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Losing lila, p.17
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       Losing Lila, p.17

           Sarah Alderson
 
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  I lay on the bed staring at the alarm clock on the bedside table. When it flashed 5.51 a.m., I got out of bed. There was a pile of clothes hidden under the bed. A pair of Jack’s old shorts and a T-shirt, pilfered from the closet in his room and washed twice. I pulled them on and then sat on the edge of the bed to put on my running shoes. I looked again at the clock on the bedside table.

  5.57 a.m.

  I got up from the bed and crept to the door, easing it open and then tiptoeing across the landing in the semi-darkness. I bent and slipped a piece of paper under my dad’s door. His alarm was set for 6.15 a.m. The note told him to meet me at the hospital by 7 a.m. I’d underlined URGENT three times.

  Down the stairs, jumping the creaking one, landing in the hallway by the front door. I paused. Timing was crucial. At 6 a.m. the Unit did a changeover. I needed to head out just before the new cars arrived, when the men who’d overnighted at the house were tired and waiting for relief, and at the moment that would cause the most confusion. Alex had run over the plan with me at least a dozen times when we’d met on the pier.

  I opened the door, glancing back up the stairs to where my dad was still sound asleep. I stepped onto the veranda, pulling the door closed behind me, and then bounced down the steps and started stretching, waving to the men in the cars guarding the house. It couldn’t look like I was about to give them the slip. As far as they were to know, I was just going for an early-morning run. I noticed the two men in the back of the first car were asleep, faces pressed like lumps of Play-Doh splatted against the windows.

  The guy at the wheel swore when he saw me. He poked the guy next to him in the ribs and I watched him rub the blur from his eyes and then confer, looking over his shoulder, obviously trying to evaluate whether to pass it onto the relief cars which hadn’t yet appeared or to the car behind them whose occupants were clearly doing exactly the same calculations. Before they could make up their minds I bounded into a sprint, making it to the street corner before I heard the sound of an engine turning over and the black shape of the SUV pulled alongside me. I didn’t pay it any mind. This was what we’d anticipated. Alex had been quite right. The timing was perfect.

  Once I hit Main Street, my heart was slamming into my ribcage as my feet pounded the sidewalk. Did the Unit soldiers know about me? Had Richard Stirling told them? This could all go horribly wrong if they did. But just then Jonas’s face flashed into my mind. He had no idea what I was – I was certain of that. I had to take the risk that the others didn’t either. There was no other choice.

  I scanned the road ahead. There was more traffic, but it was still early and I needed there to be a few more cars on the road, bigger cars, or it wouldn’t work. I slowed my pace a fraction, sighting the red light a hundred metres ahead. I pulled up by a lamp post and started to stretch my calf muscles, peering over my shoulder. The Unit pulled up beside me and the driver wound down his window to glare at me. He’d been on shift for twelve hours and looked like he needed to be heading to bed and not kerb-crawling a dawn jogger. I smiled sweetly at him and started running just as he opened his mouth to say something.

  The light turned green up ahead. A truck appeared on the horizon. I cast a quick glance over my shoulder again, checking the SUV was still right on my tail, and then, with my eyes on the oncoming traffic, I stepped right out in front of the Unit’s car. The driver slammed on his brakes and I darted to the other side of the road where the lights of the Seven-Eleven beckoned.

  Once my foot hit the sidewalk, I swung my eyes to the truck heading towards us and forced it to fishtail across the road. It was heavier than the Humvee, but to me it was easier than pushing a piece of paper across a table with my fingertip.

  The back end of the truck swung across both lanes of traffic, right into the path of the Unit’s car. I saw the driver from the Unit frantically trying to ram the car into reverse to avoid the oncoming smash and I let him reverse a few metres, scared that the smash would be too big when it came and that someone might get hurt, but once it had cleared a few metres, I held it in a lock. The wheels spun, grinding up the asphalt. I didn’t wait for the impact. I turned on my heel and sprinted towards the Seven-Eleven, making it inside just as the sound of metal slicing into metal tore through the air.

  I ran down the row of canned goods and noodles, past the place Key had first accosted me – which felt like a year ago already – past the fridges blowing condensed cool air, towards the fire exit looming large at the back and that’s when I fell.

