Sunday, 15 May 1988
At the sound of her name penetrating a heavy daze of late-spring heat, Jamie throws a quick glance over her shoulder to locate its source. Bright sun glares upon a figure plodding along the paved footpath; red-faced, panting, and slouched beneath the gravity of exhaustion. Jamie decelerates her brisk jog to a standstill before altogether retreating. While closing the distance between herself and her ditched companion, Jamie offers a half-apologetic, half-teasing smirk.
She could’ve sworn Dani was just two paces behind not ten seconds ago. Evidently, ten seconds made all the difference.
“You good, Poppins?” Jamie asks her.
Dani’s slouch deepens when she grips her knees. “Yeah,” she answers, breathless, then adjusts the strap of her cotton singlet before it can slide further down her shoulder. “I just... need a minute.”
“Been chain smoking a bit too hard lately? Might want to think about cutting back.”
Her quip earns a deadpan leer. Dani certainly does not smoke, but Jamie does, quite regularly. That, in combination with Dani’s irregular propensity for haste in her everyday gait, should’ve seen their comparative stamina reversed. Jamie supposes her toilsome years of landscaping Bly have given her a crucial edge, whereas Dani’s lifestyle has historically been one of relative leisure.
Regardless, they’re both aiming to achieve a similar level of endurance by next week. Jamie remains optimistic. They’re nearly there. Today they’ve failed their park circuit by only a few minutes — a negligible deficit in the grand scheme of things. Wilderness trails are meant to be savoured, not raced through, and physical fitness of the cardiovascular variety shall only assist and elevate the experience.
The High Sierra awaits them as their final adventure abroad before an era of permanence necessitated by business ownership. They’ve planned this trip over months, ever since a journey up the western coastline excluded inland ranges of natural wonder from their route. Their resolve to return predated The Leafling’s inception by an entire month. Antecedence preserved its priority, as did some unspoken, borderline mysticism about a fugitive yet spectacular beauty carved by an ancient glacier of artistic inclination.
They have to see it. They’re drawn to it like insects to a flame, made diminutive and ignorant under the glow of something as incalculably alluring and elusive as fire itself.
The pair take turns sipping from a concrete drinking fountain. Jamie lifts the hem of her shirt to dab at the sweat on her brow and watches Dani release her hair to retie it. She’s still rosy in her cheeks and upper chest. Her skin delicately shines, illuminating her in soft mid-morning candour. When Jamie is reminded of a similar dishevelment that occurs between bedsheets, her stare indulgently lingers.
Dani notices. She draws her loose hair back, smiles around the scrunchie held between her teeth, and asks, “What?” as soon as her mouth is free to speak.
“Nothing,” Jamie replies with an evasive shake of her head and shrug. She adds a pleasant confession, “You look nice.”
A raised brow illustrates Dani’s perfect blend of disbelief and suspicion. While stepping past, she brushes her fingertips along the curve of Jamie’s waistline. The gesture itself is subtle, but its message isn’t.
The scar of affection Dani leaves there burns for hours. It maintains not a blaze, nor an errant flicker, but a low and steady hearth; like glowing coals, or sun-baked stone.
After stopping at the flat for a shower and a wardrobe change, they disembark again to a sporting goods store.
Well-stocked shelves climb toward the ceiling with abundant mountains of outdoor gear, clothing, and sports equipment. The pungent scents of new plastics and rubber waft through every aisle, threatening a headache. Jamie ventures down the canyon of footwear with Dani in tow, passing trainers and cleats on their way to hiking boots.
Dani peels back the aluminium foil and wax paper covering a roll of hard boiled sweets and slips between her lips a little green ring she’s exposed. She holds out the roll to Jamie to offer the next in procession: a red one that sits on her tongue like cherries.
While they examine shoes on display and search for equivalents in their sizes, Jamie idly tumbles the sweet about her mouth. She rotates a boot in one hand to inspect the leather body and rugged texture of its sole. From the provided seating near the end of the aisle, Dani tries one on. They’re tan with red laces and fit her perfectly.
“They’ve got decent tread, right?” Jamie asks her. “Won’t be sliding off any cliffs in a hurry?”
To answer the question, Dani fits her hand in her spare boot like a glove and lifts it to present a well-defined topography. “You know,” she says, “I have gone camping before. Well, in a trailer, so we didn’t actually sleep outside, but that’s beside the point. I’m more savvy than you think.”
“Yeah? You get up to any mountains?”
“Uh, no. Iowa’s pretty flat. We went to a lake.”
Jamie clicks her tongue in lighthearted teasing. “I don’t know... When we’re scaling those treacherous switchbacks, and the bighorns are our only company a kilometre above the valley—”
“We’re not actually going that high up, are we?”
She smiles. “Not if you aren’t up to it.”
“And you are?” Playful doubt carries Dani’s tone as she squeezes her foot back into her shoe without untying its laces.
Maybe so, maybe not. Jamie spent most of her life crammed into dense grey towns and cities. Bly was the first time she resided in a landscape whose foundational colour was green, but its rurality could hardly be classified as wilderness. Placid fields, meadows, and thickets enveloped the beaten path of civilisation, and Jamie never so much as gardened on any inclines steeper than twenty degrees.
A mountaineer, she is not. However, Jamie does count herself as something of a survivalist. As a young adult she frequently camped in abandoned buildings, foraged meals in unlikely or risky places, and adapted to changing climates of personal well-being as one would adapt to hazardous rain or sleet on a trail. Through tribulations of bygone days, Jamie developed a rather universal aptitude for not perishing in crises.
Her personal wisdom concerns the architecture of humanity; their jungles of steel and brick, where intent can be gleaned from the height of fences and the flow of roads. Her wisdom is derived from, and in servitude to, order.
Order. Vanquisher of chaos. Administer of purpose. Her saviour. Jamie’s profession as a gardener is an homage to order. She conscripts overgrowth into her standards of grace, conquers it to do her bidding, and flexes power of life and death over every organism within her domain.
But what happens when the landscape’s keeper is itself? Self-defined, self-created, amorphous through time yet seemingly eternal? That which witnessed itself come into existence? Heedless while demanding heed? Beauty formed by formless beauty? Jamie has always harboured reverential awe — and fear — of nature’s inscrutable, capricious will; provident and violent in the same stroke.
There’s a supposition circling overhead like a vulture aching to see whether its quarry lives or dies: perhaps, if Jamie is able to walk alongside nature, and not against it, some old invisible wound will seal up inside her and she’ll feel whole enough to—
She doesn’t know what, exactly. Hold water again is her first reflex of phrase.
After they finish shopping, Dani leads a browsing cruise down various aisles. Beneath an arch of fishing poles erected in display, she sifts through dazzling lures pegged to the shelves while Jamie inspects tackle boxes. When Dani holds an iridescent lure shaped like a minnow to her earlobe, pretending it’s jewellery, Jamie laughs.
In the checkout queue, Dani passes Jamie another sweet. This one is yellow and tart with the suggestion of lemon.
Like before, the joy is a simple but significant one; warm and considerate and homely in a way Jamie didn’t realise she was starved of until Dani introduced her to its taste. Dani’s companionship is a broth of fond feeling, a sustenance not for the stomach, but for the soul.
Fate produces another green ring for Dani, who readily fits it between her lips without a shadow of dismay. Jamie hears it click against Dani’s teeth when she speaks, “I called my mom earlier, to let her know where I’m living now. And to give her a permanent phone number.”
Jamie prods at chocolate bars arranged in an impulse display, finding the term permanent undeniably cosy.
“I told her about you.”
At that particular disclosure, Jamie’s eyebrows raise and her gaze meets Dani’s, seeking elaboration. “About me? For real?” She spares the people queuing behind them a momentary glance — two young parents about to purchase a baseball glove for their excited son of primary school age.
“You know,” says Dani. “How you’re my... roommate.”
Jamie can’t determine whether that word is coded or not. Dani’s expression remains mildly affable, and consequently opaque.
“Verbatim?” Jamie hazards, holding a peanut-heavy bar between the fingertips of opposing hands.
A nod clarifies Dani’s meaning, leaving Jamie adrift between relief and disappointment. Exposure would’ve been mortifying, certainly. Yet secrecy as a shelter doesn’t feel like a proper dwelling. It’s more akin to a bunker — a necessity for survival — in which she and Dani decorate its sturdy cold walls with civilian comforts while hostilities scream outside.
Jamie silently plies the word around the interior of her mouth along with the lemon sweet, pondering their entwined flavour. It’s so new, so disarmingly tepid and indulgent like summer leisure. She watches Dani draw her wallet and mentally superimposes the term girlfriend over the pretty sight of her, as if to dress her in its kindly gown. But Dani outshines it, makes its fabric dim and dull in comparison. There is no single word in existence with enough glamour to suitably clothe Dani. Nothing less than novels and treatises could dare envelop all she is and what they have.
For them, girlfriend as a classification is barely two days old and they’ve already outgrown it. But where do they grow to? Where does the climbing ivy go after it has consumed the wall? Jamie cannot say. She has always clipped ivy back before it could swim in the sky.
That evening they rehearse their luggage at home, cluttering their bed’s olive green duvet to its four corners with diverse inventory. In orderly array lies several days’ worth of clothing plus provisional articles, weather-resistant jackets, a torch, a pair of enamel mugs embellished with rose designs, a dome tent rolled into a nylon sleeve with its poles for one night’s planned stint outdoors, among other tools and utilities.
While Dani runs the tip of a highlighter along a map, tracing motorways eastward from San Francisco, Jamie flicks out the blade of a folding knife and catches the lamp’s gleam in its steel.
“This all right to bring along?” she asks Dani, who looks up and replies, “It should be fine. We’ll put it in the carry-on.”
Jamie tucks away the blade and tosses the knife into the mix, then loads a compact camera with a fresh roll of film. “Made a sign for the shop,” she says. “Closed for renovations.”
“Renovations?” Dani echoes.
“Makes it sound like we’re still around,” explains Jamie. She fits the camera into a leather case and buttons it shut. “Trust me, any business advertising an unattended holiday might as well be saying: help yourself.”
She nods. “Personal experience.”
Jamie locates the spiral-bound notepad containing their grocery list, where two distinct penmanships clamour to be helpful. It reads, in its current state:
- Pasta (macaroni or tagliatelle) ←
i don’t know what that is. It’s the flat ones
- pepperoni or dry salami
- dried fruit / nuts / granola ??
- Oatmeal & Cereal
- 4 Oranges
- 2 Apples
Instant coffee & teabags(steal from hotel)
- Hard cheese (Gouda, Parmesan, and/or Asiago) “Asiago” what is that. Dani please
- chocolates (for morale)
- Milk (1 qt)
- LOTS of water
It’s a reasonable start. Over the next week they’ll further amend it as they more stringently consider the capacity of their plastic ice chest and opportunities to resupply or buy meals in the valley itself.
Dani reviews their tentative schedule. On the twenty-first of May they’ll fly into San Francisco, hire a car, acquire their groceries and other essentials they can’t fly with, then stay overnight at a hotel. The following morning, they’ll head out, stop in Merced for breakfast and a last chance at obtaining anything they might’ve missed in San Francisco, then enter the valley. And the next five days shall be subservient to their wanderlust.
There’s nothing particularly novel about the logistics of the trip. They’ve planned longer and more complex excursions before. Back in the early days, when the threat of Dani dying seemed so real and imminent, they explored New England in search of its worthiest experiences as an unspoken parting gift. Compared to that scramble, this is rudimentary. There’s no confounding sense of urgency, no despair latent in every affection or sentiment shared between them.
Because Dani remains vibrantly alive, exhibiting no signs of perishing anytime soon. While circumstances may change one day, that day is not here. At present, they are happy, they are dating, and they are settling into a state of committed permanence.
That word, again, soothes Jamie. As she absently twists the knobs of her bureau drawer, she feels inordinately still in body and mind. She’s a windless, cloudless day over an inanimate grassland. Peaceful, yet... waiting, for another frisson of weather to mark the passage of time and change; that bittersweet substance that grows the living through hurt and healing.
“Jamie? You doing all right? You’ve been kinda quiet today.”
Dani’s voice wakes her. “Hm?” Jamie vocalises. “Yeah. Just, you know. Thinking about the trip.”
She folds the annotated map and stores it along with their luggage. “Good or bad thoughts?”
“Good,” Jamie decisively responds with an affirming nod. “Last one for a while, right? We’ll make the most of it.”
“Last one for a while,” repeats Dani, rising from her perch on the bed to approach Jamie. “But our first one—” She takes Jamie’s hands to squeeze them, smiling sweetly enough to encourage Jamie to wear one in reciprocation. “—as a couple. Officially. Took you long enough.”
Jamie rolls her eyes as Dani’s hands raise to hold her face. “Took you long enough. That’s how this works. Lack of initiative is a collaborative crime.”
“Oh, Jamie.” Dani softly teases. “I just wanted to be sure you were ready. I want to be so careful with you. I know how sensitive you are—”
She scoffs. “I am not.”
“You are,” Dani insists. “You always feel and say so much.” She curls her fingers into the back of Jamie’s collar and reels her in for a kiss.
As soon as they part, Dani initiates another by sealing a caress around Jamie’s bottom lip. She is pure unfiltered certitude. This is the complexion of Dani’s intimacy. Full-tide, unrestrained, and shining bright enough to blind. She is hazy yellow sunrise, fusing all touched land into gulfs of light. She’s soft and warm and Jamie collides with her like night dissolving into dawn.
Jamie is more than receptive when, true to form, Dani seeks her tongue. She can’t fathom how Dani always makes such a brazen request seem infinitely delicate and tender as impetus for company, never invasion. So Jamie folds her arms about Dani’s shoulders, weaves her fingers into golden blonde, and opens herself to her. Perhaps if Dani tastes her deeply enough, she’ll illuminate the longing in her flesh and name it succinctly where Jamie has failed.
You taste like suppressed devotion, is among what Dani wouldn’t say. You taste like the desperate cusp of contentment. You taste like an unresolved wound.
These are truths, but Jamie broods so close to the issue’s core she cannot descry its totality. She’s describing emerald stalks of tall wild grass when she should be describing a meadow. She’s describing individual grains of shell-laden sand when she should be describing a beach.
If she were brave enough to step back, she’d see it in one word, one everlasting promise, that would adhere all the preserved fragments of her heart into a basin worthy of... holding water, she thinks.
Saturday, 21 May 1988
It’s nearly one in the morning when Jamie quietly rises from bed. She’s supposed to be resting for tomorrow’s flight, but an errand has been haunting her for days. Jamie suspects she won’t achieve peace of mind on holiday knowing she’d left without seeing to it.
On the balcony, where her makeshift garden sleeps in wait for tomorrow’s sun, Jamie opens a satchel of seeds. They’re dingy amber in colour and unattractively oblong, like swollen corn kernels. She takes her folding knife to three of them, carving little notches in their tough hides until slivers of white vulnerable flesh peek out to reflect moonlight beaming in over Jamie’s shoulder. After stratifying them, Jamie leaves them to soak overnight in a shallow dish of water. In the morning, she’ll plant them in potting mix and peat.
For minutes she stands watching over the little seeds glistening at the bottom of the dish, dreaming of the chance at life she’s given them and hoping they’ll survive long enough to cherish it. Under her constant care, there would be no question. But Jamie will be stepping away for days, leaving these infant motes to the mercy of weather and possible avian predation. Jamie knows she will either return to seedlings, vacant pits, or extinguishment via unforeseen elements. Nature shall take its course for better or worse. It giveth and taketh away, observing no pity, for nature knows not what that is.
She’d like to keep them safe. She’d like to establish her garden as a return to Eden’s glory, where death does not exist, and people cannot bleed. But she won’t. She can’t. There are some things — inevitabilities, woes, injustices — that lie outside her control.
I may lose you, she thinks. No. I will lose you. If not next week, then in months. The more I care now, the more it’ll hurt when it happens. And I have to be okay with that. Can I be okay with that?
Of course, her thoughts address more than her seeds.
By some twisting of related cognition, Jamie remembers her parents, who might’ve once genuinely adored each other before utter destruction. They saw their ship sinking and did nothing to save it. On the contrary, Louise spitefully blew new holes into the hull while Dennis sat in its flooding belly, waiting to drown. Jamie was born on that ship and lived her whole life itinerant on similar ones condemned to watery graves.
You hop to the next before yours goes under, she’d learned quite early on. You survive at all costs.
But she doesn’t want to think of her current life as just another doomed vessel. She wants to maintain this one, fixing it as they go, polishing their lustre the moment it starts to tarnish. She doesn’t want to wander anymore like some wretched gull trapped between ocean and sky. She wants safe harbour. She wants to roost and build wonderful places for herself and Dani to live in. She wants to fill the ground with roots and clutch fast at the earth, anchoring them against land that forever surges with the memory of wrathful seas.
Jamie obliges herself to a secret contingency: what flourishes now shall flourish forever.
She returns to bed as gingerly as possible. Dani stirs at the slight disturbance, but not to the point of waking. Nevertheless, she wakes herself moments later by unconsciously brushing her shins against Jamie’s feet and catching their chill.
Following a tiny gasp, Dani utters, “Jamie. Why are you so cold?”
“Sorry,” she whispers. “Was just checking on the plants outside. Had some things I forgot to set up.”
“Put socks on.”
“I’m kidding,” Dani clarifies. “Come here.” She draws Jamie into an embrace. After tucking her chin over Jamie’s shoulder, Dani slides one of her legs between hers.
Jamie’s instinct is to jump in surprise at the sudden forward intimacy, but she suppresses the urge upon gleaning chaste intent. Dani’s leg is deliciously warm between hers. She hugs its generous gift with her thighs, stealing heat with a modicum of associated guilt. In recompense, she rubs Dani’s back through her nightshirt, replacing what she’s taken.
“I could’ve just put socks on,” says Jamie. “You know I always do what you tell me to.”
She can feel Dani smiling into her shoulder. “You’d better,” Dani jokes. “But then I wouldn’t have an excuse to hold you.”
“You don’t need one.”
When Jamie turns to fondly kiss her cheek, she inhales the floral scent of Dani’s shampoo and prays they’ll always be this sweet and doting, alchemising inconvenience into opportunities to care for one another.
Once they settle, and Jamie is as warm as their bed, she gazes at slats of pale light bleeding in from the window. The marble face of the moon peeks in through the blinds and speaks to her, as reality slurs at the edge of a dream: I would not be seen without the sun to love me.
Sunday, 22 May 1988
A vast quilt of agriculture surges across California’s heartland in a verdant sash. They’ve been traversing patchwork walnut, almond, and grape country since dawn in a hardy little rental. Merced lies in the southeast, a concrete island amid a beige wash stippled by organised green.
