‘All right,’ I say. ‘I’ll think about it.’
‘Good night, Lucy. I mean, Riley.’
As I’m drifting off to sleep, I do think about it. About being in this house twenty-four hours a day, and only being able to escape if I can come up with a good reason to write down in a column in a book. And having to come back before the reason is up.
And then I think about the mountains: walking in high places, climbing to the sky. With my dad: Danny the dreamer. I have his name now, and I hug it close.
That night’s dreams are indistinct, and glorious.
* * *
The next lecture is early morning on the bus, and comes from a surprising source: Madison.
‘Are you sure you really want to sign up for CAS?’
I look at her in surprise.
‘It is five years, and they pay next to nothing the whole time. And you could wind up someplace awful. You might even—’ her face crinkles in horror— ‘end up working with Finley.’
He turns around from his seat in front of us and winks. ‘She should be so lucky,’ he says.
‘What do you think? About signing up?’ I ask him.
‘It was the best thing I ever did,’ he answers seriously. ‘I love it.’
‘But—’ Madison interrupts.
‘No buts. But if you are counting on Parks, don’t. Have a plan B.’
Not much later I’m in the seminar room we were in yesterday morning, staring at a contract.
The last time I signed a contract I was a new Slated, just leaving hospital. That seems such a long time ago. Then, I had no choice: imagine what would have happened to me if I refused to sign? That contract was all about promising to follow rules: of my new family, school and the community. About doing my best to fit in, not get in trouble. I meant it when I signed, but that didn’t last long, did it? If the Lorders found me now, they’d drag me off as a contract breaker. It is very high on the thou shalt not list for Slateds to seek out their old lives. Using IMET to change my appearance, the assumed name and false ID all add to my sins.
But this contract, today, is up to me. I get to decide. I chew on my pen, try to concentrate and read it properly.
Chairs shuffle around me. No one asks any questions; they all just sign without reading, and hand them in. Soon eyes will notice my hesitation.
What does it mean? Five years, an apprenticeship. Being trained in a career, whatever it may be: my choice or theirs.
A life; one of my own. As a Slated I wouldn’t have been able to do this until I was twenty-one.
If seven years ago I hadn’t been kidnapped by the AGT, hadn’t ended up a terrorist, hadn’t been Slated, what would my life be now? Would I still be sitting here, at this precise moment in time, trying to make this choice? Maybe Lucy would have been happy, excited. Signing the contract then going out with all her friends this weekend to celebrate. Maybe she’d be sure she’d get her top choice, here in her hometown where everybody knows her.
Would Stella still be there in the back of Lucy’s mind, arguing against this, wanting to keep her safe, keep her close, at home?
I sign: Riley Kain.
Next is the form to select my top choices. I put National Parks as one; hesitate, then put Education as two. I stare at the others, then aware I’m one of the last still lingering over paperwork, I scribble the other sections in randomly, with Sanitation and Enforcement right at the bottom. I hand in the forms.
Hours of aptitude tests follow: comprehension, maths, strange logic problems and sequences. When it is finally time to go we are told to report back Monday morning at 8 am, when we’ll find out which four week-long trials we will do, and head straight off to start the first one that very day.
Outside, yesterday’s sun is a distant memory: the sky is grey, the mountains hidden in cloud. It makes it easier to catch the bus straight back to the house. Time to face up to Stella and tell her I signed on the dotted line.
When I get there the side door we usually use is locked. Lucky I read my rules last night, and so know the door code. I punch the numbers in, and step inside. The house is quiet.
I open the book to sign in, and with a start see ‘Stella Connor’ written in the out column, with ‘shopping’ in the description, and return time estimated as 4 pm. She follows the rules, too? Another name, Steph, is also down as shopping; is she the girl who works for her? I scan today’s page: it looks like nobody is home, and nobody expected back for at least a few hours.
Time to explore.
I’m gripped by a peculiar sense of excitement. At first I creep around, quiet, almost like I’m expecting someone to jump out and demand to know what I’m doing.
I start with the public rooms, interconnecting hallways, stairwells: wandering, trying and failing to find something, anything, that feels familiar. At one point Pounce jumps down from a hall table as I round a corner, and I almost scream.
The house is huge. Pounce follows as I wander into the massive, shiny kitchen, utility rooms, walk-in cupboards. Nothing is familiar; nothing twigs. Though the kitchen looks new; maybe it has changed since I was here? Then I try the door to Stella’s study where I was yesterday: locked.
Stella had said the tower room I’m in wasn’t my room before: which was? I try to cast myself back, to stop thinking, to just follow my feet, but nothing works. I’ve had dreams of my room here before, but if I close my eyes and try to see it, all is uncertain. There is just a sense of proportion, some white-painted wardrobes, a too-frilly bed. Maybe there are photos of it in the albums?
Back in my room, door shut, I get the hairpin out and spring the lock to open the wardrobe. Lugging the albums to my bed, I lay them out in order, number one to eleven.
I open one album, then another. I scan through, looking for photos taken in my bedroom, but soon get distracted when I realise that apart from the first one where I am a baby, each one starts with a birthday. From my first birthday with cake smeared on my face, to a toddler and on up. Birthdays looked serious business. Each year there was an amazing themed and decorated cake: fairies one year, ponies, piskies.
Mummy made them for me.
