It’s easy, learning how to be a family.
It’s always been easy with Dani, effortless, warm and familiar and safe despite the pretense, despite the strangling standards Jamie had imposed on herself, rigid and unyielding, despite the fear of it all. The fear of wanting, of letting herself give in, of opening herself up to pain, lasting, enduring, if only for a semblance of feeling, fleeting.
But Dani Clayton isn’t fleeting. Dani Clayton is steady, assured, even in her most paralyzing moments, even when she forces herself to look ahead––to breakfast, having held herself, fraying, together, if only to tuck Flora gently back into bed, if only to fall apart at the seams moments later in Jamie’s arms; to two days of dates, the prospect of one, saturated as it was with the promise of everything on the table, the promise of an unspoken future, daunting enough on its own; to a night, bound to come, if still a ways away, when she knows she’ll fall asleep in her apartment, notably lacking in chaos and flora of all forms, for the last time––beyond her curated discrepancy of “what if”s, to face her beast of tomorrow head on.
It’s that, Jamie’s realized, will think years later, it’s always been that.
It’s Dani Clayton, graciously accepting, clinging to, Jamie’s pledge of “one day at a time,” but peering, determined, through the jungle anyway, daring to stray from the narrow path winding out in front of her, placing one foot, resolute, in front of the other, bearing the overgrowth, the darkness, if only to spare a glance at her waiting tomorrow. For a single shot at it.
Dani Clayton is the bravest person Jamie’s ever known.
It’s Dani’s promise, brave, unflappable in spite of the clamor of her nerves, of constancy; her commitment to stumbling through her jungle; her trust in Jamie, unwavering and immediate, to keep her company there, to catch her when Dani’s own foot catches on a root, the jutting vestige of Dani’s own family tree.
And so it’s Jamie, too, laying down her arms, surrendering the guard that’s protected her, protected Flora, for so long, so that she and Dani may take each other’s hand, so that each may catch the other when she stumbles, so that they may face the future, head-on, together, with Flora.
It’s always been easy with Dani, safe, because it’s what they’ve been doing from the beginning: Dani, feeling the weight of the gaze of a future just out of sight, had invited Jamie into her classroom, and the invitation had, between a muddy jumpsuit and a moonflower, been accepted.
Jamie has two pairs of eyes on her this year, one brown, bright, excited, coupled with a determined nod, the other blue, wide, warm, scheming, somehow, Jamie thinks, already, anticipating the afternoon bell and the ride home and everything that comes after.
“Ready,” Flora and Dani echo.
It’s lasagna, and though Jamie can’t take credit for much, having spent her Sunday evening next to the stove, leaning backwards against the counter, watching Dani and waiting for her request for a wooden spoon, or the bowl of onions, diced, painstakingly, earlier, or the wide, flat noodles––“wait until they’re fully drained this time, Jamie, don’t let the colander drip onto the floor”––she can take credit for the bay leaves, the thyme, the oregano, even the tomatoes, all grown carefully, lovingly, in the garden outside their kitchen window. She can take credit for packing it, too, two tins of lasagna, shut neatly, each nestled in its own bag. There’s carrots, also, and an apple for each of them. Flora’s first favorite water bottle, the one with the unicorns, and one Flora had picked out for Dani, lilac, ivy crawling up the sides. A paper napkin in each, one bearing the words “love you, munchkin,” the other with a “meet me in the coat closet after school?” and a heart, both accompanied by the lanky sketch of a sunflower in full bloom.
“Uh-uh,” Dani shakes her head, her lips pursed. “Flora warned me about this one. You’re not getting me.”
“No?” Jamie raises her eyebrows.
“No,” Dani says cooly, confident. “No, I’m wearing my––” She pauses, looks down. Stares. Looks over at Flora, mouth agape. “You said the shoe one is always a trick!”
“I did,” Flora giggles, “but I’m usually wearing shoes with buckles.”
This year, Flora is wearing brand new Reeboks, white, clean, meticulously laced and velcroed across the top, just like Dani’s.
“Gotcha, Miss Clayton,” Jamie flashes a triumphant grin at Dani, Dani smiling placidly, narrowing her eyes at Jamie in return. It’s a promise of retaliation if Jamie’s ever seen one, and it makes Jamie grin wider. “You two sure you’re ready?”
It’s not out of apprehension, this time, out of worry, out of Jamie pressing, dropping Flora somewhere she couldn’t help her, somewhere Jamie hadn’t been able to help herself, her hackles up.
Now it’s just… Routine.
Flora glances up at Dani, beaming, grabbing her hand, and then looks back to Jamie. “Ready,” she says, head bobbing, “promise.”
Dani smiles down at Flora, squeezing her hand. “Me too.”
It’s the three of them now.
Now Dani makes breakfast every morning, fried eggs and orange juice and perfect toast and pancakes––“panmuffins, Dani, sweet Christ”––on special occasions; never tea, Jamie adamant that, for all of Flora’s patient lessons, all of Dani’s undivided attention, Dani is forbidden to touch the kettle. (“Your tea,” Jamie had declared one morning, staring down at the cup in her hands, “might be worse than porridge.” Dani had only blinked, confused: “wait, what’s so bad about porridge?”)
Now they hunch over the coffee table together, Jamie stretched out, book in hand, across the couch behind them, Dani combing, red pen in hand, through worksheets about circuits and the Stone Age, Flora beside her, puzzling her way through percentages, Dani pausing every now and then to glance over at Flora, check in with her, remind her gently, “they’re just fractions, really, and you’re pretty good at those.”
