One of Yoko’s ears is smaller than the other. Sometimes she wears a different earring on each ear, so that people will notice. Right now, I can only see her smaller ear. She’s sitting slouched on the council bench, playing with her hair. Apart from the noise of cars speeding along the far-off motorway, Yoko’s voice is the only sound in the world. It’s as if we’re submerged beneath the ocean, watching the distant lights of the city glow through a wash of clear, dark water. There’s a sense of anticipation, like the landscape is waiting for something that we’re still unaware of. This must be how Neil Armstrong felt, before he stepped onto the moon. This must be how the residents of Hiroshima felt, wondering why the light had changed.
‘I’m not doing this,’ Yoko says. She’s talking to Tom, not me.
‘Of course you’re going to do it.’ Tom replies without looking at her. Yoko’s not scared, or if she is, she’s playing it up. This one isn’t even dangerous.
Tom holds his hand out in front of him, and I see a light flare up against it as he lights a cigarette. ‘I’ve done it, Leah’s done it, and Akara will too, as soon as he’s recovered from the flu.’ He takes a drag of his cigarette and blows the smoke out in Yoko’s face. She waves her hand in front of her mouth and coughs and splutters. It’s only a matter of time before she caves. A few minutes, perhaps.
‘Look, the road’s completely empty,’ Tom reassures her. He gestures to the stretch of black tarmac in front of us. ‘ A car hasn’t come along for ages. Now would be a good time.’
‘Yeah, and that means that one’ll be coming along at any moment now,’ Yoko replies, with that familiar, annoying whine in her voice. If she drags this out much longer, then I won’t get any more sleep tonight.
‘Independent probability doesn’t work like that,’ I say. They both look at me. Tom leans around Yoko to see me better, and something happens to my stomach.
‘It’s like flipping a coin,’ I say evenly. Eyes on the road. ‘The probability of a car passing over that spot doesn’t change based on what happened five minutes ago.’
I turn my head and they’re both still looking at me.
‘Well,’ says Tom with a grin, ‘One of us has to be smart.’
I exhale. Sit there happy and glowing. This is what happens when Tom pays me a compliment. Only the glow’s been wearing off sooner, lately. I don’t know why.
‘You heard Leah,’ Tom’s saying. ‘It’s safe to go.’ His voice is as soft and sticky as a puddle of something left on a bar table.
‘I’m scared,’ Yoko says. Yoko likes shopping and French desserts and rom-coms. She was making us watch The Notebook with her when Tom got this idea. And I feel sorry for her, because she’s wearing light make-up and a co-ordinated outfit.
Tom shrugs. ‘If you’re going tonight, then you’d better go now. Around four, we’re going to start seeing traffic from the clubs.’ He leans over to look at me again, but I ignore him. If he thinks that I’m going to help him persuade Yoko, then he can think again. Besides, it’s not me that she wants to be persuaded by.
Yoko sits and watches the road for a few minutes. A few cars pass by, blurred streaks of colour soon lost in the darkness. Tom doesn’t say anything. He knows when to push Yoko and when to leave her alone. When silence is most effective. He’s staring out across the road at the music shop opposite us, thinking unknowable Tom thoughts. I watch his face turn from yellow to red to white and back to streetlamp yellow. He doesn’t deserve his pretty face. I’m just saying.
Yoko stands up suddenly, pulling on a section of her tights to get rid of a wrinkle.
‘I’ll go now.’
‘Cool,’ Tom says. ‘I’ll start the timer when you’re lying down.’
Yoko turns her head to look back at him, looking for that last bit of approval. He smiles a bit, to reassure her, making shooing motion with his hand. She looks at me, and I smile as well. Only then does Yoko make her way towards the road. She looks smaller, somehow, as she steps out onto the bitumen. Watching her stand there in the middle of the road makes me remember that she only turned fifteen last week. And that whenever she gets put in danger, I am complicit in putting her there. I stand by, encourage her even, and I am as responsible as Tom. Well, maybe not as responsible as Tom. But still responsible.
