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We had Group at hospital also, so I know the story. We’re supposed to talk about our feelings in a ‘supportive non-judgemental atmosphere’, but it usually seems to me that they tell us what we are supposed to be feeling.

Penny crosses her arms. ‘Does anyone remember what you need to do now?’

They look at each other.

This is painful.

Until finally the older girl turns away from the window, and rolls her eyes. ‘You lot are like watching paint dry. Introduce yourselves before we all die of old age.’

I feel my eyes widen along with everyone else in the circle. She was saying, out loud, the kind of stuff I say in my head. How did she dare?

Penny frowns. ‘Thank you for setting us straight. Perhaps you’d care to begin?’

‘Sure. Greetings dear Kyla; I am Tori. Welcome to our happy Group.’

The others begin to chime in with their names, one after another. Smiling. Unaware that Tori’s voice was dripping with sarcasm. All that is, except for Penny, who still frowns at Tori.

Once the introductions are over, Penny glances at the clock: ten past seven. ‘Well, I suppose we had better…’

But then the door flies open at the back.

‘Sorry I’m late,’ a voice says. Male. I turn just as a chair is dragged across the floor; Tori pushes hers to one side to make room, and he sits next to her.

Penny pretends to look stern. ‘You must learn to be punctual, Ben. How’s the training going?’

‘Good, thanks.’ He smiles, and as Penny smiles back, I see it in her eyes: Nurse’s pet. He’s not the least bit worried about being late, and neither is she. He is the favoured one.

Not surprising. He’s obviously been Slated longer than everyone here, except perhaps Tori. His smile is real rather than dazed, the sort of smile that makes you want to give one back. Training, Penny said: he is wearing shorts although it is a cool night; his legs are well muscled, a long sleeved T-shirt clings to his back and shoulders. His skin is a light bronze that says he is outside more than in. And Tori is smiling her first real smile of the night at Ben. It transforms her face: she is stunning.

‘Hello, are you the new girl? I’m Ben,’ he says, and I realise I’ve been staring. Colour climbs up my cheeks.

‘Kyla?’ Penny prompts, and I jump.

Tori rolls her eyes. ‘Yes, Ben, you’ve missed the introductions. Ben, this is Kyla; Kyla, this is Ben.’

‘Welcome,’ he says and smiles right into my eyes.

‘Thanks,’ I say and look at my feet.

‘Shall we get started, then?’ Penny says. She looks around the circle at every face, then stops on mine. ‘Kyla, why are you here? Why are we all here?’

I stare at her blankly.

The answer in my mind – because we have to be – may be factual, but isn’t the right answer. I’d worked out at the hospital Group that although it is meant to be a safe place where you can say anything, it is best not to be too honest. Too much honesty landed me several times in with Dr Lysander for a tinker in my brain that left me exhausted and fuzzy for days.

I smile widely and don’t answer. Nurses usually fall for that if they don’t know me too well.

‘Kyla, we are here to support each other in our transition from hospital to families and society,’ she says, answering her own question. ‘Now, why were you in hospital?’ She smiles brightly.

This is more interesting. I mean, I know what they did to me, in general terms. They wiped the synapses and linkages in my brain that added up to me: my personality, my memories. And I know the usual reasons Slating is done: danger to self or society being the most common. But I don’t know why they did it in my particular case. Is this in Nurse Penny’s files some place?

‘Well, Kyla?’ she says.

‘You tell me.’

Tori looks up, meets my eyes. Interest and amusement dance in hers.

Penny frowns. I’ve been to enough of these things to know no real answers will be forthcoming. Before she can react, I am saved by Ben putting up his hand.

‘We were given a new beginning,’ he says. As he smiles at me again, I feel a shock, a recognition: liquid brown eyes, dark hair pulled back that curls just past his ears, all somehow familiar. As if I already know him. I shake myself internally, force my eyes away.

‘Exactly,’ Penny says. ‘Now today, everyone, we are going to pick up where we left off last week. Does anyone remember what we were talking about to tell Kyla?’

She looks around but nobody volunteers.

‘We were talking about maintaining our levels. What is everyone right now?’

We dutifully check and call out. I am lowest at 4.8.

Penny looks concerned. ‘What are your strategies?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘If your levels are dropping. What do you do to bring them up again?’

‘Eat some chocolate. Hugs from people. Or, lately, stroke the cat.’

‘These are all external things to make you feel better. What about things inside yourself?’

Well, maybe we are actually going to learn something useful.

‘What level are we aiming for?’ She addresses the Group. Discussion follows and I tune out. I’ve heard it before, many times.

Level means between 5 and 6.

10 is complete joy; 1 is anger that could kill or misery so black you can’t move. If you go below 3 you are heading for la-la land: the Levo zaps the chip in your brain, and you black out like I did the other night. Just in case there are any violent impulses lurking within that Slating somehow missed, if you somehow drop below 2 without blacking out, it goes more than a zap. More like a barbeque. Seizures follow, and if you come around at all, you’ll be a drooling idiot.

Penny scans through files on her netbook, tsk tsking. ‘I see you have quite a history, of nightmares and blackouts. Let’s see if we can help Kyla with strategies. Everyone?’

