We are islands all of us, but we are also boats, our secrets flares, pyrotechnic devices by which we signal there’s someone in here we’re still alive!
“Jas?” Debbie says. Her whole face lights up, like she’s glowing from the inside, and then she bites her lip, like she can’t afford those feelings. Like when she was little and scared and too tough, and Jasmine only ever wanted to hold her and make things all right.
Jasmine is twenty-six. Since she was sixteen years old, it’s been Debbie. Deborah Dingle with her rotten mouth and her bad attitude and the wit that made Jasmine, a vicar’s ward, blink, knocked backwards. Debbie, who looked at Jasmine like she was the sun in a world that had never seen light before.
Debbie looks so different, now. Her hair is bright blonde, in a braid like a crown around her head. She’s always looked older than Jasmine, sure and confident and real even when Jasmine knew she wasn’t, but now - now it’s different, now it’s Debbie all the way in her own skin.
“Debbie,” Jasmine says, and she isn’t supposed to sound like this. Like the sun’s in her mouth, like she is consumed, like she wants.
She digs her fingers into the pockets of her borrowed jacket, inhales the smell of Ashley’s aftershave in the collar, for strength. She is shaking. Her whole body is vibrating.
She had forgotten that Debbie makes her feel like this:
I never wanted to say goodbye to you. Honestly, I thought I never would. I didn't think you would ever leave me but now I'm leaving you.
I hate this.
I miss you. I want you here. I want you here so badly it hurts.
But I want something more for you than me.
The first year out of prison is the hardest. Jasmine is twenty-two. The air feels strange on her skin.
Ashley and Laurel pick her up and buy her lunch. Jasmine picks at cottage pie and can’t meet Ashley’s eyes.
She says, “I can’t go back.” There is sunlight on her face, catching in her eyelashes.
Ashley doesn’t look surprised. He’s watched her change. He’s watched her get harder, until she's no longer glass but steel. He reaches out anyway, his hands kind on top of hers. She isn’t used to that kind of touch - warm, careful, without malice - but she doesn’t flinch. “We’ll always be here if you need us.”
She can’t bring that to Debbie. She’s brought enough to Debbie. She wraps her arms around herself and thinks about black nail polish, chipping at the ends. When she was fifteen Debbie would paint her nails and they would sit and talk about nothing and sometimes they would kiss.
Jasmine is now twenty-two. She paints her fingernails bright blue, like the sky.
She gets a flat and a job. Uni’s right out. She’s too burned, she’s raw around the edges. She flinches at the wrong sounds; she sleeps lightly, like a cat. She moves slowly, as though she is an insect trapped in amber, a relic of the dinosaur age. She feels herself want and want and want, and buries it down.
You would think it would have been harder inside, but it wasn’t. Inside, she floated. She got by. She told herself: no.
Inside it was easy to believe that nothing outside existed. That she couldn’t be hurt, thinking about it.
When Jasmine was twenty years old she killed a man. She hit him over the head because he had tried to rape her, and because he had taken hold of her best friend. She had been afraid, but mostly she had been angry.
She had not thought she had that kind of rage in her. Inside she found that she did.
She thought about Debbie, anyway. She thought about Debbie all the time.
She thought about Debbie in the way of dreams, of hopes. Of a sunbeam filtering through the window and falling on her bed.
The thing about prison was that in prison, at least, Jasmine had Debbie. Because she would get up every day and think what would Debbie do? And that's how she survived. She gave up her own heart and wrote Debbie’s on herself and it hurt, but she’s alive, isn’t she? And Debbie was there, with her, always.
She never asked about Debbie, but sometimes Ashley let things slip. Just little things - the garage running well, or Sarah stopping by. She tried not to drink them up, tried not to look desperate. Never asked. But Ashley knows her, and he loves her.
It’s worse to be on the outside. Outside, her skin is waking; all of her is stirring, as if from a long slumber. As though she was a princess in a tower, and now her dragon has died.
But her dragon is herself, and her knight is in a little village, far away, and has her own little girl to protect, and so Jasmine swallows, and breathes in, and tells herself: not this. Everything else, but not this.
She is all right. She is managing. Nothing feels like fate, but that’s all right; she doesn’t feel trapped, doesn’t feel her skin itching with the weight of inevitability.
Things are floating along. Jasmine is floating along.
Then she gets the phone call: Grandpa, voice shaking, the way it used to in Scotland when he was trying to pretend the world hadn’t fallen down around their ears. He talks around it for a minute, asks Jasmine about work and if she’s met anyone yet, if the cat her flatmates wanted to get has ruined any of the carpets.
Then he gets to it, the fact of the matter, the truth: Ashley is ill.
Ashley is so ill.
Things make sense: Ashley is back with Laurel again. Gabby’s instagram is the opposite of what it was before. Even Arthur - sweet, sunny, Arthur - looks sad, sometimes. Sounds sad, sometimes.
Jasmine feels sick and horrible. The idea of Ashley - sweet, kind, caring - forgetting himself? It just isn’t fair. It makes you feel like the universe doesn’t know anything.
It makes you feel like you’re off balance, but like maybe you never knew what balance was and you were just pretending the whole time.
“Grandpa,” Jasmine says. “Should I come back?”
“Jasmine,” he says, trailing off. That’s all he needs to say.
Jasmine went to jail, but before that she spent a long time running.
Bravery is hard to find but you find it anyway. Jasmine learned it from the best.
“Just for a couple of weeks,” Jasmine says, phone wedged between her ear and shoulder, folding up skirts and shoving them into her bag. “I just want to make sure everything’s all right.”
“Are you sure?” Laurel says. “You really don’t have to, Jas.”
Unspoken: we know what happened the last time you were here.
“It’s fine,” Jasmine says. “I can work from wherever, as long as I post on time. The whole world is digital now. And I-” she bites her lower lip. “I miss you, all of you. I should have come back before.”
Laurel breathes out, soft and shuddering, and so Jasmine knows it is serious business. “We miss you too.”
Jasmine takes a train and then a bus and then another bus. It’s sort of soothing, to have the time. She knows Ashley would come to get her if she’d let him but she isn’t ready.
She reads about early onset vascular dementia on her phone. The words all blur together and by five year average life expectancy she’s crying, there, in her seat alone. She cries quietly; nobody notices. She used to be a loud crier. She used to wait for Debbie to come and stroke her hair, and she used to hiccup and hide her face in Debbie’s shoulder and Debbie would say, I’ll fix it, Jas, and then she would.
Jasmine is older, now. Jasmine’s had to do this on her own.
She cries quietly, so nobody will notice, and dabs at the tears with the back of her hand.
She gets out at the familiar bus stop. She has the one bag that she slings over her shoulder; she went on the run when she was twenty years old so she knows how to pack lightly. The air smells like Emmerdale.
She wonders if this is something Ashley will forget. If he wakes up in the morning and thinks, what is this unfamiliar smell? and has to have it explained. Probably not yet. He’s lived here a long time.
