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He raises one eyebrow, amused. ‘Oh, I think it is. Get her out first.’ He nods at me dismissively.

I’m still retching over the bin; dry retching, now.

‘She can’t walk. You’ll have to help,’ Mum says, and with a nod from the other, the younger man approaches. Lifts me up with a face like he is cradling a sewer rat, then deposits me next door on Amy’s bed.

Searching my room: looking for Happy Pills, no doubt. They won’t find any. I droop back on Amy’s pillows now, too exhausted to think, to move. Your drawings a voice hisses inside, and my eyes spring open.

Under the loose carpet by the window: my hidden drawings. Of Gianelli after the Lorders took him: Mum told me to destroy it. How I wish I had. And the one of Ben. If they see how I drew him, they won’t buy the innocent little Kyla and her ‘friend’. They’ll see how I feel about him. I force my eyes closed. Minutes pass. I hear Mum admonishing them not to make a mess. There is no outcry, no ‘look what I found’. I start to hope they won’t find them, even though I can’t believe it.

Finally there are heavy steps in the hall, down the stairs. Moments later, their van starts out front. They are leaving, as easy as that? Somehow I don’t think that is the end of their interest in me.

Mum painted an image of Ben they wanted to see: Ben the dangerous boy, the one warned to stay away. And I backed her up. It felt disloyal, wrong. ‘I’m sorry Ben,’ I whisper. Tears well up. Ben would want you safe.

I drift, not asleep or awake: my thoughts jumble around out of order and make no sense. Flat images like still photographs flit in and out of my mind, wash over me. Ben, running. His mum’s owl with wings stretched wide. Ben in the moonlight of my dream, light shining through him. There are footsteps up the stairs, and the door opens. I struggle to open my eyes, to move at all, but my body feels full of lead. The door shuts again. Vaguely I hear movements across the hall, in my room, then Amy’s door opens once again.

‘Kyla? I’ve put your room to rights. Come on, Amy will be home soon.’

She helps me up and across to my room. It smells all fresh and clean; the sheets, new and crisp. I can almost forget the Lorders were here, pawing through my things. ‘Thanks,’ I whisper. For this; for everything.

Unable to stay awake another second, everything goes black.

‘Kyla?’ Mum says. ‘I’ve brought you some soup.’ She looks herself. No signs of stress from a Lorder visit.

‘I’m not hungry.’

‘Eat it anyhow.’

She helps me sit up, tries to feed me but I take the spoon from her and do it myself. I wasn’t hungry, but now as I taste tomato, orange and something else spicy, it is all good, and I am hungry. I shouldn’t be. How can I eat after what happened?

I finish the soup.

‘We have to talk,’ she says. ‘I’m sorry to do this. You should be resting, but this can’t wait.’

‘Okay.’

‘Why did you black out?’

The Lorder’s question, but she deserves more of an answer.

I sag into my pillows. What do I say, what don’t I, and it is all too much to handle. Tears leak out between my lids again, and my Levo vibrates. Then Mum is there, sitting next to me, her hand light on my head, smoothing my hair.

I open my eyes and see her through blurry tears. ‘What do you know?’

‘Jazz didn’t say much. Just that you were worried about Ben. He took you to his house, but you didn’t go in because there were ambulances and Lorders there, and then he brought you home.’

I nod, then wince. So I’d guessed right: Jazz didn’t say I was with Ben. ‘What happened to Ben? Please tell me.’

‘I don’t know for sure.’

‘I have to know. Please…’

‘If I find out anything, I’ll tell you. But you mustn’t ask anyone else about it. Do you hear me, Kyla? This is serious. Don’t talk about Ben, don’t look upset, don’t do or say anything about him. Not at school, or at home, or anywhere else.’

I stare back at her, head throbbing unbearably, but not as bad as the pain inside when I think about Ben. How can I pretend like nothing is wrong? Because you must.

‘What you’ve told the Lorders today is your story, the only story. Keep it just the same to anyone who asks: at Group, school, here at home.’ Home? She means Amy, and Dad. And her choice of words: what I am to say is a story. My story, not the truth. She knows more than she lets on.

She gets up and goes to the door, then turns back.

‘Oh, Kyla? That was such a beautiful drawing of Ben. I found it and the others last night. I’m truly sorry I had to destroy them.’ She shuts the door.

Eyes wide, I stare at the space she just left. Thanks Mum. Again. They would have found them, I’m sure. Somehow she knew they would come, and she searched my room last night while I slept. And I realise she would have found the one of her son Robert, too: she must wonder how I know what he looks like. How I know about him, at all.

Is she protecting me? Or, maybe, she doesn’t trust me. She searched my room herself to make sure there was nothing that made me guilty of anything beyond a few ill-advised drawings.

How would she feel if she knew that it was because of me taking Ben to see Mac and Aiden that he got the pills; that he got the idea, even, to try what he did? How would she feel if she knew I was the one who wielded the grinder that cut off his Levo?

Late that night I hear a car, and wonder if the Lorders are back. But when I slip out of bed to look, it is Dad. He’s not due back for days. There are voices below; he sounds cross. Very.

But when I wake up the next morning, he is gone.

