The Revival Project

After a freak accident sees Mattie dying and being revived by a handsome young scientist, the side effects from her revival lead to her being able to see auras. As she struggles to come to terms with what happened to her, she attracts the notice of an unscrupulous psychic. But the real danger may come from spending time with the man who brought her back to life. Employer, mentor, confidant; Doc is the last person she should be developing feelings for.

(I am excited to be revisiting this story and sharing it with you as I work on it. As it is a work in progress, there may be errors and changes that will made once this revision is complete and sent off to the editor)

The Revival Project 1: Freak

Chapter 1

I switched on the light between the handlebars of my bike and settled the overnight bag containing my pyjamas and spare clothes more comfortably on my back. 

‘I’m sorry I can’t give you a lift home,’ said Mrs Dawson, light from the front doorway spilling around her tall frame, ‘but Frank is too sick to be left alone with the kids. Are you sure you don’t want me to call your parents, get them to come and pick you up?’ 

With the long hours Dad had been working, opening up a new bank branch, he’d been missing out on sleep as it was. I didn’t want to disturb him just because my overnight babysitting shift had been cut short. Mum was just as tired, having spent last month packing up our old house in Brisbane, and then making sure everything was put exactly where she wanted after we’d arrived at our new place two weeks ago. 

I smiled at Mrs Dawson. ‘I’ll be fine. It’s not far. I hope Mr Dawson feels better soon.’

‘Thanks, Mattie. It certainly has been an interesting start to our anniversary celebrations.’

I buckled on my bike helmet before waving goodbye. A cool breeze rippled over my bare arms, and I shivered as I pedalled out of the cul-de-sac. The one advantage to moving to a small town was being able to ride my bike at night. The streets were empty, lights on in the houses I rode past as I headed toward the road that wound around the park in the middle of Merranville. 

It was peaceful. Quiet. 

Just the way I liked it, with no one to expect things from me that I couldn’t give.

Laughter and the din of happy voices intruded on my solitude as I got closer to the park. I stopped peddling to pull over to the kerb and peered ahead.

A group of kids sat around a rustic picnic table on the outskirts of the park closest to me. The streetlights circling the park illuminated happy, smiling faces I recognised from my new high school. The three girls and four boys joked around with the familiarity of friends who had grown up together. The way I used to joke around with my friends back in Brisbane. Before…

Pain gripped my chest, my breathing hard and fast. Despite the breeze, heat flushed through my body and sweat broke out on my face. 

No. I had to stop thinking about that. It was in the past. A past I could not change. But one I could learn from. I focused on taking deep, steadying breaths as I counted down from ten, like the therapist had taught me. The pain in my chest eased, and I exhaled slowly as my count ended. 

If I were to continue home this way, I would have to ride past them. A couple of them had already tried to make friends, and I’d made it clear I wasn’t interested. But one girl had been persistent, and I could see her with them. Even though I knew I was being a total jerk when I brushed Claire off, the ache in my chest would not let up until I was alone. Safe.

Best if she never saw me tonight at all. 

I turned my bike around and headed in the direction of the rickety wooden bridge connecting the two sides of Merranville. Mum and Dad wouldn’t be happy with me going this way, preferring I use the main bridge, but I could not risk riding past Claire and the others. 

The wind cooled the sweat on my face, and I was breathing normally by the time I drew near the old bridge, smooth bitumen beneath my tyres replaced by gravel. I shuddered as I rode past houses that looked as if they were being strangled by weeds; broken windows and missing tiles giving the elements full access. Dad said these empty houses would be knocked down soon, to make way for the construction of accommodation for the hundreds of miners and their families expected to flock to town once the new coal mine was operational. Creepy enough in the day time, night shadows gave them the appearance of haunted houses waiting to gobble up the unwary. 

 I left the last forgotten house behind and moved onto the bridge, sticking to the centre line. Dad called the bridge a minefield of rotting timber, but I knew cars still used it so it couldn’t be that bad. The town council would have closed it for sure if it wasn’t safe to use. Still, I sped up, eager to get to the other side as fast as possible

As I reached the middle of the bridge a car appeared out of the darkness at the other end of the bridge, headlights on high beam. I used one hand to shield my eyes from the glare while directing my bike through a gap in the guardrail and onto the walkway. The front wheel hit a loose board and I jolted forward, abdomen slamming into the handlebars. The bike slid sideways and I let go of the handlebars, windmilling my arms in an attempt to regain my balance. 

It didn’t help. 

My bike hit the railing, followed by an ominous creak. The wooden railing shattered and I toppled over the edge.

I screamed, plummeting through the air. The slap ricocheted through my body when I landed in cold, murky water that poured into my open mouth. Violent coughs ripped through me as my lungs worked to expel the water and replace it with air.

The bike landed on top of me, pushing me under the surface. I tried to twist out from under it, but the strap of my overnight bag got caught. I wriggled around, desperate to untangle myself before the scant air I had managed to suck in ran out. 