Laurel and Gabby and Ashley and Grandpa meet her there, and Ashley hugs her and he smells - god, he smells like himself, like old books and woodsmoke and the faint church-scent that follows him everywhere.
She presses her face into his shoulder and says, “I missed you so much.”
He holds her close and says, “I missed you too.” She was never the kind of girl who found shelter in the shape of her father’s hug, but it is strange how Ashley feels like paper, now.
She doesn’t want to ask but Laurel tells her anyway; presses a kiss to her cheek and says, “I’m sorry, love, Debbie’s in France.” But then she pauses and says, “Maybe that’s for the best, eh?” Laurel’s never been great at keeping her nose out.
Now, Laurel is pretty pregnant. She looks like a beach ball. She lets Jasmine feel the baby kick against her fingertips, like a hello.
“Maybe,” Jasmine says. She puts her bag down in the spare room and pulls the sleeves of her sweater down past her knuckles. The air smells different here, up in the rolling hills and dales. She misses the smog. She misses choking on it.
She heard a lot. Ashley lives in the village; Gabby and Laurel live in the village. Debbie was happy; Debbie was a mum, a real mum. Debbie had boyfriend after boyfriend but none of them were as important as Sarah, and then there was Jack, too.
Unspoken: Debbie doesn’t need you .
There was a hostage situation. Jasmine watched every moment of it, glued to the television in her shitty flat. Her flatmates said Jas are you all right but she wrapped her arms around herself and couldn’t breathe, didn’t know what to do. She had gotten used to feeling helpless, in jail and on the run, but that didn’t make it hurt any less. It just meant the ache was familiar.
She called Debbie, afterwards. The phone was busy but she left a message: I hope you’re all right. I’m thinking about you. She almost said, I still love you, but that wasn’t fair. That couldn’t be fair.
She tossed her car keys in her hand. She stayed still.
Debbie got married, tried to. There was a helicopter crash. Three people died.
Jasmine saw that one, too.
Jasmine saw a lot of things she didn’t mean to see, but she couldn’t really look away. It’s Debbie. Even when Jasmine wasn’t supposed to look, she did.
Gabby’s tall, now. And Arthur, too. They’re human-shaped, not little blobs.
Jasmine was never close with Sarah but she’ll be big now, too. It’s weird to think about, that all these kids are now people. People with hearts and minds and hopes.
Gabby’s almost the same age Jasmine was, when she met Debbie. She’s got this blonde friend.
Debbie had dark hair, back then.
Grandpa is mostly the same. He smells the same, of cologne and old man and whiskey. She loves him. He is hers.
He says, “I missed you you know,” and holds her very very tight, and tells her he is so proud of her.
She says, “I missed you, too.”
Ashley forgets who Jasmine is on the second day. It’s supposed to be unsettling, and it is. But it’s not so bad for Jasmine, because some days Jasmine doesn’t even know who she is. She got used to that kind of dissociation in prison.
He asks her what she’s doing here, and then remembers that she’s his niece and feels terrible.
She can handle it. It's hard, it's scary. But if Laurel can do it, she can do it, she tells herself.
Laurel is pregnant. Laurel’s going to have Ashley’s baby and it’s going to grow up without him. Even if Ashley sticks it out longer than he should, that’s five years. That’s not a long time. That's less time than Jasmine got with her parents, and she used to cry herself to sleep every night.
But Laurel is good at this and Grandpa is prepared for it and even Gabby and Arthur just say, keep your voice steady, don’t draw attention to it, and Jasmine thinks she’s going to cry but she doesn’t, she just offers Ashley a cup of tea and introduces herself again, and he says, I have a niece named Jasmine, and she says, it’s a really pretty name, I think, and he smiles.
If Ashley can handle this, Jasmine thinks, she can put on a smile and bear with it.
Laurel says, “You were good,” and smiles at her, lips tight.
Jasmine nods. “Thanks,” she says. “I tried.”
“You’ll get better,” Laurel reassures her, and then shakes her head. “You get to learn how to feel it without it hurting so bad.”
Jasmine feels like every muscle in her body has tensed. Like she wants to run for years, like she wants to sink into the sea. “Really?”
“Really,” Laurel says, tucking a strand of Jasmine's hair behind her ear. “I promise.”
Jasmine writes a blog, which nobody reads, and clickbait articles, which many people read. She wrote one long-form piece about Debbie, right after she got out; that went viral, and got her the clickbait gig. It doesn’t pay well but it keeps her rent paid, which is something.
She was opaque in the thing about Debbie, but she was also bleeding. She hasn’t read the thing in years. She remembers she changed most of the details, but she kept the up and down about being in love. She kept all the bitter bits; the things she did wrong, the things Debbie did.
It was hard to write, but she didn’t cry. She almost cried, but she didn’t.
Ashley plays the guitar. It’s pretty cool.
She never knew all these things about Ashley.
She’s finding out all this stuff. She keeps it in a little notebook, with little clippings. She could keep them on her phone but there’s something about being able to brush the pads of her fingers over the imprint of her pen. It makes everything feel more real.
She can't come to words that make sense, not quite, but she understands that coherence isn't all it's cracked up to be.
She just wants to keep track of all the bad jokes he tells her, and the times he narrowed his eyes when she thought she’d got away with staying out. She’s become a collector, in her old age, and in her endless, aching worry.
There is a spambot that comments on her blog, pretty regularly. Jasmine used to think it was an actual user but then she started googling them: they’re all extracts from famous literary texts.
She just posts a picture of the village; blurry, enough that it could be anywhere.
It leaves the first paragraph of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Usually it is not particularly apropos, but that makes her smile.
She buys milk at the shop. David blinks at her from behind the till and she kisses his cheek: fucking Emmerdale. Everyone knows who you are.
But David has cancer.
Everyone is dying, these days. Jasmine was never the kind of child afraid of growing up, but she is starting to see the wisdom in Peter Pan. When Jasmine was a child, the people around her were indestructible.
Not that that’s everyone’s childhood. It won’t be Arthur’s or Gabby’s, not after this. It wasn’t Debbie’s, not ever, not at all.
Debbie is in France. It’s not supposed to hurt. It’s supposed to be a relief. Jasmine stayed away to protect her; Jasmine had made Debbie stupid. They had all been right when they told her she was selfish and Debbie wasn’t, and Debbie had people to protect, and Jasmine was a mess, and Jasmine couldn’t do that to her. Not after what she’d done the first time, and the second time.
Cain Dingle is at the bar with a woman with dark hair - Moira Barton, says Ashley, in her memory. He looks different, less dangerous. It’s strange. He still makes the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. Still makes her nauseous and shivery.
He buys her a pint and looks her up and down. It’s not - it’s not dangerous like it should be. But she’s still not comfortable with it. She doesn’t think she’ll ever be comfortable with him.
Moira’s nice, though. She’s got an easy laugh. She doesn't look at Jasmine like Jasmine is a walking grenade, pin out. She looks at Jasmine like she’s a person.
“Here for Ashley, then?”
“He’s my uncle,” Jasmine says. “You came back, too.”
