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‘Wait a minute,’ I say. ‘Where is Tori?’

Ben looks at me, then back at Penny, a question mark on his face.

‘Tori isn’t in our Group any more,’ she says. And moves on to the next in the circle, who learnt how to make chocolate chip cookies. A box of cookies is produced, and conversation ceases as they are passed around.

Ben munches on a handful, crumbs getting stuck on his wet shirt. I resist the impulse to brush them away.

‘Ben,’ I say, in a low voice. ‘Why isn’t Tori in our Group any more? Did she tell you? Why hasn’t she been in school this week?’

He shrugs. ‘She didn’t say anything; I don’t know.’

‘Aren’t you worried? Maybe something happened to her.’

He pauses. ‘Maybe she’s got the flu or something; I didn’t really think about it,’ he says, but I can tell by his face that he is, now. ‘Tell you what: I’ll stop by her place later, and make sure she is all right.’

Group carries on, and I wonder about Tori, and Ben’s reaction to her vanishing with no explanation. She was his girlfriend, or so I thought. Yet I get the feeling if I hadn’t asked, he wouldn’t have thought to. And it isn’t like he doesn’t care; he just didn’t think about it. I wasn’t much better as I’d noticed she wasn’t in school, but never said anything: there were so many other things to worry about.

I wonder if he’d notice if one day I bent too many rules, and wasn’t here any more. Would he sit next to some other girl in biology, and not give it a second thought?

Penny has me wait at the end.

‘What happened to your face, dear?’ she says, concerned.

‘I tripped and fell on the bus.’

‘I see. Was it an accident?’

I hesitate.

‘Tell me, Kyla. I won’t say anything about it if you don’t want me to.’

I shake my head. ‘It wasn’t an accident. Someone tripped me up.’

‘Oh, how dreadful. I’m sorry that happened. You have to take care. Some people aren’t very nice, are they? How are things going now?’

‘All right. I know who to watch out for.’

‘Sweetie, understanding that you have to look out for some people is a big step. Let me know if there is anything I can do to help,’ she says, and squeezes my hand.

I stare back at her, thinking I had things muddled up. Mrs Ali had seemed so nice, and then wasn’t, at all. And Penny was so annoying when I first met her, but now, I feel like she is on my side.

‘Thanks,’ I say and give her a real smile.

I get up to go.

‘Wait, Kyla,’ she says. ‘I asked your mum to come in to chat for a minute.’

Moments later Mum appears at the back of the hall, shaking an umbrella. ‘What dire weather!’ she says, scowling and stomping across the floor.

Mum: another one who is puzzling. Is she on my side, or not? Is she the Dragon, or someone who makes me soup when I am hurt? I don’t know.

Mum has a chat with Penny about me, but this time I let them get on with it, and don’t interrupt. Penny is saying I’m ready to have a little more freedom, and do some things on my own to develop independence. Mum disagrees. But eventually says, all right.

A night full of surprises.

CHAPTER NINETEEN

* * *

I tilt my face to the sky. To tiny droplets, so small they aren’t felt as individuals but rather just a general sense of wetness. More like mist than rain. But they gather together, a few little trickles form and run cold down my face. Not like tears which are hot.

‘You’re supposed to put your hood up to stay dry, not spread it out like a rain catcher,’ Ben scolds. And reaches a hand either side of my face, pulls up the hood of my jacket, then tucks my hair in both sides. His hands are warm.

Our eyes meet and he pauses, his hands still on either side of my face. The rain and the woods fade away. His gold flecked eyes with more depths than first seen hold mine, still, in place.

But then his hands drop, he looks both ways. No one is in sight but there are voices not far behind.

‘Come on,’ he says, and starts to walk away from the others. Then turns back to where I stand, my feet uncertain. Should I follow? He holds up his right hand, his little finger curved up, the others tucked in.

And I look at his hand, unsure, until he glances down to my left hand, then back to my eyes. I hold up my hand. He hooks my little finger in with his and gives it a tug, turns and walks through the trees, pulling me along. His hand held up still, tugging mine with our little fingers linked together. It is so silly, I start to giggle.

I hadn’t noticed at first that Ben was leading us away from the others, bit by bit. Why? Despite the cold, I feel flushed. Our biology class is spread out in the woods. We’re meant to be collecting water samples from a creek, and leaves from undergrowth or trees to identify later. Their voices are distant and becoming more so.

He stops, turns to face me. Suddenly nervous, I step back. ‘Should we get some leaves? How about those…’

‘I need to talk to you,’ Ben says, and his smile fades away. He didn’t seem himself on the bus this morning, either, now I think of it. I’d asked a question with my eyes and he’d said later.

So now is later. He just wanted to get me alone to talk. Bits inside are jumbled up; relieved, then annoyed. Confused.

‘What about?’

‘Tori.’

I turn my head so he won’t see the sudden flash of hurt when he says her name. I should have known.

‘You got me worrying something happened to her, and I went to her house after Group last night.’ He hesitates. The rain is increasing, and he leans back against a tree, the droplets of mist becoming more the heavy plop, plop of bigger rain drops that start working their way through the leaves still on the tree.

He takes my hand and pulls me closer under a thick tree bough.

‘She’s not there any more.’ He almost whispers, as if the trees are spies.

