Hunting Lila, p.1Sarah Alderson
For my family
First published in Great Britain in 2011 by Simon
and Schuster UK Ltd, a CBS company.
Copyright © 2011 Sarah Alderson
This book is copyright under the Berne Convention.
No reproduction without permission.
All rights reserved.
The right of Sarah Alderson to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988.
Simon & Schuster UK Ltd
1st Floor, 222 Gray’s Inn Road, London WC1X 8HB
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual people living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
eBook ISBN: 978-0-85707-196-5
Printed in the UK by CPI Cox & Wyman, Reading RG1 8EX.
About the Author
Only when the tip of the knife started to shave against the white of his eye like a scalpel about to pierce a boil, did I realise that I was the one holding it.
Or, rather, controlling it.
The three of us stared mesmerised as the knife hung there in the jagged space between us. The boy, whose arms were locked around me, and against whose eye the blade was now pressing, let go of me, his arms dropping like a puppet’s whose strings had been cut.
And then I felt it. The weight of the knife in my mind. And the blade clattered to the pavement.
I couldn’t take my eyes off it, just lying there, like a prop someone had arranged in front of me.
The scramble of metal hitting brick made me raise my head. Both boys were back on their bikes, kicking at the pedals, trying to get a grip on the narrow pavement. They collided as they tore off down the street but kept their balance, bikes weaving down the centre of the road, before disappearing around the nearest corner.
I was on my knees. The thrum of traffic from the main road ten metres or so away cut into me, interrupting the sound of someone nearby choking on barbed wire. I spun my head left to right to see where the noise was coming from, then realised it was coming from me. I bit down on my lip to stop it, then stood up slowly.
A jolt of pain in my right leg snapped me back into the present. I looked around uncertainly, trying to place myself. It took a while before I realised I was standing on the corner of my street. My tights were ripped and laddered where the front wheel and handlebars of one of the bikes had smashed into me. A tinny noise escaped from the headphones dangling around my neck, and my right hand was still clutching tightly at the school bag they had tried to snatch.
Maria wasn’t there when I got home and neither was my dad. He wouldn’t be back for another week or so. The house was as echoey and cold as an empty fridge. I put the chain on the door and leant against it, taking a deep breath. Then I hobbled to the downstairs bathroom, lifted the toilet lid and threw up until there was nothing left but stringy green bile. My hands were shaking so hard they were blurring against the white of the porcelain. I sat back against the wall, hugging my knees to my chest, trying to steady my breathing.
I couldn’t use it again – whatever kind of freaky mind power it was – that much was clear. But I had had no intention of using it in the first place – it had just happened, unconscious as breathing. Except breathing had never led to nearly blinding a person, I didn’t think. I was out of control. Dangerously out of control. With just a flicker of thought, without moving an inch, I could have squeezed that blade through the white of that boy’s eye as easily as slicing through a soft-boiled egg. A wave of bile swung up my throat again. I ground my teeth and swallowed it down.
Up until this moment this psychic weird moving things without actually touching them ability had been a secret. Something I’d wrapped up and bound tightly to me like a deformed extra limb – a sixth finger; a third arm. Not something I particularly felt like showing off. Yet now two complete strangers knew about it, one of whom I’d almost blinded.
I sat there in the humming dark, waiting for the knock on the door from the police or the men in white coats. Maybe I would just go with them. Clearly I was too dangerous to be walking the streets of south London. Possibly I was unhinged. Definitely I wasn’t normal.
I waited and waited, shivering on the floor, but the knock didn’t come.
Eventually, I unclasped my hands from around my legs and stood up, resolved. I had to regain control. I wouldn’t use it again, ever. As in, never.
I wouldn’t use it to open doors, to turn on lights or pop the toaster – and I certainly wouldn’t ever use it again to defend myself against teenage muggers. If I could possibly help it.
I was going to go cold turkey. It was either that, or a future in orange overalls.
I splashed some water on my face and into my mouth and looked up to see myself in the mirror, pale and shadowed as a corpse. Except a ten-day-old corpse would probably look better. My hair was a tangled blonde mess and my lips so white they merged with my skin. I looked down at my legs and, leaning on the sink, carefully peeled off my ripped tights. A bruise about the size of my palm had turned the right side of my thigh an interesting shade of black. It looked gruesome and mottled against the paleness of my skin. I touched it lightly and flinched. I could feel the hardness of congealed blood under the surface. I tested my weight on it – and screamed. I looked back at my reflection, shuddering back a sudden onslaught of tears. I wanted my mum. I wanted Jack. I wanted him to come and rescue me just like he had when I was five and had broken my leg. I wanted my brother, simple as that. OK, truth be told, I really wanted Alex. I wanted my brother’s best friend every bit as much as I wanted to see my brother, and then some.
