There’s a thumbprint on the inside of her wrist.
Jamie spends time, hiding away from Denny, pressing her own thumb into it. It doesn’t quite fit, the thumbprint just a little larger than her own. She has smaller hands, anyway, and maybe that’s why. A cruel voice in the back of her mind, one that sounds like the boys at school, tells her that boys have bigger hands and that’s why it’s too big for her. The girls in her class, the ones who turn their noses up when she comes into a room like they’re any better than her, have smaller hands. Finer. More delicate. Jamie presses her thumb into the print on her wrist and hopeshopesnothopes that it belongs to one of them.
She knows the stories. Everyone talks about their own. Everyone talks about the fingers and thumbs and hands on their bodies that fit someone else’s. How you can touch a hundred people and none of them could fit the mark until someone finally does. She knows her mum had one, a large hand, twice the size of her own, on the side of her stomach, curled around her waist. She knows her dad has one on his arm but she’s never seen it under all the coal that coats his skin. Denny might have one but he’s never shown it to her. Not that he would, little shit. She even knows about the girls at school who hold them out for everyone else to see.
She doesn’t show anyone. She wears shirts with long sleeves that come down over her hands, big shirts that belong to her dad. She cuffs them but not high enough. People laugh when they see her with those big shirts on but what’s one more thing to laugh about, she figures. What’s one more thing they can hate her for?
Jamie winds into bed at night, Mikey asleep on the mattress next to her, and holds her arm tight to her chest, her fingers curled around the thumbprint like a secret she’s trying to hide.
She is, hiding it. She doesn’t want anyone to see it. Everything in her life belongs to someone else. This is hers. Her very own thing. Her very own secret.
There’s someone out there , the thumbprint whispers to her over Mikey’s snoring. There’s someone out there who is just for you.
“Give it up, would you?” she mumbles at herself into the dark night, trying not to think about the anger building in her throat. Her breath is hot, creating clouds around her words. She pulls the sleeves of her dad’s heavy jacket down over her hands to combat the cold, curling up inside its warmth. She passes under a streetlight and stops there for a second, using the light to check for her lighter in her pocket.
Well, her dad’s lighter. But he’s not missing it. He’s not missing much anymore, least of all his kids. Maybe he’d visit them if he was.
Jamie can’t be too mad at him, can she? He never saw them before, when her mum was still home and Denny was still just an older brother who was more annoying than cruel. Why would now, after her mum and after Denny and after CPS taking Mikey, be anything different? It’s not. It never will be. He belongs to the coal mines, to the holes in the ground.
She doesn’t know what - who - she belongs to. Not her mum. Not her dad. Not to the Taylors, it seems.
It doesn’t stop her from walking late at night after this week’s foster dad passed out on the couch in front of the television with a bottle in his hand and stale beer on his breath. She likes it here, beneath the streetlights. She likes the quiet hum of them. She likes the way it casts a shadow over the small mark on her wrist when she pulls her jacket back to look at it. In this light, it shimmers a little.
“Hey, there she is,” she hears from behind her.
She turns but the streetlight is too bright and they’re closer to her than she expects. Big hulking shadows. She can see Denny’s shape among them, the slope of his shoulders so similar to their dad’s. She focuses in on him, ignoring the other boys as they circle like sharks out for blood. He lingers in the back, smaller shapes passing in front of him in the dark.
“Denny,” she says, lofting the name above the other boy’s heads.
He ignores her. He always does. He lets Billy or Bobby or Rodney do the talking. Like their dad, he is. Letting people walk all over him.
She listens to them go on. Worthless, a whore, just like your mum. Denny looks away when they say that, like he always does, and she stares him down, daring him to open his mouth. He won’t, she knows. He’ll just stand there and let his friends cut her down with their words, threatening to the same with their hands. Jamie doesn’t flinch as they go on, pulling her shoulders back until she’s standing a little straighter. Her thumb rubs over the sparkwheel of the lighter in her pocket.
She could flick it on. She could throw it at them. She could let it burn in her hand, waving it at them like a lion tamer with a stool. What’s one more scar?
They leave eventually, kicking rocks out of their way and laughing as they go. Jamie takes a few deep breaths, trying to calm her racing heart. She hates this. Hates how they work her up, how she lets them get to her. The words don’t stick as much as the fear does. It lives in the cracks in her hands and they tighten like screws each time Denny and his goons come around. It always takes a little to unwind them. She flicks the lighter again and again until the pressure loosens in her chest.
The fear fades into anger again. She’s out here because she couldn’t be in there . Over her shoulder, she can see the dim light of the television flickering in the window of her foster home. She won’t be here long, not with a man like that running things. She’ll either leave on her own or she’ll make them kick her loose.
“Give it up,” she grumbles again, mocking the man. She won’t bother to learn his name. She won’t last long enough to care what it is. “Who you think you are, going on and on like that.”
Being under the streetlight feels suffocating now. She wants to get out of it, hide in the shadows. She’ll be out until they turn off anyway. Might as well use the dark while she has it. She pulls the long sleeves of her coat down her arms until she can see her hands and her wrists. That thumbprint is there, looking back up at her.
The words taste a little bitter in her mouth, the older she gets. It’s harder to believe in one now. How can something as good as a soulmate exist in this shitty world? How can there be the promise of something so kind when everything around her is cruel and hard? When she’s laying in whatever bed she’s using for the week with the door locked and something wedged in front of it, she wonders how she’ll ever find the thumb that fits the grooves on her skin. She moves too often, lives in too many shadows.
A door opens somewhere on the street, the sound of a cat screeching and bins rattling together. She ducks out of the light, curling around the lamppost as her eyes adjust to the dark. She sees someone pause on their steps, head tipped towards the street as they look around. She holds her breath for a moment until the person slips back into their house with a quiet thud of the door.
In the dark, she can barely see the thumbprint now. It’s better that way, she thinks. What would her soulmate even think of her? Worthless. Just like her mum.
That’s not something someone would look for in a soulmate, surely. That’s not something someone would want to be tied down to for a lifetime.
She pulls the sleeves down over her hands again and pushes them into her pockets, feeling the lighter under her fingertips. She works the sparkwheel back and forth without it clicking on as she walks up and down the streets, dipping in and out of the lights.
What would a soulmate want with her ?
There’s a girl, later on.
She has long, dark hair and legs stretching out of her jean shorts that seem to go on for miles. Jamie’s just met her, doesn’t even know her name really, but her wrist aches like she’ll die if she isn’t touched.
Because that’s how it works, isn’t it? Just a touch and she’ll know. One of the boys in one of the foster homes told her how it works. She’s not sure she even knew before this. Just assumed she’d find out when it happens. But he told her everything, sharing a fish and chips with her bought with some money nicked off a dresser in the house they were living at. He told her what her mum never did and what she’s sure her dad didn’t even know.
“Mum said it burns a little. Like a fever, I think. Or maybe like when the sun gets too hot on your skin,” he told her. “She wasn’t clear on that part, see. But it’ll burn when they touch you right where that spot is.” He gestured for her hand.
She held it out to him and he carefully rolled back the sleeve of the shirt she wore until there it was, the thumbprint, clear as day. She shivered a little when he ran his fingernail over it. No one had ever touched it before. She’d always kept it hidden. But this boy had kind eyes and an even kinder voice and when he held her hand in his, she didn’t feel like she had to hide it away.
“See,” he went on. He pressed his thumb over the mark. It disappeared completely. “Did you feel anything.”
She shook her head. She knew it wouldn’t. She knew his hands were too big. That every boy she’d ever met had fingers and thumbs too big to fit. She’d known it forever, really. It made sense. Her stomach never flopped over boys the way it did over the girls at the front of the classroom, all of them with small, fine hands that twisted strands of hair around delicate fingers.
“When it happens, you’ll know. Mum said it’s immediate. She knew as soon as Dad touched her.” He smiled a little absently. “When Dad died, she said it felt like something cold went through her.”
She rubbed her fingers over the mark, studying it carefully. There were small grooves she could see in the light coming from the signs above the chip shop. Almost invisible, but there. Soft, fine lines. Each of them swirling around each other. Her stomach did the same thing, twisting like that.
“Anyway,” he said loudly. He picked the last of the chips up, handing her two of them before finishing the rest. “ Soulmate is a funny word, innit? Could be a lot of soulmates, I think. One for friends and one for, you know. Romantic partners. How do you even know this difference?
Jamie knows the girl with the hair and the legs is not her friend. She’s too pretty to be Jamie’s friend. She smiles too much and throws her hair over her shoulder and she looks at Jamie across a party with notfriends in her eyes.
“That’s Beth,” someone says into her ear.
Jamie just stares across the room. “Beth,” she repeats, testing the name in her mouth.
Dougie takes the beer out of Jamie’s hand and drinks half in a gulp, wiping at his chin when it dribbles down out of his mouth. “Don’t know her last name.”
“Don’t care.” Jamie takes her bottle back and wipes the top of it off before she finishes the rest.
“Not one of your lot,” Dougie continues. “Just broke up with James Rawlings.”
Jamie is finding that not many girls are one of her lot . It never stops them from kissing her in dark corners, though.
“She doesn’t look broken up.” She has to say it loud over the music coming from the speakers on the far side of the room. Someone walks in front of Beth and when they move, she’s gone. “Dammit.”
Dougie laughs in her ear, loud and obnoxious, and she swipes at him without too much effort. “Twat,” she mumbles.
“What was that?”
Jamie spins too fast. The dim lights in the room make her a bit nuaseus as she tries to focus on the body attached to the voice. There’s a laugh, low and sweet, that trickles into the space between them, and Jamie finds her, all long hair and longer legs.
“Nothing,” Jamie says quickly. The girl smiles. “Just Dougie here. Bit of a prat.”
Beth smiles a little wider. “I find that most boys are prats, if we’re being honest.”
“Well, in the name of honesty,” Dougie starts, pointing a finger.
Jamie elbows him in the side, grinning when he lets out a rush of air and doubles over. She claps him hard on the back and leans into him. “Honestly, you’re right.”
“If we’re being perfectly honest ,” Beth continues. “Then I’d also tell you that I’ve been watching you from across the room.”
Jamie runs a careless hand through her hair, trying for smooth and hoping she doesn’t fall wondrously short. “I haven’t noticed,” she lies. She watches Beth’s smile start to drop and rushes on. “But had I, noticed, I mean, I would’ve come and talked to you.”
Dougie makes a noise of protest and she claps him on the back again.
Beth’s smile brightens again. It stays that way for the rest of the night, even when Jamie pulls her into a dark corner and even when someone stumbles into them and even when Dougie tries to pull her away. It stays that way as Jamie works her hands under Beth’s jumper and curls her fingers around the sharp points of her hips. It stays that way until the lights come up and she slips out into the night after her friends, giving Jamie a small wave as she disappears into the night.
Beth presses her thumb into the print on Jamie’s wrist and she doesn’t feel it, doesn’t feel much at all, but Beth’s kiss soothes the disappointment enough for now. It’s not Beth. It wasn’t Maria or Siobhan or Cheryl. It probably won’t be the next girl or the next next girl or the one after that. But that’s okay. That’s alright.
Dougie throws his arm around her shoulder and she pulls her sleeve down over her hands.
That’s okay. That’s alright.
Being sent away, she thinks, might be the kindest thing that’s ever happened to her.
The women here aren’t the friendliest. Her bunkmate is annoyed on a good day and downright angry on bad ones, but she’s quiet and she leaves Jamie alone. That’s really all she can ask for. Some peace. A chance to exist and not have people breathing down her neck, watching her every move. A chance to just be .
No one bothers her much anymore. No one cares much. They’re all there, stuck together in pens like small, untamed animals, learning their lessons. She hasn’t quite figured out what hers is yet.
You will , her counselor Tamara tells her. She’s patient with Jamie. More patient than anyone else has ever been. And Jamie almost hates her for it. Hates her quiet and her steadiness. It feels like a trap, that kind of tranquility. That kind of stability. It’s like nothing Jamie has ever had before. She’s not sure she wants it now.
Jamie is used to the go, go, go of life. Go, get away from home. Go, get away from Denny and those boys. Go, get away from that girl. Go, get away before you get caught. She’s been running so long, one leg ahead of whatever is coming behind her, a beast hunting her down, that she forgets what standing still is like. It’s been years since she’s stopped under a streetlight and breathed in deep.
But getting picked up for nicking a car has her trapped in a cell with a bunkmate who snores when she sleeps and a lot of free time on her hands with nowhere to go. Things have never been this still before. She’s sure they can’t possibly stay like this.
They will , Tamara likes to tell her. You just have to invite it in, the quiet.
Jamie hates the quiet. She hates the day in and day out of it all. She wants the hustle and the bustle of life out there. In here, there’s too much time to think. Too much time to stay still. Too many things to hide and not enough space to hide them.
“Where’s yours?” one of the girls asks, leaning over the slop they call a meal. She holds out her arm, pulling her t-shirt sleeve up. “Mine’s here.”
Jamie looks up for a second, eyeing the palm print on her arm. She drops her own arm to her lap, tightening her hand into a fist. “Don’t have one.”
The girl rolls her eyes. “Everyone has one.” She grabs the arm of the girl next to her, pulling her closer and then grabbing her head, twisting it back. “Look. Lucy here has the funniest one.”
“Don’t touch her,” Jamie warns. She looks anyway. It’s two fingers that follow the curve of her neck. Lucy is looking at her with wide, unblinking eyes. “Get off her, would you?”
Lucy finally blinks as the girl lets her go. Jamie looks at her for another moment before she looks away. It’s been ages since girls like Beth, since girls like Cheryl. She’s sworn it off, she thinks. Girls only get you one thing, and that thing is trouble. They get you in with the wrong crowd and they get you into nicking cars and then they let you get locked up all on your own.
“I’m Tanya,” the girl with the palm print says, holding her hand out above the table.
Jamie doesn’t take it. “I’m not interested.”
A metal tray rattles on the table next to her and Jamie swallows down the panic that jumps in her throat. A woman shoulders Jamie out of the way as they sit down, grunting with the effort. “Shift it,” she grumbles. Jamie moves away and they stretch their legs under the table, kicking Tanya’s out of the way. “Bothering people?”
Tanya sulks, shoulders turning inward. “No.”
“She bothering you?”
Jamie looks between Tanya and the older woman before she shakes her head. “Perfectly pleasant.”
The woman snorts, a sound rough with age. “That’s our Tanya. Pleasant .”
Tanya’s mouth drops open for a beat. “We’re not all prim and proper, are we?” She turns her chin up into the air. “Waste of time anyway. Says she doesn’t have a soulmark.” She snorts as she swings her legs around and gets up from the table. “We’ve all got ‘em, love. Even if you are hiding it.”
Jamie watches Tanya walk away, Lucy following a step behind her. She leans back over her plate when they get out of sight, scooping up something they’re calling beans and debating if she’s really as hungry as her stomach says she is.
“Thinks she’s president of the association, doesn’t she,” the woman next to her says. Jamie says nothing, dropping the spoonful back onto the tray. “You’re quiet. That’ll do enough for the rest of us.”
Now she looks up. “What’ll do?”
“She speaks.” The woman grabs for Jamie’s hands, her grip tightening when Jamie tries to pull them away. She turns them over in her own, peering down at them. “Strong hands, it looks like.” Her thumb brushes over the print on Jamie’s wrist but doesn’t linger. Jamie breathes a sigh of relief. “That’ll do,” she says again.
Jamie pulls her hands away. “ What’ll do?”
“Come on,” The woman gets up, her tray abandoned on the table. She grabs Jamie’s arm and pulls her along.
Jamie is starting to get tired of being handled like an unruly toddler. She can feel something warm and familiar bubble to the surface, an anger she hasn’t let seen the day of light in a long time. Flashes of Denny, his friends, foster fathers and the worthless foster mothers, her own dad, girls who turned her into toys - they filter through her head like an old movie, one after the next. She grinds her back teeth together, gathering that anger in her chest as the woman tugs her through the halls until they’re in the yard, hedging towards an old shed with plastic where the windows should be.
“Found one,” the woman declares as she pulls Jamie through an empty doorway.
Jamie stumbles on her feet, hip colliding with a wooden table. It aches instantly and she knows she’ll be bruised come morning. Like she needs one more thing to be angry about. Tamara is telling her she needs to breathe through the anger, not give into it. It’s what landed you here in the first place, Tamara reminds her.
No , Jamie corrects her. Stealing a car did .
The anger bubbles in her still. “Right, you better have a goddamn reason why-”
“Hush,” the woman says. “You’ll wake ‘em.”
Jamie turns in a wide circle. “Wake who?”
“The plants.” The woman edges Jamie out of the way and touches a small black container with cubes of dirt in it. Small green shoots sprout up from the dirt. “They don’t do well when they’re yelled at, mind.”
Jamie blinks a few times and turns in a slower circle. The shed is mostly plastic-wrapped windows, sunlight distorted as it comes in. It still lights up the yards of tables inside, small black containers on most of them. There're big pots at the end of a long table, plants taller than she is packed into them. The woman next to her smiles proudly, rubbing a small shoot of something between her fingers gently.
“They do best in sunlight and kind words. You’ll do best to remember that.” The woman picks up a pair of heavy, brown gloves. “I’m Dot. I run the greenhouse. But go see Bev. She’ll tell you where to start. You’ll have to work your way up the ladder. No touching the plants until you’ve proven yourself, so keep your hands to where Bev says you can put them.”
“I…” Jamie closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. “What is going on?”
Dot softens a little. “Look around, love. What do you think is going on?”
“I don’t know,” Jamie admits. She closes her fist around the gloves in her hand. There’s Bev down a few yards and two more women in the corner, quietly talking amongst themselves. “Are you… are you growing things?”
“Plants.” Dot rests a warm hand on Jamie’s shoulder. “We’re growing plants, love. And you’re going to help us.”
Jamie takes a slow step backward. “I think you’ve gotten me mixed up with someone else. I don’t do... plants.”
Dot smiles. “Tamara said you’d be difficult about it.”
“ Tamara said I’d be good with plants?” Jamie takes a slow breath in and pushes it out even slower. “Right, I’m going back out there to finish my lunch and-”
“At least give it a go, yeah?” Dot touches her arm gently and Jamie sways into it for a second before she catches herself. Dot notices it and smiles even softer. “What’s the worst that can happen? You kill a plant or two?”
Jamie eyes them carefully, working it over in her mind. “Suppose so,” she says absently. She looks at the woman and breathes in, something bright and green that fills her lungs. “Right. I don’t know what I’m doing, so…”
Dot smiles brightly. “Well, love, first things first. Put on your gloves. Your hands are going to get dirty.”
She digs out a small hole in the pot in front of her, packing the dirt into itself to give herself enough room to place the small sprout in her hand inside of it. She spreads the soil back on top of it gently, her fingertips barely pressing it down.
“Good girl,” she hears over her shoulder.
Jamie turns, wiping her hands down the front of the apron she’s wearing. There’s a chill in the air this late at night that slips in through the plastic-lined windows and settles in the tips of fingers. She’s got gloves to put on but she likes the feel of the dirt beneath her hands. Likes the way it stains her fingertips and gets under her nails.
Dot nods at the bag of potting soil on the ground leaning against the table. “Give me a hand, would you? Knees are acting up today.”
Jamie shoulders the bag of soil and carries it down the line of plants, settling it on the table. She pulls a penknife out of her pocket and slices the top of the bag. Some soil spills out onto the table and Jamie sweeps it over the top into her hand, putting it back inside. She knows Dot is watching her, smiling. She’s been doing an awful lot of that lately, watching and smiling. Like she has a secret she wants to tell, but can’t say anything yet.
“How’re those begonias coming along, then?”
“Probably ought to soak another day or two, but Bev got impatient.”
Dot snorts. “She’s not much for patience.” She digs her hands into the bag, pulling up a small mountain of soil. Jamie slides a pot under her hands and she drops the dirt into it. “Did you save any of the tubers or did she make off with all of them?”
Jamie grins despite herself. “Kept a few,” she says casually.
Dot laughs loudly and grabs for her, squeezing her wrist tightly. Jamie shivers a little. She still does when someone else’s hand fingers brush over the thumbprint there. There’s a small spark, a tiny zap of electricity like she’s rubbed her socked feet on the carpet and touched something metal. Dot’s hand drops, going back into the soil, but Jamie holds her arm tight against her body, her own fingers curled over the print.
