Even so, deception isn’t impossible, just difficult. Like being a magician and attracting attention away from the very thing she would like to examine, if it is noticed. Trying not to give the trick away.
‘May I ask you a question?’ I say.
Dr Lysander sits back. She will often answer questions, if you dare to ask them. But it is best to check first as she isn’t always in the mood.
She tilts her head forward. Permission granted.
‘Why the fascination with hide and seek? It’s a happy dream; I’m just playing. Nothing wrong is happening.’
‘What could it represent?’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘You hide from others: it is a game you are playing, you see? Why do you hide? What do you hide?’
Oh. I think about it for a moment. Am I hiding something? Not that I know.
Leaving the hospital is much like the last time, the day I met my family. We spiral up out of the underground car park to a gate; Amy’s and my Levos are scanned, guards have a quick look in the car and finally raise the barrier. Relief washes over me as we leave the fences and guards behind. The whole hospital complex felt heavy and dense around me today, as if it was crushing the air out of my lungs. How did I live there for so long?
And the guards: they are Lorders, too. When I lived behind those walls I just accepted the towers with their guns, the barred windows, the guards that patrolled outside with dogs. The high fences.
Is it all to keep people in, or out?
I stare out the window all the way back from the hospital, Mum driving and busy with her own thoughts, while Amy sulks, upset that her hero Dr Lysander wouldn’t take time to speak to her and just brushed her off.
We are going home. Is it mine? It is becoming familiar; comfortable, most of the time. I no longer wake in the morning unsure where I am, and can find my way around in the dark. Going in through hospital security and behind the bars and guard towers felt not comforting today, but claustrophobic: it made me want to jump out of the car and run all the way back to the country. Away from these streets with guards, the rushing crowds of people. Motorways and roadblocks with black vans and guns.
At least Dr Lysander agreed with Nurse Penny, and told Mum to let me do more stuff on my own, now; she said I can explore, go walking alone if I want. But Mum was less than pleased when Dr Lysander said she wants to see me not once a fortnight, but every single week: every Saturday we’ll have to make this trek.
We are nearly home before I remember. Why did Mum call to ask Dad about what was happening on the road? It wasn’t on the radio news, then or now.
Why would he know?
CHAPTER TWENTY TWO
* * *
Sunday morning the sky is a brilliant blue, but so cold my breath is a white shroud about my face. I shiver and wrap my arms around myself as I wait for the bus that will take us for cross-country training. More students arrive, and a teacher with a clipboard.
The bus pulls into the school, followed by a car behind: Ben. I wait for him while the others climb on the bus.
Ben’s smile is surprised. ‘I didn’t know you run,’ he says.
It was that horrible closed in feeling at the hospital yesterday that made me decide to come. I know why Ben runs; I used to, too, on the treadmills in the hospital gym. Endorphins, they are called: chemicals released in your brain when you run and run, past the point of exhaustion, past the point of aching muscles. Into a zone where you don’t feel what you are doing to your body any more, just exhilaration coursing through and you never want to stop; everything inside becomes calm and clear, in icy focus. And maybe, just a little, I want to run because of my dream, when I can’t run any more and collapse. I want to be able to run away from that.
Mum took a little convincing that I was serious and wanted to go, and had to be reminded that Dr Lysander said to let me do things on my own. Amy just smirked and teased me about Ben when Mum wasn’t listening.
The cross-country coach, Mr Ferguson, gives me a funny look as we get on the bus. ‘Not another groupie,’ he says, and rolls his eyes at Ben. Some of the other boys smirk and I start to get what he means.
‘I can run,’ I say, and scowl at the pink rising in my cheeks.
‘Well, we’ll see, little lass,’ he says, and laughs.
There are a dozen or so boys and almost as many girls. They all seem to know each other, and ‘little’ I am, smaller than any of the others.
I slip into a bus seat by the window; Ben sits next to me. As the bus pulls away from school, he leans down and whispers in my ear: ‘Is it true?’
‘Are you just here because I am?’
‘No!’ I say, indignant, and punch him in the arm.
‘Ow!’ He rubs it. ‘I was kind of hoping you were.’
I look away, confused. Does he mean it? What about Tori? I don’t know what to say, so I say nothing.
The ten kilometre course is multi-terrain through Chiltern countryside: footpaths over fields and woodland, with a few hills, ditches and creeks to scramble across. Not exactly a treadmill, and I start to wonder how I’ll be. They’ve all done this course before. Ferguson shows me a map, and says there are course markers – small orange flags – all the way. I scan the map, several times: it only takes moments to commit the route to memory.
The boys start, first: I watch them take off across the field. We must wait ten minutes. I do stretches and warm up. Ferguson walks over.
‘You haven’t been to any of the other training sessions,’ he says.
‘No. I just joined the school a week ago; I couldn’t.’
‘Fair enough. Just watch your step, and pace yourself, all right? Ten kilometres is a long way to go. I get in shit every time I have to call an ambulance.’
‘Your concern is touching,’ I say.
Surprise crosses his face, and he laughs. ‘Ha! You’re all right. Let’s see what you can do, eh?’
A few of the girls look less than pleased.
