But it changed in my sleep. The trees, grass, and clouds were still there. But I wasn’t alone, this time; I was playing hide and seek with children. I was younger, much younger, in that place.
The horror of the first dream is fading, the details starting to disperse like smoke drifting in the sky. Yet it still feels so real; like I was there, watching, that day, when all those students died.
* * *
My stomach is churning when I get on the bus the next morning. But Amy has my back.
And there she is, in her usual seat: the Slater Hater who tripped me yesterday. Sitting upright and staring out the window. I watch her carefully as we go past. She won’t catch me unawares, again.
Amy follows my eyes. ‘That the one?’ she whispers, but I don’t say anything.
When I sit next to Ben at the back of the bus, his eyes widen. ‘Poor you,’ he says, and touches my face with fingertips, a feather light touch around my lip. It bruised up over night and looks worse today than yesterday. ‘Does it hurt?’
‘Only if I smile,’ I say.
He slips my cold hand in his warm one. ‘No smiling today, then,’ he says, sternly, and wipes his off.
His face, serious for once, looks different. The sameness – the happy expression all Slateds wear – is gone. His eyes still smile, though. I’m struck again by a feeling, one that says I know him and have always known him; that close to him, I am safe. My stomach lurches. Not in a bad way.
Mrs Ali is waiting for me at the Unit. She takes one look at me, and frowns. ‘What happened to your face?’
‘I fell on the bus.’
‘Listen to me, Kyla: if anyone is hassling you, tell me. It will be dealt with. What really happened?’
I look into her eyes, and see only concern. But just when I think I might tell her everything, some voice inside says bad idea.
‘I tripped, and fell.’
She frowns. ‘Well. If you remember anything else about it, tell me. Anyhow, we’ve got your test results. A clever girl, you are: it is straight into mainstream classes from today. Year 11, so you’re just a little older than the other students. Not that anyone will know if you don’t tell them: most of them will be taller than you, anyhow.’
She hands me a timetable. ‘Come on: tutor group for citizenship, first. Yours is in English block.’
I open the timetable and scan it, quickly at first; then again, taking more care. Tutor group, English, maths, history, biology, study hall, general science, agriculture, and Unit three times a week, whatever that means. It’s not there.
‘But what about art?’
‘What’s that, Kyla?’
‘Art. It isn’t on my timetable.’
‘No. You don’t get to take an option like the other students. We have to fit extra classes in at the Unit. There’s no room.’
I stare back at her. This can’t be happening. It is the only thing I actually want to take; part of the reason I wanted to come to school. We even had art classes at the hospital.
‘No buts; there’s no time. You’ll be late for tutor. If you have a problem with it, talk to Dr Winston,’ she says, and she sweeps out of the Unit. I follow along, numb. This can’t be right. Even Nurse Penny said I could take art, as long as they thought I was good enough, didn’t she? And that doctor had no interest in me or what I wanted, that was obvious enough. There’d be no point talking to her.
Mrs Ali drags me along paths and through buildings, dodging students rushing in all directions. At the class she reminds me to swipe my card, then introduces me to Mr Goodman, who is not only my form tutor but also my English teacher. Other students begin to arrive, to take their seats. And she leaves, saying she’ll be back to take me to my first class before tutor ends.
I stand uncertainly by the desk at the front, not sure what to do.
Mr Goodman smiles. ‘Wait here with me for a moment, Kyla,’ he says.
Other students come in, swipe their cards and sit down, one after another; the final bell goes. One last girl comes in and crosses from the door.
‘Late again, Phoebe?’
‘Sorry, Sir,’ she says, but she doesn’t look sorry. She sits, at the last double desk, the only empty chair left in the room right next to her: the girl who tripped me on the bus.
She looks at my swollen lip and smiles, and I look back at her, not smiling. Whispers start around the room. Do they know?
‘Quiet now, 11C,’ he says. ‘This is Kyla; she is joining our tutor group. I want you to all make her feel welcome.’
I stand next to him and look across a room full of eyes; some merely curious, some hostile, some uncertain. But all staring. At me, and at the Levo on my wrist.
‘Have a seat there next to Phoebe,’ he says.
I walk, eyes digging in and dragging my steps, making it hard to move. I pull the chair away from Phoebe as much as I can and still be at the desk, and sit. He turns to write on the whiteboard. Everyone watches Phoebe.
My Levo vibrates. I glance down: 4.4. Phoebe smirks; it vibrates harder. 4.2.
She raises her hand. ‘Sir? I think our new student is about to blow up.’
Everyone titters, and stares. So many eyes; eyes everywhere.
I close mine. Green trees blue sky white clouds green trees blue sky white clouds…
I hear heavy steps, and feel a hand on my shoulder. ‘All right, Kyla?’ Mr Goodman says.
Green trees blue sky white clouds green trees blue sky white clouds…
I open my eyes. ‘Yes.’
‘Good girl. Now copy down your citizenship pledge from the board, please.’
I open my notebook.
Last lesson of the morning brings a pleasant surprise: Ben. He is in my biology class.
He waves when I swipe my card at the door, whispers to a few other boys who grumble and shift across, leaving an empty seat next to him.
‘How’s it going?’
