Just as he clings tight to Tori.
A surprise: not just Mum but also Dad are waiting for me when the bus gets back to school. I wave goodbye to Ben and the others, and walk over to the car, muddy and exhausted, with a bandaged knee. Everything is stiffening up so much now, it is an effort just to put one foot in front of the other.
Mum jumps out of the car. ‘What in hell happened to you?’ she says, horror on her face.
‘I’m fine. And look.’ I show her my Levo: 6.6. Even with the distress of our whispers on the bus, running is obviously the way to keep my levels up.
‘But the state of you!’ And she marches off to have a word to Ferguson. Dad gets out of the car as well, looks me up and down.
‘It was good fun, then?’ He grins.
‘Oh, yes.’ I smile back, and lean against the car feeling like I’ll fall over if I don’t. I haven’t seen Dad since he scared me in the dark in the kitchen – he’s been away for work – but now he looks happy, relaxed, nothing like the grim one who questioned me for nearly screaming when he startled me in the middle of the night.
‘How’d it go?’
‘I came first.’
He whoops, holds up his hand. ‘High five?’
‘Hold up your hand, like this.’ I do and he claps his hand against mine. Then he gestures at Mum, and winks. ‘She’s not going to like it if you keep this up. She has a low tolerance for dirt and blood.’
That night, Jazz comes for dinner. Amy smiles great dopey grins at him all evening, Mum does her best dragon impression, and Dad tells bad jokes. Jazz even answers to ‘Jason’, looks resigned to his fate and doesn’t talk much beyond saying ‘yes please’ and ‘thank you’. I just concentrate on eating.
‘Hungry, today?’ Mum says, surprised as I go for seconds of roast and potatoes. Gravy and Yorkshire pudding: yum.
I shrug. ‘I did run 10 K this morning.’
‘Don’t forget to have some greens as well,’ she says. On my plate are a few green spriggy bits, like little trees. So far I’ve managed to avoid them.
‘What is it?’
‘Broccoli. Haven’t you had it?’ she says, looking surprised.
‘I don’t think so.’ With all eyes on me there is nothing for it. I spear some with a fork, chew and keep on chewing. It’s springy and horrible. I try to swallow it down, but my throat rebels: it won’t go. I gag and start to choke.
‘Are you all right?’ Mum half gets up but I hold up a hand and she sits down again, and somehow I manage to swallow. When no one is looking I shove the rest of my broccoli into a napkin, and then later, into the bin. That was disgusting.
CHAPTER TWENTY THREE
* * *
‘You’re to skip tutor and go see Dr Winston,’ Mrs Ali says. ‘Now.’
‘What? Why?’ I stare back at her, but her face is unreadable.
‘I expect she’ll tell you. Go upstairs and wait.’ She smiles but it doesn’t make me feel better.
What is this about? I climb the stairs, and sit down, hands clenched. Maybe, somehow, they know Ben and I have been talking about people disappearing. Maybe the bus was bugged, and the Lorders are pulling him out of his class, right now. Maybe, they will…
Her door opens; a boy steps out.
‘Next!’ a voice yells.
I stand and walk into her office. Scan my card, shut the door and sit down.
‘Good morning, Kyla!’ She is smiling her painted on lipstick smile.
‘A teacher has been talking to me about you. Do you know what about?’ She purses her lips. I scan my mind – a teacher? Have I done something wrong?
‘One of my teachers? I… I don’t know.’
‘Don’t look so panicked. It is one of your teachers, but you don’t know him yet. Mr Gianelli: Head of the Art Department. It seems he saw a drawing of yours, and has been most persistent in insisting you be moved into his class.’
‘Really?’ I can feel the smile taking over my face.
She frowns. ‘He was most annoying.’
‘I’m very sorry about that, but…um, so can I take his class?’
‘Yes. Here is your new timetable.’ She thrusts it at me. ‘We had to move your maths class also to make it fit. You’ll have Unit at lunch twice a week to make that up, and can do as you will the other days from now on.’
‘Thank you so much, thank you, I—’
I dash out of the seat, scan my card at the door.
‘Oh, and Kyla?’
I turn. ‘Yes?’
‘Don’t look so pleased with yourself. I don’t want to be bothered by you, or by anyone about you, again, any time soon. Is that clear?’
She smiles brightly as she says the words, which makes them worse, somehow.
I wipe the grin off my face. ‘Yes,’ I say, and bolt out the room and down the stairs.
Mr Gianelli, my champion, isn’t what I expect at all.
‘Who are you?’ he demands, scowling, when I slip in just after the bell.
‘A new student. You arranged it with Dr Winston?’
At the mention of her name his scowl deepens. ‘Ah ha! You are the owl girl. I had to endure three meetings with that insufferable woman on your behalf.’
I look nervously behind me, but the door is shut; Mrs Ali is gone. As I turn back and glance over the students, my heart sinks: Phoebe. Oh great. She is in my art class, too.
He whips my owl sketch out of a pile on his desk, holds it up to the class and before he lets me sit down, proceeds to tell everyone exactly how I could make it better. And he’s right.
But today, we are painting.
What to paint?
My Happy Place: maybe it will help me go there. I start on the sky. Soon I am absorbed in the blues, mixing them on a palette, adding wisps of cloud, white swirls with a palette knife. So lost in the sky that I almost don’t register low voices behind.
