Fists of waves claw the sand as I force one foot to pound after the other. Scramble up, slip down, repeat. Faster. Eyes fixed on dunes ahead. Don’t look back. Mustn’t look. Ragged breath; in, out; in, out. Still I run.
Just when lungs might burst and heart explode, a crimson star on the sand, I stumble.
A man turns back. He pulls me to my feet and urges me on.
It’s getting closer.
I cannot stand, and fall again. I can run no more.
He kneels to hold me, and looks in my eyes. ‘It’s time. Quick, now! Put up the wall.’
So I build it, brick by brick. Row by row. A high tower, like Rapunzel’s, but this has no window, nowhere to lower my hair.
No chance of rescue.
‘Never forget who you are!’ he shouts, grips my shoulders and shakes me, hard.
A blanket of terror obliterates the sea. The sand. His words, the bruises on my arms and pain in my chest and legs.
* * *
All right, I haven’t got much experience on which to base this judgement. I may be sixteen and I’m not slow or backward and haven’t been locked in a cupboard since birth – so far as I know – but Slating does that to you. Makes you lacking in experience.
It takes a while for everything to stop being firsts. First words, first steps, first spider on the wall, first stubbed toe. You get the idea: first everything.
So today feeling weird and unknown could just be that.
But I am biting my nails and sitting here waiting for Mum, Dad and Amy to pick me up at hospital and take me home, and I don’t know who they are. I don’t know where ‘home’ is. I don’t know nothing. How can that not be…weird?
Bzzzz: a gentle warning vibration from the Levo at my wrist. I look down: I’ve dropped to 4.4, the wrong side of happy. So I have a square of chocolate and it starts a slow climb up as I savour the taste and watch.
‘Much more of your nerves, and you’re going to get fat.’
Dr Lysander is framed in the door. Tall, thin and white-coated. Dark hair pulled straight back. Thick glasses. She glides, silent as a ghost the whispers say, always seems to know before it happens when someone falls into red. But she’s not like some of the nurses who can bring you back with a hug. She isn’t exactly what you would call nice.
‘It’s time, Kyla. Come.’
‘Do I have to? Can’t I stay here?’
She shakes her head. An impatient flick of her eyes says I’ve heard this a million times before. Or, at least, 19,417 times before, as 19,418 is the number on my Levo.
‘No. You know that isn’t possible. We need the room. Come.’
She turns, walks out the door. I pick up my bag to follow. It is everything I have but it’s not heavy.
Before I shut the door, I see: my four walls. Two pillows, one blanket. One wardrobe. The sink with a chip on the right side the only thing to mark my room as any different from the endless row of boxy rooms on this floor and others. The first things I remember.
For nine months, the boundaries of my universe. This and Dr Lysander’s office and the gym and school one floor down with others like me.
Bzzzz : more insistent now, it vibrates up my arm, demanding attention. Levo’s dropped to 4.1.
Dr Lysander turns, clucks under her breath. She bends down so we are eye to eye, and touches a hand to my cheek. Another first.
‘Truly, you will be fine. And I’ll see you once a fortnight to start with.’
She smiles. A rare stretching of lips across teeth that looks uncomfortable on her face, as if unsure how it got there or what to do once it did. I am so surprised I forget my fear and start to climb away from red.
She nods, straightens and walks down the hall to the lift.
We go silent down ten floors to ‘Ground’, then down a short hall to another door. One I haven’t been through before for obvious reasons. Over the top it says ‘P&R’: Processing and Release. Once you pass through this door, you are never seen again.
‘Go on,’ she says.
I hesitate, then push the door part open. I turn to say goodbye, or please don’t leave me, or both, but she is already disappearing into the lift with a swish of white coat and dark hair.
My heart is thumping too fast. I breathe in and out, and count each time to ten until it begins to slow, like they taught us; then square my shoulders and push the door open wider. Over the threshold is a long room with a door at the far end, plastic chairs along one wall, two other Slateds sitting with a regulation bag like mine on the floor in front of them. I recognise both of them from lessons, though I’ve been here much longer. Like me, they are out of the pale blue cotton overalls we always wear, and into actual jeans. Just another uniform, then? They are smiling, thrilled to be leaving hospital at last with their families.
Never mind that they’ve never met them before.
A nurse at a desk on the other wall looks up. I stand in the doorway, reluctant to let it shut behind me. She frowns slightly, and flicks her hand to beckon me in.
‘Come. Are you Kyla? You must check in with me before you can check out,’ she says, and smiles widely.
I force my feet forward to her desk; my Levo vibrates as the door shuts with a swoosh behind. She grabs my hand and scans my Levo just as it vibrates harder: 3.9. She shakes her head and holds my arm tight with one hand, and jabs a syringe into my shoulder with the other.
‘What is that?’ I ask, pulling away and rubbing my arm, though I am pretty sure I know.
‘Just something to keep you level until you are somebody else’s problem. Sit down until your name is called.’
My stomach is churning. I sit. The other two look at me with wide eyes. I can feel the Happy Juice begin to ease through my veins, taking the edge off, but it doesn’t stop my thoughts even as my Levo slowly rises to 5.
