This is the second in my series of stories which take place on the day that my next novel, A House Divided, opens. The first was called Ben and Isobel.
Lavonia watched her dad through his bedroom door, leaning into the mirror and adjusting his tie. Normally she’d wait for him, get a lift in to college. Today wasn’t one of those days.
She yanked her rucksack onto her shoulders and crept to the stairs, checking her watch. Plenty of time for the bus.
Shit. She froze. Downstairs she could hear her mum nagging Tyrone to check his homework timetable. Stupid kid, he should have memorised it by now, ten months into Year Eleven.
She sighed. “What?”
“You know what.” Dad’s head appeared around the doorframe. “We haven’t finished our conversation.”
A shrug. “Yeah we have.”
“No. We haven’t. You’re not going to that party. Mum and me don’t know those kids, we’ve got no idea what sort of party it is.”
She resisted the temptation to roll her eyes. “It’s just a party, Dad. It’ll be fine.”
He shook his head. Her chest felt tight. She was nineteen, for god’s sake. Why didn’t they give her some slack?
“I’m an adult now, Dad. I can do what I like.”
He brought a hand up to grab her arm, then thought better of it. “While you’re living here, you follow our rules. No party.” He retreated into his room and she eyed the stairs.
“Wait for me!” he called out. “I’ll give you a lift.”
She looked at the empty doorframe, picturing herself sitting next to him in his small, sensible car. The Aston Expressway would be solid as usual, and she’d have to put up with Radio 2.
She flung herself towards the stairs. “Don’t bother! I’ll get the bus!”
“Lavonia!” His voice was shrill, like her lecturer Miss Bates when she caught people snapchatting at the back of class.
At the bottom of the stairs, she checked the pocket of her jeans – no rips, she hated her parents – for her keys then rummaged in her rucksack for her bus pass. She hesitated outside the kitchen door, listening to Mum snapping at Tyrone. He was silent. Why did he never answer back?
She licked her lips and eased the front door open. Holding the latch, she leaned towards the stairs, her heart pounding. She was a good daughter, listened to her parents despite the taunts of her friends at college. But Wayne would be at this party. Not to mention Shaneela, Chelle and Suke, her gang. Not turning up would make her look like a dweeb.
She sniffed and leaned further in. Upstairs, Dad was quiet.
“I’m getting the bus!” she called up. “I’ll be back after the party!”
She drew in her breath and threw herself out of the door, not waiting to hear Dad storm down the stairs or Mum throw the kitchen door open, inevitable confusion on her face. Outside, the air was clear, summer sunshine throwing their street into brightness. Spaghetti Junction was a grey haze above the rooftops.
She looked at her watch. Dad would be only five minutes behind, and he would check the bus stop. She needed to run.
She tumbled towards the main road, almost tripping over a man walking his dog in the opposite direction.
“Sorry,” she breathed, ignoring his grunts and the dog’s stupid yapping.
She passed the MP’s house, flicking a glance sideways to see if her son Samir would be watching from his bedroom window. Dad was proud of having the local MP in their street, and even prouder that she’d stayed here after her election, when she could have lived anywhere. But Lavonia hated having to pass that kid. Six years younger than her and a Year Eight at her old school, he gave her the creeps. His curtains were shut today and the house was in darkness. She sped past, knowing he could still be watching.
The bus stop was at the end of her road, a gaggle of people already waiting. That was good. As she approached, the bus thundered towards them and the queue readied themselves, picking up bags from the ground, pulling passes out of pockets and checking watches.
She wanted to hurl herself in front of the queue, to jump on before her dad could catch up. But she was too well trained. Instead, she fidgeted as she waited for them to go ahead of her, muttering under her breath and watching the end of her street. A car appeared and she shrank into herself, hiding behind a lanky kid sifting through a handful of pennies.
At last she was on the bus. She flashed her pass at the driver and squeezed past an elderly woman who was arranging heavy shopping bags. Who went shopping at this time of day?
She grabbed the handrail and threw herself up the stairs, not stopping to breathe until she was in the seat – it was available, yes! – at the back. From here she could see her street, check if her dad was following. Would he stop to have a go at her when she got off the bus? No, he was too scared of getting in late and pissing his boss off.
The car she’d seen waiting pulled out into the traffic. It wasn’t Dad’s. She whistled a sigh of relief and slumped down in the seat, twisting to peer out of the grubby back window. As the bus headed towards the motorway into town it stopped, waiting to pull out into the traffic. In the distance she saw a red car come out of her road. It looked a lot like Dad’s. She shivered and shrunk further down.
