She shuts her netbook and turns back to Mum.
‘Where was I? Oh yes. There are no sharp corners, no hazards at the hospital. So everything needs to be pointed out. Like crossing the road, and—’
‘Excuse me.’ Even to me my smile is starting to feel stretched. Dislocated.
‘What is it this time?’ Mum says.
‘I already know what subject I want to take.’
Penny raises an eyebrow. ‘Oh, you do, do you? What, then?’
She smiles. ‘Well, you may need a few more practical subjects. And they’d have to assess you to take you in art.’
Mum points at the fridge. ‘She drew that, this morning. Of Amy.’
Penny gets up to look; her eyes widen. ‘Well. I should think they’ll let you, dear.’
She turns back to Mum.
‘You did such an amazing job with Amy; she is a delight. I’m sure, with time, Kyla will adjust to your family.’
I cross my arms. Kyla will adjust: what about everyone else?
‘She had a nightmare last night,’ Mum says. ‘Screamed the house down.’
Penny opens her netbook again. Asking me might be an idea: I am the one who knows all about it.
‘There is a history of that, I’m afraid. No doubt why they kept her so long at hospital. Nine months instead of the usual six. We’ll look at some ways of controlling that in Group. They tried all the usual meds at hospital, but they made it worse if anything. And—’
‘Excuse me. Could you talk to me, instead of about me?’
The smile slips from Penny’s face.
‘You see what I’m up against,’ Mum says, and sighs.
‘Part small child, part stroppy teenager,’ Penny says. ‘Now Kyla, dear: let me chat to your mum. Why don’t you run along upstairs?’
I shut the door, hard, and plonk myself down on the bed. No sign of Sebastian, and it is two long hours before Amy gets home.
My folder of drawings sits on the dressing table. I pick up a sketch pad.
Now the shock is over, no matter about the ones that went missing. If I close my eyes, they are all in my mind. Every detail. I will draw them again.
I grasp a pencil, but it is no good: it rests between my thumb and index finger, just where I cut my right hand, the hand I draw and write with. Time for an experiment: pencil in the left hand. It feels awkward at first; wrong. I do a few quick sketches and it starts to loosen up, but I can’t shake the feeling of wrongness, an edge of fear almost, that something will happen if I continue.
But I can’t stop.
A fresh page: who first?
Dr Lysander. Getting her right is all about the eyes. Tricky eyes, she has; mostly shielded and cold, but she peeks out now and then. When she does she seems more startled about it than I do.
I begin, hesitant at first with an unfamiliar hand. Line, shading, all. Faster and surer as confidence increases. Dr Lysander begins to look back at me from under my pencil. Goose bumps rise along my arms, my neck.
I draw much better with my left hand.
* * *
Voices drift into my mind. Out front?
I put down my pencil, and go to the window. A boy and two girls stand in the garden below, wearing school uniforms like Amy’s: maroon jumpers and black trousers. I hide my drawing under others in a drawer, and head for the stairs. Amy and Mum stand in the hall below.
‘We’re just going for a walk. Why ever not?’ Amy.
‘I don’t think it’s a good idea; she hasn’t been out of the house yet. What about traffic?’ Mum.
Talking about me, again.
‘I do actually know not to jump out in front of cars,’ I say when I reach the bottom step.
‘Oh bother, take her then! Just watch her very carefully.’
‘I know, Mum,’ Amy says. After Mum leaves the hall she adds, in a low voice, ‘I know better than you.’
She turns to me. ‘Kyla, come meet my friends.’
I start for the door.
‘Put some shoes on, first.’
Oh. All right. Amy finds the trainers I wore from the hospital yesterday, and waits while I struggle with the laces. We head outside.
‘This is Jazz,’ she points at the boy. ‘And Chloe and Debs. Everyone, meet Kyla.’
‘Oh, she’s cute. I wish I could trade my sister in,’ Chloe says. ‘How old is she?’
‘Talk to her if you want to know something,’ Amy says.
‘I’m sixteen,’ I say.
‘Sweet sixteen and never been kissed,’ Jazz starts singing as we walk up the road, and my cheeks burn.
Amy slugs him in the arm. ‘Shut up you numbskull, she’s off limits to you.’ Amy looks back; our house is just slipping out of view.
Jazz grabs her hand. ‘Sorry Miss, I was joshing. Forgive me?’
‘I suppose,’ she says, and he slips an arm around her waist. Amy is tall but he is taller; broad shouldered with an easy way of walking. Now that I’m closer I’m guessing he is not so much a boy, more like eighteen, so years older than any I’ve met in hospital. And he is different not just because of that: his smile has an edge of mischief that I’ve never seen on a Slated boy. He’s cute.
We walk through the village, back the way we came in the car yesterday. Past free-standing houses like ours, then rows of terraced cottages, a pub with ‘White Lion’ on a painted sign. Until we get to a post that points out a green way, marked ‘footpath’.
‘Fancy a ramble?’ Jazz says.
Chloe and Debs evidently do not, as they say goodbye.
Amy links one arm with mine and the other with Jazz. ‘Come on,’ she says.
The ground is soon uneven and rough, and I have to concentrate on placing my feet. There is tall hedge on one side, sloping fields covered in dead stubble of whatever was growing there on the other. The path narrows, and Amy lets go of Jazz and hangs on to my hand.
