They’re not innocent!
No. They Slated me, countless others like me. What happened to Ben lies square on their shoulders.
They do what they are told. And I know that isn’t good enough! But some of them are nice, more than nice. But what else can I do? Nico is right. They’re all part of it.
I can’t sleep. I spread sketch paper around me. Every time my pencil touches the paper, a real face soon stares back. Like the messy grey hair of Nurse Sally, from the tenth floor. My floor, and she was one of the ones who looked after me at the beginning. She was always laughing, told me about her new grandson when he was born. Showed me his photo.
One day, he may not be safe. Her grandson – was it Brian, Ryan, something like that? – might say something the authorities don’t like, and then go missing, and be Slated, himself. Then be returned or terminated if anything goes wrong. Like Tori, whose life – no kidding myself about Nico’s slight reassurances – now hangs in the balance.
Would Sally sacrifice herself for her grandson? Can I make that decision for her? For her grandson and all the other children and grandchildren whose lives are limited, controlled and threatened by Lorders.
I keep drawing, compelled. I can’t stop.
* * *
‘Kyla? So, what do you think? Kyla? Kyla…’
‘Sorry, what was that?’ I turn to Cam, realising I’ve been hearing an echo of my name for a while. Lost in my thoughts while I ate my sandwich, his voice a comforting sound but the meaning not registering.
Cam mock-glares. ‘A simple yes or no is all.’
‘Hmmm, let’s see: you might be offering me cake, and then I should say yes. On the other hand, you might have suggested anything.’
‘Take a punt.’
‘Okay, I’ll come get you at about ten.’
‘Going for a walk tomorrow.’
‘What about school?’
He waves a hand in front of my eyes. ‘There is something seriously wrong with your memory.’ Then his face falls as he realises what he said. ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that the way it sounded.’
‘Don’t worry. There IS something seriously wrong with my memory. Slating kind of does that.’ Not to mention all the rest of it.
‘But that is only for stuff before then, right?’
‘Right.’ Though not so much in my case. ‘Besides, if I actually listen, my short-term memory is okay.’
‘What is it like?’
He hesitates. ‘Sorry. Forget it.’
‘There you go again!’
‘Oh, sorry, I—’ He looks stricken so I let him off.
‘I’m kidding. Go ahead and ask whatever it is. I don’t mind.’
‘What is it like, not having any memories?’
‘Well. To start with, it’s fine. Because you don’t know any different. And everyone in hospital is the same as you.’
I frown. ‘For me, things got worse when I got out. I wanted to know things I couldn’t know. And then it is like you fill stuff in because too much is blank. And then you can’t tell what is real, and what isn’t.’
‘Most Slateds look pretty happy about it.’
I laugh. ‘True enough. They monkey with our happy settings, didn’t you know? Plus you learn to stay happy so your Levo isn’t buzzing and blacking you out all the time.’
‘Being happy and forgetting things sounds good,’ he says quietly. Thinking about his dad? I lean back, considering. I’d be happier if I didn’t remember anything from before. If I didn’t obsess about Lucy, and her broken fingers; if Rain’s memories never appeared. But then the Lorders would have won.
‘The thing is, if you’re making yourself pretend-happy to stay level, you don’t know what you feel any more. Nothing feels real. There may be some things it would be good to forget. Yet it is frustrating missing pieces of myself I want to remember!’
For someone who talks so much, Cam has a good listener’s face. There is something about him that makes me want to tell him everything.
‘It’s nice to have a day off school in honour of your affliction, though,’ he says.
‘What are you talking about?’
‘Are you pulling my leg, or do you really not remember?’
I aim a punch at his shoulder, but he jumps away.
‘Tell me already!’
‘There’s no school tomorrow. It’s Remembrance Day.’
There is a special afternoon tutor group all about it.
We scan in, take our seats.
Our form tutor glances across our faces. ‘Can anyone tell us why there is no school tomorrow?’
‘Remembrance Day,’ several voices call out.
‘But what are we remembering? Anyone?’
He spends minutes on the original meaning: remembering those who fought and died for this country in wars, so long ago almost none living can remember. The numbers are dizzying. The population of the UK is less now than then, but still.
‘And what else are we remembering?’ he asks. But this time he doesn’t wait for an answer. He turns the lights down and a film begins. Horrifying images fill the screen. Angry mobs, out of control, destroying everything in their path. The student riots of the twenties.
Windows are broken, shops emptied, fires burn. A girl younger than me is dragged off screaming by a gang of hooded youths, and though you don’t see anything else, you get the idea. An old man is pushed and trampled. A child knocked from a mother’s arms.
I close my eyes to shut it out. A flash of memory: Nico. He showed us this same film! I remember. Then he showed another one.
Whoever is in charge changes history to suit themselves.
That is what he said. The Lorders took every bit of evidence they had of out-of-control riots and destruction, pieced them together, and made it mandatory viewing for the population. They didn’t show Nico’s version. Lorders – police, they were called, then – beating students. Causing many of the injuries and deaths shown, then deleting their involvement so it looked like the rioters were responsible for it all.
Yet the students weren’t blameless. They caused damage, and injury. Many deserved to be punished for their part. And criminals and gangs joined in, took part to thieve and murder.
