James shook his head, his dark eyes bleak. “I’m sorry, Joss. About earlier. I just… I feel like I can’t breathe. It doesn’t seem real, you know.”
Feeling hopeless, I leaned over to rub his shoulder in comfort. “Maybe Rhian will change her mind.”
“I thought she was over her bullshit,” he continued like I hadn’t spoken, “It’s all because of her parents, you know that right?”
“Kind of. Not really. We don’t talk about that stuff.”
He eyed me with something akin to disbelief. “You two are supposed to be best friends, but sometimes I think you do each other more damage than good.”
“Rhian’s mum loved Rhian’s dad. Her dad was an emotionally-stunted, alcoholic prick, but that bitch loved him more than she loved Rhian. He beat the shit out of Rhian and her mum all the time. And Rhian’s mum kept going back to him. Eventually, he took off, filed for divorce, met someone else. Rhian’s mum blamed her. Said she was a fuck-up and that she’d end up just like her dad. For years she’s told Rhian she was just like her dad, a disaster waiting to happen. And Rhian believes it.
You know her mum attempted suicide twice? Selfish cow left Rhian to find her like that. Twice. And now Rhian thinks she’s going to do to me what her dad did to her mum. I can’t rationalize with her. She doesn’t even bloody drink. It’s all in her head! And I thought we were passed it, Joss. When things got serious ages ago we went through all this and thought we’d beat it. That’s why I proposed.” He ducked his head in an effort to hide the tears shining in his eyes. “I can’t believe this is actually happening.” He kicked the coffee table in frustration and I barely even blinked.
My mind was off with Rhian. How could I have been her best friend for four years and not know any of this? This was way more messed up than I could have guessed. Of course, Rhian didn’t know anything about my past either. I suddenly wondered if James was right. How could we possibly give each other advice when we didn’t know the first thing about each other’s demons?
Then it occurred to me, looking at James, crying over the woman he loved, that Rhian was far less messed up than I was. She had told James everything because she’d trusted him with her issues, and she’d dealt through them with him. Or she almost had.
Still, that was a huge step in the right direction.
“Joss,” James was pleading with me now, “Talk to her, please. She listens to you. She thinks if you’re happy being alone, then she’ll be fine too.”
Happy? I wasn’t happy. I was just safe.
I sighed heavily, not sure what to do. “Look, you can crash here for however long you need.”
James looked at me a moment too long, his expression unreadable. Finally he just nodded. “I’d appreciate it if I could crash on your couch tonight. Tomorrow, I’m heading home to mum’s. Until I can get sorted out.”
We didn’t say anything else after that as I found a blanket in the closet and left it on the couch, along with one of my pillows. I could feel James’ disappointment in me every time I stepped near him, so I left him in the sitting room and closed myself in my room.
I called Ellie.
“Hey, are you alright?” she asked, the sound of music and noise in the background fading, as she wandered through whatever bar she was in and out into a marginally quieter street.
No. I’m not fine. I’m pretty far from fine. “Yeah, I’m okay. I hope you don’t mind, but I told James that he could crash on the couch for the night. He’s heading home tomorrow.”
“Sure th- what?” her mouth pulled away from her phone as she spoke to someone else. “She’s fine. He’s sleeping on the couch.”
Was that Braden?
“No, I said it’s fine. Braden, she’s fine. Go away.” Her sigh became louder as she turned back into her phone. “Sorry, Joss. Yeah, that’s fine. Do you need me to come home?”
Do you need me to come home?
Was I home? Did I need her?
I barely knew her. But like Braden, Ellie had crawled inside somehow. Exhausted by what had turned into an exceptionally emotional day, I shook my head. “No, Ellie, I’m really okay. Stay. Have fun. Just remember there’s a strange guy sleeping on your couch when you come home.”
Reluctantly, she hung up and I was left staring at the wall. I was reeling. Why did I feel so off-balance? So out of control? So scared?
Why had moving to Dublin Street changed so much in so little time?
So much had changed, but apparently it hadn’t changed enough. I was still alone. But I was alone because that’s how I wanted it. Rhian, I suddenly realized, was a completely different creature altogether. She wouldn’t survive alone.
I dialed her number.
She picked up just as I was about to hang up. “Hullo?”
Jesus C, she sounded like crap. “Rhian?”
“What do you want, Joss? I was sleeping.”
Yeah I could just imagine that she’d spent all her time in bed since James had left. Suddenly I felt angry at her. “I’m calling to tell you, you’re a complete idiot.”
“You heard me. Now get on the phone and call James and tell him you made a mistake.”
“Fuck off, Joss. You know better than anyone I’m better off alone. Have you been drinking?”
“No. I’m sitting here while your boyfriend lies crashed out on my couch.”
Her breath hitched. “James is in Edinburgh?”
“Yeah. And he’s heartbroken. And he told me everything. About your parents, about your mom.” I waited for a reply but Rhian had gone deathly silent. “Rhian, why didn’t you tell me?”
