‘That’s enough, Riley.’
‘No, it’s not. Not nearly enough; nothing is ever said. What are you going to do about it?’ Some part of me is aware that others have come in now, that everyone is silent, with eyes big and mouths hanging open. Eyes that are looking between me and Stella.
‘There is nothing I can do.’
‘But she’s your mother. Doesn’t that mean anything?’
She doesn’t answer.
I shake my head. I can feel Ellie coming up next to me, taking my arm. Pulling me towards the door to the hall where my room is, and I let myself be led. My feet take the steps, but then I stop at the door and look back at Stella. She’s still standing there, frozen in place.
‘No. I guess it really doesn’t mean anything,’ I say, and then walk down the hall with Ellie.
Take her to the Tower! Madison had said, laughing, the first time she showed me the way to my room.
Ellie tries to get me to talk, but I send her away, close my door. Every friend I ever had: gone. Pounce scratches to be let in, and I even ignore her. I stay where I am past the start of dinner. No one comes to check on me; they know where I am, that I’m not coming, don’t they?
No one ever says anything. Isn’t this the biggest problem of all? If we all stood up – everyone in the whole country – and said, stop; this is enough, every time something happened, wouldn’t it stop?
I’m starting to sound like Aiden.
There is a tap on my door late that night. It opens. Stella stands there, takes in me sitting up in bed, blankets pulled up, leaning against the wall.
‘Still awake, I see. I thought you might be hungry.’ She holds out a plate of food in one hand.
I shake my head. Arms crossed.
She walks in, puts the plate on the desk. Sits on the chair. ‘Why are you so angry with me?’
My eyes widen. ‘Would you like a list?’
‘Keep your voice down. No matter what you might think, there is nothing I could have done about Madison. She went too far.’
‘You never liked her.’
‘That’s not true. She could be difficult at times, but—’
‘Then why don’t you do something? Why don’t you call Astrid; she’d have to listen to you.’
‘So, is that your philosophy? That mothers don’t have to listen to their daughters?’
‘What do you mean?’
I shake my head. ‘That’s not important right now; Madison is important. Astrid needs to hear from you that what she did is wrong, to get Madison back to us! How could she have her taken away when all she did was answer her question truthfully, and say what she really thought?’
‘Too much truth can be a bad thing. And careful what you say about your grandmother!’
‘What – are you defending her?’
‘No, not exactly, but—’
She sighs. ‘She thinks what she does is right. That she protects everyone else, by—’
‘Taking out the rotten apple? What a crock. She’s a power-mad manipulative nutcase.’
‘Careful what you say and who you say it to!’
I shake my head. ‘You are sticking up for her.’
‘She is my mother.’
‘That’s not a good enough reason. People have to earn respect – even mothers.’
‘Lucy! You owe a lot to her. Don’t speak of her like this.’ And Stella looks uneasy, as if the walls have ears, but even if they do, for once I don’t care.
‘What? What do I owe her?’
Stella doesn’t answer.
‘You’re as bad as she is.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Doing what you think is best for me, without any idea what really is.’
She looks at me, alarm starting in the back of her eyes.
‘Oh yes, I worked it out: you pulled strings, didn’t you? You had me put down for here for an apprenticeship trial. Will anything I do or say make any difference to where I end up?’
There it is, in her eyes. Confirmation.
‘Lucy, listen to me. I just want to keep you safe. You’ll get found out if—’
‘I’ll get found out if you keep calling me Lucy, and if you single me out for attention like that. This would never have happened if Dad were here. None of it.’
She recoils. ‘Shut up! You don’t know what you’re talking about. You don’t even remember him!’
I don’t answer, but she must read it in my eyes, and her face changes to fury. ‘You do. You remember him, but you don’t remember me.’ Her arms are crossed rigidly, red spots rising in white cheeks.
‘Maybe I remember some little things. But if I’ve got stuff wrong, how can I know if you don’t tell me anything? Tell me already!’
‘It was him, it was him all along!’
‘What was him?’
‘Danny was in the AGT. It was his fault! He had you taken. They wanted artistic children no more than age ten to do some experiments on, and there you were: perfectly fitting the bill. He gave you to them.’
I stare at her, stunned. That’s what Dr Craig and Nico always said: that I was given to them. Handed to them by my parents, that they knew what was going to be done to me. Could Dad really have done that, knowing what I’d face? I’d always been sure that was one of their lies. But was it because I am artistic, is that why I was targeted? With shock I remember Nico implied as much: that artists’ brains have different wiring. Easier to muck with.
But how could Stella know about this stuff? I never told her. Did she get her information from Dad: is that what proves she is telling the truth?
No. It can’t be. ‘I don’t believe you,’ I say. ‘How could you even know what the AGT wanted, what they were doing?’
‘My mother told me; she’s been doing all she can to find you! Investigating the AGT, everything.’
Relief fills me, and I sag back with it. It wasn’t Dad who told her; if it comes from Astrid, then maybe none of what Stella says is true. But then the inconsistency screams out at me, and I stare back at her. ‘This doesn’t make sense. If Astrid is trying to find me for you, why haven’t you told her I’m here?’
