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       Losing Lila, p.8

           Sarah Alderson

  Alicia crossed straight to the bed. I knew I should follow her. Half of me did want to see him, but I couldn’t take a single step. I was rooted to the spot.

  ‘He’s getting better,’ Bill said softly, going to stand next to Alicia. ‘He just sleeps – he hasn’t really woken up – but there are no more nightmares. He seems calmer.’

  I noticed Demos scowling at Bill, obviously warning him to watch what he said in front of me.

  Bill cleared his throat. ‘He’s going to be fine,’ he said. ‘Give it another week or so and he’ll be back to normal.’

  I took a small step forward towards them and the insubstantial shape in the bed. Alicia was blocking my view. She stepped aside and I gasped and clapped a hand over my mouth. Thomas was as white as the sheet, whiter in fact, and his face was sheened with sweat. His breathing was so shallow that at first sight he appeared to be dead and I had a sudden thought that this was some kind of trick they were playing on me – bringing me to see a corpse. Then I noticed the slight rise and fall of his chest. But whatever Bill had just said was clearly just meant to placate me, because it sure as hell didn’t look like Thomas would be awake and back to normal this time next week, or any time this decade for that matter.

  ‘What did they do to him?’ I asked under my breath.

  Bill exhaled loudly. ‘He hasn’t been coherent enough to tell us anything. We’re not even sure if he can hear us. Amber only sees whiteness when she looks at him.’

  ‘The point is, he’s fine now. He’s going to be fine,’ Demos said as if the conviction in his voice could make us all believe it. But no one said anything in reply and so his lie fell flat.

  He should be in the hospital, being looked after, I thought angrily to myself. How else was he going to get better?

  ‘It’s not safe for him to be in hospital. The Unit would find him,’ Alicia answered my silent question. ‘And Bill here used to work as a nurse.’

  ‘Paramedic actually,’ Bill murmured.

  Oh. I hadn’t known that. To look at, you would have thought Bill made his living from cage-fighting. He had a bald, well-dented head and a neck almost as wide as my torso. But once you got to know him, you realised this softly-spoken, gentle man was a perfect example of not judging a book by its cover. I seemed to remember that Bill had been accused of several crimes by the Unit, including murder, but I couldn’t imagine him hurting so much as a fly . Then I remembered how he’d flipped one of the Humvees with the Unit soldiers inside. I studied him once more. He was a man of contradictions.

  ‘Alicia, can you hear anything? What’s going on inside his head?’ Bill suddenly asked.

  ‘Nothing,’ Alicia answered, almost too quickly. ‘I can’t hear anything.’

  She turned her back on me so I could no longer see her face, putting me instantly on alert. Was she lying? Why? I glanced at Thomas. What was she seeing in his head? God – this was far worse than I had imagined. I had expected Thomas to at least be sitting up in bed, conscious and talking. Was this what my mum would look like?

  The rage came out of nowhere – a tornado bursting out of me without warning. I tried to rein it in, but it was too late. Before I realised what I was doing the water glasses on the bedside table had gone spinning to the floor, smashing into the bedpost and shattering into millions of tiny shards.

  I felt my breath coming in great heaving waves. Alicia’s arm reached round my shoulder. ‘We shouldn’t have brought you,’ she said.

  I shrugged her off. No, they shouldn’t have brought me. Why had they? Did they think that seeing and hearing this would make me feel better? I just wanted to get out of here; the room was so small. I couldn’t breathe. I wanted to find Alex. I needed to see him.

  I turned on my heel, unsteady, aware that I was swaying, and headed to the door, ready to march out of there, when all of a sudden Amber appeared, blocking my way. She looked terrible. Her normally wild red hair was scraped back into a knotted ponytail, her face pale and completely bare of make-up. She looked like she hadn’t slept in a month.

  She stared straight at me, then her face twisted into a grimace and she looked away. I drew in a breath. What colour had she seen? Was it my rage that had hit her? Rage was the colour red. I probably looked like a giant ball of flame to her.

  ‘Amber,’ Demos said quietly.

  Her grey eyes flashed angrily at him then she walked abruptly past him to the window, pulling back the curtain.

