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Let Me Stay Tender Hearted (Despite Despite Despite)

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Peonies are growing out of the gravel. They come up through the loose grey pebbles, their buds testing the air, huge dark-red flowers all shining and glossy like satin. Then they burst and then they fall to the ground.

Life, you know, is like that. You're born, you live, then you must die. This is the natural course of things. It's beautiful.

The peonies are a small reminder, growing strong through stone, looking fragile with their soft petals, and it's an illusion, but one you appreciate.

The peonies are the first thing you see on your first day at the huge house. Peonies and other wild things. There are flowers and kind-faced people; a smiling lady and a grave-looking man, a kind-eyed woman, clad in dark colours to match her dark lipstick. There's a girl with a straw hat and a flat basket and a small boy with trembling fingers hiding behind his mother's skirt. There is a man, with an impressive mustache and a fidgety manner, slightly apart from the beaming family, his apron covered in flour, eyes distant in space and time.

You tuck your head down. You smile at them. They look happy.

"Jamie," you say as you clasp hands with the grown-ups. The housekeeper, with soft hands and reddened knuckles, smiles a kind smile. The toes of your shoes go in and out of the tiny stones on the curving road and you feel underdressed and underprepared and completely out of place. You have a couple of years behind bars tucked into your belt and not much else and you know it is all over, but you can't shake it off. Not yet.

(You also know how to steal without getting caught. You know how to punch without breaking your fingers. You know how to touch tender and sweet without feeling it all the way through.)

"Welcome," says the lady of the house, and her smile is the best smile you've seen in a long time. It's 1982. You will be twenty-six years old next birthday. You've been shut up in a place you don't want to revisit, even in your memories, for longer than you deserved. Now it's time to live.

The people talk. The small boy and the girl, who is slightly older than a toddler, hang around their parents' legs, not sure they can step closer. You watch the peonies out of the corner of your eyes. You know they shouldn't be here because it's the wrong season, but nevertheless, they are right there, in front of you, growing out of the path itself.

Life, you know, is strange like that, and you're not sure you're thinking about flowers anymore.

 

//

 

You're exhausted and excited and you can't stay awake as late as usual. You go to bed and sleep at once. Then you are dreaming an uneasy dream. You're in a fenced yard where laundry flaps on a line. It's old laundry, the kind people don't use anymore. No one else is there.

When you wake up, you wonder if the lady of the manor realises who is going to tend to her delicate flowers, who is going to take care of her vast, green, oppressed gardens, and something pricks behind your eyes.

You're a convicted felon. You are a convicted felon. You can never scrub your history clean of that, no matter how hard you try, how far you run, how stubborn you fight. There are bars in your past and a uniform. There are rules and there is a yard and most of all, there is a girl, too kind and too good and too soft to be locked up, just slightly confused, begging you with hands and mouth and tears to save her.

"Jamie, please. Please. Please," she cries in your memories and you are a fool and a coward and an idiot for nodding yes.

Felon is a strong word to have attached to you, but true nonetheless. It has a smell to it, this word – musky and oppressive, like dead flowers in a vase, like a choked greenhouse. Like rot. It smells nothing like sunshine and nothing like turned earth and nothing like living.

When you wake up, you whisper the word to yourself, brutal and hammering and harsh, as if it's your name. As if this is all that you are. You don't like punishing yourself for past mistakes, but it's a thing to remember. It rustles, like a long skirt across the floor, like good sheets under naked backs. Like something you can never ever get rid of.

You're a felon, Jamie. You'll be good to remember that - the voice isn't your own. It's your mother's.

 

//

 

You are a little more than a child, fresh out of prison, and your new flat and your new job and your new duties feel like freedom. You drive a truck Lady Wingrave insists you must have, and you drink beer sometimes in the small pub above which you're sleeping.

Miles and Flora are a never-ending fountain of questions and you want the summer to be over, you want them to go (you want them to never leave). It makes you feel slightly uneasy, these mixed feelings you nurse toward the small children, and you're grateful when Hannah Grose materialises out of thin air, a weary smile on her face, her cross shining against her chest.

"Children," she says, "Leave Miss Taylor alone."

"Jamie," you say automatically, grumbling under your breath, and Hannah's smile widens.

Miles hangs around you more and more as the summer stretches out. He's a good boy with a tendency to nag, and he remarks on your work, on your dirty overalls, on the rotten smell of the trees. He asks about your life before you came to the manor, why you never stay for dinner, if you ever saw the desert. He climbs fences you carefully pluck him off of, he rummages through tools, he cuts his finger on a thorn but he doesn't cry.

"You ever been to London? Do you know how to use a hammer? When you get married, will you still work for us?"

You don't answer most of his questions because he's too small and too innocent to know the answers and because some things should be forgotten by everyone and never spoken of again. Miles doesn't realise his questions cut deep. He doesn't yet know what your silence means.

"Do you have a boyfriend?" Flora is too small for this sort of question, but she asks it nonetheless, eyes wide and flat like an owl's in the torchlight. She's a small kid, something slightly older than a baby, and she's chattering away as if nobody explained to her that kids her age don't care about this stuff.

Lady Wingrave smiles her secretive smile and takes Flora in her arms. You laugh a hollow laugh and try not to think about a girl with ginger hair and bluish skin and deep brown eyes the likes of which you've never seen before. Lady Wingrave squeezes your shoulder and you pretend you're not choking on foul memories, on a betrayal you will never repeat again.

 

//

 

You learned in prison your rough hands are good for more than punching and fucking – something that came as a surprise because you spent too many years ignoring nourishment and good work for the sake of strangers' smiles and cheers, for various voices panting your name just so, not always good but always satisfying.

Now you tend to flowers, green and blue and purple and red, a deep thick red. Thick strangled tongues. You don't touch and you don't punch and you don't fuck. Instead of skin, your fingers sink into damp soil. Instead of bruising, your hands bear the marks of a job well done.

Roses aren't your favourites but Lady Wingrave has ideas and you follow happily, planting and weeding and tending to the silent little creatures with no urgency, with comfortable contempt. You have an idea for the gardens, but maybe you'll keep it a secret just a little while longer until the family leaves.

"Jamie," Lady Wingrave says one afternoon. "Are you all alone in that flat of yours?"

"Don't care much for the company," you say with a shrug and hope you won't have to explain.

Lady Wingrave sighs. "But aren't you lonely?"

"Reckon I've got plenty of socializing right here."

Charlotte Wingrave's smile flutters. She looks sad.

"You can always stay the night if you'd like. Have dinner with us. There are so many unused rooms in this house, and I bet Hannah would love to have someone other than myself for company."

You lift your head from your work, hands deep in the soil, dirt caked under your short fingernails, sweat trickling down your temples and neck, dampening your upper lip. You stare at Charlotte Wingrave right in the eye, not sure what the right answer is.

"You don't have to," she says gently. "Just know that you can."

Your heart clenches and kicks out inside you and then you smile. You smile and nod and don't answer because the thought of having somebody to listen to breathing next to you, listen to a heart beating, listen to snorts slicing the night, only reminds you of other places, dark and distant in time and space, that you had the misfortune of occupying, and you don't want to hurt Lady Wingrave but you also like being alone.

"Cheers," you say and Lady Wingrave nods before walking away, leaving you to tend alone to the coming garden.

It's nice, being alone. It's quiet and boring and something you can appreciate.

It's a long way from trouble.

 

//

 

Sometimes, your life is not as lonely as you want it to be. Sometimes, there is a woman, blameless reputation and seeking hands and shy eyes, seeking things the local blokes cannot offer, eager as they might be. Those stormy-eyed women are drawn to you as if you possess some priceless but infernal treasure. Their interest is not innocent by any means; they intend to sacrifice their virtue to you – they long to entice you into shadowy corners, to converse in low voices, to confide, to find release timorously and with quavers as if inspired by fear.

"Like this, like this, like this," they pant and leave your hand smelling of them for hours later. "No, no, no," they cry as they come and you feel dirty and young and stupid.

You don't know the secret of your allure. You're pretty enough and distant enough but there are prettier girls in the village and there is an easier manner to scratch an itch and the knowing, lurid glares you get when stepping into the only pub in town is something of a mystery you don't care for.

You are a place where those girls, those women, those seeking souls can go, and sometimes it's a burden but most times it's a way to pass the time. There is something of a life and death power in you and they know you won't talk. You won't speak to them. You won't betray their secrets.

So you kiss them and open their legs with tentative hands. You trace their bodies, you slide gently inside them, you hold their hearts for one night, one night only, and then you part ways.

You don't know their names.

They don't know yours.

 

//

 

When you were small, when your mother hadn't vanished yet and your father was deep inside the earth, when your brother just started learning there are things he can get away with if he does them quietly enough, you tried to fit in.

"You little rat!" Your mother used to say, with Denny poking his tongue at you from behind her back. "You little monster!"

You used to hug your skinny arms around yourself because you thought that if you hugged yourself tight enough you could make yourself smaller, make yourself tiny enough to fit. There was never enough room for you, at home or at school or in the playground. Anywhere you went you were wrong in some way, but you thought that maybe if you made yourself smaller, then you could fit in, shave off the edges, make the shape just right.

"You little bitch! A whore, just like you mum!" Those were ugly words you got used to pretty quickly, and the shaven edges and the hugging arms did nothing for you to fit easier.

Your hair was always coming wild and curly like a beast from under your cap. Your hands were always dirty, your knees always bleeding, your nose not clean enough to warrant a sympathetic look. You were an outsider. A monster. A different kind to the beating monsters you came to know well enough before your tenth birthday. A different kind, but no less hateful.

When you got bored of trying to fit in, you thought maybe you should do something to prove them right. To show them what a real monster looks like. Give them a good fright.

If they want a monster so badly, you'd figured, eleven and blazing with rage. You ought to provide them with one.

Though in the end, the only one suffering was you.

"Gone mad," your brother used to say in what would be the last year you ever saw him. He said that as if 'mad' was a direction, like east, as if 'mad' is a different house you could step into, a separate place to go to when everything else fails. You'd seen mad people and you knew they didn't go anywhere. They stay near you and somebody else comes in.

Also, you knew you weren't mad. You were just angry.

The stale perverted men who smelled like sausages and damp clothes and beer didn't talk much and didn't call you names too often but you still sunk your teeth into their flesh, screaming bloody murder, their filthy minds open to your too young eyes, their intentions clear.

Nobody was calling you names after your family was scattered to all six sides of the world, yet your mouth still tasted bruised and your cheeks were dark.

"Lie still, and it won't hurt that much!" But you were done lying still. You were done being passive. You were done being sad and small and scared so you kicked and screamed and drew blood.

"I'll give you something to scream about!" But you weren't sorry for yourself and they couldn't touch you once you started kicking.

Once you start feeling sorry for yourself they've got you where they want you, so you clenched your teeth and thrust your fists and refused to sink. You refused to kneel and refused to wring your hands in anguish and you burned like red-hot coals, no tears shed, no confessions made, no forgive and forget and pity granted.