  The pain was so intense I curled immediately onto my side and tried to wrap my arms round my skull to stop the bone from shattering into a million pieces. I wondered where the axe had come from and who was swinging it at my head. Except it wasn’t an axe. I knew what it was. I’d felt it before, only never like this – never this badly. All I could compute was that they knew.

  They knew. They knew. How stupid had I been to think that Richard Stirling wouldn’t have warned them? Of course they knew!

  I tried to roll onto my haunches, dimly aware that there was a man shouting somewhere in the distance or maybe he was yelling right by my ear. But I couldn’t understand whatever he was screaming. Was he one of the Unit? I had to stand but I couldn’t find the floor. Or my feet. The room was a shrieking, spinning cage. I sobbed and choked, realising I was on my knees, with my head resting on the ground. I needed to get out of here. I needed to get to Alex. With an unsteady arm, I reached out and found something solid to lean on, a shelf maybe. But then the shelf tipped or the room tipped and I tipped with it and I lay there amongst the fallen packets of noodles, feeling the tears slide down my cheeks.

  Then I was lifted up. My arms flopped over somebody’s back, my head banged against something hard and I groaned. Put me down. Let me go. But the words didn’t make it past my lips. Please. Something bashed my leg and then I was held upside down. No, I was upright. No. I couldn’t tell any longer which way up I was.

  ‘Lila, Lila . . .’ I tried to raise my head.

  ‘Lila, can you sit? You need to hold on. Can you hold on?’

  I opened one eye. It was Alex. He was yelling at me. I frowned, wincing at the pain that shot through my head.

  ‘. . . hold on . . .’

  What was he saying? He grabbed both my arms then and hauled me like a sack of potatoes onto something, something unsteady, and I wobbled and wanted to fall to the floor. But he wasn’t letting me. He was tugging me upright and he wouldn’t let go of my wrists. He had his back to me and I rested my head between his shoulder blades. Then the drilling in my skull was joined by a throbbing sensation that made my whole body vibrate violently.

  My head lolled to one side and it was just too much effort to lift it back up so I let it hang there, feeling the lure of the horizontal and the screaming pull of the muscles in my arms and shoulders. Alex was shouting still and I tasted salt and I didn’t know why, and then the drilling stopped and the pain receded slowly.

  I raised my head from its painful back bend position and felt wind pummel me. The sob that had been crushed in my windpipe burst free and I pushed my face forward into Alex’s back to stifle it. I shifted my balance on the bike, squeezing Alex even tighter than he was gripping me.

  ‘Are you OK?’ The words whipped away in the wind as he said them. I nodded against his back, hoping he could feel it. Speaking was out of the question.

  At some point he slowed the bike to a stop and the noise of the air juddering in my ears faded. My head felt hangover heavy as though I was trying to balance a cannonball on top of a blade of grass.

  I let Alex put one hand round my back and one underneath me and lift me, and I curled into him, pulling my head under his chin. But the blunt stick of a memory was starting to poke at my bruised brain. I tried to ignore it. It felt good here folded against Alex, hearing his pulse under my ear, loud and steady.

  We were walking on wood. And I could hear the slap of water beneath us. The pier again? I twisted my head to see and cracked open an eye. We were on
a jetty, not the pier. There were rows and rows of boats – sailing boats, speedboats, dinghies and one or two super yachts towering over the rest, making them seem like plastic bath toys.

  What were we doing here? I needed to be somewhere.

  ‘Key!’ Alex’s voice vibrated against my cheek. ‘Start the engine. We need to go. Now!’

  Key? Did he just say Key? I squinted into the shatteringly bright sun and saw a silhouette above us standing on the deck of an enormous boat.

  ‘What? Why is she here? What happened?’

  That was Key’s voice. But what was Key doing here? Why wasn’t he in Washington? Why wasn’t he up in the sky floating around?

  ‘We’ve got to go,’ Alex said. ‘The Unit know about Lila. They’ll be on our tail. We’ve got to go now.’

  What was Alex saying? We couldn’t go. I needed to get somewhere. I just couldn’t think where.

  ‘What happened?’ Key repeated.

  ‘I don’t know. But we need to haul ass out of here.’

