My head is fuzzy. I let Mac help me up and lead me to the sofa in the front room, and a blanket. He and Aiden are murmuring at the door.
For all my insisting it has to be done, that I have to find out who I was, I’m afraid. What will I find?
‘Few choices?’ I say, Aiden’s earlier words filtering through. ‘What other choice is there?’
Aiden steps back into the room, kneels next to me. Smooths my hair away from my face.
‘You know, Kyla. You could tell your story for MIA, be one of our witnesses.’
‘Then run away again.’
‘I wouldn’t put it that way. We’d hide you someplace safe, or you could leave completely, while the evidence is being gathered. Until we are ready.’
‘To expose the Lorders to the world. To make the people bring the government crashing down.’
He’s a dreamer: the Lorders will never go quietly. If at all. But it is a good dream. I smile back at Aiden, and his lips quirk.
‘You’re nice on painkillers.’
‘And your new hair is gorgeous.’
‘Take another painkiller?’
I shake my head. ‘Best not. Aiden, there are things I haven’t told you.’
‘I know. Tell me when you’re ready.’
Aiden’s eyes are warm, gentle. If he knew everything about me, all I’ve done, would they still smile at me this way? He is too trusting for this world; he has to know. I have to tell him.
I sigh. ‘There is one thing I have to tell you now, ready or not.’
‘What is that?’
‘Your driver. The one who came when we saw Ben running at that track. Don’t trust him.’
Aiden’s face goes serious, withdrawn: thinking. ‘That would explain a few things,’ he says, finally. ‘We’ll look into it. But the curious thing is, how would you know anything about it?’
How nice it would be to tell Aiden everything. To not carry the burden alone. But before I can form a sentence, he shakes his head. ‘No; don’t answer that question. Not while you’re silly on painkillers. Tell me your secrets when you are sure you want to.’ He starts to stand, but my mind is drifting back to what he said before.
‘Wait. What did you mean by I could leave completely?’
‘You could leave the country.’
‘You know MIA helps people leave when it is too dangerous to stay. To slip out of the country, over the sea. To United Ireland, or beyond.’
United Ireland: a free place of whisper, not reality. Since they left the UK decades ago their existence is never officially acknowledged. Would it be any better there than here?
Could I do that: just leave it all behind? My eyes close. There is so much Aiden doesn’t know. Things I didn’t tell him. I told myself it was because knowledge is dangerous, that he is better off not knowing. But is that really all the reason? An uncomfortable twist of my guts says there is more to it: more not wanting him to know the things I’ve done. To look at me without that warmth in his eyes. I have so few friends; I can’t risk losing another.
Willing or not to begin with, I really was in the AGT. I really was a terrorist. Even though I chose to turn my back on them and their methods in the end, how could I be a witness for MIA against the Lorders? I’m the poster child for why Slating is a good thing.
Over the sea…
To what and to where? To the unknown.
To run away.
I trudge up the path. Up and up, as fast as short legs can go. Soon all the streets and buildings are gone from sight. All is still, quiet. Alone at last.
I’m nervous but remember the way, though I haven’t come by myself before. The walk seems longer alone, and I’m relieved when I get to the gate.
There is an eerie low mist hugging the stones. They lumber, asleep, half-hidden in white. There is sunshine above; the mountains are bright sentries all around their sleeping babies. I walk across the field, into the mist, and press my hands against a stone. The sun doesn’t make it through the mist; they are cold and huge close up. But
when you stand back and look at the mountains, the stones are small.
Children of the Mountains Daddy calls them, and so do I, though I know from school that the stone circle was put here at Castlerigg by men and Druids, not mountains. Thousands and thousands of years ago. I start on one side, touching each one and counting.
I’m more than half around when a voice calls out, ‘I knew I’d find you here.’ Daddy.
I don’t say anything; I keep counting the stones. The mountains had many children. I’m just one.
Daddy walks up to me. ‘Number?’ he asks.
‘Twenty-four,’ I say, and he walks around with me, and I count out loud as we go.
‘She’s really worried.’
‘She’s scared something will happen to you if you are out of sight.’
I sigh. ‘Twenty-seven.’
‘I know she can be difficult.’
‘But she loves you.’
‘You shouldn’t run away.’
‘But YOU do sometimes. Thirty.’ We stop. ‘And she makes me crazy.’
Daddy laughs. ‘I’ll let you in on a secret.’ He looks both ways. ‘Sometimes, she makes me crazy, too. Let’s go home and be crazy together.’
‘Finish, first?’ I say.
We keep counting, both out loud now, until we get to forty.
‘Done,’ I say, and we walk across to the gate. I look back. The mist is starting to bleed away. The Stone Children will be happy when they wake up in the sunshine; they have each other to play with when we are gone.
Later, I promise never to run away again. But my fingers are crossed when I say it.
* * *
I wake early, stiff and alarmed as I seem unable to move. Then I realise that Skye has climbed onto the sofa, and is sprawled across my legs: a heavy golden retriever blanket, one disinclined to wake up and tricky to dislodge.
