Page 16 of Slated (Slated #1)

But something draws my eyes, makes me turn to look at the memorial and all the carved names. The one at the top suddenly jumps out as if someone had shouted it out loud.

Robert Armstrong.

I gasp and pull away. Ben lets go.

‘What is it?’ he says.

I step up to the memorial, and feel along the letters. Amy told me Mum had a son named Robert, who died. Before she married Dad, her name was Armstrong.

Robert Armstrong.

Is it her son? My…brother?

‘Kyla, what’s wrong?’

But I shake my head; I can’t tell him, though I see the disappointment. His face says don’t you trust me? Amy made me promise to never mention Robert, so how can I?

The afternoon passes in a blur. My levels manage to stay up in the 5s still from running, but my thoughts are in turmoil. How could Mum have me – Amy, too – if her son was killed by terrorists? And years before, her parents were, as well. To get Slated you had to have done something really bad. What if I was a terrorist?

That night at dinner is weird. Mum seems to keep staring at me, catching me out. To sit up straighter; to eat my broccoli, which no matter how I try makes me gag; to answer inane questions about school. Maybe she is watching for me to slip up enough so she can send me back. Return me, like Tori.

Amy has to study for a maths test; I jump to wash up. I will do everything exactly right. I concentrate: stack the plates, wipe the counters. Wash each dish with extreme care, and…

‘What is with you tonight?’

I spin round and knock a glass off the side; it smashes on the floor. Splinters fly everywhere. Mum sighs and I scamper for the dust pan and brush in the cupboard.

‘I’m sorry,’ I say, and kneel down to brush the shards on to the pan.

‘Kyla, it is just a glass. It’s no big deal. Now, are you going to tell me what is wrong?’ And I look at Mum, really look at her: and she isn’t the Dragon, at least not for now. Her face is troubled, not angry, and she reaches out a hand to help me stand up. ‘What is it, hmmm?’

I can feel pricking at the back of my eyes and blink furiously, but it’s no good.

‘Well?’

‘I hate broccoli,’ I say, and burst into tears. But that isn’t why I am crying, is it? It is more that I hated broccoli the first time I tasted it, here, just days ago. As soon as it was in my mouth, I gagged: my body recognised it. If I always hated it – even before I was Slated – I’m not a new person, no matter that they say I am. If I’m not a new person, whatever I may have done is still there, still part of me, hidden someplace inside. And while my brain is turning these thoughts over, the rest of me is busy crying, in great gulping, hiccupy sobs – like my body and my brain aren’t connected, they don’t go together. And I don’t understand why.

My Levo starts to vibrate; Mum curses under her breath. Drags me into the lounge and on to the sofa. Fetches Sebastian and makes me hot chocolate. Sits next to me, rubs my shoulder while Sebastian purrs on my lap. Her face a question that does not understand, but says nothing.

‘I’m too much trouble; you’re going to want to send me back,’ I finally say into the silence.

‘What? Of course not. What do you mean?’

And I tell her about Tori being returned. And there is no surprise on her face.

‘Tori was the pretty girl with Ben at the show, right?’

I nod. ‘What happened to her?’

She hesitates.

‘Please tell me.’

‘I honestly don’t know,’ she says but some part of me can see, she agrees with Ben’s and my conclusions: nothing good. ‘But her mum might not have had anything to do with it.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘She was pretty lippy. Somebody else might have heard stuff she said, decided she wasn’t fulfilling her contract, you see? She wasn’t grateful enough for being given a second chance.’

‘Somebody, like who? Is everyone around me spying on me all the time?’ I look side to side as if unseen eyes and ears are behind the furniture.

‘It’s not as bad as that, Kyla,’ she says gently. ‘A few will make regular reports: your teachers, your nurse. Dr Lysander, I suppose.’

‘Do you report on me? Does Dad?’

‘Of course. It is part of what we agreed to when we took you and Amy. But don’t worry: I would never say anything that would cause them concern. Understand?’

Was it my imagination, or did she stress the ‘I’ of that sentence?

‘Kyla, listen to me: I’m not going to send you back. All right? I wouldn’t do that.’

‘No matter what?’

‘No matter what. And I won’t make you eat broccoli again, either.’

Later that night, lying in bed, Sebastian a long band of warmth stretched out against my back, purring, it is hard to remember what had me so upset I cried. But I could tell, like with not liking broccoli, like being able to drive. Like drawing better with my left hand. And the way I cried, in great gulpy sobs. I didn’t know how to cry, I wasn’t good at it: it wasn’t something I did.

Whoever Kyla is, there is another person hiding away. And it is her I am afraid of, most of all.

First, there is the sound.

Scrape, thump; scrape, thump. Like something metallic drawn across a coarse surface, or a shovel pushed into sand, lifted and dumped, again and again.

I open my eyes.

Not a shovel but a trowel: scooping rough mortar, slapping it down on the top row of bricks, high above me.

Scrape, thump; scrape, thump.

Bricks form a circle pattern, a wall, all around. If I reach out my hands mere inches, side to side, front to back, all I can touch are roughly built round walls. And it is getting higher, row by row. The only light is a dim circle high above, and getting dimmer.

I’m in a tower, with no windows, no doors. The top of the walls is high above me, and – scrape, thump; scrape, thump – getting further away by the second.