She traces the swirls of it with her fingernail and she shivers. The long, floppy sleeves of the shirt she’s wearing are rolled up and pushed past her elbows. Dirt streaks around her fingers and her hand and up her arms. She can barely see the print under the grime, but it’s there if she looks hard enough. If anyone looked hard enough.
She doesn’t hide it, not anymore. Doesn’t see the point in it, really. The place is so small, everyone knows everything about everybody else. She knows Lucy with the wide eyes already met her soulmate and he’s on the outside. She knows Dot has two fingers pressed into her shoulder. They all know she has one, right there on the inside of her wrist. But they don’t ask. No one does. If you want to tell your story, you can. But most don’t. Jamie wouldn’t even know what to say, if she felt like saying anything at all.
That’s why she likes these plants so much. They listen. She talks to them, coaxes them up out of the soil by telling them stories of her Dad when he was still a dad, of her mum when she was still around. She tells them about camping out in the yard with Denny and teaching Mikey how to stuff his face full of pudding. She tells them about her first kiss and her first time and her first heartbreak. And they just listen, quiet and steady against her ugly truths.
She whispers to them before she leaves each night, asking them to keep her secrets.
“Well,” Dot says as she puts another handful of dirt into the pot. “Reckon your begonias will grow miles before hers do.”
Jamie grins, looking sideways at Dot. “Oh, let’s be nice. She tries.”
Dot nods at another planter on the ground. Jamie picks it up and holds it steady on the table as Dot fills it halfway. They work quietly, filling the pot with soil and setting a set of dahlia tubers into it. Dot packs the rest of the planter gently and Jamie moves it aside, picking up the next one. It’s been like this since Jamie first started with the plants. She got past whatever test Bev cooked up for her and then her own table to grow. Dot showed her what grew best when, what to sow each month, how to turn the plants to get the most sun. She spends each day here in this greenhouse, surrounded by so much quiet life.
Tamara was right. She just had to invite the quiet in.
“Got my release date,” Dot finally says.
“Well, that’s great.” Jamie’s smile fades. “Why’ve you got a face on like that?”
Dot pushes some loose dirt around on the table, forming a pile just to push her finger through it. “Been here so long, I’m not sure I know what to do out there.”
There’s a feeling in her chest Jamie can’t quite put a name to. It’s not quite fear and it’s not quite heartbreak, but it feels like a little bit of each. Dot is as constant as the plants are. A part of the greenhouse, roots grown in. Jamie can’t imagine it without her here. For the first time in a long time, she feels like she has something to lose and it makes her want to dig into the soil and grow her own roots down.
For the first time, she doesn’t want to run anywhere else. The part of her that used to scream go in the night wakes up each day and says stay .
“Well, you could go rough someone up. Get a few more years for your trouble.” Jamie bumps her shoulder into Dot’s. “Tanya is always up for making a show of things.”
“That girl lives in her own show,” Dot grumbles. She sighs and rests her hands flat on the table. “Tamara says that it’s good, to get out now while I’ve still got life left in me. But everything I have is here. The girls, the plants.” She looks at Jamie. “You.”
Jamie busies her hands, rubbing them over the top of the dahlia tubers, making sure they’re below the soil surface. “Well, you can visit, can’t you?”
“No, I couldn’t.” Dot catches Jamie’s hand in her own and lowers her voice. “Now, I need to show you something.”
“Bit dramatic,” Jamie mumbles as Dot pulls her further into the greenhouse.
It’s been a few years but it’s still a part of the greenhouse she doesn’t dare go. Dot’s corner, everyone calls it. When she first started in the greenhouse, Jamie used to think she might be growing something illegal, honestly. No one bothers her about it. Not even the guards. Jamie drifts around it now without wondering what’s back there behind the small makeshift door.
Dot pauses with her hand on the doorknob, eyes searching Jamie’s before she nods and pushes the door open. Jamie peers into the darkness, trying to adjust to the lack of light. Dot steps inside, disappearing for a minute before a torch goes on. “Come on, love.”
Jamie steps inside, following the light from the torch as it swings wildly around the small room. Dot puts the torch down and it lights up the plastic-lined ceiling above them. The sky is darker now and the light shimmers off the plastic and brightens the space a little. Enough for Jamie to see the thick green vines and dark leaves. There’s small, milky-white buds in between the leaves, dotting the lattice they seem to be climbing in the dark.
“Moonflowers,” Dot says from somewhere in the darkness. Jamie turns her head, trying to find her. “They’re special, see. They bloom only at night. And not for long. For a fleeting moment. And when they do, in the morning, they’ll be gone.”
Jamie moves towards them, running the tips of her fingers over the closed petals. They’re soft beneath her touch. “They’re beautiful,” she says softly.
“Grew them myself.” Dot moves into the small arc of light. “Not easy, either. Fickle little things. But worth it.” She sighs softly and reaches out, touching another bud. “When they bloom, Jamie… You’ve never seen anything like it.”
“When’ll they bloom?” She moves closer to the lattice. The bud is even more delicate up close, each petal folding around each other gently. One petal wrinkles under her fingernail and she pulls her hand away quickly.
Dot hums softly. “A month or so, maybe. They’re due soon. You’ll have to watch for them.”
Jamie turns to her shadow. “Me?”
“You, love.” Dot moves in another foot. “I’m getting out, remember? And I need someone to take over and tend to them. They’re precious, these ones. They require more care.”
Jamie shakes her head. “I think you’ve got the wrong person.”
“No. No, I’ve always had the right one.” Dot reaches for Jamie’s hand, squeezing it gently. “I knew before you did. You’ve got good hands. Strong, kind hands. And a kinder heart. I could see it, even before you could.”
“Hush.” Dot squeezes her hand again. “The flowers grow for you. They know you care and they grow for you. They don’t grow for Bev. They don’t grow for Ann or Mary Katherine. They grow for you . These moonflowers, they’ll grow for you too.”
Jamie is shaking her head before Dot finishes. “I really couldn’t.”
“You’re the only one who can.” There’s a fleeting kiss pressed to her cheek and then Dot is moving away, leaving the torch on the table. “Go on, then. Talk to them.”
Dot fades out of the room, slipping back into the light behind the door, and Jamie stands in the damp dark. The dark green leaves bleed into the dark green vines and the black lattice it clings to. The soft white buds glisten on the leaves, catching the torch light like water on the end of a piece of grass in the morning dew. Jamie stands there in awe, breathing them in as she stares at them. They’re unlike any flower she’s seen before. Unlike every begonia or dahlia or geraniums she’s ever grown.
They’re the prettiest things she’s ever seen.
London is… gray.
Jamie hates it. She didn’t notice it when she was here before, but it’s just gray on gray on gray. She walks the streets searching for something green, something alive. But all she finds are big, tall, gray buildings. They stretch high, taller than anything she’s ever seen before. She has to look all the way back to find their points, disappearing into the gray fog that settles over them.
Gray on gray. Not a green thing in sight.
She drifts aimlessly through the city the first few weeks. She thinks maybe she’ll see if she can find out where Dot ended up. If she even ended up in London. She would talk about it, sometimes. How she visited as a kid and always wanted to go back. She would tell Jamie stories, long and romantic ones about the boys she met while she was there. She’d tell Jamie about the ones she thought were her soulmates but never stuck. She’d talk for hours and hours, tending to the plants in their little greenhouse until the sky was too dark and their torches weren’t bright enough.
God, Jamie misses the dirt.
She finds a park eventually. A great, good park with lines of bushes and flowerbeds stretched out along the walkways. Jamie wants to get down on her hands and her knees and dig into the soil. Her body aches. She just wants dirt beneath her fingernails and seedlings in the palm of her hand. She wants the cool drip of a watering can as it runs over a line of petunias. She wants to bring something to life.
The park becomes her refuge. She works in a bar, pulling pints and slingings G&Ts, and it’s fine. It’s a job , her probation officer tells her. Be grateful you’ve got one, love. She spends her days and her nights behind the bar, forcing smiles with bared teeth when people get a little too friendly. And then, when she’s closed down for the night and put the last chair up, she pushes out into the gray night and goes to that park, her park, and sits down among the green that rises out of the early morning fog.
She can think, here. She can breathe. She can close her eyes and bring herself back to her greenhouse, to the smell of fresh soil and fresher flowers.
Jamie opens her eyes slowly, the shadow of a woman coming into view. She’s looking at Jamie with her head cocked to one side, eyes narrowed in confusion.
“I only mean, you’re sitting in the middle of a park in the middle of the night with your eyes closed.” The woman steps closer.
Jamie takes a slow breath in. The air feels stale now. “I’m meditating.”
The woman’s frown deepens. “How’s that?” She doesn’t wait for an answer, closing the space between them and dropping down heavily on the bench next to Jamie. Jamie opens her mouth to protest but the woman beats her to it. “I’ve just been dumped.”
“I’m sorry,” Jamie says slowly. The fog rises up, swirling around her ankles, and the blooming larkspurs disappear.
The woman sighs. “He said we just weren’t meant to be. Not soulmates, he said.” She sways a little and Jamie can smell alcohol on her breath as she gets closer. “But I just wanted to have a little bit of fun.”
Jamie slides a little further away but the end of the bench presses into her hip and she’s trapped.
“Some people are like that, though.” The woman sighs again. “They don’t want to have fun. Romantic, innit? Waiting for that special someone.” She looks at Jamie with wide green eyes. “Are you?”
“Am I what?”
“Waiting. Is that what you’re doing in this park? Waiting for your soulmate?” The woman drops her hand over Jamie’s knee, fingers hot through the denim of Jamie’s pants. “Some people are. I’m not one of them, of course. But there are people who are. They just wait and wait and wait. What happens if they wait so much, they miss it?”
Jamie swallows hard against the lump in her throat. She’s thought about it a little. Waiting. She doesn’t have many friends since she got out. She doesn’t have any, if she’s honest. She spends her time doing the same thing over and over again: walk, work, work another shift, sit in the park, dream of green gardens she builds up with her own two hands, sleep, wake. Sometimes she feels like that’s all she does. Sleep, wake, walk through this gray, foggy life.
“I don’t believe in soulmates,” the woman continues. “Some silly little mark, telling me who I’m going to spend the rest of my life.” She snorts. “Por- pra- propoganda ,” she says slowly. “Created by god knows who. Empty promises.”
The woman sways into Jamie’s side, her hand tightening on Jamie’s knee. “Do you believe in them?”
Jamie wants to. It is romantic. When she was younger, hiding in dark corners and avoiding darker eyes, she believed. She believed so much that it kept her going through the longer nights. She believed it to her very core. Someone. Someday. Somewhere. But she’s further from home and even further away from believing in the good in people, that it doesn’t stick as much anymore. It doesn’t feel like it’s part of her story.
“Doesn’t matter.” The woman hiccups a little and squeezes Jamie’s knee one more time before she pushes up and off the bench, standing on unsteady legs. “If what they say is true, we’ll all find love eventually.” She peers at Jamie for a long minute. “If you’re looking for it in this park, you might want to come back when it’s a bit lighter out.”
The woman gives Jamie a little wiggle of her fingers and disappears into the fog like a ghost disappearing from sight, fading into the mist. Jamie watches where the shape of her went but her shadow is gone just as quickly. Here and gone like some ethereal dream Jamie doesn’t remember falling asleep to have.
She sits in the mist for a little while longer, feeling it wet her cheeks and stick to her hair. London is gray and Jamie hates the gray. Hates how it swallows and chokes the green around it. It feels like it’s choking her too.
London is gray and Jamie needs to be free of it.
She finds the ad in the paper, tucked away on a page she usually skips right over, in a corner her thumb usually hides as she turns the pages. Happenstance , she would think, if she believed in that kind of thing. Dumb luck , another part of her says. Either way, she circles it carefully and rips the page out of the paper, shoving it hastily into her pocket as Thomas unlocks the front of the bar.
It burns a hole through her pocket all night, like a coal burning against her skin. She plasters on a look and dodgers sticky fingers and stickier smiles until the last of them are out the door and she’s alone, soaking in the blissful silence. She takes it out then, smoothing the creases.
HELP WANTED, it starts. GARDENER - Experienced gardener needed for country property in quaint town .
She’s never been to wherever Bly is, but it sounds green and miles away from the city.
And then she meets Charlotte Wingrave.
She’s elegant where Jamie isn’t, soft-spoken where Jamie feels too loud. Every word out of her mouth feels clunky and rusted like an old watering can. She winces with each answer, following Lady Wingrave around the property, tripping on her words and her feet.
“The last gardener wasn’t quite up to par,” she says gracefully.
Jamie looks around the statue garden in wonder. Soft green moss grows up the sides of the statues and they wear it like a dressing robe pooling at their feet. Romantic , she thinks. This is what romance is. Romance is raindroplets dripping from the ends of miles of leaves, dewy grass under her feet, climbing vines on the parapet. Romance is the greenhouse just off the center of the property, humid in the morning chill.
Charlotte smiles kindly as she watches Jamie take it in. “It is quite a big property.”
Jamie works the words over in her mouth and fails to come up with anything.
“Do you have experience with a property this big?”
Now she falters. She’s got a handful of years of experience, sure, but not the kind of experience she’s sure Lady Wingrave is looking for. Or the kind she might be expecting. So Jamie takes a deep breath and holds it until she feels like she’s going to fall over and when she’s just about to let it go, Charlotte smiles at her again.
“Our last gardener made us a bit wary. I’m afraid my husband looked into you a little.”
She deflates a little. This elegant lady and her even more elegant garden is slipping away with each drip, drip, drip of the dew dropping from the trees to the lawn. But Charlotte is still smiling at her. Jamie looks back at her curiously, her throat still closing the longer Charlotte goes on looking at her.
“I didn’t kill anyone, or anything,” she finally manages.
Charlotte laughs. “Of course not, dear. A car, was it?” She hums thoughtfully.
Jamie feels like her tongue is swelling in her mouth.
“I always wondered what it might be like to do such a thing.” She gives a soft little laugh. “Imagine me. Stealing a car. Why, I wouldn’t even know where to start.”
“Not that hard.” Jamie’s eyes widen. “I just mean, if you wanted to. It wouldn’t be hard to do.”
Charlotte smiles and beckons Jamie closer with a turn of her head. “Truth be told, I always wanted to be a bit of a rogue.” She leans back, her hand closing over Jamie’s arm, fingertips brushing the thumbprint. “But we live the life we’re destined to, don’t we?”
Jamie thinks that if she’s destined to live this life, she’d like an appointment with whoever scheduled that. She’s got a few years-worth of things to ask them about. Don’t hold onto that , Tamara had told her before she got out. Move forward. Move on. Cut back the weeds and plant some healthy roots .
“I’ve never done a project this big,” she admits. “But I did run the greenhouse when I…” She feels her cheeks flush. “I’m good with plants. I like them.”
Charlotte continues to smile at her, looking at her for long that Jamie feels her whole body yelling at her to run. She can feel discomfort creeping up through her like those vines climbing the parapet, winding around her ribs and squeezing tight. She feels like Charlotte can see right through her with those kind eyes, getting down to Jamie’s roots, deep into the dirt where the sun doesn’t quite reach. It’s disarming, that feeling.
“I think we ought to give it a try, shouldn’t we?” Charlotte finally says. She rests a soft hand on Jamie’s shoulder. “Yes, I believe that’s what we should do.”
“Oh,” Jamie says, the sound slightly strangled in her mouth.
“Of course, if it doesn’t work out…”
“Course,” she says quickly. “Of course.”
Charlotte smiles widely. “Perfect. Now, I don’t know if you live in Bly, but there’s a charming little pub with a room for rent just above it. We could give you the first month’s wages to get you started. And we have an old truck on the property that we’re not using any longer. It’s yours, if you’d like it.”
“Oh,” Jamie says again.
“Will that do?” Charlotte asks, looking at her expectantly.
“That’ll do, yeah.” She winces. “I mean, yes.”
“Splendid.” Charlotte claps her hands together. “You must meet Mrs. Grose, our housekeeper. She’s a lovely woman, keeps the house running. And my children, Miles and Flora. They’re just inside. My husband is away on business but he’ll be home soon.” She nods sharply to herself. “Yes, you must.”
Jamie looks down at her boots, caked in dried on mud from slogging around, and then back up at the big house looming in the distance. She’s not dressed to go inside a house that grand. Her jacket is torn at the shoulder, pulled together with a few pins she found buried in her suitcase. She didn’t get a chance to wash her hair today and it sits on her shoulders in a mess of curls.
Charlotte must notice her hesitation. She winds her arm through Jamie’s, pulling her in like she’s going to whisper a secret. It’s been ages since someone touched her like this. The last person… Well, it must have been the girl in that park, that night Jamie decided she was going to get out of London. And Dot, before that, when she hugged her goodbye before she got out. She’s kept to herself since then, back in her long-sleeved shirts hanging down over her hands. Back with her walls up, high and sturdy. The garden she tended had taken them down brick by brick but out here, without plants to tend to in the city, those bricks stacked themselves one on top of another until she could hardly see over the other side.
“We’ll put on the kettle and get to know each other, shall we?”
Charlotte starts drifting towards the door and Jamie is helpless to go along with her, moving through the statue garden and across the unmanicured lawn. This is hers to tend now. This is hers to grow.
The vines in her chest start to loosen and something starts to bloom instead.
“Mind your feet,” Hannah says from behind her.
Jamie pushes up on her toes guiltily. She turns with an apologetic smile on her face to find Hannah behind her with a mop in her hand.
Hannah sighs. “This is the third time you’ve tracked mud in here this morning,” she says. She’s smiling at Jamie though, taking the sting out of the words.
Jamie holds up the flowers in her hand. “I thought these would work better than the ones I put there this morning.”
Hannah studies them for a moment. “I quite like the first ones.”
“No.” Jamie shakes her head. “The delphinium looks much better with the gladiolus.”
“Hmm. And what was it this morning?”
“Rambling roses.” Jamie holds the delphiniums up. “Look, the blue with the gladiolus gives a-” She stops, eyes narrowing as she watches the smile grow on Hannah’s face. “Right. Why don’t you go back to mopping and I’ll be in charge of the flowers, yeah?”
Hannah pushes the mop half-heartedly at her. “Why don’t you stick to the kitchen where no one has to see you tracking mud through the house.”
Jamie looks down at her feet and the prints she’s tracked from the front door to the small table she’s nearly at. She tried to wipe her feet before she stepped into the house but the rain yesterday made the grounds soft and wet. She’s a bit worried, if she’s being honest. It’s been more rainy than usual this time of year, soaking into the grass and wetting the statues, sinking into the soft moss there. Overwatering is just as bad as underwatering , Dot would tell her. And the plants are starting to become saturated with it. It makes for muddy footprints.
“I am sorry about that.”
Hannah softens. “Oh, I know, love.” She gestures for the flowers in Jamie’s hand, taking them gently when Jamie offers them. She holds them close to her face and closes her eyes, breathing them in. “Mhmm. I like these ones, I think.”
“They mean dignity and grace, you know,” Jamie offers.
“Just like Mrs. Wingrave.” Hannah smiles at the flowers.
Like you , Jamie thinks but doesn’t say. Charlotte Wingrave is sophistication and dignity but Hannah Grose is the same. She winds her way through the halls of Bly Manor with a grace Jamie could never imagine for herself. She moves like she was made for this house and it’s glossy floors and dark, rich colors. Jamie spends her lunch break watching Hannah busy herself with something and wonders how a woman so elegant as Hannah Grose found herself as a housekeeper when she should be out in London, among people just as beautiful and refined as her.
Jamie nods at them again. “Rememberance, too. Remembrance of a loved one.”
Hannah hands them back slowly, her fingers lingering on the blue petals before she lets them go completely. “Well, that’s lovely.” She smiles that soft smile Jamie finds herself liking more each day. “I should get back to it. Charlotte and the children will be back from town soon.”
Jamie groans when Hannah mentions Miles and Flora. They’re cute, the way they follow her around the property, asking her questions about rose bushes, but they get their hands into her flowers and they talk until Jamie feels like her head is going to explode. They’re endearing, though. She finds herself tolerating them a little more each day.
It makes her think of Mikey. What he would have been like if they stayed together a little longer. Would he be this rambunctious? Would he talk and talk until her ears fell off? Would he be happy and light the way Miles is?
Hannah starts to mop, humming quietly to herself. Jamie finishes her walk to the small table where the vase she’s looking for sits, careful to track as little mud as possible through the house. She carefully lays the delphinium down and picks each rambling rose stem out of the bunch, replacing them one by one. She cut the delphiniums high so they sit at the same height as the gladiolus. She steps back when she’s done. The blue and the white sit together but apart from each other, each flower holding their own.