The weight of the bike forced me deeper into the river. I gave up trying to free my bag and slipped it off my shoulders. I thrashed in the water, searching for the surface. It was so dark. I didn’t know which way to go.

My lungs screamed for air. I had to breathe. I opened my mouth.

Dirty river water flooded my throat, choking me, forcing its way into my lungs. I coughed, body jerking, agony engulfing my chest. 

Ohmygod. I was going to die.  

***

I launched myself into a sitting position, coughing as river water was expelled from my lungs. Tremors started in my shoulders and worked their way to my feet. I huddled in a ball, knees tucked into my chest, eyes closed, head bowed. 

What the hell had happened to me?

Memory hit and I flung my eyes open, nostrils flaring. I’d been in the river.

Drowning. 

I gulped in air, sure I could still feel the weight of the bike dragging me under and the water forcing its way down my throat. The tremors in my limbs worsened, and my teeth chattered.

I struggled to a kneeling position. 

‘Ewww.’ 

Bright green goo clung to every inch of my bare skin, globs of it sticking to my bra and knickers. A pool of it lapped at my thighs and squelched with each movement, emitting a scent that remined me of the disinfectant Mum used when she was cleaning the bathroom. 

What the hell was going on? Where were my clothes?

Eyes wide, I looked around and gasped, freezing me in place.

I was not alone.

A young guy with dark blonde hair, wearing blue jeans and a black T-shirt, stared at me from the other side of a glass wall. A strange, multi-coloured glow swirled around his head. 

Goose bumps rippling over my body, I crossed my arms over my chest and backed away, colliding with a barrier behind me. I spun around and found another glass wall, and two more on either side of me. Breath coming in gasps, my eyes darted everywhere, trying to take everything in at once.

I was in a giant tank. A tank that sat on a low bench in the middle of a large room. One wall of the room was taken up by computer monitors that rested on a long desk overflowing with paperwork. The other side was cluttered with more desks, filing cabinets, and enough technical gadgets to power a spaceship. 

To the side of the tank was a stainless steel trolley. My breathing sped up, throat closing over, when I spotted a tray filled with gleaming medical implements in the middle of it. I fought to control my breathing, struggling to understand where I was and what had happened. 

My gaze darted back to the young guy standing silently in front of me. ‘Am I in the hospital?’ It was the only explanation that made sense.   

‘No. This is Oak Laboratory.’ His voice was low, soothing, as if he were trying to calm a skittish kitten to stop it from climbing the curtains. 

‘Oak?’ I frowned, brain racing. I’d heard about this place; it was a veterinary research facility, situated on the outskirts of town. 

‘What am I doing here? Why aren’t I in the hospital? Has somebody called my mum and dad?’ My voice rose with each question, my attempt to settle my breathing failing miserably. 

He put his hands in the air, palms out. ‘It’s okay. You’re okay. I brought you here after I got you out of the river. Getting you to the hospital would have taken too long.’

Desperate for something, anything, to help me make sense of all this, I latched onto his words, using them to ground my thoughts. ‘You got me out? You saved me?’ My eyes widened. ‘You were in the car, the one on the bridge.’

He gave a nod, clear green eyes focused on mine. 

I closed my eyes and for the second time that night went through my breathing exercise. Ten, nine, eight … By the time I reached one the panic surging through me had abated somewhat. I was okay. This guy had saved me from drowning. He’d helped me. I was going to be fine.

I opened my eyes and managed a wobbly smile when I spotted the towel my saviour was now holding out.  

‘Thank you.’ 

My hands trembled as I took the towel from him, grateful when he immediately turned around to give me privacy. My legs were just as wobbly as my hands, and I used the edge of the tank to steady myself as I stood. I quickly wrapped the towel around me, and then contemplated the sides of the tank and distance to the floor. The tank almost completely covered the bench it rested on, leaving me an edge the width of my palm to step out onto. No way would I be able to get out of here on my own, not without falling.

The guy who had saved my life still stood with his back to me. He held himself rigid, head up, focused on the opposite wall. 

‘Um, could you give me a hand, please?’

At my request, he immediately turned around and stepped closer to the table. Then he carefully placed his hands at my waist. I rested my palms on his broad shoulders to steady myself as I stepped over the side of the tank and balanced my heels on the edge of the bench. My saviour lifted me down with little effort, releasing me as soon as my feet touched the floor, He stepped away, turning his back again while I towelled myself dry.

The goop had made my skin sticky, and I concentrated on trying to scrub off the green residue before running a hand through my hair. It appeared to be sticking up in spikes and I tried in vain to smooth it down. God, I must look awful. 

Through all this, the guy who had pulled me from the river remained silent. With a sigh, I gave up trying to fix my hair and looked around the lab for my things. He may have saved my life, but that did not make me any more comfortable to be alone with him when I was only dressed in my underwear and a towel. ‘Where are my clothes?’  