"Come now, lassie. We're old mates." But you're not an old mate and you're spitting anger.

By sixteen you've learned all sorts of things before you run. You learn to laugh quietly, to hunger away from people's stares, to stop needing and wanting anything, lest they find it out and use it against you.

"I just want to help," is what most of them said, and it meant they wanted you to help them. "Just want to help you, Jamie." This is how they got through the door. You knew it then and you know it now. They say they want to help but what they're really after is gratitude. Gratitude is what they want. They all have kind voices but with other desires beneath and you're not fooled at ten. You're sure as hell not fooled at twenty-seven.

 

//

 

You wake up to a beautiful pink sunrise with the mist lying over the small town of Bly like a white soft cloud and the sun shining through the layers of it all, blurred and rosy like a peach gently on fire. There is a fresh light outside the naked window, and that is what woke you. You struggle upright, blink your eyes, trying to get up, stiff-limbed, from the rustling mattress.

Your flat is small and the walls are empty, no pictures nor curtains nor other decorations breaking the off-whitish walls. There isn't even wallpaper covering the old greasy paint. Nothing to look at.

The manor is different. The horizontal view is something to admire, big and old and gloomy but with so much history it's hard to look straight at it, with all its huge windows and stone parapets and chimneys sticking out from the roof. The lake is different; heaves and surges, gentle waves pulling in against small shores, that is somehow frightening. The gardens are different; green, beautiful, so much work to be done on them it never ends. You like the house better than your lonely, orphan flat.

When you step out of your truck, there is a gust of rain pattering against the ground, low tattered clouds scudding above your head, and yet you work. You work until it's time to eat and then you work some more.

There are willow trees with long green grass all around you that bend and thrash. White mist blows past it, covering red and blue and yellow flowers in a veil of natural wind. There is a mild turmoil to nature today, and you like it.

You don't notice it's the end of the day till you can hardly see where you step and Hannah comes out of the house to call you for tea before you leave for the night.

 

//

 

You spend a few quiet years in Bly, working, muscles burning, heart comfortably contained. You scratch your palms and gain new, exciting scars you only notice when they stop bleeding. You sweat from dawn till dusk; you feel your body getting harder, smaller, stronger.

Hannah Grose and Owen Sharma are wonderful companions and you grow close to them. When the Wingraves visit, the weather is usually hot and the kids are loud and you're left somewhere in the shadows, letting Hannah and Owen take over, though you still step up when Miles ruins part of the vegetable garden and Flora cries bitterly over ruined stockings. Everything is wonderful. Everything is easy.

But there is an unexpected collapse to the happy tableau. Instead of an amusing row down a quiet stream, there is a overtake of catastrophe, an accident overseas, something that leaves the small world in this green haven clinging to a broken spar.

Lord and Lady Wingrave are dead. Henry, the smiling brother with his lopsided grin and ever-ending reassurances, is thrown about and is sinking fast. When he visits, he is drunk out of his mind, no longer light-stepped and joking, and Peter Quint is doing all the talking. Then he disappears completely and two sullen, sad, wide-eyed children are thrust into Hannah's gentle care.

There are no more loud screams. There are no more gleeful shrieks. There are no more ruined gardens and you find that you miss the turmoil. You prefer the kids ruining your work than sitting inside their rooms lost and lonely.

The maids are dismissed, Dominic and Charlotte's wing is off limits and the house, the huge, beautiful house that used to smell like strawberries and salt and summer is smaller somehow, a scary place of complete silence, dark and damp and chilly.

The children, small enough to recover fast, are stomping around, unhappy. Miles especially is causing trouble, small and petty and angry. He bellows, closes doors behind him just one note short of a slam and Hannah tries her best, her absolute best, but the boy is inconsolable, dark-eyed and resentful, and out of his element.

You don't blame him. You know how it feels.

 

//

 

You spend some time away from your remote, quiet flat, not because you're asked, but because you can't make yourself leave, not with the kids so distant, not with Miles's eyes so dark and Flora's lost expression. Not with Owen chewing on his lips until he draws blood, not with Hannah lost and sad and spinning in circles, out of her element.

So you stay.

You walk along the paths, through the mud, holding tools. You step over puddles, around piles of branches and leaves, past trees in bloom in the fenced gardens, their tassels, their flowers like pale yellow-green caterpillars dangling, and somewhere, in the distance, dogs are barking.

You work. Your work roughens your hands even more and you like it. It's hard work and leaves little to no room for thinking. It's a good thing, because then you don't have to wonder over past years, where, under the beating sun, Charlotte Wingrave helped you water seeds.

There is a feeling around the house, a feeling of being wide awake and watchful. It's like being wakened suddenly in the middle of the night by a hand over your face, and you sit up with your heart going fast but no one is there. Underneath that watchful aura there is another feeling still, a feeling like being torn apart, torn open, not like a body of flesh because it is not painful, but like a fruit; and not even torn open as it is, but like fruit too ripe and splitting open of its own accord.

Inside the fruit, there is a stone and this stone is weighing heavy on all the tenants of the manor.

Miles throws a stone through the greenhouse glass, shattering pots and turning them over. Flora cries herself to sleep, her mother's old dolls clutched tight in her tiny fists. Hannah Grose doesn't have it in her to be mad but you shake Miles by the shoulders and sneer at him that being sad doesn't warrant him a pass to throw stones at things, even things he owns.

You expect him to spit and scream and throw a fit. Instead, he folds into you and stains your overalls with hot tears, gasping and choking on feelings he cannot process. Cannot own up to.

"It's not fair." He cries and you smooth his hair and say nothing because there is nothing to say.

He's eight and it's not fair. It's not. It's not.

 

//

 

Your father used to go away, far away and for long periods of time. He went for so long, sometimes you were confused as to who this strange man was, walking around in your small house, ruffling your hair, and kissing your mother. He would go, and when the job was over, he would come back. He had dirty hands and a bad cough and after spending a couple of days home, he would go away again.

When you were small, your father returned home one day to find your mother's belly swollen and big. He was a tall and handsome bloke, dark-haired and slightly wild, but he loved your mother and he was gentle when others may have been cruel.

He didn't argue and didn't scream, though the child growing inside your mother couldn't have been his. He puffed and huffed and said, "What are you bringing another brat into this bloody world for? Just another mouth to feed."/

Your mother said, "Is it my fault, then? You mean to say you've got nothing to do with it at all?" And something died in your father's eyes when he didn't answer.

You were too young to understand what's going on, though it caught up to you when you grew older. The night your father left again, you put your small hand on your mother's belly, which was round and tight like something that isn't exactly human flesh, and you asked if in there was another mouth to feed. She smiled a sad smile, soft and tired, so unlike her usual sneering self. You got used to your mother being angry at you, with a mouth as foul as a running sewer, that this version made you tremble with fear.

"Yeah," she said then. "Another mouth to feed."

You remember you imagined an enormous mouth floating around in red space, eating away at your mother from the inside, and you began to cry because you were scared your mother would die and even though her strikes hurt, you couldn't imagine a life without her.

In the end, it wasn't Mikey who snatched her away from you. It was fear and her own shortcomings.

 

//

 

After Lord and Lady Wingrave die, you dream strange dreams. You open doors and inside there is water, like a sea, or a big lake. Before you can stop yourself, you go down, pulled by some unnatural force you cannot fight. The water closes over your head, a stream of silvery bubbles rising from you and in your dream, you can't breathe.

You hear a ringing, faint and shivery laughter of a creature you cannot see, though you know who she is. There are hands caressing you, but they are wrong, not human but not beast and not the hands you want.

(In your dreams, you are longing for a certain pair of hands, soft and small with a strange golden band around the fourth finger, and they are not among the ones who touch you sometimes.)

Then the hands that are cruel and ugly drift away, abandoning you and you can see a figure on the lake's floor, dressed in black and red and white, dressed in a plain, simple dress you think doesn't suit the figure but clings to her body with delicious ease.

You call out to the figure. Take me! Take me with you! Drag me down like you did the others! But the figure is gone and you don't know why you wanted to die.

You wake up, your heart is pounding and the sheets and comforter are tangled around you. The pillow is on the floor and you're soaked with cold sweat. You lay quietly in the dark of your small flat, reflecting, thinking, trying to understand. There is a crazy, burning lust pressing deep inside your chest and tears prick your eyes.

What is this? you think. What's all this? But you've got no answer and you can't shake the distant shadowy image of the woman on the lake floor for the rest of the day.

 

//

 

In the summer, when Miles is back from boarding school, looking somehow older than his years would suggest, Henry hires an au pair to look after the kids. It's a bold move, one driven by Hannah's screaming matches with him over the phone line, and one you think comes at a dear price.

Henry Wingrave used to be a good, loving man. You remember a time when he used to make regular trips all the way from London to the big house, with presents and a belly laugh and secrets Miles and Flora drank like sweet juice. Now, Henry Wingrave's foot doesn't graze the gardens (his gardens) and he makes a terrible effort not to pick the phone (his phone) when Flora fancies a small chat. He doesn't smile and he doesn't leave his office and he pretends nothing bad has happened (though it did. It did.).

"He's busy, love," Owen tells Flora gently, and you make a huffing sound and go back to the gardens, digging in the dirt and scratching your palms on the rough wood of the spade, because you can't listen to sweet lies, even if they're meant to protect a small creature like Flora. When you come back to the house, Hannah pulls you into a hug and smooths her hand between your shoulder blades, smiling softly.

"Twat," you mutter.

"I know," she says. "But it's difficult for him, too. We must not judge him too harshly."

"Judge as harshly as I like," you grumble when Hannah's back in the kitchen and you're washing your hands. "The prick."

Rebecca is a beautiful, fun-loving young woman with bold black eyes and a soft manner that doesn't go along with her big dreams. She is generous and sweet and the kids almost trip over their own feet in their haste to get her to like them. She is neat and cleanly dressed and Peter Quint's eyes never leave her when he drops her off, even as Flora drags her by the hand toward the statue garden.

You whistle while you work. It's a tuneless whistle because you weren't built for music. A branch snaps behind you.

"You like being the help, don't ya, Taylor?"

Peter has his lighter open, an unlit cigarette between his lips. You take a drag from your own cigarette and look at him dumbly. It's a good thing you practiced your dumb face in prison because otherwise, you'd punch a hole in his smug sandy face.

(Fucker).

"S'alright," you shrug. "Know my place. Reckon it's enough for me."

But it angers him that some people have so much and others so little. He cannot see any divine plan in it. He is talking in mean jabs, his accent thick, his words almost slurring with rage. You think it's just talking and there is no harm in this big tall man, though his eyes gleam and his mouth twitches and you know the look on his face far too well.

"Well, darling. It's not for me."

"Nothing wrong with it, though."

"Aye, you're right. Some people were born to be servants."

You drag hard on your cigarette, holding the smoke. "Way I see it," you say and exhale skywards, "some people were."