Heathrow’s Terminal Five was an immense vault of whiteness. It was close to midnight. I stared at the frozen departures board, willing it to come to life so that I could get on the plane right now and not in six hours’ time, because by then my dad might have found out that I’d stolen his credit card and the odds were that he’d try to ground both me and the plane.
I stared at the plane details on the board. I couldn’t make them move. Not that I was supposed to be trying. I was supposed to be going cold turkey.
I sank into a seat, feeling something like despair shroud me. Or maybe it was outright panic. I was going to have to come up with a believable story for both Jack and my dad. The email I’d sent Jack was not going to cut it. I’d written him just one line saying:
Surprise! I’m coming to LA. My flight gets in at around midday. Lila x.
But what believable explanation could I give?
I almost stabbed someone in the eye with t
That would go down about as well as me telling him that I’d been in love with his best friend my entire life.
I took a deep breath. I was in so much trouble. So I did what I always did in times of stress, I unpacked every Alex memory from where I’d filed them in the most accessible part of my brain and started to slot them together like puzzle pieces.
The day I broke my leg – that was the day I’d fallen in love with him. He may have only been nine, I may have only been five, but it was definitely that day. I had steered the sledge into the tree, or Jack had pushed me into it. But the bone poking like a pencil through my skin was still one of my best memories ever because alongside it was the memory of Alex’s face as he’d wrapped me up in his red parka. He’d lifted me back onto the sledge and towed me, with Jack’s help I guess, half a mile to the nearest adult. That was definitely the day.
After that, my next memory was of all three of us in the garden of our old house in Washington DC. It was cold. I knew that because I could see the ice crystals on the ground, and the thwacking sound of the shovel hitting frozen earth still echoed loud and clear in my head. I must have been about seven because the hamster had been a present from my parents for being brave about my leg two years before. The hamster had lived ‘a long, happy and carefree life’, Jack had intoned from his position at the head of the grave. I remembered also the tissued ball that Alex, standing next to me, solemnly lowered into the hole they’d dug out with the neighbour’s trowel. I remembered the feeling of hot tears running rivulets down my cold cheeks and the hotter hand he’d placed in mine. He hadn’t said anything, just held my hand until I stopped crying.
Without any warning, my mind jumped to another memory, this one from five years ago, a darker echo of the previous one. I was twelve years and three days old in this one. I knew that for a fact because it was seven days after my mother had died and we were at her funeral. Alex had held my hand then, too. For practical reasons really, since my dad, who should have been doing the job, was not keeping it together very well, and was at that moment on his knees by the hollow grave, sobbing. A tangle of well-meaning arms surrounded him. Jack was a blur at the edge, before he backed out of the press of people and took off. Alex, I realised only now, must have chosen to let him go and stay with me instead.
I could recall with perfect clarity the mud-slung soles of my dad’s shoes as he knelt by my mum’s grave, but that was all. I couldn’t remember the people, the words, the hymns, the flowers. I could remember nothing but those shoes and Alex standing next to me, anchoring me with his grip.
At the reception after the funeral, Alex didn’t let go of me once. He didn’t follow after Jack. I don’t know why. To anyone watching, it was Jack and not me who needed looking after. But Alex hadn’t tried to find him. He’d stayed with me. He’d sat me down on an out-of-the-way sofa and stayed with me, responding politely when blurry faces hovered overhead whispering vacant words. It was Alex who had eventually led me through the murmuring crowd to the stairs and up to my room. He’d let me lie down, had pulled the duvet over me and had sat on the edge of the bed, his hand resting on my back until I’d fallen asleep.
Then, literally days after, Dad had taken me with him to London. There had been no choice, not even a warning, just ‘the cab is coming’. I hadn’t packed my bags or said goodbye to my school friends. Locked in my silent bubble of grief, I had been incapable of arguing. My dad may as well have told me we were going to the supermarket, for all the impact it had on me. Jack, on the other hand, went ballistic. The fury with which he responded to my dad’s news was shattering. It sapped every single last emotion from me, like I was the source of his energy and the battery had died. My dad hadn’t had the energy to fight him, either. His battery kind of died permanently along with my mum.
So Jack got to move in with Alex’s family and stay in Washington, while I had to move to London, my dad’s hometown. At first I’d felt nothing about this, not even on the flight over with Jack’s empty seat gaping like a black hole between us. But in the months after, as I emerged from the numb coma I’d slipped into, I’d resonated with anger. A perfect, biting, furious anger towards my dad for taking me away from everything I knew, from my home. Anger towards Jack, for deserting me. And for being the one who got to stay with Alex.
But, like most things in life, unless you really work at it, anger’s a hard thing to hold on to, and after a few months that anger had become less perfect, less biting, until it was eventually dissolved completely by the ache of missing Jack. I’d started to email him and to speak to him again and found I couldn’t resent him. Because, if I’d had the choice to stay with Alex, I would have done the same. In a heartbeat.