He finally turned to face me, a sheepish expression on his face. ‘I’m sorry. I had to cut them off before I put you in the tank.’ He gestured towards a sodden pile of clothing on the floor by the silver trolley. 

He strode over to the wall to where a number of lab coats hung on hooks beside a set of elevator doors. He took one down and returned to stand in front of me, avoiding eye contact as he held the coat out. ‘You can borrow this.’

‘Thank you,’ I said as I slipped it on over top of the towel. The coat was too big, the hem coming to my calves and as I rolled up the sleeves I read the embroidered badge on the front. ‘Dr Jonathon Oak. Who’s he?’

‘I’m Dr Oak.’ 

My breath caught and my heart rate sped up.  I shook my head. ‘You can’t be a doctor. You’re too young.’ He could have only been three or four years older than me, five at the most. ‘And isn’t this an animal lab?’ 

He shrugged, cheeks flushing. ‘I was a child prodigy. I completed a PhD in veterinary science earlier this year.’

‘Oh.’ I rubbed my face, not sure what to think. I was barely scraping through my last year of high school. Could someone so young really have a PhD? But then, why would he lie about something like that?

I scanned the lab once more, eyeing all the high-tech equipment. He was certainly in the right place, if he was some kind of prodigy. Maybe he was telling the truth. Either way, he had saved my life and I owed him for that.

‘My name’s Mattie, Mattie Budd.’ I fought to keep a quiver out of my voice at the memory of being pinned under my bike, desperate for air, as I said, ‘It’s a good thing you were there to pull me out of the river. I thought I was going to die.’  

He stared at me, green eyes brimming with sorrow. ‘I am so sorry to have to tell you this, Mattie, but you did die.’

I flung my head back. ‘What are you talking about?’  

‘Have a seat,’ he said. ‘This is a lot to take in, but I can explain.’

The distressed expression on his face caused a hard lump to appear in my throat, making it hurt to swallow. I wanted to run, get out of the room, block my ears so I couldn’t hear what he was about to tell me. But my legs defied me, losing their strength as he ushered me to a chair. The wheels skidded on the tiled floor as I collapsed onto it.  Dr Oak knelt in front of me, taking my hands in his. 

He heaved a sigh that sounded like it pained him as it fought its way out of his lungs. ‘I need you to listen carefully to what I am about to tell you.’ He took another of those lung defying sighs.

‘What happened to me?’ My hands were limp in his, body frozen at the tortured expression in his eyes when he looked at me.

‘When you went in the river, it took me a while to find you. By the time I got you to the bank you’d been without air for too long. I tried to resuscitate you, but it didn’t work. I’m so sorry. I couldn’t save you.’

‘What are you talking about? Of course you saved me.’ I pulled my hands free, voice rising. ‘I’m as alive as you can get.’  

He shook his head. ‘I realise this is hard for you to believe, but you did die. Then I brought your body here and used a synthetic blood replacement I’ve been working on to bring you back to life. This is a highly experimental process, one that will take years before it can be perfected. As a result, your revival was … incomplete. Though you look and feel like you’re fully alive-’ 

I shot to my feet. ‘Stop saying that. I am not dead.’

Dr Oak stood as well, backing off to give me space. ‘Hold your breath,’ he said.  

‘What?’ 

‘I want you to hold your breath for as long as you can.’

I stared at him for a long moment. He was crazy. Had to be. All his talk about being some kind of doctor must be a lie, a sick and twisted game. My stomach churned and I could taste bile in the back of my throat as I glanced over at the elevator. I would not be able to get the door open and get out of there before he could stop me. I’d have to play along, humour him, until I got a chance to escape.

Swallowing hard, I stamped down on the panic welling inside me. If I let myself go I’d start screaming and never stop. I took three deep breaths, holding the last one in. 

Dr Oak set a timer on his phone and held it up in front of me. I watched as first one minute ticked over, then another, and another. Five minutes elapsed and I still felt no need to take a breath. Heart pounding, I lifted my gaze to his.

‘What have you done to me?’ 

Chapter 2

Expression grave, Dr Oak said, ‘I replaced your blood with a synthetic version, Oxy-Revival3. It repaired the damage done to your brain and body due to lack of oxygen. Then I immersed you in a super-conductive gel and used electricity to start your heart beating again.’

Nausea roiled in my stomach and I hunched over as I gasped out, ‘That’s impossible.’

He gave me a gentle smile. ‘I’m afraid it is entirely possible. For the last two years I have been working on creating a synthetic blood that would not only carry oxygen but also assist the body to recover from illness and injury. During the initial testing phase I discovered Oxy-Revival3 had amazing healing properties. With complete replacement of the original blood supply, it could reanimate animals that had recently died. A human is a far more complex creature but I knew the results would not be dissimilar, which is why I used it on you.’ 

The colours swirling around his head pulsed as I stared at him, unable to speak. Thoughts crowded my head, none of them concrete enough to form words. My eyes stung, but I would not cry. 