  No. No, no, no hauling. No ass. This wasn’t right. The hospital. That was right. I needed to get to the hospital and rescue Jack. I pushed myself away from Alex’s chest and threw my legs out in a jerking puppet dance in an effort to get down.

  ‘No, no. Go back. Go back! Down!’

  The roar of an engine severed all lines of communication. Alex held me tight, reining my legs in. ‘Whoa, calm down. We’re going, Lila. We have to go.’

  He started shifting my weight so he could throw me over his shoulder and hoist me onto the boat, but I fought him, pried his arms off me with an enormous effort, forcing them apart with my mind. I slid to the jetty, banging my knees as he dropped me. Alex staggered back, rubbing his shoulder, a crease of irritation running between his eyes.

  ‘What time is it?’ I asked, looking up at him from my kneeling position, shouting to be heard over the kicking of the engine.

  ‘It’s about six twenty. Why?’ he shouted. ‘Come on, we have to go.’ His hand was there, under my arm, pulling me up. I let him, leaning against him for support.

  Six twenty? Just six twenty? What had happened to time? It seemed to be compressing and lengthening like the universe was playing yo-yo with the world. It had felt like eighty lifetimes that I’d been writhing on the ground before Alex came and hauled me out of the Seven-Eleven, and then another eighty lifetimes on the bike, but it had been less than ten minutes ago.

  ‘I need to get back. I can’t be late.’ Why didn’t he understand?

  ‘What are you talking about? Late for what?’ Alex was looking at me like I’d sustained a head injury. ‘You can’t go back. They know about you, Lila. The weapon, that thing they used to floor you – it means they must know about you – about what you are. We need to get out of here while we still can.’ He reached a hand out towards me. ‘Everything’s changed now.’

  That’s when I realised Alex didn’t know. He didn’t know about Jack being awake or about him being a psy. He didn’t know about Richard Stirling threatening me either. How could he know? Key was here, in person, not floating around in the ether. The realisation hit me, sent me reeling, clutching a hand to my throat as I felt it constrict – if Alex didn’t know about Jack then there was no plan to rescue him. All of this had been pointless. I should have tried to break Jack out last night.

  ‘I know they know about me, Alex,’ I shouted. ‘But they have Jack. They’re moving him this morning to prisoner holding.’

  He dropped his hand. ‘What are you talking about? How do they know about you?’

  I shook my head. ‘I don’t have time to explain. But they’re moving Jack this morning and I promised I’d go back for him – that I wouldn’t let them take him.’

  Alex was trying to stay calm, but his voice was giving him away – he was losing it. ‘Lila, if they know about you, there’s no way you’re going back there. And we talked about this. We agreed that we’d let the Unit move him. I don’t see what the problem is.’ He placed both my hands on the rungs and his hands on my waist and tried to get me to climb the ladder. ‘We’ll come back for him and your mum. When Demos gets here. We’ll figure something out, I promise you.’

  ‘No!’ I twisted out from under his arms. ‘There is no later. You don’t understand. We can’t let them take him. We have to go back now.’

  ‘He’ll be OK,’ Alex said, frustration marking his words.

  ‘No. He won’t be OK,’ I said, shaking my head. ‘He’ll be dissected.’

  Alex stopped short, frowning at me. He didn’t understand and I didn’t have time to explain.

  ‘I’m not waiting for Demos and the others. I’m not waiting until you come up with another plan,’ I said, breathless. ‘I’m going now. And I’ll go by myself if I have to.’

  Alex’s eyes flashed with fury, his expression hardening. His look flattened me as easily as the weapon the Unit had just fired.

  ‘I’ll go with you.’

  It wasn’t Alex offering. I looked up. Key was leaning over the deck of the boat.

  ‘No. No one’s going anywhere,’ Alex growled in answer.

  ‘Jack’s one of us now,’ I blurted. ‘He’s like me. We can’t let them take him.’ It was OK me wondering about what injuries Jack could sustain, but the Unit wouldn’t just wonder.

  Alex was staring at me now open-mouthed. The anger had given way to confusion. ‘Jack’s one of you? What do you mean? He’s awake? Is he OK?’

  I nodded, poised on the balls of my feet ready to run, my heart jittering wildly as the adrenaline flooded my system. I noticed Key had climbed down the ladder and was standing just behind Alex. Then Alex strode towards me, grabbed my elbow and yanked me towards the boat. ’You’re not going back, Lila. It’s too dangerous. I won’t let you.’

