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She pulls me into the empty classroom next door.

‘There have been some concerns raised about you, my dear.’ She smiles her gentle smile. That is when she is most dangerous. ‘And by what I just witnessed, I must echo them.’

What she just witnessed? I frantically scan the last moments of class: was she there when Hatten said I was a biological anomaly? No. I’m sure she wasn’t. She arrived at the end. And she couldn’t have seen him wink; his back was to her.

‘What do you mean?’

She frowns. ‘That lovely new teacher asked you if the class was interesting, and you didn’t even answer him.’

That lovely new teacher: huh. There is more to him and I’m guessing it isn’t all lovely. But I get the impression she doesn’t know a thing about it.

‘And a number of your other teachers say you have been distant, inattentive, and not ready to learn.’

‘I’m sorry. I’ll try to do better.’

‘Don’t just try; do it. This is a warning, Kyla. We’ve talked about this before. Don’t forget you are being punished until you are twenty-one. Your contract requires you to do your best to integrate and do well at school, with your family and community. You are over sixteen now; if you fail, other treatment options are available.’ She smiles warmly. ‘Now, run along to your next class, dear. Have a nice day.’

She disappears out the door, down the hall. Ben: I need Ben. Everything is tumbling inside: confusion about Hatten, who he is, what he said; shock and fear at Mrs Ali’s threats. My levels are on the way down.

When I step into the hall Hatten is just coming out of the biology lab. He pulls a face at Mrs Ali’s retreating back, crosses his eyes. ‘What a bitch,’ he whispers, winks again and smiles a cheeky grin. He looks younger, more natural like that – as if his teacher face earlier was a mask – and I can’t help but smile back. He leans in close and holds a finger to his lips. ‘Ssssh, our little secret.’ Then goes in the other direction.

Well. I could swear he heard every word Mrs Ali said. How? And what is ‘our little secret’?

Time will tell.

Ben is out front, waiting. ‘I saw Mrs Ali leading you off for a chat. Is everything all right?’

‘Things could be better,’ I say. Though I check my Levo and am surprised it has gone up to 5.1: did Hatten pulling silly faces stop its descent? Or, more: was it him standing close. My heart still beats faster.

‘Can you come for a run before Group tomorrow?’ Ben says, face worried.

‘Of course. We’ll talk then.’ The first bell for next class goes, and we rush in opposite directions.

Time to be attentive and ready to learn. Or to get better at faking it, at least.


* * *

I pull aside the curtain next to the front door, and scan up the road: no sign. Hurry up, Ben.

‘Kyla?’ Dad calls out from the front room. I go to the door. ‘Come talk to me a moment while you wait.’

I hesitate, look down at my feet: trainers on.

‘Don’t worry about that, she’ll never know,’ he says.

Mum may be out but I’m sure she has some sort of radar that keeps tabs on whether shoes are worn on the carpet. I wipe them carefully on the mat and stand uncertainly in the doorway.

‘Have a seat,’ he says, smiles.

I perch on the edge of an armchair.

‘Your boy isn’t very punctual, is he?’

‘No,’ I admit.

‘So he is your boy, then.’


‘Your boy. You know: your boyfriend.’

I colour. ‘No.’

‘…or maybe, you’d like him to be.’

‘No! I don’t know. We’re just friends.’

He raises an eyebrow and it feels like he can see, he can understand my mixed up feelings better than I can.

‘Be careful, Kyla. Just because we’ve allowed Amy to see Jazz doesn’t mean you are ready for a boyfriend: you’re not long out of hospital. And you know that until you are released at twenty-one you have to listen to your mum and me on everything, including this.’


‘I’m not sure I like you going off running with this Ben on your own.’

I don’t say anything. Any protest I could make would just make him sound more right. But I need to see Ben; need to talk to him, so much. After everything this week I just want to hold his hand. Oh.

‘But your mum seems to think it is all right, so I’m going along with her on this. For now. But see that you keep things just friends, as you said. You do understand why?’

‘Um, I’m not sure.’

‘There is real concern that you can’t handle those sorts of feelings so soon after Slating. That you could end up with your levels so messed up you can’t control them.’

This echoes warnings I heard in hospital. But how? Ben helps my levels stay up, not down. Unless…

‘You want me to stay under control,’ I say, surprise at the realisation making the words come out before I have the chance to censor them.

Some amusement crosses his eyes.

There is a knock at the door: Ben. I spring to my feet, but Dad raises a hand. ‘Stay here a minute,’ he says. He goes to the door, answers it, and I wait: listen to Dad introducing himself to Ben, a little chat about running and school. Ben, as always, is open, polite. Pleasant. The sort of boy adults like.

Dad sticks his head through the front room doorway. ‘Go on, then,’ he says. ‘But remember what we spoke about.’

‘Sorry about that,’ I say after the door is safely shut behind us.

‘About what?’


‘What about him? He seems all right.’

‘Never mind.’

We race up the road, fast and faster, and soon I am lost in the cold air, the night, the familiar rhythm of our feet on the road. The thud-thud of Ben’s long legs beat a different tempo to mine, but we are matched in speed. Side by side.

