James hadn’t talked much except to give her directions. Jessica respected his space and kept quiet also, letting him choose when to break the silence. The drive itself wasn’t too long; James lived in the north of England so it was only a three hour drive. She glanced over to her friend. James was resting his head against the window, dried tear tracks staining his cheeks. His eyes were still red and puffy and he was huddled up against the door, arms wrapped around himself as if cold.
“Could you come in with me?” he asked quietly, voice rough.
“If you want me to.”
“If she’s awake… she always wanted me to find someone to be happy with, you know. It wouldn’t hurt to pretend for her sake.” He glanced at her, none of the usual light humour in him. Jessica’s hands tightened on the wheel; seeing him like this made her chest hurt painfully in sympathy.
“Sure,” she murmured. “I can do that.”
“Thank you.” He tried to muster up a smile, the small dimple flashing for a brief moment before he gave up on the pretense of cheerfulness. He went back to watching the scenery pass, leaving them both to their personal thoughts.
It was a strange experience to see James’ mother and step father. She’d looked at their faces so often in pictures and videos, that seeing them in real life was almost jarring. His step father offered up a small, reassuring smile.
“Oh, honey,” James’ mother said, standing up.
James barely responded; his gaze was fixed on the old, thin woman lying in bed with a bleakness that Jessica hadn’t seen before. She was asleep. Her skin was pale and dry. Her face was slack. There was none of the life that Jessica had come to expect from this woman, based on what she had seen in photos and videos, and if it was heartbreaking for her she couldn’t imagine how lost James was feeling.
James’ mum pulled him into a hug. He shuddered for a moment and hid his face in the crook of her neck. Jessica went to reach out and comfort him, but found herself stuck. She didn’t feel like it was right to invade his very personal moment.
His mother pulled away and looked over at Jessica hovering awkwardly by the door. “Thank you for driving him all this way,” she said quietly.
“It isn’t that far,” Jessica said, and then wondered if that sounded insensitive. “And I don’t mind, honestly.”
His mother smiled and then rubbed her hands over James’ arms. “We’ll step out and give you some time, okay? We’ll be back after lunch.”
James nodded mutely. As soon as his mum pulled away, his gaze was drawn back to his grandmother. Jessica stepped aside to let his parents out of the room and then continued to stand in the corner while James sunk into one of the chairs.
After another moment of hesitation, Jessica perched on the seat beside James. He swallowed thickly and then bowed his head, body trembling, and began to sob. Jessica felt herself tear up at the heartbroken, lost sound and reached out to curl a hand around his.
“Before my mum remarried, she went abroad to work and make money. My nan raised me herself for two years. There hasn’t been a day in my life that I’ve needed her and she hasn’t been there.” He squeezed his eyes shut and wiped his hand over his cheeks, lifting up his glasses to clear his eyes. As soon as he opened them, more tears fell. “I’m not ready,” he sniffed. “I’ll never be ready.”
Jessica could think of nothing reassuring to say to that, and so settled for rubbing her thumb over the back of his hand in what she hoped was a comforting manner.
“She was too nice for the life she had,” James went on. “My granddad was like my dad, but he stuck around. I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been to put up with him, but even though she went through all that, she still loved and helped everyone she could.” He wiped at his cheeks again, and again the tears were quickly replaced. “God, this hurts,” he breathed.
“At least you had her in your life,” Jessica said softly, desperately hoping she was saying the right thing. She was about to reach out and wrap her arms around him, but his nan chose that moment to make a crackling cough and open her eyes.
“JJ, my lovely boy,” she said, her voice dangerously thin and quiet. Jessica was momentarily confused until she realised that James was actually James Jr., and so maybe that was what his family called him. “And who is this?” she asked, wheezing, and pointed a shaking finger towards Jessica.
“His girlfriend,” Jess smiled, saving James from lying. “It’s nice to meet you, Ms -”
“Oh, Elizabeth, dear,” she coughed. “Is this the girl you talked about, JJ?”
“Yeah, this is her,” James said softly.
“Lovely. I’m glad. I’m glad you -” She coughed a few times and tried to clear her throat. “-caught her, JJ. You treat him right, Jess.” Elizabeth reached up to wipe at her weeping eyes. “You treat my lovely boy right.”
“I wouldn’t dream of hurting him,” Jessica promised.
“Good, good,” Elizabeth said. Her voice was still crackling and wispy, and her breathing was more laboured.
“Go to sleep, grandma. We’ll be right outside.” James ran his hand over her hair and bent down to press his lips to her forehead briefly. She smiled at him, eyes a little unfocused, and they began to close as Jessica followed James out. She glanced back once and saw Elizabeth looking directly at her, studying her, and smiling. The old woman nodded to herself and settled down into her bed.
“Hey,” Jessica said gently, cutting him off. She closed the door behind them quietly and pressed against the wall, keeping out of the way of the nurses and other family members walking down the corridor. “You don’t need to thank me. I’m glad that I was able to do this for you.”
James gave her a weak smile. “I’ll probably stay home for a couple of weeks. Sorry to make you drive back all that way alone-”
“Stop,” Jessica told him. Her voice was firm. “It’s okay. I knew I’d be driving here and back when I agreed to this.”