The bus started up again and the passengers from the next stop along found their way to their seats. She heard movement behind her; people sitting down. She ignored it.
She stiffened then turned slowly, her heart picking up pace. She knew that voice.
In front of her were two boys; young men, she corrected herself. One was Kofi, a kid who she’d been at school with and who was on the same college course as her. Media studies course. Dull as hell but it would get her a job at the end, or so her parents had told her.
“Hey,” said Kofi. He was in the seat in front of her, twisting to make eye contact. There was a sheen of sweat on his light brown skin.
“Hey,” she smiled back. Her gaze flicked to his companion, who had his back turned to her. His skin was like satin – no, silk – of the darkest brown, just a shade off black. There was a mole on the back of his neck, where the skin disappeared into the collar of the leather jacket he always wore despite the heat. She imagined placing a finger on that mole and shivered.
“Not with yo’ Dad today?” asked Kofi, bring her back to reality.
She scowled. “No. We had a row.”
“You? I thought youze was all the original happy family.”
“Yeah, right.” She looked back at Wayne. He had his phone out and had bent his hand to scroll through it. More of his neck was visible, a clear line where the jacket shielded his soft skin from the sun. She pursed her lips and grasped her hands together, fidgeting with her fingers.
She looked out of the window. They were nearing the end of the motorway now, the bus shoving its way into the traffic that fought to find the correct lanes. She imagined her dad behind. Was he watching the bus, or scowling at the other drivers, muttering under his breath and thinking about what would happen if he was late?
She turned and looked out of the back window. There was no sign of his car; it had been swallowed up by the traffic behind her. At least he wasn’t following her anymore.
“You going to Shay’s party tonight?” asked Kofi. She turned back to him.
Wayne had looked up and was nodding. He gazed out of the window, offering his profile to her. His eyes were large and dark and his nose fine and sharp. Long eyelashes blinked at the traffic outside, making her heart skip.
She swallowed, not taking her eyes off Wayne. “Yes.” There would be consequences, she knew. But she was nineteen now, a college student and not a baby. You only lived once.
There was a sound from behind, a muffled crash followed by a low roar. She frowned and leaned back to the window, shielding her eyes with a hand. The bus jolted suddenly, then shifted in the road as if it had been moved by an invisible hand. The noise grew, the low rumble becoming a deafening crash. Around them, cars skidded to a halt, horns accompanied by screeching brakes.
She turned to the boys and grasped the back of their seat.
“What was that?”
Wayne looked pale. He was leaning against the window, muttering. Kofi turned to her snd shrugged.
Then there was another roar, louder this time and sounding as if it would hurl itself into the back of the bus. In front of them, people turned in their seats, staring at each other in shock and confusion.
She turned to see the road behind shift and rise up, cars tumbling into each other. She screamed. The bus lurched again, then came to a screeching halt as it hit the concrete wall at the side of the carriageway.
“What the—?” breathed Wayne, looking at her. She shrugged.
People were rushing towards the front of the bus, shoving past each other to get to the stairs. A young man in a cheap suit pushed a woman and her toddler over, all but climbing over them in his haste. Lavinia darted forwards and grabbed the little boy’s hand, pulling him to his feet as another lurch sent them both crashing to the floor next to his mother. She was whimpering.
“You OK?” Lavonia asked her. The boy was crying now, full throated wails that reminded Lavonia of Tyrone as a toddler.
The woman’s skin was somewhere between grey, white and green. She shook her head and gestured towards her leg.
Lavonia looked down. It was trapped beneath the seat next to them, which had sheared free of the floor and buckled onto her. Lavonia gulped down a mouthful of sick.
“Someone help this woman!” she cried. “She’s hurt.”
Kofi was behind her, bending over her and peering at the woman’s leg. It was bent in a way that made Lavonia heave every time she looked at it. His eyes were wide and the sheen of sweat she’d noticed earlier had become heavy beads running down his face. Behind him, the top deck of the bus was empty.
Kofi looked round. “Dunno.” He glanced at the stairs. “Gone, I s’pose.”
She frowned then pulled in a deep breath. A voice came from downstairs. Male, overlaid with panic.
“Anyone up there?”
“Yes!” she called back. “There’s a woman hurt. She can’t get out.”
