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Losing lila, p.15
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       Losing Lila, p.15

           Sarah Alderson
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  ‘You know,’ he said. ‘It’s their telepaths who hear us coming. Now it’ll be like pressing the mute button on a phone. They can’t hear us – so they won’t see us coming. It’s a very handy tool for the arsenal. Soon we’ll be able to read their minds too.’

  It felt like my seat was tipping, as if the floor was tilting under me.

  ‘It’s amazing the research we’ve been doing.’ He paused. ‘Obviously, it helps having two telepaths to research on. Well, only one now . . . since your brother and Jack broke Alicia out.’

  . . . Mum . . . my mum . . . I looked into his eyes. And my heart stilled in that instant. He knew. He knew that I knew about my mum. It was obvious in the smile contorting his face.

  ‘Though for obvious reasons your father is going to have to be kept in the dark as to our guinea-pig situation. But once we get him working in our labs, it’ll be no time before we’ve cracked the telekinetic gene code.’ He stared at me unblinking. ‘We just need to get our hands on one.’

  I flinched back in my chair, before I could stop myself. He paused again, smiling at my reaction. ‘But of course this is all for one end. As you know. To catch Demos,’ another pause, ‘and his people.’

  And his people. Meaning me.

  The table slanted to a forty-five-degree angle. No, it didn’t. That was my head, sliding down my arm. It felt like I was running off a cliff face. Pure panic and a wall of terror rushing up to meet me. They knew about me. My breathing was coming in fits and starts. My lungs were screaming. I couldn’t get any air into them. I flattened my hand on the tabletop, trying to steady myself as the room spun around me.

  ‘You should get back to your father, Lila. He’ll be worried.’

  I looked up. Richard Stirling looked hazy, as if he was painted in watercolour. I knew it was the tears filming my eyes and tried desperately to blink them away. I gripped the table edge and stood up, suddenly unsure of how to walk. He was letting me go? Why was he letting me go?

  ‘Oh, Lila,’ he called as I reached unsteadily for the door handle. ‘I’m sure you know how much we value your family’s contribution to our little project.’

  I gripped the handle for support.

  ‘Your cooperation is something I personally am very grateful for. I understand it must be hard for you. But I know you want Jack to get the best care imaginable and I know it must be a relief having your father nearby.’ Another pause while he waited for me to give some sign that I had understood his true meaning. ‘And the protection we can offer you and your father is second to none. We wouldn’t want what happened to your mother to happen to any of you, now would we?’

  I stood there as still as if Demos was in the room freezing me and watched as Richard Stirling strolled towards me.

  ‘No one can reach you now,’ he said softly. ‘You’re entirely safe. So you shouldn’t worry. This will all soon be over.’

  So that was why he was letting me go. It was with a warning. If I did anything stupid, he’d hurt Jack and my dad as well as me.

  Something was going to break. The door, his neck, my grip on sanity and my even slenderer grip on my ability. If I stayed one more second, I wouldn’t be able to stop myself. I could feel my control slipping. I had to get out of here.

  ‘Lila, it’s been a pleasure,’ he said, putting his hand over mine, sending shudders up my arm. He opened the door. ‘Let’s do this again sometime. I’d like to get to know you better.’

  And with that he shut the door on me.


  My dad was sitting by Jack’s bed. He looked up when I stumbled through the door.

  ‘God, what’s happened? Are you OK?’ he said, jumping up from his chair and crossing the room towards me at a half-run. I fell into his arms.

  ‘Lila, Lila, what’s the matter?’ he asked, trying to pull me away from him so he could look at me. I wouldn’t be budged. He gave up and just held me. I scrunched my face into his shirt and breathed until my chest stopped heaving. What was the matter?

  Richard Stirling knows everything. He knows what I am. He knows. My lungs felt like they were filling up with acid. It hurt so much to breathe.

  After a minute or so my dad pried me slightly off him. ‘What’s going on?’

  I stared at him – at his eyes a muddy green colour, his high forehead scourged deep with frown lines. His hands were still resting on my shoulders. I contemplated them. He still wore his wedding ring, a bruised gold reminder to the both of us.