‘I promise you, if there was any other way to bring you back I would have done it,’ he said. ‘I know this won’t seem like much at the moment, but your body will follow normal patterns to some extent. You can breathe, eat and sleep, just like always. If for any reason you can’t do these things, the Oxy-Revival3 will continue to control your body’s natural functions without detriment to you for an extended period of time. There will also be no outward changes. You will age normally and no one will know you are any different.’ 

No different? I had just held my breath for five minutes without needing air. That was as far from normal as you could get.

As if they wanted to prove the test a lie, my lungs were now sucking in oxygen like it was about to go extinct, while my heart was beating so hard and fast it hurt. My entire body was rigid, frozen in place, even though I wanted to run, fight, do something. 

Eyes squeezed shut, I blocked out Dr Oak and the lab as I fought to regain control, to not let the panic suck me under. If I gave in now, I might never resurface.

Silence filled the lab, my harsh breathing the only sound for several minutes. When I opened my eyes, Dr Oak had not moved. Concern filled his green gaze as he watched me. I looked away, searching the lab for something, anything that would free me from the nightmare I’d stumbled into. My gaze fell on a large glass container filled with blood. 

My blood. 

It stood beside an identical container empty apart for gold flecks coating the inside. Both containers had long tubes dangling from them, with wicked looking needles poking out the ends.

The tiny measure of composure I had regained fled as I turned away from the macabre sight and collapsed back onto the chair. Cold washed over me in a wave and I wrapped arms around myself, the tears I’d held back before threatening to burst free. ‘This is crazy. It can’t be happening.’

Dr Oak strode over to the implement tray and picked up a sharp, shiny scalpel. 

My breath caught as he returned to stand in front of me and took hold of my right hand. With the edge of the scalpel, he pricked my index finger. I stared in dismay at the tiny drop of gold that welled up before he wiped it away, swallowing heavily as the small puncture closed over.

‘Minor wounds will be repaired almost immediately. Serious ones will take more time. Your body will survive any trauma so long as it doesn’t lose too much blood. Incidentally, you are now protected against every disease known to man and those that aren’t.’ He released my hand.

I couldn’t care less about my sudden resistance to disease. My hand fell to my lap. ‘What have you done? You’ve turned me into a freak.’ 

‘You are not a freak. You are a young woman who has been given another chance. I couldn’t let you go without doing everything possible to save you.’

Anger surged through me, washing away the cold. ‘I’m a walking corpse, and you think that’s giving me another chance; that you’ve saved me? What kind of life am I going to have if I’m half-dead?’ I pulled free of his grasp. 

‘Mattie, listen to me. Nothing needs to change. You just need to take a few precautions. You can’t tell anyone about this. They wouldn’t understand. And you can’t let anyone take your blood. If they see yours is gold, and not red, they’ll start asking questions. If people find out what I’ve done, scientists all over the world would want access to you.’ Fear darkened his gaze. 

Fear for me.

My throat closed over at the words he left unsaid. Those scientists would want to run tests. Lots of tests. The thought of being locked away in a lab, while people in white coats experimented on me, set my body trembling again. They’d probably sell tickets to anyone who wanted to gawk at the girl who was half-dead. 

Voice a whisper, I asked, ‘Why did you do this to me, if you knew what would happen?’ 

‘It was my fault you drowned. I had to save you.’ His eyes brimmed with guilt, while his broad shoulders hunched as if he braced for a blow.

 I wanted to hit him. Smash his lab to smithereens. But none of that would undo what he had done. Exhaustion hit, and I sagged back in the chair. 

‘What happens now? Am I supposed to go home and pretend this never happened?’ Denial had not worked as a coping mechanism for me before, and I didn’t think this time would be any different.

‘I wish I had all the answers. I’ve only used Oxy-Revival3 on animals before, so this is a first for me too,’ he said. ‘You’re lucky you have olive skin, though. It makes it harder to see your veins, but you should be careful not to let anyone look too closely. You need to remain as inconspicuous as possible, until we can figure this out. Do you understand?’

‘Yeah, I guess.’ I couldn’t believe I was having this conversation. Exhausted by my earlier panic, I now felt displaced, as if this was happening to someone else. I blinked hard, and then rubbed my eyes but couldn’t dispel the glow I was seeing each time I looked at him.

‘What’s wrong?’ 

‘I see colours all around you. It’s pretty, but strange.’ I twisted around to look at my reflection in the glass tank walls. ‘I don’t see any colours around me, just you.’ 

Concern lit his gaze as he stared at me. ‘It could be a side effect from the revival process, but I can’t say for sure. None of my earlier test subjects were able to tell me what they were experiencing. So, while I know the basics of what you will go through, there are whole layers that need to be explored.’ 

He moved over to the silver trolley and picked through the medical implements on the tray, movements brisk and efficient. ‘I’ll need to run some tests. I’ll check your eyes first, and then we’ll see how the rest of your body is adapting to the Oxy-Revival3.’

A fresh surge of energy washed through me and I shot to my feet. Hands in front of me, I backed away. ‘No. No tests.’