‘Shut it, numbskull,’ she says, and he leads the way.
We climb up, higher and higher; I breathe harder. The hedge and fields give way to trees, and I drink in the riot of orange and red leaves, brown and grey trunks; some with red berries and spiky green leaves that prick if you touch them. Holly?
‘The view is this way, ladies,’ Jazz says.
We round a bend, and look across woods and fields, down over distant tiled roofs, gardens, roads.
‘Look, Kyla,’ Amy says. ‘You can see the whole village from here. That is our place. See? Second from left.’ She points and I see the tiled roof and brick walls of our house.
There is a log and we sit on it. Jazz wraps his arms around Amy from behind, with a resigned look on his face. l get the feeling they usually come here alone.
She prods him in the ribs with her elbow.
‘So, Kyla. How are you getting along with the Dragon?’ he says.
‘He means Mum,’ Amy says.
‘Say no more! I understand “Uh”. It means you have noticed she is not a sainted mother figure as advertised, but actually a fire breathing mythical green beast.’
‘That’s not fair,’ Amy says. ‘Mum’s not that bad, you have to get to know her. I used to be scared of her, and then all at once, she was all right.’
‘You know the weird thing to me is how you both straight away call her “Mum”,’ Jazz says.
‘Why is that weird?’ I ask.
‘Well you just met her, didn’t you?’
Amy shakes her head. ‘That doesn’t matter. It is what you are told at hospital, right from the beginning. That your mum and dad are coming to take you home.’
‘A pre-fab kid,’ Jazz says, then ducks when Amy twists to smack him.
‘So we’re different to everybody else,’ I say.
‘Unique,’ Amy says.
‘My special girl,’ Jazz says, and kisses her cheek.
‘There are just two of us in this village,’ Amy says. ‘That is why I’m so happy you came. I’m not the only one any more. There are a dozen or so of us at our school, though; from all over the place.’
With a look at his watch and a curse, Jazz disappears at speed down the path the way we came.
‘His parents have a farm; some days he has to help after school. We’ll walk back the long way,’ Amy says, and we set off in the other direction. ‘Seriously: how did you get on with Mum today?’
I shrug. ‘I don’t think she even likes me. Why take me if she doesn’t want me?’
‘Oh, but she does. She doesn’t show it very well. It’s complicated.’
‘Simple is hard enough. Who needs complicated?’
‘Don’t worry about it now. One thing, though. Sometimes Mum doesn’t hear things, unless you say them. Don’t be afraid to tell her what you are thinking.’
The path steepens and Amy slips in front; I have to concentrate on my feet again as we descend. I think about what she said about Mum: the Dragon, Jazz called her.
‘Is Jazz your boyfriend?’
‘Yes. Don’t tell Mum. She doesn’t like him.’
Jazz: he sang to me. Sweet sixteen and never been kissed. Or, have I? If I can’t remember, does it count?
‘I was told very sternly at hospital to avoid boys at all costs. Mess up your levels.’
‘Oh, they do that!’ Amy laughs. ‘Probably best to leave them alone for a while. The secret, though, is to start with one you’re not that bothered about.’
What is the point in that?
* * *
‘Where’ve you been?’ Mum is waiting in the door, arms crossed.
‘Told you: we went for a walk,’ Amy answers as we walk in, take off our shoes.
‘Those shoes are muddy. You didn’t go up the footpath on your own, did you? I’ve told you it’s not safe.’
‘No, of course not; we weren’t alone,’ Amy says, and with her back to Mum rolls her eyes.
‘Kyla? Is that true?’ Mum turns to me with a full dragon glare.
‘Yes,’ I say. And it was: Jazz went up with us. He didn’t come back with us, but that isn’t what she asked.
‘Listen to me, both of you. You know it isn’t safe for you on your own. You can’t protect yourselves.’
Amy nods and I remember lessons on personal safety at the hospital. It is part of being Slated. You can’t defend yourself any more than you can attack someone, so you have to be extra careful.
But what is up the footpath, but trees and more trees?
‘You’ve been ages. I was worried. And you’ve almost missed Dad,’ Mum says, and I notice she is standing next to a suitcase in the hall.
Her arms are crossed and I see now that Mum’s skin has a strange tinge: slightly dragon-green. I can imagine scales in the light criss-cross of lines about her forehead, by her eyes. Is there a bit of smoke coming from her nostrils?
‘What is so funny, miss?’ she says to me.
I wipe the smile off my face. ‘Nothing. Sorry.’
‘Leave the poor girl alone,’ a voice says from the lounge room: Dad.
Amy crosses the room and kisses him on the cheek. I stand uncertain in the doorway.
‘Come in, Kyla. Have a seat. Tell me about your day, and I’ll tell you about mine.’
So we swap stories. And he seems as interested in me cutting my hand, Nurse Penny’s visit and going for a walk, as I am in his.
Dad works with computers. He travels a lot, installing and testing new systems, and is about to leave and won’t be back until Saturday. Five whole days from now. And then he tells me about family stuff. Like he has two sisters, one visiting with her son on Saturday so I can meet them. The other lives far away in Scotland and we might visit her next summer. And that Mum is an only child; her parents died many years ago in a motorway accident. She was just fifteen.
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