Now Jamie still oversees two baths each night––one bath and a shower, if she’s holding herself to specificity––Dani cultivating a habit of, once Flora’s asleep, slipping into the shower behind Jamie, pressing a kiss to her shoulder as she leans across her, reaching for the loofah. Dani reminds Jamie, too, readily, to scrub at her own fingers with the nail brush as much as she does Flora’s. “More, even,” she adds one day, buffing at Jamie’s nails herself, glancing up at her, grin goofy and crafty all at once.
Now they get two goodnight kisses, all three of them, Flora’s pressed to her forehead after a half hour curled between Dani and Jamie, the cadence of Jamie’s voice and the calm stroke of Dani’s hand along her hair easing her into sleep, tucked cozily away underneath her pink quilt. Dani and Jamie’s come first, then, from Flora, and second from each other, Dani’s arm wrapped, certain and safe, around Jamie, Jamie leaning up to brush her lips against Dani’s, their kiss punctuated by murmured “I love you”s.
She and Dani would have been infallible if not for Flora, Jamie had thought once, that everything was fallible when it came to Flora.
She realizes now that she was wrong, that she and Dani are infallible because of Flora.
“Right then,” Jamie clears her throat, looking from Dani to Flora. “Have a good first day, yeah? Wash your hands. Finish your carrots. Be good,” she glances from Flora to Dani, “both of you.”
Flora giggles, and Jamie bends down, pressing a kiss to her forehead. “Love you, munchkin.”
Flora nods, distracted, watching Henry’s car pull up to the curb, Miles slipping out and sprinting up the stairs across from them.
Dani glances at Jamie, who nods, and then down to Flora, squeezing her hand again. “Go ahead,” she says, smiling when Flora glances, impatient, up at her, “see you later, sweet thing.”
Flora bolts, and then it’s just the two of them and everyone else, fading into the background.
They keep their Saturdays.
Even past their rules about sleeping over, about Flora finding out, even spending as many days as they do together––they go from “no school nights, yeah?” to “well, maybe if I just… Kept some extra clothes here?” after four school nights apart––they keep their Saturdays.
“You’re always here,” Dani murmurs into Jamie’s skin one afternoon, “and I know you’re always here, and I feel you touching me, but it’s nice to know… It’s nice to know we always have this. Here,” she ghosts her lips across Jamie’s chest, “together.”
“You’re here too,” Jamie’s whisper is hoarse, one of her hands finding Dani’s, threading their fingers together, “with me.”
“Yeah,” Dani rests her chin on Jamie’s chest, smiling up at her, “I’m here.”
Sometimes they spend their Saturdays at Dani’s apartment, stretched, tangled up in each other, across the couch, rented VHS playing on the TV all but forgotten, the tape wound to the end. Sometimes they’re in Dani’s kitchen, making chili one minute (“Why’s it called Southwestern style? What’s it southwest of?”), Jamie bending Dani over the counter the next, Jamie’s lips gliding over a shoulder blade, sliding her fingers up between Dani’s legs, pressing into her. Sometimes they’re in Dani’s bed, Jamie’s head resting on Dani’s stomach, Dani’s fingers twirling absently around Jamie’s curls, running softly through them, listening to Jamie talk, or sometimes read.
“You’ve never read The Secret Garden?” Jamie asks, incredulous, one day, scrambling to sit up. “It’s my favorite book,” she elaborates, eyes bright, and she looks so much like Flora in a way Dani, watching, enamored, has never seen before, “the very first one I ever read to Flora.”
“So read it to me, too.”
Dani’s not sure she’s ever seen Jamie, usually so effortlessly cool, so excited.
Jamie’s throwing on Dani’s pale pink sweatpants, sweatshirt, uncaring, running out to her car and returning, moments later, with a love-worn copy. “Keep it in my glove compartment,” she’d explained, grinning, proud, and as much as Dani wants to start listening right away, to share something so precious to Jamie with Jamie, all she can do first is tug her back into bed, strip her of that sweatsuit, that goddamn, blushing sweatsuit, and kiss her.
Sometimes they spend their Saturdays outside of either of their homes, on dates in the outside world, spending the afternoon at the movies, Jamie loading them up at the concession stand, hauling a tub of popcorn and a jumbo soda––“we only need one straw, Dani,” and, lowering her voice, “my tongue’s gonna be in your mouth later anyway, yeah?”––into The Princess Bride. (They take turns flattering each other, each lauding the other with a simpering “as you wish” every chance they get for weeks after.) Sometimes they meander aimlessly around the mall until Dani inevitably yanks Jamie into the arcade, making a beeline for the pinball machines, explaining, breathless, sheepish, around a wide grin, “back home, sometimes… They’d–– They’d call me a pinball wizard,” and when Dani wins enough tickets to claim the biggest stuffed animal behind the glass counter, a giraffe they name Luna, Jamie selfishly keeps Luna for herself, wrapping herself around the giraffe the nights Dani isn’t with her in her bed. Sometimes they go out to eat, Jamie dragging Dani to brunch, informing their waiter that she’s there to show Dani, “an American,” disclosed with a sad shake of the head, what real pancakes are.
“Those are just crepes,” Dani says blandly, when their pancakes arrive, unimpressed, much to the horror of both Jamie and their waiter.
“I,” Jamie declares later, crawling atop Dani in the backseat of Dani’s car, “can’t take you anywhere.”
Dani only smiles up at her innocently, her arms sliding around Jamie’s neck with a cheerful “you can take me home.”
