Actions

Work Header

Amaranthine

Chapter Text

 

Prologue - A Woman Out of Time

Amaranthine

Listen:

Reader: foomatic

Length: 12:04

 

DANI

It’s hard being left behind. I wait for Jamie, not knowing where she is, wondering if she’s okay. It’s hard to be the one who stays. 

I keep myself busy. Time goes faster that way. 

I sleep, I wake, I walk. I work until I’m tired. I cook for one and save leftovers in the fridge for when Jamie returns. I go shopping. I read. Is this how the plants feel when Jamie isn’t there to tend to them? When she is home with me they’re lying in wait, cradled by the soil, bare beneath the heavens, waiting for their keeper to return. Do they wonder where she is? I am like the blossoms, reaching, stretching toward the sun that is Jamie, yearning for the warmth of her love. At home, I water our garden, watching over the plants that Jamie so lovingly tends, hoping I can keep them alive until she returns. Everything seems simple until you think about it. Why is love intensified by absence? Why is so much of our love story defined by it?

In ages past, men went to sea, into the unknown and women waited for them to return, standing on the edge of the water, watching the horizon for a sign of their tiny ships. 

What did the women do, I wonder, when they looked for home in each other, instead? 

Now I wait for Jamie. She vanishes unwillingly, without warning. I wait for her. Each minute feels like a year, an eternity. Each moment is as slow and transparent as glass. Through each moment I can see infinite moments lined up, waiting. Why does she always go where I cannot follow?

When I was younger, Jamie was an eventuality, as inevitable as rain after days of sunshine. She’s like the tide to the moon but then I realize I am the shores, waiting as she ebbs and flows from me. Waiting, waiting, waiting.


JAMIE

How does it feel? How does it bloody feel?  Feels like shit, is what it feels like. 

Imagine you’re in the middle of hammering a nail and you pull your arm back only to find that when you move to strike the nail the hammer is gone. It feels like your attention’s wandered for just a second. Then with a jolt, you realize the pot you’ve been stirring with the wooden spoon in your hand, the apron you were wearing, the kitchen, the about-to-whistle tea kettle in the kitchen: all of these have completely disappeared. ‘Cept now, you’re standing, naked as a goddamn bluebird, up to your ankles in cold November water in a ditch off a back-country road. You wait a minute to see if maybe you’ll just pop right back to your kitchen, your flat, your kettle, your life. But after about five minutes of swearing and shivering and wishing you could just disappear, you give up and start walking in any bloody direction, which might eventually bring you to a farm. There, you have the option of stealing or explaining. Stealing sometimes lands you in jail, but explaining is more tedious and time-consuming and involves lying, which also sometimes results in being hauled off to jail anyway, so you think ‘what the hell’ and usually end up stealing just to save everyone a lot of wasted energy. You feel bad, and you try to take as little as you possibly can, just enough to survive, because odds are you won’t be there very long anyway so why bother taking more than just the essentials?

Sometimes you feel like you stood up too quickly even if you’re sitting on the couch reading a book. Blood rushes in your head and you feel like you’re falling. Your stomach might feel like there’s a bucket of ice water in it. Nausea. Your hands and feet are tingling and then they aren’t there at all. You’ve displaced yourself again. It only takes a second, you’ve got just enough time to try to stop whatever you were doing before you leave it behind, and then you’re skidding onto someone’s porch in Lancashire at 1 a.m. on Friday, August 6, 1982 and you smacked your head on their door, causing a Ms. Julia Pelham from Blackpool, to open the door in her nightgown and curlers and start screaming because there’s a naked woman passed out on her welcome mat. You wake up in a hospital concussed with a policeman sitting by your door listening to the Manchester game on the radio. Mercifully, you pass out again only to wake up again, hours later in your own bed with your wife leaning over you with heavy eyes looking very worried.

Sometimes you feel blissfully intoxicated. Everything is brilliant and has an aura, but then you’re fiercely nauseated and then you’re gone. You’re throwing up on some country geraniums, or your father’s coal-soaked work boots, or your very own bathroom three days ago, or a wooden sidewalk circa 1923, or a zoo in the 1950s, or your own naked feet in a million different times and places.

How does it feel?

When I’m out there, in time, I’m inverted, changed into a desperate version of myself. A version of myself I hated, tried so hard to leave behind. Once again I become a thief, a vagrant, an animal who runs and hides. I hate it. I hate the way it makes me feel and yet, I have no choice but to become her. 

Sometimes I wonder if there’s a logic, a rule to all the coming and going. I pray for a way to stay put, to grip the present with every cell in my body, the way I hold onto Dani. It never works. But, like any disease, there are patterns. Exhaustion, loud noises, stress, standing up too quickly, flashing light - any of these can trigger an episode. But: I can be skimming the morning paper, tea in hand with Dani napping next to me on the couch and suddenly I’m in 1973 watching my fourteen-year-old self crawl out of a foster window in the middle of the night. Sometimes they last only moments; it’s like listening to a radio that can’t hold onto a station. I find myself in crowds, concerts I used to go to, places I’d run away from. I pray to end up alone, in the woods somewhere, a house, car, on a field, in a grammar school in the middle of the night. I’m absolutely terrified of finding myself in a prison cell, a crowded shop, the middle of the motorway. I materialize from nowhere, naked. How could I possibly explain that kind of lunacy? Never been able to carry anything with me. No clothes, no money, no ID, no food. Most of the time I spend the trips stealing clothing and trying to hide. Thank fuck I don’t wear glasses. 

Everything I love is still and intimate. After a lifetime of being displaced, whether by time or circumstance, all I long for are the few things in the world I can count as my own. A life I’ve built as my own - a life we’ve built together: couch splendor, the peaceful delights of domesticity. An old book in bed, the smell of Dani’s hair after the shower, a postcard from Owen in Paris, cream dispersing into tea, the softness of the skin under Dani’s breasts, the curve of her jaw, the symmetry of grocery bags sitting on the kitchen counter waiting to be unpacked. I love wandering through the Gardens before the grounds open to the public, lightly touching the pearls of each petal, the thick brush of foliage. They pierce me like thorns of longing when I’m displaced from them by Time’s fickle whims.

And Dani, always Dani. Dani in the morning, sleepy and crumple-faced with an imprint of the sheets on her cheek, squinting against the sun. Dani with her hair falling down like a waterfall over her shoulder, engrossed in a stack of papers, nibbling her thumb as she grades worksheets. Dani chopping vegetables at the counter, munching on errant pieces that fall off the cutting board. Dani’s low voice is in my ear often. 

I hate to be where she isn’t, when she isn’t. And yet, I’m always going, and she can never follow.

Chapter Text

Chapter 1: First Date Part II

Listen:

Reader: foomatic


Monday, May 26th, 1986. (Jamie is 25, Dani is 23)

DANI

The air is warm and smells like fresh blooming flowers, although all I can see from the outside is ivy spreading over brick. I sign the Visitor’s Log: Dani Clayton. It’s only been two years, since moving to England, and though Danielle is the name in my passport, thankfully she has never existed, and here I’ve only ever been Dani. I’ve never been in the Gardens before, and now that I’ve gotten past the tall, foreboding gates at the entrance, I’m excited. I have a sort of Christmas-morning sense of the Garden as an unopened gift waiting to be explored. The Visitor’s Center is dimly lit, not having bothered with much lighting for an outdoor venue, and a scattering of other visitors pass through, couples murmuring in conversation, families with kids bounding through. I take a map and peel off to the left, not entirely sure what’s in that direction, but feeling like it’s a good place to start.

Yes, this will be a perfect place to take the kids for a school trip. Plenty of space for the wild ones to run, postage and signs for the quieter and more curious ones to read as they absorb the beautiful landscape. The map is a bit confusing though, and I pause at a forked path, unsure which way will lead to the Lake, when I hear a soft thud followed by a hiss and a hearty, “Shit,” from the hedges.

“Hello?” I turn, stepping gingerly off the path onto the grass, unsure if it’s frowned upon. “Are you alright?” I ask, prepared to offer help, and find myself face to face with Jamie.

I’m speechless. Here is Jamie, calm, clothed, younger than I’ve ever seen her. Jamie, wearing a worn wide-brimmed leather hat and coveralls stained at the knees with dirt. She’s working at the Bly Gardens, standing in front of me, in the present. Here and now. I’m absolutely jubilant. She’s looking at me pained, uncertain but polite, though I can tell she’s uncomfortable to have been pulled out of the work and directly addressed. She’d much prefer no one had bothered to approach in the first place, content to nurse her wound in private.

"Yeah, sorry, just,” she gestures to the sharp edge of a trowel, “Cut m’self. Got caught on a root. Nothing to worry about, miss.”

“Jamie!” I can barely stop myself from throwing my arms around her. She’s clearly never seen me before in her life and I bite my cheek at how surreal this is.

"Have we met? Sorry, I don’t…” Jamie is glancing around us, worrying that other guests are noticing us, searching her memory and realizing that some future self of hers has met this radiantly happy woman standing in front of her. The last time I saw her we were dancing in The Meadow.

I try to explain. “I’m Dani, Dani Clayton,” I say, holding out my hand in greeting. “I knew you when I was a little girl.” I’m at a loss because I am in love with a woman who has no memories of me at all. Everything is in the future for her. I want to laugh at the weirdness of the whole thing. I’m flooded with years of knowledge of Jamie, while she’s looking at me perplexed and a little fearful. Jamie wearing my dad’s old fishing pants, patiently quizzing me on multiplication tables, French verbs, all the state capitals; Jamie laughing at whatever my seven-year-old self has brought her for lunch; Jamie wearing a tuxedo, bowing to me as we dance under moonlight on the night after prom. Here! Now! “Have coffee with me, or dinner, or something…” Surely she has to say yes. This is Jamie, who loves me in the past and the future, and must love me now in some echo of another time. To my immense relief she does say yes, though not without a dig at ‘Yanks and their coffee’. I roll my eyes, practiced at this response of hers. We decide to meet tonight at a nearby restaurant, and I leave, forgetting about the Lake and finding a lunch spot for twenty-three kids, floating down back through the entry gates and out into the May sun, running across the street scattering small dogs and squirrels, whooping and rejoicing. It’s time, it’s time, it’s time, and it’s finally here.


JAMIE

It’s a regular day in May, sunny and crisp. I’m at work, behind a row of hedges on the path by the Lake, pruning and digging holes to check the roots. There was a mite problem last year and we’re trying to make sure the situation doesn’t repeat itself. The work is good, my hands feeling at home in the soil, but I’m feeling old, in the way only an almost-twenty-six-year-old can after staying up slowly nursing cheap scotch and trying, with practiced success, to stave off loneliness. My head is throbbing, I need a cuppa.

I misgauge the depth of the roots and the trowel ricochets off a thick stump and into my other hand. I curse, shoving my injured hand in-between my thighs, throwing the trowel into the ground in frustration. I bite back another round of curses that would make Dennis blush and am halted by a voice calling out from the other side of the greenery. I wince, forgetting the popular route by the Lake, and am already prepared to bite back patience I don’t have for some old lady or a prim young mother clamping her hands over her wee ones’ ears telling me off for cussing in front of them. Surprised when instead all I’m met with is a concerned “Are you alright?” Even more surprised when it belongs to an American. And this astoundingly beautiful blonde-haired woman pops her head over the hedge and looks at me like I’m her personal Jesus. My stomach lurches. Obviously she knows me, and I don’t know her. Shit. Lord only knows what I’ve said, done, or promised to this glowing creature, so I’m forced to say in my best worker voice, “Yeah, sorry, just, Cut m’self. Got caught on a root. Nothing to worry about, miss,” even though there’s nothing about this woman I’ll never not miss from this moment on.

She sort of breathes “Jamie!” in an excited way that speaks to a library of volumes I’ve yet to read. It makes it worse that I don’t know a single bloody thing about her, not even her name. “Have we met?” I say. The woman says, “I’m Dani, Dani Clayton,” and thrusts her hand out expecting me to shake it with half her level of enthusiasm. “I knew you when I was a little girl,” she says, like it clues me in on anything, and invites me out to dinner. Dinners are not something that I generally partake in, but I find myself accepting, stunned.

She’s glowing at me, even though I’m dirty and mused and not quite at my best. We’re going to meet for dinner and Dani, having secured me for later, wafts away down the path looking very happy and pleased. As I stand, dazed, I realize that a massive winning lottery ticket chunk of my future has somehow found me here in the present, and I start to laugh. I cross the path, and as I run across the lawn to peek over the brick wall of the gardens, I see Dani running across the street, jumping and whooping, and I’m near tears and don’t know why.

Later that evening:

JAMIE

At 3:00 p.m. I get home from work and try to make myself presentable. Home these days is a tiny but perfect flat above a small but boring cafe in town; I’m constantly banging parts of myself on inconvenient walls, countertops, and furniture. There are a ridiculous amount of locks on the door, a particularly paranoid security measure I’ve employed for the better part of a near-decade and is mostly unnecessary in this relatively small town, but makes me feel better nonetheless. Once the door is open, I take a beat and survey the place trying to see it from outside eyes. I tend to keep things tidy, partly out of a desperate need to control what little I can in life, even if it’s over the placement of knick-knacks and furniture, and part practical safety strategy to avoid damaging things when I find myself flung around by time, never knowing where or how I’m going to return. The more mess and things lying about, the more potential injuries and broken belongings.

Can’t remember the last time I went on a date. Or if the dalliances from years earlier could even be called proper dates. I shake my head, trying to dislodge those thoughts from my mind and am suddenly nervous by the prospect of spending time with a clearly special person, according to my apparent future and her past. With a few hours until dinner, I decide to really do it up. Not out of any sense of expectation, but rather to mark a special occasion; to transform into a person worthy of taking a very nice American out to dinner.

I shower and shave. It’s been ages since I’ve bothered, and in my haste I nick my knee. Then I stare hopelessly into the depths of my closet, gradually becoming aware that not only are very few things I own clean, but have very few outfits that could actually be considered ‘nice’. I discover a little black number on the back rack, leftover from a job interview ages ago. I wear it with a pair of stockings and heels and decide I don’t look half bad. I add earrings and a coat of lipstick. Can’t remember ever putting in so much effort to look nice for someone. I wonder what sort of outfits this Dani person has seen me wearing, since I’m obviously not arriving from my future into her past wearing clothes of my own. She said she was a little girl? A million unanswerable questions run through my head. I stop and breathe for a minute. Okay. I grab my purse and away I go: lock the absurd amount of locks, descend down the creaky steps, buy flowers for Dani in the corner shop, walk the few blocks to the restaurant in record time but still five minutes late. Dani is already seated in a booth, and she looks relieved when she sees me. She waves at me like she’s in a parade.

“Hello,” I say. Dani is wearing a wine-colored dress and pearls. She looks beautiful. I thrust the flowers at her like an awkward teenager. Why do I feel so nervous? “For you.”

“Thank you,” says Dani, absurdly pleased. She looks at me and realizes I’m confused by her response. “You’ve never given me flowers before.”

I slide into the booth opposite her. I’m fascinated. This woman knows me; this isn’t some passing acquaintance of my future self. “Sounds like pretty big oversight, me being a gardener ‘n all.” Dani smiles like she just learned a secret. The waitress appears and hands us menus.

“Tell me,” I urge.

“What?”

"Everything. I mean, you understand why I don’t know you, right? Sorry about that, by the way --”

“Oh, no, you shouldn’t be. I mean, I know...why, you don’t. Know me, that is.” Dani lowers her voice, “For you none of it has happened yet, but for me, well, I’ve known you for a long time.”

“And how long would that be, exactly?”

“Almost twenty years. I first saw you when I was six.”

Jesus. Have you seen me very often then? Or just a few times?”

“The last time I saw you, you told me to bring this to dinner when we met again,” Dani shows me a pale blue child’s diary, “so here,” -- she hands it to me -- “you can have this.” I open it up to a random page. There’s a trio of flowers printed on the upper right corners and about a quarter of the way through the book is a list of dates. It begins with September 23, 1968, and ends sixteen small floral pages later on May 18, 1980. I count. There are 152 dates, written with great care in the large loopy penmanship of a six-year-old.

“You made this? These are all accurate?”

“Actually, you dictated them to me. You told me a few years ago that you memorized the dates from the list. So, I guess I’m not sure how this exists, really; I mean, it’s some sort of weird, impossible future-past thing. But they are accurate. I used them to know when to go down to the Meadow to meet you.” The waitress comes back and we order.

“What’s this Meadow you keep talking about?” I’m practically vibrating with excitement. Never met anyone from my future before, much less a gorgeous woman who’s run into me 152 times.

“The Meadow is part of the field behind the house I grew up in, in Iowa. We were at the end of the block and it was a dead end, so the field kinda just went on from the house at one end to the woods at the other. In the middle of it there’s a clearing about ten feet wide with some bushes, and if you’re in the clearing no one can see you because the land kinda goes up and then dips into the clearing. I used to play there because I liked to play by myself sometimes when I was home and no one knew I was there. One day when I was in first grade, I came home from school, went out to the clearing, and there you were.”

“Blimey, must’ve been quite a sight with me stark naked and probably throwing up.”

She laughs, and it’s a magical sound. “Actually, you seemed pretty confident. I remember you knew my name, and I remember you vanishing pretty remarkably. Thinking about it now, I guess it’s obvious you’d been there before. I think the first time for you was probably around 1972; I was ten. You kept saying ‘Oh my god’, and staring at me. Also, you seemed pretty freaked out about the nudity, but by then I just kind of took it for granted that this old naked lady from the future was going to magically appear and ask for clothing.” Dani smiles. “And food.”

“What’s funny?”

“I’m not, uh, the best cook. I made you some pretty weird meals over the years. Peanut butter and anchovy sandwiches. Tuna and cheese on Ritz crackers. I think part of me wanted to see if there was anything you wouldn’t eat and the rest I was trying to impress you with my terribly culinary skills.”

“How old was I?”

“I think the oldest I’ve seen you was forty-something. I’m not sure about the youngest; maybe about thirty? How old are you now?”

“Twenty-six, just about.”

“You look...very young to me now.”

“So what did we do, in this Meadow of yours? That’s a lot of time to be lazing about.”

Dani smiles. “We did lots of things. Depended on my age, and the weather. You spent a lot of time helping me do my homework. And making sure I knew how to avoid poison oak. We played games. I liked to beat you at Checkers. Mostly we just talked about stuff. When I was really young I thought you were an angel; I asked you a lot of questions about God. When I was a teenager there was a lot of processing all…this,” she gestures to the two of us. “You were kind and patient, giving me space to figure it out the best I could.” She smiles wryly, “Didn’t realize at the time that you were both the problem and the solution.”

We both smile, survivors of deviant pubescent angst. “What about winter?” I decide to change the subject, keep things light. “Imagine one of those midwestern winters I’ve heard about isn’t anything to sneeze at.”

“I used to smuggle you into our basement; after my dad died, my mom wasn’t around so it was easy to sneak you in. I mean, she was alive, but not really there anymore?”

“Oh Dani, I’m so sorry.”

She makes a gesture as if to say don’t worry about it. “It’s okay, it happened a long time ago. I forgot you - this version of you, anyway - doesn’t already know about it. Anyway, I would bring you all kinds of things. Once, in a snowstorm you were stuck reading old Reader’s Digests for three days, living on sardines and ramen noodles.”

I shrug. “Lived on worse before. Sounds salty, I’ll look forward to it.” Our food arrives. “Did you ever learn to cook?”

“A little? When I wasn’t at Eddie’s I had to make my own meals a lot of the time. Mom would get groceries, but she was never much of a cook, even when my Dad was alive, so it was a lot of mac and cheese, peanut butter and baloney sandwiches, Pop Tarts, things like that.”

“Eddie?”

“My fiance.” My heart drops like a rock into my stomach. “Just kidding,” she smirks, a devilish twinkle in her eye. “We grew up together, he was my best friend. Is my best friend. Been a while since I went home, though. No one really left there to visit except for him and his family. They basically raised me. Well,” she smiles, this time with a bit less bite and a lot more warmth, “I guess you, too, technically.”

“Ah, no. If it’s child-rearing advice you’re after, I’d start somewhere else, maybe.”

She smiles and takes a spoonful of lemon rice. My mouth is suddenly dry. I clear my throat loudly. “So, have I, uh, ever met any of them?”

“You met Eddie once, junior year of high school. He was the only person I ever told about you. Didn’t think you were real for the longest time, but eventually he believed me. Hard to argue when you see someone disappear with your own eyes. You two actually hatched up a plan to have him fake date me through the end of high school.”

“What?” I ask incredulously.

Dani squirms, looking uncomfortable for the first time. “It was just easier that way.”

“How on earth could that’ve been easier?”

“I wasn’t dating anyone, didn’t want to date anyone, and boys kept badgering me. With Eddie, they stopped asking.”

It seems like there’s an iceberg the size of the Titanic buried on the surface of what’s not being said, and I file it away for later, leaving it alone for now. “That’s one way to do it, I s’pose. Why didn’t you just date someone you were actually interested in?”

She shrugs, “Didn’t seem much point in bothering when you and I were just going to get married.”

I stop eating and look at Dani. She’s taking forkfuls of food as if she’d said nothing more out of the ordinary than remarking about the weather. “I’m sorry, did you say we’re going to get married?” I gape.

“I assume so,” she replies. “Well, as much as we can, anyway. Not sure about the future legalities of same-sex couples. But you told me once that whenever it is you’re coming from, you’re married to me.”

Too much. This is too bloody much. I close my eyes and will myself to think of nothing: last thing I want is to lose my grip on the here and now. Especially now that there’s finally something here worth holding onto.

“Jamie? Jamie, are you alright?” I feel Dani sliding onto the seat beside me. I open my eyes and she slides her hand beneath my own, pulling our hands under the table. She takes a few quick glances around the restaurant, but no one seems to have noticed. Her hands are so soft and smooth against my rough and chapped laborer’s hands. “I’m sorry,” she apologizes softly, “This is all so strange; so…. opposite. All my life you’ve been the one who knew everything and I sort of forgot that tonight maybe I should go slow.” She smiles. “Actually, the last thing you said to me before you left was ‘Have mercy, Dani.’ You said it in your quoting voice, and now that I think about it, I guess, you must have been quoting me. Weird.” She continues to hold my hands, safely out of sight underneath the table. She looks at me with eagerness; with love. I feel profoundly humble.

“Dani?”

“Yes?”

“Could we back up a bit? Pretend this is a normal first date between two normal people?” She gives me a look. My lips twist into a smile that I try to bite back. “Well,” I clarify, “Normal for people like us, I suppose.”

“Sure.” Dani gets up and goes back to her side of the table, but not without squeezing my hand gently one more time. She sits up straight and tries not to smile.

“Right,” I hear myself say, armor sliding into place like a survival mechanism. “So, tell me about yourself. How’d you find yourself in England, Miss America?”

She takes a piece of flatbread and tears it into small pieces, dipping it in the sauce on her plate. “I taught in the States while I was in school, but knew if I ever had hopes of finding you, I needed to come here. Spent a few months traveling across Europe with Eddie as a last-hurrah of sorts before moving here a while ago.”

“Here, as in this little town?”

“Well, no, I spent a while in London and fell in love with it, but needed a job, so I worked as an au pair first and it took me out here. Liked it so much that I decided to stay, and now I’m back in the classroom, teaching Year 4.”

“I don’t envy that, a bucket full of wee gremlins at your heels all day? I’d just as soon as-” I make a noise from the back of my throat, drawing my thumb across my neck.

Dani was smiling before, but now, she beams. “They can be a lot, a room full of twenty-odd kids, but...you take to them. You love them. Even the worst ones. You just do. It’s all worth it, once you love them.”

It seems fitting that I apparently marry the woman in front of me. She’s still a near-stranger, but already she feels like home. Haven’t felt this way since I was six and Louise last tucked me in bed before slipping out the door. Don’t feel it anywhere else besides the garden, with my hands dipped in earth. “What about you?” she asks.

“Thought you knew everything about me?” I tease.

“I know everything and nothing, actually. I know how you look without clothes,” she blushes as she realizes what she says, but manages to continue, “but until this afternoon I didn’t know your last name.”

I look at her, puzzled. “Your uniform,” she explains. “At work. It said ‘Taylor’ on the pocket. I knew you lived in England, but I know nothing about your family except that you have a younger brother named Mikey. I know you love to read and speak a bit of French. I had no idea you were a gardener, though I suppose it makes a lot of sense now that I think about it since you knew an awful lot about plants and tried to teach me about them in the Meadow. You made it basically impossible for me to find you in the present; you said it would happen when it was supposed to happen, and here we are.”

“Here we are,” I agree. The check arrives. Neither of us have eaten very much, but neither of us seem very interested in food right now, either. Dani picks up her purse and I shake my head at her. I pay; we leave the restaurant and stand in the fine late spring night. I light a cigarette.

“I thought you weren’t supposed to smoke?”
“Yeah, I know, horrid habit.”

“No, I mean, Dr. Wingrave is very strict about it.”

“Who’s he?” We’re doing that dance, each step lingering slowly, fighting to keep a safe, respectable distance in public, trying to keep from interacting with one another in a way that might be misconstrued. I shuffle my feet.

“He’s your doctor; he’s an expert on Chrono-Impairment.”

“Chrono-what-now?”

“Chrono-Impairment. I don’t know much, only that Dr. Henry Wingrave is a molecular geneticist who discovered - will discover - why people are chrono-impaired. It’s a genetic thing he figures out in 2002.” Dani sighs. “I guess it’s just way too early. You told me once that there are a lot more chrono-impaired people about ten years from now.’

I’m dumbfounded. More like me? I’m not alone in the gutter being pulled by the fickle whims of the universe? “I’ve never heard of anyone else who has this...impairment.”

“I guess even if you went out right now and found Dr. Wingrave he wouldn’t be able to help you. And we would never have met, if he could.’

It’s a possibility I don’t want to imagine. It’s only been a few hours, and already the gravity of this woman is starting to work it’s magic. She’s a deep well and I want to dive in. “Let’s not think about that.”

“Where do you live?” Dani asks.

“Up the road, there. You?”

“Other side of town.”

That settles it, I suppose. “Alright, then.” It’s a short walk, and we spend it sharing idle chatter and commenting about the weather. In the vestibule of the building I fumble with my keys while Dani leans patiently against the wall. I can’t remember the last time I was nervous to bring someone home before. Or had someone to bring home. Dani edges a little closer, runs her finger down the thin strap of my purse. I shiver. When I finally get the door open, it’s pitch black, light from the hallway shining a beam onto the floor. I reach awkwardly over Dani to flick the switch and pull my hand back, hovering just an extra beat. It’s a comfortable moment, looking at each other. Dani blinks as her eyes adjust to the light. She reaches up and touches my cheek. “It’s so good to see you. I was getting lonely.”

My breath hitches. For some reason I’m frozen, but she leans forward ever so slightly and melts me under her lips. We kiss, and something inside me slides into place. Our lips part, Dani’s tongue hungrily begging for more; usually at this point I would be curious how to work my way past various layers of clothing, but instead I lean back and take a shuddering breath, lip trembling. I’m exhausted and overwhelmed.

“Poor Jamie,” she says as I flop onto the couch.

“Why ‘Poor Jamie’? Dunno about you, but I’m quite overcome with happiness at the moment. Not something I’m used to, to be honest.” And it’s true.

“I’ve been dropping all these surprises on you like big rocks.” Dani swings a leg over me so she’s straddling my hips. It both concentrates and scatters my attention wonderfully.

“Please don’t move,” I say, not sure how much longer I can keep my hands on this side of polite. This woman is my wife. And yet, I barely know her. There’s still so much I want to learn and don’t want to rush a second of it. So much of my life runs on someone else’s clock. What little I have control over, I want to savor every moment of. We’ve still got a lifetime together.

“I’ve gotta admit, I’m finding this evening highly entertaining. I mean, I’ve been waiting for years to find out where you live and what you wear and what you do for a living.”

“Hope it’s not too much of a disappointment after twenty-odd years.”

Her eyes are wet. She brings her hands to cup my face, rubbing my jaw with her thumb like I’m some precious thing and not a half-feral glorified landscaper. “Nothing about you could ever be disappointing.”

I’ve never been so full of so many emotions at once. This is the opposite of the simple and boring life I’ve been trying to cultivate for the better part of a half-decade. I take a few deep breaths to settle myself, never having wanted more to stay grounded. Stay present. I whisper up a little prayer to the universe: “Stay. Please, stay,” I beg myself with every fiber of my being.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Dani murmurs, “I finally found you.”

 

The next morning

DANI

I wake up and I don’t know where I am. An unfamiliar ceiling. Distant traffic noises. Bookshelves. A blue armchair with my dress slung across it and a pair of heels that aren’t mine. Then I remember. I turn my head and there’s Jamie. So simple and natural, as if I’ve been doing it all my life. She’s sleeping with abandon, one arm stretched out across the bed and the other wedged under the pillow. So simple. Here we are. Here and now, finally now.

We didn’t do anything last night. At least, not that. I wanted to, god did I want to, but there was a sense of deliberateness in Jamie that kept me from tearing off her clothes entirely. I finally found her, but she’s not my Jamie yet. Then I realize my Jamie was never really mine to begin with; she was never really another Dani’s, either. And that maybe I’ve been mixing it up for so many years. I spent so much of my life waiting for Jamie, wanting her to be mine, that I forgot she never belonged to anyone but herself. The proof is right here, sleeping next to me. I’ve been patient for twenty years, what’s a little while longer?

I get out of bed carefully. Jamie’s bed is also her sofa. The springs squeak as I stand up. There’s not much space between the bed and the bookshelves, so I edge along until I make it past. The bathroom is tiny. I use the toilet and wash my hands and face, looking at my reflection as strands of wet hair cling to my cheek. I smile at myself. I borrow Jamie’s bathrobe from the back of the bathroom door.

Back in the living room, Jamie is still sleeping. I get my watch from the windowsill and see that it’s only 6:30. I’m too restless to get back into bed. I walk into the kitchenette in search of coffee. There’s a plant of some kind on the corner of the counter with a neat pile of mail next to it, some magazines and newspapers, all perfectly aligned. I can’t find any coffee in any of the cabinets or the fridge, but see a large box of Yorkshire Gold with the lid left propped open. I flip the kettle on and while I wait for it to brew, peruse Jamie’s bookshelves.

It’s less the books and more what else keeps them company. Nearly every spare surface has a pot of something green, a line of defense in front of the spines of novels, nonfiction, magazines, Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants, Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms: A Compendium, and Hypothermia, Frostbite, and Other Cold Injuries. I think about the scars I would see on Jamie’s body when she landed in the Meadow and something cold moves down my spine.

The bed squeaks and I jump. Jamie is sitting up, squinting at me in the morning light. She’s so young, so before --. She doesn’t know me, yet. I have a sudden fear she’s forgotten who I am.

“Morning,” she says. “Don’t usually see many people this early in the a.m. Sorry to not have more on offer, I don’t exactly entertain often.”

“I made tea,” I offer.

She smiles. “Cuppa tea deserves something good with it. I usually grab something at the cafe downstairs on my way to work. Place makes a pain au chocolat like you wouldn’t believe.”

I’m overcome, suddenly, with having Jamie in front of me. Mine. Here. With time stretching before us, a normal morning, normal routines open and on display like it’s always been happening. She must take my silence as a bad sign. “Am I very different? Than you expected?” she asks apprehensively. I don’t know what to do with this version of Jamie, with self-doubt and uncertainty.

“You’re….you’re more…” vulnerable, I think, “...younger.”

She considers it. “Is that good or bad?”

“Different.” I cup my hands around the mug, heat from the tea almost sharp enough to sting. It tingles in pain. “I’ve had all these experiences, and you...I’m not used to being with you when you don’t remember anything that happened.”

Jamie’s somber. “‘M sorry. The person you know doesn’t exist yet. Sooner or later she’s bound to appear, but this is the best I can do for now, I’m afraid.”

I have a sudden urge to pull her into my arms and protect this small, fragile version of the woman I love. “But in the meantime…”

She meets my gaze, and the hope in her eyes steals my breath. “In the meantime?”

“I’ve been dying for a cup of coffee.”

Jamie throws her head back and laughs. It’s the greatest sound in the world.

She runs downstairs to get pastries while I marinate under the covers, watching the sunlight dance on the ceiling. I already miss her and it’s only been a few minutes. Even though the French coffee is not quite the cup of American diner coffee I’ve been craving for the last few years since moving here, it does the trick. Later, much later, we’re dozing warm, covered with midmorning sun after more hours of conversation and slow kissing, and Jamie says something into the back of my neck that I don’t catch.

“What?”

“It’s peaceful, here, with you. Never really had that feeling before. It’s nice to just lie here and know that the future is taken care of, for once.”

“Jamie?”

“Hmm?” She says, almost dozing.

“How come you never told yourself about me?”

“Oh, I don’t do that.”

“Do what?”

“Tell myself things ahead of time unless it’s huge and life-threatening, y’know? Try to live like a normal person, much as I can. Don’t even like having myself around, to be honest, so I don’t drop in on myself unless there’s no other choice.”

I ponder this for a while. “I would tell myself everything.”

“No, you wouldn’t.” There’s something dark in the bark of Jamie’s laugh. “It makes a lot of trouble.”

“I was always trying to get you to tell me things.” I roll over onto my back and Jamie props her head up on her hand and looks down at me. Our faces are about six inches apart. It’s so strange to be talking, almost like we always did, but the physical proximity makes it hard for me to concentrate.

“Did I tell you things?” she asks.

“Sometimes. When you felt like it, or had to.”

“Like what?”

“See? You do want to know. But I’m not telling.”

Jamie laughs. “Serves me right, then.”

When we finally leave her apartment, cars and cyclists cruise along the street while people stroll down the sidewalks and there we are with them, in the afternoon sunlight, finally together, but still so far apart. I want to hold her hand and lay my head on her shoulder, press a kiss to her cheek, pull her into my arms, and the unfairness of it burns. I feel a tiny pang of regret, as though I’ve lost the joy of one secret and gained the burden of another. It’ll be at least another decade before Jamie said it would get easier to do this in public, and even then, it’s not always safe. I’m tired of waiting for the world to become what I want it to be. But then Jamie looks at me and smiles like she’s won the lottery, and a rush of exaltation takes over: now everything begins.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2: A First Time for Everything

Listen:

Reader: foomatic

Length: 38:15


Sunday, June 13, 1965 (Jamie is 5)

JAMIE:

The first time was magical. How could I have known what it meant? It was just before my fifth birthday, and we went to Blackpool Tower, the rare all-family excursion. Mum, Dad, Denny, and me clamored into the car. I’d barely been out of the town I was born in and a trip to the seaside was as exotic as anything I could’ve imagined. I remember seeing the tall points of the spire peering into view over the horizon and being absolutely gobsmacked at how much taller the thing continued to grow as the rest of the tower came into view. 

The lobby alone was probably the nicest building I’d ever been in, with the towering arches, gorgeous stonework, and mosaics that glittered like a magical palace. Denny yanked my arm and we ran toward the lift, Mum and Dad hollering for us to slow down. They’re not exactly a cohesive unit, what with Dennis being underground more hours than not, only popping home to wash off the soot, have a warm meal, and catch a few hours of shuteye before heading back down again. Louise has been off with other men for years at this point, and Dennis, while still in a period of determined denial of her behavior, has nonetheless understood they are together in name and address only, the only thing left of their relationship being me and my brother. It’s a strange sort of conflict between the two of them, but rarely on display for the handful of hours they’re actually spending together in front of us kids.

Denny and I could’ve cared less about all that as we ran off, exploring. Dennis looks rather sick on the lift up to the Eye at the top of the tower, screwing his eyes shut tight and looking pale as though being off the ground and further away from the earth causes him physical pain. Louise looks delighted, Denny is losing it and I’m between them feeling a little bit of both. I’m full of exaltation at the height, never knowing there was so much world, that it could look like this. That a little bit of distance could make big things seem so small. That you could see so much of the world in one eyeful. There’s so much and I felt light, light as air. 

We explore other parts of the Tower and menagerie, fingers and cheeks sticky with cotton candy, running along the beach, and as the afternoon sun grows long, I run along the shore, trying to catch the shadow of the Tower. 

I can’t wait to go back again, beg for my birthday next year, and Dennis and Louise give a chuckle and say “We’ll see,” and stupidly I take it as a promise that never comes to pass because by next year everything falls apart. But for now, for today, a tower that seems to touch  the clouds had my neck hurting from craning my head back so far to look at it. I fall asleep off on the ride home, and it’s late by the time we get back. Dennis carries me up the stairs on piggyback and I giggle the whole way. I get ready for bed, brush my teeth, and lie in bed buzzing from the excitement of the day. I can hear little noises, water running, toilet flushing, Louise downstairs with the television on. Eventually all becomes quiet. I get out of bed and kneel in front of the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of Dennis getting back into the car as he heads back out to a late night shift at the mine. I stay there for a while, trying to feel sleepy again, and then I stand up and everything changes.


Monday, January 1, 1979, 4:03 a.m./ Sunday, June 18, 1965 (10:46 p.m.) (Jamie is 20, and 5)

JAMIE:

It’s 4:03 a.m. on a stupidly cold January morning and I’m just getting back to the flat. I’ve been out celebrating the birth of a new, shitty year and I’m only half drunk but utterly exhausted. As I fumble with my keys in front of the door I fall to my knees, dizzy and nauseated, and then I’m in the dark, puking on the ground. I raise my head and see a wooden bench. I pull myself up to a sitting position and take a few deep breaths to settle my stomach. As my eyes adjust, paved paths, stone, tall arches and beams of steel amidst trees, fauna, and ferns come into view. I get off the bench, shaking, and venture toward the windows only to realize the windows are also the walls and the ceiling. The air is clammy with humidity. My stomach twists as I look out and see the ground far, far below me, houses, buildings twinkling like stars, tapering off into a clear inky blackness as the beach and ocean ebb into the distance. I’m in the rooftop gardens of Blackpool tower. I stand still and breathe deeply, trying to clear my head. Something about this rings a bell in my fettered brain and I try to dredge it up. I’m supposed to do something. Right. My fifth birthday...someone was there, and I’m about to be that someone...I need clothes. No sense in showing up stark naked to my wee self and scaring the daylights out of her. 

I sprint through the paths, trying to find a closet that might have a scrap of something to wear. The tall trees and ferns loom over me in the moonlight, as if reaching out to cover me, and I send a silent prayer of thanks to be in the pre-motion-detector era. Also the pre-Jungle Jim era. While fun in the daytime, the amusement park of sorts is menacing in the shadows of night, and anything with lots of sound and electricity to function is never a good thing in my experience. Luckily, whenever I am, it’s pre-1975, and the Rooftop Gardens are still intact, which is fortunate since it’s one of the most beautiful places in this part of England and it’s a goddamn tragedy they tore it down for an Adventure Playground that would have been just as fine on the ground as 150 meters in the air. Luckily, there’s a pair of coveralls in what appears to be a custodial closet not too far from the lift, and I yank it off the hook and find another shirt hung up next to it. I borrow them, thanking the gardener, whoever they are, for having a spare uniform up top and leave, closing the door behind me. 

Where was I, when I saw me? I close my eyes and fatigue takes me bodily, caressing me with her sleepy fingers. I’m almost out on my feet, but I catch myself and it comes to me: a woman in silhouette walking towards me backlit by the moon and a tall potted palm near a set of doors with windows. I need to get back to the other end. 

When I get there all is quiet and still. I pace the floor, trying to replicate the view of the doors, and then I seat myself on the bench across from the false rocks. I can hear blood rushing in my head. My stomach grumbles, ravenous for food, and wishing that the refreshment stands down by the circus or ballroom were at the top of the Tower as well, but suppose there are worse places to wait while observing the night than filtering through a room full of palm trees up in the sky.  I have no idea what time it is, or how long I have to wait. I’m mostly sober now, and reasonably alert. Time passes, nothing happens. At last: I hear a soft thud, a gasp. Silence. I wait. I stand up, silently, and pad closer to the shadow, walking slowly through the moonlight that slants across the floor. I stand and call out, not too loudly: “Jamie.”

Nothing. Good girl, wary and silent. I try again. “’s okay, Jamie. I’m your guide, I’m here to show you around a bit. It’s a special tour. Don’t be afraid.”

I hear a slight, oh-so-faint noise. “I brought you a shirt, so you won’t get cold while we look at the plants.” I can make her out now, standing at the edge of the darkness. “Here. Catch.” I throw it to her, and the shirt disappears, and then she steps into the light. The shirt comes down to her knees. Me at five, dark wavy hair tied back into a shoulder-length braid, pale, and wiry. At five I’m still relatively happy, cushioned in normality, even as it’s breaking apart in so many different ways. Everything changed, starting now.

I walk forward slowly, bend toward her, speaking softly. “H’llo, Jamie, I’m glad to see you. Thanks for coming tonight.”

“Where am I? Who are you?” Her voice is small and high, and echoes a little off the stone and steel. 

“You’re at Blackpool Tower. In the Rooftop Gardens to be exact. I’ve been sent here to give you a private tour. My name is also Jamie, isn’t that funny?”

She nods. 

“Is there anything you’d like to see first?” She shakes her head. “Tell you what. Let’s start over by the lift, since that’s the first place you’d see walking in, and see where we end up after that, yeah?”

“Okay,” she says in a small voice.

We walk through the darkness, up the path. She isn’t moving very fast, so I shorten my steps to meet her pace. 

“Where’s mum and dad and Denny?”

“They’re at home, sleeping. This is a special tour, just for you, ‘cause it’s your birthday. Besides, grown-ups don’t do this sort of thing.”

“Aren’t you a grown-up?” Bit smart, I was, even then.

“I’m an extremely unusual grown-up, I’ll have you know. My job is to have adventures. So naturally when I heard you wanted to come back to Blackpool Tower right away, I jumped at the chance to show you around.”

“But how did I get here?” She stops at the top of a small set of steps and looks at me with total confusion. 

I kneel, eye-to-eye with my younger self. “Well, that’s a secret. If I tell you, you have to promise to not say anything to anyone.”

“Why?”

“Because they wouldn’t believe you. You can tell Mum, if you like, but that’s it. Okay?” It doesn’t matter. She’ll be gone soon, anyway.

“Okay….”

I look at her, my innocent self, and look her in the eye. “Cross your heart and hope to die?”   

“Uh-huh…”

“Okay. Here’s how it is: y’time traveled. You were in your bedroom, and all of a sudden, poof! You’re here, and it’s a little earlier in the evening, so we have plenty of time to get a nighttime view of the Eye before you have to go home.” She’s silent and quizzical. “Does that make sense?”

“But...why?”

A fair question.”Well, I haven’t figured that out yet. I’ll let you know when I do. In the meantime, let’s move along, yeah?”

She nods and we move slowly down the path. I decide to experiment and veer off to the left. “Ooh, look, Jamie. A licuala grandis.”

“A lick-koala groundis?”

“Close enough. It’s a special type of palm tree.” I take one of the leaves and run my fingers across the ridges. “Also known as the ruffled fan palm, this one. Always thought it looked like a crisp, m’self.” I bend one of the fronds and let her touch the underside. The leaf is larger than her whole head and casts her in a shadow under the moonlight. I am so tired. Even the word sleep is a lure, a seduction. But looking at her face, I remember what it was I loved about this night when I was little. Planting seeds for a future far away from sprouting. It would be ages before I would return to plants. It’ll be years of broken foster homes, living on the street, crashing on floors, making bad choices and falling in with worse people, losing myself in drinking and drugs and sleeping with any warm body that would chase away the cold for a few hours. Years more before I learned how to hibernate in the frigidity of loneliness, retreat into a safe, quieter, but oddly enough no less lonely place. All that, before I would find solace in the soil and jungle of plants. “Hey, Jamie, follow me.” I double back to the closet, walking quickly, and she runs to keep up. When we get there, I gesture with a dramatic flair for younger me to open the door. She tries, then steps back with a confused frown. Right. It's locked. Not to worry. I pat down the pockets in the coveralls and find a broken bit of wire. I bend and straighten it and stick it into the lock and feel around. I can hear the tumblers springing, and when I’m all the way back, I bend the other end of the wire in, jiggling the two prongs and presto, it clicks open. 

She’s impressed. “How’d you do that?” It’s nice to see her amazement at the lockpicking. All too soon it’ll be desperation and breaking and entering, the magic having long turned to ash in her mouth. 

“Not that hard, believe it or not. I’ll teach you another time. After you,” I say with a small pang of regret, holding the door open and she walks in.

I pluck out a few gardening tools from their spot hanging on the wall and dump them into a bucket. Nothing fancy, just a trowel, clippers, a rake. I take her back to the palm and spend some time showing her how to till the earth, keep it from getting too firm and compact. We work, chatting amiably about dirt and bugs and the like. She tells me about Denny and mum and dad, and Jenny, who I’d completely forgotten about, my best mate when I was little until her family moved, about three months from now. We’re about to finish propagating a shoot when Jamie cries out, and keels forward, reaching urgently for me, and I grab her, and she’s gone. The shirt is warm empty cloth in my hands. I sigh, and walk around to do some more gardening for a while by myself. My younger self will be home now, climbing into bed and will fall asleep in an instant, dreaming of riding a carousel in the ballroom that’s also a jungle. I remember, I remember. I woke up in the morning and it was all a wonderful dream. Louise laughed and said that time travel sounded fun, and she wanted to try it, too. 

That was the first time.


Monday, September 23, 1968 (Jamie is 35, Dani is 6)

JAMIE:

I’m in the Meadow, waiting. I linger just outside the clearing, naked, because the clothes Dani keeps for me in a box under a bush aren’t there; the box isn’t either, so I’m grateful that the afternoon is fine, early September, perhaps, in some unidentified year. I hunker down in the tall grass. I consider. The fact that there’s no box of clothes means I’ve arrived in a time before Dani and I have met. Maybe Dani isn’t even born yet. This has happened before, and it’s a right pain in the arse; I miss Dani and spend the time hiding naked in the Meadow, not daring to show myself in the neighborhood of Dani’s childhood. I think longingly of the apple trees at the western edge of the Meadow. At this time of year there ought to be apples, small and sour and munched by deer, but edible. Survived on worse before. I hear the screen door slam and I peer above the grass. A child is running and as they come down the path through the wavy grass my heart twists and Dani bursts into the clearing. 

She’s young. She’s oblivious; she’s alone. She’s wearing a purple jumper and a ribbon in her hair. I bite my cheek, trying not to smile at the fact that this is very much an outfit she would also wear as an adult. Dani’s carrying a tote bag and a beach towel. She spreads the towel on the ground and dumps out the contents of the bag: every kind of writing implement you could think of: old ballpoint pens, little stubby pencils from the library, crayons, smelly magic markers, a fountain pen. She also has a bunch of her dad’s office stationary. She arranges everything and gives the stack of paper a smart shake, and then proceeds to try each pen and pencil in turn, making careful lines and swirls, humming to herself.

I hesitate. Dani is content, absorbed. She must be about six; if it’s September, she’s probably started first grade. She’s obviously not waiting for me, I’m a stranger, and I’m pretty sure the first thing you learn in America is not to talk to strangers. Especially not ones that show up naked in your favorite secret spot, know your name, and tell you not to tell your mum and dad. I wonder if today is when we’re supposed to meet for the first time or if it’s some other day. Maybe I should be really quiet and either Dani will go away and I can go munch up those apples and steal some laundry or, hopefully, will revert back to my present.

I snap back from my own thoughts to find Dani staring straight at me. “Who’s there?” she hisses. She looks like a right pissed off goose, all neck and legs. Fast, I’m thinking, remembering with distaste all the times I’ve gotten on the wrong side of waterfowl at work. 

“H’llo, Dani,” I say, kindly. 

“Eddie, you goof!” Dani is casting around for something to throw, and decides on her shoes. She pulls them off and chucks ‘em right at me. I don’t think she can see me very well, but she lucks out and one of them catches me in the mouth. My lip starts to bleed.

“Ow. Please don’t do that.” I don’t have anything to staunch the blood, so I press my hand to my mouth and my voice comes out muffled. My jaw hurts. 

“Who is it?” Now Dani is frightened, and so am I.

“Jamie. It’s Jamie, Dani. I won’t hurt you, I promise, so please don’t throw anything else at me.”

“Give me back my shoes. I don’t know you. Why are you hiding?” Dani is glowering at me. It’s adorable.

I toss her shoes back into the clearing. She picks them up and stands holding them like pistols. “I’m hiding because I lost my clothes and I’m embarrassed. I came a long way and I’m hungry and I don’t know anybody and now I’m bleeding.”

“Where did you come from? Why do you know my name?”

The whole truth and nothing but the truth. “I came from the future. I’m a time traveler and in the future, we’re friends.”

“People only time travel in movies.”

“That’s what we want you to believe.”

“Why?”

“If everybody time traveled it would get too crowded. Like when you went to see your Grandma last Christmas in Ohio and you had to go through Waterloo Regional and it was really crowded? We time travelers don’t want to mess things up for ourselves, so we keep it quiet.”

Dani chews on this for a minute. “Come out.”

“Toss me that towel, will ya?” She picks it up and all the pens and pencils and papers go flying. She throws it at me, overhand, a terrible shot, really, but I manage to grab it and turn my back as I stand and wrap it around me. Luckily it’s one of those oversized beach towels and it covers my whole torso. I look like I just got out of a shower. It’s neon green and purple with a loud geometric pattern. Exactly the sort of thing you’d want to be wearing when you meet your future wife for the first time. I turn around and walk into the clearing; I sit on the rock with as much dignity as possible. It’s not much, but Dani doesn’t know any better. Dani stands as far away from me as she can get while still remaining in the clearing. She’s still clutching her shoes.

“You’re bleeding.”

“Well, yeah. You threw a shoe at me.”

“Oh.”

Silence. I’m trying to look harmless, and nice. 

“You’re making fun of me.”

“Oi! I would never. Why d’you think I’m making fun of you?”

Dani is nothing if not stubborn. “Nobody time travels. You’re lying.”

“Father Christmas time travels.”

“What?”

“Santa Claus? Of course! How do you think he gets all those presents delivered in one night? He just keeps turning back the clock a few hours until he gets down every one of those chimneys.” 

“Santa’s magic. You’re not Santa.”

“I am, too, magic! Look at me, I time traveled!”

“No, you didn’t!”

“Yes, I did!” What am I doing, arguing with a pint-sized version of my wife? “Geez, Louise, you’re a tough customer.”

“I’m not Louise,” she protests.

“I know. You’re Dani. Danielle Elizabeth Clayton, born July 2, 1962. Your parents are Karen and Phil Clayton, and your best friend is Edmund O’Mara and your favorite color is purple.”

She scowls. “Just because you know things doesn’t mean you’re from the future.”

“You’re right, but if you hang around for a bit you can watch me disappear.” I reckon I can count on this because Dani once told me it was the thing she found most impressive about our first meeting. 

Silence. Dani shifts her weight from foot to foot and waves away a bug. “Do you know Santa?”

“Personally? No.” I’ve stopped bleeding, but must look awful. “Hey, Dani, do you happen to have a plaster?”

“A what?”

“Sorry, a Band-Aid? Or some food? Time traveling makes me pretty hungry.”

She thinks about this, digs into her jumper pocket and produces a Hershey bar with one bite out of it. She throws it at me.

“Thanks, I love these.” It’s a lie, Hershey’s chocolate is rubbish next to Cadbury, but I’m hungry enough and it’ll help with my blood sugar. I put the wrapper in her shopping bag. Dani is delighted. 

“You eat like a dog.”

“I do not!” I am deeply offended. “I have opposable thumbs, thank you very much.”

“What are posable thumbs?”

“Do this.” I make the ‘okay’ sign. Dani makes the ‘okay’ sign. “Opposable thumbs mean you can do that. Means you can open jars and tie your shoes and other things animals can’t do.”

“Why do you talk all funny?” she asks.

“I don’t talk funny, you talk funny.”

“I do not!” She says, with all the indignant fury of a six-year-old. 

“Sorry, but, to me you do.” I say with a shrug. “Anyway, I’m English.”

“What’s that?”

“Means I come from England.”

“Where’s that?”

“It’s an island on the other side of the ocean.”

“Oh. That’s far.”

I nod. The Meadow is the furthest I’ve ever been from home, only time I’ve been off the continent. Must be the only person to ever instantaneously travel across the Atlantic. Shame I can’t see more of America. I’d love to take a road trip and see the place. Vermont always looked nice. Alas. Another life, maybe.

Dani sits down at the edge of the clearing. “Mrs. Delvecchio says I shouldn’t talk to strangers.” Mrs. Delvecchio is the old lady next door who would sometimes babysit.

“’s good advice.”

Silence.

“When are you going to disappear?”

“When I’m good and ready to. Why, are y’bored with me already?” Dani rolls her eyes. “What are you workin’ on?” I ask, jerking my head toward the pile of writing supplies.

“Penmanship.”

“Can I see?”

Dani gets up carefully and collects a few pieces of stationary while fixing me with her best menacing stare. I lean forward slowly and extend my hand, and she quickly shoves the papers at me and retreats. I look at them intently, as if she’s just handed me a rare flower. She’s written, over and over, larger and larger, ‘Danielle Elizabeth Clayton.’ All the ascenders and descenders have swirling curlicues and all the counters have smiley faces in them.

“This,” I say, pointing, “is lovely.”

Dani is pleased. “I could make one for you.”

“Would like that very much, but, ah, I’m not allowed to take anything with me when I time travel. Maybe you could keep it for me and I can enjoy it while I’m here.”

“Why can’t you take anything?”

“Well, think about it. If we time travelers started to move things around in time, pretty soon the world would be a big mess. Like, say I brought some money with me into the past. I could look up all the winning lottery numbers and football teams and make a bunch of money. That  doesn’t seem very fair, does it? Or if I was really dishonest, I could steal things and bring them to the future where nobody could find me.”

“You could be a pirate!” Dani seems so pleased with the idea of me as a pirate that she forgets I’m still a stranger. “You could bury the money and make a treasure map and dig it up in the future.”

“‘S a great idea, I’ll give you that. But what I really need is clothing.”

Dani looks at me doubtfully.

“Does your dad have any clothes he doesn’t need? Even a shirt would be great. I mean, I like this towel, don’t get me wrong, it's quite fetching on me, ’s just that where I come from, I usually like to wear pants.” Phil Clayton is much, much taller than me, but I quite like the rolled pant cuff look. Unfortunately for Dani, it won’t be long before whatever clothes of his are left after he dies will be stored in boxes in the basement, anyway.

“Why don’t you want any of my mom’s clothes?”

Fair point. This is middle America in the sixties, and I quite doubt there are many folks this side of the women’s movement walking about suburban Iowa. but suffice to say if I ever had to catch myself in Karen Clayton’s clothes, I’d rather just as soon stay naked. “I, ah, don’t think your mum would like me borrowing her nice clothes and getting them all messy out here. But an  old pair of your dad’s trousers and a shirt would do the trick.” 

“I don’t know…”

“‘S all right, you don’t need to get them right now. But if you bring some next time I come, it would be pretty nice.”

“Next time?”

I find an unused piece of paper and a pencil. I print in block letters: SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 29, 1968 AFTER SUPPER. I hand Dani the paper, and she takes it cautiously. My vision is blurring. “It’s a secret, Dani, okay?”

“Why?”

“Can’t tell. I have to go, now. It was nice to meet you.” I hold out my hand and Dani takes it, bravely. That’s my Dani, brave as anything, even when she’s terrified. As we shake hands, I disappear.


Friday, February 9, 1996 (Dani is 33, Jamie is 35)

DANI:

It’s early, about six in the morning and I’m sleeping when Jamie slams me awake and I realize she’s been elsewhen. She’s usually up this early anyway, if not earlier, but I tend to sleep through it like a normal person does at the crack of dawn, only to murmur back a sleepy “love you, too” when she kisses my forehead goodbye before heading out to work. This time though, she materializes practically on top of me and I yell, and we scare the shit out of each other and then she starts laughing and rolls over. I roll over too and look up at her and realize that her mouth is bleeding. I jump up to get a tissue and Jamie is still smiling when I get back and start dabbing at her lip. 

“How’d that happen?” I ask.

“You threw a shoe at me.” I don’t remember ever throwing anything at Jamie. 

“Did not.”

“Blimey, am I still arguin’ with a six-year-old? Did too. We just met for the very first time, and as soon as you laid eyes on me you said, “That’s the woman I’m going to marry if the legal system would allow us to,’ and you walloped me one. I always said you were an excellent judge of character.”

I laugh and she grins before laying a big wet kiss to my cheek and bounds off the bed to make a cup of tea. I admire the dimples of Venus on her back as she goes, reveling in the good fortune of having this magnificent view.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER 3: After the End & Lessons in Survival

Listen:

Reader: foomatic

Length: 62:35


Sunday, September 29, 1968 (Dani is 6, Jamie is 31)

DANI:

The calendar at school today said the same as the paper the lady wrote. Mommy was making breakfast and Daddy was reading the paper and I said Daddy, can I have some of your old clothes? And he flipped the corner of the paper down to look at me and said Why? And I said To play dress up. He said Don’t you want Mommy’s clothes to play dress up? And I said Okay, but sometimes Megan and I play house and we need boy clothes to be the Daddy and he said I’m sure there’s something around here we can find and it made me smile. I went to school and we did adding and language arts and after lunch we had recess and music. I didn’t worry all day about pants for the lady cause I knew Daddy would help and she really wanted pants. So when I got home I went to ask Mommy about the clothes and she said I could go look in the Goodwill bags and have anything I wanted.  So I went to the garage and looked in the Goodwill bags and found three pairs of Daddy’s pants and a white shirt Daddy wears to work and a tie with fishes on it and a blue sweater. And the yellow bathrobe that Daddy had when I was little and it smelled like him. I thought about going over to Eddie’s house, but then I remembered that the lady’s paper said ‘After supper’ and if I went to Eddie’s house, I’d probably stay for dinner and then I’d miss the lady. So I went up to my room and played Television with Mr. Bun and Jane where Jane is the movie star and Mr. Bun asks her about how it is being a movie star and she says she really wants to be a veterinarian but she is so pretty she has to be a movie star and Mr. Bun says maybe she could be a veterinarian when she’s old. Then Daddy came home and I ran downstairs to give him a hug and he picked me up and swung me around the living room until I got dizzy. Mommy called us in for dinner and I got funny shaped chicken nuggets and made a swirl on top with ketchup. When I was finished I asked if I could go play outside and Daddy said  Okay, as long as you come in by dark. So I went and got my pink sweater with the zebras and I got the bag and I went out and went into the clearing. But the lady wasn’t there and I sat for a while and then I thought it might be fun to collect some leaves. So I went back over by the trees and found some leaves on the ground.  So then I went back to the clearing and she still wasn’t there and I thought Well, I guess she made up that she was coming and didn’t want pants so bad after all. And I thought maybe Eddie was right ‘cause I told him about the lady and he said I was making it up because people don’t disappear in real life only on TV. Or maybe it was a dream like when I was riding a unicorn to school and I woke up and Daddy said Dreams are different than real life but important too. And it was getting cold and I thought maybe I should just leave the bag so that if the lady came she could still have her pants. So I was walking back up the path and there was this noise and somebody said Ouch. Blimey, that hurt. And then I was scared.

JAMIE:

I kind of slam into a rock when I appear and scrape my knees. I’m in the clearing and the sun is setting beautifully in a spectacular blowout of orange and red over the trees. I might not ever get to tour America the way I’d like to, soaking up a New England fall, but have to admit autumn in Iowa isn’t half bad, either. The clearing is empty except for a shopping bag full of clothes and I quickly figure out that Dani has left these and this is probably a day shortly after our first meeting. Dani is nowhere in sight and I call her name softly. No response. I dig through the bag of clothes. There’s the pair of chinos and corduroy brown trousers, a truly hideous tie with trout all over it, the Iowa State sweater, the white shirt with a large ink stain on the collar, and the big yellow bathrobe with a big tear in the pocket. All these clothes are old friends, except for the tie, and I’m happy to see them. Beggars can’t be choosers, and though Phil’s old work clothes and university sweater aren’t my style, they’ll keep me warm throughout the years. I don the chinos and the sweater. I feel  great; except for the lack of shoes I’m pretty well off for my current location in spacetime. “Thanks, Dani, y’did a great job,” I call softly.

I’m surprised when she appears at the entrance to the clearing. It’s getting dark quickly and Dani looks tiny and scared in the half light. 

“Hi.”

“Hey, Dani. Thanks for the clothes. They’re perfect, and they’ll keep me nice ‘n warm tonight.’

“I have to go in soon.”

“That’s okay, it’s almost dark. It’s a school night, yeah?”

“Uh-huh.”

“What’s the date?”

“Sunday, September 29, 1968.”

“That’s very helpful. Thanks.”

“How come you don’t know that?”

“Well, I just got here. A few minutes ago it was Thursday, May 14, 1992. It was a rainy morning and I was making toast and a cup of tea.”

“But you wrote it down for me,” she says, and takes out a piece of paper, holding it out to me. I walk to her and take it and am interested to see the date written on it in my scribbled block lettering. I pause and think for the best way to explain time travel to this small, precious child who is Dani at the moment. 

“It’s like this, yeah? You know how to use a tape recorder?”

She nods. “Mmhmm.”

"Okay, so you put in a tape and you play it from the beginning to the end, right?”

“Yeah…”

“That’s how your life is. You get up in the morning and you eat breakfast and you brush your teeth and you go to school, yeah? You don’t get up and suddenly find yourself at school eatin’ lunch with Eddie and Helen and then all of a sudden you’re at home gettin’ dressed, right?”

Dani giggles. “Right.”

I smile. Her innocence is both delightful and a bit infectious. “Now, for me, it’s different. Because I’m a time traveler, I jump around a lot from one time to another. So it’s like if you started the tape and played it for a while but then thought Oh I want to hear that song again, so you played that song and then you went back to where you left off but you wound the tape a bit too far ahead so you rewound it again but you still got it too far ahead. Y’see?”

I already know I’ve lost her. I’m a bloody gardener, not the schoolteacher in this relationship. “Well, it’s not the greatest analogy in the world. Basically, sometimes I get lost in time and I don’t know when I am.”

“What’s analogy?”

“It’s when you try to explain somethin’ by saying it’s like another thing.” I kneel, getting as close to her eye-level and non-threatening as possible. “For example, I am as snug as a bug in a rug in this nice sweater, and you are as pretty as a picture, and your Dad is going to be mad as a hatter if you don’t go in pretty soon.”

“Are you gonna sleep here? You could come to our house, we have a guest room.”

“That’s very nice of you. Unfortunately, I don’t meet any of your family until 1991, and even then I’m not quite sure it counts.”

Dani is utterly perplexed. Can’t say I blame her. Meeting Karen Clayton when she came to visit England wasn’t exactly Dani’s preferred way of spending her Christmas holiday, even less so when Karen’s stubborn denial of Dani coming out not once but twice resulted in a very awkward Christmas morning no party was keen to repeat. Can’t say I much missed it when she left, and was grateful to the size of the Atlantic Ocean and Karen’s sudden lack of desire to return. I think the other part of the problem is that Danican’t imagine dates beyond the 1960’s at this point. I remember having the same problem when I was her age. “Why not?”

“‘s part of the rules. People who time travel aren’t supposed to go around talkin’ to regular people while they visit their times, because we might mess things up.” I don’t actually believe this; things happen the way they happen whether you fuckin’ like it or not, once and only once. I’m not a believer of splitting universes. 

“But you talk to me.”

“Well that’s because you’re special. You’re brave ‘n smart and good at keeping secrets.” I hate to tell her how painfully true the last part of that will be. Growing up queer isn’t a cakewalk anywhere at any age at any time, and having to keep two huge things hidden from the world will cause it’s own toll.

Dani is embarrassed. “I told Eddie, but he didn’t believe me.”

“Oh. Well, don’t worry about it.” This is true. It’ll be years before Eddie comes around, and though it was nice to finally meet the O’Mara kid I’d spent years hearing about, the situation surrounding it was one no one likes to think about. “Very few people ever believe me, either.”

“I believe you.”

Dani is standing about five feet away from me. Her small pale face catches the last orange light from the west. Her hair is pulled back tightly into a ponytail and she’s wearing blue jeans and a pink sweater with zebras running across the chest. Her hands are clenched around her thumbs, tucked into her fist, a familiar gesture shared by my own adult Dani, and she looks fierce and determined. Our daughter, I think sadly, could have looked like this. 

“Thanks, Dani.”

“I have to go in now.”

“Good idea.”

“Are you coming back?”

I consult the List from memory. “I’ll be back October 11. It’s a Friday. Come here right after school. Bring that little blue diary Mrs. O’Mara gave you for your birthday and a pen.” I repeat the date, looking at Dani to make sure she’s remembering. 

“See you later, Dani.”

“See you later…”

“Jamie.”

“See you later, Jamie.” Dani turns and runs up the path, into the arms of her lighted and welcoming house. My heart clenches for her, as it does every time before Phil dies. I turn to the dark and start to walk across the meadow. Later in the evening I chuck the tie into the dumpster behind Joe’s Burger Shack.


Sunday, October 5, 1970 (Dani is 8, Jamie is 38)

DANI:

I wake up suddenly. There was a loud crash: someone screamed my name. It sounded like Jamie. I sit up in bed, listening, afraid. Weird lights are blinking outside. I run to the window and see  Daddy’s car up against the telephone pole across the street. The front is all smashed and the headlights are blinking and the fire hydrant is all messed up and water is spewing all across the street. The telephone pole is leaning over and the windows in Daddy’s car are broken, the doors are closed and crumpled in. I see a pair of bare legs with no shoes on the ground under Daddy’s car. I can’t see anything else because the front door slams and Mommy runs out of the house screaming toward Daddy’s car and then more lights come down the street because the police and ambulance are coming and I stumble back onto my bed, shivering, and I still don’t know what just happened, but I know it was bad, it was very, very bad.


Friday, October 11, 1970 (Dani is 8, Jamie is 34)

JAMIE:

Rarely do I so quickly recognize the date when I time travel. Usually there’s at least a few moments of disorientation followed by the pressing need of securing the holy trinity of essentials: clothing, shelter, and safety. Only after can I scan the area, scraping for clues that might indicate where and when the hell I am.

It just takes one look to know. Dani never wears black. Every other bloody color of the rainbow, but never black. Never just black. Feel like a right twit for never realizing why until now. The Box is there, and I quietly pull out some clothes and slide them on, tiptoeing to the small little girl sitting on the rock looking out into the distance. 

“Hey Dani,” I say, taking a seat next to her. She sniffs and wipes her nose. She’s been crying for a while. I know what it’s like to lose a parent. But can’t say I’ve ever mourned one. Not much I can say about Phil Clayton, other than what little I know about him. Dani doesn’t talk about him much, but the shape of him still leaves shadows even in the bright light of the future. 

I don’t know how to comfort this shattered child in front of me. I only know how to hold the woman I love in my arms until the pieces of her sadness ebb away into the wide ocean of grief. What I do know is this: Phil Clayton, was by all accounts, a good father. He loved his daughter. Treated her well, cherished her, and then he left. Freak accident, his car wrapped around a telephone pole and he died on impact. 

“Jamie, is there a Heaven?” Christ. I exhale a long, slow breath.

“I dunno,” I answer honestly. “Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t. That’s the thing about it though, innit; we’re not meant to know.” Dani twists a blowball between her fingers. 

“Eddie says Daddy’s in Heaven.” Not a surprising sentiment from the Catholic O’Maras. “But,” she sniffs, “I don’t want him to be in Heaven. I want him to be here with me.” 

Never had a parent that died. But I’ve certainly grieved for ones I lost, for a future taken from me. “There was a while,” I begin, “in my life, where things were a bit dodgy. Where I was hurtin’ - so much, so badly - that I thought I was dying. Was sure of it. But eventually, I realized it only felt like dyin’ because actually, I was still alive. Y’have to be to feel that way. I wasn’t dead, or dying; was just really, really sad.” I close my eyes against the memories and think of Dani. My Dani. The one waiting at home for me. I breathe her in, and open my eyes. “But then I learned a secret, and I didn’t even need to be sad anymore.” I take Dani’s hand.

She looks up at me. “What secret?” she asks in a small voice.

I look down at her. “Dead doesn’t mean gone.” There’s nothing that can take away this kind of pain. But maybe I can help her hold it for a while.


Tuesday, June 7, 1983 (Jamie is 20, and 9)

JAMIE:

I’m standing across the street from the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester on a sunny June day in 1983 in the company of my nine year-old self. She’s traveling from a few years ago; I, on the other hand, have come from 1981. Got a long afternoon and evening to mess about as we will, and so we’ve come to one of the biggest museums around for a little lesson in pick-pocketing.

“Can’t we just look at the exhibits?” pleads Jamie. She’s nervous. She’s never done this before.

“Nope. Y’need to know this. How are you going to survive if you can’t steal anything?” She doesn’t know, yet. How much worse it’s going to get. She’s been through about two years and three foster families already. Things are bad, ‘specially the next one, but she’s not yet up to the part where she’s going to need to steal in her present, let alone any time she time travels. 

“Begging.” Christ. Already she says it with a chip on her shoulder.

“Begging never works, and you’ll keep gettin’ carted off by the police. Now, listen: when we get in there, I want you to stay away from me and pretend we don’t know each other. But be close enough to watch what I’m doin’, yeah? If I hand you anything, don’t drop it, and put it in your pocket as fast as you can. Alright?”

“I guess,” she grumbles.

We cross Liverpool Road and walk between students and families sunning themselves on the museum steps. 

I feel moderately bad about this whole thing. On the one hand, I’m providing myself with desperately needed survival skills. Other lessons in this series include Shoplifting, Beating People Up, Picking Locks, Climbing Trees, Driving, Housebreaking, Dumpster Diving, and How To Use Oddball Things Like Venetian Blinds and Garbage Can Lids as Weapons. On the other, I’m helping to walk my poor little self further down a path of vice that will get her into quite a bit of trouble in a few years. Then again, the world is doing a pretty shit job at doing anything close to keeping an innocent kid safe, so the more I can arm myself to face it, the better.

The place is swarming with people. We stand in line, move through the entry, and slowly make our way in. We go in through the Great Western Warehouse and weave ourselves into the crowd. The building was built on the site of the world’s oldest surviving passenger railway station which was used for decades to transport goods and livestock. It’s truly gorgeous, the museum did a great job transforming the place. 

“It’s not so hard,” I say. “Pay attention. Look for someone who’s distracted. Figure out where the wallet is. Most men either use their pack pocket or the inside pocket of their suit jacket. With women, you want the purse behind their back. If you’re on the street you can just grab the whole bag, but then you have to be sure you can outrun anybody who might decide to chase ya. It’s better if you can take it without ‘em noticing.”

“I’m fast,” she says determinedly. Don’t I know it. There’s a lot little me will try her hardest to outrun. 