This ilk of rurality once comprised half of the dichotomous American experience Jamie once presumed to be true: either loud and luminous cities of wealth and opportunity, or infinite rolling fields of solitude and simplicity.
Upon their initial meeting, Jamie had associated Dani with the latter environment, if only to uphold a preconceived stereotype. Dani rolled into the manor like midwestern complacency and insularity; a middle-class princess of corn, or rawhide, or strawberry gingham and apple pie at small-town barbecues. Like in the movies. When she first heard Dani speak, Jamie paused to stare and listen in disbelief at a hint of a nasal drawl, an incidental lisp, and final g’s of gerunds gone unenunciated. She was tempted to laugh.
It was an absurd reaction, in retrospect. These days, Jamie would beat to a bloody pulp anyone who’d dare ridicule Dani’s accent. Because when Dani speaks, sun rises over Jamie’s world. To disparage her speech is to disparage the bells of daybreak, and Jamie spares no mercy for those who would deny hope and kindness its voice. Indeed, daybreak has its surly champion whether she knows it or not.
Jamie glances over at Dani asleep in the passenger seat, postured at a slant with lips parted to admit silent breaths, and weathering every meagre jolt of the car’s suspension over inconsistent roads. Early morning floods over her, illuminating dainty hoop earrings and a white t-shirt with its sleeves turned up to expose skin rarely kissed by sunlight.
Even now, Dani’s company is sweet comfort. The prismatic memory of yesterday colours their trustful silence. A five-hour flight made bearable through a shared blanket and a shared book read within a dewy cloud of Dani’s perfume, her hand clasped warmly in hers. Grocery shopping at dusk, where Dani had discovered among produce crates two oranges of delightful mass and fragrance. While heading out into the car park, Jamie discreetly slipped a loose carnation of identical hue into the breast pocket of Dani’s shirt and relished her beam and blush, too distracted to realise Jamie hadn’t precisely paid for it.
On that same errand, Dani bought an avocado to split over their cod and chips takeaway. Jamie had never tried one before. She watched Dani carve an equator into its leathery hide to halve it around a smooth pit. The flesh was buttery, soft yet dense on the palate, and vaguely earthy. After elevating their supper with fresh lemon wedges and a side of slaw, Jamie could not recall the last time she ate American bastardisations of familiar dishes and didn’t yearn for elements of home.
Night came, falling upon steep bayside roads snaking through eclectic architecture and pastels made lurid under stark moonlight. They shut themselves into their hotel room where Jamie savoured Dani’s weight in her lap and her legs folded covetously about her hips. She sent hands smoothing up the back of her shirt to clutch her closer. She buried herself in the solace of Dani, in her clothes and heated flesh and the lush scent of her, in steady box spring creaks, in her voice fraught with pleasure.
Jamie wakes Dani when Merced’s modest skyline peeks over the horizon; an architectural potpourri of mid-century stone facades and flour-white colonial arches. They stop at a diner for breakfast and stretch a paper map over the table after pushing their empty plates aside. A travel brochure and a pocket-sized hiking guide join the spread.
Lowering a cigarette from her lips, Jamie comments, “So, we’ve got about two more hours ahead of us. Looks like a pretty straight shot if we keep on 140. Until the mountains, of course. Gonna be a bit of winding there. You don’t get car sick, right?”
“No,” Dani answers, a bit too swiftly. She adds, while partially obscuring her mouth with a cup of coffee, “Sometimes.”
“Well, let me know if you start feeling... queasy. I’m sure they’ll be passing places along the way. Could take in some scenery while we’re at it. There’s the silver lining, I suppose.”
“Can I drive?”
Jamie taps her cigarette over an ashtray. “That helps?”
“Kinda. Like, when you’re steering and anticipating the turns, it’s not so bad.”
Convinced, Jamie shrugs and says, “All right. Reckon I’ll be glad for the break from driving. This state is fucking huge. It just doesn’t end.”
Dani checks her watch and opens the hiking guide to one of several marked pages. “If we leave now we should get there around eleven. Wanna do a hike after we check into the room? Let’s see Bridalveil. It’s a short one.”
She peers over the table at the page Dani has opened to. The monochrome image printed alongside the text depicts a gauzy waterfall plunging over a cliff. It diffuses into plumes of fine white mist that occlude a brisk stream bulging with boulders.
Jamie replies in perfect amenability, “Anywhere you want to go, we go.”
Her comment has Dani rolling her eyes and conceding to the smile tugging at her lips. She tucks a hand beneath her chin and gazes at Jamie, silently communicating a wealth of appreciation. Jamie would hike with Dani to the ragged edge of the world, if only to bask in that look a moment longer.
Before returning to the road, the pair stroll two buildings down and duck into a convenience store shamelessly capitalising on its proximity to Yosemite. In addition to typical wares, it supplies outdoor instruments, sundries, and souvenirs. Jamie treks between colourful shelves vying for her custom and plucks two disposable lighters from a stand near checkout. Meanwhile, Dani meanders away to examine a rack of rustic wooden keychains.
When they briefly rendezvous, Dani shows Jamie a keychain fashioned from a cross-sectioned pine branch. A circumference of rough bark encloses an image of a flower etched by fire across faint age rings. Dogwood, Jamie immediately recognises.
Dani announces, “I’m buying this for you,” and Jamie, ever serene at Dani’s whims of generosity and consideration, resolves to attach it to a little metal hook on the strap of her rucksack.
Quite averse to running out of hot water for tea and meals, Jamie seeks spare fuel for their compact canister stove. On her way to the appropriate shelf, she glances back at Dani, whose wheat-golden mane of waves and logo-streaked white shirt tucked into the high waist of mid-wash jeans, stands entirely radiant against the store’s drab earthen tones. There’s something agonisingly liminal about the sight of her. She’s a river of constant churning froth. Ungraspable, neither here nor there, gone upon arrival.
Inexplicable clamminess engulfs Jamie’s hands. She feels poised on the precipice of a monumental undertaking or statement, and made terribly nervous from it. The sensation is a stabbing — sudden and brutal. It leaves behind a gored ache in her heart as an inner assailant vanishes into darkness, refusing to be identified.
Jamie retreats from the camping wares with a four-ounce canister. Along her brief search for Dani, she pauses at a section of wall devoted to stationary. There’s postcards, novelty pens, and journals. One item catches and holds her notice: a small field notebook. Its cover is rich juniper green, emblazoned by a lone pine silhouette several shades darker.
She takes it with her.
They parallel a railroad upon diving back into the agricultural sprawl. The highway is a bullet’s path east for nine miles until it glances the peripheral community of Planada, bends northeast, and peels away from the rails. Soon they’re climbing chaparral hills, navigating roads hewn directly into earth where vegetation adamantly sprouts sideways from bare dirt faces. Stalks and stems crane for the sun.
Jamie casually grips the handle above the passenger side window as she peers out at the evolving scenery. The day is so bright, the land’s vagaries of trees, rocks, and distant summits seem bleak in high constant against the sky’s empty blue bowl. Shadows are thick stamps of ink, bled from life flattened onto the film of perception. Every leaf wears a sallow face.
Beside her, Dani drives. Once her contemplative daze dissolves, Jamie pulls her attention inward. Through light blotches staining her vision, she observes Dani’s docile concentration. As Dani delivers them through a relentless purgatory of bends, her knuckles are pale, not white, on the steering wheel. Bare forearms graze denim-clad thighs when her hands slide to the wheel’s base, achieving ease and confidence.
Jamie feels safe.
For someone so inured to fending for herself, relinquishing charge to Dani remains a confounding experience, but not an unpleasant one. Being cared for and looked after in any capacity is a gift Jamie once thought too generous to accept.
There are times when Dani kisses Jamie with such assurance that all sense of place and equilibrium abandons her. There are times when Dani feeds them and Jamie is astounded at how her assumption of this duty is borne from genuine tenderness, not obligation. There are times when Dani beds her sweetly and thoroughly, showing Jamie what it feels to be a riverbed washed to satin, blissful compliance. There are times when Jamie awakes tucked within the protective curl of Dani’s arm and knows no fear of anything.
Jamie rolls down the window a crack and slips her fingers through the space, feeling the air gain humidity as they approach the Merced River. She asks Dani, in a moment of curiosity, “When you were a teacher, did you ever go on school trips with your students?”
“I did,” Dani replies with a frank raise of her brow. “Although, they were nothing too special. There were farms, and a couple museums. This is gonna sound really silly, but I think I liked the farms better. Just being outside in the sun, looking out at all the huge fields. And constant paranoia that one of the kids might run off somewhere. Boring, right?”
“Sounds nice, actually,” Jamie says. “I like boring. Boring’s peaceful. I never went on any school trips as a kid. I was too badly behaved. See, I wasn’t always the darling sweetheart I am now.”
The bridge of Dani’s nose scrunches when she laughs. “What’d you do? Darling sweetheart?”
An amused blush streaks Jamie’s cheeks. “Oh, you know,” she says. “I’d get into fights, nick things from other kids. Insolence. Pretty standard fare. I bet you never got in trouble.”
“Yeah,” Dani admits. “For the most part, I followed the rules and did what I was supposed to. Sometimes I wish I didn’t.”
Jamie notices wistfulness in Dani’s features. As she understands, Dani’s upbringing was plagued by isolation. With no siblings or reliable parents to guide her, Dani was driven toward surrogates: Eddie O’Mara and his family. Dani’s relationship with the O’Mara clan was — and remains — a complicated one. They saved her. But their expectations also condemned her to a paradigm of conventionality that nearly destroyed her. It certainly ended up destroying someone, through a rather gruesome accident that Jamie knows to never broach unless by Dani’s own initiation.
Sometimes, Jamie feels like they lived different versions of the same childhood, separated by a sea and the nuance of circumstance. The greatest evidence for this supposition is their shared dialect; one that transcends regionality. It is a language of yearning, hurt, and cautious hope. Whenever one speaks, the other understands with native fluency.
The presence of conifers explodes along a steady altitude gain. Soon, majestic spires of pine are the only green Jamie sees. Palisades of needled glory chaperone them to the boundaries of the national park, where fellow motorists queue at a checkpoint. There they obtain a map and pass into protected land.
Not ten minutes later, the coniferous wall abruptly disintegrates into fields of withered, ashen corpses of trees. They stand in silence under parched sunlight like spent matchsticks, broken or brittle, each one its own solemn headstone.
Dani asks, “How long ago do you think there was a fire here?”
“From what I’ve read, this state’s always on fire,” Jamie dryly remarks. She nonetheless peers out the window to assess the ground. Green carpets the desolation, clambering up dead wood in new shrubs and saplings. “A couple years, maybe,” she estimates. “It’s natural, though. Some things need fire to grow. Those redwoods a bit south? They germinate more after fires kill off the competition.”
She pensively nods in agreement. Beautiful and brutal, the policy of life.
The forest heals as they venture further. There’s a moment, as they round an inconspicuous bend, where Jamie recognises a formation among hazy mountains and says, “Oi! Look. There it is.”
Dani spares a glance. “Oh, wow. It’s beautiful.”
Embedded into the horizon is a tremendous stone mass, glacier-polished smooth and grey until a sheer vertical cut truncates its dome. Within seconds it’s obscured by closer ranges, but another chance to view its grandeur lies shortly ahead.
The road plunges them into a tunnel. Over a full minute, Jamie listens to the roaring echo of vehicles traversing the passage. Sodium orange safety lights flicker overhead in rapid succession, mounted directly into bedrock. The mysterious cocktail of strange lights and strange sounds contribute a certain exhilaration to the transitory space as it conducts travellers from one realm to the next. Faith is its only toll; faith that what lies beyond the threshold of this earthen capillary shall be superior to what lies behind.
Through intermittent flashes of eerie orange and darkness, Jamie looks over at Dani to find a diminutive smile on her lips. She’s suddenly afflicted by a preternatural fear at the idea of touching her, as though Dani’s substantiality might dissipate beneath the weight of her hand. Despite her irrational trepidation, Jamie brushes against her thigh to announce her presence. Dani readily welcomes Jamie by folding a spare hand into hers, asserting her incontrovertible presence until they’re thrust back into daylight.
Following the tunnel’s exit is a car park situated before a magnificent viewpoint. They stop to view its splendour and stretch their legs among other tourists. Jamie unzips her rucksack, retrieves the camera, and brings it along.
The vista is ineffably glorious. From an interminable floor of dense forest rises an amphitheatre of granite, arranged in such spontaneous permanence and stern tranquility it composes a painting unto itself. On the left juts the powerful and unapologetic monolith of El Capitan, whose raw, precipitous face looms over the valley like a vanguard. To the right cascades Bridalveil, spilling from a natural shelf its diaphanous tulle, spun by pearly snowmelt. And humbly framed in the centre of the composition, at a greater distance, hunches Half Dome in iconic, persevering grace. Marred severely by nature yet wholly defiant of its punishment, the crest sits in stately repose, more worldly than the world.
Standing at the stone barrier, Jamie stares in awe. She almost disregards Dani when she slides the camera case’s strap from Jamie’s shoulder, taking custody of it, and bids her, “Look over here. And smile, okay?”
“Oh, uh, I dunno—”
“Please? I need something nice to put in my wallet.”
Jamie acquiesces to the gentle behest. There she stands sheepishly smiling in her work jeans, new hiking boots, and a rumpled band t-shirt with sun cream delicately shining on her face and arms, waiting for Dani to assimilate her, undeservingly, into the canvas of proportionless beauty.
Their single-bed lodge room is contained within an unassuming brown complex in the valley, conveniently central and in proximity to a shuttle stop. After unloading their luggage, they split a massive orange and a preassembled sandwich bought in San Francisco, kept chilled overnight.
The four-hour drive has exhausted them. Dani collapses onto the bed and tells Jamie, “Just gonna close my eyes. Can you wake me in twenty minutes, and we’ll go?”
Jamie finds an alarm clock on the nightstand, sets it as directed, and joins her. She rests beside Dani, draping an arm over her waist. Dani settles into her company and dozes.
They’re so far from home. An entire country stands between them and their tiny Vermont flat — Dani’s gracious gift of constancy. Of course Jamie pays her share, but Dani’s name is on the lease, and Jamie is the one who originally asked for it. And simply knowing it waits for them, housing their soft and familiar bed and their clothes and their balcony garden, is a comfort that soothes Jamie’s very soul.
She blearily stares at the curtains drawn over the window. Through peach-dyed cotton the sun seeps, setting the room warmly aglow. The moment is palpable and heady, but reproachfully finite. Seconds slip by, fragile as gloam, spontaneously creating ghosts that emulsify the air with happiness and melancholy.
The quiet has become unbearable. It’s pursued Jamie for weeks, rendering the world a vast portrait of still life. It’s a bowl of acrylic fruit, beautiful and inedible. It’s an immense salted sea, none for drinking. This quiet, this stillness, is not one that begs reverence. Rather, it is a hunger. A slow starvation, a mouth wired shut.
On a whim, Jamie rises. She unzips a pocket in her rucksack to retrieve her little green notebook and a pen. It’s the first time she’s resorted to such measures since prison, where her psychiatrist would hand her an exercise book and invite her to express her thoughts at the beginning of each session. Anything on her mind, Tamara had said. Then she would permit Jamie to shred her entries, if she desired. But Jamie never did. It was like obliterating pieces of herself.
Jamie sits in a chair near the window and peels back the notebook’s cover. She sees Dani, lying prone on the bed with one hand curled beneath her chest, and the other splayed over the spot Jamie recently inhabited. Sleep holds her under its light feathery influence, softening her features. Dani has been sporadically napping all day, Jamie notes, possibly in recuperation of the hours they deferred to pleasure last night.
Ink rolls over blank lines as Jamie scrawls:
I look at you. The white tips of your fingernails, every hair in each brow, lips that think me worth kissing. You breathe, and I breathe, and we’re here. You’re here, with me. And still I want you. I have you, yet I want you.
I can’t cook. I can’t dance. I have baggage. I have a temper. I’m not good at finances. Sometimes I have to write things down or I forget them. I’m afraid of more things than I’m comfortable admitting, because I just want to be enough for you.
A little while ago, you peeled that orange you could barely hold in one hand. I smelled the fragrant rind and watched juice bead in your palm when you slipped and stabbed your thumb into it. There was half for me, half for you, but each half was as good as a whole. It was so tart and sweet my eyes watered at the first bite, and I forgot that I was ever ugly at all.
That big orange orb — like carving up and dining on sunset.
Before the alarm can sound, Jamie switches it off and wakes Dani in its stead by running gentle fingertips into her hairline, thumb brushing the coral shell of her ear. Dani stirs, mumbles, “Five more minutes?” and turns to kiss Jamie’s wrist.
Jamie nods and promises, “Five more minutes.”
The trail to Bridalveil, as it turns out, poses virtually no challenge. A paved incline winds through half a mile of pine bordering a creek fed by the falls. Its scenic approachability immerses them in the company of many other hikers. With their rucksacks reconfigured to the needs of lightweight travel, their pace is brisk and unimpeded.
The air holds a fresh, delectable spice. Birds chirp among the trees, unseen. Jamie pauses occasionally to examine the wildflowers; little bushels of milkweed sprouting between lichen-smudged stones, and shy mountain violets dotting the creek’s borders like buttery stars. They compose rare sights. Most visible ground is a suffocated bed of dry pine needles.
Over the creek’s simmer, Dani shares, “One time, when I was six, my dad taught me how to start a fire without matches. He was a boy scout. Allegedly.”
“When you were six years old?” Jamie snorts. “How’d that go?”
“About as well as you’d expect. We burnt part of the backyard lawn. Luckily my mom never noticed.”
“Is that what he was like? Was he fun?”
They dodge a family stopped for a photo by veering off the pavement. Needles and twigs snap beneath Jamie’s boots, stoking her ache for wilder trails. Her wooden keychain knocks quietly against the rucksack strap she’s fastened it to as they clamber over a desiccated log and return to the path.
“He was fun,” Dani answers, “but irresponsible. He could be cold, too, sometimes. He wasn’t a very happy person, but he’d try to make me smile.”
The roar of the falls grows in audibility upon their approach. Jamie glimpses the white spray between balding pines.
“My dad never taught me much of anything,” says Jamie. “Don’t think he particularly cared to know me, even when he was around. Occasionally he’d spend time with Denny when he wasn’t yelling at us. I remember one time — few months before my mum left — when he took Denny out to a field and taught him how to shoot a hunting rifle. Me, being the little shite I was, followed to watch in secret.”
“Yeah,” Dani says with a hint of incredulity, “that’s not dangerous at all.”
Jamie flashes her a smirk and shrugs. “I stayed back plenty and watched them fire at birds. They killed a jackdaw. Left it there lying in the grass. Wasn’t like it was of any value to them. After they turned back, I walked out to find it. They got him right through the chest. At the time I seethed with envy because I wanted to shoot things, too, like Denny was allowed to. Now all I think is: what a fucking waste.”