He froze, brow creased. ‘Mattie, I understand you’re scared but this is important. I need to know how your body is functioning. I must complete my tests to make sure your revival is everything it should be.’

Mouth dry, I swallowed heavily. ‘I can’t deal with this. Not now. I want to go home.’ I wanted my mum and dad, to have them hold me in their arms and tell me everything was okay, and this was just a terrible nightmare. 

‘Please.’

At my entreaty, he gave a sigh and put his implements back on the tray. Then he gave me a troubled smile. ‘I’m sorry for upsetting you. Of course you can go home. But it is imperative I complete these tests. I need your promise you will not tell your parents about what happened here tonight, and that you will come back as soon as you can.’

 ‘Absolutely.’ I would have promised him anything, just to get out of there, though the thought of having to keep such a monumental secret from my parents set my stomach churning. Then again, I’d put them through so much already. Dumping a half-dead daughter in their laps might be the blow that broke our family altogether.

‘I could come here on Monday, after school. Will that be okay?’ Hopefully he could get his tests done in one afternoon and I would never have to see him again. 

‘Thank you. I’ll just turn everything off, and then I’ll take you home.’ He stopped fiddling with the instruments on the tray and began moving about the lab, shutting the computers and equipment down. 

While I waited, I looked at my hands, turning them over, tracing the line of veins beneath the skin. He was right. Even in the fluorescent light, it was hard to tell what was really keeping my heart pumping. I made my hands into fists and grimaced when the veins became more visible. I’d have to remember not to do that, if I wanted to keep my new identity as a freak secret.  

‘Ready?’ He stood beside the elevator, hand poised above the call button.

With a nod, I scooped up my wet things and hunted through them, frowning when all I found was my clothes. ‘Did you see my overnight bag, or my phone?’

‘Sorry, no. They must still be in the river, along with your bike.’

Pain swept through me. There had been a lot of memories stored on my mobile phone, photos I could never replace. One more piece of the past lost to me forever. 

Straightening my shoulders, I took a deep breath and fished my house keys out of my jeans pocket before tossing my ruined clothes into the bin. I managed to salvage my bike helmet and joggers and then stepped inside the elevator. Dr Oak was quiet as he pushed the button for the ground floor, and I was grateful he didn’t try to fill the silence as the elevator rose.

The doors opened on a dark reception area, and he quickly ushered me to a set of double doors that led outside. As I stepped out and we made our way to a carpark, I looked up at stars twinkling so far above me, their light cool and aloof. 

I managed a small smile when Dr Oak opened the passenger door of a sleek sedan and waited for me to slide inside. Other than giving him directions, I remained silent for the drive. The minutes stretched, my nerves stretching with them, until he pulled up on the opposite side of the road to my house and turned to look at me.

I kept my face averted. ‘I guess this is it then. I go home and pretend I’m a regular girl, like none of this ever happened.’

He reached over and took my hand, giving it a squeeze. ‘I wish there was something else I could do, to make this right.’

I didn’t want his sympathy. That made it all too real. I pulled my hand free, opened the door and got out of the car, belongings clutched to my chest. Once on the kerb I looked back at him, but there didn’t seem to be anything else to say. I closed the door quietly before bolting across the road and around the back of the low block brick house that was now my home. I unlocked the back door and slipped inside, dumping my bike helmet and joggers in the laundry sink before I tip-toed to the bathroom.

Body on auto pilot, I showered quietly so as not to wake Mum and Dad, or Darcy, desperate to remove all trace of the sticky liquid I’d been immersed in. Wrapped in a fresh towel and clutching the lab coat to my chest, I hurried down the hallway to my bedroom. I hung the lab coat behind the door and put on a clean pair of pyjamas before climbing into bed. Then I lay there, reluctant to turn off the lamp on the bedside table. The darkness outside pressed down on me as my family slept on.

Gut wrenching sobs racked my body and I clamped both hands over my mouth, not wanting my parents to hear. This wasn’t something they could help me with. Nobody could help me.

I cried until there were no more tears left in my body, hugging the pillow as I fought to come to terms with everything that had happened. Dr Oak had said no one would be able to tell I was half-dead, and I could live a normal life. My chest was still rising and falling as my body went through the motions.         

I would have to go through the motions too. After all, that was what I’d had been doing for months now, ever since the events that led to us moving to Merranville. 

Exhausted both mentally and physically, I let the natural rhythms of my body take over and drifted off to sleep.

Chapter 3

The clatter of dishes and tramping footsteps drifted through the house. Sunlight worked its way through a gap in the curtains and I stared at it for a long moment, not ready to get out of bed.

The events of the night before were as unreal as a dream. I would have thought I’d imagined it, if not for the lab coat hanging on the hook behind the door. I worked hard to ignore it as I got up and dressed in denim shorts and a print T-shirt. A quick trip to the bathroom told me none of the past night’s events were visible in my brown eyes, the gold in my veins camouflaged by the olive skin I’d inherited from Mum. 