“Why haven’t you ever spoken about your parents?” she countered.
I blinked back the stinging in my eyes as they landed on the photograph of my family on the bedside table. “Because they died along with my little sister when I was fourteen and there’s nothing else to really say.” I didn’t know if that was true or not. In fact after the panic attacks, I was wondering if not saying anything was the problem. I took a deep breath and told her something I had never told anyone. “When they died, the only person I had was my best friend Dru, and when she died a year later I had no one. I was completely alone. I spent the most impressionable years of my life taking care of me. There’s never been concerned phone calls or people checking in. Maybe there would have been if I’d let them, but I’m used to taking caring of myself and not wanting to rely on anyone else.”
After another moment where the only sound I could hear was the thudding of my heart, Rhian sniffled. “I think that’s the most honest you’ve ever been with me.”
“It’s the most honest I’ve ever been with anyone.”
“You’ve just always been so self-contained. I thought you were okay. I thought you didn’t need anyone to be concerned…”
I settled back on the bed with my own heavy sigh. “The point of this reluctant outpouring of all my crap isn’t to make you feel guilty. I don’t need anyone to be concerned for me. That’s my point. Will that change one day? I don’t know. I’m not asking it to. But Rhian, when you trusted James with all your baggage you decided that day that you were asking someone to be concerned. You were tired of being alone. Will staying with him be hard? Yes. Will fighting your fears every day be difficult? Yes. But how he feels for you… jeez, Rhian… that’s worth it. And telling yourself that it’s okay to run away from him and to be alone just because I’m alone and okay with it, is bullshit. I’m alone because I just am. You’re alone because you made a choice. And it’s the wrong f**king choice.”
“I’m sorry I haven’t been a better friend. You’re not alone.”
Yes I am. “I’m sorry I haven’t been a better friend, either.”
“Is James still there?”
“I don’t want to be alone. Not when I could have him. God, that sounds so cheesy.”
I shook my head, smiling—the tightness in my chest easing. “Yeah it does sound cheesy. Sometimes the truth is cheesy.”
“I’m going to call him.”
I grinned. “I’ll get off the phone.”
We hung up and I lay there in the dark listening. After twenty minutes I heard my front door creak open and shut.
I found the sitting room empty, the blanket on the couch rolled up. A piece of paper lay across it. A note from James.
I owe you.
I gripped tight to the paper and walked numbly back into my bedroom to stare at the photo of me with my family. If anything these last few weeks had taught me, it was that I obviously – like Rhian – wasn’t over losing them. I had to talk to someone. But unlike Rhian, I didn’t want to talk to anyone who could use that crap against me. My therapist in high school had tried to help me but I’d shut down every time. I was a teenager. I thought I knew best.
But I wasn’t a kid anymore, and I didn’t know best. And if I wanted the panic attacks to stop, I needed to make the call in the morning.
“So, Mystery Man is gone?” The voice scared the bejesus out of me and I jumped, the coffee on my teaspoon scattering onto the counter.
I threw Braden a withering look over my shoulder. “Don’t you ever work? Or knock?”
He was slouched against the kitchen doorway, watching me make my morning coffee. “Can I get one?” he nodded to the kettle.
“What do you take?”
“Milk. Two sugars.”
“And here I was expecting you to say black.”
“If anyone is black around here, it’s you.”
I made a face. “Do you want coffee or not?”
He grunted. “Someone’s pleasant in the morning.”
“When am I anything else?” I dumped his two sugars in his mug with attitude.
Braden’s laughter hit me directly in the gut. “Right.”
As the kettle brewed, I turned around, leaning against the counter with my arms crossed over my chest. I was very aware of the fact that I wasn’t wearing a bra under my camisole. In fact, I didn’t think I had ever been more aware of my body than I was when I was around Braden. To be honest, I’d stopped caring about my appearance and all the shit that came with it after my parents and Beth died. I wore what I liked, I looked the way I looked, and I didn’t give a rat’s ass what any guy thought. Somehow that seemed to work in my favor.
But standing in front of Braden, I realized I wasn’t so confident about that anymore. I was curious what he thought about me. I wasn’t tall and skinny like all the glamazon’s that surely orbited Braden’s world. I wasn’t tiny, but I wasn’t tall. I had slender legs and a small waist, but I had boobs, h*ps and a definite ass. I had good hair on the days I could be bothered wearing it down, but those days came few and far between. It was an indiscriminate color—somewhere between blonde and brown, but it was long and thick with a natural curl in it. However, my hair was so heavy it tended to annoy me unless it was up off my neck, so I rarely, if ever, wore it loose. My eyes were probably my best feature—at least that’s what people told me. I had my dad’s eyes. They were light grey with streaks of gun-metal in them, but they weren’t huge and adorable like Holly’s and Ellie’s—they were tip-tilted and feline, and they were extremely good at glaring.