She didn’t have access to these kinds of flowers before. She thought she knew flowers but this is a whole new world. It opens to her like a morning glory in the sunlight. She soaks it all in, the things she didn’t know. She finds books at the small library in town, pouring over flowers and their meanings. She reads about growing time and some of the things she recognizes from what Dot would tell her late in the day before they closed the greenhouse for the night. But most of it is brand new and she catalogs it all away, using it to decide what flowers to grow and what shrubs to plant.
“It’s beautiful” Charlotte tells her a few times, stopping Jamie in the foyer or the halls or outside the doors where she’s pruning back the small trees there in their concrete planters. “So much lovlier than the last gardener.”
Dominic Wingrave tells her the same thing in not so many words, making a comment about the cut grass lining up with the edge of the drive neatly. She takes the compliment at face value. She’s doing good work. They see it. She can see it, too, in the way things are blooming around her. That feeling she got from tending to those potted plants in that greenhouse alongside Dot and Bev and Mary Katherine and Ann feels bigger now, too big to contain sometimes. It spreads out of her into the gardens, feeding the shrubbery and the long-stemmed flowers until they explode in bright colors across the lush green grass.
Romantic , she thinks.
That’s what it is. She read a few novels in the winter months when there wasn’t much growing to do. Classics, they called them. And in every one of them, there’s a big, sprawling property with flowers on flowers. That’s what Bly is like: a scene right out of a book.
She gathers the rambling roses off the side table. They’ll look good in the kitchen on that long wooden table, soft pink against the dark wood. Flora will like them. She likes roses best, she tells Jamie often. Flora means flower. And if I was a flower, I’d want to be a rose.
Jamie’s not sure what type of flower she’d be yet. In all her reading, she hasn’t quite found one that jumps out at her.
At least, not the way a moonflower has.
There was a shop in London where she picked her seeds before she came to Bly. In the back of the shop, tucked away behind some old poppy packets, she found two small containers labeled moonflowers .
“Hard to grow,” the shopkeeper had said when he rang it up. “But if you work hard enough at it, they’ll bloom. Any experience with them?”
Just Dot’s moonflowers, just maintaining them. But she nodded silently and gave him a short ta when he put everything in a bag and handed her a written receipt. She packed those seeds carefully into her things as she went off on to her new life in Bly, hours away from the gray and dismal city. She carried the moonflower seedlings in her front dungaree pocket, though, pressed to her chest. Jamie held onto them for days until she found the perfect place for them.
The property is sprawling but there’s no hiding places here. Nowhere she can go that the kids can’t get to it. It takes her ages to find it, tucked deep into the property where the forest is denser. She pulled some old trestle out of the greenhouse and put it up and planted the moonflower seeds right at the base of them. She gave them room to grow and something to grow up.
And now she waits, checking them each night before she leaves the property, hoping to see the start of a bloom. She’s practicing patience, a skill she never had the time for before she got sent down. It’s kind of like swimming. She couldn’t do that until one of the boys she called a foster brother threw her down a riverbed and into the water.
It’s still a war to wage each day. That anger still simmers under the surface. But the plants dampen it enough. Getting her hands deep into the soil, keeping them busy. It keeps her mind busy, too, and her head clear. No room for anger. No room for regret. No room for anything but growing something from nothing.
Hannah helps. Charlotte’s appreciative smiles help. Dominic’s passing waves and Flora and Miles, even, help. It makes her feel more at peace, the in and the out of it. She wasn’t sure she would find that once she got out. But here in Bly, tucked into the countryside feeling further away from her old life than she ever had, she has it again.
Peace . For once in her life.
She likes Owen, she thinks.
He’s funny, even if she already knows she shouldn’t tell him that. He has an easy smile. A kind of smile that tells her he never had to fight for his last meal or a goodnight kiss. A kind of smile she wishes she could have.
She doesn’t hold it against him, though. She’s not sure she could. He’s too light, too sunny. He reminds her of coreopsis flowers, bright yellow and always cheerful. She’s seen pictures of it in the books she keeps on her kitchenette table. The petals look soft, but sturdy. Like Owen , she thinks.
“Well, what do we think?” he asks her, leaning forward in anticipation.
Jamie takes a long sip of water, holding it in her mouth before she swallows. She waits until Owen’s smile starts to fade before she rolls her eyes and pushes the plate back across the table at him. “Yeah, it’s alright.”
“Alright.” Owen sinks back into his seat, turning to Hannah. “She said it was alright .”
“It was lovely,” Hannah assures him. She puts her fork down on the plate delicately and pushes it away from. “Though…”
Owen narrows his eyes. “Though?”
“Well, I suppose I liked the last one better.” Hannah smiles wider when Owen’s shoulders sag. “It was lovely,” she repeats. She rests her hand on his arm, squeezing softly.
Jamie watches the way Owen looks down at it and the soft flush of his cheeks. Hannah doesn’t notice. She never does. But Jamie notices. She picks up on it. Not hard to, actually. Not when Owen looks at Hannah the way he does.
“Heathens, both of you.” Owen stands and picks up the plates, depositing them into the sink for later. Jamie thinks about offering to do them but she knows Owen enjoys the constant work of it.
He thrives here, she can tell. She’s not sure about his life before Bly. She knows he was a sous chef, in Paris, but she can’t picture him in a stuffy white jacket with a tall white hat on his head, following orders. He seems like the large, quiet halls and this cavernous kitchen fit him better. She wonders if he feels the same way she does, out here. She knows he misses Paris, though. So maybe he does and maybe he doesn’t.
Jamie turns as a flash of something darts past her, colliding with Owen’s legs. He steadies himself against the counter, laughing as Flora turns her head up to look at him. Miles comes in behind her, slower but smiling all the same. Hannah is up from her seat immediately, rounding the table to get to Flora, but stops when Owen lifts Flora up and sits her down on the long table where Owen prepares ingredients.
“Well, hello Ms. Flora.”
Flora giggles the way she always does when Owen calls her that. “Hello, Owen.”
Miles slides closer, hovering just outside of Jamie’s reach. She rolls her eyes affectionately and rests a hand on his shoulder, pulling him into her side. He stumbles a little but grins up at her when he finds his feet.
She likes Miles. He’s got an air about him. He’s always smiling, always sharing a look with her like they have a joke they’re sharing. But there’s a quiet to him that Jamie finds comfortable. She’s taken to letting him tag along as she tends to the garden, telling him about roses and penstemon. He listens attentively as she explains what they are, why they grew, and what they mean. She explains their importance and he seems to drink it in. She likes that about him.
“Jamie,” Flora says impatiently.
Jamie blinks. “Yes, Miss?”
Flora’s smile is blinding. “Have you picked me any roses today?”
“Oh, of course.” Jamie turns back to the table and picks a single pink rose from the bunch she pruned on the table, holding it out to her. “Per your request.”
Flora holds it to her chest carefully. “Did you pick one for Miles?”
“Well, Master Miles didn’t ask for a flower, but,” she says over Flora’s protest. “I am in need of an extra hand with the weeds today.”
Mile laughs and shakes his head. “I don’t want to pick weeds.”
Jamie gives a heavy sigh, biting back her smile. “See? Ungrateful little brats.”
Flora giggles again and Miles grins widely.
“Come along, children.” Hannah lifts Flora off the counter. “Let’s wash up before dinner.”
“Did you make cake?” Flora asks when her feet are on the floor.
Miles’s eyes widen. “Cake!”
Owen grins. “There might be a cake in your future. Sadly, Mrs. Grose doesn’t like it.”
Hannah raises a hand like she’s going to swat him but looks at the children, holding it close to her chest inside. “I never said such a thing. Infuriating man,” she murmurs just loud enough for Jamie to hear. Jamie watches a secret smile come and go as quickly as she blinks. She curls her hands around Flora’s shoulders, gently guiding her out of the kitchen and down the hallway. Miles lingers for a minute longer before he follows, dragging his feet. Washing up is his least favorite thing.
Jamie leans her hip against the counter top, watching them leave. She can see Owen out of the corner of her eye doing the same. She turns back to him before he looks away, watching his face curiously. She knows a little bit of his story. Hannah hasn’t told her much and she hasn’t asked of him. She knows the importance of letting people in when you want to.
It’s easier, now, to do that. Charlotte and the kids, Hannah, and Dominic, to an extent, have taught her that. She has room to breathe here. Room to grow. She’s different now, she knows it. She feels lighter, somehow. Her past is just that - the past . Charlotte knows the things she’s found, Hannah knows the things Jamie has said. But for the first time in her life, she decides what to give to people and what to hold back. She’s not known here. Not her dad or mum’s daughter. Not Denny’s sister. Not Mikey’s failure.
She’s the gardener. She’s Jamie.
That’s the only person she has to be.
“Go on, then.” She turns to Owen. He nods encouragingly. “Tell me what you didn’t like about the cake.”
She smiles. “Honestly, it was great. Best cake I’ve ever had.”
He narrows his eyes. “You said that about the last one.”
“Meant it, too.” She lifts up the bowl that had the batter in it and swipes a finger through it, licking it off. “Might do with a bit more strawberry, though.”
He considers it. “Not lemon.”
She shakes her head. “Strawberry. Trust me.” She takes another lick of batter, just for good measure, and flashes him a quick smile. “Like it here?”
Owen smiles widely. “Feels like a dream, if I’m honest. This big kitchen, all to myself? A dream, really,” he repeats.
“Minus the kids,” she says, a challenge in her voice.
He doesn’t back down from it. “Well, the little ones aren’t a bother. This one, though, a gardener. Bit of trouble, isn’t she?”
Something flutters in her chest for a moment. But he’s kidding. Smiling ear to ear, laughter in his eyes. It settles the roar building in her ears and she smiles back at him.
“Cake’ll settle that problem,” she tells him. He nods like he’s tucking that information for later. “Anyway, what’s for dinner? Only, I’m famished.”
“Working hard in that garden of yours.” He starts cleaning up around her, stacking dishes and putting them in the sink to be washed. She watches him, finding a measure of calm in his movements. She feels the same watching Hannah work around her. She soaks it in. “They’re lovely, though. The flowers.”
She swells with pride. “Thanks.”
Jamie-years-ago would have taken the compliment and twisted it, burying it away to take out later and examine. Jamie-years-ago would have brushed it off and tried to look for the insult under the shiny words. Jamie-now lets the feeling of it buoy her through the day. Jamie-now revels in it. She’s done a good job. People recognize it. That’s what that feeling is.
Flora comes back into the kitchen, a floral soapy smell coming with her. She grabs for Jamie’s hand, twirling in a circle that Jamie can’t help but follow, even as she pretends like she’s grumpy over it. Flora giggles and comes to a stop, holding Jamie’s hands palm
“What’s this?” Flora asks, pushing back the sleeve of Jamie’s shirt.
Jamie lets go of one of Flora’s hands and tries to push her sleeve back down but Flora has a grip on it, holding her hand closer for inspection. Jamie looks at what she’s seeing, the thumbprint pressed to the inside of her wrist, soft black lines swirling in a circle.
“Is this your soulmark?”
Hannah reaches for Flora now. “Flora, dear, we don’t ask people those questions.”
Flora looks up, confused. “Why not?”
“They’re special, see.” Hannah gently pulls Flora away, patting her shoulder gently as she looks apologetically at Jamie. “And not everyone wants to show theirs to other people.”
“Like a secret,” Flora says.
Hannah pushes some of Flora’s hair aside. “Like a secret.” She mouths I’m sorry at Jamie as she leads Flora out of the kitchen again.
Jamie pulls her sleeve back down over her hand, feeling self-concious all of the sudden. She’s not one for secrets, no, but there are things that are just hers. Moonflowers and this. This one thing. It belongs to herself and no one else. Well , she thinks. It belongs to just one someone else.
“Mine’s here,” Owen offers, turning and pulling down the collar of his shirt. There’s a print in the skin just under the line of his hair. “My mum always said it was an odd spot.”
She sees the opening he’s giving her and she’s grateful, but still feels off-balance. She shoves her hand into the pocket of her coveralls and gives him a tight smile. “Don’t believe in it much,” she admits.
He frowns. “No?”
Jamie shakes her head. “Not much in the way of options out here, is there?” She laughs a little, the sound more bitter than she’d be willing to admit. “No, soulmates aren’t for me."
Owen sighs. “My mum and dad, they were it.”
“Glad for it.” She cocks her head towards the hallway. “Better get back to it. Flowers won’t tend themselves.” She spins on her heel and slides out of the kitchen down the hall towards the front hall.
“Don’t give up hope,” he calls after her. “Might come when you least expect it!”
The funeral is big. Bigger and stuffier than she thought it would be. She knew Lady and Lord Wingrave were well liked in their social circle. They had friends in London, Charlotte’s family, Dominic’s work associates.
Henry stands stiffly through it all, his face pinched as people swirl around him. Miles spends the whole of it tucked into Hannah’s side, Flora in between Owen and Jamie, holding each of their hands. She keeps moving her fingers over Jamie’s soulmark in a loose rhythm that Jamie feels her heart matching.
“Awful,” she hears from a pew behind her. “And those children, so young.”
Jamie turns her head to look back over shoulder, eyes narrowed as they settle on a woman in a large hat. She has the decency to look embarrassed to have spoken so loud when she notices Jamie glaring at her.
She’s not wrong, though. These poor children , she thinks. So young. Flora is hardly six, Miles only eight. The light has vanished from his eyes now, leaving behind some blank. Flora has been lingering, her voice barely loud enough to be heard over the church bells ringing above them. Jamie can’t go more than a step without Flora at her side, gripping her hand or the hem of her shirt. Miles follows behind them, drifting like he’s not sure of how to take another step.
It is awful. It feels unfair. Dominic and Charlotte were good people. They deserved a whole lifetime together, with their children. They deserved more summers at Bly, more time spent together. They didn’t deserve this. This sham of a funeral with people who didn’t know them, didn’t know the kids, and these empty boxes.
“No bodies,” Henry had managed when Hannah got a few words out of him. “There wasn’t…” He took a shuddering breath, the mask on his face slipping for a moment before he pulled it back on. “I’ll need to make arrangements. For the children and the service and-”
“We’ll deal with the children,” Hannah told him. She looked back at Owen and Jamie when she said it. “We’ll take care of them.”
“Course we will,” Jamie chimed in. Owen had nodded firmly beside her. “We’d be happy to.”
Henry had deflated them, sagging with something like relief. “Thank you,” he managed.
They hadn’t left the kids alone since. She and Owen took turns spending the night at the Manor. She tended to the kids the way she tended to her flowers, coaxing them up out of their rooms and into the kitchen to eat, to dress, to move through their day and get to the next one. Miles grew distant but Flora pulled closer, winding herself into Jamie whenever she was near.
Jamie comes back to herself, standing in a large church packed in alongside people she doesn’t know, wondering how she’s going to help these kids get from one minute to the next. Her eyes roam the church, taking in the large, ornate statues. It feels odd to look at statues without green moss crawling up the side of them. It feels odd to be in a church. One of her foster mothers wanted her to go but she begged off each time. No wonder I didn’t stay long , she thinks.
Flora sniffles and Jamie drops to her seat, curling her arm around Flora’s shoulders. Flora turns into her, face pressed to Jamie’s neck, and lets loose a single sob. People around them coo but Jamie ignores them, lifting Flora up onto her hip and holding her close. She meets Owen’s eyes over Flora’s head and nods towards the aisle. He slips out of the pew and she follows after him, down the long stretch of marble to the back of the church as Owen sits down next to Hannah. Flora clings tight to her the entire walk. Jamie ignores the stares and the whispers and keeps moving until they’re out in the large front hall with the high ceilings and the bright fountain.
Flora hiccups into her neck for a few minutes. Jamie sways in place, humming something nonsensical, a melody she knew when she was younger. Flora’s cries become softer and softer until she’s humming along, just a second behind Jamie. She leans away from Jamie after a few minutes, eyes red and cheeks wet.
“There you go, love,” Jamie says softly. She leans in, their foreheads touching like she’s telling Flora a secret. “Alright?”
“I want mummy.”
Jamie’s heart breaks. “I know you do. I know.” She presses a firm kiss to Flora’s temple.
Flora puts her head down on Jamie’s shoulder, quiet for another minute, her breathing slow and steady. Jamie thinks she might be falling asleep when she sits up and says Jamie’s name softly.
“Are these flowers from home?” Flora asks.
Jamie turns to see what Flora is looking at. They are flowers from Bly. Jamie and Owen carted them into the city early in the morning, filling vases the church provided to them with bright, colorful bunches of Bly-grown flowers.
“I’ll do the flowers,” she told Henry in a low voice as she walked him to his car.
He looked at her then, maybe for the first time since he arrived at the manor. “I couldn’t ask you to-”
“You didn’t.” She reached for his car door, opening it for him. “I’ll do the flowers. Mrs. Wingrave had some favorites. I’ll… I’ll do it right.”
Henry nodded stiffly. “Yes,” he said, his voice softer than she expected it to be. “Yes, I think she’d like that very much.”
Flora looks at them now, reaching out to touch one of the petals of the delphinium. Remembrance of a loved one , she told Hannah years ago. Charlotte had liked the splash of color against the dark walls of the manor. She had told Jamie as such every time Jamie put them out. In the summer months, when the Wingraves were around through the weeks instead of just the winter, she made a point to put them out as much as possible.
“Your mum loved these,” Jamie hears herself saying. “She told me they were some of her favorites.”
“She liked the pretty blue flowers,” Flora whispers back.
Jamie nods, bouncing Flora slightly in her arms. “She looked very good in blue. Very stately.”
“Stately.” Flora tries the word out in her mouth. “I don’t know what that word means.”
“It means she was a very fancy woman. Like you.” Jamie smiles and kisses Flora’s temple again. “Come on now. Shall we go back inside? Or wait out here for Miles and your uncle.”
“I think I’d like to wait, please,” Flora says.
“Course.” Jamie lifts Flora a little higher on her hip and turns, nodding towards a spray of canna lilies in a tall vase by the entrance. “Did I tell you about those lilies?”
Flora shakes her head.
“Well, they mean beauty.”
“Like mummy,” Flora sys quietly.
“Like your mum,” Jamie agrees. She nods towards the next bunch and asks the same question.
She stays outside with Flora until the precession comes and then she passes Flora off to Henry, fading back against the swell of people with Owen and Hannah at her sides. Hannah grips her hand and Jamie turns, finding her eyes just as red as Flora’s.
She decides, then. She’ll grow delphinium every year, just under the parapet where Charlotte loved to sit in the summers, and she’ll help grow these kids alongside Hannah and Owen, just the way she thinks Charlotte would have wanted them to.
Flora is a bundle of energy, bouncing against the walls side to side, exhausting herself to the point where she has to sit down just to get back up again.
“At this rate, she’ll be asleep before the woman even gets here,” Hannah murmurs, watching Flora dance around the small space they’ve turned into a school room.
Jamie snorts. “Didn’t think she slept much these days.”
“Not since Henry called to tell them about her coming.”
“What’s her name again?”
Hannah seems to think for a minute before lifting a finger into the air. “Ms. Jessel. Rebecca, if I remember correctly.”
“Wouldn’t it be bad manners to forget.” Jamie grins when Hannah gives her a mocking shake of her head. “Anyway, when she’s getting here?”
Hannah seems to bite her tongue. “Peter was driving her up.”
Peter Quint . The name leaves a bad taste in her mouth. She nearly spits. There’s something about that man, something slimy like a garden snake in the wet grass. She can’t quite put her finger on him, can’t quite a grip. But it’s there, simmering under that smile that’s probably meant to be charming. She knows about things that simmer. She knows how they boil over eventually.
Jamie turns her attention back to Flora. The little girl is swinging in circles around the tables now, singing a song Jamie doesn’t know the words to. She wonders where Miles is. He’s been quieter, lately. Even more so since his parents died. There’s flickers of him here and there but they’re like summer showers, here and gone in a matter of minutes. He follows her around some mornings but he sticks to the edges of things, listening to her talk to the window about rain seasons and optimal sunlight.
Flora presses her face to one of the wide windows and squeals unlike Jamie has ever heard her sound before. “She’s here!” She darts around the two of them standing in the doorway and down the hall towards the front door. Miles is already racing down the stairs, big heavy footsteps as he runs.
“Mind your shoes,” Hannah calls as she picks up her pace to chase after them.