“C’mon, follow me.” We weave through the galleries, passing placards of information, collections of old engines and machines. Jamie can’t see over the heads of the adults, so some of the material is lost on her, but she’s too nervous to look at it anyway. I scan the room. A woman is bending over her toddler as it twists and screams. Must be nap time. I nod at Jamie and move toward her. Her purse has a simple clasp and is slung over her shoulder, across her back. She’s totally focused on getting her child to stop screaming. Not that I can blame her, little tyke is really having a time. I pretend to be looking at the exhibit she’s standing by and as I walk, bump into her, sending her pitching forward. I grab her arm, “I’m so sorry, forgive me, I wasn’t looking, you alright? It’s so crowded in here…” My hand is in her purse, she’s flustered and I catch her eye as I find her wallet, still apologizing, and the wallet goes up my jacket sleeve. I look her up and down, smile, back away, turn, walk, look over my shoulder. She’s picked up her kid and is staring back at me. I smile and walk away, feeling absolutely disgusted with myself. Didn’t think it would be this hard, revisiting these parts of my life I’m ashamed of. Finally walked away from all the bad decisions and wrong people, but here I am, still teaching myself the ropes for how to do it all. It’s for survival, sure. Never know when I’m going to land, or where, and bodily safety is always on the mind, particularly for a rather petite female. These skills will literally keep me alive when I need them to. But when I used them to take advantage of other people because it was fun or hanging ‘round with the wrong sort, there was no need for it. Jamie is following me as I take the stairs down to the Farm Tech gallery. We rendezvous by the women’s toilets.

We cram ourselves into a stall and I open the lady’s wallet. Her name is Denise Jacobson. She lives in Salford. She’s a member of the museum and is carrying twenty pounds in cash, plus change. I show all this to Jamie, silently, put the wallet back as it was, and hand it to her. We walk out of the stall, out of the ladies’ room, back toward the entrance of the museum. “Give this to the guard. Say you found it on the floor.”

“Why?”

“We don’t need it; I was just showing you how to do it.” I exhale, already feeling better with the wallet out of my hands. Jamie runs to the guard, who smiles and gives Jamie a sort of half-hug. She comes back slowly, and we walk ten feet apart, with me leading. I’m looking for easy marks, and just ahead of me is the perfect illustration of the pickpocket’s dream. Short, round, sunburnt, and is lecturing his girlfriend on the history of the railroad. She keeps opening her mouth, trying to say something, but he keeps barreling forth as if he’s god’s gift to the museum public. I have no qualms about this one. He strolls on, braying, blissfully unaware, with his wallet in his left back pocket. He has a large gut but almost no backside, and his wallet is pretty much aching for me to take it. I amble along beside them. Jamie has a clear view as I deftly insert my thumb and forefinger into the mark’s pocket and liberate the wallet. I drop back as they walk on, I pass the wallet to Jamie and she shoves it into her pants as I walk ahead.

I show Jamie some other techniques: how to take a wallet from the inside breast pocket of a suit, how to shield your hand from view while it’s inside a woman’s purse, six different ways to distract someone while you take their wallet, how to take wallet out of a backpack, and how to get someone to inadvertently show you where their money is. She’s more relaxed now, she’s even starting to enjoy this. It’s just a game to her. Finally, I say, “Okay, now you try.”

She’s instantly petrified. “I can’t.”

I know the shape of that fear behind her eyes: bitter wives who already look for any excuse to swap out one piece of gutter trash for another. Keeping track of how much is eaten, watching hawk-like and suspicious over every movement, as if the few shitty belongings they have would be taken by tiny, sticky fingers. Looked at as criminals already. Paranoid to be thought of as a thief, now being told to practice being one. “Sure you can. Look around. Find someone.” I remember this all vividly. I was totally terrified. I look over at my self and sure enough, her face is white with fear. I’m smiling, because I know what comes next. We stand in line at the cafe. In front of us is a very tall middle-aged man wearing a brown lightweight suit; it’s impossible to see where the wallet is. Jamie approaches him, with one of the wallets I’ve lifted earlier on her outstretched hand. 

“Sir? Is this yours?” says Jamie softly. “It was on the floor.” 

“Uh? Oh, hmm, no,” the man checks his right back pants pocket, finds his wallet safe, leans over Jamie to hear her better, takes the wallet from Jamie and opens it. “Hmm, my, you should take this to the guards, hmm, there’s quite a bit of cash in here, yes,” the man wears thick glasses and peers at Jamie through them as he speaks and Jamie reaches around the man’s jacket and steals his wallet. Since Jamie is wearing a short-sleeved T-shirt, I walk behind her and she passes the wallet to me. The mark points at the stairs, explaining to Jamie how to turn in the wallet. Jamie toddles off in the direction the man has indicated, and I follow, overtake Jamie and lead her right through the museum to the entrance and out, past the guards, onto the street, and we end up, grinning like a proper pair of bandits and we treat ourselves to milkshakes and chips with some of our ill-gotten gains. Afterwards we toss all the wallets in a postbox, without the cash, and I get us a room at a nearby hotel. 

“So?” I ask, sitting on the side of the bathtub watching Jamie brush her teeth.

“O ot?” returns Jamie with a mouthful of toothpaste.

“What did ya think?”

She spits. “Think about what?”

“Pickpocketing,”

She looks at me in the mirror. “It’s okay.” She turns and looks directly at me. “I did it!” She grins, madly.

“You were brilliant!”

“Yeah!” The grin fades. “Jamie, I don’t like to time travel by myself. It’s better with you. Can’t you always come with me?”

She’s standing with her back to me, and we look at each other in the mirror. Poor small self: at this age, my back is thin and my shoulder blades stick out like wings. She turns, waiting for an answer, and I know what I have to tell her -- me. It kills me, taking away this last bastion of hope. I reach out and gently turn her and bring her to stand by me, so we’re side by side, heads level, facing the mirror. 

“Look.” We study our reflections, twinned in the bathroom mirror. Our hair is the same brown, moles dot our face identically, a matching Cupid’s bow on our lips. I’m taller and more muscular. She’s  slender and ungainly, all knees and elbows. I reach up and pull back my sleeve, showing her my shoulder. Unconsciously, she mimics my gesture, touches the same scar on her own back. 

“It’s just like mine,” says my self, amazed. “How did you get it?”

“Same as you. Same pot, same accident. We’re the same.”

A translucent moment. I didn’t understand, and then I did, just like that. I watch it happen. I want to be both of us at once, feel again the feeling of losing the edges of my self, of seeing the blending of future and present for the first time. But I’m too accustomed, too comfortable with it, and so I’m left on the outside, remembering the wonder of being nine and suddenly seeing, knowing, that my only friend, guide, sister, was me. Me, only me. The loneliness of it that was somehow so much deeper than the already lonely existence I lived in. 

“You’re me.”

“When you’re older.”

“But...what about the others?”

“Other time travelers?”

She nods. 

“I don’t think there are any. At least, I’ve never met any others.”

A tear gathers at the edge of her eye. Nine-year-old Jamie hasn’t cried in a very long time. Burns tears away in bad choices in a few short years, letting it fall out of her like the cigarette ash she’ll flick away as it burns. When I was little, I imagined a whole society of time travelers, of which Jamie, my teacher, was an emissary sent to rescue lost and abandoned kids. Kids like me, where we’d be taken to a safe place where we’d be loved and cared for, a new family forged beyond the bounds of time. I still feel like a castaway, the last member of a once numerous species. My self, small as a leaf, thin as water, begins to cry. I hold her, hold me, for a long time. My heart is in a million fucking pieces in the floor. 

Later, we order hot chocolate and watch bad late-night television. Jamie falls asleep with the light on. As the show ends, I look over at her and she’s gone, vanished back to some foster house, standing sleep-addled beside an old bed, but falling into it nonetheless, desperately. I turn off the TV and the bedside lamp. 1983 street noises drift in the open window. I want to go home, back to the small flat that despite its emptiness, is all mine, and more importantly, safe. I lie on the hotel bed, desolate, alone. I still don’t understand.


Wednesday, December 3, 1975 (Jamie is 15, and 15)

JAMIE:

I’m in what passes for ‘my’ room these days with my self. She’s here from next March. We’re playing cards, trying to pass the time on days like today when it’s cold out and we’re stuck inside, unwilling to risk getting caught leaving the house.

It’s late Saturday night, I can hear the TV on downstairs, which isn’t hard given that this round of foster parents tend to like watching their programs loud enough to wake the fucking dead. My other self seems distracted; she keeps looking at the door. “What?” I ask her. “Nothin’,” she says. I get up and go check the lock. “No,” she says. She seems to be making a huge effort to speak. “Come on,” I say.

I’ve beat her four times at Speed already. I freeze suddenly, hearing Bill’s heavy step right outside my door. “Jamie,” he whispers, in that way that drips down my spine like ice water, and the knob of the door slowly turns and I abruptly realize that I have inadvertently unlocked the door and Jamie leaps for the closet before it’s too late and closes herself in just in time. The TV is still blaring downstairs. Marie is either asleep on her lounger and doesn’t know where her husband’s gone off to or she doesn’t care. Neither thought brings much comfort on nights like these. Most of the other homes didn’t have bedroom doors that locked. This one is a rare treat, save for the fact that sometimes Bill likes to come sniffing. The lock is a trick - it doesn’t matter. Doesn’t keep me safe. It’s fifteen minutes before he leaves, and I spend the entire time burning a hole staring at the ceiling as if looking up hard enough would allow me to fly away. I feel metal in my mouth, having bit my tongue hard enough just thinking about me in the closet. He finally leaves and my self comes slinking out of the closet looking sick. I get up and close the door, making sure it’s good and locked this time.

“What the fuck,” I hiss, spinning back around towards her, seething. She’s sitting on the chair with her head in her hands. “You knew, you fucking knew that was going to happen and you didn’t say anything. Where’s your sense of self preservation? What the fuck is wrong with you? What use is knowing the fucking future if you can’t at least protect us from --”

“Shut up,” Jamie croaks. “Just shut up.”

“I won’t shut up,” I say, my voice rising just short of loud enough to be heard through the door. “I mean, all you had to do was --”

“Listen.” She looks up at me with resignation. “It was like...it was like that day at the park.”

“Oh. Shit.” A couple years ago, I saw a little girl get hit in the head with a lacrosse ball at the local park. It was horrible. I found out later she died in hospital. And then I started to time travel back to that day, over and over, and I wanted to warn her mother, and I couldn’t. It was like being in the audience at a movie. It was like being a ghost. I would scream, No, take her home, don’t let her near the field, she’s going to get hurt, she’s going to die, and I would realize that the words were only in my head, and everything would go on as before.

Jamie says, “You talk about changing the future, but for me this is the past, and as far as I can tell there’s nothing I can do about it. I mean, I tried, God knows I’ve fuckin’ tried, and it was the trying that made it happen. If I hadn’t said something, you wouldn’t have gotten up…”

“Then why didn’t you say anything?!”

“Because I did. You will, just wait.” She shrugs. “It’s like with Mikey. The Accident.” Always again, always the same.

“Free fuckin’ will, huh?” 

She gets up, walks to the window, stands looking out over the Tatingers’ backyard. “I was just talking about that with a self from 1992. She said something interesting: she said that she thinks there’s only free will when you’re in time, in the present.”

“But wherever I am, that’s my present. Shouldn’t I be able to decide --”

“No. Apparently not.”

“What did she say about the future?”

“Well, think. You go to the future, you do something, you come back to the present. Then the thing that you did is part of your past. So that’s probably inevitable, too.”

I feel a weird combination of freedom and despair. I’m sweating; she opens the window and cold air floods into the room. “But then I’m not responsible for anything I do while I’m not in the present.”

She grins, “Thank fuck.”

“And everything has already happened.”

“Sure looks that way.” She runs her hand over her face, and I see how tired she looks. “But she said that you have to act like you have free will, like you are responsible for what you do.”

"Why? What does it fucking matter if shit like this happens?”

"Apparently, if you don’t, things are bad. Depressing.”

“Worse than they are now?” I say, bitterly.

“Yes.” The sureness in which she says that makes me stop. I give up.

“So what happens next?”

“Three weeks. You’re here for three more weeks.”

I sigh. “Right. Okay. Anything else?”

“Vivian Teska.”

Vivian is this girl in Geometry that I spend hours staring at three rows in front of me. I’ve never said a word to her. 

“After class tomorrow, go up to her and ask her if you can borrow her notes to study.”

“I don’t even know her.”

“Trust me,” she’s smirking at me in a way that makes me wonder why on earth I would ever trust her but I want to believe. “Okay.”

“I should get going. Money?” I dole out ten quid. “More.” I hand her another ten. 

“That’s all I’ve got.”

“Okay. Right.” She’s dressing, pulling clothes from the back of the closet stash of things I’ve never seen. She finds a jacket that’s covered in so much pink and sparkles that it’s practically blinding. She makes a face and puts it on. We walk to the window. “Bye,” says my self.

"Good luck,” I say, jealous of the sight of me embarking into the unknown, into a cold Saturday morning she doesn’t belong in, free of this place. She lowers herself down from the window ledge, feet resting on the top frame of the lower set of windows from the first floor. She shifts her weight, and reaches down to lower herself down carefully out of sight, dropping the final five or so feet to the ground with a thump. She looks up at me and jerks her head in acknowledgement. I nod back and as she disappears into the night, I turn back to the silent bedroom, empty, empty, empty.


Saturday, November 17/Friday, September 28, 1979 (Jamie is 19)

JAMIE:

I’m in the back of a police car outside Haighton Green. I’m wearing handcuffs and not much else. The interior of this particular police car smells like cigarettes, leather, sweat, and another stench I can’t identify that seems endemic to police cars. The odor of freakoutedness, perhaps. My left eye is swelling shut and the front of my body is covered with bruises and cuts and dirt from being tackled by the larger of the two policemen in an empty lot full of broken glass. I’m lucky that this set of officers seem to actually have something resembling professionalism and a moral compass and the only thing they seemed keen on was getting the feral naked woman wrestled into a set of handcuffs. I’ve had worse run-ins with them before. The policemen are standing outside the car talking to the neighbors, at least one of whom evidently saw me trying to break into the house we’re parked in front of. I don’t know where I am in time. I’ve been here for about an hour, and I have fucked up completely. I’m starving. I’m exhausted. I’m supposed to be bringing back the haul of car radios. I curse, knowing they’re probably long gone by now and I’ll have to procure another batch.

The upside of this police car is: it’s warm and I’m not in Manchester. Manchester’s Finest hate me because I keep disappearing while I’m in custody, and they can’t figure it out. Also I refuse to talk to them, so they still don’t know who I am, or where I live. The day they find out, I’m done because there are several outstanding warrants for my arrest: breaking and entering, shoplifting, resisting arrest, breaking arrest, trespassing, indecent exposure, robbery, and, more recently, possession. They might think I’m a pretty fucking inept criminal, but really the main problem is that it’s so hard to be inconspicuous when you’re stark fucking naked. Stealth and speed are my main assets and so, when I try to burgle houses or cars in broad daylight naked as a bluebird, sometimes it doesn’t quite work out. I’ve been arrested seven times on time travel related instances, and twice in my present for illegal activities, but sooner or later my luck is going to run out and I can’t rely on stress from the moment to trigger a trip back in time. I’ve always vanished before they can fingerprint me or take a photo. 

The neighbors keep peering in the windows of the police car at me. I don’t care. I don’t fucking care. Been gawked at enough over the years by neighbors and police alike. This is taking a long time. Fuck, I hate this. I lean back and close my eyes.

A car door opens. Cold air -- my eyes fly open -- for an instant I see the metal grid that separates the front of the car from the back, the cracked vinyl seats, my hands in the cuffs, my gooseflesh legs, the flat sky through the windshield, the black visored hat on the dashboard, the clipboard in the officer’s hand, his red face, tufted graying eyebrows and jowls like drapes -- everything shimmers, iridescent, butterfly-wing colors and the policeman says, “Hey, she’s having some kinda fit --” and my teeth are chattering hard and before my eyes the police car vanishes and I’m lying on my back in the alley behind the flat. Yes. Yes! I fill my lungs with the sweet September night air. I sit up and rub my wrists, still marked where the handcuffs were. 

I laugh, a dark and bitter sound. Nausea overcomes me, and I heave bile onto the asphalt.


Friday, April 3, 1981 (Jamie is 20)

JAMIE:

I keep having the same nightmare. 

It starts in the back of a police car. I’m completely clothed, wearing every last scrap of clothing I put on that morning when I woke up. I’m in a cop car, fully present, because I haven’t time traveled. It is now, and I’m caught. Mack is nowhere to be found. They take me to the police station and when the car door opens, every last scrap of survival instinct kicks in and I start thrashing wildly, trying desperately to escape from their hold on my arm and get out, to run, to be anywhere but here because this will be the absolute end of me. Prison is a cage, but for me it’ll be just the beginning. Once they find out what I am, what I do, I’ll never see the outside of a lab. I’m an uncared for ward of the state: a criminal, a felon, their ideal lab rat. No one will miss me. No one will care. Life as I know it will be over. 

But the cop on my right has a grip like iron and as I struggle, he grips tighter and when I don’t stop he slams an elbow into my gut that sends me gasping for air. The station entrance looms in front of me and my heart is pounding and I can’t breathe and just as the officer’s hand reaches to pull open the door, my good-for-nothing fucked up genes finally kick into gear and suddenly I find myself naked in an alleyway. I have no idea when or where I am and spend the next ten minutes sifting through garbage in the bin looking for clothes and scraps of any edible food. Just as I find a half full bag of crisps that look decent I disappear again and find myself back at home. Or, what I thought was home, at least. But then there’s Mack, running around the flat, hastily shoving clothes into a duffel bag. “Oh,” she says dumbly, somehow not at all surprised to see me, “You’re back.” See, I thought she’d be glad to see me. Relieved, actually, that I’d managed to free myself from near-certain downfall. But then I see that the duffel is full of her clothes. Her things. But that both of our cash rolls are lying next to it. It sinks in that I’m the surprise here. The expendable thing. The used thing. The deepest, darkest, most precious secret of my existence, exploited and manipulated like a tool. I’ve been such a fucking idiot. “Right,” I say, hardening. “Weren’t even gonna leave a note, then, were ya.” Mack doesn’t even try to stammer an excuse, but it’s so clear, then. There’s a loud ringing in my ears, and the door slams, and I wake up. Then I remember that nothing about this is a dream. It all happened. Just a sad replay of my sad life. I sit up in bed rubbing my hands over my face, trying to erase the lingering echoes of shame and embarrassment.

It’s still dark out. The alarm reads 5:45 a.m. I groan, still not accustomed to getting up so early. I was lucky to find this job. Busy work for itching, idle hands. No university degree required, no references, no experience. Just a willingness to put my head down and stay busy, which was something I desperately needed after leaving London. Gardening is simple work. Hard work, but simple. Turns out I fucking love it. Turns out I’m good for something. Useful. I watch things grow, and it all makes sense. Plants don’t expect anything from you. They don’t betray you or consume you. They simply reflect the care they’ve been given and breathe a little more life into the world. 

So I carve out a new existence, in ritual, in routine. I get used to the quiet. I wake up alone, I eat alone. I go to work, I come back. I eat alone, I go to bed alone. Alone, alone alone. 

But safe. 

Chapter Text

Chapter 4: Among the Wildflowers

 

Listen:

Reader: foomatic

Length: 47:50


Tuesday, June 13, 1972 (Dani is 10)

DANI:

The last month of school feels like a blur. There’s a graduation next week for all the fifth graders and in the fall we’ll start middle school. I hope it doesn’t stink, being the youngest in a new school. My teacher, Mrs. Esbrandt, wears her hair up like a beehive and has a little butterfly pin that she wears every spring. I always told her how pretty I thought it was and when she passed around graduation hats, I found it right inside mine with a note that said “Embrace your metamorphosis and fly toward your dreams.” She was always my favorite teacher, but now she’s really my favorite teacher. She’s everyone’s favorite teacher because she’s the nicest even though she’s old and her husband used to be the superintendent and we were afraid of her at the beginning of the year. 

Mrs. Esbrandt lets us out for recess early and we run through the halls, giddy and bouncing with excitement because it’s almost summer break and there’s basically no homework anymore. The doors behind the gym slam open as we run into them and I run to the swingset. It’s always my favorite place to go and I jump onto my favorite swing all the way at the end of the row by the softball field. My legs pump and as I lean back in the seat, gain leverage and quickly go higher. It feels like I’m disappearing into the sky, and I close my eyes, basking in the sunshine peeking through the canopy of trees. I lose track of how long I go, focusing on the feel of the sun, my hair blowing in the wind and whistling past my ears. 

Eventually the bell rings for the rest of the grade and the other classrooms come pouring through the doors. I hop off the swing and run towards Eddie. He’s halfway up the jungle gym by the time I catch him and cover his eyes and he giggles and says “Danielle,” like I’m in trouble so I take my hands off and he makes a face because I smudged his glasses. 

“Sorry,” I giggle. “C’mon!” I grab his hand and we run down to the trees behind the library at the side of the kickball court and start climbing. We get as far as we can and play I Spy for a while until we get bored and climb back down. The five-minute bell rings and I get really sad because recess is almost over but then I get really sad because I realize it’s one of the last recesses ever because there aren’t any in middle school. And soon we’ll be in middle school and everything will be different because we’ll be older and I think about the way Brenda and Helen have been talking about boys and it feels like time is slipping away and all of a sudden I think about Jamie and if this is what it feels like to be her. I feel really bad for her. I decide to be brave and not be sad about growing up and dare Eddie to beat me to the benches by the jungle bars. We’re running running laughing and when I win he’s panting saying it doesn’t count because I started the race first before he could get ready. So I said fine, and I must be light-headed from the not-race because for some reason I dare him to kiss me instead. I don’t know why I did that. His face gets really red and before I can think about it too hard he presses his lips to mine. We stand there for what feels like forever, Eddie’s eyes squeezed tight and I stare at him and feel far away even though his face is so close to mine. I can see the freckles on his nose and the smudge on his glasses from my hands and when he finally pulls away, blushing and stammering something about not being late for the bell, I feel relief and I don’t know why.


Saturday, February 9, 1974 (Dani is 11, almost 12)

DANI:

It’s Eddie’s birthday and I’m sleeping over at the O’Mara’s. We have pizza and Cokes and fruit salad for dinner, and Mrs. O’Mara made a big cake shaped like a baseball that says Happy Birthday Eddie! in blue icing and we sing and Eddie blows out all twelve candles in one breath. The flames dance in the reflection of his glasses and his eyes twinkle like stars. Mrs. O’Mara is clapping, Mr. O’Mara is standing a few feet away from the table, waving for all of us to get closer so he can snap a photo. Eddie’s brothers are all nudging each other aside, elbows in faces and backs and something in me always goes warm at the sight of it. Of a family, whole, together, loving each other, even when they’re being annoying. “Cut it out, boys,” Mrs. O’Mara says, and I catch Eddie as he rolls his eyes good-naturedly. Tommy scoops a dollop of icing on his finger and plops it on Carson’s nose, who promptly shouts and starts chasing him around the living room. “Boys!” Mrs. O’Mara yells after them, head shaking in the patient way only a doting mother can. 

After dinner we watch Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory on tape in the basement and eventually Mr. & Mrs. O’Mara go upstairs. After the movie is over, we put on our pajamas and pull out a bunch of board games and Tommy yanks one from the bottom of the pile and yells “Ouija board!” The box is all mashed, and the little plastic thing that shows the letters is missing its plastic window. The board is only really big enough for two people to do it at once, so Eddie and Tommy go first. The rule is you have to ask what you want to know out loud or it won’t work. They each put their fingers on the plastic thing. Eddie looks at Tommy, who says, “Let’s ask it if you like to eat butt!” And we all laugh and Eddie goes “That’s not a real question, you idiot. Ask about Jessica,” he suggests instead. Jessica Duxler is the girl that Tommy has a crush on and he blushes and punches Eddie in the shoulder, who rubs it tenderly but smiles at me like it was totally worth it. I smile back. The answer is no, but the Ouija board says yes, with a little pushing by Tommy. He smiles so hugely I can see his braces, top and bottom.

Eddie asks if any girls like him. The Ouija circles around for a while, and then stops on C, A, R. Eddie looks disappointed. “Carson?” Tommy says, laughing, and now it’s Eddie’s turn to punch Tommy in the arm. Tommy, of course, punches Eddie back again, and they go on like this for a while until I get bored and grab the board, and now it’s time for me and Carson to go. He looks at me and I shrug. “I don’t know what to ask,” I say but there are so many things I want to know. Is Mom ever going to be Mom again? Why did Daddy have to die? Is Jamie a real person? Where did I leave my Math homework?

Eddie says, “What boys like Danielle?” I give him a mean look, but he just smiles in a way that makes me feel weird inside. I don’t know why. “Don’t you want to know?” “No,” I say, but I put my fingers on the white plastic anyway. Carson puts his fingers on it too and nothing moves. We’re both touching the thing very lightly, we’re trying to do it right and not push. Then it starts to move, slow. It goes in circles, and then stops on J. Then it speeds up. A, M, I, E. “Jamie,” Tommy says, confused. “Who’s Jamie?” Carson says, “I don’t know, but you’re blushing, Dani. Who is Jamie?” I just shake my head like it’s a mystery to me, too. Which it is, because I don’t know any boys named Jamie. Just...Jamie. 

Carson asks if he’s going to get a puppy for Christmas, and the answer comes back a vehement ‘yes,’ which, duh, since it’s Carson and Eddie moving the piece now. But my head keeps spinning, Jamie, Jamie, Jamie. A few more rounds of questions go by: What’s Mrs. Jefferson’s wig really made of? Will the Hawkeyes make it to the Final Four this year? Eddie has his back to me so I can’t see his face when he asks, “Who is Jamie?” Everybody looks at me and gets real quiet. I watch the board. Nothing. Just as I’m thinking I’m safe, the plastic thing starts to move. W, it says. I think it’ll just spell ‘woman’; after all, they don’t know anything about Jamie. I don’t even know that much about Jamie. Then it goes on: I, F, E. They all look at me. “Well, I’m not married; I’m only eleven. And a girl.” “Maybe you’re the wife to Jamie,” reasons Carson.  “But who’s Jamie?” wonders Eddie. “I don’t know. Maybe they’re somebody I haven’t met yet.” He nods. Everyone is weirded out. I’m very weirded out. Wife? Wife?


Friday , June 27, 1975 (Dani is 13)

DANI:

I’m sitting in the Meadow. My arms and legs are spread wide like a starfish, and I curl my fingers and toes into the long grass. It’s late June, late afternoon; in a few minutes, it’ll be time to head in for dinner. Well, whatever Mom heated up from a box. But at least maybe she’ll eat something tonight. The temperature is dropping. A few minutes ago the sky was coppery blue and there was a heavy heat over the Meadow, everything felt curved, like being under a big glass dome, all noises swallowed up in the heat while an overwhelming chorus of insects droned. I’ve been sitting by the bushes watching a spider weave its web, thinking about Jamie. Today isn’t a Jamie day; the next one is twenty-two days away. Jamie is puzzling to me. All my life I’ve pretty much just accepted Jamie as no big deal; that is, she’s a secret and therefore automatically fascinating, Jamie is also some kind of miracle and just recently it’s started to dawn on me that most people don’t have a Jamie or if they do then they’ve all been pretty quiet about it.

There’s a wind coming: the tall grass is rippling and I close my eyes so it sounds like the sea (which I’ve never seen except on TV). But sometimes I go out to the corn fields and watch the stalks blow in the wind and watch my own landlocked ocean. When I open them the sky is yellow and then green. Jamie says she comes from the future. When I was little I didn’t see any problem with that; I didn’t have any idea what it might mean. Now I wonder if it means that the future is a place, or like a place, that I could go to in some way other than just getting older. I wonder if Jamie could take me to the future. The trees by the far end of the Meadow are dense and their branches bend over, whipping to the sides, bowing to the earth. The cicadas are gone and the wind is smoothing everything, making the trees groan and creak like old men.

I’m afraid of the future; it seems to be a big black box waiting for me. Jamie says she knows me in the future. Huge grey clouds blow in front of the trees so quickly that I laugh without quite knowing why. The very air feels electric and there’s a long low rumble of thunder. I’m suddenly very aware of myself, thin and upright in a flat meadow with an oncoming storm so I lie down hoping to be unnoticed by Mother Nature, who rolls up and I’m flat on my back looking up when water begins to pour down from the sky. My clothes are soaked in an instant and I suddenly feel that Jamie is there, an incredible need for Jamie to be there even while it also feels like Jamie is the rain and I’m alone, not knowing why I’m wanting her.


Saturday, September 20, 1975 (Jamie is 31, Dani is 13)

JAMIE:

I’m in the clearing, in the Meadow. It’s very early in the morning, just before dawn. Not a problem for me, I’m usually up about now, anyway. It’s my favorite time of day, when the world is quiet and still with promise. I love going to work early, getting a start in the cool fog, content to clear my mind and focus on my hands. At home, I’m even more content to spend a few hours lazily puttering about the flat, enjoying the ritual of tea, reading with a steaming mug, watering and pruning the plants, watching Dani sleep. I miss her. I’d rather be there, with her. It’s late summer here, all the flowers and grasses are up to my chest. It’s chilly. I’m alone. I wade through the plants, pleased at how they grew this season, and locate the Box, open it up, and find blue jeans and a white shirt and flip-flops. I’ve never seen these clothes before, so I have no idea where I am in time. Dani has also left me a snack: there’s a peanut butter and jelly sandwich carefully wrapped in aluminum foil, with an apple and a bag of crisps. Maybe this is one of Dani’s school lunches. I’m guessing this to be around the late seventies. I sit down on the rock and eat the food, and then I feel much better. The sun is rising. The whole Meadow is blue, and then orange, and pink, the shadows are elongated, and then, it’s day. There’s no sign of Dani and nothing to do with these idle hands of mine except rest. I crawl a few feet into the vegetation, curl up on the ground even though it’s wet with dew, and doze.  

When I wake up the sun is higher and Dani is sitting next to me reading a book. She smiles at me. 

I groan and rub my eyes. “Hey, Dani. What’s the date?”

“Saturday, September 20, 1975.”

Dani is thirteen. A strange and difficult age, but not as difficult as what we’re going through in my present. I sit up, and yawn. “Dani, if I asked very nicely, would you go into your house and smuggle out a cup of tea for me?”

“Tea?” Dani says this as though she has never heard of it before. She considers the logistics. She’ll get better at making it by the time she’s an adult, but at the moment I’m desperate.

“Pretty please?”

“Okay, I’ll try.” She stands up, slowly. This is the year Dani got tall, quickly. In the past year she’s grown five inches, and hasn’t yet become accustomed to her new body. Curious, I take a peek at the book she was reading and I’m on page thirty-three by the time she gets back. She’s brought a Thermos, cups, a blanket, and some Pop Tarts. A summer’s worth of sun has freckled Dani’s nose, and her bleached hair falls over her arms as she spreads out the blanket.

“Bless you.” I receive the Thermos as though it contains a sacrament. Which it might as well have, considering the holiness of a morning cup of tea. We settle ourselves on the blanket. I kick off the flip-flops, pour out a cup, take a sip and immediately spit it out. 

“This is cold, Dani.”

“Well yeah,” she says, as if I’m stating the obvious. 

“Why’s the tea cold?”

“It’s iced tea. How else are you supposed to make it?” 

“Christ. Okay. First lesson, tea is supposed to be hot. And it’s not supposed to give you a cavity.”

“That sounds weird.”

“You’re the ones who’ve desecrated a tradition hundreds of years old.”

“I don’t know who would want hot tea that isn’t sweet. What’s the point?”

“The point, dear Dani, is that not everything needs to be doused in sugar.”

“Whatever,” she shrugs.

“You’ll come around to it one day.”

Dani drinks the rest of her tea and takes a Pop Tart. Then she says, “You’re making me into a freak.”

I don’t have a reply ready for this, since the idea has never occurred to me. “Uh, no I’m not.”

“You are so.”

“Am not.” I pause, offended. “What do you mean, I’m making you into a freak? I’m not making you into anything.”

“You know, like telling me that I like hot tea with no sugar before I even taste it. I mean, how am I going to figure out if that’s what I like or if I just like it because you tell me I like it?”

“Dani, it’s just personal taste. You’d figure out how you like your tea whether I say anything or not. And I didn’t say no sugar, just less than an entire bags’ worth. Besides, you’re the one who’s always bugging me to tell you about the future.”

“Knowing the future is different from being told what I like,” Dani says. 

“Why? It’s all got to do with free will.”

Dani takes off her shoes and socks. She pushes the socks into the shoes and places them neatly at the edge of the blanket. Then she takes my cast-off flip-flops and aligns them with her shoes. “I thought free will had to do with sin.”

“Bollocks. Why should free will be limited to right and wrong? I mean, you just decided, of your own free will, to take off your shoes. It doesn’t matter, nobody cares if you wear shoes or not, and it’s not sinful, or virtuous, and it doesn’t affect anythin’ in the future, but you’ve still used your free will.”

Dani shrugs. “But sometimes you tell me something and I feel like the future is already there, you know? Like my future has happened in the past and I can’t do anything about it.”

“I know what you mean. That’s called determinism, and it haunts my dreams.”

Dani is intrigued. “Why?”

“Well, if you’re feeling boxed in by the idea that your future is locked in, imagine how I feel. I’m constantly running up against the fact that I can’t change anything, even though I’m right there, watching it.”

“But Jamie, you do change things! I mean, you wrote down that stuff that I’m supposed to give you in 1992 about the people and the accident. And the List, if I didn’t have the List I would never know when to come meet you. You change things all the time.”

I smile. “I can only do things that work toward what’s already happened. I can’t change the fact that you just took off your shoes.”

Dani laughs, “Why would you care if I take them off or not?”

“I don’t! But even if I did, now it’s an unchangeable part of the history of the universe and I can’t do a thing about it.” I help myself to another Pop Tart. These things are so damn sweet my teeth hurt, but I’m hungry and eat it anyway. 

Dani finishes hers and wipes the crumbs off her cheek. She scratches her neck and looks at me with annoyance. “Now you’re making me self-conscious. I feel like every time I blow my nose it’s a historic event.”

“Well, it is.”

She rolls her eyes. “What’s the opposite of determinism?”

“Chaos.”

“Oh.” She frowns. “I don’t think I like that. Do you like that?”

I take a big bite out of the Pop Tart and consider chaos. “Well, I do and I don’t. Chaos means more freedom; total freedom, in fact. But no meaning. I want to be free to act, and I also want what I do to mean somethin’.”

“But Jamie, what about God? Why can’t there be a God who makes it mean something?” Dani frowns earnestly and looks away across the Meadow as she speaks. I forgot how often she would go to church with the O’Maras. 

I pop the last of the pastry into my mouth and chew slowly to buy some time. “I dunno, Dani. I mean, to me, things seem too random and meaningless and cruel for there to be a God.”

“But you just said before that everything seems like it’s all planned out beforehand.”

Christ, it’s a good thing she didn’t decide to become a barrister and went into teaching instead. “Hmpf. You’re exhaustive, y’know that?”

Dani beams proudly. “Does that mean I win?”

“It means that this particular Thermos full of something that is decidedly not the tea I was expecting to have isn’t doing anything to jump start my morning like I’m used to.”

She winces. “Sorry about that.”

“Don’t worry about it. You’ll get better at it. Might take you the better part of thirty years to do it, but we’ll make a decent Brit out of you, yet. Even if you do still prefer coffee for some godforsaken reason.”

Dani laughs. “You’re doing it again!”

“What?”

“Telling me what I like.” I tickle her feet and she squeals and twists away like a fish, jumps up and does a cartwheel across the clearing, grinning at me as if to dare me to come and get her. I just grin back, and she comes back and sits down next to me, wiping the morning dew off her feet on the blanket.

“Jamie?”

“Yeah?”

“You’re making me different.”

“I know.”

I turn to look at Dani and just for a moment I forget that she’s young, and that this already happened; I see Dani, my wife, superimposed on the face of this young girl, and I don’t know what to say to the Dani who is old and young and different from other girls, who knows that different might be hard. But Dani doesn’t seem to expect an answer. She leans against my arm, and I put it around her shoulders.

Dani!” Across the quiet of the Meadow Karen is bellowing her name. Dani jumps up and grabs her shoes and socks. 

“Gotta go,” she says, suddenly nervous.

“Okay,” I say. “Bye, Dani.”


Wednesday, May 12, 1976 (Jamie is 34, Dani is 13)

JAMIE:

Dani and I are playing Draughts in the fire circle in the woods. It’s a beautiful late spring day, and the woods are alive with birds courting and nesting. We’re keeping ourselves out of the way of Karen, who’s out and about this afternoon. Not that it’s hard to avoid Karen, who practically makes it a point of being an absent parent, even when here. Dani, who figured out the game pretty quickly once she recognized it (“It’s called Checkers, Jamie”),  has been stuck on her move for a while. She looks up, “Jamie, who do you like?”   

You, I think but don’t say. “You mean when I was your age?”

“Um, yeah. When you were my age.”

I weigh the value and potential of this nugget before I dole it out. “I was your age in 1972. I’m two years older than you.”

“So you’re 15?”

“Well, no, I’m thirty-four,” Old enough to be your mum. 

Dani furrows her brow. Math is not her strongest subject, even to teach. It’s magic, though, the way she finds metaphors to understand the very material she turns around and explains to her students. “But if you were twelve in 1972…”

“Oh, sorry. You’re right. I mean, me, right here with you right now, is thirty-four, but somewhere out there” -- I wave my hand vaguely in the air -- “I’m about sixteen. In real time.”

Dani tries to digest this. It’s a lot, I get it. “So there are two of you?”

“Not exactly. There’s always only one of me, but when I’m time traveling sometimes I go somewhere I already am, and yeah, then you could say there are two. Or more.”

“How come I never see more than one?”

“You will. When you and I meet in my present that’ll happen a bit.” More often than I’d like.

“So who did you like in 1972?”

“Nobody, really. At twelve I had other stuff to think about. Did most years, actually. But when I was fourteen I was fascinated with Patty Hearst.”

Dani looks somehow both annoyed and confused. “A girl you knew at school?”

I laugh. “No. She was a rich California college girl who got kidnapped by political terrorists, and they made her rob banks. She was on the news every night for months. Still going on right about now, actually, I think. In your time.”

“What happened to her?”

“They eventually let her go, she got married and had kids and now she’s a rich lady in California. I guess I kind of knew how she felt, being taken away and forced to do stuff she didn’t want to, and then it seemed like she was kind of enjoyin’ it.”

“Do you do things you don’t want to do?”

“Yeah. All the time.” My leg has fallen asleep and I stand up and shake it until it tingles. “I don’t always end up safe and sound with you, Dani. A lot of times I go places where I have to get clothes and food by stealing.” 

“Oh.” Her face clouds. 

“I’m not proud of it, but..” I don’t know how to end the sentence, so I just leave it there, trailing off. Dani sees her move and jumps three of my pieces in a row and smiles triumphantly. “King me!” I do, and then she promptly beats me. 

She starts to set the pieces back in their starting positions. “Again?”

I pretend to look at my nonexistent watch. “Sure.” I sit down again. “Y’hungry?” We’ve been out here for hours and supplies have run low; all we have left are the crumbs at the edge of the tray of Oreos.

“Mmhmm.” Dani holds the pieces behind her back; I tap her right elbow and she shows me the red piece. I make my standard opening move. We play out the next series of moves fairly quickly, with only moderate bloodshed, and then Dani sits for a while, pondering the board. “Who do you like now?” She asks without looking up.

“You mean at sixteen? Or at thirty-four?”

“Both.”

I try to remember being sixteen. It’s just a blur of foster homes, rickety beds, and sneaking out of second and third-story windows to escape for a few hours at a time. All the stories have jumbled together. I was miserable at sixteen. “Sixteen was nothin’ special. Nobody springs to mind.”

“And thirty-four?”

I scrutinize Dani. Is twelve too young? I’m sure twelve is really too young. Why is she asking this anyway?

“Jamie?”

“Yeah?”

“Are you married?”

“Yes,” I admit reluctantly.

“To who?”

“A very beautiful, patient, smart, and loving person.”

Her face falls. “Oh.” She picks up one of my pieces, which she captured two moves ago, and spins it on the ground like a top. “Well, that’s nice,” she seems kind of put out by this news.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Dani moves her piece forward, jumping another one of my pieces. “King me.”

I king her. This is going to be another quick game. Never was any good at checkers. Thinking ahead strategically was never my strong suit. More of a ‘think fast, live in the moment’ kind of person. 

“Am I married?” Dani asks.

I meet her eyes. “You’re pushing your luck today.”

“Why not? You never tell me anything anyway. Come on, Jamie, tell me if I’m gonna be an old maid.”

“You’re a nun,” I tease her.

Dani shudders. “Boy, I sure hope not.” She takes another piece. “How did you meet your husband?”

“Sorry. Top secret information.” I finally take two of her pieces. 

Dani makes a face. “Ouch. Were you time traveling? When you met him?”

I was minding my own business.”

Dani sighs. She takes another piece. I’m starting to run low on pieces to play. “It’s not fair that you know everything about me but you never tell me anything about you.”

“True. It’s not fair.” I try to look regretful.

“I mean, Eddie tells me everything and I tell him everything.”

“Everything?”

“Yeah. Well, I don’t tell him about you, anymore.”

“Oh? Why’s that?”

Dani looks a bit defensive. “You’re a secret. He didn’t believe me anyway, when I told him after you first came. And I didn’t want to keep trying to tell him, because he would talk about you like you weren’t real.”

I look over the board, trying to find a way to take her kinged pieces or at least get one of my own kinged to even the odds a bit. “Jamie, are you really a person?”

I’m a bit taken aback. “Yeah, what else would I be?”

“I don’t know. A spirit?”

“I’m really a person, Dani.”

“Prove it.”

“How?”

“I dunno.”

“I mean, I don’t think you could prove that you’re a person, Dani.”

“Sure I can.”

“How?” I smirk. This is amusing.

“I’m just like a person.”

“Well, hate to break it to ya, but I’m just like a person too.” It’s funny that Dani is bringing this up; back in 1994 Dr. Wingrave and I are arguing about this very thing. Wingrave is convinced I’m a new species of human, as different from everyday folks as Cro-Magnon Man was from his Neanderthal neighbors. I insist that I’m just a piece of messed-up code. Meanwhile, Dani regards me skeptically.

"People don’t appear and disappear the way you do. You’re like the Cheshire Cat.”

“Are you implyin’ that I’m a fictional character?”

“It makes me kind of wonder about fairy tales. I mean, if you’re real, then why shouldn’t fairy tales be real, too?” Dani stands up, still pondering the board, and does a little dance, hopping around like her pants are on fire. “I think the ground is getting harder. My butt’s asleep.”

“Maybe they are real. Or some little thing in them is real and then people just added to it, you know?”

“Like maybe Snow White was in a coma?”

“And Sleeping Beauty, too.”

“And Jack the Beanstalk was just a real terrific gardener.”

“Not better th’n me, though.”

"Hmm?” Oh shit. Right. She doesn’t know. Can’t know yet. Will find out when she’s supposed to. 

“Just meant, I’ve got a decent green thumb, is all.”

“Oh. Okay.”

I’m getting really hungry. Any minute now Karen will holler out the back door for Dani to come home and she’ll have to go in. She sits back down on her side of the board. I can tell she’s lost interest in the game when she starts building a little pyramid out of all the conquered pieces.

“You still haven’t proven you’re real,” Dani says.

“Neither have you.”

“Do you ever wonder if I’m real?” she asks me, surprised.

“Maybe I’m dreamin’ you. Maybe you’re dreamin’ me; maybe we only exist in each other’s dreams and every mornin’ when we wake up we forget all about each other.”

Dani frowns, and makes a motion with her hand as though to bat away this odd idea. “Pinch me,” she requests. I lean over and pinch her on the arm. “Don’t you think I would wake up, if I was asleep? Anyway, I don’t feel asleep.”

“Well, I don’t feel like a ghost. Or a fictional character.”

“How would you know? If you’re a ghost. I mean, if I was making you up, and I didn’t want you to know you were made up, I just wouldn’t tell you, right?”

I wiggle my eyebrows at her, a move I know always gets a rise out of my Dani. “Maybe God just made us up and He’s not telling us.”

“You shouldn’t say things like that,” Dani exclaims. “Besides, you don’t even believe in God. Do you?”

I shrug, and change the subject. Religion never stuck. Seen too much to believe in anything that allows for innocent things to become destroyed. Sure as shit don’t believe suffering has a higher purpose. Can’t see a lick of sense in that. Wouldn’t want to believe in a God that believes it, either. “I’m more real than Patty Hearst.”

Dani looks worried. She starts to put all the pieces back in their box, dumping the pieces haphazardly in the box. “Other people know about her -- I’m the only one who knows about you.”

“But you’ve actually met me, and you’ve never met her.”

She closes the lid of the Draughts set and stretches out on the ground, staring up at the canopy of new leaves. I poke her in the stomach and she curls up like a hedgehog, giggling. We lie on the ground with our hands clasped around our middles and Dani asks, “Is your husband a time traveler too?”

“No, they aren’t. Thank God.” I’m running out of ways to play ‘avoid the pronoun’ without being deliberately misleading.

“Why ‘thank God’? I think that would be fun! You could go places together.”

“One time traveler per family is plenty more than enough. It’s dangerous, Dani.”

“Does he worry about you?”

“Yes,” I say softly. “They do.” I wonder what Dani is doing now, in 1994. Maybe she’s still asleep. Maybe she won’t know I’m gone. 

“Do you love him?”

“No,” I finally admit, unable to say this lie. “But I love her very much.” 

"What do you mean,” she asks, puzzled.

“I mean, I don’t have a husband.”

“But you said you were married.”

“Yes, I did,” I say slowly. There’s a long pause. 

“Oh,” she says dumbly as things process. “I didn’t…” she says a few moments later, “I didn’t think people could do that.”

“Anything is possible, Dani.” It’s the only thing I can give her, now, this gift of hope and possibility. I can practically hear the tides shifting inside of her, the truth licking at her shores. I hope I haven’t fucked anything up. Prepubescence is difficult and confusing enough. Suppose it’s all meant to happen at some point though, so fingers crossed it doesn’t mess things up too much. We lie silently side by side, watching the swaying trees, the birds, the sky. I hear a muffled sniffling noise and glancing at Dani see that tears are streaming across her face down towards her ears. Oh, Jesus, I’m not prepared for this. I sit up and lean over her. “Oh, Dani,” I say in that voice - the one that legions of queer folk have used when we recognize the fear in anothers eyes as they start to come to terms with the whole of themselves. I don’t even know if Dani knows yet, fully, why she’s crying. She just shakes her head back and forth and presses her lips together. I smooth her hair, and pull her into a sitting position, wrap my arms around her. She’s a child, and then again, she isn’t. “It’s gonna be okay,” I soothe, shushing her as she sobs. “It’s gonna be okay, I promise.” And it will be.

Chapter Text

Chapter 5: Lemongrass and Sleep

Listen:

Reader: foomatic

Length: 37:56


Friday, October 14, 1977 (Dani is 15)

DANI:

Lately I spend a lot of time with other people feeling alone, perplexed at how I seem to be stuck on the wrong side of a cliff while the gulf between me and everyone else grows wider every day. Hours are spent feigning interest and nodding along when Brenda and Helen start talking about boys while we sip sodas at the roller rink. Then they start flirting with them, leaning and giggling across the wall dividing the rink from the snack area while I stand awkwardly, trying to participate in conversation and feeling like my skin is stretched too tight. I miss my friends and how it used to be, where the only things we needed were each other.

So instead I spend a lot of that time thinking about Jamie. I wonder about why saying goodbye to Jamie feels worse than when I say it to anyone else, even Eddie. Or why some days it feels like there isn’t enough air to breathe, even in the great wide Iowa open. 

I think about the things Jamie has said. About the fact that she’s married. To a woman. And when I do, a strange feeling settles in my stomach, curdling like sour milk. All I know is that it hurts, now, whenever Jamie is gone in a way that it never used to. I miss her in a way that’s different from how I used to miss her, like how it felt like forever for Christmas to roll around. Now I miss her in the way a flower misses the sun.

I don’t know why, and it feels like there’s a black box inside me, filled with answers to the questions I desperately seek, locked away and hidden. No matter how I scrape at the lock or bang on the lid, it won’t open. All I know is that Jamie feels like a key.

I think about the fact that whenever Jamie leaves me, she goes home to someone else: someone who welcomes her with a kiss or a hug; who can give her more than Oreos and baloney sandwiches; who can hold her at night and wake up to her in the morning. Someone who has endless time with Jamie instead of a paltry List of moments that always end far too soon and leave me wanting. Someone who isn’t me. I want it to be me Jamie comes home to.

And that’s when I realize the strange sour sensation in my stomach is jealousy and that I’m in love with her.


Tuesday, November 14, 1978 (Dani is 16, Jamie is 36)

JAMIE:

It’s a dark November afternoon. I hate these midwestern winters. Dunno how anyone puts up with ‘em. Never felt anything so cold in my bloody life, my first time. Little more prepared for them now, but I’ll never get used to ‘em. I’m in Dani’s basement. Dani’s left me some food: pepperoni pizza, an apple, a quart of milk, and leftover Halloween candy. I’m wearing my favorite jeans and a Sex Pistols t-shirt. I ought to be pretty pleased about the situation, all things considered, but I’m not: Dani’s also left me today’s paper; it’s dated November 14, 1978. This evening, in a cheap, dingy flat in central London, my eighteen-year-old self is shooting up until I pass out and someone drops me off at hospital with a near overdose. It’s the eleventh anniversary of the accident. 

I sit quietly and think about it. It’s funny, how memory fades. If all I had to work from were my childhood memories, my knowledge of everything before would be faded and soft, with a few sharp moments standing out. Like when the mines closed on Christmas Day and gifted us a rare day with Dennis, who would take bites out of his Christmas Pudding and dabbed lemon cream on my nose when I was four. Or when Denny and I used to climb trees and sit in the branches for hours, swinging our legs in the air. Happy memories are rare, few and far between, before everything went to shit. 

I hear the door at the top of the stairs open and clap shut, then slowly descending footsteps. This year brought an unexpected amount of snowfall, and Dani still has snow in her hair and her cheeks are red. She throws her arms around me and hugs me excitedly. “You’re still here!” she says, shrugging off her school bag and coat, dumping them unceremoniously on the floor. I hug her back; her cheer and bustle scattered my thoughts, but my sense of sadness and loss remains. I pull back and my hand comes away from her sweater with a small clump of snow that melts immediately.

“What’s wrong?” Dani takes in the untouched food, my glum demeanor. I hold her hand, still cold from outside. 

“You know that scar on my back? One you always used to ask about, on my shoulder.”

“Yeah.” Dani is rapt with attention. Dani always listens with her whole body, all of her focus, to anyone. It’s one of the best things about her, how much she cares. But this is a special kind of attention she reserves only for me. She’s always eager for any bits of autobiography I let drop, ready to catch them like jewels. Never understood, really, since they’re dirty and jagged and if I could leave them alone where they fall, I would. But Dani treasures them. And as the dates on the List grow few and our years of separation loom large, Dani’s secretly convinced she can find me in real time if I dole out enough facts. Of course, she can’t, because I won’t, and she doesn’t. 

“Here goes, okay?” So I tell her: had a mum; had a dad. Tell her the whole sodding story, minus the dates, keeping it vague enough to be safe, and Dani sits there cross-legged on the basement floor, eyes so full of concern it almost blisters. Can’t bear to look at her through it all, and I wonder if this is unfair, unloading onto a sixteen-year-old instead of my wife, the adult, my partner in everything. But what’s done is done, I suppose, and I say as much when the story is over. 

“The thing I think about most now I’m older is…. how little I remember of it. The details, the specific moments...all that’s left is the shape of it. The neighbors all nosed about, of course, when the ambulance came and police pulled up, lookin’ through the window or standin’ in their doorways, watchin’ the carnage finally unfold after years of whispers and gossip. There was a little boy, few doors down, who watched the whole time. While I was carted out to the paramedics and my brother, screaming his head off in the arms of a social worker, this little boy was standin’ behind his mum, his hand holdin’ onto her trousers with a tight fist, starin’ at us. My mum, on the other hand, was fifty kilometers away without a care in the world, apparently. I was gone for ten minutes and forty-seven seconds while that pot boiled, but that was enough. Ten minutes and forty-seven seconds to change everything.” 

“But-” it takes Dani a while to speak, waiting as silence stretched in the wake of the story’s ending, making sure I was finished, “--Jamie, you were -- you said you don’t remember. And how could you know? Ten minutes and forty-seven seconds? Exactly?”

I’m quiet for a while, searching for the best way to explain. Kicking myself for even bringing it up. “You know about gravity, yeah? The larger something is, the heavier it is, the more gravitational pull it has? It pulls smaller things to it, and they orbit around and around?” Dani nods. “Things like the accident...it’s a pivotal thing...everything else circles around and down into it, like a well. I time travel to it. Over and over. If you were there, too, if you could hover over the house that day, you could see every detail of it. All the people, cars, the trees on the block - if you had enough time to really look at everything, you’d see me. I’m behind bushes, in a tree, looking out of windows. I’m even part of the story: I’m the one who called social services that night. It was me. It was only ever me. I sat in the waiting room and watched my dad come cloppin’ to the hospital in a cloud of dust hours later after they finally got a hold of him. I walked along the street and put a blanket over my self’s lap in the back of the ambulance. I looked into my small uncomprehending face, and I thought...I thought…” I’m weeping now. Dani wraps her arms around me and I cry. What?’ she doesn’t whisper, though I can feel the question in the tremor of her arms. ‘What did you think, Jamie?’

“I thought, why did I have to come back?” We hold each other. I gradually get a hold of myself. I made a right mess of Dani’s sweater with all my tears and snot. I stare at Dani, standing before me, and I’m sorry to be here, sorry to ruin her snow-blanketed evening. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to put all this sadness on you, I just….hate today, is all.”

“Oh, Jamie,” she says, crumpling in compassion, “I’m so glad you’re here. That you...  stayed. I’d rather know--I mean, you come out of nowhere, and disappear, and if I know things, things about your life, you seem more...real. Even the terrible things. It’s good, to hear, as much as you can say.” With that, she seems content to simply curl up with me on the couch. And there we sit, surrounded by boxes of Dani’s father’s belongings, and settle in for a long night with the ghosts of our pasts


Tuesday, June 5, 1979 (Dani is 17, Jamie is 34)

DANI:

I’ve been waiting all day for Jamie. I’m so excited. Mom said I could take the car to Brenda’s party tonight. She’s already passed out on the couch, having fallen asleep after what’s probably at least her third glass of wine. I take the glass from where it dangles dangerously loose in her hand and put it in the sink. She looks so small, with her eyes closed and heels still on. I put a blanket on top of her and walk out of the room.  I take my book and go out to the Meadow. I lie down in the grass. The sun is beginning to set. It’s cool out here, and the grass is full of little white moths. The sky is pink and orange over the trees in the west, and an arc of deepening blue over me. I’m thinking about going back to the house and getting a sweater when I hear someone walking through the grass. Sure enough, it’s Jamie. She comes into the clearing and sits down. I spy on her from the grass. She looks fairly young, early thirties maybe. She’s wearing the plain black t-shirt, jeans, and hi-tops. This is my favorite outfit of hers because she looks so much like herself. Or, what I imagine she would look like in her own present, in her own clothes, on her own terms. She’s just sitting quietly, waiting. I can’t wait any longer, myself, and I jump up and startle her. 

“Jesus, Dani, don’t give the old lady a heart attack.”

“You’re not an old lady.”

Jamie smiles. She’s funny about being old. 

“I got my driver’s license!”

Jamie looks alarmed. “Oh, no. I mean, congratulations.”

I smile at her; nothing she says can ruin my mood. “You’re just jealous.”

“I am, in fact. I love to drive. Never do.”

“How come?”

“Too dangerous.”

“Chicken.”

“For other people, I mean. Imagine what would happen if I was driving along, minding my own business and I disappeared? The car would still be moving and boom! Lots of dead people and blood. Not pretty.”

“Oh.” I say, “That’s a shame.”

“Yeah. But,” she adds, “Bright side of popping over to this side of the pond way I do means at least I get to see a little bit of America. Never would be able to do that on my own, seeing how flying isn’t really an option, either.”

I sit down on the rock next to Jamie, not really knowing what to say. “There’s a party, tonight,” I say instead. “At Brenda’s house. Want to come?”

She raises one eyebrow. “Dani, that would involve meeting a whole bunch of your friends.”

“Why not? I’m tired of being all secretive about this.”

“Let’s see. You’re seventeen. I’m thirty-four right now, only twice your age. I’m sure no one would even notice and your mum would never hear about it.”

I sigh. “Well, I have to go to this party. Come with and sit in the car and I won’t stay very long and then we can go somewhere.”

JAMIE:

We park about a block away from Brenda’s house. I can hear the music all the way down here; it’s Renegade by Styx. So, this is what a high school party looks like in America? It looks pretty tame from out here, and everything like what dozens of movies would have me expect. Each house out here is so far apart from the one next to it, it’s the strangest thing to get used to about America - how much space there is. Everything at home was always so sandwiched up against each other, it was claustrophobic. This, though, seems like an entirely different breed of oppressive. I actually kind of wish I could go with Dani, but it would be unwise for about thirty-four different reasons. She hops out of the car and says “Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be back as soon as I can.” I slump down and wait.

DANI:

As soon as I walk in the door I know this party is a mistake. Brenda’s parents are in Las Vegas for a week, so at least she’ll have some time to fix, clean, and explain, but I’m glad it’s not my house all the same. Not that I’d ever have a party at my house anyway, even though there’d probably be enough alcohol there to throw it. Brenda’s older brother, Mike, has also invited his friends, and there are about a hundred people here and all of them are drunk. There are more guys than girls and I wish I had worn pants and flats, but it’s too late to do anything about it. As I walk into the kitchen to get a drink someone behind me says, “Check out Miss Look-But-Don’t-Touch!” and makes an obscene slurping sound. I spin around and see Larry leering at me. “Nice dress, Danielle.”

“Thanks, but it’s not for your benefit, Lizardface.” It’s mean to call him that, the acne isn’t his fault, after all, but he’s truly a repugnant human being so I don’t feel badly about it. 

He follows me into the kitchen. “Now, that’s not a very nice thing to say, young lady. After all, I’m just trying to express my appreciation of your extremely comely attire, and all you can do is insult me. What are you, a dyke or something?” He won’t shut up. None of them ever shut up. It makes me want to yell, like the scream can’t come out of me fast enough, not before air goes in, and thank god, Eddie comes over and slides in front of me, facing Larry with his arms crossed and cold look on his face. 

“Lizardface,” he says calmly, as if daring a response. 

Larry grunts. He’s short and even though Eddie isn’t exactly on the football team, he’s got at least a foot over Larry. “Four-eyes,” he mutters, before slinking away. 

“You’ve been using that since the third grade, buddy. Still can’t think of anything better?” Eddie hollers after him as he disappears into the throng of teenagers. Eddie turns back to me. “You okay?” he says gently, touching my elbow. I pull away, not entirely sure why, and grab another drink from the kitchen counter. That’s not true. I’m pissed because I should have punched Larry in the face. People like him shouldn’t say things like that to girls. And they shouldn’t stop only because someone bigger gets in their face. It’s not fair. So many things about the world, this place, about me, are not fair.

“C’mon,” I say, as I slam the now empty cup on the counter and weave through the crowd to get outside. The fresh air feels good. Eddie’s still holding onto his drink, sipping slowly. He’s eyeing me carefully. I’m both grateful and frustrated by it. I love him, and I’m glad he’s here, and things would be so much easier if I could just love him the way I wish I could. The way he wishes I would. He’s good enough to never say anything about it, but I can feel his love wash over me and sometimes it’s like the cool relief of shade against the blistering sun while others it suffocates me slowly like when the gas on the stove is left on.

It’s a hot, muggy summer night and Brenda’s pool is packed. Janie Evans is standing with a group of people in the shallow end, her arms resting on the ledge behind her. She’s laughing, and the ends of her hair are twisted from the water. The curve of her breast is visible from her bikini. My face is warm. I bury it while taking another sip. “Dani,” Eddie starts, but it’s a conversation I don’t want to have. Not here. Not with Jamie out in the car. 

“Later,” I say. He nods. I love him, I do. I do.

JAMIE:

A long time has passed, maybe an hour or so. I eat half the potato chips and drink the warm Coke Dani had brought along. I doze for a bit. She’s gone for so long that I’m starting to consider going for a walk. Also, I need to use the loo. 

Just as I’m about to get up, high heels click down the sidewalk. It’s Dani. She freezes for a moment when our eyes meet. There’s an almost haunted look about her. Something happened, something she doesn’t want to talk about, I can feel it. “You alright?” I ask gently, hoping to tease out whatever’s stuck under her skin, inflamed like a splinter. 

“Fine,” she says flatly, in a tone that broadcasts exactly the opposite. She pulls the car door shut with a near-slam, starts the car and flips on the lights. Dani pulls out of the parking space and drives away. We turn onto some local Iowa highway, ruler-straight between thick lines of trees that disappear into the inky blackness of night. There isn’t anyone else on the road and the car drifts past center, driving over the yellow stripes in the middle of the road. “Dani,” I say, a light warning tone. Granted, I may be English and everything looks like the wrong side of the road to me here, but every alarm is ringing that something is wrong, and it has nothing to do with the street. “Best turn on your brights, yeah?” She reaches forward and turns off the headlights completely.

“Dani--!”

“Don’t tell me what to do!” I snap my mouth shut. All I can see are the illuminated numbers of the clock radio. It’s 11:36. I hear the air rushing past the car, the engine of the car; I feel the wheels passing over the asphalt, but somehow we seem to be motionless, and the world moves around us at forty-fives miles per hour. I close my eyes. It makes no difference. I open them. My heart is pounding. 

Headlights appear in the distance. Dani turns her lights on and we’re rushing along again, perfectly aligned between the middle of the road and edge of the highway. It’s 11:38. The other car speeds past us and disappears into the night.

Dani is expressionless in the reflected dashboard lights. “Jesus, Dani,” I yell, sharpening the edge of my voice as it shakes, “Why did you do that?”

“Why not?” Dani’s voice is calm as a summer pond.

“Because we both could have died in a blazing accident?”

Dani slows down and turns onto a side road that connects to a neighborhood. “But that’s not what happens,” she says. “I grow up and meet you and here you are.”

“For all you know you crashed the car just then and we both spent a year in a coma.”

“But then you would have warned me not to do it,” says Dani. 

“I tried, but you yelled at me --”

“I mean, an older you would have told a younger me not to crash the car.”

“Well, by then it would have already happened.”

We’ve reached Meagram Lane, the throughway to her street, and Dani turns onto it. “Pull over, Dani, okay? Please?” Dani drives over to the side of the street a few blocks from home, cuts the engine and lights. It’s completely dark again, and I can hear a million cicadas singing. I reach over and pull Dani close to me, put my arm around her. She’s tense and unpliant. 

“Promise me something.”

“What?” Dani asks.

“Never do anything like that again. Not just with the car, but anything dangerous. Because you don’t know. The future is weird, and you can’t go around acting like you’re invincible…”

“But if you’ve seen me in the future--”

“Trust me. Just trust me.”

Dani laughs. It’s a broken, ugly sound. “How,” she demands as the facade she’s been wearing since walking out of the party shatters. She turns to me with a look of abject misery and I can see twin tear tracks running down her cheeks.“How can I trust you? Somewhere out there, in the future, things still aren’t different from here. Where I can’t...where we aren’t...”

She’s spiraling, and it breaks my heart.“Dani,” I try to reassure her, “It is different, I promise.”

“How am I supposed to believe you?”

“Because I love you and I wouldn’t lie to you. Not about this.” She turns her head so quickly she hits me in the jaw. “Ouch.”

“You love me?” she asks with a look of pure astonishment and somewhere, underneath that, a shining, tender hurt.

That’s when I realize that my whole strategy around Dani has gone completely, entirely to shit.

DANI:

I’m so surprised that for a second I forget to be angry. “You love me?”

“Yeah,” she says, so...casually, so normally that I don’t know what to make of it. She says it in a way like she has no idea that hearing those words absolutely tear my soul to shreds. And in that, something breaks.

"What’s the point?” She looks at me, perplexed. I can’t do this anymore. “I’m so tired, Jamie.” I say, anger having burnt out to a resigned sort of weariness.

And it’s true; I’m exhausted. From fighting myself and what I want; from fighting the world and trying to survive in it; and from fighting Jamie, who doesn’t even know I’m fighting her at all. “I see you right in front of me, or I feel you touching me, talking to me. And I’m trying so hard to live my life, but I don’t even have a choice in any of it, so...what’s the point?” Jamie frowns. “I’m in love with you, Jamie, and I don’t know what scares me more: knowing that what I feel is still wrong in the future, or that you’re married to someone else.” 

Realization finally seems to dawn and as if it couldn’t get any worse, Jamie’s surprise somehow softens into a look of amusement. If she didn’t think of me like a little kid before, her maternal reaction confirms it. My face feels like it’s on fire. Jamie bites her lip, bemused.“Dani,” she says. I turn away, unable to even look at her. “Dani,” she repeats, craning her head trying to meet my eyes. I’m embarrassed, in the aftermath of my confession, with this ugly, awful truth sitting between us like a boulder. “Dani,” she says firmly. “Why do you think I’ve been traveling to the Meadow since you were six years old?” I can’t bear to speak, can’t fathom an answer. Can barely breathe, so raw and bare in the nakedness of my truth. “It’s you, Dani. It’s always been you.” 

I don’t know how it’s possible for the entire world to stop and start again in the same moment, but somehow it manages to do just that. My ears are ringing.

“Reckon I messed it up a bit, not sayin’ it right out. I just wanted you to live without any of this,” she gestures between us, “hangin’ over your head. And things are different,” Jamie continues, “in the future. They are. It’s better. It’s not always easy, but it’s always - always - worth it. Worth it every day to wake up next to you. Being a teenager is rough for everyone. No amount of anything is ever gonna change that, no matter which side of normal people fall down on. But I promise you, Dani, we live.” She cups my cheek, as if needing me to know how true this is. 

“We live?” I ask in disbelief, hope fluttering dangerously in my chest, fragile as a butterfly.

“We live,” Jamie confirms with an encouraging smile.

“And we….” 

“We are.”

And just like that, the future suddenly holds bright promise and possibility and I believe again.

Chapter Text

Chapter 6: One More Dance Before You Go

Listen:

Reader: foomatic

Length: 1:05:00


Sunday, September 30, 1979 (Jamie is 29, Dani is 17)

JAMIE:

I materialize in the Meadow, about fifteen feet next to the clearing. I feel awful, dizzy and nauseated, so I sit for a few minutes to pull myself together. It’s chilly and gray, and I’m in the tall brown grass, which cuts into my skin. After a while I feel a little better, and it’s quiet, so I stand up and walk into the clearing. 

Dani is sitting on the ground, next to the rock, leaning against it. She doesn’t say anything, just looks at me with what I can only describe as anger. Uh oh, I think. What did I do? She’s wearing a purple wool coat and jeans. I’m shivering, and I hunt for the Box. I find it, and don black jeans, a black sweater, black wool socks, a black overcoat, black boots, and black leather gloves. It’s a little overkill for my tastes, but at least I’m closer to my own style than an old office-version of Dani’s dead father. I sit down next to her.

“I’m not gonna ask you if you’re alright, because I don’t like being lied to.”

“Hi, Jamie. Here.” She hands me a Thermos and two sandwiches. 

“Thanks.” I set the food down on the ground. The Thermos contains hot water and a little packet of tea under the cap, ready for me to steep. “So?” She’s not looking at me. Something’s wrong. I realize that she’s been crying.

“Jamie. Would you beat up someone for me?”

“What?”

“I want to hurt someone, but I’m not big enough, and I don’t know how to fight. Will you do it for me?”

“Hang on. What are you talking about? Who? Why?”

Dani stares at her lap. “I don’t want to talk about it. Couldn’t you just take my word that he totally deserves it?”

I think I’ve heard this story before. I move closer to Dani, and I put my arm around her. She leans her head on my shoulder. 

“This is about some guy you went on a date with, right?”

“Yeah.”

“And he was a jerk, and now you want me to teach him a lesson?”

“Yeah.”

“Dani, a lot of guys are jerks. Hell, a lot of girls can be jerks.”

She laughs, darkly. “I bet you weren’t as big of a jerk as Cameron Kates.”

“He’s a football player or something, right?”

“Yes.”

“Dani, what makes you think I can take on some huge jock half my age and twice my size? Why were you even going out with him?”

She shrugs. “At school, everyone bugs me ‘cause I never date anyone. I mean, there are all these rumors going around that I -- that I’m…y’know. Even Mom is asking why I don’t go out with boys. Guys ask me out, and I turn them down. So I thought, well, maybe I’d better go out with a few, just to...So the next one who asked was Cameron. He’s, like, this great player, and he’s really good looking, and I knew that if I went out with him, everyone would know, and I thought maybe….maybe they would stop. Maybe they would finally just shut up and leave me alone.”

“This was the first time you went out on a date?”

“Yeah. We went to a restaurant and we talked about school and stuff, football. Then we went to see Alien. And then he wanted to go to Traver’s.” This is when my blood starts to run cold. I recognize this particular brand of stilted answers. This kind of quiet. Been on the other side of it more times than I’d like to count, as a kid. If I close my eyes I can see the social worker sitting across from me, waiting for me to speak.

“What’s Traver’s?”

“It’s a farm on the north side of town.” Dani’s voice drops, I can hardly hear her. “It’s where people go to...make out.” I don’t say anything. “So I told him I was tired, and wanted to go home, and then he got kind of, um, mad.” Dani stops talking; for a while, we sit, listening to birds, airplanes, wind. Suddenly Dani says, “He was really mad.”

She stops talking for another minute or two. It feels like hours. My mind is racing. “And then?”

“He wouldn’t take me home. I wasn’t sure where we were; somewhere out on Route 12, maybe? He was just driving around, down little lanes, God, I don’t know. He drove down this dirt road, and there was this little cottage. There was a lake nearby, I could hear it. And he had the key to this place.”

Dani never told me any of this; just that she once went on a really horrible date with some guy named Cameron, who was a football player. Dani’s fallen silent again.  I don’t want to know. I’m desperate to know. I can’t stand to hear. I need to hear.

“Dani. Did he-”

“No,” she says quickly, saving me from having to ask it; from having to say those words, choking like soot and tasting like ashes on my tongue. “He said I wasn’t….good enough. He said -- no, he didn’t …. He just--hurt me. He made me….” She can’t say it. I wait. I want to take her hand in my own, but touching needs to come from her, in a place like this. Dani unbuttons her coat and removes it. She peels her shirt off, cringing at the movement, and I see that her back is covered with bruises. They’re dark and purple against her white skin. Dani turns and there’s a cigarette burn on her right breast, blistered and ugly. I asked her once what this scar was, and she wouldn’t say. I am going to kill this motherfucker. I’m gonna cripple him. Dani sits before me, shoulders back, gooseflesh, waiting. I hand her her shirt, and she puts it on. 

“All right,” I practically growl. “Do you want me to do this anonymously, or do you want him to know it’s from you.”

“I want to be there.”

“Okay.”

“I want to take him somewhere and I want you to hurt him very badly and I want to watch. I want him scared shitless.”

What I should say is something like ‘Dani, I don’t usually do this kind of thing. I usually fight in self-defense, for one thing only.’ I should be the level-headed adult in the scenario. But there’s nothing level-headed about this. And if I’m honest with myself, no part of me doesn’t want to break him the way Dani’s asking me to. I know this pain. Understand it in a way I wish I didn’t. Know that far too many people out there have suffered a similar breed of savage desecration that crawls under the skin and doesn’t let go for years, like a parasite.

