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CHAPTER THIRTY TWO

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‘I wonder what he did? It must have been bad.’ Amy seems fascinated and not remotely upset. ‘Wasn’t he your art teacher?’

‘He is my art teacher,’ I say.

‘Well, I don’t think he is any more. They’ve never marched someone off in front of everyone like that before, have they?’

‘I don’t want to talk about it!’ I say, but Amy persists.

‘Come on, you must have heard something. Tell us.’

‘That’s enough, Amy,’ Jazz says.

Amy looks startled. ‘What’s it to you?’ she says.

I take off. I’d been roped in to going for a walk with them when we got home, never mind that I want to be alone in my room. But Mum said they couldn’t go on their own, and here I am.

But no one said we couldn’t walk some distance apart, did they? I race ahead, needing the speed, needing to run. It is the same footpath I went on that first walk with Amy and Jazz, three weeks ago today. Is that really all? It seems much longer ago than that. That day it was all a wonder: the woods, the trees, the fresh green smells. Then, I didn’t know about Lorders, didn’t know Ben. Didn’t know about missing persons. The list of things of which I was ignorant was so long. Is it, still?

I can’t stop seeing Gianelli’s head hit the roof of the van, him slumping to the ground. That Lorder kicking him like a sack of potatoes into the van. All because he drew a picture of Phoebe. Now he is missing, like she is; like Tori, too. Where is he, now? Where are all of them?

I run up to the lookout, run back half-way, then start walking back to the top. Despite the dark thoughts my Levo is safely masked by excessive exercise up and down a hill.

I can’t understand why they took Gianelli. All he did was draw Phoebe. It’s not like it is a secret that the Lorders took her; they yanked her out of a class, didn’t they?

And there couldn’t have been any more public way to take Gianelli; there’s no hiding what happened to him.

Inside, a whisper: maybe, that is the point.

Gianelli’s minute of silence for Phoebe, his draw something you care about, then drawing her, himself. These things all said that her being taken was wrong. He had to be punished for disagreeing with the government’s actions. Doing what they did in front of all the students shouted loud and clear, without using words: we are in control. We can do as we will. If they did it as a secret, what would be the point?

‘Hello, Slater.’

I jump, so absorbed in my thoughts that I paid no attention to my surroundings. My feet had me at the lookout point again, but this time, I wasn’t alone.

A man leans on a tree overlooking the path. Standing in shadows but visible enough if I’d been using my eyes outwards instead of in. I flush, realising he could have been watching my ascent for ages, that I’d just walked past him with no notice. That he was now between me, and Jazz and Amy.

‘Aren’t you going to say hello?’ He smiles and it isn’t a nice smile. Greasy hair, an unhealthy complexion, both too pale and blotchy red on his cheeks and nose. He doesn’t look the sort to be walking footpaths. His face is somehow familiar, but who is he…? Ah, yes: the bricklayer. I stared at him building a garden wall in the village, then had nightmares of brick towers.

‘Isn’t this a lucky coincidence?’ he says. ‘I’ve been wanting to talk to you. Come and sit down.’ The way he says coincidence makes me think it is nothing of the sort. Has he been watching, following?

He walks across to sit on the log where Amy and Jazz rested the last time I came up here. I don’t move, and look back down the path. Shouldn’t they be here by now?

‘I won’t bite,’ he says, and smiles again. ‘I just want to talk to you about my niece. I think you knew her: Phoebe Best.’

‘Phoebe? Do you know where she is?’ I say, and step towards him.

‘Come on. Sit down, and I’ll tell you.’ He pats the log with his hand.

I hesitate, then perch on one end of the log, leaving as much space between us as possible.

‘Now, you know you have to get closer to talk about these things. I can’t shout, can I? The trees may have ears, eh.’ He laughs and spits on the ground.

I shift a little closer.

‘That’s better.’

‘Is Phoebe all right?’

‘In a minute. I want to talk to you about something else, first.’

‘What?’

‘That was your cat, wasn’t it.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Day ‘fore she disappeared, I dropped Phoebe at the vets with some cat she picked up. She was always getting strays, or forest creatures to look after. Daft girl.’

I don’t say anything, and look back down the path again. Where are they?

‘Now Phoebe told me the cat belonged to some Slater Slut, one she had words with even though I told her that was dangerous. And for some crazy reason, she wanted to give her back the cat. Then, the very next day, Phoebe doesn’t come home from school. Now, what do you know about that?’

I jump to my feet.

‘Where are you going? Don’t you want to talk about Phoebe?’

Every instinct screams run. But some calm part inside waits, stands there. Needs to hear what he has to say.

‘Nice to me, Phoebe was. She’s gone now. It is your fault. You said something to the Lorders, and they—’

‘No! I didn’t!’ I shout. Run. I turn and bolt down the path; hearing and feeling the movement behind that says he chases.

But I just reach the first bend in the path when voices float up: Amy and Jazz are close by. At last.

They emerge around the corner, arms entwined. Obviously over whatever argument they had. I almost crash straight into them. Jazz steadies me with a hand on my arm. My eyes are wide.

Jazz frowns. ‘Is everything all right, Kyla?’ he says, and looks up the way I came.

I spin around, but no one is there.

Amy links her arm in mine. ‘I’m sorry I went on about Gianelli. Jazz explained to me that you were upset about him.’ She says the words but I see she doesn’t really get it.