Abruptly the circle of light disappears. The sound ceases.

Panic swirls inside, and turns to anger. I strike at the walls, kicking and punching, again and again; until I collapse against it, unable to sit down in the confined space, bare feet, hands and knees bruised and bloody.

‘Let me out!’ I howl.

My eyes snap open. Staring back at me are two circles of reflected light. They blink: Sebastian?

I sit up, switch on the bedside light. Sebastian is next to me on the bed, his fur standing on end, his tail puffed out; on my arm is a neat row of even scratches, welling up red.

‘Did you wake me?’ I whisper, and reach out a tentative hand, lightly stroke him. He may have saved me a blackout. Did he somehow know, or did he just scratch because I flailed at him in my dream?

Soon his fur settles down, he flops beside me and purrs. My heart rate slows; my Levo eases up from mid 3s to almost 5 over time, but I don’t close my eyes. The light is staying on.

I am afraid of the dark.

CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE

* * *

‘Your chariot?’ Jazz says, and bows.

Since the deal with Amy seeing Jazz involves her not being alone with him, it looks like I won’t be taking the bus with Ben after school so much any more. I climb into the back.

No seat belt. Amy and Jazz get in the front, and I sigh and brace myself as Jazz lurches out of the school grounds and along the main road, then exits down a lane. Not going straight home?

‘I’ve got a surprise for you, Kyla,’ Jazz says, looking more in the mirror at me in the backseat than at the road.

‘Watch it!’ Amy says, and he brakes hard, just in time to avoid sheep crossing the road. A farmer glares; even his dog seems to glare. The sheep amble across with blank expressions.

‘Whoops.’ Jazz waves, mouths sorry at the farmer.

‘What’s the surprise?’ Amy says when we start off again.

‘Mac’s found a reclaimed seat belt to fix up in the back.’

‘Hurrah!’ I say, with real enthusiasm. Try to stay on the road in the meantime I think, but don’t say out loud.

Jazz does pay a little more attention to where he is going after the nearly hitting sheep incident, and I relax, just a little. My eyelids start to close on their own, so tired after last night’s dream and the effort of staying awake after it. Every time my eyes drifted close I felt brick walls settle around me. Now my head droops forward against the seat in front, and images jumble around in my mind: the monument, Robert Armstrong carved on it, the tower…

‘Try to stay awake,’ Amy says, and I jump.

‘See: my driving’s not so bad, if passengers can actually nap,’ Jazz says.

Mac pulls the back seat out of the car.

‘Shall we go for a walk?’ Jazz says, and winks at Amy. ‘But perhaps you are too tired,’ Jazz says to me, pointedly.

‘Yes, you look tired,’ Amy says. ‘We won’t be long.’ They start walking away, heading for a footpath sign down the road.

‘If you don’t want me to come, why don’t you just say so?’ I say at their retreating heads.

Mac looks out from the back of the car and laughs. ‘Get yourself a drink if you want.’

‘No, thanks,’ I say, remembering his homemade beer from the last time.

‘There are soft drinks in the fridge,’ he says, with a smirk that says he knows exactly what I just thought. ‘Go on, have a snack if you want, whatever. Put the TV on. They’ll probably be a while.’ He laughs again.

Translation: don’t stand there and watch me work on this pile of junk car.

Fine. I wander back into his house. Sure enough, in the fridge are drinks that look more innocuous than the brown bottles in the cupboard. I am hungry, after running a few thousand laps at lunch today to keep my levels up. Ben came along, and didn’t ask why I ran. Maybe he is giving up asking me things when I don’t answer.

I find cheese, and thick cut uneven bread: homemade? I stick my head out the door and yell: ‘You want a sandwich?’

‘Sure,’ comes back. ‘I’ll be in in a bit.’

So I make a few sandwiches. I’m not big on TV, but I put it on and flick through all three channels. BBC1 is some stupid comedy show with a laughing track that makes little sense to me; BBC2 is a gardening program about increasing allotment production; BBC3 is news and weather. I watch it while I eat. Rain is coming the next few days. This autumn’s harvest figures are up. Some bit on neighbourhoods in London. They show footage of roads I’ve seen on the way to and from the hospital, but they don’t look the same. The burnt out buildings: they’re not there. No guards, either.

‘You look thoughtful.’ Mac stands in the doorway.

‘Well, it’s just that I’ve been down that road, and it looks different on TV: it is cleaner, neater. Different.’

Mac raises an eyebrow, sits down. ‘They mostly only put happy places and people on the news.’

I frown. ‘Well, that isn’t really news then, is it. People aren’t always happy. That building – look, there – it was a shell when we drove past, a week ago. It hasn’t been fixed up that quick.’

Mac picks up a sandwich. ‘Ah, but it looks prettier this way, don’t it.’

‘That’s stupid.’

‘It certainly is.’ He laughs again.

And I look back at Mac, chewing his sandwich. He doesn’t look or talk like adults usually do. Well, he isn’t that old, I suppose.

‘What? Ask whatever is in that brain of yours,’ he says, an amused look on his face.

‘Did you bake this bread?’

‘Yes.’

‘Do you cut your own hair?’

‘Yes.’

‘How old are you?’

‘Twenty-two.’

Not that old then, younger than I guessed. Six years older than me. And a thought grabs me: six years older than me. The memorial at school was from six years ago.

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