The only thing that scares me is the fact that Dani - my sweet, kind Dani -wants this. Wants to be part of, witness to, the kind of violence I try so hard to shield her from over the years, despite my unusual existence and it’s occasional necessities. 

Instead, I simply ask, “Are you sure?”

“Please.” It comes out of her mouth absolutely flat.

That’s it, then. “Where do I find this guy?”

“I’ll drive you,” she says. 

Dani picks me up at the end of the street, out of sight of the house. She’s wearing sunglasses even though it’s a dim afternoon, and lipstick, and her hair is coiled at the back of her head. She looks a lot older than seventeen. We drive through the neighborhood, homes passing by in a monotonous blur, until she slows down and pulls up on the curb by a blue house with white trim. She parks the car and turns off the engine and tells me to wait while she goes in to grab something.

DANI:

It’s weird, pulling up to this house with Jamie in the car. I ring the doorbell and wait, remembering all the times I would pull the screen door open when I was a kid and bound in like I belonged here. Like I belonged anywhere.“Hi, Mrs. O’Mara,” I say as Judy opens the door.

“Danielle! What a surprise! To what do we owe the pleasure? Come in, come in,” she says, ushering me inside. “Can I make you a plate? It was meatloaf night, it might still be warm.” She immediately goes about the routine of dinner even as I linger in the foyer. 

“No thanks. I already ate,” I lie politely.

She waves her hand, batting the thought away. “That’s okay, I’ll pack it up so you can take it home for later.”

“Thanks, I appreciate it. Um. Is Eddie home?”

“Eddie!” She shouts as she busies herself with pulling items from the fridge. “Dani’s here!” 

“Hi, Danielle,” Mike calls out from the living room. 

“Hi, Mr. O’Mara,” I holler back. 

“Eddie’s upstairs,” Judy says. “Why don’t you go on up while I take care of this, ok?”

“Sure. Thanks.” The low buzz of television from the other room fills the downstairs. I head up the stairs, skipping the middle step like always where it creaks. Eddie’s in his room engrossed in homework, a bunch of textbooks and notebooks spread out on his desk. “Hey,” I say from the doorway. 

He looks up, surprised. “Oh hey! When did you get here?” He says, pushing up his glasses where they’ve fallen low from looking down at the books.

“Just now. Your mom is packing me up some food, I can’t stay long.”

“It was meatloaf tonight, you’re in luck. Could’ve been fishsticks.”

“She made those one time, Eddie.”

“Yeah, well, the house smelled for days.”

I smile, fondness for this family so much warmer than the broken remnants of mine, loving me more than my family, more than myself, even, some days. It fades as I remember what I came here for. “Listen, I...have a favor.”

“Sure,” Eddie says, agreeing as if it’s already a done deal. 

I take a deep breath. “Does your dad still have his hunting rifle in the garage?”

He frowns. “Yeah, I think so. Why?”

“Can I borrow it?”

“Why do you want to borrow my dad’s gun, Danielle?”

“I won’t use it or anything, you don’t even have to give me bullets. I just need it for something.”

He gets up, frown deepening. “Dani, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing, I just...can I borrow it?”

“Not unless you tell me why.”

“It’s fine,” I dismiss, “I’ll figure it out.” It would be easier to do with it as backup. I’ve never actually seen Jamie in survival mode, but I know she’s scrappy and can handle herself. Cameron is big, though. “It’s okay, nevermind. Pretend I never asked.”

I turn to leave. “Hey, no,” he says, “Wait.” He grabs my arm, and I cringe in pain. Immediately he pulls back, alarmed. “What…”

“It’s nothing.”

“Did I hurt you?”

“No, it’s fine, I just--”

“Dani, what’s going on.” I can feel the panic setting in, walls pressing close from all sides. It’s starting to feel like there isn’t enough air in the room. His expression darkens as the thoughts swirling behind his eyes click into place. “Last night, you went on the date with Cameron, didn’t you?” It’s not a question. 

My throat is closed, thick with emotion. I can feel the tears prickle and try desperately to blink them away. 

“Dani,” he says, brokenly. 

I look away. “Please, Eddie.”

“Dani.” I look up at him. His expression is pained, looking into my own. I pull up a little of my shirt, enough for him to see part of my back and side. He inhales sharply and holds his breath for a long time, saying nothing. My face burns, and I pull my shirt back down. Without a word, he brushes past me in the doorway and walks away down the hall. I stand there, hugging myself, wiping away what feels like never ending tears. He comes back a minute later, jacket in hand. “C’mon” he says, a steely look on his face. I follow him mutely downstairs, and we cut through the den to get to the garage. Eddie pulls his dad’s gun off of where it hangs on the wall. “Let’s go,” he says, and follows me out the door.

JAMIE:

A tape loop of what happened to Dani in that little cottage has been playing on repeat in my head for the last fifteen minutes. I’m about out of my mind with it when the garage door to the house we’re parked outside of opens and Dani comes out with a tall, skinny kid with glasses and a rifle on his arm. They approach the car and I twist in panic, realizing there’s nowhere to hide.

“What the hell, Dani,” I say, both at the boy and the gun. 

“It’s okay,” she says. “This is Eddie.”

I pause. “Eddie? The Eddie?”

“Yeah.”

I take a closer look at him. The hard look in his eye and protective way he’s standing next to Dani tells me enough. We size each other up silently, an understanding passing between us. “Get in,” I say.

Dani slides into the driver’s seat and Eddie gets in the back, the gun resting across his lap. We pull out of the neighborhood in silence and speed through the fall trees, but I don’t think any of us notices much color. It’s a while before we leave the heart of town and pass the outskirts where buildings thin and level out. She turns down a lane past a farm and we’re soon swallowed up by the trees.

“How big is he?” 

Dani considers. “A little less than a foot taller than you. A lot heavier. Obviously.”

“Christ.”

We continue down the drive, and stop in front of a large house. There are no cars visible. Van Halen blasts from an open second-floor window. We walk to the front door, Eddie gripping the rifle tightly in front of him, front angled down and the butt resting by his shoulder. We stand to the side while Dani rings the bell. After a moment the music abruptly stops and heavy footsteps clump down stairs. The door opens, and after a pause a deep voice says, “What? You come back for more?” My blood boils. That’s all I need to hear. Eddie draws the gun and points it at the guy’s chest, and I step to Dani’s side. 

“Hi, Cameron,” Dani says. “I thought you might like to come out with us.”

He does the same thing I would do, drops and rolls out of range, but he doesn’t do it fast enough. I’m in the door and I take a flying leap onto his chest. I’m practically a bug compared to him, but the element of surprise is on my side and I knock the wind out of him. 

I stand up, put my boot on his chest, and Eddie points the gun at his head. Cameron looks kind of like Christopher Knight, very pretty, all-American. “What position does he play?” I ask Dani. 

“Halfback.”

“No idea what that means. American football never made any sense to me. Should watch proper football, the lot of you. Come on, get up, hands where we can see them.” He complies, and I walk him out the door. We’re all standing in the driveway. I have an idea. I send Dani back into the house for rope; she comes out a few minutes later with scissors and duct tape. 

“Where do you want to do this?”   

“The woods.” 

Cameron is panting as we march him into the woods. We walk for about five minutes, and then I see a little clearing with a hearty and handy young elm at the edge of it. “How about this?”

“Yeah.”

“Looks good, right, Eddie?”

His eyes are as cold and murderous as my own. “Couldn’t have picked a better spot myself,” he says darkly. 

I look at Dani. She is completely impassive, but I can see her jaw grinding and the little jumps her nostrils make as they flare. I wasn’t there for her when she needed me. Least I can be here now. “Call it, Dani.” 

"Tie him to the tree.” I jerk Cameron’s hands into position behind the tree and duct tape them together. There’s almost a full roll of duct tape and I intend to use every last inch. Cameron is breathing strenuously, wheezing. I step around him and look at Dani. She looks at Cameron like he’s a bad piece of conceptual art. “Do you have asthma?”

He nods. His pupils are contracted into tiny points of black. Good. “I’ll get his inhaler,” says Dani. She ambles off through the woods along the path we came down. Cameron is trying to breathe slowly and carefully. He’s trying to talk. 

“Who….are you?” he asks hoarsely.

“Doesn’t matter. What matters is, I’m here to teach you some manners, you piece of shit, since clearly you have none.” I drop my mocking tone, and walk close to him, and say softly, “How could you do that to her? To anyone?”

“She’s a...cock...tease.”

“Why the fuck should that matter? Do you torture a puppy because you don’t like the way it barked at you or because it isn’t your bloody dog?” 

Cameron doesn’t answer. His breath comes in long, shivering whinnies. Just as I’m becoming concerned, Dani arrives. She has the inhaler. She shakes it and puts it in his mouth, and after four long puffs, we stand and watch him gradually subside into more normal breathing. 

“Ready?” I ask Dani. 

She holds up the scissors. Cameron flinches. Dani walks over to him, kneels, and begins to cut off his clothes. “Hey,” says Cameron. 

“Shut it,” I snap. “No one is hurting you. At the moment.” Dani finishes cutting off his jeans and starts on his T-shirt. I start to duct tape him to the tree. I begin at his ankles, and wind very neatly up his calves and thighs. “Stop there,” Dani says, indicating a point just below Cameron’s crotch. She snips off his underwear. I start to tape his waist. His skin is clammy and he’s very tan everywhere except inside a crisp outline of a Speedo-type bathing suit. He’s sweating heavily. I wind all the way up to his shoulders, and stop, because I want him to be able to breathe. We step back and admire our work. Cameron is now a duct-tape mummy with a large erection. Dani begins to laugh, and it seems to me that this moment, along with her Dad’s death, is the demarcation, a sort of no-man’s land between Dani’s adolescence and her life as an adult. 

“What’s next?” I inquire. I want to turn him into a hamburger. Cameron is bright red. It contrasts nicely with the grey duct tape. 

“Oh,” says Dani. “You know, I think that’s enough.”

I hate that I’m glad. I still want to pummel the guy, but I’m relieved Dani found her limit for revenge and it errs on the side of harmless humiliation instead of violence. Relieved that my Dani hasn’t really gone anywhere at all. “Y’sure? I mean there are all sorts of things I could do. Break his eardrums? Nose? We could cut his Achilles’ tendons. He wouldn’t be playing ‘football’ anytime soon.”

“No!” Cameron strains against the tape.

“Apologize, then,” I tell him.

Cameron hesitates. “Sorry.”

“Like you mean it,” I say, gritting my teeth, barely containing my wildness as my face gets inches away from his. 

“I know,” Dani says. She fishes around in her purse and finds a Sharpie. She walks up to Cameron as though he’s a dangerous zoo animal and begins to write on his duct-taped chest. When she’s done, she stands back and caps her marker. She’s written an account of their date. I stand, stunned by her bravery, in bold letters for all to see. She’s always been the strongest person I know. She sticks the marker back in her purse and says, “Let’s go.”

“Much as I hate to admit it, we probably shouldn’t just leave him. He might have another asthma attack.”

“Hmm. Okay. I’ll call some people.”

“Wait a minute,” says Cameron. 

“What?”

“Who are you calling? Call Ryan.”

Dani laughs. “Nuh-uh. I’m gonna call every girl I know.”

I jerk my head at Eddie indicating for him to get closer with the gun. He places the muzzle under Cameron’s chin. “If you ever mention my existence to a single human and I find out about it, I will come back and I will devastate you. You won’t be able to walk, talk, eat, or fuck when I’m done. As far as you know, Dani is a nice girl who for some reason doesn’t date. Got it?”

Cameron looks at me with absolute loathing. Good. The feeling is mutual. “Right.”

“We’ve dealt with you very leniently here, mate. If you hassle Dani again in any way you will be sorry.”

“Okay.”

“If you hassle any girl again in any way you will be sorry. Have I made myself clear?”

There’s murder in his eyes. “Good.” I look at Eddie and gesture for him to lower the rifle. “It’s been fun.”

“Listen, you cunt --”

Bless him for giving me an excuse. I step back and put my whole weight into a side kick to the groin. Cameron screams. I turn and look at Dani, who is white under her makeup. Tears are running down Cameron’s face. I wonder if he’s going to pass out. “Let’s go,” I say. Dani nods. We walk back to the car, subdued. I can hear Cameron yelling at us. We climb in, Dani starts the car, turns, and rockets down the driveway and back onto the street. 

I watch her drive. It’s beginning to rain. “So,” Eddie says, finally. “I hate to echo the asshole back there, but who are you, exactly?”

I try to think fast. “Err, I’m, uh, a friend of Dani’s mum.”

Dani snorts. “Jamie,” she says in that almost sing-song affectionate scolding tone that she’s managed to master at such a young age. I shoot her a look that says she’s not helping. 

“Jamie?” He says, incredulous. “The Jamie?” I smirk, pleased to be thought of in such a way. Like I’m real. A part of Dani’s life; here, now. “The one who isn’t real?” 

“I told you she was,” Dani says, a fond half smile quirked on her lips.

“Well yeah, but we were six and you also told me a naked lady appeared out of nowhere and disappeared because she time traveled.” Dani shrugs. 

“Sorry, mate,” I say. “Scout’s honor, n’ all that. I made her swear not to tell anyone, but it looks like she went ahead and broke that promise near instantly.”

For some reason he looks chagrined, as if he’s the one who deliberately ignored my instructions eleven years ago. He turns to Dani, “She’s British. You never said she was British.”

“I said she talked weird.”

“Hey!” I object.

“I was six, and you did.”

“Agree to disagree. Listen, mate,” I say, addressing Eddie, “Gonna have to ask you the same thing. Assume since you’re not a toddler, you’ll be able to keep all this to yourself, yeah?”

He thinks about it. “How do I know you aren’t just pulling my leg?”

I shrug. “Welcome to hang out a bit, wait until I disappear.” He keeps looking at me a little suspiciously. ”Listen,” I say seriously, twisting around to look at him in the backseat. “I get it. But I also know that that person over there-” I point to Dani, ''-is my most important person. And given that she invited you along on this shit adventure tonight, you’re pretty important to her, too. So at the very least, if you don’t believe me, I think we can agree that she’s pretty much the only thing that matters here. All I can ask is that you be here and help keep her safe. And since I’m not the most reliable sort in that department, I’m trusting you to do that for me while I’m gone. Okay?”

In this, we are the same. He nods, determined. He has her past. I have her future. Between the two of us, we can provide a safe cradle for her to grow deep and strong. I like this kid. He’s a good man, and lord knows there are too few of them in the world. 

We’re back in familiar territory, driving though Dani’s neighborhood. She pulls into her driveway and puts the car in park. I look at her quizzically.

“It’s dark enough outside,” she explains. “And mom isn’t home tonight, so.”

“Right, then,” I say, opening the car door. Eddie gets out and the rifle now looks awkward and out of place here, hanging by a strap from his shoulder.

Dani looks at it uncomfortably. “Can you….” she trails off. 

“Oh gosh, yeah, of course,” he says, startled by it, as if he’d forgotten he had it. Quickly he takes it off and places it in the trunk. He turns back and stuffs his hands awkwardly in his pockets, shoulders hunching. It’s beginning to rain. We stand crowding under the awning as Dani unlocks the front door. We pile in and shake ourselves off while Dani goes to the kitchen and grabs some hand towels, handing one to each of us. We accept and shake our hair and arms dry best we can. I have a sudden need to touch her, but am painfully aware that this is not my Dani. I shuffle a bit awkwardly, feeling suddenly shy. Our eyes meet and my heart flutters at this stunningly brave creature in front of me. She blushes. Eddie clears his throat and our eyes snap toward him. His eyes skip around the room looking at anything but us.

“I’m gonna, uuh, grab something to eat,” he says, pointing over his shoulder vaguely in the direction of the kitchen, and makes a quick exit.

We chuckle. A warm quiet settles in our bubble of privacy. A satisfied smile plays around the edges of her mouth. “Was that what you wanted?” I ask.

“Yes,” says Dani. “It was perfect. Thank you.”

“My pleasure. His too, by the look of it,” I say, angling my head toward Eddie, mucking about somewhere in the kitchen.

“Yeah,” she says, brows furrowing, “He’s...he’s a really good guy.”

“I’m glad you’ve got him. Got to tell him thanks when I pop back. For...all this.” I’m starting to get dizzy. “You good?” I check. “Gonna be alright?”

“Yeah,” she nods. “I think...I think I have to talk to him.”

“You sure? You do this when you’re ready, Dani. Not because you think you owe it to anyone.”

“Yeah, no,” she says, nodding repeatedly, as if to reassure herself, confirming the decision. “I think...I think it’s time.”

“Alright. Well. If anything goes south, pretty sure the two of us could manage to wrap him up like football Joe earlier.”

She laughs.The dizziness gets stronger. I feel gravity pulling at me. “I think I’m almost gone.”

“I love you,” she says.

“Love you too,” I say and lean forward, angling my head to the side to gently kiss her cheek and then I’m gone.


Monday, October 1, 1979 (Dani is 17)

DANI:

At school on Monday, everybody looks at me but no one will speak to me. Walking down the hall is like parting the Red Sea. When I walk into English, first period, everyone stops talking. I sit down next to Brenda. She smiles and looks worried. I don’t say anything either but then I feel her hand on mine under the table, hot and small. She holds my hand for a moment and then Mr. Krohn walks in and she takes her hand away and Mr. Krohn notices that everyone is uncharacteristically silent. He says mildly, “Did you all have a nice weekend?” and Priya Sastri says, “Oh, yes,” and there’s a shimmer of nervous laughter around the room. Krohn is puzzled, and there’s an awful pause. Then he says, “Well, great, then let’s embark on Billy Budd. In 1951, Herman Melville published Moby-Dick, or, The Whale, which was greeted with resounding indifference by the American public…” It’s all lost on me. Even with a cotton undershirt on, my sweater feels abrasive, and my ribs hurt. My classmates fumble their way through a discussion on American literature. Finally the bell rings, and they escape. I follow slowly, and Brenda walks with me.

“Are you okay?” she asks.

“Mostly.”

“I did what you said.”

“What time?”

“Around six. I was afraid his parents would come home and find him. It was hard to cut him out. The tape ripped off all his chest hair.”

“Good. Did a lot of people see him?”   

“Yeah, everybody. Well, all the girls. And Carson.”

The halls are almost empty. I’m standing in front of my French class. It’s time to go in. Brenda gives my hand one last squeeze before she peels off down the hall. We work quietly in class. I’m having trouble concentrating. The look on Jamie’s face after she kicked Cameron: somehow both completely calm and utterly enraged. There was something about her that seemed far away. I think about her time traveling and all the places she ends up and try not to think about how vulnerable she is. I stop thinking about it because my stomach starts to twist. The only thing that seemed to pull her out of it was that she looked worried because she didn’t know how I would react, and I realized that Jamie enjoyed hurting Cameron, and is that the same as Cameron enjoying hurting me? But Jamie is good. Does that make it okay? Is it okay that I wanted her to do it? 

After the bell rings again, everyone bolts out. I have third-period gym and walk down L wing to the ladies’ locker room. Tommy O’Mara is leaning against the lockers chewing on a toothpick, waiting. I freeze for a moment. Tommy, who has seen me at his house for dinner at least twice a week for the last eight years; Tommy, who drives me and his brothers home from school sometimes; Tommy, who begrudgingly picked up me and his brothers from the movies before we could drive; Tommy, who’s on the football team. With Cameron.

He pushes himself off the lockers when he sees me and takes long steps to close the distance between us. My heart is pounding. There’s a hard look in his eye and all I can be is relieved that it isn’t pity he sees when he looks at me instead. He pauses with his hands in his pockets, backpack slung over one shoulder, jaw clenching. “We dealt with him,” he says. And just as he moves to keep walking, hesitates mid-step, spins around, and pulls me into a fierce hug. A strangled cry escapes my mouth as his hands press against my back. I’m taken aback, both in surprise and pain. Tommy’s never hugged me before. The closest he’d ever come is ruffling my hair affectionately in passing. “I’m so sorry,” he whispers thickly before kissing the top of my head and walking away.

I stand stunned. My jaw moves soundlessly in shock, and I don’t have time to process because Brenda’s pulling me into the locker room to change for gym. When I walk in, everyone stops talking. Then there’s the low ripple of talk that fills the silence. Brenda and I have our lockers in the same row. I open mine and take out my gym clothes and shoes. I haven’t thought about what I’m going to do. My brain had only gotten as far as last night. Nothing else to do, I suppose, so I take off my shoes and stockings, strip down to my undershirt and underwear. I’m not wearing a bra because it hurt too much. I peel off my shirt carefully, cringing at the movement. My skin feels raw. I feel like an exposed specimen in a lab and can feel myself start to shake, air thinning.

“Jesus Christ, Dani!” Brenda says. The bruises look even worse than they did yesterday. Some of them are greenish. There are welts on my thighs from Cameron’s belt. “Oh, Dani.” Brenda walks to me, and puts her arms around me, carefully. The room is silent, and I look over Brenda’s shoulder and see that all the girls have gathered around us, and they’re all looking. Brenda straightens up, and looks back at them, and says, “Well?” and someone in the back starts to clap, and then they’re all clapping, and laughing, and talking, and cheering, and I feel light, light as air. 


Wednesday, July 12, 1989 (Dani is 27, Jamie is 29)

DANI:

I’m lying in bed, almost asleep, when I feel Jamie’s hand brushing over my stomach and realize she’s back. I open my eyes and she bends down and kisses the little cigarette burn scar, and in the dim night light I touch her face. “Thank you,” I say, and she says, “It was my pleasure,” and that is the only time we ever speak of it.


Sunday, May 18, 1980 (Dani is 18, Jamie is 34)

DANI:

Jamie comes in with a thud and skids across the stubble of the Meadow on her side, ending up dirty and bloody by my feet. I’m not sure why, but there’s something oddly familiar and comforting about the sight of Jamie with dirt on her. I’m sitting on the rock as poised as one can be sitting on a rock while wearing a long, loose-flowing pink dress and heels. My hair is pinned back neatly to one side and I nervously stroke a lock hanging by my shoulder. “Hi, Jamie,” I say, like she’s just dropped in for tea. 

“Dani!” she says in surprise, taking in my appearance as she grabs the oversized coat nearby and wraps it around her. “What’s all this, then? Did I interrupt prom or something?” I bite my lip, not saying anything. “Oh, shit,” she says. “I did, didn’t I?”

“No, not exactly. I went to prom,” I explain, trying to ignore the butterflies in my stomach. “We,’” I correct, “We went to prom, last night. Eddie and me.”

There’s a flash of something like pain in Jamie’s eye but it’s gone in an instant and instead she juts her jaw forward bravely. “That’s working out well then, yeah?”

I nod. “Yeah. He’s...great, and so sweet and I love him. So much. I just wish-”

“Yeah,” she interrupts, swallowing hard, “I get it.”

I shake my head, determined to make her understand. “No, that’s not what I-- I mean, just...sometimes I feel like he’s trapped, because of me. There are so many other girls at school - great, really great girls - that he could be dating but instead he’s pretending to be with me and it just...feels cruel. Of me, to do this to him, just because-”

I start to cry. “Hey, hey, hey.” Gentle, slightly calloused hands reach to cradle my cheek and stroke my shoulder. “You’re not doing anything to anyone. That’s not how this works, yeah? He’s doing this ‘cause he loves you, same as you’d do for him if need be.”

This wasn’t how I intended for this all to go. I feel silly and weak and foolish. “It’s not fair on anyone.”

Jamie wipes a stray tear off my cheek with the pad of her thumb. “Fairness doesn’t much come into it, I’m afraid. But I promise you, everything is all going to be fine.”

“How do you know,” I grumble petulantly, forgetting, stupidly, that she comes from the future.

“Because when I’m from, we just had a lovely catch-up call with him before Christmas, and he and his charming wife are expecting their fourth kid.”

I pull back to look at her, eyes wide. She chuckles, “Yeah, bit of a surprise, this one, considerin’ it’s coming so late, but they’re thrilled, nonetheless.”

“So…”

“So,” Jamie confirms, “He’s happy. Always been, Dani. Even now. This,” she says, gesturing to my dress, “Doesn’t - didn’t - change anything.” I exhale, shaky, something tight and hard inside finally uncoiling. “Alright?” I nod, feeling lighter than I have in a year. A laugh breaks out of me. “There we are,” Jamie beams, looking at me like I’m the only thing in the universe.

I’m overcome by a sudden wanting, now that the ghost of guilt has lifted and there’s room inside of me for more. I lean forward and kiss Jamie hungrily. She breathes in sharply through her nose. I reach out, grasping at any part of her I can touch to pull her towards me; a boat out on the ocean and I’ve been adrift in the water for so long. All I want to do is anchor myself to her. I moan, feeling everything inside me slip into place. Jamie kisses me back, matching my hunger, but pulls away a moment later. “Okay,” she says, clearing her throat, “Right.” 

I frown, disappointed and a little disoriented, lips still buzzing electric. She’s wiping her mouth and taking a few deep breaths trying to control herself. I don’t want her to control herself. I want her. I let myself want her. I try to tug her back towards me but she scooches back with a regretful half-smile. “Dani,” she warns. 

“Jamie,” I say evenly, playing with the end of the coat. 

“We can’t.”

“But-”

“Let me rephrase - I can’t. Not with you. This version of you, anyway. Any version of you other than the one I’m married to in my present. I’m old enough to be your mum, Dani.”

“But-”

“I love you,” she says. “Just I love you.” I pout, sensing the finality of her decision. Which I can begrudgingly accept, even if part of me is incredibly frustrated by it. “There are other nights,” she takes my hands in her own and chastely kisses the backs of my knuckles, “and there will be other nights.”

“You promise?” Her devotion to me is astounding, if irritating at this moment. I can’t wait to meet her in my present. Which reminds me of the other issue hanging over the evening: it extinguishes both my libido and happiness like a bucket of water over a flame. 

“I promise,” she says with a sweet smile before noticing my sobered expression. “Hey,” she frowns, “What’s wrong?”

I find that I’m shaking. “This is the last time. You’re going away, and now I won’t see you for so long.”

“Only a few years. Six years and a few months. What’s that against a lifetime, eh?” I’m quiet. “Oh, Dani,” she says. “I’m sorry. Can’t help it. It’s funny, too, because here I was, just lying here thinking about what a gift today was. To be here with you instead of being chased by thugs or freezing to death in some barn or some of the other stupid shit I get to deal with. And when I go back, I’m with you.” I smile, a little, watching her describe the future that awaits her. Me. Us. I kiss her, chastely this time. 

“How come I always have to wait?”

“Because you have perfect DNA and aren’t being kicked around in time like a bloody football. Besides, patience is a virtue. Also, you’ve known me your whole life, practically, whereas I only meet you when I’m twenty-five. So I spend all those other years we meet ---”

“Being with other women.”

“Not really. S’not my fault, y’see as I, sadly, don’t know you yet. There aren’t that many of them, to be honest. Just a short series of mistakes. It’s very lonely and weird. If you don’t believe me, try it yourself. I’ll never know. It’s different when you don’t care.”

“I don’t want anybody else.”

“Not gonna pretend part of me doesn’t want to puff up with some pride at that, but the other bit knows better than to tell you to live like a nun for the next few years. You’ve got a life, Dani. Live it. The way you want to. I’ll be waiting at the other end of it.”

“Jamie, just give me a hint. Where do you live? Where do we meet? What day?”

“Have faith, Dani. It’s all there, right in front of you.”

“Are we happy?” I ask, almost trembling. 

“We are often insane with happiness. We’re also very unhappy sometimes for reasons neither of us can do anything about. Like being separated.”

“So all the time you’re here now you’re not there with me then?”

“Well, not exactly. I may end up missing only ten minutes. Or ten days. There’s no rule about it. S’what makes it hard, for you. Also, I sometimes end up in dangerous situations, and I come back to you broken and messed up, and you worry about me when I’m gone. It’s like marrying a fireman.” 

I don’t want to think about that right now. About the danger Jamie frequently finds herself in. About all the worrying I’m going to do about it in the future. Right now is all we’ve got, and I’ve got to make it last for the next six or so years. I lean behind the bush and pull out the garment bag and pass it to Jamie. She unzips it and reveals a tuxedo, pants, and formal shirt. “I think it’s your size, but had to guess for most of it. I hope it fits.” 

“Why Miss Clayton,” Jamie says with a teasing smile, “Are you asking me to prom?”

“Are you saying yes?” I tease back.

“I’d be honored.” I occupy myself to give her privacy to dress. “Never been to a prom before,” she says, rustling behind the bush as she fumbles with the garments, “Quite the American tradition, isn’t it? Like Thanksgiving or oversized fast food. Christ, I feel like John Travolta in this thing,” she says, “Hope you don’t expect me to dance like him. Got two left feet, I’m afraid.”

I turn around and gosh, she really does look a bit like John Travolta. Shoulder-length brown hair, curling just slightly into messy waves, she looks charming and handsome in the tux. It fits her well, and she looks the picture of suave confidence standing with her hands tucked loosely in the pockets. “Well don’t you look perfectly splendid,” I say with a wide smile. 

She looks down, assessing the outfit with a nod. “Practically perfect in every way.”

“Not yet,” I say and reach behind the rock to get the final pieces. I made sure to order an extra corsage and boutonniere, keeping them in the back of the fridge in their clamshell boxes. My hand trembles as I open the box and pin the flower to Jamie’s lapel. I step back to admire the full view. “Now you’re perfect.”

Jamie smiles and takes the corsage and slides it over my hand, and presses a kiss to the inside of my wrist. “Can say the same about you, Poppins.”

I hit play on the boombox. A slow song plays and Jamie spins me around. I laugh, twirling into her, and we join together, dancing and swaying under the moonlight, our own little prom, safe between the trees, with the promise of a great big future yawning open.

Chapter Text

Chapter 7: Secret Garden

Listen:

Reader: foomatic

Length: 1:03:20

Friday, May 30, 1986 (Dani is 23, Jamie is 25)
DANI:

It’s been four days. Four magical, marvelous, wonderful days since I found her again. It’s Friday, and we made plans on Tuesday morning to go out tonight. The week passed by in a haze. Each day was on autopilot, I barely felt present at all, floating on a cloud of Jamie. I could barely even find it in myself to be guilty about being so mentally absent for my students, running through the motions of teaching, more eager than they were for the bell to ring and signal the end of the school day, one day closer to when I could be reunited with her again. 

The miracle of being able to see Jamie is still something I’m having trouble wrapping my head around. It feels like a dream and I never want to wake up. 

I manage to pack up the classroom in record speed, practically leaving everything in the dust and sneaking out, avoiding the teacher’s lounge with a hint of guilt because I can’t bear to delay by even a minute, so I forego the usual schmooze and catch-up with my co-workers and leave the school. I hop on the bus and ride the few stops to my building. I get off, climb the two flights to my apartment, and when I get inside, lean my back against the front door, grinning wildly, taking a moment to revel in the excitement of the night ahead before dumping my bag to the floor and heading to my room to get ready. 

I take an absurdly long shower, letting my skin turn to a nice bright red as I shave and use the fancy conditioner I got in France. By the time I get out, the mirror is absolutely drenched with steam, completely fogged over, and dripping in condensation. I crack open the door, letting in cooler air, and as the steam dissipates, wipe my hand along the mirror. I observe myself, flushed from the shower, towel wrapped under my arms, unable to stop the corners of my mouth from pulling in a constant near-smile. 

It takes a while to do my hair, blow-drying and teasing it to full volume, before I style it and am satisfied. I take the dress from where it’s been hanging outside the closest since last night when I was planning what to wear. It’s a black dress with short sleeves and three tiers of layers in the skirt that come up just above my knees. Time for some makeup, the last touches smoothing everything out, before I head back down to the street and walk to the restaurant.

It’s a quaint little French place, tucked in next to a dry cleaner and dentist office and I’m still a few minutes early, but the maitre’d seats me anyway, at a small two-seater table in a nice corner of the restaurant. I tuck my dress under my knees as I sit and as a server fills my water glass, offer a happy “Merci.” The ice cubes are small, having melted in the larger carafe, and I crunch down on a few of them as I sip. It’s a nice evening, warm, and a breeze comes in through the window. There are butterflies in my stomach, ready to take flight at the sight of Jamie. I watch couple after couple, a few families, and small groups of friends come in through the doors, seated by the same maitre’d, helped to glasses of water and menus. As the minutes tick by, I order a glass of wine to help ease my nerves. The server comes by and asks if I want to order anything while I wait, and at first I said no, so confident at Jamie’s eventual arrival, but I feel bad sitting there for so long, so I order an appetizer that goes untouched as I pick at my thumb instead.

Eventually the butterflies in my stomach turn into a humming nest of bees as one glass becomes three and two hours have ticked by without a sign of Jamie. She must be time-traveling. I wonder where she is, if it’s her past or the future. I hope she’s alright. I try not to worry about when she is. Or if she’s lost and hurt and alone. 

The servers take pity and throw me sympathetic looks and an extra glass of wine on the house. It sits heavily in my near-empty stomach as the restaurant starts to empty as the evening drags on and eventually even the servers apologetically tell me the kitchen is taking final orders for the night before closing. I nod absently, and gather my purse and the wrapped-up appetizer and go out into the night. 

I walk back to my apartment in a haze, trying to burn away the buzz of the alcohol, and it’s nearly eleven by the time I get home. I come inside and flick the light switch on and let myself slump against the door, kicking off my heels. The night had not progressed as I’d hoped. It’s the first time Jamie’s disappeared without me knowing. Every visit in the past was calculated: I knew exactly when she’d arrive in the Meadow, and we were usually together when she would travel back, and if not, she’d usually get a sense that it would happen soon. I realize that living in the unknown is a permanent feature of my life, now. That unpredictability will shape the spaces of what’s to come. It can’t be that much different than being with a doctor or emergency worker, someone who’s life is run on a schedule outside of their own. Something will always pull Jamie away. But eventually she’ll come back. We’ll reschedule, and everything will be fine.


Saturday, May 31, 1986 (Dani is 23, Jamie is 25)
DANI:

I spend Saturday morning sleeping ridiculously late, lazing in bed until almost noon. I finally get up because I have to pee and my stomach gurgles, and I remember I didn’t really eat much last night. Once I’m up, I pour myself a giant bowl of cereal and flop on the couch, watching cartoons while I slurp spoonfuls of cornflakes. Eventually I call Jamie. The phone rings and rings, but she’s not there, so I leave a message. “Hey Jamie, it’s me. Dani. I hope you’re okay. You didn’t make it to dinner last night, I realized you must have been time-traveling, so please just call me whenever you get back and hear this. It’s Saturday, May 31, 1986 by the way, in case you weren’t sure. I just wanna make sure you’re alright, okay? Love you. Bye.”

I spend the rest of the day mostly moping about watching TV. At about six-thirty I finally put on real pants and go to the grocery store because my fridge is pretty empty and I ate the appetizers from the restaurant for lunch, but have nothing around for dinner. I get back and notice a blinking light on the answering machine. I walk over to the phone, hit the button, and let it play while I unpack the groceries. My own voice recording starts in greeting, and then a beep. “Dani. Hey.” Jamie’s voice comes through the tape, sounding rough and far away. It makes me smile regardless, just hearing her, the miracle of her just...calling me up. “Sorry about dinner, I just...” there’s some low rustling and then a crackling sound as she exhales and sighs into the phone. “I can’t do this. You’re nice ‘n all. And I like you, but...I can’t. I’m sorry.” The recording clicks as she hangs up and I stand numbly in the kitchen with my arm frozen from where it was reaching into the bag. The answering machine beeps, signaling the end of the tape. What? My brow furrows in confusion. Disbelief. Can’t do this? Can’t do what? Most strongly, hurt. This isn’t right. This can’t be right. This is Jamie. Jamie, my future wife. Jamie my everything. 

All I register after that is hastily shoving the milk into the fridge and grabbing my jacket and keys before running out the door. 

JAMIE:

I don’t leave the pub until my lips and hands are comfortably numb, telltale signs of being properly drunk. I overturn the pint glass, downing the last dregs of my beer. There’s more liquid than I thought. My cheeks are bursting to full like a goddamn chipmunk, and the last bit of whatever wouldn’t fit into my mouth splashes on my cheeks. I slam the now-empty glass on the bartop, gulp, and wipe my face with my sleeve. I keep hoping that at the end of each drink, I’ll stop seeing Dani’s face at the bottom of it. Stop hearing Dani’s voice in my ear. Her breath against my shoulder. 

I’ve always liked it here. Proper boring pub, just a place to sit and have a pint or two after work where no one asks questions, no one bothers you, and no one will so much as look at you, save for Tom the bartender, who always seems to have a sixth sense for when you’re thinking about flagging him for another drink. Which is right now. Good man, I think, as he slides another one down the counter towards me. “Cheers, mate,” I slur, raising the glass in salute. It’s been a while since I’ve gotten proper knackered like this. Been a while since I’ve slid into bad habits like a forgotten favorite jacket. It still fits, I muse darkly. Fits like a fuckin’ glove. I take a deep swig and grimace as it goes down. How could I have been so bloody stupid , letting someone in like that? As if it were normal. As if I were normal. Let myself be deluded, swept up in the romance of it all.

People aren’t worth it. Can’t let them be worth it, either, living as I do, being what I am. I’m sure as ever about my decision and know it’s the right thing to do. 

So why does it feel so fucking wrong?

DANI:

I really should have brought a book or something. I didn’t exactly think things too far ahead when I left, having just dashed out on instinct and need. But now, three hours later, I’ve already read the paper twice, having gone to the corner shop for some food and reading material about an hour into my wait. My butt is nearly numb from sitting on the front steps of Jamie’s apartment building, and I rotate every half hour or so between sitting and standing or pacing back and forth a bit for good measure. 

Finally I see her. Coming down the street uncoordinated and sloppy, so unlike the deliberate and steady person I know. She hasn’t seen me yet and drops her keys while pulling them out of her pocket. She curses and bends over to pick them up, nearly falling over twice while trying unsuccessfully to scoop up her keys. When she finally gets them, she loses her balance straightening up and stumbles, just barely catching herself by adopting a wide stance. When she finally notices me she freezes. It’s over in a second as she recovers, her face growing even more dark and hard in the shadows and streetlights. 

“What’re you doing here,” she gruffs, fumbling with her keys, pointedly not looking at me. 

“I could ask you the same thing,” I challenge, crossing my arms. “I thought we had plans.”

“Yeah, well. Plans change.”

“No they don’t, Jamie. Not like this. Not for us.”

“Well that’s the fuckin’ problem, isn’t it, then.” I’m not sure if she says this part to herself or to me but I hear it anyway.

“No,” I plant myself between her and the door. “You don’t get to leave that voicemail on my answering machine without telling me why.” 

“Yes, I do. This is me doin’ just that.” She finally gets the keys in the lock and brushes past me into the vestibule. I feel the words as a slap and stand stunned, my feet as heavy and leaden as my heart. The elevator door closes before I realize what’s happened and I jut my jaw forward in determined ire and march up the stairs just in time to see Jamie sliding into her apartment. She catches my eye. “Go home, Dani,” she says. I slam my hand into the door just before she can latch it shut, pushing it open. I ignore her as I stomp inside. “You can’t just come in here like that,” she sputters.

“I can and I did.”

“The pushy American stereotype is alive and fuckin’ well, I see. You fuckin’ Yanks are all alike.”

“Meet many Americans, have you?”

“Enough to know I don’t like ‘em following me home and barging in like they own the place.”

“You invited me here, remember? It was five days ago, Jamie, what the hell happened?”

She stiffens but doesn’t back down. If anything it bristles her further, as if the reminder is ammunition of its own. “You can’t just walk into my life and act like you know me. You don’t know a single thing about me. I don’t owe you anything,” she snarls.“Whatever future-me promised you isn’t gonna happen,” she spits, “So just leave me alone and fuck off back to Ohio or wherever it is y’came from.”

She turns around, leaving me there, and starts to head to the bathroom before I can calm my breathing and gather my wits, regrouping to face this haunted version of the Jamie I know. It hurts. I can’t pretend like it doesn’t. But if there’s one thing I learned the hard way as a teenager, it’s that Jamie loves me. Loves me so much she refused to say so for a whole decade in the hopes of maintaining a shred of normalcy for me in an entirely abnormal situation. I let that fact ground me, giving me steady purchase in the wake of these choppy, unsteady waters. It dawns on me then, what this is. 

“Iowa.”

She looks back over her shoulder. “Scuse me?”

“I’m from Iowa. I just figured if you’re going to tell me what to do, you might as well do it properly.”

“Fine. Fuck off back to Iowa, then,” the edge of her voice is sharp, biting with anger. I’ve seen enough troubled kids to know that when the world presses with shame and hurt, the only option for pushing back against it in order to find room to breathe is to lash out. When an animal backed into a corner feels threatened, it’ll try to claw its way out, no matter how open or gentle the hand in front of it is reaching out to help.

I’m not stupid. And despite so much love inside filling me to bursting, I’m not blind with it, either. I’m a lot braver than people think; including this Jamie. Who doesn’t yet know how she’s the one who helped raise and guide my spine to stand tall and strong. Against her.

My mind flashes back to a story, told in the quiet sadness of my basement at 16. Of Jamie, sadder than I’d ever seen her. Sharing the delicate core of herself, bare and bleeding in its nakedness. Jamie, here: fully clothed, but just as naked and raw and vulnerable before me. 

“I’m not Louise, Jamie.”

It seems like the air suddenly gets sucked out of the room. She freezes, mid-step. Her shoulders tense, hands clenching into fists. Her voice is even and cold. Scary cold. “You don’t get to say that name, d’y’hear me?”

“Jamie-”

“No!” she bursts, all rage and teeth, spinning around to face me, feral. “It’s not yours to say. You don’t have a right to that. That secret’s not yours to know. It’s mine to tell.”

“But you did tell me!”

“No. I didn’t. She did. What other things did she tell you, huh? Did future-me tell you I was a junkie?” She keeps stalking closer until I’m backed up against the kitchenette. I can smell the alcohol on her breath. “That I used to steal car radios and deal drugs? That I know how to use a knife and threaten people for money just because I can. That I broke into people’s homes and lifted jewelry when they were out of town? I was gutter trash long before you met me, Dani, so whatever that version of me told you is a lie because I’m sure as fuck not her.”

I haven’t moved, haven’t said a word in the few minutes since the poison of Jamie’s demons began spewing out of her. I don’t think she realizes she’s crying. I wipe away the wetness on my own cheeks. Her emptiness is palpable from here, radiating in waves of desperate misery. I take a small step forward, and Jamie’s face is ragged, so ragged and weary and wretched, and it seems like she’s about to say something else, but instead she leans forward and vomits between my feet.  

  (The next morning)
JAMIE:

There’s two aspirin and a glass of water on the side table. I take them and gulp down the water thirstily in the hopes of calming my pounding skull. It’s been a while since I was that drunk and as I get older, the hangovers get worse. Blinking against the light, it takes a moment before my eyes aren’t throbbing too badly to see. That’s when I notice the figure on the armchair. Dani’s sound asleep, head dangled back over the top of the chair, mouth wide open. A blanket is draped on top of her and a half-attempt to use a rolled-up sweatshirt as a pillow lies tucked on her shoulder, forgotten. She’s snoring softly. I’m taken aback with a gentle sort of surprise and wonder.

For a moment, just a moment, I imagine what it would be like for this to happen; to invite Dani into my life and all that would come with it. More nights like the one we shared, talking until our eyes drooped shut, too heavy to stay awake any longer. Waking up in the morning, tangled together in bed. Nothing sexual, just...comfortable. Intimate. I can see it, just there, just out of sight: Dani, grading papers at the countertop, legs dangling on the stool with nothing but an oversized t-shirt and socks on; me, making dinner, stirring a pot of sauce, bringing the spoon over to Dani to taste, who licks her lips and says it needs more salt. 

I could love her. I could love her so much, so deeply, that it scares the shit out of me. I hate that I want this. I hate that I want to believe her. And the fact that I’m even sitting here contemplating the possibility of wanting is enough to harden my resolve. She shouldn’t be here. For both our sakes. 

I can’t exactly leave from my own flat, especially now that Dani knows where I live. And if last night was any indication, she’s not exactly going to leave me alone. I wonder how I can disentangle myself from this life and move on to the next town, since both Owen and Dani now complicate my existence here significantly. Wouldn’t be the first time I’ve made a quick escape in the hopes of staying anonymous, under the radar and easily forgotten. My lease is month-to-month, so it won’t be hard to vacate the flat, but it might take a few weeks to find a new job. I’ve got some savings that can hold me over until then, and luckily it’s still summer so work should be plenty. I’ll have to be quick about it. Wouldn’t be hard to pack up what few belongings I’d like to take with me and split in the middle of the night like the time before last. Hope someone will take care of the plants, though. Owen would be sad for a bit, I imagine, but he’d get over it. Haven’t known each other that long, after all. He’ll forget me eventually and one day I’ll just be a bizarre tale - The Time-Traveling Woman - told over a pint or around a bonfire, like a ghost story. And Dani? She’ll be far better off living her life with someone who isn’t me.

Sometime during this musing Dani must have woken up because she’s in the chair, watching me. I startle, caught, as if she’s privy to my thoughts.

“Hey.”

“Hey,” I say back, as neutrally as possible.

“You were in pretty bad shape last night. I wanted to make sure you were okay.”

I’m tired. So tired of fighting. “Thought I made myself pretty clear, last night.”

“You were drunk, Jamie."

“Doesn’t mean I was wrong.”

She sits forward in the chair, bracing her elbows on her knees and stares straight at me. “Yeah, see. That’s the thing. You are. Wrong, that is.”

I sigh. “Dani-”

“No. You got to say your piece last night, so now it’s my turn, m’kay?” I slump, defeated. Using every last bit of strength to keep holding her at arm’s length. “You think I don’t know you. But I do. I know you hate cinnamon but like licorice. I know you have three moles on the back of your knee that make a perfect triangle. I know you like your tea steeped so long it’s almost bitter but then you add just enough milk and sugar to balance it out. I know when you’re frustrated you pull your lips into your mouth and breathe through your nose. I know that when I was twelve and got a C on my math test, you tutored me in geometry, explaining area and perimeter even though I hated every minute of it, until I got an A. I know that when I was sad and lonely, there was no one else who I wanted to see more than you. That days when you’d show up in the Meadow were the ones I spent nights dreaming of.

And you’re right. There is a lot I don’t know a lot about you. But I want to. Know you. All of you, Jamie. The good and the bad, it’s all you, and I want to know them all. If you’ll let me.”

I want to believe her. So badly. Never wanted anything more. That’s where the danger of it all lies. “There’s nothing to know,” I croak. “I’m not her, Dani, and I don’t know how to be her. There’s no good in this, in me. I’m all used up, and y’don’t deserve it. I won’t do that to you.” 

“Don’t I get to decide? Don’t I get a say in what I want? What I deserve?  You don’t get to choose for me, Jamie Taylor. Nobody does.”

“Dani-”

She must see it; the fear in my eyes because then she says, “I’m scared, too. I’m scared that if I don’t try, then I’m gonna lose you. Not now, not yet. I can be patient, I promise. I can wait however long it takes. Even if you just wanna be friends and nothing more, I’ll take it. I’ll take you any way I can get you, Jamie. However you want to give. I’ll love you however you want to be loved.”

She reaches up to wipe my cheek. I didn’t realize I’d been crying. “You’re worth it, Jamie. I promise. So let’s just...take it slow, for a while. Give this a chance to breathe. Take a step back: no pressure, no expectations, no future, and just... see where that takes us.”

A strange, unfamiliar feeling spreads through my chest; tiny warm tendrils of hope taking root under her patient, loving gaze. I think about all the ways this could break me, but then Dani smiles at me, earnest and full of possibility. It loosens something inside of me. People aren’t worth it. But a person? A person just might be.


Sunday, June 1, 1986 (Jamie is 25, Dani is 23)
JAMIE:

True to her word, we take things slow. She left, later that morning, and I sat in the apartment for a while not doing anything, sitting, stunned, processing. The very air feels different, somehow. More...still. Peaceful. And when the pressure of the silence got too overwhelming and the urge to run got too strong, I laced up my trainers and did just that. I ran, but I didn’t run away. Promised Dani that much, at least. And if there’s one thing I pride myself on it’s staying true to my word. Besides, I remember: there’s an out, now, should I need it. No expectations. The thought of a blank future, the ribbon of it ready to unwind into the unknown, on my terms, shoots a small thrill of excitement up my spine. I come back and shower, let the water get as hot as I can stand it, baptizing myself in one last new beginning.


Thursday, June 18th, 1986 (Jamie is 26, Dani is 23)
JAMIE:

The weekdays stretch by in endless phone calls, running late into the night, talking about everything and nothing. Surprised me how much I didn’t hate it, talking. Was worried it would be stilted, but Dani must’ve been able to hear the nervousness in my silence because she filled it all on her own, letting me punctuate and participate until conversation smoothed out into a comfortable experience and before I knew what was happening, I was spinning out questions and stories of my own.

Don’t remember ever using a telephone this bloody much. My neck starts to cramp, hitching the phone up to my ear for hours at a time. Ended up going out and buying a longer cord just so I wouldn’t be limited to the same three foot radius by the wall. It’s not like my place is that much larger, practical shoebox that it is, but I found myself making endless loops around the flat, sliding along the floor in my socks, twisting the cord between my fingers as the hours passed. Don’t even know what we talk about, really. Only that we talk. 

Sometimes we don’t even do that. Just content to exist in our own spaces, tending to our own lives as they are, tethered by breathing and the occasional murmur or thought after long stretches of companionable silence. It’s easier than being in the same place at first. Like the distance is providing a barrier of sorts, protection against things that can feel too much. Easier, to say certain things into the ether, not worrying about how to act, where to look, or being looked at. Easy to hang up if the nakedness of words becomes too much. Strangely enough, it never is. 

The comfort lasts and stretches into real life, supporting the weight of seeing her again. We build up that strength with safe, neutral activities like running errands or going to the bookstore. Slowly adding intimacy in small doses: meeting for a film, cooking. The first time Dani invites me to her flat it’s to bring up a load of groceries. The second time it’s to sort and alphabetize student worksheets and assignments into the most absurdly large accordion folder system. She thanks me with a fresh baked apple pie. (“I’m not the greatest in the kitchen but I can bake a mean apple pie. This won the blue ribbon prize at the county fair two years running.” “I take it that’s a good thing?” “I beat out Mrs. Brown for first place, Jamie. Mrs. Brown. ”) Takes me three days to finish that pie, but I ate every last crumb. It’s the best damn pie I’ve ever had, and pretty sure it had not a damn bit of anything to do with winning some ribbon for it.

A foundation is laid in stargazing, out late in the summer nights; when Dani leaves a note and a worn out copy of her favorite book; in the long stretches of countryside as we drive through it with the windows down, making a picnic out of it. 

Today she asked me to meet her outside of her school. Didn’t know what to expect, so I came prepared for anything. It’s late. Dani meets me outside at half-five, sitting on the steps in an oversized green skirt tucked neatly under her knees. Feel right out of place approaching the building and I tuck my hands into the pockets of my dungarees and hike up my shoulders in old habit, but then Dani smiles, seeing me come up the path.

“You made it!” she gets to her feet eagerly. 

I pull an apple from my pocket and hold it out to her. “Not something teachers ‘round here are accustomed to, but I read it in a book once and thought it couldn’t hurt to go for a little extra credit.” Dani stares at the apple with a strange look on her face before plucking it from my hand, one side of her mouth quirking up like she was the one with the surprise. “Thank you.” Guess it was true, then. Americans and their weird traditions. “C’mon,” she says, takes a bite out of the apple, and starts walking up the stairs toward the entrance. 

Can’t remember the last time I was in a school. Can’t remember the last time I was in a school willingly, let alone spending extra time after the bell with a teacher that wasn’t some form of disciplinary action. 

I try to ignore how the walls feel claustrophobic in the hallway leading to Dani’s classroom, like any moment a Year Five teacher could come out and scold me for being late or missing an assignment. I shove my hands deeper into my pockets.

Turning the corner into Dani’s room, though, is entirely different. She’s taken paper and craft materials and created a whole new world. Colors are everywhere, decorations brightening up every corner, even the ceiling. Oddly, it isn’t too overpowering or cheesy, which is how these things usually go. Instead it feels alive. Welcoming. Safe. 

I trail my fingers lightly over the desks, lined up in a neat grid, Dani goes on about each student - Suzie’s aptitude in maths, Robert’s enthusiasm for science, Claire’s tendency to dip her finger into her nose when she thinks no one’s watching - pulling up details like she’s flipping through a book. These kids are so lucky to have her. I find myself jealous of a bunch of eight-year-olds. 

Our task today is to redecorate the bulletin boards. Based on the posters and material, it looks like the next subject is Electricity. I hop up on a stool and take down the existing board while she goes to the supply closet. She comes back with a small stack of things and gives me one item at a time to hang and studiously avoids looking at me while she points to where pieces should go, a blush on her face.

A half hour passes while she explains all about negatively charged ions and atmospheric buildup, invisible static, conductivity, and each time our fingers touch as she hands me a poster or cutout to hang up, a current passes through us. Vibrating up my arm, the warmth settles down deep into my chest. Never paid much attention in school, but I'm pretty sure this type of electricity wasn’t part of the curriculum. Sometimes her breath hitches when we make unexpected contact, but she tucks it into herself with a few quick blinks as she continues on with whatever she’s doing like nothing had happened. I see it, the effort. Holding onto her promise. And I know, without a doubt, that if at any point I said I didn’t want things to go any further from where things are now, she’d accept that. Accept me. What I want. Me . Not some nebulous version of me that doesn’t exist yet.

I know, sure as I feel the energy still thrumming through my fingertips, that I don’t want that. What I want is finally settling within me. I know where to take her.


Sunday, June 22nd, 1986 (Dani is 23, Jamie is 26)
DANI:       

Jamie’s brought me to the Gardens. Which is good for many reasons, namely because when I came here the other week scouting a field trip location for work and found Jamie instead, I left immediately after and never quite got the chance to really see the place. And it does look lovely. 

It’s her day off so we come in through the main entrance with other guests, though a nod to the attendant has us walking in without needing to wait in line. “Are you sure I can’t pay?” I ask. “I’m more than happy to. I like supporting places like this.”

“S’alright,” she says, leading me through a door marked ‘Employees Only. “We get a few guest passes each year, and I’ve a bunch of ’em saved up. Reckon you could come here every week for the rest of the summer and I’d still have some left.”

I try not to dwell on the loneliness of this statement, of what she isn’t saying, and appreciate the gesture for what it is. A wide area comes into view and she tells me all about the different kinds of trees as we walk, pointing out their bark, types of leaves and how the canopy spreads depending on certain factors. She takes me along the pond, describing how the long grasses provide shelter and refuge for animals and insects, and that the previous gardener had nearly endangered the tiny ecosystem with an invasive grass species. There’s so much life hidden in the most mundane places. I look at every last plant and bush with newfound appreciation. 

“C’mon,” she says, tugging my hand, “Got somethin’ to show you,” and pulls me toward a cluster of trees off to the right. She lifts some low branches as a shortcut, holding them for me as I duck beneath them. I see there’s a small building behind it, tucked away like a cottage in the woods. When we get closer, I realize the building is a shed attached to a greenhouse. The outside windows are nearly frosted over with moisture and humidity, and when she unlocks the entrance I feel the life inside yawn open. If I thought the grounds were impressive, it pales in comparison to this. The greenhouse isn’t that large of a building, but the sheer amount of plants inside make it seem like a never-ending jungle. 

“So, uh,” she says, hands tucked into her back pockets, rocking on her feet, “there’s not many secret spots, even on grounds this big. But this one’s special. This one,” Jamie nods her head, indicating around her, “this one’s m’favorite.”

“Wow,” I breathe in wonder, craning my neck and turning around, trying to see everything. 

“Yeah,” Jamie says with a strange look on her face; a mixture of pride and something else I can’t yet identify. There are plants of all types growing in pots that line every spare surface - hanging from the walls, clustered on the ground - and Jamie gives me a brief tour, pointing out the ornamentals, ferns, tropicals like palms and orchids, a few cacti, and even herbs and some vegetables that she admits are more for personal use than strictly for work.

We end up at a potting table in the back, tucked behind tall stalks of bamboo, and she pulls out two empty containers and a bin of soil, placing them next to two of the saddest looking plants I’ve ever seen. Jamie’s got her arms crossed and glances over at the table before looking back at me, awaiting some sort of response.

I shake my head when I realize what she means, taking a few steps back in apprehension. “Oh, no. Jamie. I’m not good with plants.”

“S’alright. I’ll show you. These things are half-dead anyway. More like a last-ditch effort to see if we can save ‘em. If not, they won’t be any worse off. You won’t be doing them any harm, I promise.”

We’d barely even begun when I accidentally knocked over the pot I’d been filling with soil. It gets everywhere, spilling all over and I wince at the mess. “Nice thing about greenhouses,” Jamie says, one corner of her mouth pulling up mischievously, “They’re known for bein’ dirty. Reckon the ground could use a fresh layer. Was looking a little too clean ‘round here, anyway.” And without breaking eye contact, she pours a little soil out on the floor for good measure, her eyes twinkling with mirth. 

Anxiousness recedes immediately. I listen and watch attentively as she moves through the steps, arms moving so naturally. Her entire focus and care is on the action in front of her. Her fingers dip into a pot to carefully cradle the soil and roots and I follow along best I can, holding it preciously, its very existence and life cradled in my hands. “You’re doing great,” Jamie says as I place it in a new pot. I must not have been doing as good a job as I thought hiding my worried expression. I give her a little pinched smile, not entirely relaxed, feeling woefully clumsy and out of my depth, certain I’ve already killed the thing. “You’re doing great,” she repeats, in a low timber of intensity that settles deep into my chest. 

I bite my lip and blush; a small, proud thing. “Thank you,” I say, meaning it. 

Jamie presses her fingers into the top of the soil, compacting it a bit to stabilize the stalk. “Once they get over the shock of it all, should thrive just fine. Just need a bit of time, water, and some sun.”

I look at my plant with a new sense of accomplishment. It's bent over at an angle, the leaves look a little droopy, but it’s been transplanted somewhere new. Given a new start. The unruly bits that had been cramped and straining in its old container will now be able to breathe and grow in its new home.

JAMIE:

Never seen anyone be nervous around a plant before. Indifferent, usually. Oblivious, the rest of the time. Once Dani sees the fruit of her labor resting in the new pot, her face relaxes into something like awe. Six years of working in gardens and I’ve never seen anyone look at a plant like it’s a revelation. No one’s ever looked at one the way I do: like it’s so much more than just something with leaves sticking out of the dirt. Like it’s precious. Like it’s holding a promise. I see all of that reflected in Dani’s eyes when she turns her head to look at me. There’s a smudge of dirt on her forehead, which makes the joyful expression on her face that much more endearing. She’s saying something to me, and I nod absently, half listening, my eyes settling on the way her hands are cradling the repotted plant. A warm yearning permeates my body, exposing a truth I’ve kept at bay for weeks: I want to plant myself in those hands, hoping I’ll be safe there; held like some treasured thing, damaged and mangled, but still worth saving. 

My life has been a revolving door of people who walk in, walk out, and never look back. I’m accustomed to solitude, like a cactus in the desert, doing the best I can with what little can be scraped together for nourishment; seeing and absorbing life, like moisture in the air, but only from a distance. I’ve grown to prefer it, the resigned loneliness that fills my days. Things are safer that way, when you’re me. 

But the last few weeks have shaken loose some of the thorns and barbs that I’ve drawn into myself for protection and now there’s space for something else. Something more. Thoughts of wanting turn into thoughts of having and it doesn’t bring the same fear it used to because Dani is already here, already mine, for better or worse. More and more, I’ve found myself looking forward to tomorrow instead of waiting for the sun to set on another boring, mundane day. I think about permanence, and what it would feel like to come home to this woman who knows me in ways I don’t even know myself and despite everything in me that’s always cautioned the opposite, I’m filled with a gentle ache of longing instead of the empty shame and guilt I’ve carried for as long as I can remember. 

“Are you even listening to me?” Dani’s voice pulls me back, and she looks at me expectantly.  

“Sorry, it’s just that you’ve got - “ I reach out and wipe the dirt from her forehead with my thumb, “- a smudge on your face.” I hover, overwhelmed with a need that I’ve denied myself for so long. I graze her cheek, then bring my arm down slowly, fingertips following the line of her neck reverently, tracing her shoulders. She shivers. I can feel goosebumps rise on her flesh. Dani’s eyelids flutter and her throat jumps. She bites her lip and the faintest whimper escapes. So soft it could easily be missed, but my entire body is hyper-aware, senses attuned to the slightest trembling of a leaf to the way Dani is trembling under my touch. My hand moves down her arm to gently cup her elbow and I angle her towards me. Her feet shuffle as she pivots, facing me, and I take the pot she’s holding and place it on the bench. She glances at me with questioning eyes, and I feel dizzy, like the world has tilted on its axis. Humidity in the greenhouse keeps the air thick but I’ve never struggled to breathe in here before today. Thought my heart would be pounding, but it’s oddly steady, the rhythm of my pulse drowning out the uncertainty in my chest, leaving me bare and raw in my want.

My hands are still at Dani’s elbows, her forearms resting atop my own. She looks at my lips and catches herself, stepping back to give me some space but I follow and squeeze her hip to stop her because I don’t want to lose this moment. Don’t want to let the thread between us drop. I’m tethered to her, like a kite string, and we stand there, suspended in time. She is so impossibly still, the personification of patience unwavering, and a part of me cracks open at the feet of that kind of devotion.  All I’ve ever wanted is in her eyes, and whatever walls I have left crumble like dust and I feel like I can breathe properly for the first time. I lean forward and let our breaths mingle for a beat, the warmth of it tickling across my lips, before closing the remaining distance between us. She breathes in sharply through her nose, shoulders tensing, hands resting in mid-air as if debating with herself what to do with them. Her fingers finally touch me, cupping my face so gently as she pulls back from the kiss. 

“Are you sure?” Her breath is hot against my cheeks. 

The question alone is the answer. Proof in every gesture. Even now, seeing it in her eyes how much she wants this; how much she’s holding back. Again. Still. She’d wait forever. 

“Yeah,” I husk. Only thing I’ve ever been sure about in my entire life. 

Dani’s grin, wild and unabashed and free, presses into mine. She deepens the kiss and I open, the petals of me unfurling, kissing back, hungrily. It feels like the sky is opening, crashing in a deafening roar. When I pull back, I realize it’s only the rain, thundering down on the greenhouse roof, and Dani, lips swollen, reaches her fingers forward, grips the lapels of my jacket, and pulls me back in. I lose myself in her, surrounded by green, a safe harbor from the storm.

Chapter Text

Chapter 8: And So It Grows

Listen:

Reader: foomatic

Length: 56:15


Saturday, July 5th, 1986 (Jamie is 26, Dani is 24)
JAMIE:

Dani has invited me to dinner at her flat. Dani’s friend and co-worker, Hannah, will also be there. At 6:59 p.m, I stand in my Saturday best in Dani’s vestibule with my finger on the buzzer, fragrant yellow freesia and an Australian Cabernet in my other arm, and my heart in my mouth. I haven’t met any of her friends. I have no idea what to expect. 

The buzzer makes a horrible sound and I open the door. I plod up two flights of stairs and just as I raise my hand to knock, the door flies open and Dani stands there beaming, flushed. “Hi,” she says. 

“Hey,” I greet back. We grin like idiots for a moment before snapping out of it. “For you,” I say, handing her the flowers. 

She takes them in both hands. “Thank you!”

“Mrs. Grose,” Dani’s friend greets, warm and earnest, and she takes my hand between both of her own. There’s something almost maternal about her and it relaxes me even further. “Pleasure to finally meet you.”

“Likewise,” I say, meaning it. “Where’s the, uh, Mr. Grose? Will he be joinin’ us later, then?”

“Don’t let Hannah give you the wrong impression,” Dani says, “There is no Mr. Grose.”

“Oh, god, I’m so sorry,” I stammer, backtracking.

“That’s quite all right,” Hannah says kindly, “He’s not dead.”

“Might as well be,” Dani grumbles.

Hannah shoots Dani a look. “Sam has long gone, I’m afraid, but the name stuck. Force of habit, I suppose.”

The kitchen looks as though a dough factory has exploded in it. Dani sees the direction of my gaze. I suddenly remember she doesn’t know how to cook. “It’s a disaster,” Dani says glumly. 

“It’s a work in progress,” Hannah offers.

“Are we going to eat it?” I ask. We all look from one to the other, and burst out laughing. “Do any of you know how to cook?” Dani offers a sheepish look and a shrug. 

“Not without a recipe, I’m afraid,” Hannah says, looking a pained sort of embarrassed, as if ashamed she doesn’t have a better answer. 

“Right,” I clap my hands together. “What was that supposed to be, then?” I inquire, nodding at the disaster on the counter. Dani hands me a magazine clipping. It’s a recipe for Chicken and Shiitake Risotto with Winter Squash and Pine Nut Dressing. It’s from Gourmand, and there are about twenty ingredients.    

“I might have gotten a little over-eager,” Dani admits, wringing her hands together.

“A little?” I say, raising my eyebrows. 

She shuffles almost petulantly. “I wanted to try and impress you, is that so bad?”

“Aw, Miss Clayton,” I say, flirtily, “Y’didn’t have to try so hard. Could’ve saved yourself a lot of trouble.”

“The shopping part I can do. It’s the assembly that isn’t exactly my strong suit.”

I examine the chaos more closely. “I could make something out of this.”

“You can cook?” I nod. 

“Well look at that,” Hannah says, “Looks like I won’t have to eat the food I brought just in case.”

Dani drops her jaw in mock offense. “You didn’t.”

“I did,” says Hannah, crossing her arms with a look of practiced dignity. “I’ve seen the lunches you bring into work, Dani. The children could likely whip up something better. I was only trying to be prepared, and to be frank, I had my doubts about the culinary success of the evening. But my fears were for naught as it seems your Miss Taylor here can cook.”

“Don’t go getting too excited, Hannah, love. Might be beyond even my skills.”

“Not to worry. Truth be told, I brought more than one sandwich.” Dani makes a face and lightly smacks Hannah’s shoulder, who laughs.

“Worst case scenario, I’ve got a secret weapon to call in if things go to proper shit.” Dani looks relieved, and Hannah goes off to nurse her glass of wine on the couch. 

“You’re not mad?” Dani says, having hung back. I kiss her, just a tad longer than is really polite with company nearby. I straighten up, take off my jacket, and roll up my sleeves. “ Got an apron?” I direct Dani to go and keep Hannah company on the couch while I set to work in the kitchen. Her flat has a nice setup with the living room open within view from the kitchen. We’re all able to partake in pleasant conversation while I cook. 

Thirty-five minutes later, though, I know when to call it quits. Twenty minutes after that, a rat-a-tat rap on the door pulls Dani, puzzled at the knock, from the couch. American manners have her greeting a perfect stranger with a warm “Hi there! Um, can I help you?” 

A hand pops out between two heavy bags full of groceries. “You must be Dani! Pleasure to meet you. I’m Owen.” I swear, Owen could give Dani’s Midwestern warmth and eagerness a run for the money. 

“Oi, Sharma,” I say, slapping a kitchen towel on my shoulder. “Any chance you could come here and fix this?”

He bends at the waist for a polite half-bow. “It would be my pleasure.”

Dani and Hannah share a befuddled look. “He’s a chef,” I say by way of explanation. “I’m decent, but he’s a wizard. Figured he could help sort this all out.”

“This is your secret weapon? A chef? Was it really that bad?”

“Some things are best left to the professionals. Besides, he owed me a favor. Seemed like a good enough excuse to call it in.”

“Geez, way to call in the big guns.”

I shake my head. “You Americans and your guns.”*

Owen is already in the kitchen unloading the grocery bags and tying an apron around his waist. “Looks like you’re really dodging a bullet , here, Jamie.”

I groan. “Owen, go easy on ‘em, mate. They don’t know how bad your jokes are.”

“I’ll have you know, I have the classiest repertoire of wea- pun -ry this side of the Thames.”

Everyone devolves into a chorus of laughter and groans, and Owen looks pleased as punch as he delves into cooking. It’s hard to believe a month ago I was ready to leave all of this behind. I look at Dani, laughing into her wine glass, marveling at the magic of her. Fifty-three minutes later we’re sitting around the dining room table eating Chicken Risotto Stew with Pureed Squash. Everything has lots of butter in it, much to Dani’s pleasure. We ’re drunk as fuckin’ skunks.


Tuesday, July 8th, 1986 (Dani is 24)
DANI:

I’m at work, absentmindedly grading and going through lesson plans in the teacher’s lounge. Hannah’s taking her morning break, aligning with an off period I’m not teaching, and we sit in companionable silence as she enjoys a cup of tea and a book. I’m supposed to be reviewing a lesson on fractions, but it’s been four days since dinner and I’m practically burning with curiosity. My leg is bouncing and I’ve been nibbling at my thumb for the past fifteen minutes trying to bite back my impatience and desire to snoop. Hannah, clad in a burgundy turtleneck and plaid skirt, looks the picture of her usual elegance, and shows no sign of having noticed my stares as she takes polite sips of her tea. God, her pinkie is even up when she does it.

“Okay, I can’t take it anymore,” I say, putting aside all pretense and lean forward in rapt engagement. “What’d you think?”

“Hmm?” she says absentmindedly. 

“Dinner. Saturday. What’d you think?”

“Oh, it was a perfectly lovely time,” she reports, delicately placing her tea cup on the saucer and turning the page of her book.

Is this seriously all she’s going to give me? “And?”

“And, I think you caught yourself a fine young woman, Miss Clayton.” Miss Clayton . I huff at her gentle tease. She knows exactly what she’s doing when she uses my name like that. 

“Thank you, but I was talking about Owen.”

“What about him?” she asks, feigning ignorance. Fine. Two can play this game.

“He’s nice, isn’t he?”

“Quite. And handy in the kitchen.”

“Yeah. Dinner was pretty good, wasn’t it?”

“I must admit, I don’t recall the last time I had a meal that delicious.”

“He’s handsome, too.”

“Yes, I-” Hannah seems to realize she’d given away more than intended and levels a scolding look at me. “Dani.”

“What?” It’s my turn to feign ignorance as I take a sip of my own beverage. “It’s a perfectly innocent question.”

“Then you should expect a perfectly innocent answer.”

“Oh, come on, Hannah,” I say, pretense over. “He’s great! And he really liked you!”

“And I quite liked him as well! Your point being?”

“My point, Hannah, is that Sam left you six years ago.” She stiffens at the mere mention of his name. But I’m tired of watching my friend suffer bravely, quietly. “I’m not trying to cause you pain,” I say more gently, “but I don’t think he’s coming back. And you shouldn’t spend the rest of your life waiting for him. Owen is a good guy. A really good guy. And I think he’d be good for you. You’d be good for each other, really.”

My emotional entreaty has softened her. “That very well may be the case, but the fact remains that he’s far too young for me. And that’s all I have to say on the matter,” she says with an air of finality as she crosses her legs and reopens her book.