Sometimes they spend their Saturdays at Jamie and Flora’s flat, taking the time away from Flora, the relative peace it brings, to clean, Dani happily organizing Jamie’s fridge (“I’ve been wanting to do this for ages,” she admits) while Jamie finally––finally––steam cleans her carpets, washing away mud and melted crayon. Sometimes they’re curled together on Jamie’s window seat, staring out at the shifting clouds, Jamie’s arms wrapped around Dani, Dani playing absently with Jamie’s fingers as she tells her about Iowa, how big the sky is there, and recounts a life that used to be hers. Sometimes they’re in Jamie’s bed, Flora at Miles’ and Henry’s flat for the night, and when Dani’s hands grasp, clamoring, at the sheets, or the headboard, or Jamie’s shoulders, Jamie doesn’t have to clap a hand to Dani’s mouth, doesn’t have to pull her in, smothering Dani’s moans with frantic kisses.
She had been right, Jamie knows, when she had told Owen they had somehow surpassed the need for Flora to stay elsewhere on date nights. There are plenty of nights, in fact, when Flora doesn’t, and those are some of their favorites, Dani cooking dinner for the three of them, followed up by a game or a movie, Flora’s choice, or the occasional story time before bed.
(Dani’s ecstatic for her first story time, and while Jamie is decidedly less so, she is charmed by Dani’s feet, incapable of staying still for all their excited tapping against the floor, Dani’s eager participation, her exclamation of “go Flora!” adorable if ill-informed, and Dani’s hand, finding Jamie’s without Dani taking her eyes off of Flora, following Flora’s every couplet.)
There is, however, Jamie accepts, something to having the flat to themselves. With all her newness to wanting, it follows, she presumes, that she would have had––probably still has, if she’s being honest with herself––trouble differentiating “want” from “need,” and, compounded by the staunchness of her pride, that she had refused Henry’s initial offer, delivered by Owen, to have Flora stay over.
It had been Dani who’d finally convinced her, the tender curl of Dani’s bottom lip, the watery shine of her eyes.
It’s easier, Jamie thinks, to admit that Dani Clayton is right when Jamie’s head is between her legs, Dani’s heel pressing sharply into her shoulder, and Dani is gasping, her pitch climbing higher and higher, a garble of “please” and “more” and “fuck, yeah, don’t stop,” coming, hard, Jamie’s name a shameless moan on her lips.
They keep their Saturdays, even, when they don’t have to alternate between two flats anymore.
They keep their Saturdays through it all.
After a year and a half, they buy a house.
“It’s because of you, you know,” Jamie nudges her shoulder against Dani’s, contracts, scratch paper, ledgers, spread across the table in front of them, calculator and pencil shoved finally, victoriously, to the side.
“How d’you figure?”
“Well,” Jamie says slowly, patiently, “all this extra money I have saved? Some of it’s gone to save for Flora, right, but the rest of it, what we’re putting into the down payment?”
“Yeah,” Dani’s eyes track back over their figures as Jamie walks through them again, pointing each one out with her pencil.
“It’s from all those deals I got after you invited me to Career Day. All those loaded families looking for landscaping, gardening. Some of them aren’t even closed yet. I mean,” she leans in, gesturing at a sheet of her accounts with a pencil, “that Lloyd woman? These people have manors , Dani. Between all that upkeep and Henry’s contacts…” She puffs out her cheeks, exhaling.
Dani watches her, smiling, for a moment. “I don’t think that’s because of me at all,” she finally says, meeting Jamie’s raised eyebrows with her own, “I think that’s all you. You impressed them. You and that moonflower of yours.”
Jamie grins, setting her pencil down and turning, fully, to face Dani. “Yeah?”
Dani nods. “Mmhmm.”
“Impressed you too with it, I hope.”
Dani only smiles wider.
Jamie grins, goading.
“Maybe,” Dani admits, “just a little.”
“A little!” Jamie laughs, disbelieving. “So little,” she leans in, “you almost kissed me in a children’s coat closet after.”
Dani hums, Jamie’s lips close, so close, to her own. “Good thing,” she murmurs, “we’ll have a whole house to kiss in soon.”
Flora insists on helping them with the process from the start.
They tour different houses together, Flora appraising their options with a keen eye and ready critiques: “this bedroom is too small, I think, for all my dolls,” she says of one, asking “but how will Dani cook for us in such a small kitchen?” of another.
She has a hand in packing, too, reveling in the opportunity to visit Dani’s apartment for the first and last time, and unpacking, once their move is complete. She busies herself with Dani’s suitcases first, while Jamie keeps Dani occupied downstairs––kissing her, exultant, against every counter in their new kitchen––and when Dani finally makes her way upstairs, face flushed and sweater rumpled, Flora’s kneeling, beaming at her from in front of an emptied suitcase.
It’s the same beam Dani’s seen on Jamie, the same one Jamie had boasted after rearranging Dani’s desk, the podium, on Career Day, the same one that Dani had wanted nothing more than to see again and again and again.
She does see it again, when Jamie promises, beaming, to get started on putting together their new bed, Flora swearing to help, beaming too, while Dani is at the grocery store.
It’s gone, however, when Dani gets home, arms overrun with grocery bags, to find Jamie and Flora in the middle of the empty living room floor on their stomachs, feet kicking lazily in the air, enmeshed in a coloring book.
“It’s Care Bears,” Jamie grins up at her, “we found it in one of the boxes.”
Dani glances over at the jumble of half-open boxes in the corner. “Nice,” she says, disappearing into the kitchen to unpack the groceries, poking her head back into the living room a few minutes later. “Jamie,” she says, voice tight, and Jamie’s head shoots up, “can I talk to you upstairs?”
“Upstairs?” Jamie repeats dully, getting to her feet, glancing down at Flora.
“Upstairs,” Dani repeats, “in our bedroom.”
Jamie grins at that, glancing down at Flora again before crossing to the stairs, hopping, taking them two at a time.
They almost pacify Dani, the words “our bedroom,” her heart in her throat as she climbs the stairs, the phrase ringing in her head.
Jamie’s waiting patiently, nervously, for her on the landing, watching Dani closely as Dani sweeps past her, crossing into their room with a flourish.
