‘But you were monitoring it.’
‘Nico told me to.’
Nico: there is a flash of fear, inside. ‘Does he know?’
‘Not yet. Where are you going?’
I stay silent.
‘Well, wherever it is, I’m coming with you.’
I stalk back up the path. Maybe I can ditch the bike before we get too close, and slip away. Or maybe I can find the tracker and take it off.
But Katran, busted now, is staying close.
When we get to my bike, I turn to him. ‘Please don’t follow me. Wait here if you want to. I won’t be long, and we can go back together.’
‘I don’t need a babysitter!’
‘Yes, you do.’
I sigh, cornered; no choice but to tell him. ‘You know how you told me to remember who I am? Not to let go of things.’ He waits. ‘I’m going to see Ben.’
‘What? The one Tori keeps going on about?’
‘She hasn’t got things right. He and I were…close.’
‘But I thought he was dead.’
I shake my head. ‘He’s alive, and I’m going to see him.’
‘He’s been in touch?’
‘No. He doesn’t know I’m coming. He may not even be there today; it’s just a hunch.’
‘Don’t ask how I found him. I won’t tell you. But now you see why you can’t come with me?’
Katran’s face has so much emotion – worry and hurt, warring with anger – that before I know I am even moving, I am right up to him, a hand on his arm. ‘Katran? Are you all right?’
‘No.’ He sighs, ruffles his hair back with one hand. ‘Look. I’ll follow behind, stay out of sight. I’ll have your back in case anything goes wrong. That is the best I can do. All right?’
And it is so obviously against his better judgement, so much more than I could have expected of him, that I smile. ‘All right.’
I get on my bike, take the next few turns, and my memory has served me correctly: it is the right way. The sky is still dark when we reach the stretch I’m sure Ben will go running near his school. We hide our bikes, and wait in the trees, watching.
The darkness gives way to a dim lightening in the sky, bit by bit. No sign of him. My throat is tightening, and I’m just about to turn to Katran and say sorry, I must have got it wrong, when he grabs my arm.
‘Look,’ he breathes. Points up the hill from the path. A lone figure runs down it, the light behind him. I squint, unsure, and then – yes. It is him! The smile is wide on my face and my feet are scrabbling out of the woods and chasing down the path after his retreating figure.
Ben can run. Can he ever. I push the speed more and more. He must hear something, turns his head slightly to see who is behind; then turns forward and keeps going.
Perhaps he can’t tell it is me in this light. I push faster. ‘Wait up,’ I call softly. ‘Ben, wait.’
His pace slows, then becomes a walk.
I reach him.
‘Yes?’ he says.
I smile widely into his eyes, brown with golden glints. I grab his hand. He looks down at our hands. Half smiles.
The details start to penetrate. Something isn’t right.
‘Sorry. You’ve confused me with somebody else.’
‘No I haven’t.’ And I cling to his hand.
He shakes his head, pulls his hand away. ‘Sorry, I’m not Ben. If you’ll excuse me, I’ve only got a short time to finish my run.’ And he takes off. Runs away. Leaves me standing, watching him go, watching him run, and every movement he makes is my Ben. Tears begin to leak out of my eyes.
He doesn’t know who I am.
He doesn’t remember anything.
My stomach twists. He’s been re-Slated. It is the only answer. But he is seventeen. They’re not supposed to do that unless you are under sixteen. Why would they break their own rule for Ben?
He doesn’t know who I am.
I’m shaking, still standing on the path. Ben may turn and come back this way. With that thought, I stumble into the trees, and wait. Soon he appears in the distance. I watch as he runs closer, his usual graceful gait, then past in a blur back up the hill.
There are sounds in the woods behind me, but I stand still, watch Ben disappear into the light of the sunrise above.
‘Rain?’ A low voice: Katran.
I don’t turn, unwilling for him to see the tears on my face, unable to stop them. A warm hand touches my arm, pulls me around.
‘What is it?’
I shake my head, unable to speak. He hesitates, reaches a hand for my shoulder. He pulls me closer, his arms stiff at first then softening. And I sob, tell him that Ben doesn’t know who I am any more.
Finally he pushes me away, and looks in my eyes. ‘You’ve got to pull yourself together, and do it now. We’ve got to get out of here. It is getting too light; more people may come.’
He pulls me back through the woods to our bikes, and we head down the canal path. The cold air on my face stings my eyes, making it hard to see, while three words go over and over in my mind. They still don’t feel any more real.
Ben is gone.
Even though I was Slated, I got some of my memories back, because of what Nico did. But Ben won’t. It doesn’t work that way. It is like I never existed to him. Nothing that happened between us ever happened to him. He doesn’t know any of it.
Ben is gone.
My tears have stopped; all I am, is empty. There is nothing. No hope. No way out.
We get to the hide and I just stand there while Katran stuffs my bike in.
‘What were you thinking, going there?’ He is shaking his head: the usual Katran is back.
I stay silent. He pushes my shoulder, a challenge.