He tilts his head, considering. She remembers when he screamed at her and Debbie had to get between them and she was so, so scared, and Debbie was, too. “I did, yeah.”
“Is Debbie all right?” Jasmine can’t help asking. It just slips out. She thinks her voice shakes; her hands are shaking.
“You didn’t care for five years,” Cain says. “So I don’t see why you should care now.”
She swallows, hard. “I-”
“She’s all right,” he says, and it’s kinder, this time, softer. She thinks, maybe he’s changed a little bit, at least. “She’s safe.”
“Would you tell me if she wasn’t?”
“I wouldn’t be here if she wasn’t,” he says, fiercely. That’s the Cain she remembers, a wolf in an old leather jacket with the smell of lager on his breath.
“Okay,” she says. She believes that.
“Can I buy you a drink?” The man is tall, with dark hair. He’s wearing a jumper with a little grease on it, like engine grease. Jasmine remembers the smell of it, the way it would stick in Debbie’s hair.
(The way it would stick to her fingers, when she touched it, when it smeared from Debbie’s skin to hers.)
“Ross,” Charity says, low and with warning in her voice. Charity doesn’t really take things seriously unless they come to Debbie or money, and if it was money she’d probably be in on it.
Jasmine has never been smart about Debbie. “Yeah, all right.”
She sits in a corner booth with Ross Barton, cradling her pint between her palms.
“You knew her,” he says. “Before.” He has a longing in his voice, a longing she understands. Debbie Dingle, who makes you forget reason, who makes you forget what you were.
Debbie, who gives you her heart like you might drop it, but even if you did, she’d love you anyway.
“You’re talking about Debbie,” she says. “You’re Ross. ”
He shrugs. “I do love her,” he says. “And everyone says - everyone says you did, too. Or at least that she loved you.”
“Me and half the village,” Jasmine says, tilting her head to one side. “Debbie loves people.”
“She doesn’t,” Ross says, and he says it so quickly that she knows he knows Debbie in the way of only people who love her. The clear-eyed, true love that gets you in your heart, accidental. “She loved you, though.”
“Did she say something about me?” Jasmine asks. “Or are you just nosy? Heard all the gossip?”
“Can’t go two steps in this village without it,” he says. “I’m assuming you’ve heard all about me.”
She shrugs. “Laurel told me to keep a wide berth,” she says. “You sound like a mess.” You hurt Laurel, you ruined her life. You ruined everything. But Jasmine’s done that, too. Emmerdale is not a big enough village to hold a grudge, unless you want to spend all your time alone, and Laurel is all right, now. Even if Daisy isn’t.
“You sound pretty messy, too,” he says.
She smiles, with all her teeth. She supposes she is, out of the two of them, the one who has done time. “I guess we oughta be mates, then, eh?”
“You tell me about her before, I’ll tell you about her after,” Ross says, and holds out his hand.
She looks at it for a moment, and suppresses the urge to spit on her palm. “Yeah,” she says. “Sounds like a deal.”
“I should stay,” Jasmine says. “I want to stay.”
Ashley looks at her. He’s got sharp eyes, even now. That’s sort of scary, if she thinks about it. “Jasmine - you’ve spent so long building something for yourself.”
She sighs, and leans in, and kisses his forehead. “I spent a long time running,” she says. “And I love you.” And I don’t want to be alone.
She is so, so tired of being alone.
“Would it be all right if I stayed?”
He puts his hand on her hand. “Of course it is,” he says.
Nobody reads Jasmine’s blog. It’s on WordPress. She has a default theme. She writes it like yelling into the void.
She is curled up in her bed and she’s scrolling, and she thinks, why not? She hasn’t read it in four years.
I miss you so much . I didn’t know what it was to miss someone, until I lost you. And then I was brave for so long without you, because I’d asked you to be brave for me, too.
I went away and I thought about you. I wanted to be you. I needed to be you and it’s funny, because when you fell in love with me the first time I think it was the other way round.
Sometimes I miss prison, because in prison it wasn’t my fault I didn’t have you. Now it is.
God, that scares me. God, I miss you.
Jasmine gets a subletter for her room. She mostly works online so that doesn’t matter, but she puts in a leave of absence from the website, anyway. I’ve got to figure out what I want, she says, and Ashley was practically her father from ages sixteen to twenty; they let her have it.
She keeps her notebook close. She keeps her fingers in her pockets and her eyes on the familiar shape of Ashley’s shoulders and hair and little smile. It is less wide than it used to be. He used to smile so brightly, so kindly. He had this smile that would wrap you up in it and make you feel warm all the way through.
She used to have ink stains on her fingers, when she first got out. Now she feels like she doesn’t know what to say; like there is so much in her, and so little, and all of it whirling beneath her skin. She doesn’t remember how words work. Nothing is clear.
There is only Uncle Ashley, forgetting her name, but smiling anyway.
Chas offers her a job at the Woolie. Jasmine’s old job, actually. Everything works pretty much same. Jasmine can still pull a pint.
“It’s not flash, but if you’ll be sticking round-” She smiles. She’s got a big smile, Chas. Warm and sweet and kind. There is an honesty about Chastity Dingle that Jasmine has always respected, always found reassuring. It reminds her of Ashley when he talks about God.
Jasmine remembers being sixteen, remembers Chas listening to all her fears and telling her things would be all right. She’d said it like things were normal, like Jasmine and Debbie was just - Jasmine and Debbie.
And she’d helped, with the mess with Cain.
“Yeah, I’d love it,” Jasmine says. “Thank you, Chas. You didn’t have to.”
Chas shrugs. “You were almost a Dingle,” she says. “You and our Debs, you know. It’s the least I could do.”
“You’re not mad that I didn’t come back?” Her voice has gone small, and tight, and scared. She feels sixteen, with a heart too big for her body, being so afraid of everything in her. Sixteen, and doing everything wrong, but so close to right she could taste it, feel it in the backs of her teeth, and that made everything even worse.
“Oh, love. It’s been so long. Sometimes you just need to get away. We all understand that. And you came back, didn’t you? That’s the main thing.”
“Chas-” she doesn’t know what else to say. The words are stalling out on her tongue.
Chas smiles and wraps an arm around her, pulls her in close and kisses the top of her head, as though Jasmine is sixteen and in crisis over Debbie and Cain all over again. “Don’t worry,” Chas says. “You’re all right.”
Debbie used to lean across the bar and pull her top down when Jasmine was working. It was a joke; it was funny. But they had both known it was more than that. They had both felt the heat curling round them, curling through them. Jasmine had always caught herself looking a moment too long.
They had both known that it was only a matter of time. They had both known that one day the air would break and Debbie would kiss her and this time, Jasmine would hold on.
(And then Jasmine fucked everything up. Sometimes she thinks, if I hadn't -
If she hadn't, they would have their little house and Debbie's two kids in it. Debbie would laugh at Jasmine's big words and too long jokes and Jasmine would laugh.
She would wake up in the morning and see Debbie's smile. Better than the sun.
She thinks about this often. Alternate universes where she got things right.)