“What happened,” Dani rounds on Jamie, “to ‘I’ll get started on the bed, Dani’?”
Jamie reaches for Dani’s waist, voice low, mollifying, “I’m still gonna do it, baby, but Flora found––”
“Flora,” Dani waves her arms at their mattress resting against the wall, “has a bed already. We don’t.”
Jamie grins then, and Dani knows, even as she manages a gasping “you… You finally… You really are in trouble now,” Jamie pushing her into their mattress, Jamie murmuring a “s’never stopped us before” against the soft underside of Dani’s jaw, that her annoyance is fleeting, fizzling out under the pressure of Jamie’s lips, Jamie’s hands, Jamie’s arms, guiding her, gently, to the floor.
Jamie’s beaming again, that same, proud beam, when they make it back downstairs, their fingers tangled together, Dani biting her lip, glancing back over her shoulder at Jamie. Flora’s in the kitchen, has moved on from Care Bears and coloring, her hands on her hips, having a stare down with the refrigerator.
“Flora,” Jamie ventures, stepping around Dani, “what’s up?”
“Dani has so many magnets,” Flora squints at the fridge, then over at a box on the counter next to her, “and nothing for them to hang up.”
“Ah,” Jamie says, sliding her hands into her back pockets, leaning back, assessing the fridge.
Dani glances between the two of them, Flora and Jamie taking in the fridge in easy silence, eyes darting back to the box of magnets on the counter, souvenirs, mostly, from her travels across Europe, from a life in transition.
A transition, she thinks, to her presence here, now, to this. To Jamie and Flora and their shared refrigerator in their new house.
She turns abruptly on her heel and crosses out of the kitchen, Jamie and Flora turning too, blinking after her.
Dani’s gone for a moment, and then she’s back in the kitchen, backpack in tow, dropping it at her feet. Dani still doesn’t speak, dropping down, rifling through it, and Jamie and Flora glance at each other, turning back to Dani, fascinated, as Dani pulls out a pink folder, a flower sticker stuck firmly to the corner.
“So,” Dani finally says, scouring through the folder, thumbing, searching, past papers, “we start hanging things.” She finds what she’s looking for, and, pulling it out of her folder carefully, crosses to the fridge and grabs a magnet out of the box, hanging the page in the middle of one of the refrigerator doors.
She takes a step back, standing between Jamie and Flora.
Dani has always had magnets, has never used them to actually hang anything. She’d never had anything to hang before, she figures, and in her last apartment, her magnets had been prizes enough in themselves, spoils from a journey up and out of an underworld she hadn’t wanted to memorialize.
Where she’s been, Dani thinks, the journey she’s made… It’s led her here. Why shouldn’t the tokens of her pilgrimage uphold the sanctity of her new, glorious afterlife?
“That reminds me,” Jamie wraps her arm around Dani’s waist, the three of them surveying Dani’s work, Flora’s blue crayon rubbing from art class, carefully stowed away for a year and a half, now adorning their refrigerator door, “they are splendid, your eyes. Could get lost in ‘em every day. Do, even.”
“Finally,” Flora breathes, wrapping, for her part, her arms around the two of them, and they three stay there for a long time, holding each other.
They have a housewarming, Flora and Miles running circles around their guests, Flora done up in her favorite floral vest, Miles with a bow tie knotted snug around his neck that’s hanging, undone, after an hour. Hannah and Rebecca are settled together on the couch, Rebecca prodding Hannah for updates on her former students, Hannah gracefully avoiding anything that could be construed as gossip, redirecting, asking Rebecca how her long-sought pupilage is going, what it’s like to work with Henry. Henry, who’s there too, leaning against the far wall, pulling Jamie into a tight hug.
“It’s a great, good place,” he whispers, clasping Jamie’s shoulders, “you should be proud.”
Jamie sniffs, nonchalant. “Don’t go soft on me now, Henry.”
He laughs, dropping his hands. “On you? I wouldn’t dare.”
Jamie looks at him for a moment, long, hard, and then she laughs too, pulling him back into another hug. “Thank you,” she says, and when her voice cracks, neither of them acknowledge it, “for everything.”
Dani, meanwhile, is in the kitchen with Owen, the two of them peering, vigilant, into the oven.
“You should go,” Owen urges her, knocking his elbow gently against hers, “it’s your party. I’ll hold down the fort here.”
Dani’s expression is horrified. “No,” she protests, the single syllable short and brash, “you’re my guest.”
“Your guest,” Owen ducks his head in a mock bow, “and resident pastry expert.”
“And I,” Dani plants herself firmly in front of the oven, sitting, crossing her legs, in front of it, “am the resident pigs in a blanket expert.”
Owen chuckles, sinking to the ground next to her, pulling his knees to his chest and resting his arms across them. “Jamie’s already let you have it over the proper definition of ‘pigs in a blanket,’ hasn’t she?”
“She has,” Dani’s jaw is stubborn, her eyes sparkling, “but I know pigs in a blanket. And these,” she waves her hand at the oven, “are some damn good ones.”
Later, Flora, under the influence of two mugs of hot chocolate, four pigs in a blanket, and what Dani suspects to be half a tin of cookies (“a respectable amount,” Jamie determines, absolutely no help at all), insists on giving everyone a tour of the house.
Each room, she declares, leading her audience, captive, from the foyer to the kitchen and up the stairs to Jamie and Dani’s room and then her own, is perfectly splendid. There’s a notable exception between the kitchen and the stairs––the small room they’ve fashioned into an office, for drafting garden layouts or grading homework or completing assignments, depending on the occupant––which Flora deems to be “quite boring,” flitting quickly away to continue the tour elsewhere.
