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‘I’m Ben,’ Ben says, and smiles. Unaware of the undercurrents.

‘Hi there, Ben,’ he says, and holds out his hand. No, Ben! But it is too late. Ben holds his out and Wayne sees his Levo. Drops his hand back without a handshake.

‘Another Slated! You lot must grow on trees.’ He spits on the ground. ‘And here I was about to warn you off hanging around with a Slater Slut like that.’

‘Now just a minute,’ Ben says, finally getting that Wayne isn’t Mr Nice.

‘Shut up!’ Wayne snarls and shoves Ben backwards on to the log. ‘Sit there and be quiet. I want to…chat with Kyla.’

And Ben starts to stand again, his face alternating between confusion and anger. I shake my head slightly. ‘Stay there. It’s all right.’

‘What about?’ I say to Wayne.

‘Well, I think my brother chased you off too quick. Why’d you want to talk to Phoebe’s mum?’

So they don’t know I spoke to her. They don’t know Phoebe has been Slated.

I stare back at him, mind blank yet convinced I shouldn’t tell him. If Phoebe’s mum thought they shouldn’t know, I’m sure she had good reason, and I’ll not say. Ben keep quiet, I plead silently.

‘I got ways to make you talk. You might enjoy them. Then again, you might not.’ He steps closer.

Ben stands, pushes between us. His Levo vibrates, loud. ‘Back off,’ he says. But his face is white, contorted with pain. No, Ben!

Wayne laughs. ‘What are you going to do about it, Slater? Might as well just sit there and watch.’ He pushes Ben who tries to take a swing at him, but his Levo vibrates louder and he shudders, slumps to the ground.

‘Leave him alone!’ I scream and kick at Wayne, hard, but he moves, and I miss my target and just get him in the leg.

‘Ow! Bitch. You’re going to be more fun than I thought.’ And he moves forwards but I can’t run, I can’t leave Ben, and I’m scared but more I’m angry. Something inside is shaking and kicking, screaming to get out.

But then Wayne looks over my shoulder, backs away and runs.

‘Kyla? Kyla!’

Jazz bursts up the path, Amy on his heels.

‘We thought we heard you scream. What’s wrong?’ he says.

Don’t tell them.

‘It’s Ben,’ I say, already on the ground next to him. ‘His levels. Ben, Ben, are you all right?’ His Levo vibrates again.

‘What is he?’ Amy says, breathing hard from running.

I hold his hand, look at his wrist. ‘3.2,’ I answer, terror twisting in my stomach.

‘Oh, God,’ she says.

Ben groans. ‘In my back-pack. Hurry. Pills,’ he mutters.

Pills? I fumble in his pack through a water bottle and spare socks, and my hand finds a small bottle, pulls it out. But the label says headache tablets?

I look at Amy; she shrugs. ‘Can’t hurt,’ she says.

‘Now. Give me one now,’ he gasps.

I do and he swallows it dry, not waiting for the water. I wrap my arms around him, pleading inside for him to be all right; Amy sits on the ground with us, alternately stroking my hand, and Ben’s, and Jazz is on standby to run for paramedics. But Ben soon stops shuddering, the colour starts to come back to his cheeks bit by bit. His levels start to rise.

He whispers to me the pills were from Aiden.

Aiden’s Happy Pills.

It is a while before Ben can walk. He nearly blacked out. My fault. Somehow I convince Jazz and Amy to go ahead, just a little, so we can talk. But I make sure to keep them in sight.

Ben’s arm is over my shoulders, leaning a little, walking slowly. ‘I’m sorry,’ he whispers.

‘Why?’

‘I wanted to protect you. I was useless.’

‘It’s not your fault.’

‘But I don’t understand.’ There is an uneasy pull in my stomach; I knew he’d get there eventually. ‘How come your levels were all right?’

I shrug. ‘Honestly? I don’t know. They shouldn’t have been. Don’t tell anybody, whatever you do. Or I’ll be gone.’

Ben pauses, digests this and finally nods.

‘Why didn’t you tell Amy and Jazz what happened? We have to tell someone about that man. He’s dangerous.’

‘No. We can’t. It would lead back to Phoebe, that I told her mum that she has been Slated.’

‘So?’

‘These are not the actions of a good little Slated. I’m being monitored and watched, remember? If they start chipping away at what happened, they might find out something about me that they don’t like.’

‘All right,’ Ben says at last. ‘But promise me you will never walk up here on your own. Ever. Promise?’

And I do.

Jazz drives Ben home, just a few miles away from us. His house is detached, brick, with a big garden. Bicycles lean against the side, and there is a dog in the front. But she is nothing like Brute. Skye is a beautiful, bouncy golden retriever who leaps about Ben and the rest of us, tail wagging. Ben’s parents gave her to him as a puppy when he first came to live with them.

Ben’s mum comes out of the garage in overalls. Younger and prettier than I expected: thirty or so, maybe, long dark hair tied back.

When Ben introduces us her eyes light with recognition. ‘This is Kyla? Oh pleased to meet you.’ She takes Jazz, Amy and me into her garage workshop, full of shiny machinery, scrap metal, sculptures. She is finishing one of an owl: loops of twisted metal for talons, nuts for eyes, salvaged interlocking fan blades for feathers. Metal scraps discarded as worthless have become a wild creature, that looks as if it could take off in flight. ‘Like my drawing,’ I say, and that is when I see it: my owl drawing that Ben asked if he could have, pinned to the wall. She was copying it.

