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Everyone: she knows Ben isn’t coming. There is an ache inside. Maybe some part of me was daft enough to hope he’d be here, somehow. That either it was all a blackout induced nightmare, or the paramedics just patched him up and shipped him home again.

‘To start with today, we have a special guest who is going to say a few words. Everyone, this is Mr Fletcher.’ Mr Fletcher, not Agent Fletcher.

He stands and walks over, next to Penny. The others remember their training, and obediently call out hellos; I remember in time to do the same. To not stand out. He squirms under the weight of our smiles. Penny sits down.

‘Today I want to talk to you about drugs.’

He carries on into a long lecture on the dangers and evils of drugs, and to never, ever take pills or anything else unless they are from your doctor. And if anyone ever tries to give you something to tell a parent or teacher about it, straight away. His eyes are travelling around the group, one by one. He’s not here to make a public service announcement; he’s looking for someone, anyone, whose reactions aren’t what he expects. He’s looking for anyone who knows where Ben got his Happy Pills. I can see he is, for a change, trying not to be scary, but he isn’t doing a very good job. Many smiles falter when he describes horrible things drugs can do.

Ben said the Happy Pills let him think for himself, without the Levo getting in the way. They did. Is that such a horrible thing?

Fletcher leaves when he is finished, relief clear on his face as he heads for the door. It is like he thinks we are contagious. Penny begins to lose the stress she carried at the beginning: her brow softens and her natural smile returns, but her eyes are sad. She knows something about Ben. She must.

When Group ends, I linger until the others are gone. Walk over to Penny. ‘Can I talk to you?’

‘Of course you can, dear,’ she says, but her eyes are urgent; she shakes her head no, side to side. ‘And I need to check your Levo: I hear you had a blackout last week.’

She scans my Levo, chatting relentlessly about the weather. Something is wrong.

She plugs the scanner into her netbook, and gasps. ‘Kyla, look at the graph. 2.1. Dangerous.’ I look at it with her, and also see what she doesn’t say out loud: the last two days, my levels have been in the 3s and 4s most of the time. 7.1 just now: a side effect from the run.

She holds my hand, shakes her head sadly.

‘What happened?’ she asks. But she cups a hand around her ear, shakes her head again.

Someone is listening in.

I nod; mouth, ‘I understand.’ And tell her the Lorder approved story: that Ben wasn’t in school, Jazz took me around and there were ambulances but I don’t know what happened to him.

‘Kyla, dear. Forget about Ben. He won’t be back; just put him out of your mind. Concentrate on your family, and getting on with your schoolwork.’ She says the words, but her eyes are sad, and she slips an arm around my shoulders. I can feel the tears start again in the back of my eyes. Find the anger.

A movement of air – a cool breeze that lifts the hairs on my arms – makes me turn towards the door, uneasy, half expecting Fletcher to be back. Instead it is a surprise of another sort.

‘Dad?’

‘Hi Kyla; hi Penny. Ready to go?’ He smiles, but I am not reassured. I haven’t seen him since spotting him out the window late the other night; he was not in a good mood then from what I overheard, and was gone by morning. I get up and head for the door.

‘Take care, Kyla,’ Penny says.

‘Thanks.’

We get in Dad’s car, but instead of turning left for home, he goes right. ‘Thought we could go for a little drive, have some time for a chat.’

‘Okay,’ I say, uneasy. He wants to talk without Mum listening. ‘Is everything all right? I thought you weren’t back until Sunday.’

‘I should be asking you if everything is all right. I’ve been hearing things about you, Kyla. You and your friend, Ben.’

‘Oh.’

‘Oh. Is that all you have to say for yourself?’

His tone is conversational, his smile and open face are present and accounted for; his words say something else. Be careful.

‘I’m sorry. What do you mean?’

‘I’m not buying it.’

‘What?’

‘The wide-eyed innocent look, the whole act. You’re involved, somehow, in what happened. Now listen to me. Your mum has convinced me – this time – to let things lie. That it is in my best interests for it not to come to light that you’ve been up to something under my nose. And, frankly, I don’t care whatever you may have got away with this time. But no more. Not in my house. Not everything is your mum’s decision; there are things she cannot control. Do you get it?’

There are a million things I could say. I could deny all the accusations hidden behind his words; I could repeat the authorized story of events; I could cry and pretend I don’t understand.

‘Yes. I get it,’ I say. I hold my hands together to stop them shaking. Use the fear; feed the anger.

Dad nods. ‘That was the only answer you could have given to stop me from returning you, right now.’

He drives on in silence. We do a loop around to the other side of our village, and he pulls into our drive. ‘You’re too clever by far. Take care you keep out of trouble.’

CHAPTER FORTY EIGHT

* * *

A sleepless night follows: too many miseries swirl through my mind, wanting attention. The morning alarm for school comes early, but there is no question of taking another day off. A good little Slated wouldn’t, and I’ve been told: I’m keeping out of trouble. But how can I get through today, be ordinary, pretend like nothing is wrong? How? Put one foot in front of the other; take one step at a time.

So I get out of bed. School uniform on; brush hair. Pretend to eat breakfast. And wait for the bus in grey drizzle, arms folded tight around myself, shivering against cold that falls from the sky and sinks deep in my bones. No lift with Jazz and Amy again today as she is still on work experience.