(The office, in time, proves to be a source of consternation for Dani, too, retreating into it to work through the tedium of grading multiplication drills. She struggles with times tables, still, to Jamie’s endless amusement, distracted by the way Jamie’s cropped shirt rides up along the plane of her stomach as she reaches for a mug, or the sound of Jamie’s laugh from the living room, joyous and rough, as she listens to Flora’s latest regalement.)
Rules still change, over the years, even as they live together, are broken, rebuilt.
Dani is, eventually, allowed to touch the kettle, though, Jamie teases, she insists on supervising her at all times.
Jamie is the one who breaks their “no sex outside the bedroom” rule one day, Flora away from home, visiting Miles and Henry. She’s watching Dani load the dryer when the concept of their separate, downstairs laundry room––a place near which Flora doesn’t dare venture for fear of the basement––snaps clearly into place, and the next thing either of them know, Jamie’s lifting Dani onto the dryer, rucking her skirt up around her hips.
Her life, Jamie marvels, would feel constant, routine, birthdays and holidays and boring moments passing by to be reveled in with no consequence otherwise, the world outside a blur and the earth’s tilt lazy on its axis, if not for Flora.
And she loves it, Flora’s restlessness, the life she gives Jamie.
The life she’s given Jamie.
This, though… This is something altogether different.
Jamie knows it’s the way of the world, that everything yields to time.
It would be so easy, she thinks, so easy to fall into the warmth of their small existence, of story times and Saturdays, to carve out a life there together, forever.
But: the days turn to months, the months to more. Years pass. And with every trip around the sun, Flora grows.
Flora grows, and with her, her dolls fade to diaries, her bedtime to a curfew, and a phone, clear and plastic, comes to reside on her nightstand.
Everything, Jamie thinks, watching the smile break across Dani’s face at the dinner table when Flora, sixteen, tells her that she’s decided to get a Bachelor of Education degree, that she wants to be a primary school teacher, too, yields to time.
When Flora gets married, she asks them both to walk her down the aisle.
It’s with the caveat that Dani doesn’t have to––“I know,” Flora assures her, “you have your own… Stuff with big weddings, and I know,” she looks at Jamie, at her ring, “you two are married in all the ways that matter, but… If it’s too hard, I do understand”––but Dani only shakes her head and wraps her arms around Flora, swallowing, blinking back tears, holding her tight.
Jamie, meanwhile, is rubbish at planning. Always has been. It’s no shock to her, then, when Flora doesn’t ask her for help planning her wedding, but it does come as a surprise, Jamie wandering down the stairs one morning, when she finds Dani at their kitchen table on the phone, notepad in front of her, patiently talking Flora through which questions to ask of which venues and which considerations to make when she’s getting her dress tailored (“hair up or down,” Dani offers, smiling to herself, “open shoulder or no”).
“You know you don’t have to do all that,” Jamie says later, staring up at Dani from where she’s laying in her lap, Dani’s hands gliding easily through her straightened hair, “if it’s too hard.”
“No, it’s… It’s not hard,” Dani purses her lips thoughtfully, “and it’s been so long now that… That…” Her hand stills, and she looks suddenly down at Jamie. “I’d do it anyway,” she says, voice stubborn, determined, “even if it was.”
Jamie smiles, reaching for her hand. “I know, love,” she tangles their fingers together, pulls Dani down to kiss her, “I know.”
Owen speaks at the rehearsal dinner, Hannah settled in the seat next to his, smiling up at him, laughing, melodic, at every single one of his jokes, even the worst ones.
Miles and Henry laugh too, across the table, Miles watching Owen closely, thoughtfully, thinking ahead to his own speech––“why can’t I have a best man?” Flora had asked him one night, brow furrowed, over a glass of wine––the following night.
Rebecca’s there too, fresh off a win, and when she shakes Flora’s fiancé’s hand, her grip is the firmest of all.
(“It was harder,” he tells Flora later, only mildly shaken, “than your mom’s.”
“Which one?” Flora’s distracted, laying out the butterfly clip she’ll be wearing in her hair the next day.
“You know which one,” he’d said, leveling her with a serious look, and Flora had only laughed, turning, cupping his face in hers.)
The night starts to wind down eventually, everyone having retired, inside, to comfort and cocktails around the fireplace, laughing, swapping stories.
Someone asks Flora how she and her fiancé met, and she indulges them, happily, with the tale.
“Don’t forget that you’re responsible for this, too,” Owen quips from across the room, chuckling, Hannah nestled snugly against him on the couch.
Flora’s fiancé looks questioningly at Flora, and she laughs, reaching up to scratch at her forehead. “I’d… Forgotten about that,” she chuckles, ducking her head, looking back at Owen. “Tell us the story?”
He obliges, embellishing his closing as the story concludes: “and ever since meeting this woman, right here,” he leans his head against Hannah’s and she shakes hers, dreading, relishing, what’s coming next, “I haven’t been cross -ant a day since.”
They fall into an easy silence after that, companionable, and Flora’s getting ready to excuse herself, to adjourn for the night, when––
“I have a story.”
Jamie glances up at Dani, standing, leaning against the back of her chair, before she says it, her eyes gleaming, and it floods back to Dani:
The way Jamie had pulled her hands out of her pockets, held her arms out for emphasis.
“One day, when she’s not expecting it,” Jamie had said, “I’m going to sit down and tell Flora a story of my own. And it’s gonna be so long. See how she likes story time then.”
Dani bites her lip, grinning, and squeezes Jamie’s shoulder as Jamie begins to talk, the gold of her ring gleaming softly in the firelight.
The year is 1988.
They are in Jamie and Flora’s flat.
Flora is eight.