He widens his eyes at you, smiling his handsome, flattering smile. You don't understand how women like it, but they do. Lady Wingrave had found him pretty enough to moon over. Even Owen said he looked good. The only one, other than you, who seems to be immune to his charms is Hannah. Which you appreciate deeply.

"I know your sort," Peter says. You smoke your cigarette to the filter and toss it aside.

"Yeah?"

"Aye." He gives you a hungry stare, licking his lips subtly as if he longs to devour you. His eyes are shining with a dangerous light. "Trust I do. You know, Taylor. There're a lot of sharp rocks ahead."

"Guess there are. There have certainly been enough of them behind."

"Your sort don't know how to make themselves better," he says, and there's a mischievous smile tugging at his lips. He smells like smoke and lies. Like a hot lamp. Like the devil.

"Survived them," you shrug. "Christ knows it's in my bones."

"In the blood too, eh?" he says. Then he throws his half-smoked cigarette and walks away, eyes trained on the horizon, peering behind his shoulder, at the same spot where Flora had dragged the new governess.

 

//

 

There are things about the house you don't understand. A quick matter that makes the kids cringe away from shadows, hide under tables in thunderstorms, shriek with frightening urgency. There are shimmering lights and gloomy silences and headless bodies that are just laundry drying out, and even though Miles and Flora insist on ghosts, you've never seen one.

Still, scared as he is, Miles makes Flora the object of his frightening, and even though Rebecca is not into scolding and Hannah is too tired to chase them down and it's not your place, there is a great deal of unhappiness involved.

Sometimes Miles will make a moaning sound and Flora will shriek, scream, cry in a piercing little voice. He will chase her around the house, up and down the corridors, not laughing but screaming too loud, no delight or playfulness in sight. At other times, Miles hides behind drying sheets and presses his face to the white surface, claiming to be someone else. Sometimes he tickles his sister, but his games are cruel and soon Rebecca scoops them into the classroom and you're left to drink your tea in peace before going back outside.

You don't like this new attitude. You don't say anything.

 

//

 

You turn your head to the sun, wipe the sweat off your forehead with your sleeve. Sweat is running down your spine, under your arms, making the thick fabric of your shirt stick to your back. It's hot and you've been labouring all morning.

In the distance, Miles and Flora are tugging Rebecca along. Peter Quint is a dark unhappy shadow at the end of their little queue, sticky fingers digging into Becca's waist. He's never far away these days, eyes turned toward the small governess, not leaving her for a moment.

You close your eyes and will yourself not to think about them. It's not your place, you know it. Not something Rebecca will want to hear. You had a few chats with Rebecca, always lovely and never about Peter, but you start to think maybe it's time someone opened her eyes to just how obsessed the man is.

It makes your skin crawl.

Behind your eyes, there are deep dancing colours of red and orange and purple. They look like flowers.

Peter is glued to Rebecca. She has her arms around his waist. Some call it love. Others call it despair. You think it's merely an indignity, just how much she suffers for him.

It's not your place, so you say nothing.

 

//

 

You're not too fond of spending time in the house these days. You much prefer your gardens and the greenhouse, where you can dig in the dirt and get mud on your boots and work another scar into your skin. You don't mind the small repairs, the lightbulb changes, the paint covers in the corners. You don't really mind anything, but nothing has the same air of soft comfort as spending the day outside, away from walls and doors and windows, from shrieking voices you love, from Hannah's loving probing at your private life like a concerned, long lost mother.

You start noticing a change in Rebecca Jessel about the time Peter Quint makes regular visits. He's staying the night more and more and in the morning, when you park your truck, you meet Hannah's angry eyes and it's all you can do not to go looking for him through the house.

Then Peter Quint goes missing with a quarter-million of Henry's money and poor Rebecca's heart, and something dark covers the small haven you came to think of as home.

Rebecca is often late to wake the kids now, or call them for dinner, or to keep track of their whereabouts throughout the day. When she's in the kitchen, she no longer talks to any of you, least of all with Owen. She doesn't hear when you're talking to her but appears to be listening to something else, and she is constantly looking out through doorways and windows and over her shoulder as if waiting for him to reappear.

Rebecca doesn't laugh anymore, nor does she attend to her work with the children in her usual brisk manner and you find that you're worried for her.

You hear Hannah question her tentatively and Rebecca's hard laugh, so unlike herself. When you stand close to her, not attempting anything, you notice her smell had changed. She smells like melted snow and nutmeg and despair. Something you know all too well, and you tell yourself your worries are misplaced. No woman such as Rebecca would harm herself over a man. Any man.

Rebecca is restless, melting and sad and lost as if Peter Quint was a string to a kite and with him gone, nothing holds her to the earth any longer.

"Someone should point out that this is a moment. For you," you tell her one cold afternoon. Rebecca's face is damp and clammy and she looks like she needs to confide in someone. She's restless and nervous and has dark circles beneath her eyes.

"A moment you have been waiting and waiting and waiting for, and it is finally here, and you're too busy moping to even see it." Your temper is short and Rebecca's sad eyes push you to almost spitting the words. You need her to see. You need her to understand.

"I thought I should speak to that. ‘Cause I'd want someone to do the same for me."

Rebecca looks lost, completely out of her element and you will yourself to be softer, gentler. She doesn't deserve being hurt and she doesn't deserve your angry righteousness and she doesn't deserve that bloody fool, Peter Quint.

"If there is anything, at all, that I can do to help." You dig your fingernails into your palm, deep inside your coat pockets and Rebecca wipes a single tear from her cheek. "Please tell me. I'd be happy to do so."

"Thank you."

Later you think it was not the right thing to say and it's the first time in a long time you spend your night wishing you could change things.

 

//

 

The lake is fogged over and looks dark and forbidding, like a land not fit for human habitation at all. There are clouds above your head, birds screaming like lost souls, and rain in the air, soft and warm, the air itself thick and swampy, like oil clinging to the skin.

A single figure stands on the shore, small and unmoving. You see the body a split second later, floating face down in the water.

"Fuck."

You don't struggle to lift Flora's frozen frame into your arms. She wraps her legs around your waist and you caress the back of her head, pulling her down to your shoulder, trying to shield her from what she cannot unsee.

The girl you've got in your arms is not moving, barely breathing. You run to the house, murmuring things you don't believe in into Flora's ear.

"It's okay. It's okay. Everything is going to be okay."

But things are not okay and Flora's in a kind of scary stupor, a series of compelled and somnolent responses to firm demands of the doctor. There are no tears, no screams, and it takes Flora a day and a half to find her voice. When she does she gasps and cries and withdraws. Hannah tries to comfort her but she only wants you and you almost break your back sleeping in Flora's small bed for two nights in a row.

Then on the third day, she wakes up almost as cheerful as before, though there are clouds in her eyes and she and Miles don't talk about Rebecca for more than two weeks. When they do, Miles is about to start a new semester in his school and Flora makes a point of staying indoors, next to Hannah, hiding behind Owen, and the cheerful pursuit of life is not restored.

 

//

 

After you find Rebecca's body, you don't cry. You feel as if it is you and not Rebecca that died. You sit, paralysed, watching Hannah pour hot chocolate into Flora's shocked open mouth.

You don't know what to do next so you sit on the sofa. Owen puts a small glass in your hand.

"Drink," he says gently, and you do.

You don't remember, later, who took her body out of the water. You don't remember talking to the police or Henry cooing something over the faulty line of the phone. All you remember is Rebecca, arranged with her hair down and eyes closed and her pretty face brushed clean in the same clothes she's drowned in. You remember Hannah brushing her hair, saying a body shouldn't be buried with the hair knotted. You remember Rebecca looking pale and delicate, like a spring flower, and the children standing beside you in the small church, not crying but shell-shocked.

Owen whispers something in your ear. He looks unshaven and rumpled, but you can't hear him.

 

//

 

There is some sort of accident, a scary incident in school, and Miles is sent back home on Henry's orders. Flora, more than ever, is inconsolable at his return. Miles has a grim look on his face and he refuses to talk about what happened. Henry calls, but Hannah is the one who does all the talking. Miles just stands in the corner, angry and huffing, and when you steal a biscuit from one of Owen's tin boxes, he pinches your arm.

"Mate," you tell him, angry and cold, away from Hannah, in a dark corner near the library. "You do that again you're getting your ear twisted."

"You wouldn't dare," he says, eyes blue and burning, daring you to hurt him.

"Try me."

He makes a move to stomp on your foot, but you're older and slightly bigger and you have the advantage of a wild youth spent wrong. You twist his ear between your thumb and forefinger, strong enough to make him yelp, not strong enough to leave a mark. You don't want to hurt him, but this can't go on. You're not Hannah and you won't be rumpled by a ten-year-old. Kids are people, and people need to understand some boundaries are in place for a reason.

"You bitch," he spits. "A bloody bitch, Taylor." And when he's gone, hot tears burning two clear paths on his plump cheeks, a cold dread settles over you. You've heard these words before, in this exact house, with Peter attempting another murder of your roses, but never from Miles. There is something wrong in the way the words spill from this child's lips and later when you're shrugging on your jacket, on your way out, Miles has a wild look of confusion on his face.

"What is it, mate?" You call to him, and he smiles a watery smile and hugs you around your middle. You rub his back, pat him twice on the shoulder. "You alright?"

"I don't know. I can't seem to remember most of today."

Hannah has an alarmed look on her face. You nod at her as if to let her know it's fine.

"S'alright," you tell him and pull him into another clumsy hug. When you look into Hannah's concerned eyes over his head, you know Owen was right. There is something wrong with Miles.

 

//

 

Flora sleeps for almost two days after Miles comes back and no one can wake her up. You abandon your garden and sit with Owen in the kitchen while Hannah runs from Flora's bedroom to Miles's, downstairs to make steaming cups of tea, bringing down plates of food the kids didn't touch.

When Flora does wake up she can't remember where she is or what had happened. She keeps asking after Miss Jessel and will not believe any of Hannah's careful explanations, Owen's gentle coaxing. She cries and tries to run out of the house, saying Miss Jessel is lost, that she has gone to the lake where the Lady is waiting, and she mustn't because something horrible will happen if she steps into the water.

For the next few hours, Flora searches for Rebecca in the house, up the attic, and down the cellars, trembling with fear and shock and fever until she's exhausted and too weak to move.

 

//

 

You stumble outside into the sunlight. It's too bright for you, too harsh, as if you've been closed up in a dark room for a long time, although the house is far from being dark. It's the mood around the children that is dark and the silent ghost of Rebecca, still hovering over you, months later.

Her death has affected everybody so strongly. You've seen death before. Too much for your liking, but this one is so thoroughly dead, so real and absent, it's a blow to your sanity.
You've seen death but they have been specimens. You have never caught them, as it were, in the act. This is different. Rebecca Jessel is different.

You want to wash your hands, though they are not dirty. Quint's hands are the ones that have her blood on them. You know it's not your fault. Was never your place. Rebecca was the picture of open smiles and clean sheets and cheerful young spirits. And then a dire surprise. A loss of memory and life and you're having trouble breathing. No wonder the kids are acting so strangely.