The owner of the voice thundered up the stairs; the driver. Lavonia felt her insides weaken; an adult to help them, at last.
The driver looked down at the woman. “You OK?”
The woman tightened her lips and glanced at the toddler, then nodded. Then she shook her head. “Hurts.”
Lavonia pulled her phone out of her pocket and dialled 999.
There was no answer.
She tried again, and again. Five – no, six – attempts got a similar lack of response.
There was a sound from outside, a screeching noise that made Lavonia feel as if her ears might disintegrate. She straightened and looked out of the window. Behind them, the motorway had been sheared in two. Cars were piled on top of each other in staggered, chaotic heaps. People dragged each other between them, struggling to find a way out. And beyond the point where this section of motorway rose into the air, ending in jagged steel and torn concrete, flames rose into the pale blue sky. She felt herself whimper.
The driver had freed the woman from the seat, with help from Kofi. She gasped as they pulled her onto the floor between the seats. Her son threw himself over her like a blanket, clinging to her neck like it was the only thing keeping him alive.
“We need to move her,” said the driver. “It’s not safe here.”
This was confirmed by another sideways lurch of the bus. Lavonia threw out a hand and grabbed the rail rising up from the seat next to her to the ceiling. The metal was warm.
“It’s hot,” she said. “Fire?”
The driver wiped his brow then looked back towards the stairs. “We need to go the back way. Out the back window.”
She’d often looked at the wording printed on the back windows of buses, the emergency escape information, and wondered how anyone could be expected to jump down from the back of a bus. Now she was going to find out.
“She’ll never make it,” she said.
The driver shook his head, looking at the stairs. There was an orange glow now, and the floor felt hot.
“We need to move, quick,” he hissed. “Before it gets to the engine. Or the diesel.”
Lavonia felt her legs go weak. Why hadn’t she waited for her dad? Why was she so stubborn?
Then she remembered her dad’s car, disappearing into the traffic behind. Her bowels churned.
She ran to the back of the bus and scanned the emergency instructions. They were obscured by layers of dirt, but she had them in her memory. She kicked out at the back window and it felt open. She kicked again and the windowpane separated from its frame, landing with a crash on the road below.
She heard a shout. “Hey! Watch out, there’s people down here!”
“Sorry!” she called. She dashed back to where Kofi and the driver were hauling the woman upright. She was moaning and her eyes were rolling in her head.
“Grab the kid,” muttered the driver.
She looked down at the child, who was sitting on the floor and screaming. She was no good with kids, had always steered clear of Tyrone when he was little – still did, as far as possible – but had no choice. She sat on the floor next to him.
“Hey kid, what’s your name?”
He ignored her and carried on screaming. She frowned at him. This was hopeless.
The driver dragged the kid’s mum to the back of the bus with Kofi holding her leg, keeping it from hitting the seats. The woman yelped as they went. Lavonia wondered how long it would be before they could get her an ambulance; there was going to be one hell of a queue.
She delved into the pocket of her jacket. There was half of a Twix in there from yesterday afternoon, when she’d got bored in the middle of a lecture and snuck out to the vending machine. She pulled it out and waved it in front of the kid.
“Look what I’ve got.”
The kid pulled the back of his hand across his face and looked at it. A chubby hand darted out and grabbed it. He sunk his teeth into it, not stopping to say thank you.
“Come on,” she told him. “we need to get off this bus.”
He said nothing, munching on his chocolate and sniffing repeatedly.
“We’re going out the back way. It’s an adventure.”
He sniffed again. Thick green snot flowed from his snubby nose. Lavonia grimaced.
“I’ve always wanted to do this, you know,” she said, trying not to look at his nose. Or his mouth, ringed with chocolate. “Now’s my chance. I need you to help me though.”
When he sniffed again, she grunted and grabbed him round the waist, hauling him along the aisle of the bus. He squirmed in her grip, legs kicking. Spatters of chocolately spit hit her face. She tightened her grip, trying to ignore the itch to wipe her skin clean.
At the back of the bus, the driver had laid the woman on the back seat.
“I’ll go first,” he said. “Then you two lower her down to me.”
There was a splintering sound behind Lavonia. She looked round; a side window of the bus had blown open. Flames were advancing up the stairs, the breeze sucking them out of the newly open window.
“Quickly,” muttered the driver. Kofi nodded and Lavonia wondered again where Wayne had got to.