I bite my lip, weighing the consequences of continuing to push. Hannah’s one of the kindest, most stubborn people I’ve ever met. We’ve been working together for a few years now and she’s refused to go on a single date, despite much encouragement on my end. Clearly a single group dinner isn’t going to change her mind overnight. Jamie and I might have to work together on this one. “Fine,” I grumble and pick up my pen to resume grading. Hannah resumes sipping her tea and I begin to scheme a plan.

Later that night
JAMIE:

I’m home a bit early, having been stymied at work by a surprise rainstorm that lasted most of the afternoon. Not the best weather to be out carting a wheelbarrow full of landscaping equipment. I did a little repotting and propagating in the greenhouse instead, but quickly ran out of indoor work. It’s a good day for being inside. The summer evening is muggy and humid and I’m sweating so much in front of the stove that it feels as if I’d gone swimming instead of standing in my own kitchen. Nothing to do about it but take a cool shower later. I hear keys rattling in the lock and Dani comes through the door, shaking out an umbrella while balancing a bag full of papers and schoolwork where it’d slipped from her shoulder to the crook of her elbow, dangling precariously. “Y’need help with that?” I call out just as she unceremoniously dumps everything on the ground and runs over to the kitchen and slaps her hands on the counter. 

“Jamie.” There’s an almost wild, mischievous look in her eye. I have no idea where this is coming from or what could be behind it.

“Dani,” I respond evenly. 

“We have to set up Owen and Hannah.”

“Oooh no you don’t,” I say, wiggling my finger at her, “I don’t like going and messin’ about in people’s lives. What happens if it doesn’t work out, huh? Owen’s my friend. One of the precious few I’ve got, really, and I would like to very much keep being his friend without the awkward messy divorce of dividing up friends and loved ones.”

“Oh, come on, you can’t be that pessimistic.”

“I’m being realistic! Listen, Dani. They’re two grown adults. What they want to get up to is their own business. Let them handle it.”

“I’ve known Hannah for almost four years now and she’s never even been on a date. Sam left her over six years ago. She deserves someone wonderful, someone like Owen - who, by the way, is clearly interested in her - and, I dunno, Jamie. I think it could be good. I think it could be really, really good.”

“Dani-” I warn.

“Just-” she raises her hands in defense “- will you at least ask Owen if he’d be interested? If he isn’t, I promise to leave it alone and never bring it up again.” I glare. “Don’t you think you owe it to him to at least give him the chance, if he wants it?” My mouth is halfway open in a rebuttal, but Dani is practically giving me Bambi eyes, wide and imploring with such a sense of hope, that to say anything contrary would be akin to murdering a puppy right in front of her. 

I sigh. “Alright,” I say begrudgingly, relenting. “I’ll ask him. But I’m gonna hold you to that promise, yeah? To leave well enough alone?”

Her face breaks out in a wide grin. “Yes! Yes,” she says, nodding vigorously, “I promise.”

“Good,” I say. “‘Cause if I find out you’ve not been listening and pryin’ about in other peoples’ business, there will be serious consequences.”

“Oh yeah?” She challenges with a smirk.

“Yeah,” I say with a matching twinkle of mirth.

“And what would these, uh, consequences of yours look like?” This is dangerous, her false innocent tone, teasing turning into a low flame. She’s come around the counter to stand in front of me, pressing close. The tip of her tongue barely sticks out as she bites her lip in challenge. I can feel her breath on my cheek and lower my head so our cheeks are grazing each other. It’s heady and dizzying being this close, hesitating in the moments just before . It’s electric, between us. We’re a crackling live wire with nothing but water all around. I playfully nip at her nose. 

“I’m gonna make you so wet-” I husk into her ear. Dani hisses with a sharp inhale. I can practically hear her moan.”-when I make you do the dishes for the next week.” It takes her a moment, eyelids heavy, so wrapped up in lust, for it to click. When it does, I’m rewarded with a smack to the arm.

“Jamie Taylor!” she shrieks, laughing, “That was so mean.”

“I’d say this is a shit-eating-grin on my face, but there’s other things I’d rather be eating, to be honest.”

She smacks me again and I laugh. She isn’t upset at all, not really. Besides, I know how to make it up to her. I pull Dani in for a kiss and just like that, dinner is ruined.       


Monday, September 15, 1986 (Dani is 24, Jamie is 8)
DANI:

It’s a school holiday. I’ve got the day off, Jamie’s at work. I’ve got my favorite pair of fuzzy slippers on and am nibbling a piece of toast with jam at the kitchen counter while marking papers. My pen raps staccato against the countertop as I wiggle the pen between my middle and ring fingers. It drives Jamie nuts when I do that, so I relish the opportunity to do it unfettered without bothering anyone. All of a sudden there’s a noise in the other room; the coffee table scrapes forward. Alarmed, I twist around in the stool just in time to see a small head of hair disappear under the dining room table. I stand up cautiously, and by the time I take a few steps to cross the kitchen, the scurrying has moved to behind the chair in the corner of the living room. 

I can’t quite get a look at it, and at first thought an animal of some sort had gotten in through the window. I have no idea what it would have been, since raccoons aren’t native to the U.K. and are the only things I can think of that could open the window latch. But it becomes very quickly evident that the small thing huddling behind the chair is actually a human child. A skinny pair of legs are visible through the chair legs, and as I creep closer, realize with startling clarity that the color and texture of the child’s hair is familiar. 

“Jamie?” I call out in what I hope is a calming tone. The child, who can’t be more than eight years old, freezes. Shit. She looks terrified. Heck, I’d be terrified if I suddenly found myself naked in a stranger’s house at any age, let alone as a little kid. Her head is raised just enough for a pair of eyes to peek out above her arms, which are crossed tightly around her knees, pulled to her chest. “Hi Jamie,” I say in my most calming, teacher-like voice. “It’s okay, I’m not going to hurt you. My name is Dani.” I’d been slowly approaching the living room but stop at the couch, trying to give the scared, small version of my beloved the safety of space. I’ve never seen Jamie younger than the day I met her in our present. I’m overcome by how delicate and precious a gift this moment is. 

Jamie still doesn’t move or say anything. I look around and spot a blanket resting on the back of the couch and pull it off, slowly edging it toward Jamie. Once I resume my position on the floor, a small hand reaches out from under the chair and quickly yanks the blanket. There’s a flutter of fabric, and when I look back up, the blanket is wrapped tightly around her, covering up everything below her neck. She peers curiously at me, trying to figure out if I’m in fact the friend I’m claiming to be or another adult who uses a veneer of kindness as a lure for more nefarious purposes. My heart squeezes painfully in my chest. My poor Jamie. “Oh!” I realize, startling her, “You must be hungry! Hang on, lemme grab you something, I’ll be right back.” A minute later I come back with a turkey sandwich that was going to be my lunch later, a bag of potato chips, and a can of Coke. 

“Here,” I say, leaving the plate and drink on the ground by the chair and settle myself a good five feet away on the floor by the coffee table. A minute goes by with me casually looking anywhere but the chair, as if I were lounging on a blanket in the park instead of in the familiar walls of my living room. Careful not to move or turn my head towards her, I can see Jamie out of the corner of my eye bite her lip as she stares at the food, debating silently with herself whether or not it’s worth the risk. Eventually there’s a shuffle, and she scooches out from the solace of the corner to reach the plate. Once she gets to it, all trepidation is forgotten in the pursuit of eating. She shoves the sandwich in her mouth and takes large, greedy bites, chewing with cheeks stuffed like a chipmunk. 

“Y’know,” I say, “I’m really good at guessing what people’s favorite foods are. I bet I could guess yours.” Jamie keeps eating, but finally looks up at me with something akin to childlike interest, wariness and fear gone for the first time, and my breath skips as her eyes meet mine. “Yeah? Okay, let’s see…” I make a show of thinking really hard even though I’m definitely cheating since I already know the answer. “Is it fish and chips?”

“Everyone likes fish and chips,” she says. Immediately her eyes open just wide enough to indicate surprise at her accidental outburst and she pulls back even more tightly into a ball, betrayed by her own engagement.

I make a humming sound. “You know what? You’re right. But I bet not everyone likes it with mayonnaise .” I grin conspiratorially like we’re in on the same secret. Which we kind of are, this Jamie just doesn’t know it yet. This time her jaw actually slackens. “It’s okay, your secret is safe with me.” I lean in and whisper, “That’s how I like it, too.”

“How’d you know that?” she whispers in awe.

“Toldja. I’m really good at guessing stuff like that. It’s kinda like my super power. I bet you have a super power too, huh.” Jamie hesitates, goes quiet again. “I bet I can guess what it is,” I say gently, like a consolation. She looks back up at me, trepidation and fear in her eyes. “It’s okay,” I say. “I promise I won’t tell anyone.” Jamie seems to shrink even further. How many promises has she heard that have already been broken? “I think you’re really strong. That’s your real super power. Being strong.”

A moment later, small and nearly inaudible: “I don’t feel very strong.” All I want to do is scoop Jamie into my arms and hold her until the world stops hurting her. Instead, I’m squeezing my thumb so tightly it hurts and trying hard not to cry. I get up, cross the apartment to the office and rummage around in my teaching supplies. Once I find what I’m looking for, I bring it back to the living room. Jamie’s still behind the chair, wrapped up tight in the blanket. Her eyes are trained on me as I approach and resume my previous position a few feet away. 

I hold out a small colored sheet of origami paper. It’s something I’d picked up teaching back in the States before moving here, having a box full of rainy day activities for the kids if recess was ever washed out - card games, simple crafts, things like that. Carefully I line up the edges of the paper, making crisp folds, deftly turning the paper between my fingers. 

Jamie watches enraptured, eyes hungry from behind the chair, following every motion. After a minute or two of folds and careful alignment, I tuck the two ends of the paper together into a smooth loop. I extend my hand and present the ring in my open palm. “Here,” I entreat, encouraging her to take it. She glances back and forth between my hand and face as she hesitates, weighing the decision. I released the breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding as her fingers finally reach past her little cocoon of safety and pick up the little paper ring. Once she does, I pull my hand back to my lap.

“It might not look like much, but it’s actually a pretty special ring. Y’see, this little guy has super powers, too. Whenever you don’t feel strong, just slide it on your finger and it helps you be brave. You can wear it right now if you want. It’s okay not to feel strong sometimes.”

“But what happens if I lose it?” 

“That’s the magic thing about it. If it ever disappears, you can make it reappear again. All you need is a piece of paper.” Jamie stares at it for a moment, holding it delicately, reverently before slipping it on her index finger. Even though it’s way too big, squeezes her fist around it. 

She’s only around for another minute or two before her face contorts in a strange grimace. I remember Jamie saying it would feel weird sometimes before she would travel back. “Have a safe trip back, Jamie,” I say, “I’m glad I got to meet a brave time traveler like you.”

“Promise you won’t tell anyone?” she asks in a small voice.

“I promise,” I say, but she’s already gone.


Monday, October 6, 1986 (Dani is 24)
DANI:

I’m in my classroom tidying up at the end of the day before going home when there’s a knock on the door. I turn to see Hannah, lingering on the threshold. “Hey!” I brighten. “What’re you doing here?”

“Just figured I’d pop in, say hello.” She fingers a spot on the back of her head but tries to hide the gesture behind nonchalance. She only does that when she’s nervous. “See how you were doing. Year Fours can be difficult sometimes.”

She knows my classroom, knows how I handle it. We decompress together daily in the teacher’s lounge at lunch. “What’s this about, Hannah,” I inquire in a cautious tone.

She presses her lips together and walks quickly over to my desk as if walking any slower would cause her to lose her courage. “I spent some time with Jamie the other day,” she says casually.

I frown. “Okay,” I say slowly, drawing the word out as a question.

“It was a bit of a...peculiar situation, I have to admit.”

Ah. I see where this is going. I nod patiently, pressing my lips together, leaving room for Hannah to share. “At first I thought she was in some sort of trouble, but then it became quite clear that the person she was dealing with was the one in danger. From Jamie. Who was barefoot and wearing only what looked like an old rain coat and was beating the poor man like he was an inanimate object. Almost scientific. She j ust...considered where to land it for maximum effect.” Ah. One of those trips, then. Must’ve landed somewhere unfortunate and come across someone even more so.

“Mhm,” I acknowledge, waiting for Hannah to go on, who seems concerned at my lack of a more alarmed response.

“And then we spent the next fifteen minutes searching through an alleyway for a box full of snacks, money, and a completely different set of clothing all encased in a garbage bag. And I thought to myself, ‘Well this certainly seems suspicious, but surely there must be a good reason for it.’ Then she promised to explain it all over some fish and chips takeaway. Which she then proceeded to do, amidst the most atrocious table manners I think I’ve ever seen.” I bite back a smile, imagining how ravenous Jamie must have been. “And she told me the most unbelievable story. Literally unbelievable. Thought she was having a bit of a laugh, pulling my leg about the whole thing.”

I want to pull her hand into my own and hold it. Instead I squeeze my thumbs in my fist and give her space to continue, looking as sympathetic as I possibly can. 

“But then she stood up looking ill and begged me to follow her to the toilet. I assumed it was because of how quickly she’d gobbled down her fish and chips, but before I knew what was happening, she gripped my hand, stumbled into a stall, and just -- vanished . Just as I was standing there, and I just….had to believe.”

“The disappearing is pretty impressive. I remember that from the very first time I saw her . She was shaking my hand, and poof! She was gone.”

“I don’t think it should be possible,” Hannah says, shaking her head. “But...one moment she was there, gripping my hand, and the next I was simply holding an empty set of clothes.”

“Oh, you should probably give me those, actually. I’ll put them back in the box.”

“Dani,” she reaches out to grab my hand, holding onto it tightly and looking at me with such a worried intensity, I can’t help but be concerned even though I know there’s no reason to be. “How long have you known?”

“My whole life, really. Since I was six.”

It hurts, the amount of love directed at me through Hannah’s crumpled expression.

“Are you sure it’s a good idea to be with her, Dani?”

I know it’s out of good, Christian concern that she asks. That she’s worried for me, for my heart. Still, I can’t help from bristling a bit at the question. “Well I’m pretty sure the government doesn’t think so.”

“You know what I mean,” Hannah says, a little chastised.

I sit very still, looking at my hands quietly clasped in my lap, trying to think of how to explain it all to her. I look up. Hannah regards me anxiously. “I love her . I’ve been waiting for her, my whole life, and now, she’s here.” I still don’t know how to explain. “With Jamie, I can see everything laid out, like a map, past and future, everything at once…” I shake my head. I can’t put it into words. “I reach into her and touch time... she loves me. We’re together because...we’re part of each other.” I falter. “It’s happened already. All at once.” I peer at Hannah to see if I’ve made any sense. 

"Dani. I like her, very much. I just don’t want you getting hurt.”

“She wouldn’t. Jamie would never.”

"Oh, sweetheart,” Hannah says sadly, “She doesn’t have a choice in the matter.”

“I’ve seen my future; I can’t change it, and I wouldn't if I could.”

Hannah looks thoughtful. “ She wouldn’t tell me anything about my future.”

"Jamie cares about you; she wouldn’t do that to you.”

"She did it to you,” Hannah points out.

“It couldn’t be helped, really; our lives are all tangled together. My whole childhood was different because of her, and there was nothing she could do. She did the best she could.” I hear some kids sprinting down the hall, shoes slapping on the linoleum as they run. 

"Oh Dani, don’t be cross -- I’m just trying to help.”

I smile at her. “ You can help us. You’ll see.”

Later I’m home and take a bath. In the bathroom I run hot water, peel off my clothes, and sink down into the tub . Jamie loves me. Jamie is here, finally, now, finally. And I love her. I idly trail my fingers in the water. Why does everything have to be complicated? Isn’t the complicated part behind us now? I submerge my hair, watch it float around me, net-like. I never chose Jamie, and she never chose me. So how could it be a mistake? Again I’m faced with the fact that we’ll never know. I lie in the tub until the water is almost cool. My fingers are all pruny. Eventually I get out and as I wrap my hair in a towel I see myself blurred in the mirror by steam and time seems to fold over onto itself and I see myself as a layering of all my previous days and years and all the time that is coming and suddenly I feel as though I’ve become invisible. But then the feeling is gone as fast as it came and I stand still for a minute and then I pull on my bathrobe and open the door and go on.


Wednesday, October 22, 1986 (Jamie is 26 and 31) 
JAMIE:

At 3:25 a.m. the doorbell rings, always an evil omen. 5:25 wouldn’t’ve been so bad, I’m usually up with the sun anyway, but Christ, 3 a.m. really takes it out of you. I stagger to the intercom and push the button.  “Yeah?”

“Hey. Let me in.” I press the button again and the horrible buzzing noise that unlocks the door downstairs is transmitted over the line. Forty-five seconds later, I stumble out and stand in the hall. Footsteps echo up the staircase and sure enough, it’s me.  

She steps into the corridor, naked. We quickly cross the empty hall and duck into the flat. I close the door and we stand for a moment looking ourselves over.

“Well,” I say, just for something to say, “How goes it, then?”

“So-so. What’s the date?”

“October 22, 1986.”

“No Dani tonight?”

“School night. Sunday. Well, Monday now, I s’pose.”

“Right, right. Pain in the arse, those are.” She walks over to the bed - my bed - and climbs in, pulls the covers over her head. I plop down beside her. 

“Oi.” No response. “When are you from?”

“November 13, 1991. I was on my way to bed. So let me get some sleep, or you will be sincerely sorry in five years.”

This seems reasonable enough. I take off my robe and get back into bed. Problem is, now I’m on the wrong side of the bed, Dani’s side, as I think of it these days, because my doppelganger has commandeered my side. Everything is just a little bit different on this side of the bed. It’s like when you close one eye and look at something close up for a while, and then look at it from the other eye. I lie there doing this, looking at the armchair with my clothes scattered all over it, the pothos on the bookshelf with it’s vines dangling toward the floor, the back of my left hand. My nails need cutting, a spot of dirt is stubbornly clinging to a cuticle, and the flat is due for a bit of mopping. I run over the contents of the refrigerator and pantry and conclude that we’re pretty well stocked. I was planning to bring Dani home after work but I’m not sure what to do with my superfluous body.     I ponder my double. She’s curled up, facing away from me, evidently asleep. I envy her. She is me, but I’m still not yet her. She’s been through five years of a life that’s still a mystery to me, coiled tightly, a seed waiting to burst through the soil. I’m getting there, slowly, in my own time. But it’s hard not to bristle when a physical manifestation of it literally comes walking through my door.

It’s 4:30 a.m. and it’s obvious that I’m not going back to sleep. Not much point it in, to be honest, even if I could. I get out of bed, pull on underwear and sweatpants and stretch out. Lately my knees have been sore, so I wrap supports on them. Spending my waking hours kneeling on the ground probably doesn’t help, but not much to be done for that. I pull on socks and lace up my running shoes. I should have asked myself what the weather was like out there. Oh, well. I pull on my black Blondie t-shirt and a heavy orange sweatshirt. Grab my keys, and out I go, into the day. 

It’s not a bad day, far as late autumn days go. It’s still plenty dark out, but the birds are starting to wake up, low chittering from the trees. I lace my keys onto my shoe and decide to run along the main road. No one’s up at this hour and a pleasant quiet makes everything feel still. I start jogging on the sidewalk, heading north. I’m moving stiffly, so run a little slower than usual, warming up, reminding my poor knees and ankles that their life’s work is to carry me far and fast on demand. I can feel the cool dry air in my lungs, my heart serenely pounding, and as I reach North Street I’m feeling good and start to speed up. Running is many things to me: survival, calmness, euphoria, solitude. It’s proof of my corporeal existence, my ability to control my movements through space if not time, and the obedience, however temporary, of my body to my will. It’s different than gardening, which grounds me, quite literally. It helped me put roots down, in myself and this place. Helped me make peace with the world around me. But it’s a still sort of activity, one that requires hard work, of course, and sweat. But running moves my blood, makes my lungs fill to near bursting. Makes me feel alive in a completely different way. Gardening is about connection, running is about control. It’s all I have, really, no matter where or when I am. As I run I displace air, and things come and go around me, and the path moves like a filmstrip beneath my feet. I’m flying, now, that golden feeling, as if I could run right into the air, and I’m invincible, nothing can stop me, nothing, nothing, nothing --


Monday, January 5, 1987 (Dani is 24, Jamie is 26)
DANI:

It’s early morning just after New Years’ and Jamie and I are on our way to Hannah’s. It’s a beautiful clear day. Jamie didn’t run this morning; I’ve noticed that Jamie needs an incredible amount of physical activity to maintain her happiness and equilibrium. It’s like being with a greyhound. Not that I’m complaining. She finds plenty of ways to keep herself physically spent and most of them involve one or both of us naked, panting, and heart racing in ways that have nothing to do with jogging.

It’s different, being with Jamie in real time. When I was growing up Jamie came and went, and our encounters were concentrated and fervent . Jamie had a lot of stuff she wasn’t going to tell me, and most of the time she wouldn’t let me get anywhere near her, so I always had this intense, unsatisfied feeling. When I finally found her in the present, I thought it would be like that. But in fact, it’s so much better, in so many ways. First and foremost, instead of refusing to touch me at all, Jamie is constantly touching me, kissing me, fucking me. I feel as though I’ve become a different person, one who’s bathed in a warm pool of desire. We have to do a lot of laundry because of it. And she tells me things! Things that seemed utterly mysterious to me as a child are revealed as perfectly logical. LIke the fact that the bushes out by the Meadow grew so well over the years, tended to by Jamie, who then taught me what to look for in order to encourage thick growth and maximum privacy. Of course she did, because Jamie’s a gardener. But the best thing of all is that I see her for long stretches of time -- hours, days. I know where to find her. She goes to work, she comes home. Sometimes I open my address book just to look at the entry: Jamie Taylor, 7 Market St, Bly, CB10 1HR, United Kingdom. A last name, an address, a phone number. I can call her on the phone. It’s a miracle. I feel like Dorothy, when her house crash-landed in Oz and the world turned from black and white to color. We’re not in Kansas anymore. Or Iowa. 

Iowa. It’s not true to say I miss home entirely, but I do miss the few people that felt like home. I wonder where Eddie is now, what he’s doing. We last talked at Christmas, when he was back at his parents’ house and spent a half hour passing the phone from family member to family member until I’d spoken to all the O’Maras and Eddie laughed, saying, “I guess there’s nothing else left to say now that everyone’s already given you all the updates for me.” Jamie had shouted her usual, “Oi, Ex-Boyfriend!” greeting from across the room and I tossed her the phone to give them a few minutes to catch up.

I reach over  and grab her hand, threading our fingers together. She looks over, a contentedly satisfied smile creeping over her face. She’s come so far, since that first week. She’s finally here. I’m here. We’re here.

Chapter Text

Chapter 9: I Hate Accidents

Listen:

Reader: foomatic

Length: 45:26


Sunday, August 2, 1987 (Jamie is 27, Dani is 25)
DANI:

It’s a humid sticky hot Sunday afternoon, and Jamie, Hannah, Owen and I are enjoying the day at Chalkwell Beach. We spent the morning out on the sand roasting ourselves. Owen wanted to be buried in the sand, so Jamie and I obliged while Hannah looked on with as close to a disapproving look as possible given the adoration that crinkled around her eyes. We ate our picnic, and napped. Now we’re walking down the shady side of the street next to the beach, licking popsicles, groggy with sun.

“Dani, your hair is full of sand,” says Jamie. I stop and lean over and beat my hair like a carpet with my hand. A whole beach falls out of it. Jamie laughs. 

“My ears are full of sand. And my unmentionables,” Owen says. 

“Pretty sure calling them ‘unmentionables’ counts as mentioning them,” Jamie remarks with a lick to her popsicle that makes me flush despite the already warm weather. “You alright there?”

“Yeah,” I say quickly, “Just the sun.” The corner of Jamie’s mouth quirks up knowingly, and she winks as she takes a long, slow slurp. 

“Perhaps a dip in the ocean would cool you off,” Hannah says a bit too politely with a pinched smile and the teasing stops, duly chastened, but we can’t stop smiling. A small breeze blows up and we hold our bodies out to it. I coil my hair onto the top of my head and immediately feel better.

“Nah,” Owen says, oblivious. “Just finished drying off, and I’m not too keen about getting even more sand in places I’ll never be able to get it out of.”

Suddenly Jamie shoots her hand out, rapidly tapping my arm as she focuses on a spot a few shops ahead. “Oh, no,” I say.

“Yes! Yes.” 

“-We’re going.” “-We’re not going,” we say in unison. 

“Where are we-going-not-going?” inquires Hannah. Owen’s eyes light up when he spots what Jamie’s focused on and immediately the two start walking towards it. “An arcade, really? What are we, children?” 

“They sure seem like it,” I laugh, watching Owen and Jamie race towards the arcade like two kids hopped up on too much sugar. By the time we catch up to them, they’re already eagerly tossing Skee-balls up the ramp as fast as possible. Jamie looks so unfettered and happy. My heart swells. A curl of hair has fallen out of her bun and I want to touch her, run my hands through her hair, but I settle for loving her from a distance and continue with Hannah to the bar.

JAMIE:

Owen’s beaten me three times and I’m trying not to be too much of a baby about it, but I’ve got a wee competitive streak, it turns out. He’s off playing some racing game which couldn’t interest me less, so I go off wandering in search of Dani. After looping around the place I spot Hannah nursing a drink lounging in a chair in her floppy hat and sunglasses looking like a picturesque goddess. She looks relaxed, sitting cross-legged with one hand dangling loosely off the armrest. I flop into the seat next to her, dramatically sprawling my limbs out. 

“He keeps winning, doesn’t he?” Hannah says.

“Yeah. S’irritating.”

“Yes, he does that.” She takes a long sip of her drink. I laugh.

“Where’s Dani?” I ask. Hannah points to an area to the left of the snack bar half in shadow. 

“Lost her to it about twenty minutes ago, I’m afraid.” I get up and follow, thanking Hannah for the tip with a nod. Dani’s standing in a row of large pinball machines. She has her head bent over an old beaten up cabinet of Fireball Classic. It looks like it’s seen better days. One of the legs looks to be held together with duct tape and another has a sliver of wood shimmied under it to help stabilize it against wobbling, none of which detracts from Dani’s razor sharp concentration. Her score is ridiculously high and the tip of her tongue pokes out from her lips in rapt focus. Her hair is trying to escape from the coil on her head, and one strap of her sundress is hanging off her shoulder, exposing a bit of her bathing suit. Dunno why, but something about this strikes me as so poignant, so powerful, that I urgently need to walk over to her, touch her, possibly, if no one is looking, but at the same time I don’t want this moment to end. I stand there observing for a few minutes as Dani’s fingers deftly press the flipper buttons, encouraging the pinball to fly through the playfield again and again, racking up more points as it ricochets off the bumpers, out of the kick-out holes and down ramps at lightning speed. It’s only after a ball falls through the flippers into the bank that she curses under her breath, smacking the glass top in frustration, that she notices me for the first time. She looks almost sheepish, as if she’s been caught red-handed. “How long have you been, uh, standin’ there?”

“Long enough.”

She notices my stupefied expression and squirms a little self-consciously. “Turns out I, um, like pinball?”

“Like it? Jesus, Dani, how long’ve you been a secret Pinball Wizard?”

She shrugs, a little embarrassed, mumbles, “I used to play a lot, back home, when the other girls were, y’know…” I’m practically bent over, trying to meet her eyes. Wish I didn’t find her discomfort so endearing. I raise my brow waiting for an answer. “You know,” she says more forcefully, waving her hand, “dating.”

I can’t help a laugh from escaping and at her pout, I gather her into my arms. “Oh, baby,” I say, cradling the back of her head, “C’mere.” The pinball area is in an unpopulated part of the arcade, and I risk a quick kiss to her temple. The hug lasts far too short, but I don’t want to push our luck, and as we pull away, I quickly swoop in to tuck a stray lock of hair behind her ear. I straighten the fallen dress strap, and we walk back to Hannah, who now has a giant teddy bear in her lap and a very proud Owen in the chair next to her.


Friday, March 23/Tuesday, May 15, 1984 (Jamie is 23)
JAMIE:

I’ve landed naked in the alley behind the cafe again. It’s familiar territory, at this point, the back of the building in which I live. That’s the ‘where’ taken care of; one question left is ‘when’. It’s plenty warm out, thank god, because the only thing that makes time travel even less of a fun time is ending up somewhere and freezing my bloody tits off. 

First thing I do is check the English Ivy. I planted it not long after moving in, not just because it looked nice, having something green and alive back here, but I’ve found that plants are incredibly helpful calendars. Seeing how much they’ve grown or not grown helps orient me as little markers of time. This one’s not much further from where it was when I saw it recently, so I’m guessing this trip is a short jump. The other lucky thing about landing somewhere familiar is that hopefully the little emergency kit I squirrel away for myself is still here. It’s They’re chock full of all the essentials a time traveler could want: clothes, money, food. It’s not much, usually just some candy bars, crisps, or packs of nuts - things that keep - but it’s loads better than having nothing but a growling stomach. Time travel does a number on the system. Sometimes I land ravenously hungry. Others, though, the thought of putting anything in my system sends nausea roiling. 

I’m digging around the alley looking for the box when a rear service door squeaks open and, panicked, I jump into the dumpster and hide. It’s the baker, clad in an apron and a streak of flour on his cheek. My heart is pounding, and I pray to all the useless gods above (and a few down below) that he turns back around and heads inside. No such fucking luck as, of course, as he’s there to take out the rubbish. Just as he’s mid-swing, the black garbage bag halfway through its graceful arc into the dumpster, he sees my head poking out from the bin. It’s not a very dignified sound that comes out of him, more like a strangled squeal that sends him staggering back clutching his chest. “Hey! Hey,” I say, jumping out, holding the lid to a nearby rubbish bin in front of me like a shield, trying to cover up my lady bits, one arm outstretched in what I hope is a calming gesture. No sense in trying to hide now. He’s just seen a naked woman in the bin. Not a chance in hell I can shake this off as anything close to normal. Can’t run either, since I live upstairs and start practically every morning in his place of business. Nothing to do but lean into it. “S’alright,” I say, trying desperately to calm him down. 

“Y-y--” he stammers,“What are you doing in there?” He abruptly moves from staring intently at me to instead looking anywhere but me once he registers my clothes-less state. “Are you all right?”

“Yeah,” I say as nonchalantly as possible, as if he’d asked me if I wanted a refill on a cup of coffee. My eyes dart from him to sneaking quick glances to where the emergency box should be. Where the hell is that bloody thing? Who’d notice it out here? “No chance you could, uuh, pretend you never saw me out here?”   

His eyes narrow in concern. “Are you in trouble?” He asks, looking around the alley suspiciously, “Is someone trying to hurt you?” he follows in a near-whisper, as if the perpetrator is lingering nearby.

Ah, fuck. He’s a good one. Why’d it have to be a good one and not some asshole I could just pummel and never see again? This is going to make my life a lot less boring than I like it to be. “No, unfortunately, just my own fucked up genes.”

“Beg your pardon?”

I cringe. “Ah, listen, mate,” I say in a conciliatory tone ready to let the poor man down, “This is going to sound absolutely mental but, you’ve caught me in a wee bout of time travel.”

“Beg your pardon?” 

I sigh. This is why I try to avoid people. They’re messy, unpredictable creatures. Rarely worth the effort. Easier just to shun them entirely. I like certain ones, but I also like my life the way it is. Safe. After a lifetime of bad luck, bad choices, and bad consequences, I’ve finally found some firm, quiet, steady ground here. And I don’t want to lose it. You get too comfortable, start to build roots, and forget that one small yank can pull you out of the ground altogether. “Nevermind, just...forget it. Reckon I’ll be gone soon, anyway,” I say, resigned, not just talking about returning to my own time.   

“No, don’t...don’t go,” he says quickly as if I might run away at any moment, which if I’m being honest, isn’t too far off from happening. “Listen, why don’t you come in, have a cuppa, maybe a biscuit or two, and we can talk about...whatever it is that had you out here like this, okay?”

I run through the risks in my head, doing quick survival math. He doesn’t know much about me, only my beverage and pastry order, so worst case scenario if I end up moving on to another town, there won’t be much of a trail to follow me. “A’right,” I relent, still hesitant. As I step forward, he takes off his apron and hands it to me. I take it gratefully, tying it around myself. He’s still looking around the alley like the bogeyman is about to pop out at any moment. Just as I hit the threshold to the cafe door, I spot the emergency box wedged under a storage crate behind the dumpster. “There you are,” I grumble and grab it, clutching it to my chest protectively. None of this endears me as a sane person to the poor baker, who continues to look befuddled but is kind enough to wait for answers. 

“Owen,” he says, once we’re inside, holding out his hand. His eyes are like warm chocolate behind gold-framed glasses and he smiles behind an overgrown, bushy mustache. 

I take a deep breath. “Jamie,” I say, and shake back.


Saturday, September 24, 1988 (Dani is 26, Jamie is 28)
JAMIE:

It’s a perfectly normal Saturday. We’re lounging about the flat still in pajamas after a lazy morning in bed when Dani goes to the kitchen, flicks on the kettle to make herself a cup of tea, and asks if I want one too. There’s absolutely nothing of significance to the moment, a terribly mundane, boring thing, but maybe that’s exactly what does it: the banality of it all. Dani makes tea like it’s second nature to her now, and it hits me, all at once. That this American, who left everything and moved across the ocean just to find me, who couldn’t make a cup of tea to save her life just a few short years ago, has done so much - has done everything - to fit her life, her self into me. I sit there gobsmacked for a minute while Dani flits about the kitchen making a cuppa like it’s nothing. Like it isn’t absolutely everything.

She spins around, humming happily to herself, socks making a smooth pirouette on the wooden floors, kettle in hand. My face must have a slightly stunned look to it, because her face falls when she notices. “Jamie?” she asks with an edge of concern.

“Hang on,” I manage to say, reaching across the far side of the counter where some of Dani’s school materials are neatly piled up from when she was working on them earlier. I’m sure there’s nicer material in the cabinet full of stuff Dani’s got by her desk, but I don’t have the patience to rifle through it to find the perfect thing. I’ve already got the perfect thing, and it’s standing, baffled and slightly worried, across the counter from me. I grab Dani’s notebook and tear out a blank sheet. It strikes me, suddenly, what I’m about to do. From the moment I learned on our first date that this moment would happen - that one day I’d ask her to marry me, as much as Dani had known it for a decade prior - this is inevitable. 

I find myself shaking. Not from nerves; the one thing in my life that I’ve ever been certain about is Dani. Even without the benefit of precognition, I’d know she’d say yes. Instead, it’s the weight of it all; that this much love can fit inside one person. That somehow, despite whatever I am, I’m here. I’m still here, with her. I’m not asking her to marry me, not really. Because somewhere, some time, we already are. Have always been. Will always be. 

“I had this dream, once, as a kid,” I say, sliding the piece of paper in front of me on the island. So much about those years was an agonizing vulnerability. Of bouncing from home to home. Of one adult after another making promises that toppled like dominos and left me bruised and wounded in the wake of their consequences. Dani has abandoned tea-making and watches me as, hands trembling, I make a fold, pinching and sliding against the edge with my nail to make a sharp crease, dab the edge with my tongue like licking an envelope to create enough moisture to weaken the paper and tear off a small strip off the bottom of the page. The motion is familiar and soothing. I let it ground me.  

“Dunno where I was, don’t remember much of anything about it, to be honest. But there was someone there, and it felt safe. Details are hazy, but…” Dani’s brow furrows as I flip the paper and make practiced folds, turning it around deftly as I work. I tuck the two ends together into a smooth loop, feeling more confident with the shape of it under my fingers. “I remembered this,” I say, holding the finished paper ring, “remembered how it made me feel safe. Learned how to make it, eventually. Would make ‘em all the time. Was less about what it was and more about what it meant. Whenever I felt scared, or helpless, I would grab a piece of paper, fold it into a ring, remembering that dream and what it felt like to be safe. Was all I had, really, until plants. I chased that feeling for a long time. Chased it in all the wrong places until, eventually, it brought me to you.

I know we can’t technically get married, but-” I take the paper ring, the little lifeline that carried me here - to Dani - and leave it between us on the countertop. I trail off, leaving the question unasked because there is no question, really. Only a constant. Only Dani. Who stands there, staring at the ring on the counter, and doesn’t say anything for a really long time.


DANI:

I must not be saying anything for a really long time because Jamie’s face slowly collapses under my silence. “Who proposes with a paper ring,” I hear her mutter, just barely, under the ringing in my ears. “Knew I should’ve gotten a real one.” She reaches forward and scoops back the ring, making a fist as if she’s about to crumple it up. It’s that gesture more than anything that finally jolts me out of my stupor. 

“No!” I shout and quickly grab her wrist, fumbling for the ring before she can ruin it. I have to make her understand. I remember the notebook, lying where Jamie left it and hastily tear out a sheet of my own. Her eyes, vulnerable and quiet, burn a hole into me as they watch me making nimble folds and tucks. Jamie’s concern melting into puzzled curiosity as an identical paper ring quickly comes to view. Too quickly, for anyone to learn just from seeing it done once.

Jamie’s jaw opens soundlessly as the wheels in her brain turn wildly. “How….how did you know how to do that?”

“It wasn’t a dream, Jamie.”

“But…” I’ve spent my whole life waiting for Jamie and that isn’t about to stop now. This time, maybe, I can bring her home.

“It was a Monday, about two years ago. You were seven, maybe? Eight? You wouldn’t talk, let alone make eye contact. And you were so...scared, Jamie, so tight and terrified. I brought you a sandwich and told you I knew what your favorite food was, but you didn’t believe me until I said-”

“-Mayonnaise,” Jamie finishes in breathy astonishment, it all coming back to her with startling clarity.

“Here’s the thing,” I start, “You’re my best friend. And you’ve always been the love of my life. I want to spend every last moment - wherever or whenever they are - with you.” It’s Jamie’s turn to stand flabbergasted as I uncurl her hand and place my paper ring in her palm. She’s trembling. “This is enough for me, if it’s enough for you.”

A choked noise comes out of her when understanding finally dawns. “Why didn’t you ever tell me?” she asks, eyes shining with tears. 

I blink, and as tears fall down my cheek, find I’ve been crying along with her. “I promised a little girl I wouldn’t.” She barks out a strange laugh, cups my cheeks, and pulls me up into an ardent, sloppy half kiss, punctuated by the most brilliant smile that would put angels to shame. She’s luminous. We stand there in the kitchen, kissing and laughing and crying into each other, the past, present, and future all blurring together in beautiful, messy watercolor.


Wednesday, October 19, 1988 (Dani is 26, Jamie is 28)
DANI:

We decide to move in together. At first we live in a two-bedroom apartment. It’s sunny, with butter-colored hardwood floors and a kitchen full of antique cabinets and antiquated appliances. We buy things, spend Sunday afternoons picking which furniture from our old homes we want to bring into a new house together. The apartment is a laboratory where we conduct experiments, perform research on each other. We discover that Jamie hates it when I absentmindedly click my spoon against my teeth while reading at breakfast. We agree that it’s okay for me to listen to Joni Mitchell and it’s okay for Jamie to listen to The Clash as long as the other person isn’t around. We figure out that Jamie should do the cooking and I should be in charge of laundry. 

We fall into a routine. Jamie works Tuesdays through Saturdays at the Gardens. She gets up at 5:30 and starts the coffee for me, then goes for a run. When she gets back she showers and dresses, and I stagger out of bed and chat with her while she fixes breakfast. After we eat, she speeds out the door and I get ready for work. The apartment is quiet. I pour myself another cup of coffee and take it with me. Jamie usually gets home before me, and I often come home to find her either curled up on the couch with a book or working some magic behind the counter in the kitchen. Then we spend the rest of the night talking about our days - Jamie giving updates of the various growths and overheard conversations of guests wandering past where she’s weeding or landscaping, me sharing the latest classroom adventures or parent drama - eating dinner, perhaps a walk afterwards, and decorating every surface of the apartment in sex. 

Our perfect, boring, wonderful life together is punctuated by Jamie’s small absences. Sometimes she disappears unobtrusively; I might be walking from the kitchen into the hall and find a pile of clothing on the floor. I might get out of bed in the morning and find the shower running and no one in it. Sometimes it’s scary. I’m working one afternoon when I hear someone moaning outside the door; when I open it I find Jamie on her hands and knees, naked, in the hall, bleeding heavily from her head. She opens her eyes, sees me, and vanishes. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and Jamie is gone. In the morning she’ll tell me where she’s been, the way other wives might tell their spouses a dream they had: “I was in a train station in Manchester at night in 1979.” Or: “I was chased by a German Shepherd across someone’s yard and I had to climb a tree.” Or “I was standing in the rain near my parents’ flat in 1958 listening to them dance.” I am waiting for Jamie to tell me she’s seen me as a kid, but so far this hasn’t happened. When I was little I looked forward to seeing Jamie. Every visit was an event. Now every absence is a nonevent, a subtraction, an adventure I’ll hear about when my adventurer materializes at my feet, bleeding or whistling, smiling or shaking. Now I’m even more afraid when she’s gone.

JAMIE:

When you live with someone you learn something every day. So far I’ve learned that two people with long hair will clog up the shower drain before you can say ‘Liquid-Plumr”; that it is not advisable to clip something out of the newspaper before Dani’s read it, even if the newspaper in question is a week old; that I can eat the same thing for dinner three nights in a row without pouting but she can do it for twice as long; and that headphones were invented to preserve couples from each other’s musical excesses. The hardest lesson is Dani’s solitude. Sometimes I come home and Dani seems kind of irritated; I’ve interrupted some train of thought, broken into the silence of her day. Sometimes I see an expression on Dani’s face that’s like a closed door. She’s gone inside the room of her mind and is sitting there. I’ve discovered that Dani likes to be alone sometimes. But when I return from time traveling she’s always relieved to see me. 

I’ve always had plants, since as long as I had a place to call my own. One that was nothing but mine - free of the drama, of the drugs, the parasites and paranoia - when I was alone and trying to make better choices, structuring a routine for the first time out of nothing. Scrapings and buds lined window sills as they grew, delicate and fragile from nothing; like how I was desperately trying to. Cultivated and nursed them over the years into the vines and overflowing planters that they are now. Feels good, to measure growth in something you can see and touch. Now, though, when there’s more of myself for someone to miss, it’s all I can do to leave something of myself for Dani to have when I’m gone. It takes a toll, I know, and living with the aftermath and getting cut on its shrapnel is different than seeing a wound once it’s healed. So I collect more plants, desperate for them to give Dani the air she needs to fill her lungs when I’m not there to breathe life into them; when I’m out there somewhere, lost in time. I want to give her something permanent, among my impermanence. And eventually, I know what I want to do.


Thursday, March 2, 1989 (Dani is 26, Jamie is 28)
DANI:

I hear Jamie’s key in the front door and I turn my head as she walks in. To my surprise she walks right over to the TV and turns it on. She never turns on the TV because Jamie can’t watch TV.

“Hi, honey, I’m home,” says Jamie as she grabs the remote from the dining room table before flopping next to me on the couch and presses a wet kiss to my cheek. 

“Not that I’m not happy to see you, but y’mind telling me what’s going on?”

“There’s a program on tonight that I thought we should watch.”

“But-” I can’t imagine what show would make Jamie risk time traveling. 

“It’s okay. I won’t sit and stare at it. I want you to see this.”

“What is it?” I can’t help but wonder. 

"It’s a surprise. It’s on at eight.” We eat dinner, like normal. Jamie refuses to answer any questions about it. We clean up and while she washes, I dry and put the dishes back as we go. “Oh, hey, it’s almost eight. Grab your drink, let’s go sit.” Jamie pushes back her chair and I carry both our cups into the living room. She messes around with the remote, unfamiliar with where the buttons are, but manages to move through the channels after a bit of poking around. We sit on the couch watching a waterbed commercial on Channel 9. The logo for the National Lottery flashes on the screen. Jamie dips into her pants pocket and hands me a small white piece of paper. “Hold this.” It’s a lottery ticket.

“Oh my god. You didn’t-”

“Shh. Watch.” With great fanfare, the Lottery officials announce the numbers on randomly chosen ping pong balls that pop one by one into position on the screen. 18, 36, 72, 54, 90, 1. Of course they match the numbers on the ticket in my hand. The Lottery people congratulate us. We have just won a million pounds. 

Jamie clicks off the TV. She smiles. “Neat trick, innit?”

“I don’t know what to say,” Jamie realizes that I’m not jumping for joy.

“Say, ‘Thank you, Jamie, for providing the funds we need to buy a house.’ That would work.”

“But -- Jamie -- it’s not real.”

“Sure it is. That’s a real lottery ticket. If you take it to the shop, Horace will give you a big hug and the government will write you a real check.”

“But you knew.”

“Sure. Of course. It was just a matter of looking it up in tomorrow’s paper.”

“We can’t...it’s cheating.”

 Jamie smacks herself dramatically on the forehead. “How silly of me. I completely forgot that you’re supposed to buy tickets without having the slightest idea of what the numbers will be. Well, we can fix it.” She disappears down the hall and returns with a box of matches. She lights a match and holds the ticket up to it. 

“No!”

Jamie blows out the match. “It doesn’t matter, Dani. We could win the lottery every week for the next year if we felt like it. So if you have a problem with it, it’s no problem, yeah?” The ticket is a little singed on one corner. Jamie sits next to me on the couch. “Tell you what. Why don’t you just hang onto this, and if you feel like cashing it in we will, and if you decide to give it to the church down the street you could do that too-”

“No fair.”

“What’s no fair?”

“You can’t just leave me with this huge responsibility.”

"I’m perfectly happy either way. So if you think we’re cheating the government out of the money they’ve cheated out of hard-working sods, then just forget about  it. I’m sure we can think of some other way to get a house other than saving for the next thirty years on a landscaper and teacher’s salary with no tax benefits.”

Oh. It dawns on me, stupid me, that Jamie could win the lottery anytime at all; that she’s never bothered to do so because it’s not normal; that she has decided to set aside her fanatical dedication to living like a normal person so we can have a house; that I’m being an ingrate.

“Dani? You there, Dani…?”

“Thank you,” I say, too abruptly.

Jamie raises her eyebrows. “Does that mean we’re going to hand in that ticket?”

“I don’t know yet. It means ‘Thank you’.”

“Oh. Well, you’re welcome.” There’s an uncomfortable silence. “I wonder what else is on TV.” Jamie laughs, stands up, and pulls me off the couch. “Come on, let’s go spend some of our ill-gotten gains.”

“Where are we going?” I laugh.

“Dunno.” Jamie opens the hall closet, hands me my jacket. “Hey, let’s buy Owen and Hannah that fancy imported cheese they like. And maybe some of that wine we had at their house last month, remember that one?” Outside, it’s a brisk spring night. We stand on the sidewalk in front of our apartment building, and Jamie takes my hand. I stare at her, shocked. “It’s late enough. Not many people out. Besides,” she shrugs, “Can’t bring myself to care much right now.” I raise our joined hands and kiss her knuckles, flooded with love. Jamie twirls me around and soon we’re dancing down the avenue, no music but the sound of our own laughter, and the smell of spring blossoms that fall like snow on the sidewalk as we dance beneath the trees.

Chapter Text

Chapter 10: Nuptials

Listen:

Reader: foomatic

Length: 39:53


Saturday, August 26th, 1989 (Dani is 27, Jamie is 29)
11:30 a.m.
DANI:

“And you thought this was going to be a bad idea.”

“Still do, really,” Jamie mutters, fidgeting in her suit. “Can’t see how I’m gonna make it through today in one piece.”

I grab Jamie’s shoulders and gently pivot her toward me. Her tie is crooked. She looks nervous. I adjust the tie and smooth my hands down her arms, pulling her hands up to press a gentle kiss to the backs of her knuckles. “You look great.”

“I feel like a dressed-up monkey,” she grumbles. “And s’not fair. I’m happy for them. Truly, over-the-bloody-moon happy, thrilled they finally stopped dancing around each other, but...God, Dani. It isn’t fair.”

“I know.” And I do. When I was little, it was me complaining about how little things had changed for people like us in the future. The future where we are, now. The one I’ve finally started catching up to. Jamie was always the one reassuring me and it’s strange to see our roles reversed like this. “I know,” I say, cupping her face and pressing a soft kiss to her lips. We stand for a beat, holding each other and swaying, wallowing in the unfairness of it all, before Jamie pulls back with a sigh. 

“Right, then.” She clears her throat and pulls on her lapels . “S’enough of that. Can’t get too sentimental before the wedding even starts, can we?”

“Pretty sure I’ll always be sentimental with you,” I admit, softly. 

“Miss Clayton,” she says, “You flirt.” Pretty sure I’ll also never get tired of the lazy grin that pulls on her lips. “See you on the other side of the aisle.” She winks, gives her lapels a snap, and heads to the chapel. Time to take my own position. My heels echo in the hall as I make my way to the bridal suite. It’s less of a suite and more an overly generous name for a room in the office wing with a couch, table and chairs, vanity, and its own bathroom, but it does the trick, I suppose. There’s a flurry of people hurrying through the halls - caterers, the florist, family members - all abuzz with nervous excitement. I close the door behind me, and gasp. 

“Hannah,” I breathe, “You look beautiful.”

She’s in front of the mirror, final makeup touches being applied, and spins around at my voice, her dress twirling magnificently. Her eyes light up. “Dani! You’re here!”

“Of course I’m here,” I laugh, “What kind of maid of honor would I be if I wasn’t?” A bouquet of flowers practically fills the small table. Hannah’s twisting her fingers together. “Nervous?”

“I feel as if I’ve swallowed a garden of butterflies, if I’m honest. But no, not nervous.” She looks thoughtful before breaking out in a blinding smile. “Excited. I can’t believe I’m going to marry that beautiful, mad man out there.” Her fingertips dance on her lips as if she can’t contain the laugh that breaks out of her. I’m so so happy for her.

“Well, let’s go then, shall we?” I bend my elbow in invitation and grab my posy bouquet. Hannah’s eyes are twinkling. She lifts her own bouquet and holds onto my arm and we make the slow walk to the chapel. 

JAMIE:

No one should have given me this kind of responsibility. Honestly, who’s idea was this? “‘Sure, give the woman who time-travels at the drop of a hat the responsibility of carrying the wedding rings. Won’t stress her out at all.’”

“Jamie-”

I run a finger under my collar. “Is this thing gettin' tighter? I think it’s gettin' tighter.”

“Jamie-” 

My hands pat my pockets compulsively for the millionth time feeling for the slight bulge of the rings. They’re still there. Again. Just like they were twenty seconds ago. “What kind of terrible best man would I be if I lost your-”

“Jamie.Owen never snaps. Owen is never cross. Christ, I’m ruining his wedding day. “You’re right. I never should have asked you to be my best man.”

“Well, y’don’t have to go ahead and say it, mate,” I grumble, shuffling my feet.

“I should have asked you to be my breast man.”

I blink. Owen is positively beaming. 

“Are you...are you fucking kidding me with that?” I deadpan. 

“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” he says neatly by way of explanation.

“How can you be so calm?”

“Well, way I figure it, at the end of the day, I get to marry the woman I love. We’ll get to spend the rest of our lives together. What’s today, in the end, compared to that? Everything else is just confetti.”

I take him in. I really take him in, radiating a calm certainty, a happiness that surrounds him like a halo. I think about that day in the alley when we met and how far things have come since then. Who the hell knew that we’d end up here, wrapped up in love together and with the women who carry our own hearts inside themselves. I think about little Jamie Taylor, all the little versions of myself who still exist out there somewhere in time; the ones who scrapped tiny, empty, sad existences for themselves. Who would cry into the pillow at night under the weight of such loneliness it felt like getting crushed deep down in the dirt. And worst of all, resigning to live like that. Without hope of a single bright bloom of love or friendship. None of this would have been possible without him: my first real, true friend. I pull Owen into a tight hug and hold on fiercely. “I love you, you know,” I say wetly, throat thick with emotion. 

“I know,” he says, holding me back. “Love you, too.”

I pull back with a sniff. “Christ, the state of us,” I say, dabbing my eye carefully, trying not to disturb the makeup. “Can’t get into the waterworks before we get you down the aisle.”

“Well,” Owen starts, and I know right away I’m gonna want to smack him the moment he’s finished, “After all’s wed and done, all we can do is elope for the best.”

1:05 p.m. (Jamie is 34)
JAMIE:

I’m walking along Debden Road, about two miles south of town. It’s not a bad day, weather-wise and I’m wearing a pair of jeans and an oversized t-shirt, I’m barefoot, and I have no idea where I am in time. I head for home since I landed starving. I have no money, but when  I see the sign for the Tesco ahead, I veer toward it. I enter the parking lot and stand for a moment, catching my breath. 

“Quite a day to be out in, eh?” says a thin elderly gent walking nearby with a cane. 

“Couldn’t pick a better one m’self,” I reply. He’s taking a good look at me, noting the bare feet. I pause, feign embarrassment, “Boyfriend threw me out of the house.”

He says something but I don’t hear it because I’m looking at the newspapers in the machines by the entrance. Today is August 24th, 1989. Wedding day. I ask the old man what time it is and he replies 1:10.

“Gotta run,” I say to the man, and I do.

1:15 p.m. (Jamie is 29)
JAMIE:

I feel like I’m impersonating a game show host in this outfit. It’s almost time for the ceremony and I start to pace. It’s times like these I wish I still smoked. Would kill for a cigarette right now. Shame they impair the lungs I so desperately need to keep as healthy as possible. I pat my pockets for the millionth time. 

Owen looks at me. “Want a drink?”

“Thought you’d never bloody ask.” He produces a flask and hands it to me. “Thought you were Mr. Calm today,” I say as I uncap it and take a swallow. It's a very smooth Scotch. 

“Well, I am, but knew you’d be a proper basket case today. Right mental you are.” 

I take another mouthful and hand it back.

“Keep it,” he says.

“Cheers,” I toast. I can hear people laughing and talking out in the vestibule. I’m sweating, and my head aches. The thought of all those people looking forward, me on display for all to see, right next to the stars of attention. What happens if...The room is warm. I stand up and open the window, hang my head out, breathe. 

There’s a noise in the shrubbery. I open the window farther and look down. There I am, sitting in the dirt, under the window, panting. She grins at me and gives me a thumbs up.


Sunday, June 13, 1965 (Jamie is 29)
JAMIE:

I’m lying on the floor in my old bedroom. My old bedroom, pre-foster days. I’m alone in an unknown year. Looks like the middle of the day. Us kids are likely all at school, Dennis is at work, Louise is god knows where. I lie there swearing and feeling like an idiot for a while. Then I get up and go into the kitchen and help myself to several of good ol’ Dad’s beers.


Saturday, August 26th, 1989 (Dani is 27, Jamie is 34 and 29)
1:47 p.m.
DANI:

We’re standing across the aisle from each other. Certainly not how we intended to be, but there’s no better couple we’d rather be supporting than Owen and Hannah. When they’d asked us to be best man and maid of honor, Jamie and I were beyond touched. It lasted for all of two minutes before panic set in once Jamie realized what it would entail. Stress tends to serve as a trigger so she spent the next three weeks trying to convince Owen to change his mind, but he refused on the grounds that time travel was no excuse to get out of being his best mate. It was all she could do to resign herself to the role and accept. 

Owen and Hannah are facing each other, holding hands, reciting their vows. Jamie and I make eye contact. She isn’t my Jamie, I know. Knew it the moment the doors of the vestibule opened when the ceremony began, long before I could count the silver threads that weave through her hair. But she’s here, and she gave me a triumphant smile as she walked through the doors of the church and down the aisle where she stood, waiting for Owen and the rest of us to meet her. It took my breath away, watching her stand there. Even though Owen, Hannah, the officiant, and their families were there as well, it felt like the whole world bled away and it was just the two of us. The entire scene distilled to Jamie waiting at the altar for me. I clutched the posy bouquet so tightly my fingers were stiff. It was all I could do to stop myself from reaching out for Jamie’s hand. 

“Do you, Owen,” the officiant begins, “Take this woman to be your wedded wife, to live together after God’s ordinance in the holy estate of Matrimony? Will you love her, comfort her, honor, and keep her, in sickness and health; and, forsaking all other, keep only onto her, so long as you both shall live?” If looks could burn, Jamie’s and mine would light the world on fire. I bite my lip to keep from crying but can’t stop the wet smile that feels like it’s the only thing keeping my heart in my chest. I think: remember this. I repeat the promise to her in my head and I know she’s doing the same. The Mass proceeds, and I think this is all that matters: she’s here, I’m here, it doesn’t matter how, or that this isn’t our wedding, as long as she’s with me. 

“The Mass is ended, go in peace,” the officiant says. The wedding party exits in reverse order and everyone cheers as Hannah and Owen walk back down the aisle, blissfully happy, waving. When it’s our turn, Jamie and I walk down the aisle, arm in arm, together. 

4:46 p.m.
JAMIE:

The reception is just getting underway. The caterers are rushing back and forth with steel carts and covered trays. Guests are wandering, chatting lazily with each other. I’m standing at a window, drinking Glenlivet, waiting for Dani, who’s reflection I see heading towards me in the window. “Hey, beautiful,” I greet. 

She blushes. “Hey yourself,” she says. “So, where’re you from, stranger?”

“1994,” I say, taking a sip, knowing time is short, “Listen, can you do me a favor?”

Dani nods. “Anything.”

“Go back to the church. I’m there, waiting in the vestibule. Pick me up, and bring me here. Smuggle me into the downstairs women’s loo and leave me there. Then come back up, keep an eye on me, and when I tell you to, grab my suit and bring it to me in the loo. Okay?”

“How much time do we have?” Dani asks.

“Not much.”

She nods, kisses my cheek, and hurries off.

5:13 p.m.
DANI:

I find her exactly where she said she’d be. My poor Jamie, naked and pacing anxiously, running her hands through her hair. Her eyes widen when she sees me approach. “What-”

“Everything’s fine,” I reassure her immediately. “Everything went perfectly fine.” She exhales a shaky breath, the tension in her shoulders relaxing. 

“How long?”

“Reception is still going on.”

“I didn’t-”

“Not even a hiccup. Owen even seemed pleased to have two versions of you as part of his special day. ‘The more Jamie the batter,’ he said.”

A stupid, relieved grin splits Jamie’s smile wide open. She groans. “Must be fine then if he carried about like that. D’you have my clothes?”

I shake my head. “Not yet. You’re still wearing them.”      

“Well,” Jamie says, “Let’s get back to the party, then.”             


Wednesday, April 18, 1990 (Dani is 28, Jamie is 30)
DANI:

We’re trying to buy a house. Shopping for houses is amazing. People who would never invite you into their homes under any other circumstances open their doors wide, allow you to peer into their closets, pass judgement on their wallpaper, ask pointed questions about their gutters. Plus, these houses and streets are so much different than the ones I grew up with in the States. It’s fascinating. 

Jamie and I have very different ways of looking at houses. I walk through slowly, consider the woodwork, the appliances, ask questions about the furnace, check for water damage. Jamie just walks directly to the back of the house, peers out at it from the back yard, and shakes her head at me. Our real estate agent, Carol, thinks she is a lunatic. I tell her she’s a gardening fanatic. It’s not wrong, per se. She loves gardening. ‘Fucking loves it’, Jamie told Carol as a matter of fact. But the fact that she only makes a beeline to the back yard without even looking much at the front means it’s not the reason Jamie’s acting so weird. After a whole day of this, we’re driving home from Carol’s office and I decide to decipher the method in Jamie’s madness.

“What the hell,” I ask, politely, “are you doing?”

Jamie looks sheepish. “Sorry. I wasn’t sure if you wanted to know this, but I’ve been in our home-to-be. Dunno when, but I was - will be - there on a beautiful autumn day, late afternoon. I was out the back of the house, next to that little marble topped table we got from that estate sale, and looked into the house and there you were. Could see you through the back window, grading papers or something with your hair done up in that blue scrunchie you love. I was there for about two minutes. So I’m just trying to duplicate that view, and when I do, I figure that’s our house.”

“Geez, why didn’t you mention it? Now I feel silly.”

“Oh, no! Don’t. I just thought you’d like doing it all the regular, boring way. I mean, you seemed so thorough, and you read all those books about how to do it, even called Eddie for some advice about what to look for, and so I thought you wanted to, y’know, shop, and not have it be inevitable.”

Somebody has to ask about termites, and asbestos, and dry rot….”

“Exactly. So let’s keep going as we are, then. And eventually we’ll arrive separately at the same place, yeah?

Eventually, this does happen, although there are a couple tense moments before then. I find myself entranced with a few houses that Jamie absolutely can’t stand and is honestly horrified that I even consider them. I mope about it for a few days until I decide to ask: “Jamie, would you mind if I went house hunting by myself for a while?”

“No, I guess not.” She seems a little hurt. “If you really want to, don’t see why not.”

“Thank you,” I say, giving her a peck on the cheek. “Might help Carol actually believe our story about just being friends and that you’re my sister-in-law.”

Jamie snorts. “Yeah, g’luck with that one. Would hate to be the husband in that scenario.”

I hate that it’s easier without Jamie, but it is. When I was younger and Jamie would visit, it was always so frustrating to feel like I was in the dark about everything related to myself. She knew everything that was going to happen and I was the only one out of the loop. Like everyone knew every secret I’d never told. Knowing my Jamie, the Jamie of now, of us, has that edge on the future again puts me back in The Meadow, back in Iowa, feeling like a child again. I want space to breathe without the pressure of failing to measure up to the inevitable. I miss her when I go, but at the very least it’s better to not have to lie about who we are to each other. I don’t have to pull my hands back from reaching out to her or remember to not hold her hand when walking up the front steps.

I finally find it about a month and twenty or so houses later. It’s a quaint semi-attached with a yellow door. Carol pops open the key box and wrestles with the lock, and as the door opens I have an overwhelming sensation of something fitting...I walk right through to the back yard, peer into the house and there, right through the window, is a perfect place for a table. As I turn around Carol looks at me inquisitively and I say, “I’ll buy it.”

She’s more than a bit surprised. “Don’t you want to see the rest of the house? What about your husband?”

“Oh, he’s still overseas.”

“Your sister-in-law, then? She seemed to know what he’d like.”

“Oh, she’s already seen it. But yeah, sure, let’s see the house.”


Saturday, June 30, 1990 (Jamie is 30, Dani is 27)
JAMIE:

Today was Moving Day. All day it was hot; the movers’ shirts stuck to them as they walked up the stairs of our flat this morning, smiling because they figured a two-bedroom flat would be no big deal and they’d be done before lunch time. Whoops. Their smiles fell when they stood in our living room and saw eighty-eight boxes of books and teaching material. Now it’s dark and Dani and I are wandering through the house, touching the walls, running our hands over the window sills. Our bare feet slap against the wood floors. We run water into the bathtub, staring at our reflections and giggling like teenagers alone for the first time. The windows are naked; we leave the lights off for privacy and street light pours over the empty fireplace through dusty glass. Dani moves from room to room, caressing her house, our house. I follow her, watching as she opens closets, windows, cabinets. She stands on tiptoe in the dining room, touches the etched-glass light fixture with a fingertip. Then she takes off her shirt. I run my tongue over her breasts. The house envelops us, watches us, contemplates us as we consecrate it for the first time, the first of many times, and afterwards, as we lie spent on the bare floor surrounded by boxes, I feel like we’ve found our home.


Friday, February 15, 1991 (Dani is 28, Jamie is 30)
DANI:

I’m folding laundry and Jamie is dicing green peppers. The sun is setting early, pink and beautiful, over the backyard on this early Sunday evening, and we’re making chili and singing “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”:

You’re such a lovely audience

We’d like to take you home with us...

Onions hiss in the pan on the stove. As we sing We’d like to take you home I suddenly hear my voice floating alone and I turn and Jamie’s clothes lie in a heap, the knife is on the kitchen floor. Half of a pepper sways slightly on the cutting board.

I turn off the heat and cover up the onions. I sit down next to the pile of clothes and scoop them up, still warm from Jamie’s body. I inhale deeply, letting her scent fill up every part of me. Then I get up and go into our bedroom, fold the clothes neatly and place them on our bed. I’m not the best cook, but I’m decent enough at following a recipe, so I try to continue making dinner as best I can, and eat by myself, waiting and wondering, praying that whenever Jamie is, she’s okay.


Friday, March 15, 1991 (Dani is 28, Jamie is 30 and 36)
DANI:

Hannah, Owen, and Jamie and I are sitting around our dining room table playing Clue. (They call it Cluedo here, and it’s the weirdest thing.) It’s Owen’s turn. He shakes the dice, gets a six, and makes his way to the Library. He pauses thoughtfully, eyeing his clue card, before declaring “Mrs. Peacock, in the Library, with the Wrench.” We take turns showing him one of our cards and he moves the pencil, marking his sheet with a hum each time. Before Hannah can take her turn, there’s an immense crash in the kitchen. We all jump up, and Jamie says, “Sit down!” so emphatically that we do. She runs into the kitchen. Hannah and Owen look at me, startled. I shake my head. “I don’t know,” I say, but I do. There’s a low murmur of voices and a moan. Hannah and Owen are frozen, listening. I stand up and softly follow Jamie. 

She’s kneeling on the floor, holding a dish cloth against the head of a naked woman lying on the floor, who is of course Jamie. The small cart that holds some of our oversized dishes is on its side; one of them is broken and all the dishes have spilled out. Jamie is lying in the middle of the mess, bleeding and covered with shards of glass and ceramic. Both Jamies look at me, one piteously, the other urgently. I kneel opposite Jamie, over Jamie. “Where’s all this blood coming from?” I whisper. “The scalp, I think,” Jamie whispers back. “Let’s call an ambulance,” I say. I start to pick the glass out of Jamie’s chest. She closes her eyes and says, “Don’t.” I stop. 

"Oh god,” Owen stands in the doorway. I see Hannah standing behind him on tiptoe, trying to see over his shoulder. “Oh my God,” Hannah breathes. Jamie throws a dish cloth over her prone duplicate’s genitalia while the two of us try to cover her chest the best we can with our hands.

“Oh, Jamie, don’t worry about it, love, I’ve-”

“I try to retain at least a modicum of privacy,” Jamie snaps. Hannah recoils as though slapped. 

“Jamie, mate-” 

I can’t think with all this going on. “Everyone please shut up,” I demand, exasperated. To my surprise they do. “What happens?” I ask Jamie, who’s been lying on the floor grimacing and trying not to move. She opens her eyes, her beautiful beautiful eyes, tense with pain, and my heart thuds painfully in my chest as she stares up at me for a moment before answering. 

“I’ll be gone in a few minutes,” she finally says, softly. She looks at Jamie. “Get me a bloody drink, will ya?” Jamie bounds up and comes back with a juice glass full of Scotch. I support Jamie’s head and she manages to down about a third of it.

“Is that wise?” Hannah asks, softly, handing over a blanket while averting her eyes as much as possible.

“Don’t know. Don’t care,” Jamie assures her from the floor. “This hurts like fuck.” She gasps. “Stand back! Close your eyes--”

“Why?-” Owen begins.

Jamie’s convulsing on the floor as though she’s being electrified. Her head is nodding violently and she yells “Dani!” and I close my eyes. There’s a noise like a bed sheet being snapped but much louder and then there’s a cascade of glass and china everywhere and Jamie has vanished. 

“Oh my god,” says Owen. Jamie and I stare at each other. That was different, Jamie. That was violent and ugly. What is happening to you? Her white face tells me that she doesn’t know either. She inspects the Scotch for glass fragments and then drinks it down. 

“What’s with all the glass?” Owen asks, gingerly brushing himself off.

Jamie stands up, offers me her hand. She’s covered with a fine mist of blood and bits of ceramic. I stand up and look at Hannah. She has a big cut on her face; blood is running down her cheek like a tear.

“Anything that’s not part of my body gets left behind,” Jamie explains. She shows them the gap where she had a tooth pulled because she kept losing the filling. “So whenever I went back to, at least all the glass is gone. They won’t have to sit there and pick it out with tweezers.”

“No, but we will,” Hannah says, gently removing glass from Owen’s hair. She has a point.

Jamie turns to Hannah, slumps apologetically. “Hannah, I-”

“That’s alright,” she says quickly, kindly, despite being spooked.

“No,” Jamie insists, “Look, I just...I’m sorry. For snapping at ya. Was uncalled for. I just don’t like people messin’ about my life, especially me. Whenever she comes around, something always goes to shit.”

Hannah clears her throat. “Well,” she says in a matter-of-fact tone, “The only thing that’s ruined, aside from those dishes, is the fact that I still don’t understand how to play this game and frankly, it’s too late at this point to even ask.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 11: Aching Demeter

Listen:

Reader: foomatic

Length: 37:00


Friday, June 14, 1991 (Dani is 28, Jamie is 30)
JAMIE:

I start to notice it about a year after we move into the house. It’s nothing much, completely unremarkable really, save for the fact that it keeps happening: Dani, in the middle of marking worksheets or writing lesson plans, staring out in the distance for long stretches at a time; Dani, unable to walk past the spare bedroom without looking at it through the corner of her eye. It goes on for a while, until one night at dinner, Dani just fades out of our conversation entirely. I’m talking about the upcoming bulb show, one of our biggest events of the year at the Gardens, and Dani’s usual level of engaged interest disappears into absent one-word replies. 

I scrape my bottom lip through my teeth and pointedly put down my glass. “Are we gonna talk about it?”

“Hmm?” Dani hums distantly.

“That. You’ve been doing that a lot lately.”

“Doing what?” she blinks rapidly, coming back to herself and resumes spearing her salad like nothing had happened.

“Going off somewhere and coming back again.”

Caught, she stops, winces guiltily, regards me seriously, and puts down her fork. Then, finally: “Have you ever thought about kids?” I stop. Everything stops. Every single cell in my body freezes and suddenly there’s no air in my lungs. “Sorry,” she immediately says, taking in my naked fear,  “I’m-I’m sorry,” she stammers, “I just--”

Seeing her in distress jerks me out of it and I reach across the table to hold her hand, even as my heart still lurches in my chest. “Hey, hey,” I soothe, both her and myself, “It’s okay. Just...wasn’t expecting that.” Her thumb links with mine, and we rub calming circles on each others’ knuckles. “Been thinking about that one for a while, yeah?” 

This seems to put her at ease. She nods. “Yeah,” she whispers, as if confessing something almost shameful.

“Yeah,” I admit after a minute in a soft voice. “I’ve thought about ‘em. Don’t even know if it’s possible, really, with everything. Thought about how even if I could, I’d be just about the worst person in the world to be a parent. What kind of mum would I be, disappearing the way I do? Look how well that worked out with Mikey. How could I take care of a baby? For fuck’s sake, Dani, I couldn’t even hold it safely. Can’t give a kid a bath, pick it up from school, or change a nappy. It’d be irresponsible at best, dangerous at worst, and--” I cut myself off, trying to keep the deepest reasons hidden in the depths of myself where they belong.

But trust Dani, who listens with every fiber of her being and atom in her body, to see. Dani, who doesn’t even need to say it out loud, asks with a simple, gentle touch and the kindest, pleading eyes, and makes a safe place for the truth to land.

“What kind of mum would I be, Dani?” My voice cracks, “I can only ever be Louise.” Louise, who was a pretty shit mum before she decided to make it official. Louise, who up and went, leaving a family to fall apart behind her. Me, who up and goes, leaving Dani behind. And god forbid, a child. I’ll only ever ruin their lives in the wreckage of myself, my absence. Just. Like. Louise. “Only thing I’m good for is leaving. S’bad enough I do it to you. Can’t bear to do that to a kid. Not when I know what it feels like.”

