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Mum squints at me as we walk into the show. ‘Are the crowds too much for you, Kyla?’ she asks, and slips her arm across my shoulders.

‘I’m fine,’ I say, and with Amy on one side and Mum on the other, soon I am. And I’m not sure what even bothered me in the first place.

The show is all noise, with people and animals everywhere. Rich country smells fill the air. I find I am quite content to stick close to Mum, even when Amy disappears with her friends.

There are endless displays and competitions of fruit and vegetables and baked goods made from same; crafts and wood carving; livestock of all sorts in pens and in rings. Mum seems to know almost everyone, and says a few words now and then as we go along.

‘Kyla! You made it,’ a voice calls from behind.

We turn, and there is Ben, and Tori. His smile is warm, but her hand is curled around his arm. This is mine, she is saying, and he is allowing it to be there.

Mum smiles. ‘Is that Ben? I haven’t seen you since Amy stopped going to Group. You’ve gotten taller.’

‘Yes, Mrs Davis.’

‘Good timing,’ Mum says, waving at someone. ‘Can you keep an eye on Kyla? I’m going to have a drink with a friend.’

I flush in embarrassment. Someone else asked to babysit.

‘Of course,’ Ben says. ‘We were just thinking of going to the Sheep Show, if you’d like to come?’

Tori rolls her eyes. ‘Oh, joy. It is billed as the Miss World of sheep. I can hardly wait.’

Mum raises an eyebrow. ‘You’d do well to take care with your words here today, young lady,’ she says, her own words now so quiet it is hard to hear them over all the voices and noise surrounding us. Then she disappears with her friend.

Tori’s mouth drops open. ‘Who does she think she is?’ she says, loud and bristly, ignoring Ben’s ssssh.

‘If you don’t know, little girl, then I’ll tell you,’ says a man standing behind us, who must have heard every word. ‘That is Sandra Armstrong-Davis.’

‘So?’ Tori says, a hand on each hip.

‘The daughter of William Adam M. Armstrong.’

Understanding starts to cross Tori’s face, but I am none the wiser.

‘What does he mean?’ I say, as we walk away.

‘Don’t you even know who your own mother is?’ Tori says.

I look up at Ben, confused.

‘She is the daughter of Wam the Man, who showed no mercy, and crushed the gangs back in the 2020s,’ he says. ‘He was the Lorder PM, before the terrorists blew him up.’

‘But I thought her parents died in a motorway accident,’ I say.

Tori laughs. ‘They did, if you call blowing up a motorway an accident.’

‘Are you all right?’ Ben asks, and links his other arm with mine. ‘This is all stuff that happened a long, long time ago. I figured you’d know all about it.’

‘I’m fine,’ I lie.

We go to the Sheep Show. There are a variety of attractive sheep – if you’re into that sort of thing – with interesting names, like Lady Gaga and Marilyn Monroe, all paraded about while their virtues are extolled, and then a prize ceremony. It seems so silly, that soon all of us – even Tori – are laughing and cheering along with the crowd. Marilyn wins.

Next is a sheep shearing demonstration. The ewe struggles at first. Then there is realisation in her eyes: this man pinning her down is too strong. She can do nothing but lie limply while sharp blades so close to her skin relieve her of her wool; nothing to keep her warm through the winter. Maybe that doesn’t matter as she is nearing the end of the line.

Wonder if she is visualising her Happy Place to get through it?

Mum and Amy find me there. ‘Ready to go?’ Mum asks, and I nod.

Leaving is easier than arriving; there are no security checks, and we just spill out a gate. But off to one side are a few men in grey suits, watching the exit. Checking faces, one by one, as everyone leaves. And as if they are standing in a collective blind spot, the crowd pretends they don’t exist.

Late that night I stare at the ceiling. Amy confirmed Mum’s family history. Why hadn’t anyone told me?

Maybe it is because they knew I’d connect the dots in a way Amy would not. Mum’s parents were killed by terrorists; her dad’s life work was routing out and annihilating gangs that almost destroyed this country, long before Slating was a treatment option. Back then they were all put to death.

Yet now she is fostering two Slateds. Two new daughters who were criminals, no matter what they remember now. Who could very well have been gang members, terrorists, or even both.

And just when I am starting to feel like maybe, at least some of the time, I understand her and what she is about, now this. I find I don’t get her, at all.

The other thing keeping me awake is those men in grey suits that everyone ignored. Somehow I couldn’t quite bring myself to ask who they were, but for some reason their mere presence filled me with cold dread and fear. So much so it was hard to even move. But some small kernel of self-preservation inside made me go on, screaming don’t make them notice you. Did I succeed? Amy had to help me walk when we arrived.

There is a slight sound, downstairs: Sebastian? He is not curled along my feet as usual; maybe, he can help me sleep. I slip out of bed and down the steps.

‘Sebastian?’ I call, softly, and walk into the dark kitchen, the floor cold under my bare feet. Goose bumps walk along my arms and up my spine.

I turn towards a movement, not so much a sound as a disturbance of air that is the wrong size and shape for a cat.

Light floods my eyes.

I open my mouth to scream.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

* * *

‘Are you sure you don’t want some tea?’ Dad asks.