I shrug, don’t say anything, but it must be on my face.
‘It gets better,’ he says, seriously. ‘Really it does. My first day in classes sucked, too.’
And I stare up at Ben, and wonder. Sometimes he seems like every other blank-brained grinning-like-a-lunatic Slated boy I’ve ever met. Yet I can see he has thoughts of his own, too. Maybe, just maybe, I’m not as different from the rest of them as it seems sometimes. Or perhaps it is just Ben: making me feel like I’m not in this alone.
He pulls a face. ‘Remember: no smiling. It hurts.’
‘Oh, yeah. Right.’ I banish the ghost of a grin that had been lurking, and smile at him with my eyes, instead.
Our biology teacher, Miss Fern, is loopy and fun. She has us picking birds we’d most like to be and looking up details in books and websites, then making a poster.
I flick through a book to start, no idea what bird to choose. Until I see black eyes, white feathers, a solemn, heart-shaped face so flat it is like a mask with dark slits. The barn owl. Something about the owl says this is me.
I soon dispense with taxonomic description and dietary habits for drawing: sketching my owl in different positions to start, then settling on in flight, wings stretched wide. Absorbed in sketching, I remember just in time not to use my left hand. It takes away from the experience, but it is still good.
Miss Fern stands over my shoulder. ‘Kyla, that is awesome,’ she says. ‘You have a gift.’
And other students crowd around, and say nice things about it, too. This class seems much more okay with me being in it; perhaps because Ben was here, first. He draws the eyes of the girls, seems to have an easy friendship with the boys. He is just one of them; they accept him, so they accept me. How does he do that?
The bell rings; I can see Mrs Ali through the door, waiting in the hall.
‘Come for lunch?’ Ben asks.
I smile. ‘All right, just give me a minute.’ Then I take my time to pack up, until most of the students are gone. Ben waits, a question in his eyes. Will I dare? I walk up to the teacher’s desk.
‘Miss Fern? I wonder if…I mean, I hope, maybe, you can help…’
‘What is it, Kyla? Spit it out.’
‘I want to take art, but they won’t let me. They say I can’t do an option.’
‘Is that a fact. Well. We’ll see if we can do something about that,’ she says. ‘Can I borrow this?’ She gestures to my owl poster, and I give it to her.
I turn, and jump: Mrs Ali is standing right behind me, lips in a thin line. I didn’t hear her come in; didn’t even hear the door.
‘Can I go for lunch with Ben?’ I ask her.
‘No. You are timetabled to have lunch in the Unit, and you must stick to your timetable.’ She turns to Ben who waits by the door.
‘Sorry, Ben. Kyla has Unit now.’
He waves and is gone.
Back at the Unit Mrs Ali gestures for me to follow her into an office, not the lunch room.
‘Lunch is on my timetable,’ I dare to say.
She shuts the door.
‘Kyla, listen very carefully. You are on a short string, dangling. If the string gets too short, it is a long drop.’
Is this a threat? Yet she smiles, her concerned, gentle smile. It doesn’t go with her words.
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Kyla, I am here to help you as much as I can, to become a useful, happy integrated member of our society. To do this you must learn to follow rules. Your timetable is just one form rules can take. You signed a contract when you left the hospital, promising to follow them all: your family’s rules, the school, your Group, the wider community.’ She touches my cheek, her hand warm like her eyes, but her words are cold. ‘If you break the rules, try to get around the rules or even just give them a little bend, there will be consequences. Now. Go to lunch.’
* * *
‘Good evening, everyone.’ Nurse Penny is in another bright jumper to go with her voice: this time, it is orange.
Thursday night, 7 pm: time for Group. No sign of Ben, or Tori either, for that matter. The others are all smiling in their seats, and I try to emulate them. A day later and my lip is still impressively bruised, but not nearly as sore.
‘Now, perhaps we could start by going around the room, and everyone saying a little of what they’ve been doing since we last met?’
She starts on the other side of the room, glancing at the clock now and then while tales are related. One tried horseback riding; another had their eyes tested; a third got a puppy. Riveting stuff.
It is about to be my turn when the door flies open at the back, and Ben dashes in, dripping wet. Long sleeved T-shirt and shorts cling to him, outlining his body in an interesting way.
‘Really sorry I’m late,’ he says, and grabs a chair. He pushes it next to mine and I try not to stare.
Penny pretends to frown at her favourite, but it doesn’t quite work. ‘You haven’t been running in this weather, Ben.’
He shrugs. ‘Just a little water, it won’t kill me.’
‘Kyla was about to tell us what she’s been up to this week.’
All eyes are on me.
‘Uh, I started school on Monday. And I’m in classes, as of yesterday. Ben is in my biology class.’
Penny looks surprised. ‘In mainstream classes, already? Is it all right?’
I shrug. ‘Mostly. But…’ And I stop. Is mentioning about no art classes some vague rule infringement?
‘But what?’ she says.
‘Nothing. It’s fine,’ I say.
‘Don’t forget to tell about Sunday,’ Ben says.
Penny looks at him and he explains. ‘We met at the Thame Show.’ And he launches into a description of the Sheep Show that has everyone in giggles. Even Tori had laughed at their silly names, and the way the sheep were paraded across the stage.