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‘The Hospital Board was concerned about your nightmares and control, generally. They felt letting you out of the hospital environment represented a risk to yourself and those around you.’

‘You overruled. You didn’t agree with them.’

‘That is what I said. But they were right. At the very least you were a risk to yourself.’

‘I don’t understand. Why did you let me out?’

She half shrugs. ‘I convinced myself you deserved the chance; I was curious, certainly, how you would do. But mostly I wanted to study you and see what would happen.’

‘Like a rat in a cage.’

She half smiles. ‘More like a rat released from a cage.’

‘But why would you want to study me?’

‘There is something different about you, Kyla. I want to know what it is. Did something go wrong in the procedure? No; every test and scan says it was successful. Yet there is something…. This is just you and me, here. No one else. Can you tell me?’

‘I don’t know what you mean.’

She raises an eyebrow. ‘Is there anything else you want to know? Can I satisfy your curiosity; then perhaps, you can satisfy mine.’

I squirm. There are so many questions I could ask, but I should ask none of them. Ask.

But it is dangerous. I am supposed to be being the perfect Slated girl; I told Ben, I agreed within myself to follow this course of action. Ask.

‘Who is Slated? I mean, I know convicted criminals are Slated. But who else?’

‘What makes you think anyone else would be Slated? That would be illegal.’

I stare back at her, don’t answer.

She nods her head a few times, amusement crosses her face. ‘You are perceptive. And that is an interesting choice of question. Surprising, even. Why do you ask it?’

‘It is just some people I know who have been Slated I can’t imagine ever having done anything wrong.’

‘Sometimes, life is very painful, Kyla. At times people need help to get through it, and we provide that help.’

‘I don’t understand.’

She hesitates. ‘An example, then: your sister. What is her name, again? I recognised her that day she waited with you.’

‘Amy? Why would you remember her?’

‘It is breaking a few dozen laws talking to you about this, Kyla.’ She taps at her screen. Amy’s face fills it: Amy 9612. She goes to the admission screen. Again there is a photo, but it is very different to mine. Amy is years younger but there is no mistaking her smile: she is full of joy on her way to being Slated. Dr Lysander enters a password to get further: so that is why I couldn’t find out why I was Slated. I needed a password.

‘See, here: “Patient 9612 presented herself at hospital begging to be Slated. She was evaluated and deemed a suitable candidate for VS.” ’

I shake my head. ‘That can’t be right. Why would anybody want to be Slated. Why would anybody want one of these?’ I tug at my Levo, harder this time, and pain slams into my temples so intense that tears come to my eyes.

‘VS is Victim Slating. Some young people are so damaged by their early lives, that the only way to make them useful members of society – to break the chain, to stop the patterns of abuse and violence being passed to their own children – is to take the pain away. Make it as if it never happened.’

‘What was so bad she would want to be Slated to forget about it?’

‘I remember her; I evaluated her. She was very distressed. She’d had a baby, you see; she was raped when she was thirteen. The baby was taken away by the authorities, quite rightly in the circumstances. But she couldn’t deal with it.’

Oh, Amy. I can’t take this in; I can’t believe this happened to her, could happen to anyone. Dr Lysander stated the facts, in her usual voice, calm and precise. Yet I can see in her eyes: her own horror at what happened to Amy. That is why she wouldn’t speak with Amy the day she came in with me. She didn’t like to think about it.

‘When Amy came in it was the year before we started systematically checking cases like hers for Slating. It is a kindness. And it is essential to stop these tragedies being repeated in future generations. It is for the good of all, and of the individual.’

‘Why tell me about Amy?’ I whisper.

‘Because I know you can take it. It will help you understand what we do, and I know you will keep this information to yourself.’

‘If Amy knew…’ I trail off. She chose not to remember; why tell her now?

‘She can find out. If she wants to,’ Dr Lysander says.

‘What? Can we just ask what the reason is, and be told?’

‘Not now. But when you are twenty-one, and your Levo is removed, you have the right to know. If you want to. Not names and places or anything specific; just the facts. Why you were Slated; what you did or didn’t do. But the truth is, at that point, almost nobody wants to know. They just want to get on with their lives and put it behind them. Do you, even now?’

‘Do I what?’ I say, though I know what she means.

‘Do you want to know? Do you want me to go to your file, enter the password, and see what it says.’

I back away, shaking my head. I don’t want to know. Yes you do.

‘Kyla, that is enough for today. But over the next week I hope you will think things through. I hope you will repay me for answering your questions, and answer some of mine.

‘Now go.’

There has been too much to take in today. First Mum and all that stuff about her parents, the government, and their compromises.

Then Dr Lysander: she wants something from me. Kyla is different. But why? I can’t answer her questions when I can’t find the answers for myself. What is going on? And most of all, why did she tell me about Amy? I don’t want to know; I don’t. I can’t stop thinking about it. Even though it shows that I was right; she never did anything wrong to get Slated. She asked for it.

It is all I can do to stop myself from running to her and holding her when we get home. But she’d think I was nuts.

She wanted to be Slated; she wanted to forget. She is better off as she is, without that pain. Isn’t she? But it was her choice.

