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I want to collapse on the ground, right here. Not caring where I am, or who might come along. Get going.

Nothing for it but a few miles walk home. I just start back up the lane when I hear something coming up behind, and spin round, terrified. Perhaps I’m not going away fast enough: has he sent Brute to hurry me along?

But it is a woman, half running towards me. She raises a hand. ‘Wait,’ she calls out, and reaches me, breathless, moments later. ‘Did you want to see me? I’m Phoebe’s mum.’

I stare back at her: thin, straggly hair tied up, lines etched around eyes full of care and worry. My resolve to have nothing more to do with Phoebe and her family wavers.

‘Do you know something about what happened to her? Please tell me, please.’

She grips on my arm, tight.

I nod, and wince with the movement.

‘Are you hurt? Let me see.’ And she gets out a hanky and dabs at the back of my head. ‘It’s just a small cut, maybe could use a stitch. I’m sorry about Brute. He’s been a monster since Phoebe went. He loved her.’

‘That dog was her pet?’

‘Oh yes. He used to follow her around, tail wagging, like an overgrown puppy. Made Bob so angry; he is a guard dog, after all.’ And when she says Bob a trace of fear crosses her face. Imagine being married to that man; imagine him being your father. She looks nervously back the way she came as if he might appear, and I start walking fast in the other direction.

She follows, her hand on my arm. A silent plea. And I hear Aiden in my head: imagine not knowing what happened, the worry. Imagine.

‘I saw Phoebe last weekend,’ I finally say. ‘Just by chance.’

‘Where is she?’

‘In hospital in London.’

‘Oh God. Is she hurt?’

‘No, no! She’s fine.’

‘I don’t understand. Why is she in hospital?’

‘She’s been Slated.’

She stops in shock, and I forget about pursuit and stand with her.

‘Oh Phoebe,’ she whispers to herself. ‘You are lost to me.’ Her eyes start to fill with tears.

‘I’m sorry,’ I say, and turn to go.

‘Is she happy, is she well?’

‘Yes.’

‘Thank you for coming, and for telling me.’

I start walking away; she turns the other way to the house. Words drift back, faint on the air: ‘Maybe she is better off.’

Maybe, she is.

‘What on earth happened to you?’ Amy says.

‘I fell over.’

‘Get those things off here so you don’t trail mud through the house. You don’t smell too good, either.’

‘Thanks.’

Amy bundles Jazz into the kitchen and strips me off in the hall, dumps my stuff in the washing machine while I have a shower. The cut on the back of my head isn’t bleeding any more, and is hidden by my hair.

By the time Mum gets home the three of us are sitting at the kitchen table with cups of tea, doing homework.

‘You lot look industrious,’ she says. An eyebrow raised as if somehow she knows there is more than meets her eyes.

That night Sebastian purrs and I try to sleep. My head still aches, but more of a dull throb now than a sharp pain.

Despite the encounter with Brute, I’m glad I told Phoebe’s mum: at least she knows. And I can see they won’t storm the hospital or raise a fuss: her dad could care less she is gone, and her mum wouldn’t dare.

Maybe Phoebe is better off: her own mother said it. Any family Phoebe gets assigned to in months to come has got to be better than where she came from. No wonder she was so miserable to everyone; everyone, that is, except animals like that horrible dog. At the hospital her face was full of joy. What they did to her was a kindness, wasn’t it?

Maybe my family was just as bad.

The voice won’t go away though I shut my eyes tight. It says things I don’t believe, don’t want to hear. Now that it is night and all is quiet, it is even louder inside my head.

‘Mummy and Daddy aren’t coming for you, Lucy. They don’t want you. They gave you away, and you will never see them again.’

Cold, I pull the covers tight around myself. The sheets feel wrong, all scratchy. Nothing is at it should be, even the air is wrong: it smells funny. Salty from the sea that I never saw before today.

I wrap the pillow tight around my ears, but it is still there.

‘They gave you away, and you will never see them again…’

CHAPTER THIRTY NINE

* * *

‘Heh, how’re things?’ Ben smiles his killer smile, and I want to answer him, tell him everything. That I actually did something, in talking to Phoebe’s mum. And even about the dream that woke me again and again last night. He is the only one I could even think about telling any of this, but what would he make of my dream? If my parents gave me away and didn’t want me then, why would they have reported me missing now?

‘Is everything all right?’ he asks.

I just shrug and swipe my card as we file into biology class. What can I say, surrounded by so many ears?

We take our usual seats on the back middle bench. And there, at the front of the room, is a surprise: no Miss Fern.

Instead there is a man, one I’ve never seen before. He is half sitting on the desk and facing the class, watching everyone as they take their seats. Whispering soon starts between some of the girls, and it is easy to see why: he is gorgeous. And it isn’t just the attractive bits – wavy streaked blond hair, the height of him, the way his clothes fit and hug his body – but how they are all put together. He draws the eye.

He scans across the room, casually, bench by bench. His eyes reach mine, and something happens. I can’t work it out. It is like something passes between us. Nothing stupid and mushy, but something else. Some recognition in his, some answer in mine…but it isn’t me. I feel all flustered, and heat rises in my cheeks as he holds my gaze, unsmiling, for too long to be reasonable. When he finally looks away it feels like I’ve been dropped from a height. My head spins; my stomach twists.