You've placed dainty flowers on Rebecca's grave when it was fresh, and you still do it sometimes, on your free Sundays. When you do, you remind yourself to push through. Live now. Live today. Don't look back.

You remember the way Peter Quint leaned so close to Rebecca as if she were not a person, but a precious treasure to be kept safe. You didn't like the way he pressed up against her. But it wasn't your place. It was never your place. And Quint's little remarks made you keep your distance even more, keep yourself out of their way.

"I know what you are," he once whispered in your ear, grinning big and humorless.

"Doesn't bloody concern you."

"I wonder if Henry will feel the same way."

He never said a word, but now that you're outside and free as air, you may do whatever you like. Peter Quint, with a quarter-million, is also free to do whatever he likes, and Rebecca is dead and buried underground, caged in a dreary grave. Not that she cares now.

You can't get the image of her, face down in the lake, out of your mind. Your blood is boiling. Your world is red and angry and shaking. You wish, more than anything, you had the cold hand and the steady heart of a surgeon, but you are Louise and Dennis's child. You are deeply and completely furious and you never knew how to keep your anger at bay, slipping on desire and lust and more emotions than you know what to do with.

You're too prone to violence, and you're not one to slip. You've learned some worthwhile lessons, in prison, nonetheless. How easily people die, for one. How frequently, for another. How cunningly spirit and body are knit together. A slip of the knife and you create something scary, something forbidden.

You take a deep breath. Inside you are lurking monsters. Scattered bones and bloodied history and too much heartache.

You close your eyes.

The angels also, you remind yourself in a voice that sounds a lot like your assigned psychologist's in prison. Like Hannah's whiskey one. Also the angels.

 

//

 

Never look back. Take one day at a time, but keep walking. Don't stop and don't look back and leave the past in the past.

Never look behind you.

"Why not?"

You never liked to talk, let alone crammed in so close, in a cell you could never escape, paying for others' sins and your own stupid misguidance.

"Why not?"

Because the past is in the past, and regret is vain. Let bygones be bygones. Let them stay where they belong. You may think about them, but don't pursue them. It's not for you to pursue them.

"Sound advice."

You know what became of Lot's wife, don't you? You do know your Bible?

"Know it's there, right in the beginning."

Well. Lot's wife turned to a pillar of salt because she couldn't let go of the past. She looked back and became a statue. If you ask me, that's a waste of a good woman, that is. Not that women aren't better for a touch of salt.

"And the point is?"

Don't look back.

 

//

 

In the distance you see a woman walking. She has an olive-green skirt and a huge red backpack and she's swaying slightly, as if under a great weight. The wind blows behind her, ruffling her hair, light like golden sunshine.

You pause your work and take a breath, sweat running down the side of your neck. She's someone you've never seen before and she's looking around her with curiosity, pleased at what uncovers before her eyes.

Your hands are dirty and brown with mud. You can taste the hot weather at the back of your tongue.

Nothing curious about the house, you think. Not curious as this strange woman.

The woman intrigues you. A stranger, on the manor's grounds. At first, you're alarmed and you abandon your spade and the flower beds in favor of trailing after her at a safe distance. She doesn't seem half-dangerous, but you can never be too careful.

Then Flora shrieks with delight, happier than she's been in a long time.

"You must be Miss Clayton!" says Flora, and you're laughing quietly, embarrassed.

Jamie, you think, You're the village idiot.

You smile to yourself. Owen left early this morning at Henry's bumbling request. The new Marry Poppins. And an American. Miss Clayton is her name.

This Miss Clayton bends next to Flora, pointing at something the small girl has in her hand. One of her talismans, you guess, though you can't see from where you're standing. She speaks in a loud, ringing tone, good and happy and excited. She sounds so young. So fresh. The picture of innocence.

By the time you go back to work, you feel much better.

 

//

 

The new addition to the dinner table is something of a puzzle to you and you take a moment to compose yourself.

She is young, blonde, and pretty. Her shoulders are swathed in a pink jumper, soft, and pastel, and pushed back. She has a straight nose, dainty mouth, an expression so conventionally soulful it hits you square in the face. Her eyes, even more than her magnificent mane of gold and silver, are large and gazing and full of life. Blue like the summer sky.

The afternoon light is falling from the window to the dinner table, slantingly falling through the glass high up on the wall, illuminating the corner where the new au pair is sitting. It's an image of almost medieval lines, angular clarity. A maiden in a towered dungeon, waiting for the next day's burning, or else the last minute champion to come to rescue her. There is undeniable potential in her, in her soft shoulders and hugging arms and long wisps of golden hair, arranged perfectly about her face.

And the eyes. Especially the eyes. Enormous in the pale face and dilated with excitement and fear and curiosity and everything in between, mute pleading and all as it should be. There is a mystery in them, sapphire jewels, very much like the things you spent your recent years running away from.

The eyes. Something in the eyes. Blue and bright, cut from the brightest diamond, carved from the icebergs of the arctic. There is a soft and yet unapologetic beauty about her and you are speechless.

Then you dare a second glance and the woman looks different. Straighter and smaller and more self-possessed, wearing the conventional soft shades of a nice girl. The eyes, though large, are nothing unusual. Cannot be anything but usual. There is a frank assessment in them as if contemplating the subject of something unexpected.

Nothing special, you remind yourself, stubbornly, though your breath is coming in short and struggling, and your heart is beating violently against the cage of your ribs. Nothing for you to gaze at.

You're wrong.

Dani Clayton is complete and utter trouble.

There is a gaze and a look and a soft smile, a barely-there smile, a small tug of the corners of a mouth and you think it's weird how these things happen.

One look. Nothing special. And then, you're gone.

 

//

 

Dani Clayton has a subdued recklessness about her. When she smiles, her upper teeth are showing and she has a breathless, gasping laugh, the sort you want to wrap around your shoulders like a blanket. Dani is a healthy young woman with a tang of something dangerous about her, something just slightly skewed like she isn't exactly centered in her body, peering over one shoulder at shadows no one but her can see, averting eyes from shining surfaces, reflecting mirrors.

Dani Clayton has a cloud of specific scent about her; flowers and crayons and sunshine, a warm dry smell of new sheets, of soft petals, of home. It envelopes you whenever she's close and it takes you a considerable amount of time to get rid of, long after she's out of reach and her voice is just a ring in your ears.

Somehow, you feel it's a more intimate thing, being able to smell Dani Clayton as well as sense her next to you, hot and solid and real. She gives off a womanly smell. Sometimes she smells like cigarettes, though you never see her smoke, and laundry soap and sweet shampoo. You can smell the salt on her skin, clean and natural, not a trace of sweat or scalp or dampness, just the full, strong, sweet smell that you come to associate with Dani Clayton.

You sense the alertness on your own skin, a sensation of bristle lifting. Sometimes you feel like you're walking on quicksand so you step away.

"Good morning!" she says brightly and you're nodding, humming, choking on a one-syllable reply.

You don't ask after her name for a couple of days, and nobody offers it. Hannah and Owen and the children all settle on Miss Clayton but it's not enough. It's not nearly enough.

Sometimes you think Dani is a little off in the head, flinching from shadows and grasping at thin air as if there's a ghost only she can see. But you would rather spend your time with Dani, weird and wide-eyed and slightly left of normal, than anywhere else and it's scary and jarring and very much unlike you.

 

//

 

You have a new lump in your throat whenever you sit at the table, the only time you see Miss Clayton without the separation of gardens and lawns, close enough to touch if she was inclined to.

Up close she's like diaphanous wings. Like a spring bursting with colours, layers of pale floral ruffling sprouting all about. You try not to stare at her eyes, blue and piercing. You try to ignore her breathless laughs, the white contours of her throat, and what you see of her hands – small and soft and uncalloused, so unlike your own peasant paws. She has wonderful clear skin, short fingernails, always clean. She looks like she's sculpted of whipped cream and you wonder if she's delicate like she seems.

A teacher, you think fondly, shaking your head. Can't be too delicate, running around gremlins all day long.

Miss Clayton - what the hell is her name? - is garlanded with flowers – ivory coloured, shell pinks and creamy whites, and with perhaps a border of hot house grapes and peaches.

No, you think in a sort of panic. Don't go there.

But late at night, you picture yourself in a shadowy corner with her, behind a drapery, a heavy mauve brocade, a huge tree. If you were to encircle her waist with your arm – gently, not the way Quint used to do – would she sigh? Would she yield? Would she push you away? Maybe both.

The thought is ugly. Painful. Unbearably erotic, and you turn your face from it. This isn't who you are and Dani Clayton, though simply Miss Clayton, as of yet, is not to be the subject of such thoughts.

No, you think in a sort of extreme panic, the bitter taste of it choking your throat. No.

 

//

 

"You can't choose your family," you say wistfully and suck on the cigarette with a mighty force. Your lungs burn and you hold the smoke for a long minute, then release it skywards, coughing slightly.

Dani raises one eyebrow. She's Dani now. You know her name.

"Can't you?" she asks in that way she does, voice rising high, surprised and curious at the end, with the softness of never speaking too loud. She's always curious. So damn curious. And those eyes. Good Christ. Those blue eyes.

"Tell you this," you say and dig your hand that doesn't hold the cigarette deep inside your coat pocket, forming a secret fist. "Wouldn't have chosen the parents God gave me if I had the choice."

Dani makes her breathy production of a laugh. "Yeah," she says in her American way. "Yeah, you can say that again."

"Not the family," you say. "Nor the place."

"But you can choose the people you keep around you." Dani has a strange glint in her eyes. In her brilliant, cutting, sharp blue eyes.

"Yeah," you say and hold her gaze. "You can."

 

//

 

The grounds smell different now that the seasons are changing. Not bad, but somehow darker. The gardens have been weeded and cleared, but the smell stays no matter what you do. Different. Cool and damp, like moss and earth and old leaves. You don't trust this smell because it comes with the image of two blue eyes, a shaking smile, a quivering manner. It comes from too-familiar conversations, too easy 'hello's and too sad 'goodnight's.

Dani is walking with the children, chattering about something you can't hear from where you're standing. You look at her with the late sunlight in your eyes, look at her with Flora and Miles beside the peonies and suddenly she's surrounded by golden haze, as if gold dust has fallen down out of the sky all over her, and you hear her laughing her breathless, choked laugh.

You're hot and tired and hungry and covered with dust and mud from spending the day on your knees, digging in the soil, and Dani is too far to try and talk to and there's a slightly embarrassed, slightly bitter, slightly sorry feeling in your chest, squeezing at your heart.

 

//

 

"Always busy, I see." Dani has a big smile on her face and dark circles under her eyes. She seems bone-tired, but there's briskness about her and you straighten your back and wipe the sweat from your brow with the back of your palm. You're aware you must smell like a long day in the mud, not pleasant at the least.

"The Devil finds work for idle hands to do," you say with a flash of a smile.

Dani gives a hearty laugh. "You don't mean me, do you? My hands are idle enough."

You scoff. "With our little angels? Reckon not."