He starts us off.
We run across fields at the beginning; unused to the uneven ground, I take it easy, getting into a rhythm. We’re spread out with me somewhere towards the back of the middle, the boys well out of sight.
The sun, the thud-thud of my feet on the ground, the faster thump-thump of my heart: it all feels good. Time to go faster. I turn up the pace as we follow a path through woodlands.
Around a bend, a branch on the ground suddenly lifts up. There is no time to jump it or divert, nothing to do but catch my foot against it and fall over. I go flying through the air, hands out. As I land heavily, two girls off to the side drop the branch and run off. Laughing.
I can’t breathe, and lie on the ground, gasping like a fish flipped on a beach. Gradually normal breathing returns, and I start to sit up.
A few girls pass, and another; one pauses. ‘Are you all right?’ she says. I just wave a hand, and she keeps going.
They’re all past me now.
There are scratches on my arm and a cut on one knee. I stand carefully, and test my legs; everything seems all right. At least Ferguson won’t need to get in shit for calling an ambulance today. Anger surges through me. Stuff them! I was loving running, why did they have to do that? And I breathe in deep, again and again, to calm down, and check my Levo: 5.8. Must still be up from running.
It is a long race, a little voice inside reminds me. A very long race.
I start again.
I go fast, then faster. There are trail markers as Ferguson said, little orange flags every now and then that show the path. But then, as the path forks into two, the flag is on the left, not the right: the wrong side? I pause, and close my eyes, consider the map I’d memorised before setting off. Definitely on the wrong side.
Is someone playing another game? No matter. The map is firmly in my mind. I ignore the misplaced flag, and keep running.
Soon I pass the girl who had asked if I was all right, and the others who didn’t. I’m there, in that place where running and breathing are everything, and everything is each foot thudding on the ground, flying along. I’m covered in mud from splashing along a creek, my arm and knee are bleeding, and I don’t care.
I smile as I pass the two girls who tripped me up with the branch, giving them a wide berth. I can see the surprise, then effort as they try to speed up, but can’t. They disappear behind me.
And so I pass another, a few more. I’ve lost count – was that the last girl? Not content with doing all right, any more, I want to be first. I go faster.
I pass a few of the boys, too, then a few more, before the finish line appears in the distance – the place we started.
Ferguson, Ben and half a dozen boys who have finished start cheering when they see me appear over the hill.
When I run over the line Ferguson squints at his stopwatch. ‘Flipping heck. Did you sprint the whole way?’
I stop, and try to answer, but can’t speak. The world starts spinning sickeningly.
‘Don’t answer me! Run it off,’ Ferguson says.
Gasping, nauseous, I run circles around the car park, again and again, slower each time, until I can finally stop without wanting to throw up.
More of the boys finish, and a while later, the girls.
‘What happened to you?’ Ferguson says, when he sees the blood on my arm and leg.
I shrug. ‘I tripped,’ I say. ‘It’s all right; I won’t need an ambulance.’
He laughs and gets the first aid kit, and puts a bandage on my knee.
‘We’re a good pair, you and I,’ Ben says, when we get on the bus.
‘I was first of the boys; you were first of the girls.’
‘How much before me did you get there?’
Ben shrugs. ‘Five minutes or so. Why?’
‘Well, we started ten minutes after you. That means I was faster than you.’
Understanding then surprise cross his face, and he grins. ‘Good. I needed a reason to train harder.’
He peeks at my Levo: 8.1, and shows me his, 7.9. ‘You beat me there, too,’ he says. The bus pulls away and he leans in close. ‘So now is a good time for this,’ he says, his voice low so I have to lean in, and am glad of it. His body radiates heat and mine is getting cold, colder by the second.
‘A good time for what?’
His smile falls away. ‘I’ve been checking around a bit, asking a few questions.’
‘Tori isn’t the first to disappear. There have been others at our school, Slateds, that one day just aren’t there any more. No explanation.’
‘Returned,’ I whisper, and a cold shiver passes through me. Ben slips an arm over my shoulder.
‘That’s not all. Others, too: not Slateds. Like those three pulled out of Assembly on Friday. They’re gone, also, and it isn’t the first time it has happened.’
Naturals going missing, too? The ones at Assembly were taken aside by Lorders; they must have taken them. My stomach twists.
‘The boys I can understand. I heard one got caught with a mobile phone. And the other was a right jerk, always getting in fights and stuff. Maybe he was in a gang?’
‘And the girl?’
Ben shrugs. ‘She never did a thing wrong. But she was very smart; always asking teachers awkward questions, like in history. About why things were done, or not done.’
Asking awkward questions. Like Ben.
‘Ben! You’ve got to stop trying to find out stuff; you might be next.’
‘But what about Tori? If no one asks, no one cares. Don’t you see, it could be you, it could be me. I have to know what happened to her.’
‘I don’t want you to disappear,’ I whisper, and he pulls me closer. Mud and sweat in a hug, his heart beating under my ear.
A few of the boys make smooching noises at us, and Ferguson turns around. ‘No canoodling on the bus,’ he yells, and I sit up straight. Ben still clings tight to my hand.