When the bus comes I can’t bring myself to sit at the back, in Ben’s seat, so I pick the only other empty one. We’re half-way to school before I remember this was Phoebe’s seat. I catch a few barbed glances: they don’t like that I sat here. But does anyone even notice one Slated boy less in the back row?

Through classes and breaks, there are no whispers of where is Ben, like after Phoebe was taken. Not that I could answer the question, but the lack of it digs at me. Is it because they don’t notice, don’t care, or are afraid to ask?

Then, the moment comes: I drag my feet to biology. I’d been dreading this class. No Ben next to me on the back bench, and Hatten, with his knowing eyes, peeling away at the layers I’ve been throwing up around myself. After we all scan our cards in and sit down, he stands at the front. A deep blue shirt today. It emphasises the lack of colour in his pale blue eyes. He smiles his slow smile; girls sigh. He starts the lesson, then stops a moment later. Looks around the room.

‘Are we missing someone today?’

Students exchange glances, and that is when I see: they know. They have noticed there is no Ben, but it is taboo. A subject of no discussion. No one answers.

‘Come on,’ Hatten says. ‘I’ve only had this class a few times; don’t think I know everyone’s names, yet.

Who is missing?’

Stay still. Be quiet.

‘Ben. Ben Nix isn’t here,’ I say, the words bursting out of me, some compulsion making me say his name out loud. To make him real, not like someone who never even existed, who doesn’t matter.

‘Where is he?’ he asks, his eyes on mine, and there is something in them. A flicker of amusement, like a cat playing with a mouse trapped under one paw. He knows.

‘I have no idea,’ I answer, quite truthfully.

‘Does anyone else know?’ he asks the room in general. Silence. ‘No? Perhaps he isn’t well.’

Then he carries on with the lesson.

‘Kyla? Wait. I want a word, please.’ Hatten smiles, and holds open the classroom door for the last girls who were dragging their feet to leave his presence. They flash me a look of pure dislike and flounce out of the room.

He steps out, looks down the hall both ways, then comes back in and shuts the door. Leans on it.

I say nothing.

He smiles, and it is a maniac grin: a wide smile of pure delight. ‘It’s you,’ he says.

‘What? What do you mean?’

‘You’re the one. I was sure you’d make it.’

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’

He walks towards me and I back away, but choose the wrong direction. The corner of the room. He stalks closer, and grins; I’m trapped. He puts a hand on the wall over my shoulder. Not touching, but so close the heat of his body prickles my skin.

He leans in. ‘Do you hear the voices, Kyla, or whatever your name is? Voices in your head,’ he whispers.

My heart pounds, th-thump, th-thump, loud in my ears.

‘Listen to the voices. What are they telling you, now?’

Run!

I squirm away, bolt for the door.

‘How does it feel?’ he asks.

I turn back to look at him, I can’t help myself. ‘How does what feel?’

‘Knowing that you killed Ben. That he is dead, and it is all your fault.’

‘I didn’t! I…’ What colour is left drains from my face. ‘Is he really dead?’ I whisper.

He smiles. ‘What do you think?’

Run!

I dash through the door and down the hall, then race across the school. Go to the track.

My feet pound twenty times around before I remember: Mrs Ali banned me from the track at lunch. I concentrate. No; that isn’t quite right. She banned me from running with Ben at lunch, and Ben isn’t here, is he? But I leave enough time for a shower at the end.

I have somewhere to go after school.

CHAPTER FORTY NINE

* * *

I’m waiting by Jazz’s car end of day.

‘Hi,’ he says. ‘I didn’t think you’d still want to go.’

I force a smile. ‘Is it okay?’ Making myself sound casual, like still going to Mac’s as planned isn’t a big deal. But it is the biggest deal. Holding on to confronting Aiden – focusing the anger – is the only thing that has kept me from dissolving in a puddle. He is dead, and it is all your fault. No! If he is, it is Aiden’s fault: Aiden and Mac.

‘Of course,’ Jazz says. ‘I was hoping you’d come. Let’s go.’

We’re well away from the school before I dare ask.

‘Jazz, did Ian find out anything about what happened to Ben?’

He tilts his head side to side. He looks like he doesn’t want to answer.

‘Tell me! Whatever you know. Please, I need to know.’

‘There isn’t much to tell. Nothing we didn’t already know, or guess.’

‘Tell me anyhow.’

‘Ian’s mum is a friend of Ben’s mum. She told her that when the paramedics got there, they seemed to revive Ben, but he wasn’t breathing on his own. Maybe he wasn’t breathing for too long before they got there. But she doesn’t know, because once the Lorders arrived, they kicked her out. When the ambulances left the Lorder van followed, and they weren’t in a hurry to get to hospital – no lights or siren – so she was afraid of the worst. But they won’t tell her where they took him, or what happened.’

I say nothing. Blink hard and stare out the window. Dead or alive, the Lorders took him away. What is there to say?

Jazz takes the last turn and soon we’re pulling up to Mac’s. He parks the car out front.

‘Kyla, there is something else. Ben’s mum gave Ian something to give to you.’

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