‘You tell Nico and the rest of us that you support Free UK, then you do something like this. Risky, Rain. What if I hadn’t been there to drag you away, and you got caught? They’d get things out of you. They have ways. You’d have them come down on all of us.’
Something twists and hardens, inside. ‘The Lorders took Ben from me once. Now they’ve done it again. He’s gone. That’s it. I’m done now. I’ll do anything to get back at them.’
‘You look like you mean it. Is this your one thing?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘The thing that finally pushes you over the edge. So you truly are capable of anything.’
I shrug, but everything inside is shifting, realigning. Emily’s ring, now hiding up an unmarked tree, was enough. And Ben, too: Yes. I’m so far over the edge, there is no way back. ‘What was your one thing?’
He grabs my hand, touches it to his cheek – the scar on it – then pushes me away.
‘Don’t you remember? This. When I was ten, my older sister was missing. Hiding. She’d got in some trouble, nothing too serious but you know what Lorders are like.’
He suddenly twists round, pulls me with my back against him, an arm around my neck. ‘One held me like this,’ he whispers. He raises his other hand to my cheek, just under my eye. ‘We were by our boathouse. He took my dad’s diving knife, and he dug the point in, here.’ He traces his finger down my cheek, the path of his scar. ‘By the time he got to here, I told them where she was. We never saw her again.’
He pushes me away. The diving knife: a katran. The name he chose so he can never forget. The knife he still carries, now. I remember.
I hold my cheek. He’d not hurt me, but I can still feel his finger on my skin, tracing the path of a knife. I stare at him in horror. ‘It wasn’t your fault. You were a child!’
‘Maybe so. But that is why I would die before I’d ever betray anyone again. I won’t tell Nico what you did today. And I won’t tell Tori about Ben, either. Now go. Get back home before you are missed.’
He stares back. ‘I accept you want to be with us. But you have to know your limitations.’
‘What do you mean?’
He shakes his head. ‘Another time.’ He hesitates, then touches his hand to my cheek. ‘I’m sorry about Ben.’
It is nearly getting ready for school time when I jog up our street, too late to sneak in the back way, thankful I’d left a just-in-case note. One that said ‘out for a run’.
No point in being quiet this time.
I open the front door. ‘Hello, I’m back,’ I yell.
Mum peeks out from the kitchen as I bend to unlace my shoes.
‘Wasn’t it too cold for that this morning?’
‘Cold is good for running!’ I say, trying to force my voice to be light. Failing.
She walks out into the hall as I chuck my shoes in the wardrobe.
‘What’s wrong?’ she asks, and her eyes look like they have concern, real and genuine. I’d so like to believe it is true. To fall into her arms, and tell her about Ben. But I can’t. Neither can I deny what she can so obviously see on my face. My red eyes.
‘Just thinking of Ben. I couldn’t sleep, so I went running.’
She puts a hand on my shoulder, gives it a squeeze. Pushes me to the stairs. ‘Go. Have a shower, and warm up. I think a cooked breakfast this morning after all that.’
CHAPTER THIRTY THREE
* * *
Since yesterday morning, it is as if the world in sympathy has been dipped into a deep chill: the temperature staying near zero all day, and much lower at night. That and Ben have kept me numb, going through the motions of school, home and in between, almost without awareness. Minutes ticking past in a strange way where I can stare out the window, blank, and look up a moment later to find hours have passed. I even did my Shakespeare homework for English to have something, anything, to occupy my mind. A poor effort, but that is one less thing to get in trouble over. At least until they read it, because it is pretty bad. Though Nico or Coulson may have made my English homework irrelevant by then.
And tonight, it is Group.
Running usually makes me feel better, more myself. Whoever that is. But as my feet thud up the road, I’m not sure this was a good idea. All it does is make me remember running to Group with Ben.
We used to run to overcome our Levos. All those happy brain chemicals from excessive exercising – endorphins – made it possible to think, to talk about unpleasant things without our levels dropping. But it was so much more than that: Ben loved to run. Even more than I did. It was part of who he was.
My feet falter, I almost stumble: running is still part of who Ben is.
I slow to a walk. What does this mean? Something has been niggling away at me behind the grief, and that is it. I’d guessed Ben would run in that place in the morning because I know him so well. He did. That means part of him is still there.
I force myself to remember every moment of yesterday morning, examine it. Something I’d been trying to avoid. He didn’t know who I was, so I’d assumed he’d been re-Slated. There wasn’t a new Levo in sight, but his sleeves were too long to tell. They would have hidden it.
But something isn’t right. If he had been redone, he’d have been like a new Slated, wouldn’t he? All joy and big dopey grins. It hasn’t been that long. And he wasn’t like that, at all: if anything, he was less that way than he used to be. Whatever has happened to him, it isn’t that. This is something else.
I walk along the icy road, deep in thought, barely noticing the grip of the cold now I’ve stopped running. Now and then lights come up bright behind me then are gone, as cars, then a van, sweep past.
As I round a corner the van is pulled in at the side of the road.
Some part of my brain notes: a white van.
‘Best Builders’ painted down the side.