Jamie snorts softly and puts her hands in pockets, strolling out after them and meeting Owen at the door. He winks at her as they get outside. It’s overcast today, gray the way London was. She shivers even in her long shirt. She hates the gray.
Peter Quint stops the car in front of them. She thinks she might hate him too.
Flora rushes to the car as soon as it’s turned off, hands curling around the door as the window comes down.
“Why, hello there,” Jamie hears. “What a gorgeous flower you are. What’s your name?”
Owen elbows her a little. She turns her heel and presses down on his toes.
“I’m Flora. That means flower . In Latin.”
There’s a soft laugh. “Of course it does.”
Miles gets closer to the window, curiosity getting the better of him. Jamie can see it in the pitch of his body, in the way he seems to be leaning into the car.
“And you must be Miles.”
“Hi there.” He smiles at Flora. “Let me guess, you ought to be our very own Mary Poppins.”
Mary Poppins . Jamie fights a smile at the glimmer of the real Miles. Owen makes a small noise that sounds like he’s swallowed a laugh and Jamie smirks at him.
The door opens and a woman steps out. Owen makes a soft noise in the back of his throat and Jamie nearly echoes it. Rebecca Jessel is more than Jamie was expecting, if she’s honest. She had her money on someone older, someone who has raised a few kids of her own before she came to work with two more. But Rebecca looks young, just as young as Jamie, and her smile is wide and bright.
Hannah steps forward first, hands extended. Jamie hears her introducing herself, hears her pointing to Owen and feels Owen stepping forward to greet her.
Hannah points at her. “And our-”
“Jamie,” she interrupts, holding out a hand. Rebecca takes it and holds onto it for a minute, smiling widely. “Nice to meet you.”
Flora moves in, taking Rebecca by the hand and tugging her into the house. Rebecca laughs, looking back over her shoulder at Hannah as they disappear from sight.
“Bit starstruck, are we?”
Jamie turns to Owen, scowling. “Prat.”
He grins widely and side steps the arm she swings in his direction. “Come on. Won’t get much done today. Flora’ll be under everyone’s feet for the rest of the day showing her around. They’ll be in your flower beds before you know it.”
“Poor Rebecca,” Jamie mumbles. “She’ll never get out of here alive.”
Jamie takes quiet steps into the kitchen, her cold tea cup in her hand. She’ll just grab a quick brew and then get back out to the greenhouse. There’s a pot of penstemons she wants to transplant into an open flower bed she just tilled. Easy in and easy out of the kitchen. Owen’s gone home to see his mum before coming back for dinner. Flora and Miles are off with Rebecca. Hannah is in the small church, lighting her candles.
Only, she slips into the kitchen and there’s Rebecca sitting at the table, head in her arms. The kettle is still blowing steam, the cup in front of Rebecca doing the same. Jamie hesitates. She’s only a few measures away from the kettle. She might be able to slip in and get some tea before Rebecca even looks up. She sighs. She needs milk for her tea and opening the refrigerator is sure to disrupt whatever Rebecca is doing alone in the kitchen.
“Sorry,” she finally decides on, announcing herself.
Rebecca sits up suddenly, her spine pulled straight.
“Just getting something to drink,” Jamie continues, eyes on the kettle as she moves towards it. “Don’t mind me, yeah?”
Rebecca sighs. Out of the corner of her eyes, Jamie can see her slump lower in her seat. It makes Jamie pause, her grip tightening on her cup. She could just as easily get her brew and be on her way. The penstemons , she thinks. But even from here she can see the shine in Rebecca’s eyes. While Jamie would have once continued on her way, kept her head down and her business to herself, she’s grown. She’s found people to call family and a place to call a home. And Jamie-now doesn’t like the feeling that sits in her chest every time she turns away from someone she considers a friend. She takes a deep breath in and turns, putting her cup down and a smile on her face.
Rebecca gives a soft, bitter laugh. “We don’t need to do this, Jamie.”
Jamie hesitates. “Do what?”
Rebecca turns to face her now. “Pretend like you care about what’s wrong.”
That feeling in her chest is there now. She abandons the throught of tea and rounds the counter, coming to stand behind the chair across from Rebecca. “I do care.”
“I know what you all think of me.”
Jamie pulls the chair out, dropping down into it. “And what is it that you think we all think of you?”
“That I'm a foolish child for believing Peter may have loved me.” Rebecsa’s eyes widen like it’s the first time she’s said something like that out loud. “You certainly don’t make your feelings about him hidden.”
“Yeah, my feelings on him .” Jamie leans across the table a little. “But my feelings on you have nothing to do with my feelings on him.”
Rebecca hesitates at that. “He didn’t leave me,” she finally says.
“Rebecca,” Jamie starts.
“He couldn’t have. We were going to leave. Together.” She leans a little closer to Jamie, her eyes a little wild. “He wouldn’t have left me behind.” She draws in a sharp breath. “And I’m not foolish.”
Jamie thinks for a minute, rolling over some words in her mind before she sighs and reaches across the table. She takes Rebecca’s hands in her own, holding them lightly. “Rebecca. Rebecca,” she says again over Rebecca opening her mouth. “He’s a twat. You’re worth a million of him. And if he did- If he did leave with you, well, you’re better off for it.”
Rebecca gives a watery laugh. She turns Jamie’s hands over, pointing at the mark on her inner wrist. “And what about that?”
Jamie’s hand twitches in Rebecca’s. “What about it?”
“I know how you hide it,” Rebecca says. “How you wear those shirts with big sleeves to keep it out of sight. How when Flora starts talking about the romance of it all , you never let her ask about yours.”
“It’s my business,” Jamie says roughly.
Rebecca continues to lean forward. “Well Peter? He’s not afraid to talk about his. He’s not afraid of having a soulmate. And he told me, I’m his. See? He wouldn’t leave. He wouldn’t just… leave .”
Jamie lets herself relax in Rebecca’s hold. “Rebecca,” she says as gently as she can.
This is not a Rebecca she knows much about. There’s a look in her eyes. Wild confusion, maybe. Something a little untamed. Something she’s sure Rebecca can’t even understand. But she knows where the feeling stems from, that loss of control of something you trusted. Something you put your everything into. Someone . Jamie knows that feeling well. It’s rusty, sure, from years of staying put and planting roots and having something constant. But there are still some long nights where she remembers holding herself tight, keeping herself away from other people. Being at Bly gave her the room to finally be at peace.
It looks like Rebecca’s peace came and went with Peter fucking Quint.
“Is he yours?” she asks after a minute.
She sees Rebecca hesitate and she knows he isn’t.
“I reckon,” she goes on. “That this hurts. It hurts a lot. But the thing about men like him is-”
Rebecca pulls her hands away. “You and Hannah. Neither of you understand him. Or us.”
“Okay,” Jamie says quickly, softly.
Rebecca sighs softly. “You’ll know, Jamie.” She presses her thumb into Jamie’s wrist, right over the print. “When it happens, you’ll know. And everything will change for you.” She lets go of Jamie’s hands and slides backward into her seat. She picks up her cup, curling her hands around the ceramic. “Peter says it sets your whole world on fire.”
Jamie’s mouth twitches into a humorless smile. “For what it’s worth, I think you’re better than he is.” She stands, pushing her chair back in. She squeezes the high back of it under her hands. “And that’s my feelings on you.”
She doesn’t pick up her tea cup, all thoughts of a brew completely gone from her mind as she leaves the kitchen, heading back to the greenhouse. She goes by Hannah, sweeping the stairs. She passes Flora on her way, playing with some dolls on the floor in the parlor. She slips past Miles, sitting on the planters just outside the door with a lighter in his hand, turning it over and over again. He pockets it when he sees her but she doesn’t stop to chastise him. He’s smart enough to know not to light it. She moves by them all with only the greenhouse in mind.
Because if she lets herself think of anything, lets herself think of the job Peter Quint did on Rebecca Jessel, well. She might get that old rifle she keeps for rats and go hunting for another one.
Hannah paces back and forth in the grand front hallway. Jamie has started to lose track of the number of times she’s wrung her hands as she goes. Flora and Miles sit on the bottom of the stairs, their arms wrapped around their knees. Miles looks blank, eyes wide and staring off at something Jamie can’t track. Flora is shaken. Has been for days. Since...
“Hannah,” she finally snaps.
Hannah jumps a bit, her hand covering her mouth. She shakes her head slightly. “Oh. Oh, I’m sorry.”
Jamie softens. She looks back at the kids. “S’fine. Just, stay still, would ya?”
Hannah nods. She looks back at the kids and nods once more. “Yes. Yes, I’m sorry.”
Jamie follows her gaze. Miles has turned to them, eyes still a blank void. He looks at them for a moment before he turns away. “Poor kids,” she hears herself say.
“First their parents, then…” Hannah moves closer to her until their shoulders brush. “How’re you?”
“What?” Jamie nods. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m alright.”
Hannah puts her hand on Jamie’s shoulder. “You haven’t-”
The wide doors open and Owen comes through them with a sigh. Hannah takes an unconscious step towards him. Jamie moves with her, shielding the kids with her body. It’s no matter, Miles doesn’t look up. Flora looks like she’s far away. It makes Jamie’s heart ache. The easy confidence Flora gained after her parents died, gone in a breath. The light in Miles’ eyes, the one that dimmed after Peter left is completely dark now.
“Henry had me make arrangements but,” Owen lowers his voice. “He’s not coming.”
Jamie works her jaw angrily. “Bloody fucking-”
“Jamie,” Hannah says sharply. She takes a slow, steadying breath. “Surely, she had family.”
Owen shakes his head. “He said she hadn’t listed any on her application to the agency.” He takes his glasses off and wipes his hand down his face. “There’ll be a funeral, but…” He looks past them to the children. “Do we put them through that?”
“Seems like a question for their fucking uncle,” Jamie mutters. She ignores Hannah’s pointed look. “Honestly, who’re we to decide if we bring children to a funeral.” She swears again and pushes her hair out of her eyes. “A funeral .”
Hannah seems to straighten out her spine, standing tall. “We’ll do it. In our way, of course. But, we’ll do it.” She puncutates it with a nod. “Now.”
Jamie frowns. “Now?”
“Now,” Owen repeats. He claps his large hands together. Miles looks up at that, Flora a minute later. He smiles kindly at them. “What do you say, kids? Go down to the gardens, say our goodbyes to Ms. Jessel?”
Jamie wants to say no. She’s not ready to do this, not today. She looks down at herself. Not in a pair of dungarees and the long-sleeve plaid shirt Rebecca used to tease her about. She wants time to go home, to that little apartment above the pub, and put on something Rebecca would have wanted her to wear. Something a little more classy than her best gardening boots.
But Flora seems to light up, even just the slightest, at the idea. And Miles is already standing. Hannah is already pulling their coats down from the rack, passing one off to Owen. Jamie stands there in the middle of them, wishing for time to slow down for a minute but unable to ask for it.
It’s been like that, the last few days. All of her words, robbed of her from the moment she saw Rebecca in that lake. She can speak. She can think. But everything feels a little stuck in the back of her throat like the scream she couldn’t let out. Not there. Not in front of Flora. And she tried, at night in her single bed staring up at the ceiling, but the scream wouldn’t come then, either. It’s just been stuck, like peanut butter she can’t quite get down.
But the kids are putting on their coats and they’re taking Jamie’s hands and they’re walking down through the statue garden to a small freshly-planted plot of land. Jamie isn’t quite done with it yet, not the way she wants to be, but everyone else says nice, kind things about it. Then nice, kind things about Rebecca.
“She was my most favorite teacher,” Flora says in a small voice. Jamie feels her hand wrap around Flora’s shoulders, pulling her close.
Miles goes next, his voice so soft that Jamie almost misses it. “I liked her very much.”
Hannah bows her head, fingers moving over that cross around her neck as she breathes out words none of them can hear. When she looks up, her blinks back some tears and nods silently.
“To Becca,” Owen says.
Jamie swallows hard against the lump in her throat. She looks at the spray of crocuses and daisies, bright against the perpetual gray sky they’ve had for days. She looks at their cheerful colors and tries to think of the last time Rebecca truly looked happy. Was it when she first came to Bly? Was it before Peter?
And then it comes back to her, that picture of Rebecca floating in that godforsaken lake. How unhappy she must have been. How none of them could see her before that. How Flora had to be the one to see her first. Jamie drank that first night to get Rebecca’s face to go away, but Flora didn’t have that luxury. And it makes Jamie angry. Angry at herself for not getting there before Flora. Angry at Rebecca for what she did. Angry at Peter Quint for everything .
She thinks about Rebecca, robbed of the rest of her life. Robbed of finding the person she was going to spend the rest of her life, saddled with Peter Quint instead. She thinks about Rebecca pressing her finger into the thumbprint on Jamie’s wrist and telling her it’ll set her world on fire.
He set yours on fire , she thinks, picturing Rebecca’s face. He set yours and then he left you to burn by yourself .
Flora lifts her head up to look at Jamie. Jamie puts on a smile and touches the tip of Flora’s nose.
“To Rebecca,” she says. “The best of us.”
They stand there until the rain starts, soft and drizzling at first. The kind of rain she loves, that sits gently on the petals of her flowers and slowly seeps into the grass. But the drizzle turns to a downpour in a single breath, hard rain splashing into the dirt and off their faces. She scoops Flora up in her arms and takes off for the door, listening to Owen plead with Miles to go faster. She gets to the door before the rest of them, Flora’s face wet against her cheek.
“Is Ms. Jessel crying?” Flora asks in that same small voice.
Jamie chances a look up at the sky and the angry clouds forming above them. “Must be,” she says after a minute. “Must miss you as much as you miss her.”
Flora leans into her, arms tight around Jamie’s neck. “I miss her very much.”
Jamie watches the rain come down on her flowers, crushing some of the more delicate petals under its weight, and she thinks that it could rain all day, could wash away her flowers, but it would never fill that lake up enough to bring Rebecca Jessel back to the surface.
Owen aims a large chef’s knife at her when she reaches for a strawberry. She picks it up with nimble fingers and pops it into her mouth before he can reach her, dancing away with a smile on her face. He scowls and goes back to cutting the stems off the pile in front of him, putting them in a small bowl to the side. She knows he’s making dessert, something light and airy for the summer.
“There’s another one coming,” he says after a few minutes.
She looks up from the romance novel she found in his cupboard, feet propped up on the table. “What’s that, then?”
Owen puts down his knife, turning to her. “Henry called me. Asked me to pick up a young woman in London. A new au pair.”
Jamie sits up a little straighter. “Another one?” She sinks back into her seat, the novel falling into her lap. “Why-”
“With Miles home, he must want them to keep up with their studies.” Owen shrugs and picks up his knife again. “He said she’s an American.”
Jamie snorts. “Americans.” She tries to find her place again but puts the book down. “So, is Master Wingrave going to bless us with his presence, then?” She sighs at Owen’s look. “Of course. How rude of us to ask that he come visit his only living relatives.”
“And catch you with your feet up?”
Jamie drops her feet to the floor at the sound of Hannah’s voice.
Hannah gives her a small smile. “The children have gotten into the statue garden, I’m afraid. There are some very large puddles they seemed to rather enjoy.”
Jamie sighs. She’ll have to fill the holes when the ground dries up. They’ve been finding all the best spots for puddles, the children. Tracking mud through the house, if what Hannah says is true. Jamie is almost grateful for it. Chasing holes around the property is a lot like trying to climb a greased pole and here they are, finding them for her.
“So, when is the American going to be here?” she asks.
Hannah rolls her eyes. “Honestly, we haven’t even met the girl. Maybe she’s one of those nice Americans. Polite and less of a…”
“Sorry son of a-”
“ Brute ,” Hannah finishes with a pointed look.
“Her name is Dani,” Owen offers.
Jamie makes a face. “Dani? What’s that short for?”
“Well, James , Dani is-”
“Children,” Hannah scolds, looking between the two of them. She touches Owen’s arm unconsciously, like she’s not even aware she’s doing it. Jamie watches her fingers flutter above his shirt sleeve and then drift back down again. “Did Henry say when she would be here? I think I’ve forgotten.”
“Hannah Grose, forgetful.” Owen holds his hand over his heart. “How I never thought I’d live to see the day.”
“Honestly,” Hannah heaves. “The two of you are worse than the actual children.” She points a finger in Jamie’s direction. “Don’t you have something to be doing?”
“Garden can tend itself for a day, I reckon. I was planning on taking the day off,” she admits. “But imagine if I hadn’t and I came back tomorrow to find an American was living here.” She grins when Hannah rolls her eyes, exasperated.
“Might be nice,” Hannah says quietly. “To have someone here. Someone new. Someone who doesn’t…”
Doesn’t know the people that haunt these halls, Jamie thinks to herself. Someone who doesn’t know the people they’ve lost or the holes in each of them now.
Owen nods like he heard her, meeting her eyes. She told him, once when she was well and drunk, about the feeling that settled in the pit of her stomach when she saw Rebecca. She told him, once, and then vowed to never speak of it again. But it made things different for them after that. A shared experience, he told her. He would be her secret keeper.
“Well, we’ll make Dani feel welcome, won’t we,” Owen says. He smiles at Hannah. “At least, as welcome as we can.” He goes back to cutting the strawberries and ignoring when Jamie steals another one. “Do the kids know?”
“Henry had me tell them.” Hannah sighs. “I really wish he would call to speak to them. Miles is asking, Flora always wants to say hello.”
Jamie scoffs. If there’s a list of people she’d like a word with these days, Henry Wingrave comes just behind Peter Quint. How he can live hours away while his niece and nephew deal with unsurmountable loss and just not visit them, or send a letter, or get on the phone, is beyond Jamie. It infuriates her, really. Anger is better. Anger is easier. Because the alternative is grief. And she buried that when they said their goodbyes to Rebecca.
Hannah gives her a look that says hush and Jamie sinks back into her seat, thumbing through her novel again. She lets Owen and Hannah talk around her as she reads, eyes going over the words with mild disgust. It’s always the same. Man meets woman, woman falls helpless to some far-fetched beast, man saves woman, man and woman run off to spend the rest of their days quietly away from the beast. Sometimes the beast is another man or a loveless marriage or the woman herself. But the ending is predictable. Jamie likes a little predictability some days.
But her eyes slide off the page and land on the small thumbprint beneath it. She can still feel Rebecca’s finger pressing into it if she thinks about it hard enough. She can close her eyes and imagine herself sitting across from Rebecca, trying to convince her that Peter Quint isn’t worth the money she’d spend on a one-way ticket to anywhere but Bly. It’ll set your world on fire , Rebecca had said.
If that’s what Rebecca meant, Jamie could do well without a soulmate.
“What time is she arriving?”
Jamie looks up at that.
“I’m picking her up mid-morning. But I’ll be back for dinner,” Owen rushes on. “Might have to make lunch on your own, if you can manage that.”
“We managed just fine before you, mate.” Jamie grins when Owen plays offended. “I can make my special.”
“I don’t even want to know what is,” Owen says before Jamie can tell him. “Please, don’t tell me. I’d fall over here, this instant. It would ruin poor Hannah’s cleaning schedule.”
Jamie sinks into the warmth and familiarity of their banter. She’s just gotten used to this new normal, of just being Hannah-and-Owen-and-Jamie-without-Rebecca. She’s just gotten back into feeling like she can make it through a day, through watering the plants and tending to the flowers, without stopping to catch her breath. She’s just gotten to a place where each day doesn’t feel like she’s in that lake alongside Rebecca and here comes Dani , an American, a new au pair.
Jamie doesn’t like change. She thrives on the steady hum of life. She does best with the day in and day out where each day is the same as the one before it. It’s her peace. Her quiet. She doesn’t like having to try and fight for that to stay. Someone new, someone she doesn’t know and someone she certainly won’t trust, makes her uneasy.
“You’ll be on your best behavior,” Hannah says pointedly.
“Yes, ma’am,” Jamie says, saluting her. She heaves a sigh and gets up, dropping the book back down on the counter. “Rubbish stuff, Owen. I can’t believe you read this.” She doesn’t wait for an answer, picking up one more strawberry and ducking under his arm. “Right, that’s me back to work. If Henry calls again, tell him I want a word, would you?”
She hears Hannah snort as she turns to leave the kitchen and Owen say something quiet between the two of them. The sound of them carries her out the front door and across the property. She checks over her shoulder as she disappears behind the greenhouse and down the small foot-worn path she’s created over the last few years. Down around the wild campion and the large oak trees until she gets to a small clearing.
To her moonflowers.