“I know this isn’t an easy question,” Dani prefaces, “but do you think you’re more like your mom or your dad? I think about that a lot. I can’t decide which I’d rather it be. Neither are exactly what I’d call ideal.”
“Same for me, more or less.”
“It’s a scary thought, huh? When people insist you eventually become your parents?”
The query settles in Jamie’s stomach like a lump of coal. Lately, her parents have been visiting her thoughts unusually often. Their faces, eroded to vague, ghastly flotsam of fallible memory, bob around the tumbling tides of her conscience, reminding Jamie of her origin and inherited dispositions.
I am not like you, she privately asserts. And while resisting you, I will take care not to become you; shattered and derelict.
Still, they linger, whispering doomed vessel as their aspects drift in and out of focus.
Cool mist dapples Jamie’s skin near the waterfall’s boulder-congested base. It saturates the air and fills her lungs as she and Dani peer up at the curtain of water, waving like irised fabric under delicate stirrings of wind. The sight is deceptively airy and ethereal. While Bridalveil professes a lacy stream, its waters turn bitter as they churn over battered rocks and threaten to displace rare hikers crawling toward the cliff’s raw flesh.
Jamie wants to attempt an approach until Dani indicates a sign warning against such excursions, citing dangers of slipping on the force of spring-turgid snowmelt. So they hang back among the ranks of sensible visitors to enjoy the ambience at a safe distance.
While heading back, Jamie spots a patch of marigolds and columbine through thinning trees. At Dani’s suggestion they detour, heading off the path into seclusion. An abundance of mountainous landmarks remain within view to guide them back should they lose their way.
They sit down before the sun-beaten patch, occurring in the shadow of pine gathering around the felled trunk of kin, and view the flowers nodding in the mellow breeze of late afternoon.
Dani uses her rucksack as a pillow and rests her head atop it, gazing up at the tall trees encircling them. Meanwhile, Jamie lies on her stomach and props her chin on a hand, pondering tiny blossoms too sacred to touch.
After a few minutes, Dani points skyward and says, “Look. Jamie, look.”
Jamie turns to follow her gesture to a location among the trees.
“Do you see it?”
Initially, Jamie can’t isolate what Dani refers to. Her brow knits as she searches further. Then, she sees it: a truly massive opened pinecone dangling from the twisted arm of a branch. They’re not positioned beneath its overhang, fortunately, but rather a few metres outside a radius of possible impact.
The pinecone belongs to a tree of gnarled, aged proportions. Its eldest boughs sag beneath their own weight. The lowest grazes the forest floor and curves up in self-correction toward the glade’s sunlit edge.
“It’s huge,” Dani delightedly remarks, sitting upright before altogether standing for a better look. “Like a basketball.”
Jamie stands with her, dusting her clothes off and picking a stalk of grass caught on Dani’s shirt. “Proper widow-maker, that one,” she concurs. “These aren’t Coulters, but still. Wouldn’t want to be under that when it falls.”
They might have been satisfied with respectfully viewing it at a distance, had a notion not occurred to Jamie.
“Want me to get it?”
Dani smiles and sighs a breath of laughter at the proposition, evidently thinking it a joke. Humour fades into concern upon realising Jamie’s intent. “What? No. It’s too high up.”
Several paces bring Jamie to the base of the tree. She sheds her rucksack, sets her boot upon a bough’s craggy bark, and tests its negligible give.
“Jamie,” Dani says in warning. “We’re not supposed to take anything.”
“We’re not taking anything,” replies Jamie, already reaching for the branch overhead. “Just... giving it a wee nudge.” She finds Dani’s sense of propriety genuinely sweet. With a grunt, Jamie hoists herself up and straddles her new perch. She flicks away a few locks of curled fringe from the outskirts of her vision while looking up, estimating the distance to her ascent’s next rung. Fearless, she wraps her hands around another branch, finds a secure foothold, and climbs.
Unexpectedly, Jamie finds herself intoxicated by the thrill of her predicament. This specific breed of thrill is old, quickening her blood like larceny once did. And seeing Dani below, hands balled into tense fists as she spectates the display of bravery, fitness, and actual stupidity, only drives Jamie deeper into her fit of recklessness.
You like that? Jamie chastises herself. Showing off for your girlfriend? Showing her how absolutely fucking mental you are, and how well you survive yourself?
She does like it. Far too much.
Another question imposes itself: You compensating for something?
Jamie decides not to answer that one.
“Jamie!” Dani calls after her. “I swear Jamie, if you get hurt—” She covers her eyes.
The sturdy denim of her jeans protects her from the scaly pine bark as Jamie shimmies herself along the branch closest to the monstrous pinecone. Under her weight, the branch bows, and Jamie is glad Dani has blinded herself to the next few seconds, over which she reaches out and braces one foot against the trunk for balance.
The pinecone — easily the size of her head, bristling irascibly — comes loose, but evades Jamie’s grasp.
“Shit!” she curses at the sight of the overgrown grenade plummeting into a parasitic bush entwined with the tree’s exposed roots.
At the sudden crash of twigs and leaves, Dani jumps and gives a startled cry, unveiling her eyes in fear of the unthinkable. When she spots Jamie above, perfectly intact, Dani clutches her chest and breathes in relief.
The descent is tricky, but Jamie manages without incident. Her ankles sting at the nonchalant final drop. Before she can recover the pinecone to measure its survival, Dani is upon her, firmly pressing fingertips into Jamie’s upper chest and demanding, “Don’t ever do that again.”
Jamie starts to smile, still high from the thrill. The expression falters, but ultimately persists, when Dani walks her back until Jamie’s shoulders connect with the elder pine’s unforgiving trunk.
“I mean it,” Dani emphasises. It’s framed like a threat. That, too, thrills Jamie in a way it ought not to. “Promise me.”
“Like, specifically that? Or, ill-advised stunts in general—?”
Dani’s fingernails bite into Jamie’s arms as she stares her down. “All of it,” answers Dani. “Promise me, Jamie. Or else.” But not even she can conceal the hint of a smile as tries to half-heartedly bully Jamie into renouncing her bad behaviour. To more effectively plead her case, Dani’s hand slides down to Jamie’s wrist and lifts her palm to her heart, where close attention reveals its still-fearful beat.
Pleasantly, Jamie concedes, “I promise.”
Before Dani releases her, she grips Jamie’s shirt and sinks her teeth into her bottom lip, issuing a final threat that doesn’t feel like one at all. For five tremulous seconds, Jamie forgets how to breathe.
In a daze of winded lust, Jamie saunters over to the bush to fish out the pinecone. While lightly damaged, its abominable glory remains unscathed. They marvel at its size and spiders spinning their webs in the grooves between scales. Jamie snaps a photo of Dani holding it. Respectfully, they set it down in a spot where it might have fallen from natural causes, and depart.
While pausing along the paved trail to drink water, Jamie opens her notebook in the shadow of her rucksack and scribbles an impulsive addendum into the day’s entry:
Take me out of the garden, and I go wild. I go fucking insane. Which way is the wind blowing?
I think I’m dying. I think I’m in love.
After Bridalveil, they forgo the shuttle service and return to the lodge on foot. It’s more than an hour’s trek along the Merced River with the sinking sun warm on their backs and a main highway within sight. The river’s disposition undulates with the changing terrain. For a few kilometres it’s a lazy tongue of algae and shadow. Then it’s a fevered serpent, writhing and hissing choppy currents that keep them well at bay.
Throughout their journey, Half Dome’s bereaved face lurks like a diurnal moon on the horizon, hazy and spectral, a watercolour wash of sky tones. It’s a future vision, a translucent overlay asserting substance. Unlike the moon, the ground they tread brings it perceivably closer; a pebble in the scope of celestial bodies.
Jamie struggles to limit the frequency of glances stolen in Dani’s direction. Not only to conceal her recent epiphany and its subsequent inner turmoil, but also to avoid tripping over nodes of grassy earth or destructively wading into innocent clusters of larkspur and goldenrod. She’s fixating. Diffuse sunlight spins Dani’s hair like gilded thread and her thumbs are tucked into the straps of her rucksack, fingers idly curled around air. Jamie shoddily preoccupies herself by kicking a stone along their unmarked path.
A budding conversation warrants her periodic looks.
Dani says, “I’m thinking about telling my mom about us soon. And I don’t mean the roommate stuff this time.”
The announcement disturbs Jamie’s rhythmic gait. “Uh, okay,” she says, staring. “You sure?”
“I think so. Well, I’m at least sure about wanting to. I’m still working out when and how. But I want your approval, because this isn’t just about me. I want to make sure you feel safe and okay about it.”
Jamie fits her hands in her pockets, contemplating her feelings on the issue and any possible ramifications. But she doesn’t think herself in the appropriate state of mind to make any important decisions.
Since Bridalveil, Jamie has been mentally fumbling about, trying to suss both the situation and their relationship. Because if she’s contending with love — real love, not one of those poisonously obsessive or ego-fuelled imposters — it has to be done right. She can’t limp into it with empty or half-baked promises. And she can’t barrel into it recklessly, demanding that a sapling become a tall wide oak overnight.
She needs to approach this perfectly. She needs to be and provide everything Dani could ever want from a partner. Nothing less would suffice.
Trying not to get too ahead of herself, Jamie mentally dials back. This is the exact tendency for escalation that spawned immense grief in the past. Years ago she threw her entire heart at the first woman who made her feel something, and in that fevered insanity, landed a prison sentence. While history is astronomically unlikely to repeat, Jamie’s acting like she’s drumming up a dowry when she isn’t even sure how Dani would react to a declaration. Or whether she’d love her back.
Of course, Dani already loves her. But the love they’re accustomed to, while powerful and unwavering in its own right, is a flavour of soul-deep human connection that circumnavigates ideals of romance, monogamy, and homemaking. Girlfriend is their first nervous reentry into conventions they’ve both learned to associate with interpersonal ruin. For months they shied away from it, subconsciously thinking it a curse that would devour and decay the most beloved principles of their dissident relationship.
It hasn’t. Jamie still vows to faithfully accompany Dani to the premature end of her life, whenever that may be, supplying joy however she can over the time that remains. And every day of that journey, Dani has shown Jamie the affection and centre of balance she’s craved her entire life. Girlfriend is but a wax seal, a formality attesting to what already exists.
“You don’t have to answer right now,” Dani tells her, noticing Jamie’s pensive state. “You can get back to me later.”
“Just curious; why do you want to tell her? Does she really need to know?”
“Well.” Dani draws a breath. “I, uh. I guess I don’t know how many opportunities I have left. I don’t think I’d want to... go... without her knowing about me, and you. Especially how important you are to me.”
The sentiment should be a boon in the context of Jamie’s emotional investment, but it only conjures gloom and mild nausea. Because this is something she isn’t sure she can voluntarily provide.
Karen Clayton is a complete stranger. Jamie has never interacted with her. Yet, by Dani’s association alone, the threat of Karen judging them poorly is enough to evoke Jamie’s grisly fight-or-flight instincts.
She hates being at another’s mercy. Stripped of control. She hates how love can be held for ransom as contingent upon one’s obedience. Love, that precious substance, essential as water, made a tool for manipulation. It’s the worst vulgarity imaginable. Merely entertaining the possibility of Dani losing her mother’s love as a result of honesty casts Jamie into bitter rage.
Tucked into her jeans, her fingernails leave crescent-shaped impressions on the skin of her palms. She eases her tension, bats away the dark clouds of her brooding, and kicks the stone hard enough to lose it down a steep slope. “I’ll give it a go,” she tells Dani. “I really will think about it.”
“Thank you.” Dani bumps their shoulders together in appreciation.
After forty minutes of walking, they reach a placid strip of water and stop to rest on the riverbank.
Solitude holds them kindly. They find a weathered log to utilise as a bench, listen to the shallow river murmur over water-polished pebbles and tufts of grass, and share a snack: a mix of assorted nuts, dried fruit, and candy-coated chocolates. Dani’s favourite are the almonds. Whenever one comes into Jamie’s possession, she hands it over, and receives in exchange the cashews.
A breeze shimmers through alder insulating them from the main road. Jamie lights a cigarette and watches smoke twist away in errant tendrils, vanishing into wind-tousled skies.
Halfway into their break, a lone inquisitive squirrel approaches them; a rather rotund, ash-grey individual with a tail longer than its body. It climbs onto the log. Before Jamie can shoo it away, Dani remarks, “Aw, he’s adorable. He’s so fat.”
Jamie says, “Looks like the wee beastie’s been enjoying people’s handouts.” At the sight of Dani extending a peanut to the squirrel, she adds, “Dani, I don’t think you should feed him. He’ll forget how to fend for himself. Although... looks a bit late for that.”
“I feed you.”
By Dani’s smile, Jamie knows it’s a lighthearted joke. But her words touch an insecurity that evaporates all semblance of levity from Jamie’s features. She averts her eyes, fits the cigarette between her lips to obscure her expression, and observes silence.
Dani seems to recognise her misstep. Forgetting the squirrel entirely, she says, “Jamie, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that. I just— I just meant that everyone deserves to be fed.”
“It’s fine,” says Jamie. She flashes a quick smile and nods, as if that gesture could forcibly hammer truth into her assurance. “Really. It’s fine.”
“You don’t sound like it.”
Nearby, the squirrel cautiously searches about, bewildered by the sudden disappearance of the morsel Dani has shut into her hand.
Jamie doesn’t respond. She’s thinking about yet another thing she can’t give Dani. Frustration mounts. How can she expect Dani to love her when she has so little to offer? What is Jamie to her, aside from passable company, a warm bed, a splash of handiness? Perhaps she’s a woman to kiss after a lifetime of having none, and Jamie’s value is the novelty and scarcity of her kind. Perhaps Dani only needs someone to help her navigate her unique condition, and finds Jamie suitable due to their common experience of Bly’s horrors.
A question escapes Jamie of its own accord, “Do I do enough for you?” She regrets it immediately. The words float into the space between them and hang there, palpable enough to exert weight.
Dani’s brow furrows. “What?”
Since she can’t retract her words, Jamie figures she may as well boldly follow up. “Do I do enough for you? Do I... give you what you need?”
“Of course you do,” answers Dani, confusion patent in her tone. “I don’t know why you’d think otherwise.”
She shrugs, trying to appear collected. “Sometimes I just... wonder.”
“Why you’re out here with me, of all people.”
Dani blinks and aims her gaze at the ground, then at the squirrel, whose deteriorating interest sends it beetling off toward the forest edge. Patiently, Jamie waits. It’s Dani’s habit to temporarily withdraw at crucial moments to contemplate. She weaves her response on a slow, careful loom, blessing it with honesty, combing through snags of emotion. And then, as Jamie has learned to anticipate, her conclusion comes raw and simple like a ray of unfiltered light.
“Because you make me happy,” says Dani.
“Does it have to be more than that? Like, do you want specifics?”
“No,” Jamie quickly answers. “No, I’m good.”
“Are you—?” Dani scrutinises her with a blend of surprise, amusement, and sympathy. “Are you feeling insecure?”
“No. I’m only being responsible. Attentive. You know, checking in from time to time. Making sure everything’s right as rain.”
“Uh-huh.” Dani nods, blatantly disbelieving her. “And what about the part where you were saying ‘of all people’?”
Truthfully, Jamie had meant: why has Dani — beautiful and radiant and warm and kind and gentle and delightfully bossy as a treat — plucked Jamie from the ground like a malformed tuber, dirt and all, and deemed her prizeworthy?
But Jamie doesn’t say that. Rather, she dons an air of confidence and says, “I’m wondering what particularly makes me your type.”
Dani smiles and forms her lips around a syllable that never escapes her. She amends her approach to a cheeky non-answer, “You’re cute.”
“Is that why you feed me?”
Laughter bubbles up from Dani like a fountain. “Yeah,” she says. “That’s exactly why.”
Dinner is scrounged up as a combination of preexisting and new groceries acquired at tiny mart in the village. Dani leads a weary but optimistic stroll through yellow-lit aisles, locating specific items with inscrutable but impressive assurance. When Jamie asks what she’s planning, Dani says, “Trust me. You’ll like it,” and opens the glass door of a dairy refrigeration unit to retrieve a cube of butter. Jamie trusts her. Throughout their shopping, she dutifully carries every ingredient passed into her arms.
When they finally return to the room, Jamie sets up the camping stove. She clears a space on the breakfast table near the window and screws their tiny metal stove onto a four-ounce fuel canister. After standing her apparatus atop an unfolded bandana, Jamie lights a flame under a pot of water and retreats to spectate in mild fascination.
Boiling pasta is an obvious step. That much, even Jamie grasps. Dani drains the water into the room’s sink, leaves a shallow reserve in the pot, then returns it to the stove. Her next additions are butter and milk.
Curiosity and hunger entwined compel Jamie to observe closely. Her boorish tastes deem the pale creamy concoction good enough to eat already. While peering into the pot, Dani chides her, “Don’t put your face so close. You’re gonna get burned. Or drool in it. Back off.”
With a smile, Jamie backs off but remains within range to watch Dani add estimated dashes of seasoning and thin slices cut from a block of parmesan they brought from San Francisco.
Dani serves her creation in their matching enamel mugs along with a disclaimer, “Sorry if it didn’t come out right. I skipped some things and put it all in the same pot, so.”
What a ridiculous thing to say, Jamie thinks, as she twirls pasta around a fork. It’s one of the best meals she’s ever had. It tastes like resourcefulness and elegance in simplicity.
To Jamie’s praise, Dani modestly confesses, “I like to, you know. Feed you. You’re always taking care of things, fixing things, noticing details. Even when you double-check if the door’s locked before we go to bed. I want to make you feel that way. Like you don’t have to worry about anything.”
Upon rising to collect their dishes, Jamie braces a hand on the table’s surface for balance and leans down to leave a single kiss on Dani’s lips. The moment is sweeter than any dessert.
The following hour is spent settling in for the night. Rucksacks empty. Boots are clapped free of caked dirt and grass outside. Jamie sets an alarm for tomorrow morning. While Jamie washes the dishes in the sink, Dani joins her in the bathroom, stripped down to undergarments with a set of folded pajamas in her possession. She runs the shower with the temperature valve turned hot as possible. Minutes pass, yet the water flows barely lukewarm.
In humored sympathy, Jamie says, “Better make it a quick one. Hypothermia’s a serious threat.”
As she dries their mugs with a hand towel, Jamie glances over to spy Dani’s crestfallen expression. Her gaze lingers, independent of active intent. Over several seconds, Jamie discreetly studies the nude-coloured bra Dani wore beneath her white shirt. A more frivolous article hugs her hips, sporting faint daisies arranged in ditsy print, with a strip of lace running around the waistband. They’re cute. Almost irresistibly. Jamie reserves similar opinions about their wearer, who kneels beside the bathtub with a hopeful hand still impeding the stream of water.