“You can call or text me or whatever if you need to,” Jessica promised, reaching out to take his hands. “Just… let me know how I can help, and I will.” She squeezed his hands and dropped them, her own falling to her side uselessly. She felt so helpless.
James sniffed and more tears fell. “Thanks. I – thanks. I just don’t – I don’t know how to -” he broke off and his face crumpled again, shoulders curling inwards. He wiped at the new tears falling.
“I’ll do my best,” he promised, stepping back and wiping at his nose. “Sorry, I’m probably really gross right now. Ugly crying and snot don’t make for an attractive mix.”
Despite everything, Jessica laughed. “You’ve seen me worse while drunk, so I think we’re even.” She stepped back and pulled her sleeves over her hands, shivering. “I’ll be off now,” she said awkwardly, aware that things had been getting rather close between them. “Just – text me, or whatever.”
“I will,” he said. “You’re the best for doing this, seriously, I love you.”
Jessica winked and blew a kiss. It didn’t occur to her until she was in her car that James had never said those words before today.
“Why do we have a snow cone maker in our garden?”
Aja flashed a grin over her shoulder. “Jeremy and I carried it back from the park last night when we were steaming. May as well make good use of it before we have to carry it all the way back again.”
Jessica rolled her eyes. “It’s worrying that I’m not actually surprised.”
Aja giggled and drizzled syrup over her cone. “Have you heard from James?”
“A little.” Jessica glared up at the sky as rain began to spit down on them. Typical. “I think he’s just finding comfort in his family right now.”
“I’ve been thinking a lot about him,” Jessica said slowly.
Aja raised an eyebrow and considered her friend. “In what context, exactly?”
Jessica crumpled the rubbish from her cone and stuffed it into her pocket. “I… I mean, my feelings for him haven’t stopped. I’ve had the whole summer and more, and I still can’t stop the way I feel.” She paused and looked up at the cloudy sky. “I’m still terrified of being hurt, but I think maybe… You can’t stop yourself from doing things because you’re scared.”
Aja didn’t respond the way Jessica suspected. She frowned down at her hands and said nothing.
“Are you thinking about Aiden?” Jessica asked, after a quick glance around to ensure they were alone.
Aja scowled. “Hey, we’re talking about James here! Have you finally decided that you’re madly in love with him?”
Jessica had already admitted to herself on multiple occasions that she loved James, but instead of saying this she grinned wickedly. “Have you finally decided that you’re madly in love with Aiden?”
“I hate you,” Aja sighed. “God damn, I hate you.”
Jessica blew kisses at her friend. “You love me,” she sang. “And you know it!”
James had taken two weeks away from University to deal with his grandmother’s death, but it was nice to be back – for one, university held constant distractions. One was even sidling up to his picnic blanket now. He waved Jessica over, glad that she was here to keep him company.
“Hey, sweetheart,” he greeted. He laughed as she rolled her eyes.
“Glad to see you’re feeling a bit better.”
Jessica sat next to him on the blanket, thankful that the weather was dry enough that her backside wasn’t immediately wet. He gestured to the basket and she peeked inside, laughing when she realised most of the foodstuffs had been bought from the university shop. She unwrapped a warm burger and happily munched her way through it.
“How are you feeling?”
“Better,” James nodded. “Not… good, you know, but better. It’s nice to be back.”
Jessica smiled and watched him carefully. He was definitely not as bright or as cheerful as usual, but he wasn’t as sad as when she had last seen him, either.
She cleared her throat, suddenly feeling like her heart was in her mouth. “I was wondering if… you meant it.”
James blinked at her for a moment before realisation cleared the expression away. “Of course, Jess. I don’t say words like that without meaning them. I do love you. I do think you’re great. And I’m glad that we’re still friends.”
She felt like if she didn’t say it now, she never would. “I love you too,” she burst out, and then pressed her hand over her mouth.
James didn’t react, other than raising an eyebrow. “And yet we’re still in the same position as the night you decided you couldn’t sleep with me anymore.”
Jessica swallowed. Her throat felt dry, and it was good she had finished the burger; there was no way she could eat right now. “We’re not.” It felt like she was hearing her voice from far away. Her heart thudded in her ears. “You were right. It is lonely. And I don’t want to let fear from keeping me from enjoying something. If… If you want to maybe… if you were ready – oh god, this is probably really badly timed, isn’t it – I’m sorry -”
“You’re an asshole,” she fumed.
“Aw, sweetheart, you love me really.”
And now she couldn’t even deny it. Typical.
“Oh my God, if you’re going to be like that, I’ll just -”
“Don’t,” James said, still chuckling, “don’t leave. I would love to be your boyfriend, if that’s what you’re asking. I think it’s about time, huh?”
Jessica swung her eyes heavenward. “I swear to God, everyone I have talked to about this has said the same thing.”
“Well, you take a little while to work through things.” James made his tone as patronising as possible, and laughed again when Jessica scowled as if on cue. “Tell you what, sweetheart. I’ll beat you at some Frisbee.”
“Ugh, fine, I suppose I’ll stick around and attempt to throw the disk at your face.”
“Wow, I’m feeling the love -”
“Shut up, you dick.”