Olivia strode back down the empty corridors of the school, having seen off the last of the children and their parents.
“Dad?” she called out again, peering into the darkened rooms as she passed. “I’m ready to go when you are!”
“This way, love!” Adam’s voice echoed faintly down the corridors. Olivia tutted and followed it, and found her father in a darkened room lined with filing cabinets. He was flicking through an open drawer, pulling out the odd sheaf of paper and scanning it before replacing it and going on to the next.
“What are you looking for?” she asked, crossing her arms in the doorway. “Couldn’t it wait until tomorrow?”
“Yes, it could.” Adam held up another sheet of paper, squinting short-sightedly at it. “But I’m here now, and it’s a long walk to have to do again, and, to be quite honest, what other plans did you have for tonight?”
“Will it take long?”
“Not long. Not long. Tell me,” he closed the drawer and opened another, seemingly at random. “What do you think of Alice, after today?”
Olivia sighed and leaned against the door-frame. “I think she’s … delicate. She’s been through a lot. Home isn’t great. There’s the business with her sister. Some bullying at school. Teachers don’t know about it, and neither do her parents.”
“So what you’re saying is that she’s perfect?”
“I wouldn’t say that.” Olivia paused, choosing her words. “She has potential — massive potential — but I don’t know how much all this other stuff will get in the way. It might be too risky. There’s too much we don’t know.”
“What does Sarah have to say about her?”
“Plenty. The usual. Sarah likes to worry, and I think she’s right.”
“Sarah is a professional worrier — and she doesn’t have children of her own. When you become a parent you get a new perspective on things like risk. You understand, for instance, that children are less destructible than you might have thought.”
“How destructible was I?”
Adam laughed. “Oh, a few broken bones here and there hardly counts. And you learned from each one, didn’t you? That’s the point — you live, and you learn.”
“So what are you saying? To stop worrying about Alice?”
“I’m saying …” Adam looked up at the ceiling. “I’m saying … get to know her. Don’t base everything on a few hours’ judgement. People are complicated. She might be tougher than you think.”
“And she might also end up breaking some bones. Metaphorically.”
“Well, then you can help her learn from it. Can’t you?”
Adam pulled out a last piece of paper with a noise of triumph. “There,” he said, waving it at Olivia. “My filing system works. Make sure to tell Clara the next time you see her.”
He turned, and the light from the doorway caught a red spot on his shirt, under the armpit. Olivia tutted and darted forward, examining it.
“You’re not healing,” she said accusingly. “Did Jennifer have a look at this?”
“She did.” Adam pulled away. “It’s fine. Probably just nipped a stitch. I’ll be fine.” He batted at Olivia’s helping hands. “Go on. Stop worrying about me.”
He moved away, and Olivia watched him. He made a show of reading the sheet of paper he had just found, but she could tell he was just trying to distract her.
“You haven’t been down there again, have you?” she said. “Since last week. Did something happen? Are you stopping the trials?”
Adam sighed. “Don’t ask me about that, love.”
“Why not? It’s been ages since I’ve been in — months. When am I going to go again?”
“Not now. Not yet. Just .,. Try to be patient while we work out some issues.”
“What issues?” Olivia took a step towards him. “You can’t be keeping secrets like this from me, dad. Does Femi know? Has he been down there? When are you going to—”
“I said no!” Adam turned on her, eyes wide, the paper crumpled in his balled fists. “Will you … stop asking me about this! Please! As my daughter, Olivia — please just listen to me this once and stop! Is that clear?”
Olivia faced him silently, her jaw set, her eyes meeting his gaze unflinchingly.
“Olivia?” His eyes searched hers, the rage suddenly dissipating, melting into concern. “Please, love. Did you hear me? Will you promise?”
She scoffed and shook her head. “I know what you’re doing,” she said. “You won’t send me, but you’ll send Alice. That’s right, isn’t it? It’s okay, you don’t have to say anything. I know it’s true. You’re hoping that other people’s kids are more indestructible than your own.” She shook her head. “I can’t believe you, sometimes. You make me wonder what exactly it is that goes on in that mad-scientist head of yours.”
She brushed past him and marched to the doorway, where she stopped.
“I’ll do it,” she said after a moment. “It’s fine. I’ll … train her up, whatever it is you want me to do. But just remember: she’s someone’s daughter. They all are. Someone’s son, someone’s daughter. Just like me. Don’t forget that, okay? And don’t leave me in the dark. I’ve earned that much from you, at least.”
Then she was gone, leaving Adam standing alone in the darkened room.