She doesn’t seem to know anyone’s actual name. Doesn’t she know even Slateds don’t answer to ‘Everyone’?

She points at one after another for an answer, and I listen, interested despite myself.

A range of suggestions follow; some I already use.

Distraction: focus on something else. Repeating times tables, counting tiles on the floor. Ben runs: I know that one. I used to spend hours on the treadmill at the hospital gym, until feelings fade away and all that exists is the thump-thump of feet. Or my other version: organising the unknown into faces made up of lines and shade, drawing maps of corridors and doors and everything between to create boundaries. Is that why I do it?

Visualisation: go some other place in your mind. A ‘Happy Place’, in nurse-speak.

Transference: put your feelings on someone else.

Dissociation: become somebody else, leave your feelings behind.

I’m becoming an expert at that one.

Aren’t we all?

Later Penny tells us to split into small groups, to practise conversation. Today’s assigned topic: to talk about our families.

And everyone begins to move their chairs around into twos and threes, without discussion: they all know where they belong. I hesitate, unsure what to do, then jump as a warm hand rests on my shoulder: Ben. He leans over.

‘Join us?’ he says, smiles, and I find myself staring up into his eyes. Close up there are warm gold flecks mixed in with the brown: they’d be a challenge to paint, to get the colours mixed right, and—

Amusement crosses his face. ‘Well?’

‘All right,’ I say, and stand. His hand drops from my shoulder, and he lifts my chair and puts it next to Tori, then pulls his to sit opposite us both.

Tori’s eyes narrow. She starts to say something but stops as Penny comes over to join us.

Soon I learn that Ben’s dad is a teacher, his mum is an artist and works in the workshop at the Dairy; Tori’s dad is a councillor in London, and she stays with her mum in the country. He’s just home some weekends and the way she says it, sounds like she thinks it is a good thing. At seventeen they are both a year older than me, and know Amy from school. The same school I’ll be going to as soon as they let me.

‘Where’d you really come from then?’ Tori demands as soon as Penny moves out of earshot to see how the next group is getting along.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Where were you, before here.’

‘At the hospital. I just got out last Sunday.’

‘I don’t believe you.’

‘Tori,’ Ben interrupts. ‘Play nice.’

She smirks at him. ‘There is no way she was just released, the way she talks. You know it as well as I do. We’ve both been out more than three years; you know how the new ones are.’

‘I was in hospital longer than most,’ I say. ‘Because of nightmares.’

‘How long?’

‘Nine months, or so they tell me.’

‘Even so. You’re different.’

And I want to protest, argue. My mouth half opens, but then shuts again. There is the proof. Most Slateds would just smile and agree with anything you said to them. What is the point in denying what is so obviously true?

I shrug. ‘So what if I am?’

‘Ah ha!’ Tori says.

Ben leans forward, searches my eyes with interest. ‘What is wrong with being different?’

Tori scowls, then Ben gives her a hug and the scowl goes.

‘Want to meet up with us on Sunday?’ Ben looks at me, his arm still across Tori’s shoulders. ‘We’re going to the county show.’

Tori looks both surprised and annoyed.

‘I don’t know. I’ll have to check if I’m allowed.’

She rolls her eyes. ‘Sure. Whatever.’

And I get the distinct impression that if I want to get along with Tori, I’ll need to keep well clear of Ben. And somehow, I don’t think that’s what I want to do.

Penny corners me as everyone is leaving.

‘Kyla, stay. I want to talk to you alone.’

She waits until the last one goes, then sits next to me.

‘I heard about your blackout a few nights ago. I need to check your Levo.’

She pulls out a handheld scanner, like the ones in hospital but smaller, and plugs it into her netbook. She holds it over my Levo and graphs flash across the netbook screen.

‘Oh my God.’

‘What?’

‘Look, Kyla. See for yourself.’ She touches the screen, selects a graph marked 15/09. A whole section of it, in the early hours of Tuesday morning, is in the red. She touches the points and numbers appear on the screen.

‘Kyla, you were 2.3. That is too close. What happened?’

I stare back at her. Just 0.3 away from not waking up at all. My stomach twists.

‘Well?’

‘I don’t know. I had a nightmare, that’s all. I didn’t wake up. Next thing I knew the paramedics were there, injecting me with Happy Juice. I still have the headache to prove it.’

‘Your Levo isn’t affected by dreams, you know that. It is when you wake up afterwards.’

I shrug. ‘I don’t remember waking.’

‘What was the dream?’

‘I don’t remember,’ I lie.

She sighs.

‘I just want to help you, Kyla. You’re not due for your first hospital check until the weekend after next, but maybe we should move it up to this one.’

‘No! I just need—’ how do I put this in nurse friendly words? ‘—I need distraction, to fill my time and my mind. Can I starting going to school? Please.’

She leans back, and looks in my eyes as if searching for something.

‘It’s too soon. You need to get used to things at home, first. And—’

‘Please.’ I don’t say what I am thinking, that it is being home all day alone with Mum – the Dragon – that worries me. These last days in bed with her and Sebastian my only company made even my nightmares seem good.

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