Without much forethought, Jamie asks, “Want some company?”
Dani conveys pleasant surprise, briefly pulling her lip between her teeth to contain a raging smile. “You want to? You’re asking?”
“Why the hell not? Misery loves company. As they say.”
After standing, Dani takes the hem of Jamie’s shirt, waits for a compliant lift of her arms, and pulls it over her head. Jamie never lapses her attention on Dani, not even while unbuttoning her jeans and stepping out of them. She watches Dani reach back to unclasp her bra. It falls forward as she retrieves her arms from its straps, baring her chest. Lips quirk a minuscule smile at Jamie’s growing intrigue. Jamie slides her thumbs into the hips of Dani’s underwear to trap them beneath elastic. She meets Dani’s gaze and keeps it, willfully unemotive as she tugs downward, then sinks to her knees in commitment to disrobing Dani in one sustained stroke, rather than a haphazard skid through changing posture and participant. Thighs, knees, shins, and ankles pass through the garment, blushing cloudy impressionist hues in the wake of touch.
They step into the shower, giggling and fussing over the water’s temperature. Jamie’s skin prickles from the chill. On reflex she crosses her arms over her middle, holds her elbows, and huddles inward. Dani fares similarly. Her hair plasters to the sides of her face and shoulders. She tucks her chin onto Jamie’s shoulder, shivering, seeking her shared warmth as they gradually acclimate.
Jamie contains her within an embrace, relishing Dani’s soft, lush body held against hers. She’s all slick pebbled skin and stiff limbs easing into comfort. Dani pulls back to kiss her. The tender contact lingers, virtually motionless. Jamie’s hands drift to cup her jaw. She takes Dani’s bottom lip between hers, gently sucking a caress. When she releases her lip, Jamie admires its full and vivid complexion. Dani’s closed eyes and receptive expression of subtle wanting begs to be kissed again.
Another forward lean reunites them. Soon after, a light but presumptuous swipe of Dani’s tongue accompanies wandering hands. Jamie catches them before they venture too far. She murmurs against Dani’s mouth, “Let’s just, uh. Save that bit for later.”
It’s a fair question. Presently, Jamie burns with the need to be all over her, affirming love without explicitly admitting it. But a deeper instinct burns marginally brighter, casting shadows of ritualistic care on the walls of her conscience.
“Turn around,” she bids Dani, whose eagerness to comply comes with obvious expectations.
Naturally, Jamie acts in subversion. She squeezes a burst of champagne-coloured shampoo into her palm and runs her hands through Dani’s hair, working up a lather. Dani laughs. Her voice rebounds in the cramped space, simmering brightly over limp water pressure. Its echo settles in Jamie’s chest where it continues to resonate, unceasing, kept in perpetual motion by the beat of her heart.
While Dani dries her hair, Jamie sneaks a moment alone on the room’s miniature patio. She lowers herself into a worn outdoor chair bolted to cement and listens to nocturnal insects sing amid rattling foliage, stirred into applause by the night’s black winds.
Bathing with Dani has left her feeling clean, renewed, and curiously absolved. Her body feels important. Like a courier of some wonderful, forbidden expression. By the fiery glow of the lodge room’s porch light, she opens her notebook and pens:
22/5/1988 - Night
Tonight I feel like I just met you. But I don’t mean like how I felt when it actually happened last year. It’s a different kind of meeting. Like living in a house and going into a room you’ve never been in before. It’s the same house. It’s the same home. There’s just more of it now. More places to live in and furnish.
I felt like I just met myself too, in a way. Getting to know myself usually involves discovering something unsavoury that I just have to deal with now. But not this time. Instead of finding a secret cellar full of spiders and dead bodies (not literally), I’ve got a whole sunroom buried in me.
Jamie hears the door open and turns to see Dani, dressed for bed, peeking out.
“There you are,” says Dani. “You okay?” When Jamie shuts the notebook in her lap and obscures it poorly with her hands, she poses another question. “What’s that?”
“Nothing,” Jamie immediately replies. “Just... making a record of the day.”
“Oh. Like a journal?”
“A bit like that, yeah. Much less interesting, though.”
Minutes later they climb into bed, weary from the day’s walking. Jamie, in particular, has been awake since before dawn. Exhaustion burdens her.
In the dark, Dani entangles her limbs with Jamie’s and decorates her lips with slow tender kisses, then tucks her hands behind Jamie’s head for support to bring them firmly together. It’s deep and luxurious. Unsteady breaths and ebbing passion ignite a throb of want between Jamie’s legs as she stumbles upon an abrupt realisation: this is the first time she’s slept with Dani since being, consciously and tentatively, in love.
Merely closing her eyes has Jamie straddling a dream and reality. Dani is warm, so warm. She could melt by her pacifying heat. When Dani slips a hand down the front of Jamie’s shorts, her hips flinch at the initial contact, but she’s quick to welcome and encourage the rhythmic attention of Dani’s fingers, stroking and teasing her way into glad admittance. Jamie shuts her eyes again and reclines, suspending herself in a heavenly pool of contentment. She feels fuzzy and indistinct.
When she next opens her eyes, Jamie is perplexed at the sound of Dani’s gentle laughter, no louder than a sigh. She feels the width of two fingers inside her, unmoving.
Jamie asks, “What?”
Dani’s spare hand cradles her cheek. “Are you falling asleep?”
A bit slurred, Jamie replies, “Am I?” She makes a small unbidden sound when Dani withdraws from her and lightly kisses her lips. “We’re done?”
“You’re falling asleep,” Dani iterates. She hugs Jamie affectionately close, rubs her back, and speaks against her temple, “I’m sorry for keeping you up. You’re so tired... my darling sweetheart.”
Jamie wants to roll her eyes, but thorough doting soothes her right back into rest.
Monday, 23 May 1988
Morning streams into the room, spilling over Jamie’s face in a fond, peach-tinted caress. She opens her eyes to unfamiliar surroundings. For a second she can’t discern where she is, until their holiday and the memory of yesterday crashes back into her from some faraway orbit in space. They’re tucked away in a beautiful alcove of the world. A dreamscape of thundering waterfalls, cliffs rendered so distinctly they demand personhood, and conifer groves working the lungs of the earth, where flashing sunlight is a feast, never a nuisance.
Dani rests within her arm, the fingers of their hands loosely jumbled together where they rest over her middle. Jamie shifts up to spy the alarm clock over Dani’s shoulder. It’s twenty-two minutes before seven, their targeted hour for waking.
When she settles back into her pillow, Jamie feels fingertips grazing her forearm in long, lazy strokes. She buries her face into the side of Dani’s neck and whispers, “Did I wake you?”
“No,” Dani answers, humming at the touch of Jamie’s lips. “Sleep well? Last night, you were—“
Jamie hears a smile in her trailing voice. She tightens her hold around Dani’s waist, reeling her in flush against her front. “I was what?”
Audibly amused, Dani replies, “Beyond retrieval.” Fingers wrap around Jamie’s wrist. “We’re getting up at seven, right?”
She makes an affirmative sound. “Got about twenty minutes to be a couple of layabouts. Unless you want to get up now, get a head start, or—”
Her proposition is superseded by another. In silence, Dani manipulates her hand. She slips it beneath her shirt, dragging Jamie’s fingertips indulgently over her midriff until they settle around her breast. Gentle pressure on her knuckles influences Jamie to squeeze the warm, soft offering once, and again at her leisure.
Or that, Jamie thinks. Or we could do that.
She can’t help but wonder if Dani thoroughly premeditated a resumption of last night. While she was already well in the mood then, she’s potentionally anxious by now. Maybe Dani awoke early and planned the means through which she’d obtain Jamie’s consent and cooperation. Not that it’d prove much of a challenge. Jamie, so predictably susceptible to allures of passion, must fill Dani with incredible confidence about getting her way, ultimately, every time. Dani’s wanting is composed of such raw, wistful, unguarded honesty, that Jamie cannot sustain any guise of coyness for very long.
Still, twenty minutes is a tragic allotment. Jamie can’t fathom how they’ll accomplish anything meaningful within that brief time frame, but she isn’t about to decline Dani’s invitation, either.
While Jamie presses a trail of profuse affection down the side of Dani’s neck, she ponders the consequences of Dani not getting her way for once. Involving nothing untoward or undesired, obviously, but merely the denial or absence of what Dani complacently expects.
She stumbles into wondering, Would you still want me, if I didn’t give you what you wanted? Would you still want me, if I wasn’t everything for you?
Jamie slows down. Lighter kisses devolve into open-mouthed caresses, a little wet and off-centre. Intentional nips and grazes of teeth make Dani squirm in her arms. She seals her lips around a spot near her shoulder and sucks hard, drawing out a lovely whimper.
She asserts a knee between Dani’s legs, keeping her preoccupied with its pressure while Jamie endeavours to leave on her neck something pretty to admire later. A reminder, when Dani wears it unconcealed for pleasurable viewing, of how her body remembers being so thoroughly adored. How her body never stopped blushing. In further conciliation, Jamie kneads and pinches her breast, and moves to the other. Dani frets, overwhelmed by all the attention. She angles herself more favourably on Jamie’s thigh, squeezing it greedily as she drags herself along its imposition. With a final, audible kiss, Jamie releases Dani’s neck, leaving behind a shining blemish of red sensitive skin.
Hardly a minute elapses, over which Jamie rocks into her with more insistent force. Beneath her, Dani is made a trembling body of need and impatience. A fierce blush scalds Jamie’s hands wherever she touches her. Occasionally, Jamie glimpses her profile through bed-tousled locks of hair. Dani’s brow is drawn in an expression of exquisite, distressed yearning.
Before long, Dani lowers her hands to fumble at her waistbands, trying to free herself of their barrier.
It’s a pivotal moment. The hand Jamie keeps at Dani’s chest descends. She collects Dani’s wrists, shoves them away from herself, and pins them down together on the mattress. Surprise colours Dani’s whimper as Jamie ruts her hips into Dani’s backside to torment and rile her up.
After catching her breath, Jamie vocalises a quiet, “Hm?”
“Jamie, touch me. Please. Why are you being so mean to me...?”
The way Dani whines at her makes Jamie’s breath hitch in her throat. She doesn’t reply immediately, rather seizing a moment to recompose, lest she completely lose control of the situation. It isn’t easy. With Dani desperately trying to pleasure herself on the flexing muscle of Jamie’s clothed thigh, there’s approximately a single flare of weakness standing between her maintenance of denial and tending to Dani however she begs.
“You think I’m being mean?” Jamie bites her lip to suppress a grin. “Don’t I always give you what you want?”
With a tinge of frustration, Dani answers, “Yes.”
“There’s the issue. Spoiled brat.”
She firmly jogs her hips. The downward force drives Dani into the bed, lightly bouncing them. Her tease inspires a delicious blend of arousal and amusement in Dani’s voice when she says, “Jamie, oh my God. Okay, stop. Stop it.”
Jamie stops to appreciate the moment of levity. It reminds her that she is, to an extent, being mean. To both of them. Because at heart, she wants — beyond all other earthly pursuits — to tug Dani’s shorts and underwear down to her knees, fill her generously, and soothe their common ache. She wants that harmonisation of discrete flesh as she sinks deep and covets every sated reaction to her worship.
Left waiting, Dani pleads, “Jamie.” She resorts to endearments. “Jamie, my pretty girl. Please, Jamie. My sweet, strong, pretty girl—”
A sharp breath betrays Jamie’s fluster. Bribery through flattery. It’s new, clever, and absurdly effective at winning her mercy. The hand fastened around Dani’s wrists goes lax, permitting her to reach back and weave her fingers into Jamie’s hair. She clutches brown locks, gentle and beseeching.
Her obstinance is forfeit. Jamie pushes a hand into Dani’s shorts, where her fingertips glide without resistance through wetness, drawn toward its source had she not the dwindling restraint to pull back. The moan Dani gives is a soft, low invitation. She’s so ready for her, Jamie swallows back a sympathetic groan as every slick pass through pouting, needy flesh comprises a false promise. Dani’s hips cant into her touch, pursuing her, trying to take her inside only for Jamie to evade and hold herself just out of reach.
Out of the blue, the image of a peach invades Jamie’s conscience. Last week she watched Dani bite into one’s succulent flesh and nectar sweetness, and catch droplets sliding down her wrist in her mouth when she thought Jamie wasn’t looking.
Seven o’clock is heralded by the blaring alarm. Jamie swears and reaches over to shut it off.
Perturbed by the interruption, Jamie wraps an arm around Dani’s hips to hold her assertively still as she presses the very tips of two fingers inside her, only to the first knuckle. Shallow thrusts, hardly penetrative, earn the first item of profanity Dani has uttered in days.
“Tell me what you want,” Jamie whispers against the base of Dani’s neck, dragging her lips over heated skin. “Tell me what you need.”
She sighs, “I want you.”
“Show me how.”
Dani comprehends her meaning. At Jamie’s behest, she lowers a hand between her legs once Jamie’s retreats.
“Pretend it’s me. Pretend I’m giving you everything you need.”
Jamie watches in a fog of lust, hovering close. Initially, it’s the simple flexing of a forearm. Quiet focus and closed eyes, parted lips and flushed cheeks. Then Dani shifts; a languid, decadent movement that parts her knees wider in a posture of unabashed self-reception. Seconds unfold in voyeuristic agony, culminating when Jamie hears Dani muffling into her pillow a procession of ragged sighs and moans. Over time, the sounds gain volume, frequency, and intensity.
To sate her brimming curiosity, Jamie traces Dani’s arm to her labouring wrist, wanting to identify what has her so rapt. Her digits shadow Dani’s, stroking over knuckles until she tallies three thrusting into herself.
“Fuck,” Jamie hisses, and immediately berates herself for the compromise.
This is how Dani wants her. Messy, urgent, desperate. Almost too much to endure. Understanding consumes Jamie in a torrent of reactive desire as her fingertips slip through a streak of wetness painting Dani’s inner thigh upon retreat.
She can’t bear it anymore. Can’t remain passive or unaccommodating or separate a moment longer. Her original intent was to make Dani finish without her, but she doesn’t have the heart for this. Or lack thereof. “Stop,” Jamie says, clumsily dressing her plea as a demand. “Let me.”
Dani gladly complies. In a single easy stroke, Jamie fills her with two fingers from behind. The sound Dani makes is divine; relief, excitement, and appreciation coiled into one silky moan that caresses Jamie’s senses like velvet. Wanting to hear it again, she picks up a steady pace, threads the fingers of her spare hand into Dani’s hair, and shuts them into a tight fist. But she doesn’t pull, control, or antagonise through its authority. Rather, it stays as titillating encouragement when she invites Dani to touch herself in supplement.
When Jamie slows to introduce a third, she asks, “That feel good?”
Dani withholds her reply until Jamie has settled inside her, imposing enough width to make her blush harder. “Yeah,” she breathes, her tone fragile and taut. “Really good.”
“How do you want me, baby?”
The answer is, as Jamie surmised, rougher than their typical. Still, she’s careful and well-attuned to Dani’s comfort, watching for any flickers of dismay in what little of her profile she can see. None manifest. Dani is compliant with pleasure, purring her name into the corner of the pillow for her own benefit as she takes everything Jamie gives her.
Jamie savours it. She loves the way Dani feels around her, overwhelmingly warm and yielding and clutching in consummate appreciation. Together they collaborate for the right angle and pressure. They commit to it when they find it, told by the way Dani’s voice keens high and whiny, how she grips the sheets in a white-knuckled fist, and the eager rocking of her hips back to meet Jamie’s reliable thrusts. She drips around Jamie’s fingers, beading in her palm. They’ve kept clothed for courtesy and respect for the sheets alone.
Over minutes, Jamie drives her deeper and deeper into throes of unfurling satisfaction until Dani gasps and cries out into her pillow, helpless under coarse tides of bliss.
Jamie’s adoration drapes over Dani like a blanket. She loves how pretty, open, and vulnerable she looks after she comes. No apparent bones, just pliant warmth radiating from every spent ounce of her being. A luminous puddle, seeping through her grasp. The sight begs for Jamie’s care. She wants to hold, kiss, and comfort Dani like restful sleep. Spoiled indeed, she thinks.
Following a dreamy hum, Dani shares, “I couldn’t feel my legs for like... five seconds.”
“Yeah,” Jamie voices her needless, but humoured assent. “Seemed like a good one.” She releases Dani’s hair and dips her head to kiss her shoulders.
“I really liked it when you called me baby. Can you do that again sometime?”
“Hm, maybe. Brat’s a good one too, I think.”
To Dani’s huff of disapproval, Jamie responds by playfully taking her earlobe between her teeth. She feels Dani adjusting her posture from the waist down, squirming. When Dani pushes herself back onto the fingers still buried inside her, Jamie tentatively infers a request. The same repeated motion dispels all doubt.
“Dani, seriously?” says Jamie. “We’re hiking three miles on an incline today. You’re going to wear yourself out before the day’s even started.”
“I don’t care,” she groans. “I love—”
Jamie’s face roasts with sudden, anticipatory heat as Dani pauses for a short breath, then finishes, “I love the way you touch me.”
An hour later, Jamie parts the curtains to an overcast day. The weather informs their clothing choices: sleeveless articles layered beneath thin cardigans and jumpers. While Dani tames her hair, Jamie steps out onto the patio, dragging their ice chest behind her. She uncorks the base to drain overnight melt onto the ground’s sodden mat of pine needles, then awkwardly hauls a metal bucket over to the ice machine at the end of the building.
To her urban-calibrated instincts, tall unperturbed pines speckling the lodge complex resemble utility poles in her peripheral vision. It’s astounding, how the anatomy of cities maintains custody of her subconscious even when she divorces herself from its bustle. It seems an eternal conflict in her heart, vying for ultimate favour: the comfort of monochromatic organisation and predictability, versus the singular, explosive joy wrought by miracles of ambivalence.
Once she reaches the ice machine, Jamie sets down the bucket, pensively fills her lungs with a deep breath of fresh, forest-pure air, and lights a cigarette.
Two minutes into her slacking off, Jamie overhears the voices of two men emitted from a room’s balcony contained within the next building over. Eavesdropping reveals their chatter as the result of roughhousing; perhaps unwise situated a couple metres off the ground. What holds Jamie’s attention are their familiar accents and vernacular. It shouldn’t be surprising, given the preponderance of languages and dialects Jamie has encountered over the last day. But the emergence of a third voice, contributing the cadence of Lancashire, puts a smirk on her lips at the sound of nostalgia and similar roots.