Jamie is trailing behind Dani, her hands pressed over Dani’s eyes at Flora’s insistence, Flora trailing ahead, her small hand wrapped, firm, around Dani’s. Dani shuffles along between them, chuckling, nervous, as she lets herself be led down the hallway.
“Where, uh… Where are we goin’?”
“If we told ya,” Jamie grins up at Flora, who pauses her even steps to glance back at the two of them, “then it wouldn’t be a surprise now, would it?”
Dani’s brow creases underneath Jamie’s hands, but she smiles too, toothy and wide, the perfect union of charm and befuddlement one she’s come to know intimately between her months in the classroom, with Flora, and her months with Jamie, outside of it. “Well,” she says, Flora’s steps resuming, leading her carefully around a corner, “I guess you got me there.”
“Don’t worry, Miss Clayton,” Flora stops, dropping her hand, “we’re here now.”
“Can you tell that to your mom?” Dani reaches behind her, feeling for Jamie, her fingertips tugging at the silk of her pajama top. “Her hands are still over my eyes.”
Jamie clicks her tongue disapprovingly behind her. “Patience, Miss Clayton,” she chides, and Dani tugs again, harder, at her pajama top.
Flora turns, fixing Jamie with a pleading look, and Jamie laughs. “Far be it from me,” she drops her hands, “to embarrass you in front of Miss Clayton.”
“You could never,” Dani’s hand finds Flora’s head, stroking her hair softly, even as her eyes adjust to the light, flickering around her, taking in the clean tile and succulent-adorned shelves of the bathroom, “embarrass Flora. Yourself, on the other hand…” Dani cranes her head back, raising her eyebrows at Jamie.
Jamie shakes her head, eyes bright, smirking ruefully, and she’s opening her mouth to respond, but Flora’s clearing her throat, Dani and Jamie both turning, looking back down to her.
“Miss Clayton,” Flora says, excited, earnest, reaching out to take Dani’s hand again, “now that you’ll be staying over more, having sleepovers, my mum and I thought––”
“Hey,” Jamie’s voice is gentle, even as she interjects, encouraging, “give yourself some credit, yeah, Flora? I,” she says, boastful for all of Flora’s forethought and none of her own, “had nothing to do with this.”
Flora looks up at Jamie, biting the inside of her cheek, thinking. She nods. “I thought,” she says, “it might be helpful if you had a toothbrush here. One of your very own. That way,” she smiles sweetly, whispering now, “you don’t have to keep carrying yours around in that backpack of yours.”
Dani bites her lip, squeezing Flora’s hand, Jamie’s coming to rest, soft, reassuring, against her lower back.
“We usually brush together,” Flora explains, “right next to each other, in fact. Morning and night,” she chimes, “two minutes each. Thirty seconds for each quadrant.”
“Quadrant,” Jamie scoffs, shaking her head, “that’s one I know she didn’t get from me.”
“I got it from Miss Clayton,” Flora says simply, smiling up at Dani. “It’s a math word.”
Dani beams. She can’t remember the last time she felt like this. She’s not even sure what this is, her brain wracking to quantify it, a tangle of belonging, wantedness, and warmth, bound together by a home, by love, unabashed.
There is a word for it, she thinks, but it’s never been like this for her before. Never been this easy.
Could it be?
“Mum let me pick it out for you,” Flora’s plowing forward, holding her and Jamie’s toothbrush cup out to Dani, a fresh purple toothbrush, pristine, clattering to the side as Flora proffers the cup. “I picked purple,” she says proudly, “because I think––and mum said I was right––it’s your favorite color. And because,” she passes Jamie her toothbrush, then grabs her own, reaching for the toothpaste, “mine is pink and mum’s is blue. And purple,” she squeezes a small dollop of toothpaste onto Dani’s toothbrush, then Jamie’s, and, finally, her own, “is a perfect combination of the two.”
Flora slips in front of them without waiting for a response, and as they brush their teeth, Dani takes in the sight of them: Flora, stretching up onto her tiptoes, squinting into the mirror as she brushes, and she and Jamie behind her, leaning easily into each other as they do, Dani swallowed up by Jamie’s oversized pajama top, Jamie’s curls wild, her eyes misty. Happy, all three of them.
Maybe, Dani realizes, it is this easy.
Jamie sends Flora to her room to get dressed, and before Dani knows it, she’s back in Jamie’s bed, pressed into the mattress, giggling, Jamie’s lips traversing their way down her neck.
“What,” Dani manages, trying, failing, to catch her breath, “about Flora?”
“Eh,” Jamie shrugs, moves to the other side of Dani’s neck, “she has to wish all of her dolls a good morning before she does anything else. Seriously, greets them all one by one. Has a whole conversation.”
Dani’s giggles turn into laughs, wide and full, as she slides her palms underneath Jamie’s pajama top, against her back, pulling her closer.
“Besides,” Jamie continues, nipping at Dani’s pulse point, eliciting a gasp, “she won’t start getting ready until I go in a second time, anyway. Remind her.”
“Mm,” Dani hums, angling her head back deeper into the pillow, giving Jamie easier access to the base of her neck, her collarbone, “sounds like you both could use some discipline to me.”
Jamie only nips at Dani’s skin again, harder, in response, and Dani gasps again, fingernails digging crescent moons into Jamie’s back.
“I’ll show you discipline,” Jamie mumbles against Dani’s skin, “discipline enough to stop kissing you.”
“Oh yeah?” Dani breathes, unimpressed, cynical, Jamie’s tongue soothing against the hollow of her neck.
Jamie pulls away, scowling, petulant, and Dani can’t help but giggle again.
“Nothing,” Dani’s giggles fade into a soft smile, and she reaches up to cup Jamie’s face. “You’re cute.”
“Mmhmm,” Dani’s eyes flit across Jamie’s face, taking her in, her thumb stroking the line of Jamie’s cheekbone.