‘I’m fine, really,’ I say, and back towards the door.

‘I didn’t mean to frighten you.’ He smiles, but it doesn’t quite reach his eyes. He looks very tired, like he hasn’t slept since he left yesterday. Rumpled like he hasn’t changed, either, but the black trousers and pullover he wears are not what he had on when he left for the pub.

For one so tired he moved very fast. Across the room, his hand had clamped swiftly over my mouth, stopping the scream that was working its way up my throat, so all that came out was a small strangled whimper.

He released me as soon as I stopped struggling. Once the dazzle left my eyes enough to see that it was him.

Now he seems to be thinking something over, then nods to himself.

‘Sit,’ he says, and puts two cups next to the kettle.

I sit.

He makes tea, unhurried. Glances at me now and then. For one normally so talkative, the silence stretches around us.

‘I am curious about a few things,’ he finally says.

‘Like what?’

‘First of all, why were you up?’

I shrug. ‘I couldn’t sleep.’

He stirs his tea, seems about to ask something else, then shakes his head slightly.

‘I see. Second question: why did you come downstairs?’

‘I was looking for Sebastian.’

He seems to consider this answer, then nods.

‘Third: why were you so scared when I turned on the light.’ He says it like a statement, not a question; one that he is trying to figure out.

‘I don’t know. You startled me,’ I answer, truthfully. Though maybe it had something to do with my dream: when I’m dazzled by the light, and can’t see who it is, and…

‘Speak what you just thought,’ he says, and I jump.

‘In my nightmare last week, a light shines in my eyes and I can’t see, and I’m really scared. I think that might be why,’ I say, all in a rush. Surprised to hear my voice answering the question, about the dream I’d told everyone else I couldn’t remember.

‘You blacked out then, didn’t you.’

I nod.

‘Yet, despite a fright just now, however silly, you’re not even low.’

‘No.’

My Levo is a quite contented 5.1.

‘Interesting,’ he says. Pauses, then smiles his usual happy smile. ‘Go to bed, Kyla. Aren’t you starting school tomorrow? You must get some rest.’

I dash upstairs, both relieved and confused; tea left untouched. What was that about? I’d almost felt like I was being interrogated. And I answered his questions more than I would have thought possible; almost felt compelled to do so. Nearly even told him about having my fingers smashed in my nightmare.

But for some reason I held that back. And I got the distinctly unpleasant feeling, that somehow, he knew I didn’t tell him everything. And despite his smile, he wasn’t happy about it.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

* * *

Monday morning at last.

‘I can’t imagine why you are so keen to go to school,’ Amy says. ‘It’s not that great.’

I pull on my uniform: white shirt, black trousers, and maroon jumper. Bought new on Friday when it became apparent that even Amy’s old ones were far too big for five foot nothing me.

‘I like learning things,’ I say, brushing my hair. Which is true, though not the whole answer. I want – no, need – to know everything. Every fact and detail I can find out and categorise, draw and file away, is one more step.

‘Well that is good, I guess. But it’s all the rest of it.’

‘What do you mean?’

Amy sighs. ‘It’s not like the hospital school. Not everyone will be nice.’

Mum is fussing about in the kitchen when we go down for breakfast. I look about, suddenly nervous that Dad will be here, or won’t be here, and what that might mean, either way. Did I dream the whole thing?

‘Keep it down,’ she says. ‘Dad got in late last night; he’s asleep.’

Not a dream.

Amy and I have cereal; finally Mum comes to sit with us.

‘Kyla, listen. Are you sure you want to go today? You don’t have to yet, you know.’

I look at her in surprise. She’d been happy to hear I was to start school, get out of her hair, she’d said, so she could get back to work herself.

‘Yes, I’m sure,’ I say.

‘Yesterday at the show, you seemed nervous about all the crowds of people. Lord Bill’s is a big school: there are over a thousand students. Are you sure you are up for this?’

‘Please let me go,’ I say, suddenly worried she won’t, and I’ll be home for days, that days will stretch into weeks. A long march of monotony to winter with no one to talk to and nothing to do.

She stares back, then shrugs. ‘All right. If you are sure this is what you want. Do you want me to drive you instead of getting the bus?’

‘No. I’ll be fine with Amy.’

I get up and start stacking the bowls.

‘Leave them. I’ll do it.’

Well.

I look at Amy. She smiles as Mum carries the dishes into the kitchen. ‘See, I told you she isn’t that bad,’ she whispers.

I get on the school bus, Amy behind; it’s nearly full.

Heads turn; ripples of low voices follow as we walk up the aisle. I feel eyes like footprints walking up my spine. There are two empty seats opposite each other. I move towards one of them, and the girl by the window narrows her eyes. She puts her bag across the empty seat.

Amy crosses her arms. The bus lurches as it pulls away from the curb, starts up the road, and I grab the back of the seat to stop myself falling over.

‘You know, I think that was a bit rude,’ Amy says.

The girl stares back at Amy and swings her feet up across the seat. Voices hush; eyes swivel and stare.

A hand waves at the back of the bus. ‘Kyla? There’s room here.’

I look across heads: it’s Ben. Relief fills me, to see a face I know. A safe place.

Amy still stares at the girl.

***

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