‘Wonder what she did to get Slated.’
‘Bet it was bad.’
‘Couldn’t have been much: she’s a scrawny little wuss.’
‘Maybe she tortured little children ‘cos they were the only ones smaller than her.’
‘Maybe she set fire to her house and roasted her parents alive. Sort of a mum and dad barbecue. Bet they screamed.’
I spin around.
‘Maybe I slit someone’s throat with a palette knife.’ I balance it on one hand as if checking the weight.
Her friend backs off but Phoebe laughs. ‘You know she can’t hurt anyone, now, no matter what she did before. She’ll die if she tries. Her brain will fry: zap!’
I turn back to my painting.
Green trees blue sky white clouds green trees blue sky white clouds…
‘Happy with your new timetable?’ Mrs Ali asks, smiling pleasantly at break.
And I don’t know whether to say the obvious yes, because with or without Phoebe and trying not to think what they said, I love it. Or will she feel I’ve been getting around things, and I’m in trouble if I’m happy about it?
She laughs. ‘Your face: you should see it sometimes.’
So she is in a good mood today.
I smile hesitantly. ‘I love my art class. It will really help me—’ I scan my brain for what the Head said at Assembly ‘—reach my full potential.’
She looks amused. ‘Don’t just parrot the words, Kyla. You must do your best at all times to fulfil your contract.’
‘Can I ask a question?’
‘What happens if someone like me doesn’t fulfil their contract. Can they be…returned?’
She stares back at my eyes. Something crosses her face, so fast I’m not sure what it is; then it is gone. She smiles. ‘Just keep your head down for a while, Kyla, until Dr Winston forgets how you annoyed her.’
She walks me to my next class, and I think about what she said. She didn’t answer the question. And that, in itself, is an answer.
CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR
* * *
Thud-thud; thud-thud. My feet thump along the track.
Maybe she tortured little children…maybe she set fire to her house and burned her parents alive…or slit someone’s throat with a palette knife.
I run fast, and faster.
I can see my hands, with a knife. Maybe a sharp one from the kitchen, not a palette knife: too blunt. Or setting a fire: spraying petrol and throwing a match. Or, instead, flammable liquid in a glass bottle, a cloth in the end set alight and the whole thing smashed through a window. Would I have stayed to listen to the screams? No. How could you be sure to get away?
But I didn’t get away. Here I am.
The track blurs past and I run to keep my levels up, but can’t stop the thoughts and images tumbling in my mind.
What about torturing little children? I couldn’t have done that. Could I? Then I remember my dream: students blown to bits on the bus. They weren’t much more than children.
Could I have done any of these things?
Someone is getting close, behind me; I speed up but still they gain. I glance to my right: Ben.
‘Heh,’ he says. ‘You can go.’
I nod, unable to speak, my lungs full of the effort of keeping up the oxygen supply for my body.
A few more laps, and a few more, Ben beside me now. Once the paint brush was out of my hand and art class over, Phoebe’s words kept repeating over and over in my head. I’d come straight to the school track at the end of last morning class, today the first day I didn’t have to go to the Unit for lunch. Ben’s presence is comforting, though he gives up trying to speak when I don’t answer. Gradually, he lowers his pace. Reluctant to leave him behind, I slow down with him, bit by bit.
‘Enough?’ he finally says, and I nod. We slow, and stop. He links his arm into mine and leads me away, and we walk around the school grounds, along the paths. Other students mill about but ignore us.
‘Want to tell me what is wrong?’
‘Something had you running like a lunatic.’
‘Just a few things some girls said, that’s all. It’s stupid.’
I don’t answer, but I tug his hand to change direction. We walk alongside the admin building until we get to the memorial, and I stop in front of it.
So many names, carved in stone: all dead. Six years ago. What an imagination I have. I give myself a shake. I was only ten years old then, I couldn’t have been there.
‘Kyla, what is it?’
‘Don’t you ever wonder? What you did to get Slated. What if I was a terrorist? What if I killed people, like these students: threw a bomb on their bus.’ Ben shakes his head. ‘I don’t know what I could have done. I can’t think I could have ever done anything as horrible as that; you, either. But we’ll never know. All we can do is live our lives as they are now; be who we are, now.’
I consider his words. The thing is, I can’t imagine Ben ever having done anything dreadful; Amy, either. But somehow I am less sure of myself.
‘But how can I know who I am now, if I don’t know who I was?’
‘I know who you are: Kyla, lunatic runner, and my friend.’ He slips his arms around my shoulders. ‘Kyla with the shy smile, and the face that shows every feeling inside. What else is there to know?’
I look up in Ben’s warm eyes, like melted chocolate, just now asking a question: who are you, Kyla?
‘I like to draw, and paint,’ I say, slowly. ‘I’m good at it, too.’
‘Kyla the artist. Good. What else?’
I rack my brains for answers. ‘I hate broccoli. I like cats.’ It’s a start, I guess.
Ben smiles and his arms tighten. My stomach flips. Sweet sixteen and never been kissed. There is something in his eyes that says it will be now, me with clothes stuck to my skin and hair limp from running, out in the open where anyone might see. Tori’s presence still hangs between us, but just now he doesn’t seem to care, and neither do I.
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