The driver slid past the woman and pushed his legs out of the window. Lavonia watched his face as he grabbed the rail next to him and lowered himself backwards, his expression full of concentration. Then he flashed them a worried grin and let go of the rail. He disappeared and there was a thud followed by an “Ow!”
Kofi leaned over the woman to look out then put his thumbs up. Lavonia tightened her grip on the toddler, pulling him away from his mum. He was reaching out to her, thrusting his chocolatey fist into Lavonia’s face in an effort to break free.
Kofi grinned at her. “Pushy little bastard, isn’t he?”
“Not his fault.”
Kofi blushed. “S’pose not.”
The driver’s voice came up from below. “Ready! I’ve got help.”
Kofi leaned back to the window again and grinned. He looked back at Lavonia.
“There are three of them down there. It’ll be fine.”
“Yeah, but how do we get her down to them? I’ve got to hang onto the kid.”
“Hang on,” she said. “I’ll send him down first.”
Kofi nodded and turned to the window. “We’re sending the kid down first!”
“Be quick!” came the reply.
Lavonia could feel heat at her back. She didn’t dare look round to see where the flames had got to. She heard another window splinter open and hoped it would suck more of the heat out.
She climbed onto the seat next to the woman, kneeling on it with the kid in her arms. She clamped a fist around his hands, keeping them away from his mum.
Below, three men were looking up at her, their hands outstretched. They were too far away.
“Get closer to the bus!” she called. “And closer to each other!”
They pulled in and approached her. She grabbed the boy’s wrists, lowering him towards them. He screamed and struggled, kicking against the bus and yelping when his bare ankles came into contact with the hot metal. Lavonia clenched her teeth, trying to ignore the heat at her back.
When one of the men was able to grab his feet, she let the boy drop and he slid into the man’s arms. She slumped down into the seat, adrenaline flowing out of her.
“Now the mum,” said Kofi.
The woman. In her struggle to save the boy, she’d almost forgotten his mother. He was going to need her.
She nodded at Kofi and looked at the woman. She’d lost consciousness but was still breathing in short, ragged spurts. Her leg stuck out at an awkward angle. Lavonia put a hand to her mouth. Don’t puke, she told herself.
“I’ll take her under the shoulders,” said Kofi. “You grab her legs and ease her out.”
She looked at that leg. Was she going to have to touch it? “Can’t we go the other way round?”
“No. I’m stronger than you. I’ll take the weight.”
She looked at Kofi properly for the first time in years. His t-shirt stretched across firm muscles, and his arms rippled with strength. Why hadn’t she noticed?
She nodded and clenched her teeth, lifting the good leg and then, gingerly, the bad one. The woman let out a high pitched moan.
Lavonia ignored it. She pulled in a deep breath and lifted the legs up to the window. Kofi shifted the woman’s shoulders up so they were level with her feet, crouching to bring himself behind her. Lavonia smiled at him then heaved the woman’s legs over the window ledge. She heard movement below as the driver and his helpers got into place. An ambulance siren blipped somewhere: help?
She pushed the woman’s legs further over them pulled back to help Kofi take her weight. They leaned in together; she could feel the heat from his face on her cheek, and hear his shallow breaths.
Another splintering sound behind her, and then the whoosh of flames taking hold. She felt heat attack the sole of her foot.
She shrieked and looked back to see that her shoe had caught fire. She kicked her foot out wildly, shaking the shoe free and sending it flying into the flames filling the front of the bus. Her eyes widened.
“Sorry,” she panted, turning back to Kofi. In her shock, she’d let go of the woman and he was bearing her full weight. She grabbed an arm and leaned back to take some of the weight.
They both shuffled forwards and lowered the woman out, ignoring her gasps of pain. At last she felt the weight slacken as someone grabbed her outside. They leaned out and lowered her into waiting arms below.
“You next,” said Kofi. “I’ll lower you.”
She shook her head. “No. I’ll lower you.”
“Don’t be stupid.”
Behind them, there was a crash. Lavonia looked round to see the seat in front topple into the aisle, flames taking hold of the seat fabric.
“Both of you, now!” yelled the driver. “We’ll catch you!”
There was a crowd below them now, at leat ten people holding their arms up. The woman and her son had disappeared.
She turned to Kofi and threw him a grin. As one, they closed their eyes and jumped.
What will happen next? Will Lavonia and Kofi land safely? What happened to Lavonia’s dad? You’ll find out in a later story.
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