While I might not look different on the outside, inside my stomach was churning at the notion I was about to face my family. My promise to Dr Oak to keep my revival a secret had been easy to give last night, when all I’d wanted to do was flee his lab. Now, in the light of day, I was no longer sure keeping quiet was the right thing to do. But maybe I didn’t have to decide now. After Dr Oak completed his tests on Monday, and I could put that all behind me, then I could make my decision. Until then I would pretend I was a normal girl, giving my parents no reason to worry about me any more than they already did.

Stomach settling now I had a plan, I took a steadying breath, and headed down the hallway and into the kitchen, faking a cheeriness I did not feel as Mum gazed at me from the other side of the breakfast bar. She had a mug of coffee in one hand and, like me, her wavy brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail.

‘Mattie? What are you doing home?’

I took a seat at the dining table opposite Dad, cheeks aching as I forced myself to smile. ‘Mr Dawson caught a stomach bug so they had to turn around and come home.’

Dad put down the newspaper he’d been reading and peered at me, glasses forgotten on the table beside him, black hair in need of a comb. ‘I hope Frank will be right for work on Monday. I can’t afford to have anyone off sick for the grand opening.’

I shrugged. Wondering whether Mr Dawson would no longer be sick on Monday didn’t concern me anywhere near as much as the halo of colours that surrounded each member of my family. Just like the one I had seen with Dr Oak.

Mum’s was blue, tinged with orange and green. Dad’s was yellow and red. Even my thirteen-year-old brother, who was scoffing down a huge bowl of cereal, had one. Darcy’s was a chaotic mix of colours, in constant movement, like a wave. I stared at it, mesmerised.

‘Seeing as you don’t have to babysit all weekend, you’ll be able to spend time with your friends. Why don’t you invite some of them over?’

My head swung around at Mum’s suggestion, mouth dropping open as my brain scrambled to come up with an excuse that wouldn’t cause her to worry or make me sound like a loser.

‘Mattie can’t invite friends over because she doesn’t have any,’ said Darcy.

‘Shut up, twerp.’

‘Who are you calling a twerp? I’m a foot taller than you.’

‘You’re a whole lot dumber too, little brother.’

‘Matilda, Darcy,’ said Mum. 

‘He started it.’

‘Did not.’

‘Enough. Matilda, eat some breakfast. Darcy, you can go clean your room. I want to see carpet in there, and I’ll be looking under the bed and in the wardrobe.’

Darcy shot me a dirty look as he slunk off to do his chores. With the way he cleaned, he’d be out of my hair for the rest of the day. 

I had no appetite, but with Mum watching on I made myself a small bowl of cereal. As I began to eat, I looked over at Dad. He was wearing a blue polo shirt and black trousers, instead of his usual weekend wear of shorts and a T-shirt.

‘Are you going into the bank today?’

‘I’m afraid so. There’s still a lot to be done before we officially open for business, and as bank manager it falls on me to make sure everything is in place for Monday morning.’

‘First to get there. Last to leave. That’s what it means to be a manager, right?’ Least that’s what he’d always told Darcy and me when he had to work longer hours than anyone else.

He gave me a slight smile. ‘Right.’

‘Can I have the paper when you’re finished with it?’

‘It’s all yours.’ He got up and gave Mum a kiss goodbye before heading out the front door.

Talking about the bank had reminded me of the reason I’d agreed to babysit for an entire weekend in the first place. I ate breakfast with the paper open on the job vacancies page. Just like every other time I’d checked, there were zero positions on offer for a seventeen-year-old, and I needed a regular paying job more than ever. Occasional babysitting for some of Dad’s new employees wouldn’t cover the expense of a new bike, phone, and the two sets of clothing lost the night before. I closed the paper and tossed it into the middle of the table. 

As I stood, my gaze fell on the paper’s front page headline.

“Dead Dog Ravages Livestock.”  

I snatched the paper back up and read the article, a chill enveloping my body at the tale of a dog returning from the dead, sure this couldn’t be a coincidence. It had to be Dr Oak’s doing. If dead animals were running around town, people would find out about his experiments. They’d find out about me.

The churning in my stomach returned tenfold, the cereal I’d eaten threatening to come back up at the thought of being hounded by the media and scientists. I’d become a freak for real. I had to go see Dr Oak, make sure my secret was safe.

After hurriedly cleaning my dishes, I cut out the article and said a hasty goodbye to Mum. Then I grabbed my bike helmet and headed for the garage, stopping as soon as I stepped through the connecting door. My bike was still at the bottom of the Merran River. Now how was I going to get to Oak Laboratory? 

Darcy’s bike was in the garage, but the twerp would never let me borrow it, even if I asked nicely. I rolled up the garage door and checked outside to make sure Darcy wasn’t lurking nearby, or looking out his bedroom window, and gasped. 

