Jessica was barely awake when her phone buzzed. She groaned and gave it a cursory look, seeing only the sender (James) and part of his message – happy birthday. She decided that the reply could wait until she had downed unhealthy amounts of coffee and had survived the first hour of what was easily her worst hangover to date.
She wasn’t entirely sure she remembered much of last night, if anything. She had bruises on her knee and hip (did she fall?) and pen marks over her arm with birthday messages from the flatmates. When had that seemed like a good idea?
Nevertheless, after eating (and, thankfully, keeping down) breakfast, Jessica gave her phone another look. Courtney tottered down at the same time, making sounds that only a hungover student could make. Or a zombie, but they were more or less the same.
“Loverboy give you a text?”
Jessica raised her eyebrows at Court’s tone of voice. “Uh, yeah, why?”
Courtney tilted her head to the side and squinted at her friend. “You don’t remember our in depth conversation last night, then?”
“What in depth conversation?” Alarm filtered through into her voice. Courtney smirked.
“Oh, you spent close to an hour talking about how much you liked James.” She rolled her eyes. “Also, you honoured me with detailed explanations of what you two get up to. I’m blaming my whitey on that rather than the booze.”
Jessica frowned down at her phone. She surely didn’t say that?
When Jessica could stomach it, she replied to James. He wanted to meet her in this little out of the way cafe/bookshop they had found. After what Courtney said, Jess was feeling uncomfortable. It sat like lead in her stomach.
It wasn’t a date, she told herself. They’d met up like this before, and had just hung out.
Her logic was flawed; what made those other times any different from dates?
James knew how it was, she tried to convince herself. He knew they weren’t dates. She could remind him if she had to.
James smiled when she approached him. She noticed more about him, today, and she wasn’t sure if that was because she had four cups of coffee in her or if her internal freak out was making her more aware. When he smiled, the corners of his eyes crinkled. His left eyebrow lifted a little. He had the slightest dimple on his right cheek. Shit, okay, she was scaring herself now –
Before Jessica could become any more lost down the rabbit-hole that was her thoughts, James pulled out a box from his bag.
“Happy birthday,” he sang.
Jessica stared at it.
Shit, it was almost like they were going out.
“You know that we’re not together, right?” Her voice was flat; unemotional. Harsh.
James’ gaze swung to the box and then returned to her. He did not look any less confused.
“Yes,” he said slowly. “I’m aware that we’re not going out.”
“Then why did you buy me a present?” Maybe it only appeared this way to Jessica, but her voice seemed to take on a desperate quality to it. Her heart was thudding in her chest. This was all too much like boyfriend and girlfriend to her.
“Whoa, whoa,” he said, tossing the box down to the sofa. “We’re friends, right? I bought you the present because we’re friends. We’re both adults, we can shag and still remain mates. Nothing more, nothing less.” He frowned at her. “I know that, and you know that. Did you expect me not to care about you, or something?”
Now that James had put it all out there on the table, she felt stupid. Her face, previously so cold, now flooded with heat. She felt mortified. “I – no, of course not. I don’t know, I just – I’m sorry – I just freaked out, I don’t know -”
He rolled his eyes, but the movement was fond rather than exasperated. “You’re an idiot,” he told her. “Do you want your present, or shall I keep it for myself?”
Jessica eyed the box. “Well, it wouldn’t hurt…”
Jessica gasped. “You’re evil! No! I want it! Give it to me!”
“The box, or…?”
“Oh, shut up!”
He finally gave in and tossed it to her. She opened it up and found chocolates and sweets from the local ‘olde sweet shope’ and groaned at the sight of them.
“Don’t eat them all at once,” he teased. She sent him a glare for that.
“Thank you,” Jessica said with a genuine smile. “And I’m sorry for how I reacted earlier. I probably should have had less coffee.”
Thankfully James laughed, as good natured as always. “You’re very welcome. One question, though – why does commitment freak you out so much? I mean, I’m not in this for a relationship but it’s not like I’m as against it as you are.”
She sighed and put the box in her bag. “My mum and dad split up when I was young. Both got remarried, and both split up again. Literally the only people I know that are still together are Courtney’s parents, and they’re the grumpiest most spiteful people I know.”
“My mum and step-dad are still together,” James shrugged.
“But for how much longer?” she pointed out.
James sighed. “You’re quite the pessimist, ain’t ya?”
“It’s not too cold anymore. Plus, this has an added element of danger in it. I don’t have my glasses either.” He flashed her a grin. “And yet I’m still doing better than you.”
“Ha, ha,” she rolled her eyes. “Listen, leave my clumsy nature alone. I think I inherited it from my dad.”
James laughed. “Better than what I inherited.”
“What did you inherit?” Jessica asked. “Oh, god damn it,” she said, picking the disk off the ground while James laughed.
“I look far more like him than I look like my mum. And he looks like his dad.”
“He kept on drinking and gambling, if that’s what you mean, until it all caught up with him. My dad was old enough to have picked up the habit and young enough not to realise the consequences, I guess.” He shook his head sadly. “I know he had a friend – some Spanish guy he used to gamble with. Juan, or something. The friend disappeared one day. Probably dead in a gutter somewhere – still didn’t affect my dad. Guess he was in too deep by that point.”
