What can it mean?
Mac puts a hand over mine. ‘What is it?’
‘It’s just that for a second there, I thought I could remember something. That kitten.’ I sigh. ‘I must be going mental.’
‘Have you changed your mind about MIA?’ he asks. He looks at the screen and I follow his eyes. There is a button, marked ‘found’. One click of the mouse and I could find out. Who reported Lucy missing? Maybe my dad. Maybe we could play chess again.
I shake my head. No. My life is enough of a mess, and apart from a few fragments of dreams, I don’t even know my real family. Anyhow, I can’t risk Free UK or Lorders following me to them: they are better off missing me.
Time to get to my reason for being here. ‘Are you involved with MIA?’
‘I’m more of a…relay, than anything else. Why?’
‘I was wondering something. Can you get Ben put on MIA?
Mac stares back. He knows Ben’s story, more or less. Even if he doesn’t know my role in it. That Ben was taken off by Lorders. He must think it will be a waste of time, that there is nothing left of Ben to be found. He’s probably right.
But he nods. ‘Of course. Have you got a photo?’
I shake my head. ‘No. But I’ve got this,’ I say, and pull my drawing of Ben out of my pocket. I’d spent hours on it, making it as lifelike as possible. ‘Is it good enough?’
He whistles. ‘It is more than good; it’s him. It’s perfect. But it’ll have to be scanned, and I haven’t got one here. I’ll get Aiden to do it. All right?’
I force reaction from my face, hide dismay. ‘Thanks,’ is all I say. Mac’s friend, Aiden was the one whose stories of Slateds cutting off their Levos gave Ben the idea to try it in the first place. It was Aiden’s Happy Pills that made the attempt possible. Aiden was also the one who wanted me to report myself found on MIA, such a breach of the rules Slateds must live by that it would be a certain death sentence if Lorders found out. He wasn’t a terrorist, he said, but an activist: trying to change things in other ways.
Maybe. But at least he doesn’t kill people. Thinking of Robert earlier reminded me of all those students who died. Killed by stray AGT bombs meant for Lorders. I’d had nightmares of that bus attack when I first learned of it, but I couldn’t have been there! I was only ten years old when it happened.
But Nico could have been.
No. Nico would never do that, not a busload of innocent school kids. He wouldn’t. His fight is against the Lorders. My fight.
I convince Mac that I’m all right, to leave me alone to compose myself, and stay looking at Lucy on the screen. What happened to her? I can’t work it out. One minute she is a happy kid with a kitten, a dad who lets her win at chess. The next? I shake my head. She disappears age ten, then somehow there is a huge jump, a gap in time. Rain’s memories don’t begin until about age fourteen, training with Nico and other teenagers, off in some boot camp in the woods. Learning how to shoot guns and blow things up.