A bike, bright blue and obviously brand new, rested against the side of the house. I moved over to it, and stared down at the business card for “Oak Laboratory” on the seat. Penned on the back in bold letters, it read “Sorry about your bike. See you Monday.”

I slipped the card into my pocket, secured my helmet, and climbed onto the new bike. After I coasted down the driveway, I headed for the old bridge. Not that I intended to go across it. I just wanted to have a look at it in daylight and gaze into the water that had nearly been my grave. 

A few minutes later I stared at the spot on the bridge where it had all gone wrong. The broken ends of the rotten railing looked raw, splinters jutting out of the wood on either side. I shuddered, shifting my focus to a bright red and yellow sign at the end of the bridge.

The sign warned people to stay away and advised that the bridge itself was closed to traffic until long overdue repairs were completed. I sat on my bike and looked down at the murky brown water, remembering how it felt as the water closed over me. I shivered before turning away and making for the laboratory, pushing the events of the previous night to the back of my mind. 

The gates at Oak were locked, with no cars in the carpark and a sign on the gate stated they were closed were closed on weekends. Hot, bothered, and annoyed, there was nothing I could do but ride home again. 

‘Whose bike is that?’ Darcy called out from the front door as I pedalled up the driveway. 

‘It’s mine, so keep your hands off.’ I slipped off the bike and glared at him when he followed me into the garage.

‘Where did you get the money for a bike like that? Did you rob Dad’s bank or something?’  

I froze, looking around the garage for inspiration. It had never occurred to me that I would need an explanation for having a new bike. I parked it near the wall, hanging my helmet off the handlebar. 

Chin lifted, I faced Darcy. ‘I got a job, and the boss gave me an advance to trade in my old bike,’ I said, wishing I could take the words back when I realised Mum was standing at the connecting door to the house.

‘You never said anything to your father or me about having an interview,’ she said, a frown creasing her brow. ‘Where are you going to be working?’  

I blurted out the first thing that came to mind. ‘Oak Laboratory.’

‘Mattie’s a lab rat.  Mattie’s a lab rat.’ 

‘Darcy, that’s enough,’ said Mum, before turning back to me. ‘What sort of work will you be doing, honey?’      

‘Um, I’m going to be a research assistant for one of the doctors.’ As I had inadvertently become part of Dr Oak’s experiment, I figured he would forgive me for the lie, even if the words left a bitter taste in my mouth. 

Mum’s eyes lit up as she came forward and hugged me. ‘That’s wonderful, Mattie. I’m so proud of you. I’m sure you’ll enjoy being a research assistant much more than babysitting.’

My smile was more of a grimace as I said, ‘I hope so.’ 

Her happiness made me feel ten times worse for lying, and I had to field questions about my non-existent job for the rest of the weekend, making it a welcome relief to escape to school on Monday morning. In my backpack, I stashed the lab coat and another article cut out of the paper. The locals were not happy about the “dead dog”. They wanted something done about the menace and were looking to the police for answers. I could have told them they were looking in the wrong place. They had to go to Oak Laboratory, and that was where I was headed as soon as I’d had my last class.

Not only did I need to speak with Dr Oak about the dog; I also wanted to let him know I was seeing colours around everyone I saw. Kid or adult, each glow was different and I wanted to find out what it meant. Determined this would be the last time I went to Oak Laboratory, I planned on getting all my questions answered. 

All through the morning classes my mind was whirling with questions for Dr Oak. At lunch, I was so caught up in my own dramas that I didn’t notice the girl standing in front of me until she spoke.

‘Hey, do you mind if I sit here?’  

My heart sank as I recognised her. Claire. The girl from my English class who kept trying to make friends. As I gazed up at her, she indicated towards the seat beside me with a fine boned hand. Tiny, with delicate features, she smoothed down the long side fringe of her golden brown hair as she waited for my answer.

‘Suit yourself. I was just leaving.’ I stood and walked away; doing my best to ignore the hurt in her hazel eyes and the way the glow around her head faded.

Appetite gone, feeling her eyes upon me, I dumped the remains of my lunch in the bin and spent the rest of the lunch hour wandering the school grounds. I had English next, and a familiar churning started in my stomach at the thought of encountering Claire. No matter how much I hated hurting people, I had to rebuff her friendly overtures. I couldn’t risk making friends with any of my classmates. 

I took a seat at the back of the room, the churning getting worse as Claire entered, looked around, and spotted me. I gulped in air, a cold sweat breaking out as she determinedly walked over and took the seat next to me.

She flashed me a confident smile. ‘Hello, Matilda. Are you going to run away from me again?’  

The words were tossed like a challenge and I flushed, fear lessening its grip on my heart. ‘My name is Mattie, and I didn’t run away. I walked.’    

‘Didn’t look that way to me.’

I focused on my anger to force back the rest of the fear. ‘I don’t care how it looked. I did not run away.’

‘What is it with you? Are you scared of making friends?’