I pad into the kitchen to make tea, and peer out the window. The world is dipped in frost, and makes my hands itch for a pencil and sketchpad: intricate white patterns trace fence and trees, decorate cars and parts of cars in Mac’s backyard, one that is more workshop than garden. No snow, at least not yet, so I had that wrong. And best of all: no white van, so Aiden is gone. That’ll make today’s plan easier. Once I work out exactly what it is.
I find my sketchpad and settle back on the sofa with my tea and Skye, meaning to draw frost’s delicate patterns, but instead a stone circle insists on being rendered. And a small blond girl – me, perhaps eight years old? – hands pressed against a stone. Was that dream a real place? Everything inside says yes. I might find it when I go to Keswick; I might touch each stone, and count the Mountains’ Children once again. But he won’t find me there, not this time. He is gone forever.
Dad died trying to rescue me from Nico and the AGT five years ago, but the memory is recent: it had been buried so deep, for so long, that when it finally came back it felt like it just happened.
Why am I going back? Dad won’t be there. I can’t remember anyone else from that life. Was it my real mother I was running away from in that dream?
She loves you, he said. Fingers crossed or not, I promised not to run away again. It wasn’t my choice when I left before, but now it is: I have to go back.
But I can’t leave yet, not without saying goodbye. Not this time. I have to tell Mum and Amy what really happened.
I’m pulling on boots when Mac finally emerges, bleary-eyed and yawning.
He raises an eyebrow. ‘So, let me guess: you’re going to walk Skye. Just a short jaunt about the fields and back.’
‘Sure. That’s it.’ Skye’s tail thumps on the ground with the word ‘walk’.
‘Where are you going?’
‘I think you know.’
‘Aiden’ll go spare.’
‘But you won’t. Because you know I have to do this.’
He stares levelly back. ‘I’m beginning to realise more and more that there are times when, no matter the risk, something must be done. Some things must be said. Is this one of those times?’
‘Yes. I have to tell Mum. She’s lost too many other people in her life.’ Mac, of all people, should understand: from the guilt he has lived with since his school bus was bombed over six years ago. For surviving, yes, but most of all, for not speaking out about other survivors, like Mum’s son, Robert, who later disappeared and was Slated. Gone without a trace. Just like her parents, the first Lorder Prime Minister and his wife: both assassinated by an AGT bomb when she was younger than I am now. I can’t leave her thinking the same happened to me.
Skye slumps back down between us, evidently having worked out that the walk isn’t happening; at least, not with me.
‘I’ll take you later,’ Mac promises her, then turns back to me. ‘I just happened to drive through your village the other day.’
‘Your house is still uninhabitable after the blast. No one is living there. Where would they be?’
‘Oh. I didn’t think of that. They’re probably staying at Aunt Stacey’s.’ I frown to myself. Aunt Stacey and Mum are close, and she seems all right. But her brother is Mum’s ex – a Lorder. If Stacey sees me, would she keep it to herself? ‘I know: I’ll try Mum’s work. She told me she goes for a walk at lunch most days. I’ll lurk about and see if I can catch her coming or going.’
‘Sounds a bit thin.’
‘It’s the best I’ve got.’
‘Want me to drive you?’
‘No. I’m less conspicuous on my own.’ That is what I say out loud, but this is something I have to do alone. And despite my new hair, despite my new ID, going there is still risky. If anyone is actually watching for me, would they be fooled?
‘Take my bicycle.’
‘Okay.’ I smile. ‘Thanks.’
‘All right then. But be careful. And have some breakfast first.’
I’m too early for Mum’s lunch break, and something makes me stop at the graveyard. I get off the bicycle, lean it against the crumbling stone wall. Frost outlines bare trees; headstones are traced in ghostly white. I step through the gate and start down the path, my breath a moving shroud about me in the cold air.
It is a small village church, and the newest grave isn’t hard to find. There is no headstone yet, if there will indeed be one, but the ground is disturbed: a patch of brown in grey frost-tipped grass, with a cover of scattered flowers.
Was some other unidentified girl buried here, or was the casket empty, perhaps weighted with stones so no one would notice?
I kneel down, take off my gloves and reach out tentative fingers to a frozen lily. Is its fragile beauty preserved by cold? No. A petal shatters on touch.
‘Hello,’ a voice says, piercing the quiet, and I jump. A voice I know.
I stand, turn. Stare at her, unable to speak.
‘Were you a friend of Kyla’s?’ Mum asks.
‘You don’t know me?’
Her brows knit together. She looks older, though it hasn’t been long since I last saw her. Her eyes are tired, red. ‘Sorry, have we met?’
Tears well up in my eyes. I take off my glasses, sweep my dark hair to one side, wincing a little as the extra weight still hurts. ‘It’s me. It’s Kyla,’ I whisper.
She goes pale, shakes her head.
‘Mum?’ I reach a hand towards her, but then she steps back, turns and scans the churchyard and road beyond.
‘Put those glasses back on,’ she says, and after I do, links an arm in mine. She pulls me down the path at the back of the church, then out the gate into the woods behind it, walking fast. The path twists, then divides, and we take the less travelled branch.