I came through customs warily, stumbling a little from the lack of sleep and the tired throb of my leg. I scanned the blur of faces massing at the sliding arrival doors. I wasn’t sure if Jack would be there. And if he was, whether it would only be to hand me a return ticket and frogmarch me straight to the check-in counter.
A familiar voice made me turn my head. Jack was leaning through the crowd, grinning at me. I felt such intense relief that I wanted to collapse right there and then and let him pick up the pieces of me. When I reached the barrier and fell into his arms, a sob came out of nowhere. I forced it down, pressing my face hard into Jack’s shoulder. He pulled me away, grabbing my bag from me. I ducked under the barrier and he put his free arm round my waist, tugging me gently through the throng of people.
When we were free of the crowd and walking across the terminal he looked at me quizzically. ‘So, good flight?’
I couldn’t help but smile at him, ridiculously grateful and relieved that he wasn’t leading me to the check-in counter and that he hadn’t asked me the question I was dreading – the reason I was there.
‘Yeah, it was OK,’ I said.
He was different to look at. It was hard to put my finger on why, but there was something about him now that definitely hadn’t been there before. Jack had always been confident: good looks and popularity tend to have that effect on people. Now, though, as he manoeuvred us through the busy terminal, I was aware that this aura was somehow enhanced, like he’d been bitten by a spider and had come over all superhero. Whereas before he’d been fully aware of his charm and had worked it to maximum girl-attracting effect, now his confidence seemed utterly unself-conscious. He was completely indifferent to the effect he was having on people. A woman dragging a wheelie suitcase turned to look at him over her shoulder as we passed and a couple of giggling girls a little younger than me nudged each other. He drew people to him but left them in a kind of wake, bobbing hopelessly after him.
Jack was wearing jeans and a white crew-neck T-shirt. His sunglasses hung down from the collar. When we stepped outside into the glaring sunlight he put them on and flashed a smile at me. Yeah, he could have stepped out of a Police sunglasses advert, I thought with a familiar pang of envy. I, on the other hand, felt pale and creased in this land of tanned, polished people. I wanted to get home and shower. Home, I thought, with a shock – I was already thinking of this as home. And this was just the LAX arrivals hall.
Jack kept up a steady stream of conversation on the way south to Oceanside. My sudden arrival sat between us, a great white elephant in the car. I ignored it studiously and focused instead on absorbing everything about him. And the car. I knew nothing about cars, but this one was seriously impressive. How much were they paying Marines these days? It had a leather interior, a low roof, a killer sound system and a disembodied voice which welcomed us when we got in. Jack drove the car smoothly, pushing the limit without an ounce of hesitation as he wove in and out of traffic on the freeway. I relaxed back into the seat and let him talk. His eyes flicked from the road ahead, to the rear-view mirror, then back to me. He was telling me about his house – it was near to the beach, which sounded good, way better than living slap-bang in m
His words started to wash over me as I focused my attention on him, observing his profile. He looked so much older than the teenage boy he’d been when I’d last seen him, he was tanned and his dark hair was growing out of a crew cut. Three years was a long time I supposed, we’d both changed a lot. I wondered how I looked to him.
As if reading my mind, he cast his eyes in my direction, then looked back at the road. ‘You look different, Lila.’
‘Yeah, I look wasted,’ I said, ‘I don’t think I’ve slept in thirty hours or more.’
He brooded for a moment. I hoped he wasn’t going to ask me why. I could see he was thinking about it.
Instead, he said, ‘I almost didn’t recognise you when you walked through the arrivals hall.’
I didn’t reply. In the three years since we’d last seen each other I’d grown quite a bit taller but was still a good six inches off his six feet. My hair was still long, though perhaps duller than the honey blonde he remembered. No sunshine to streak it in England. We had the exact same eyes, both dark green, both framed with thick black lashes, though his were even longer and thicker than mine. There was, of course, one major change, but it wasn’t something physical and as he couldn’t read my mind, I was certain he wasn’t talking about that. I shifted in my seat, trying to avoid thinking about it.
As he reached to change gears, something caught my eye and I leaned across to touch his arm beneath the sleeve of his T-shirt. He saw my raised eyebrows and reached to tug the sleeve up, exposing his bicep and a tattoo in black ink of two crossed swords. The words Semper Fi were etched above it.
‘Mum would be so mad!’
‘Yeah? Well, she’s not around to see it, is she?’ He flicked the sleeve down and stared at the road ahead.
I turned to look out of the window too. I shouldn’t have mentioned Mum. Five years didn’t seem to have softened the effect of hearing her name. I could see the muscles stretched taut around his jaw. He was as easy to read as I was, every emotion slapped across his face like a neon sign. I couldn’t believe I’d managed to upset him within half an hour of seeing him again. I really needed to not do that if I had any hope of convincing him to let me stay for the foreseeable future.
Hunting Lila by Sarah Alderson / Young Adult / Romance & Love / Fantasy / Mystery & Detective have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes