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Losing lila, p.18
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       Losing Lila, p.18

           Sarah Alderson
 
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  It didn’t work. All it did was make me wonder if I’d ever get that close to him again – whether he’d ever even talk to me again. That anger – I’d never seen him like that before about anything. I wouldn’t cry. Not now. Not yet. But inside, I already knew that there was no way of coming back from this. I’d betrayed him. I’d hurt him. And worse, I’d run out on him yet again.

  We slowed. I felt the swerve of the van. Was this the entrance to the base? We stopped. I could hear the muffled sound of voices. I prayed that they wouldn’t open the van and look in the coffin. The back of the van opened with a clang. I heard Key’s voice, louder now, but I couldn’t make out what he was saying. Sweat started to trickle down my forehead. Dead people weren’t supposed to sweat. I prayed even harder that they wouldn’t open the coffin.

  Key’s voice came nearer – clearer – still. Footsteps made the coffin shake. A bang above my face as a hand slapped the lid. Solid oak, Key was saying.

  I took a huge gulp of warm air, crossed my hands over my chest and tried to look dead, though I was sure if they opened the coffin, my heart would literally bound out my chest and smack them in the face.

  Footsteps. Slamming door. Blurry voices. Indistinct cries. Engine whine. Tyres on gravel. Picking up speed. I let out a breath.

  A minute or two later we slowed, then sped up again and finally stopped. I heard the engine cut out. The doors at the back opened after another second and the van rocked. A dazzling glare of light hit me, a mountain of colours making my eyes water. Air. Fresh, sweet air. I sucked it into my lungs. It tasted rich and cool and succulent. I gulped it down and heaved myself out of the coffin. Key caught me under my arms and helped me stand.

  ‘I want to be . . . cremated . . .’ I panted. ‘Remember that. If anything goes wrong . . .’

  ‘Right, you ready?’ Key asked.

  I nodded, took a few more deep breaths, and wiped the sweat of my face with the back of my arm.

  We were parked in a bay, down a ramp, behind the hospital. Wide double doors faced us – closed and impenetrable.

  ‘Good luck,’ Key said. ‘I’ll be here waiting. Don’t be long.’ He shuffled and glanced over his shoulder.

  I smiled at him. ‘Thanks for this, Key. I owe you.’

  ‘No worries,’ he said, winking at me.

  31

  I took one glance at the double doors and they clicked open. I peeked through into the neon glare of a green tiled corridor. It was, at this early hour, empty. I slipped through and let the door fall shut behind me then started walking, my limbs feeling springy and coltish as the adrenaline and fear began to invade my body. About halfway down the corridor was a locker room. I stepped quickly inside. Rows of lockers covered two walls. I swept my eyes along them, fifty or so doors flying open in my wake with an almighty crash. I glanced over my shoulder, cringing, but the corridor remained empty. I ran to the nearest locker, ransacking it, looking for something I could use.

  A nurse’s uniform. Perfect. I ducked behind the door and stripped to my underwear in record time, shoving my running gear into the locker I’d stolen the nurse’s outfit from. The shoes I took were white clogs, a size too big, but they’d have to do. I stood in front of the mirror and fixed the little hat to my hair with fumbling hands. I didn’t look like a nurse, I looked like a stripper. How did nurses work these uniforms with dignity? I shrugged. It would have to do. I took one last thing from another locker – a doctor’s white coat. Jack was going to need a disguise too.

  The corridor was still empty when I poked my head back round the door. I stepped out brazenly, arms swinging, rubber-soled shoes squeaking on the lino floor. I tried to tell myself to walk like a nurse. Purposefully, like I knew where I was going. Like I was on my way to resuscitate someone. I started running then slowed myself. That was too obvious. Maybe I should pretend I was on the way to empty a bedpan. I slowed my pace to a stroll, but that felt too slow.

  I did know where I was going at least. That was a bonus. I’d mapped this whole place out on my search for a vending machine. About three strides before I got to the emergency stairwell I planned to use, a man stepped out of nowhere. He was dragging a mop and bucket behind him and almost collided with me. I stepped round him and caught the question on his face as I kept on past him and rounded the corner. Damn. I couldn’t use the stairs now. It was too risky. He was mopping the corridor right by them. I could hear the squelch and slop of water.

  I kept walking, trying to remind myself that I could move water – I could flip a man on his backside with a glance. I was invincible. Kind of. And invisible would be better in this situation. But I’d work with what I had.

  I passed the sign for the mortuary. Yellowing plastic sheeting hung in place of doors and I picked my pace up to a fast trot. It was quiet down here. Just me and the dead. And the janitor around the corner.

  Once at the never-ending corridor’s end, I found the elevator. It was risky taking it. The doors opened right by the nurses’ station on the intensive care unit, as opposed to the stairwell which was at the far end. What if I walked into one of the nurses or Dr Roberts? That would be a diffcult one to explain. There was no other way from here, though. It was either the elevator or back the way I’d come past the suspicious janitor. I pressed the button and waited for the elevator to lumber down. It was empty thankfully. I stepped inside and pressed the button for the second floor and prayed that it wouldn’t stop at any of the floors in between.

  No one heard my prayers. The elevator slowed and juddered to a halt on the first floor. I looked around for somewhere to hide. The doors started to open and I caught them in a moment of panic, holding them together like the pages of a book. Some fingers appeared in the gap, trying to force them open. I could feel them in my head, like they were pressing into dough, and I squeezed the doors tighter together until whoever it was pulled their hand back, cursing.

  ‘Damn elevator,’ I heard them say.

  I kept my finger on the button, holding it down, and after a few seconds it obeyed and I felt the hydraulic shunt as we moved up. At the second floor I played the same trick, keeping the doors shut while I pressed my ear to them, listening for footsteps or voices on the other side. There were none, so I opened the doors a fraction and peered with one eye through the slit. I could see the back of someone’s legs a few metres away to the left, by the nurses’ station. Jack’s room was to the right.

  What was at the end of the hallway? I tried to think. There were private rooms coming off on either side and then at the far end there was a coffee vending machine. I pictured it in my head. There was a slight tug, like a fish catching on a line – and then I felt it fall. The crash rumbled through the elevator doors then the sound of footsteps followed, taking off in that direction.

  I let the doors slide open and stepped out, turning right, expecting to see the guard stationed outside Jack’s room, and hoping I could sweep my way past him if I kept my head down. But he wasn’t standing to attention there. He was right in front of me, heading towards the commotion at the end of the hallway. I almost walked into him. He was holding his gun in both hands. It was too late to turn back towards the elevator so the only thing I could do was to keep walking and hope he didn’t recognise me.

  ‘Lila?’

  I froze and glanced up. Jonas was blinking at me in open-mouthed astonishment.

  ‘Hi!’ I screeched.

  ‘Why are you dressed as a nurse?’ he asked. I noticed the gun hadn’t shifted back into its normal at-ease position.

  ‘Er . . .’ That was his only question? Why wasn’t he levelling his gun at my head? I waited. But he made no move to stop me – he was just staring at my hat. I could see the cogs turning.

  ‘Well . . .’ I said, trying to think. His brow was darkening now, his skin folding into stiff creases, suspicion starting to cloud his eyes. ‘I thought . . . maybe . . . you’d appreciate . . . the nurse’s outfit . . .’ I stuttered, unable to believe the words coming out of my mouth.

 
Neither, it seemed, could Jonas. His eyes widened like dinner plates. ‘For me?’ he smiled.

  ‘Yeah, I saw the way you were checking out the nurses and I thought maybe you’d like a visit from Nurse Lila.’

  Nurse Lila? Oh God. I wanted to grab the gun and shoot myself.

  Jonas’s eyes lit up like a Christmas tree. He looked up and down the hallway. Then to the zip on my dress.

  ‘Are you serious?’ he asked.

  Of course I’m not serious, you whacko, I thought, staring at him in disbelief. But another thought was registering simultaneously. He didn’t know. I had been right all along. Jonas, for whatever reason – rank or age or just plain luck – didn’t know about me.

  ‘But how did you know I was even here?’ he asked suddenly.

  ‘Um, the men at the house told me?’ I answered, feeling my gut tighten into a string of knots that I couldn’t see ever coming undone. Jonas pondered this for a second and then shouldered his gun in a hurry, grabbed me by the arm and started whisking me down the hallway. We thundered past the door to Jack’s room. Where was he taking me? Was he arresting me? Then he pulled me into the adjacent visitors’ room.