‘Good morning, class,’ he says. ‘Miss Fern won’t be in today, or for some time. She has had an unfortunate accident. I am Mr Hatten.’ He turns to write his name on the board.

Was there a pause in his words between ‘unfortunate’ and ‘accident’? No accident. Not Lorders, like Gianelli; not again. I bite my tongue to focus on that pain, instead. Have they taken her, and if so, why? I can’t think of a single reason. She was a good teacher, but in other ways under the radar. Anyway, there was no secret about it when they took Gianelli, so why would there be now?

Maybe there was some other reason to replace her. Maybe Hatten is one of them.

I study him as he goes through the class from the front, getting everyone to introduce themselves while he makes a seating plan. He doesn’t look like a Lorder. For a start, they always wear a grey suit, or dress in black on operations. But it is more than that. Lorders, however alert and vigilant they may be for trouble, don’t acknowledge anyone under the age of twenty or so: we are beneath notice. Hatten is different: he is here, present, interested and aware of every person in the room. He is something else.

‘And you are?’

Ben smiles. ‘I’m Ben Nix. But is Miss Fern all right? What happened to her?’ he asks.

Heads swivel; ears perk up. It isn’t always the right thing to do, asking questions.

But Hatten smiles. ‘She will be fine. She was involved in a car accident, and is in hospital.’

‘Next?’ Hatten says. And his eyes are on me, again. Even across the room they are a strange colour. Blue, but a pale, barely there shade of blue. If not for a darker rim on the edge of the iris they would almost blend into the white.

‘My name is…Kyla,’ I say. What is wrong with me? I’d been on the edge of saying something else, a name that had winked into existence, and then vanished before I even knew what it was. He raises an amused eyebrow, like he felt the slip I nearly made. Get a grip. This time I manage to look away before he does. My hands I clasp tight together to stop them from trembling.

Hatten finishes his seating plan and begins the class. He borrows one of the student’s notebooks to see which modules we have studied; we just started a section on biological classification.

He shuts it.

‘We’re going to do something different today,’ he says. ‘A practical on the brain.’ He points at Ben and me. ‘You two, help me out. Get the brain models, and pass them around: one per pair.’ Ben jumps up and I follow after him; we get small boxes out of a side cupboard Hatten indicates.

Inside we find three-dimensional models of the brain, each bit numbered and fitting together, interlocking like a puzzle. The minutes tick past with us taking the brain apart and putting it back together, writing the names of each structure by number on a worksheet. Cerebellum, brain stem, frontal cortex, left and right hemispheres… The diagram reminds me of the cross sections of my brain I saw on Dr Lysander’s computer. That wasn’t a sketch, though; it was a scan through my living brain.

‘Listen up,’ Hatten says. ‘One last thing. Everyone, hold your hands together to make a small circle between them you can look through.’ He draws an X on the whiteboard. ‘Hold your arms out; with both eyes open, stare at the X through the circle in your hands. Now, close one eye at a time without moving your hands. When you close one, the X should disappear; when you close the other, it should still be there in the centre.’

So we do: I hold my hands up and look at the X. Sure enough, when I close my left eye and look with my right, the X is blocked by my hand. When I close my right eye and look with my left, it is dead centre.

Hatten scans the room, then his eyes settle on me. ‘Kyla? Which eye saw the X?’

‘Left,’ I answer.

He smiles. ‘Interesting. You must be a biological anomaly.’

I say nothing. He goes on. ‘Dominant eye is generally the same as dominant hand. If you saw the X with your left eye, you should be left-handed. Yet there you are, holding your pen in the right hand.

‘How about the rest of you: did everyone else find their dominant eye and hand are the same?’ Voices concur. I shift uncomfortably in my chair.

‘I see we’re nearly out of the time,’ Hatten says. ‘But you might be wondering why we did this last experiment in connection with our work on the brain model.’ Still his eyes are on me, not looking around the room at anyone else; just on me.

‘It was a key discovery in the study of the brain: the influence of handedness on the development and organisation of memory storage and access. If you are left-handed, in certain key respects, memory access is right hemisphere dominant; if you are right-handed, the left is dominant. Though in rare individuals this doesn’t hold: often those with artistic abilities seem to be able to use their brain differently.’ He finally looks away, gazes about the room, than straight back at me. ‘This is all very important in surgery and treatment of brain conditions.’

Surgery. Like being Slated.

The bell rings. End of class.

‘Hand your sheets in on your way out!’ he says.

Everyone shuffles about, putting books away.

Right-handed…left-handed. My left forms a fist of its own accord: my left fingers smashed with a brick. But that was only a dream.

Was it?

‘Kyla?’ Ben nudges me. ‘Come on.’ I shake myself internally, and make myself get up, walk closer and closer to the front desk with feet like lead, so slow that I’m last after Ben. Mrs Ali stands waiting at the door.

I put my sheet on top of the pile in Hatten’s hands.

‘Did you find that…interesting?’ he asks, and winks.

I jump, don’t answer, and bolt for the door and Mrs Ali.

She frowns. ‘I want a quick word before your next class, Kyla. Come on.’

***

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