They’re more than a few weeks off from blooming yet, but the buds are soft and milkywhite. The leaves and vines are dark green and when there’s shade from the big trees above them, she almost loses them. But they’re here and they’re hers.
She wonders what Dot would think of them. If they’d live up to her expectations. They’ve exceeded her own, if she’s honest with herself. This is her third year growing them, her quiet secret in the woods, and each year they’ve grown easier than the last. Last year, she spent all night with them, watching them come to life as the sun went down, shimmering in her torch light. It was dewey in the morning and it settled on the petals like pearl drops and she thought, maybe her soulmate isn’t a person at all. Maybe it’s a flower.
“A new one,” she says to the flowers. “All the way from America, can you believe that?”
She’s not going to like this one. She’s not going to make friends. She’s going to do her job, stay close to Hannah and Owen and the kids, but she’s going to keep this new au pair at an arm’s length. It’s not worth the trouble. Not worth the hassle. Not worth finding another body in a lake.
She pauses, just outside the kitchen door. She can hear the kids going on about something, Hannah’s soft voice and Owen’s chuckle. There’s a different sound, a different voice, just soft enough that she can’t quite pick up on it. The American, surely. The new au pair. Rebecca, but not Rebecca.
Jamie takes a deep breath and clenches her hands into fists, feeling some loose dirt fall off them onto the floor. She’ll have to apologize to Hannah later, maybe even sweep it up herself. Maybe she’ll do it now, get herself out of going into the kitchen for something to eat. But her stomach makes a growling sound, softer at least than the one in the greenhouse, and she knows she needs something before she keels over right in the grand front hall.
So she takes a deep breath and squares her shoulders and steps around the corner into the kitchen.
She doesn’t look. She knows the new au pair is there. She could hear her. She can feel her, now, eyes following her as Jamie steps to the sink and runs the water. But she doesn’t look. Not fully. Not right away. Not when she’s still seeing Rebecca and not with this instant flare of something hot spreading from the tips of her fingers up through her wrist and into her elbow.
But she peeks, for just a second. Just a glance, barely a look. Barely long enough to commit anything to memory. And then away just as quickly. She leans into the sink and wets her hands and thinks Flora and Miles and not who is that woman ?
“So who decided it was a good idea to feed these wee gremlins?” she asks.
“We’re not gremlins!” Jamie grins. “We’re very good children,” Flora continues.
Miles hums his agreement as Jamie turns, leaning back against the sink, unconvinced. “Is that right? See, I’m not so sure.” She looks at Owen as he turns away from the stove. “Owen, what do you think?”
Owen catches her eyes, smiling quickly before turning to Miles and Flora. “Oh, it’s hard to say. I’m gonna have to get water on them to be sure.”
“Mhm,” Jamie agrees. “Like this?” She throws her hands out, droplets of water bursting from her fingertips and sprinkling Miles and Flora’s faces. She laughs when they pull back, mouths twisted in frowns, and sits down at the open seat, nodding her thanks when Owen puts a plate down in front of her.
“Was there somebody,” the woman starts.
Jamie looks up at that, looks this woman head on, and she stops. The woman - Dani , a voice reminds her - has her hair pulled back from her face, blue eyes darting between each of their faces as she speaks. The words don’t matter to Jamie. She can’t hear them. She can only look and look and feel herself frozen in time as Dani goes on. There’s something there, in her voice, maybe. Or her eyes. Something that pulls Jamie’s attention in and commands it. Something that tugs hard and keeps her in place. Something burning hot in her chest. Dani looks at her for a brief moment, her lips twitching in a confused smile, before she looks away.
“On the parapet,” Owen repeats. Jamie blinks.
“Yeah,” Dani says firmly.
“Can’t imagine,” Jamie says, words angled towards Dani, still not meeting her eyes.
“I’ve not been up there,” Owen says.
“Well, why would you?” Hannah asks. “Are you sure you saw someone up there?”
Jamie catches Flora looking at Miles and she knows it must be one of them, sneaking out onto the parapet on a dare, maybe. Or missing their parents. It’s not safe, though, not for small children, at least. She tries to catch Miles’ eye, to tell him I see you , but he doesn’t look her way.
“Absolutely,” Dani insists. “I waved. He didn’t wave back.”
Jamie pauses for a moment, eyes darting back to Dani. “We do get ramblers sometimes. People who wanna get a look at the gardens. They take liberties, but if one made it onto the parapet-”
Hannah shakes her head. “They can’t get up there. Not without going through the house.”
“The only way up there is through the old wing.” Owen turns to Miles and Flora. “And where don’t we go?”
“The old wing,” Miles and Flora say at the same time.
Hannah nods, sure of herself as she turns to Dani. “You must have imagined it, dear.”
But Jamie can tell Dani doesn’t think she did. She smiles politely at Hannah’s suggestion but when she turns back to her food, there’s a firm line in her jaw that Jamie notices. Dani’s eyes drift her way and Jamie looks down at her mash again, eating another spoonful. It feels the same for the rest of lunch. She looks up, Dani looks away. Dani looks over, Jamie looks down at her plate.
There’s something about this one , a part of her seems to say. What, Jamie doesn’t know. But it’s something. Enough of something that Jamie keeps looking when Dani looks away. Enough of something that Jamie keeps looking when she told herself she wasn’t going to this time. She wasn’t going to like this one. She wasn’t going to get attached.
She won’t mourn another loss.
So when Hannah tells the kids to go wash up and Dani stays in the kitchen talking, Jamie quietly excuses herself. She puts her plate in the deep sink with a nod to Owen and she slips out of the kitchen, headed towards the statue garden. She smiles to herself when Miles falls into step with her, walking in comfortable silence through the green grass. It’s long, due for a cut. She might do that now, if she feels like she’s up to the task.
“Well,” she finally says when they get to the greenhouse. She picks up a broom, sweeping some loose dirt into a pile. “Status report.”
Miles clasps his hands together in front of his body, swinging them back and forth. “She wasn’t even scared of a spider.”
“A spider.” Jamie whistles low.
“It was a big spider,” he says. He pushes his lower lip out in a pout. “I thought she’d be scared.”
“Hoped it, did you?” She grins. “An American, afraid of a big spider.”
Miles sighs heavily, poking a bag of soil with his shiny shoe. “I saw it in a movie once. And anyway, she looks like someone who would be afraid of a spider.”
Jamie hums thoughtfully. Dani does look like someone who might be afraid of a spider. But then Jamie thinks of that hard look on her face, that determination that she wasn’t wrong - someone had to be on the parapet - and she changes her thinking.
It’s no matter , she thinks in the same breath. Afraid of spiders, afraid of bogeymen. Afraid of her own shadow. I don’t care.
Miles picks up a small geranium starter, cradling it in his little hand. “Do you think Flora will like her more than Ms. Jessel?”
Jamie pauses, looking at him carefully. “I think Flora likes everyone,” she says after a minute. She looks at his face before she looks down at his hands.
His fist curls slowly around the packed dirt. “She won’t be Ms. Jessel, though, will she? She’s just an imposter.” His hand tightens.
“Hey,” she starts, reaching for him.
“An imposter ,” Miles says through clenched teeth. His hand closes around the seedling and squeezes, dirt spilling out from around his fingers.
“Oy!” she shouts, grabbing his hand. She pries his fingers away, the sprout dropping to the floor, crushed completely.
Mile stands still, staring at the ground. His hand goes slack in hers before it falls away, hitting his side with a soft thump. She’s panting too heavily to hear it, blood rushing in her ears as she stares at him like he has three heads.
“What’re you doing?”
Miles looks up at her, blinking a few times. “I don’t know…”
“You don’t know!” She takes a step back and swears. “What’re you thinking?” she all but shouts. A bird screams above them. “Miles, you can’t just-”
“I’m sorry,” he says. He looks up at her with wide eyes. “I’m not… I’m…”
Jamie takes a deep, shuddering breath, trying to rein her anger back in. It’s been ages since it’s burned in her like this. Since Peter, at least. That’s just like him, isn’t it, she thinks. Squeezing a plant to death in front of her. She runs a hand through her hair and then leans down to talk to Miles, keeping her voice low and calm. “Mate. You can’t just do that, alright? They’re plants. They’re living things . You can’t-” She takes another breath, feeling it cut through her body. “Listen, don’t do that again, yeah?”
He nods silently, eyes still welling.
“Alright,” she says, not believing the word. She stands up and nods towards the door, her chest heaving. “Go on.”
“Jamie,” he starts.
She doesn’t watch him go, turning to the small mess on the ground instead. She drops to her knees, picking up the seedling carefully and holding it in her palm. It’s gone. There’s no use in saving it. But she holds it for just another moment later. There’s a spot near the old church where she’s trying to fertilize so she can plant some rue for Hannah. She holds the seedling in her hand and cradles it as she walks the property towards the house.
She stops when she catches sight of lavender on the parapet. Distrust , she thinks. Lavender symbolizes distrust. But nothing about Dani, even as she stands on the parapet where she shouldn't be standing, attached to a room she shouldn’t be in, sends off any bells in Jamie’s head that she can’t be trusted.
Jamie looks away. No , she scolds herself. No getting attached. No wondering if she’s someone who can be trusted. No, no, no .
But she watches Dani lean over the parapet, digging up something from the packed dirt, and she feels something warm spread through her chest and into her hands, lingering at the tips of her fingers. Like a hot cup of tea on a cold winter night.
It’s a peculiar feeling. Nothing quite like she’s ever felt before, if she’s honest with herself. And she tries to be, honest. Tamara used to tell her that honesty is the best policy, even if it was a cliche. Honest to yourself more than anyone else, she would tell Jamie.
So Jamie stays as honest to herself as she can. And honestly, she’s not sure what to think about Dani the American au pair. Honestly, she knows she should stay far, far away with this woman.
But that feeling is there, just under the surface. And while Tamara told her to be honest, she never said anything about listening to yourself.
She sees Dani tear out of the house and she slows, paint buckets swinging in her hands as Dani rounds the planter and sinks back into the small shrub. Even from here, Jamie can hear her gasping for air and see her shoulders shaking. She watches the way Dani seems to fold into herself, curling out of view, and she sucks in a breath, holding it as she decides what to do.
She could keep going. Tile in the kitchen needs looking at. She doesn’t know Dani, not really. Not well enough to stop and talk her down from whatever this is.
But she can hear Tamara in her head - has been hearing more of her lately, unfortunately. And Tamara-in-her-head is reminding her of those first few weeks inside, when the walls felt like they were caving in and the world was the size of a pinhead. She sees herself in Dani, all ragged breaths and clawing hands, and when she gets closer, she slows to a stop.
“You alright?” She hears Dani suck in a sharp breath that makes her ribs ache with the thought. She puts down her cans and stands back up, her hands in her pockets. She can feel the cool air on her bare wrists and for a moment she hesitates. “Kids?” she finally asks. “Run you ragged.”
“Yeah,” she hears. Dani is still turned away from her, neck twisted at an angle that makes Jamie’s body ache.
Jamie licks her lips. “Well, people, really. All of ‘em.” She looks straight ahead, bouncing gently on the tips of her toes. “That’s why I like plants. Easy to get along with. And I find if I don’t like one, one looks at me kind of funny, I can always just, you know…” She makes a noise and drags her thumb across her neck.
Dani’s eyes dart back towards her.
“So, if it’s child-rearing advice you’re after, I’d just…” Dani laughs loudly and Jamie feels herself smile. “...Start there, maybe.” Her smile softens. “There we are. It’s not so bad, right?”
“Yeah,” Dani finally says. It sounds more like tears than words but Jamie still hears it in all the noise.
Jamie can’t stop herself now. She feels her mouth moving away from her and she’s helpless to keep up. “I cry three, maybe four times around here. Five, if I’m really being honest with myself.” She can see Dani look back at her again, just out of the corner of her eye. “How else do you think I keep all these fucking plants watered?” She meets Dani’s eyes fully now, leaning into her words. “With my endless well of deep, inconsolable tears. That’s how,” she says to Dani’s slow-blooming smile. “It’s what got me the job in the first place.”
Her arms are starting to run a little hot. She can feel sweat building at the back of her neck. But she rocks into it, hands still deep in her pockets. “Look, you’re doing great.” Jamie waits a moment until Dani glances back. “You’re doing great,” she says again.
It’s the first thing Dani Clayton has said directly to her. Thank you . A quick twitch of her lips and thank you .
No , her mind starts to shout. No . Because if she doesn’t recognize the small rush of heat over her skin, she recognizes the way her stomach turns over at the sight of a girl with a pretty smile thanking her for something. She smiles, pushing that down for later.
“Anytime,” she says softly. Dani exhales loud enough for Jamie to hear it, to feel it over her skin, and she nods to herself. “Right.” She picks up her cans, taking a measured step back. “Well, back to it, then. Chin up, Poppins.”
Poppins , she says. Says it easily, like she’s inhaling and exhaling the name with each step she takes.
It makes her think, just for a moment, about Rebecca arriving at Bly. Still smiling. Still excited. But then the thought of Rebecca is swallowed up by Dani’s slow smile. She can feel Dani’s eyes on her as she goes into the house, paint cans still swinging from her hands.
Tile in the kitchen needs looking at , she reminds herself. And then the shrubs need tending and the flowers need watering. She needs to keep going about her business and let Dani go about hers.
She needs to ignore that small flame burning in the center of her chest because nothing good comes from piles of ash.
The small flickering flame turns into an inferno, raging inside of her. Her flowers, her roses. The hours she put into growing them, coaxing them up from the soil with kind words and kind hands. Nothing about her feels kind now. Nothing feels safe. She can feel that anger pressing against the roof of her mouth and her hands crack when they clench into tight fists. She marches towards the flowers, what’s left of them, and crouches down on shaking legs, picking one up with even shakier hands.
“Little shit ,” she all but hisses.
She can feel Dani standing behind her, hovering over her shoulder. She’s too angry to care. Too angry to feel like she’s being watched. That feeling has long since faded, the feeling that she needs constant supervision. And a part of her feels like a hamster in a wheel, Dani’s eyes burning through her shoulders. But another part of her, the larger part, can’t put too much stock in that right now. Not with her carefully tended flowers strewn carelessly across the ground.
“Hey,” she hears behind her.
She’s shaking her head over Dani’s words. “Little fucking shit,” she swears again.
Jamie can feel the disapproval rolling off Dani as she says, “Hey, he’s just a kid.”
He is. He’s Miles . But he’s not Miles, lately. He hasn’t been Miles, has he. Miles didn’t crush tiny seedlings in his hand. Miles didn’t walk around with a lighter in one hand and a scowl on his face. No, Miles didn’t do those things. Miles is kind. Miles trails along after her like a shadow, picking up watering cans and carrying rakes over his shoulder even as he struggles under their weight.
No, Miles hasn’t been Miles lately.
“I’m gonna kill him.” That anger burns. “I swear to God-”
“No,” Dani says firmly.
Dimly, Jamie feels Dani come closer. Dimly, somewhere in the back of her mind, a voice screams that Dani’s hands are getting closer. She thinks it before she feels them, tugging at her shoulder. She nearly jumps.
“Hey, they’re just a few flowers,” Dani says firmly, that line in her jaw back again. Her blue eyes cut through Jamie.
She feels trapped. She feels like she’s a kid again, trapped and chastised for breaking a dish. For being too angry. For existing. She feels like she’s got her back against a wall and Dani’s hand on her shoulder feels like a weight she needs to shake off as quickly as she can.
“Oh!” She says as she pulls her shoulder back just enough to shake Dani loose. “Sure. Well, that’s fine then.”
Dani’s mouth flickers in a frown. “A little boy cut a few flowers.”
But Miles hasn’t been Miles lately and she can’t shake the image of him standing before her, squeezing his fist so tight that the geranium starter twisted beyond recognition. She can’t unsee the anger in his eyes as he tightened his grip around the small plant that’d done nothing to deserve such a violent end.
“What’s the big deal?” Dani continues.
The anger isn’t just simmering. It’s boiling over, burning her tongue as she speaks. “They weren’t ready to be cut!” Fear ripples through her, just as hot as the anger. She hasn’t felt like this in a long time. Maybe since before she was locked up. Miles killing a plant, purposefully, for the first time, hadn’t quite done this . Peter fucking Quint up and leaving this house in broken pieces behind him hadn’t quite done it. But this, this does it. This is the last straw that everyone keeps talking about. She’s suddenly a teenager, a drunk foster father asleep on the couch and a boy who looks like Mikey crying at the kitchen table as she searches for something he can eat. She’s suddenly younger, anger fresh in her chest.
She watches Dani stand there, not pulling away, eyes searching her face. She doesn’t pull away, hovering again on the edge of whatever Jamie is feeling. Jamie’s hand flexes at her side. Some of the anger rushes out as she sighs.
“Look, I just…” She looks at the ground, unable to look at those eyes staring right back at her, unable to ignore the way Dani’s hands seem to burn through to her skin. “I have a way of doing things,” she tries to explain. Her anger starts to fade just as suddenly as it came on the longer that Dani stands where she is. Not pulling away , she thinks. “I don’t like people messing about in my garden.” She finally looks up at Dani.
Dani’s eyes are softer now, so soft compared to the hard line of her jaw. Jamie doesn’t blink, can’t look away. The flame begins to settle into something else. Something as soft as Dani’s eyes are right now. Jamie feels herself leaning into it a little.
“No, you’re right,” Dani says firmly, something sparking in her. “You’re right.”
She says it so steadily. So matter-of-fact. She says it like she’s never been more sure of anything in her life. Jamie has never had someone be so sure about her before. Maybe Dot. Maybe Tamara. Not her dad or her mum. But Dani says and Jamie believes, even for the briefest of moments.
“I’ll talk to him,” she says, words sounding like a promise.
Jamie looks down again, unable to match the look in Dani’s eyes. Unwilling, really. Don’t get involved , the voice in her head commands. Remember the last time. Remember the last attachment . A vision of Rebecca, sitting across the table from her with wild eyes on the thumbprint on Jamie’s wrist, flashes before her. Rebecca, walking through the halls like a ghost. Rebecca, floating.
“‘Course,” she breathes. She shakes her head slowly. The anger ebbs down again and it leaves embarrassment in its wake. She tries to focus on the wilting petals at her feet, the torn stems. She tries to grasp onto that feeling again, to find her footing, but she glances up and finds Dani’s eyes again, knocking herself back a step. “Look, could we just go back to the bit where, uh, you were acting mental and I had to talk you down?”
The sound sparkles. The heat inside of Jamie rushes to the pit of her stomach at it. When Dani smiles, Jamie smiles back without her permission. It comes on so quickly, Jamie doesn’t have a chance to hide it behind a grimace.
Dani reaches out, her hand pressing flat against Jamie’s arm. The tips of her fingers, the ones that pinched into her shoulder a minute ago, barely brush Jamie’s skin. It doesn’t matter. The feeling of it ripples down her skin, singing in her fingertips. It’s been ages since someone has touched her without permission and Dani Clayton, the American au pair, has touched her twice in almost as many minutes. Jamie looks curiously down at her hand.
Dani pulls her hand back to her side. “I’ll talk to him,” she says again. Promises, really. She bends down and picks up a flower, the bulb hanging off the stem almost completely. Jamie’s heart clenches but Dani cups it carefully, holding it close to her chest as she leaves Jamie alone with the ghosts of all her hard work.
Jamie sighs and pushes her head back out of her eyes, surveying the damage. There’s still roses in the ground, standing tall and elegantly above the desicration. She takes her time picking up each damaged petal, cradling them in her hand like one of Owen’s souffles or Flora’s talesmins. She picks up each one of them, swallowing back the hurt as she tries not to tread on them.
A wild animal had gotten in the greenhouse, when she was locked up. It tore apart the begonias Bev had been working so hard to grow, leaving nothing but soil and torn greens behind. Dot had held Bev up, steadied her when Bev wavered. Jamie was too struck by the destruction, by the sheer violence it left behind, to do much more than stand there.
Now, she jumps in, collecting pieces of the flowers as if she’s going to put them back together again. As if she can. As if, if she tries hard enough, she can put the broken pieces of this house back together. Put Rebecca back together. Charlotte and Dominic. Like she could stitch together the very fabric of herself, if these wilted and worn petals could be sewn back up.
She looks back at the winding path that leads to the house, to where Dani disappeared. A bit too pretty , she thinks to herself. A bit too much smile. A bit too kind.