She collects her ice, producing a piercing clatter against metal as the bucket fills. Even within earshot, the men don’t pay her any mind. They laugh and exchange profanities, their exclamations surging between each scoop. When the man from Lancashire bellows a threat, albeit spoken in jest, the motion of Jamie’s hand stalls upon a sudden, body-wide flinch.
Over the loud ring of ice, he had sounded just like her father.
Jamie places the bucket on the ground, removes her cigarette from her lips, and stubs it out on damp concrete. Strange illness infects her, turning over an ancient, rotting instinct of cold fear.
“You’re nothing, mate,” the man continues. “Nothing! You lose every time.”
Deciding she’s obtained enough ice, Jamie lifts the bucket and with some mild exertion, carries it back to their room’s patio. There she refills the ice chest and sifts a hand through the flow, dispersing the ice evenly around embedded food and drinks.
Jamie actively resists thinking. She razes the landscape of her thoughts to barren wastes, creating an environment so hostile that no quivering of notion can survive long enough to mature into contemplation.
Bitter self-suppression carries her through further chores. She pulls their ice chest into the room, lights a flame beneath a pot of water, and retrieves their enamel mugs from a suitcase. When the void carved within herself begins to spread unchecked, jeopardising the structural integrity of her temperament, Jamie permits a few cathartic lines to surface in her notebook.
Don’t know why I’m so keen on comparing myself to him. I hardly even knew him. But he and Mum are in my blood whether I like it or not. Our screws are loose. Louise wants to feel something real. Dennis takes abuse from the wrong people and feeds it to his temper.
The dead past lives on in me. We’re all tomorrow’s ghosts. Seconds die as we pass through them and everything is an echo.
We have to be okay with that.
Her pen hovers over the page as Jamie withdraws into contemplation. She doesn’t appreciate this passage neighbouring those about Dani. An impulse nearly convinces her to tear it out, but she doesn’t. She’s never been able to.
Dani emerges impeccably from the bathroom. Her hair is neatly plaited, a watch encircles her wrist, and an expert application of concealing makeup has been dabbed over a spot on her neck. Dainty pearlescent earrings catch the light. She’s quiet and pleasant, remarking on the cooler weather.
Breakfast is, more or less, a scene of mundanity. Jamie steeps a bag of Earl Grey in a mug of hot water and stuffs into her mouth a chunk of gouda cheese wrapped in two slices of ham cold cuts. A jar of peanut butter sits nearby, opened beside a package of crackers. Meanwhile, Dani tears off the corner of an instant coffee packet, pours it into her mug, and adds an objectionably excessive splash of milk and several sugar packets.
Occasionally, Jamie thinks their seamless transitions from overindulgence to the prosaic should be weird. One moment they’re in bed, where Dani proves herself as someone who likes being done well and often, and by women, no less. Or by a woman, as Jamie would hope. Minutes later she’s the former school teacher, a prim and unassuming ambassador of homegrown puritanical values, whose diction bars all obscenity save for in moments of intense emotion or distress. The cognitive dissonance at play must be incredible. How does Dani keep from fissuring in two? Jamie fears she’ll never know.
When they first slept together, Jamie didn’t know what to expect. Memory recalls Dani as overeager yet nervous, hungry yet modest. In the minutes afterward, she confessed to Jamie that she wasn’t entirely sure she’d like it, since she’d been living under the impression that she didn’t enjoy sex at all. That divulgence is a far cry from her current appetite.
It’s like you’re making up for lost time, Jamie once teased her. But she likes it. It’s nice.
Before Dani, Jamie never experienced a relationship substantial enough to abide anything but their most curated personas. Even her first love — or not-love, as Jamie has retroactively decided — didn’t particularly like to spend time with her outside of pleasure, scheming, or the rare stupor. When personal truth can be wielded like a knife, one takes care not to arm other people.
But here is Dani, and here is Jamie, unthreatened by one another’s knowledge of their idiosyncrasies and most vulnerable moments. They hold knives without blades. Knives made of clover mats, or lily petals, or sprigs of lupine.
Jamie thinks, Is this what trust feels like? Complete trust? What if that’s what this is, and not love? Or could they be the same thing?
Noticing how Dani remains standing before the table while sipping her coffee and intermittently eating, Jamie casually inquires, “You don’t want to sit down?”
She shrugs. “I’m fine.”
Lack of eye contact rouses Jamie’s suspicion. “You sure?” When she spots a telling purse of Dani’s lips, effacing her inability to construct a convincing lie, she asks, “Are you—? You know. Uncomfortable?”
She shrugs again.
Jamie pinches the bridge of her nose. “I knew it was a bad idea. I’m not rubbing it in, just... we should, uh. Maybe think about cooling off a bit, this week.”
A faint blush dashes Dani’s cheeks. She concedes an oblique nod and says, “Sorry. I know this morning I was kinda, um—”
“Enthusiastic,” Dani overrides, growing rigid before quieting for a spell. Idly, she stirs a spoon into her mug despite her additions already being well-incorporated. “Is it ever too much? I mean, aside from today?”
Jamie raises her brow. “Too much in what sense?”
“Like, do you ever get sick of me sometimes being... you know...”
“Insatiable?” she tries again.
“Stop,” Dani complains, smiling through her deepening blush.
“Well,” says Jamie, folding her hands on the table. “No. I don’t get sick of it. Don’t really see how I could. There’s a time and place, of course. But as for frequency?” Her lips curve into a mock-frown as she shakes her head and repeats, “No. Granted, I didn’t exactly travel all this bloody way to spend every morning putting off hikes to bang you into—”
Dani hisses at her to hush and harmlessly slaps a hand against Jamie’s shoulder. “Don’t say it like that! Why are you saying it like that?” Her austerity dissolves into a stifled laugh when Jamie finishes her statement, “—oblivion.”
Jamie scoots her chair along the perimeter of the table to put Dani within reach. A smile, a gentle hand on her lower back, and a kiss placed just above the button of Dani’s jeans, into her jumper’s ribbed cotton hem, is all Jamie presently offers. But the way Dani affectionately threads her fingers into her hair and hugs her close to her abdomen assures Jamie that it is quite enough.
Jamie, claimant of the window seat, beholds a fanning green blur as they ride a shuttle east through the valley. Passenger chatter mingles with the vehicle’s low rumble and periodic wind-rush of opposing traffic. Their rucksacks sit on the floor between their respective feet, zipped over half a day’s worth of provisions, essentials, and their camera contained within plastic film to shield it from humidity. Heavy overcast cools the light, suffusing the atmosphere with the vague calm of grey.
Beside her, Dani has her lavender cagoule bunched over her lap, semi-concealing the fine ministrations of a pen. Discreet curiosity keeps Jamie facing forward while peeking over. She asks, “You writing something?”
“Mm-hm,” Dani hums through a faint smile.
“What is it?”
Her smile persists, as does her disinclination to establish eye contact. “Nothing.”
Jamie points out, “Reckon it’s something, even if you don’t feel like sharing.”
“You’ll see,” Dani serenely assures her.
Ten minutes pass. The road conducts them over a bridge crossing the Merced River, heading into gradual southeastern elevation. Dani finishes writing, neatly folds her piece of notebook paper, and stows it in the pocket of her jeans. She extends her cagoule to cover the space between her seat and Jamie’s, providing a haven for their hands to join in secret.
“So,” says Jamie. “How’re you feeling? As opposed to... earlier?”
Dani briefly draws her bottom lip into her mouth in a wry purse, then answers, “Good. Pretty good.”
Their bland exchange dissolves at the emergence of Dani’s intrigue. She sits forward, faces the opposite seating row, and cranes to see the exterior wilds beyond the shuttle. “Oh, look. There’s still some snow on the ground.”
“Where? Oi, move your big head. I can’t see.”
Guided by a quick glance, the playful jab Dani aims at Jamie’s ribs finds its mark. Jamie’s feigned wince morphs into a smile. Nevertheless, Dani adheres to the back of her seat to permit Jamie to peer outward.
True to Dani’s report, white blotches litter the alpine groves, huddled for survival beneath inky islands of shadow. Many are perforated by sticks of underbrush held in spiteful stasis. The land is peaky and brittle. On this shelf above sea level, the transition from winter’s last chill to spring’s thaw unfolds in languid disregard for the coming summer. Punctuality exerts no authority here. Time flows at variable speed, less bound by gravity.
The distance between their disembarking and the trailhead is buffered by a ten-minute walk. They tread a paved road carving through towering pine, erect as flagpoles, unbowed and voluminous. A brown sign, stemming a tide of moss-curdled boulders and a crosshatch of fallen trees, declares the start of the Mist Trail.
Jamie issues a sly remark after gleaning posted distances to points of interest in the area. “Not just another waterfall,” she says, grinding pebbles into the road as she pivots on her heels to face Dani, “but two of them. In the same hike. We’re getting pretty efficient, aren’t we?”
Rather than humour her quip, Dani relinquishes her folded paper. The sudden acquisition catches Jamie off guard, even as her hand opens on instinct to allow Dani to wordlessly press it into her palm.
“Uh,” Jamie vocalises. “Do I read it?”
With ample sarcasm, Dani says, “No, you’re supposed to eat it. Yes, you read it.”
They commence the trail at leisurely saunter and yield to swifter hikers by keeping to one side of the path. While walking, Jamie peels the note open. Before she can start reading, Dani surpasses her position to travel on ahead, separating them by several paces. Through Dani’s tidy rounded characters of amiable disposition, a letter is conveyed:
❀♡❀ Jamie ❀♡❀
We’ve already been in a lot of places together. Good ones and bad ones, interesting ones and boring ones. I wanted to tell you that no matter where we go, I always have fun with you. And not just that kind of fun. What I mean is, whenever I’m around you, you make places better.
I have fun with you when we go grocery shopping, and that time when we stood in line at the bank for fifty minutes, and when you asked me to hold that chair while you fixed the wobbly leg. I have fun when you’re helping me make dinner (you’re still only allowed to chop vegetables). I have fun whenever you talk to me.
Sometimes I daydream about you even while we’re together. I think about kissing your pretty lips and hands, and the way any plant you water, prune, or repot seems to smile just from you touching it. Like they somehow know it’s you and that you’re going to take good care of them. I always think: me too. I feel the same way, whenever Jamie touches me.
You always treat me so well. You’re so thoughtful, careful, and beautiful. You’re my sweetheart. You’re my every morning and night. I’m glad you came with me all this way. No matter where I go next, I hope you’ll always be there with me, having fun where we’re not meant to.
When Jamie lifts her eyes from the note to apprehend Dani striding ahead, passing under deep pillared shadows of pine, Dani glances over her shoulder at the precise moment to unite their gazes. Dani smiles, lips curving taut over her mouth in suppression of mischief, or abashment.
They close the distance through a mutual adjustment of pace. The moment Jamie catches up, she resents the public space. Every chord of emotion within her chest thrums with the desire to kiss Dani for her gift of sentiment. She wants to kiss her, lace their fingers together, and speak gratitude into her neck where adoration bruised her just that morning.
And Jamie — compelled by an urge of temporary insanity — wants to tell Dani that she loves her.
She can’t, of course. Not here. Not now. Instead, Jamie raises the note to her lips, kisses it, and presses it to her heart. Her gesture is playful, meaningful, and visibly delights Dani without compromising too much truth.
The forbidden words continue building pressure within the captivity of her self-control. Release is inevitable, she thinks, as they resume the trail in electrified silence. Passion will usurp sensibility like night swallows day. She’ll bare her soul and reveal scarred wastes and wilds, sown with infinite seeds, thirsting for rain. She’ll erupt before long, and in doing so, make a catastrophic mess of her life and relationship. Just like old times.
But what if Dani loves her back? The prospect of reciprocation follows Jamie throughout their hike.
They wind up the mountain, guided by a hip-high stone barrier. Exertion fills Jamie’s lungs with the sting of cool air as she and Dani pant through a conversation regarding the probability of rain. Close conifer ranges frame ephemeral portraits of the valley. Among them is a dorsal Half Dome to the northeast. Its lumbering silhouette breaches a grey sea of sky with cetacean grace, then dissolves into sombre heavens at a first glance away; granite alchemised into vapour.
Jamie feels acutely present within herself. Her skin is cold but her blood runs hot. She glimpses her hands, dry and dusty from sweeping the stone barrier. When she looks down at her hiking boots, she sees the strange but resilient knots Dani demonstrated there hours ago. Another artefact of Dani’s father.
Could Dani write such a letter in the absence of love? Surely not. To inspire love is to convey love. It must be that simple, Jamie thinks. Love must be a simple thing, of easy self-evidence and obvious manifestation, in order to distinguish itself from muddier sensations.
When Jamie recalls Dani tying her laces that morning; when Dani ran soapy hands over her back in the shower to touch every freckle and mole, as if they were individual words of a scattered poem for Dani’s parsing alone; and when Dani candidly photographed Jamie idling on the patio with her hands in her pockets, ready to disembark, as if her mere bland existence registered to Dani as a moment of great importance, Jamie is inclined to believe that love is real, that love is here. Patient, waiting softly, to be named and nurtured.
Dani’s voice penetrates Jamie’s private universe when she says, “So what’ve you been writing about in that little notebook? Just what we’ve been doing every day?”
She takes a breath. “More or less, yeah.”
“Can I read any of it?”
A sudden, nervous laugh flees Jamie. “Maybe. Someday.”
“Oh.” Dani broadly smiles. “So it’s secret.”
“It’s not secret, exactly. Just... private.”
Dani rolls her eyes at the minor distinction. “Okay.” When Jamie grows staid, Dani adds, “Don’t worry, I’m not gonna go read it behind your back. You know I wouldn’t do that.”
“I know,” Jamie says, and means it.
“Everything’s okay, though, right? You’d tell me if there’s something wrong?”
Jamie raises her brow and aims her gaze at the ground. “Yeah. I mean, ‘course.” Before stumbling over her own words, Jamie pauses to regather her thoughts. “A lot’s been changing lately, is all. For the better. Don’t get me wrong. I just have my own ways of making sense of it.”
With a sympathetic nod, Dani relieves Jamie by dropping the subject. Evidently, she’s recognised sensitive territory. Jamie has been uprooted so many times in her life it’s become a traumatic event. Even migrating to the States with someone as compassionate as Dani was an anxious affair. Then came the flat, and The Leafling, and just when Jamie was starting to feel settled again, this happens. Love. A dark, rich, loamy soil. Immensely provident, but entirely foreign.
The trail delivers them to a wooden bridge spanning yet another point on the Merced River, the valley’s greatest artery. Here, water roars. Jamie folds her forearms onto the railing and peers down into rapids. Spring-melt vigour thunders beneath their feet, carrying winter’s last aggression in a terrible white stampede. Jamie spontaneously imagines being trampled beneath those galloping tides, drawn and quartered against bulges of black stone, and assimilated into the river itself as a single flagging ribbon of red. Made brilliant for an instant, then washed away. And still the river would flow, as if she’d never been.
Minutes later, they ascend into a deep rumble. Vernal Falls spills its curtain over a sheer cliff, then crashes down with enough force and volume to permeate the quivering air with dense mist. The path ahead constricts, accommodating a single-file line up a steep glistening staircase with one contiguous metal guardrail bracing travellers to the mountainside. Before they proceed, Dani approaches a group of university-aged adults and kindly asks one to take their photo. A young man obliges.
She and Jamie assemble at the path’s border where heads of verdant grass bow under heavy dew. The waterfall and its agitated river swirl behind them, saturating the scene with luxuriant colour even on the greyest of days. Dani wraps an arm around Jamie’s shoulders, clutching her close. Despite her nagging discomfort at being seen this way by others, Jamie reciprocates and smiles, knowing Dani would want her to, and knowing she’ll be glad she did once the photo is permanently housed in their album.
Jamie swiftly returns the camera to its plastic cocoon and tucks it away. It’s a wise move. The mist thickens to a quasi-fog, seeping into their clothes as they ascend the black stone staircase in tandem, each sliding a supportive hand along the railing and the other on the cliff’s smooth stone. It’s a hard climb. A burning ache arises in Jamie’s legs just midway. Moisture as an adhesive clings her hair to her face and forehead, but Jamie can’t determine whether it’s primarily sweat or the pervasive mist.
At one point, Dani glances back at Jamie to breathlessly grieve, “Oh God, I think I’m dying.”
With a humoured smirk and a click of her tongue, Jamie teases, “Oh, poor baby. Having a rough time of it. Want me to carry you the rest of the way?”
Dani expels a clumsy laugh. “You’ve been really mean lately, you know that? You’d better start being more careful. You’re gonna get in trouble.”
The threat tugs at something vague and visceral in Jamie’s core. It takes the shape of guilty exhilaration. She asks, sly, “Well I’m no stranger to trouble. What’s it look like coming from you, Poppins? Detention?”
“Keep pushing and you’ll find out.”
Jamie privately bites the inside of her cheek and carries on.
Voices drown in Vernal’s thunder at the top of the falls. Effusive, passionate rage is the current province of water. Even the Emerald Pool, typically known as the serenely glittering reservoir from which the waterfall draws life, is agitated and inaccessible. The valley wakes from hibernation’s fast with ravenous hunger.
“This place is throwing a bloody tantrum,” Jamie remarks as they situate themselves near the cliff’s edge. Along with other enraptured visitors, they absorb the magnificent view.
Dani, who cannot hear her over the persistent roar, says, “What?”
“I said—” Jamie steps closer to repeat her statement.
After lingering at the viewpoint to their satisfaction, they journey upstream. The river’s anatomy is highly irregular. There’s no bed of amorphous sand or silt, but slabs of exposed granite over which water slides in vicious marbled sheets. It rolls and crashes, kicking up around obstacles like plumes of silver-toned fire.
They rest and have lunch a short walk along a gentle slope. Jamie forgoes the buttons of her loose cardigan by pulling it over her head to dry it out while eating a sandwich and half an apple cloven in two by her folding knife. She lies back on the ground, awaiting itinerant patches of sunlight breaching the overcast to glaze her body.
Beside her, Dani lounges on her stomach with her chin tucked onto her folded hands. She diligently trails a row of pebbles along Jamie’s bare arm, an installation completely reliant upon her continued stillness. A minute passes and Jamie wants to move. Unforgiving terrain elevates her discomfort, but she reveals none of it. When she catches Dani’s hint of a smile, she endures to please her. The fragile significance of the moment swells. Jamie suddenly feels heavy and precarious, like a mountain balanced on a single grain of sand, portending imminent collapse.
Eventually, the pebbles reach Jamie’s wrist. Dani brushes them away in a single stroke, undoing all evidence of their perseverance, save for its tenuous memory.
It shouldn’t mean anything. To Jamie, it does.