  ‘You know, Demos,’ she said, scanning the street below, ‘I’m not sure what’s better, looking at the people out there or looking at you. Out there there’s so much colour.’ She laughed, but it was a noise as bitter as bile. ‘The world carries on,’ she said quietly.

  I let out a long breath, feeling my anger dissipate with it. I knew what she was talking about – knew it well – a feeling that the world should somehow stop, cease to be, because someone you loved was no longer in it. That’s how I’d felt after my mother died. Or after I had thought she’d died.

  ‘You know, I never knew that pity had its own colour.’ She glanced at me as she said it and I looked away, embarrassed, realising that that was what I was now feeling instead of rage. ‘But you, Demos,’ she carried on, ‘you have your own colour. Did you know that? It’s not pity you’re feeling, is it? It’s something else. Guilt. And that has a colour all of its own.’

  Demos shuffled uneasily next to me. Amber got up slowly from the chair and strode towards him. ‘Why are you here?’

  ‘We’re worried about you, Amber,’ Demos answered.

  ‘Oh really? I don’t think so, Demos – that would actually require you to care about someone other than Melissa and to actually be thinking of something other than revenge.’

  I felt Alicia stiffen beside me.

  ‘Amber,’ Demos said, ‘this is about more than just Melissa. You know that. It’s about stopping the Unit from capturing any more of us and doing to them what they’ve done to Thomas. But if you want to talk about revenge – what about Ryder? Don’t you want revenge for what they did to him?’

  Amber’s face contorted for a second, but then she spun away from Demos and headed over to the window once more, planting herself there with her back to us.

  ‘Don’t you want to put a stop to all this?’ Demos asked more quietly.

  I could sense the fury rising off Amber in waves – I didn’t need to see auras to be able to feel it. I glanced over at Alicia to see what she was thinking, but she was just staring at Demos with an expression which seemed to be part sadness and part confusion. And Bill was just staring between all of us like an umpire at a tennis match, shifting from foot to foot, obviously uncomfortable with the whole situation.

  Amber finally turned round. She’d composed herself a little. ‘You know, Demos, you’re just as bad as Richard Stirling,’ she said. ‘Trying to make people do what you want. Using people like they don’t matter. You made Ryder believe that we had to fight them. And you made him think we actually had a chance of winning.’

  I felt my heart lurch into my mouth.

  ‘We can’t fight the Unit,’ Amber said, her voice getting louder, until I was sure even Thomas would be able to hear her. ‘We can’t win. And everyone will die following you, or end up like Thomas: being experimented on like a rat in a cage. This is your fight,’ she said, ‘yours and hers.’ She nodded at me. ‘It’s not mine. And it’s not theirs,’ she said, tilting her chin at Bill and Alicia.

  I felt as if something was constricting my chest. Demos said nothing back. He just stood there, staring at the floor, his head lowered.

  Bill cleared his throat. ‘I think maybe you should, um, leave.’

  Demos opened his mouth to say something to him, but Alicia’s hand on his arm stopped him short. She shook her head at him silently. With one last glance at Amber, Demos walked to the door, beckoning for me to follow. I stood there for a moment, unsure of what to do.

  ‘Amber,’ I said finally and saw her back stiffen. ‘I’m so sorry,’ I whispe

  She didn’t even look round.


  A taxi screeched to the kerb as we walked out of the lobby, its chassis scraping the tarmac in protest. We stepped back out of the way as the driver threw open his door in our path. Demos halted, throwing his arm across me, and I instantly froze. But the driver just cursed in Spanish, ignored all four of us, and marched to the trunk where he started fighting with the rope securing the contents that were threatening to spew all over the sidewalk.

  Key got out of the passenger side and tried to help him. We stared bemused as five suitcases were disgorged and Key threw some notes into the driver’s hands. The man was still yelling and pointing at the car, which was leaning oddly to one side like a see-saw.

  The back door opened at this point, causing a passing bus to swerve and honk. Then a woman emerged from within. She was as round as a dough ball and dressed in what was clearly her Sunday best – a pale green Jackie O-style hat with a small veil, a matching two-piece suit and, clasped in her gloved hands, a white patent leather handbag. The woman was like a mini planet with its own gravitational pull – the car was bending towards her as she heaved herself out. Key rushed round to her side and took her arm, dragging her out of the way of oncoming traffic, to the safety barricade that her suitcases, piled on the sidewalk, provided.