  ‘Nothing,’ I said, pulling away from him harshly. Nothing I can tell you.

  I moved to Jack’s side and studied his blank face. Why couldn’t I be the one drifting on the edge of consciousness, happily oblivious, while everyone else had to find a way of dealing with the situation?

  ‘Won’t you talk to me, Lila?’

  I glanced up at my dad, his face fraught.

  I took a deep breath. ‘Can you make someone telepathic? Are you helping them do that?’

  My dad took a step backwards like I’d slapped him. ‘What on earth? No – that’s absurd. Why would you think that?’

  ‘Er – because Richard Stirling just told me about your little breakthrough.’

  ‘What breakthrough?’

  ‘That you can block telepaths.’

  ‘Oh, that.’

  ‘Yes, that.’

  ‘That’s so we can stop them, Lila,’ my dad said, shaking his head in bewilderment. ‘So we can catch them. We can’t stop them unless we catch them. But we haven’t made anyone telepathic. That’s not what Stirling Enterprises is doing.’ He laughed. ‘It’s not even possible.’

  My head had been bowed, but I looked up now, stunned, hope bursting inside me. ‘It’s not?’

  ‘Well, I suppose theoretically it is possible.’

  My heart sank back to where it had been, somewhere at the bottom of my chest. My dad kept talking, oblivious to my expression. ‘You’d just have to reverse the logic of what I’ve been working on. But why would they want to do that anyway? We’re trying to find a cure, Lila. So that we can stop them before anyone else gets hurt.’

  All my dad was doing was speeding the process to our elimination – and his own. Because once he’d given them everything they needed, it would be goodbye, Dr Loveday. And goodbye to Jack and me – but not before they’d done whatever testing on me they’d done to Thomas and were currently doing to my mum. The only reason Richard Stirling hadn’t taken me already and started experimenting on me was because he needed my dad. I looked over at him now, staring at me in confusion, and sighed. Why couldn’t he have found a cure for cancer, for God’s sake?

  Richard Stirling was as good as his word. When we left the hospital, there were two cars waiting for us at the kerb. Our protection had been doubled. He was doing his best to hammer home the message that there was no point running and no point fighting, just in case his barefaced warnings hadn’t done the job. That’s what the eight men in their mirrored sunglasses were supposed to be spelling out to me. But the only miscalculation he’d made was that I never, ever reacted well to being told what to do.

  My dad seemed slightly puzzled by the increase in the security detail numbers as they ushered us into a third car which drove off sandwiched between two others. Jonas was in the passenger seat of our car and I caught him glancing over his shoulder at me. I turned away and stared out of the window, refusing to meet his eye.

  ‘Why the extra car today?’ my dad asked the guy driving.

  ‘Nothing to worry about, Dr Loveday,’ he answered. ‘We just wanted you to know how seriously we take your security. And your daughter’s.’ My head jerked in his direction. He was staring at me in the rear-view mirror, his eyes shielded by the alien gleam of his mirrored shades. I gripped the door handle tighter. Did he know about me being a psy? Did they all know? Surely if Richard Stirling did then all the people working for the Unit would know? My breathing escalated at the thought.

  ‘I see,’ my dad muttered. He peered nervously over his shoulder as though
expecting to see Demos leaping out of the bushes at the side of the road. I clenched my teeth together and pressed my forehead against the cool glass, watching the white stripes of the road slip by.

  When we pulled up outside Jack’s house, Jonas was immediately out of the car, opening my door for me. ‘Don’t forget to set the alarm,’ he said to me as I got out. ‘Oh, and by the way, we’ve got men out the back too. Covering the lanes either side and the road behind.’

  I glared at him – was this another thinly veiled threat? But he seemed genuinely confused by the death stare I was giving him. I hurried up the path to the house, pausing only once to glance back at Jonas sitting in the car. He was still looking at me, chewing his lip. His face lit up as soon as he saw me looking his way. I stumbled. He couldn’t know, I realised. If Jonas knew who I was – what I was – there was no way he’d be acting this way – asking me on dates, opening car doors. He was far too transparent. And if he didn’t know, that meant the others probably didn’t either. At least I hoped not.