What about me? What about Lucy? Did she make that choice?

I don’t want to know, but whispers of the past echo in my mind. They won’t go away.

CHAPTER FORTY TWO

* * *

Cross-country training isn’t on this week: they are holding team try-outs. Since Slateds are not allowed on school teams, Ben and I are excluded. Never mind that we are the fastest in the school, or that every muscle fibre in my body is screaming for release. But I can’t say anything: I’m a good little Slated. Yeah, right.

To add to the general wonderfulness of the day, Amy has come up with a plan for my Sunday afternoon, and after what I found out about her yesterday, I couldn’t say no to her. Even though I wanted to.

‘Kyla? Come on.’ Amy and Jazz stand by the door while I hunt through the cupboard for my jacket. My official chaperone duties await.

Amy peers at the sky. ‘I’m not so sure about this weather.’

I think it is perfect. The sky is a uniform dull grey; it is cold, and damp. There is no rain now, but the air feels heavy and wet, as if it carries myriad tiny drops that are too wishy washy to get together and become rain. A general miserable state of weather that suits my mood.

‘Have no fear; I have come prepared for all eventualities,’ Jazz says. ‘En garde!’ He bows and has a mock sword fight between his over-sized umbrella and a tree branch.

We continue through the village to the footpath sign, then stop. Amy and Jazz lean on the stone wall next to the path. ‘Aren’t we going on?’ I ask.

‘Soon,’ Amy says, and looks at her watch. She goes on about her work experience placement starting on Tuesday at a doctor’s surgery, and ‘soon’ becomes a few minutes, and a few more.

‘There he is,’ Jazz says. I turn, and Ben is running towards us. He waves.

‘Surprise!’ Amy says, and grins.

Last night at dinner Mum said that Dad had raised the issue of me running alone with Ben, and they decided it wasn’t going to happen any more. I didn’t say anything. What could I? Any argument I might make would just make them seem more right, as if there was something going on between us deemed unsuitable for a sixteen year old newly released Slated. There is, isn’t there?

‘Do they know he is coming?’ I ask before Ben reaches us.

‘No. You want to run? Go ahead and run. We’ll walk behind.’

‘Thanks,’ I say, and hug Amy. She looks surprised, hugs back.

‘I’ve been there, done that. I know what it is like,’ she says. And I know what she means; she thinks as soon as they are out of sight, Ben and I will be like her and Jazz. All luvvy-duvvy. But today, more than anything, I just want – need – to run.

Ben and I take off up the footpath. ‘Not so fast, today,’ I say. Though my feet are itching to pull me along with as much speed as they can find, I can’t get home all plastered in sweat, or it will be obvious that Amy and I haven’t stayed together.

‘Why?’ he asks. ‘Usually you can’t wait to take off.’

I hesitate. ‘I can’t look like I’ve been running. I’m supposed to stay with Amy,’ I say, and don’t mention that they’ve decided I can’t run with him any more. If I don’t say it out loud it seems less real.

So Ben and I jog lightly up the path. Along the hedge, the holly bushes, and the fields, until we are dodging tree roots through the woodland. Ben hasn’t been this way before. The grey skies seem to come down to meet us as we go higher; droplets of mist cling to my skin, my hair. Moisture and cold penetrate into my bones without the need for rain. Tendrils of white creep closer, gather around us.

I stop by the log at the top. ‘This is the lookout,’ I say, and grin. ‘You can see the whole village.’

Ben stops. ‘You’ll have to help me out. Which way is it?’

I turn him in the right direction and he peers down the hill. A few of the taller trees almost poke out of the low mist, ghostlike and indistinct. The fields and houses below are invisible.

‘Ah, yes. Impressive view.’

I hit him on the arm. ‘Well, usually it is all right. You can even see our back garden.’

‘What now?’ he says, and he smiles a slow smile that says he has a few ideas, ones that make my stomach flip.

‘Uh, we wait. For Amy and Jazz to catch up. Or maybe we should go back down? They might want to call it quits in this weather.’

‘Let’s wait a little,’ he says, and smiles again. Steps closer.

I’m not sitting on a fence this time, and Ben is so much taller. He leans down but instead of looking up I bury my face in his chest. His arms close around me and banish the cold.

‘This is why Mum and Dad don’t want me to be alone with you any more,’ I say, and sigh.

‘No. Really?’

‘Yep.’

‘But they’re not watching, now.’

‘I thought we agreed to do what we’re told and be good. Until we are twenty-one.’

‘Five whole years without a kiss? I don’t think so.’

Ben the rebel. At least as far as kisses go.

I relent. ‘All right. Just one.’

With the mist all around, the world is muted, has receded, disappeared. What you cannot see is more dangerous.

But as I tilt my face up, and Ben smiles, and leans down, there is a small noise. A snap.

‘Well, well, what have we here.’

We spin around. And standing there is Wayne Best.

‘Kyla, isn’t it?’ he says, and grins.

I take a step back. ‘How do you know my name?’

‘Well now, you went and visited my brother. Met his dog Brute up close and personal, I hear.’ He laughs. ‘Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friend?’

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