Ben, where are you? His smile, the warm certain feel of his hand in mine, the way his eyes light up from inside. It all twists like a knife in my gut, the pain so real I have to wrap my arms tight around myself to try to hold it in.
Some part of me is aware that I can’t contain this much longer. It has to come out.
Not here. Not now.
Then, finally, it is time for biology. A queasy unease grows in my stomach on the way to the lab. What if I’ve gone mental, and it isn’t Nico at all? Does he even exist?
What if it is him? Then what?
I scan my ID at the door, walk across to the back bench and sit down, all before I dare look: not trusting my feet to still work if my eyes see what they can’t stop imagining.
And there he is: Mr Hatten, biology teacher. I stare, but that is all right, all the girls do. It isn’t just that he is too young and good-looking for a teacher; there is something about him. And it’s not just those eyes, that wavy streaked blond hair, longer than you’d expect for a teacher, or that he is so tall and totally fit – it is more than that. Something about the way he holds himself: still, yet poised for attack. Like a cheetah waiting for the moment to pounce. Everything about him says danger.
Nico. It really is Nico; no question, no doubt. His eyes, unforgettable pale blue with darker rims, sweep across the room. They stop when they reach mine. As I stare back there is a warm touch inside, a recognition, an almost physical shock that makes it real. When he finally looks away it is like being dropped from an embrace.
Not my imagination. Right now, across the room, it is Nico. No matter that I knew it, from memories of then and now, compared and held up close together. Until I saw him, myself, with these eyes that are new with understanding behind them, I didn’t know it in my guts.
Then I remember that although the girls in his classes may stare, I don’t; at least, not so much.
So through the lesson, I try not to, but it is a losing battle. His eyes flick to mine now and then. Do they hold curiosity? Questions? There is some dance of amused interest when they lightly touch mine.
Take care. Until I can work out what he is and what he wants, don’t let him know anything has changed. I force my eyes down to the notebook in front of me; to the pen that skips across the page, leaving behind random blue swirls, half-formed sketches where notes should be. Hand on autopilot.
The pen; the hand…left hand. It is clasped, without thought, in my left hand.
But I am right-handed. Aren’t I?
I must be right-handed!
Breath catches in my throat, my guts fill with terror. I start to shake.
Everything goes black.
She holds out her hand. Her right hand. Tears trickle down her face. ‘Please help me…’
She is so young, a child. With such pleading and fear in her eyes, I would do anything to help her, but I can’t reach her. The closer I get, the harder I try, the more her hand isn’t where it appears. With some optical trick she is always turned to her right. It is always too far away to grasp.
‘Please help me…’
‘Give me your other hand!’ I say, and she shakes her head, eyes wide. But I repeat the demand, until finally she raises her left hand from where she held it beside her, out of sight.
The fingers are twisted, bloody. Broken. A sudden vision flashes in my mind: a brick. Fingers smashed with a brick. I gasp.
I can’t grasp her hand, not when it is like that.
Her hands drop. She shakes her head, fading. Shimmering until I can see through her like mist.
I lunge for her, but it is too late.
She is gone.
‘I’m all right now. I just didn’t get enough sleep last night, that’s all. I’m fine,’ I insist. ‘Can I go to my last class?’
The school nurse doesn’t smile. ‘I’ll be the judge of that,’ she says.
She scans my Levo, frowns. My stomach clenches, afraid what it will show. My levels should have dropped low after what happened: nightmares sometimes even made me black out when it was functioning as it is meant to. But who knows what it is doing now?
‘Looks like you just fainted; your levels have been fine. Good, even. Did you have any lunch?’
Give her a reason.
‘No. I wasn’t hungry,’ I lie.
She shakes her head. ‘Kyla, you need to eat.’ She lectures on blood sugar, feeds me tea and biscuits, and, before she disappears out the door, tells me to sit quietly in her office until the final bell.
Alone, I can’t stop my thoughts spinning around. The girl with the broken hand in my nightmare, or vision, or whatever it was…I know who she is. I recognise her as a younger version of myself: my eyes, bone structure, everything. Lucy Connor: vanished years ago from her school in Keswick, age ten, as reported on MIA. Missing In Action, the highly illegal website I saw just weeks ago at Jazz’s cousin’s place. She was part of me before I was Slated. Yet even with my new memories, I cannot remember being her, or anything about her life. I can’t even think of her as ‘I’ or ‘me’. She is different, other, separate.
How does Lucy fit in this mess in my brain? I kick the desk, frustrated. Things are there, half understood. I feel I know them, but when I focus on details they slip away. Indistinct and insubstantial.
And this was all brought on when I realised I was using my left hand. Did Nico see? If he saw I was writing with my left hand, he’ll know something has changed. I’m supposed to be right-handed, and it is important, so important…but when I try to focus on why I am meant to be right-handed, why I was before, why I don’t seem to be any more, I can’t work it out. The memory goes all distorted, like fingers smashed with a brick.
* * *
Mum appears at the nurse’s office as the final bell rings. ‘Hello there.’
‘Hi. Did they call you?’
‘Sorry. I’m perfectly all right.’
‘That must be why you passed out in the middle of a lesson and wound up here.’
‘Well, I’m fine now.’
Mum tracks down Amy, and drives us both home. Once through the door I head for the stairs.