‘Is there anything coming? she asks us.
‘Nothing,’ Tom reassures her, his tone verging on annoyance. ‘Now lie down.’
Yoko obeys him, slowly lowering herself to the tarmac and arranging her clothing so that she’s comfortable.
‘Have you started the timer?’
‘Yep, I’ve started the fucking timer,’ says Tom patiently.
‘Is there anything coming now?’
‘Really, you’re fine. If something comes along, we’ll tell you. Close your eyes and do some meditation or something.’
Yoko stretches out with her arms crossed over her chest like a medieval corpse. Every couple of seconds, she lifts her head up to check the road in front of her. Tom’s watching the road, so I get out the book I’ve chosen for my extended response essay.
‘What are you reading?’ Tom asks. He’s moved over so that he’s sitting right next to me. I hadn’t noticed.
‘You wouldn’t know it.’
‘Yeah, but I’m interested.’ He’s sitting pretty close. His hand, resting on the bench, is about two centimetres away from mine. And I’m angry at him. I should remember that.
‘Why do you care? You don’t read.’
‘Are you kids behaving yourselves over there?’ Yoko calls, her voice slightly anxious. The yellow light’s puddling on her face, and her skirt has ridden up to expose her stripy leggings.
‘We’re discussing literature!’ Tom tells her.
‘Cool,’ giggles Yoko, but Tom’s attention is already back on me. He holds out his hand for the book, and I pass it over, feeling vaguely childish. He barely even looks at it.
‘You’re angry at me, aren’t you?’ he asks me. When Tom looks at you, it’s like feeling the weight of a thousand pairs of eyes trained on your face. It’s like having all the power and authority in the world. It’s like being chosen.
Out on the road, Yoko won’t lie still. She keeps checking for cars. Smart girl.
‘Why are you angry?’ Tom asks.
‘You wouldn’t listen,’ I say.
He bends down until he’s on my level, trying to catch my eye.
‘I’m listening now, aren’t I?’ he says, with that disarming, slightly dopey grin on his face. His eyes have dark blue stripes in them, spreading out from around their centres, making it difficult to tell where his pupils end and his irises begin. I don’t want to have an argument with Tom. I want him to listen.
‘The dares are getting too dangerous,’ I say, in a low enough voice so that Yoko won’t hear. Tom’s smile gets wider. ‘Not this dare, obviously,’ I say, quickly. ‘The other ones. Train surfing. Riding behind cars.’
‘You scared?’ Tom asks, like he couldn’t care less. My feet scuff against the pavement.
‘I’d be mad if I wasn’t a little fucking scared. That’s not why I’m saying this. It’s too dangerous. Take the spider man dare. Yoko could have died. Any of us could have died.’
‘Yoko didn’t die,’ says Tom calmly. ‘Yoko broke her arm.’
‘She’s fifteen,’ I tell him. I feel a sudden surge of protectiveness for Yoko. She just wants us to like her. She needs someone to look out for her, and that person sure as shit isn’t Tom. I’m not saying that he doesn’t like Yoko, because he does. She always obeys him without question.
‘She’s too young to be able to make decisions like that,’ I say, and I know that I’m losing the argument.
‘Try telling Yoko that,’ Tom says. It’s impossible to win an argument with Tom, because if he doesn’t like what you’re saying, then he’ll pretend it doesn’t matter.
But I’m not losing this one.
‘When are you going to stop, Tom?’
He takes another drag of his cigarette.
‘Are you going to stop when one of us dies?’
He flicks some ash off the end of the durrie, and scratches his left arm.
‘Because sooner or later, one of us will die.’
Tom stretches his legs out in front of him, checking the timer, checking that Yoko’s obeying the rules.
‘Hopefully it’ll be you. Instead of me or Akara. Or Yoko.’ The words come out weakly, and my voice sounds like I care about him, like I’m going to behave. I look away, so that my face won’t betray me. Should I just walk away? Should I go now, and get some new friends? I could get some new friends, safer ones. Damn Tom. Yoko doesn’t need me. This must be how the residents of Hiroshima felt, wondering what had come between them and the sun.