Gabby was so small the last time Jasmine lived here. Not really a person, not yet. Arthur was even smaller, of course.
Now she’s taller and she’s got a mass of brown curls and a chip on her shoulder. She looks at Jasmine like she thinks Jasmine wants something from her, and it’s awful. Gabby used to sit on Jasmine’s hip and smile at her, shy and trusting. Jasmine has been away for so, so long.
Gabby says, “Did you have a messy breakup?” She’s painting her toenails blue and her eyelashes are long and black.
“What?” Jasmine pauses.
“I’m just saying. You just showed up. People don’t do that, unless something’s happened. Was it a bloke?”
The last person Jasmine dated was a woman. Alice. She had dark hair and darker eyes and she was thirty-three and thought Jasmine didn’t take things seriously enough because Jasmine didn’t want to move in.
They broke up four months ago. This was before Laurel called; before Ashley said, I want you to hear this from me, Jasmine.
It wasn’t like, a big deal, as far as breakups go. It just happened. Jasmine got dumped, and Jasmine went out and picked up a guy wearing a grey pullover and then she didn’t think about it, anymore.
“Your dad’s sick, Gabby. It was your dad.”
“He’s not that sick. Not yet.” She’s got brittle shoulders.
“Laurel could use a hand. The baby, you know.”
“She’s got a sister,” Gabby observes. Nail varnish drips from her brush.
“Yeah, but you don't, do you? So it’s got to be me.”
Gabby makes a face. “You've been gone for ages.”
“I always wanted a sister, you know.” She thought she had Debbie. But Debbie was a lot more complicated than that.
Gabby sighs. “I hate this,” she says. “I hate all of it. Everything.”
Jasmine swallows. “I know,” she says. “I know.”
Ross is, accidentally, Jasmine’s friend. It’s not really the kind of thing that people approve of, but she likes him. She understands him; he is easy to understand, and he is kind to her, when he doesn’t have to be.
He’s got a little brother, Finn. Finn has glasses and reminds Jasmine of her favourite flatmate, the one who used to do the dishes when it wasn’t his turn and take her to lesbian trivia at the pub round the corner.
Jasmine likes the Bartons because they don’t know who she used to be. It’s not like everyone else who expects something of her; Ross just misses Debbie, and Finn’s got the same taste in books as Jasmine, and that’s all right.
It’s like - Ross sits with Jasmine, and they talk about Debbie. Debbie before: Debbie with Jasmine, getting into fights and fucking up over and over, Debbie having Jasmine’s back and baring her teeth against Cain. Debbie after: Debbie with her kids, with Pete. Debbie in the garage.
Jasmine likes the way Ross looks when he talks about Debbie, which is a little bit bitter and a little bit in awe but mostly just tired, and in love.
Sometimes they talk about the ways they fucked up. The ways they should have been better. Sometimes, Jasmine cries. Sometimes, Ross does.
It sounds sad, and it is. But that’s where Finn comes in; Finn’s funny, and he reads Jasmine’s stupid clickbait website. She thinks that he thinks that she and Ross are going somewhere, but they aren’t. They’re just comfortable.
It’s nice to have another village non-heterosexual, anyway. Finn’s smart and they read the same blogs, even if he’s a bit into anime and she’s a bit into lesbian introspection featuring sex scenes. They get to team up on Ross and use words he doesn’t understand, and sometimes she falls asleep in between them on the sofa watching a Knight Rider rerun, and wakes up with a blanket over her and a pillow tucked under her head.
It’s just - they don’t ask for anything from her, and she doesn’t ask for anything from them, and that makes things easier. It’s nice to have friends.
Jasmine gets home from the pub and Gabby is sitting on the sofa with a blonde girl. They both look up; Gabby’s jaw set cautious, defiant, like she thinks Jasmine’s going to have a problem.
“This is Liv. She's Aaron's sister.”
Liv eyes Jasmine warily, in the way of Dingles everywhere. It’s like a knife to Jasmine's heart; this is how Debbie used to look at her, at first. Like she was too soft, eyeing up all the weak patches.
Jasmine's not soft anymore.
“Jasmine's my cousin.” Gabby’s got her hands in her pockets, all studied nonchalance.
Liv shrugs at her. “Nice to meet you.”
Aaron Livesy - wait, no, it’s Dingle now - shows up, then, wearing a blue jumper and looking very tired. She remembers that Daz hated him, viciously. It might have been about Victoria. “You’re back, then,” he says.
“Yeah,” Jasmine says. She wraps her arms around herself. “That all right with you?”
He shrugs. “Long as you don’t mess Debs around, I don’t care.” He looks - like a fucking Dingle, is what he looks like.
“She’s not even here.”
Gabby and Liv are looking back and forth, between them. The air is tense and tight, snapping.
Jasmine got in exactly one fight in prison, but she won it. Debbie taught her how to throw a punch. Also, nobody expected Jasmine to go for the eyes.
Aaron’s mouth twists a little. His eyes sweep down and away. “Doesn’t stop you fucking her up, does it?”
“She’s not even here,” Jasmine says, again. And then she swallows. “I never wanted to.”
“Nobody ever wants to,” Aaron says, meeting her eyes, head-on. “Doesn’t stop you, though.”
“I think you should go,” Gabby says, getting to her feet. She stands in between Aaron and Jasmine, fiercely; her shoulders are square and firm. She looks ready for a fight. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Liv.”
Liv bites her lip. “Yeah, all right.” She catches Aaron’s hand and he looks down at her, like he’s startled. “Bye, Gabs.”
“Bye, Gabby,” Aaron says, looking faintly confused, and lets Liv lead him out.
Jasmine sits down on the sofa and Gabby sits down next to her, shoulders tight, mouth drawn. “He’s a prick,” she says. “He doesn’t know anything about you. Nobody knows anything about you.”
“You’d better tell her I killed someone,” Jasmine says lightly. “Someone else will tell her if you don't.” It's a small village.
“Everyone here’s done something bad,” Gabby says, prickly. “It's none of her business.”
“She’s your mate, though. She’ll hold it against you if she hears from Aaron before she hears it from you.”
Gabby sighs. “I suppose.” She pauses. “Nobody would tell me what happened.”
Jasmine wraps her arms around herself. “It’s - it was a long time ago. You were so little, Gabby.”
“I’m not anymore.” Gabby shrugs. “Besides, practically everyone round here’s done that - or something like it.”
Jasmine sighs. “I want a drink for this,” she says, so they troop back across the road.
They sit in the corner booth and Gabby tucks her knees up to her chin. She’s pale, she’s got a pointy little face. Jasmine wonders if she looked like this when she was Gabby’s age, but she remembers she was a lot softer. Debbie always used to call her soft.
“My boyfriend tried to rape me,” she says, quietly. “So I killed him. Then I went on the run, cause I panicked.”
“You and Debbie,” Gabby says, looking at her with sharp, gleaming eyes.
Oh. “Yeah,” she says. “Me and Debbie.”
“How’d you kill him?”