Time ambles by. Jamie rises with a chill laminating her arms exposed by her white singlet. After collecting the camera and her notebook in secret, she announces, “Back in a bit. Taking some photos of the river,” and leaves Dani behind to watch their belongings.
She trudges down to the water, dodging trees and shrubs shuddering in a crisp alpine breeze, and finds a spot of clarity before a furious stretch of river. There, she scribbles:
What’ll happen, if we love each other? What if we love each other, and that love holds for a year, or ten, or twenty, if your curse happens to be so merciful? What if, over time, that love grows a little more every day and flourishes, interwoven at the tap root? Immense love portends immense bereavement. How much can I hope to survive?
You are going to die. That is a certainty. But so will I, one day. So will everything. At some point the sun’s going to explode or extinguish, apparently, and there won’t be a world anymore to remember anything.
Maybe I’m not meant to survive it. But I can’t survive now, without it.
Through the camera’s viewfinder, Jamie frames the river. It’ll be a blur upon development. A wash of white motion, more force and direction than object. A beam of life, uncontainable. Jamie snaps a photo and ventures several paces closer.
By chance, she spots a man standing on the opposite side of the river. His hands are concealed in the pockets of wool trousers, and his features are obscured by distance and the bill of a flat cap — an inscrutable wardrobe choice for the current environment. It drapes a sooty shadow over his face.
Jamie’s flesh crawls at a frightful association.
It’s him. Again.
On impulse, she tries to capture the man in a photograph. While framing the image, she advances another step. Water sloshes over the toe of one boot intercepting the very edge of the water, where the force isn’t great enough to displace her. True danger lies around a metre in. Before Jamie can click the shutter, she’s staggered back by a hand tugging her upper arm. She whirls around to Dani, who’s pale and grim with fear.
“Jamie,” she says, “you’re way too close. Please. You’re scaring me.”
“Sorry, there was just— Didn’t you see—?”
Jamie tries and fails to relocate the man. He’s gone.
“Do we need to talk? About anything?”
Jamie lifts her head from her current preoccupation: rearranging the contents of her rucksack around her still-damp cardigan. Heedless of the trail’s foreboding name, she hadn’t any of Dani’s sense to bring along waterproof layers. In the end, she ties it about her waist and answers Dani’s question with an oblivious one, “What d’you mean?” From its perch on a low flat stone, Jamie lifts her rucksack and slides her arms through its straps.
Dani presses her lips into a thin line. “It’s just... you’ve been acting really weird lately. And I’m starting to get worried.”
A distraction redirects Jamie’s next response. “Hey, uh? Where’s the camera? You’ve got it in yours, right?”
“Huh? Yeah. It’s in my backpack. But, come on. Don’t change the subject. Just look at me and tell me everything’s okay and I’ll drop it.”
Jamie verifies by peeking into the main pouch of Dani’s rucksack, resting beside the spot her own recently occupied. When she doesn’t immediately see it, she initiates a cursory rummage to find the camera near the base. She says, “Dani, I know it’s heavier than the rest, but don’t put the camera at the bottom. Stack it on other things, soft things. It’s really expensive.”
“Sure thing, Jamie. Maybe next time I’ll just have you pack my things for me.”
She inwardly winces at Dani’s frigid retort. “Dani— Sorry. I didn’t mean... I’m sorry, okay?” After zipping Dani’s rucksack shut and extending it for her to take, Jamie confesses, “I haven’t been thinking straight. My head’s on funny right now.”
Concern bleeds through Dani’s discontent. “So something is wrong? Would you talk about it with me? Or can you at least let me know if it’s... about us?”
Jamie can’t bear that tone in Dani’s voice. The subtle waver of devastation, heartbreak, grief. But neither can she bear to lie to her. Initially, she elects to remain silent, but regrets it when Dani’s expression further wilts.
“Was it the letter?” Dani asks. “Was it too much? If it was too much, I—”
“No,” Jamie stops her. “No, it’s not the letter. I liked it, really. I guess I’m just... thinking a lot. About us. What it means to have this, and be a part of this. Because I’ve technically never had it before, and... I think I’m afraid of making a mess of it. Maybe I’m having that effect anyway.”
They return abreast to the trail. Dani has grown pensive at Jamie’s divulgence. She stares at the ground they tread, littered with leaves, pine needles, and the occasional hazy gleam of quartz.
At length, Dani says, “I wanna tell you not to worry, but in my experience, people telling me not to worry usually doesn’t change anything. So, I’ll say something else. Jamie, I know you... come from a lot of bad relationships. I know you’re still adjusting. I’ll be as patient as you need, okay? Because you’re the first thing I’ve been completely sure about in a really long time.”
Jaw stiff with austerity, Jamie nods.
“But you can’t... act like this. You can’t be doing dangerous things and scaring me every day. I’ll be patient for you, but I’m not going to let you get hurt.”
“You’re right,” admits Jamie. “I’ve been acting fucking mental. I’m sorry.”
In close company of other hikers, their conversation dissolves. Along the journey to Nevada Falls, they traverse another flat bridge suspended over rearing, bucking currents and scramble over a segment of trail in the midst of reclamation by deciduous roots. The path yields to the authority of dark stone again, but hazards continue to plague them. From a natural awning of rock spills a shower of water, drenching the marked trail. The sole potential detour is the stone barrier, a narrow and slick balancing act with one side’s precipitous drop some ten metres to the next ledge. It screams broken bones. They aren’t remotely tempted.
Before dashing through the shower, Dani asks Jamie, her voice disguised by splattering water, “You promise? For real this time? You’ll keep yourself safe for me, and for yourself? For us?”
It is, perhaps, the first time Jamie’s instinct of self-preservation has held meaning beyond itself. She wants to live, but not because she doesn’t prefer to die. She wants to live because each unfolding moment now entails a life with Dani, however much or little awaits them.
“Yeah,” says Jamie. “I promise.”
A half hour later, with Nevada Falls in its arrogant repose as her sole witness, Jamie writes, while Dani situates herself on a boulder’s vantage point, hugs her knees to her chest, and appears as diaphanous as the falls in her reverential observation; beauty witnessing itself in another body.
Dani Clayton, I have decided to love you. Not just incidentally, but as a conscious choice, or an act of defiance. I’ll perform it. Embody it. Every day, every hour, for as long you’ll tolerate me.
You are the only person who has ever made love to me. You are the only person who holds my jagged heart in your hands so gently, it doesn’t hurt inside my chest anymore. You are the only person who feels like home.
I’ll always be there for you. I’ll always listen and care and give you as much as I can, as much as you need. I’ll give you this letter one day. I’ll show you where my love was born; in water rushing through a valley waking from sinister winter, where every drop is a precious fleeting moment in legion. Our river of time.
Where does it go? Where will it end? I don’t know, but I don’t want to be afraid of it. We’ll ford and navigate it together. We’ll drink from it and it’ll taste like hope. One day at a time. One foot in front of the other.
I love you. My love will never sour or spoil. My love for you will be evergreen, unfailing through verdant spring or harshest winter. I promise. I promise, I promise, I promise.
Late in the afternoon, it rains. Not particularly hard, but by the time they’ve frantically looped around the trail to catch the shuttle route back, they’re thoroughly soaked. It’s mad dash impeded by caution. Stone stairs grow slick and mud bogs their haste. Halfway down the trail, Jamie slings Dani’s rucksack over her shoulder to power through the need for a break. The combined weight, exacerbated by her wet clothes, painfully chafes her skin. No measurable reward awaits Jamie’s effort. Dismal weather sees them plodding onto the shuttle with wet, squeaking steps, where they assimilate into the company of other droopy-looking hikers fleeing poor conditions.
Back at the room, Jamie cannot be rid of her damp clothes fast enough. Once they’re shut into privacy, she starts shedding articles to be hung over the backs of chairs and the shower curtain rod. She’s promptly naked from the waist up, only postponing her stripping to abruptly recall and prioritise the health of their camera.
Jamie extracts it from Dani’s spare jumper and the plastic wrap, rotates it in careful examination, and is relieved to find it dry.
Baffled by the question, Jamie dumbly lifts the camera to inquire whether it’s Dani’s point of interest. “Uh, this?”
“No, that.” Dani gestures at her shoulder.
In vain, Jamie strains to see the indicated area. When she remains unable to identify Dani’s concern, it’s clarified when Dani approaches to run her fingertips over Jamie’s shoulder blade.
“It’s all red here. Does it hurt?”
For an instant, Jamie suspects she’s referencing her scar. But Dani has seen it countless times before, and the only aspect of it that ever hurts is its memory. This area, however, radiates pain even at feathering touches. Realisation strikes when Jamie recalls shouldering a second rucksack for the bulk of an hour. While there’s no broken skin or blood, Jamie hisses at all contact against it.
As she describes to Dani how she obtained the blemish, she feels lips pressing softly against the base of her neck and forearms securing her waist. The peculiar, emergent solemnity of the moment silences her until Dani says in excruciating proximity, “You promised you’d take care of yourself.”
Her heart fusses at Dani’s voice; a perfect amalgamation of coddling, admonishment, and unambiguous proposition. Jamie’s potential responses are manifold. She could downplay the wound and its severity. Or responsibly see to its care and proceed with the day. Or she could emphasise, with tact, that not even twelve hours have transpired since their last time, or since they resolved to dial back for the duration of their holiday.
Ultimately, she replies, “Mm. I did.”
Dani lightly rakes her fingernails over Jamie’s stomach and kisses her again, closer to her hairline. A delicate shiver courses Jamie at an interrogative, “So you lied to me?”
“Didn’t mean to,” Jamie answers, distracted by Dani’s blunt nails carving heat into her abdomen and between her ribs, thawing rain-clammy skin wherever they wander.
“I told you, remember? That you’d be in trouble?”
Jamie can’t name the sensation pooling in her body at oceanic depths. Only that it exists, quite insistently, in a contradictory state of familiarity and deviance. She submerges herself in its tempting abyss by asking, “What kind of trouble? You never said.” When Dani grips the front of her jeans hard and smiles into her neck, Jamie knows, likes it immensely, and is all too eager to let herself be pushed onto the bed.
There Dani straddles Jamie’s hips, collects her face in her hands, and kisses her. She wears the perfume of earthy rain and hours-old body lotion, while her weight upon Jamie’s lap is warmly subduing. Between lingering kisses, she speaks a strained, “You’ve been so bad lately, Jamie... Don’t you want to be good for me anymore?”
She feels, and hears, Dani fumbling her belt’s metal buckle. Excitement and anticipation pound through Jamie’s veins, heating her from within. She admires Dani’s gorgeous hair, free of its plait and a shade messy. A delicate blush from their kiss, smouldering in her cheeks and lips. Eyes lucid with intent. The loose ends of her brown leather belt gripped in each hand. She’s never believed herself capable of swooning under any circumstance, but the way Dani presides over her has Jamie feeling admittedly faint. On a quiet, obsequious sigh, she answers, “Yeah.”
“Will you mean it this time? You’ll really be good for me?”
Jamie inhales sharply when Dani dips both hands into her unbuttoned jeans. A reflex erupts in her hands, aspiring to grab at Dani’s wrists, but Jamie stifles it by keeping her fingers locked around the bunched sheets. She repeats a fragile, “Yeah. I’ll be good for you.”
Dani reunites them for a punctuating kiss, then trails her lips softly over her jaw, her throat, to pause at the divot between her collarbones. Jamie’s breath hitches at a simultaneous wet caress on her chest and a hand sliding between her legs, applying pressure. Meanwhile, Dani’s mouth descends to her breast, painting a luxurious path from the centre of Jamie’s chest to a sensitive underside. At a scrape of teeth, her hips twitch into Dani’s cupping hand, which gives a delicious, reactive press. Dani tends her way up the supple slope and takes its peak into her lips with an extended kiss.
Without purpose or anchor, Jamie’s hands fret over Dani’s upper back, trying to contain her instinct to squirm or make a sound. There’s sincerity and deliberate pattern to her mouth’s teasing. The seal of her lips breaks audibly, languidly, as Dani pulls away to leave behind a sheen on Jamie’s skin. When she spares the other side the same treatment, Jamie concedes a hushed moan.
Dani hums a similar sound before reminding her, “You’re in so much trouble, Jamie. So much. You have to make it up to me. Will you do that? Please?”
Shutting her eyes, Jamie nods and utters yet another weak, “Yeah.”
A thumb presses into her bottom lip, encouraging Jamie to receive the deep and indulgent kiss Dani reserves for her. She suppresses a tremble at a tongue grazing hers, at the heat and magnitude of their closeness. Dani pulls back with Jamie’s lip caught between her teeth. Upon its release, she offers two fingers in substitute. Jamie takes them into her mouth at the first insinuated request, relishing the drag of Dani’s fingertips over her tongue, their slow push and retreat. When Dani retrieves them, Jamie pursues their tips with an appreciative parting kiss. Utter compliance burns within Jamie; a molten, malleable, wonderful substance of destruction.
Her obvious enthusiasm evokes awe in Dani. “Wow,” she voices her fond approval. “You really like this.” At Jamie’s guilty, bitten smile, Dani leans in for another kiss and speaks low beside her ear, “Jamie, my bad girl...” She pushes her hands into her underwear, adding a deliberate, “Need me to teach you how to be good again?”
Winded, Jamie replies, “Uh-huh.”
Dani strokes her in prelude, slipping with ease through her readiness before sinking inside. Jamie takes her willingly, entirely, to the last knuckle. She whimpers at the immediate fullness. There’s a slow withdrawal, followed by an equally careful reentry. The next come faster, steadier, as Dani asks, “You won’t do dangerous things anymore?” Locks of golden hair spill onto her chest as Dani stays close, attentive.
Through little jolts of mounting pleasure, Jamie can hardly comprehend the question. After a moment, she sighs, “No,” and gives a soft moan when Dani rewards her with a brisker pace.
“You won’t be mean to me anymore?”
Guilt writhes through Jamie’s chest. “Dani,” she pants in genuine apology, “I’m sorry—”
Dani kisses her, profoundly, to assure Jamie that she knows her needling was in good fun, and so is this. After leaving Jamie thoroughly breathless, she repeats her question, “You won’t be mean anymore?”
“No,” Jamie manages. At the height of every thrust, Dani lingers for a half-second to afford Jamie proper appreciation. She savours the heel of her palm grinding against her, and the full, substantial presence of Dani’s fingers curling deep. A curse escapes Jamie’s lips. Dani feels good, so good. Better than usual, even, now that she’s speaking to her like this.
She’s been badly behaved, and now she’s in trouble. This is a reprimand. This is punishment.
This is, in fact, none of those things. But the threads of fantasy tumbling through her mind devastate her with arousal. They’ve never had sex like this before, possibly with reason. Jamie, so wet and accommodating to the scenario’s demands, may later agonise over what occult piece of her has stirred in delight.
“Tell me again,” Dani implores. Her voice breaks over the occasional word in sympathy. “Promise me you’ll be good?”
Jamie nods, groaning aloud when speech fails her.
Dani repeats, “Promise me,” so ardently it resembles a plea.
She can’t. She’s too close, driven too far up the ledge, to articulate anything useful. Jamie stumbles into finishing without consciously chasing it. Suddenly she’s there, enveloped by it, trembling and clutching and letting bliss pry a breathy exclamation from her throat.
Dani never stills her hands. She carries her through and maintains the attention, saying, “One more, Jamie. Show me you mean it.”
Eager to prove her commitment, Jamie invites Dani to have her however she pleases, for as long as she pleases. A slightly superior angle inspires force to the extent of Dani’s comfort. She drives hard enough into Jamie to rock her over the sheets, unwittingly reigniting pain in her raw shoulder from the friction, but she won’t espouse roughness. True aggression is not within Dani’s nature. Rather, she leans into authority and firm assurance, and for Jamie, it is always enough. Her enjoyment peaks in a delirium of penance, sustained by her slick ache and throb around insistent digits, curving inside her to divine effect.
Dani’s name rises on her voice. She wants to be spoken to again. She wants the once virtually unattainable affirmation of indeed being good. More than anything, she wants to be good. Good enough for Dani. Good enough for herself. Good enough for love. Even as Dani dedicates every ministration to her pleasure, Jamie won’t achieve fulfilment without her praise.
Fortunately, Dani already intends to sate that need. She tucks her spare hand beneath Jamie’s head to lift her into a haphazard kiss, then whispers against her lips, “You’re being so good, Jamie... my good girl.” Her forehead meets Jamie’s in tender confrontation.
This one hits harder — much harder — than the first. Into the side of Dani’s neck, Jamie muffles a cry built in relative silence. She feels frail, wrecked, rattled apart by the turbulence of some primordial emotion. Like a tree split down the middle by a shock of lightning, or a mountainside demolished by an avalanche. The intensity might’ve overwhelmed Jamie, had Dani not been present to soothe her through its rough ebbing.
A stray beige thread rises from a seam in the bed cover. Jamie pinches it between her thumb and index finger, tugs to no avail, then rearranges her grip preceding a second attempt. This one extracts the string completely; multiple centimetres from an expected two. The seam goes lax in its absence.
Jamie reclines back against Dani, who’s launched a valiant attempt to plait her hair. Dry clean clothes hold them comfortably. The radio is on, tuned to one of very few and sporadic stations within reach. Its little woodgrain box spouts weather and local news reports, textured by prickling static. Rain batters their lodgings in a tinny barrage. Hunger expands its void in Jamie’s stomach.
“So.” Dani hums a contemplative sound as she fondles Jamie’s hair. “What should we do? About dinner?”
Earlier, while manually washing and hanging clothes to dry over the shower curtain, Jamie proposed they journey to the eastern side of the valley to dine at a hotel restaurant she can’t pronounce the name of. As a date. Perhaps their first date as a committed couple, as far as terminology could formalise such an occasion. As soon as the rain lets up, Jamie said. And Dani, wringing a pair of soap-sodden socks over the bathtub, beamed at her in agreement.
But the rain has not relented. The deluge, turned nocturnal, erodes Jamie’s optimism into mild dejection. It’s looking increasingly likely that dinner shall again involve some degree of improvisation.
“More sandwiches?” Jamie blandly suggests. She’s placated by Dani’s thighs bordering her own, and the consistent tugs at her hair so gentle they resemble a massage. “You ever eat breakfast for supper?”
“Yeah. But you really need eggs or pancakes to make it work. Cereal for dinner is kinda depressing.”
She jumbles her hands together in her lap, pondering their options. The ambient rain and radio broadcast succumbing to static fades into a single drone, buzzing through the stillness and sapping the air of colour. Otherwise, it’s quiet in the room. Jamie wants to take refuge in it, but the air is so saturated with unspoken expression that the quiet is more a symptom of longing than peace.
Jamie asks, “Can we talk? About earlier?”
Concern suffuses Dani’s tone as she lowers her hands to Jamie’s waist. “Are you okay? I didn’t hurt you or anything, did I?”