CHAPTER FORTY SEVEN

* * *

Mum keeps me home from school for days. Until I don’t want any more time between four walls, with nothing to do but be crowded in by my thoughts, and cry, with her and Sebastian smothering me with hugs and feline kindness. Amy joins in when she gets home from work experience. They form a united front, a concerted effort to keep my levels from taking me under. And physically, I am fine: almost normal, just a dull throb behind my temples. I could go to school if it weren’t for the Ben-shaped ache inside that leaves me cold, unable to move. But all their niceness doesn’t help. The only thing that does, is thinking of Aiden.

As the more thought I put into it, the more I put the blame for this whole mess on his red-haired head. And on Mac for introducing Aiden to us. And Jazz, too, because Mac is his cousin. And I wouldn’t know Jazz if not for Amy. Amy and I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Mum. Bit by bit my anger grows, and I nurse it, like a toothache, no dentist in sight. I need it.

It gets me out of bed and dressed. I emerge downstairs in time to escape.

‘Kyla? What are you doing?’

I look up from lacing my runners. ‘What does it look like? It’s Group tonight, isn’t it?’

‘I’m not sure you should be out of bed.’

‘Don’t you think it would be better all around if I put in an appearance there tonight?’

She looks back at me, measuring something in her mind. Nods slightly. ‘If you can be like your normal self, you should be there. I’ll drive you.’

‘No. I want to run.’

‘You’re not well enough to run; it’s been less than a week since your blackout.’ Her arms are crossed, and her face, set.

Explain or you won’t be going anywhere.

I breathe in and out, slow; release. Turn and face her. ‘Physically, I’m fine: not a hundred percent maybe, but it isn’t far, and running makes me more myself. Helps my levels. It isn’t that I want to run; I need to run. Can you understand?’

She bites her lip, uncertain. ‘But by yourself?’

‘I’ll be fine. Really. It is all major roads, nothing will happen to me. I promise.’

She relents. ‘All right. But I’ll pick you up. Deal?’

‘Deal.’

She scoops me up for a hug; I open the door, and I’m off.

It would be sensible to start with a slow jog, work up speed slowly and see how I go. My head pounds with every jar of foot on the ground, and I haven’t eaten much lately. But I pour everything I have into my muscles, my legs and feet; go fast and faster until it takes over. I stop noticing the pain in my skull. The night, the road, the thump-thump of my feet are all there is.

But the sound is hollow. The last time on this run, Ben’s rhythm combined with mine. My feet falter when I pass the path that leads off the road, where Ben lifted me up on the fence. Where we were alone and he kissed me that first time.

Now that I am running, I can think about my dream where he came to say goodbye. I couldn’t think about it before; it was like a wound that, if touched, screamed in pain.

Dr Lysander says my dreams are made up of random thoughts and images stolen from my subconscious mind. That they aren’t real. That sometimes people do incorporate memories into their dreams, but if you’ve been Slated you need to build up your banks of memories before this can happen, and in the meantime, the mind makes things up to fill the void. The long and short of it, according to her, is that my dreams are made up: they are not real. Sometimes they are.

Some of my dreams come from memory, just as my drawings do. I’m sure of it. Like the drawing I made of Lucy: I put mountains behind her from where she lived, mountains I’d never seen before. How could that not be a memory? But with some of my dreams, I am less sure. Like the one where my fingers are smashed with a brick. It felt real at the time; now, if I think of it, it feels like a memory of a true event. But is it just a memory of my dream? Then there are dreams like the one I had of the Slated boy strapped down and having his Levo cut off: that felt more than real. But then Ben was superimposed on the dream, and it could never have happened that way. My fear put him there. And the ones of me running on the beach, being chased: those ones are more insubstantial. There is less detail to ground them, to make them feel as if they hold any reality.

But what of Ben’s goodbye kiss? Did his spirit visit my dream? Ghosts are fairy tales for children. No. I refuse to believe it. Anyhow, Ben isn’t dead; he can’t be. He may be.

Aiden: I conjure him up in my mind. Red hair. I run past the hall; keep going. Blue eyes? Yes, they were dark blue, thoughtful eyes. I start to reduce my pace. A dusting of freckles across his nose and cheeks. I turn around, walking now. His smile I remember, too. Not like a Slated smile; a real one. Or was it? He wanted to use me for his own reasons. Ben, too. He gave Ben the pills, put the idea in his brain. Nearly there now.

I glance down at my Levo: 8.1. Really? Even with the running I can’t believe it. When I ran with Jazz the other day, I was so distressed I could only manage a 5.

It’s the anger.

I don’t understand. My levels fall when I am distressed, but anger brings them up. There have been other times like this, I realise: like when Wayne threatened me, and with Phoebe. But it makes no sense. Levos are designed to be sensitive to any extremes of emotion. The misery I’ve felt the last few days has, as expected, kept them down. Sometimes dangerously so. But the Levo’s main purpose is to stop any possibility of violence, any harm to self or others. Yet anger seems to prop up my levels. Kyla is different.

I face the door to the hall: it is time to be the same as everybody else. Deep breath, square shoulders, smile. You’re on.

I grab a chair.

Two bright spots of unnatural red shine on Penny’s cheeks. Her smile seems stretched. Then I see him, in the corner of the hall. Sat on a chair and looking like he’d rather be just about anywhere else.

A Lorder. And not just any Lorder: the younger one who carried me, and searched my room. Though not in his grey suit, or black operations gear. In jeans, and a shirt. He looks almost normal.

‘Hello Kyla. That is everyone, now. Shall we begin? Have you all had a good week?’

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