“How do you know this?”
“I saw him a few times when I was younger, and he kept in touch with his mother – and she lives with us. Haven’t heard from him in a while.” He shrugged, uncaring, and caught the disk moments before it hit his face. “Maybe he joined his mate in the gutters.”
“And it seriously doesn’t bother you?” Jessica asked, bewildered.
“Why would it?” James asked. “My step dad is my father, as far as I’m concerned.” He gestured for her to throw it again, and she did. “Fuck, that breeze is getting right up my boxers.”
Jessica laughed. “Should we go inside?”
He smirked at her. “I could do with getting warmed up…”
Kelsey peeked into Jessica’s room one Spring evening. Although Kelsey was always quiet, Jessica’s door squeaked so she knew someone was slipping into her room. She turned around on her chair and raised her eyebrows at Kelsey. The girl sat down on her bed with a heavy sigh.
“How do I ask someone out?” she said, without preamble.
Jessica blinked. “Didn’t you have a boyfriend before?”
“Yeah, but he asked me out. I like someone, and I don’t know if they like me back.”
Jessica tried not to let the glee show on her face. “You like Brian, you mean?”
Kelsey’s eyes went round. “How did you know?!”
Jess cackled. “Who doesn’t know?” she asked. “Come on, you two are so obvious. He definitely likes you, but I know he doesn’t want to make things awkward and ask you out, because you’re a little shyer than most of us.”
Kelsey stared down at the floor with her shoulders set. “You’re all so amazing and beautiful and confident and I’m just this boring quiet girl.”
Jessica shook her head. “I’ll let you in on a little secret: few people really believe they measure up to the next person. They’re not as pretty, or they’re not as nice, or they’re not as outgoing… You can’t ever look at yourself accurately. It’s a blessing and a curse, I guess. You know, I’m jealous of how smart you are. Courtney wishes she had your skin colour. Ash adores how polite and sweet you are. Of course you’re not going to measure up to everyone in every way, but you’re going to outshine them in others. It just so happens that we can rarely see our best bits because we’re determined to see ourselves as less than what we are.” She dropped her pencil next to her book. “It’s a lesson I learned in high school. You’re not just your flaws. But if you had no flaws? You wouldn’t be interesting.”
Kelsey’s eyes had filled. “You’re so lovely, Jessica. I wish I could be like you.”
Jess shook her head. “You don’t need to wish to be like anyone else. Be happy being yourself. Go ask Brian out, or at least think on it more. He likes you, I know it.”
Kelsey nodded. “Thank you. You’re the best.”
Jessica gave a wink. “I know.”
“I’m thinking of going to the party the football guys are throwing. Celebrating their win, or something, I don’t care enough to follow.” Jessica wrapped her hands around the coffee cup.
James frowned. “You shouldn’t,” he began, pausing to take a sip from his coffee. As he opened his mouth to elaborate, Courtney stared him down.
“Whoa, whoa,” she said. “Since when do you tell Jess what she can and can’t do?”
James blinked. “I wasn’t -”
“Yeah, you were, or is there another reason why you told her she shouldn’t go to a party?”
“Courtney,” Jessica cut in. “Stop being so over protective, sheesh.”
The way she said it made Jessica feel uncomfortable, because she knew there was a second meaning to Courtney’s words – she just didn’t know what it was.
“There’d be an explanation if you would give him a chance,” she said through gritted teeth. Courtney raised an eyebrow at James, who had tactfully kept silent, and he took this as an invitation to continue.
“Wait, what?!” Of all of the things Jessica had expected, this wasn’t it. After all, Aiden was on the team. Both Brian and Sam were – and while they may not have been shining examples of human kind, they certainly didn’t fall into that category. Even Courtney was shocked silent.
“I was at their party in refreshers. Aiden invited me along. Anyway, everyone else was steaming. There were a couple of guys talking to this girl. She didn’t look uncomfortable, as such, but I kinda got the feeling that she was slightly too drunk to realise she should have been uncomfortable. I stuck close by anyway, figuring that as the sober one it was my responsibility.” He paused. “I got distracted for a little while, and the next thing I know, she was completely -” He snapped his fingers. “Off her tits.”
Jessica gaped. “But – that’s -”
“Yeah. I don’t know if it was just too much booze for her, or something, or if it was something else. I don’t know, it was suspicious to me. She was totally out of it, and the guys didn’t seem to be bothered by it. I stepped in and pretended I was her flatmate, and walked her home. I’ve heard some rumours that it wasn’t the first time something like that has happened at one of those parties.” He meant Jessica’s gaze. “If you go, keep an eye on your drink.”
Jessica and Courtney exchanged a look. “Doesn’t the university have a zero tolerance policy on this stuff?”
James snorted. “For their star football team? They literally will bump the grades up if it means keeping them on the team. They’d need evidence.”
Jessica set her shoulders. “Let’s go talk to Brian and Sam.”