  I didn’t think. I just reacted. To an outsider it must have looked like an invisible hand had snatched Alex into the air and thrown him against the side of the boat. His shoulder smacked into the metal railing and he fell to his knees. He cried out and I took a faltering step towards him, but he threw his head up, glaring at me, and it stopped me in my tracks. Then all emotion dropped away and his face turned to stone – to blank indifference. He stood calmly and backed a few steps away, still gripping his shoulder. I felt my ribcage compressing as if someone had dropped a brick on me from a great height.

  ‘Lila, come on, let’s go,’ Key mumbled. He glanced at Alex and gave a small apologetic shrug.

  I paused, caught in a single moment which I knew could lead to two very different outcomes, torn between wanting to run to Alex and needing to save my brother. Knowing that if I stayed, I might lose Jack but if I went, I’d almost certainly lose Alex.

  For a long moment we stared at each other, Alex’s eyes burning me with their fury, and I saw myself reflected, an insubstantial shape – who turned and ran.

  30

  Key unlocked the back door to a black, windowless van parked at the top of the jetty.

  ‘When did we get this?’ I asked.

  ‘Alex bought it yesterday – we were going to use it as our getaway car when the time came. Guess that time’s now.’

  I took a deep breath. I was really messing things up. I was ruining whatever plan Alex had set up – and what if it was the wrong thing to do? Should I wait? What if going now meant we couldn’t rescue my mum? What if Alex was right and I got caught? But at least I had a chance now of rescuing Jack and that chance was something I couldn’t let go of. I had promised him. If the situation was reversed, I knew that Jack would do the same for me.

  Key opened the door to the van. Inside there was a wooden bench running along one side. In the centre was a steel table set onto metal tracks inlaid into the floor. On top of the table was a coffin. Two metres of varnished oak with silver handlework.

  ‘What was the plan?’ I asked, turning to Key confused.

  ‘Private ambulance. Alex reckoned it was the only way of getting onto the base. He forged the paperwork, says I’m transporting a body.’
>
  I stared at the coffin. How many of us could have squeezed into that?

  ‘We’ve got to get you hidden,’ Key said, climbing in.

  ‘Hidden?’ I asked. ‘Where am I going to hide?’

  Key nodded at the inside of the van. There it was. The solid oak coffin. Grinning at me.

  ‘I’m not hiding in that thing!’ I caught the yell in my throat and dropped my voice to a hiss.

  ‘Well, our options are kinda limited right now.’

  But this limited? There had to be another way. I scanned every bit of the van. It was bare. Other than the coffin.

  ‘This sucks.’

  ‘There are air holes drilled in the sides, you won’t suffocate.’ He hefted the lid off the coffin. Inside it was lined with crimson silk.

  ‘No way.’

  ‘Lila, come on, we’re late. It’s just a coffin. I’ve slept in worse places.’

  I stared at him in the gloom of the van. ‘Fine,’ I snapped. I turned to look at the coffin. Oh God.

  ‘Do you need a hand?’

  ‘No, I’m fine,’ I snapped, swinging one leg over the side. He steadied my elbow. I climbed in and lay down. The silk was synthetic. It felt cool and scratchy against the back of my legs and arms.

  Oh God. Oh God. Oh God. Jack owed me big time for this.

  Key’s face hovered over me. ‘OK, stay cool. We’ll be there in ten minutes. Less,’ he added when he saw the look of horror on my face.

  ‘I’ll come round and let you out then.’ Key gave me one last semi-reassuring smile then slid the lid on.

  I wasn’t prepared for the darkness. It was solid, like I’d been embalmed in tar. Immediately I started scrabbling at the lid and the squashy sides, gasping for air. Were my eyes open or shut? It was so dark I couldn’t tell. Then I felt the shudder of an engine underneath me as Key revved the engine and pulled us out of the parking lot. My breathing was so loud it was echoing of the wood ten centimetres above my lips as though it was trying to lift the lid of the coffin. I was starting to sweat. Beads of it prickled the back of my neck, soaking into the synthetic silk lining which in turn stuck to the backs of my legs. I hummed to myself and tried to imagine I was lying in bed with Alex.

 
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