‘Kyla, wait. Come talk to me for a minute.’ Mum smiles, but it is one of those that is more on the lips than the whole face. ‘Hot chocolate?’ she asks, and I follow her into the kitchen. She doesn’t chatter as she fills the kettle, makes our drinks. Mum isn’t much of a talker unless she has something to say.
She has something to say. Unease twists in my stomach. Has she noticed I’ve changed? Maybe if I tell her, she can help, and…
Don’t trust her.
After being Slated, I was a blank. It took nine months in hospital for me to learn to function: to walk, talk, and cope with my Levo. Then I was assigned to this family. I grew to see her as a friend, someone I can rely on: but how long have I known her, really? Not even two months. It seemed longer before because it was my whole life out of hospital, all I could remember. Now that I have a wider frame of reference, I know people should be viewed with suspicion, not trust.
She sets the drinks in front of us on the table, and I wrap my hands around the mug, soaking heat into cold hands.
‘What happened?’ she asks.
‘I guess I fainted.’
‘Why? The nurse said you hadn’t eaten, yet your lunchbox is mysteriously empty.’
I stay silent, sip my chocolate, focusing on the bitter sweetness. Nothing I can say about it makes much sense, even to me. Writing with my left hand made me faint? And that dream, or whatever it was. I shudder inside.
‘Kyla, I know how hard things are for you right now. If you ever want to talk, we can, you know. About Ben, or anything. It is all right to wake me up if you can’t sleep. I won’t mind.’
My eyes start to fill with tears at Ben’s name, and I blink furiously. If she only knew how hard things really are; if she only knew the other half of it. I long to tell her, but how would she look at me if she knew I may have killed someone? Anyhow, she might not mind being woken up, but Dad would.
‘When is Dad getting back?’ I say, suddenly aware of his continued absence. He always travels for work: installing and maintaining government computers all over the country. But he is usually home a night or two a week at least.
‘Well, he may not be home so much for a while.’
‘Why?’ I say, careful to hide the relief I feel inside.
She stands, rinses our mugs.
‘You look like you need some sleep, Kyla. Why don’t you take a nap before dinner?’
Late that night I am lost in confused dreams: running, chasing and being chased all at once. Awake for what must be the tenth time, I punch the pillow and sigh. Then my ears perk up at a slight sound, a crunch, outside. Perhaps I wasn’t woken by dreams this time after all?
Crossing the room to the window, I pull the curtains to one side. The wind has picked up, whipping leaves across the garden. The trees seem bare all at once. Yesterday’s storm has littered the world: orange and red spin in whorls through the air, and around a dark car out front.
The car door opens, and a woman steps out; long curly hair falls over her face. I gasp. Could it be? She pushes it back with one hand as she shuts the door, enough for me to be sure: it is Mrs Nix. Ben’s mother.
I grip the window ledge tight. Why is she here?
Excitement rushes through my body: maybe she has news of Ben! But almost as soon as the thought forms, it is gone. Her face, caught in the moonlight, is pinched and white. If she has any sort of news, it is not happy. Footsteps crunch on the shingle below, and there is a light knock on the front door.
Maybe she has come to demand to know what happened to Ben, what I did. Maybe she is going to tell Mum I was there before the Lorders took him away. It flashes painfully in my mind: Ben in agony; the rattle of the door when his mum came in. I’d told her I found him with his Levo cut off, and—
The rattle of the door. She had to unlock the door to get in. I’d told her I found him like that, but she must know I lied. How else could it have been locked when she got there?
The door opens downstairs; there is a faint murmur of voices.
I have to know.
I slip quietly across the room and out to the landing, then take one careful step at a time down the dark stairs. I listen.
There is the faint whistle of the kettle, low voices; they are in the kitchen.
A step closer; another. The kitchen door is part open.
Something touches my leg, and I jump, almost cry out, until I realise it is Sebastian. He winds round my leg, purring.
Please be quiet, I beg silently, bend to scratch behind his ears. But as I do my elbow bumps the hall table.
I hold my breath. Footsteps approach! I duck into the dark office opposite.
‘It’s just the cat,’ I hear Mum say, then there is movement, a faint ‘meow’. Footsteps retreat back to the kitchen; there is a click as she shuts the door. I creep back into the hall to listen.
‘I’m so sorry about Ben,’ Mum says. I hear chairs move. ‘But you shouldn’t have come here.’
‘Please, you must help.’
‘I don’t understand. How?’
‘We’ve tried everything to find out what happened to him. Everything. They won’t tell us a thing. I thought, maybe, you could…’ And her voice trails away.
Mum has connections. Political ones: her dad was Prime Minister before he was assassinated, on the Lorder side of the Coalition. Can she help? I listen eagerly.
‘I’m so sorry. I’ve already tried, for Kyla’s sake. But it is a blank wall. There is nothing.’
‘I don’t know where else to turn.’ And there are faint noises, snuffling and hiccupping. She’s crying; Ben’s mum is crying.
‘Listen to me. For your own good, you have to stop asking. At least for now.’
And there is no logic, no thought, no control: I can’t help it. My eyes fill, my throat closes up tight. Mum tried to find out what happened to Ben. For me. She never told me, because she never found out anything. What a risk she took: asking questions where Lorders are involved is dangerous. Potentially lethal.