‘What do you mean?’

‘I spoke to her mum, and it was really weird. At first she said that Tori doesn’t live there any more. And I said why, is she with her dad in London? And she went a bit funny. Said things weren’t working out, so Tori was returned. She had an odd look on her face, then shook it off, and said I shouldn’t be there, shouldn’t be asking questions. She almost threw me out the door.’

‘She was returned?’ My eyes go round in shock, as I struggle to take it in. ‘They can do that?’

He nods. ‘That was the word she used. Like she was talking about a pair of boots that didn’t fit, or a parcel sent back to the post office.’

‘But returned to where?’ I say, and realisation starts to make horror take over from shock. Tori was seventeen, and you can only be Slated if you are under sixteen, so they couldn’t just do her again. Did they assign her to another family? If not, what happened to her?

There is a sound, a small vibration, muffled by Ben’s coat.

‘Let me see,’ I say, and he holds out his hand. I push up his sleeve to see his Levo: 4.3.‘What can I do?’

He shrugs a bit helplessly. ‘I should run,’ he says, but he doesn’t move. His other hand tightens on my shoulder, and his Levo vibrates again. 4.1.

I slip my arms around him; his go round my shoulders. He moves closer. The rain is falling harder but he is so much taller, leaning over, that I am sheltered. And even through school jumpers and jackets I can feel the thump-thump, thump-thump of his heart. Mine is beating faster, warmth is sliding through me as I bury my face in his damp jacket. But he is upset because of Tori. It isn’t me he wants to hold.

A whistle sounds, we both jump and pull apart.

‘That’s Miss Fern, calling everyone in. She must have decided it’s raining too hard,’ he says.

‘Run?’ I ask.

And we do, slipping and sliding on wet leaves down the path, until a few minutes later we reach the group just as Miss Fern starts counting heads.

Today’s prac abandoned due to weather, Miss Fern sets us questions to answer.

But I can’t concentrate. What happened to Tori? I have a sick feeling in my stomach that says nothing nice. I didn’t know her for long. She had a knack of saying things out loud that were in my head. Mum had snapped at her at the show, telling her to mind her words. Maybe she wasn’t being nasty like it seemed at the time. Maybe, Mum was trying to warn her.

Ben’s levels are so up and down that Miss Fern finally excuses him from class, and sends him to the track with a TA to run laps.

When the bell is finally about to go, Miss Fern comes round and looks over my shoulder, and sees how little work I’ve done. ‘Is this the thanks I get,’ she scolds. But then she smiles and I see she doesn’t really mean it.

‘For what?’

She sits in Ben’s empty seat. ‘I’ve spoken to Mr Gianelli, head of the Art Department, and showed him your drawing of the owl. Made much of your dreams to become an artist.’ She winks.

‘And?’

‘He’s doing battle to get you in his class: we’ll see what happens, but I expect he’ll win. He is too annoying to say no to for long.’

I don’t see Ben again until Assembly.

He’s sitting with his tutor group, a few rows up and across. His hair is plastered to his head – from rain, or sweat? – and his colour is better. He turns when we file in, spots me.

Okay I mouth? And he nods yes, with a small smile.

Every year group has Assembly once a week: Year 11 on Friday afternoons, so this is my first. I’m at the end of the row, Phoebe enough seats away to ignore. The girl next to me, Julie, I sat next to in English yesterday; while not entirely friendly, she has been okay. Showing me where we are in Romeo and Juliet, and explaining stuff. Everyone shuffles in their seats and there is a low hum of voices that abruptly ceases when a door opens at the front.

‘That is the Head: Rickson,’ Julie hisses in my ear. So she is still explaining.

He wears a blue suit that doesn’t quite fit against his gut, and stands very straight as if to compensate. His eyes are cold as they sweep around the room, stopping here and there as if to say I’m keeping an eye on you. Though I’m not sure if it is him that has everyone still and quiet like stone, or the two men and one woman who file in behind.

Their faces are neutral; their suits identical grey jackets and trousers.

‘Lorders,’ Julie says in the quietest whisper, so faint I’m not sure if I heard or imagined the word.

They are the same as we saw at the County Show, when just by being there they silenced the crowd, as they do now. And just like that day my stomach twists in a cold knot of dread.

Who, or what, are Lorders? Somehow I know, but don’t know, at the same time. And then I remember my dream: the school bus blown up, so many students dying, and the sign hanging on the building next to the bus that said London Lorders Office. But if it was just a dream, something my mind made up after seeing the memorial, how did I put Lorders in it when I didn’t know what they are? Maybe it wasn’t just a dream. Perhaps Lorders were the target of the bombs that killed those students. But if it wasn’t a dream…why was I there? Six years ago I was just ten years old. It doesn’t make sense.

The Lorders move off to the side, taking no obvious part: just listening, watching.

Rickson addresses the Assembly, and I carefully force my eyes away from the three of them, to him; doing my best to listen with part of my brain while the rest still whirls in shock. He goes on about academic and sporting achievements of students. He mentions the school cross-country team open training continues Sunday; he hopes many of us will go along, and names students from our school who placed in the county finals last year. Team try-outs will be next month. Then he says with great sadness that some students are still not fulfilling their potential, and suggests we all try harder.

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