  Once inside the house, I deliberately ignored setting the alarm and walked into the living room instead. I peered out of the window. The Unit’s cars had parked one behind the other forming a metal barricade in front of the house. I drew the curtains on them and crossed to the bookshelf. My eyes were drawn immediately to the picture of my mum. Always, when I saw her picture, I felt like a plunger had been placed over my chest and was trying to suck my heart out through the gaps between my ribs.

  I glanced at the photograph next to it, of Jack, Alex and me as children, taken one summer at the lake – smiling, oblivious to anything like this future. I traced Jack’s face with my fingertips. The picture had been taken the summer I’d tried to swim across the lake after them and had nearly drowned. Between them Jack and Alex had managed to get me to shore. I felt the surge of frustration that I always got when Jack beat me at something or did something better than me, but this time it transmuted into another type of emotion – defiance.

  You think I’m just a girl and that I can’t keep up with you and Alex? I thought as I stared at Jack’s face. I am so going to show you. Then my fingers moved to hover over a thirteen-year-old Alex, hair slicked wet and eyes shining blue. He was grinning widely at the camera, and squinting against the sun. He had one arm thrown round my skinny eight-year-old shoulders, the other round Jack’s neck. I wasn’t looking at the camera – I was looking up at Alex with what could only be described as a look of awe on my face. The kind of expression normally reserved for saints in medieval paintings as they stared up at the face of God. Embarrassing.

  I crossed back to the window and looked out. The men in the car nearest caught the movement of the curtain and turned robotically to stare at me. I stared back for a few seconds before letting the curtain fall.

  Richard Stirling’s threats still echoed in my head. That man had torn my family apart and now he was threatening to do worse. Except – I took a deep breath – this time I wasn’t going to let him. I’d had enough of being on the run – of being hunted. And I’d really had enough of hiding who I was. I was done with being the victim, the little kid, the one who always needed rescuing. There was an anger burning in me which Richard Stirling had just fanned to inferno-sized proportions. But it wasn’t the hot anger I was used to, the kind of anger that blinded and was hard to control, the kind that made cookies spin across a table, T-shirts ruck up and buoys zip out to sea. No. This was nitrogen-cold. It was as focused and intent as a gun trained on a target.

  Richard Stirling might see just a seventeen-year-old girl standing in front of him, too scared to fight back, too panicked and afraid to do anything but submit. But that was where he was wrong. Richard Stirling was going to need the whole damn United States army guarding him if he was planning on stopping me from kicking his butt. Well and truly. And I wasn’t even going to extend him the courtesy of a threat first. I was just going to do it.

  I ran upstairs and stood in front of the mirror in my room. The eyes that stared back at me were sea-green; my face was lightly tanned from the sun in Mexico, a flash of colour across the bridge of my nose and forehead. I looked like me still, only not quite. There was something different that I couldn’t at first put my finger on. Not older exactly. Not tired, nor wired. Not the shorter hair. Just different. Maybe it was the tilt of my chin reminding me of the way Jack looked when he wasn’t ready to give up an argument. I stepped closer to the glass, holding my own gaze steady. That was it. There. My eyes. The expression in them. Before they’d been feverish, manic as wind-chopped waves. Now they were still. Completely clear and still like the ocean just before the tide changes.

  Half an hour ago I’d been in pieces, but now I was together, completely together. And it felt good. The fear had gone. The yo-yoing of my insides had gone. The thoughts that had been backpedalling like ants in jam were running free. It was about time I started being who I was. I rolled back my shoulders and took a deep breath. It was time I started practising.

  I sat down on the bed and visualised the radio sitting on the windowsill in the kitchen, then I twisted the volume button. Pounding drum and bass music started shaking the house. I heard my dad’s feet stamping into the kitchen and then the radio fell silent. I smiled to myself, feeling the buzz of excitement start to bubble in my gut. I cast a glance round the bedroom, wondering what else I could practise on. I thought of the shower. Instantly the sound of water splashing into the bath echoed down the hallway.