The teacher arrived, saving me from having to answer. Not that I would have told her how right she was. Having friends meant someone to care about. Caring led to gut wrenching pain. I’d learned that the hard way when my best friend had been killed by a drunk driver right in front of me. I’d had to watch as the life leeched out of Rachel’s eyes. After her funeral I’d vowed to never feel that way again. If I didn’t care about anyone, I wouldn’t be devastated when something bad happened to them.

Tension kept me rigid all through class, and it was a relief when the bell finally went. Though I took care not to rush out the door, not wanting to give Claire another opportunity to say I was running away. I had a free period next and determined to make the most of it. I had to get out to Oak Laboratory and see Dr Oak. 

At the laboratory, the gates were open with three cars side by side in a car park built for ten times that number. I parked my bike near the front door and went inside. The receptionist looked me over with a disparaging eye as she put down her nail file.

‘Can I help you?’ 

With manicured nails, shapely figure shown to advantage in a closely tailored hot pink suit, and a flowing blonde mane of hair, she would have looked more at home on a magazine cover than at a front desk.

‘I’m here to see Dr Oak. Dr Jonathon Oak.’ I showed her the business card I’d found on my new bike. ‘I’m Mattie Budd. He’s expecting me.’

The receptionist checked the diary open on her desk. ‘I don’t see your name in the appointment book?’

‘I’m his new research assistant.’ The lie had worked to keep my family satisfied; surely it would work on a woman who looked like a real life Barbie doll.    

‘Research assistant? Why would Dr Oak hire a research assistant?’

‘Maybe because he has research he wants done.’ 

She gave me a black look. ‘I know that. I meant why wouldn’t he ask me to do his research for him?’

I cast my mind for a reason that would explain why Dr Oak had given the non-existent job of research assistant to a senior at high school. ‘Perhaps he knows how busy you are and didn’t want to bother you with extra work,’ I said with a wince, remembering what the receptionist was doing when I’d walked in. Filing her nails probably meant she wasn’t run off her feet.

‘Look, why don’t you call the guy and tell him I’m here. Then you can ask him why he gave me the job and not you.’

The receptionist gave a haughty sniff as she picked up the phone and dialled. ‘Dr Oak, this is Catherine.’ Her voice was buttered honey as she spoke into the mouthpiece. ‘Your new research assistant is here to see you.’ She cocked her head to one side.

‘You don’t have a new research assistant?’ Catherine gave me another of her black looks.

‘Tell him it’s Mattie Budd.’ 

I was rewarded by a sour look from the receptionist when he responded to my name.

‘He’ll be right up to see you. It seems he forgot you were starting work today.’ Catherine replaced the handset, giving me a look as cold as a winter blizzard. 

Dr Oak arrived and ushered me into the elevator without a single glance in the receptionist’s direction. As soon as the elevator doors closed, he turned to face me, eyebrows raised. ‘Why did the receptionist think you were my new research assistant?’  

‘I had to explain to my parents where the bike came from. Thank you for that, by the way. When they asked me where I got it from, I didn’t know what to say, so I told them I had a part time job. When they asked where, this was the first place that popped into my head.’ I gave a shrug. ‘Sorry for putting you on the spot like that, but I didn’t think Catherine would let me in otherwise.’

‘Catherine?’ 

‘The receptionist.’    

‘Oh, well, that’s okay then, and I can give you a job if you want. I could do with some help around here.’ The elevator doors opened on his lab and, as we stepped out, he gestured at a workbench covered with papers. ‘I’ve needed help for a while but couldn’t risk anyone finding out about Oxy-Revival3.’ He ran his hands through his hair, mussing it up. ‘As you already know about the project, that won’t matter.’

I froze. ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea.’ It was a terrible idea. How was I supposed to forget about dying if I started working for the guy who’d revived me? I’d been determined to come here, get my questions answered, find out what was wrong with my eyes, and never return. 

‘Are you sure? You’ve already told your parents you are working for me. Won’t they think it strange if you no longer have a job?’

‘I’ll just tell them I got sacked. No big deal.’ But it would be a big deal. Mum and Dad would be devastated if they thought I’d lost my job so soon, and then there was the bike. I’d said I’d gotten an advance to pay for it. I’d have to give it back, and I still needed money to get a new phone before they figured out I’d lost that too. 

‘Is it because of what I did? Is that why you won’t work for me? I’m so sorry, about everything.’ His deep voice resonated with sincerity, making me squirm.

‘No, that’s not it, I just …’ 

‘Please, take the job. I could really do with the help.’

My resolve to stay away crumbled under the desperate entreaty in his eyes. ‘Okay, okay, I’ll do it. I’ll work for you.’

His smile lit up his eyes. ‘That’s great. This place is a mess. My files are everywhere and I can’t find anything.’

I let my misgivings slide away, caught up in his infectious mood. But there were a few things I had to take care of before I started work. ‘I need to give this back to you,’ I said, pulling the lab coat out of my backpack, ‘and to show you these.’ 

I held up the newspaper clippings. ‘You revived this dog, didn’t you, Doc?’