  ‘This sho ain’t the Hilton, Joe Junior,’ the woman remarked, looking up at the grey cement face of the building. ‘You said you got me the finest suite at the Hilton.’ She looked around her, up and down the street. ‘I don’t see no Caribbean Sea or palm trees swaying over white sand either.’

  Key rolled his eyes heavenwards. ‘Mama, I told you that we needed you to do one little thing for us first and then you’d get your vacation. I explained all this on the phone and in the taxi.’

  Half an hour in a taxi with his mama had clearly taken its toll on Key – he looked frazzled. I was speechless, unsure how such a woman shared the same genetic code as Key and Nate who were both so skinny they were like exclamation marks when you looked at them from the side. This woman was a full stop. Round, complete and, from this first impression, someone who obviously liked to have the last word.

  ‘Mrs Johnson, it’s a pleasure to meet you,’ Demos said, stepping forward and giving her his most charming smile, the one that occasionally made me realise what my mother had seen in him.

  Mrs Johnson melted. Her gravitational pull threatened for a moment to suck Demos in like he was a dying star falling into a black hole. I wondered whether his power would work on her or whether it would have no impact. Maybe it would be like trying to scream in space. She blushed, smoothed her hat and took his proffered hand, all the while batting her eyelashes as if she had something stuck in her eye. ‘So, you’re one of Joe Junior’s friends?’ she purred.

  ‘I hope so,’ Demos replied.

  ‘I’m Lila,’ I said, reaching out my hand, trying to take the pressure off Key.

  Mrs Johnson took me in with an expression which seemed to suggest I needed to get some meat on my bones before I would be worth talking to.

  ‘I’m Alicia, thank you so much for coming, Mrs Johnson,’ Alicia cut in across me. I was glad. Alicia’s tone and her smile had a much greater effect.

  Mrs Johnson beamed widely at her. ‘I was just telling Joe Junior how happy I am to be here,’ she said.

  ‘Mama, come on, this way,’ Key said, putting a hand under her elbow. ‘Nate’s waiting to see you.’

  ‘Awwwwww, that sweet grandson of mine, where’s my baby? I’ve been so crazy worried – you didn’t even think to call your old mama. Boy, what, you think I’m telepathic or something? You couldn’t even find time to call me and let me know where you were?’

  They walked off, leaving us all standing there gaping after them.

  ‘Nathaniel, what have they been feeding you?’ Mrs Johnson screeched when she saw Nate. She rounded on Key. ‘What you been feeding that boy? A diet of water and laxative pills?’

  She clutched Nate to her bosom and I wondered if he’d suffocate. ‘You so skinny, my boy, you gonna break in two if you not careful. And what you wearing that bandana for? You better no’ be messing up in no gangs, you hear me?’

  Suki was hopping up and down behind them, her feet tapping as Nate backpedalled his arms, trying to break out of the embrace. She danced forward. ‘Nate’s grandma, I’m pleased to meet you. I’m Suki.’

  Mrs Johnson released Nate and clutched Suki to her bosom instead. Suki disappeared almost completely; just her white sneakers and a slash of her black bob could be seen.

  ‘You the girl that’s been taking such good care of my Nate? Well, bless you, you angel, you’re so kind. Nate been telling me all about this lovely girl Suki.’ She winked at us over Suki’s buried head. Clearly the woman was no telepath.

  She pushed Suki back, holding her by the shoulders, and looked at her sideways. ‘You best not be no gang member either.’

  I heard Nate and Suki start to protest, but then I got distracted. Alex had threaded his fingers through my hand. He bent his head to whisper, ‘How’d it go with Amber?’

  I shook my head. ‘Amber’s not coming with us.’

  I saw a trace of a frown pass across his face. He pulled me out of the way of the others, behind the van. ‘What happened?’

  ‘She said that it was Demos’s fight. Demos’s and mine. And she said we’d all die or end up like Thomas if we carried on.’ I hesitated. ‘Do you think that’s true?’