The sun is declining, and it becomes too dark to stay outside. It's a lovely, windless evening and the birds are twittering and the trees are golden in the late sunlight. The purple milkweed flowers that grow beside the drive smell very sweetly. Dani is walking beside you at a relaxed pace, something you haven't seen her do up till this moment.

"Those are beautiful," she says quietly, and you both look at the last few peonies beside the curving road and the climbing roses. Coolness comes down out of the air and Dani is talking about something small and insignificant and exactly what you need. You answer plaintively, kindly. It's a good conversation, though your heart is hammering against your ribs in a mad staccato.

You'd like to stay in the beautiful evening, with Dani Clayton by your side. There is a pain in your heart as if you cannot tell whether you are happy or sad, and a rogue thought springs in your mind about how you wish things would never change. You roll your shoulders, trying to work out the knot in your neck.

Things change. This is how the world works. This is how it is meant to be.

The sun cannot be stopped in its path, and you leave behind mad thoughts and unrealistic wishes because the world is changing, life goes on, and it's beautiful. Much better than being stuck. Much better than being carved in stone.

When you're leaving, the deep red sunset is a distant memory, as is Dani's closeness. In the dusk the fireflies come out, and they shine in the low bushes and grass, on and then off, like stars glimpsed through the cloud.

Then the darkness deepens and comes out from behind the trees and bushes and up through the lawns and the garden, the shadows lengthening and joining together. It looks like water, coming up through the ground and rising slowly up like the sea.

 

//

 

"I love sunrises," Dani sighs. She has her fingers wrapped around a hot cup of tea, her shoulders squared. Miles and Flora are running wild on the front lawn. Owen and Hannah are nowhere to be seen, busying themselves within the walls, at the kitchen stove.

Above you, the sky is a beautiful bleeding colour, with soft clouds and shining layers.

You glance over at Dani, a sort of prickling sensation settling between your shoulder blades. Dani is looking wistfully at the sunset, not seeing anything but the red sky, the end of another day.

"You're too busy to watch the sunsets," you say quietly and Dani snaps her gaze at you, blue and magnificent and slightly embarrassed. There is something else in her eyes, a sort of discomfort that comes from longing and you refuse to see it. You refuse to understand.

"I'm not an early riser," Dani says around a yawn, and you smile a crooked smile.

"Early enough to get tired by eight in the evening." You answer, and Dani laughs.

"They're the ones I do it for," Dani gestures tenderly at the wild children. "Wish I could get up with the sun, greet the day, as you do."

You don't say anything. Dani seems to be drifting in thoughts and you don't want to interrupt. It's such a small moment, such a rare one, too. Having Dani next to you, not busy and not panting and not trying to catch up with the kids. Just standing still, relaxed and blissful, allowed this moment of peace.

"You have to get up early," Dani says.

"Don't have to, but I like it."

"Why?"

You look at her, heart going wild. "In prison," you say tentatively, as to not scare her off with too many truths. "I had no idea what kind of sunrise there was. They make the windows high up, so you can't climb out, or at least not into the outside world. Guess they don't want people thinking the word out at all. Guess they don't want people looking at the horizon and thinking they might someday drop below it themselves."

"Hmm," Dani says.

"All I could see inside the cell is a usual form of light, and it's without a shape, you know? S'not a sun or a moon or a lamp. Just a swathe of daylight the same all the way through. So when I got out, figured there's no point in missing it. Makes me bloody happy, watching the sunrise."

Dani seems fatigued and also slightly troubled.

"Sorry," you say in a whisper.

"Oh, no no!" Dani says, urgent and grasping and her blue arctic eyes burn right into you as if she can see inside. You duck your head and Dani bites on her lower lip. Flora shrieks happily in the distance. Dani touches your arm.

"It's beautiful. It makes sense. You make sense."

You don't like the drifting feeling inside you. You don't like the too-kind look in Dani Clayton's eyes or the falling note in her voice, and you think that there will be trouble ahead if you keep this up, as is always the case when one loves, and the other does not.

"Yeah," you laugh a dismissive laugh and shake yourself free. "Sunsets are pretty, too."

 

//

 

Miles wrinkles his nose, nursing his leather-bound Bible. Dani sits next to him, frowning at the words.

"What happened there, then?" You knock the toes of your boots against the wall, trying to get rid of a particularly stubborn crust of mud before stepping into the house.

It's a fine day with little fluffy clouds and the sky the colour of summer, brighter than Dani's eyes, but not as piercing. The same eyes she now lifts at you, looking serious and concerned, mouth twitching.

"I think it's a matter more suited for Mrs. Grose," Dani says, desperately looking for a way out. Flora is sitting by her side, on the grass, too preoccupied with her dolls to give any attention to her brother and his digging through the holy words.

"Eh…" You don't know if it's your place. "Don't know much about that, either," you point absently at the Bible.

Miles has a slightly bewildered look in his eyes. "Jamie?"

"Hmm?"

"Can you be saved by Divine Grace?"

"Me? What've I done?"

Dani stifles a laugh and Miles looks aggravated.

"No. I mean, any of us. Because Father Stack said you can't get Divine Grace by praying for it, or any other way, or know if you had it or not."

"Then maybe you want to forget about the whole dam–" Dani shoots you a dreadful look. You choke on the word, covering it with a fake cough. "What I mean is, forget about it and go about your business. No use crying over spilled milk if you don't know whether the milk is spilled or not, eh?"

There is something depressing about the day, maybe Dani's snappy energy, or Miles's innocent questions, or it's just your mood. You've had strange dreams lately, and have been sleeping rather poorly, your muscles sore and your mind troubled, overflowing with images you absolutely cannot indulge; soft hands and blue eyes and a laughing mouth pressing hotly to yours.

You curl your fingers into a tight fist, salute Dani with two fingers to your forehead, and turn back to your garden. You sit down with your back against the glass wall of the greenhouse. The birds are singing and you don't know their names and it seems to you the saddest of all. Tears begin to roll down your cheeks and you don't try to hold them, but indulge yourself in weeping for several minutes.

What can't be cured must be endured, singsongs a familiar voice in your head. You look around. There are white daisies and the Queen Anne's lace, and purple globes of the milkweed flowers. They smell sweet and are covered with orange butterflies. You look at the branches of the trees above you and the patch of blue sky visible beyond and attempt to cheer yourself up.

You have enough breath in your lungs and language on your tongue and a roof over your head. You have a place to stay, where you can rest, and a place at a fine table, with warm people who care about you. You are free, not locked away in a cell, not rotting in a cell, not stuck behind walls of cement and iron. And you are free.

You're free.

You're free.

 

//

 

"Jamie?"

You whip your head back. Dani is staring at you from the open door of the greenhouse. Her cheeks are rosy pink and her eyes are shining.

You raise your chin in a sharp jab, a silent question. "Hmm?"

Dani is coming up the path, through the door and into the greenhouse. You're still turning the sadness and the anger in your head, a poor companion to this radiating piece of sunshine, so you turn your back and try to compose yourself.

It's not her fault and she doesn't deserve your anger, nor your viper tongue. You'll deal with Miles's cheekiness some other time, away from Dani's blue gaze and quivering smile.

Dani's electric blue eyes are shining, searching through yours, as if trying to look into your mind. There is kindness in the way she's looking at you and for the first time in a long time, you believe she means no harm.

"He didn't mean it."

"S'alright."

"No, it's not. I'm going to talk to him. He likes you very much. It's just that sometimes he's having trouble–"

"Poppins," you cut her off. "I know."

Dani nods gravely.

"Are you staying for dinner?"

You smile at her through your pain. "Where else would I bloody go?"

 

//

 

Although the day had begun fine and clear, by noon it had become very oppressive and glowering. There is no breeze moving anywhere, and the air is damp. The sky is covered over with clouds of sullen yellowish-grey but is bright behind them. Like heated metal. Like a painful bruise. It has a blank and foreboding look to it.

It's hard to breathe. You're down on your knees, weeding plants, scrubbing at the mud. It's a cleaning season and though it's usually much colder at this time of year, it's something you must do. The fact that it's hot enough to fry an egg is not an excuse. You have a job to do. The plants and the flowers, you know, need your help to grow. It's not something you are willing to let down.

Sweat is pouring off you like water, stinging your eyes, prickling at your skin.

You ignore the hot weather and the hardness of the stones hidden beneath the earth, scrabbling at your knees through the thick fabric of your denim overalls. You have your sleeves rolled up past the elbows and you're working from the far end of the garden to the front of the house, moving backward into a corner.

When the time comes for dinner, Dani comes out, wearing jeans and a light pink blouse. She has her hair up in a French braid, ears and cheeks flushed healthily.

"You're coming in?"

It's hot as an oven, with grey clouds blotting out the light, although it is not yet sunset, and still as a grave with no wind. Heat lightning flickering on the horizon, and a faint growling of thunder rolls somewhere in the distance. You can hear your heart beating in your chest, waiting for something, or someone, to find you.

"Sure. Why not?"

You don't say what you mean. You try not to look at Dani. You try to ignore the wistful look in her beautiful eyes.

 

//

 

The thunder is coming closer. You've always liked thunderstorms. When you say goodnight, Hannah proposes you stay so that you won't drive in such awful weather.

"Owen is staying, as well," Flora informs you with a delighted little squeal, and Dani rolls her eyes good-naturedly, smiling her secret smile at you.

"It's true," Dani says and gives you a brave nod.

"That settles it, then." You say, and Hannah squeezes your shoulder. Dani is smiling at you like you're personally responsible for putting all the stars in the sky and your cheeks flush bright pink. You can feel your ears burning.

When you go to bed, the bed being the sofa in the side parlour, you make sure the shutters are open so that the lightning can get in. The room is warm from the fire and you pull the covers over you comfortably, settling in.

Above you, Dani is pacing her room. You can hear her footsteps through the darkness. You think you will never fall asleep, being so close to her, close enough to go up and be right next to her, but you do. You're awakened in the pitch darkness of the night by a tremendous crashing. A violent storm is raging outside, with the sound of drums and roaring, and you are beside yourself with half-sleeping terror.

You close your eyes against the flashes of light that come in through the window. The rain is pouring down like ten thousand stones, and the house is working in the wind like grinding teeth. You're sure that any minute the old walls will split in two like a ship at sea, and sink down into the earth.

You dream about a cloudless day, about bare feet, about feathers of silver. In your peaceful dream, the air is cool against your skin, with a touch to it like velvet, and crickets are chirping. You can smell the wet garden and the sharp tang of something coppery and familiar. You can hear a soft whine, not human but not a beast, just out of reach.

The moonlight in your dream is falling over the water of the lake. Two familiar arms steal around you from the back, caressing you. They are soft hands, pink and young and tender, and you can feel a hot mouth on your neck and the back of your ear, kissing you ardently, the body of the woman pressing up against your back.

You can't turn and look at her in your dream, but the smell is a dead giveaway. You catch the scent of fabric and beyond, of sweet perfume and faint coffee and the crumbs of cookies. There is also the odour of soap.

