Jazz winks and slips an envelope in my hand when we get home after school. I race up to my room, and shut the door. He made sure to do it when Amy wasn’t looking. What could it be? My hands are shaking so hard it takes longer than it should to open, and I almost rip it.
Inside is a photograph. A runner: slightly out of focus, taken on a track from some distance. His hair, his build, the away look on his face as he runs.
Flipped over a few words are written faint in pencil: Is it him?
I open the envelope again – nothing else, no instructions, no explanations.
I bite my tongue, hard, to keep myself from a therapeutic scream. Not. Good. Enough. This can’t wait.
The last time I saw him, Aiden said he’d be at Mac’s on Friday: today. Maybe he is still there? If he isn’t, maybe Mac knows where Ben is.
Minutes later I’m cycling up the road.
I knock on Mac’s front door. No one comes, yet I could have sworn I heard someone inside as I walked up to the house. I try it, but it is locked. I scramble over the high gate down the side of the house: a white telephone van is parked on the other side. Aiden’s? Then Skye bounds over and almost knocks me off my feet to lick my face.
‘Where is everyone?’ I ask her. She wags her tail.
I bang on the back door. ‘It’s Kyla. Let me in!’ I yell. ‘I know you’re in there.’
There are footsteps inside, the turn of a lock. The door opens: Aiden.
I pull the photo of Ben out of my pocket, and hold it up. ‘Where is he?’
‘Come in.’ Aiden takes my hand, pulls me inside Mac’s kitchen. ‘Sorry I didn’t answer the door; didn’t know it was you. Mac is out and I shouldn’t be here. Skye doesn’t make much of a guard dog, does she?’
‘No.’ She leans on my legs so much she almost knocks me over again, tail thumping madly.
‘I was just about to make some tea.’ He gets an extra cup out, holds it up. I nod and he puts the kettle on, then turns and leans on the worktop. ‘So. I’m guessing by your appearance that you think that photo is Ben.’
‘Yes. It’s him.’
‘Careful, now. Are you sure? It isn’t just that you hope it to be so, so you see it? Look again.’
I take out the photograph. Study it, but it is him. Even in the way he holds himself as he runs.
‘I’m sure,’ I say. ‘Where is he? When can I see him?’
‘Not so fast. It may be…complicated.’
‘What do you mean?’
He hesitates. ‘He’s going to a boarding school. The surrounding area is infested.’
‘Infested? By what?’
‘I don’t understand. Why?’
‘I don’t know why. But there is a high presence of Lorders in the village where the school is located. We’re looking into it.’
‘I need to see him.’
‘You need to wait.’
‘No. Tell me where he is.’
‘Kyla, until we work out what is going on there, it is far too risky. Have some patience.’
I stare back at Aiden. He is being reasonable, and cautious, but he doesn’t know the stakes.
‘If you won’t help me, I’ll find him myself.’
‘Really?’ He raises an eyebrow, sceptical.
‘Yes. You said a running track, twenty miles away. I’ve done a search. There are exactly nine possibilities. I’ve already been to three of them.’ I’m exaggerating, but I would have been the day we went cycling if Lorders hadn’t interrupted. But I can do it.
His eyes widen. ‘You’ve done what?’
‘You heard me.’
He shakes his head. ‘You’re one crazy girl,’ he says, but there, in his eyes: grudging respect. Maybe he’s impressed, even. And I start to believe I can convince him.
‘I’ll do it with or without you. So, are you going to help me, or what?’
He hesitates, thinking, and I manage to keep quiet and leave him to it. Staring steadily back at his blue eyes. Hoping and hoping, so hard. For all that I said, it is a bit needle-haystack, and he and I both know it. I could have missed a track on the maps; the track might be new and not even on a map. I could go to the right place and not know it if he isn’t there. I could get caught trying.
‘It would be better to wait,’ he says, at last. ‘Until we have more information.’
‘I’m as crazy as you are.’ He grins.
I launch myself at him for a hug. ‘Thanks, Aiden! When?’
‘How about Sunday? It may be dangerous.’
‘I don’t care.’
‘I do. You have to promise to do what I say on the day, Kyla, and mean it. Or it’s off.’
I stare back at him, hesitant to make a promise I may find hard to keep. Yet he is taking risks here, too. ‘I promise.’
Aiden holds out the photo. ‘This was taken last Sunday: training at the village track. So we can hope he’ll be there same time and place again. You can at least confirm if it is him. What do you think?’
‘I’ll do it,’ I say again, and Aiden tells me where he’ll pick me up, what time, and I note the details but all the while I’m staring at Ben’s photograph in my hands.
It is him. I don’t know how or why he survived being hauled off by Lorders. But it really is my Ben.
CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN
* * *
The next morning I wait, nervous, in Dr Lysander’s waiting room. There are so many things I have to try to hide from her now. I try to remember what it feels like to just be Kyla, before the memories, but it is slipping away. She mustn’t notice how different I am, how changed: if she orders scans, I’m in big trouble.