“Dunno how I feel about cute.”
“You like it.”
Jamie’s lips quirk. “I like it,” she concedes, and Dani laughs again, pulling Jamie down next to her.
“Last night was nice,” she murmurs, nuzzling into Jamie’s cheek.
“It was,” Jamie wraps an arm around Dani, tangles their legs together, “but,” she lowers her voice, whispering, “I thought you didn’t usually do that on first dates.”
Dani narrows her eyes at her, challenging. “And here I thought you didn’t usually have first dates.”
Jamie shrugs, nonchalant. “I’m full of surprises, Miss Clayton. Have a…” She purses her lips, thinking, “Third? First date scheduled today. Right now, in fact.”
Dani arches an eyebrow. “Right now? Don’t you think you’re a little late?”
“No one else seems to be ready. Don’t see any reason not to enjoy myself a little while longer, at least. Besides,” Jamie’s voice catches, softens, “after all that…” She swallows, eyes finding Dani’s, “I know it’s just… Brushing our teeth, but…” Jamie tugs the corner of her lip between her teeth, smiling shyly across the pillow at Dani. “I couldn’t not kiss ya again.”
Dani’s eyelids flutter once, twice, and she’s whispering, teasing, even as she leans in, smiling back, “that’s another double negative.”
“I stand by it,” Jamie whispers, lips brushing against Dani’s as she does, “don’t care what the teacher says. Some rules,” she kisses Dani then, gentle and long, “are meant to be broken.”
They meet in the kitchen a half hour later, Dani having checked on Flora, having found her, still in her pajamas, a doll in each hand, cooing between them. All it had taken was Dani’s hands on her hips and the arch of her eyebrow––the same one she gives Jamie––and Flora had started, wide-eyed, recoiling from her dollhouse.
(Jamie had kissed her again for that one, ready, waiting just around the corner.)
“Mrs. Grose helped me figure it out,” Flora announces, hands clasped in front of her, glancing between Jamie and Dani, seated at the table, in front of her, “last night. Would you mind,” she cocks her head at them both, “a bit of a drive?”
It’s not a school bus, Flora thinks, pushing forward against her seatbelt, resting her chin on the shoulder of the passenger seat, looking between her mum and Miss Clayton, it’s better.
It’s better, Flora leaning her head against the headrest, watching her mum and Miss Clayton’s fingers lace together over Dani’s gear shift, watching the way Dani smiles, glancing over at Jamie as Dani’s thumb traces hers, watching the way the corners of Jamie’s mouth quirk up at the feeling of Dani’s thumb, delicate against her skin.
It’s better, listening to Dani talk about the nature reserve, all the things she hadn’t been able to say on their field trip, drowned out by twenty-two other voices, listening to the way Dani says “conifer,” her nasal “o,” the lilt of her “i,” listening to the way Jamie’s breath catches when Dani says it, Jamie’s soft chuckle.
It’s better, Flora wrapping one gloved hand around Jamie’s, firm, safe, as they cross the car park, wrapping her other hand around Dani’s, light, assured, as they choose a walking trail.
“It’s probably best to pick the shortest one,” Flora offers, looking up at the map, appraising, “since it is a bit cold.”
“Yeah, about that,” Jamie looks askance at Flora, “you, uh, picked a choice location for February, munchkin.”
Flora shrugs, smiling, wide-eyed, innocent, up at her. “It was Mrs. Grose who reminded me about the nature reserve. She thought we three might like to come back. Together.”
“How does Hannah know about the bloody––”
“I simply told her,” Flora’s pleased with herself, the jut of her jaw Jamie Taylor smug, “I wanted to go somewhere special, and Mrs. Grose asked if there was anywhere the three of us had gone yet, together, that might be special, could become specialer.”
Dani and Jamie glance at each other, Dani’s cheeks flushed, Jamie’s smile softening.
“I reckon this is a good choice, then, Flora.”
“I know,” Flora chirps happily, swinging their hands as they start walking. “I saw you two, you know,” she glances up at Jamie, at Dani, “on the bus.”
“You–– What?” Dani blinks at Flora, glances over at Jamie.
“You were just talking,” Flora pauses, squinting through the trees at a bird before resuming her steps, “and I’d seen you together before, in the classroom or the front office or on our other field trips, but it was the first time, after everything, that you got time together alone, really alone. You seemed happy.” She shrugs, continuing on.
“What do you… What do you mean, Flora?” Dani’s voice wavers, curious. “What do you mean, you’d seen us together?”
Flora fixes her with a look, straightforward and unapologetic. “I mean I’d seen you together,” she says simply, obviously. “Always… Looking at each other. Trying not to look at each other. Smiling. Trying not to smile. Miles said the field trips were like dates, but,” she crinkles her nose, “I disagreed. You can’t go on dates, proper dates, when you have a classroom of children to look after, can you?”
“Miles… Said…” Dani’s face is a deep red now, embarrassment overlaying her February flush.
“You were talking to Miles about us?” There’s an edge to Jamie’s voice, and Flora’s glance shoots over to her.
“Yes…” Flora says slowly, carefully, her gait mirroring her tone, stepping cautiously over a puddle, iced, in the middle of the path. “But only because he noticed it first!” She supplements quickly, imploring.
“Noticed what first?”
Flora bits her lip.
“Flora,” Jamie’s voice is patient, if insistent, “noticed what first?”
“That you… You…” Flora glances over at Dani, then up at Jamie. “That you liked–– That you like Miss Clayton.”
It’s Dani who stops walking, eyes wide, bright, staring over at Jamie, her lips pressed tightly closed, desperately trying to hold back the smile threatening to overtake her face.