Jazz looks at me curiously. I can tell he knows something is up, but he doesn’t ask, just lets Amy prattle on. We walk down the path back to the village.

A van is parked at the side where the footpath joins the road: Best Builders painted down the side. And it’s him, in the front seat: Phoebe’s uncle. The window is down; he winks, then whistles as we walk past. Jazz scowls, and we carry on up the road; laughter follows behind us.

‘Who is he?’ I ask.

‘That waste of space is Wayne Best,’ Jazz says. ‘Keep clear, he’s a freak.’ Advice I plan to follow.

Home, at last. Amy runs inside the house to ask if Jazz can stay for dinner; when I try to follow, Jazz tugs at my shoulder.

‘What?’ I say, expecting questions about what spooked me at the lookout, and not sure what to say.

He waits for the door to shut. ‘Mac wants to see you,’ he says in a low voice. ‘Next Monday. We’ll go up after school, and I’ll take Amy off for a walk again. All right?’

But before I have a chance to even think what to say, let alone to say it, Amy opens the door. She shakes her head. ‘Mum says not tonight; another time?’

Jazz looks relieved to get off staying for dinner; Amy is oblivious. How does she not see things for what they are, right in front of her eyes? I go in so they can say goodbye.

‘So, how was school today?’ Mum asks the room at large while she ladles food on to plates. Since Dad doesn’t go to school, I’m assuming she expects Amy or me to answer.

I look at Amy, hoping she’ll fill the space. But she just shrugs; annoyed, most likely, that Jazz wasn’t invited to stay for dinner.

Dad gets up to carry plates to the table. ‘No stories to tell? Was it a good day, a bad day? Did anything interesting happen, anything unusual?’

He puts a plate in front of me, and I get a strange feeling, somehow, he knows at least some of what happened this afternoon.

I look at Amy, plead with my eyes for her to say something, anything. But nothing.

I sigh. ‘My art teacher got taken by Lorders.’

Mum gasps, sits down. ‘Bruno Gianelli?’ she says.

‘Yes.’ I look at her, surprised. ‘Do you know him?’

‘He’s older than he looks. He was my art teacher when I went to school. He was a great painter, and a good—’ She stops mid-sentence. ‘Well, that was a long time ago. Who knows who he is, now.’

Was, I correct in my mind. Startled that I think of him in the past tense. Surely not?

‘What will happen to him?’ I ask.

Mum and Dad exchange a glance. Mum gets up and fusses over stirring something on the stove.

‘That depends what he did, I guess. Don’t worry yourself over it,’ Dad says.

Later that night, in my room at last, door shut, I am curled up on the bed around Sebastian. He purrs. I try to process everything that happened today in a way that makes sense, but I can’t, and I can’t stop thinking about it, either.

Only solution? Pencil, paper. Draw something that makes you feel something, good or bad.

Left hand. Feverish sketches; over and over again, into the small hours. The missing: Tori. Phoebe. Lucy. Gianelli. And Robert – the almost brother I never met – from all those years ago.

The bus driver lays on the horn, for all the good it will do. They aren’t going anyplace: it is gridlock.

A pretty blond girl near the back of the bus rests her head on a boy’s shoulder. He slips his arm around her. They don’t mind the delay. Others are restless. A few read books; some older boys torment a smaller one; girls talk about boys, boys talk about girls, and friendless ones stare out the window.

I scream at the driver. ‘Do something! Open the doors! Let them out!’

But he doesn’t know what is about to happen. He can’t hear me.

The pretty girl feels cold. The boy stands, up out of his seat to get her his jacket from the overhead.

That is when it happens: a whistling noise, a flash of light, a bang. And the screaming starts.

Choking smoke; bloody hands beating at windows that don’t open; more screaming. The boy with the girl who used to be pretty is quiet, though. He wraps his arms around her but it is too late to tell her he loves her. She is dead.

Another whistle; a flash; an explosion. There is a gaping hole in the side of the bus, but most are silent, now. The boy is pulled to safety away from the girl, and that is when he joins the few survivors. In screaming.

I stuff my hands in my ears, but the screaming just goes on and on.

It is a while before I realise.

It is me.

‘Hush. It’s just a dream.’

I struggle, then realise where I am. In bed, at home – the current version of it, anyway – and these are not Amy’s but Mum’s arms that hold me. Amy appears in the door, yawning, then leaves again. Mum must have been awake to get here before her.

My Levo vibrates: 4.4. Not so low, yet I can feel the fear, taste the blood. It is all still in my eyes. That was Robert, and Cassie – the pretty one – my subconscious must have plucked their faces from that photo Mac showed me.

Sheets of paper, my drawings, are all over the bed. Mum smoothes them out without comment, and starts putting them together in a pile. Until she gets to the one of Gianelli.

I’d drawn him as he was in the classroom, standing defiant under his sketch of Phoebe, and so it is a drawing within a drawing. Phoebe is his Phoebe, the lonely girl I never knew.

Mum’s face is so sad as she looks at Gianelli. I have just enough presence of mind to scoop the other drawings together before she sees the one I drew of Robert and Cassie. She touches Gianelli’s face. ‘What did you do?’ she whispers to the drawing. She turns to me. ‘We’re on our own now; this is just between us. What happened to Gianelli? You do know, I can see you do. Your face is so transparent. You need to learn to hide things, like the rest of us. But please tell me.’

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