Page 20 of Slated (Slated #1)

‘Because if it was, we’d have been the first to go.’

I stare back at him in shock. Out of habit I check my Levo, but it is all right – still up from running, at nearly 7 – but my skin is reacting to what he said, crawling like little spiders. I shiver. He’s right. We’ve talked about Tori being returned, and those others taken from Assembly, and questioned what is going on. Much worse than anything Phoebe did or said.

But no matter what, I still have the horrible feeling that somehow it must be my fault. Because of Mrs Ali: she said she didn’t like hearing things from other sources. She must have heard something about Phoebe, and, somehow, it is connected up with me.

‘I found out something else,’ Ben says. ‘Why someone took your cat to Phoebe. She looks after loads of animals, injured ones; for people who can’t pay the vet. She has a way with them.’

Who will care for them now?

‘Let’s run,’ I say, and take off again.

We overshoot the village hall where Group is starting soon, and keep going. And as my feet pound again and again on the ground and my body pushes past tired and into exhaustion, I think of all the things I didn’t tell Ben. About Lucy Connor, the girl reported missing; about Robert – Robby – who survived the bombs, but is still on the memorial.

We finally turn back for Group. ‘We’re going to be late,’ I say.

‘Are we?’ Ben shrugs. He’s always late. But somehow I’m not sure Nurse Penny’s special dispensation for his time-keeping will spill over to me.

We race into the hall fifteen minutes late.

‘I was about to call your mum,’ Nurse Penny says to me, a hand on each hip. No word to Ben.

‘Sorry! It’s all my fault,’ Ben says. ‘I took us around the long way; we didn’t have enough time to get back.’

She thaws and smiles at Ben. ‘Oh all right then, sit down you two. We were just beginning to go through everyone’s goals for the next few months, all right?’

I tune out while she goes around the Group. My goals: keep as far as possible from Lorders, and stay out of trouble. And find out what happened to Phoebe an insistent voice whispers in my mind.

When she gets to me I’m so preoccupied I don’t notice until Ben nudges my shoulder.

Penny frowns. ‘Try to stay with us, Kyla. Perhaps the running is too much for you. Now, do you have any goals you’d like to share?’

Not many; not out loud. But what I finally say has echoes of my thoughts: do well at school, and stay out of trouble.

Group is finally over.

‘Take care,’ Ben says, squeezes my hand, and leaves to run home. I watch him go and wish I could follow.

The others trickle out; I head for the door, but Penny calls out. ‘Wait, Kyla. I want a word with you.’

So I turn back. ‘Yes?’

‘Is everything all right?’

‘It would be good if people didn’t constantly ask me if everything is all right!’ I snap, without thinking. I colour up. ‘I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.’ She might be one of the ones keeping tabs on my every word, my every thought.

She sighs. ‘Sit down, Kyla.’

I sit.

She shuts her netbook, sits next to me.

‘I’m on your side,’ she says. And her words are so much like Mrs Ali’s, I draw back. But she looks distressed. ‘Don’t, Kyla. Don’t look frightened of me like that. Off the record, we can talk off the record. Do you understand? I’m not running back to somebody with everything you say. You can trust me.’

Despite everything, I believe she means what she says. But who knows what she might do for my own good?

‘So tell me. It is all over your face; something is wrong. What is it?’ she asks.

Though maybe, I can get information. ‘It’s just this girl was taken from school today. By Lorders. I knew her, that’s all.’

‘Oh dear. What happened?’

‘Two of them went into class and marched her out. She was seen getting pushed into a black van.’

‘Do you know why?’

‘I’m not sure. It might be some things she said.’

‘There is more to this story, isn’t there,’ she says, then holds up a hand. ‘But don’t tell me! This girl: how old was she?’

‘I don’t know. She was in my class at school.’

‘Year 11?’

I nod.

‘Listen, Kyla. This is very important. Don’t ask questions, keep out of it.’ She grips my shoulders between her hands tight, and stares into my eyes. ‘This is for your own good. Do you understand me?’

‘Y-y-yes,’ I say.

All at once she lets go. Smiles brightly. ‘See you again next Thursday! Have a good week, my dear.’

She marches out; I turn and Mum is at the back of the hall. I walk over to her and she raises an eyebrow.

‘Is everything all right?’

‘Yes, fine,’ I say. Then, with sudden inspiration, add: ‘We were a little late from running. She was just telling me off.’

Mum frowns. ‘Punctuality is important, Kyla.’ And she carries on a lecture all the way home.

The next afternoon, Year 11 students file in for Assembly, just like every Friday afternoon. But it feels different this week.

Everyone is carefully putting their feet in front of each other. There is little conversation, no jostling, no weekend plans made. The Head isn’t even here yet. But everyone knows about Phoebe, and they are scared.

No one talked if they knew I was listening, of course; but I’d heard snatches and whispers all day. Somehow her disappearance was more troubling than Tori’s, or those others from Assembly last week. Everyone could see why they went. But Phoebe mostly kept her unpleasant self to herself; she didn’t congregate illegally, or mouth off to authority; not like the others who disappeared.

When Rickson walks through the door, two Lorders behind him, the room is already hushed. He scans the crowd: every eye is forward; every back, straight.