“I–– What?” Jamie frowns, bluffing, but it’s belied by the small quirk at the corner of her lips.
Flora, vindicated, looks over at Dani, tugging softly at her hand, pulling her forward. “She was terribly worried about what to wear to Career Day, Miss Clayton,” she whispers, “terribly worried. Because, I think, she wanted to impress you.”
The thing with Flora, Jamie thinks now, has never had to think before, is that, for all of Jamie’s ministrations, all of her sacrifices, all of the neat divisions she’s made in her life, Flora is an extension of her.
She’s been an extension of Jamie from the beginning, grizzling, endless, and they’re the same, were even then, restless in all their idleness, Flora’s infantile and Jamie’s nescient, with nothing to give Flora save herself. That’s how it had started, Jamie recognizes, Jamie giving and giving and Flora growing and growing.
Except that now, Jamie’s growing too.
Jamie’s growing too, and Flora sees it, and because they’re the same, Flora Jamie’s proudest propagate, Flora knows. Has always known, even if she can’t understand the nuances, the depths of Jamie’s feelings, feelings relegated, for Flora, to fairy tales both real and imagined. Flora knows, and has known since she’d watched her mum’s face light up at her suggestion of bringing Miss Clayton a flower, Jamie’s eyes sparkling as she proposed a bud from the moonflower they’d been tending, on Career Day. Flora has known since Jamie had made her an ice cream sundae, elated after Flora’s parent-teacher conference, had poured extra bubbles into her bubble bath, had stayed awake, all night, on the phone, Flora’s ear pressed to Jamie’s door, able only to make out the soft murmur of her mum’s voice. Flora has known since seeing the way Jamie’s blanket, warm, comforting, had spread, just so, over Dani’s that night on the bus, their arms resting, tense, just beneath the overlap.
Flora had known, watching Jamie sink into their couch, grumbling over appropriate Career Day attire, arms crossed, stubborn, over her chest.
Flora, Jamie realizes, had known before she had. Or, she tells herself, at least before she had been ready to name it, to admit that all she wanted, jumpsuit or not, was for Dani to look at her like she had at back-to-school night, blue eyes unashamed, uncompromising, all awe and curiosity and want.
Dani gives in, grinning widely, resuming their easy pace. “Yeah?” She looks down at Flora, eyebrows raised, focusing, determined, on Flora, on looking anywhere but over at Jamie.
“Yes.” Flora nods, grave. “She was asking Henry and Owen for all sorts of advice. She said she wanted to look nice.”
Dani’s eyebrows raise even higher. “Can I tell you a secret?”
Flora nods, ardent.
“I thought your mom was the best dressed presenter at Career Day,” Dani’s voice is sincere, bursting. “I thought she looked strong, and committed. Unafraid. Alive.”
Dani doesn't say the rest of it, that she had wanted to look nice for Jamie too, that she had woken up early––too early, she’d bemoaned then, shuffling sleepily to her coffee maker––to blow her hair out. Dani had wondered then if Jamie had known, sliding into her seat next to Dani in the back of the classroom, Jamie’s eyes never leaving Dani as she’d grinned, murmured a low “I like the hair, by the way,” and stretched out her legs, one foot lazily coming to rest the leg of Dani’s chair.
She must know now, though, Dani thinks, finally glancing over at Jamie, Jamie’s smile wide, stretching across flushed cheeks.
“Can’t have looked better than the teacher,” Jamie says quietly, and that’s all the answer Dani needs.
The silence they fall into as they walk is easy, natural, Flora pointing out the occasional bird, Jamie pointing out a flower, or a tree. Dani supplements their knowledge with hers, Flora’s hand steadfast in hers, filling in their blanks with facts about ecosystems, or the seasons.
They’ve reached the end of the loop, and Jamie and Flora are prepared to circle back, to start the walk back down the trail and towards Dani’s car, but Dani stops, pulling gently on Flora’s hand.
They pause, turning back, looking at her, curious, the same furrowed brow, the same tilt of the head.
If Dani Clayton is anything, she’s prepared.
She’s a former Girl Scout after all, has a backpack fully stocked, first aid kit included.
She jerks her head towards the trees, takes a step off the path. “Can we keep walking?”
Flora and Jamie glance at each other. Jamie nods.
It’s better, Flora had thought, than a school bus, a field trip. But it might even, she thinks now, the three of them reaching an overlook, Dani crouching, unzipping her backpack to pull out a picnic blanket, shaking it out before smoothing it across smooth earth, be the best.
“It’s the best view,” Dani explains, grinning, pulling more blankets out of her backpack, passing one to Flora, one to Jamie, before wrapping a third around her own shoulders, “the tour guide, back… Back last term told me about it, and I… Well, you have to go off the trail a little bit, wander through some trees, but… Gosh, you can just see everything,” she breathes, “everything for miles. I always wanted to come back and see it.” She glances over at Jamie who bites her lip, inclines her head, and Dani shivers, not from the cold, before reaching into her backpack again, pulling out a thermos, unscrewing the lid, and passing it to Flora.
“Hot chocolate!” Flora squeals. “Miss Clayton, you shouldn’t have!”
Dani’s voice is soft, her eyes still on Jamie, when she responds. “I couldn’t not.”
It’s definitely the best, Flora amends to herself later, leaning into Dani, happy, sated, letting her head fall onto Dani’s shoulder.
Dani’s head drifts, resting on top of Flora’s, and there’s a crinkle of blankets as Jamie scoots in closer, slinging an arm around their shoulders.
“You really can see everything,” Flora breathes, squeezing Dani’s hand, “for forever, almost.”
“You can,” Dani says, and she smiles, her eyes sliding from the view over to Jamie, to Flora’s hand, wrapped around hers. “Isn’t it beautiful?”