A shiver goes up my spine. Mummy? Stella. There are often smiling snaps of her, her arms around me, my arms around her. I was just a few years old when her dark hair changed to pale blond like mine. As I got older and my hair a little darker, so, weirdly, did hers. Almost like she was trying to make us match.
Again there are none of Dad. There are odd blank spaces in the albums as if some photos have been removed, but the spaces are few and far between: he couldn’t have been in many of them to start with.
He took most of the photos.
An image of him behind a camera jumps into my mind, then vanishes. I must ask Stella what happened to the photos she took out of the albums. Did she put them away someplace, or destroy them?
Something makes me push the other albums aside and reach for the last one: number eleven.
First page: Lucy smiling back. Me. Goosebumps travel up my arms and spine: I’m wearing the pink dress. The one in the cupboard, the one in my dream. Pounce jumps up and walks over, peers as I turn the pages. ‘Look, it’s you,’ I whisper, not sure why I’m whispering. There is photo after photo of Pounce as a tiny kitten: chasing bits of string, sitting on my knee, sleeping in my arms. My tenth birthday present. Then there are photos of me with a big pink iced birthday cake: princess themed this year. Ten candles, so I had that right.
A few pages later, something changes.
I’m still smiling, but something is wrong. It is on my face, I’m holding something in. I can almost feel this moment, but then it slips away.
I turn another page and there is a picture of me taken outside on a sunny day, with the peaks of Catbells behind. Pounce is clutched in my arms, and my gap-toothed grin is a real smile this time.
I turn the page: nothing. I scan through more pages to the end but the rest of the album is blank. Something cold grips me inside.
I shut it. My heart is thudding hard behind my ribs. That last picture of me is the one that was on MIA. The last one Stella had before I disappeared. The one she gave to the website in the faint hope I might be found, and come back to her one day.
I don’t know how long I sit there, staring at the wall, thinking. I don’t know why I’m been remote to Stella: is it the neediness and hunger in her eyes that makes me pull away? What we were to each other back then is all over these pages. To her, our relationship is real and immediate; to me it is a bare echo, like a song I’ve half heard once but can’t really remember.
And now I’ve signed up for CAS instead of staying here with her.
A distant noise penetrates: a car? I look at my watch. It’s almost four; they must be back. I jump up, hurriedly place the albums back in order in the wardrobe as they were. Lock it and go downstairs.
Stella is in the kitchen unpacking boxes of groceries. I stand in the doorway a moment; she smiles to see me when she looks up.
‘Can I help?’ I ask.
‘Of course.’ We slot things into two massive fridges, and she shows me which cupboards things go in.
‘Now for a cup of tea and a chat,’ she says, and puts the kettle on. ‘Steph stayed in town, so we should be on our own for a while.’ She pours tea and we sit at stools on the island.
‘There’s something I’ve got to tell you,’ I start to say, then hesitate.
‘What is it, Riley?’
‘I’m sorry, but I signed up for CAS.’
I brace myself for her reaction, but she looks back at me calmly, sips her tea. ‘I thought you would. Though you know I’m not keen on National Parks. Some of what they do can be dangerous. And it’d be a disaster if they put you in Enforcement, with all the enhanced security checks. But we’ll just wait and see what apprenticeship they give you: no point in worrying about it yet, is there?’
I stare back at her, past surprise into shock. This so isn’t the reaction I was expecting. ‘Thanks, Mum,’ I whisper.
And her face goes all funny. She reaches an arm out, but instead of crushing me into a hug like yesterday, she touches my cheek. She blinks furiously and gets up, goes to the counter behind us and reaches for a box.
‘I’ve got you something.’ She opens it and holds out a small black rectangle.
‘What is it?’
‘Look, it’s a camera. These new ones are so clever.’ She touches a small button and it springs open to show the lens, and a few controls: it’s small, barely a few fingers wide. She shows me how it works. ‘I thought this way if you must rush off every day, you can take photographs to show me what you’re doing. And we can start another album together. All right?’
‘Thank you,’ I say, and then I take photos of Pounce sitting at our feet, of Stella, a few of the kitchen. Then I stand next to her and hold it out at arm’s length to take one of us together. She shows me how to look at them, pushing a button and projecting them onto a surface, and a few clicks later there we are, standing next to each other and smiling on the kitchen wall.
‘Oh, and I have something else for you.’ She reaches into her pocket. ‘I made an extra copy of the key to the wardrobe with the photo albums in, so you can look at them when you want to. But keep it locked and hide the key away. I don’t want anyone else getting into it, all right?’
She hands a key across and I wrap my fingers around it, slip it into my pocket. I feel guilty that I’ve been in there already without her knowing. I remember I was going to ask her about the missing photos of Dad, but can’t bring myself to do it, not today. Not while we’re getting along so well.
‘Now, enough of that, I’ve got things to do,’ Stella says. ‘It’s Ellie’s birthday today: do you want to help me decorate the cake?’
Ellie’s birthday cake isn’t as elaborate as my childhood ones: a triple layer chocolate cake with chocolate icing, intricate icing flowers climbing across the top, and twenty candles. It’s delicious and everyone is in good spirits; even Madison makes no sideways comments. She announces the reason for her good mood is that it is her one weekend off this month, and that I’m coming with her on a led walk tomorrow up Catbells with Finley.