Jasmine swallows. “Gabby-”
“C’mon,” Gabby says, and then she sighs. “You don’t have to, if you don’t want to.”
Jasmine shrugs. “I hit him over the head with a chair legs,” she says. “A lot of times. Too many times. And then he died.” It isn’t as horrible a memory as it used to be. Time has blurred the edges of it, softened the sound of his head giving in and the acid of the bile in her throat.
Gabby says, “I’m really sorry.”
“You shouldn’t have had to,” Gabby says, trembling very slightly. “He shouldn’t have done that. I’m sorry that that happened.”
Jasmine smiles, a forlorn tug at the edge of her mouth. It’s funny, the way she thinks about it. “Me too,” she says. “It ruined everything.”
It’s Sunday. The air is crisp and clear. Jasmine’s just run to the shop for a newspaper and some crisps, tugging the sleeves of her sweater down past her wrists. When she gets in, Ashley is on the sofa.
Ashley says, “Where’s Debbie, Jasmine? She should be here.”
Jasmine shakes her head. “Sorry,” she says. “She’s just gone round to the shops.” It is easier not to startle him. These moments pass.
She pours him a cup of tea and sits down next to him.
“She’s a bad influence,” Ashley says. “I know you like her, Jas, but-”
“She’s all right, Ashley,” Jasmine says, looking down at her fingernails. “She’s taught me a lot.”
“Oh, about shoplifting?” He’s wry. She remembers how he used to look at her; how he used to look at Debbie.
“Yeah, well,” Jasmine says, smiling. “It’s a useful skill, isn’t it?”
He shakes his head. “You be careful,” he says. “I trust you, I know you’ve got a good head on your shoulders. You just make sure to keep it there.”
She takes a little hiccupy breath, startled. “Thank you,” she says.
“Don’t thank me,” Ashley says, the way he used to talk to her when her hair was in plaits and she was just visiting from boarding school. “Make me proud.”
Laurel is crying in the toilet. Just - little shaky sobs.
Jasmine steps forward and wraps her arms around her, keeping her teeth closed. Laurel feels very small, hollow-boned and light, like in the wrong wind she will fly away. Jasmine knows this is not the truth, that Laurel is the strongest of them, really, but still, it’s terrifying.
“Oh, Jas,” she says, eventually, wiping at her face. “I’m sorry.”
Jasmine pulls tissues from the box on the cistern, hands them over. “Don’t be,” she says. “What d’you think I came back for?”
Laurel swipes at her face.
“I love him too,” Jasmine says. And then, softly. “I love you, too.” She wants to say, It’ll be all right, but it won’t, will it? Ashley’s dying. Everything Laurel loved is going, piece by fragile piece.
The idea of it is terrifying. It makes her want to hold onto Ashley with both hands. It makes her want to find whatever it is that’s trying to take him and say, no, not yet, you can’t have him.
She can’t imagine what it’s like for Laurel.
She only knows that sometimes - not all the time, but sometimes - it feels like it is tearing her apart.
Victoria is married now, little bitter Victoria Sugden. It’s strange to think about, and it’s to Ross’ brother too. They seem happy. She smiles a lot more than she used to.
Sometimes Jasmine looks at Victoria and misses Daz. Daz was her friend, despite everything. They’re not in touch anymore. She thinks he might be in Sweden now, or something.
She should have tried harder, but she supposes he was a casualty of the years just after she got out, everything a blur.
Robert - fucking Robert, she used to call him in her head, even after Andy lost the preface, because Robert wasn’t round to change - fucking Robert’s with Aaron , chavvy Aaron who’d been running about with the McFarlanes, Aaron who Debbie had been obligated to love.
She mostly remembers that he used to chew gum a lot.
But now they sit in the pub together and Robert smiles, looking at Aaron, and Aaron smiles back, and it’s like Cain, isn’t it? People softening because they love someone, because they want to protect someone.
Debbie had always got soft around Jasmine. Jasmine was always soft anyway. Now she’s harder, tougher. She wonders if she would get soft for Debbie, too.
Gabby keeps looking at Liv, these cautious darting glances. She is furtive about it, as though someone will see; as though she is only allowed to see Liv for so many seconds and someone will take her away if she oversteps.
Jasmine remembers that. She remembers that it used to stick in her teeth, the hot salty taste of want.
Some days are worse than others; some days Ashley doesn’t know any of them, and on those days it’s Laurel trying to hold it together, it’s Gabby out the door as fast as she can, Jasmine wishing that she could follow; Grandpa, looking like he needs a stiff drink.
“You know,” Laurel says, chopping a carrot viciously, “you really don’t have to be here, Jasmine. You really could-”
Her hands are shaking.
Jasmine takes the knife from her, and starts chopping. “It’s fine,” she says. “I’d rather be here than anywhere else.”
“I left him,” Laurel says. “I - it was the right thing to do but I keep thinking, what if I had just stayed. There’s all this time I could have had, and I didn’t.”
“You’re back,” Jasmine says. “That’s the important thing. He knows.”
Gabby’s been crying. Her eyes are red and her face is blotchy.
Jasmine hands her a glass of water, doesn’t say anything.
Gabby takes a deep, sniffly breath. “Tell me about you and Debbie,” she says. “Um, please?”
Jasmine says, “What d’you want to know?”
“I just want -” Gabby shakes her head. “What was it like, being with her? Was it good?”
Jasmine closes her eyes and opens them again. “Gabby-” How do you tell a child about being in the centre of a firestorm?
“I just need to know that something is going to be okay,” Gabby says. “Just- one thing, Jas, please.”
“It was good,” Jasmine says. “It was horrible a lot of the time, Gabby, but it was - it was really good.”
“I wish I didn’t care,” Gabby says. “There are other things I should care about now, aren’t there? But I keep thinking about her.”
“It’s all right to want things,” Jasmine says. She wishes she knew the right thing to say. “He wants you to live a life, you know.”
“I know,” Gabby says. She chews her lower lip. “I’m just scared. And it’s gonna get so much worse. I miss him already.”
Jasmine reaches out, pulls her into a hug. “Me too,” she says, into Gabby’s hair.
Gabby sighs and tangles her hands in the back of Jasmine’s jumper, and holds on.
Harriet says, “He’s back now.” She looks tired, the kind of bone-deep tiredness that they all get on Ashley’s bad days.
It isn’t consistent, who can snap him out of it. Usually it’s Laurel, if not Laurel Grandpa. Sometimes after that it’s Harriet, Gabby; Bernice, once or twice. Jasmine, very rarely. Jasmine supposes she has been far from home for a long time now.
“Thank you,” Laurel says. “I should go and speak to him, then.”
Harriet leans down to hug her, and smooth her hair out of her eyes. “I’ll come with you,” she says.
Gabby bumps her shoulder against Jasmine’s. “We’ll go put the tea on,” she says.
Charity says, “Are you going to try and find her?”
Jasmine says, “Not if she doesn’t want to be found.” Jasmine knows about not wanting to be found. “I don’t know what you think I am, but I’m here for Uncle Ashley. Not to make trouble.”