Dani's breath is stirring the hair at your neck. Somehow, in your dream, you've known Dani for your whole life. It's not the wide-eyed au pair who sleeps on the second floor, but a different Dani, a Dani you have long been familiar with, even as long ago as your childhood. In your dream, this is not the first time you do it. You feel warm and drowsy, and dizziness of the best kind is stealing over you, urging you to surrender to her touch, to sink back against her. It's far easier than resisting, and you don't want to resist. You've never felt safer.

"Dani?" you say, but you're already awake.

 

//

 

The heat of summer comes without warning. One day it's cold, with gusting showers and chilly white clouds remote above the glacial blue of the lake, the brilliant green of the gardens, the solemn brown of the manor – then suddenly the daffodils wither and the tulips burst open and turn inside out as if yawning, then drop their petals. Cesspool vapors rise far in the back and a mist of mosquitoes condenses around them. At noon the air shimmers like the space above a heated griddle and the lake glares, its margin stinking faintly of dead fish and frogspawn and something much worse.

At night you sleep above your sheets, with nothing at all. At day you keep clear out of Dani Clayton's way, the dreams repeating themselves with vivid colour every time you close your eyes.

You don't think you can be near her without attempting to touch her and this, you know, is unforgivable.

 

//

 

The air outside in the gardens is fresh. There's a pink glow in the east, and a pearly grey mist rising from the lawns. Somewhere nearby a bird is singing, and farther off there are crows calling. In the early dawn, it's as if everything is beginning anew.

It's not so hot anymore, and after two days spent inside the cool manor, hammering at nails and fixing lights and mending cracks, engaging Miles and Flora with little jobs of fetching and running, it's good to go back outside, wrestle with shadows, get your hands in something real such as earth.

Dani Clayton smiles at you. No. Not at you. She just smiles. Dani Clayton cannot be smiling at you. She can be smiling at Owen, like all the women of Bly do. She can smile at her fiancé, the one she told you about recently. You don't know why they broke up, but it's an indication enough that she isn't smiling at you.

Dani has a new way of keeping close to you while you're confined to the inside. She smooths her hand over your knuckles, innocent and light. She touches your shoulder. She pulls you by the hand. Sometimes, when she pours wine into another empty glass, she leans into you, pressing close. One time, she puts her hand on the small of your back, to steer you in the right direction.

This must stop, you think frantically as you turn the earth. This can't go on. But nothing has been going on, and so there is nothing that can stop.

 

//

 

"Sometimes," Dani confesses. "I can't see their faces."

"Whose?"

Dani swallows hard. "Anybody's. I can't remember my mother's face correctly. Or Eddie's."

The truth is, despite everything, your family has faded, too; they've been fading year by year like a shirt washed over and over, and now what is left of them is a faint pattern. A smear of the chin. A curve of the jaw. Sometimes a phantom voice, not quite right. There are no eyes and no mouths and no faces. You don't remember what they looked like. You're sometimes not even sure they were flesh and blood.

You think of your baby brother, asleep and dreaming in his crib in the mornings, before you went to school.

You don't remember them and you know Dani is having trouble remembering her own history, the people who've made it, and it's more complicated than you can explain, more horrible than you can put into words. You don't have anything important to say, no comfort to offer, so you stay quiet and you listen to her talk.

The faces, you know, of those who make your past, are hidden by a tumbled sheet of the present. It's dark and in the darkness, you can see things, but you can't see faces from long ago. Dani can't see them either.

You try to go over the pieces of those people, counting them; noses and eyes and mouths and cheeks, the crease of brows, the colour of the hair. You can't recall and you don't know where they have gone.

"Reckon it's the present, not the past, that matters," you say, and Dani looks at you with blazing eyes and an open mouth. "Some people are meant to be forgotten," you say.

"Not you," Dani whispers urgently, breathlessly, and you want to lean in and kiss her but you don't.

"Dani…" you say, but Dani shakes her head.

"Not you, Jamie." She says, and you close your mouth and nod.

 

//

 

You're lying on the hard and narrow sofa, covered in a thin blanket you've already started to think of as yours. The sofa is filled with something that crackles like a fire when you turn over, and when you shift it whispers to you, hush, hush. It's dark as a stone, and in this room, it's also hot. You can't sleep, with Dani sleeping directly above you in her neat room, in a real bed, where she really belongs. You stare into the darkness with your eyes open and you're sure something is staring back, only you can't see it.

Black flowers are growing, shining like satin, splashes of paint. Their soil is emptiness, it is empty space and silence. You know flowers, but you don't know these, because you can't get your hands dirty in them and you think, wild with feelings you can't let out; Dani feels it, too.

You whisper, talk to me, because you would rather have them talking than have to slowly regard them, the sort that takes place in the silence, now, at night, with the black satin petals dripping down the walls.

Nobody speaks. You fall asleep.

 

//

 

"Jamie," the whisper doesn't belong in this dream, soft and tender and full of hurt. You imagine two huge, homeless blue eyes and a pink mouth, teeth sinking hard into the lower lip.

You know the passage and this corridor, the wallpaper that used to be green but now is just barely even a colour. You know the bedroom and the half-open door and you know the sound of bare feet on the floor. You know the person who is calling you, not Dani's voice, but a scratchy, angry one.

Come out, you dirty girl. When I catch you, it's only going to get worse. Come out, now. Be good to me. If you won't, you'll have to be punished.

"Jamie."

You wake up and you know where you are. The downstairs parlour, in the big house. Dani is standing over you, in a pink nightdress, her eyes worried, dark with emotion you never wanted to put in her. The sun is shining weakly through the windows, dipping the world in a sort of pink promise and her curls are loose, falling over her shoulders, covering her chest.

Your hands are numb and you can't feel the ends of your fingers. There is the smell of Dani, fresh and comforting, sleep and shampoo and American summer.

You're panting, deaf and single-eyed and locked tight shut, although you hurl yourself against the back of the sofa. You want to scream and cry and beg to god himself to let you out of these memories, things that never quite go away.

"M'fine," you mumble. Dani has her hands outstretched as if to touch you, though she doesn't. She's standing close, but not close enough to make you feel trapped. She looks worried, but also very present, something you've noticed Dani Clayton has trouble doing, unless it's a crisis. "Fine."

"Okay," she says gently. "It's okay."

There is confusion, a dark roaring, blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood, like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it.

"Sorry."

"Nothing to be sorry about," Dani says and tries to smile a watery smile that doesn't hold, and it's the same hushed tone, the same wonderful reassurance. "I have nightmares, too."

You smile weakly. Dani offers a cup of tea.

 

//

 

You spend the next day on your knees, ignoring the children and Hannah, trying to stomach Dani's atrocious attempt at tea. You wish it was not so damnably hot and humid. By ten o'clock you're drenched and conscious of a marshy smell, which comes from your body.

Dani stops by after the children are sent to wash up. Her blue, lustrous eyes are darker in the greenhouse and you think she might ask if you're alright, if you're feeling good, if you want to talk about it.

Dani does no such thing. She extends a hand, pushes a rebellious strand of blonde hair behind her ear.

"I'm so sorry to interrupt. We had a small accident with a rubber ball."

"We?"

Dani winces. "Technically, it was Miles but no harm in taking some of the blame."

"Sounds dangerous."

Dani grins. "The thing is," she wrings her hands and you stop what you were doing and look at her. "It's a very nice lamp and I really don't want Hannah to know about–"

You laugh. "Show the way, then."

Dani looks so relieved you almost hug her.

"Sorry," she says quietly when you go back to the house.

You glance her way. "As sorry as you are for what you made me drink this morning?"

Dani's eyes widen. "You didn't like it," she says. It's an accusation but there is a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.

You pretend to consider it. "It's not that. Just…" You shrug. "Not tea, as well."

"It was supposed to be coffee," Dani says desperately and you're laughing as you enter the house, and you're laughing as you fix the lamp and you're still laughing when it's time for dinner.

 

//

 

"Jamie…!"

You curse under your breath. You've been digging in the garden all day after fixing the lamp Miles and Dani managed to knock down and break almost in two. You've tracked mud into Hannah's clean floor and she's standing there with a sweep in her hands and a look of such comic bewilderment on her face you're tempted to start laughing again.

"Shite."

"Just take your clothes off in the laundry room. I'll scrub them for you. You're dirtier than the children."

You laugh at that because you can't not and untie your boots, bending almost in half. "Thanks, Hannah. You don't have to do this. I can clean up at home."

"Not likely. Just keep your muddy feet off my carpets."

That, you think, you can do.

 

//

 

You're holding a glass of water, and there is a firefly in the room, trapped and glowing with a cold greenish fire. Dani is standing in the door, her face pale and her lips stretched in a good smile, hair down. The firefly is darting about the room, like a trapped soul. Tears of sadness prick your eyes and Dani's expression changes, her smile's falling, turning into a worried look.

"Jamie?" she says quietly.

You stand in the darkness, with the sound of both you breathing, and your eyes are wet. You can hear your own heart behind your ears, trudging and trudging, as if on a long and weary road you're doomed to walk along whether you want it or not. You're afraid, of the darkness and of Dani's presence and of the torturous feeling inside your chest that you know you can never have. Not here. Not with her.

There is a great heaviness in your chest and when Dani moves closer, you want to kiss her.

Dani's voice drops to a whisper. "Jamie, are you okay?"

There's a strange light in the room, as if there is a film of silver covering everything, like frost only smoother, like water running thinly down over flat stones, and you look at Dani, at her open face and startled, staring blue eyes, and it's hot in here and you're dizzy. You have a headache.

"Just hot," you choke out. "Outside. Need a glass of water, is all."

Dani is moving her mouth, as if she wants to say something but can't think of anything meaningful to say. She takes a deep breath. She shakes her head slightly, clearing her thoughts. You have a strange impulse to take her in your arms, to soothe her, to stroke her beautiful blonde hair, to tell her everything will be alright, to contradict the storm in her eyes.

"Well," you say briskly. "Goodnight, Poppins."

 

//

 

The leaves of the trees are already taking on an August look – lustrous, dusty and limp – although it isn't yet August and won't be for a couple of weeks. You walk slowly through the streets of the village, through the wilting afternoon heat. You carry a bag of snacks with you, though you're not sure you will eat any of it, with Owen's stash of homemade biscuits waiting in your kitchen and a bottle of unopened wine.

"You have a perfectly functioning stove," Owen points out on some occasions, drunk and slumped against your bed, slurring his words a little. "You don't have to eat this rubbish. You can always cook."

"Don't know how," you always say, and Owen scoffs but never pushes. Even when he's drunk he's sweet and this is why you endure him after hours. At least, this is what you tell him. In truth, it's nice having Owen over some nights. He's easy and he knows not to overstay his welcome and he always has stories from Margaret Sharma, old ones if she isn't lucid enough this week.

"I can teach you."

"Don't need to. Can't eat much anyway after your sort of dinners."