  ‘Lila?’ my dad called up the stairs.

  ‘Yeah, I’m just going to have a shower,’ I called back, my heart pounding.

  I walked into the bathroom and shut the door with my eyes closed. It felt good to start using my power again – to practise – sort of a release. And I realised with a start that I was getting good. Really good. And controlling it was getting easier too. The meeting with Richard Stirling had been the litmus test. If I could get through that without impaling him under a table leg then I felt pretty confident of my ability to keep control in any situation. No more near eyeball-kebabing unless the situation absolutely demanded it.

  I sat on the side of the bath, a fine drizzle from the shower settling on my hair. I felt like I could imagine the ocean, a quarter of a mile away, thumping into the struts of the pier and I could force it to punch through the wooden planks. I didn’t need to see things anymore. I just had to think an abstract thought with enough intent and it would be done.

  I shook my head. I was being stupid. That was ridiculous. I knew I could move objects – tanks even. And I had kind of mastered moving people – though I hadn’t had much chance to practise other than with Alex and a fat Mexican Mafioso – but now I was suddenly thinking I could manipulate nature. As if.

  But then again, maybe, just maybe, I could.

  I turned away from the shower and walked to the end of the bathroom. I thought about the shower spray hitting the ceiling. The hiss of the water on enamel stopped, became a slap and slosh instead. I turned slowly. The shower head was pointing at the plughole and the water was coming out of it, but instead of falling down towards the plughole, the way water normally does, it was erupting upwards like a geyser towards the ceiling and then water-falling back down towards the bath.

  I closed my eyes and opened them once more. The water was defying gravity. The laws of physics . . . I was bending them. Take that, Newton.

  With another trace of a thought, the spray of water changed direction, firing towards the window like a car-wash jet. I dodged out of its path and it parted round me, curving round my arms and bouncing back into the bath. I glanced at the tap and it turned off, then I sank to the floor, my knees soaking in the puddles left behind.

  Holy crap.

  In a good way. Holy. Crap.


  Dr Roberts was standing by the nurses’ station when I walked onto the intensive care ward. He was chatting away with the same nurse that I’d seen in the canteen and from the way she kept touching his shoulder and giggling I could tell she w
anted to touch a whole lot more of the good doctor. She frowned at me in irritation when I appeared at his side.

  ‘Hi,’ I said.

  ‘Hi,’ Dr Roberts replied. ‘You’re here late. It’s outside visiting hours.’

  I knew that. It was past midnight. I’d had one of the cars parked outside the house drive me back to the base. I had needed to see Jack.

  ‘Can I just pop in and see him?’ I pleaded with a smile.

  The doctor nodded, smiling back. ‘Sure, just not for long. Fifteen minutes, OK?’

  ‘OK,’ I said, already hurrying down the corridor.

  I glared at the guard standing like a pillar in front of Jack’s room until he moved out of my way. I opened the door, stepped inside, shut the door behind me and then froze.

  The bed was empty. I stared at the rumpled sheet and the loosely dangling IV, dripping its viscous saline solution onto the floor. I registered that the hum and hiss of the respirator had stopped. The machine to the left of the bed was flatlining in silence. I turned round slowly, breathing haltingly, my knees shaking. The room was empty. They’d taken him. They had taken him. I felt my knees give way. But then something else registered. Why were they still guarding the door if they’d taken him?

  I heard the handle to the bathroom being turned and spun round, hurling the vase from the table towards the door just as it flew open. I started, only just managing to catch the vase before it smashed down onto Jack’s head. He ducked anyway, and looked up at the floating crystal shape filled with blooms and then over to me. He raised an eyebrow as if to say are you trying to kill me?

  I stared at him. He was standing upright, unaided, in his boxer shorts, looking like he’d just spent ten days in a spa, not in a coma. How was that possible? The doctor had mentioned paralysis, wheelchairs, physio, and here he was walking around as if he was warming up for a marathon. My gaze fell to his chest, to the place where he’d been shot.

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