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So I do: about Phoebe’s robin, and what Gianelli said. That we stood in silence, then he drew her as I had done.

‘Stupid, dear man. To think things have got so bad, they’d take him just for that,’ she says. ‘Now listen to me, Kyla. I know, believe me I do, how upsetting all this is to you. How hard to understand. But you must learn to hide things away, inside. Or you won’t last. I don’t want you taken away. Promise me that you will try?’

So I promise. What else can I do? I mean it as I say the words.

‘I’m going to destroy this,’ she says, and holds up the sketch of Gianelli. ‘Are there others like it?’ She turns her eyes to the pile of drawings. But if she sees Robert’s face, what will she do? As ‘between us’ as she says this is, I’m unsure how she’d feel about Mac.

‘Let me see,’ she demands, and reaches her hands towards them.

But then there are footsteps on the stairs; heavy steps, coming down from above. She shoves Gianelli and the other drawings together under my blankets. The door opens.

Dad smiles. ‘Is everything all right in here?’

Mum turns. ‘Just fine. A little nightmare, that is all. Isn’t that so, Kyla?’

‘Yes, I’m fine now,’ I say. Dad stands there, still; waiting for Mum?

Sebastian wanders in and jumps up on the bed, turns round and round on the blanket over the hidden sheets of paper. They make faint crinkly noises. Then he flops down. I pet him and he starts to purr. Where were you when I needed you, cat? Mum turns out the bedside light, gets up and leaves. Turns at the door.

‘Try to get some sleep now,’ she says. But her eyes say something else: destroy those drawings.

I think about it for a while. Then I hide them. The carpet lifts up under the window. I tease it up, and slip them underneath.

CHAPTER THIRTY THREE

* * *

‘That’s not fair.’ Amy stands her ground, a hand on each hip.

I do up my laces; Ben will be here soon.

‘I suppose you are right. It isn’t fair,’ Mum says, and a feeling of dread fills me. Shut up I say to Amy with my eyes, but she isn’t receiving.

‘You won’t let Jazz and me go for a walk alone; why should Kyla be allowed to go out with Ben on her own?’

‘We’re not going out, we’re running, and going to Group,’ I point out. ‘And he is just my friend.’ Is he, I wonder inside.

‘Well, Amy makes a good point,’ Mum says, but then turns away from Amy and winks at me, mischief in her eyes, then faces Amy. ‘Tell you what: how about you go running with them?’

Amy recoils. ‘Running? Are you serious?’ And she flounces up the stairs.

‘You’ll be careful?’ Mum says, and zips up my jacket a little more.

‘Of course.’

‘There is a question on your face.’

‘Is there?’

‘One day soon, Kyla, you should practise a poker face in front of a mirror.’

‘What is a poker face?’ I say, asking one question to avoid her looking too closely at another.

‘Poker is a card game. You try to keep your face neutral, so other players can’t tell if you have a good hand.’

I pull the curtain aside to look out the window. Come on, Ben; be on time for once.

‘And to answer your unspoken question, you are different to Amy. It is a strange thing, but I trust you to go running alone with Ben. I don’t trust her judgment with Jazz. Understand?’ The phone rings and she goes to answer it.

Mum sees more than I think, sometimes; more than Amy understands. It is true that Amy and Jazz are constantly touching each other, arms linked, kissing, and Ben and I don’t do that. But they don’t do it in front of her, so how can she tell?

Mrs Ali sees things different. Since she banned me from running with Ben at lunch, I’ve barely spoken to him all week, and any day we don’t have a moment together doesn’t feel right. Of course, Mrs Ali saw my drawing of Ben. Mum did not, and won’t, since I’ve hidden it away with the others under the carpet.

I peek through the curtains again, and this time, Ben is running up the road: at last.

‘Bye, Mum!’ I yell and slip out the door.

As usual we run flat out to start. Say nothing beyond hello. Excessive exercising: is that what this is? I love the thump-thump of my feet on the tarmac, the escape into another place where all that matters is going fast and then faster. Ben’s longer legs run a slower rhythm to match my speed, so his thud-thud and my thump-thump blend to a familiar skittering sort of music that soothes after the last few days.

It has been strange at school with Gianelli gone. Not even whispers I’ve heard, not like when Phoebe went and everyone buzzed about it. This time there is a silence on the subject. Perhaps that is because everyone saw what happened to him, so there is no need to pass half truths and stories about. Gianelli has not been replaced: art classes have been cancelled until further notice. That lesson slot for me has been moved to Unit where the only acceptable activity is homework.

I start to slow down; usually Ben is the one to do this, to talk. But today I have a few things on my mind.

Ben makes no comment; drops his pace along with mine, and doesn’t ask any questions like he usually does. In fact, he has barely said a word all week. I’d thought of what to say and how to say it, but when I look up at him as we drop to a walk, it all goes.

‘Are you angry with me?’ I ask

‘What?’

‘You heard me. You haven’t been right all week. Not since Sunday, really.’

‘Don’t be daft. Of course I’m not angry,’ he says, but he looks angry.

I stop. ‘What is it? Have I done something?’

He runs his hand through his hair. ‘Kyla, not everything is about you all the time, all right?’