We leave Ben there and I watch out the car window as he waves, then disappears back inside the garage.

Ben’s life used to be happy, uncomplicated. The easy affection between him, his mum, even that overgrown puppy, is so in evidence. No MIA, no Happy Pills, no deranged footpath attackers.

No me.

That night Amy comes to my room for a chat. I knew she would.

‘Look, Kyla. I’ve been thinking. Maybe Mum and Dad are right.’

‘About what?’

‘About you, and Ben. I’m guessing you had some sort of argument or something, and that is why he nearly blacked out. Whatever it was, if he can’t handle it – if you can’t – then maybe it is too soon. I don’t think you should see him any more. At least, not for a while.’

‘It’s not that!’ I protest.

‘Then what is it?’

I don’t want to lie to her, so what can I say? ‘It’s not that,’ I repeat.

‘Well. We’re not going to help you see Ben any more. So whatever you do or don’t do, that is up to you. Goodnight,’ she says, and goes back to her room.

Sebastian jumps up. ‘Looks like it’s just you and me, cat,’ I say, and he flops down and purrs, evidently happy with his lot.

No more kisses until you’re twenty-one.

Huh.

Though I can’t deny Amy’s conclusion, even if her reasoning is faulty. Ben would be better off without me.

Ben will be better off without me. No matter how much it hurts inside, I’m getting out of his life before I do any more damage.

CHAPTER FORTY THREE

* * *

Next morning I get to biology before Ben, and consider changing seats, to sit with someone else. But Hatten is still there as our substitute teacher: I don’t want to get any closer to him. So the usual back row with Ben it is.

‘I need to talk to you at lunch,’ Ben whispers when he arrives.

‘Can’t.’

His eyebrows rise. ‘Why not?’

‘Busy.’

‘You want to hear this. And there is something I need to tell you, about Miss Fern. Meet you by the library, all right?’

‘But—’

‘Quiet everyone,’ Hatten says. ‘Hope you all had as good a weekend as I did.’ He grins in a way that suggests he spent it up to no good, and a few of the girls giggle. He leans against the front bench. Tight black trousers, a dark shirt, unbuttoned more than most teachers. It drapes on his body. Is it silk?

Ben needles me in the ribs. ‘Quit staring at him,’ he says. I jump, then look around the room, instead. Every girl in the class – a few of the guys, as well – seem transfixed by our replacement teacher. Me, I’m just nervous.

‘Today, class, we will carry on with our study of the brain,’ he says, and I’m even more nervous.

But he goes through our worksheets from last time: corrects errors. Puts up endless slides of brain scans and drawings, and the class passes, minute by minute. Nothing happens at all until he winks at me as we leave.

But this time a few of the girls see him do it. The jealous look they give me suggests I’ll pay for that, later.

Curiosity won’t let me stay away. Ben waits, outside the library.

‘Well, what is it?’

Ben looks at me, something crosses his face. ‘Not here. Come on, let’s go for a walk.’

I follow him across the school grounds. We look both ways and duck out the gate to Cuttle Brook Woods. Where Phoebe drew her robin: it seems a long time ago, but it isn’t, really. Not quite three weeks. We walk in silence along the main path, then branch off into denser woods on a faint trail. Still Ben does not speak. Whatever he wants to say has deserted him. His face is dark and unreadable.

‘What about Miss Fern?’ I prompt him, finally.

He sighs. ‘All right; her first. I told you my dad is a primary school teacher? Another teacher he works with went to college with Ferny – that’s what they called her – and they went to visit her in hospital yesterday afternoon.’

‘Is she all right?’

‘She will be. Multiple fractures: she’s trussed up in some traction thing.’

‘Was it a car accident like they said?’

‘It happened in a car. But it was no accident. She says someone forced her off the motorway.’

I gasp. ‘Was it Lorders?’ I whisper.

He shakes his head. ‘No. They’re investigating it.’

‘But if it’s not them, who else would do something like that?’

Ben shrugs. ‘I’ve no idea. I just thought you’d like to know.’

‘Is that it? Because I need to get back, and—’

‘Kyla, listen. I promised you I wouldn’t do anything without talking to you first, so here I am. Talking to you.’

‘What about?’ I say, uneasy. Something is wrong.

‘This,’ he says. He pulls up his sleeve, exposing his Levo. A bright circlet of metal, digital numbers in the green at 7.8. Why so high? He doesn’t look that happy. He reaches with his other hand and savagely twists his Levo. His face contorts with pain.

‘Stop it! What are you doing?’

‘Look,’ he says and holds his Levo in front of me, but it is still in the green. 7.6. Twisting it like that should have made his levels plummet.

‘I don’t understand. How did you do that?’

‘I’ve taken another one of Aiden’s pills, and no matter what I do, my levels won’t drop. I’ve tried all sorts of things: they stay up.’

‘So?’

‘Don’t you see? The link between Levo and brain is blocked by the pills. It can be removed without blacking out, without any effects.’ Ben’s face is shining, his eyes bright and over-excited. Like someone with a fever. Or on drugs.

‘You don’t know that,’ I say, but my mind is scrambling with the possibility. Is he right? The Levo reads emotions, by communicating with a chip surgically implanted in the brain. Too low and this activates a cascade that briefly interrupts blood flow to the brain, giving a blackout; lower still, the interruption is permanent, causing seizures, and death. Yet, if levels are unaffected?

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