“Jamie,” Dani says, cupping my cheek. “Jamie, look at me.” Even though no part of me wants to meet her eyes with this shameful secret, with the truth of my existence as her burden, there’s nothing I can deny her. 

“You’ve been carrying this guilt around, struggling with it, all on your own. But I’m sorry Jamie, that’s not how it works.” Dani hooks her pinkie around mine and raises them between us. “It doesn’t matter how many times you leave. All that matters is that you come back. All that’s ever mattered is you. I waited 152 times in the Meadow. If there’s one thing I learned as a kid when it came to you, it’s that it was always - always worth it.” She smiles, a warm thing that turns on the light in all my cold, dark places. “Pretty sure that actually makes me an expert on the subject. You knew what it felt like to be left behind. But I know what it’s like when you come back.” She presses her lips against mine and breathes life back in. “You’re Jamie, not Louise*.” I’m weeping, weeping, weeping, but Dani is there to catch me, kissing me and repeating my name like a prayer, chasing all of the hurt and broken ghosts away.


Wednesday, September 18, 1991 (Dani is 29, Jamie is 31)
DANI:

We’ve been trying for three months. Trying, for us, involves a lot more logistics, paperwork, research, appointments, phone calls, and multiple parties than the average couple. A new law goes into place regulating the whole donor system and it’s a little strange, having to take something so intimate and make it a collaborative effort. Jamie jokes that the whole process brings “it takes a village” to a whole new level. She’s seemed so much lighter, the last few weeks, the burden she’d been carrying for so long now eased and shared. My back straightens taller, prouder, just thinking of it. I love her so much, and am constantly filled with wonder about how she continues to fill my heart in new ways. I let myself imagine a whole new future, completely drunk with the notion of a baby: a baby that looks sort of like Jamie, brown hair and maybe my coloring, smelling like milk and talcum powder, and an absurd amount of leg rolls that make the whole thing look like a tiny Michelin Man. I start to dream about babies. In my dreams I would climb a tree and find a very small shoe in a nest and Jamie, who is a bird, sitting on top of it like an egg; I’d be in the middle of teaching and turn around from the chalkboard to see my students are all babies, cooing and gurgling at their oversized desks. 

I suddenly begin to notice pregnant women everywhere; at Tesco deciding between two brands of bread, at the bank making a deposit, walking in the park pushing a stroller with a toddler sleeping inside. I want to feel tiny fingers wrap around my own, to see Jamie singing songs to the baby in her arms, for the two of us to watch with rapt attention above the crib as it sleeps. 

We’ve been trying for three months and my body has already failed us once. 

The trying happens in a clinic with my feet in stirrups, bare from the waist down, a doctor between my legs, and Jamie sitting anxiously in the waiting room. My clothes and purse are on a chair next to the exam table and I’m on my back staring at the fluorescent light on the ceiling. It makes a low buzzing sound and when the procedure starts, I gasp in pain, twisting the hem of my shirt in my fists. I force myself to stay flat and still, holding each breath until it hurts. Just as my chest feels like it’s going to explode, the whole thing is over and I lie there trying to catch my breath, a tear leaking down toward my ear. “All done! That’s it. You did a great job,” the doctor says encouragingly. I’m instructed to stay on my back for the next fifteen minutes before getting up and it’s the longest fifteen minutes of my life. I lay my hands on my stomach and send all of my energy to where my body needs it most. To be a fertile place for something to grow. I get up slowly, unable to shake the anxiety that any small move will jostle the delicate thing inside me loose even though I know that’s ridiculous and biologically impossible.

When I emerge, Jamie shoots to her feet, nervous energy radiating off in waves. The office staff give courteous kind smiles, regards to my overseas husband, and wish us luck. We’re careful to not hold hands. I tuck my thumb into my fist to keep myself from touching her.I spend the rest of the day on bed rest, curled up into Jamie while she reads, punctuating every few pages with a kiss to my forehead.  

The failure happens later in the comfort of our own home. Several agonizing long weeks spent waiting, my body a secret even from myself, each day spent holding our breath, lungs growing so large with the unknowing. Until we do. We share disappointment at the negative pregnancy test and try to buoy hope, tempering expectations by reminding ourselves that it takes time, something we’re sorely familiar with. A knot of unease in my chest takes root but I steadfastly ignore it, pretending it doesn’t exist.


Monday, November 18, 1991 (Dani is 29, Jamie is 31)
JAMIE:

It gets harder each time. They say six tries. It’s been three. The months between are spent in a sort of fog, waiting in a strange sort of limbo for the next time to try again.

We hold onto routine, let it carry us from one day to the next. Each day is a new chance, a new opportunity for seed to sprout. I try to remember lessons from the earth. Patience, as always, is the most important. The anxious excitement of every passing day, awaiting the peek of the tiniest sign of life - a creeping green tendril crawling out of the soil toward the sun. I think about Dani and the millions of seeds inside of her. I dream of a foetus that looks like a seedling, tentatively opening and spreading roots, growing in the beautiful garden of her belly. I see the hope on her face that stretches in the skin by her eyes. The dark circles that shadow her features month after month. 

I try to fill up the empty space with small pockets of life. New succulents and propagations line the windowsills and side tables, sitting in glass jars of water where we can watch them swell. They’re helpful reminders of the patience of life and tenacity of nature. I kiss Dani often, just because, planting little seeds of love. And, so, we wait.


Monday, February 3, 1992 (Dani is 29, Jamie is 31)
JAMIE:

The months have started to take their toll. Dani in public is different from Dani at home. She starts to get withdrawn. There’s an awful fake smile she plasters on her face whenever we leave the house and strains thin with each passing day. Every single time she goes into her classroom, I know the sounds of children’s laughter echo in her heart and reverberate for hours in the aching cavern of her chest. She comes home and spends hours sitting in the backyard garden, like the sun is the only thing that can warm her these days. Or maybe it’s simply to be around things that are growing the way they should. Maybe my gardening is useful for something other than my own need to tend. She’ll wash the dishes and stop, distracted, staring into the water as if something waits, lurking beneath it. I’m afraid whatever she sees will drown her. Sometimes she’s sitting right next to me and she seems so far away I wonder if she’ll ever come back. Now it is Dani who is leaving and me who stays. All I can do is sit there and guide her home. 

My body must seem to sense where it’s needed, because I time travel less these days. And when I do, I find out later I’ve only been gone for minutes at a time. The refrigerator calendar, adorned with charts and notes, monitoring the nuances of Dani’s cycle - is always easy to find. It’s the first thing I look at whenever I come back from being away. There’s a little coding system to keep track of symptoms, ovulation data as we try to document every last scrap of information that’ll bring us one step closer towards a baby. It’s hard not to think that it seems further and further away with each passing month, the very possibility fading off into the horizon while we’re left in the distance, bereft. 

One morning I wake up and smell iron and it’s blood. Dani’s period has leaked onto the sheets, defiant and bolder with each visit, as if to spite us. She’s curled up on top of it like a kitten. “Dani,” I shake her and she says, “No.”

“Come on, Dani, wake up, you’re bleeding.”

“I was dreaming…” she’s awake now but sounds so far away. 

“Dani, please...

She sits up. Her hands, her face, are empty. She bursts into tears and collapses into my arms. I gather her up. She feels so small, so fragile, and I don’t know what to do. We sit together on the bed, blood between us, holding each other, and crying.


Monday, April 20, 1992 (Dani is 29, Jamie is 31)
DANI:

Every day starts to feel like an ending instead of a beginning. Even sleep starts to be taken from me. I wake up before my alarm and the instant consciousness percolates, a sharp steel of panic immediately pools in my belly. How long has my body been holding onto this new failure without me knowing? Is anything inside of me except emptiness? Every day I feel myself fading away, every month I keep bleeding, but I’m still here and I don’t understand how that is. Sometimes I stare at my reflection - in mirrors, in glass, in water - and it feels like it’s getting harder and harder to see anything at all. Anything other than my emptiness. 

The trying happens for the last time in the clinic with my feet in the stirrups, bare from the waist down. The doctor is between my legs, and Jamie is still sitting anxiously in the waiting room. My clothes and purse are on the chair next to the exam table and I’m on my back staring at the fluorescent light on the ceiling. The light still makes a low buzzing sound, but this time it sounds like it’s coming from inside my head. This time when the procedure starts, I merely grunt in discomfort, accustomed to the expectation of pain. My fingers twitch, wishing for Jamie’s hand. I stay flat and still. Despite everything, a tiny flutter of hope fills my chest and I lie there betrayed by my longing, trying to catch my breath from the emotional whiplash, a tear leaking down toward my ear. “All done, that’s it,” the doctor says. “You did a great job,” he pats my knee. It feels like a consolation. It feels like pity. All done. That’s it.

Fifteen minutes of prayer. Our last one. I lay my hands on my stomach and send all of my energy to where my body needs it most. Pray and plead and beg from the universe for something to grow. Just this once, to please stay. I get up slowly, unsteadily. I emerge and Jamie shoots to her feet, nervousness and exhaustion radiating off in waves. My fingernails leave marks in my palm from how hard I grip my fist to keep from holding onto Jamie like she’s the only thing keeping me on my feet. The office staff give kind, sad smiles, regards to my overseas husband, and wish me luck. I try not to dwell on how it sounds like goodbye.

The last failure happens, again, in the private stillness of our own home. Small comforts. Like Jamie’s hand in mine. Minutes of agony as we wait for the test to develop, swelling with desperate hope. 

And, once again, one last time, we find ourselves empty.

I leave the pregnancy test on the edge of the bathroom sink where it displays my final failing, this lingering deficiency of our lives together, and return, numb, to bed. I curl up into a fetal position around my empty womb. Jamie slides up from behind and I feel her body fit so perfectly into mine and when the first sob breaks out of me, she’s there to catch it. We lay there for a while, crying together. Eventually I fall asleep. When I wake up, Jamie’s still holding me. When I go to the bathroom, the pregnancy test is gone and I stare at myself in the mirror for a long time.


Monday, May 11, 1992 (Jamie is 31)
JAMIE:

I’ve tracked down Dr. Wingrave; he’s affiliated with the University of Cambridge. It’s an absolutely miserable wet day in May. Dani dropped me off at the campus and offered to stay in the waiting room, but I insisted she get out and enjoy a brew at a local shop. I could’ve taken the train, but everything about this whole thing sends my skin itching and I don’t want to risk disappearing mid-trip. 

The grey stone buildings are dark with rain and the passersby walk briskly with business or purpose or both under large umbrellas. For the first time in almost a year, I feel the blank serenity of the inevitable; I’ll be able to convince Wingrave, because I do convince him. He’ll be my doctor because in the future he is my doctor. In another life, maybe I would have tried to get answers earlier. But in the shit end of the stick that I got, I was always too terrified they’d pull me out of the nightmare of foster care and into an altogether different nightmare of an institution if I ever told a soul the absolute bonkers truth of my reality. Kept my head down and my mouth shut and accepted the consequences of foster parents getting frustrated with my disappearing acts and unexplainable behavior, getting bounced from home to home, tossed out like the garbage at the end of the week. Wasn’t worth trading the devil I knew for the one I didn’t. 

There’s a small building next to the hospital with the address I’m looking for. I go in, take the elevator to Three, open the glass door that bears the golden letters DR.H.WINGRAVE, announce myself to the receptionist, and sit in one of the deep lavender upholstered chairs. The waiting room is a vague blue to soothe the patients I suppose. Dr. Wingrave is a geneticist. There’s no one here but me. I’m ten minutes early. The receptionist is a kind-looking middle-aged woman with very deep wrinkles.

I keep my hands busy by mindlessly flipping through a magazine from the selection available on the side table, not even looking at the pages. At 9:35 I hear voices in the corridor and a woman enters the waiting room with a little boy in a small wheelchair. The boy appears to have cerebral palsy or something like it. The woman smiles at me; I smile back. As she turns I see that she’s pregnant. Something inside of me throbs at the sight of it. I look away. The receptionist says, “You may go in, Ms. Taylor,” and I smile at the boy as I pass him. His enormous eyes take me in, but he doesn’t smile back. It isn’t until I make a silly face, crossing my eyes and sticking out my tongue that I finally get a rise. I smile, pleased. 

As I enter Dr. Wingrave’s office, he’s making notes in a file. I sit down and he continues to write. He’s younger than I thought he’d be; late forties, maybe. I always expect doctors to be old men. I can’t help it. Wingrave has neat brown hair, parted three-quarters down one side with a little wave at the front. He’s wearing a nice charcoal-grey suit and a narrow dark-green tie with a pair of suspenders poking out from under his jacket. A row of nice looking bottles full of nicer looking alcohol sits on the shelf with tomes of medical books and picture frames of family and presumed loved ones. He looks up at me and smiles pleasantly.

“Good morning, Ms. Taylor. What can I do for you?” He’s looking at his calendar. “I don’t seem to have any information about you, here. What seems to be the problem?”

I take a deep breath. Have to remind myself I’m not a kid anymore or at risk of being tossed into a mental institution if I say what I’ve come here to say. “I have trouble staying put,” I settle on saying. 

Wingrave is taken aback. “Staying put? How do you mean?”

“I have a condition which apparently becomes known as Chrono-Impairment. I have difficulty staying in the present.”

“I’m sorry?”

Nothing to do about it. “I time travel. Involuntarily.”

Wingrave is flustered, but subdues it. I like him. He’s trying to deal with me in a manner befitting a sane person, though I’m pretty sure he’s considering which of his psychiatrist friends he can refer me to.

“But why do you need a geneticist? Surely that would fall under a different purview. Physics, perhaps, for instance. Or philosophy.”

“It’s a genetic disease. Though I reckon it might be nice to have someone to chat with about the larger implications of the problem.”

“Ms. Taylor. You are obviously an intelligent woman. I’ve never heard of this disease. I can’t do anything for you.”

“You don’t believe me.”

“Right. I don’t.”

I’m smiling, ruefully. I feel horrible about this, but there’s no getting around it. “Can’t say I blame you, if I’m being honest. Wouldn’t believe myself either. But listen. Your brother and his wife are going on vacation next month, aren’t they?”

He’s wary. “Yes. How do you know?”

“In a few years I look up some information. I travel to my friend’s past and write down the information in this envelope. My friend gives it to me when we meet in the present. I’m  givin’ it to you, now. Open it after they leave. Don’t throw it out. After you read it, call me, if you want to.” I get up to leave. “Good luck,” I say, though I don’t much believe in luck, these days. I am deeply deeply sorry for him, but there’s no other way to do this. 

“Goodbye, Ms. Taylor,” Dr. Wingrave says coldly. I leave. As I get into the elevator I bet he’s probably opening the envelope right now. Inside is a sheet of typing paper. It says: 

Charlotte and Dominic Wingrave
June 16, 1992 11:36 a.m.
Rajasthan, India

Chapter Text

Chapter 12: Wingrave

Listen:

Reader: foomatic

Length: 41:44


 

Wednesday, June 17th, 1992, 12:53 a.m. (Jamie is 32, Dani is 29)
JAMIE:

We’re sleeping all tangled together. The past few nights have been spent waking, turning, getting up, coming back to bed. Charlotte and Dominic’s accident was the other day. It’s hard, watching the future come to pass, unable to stop it barreling toward you or anyone you care about. From everything we’d been able to glean, they were great, good, kind people. They didn’t deserve it. Their son didn’t deserve it. 

When the phone finally does ring, it’s on Dani’s side of the bed, and she picks it up and says “Hello?” very quietly, and hands it to me.

“How did you know? How did you know?” Wingrave is almost whispering. 

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” Neither of us says anything for a minute. I think he’s crying.

“Come to my office.”

“When?”

“Tomorrow,” he says, and hangs up the phone.


Thursday, June 18th, 1992 (Jamie is 32 and 6, Dani is 29)
JAMIE:

Dani and I are driving to Cambridge. We’ve been silent for most of the ride. It’s raining, and the wipers provide a soothing rhythm. As though continuing a conversation we haven’t exactly been having, Dani says, “It doesn’t seem fair.”

“What, the Wingraves?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s ‘cause it isn’t.”

“I mean, yeah, it’s awful about Dominic and Charlotte, but actually I meant us. It doesn’t seem fair that we’re….exploiting this.”

“Unsportin’, you mean?”

“Uh-huh.”

I sigh.  “I mean, I agree with you, but it’s too late. And I tried…”

“I know,” Dani says quickly. “I just…”

“Yeah.” We lapse into silence again. I direct Dani through the maze of streets, and soon we’re sitting in front of Wingrave’s office building. 

“Good luck.”

“Thanks.” I’m nervous.

A quick glance outside and Dani kisses me. We look at each other, all our hopes submerged in feeling guilty about Wingrave. “Love you,” I say. Dani smiles then looks away. The shade of our failed child still lingers on her psyche but more and more now the smiles at least reach her eyes. I get out of the car and watch as she drives off slowly. 

The office door is unlocked and the elevator takes me up to Three. There’s no one in the waiting room, and I walk through it and down the hall. His door is open. The lights are off. Wingrave stands behind his desk with his back to me, looking out the window at the rainy street below. I stand silently in the doorway for a long moment. Finally I walk into the office.

Wingrave turns and I’m shocked at the difference in his face. Ravaged isn’t the word. He is emptied; something has gone that was there before. Security; trust; confidence. He’s holding a glass of amber liquid and his shirt is half tucked, straining against his suspenders.

“Jamie Taylor,” says Wingrave.

“H’llo.” I say, arms stuffed into my pant pockets.

“Why did you come to me?”

“Had to. Wasn’t a matter of choice.”

“Fate?”

“Call it whatever you like. Things get kind of circular, when you’re me. Cause and effect get a little muddled.”

Wingrave sits down at his desk. The chair squeaks. The only other sound is the rain. He reaches into his pocket for his cigarettes, finds them, looks at me. I shrug. Would love to bum one, but. Another life, maybe. He lights one, and smokes for a little while. I regard him.

“How did you know?” he says.

“Told you before. I saw the records.”

“When?”

“1996.”

“Impossible.”

“Explain it, then.”

Wingrave shakes his head. “I can’t. I’ve been trying to work it out, and I can’t. Did you rig it? I thought. But how could you? It happened a continent away. Everything -- was right. The hour, the day…” He looks at me desperately. “How could you know and do nothing?”

My heart breaks for him. It really does. It does no less than that for tragedies that are outside of my control, tragedies I’m forced to sit and watch happen again and again and again, trapped and muted behind a glass I can see out of but am unable to cry out warnings to those who so desperately need to hear them, even myself. “It doesn’t work like that,” I say brokenly. 

“What if I’d told them never to go? What if I told them when it was going to happen?”

“But you didn’t. Wouldn’t go so far to say you couldn’t, but you didn’t. All I did was the reporting. And even if you did, tell them, it wouldn’t have made a difference. It already happened.”

“Do you have any children?”

“No.” I don’t want to talk about it. “I’m sorry about Miles. But you know, he’s a brilliant kid. He’s going to be alright. The two of you will be just fine.”

Wingrave stubs out his cigarette and lights another. “How does it work?”

“What?” I ask stupidly.

“This supposed time travel thing that you supposedly do.” He sounds angry. “You say some magic words? Climb into a machine?”

I try to explain it in a way that might make sense. “No. I don’t...do anything. It just happens. I can’t control it, I just -- one minute everything is fine, the next I’m somewhere else, some other time. Like changing channels. I just suddenly find myself in another time and place.”

“Well, what do you want me to do about it?”

I lean forward, bracing my elbows on my knees for emphasis. “I want you to find out why, and stop it.”

Wingrave smiles. It’s not a friendly smile. “Why would you want to do that? It seems like it would be quite handy for you. Knowing all these things that other people don’t know.” There’s something dangerous in his smile. Like it’s another version of himself. And it’s a shit-grinning bastard.

“It’s dangerous. Sooner or later it’s going to kill me.”

“To be quite frank, I can’t say I wouldn’t mind that.’

Right. No point in continuing with this shit, then. I stand up, and go to the door. “Cheers, Doc.” I want to walk slowly down the hall and give him a chance to call me back. But he doesn’t. I try not to be too disappointed. After all, it happens. Just a matter of when. Sooner or later it’ll right itself. As I open the door to the building, I see Dani waiting for me across the street in the car. She turns her head and there’s such an expression of hope, such anticipation in her face that hasn’t been there in so long. I ache, overwhelmed by sadness. I’m dreading telling her, and as I walk across the street to her my ears are buzzing and I lose my balance and I’m falling but instead of pavement I hit carpeting and I stay there for a second until I hear a familiar child’s voice saying “Jamie, are you okay?” and I look up and see myself, age six, sitting up in bed, looking at me.

“I’m fine, Jamie.” She looks dubious. “Really, I’m okay.”

“You want some Ovaltine?”

“Sure.” She gets out of bed, toddles across the bedroom and down the stairs. It’s the middle of the night, but luckily Dennis’ overnight shifts will keep him out of our path tonight. She fusses around in the kitchen for a while, and eventually returns with two mugs of hot chocolate. I try not to dwell on the fact that a six-year-old who knows how to use the kettle is a portent of things to come. We drink them slowly, in pleasant silence. When we’re done Jamie takes the mugs back to the kitchen and washes them. No sense in leaving evidence around. When she comes back I ask, “So. What’s up?”

She shrugs. “Not much. Went to the doctor today.”

“Hey, me too. Which one?”

“The dentist. Said I need to brush longer.”

“Yeah, it always does seem like forever, dunnit? He’s right, though. Gotta brush.” It won’t do any good. I’m still going to lose that tooth, because I’ve already lost it. Still, can’t hurt to try and instill good habits.

“You want some blankets?” she asks.

“Sure. One’ll do.” I take the bedspread off Jamie’s bed and curl up on the floor. “G’night. Sleep tight.” I see her smile in the dark blueness of the bedroom, and then she turns away into a tight ball of a sleeping little girl and I’m left staring at my old ceiling, willing myself back to Dani.


DANI:

Jamie walks out of the building looking unhappy, and suddenly she cries out and she’s gone. I jump out of the car and run over to the spot where Jamie was, just a second ago, but of course there’s just a pile of clothing there, now. I gather everything up and stand for a few heartbeats in the middle of the street. As I stand there, I see a man’s face looking down at me from a window on the third floor. Then he disappears. I walk back to the car and get in, staring at Jamie’s t-shirt and black pants, wondering if there’s any point in staying here, waiting for her to return. I’ve got some lesson plans in the back seat I can start working on, so I decide to hang around for a while in case Jamie reappears soon. As I turn to get my bag I see a brown-haired man running toward the car. He stops at the passenger door and peers in at me. This must be Wingrave. I flip the lock and he climbs into the car, and then he doesn’t know what to say. 

“Hi,” I say awkwardly. “You must be Henry Wingrave. I’m Dani Clayton.”

“Yes--” he’s completely flustered, “Yes, yes. Your friend--”

“Just vanished in broad daylight.”

“Yes!”

“You seem surprised.”

“Well--”

“Didn’t she tell you? She does that.” He reeks of Scotch, aching for something to make sense in the little bubble of his world that’s just been broken. ”I’m so sorry about your family. They seemed like lovely people. But Jamie says you and your son are going to be just fine.”

He’s gaping at me. “I don’t have a son. Just my nephew, Miles.”

Oh, shit. Right. He doesn’t know yet. “But you will,” I say instead, settling on another kind of truth, “Be okay. It’s gonna be hard, especially for Miles, but eventually, after some time, it won’t hurt as much. Those moments will stretch and become longer, and the hurt will press like a bruise instead of an open wound. It’s gonna be okay.” It’s been a while since I thought of my Dad. Grief reaches out across time. The words seem empty against the gaping hole inside this grieving man, but to my surprise this stranger begins to cry, his shoulders shaking. Helplessly, I gather him into my arms and hold him for a while until the sobs abate. I hand him a tissue, and he blows his nose. 

“I’m so sorry,” he begins.

“It’s okay,” I say, meaning it. “Whatever happened in there? With you and Jamie? It didn’t go so great, didn’t it.”

“How did you know?”

“She was all stressed out, so she lost her grip on now.”

“Where is she?” Wingrave looks around as though I might be hiding Jamie in the back seat.

“I don’t know. Not here. We were hoping you could help, but I guess not.”

“Well, I don’t see how--” At this instant, Jamie appears in exactly the same spot she disappeared from. There’s a car about twenty feet away, and the driver slams their brakes as Jamie throws herself across the hood of our car. The other driver rolls down his window, yells something, and drives off. My blood is singing in my ears. I look over at Wingrave, who is speechless. I jump out of the car, and Jamie eases herself off of the hood. I quickly scramble to grab her clothes. 

“Dani,” she practically sighs in relief, “Blimey, that was close, huh?” I wrap my arms around her; she’s shaking.

“C’mon, let’s get you inside -- oh hey, Dr. Wingrave is here.”

“What? Where?” She hops on one foot as she pulls her jeans on as quickly as she can manage while I thread her shirt over her neck and pull it down best I can.

“In the car.”

“Why?”

“He saw you disappear and it seems to have changed his mind about not believing you.” Jamie sticks her head in the driver’s side door. “Hello.” Wingrave, distracted from his grief, gets out of the car and walks around to us.

“Where were you?”

“1966. I was sitting drinking Ovaltine with myself, as a six-year-old, in my old bedroom at one a.m. I was there for about an hour. Why do you ask?” Jamie regards Dr. Wingrave coldly as she slides on her shoes.

“Unbelievable.”

“You can go on saying that as long as y’like, but unfortunately for me, it’s true.”

“You mean you became six years old?”

“No, I mean I was sitting in my old bedroom in my parent’s flat, in 1966, just as I am, thirty-two years old, in the company of myself, at six. Drinking Ovaltine. We were chatting about doctors, matter of fact.” Jamie walks around to the side of the car and opens the door. “C’mon, Dani. Let’s go.”

I walk to the driver’s side. “Bye, Dr. Wingrave. Good luck.”

“Wait --” Wingrave pauses, collects himself. “This is a genetic disease?”

“Yeah. And it’s a bit hazardous, as you’ve seen.” We get in the car. 

“Goodbye,” I say again and we drive away. As I pull onto the highway, I glance at Jamie, who to my surprise is grinning broadly. “What are you so pleased about?”

“Wingrave. He’s absolutely hooked.”

“You think?”

“Oh, yeah.” We drive home in silence, an entirely different quality of silence that we arrived with. Dr. Wingrave calls that evening, and they make an appointment to begin the work of figuring out how to keep Jamie in the here and now.


Friday, July 2, 1992 (Jamie is 32)
JAMIE:

Wingrave sits with his head bowed. His thumbs trace the edge of his palms as though they want to escape from his hands. As the afternoon has passed, the office has been illuminated with golden light; Wingrave has sat still except for those twitching thumbs, listening to me talk. Don’t remember how long it’s been since I talked, interrupted, about all this. Dani always knew, Owen and Hannah got enough of the story to understand the shape of it, but this? The details of it? Harder than I thought it’d be. All afternoon, Wingrave has sat there in his chair, listening. 

I’ve told him everything. The beginning, the learning, the rush of surviving and the pleasure of knowing ahead, the terror of knowing things that can’t be changed, the anguish of loss. Now we sit in silence and finally he raises his head and looks at me. In Wingrave’s eyes is a sadness I want to undo; after laying everything before him I want to take it all back and leave, excuse him from the burden of having to think about any of this. It’s too much. He reaches for his glass and takes a sip. 

"Do you have difficulty sleeping?” he asks me, his voice rasping from disuse.

“Yeah.”

“Is there any particular time of day that you tend to….vanish?”

“No...well, early evening maybe more than other times.”

“Do you get headaches?”

“Yeah.”

“Migraines?”

“No. Pressure headaches. With vision distortion, auras.”

“Hmm.” Wingrave stands up. His knees crack. He paces around the office, cradling his glass, rubbing his thumb around the lip “There are things called clock genes. They govern circadian rhythms, keep you in sync with the sun, that sort of thing. We’ve found them in many different types of cells, all over the body, but they’re especially tied to vision, and you seem to experience many of your symptoms visually. The suprachiasmatic nucleus of the hypothalamus, which is located right above your optic chiasm, serves as the reset button, as it were, of your sense of time -- so that’s where I want to begin.”

“Um, okay?” I say, since he’s looking at me like he expects a reply. Wingrave gets up again and walks over to a door I haven’t noticed before, opens it and disappears for a minute. When he returns he’s holding latex gloves and a syringe. I force myself to relax at the sight of it. It’s been ten years since London but I still get jumpy around needles. 

“Roll up your sleeve,” Wingrave instructs.

“What are you doing?” I ask, rolling my sleeve above my elbow. He doesn’t answer, unwraps the syringe, swabs my arm, and ties it off, sticks me expertly. I look away, feeling sick. Take a few deep breaths. 

“We’re going to have your DNA sequenced.”

“They can do that? I thought that took years.”

“It does, if you’re sequencing the entire genome. We’re going to begin by looking specifically at the most likely sites; Chromosome 17, for example.” Wingrave tosses the latex and needle in a can labeled ‘Biohazard’ and writes something on the little vial of blood. He sits back down across from me and places the vial on the table next to the Glenlivet.

“Don’t know how to break it to you, Doc, but the human genome won’t be sequenced until 2000. What will you compare it to?”

“2000? So soon? You’re sure? I guess you are. But to answer your question, a disease that is as -- disruptive -- as yours often appears as a kind of stutter, a repeated bit of code that says, in essence, Bad News. Huntington’s disease, for instance, is just a bunch of extra CAG triplets on Chromosome 4.”

I sit up and stretch. I could use a cuppa. “So that’s it?”

“Well, I’d like to have your head scanned, but not today. I’ll make an appointment for you at the hospital. MRI, CAT scan, and X-rays. I’m also going to send you to a friend of mine who has a sleep lab here on campus.”

“Fun,” I say, standing up slowly so the blood doesn’t all rush to my head.

Wingrave tilts his face up at me. “It is fun,” he says, “It’s such a...a great puzzle, and we finally have the tools to find out--”

“To find out what?”

“Whatever it is. Whatever you are.” Wingrave smiles. He stands, extends his hand, and I shake it, thank him; there’s an awkward pause: we’re strangers again, suddenly, after the intimacies of the afternoon. I leave his office, head down the stairs, and into the street, where the sun is waiting for me. Whatever I am. What am I? What am I?


Tuesday, July 14, 1992 (Jamie is 32, Dani is 30)
JAMIE:

He’s fascinated by my history, and we go over it again and again. Questions about Dennis and Louise’s family backgrounds - aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, medical histories - things I don’t know, can’t answer, and have no desire to go chasing after. Too much work to wade through the mire of bureaucracy to only find inevitable dead ends and a much too painful past that I’d rather not revisit any more than my body already forces me to.

“You have two brothers?”

“Yeah. Well, one full, one half.”

“And no apparent manifestation of your...condition with either of them?”

“No, not a peep, far as I know. Never saw anything, back when we were all under the same roof. Dunno what happened afterwards. Got split up in foster care, lost track of ‘em.”

“Fascinating,” Wingrave says, as he takes notes.

I recount my own medical history best I can recall: the broken bones and stitches I got as a scrappy kid, from fights and flights both, the tooth I had removed because I kept losing the filling whenever I time traveled. 

“And what about your menstruation cycle?”

I make a face. “What about it?”

“Well,” he continues, “Is it regular? Was it always? When did it start?” Then - “Any pregnancies?” 

I snort. “Be a bloody damn miracle if there was one,” I say before realizing my mistake. Wingrave looks up, puzzled and curious by my answer. I sigh, think ‘Fuck it, he’s going to know every intimate detail about me from my genes down to my preference in laundry detergent, there’s no sense in hiding this from him’ before remembering he’s my doctor in the future. This pebble of a detail won’t change the flow of the river. “I’m gay. Me and Dani, we’re…”

“Ah.” he says quickly. “And before..?” he trails off, indicating his earlier question, waiting patiently with his pen raised.

“No men.” Unbidden, the scent of stale, perverted foster fathers wafts through my nostrils and I’m hit with a wave of nausea. “No pregnancies,” I correct, clearing my throat, confirming my initial answer. Wingrave writes some notes. “Not from me, at least,” I add. Dunno why I keep talking. But suddenly the words come and they don’t stop. “We’d been trying - well, Dani, tried - but it didn’t take, the inseminations...” I shake my head and sniff back the shaky breath and prickling eyes behind a half scowl, a fragile mask of indifference. An old habit from days long gone. “They didn’t take. Ran out of tries. Reckon s’just not in the cards for us, kids.”

Dr. Wingrave puts his pen down for the first time in thirty minutes. He takes off his reading glasses and regards me for several long moments. “I have a name for you,” he says finally, and scribbles something on a fresh page in the back of his notebook, tears it out and gives it to me. “A colleague. Works in the fertility department, specializes in reproductive endocrinology. May be able to help.”

I take the piece of paper. It trembles in my hands. “Thank you,” I say. 

“You’re welcome,” he says, slipping his glasses back on and the session continues without missing a beat. Everything rambles on normally from there, as if I had admitted something as normal and common as a bee allergy. I barely feel present, flying through the rest of the questions in a fog.

Things wrap up and I’m about to leave but can’t let the gift Wingrave gave go unacknowledged. “Thanks, Doc,” I say, gesturing to the piece of paper, still gripped tight in my hands. “This…” I trail off, not knowing how to gather my thanks, how to sum up the struggle and anguish of the last half year in a few words. 

He must see me struggling with it and he simply places his hand on my shoulder, “Family is precious. Hold onto it, with everything you’ve got. And call me Henry. Please.” It’s almost paternal. Wingrave - Henry - sees me, not just what I can do. Jamie Taylor, not a scientific puzzle waiting to be dissected and tested. He holds out his hand. I take it. It’s warm. We shake and I toss him a grateful smile before turning away. Dani is waiting.


Thursday, July 30, 1992 (Jamie is 32)
JAMIE:

I arrive at the sleep lab exhausted like Dr. Wingrave asked. It’s the fifth night I’ve spent here, and by now I know the routine. I sit on the bed in the odd, fake, home-like bedroom wearing pajama bottoms while Dr. Larson’s lab technician, Karen, puts cream on my head and chest and tapes wires in place beneath the pajama top. The lights are low, the room is cool. There are no windows except a piece of one-way glass that looks like a mirror, behind which sits Dr. Larson, or whoever’s watching the machines this evening. Karen finishes the wiring, bids me good night, leaves the room. I settle into bed carefully, close my eyes, missing Dani terribly, and imagine the spider-legged trains on long streams of graph paper gracefully recording my eye movements, respiration, brain waves on the other side of the glass. Thankfully, I’m asleep within minutes. 

I dream of running. I’m running through woods, dense brush, trees, but somehow I’m running through all of it, passing through like a ghost. I burst into a clearing, there’s been a fire….

I dream I’m back in London. I’m back in that awful flat and there’s a needle in my arm. I pull it out and stumble woozily to the window. Dread starts to set in when I realize I’m supposed to be somewhere else. I’m supposed to be on the corner with Mack. I can see her out on the street waving at me to come down. I turn to slide off the bed but when I turn around, suddenly she’s there in bed with me. Her hair is mussed and there’s blood trickling out from her nose and I want to reach forward and wipe it away but my limbs are heavy. She doesn’t notice it and instead looks at me hungrily and before I know what’s happening, she’s sliding down down down on the bed. Her hands are all over me, touching me - my arms, my chest, my stomach, my thighs and I reach for her but she’s below the sheets and there’s a loud buzzing in my ear. It keeps getting louder, crescendoing, and Mack’s tongue is inside me and the Mack outside the window on the corner is shouting for me to come down, that she’s waiting for me, she needs me, can’t do the job without me, but all I can feel is a thick drowning and-

I wake up. I’m cold with sweat and my heart is pounding. I’m in the sleep lab. I wonder for a moment if there’s something they’re not telling me, if they can somehow watch my dreams, see my thoughts. I feel like a specimen in a lab, being scraped apart and exposed. I turn onto my side and close my eyes, willing my heart to calm down. 

I dream that Dani and I are walking through a museum. The museum is an old palace, all the paintings are in lavish gold frames, and all the other visitors are wearing tall powdered wigs and immense dresses, frock coats, and breeches. They don’t seem to notice us as we pass. We look at the paintings, but they aren’t really paintings, they’re pictures of me. Me, at all ages. Portraits of Jamie Taylor, aged 4. Ages 6, 8, 11, 14. She stands in front of the bright yellow picture of my Year 6 school portrait and seems to warm herself by it. I peruse the gallery, oddly distant, and realize suddenly that I’ve lost Dani. I’m walking, then running, back through the galleries and then I abruptly find her: she’s standing before me at age eighteen and I run, horrified, to try and pull Dani away before she can look too close. 

I’m thrashing in grass, it’s cold, wind rushes over me. I’m naked and cold in darkness, there’s snow on the ground, I’m on my knees in the snow, blood drips onto the snow and I reach out --

“My god, she’s bleeding--”

“How the bloody hell did that happen?”

“Shit, she’s ripped off all the electrodes, help me get her back on the bed--”

I open my eyes. Wingrave and Dr. Larson are crouched over me. Dr. Larson looks upset and worried, but Wingrave has a jubilant smile on his face. 

“Did you get it?” I ask, and he replies, “It was perfect.” 

“Brilliant,” I say, and then I pass out.

Chapter Text

Chapter 13: Nitzan

Listen:

Reader: foomatic

Length: 58:55


Thursday, August 20, 1992 (Dani is 30, Jamie is 32)
DANI:

I’ve been nervous for days leading up to the appointment. We’re lucky we didn’t have to wait longer. When I first called, the next available opening was October. But thanks to Henry’s connection, six weeks later, we’re in. I try not to be too in my head about it. There still might not be answers at the other end of this, still even a lesser chance of a child. But there is. A chance. Small as it might be, I’ll hold onto it. It’s the first time the future has seemed so paralyzingly blank. I’ve always known, to an extent, what would happen. I would grow up, and Jamie would be at the end of it. What else was there to know? The boldest strokes on the page made, everything else would follow. But here we are, all caught up. We’re in our thirties now. What does the rest of our life hold now that we’ve finally arrived to live it out?

What other marks are left for us to make? What mysteries of my womb can this doctor unlock? Will there still only be heartbreak at the end? How many more failures can my body take? How much more can our hearts handle? What will be different this time? 

It’s still a doctor’s office. I’m still filled to the brim with anxiety. My body is still a locked box. My leg bounces uncontrollably in the waiting room and I absentmindedly nibble my thumb. There are other women here, most with heads bowed looking at old issues of magazines that litter the coffee tables. There’s reception like any other, with a bunch of old pamphlets for various services sticking out on the countertop near the clipboards and forms. 

But this time - this time - Jamie is at my side, holding my hand. When my name is called, we both stand up. There are no gentle lies to soften our existence, smoothing it into expectation and requirement. We are in the doctor’s office together and he’s talking to us like any other couple. We are together, together, together. It’s incredible, the difference. 

We review the options, all the ones we’ve already exhausted. The protocols are still relatively new, but there is consensus on how much the medical establishment, young as this branch of medicine may be, is willing to subject patients to. When they couldn’t even fertilize an egg for implantation, IVF was a short and brutal dead end. The road ended there. 

“But,” the doctor continues, “There’s another possibility. You both are in a rather unique position not available to most of my other patients. Dr. Wingrave has already briefed me of some of your particular circumstances, Ms. Taylor, and so while I understand carrying a child is not an option due to those circumstances, that still leaves oocyte donation for Ms. Clayton”

“Octo-what?”

Dr. Lloyd smiles. “Oocyte. Egg donation.” Jamie and I look at each other, similarly stunned. He then goes on to discuss the overall process of syncing our cycles through injections and hormones, how the procedure works, and tells us not to be too overwhelmed at the amount of information. He hands us a folder full of printouts for us to keep and reference at home, says the office will be in touch about the next appointment, clasps our hands in his own warmly, and sends us on our way. 

I practically float as we leave Dr. Lloyd’s office, across the waiting room, down the hallway, out the door, all the way to the car. My skin feels like it’s humming around the steering wheel, so lost in the promise of possibility that I don’t realize until we’re halfway home that Jamie is very quiet in the passenger seat. She’s got one leg bent up with her foot resting in the corner between the dashboard and window, running her thumbnail around her lips, her elbow resting on the door, staring out the window. 

“Jamie?” I ask. Her name, like always, is a complete sentence. She doesn’t respond, jaw working as she chews her thoughts. She’s not ready yet, and so I let the silence stretch, content to watch the trees blur past as I drive. It’s not until we park the car in front of the house that she finally speaks. 

“I dunno know if I can do it, Dani.” My hand freezes around the keys, still in the ignition. “I mean, the medications alone: will I even stay put long enough to get the timing of the shots right? And if I do, what if-” she breaks off and shakes her head, still looking out the window, kids down the street riding their bicycles in circles. I know what she’s not saying. Can see it naked in the way she won’t meet my eyes. What if it’s like me.

“Jamie,” I reach for her hand but she pulls away. It feels like a physical blow.

“I’m sorry, Dani,” she says, opening the car door. “I just...I need to go.”

And then, before I know it, she’s gone.


Sunday, May 23rd, 1995 (Jamie is 32, Dani is 33)
JAMIE:

I’m such a fucking asshole, I think for the hundredth time since leaving the house. I should have gone back to the car. The image of Dani, sitting in the seat, her mouth slack in shock and eyes so full of hurt burns in my brain. I’ve gone ahead and broken the first promise I ever made to her, hungover and crying in my flat six years ago. What kind of a fucking coward leaves like that? Who runs away from someone like that? An asshole, that’s who. A no-good, chicken shit asshole who’s too afraid.

It hit me in a way it hadn’t during those ten awful months of Dani trying, how real it all is. Suddenly my body is involved, my fucked up genes putting our future kid at risk, and I don’t know how to handle it. Don’t know if I can handle watching Dani go through it all again. If I can go through it again. My knees don’t ache, my spine is straight, and I’ve already been running for three miles but my body is still rigid with tension and I don’t know how not to feel like a traitor. I want to save Dani from suffering and pain. We tried. I want to save myself from suffering and pain. Am I using my body as an excuse to not try? 

Four miles. 

I wipe my face and discover I’m crying. I pick up my pace to try and make my lungs and legs burn hotter than the shame in my chest. Jamie, not Louise* Dani had said a year ago. And what did I go ahead and do? Prove her fucking wrong. I’ve never run from Dani before, even when I’d wanted to; she was always the finish line. I feel shameful and sick. It starts to rain. Fitting, that. Big fat drops pour down in a deluge and my shoes get waterlogged and heavy. My stomach feels tight, my feet slap on the concrete, and my hair mats down on my forehead. Wayward curls drip water in my eyes and everything blurs until it doesn’t and suddenly I find myself on my hands and knees, retching in the grass. 

My soaked clothes are gone and my hair is dry, all the water having been left behind in my present. It’s a beautiful day, wherever and whenever I am. It’s warm, pleasantly so, not too hot, and the sun shines bright overhead. I place my hand on my forehead, trying to shade my eyes from the glare and squint around to orient myself in my surroundings only to discover I’m in my own backyard. The smell hits me first. Lavender, allium gladiators, and hydrangeas were the first things I planted, purple and fragrant, to have a piece of Dani in the soil. They surround and support the less elegant but hardy ivies and ferns that bulk up the landscape with lush greenery. Rambling rose and vines of wisteria slowly creep along the fence and brick; not so much yet, having only been here a few years, but over time they’ll practically cover it. Clematis grow up from below, and over on the grass to the side lay two loungers on either side of a patio umbrella. 

I spin around, looking for the emergency box over by the hose but stop cold, frozen in my tracks. There, just through the kitchen window, is Dani. She’s wearing that chunky knit sweater that she loves with big hoop earrings and her hair tied back in a ponytail, looking happier than I’ve seen her in over a year. The sight of her so unabashedly light and joyful fills my lungs up with air for what feels like the first time all day. But what happens next makes my breath catch.

Dani turns, looking away towards something behind her and bends down out of view for a second before popping back up, holding a squirming bundle of flailing limbs. It’s a child, giggling and trying to escape. Dani tucks her hands under the girl’s arms and hoists her into the air before gathering her close and their laughter joins in beautiful muted harmony. As they spin around on the floor, Dani catches my eye. She looks at me and smiles, a low, knowing thing. Her hand is on the child’s back, our future cradled safely in her strong arms. This is yours too, she says. We’re here waiting for you. All you have to do is come home. Dani kisses the side of our daughter’s head and with one last lingering glance at me, turns away from the window and back to her life.


Friday, August 21, 1992 (Dani is 30, Jamie is 32)
DANI:

I’m lying in bed with the sheets tangled up around me. I must have overheated at some point overnight because I’d kicked half of them off so that my legs were uncovered but somehow also managed to burrow my top in like a burrito. The pressure around my shoulders and across my arms is soothing. I never sleep well when Jamie is gone. I woke up over an hour ago but haven’t been able to muster the energy to get out of bed. Jamie has been gone since she left for a run yesterday and I’m starting to get worried. What if she’s hurt? What if she’s dead? I don’t even know the routes she takes, how would I even know where to look for her? These thoughts chase each other around and around my neck until I get claustrophobic and the sheet starts to feel like a noose and I throw the whole thing off of me to escape.

Usually I like to fret in a whirl of activity; I worry about Jamie while I scrub the sink or do five loads of laundry or do the grocery shopping. Anything to distract me. But this time our not-fight from yesterday lingers uncomfortably in the house. So now I lie here while Jamie is god knows where. Dead in a ditch somewhere, yanked off the path on her run and murdered or eating ice cream in 1963? All I know is she’s not here and I’m paralyzed with a haunted sort of fear that the last time I’ll ever see her was watching her run away from me. The fear becomes too oppressive and I jump out of bed. 

It’s late morning and I can’t tell if the low thrumming nausea in my stomach is from hunger or anxiety. I didn’t have dinner last night, too worked up and upset from the aftermath of the appointment and Jamie’s subsequent confession and escape. I go downstairs in my nightgown, one that Jamie constantly mocks me for because she says it makes me look like a ‘wee old granny’, and force myself to eat something. I pop a piece of bread in the toaster while the kettle boils and I rifle through the tea box for something without any caffeine to not amplify my jitters. I try to distract myself with a magazine but flip through without reading a single thing. I put down my toast and realize this kind of restlessness requires reinforcements so I call Hannah. 

It’s still summer holiday and autumn term doesn’t start for another two weeks. It’s nice, having a friend on a similar schedule, since Owen’s restaurant hours are just as bad as Jamie’s disappearing-reappearing internal clock. It’s been a while since we got together, and I try to ignore the pang of guilt at the thought. So much of our life had fallen by the wayside in the last few months while Jamie and I retreated into the cocoon of our heartache. 

I’m determined to do better, and say as much when Hannah arrives at the cafe. I’m waiting outside at a table, nervously fingering the paper cuff around my cup of tea when Hannah approaches, looking elegant as ever in a sundress that shows off the sharp cut of her shoulders. I don’t know why I feel so nervous, standing in front of this woman who is one of my dearest friends, who I see most days at work as much as I see Jamie. There’s something magical about Hannah Grose, because just as I’m about to open my mouth and stammer an apology, she braces her hands on my shoulders, says “Don’t you dare,” and pulls me into a hug. I wrap my arms around her and hold on to the precious lifeline she is and start sobbing into her chest in public like a lunatic. She pays it no mind and simply soothes the shattered pieces of me in her composed arms, shushing and whispering “It’s alright, love, it’s alright.” Eventually I compose myself and pull back, sheepishly wiping at the mess I left on her shoulder. “I’ve been on the receiving end of much worse at school, you know. You’ll have to do better than that, Miss Clayton.” And just like that I laugh, feeling at ease for the first time in longer than I can remember. 

“It’s so good to see you, Hannah.”

She smiles, cheeks pulling like plums, eyes bright. “It’s good to see you too, my dear,” she says, even though we saw each other just the other week at school. “Now,” she tucks her dress so as not to bunch it as she crosses her long legs to settle herself neatly into the chair next to mine, “Let’s have a cup of tea, shall we?” It feels so good to do something so normal. We chat over small bites, talking about the upcoming school term and sharing notes about students and parents, the weather, updates from the garden and restaurant, new recipes we’ve been cooking at home. She doesn’t ask about the last few months and I don’t bring it up, but there’s an unspoken acknowledgement; her understanding of my absence and me grateful for her forgiveness of it. “Don’t be a stranger,” she whispers into my ear when we hug goodbye. 

“I won’t,” I promise, knowing already it’s one I’ll keep. By the time I get home, it’s late afternoon. The sun is stretching in golden glory and I decide to sit outside and enjoy it. The house is still too quiet without Jamie and when she’s gone I like to be as near to her as possible so I settle on one of the chairs in the backyard underneath the rose and wisteria Jamie planted a few months ago.

I close my eyes and soak up the last of the afternoon sun, listening to the birds, cars passing by, the television droning through the neighbors’ open window. Just as I’m about to doze off Jamie comes sprinting through the back door, jolting me awake. She’s here! She hasn’t been murdered or lying somewhere injured and alone, just time traveling by the looks of it: barefoot in a bizarrely mixed set of men’s pants rolled up her calves and what appears to be a child’s shirt barely fitting over her torso. “Jamie!” I cry in equal parts relief and surprise.

“Dani!” she hollers, eyes lighting up when she finds me. She closes the distance between us in seconds and before I know it, she’s lifted me up into a hug and spins me around, laughing. I am dazed at this version of the woman from yesterday. For a moment I’m not certain if she’s the Jamie that belongs here in the present with me or a version that time has spat out. This Jamie is practically euphoric and overjoyed, so different from the despondent, defeated person who left. The same realization must hit her at the same time because her face sobers and she puts me down. My heels thump in the grass. “Dani,” she says, holding me at arm’s length and cupping my cheek, “I am so, so sorry. I never should’ve run away like that but I promise it won’t ever happen again, yeah?” Jamie’s eyes flicker around my face so intently I can feel the vow in my bones. She pulls me into a hug, cradling the back of my head. “Jamie, not Louise,” she murmurs, whether more to herself or not, I’m not sure. It doesn’t matter, though. She finally knows it, now, the way I always have. There’s a sense of peace about her I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. 

I pull back. “Jamie,” I say, so happy to see her but still needing to understand, “What happened?”

At this, her eyes light up instantly. “I saw her,” she says.

“Saw who?”

“Her,” Jamie says with awe, like it's the only word that exists. “Our daughter.”

My breath catches, freezes entirely. “Our…?” Jamie nods, beaming brilliantly. 

“We have a little girl and I’m sorry I was such a coward about it because she’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

“We have a daughter,” I breathe.

“We have a daughter,” she confirms. Then I start laughing, and she starts laughing, and then we’re crying and laughing and whooping together as the sun stretches across the horizon.


Wednesday, July 7, 1993 (Dani is 31, Jamie is 33)
DANI:

The weeks turned into months, the months to more, and before we knew it, a year has almost passed. A trip around the sun and she’s here: our baby girl is almost here. She’s due in two weeks and we still haven’t settled on a name for her. We’ve barely discussed it actually, avoiding the whole thing superstitiously, as though naming the baby will cause the universe to change its mind and take her away. 

We’re in bed. It’s only 8:30 p.m., but I’m exhausted and Jamie’s up early anyway. I’m lying on my side, my belly a peninsula, facing Jamie, who lies on her side facing me with her head propped up on her arm, a book of baby names between us. We look at each other, smile nervously.

“Any thoughts?” she says, leafing through the book. 

“Jane,” I reply.

She makes a face. “Jane?”

“I used to name all my dolls and stuffed animals Jane. Everyone single one of them,” I say proudly.

“Pretty sure that makes you uniquely unqualified to name anything that’s actually alive, but since you’re growing the thing, I suppose I’ll have to take it into consideration.”

“Hey!” 

“What about Georgette?”

I hum. “That’s pretty.”

“‘French feminine form of the Greek ‘George’. Meaning tiller of the soil, or farmer.’ Reckon I could get behind that one.”

“I like it. Bookmark that. Try Rebecca.”

Jamie flips to the right page, runs her finger down the columns. “‘Hebrew, meaning ‘to bind’, ‘servant of God’.’” She makes a face. “Not sure how I feel about that one. Bit possessive, innit?”

I nod in agreement. I take the book from Jamie and, for kicks, look up: “‘Jamie: diminutive form of James, of Hebrew origin meaning supplanter, or one who follows.’”

“Jesus, don’t remind me. The amount of times I got made fun of for having a ‘boys’ name’. Do you,” she says.

“‘Danielle: Hebrew, meaning ‘God is my Judge’.” I scrunch up my face. I flip through the book randomly. “Evelyn: derived from the surname Aveline, meaning hazelnut in modern French and ‘desired one’ in ancient Germanic’. Well, she’s certainly desired.”

“And I,” she yanks the book back, “am certainly allergic to hazelnuts.” I pout. Jamie leafs through the book while I grab my paperback from the nightstand. “What if she’s like me?” Jamie asks a few minutes later. She does this, sometimes, leveling herself and reading out loud to the growing thing inside me, stroking my rounding belly softly, watering it with so much love already, ever the gardener. I put down the book, laying it face-down against the swell of my stomach and regard her. There’s no fear in her voice, the way it had been before, when she’d asked the same question almost a year ago. The teeth have gone, and now it’s a simple question, without ragged edges. She’s genuinely curious. 

I grin, imagining brown curls and a half-smirk on smaller features, like I’m carrying a secret. “Well, that’s kind of what I’m hoping for.”

Jamie’s mouth quirks into a fond half-smile, gives me a teasing nudge, then says seriously, “I mean it, though. What if she’s like me?” I take in the weight of the question, the reasonable concern.

"So what if she is? You’re not an only child, Jamie. Denny and Mikey were fine, and I’m sure she will be too,” I say, cupping my stomach. Unease lingers in Jamie’s face and I know she’s about to counter with a dozen more protests, so I get there first. “And,” I say, drawing out the word, making a point, “If she’s a time traveler too, then...wow, Jamie. What a really great grown-up she’s going to have in her life to show her the way.” Jamie stares down at my belly, holds it reverently. “No matter what she is, she won’t have to do any of it alone.”

Her hands are warm against me. Arousal flutters and my heart throbs with a deep, abiding love. “Flora,” Jamie murmurs. “What about Flora?” I take the book, Flora: Latin, flower. I let the sound of its simplicity sit on my tongue. I think of all the times Jamie left. All the times she’s come back. I think about how many seeds we had to sow before one would take. How it took Jamie, always a part of me, now a part of her, to make it happen. That it takes earth, water, and sun for a seed to sprout. And time. Always time. “Flora,” I say, feeling it settle inside me. The baby stirs, as if recognizing her name. 

Jamie slides her hand under my nightgown, runs it slowly over my taut stomach. The baby kicks, hard, just where her hand is, and Jamie starts, looking at me, amazed. Her hands are roaming, finding their way across familiar and unfamiliar terrain. “Flora,” Jamie says softly in awe, sliding lower on the bed. “Flora,” she says again, sliding off my underwear. “Jamie,” I breathe as she settles my knees over her shoulders. “Jamie,” I moan, arching into her tongue. Flora, there, taking root between us. Our little leafling.


Friday, July 30, 1993 (Dani is 31, Jamie is 33)
JAMIE:

Dani’s been pacing around the house all day like a tiger waiting to pounce. The contractions come every twenty minutes or so. “Why don’t you try lying down, yeah? Get some sleep? Might do you both a bit of good,” I suggest, and Dani grumpily grumbles something about “might do you a bit of good” but lies down anyway. It only lasts for a few minutes before she gets up again. At two in the morning she finally goes to sleep. I lie next to her, wakeful, watching her breathe, listening to the little fretful sounds she makes, playing with her hair. I’m so fucking worried, even though I know, even though I’ve seen with my own two bloody eyes that she’ll be okay, that Flora will be okay. Dani wakes up at 3:30.

“I wanna go to the hospital,” she says in a tone that breaches no argument. 

“Right, then. Lemme call a cab.”

“Hannah said to call no matter what time it was.”

“Fuck, right. Right, they said that,” I say, already dialing Owen, so addled I can barely hit the numbers right. The phone rings sixteen bloody times before Owen picks up, sounding like a man on the bottom of the sea.

“Muh?” says Owen.

“Oi, mate. It’s time.”

He mutters something that sounds like “mustard eggs.” Then Hannah gets on the phone and tells me to hang tight and they’re on their way. Dani is crouched on all fours, rocking back and forth. I get down on the floor with her. 

“Dani?”

She looks up at me, still rocking. “Jamie...why did we decide to do this again?”

“Reckon because when it’s over they hand us a baby and let us keep it.”

“Oh, yeah.”

Twenty minutes later we’re climbing into Owen’s Honda. The car is barely in park before he jumps out of the driver’s seat and hurries up to the door, eager to help. I give him our bags and he runs them to the trunk before running back and between the two of us, help ease Dani into the back seat. “Thanks a million for this, Owen,” she manages to say in a calm tone of voice, even though her forehead is slick with sweat. 

“Don’t mention it,” he says, clipping himself into the seatbelt. “Chef’s duty, after all: leave no bun in an oven unattended.”

“Darling, honestly. Now is not the time,” Hannah chimes in from the passenger seat. Dani leans against me and clenches my hands in hers. 

“Don’t leave me,” she says.

“I won’t,” I tell her. 

“It hurts,” Dani moans. “Oh god, it hurts.”

“Think of something else,” Hannah suggests, “Something nice.” 

“Tell me…”

I try to force my rattled brain to think of something other than the buzzing sound that seems to occupy my skull. I remember my last trip to Dani’s childhood. “Remember that day we went to the lake, when you were twelve? We went swimming and you dove in from that tree branch and I damn near had a heart attack?” Dani’s gripping my hands with bone-shattering strength.

“Did I?”

“Yeah, you were laughing about it, saying you’d done it a million times and knew it was deep enough and there I was panicking about how I’d have to explain your death to Karen. You were real proud of yourself.” 

“I remember - ah! - oh, Jamie, it hurts, it really fucking hurts!” 

Owen turns around, keeping one eye on the road, “Come on, Dani, it’s just the baby leaning on your spine, you’ve got to turn, okay?” We all look at him like he’s absolutely mental. “What?” he challenges, “I read up a bit to be prepared, alright?”

Hannah cups his cheek. “Oh, you sweet, sweet man.” Finally, we pull up to St. Mary’s Hospital. 

“I’m leaking,” Dani says. Owen stops the car, jumps out, and we gently remove Dani from the car. She takes two steps and her water breaks. 

“Good timing, love,” he says. Hannah runs ahead with Dani’s paperwork, and Owen and I walk Dani slowly through the long corridors to the OB wing. She stands leaning against the nurses’ station, while they prepare a room for her. 

“Don’t leave me,” Dani whispers. 

“I won’t,” I promise her again, wishing I could be sure about this. I’m feeling cold and a little nauseous and know there’s more than the possibility of my fucked up genes preventing me from being in that delivery room. Dani turns and leans into me. I wrap my arms around her, kissing her head. The baby is a hard roundness between us. Come out, little flower. Dani is panting. A nurse finally comes to tell us the room is ready. We all troop in, this little family of ours. Hannah starts putting things away, clothes in the drawers and closets, toiletries in the bathroom. She runs her hands along the bedspread, even though it’s perfectly flat, and fluffs up the shitty pillows. Owen and I stand watching Dani helplessly. She’s moaning. We look at each other. 

Hannah comes around, puts a hand on Dani’s back. “Dani, love, how about a bath? You’ll feel better in warm water.”

Dani nods. Hannah makes a motion with her hands at Owen that means shoo. “I’ll, uh, go bring some breakfast,” he says and leaves, but not before clapping a hand on my shoulder and smiling so wide it peeks through both ends of his mustache. I pat his hand in thanks, for everything. Hannah’s got Dani’s hand, rubbing her back and stroking her hair in soothing motions. I walk into the bathroom to run the bathwater. I turn on the tap, wait for the water to get warm. 

“Jamie!” Dani calls, “Are you there?”

I run out, sticking my head back into the room, eyes wide, “You alright??”

“Stay in here,” Dani commands, and Hannah takes my place in the bathroom. Dani makes a sound I’ve never heard a human being make before, a deep despairing groan of agony. What have I done to her? I think of twelve-year-old Dani jumping into the water, laughing and shrieking. A nurse comes in and checks Dani’s measurements.

“Good girl,” she coos to Dani. “Six centimeters.”

Dani nods, smiles, then grimaces. She clutches her belly and doubles over, moaning louder. The sound wrenches something loose inside me. I hold her. Dani gasps for breath, and then starts to scream. The doctor finally comes in and rushes to her. The nurse gives the doctor a bunch of information that means nothing to me. It could’ve been in bloody French and I wouldn’t have understood it any better. All I know is Dani is sobbing and it’s tearing me apart. I clear my throat. My voice comes out a shaky croak. “How about an epidural, there, doc?” People crowd into the room with tubes and needles and machines. I sit holding Dani’s hand, watching her face. She’s lying on her side, whimpering, her face wet with sweat and tears as the anaesthesiologist hooks up an IV and inserts a needle into her spine. The doctor is examining her and frowning at the foetal monitor. It doesn’t inspire much fucking comfort. 

“What’s wrong?” Dani asks. “Something’s wrong.”

“The heartbeat is very fast. She’s scared, your little girl. You have to be calm, Dani, so the baby can be calm, ok?” Dani stares back determinedly at the doctor, taking the slowest, deepest breaths she can manage despite the pain. Her face is red and blotchy, strands of hair flying out of her ponytail and plastered to her forehead and neck in sweat. She’s never looked more beautiful or strong than this moment. “Good job, Dani. Now we’re giving you a little something, some narcotic, some analgesic, and it will help you both relax even more, yes?” Dani nods. The doctor smiles. I stand there gripping Dani’s hand in my own, shushing her through the wires and tubes. The beeping is still going on and the doctor gives me a look that says try harder so I close my eyes and visualize the Gardens. I concentrate on the path my morning route takes before the grounds open, describing the blooms, each plant and vine and tree. I recount tales of the family of moles that live on the property, constantly getting into trouble, along with the hedgehog that I found burrowed in the pocket of my work apron. I describe the colors of the tulips this year, all the species of ferns and palms in the greenhouse. I tell her of the ants that march bold paths across the sidewalks and the ducks that return to the lake year after year. “There,” the doctor says, clicking off the monitor. “Everyone is serene.” He beams at us all, and glides out the door, followed by the nurse. I settle into the chair for a long morning, watching Dani’s eyes flutter. 

DANI:

The sun is coming up and I’m lying kinda numb on this weird bed in this weird room and somewhere in the foreign country that is my uterus Flora is crawling toward home. Or away from home. It’s hard to know which. They blur together and either way it doesn’t really matter because home is wherever we are. The pain has left but I know that it hasn’t gone far. The contractions come and go, like Jamie, but muffled, like the peal of bells through fog. Jamie lies down next to me. People come and go. I feel like throwing up, but I don’t. Hannah gives me shaved ice out of a paper cup but it tastes terrible. I didn’t know ice could taste so stale, but it does. I try to breathe. Jamie watches me. She looks so worried and tense. I start to worry that she’ll vanish. “It’s okay,” I say. She nods, keeps stroking my belly, as eager for Flora to arrive as I am. Every so often the nurse comes in to check on me. Sometimes the doctor does, too. I’m somehow alone with Flora in the midst of everyone. It’s okay, I tell her. You’re doing fine, you’re not hurting me. We’re all out here waiting for you. Owen comes back with pastries and tea and fruit and the smell is both appetizing and abhorrent. 

Time passes and the pain begins to roll in and out like the tides ebbing and flowing. Sunset rises and falls in Jamie’s eyes. The doctor says it’s time, and I’m prepped for the delivery room: shaved, scrubbed, moved onto a gurney and rolled through the hallways. I watch the ceilings of the hallways roll by, thinking about all the ceilings I looked at during all the failed inseminations. They seem so far away, now. 

Flora and I are rolling toward meeting each other, and Jamie is walking beside us. The double doors swing open and Jamie’s hand slips from mine as she’s held back by a well-intentioned orderly. We’re not married. There is no husband. I cry out, whether in pain from birth or the pull in my heart, it doesn’t matter. All I know is both Flora and I are now missing a part of ourselves. We need her there with us. I need Jamie’s hands to be the ones helping our daughter from the harvest of my womb. “Stop,” I croak, reaching blindly, finding the arm of some doctor or nurse my eyes are too wild to see. “Stop,” I repeat, more urgently. “She’s the mother,” I try to explain, drowsy and foggy and alert all at once. “It’s her egg. Please,” I beg. The nurse must motion for Jamie to come and a moment later her fingers slide into mine again and I can finally breathe. “Jamie,” I mewl. 

“I’m here,” she breathes, hot and trembling in my ear. “I’m here.” I hate that if we had been in this hospital a year ago, she would have had to rely on the kindness of a stranger to let her through. That our love might not have been enough. That Jamie might not have been enough. I try not to dwell on the unfairness of it and focus on the present, which isn’t difficult to do given the pressure below my waist. In the delivery room everything is green and white. I smell detergent and it reminds me of Judy O’Mara, but Judy’s in Iowa, and I look up at Jamie who’s wearing surgical scrubs and I think why are we here we should be in the Meadow and then I feel like Flora is surging, rushing, and I push without thinking and we do this again and again like a game, like a song, like a perennial. I push and Flora’s head comes out and I put my hand down to touch her head, her delicate slippery wet velvet head, and I push and push and Flora tumbles into Jamie’s waiting hands and someone says Oh! and suddenly I’m empty and released and then Flora yells out and suddenly she’s here. Someone places her on my belly and I look down. Her face, Flora’s face, is so pink and creased like a carnation and her hair is so dark and her eyes blindly search and her hands reach out and Flora pulls herself up to my breasts and she pauses, exhausted by the effort, by the sheer fact of everything. 

Jamie leans over me and touches her forehead, and says, “Flora.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 14: Early Motherhood

Listen:

Reader: foomatic

Length: 59:30


Monday August 6, 1993 (Dani is 31, Jamie is 33)
DANI:

I wake up at 6:13 a.m. and the bed is empty. So’s the crib. My breasts hurt. Everything between my belly button and my knees hurts. I get out of bed very carefully, go to the bathroom. I walk tender-footed down the stairs, into the dining room, through the kitchen. In the living room, Jamie’s sitting on the couch with Flora. Jamie’s cross-legged, her feet tucked under her knees, wearing an oversized t-shirt and shorts. Flora’s asleep. I waddle over to the couch and sit gingerly next to Jamie. She peeks at me to make sure I’m alright before resuming her vigilant watch over the tiny bundle cradled in her arms. 

There’s something about watching Jamie with Flora that sets my heart aflutter. It’s barely been a week since she was born but Jamie’s taken to motherhood like it’s the most natural thing. It actually kind of freaks me out how completely out of my depth I feel half the time. Maybe it’s the hormones, but I’ve cried four times trying to put on her diapers because Flora’s so dang tiny and it doesn’t seem to be fitting right. When it comes to nursing, she hasn’t been latching well, and my breasts ache with milk. We’ve been so exhausted waking up every few hours to feed her, change her, soothe her, that Jamie hasn’t even been able to make a joke about how much bigger my breasts have become. We simply take turns as the hours and days bleed together into a muddled sleep-deprived fog. 

Part of me can’t help but wonder if I’m somehow lacking. I carried Flora, birthed her, but she is Jamie’s. Somehow, does Flora know? Is the mystical connection between mother and child absent in me? Does she ache for her biological mother in a way I can’t satisfy? 

I know this is crazy. I know it’s not true. Flora is no one but her own, and if anything she’s ours: a transplanted sapling. Nothing can grow from one thing alone; Jamie taught me that. But everything seems so much harder in a way I didn’t expect. After so many months and months of aching and waiting and failing, so desperately wanting a child, now she’s here and I feel like I can’t get anything right. 

But Jamie takes it all in a stride and grace that seems unfathomable to me in my aching, clumsy fumbling: Jamie’s deft fingers find the diaper tabs, her hands know exactly how to tuck a swaddle, arms figuring out how to shift Flora without waking her. “How long have you been up?” I ask. 

“Not that long. Got back a little while ago. Went to check on our little seedling here, she was due for a change.”

“Where’d you go?”

“June 16, 1960.”

I frown. “Your birthday?”

Jamie’s thumb strokes Flora’s blanket. “Yeah. Spent about an hour in the hospital watching Dennis standin' outside the nursery window.” 

“Wow,” I say, dumbfounded. “Have you ever been there before?”

“No. First time for everything, right? Past and future still have secrets, even from me, I s’pose.” There’s a melancholy on the edges of her words. 

“You alright?”

“Yeah,” she says decisively, after considering it a moment. “Yeah, I am.” I put my arm around her and she leans into it the best she can without disturbing Flora. “Was thinkin’ about if things might’ve been different, if he never went to work in the mines. Then I remembered, no use thinkin’ about it, cause he did. And it wasn’t. They had everything and let it slip through their fingers.” Jamie’s jaw ruts forward, something hard in the soft features of her face. But then her eyes soften, looking down with such a deep well of love at Flora, my heart squeezes in recognition. “Was a helpful reminder that I never want to be like them - takin’ things for granted, assuming things’ll just get taken care of when you’re not around. Kept itching to get back here. To you. To Flora. I wanna get it right, be as perfect as I can be, to make up for every moment I’m not here. Know it’s not my fault, but...it’s the least I can do.”

Oh, Jamie,” I say. “You already are. Perfect, I mean.” Jamie’s mouth is open to protest, so I hurriedly keep going, “And not just like ‘I love you so much, you’re perfect to me,’ but, like, actually perfect. You’re such a natural, knowing how to hold her, how to feed her, change her, and I-” this is where my whole plan to comfort and reassure Jamie falls apart because I’m now sputtering and crying in a defeated mess, “-I can’t even get her diaper on right, I’m a terrible mother.”

As if to prove my point, Jamie somehow pivots on the couch and pulls me into her while still managing to keep Flora steady. I’m sobbing into her shoulder, snot pouring out my nose, and I’m puffy and ridiculous and ugly. It’s only when I lean back slightly to wipe my nose that I register the shaking I felt isn’t from my crying, but from Jamie holding back laughter. She’s biting her lip, eyes crinkled with mirth, her shoulders quaking, and I go from heartbreak to offended in a matter of seconds. “Jamie!” I wail pathetically, “Are you laughing at me?”

She nods, grinning. “Yeah, I am. Sorry, know it’s not funny but, c’mon Dani, really? A terrible mother, just because you can’t get a nappy on the first go when you haven’t slept in days?”

“You managed just fine,” I grumble. 

“Dani. I changed Mikey’s for years. Just means I have a wee bit more experience doin’ it. You’re the one who takes care of kids day in and day out, remember? The legions of children who adore you and beg to be in your classroom year after year? Today it’s diapers and breast feeding. Tomorrow it’ll be boys and curfew. There’s always going to be struggles and we aren’t always going to do the right thing or get it right the first time. You’re doing great.” I sniffle, wipe my nose. “You’re doing great,” she repeats, making sure it sinks in and slides her hand into mine, giving it a squeeze and kissing my knuckles.

And just like that, I feel seventeen again, Jamie setting my distraught world right once more with her patient wisdom. “Or girls.”

“Sorry?”

‘Tomorrow it’ll be boys and curfew...’”