Charity sighs. “She’s had a lot of trouble in her life, you know.”
“I know,” Jasmine says. Most of it from you, she thinks. But that’s not fair; Debbie never got sent down for Charity, even if Charity’s stepped on Debbie’s heart more times than Jasmine could ever dream of, could ever have nightmares about. “I’m not going to ruin anything.”
Charity laughs. “That’s what we all say,” she says. “Except me. Sometimes I’m honest.”
But she leaves Jasmine alone to pour pints, so Jasmine thinks they are okay.
Ross told her about how Debbie had been ready to run away with him, until they had found out that he and Charity were having a baby. He had had that look in his eyes. Jasmine knows it; it’s familiar. That look you get, the way you hate yourself, because you’ve let Debbie down. Again.
Jasmine gets a bit drunk on white wine with Finn and Victoria, and sways walking home, head tipped up to look at the stars. She does like that she can see them out here, that they look like forever stretched out in inky velvet darkness.
She slips in through the door. It’s quiet; it’s only Ashley, sitting on the sofa, with his guitar in his lap.
“Hello, Jas,” he says, smiling. “Did you have a good night?”
She’s so tired, suddenly. She loves him so much.
She sits down next to him. “I ran out of words,” she says. She offers her hand to Ashley, palm-up, and he looks at it with lingering eyes, kindly. “I used to be able to write. I wanted to write something for you, but I can’t.” She wrote something for Debbie. It doesn’t seem fair that she can’t for Ashley.
This is so unfair. He has always been so kind.
“I’d like that,” he says. “But don’t rush it, Jas. There’s plenty of time to remember me. I trust you.”
She’s crying, then.
“Oh, Jas, don’t,” he says, wrapping an arm around her, pulling her close. “It’s all right. It’s all all right.”
The thing is that it isn't. It won't be ever again.
Which is ridiculous, because Jasmine went to prison.
“I’m going to die,” he says, kindly, stroking her hair, like she’s little, like she’s little and sick and scared. “But I was always going to die, Jasmine.”
“You shouldn’t have to make me feel better,” she says. She’s crying. “I’m supposed to help.”
He rubs her back very gently. “Jas,” he says. “You’re not supposed to do anything. You’re here, all right? That’s what I want. I want you. Not - you pretending. The you I love.” He pauses, and pulls back, and looks her carefully in the eyes. “You don’t have to write my eulogy before I’m dead.”
“I just want to show you that I love you,” she says, looking down. “That’s - that’s all I can give you.”
“Oh, Jasmine,” he says, and she thinks he might be crying, too. “I’ve always known that. ”
“Is it weird?” Ross says. There’s a bit of grease on his cheek, under his left eye. “You, the dying man, the dying family.”
“Nice,” Jasmine says, pouring his pint. “Sensitive, are you?”
“I’ve been told.” He smirks. It’s an obnoxious sort of smirk but she doesn’t especially mind.
Charity emerges from the back room, in a sweep of blonde hair and disdain. “Did you need something, Ross?”
Ross shrugs. “Talk to you later, Jas.”
Jasmine fucks Ross in his bedroom. It’s small and quiet. He’s quiet. She thought he’d be louder.
She’s louder than she used to be.
When she first got out she didn’t like making any sounds at all. She didn’t want anyone to notice her.
Now she is better. Now she tightens her fingers on his shoulders and doesn’t bite her lip; he closes his eyes when he comes.
“I thought,” she says, “that you wouldn’t look at me and see who I used to be. I was right. You didn’t. You looked at me and saw Debbie.”
He doesn’t even deny it. He just lies there, running his fingers through her hair. He has surprisingly gentle hands. “You never answered my question. About the dying bit.”
“Some people,” she says, “would take a hint.”
“I’m not some people,” he says.
She closes her eyes and leans into the easy stroke of his hands along her spine. She feels like a cat. She remembers Debbie used to touch her like this, sometimes; in slow wondering awe, that Jasmine was hers, that Jasmine was there. Like she couldn’t believe Jasmine was real.
Jasmine always thought that was funny, because it was Debbie she couldn’t believe.
“It’s hard,” she says. “But you know about that, don’t you? You and Donna.”
His hand stills. “That was different.”
“Okay,” she says.
They have never talked honestly. Not about themselves. About Debbie, yes; about Debbie, they have bared their open hearts. But nothing else.
She supposes that’s strange, among friends.
He says, “Sometimes I forget how to breathe, thinking about her. I reckon it must be worse for you. Watching him die, knowing any day could be his last. A big, drawn out goodbye.”
“It hurts a lot,” Jasmine says. “But it’s not - it’s worse for them. I left. I don’t really get to have a cry about it, whatever.”
“That’s rough,” Ross says. He’s looking at her like he can see something there, in her. It makes her skin itch.
She rolls over. “I’d better get my clothes.”
“She loved you,” he says, quietly. “You were it. I don’t think she meant for me to know it, but I did.”
Jasmine pulls her shirt on, over her head. “I’m sorry about Donna,” she says.
“I’m sorry about Ashley,” he says.
She thinks he might mean it, too.
When Jasmine was twenty years old, her grandfather risked everything to find her and hide her and keep her safe.
Now she is twenty-six and they are sitting on the sofa together, watching Arthur play video games. He is not very good at them, but he’s enthusiastic. Grandpa is better than she thought he’d be.
She’s scared for him, too. All the people he used to know are dying.
“Do you like it here?” he asks. “Are you happy?” He winces. “I know it's not - the best of circumstances.”
She blinks. She hasn't thought about it in those terms. “I haven't been really happy in a really long time,” she says, like a confession. She stretches out her fingers along her thighs and watches Arthur's little pixel character jump from platform to platform. “Not since -” She trails off. It's hard to explain.
“Because you loved her?”
“No,” she says, very quickly. “I mean, I- that's not why. Everything is just really hard. You know?”
“I do,” he says.
She bumps her shoulder against his. “I feel good here,” she says. “I'm starting to, again. I think.”
He blinks at her, startled, like he didn't expect that. His eyes are bright. “Really?”
She says, “It's hard to live where people don't love you.” Especially when you are learning how to love yourself again.
“We love you,” he says. “I love you.”
“I know,” she says, smiling, just a little. “I love you too.”
“Did you love her?” Gabby asks.
Gabby is drunk, and she said, please come and get me, and she said, please don’t tell anyone , so here Jasmine is, in jeans and a jumper with the air cold on her face and her arms around her knees, and her little cousin tucked up next to her, wasted.
“Gabby,” she says.
Gabby shakes her head. She’s pale, two spots of colour high in her cheeks. She smells like vodka; Jasmine can’t take her into Laurel’s house like this. “I’m really drunk, Jas. Like, really, really drunk.”
“I know,” Jasmine says. She fits an arm around Gabby’s shoulders and tugs her in.
Gabby comes, easily. It surprises both of them, Jasmine thinks, feeling Gabby stiffen for a moment, but not enough to make her let Gabby go, or make Gabby pull away. “Did you love her?”