Once again there is a Lorder standing guard outside Dr Lysander’s door. A nurse comes out of the office next to it, her face one I don’t recognise. I store her up, some part of my brain busy collecting people who work in the hospital to draw for Nico. That is when it hits me: what about Lorder faces?
I force myself to study the guard. It is uncomfortable, trying to overcome the automatic urge to look away, to avoid eye contact, and stay out of notice. Apart from Coulson whose face is ingrained on my memory, and those ones when Cam and I were taken in, I can’t say I know what many Lorders look like, exactly. Men and women, they all dress the same: identical grey suits most of the time. Or in black operations gear like this one has on now while on guard duty, with a black vest over top, a weapon at his hip. The vests are bulletproof, Nico says. And the way they stand and carry themselves says stay out of our way. Faces generally expressionless; hair either short or tied back. Nothing to distinguish them as individuals. If you came by him on his day off in blue jeans, would he look the same as everybody else?
He is young, and I’m surprised. Why? I suppose the whole uniform and stance of authority makes me assume older. His face is blank, staring straight ahead, not noticing any lesser beings like myself around him. But he looks no older than Mac or Aiden, early twenties or so. Average height and build. Thin tapering fingers like a musician, not for holding guns. I shake myself internally: stop being so fanciful. Hazel eyes, short light brown hair. Average features in an average face that would be hard to distinguish in a drawing, but I store it up so I can reproduce it later, and—
He rolls his eyes. Shifts and turns a little, face still blank.
I nearly fall off my chair.
Dr Lysander appears in her door. ‘Kyla? You can come in now.’
Saved. I scurry past him and through the door.
Dr Lysander smiles; so she is in a good mood.
‘Good morning, Kyla. What is on your mind today?’
‘Are Lorders human?’ I cringe after I say it: I was so busy studying her Lorder guard, I hadn’t prepared what to say.
‘What?’ She laughs. ‘Oh, Kyla, I do enjoy our talks. Of course they are.’
‘Well, I know they’re human. That isn’t what I meant, exactly.’
‘Are they ordinary: do they have pets, hobbies. Do they play musical instruments or go to dinner parties. Or do they just march about scowling all the time?’
She half smiles. ‘I expect they have lives beyond those that we see. But now that you mention it, I’ve never had one over for dinner, unless you count the one guarding the door.’
‘You get guarded having dinner?’
‘I get guarded most places these days. But this isn’t about me.’
‘Well, I don’t get guarded. I get ignored, and scowled at.’ Kidnapped, and offered impossible deals. I stuff the thought down before it can show on my face, but she doesn’t seem to notice, and turns to her screen. Taps at it a moment, then looks up.
Watching me very carefully. ‘Have you had any more memories? Or dreams you thought were real.’
‘I might have done.’
It is impossible to lie to her, and even if I could, I shouldn’t. She has to believe me or she might want to do scans. ‘I dreamt I was having a nightmare. And...’ I hesitate.
‘A boy was holding me when I woke up. But I didn’t wake up. It was part of the dream.’ I can feel my cheeks burning.
‘Oh, I see.’ Amused. ‘That sort of dream element is a pretty common fabrication at your age.’
Even though it makes sense to leave it at that, I can feel myself bristling inside. It is a real memory. As much as I’d rather it wasn’t Katran, somehow, I know: it happened.
She looks at the screen again.
‘Are things all right at home?’
‘Really?’ She turns and I’m pinned under her eyes again.
She’s heard something. There is a pang inside: Mum. Must be, she must be giving reports. It really is her. Dad hasn’t been home, and who else could it be?
What can I tell her?
‘I’m not sure, but I think Mum and Dad aren’t getting along that well.’
‘I see. Are you troubled by this?’
‘No. I don’t mind him being away more.’
She tilts her head. Thinking position. ‘It is a requirement of your contract that you have two parents, to guide your transition to home and community.’
My eyes open wide in alarm. ‘I do, just not as often!’
‘Don’t worry, Kyla. As long as things are stable at home for you and your sister, I feel there is no need to report that at this time.’ She glances at the clock. ‘Time is about gone. Is there anything else you wish to talk about?’
And her eyes are pinning into me again. There are so many things that want to spill out when she looks at me like that. I manage to shake my head no, and get up. Head for the door.
‘Oh, Kyla?’ I turn. ‘We will talk about whatever is on your mind the next time,’ she says.
I scurry out, escape made good.
The Lorder is still at her door. Standing at attention and staring straight ahead. I can’t help myself glancing back at him before leaving.
I just about trip over my feet.
Well! I’m pretty sure winking at a Slated could get him into trouble.
‘Your dad called last night,’ Mum says, one eye on the road home and one on me. London traffic this close to the hospital is, as usual, so slow it doesn’t need much attention.
‘Did he? How is he?’
‘Fine. He asked about you, how things are.’
‘Really?’ I say, surprised. ‘What did you say?’ I ask, unable to stop myself.
‘Just what you tell me: school is fine, Cam is just friends, nothing is wrong.’ She sighs. ‘I wish…’