Later that night when Amy and I go up to sleep, I fish out today’s drawing from where I hid it under the others.
‘Amy, this—’ I hold up my afternoon’s work, ‘—is Dr Lysander. Why were you surprised I know her?’
Amy takes the sheet from my hand.
‘She looks scary!’
I shrug. ‘She can be. But sometimes she’s all right.’
‘I’d love to work with her when I’m a nurse; she’s amazing.’
‘Don’t you know? She started it all: Slating. She invented it. We learnt about it in science at school.’
I look at the picture in my hands, at her hooded eyes that stare back at mine. I didn’t know that. Or did I? Everyone always deferred to Dr Lysander; got out of her way in a hurry. All Slateds have a main doctor assigned to them at the hospital, and she was mine. But now that I think about it, there was never anyone besides me in her waiting room. No one else I knew saw her. If she is so important, why would she bother with me?
They taught us the basics about Slating in the hospital school. We were all criminals, sentenced to Slating – wiping our memories and personalities – so we could start over again. With the Levo in place to make sure it all works, until it is removed the year we turn twenty-one on the anniversary of our Slating. So Slating is a second chance, for which we should be grateful: it kept us out of jail, or off the chair.
But at least if you were in jail, you’d know who you are. Not for long on the chair, though, if you’d done something bad enough to warrant that.
I bite my lip. ‘Don’t you ever want to know?’
‘Why you were Slated.’
‘No. If the past is unbearable, why choose to bear it?’
I shrug. Because it is mine.
‘Anyhow, that solves the mystery of what happened to your drawings.’
‘Security must have taken them before you left the hospital. They wouldn’t want anyone to know what Dr Lysander or anyone else who works there looks like, or where things are in the hospital. It’s too dangerous.’
Whispers overheard mix together in my mind; snippets, rumours and distant loud noises at night. Guards and towers. Burnt out buildings.
Amy switches out the light. Soon her even breathing says she sleeps. Sebastian curls along my side.
So. Dr Lysander is important, and they stole my drawings to keep her face hidden from the world. And now, I’ve drawn her, again. Maybe, I should hide it better? This likeness of her is the best I’ve ever done.
Even though I used the wrong hand.
I am in a small space, alone. Wood surrounds me. It is dark, but I hold a torch in my right hand.
Cross-legged on the floor, I’m hungry and it is cold and damp. My legs are stiff and there is no room to stretch out, but I don’t care. The pages lie across my knees, kept flat by a piece of wood underneath. The pencil flies across the paper, a dance of magic that is mine alone. Creating an imaginary place so far from this one, in distance and in time: a place I long to be.
So absorbed, that at first, I don’t hear the footsteps, coming down the stairs over my head. I turn off the torch and hold my breath.
They stop at the bottom; pause. Then they start again, coming closer and closer to my secret place. I should do something, hide my drawings, anything, but I am fixed like stone.
A light switches on in my face. Blinding me.
‘There you are.’
I say nothing. He can see it all; the drawings, the pencil. The hand that holds it.
‘Get up!’ he snaps.
I scramble out, the light still dazzling my eyes.
‘You know the reasons; you know how important this is. Yet still you disobey.’
‘I’m sorry. I won’t do it again, I won’t. I promise!’
‘Enough of your promises. You can’t be trusted.’
His voice is full of regret; sadness, even.
‘Give me your left hand,’ he says, and when I don’t, he grabs it.
‘You have to learn. I’m sorry.’
And I almost believe he means it, as he smashes my fingers, one by one, with a brick.
* * *
Agony stabs my eyes, twisting like the blade of a knife.
There is a metallic, bitter taste under my tongue. I cough.
‘She’s coming around.’
A male voice. Who?
I try to open my eyes, but they burn as if the sun has fallen from the sky. I groan.
‘Kyla?’ A hand touches mine. Amy.
‘Turn out the lights,’ she says. The light drops, and I squint between my lids.
‘There you are,’ she says, and smiles.
I’m on the floor. I try to sit up.
‘Don’t move yet,’ the male voice says again, and I turn my eyes to the source. A paramedic? And another. Mum, white-faced, stands in the doorway.
They lift me back into bed while Amy holds up an IV bag. One of them fixes it up, the other injects something into it and warmth slides into my veins, starts to take the pain away. My eyes close.
Voices mix and fade.
A nightmare did that? Disbelief.
She could have died…
Keep in bed for a day or two…
If Amy hadn’t woken when she hit the floor, she would have died…
* * *
‘Can I at least have a book?’
‘No. You’re supposed to be resting,’ Mum says, and crosses her arms.
‘I can rest, and read.’
‘They would let me in hospital,’ I lie.
‘You’re not in hospital, you’re on my watch, and you are resting. Go to sleep,’ she says, and leaves again, shooing Sebastian out and shutting the door.
I can convince myself she means well. But it is hard to rest with someone sneaking up on you every two minutes to make sure you are resting.