“No,” Jamie is quick to answer. “No, I’m fine.”
“Is it about... that thing you liked?”
Her face heats at the question. Jamie is grateful Dani can’t see it from her angle. “I mean what happened on the hike. Well, maybe we should talk about that too at some point. And the, um. Escalation? It’s not just me, right? We’ve been a little out of hand, recently?”
“You think it’s a problem?”
“No,” she flatly answers. “Just something to understand. Anyway, shelve that for later. What I wanted to say was... I figured you should know what’s been going on with me. Do you remember, back at the manor, when you told me you’d sometimes see your ex-boyfriend?”
She feels Dani nodding against her shoulder before answering, “Yeah. Eddie.”
“So, lately I’ve been thinking about my parents a lot. And today I could’ve sworn I saw... my dad. Across the river, just standing there. Hands in his pockets. Wearing his cap. As if he had something to say to me.”
Dani is silent for a worrisome stretch of time. Eventually, she unequivocally asserts, “You’re not crazy.”
The reassurance makes Jamie smile in fatalistic amusement. She is crazy. They’re all crazy, somehow, sometimes. But it rarely warrants a label whose sole purpose is to disenfranchise an experience. The arms encircling Jamie’s waist hug her tighter, steadying her against self-doubt and creating an environment of unconditional affection and understanding as Jamie is encouraged to further explain her haunting. This shadow which, tethered by grief, will not let go across decades, a sea, and an entire continent. For it is not a pursuer of Jamie; it lives within her.
Dani thinly slices and distributes their last apple between two mugs of hot oatmeal, melts a pat of butter into each, and adds cinnamon originally destined for her morning coffee. She asks Jamie, who reclines lazily against the bed’s headboard, partially tucked beneath the sheets and onlooking, “Do you know why you’ve been thinking about them lately?”
Following a contemplative inhale, Jamie says, “I think so.” She sits upright to receive the enamel mug and spoon Dani hands her. Once Dani has comfortably settled in at her side, she continues, “I’ve been thinking about all the ways I’m like them, and how I don’t want to be.”
Before replying, Dani nods and fidgets with the corner of a paper napkin cupped beneath her mug. “You really think you’re anything like them?”
Jamie shrugs and peers down into her dinner, a typically dull beige paste made irresistible through Dani’s perpetually good instincts. Her first spoonful, crowned by a sliver of cinnamon-dusted apple, melts a rich, warm sweetness onto her tongue. The miraculous flavour makes speaking an easier feat.
She answers, “My mum — she was a right mess, that woman. Followed the whimsy of her heart wherever it took her. Never satisfied, always chasing a feeling. And my dad, he was always angry. Helplessly angry. Which might actually be the worst kind; lashing out like a wounded animal with nothing left to lose. Sometimes, I realise... I’m just the same. The only thing really separating me from them is deciding not to be. That’s it.”
“You say that like it’s barely anything,” Dani comments. “Sounds like quite a lot if you ask me. And maybe you are like them, except, as a better version. Someone they’ve could’ve been if things had been better.”
She spares Dani a brief, appreciative glance for her novel perspective.
“You’re not never satisfied,” says Dani. “You’re not always angry.”
“I used to be,” Jamie quietly admits. “Leading up to, you know, prison, I was all those things. Didn’t know what to do with myself. Didn’t know how to cope. So I’d stir up trouble, steal things, break things. Told you a while back, didn’t I? About the car radios?”
Dani issues a solemn nod.
“Gardening’s fairly recent. And that thing I know annoys you sometimes? When I get all finicky? Wasn’t always like that.”
“I don’t think you’re finicky. You just... like things a certain way.”
Doubt draws a line in Jamie’s brow. “You don’t think that sounds finicky?”
While collecting another spoonful, Dani supposes, “There’s probably a better word. Like, methodical?”
As per usual, Dani is being too nice and forgiving.
“I’m like that because I have to be, more or less,” says Jamie. “Ever since I learned that if you do things a certain way, other things turn out as they should. Things make sense. You reap what you sow, for good or ill. Living like that fixed a lot of problems for me. But every now and then, when I do something stupid or impulsive, or when I lose my temper... I see their faces, like they never really left.”
For several minutes they eat and maintain silence within the lamp’s fiery glow. Once all the apple slices are gone, leaving a homogenous porridge at the bottom of their mugs to scrape at, Dani keenly asks, “Why now, though? I mean, why would you remember them now, as opposed to other times?”
Jamie prods at the beige remains of her dinner, ruminating. “Well.” She draws a breath. “Probably because of us.”
“On account of my parents being such a disaster, and how completely they destroyed their relationship. I worry some of it’s leftover in me. The capacity to be terrible.”
Disbelief shines in Dani’s gaze. “You really think we’ll end up like that?”
Now that Jamie’s fear weathers the judgement of external perception, it does sound feebler, and less plausible, than the stormy shadow of doom it once cast over her mind. She shakes her head and turns to meet Dani’s eyes.
Softer, Dani asks, “Then why would you worry?”
“I don’t know,” Jamie sighs, growing increasingly frustrated with herself. “I guess, because... I think they loved each other, at one point. It wasn’t always bad. When I was little — I mean really little — my mum would still kiss my dad. She’d hug him. She’d make his favourite dinners when he had time off work. So I keep wondering: how can something good turn so foul, so quickly? What bloody kind of darkness corrupts people like that? What the fuck’s inside us, that makes us do terrible things to each other?” She clutches her mug hard enough to instil an ache in her hand and adds with hushed, dour significance, “And how do I know I’m stronger than it?”
Silence engulfs them anew. Dani rises to collect their dishes and says nothing more until they’re back in bed, where Jamie settles into the wound that is the night.
Gusting rain fills her head, a plaintive groan at the edge of speaking. The dark is deep and her longing is deeper, running beyond all threshold of conscious time and detection. Unexpectedly, Dani weaves soft fingers into Jamie’s hair, draws her into an embrace, and tucks her chin over the top of her head. While clutching Jamie fondly to her chest, Dani whispers, “Will you hurt me one day? Are you going to break my heart?”
It is, perhaps, the most horrifying thing Dani has ever said to her. Jamie wrenches at the vulgarity summoning an acute, torrential urge to sob. She can only shelter from it by emphasising, “No. Never,” and turning to press her lips into the front of Dani’s nightshirt.
Dani continues to thread her fingers through Jamie’s unruly locks. Her affection never lapsed, even as her question lurked unanswered in the shadows between them. It occurs to Jamie that she might’ve known her answer all along, and didn’t pose the question for her own satiation, but to elicit Jamie’s self-reassurance. The immensity of conveyed faith gouges a hole in Jamie’s chest, only to immediately refill to its brim like water rushing in from a new spring. It’s almost too much to contain. She feels too small for the breadth of Dani’s trust and tenderness. But still it flows and flows with every rhythmic stroke against her head; a whispered, I know, I know, through the ebb of kind fingertips.
Out of their inertness, Jamie lifts her arms to encircle Dani’s waist. She flattens her hands low on her back, smoothing over creased cotton, and vows to never generate need for such a question ever again.
Tuesday, 24 May 1988
In the morning, Jamie abruptly drops to her knees, striking the short blue-grey carpeting hard enough to sting. She peers into the slot of linty darkness beneath the bed and each nightstand, seeking a steely glint among dust. Before she can stand to dig a torch out of luggage, Dani notices her frantic search and says, “Um. You looking for something?”
Jamie returns her stare from over her shoulder. A metre away, Dani holds a mug of tea, dressed in dawn-pink short sleeves and denim shorts cut mid-thigh in anticipation of the day’s sudden muggy heat rising like a fever after a night wracked by rain. A confounding clatter of ice cubes sounds against enamel when Dani lowers the mug’s base into the palm of her hand.
“Yeah,” Jamie breathes with urgency, straightening her spine. “Have you seen my necklace? The herringbone chain? I had it on yesterday; could’ve sworn I left it on the nightstand.”
Dani recalls the previous evening. “I remember you taking it off after we, uh. You know. I think you put it in your suitcase’s side pocket.”
She scrambles to her feet and investigates the suggested location. Sure enough, Jamie fishes out her chain with a relieved, “Oh, thank fuck,” and fastens it around her neck. Cool metal kisses her chest as it slips beneath the collar of her shirt.
Mild bafflement settles over Dani’s expression. She wears it throughout the next hour, but refrains from inquiring into what Jamie does not readily volunteer.
Before leaving the room, they plot a course. Roads are traced on a paper map by the ghosting tip of a pencil. The day’s trip to Glacier Point shall consist of one long, scenic detour out of the valley’s western mouth, a southeastward loop into mountainous elevation, to a legendary summit overlooking the gorgeous expanse enclosing their current position. Access by the main road is three days old; a week early this year, granted by the diminishing treachery of snow and ice. Later in the afternoon they’ll stroll through Cook’s Meadow, and in the evening, seek a table at the Ahwahnee Hotel’s premier restaurant, provided they can cobble together acceptable evening wear from their limited holiday wardrobe.
They finish packing their rucksacks, slather sun cream over exposed skin, and head out to their hired car. It’s another excruciatingly bright day. There’s not a cloud in sight. The sky is a summer ocean; shining, lulling, endless. Completely amnesiac to yesterday’s inclemency. Jamie averts her stare before drowning in the vast blue, and shuts the car door upon climbing in.
During their departure from the village, they stop at a petrol station to refuel. Their prices are highway robbery in spirit if not in practice, but an absence of surrounding civilisation provides virtually no competitors against which to reasonably adjust. Begrudgingly, Jamie acquiesces to the dingy price board’s demands, parks at a pump, and exits the car to pay the attendant inside the store. Dani retrieves her wallet from a minor pouch in her rucksack and tags along, asking Jamie if she wants any sweets.
“Sure,” she answers as they stride together over warming gritty asphalt. “Anything’s good. I’ll have one of whatever you’re getting. Unless you’re getting one of those chocolate-coconut things.” Jamie shakes her head. “Abominable.”
“I don’t understand you,” Dani gripes. “I love coconut.”
“It’s the texture. It’s like chewing on candle wax whittlings or some shite.”
“You just have bad taste.”
While Jamie adamantly besmirches one of Dani’s favourite confectionery ingredients, a short stream of chatting and chuckling young adults pour from the store’s advertisement-plastered door; two men and two women. One woman — a tall brunette with a pair of sunglasses perched atop her head, gleaming in the white sun — steps behind one of her friends to politely afford Dani and Jamie more space to pass. The woman’s smile carries into her momentary glance of acknowledgement.
Dani swivels her head for a longer look. The motion is brief, but Jamie catches, processes, and addresses it within seconds. As they step into a slice of cool shadow cast by the storefront’s awning, Jamie delays gripping the door’s handle to face Dani with a nascent, surprised grin. “Were you looking at her, just now?”
“Her.” Jamie nods over her shoulder, at the departing brunette well out of earshot. “You were looking at her.”
The glance Dani begins issuing in the indicated direction is cut short. She faces forward again, suddenly too shy to take the woman back into her sights. “No I wasn’t,” she denies. “I mean, I— Why would—? I wasn’t looking at her.” Her lips purse in firm silence.
Jamie teases, “Think she’s pretty?”
“No!” Dani’s cheeks replicate her shirt’s delicate pink hue. “Jamie, stop. I wasn’t looking.”
“Okay, okay. You weren’t looking. Except, you really were.”
Dani pushes past Jamie to enter the store first, threatening, “You’re getting coconut.”
Inside the building, whose construction echoes mid-century bleakness and sepia linearity, Jamie approaches the clerk behind the front counter and approximates the cash required to see them through the day’s trip. Meanwhile, Dani browses shelves overstuffed with snacks set at similarly extortionate prices. A sign reassuring customers that their purchases help fund the national park’s operation soothes Jamie’s general hostility, but fails to staunch her haemorrhaging wallet.
After paying, Jamie makes eye contact with Dani from across the store and gestures at the car, establishing their point of rendezvous whenever Dani is ready. Her reply is a strangely diffident nod.
Jamie reemerges into the glaring mid-morning and fuels the car. Within minutes she spots Dani’s approach, but upon asking whether Dani prefers to drive again as a countermeasure to the winding roads ahead, she shrugs and assumes the driver’s seat without a word of explicit confirmation. Once enclosed within the rental car’s foreign, stuffy must of previous ownerships and countless hirings, Jamie watches her vacantly stare at the dashboard. With a reasonable measure of caution, she asks, “Something wrong?”
“No. Nothing.” Dani wakes from her trance and passes Jamie a bar of fairly simple composition: chocolate embedded with chopped peanuts, involving no coconut atrocities. She’s bought nothing for herself. Under Jamie’s persistent scrutiny, Dani stiffly reveals her concern. “I’m just... I’m not that kind of person. I don’t go looking at other women.”
“Wait. That’s what’s bothering you?” Her temptation to laugh is suffocated by Dani’s austerity. Responsibly, Jamie matches her tone to the prevailing mood when saying, “Dani, I didn’t mean anything by it. I was just teasing. I’m sorry. I won’t make those kinds of jokes anymore. But, can I ask... why it bothers you?”
“Doesn’t it bother you?”
Jamie’s brow lifts at the riposte. “If there was intent behind it, maybe. But Dani, come on.” Despite their privacy, her voice dips into hushed, conspiratorial tones. “You fancy women. You’re going to look from time to time, just spontaneously. It happens. Listen. You lived almost your whole life not realising who you are. And I’m the only woman you’ve been with. I think about that sometimes. How I’m keeping you all to myself.”
Without looking away from the dashboard, Dani quietly says, “I like you keeping me all to yourself.”
“I do, too,” Jamie concurs with a faint smile, tracing an absent gaze over the pretty bridge of Dani’s nose, to her mouth, and to her eyes again. “It’s complicated, but... when I see you looking at women — in films and such, too, not just here — I feel a little... glad for you. Knowing you have that, now. That understanding. And it’ll always be yours, with or without me.”
Dani wipes an eye with the back of her wrist and fits the key in ignition. There’s another car patiently queuing behind them. Jamie pops open the glovebox to hand her a tissue, saying, “No crying while driving. Keep it up and we’ll have to swap places, and you’ll be as green as the trees.”
A short laugh sputters past Dani’s lips as she starts the car and gears into drive.
While heading down the main highway, Jamie tears the chocolate bar’s yellow wrapper, snaps off a pre-divided section, and extends it to Dani. They consume it between them with moderate haste. Heat creeps in like an oven set to bake, waging a slow war of attrition against the car’s air conditioning. Outside, the forest celebrates the weather, bristling with emerald, well-watered cheer.
“Um,” Dani utters a broaching sound. “I’ve been meaning to ask you something. Do you... ever do stuff with me when you don’t actually want to? Just to make me happy, maybe?”
In thought, Jamie inhales steadily and twists her features. “If I want to make you happy by it, doesn’t that mean I’m wanting to anyway?”
She gives an oblique nod in concession, keeping her eyes on the road ahead. “But do you want to, for you? Every time? You know you can just... push me off, if you don’t feel like it.”
Jamie snorts. “Or — here’s a brilliant idea; might be among my best work — I could tell you if I don’t feel like it.”
“Was there ever a time where you didn’t say anything, but meant to?”
A subtle tremor is detectable in Dani’s speech, evidencing her unease. Bravery, too, given Dani’s innate phobia of difficult confrontations. Suddenly, Jamie is gored by an epiphany: this fear isn’t a new invention. Rather, Dani has dragged in its undead corpse from an antiquated life, a ruined world, where so much of her identity was cloistered by duty of appeasement. Nausea churns in Jamie’s stomach at the notion of Dani submitting herself to the whims and expectations of others, who used her as they pleased for their own fulfilment while neglecting hers.
And now Dani fears she’s subjecting Jamie to the same injustice.
Jamie unclenches the tight fist held over her thigh, containing the empty chocolate bar wrapper. It audibly crinkles while expanding from traumatic compression.
She doesn’t know how to respond. A simple no would satisfy a simple matter, but there’s more complexity to articulate. For how does Jamie say, in accurate yet palliative language, that even when traditional arousal burns low, witnessing and actively participating in Dani’s gratification enkindles a mood of its own? One that also lives in Jamie’s flesh, albeit closer to her heart? She loves to chase and achieve it all the same; the experience of being corporeally intimate and undone with a woman worth adoring.
In the end, Jamie truthfully answers, “You’ve never touched me in a way I didn’t want. Or had me touch you when I didn’t want to. I promise.”
Dani’s posture relaxes, as does her severe expression. Still, she seeks absolute clarification. “Even yesterday, when you said we should cool off a bit,” she says, poorly imitating Jamie’s northern cadence, “and we didn’t?”
Jamie concurs, “Went the opposite way, really.” She glances right, spying the dizzy smear of trees and meadows. “And, yep. Don’t see how you could’ve interpreted that as reluctant.”
A wide grin beams through the remnants of Dani’s anxiety. “You haven’t sounded like that in... ever.”
The heat roasting in Jamie’s cheeks exceeds the day’s as she smiles in good humour.
“Do you think you’d want to... do it like that again? You’re so enigmatic sometimes. It’s nice, finding things you like. And you really liked it—”
“It’s, uh. Probably a one-time fluke. Yesterday I was... sorting through something. Hence last night.”
“Oh,” says Dani. After a moment of contemplation, she repeats with greater understanding, “Oh. Okay.” Her chin dips into a rigid nod.
“Yeah,” Jamie utters at a self-effacing volume.
“Then what do you like? I mean, aside from the usual stuff.”
For once, the trajectory of Jamie’s flustering outpaces Dani’s. “I dunno, I— I just like... I mean, what I like most, is—” She briefly shuts her eyes, smiling, and recomposes. “Giving you a good time. Knowing I please you.”
Upon assessing Dani’s reaction, Jamie finds her vaguely surprised, but unambiguously glad. “Really?”
Hardly breaking a whisper, Jamie answers, “Yeah.” After a beat, she musters the nerve to say, “So, I’m going to ask you something now, and I want you to either answer in complete honesty, or not at all. Understand?”
The strict condition draws a shaky but eager, “Okay,” from Dani.
“How many times a day, on average, do you want to but don’t say anything, because it’s not a good time?”
Initially, Jamie suspects she’s going to elect silence over honesty. But Dani verbally responds, like the release of a breath held for months or longer, “Well, maybe once or twice. At most. But it’s not— usual. It’s been different lately. It’s been more, I think since we starting dating? Maybe even earlier than that. I just like feeling close to you, and that’s the easiest way to... do that.”
“Makes sense,” Jamie decides, her heart flooding with bright, reflexive affection. After mulling over Dani’s answer, she’s quick to suggest, “Anyway, let’s just... get back to it. Driving. The mountain’s coming up. Wouldn’t want to distract you, Miss Carsick. Eyes forward, both hands on the wheel.”
