‘Did you go to Lord Williams’ School?’ I say, the words coming out without thought. It must be the lack of sleep.
‘Did you know Robert Armstrong?’
He looks levelly back at me, and something passes over his face. The laughing leaves his eyes. He gets up and grabs one of those brown bottles out of the cupboard and sits down again.
‘Yes, I did. He was a friend of mine,’ he says, quietly, as he flicks off the cap with an opener.
‘Was he my…brother?’
He shrugs, takes a drink from the bottle. ‘Depends how you look at things, I guess. He was the son of the mum you’ve got now.’
The mum I’ve got now. Not my original. Interesting way to put it, but everyone insists she is Mum to me.
I open my mouth to ask about Robert, but he puts up a hand. ‘Enough questions out of you for a minute: you answer a few of mine. Why’d you ask about Robby?’
And I stare back at him, not sleepy any more, and a bit scared. Robby, not Robert: he was real; an actual person. Somehow I know these are dangerous topics. Why did I start?
‘It’s all right,’ he says. ‘Tell me.’
And there is something about Mac, that makes me think I trust you, so I do tell him, surprised that I dare. About how I’d been fascinated with the memorial; couldn’t stop thinking about all those students, just fifteen and sixteen, who died on that bus. And that I had a nightmare about it, then saw the name: Robert Armstrong. But didn’t know for sure who he was.
‘You, young lady, are an interesting creature,’ he says.
‘I’m not a creature!’
He laughs. ‘Sorry. You’ve been Slated, yet unlike that brainless imp young Jazz is currently trying to defile on a field someplace, you seem to still have an actual mind of your own.’
‘Amy’s not brainless! And she’s not…er…’ And I don’t know what to say, as I have no idea what she and Jazz are getting up to. And I have an uncomfortable feeling I’m supposed to be minding them and am failing in my duties.
He laughs again. ‘All right, she’s not stupid; that isn’t what I mean. She just doesn’t question anything.’
Oh. So we’re back to Kyla is different.
He leans forward in his chair, laughter gone again and dead serious. ‘But there is a very important question I have for you.’
‘It is one thing to ask questions, but what will you do with the answers?’
‘I suppose, I’m trying to figure things out; to understand them. Just for myself.’
He nods. ‘Just for yourself: that is the important thing, Kyla. You must keep your questions inside most of the time, take care who you ask. And the answers, all of the time. Can you do that? Can you keep things to yourself?’
He leans back in his chair, has a drink of his beer. ‘Well, fire away. What do you want to know?’
I swallow. I want to know what happened that day. But do I? I deflect.
‘What was he like, then: your Robby.’
‘Just a bloke like most of the rest of us, I guess. Serious, a bit shy. And smart: he was into science and stuff. Quite the most amazing thing about him was that he had the most beautiful girl in school as his girlfriend. Couldn’t work that one out.’
‘Did they report what happened on the news? It wouldn’t have been pretty.’
‘True. But they do report stuff like that: they just say how the inhuman evil Anti Government Terrorists casually slaughtered innocent school children as part of their ongoing campaign of terror.’
‘Is that what happened?’
‘Not exactly. The AGT tried to bomb Lorder offices; the bus got in the way. They died. Don’t imagine they meant for it to happen.’
‘But it still happened. They still killed Robert, and all those other students,’ I say, outraged. It doesn’t matter what they were trying to do. They may have been trying to kill other people, who may or may not have deserved it; not a bus load of kids. But they still did it.
‘Yes, and no.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Robby didn’t die on the bus.’
‘What? But he is on the memorial; it says he did. How do you know?’
‘I was there.’
I stare back at Mac, horrified. I hadn’t asked the most important question, as it turned out; I didn’t know to ask it. Though maybe I should have worked it out for myself.
My Levo vibrates.
‘Are you all right, Kyla?’
I look down, 4.3. I shrug. ‘At the moment. Got any chocolate?’
‘Is that all it takes?’
He finds some and I eat it, focus on the sweetness; on breathing, and think myself out of it. My levels climb back up to near 5.
‘I’m sorry,’ I say. ‘I can’t help it.’
‘That must really suck.’
‘If I get angry about it, it just makes things worse.’
‘I can relate to that.’
I breathe in deep. ‘Please. Can you tell me what really happened?’
‘Can you take it?’
‘I think so.’
So he does. He was near the front of the bus; it was the back that got hit mostly. He remembers the sounds, the smoke, people screaming then not screaming, much like my dream. He says he just had a slight head injury, and got hauled out. Robert was standing there too, being restrained, screaming Cassie, Cassie, over and over again: his girlfriend’s name. He looked unhurt. Then Mac passed out.
Later in hospital they questioned him about what he’d seen that day. He told them he couldn’t remember anything. That he got knocked out, even though he didn’t lose consciousness until later. They seemed to believe him. He got out of hospital, and was told who died: Cassie and Robert were on the list.
‘But if Robert wasn’t hurt, what happened to him?’
‘I don’t know for sure. I was too scared to ask.’