I close my eyes. My head still feels like it is being crushed in a vice, though it is better than this morning, when even the sound of Sebastian purring vibrated through my skull like drums, and I’d asked for him to be kept out. But I’m afraid to sleep. Afraid that dream will find me again. Now the injection has worn off, anything could happen.
My nightmares in hospital were terrifying, but vague. Most of the time I couldn’t remember much of what happened; I just woke up screaming. Often running from something, without knowing what it was.
But this one was different. I remember it as vividly in my mind as if it is happening on replay before my eyes, right now, over and over again. I can feel the pain, see my broken, bloody fingers. It is so real.
Real like a memory etched within, stark and clear; the kind so horrible you can never forget, no matter how hard you try. But memories are one thing I am not supposed to have. Nothing from before being Slated. It is almost like drawing with my left hand yesterday brought it back, from some hidden place, up to the surface.
Who is he? Is he real, or just some nightmare creature that inhabits my mind? In the dream I never see his face. First the light dazzles my eyes, then I can’t see through the pain and tears. But my dream self knew him, even recognised his footsteps.
One thing is certain and sure. If he is real, I don’t want to know.
‘Sorry. Did I wake you?’ Amy.
I was actually asleep; in a black and silent place, dreamless and still. Maybe the drugs haven’t worn off.
‘It’s okay. I’m sick of being in bed. Can I get up?’
Amy shakes her head. ‘She’ll never let you. They said you were to stay in bed all day. Mum always follows the letter, whether she believes it, or not.’
‘I’m so bored.’
‘Poor you. How is your head?’
‘Can I get you anything? Are you hungry yet?’
Amy turns to go.
‘Wait. There is one thing you could do for me.’
‘My sketch pad. She took it away so I can’t draw.’
She hesitates. Goes into her room and comes back. ‘Is this any good?’ She holds out a small blank notebook and pencil.
‘Keep it hidden.’ She winks.
I prop myself upright on pillows, and turn away from the door so my body shields the notebook. Listening carefully for any little creak that might be Mum sneaking up the stairs.
But with the comforting scratch of pencil on paper, I get more and more absorbed. Escaping from myself, the dream; everything.
I am somebody else.
‘Lucky that was me.’
Amy shuts the door and puts a tray with soup on the table next to me.
‘What are you drawing?’
I show her. Half-Mum, half-dragon. In a variety of poses. Breathing fire; flying over the house.
She laughs. ‘Oh, God. Don’t let her see those. We’ll have to hide this away, and—’
She stops and frowns, looking at my hand. My left hand, holding the pencil. Dread trickles into my stomach.
‘I thought you were right-handed. When you drew me, you used your right hand.’
‘I am! I was drawing with my right hand. I just shifted it across to pass you the notebook.’
‘Oh. Sorry; of course,’ she says and smiles again.
My Levo vibrates: 4.6.
‘Chocolate?’ she asks.
I shake my head. ‘Sebastian.’
She opens the door and moments later returns carrying Sebastian, and dumps him on my lap. He meows, indignant at being kept out all day. I pet him and he flops down, purring. His paws knead against my side through the quilt, claws in and out.
‘Will you eat a little?’ Amy says.
‘In a while.’
Once my levels get back to 5 she leaves to watch TV downstairs. I wrap myself so tight around Sebastian, that he squirms and protests until I loosen my arms.
Why did I lie?
In that moment, I was afraid. Of Amy? This is insane. But the fear was there, it was real. As if Amy could be another one wielding a brick.
I hold up my left hand. Turn it side to side. The fingers are whole and perfect; there are no scars. I can almost convince myself it never happened, that my subconscious mind made it all up. That realising I could draw better with my left hand somehow triggered the dream. It can’t be a memory. I’m Slated; I don’t have memories.
But somehow a sick certainty sits like a crushing weight on my chest, making it hard to breathe. Every instinct of self-preservation screams inside and won’t be ignored.
No one must know.
* * *
‘Everyone, we’ve got somebody new today!’ Nurse Penny says, her voice almost bright enough to match the yellow jumper she wears.
Everyone is a dozen or so Slateds like me, gathered from surrounding villages near and far, sitting in a loose circle in a draughty high-ceilinged hall.
Nurse Penny gives me a push. ‘Go on. Introduce yourself, and grab a chair.’
‘Hi. I’m Kyla,’ I say, and find a chair in a corner, pull it into the circle.
The others smile at me and each other, most years younger. Except one girl, about my age, sitting with her arms crossed and looking out the window into the darkness.
Oh, joy. First day at Group. Just what I need with this blackout headache still heavy behind my eyes. They usually take two to three days to go. Mum had said maybe I could leave this until next week, but then I decided I felt well enough to come tonight. At least this way I finally get out of the house. Besides, there is no point putting it off: it will be every Thursday at seven until further notice. Amy doesn’t have to go any more so I’m assuming ‘further notice’ is until they are convinced you don’t need constant monitoring.
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