Dani silently giggles and obeys her behest with moderate difficulty. Until the road twists serpentine up through the earth’s heavenward flow, Dani sneaks tiny glances in Jamie’s direction, oozing enthusiasm like a poorly-kept secret. Jamie wrestles a sympathetic smile forming on her lips. It tugs at the corners of her mouth as though Dani were physically jamming her thumbs into them.
“Jamie,” she hums, unprompted.
A minute passes and Dani doesn’t follow up. Instead, she repeats, “Jamie,” testing it like a wine. Jamie has never heard her name spoken with so much reverence and benediction. If provided an opportunity to kiss her, Dani’s lips might’ve tasted berry-sweet with her name’s echo lingering like a ruby stain on her mouth. Presently, Jamie can’t, so she says, “What?”
Again, Dani restricts her intent, but Jamie doesn’t fear what’s hidden behind her smile. She knows it’s a good, golden thing. Golden as the daylight’s interwoven gossamer strands of glee, threading the mountainside roads with needlelike exactitude. Beside her, Dani is a body of paradise Jamie wants to strand herself within forever. When she says once more, “Jamie,” the melodic sound is a stamp of certitude on Jamie’s heart; a promise unending.
In her lap, Jamie writes in the shadow of her provisional jumper:
Funny, how names are so seldom said by their owners. It’s an introduction and never again. They exist for other people’s use, people who’ll bludgeon me with mine, people who’ll sap the life from it. And you, who feeds it to me like spoonfuls of honey.
The way you take my name’s raw clay and mould an endearment from it— It’s yours now. I wholly and rightfully give it to you. I wish I could be someone else to everyone in the world, and Jamie exclusively to you. Jamie, for your lips only.
Glacier Point is a well-visited, well-maintained overlook. The air is thin and crystalline, eluding time’s force of motion. Even the trees appear as objects unmoved in years, their ages indistinct, branches furred with needles so deeply green they pose an enigma to light and shadow’s delineation.
They travel a dirt path leading from the car park to the peak, where pavement twists through a few tiers of elevation to accommodate as many simultaneous viewers as possible. Morning keeps the crowds sparse. Dani and Jamie find an agreeable spot at the forward-most barrier and marvel at the panoramic view. Incredible distance flattens depth into portraiture. The waterfalls they hiked yesterday are minuscule, static wisps of white sprung from a dense forest carpet. Colossal granite furniture swells through the valley’s floor; grey, raw earthen bones exposed through grave wounding.
While leaning against the stone barrier, Jamie's eyes are inevitably drawn to Half Dome’s omnipresent, magnetic, mystic source of awe. Soul of the valley, nature’s stoic ambassador. Survivor of greatest catastrophe.
Jamie wonders if it remembers what its previous face looked like, or if it remembers ever having one. She wonders if it remembers being slowly worn away over an eon, shorn by glacial wrath. Where has it gone? Lost in collages of riverbed pebbles and trail-marking stones, in swirling dusty winds of waning memory. Yet it anchors itself here, standing sentinel over what remains and what unknowable catastrophes are to come over the next age. This one, perhaps, wrought by humanity.
There’s a certain degree of meditative contemplation necessary to extract maximum enjoyment from the outing. Because — excluding the surrounding arduous trails Dani and Jamie declined for a day’s recuperation — the essence of Glacier Point is a summit, a facilitated encounter between nature and the self, and a reminder of one’s infinitesimal stature within a sublime universe of hostile beauty. For twenty minutes they silently lean on the barrier, shoulders touching, gazing outward in the same direction.
When they tear themselves away the sun is nearly overhead in a vigilant sky. After retreating to a secluded bench near a trailhead, Jamie retrieves their bottled water from her rucksack and the lunch she bravely prepared earlier that morning. She sifts past their remaining monstrosity of an orange and a small package of peanuts, snuck there by Dani as a contingency should Jamie’s lunch prove inedible. Confident, Jamie shrugs off the insult like a layer of outerwear and hands Dani her meal wrapped shoddily in waxed paper.
It is, without pretension, a generous helping of pepperoni and sliced cheese tightly pinwheel-rolled into a tortilla; precisely the type of improvisation Jamie employed when living alone. Remarkably, it is also palatable.
“See?” Jamie says. “Told you to trust me. I’m not an utter disaster in the kitchen. Just a standard one.” She starts peeling the orange over her lap.
“You make really good sandwiches,” Dani remarks.
She glances at her, smiling. “You think so?”
Dani nods after having another bite. She finishes chewing and says, “Well, almost any sandwich tastes better when someone else makes it for you. The whole gesture, you know? But aside from that, I think so. You make them so carefully when they’re for me. You know what you do? You actually try to perfectly align the fillings inside the bread crust. One time I watched you take ten seconds to put down a slice of ham. You put too much mayo, but I like them anyway. I can always tell you really cared.”
“I do? You should’ve told me. About the spread.” Jamie passes her half a peeled orange, coated in stringy pith.
“Why? Then it would taste less like you made it.”
With dry sarcasm, Jamie says, “Guess you’re right, because that’s exactly what I want to be associated with. Too much mayonnaise.”
Minutes later, Jamie is solicited by a nuisance squirrel. It boldly approaches her, guided by a twitching nose toward the food in her hands. The instant it places tiny paws on her leg, where her white ribbed sock extends from her boot’s cuff, she aggressively kicks to give it a scare, snapping, “Shove off! Get—!” The squirrel flees into a shaded thicket with a rustle. “Fucking rats. They’re bloody everywhere. What is this, London? New York? Christ.”
Dani asks, “You don’t think they’re cute? Not even a little?”
“Dunno about you, but I’m a bit uncomfortable about wild animals cosying up to people.” Jamie digs a pack of cigarettes from her rucksack’s exterior pouch. “Next thing you know, it’ll be a bear. You ever seen a bear up close? I sure as hell haven’t, and I’ve no plans to.”
“I’ve seen bears up close at zoos,” says Dani, prying another wedge free from her naked orange to eat. “For a few years running my old school district had enough money for us to take the students. I saw some black bears, like the ones that live here. They really aren’t that big. They’re about as tall as a man when they stand up.”
“That’s big enough,” says Jamie, incredulous at Dani’s lack of hypothetical fear. While shaking her head, she fits a cigarette between her lips and flicks a disposable lighter until the flame takes.
“You just make loud noises and they run away,” Dani assures her, one cheek full of orange. “They never attack people. Statistically it’s a one in a million chance.”
“Yeah, that’s not ‘never’. Let’s... not talk about bears anymore, shall we? Especially since we’re still planning that overnight in Tuolumne. Keep discouraging me and we’ll end up pitching the tent a stone’s throw from the lodge instead.”
“Are you really scared of the bears?” Dani asks, on the verge of a laugh. “Oh, Jamie, don’t worry. I’ll protect you.”
Amused in spite of herself, Jamie swats Dani’s boot, thumping a few fingers against hardened leather. “Dani, I’m scared of a lot of things. Some of which I’ve never even mentioned. Literal bears are not one to be ashamed of.”
She draws from her cigarette, cheeks hollowing in temporary retention. Periodically, Jamie spies hikers heading down the trail at a short distance, disappearing into the trees and a steep, difficult descent. Most are in notably fair physical condition. Among them is an attractive woman; dark hair tied into a bun, legs well-toned, travelling light. Jamie nudges Dani with an elbow to whisper, “Is she pretty to you?”
Mortified and mildly offended, Dani hisses, “You promised you weren’t going to make jokes about that.”
“It’s not a joke, I’m being serious. Scientific. I’m curious to know what you like. Is that okay?”
Dani’s serious contemplation unfolds in silence. While scouring her staid expression for a hint of reaction, Jamie idly rolls her cigarette between two fingers, casting motes of ash away from its head. A hand extended in her direction catches Jamie off guard. Jamie struggles to interpret the implied request until she realises Dani’s after the cigarette, presumably to stub it out. The stab of shame Jamie suffers regarding her habit fades when Dani gains custody, brings the cigarette to her lips, and steals a lungful. Jamie spectates in bewilderment, watching the tip flare bright orange before dimming. Dani only succeeds in trapping the smouldering air within her chest for a moment before coughing and sputtering it back out, eyes wet and reddening.
“Easy,” Jamie advises her, a line forming in her brow at the odd compulsion. She passes Dani some water and permits her a moment to recover before asking, “What’s that all about?”
Dani wipes her mouth and hoarsely replies, “It’s the closest thing we have to a finger of whiskey.”
Jamie snorts. “I think they sell beer at that store in the village. We’ll get some tonight and you can tell me all about the women of your fantasies. Shit, sorry. That was a joke. Redact that bit.”
Abruptly, Dani shares, “She was pretty.” Her voice sounds far away, yet alarmingly close. “That girl, from the gas station earlier? She was really pretty.”
A nonplussed blink illustrates Jamie’s surprise. “Was she, now?”
She nods, slowly and thoughtfully, as though confessing truth to herself rather than to Jamie. “But you’re always prettier,” Dani says. “Even with the prettiest ones, I just end up thinking... Wow, she’s so beautiful. She’s almost as pretty as Jamie. How can that happen? So then I take another look, because it’s that hard to believe.”
A sweet, flattered smile appears on Jamie’s lips. Her heart twists into slippery knots at the impossible sentiment, highlighting the saccharine irony of the prettiest woman Jamie has ever known, insisting that title upon anyone but herself.
Shy cottony clouds have sailed back into the sky in time to be dyed warm tones by a creeping late-afternoon haze. During their descent back into the valley, Jamie asks, “Do you still want to take a walk through the meadow before getting ready for dinner? We could head straight back to the room, if you want.”
“No, it’s fine,” Dani answered. “We should see the meadow. It’s really beautiful this time of year, with all the flowers in bloom and the grasses green and tall. We passed it yesterday and I almost wanted to stop there instead of the trail.”
Just minutes east of the lodge sleeps Cook’s Meadow, veined with Yosemite Falls’ runoff. Creeks slither through rolling, silken grasses that dry near ranks of trees insulating the mountains. A boardwalk directs visitors over sensitive wetlands. Dani and Jamie adhere to it, the soles of their boots tapping softly on old enduring planks with every stride, creaking and scuffing along, ducking in and out of woodsy shadow. Air wafts sweetly with the perfume of blossoms and damp earth. Jamie names the flowers she sees: parsnip, azalea, lupine. Coupled birds flitter by and Dani spots a frog amid the mire, placidly engorging its throat for her curiosity before hopping away.
While sauntering at the furthest point from the loop’s inception, the waterfall’s feral whisper reaches their ears. Without warning, Dani asks, “Have you thought about your parents again, since we talked about it?”
The truth surprises Jamie. She answers, “No. Not at all.” Upon lightly and playfully colliding her shoulder into Dani’s, she adds, “Been thinking about you instead.”
Dani tries, and fails, not to vigorously smile.
Finding the sight irresistibly pretty, Jamie asks, “So what comes after this, Poppins? After we go home, to Vermont and The Leafling?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, what’s next? What’s your next wish, your next goal? The next adventure on the list?”
Growing pensive — but pleasantly so — Dani turns her gaze toward the conifer-crowned horizon. With a thoughtful sigh, she replies, “I don’t know. Being happy, maybe. Just living happily.”
“Sounds as good as any adventure to me,” says Jamie. “Happy.” She speaks the word like a foggy remnant of a dream, manifesting through will alone. “Yeah, we could do that.”
At the trail’s northeastern-most point, Jamie pauses to gaze into a wild sea of tall jade grasses starred by white flower buds. It’s the meadow’s terminus, walled by towering pine and grey shoulders of mountains farther on. She asks Dani, “Want to get lost for a bit?”
For minutes they gingerly tread the grasses. Tufts rise to their hips, caressing their legs like unripened wheat stalks. They leave as little trace as possible; manoeuvring single-file, planting steps in bald patches, and following furtive animal trails wherever they align with their path. Jamie hears a wind melting the grass into a single organism, flowing, shimmering, and murmuring, in synchronicity. By her every instinct, Jamie feels as though they’ve slipped through a sieve of reality unintended for human exploration. Somewhere above and below the world at once, suspended in the purgatorial space between one second and the next, neither real nor unreal. She leads them with diligence through the unknown, until their wandering has delivered them to the jade sea’s heart.
There, Jamie withdraws the camera from her rucksack and alerts Dani to an imminent portrait of her against the valley’s distant pine-barbed fence and granite gable. She kneels to invite the sky into her framing, thinking Dani’s face a perfect inhabitant of the interminable blue slowly blinking, like an enormous eye behind a dusky violet lid, over every second spent chasing perfection.
Dani in the infinite sky, Jamie fondly thinks. Dani, the sun in the sky.
She snaps a photo and advances the film to take another. Through the viewfinder, Dani regards her so softly Jamie cannot contain the compliment bursting forth, “No one’s even going to notice the scenery in these. They’ll be too busy looking at you.” The shutter clicks and Jamie says, “One more. This one’s yours. Do whatever you want for it.”
“Like what?” Dani asks, puzzled by the suggestion.
“We’re a kilometre out from the path. No people for quite a ways. Just be you.”
“You’re people,” Dani says with a laugh.
“Then be you,” Jamie proposes, “when you’re with me.”
The look in Dani’s eyes changes with the onset of dusk. She lowers herself to Jamie’s level, sinking below the tumbling green tides where she’s rendered invisible to all but overhead perspectives. With a breathtaking lack of trepidation, Dani tugs her shirt over her head and reaches back to unclasp her bra. Nearby, Jamie has frozen in shock. All notion of speech abandons her lexicon as she realises what she’s authorised and encouraged. Not as misfortune, but to her greatest and most delighted surprise. Dani folds her hands in her lap, assumes an upright, wholly dignified posture, and exhibits a self-assured serenity Jamie hasn’t ever observed in her before, least of all in a state of partial exposure. Her gaze compels Jamie’s admiration. Demands it, although without employment of force, but by merely existing in a field of safety and comfort of the highest caliber.
Jamie nearly takes a photograph, but hesitates at an idea striking her conscience like lightning. She lowers the camera to find and open her notebook instead. At Jamie’s click of a ballpoint pen and a sly smirk, Dani’s shoulders shake with a laugh as she asks, “Oh my God, Jamie. What’re you doing?”
“Taking a picture,” Jamie responds, “of another kind.” In vain, she tries to prevent her own quaking laugh from mangling the legibility of her scrawl.
Dani Clayton, the sun in the infinite sky. You are made of summer and dawn. You were made to be loved. Properly, completely, holistically.
It’s still springtime — last call. The hemisphere’s gone mad, and us with it. There will never be enough time for loving you. “All of it” wouldn’t suffice. May I stay mad about you forever, even after the infinite sky shuts it eye to sleep.
You’re telling me something now: that you want to, but it’s not a good time. I assure you, I also want to. I’m thinking about it. I’ll wash my hands in my bottled water so I can put them on you. I’ll bruise your lips with kisses and lose my hands in your sunshine hair. I’ll touch your chest like warm lazy morning and I’ll put you above me, put you in the sky, and let you grind me into grass and dirt just to lift you higher. I’ll ask how you feel and I’ll pray to hear “good” and “full” and “close”.
Take everything you need. Again, again. Make a mess of my hands. Make them slick, glistening servants of your pleasure. Direct and use them however you want. I love the way you feel after I’ve made you come, the way you hug my fingers in velvet like they belong there, buried deep in you. Keep me there beneath you, inside you, until your legs hurt from riding me and my jeans are grass-stained and I’ve drowned in you.
I will be your indulgent lover. In my thoroughness, you’ll never suffer inopportune need of me. I’ll keep you exhausted and satisfied in the glow of nights before and you’ll keep me at arm’s length during the day in abeyance, not wanting to over-feast.
Passing minutes inspire Dani’s scrutiny. “What are you writing, a novel?” She chases the jab with an astute accusation, “Are you blushing? You’re writing something dirty, aren’t you?”
Jamie chokes down a laugh. “No,” she blatantly lies. She resists glancing up from her entry.
“Yes you are,” Dani insists, laughing in concert. “You’re getting that look on your face.” Modesty returns from exile as Dani unfolds her shirt, pooled in her lap, to cover her chest.
By now, Jamie’s laughter has breached containment, escaping in short breaths pressed from her lungs. “No, I’m not,” she lies again.
Dani teases, “You’re such a pervert.”
“I’m a pervert? You’re the one instigating, looking like that in a place like this. I am absolutely not the guilty party here, even if I were writing dirty things—” Jamie’s faux stoicism shatters as yet another surge of humour ransacks her tone. “—which I’m not.”
“Then let me see it,” says Dani, folding her legs beneath herself to gain height. As soon as she attempts peering over the juniper cover of Jamie’s notebook, she promptly shuts it and holds it away.
Jamie says, “Maybe I’ll read it to you later, when we’re alone.”
Dani waves an arm through the air, gesticulating at the sheer dearth of human activity for a kilometre in every direction. “Aren’t we?”
“Then come here and I’ll read it to you. Among other things.”
Her proposition is entirely unanticipated by Dani, who stares and searches for the inherent joke, for there must be one. “Jamie. Really?”
“What?” Jamie poorly feigns innocence. She shifts over the grass, edging closer until her knees bump Dani’s. This particular stint of bad behaviour isn’t dangerous, but it is reckless, and Jamie is well aware. While so close she can see Dani’s eyelashes catching the faltering daylight, she asks, strictly in curiosity, “Do you want to?”
Dani appears to hold her breath. Then, she answers in equal amusement and evasion, “Not here. It’s—”
“Not a good time?”
“Now I know how you feel.”
Over several seconds Jamie holds her gaze, crookedly biting her lip as Dani’s shy focus flits to her nose and mouth, still keeping her shirt clutched to her chest. Jamie entertains a preponderance of possibilities. Through hazy sunset she imagines the words hidden in her notebook realised. A photograph never taken, a memory unproven. A little mirage hidden at the meadow’s forgotten edge, dissolving in a solvent of practicality and etiquette. Nature as a distant adversary and not the beginning and end of all things. Certainly not a place to be unbridled in, true as instinct and sinew, moved by seasons and internal convection and free of all the civilised suppression they cannot shed.
Jamie receives Dani’s clothes as they’re relinquished to her. At her implicit request, Dani slips her arms through the straps of her bra and lets Jamie fasten it over the shallow ridges of her spine. Her touch bathes in the rich warmth sunlight has pooled there. Her fingers skate over her sides, then take hold of her dawn-peach shirt to help Dani back into it. As Jamie leans in for a gladly-reciprocated kiss, her hands glide beneath the hem of Dani’s shirt, sliding upward until they rest in the most comfortable reserve of heat in the centre of her sloping ribs, just below her chest.