Her mouth opens and closes again.
‘I see. You don’t trust her. So why do you believe her when she says Dad gave me to the AGT? He never would have done that to me!’
‘He’d never have done that to his daughter.’
No. And I’m shaking my head, and I’m back in the hallway listening to her and Astrid, and Astrid saying isn’t it about time you told him the truth? That his precious daughter isn’t his.
‘He wasn’t my father,’ I say, words quiet. I’m still denying it inside, but it doesn’t come out as a question.
‘No. He found out. And just after that, he gave you to the AGT for their experiments. Revenge: he did the one thing that would hurt me more than anything else.’
‘He wouldn’t do that.’
‘I’m sorry, Lucy,’ she says, anger bleeding away from her face. ‘I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have told you.’
‘I don’t believe you!’ And I’m curling into a ball on the bed. Stella comes and puts a hand on my shoulder.
‘Lucy, I’m sorry.’
‘Just leave me alone!’ I say, and she pulls her hand away. ‘I mean it. Go away.’
She murmurs that she loves me, that nothing can change that. After a while she finally goes. The door clicks shut, and I’m alone.
It can’t be true, it can’t. He wouldn’t do that. My dad wouldn’t do that.
But if he found out I wasn’t his, he would have been furious: what man wouldn’t be? Stella must have been messing around on him, and not just once or twice. What was it Astrid said? That she doesn’t know whose daughter I am. I could be anyone’s. The thought fills me with horror even as I deny it inside. Could Dad have done what she said – found out I wasn’t his and just given me away, to get back at Stella for what she did?
No. I can’t believe it. I won’t.
Stella’s wrong. She must have made it up. She’s just trying to manipulate me all over again, like her mother manipulates her.
The door clicks shut behind us and we are plunged into darkness. Daddy flicks the torch on and holds it under his chin.
‘Mwahahaha!’ he stage whispers.
‘Be quiet! You’re not a ghost. We’re spies.’
‘Oh yeah. Sorry,’ he whispers back.
We creep along the hall and around the corner, and a faint murmur of voices gets louder.
‘I still think we should play ghosts and yell BOO through the grates,’ Daddy whispers.
I shake my head and bend down to hear, Daddy next to me.
But the words I hear are wrong. They can’t be anything else; they don’t make sense. There is a clang as the torch in Daddy’s hand slips to the floor. I look up. ‘Daddy?’
He has rocked back onto his heels. The torch light points the wrong way, but even in shadow his face isn’t how it has ever been when he has looked at me before.
‘Daddy?’ I say again.
His eyes focus back on mine. ‘Go to your room now, Lucy. Go!’
And he has stopped being a quiet spy. He runs for the door; soon he is on the other side of the wall with Mummy and Grandma, and their voices are loud enough to not have to listen by the grate.
* * *
‘Are you all right?’ Mrs Medway asks when I rush in the next morning. I’d managed to avoid saying anything to Stella at breakfast, still reeling with what she said the night before. The dream that followed. My father – he knew. He was there when I heard those words. Had something inside suppressed the memory that he was with me? I didn’t want to know it. I didn’t want to see the look in his eyes when he knew the truth.
Is Stella right about what happened?
‘You’re pale.’ Mrs Medway puts a hand on my forehead.
‘Really, I’m fine.’
She looks at me closer. ‘Madison from the cafe was a friend of yours, wasn’t she?’
I start guiltily. I’d barely thought of her since Stella’s late-night visit. The dream that had me awake, staring at the walls, for hours.
She misreads. ‘It’s a small town. Word gets around. How about if we give you admin today? There is a stack of filing. But if you want to nap in the corner, that’s okay, too.’
So I find myself in a locked back office. With rows of cabinets organised by year, with student names in alphabetical order, and baskets of papers to file. She explains the system, and when I am surprised at paper records, not computer files, she touches a finger to the side of her nose, and winks. ‘Paper files can’t be hacked,’ she says.
She leaves, and I rifle through the stack of papers in the first basket: absence certificates for flu, appointments. File notes. Test results. I start at the top, find the file for each and shove them in, glad to have something mindless to do. But after a while I put the basket down.
The cabinets for current years take up the front row; what of those behind? I wander back. They are in year order and go back decades – since the school was renamed and reopened, about thirty years ago.
The years I would have been at this school – the cabinets are here. I glance at the door: closed, locked, quiet. My last school year here was 2047-2048. I find the cabinet, and pull the A to H drawer open to hunt for Lucy Connor, but come up empty.
Wait a minute. Astrid, my grandmother, is also a Connor: Connor is Stella’s name. Would I have had Dad’s last name back then, before they fell out? What was his name? I focus on Danny, then Daniel. I lean forward, close my eyes, rest my forehead against the cold metal cabinet, and will it to give up its secrets. I try to let my mind drift: but nothing comes. Frustrated, I start in the As, scanning through, and realise this will take forever.