Jamie smiles, leans over and kisses me softly. She pulls back and looks down at Flora, gives her foot a tiny wiggle. “Well, between her Uncle Owen and Aunt Hannah and us, she’ll hopefully get some good advice in there somewhere.” She thinks for a second and then, “‘Course, could always avoid the whole thing by not letting her date at all, which, can’t say I fault the general principle...” My hair’s a mess, I’m deliriously tired, my breasts are killing me, and I feel so grody that when I smile it feels like my face is crinkling like tissue paper but everything seems so perfect and I wish I could capture this moment in a bottle, keeping the tableau of our small, perfect family forever in time.


Tuesday, August 7th, 1993 (Jamie is 33)
JAMIE:

I really, really don’t want to be making this phone call. Mostly because what I’d like to do more than anything is reach my hand through the phone and throttle the woman on the other end of it. Amount of times I’ve had to massage Dani’s shoulders to ease the stress after hanging up with her is more than I’d like to count. Don’t think she deserves the extra kindness, especially after their last tense conversation from a few months ago when Dani’d told her she was pregnant and ended up hanging up the phone in tears. (“Didn’t take the news well, I suppose?” I asked. “She took it great! At first. She thought it meant all of this,” she gestures between us, “was over. That I’d ‘grown out of it’ finally. When I told her it was a donor, that you were emphatically still in the picture, and that it was, in fact, your picture I’m developing, that’s when she started being ‘Karen’ again.” “Oh baby,” I say, collecting her in my arms, “C’mere.” I kiss her forehead. “An ocean’s not far enough away from that woman, sometimes. ‘M’sorry she’s a right twat.”)

An ocean away still seems a little too close for comfort at the moment, but right now it’s not about her. Not about me, either. It’s about the baby that’s upstairs crying and the mother that’s at her wits’ end.

“Hello?”

Even her voice sets me on edge. I clear my throat. “Mrs. Clayton,” I greet evenly.

“Yes?” she says, as if she doesn’t recognize my voice. As if the amount of people she knows with a British accent who’d be calling her up is too numerous to place a single one of them. I grit my teeth, breathe out through my nose. 

“It’s Jamie. Jamie Taylor.”

 I hear her take a long breath through her nose. “Yes. Hello,” a thread of disdain woven through her voice despite the polite veneer. “What can I do for you, Jamie?”

“I thought you should know,” I start before trailing off, suddenly not knowing what to say next. 

“Thought I should know what,” her voice thins in impatience. 

“It’s a girl. Dani had a little girl, and she’s perfect. And I thought you should know.”

I hear a sharp inhale. A long minute with neither of us saying anything. Until, “A girl,” Karen breathes in awe.

“Yeah,” I confirm. It’s the first time I’ve ever heard something aside from judgement in her voice before. 

“A girl,” she repeats, wonder trailing off into silence. “What’s her name?” Didn’t realize I’d been tensing my shoulders until they relax at the question. I soften. 

“Flora,” I say, mouth pulling into a smile at the thought of her. A miracle still, a week later.

“Flora,” she breathes.

“Listen. I know we’re not exactly on the best of terms, you and I. Or you and Dani, for that matter. But she’s your daughter. And I reckon that’s more important than how either of us feel about each other. Family’s more important than that, and like it or not, we’re what you’ve got. So. I thought you should know.”

Another long moment of silence stretches. Part of me’s certain she’s hung up the phone sometime while I was talking, another part is ready for the onslaught of whatever rant she’s about to let loose, so I’m wholly unprepared when a voice smaller than I’ve ever heard from her before asks, “Can I see her?”

I exhale, releasing a breath, realizing, suddenly, that this is what I’d been hoping for. Hoping for Dani. Hoping that the thin branch of a truce Dani’d been offering for years would finally be reached for. Acceptance, perhaps, will come later. But acknowledgement, for now, is enough. “If it was up to me, you could come whenever you want. But it’s not up to just me, is it?” There’s no way Dani would ever say no, would deny her mother the right to see her grandchild. But it doesn’t mean she shouldn’t get the opportunity to decide for herself. “You have to ask her. You have to make it right.”

“I will,” Karen vows, and in the low tremor of her voice, I believe her. “I promise.”


Monday September,20, 1993 (Dani is 31, Jamie is 33)
DANI:

Jamie flops onto the couch, exhausted. My mother has just left and the house echoes its quiet back at us, Flora blissfully sleeping upstairs. “I’m spent,” Jamie groans. “I’m absolutely spent, and it’s nothing to do with the newborn. Who knew a grown woman could be so exhausting?”

“I did,” I point out. “She’s been exhausting my whole life, Jamie.”

“Part of me liked it better when she wanted nothing to do with us.”

“Admit it, you liked being able to sleep.”

“God,” Jamie moans. “I did. I really did.”

It was weird, at first, having my mom here. But exhaustion won out over any of the confusing feelings or social niceties and she’d barely gotten in the house before we placed Flora in her arms. Two weeks of half-sleep, crying, nursing, and changing diapers had left us both ragged on the edges of delirium. Even Jamie’s earlier calm had reduced to a similarly frazzled state. By the time Karen Clayton arrived, there was no room for second-guessing. Only a desperate need for help. For an extra pair of hands, a shower, and just a little more sleep. 

She’d shushed us both and shooed us away and when we emerged from the bedroom a few hours later feeling remarkably more human-like than we had since the birth, it was to a fresh load of laundry, a clean kitchen, and Flora, asleep in my mother’s lap, gently rocking her while singing what sounded an awful lot like 'Camptown Races' under her breath. 

I was nervous, at first, to leave her alone with Flora unsupervised for so long. But not once since arriving have I seen a glass in Mom’s hand. Her hands have shaken here and there, fingers trembling as she fastens a diaper or fills a cup, but her arms are steady. And Flora seems at ease in them. Try as I might to find a reason, there’s little evidence of distrust to prevent her from taking care of Flora. 

She’d stayed for a month, cooking, cleaning, helping to take care of us. Charmed, of course, in an instant by Hannah, who had come over with some cards and gifts from the other teachers and staff at school and some food wrapped up by Owen. A few times a week Hannah would come back and take her out to tea at Owen’s and give us a few hours’ break. 

It’s been strange, trying to reconcile the ghost of the mother I grew up with after Dad died with the woman who spent the last month practically doting on everyone like a mother hen. I’d never seen that version of her before. Did she ever exist? Was that what she was like when I was little? Was she ever like this or has Flora unlocked some secret untapped spot of gentleness reserved for a grandchild alone? 

I was hesitant, at first, at the thought of her coming here. The only time she’d come to England for a visit had been such a disaster it resulted in nearly three months of radio silence, only to be broken by a staunch denial of the entire trip. But then it became clear that my mother had simply decided to ignore Jamie’s existence entirely. Our phone calls, which hadn’t exactly been easy to begin with, became increasingly strained and merely perfunctory on my part. When Jamie told me what she’d done, that she’d called and told her about Flora, part of me was upset but mostly secretly relieved, glad to not have to be the one to do it. I’d never heard my mother sound contrite before. There was genuine regret in her voice and a hint of fear, perhaps, when she stepped out of the taxi, unsure if the tentative truce would hold under the weight of her physical presence. My hands were full of Flora and nervousness but Jamie, wonderful Jamie, had simply stepped forward and without missing a beat, held out her hand, smiled, and said, “Right. Let’s try this again, shall we? I’m Jamie.” Mom, to her credit, simply took a deep breath, smiled, and reached out to take it and said, “It’s nice to meet you.”

“It was nice, though, wasn’t it?” the question comes out more of a statement, looking for confirmation. 

“Yeah,” Jamie smiles, “It was.” She adds, jokingly, “Maybe she can come again in a few months when we’re proper knackered again, make it a regular thing, getting sleep a couple of times a year.”

“I love you, but we’re not doing that again for at least another six months.”


Monday, November 16, 1993 (Dani is 31, Jamie is 33)
DANI:

Jamie and I are about to take Flora for a walk. It’s a cold afternoon, and I’m pulling on my boots when the phone rings. Jamie pulls back from tucking a blanket around Flora and walks into the living room to answer it. I hear her say, “Hello?” and then “Really?” and then “Well. Blimey.” Then she says, “Wait, let me get some paper--” and there’s a long silence punctuated once in a while with “Wait, hang on, explain that,” and I leave Flora strapped safely in the stroller, take off my boots and my coat and go into the kitchen in my socks. Jamie is sitting at the countertop with the phone resting on the counter next to her, furiously taking notes. I sit down next to her and she grins at me. I look at the pad; the top of the page starts off: 4 genes; per4, timeless1, Clock, new genes==timetraveler?? Chrom=17 x 2, 4, 25, 200+ repeats TAG, sex linked? No, +too many dopanine recpts, what proteins??... and I realize: Wingrave did it! He figured it out! I can’t believe it. He did it. Now what?

Jamie puts down the phone, turns it to me. She looks as stunned as I feel. “What happens next?” I ask her.

“He’s going to clone the genes and put ‘em into mice.”

What?”

“He’s gonna make wee little time-traveling mice. Then he’s going to cure them.”

We both start to laugh at the same time, and then we’re dancing, flinging each other around the room, going back into the doorway to unbuckle Flora, hoisting her into the air above our heads, laughing and dancing until we all fall back onto the couch, panting. I look over at Jamie, and I wonder that on a cellular level she’s so different, so other, when she’s just a woman in a black button-up shirt and a jacket who’s hand feels like skin and bone in mine, a woman who smiles just like a human and makes me melt inside, all gooey like caramel. I always knew she was different, what does it matter? A few letters of code? But somehow it does matter, and somehow we have to change it, and somewhere in Cambridge Dr. Wingrave is sitting in his office figuring out how to make mice that defy the rules of time. I laugh, but it’s life and death, and I stop laughing, look at Flora cooing happily in her carrier, and put my hand over my mouth.    


Thursday, May 11th, 2000 (Jamie is 34)
JAMIE:

I’m wandering around The Commons sometime in the future. It’s a beautiful day, crisp and sunny, which is lucky for me, cause I’m nowhere near perfectly dressed. Best I could manage was a windbreaker and a men’s pair of athletic shorts I hoisted from the back seat of someone’s car. Luckily the car was unlocked, which made it quick and convenient to lift. I send out one of my many apologies to the universe and hope it gets re-routed to the proper owners. I haven’t been able to find shoes yet, but it’s not cold enough to be a necessity and it’s a public enough park that hopefully I’ll be able to blend in enough as the quirky, strange local woman. I am hungry though. Home is an option, but Dani’s work is much closer, so I head in that direction instead. At the very least, I can rummage for food in the staffroom or in Dani’s desk where she keeps some snacks and an emergency box for me, just in case. 

It must be earlier in the afternoon than I realized, because as I approach, the school bell rings and children pour out, running and eager to escape into the day. I hang back, on the other side of the street, not wanting to be the creepy weird adult lurking about alone by a school. Luckily the kids are distracted, dividing into friend groups on the grass or unlocking bicycles and walking down the street in pairs. A tall woman lingers outside the entrance, supervising with an affectionate watchful eye. As I get a little closer, I realize it’s Hannah and come out from under the tree I was resting against and wave. What I don’t expect is for her to stiffen when she sees me and her face to take on a waxen, grey pallor. I frown, trying to make sense of her reaction when all of a sudden I hear a shriek and am tackled around the middle. I stumble back, trying to keep my balance from the child that has her arms wrapped tightly around my waist. “Um, hello?” I say as politely as possible. Two girls run over, catching up to us and hover a few feet away, looking at me oddly. I’m well aware of how the situation must look and keep my hands held high, elbows up and away from my body to make my intentions, though completely baffled, abundantly clear.

So when one of the girls says, “Flora, what are you doing?” the pieces slide into place and immediately I lower my arms and rest my hands on her back. Flora pulls back, not relinquishing her hold, but lifts her head to look up. These gangly limbs, long brown hair, the long shape of her face - these things are all novel to me. But I’d recognize those eyes and nose anywhere. Just this morning I was holding her in one arm and now she could outrun me across the yard. 

“Hey, Little Bit,” I say, kissing her head.

“Mum!” she cries happily, resuming her hug, “It’s so very good to see you.” 

All of these little things are clueing me into something being very very wrong, so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise when Flora’s friend says, “But Flora, didn’t your other mum die?” and suddenly it all makes sense. The look on Hannah’s face. The way Flora is holding on so tight like she hasn’t seen me in a while. Because she hasn’t. I’m speechless. But Flora, my daughter, has a grip on the situation. 

“She is dead,” she tells her friend, “But she’s not continuously dead.”

I find my wits. “It’s kind of hard to explain--”

“She’s a CDP,” says Flora, almost proudly, “Like me.”

“Oh,” the friend says, already bored, “Well, see you tomorrow then?” Flora waves. The two girls hike up their school bags and skip away. Flora and I are left standing by the tree. I’m still staring in a stupefied shock of the 7-year-old in front of me and the knowledge of my death and don’t notice Hannah approaching. 

“Mrs. Grose!” Flora cries happily, pulling on my arm, “Look who’s here!”

Hannah’s eyes nervously take me in and she does that thing where she fingers the back of her head. “Yes, Flora, it’s certainly quite the surprise.” Her tone is light, not trying to alarm Flora, but the tension beneath is just simmering. 

“The most wonderful surprise!”

“Hey, Hannah,” I lift my arm lamely in greeting.

“Jamie,” she replies with a hint of wonder. “My god. How--”

“Mrs. Grose,” Flora begins politely, “do you mind if I speak with my mum privately? We’ve got an awful lot to catch up on and I’m not quite sure when I’m going to see her next.” I gape at this poised child. Two hours ago she shat so bad the diaper couldn’t contain it and one of the most foul substances on earth smeared all the way up her back. 

“O-of course not,” Hannah stammers. 

“I know! Why don’t you tell my other mum that she’s here. Then we can all be together again and it’ll be perfectly splendid.”

“Oh my god, Dani,” Hannah spins around to the school, suddenly remembering, but not before hesitating with one last look at me. 

“S’alright,” I reassure her. “Tell Dani….” What can I possibly say? “Tell Dani I love her,” I settle on. It’s the safest, truest thing there is. “And to hurry. Don’t think I’m gonna be here much longer.” Hannah nods and hurries back toward the building. 

“Well then,” Flora says matter-of-factly, taking everything in stride, “We’d better get started, shall we?” She takes me by the hand and leads me over to a bench off the entry path. My mind is racing. What to ask first? Flora says, “Thank you for the films. Mummy gave them to me for my birthday.” What films? “I can do the Yale and the Master, and I’m working on the Walters,” she says proudly. 

Locks. She’s learning to pick locks. “That’s brilliant, keep at it. Listen, Flora?”

“Yes?” her head is cocked slightly to one side, looking at me completely normally. I can’t think. 

“What’s a CDP?”

“A Chrono-Displaced Person.” Flora sits facing me, with her hands in her lap. She looks so much like me at eight. I can’t wrap my head around the bombshell from just a few minutes ago. 

“Y’know, just an hour ago I was changing your nappy.” Flora giggles. “So,” I start. “Do we see each other much?”

She considers. “Not particularly. It’s been nearly a year since the last time.”

“How old were you when I died?” I hold my breath.

“Five.” Jesus. I can’t deal with this. “I’m sorry! Should I not have told you?” Flora’s contrite. I hug her to me.

“It’s okay. I asked, didn’t I?” I take a deep breath. “How’s your mum?”

“Okay. Sad.” This pierces me. I realize I don’t want to know anything more. Absolutely can’t handle it. I settle on safer topics. 

“What about you, then? How’s school? What are you learning?”

Flora lights up. “So much! We’re learning about electricity and space and the food chain! Owen says he’ll take me to see someone who raises chickens! In maths we’re studying all types of multiplication and division: I’m quite good at fractions.”

“Blimey. Sounds like you’re quite the student, then. You definitely got that from your mum and not me.”

“I like school! But I think I like being outside more. Oh! I’m nearly finished finding all the edible plants at home! Mum and I tend the garden and I’m getting much better at using the plants to mark time!”

She’s a CDP, like me. Oh, shit. “You time travel.”

Flora nods happily. “Mum always says you and I are exactly alike. Dr. Wingrave says I’m a phenomenal.” 

“What d’ya mean?”

“Sometimes, I can go when and where I want.” Flora looks pleased with herself; I’m so envious.

“Can you not go at all if you don’t want to?”

“Well, no,” she admits quietly, a bit embarrassed. “Not quite. But I do like it. It’s not always...convenient, exactly but it is always interesting.” Yes. I know. Christ, do I know.

“Come and visit me, if you can be anytime you want.”

"I tried. I saw you once in London. You seemed like you were busy, though.” 

I cringe, feel a pang of regret that I likely made a piss poor impression on this lovely girl.  “Wasn’t exactly doing things I was proud of back then. Best to avoid me in London entirely, if you can manage it.” The high-pitched whining noise has set in, and I just hope Dani will get here before I’m gone. 

Flora rummages around her bag and pulls out a snack. She opens the fruit gums and politely offers me one. I accept and we nibble them contentedly, sitting shoulder to shoulder in the sunshine. I’m drunk with the overwhelming love I feel for this amazing child who presses next to me, as though we’ll never be separated, as though we’ve got all the time in the world. I’m clinging to this moment, fighting fatigue and the pulling of my own time. Let me stay, I implore my body, God, Father Time, Father Christmas, anyone who might be listening. Just let me see Dani, and I’ll come along peacefully. 

“There’s mum!” says Flora, pointing to the building. The entrance doors are still propped open from the dismissal bell, and I can just make out a shadowy figure speeding towards us, shoes slapping and echoing against the linoleum floors. I shoot to my feet, ignoring the coalescing fog in my head. 

“Jamie!” I try to run to her, she’s sprinting, and I collapse onto the front steps of the school. She’s nearly to the entrance, I stretch out my arms towards Dani: Flora is holding me and yelling something and Dani’s only a few feet away from me and I use the last of my reserves of will to look at Dani, who seems so far away, and I say as clearly and forcefully as I can “I love you,” and I’m gone. Fuck. Fuck.


Sunday, December 25, 1994 (Dani is 32, Jamie is 34)
DANI:

It’s true what they say about the days and hours being long. But the years have always been short; time with Jamie has never felt like enough, even after over twenty years of knowing her. Flora grows bigger and so too, our hearts. Each new day brings new joys, new discoveries, new exhaustion, new frustrations. Jamie tends to let Flora nap too long and messes up her sleeping schedule. I let the dishes pile up, leaving plates, bowls, spoons, bottles, cups, cutlery, where they lie at the end of a feeding or meal, to which Jamie very fairly points out that “The sink is right there, Dani, just put them in it.”

Over time, the things I was so anxious about a year ago have become second nature: I can fasten a diaper with my eyes closed (and I’m sure I have on several occasions, especially in the early, sleepless months); hold Flora in one arm while also balancing several toys, piles of endless laundry, and the phone on my ear; nurse while marking worksheets and watching TV. Parenting became second nature as much as loving her had become a part of us. We spend time on the floor just watching her sit, being a baby, waving blocks like it’s the most remarkable thing a human being has ever done. Hours bent over the top of the crib, observing her sleep, even while bone-weary and tired, falling asleep draped over each other and her. She lies so still that sometimes Jamie sticks a finger under her nose just to make sure she’s still breathing. 

What time isn’t spent watching Flora is spent watching Jamie with Flora. Over a year later and I’m still amazed by her motherly instincts. The way she tends to Flora as naturally as if she’d been doing it all her life, like they’ve known each other for years and years. How Jamie incorporates Flora into her daily routine; holding her while making tea, carefully narrating every stage of the process, letting Flora hold the teabag until it’s time to drop it in; shushing and bouncing her gently in the middle of the night after she wakes up crying, patting her back and humming to soothe her back down; playing in the grass and dirt together in the backyard while Jamie pulls weeds and tends to the garden as lovingly as she does to Flora. 

This bounty of life together fills my heart to aching. Days like these, filled with a lazy and built kind of love. We’ve come to Owen and Hannah’s for Christmas Day after having woken up earlier than I’ve ever woken up on Christmas, even as a Midwestern kid bounding down the stairs for presents under the tree. Last year probably doesn’t count, because we were up half the night with Flora into the morning and technically probably never went to sleep in the first place.

Owen really outdid himself this year with the meal. Full roasted turkey with chestnut stuffing and gravy, redcurrant jelly, roasted potatoes, vegetables, and a full dessert spread of mince pies, custard, and cream. Jamie got misty-eyed over the Christmas pudding and shared a knowing smile with Owen who met hers with one of his own. Flora’s got cream all over her face and hands, and it’ll be a mess to get it all off her later but right now all we do is laugh as she tries to get more into her mouth and succeeds only in making a bigger mess, somehow getting some in her ear. 

We retire to their living room, stuffed beyond belief, and nurse our swollen stomachs while trading presents. Owen goes first. We insist, since he made the exquisite feast. He wiggles his fingers in anticipation and pulls out a bright red apron that reads ‘romaine calm and carrot on’. His entire face lights up like the Fourth of July and looks at us like we’ve given him a million dollars.

“Knew you’d fuckin’ love that one, mate,” Jamie laughs over her glass of wine. “Got the absolute worst one I could find.”

“Jamie, language!” Hannah scolds.

Jamie scoffs. “She’s a baby, Hannah. Don’t have to worry about watching our words for a little while longer yet so I’m going to keep cussing long as I fuckin’ can.” Hannah makes a ‘tsk’ noise and presses her lips together, looking very much like the stern school administrator my most rowdy students are unlucky to see. But what they don’t get to appreciate is how much affection Hannah tries to hide beneath the austere demeanor. She’s failing remarkably, a fond smile pulling at her cheeks as she watches Jamie open her gift, a bootleg record of a Blondie concert from 1978. She spins the album between her palms, grinning at it eagerly. “Alternate pressing, live in Philadelphia. That’s brilliant, thanks to you both.” Hannah, in turn, coos over the Burberry scarf Jamie and I got for her as she lifts it out of the box. I open a small box to find a pair of earrings, elegant and simple studs with amethyst stones.

“Oh wow, they’re beautiful! Thank you,” I say sincerely. 

“Know they’re not your usual dangly ones, but we thought with this one grabbing everything in sight-” Owen motions down to Flora as she bounces on his lap, “-might be helpful having something you could wear without risk of grievous bodily injury.” As if to prove his point, Flora reaches up and pulls on Owen’s mustache. He winces and gently extricates her hands from his facial hair, but not before her fingers pull down his glasses. She immediately shoves them into her mouth, gnawing with gusto. We all laugh as Owen struggles to pry his glasses back.

“Alright, you wee gremlin,” Jamie says, swooping in and lifting Flora into the air. “Best be on your best behavior or next year you’re gettin’ a lump of coal for Christmas.” Flora squeals happily as Jamie spins them around and I think this might be the best Christmas I’ve ever had.


Thursday, September 21st, 1995 (Dani is 33, Jamie is 35)
JAMIE:

We’re at the school for parents evening. Dani’s been carefully compiling notes on each student for weeks, eager to make a connection with each kids’ parents. It’s silly, really, her working so hard on it. Dani could make a connection with a lamppost if she wanted to. I’m always in awe of how deftly she navigates people - easily diffusing the aggressive and defensively protective parents of troublemakers or reassuring the parents of the quieter ones - she makes it look so easy. She loves her kids. Each and every one of them, no matter how hard they may test her patience or resolve.

Flora and I are occupying ourselves by wandering the halls while Dani meets with rounds of parents for the next hour and a half. Hannah and some of the other office staff are here to help coordinate the evening. Parents are lined up waiting for their turn to speak to the teachers, who will be inevitably running behind. I’m holding Flora’s hand, waddling past empty classrooms and bulletin boards. She’s still a little too small to see, barely able to reach my hand without me having to lean over, so I lift her onto my shoulders. She bounces. 

Some of the parents who have already had their one-on-ones linger in the main lobby, chatting to each other. “Mummy,” Flora says, reaching back behind us towards Dani’s classroom. 

“Mummy’s busy, Flora.” I say. I’m feeling queasy. I bend over and set Flora on the floor. She puts her arms up. “No,” she pouts, “Mummy.” I sit on the floor and put my head between my knees. I need to find a place where no one can see me. Flora’s pulling my ear. “Don’t, Flora,” I say. I look up. Hannah notices my distress and leaves the front office, quickly making her way to us. “Go,” I tell Flora, giving her a little push. “Go see Aunt Hannah.” She starts to whimper. “Mummy,” she repeats, starting to tear up. I’m crawling towards Hannah, trying to get into one of the nearby empty classrooms before it’s too late. I hear Flora screaming, “Mummy!” as I vanish.

DANI:

DANI: There are so. many. parents. There are nearly thirty kids in my classroom. Sixty adults come and go in a near blur. I do my best to pack weeks of growth and observation into the precious few minutes I get alone with them, but it’s not enough. It’s never enough. I’m walking Mr. and Mrs. Patel to the doorway, ready to greet the next set of parents. There’s a line stretching down the hall. Crud. Backed up already. Everyone presses at me, smiling politely. I smile back. My face hurts from smiling. I shake Mr. and Mrs. Williams’ hands, directing them into my classroom when I hear a commotion at the end of the hallway, and then I hear Flora screaming, “Mummy!” Where is Jamie? I try to get past the crowd of parents to Flora. Then I see her: Hannah’s lifted her up. People part to let me through. Hannah hands Flora to me. She clings tightly to my neck. “Where’s Jamie?” I ask Hannah. “Gone,” she replies helplessly.


Monday,  May 27th, 1996 (Dani is 33, Jamie is 35)
DANI:

Jamie is sleeping, bruised and caked with blood, on the kitchen floor. I don’t want to move or wake her so I sit with her on the cool linoleum for a while. Eventually I get up and make myself some coffee. As the coffee streams into the pot and the grounds make little exploding pufts, Jamie whimpers and puts her hands over her eyes. It’s obvious that she’s been beaten. I just hope that’s all that’s been done. One eye is swollen shut. The blood seems to have come from her nose. I don’t see any wounds, just radiant purple fist-size bruises all over her body. She’s so thin; I can see all her vertebrae and ribs. Her pelvis juts. Her hair has grown out, straighter than it was when she was younger, and there’s grey shot through it. There are cuts on her hands and feet, and insect bites everywhere on her body. She’s tanned and filthy, grime under nails, dirt sweated into creases in her skin. She smells of grass, blood, and salt. After watching her and sitting with her for a while, I decide to wake her. “Jamie,” I say very softly, “Wake up, you’re home…” I stroke her face, carefully, and she opens one eye. I can tell she’s not quite awake. “Dani,” she mumbles, “Dani.”

“Are you…..?” I ask. 

“Yeah,” she croaks.  

“Were you…?” I whisper, relief flooding when she shakes her head slightly, ‘no’. Tears begin to stream from her good eye, she’s shaking, sobbing, and I pull her into my lap. I’m crying, too. Jamie is curled in my lap, there on the floor, we shake tightly together, rocking, rocking, crying our relief and our anguish together.

Chapter Text

Chapter 15: Beginning of the End

Listen:

Reader: foomatic

Length: 57:43


Monday, December 23, 1996 (Dani is 34, Jamie is 36)
DANI:

It’s the day before Christmas Eve and we’re at the Cambridge Holiday Market. Jamie is taking Flora to see Santa while I finish the shopping. I want to get some stocking stuffers for my co-workers and send gifts to Eddie and the O’Maras for New Years. It’s a lovely market, much larger than our local one, and I’m admiring some beautiful wooden ornaments when someone calls my name. I turn around, and Henry Wingrave is coming toward me with Miles in tow. 

They’re each holding novelty mugs of hot cocoa and are bundled in matching hats and mittens. It’s cute. And really, really good to see them so happy together. “Miss Clayton!” Miles greets politely, lip stained with whipped cream, “It’s so nice to see you. Merry Christmas!”

“Merry Christmas, Miles,” I greet back, “but how many times do I have to tell you to just call me Dani.”

“Just once more, Miss Clayton,” he blushes shyly. “Where’s Flora?” He peeks around to look for her and I point over to where Jamie and her are waiting in line for Santa. “Uncle Henry, may I?” Permission granted, Miles bounds over to join them. Henry watches him go fondly before turning back to me. 

“Hello, Dani,” he says warmly, hugging me. 

“Henry,” I hug back, “It’s so nice to see you. Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas. How are things?” We amble along taking small steps without any particular direction, staying within sight of the kids. 

“Good! Things are good. Flora’s in love with that dollhouse, by the way, thank you. Can’t get her to stop playing with it. I keep catching her sneaking out of bed, moving things around and playing way after bedtime.” He chuckles.

“I’m glad. Not at her mischief, mind you, though I can’t say I was much better behaved at her age. I remember sneaking out of bed at night to gaze at the stars.” The light in his eyes dims just a little bit. “My brother,” he says, “Would teach me all of the constellations when I was a boy.” His cheeks are still smiling, and he blinks, pinched, trying to bring it back up to his eyes. “Our parents would be quite cross when they caught us but I could never bring myself to stop.”

“Well,” I say, giving his arm a gentle squeeze, “Your secret is safe with me. If Flora ever found out I don’t think I’d ever hear the end of it.”

Conversation ebbs and a comforting silence stretches as Henry takes sips of his hot cocoa and I admire the fair. And then, “Is Jamie following her drug regimen?”

“I think so,” I say. “I mean, as closely as she can, really, considering she’s been time traveling a lot lately.”

Henry drums his fingers against his mug. “How much would you say is a lot?”

“Every couple days, maybe?”

Henry looks furious. “Why doesn’t she tell me these things?”

“I think she’s afraid you’ll get upset with her and quit.”

“She’s the only test subject I have who can talk and she never tells me anything!”

I laugh. “Join the club.”

Henry frowns. “I’m trying to do science. I need her to tell me when something doesn’t work. Otherwise we’re all just making blind guesses and going nowhere. I want to help.” I nod, understanding. It’s not that Jamie’s trying to be difficult, I know. But she hates being poked and prodded like a lab rat. Been itchy around drugs of all sorts ever since leaving London. “Dani?” 

“Hmm?”

“Why won’t you let me look at Flora’s DNA?”

I’ve had this conversation a hundred times with Jamie. “Because first you’d just want to locate all the markers in her genes, and that would be okay. But then you and Jamie would start to badger me to let you try out drugs on her, and that is not okay. That’s why.”

“But she’s still very young; she has a better chance of responding positively to the medication.”

“I said no. When Flora’s eighteen, she can decide for herself. So far, everything you’ve given Jamie has been a nightmare.” I can’t look at Henry. I say this to my hands, holding one of the ornaments a little too tightly. I put it back. 

“We may be able to develop gene therapy for her --”

“People have died from gene therapy.”

Henry is silent. The noise from the market is suddenly overwhelming. Then, from the babble I hear Flora calling, “Mummy!” I look up and see her riding on Jamie’s shoulders, clutching her head with her hands, Miles in tow. Both of them are wearing elf hats. Jamie sees Henry and for a brief moment she looks apprehensive and I wonder what secrets these two people are keeping from me. Then Jamie grins and comes striding towards us, Flora bobbing happily above the crowd. Henry goes to greet them, and I push the thought away.


Monday, May 12, 1997, (Dani is 34, Jamie is 36)
DANI:

It’s one of the rare days I don’t have any extra tutoring or help sessions after work and am able to come straight home after the school day is over. I dump my keys in the dish next to the door, plop my bag on the floor, and kick off my shoes. It’s been a long day and I miss my girls. I walk into the kitchen to find Jamie standing by the window staring out at the backyard. I stand beside her and look out. Flora’s playing in the yard with an older girl. The girl is about seven. She has long dark hair and she’s barefoot, wearing a dirty t-shirt with the Arsenal logo on it. They’re both sitting on the ground, facing each other. The girl has her back to us. Flora’s smiling at her and gesturing with her hands as though she’s flying. The girl shakes her head and laughs.

I look at Jamie. “Who’s that?”

“s’Flora.”

“Well, yeah, but who’s with her?”

Jamie smiles, but her eyebrows pull together so that the smile seems worried. “Dani, that’s Flora when she’s older. She’s time traveling.”

“Oh my god.” I stare at the girl. She swivels and points at the house, and I see a quick profile and then she turns away again. “Should we go out there?”

“Nah, she’s fine. If they want to come in, they will.”

“I’d love to meet her…”

“Best not--” Jamie begins, but as she speaks the two Floras jump up and come racing toward the back door, hand in hand. They burst into the kitchen laughing. “Mummy, Mummy,” says my Flora, four-year-old Flora, pointing, “Look! A big Flora!”

The other Flora grins and says, “Hello, Mummy,” and I’m smiling and I say, “Hi, Flora,” when she turns and sees Jamie and cries out, “Mum!” and runs toward her, throws her arms around her, and starts to cry. Jamie glances at me, bends over Flora, rocking her, and whispers something in her ear.

JAMIE:

Dani’s white-faced; she stands watching us, holding little Flora’s hand, Flora who stands watching open-mouthed as her older self clings to me, weeping. I lean down to Flora, whisper in her ear: “Don’t tell your Mum I died, okay?” She looks at me, tears clinging to her lashes, lips quivering, and nods. Dani is holding a tissue, telling Flora to blow her nose, hugging her. Flora allows herself to be led off to wash her face. Small Flora, present Flora, wraps herself around my leg. “Why, Mum, why is she sad?” Fortunately I don’t have to answer because Dani and Flora have come back; Flora is wearing one of Dani’s t-shirts and a pair of her shorts with a belt wrapped as tightly as it can go; it comically bunches the front of the shorts. Dani says, “Hey, everyone. Why don’t we go get some fish and chips?” Both Floras smile; small Flora dances around us yelling, “Fish and chips! Fish and chips! My favorite!” We pile into the car, Dani driving, four-year-old Flora in the front seat and seven-year-old Flora in the backseat with me. She leans against me; I put my arm around her. Nobody says a word except little Flora, who says, “Look, Flora, a dog! Look, Flora, look…” until her older self says “Yes, Flora, I see.” Dani drives us to the wildly creatively named ‘Fish and Chips’ and we each get an order and a side of salt & pepper squid. The girls eagerly attack their kids' meals, getting grease and oil all over their faces; Dani and I pick at our food, not looking at each other. Dani says, “Flora, what’s going on, in your present?” Flora darts a look at me. “Not much,” she says. “I started taking piano lessons.”

“You’re in a play, at school,” I prompt.

“I am?” she says, then sighs, “Not yet, I suppose.”

“Oh, sorry,” I say. “Guess that’s not ‘til next year.” It goes on like this. We make halting conversation, working around what we know and what we have to protect Dani and small Flora from knowing. After a while older Flora puts her head in her arms. “Tired?” Dani asks her. She nods. “We’d better go,” I tell Dani. I pick Flora up; she’s limp, almost asleep in my arms. She curls up tight towards me. Dani scoops up little Flora, who’s still licking vinegar off her fingers. Back in the car, as we’re heading back towards home, Flora vanishes. “She’s gone back,” I say to Dani. She holds my eyes in the rearview mirror for a few moments. “Back where, Mum?” asks Flora. “Back where?”

Later:
DANI:

I’ve finally managed to get Flora to take a nap. Jamie is sitting on the couch, drinking Scotch and staring out the window at some squirrels chasing each other through the branches of a tree across the fence. I walk over and sit down next to her. “Hey,” I say. Jamie looks at me, puts her arm around me, pulls me to her. “Hey,” she says back.

“Are you gonna tell me what that was all about?” I ask her.

Jamie puts down her drink and starts to undo the buttons on my shirt. “Any chance I can get away with not telling you?”

“No.” I unbuckle her belt and open the button of her jeans. 

“Are you sure?” She’s kissing my neck.

“Yes.” I slide the zipper down, run my hand under her shirt, over her stomach, palming her breasts. 

“Because you really don’t want to know.” Jamie breathes into my ear and runs her tongue around the rim. I shiver. She takes off my shirt, undoes the clasp of my bra. My breasts fall loose and I lie back, watching Jamie stripping off her jeans, underwear, and shirt. She climbs onto the couch. We look at each other.

“You’re just trying to distract me,” I say.

Jamie caresses my stomach. “Tryin’ to distract m’self, if I’m being honest. If I also manage to distract you, that’s just a bonus.”

“You have to tell me.”

“No,” she says carefully, “I don’t.” She cups my breasts in her hands, runs her thumbs over my nipples. I arch into her.

“I’ll imagine the worst.”

“Go ahead.” I raise my hips and Jamie pulls off my skirt and underwear. She straddles me, leans over, kisses me. Oh god, I think, what can it be? What is the worst? I close my eyes. A memory: the driveway, the coldest day of my childhood, the car, the crash, a pair of shoeless feet, she called my name--

“Dani?” Jamie is nipping my neck, gently. “Where are you?”

“1970.”

Jamie pauses and says, “Why?”

“I think that’s where it happens.”

“Where what happens?”

“Whatever it is you’re afraid to tell me.”

Jamie rolls off of me. “Tell me about it,” she says.

“It was late. The night my Dad died. I thought I heard you calling me; I woke up. Saw his car mangled by the phone pole. There was someone lying on the ground. But he died in the front seat.”

"Oh?”

“The police couldn’t figure out where all the extra blood came from.”

Jamie says nothing. She presses her lips together. I wrap my arms around her, hold her tightly. “The worst --”

“Hush, Dani.”

“But--”

“Shh. It’s gonna be okay,” she lies. Outside it’s still a golden afternoon. Inside we’re cold, and we cling together for warmth. Flora, in her bed, sleeps, and dreams of fried fish, dreams the small contented dreams of four, while another Flora, somewhere in the future, dreams of wrapping her arms around her mother, and wakes up to find...what?


Sunday, August 31, 1997 (Jamie is 37, Dani is 35)
DANI:

Poor Flora’s been nursing a fever for two days on top of an ear infection. She hasn’t been sleeping well, which means, of course, that we haven’t been sleeping well. I only just got her down again for the night. She’d woken up an hour earlier in pain and spent the better part of five storytimes curled up and sniffling into my chest, her tiny fist curled into my shirt. Now it’s almost midnight but I’m overtired and head downstairs for a biscuit and a cup of something herbal and calming. I’m surprised to see Jamie on the couch, reading. Even more surprising that the TV is on, low and angled away from Jamie’s view, but on nonetheless.

“What are you doing up?” I ask, surprised she’s awake so late. She’s usually up so early for work that Jamie awake past ten o’clock is an anomaly.

“Wanted to let the world be a little kinder for a bit longer.” She’s doing the thing where she sometimes speaks in future riddles. Eventually it usually makes sense, so I just shrug and keep walking to the kitchen. It doesn’t take long for the tea to brew, and I kiss the top of Jamie’s head before joining her on the couch, munching on the biscuit. A few crumbs fall onto the saucer and I lick my finger, pressing onto the granules to capture them when Jamie raises the volume of the TV. I’m scraping the crumbs off my finger with my teeth when the channel cuts to breaking news and a reporter is talking about a car accident in a tunnel in Paris and my jaw drops.

“Oh no,” I say as the camera shows a stream of police cars and emergency vehicles and shaky far-away zooms of personnel. “Oh my god,” I drop the biscuit numbly. Jamie’s hand slides into mine and she holds it between her own and squeezes as I watch, stupefied. A little less kind, indeed.


Tuesday, September 9, 1997 (Jamie is 37)
JAMIE:

The country’s been in a stupor for days. The loss of Diana has sliced a wound across the entire world, it seems, not just our little island. I’m at the cafe, sitting on the counter with my legs dangling off the edge while Owen busies himself with tidying up around the shop. He’s been quieter than normal. Not making the usual jokes. Never thought I’d miss ‘em but in their silence something worse stretches and reigns. The BBC is playing. The news cycle has been going on about the funeral, and one of the radio announcers talks about the procession. “Those two little boys,” Owen chokes, breaking the silence. “God.”

I think of Flora and the hole in my heart tears a little wider. Feel like I could fall through it, one of these days. The words are out of my mouth before I realize. “If you knew, when you were going to die, would you tell people? Or would you keep it to yourself, and let your loved ones live the best life you could give them?”

Owen considers it before answering; lets it sit on his tongue, like a sauce that needs tasting. “It took years, after the diagnosis, for it to finally happen. Mum, God bless her, was gone long before she died. She seemed so small, at the end, but still so...heavy. And all I could do was just...let her hang onto me until it was time for her to let go.” His glasses reflect like tiny headlights as he stares into the distance. “She was my anchor. And then she was my...burden.” He wipes his nose. Resumes sweeping. “Somehow, it still felt too fast, in the end. So no, I wouldn’t tell them, if I knew. Knowing is the worst part. Any of us could die, at any moment. Best let them be. Let them live their lives the way they should. Without anything hanging over them. They deserve that. We all do.”

His words play over and over all day; reverberating through my ears like an errant echo at night as I stare at the ceiling, unblinking, unable to sleep. Dani’s head rests on my chest, a comforting weight, anchoring me in the dark. Her fingers clutch onto the hem of my shirt, always wanting to hold on to me even in sleep, and I try not to think of her just a few years from now, in this very bed, holding onto nothing.


Wednesday, June 16, 1999 (Jamie is 37)
JAMIE:

It’s a beautiful fall day at work. Well, technically I’m off the clock since when I left it was my day off and I’ve no idea when, exactly, I am. But since I landed in the Gardens, figured I might as well put myself to good use while I’m here. After heading to the nearest supply shed, I don a spare pair of coveralls, grateful not for the first time that they do, in fact, cover all. Not that I bother showing up to work in clothes I don’t mind getting dirty anyway, but coveralls come awfully handy as an easily-explainable uniform for a naked time-traveler. Once clothed, I grab a pair of pruning shears and head out to make myself busy with some light maintenance. I’d rather get a jump start on some weeding, but if I disappear before the job’s done, anything I pull out of the ground and leave behind, will just make a bigger problem if the pesky buggers aren’t discarded properly. Pruning it is, then. 

Don’t see too many people out and about. I wonder if it’s a low-traffic weekday. Prefer the quiet anyway, so it doesn’t bother me. I whistle contentedly, enjoying the gorgeous weather. A flock of geese honk overhead as they swoop down to land in the pond, wings flapping as they settle in. I veer to the left out of their path, not eager to get shat on by the fuckers. I swear they’ve got it out for me. I’m constantly having to wash my work clothes on days I’m unlucky enough to be underwing because there always ends up being a spot of shit on me somewhere.

It’s on this path of avoidance that I notice something unusual at the base of a tree over by one of my regular maintenance paths. It looks like some sort of large object, but I can’t quite make it out from this distance. As I get closer, I realize it’s a bench of some sort, wrapped around the trunk of the tree, facing out in all directions. Installations are usually coordinated with the groundskeeping staff, and since there’s been no news about the addition of a new bench at work, I guess this must be a planned one for the future, then. Just as I’m about to pay it no mind and continue on my way, a flash of light catches my eye. There’s a placard of some kind, I notice, right on the top of one of the benches. I squint, bending forward to read it, and I make it through four words before the sickening feeling twists deep in my stomach, wrenching something loose. 

In loving memory of Jamie Taylor
1960-1999

No feeling dies, no sacred sweet emotion,
No lover's kiss, no children's laugh, no prayer;
All are a part of time's unending ocean.
And we shall find them, some day surely there

 

Shit fucking fuck shit. 

I get it, Universe! I’m dead. I’m going to die soon and there’s not a fucking thing I can do about it. The Book of Life is written and shut, etched in engraved letters I can feel under my fingertips right here on this goddamn plaque. But I could really do without the fucking reminder every few months that my life has a clear and definitive end date and that I’m rapidly barreling towards it. 

The worst part of it is that I’m taking Flora and Dani down with me. They’re along for this ride no matter what. Can’t undo that, now, can I? I think back to that first date, when I very nearly ran away. Part of me thinks I had the right idea back then. From here on in, the shadows get deeper, the nights get longer. I’m heading into the dark and there’s no place to hide. Should’ve known better, living as I do. Have I just been selfish for the past twelve years,  building a life with Dani that’s going to crumble in the wake of my passing? If I’d’ve known then what I know now, would I have made the same choice? Would I have stayed? Should I have stayed? The guilt of leaving survivors is almost more than I can bear.

And cruel Time is reminding me of it by pulling the ground out from under me one shovelful at a time. First my impromptu future visit to the school, then older Flora traveling back…

I couldn’t hide that from Dani. She knows. A part of her knows. And it’s this lurking, waiting beast. Watching me, matching my movements, hiding just out of sight, but I can feel it. Time is coming, sooner rather than later. And eventually, sometime soon, it’s gonna take me. 

I let myself be angry about it, angry in a way I haven’t been since I was younger and couldn’t fathom why my future self wasn’t preventing me from getting hurt in every way a young girl could. Angry that she didn’t move the pot off the stove that night or help me run away from every bad foster home after. Everything could have been different - and in my younger eyes, could’ve still been different. Now that I’m older, I’m angry it can’t be different. No amount of anything is going to change what’s already happened, I just haven’t lived it yet. Now it’s all I can do to rail against the unfairness of it all. How the same world that gave me this life, that’s given me Dani and Flora, Owen and Hannah, is going to take it all away. As carelessly as swatting a fly. Time is indifferent and I’m helpless, drowning in a raging sea and I’m losing the battle to stay afloat, choking on bitter saltwater. 

I don’t know how to breathe, with all this anger inside of me, seething against the beast of time. I feel like a kettle desperate to boil, and need to find a way to match this violence inside and let it out. So I do the only thing I know how to do.

I run.

I take off across the field, away from the tree, away from the lake, past the hedges and over the fence into the greater estate until even that is behind me. I’m without aim, sprinting anywhere, until my lungs burn hotter than my anger. I channel my rage down the funnel of my heart and chest to my feet thundering on the ground. I run in the future I won't live to see, a path I won't be able to follow, a life I won't be able to lead. I don't hear anything except for the whistling of the wind like a blade across my ears, my heartbeat thudding, and breath pounding in my eardrums, drumming a deadly metronome that no matter how fast I go, can't outpace.

I think about where I‘d be, right now, if I'd never met Dani. Would I still be in Bly, stopping by Owen’s in the morning on my way to work? Would I have moved on to other towns? Would I have gotten caught at some point, my luck at avoiding the police having finally run out? Would I be in a lab, drugged and strung up on electrodes like some experiment? I think about other worlds, and wonder in a different one, what could have changed, if the past were so easily undone. If there's a future waiting for me, somewhere else.

I run until I can’t, until my legs are spent and my lungs can take me no further. I have no idea how long it’s been, thirty minutes or three hours. It doesn’t matter. Time is nothing. I collapse against a tree, feel the rough bark under my fingertips, and squeeze my fingers into a fist. I thump it against the tree and the dull thud reverberates up my arm. I take my fist and press my weight against it as my chest heaves. I punch the tree and I cry out in pain as pain shoots up my hand. I punch again, my insignificant flesh no match at all for the tree and I scream again and again as I pummel it. My throat is raw and my knuckles are torn to bloody shreds in no time. It doesn’t matter. I hold onto the pain, relishing in the singular ounce of control I have in this shitty fucking world and use it to make an absolute mess of myself. It hurts, I hurt, and it’s all I can do to keep punching that tree, the pain grounding me, reminding me that even in this time in which I no longer exist, I’m still here. Eventually I collapse exhausted, against the tree and slide to the ground, bark scraping my back and I lean forward, doubled over on my knees, keening, and let myself sob.


Thursday, October, 10th 1997 (Jamie is 37, Dani is 35)
JAMIE:

I’m sitting in Henry’s office, listening to him explain why it’s not going to work. Outside the birds are chirping. In here, the air conditioning is cranked so high, I’ve got goosebumps. We’re sitting across from each other in the same chairs we always sit in. On the table is a ridiculously nice bottle of Scotch from which Henry poured me a few fingers’ worth at the start of the conversation. He’s been sipping his slowly. I’ve been taking large gulps. It’s a shame really, ‘cause it really is good Scotch. Can’t find it in myself to much appreciate it now, though. We’re sitting with the lights off, and the air is heavy with drink and cold. I want to scream. I want Henry to stop talking so I can ask him a question. I want to stand up and walk out. I want to punch something. But I sit, listening. 

When Henry stops talking, the background noises of the building are suddenly apparent. Sounds from reception come in from down the hall. The birds outside the window seem louder. The air conditioning rumbles. “Jamie? Did you hear me?”

I sit up and look at him like a schoolkid caught daydreaming. Which I suppose I was. I want to live. But it’s becoming rather apparent that I won’t be for very much longer. “Um, no.”

“Do you understand? Why it won’t work?”

“Yeah.” I try to get my head together, run my fingers along my temple, pulling my hair back. “It won’t work because my immune system is fucked up. ‘n because I’m old. And because there’s too many genes involved.”

“Correct.” Henry sighs and puts down his glass. “I’m so sorry,” he says, looking genuinely sad. Which I suppose he might be. We’ve known each other for five years now. Our children play together. We’re...not friends, exactly, but something near it. I think about the first time I saw him, here in this office, five years ago. Both of us were younger, confident in the possibilities of molecular genetics, ready to use science to outwit nature. I think about holding Henry’s time-traveling mouse in my hands, about the surge of hope I felt then, looking at my tiny white proxy. I think about the look on Dani’s face when I tell her it’s not going to work. 

I clear my throat. “What about Flora?”

Henry crosses his legs and fidgets. “What about Flora?”

“Would it work for her?”

“We’ll never know, will we? Unless Dani changes her mind about letting me work with Flora’s DNA.”

“But if you had Flora’s DNA,” I say, “You could make some mice and work on things for her so when she turns eighteen she can try it if she wants, yeah?”

“Yes.”

“So even if I’m fucked, at least Flora could benefit someday.”

“Yes.”

“Okay, then.” I stand and rub my hands together, something in my spine straightening like steel. “That’s what we’ll do.”


Tuesday, November 4th 1997  (Dani is 35, Jamie is 37)
DANI:

I’m in the kitchen chopping some vegetables for dinner. Flora’s been picky lately, no longer enjoying cooked carrots, so I’m blitzing them and some other veggies up and putting them in pasta sauce to sneak ‘em in. I remember my Dad doing the same thing for me when I was a kid. I hear the front door open and Flora running down the hallway, only for Jamie to cry out “Oi, Flora! Where’d’ya think you’re going like that? Shoes off, you know the rule.” Flora runs back to the foyer, kicking off her shoes, and runs back down the hall. 

“Mummy!” she cries, bounding into the kitchen, “Look what Mum got me!” She holds up a pair of ruby slippers. “They’re just like Dorothy’s!” Flora says. “Can I put them on, please?”

“Yeah, alright,” Jamie relents. “Long as you only play with them in the house, yeah?” Flora nods eagerly, already plopping down on the floor to put them on. Once she gets the clasps done, she stands and taps her heels together three times, but doesn’t vanish. Of course she doesn’t, because she’s already home. I laugh. Jamie looks pleased with herself. Flora’s been watching The Wizard of Oz endlessly this month and has been begging to be Dorothy for Halloween. 

“You look great, Flora! Oh!” I say, remembering suddenly and turning to Jamie, “Did you make it to the post office?”

Her face falls. “Shoot. No, I forgot. Sorry. I’ll go tomorrow on my way back from work.” Flora’s twirling around, and Jamie reaches out and stops her. “Best not, Flora. You’ll get dizzy.”

“I like being dizzy.”

“‘S’not a good idea.”

Flora’s wearing a skirt with tights and a shirt with butterflies on it. Her hair is long but tied back with a barrette. There’s a Band-Aid over the skin in the crook of her elbow. “Flora, what happened to your arm?” I ask her. Instead of answering she looks at Jamie, so I do, too.

“It’s nothin’,” she says. “Scratched her arm on a fence.”

“Why was she by a fence, Jamie?” I cross my arms and raise an eyebrow at her. 

“I dunno,” she shrugs. “She’s a kid. Kids play.”

I have a premonition. Call it the sixth sense of mothers. I walk over to Flora. “Let’s see.”

She hugs her arm close to her, clutching it tight with her other arm. “Don’t take off the plaster, please, it’ll hurt!”

“I’ll be careful, I promise.” I hold her arm. She makes a whimpering noise, but I’m determined. Slowly I unbend her am and peel off the bandage gently. There’s a small red puncture mark in the center of a purple bruise. Flora says, “Be careful, it’s sore,” and I release her. She sticks the Band-Aid down, and watches me, waiting.

"Flora, why don’t you go play with your new shoes, okay?” Flora smiles and races out of the kitchen. Jamie stands there, watching me, waiting for me to say something. 

“I don’t believe it,” I finally say as I walk over to her, cross my arms, and glare. “How could you?”

“I had to,” Jamie says. Her voice is quiet. “She-- I couldn’t leave her without at least - I wanted to give her a head start. So Henry can be workin’ on it, working for her, just in case.” She looks tired, I realize. And small. There’s something like a resigned contrition in her eyes. “Dani, I didn’t tell her what it was for. You can tell her, when….it’s time.”

I shake my head, no. “Call Henry and tell him to stop.”

“No.”

"Then I will,” I say, already walking over to the phone. 

“Dani, don’t--”

“You can do whatever you want with your own body, Jamie, but --”

“Dani!” Jamie squeezes my name out through clenched teeth, placing her hand down over the phone before I can lift it from the wall. 

What?” I practically snap.

“It’s over, okay? I’m done.” She’s defeated. “Henry says he can’t do anything more.”

“But--” I pause to absorb what she’s just said. “But then….what happens?”

Jamie shakes her head. “I don’t know. Probably what we thought might happen...happens. But if that’s what happens, then...I can’t just leave Flora without trying to help her. Dammit, Dani, just let me do this for her, please? It might not work, she might never use it - she might love time traveling, she might never be lost, or hungry, she might never get arrested or chased or raped or beat up, but what if she doesn’t love it? What if she just wants to be a regular kid? Dani? Fuck, Dani, don’t cry…” But I can’t stop. I stand weeping in my yellow apron, and finally Jamie puts her arms around me. She’s so solid around me. “I’m just trying to make her a safety net,” Jamie says softly, “like I never had.” I can feel her ribs through her shirt. “Can you let me at least leave her that? Please?” It’s the please that finally breaks me. I nod, and Jamie kisses my forehead. “Thank you,” she says in a shuddering breath, and I start to cry again.


Sunday, October 5, 1970 (Jamie is 37, Dani is 8)
JAMIE:

Everything yields to time, even me. Especially me. I should know better th’n most, subject to its whims and fancies. The past recedes, the future yawns open, and the blissful present is the most elusive of all. Slipping through our fingers, we can no more hold onto time than water in the hand. 

Skip to the end. 

I know it, now. It goes like this: I’ll suddenly materialize on Dani’s street, in front of her house. Phil Clayton will be coming home late from work. He’s tired and won’t see me for a second. Can’t blame him, really. Who expects a naked woman to suddenly blink into existence in the middle of the street? But one second is enough; one second is all it takes. He swerves, turning the steering wheel sharply to try and avoid me. My eyes will widen in the headlights and for a fraction of a second, for one long heartbeat, we’ll meet each other’s eyes. It is the only time my father-in-law and I will see each other. There will be just enough time for me to scream Dani’s name and the car to turn before a sickening crunch. Glass will shatter, the telephone pole will crack and fall forward, pulling down the wires above. The block will lose power for the next day and a half because the power company can’t get to the area until after the emergency services are finished with the scene. 

Phil will die almost instantly, crushed between the seat and steering wheel. But there will be a pool of blood on the ground that the police won’t be able to puzzle together because there’s no body to be found. In her bed, Dani will hear the scream. She will hear someone calling her name, and she will sit up, her heart jumping in her ribcage. She will run downstairs, out the door, into the driveway, in her nightgown, just a minute behind Karen, who’d run out to the wreckage and is on her knees in the front yard. 

Dani will be standing barefoot, taking in the accident, watching steam hiss from the broken radiator when the smoke will part just enough for her to see me, standing across the street. I will put my finger to my lips. As the police and ambulance sirens echo down the neighborhood as they approach, Dani will cock her head sideways and stare at me puzzled in a sort of daze. It isn’t until a paramedic sprints across the lawn toward the scene that she looks away and I watch as she’s walked away by an officer. His hand is on her back, leading her toward the house, but she’s still looking at the car over her shoulder. Karen is still screaming. Dani will look at me, and I will wave to her, and she’ll wave back, slender, in her nightgown blowing around her like an angel’s, and eventually she’ll disappear behind the front door into the house with the officer by her side, and I will stand across the street from the wreckage of everything, my blood seeping into the asphalt under Phil’s car and I’ll know: somewhere out there I’m dying.

Chapter Text

Chapter 16: Measures of Peace

Listen:

Reader: foomatic

Length: 59:47


Wednesday, April 22, 1998 (Jamie is 37, Dani is 35)

JAMIE:

In the end, it becomes something like relief, knowing. My whole life has been spent with uncertainty dangling over my head, the question of survival never fully answered. Suppose that’s how most people live, come to think of it, not knowing their future. Or quite literally reliving the most traumatic parts of their past. Huh. Bunch of truly sorry bastards, we are. Point is, now that I know, there’s finally a measure of peace in it. I feel put out of my misery, in a way. The tragedy of it remains - I won’t get to watch my daughter grow up or grow old with my wife. Dani and Flora will have to suffer through the hole of me in their life when I leave and fail to return one last time.That’s the worst part, really. I can deal with the unfairness of it, but not for them.

As empty and bereft of love, stability, safety, warmth, and family the first half of my life had been, the last twenty-ish years have more than made up for it. Everything since has been a blessing. If I get one more day here, with them, it’ll be worth it. And so that’s what I plan to do. No sense in wasting a single one. One day at a time is what I’ve got; what everyone’s got if I get down to it. 

Somewhere in time, I am already dead. Thinking about it too hard will break me. Absolutely break me and mark me in a way so indelible, I can’t bear to let it scar me any more than it already has; more than the ones that cover my knuckles from the poor tree I punched last year. So I choose not to. Can’t let myself dwell on it, or think of it like a countdown. It’s done. It’s already happened. Nothing to be done about it. Somewhere in time, I’m dead. But right now, this moment, and all the moments that come after, I’m still alive; I’m still here. Everything from now on is just extra. 

If somewhere out there I am dead, then I best make sure to get on with the work of living.

If somewhere out there I’m dead, then I’ll make sure to feel everything for every version of me that won’t be able to. 

In the light of that, every single thing now seems like a miracle: Flora running down the stairs; Dani, shuffling to the bathroom in the morning, sleepily scratching her back; a beam of light moving along the kitchen table as the sun travels across the sky; the first burning sip of a cup of tea, just a little too hot, still; the sound of Flora giggling when she’s being tickled; Dani catching my eye through the back window, smiling and biting her lip in a way that sends a sharp throb through me even though I’m smeared with dirt and sweating; Flora, spending hours at the small potting bench I built for her, the two of us tending to the plants and garden; Sunday afternoons at the cafe with Owen and Hannah, lazily drinking tea and testing his latest batch of pastries; stuffing myself with the joyful minutiae of living.    

I love as much and as long as I can. I plan for the future, best I can. I make packets of seeds and save them for Flora years from now. I line the windowsills and shelves with as many plants as tastefully as possible without being too overwhelming, hanging from the corners of the living room to capture the late afternoon and early morning sunlight. I leave as much life behind as possible to take my place. A part of me, still growing and breathing with them.

Which is why I’ve taken Flora and Dani to work on my day off. The guest passes have long since been used up, quickly and eagerly plucked from my fingers by Owen and Hannah as soon as I get them at the start of the year.

This, though, is a special trip, and I pull Flora and Dani toward the Employees Only entrance past the main gates, the trio of us a linked chain as Flora swings between our arms. 

I take them on a walk along my favorite spots in the Gardens, retracing part of the path I took Dani on the first time. Flora’s eyes are wide, taking in the errant facts I drop, slightly less scientific and more suited to a five-year-old’s attention span and interests. She runs ahead on occasion, pulled by butterflies, small animals, and flowers she wants to see. When her hands slip through ours as she takes off, Dani and I gravitate together, closing the distance, and wordlessly thread our fingers together.

When we get close to the greenhouse, Dani bites her lip and practically bats her eyelashes at me, and we grin at each other, tasting the years and the kiss that started it all. Today, though, the greenhouse isn’t on our tour and I head to the supply shed instead. I grab a wheelbarrow, some shovels, a root cutter, and a few pairs of gloves. Lastly, I hoist a sapling, roots wrapped in burlap, and carefully place it in the wheelbarrow.

I’ve been growing this for a few years now, since coming back from visiting 8-year old Flora for the first time and learning of my death. Been nursing it in the greenhouse waiting for the right size to be strong enough to transplant into the soil and weather the elements.

“What’s that, then?” Flora asks, regarding everything with a curious and contemplative look. 

“This,” I say, wiping my hands together to knock off some dirt, “Is an English Elm. And we’re going to plant it.” Flora’s eyes light up as if she’s been told that Christmas has come early. She looks over at Dani as if to say ‘ How cool is this?’. Dani, in turn, nods in agreement and smiles at me. “Come on, you lot,” I lift the arms of the wheelbarrow and roll it out toward the lake. Flora’s shooting off questions rapid-fire: “Why’s it so small?” “Where are we going?” “Can we plant it at home?” “How fast does it grow?” “When can Miles and I climb it?”

Dani and I trade answers (“Because it’s not grown, yet.” “A ways away.” “No.” “Depends on a few things.” “Not for a long while.”) and eventually I rest the wheelbarrow down on a low sloping hill off the lake. Dani and Flora look a right pair, practically bouncing on their toes, hands clasped behind their back in twin poses looking at me awaiting instructions. Flora hops over, surveys the ground, looks puzzled. “But where does it go?” I take one of the shovels and use the blade to scratch two intersecting lines in the grass. 

“X marks the spot, Little Bit,” I offer her the shovel, which looks comically large in her hands. She determinedly tries her best to maneuver it into place, the tip of her tongue sticking out in concentration. Dani and I laugh. I ruffle Flora’s hair and chuckle, handing her a trowel from the wheelbarrow instead. “Bit more your size, I think, yeah?”

Flora takes the trowel, abandoning the shovel in an instant, and eagerly starts trying to dig. It’s early spring and the ground is a bit hard, still. I grab the shovel and after angling it upright, put all my weight on the shoulders, bouncing a bit to sink the blade into the earth. Using the handle like a lever, a huge clump of the soil comes out easily, and I repeat the process a few times to get a bigger hole going for Flora. Once the hole is the right depth, I toss the shovel to the side and get the sapling. I jerk my head for Dani to come over and the two of us lift the sapling out of the wheelbarrow. We walk it over to Flora, lower it a bit and pause, letting her reach up to hold the delicate trunk. “Gently now,” I say as the three of us carefully lower the sapling into the hole. 

“Don’t we have to take off the fabric?” Flora asks. 

“Yes and no, actually. We’ll take it off as we backfill it, cutting it down bit by bit until it’s all gone. The root ball is pretty compact, so it just needs a little help until it’s in its new home.”

“Ah,” Flora nods wisely, as if the information now makes her a sapling expert. “I see.” 

“Y’know, Flora, this tree’s almost as old as you are.”

“Really?” she blinks curiously.

I nod. “Yep. This wee sapling is nearly four.”

“But it’s so much littler than me.”

Dani and I chuckle. “Trees grow slower than people,” I explain. “It’s small now, sure. But, eventually, it’s going to outgrow you. Should be near 20 feet by the time you’re 8, over 40 by the time you’re a teenager, and when you’re a wee old lady, it’ll be the tallest thing in this field.”

“Wow,” Flora breathes in amazement.

"And,” I add,”When it gets big, it'll be one giant ecosystem. All kinds of little creepy crawlies, birds, beetles, small mammals, will be able to find shelter and food in it. Also a bit of an endangered species, it is. Huge blight, Dutch Elm Disease, has been sweeping through Europe and North America killing elms all over. We endangered species have to stick together, eh?" I wink at Flora. She hasn’t started time traveling yet, but already this bond between us has grown to encompass all versions of her - the versions I see when I jump to the future or when Flora travels back here to visit. The two of us, a proper pair of bandits; the secret of time between us.

DANI:

I see this moment, this invisible thread woven between Flora and Jamie, pulling tightly and something behind my belly button lurches. 

“Should outlast us all, if we’re lucky,” Jamie says, and my eyes flicker to her, burning a hole in the side of her face. She doesn’t look at me, instead keeping her focus on Flora, who’s looking at the sapling with a renewed sense of awe. There’s a sense of calm about Jamie as she says the words and stares, contentedly at the sapling and Flora, hands tucked loosely in her pockets. As if her work is done. Something about it compels me to follow her gaze and I stare, watching Jamie watch Flora watch the sapling, and I feel as if all of time is happening all at once.


Monday, May 18th, 1998 (Jamie is 37)

JAMIE:

We start to find them everywhere. 

At first they’re cute: little figurines, made out of yarn and Play-Doh, googly eyes and pipe cleaners, wearing tiny clothes repurposed from other dolls, made into vague approximations of people we know. Like Margery, the old woman from down the block who takes daily strolls in her walker down the street, who’s walker, in Flora’s hands, is one of those plastic bits from the pizza box that stops the lid from sticking to the cheese. Or Owen, who’s mustache practically wraps around his entire face in pipe cleaner and an apron made out of torn napkins. 

It’s cute, for a while, because Flora is four, and she has an imagination big enough to fill an entire library and spends hours in little worlds of her own making. 

It’s cute, as long as the people look like people and not twisted demon-folk straight out of a horror movie. Which is what they quickly turn into.

Dani finds the first one under the couch, woven out of what looks like a combination of twine and twigs. Didn’t give it much thought at the time, just tossed it in the pile of other toys. The thing was, more kept turning up: tucked into the side pouch of Dani’s purse, in the pockets of my aprons and coveralls, on the windowsill, in the backyard, under our bed. Didn’t know what to make of them, littering the house like the creepiest dolls on earth. 

“Flora,” I finally ask her one night during bath time, my fingers gently lathering suds of shampoo on her scalp, “Noticed you’ve got these, ah, new friends lately.”

“Hm?” She hummed absently, busy playing with a plastic boat, swimming it through canals of soapy water. “Marcus?”

Marcus is the new kid in her playgroup. He’s obsessed with trucks. “No, not Marcus. These friends are, uh, slightly smaller,” I angle her head back and pour water to rinse out the shampoo. “Got little sticks for hands. Twigs for legs. Ringin’ any bells?”

“Oh. You’ve found them,” she says in an almost disappointed tone.

“Yeah. Seen ‘em about. Did you, ah, wanna talk about ‘em?” I ask as she stands, letting water drip down before being toweled off.

“I made them,” she says matter-of-factly, slightly muffled under the towel as I drape it over her, drying her hair. “For you.”

“Oh yeah? Why are they hidin’ all over the house, then?” 

“You’re not supposed to see them,” she explains, like it’s supposed to be obvious. 

“Why not? Isn’t that kind of the point?”

“No. They’re supposed to protect you. For when you leave.” My hand stills. Flora pulls the towel shut. “To protect you when you’re gone.”

“Oh,” I say dumbly. 

“Miles said his mum taught him how to make them before she left. His mum never came back. But you do. And since you can’t take them with you, I thought, if I make a lot of them and hide them all over, there would always be one nearby to keep you safe.” I look at her, this child of mine, skinny little legs, hair plastered to her head, ears sticking out, shining with innocence and all I can do is gather her to me. Wetness from her hair soaks into my shirt, spreading like a stain across my heart. I feel her there, pressing her close, inhaling the scent of her shampoo until artificial strawberries fill my lungs. “Oh, Flora.” She starts to squirm and I let her go, pressing a kiss to her forehead first. “Your imagination is brilliant. I love it. And I’m so lucky that you’re using yours to keep me safe. Just promise me, that when you’re keeping me safe, when it comes to time-traveling you keep yourself safe first, yeah?” Will she remember? When I’m gone will she remember these paltry words, these dribs and drabs of advice? It’s all I can give her, a set of instructions and guides for how to survive instead of me to show her.

She nods, impatient to get back to her room, and pitter-patters out of the bathroom, leaving little wet footprints down the hall. I stay kneeling on the floor for a minute, knees complaining against the tile, until Flora pops her head out of her bedroom to ask if she can play for ten minutes before storytime. I nod absently, a dull throb in my chest, the wet patch on my shirt growing colder in the air.


Tuesday September 15th, 1998 (Dani is 36, Jamie is 38) 

DANI:

"I look ridiculous."

"Bollocks,” Jamie says from where she’s kneeling on the ground, “You look great."

"Jamie," I flap my hands, irritated, at my side.

"I promise you, your knees will thank me later."

"I look like one of Flora's classmates who goes roller-skating."

"I can give you a helmet if y'like to complete the look." I'm grumpy, standing with these ridiculous looking knee-pads strapped to the outside of my pants. "You're cute when you pout." Jamie's mouth is quirked in an almost smirk, and just to wipe that look off her face I straighten myself and resolve to not give her the satisfaction of being right.

"I'm not pouting."

"I'm not complainin'." Jamie turns back to the garden, grinning even wider. I get on my knees next to her, and grumble to myself that the pads do indeed cushion nicely. “Right,” Jamie starts, shifting into teaching mode, "Most people think the most important part of gardening is what you see. The stuff on top, the leaves, the flowers, the stems, all of that's nice and important, but what you really have to pay attention to is what's underneath. The soil is where the life is. All the nutrients, all the things that keep it growing, hold it as it grows, 's'all below." She goes on to talk about alkaline rich, neutral, and acidic soils and it might as well all be in Spanish for all I can follow. My confusion must be all over my face because Jamie says, "Don't worry, 's'all written down for you already. Just wanted to go over it for starters.”

For all the years we've lived here, all the hours I've spent watching her out here, I realize, a little sheepishly, that there's very little I actually know about Jamie's garden. Most of the plants are foreign to me. I've only ever been keen to sit back and enjoy the beauty they provide. Suppose it's only right, to take a little bit of responsibility and effort into their care; to give back a little for what they've given me.

Jamie gives a tour of the garden, pointing out and naming each plant, going over their personalities and needs, wholly invested and proud, like these are her children. Which, in some way they are. She's their caretaker, nursed them into being and nurtured them through life cycles and seasons through the years. Maintenance is key, like with all things, she points out, like clearing dead plants and fallen growth to till the soil and replenish before planting a new season's crops.

I watch as she takes a pair of pruning shears and carefully snips back sections of growth, explaining how pruning is an important part of the life cycle."Y’have to direct energy where you want it to go. Each plant only has so much, and sometimes you've got to cut off a part that’s taking energy away from something else. When a shoot or leaf or flower starts to wither, sometimes the best thing you can do for it is help put it out of its misery in order to keep the plant healthy."

Some of the plants spread seed, she explains. "Prolific with the seeds, that one,” she points to an annual. “Easy to collect, just shake it a bit when it's at the height of bloom and the seeds come pourin’ out. Once the plant dies at the end of the season, you can use the seeds to plant a new one next year. It all breaks down and rises back up, and breaks down again. Every living thing grows out of every dying thing. Life refreshes and recycles and on and on it goes.”

We work next to each other, moving onto the participation section of today’s lesson. We weed and spread a layer of fresh compost on top of the soil. Beads of sweat tickle at my hairline and start to drip down, and I do my best to wipe them with the back of my wrist, careful to try and not get the dirt from the gloves on my face. I don’t realize how much time has passed by in a companionable quiet when Jamie asks, "Did I ever tell you why I fell in love with gardening?" 