Jamie shakes her head as she picks up the petals and the stems, mindful of the thorns, and carries them to the small fertilizer pile she’s growing outside of the greenhouse, putting them down carefully. She hovers for a moment over them, feeling suspended. From death comes growth , Tamara had told her once. She said it meant something about the death of Jamie’s insecurities, but Jamie thinks she might have meant this: from the loss of one flower, more can grow.
She dusts her hands off and starts back towards that great, good house. She sees Miles outside of its wide front doors, Dani crouched down and holding onto his shoulders. Jamie pauses, watching Miles as his head hangs, chin to his chest, and Dani continues talking, ducking her head to meet his eyes.
No , she thinks. No, he’s not like Miles.
And Dani isn’t like Rebecca.
Peter Quint is the gift that keeps stealing moments and pieces from them all. Dani sees his face in a window and it’s enough to send a tremor through the house. She feels its great, good floors roil under her feet. Can feel the way the air crackles with the kind of unpredictability that came with Peter Quint sweeping through a door. She volunteers to stay for a while, after dinner. Owen does too, the pair of them giving each other knowing looks when the kids duck upstairs to scrub up. It feels the same as it did a year ago, Jamie and Hannah tucking the kids to bed after a long day and Owen pouring them a drink so they stare at the fire and wish for Peter to come back just long enough to shoot him in the foot.
Rebecca hangs heavy over her head then. She still does, if Jamie is honest. She lingers in the back of Jamie’s mind. Sometimes, Jamie thinks she’ll turn a corner and see Rebecca there, hands clasped behind her back as she listens patiently to Flora’s stories or smiling kindly as Miles rambles off something he just finished reading.
But now when she turns a corner, she sees Dani Clayton, the American au pair, crouched down to lock eyes with Flora as she listens to her or resting a hand on Miles’ shoulder while he shows her a small toy he’s holding. Dani is everywhere, really. In the kitchen ruining pot of tea after pot of tea. In the schoolroom teaching Miles some lesson she’s sure he isn’t following. In the statue garden dancing in circles with Flora. Everywhere Jamie goes, she finds Dani.
No , the voice in her head says. She’s not finding Dani. She’s seeking her. There’s a difference there, between those two words. And she’s seeking Dani, trying to find her without giving herself away. She’s interested, is what she tells herself. Dani has been here for days but she’s already woven herself into the house and its inhabitants like she’s been here for years. Even Rebecca had taken a week to acclimate, to warm up to them. But Dani is seamless, fitting in so easily that Jamie starts to look for her in every room she enters.
Jamie turns to look at Dani now, the lines of her face shadowed by the flickering fire in front of them. A bit too pretty , she thinks, not for the first time. She’s not wrong to think so. Dani is pretty. Prettier than some of the girls Jamie has met. Prettier than most of the girls Jamie has kissed.
Jamie watches Dani look from the fire to Owen and Hannah, their bodies turned into each other as Hannah sleeps. Jamie wonders where Dani’s soulmark is. She wonders if Owen’s fingers would fit it.
“Rather that was you curled up there?” she asks, smirking. Dani turns to look at her, confusion in her eyes. “Every girl in the village is mad for him. He doesn’t even know it, which makes it even worse.” It’s infuriating, really. Owen is as thick as that mustache on his face.
Dani chuckles softly, just barely loud enough to hear over the pop of a log in the fireplace. She lifts up the picture in her hand. She’s been holding it since Hannah handed it to her, her fingers pinching it tightly. Jamie peeks at it and feels a fury in the pit of her stomach. She can see Rebecca’s soulmark, the three fingers pressed into the side of her neck. Recebba never hid it, because Peter liked to see it, she told Jamie.
Possession , Jamie thought then. She thinks it now, too.
“They look like Bonnie and Clyde,” Dani says quietly. The picture catches the light and for a moment, it looks like Rebecca is burning.
“Yeah,” Jamie says, voice hard and her hand clenching into a fist at her side. “If Clyde fucked Bonnie over. He got away.” Jamie’s eyes flutter and she sees Rebecca in that kitchen. Rebecca, floating. “She paid the price.”
Dani looks up, forehead knitted thoughtfully. “So what? He’s stalking a dead woman?” She shakes her head slightly. “Risking prison for someone he didn’t even bother to bring along? That doesn’t make sense.”
Jamie scoffs quietly. She shakes her head. “The wrong kind of love can fuck you up.” She thinks of the girls she’s known. The ones whose fingers never fit on her skin. The ones she followed into the dark. The one who landed her locked up. “Follow you. Make you do some really stupid shit.” She sighs heavily. “And those two… Believe me, that was the wrong kind of love.”
Dani starts to shake her head. “We’ve all been in the wrong kind of love for one reason or-
“Mhmm,” Jamie agrees, cutting her off. “But I saw how he twisted himself into her. Burrowed in deep.” She pauses. ”I know why so many people mix up love and possession…”
Because that’s what Peter Quint did to her. He possessed her. He consumed her. He tied her to this house and to himself and then he left her here.
If that’s what a soulmate is, Jamie doesn’t want one. She doesn’t need one. No one needs that much from someone else.
“But guess what that means?” she continues, a hard, thin line of amusement in her voice. “He didn’t just trap her. He trapped himself. And I hope she haunts that fucker forever.”
Dani is quiet for a long moment. Long enough that Jamie thinks the conversation is done and she can breathe out easily.
“People do, don’t they?” she says suddenly. It catches Jamie’s attention. “Mix up love and possession.”
Jamie stares. She doesn’t know what else to do. The words come so easily out of Dani’s mouth. That matter-of-factness she saw earlier, the conviction she saw, it pierces through Jamie and settles into the very center of her, winding through her like vines climbing a stretch of lattice. Jamie’s eyes search Dani’s, trying to find the catch. The argument. But Dani just looks back at her and for a moment, Jamie can’t breathe.
People do get them mixed up, love and possession. She saw it with her dad and her mum, with the foster parents she stayed with, with the girls she thought she could see a future with. She saw it with Rebecca and Peter. She saw how it consumed them. She saw Rebecca’s soulmark and she saw Peter try to fit his hand over it like it belonged to him.
She knew it then; she doesn’t want to belong to anyone, if that’s what love is.
“Yeah,” she says slowly. “They do.”
Dani looks away and the air rushes back into Jamie’s lungs. “I don’t think that should be possible,” Dani continues. “I mean, they’re opposites, really. Love and ownership.” Those eyes turn back to Jamie’s.
Jamie’s lungs tighten again. “Yeah.”
Her hand tingles a little, a small burning sensation that feels like a pinprick. She doesn’t look down at her soulmark, doesn’t look away from Dani even as a voice in her head says to. Even as that voice tells her, don’t get attached. Look at what happened the last time. Because Dani is Rebecca, the Rebecca that existed in those early days. All those same bright smiles. But when she blinks, she sees only Dani. Dani isn’t Rebecca. And Owen isn’t Peter.
Hannah’s voice catches them both off guard. “They really ought to be in bed,” she says, glancing at the kids asleep on the floor.
Dani jumps a little next to her, fingers tightening around the picture she’s holding before it flutters to the couch, forgotten in the moment the way that Jamie can’t forget Rebecca.
“Oh, yes,” Dani says breathlessly. “Yes, yes.” She stands and the couch shifts under the absence of her weight. “Yes. I’ll take them.”
Hannah’s smile is soft. “Okay.”
Jamie stands, feeling something stretch uncomfortably in her back. Might be the bags of potting soil she hauled across the property to the rose bushes, trying to put them back together. Might be the strain of the conversation and the weight of the memories. Might even be the feel of Danie’s eyes on her as she stoops low, an arm under Flora’s arms, cradling Flora’s head against her shoulder.
Dani smiles a little, nodding at Flora in Jamie’s arms. “Thank you,” she mouths, practically silent.
Flora stirs a little in her arms. “You’re the coolest,” she mumbles sleepily. Jamie smiles softly, holding Flora a little closer.
She settles Flora down in her bed, slipping out of the room as Dani breezes past her, already sitting at the edge of the bed, pulling the covers tightly up to Flora’s chin. She steps into the hallway, watching Hannah guide Miles into his bedroom. She makes her way back through the house, listening to the sound of her footsteps on the stairs as it echoes through the house. Exhaustion overtakes her by the time she gets to the bottom of the grand staircase, working its way behind her eyes. She blinks and fights a yawn. She thinks she hears Owen’s car rattling away and the very thought of getting in her truck and driving the few kilometers back into Bly is too overwhelming.
It wouldn’t be the first time she’s spent the night. She slips into the sitting room, the fire dying down, and stretches out on the couch, still warm from where she had been sitting earlier. She pillows her arm under her head and looks at the end of the couch where her feet are, picturing Dani sitting there minutes ago, brow furrowed as she stared at that picture of Rebecca and Peter. Jamie sits up and fishes it up out from the side of the couch, holding it up so the soft lamplight can catch it.
“Goddammit, Rebecca,” she says into the fading firelight. Her fingers press over where Dani’s did minutes ago.
She saw the way Dani watched Owen. She saw the blush on Owen’s face when she asked him if Dani was pretty. She saw it in Rebecca, too, the first time Jamie saw her with Peter. She hadn’t thought much of it then. But she thinks about it now, about Dani and Owen. Owen is a good man. He’s a kind man. He isn’t Peter Quint, not hellbent on destroying everything in his grasp. Owen is the opposite, really. Love where Peter is possession. If Dani was his soulmate, if she was his, Dani would be hardpressed to find someone better. Hannah slips through her mind, the way she lingers around Owen and the way she lingers around him. Maybe it’s them. Maybe they’re made for each other.
But if they aren’t, if Dani is it for him, she could do worse. She could have had Peter, if she had been here a year ago. She could have had someone like Jamie’s dad. She could have had someone like the girls Jamie knew when she was younger.
Jamie presses her finger over her soulmark, shivering at the touch of her cool skin. She thinks of her greenhouse and the flowers curled up against the moonlight. She thinks of the mooflowers nearly ready to bloom and she’s more sure than ever that plants are the things she’s supposed to be living for. People are messy. People are cruel. People are work. She looks at the picture just one more time before she lets it slide to the floor, fluttering away under the couch.
Soulmarks be damned.
Dani Clayton is growing on Jamie like creeping thyme.
It shouldn’t happen like that, Jamie reasons. But that’s what non-invasive ground cover does, doesn’t it? Crawls its way over so slowly that she’s already under it before she realizes how close it's gotten. One moment outside the front doors, one night on a couch, one conversation budding from Peter Quint’s mistakes, and Jamie feels she’s in over her head.
She scolds herself in the mirror. She hardly knows Dani. But what she does know… Well, what she does know is that Dani Clayton is unlike anyone she has ever met before.
People get that mixed up , she thinks often. She thinks about Dani’s eyes and the resolve in them. The absolute belief.
Dani looks up from where she’s stirring something Owen’s concocted for lunch and catches Jamie’s eye. Creeping thyme, she is. Jamie should feel suffocated. Tied down, at least. But Dani’s eyes are kind and her smile is kinder and it sparks something in Jamie that’s been dormant a long time. It sparks something completely different than she’s ever felt before, if she’s honest.
Tamara had told her, just before she left, that she’d find something worth it. Worth what? Jamie had asked her. But Tamara hadn’t answered that question for her. So Jamie found it in plants. In working at the manor. She found it in Flora’s laugh and Miles' smile, Hannah’s kindness and Owen’s humor.
She burrowed herself into the grounds of this place like a well-planted rose bush or shrub. Dug her roots into the ground and covered herself in soil. She tied herself to this place, for better or for worse. She found something worth it.
Dani Clayton seems like someone who might be worth it.
Jamie won’t let herself get too attached, though. She won’t fall for the kind looks or that laugh that sparkles. Dani is just nice. She’s a genuinely nice person. Nice in the way Jamie never has been. She breezes through the great, good manor with an airiness none of them possess. Not anymore. She’s unburdened with Rebecca’s ghost. She doesn’t know the weight of Charlotte and Dominic’s loss. She only knows Flora’s laugh and Miles’ fleeting humor and Owen gently teasing Hannah with every other breath. She doesn’t know the Jamie who rocked Flora in her arms when they pulled Rebecca from that lake. She doesn’t know the Jamie before, before Rebecca and before Charlotte and Dominic. Then again , she reasons, the Jamie before wasn’t someone most people wanted to know .
“Here,” Jamie says clumsily, putting down a vase of flowers. Lady’s gloves and daisies. The soft purple of the lady’s gloves reminds her of a sweater she saw Dani wearing last week. She found herself cutting them carefully and arranging them in a bouquet before she realized what she was doing. And by then, it was too late to put them back.
“Oh, they’re beautiful,” Dani sighs. She reaches out to touch the petals gently before Jamie has let go of the vase, her fingers brushing over the bare skin of Jamie’s hands.
Jamie feels her hand start to tingle and she tucks them deep into her pockets, pulling her shoulders up around her ears as she looks down for a moment. “S’nothing. They needed cutting.”
Dani smiles when Jamie looks up. “Well, it’s nice of you to bring them in.”
“Kind of in the job description.” Jamie’s mouth twitches in a smile. “Being the groundskeeper an’ all.”
Something pink blooms on Dani’s cheeks. “Right,” she says quietly. She drops her hands from the petals and smiles widely. “Speaking of job descriptions, have you seen the kids? I told them we were going to do some math work and they both disappeared.”
Jamie laughs a little. “Course they did. Never liked numbers myself. I can understand going on the run.”
Dani tips her head a little, the way she does when she’s taking something in. Jamie finds it a little endearing, honestly. She seems to do this often, collecting bits of information on them like she’s building something with everything she knows. Jamie wonders what she’s going to do with it all.
“Is there a lot of math in plants?”
It always takes her a bit by surprise when Dani asks these kinds of questions. She does it often. When they’re sitting after lunch or passing in the hallway, Jamie carrying a heavy vase filled with the day’s cuts. She asks what the flowers are, what they mean. She does it all with that same look on her face, filing Jamie’s words away like she’s going to take them out later and study them.
“Sometimes,” she settles on. “Growing seasons need calculating. Seeds counted. You need more patience than maths, though. That’s what plants are, really. An exercise in patience,” she says, remembering Dot telling her.
“Kids, too.” Dani smiles fondly. “It’s all about being patient. Letting them come to you instead of chasing after them.”
“Except when they hide from their lessons.”
Dani’s smile blooms. “Except then.”
Hannah clears her throat behind them and Jamie jumps a little, her hands tightening in her pockets. “I’m sorry,” Hannah says quickly. “I thought you heard me.” She looks past Jamie to Dani. “I found the children. Unfortunately, they found another one of those mud puddles they’re so fond of.”
Dani sighs, but she’s still wearing that same smile. “Of course they did.” She reaches up and touches the petals of the lady’s glove one more time before she slips past Jamie, pulling her shoulders back in that way Jamie notices. That resolution.
You’re getting attached , a voice that sounds like younger-Jamie says in the back of her mind. She hushes the voice. She is getting attached. But Dani is winding around Jamie without suffocating her, curling into her thoughts the way no one else has done before.
She touches her wrist absently, fingertips brushing over the thumbprint. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Hannah’s eyes tracking the motion. A younger Jamie would have stepped forward and forced Hannah back. A younger Jamie would have challenged Hannah with a glare in her eyes. But Jamie now, softened and hardened in different ways, just gives Hannah a small nod and tip toes out of the hall, wincing at the dirt she tracked in and hoping she tracks less on her way out.
Dani’s smile stays in her mind as she goes back to work, digging new plots and raking loose leaves until her hands ache.
It must be this house, she’s sure of it. It stinks of death in here. It suffocates the halls when the lights go out. Owen’s mum might be kilometers away, in her own home, in her own bed, but she’s still gone. She’s still another ghost in these halls, haunting Owen.
Dani shepherds the kids upstairs, safe into their beds. This death can’t touch them. They’ve met Owen’s mum, when he first started at the manor and he toured her around its great, good halls with a smile. She was fond of the children, sending small gifts when she remembered them. Flora’s voice is small when she asks if Owen’s mum is okay. Miles’ eyes are knowing when Dani just tells them quietly that it’s time to go to bed.
Jamie picks up the chairs, the wine she had been drinking - once warming her - suddenly cold in the pit of her stomach. Owen is standing at the telephone, its cord hanging low between the base and the handset. Hannah is talking to him softly, her voice low enough that Jamie can’t hear it. She can feel the sounds of it, though, and it comforts her, even just for the moment. She hopes it does the same for Owen.
Dani comes back downstairs, passing Jamie almost close enough that their shoulder’s brush. Jamie doesn’t jump. Not anymore. She’s seeking Dani even more, trying to find her and be close. There’s something about her. Some kind of pull. She reminds Jamie of a magnet, pulling in the steel spine Jamie has built herself over the years.
“Here,” she tells Owen gently, holding up his coat. He sags into it, letting Hannah adjust the front of it with nervous hands. Jamie comes up behind him, clapping him gently on the shoulder as she guides him out the front doors to his car, parked just outside. She lets him go and stops, but Hannah follows him around the front of the car and to the door.
She feels Dani at her shoulder, the backs of their hands just brushing as they watch Hannah talk to Owen. Jamie feels the same spark in her body that comes with Dani being close. A soft sort of burn. Like the sun warming up slowly on her skin. Like the light coming in through the greenhouse windows, making its way slowly over all the plants.
Hannah leans close, her hands around Owen’s neck as she hugs him tightly, his hands at her waist. Jamie watches them go stiff in each other’s arms, their bodies pulled taut like a rose stretching up to the sun. She frowns softly, eyes darting to the side to see if Dani notices it too. She doesn’t, eyes clouded over with something Jamie knows as grief, but can’t quite understand in someone so bright as Dani Clayton.
She turns back to see Owen’s head lifts slightly, a soft wonder in his eyes that she can see in the small lights coming off the face of the house. His lips part as he stares at Hannah. Hannah stares back at him, her hands still wrapped loosely around his neck. There’s an owl hoot from somewhere in the darkness and it spooks them both. Hannah’s hands fall to her side and Owen takes a small step backwards.
They all watch Owen drive away, the weight of the moment hanging heavily over them in the dark. His tailights get further away until the red dots of them disappear from sight. Hannah seems to startle at the loss, wringing her hands together, the pads of her fingers pressing into the palms of her hand.
“I’m going to light a candle,” she breathes, slipping into the darkness without waiting for an answer. She fades just like the tailights of Owen’s car.
Jamie looks at Dani now, eyes following the line of cheek as it blends into her jawline. A bit too pretty , she thinks again. But that’s not a good enough word anymore. It doesn’t really describe Dani Clayton, American au pair. It feels cheap, like the jewelry Jamie used to wear when she was a teenager. She longed for the solid gold pieces her foster parents kept locked in drawers. Dani reminds her of that - bright and glittering and beautiful. But tucked away behind a locked door Jamie shouldn’t open.
Dani looks up and gives her a sad smile, pain in her eyes.
Owen’s mum. Owen’s mum is dead. It washes over like cold water, shaking her out of her head. She nods towards her truck slightly, taking the first step away from the door. Dani falls into step next to her, their bodies swaying together and coming apart with each step.
Dani clears her throat and Jamie turns her head at the sound. “I’m so glad… you stayed.”
Jamie fights a smile. Owen’s mum died. But she can’t help it. She looks down at her feet for just a moment, just to take in Dani’s words. “I am too,” she admits. She is.
They walk quiet for the next few meters, Jamie sneaking glances at Dani as they go. She stops in front of her truck, turning around with her hands swinging at her sides before they settle. She just looks at Dani, at the soft light in her hair.
I want this , something whispers inside of her. But the sound of it is drowned out by something louder. Another voice that tells her Dani isn’t for her. Dani might be for Owen. Or she might have been for someone in America. She might be for anyone else. Not Jamie. It’s never Jamie.
So it feels like she’s in a dream when Dani reaches forward and takes Jamie’s hand in her own. Something bubbles up inside of her and she stares at Dani’s hand for a long moment before she looks up again. She can feel Dani’s fingers curling into the center of her palm, her thumb on the back of Jamie’s hand. That same spark comes back but it feels like touching a live wire now, like she’s just a moment away from something she can’t describe.
Dani’s eyes fill up with a look Jamie has never seen before and it swirls together like clouds in a blue sky. Her thumb just barely grazes Jamie’s wrist and that sizzle of fire flashes bright in her skin. It startles her enough that she looks down again. Dani must see it in her face because she lets Jamie’s hand drop. It flutters at her side before she pulls it back against her body.
