Mum, Dad and Amy pull up their sleeves and hold their hands out the windows, so I do the same. And the guard looks at Mum and Dad’s empty wrists and nods, then he goes to Amy and holds a thing over her Levo and it beeps. Then he does the same thing to mine, and it beeps, too. He looks in the boot and slams it shut.
A barrier in front of the car rises and we go through.
‘Kyla, what would you like to do today?’ Mum asks.
Mum is round and pointy, and no that isn’t ridiculous. Her shape is round and soft but her eyes and words are sharp.
The car pulls on to the road and I twist round. The hospital complex I know, but only from the inside. It stretches side to side and up and up. Endless rows of little barred windows. High fences and towers with guards at regular intervals. And…
‘Kyla, I asked you a question!’
‘I don’t know,’ I say.
And Dad laughs.
‘Of course not, Kyla; don’t worry. Kyla doesn’t know what she wants to do, she doesn’t know what there is to do.’
‘Now Mum, you know,’ Amy says, and shakes her head. ‘Let’s go straight home. Let her get used to things for a bit, like the doctor said.’
‘Yes because doctors know everything,’ Mum sighs, and I get the sense of a long-standing argument.
Dad looks in the mirror. ‘Kyla, did you know that fifty percent of doctors finished in the bottom of their class?’
‘Honestly, David,’ Mum says, but she is smiling also.
‘Have you heard the one about the doctor who couldn’t tell his left from his right?’ Dad says, and launches into a long story of surgical errors that I hope never happened in my hospital.
But soon I forget all they are being and doing and saying, and stare out the window.
A new picture begins to form in my mind. New London Hospital is losing its central place, shrinking in the sea of what surrounds it. Roads that go on and on, cars, buildings. Some near the hospital are blackened and boarded; more are full of life. Washing on balconies, plants, curtains billowing out windows. And everywhere: people. In cars, walking along the street. Crowds of people and shops and offices and still more crowds of people, rushing in all directions, ignoring the guards at the corners who get fewer the further away we are from the hospital.
Dr Lysander has asked me many times. Why do I have a compulsion to observe and know everything, memorise and map every relationship and position?
I don’t know. Maybe I don’t like feeling blank. There are so many details, missing, that need to be set right.
Within days of remembering how to put one foot in front of the other and not fall over, I’d walked and counted and mapped with pictures in my mind every floor of the hospital that was access allowed. I could have found each nurses’ station, lab and room by number blindfolded; I could close my eyes now and see it all before me.
But London is a different matter. A whole city. I’d have to go up and down every street to complete the map, and we seem to be on a direct line trip to ‘home’, a village an hour west of London.
I’d seen maps and pictures of course, at the hospital school. Hours every day they’d spoon feed us as much general knowledge as our blank brains could soak up to prepare us for release.
How much this was varied. With me I gripped each fact and memorised it, drawing and writing things over and over again in a notebook so I couldn’t forget. Most of the others were less receptive. Too busy smiling great dopey grins at everything and everybody. When we were Slated, they upped the happy in our psychic profiles.
If they upped the smiles in mine, they must have been non-existent to start with.
* * *
Dad pulls my bag out of the boot and walks towards the house, whistling, keys in hand. Mum and Amy get out of the car, then turn back when I don’t follow.
‘Come along, Kyla.’ Mum’s voice is impatient.
I push at the door, hard and then harder, but nothing happens. I look up at Mum, my stomach beginning to twist as the look on her face matches her tone.
Then Amy opens the door from the outside. ‘You pull this handle down, on the inside of the door, and then push it open. All right?’
She shuts the door again, and I grasp the handle and do as she says. The door swings open and I step out, glad to straighten my legs and stretch after so long in the car. One hour had turned to three due to traffic delays and diversions, and had Mum getting more annoyed as each one passed.
Mum grabs my wrist. ‘Look. 4.4 just because she can’t work out a door. God, this is going to be hard work.’
And I want to object, say that is unfair and it isn’t the door but how you are being about it. But I don’t know what I should or shouldn’t say. Instead I say nothing and bite the inside of my cheek, hard.
Amy slips an arm across my shoulders as Mum follows Dad inside. ‘She doesn’t mean it; she’s just cranky that your first dinner is going to be late. Anyhow, you haven’t been in a car before, have you? How should you know?’
She pauses and I don’t know what to say, again, but this time it is because she is being nice. So I try a smile, a small one, but it is for real this time.
Amy smiles back and hers is wider. ‘Have a look around before we go in?’ she says.
Where the car is parked to the right of the house is all small stones that crunch and move underfoot as we walk. A square of green grass covers the front garden, a massive tree – oak? – to the left. Its leaves are a mix of yellow, orange and red, some spilling messily underneath. Leaves fall in autumn I remind myself, and what is it now? The 13th of September. There are a few red and pink straggly flowers either side of the front door, petals dropping on the ground. And, all around me, so much space. So quiet after the hospital, and London. I stand on the grass and breathe the cool air in deep. It tastes damp and full of life and the ending of life, like those fallen leaves.