Jasmine breathes out, white into the darkness. “Yeah,” she says. “I loved her so much, Gabby. But I ruined it and that’s why I had to walk away.”
“I know it’s stupid to be scared,” Gabby says. She puts her face against Jasmine’s shoulder, nose cold against the side of Jasmine’s neck. “But I am. I’m so scared.”
Jasmine pets her hair. “What happened to Jacob, anyway? Thought you snogged him. Thought that was your big Liv drama.”
“I was really, really drunk,” Gabby says, miserably. “Like, really drunk. Like now drunk but worse. ” She hiccups. “I wasn’t drunk an hour ago, though. When I kissed Liv.”
Jasmine thinks she makes a startled little sound, but Gabby’s drunk and doesn’t seem to notice.
“I was completely sober,” Gabby says, sitting up to thrust her index finger into Jasmine’s chest. “And then I kissed her and then she didn’t do anything and that’s how I knew I’d fucked up everything up. So now I’m wasted.”
“Oh,” Jasmine says.
“I hate this,” Gabby says, quiet and fervent. “Jas, I ruin everything. I always ruin everything.”
Jasmine rubs her palm between Gabby’s shoulderblades. “You’re okay,” she says. “I promise, yeah? You can’t ruin everything. Especially not for something as small as that. I got knocked up by my girlfriend’s dad, and she had to take me to have an abortion, and we still got back together.” She pauses. “I mean - I did implicate her in manslaughter first. But - we did get back together, and it was me that left in the end.”
Gabby hiccups. “You’re a terrible role model, anybody ever tell you that?”
“Love you too, kid.”
Gabby sighs. “She just - the way she looked at me. It was awful, Jas. I never wanted to fuck her up.”
“She’s a Dingle, isn’t she? They’re tough. Not as tough as they think they are, but tougher than us.”
“What are we, then? Soft?”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” Jasmine says. “Softer. You’re the toughest Thomas, though, Gabs, you won that one hands-down. I reckon you’ll be all right.”
“I’m gonna be sick,” Gabby says abruptly, and is.
“At least you missed my shoes,” Jasmine says, holding Gabby’s hair.
“What?” Gabby blinks.
“Don’t worry,” Jasmine says. “I’ve got you.”
Laurel and Ashley are having a cup of tea, sitting round the kitchen table. They are smiling at each other: the quiet shared smile that they only get when they think nobody else is around, the smile they only get for each other.
Both of them look up when Jasmine and Gabby walk in. The smiles fall away.
“Go up,” Jasmine says, shoving gently at the small of Gabby’s back. “Have a shower.”
Laurel raises both eyebrows.
Ashley says, “Jasmine?” He’s still got a great Dad voice. Jasmine’s actual dad doesn’t have a patch on Ashley’s quiet concern slash disapproval.
“Let me take care of this,” Jasmine says, pushing at Gabby again, until she blinks and disappears up the stairs. “She’s really all right.”
Ashley sips his tea cautiously. “Is it- about me?” He’s got that nervous shiver about him, the flinch in the curve of his mouth that she hates.
Jasmine blinks and sits down. “No,” she says. “No, Uncle Ashley, I promise. I would tell you if it-”
Laurel said, “Is she all right?”
“She’ll tell you soon,” Jasmine said. “I’ll make sure she does. But - yeah, she’s gonna be.”
There’s a knock on the door. Jasmine is on her laptop at the kitchen table, everyone else silent. She is still writing garbage. Her blog has been entirely photographs for weeks. She has not been providing her best quality clickbait, but nobody has noticed.
She gets up, pulls the door open.
Liv Flaherty is standing there, in jeans and a very large grey hoodie. “Oh,” she says, looking disinterestedly at Jasmine. “It’s you.” She shifts from foot to foot and her eyes dart up behind Jasmine’s head, to the stairs, which are empty. “I heard you killed someone. What was that like?”
It’s so transparent Jasmine almost laughs; she was an actual journalist, she knows how to ask a question. But it’s not like Liv is trying at all, really, not with the way her eyes are searching for someone behind Jasmine and the nervous flutter of her hands and Gabby, upstairs, who now smells less like vodka and more like orchid and coconut milk body wash.
Jasmine keeps her mouth straight. “Here to see Gabby, then?”
Liv narrows her eyes. “What if I am?”
Jasmine puts her hand in her pockets. “She’s under the weather at the minute,” she says. “So Ashley and Laurel won’t want her having visitors. Go wait in the garden, I’ll send her out.”
“Go on,” Jasmine says. “I’m not going to make you stand in the dark for nothing.”
Liv glares, but she does it. Teenagers: you could not pay Jasmine money to do it again.
(Except, you wouldn't have to, she'd do it in a heartbeat; because when Jasmine was a teenager she had Debbie.)
“Seriously?” Gabby says, lying flat on her bed with her face smushed sideways into her pillow.
“Just talk to her,” Jasmine says. “You really can’t screw up worse than me.”
“That’s really not as reassuring as you think it is,” Gabby says.
“She was worth every risk I ever took for her,” Jasmine says. “And all the ones I didn’t take, I regret. I’m just saying.”
Jasmine watches from the window. She can’t hear anything but she sees: Liv, blonde hair bright in the moonlight; Gabby, wrapped in a bathrobe. The two of them so far apart but inching closer and closer together, Gabby all flailing hands, Liv’s shoulders hunched; but then Liv takes the final step forward and puts her hands on Gabby’s face and kisses Gabby’s face, and it’s so familiar that Jasmine has to step back and turn away.
“Hey,” Gabby says. She’s got that look in her eyes, this sort of quiet dawning realization that the world hasn’t ended. She and Jasmine are cousins but they have the same face, sometimes. “Thanks.”
Jasmine nods. “Anytime.”
“What else are sisters for, right?” Gabby asks, and she smiles, all white teeth and bright eyes, and is gone.
“She’s back tomorrow,” Cain says. He looks at Jasmine with calm, even eyes. He doesn’t need to tell her who he’s talking about. “She’s been through a lot, all right? Be careful.”
“Shouldn’t you be talking to Ross?”
“She didn’t go to jail for Ross,” Cain says. He turns his face, and looks down at the backs of his hands. “She never talks about you.”
Jasmine bites down on her lower lip. “Cheers, Cain.”
He shakes his head, hard. “That’s not what I meant. I meant - she can’t, Jasmine. She still can’t talk about you, even after all this time.”
“I know that I hurt her, Cain-” Jasmine swallows. “I’m not going to make trouble. I owe her more than that.”
Cain sips from his pint. “Jasmine,” he says. “She can’t talk about you because she misses you . Don’t ruin this.”
There is a new comment on Jasmine’s WordPress, on her latest post. The post is a picture Jasmine took; she is still fumbling for words. It is a picture of the garage in the rain. She likes the way the Dingle Automotive s sign looks; it’s soothing, almost. It makes her think she is home.
I know you by heart. You are inside my heart.
It is from A Little Princess. Jasmine runs her fingers over the text on her phone, accidentally zooming out, zooming in. Her screen gets blurry. She bites her lower lip so hard it bleeds.