She knows Dani can see the wonder in her eyes as she looks at her, pulling the door to her truck open. She turns, words working in her mouth as she tries to put something together.
“Who the hell knew?” she says quietly.
She slips into her truck, turning the groaning engine over. Dani steps back from the truck, eyes still swirling with that same look. Jamie’s hands tighten on the steering wheel at it and she leans forward, easing down on the gas.
Who the hell knew , she thinks again. Who the hell knew that Dani could look at her like that? Who the hell knew that Dani might be feeling something like Jamie does? Some kind of attachment. Some kind of pull. She saw it there, in Dani’s eyes. The uncertainty of it all. Jamie sees that same look in her own eyes when she looks in the mirror. The look of someone carefully hiding a part of themselves.
Not Owen, then. No, the voice in her head says. No, you don’t know for certain . But she thinks of that look again and lets herself think, in the quiet of her truck, headlights the only thing cutting through the dark, that maybe she does know.
Maybe I have a chance , something whispers.
It catches her off-guard the way that Dani Clayton has caught her off-guard. She’s attached. She can admit it now. She’s pulled into Dani’s orbit and she’s finding she doesn’t want to drop out of it. Dani’s quiet resolve pull at her like gravity and she’s finding that it’s easier to let herself fall down that well. It’s better. The fall doesn’t seem quite as far now that she can think about Dani’s smile and her eyes.
Jamie shakes her head softly. More death and she’s thinking about Dani’s bare fingertips brushing over her skin. More death and she’s wishing she could go back to the moment that Dani had touched her hand, held it in her own. The truck bumps over a loose rock in the dirt road, pulling her back to herself.
She’ll go to Owen’s. She’ll help him clear things up, give him another drink, and tuck him into bed. She’ll let him cry. She’ll be his secret-keeper like he is for her.
She won’t think about Dani or that pleasant burning feeling that is still in her wrist, blooming out to her shoulder and her fingertips.
She won’t think about that all.
Jamie dreams of Rebecca and Dani.
She dreams of a revolving door, Rebecca Jessel slipping in as Dani Clayton slips out. She watches them go through it over and over and over again, a neverending circle. Sometimes Rebecca is smiling, sometimes there are tears streaming down her face, sometimes her clothes are dripping wet. Sometimes Dani has that same heavy look in her eyes that Jamie sees when Dani thinks no one is looking, sometimes she’s giving Jamie that smile that makes her feel like the lights are just a little brighter.
Her wrist burns in her dreams. She hears Rebecca’s voice telling her that it will set her world on fire. She pictures herself back in the kitchen, that same wild look in Rebecca’s eyes as she tries to explain Peter to Jamie. And just when Jamie wants to reach across the table and shake Rebecca by the shoulders, scream that Peter leaves her, Dani’s face flickers there instead, her hands on the table reaching for Jamie’s.
Jamie doesn’t believe in soulmates. How could she now? That mark is just that - a mark. It means nothing. But her wrist is still burning. A whole day later, a whole day since Dani touched her hand in the near-dark and looked into her eyes, and she’s still burning. Let yourself feel things , Tamara was fond of telling her. She meant the anger, back when she used to hold it close to her chest. But Jamie thinks of it now, again, and she thinks of Dani.
Have you gotten attached? Rebecca asks. Has our Jamie found someone worthy of her time ?
She wants to tell Rebecca to be quiet but Rebecca becomes Dani, her mouth moving over the same words, asking the same question. And Jamie wants to answer and tell them no . She wants to tell them that she’s not looking for a soulmate, that they don’t exist. She wants to tell them this but when she opens her mouth nothing comes out. She can’t say no and she can’t say yes. She can only watch as Rebecca becomes Dani and Dani becomes Rebecca, each of them looking at her expectantly like she’ll suddenly be able to tell them what she’s thinking might be the truth.
She wakes up with a gasp, the ceiling spinning before she can focus on the small water stain right above her bed. She can still see Rebecca behind her eyes when she squeezes them together tightly, trying to keep Rebecca in her mind. Jamie misses her. She misses their easy banter, before Peter sunk his claws into her and turned her in on herself. She’s finding that she’s starting to miss Dani, too, in the moments that she doesn’t see her.
Jamie lays in bed, staring at the ceiling and listening to the quiet sounds of the pub closing below her. She could go down and have a pint before they shut their lights off. But she lays still, breathing in and out.
Owen’s mum’s funeral is tomorrow. She went round his this morning to help him tidy up for the few visitors he would have coming by. She called up to the manor to talk to Hannah and she could hear Dani in the background, Miles calling her name and the sound of Flora laughing. She had forgotten what she was going to say for a moment, only pulled back by Hannah’s voice in her ear asking if she was alright.
Dani has become a sea of allegheny spurge, dark green leaves peppered with bright white blooms that pop up after a good few days of rain. Something bright to look forward to. Jamie found some at the seed shop in London and saved it for the shadiest part of the grounds, so it could cultivate properly. She thought it suited her, the darkness and waxiness pushing everything out. But the flowers, the way they poke through the shadows, reminds her of Dani, poking through the manor and its soft spots until they seem a little brighter.
Jamie looks at the vase on her dresser, filled with anemones she picked from the grounds. Luck and protection against evil. It seems like there’s an evil that permeates the manor, sometimes. Something that just takes from everyone and leaves them empty. She grew the anemones right near the lake, as if she could bring some brightness to that dark water.
Like Dani brings it.
Jamie sighs and closes her eyes again, pressing the thought of Rebecca from her mind and focusing on Dani. Her hand tingles but she curls it into a fist and pulls it tight up under her chin, turning onto her side and pulling the covers high with her other hand.
She goes back to sleep and dreams of Rebecca in the kitchen, her eyes softer as she laughs and smiles and tells Jamie that a soulmate will set her world on fire.
Jamie pauses just outside of Dani’s bedroom door, her hand on the knob as she straightens up and brushes the imaginary lint off the outfit she picked neat this morning. It felt foreign to her at first, like she was younger and trying on her mum’s clothes. She doesn’t dress like this often. At all, if she can help it. She feels more comfortable in her coveralls and her t-shirts. But for Owen, she’ll do this.
She raises her hand and knocks on the door, the knob giving a little as she turns it and opens the door enough to pitch her voice low, hoping Dani can hear it. “You decent?”
“Come in,” she hears. She slips into the room, closing the door softly behind her. “Oh!” Dani says. “You look…”
Jamie feels her face flush and she ducks her head a little bit. “I can scrub up when I need to.” She’s still looking mostly at the ground. Dani said she was decent, but Jamie has been finding it hard to look at her now. Now that she knows something in her is different. “Funeral starts at 4,” she continues as she finally looks up. “Owen said we should get there early.”
Dani is quiet for a moment before she speaks. “Okay.” She pulls a little at her dress.
Jamie smiles at the small motion. “It’s a…” She clears her throat as she sits at the end of the bed. “It’s quite a dress.”
She can see the flush of Dani’s skin as it blooms. “Yeah, it’s the only thing I had in black.” She looks down at it and Jamie follows her hands as they move across the dress. “I-I hate it.”
Jamie’s smile twists into a smirk. “It does look a bit like you’re trying to scandalize the village.” She catches Dani’s eyes, ignoring the small tumble in her stomach that comes when Dani looks back at her. “Can’t say I fault the general principle.”
Dani smiles back tightly, something in the corner of it that Jamie can’t quite name. That same look, she thinks, that she saw outside two nights ago. Maybe it’s grief, she thinks. Maybe Dani knows this loss. “I just don’t want to let Owen down.”
Jamie can see her hesitation. She felt the same at Charlotte and Dominic’s funeral. The weight of wanting to be there for someone and not wanting to go. She studies Dani for another moment before she speaks. “He won’t mind.” Dani looks up a little. “Honestly, you don’t have to go if you don’t want to.”
“Really?” she asks hesitantly.
Jamie nods. “He said as much. Was pretty clear,” she adds.
“Okay,” Dani breathes, running her hands through her hair. “Yeah. That’s a relief, actually.” Her eyes move around the room like she’s afraid to make eye contact. Jamie watches them, those clear eyes, as they finally settle on her. “ I, um… I had a funeral in my own life. Not so long ago. And I feel like this is, um…”
Grief, then , she thinks.
“Hey, Poppins,” she says softly as she stands up. “It’s your day off. I promise,” she stresses, “I don’t need you to be my date to Owen’s mum’s funeral. Okay?”
More of the tension drains from Dani’s shoulders and hands. “Okay.” She nods, more to herself than to Jamie. “Then, can you help me get this thing off?
“Blimey,” Jamie says. She’s smiling, though, the tension breaking a little between them. She’s grateful for it, if she’s honest. Her stomach was tightening and her heart was starting to pound. Who the hell knew? she thinks. It still taps in the back of her mind. Dani’s hand on hers, fingers against her wrist.
On fire. Rebecca had said as much. She’d never felt something like this before. Something so incendiary. But it can’t be Dani , a voice in the back of her mind tells her. Dani Clayton, all the way from America, here to escape something. Here to find peace, she’s sure. It can’t be someone like her. Girls like Dani Clayton don’t like girls like Jamie Taylor. Girls like Jamie Taylor don’t deserve girls like Dani Clayton.
“No, seriously,” Dani says, breaking through the fog in her mind as she starts to turn around.. “The, uh… the zipper.”
“Right.” Jamie nods sharply to herself as she laughs softly. It’s Owen’s mum’s funeral and she’s thinking about whether or not Dani feels that same pull Jamie does. It’s Owen’s mum’s funeral and she’s hoping Dani does.
“Thank you,” Dani says quietly.
Jamie does her best to breathe. Dani’s skin is smooth, the line of her spine dipping down into the fabric of the dress. She wonders for a second what it would feel like to press the palm of her hand against that skin. Her own fingers feel hot to the touch and she wonders if Dani can feel them too. The zipper is worn enough that she can tug on it and it slides down easily. It inches further down, more skin spilling out under it. The heat spreads like ivy, up her arms and into her wrists and elbows, into her cheeks and the back of her neck. She feels that pull again, that feeling in her gut that tells her she’s attached. She’s too attached and-
Dani gasps loudly, her body twitching and turning.
Jamie’s hands flinch and pull away from Dani. Maybe she did feel it. “Did I pinch ya?”
“No, I’m sorry,” Dani says. She doesn’t say anything else, eyes wild. A different wild than Rebecca. Fear, maybe.
“All right,” Jamie says slowly when Dani doesn’t continue. She tries to catch Dani’s eyes. “Well, I’ll be back in a few hours?”
Dani nods, mouth hanging open for a moment before they finally work around a word. “Okay.”
Jamie takes another second. Dani needs her to break this moment up. Jamie can tell. So she gives in. She’s finding she can’t do anything but, lately.
“And, if I find out you’ve not been relaxing, there’ll be serious consequences,” she says.
It works. Dani’s lips twitch in a smile and her eyes start to sparkle just enough that Jamie breathes a little easier.
“Okay,” Dani agrees.
Jamie starts walking towards the door, giving Dani a quiet “yeah” as she walks. She gets to the door, opening it gently and looking back over her shoulder as she pauses at it. Dani is standing facing away from her, a sharp line of tension setting her spine and resting in her shoulders.
Jamie slips out of the room and into the hallway, pulling the door closed behind her. She stands there, hand on the knob as she breathes in and out in. She can still feel Dani’s skin against her fingers. Just like the other night, it’s lingering on her skin, sinking into her fingertips. She takes another deep breath, trying to put herself back on track. Owen’s mum’s funeral. Owen at the church. Owen waiting for her to come and hold him up.
And yet she stays for another minute, thinking of Dani and thinking of herself.
Attached, attached, and hoping .
The fire licks at the air and Jamie breathes it in, letting the smoke of it fill her lungs. It’s comforting, in a way. Grounding. Fire is part of rebirth. Fire is a part of growing. You have to burn away the pieces that have died to make room for the new life growing there. She’s used it to burn out old plots of land, controlled fires to clear the land. She’s planted new things there, brought new life to the earth. You have to do it, don’t you ? Jamie thinks. Sometimes, you need to uproot the old to plant the new .
She looks down and notices that her bottle of wine has fallen over.
“Oh, damn it. Fallen soldier.” She reaches out a hand. “Owen, be a hero, pass us a fresh bottle.”
Hannah sighs softly from her seat next to Owen. “Oh, I love a bonfire, I do.” She smiles faintly. “Reminds me of being a little girl again. Mind you,” she says, holding up her bottle of wine. “I do appreciate the adult beverages.”
Jamie continues to stare into the fire, watching the flames flicker as the wood burns down. She can feel Dani next to her, the heat coming off her muted through the blankets they’re both using. It’s cool, the night air. But the fire is warm and the bite of the air is tempered by it. “You know, in the old days,” she starts. “I mean, the really old days, they used to build giant bonfires at this time of year and talk about the people they’d lost.” She doesn’t look at Dani, even if she can feel Dani turn towards her. “Toss in offerings to drive away evil spirits. Old bones, mostly.
Owen’s voice cuts through the night. It startles her a bit. He’s been quiet all day and night. With reason , she reminds herself. But still unsettling. Owen is always talking - to the kids and to her and to his bloody food. Owen, quiet and small, is not the Owen she knows. “I remember,” he says. “That’s why they call it a bonfire, isn’t it?”
Jamie frowns gently, as if she’s annoyed with him. “As I way sayin’ , that’s why it’s called a bonfire.” She knows she has Dani’s attention now, even if its flickering in and out. “From the old English meaning “bone fire”. Build a pile of old bones and burn away the shadows.”
She pauses and thinks about death, how it permeates this house. She thinks about Rebecca and Peter and their troubled love. Their darkness. The way Peter pulled at her until she became a shell of the person they knew.
“Because from here on in, the shadows get deeper… the nights get longer. We’re heading into the dark, and we have to hang onto each other.” She looks at the way Hannah leans a little into Owen at that. He looks at Hannah before he leans into her as well. “So we can only carry so much.” Jamie looks back at Dani. “So… anyone got any old bones to throw?”
She waits a moment, but no one speaks, each of them back to looking into the fire. “All right, I’ll start.”
Hannah raises her hand to interrupt and Jamie sits back down, nodding at her to speak. “Rebecca,” Hannah breathes. “Rebecca Jesssel. My god , it’s been almost a year. A year focused on the wrong person.”
People do, don’t they? she hears Dani say. Mix up love and possession.
“But, wherever she is,” Hannah continues. “She’s still worth ten of that man. I won’t say his name.” Peter echoes in the air around them. “She was brilliant. She was beautiful. And she was punished for it. I don’t know why brilliant young women are always punished.” Hannah raises her bottle into the air and they all do the same. “Rebecca,” she says a final time, her voice soft with the weight of Rebecca’s memory.
Jamie takes a deep breath in and stands on unsteady feet. “All right, my turn. Lord and Lady Wingrave. Dominic and Charlotte. They were good people. Old-fashioned… Kind people.”
She thinks about that first day at Bly, when Charlotte showed her the grounds. She was unlike any woman Jamie had ever met before. The kind of woman she’d only seen in the old black and white romance movies one of her foster mums liked to watch. Women like that didn’t exist in Jamie’s world, not until she met Charlotte Wingrave.
“And their kids really miss them,” she continues. Flora in her arms at the funeral. Miles with the light missing behind his eyes. “Nothing can fix that. Not ever.”
She pauses and looks over. Dani is staring into the fire again, her eyes clouded over and far away. Jamie looks at her for a moment. “But here’s Dani Clayton,” she finally says. She lets her mouth slip into a smile. “She’s a bit of a weirdo, but she’s a lot stronger than she thinks.” Dani looks up at that. “And if anyone can bring Miles and Flora back to themselves, she can. I’m glad she’s here.” Dominic and Charlotte flicker in her mind. “I think they would be too.”
She swallows past the lump in her throat. “What about you, Poppins?”
Dani doesn’t look away from the fire. “Um… No, thank you.”
Grief, then. “That’s all right,” she says softly.
And then Owen is speaking and there’s a quiver in his voice underneath the shell of it. She watches his glassy eyes in the firelight and her heart aches for him. She listens as he talks about anchors and burdens and she thinks of Rebecca, anchored to Peter in life and anchored to this house in her death. She thinks about Dani, about the anchor she clearly has tied around her and she wonders what that burden is. For a tiny moment, she wonders if she might be enough to lighten the load.
They all go quiet for a long few minutes, staring into the fire and watching the flames lick at the cool air. Her wine bottle grows emptier and she can feel the back of her neck start to warm. Hannah leans into Owen, talking in low tones that Jamie can just make out over the snap and crackle of the wood in the fire. She studies them for a moment. They’ve done this more lately. Not to say they didn’t do it before, but it’s more, now. More whispering. More staring. For days now. Since his mum.
They have a secret together. She doesn’t know what it is, but she can make her guesses. She saw the way Hannah’s hands rested on Owen’s neck. She’s seen those marks before, every so often. And she always wondered about them, whose fingers fit those prints on his skin. And now she knows. And she can be happy for them.
Soulmates , she thinks. It’s a tricky word. She’s always thought so. Always thought they weren’t worth it. They didn’t seem it. She’s hid her mark for years until she didn’t care anymore. Until she saw that they didn’t mean anything, did they? She knows tons of people who haven’t met their soulmates. Not the girls she knew before. Certainly not Peter and Rebecca. And the people she does know, her parents, didn’t work out after all.
But if there’s anyone whose going to make her believe in them, it’s going to be Owen and Hannah.
Her eyes drift to Dani. It might be her too .
Jamie looks back into the fire for a long few minutes, feeling Dani next to her slipping into herself. She can see it in her eyes as they flash in the firelight. That grief there, clouding her vision. She’s seen grief before in too many eyes but there’s something different about Dani’s. Something more she can’t quite put her finger on.
Dani jumps when Jamie touches her shoulder gently.
“Sorry,” she says quickly, quiet enough not to disturb Hannah and Owen.Dani gives her a tired smile. “Might fault. I’ve just been kind of…” she trails off and looks into the fire again.
“S’okay.” Jamie’s hand rests on Dani’s shoulder. “Penny for them?” Dani looks at Hannah and Owen and then back at Jamie. “Maybe somewhere else?”
Dani nods slowly, rising to her feet as she clutches the blanket tight to her legs. Jamie gives her an encouraging smile as they round the firepit and towards the dark slip of a trail that leads to the greenhouse. Jamie knows these grounds like the back of her hand and she steps over knotted roots and loose rocks, her hand itching to reach back and take Dani’s, to see if she can feel that burn again.
She sits on the worn couch in the greenhouse. She’s spent many a night on this couch, tending to flowers that needed a little more care. She settles comfortably, patting the space next to her and waiting as Dani sits down, putting a wine bottle down on the floor. There’s something that settles over her for a moment, a silence that doesn’t feel as strained as it might have done with someone else. She’s noticing that more, the ease that comes when she’s around Dani.
But the silence still feels weighed down with something that Dani isn’t saying.
Jamie inhales quietly. “I’m not going to ask if you’re all right, ‘cause I don’t like being lied to,” she starts. “So, what’s wrong?”
Dani doesn’t look at her, but Jamie can see her hand tightening around the wine bottle she’s holding. “I thought I saw…” She swallows. “Peter Quint.”
Jamie thinks of Dani in the hallway with the fireplace poker, eyes wide with terror. She had eased into Dani’s space with careful steps, hands outstretched so as not to startle her. Dani’s body was tight with tension coiled in her shoulders and her hands. It hadn’t faded when Jamie took the poker and she watched it settle into Dani’s skin for long enough that Jamie’s own bones ached with the thought of it.
“But it wasn’t.”
“No, of course not,” Dani says quickly. She pauses again and Jamie feels the weight of the silence before she opens her mouth a second time. “It’s not the first time I’ve…” She hesitates, careful not to meet Jamie’s eyes. “...seen things that… aren’t there.”
Jamie takes that in, holds that close, and exhales. “So, what else?”
Dani seems to hesitate around the words. “Well, I, uh, I…” Her lips twitch in that smile she sometimes gives, the one Jamie can never put her finger on. “I guess I… told you about my fiancé, earlier, didn’t I?”
Grief, then , Jamie thinks.
“Yeah, you did. Yeah.” Her fingertips burn, wanting to reach out and touch Dani. “I was, uh… hoping we’d get, uh, around to that one,” she says carefully.