‘Good afternoon, Year 11,’ he says, and smiles, clearly pleased.

The Assembly is short. When it is over, the Lorders once again stand by the exit at the back. They watch, staring at each face in turn as we file out.

No shoulders are grabbed, no one pulled aside.

This time.

Jazz is driving today; I reach his car before Amy. She appears around the side of the building. Jazz spots her, and waves; then turns to me.

‘A quick word before Amy gets here,’ he says, his voice low.

‘What?’

‘Mac wants to see you; he said he’ll let me know when next week sometime. And not to say anything, to anybody. All right?’

Amy is there before I can respond; he turns, hugs her and yanks the car door open. I try not to shake while I climb in the backseat.

Mac and his very illegal computer; his missing persons website, with Lucy – me? – on it. He trusts me to keep quiet, as he said. To say nothing. Mac has done well and beyond what Phoebe and other students have disappeared for, and he is too old to Slate. What would happen to him if it is found out?

I wish he wouldn’t trust me. Whatever he wants to see me about: I don’t want to know.

CHAPTER TWENTY NINE

* * *

I want to run.

Waves of panic rise up, inside; increasing the closer we get to the hospital. The traffic isn’t so bad, today; Mum is trying a different way. She said it is further to drive but might be quicker. In, out; in, out: I concentrate on breathing, and the roads. Memorising the grid, laying it out in my mind to distract myself from thinking about Dr Lysander.

She sees all. If I don’t volunteer something of interest, she will probe until she finds a scab I’d rather wasn’t picked. But today it isn’t just my concerns I need to protect, but more: Mac. Ben. Lucy, too: me/Lucy a separate being inside I want to shelter from inquisition, but she is here. A shadow, a ghost; following along next to me, matching my steps.

Soon we’re approaching from the other side, new to my eyes but the hospital looks much the same: high fences. Guard towers at regular intervals. I automatically chart the dimensions, the numbers. The exits, and gates. A delivery van is waved through one as we pass; we carry on around the perimeter to the same gate we’ve used before.

We wait in a queue; they are looking under cars with mirrors, having everyone get out and scanned while cars are searched.

‘There must be an alert,’ Mum says, and I jump. She’s been silent most of the way today, leaving my thoughts to fester as they will. I study her: there are shadows under her eyes. She looks tired, and drawn. The phone rang last night I remember now. Very late but I’d been awake; heard her steps above me, the murmur of her voice.

‘Is everything all right?’ I ask.

She half smiles. ‘I should be asking you that, shouldn’t I?’

We move up another space as a car ahead gets through: two more to go.

‘I asked first,’ I say.

‘You did. But this isn’t the place to discuss it. On the way home, all right?’

Another space forward. So something is wrong, and she is going to tell me about it, but in front of Lorders isn’t the place.

‘Don’t tell me any secrets,’ I say in a rush. ‘I’m not sure I can keep them.’

She laughs. ‘I’ll keep that in mind.’

Forward, again. We’re not waved through this time; now it is our turn. There is a swarm of Lorders about, more than I’ve seen in one place before. In black for operations, not grey suits; with vests, and weapons. Tense. Not that they ever look relaxed exactly, but today, tension radiates off them.

We get out of the car and are scanned, head to toe, while a few others quickly go over the car. Again I can’t help my reaction, the fear that floods through me with their proximity. But they don’t seem to notice. We get pushed back into the car and are through.

‘What is all that about?’ I ask.

‘Don’t worry, Kyla. There is probably some concern about an attack, but they’ll handle things. They always do.’

I study her face. The way she said that didn’t sound right. Like Lorders always handling things isn’t good, but something else, entirely.

Imagination, Kyla. Get a grip.

‘Come!’ Dr Lysander calls out. Her voice is familiar, clear without being loud. She doesn’t have to raise it: she is used to being obeyed without question.

As usual mine is the only occupied seat in her waiting area, with Mum off for tea with a nurse she knows. I stand and go through the door, glad to escape: two Lorders are standing in the hall.

‘Good morning, Kyla,’ she says. Dr Lysander, unlike Mum and the Lorders – me too, for that matter – looks unruffled. Calm. Her usual self as she always is, and always will be. Her dark eyes are analytical, but not unkind; she is detached, yet in the moment.

I find myself smiling back at her, feeling strangely reassured. Danger, take care a voice whispers inside.

‘You look happy to see me today.’

‘I am,’ I say, and sit opposite her desk.

Her face softens. ‘Well, that is nice I suppose, but why?’

I shrug. ‘You are always you. The same.’

She raises an eyebrow. ‘I’m not sure I should be pleased with that observation. Though it is mostly accurate.’ She glances at her computer, taps at the screen. ‘So. If you are finding continuity a comfort today, are there changes or potential changes that are troubling you?’ She fixes her eyes on me.

There is nowhere to hide. Tell the truth, just not too much of it a voice whispers again. I blink.

‘I was scared coming into the hospital today,’ I admit.

‘Of?’

‘All the security. Last time we came there were roadblocks, and today they were searching cars.’

She tilts her head to one side a moment, as if listening to her thoughts. ‘It is perhaps a reasonable thing to fear. You understand about the AGT – the Anti Government Terrorists? There was some intelligence that another attack is planned on the hospital. They are being careful.’

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