Debbie gets back on a Sunday. The Dingles pull together enough to throw her a party. Liv is invited; she’s asked if Gabby wants to come too. They’re pretty much a thing now, Jasmine’s pretty sure. She could ask Aaron about it, she thinks that would probably be due diligence, but they’re so little. It’s not worth it to push.
“Are you gonna go?” Gabby asks, piling on a second coat of mascara. “You could totally come. It’ll be fun. Noah’s gonna bring Jacob.”
“As fun as it sounds,” Jasmine says, “I think I might give hanging out with you and your mates while my ex-girlfriend’s family glare at me a miss.”
“Weak,” Gabby says, fishing round for a tube of lipstick. “Can I borrow your red top, then?”
“Really,” Jasmine says.
“Really,” Gabby says. “It’s nice. I like it.” She puts her lipstick on, little darting motions, and blots it. “Jas-” she says.
“It’s okay,” Jasmine says. “I’m okay, Gabby.”
Gabby makes a little tiny frown with the corner of her mouth. “If you want me to fight her I will, you know. We could take them. All the Dingles. Liv would whine about it but she’d help.”
Jasmine laughs and says, “You look really nice, Gabs. Don’t ruin your lipstick.”
Laurel makes fish pie. Grandpa relays a story from Pearl about some mishap at the vet’s with a cat and three hamsters that surprisingly doesn’t end in bloodshed, and Arthur shows off his new blisters from the guitar, and Ashley kills ten minutes telling them about some parish thing he and Harriet are involved in. He still gets sad about church, sometimes, but he’s good at helping people. Great at it, even.
“I saw Debbie today,” Laurel says, softly. “She looked good.”
Grandpa says, “Laurel, please.”
Jasmine shakes her head. “It’s all right,” she says, digging around with her fork. “It’s - she’s here, and I’m here. It’s fine.”
“Doesn’t look fine,” Ashley says, but he raises both hands, like a surrender. “All right, all right. We’ll let you eat in peace.”
“Jasmine,” Ashley says. He’s sitting on the sofa with a cup of tea. “Can I have a word?”
Jasmine blinks. “Of course.” She sits down next to him.
“I don’t remember my wedding day,” Ashley says. “I know that I love her but I’m scared I’ll forget that I do.”
Jasmine reaches down and holds his hand. He doesn’t feel different. His skin feels the same as it always has.
He smiles at her, weak, like sunshine through a grimy window on a winter’s day. “I know you came back for me,” he says. “And I’m grateful, Jas. I love having you here. But I’m not the only reason you’re here.”
“Gabby and Laurel and Grandpa-” she starts, weakly.
“Jasmine,” he says, kindly. “I give you permission. Do all the things you came for.”
Jasmine can’t find her coat on the rack. Her hands are shaking.
Ashley puts his hand on her shoulder. “Take mine,” he says.
She kisses his cheek. “Thank you. For everything.”
“Love you always,” he says. He talks like that a lot, now. Like this time he sees you might be the last.
She hates it, the necessity of it, but she finds it reassuring, too. She carries the weight of his words, the warmth of them, and tucks them next to her heart.
Debbie used to flee, sometimes, when there were too many people. Jasmine doesn’t think she’s wrong about this.
Jasmine isn’t wrong. That’s the thing, isn’t it? When she wasn’t fucking Debbie up, she understood Debbie. She could be so good, sometimes, until she wasn’t; until she stopped believing she could.
Ross said, she missed you , and Jasmine doesn't think there's an atom in her body that doesn't long for Debbie. Not a one.
“I’m sorry it took me so long,” Jasmine says. Her voice echoes through the space, ricocheting off two shitty-looking cars and the concrete floor.
Debbie lifts her head. Her eyes are very bright. “It’s all right. You’re here now.”
The garage looks pretty much the same. It smells the same. The floor is just as hard it used to be under Jasmine’s feet.
Ashley doesn’t remember things like this, anymore. Things slip past him. You only keep your heart as long as you can hold it.
Suddenly Jasmine is terrified. Suddenly her hands feel slippery, contactless. She wipes them against her thighs.
“You came back,” she says. “Cain and Ross didn’t know if you would.”
Debbie takes a step forward and then rocks back onto her heels. “I didn’t - Jasmine.”
“I missed you,” Jasmine says. It sticks in her teeth, in her throat; vibrates through her, the want of it. “I don’t want - I just - you should know that. I missed you.”
There is a moment. It stretches out: Jasmine’s breath loud in her ears, Jasmine’s heart pounding in her chest, and none of that anything compared to Debbie Dingle, standing there, under fluorescent lights. There is nothing else in the world. There has never been anything else in the world.
Jasmine steps forward, and Debbie opens her eyes, her big eyes with their dark lashes and it has been so, so long, it has been too long, it has been lifetimes since Jasmine was here, in this room, with this girl; it has been millennia since Jasmine pressed her hand to her heart and said forever, you’ll be in here forever.
Debbie takes a sharp little breath, like it hurts to do it, like it hurts to do anything, and Jasmine can’t bear that, she never could bear it even when it was all her fault, so she takes another step and Debbie steps forward to meet her.
And then Debbie’s hands are on the sides of Jasmine’s face and her fingers are digging in a little too tight and Jasmine can’t help it, she’s reaching up to clutch at Debbie’s shoulders, into the soft fabric of her coat, and they are kissing.
It has never felt like this with anyone else. Like there is lightning, in Jasmine’s blood. Like she is on fire. Like all of her is yearning for this; like every moment they have been apart was a moment that she spent, longing.
“Jas,” Debbie says, pulling back. She's breathing hard, her lips are parted and there's a blush blooming high in her cheeks. “Are you, is this - are you for real?”
Jasmine shouldn't make promises. She should be wary, she should be reasonable. She shouldn't run on impulse. She learned all of these lessons but now they are gone, fallen by the wayside in the wake of Debbie’s mouth, of Debbie’s hands, of Deborah Dingle here in flesh and blood and skin.
“Yeah,” she says, fervent, a promise. “Yeah, Debs, this is for keeps.”
“I wrote you letters,” Jasmine says. They are sitting in the back of a blue car. Jasmine doesn’t know about the makes of cars but Debbie does. Debbie could tell her everything about the way this works. “I never sent them.”
“Jasmine,” Debbie says. Her hand is in Jasmine’s, tangled together on top of Debbie’s thigh. “I read them all.”
“You didn’t say anything-”
“'I know you by heart,'” Debbie says, quietly. “'You are inside my heart.'” Her mouth curves in a wry, sweet smile. “I read books to Sarah. You're the only other person who would appreciate them.” She pauses, and then runs her hand over her mouth. “I ran after you for so long, Jas. You left me. You were the one who needed to choose to come back.”
“And I have?”
Debbie looks at her, with her clear eyes. She always saw Jasmine better than anyone else. “Yeah,” she says. “I think you have. And I have, too.”
Jasmine squeezes Debbie’s hand and leans over, and kisses her.