There's an air to the question, as if she's telling a story to herself rather than to anyone in particular. A tone that says this is more than just a story; there's a whisper of a lesson in the air. I'm willing to wait for it. As little as I want to do this, there's something about the way Jamie posed the question that makes me settle to listen. She doesn't like to talk about her past much, never has. When I was a kid I understood why, even though it frustrated me. But even now, without the veil of secrecy, she still doesn't bring it up often. Each nugget and memory brings the echo of hurt, like pressing a bruise. For someone so thrown about by time, she doesn't like dwelling in the future or past, choosing to always stay in the present as much as possible. 

I shake dirt off my hands and tuck them between my thighs and listen while Jamie continues spreading compost, "There I was, this young thing. No direction, no idea, nowhere to go. Just knew I needed to get out as soon as possible, find the first thing that would get me out of London so I took my bag and answered an ad in the paper for a laborer. Almost didn't give me the job, since I was such a wee scrawny thing. But I kept showing up, every day, 6am on the dot for a week before he was finally short a worker. Figured he had nothin' else to lose and quite frankly, neither did I. 

The first day was brutal. I mean, back-breaking, body-aching, brutal. Wasn't a muscle in my body that didn't hurt, and it was worse the next day, startin' out all sore. But I put my head down and did what I was told. It wasn't anything fancy at the beginning, just manual labor. They just needed a spare body, not someone with skills. I spent five days shoveling mulch, raking branches and dead leaves until my hands bled. Taped 'em up the next day and kept going until the blisters scabbed over and eventually, they turned into calluses. See, the skin gets harder the more it's worked; tougher. And then it can handle even harder and tougher things. It felt good, to work. End of the day I was too exhausted to do much of anythin’ except collapse. Kept my hands busy and my head empty. 

Eventually, they started me weedin' - pulling invasive things out of the ground to make room for fresh soil, a clean slate, a fresh bed for something new and beautiful to grow. Then I dug holes for starter plants. First time I held a plant in my hand - nothing fancy, nothing special, mind you, just an average marigold - I was struck by how delicate it was. This...fragile thing. It would've been nothin' to take my hands and crumble the dirt away from the roots, leaving it vulnerable and lifeless; so easy to pluck the flower from the stem. Instead, I took that delicate thing and placed it in the hands of something bigger than m’self. Bigger than all of us. Gave it back to the earth. 

We were at that property for two weeks, setting up the landscaping, making something out of a wild scrap of nothing. Moved onto the next place, started from nothing again. But we'd come back, a small crew, every few weeks to just do a little touch up work, a little maintenance to make sure everything was as it should be. And over time, those little plants grew. It gave me something else to tend to, over time. Took me out of my own mess of problems, my own fucked up head. Made everything else seem small, when I looked at it. We're so...small, so insignificant, little...blips in the world. It doesn't matter what's happening, what year it is, who's Prime Minister, or if there's a war going on; the sun will keep shining, the rain will still come down, the seasons will change, and time will march on. Gardening grounded me. Made me feel small without feeling insignificant. Like I was part of something bigger than myself, a part of the world, instead of just tossed around by it. And with a little bit of time and effort, something beautiful comes of it. 

I was so proud of my first houseplant; the first time I saw something come from nothing. It seemed stupid, to care for something that much. It was just a plant. Something so simple anyone could've done it. But it was mine. And suddenly, I was responsible for something. Beholden. Tamed. Bound to this little wisp of a thing. Every day I would check up on it, see if it needed watering. Almost killed it a few times, but we figured each other out, in time. Learned her quirks and needs. Before I knew it, she'd grown a foot and I was no longer shaking in cold sweats at night. My palms didn’t itch anymore. I could load a wheelbarrow and unload it in half the time it took my first day. Gardening made me stronger, gave me steady feet, firm ground when everything was falling out from under me. It gave me purpose, and a way forward, when I couldn't see the forest for the trees, if you'll pardon the expression. Found me when I was lost.” She pauses here, letting the tale breathe for a moment. "Dani," she says, finally looking over at me, the tone gently beseeching, like a plea; I know what this is. I can't bear for her to say it. 

"Jamie," I say, breaking. Her name a broken prayer of my own. Please don't make me do this. Please don't go. Please don't leave me behind to do this. It should be you. Please please please. But, I also can't bear to burden her with this. I can't bear to give her one more weight to struggle under, make her feel any more miserable and helpless about this than she already is. Instead it is a wordless thing. She knows all of this, and is holding it deep within herself already. We look at each other, the conversation happening in the twin caverns of our hearts. I'll miss you. - I know. - I can't take your burden from you, but I can take this. I will learn how to do this and take the gift you're trying to give me. Showing me how to learn to live without you. Giving me things to hold onto when I can’t hold you. Showing me how to care for myself when you're gone. -I love you. I try, with everything in me, to make sure she knows. My very heart beating for her, in time with hers, holding her as close as I can, making her a part of me. 

"Right," she clears her throat, quickly dabbing at her eye with the back of her wrist, pulling back whatever tears had gotten close to the surface. It isn't time for that. Not yet. So many moments lately are tinged with this nervous energy. As if any one of them might be our last. The tension of the un-namable, unchangeable future growing ever closer, looming larger on the horizon. We are like water, slowly filling up the space of what will shape us. The shape of it is known, the volume fixed, negative space filling in the shape of what will come.

Later, I find a binder on the kitchen counter, complete with a planting calendar and notes of everything Jamie went over. I look at it and a pit drops in my stomach. I swallow, nauseated, at why I'll need this. I look at Jamie's luscious garden, now complete with a fresh layer of compost, luscious and alive in bloom, and all I can see is ash.


Monday , October 19th, 1998 (Jamie is 38)

JAMIE:

I find myself sleeping less. Nights start out the same: Dani and I get ready for bed, we read, limbs tangled in each others' comfortably, effortlessly twisted together like vines. We fall asleep. Well, sometimes I fall asleep. Dani usually goes to bed first, turning off her light, folding her book closed and sliding it onto her nightstand. She kisses me goodnight, her lips a little tacky from her lip balm, before laying her head on my chest, hand tucked around my side holding me tight. I breathe in the smell of her shampoo. I lay there for a while, trying to read, sometimes succeeding, but mostly not. Minutes tick by and I occupy myself by stroking her hair, running my fingers along the crown of her head, down her back and along her arms and shoulders, feeling buoyed by the weight of her, as if she could keep me here, like a weight atop a napkin on a picnic table, fluttering in the breeze.

Eventually Dani shifts in her sleep, turning over to her side of the bed, and my chest misses the warmth of her instantly, cooling in the air with her absence. I turn and rest on my side, arm tucked under my head, resting on my elbow, just watching the profile of Dani sleep, her shoulders rising and falling softly with each breath, the waterfall of her hair cascading messily  down her back.

My heart tugs. I slide out of bed, careful to not disturb her. I slip down the hallway, avoiding the loud creaky spots in the floor and turn the knob on the door at the end of the hall. The room is bathed in moonlight, casting cool blue shadows across the pinks of the wall and bedspread. The dollhouse's windows - a gift from Henry ("It’s but a small token of my thanks. You never let me compensate you for your time and service. Please. For Flora.") glowing like a little night-light in the dark. The doll versions of ourselves are all carefully tucked in bed. Flora's on her side, arm curled around her stuffed bear, who's neck has been squeezed and loved over the years. Stains litter his mouth from where Flora’d attempted to feed him real food when she was younger.

I sit at the foot of her bed, crossing my legs beneath me on the floor, and rest my chin on the edge of the bed, careful to not disturb her. She looks so small in the wide expanse of the bed. I wish she could stay here forever, tucked tight and safe where she belongs.

What will this room look like in the years to come? Will she decide, when moody teenage swings hit, that pink is too childish? I wonder when piles of stuffed animals will be replaced by makeup and textbooks, or when magazine cutouts and posters will line the walls.. What will remain of her innocence, in the wake of this year?

Her mouth is open just slightly and gentle puffs of air barely audible. Her nose twitches and she burrows herself deeper under the covers.

It's a long while until I leave. I stay, watching her sleep, her eyes darting under her eyelids. I wonder what she's dreaming about; what she will dream about. My legs and feet are numb from the ache of sitting on the floor, but I don't get up for a long time, content to bask in the milky moonlight of this moment.

I spend a lot of nights like this. Waking. Watching. Nights are as limited as the days and I don't want to miss a single one of them where I can be content to brazenly watch my precious girls. Soaking up every moment.

And when I go back to my room, to our bed, and slide back under the covers, which are cool now, part of Dani must sense my return because she wanders back over to my side, finding her way back onto my chest, and settles down with a contented sigh. I hope her dream is a happy one, and that she's able to find me wherever she is.

I know I'm burning the candle at both ends. There's nothing sustainable about spending half the night awake and the entire day running around with both a toddler and a job that keeps me on my feet all day. Eventually exhaustion will catch up with me, but for now, it is a pleasure to burn.*


Thursday, November 26, 1998 (Jamie is 38, Dani is 36) 

JAMIE:

I decide to throw Dani a Thanksgiving dinner. Figured why the hell not. Lots to be thankful for, after all; a life I never thought I'd have at all; a life I'd kill to stay around for; a life that I can't waste a single moment being bitter or angry. Not when there's such a bounty to feast on. And not just the literal one we’re working on. Not many American traditions make sense to me, but I gotta give them credit where it's due because the whole Thanksgiving thing seems pretty great, actually. 

The hypocrisy of it coming on the blood and backs of the Native Americans isn't lost on me, but the British pot can’t very well call the colonialist kettle black, can it? Not much about life is without a darker side, an irony that also isn't lost on me as the countdown of my life continues to tick down. But that's the thing, innit? Giving thanks. Should've done it more every day. Something everyone should do anyway, when we get down to it.

Owen agreed immediately. His eyes lit up at the opportunity, brain already spinning out ideas for recipes, things he's always wanted to try, eager to try new recipes and techniques. All I asked of him is that he doesn't attempt to fry a turkey. I'm not too keen on risking life and limb for a hunk of poultry. He agrees, but makes no promises that at least one dessert doesn't come flambeed. Hannah immediately agreed to play decoy and scheme ways to keep Dani distracted.

I take the day off work and go shopping for groceries. End up having to take a taxi back because there’s no way I'd be able to haul all of it back on the bus by myself. Even for just the five of us, it feels ridiculously excessive, buying all of this food, but no sense in not doing it properly. I managed to sneak a copy of Dani's Blue Ribbon Pie recipe and will attempt to make it on my own, though I can make no guarantees it'll be half as good as Mrs. Brown's. Or Dani's, for that matter.

I get home and unload the bags and set up washing the produce and work backwards from there. Owen is bringing the turkey, gravy, and one pie, so that frees up most of the oven space for me, which works because I've already written out a chart for how to get everything done in time. I get to scrubbing the potatoes and dump them in a pot of water to boil. Once they’re done, I set them in some cold water to cool and pick up Flora from nursery. She practically jumps into my arms in excitement. She peppers questions all the way home, asking about everything from the menu to how come a potato grows underground when there’s no sun. A fair question, to be sure, and I regale her with tales of tubers and other root vegetables and thankfully it keeps her entertained until we get back to the house.

After we take off our shoes, I set Flora up with the task of cleaning and snapping green beans for the casserole, and we stand side-by-side at the counter cooking in matching aprons. A gift from Dani last year after Flora’d spilled an entire box of cocoa powder all over herself while trying to make brownies. The mixture of the cocoa and egg took forever to wash out of her clothes and when Flora opened up the gift, I muttered “Is this a present for you, or for her?” to Dani, who simply bit her lips with a smile and said, “Can’t it be both?” 

While we work, Flora gives me all the latest updates about Ben P. from school (different from Ben S., of course) before moving on to telling me the plots to her favorite movies. Most of them are ones I’ve never seen myself, save for some of the classics I’d seen before cluing into the fact that TV tended to trigger episodes and I started avoiding flickering screens. I’ve missed a lot, especially in the Disney world, apparently, despite having heard about most of them through general cultural knowledge, but I'm fairly sure I'd like Flora's versions better anyway. She tells me all about Hercules as though I don’t know the plot despite the soundtrack playing practically nonstop in the house over the last few months, and how much she wishes she had a pegasus.

“You know you’re not gettin’ a unicorn for Christmas no matter how much y’ask, right?”

“No fair, I haven’t even asked yet!”

“Ask Uncle Owen, then. Maybe he’ll get you one if you ask really nicely.”

Flora gasps, an idea suddenly coming to her. “Do you think he’ll get me a chicken?”

“A chicken? What d’y’want a chicken for?”

“There are so many different kinds but they all have feathers and are terribly cute. And, they make eggs! So we’d never have to buy eggs again!”

Trust the logic of a five-year-old that a chicken is on par for excitement with a unicorn.”Don’t tell Uncle Owen I said this, but that seems like an egg- cellent idea.” We both laugh and I take one of the beans and bop her on the nose with it.

"That's not fair!" she cries, objecting as I lean backwards, successfully avoiding her finger loaded with mashed potatoes, aimed at my nose in retaliation.

"Yeah it is. ‘S'not my fault I'm taller than you. I'm playing to my natural advantage." Flora scrunches up her face, sticks out her tongue and just when I think I'm safe and turn back to the counter ready to measure out sugar for the cranberry sauce, my ear is suddenly stuffed with mashed potatoes. "Oi!" I shout, shaking my head trying to dislodge the spuds, "You gremlin, I can't believe you did that!" Flora shrieks and hops off her stool and runs into the living room. I give chase, catching her with one arm as she tries to run around the coffee table. I hoist her up in the air sideways and she shrieks as I toss her on the couch and defeat her with a series of raspberries to the belly and tickle her mercilessly.

Flora’s mid-giggle when the front door opens and we freeze simultaneously and look at each other in panic, both thinking it’s Dani back early. We relax when Owen comes into view carrying a large covered roaster and grunts as he gently lowers it onto the counter. “Uncle Owen!” Flora shouts as she wriggles her way out from under me and runs over, throwing her arms around his waist.

“Lovely to see you too, Flora. Jamie,” he greets before squinting at me. "Is that mashed potatoes in your ear or are you just happy to see me?" I dig my pinkie into my ear and flick out the remaining bit of Flora's ministrations.

"It is mashed potatoes in my ear, thanks to the goblin known as Flora here, but I am genuinely happy to see you. That the bird?"

"Star of the show right here. She's beautiful, if I do say so myself. Named her Jolene." I make a face.

"Jolene?"

"It was the most American name I could think of."

"Feels a little wrong to eat something with a name, don't'cha think?"

"She's already dead," Owen reasons."It was a murder most fowl," he adds, winking at Flora, who beams, delighted at his wordplay. I roll my eyes and grin wryly.

“Come on, you two,” I say, tossing Owen an apron, “Lots to do yet.”

DANI:

Right away I can sense something is different. Can smell it, actually, wafting up the hallway toward the front door. I look over at Hannah, puzzled, but she looks back with a matching shrug of ignorance. I hang up my coat in the closet and creep to the kitchen toward the source of the smell and sounds of clanging cookware and muffled voices. Owen, Jamie, and Flora are clustered together by the counter, wearing similarly matched aprons.

It hits me, then, where I know these smells. Suddenly I'm back in Iowa, at the O'Mara's oversized dining table. Tommy and Kyle are flicking peas at each other while Mr. O'Mara presides over the table with a giant carving knife, Judy and Carson coming out of the kitchen bringing dish after dish; bowls of green bean and cheesy potato casseroles, gravy, cranberry sauce, and a steaming basket of crescent rolls. Eddie, grinning at me from across the table as he passes a roll. Even my mom seems relatively normal and happy, bringing in the refilled ice bucket.

I'm hit by a wave of nostalgia and love so strong, transplanted an ocean and world away, that I sway and reach out to the doorway for balance. "What's all this, then?" I ask, huffing out a breathy laugh.

"Happy Thanksgiving, Mummy!" Flora shouts, throwing her hands in the air and runs over to give me a hug. I kiss the top of her head but am surprised to find that harder to do than it usually is.

"Is that -- are you wearing cat ears?"

"Strange enough, turns out they don't sell many turkey costumes in England, even on Halloween,” Jamie knocks her hip into mine, her lip curling into an edge of a smile. “I told her to go for a lion, thought the colors would at least go a bit better, but she insisted." I smile and shake my head, not bothering to try and puzzle out the logic of children

"Well, you're the best Thanksgiving cat I've ever seen," I say to Flora, who beams, pleased. Owen goes to give Hannah a kiss on the cheek then holds out a spoon out for tasting, carefully cradling his hand underneath to collect any errant drips.

"Don't think, only taste," he instructs, and as Hannah takes a small mouthful, asks, "Too tart? Or just tart enough?"

"Oh darling, you’ll always be tart enough for me."

Jamie rolls her eyes. "Why not let the Midwestern American give it a try? She's bound to be the expert in this scenario."

"I'll not have my palate be undermined, but I suppose it's only fair. Cran- berry wait for your thoughts.”

The tang hits my lips and I moan in delight, unable to even gripe about the pun. "Owen, that's delicious." His mustache stretches across his face and he beams, satisfied and a little smug at Hannah. "It'll be even better on the turkey."

"Oh!" He says with a jolt, hurriedly dropping the spoon back into the saucepan and pulling on a pair of oven mitts. "Jolene!"

"Jolene?" I look to Jamie for some sort of answer but all she does is shrug her shoulders and sigh with a ‘don't ask me ’ sort of shake to her head.

Hannah, who is clearly used to this sort of behavior, simply waves her hand and says, "Sometimes I find it best not to ask."

"Jolene," Owen announces, closing the oven behind him gently with the heel of his foot, "Needs to rest for an hour before we cut into her." Name aside, I have to give Owen credit, because this is the most gorgeous turkey I've ever seen in my life. Roasted and cooked to perfection, it glistens caramel and I can practically hear the crunch of the skin as my teeth bite into it. I salivate just thinking about it. "Wow, Owen. You really outdid yourself." He bows.

"Thank you, my most American friend."

"Pretty sure I'm your only American friend."

He flaps his hand dismissively. “Trivialities. Now, let's go ahead and get started then, shall we? We've a lot to gobble down."

As everyone heads into the dining room, I tug Jamie, keeping her a step behind. “How did you do all this?” I whisper, awed as I take everything in. God, there’s even a little bowl of olives.

“Put in a few long-distance calls to Iowa. Which reminds me: our phone bill might be a wee bit higher than normal this month.”

“Yeah, but,” I grin in still awed disbelief at the feast spread out on the dining room table, “Worth it.”

“Yeah,” Jamie says, looking at me with a blistering intensity, like she’s trying to commit something to memory. There’s something about the energy with which Jamie says this that sets off a faint alarm of nagging suspicion. We’ve lived here in England together for twelve years. Why this year of all years? The bell rings louder and I shake my head to clear the sound.

One look at the joy on Flora's face and Owen and Hannah’s warm smiles beckons me to the table and just like that, the ringing is gone. The unspoken beast, peeking out through the thick fauna of the jungle, slinks back into shadow and all that's left is the calm, loving waters of Jamie's gaze.

Chapter Text

Chapter 17: Auld Lang Syne

Listen:

Reader: foomatic

Length: 44:37


 

Wednesday, December 31, 1997 (Jamie is 37, Dani is 35)

(7:25pm)

DANI:

We’re having a party! Jamie was kind of reluctant at first, putting on her grumpy curmudgeon act, but she came around to it exactly like I knew she would. She’s at the kitchen table showing Flora how to cut flowers out of carrots and radishes. Admittedly, I didn’t exactly play fair: I brought up the idea of the party in front of Flora and she got all excited and Jamie couldn’t bear to disappoint her. 

“It’ll be great. We’ll ask everyone we know.”

“Everyone?” she queried, smiling.

“Everyone we like,” I amended. 

(“Mmm, okay so just you, then,” Jamie smirks into my neck, peppering kisses. I squirm and smack her arm lightly. 

“Jamie,” I scold.

“Alright, Flora can come too,” she concedes.)

So for days I’ve been cleaning, and Jamie and Flora have been baking cookies (although half the dough goes into Flora’s mouth if we don’t watch her, and Jamie too, sneaking away finger-fulls of dough and icing when she thinks nobody is looking). Yesterday Owen and I went to the store and bought dips, chips, spreads, every possible kind of vegetable, beer, wine, champagne, little colored hors d’oeuvres toothpicks, and napkins with HAPPY NEW YEAR printed in gold, and matching paper plates and Lord knows what else. Owen spent the better part of the entire trip trying to convince me to let him take care of the food and beverages but I insisted that he’s a proper guest this time and I don’t want him lifting a finger for the party. Especially after how much work he did for Thanksgiving. He finally agreed, but he pouted about it the whole time until I put a Twirl in the shopping cart at the checkout and surprised him with it on the ride home. 

Anyway, now the whole house smells like meatballs. Hannah’s washing wine glasses when Jamie looks up and says, “ Almost showtime, innit? Did you want to get ready?” I glance at my watch and realize that yeah, it’s time. 

I put down the plate of crudites. “Go on, then,” Hannah says.

“Y’sure?” Jamie replies. 

Hannah looks at Flora, who beams up at her, proudly showing off her carrot flower. Hannah rubs Flora’s shoulder affectionately. “I’ve got things handled here.”

“Uh, we have things handled here,” Owen corrects, not missing a beat from his position hanging garlands in the living room. 

“Yes, of course. We have things handled,” Hannah amends with a smile. “Go on, relax for a few minutes before everyone else arrives.”

“Thanks, Hannah,” Jamie says, getting up eagerly and joining me. 

“‘Thanks, Owen,’” Owen adds. 

Jamie rolls her eyes good-naturedly. “Thanks, Owen,” she parrots back. “You prat.”

“Mum!” Flora looks up sharply with an offended look. “That’s a bad word.”

“Sorry,” Jamie drawls out, winces. “But he is,” she whispers to me, conspiratorially. 

I bite my lip trying to hide my smile and instead turn to Flora and say, “Back down soon, okay?” She nods distractedly, already happily engrossed in the task at hand. We head upstairs and as soon as we’re out of the kitchen on the stairway, the dark and quiet upstairs beckoning, an eerie somberness settles on my skin like a fine coating of dust. There’s been a weird manic feeling in my chest that’s been slowly percolating all night, and now that Jamie and I are alone in our bedroom it boils over. She turns slowly, meeting my gaze. My eyes are wide, and the safe sanctum of our life together feels incredibly fragile and thin like a veil. She reaches behind her and shuts the door. There’s a strange buzzing sensation in my limbs, like they’ve been asleep and are protesting feeling returning to them and I can’t stand still for another moment longer so I purposefully march over to the closet and rifle through the hangers to pick an outfit for the evening.  

“What about this one?” I say, my voice unnaturally calm even though the air feels thin, fingering a dark blue dress. “It’s nice, right?”

“Dani,” Jamie says in a low voice. 

I swallow. Hard. No. “But not too nice? I don’t wanna be overdressed.”

“Dani.” Jamie slides behind me, cupping my elbow.

My hand stills. I stop rifling through the closet. My chin is trembling. “Jamie,” I whisper, brokenly, knowingly. A thousand words on my tongue. A thousand wishes on my lips. This can’t be happening. I’m not ready to live a life that she’s not in. My whole life, it’s only ever been her. Her fingers ghost along the curve of my shoulder, gently brushing my hair to one side. She leans in and breathes me in, places the most tender kiss on my neck. I shiver. Her hands slide around my hips and pull my back flush against her front. “Jamie,” I whisper again as her tongue slips into my ear, nips my skin. My throat is thick and my voice breaks when I say, “There’s no time.”

“So let’s not waste any of it.” Her voice is quiet and compelling. I relent, even as my heart contracts, cracking along a fault line that has held dormant for so long. I turn in her arms and as we kiss, I break open and fall, and the phrase one last time pops into my mind unbidden.

(8:05 p.m.)

JAMIE:

The doorbell rings just as I finish tucking my shirt in and slide on my suspenders. Dani says nervously, “Do I look all right?” She does, she is beautiful and lovely and I tell her so with more than a few less than innocent touches before she smacks me gently and scolds me for making us late . We emerge from the bedroom as Flora runs to answer the door and starts yelling “ Dr. Wingrave! Miles!” Henry stomps his boots, heavy with rain, and leans to hug her. 

“Hello, Flora,” he greets politely. “My, don’t you look lovely.” She curtsies, pinching the end of her dress on either side of her as she crosses her legs and dips, the oversized bow clipped behind her head nearly flopping over. Henry gives a small bow of his own, bending at the waist smartly. Flora giggles. Henry straightens up and hands us a bottle of wine in a tall, narrow gift bag. “For you,” he says.

“Cheers, Doc,” I say, taking it, “Thanks.” Flora pulls Miles by the hand before he’s even gotten his coat off to show him the Christmas tree and they go running into the living room.

“Thank you for having us,” he says, smiling, and suddenly it hits me: tonight my life will flash before my eyes. We’ve invited everyone who matters to us: Owen and Hannah, Henry and Miles, other teachers and staff from Dani’s school, a few of my co-workers like Horace from the Gardens, parents of Flora’s friends, and even…right on cue, Karen and the O’Maras, secretly stepping out of a set of cabs and making their way up the driveway. Judy and Mike, who I recognize from photographs and home movies. Eddie, looking much like the mature man he’s grown to be, but still wearing the same gold-framed glasses from his youth, him and his wife working to get all the kids out of the car without leaving anything behind. His youngest, nearly four, is sleepy with jetlag and her limbs hanging loosely in his arms as he carries her from the cab. Our eyes meet and we share a nod and a smile, tinged with a sad, knowing acknowledgement. Christ . Help me. 

(8:07 p.m.)
DANI:

I can’t believe it. I absolutely can’t believe it. The O’Maras! Here! In England! My mouth hangs open and for a solid five seconds I stand stunned until I snap back to it and shriek, running towards Eddie like we’re ten years old again and recess has just begun. “Oh my god! What are you guys doing here?” I cry, trying to take everything in. Judy and Mike are older and a little more bent over than they used to be, but the love and warmth that radiates from them is just the same as it used to be, if not stronger after so many years apart. 

“Oh honey, it’s so good to see you,” Judy says, pulling me into her and I breathe in the smell of Iowa from her blouse and feel like a kid again. She kisses my head and cups my cheeks and we’re both crying through our smiles. 

“Mom,” Eddie scolds, “Quit hogging her.” Judy wipes her eyes and by the time she steps back, has already resumed mom-mode and tucks the tears into herself and shifts immediately to the next task at hand and attends to her grand kids, shuffling them into the house. My mom is right behind Judy and I’m still in a distracted daze when she leans in and kisses my cheek. “Hi, honey! Where’s my little sweet pea?” she asks but is already past me, not bothering to wait for an answer.

“Hey, mom,” I kiss back as she pulls her luggage over the threshold, “Flora’s inside.”

Eddie passes his daughter to Mike, and a memory swirls suddenly to my mind: Jamie, in the Meadow, me crying in my prom dress - “when I’m from, we just had a lovely catch-up call with him before Christmas, and he and his charming wife are expecting their fourth kid”. I think about where we are now, the sounds of our children leaking out from the house into the yard, our families surrounding us, so many years lived. They press on me heavily, suddenly and I feel so old and so young at the same time. 

“What are you all doing here?” I gape into his shoulder as we hug. 

“Got a call from an old friend,” he says warmly, squeezing me, “Plus, I couldn't say no to a private tour of an English garden, could I? The girls would never forgive me.” He plants a kiss on my cheek and wraps his arm around my shoulder as we head inside, regaling me all about the trip and how his youngest slept under their row of seats on the plane, no one the wiser to her presence until she popped out for landing. As we step over the threshold, I catch him and Jamie share a look I can’t quite place. It sends something down my neck, but it’s gone before I can get another look.

 ( 8:50 p.m.)
JAMIE:

The house is packed with our nearest and dearest. Marge Jacobs, one of the Year Three teachers at Dani’s school, is nice, but she tends to drone on and on and tonight isn’t a night I can afford the patience to hear her out. Time is precious. I excuse myself, making up something about needing to attend something in the kitchen, and pull away, exhaling a sigh of relief to have avoided Marge, at least for the time being. To make good on the lie, I at least head to the kitchen and see if anything needs doing. Hannah’s there, pulling a tray of pigs in a blanket out of the oven, bustling about comfortably like it's her house. 

"Y’know, we did invite you here as guests, Hannah. You’re not the housekeeper.”

“Jamie, love, if I were the housekeeper, I assure you, the house would be in much better  shape.”

“Oi! I’ll have you know it was me who instigated the ‘no shoes in the house’ rule. Was one of the few things that made sense to me, when I was a kid, that. My mum always made dad take off his work boots ‘fore he even stepped in the house.” I yank one of the pigs in a blanket off the tray and pop it in my mouth, “How’s that for housekeepin’?”

“Your manners could use a bit of minding,” Hannah chides as she replaces the hors d'oeuvres I stole. I chuckle, flopping into a chair and taking a sip of my drink. No sense in not imbibing tonight. Hannah reaches into her purse by the back door, and rummages for a moment before coming back. “ I found this a few months ago when I was tidying up one of the desk drawers. I thought Dani might like it.” She hands me a photograph. It’s a picture of me, probably from somewhere around 1985. I’m in Owen’s cafe, laughing behind the counter with flour streaked across my face. It’s a great photograph. I don’t remember him taking it, but it must’ve been from one of the times he attempted to rope me into making dough.

“My bread always came out shit. Good thing he never actually counted on my help at the shop. It’s a good one. Bet she’d like it. Memento mori n’ all that.” I hand the picture back to her. 

Hannah glances at me sharply. “You’re not dead, Jamie Taylor.”

“I’m not far from it, Hannah, love.” She takes a sharp breath.

“Are you going to tell me what this is all about?” 

I want to tell her. Well, that’s not true. I don’t want to lie to her. But I also know that there’s nothing to do except live with every moment we’ve got. “What’d’y’mean, Hannah? Just a good old-fashioned party, is all,” I say instead, grabbing a carrot stick off a serving bowl and snapping the end off between my teeth. She doesn’t say anything else, but there’s a look in her eyes that says she knows enough to not believe me. The bravado fades. I clear my throat and say, “Don’t forget to actually go out there and enjoy the party, yeah?” and slip back into the party, away from Hannah’s gaze.

(9:45 p.m.)
DANI:

The kids have been running around and ate way too much party food, so now they ’re sleepy but also kinda cranky. I pass Miles in the hall and ask if he wants to lie down for a bit and take a nap; he tells me very solemnly that he’d like to stay up with the adults. I’m touched by his politeness even though he’s known me for almost half his life. Flora is slightly less restrained. I ask her if she’s sure she doesn’t want to sleep for a while. “I’ll wake  you up right before midnight, I promise.” 

“No,” she pouts determinedly, despite her exhaustion, “I want to stay up all night long!” 

Thankfully Henry comes to the rescue and encourages Miles and Flora to go upstairs and play quietly for a while. They shuffle off and within minutes will be playing happily.

“It’s good to see you, Dani,” Henry says to me after the kids run off. 

“It’s good to see you too,” I say, meaning it genuinely but the strain of the evening stretches between us. He’s waiting to say something I don’t want to hear. I start to excuse myself, and he puts a hand on my arm.

“Wait, Dani--” I wait. “I’m sorry I couldn’t do more ,” he says. 

“It’s okay, Henry.” We stare at each other for a moment. He seems at a loss for what to say. 

“If you ever want to come to the lab I could show you what I’ve been working on for Flora …” I cast my eyes around the party, looking for Jamie. Hannah and Owen are dancing together by the tree, Mike and Judy are busy with their grandkids, and Eddie is trapped beneath his sleeping youngest, humoring my mother as she talks his ear off about something or another. Everyone seems to be having a good time, but Jamie is nowhere in sight. I haven’t seen her for almost forty-five minutes, and I feel a strong urge to find her, make sure she’s okay, make sure she’s here. “Excuse me,” I tell Henry, who looks like he wants to continue the conversation despite the tension it holds. “ Another time,” I promise, “ When it’s quieter.” He nods, and I escape.

(9:48 p.m.)
JAMIE:

It’s gotten bloody hot in the house and I need to get some air, so I’m standing in the backyard holding a glass of Scotch and nursing it under the far-away stars. I can hear people talking and laughing in the living room. It’s cold outside and I can see my breath. It’s a beautiful night. I look over the small patch of green that has been my domain. Most of the plants are dormant for the winter, waiting for spring to blossom. But the life within them will bloom once more, after they’ve had their time of hibernation. The wisteria and rambling rose will continue to crawl along the fence, slowly knitting it a sweater of vine. The clematis below will creep up to meet it. The lavender and hydrangeas and allium gladiators will paint the ground in purple, brightening the deep evergreens with their kiss each spring. Reckon there’s a decent amount of life in that. 

The door slides open behind me. Owen pops his head out, gives a goofy little wave. I chuckle, take a sip of the Scotch, let it sit heavily on my tongue. “There you are,” he says. “Blimey, its cold out here,” he shoves his hands into his pockets. 

“I like it. Makes me feel alive. Plus, when you’re accustomed to running around with no clothes on in the middle of winter, standin’ around in a jacket doesn’t seem half bad.”

“So what you’re saying is, I should practice standing naked outside in winter and I’ll feel warmer.”

“What I’m sayin’ is, you’re a right prat sometimes, and if Hannah ever caught wind of this conversation, pretty sure she’d have both our heads.” Owen chuckles. “But, prat n’ all, I don’t think I ever thanked you properly.”

“For what?”

I wave my hand, gesturing to the wide space in front of us. “For everything. For this. For being m’first friend. I woulda left this town a long time ago if you hadn’t found me in the alleyway and decided to keep me. You’re my anchor. Keeping me. Guiding me home. None of this would’ve happened without you.” There must be something about how I say it, ‘cause he looks at me the way he did when he got the call about Margaret. “Owen-”

He stiffens. “Why does it sound like you’re saying goodbye?” I don’t say anything. His jaw works silently. I take another sip of Scotch. “When?”

“Soon.”

“How soon?”

“I don’t know,” I lie. Very, very soon. He pries the glass from my fingers and stares down into the amber liquid. His jaw works silently, grinding the truth between his teeth, as if that could break it into digestible pieces. It’s not fair of me to dump this on him on such an otherwise lovely evening. Nothing fair about tonight, I’m afraid. 

We’ve known each other long enough at this point that I know this is one last gift of his. Not fighting, not protesting, or trying to change the gravity of the inevitable. Just accepts the truth I’m giving him, no different than I had fifteen years ago in a back alley, scared and alone and ready to run. He takes the truth and tucks it inside of himself, offering something instead - one last toast. “It has been the greatest honor of my life, knowing you, Jamie Taylor,” his voice cracks somewhere in my name, but the hand holding the glass up stays steady. “We wouldn’t have gotten here,” he nods his head in the direction of the house, “Without each other. Proper pair of bandits we are, eh?” His eyes are wet. My throat is thick. He raises the glass, meets my eyes and nods before downing the rest of the Scotch.

(11:17 p.m.)
DANI:

Jamie isn’t in the living room, which is filled with a small but determined group of people trying to dance, in a variety of unlikely ways, to Culture Club. Eddie and his wife, Katherine, are hopping to the beat, bopping their heads in tandem. My cheeks pull as it brings me back to countless school dances and illicit high school parties. Mike, Judy, and my mom are all clustered together making shuffling movements and bouncing their shoulders in a vague attempt at dancing. George and Martha, parents of one of Flora’s classmates, are singing into their bottles obliviously off-key. 

Jamie isn’t in the kitchen either, which has been taken over by Hannah and Owen, who are taking it upon themselves to tidy up while replenishing the food and beverages. “You two again,” I scold. “How many times do I have to tell you that you’re here as guests ? You should be out there enjoying yourselves.”

“And how many times do I have to tell you,” Owen plucks the glass from my hands and hands it to Hannah at the sink, who adds it to the wash bin, “That we’re enjoying ourselves just fine here, thank you very much.” I make a look of fond exasperation but know better than to waste time with them by arguing.  

Waste time.

A wave of nausea roils through me.

“Hey. Um. Have you seen Jamie?” I try to ask normally but my voice comes out too high and shaky. Owen and Hannah share a look. 

Owen tugs away the tea towel I didn’t realize I’d been wringing. “She’s outside,” he says, voice softer than I’ve ever heard it before. There’s no time to dwell on it. Jamie’s waiting. Sure enough, the top of her head is visible through the window. I excuse myself and go to her. Jamie’s sitting by herself on the back porch in the dark, watching the stars. She’s wearing one of her favorite oversized jackets with the sleeves rolled up. It’s cold out. Her nose is red; she must’ve been here for a while. 

I stand behind her and bring my arms around her waist, sliding my hands into her front pockets. “Come inside.” Jamie puts her arms around mine and leans into me. I press a kiss to her temple. “Come inside,” I repeat.

“Wish we could just stop time now, y’know? Stay here forever.” My chin is resting on her shoulder, the cold nips at my nose. I feel it prickle. “Dani,” she says.

“Jamie.”

“It’s time…”

“What?”

“It’s...I’m…”

My heart seizes. Painful. Sharp. Air freezes in my lungs. My hands grip her jacket, forming fists, as if holding tightly could keep her here with me. “No,” I shake my head, desperately holding on to denial, “No one is going anywhere. Okay? We-we don’t know what this means,” I insist, knowing, even as the words come out of my mouth that they’re untrue. 

“Dani-”

She turns in my arms and my hands fall out of her pockets, now holding onto nothing but the cold winter air. My hands, my lungs, my skin, is scraping desperately to find a foothold, anything to keep from drowning as I panic. I can feel the water, waist-deep already and quickly rising higher, licking at my throat. “We don’t know what this means! We could have so many more years together.” Even as I say it, I know it’s just spinning fantasies of straw.

Jamie collects my frantic hands as I spiral and gathers them in two fists, bringing her lips to kiss my trembling fingers. “Dani,” she tries again. 

“Don’t go. Please, don’t go,” I beg miserably, even as Jamie’s calm buoys me in the middle of this dark, wide, trembling sea. A small piece of stillness amidst the maelstrom of Time. And I relent. “We could have so many more years.” I repeat; this time a lament, no longer a plea. Jamie’s eyes gleam bright in the moonlight. They’re wet. 

“I’m sorry, Dani. ‘s done. It’s already happened. C’mere,” she nudges me toward the bench. The cold metal bites into the backs of my thighs as we sit. I’m shivering in my thin dress but it has nothing to do with the cold. I don’t feel anything. Nothing, except for Jamie.

In the house people are laughing and dancing. Jamie takes off her jacket, drapes it over my shoulders. She puts her arm around me, warming me. “Why didn’t you tell me?” I choke. “Why did you let me invite all these people?” I don’t want to be angry, but I am, and tears prickle hotly behind my eyes. 

“Don’t want you to be alone, after. And I wanted to say goodbye to everyone. It’s been good, Dani. It’s been a good life, better than I could have ever imagined, and I wanted to celebrate it.” I’m furious and I hate that I can’t allow myself to dwell on whether or not this last act of Jamie’s is a mercy or a burden because it’s Jamie’s last act and who am I to take that from her? 

“What time is it?” 

I check my watch. “Eleven thirty-seven .” Oh, God. I can’t believe this. I knew that it was coming, soon. I’ve been feeling it all night, all week, all month, all year, really, slowly squeezing; the vise of inevitability finally clamping shut. I knew it had to come sooner or later, but here it is and we’re just sitting here, waiting... This is so stupid and unfair and I can’t stand it. “Why can’t we do something!” I whisper into Jamie’s neck. 

“Dani--” Jamie’s arms are wrapped around me. Her fingers intertwined in my own, holding on tight, so tightly, holding onto time, onto this moment, onto us. I close my eyes.

“Stop it. Don’t let it happen. Change it.”

“Would if I could, love.” Jamie’s voice is soft and I look up at her, and her eyes shine with tears in the light reflected by the window. I don’t know how she can be so calm. It feels like something is trying to claw out of my chest, but it’s fighting, struggling, kicking and screaming and it wraps itself tightly around my throat and presses. I am choking in helplessness and a strangled sound comes out of me. The only thing that can save me is Jamie and I blindly reach for her, grasping desperately like she’s a piece of driftwood in the ocean and I’m drowning, drowning, drowning, water filling my lungs. “Hey, hey, shh.” I open my eyes and all I see is green; the green of Jamie, the jungle of her. 

“I can’t--”

“Shh,” she presses our foreheads together, anchoring us. I can feel her warm breath ghost across my face. 

Jamie.”

“It’s okay,” she lies, lies, lies. How can it possibly be okay?

“How am I supposed to just -” I choke, ”- live a life you’re not in?”

Her fingers grasping at my own, pulling, squeezing, stroking. “I’m here, Dani. In every blade of grass, every leaf, every branch, every flower. I’m in the earth, Dani. I’ll always be right here. Earth and time.” She strokes my hair. I reach back for her; she’s sweating. I put my hand on her face and she’s burning up with fever. Burning everything in her to hold on. “What time is it?” 

“Almost midnight.”

“I’m scared.” I bring my hands to cup her face. My breath comes in shallow gasps, breathing in tandem with her, breathing in every last inch, every last atom of Jamie. She’s the one now reaching out with frantic energy. Her hands tug on whatever she can grasp - my elbow, my shoulders, my back, desperately trying to hold on. I stroke her cheek with the pads of my thumbs, smearing tears. It’s impossible to believe that Jamie, so solid, this real body, that I’m holding pressed to mine with all of my strength, with all of my love, could ever disappear. 

I kiss her, with everything in me, with every year of my life, the one she has shaped and colored, planted, tended to, and grown, and then I’m alone, under her jacket, on the bench, in the cold. Stars are twinkling above. Inside, I hear someone say, “Ten! Nine! Eight!” and everyone says, all together, “Seven! Six! Five! Four! Three! Two! One! Happy New Year!” and just as a champagne cork pops, and in the chaos of everyone talking and cheering, I throw my head back and scream. It feels like I’m underwater, reaching for Jamie, who is already gone. Eventually someone says, “Where’s Jamie and Dani?” Outside in another backyard, someone sets off firecrackers. My lips are still tingling and swollen from her kiss. I’m pulling thin, reedy breaths into my lungs and fist my hands through my hair, the pain pulling tight, trying to hold onto something, anything. I put my head in my hands and I wait.


Sunday, October 5, 1970/Thursday, January 1, 1998 (Jamie is 39, Dani is 37)
JAMIE:

The sky is black and I’m falling onto the hard asphalt let it be quick and even as I try to jump out of the way, bright light finds me and I think Dani has her father’s eyes and then I’m slammed to the ground and I hear a crunch like a soda can crumpling; it doesn’t hurt at all that can’t be right, can it? But I can only stare up at the network of pipes and tubes and bent metal and tires above me someone is running all I want is to see Dani before before and I’m screaming her name Dani, Dani

And Dani, with her beautiful perfect face, leans over me, crying, and Flora whispers, “Mummy….”

“I love you…”

“Jamie--”

“Always…”

“Oh God oh God--”

“And on and on…”

“No!”

“It goes…”

“Jamie!”

DANI:

The living room is very still. Everyone stands fixed, frozen, staring down at us. Billie Holiday is singing, and then someone turns off the CD player and there is silence. I sit on the floor, holding Jamie. Flora is crouched over her, whispering in her ear, shaking her. Jamie’s skin is warm, her eyes are open, staring past me, and she’s heavy in my arms, so heavy, her pale skin torn apart, red everywhere, ripped and crushed flesh framing a secret world of blood and bone. I cradle her. There’s blood at the corner of her mouth. I wipe it off. Firecrackers explode somewhere nearby. 

Owen says, “ I think we’d better call the police.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 18: After the End, Pt.II

Sunday February 7th, 1999 (Dani is 35)
DANI:

I sleep all day. Noises flit around the house -- garbage truck in the street, tree rapping against the bedroom window. I sleep. I inhibit sleep firmly, willing it, wielding it, pushing away dreams, refusing, refusing. Sleep is my wife now, my forgetting, my drug, my oblivion. The phone rings and rings. I’ve turned off the machine that answers with Jamie’s voice. It’s afternoon, it’s night, it’s morning. Everything is reduced to this bed, this endless slumber that blurs the days into one, makes time stop, stretches and compacts it until it’s meaningless. As if from a nightmare, I wake back in my bed, feeling each time that it was just a bad dream. That if I just wake up, to the room I once shared with my wife, that perhaps the nightmare will abate. But the remembering itself is injury anew. My heart shatters again, burning in my chest, a searing ache that time does not soothe. I sleep, and I forget. Having forgotten, I wake. I sleep. I wake. I remember. So I sleep.

But sometimes sleep abandons me and I pretend, like I’m eleven years old and don’t want to go to school. I breathe slowly and deeply. I make my eyes still under my eyelids, I make my mind still, and soon, sleep will come for me. Come for me like Jamie used to. 

Sometimes I wake up and reach for her. Sleep erases all differences; then and now; dead and living. I have no space for hunger, for vanity, for caring. This morning I caught sight of my face in the bathroom mirror. I’m paper-skinned, gaunt, yellow, ring-eyed, hair matted. I look dead. I want nothing. 

My mom sits at the foot of the bed. She’s been here for over a month now, staying after the O’Maras flew back to Iowa, helping to hold the fragile pieces of my former life together, keeping them from shattering entirely. Her, Hannah, and Owen are a tight team, coordinating meals, school pick-ups and drop-offs, laundry. “Dani?” Mom says in a soft voice, “Flora’s home from school. Won’t you let her come in, say hello?” I pretend to sleep, not wanting Flora to think I’m hiding from her, which I am, but only because I’m trying to hide from myself, from everything, from everyone.

Flora’s little hand strokes my face. Tears leak from my eyes. She sets something on the floor, probably her backpack and crawls into bed with me. I wrap my arm around her as she tucks her head under my chin. Flora pretends to sleep. I stare at her eyelashes, her mouth, her pale skin; the last remnants of Jamie left in this world. A living testament of our love, our life together. She is breathing carefully, clutching my hip with her strong hand, she smells of pencil shavings and sugar and shampoo. I kiss the top of her head. Flora opens her eyes. I squeeze her closer to me. I can feel the fast rhythm of her heart, and I finally understand. I vow to call Henry to see what he’s working on for Flora; the tracks he and Jamie have laid for her future. My mom gets up and walks out of the room. 

Later I get up, take a shower, and eat dinner sitting at the table with Mom and Flora. I sit in Jamie’s chair after Flora’s gone to bed. I take out the bundle of letters and papers, and I start to read. 

 

 

A letter to be opened in the event of my death:

 

                                                                                         December 10, 1997

Dani, 

If you’re reading this, I’m probably dead. (I mean, you never know what might happen, but it seems pretty dumb and self-important to just declare my own death as an outright fact. But, like I said, you never know. So if I am alive, and you see this, just go upstairs and smack me a bit for good measure. I’m sure I’ll deserve it for something.) About this death of mine - I hope it was simple and clean. I hope it didn’t create too much fuss. I’m sorry.  But you know: you know that if I could’ve stayed, if I could’ve gone on, that I would have held on to every second: whatever it was, this death, you know that it came and took me.

Dani, I want to tell you, again, and again, and again. I love you. Our love has been the earth under my feet, the net under the high-wire walker, the only real thing in this strange life of mine that I could ever trust. My love for you has more density in this world than I do, myself: like it could linger on after me and surround you, keep you, hold you. Your love has been the gravity that keeps me spinning on axis.

I hate to think of you waiting. I know that you’ve been waiting for me all of your life, really, as an unwavering manifestation of patience incarnate, always uncertain of how long a patch of waiting might be; ten minutes, ten days. A month. What an uncertain wife I’ve been. Please, Dani. When I’m dead, stop waiting and be free. Plant me deep inside of yourself and then go out into the world and live. Love the world and yourself in it, move through it like it gives no resistance, like the world is your natural element.

After my mum left, it ate up what was left of Dennis. He buried his head in the dirt and never looked up again. Since I was a kid, I’ve understood how absence can be present, like a damaged nerve. Thought it was all there was, until you. Don’t bury your head. Look up, look ahead. There’s so much life in the world, don’t miss a minute of it looking back.

I’m sitting at the kitchen counter as I write this, looking out at the backyard; the backyard that I recognized when we were looking for a place to call home, searching for this very house; the backyard I landed in and saw you here, exactly where I’m writing this letter, lifting Flora in the air and spinning around, and beckoning me to our future together. Our little leafling is growing, sprouting, blossoming with each passing year. God willing she’ll outlast us both and breathe more life into the world. 

It’s one of those winter evenings when the coldness of every single thing seems to slow down time, like the narrow bit of an hourglass where time itself flows through, but slowly, slowly. I’ve got this feeling, familiar to me when I’m out of time but almost never otherwise, of being buoyed up by time, floating effortlessly on its surface. Had a sudden urge, tonight, here in the house by myself (you’re picking up Flora from Ben P.’s house) to write you a letter. I just wanted to leave something, for after. Something that wasn’t emptiness or tragedy. I think time is short, now. I feel it waning, like the flowers during the last cold breaths of autumn before winter comes. I’ve been hiding this from you, I know, and I’m sorry. It’s not a fate I would wish on anyone, but least of all you. I’m sorry to leave you this burden, of the emptiness of me. But I know you’ll be in good hands. Strong hands. Loving hands. Owen and Hannah. Judy and Eddie. Your mum. And Flora. As she gets older and has all the milestones and moments big and small - her first love, her first heartbreak, learning to drive, graduating school, when she moves into her first flat - Don't think of losing me. Don't let that hang over your happiness.

You'll find little moments, little pieces of our life that remind you of me. They'll be silly and dumb, or they'll be sad, and you'll cry for hours. But they'll still be a piece of me. And you'll hold them tight, and it'll be like I'm there with you, even though I'm gone. The beauty lies in the mortality of the thing. And god, Dani. You made me feel so fucking beautiful. Every living thing grows out of every dying thing and Dani, I want you to live. Please, promise me you’ll live.

There’s one more thing, and I’ve debated telling you, because I’m worried that telling might cause it to not happen (silly, I know) and also because I’ve just been going on about not waiting and this might cause you to wait longer than you’ve ever waited before. Longer than anyone should wait. But I’ll tell you in case you need something, for later.

Last summer, I was sitting in Henry’s waiting room when I suddenly found myself in a dark hallway in a house I didn’t recognize, at first. It smelled like rain. At the end of the hall I could see a rim of light around a door, and so I went very slowly and very quietly to the door and looked in. The room was white, and intensely lit with morning sun. At the window, with her back to me, sat a woman, wearing a pink cardigan, with long white hair all down her back. She had a cup of tea beside her, on a table, surrounded by plants. When I saw her, I saw her eyes, and it was you, Dani. It was you as an old woman, in the future. It was sweet, sweet beyond telling, to come as though from death to hold you, and to see all the years present in your face. I won’t tell you anything else, so you can imagine it and you can have it unrehearsed and natural when the time comes, as it will, as it happens We’ll see each other again. Until then, live, fully, present in and part of the world, which is so, so beautiful.

You put in your love and your effort, and you see where life goes. Sure went far, didn’t we, Dani?

Alright, It’s dark, now, and you and Flora are coming home soon. Best wrap this thing up. I love you, always. Time is nothing. 

-Jamie


Saturday, September 23rd, 1972 (Dani is 10, Jamie is 32)
DANI:

I’m so excited. I’m waiting in The Meadow and my leg is bouncing the way it was when I was waiting for Eddie to open his birthday gift because I knew he was gonna love it except this time I don’t have to wait for all the other kids to leave after the party before he opens presents, I just have to wait for Jamie. She said she’d be here soon. Saturday, September 23rd, 1972. Early afternoon, after lunch is what the date said in the Book. I made sure everything was done before lunch so I wouldn’t have to worry about it not being ready on time or coming late. I should have brought a book or something cause I’m starting to get bored sitting here, but I was too excited and ran out the door fast and also I didn’t want to carry too much and drop anything. 

I don’t have to wait too much longer anyway because there’s a soft thud and Jamie’s head pops up from behind the rock a second later and I can’t hold it in anymore and jump up and shout “Surprise!”

JAMIE:

I don’t even have time to register where I am yet before Dani scares me half to death. “Jesus!” I slap my hand to my chest, heart beating out my bloody skin. Guess I’m in the Meadow, then. Dani looks to be about ten, so it must be the early 1970s. I take her in as my heart slowly calms back down to normal. She’s beaming, and the summer sun has bleached her hair as blonde as I’ve ever seen it. A small smattering of freckles pepper the tops of her cheeks and across her nose and there’s the slightest gap between her teeth that will close as she gets older. It’s the cutest goddamn thing. 

“Sorry,” she winces, looking the barest amount of ‘sorry’ one could be with a giant grin still stretched across her face. 

"‘S’alright,” I say, reaching for the Box now I’ve got my wits more about me. Dani turns around to give me privacy as I stand and get dressed. “What’s all this about a surprise, then?” I say once everything is zipped and covered. 

She literally cannot keep still in her excitement, practically bouncing out of her shoes. “Happy birthday!” she says, presenting me with a very sad, very small cake-like looking thing. She looks unbelievably proud at what I’m sure must have been a lot of work to make something dubious. I try to hide my dismay at the neon-colored frosting that has to be at least half food colouring, and hope the grimace twists into more of a smile. My reaction doesn’t seem to faze Dani at all, who is biting her lip over a grin. 

“Er,” I start, not wanting to break the news to this unbelievably happy creature, “Sorry, Dani, this is lovely, it really is, but, ah, ‘s’not my birthday.”

“Oh, I know that,” Dani says matter-of-factly, as if she was anticipating this.

“You do?”

“Yeah!”

“So, then, uh-” I gesture to the cake, “What’s all this, then?”

Dani smiles. “It’s the anniversary of the day you first time traveled here! Since you won’t tell me when your actual birthday is - which is still really unfair by the way - I picked this one for you instead!” Oh, this darling child.

I think about the fact that somewhere, in this time, a twelve-year-old me is out there living a pretty miserable, lonely existence. And meanwhile, lucky me gets to be standing here, in front of Dani, someone who at this point still barely knows me, a strange older person who disappears and reappears at a whim, but who’d gone out of her way to make a cake, no matter how small, just to celebrate my existence.

“Blimey,” I manage to say, a little choked up. I cough, trying to mask my emotions. “What’s this?” I point to a green squiggle of icing. 

“It’s you!”

My brows shoot up. “Me?”

“Yeah,” she frowns. “Well, it’s supposed to be you. But I’m not that good at drawling and it’s even harder doing it in frosting.”

“Well,” I say, bending forward to her height, bracing my arms on my knees, “I think it looks great. Never been drawn in frosting before, reckon it’s the best I’ve ever looked, really. How’d you get the cake that small?”

“I got an Easy Bake Oven last year for my birthday. The first two kinda looked like soup, but this one came out okay!”

I dip my finger into the frosting and pop it into my mouth. It’s…sickeningly sweet with a slightly plasticky taste. Not too terrible, considering. 

Once I relieve her of holding the cake, really a tiny thing cradled in my hands, she reaches into a bag by her feet and pulls out one of those paper cone hats. It’s got horses all over it and she puts one on and reaches up to loop one on my head as well. Her hand slips and the elastic string snaps my neck. 

“Ow.” I say, rubbing my throat. 

“Sorry,” she cringes. Leans back and nods, pleased. Just as I take a bite, she blows a party horn. I startle at the honk. “Happy Birthday, Jamie.”

This cake both looks and tastes like a hockey puck. Still, it’s one of the best I’ve ever eaten, and I tell her so. “Best fake birthday I’ve ever had.”   


Sunday, May 6th, 1999 (Dani is 36)
DANI:

It's the first warm, genuine day of spring, and I’ve decided it’s time. Flora misses her mom. I miss my wife. They’re installing the memorial bench today and I wanted us to be there for it. There isn’t a ceremony or anything, just a worker and a pile of cut lumber. No metal, nothing that would bite into bundled limbs in the winter, stealing precious heat from the backs of people’s legs. Just wood: organic, fitting, warm. We set up a blanket by our elm sapling, already several feet larger than it was when we planted it just a year ago. Flora, too, is larger. I ache, thinking about the growth Jamie’s not here to witness, the results of her careful guidance and tender care.

Flora hasn’t started time traveling yet, thank god. Don’t think I could handle it happening so soon after Jamie...well. So soon after Jamie. It’ll be soon, I know. Jamie’s first trip was at five years old. Flora’s going to be six. 

“Why are we here, Mummy?” Flora asks.

"Because they’re building a bench for your Mom, and I thought it would be nice to watch it happen.”

There was something Flora understood, in the aftermath of New Years’ Eve, of something final. Of something...gone. Of the stem cut, not growing back. Flora, looking so much older and solemn than her youth should allow, grief having aged her into a maturity far beyond her years. Some things in life like tender budding blossoms, a dragonfly’s wings, a spider’s web, are so delicate that we understand them as the precious, fragile things they are. Flora senses it. 

“Why are they building a bench for Mum?”

“Well,” I say, unwrapping a sandwich and handing it to Flora, “Because she worked here for a really long time, loved this place a lot, and I thought it might be a nice place for us to come and remember her.”

“But why don’t we do that at the cemetery? Gran says Grandpa Phil is there, just like Mum.”

Sometimes, Jamie taught me, delicate things have to be planted. Tended to. Loved. Given strength underground, buoyed with a strong root system, to belie the fragility of what’s visible above. Flora’s five. Jamie’s gone. With each new day, Flora will live more of her life without her mother. She’ll collect new memories, experiences, relationships, all without half of her. Maybe that was another reason for all of Jamie’s gardening; leaving something of herself to help root us without her.

I try to find words to explain. “When I was a little girl and Grandpa Phil died, we would go to the cemetery and leave flowers for him. It was nice. But then the flowers would die, long after we were gone, and just stay there. I would think of the flowers withering and drying up on Grandpa Phil’s headstone and it would make me feel even more lonely and sad. Cemeteries are where dead things are. This place is so much more alive, don’t you think?”

I wanted this place to be a place of life and living. I chose a bench so that anyone could have a place to sit and rest, supported by Jamie, enveloped by the things she nurtured. There’s so much life here. I want Flora to remember that. This is the place where Jamie is. Not in a cemetery, buried deep down in the dirt, but here; in the topiaries she shaped, the flowers she planted, grass she cut. She’s in the greenhouse where we kissed, where our life together truly started. In the sapling we planted together. She’s right there by that tree, next to the row of hedges where we met, after she cut her hand on a trowel, cursed, and our timelines finally aligned.

That same tree will soon have a bench to remember that moment, that place, in permanence. A memorial. A testament. A marker. Something that time cannot erase. Something of us that will remain here, long after both of us are gone.

“And other people can sit on it, too?”

“Yes, pumpkin. Anyone can use it.”

Flora nibbles on the sandwich, taking small bites, and regards this for a moment. “Could Mum use it, too?”

Such an innocent question, perfectly logical, and still it slices deep. I inhale sharply. Hold onto the breath and let it out slowly. “Yeah,” I say, as the pain of it ebbs into the strangeness of our situation, “I suppose she could sometimes.”

“Won’t that be strange,” Flora giggles. “Sitting on her own bench.”

It’s not funny, not really, but I guess maybe somewhere it could be. I let Flora’s amusement seep into the cracks of me like water and smile, poking her belly for good measure, and she giggles again at the tickle. There’s something deeply addicting about the sound of a child’s laughter, and I pinch her tummy again to hear it. A peal of laughter rings out and settles deep in my chest. I bottle the sound like lightning, and hold it inside. 

I try to see things from Flora’s eyes. Her mother, dead but not dead. Her mother, who’s dead but who she still sees; flesh and blood, not a ghost or specter of who she was, but real. Does something like a memorial seem strange to her? Oddly superfluous in it’s own, strange way.

“I think she’ll quite like it, don’t you?” So matter of fact. The tense stuns me. She’ll quite like it. Future tense. There’s a Jamie somewhere out there who will see this, a version of her still floating around. There’s something painfully bittersweet and hopeful about this concept.

“Yeah,” I agree, “I think she will.”

“I’m sorry you’re sad, Mummy. I’m sad too. I miss Mum an awful lot, but then I remember.”

I frown. “Remember what, pumpkin?”

“Dead doesn’t mean gone.”

I freeze. I know those words. Remember them. Those words got me through the darkest days of my childhood after dad died. My frown deepens as the memory swallows me. I remember sitting on the rock, crying. I remember how my dress itched and my nice shoes pinched. I remembered how much I hated wearing black, vowed to never allow it to absorb me again. For a moment, I’m eight years old again. “But then I learned a secret, and I didn’t even need to be sad anymore.” Jamie’s words, echoing through the mouth of our daughter. I turn my head sharply. “Flora,” I practically whisper, “Where did you hear that?”

“Hear what?” she asks, taking a bite of her sandwich.

“Dead doesn’t mean gone,” I repeat back.

“Oh,” she frowns, thinking hard, “Nowhere, really. It’s just how it is, isn’t it.” She says it so matter-of-factly, as if she were remarking about the surety of the sun or the moon. Says it with the wondrous, casual wisdom of a child, as she goes back to humming as she chews, observing the birds flying overhead.

I sit there, still stunned, feeling the strangest sense of deja vu and newness all at once. Jamie, still out there. Jamie, still here, in her own way, living in Flora and myself. Transmitting through time, spreading out from us like ripples in a pond. I sit on Jamie’s shores, letting the memories lap at my toes like soothing warm water.


Thursday, October 5th, 2000 (Dani is 38)
DANI:

Flora's reward for being patient while I pack up my classroom and stay late doing some prep for the next unit is to go out for dinner. We meet Owen and Hannah at our favorite Italian place. The restaurant isn't too busy, given we're eating on the earlier side. It's only six-thirty and after we order, Flora occupies herself with a coloring book and stickers while Hannah, Owen, and I nurse glasses of wine and an antipasto platter. The waiter comes to refill our waters and Flora sits on her knees on the chair to lift herself higher in order to get her mouth around the straw sticking out the top of the glass. A few strands of hair escape her headband and she brushes them off her face unsuccessfully with the back of her hand, unwilling to let go of her crayon. I take off the headband and re-thread it behind her ears, tucking it back and getting the hair out of her face. "Thank you," she says politely.

"You're welcome."

"When's Mum coming home?" she asks. Hannah makes a strangled sort of noise in the back of her throat, covering it up quickly with a cough.

"November 19th," I tell Flora, who nods and goes back to coloring while Hannah looks at me reproachfully.

Later, we're taking a walk after dinner, digesting and walking off the wine, meandering directionless in the Commons. Flora's off running toward a tree when Hannah finally says, "Doesn't Flora know that Jamie's dead?"

"Of course she knows. She saw her." The tone comes out harsher than I intended. It's not Hannah's fault. It's no one's fault.

"Pardon the obvious question then," Owen interjects, "But may I ask why you told her she was coming home in November?"

"Because she is. She gave me the date herself."

It takes a few seconds for it to click. "Blimey," he says when it finally comes together. Even though my eyes are trained on Flora off by the tree, I can feel him staring at me. Incredulous. "Isn't that kind of...weird?"

"Flora loves it."

"For you, though?"

"I never see her." I try to keep my voice light, as though I'm not constantly tortured by the unfairness of this, as if I don't mouth my resentment whenever Flora tells me about her visits with Jamie even as I soak up every last detail.

Why not me, Jamie? I ask her silently as we walk up the path to the house. Why only Flora and never me? But, as usual, there's no answer. As usual, that's just how it is. Hannah kisses me, Owen gives a one-armed hug, and they continue walking down the street, shoulders pressed up against each other, walking side-by-side. I bite down my jealousy. Flora bounds inside the house and I stand in the driveway.


Friday, May 25th, 1979 (Jamie is 19)
JAMIE:

Mack and I are high. We’re high and it’s dark and we’re looking for her car after a concert. We’re laughing deliriously over some joke that I can’t even remember anymore, or why it was even funny, but it doesn’t matter because the world is blissfully foggy for a bit and all I can feel is my ears ringing from the loud music, my feet on the sidewalk, and nothing else. 

“Jamie.”

“What?”

“There’s that little girl again.”

“What little girl?”

“The one we saw earlier.” Mack stops. I look where she’s pointing. The girl is standing in the doorway of a flower shop. She’s wearing something dark, so all I see is her bare feet. She’s maybe seven or eight; too young to be out alone in the middle of the night. Something inside of me burns, despite the drugs coursing through my system, in seeing a little girl out here alone at night.

“Oi! y’alright?” I call out to her. “Are y’lost?”

The girl looks at me and says, “I was lost, but now I’ve figured out where I am. Thank you,” she adds politely.

“Do you need us to take you home?” Mack’s gotten maybe a foot away from the girl. As I walk up to them I see the kid is wearing a man’s windbreaker. It comes all the way down to her ankles.

“No, thank you. Though it’s very kind of you to offer anyway.” She has long brown hair and a pale face.

“Did you run away?” Mack asks her.

The girl shakes her head. “I was looking for my mum, but I’m a bit too early, I suppose. I’ll come back later.” She squeezes past Mack and grabs my jacket to pull me down to her. “The car is parked over there,” she whispers in my ear, pointing over to the next block. I stand there awkwardly, not sure what to do with my arms, as this strange child puts her hands around my middle and gives me a quick hug before running off down the sidewalk, her feet slapping the concrete as I stand staring after her, baffled. Mack is quiet as we continue walking. Sure enough, we find the car over on the next street.

“That was bloody-fuckin’ strange,” I say after we get back home. She sighs and says, “Jamie, you’re a fuckin’ idiot,” and closes the bathroom door behind her without another word.


Tuesday, July 22nd, 1975 (Jamie is 37)
JAMIE:

It’s sometime in the past. I’m sitting on Blackpool Beach with Flora. She’s seven, I’m thirty-seven, and both of us are time traveling. It’s a warm evening, maybe July or August, and I’m wearing a pair of shorts and a t-shirt I nicked from a souvenir shop; Flora’s wearing a pink nightgown she took from an old lady’s clothesline. It’s too long for her so we’ve tied it up around her knees.

Despite our odd and mismatched fashion choices, people haven’t been giving us strange looks at all. Barely glancing at us as they go about their lives. Strange, that whenever Dani and I would take Flora together, people’s gazes would linger just a little too long, trying to puzzle out the secret of our family. Dani and I always keep rather chaste in public, keen to not push the boundary of physical affection too far unless we’re certain of the company. Especially when Flora’s with us. It feels strange, being here without Dani. But we’re doing our best; we swam, built a sandcastle, ate sausages and crisps from a vendor in the parking lot. We don’t have a blanket or any towels, and so we’re just kind of sandy, damp, and pleasantly tired after a day in the sun, and we sit watching little kids running back and forth in the waves and the big silly dogs loping after them. The sun is setting behind us as we stare at the water. 

“Tell me a story,” says Flora, leaning against me.

I put my arm around her. “What kind of story?”

“A great, good story. About you and Mummy, when Mummy was a little girl.”

“Hmm. Okay. Once upon a time --”

“When was that?”

“All times at once. A long time ago, ‘n right now.”

“Both?”

“Yeah. Always both.”

“But how can it be both?”

“I dunno, it just is. D’you want me to tell this story or not?”

“Yes, please.”

“Right then. Once upon a time, your mum lived in a lonely house at the end of a lane and behind that house was a meadow. And in the meadow was a place where she used to go play. And one day, your mum, who was only a wee little thing with hair like sunshine, went out to the clearing and there was a woman there --”

“With no clothes!”

“Not a stitch on her,” I agree. “And after your mum had given her a towel she happened to be carrying so she could have something to wear, the woman explained that she was a time traveler, and for some reason your mum believed her--”

“Because it was the truth!”

“Well, yeah, it was, but how was she supposed to know that? Anyway, your mum did believe her, and a few years later on she was silly enough to marry her and here we are.”

Flora nudges me with her knee. “Tell it right,” she demands. 

“That’s exactly how it happened! I should know, I was there.”

Flora’s quiet. Then she says, “How come you never visit Mum in the future?”

“I dunno, Flora. If I could, I’d be there. I’d always be there.” The blue is deepening over the horizon and the tide is receding. I stand up and offer Flora my hand to pull her up. As she stands brushing sand from her nightgown, she stumbles toward me and cries, “Oh!” and is gone and I stand there on the beach holding a damp cotton nightgown and staring at Flora’s slender footprints in the fading light.


Monday, June 23rd, 1986 (Jamie is 26, Dani is 23)
JAMIE:

The wrong kind of love can fuck you up. The right kind of love? Not sure I know what that feels like. But what I do know is how perfectly the shape of Dani’s mouth fits against mine. How my body radiates from the epicenter of my chest when I think about her. How the sound of Dani’s moan vibrates in my ears on a constant, unending loop.

This is different from that first day, when she found me in the Gardens and stayed the night in my flat. She was a curious stranger then, an anomaly in my boring predictable life, and now, she’s the only thing I think about. Never been so distracted, so preoccupied by a woman, that I couldn’t function like a bloody human being. I’m misplacing tools, overwatering plants, forgetting things, and having to walk all the way back to the shed to get equipment I left behind. Still can’t find my favorite gardening gloves.

I can’t stop replaying the kiss we shared, can’t seem to string enough thoughts together to accomplish anything at work now that I’ve opened myself up to Dani Clayton.

If the right kind of love is anything like this, then I am totally and completely fucked.

Dani’s busy managing the last few weeks of school, which means I’m stuck spending my evenings alone, pining the nights away. For having spent so much of my life alone, it’s strange how quickly I’ve gotten used to her company. Depend on it, now, really. Truly, entirely fucked.

I know it’s temporary, and the promise of a long, uninterrupted summer holiday entices me to be patient. Phone calls fill the void, as if our shared kiss was a reset button, taking us back to the start. Except now, the early stilted pleasantries have been replaced by flirtatious banter, and instead of filling the void, it does the opposite. The gap grows larger every day I don’t see her, and I’ve started to feel like a woefully abandoned puppy.

“You know, the last time I saw you in the Meadow, I tried to . . .“ She giggles nervously into the phone, “Tried to ….”

“Tried to what?”

“Seduce you.”

I feel my pulse quicken. “Yeah? Did you succeed?”

“You turned me down. Said you were old enough to be my mom.”

Both of us snort in laughter. I smile, and it comes out of my mouth before I can stop it. “Reckon you’d succeed this time around.” I bite my lip, cringing. Dani is silent on the other end.

“Might be worth a try,” Dani’s voice is honey smooth, “Considering that it’s all I’ve thought about for six years.” 

I cough out a nervous laugh and fidget with the phone cord. “That’s um,” I stammer, “That’s-“

“Is it working?”

I grin ear to ear, caught and suddenly bashful. “Y’know, it’s getting late. I should probably let you go.” I sidestep, feeling my cheeks warm under Dani’s laughter.

“These reports aren’t going to write themselves I suppose.” I hear the rustling of paper on the other end. “I miss you,” she sighs. “Is it really only Monday?”

“Miss you too,” I reply, untangling the cord from my hands. “Wish I could bail on my Friday night plans, but I’d be a pretty shit friend, not showing up to Owen’s birthday. I’m already hangin’ on by a thread. Miracle he still puts up with me, if I’m honest. Saturday can’t come soon enough.” A comfortable silence stretches between the two of us, neither of us wanting to part just yet. Five days feels like a lifetime. I turn and look at the plant Dani repotted that day in the greenhouse, sitting in a prime location on my bookshelf, and I feel myself flush at the memory of it.