‘Come in?’ Amy says, and I follow her through the front door into the hall. Leading off it is a room with sofas and lamps, tables. A huge flat black screen dominates one wall. A TV? It is much bigger than the one they had in recreation at the hospital, not that they let me near it after the first time. Watching made my nightmares worse.
This room leads to another: there are long work surfaces, with cupboards above and below. And a massive oven that Mum is bending over just now, putting a pan inside.
‘Go to your room and unpack before dinner, Kyla,’ Mum says, and I jump.
Amy takes my hand. ‘This way,’ she says, and pulls me back to the hall. I follow her up the stairs, to another hall with three doors and more stairs going up.
‘We’re on this floor, Mum and Dad upstairs. See, this is my door.’ She points to the right. ‘That one at the end is the bathroom, we’ll share. They have their own one upstairs. And this is your room.’ She points left.
I look at Amy.
The door is part open; I push it and go in.
Much bigger than my hospital room. My bag is already on the floor where Dad must have put it. There is a dressing table with drawers and a mirror above it, a wardrobe next. No sink. A big wide window that looks out over the front of the house.
Amy comes in and sits on one of them. ‘We thought we’d put two in here to start with; I can stay with you at night if you want me to. The nurse said it might be a good idea, until you get settled.’
She doesn’t say the rest but I can tell. They must have told them. In case I have nightmares. I often do and if no one is there fast enough when I wake, I drop too low and my Levo knocks me out.
I sit on the other bed. There is something round, black and furry on it; I reach out a hand, then stop.
‘Go on. That is Sebastian, our cat. He is very friendly.’
I touch his fur lightly with a fingertip. Warm, and soft.
He stirs, and the ball unwinds as he stretches out his paws, puts his head back and yawns.
I have seen pictures of cats before, of course. But this is different. He is so much more than a flat image: living and breathing fishy breath, silky fur rippling as he stretches, big yellow-green eyes staring back into mine.
‘Meow,’ he says and I jump.
Amy gets up, leans across.
‘Stroke him, like this,’ she says, and runs a hand along his fur from his head down to his tail. I copy her, and he makes a sound, a deep rumbling that vibrates from his throat through his body.
‘What is that?’
‘He’s purring. It means he likes you.’
Later it is dark out the window, and Amy is asleep across the room. Sebastian still purrs faintly beside me when I stroke him. The door is part open for the cat, and sounds drift up the stairs. Clattering kitchen noises. Voices.
‘She’s a quiet little thing, isn’t she.’ Dad.
‘You can say that again. Nothing like Amy was: she wouldn’t stop giggling and talking from the first day she came through the door, would she?’
‘Still won’t,’ he says, and laughs.
‘She is a different girl, all right. A bit odd if you ask me; those great green eyes just stare and stare.’
‘Oh, she is quite sweet. Give her a chance to get settled.’
‘It is her last chance, isn’t it.’
And a door shuts downstairs and I hear no more. Just a faint murmur.
I hadn’t wanted to leave the hospital. Not that I wanted to stay there forever, but within those walls, I knew where I was. How I fit, what was expected.
Here all is unknown.
But it isn’t as scary as I thought. Already I can see Amy is lovely. Dad seems all right. I’m guessing Sebastian will be better than chocolate to pull me back from the edge if I get low. And the food is much better. My first Sunday roast dinner. We do this every week, Amy said.
Dinner and, not a shower, but a bath – a whole hot tub to soak in – had me at nearly 7 by bedtime.
Mum thinks I am odd. I must remember not to stare at her so much.
Sleep settles around me and her words drift through my brain.
Have I had other chances?
Waves claw at the sand under my feet as I force one foot to pound after the other, again and again. Ragged breath sucked in and out until my lungs might burst, and still I run. Golden sand gives way under my feet and stretches on and on as far as my eyes can see, and still I scrabble up and slip down and run.
Terror snaps at my heels.
It’s getting closer.
I could turn and face it, see what it is.
‘Ssssh, I’ve got you.’
I struggle then realise it is Amy whose arms are around me.
The door opens and light streams in from the hall.
‘What is going on?’ Mum says.
Amy answers. ‘Just a bad dream, but you’re all right, now. Aren’t you, Kyla?’
My heart rate is slowing; vision, clearing. I push her away.
‘Yes. I’m fine.’
I say the words, but part of me is still running.
* * *
I drift through trees, spin and sprawl down on grass and daisies on the ground, alone. I stare at clouds drifting across the sky, making half known shapes and faces. Names slip away if I grasp at them, so I let them wash past: just lie still and be me.
It is time. Like mist I bleed away until I am gone. Trees and sky are replaced by the darkness of closed eyelids, tickling grass by solid bed.
Quiet. Why is it so quiet? My body knows it is later than 5 am but no buzzer has sounded, no breakfast trolleys clang up and down the hall.
I lie very still, hold my breath, and listen.
Gentle, even breathing. Close by. Did I black out last night, is there a Watcher in my room? If so, it sounds like they sleep rather than watch.
There are faint cheerful sounds in the other direction, a distant rise and fall, like music. Birds?