What a risk Ben’s mum is taking, right now.
When they start saying goodbye, I sneak back up the stairs and into my room. Relief that Ben’s mother never told Mum she found me with Ben that day mixes with sorrow. She feels like I do: the loss. Ben was their son for more than three years, since he was Slated. He’d told me they were close. I long to run to her so we can share this pain, together, but don’t dare.
I wrap my arms around me, tight. Ben. I whisper his name, but he cannot answer. Pain hits me like being crushed. Trampled. Smashed into a million pieces. Before, I had to stop myself from feeling it all, or my Levo would make me black out. Now that it’s not working the hurt is so much, I gasp. Like surgery without anaesthetic: no dull ache, but the slash of a blade, deep inside.
Ben is gone. My brain is working better now, no matter the messed-up memories inside it. He is gone, and he is never coming back. Even if he lived through his Levo being cut off, there is no chance he survived the Lorders. With my memories comes knowledge: once the Lorders take someone, they never return.
It hurts so, I want to push it away, hide from it. But Ben’s memory is one I must keep. This pain is all I have left of him.
His mum comes out of the front door moments later. She sits in her car a few minutes before leaving, hunched over the steering wheel. As she pulls out a light rain starts to fall.
Once she is gone from sight I open the window wide, lean out and stretch my arms into the night. Cold drops fall light on my skin, along with hot tears.
Rain. Something about it is important, itches in my memories, then slips away.
* * *
I lean over my sketch, furiously drawing leaves, branches, remembering to use my right hand. The new art teacher the school has finally come up with doesn’t look dangerous, or inspiring. He doesn’t look much of anything. He isn’t a patch on Gianelli, the man he replaces. But so long as I can draw, anything, even just trees as instructed, I don’t care how insipid the teacher.
He moves around the room, making bland comments now and then, until he stops at my shoulder. ‘Hmmm…well…that’s interesting,’ he says, and moves on.
I look down at my sheet of paper. A whole forest of angry trees I’ve drawn, and in the shadows underneath, a dark shape with eyes.
What would Gianelli make of this? He’d say, slow down, and take more care, and he’d have a point. But he’d like the wildness just the same.
I start again, soothed by the scratch of charcoal on paper. The trees less angry. This time, Gianelli himself looks back at me from their shadows. No one but me would recognise it as him: I know what happens when you draw the missing, as he did. Instead, I draw him as I imagine he might have been, a young man lost in a sketch. Not the old man the Lorders dragged away.
An hour later, I scan my ID in at the door to study hall, and step into the classroom. Start to walk to the back…
I stop. That voice: here? I pause, and turn. Nico leans against the desk at the front of the room. He smiles, a slow, lazy smile. ‘I hope you are feeling better today.’
‘I’m fine, Sir,’ I say, and manage to turn away, to walk to my seat without falling over.
His presence as bored teacher in charge of making sure we study silently shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. They change all the time, so it was bound to be Nico sooner or later. Yet I wasn’t expecting to be faced with him again, so soon. I have to hold my hands together on my lap for a moment to stop them from shaking.
I open algebra homework: something I can pretend to do without much effort. And I try to stare at the page, pencil carefully in my right hand. Nico has a red pen and papers to mark in front of him at the desk up front. Yet I can tell he is pretending as much as I am, glancing my way all the time.
Of course, I wouldn’t know that if I wasn’t watching him. I sigh, and attempt to solve an equation for x.
But the numbers swim, won’t behave, and my mind wanders as the minutes tick away. I doodle around the borders of the page, then draw vines and leaves around the date I’ve written as usual at the top. But then the numbers jump into stark focus: 03/11. It is the 3rd of November.
Almost with an audible click inside, a chunk of knowledge falls into place.
Today is my birthday. I was born seventeen years ago today, but I’m the only one who knows.
Goose bumps trail on my arms. I know the date of my real birthday, not the one assigned at hospital when my identity was changed, my past stolen.
My birthday? I probe at the concept, but there is nothing else. No cake, no parties or presents; the fact of the date is all there is. Memories that should go with it do not. Yet I sense there is more inside me, more I might find and learn, if I probe around.
Some of my recovered memories are like cold facts. As if I’ve read a file about myself, and remember certain bits of it and not others. There is no feeling in it.
I know from the missing children website that I was Lucy, that I disappeared when I was ten, but I can’t remember anything of that life. Then somehow I reappear in my teens with Nico. It is only from then on that memories are stealing back; there is nothing from before.
Nico is the one who might have answers. All I have to do is tell him I remember who he is. But do I really want to know?
When the bell goes, even though I tell myself to bolt out quick and leave this choice, whether to speak to him or not, until I can make sense of it, I dawdle. A shiver, of what – excitement? Fear? – tracks down my spine. I walk slowly to the front of the room, where Nico stands by the door. The last of the other students have gone. We are alone.
Just go, I tell myself, and start walking past him.
‘Happy birthday, Rain,’ he says, voice low.
I turn back. Our eyes meet.