  ‘What are we doing in . . .’ My words trailed off as I saw he had shut the door, thrown his gun onto the sofa and was walking towards me, his expression intent.

  ‘Man, this is like the coolest thing ever,’ he said, putting an arm round my waist.

  I was too shocked to protest; my brain was still trying to process the fact he’d believed my line about having dressed up like a stripper for him and that he wasn’t radioing for back-up. Maybe he hadn’t heard about my big escape half an hour ago. That was a stroke of luck, otherwise I’d probably be on the floor by now. But actually, it looked like that’s where Jonas wanted me anyway.

  ‘What’s this thing for?’ He grabbed the doctor’s coat out of my hand and shook it out with his free hand. My heart thudded to a stop in my chest. He surely had to work it out now. It was like a game of Cluedo – the nurse, in the hospital room, with the doctor’s coat. Yet for whatever reason he couldn’t seem to join up the dots.

  ‘Doctors and nurses . . . wow,’ he said, looking me up and down again, so obviously mentally undressing me that I squirmed. ‘This is, like, totally . . . cool . . .’

  ‘Er,’ I said, ducking back from the hand that had come to rest on my shoulder and was stroking a damp strand of hair back from my neck. ‘Won’t you get in trouble? You’re on duty.’ I indicated the door.

  ‘It’s early. No one will notice.’ His eyes were running over my dress.

  I looked over his shoulder. There was a waste-paper basket in the corner. I lifted it up and brought it in a silent glide towards him until it was hovering about a metre over his head. It would need to be a huge whack to knock him out and I wasn’t sure it was heavy enough. His skull was obviously pretty thick.

  Before I could try it, though, Jonas’s arms came out of nowhere, wrapping round my waist like an octopus, pulling me into him. He was strong. Way stronger than I was expecting. And the shock of his touch in comparison to Alex’s gave me a jolt. He took the jolt as acquiescence because before I could think another thought his lips were on mine, warm, pepperminty, alien, his tongue trying to force itself into my mouth.

  The basket made a thunking sound when it made contact. Jonas reeled and staggered, his arms loosened and I stepped backwards ready to slam him into the wall. But I didn’t have to. Jack had appeared out of nowhere and was standing right in front of me. He took Jonas by the scruff of his neck and hauled him upright. He waited until Jonas was steady and then pulled his fist back. I winced in anticipation.

  ‘That’s my sister you’re mauling there,’ Jack shouted. ‘Don’t – Ever – Touch – My – Sister!’ Then his fist made contact with Jonas’s temple. The blizzard of confusion on Jonas’s face turned to wonder and then his eyes rolled back in his head and he crumpled to the floor at Jack’s feet.

  ‘I thought you were coming to rescue me?’ Jack said, flexing his fingers and rounding on me.

  ‘I am,’ I snapped. ‘I had it totally under control.’

  ‘Yeah, looked like it.’

  I glared at him. ‘Come on, let’s get out of here. Put this on.’ I threw the doctor’s coat at him.

  ‘What about clothes? Did you not bring any clothes?’ he asked. He was wearing some green scrub trousers he must have stolen from somewhere, but otherwise he was bare-chested and barefoot.

  ‘Things didn’t exactly go to plan,’ I shrugged.

  ‘What happened?’ he asked, pulling the coat on over his bare chest and bending to pick up the gun that Jonas had discarded on the sofa.

  ‘I’ll explain later. We have to go,’ I said, yanking open the door. ‘Oh, wait!’ I closed the door again and turned round, bending to Jonas’s side and rummaging in his pockets. ‘We need a knife.’ I tugged an army switchblade from his uniform pocket and stood up, blade at the ready.

  Jack stared at me. ‘What are you doing?’ He dodged out of my way as I stepped towards him with the knife held high.

  ‘We need to get rid of the tracker.’

  ‘What?’ He sidestepped me again. ‘What tracker?’

  ‘In your arm, your tattoo . . . there’s a tracker. We need to get it out.’

  Jack paused for a second then peeled back his doctor’s coat and ran his hands over the top of his arm, over the image of two crossed swords. ‘Where?’ he asked.

  ‘Here,’ I said, pressing my fingers hard into the muscle of his arm, trying to feel for the tiny bump.