And in the way he looks away, the shadows that cross his face, I see the shame that never goes away. That he lives. That he never told the world about Robert. And, something else: he knows. There is some part of this story he keeps back.
He gets up, and opens a drawer: hands me a photo.
‘There they are: Robby, and Cassie.’
I can see Mum in him: the same square jaw, curly hair. An average boy with his arm around a girl who was something else: beautiful. Perfect skin, heart shaped face, silky honey hair. Perfect, that is, until she was on the wrong bus, on the wrong day.
‘But what happened to him? Tell me.’
‘I tried to find him on missing persons websites a while back, but never did. Guess no one reports you missing if they think you are dead.’
‘You think you know what happened to him.’
He hesitates. ‘I think he was Slated.’
I stare back, unable to take it in. ‘Slated? He couldn’t have been. That is only for criminals.’
‘Sure it is. Why are so many kids missing, then? What happens to them, really? Look: he was so traumatised by what happened, they probably thought to make him a useful citizen he had to be Slated. That he wouldn’t get over it any other way. They were trying to help him.’
Though I can tell by Mac’s face he thinks this is wrong. I don’t know what to think. Missing kids? I can’t process what he is saying. Could Slating really be used on children who aren’t criminals?
‘What are these missing persons websites? I’ve never heard of them before.’
‘Listen, Kyla: this is very important. Very high on the Cannot Be Mentioned List: this must be a secret.’
I follow him to a back room. It’s a mess with clothes and junk everywhere, but then I see when he moves some stuff it is all just hiding a computer.
‘This is a bit – a lot – illegal,’ he says. ‘Not government kit: hush, hush.’
And he shows me. There are all sorts of underground websites that the Lorders can’t control, run from outside the UK: in Europe, and the US. Missing persons are just one type of website, and there are so many missing, of all ages. But especially, children.
‘How old are you?’ he asks.
He starts tapping away. Sixteen – female – blond – green eyes.
‘What are you doing?’
‘I’m just going to show you the scale of it.’
Images flash up on the page; dates when last seen, names, ages: thirty-six hits all up. And I start scanning down the page. So many girls: most in their teens when they disappeared. What could have happened to all of them?
‘Holy crap,’ Mac says.
‘Look at number thirty-one,’ he says, and I scan down. He clicks on the photo, and it enlarges: a pretty child, gap toothed grin. Big green eyes, fine palest blond hair; in jeans and a pink T-shirt, holding a grey kitten in her arms. Underneath it says Lucy Connor, disappeared from school in Keswick, Cumbria, age 10.
‘She looks a little like me,’ I say, slowly.
‘She looks a lot like you,’ Mac says. He clicks on a link that says ‘predict appearance now’.
The screen changes to a teenage version of Lucy. That face; those eyes. No. It can’t be. I look at Mac, then back to the screen, half expecting her to be gone, that I imagined what I saw. But she is still there, staring back at me. I’m skinnier, maybe; her hair is longer. Otherwise it is like looking into a mirror.
‘She doesn’t just look like you. She is you.’
It’s the shock, I suppose. My levels don’t go down, they stay at about 5, but I stare at the image on the screen. Stare and try to take it in, but cannot. I start to shake.
Where’ve I been since I was ten?
Vaguely I’m aware of Mac shutting the computer down, taking my hand and leading me into the front room.
‘Sit,’ he says. ‘Drink this.’ And he puts a small glass in my hand. I drink it back; it burns.
I cough. ‘What is that?’
‘Whisky. It’s good for shock.’
It starts to send warmth out through my body. We hear voices coming up the path.
He kneels in front of me, and holds a finger to his lips. ‘Not a word, Kyla. We’ll talk about this another time. Promise?’
‘Not a word. I promise.’
‘Good girl,’ he says, and takes the glass.
Amy and Jazz come in through the front door. She looks happy enough, not defiled as far as I can tell. No grass in her hair or anything; they’re just holding hands.
‘Sorry we were gone for so long,’ she says, as we head for the car. ‘Hope you weren’t bored.’
‘Belt up?’ Jazz says, and I do up the new – reclaimed from a wreck – seat belt.
Mac comes out and waves; the car lurches up the lane, and he is soon out of sight behind us.
Green trees blue sky white clouds green trees blue sky white clouds…
That evening I plead homework and hole up in my room.
Sebastian usually comes up with me after dinner, but there is no sign of him tonight, and I miss his company.
Lucy had a kitten.
There is pain inside if I look at her too close in my mind. She looked so happy in that photograph, arms full of squirming kitten. What happened to take her away from that life?
Lucy is a she, not an I: I can only think about her in the third person, as something separate and distinct from myself. Anyhow, maybe it is all some stupid coincidence. She can’t be me; she just looks like me. That computer generated version of Lucy at sixteen is all guessing, anyhow. She might look completely different by now.
But still her laughing eyes are imprinted on my mind and won’t go away; they need out. I jump up, grab a sketch pad. Pencil in my left hand. And I start to draw, only half paying attention to the scratch across the page as my mind whirls with the possibility of Lucy.