“I’d rather be staring at you than these papers, if I’m being completely honest.” Her tone isn’t flirtatious this time, more wistful and longing, but it makes my body hum anyway, my mind meandering through all the ways Dani could undo me with just one look.

“You’re slightly better company than plants, I suppose.”

She laughs. “Only slightly?”

“Well, I guess you do make an apple pie that’s to die for. What’s a girl gotta do to get another slice?” 

“I can think of a couple of things.” This time the silence is charged and I feel the blush creep across my face a second time.

I clear my throat. “Right.”

“Seriously Jamie, if you want my pie, all you have to do is ask.” She says it in a way where I can’t tell if we were talking about her actual baked apple pie, or something decidedly not an apple pie at all. She sighs into the phone. “Okay, goodnight now, for real. Call you tomorrow?”

“Yeah of course,” I recover quickly. 

“Good night then, Jamie.”

“Dani?”

“Yeah?”

I pause for a moment. “It’s working,” I say with a smile, and hang up the phone.         


Friday, June 27th, 1986 (Jamie is 26, Dani is 23)
JAMIE :

I barely make it through work. It’s Friday, and the anticipation of seeing Dani tomorrow is making me feel practically manic at this point. I get home from work, shower quickly, throw some clothes on, and make it in time to the pub to see Owen already seated, a big mustachioed smile waiting for me when I walk in.

“Happy birthday mate!” I say, and Owen stands and greets me with a warm hug. He orders a round of drinks, and starts going on about what happened at the bakery today. I smile and nod in all the right places, and I feel like a right prat that I just can’t focus on what he’s saying. I try to get my head on straight and be there for my best friend, and I fail miserably. 

“Mhm,” I respond absentmindedly, taking a sip of my beer. 

“Jamie.” I look up to see Owen furrowing his eyebrows at me. “Are you listening to me?”

Shit. “’course I am.” My mind tries to rewind back the bits and pieces that actually made it into my brain.

“I asked if you I had gigantic tusks growing out of my ears and you said ‘mhm.’” I groan. “Is everything okay? You seem tense.”

“I’ve just been feeling . . . distracted, is all. I’m sorry mate.”

He looks at me suspiciously. “Since when do you get distracted by anything that isn’t green and growing out of the dirt? I call shenanigans.” I roll my eyes at him, but he’s looking at me expectantly. “You’re going to make me pry it out of you, aren’t you?”

I purse my lips, nervously twisting my beer on the coaster that’s sitting on the table. I’ve entrusted Owen with my deepest secret, so what’s one more in the scheme of things?

“I met someone,” I say slowly. He grins at me, wide eyed and excited. 

“Well now, that’s the best bit of gossip I’ve heard all week. Who’s the lucky chap?”

It never gets easier, does it? Even when it’s to people who are closest to you. Especially when it’s people closest to you. I hesitate, but Owen is looking at me so earnestly and with genuine excitement. He’s never been anything but supportive, so I hold on to that as I tell him.

“Her name is Dani.”

If it shocks him, he doesn’t show it, and the happiness in his eyes doesn’t waver. He claps me on the back with a “Well done!” and instantly I’m relaxed and grateful for having landed in the back alley of this man’s bakery. “This calls for a round of shots, and don’t you dare turn me down Jamie Taylor. It’s my birthday so you are required by law to do as I say.” He gets up and bounds to the bar, returning a moment later with lime wedges and two shots of tequila. I know I’m going to regret this in the morning, but Owen’s joy is infectious, and we toast to my good fortune and his trip around the sun, and knock them back with purpose.

I tell him all the weird details of how a future version of me traveled to Dani’s childhood. How the last time she saw me was six years ago, and how all Dani had was my first name and the fact that I was British, and still managed to find me at the gardens. 

“Is it weird? That she knows whole things about you that you don’t?”

“Sometimes. I try not to dwell on it too much, or compare myself to that future version of me. Fought against it in the beginning, but at the end of the day, I’m still me, no matter when I come from. Found out more than once the hard way y’can’t run away from what’s going to happen. Best you can do is make peace with it and-” I make a spinning gesture with my beer bottle, “-carry on.” For all the shit this world has handed me, it’s given me Dani, and I am not about to waste this precious gift. “She sees all of me, y’know? The good bits, the broken ones, the ones that don’t exist yet. ’s humbling to be known like that. To be understood. Like I matter.”

“Jamie,” he says in a serious tone, laying a warm hand gently on my shoulder. His brows are furrowed together, eyes full, and I’ve never seen this kind of love directed at me before. I’ve had and lost two, but in that moment, I feel like I finally found my brother. “You matter. You’ve always mattered.”

I swallow over a thick lump of something I don’t feel much like crying over in a pub. I clear my throat and take a deep swig from my beer instead, unable to sustain Owen’s gaze any longer. “You’re contractually obligated to say that to me,” I say instead. “I’m your best customer. Couldn’t bear to lose me.”

Thankfully, he sees the moment for what it is – a deflection from the intensity of the moment but acknowledged and appreciated nonetheless. The love passes between us, unspoken but recognized, demonstrating itself in the intimacy of gentle teasing. “Oh, you are by far my worst customer.”

I’m affronted. “I’m there every day!”

“And yet, she never pays,” he takes a long sip of his drink.

“You never charge me!”

“Ergo,” he points out, “Technically, not a customer.” I shake my head, grinning into my beer, angling it up for a deep swig. “Does she know how you feel?”

“Hm?” The bottle makes a pop as the vacuum seal releases.

“This Dani person. Does she know how you feel?”

Right. Forgot what we were talking about for a second, the tequila having made me fuzzy. “No, I hadn’t really . . . said all that out loud before.”

Owen fixes me with a questioning look. “So, why are you here telling me all this, instead of telling her?”

“Because it’s your birthday?”

“Well then, for my birthday, I want you to celebrate by leaving this rat hole of a pub and going to your girl. Love waits for no one, my dear Jamie.”

“I can’t just... show up at her apartment right now, it’s late!” I sputter. 

“Then call her and ask if you can come ‘round.” He points to the payphone at the back of the pub.

“Owen, you know as well as I do that that phone’s been broken for god knows how long.” 

A deep frown forms on his face and he pivots in his seat to face me. “Let me get this straight. This girl has been in love with you since she was a child, uprooted her life and crossed the Atlantic Ocean to find you. She's spent a lifetime waiting for you. I hardly think she’ll turn you away if you show up at her flat tonight.” I shrug hopelessly. He shakes his head at me, and reaches for his pint. “Jamie,” he says in what would be an almost scolding tone if not for how full of fondness it is. “Not everyone’s happy ending lands in their lap, fully formed and ready for you. What are you waiting for?”

I blanche. What am I waiting for? “I messed it up in the beginning, almost ruined it, so I want….I need to do it right. I’m tired of fucking things up, doing things based on instinct. It has to be the right moment.”

“Bollocks,” Owen grunts, “You don’t wait for the right moment, you make the moment happen.” He punctuates each word, tapping his index finger firmly on the table. “Besides,” he wiggles the tiny glass containing my lime wedge, “You’ve already taken one shot tonight. What’s stopping you from taking another? It might cure,” he pauses dramatically and clinks his pint glass against my beer, “what ales you,” he finishes with a wink.

I groan and roll my eyes. Despite the butterflies raging in my belly at the idea of showing up at Dani’s flat tonight, I have to admit, he’s right. It must show on my face because he laughs and finishes his drink.

“Go on then, I’ll settle up here. You owe me two pints and a formal introduction to your lady friend as thanks.” Owen smiles at me, and I am so humbled by this man and his endless kindness.

“Deal.”

Thirty minutes later
JAMIE:

It’s 9:30, and I manage to hail a cab to Dani’s flat. I’m a mess of nerves, my leg bouncing in time with my racing heartbeat. In the 20 minutes it takes to get to Dani’s building, I’ve already talked myself out of seeing her four times.

As I walk up to the door, a group of people walk out, ready for a Friday night on the town, and they hold the door open for me. I hesitate, push aside my anxiety, and walk inside. I take the steps two at a time, then find myself at her door. My palms are sweating and I have no plan in place and my brain is screaming at me to just go home. Who shows up announced at 10 in the evening? This was a terrible idea. But I’m here, and I raise my hand to knock and I stop myself again. I’m seeing her tomorrow. What is wrong with me? I clench my fists in frustration and groan at my idiocy. Fuck. Fuck. Just do it. I stand there for what seems like ages fighting myself, feeling my bravado quickly deflate, when a familiar voice stills my restless thoughts.

“Jamie?”

My stomach drops, and I freeze. My eyes are glued to the door, and I wonder if I can slither away undetected, as if the fact that I can’t see Dani means that she can’t see me. I turn slowly, like a child caught doing something naughty, and there she is, standing a few feet in front of me. She’s dressed in grey sweatpants and a zip up hoodie with Iowa State emblazoned across her chest. Her hair is tied in a messy ponytail, tendrils framing her face, and she’s carrying a basket of laundry. She’s so casually comfortable standing in the dimly lit hallway and I hold my breath, letting my eyes soak in the sight of her. She is an absolute vision. 

“What are you doing here?” A wide smile breaks across her face as she approaches me, and I remember to breathe. Whatever I had prepared to say dies on my tongue, and I stand there, silent and gawking. “Wait, is everything okay?” Her face wrinkles in concern.

“Yeah, yeah, it’s fine, I’m . . .” I feel the embarrassment etched across my face, my over eagerness to see her turning into dread as I fumble to explain why I’ve shown up at her doorstep. That familiar feeling of rejection starts to creep in, even though I know Dani has done nothing but accept me. I sit with that for a second, and let it settle my nerves. I’m struggling for something to say, and I think, fuck it. She’s known me since she was six.

“I missed you,” I confess. “I’ve spent all week thinking about you and nothing else and it’s fucking irritating and I don’t know how to turn it off long enough to get some sleep.” I chance a look at her, and catch an unreadable expression on her face. “That sounds like I’m complaining, I’m not, because I do genuinely like thinking about you but it’s just non-stop,” I explain nervously, because none of this is coming out right, “and to be honest, I’m exhausted, and I thought that if I gave my brain what it wanted, if I came to see you for a second, I could finally get a good night’s sleep and be fully present for you tomorrow. I just . . . wanted to look at you. And it makes me think about how you’ve been waiting for me for years, and I’m so pathetic I couldn’t even let a whole week go by before turning into a mess without ya. And I feel like a right idiot turning up at your door this late at night so I’m just- I’m just gonna go.” But I don’t move, and just stand there dumbly, hands stuffed in my back pockets, staring at my feet. Owen’s pep talk has been reduced to a buzzing in my ears, and the last ounce of courage I have seeps out of me, leaving me painfully exposed. 

“So, you came all the way over here, unannounced,” she says as she steps closer to me, “tiptoeing around my apartment, just to come say hi at ten in the evening, and now you’re leaving?” There’s mirth in Dani’s voice, and I feel my cheeks flush. The only thing that separates us now is her basket of laundry, and I can feel her presence in every cell of my body, like a moth to a flame. “Jamie, you flirt.” She bites back a giggle, and it’s enough to break the tension. She shifts the basket to her side, and takes a step closer to me, pulling me into her orbit, and I feel my body vibrate as she reaches out and curls her free arm gently around my waist. “I missed you too,” she whispers softly, tightening her grip and pulling me closer. “Any chance I can get you to stay a little while longer?”

“Are you sure I’m not interrupting your evening?”

“You mean the boring date I’m having with my dirty laundry? Having you here is an improvement. Unless you’ve had your fill of me and don’t need anything else?”

“Highly unlikely.” Her eyes flicker to my mouth, and I can feel the coil inside me start to tighten. 

“Come inside?” she asks, tugging on the bottom of my jacket. I can’t think of a single reason to say no at this point, so I nod, and let her guide me through the door into her flat. It’s dim and cozy inside, and there’s soft music playing low in the background. She places the basket of clothes on the dining table, and I catch the way her thumbs tuck into her palm. She’s pensive for a second before a half smile appears and she says, “So tell me about this hot teacher that’s been keeping you up at night. She must be quite the woman.”

I bite back a nervous laugh, and rub the back of my neck self-consciously. “Yeah, she’s pretty amazing.”

“Yeah?” She crosses her arms and leans against the dining table. “Tell me about her, then.”

I’m being baited, and I know it. Nerves are nipping at my heels, and I can feel the energy in the room change, that easy going, comfort of our phone conversations giving way to something charged and delicate. Dani has always been careful to keep it light, dancing around anything serious, and now that I have her in front of me instead of on the other end of a phone call, I don’t want to waste time sidestepping around how I truly feel.

“I, um . . . ’s the details, really. The way her hair looks perfect, no matter how she wears it. How she listens to me with her whole body. The way she gets excited about new pairs of socks. She’s a pretty dynamite kisser, that one, thank god, I think that would have been a deal breaker.” I flush at the memory of the greenhouse, feeling more alive than I ever have.

I rest my body against the back of Dani’s couch, thread my hands together and hold them in my lap, trying to control the nervous energy creeping through my fingers. Dani is staring at me openly, a thin smile on her lips, her thumbs once again tucked tightly in her palms. I choose my next words carefully, the weight of them buoyed by the warmth spreading in my chest. “I think about all the things I’ve yet to learn about her. I wonder what she does before bed, and what she’ll look like in the morning, before she wakes up after a good night’s sleep. I wonder about how she likes to be touched and where. If she likes it slow or . . . Some way different. How she might sound, if we did certain things together.” My face, which was warm with a hint of embarrassment at the beginning of this conversation, is now burning across my cheeks as my secret thoughts spill out of me like a confession. Dani’s gaze never wavers, the tension around us tangible and consuming. 

“She has an unfair advantage,” I continue, “having seen me naked already, which, might I add, was one of the first things she said to me on our first date. I unfortunately just have my imagination to go off of, and I’m sure it doesn’t compare to the real thing.” With that she finally breaks eye contact, letting out a bashful laugh as she looks down. “So you can see the difficulty this presents when tryin’ to sleep.” Dani’s biting her lip now, holding back a nervous giggle. I stare at her, letting the soft expression on her face peel back the emptiness of spending a week apart.

When her eyes meet mine again, they’re lidded and heavy, lust barely contained behind a look that wants to devour me. Can’t say I feel any different. She hums, bites her lip. Fuck. “Sounds like she should even the playing field, then.” 

“Only if she wants to,” I say seriously, all teasing gone. There’s a fine line between making the moment happen and making sure we both want it to. While I’ve got a pretty good idea based on the way she’d been looking at me, this is too important. It’s got to be right. For her. For me. For both of us.

“I don’t take a lot of risks,” I start. “I like my life the way it is, nice and boring. I never had a reason, for anythin’. Getting whipped around by time doesn’t do much but make y’feel like you have no free will, because everything’s happened already. And then you walked into my life. Y’didn’t pigeonhole me, y’didn’t try to force me to be something I wasn’t. You just, let me be. I know it wasn’t easy for you, but having that choice, havin’ that small ounce of control over my life . . . It felt like freedom. And if you were willing to risk everything to give that to me, I want to do the same.”

My eyes travel the length of her, letting the sight of her permeate all my senses. She’s staring at me with wide eyes as I step closer. Wide, hopeful eyes, and my heart beats harder against my chest. I lean in and kiss her, slowly, with as much feeling as I can, to make her understand. I’m ready to fill my emptiness with Dani until I’m bursting and I drink greedily from her lips. She whimpers ever so slightly, and I pull back to make sure. “Okay?” I whisper, and the smile I get in return is blinding.

“I thought you’d never ask.” Dani traces my shoulders with her hands, gliding them up my neck, before cupping my cheeks and pulling me in. This is different from the kiss in the greenhouse. There’s a boldness in the way her hands are traveling around my body, clutching at the back of my neck, then grasping my shirt, winding in my hair as the kiss deepens. I slide my tongue into her mouth, and when it touches hers, Dani moans. It’s lyrical, hypnotic, and sears itself into my brain. My hands have found their way under her sweater, mapping the lines and contours of her back. I push into her a little too eagerly, and she loses her balance and bumps into the dining table. She giggles into my mouth, then pulls back to look at me. She stares at me openly, tucking a strand of hair behind my ear, and I catch her hand and press a kiss into her palm.

“And this?” I whisper, slowly tugging the zipper of her sweater down to reveal a white tank top underneath. “Is this okay?” She bites her lip and nods. I slide my hand under the thin fabric, grazing her hip and splay my fingers across her lower back, and she’s so soft, so tender, and I lose myself in the feeling of her skin sliding across my fingertips. She inhales sharply at the contact, and grips my shirt a little tighter, resting her forehead against mine.

A nervous laugh escapes her lips. We still, letting this moment settle around us. She’s staring at my lips, a pensive look on her face, and blushes when she catches my eye.

I can see it so clearly now, the difference between being used and being wanted. The surety of it pulses through my body and fills me with a need to show her all the ways I want her in return. I feel it so viscerally, like gravity. I feel like I could break from the weight of it, crack under the tension, if I don’t close the distance between us soon.

We linger like this, bodies fused, taking in one another. The intimacy of it all wraps us like a warm blanket, and I can’t recall ever feeling this way: so full of wonder and desire, wanting, and being wanted in return. Dani tightens her embrace, and I nuzzle into her neck, inhaling the soft scent of her. Her sweater is posing a problem for me, so I nudge it back, exposing the delicate lines of her shoulder. I press my lips into the soft ridge of her collarbone, and continue to pepper light kisses across her shoulder, sliding the fabric away to reveal more. Dani's breathing becomes more pronounced as I slip the sweater completely off, and I gently tug the thin strap of her tank top down, so I have her entire shoulder at my disposal. I bite my lip when I realize she’s not wearing a bra. I trace her skin lightly with my fingertips, and feel her gasp as her eyes flutter closed.

“Okay?” I ask, making sure. She breathes out a strangled yes, and I wait for her to open her eyes. She looks at me, eyes dark, and in one smooth motion she slides my jacket off and onto the floor.

“Thought you might be getting warm under that,” she says, and captures my lips in a searing kiss. Her hands slide under my shirt and they’re hot, searching, pulling me in, making the coil inside me throb harder, tighter.

DANI:

Somehow we manage to fumble our way into the bedroom. It all feels heady, and I can’t quite believe this is happening. Jamie clicks the door shut behind us and takes off her boots, placing them neatly by the door before turning to me. Anticipation stretches between us, chipping away at the years I spent waiting for this moment, until all that’s left is a deep well of desire inside of me. 

She’s still, the glow of the moonlight illuminating her, and I feel her gaze linger on every part of me. There’s a soft smile on her face, reverent, and I can feel that familiar warmth start to pool in my belly. As she steps towards me, she’s taking all of me in, savoring the moment, and the longer she stares, the quicker my pulse races. I can’t feel anything but the weight of her stare, and she stalks towards me with a hunger that makes her eyes darken. When her eyes track back to my face, I blush and my nerves are comforted by a similar shade on her cheeks. She leads me to the bed, and somewhere I register the humor of her leading me to my own bed but right now the very air seems like it’s vibrating. When the backs of her thighs hit the mattress, she sinks down, guiding me next to her. 

My body is absolutely humming, and I’m grasping at Jamie’s shirt, trying not to float away in the bliss of her hands and lips. I moan, and feel Jamie chuckle into the crook of my neck. The sound of it snaps me into focus, my self consciousness blooming across my face in a raging blush. I can feel my want cool into nervous energy, and suddenly I’m fifteen again, wanting Jamie in ways I didn’t understand. I’m seventeen, raw and vulnerable next to Jamie in my mom’s Buick, my confession of love sitting between us. I close my eyes, and I’m in the Meadow on prom night, watching Jamie disappear, leaving only a rumpled tuxedo and a promise of there will be other nights in the space where she once stood. My body stills, and it’s suddenly abundantly clear to me that nothing has prepared me for this onslaught of feelings that come with being handed the one thing you’ve waited your entire life for.

She stiffens and pulls back, sensing something in my momentary pause. “Fuck, I’m sorry, was that...too much? We don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do,” she says softly, her hand idly playing with my necklace.

I bark out a nervous laugh. “No, no, it’s not-” I shake my head, eager to make her understand. “It’s not too much. It’s perfect, even, I just-” I bite my lip, the confession just behind my teeth. “I’m just a little nervous. It’s stupid because I’ve thought of this so many times and now it’s here and I don’t . . . I don’t know how to do this.” I take a deep breath, closing my eyes to steady myself.

“Before bed, I put in my retainer and read two chapters of my book. In the morning, my hair is a rat’s nest and I’m not really myself until a cup of coffee. Those are easy answers. Those are the things that I know. I don’t really know how I like to be touched, or where, or if I like it slow or . . .” I hesitate. The silence stretches, and I reach out, finding the hem of Jamie’s shirt, needing something to ground myself to this moment, connecting these thoughts to the present. 

“I think about you all the time,” I breathe. “I think about your eyes, and your mouth, and your hands. I think about all the ways I could know myself, if you showed me what it’s like.” I finally open my eyes to look at Jamie and familiar heat pools low in my belly. “I want to know everything. About me. About you. And it’s frustrating, having all this want and not knowing what to do with it. I dreamed about being that person you came home to when you disappeared from me in the Meadow, and now that it’s here I . . . “ I sigh in frustration, “I want you Jamie, so much, even if I don’t know how.”

Jamie leans in, the tip of her nose nuzzling my cheek. “Do you want to?” She murmurs into my ear. I shiver.

“Yes,” I breathe.

“Then that’s all you need to know, really.” She’s looking at me so openly, the air around us so fragile and paper thin.“I’m sorry, for making you wait as long as you did. I don’t want you to have to hold back anymore, okay?” She places her hands on my hips and gently shifts closer to me, never losing eye contact. “Please?” My hand slips under her shirt, gliding across her hip and back. “I want this,” she whispers sincerely, trembling under the weight of it. “I want us, I want you, in any way you’ll let me tonight.” My breath catches, and I fist the back of her shirt. 

“Okay,” I whisper back. A flare of confidence flushes through me, and I lean into it, rolling Jamie onto her back, straddling her and pinning her to the mattress. The surprise in her eyes slowly turns into delight, and she slides her hands up my thighs, fingertips grazing the skin under my tank top when she reaches my hips. My heart is like a piston, and Jamie’s hands still, not moving any further. The look of affection on her face settles deep in my chest, taking root, and I feel my nerves subside. I take a deep breath, and pull out my hair tie, freeing my hair and letting it cascade down my back. I reach for the hem of my shirt, and take it off slowly, feeling the cool air graze my stomach, my breasts, then my neck as the rest of the tank top comes off. Jamie’s mouth opens, and there is a brief bewildered look on her face, before her eyes lower slightly, and she stares slack jawed at my chest. 

“Am I doing this right?” I ask half seriously, trying to keep my self consciousness at bay. I wring my shirt in my hands as I fight the urge to wrap my arms around my chest and hide myself. Jamie’s eyes flit up to mine, and I watch as her mouth curves into a bright, satisfied grin. 

“Yeah,” she breathes with a slow nod, and she shamelessly resumes staring at my breasts. “I reckon y’are.” I grin, oddly proud of myself that I’ve gotten Jamie to finally look like that. That it’s Jamie who wants me, Jamie who now has me. And even more, that Jamie is letting herself want me. The intensity of it strikes me and I shiver in the moonlight. Jamie takes my shirt from my hands and tosses it to the side, and I’m barreling into her mouth, grabbing fistfuls of her shirt and pulling her roughly to me before it even hits the floor.

It’s like I’ve turned into a rabid beast with the way I’m devouring her, but I can’t get enough. Her hands are still at my waist, circling respectfully around my midriff, not wandering elsewhere. I appreciate the respect she’s intending to show, but honestly I don’t care for any of it. I’ve been wanting her since before I knew what that meant and now she’s finally here. A warm feeling fills my heart and I pull her closer trying to get her to feel it, too. 

I kiss her roughly, Jamie licking into my mouth, and throw my head back to feed air to my oxygen starved brain and Jamie quickly follows, sitting up to close the distance, latching herself onto me, sucking and nipping then soothing with her tongue. I moan, my sensitive neck making nerve endings explode like fireworks. My hips are rolling into her now, desperately seeking anything that can relieve the growing pressure between my legs. Jamie’s fingers dig into me, now more hungry and decidedly less chaste than they were a moment ago. The tips of her fingers slide down to grip my ass and she reaches behind her, bracing her arm on the bed, before simultaneously pulling me down and thrusting her hips into me. The motion and the pressure short circuit my brain completely and the groan that comes out of my mouth is filthy and unhinged. It echoes around me, but I can’t bring myself to care. Jamie is whispering in my ear, and it barely registers over the roar of my body wanting and needing so much at once. 

After so many years and so many nights spent dreaming of this moment, visualizing it in so many different ways, I’d always imagined in the end it would be slow and deliberate. Nothing like the desperate fire that is raging through me right now like a wildfire through the driest tinder. There’s a flame inside me that’s been starved for so long that now, finally exposed to oxygen, it’s primed to explode. It’s chemistry. It’s inevitable. It’s the law of the universe.

I’m grinding, urgently, desperately, the pressure building and building and building, rocking harder, trying so hard to focus on Jamie; focus on her hands, her mouth, her body, but all I can see is a tunnel of white and I chase it with abandon. She meets me eagerly with every thrust and my world narrows until it’s nothing more than the rush of heat between us. I feel soft, wet lips on my breast, and when Jamie gently laps at my nipple and sucks it into her mouth, the tunnel of white turns into a galaxy of exploding stars behind my eyes. It pulsates through me and I can feel every inch of me go taut with pleasure, shaking, trembling, until it finally wanes and I feel myself sink into Jamie’s arms, boneless and spent. I hear Jamie chuckle, low and resonant, and my eyes jerk open. 

“Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god,” I mumble embarrassed, the ecstasy of just a few seconds ago evaporating instantly. I bury my face in her neck, hoping I can just will myself to disappear. I can’t believe it.

“Dani?” The edge of Jamie’s voice is tinged with concern.

“I-I’m...I’m so sorry,” I stammer, “I-I-”

“Hey, hey,” she soothes, “It’s okay.”

“No it isn’t!” I practically whine, trying to crawl inside Jamie to hide. “I just-” I flap my hand, gesturing, “-and it’s been what, two minutes? What am I, a thirteen-year-old boy?”

Jamie chuckles, “Been holding onto that for a while, yeah?”

“S’not funny,” I grumble. 

“It’s a little funny, considerin’ you have no idea how unbelievably sexy that was.” I continue to pout into Jamie, but my protestations are muffled in her neck. “Hey, hey,” Jamie says, nudging me gently with her shoulder, “Look at me.” She waits until I do. “That was-” her eyes roll up and one corner of her mouth pulls up in a half grin as she shakes her head as if in disbelief, “-That was amazing.”

I am in no way convinced. 

“Look,” she says, lifting my chin with her finger until our eyes are once again level. “Maybe it’s not apparent to you just how sexy that was, but it’s true.” I scoff, and resume pouting. Jamie smiles and presses her forehead into mine, before taking my hand and bestowing it with a gentle kiss. “Maybe you can believe what you feel?”

“The only thing I’m feeling right now is a very strong desire to disappear off the face of the earth entirely,” I grumble.

Jamie laughs in response, then gently rolls me to her side. I expect her to get out of bed but instead she traces a finger down my chest, and my breath hitches. She continues, through the valley between my breasts, then lower, circling my belly button, before she stops, and to my surprise, reaches for the button of her pants, and undos it in one smooth motion. I can’t tear my eyes away from the way she pulls the zipper down, my mouth suddenly very, very dry. Time slows as I watch her press another kiss to my hand, before placing it on her belly and sliding it down. My heart is pounding. I wonder if Jamie can feel my hand trembling as it passes under the elastic of her underwear. Her legs open, and she guides my hand through damp curls, then lower, into an impossible deluge of heat and wetness. My eyes flutter and my breath catches and I’m about to lose what’s left of my mind when she gasps softly at the touch, and my eyes snap to hers in awe. Her lids are heavy, almost shut, and she presses my hand into her slickness without hesitation so I can feel just how much she was telling the truth. 

“Do you believe me now?” All I can do is groan in response, my own body already flooding again with warmth. “As amazing as that was,” she somehow manages to say with my hand still cupping her, “I’d like to do it all properly now.” 

“What about any of this is proper?”

“Nothin’,” she says with a wicked grin. “That’s half the fun.”

She leans in and swiftly captures my lips with hers, removing her hand from her underwear to grip my neck. I can feel her rock into my hand slightly, so I press into her a little harder and I’m rewarded with a moan and a vise-like grip on my neck. I want to hear that sound again, want to draw it from her louder, want to find out what else makes her moan, makes her cry out, what will bring her undone. 

My middle finger presses down gently, feeling her part under the pressure, and I slowly glide my finger up through wet folds then light up like a Christmas tree at the way she squirms under my touch. I let my finger drift, dragging it back and forth, lengthening my strokes while pressing just a bit harder and delight when she hisses and bites her lip. With her head thrown back against the pillow, I don’t think I could have ever imagined something this sexy even in my wildest dreams. I tease her opening a little longer before sliding higher, knowing exactly what I’m looking for, when Jamie grabs my wrist and stills my hand. 

“Dani, wait,” she huffs in a strangled voice. 

I stop. “Am I doing it wrong?”

“No, no,” she reassures quickly, “It’s all fantastic, just...slow down a bit, yeah?”

“Slow,” I repeat. 

“Yeah.” She lifts my hand and moves it to her breast. “Slow.” It’s soft, I think stupidly, giving an experimental squeeze. “I want to remember all of this,” she whispers, “and I can’t do that if you’re already off to the races.” I nod and swallow deeply, unable to tear my gaze away from my hand palming her breast. I rub my thumb gently in circles, feeling her nipple swell, then harden. Jamie sighs in approval, and the hum of it echos through my body, setting off sparks between my legs. “I think,” she murmurs, shifting slightly away from me, “that we are wearing entirely too many clothes.” She pushes herself up into a kneeling position next to me, and I instantly miss the warmth of her body. She removes her shirt, and I marvel at the way the moonlight glows against her skin, illuminating her like a Vermeer painting. She reaches behind her, unclasps her bra, and suddenly I don’t know where to look. The straps slide down her shoulders, then her arms, until the bra pools in her hands and she’s bare in front of me. I know that I’ve seen this; I’ve seen her naked before, but this slow reveal of skin and flesh on Jamie’s own terms is transcendent and all I can do is feast on this moment, soak in it, and let myself look at her. I feel the years between us disappear, past and present rushing together as if I’m all the versions of myself I have ever been; I’m in the Meadow; I’m here; I’m everything in-between. Except I am more, now, because now Jamie’s here and she’s mine.

Jamie’s gaze never leaves my face, intently watching the way I devour her with my eyes. I feel the waistband of my sweatpants loosen as she unties them, and a few short tugs later, I am completely naked by her side. She makes quick work of her pants and underwear, and when we finally press together, unencumbered and free, I gasp. I shiver; not from the cold, but from anticipation as Jamie’s hands drift across my body, igniting me once again. Slow, she had said, and it feels tortuous as I try to keep my hips from surging into her. I squeeze my legs together for dear life, searching for a bit of relief as she kisses me, caressing my tongue with hers until it leaves me breathless and trembling. 

My hand finds its way to her breast again, and it’s a welcome distraction from the throbbing between my legs. I tilt my head down, and the sight of my thumb circling her nipple sends a sharp thrill through me. I’m surprised that even though I have been staring at them since I was a teenager, I never noticed the tiny mole that lines up with her left nipple. ‘Stop,’ it says, a period marking a complete sentence. I suppress a laugh.

“What’s so funny?” Jamie asks in an amused voice, and instead of answering I bring my mouth to her breast and close my lips around her nipple. Jamie bites back a moan, brings her hands up to my cheeks and gently gathers my hair across one shoulder and runs her thumb along my bare neck. I raise my hand to grasp onto Jamie’s forearm and am rewarded with a strangled noise as I suck. She throws her head back and the pads of my fingers run along her skin, dragging across her neck, down to her chest, stopping at her other breast. I pinch her nipple and twist and she draws a breath in sharply, pulling me back up to meet her mouth. 

“Fuck Dani,” Jamie hisses, “You are such a fucking liar. You know exactly how to do this.” She giggles into my mouth when she kisses me, and I feel light-headed and giddy at eliciting such a reaction. Gone are the schoolgirl nerves and self-doubt. I’m a woman emboldened. Her leg wraps around my hip, and instinctively I raise my thigh and her laughter turns into a gasp when we make contact. She exhales as she rocks into me, one long, slow thrust that’s hot and wet and full of need. I reach for her hip, encouraging her, feeling her breathing shallow into short pants as she sets a rhythm. 

At first, it’s slow and languid, almost lazy the way she undulates against me. I watch her face, the way her eyebrows furrow and her tongue wets her lips, and feel a rush of fresh arousal when her eyes open to look at me as she writhes against me. She continues like this, eyes locked onto mine, and just when I think I’m about to break with desire, a new sensation presents itself - the press of her breasts into mine, the delicious sound of her strangled moans, the increasing urgency at which she’s grinding against my leg - and it makes my head spin.

Jamie pulls me into a kiss, and it’s all teeth and tongue and desperation. Her breath is shaky, and my heart is pounding as she rolls me onto my back. She leans over me, eyes dark with lust, humming with approval, before pressing her lips into mine, then along my neck, leaving a trail of kisses down my chest that ends with a slow swirl of her tongue around my nipple. Some unintelligible noise comes out of my mouth, and I clutch her tighter with every wet pass until she gives it one last kiss before pulling away and nuzzling back into my neck. 

Just when I think I have a second to catch my breath, her hand slides down my belly and she murmurs, “Stop me, if this is too much,” and my senses implode when I feel a finger slide through my wetness. Another undignified moan escapes my lips and I think, This is it. This is how I die.

“Okay?” Jamie asks, lazily swiping her finger back and forth, and oh god, I didn’t think it was possible to be wetter than I was before. I manage a strangled yes, and she continues in painstaking slowless, whispering hot breathy affirmations into my ear. I know she’s got a self-satisfied grin on her face, I can feel it pressing into my cheek as my hips jerk erratically, before her finger dips lower. I can hear my voice and the sounds that it’s making, but it’s muffled, like I’m underwater and the only thing keeping me from drowning is the feeling of her finger sliding into me- first one, then an unfamiliar but ungodly pleasurable stretch when she adds a second. We both gasp. I feel myself tightening around her, straining once again, as she fucks me gently, every thrust hurling me towards a white hot oblivion. 

“Dani, look at me,” she whispers, and when I open my eyes she pushes her fingers as deep as they can go. She holds them there as I inhale sharply, my edges blurring, feeling my body tighten to the point of stillness. I feel lost, untethered, until my eyes focus again and I see Jamie, looking at me with such tenderness and wonder, and suddenly the sweet rapture of being touched so intimately feels like too much, and Jamie’s face crumples into concern when a tear slides down my cheek. 

“Dani?” she asks in alarm, stopping immediately. “Did I hurt you?”

I shake my head, not knowing how to fashion into words the bigness of the feelings inside of me. I love you, I think. I’ve loved her for so long; always a noun, but now a verb. I cradle this feeling, letting it fill my heart, before gently placing it in Jamie’s hands. 

”I love you,” I say, letting go. “And it’s not . . . I’m not asking or expecting anything from you,” I’m quick to add, “I’m really not. And if you’re not there yet, that’s okay too.” I reach up and cup her cheek, and say with sincerity, “I just wanted . . . I just needed you to know, okay? That’s all.”

Part of me is afraid of spooking her after the last time I said those words, but the way Jamie looks at me, so full, is enough to convey the world of difference between now and then. Joy. That’s what this is. Joy. She feels it too. Laughter bubbles, elated and free, and I breathe it back into her, pulling Jamie in for a kiss, imbuing it with all the love I can muster.  Her eyes stay closed for a moment when our lips part, and she smiles to herself, like she can’t believe her good fortune. The feeling is mutual. 

“I do believe you were in the middle of something,” I tease, buoyed by the levity of the moment, and her eyes sparkle when I take her hand and guide it back between my legs. “This time don’t stop,” I command and Jamie’s eyes go wide as I slide her fingers back inside me. I exhale slowly as she takes the cue and pumps into me in excruciating slowness, knuckles to fingertips and back with every stroke. I’m burning for her now, like a stick of dynamite lit at both ends, dangerously close to exploding.

She slides her fingers out and slowly circles them around my clit, once, then a second time, and the sensation of it makes it impossible to breathe. Her fingers dip, then swirl, and repeat until my hips are jerking uncontrollably in tandem, my back arching as high as it can go. Every press, every kiss of a fingertip takes me higher, floating me above the bed like a tethered balloon straining for freedom. Jamie’s fingers are moving faster now, rubbing tighter, more focused circles around me, and I feel like Icarus soaring through the sky, chasing the burning heat of the sun until finally, I crest, straining and weightless as I come. I hang, suspended in air, then start to fall, feeling myself rush back to the earth, but it doesn’t feel like dying, it feels like living. I tumble in ecstasy and Jamie is there to catch me, her arms cradling me as I come back to earth. She burrows into me with a long, content sigh and my heart's still pounding as I clutch her to my chest.

“Holy shit,” I finally manage to say, swallowing desperately, trying to regain my equilibrium. Jamie huffs out a chuckle, her breath tickling my now over-sensitive breasts. “Holy shit,” I repeat, threading my fingers into her hair. She presses a kiss to my chest before lying her head back down, idly rubbing circles on my arm.

We lay together, content to just be, breathing in this newness between us. Jamie’s eyes are closed, and I savor this moment, her face awash in calm and peace. I could fall asleep like this happily, Jamie curled against me, the comforting weight of her on my chest, but there’s one more hunger still gnawing at me that remains to be sated.

“Your turn,” I say, gently nudging her thighs open. The look on her face is asking me if I’m sure, and I kiss her before the words can come out of her mouth. “I want to touch you,” I plead, hand gently squeezing the inside of her thigh. “Please?” 

Jamie swallows deeply and nods, biting her lip when my fingers slide down into her wetness. Her hips twitch with every stroke, and sink my fingers in deeper, deeper, until I’m sheathed in softness, hot and wet. Jamie writhes beneath me as I thrust into her, reaching hungrily for the mewling sounds coming out of her.

“Jesus Dani,” she hisses, and I can feel her clutching at my back as I sink into her again, lost in the way she squeezes around my fingers, trying to to set a pace until she reaches down and grabs my hand. “I’m so close, Dani, just . . . please - “ she says in a ragged voice as she guides my fingers to her swollen clit, and shows me just how she needs it. Gone is the slowness from before, replaced by short quick strokes and jerking hips as Jamie moans, “Right there, don’t stop.” It doesn’t take much, and when she comes with a cry, messy and beautiful, I swallow it and capture her lips, kissing her back down. 

“C’mere,” Jamie says sloppily, tugging me up to lie next to her. I press a kiss to her chest before resting my head on her shoulder. It’s so easy to settle against her side, slipping into place like I’ve always meant to fit here. I hum contentedly and wrap my arm around her side as she pulls the sheets up around us. Jamie’s fingers rub my scalp soothingly and exhaustion creeps in quickly, beckoning with open arms. She mumbles something I don’t hear as I fall, blissfully satisfied, into sleep’s warm embrace.

JAMIE:

Dani’s asleep in my arms, dead to the world in a post-orgasmic dreamland, and I’m not too far off but I say “I love you too,” anyway and know, somewhere, she hears it.


Saturday, July 12th, 2003 (Jamie is 38. Dani is 41)
JAMIE:

I land in the Gardens. I have no idea what year it is, but it must be sometime in the future because Flora is sitting cross-legged in the grass with a pile of clothes in her lap and she looks to be about 9. She brightens immediately and jumps to her feet, the clothes tumbling forgotten to the ground, and throws herself at me. I have just long enough to open my arms before she barrels into them and I wrap my hands around her back, curling around her like a leaf. “Hey, Sprout.” I kiss her head as she nuzzles deeper into me. “Missed you,” I say.

Flora pulls back. “How could you miss me?” She asks with all the logic of a child, “You’ve only just seen me in your present!”

“Yeah,” I admit, “But I haven’t seen this you in weeks.” I grin and rub her head, mussing her hair. She giggles and it’s the best sound. I try not to think about the years I’ll miss between my Flora, home at five, and this older version of her. Or the fact that I’ve rarely seen her older than this. That a whole future together will be stolen from us. What will she remember of me? Will anything be left of me to carry into her adulthood?

“I missed you too,” she admits in a small voice, as if it’s something to be ashamed about. 

“Hey,” I say, kneeling next to her so we’re eye-level. “It’s alright to miss me and be sad about it, yeah? Dead doesn’t mean gone, right?”

“Right,” she nods determinedly. She closes her eyes and takes a deep breath through her nose, letting it out slowly through her mouth, and nods. There’s an air of calm about her when she opens her eyes again and a smile pulls at her lips. “Put these on,” she says, bending down to pick up the clothes. I take them from her and get myself decent while Flora waits patiently, buzzing with energy. Once I’ve slipped on the trainers, she immediately grabs my hand and says “Come! You’re expected.” I stumble after her.

“Where, uh, where are we goin’?” I ask as she leads me through the sculpture garden, weaving between busts and nymphs who look upon us with frozen faces.

“You’ll see,” Flora chirps. We keep going for a while. Eventually we come to a grove of trees with a picnic basket resting by a cluster of flowers. Only now does Flora let go of my hand as she hops a few steps and grabs the basket by the handle and hands it to me with a flourish. I start to open it but Flora slams my hand down and says “No!”

“Flora, how are we supposed to have a picnic if you won’t let me open the basket?”

We’re not.”

“Not what.”

“Having a picnic.”

I eye the basket skeptically. “This is a picnic basket, right? There aren’t any snakes or other nasties in here ready to jump out at me, are there?”

Flora giggles. “No,” she reassures. “It’s a picnic basket. But you must have it,” she says simply.

I don’t understand. “Thanks, Twig, but what’s the fun in coming all the way to the future and eatin’ alone?”

“You won’t be.”

“Well,” I reason, Flora standing with her hands clasped behind her back, swinging her hips a little side-to-side, “If we’re not having a picnic together, then-” There’s a wide smile on her face, almost mischievous, like she’s holding a secret, and I notice her attention directed at a spot into the distance somewhere behind me. I cut myself off, frowning, I turn to see what she’s looking at: a woman, about fifty meters away, sitting on a blanket facing the lake. Her back is to me, and the sun shines right in my eyes as I squint, but I know without a shadow of a doubt who it is. I turn, gaping dumbfounded to Flora. She’s beaming. Quite pleased with herself too, the little shit. 

I’m stunned. I’ve never seen my Dani in the future. Closest I’ve ever gotten was that first time, as she sprinted down the hallway and I crawled up the school steps, only to disappear before we could make contact. I’ve lost track of the amount of times I’ve come to see future Flora, but it’s over a dozen. Not once have I ever been able to see Dani. 

Flora tugs my hand and I kneel in the grass and collect her towards me, holding her tight. When she pulls back, her hand rests on my cheek and gently, so gently, wipes the tears from my eyes.

My heart aches, yearns, for the woman across the field. The gravity of her is already pulling me towards her and I feel it as a physical tug. But I refuse to move. Not until - “Are you sure?” I check with Flora. Flora, who’s already been cheated out of a future with her mum, who’s moments together are so few and precious, I can’t bear to take any more from her than time already has.

“Of course I’m sure. You told me where to be, silly.” I’m too stunned to process the logistics of it all. I must not be moving still because, “You must take it,” Flora insists, pushing the basket towards me. “It’s for you.” My throat is thick and despite Flora’s gentle touch, tears keep falling down my cheeks. Elated and heartbroken at the same time at the thought of Dani, while also touched by Flora’s generosity and selflessness. I squeeze her to me one last time and press a kiss to her head. 

“Go on,” Flora entreats, “She’s waiting.” And I go. 

DANI:

It’s a lovely day outside. Flora’d been excited for days, begging for a trip to the Gardens until I finally caved and promised we could go this afternoon. She led me to a spot by the Lake in a wide field with an open view and we’d been cloud watching for about twenty minutes before Flora declared she had to use the restroom and ran off towards the Visitor’s Center in a hurry. She knows this place like the back of her hand now, probably nearly as well as Jamie at this point, but after nearly twenty minutes of sitting alone I start to get a little concerned.

I hear feet shuffling in the grass behind me. “Finally!” I start to say, turning around to welcome her back, “Was startin’ to get worried about y-” when the words die on my lips entirely. 

Jamie, standing not five feet from me, arm hanging loose at her side, staring at me with a stunned, glassy sense of awe. I take a sharp inhale and hold my breath until it hurts; until the pain in my chest is real, grounding me to the world and I’m sure that I’m not dreaming, that she isn’t some sort of figment of my imagination. 

“Jamie?” It comes out of me as a whisper. My whole body is trembling. 

“Hey,” her voice cracks.

“What are you doing here?!” I cry, scrambling to my feet. “Your letter, you-” I find that I can’t get the words out, my chest is a heaving hiccuping mess, “You never said--Old lady, Jamie, you said old lady!” I’m scolding her. Jamie’s here - here!- and I’m scolding her. I’m crying and I’m wasting time and suddenly I panic, as if she’ll be taken from me again immediately and I throw myself into her arms, slamming into her, clutching her fiercely, tightly, and I never want to let her go. A soft thump as the basket she was holding drops to the ground. Her fingers thread through my hair, cupping the back of my head, and as she grips tight, pulls my hair and my scalp stings and tears would prickle if they weren’t already pouring down freely on my face. 

“Jamie,” I murmur, her name a benediction, a prayer, an answer all its own, “Jamie, Jamie, Jamie.” Jamie, here, and me, now; us, a state of grace. 

“’m sorry,” she mumbles into my neck, her breath hot against the crook of my shoulder. “I’m so sorry I left you.”

“But you’re here now,” I cry wetly, tears openly streaming down my face. 

“I’m here now.”

“How long?”

“I dunno, but,” she indicates to the basket, “Flora gave me this, so I reckon we’ve got time.” We’ve got time: the three most beautiful words in the English language. This dream, this miracle, made real - even if for only a little while, it’s more than I ever thought I’d have again. 

“Flora!” I remember suddenly, “Where-”

“Made herself scarce. Said this one was for us. She’s fine, she went to the gift shop and is probably pickin’ out another garden decoration with a butterfly.”

“But...how, how are you- I mean, I don’t understand, you said-”

“Didn’t know myself, either, until just now. I wrote you that letter last week, but it looks like there was one more surprise in it for the both of us, I guess.” 

“I don’t care,” I say, her arms warm under my hands. “This is the best surprise of my life,” I press myself into her again, holding tight, “I can’t believe this is real.”

“Ow!” Jamie cries, jumping back. “What’d’ya pinch me for?”

“I want to make sure you’re real.”

“‘Course I’m real! Besides, aren’t you supposed to pinch y’self?”

“Oh. Right.” I’m so addled, buzzing in shock still. “Pinch me,” I demand.

“Christ,” Jamie rolls her eyes good-naturedly, “You and twelve-year-old you are remarkably similar, y’know that? There,” she pinches me. “Happy?”

It hurts. It’s real. “Yes,” a laugh bubbles up. “Yes.” Bright, infectious deliriously happy joy froths over and one laugh turns into an absolute deluge and I can’t stop laughing. Jamie grins wide and scoops me up in her arms, spinning me around and around. I hook my ankles together and bend my knees, feeling gravity pull sideways, and I throw my head back and laugh at the sun, smiling all the while until I can’t bear to keep my eyes from her anymore. I look down at Jamie, her eyes a golden green capturing the light, and I rest my arms around her shoulders and lean down to kiss her and it feels like home. All the ragged, fraying, splintered parts of myself from the last few years smooth out under her lips; all the longing, loneliness, wiped away by her tongue; the scars of grief and empty, aching days healed by her touch.

At some point she must put me down because by the time I open my eyes again, we’re back to being the same height and my feet are back on the ground. “Hi,” I breathe. 

“Hi,” she grins, a loopy, lazy thing. I missed that look of hers so much. Missed her so much. I must have said it out loud because she murmurs an apology, regret shading her face. 

“No, no,” I say. “It’s good.” I smooth my fingertips across her face, committing every last curve and perfect imperfection to memory. “This is more than I ever thought I’d have again. I’m just so glad to see you.”

She kisses me again. “S’good to see you, too.”

“It’s been minutes for you, how could you miss me?”

“I always miss you,” Jamie says. “Even if it’s only been a minute. Doesn’t matter if it’s been a day or a week. I missed you before I even left.” A beat. More seriously, “I’m sorry, again. I hope it wasn’t too bad.” 

The memory of it swells like a wave in the ocean. If I let myself think about it too much or we talk about it too deeply, too specifically, too much, I fear it’ll crest and barrel on towards the shore and crash and I don’t want to waste a minute of this thinking about that. “It’s okay,” my hands hold her face like a jewel. My thumbs ghost along her cheeks. “You’re here now.”

Jamie offers the basket, almost sheepishly. It’s filled to the brim with goodies. Inside is a note - “All your favorites, from your favorite. Miss you, mate. All our love, Owen (p.s. Your shit team lost again this year. Liverpool for life.)”

“That prick,” she laughs, tossing the note back in the basket. “Liverpool  is rubbish, don’t care what he says. He should have seen Burnley play back when they won the championship. Absolutely brilliant, they were. He’d stick by ‘em, too, I bet.”

“You saw them?”

Jamie pops a grape in her mouth. “Yeah,” she says, crunching down, “Was stuck in November of ‘59 for a bit. Figure I might as well enjoy m’self while I was there.”

“I’ll have to tell Owen next time he makes me watch a game with him.”

“He gets you to watch a football match with him?” she asks in disbelief. 

“Well, sort of,” I admit. “Mostly it’s me and Hannah drinking wine on the couch while he tries to explain what’s happening during the game. I don’t have the heart to tell him that we have soccer in America and I’ve lived here long enough to know the rules. And also I don’t really care.”

Jamie laughs. It sounds like music. It sounds like dancing. A grin pulls across my cheeks and I beam, watching her exist before me once again. She starts taking out food - cheese, crackers, pastries, biscuits, a bottle of wine - and I’m struck by how nervous I suddenly feel. Like this is the beginning all over again. Brand new. A picnic date with a person I’ve known for thirty-five years and I have butterflies in my stomach like a love-struck teenager. Suppose I’ll always be love-struck when it comes to Jamie. Even out of order, every time with Jamie felt brand new. Like the first time.

The way Jamie nibbles her lip, biting back a grin of her own, eyes flittering and sharing glances as she sets up lets me know she feels the newness of it too. And maybe it is. A new beginning. Even if it’s a short one. I’m different, now, than I was before. We always are, I suppose, living and growing and becoming something new. But now I am a woman shaped by grief. Forged by it. Now, I am a widow. Somehow sharing a short beginning, a small pocket of time with my wife. The weirdness of this, this particular miracle, is novel.

We nibble on grapes, try throwing them into each others’ mouths and miss terribly, grapes bouncing off our foreheads and cheeks into the grass, us laughing all the while.

“And to think, this all started with you throwing a shoe at my face,” Jamie remarks after a particularly bad shot hits her eye. “Your aim hasn’t improved at all.”

“Technically, this all started because you scared a child and twenty years later, I harassed you at work and wouldn’t take no for an answer.”

“Thank fuck for that.”

Conversation meanders into catching up, Jamie asking what’s been happening. I tell her some fun things about Flora, like this new phrase all the kids are using at school and driving all the parents nuts. That Mom visits more. That the plants are still alive. I ramble on about all the minutiae until Jamie puts her hand over my own in an unbearably gentle interjection and I still. 

“That’s all well ‘n’ good and I’m glad to hear it, really, but...what about you, Dani?”

“I-” I stammer for a moment before my jaw snaps shut. Why is it so hard to answer this question from her? It’s not like I don’t hear it constantly. Hannah checks on me nearly every day, it seems, before classes start, during lunch, in the evenings walking home. Owen too when he drops Flora off or picks her up, the three of us talking and reminiscing fondly and sadly over glasses of wine after Wednesday family dinners after Flora’s gone off to bed. My mom, Eddie, and Judy. “How’re you doing, Dani? Really.” And I tell them, honestly. About the nights that I fall asleep near instantly, exhausted, from living a life built together then having to hold it up alone. About the nights spent staring up at the ceiling or hugging a pillow, crying out all the emptiness inside until I’m curled around my hollowness. About the times when Flora makes me laugh so hard milk comes out of my nose which makes her laugh so hard, milk comes out of her nose. About the days when I want to pull my hair out because she’s put me at my wit’s end and I want to scream in frustration. About how hard it is to go through each day without Jamie. About how much it still hurts when I think about her. How much worse it is when I realize I had forgotten to think of her at all. What about you, Dani?

Hearing it from Jamie’s mouth is somehow altogether different. This question is from the person I’d been supposed to bear that with. The person who was supposed to be my partner, help shoulder the burden of life together, instead of me bearing the burden of death alone. It’s different from the lips of the person I’m supposed to kiss. From the mouth that’s traced every inch of me. A co-pilot. A partnership. An other half. Instead of the horrible unbalanced act of living alone without toppling over, without a counterbalance. 

And now, another question entirely: how do I want to spend this time with Jamie? Do I talk about the sadness of it all? Do I push it aside and deflect? I think back to those beautiful last painful years, how hard it was to acknowledge the unspoken truth and inevitability of Jamie’s death. Never talking about it directly, skirting around it like a shadow avoiding the sweeping beam of a flashlight. I don’t want this to be another missed opportunity. It’s time to put the shadows to rest where they can’t haunt me anymore.

“I was mad,” I finally admit. “For a long time, at you.” The skin of a grape pulls away from a tooth, and it’s tart bitterness floods over my tongue as I pinch it between my teeth. “For not telling me. That night was…” The sound of sirens, of the hush that had fallen over the deathly still crowd of our family and friends as all the air left the room in the wake of Jamie’s broken body, the acrid iron smell of blood burnt so deeply into my nose I could taste it, all rushes unbidden and I shudder. Jamie’s thumb rubs soft circles on the back of my hand. She presses a kiss to my shoulder, gives me space to speak. 

“But then I realized that part of me always knew. Not the exact time, maybe, but I knew enough. And I could’ve brought it up if I’d really wanted to. I didn’t wanna say it out loud, y’know? Didn’t wanna make it more real than it already was. So instead it just became this unspoken thing that ate at both of us, kept us so afraid - me so afraid.” I finally turn to look at Jamie, having only been able to recount it all while staring off into the lake. Her eyes are brimming with tears, face crumpled. “That’s the only thing, out of all of it, that I regret.”

Jamie takes my hand, brings it up to her face and presses a kiss to the back of my knuckles. She keeps her lips there for a long time, breath puffing from her nose tickles my skin. She doesn’t say anything. Doesn’t have to. It wouldn’t change anything if she did. What’s done is done, but now, finally, there’s peace. Even in the grief, there’s peace.

With the shadows finally gone, we sit in silence for a while, content to simply hold each other as the sun drifts lazily across the sky.               

Later
JAMIE:

“Mum!” Flora cries as she rejoins us a few hours later, “You’re still here!”

“Looks like. Guess you’re stuck with me a little while longer, Little Bit,” I kiss her head. The three of us walk toward the car, my arm around Dani’s waist. I ignore the astonished stares and sputtering of my seemingly miraculous appearance from my co-workers as we pass through the front gates. All I can offer is a two-fingered salute and “Cheers,” too busy cherishing the extended visit with my girls. 

We drive home, Flora babbling excitedly about anything and everything. How Marcus started taking karate and now all the kids are into karate but she likes ballet and Thomas’ mum made cupcakes with worms in them (“They’re gummy worms,” Dani grins from the driver’s seat), and that her favorite animal has changed from a dolphin to an elephant. I interject appropriately and make follow-up questions, entertained by the fact that once she gets going, this slightly older version of Flora rambles the same way her younger self does. Dani and I smile the shared smile of parents being amused by their children, and I give our hands, intertwined over the gears, a squeeze. 

Flora barely stops to breathe the entire ride home. After getting out of the car, we go inside. We take off our shoes and head into the kitchen. Dani and I start the dance of dinnertime, well practiced and well-oiled. For me, it’s been hours since we did this. For Dani...I falter, realizing I don’t know what’s in the refrigerator. Or what Flora’s eating habits have been like, lately. This place, so familiar, is so different from the one I’ve known. This place has continued without me. I’m adrift here, an alien in my own home. Estranged. 

A warm hand covers mine around the refrigerator handle. I turn my head, lost. “It’s okay,” Dani murmurs, understanding. “It’s okay.” 

“I-” I croak, voice failing. 

“It’s okay,” she repeats, anchoring me, rubbing circles on my hand. “Flora still hates carrots. We still have grilled cheese on Wednesdays.” I exhale shakily, breathe in the constants, let them steady me. The trembling stops. “There we are,” Dani says low in my ear. She opens the fridge. Yoghurts, fruit and vegetables, cartons of takeaway, cheese, juice, milk, all looking remarkably similar to what I’d seen this morning back in my time. Different, but the same. 

“Thanks,” I exhale shakily.

She presses a kiss to my temple. “You’re welcome.”

Flora perks up from the living room, “Can we have ice cream for dinner?” We respond “No,” automatically at the same time, blink, and just like that the spell is broken; the tightness in my chest eases as we laugh. The rest of dinner progresses without incident and Wednesdays be damned, we gorge ourselves on a truly obscene amount of grilled cheese.

Later, after bath time, Flora asks to read together so I prepare myself to read a record amount of books. Instead, I’m met with Flora, sitting up under the covers in bed, a thick paperback lying neatly on her lap. I’m stunned for a minute before realizing - Flora doesn’t read picture books anymore. I settle this fact into myself as I scooch up next to her, bring an arm around her shoulders, and open the book. We read for an absurd amount of time, my mouth long dry when she finally falls asleep many, many, many chapters later. Dani and I carefully slide our arms out from under her pillow and make to leave but as I kiss her gently, her tiny hand wraps around the hem of my shirt and it tugs, my heart pulling, leaving part of itself behind as I slip away.

Flora’s door is barely shut before Dani’s lips are on mine. She pins me against the hallway table, tongue sliding into my mouth. Her hair shimmers in the dim light and I marvel at the strands of silver. I’ve never seen her with so many grey hairs. My Dani’s hair is still the color of a lush field of wheat, shining in the sun. Now, white streams from her temples. They’re beautiful. I’m struck dumb when I realize, suddenly, that this Dani is older than me. I reach up to touch her hair, caressing it, lamenting my part in the sudden aging.

I feel something wet on my cheek. I pull back. She’s crying. “Dani-” I start before she cuts me off with a single finger over my lips. 

“Don’t,” she says urgently. “Today was…” she looks up toward the ceiling and makes a choked noise “perfect,” and ends in a pinched smile. “Let’s make it last just a little while longer.” I nod. It’s late December when I’m from. My clock is ticking there just as short as it is here, with Dani. For me, I’ve got another two weeks to live. For Dani, this stolen time is even more precious and finite; seconds and minutes instead of days and weeks. We’ve already burned a whole afternoon and evening’s worth of hours. How much more is left? 

As calm and languid as the day had passed in a haze of picnics and bedtime, now it’s as if we can’t move fast enough. An urgency propelling each action. 

Dani’s tongue thrusts into my mouth, and I’m already open and hungry for her. I lose myself in her, losing all sense of wicked Time, of anything except for the way her hands are tangled in my hair, the soft sounds escaping her throat that are akin to tossing oil on a flame, igniting me anew. My lungs burn with Dani until I break away with a gasp, chest heaving, my head thumps backward onto the wall. I don’t even get a chance as Dani’s hunger continues unabated, she merely moves downward, feasting on my neck, nipping, while her fingers slip beneath my waistband, cupping me in my pants, and I’m practically on fire.

It’s all I can do to grab onto her shoulders as her hands deftly bring me undone in just a few strokes and I cry out as I clutch onto her, pulling her into me until even then she still feels too far away from me somehow. I gently nudge her up to apologize with a still-breathless kiss and when I see wetness on her cheeks, recognize it and fall to my knees in the closest thing to atonement I can imagine. And a few moments later, with her underwear down and her skirt rucked up, when she next cries out, at least this time I know a small part of her is finding release from my love, instead of sorrow.

The next morning
DANI:

I wake up satisfied and empty in a way that somehow feels whole. I know without opening my eyes that Jamie is gone. I stretch, limbs pulling taught, and relax, curling into the blankets like a cat. Taking a lazy moment, I find myself smiling into the window, sun peeking out over the treetops, remembering last night. After the preamble in the hallway, both of us were surprised to find Jamie still there and decided to take advantage of it more leisurely, tumbling into bed for a few more rounds. I don’t know when she left, but it’s okay that Jamie’s not here now, because I got to fall asleep in her arms one more time. When I finally get out of bed, I go down the hall and wake up Flora, gently stroking her nose until her eyelids flutter.

She bats my finger away a few times before she finally cracks open her eyes. She brightens when she sees me and as if suddenly realizing something urgent, quickly glances around. When Jamie is nowhere to be seen, Flora’s face falls, practically bruised with hurt. She sits with the disappointment for a second, acknowledging its sadness and tucking it back into herself before bravely looking up at me.

“It was so good to have mum back for a while, wasn’t it?” She says in a tone so soothing and full of compassion, it's as if she’s the consoling parent here. I choke back a cry and pull her towards me, gathering her in my arms. Flora is ten and still so small, and I press a fierce kiss on the back of her head. 

“Yeah,” I say, peeling back the covers. “It was.” We walk out of her room together, holding hands, a shared ache between us, a new day awaiting. 


Monday, March 15th, 2004 (Dani is 41)
DANI:

I’ve never changed Jamie’s garden before. Flora and I have diligently tended to it, keeping it as close to how she left it as possible. I’ve gotten the hang, over the years, of the rhythm and flow of the growth cycles. Of the seasons changing. Of keeping my hands busy and my eyes sharp, tending to each plant like precious things. They are, at least, to me. If I close my eyes and concentrate hard enough, I can hear her working next to me, spreading mulch or humming under her breath. I can pretend she’s here with me. 

I was hysterical, the first time something out here had died. It was absurd, sobbing like a baby into a dried out patch of withered leaves. Flora eventually came out and found me, kneeling in the dirt, tracks of tears drying in salty trails on my cheeks. She’d draped her body over mine, sheltering me under her canopy, holding tight. I’d held onto her arms like the lifeboat she was, keeping me afloat. 

It was more than feeling like I’d let a part of Jamie die. It was that I’d failed to protect something she’d cherished. Something she’d left for me. For Flora. There are so few pieces of her left. Letting one of them slip through my fingers seemed unforgivable. 

So now, we have an empty patch of ground I haven’t dared touch that’s been lying dormant for the last two years. A gap, an empty place, ready for something new. For new roots and growth. 

Jamie’s worn copy of Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants is never far from the kitchen or living room. Flora used to leaf through some of Jamie’s old books before, having gone through a particularly morbid phase where she was fascinated by Hypothermia, Frostbite, and Other Cold Injuries and Wound Care Essentials. Part of me wanted to keep those books from her for a few more years, but there’s nothing really in them that’s too inappropriate for her to see, even if she is a little young still. But she’s time-traveling now and I can’t help but worry that god forbid whatever she reads could one day save her life. 

It came as a relief when Flora moved onto decidedly less gruesome material. For the last few weeks she’s been reviewing the careful list of edible plants she’s found in the garden, cross-referencing it with ones from the book. Jamie left her worksheets, things for her to learn, memorize, and master in the long quest for safety and survival. I must have the only ten-year-old in town who knows how to pick locks and forage for weeds. How’s that for a party trick?

So when Flora finished her study of the garden Jamie left behind, there was a long list of plants that were leftover on the list that weren’t in the backyard. Which of course meant hearing about every single species from Year One through Year Five, between every snack, during breakfast, on the way to school, on the way back from school, at dinner, until my ears just tune out a bit when it comes to a child’s never-ending sharing of their favorite hyperfixation. 

One night, Flora left some of her things sprawled out on the table. It was the end of a particularly frustrating day, and Flora not putting her things away was something I wasn’t in the mood for so I yelled for her to come down and clean up and help set the table for dinner. Angrily shuffling the various sheets into a single pile, a spread in the field guide became visible. A picture of it caught my eye, but the name stops me dead in my tracks. Long, trailing red flower tails standing in stark contrast to all the green. Amaranthus caudatus. Love-Lies-Bleeding. 

I don’t know how long I stand there frozen, only that the sound of Flora running down the hallway into the kitchen startles me back into movement and I slam the book shut as if it’s dangerous. The poison of it seeps into me anyway and all during dinner, I nod distractedly as Flora recounts her day, giving absent one-word responses, my eye flickering to the book, now stacked neatly by the corner. The name haunts me through bedtime, and after a kiss to Flora’s  forehead and “Goodnight, sweet girl,” I spend the next hour back at the kitchen table gripping a glass of wine, taking errant sips, and staring down the book as if readying for battle, bracing myself to open it.

I trail my finger along the index and find it right away among the A’s. Page 21. I take a deep breath and before I can change my mind, flip to it. And there it is, in glossy full color, the bright burgundy of the flowers, hanging in clustered strings of craft pom-poms. Though the name is what arrested me, I let myself get over the shock of it and actually read the entry. As my eyes move across the page, the kernel of it settles in my heart and I know what to do. It feels right, somehow.

Luckily the climate is a bit more mild here than back in Iowa, so we can plant the seeds right in the soil outside instead of starting a few weeks early from planters. It takes a few weeks to order the seeds, not the most common thing lying around in the average garden market, but once they come, I place them in the middle of the kitchen table and wait for Flora to come home from her play date. 

Later, I broach the subject with her. My palms are sweaty. I fiddle with my fingers, eventually settling on just gripping my thumbs in an effort to keep my hands still. “Hey, Flora?” I ask, my voice breathy and too high.

She doesn’t look up from her homework, focused entirely on the page in front of her. “Yes?” 

“How, um, would you feel,” I start haltingly, “About planting something together in the garden?” Why am I so nervous? 

She stops writing, placing the pencil down on the table and cocks her head, looks up, her brow furrowed in contemplation as she thinks it over. I continue barreling on as if talking will ease the pain of the conversation. “‘Cause, y’know, we’ve got that empty space in the back row by the fence, and I know have your list of plants and I thought maybe we could try one ourselves. Fill the space and make it whole. It seems kinda lonely, don’tcha think? A-and I know it isn’t the same, as when your mom left it, but, maybe, we could... make something new together? What do you think?”

“I think,” Flora drawls, mulling it over, “It’s a lovely idea.” I exhale. Relief floods me immediately as my shoulders relax. 

“Yeah?” 

“Yeah!” Flora says. “It’ll be like the time we tried to grow tomatoes.”

I groan. Jamie and Flora had planted tomatoes years ago and they grew so prolifically, we practically drowned in tomatoes for weeks. Couldn’t give them away fast enough. Thank goodness we were able to dump bucketfuls to Owen, who in turn would bring back a jar of tomato jam or sauce for spaghetti. Jamie refused to plant them the following year unless we promised to have a plan for wider tomato dissemination, not wanting to get stuck with eating tomato sandwiches or BLTs for weeks straight. (“I can’t take it anymore, Dani.” She’d said. “If I never see another tomato again, it’ll be too soon.”) 

“Well, if this one grows half as well as those tomatoes, I think we’ll be alright.” We look at each other and smile. 

I don’t tell her what it’s called, of course. There are a slew of other names it goes by, so I tell her those instead, knowing full well she can and likely will look it up in the book later. I hope she won’t find significance in the name the way I have. That it won’t grip her and instead leave her be, blissfully naive to the violence of her mother’s death. 

The next day, we plant. I feel a strange sense of deja vu. I choose to think of it as feeling Jamie instead. As soon as we put the seeds in the ground, they should take off. Ten to fifteen days after planting, they’ll germinate and soon after that, grow three to eight feet tall. Should tower over both of us, if we’re lucky. In a few weeks, we’ll be lying in the shade of it’s stalks; in the canopy of Jamie. Three long months after sowing, the flower buds will unfurl and blossom. As a reward for our patience, bees will arrive and pollinate. Birds will come feed. 

The leaves can be harvested early in the season while they’re still tender. Apparently they’ll taste like spinach, I tell Flora. And later, as fall encroaches closer, the seeds, nutty-tasting and rich in protein and nutrients, will fall and can be cooked, ground into flour, sauteed, or saved for next year’s crop. All of the energy will move to the next generation of life. The amaranth will have given birth to the future, and then it will be done. This is the way it works. We’re all doing the same thing, really. We’ll soon have a garden with a crop full of amaranth, but next season it’ll have to be replanted. And so will I.*


Tuesday, May 24th 2045 (Jamie is 38, Dani is 82)
JAMIE:

I find myself in a dark hallway. At the end of the hall is a door, slightly open with warm light spilling around its edges. The hall is full of photographs; a young woman in graduation garb, gripping a diploma beaming to the camera; the same woman in a wedding gown, smiling happily over the shoulder of her spouse; the happy couple posing at Disneyland, two children at their waists; the same family, older, but happy, over a long table piled high with food and Christmas decorations, and an elderly brown couple in the back. I squint, leaning closer to the frame, and realize with startling clarity who the couple is. Realize, suddenly, that this hallway is familiar. So where’s-

I look back toward the light shining round the door and walk slowly and silently toward it. Morning light fills up the room and is painful at first, but as my eyes adjust I see that in the room is a plain wooden table next to a window. A woman sits at the table facing the window. A teacup sits at her elbow, steam rises from the surface of the water in the sunlight.. She’s surrounded by green - plants of all kinds line the windowsill, the table, the bookshelves, hanging from the ceiling, tall ones rising from the floor. The walls are practically invisible against the jungle of green. The woman is extremely still. She’s an old woman; her hair is perfectly white and lies long on her back, pinned behind her head with a barrette. She’s wearing a sweater the color of coral. The curve of her shoulders, the exhaustion in her posture says here is someone who is very tired, and I’m tired, myself. As I shift my weight from one foot to the other, the floor creaks and I cringe, but the woman doesn’t move from where she’s asleep on the chair. I rest my hand on her shoulder and after a moment she stirs, head lifting. When she turns and sees me and her face is remade into joy; I am overwhelmed; this is Dani. Dani old! And she is standing, rising from the chair, coming to me, and I take her into my arms.


Saturday, May 13th, 2045 (Dani is 82)
DANI:

This morning everything is clean; the storm left branches strewn around the backyard, which I will go out and pick up. The garden is lush and green, a warm welcome after last year’s extraordinarily hot summer. Hummingbirds flock to the flowers, towering by the fence, which is covered in thick roses and wisteria as it crawls up the brick of the house. I sit at the dining room table with a cup of tea, looking at the trees and the birds outside, listening. Waiting. 

Today isn’t much different from all the other days. My sleeping habits have changed over the years. I put on pants and a sweater, brush my hair, make toast, and tea, and sit looking at the garden, wondering if she’ll come today. In the afternoon, Flora will bring the kids over for a few hours while she runs errands. They’re older now and don’t need their grandma to babysit them, but it’s nice they still come to keep me company while they do their homework or play together. Little Theo has become quite the chef and takes over making dinner for everyone when evening falls.

It’s not much different from the many other times Jamie was gone and I waited, except that this time I’ve got instructions: this time I know she’ll come, eventually. I wonder sometimes if this readiness, this expectation, prevents the miracle from happening. But I have no choice. I never did. Wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. She is coming, and I am here.