  ‘Damn,’ Jack whispered under his breath. ‘Give me the knife.’

  That was fine by me. I handed it over and turned my back. There was a second of silence and then a sharp intake of air. I peeked over my shoulder.

  ‘Does it hurt?’ I asked, watching the trickles of blood start to slide down his arm.

  ‘Of course it goddamn hurts. Give me something to stop the blood, will you?’

  I cast around the room trying to find something. Jonas was sprawled across the floor, his foot resting by a little table with a lace doily on the top.

  ‘Wait . . .’ I turned back to Jack.

  ‘I don’t think I need it.’ He was staring at his arm. The blood had stopped flowing. The cut had sealed itself up, leaving just a faint pink line over the word Semper. ‘Just something to wipe this up.’ He nodded at his arm, where the blood had trickled to his elbow. ‘Sometime today,’ he added when I made no move for the doily.

  I shook my head, trying to dislodge the amazement. My mind had already jumped ahead to the next logical question. If he hacked off his arm, would it grow back? I threw the doily in his direction. He caught it and, frowning, started to wipe the smear of blood off his arm.

  ‘Give me the tracker,’ I said, hopping from foot to foot. We were wasting time – the Unit would be here any second. We had to go.

  ‘Why?’ Jack asked, pulling the doctor’s coat back on and picking up the gun again.

  ‘Because I’m going to get rid of it,’ I said. I was going to send it to the elevator and let it ride between floors. That should keep them confused for a while when they came looking for us.

  Jack handed it over and I took it between my thumb and forefinger before rolling it under the door, feeling the friction between it and the linoleum floor. I closed my eyes, trying to visualise the hallway and the elevator. With a thought, I pushed the call button and we heard the distant ping as the elevator doors opened. I floated the tracker into the elevator, let it roll into a corner and then pressed the buttons for every floor.

  ‘Let’s go, then,’ Jack said, stepping over Jonas’s inert body. I grabbed Jack’s arm just before he turned the door handle. ‘What now?’ he whispered furiously.

  ‘I forgot something else. We need to wait for Dad.’

  Jack’s jaw looked like it was about to dislocate. He closed his eyes then opened them again. ‘You do all this,’ he waved a hand at my nurse’s outfit and then at the prone form of
Jonas at our feet, ‘and then you want to sit around and wait for Dad?’ He rolled his eyes. ‘Shall I go make us a cup of coffee while we wait? I could call the Unit and ask how many sugars they all take too and tell them to pick up some donuts on their way.’

  I pulled a face. ‘I told Dad seven. He should be here any minute.’

  ‘Oh, that was a great idea, Lila. No, really, the army should recruit you as a strategist. Why the hell did you tell him to meet us here?’

  I shrugged and pulled a face. ‘It seemed the easiest way.’

  Jack shook his head at me as though he couldn’t figure out how we were related. Then he inched open the door and peered round it. I knew Jack and my dad had issues, but leaving him at the mercy of the Unit – he couldn’t be serious. I pushed the door shut with a glance, but Jack was already shutting it himself. Without a word, he grabbed my arm, hauled me over the unconscious Jonas and through the door into his room.

  ‘What? What is it? Is it the Unit?’ I asked as he shoved me into the corner of the room. He ignored me. He was too busy levelling the gun at the door.

  ‘No, it’s a doctor,’ he answered.

  I jumped in front of him. ‘That’ll be Dr Roberts. He’s a good guy. Not a bad one.’

  ‘Lila, get out the way.’

  I stood my ground, clogs spaced a hip width apart. ‘No.’ With a quick glance, I tugged the gun up so its barrel was pointing towards the ceiling. I heard the door open behind me and twisted round to look. Dr Roberts was standing in the doorway. He did a triple take, confusion performing a Mexican wave over his face, followed by astonishment, before confusion came round for a second tour.

  The doctor’s eyes tracked from the gun in Jack’s hands to me. He opened his mouth and closed it once more as he took in the nurse’s uniform. I squirmed. But his attention was already back on Jack. He looked like he’d seen his life flash before his eyes, but it wasn’t the gun he was staring at. He couldn’t take his eyes off Jack’s bare, unblemished torso. I watched him try to figure out where the gaping scar should be and how his coma patient was now up and about, dressed in a doctor’s coat and brandishing a gun.

 
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