And it's true. You take your meals and your snacks in the big house, enjoying Owen's blessed efforts. You're usually too tired to do anything but crash into your small bed at the end of each day and sleep till the sun seeps through the window and it's time to go back to work.

Both your arms hold a curious tension as if you've been pulling hard on a heavy rope. It's not the work you do in the garden, you realise. These muscles are well developed, and unless you do too much planting, the burn is familiar and fades away quickly. You realise it's been long since you strained them. They are familiar with the push and pull of hard gardening, of constant moving. The new tension has nothing to do with work and everything to do with holding yourself back.

Your head is full of Dani. Dani. Dani. You must be careful, you tell yourself. You must draw back. You must not complicate things. Dani is a beautiful, smart, fascinating woman. She isn't to live in your head; she isn't to be objectified. She isn't for you to dream of. Dani is a human being. Someone who deserves respect and you can't (you can't) keep doing this.

The night is warm and calm when you reach your flat. There is a silver moonlight. You drink some wine, only a little, and read a book half-heartedly, trying to keep your mind from wandering back to uncharted territory, to dreams of soft curls between your fingers and a hot tongue in your mouth.

You must have dozed off because you wake up to fading light. You're lying on your back with the book open on your chest, and your hair is disarranged and damp, from sweat and the shower you took before settling into bed, the night before. The cabinet door in the small kitchen is open and the blinds on the window pushed aside. You must have forgotten them yesterday, in your haze.

Your mind is still full of Dani.

 

//

 

You want to get up but your head is aching and the room is very hot and airless. You fall asleep again and you feel yourself tossing restlessly about, the sheets are rumpled and the cover has fallen off onto the floor. You wake up suddenly and sit bolt upright. Despite the heat, you're covered in a cold sweat.

It's about eleven o'clock at night when you finally get up; a beautiful night, with enough of a breeze to be cooling and not too many mosquitoes. There is half a moon and you can't think of anything as you go down the driveway between the pub and the next building. You get into your truck, slightly delirious, and drive to the house.

It's Sunday and the roads are empty.

You drive quietly, slowly, through the village, past places you don't know very well, settling into the lull of the truck on the muddy road. You drive past fields all silent and silvery, and the fences that snake like a darker braid alongside, with the bats flickering overhead and the dense patches where there is woodland. Once, an owl crosses your path, as pale and soft as a moth.

The manor is standing there, all peaceful and lit up by the moonlight as if it is gently glowing. You think about Dani and how she must be asleep on the second floor, tucked safely between covers, dreaming something wonderful and wild.

You could get out. You could get in. you could do so many things, but you don't want to wake anyone up and you know that if you show up in the middle of the night, Dani would be alarmed. She deserves a good night's sleep. She doesn't deserve you frightening her.

You sigh and drive back to your flat, trying not to think about anything but Dani and the soft gathering mist and the rustling of the slight wind.

 

//

 

When you close your eyes you can see Owen's lost eyes, his gaping mouth, his broken heart. When you close your eyes you can see Dani's nervous expression, her brave hands, the way she stood so close to you.

"I'm so glad," she had said. "You stayed." And you know she meant it. You've seen the look in her eyes under the midnight sky.

On the insides of your eyelids you can see the water of the lake moving, the blue heaps of the small waves coming across the surface, with the light sparkling on them, only they are much bigger waves and something scary, something big, is hiding beneath them. There is a dark presence in your dream, a rolling hill of sadness and grief and the waves of the lake look like they belong in an ocean.

It's been a hard week. Tomorrow you're going to drive back to the house and take Dani and Hannah to the funeral, where Owen will say his last goodbyes to a woman he loved more than anything.

The waves keep moving, with the white wake of a ship traced in them for an instant, and then they are smoothed over by the water. It's like your own footsteps being erased behind you, the footsteps you've made as a child and the footsteps you've made as a teenager, and the footsteps you've made as a grown woman, all the traces of you, wrong and twisted and never quite what you want, smoothed over and rubbed away as if they had never been, the horror and sadness and harsh hands landing on your cheeks. The petty theft, the angry punches, the years you've spent behind bars. Everything is polished like black tarnish from the silver, like drawing a hand across the sand, and it's all Dani and Dani's smile and Dani's acceptance and Dani's willingness to get closer, to step closer, to shed the fear and leave it all behind.

On the edge of sleep, you think about her and you think that there are things that have never existed, things you can't possibly know, and now traces remain, no traces of a life lived wrongly. No marks to indicate a wasted youth.

"I don't think it should be possible." She'd said, "They are opposites, really. Love and ownership." And you know she understands. There is nothing scary about Dani Clayton's understanding. Her eyes erase all the wrongs you've done; her smile tells you it's okay, the missteps you took.

It's almost the same as being innocent. And then you sleep.

 

//

 

Dani, instead of exhibiting any traces of broken rest and tough nights, appears quite calm, with her big blue eyes full and clear as though she slept sound and undisturbed – her anxiety only appears to get the best of her when you step closer, when you accidentally graze the backs of your knuckles against the naked skin of her back.

You close your eyes in want and despair and Dani gasps, shrieks almost, jumps aside and you move, worried.

"Did I pinch ya?"

Dani's blue eyes are fierce, full of light you never saw in them before. You feel like she's looking into your soul.

"No," she says in a breathless chuckle. "I'm sorry."

The memory of Dani's impossible, blazing eyes makes your time at the funeral bearable, the rainy daylight as summer. Dani's hot glare, like nothing you've ever seen, keeps burning into your skin all the way back to the manor.

 

//

 

You're in the upstairs corridor again, near the attic, where the kids play. You sense them behind the closed door of their room, listening, eyes shining in the semi-darkness. They make happy sounds. Flora is talking with her imaginary friends, Miles is humming while he reads, turning pages and chuckling at twisted plots. Your mud-caked boots ring hollowly on the boards. You think there should be a mat or some sort of a carpet here. Everyone in the house must be able to hear you.

You approach the door, your palms sweating. Your hands are shaking; your body is trembling. This is not how the story goes.

You stand outside the door, which is the same as Dani's door, but it doesn't lead to her bedroom. The sound of running water is very soothing. There is a quick indrawn breath and the smell of strawberries, crayons, sunlight on warm skin. Then, there's a hand touching your shoulder and you jump.

"Fuck." You hiss at the same time Dani lets out a very American "Jesus!"

But Dani steps closer, closer, closer. She isn't scared and she wasn't surprised by your presence. She has the advantage.

"You okay?" she asks, smiling a brilliant smile.

"Sure," you shrug.

When Dani steps even closer, you make no sound. You don't protest. She's leaning in, mouth open, breathing hard.

Tentatively she kisses you and you kiss her back, small kisses. It's the alternative to taking her pulse. Dani works her way around until she finds a vein, the one on your neck, throbbing. Her mouth is hot, a little sticky, very wet. The hairs behind her ears smell like a sweet perfume.

She bites down.

"Hey!" Dani is standing in front of you in the gardens, smiling the same smile she did in your wakeful dream. She has a plate in her hands, covered with foil. "You haven't eaten anything today. Thought I could bring you something."

"Cheers," you choke out. There is a sad emptiness in your heart and your cheeks are burning.

Miles and Flora are a few steps behind Dani, pushing and shoving and jostling each other so as to be in a better position next to their au pair. You can't blame them. You want to be near Dani, too.

There is slight anger, a bewildered questioning, reckless defiance in Dani's eyes. You cock your head to the side.

"What's this, Poppins?"

"Nothing. Just–" She waves her hands.

The days are long but Dani hangs around with the children. She's talking, attempting to cheer you up. The kids' voices are a constant buzz, like a swarm of small bees. They laugh and screech and distract you.

Your head is in turmoil, Dani sticking so close to your side. It's refreshing, exciting, completely distracting, and you get little done with her around.

"You sure you don't want to stay the night? The kids would be so happy to know you're around. With Owen gone–"

"Not gone," you say, trying to keep the conversation light. "Just taking a couple o' days off."

"No, I know–" Dani rushes on, stumbling on words, stuttering on syllables and it's very endearing seeing her so flustered. "I just mean that, maybe–"

"Alright," you say, and Dani's expression is worth the tremor in your heart, the muscle beating violently against your ribcage, like an animal trying to escape. "Why not?"

 

//

 

You don't feel relaxed. You try not to tremble, not to move too much. Dani is talking and you see how painful it is for her to open up, to risk you thinking she’s crazy.

Only, you don't think she's crazy. You think she's brave and tired and needs a rest. You think she needs someone to believe her and though you're not sure how you feel about ghosts, you believe her because that's what she needs. She believes she sees her dead fiance's ghost and you believe the horror you see reflecting in her eyes.

Dani is not crazy and so you tell her.

"Think you're surprisingly sane, considering."

Dani looks so broken, so utterly spent, you find yourself talking. Your tongue feels thick, your eyes never leave Dani's face and you feel yourself leaning sideways, into her, against your own will.

(You want to kiss her, but you want her to want it first.)

"Look," you say gently. "I know what it feels like–"

But Dani is done with talking and you're dizzy with Dani's closeness, with her special scent, with the bottle of wine you consumed for some ungodly reason.

You try to talk, to explain, to let Dani know everything is okay, but Dani leans forward, braces her hand in your coat, and crashes your lips together. There are no more words, only Dani's mouth on yours, hotter and sweeter than you imagined, and you let out a soft moan, a whispered "thank fuck" because you can't believe this is happening.

Then Dani gets bolder, she's burning hotter, and you feel her moving. She's in your arms and you're swaying in your seat, under her insistent mouth. Kissing Dani feels lovely, hot and floating and better than you ever imagined. You're melting at her touch.

Dani is pushing against you, her arms around you, her chest pressed up to you. She's deepening the kiss, her tongue rushing between your teeth and it's all you can do, planting your hands in her hair, pulling her closer to you, keeping her head steady as you explore her mouth.

Dani seems dazed and you have no doubt she wants to be here, right here, kissing you. There is a sort of wild happiness rising in your chest and it takes an effort not to laugh with glee. Kissing Dani feels right and it's only when she gasps and jumps back that you think right isn't always what you need. Right can turn to wrong in a split second and the happiness inside your chest melts into a bitter, stinging embarrassment you can't shake even as Dani reaches for you, whimpers very quietly "Jamie?" that you realise you're toffee in her hands and you shouldn't be, delicious as it might appear.

You do the only thing you should have never done with Dani.

You leave.

 

//

 

You spit the burnt coffee back into the mug. Dani, lips full and eyes large, is peering at you over the brim of her own mug, expectations and indirect curiosity all written plain and simple on her open face.

And the eyes. Good Christ. Those blue electric eyes, burning holy into your skin.

The coffee, though, is unsalvageable. It has a spongy texture and a horrible taste, both burnt and undercooked all at once. It takes a perverse talent to maltreat a coffee so completely. The coffee, you notice with a sort of horror, is even worse than Dani's tea.