I recoil, step back: that felt like a slap. ‘What is it, then?’

‘Ssssh,’ he says, and I realise I raised my voice. He grabs my hand, laces his fingers between mine. A car goes past; he looks both ways. None in sight. ‘Come on,’ he says, and pulls me into the shadows of trees at the side of the road.

There is a path, faint in the darkness; it leads to a fence with a metal gate that gleams faintly in the moonlight, fields on the other side. The road is barely a few minutes walk away; there are faint sounds and lights now and then as a car passes.

Ben stops and leans against the fence, his face in shadows. ‘Quiet words in the night,’ he whispers. He puts his hands about my waist and lifts me up so I’m sitting on the top of the fence and we are eye to eye, keeping one arm steady around me. My eyes start to adjust more to the darkness, and I can see he has that look on his face. Like he did in the rain when I thought he might kiss me; the one I drew in Gianelli’s last art class, then hid away.

He leans in quick, so fast I don’t react, and kisses my cheek lightly.

‘I’m not mad at you, Kyla,’ he says in my ear, and his words send shivers down my neck. My stomach flips, and as if on its own my hand starts to reach up to his face, to touch his lips, to…

He shakes his head, regret in his eyes, and pulls away. ‘We need to talk,’ he says. ‘We haven’t got much time.’

My hand drops back down again.

But then he half leans back on the fence, into shadow, and doesn’t say anything. Leaves rustle in the breeze, the fence feels icy underneath me and now that I’ve stopped running, goose bumps raise on my arms and legs, and I shiver.

He moves closer and takes my hands in his.

‘I’ve missed running with you at lunch,’ he says. I’d managed to tell him that I’d been banned from the school track.

‘Me, too.’

‘You’ve missed me?’

‘I’ve missed running!’ I say, and he raises an eyebrow. ‘And you,’ I admit. He grins, and it is there: he knew it, all along. Just wanted to make me say it.

‘Well. I can understand about the running. It’s only when I’m going flat out that I seem to be able to focus on things, to think them through.’ He frowns. ‘But all that stuff you told me on Sunday: even when I run, it won’t go away.’

And I hear Mrs Ali’s words echo in my ears: excessive exercise masks the monitoring effects of your Levo. And I realise that the only time I see Ben as he is now, not just the smiling Slated boy from when we first met, is when he has been running. It is like it lets him out.

He lets go of my hands, leaving them cold and empty, and leans against the fence. ‘And I can’t stop thinking about what happened to Tori.’

I fold my arms in on myself to hold the pain inside. Tori is the ghost that always comes between us. Then I shake my head to banish the thought. No, not a ghost! She couldn’t be. Could she?

‘…and Phoebe, and your art teacher and everyone else that disappeared. And all the missing persons on those websites you told me about. From everything I’ve been able to find out, it is getting worse. More and more disappearances.’

‘Then come with me. After school on Monday, and you can see it for yourself. See if you are on the website.’ A broken promise to tell no one. This isn’t just anyone, it is Ben, and I trust him. But guilt hangs uneasy on my head just the same.

‘But the thing is, Kyla, I don’t want to! I don’t want to know.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘You’ve been reported missing. Somebody cares about you; they want you back. What if no one wants me, and that is why I’m here? Like what happened to Tori: her new mother decided she didn’t want her any more. What if my real parents just dumped me?’

‘But it doesn’t work like that. You have to have been arrested and tried for something, done something, to have been Slated.’ But as I hear myself say the words, they sound false. I begin to understand the implications of those missing children, like Lucy. That is the way it is supposed to be, but it isn’t always that way – not if those websites are for real. It’s not like you can complain that you shouldn’t have been Slated: once it happens, you don’t remember a thing. And anyone who has been properly convicted isn’t missing, after all. Their parents would know what happened to them.

‘You get it now, don’t you,’ Ben says.

I nod. ‘I didn’t think it through that way.’

‘So why should I find out? What good will it do? I don’t remember anything from before, anyhow; I’m not the same person. And my family now is all right; better than all right, really.’

And I realise I don’t really know anything about them. ‘Tell me,’ I say. And we start back for the road to get to Group, and Ben tells me about his dad, a primary school teacher who loves playing piano, and his mum who runs the dairy workshop, makes sculptures out of metal and can’t carry a tune. And they couldn’t have children of their own. After three years with them now, he cares for them: why upset things?

And while he talks I listen, but part of me is thinking of what he said to start with: what if no one wants me?

And I think I do.

But I don’t say it out loud.

CHAPTER THIRTY FOUR

* * *

The Lorders are searching cars at the hospital gates again today. Another two of them stand guard in the hall outside Dr Lysander’s office, and my skin crawls when I walk past. I watch them, unable to stop myself, from my seat in the waiting room. They are alert, you can tell: to every sound and movement throughout the hospital. But they pay less attention to me than if a tiny spider sat on the wall. Slated: unworthy of notice. Not a threat.

‘Come in,’ Dr Lysander calls at last, and I scurry away from them, glad to put a closed door between us.

‘Is something chasing?’ She smiles.

‘Of course not.’

She raises an eyebrow.

***

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