‘Rain?’ I whisper. Touching and tasting the name, owning it again. Rain. Another time and place rush back, vivid and clear: I chose this name for myself three years ago, on my fourteenth birthday: I remember! It is my name. Not Lucy, the name given at birth by parents. Not Kyla, the one chosen years later by an indifferent nurse filling in a form at hospital after I was Slated. Rain is mine. And it is as if the sound of my name said out loud, at last, explodes any final resistance or barrier inside.
His eyes widen and flash. He knows me, and more. He knows I know him.
Adrenalin surges through my body, a burst of energy: fight, or flight.
But the look falls from his face as if it never was, and he steps back. ‘Try to remember your biology homework for tomorrow, Kyla,’ he says, his eyes glancing over my shoulder.
I turn and there is Mrs Ali. Hate flashes through me, and then fear: but it is Kyla’s fear. I’m not afraid of her. Rain isn’t afraid of anything!
‘Try to remember,’ Nico says again, this time leaving off the meaningless homework reference added for Mrs Ali’s ears. He disappears up the hall.
Try to remember…
‘We need to have a little chat,’ Mrs Ali says, and smiles. She is at her most dangerous when she smiles.
Two can be so. I smile back. ‘Of course,’ I say, and try to still all that sings inside. My name! I am Rain.
‘I won’t be taking you between your classes any more; you obviously know your way around the school now,’ she says.
‘Well, thanks so much for your help so far,’ I say, as sweetly as I can manage.
Her eyes narrow. ‘I’ve heard you’ve been moping about classes, looking a misery and not paying attention. Yet you seem happy enough today.’
‘Sorry about that. I’m feeling much better.’
‘Now, Kyla, you know if anything is ever bothering you, you can talk to me.’ She smiles again, and a shiver goes down my back.
Be careful. Her official job title may be teaching assistant, but she is so much more than that. She’s been watching me for any sign, any deviation. Anything outside rigid, expected Slated behaviour – any hint of returning to my criminal ways – and I could be returned to the Lorders. Terminated.
‘Everything is fine. Really.’
‘Well, see that it stays that way. You must try your best in school, at home, and in your community, to—’
‘Fulfil my contract. Take advantage of my second chance. Yes, I know! But thank you for reminding me. I’ll do my very best.’ I grin, happy enough with the world to even share my smile with a Lorder spy. That Mrs Ali won’t be my shadow at school any more is an unexpected bonus.
Her features war between confusion and annoyance. Too much?
‘See that you do,’ she says, ice dripping from her voice, the smile gone. She obviously likes it better when I quake in her presence.
Shame that Rain doesn’t quake.
Red, gold, orange: the oak tree in our front garden has covered the grass with colour, and I fetch a rake from the shed.
I have a name.
I attack the leaves with the rake, pulling them into piles, then kick them about and start over.
I have a name! One that I chose; it is who I wanted to be. The Lorders tried to take that away, but somehow, they failed.
A car pulls in over the road: one I haven’t seen before. A boy, about my age or a little older, gets out. Baggy jeans and T-shirt rumpled like he’s been driving for hours, or asleep – hopefully not both at the same time – yet the whole ‘I don’t care what I wear’ look suits him. He opens the boot. Takes out a box and carries it into a house. Comes out again, sees me watching and waves. I wave back. Kyla wouldn’t; she’d probably blush or something. Rain has nerve. He takes in another box.
On the other side of the car he drops down as if going down a pretend escalator, and looks back to see if I’m watching. I roll my eyes to the sky. He carries on with various other tricks; I bag and cart the leaves round the back of the house, and go inside.
‘Thanks for doing the leaves,’ Mum says. ‘They were a mess.’
‘No bother. I felt like doing something.’
I nod, then remind myself to tone down a little, before too many mood swings get her to take me to hospital for a check. That thought gives me a real sense of disquiet, and the smile falls away.
Mum puts a hand on my shoulder, gives it a squeeze. ‘We’ll have dinner as soon as—’
The door opens. ‘I’m home!’ Amy yells.
Before long we’re at the table listening to an in-depth report of her first day as after-school assistant at the doctor’s surgery.
And it turns out that working there is an amazing source of community gossip. Soon we know who is having a baby, who fell down the stairs after too much whisky, and that the new boy over the road is Cameron from up north, come to stay with his aunt and uncle for reasons as yet unknown.
‘I love working there. I can’t wait until I’m a nurse,’ Amy says for about the tenth time.
‘Did you see any good illnesses?’ Mum teases.
‘Or injuries?’ I add.
‘Oh! That reminds me. You’ll never guess.’
‘What?’ I say.
‘It happened this morning, so I didn’t see, but I heard ALL about it.’
‘Go on and tell us, then,’ Mum says.
‘A man was brought in with the most horrible injuries.’
‘Oh dear,’ Mum says. ‘What happened?’
And I start to get a bad feeling. A twist of unease deep inside my gut sort of very bad feeling.
‘Nobody knows. He was found in woods at the end of the village, beaten half to death. Head injuries and hypothermia, out there for days they think. It is a wonder he is alive at all.’
‘Did he say who did it?’ I ask, struggling to control my breathing, to look natural.
‘No, and he may never say anything. He’s been taken to hospital in a coma.’
‘Who is he?’ Mum asks, but I already know before Amy says another word.
‘Wayne Best. You know, the creepy builder who did the brick walls for the allotments.’