There is a peculiar display of interest on Dani's beautiful face. A blend of reluctance and eagerness she displays with no shyness, a nervous flush and a conflict, painting her cheeks pink. It's a look of a child in a candy store, wanting to touch but not knowing how. Restraint. And hunger.

You feel it echo in your own chest. The restraint, you notice with difficulty, is much less determined than Dani's face might suggest.

You're increasingly conscious of how close Dani is standing to you. The greenhouse seems small and very warm, even though your breath is coming out white as smoke. The entire place is too close for comfort.

You try to detach yourself, but Dani is not having any of it. She's done playing and you can see the naked determination in her eyes. It's the sort that grips like iron, the sort no woman ever gave you.

"There's a pub, in Bly–" Dani says and for you, this whole occasion is reeling out of control. You must seize the initiative, or at least try to seize it. But Dani is rushing forward, nothing scared about her. Her mind is set. Her eyes are clear. She can read your mind like a magician and she does.

"Come on," Dani says sternly. "Say yes."

"Yes," you say and there is a new, fluttering feeling in your chest.

 

//

 

Dani is sweet and careful and overwhelming, brave as only Dani Clayton can be and you feel like a fool, like a fraud, like the biggest idiot because you've done this before, you're not supposed to be so nervous, but you are.

Dani cries quietly, mouth open, voice muffled at the thought of discovery. She writhes underneath you, all slick skin and warm hands and mouth agape. Her eyes, big and blue and happy, stare into the darkness, searching for you. You're panting, your muscles burning, worked up from touching and kissing and watching Dani falling apart under your hands, nothing neat and everything beautiful.

"Jamie," she pants. "Jamie…"

There is nothing cautious inside Dani's room, in Dani's bed. Both of you are gloriously naked, the nerves and the worries stripped away, left at the threshold. Dani is fresh and smiling, smelling like flowers and sunshine, winding her arms around you, pressing close, and you feel her breasts pushing against you, her hips, the full length of her body.

You sink into her warmth, grinding wetly on her tensed thigh and Dani laughs, astonished tiny breath of amusement, of complete glee. You graze your mouth against her neck and Dani nuzzles into you, rasping things you've never thought you'd hear her say.

It's overwhelming the way Dani, who has never had a woman in her bed before tonight, is moving with deliberate action. She takes you slowly, searching for the right angle, pushing gently between your legs. She's soft and tender but also urgent. Her eyes never leave yours.

There is burning passion in Dani, but also the gentle suggestion of deeper, slower emotion, something you feel inside your chest, as well. You utter words into her skin and you cannot resist Dani going again, again, again, until you cannot breathe.

"Like this, or like this?" you ask when you try something new and Dani says yes, she says more, she says Jamie and harder and deeper and don't stop. Don't stop. Don't stop.

You're both driven by uncontrollable desire, tossing on the sheets, trembling and gasping and crying with relief.

"You gonna tire me to the bone, Poppins," you laugh quietly into Dani's ear, still trembling with the aftershock of another heart-wrenching finish.

"You mean you won't go again?" Dani smiles a smile of gentle reminiscence. She wipes her lips and you want to taste her; you want to have her smile slipping, her legs wrapping around your head.

"Didn't say I won't. Just said I was tired."

Dani surges forward with a gleeful squeal.

 

//

 

"Do you want company?"

Dani is looking at you, breath coming in shallow, eyes wet. You listen to her, her thin sobs, her fearful truth. You try your best not to sound desperate.

"While you're waiting for your beast in the jungle," you ask softly. "Do you want company?"

You offer Dani your pinky, a small gesture she can return or not, as she likes. If she rejects your plea, if she decides not to take your hand, you'll let her go. It must be so. You will never force Dani into something she doesn't want. You will never pursue her.

The electricity between you is crackling, burning hot. Dani takes a deep breath and looks at you more closely. There are questions in her eyes, things she doesn't want, or simply cannot, ask. You try to pour as much reassurance into your smile as you can. It's a small smile, nothing big and nothing scary, a simple I want, if you want to, and it's up to Dani to decide. Up to Dani, from the moment you saw her at the dinner table.

There's a long moment where neither one of you says anything. Then Dani moves. She smiles, smooth and easy and trusting. It's a calm smile, no longer tense and fearful. The smile of a dutiful child. Of a sure woman.

Dani wraps her pinky around yours, bending closer, and you feel light-headed. You feel almost happy.

You close your eyes and kiss her wet knuckles.

 

//

 

It's strange, this intense desire you and Dani seem to display tonight. The room is dark but one lamp, the hours remaining till morning are few. The kids, with Henry and Owen, are somewhere far, far away and the panic and fear take a second seat to the fire quickening your pulse, hammering Dani's heartbeat, heightening both your lusts.

Dani pushes you back onto the bed and falls heavily on top of you, rummaging through the layers of cloth.

"Don't leave me tonight," she whispers in an agonized writhing, in real fear. "When everything is said and done. Don't leave me."

"Shh," you whisper back, smoothing golden hair away from her face. "I'm not going anywhere, now."

"It's you," Dani says, "and it's me."

She has stopped moving, her blue eyes open, looking straight into yours. The irises of her eyes are tiny, her pupils blown wide.

"You and me," you say.

"Us."

 

//

 

You and Dani pass through the gates of Bly Manor for the last time as the clock strikes noon, and it goes through your head like a thousand bells in a huge church, the likes of which you've never visited before in your life.

Until Dani is safe in the truck next to you, you couldn't quite trust your senses. You spent the last week in the house, in Dani's bed, holding Dani in your arms, letting her map your body at night and helping Henry prepare the house for leaving.

You feel slightly numb, and the objects around you appear flat and lacking in colour. Dani is the only real, radiant thing in your world.

The sun is shining and every stone of the wall seems as clear as glass and lit up like a lamp, and you feel like passing through the gates of hell and into paradise, the two located closer together, you've come to learn, than most people think.

The trees around you seem rimmed by fire. You don't look back, keeping your eyes stubbornly on the road. Dani is bouncing in her seat, excited, clad in a denim jacket, smiling so big it's contagious.

"Sad to leave?" Dani asks and you smile and shake your head.

"Not even a slight bit."

Dani leans over to you and grazes her lips on your neck. "Liar," she whispers in a light tone and you laugh.

"This place… the only home I've ever known, Poppins. Spent a long time with her, longer than I've spent anywhere else. I'm not sad I'm leaving, though," you say and wrap your fingers around Dani's hot palm. "It's familiar, however undesirable. But I'm not sad."

"Scared?"

You're light-headed. It's a hot and humid day, but there is a breeze coming through the cracked window and the weather is not too oppressive. There are some clouds in the sky, but only the white kind that does no foretell rain or thunder. Dani is sitting beside you, all doe eyes and nervous smile and twitching fingers.

"Not at all. Are you?"

Dani nods yes, then leans in and presses her mouth to yours.

"But I'm going to be fine," she says with a sure nod, eyes agleam. "We're together."

And you are.

 

//

 

You and Dani spend a couple of nights at an unprepossessing motel halfway to Vermont. The windowpanes are so grimy you can scarcely see out of them, and the blankets smell of mildew. Directly below the room, a group of loud drunks carouses till well past midnights. These are the hazards of provincial travel but you don't mind. You and Dani sleep badly, if at all. The doom is still hanging about, dark and oppressing and Dani flinches at shadows, at mirrors, at large bodies of water.

Dani's eyes are huge, her pupils blown wide in the relative darkness. She's sitting rigidly, her lips pressed together, fingers gripping the arms of whatever chair she lowers herself into. You've seen this attitude before – those in pain or awaiting a sentence. An animal's fear.

"You're alright," you tell her and she bends and presses her mouth to yours.

"I know," Dani whispers. Her voice is heavy and damp, and you cup her face. "I'm okay."

But Dani is not alright. She's avoiding sudden movements, staring at the wall as if thinking of escape. She's so high-strung you can almost feel her vibrating, like a stretched rope. You've never seen Dani so terrified. Even in Bly, she wasn't this scared. Even at the lake.

You sleep in each other's arms, pressed close together, your bodies pushing at each other in fearful urgency. Both of you have some nightmares; yours have to do with things unseen, things dark and dangerous and unknown. Dani's have to do with you and you hear her whimpering your name in her restless slumber. It pains you to see her struggling and you press her closer, whispering sweet nothings into her hair until her body relaxes in your arms.

"You're here," Dani says, not a question exactly and you nod and gently push the hair from her eyes, away from her ashen face.

"As long as you want me, I'm not going anywhere."

In the morning you rise early and inspect your options. Dani sleeps in, tossing and turning. You shower, and when Dani is functional enough to move, you both eat a ham-and-eggs breakfast before hitting the road.

You're driving, and the more you're closing in on Vermont, the happier Dani becomes. You pass roads and other rented cars, fallen trees in vast lands, fields of flowers, a dog pissing into the ditch. Wisps of mist flow here and there above the fields, dissipating like dreams in the rising light, and Dani has the map open in her lap.

The air is hazy; the roadside weeds hang heavy with dew. You feel idle, but also happy, remote from the world and close to the woman who has her hand clasped tightly in yours, smiling over her shoulder a brilliantly radiant smile.

 

//

 

You and Dani travel by trains, as part of your country-crossing trip. It's comfortable and cheap and you both sink back into the seats, pressed close together.

Outside, it begins to drizzle. After a time the motion of the train lulls you to sleep. You slump against Dani. You can feel her fingers combing through your hair, gentle and loving and soft.

In your dream, Dani comes to you across a wide lawn in the sunshine, all in whites, carrying an armful of white flowers, half wilted. When she steps closer you can see that the flowers are moonflowers and Dani isn't walking on glass but on water. Her golden hair is loose, her feet are bare and she's smiling. When you reach out to embrace her, she melts away like mist.

You wake up. Dani is a solid presence under your shoulder. She's asleep, too. You move slightly, arranging her heavy limbs so you can be the one hugging her. Dani mumbles something in her sleep, smiling, and it's all you can do, tender-hearted and melting, to bend slightly over her and kiss her brow.

 

//

 

The last of the peonies are flowering, a pink and white variety and very full of petals. You've tried your hand at moonflowers, but they're very hard to grow and Dani laughs and says both of you are too old for that now. It's something well left for the younger generation, the people who can bend their knees without worrying about never getting up.

"Too old to dig in the dirt, anyway," you say, and Dani laughs the same laugh she did forty years ago.

The scent of the flowers reminds you of the soap Dani used to have at Bly, but you might be just very sentimental.

The front of your house faces southwest and the sunlight is warm and golden, although you and Dani do not sit right in it, as both of you tend to cover in freckles if you do it too much. Even close to eighty, you're not safe from the sun.

Today you think, this is heaven, being old and weak and together, not something you could have anticipated leaving Bly, so many years ago, and this is also heaven, Dani sitting next to you, wrinkled and smiling, eyes mismatched and bright, hair still golden, though slightly faded, twisted knuckles pressing tightly into your calloused palm.

"You and me," Dani says in her cracking voice and you smile and nod, brushing silver curls from your face.

"Us." You reassure her, and this is bliss.