We slow as we reach the place with the footpath off the road.

‘Talk?’ I say.

He takes my hand, leads me into the shadows under the trees. The night is clear, the nearly full moon casts enough light to see the way. As we walk to the gate I think about what Dad said, what the hospital said. Avoid boys: they mess up your levels. But mine are the highest now they’ve been all week. What do they know?

Like before, Ben swings me up to sit on the top of the fence. He stands in front of me, wraps his arms around my waist.

He brushes my hair away from one side of my face, leans in. ‘What did you want to talk about?’ he whispers into my ear, and his breath sends goose bumps up and down my neck.

I don’t say anything, my mind suddenly blank. My blood still thudding through my veins from running. From something else.

‘I made a promise to myself,’ Ben says.


‘That if we came here again, I would do this.’ He slips one hand under my chin, a light touch, and everything is mixed up, swirling inside, in panic, but not the kind that makes you want to run. The cold fence under me, warm arm around my side, the hand on my chin – every sense, hyperaware. Ben leans forward and lightly touches his lips to mine. Sweet, and gentle: Ben. He pulls away, smiles. And all I want to do is pull him close, kiss him again, and again. Calm down. What if Dad is right, and this will destabilise my levels?

‘Now. What did you want to talk about?’ he says.

‘Hmmm?’ I say, staring into his eyes. And I reach up, trace his lips with my finger. Mine are tingling.

He grins, and takes my hands in his, links our fingers together. ‘You said you wanted to talk about something. But if you’d rather…’ And he bends to kiss me again. Once. Twice…

Everything is spinning and swirling inside, but then somehow I remember, and push him away a little.


‘If we must,’ he says, his voice husky, a little shaky, and this time it is my turn to laugh.

And I tell him about going to see Phoebe’s mum, and that I told her Phoebe had been Slated.

Ben’s eyes shine in the moonlight. He hugs me. ‘I knew you’d see, after you thought about things. That we should help Aiden and MIA.’

I shake my head. ‘No. You’re wrong. I wanted to tell Phoebe’s family what happened to her, so they’d know, but I don’t want to go public about me.’

‘What about Lucy? What about her parents?’

‘Think things through, Ben,’ I say. ‘How old was Phoebe?’


‘So, when she stepped out of line, she was Slated. But what would happen to me?’

And I tell him about what Mrs Ali said: what she threatened. Other treatment options for over-sixteens. I’m on a warning; being watched. Any step out of line and I’ll be gone like Tori.

Ben pales. ‘I don’t want anything to happen to you.’

But this reminds me of something else. ‘Did you use to kiss Tori like you just kissed me?’ The words are out before thought and I wish I could grab them back.

He raises an eyebrow. ‘Would it matter?’

Before I can say something else to regret he laughs. ‘NO. I never kissed Tori. She was just a friend.’

‘But I thought—’

‘You thought wrong. Tori had a hard time of it with her family. She needed someone to talk to, and I’m a good listener.’

I noticed. But I also noticed that Tori didn’t think Ben was just a friend. But this time, I do manage to keep it to myself.

He smiles. ‘Kyla, believe me: you’re the only one I want to kiss. And I don’t want anything to ever happen to you.’ He shakes his head, rubs his temple. ‘I don’t understand how my brain works.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘When teachers and nurses at the hospital talk to me, everything they say is right, and reasonable, and I should listen to them. But when Aiden spoke to us the other day, I saw they were wrong and he was right; that the government should be called to account for what they are doing. Now you explain dangers that should be obvious, but I hadn’t worked it through. It is like sometimes I can’t think straight. The only time my brain seems to function is when I’ve been running, like now.’

It’s Slating.

And I think back to what Aiden said, and how he said it. He has his own agenda. He wasn’t worried what might happen to us if we went along with his plans, was he? And he knew just what to say to push Ben to his way of thinking: he knew how suggestible he is. How I should be, too. Kyla is different.

‘What do you think we should do now?’ I ask.

‘I don’t want anything to happen to you. What do you think?’

‘It’s Slating. It makes you want to go along, do the right thing, do what is expected.’

‘That just makes it more wrong. More something we should do something about.’ His face is troubled; he is thinking for himself, and this is what he thinks.

No. Stay silent as the grave.

‘Ben, listen. We need to keep clear of Aiden, and do what we are supposed to do at school and at home. Wait until we get our Levos off. Doing anything before then to draw attention to ourselves is too dangerous. When we are twenty-one, then we can look at things again, and see what we can do.’

As Ben listens I see, again, how suggestible he is. State anything strongly enough and he’ll go along with it. What a dangerous world for someone like him: an overwhelming urge to protect Ben washes over me, shakes through me. Someone like Ben…should be, someone like me, too. But somehow, it isn’t; not in the same way. A Slated but not like the rest of them. Kyla is different.

‘You’re right, Kyla,’ he says. Wraps his arms tight around me once again. Kisses my cheek, and it could have led to more, and I wanted it to, so much. But maybe kissing me is just something else I’ve suggested to him?


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