‘So angry, Leah,’ Tom murmurs. He sounds amused. My eyes are stinging, and I don’t know why, I don’t cry easily.
‘Such an angry possum.’
I don’t say anything.
Tom just laughs. The sound of it sticks inside me, like something I shouldn’t have swallowed.
‘Aren’t you afraid that I’ll leave?’ I ask.
‘I’m not afraid,’ says Tom. ‘Because I know you won’t leave.’
He reaches out to put what’s left of the cigarette in my mouth. I’m opening my mouth, slightly, without wanting to, and his fingers almost touch my lips.
It’s then that we hear the car. Quiet, at first, but getting louder.
‘Shit, there’s something coming,’ I say. ‘Yoko, I think there’s a car coming!’
‘I still have to finish the dare,’ Yoko says. We can see the lights now, see the car as it turns onto our road. She twists her head around to look at the car, but doesn’t get up. She needs to get up.
‘Yoko, get off the road!’ I yell.
‘How much time have I got left?’
‘If you get up now, you’ll have to do it again,’ Tom tells her calmly, and I have the thought that it would be ironic, wouldn’t it, if this was how Yoko died. Not by falling off a twenty-story building or being electrocuted. Being hit by a car. How basic. How stupid.
‘Yoko, get off the road!’ I scream. She’s still lying down, why the fuck is she still lying down? I’m getting up and rushing towards her, just as the car’s horn blares, just as Yoko springs up and launches herself towards the side of the road, just as we collide together, with my arms around her, just as the car pulls over and its door opens.
‘Hey! You kids!’ the driver yells. The driver is a man. He’s wearing a shirt that’s too small for him. He nearly ran over my friend.
‘We’ve got to run,’ Tom says urgently, tugging on my arm. ‘Come on, run like shit.’
We follow Tom, weaving in and out of quiet back streets, cutting across a main road. Once we climb a big metal bin to get over a fence. The guy stops chasing us after a few blocks, but Tom keeps running, and we follow. By the time we stop, Yoko’s complaining of a stitch, and even I’m starting to get a bit puffed. We’ve stopped outside a 24/7 bottle shop. Tom’s exultant, hyped up on adrenaline. Yoko’s bent over double, laughing so hard that the tears are streaming down her face. She doesn’t seem angry. She’s used to it. This is how we get thrills. This is how we know that we’re alive.
Tom laughs along with her, congratulating her on her close brush. He says that he’ll forgive the final few seconds that she missed, on account of how she nearly got run over. He proposes that we get some cheap booze, to celebrate.
As soon as Tom’s disappeared into the bottle shop, Yoko’s laughter turns to sobs. Huge, silent sobs that make her whole body shake.
‘Are you okay?’ I ask her. It’s a stupid question. Probably the most stupid question ever invented. Because if you need to ask, then you already know.
‘I’m fine,’ Yoko sniffles.
‘Do you want to talk about it?’
She shakes her head.
‘Do you want a hug?’
She shakes her head again.
Tom’s taking a while, so we just stand there together, in the bleached glow of the overhead LED lights. No-one says anything. For the longest time.
Then Yoko gets her phone out and begins looking at something, while her tears make her mascara run. After a bit, she reaches out her hand to show me her phone. She’s looking at these eye shadow palettes, and she wants to know which one she should get. There’s one called ‘Roman Midnight,’ and another called ‘Sugar Rush.’
I want to tell her that I don’t think Tom will notice or care. Instead, I tell her to get the sugar rush one. Pink’s a good colour on her.
Hannah Vesey is a second-year creative writing student with a passion for eavesdropping on strangers’ conversations. She wants her work to create connections and help engender kindness and understanding for people who are ‘different.’ This is her second published story. Follow her on Instagram @hannah_vesey_