But it wasn’t one-sided. And I wonder: if Free UK are successful, and the Lorders beaten down, how will history be rewritten? For a start, they wouldn’t be generally called ‘AGT’ any more, they’d be Free UK to everyone. A more palatable name, dropping the terrorist right out of it.
I feel the lights come back on through my eyelids, and open my eyes. Everyone in the room is quiet, sobered by the violence even though they must be shown this every year.
Just a few weeks from now, the 26th of November is Armstrong Memorial Day: this year it will be twenty-five years since the deaths of the first Lorder PM and his wife. Mum’s parents. They were killed on the way to their country house at Chequers to celebrate five years in power: so thirty years, now, of Lorder control. Our teacher tells us about the celebrations planned.
Celebrations of a Lorder government that twists and destroys minds.
As I leave to meet Jazz and Amy to go home, the irony isn’t lost on me. The Lorders are saying remember those who died defending the country from itself, almost thirty years ago.
Yet now they make people go missing, make sure they are forgotten, that no one asks any embarrassing questions. They steal memories, like mine.
Lest we forget.
‘You’re quiet today,’ Jazz says, watching me in the mirror as we pull into our village.
‘I’m all right.’
Jazz and Amy kiss goodbye, and I slip into the house.
Amy dashes in for a quick change of clothes while I make her cup of tea. I hold it out when she gets downstairs.
‘Thanks, Kyla. Are you sure everything is all right?’
‘Yes. Fine; go on.’ And she dashes out and up the road to the doctor’s surgery for work.
But the house is so quiet; there is too much darkness in my mind to be alone. I wander room to room, then finally settle down with my sketch pad. No one will be home for almost two hours. I want to draw, yet I don’t. I extract my hidden drawings from last night: Nurse Sally and friends. I sigh.
What does this say about me, about where I stand: am I so weak that I can’t do what I see is right, just because it is hard? And I owe everything to Nico. After all he did to save me, protect me, I can’t let him down.
But if I give him these drawings, what about all of them?
I won’t draw faces this afternoon. The hospital: that is it. I’d already given Nico plans but something is still niggling away inside. Dr Lysander vanished from danger so quickly during that attack. There must be a secret way, but where? I start to draw the hall outside her office.
I’m concentrating so hard I almost don’t hear the knock downstairs. I put down my pencil, pull the curtains, and look down. A delivery person? With a huge bunch of flowers. Perhaps Dad is trying to get back on Mum’s good side.
I run down the stairs, open the door.
‘Delivery for O’Reilly?’ he says.
‘You must be in the wrong place. There isn’t anyone here by that name.’
He pulls out some paperwork, studies it. ‘Janet O’Reilly?’
He rolls his eyes. ‘Sorry to bother you. Do you know what time it is?’
I look at my watch and he peers close to see it. Slips a small square of paper in my hand. Winks, and is gone.
Back inside, door shut, I unfold the paper. ‘Meet me at the footpath lookout over your village as soon as possible. Very important. Destroy this note. A.’
A…Aiden? My feet are frozen to the floor. I read the note again, barely able to breathe. Mac was going to get Aiden to scan my drawing of Ben to put it on MIA. Now Aiden wants to see me.
Ben! They must have news of Ben.
I swallow, hard. News can be good, or bad. Bad is more likely. But Aiden could have sent a message through Mac if it was bad news. Couldn’t he? But he is here.
I fly up the stairs, chucking school uniform for jeans and boots and rushing out the door. Daring to hope.
I force myself to walk at a normal pace through the village, to look as if I’m just out for a stroll. Fighting the urge to run.
No one is in sight at the start of the footpath. I hesitate, all of Mum’s warnings to avoid these places on my own echoing in my ears. But I’m not afraid any more, not since my memories came back. I’m good at self-defence.
I run up the footpath, past the fields and hedges, through trees as it rises. The air is frosty and clear, afternoon sun low in the sky. As I get closer to the lookout I slow down to a walk. Afraid, now, to hear what Aiden has to say. Until I hear it, it can be what I want to hear. Once I see him and he says the words, it is over. I go slower and slower, stop and make myself breathe in and out, to calm the rapid thudding of my heart that has nothing to do with the run.
I walk slow and silent, under shadow of trees as I round the final bend of the path. His head is turned the other way, but the fire of his red hair glints in the setting sun. Aiden. I step forward and he turns. Smiles.
‘How are you, Kyla?’
I search his eyes for the answer I’m looking for. Blue eyes, but nothing like Nico’s pale colour; Aiden’s are an intense, deep-water blue. Reassuring eyes. Not bad news?
Legs unable to hold me up any more, I almost collapse next to him on the log where he sits. ‘Tell me, please. What have you heard?’
‘There’s been a possible sighting of Ben.’
‘A sighting?’ I whisper, not daring to think he means what I think he might.
‘Yes. It’s true, Kyla. I can’t believe it, I really can’t. I thought it worse than a long shot to even bother. But I put that drawing you did of Ben on MIA, and someone who looks like him has been spotted, a few times. I can’t say for sure that it will be Ben. But the person making the report is very reliable.’