  Alex shook his head. ‘No, Lila, I don’t. And it isn’t just your fight, it’s our fight. It’s not just about revenge – I told you that before – it’s something bigger. It’s about stopping them. I would fight this battle even if it wasn’t about your mum. Or about you.’ He touched my chin lightly so I’d look up at him again. But I couldn’t smile. I kept seeing Thomas in my mind, lying there, trapped in his own head.

  ‘Did you see him? Thomas, I mean,’ Alex asked, just at the very moment I was trying to erase the memory of him.

  I nodded. Alex seemed to understand that that was all I could do – that I couldn’t talk about it – because he didn’t ask me anything else. He just pulled me close and kissed the top of my head.


  ‘You sure know how to treat your mama.’ Mrs Johnson was still ranting at Key. ‘Mrs Williams, she got a plasma television from her boy Marlon Junior. But what do I get? I get a trip to the parts of Mexico City not even the missionaries go to. And it’s after three a.m. Who we going to see at three a.m, I ask you? Ain’t no right-minded, God-fearing folks gonna be awake at this o’clock of the morning.’

  ‘Mama, I told you, once we’re done here, you’re heading straight to the Hilton in Acapulco. We booked you the nicest room you can imagine, sweet sounds of the ocean just outside, palm trees swaying, beach so white it makes your eyes hurt. You’re gonna love it.’

  ‘I’m just saying I’m not seeing no palm trees swaying, Joe Junior. Plasma television,’ she muttered under her breath.

  Key’s head was thrown back. He was contemplating the roof of the rental car as though he wanted to do it extreme violence. I was wedged next to him, Mrs Johnson on his other side. Alex was driving and Suki was in the passenger seat. The others were in the van in front of us, which had been emptied of its Rachel load. Demos had deposited her in the same apartment as Thomas. I worried about the wisdom of leaving her in Amber’s vicinity, but then I remembered that Amber was blaming Demos and not the Unit for Ryder’s death. And then I remembered that I didn’t care what happened to Rachel and hoped that Amber had a change of heart about who she blamed.

  We parked about two blocks down from Carlos’s little hideout. The streets were just as empty as they had been when Alex and I had come here a few nights previously.

  ‘How did Joe Junior get the nickname Key?’ I asked, making conversation before Mrs Johnson could launch into another tirade or ask about when she was going to be getting to Acapulco.

  She turned to me, righting her hat
which had slid slightly to the left, before placing both hands on top of her handbag. ‘Well, you see, when he was a boy, Joe Junior knew all these secrets. Things he shouldn’t have been knowing if he had any sense in that head of his. And every time we’d be saying, That boy he knows all the secrets, it’s like he has the key, like he can unlock the things everyone be hiding away. So we nicknamed him Key.’ She patted her hair, making sure it was all in place. ‘Course that’s before we knew what Joe Junior could do.’

  ‘Demos wants to know if we’re ready,’ Suki announced, leaning round to face us.

  I glanced towards Alex. He was looking at me in the rear-view mirror. I couldn’t see his mouth, but I knew he was giving his reassuring smile.

  ‘Has Nate been in?’ I asked.

  ‘Yes,’ Suki said, having a silent conversation with Alicia in the van in front of us. ‘Alicia says that Nate counted four of them in there. One big fat one on the door, two others with guns and the Carlos man. I cannot wait to meet him.’

  ‘Sounds like the same men as before,’ said Alex. ‘Did he check all the rooms?’

  Suki paused, running the question in her head and waiting for a reply. ‘Yes, he’s been through the whole building,’ she nodded.

  ‘Oh, my poor Nate,’ Mrs Johnson exclaimed. ‘I don’t like the way you’re putting him in danger. Why you letting my poor boy go in there all on his own?’

  ‘He’s fine, Mama.’

  ‘He is fine, Mrs Johnson,’ Suki said. ‘And look, he’s back from his recce.’ She pointed at Nate who was in the van in front waving out of the back window. ‘He says hello.’

  Mrs Johnson started waving back. The car rocked and I ducked as her handbag swung in my direction.

  ‘I’d rather he was saying hello from the balcony at the Hilton – you understand what I’m saying?’

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