What if my parents don’t like me? Even when I really try – which, to be fair, isn’t all the time – people don’t seem to warm to me. They get annoyed like Dr Lysander when I don’t do or say what they expect.
What if I don’t like them? All I know are their names. All I have is one photograph, framed and hung on my hospital room wall, and now tucked in my bag. David, Sandra and Amy Davis: Dad, Mum and older sister. They smile at the camera and look pleasant enough, but who knows what they are really like?
But at the end of it all, none of this matters, because no matter who they are, I have to make them like me.
Failure is not an option.
* * *
‘Processing’ doesn’t involve much. I am scanned, photographed, finger printed and weighed.
It turns out ‘Release’ is the tricky bit. The nurse explains on the way that I need to say hello to my mum and dad, that they and I will sign some papers to say we are all now one big happy family, and then we will leave together to live happily ever after. Of course I spot the problem, straight away: what if they take one look at me, and refuse to sign? What then?
‘Stand up straight! And smile,’ she hisses, then pushes me through a door.
I paste a wide smile on my face, convinced it won’t transform me from scared and miserable to angelic and happy; more like, demented.
I stand in the doorway, and there they are. I almost expect to see them posed like they are in the photograph, wearing the same things, like dolls. But each of them is in different clothes, different positions, and the details fight for notice: too much at once, all threatening to overwhelm and send me into the red, even with the Happy Juice still lingering in my veins. I hear the teacher’s bored voice, over and over again with the same words, as if she were standing there next to me: one thing at a time, Kyla.
I focus on their eyes and leave the rest for later. Dad’s are grey, unreadable, contained; Mum’s soft flecked light brown, impatient eyes that remind me of Dr Lysander, like they miss nothing. And my sister is there, too: wide dark almost black eyes stare curiously back at mine, set in glowing skin like chocolate velvet. When the photo was sent weeks ago, I’d asked why Amy was so different to my parents and me, and was told sharply that race is irrelevant and no longer worthy of notice or comment under the glorious Central Coalition. But how can you not see?
The three of them sit in chairs at a desk, opposite another man. All eyes are on me but no one says anything. My smile feels more and more like an unnatural thing, like an animal that died and is now stuck on my face in a death grimace.
Then Dad jumps out of his chair. ‘Kyla, we’re so pleased to welcome you to our family.’ And he smiles and takes my hand, kisses my cheek, his rough with whiskers. His smile is warm, and real.
Then Mum and Amy are there, too, all three of them towering inches taller than my five foot nothing. Amy slips an arm through mine, and strokes my hair. ‘Such a beautiful colour, like corn silk. So soft!’
And Mum smiles then too, but hers is more like mine.
The man at the desk clears his throat, and shuffles some papers. ‘Signatures, please?’
And Mum and Dad sign where he points, then Dad gives me the pen.
‘Sign here, Kyla,’ the man says, and points to a blank line at the end of a long document, ‘Kyla Davis’ typed underneath.
‘What is it?’ I say, the words out before I can think before you speak like Dr Lysander is always telling me.
The man at the desk raises his eyebrows, as surprise then irritation crosses his face. ‘Standard release from mandated treatment to external sentencing. Sign.’
‘Can I read it, first?’ I say, some stubborn streak making me go on even as another part whispers bad idea.
His eyes narrow, and he sighs. ‘Yes. You can. Everyone, prepare to wait while Miss Davis exercises her legal rights.’
I flick through but it is a dozen pages of long, close typed print that swims before my eyes, and my heart starts thumping too fast again.
Dad puts a hand on my shoulder, and I turn. ‘It’s all right, Kyla. Go on,’ he says, his face calm, reassuring; his words and Mum’s the ones I must listen to from now on. And I begin to remember a nurse patiently explaining this all to me last week: that is part of what is in this contract.
I flush, and sign: Kyla Davis. Not just Kyla, any more: the name picked by an administrator when I first opened my eyes in this place nine months ago, after her aunt who she said had green eyes like mine. An actual second name that belongs to me, as part of this family. That is in this contract someplace, too.
‘Let me carry that,’ Dad says and takes my bag. Amy links her arm in mine, and we go through one last door.
Just like that, we leave behind everything I have ever known.
Mum and Dad study me in the car mirror as we spiral up out of the car park under the hospital towards the exit. Fair enough as I study them back.
They are probably wondering how they got two such mismatched daughters, and nothing to do with the skin colour I’m not supposed to notice.
Amy sits next to me in the back seat: tall and busty and three years older at nineteen. I am small and slight with wispy blond hair; hers is dark and thick and heavy. She is va-va-voom, like one of the male nurses says about another nurse he fancies. And I am…
My brain searches for a word the opposite of Amy and comes up empty. Maybe that, in itself, is the answer. I am a blank page. An uninteresting one at that.
Amy is wearing a flowing red patterned dress with long sleeves, but she pulls one up now so I can see her Levo. My eyes widen in surprise: so she was Slated, too. Her Levo is an older model, chunky and thick where mine is a thin gold chain with a small dial, meant to look like a watch or bracelet but fooling nobody.
‘I’m so happy you are my sister,’ she says, and she must mean it as it says 6.3 in big digital numbers.
We get to the gate; there are guards. One comes up to the car and others watch behind glass. Dad hits a few buttons and all the car windows and the boot open.