But Dani doesn’t seem to notice the way Jamie is leaning into this gently. Her eyes seem distant with a memory that Jamie wouldn’t know. “Yeah. We were…” Dani takes a small breath in, almost as if she’s putting on that big plate of armor she seems to be wearing sometimes. “We were engaged and he- he died. He died and I, uh… I sometimes, I…” Her cheeks flush under the pale light coming in through the glass ceiling.” it’s like… I see him.” She pauses. “I’ve never told anybody that,”
Jamie holds this in too, her mind working over the words and landing on died . “I’m… so, so sorry.”
“We were about to break up,” Dani rushes on, exhaling noisily. “We, uh… I’d broken. We had broken up. I’d broken up, I guess. Right before.” She turns to Jamie. “I mean, right… right before.”
“Jesus, Dani, the same day?” Her heart seems to clench in her chest for Dani, for the pain she can see in Dani’s eyes. She knows loss. She’s felt it time and time again. Her whole life, really, seems to be pockmarked by grief. But it lets her understand what Dani must have felt, how sudden it must have felt to have someone here one moment and gone the next. She’s done it too many times to count and it’s never been easier.
Somehow, it feels like it’s the first time Dani has had to handle that. It makes Jamie’s heart break even more.
“Yeah,” Dani seems to breathe.
Jamie looks around quickly, eyes only leaving Dani’s face for a moment. “Is he here now?”
She watches Dani look around carefully. “No,” she finally says. Her shoulders drop, the tension coiled there relaxing just a little. She wonders if this is the first time Dani has let herself go.
“Good.” Dani’s head turns, surprise in her eyes. Jamie meets her eyes. “‘Cause you know, I’ll sort him out for you if I have to.” She jerks her head a little, her lips twitching. “Oi, dead boyfriend,” she calls into the empty greenhouse. “Give it up, mate. It’s over.”
Dani’s smile is thin, but there. Jamie’s heart flutters at the sight of it, but she smiles back.
“Seriously, Poppins,” Jamie continues, leaning in towards Dani. “How’re you still standing?”
Dani’s eyes start to well. “Think I’m crazy?”
Not crazy, no , Jamie thinks. Heartbroken. Regretful. Grieving .
“I think you’re surprisingly sane, considering.” She keeps her eyes on Dani’s face, willing her not to look away. Dani’s eyes drop for just a moment. “Look,” she says, catching Dani’s attention. “I know what it feels like…”
She did. She does. She holds onto it every day.
“To feel,” she continues. “To feel like you can’t find your-
Dani’s mouth covers the rest of her words, pulling them from Jamie’s lips like they were meant to be forgotten and lost between them. She’s kissing Dani, kissing Dani , and it somehow sucks the air out of the room, leaving a pleasant buzz in her ears that sounds like Dani saying Jamie, Jamie over and over like this is the way Jamie has been meant to hear her name said. Her wrist burns brightly when she touches the line of Dani’s jaw and she chokes back a gasp that builds in her throat. She pulls back instead, searching Dani’s eyes.
“You sure?” she breathes, forehead against Dani’s.
Dani pulls back, eyes moving around the greenhouse as she searches for something Jamie is sure she’ll never be able to see. “Yes,” she finally says, leaning back into Jamie.
Dani kisses like she moves, headfirst. Her hands move at Jamie’s collar like they don’t know where to settle. Jamie presses forward, trying to pour all her thoughts into this kiss; all the things she’s been thinking about Dani since the moment their eyes met at the kitchen table. Her wrist aches and she thinks this must be what soulmates means. It has to be. She’s never felt this way before, like her chest is a rosebush blooming. Like she’s made up of moonflowers. This must be what-
Dani pulls back with a gasp, eyes wide with terror.
It washes over Jamie like a cold bucket of water, extinguishing the sweet flickers of flame at her fingertips. Regret starts to flood her. Regret and anger. At herself, not Dani. Because Dani doesn’t even see her, staring at something over Jamie’s shoulder.
“Okay,” Jamie says to herself, turning away from Dani. She wipes her mouth with the back of her hand “Right. So.”
Dani’s knee pushes into Jamie’s thigh. “I don’t know what to… I don’t know what to say.”
“Just forget about it,” Jamie says. She doesn’t look up. She doesn’t want to see what’s in Dani’s eyes. “It’s my fault. I’m sorry.” She shakes her head. “I’m sorry, just…
“Jamie,” Dani starts.”
Anger ripples through her. Anger at herself. Dani didn’t need this. Dani needed someone to listen. Dani needed someone to tell her she wasn’t crazy. She shakes her head at herself as she starts to move the blanket off her lap. It’s too hot under it. Too hot this close to Dani.
“You were just telling me. Literally telling me you weren’t up for this.” She feels Dani’s hands at her shoulder and her arm, trying to pull her back. But it’s still too hot here. “Just…” She stands up. Distance. She needs distance. Dani need distance. “Let’s. Let’s get back. Uh, another night, maybe,” she says as she walks to the door, knowing another night like this won’t come. ‘Another time, maybe.”
She walks back into the darkness, trying to put distance between where she wants to be and where’s she’s heading. Jamie wipes at her mouth again, trying to get rid of the feel of Dani’s lips against her own. Her whole body cools as she gets further away, like Dani is a glimmering light whose heat can’t reach this far.
Dani didn’t need this. Dani needed a friend.
The creeping thyme roots and turns into something dry. Something choking. It winds through Jamie’s hope and starts to suffocate it.
It’s cowardly, taking a few days of work off. She knows it is. It reminds her of her dad, hiding away from his kids and his absent wife, digging himself into the coal mines. It reminds her of the way he let them go, not caring enough to fight for them to stay. It reminds her of Denny, hiding in the shadows as his friends get their shots in. It reminds her of her mum, running off instead of dealing with the things she created.
The flowers can survive without her for a few days. They’re hardy, most of them. Made of sturdier stock than she feels like she is. They’d probably do well without her for a few days. The whole house could do with the break, she reckons. She’s been practically moved in since Charlotte and Dominic died. Yeah, she figures. A few days off could do them all some good.
A few days off from Dani, too, will do her good.
It’ll let her get her head on straight. It’ll let her get some distance so she can see things a little more clearly. That’s the thing about vines and flowers. That’s always been the problem. She can’t see the forest for the trees, can she? She gets so caught up in the details, in the stems and the buds and the vines and the color of Dani’s eyes, that she can’t step back to see the whole picture.
Soulmates , Jamie thinks bitterly, looking down into her fourth cup of tea in an hour. They keep going cold, sitting out on countertops as she mindlessly flips through a coffee table reader full of flowers from the Arley Hall and Gardens. It was a present, one year, from Hannah. She stares at the shrub roses and thinks about picking up shorn roses with Dani, anger building in her chest as she remembers Miles’ casual disregard for what he’s torn apart. She closes the book.
Soulmates must be like flowers. She’s sure of it. Like moonflowers. They bloom once before they die. It was silly of her to think they’d be like herbaceous perennials, that they’d grow roots and last well into the stony winter. No, soulmates must be finicky things that need the right light and the right water to even start growing, let alone sustain a blooming season.
It was silly of her to think that it could be someone like Dani.
The kiss plays over in her mind like the old movies one of her foster father’s used to watch. She can see each frame - each rise and fall of Dani’s chest, each tear in her eye. She can feel her wrist ache with a dull pain. She can imagine Dani’s skin under her fingertips and she balls her hand into a fist and pushes it far into the couch cushion. She went back to her flat about Bly’s pub and stared at the ceiling for hours, playing that kiss over and over in her mind. Playing over that look on her face when she pulled back.
What’re you afraid of most? Tamara had asked her.
She had said never getting out or falling back into the system once she did. She had said becoming her dad - which isn’t a lie, necessarily. But what she hadn’t said was she was most afraid of not being enough for someone. Not for her dad or mum. Not for Mikey. Not for the girls in bars looking for a good time.
Not for a soulmate.
Not for Dani, it seems.
Maybe this fiancé was Dani’s soulmate. Maybe she didn’t remember that until she kissed Jamie, spurred on by the moonlight and the bottles of wine they went through. Maybe she forgot for just a moment and it all came rushing back to her when Jamie’s hands started to wind into Dani’s hair like vines of periwinkle.
There’s all kinds of soulmates, that one boy in whatever foster home of the week she was living in had said. Romantic ones, platonic ones. Maybe that’s what it is; maybe she’s meant to be Dani’s friend, connected by some string of fate, some mark on her skin.
Soulmates are a tricky thing. She’s always thought so, when she did give them a thought. When she did let herself romanticize it. When she let Rebecca’s words sink into her thoughts and made a home there.
Anger starts to fill her gut again. She did too much. She went too far. Dani was upset. Dani said as much. But Jamie had seen a chance, had seen her chance, and she took it. She was tired of waiting for things to happen. Life is too short, she knows. Charlotte and Dominic, Rebecca - they all had their time stolen out from under them. They all lived lonely lives. Oh, she knew Charlotte was listless, moving through the house on air that didn’t quite buoy her up. She knew Dominic worked too much. And Rebecca…
Rebecca was so lonely, at the end. So lost without Peter to anchor her down. She became the ghost that walked the halls of Bly; Jamie could feel her in the coolest of rooms. Waiting, she was sure. For Peter or for peace. That, Jamie didn’t know.
But it taught her something. Everything has a lesson , Tamara would say. And the lesson was this: She’ll die lonely if she doesn't do something about it.
Maybe she needs to get out of Bly. Get back to a city, London, maybe. But the thought of London’s grey streets and grey buildings and grey people makes her shiver. There’s other cities, though. Cities with big parks and flower boxes in people’s windows. Bly is a small place and there’s scores of people she’s missing out on.
But the idea of leaving the Bly Manor - of leaving Miles and Flora and Hannah and Owen and the grounds she’s cultivated - makes her freeze in her bed. She’s built a home here, in these walls and its people and its flowers. She’s woven herself into the very walls of the manor like the ivy climbing the sides of the parapet outside of Charlotte and Dominic’s room. Bly is a part of her now.
Can a soulmate be a place , she wonders? Can a soulmate be the family she’s built for herself?
Jamie presses her thumb to the print on her wrist and breathes in slowly, letting the air fill her lungs. She wets her lips and tastes the wine on Dani’s. Her skin tingles a little but she lets it wash over her.
There’s all kinds of soulmates, she reminds herself. And even if Dani, this woman who has wound herself into everyone’s lives so easily, isn’t it, then she still has Bly. She still has the kids and Hannah and Owen and Rebecca’s ghost. She’s not lonely, not really.
She lets out a long stream of air, exhaling Dani’s name, and then closes her eyes. It doesn’t need to be Dani. She doesn’t need a romantic soulmate. She has the manor. She has the kids. She has Hannah and Owen. She has her gardens.
Being back in her greenhouse gives her some clarity. She breathes in the flowers, tending to each one with careful hands and soft apologies for leaving them on her lips. She waters them carefully, testing the soil with a fingertip before moving onto the next one. She tells them about the days she wasn’t there, talking about the flowers in Wimpole Estate, Cambridgeshire. The lush greens and deep purples. She stops in front of the garden pinks and the snapdragons, carefully pruning off some leaves lost.
She moves along the rows of plants, making notes on which ones need to be moved onto the grounds and which ones need more time in the sunny, humid greenhouse. It’s chilly this morning, a little nip in the air, and she starts to pull out the hardier astrantia and clematis to transplant later. She picks out a few alstroemeria and love-in-a-mist for Owen’s kitchen, some zinnias and dahlias for Hannah’s front entrance.
She’s watering a leafy green when she hears a knock on the door. She knows before she even turns who it is. There’s something about Dani Clayton, a feeling that waves off of her and winds itself around Jamie. Platonic soulmates, maybe, she thinks again. There’s a pull she can’t deny. It makes its way around her ankles and up her legs.
Creeping thyme , she reminds herself.
It’s too much to not give into.
Dani stands in the doorway with two cups of coffee and a hopeful smile.
“Don’t usually see you this early in the a.m.,” she says casually. Her heart is beating rapidly, like a hard summer storm. She dreamed of Dani, but her dreams have nothing on actually seeing her. Somehow, she’s prettier than Jamie can think her up.
“Uh. Yeah, well, I-I knew… um… I know that y-you start early on Thursdays,” Dani says, tripping over her words. Jamie goes back to her plant, digging her fingers into the soul. “So,” Dani continues. “I thought I’d bring you some coffee.”
She turns away, her heart settling. Just because Dani has a pull, just because she can get Jamie with those wide, hopeful eyes, doesn’t mean she wants to give in. She turns to protect herself. She turns to hide her relief at seeing Dani again. “You Yanks and your coffee,” she says, her voice low and even.
“You might like it.” Dani holds out the coffee cup.
Jamie looks down into the cup. The black coffee swirls a little. “Cheers.” She takes a small sip, her mouth puckering at the bitter taste. She spits the coffee back into the cup as gracefully as she can, wincing at the aftertaste she knows it’s going to leave behind.
“I’m not the best at coffee, either,” Dani says immediately. There’s a small smile on her face, as if she knew the coffee was undrinkable. It makes the steady thrum in her chest flutter for a moment.
Dani gives a nervous chuckle and Jamie takes pity on her. “How’s your week been?” she asks, even as she moves down the row of plants, intent on repotting another one.
Dani follows her the few steps, leaning back against the counter. “It’s been okay. Yeah, um… the kids have been a little strange, lately.”
Jamie looks up. The kids have been strange, lately. She’s seen it too. Miles acting out, Flora acting distant. She knows it’s the loss, the grief. First their parents, then Rebecca. They’re carrying more than small children should ever have to. But it’s more than that , she thinks. Miles is angry, the kind of anger she’s only ever seen in herself when she was younger. The kind of angry she saw in Peter Quint when he thought no one was looking. It gives her the chills, if she’s being honest with herself.
“Everything’s been a bit strange, really,” Dani continues. “And no Owen. No you.” Jamie’s breath catches in her throat at the longing in Dani’s voice. “I seem to see less and less of Hannah. She just… goes out, I guess. By herself . Sometimes I just turn around and she’s- she’s gone.”
That’s been different, too. Hannah has been different. Still enough of herself that Jamie lets the forgetfulness go. Still enough of herself that Jamie doubts her doubts. But sometimes in the right moment, Hannah seems so far away that not even Owen can call her back.
Sometimes people just need to be alone,” she says, thinking of herself. She frowns a little when she sees Dani’s shoulders pull in just enough to notice. “Did you wake up just for this?”
“No,” Dani says, the lie clear on her face.
“You just waited for me to come back,” Jamie says evenly.
"I-I knew that you were coming back today,” Dani continues to stumble. “But… No . No particular reason.”
Jamie nods slowly, pursing her lips. “Are the kids awake?”
She watches Dani thumb the rim of the coffee cup as she looks down briefly. “Um, no. No, they’re asleep.”
Jamie braces her arms on the table. “So you just got up with the sun,” she says slowly.” And you’re, uh, tiptoeing around the kitchen making awful coffee by yourself.” There’s a sharp fizzle of thrill when Dani sighs and looks away, caught. “Just to come say hi at six in the morning, for no particular reason?”
Dani’s face twitches in a smile and Jamie feels her resolve breaking with it. There’s that pull again. She sees Dani and she can’t help but smile back. Her lungs expand with a laugh that sits in her chest pleasantly. Her lips twitch and she shakes her head slightly as she starts to back away.
“Poppins, you flirt.”
“Fine,” Dani rushes out, following her across the greenhouse, stepping into her space. She’s close enough to touch. Close enough that if Jamie wanted to reach out and wrap her hand around Dani’s wrist like Dani did to her, that night out in the dark driveway, she could.
Dani leans in as she keeps speaking. “I-I… I don’t like the way we left it.”
Jamie turns, looking into Dani’s eyes. “And how did we leave it?” she challenges.
“ Wrong .” Dani doesn’t look away from her, strong under Jamie’s cool indifference. “And-and I wanted to… I wanted to start doing something right. So, I thought I’d start with coffee.”
Jamie feels a ripple of affection go through her. Dani is headstrong, that she’s already learned. Like a dog with a bone , she had thought before. She sank her teeth into something - Miles apologozing, love and possession - and she didn’t let go of it until she was ready to. Jamie has seen it plenty of times to know that Dani has her teeth in this and she won’t let up until Jamie gives in.
She’d be mad if she wasn’t ready to give in the minute Dani stepped through those doors with that foul-smelling coffee.
“Are you sure about that?,” she asks despite herself. “Because every time I think you might be sure, you have this irritating habit of jumping back like you’ve just seen a scary bug.” She turns away, unable to see the way Dani’s eyes dim just a little.
This is for her, Jamie thinks to herself. Dani doesn’t need Jamie pushing herself on her, pushing this forward if Dani doesn’t want it. She can’t sit with that white hot anger at herself again. And she won’t put it on Dani.
“Maybe that’s best, really,” she says, giving Dani the out. “I like you. But I also like my life the way it is. Nice and boring.”
She digs into a flower pot. The soil is constant, familiar. It never wants too much from her. It never takes anything. It doesn’t care that she got sent away. It doesn’t care that her mum left her and her dad signed her a one way ticket as far away from him as he could get her. It doesn’t care that she learned the difference between fertilizers until after she potted her first begonias wrong. It lets her make her mistakes. It lets her be herself.
She ignores, just for a moment, that Dani makes her feel the same way.
“Yeah, I-I wouldn’t want to disrupt that.” Dani pauses. “Gotta keep things proper borin’, ‘aven’t we,” she says in a cockney accent that makes Jamie smile slowly. She tries to fight it, glad that she’s turned away from Dani so she doesn’t see how she’s trying hard not to grin.
Dani comes close again, nearly touching Jamie’s shoulder. “Look, there’s-there’s a pub in Bly, right?”
“There is,” Jamie says carefully.
“Would you want to get a drink?” Dani pauses and Jamie’s hand still in the dirt for a moment. “Away from the house. Away from all this.” Jamie hears her breath in sharply. “That could be kind of boring, right?”
Jamie looks up slowly, studying Dani’s face. She looks so open and earnest. All that American hope , Owen might have said, if he were here. All Dani , Jamie thinks now. Her chest tightens and she doesn’t want to say no.
“Could be dreadfully boring,” she says carefully.
It’s worth it, to see the happiness bloom on Dani’s face like a narrow-leafed campion finally opening, slow and steady and taking Jamie’s breath away.
“Okay.” Dani smiles. “So I could ask Hannah to watch the kids one night. And you and me,” Dani says slowly. “Could get a boring, old drink... in a boring, old pub and see where that takes us.”
Jamie’s mouth twitches into a smirk as Dani goes about the pub. She knows the pub, doesn’t she? Lived there since the minute she moved into the village, fresh-faced with Charlotte Wingrave’s ringing, and blind, endorsement. She remembers standing with the landlady, noticing the peeling paint in the corner but drawn to the wide windows in the living area, the sunlight pouring through the glass. The plants I could grow here , she remembers thinking.
“You know I live above that pub, right?” She watches Dani’s face. “I told you that already, didn’t I? Got a little flat. Right above that boring, little pub.” Her smile grows when Dani’s cheeks flush.
Dani opens her mouth to say something - Jamie will never know. Would it have been cheeky? Would it have been a stumbling apology? Instead, Dani looks past her, eyes drifting from Jamie’s face over her shoulder and onto something just through the dirty greenhouse window.
“Flora?” she seems to exhale. Dani puts down the coffee cup, abandoning it next to Jamie’s newly potted sweet peas and runs for the door, headed towards the small figure drifting its way across the dew-tipped lawn. “Flora! Flora, Flora!”
Jamie follows, her heart dropping as Dani drops to her knee in front of Flora.
“Hey, hey, hey.” Dani shakes Flora a little, trying to get her to focus. “What’re you doing?”
Flora blinks a few times before she comes back to herself, her cheeks pink with the morning chill. “I don’t feel good,” she says, her voice small and faraway.
“How long have you been out here?” Dani asks, her voice strained.
Flora opens her mouth to say something but her eyes drift again, over Dani’s shoulder but not quite to Jamie. “I just woke up,” she says. “I don’t know.” She opens her mouth like she’s going to say something again, but her eyes focus only to roll back as she slumps to the ground.
“Flora!” Dani shouts, moving just a second too late to catch her. She looks back at Jamie, desperate, and Jamie moves quickly, lifting Flora into her arms.
She’s used to this, to carrying Flora around - to bed or around the grounds or after funerals. Flora fits perfectly in her hold, still small enough that Jamie’s arms hardly ache with her weight. She’s heavier now, her body limp as Jamie carries her carefully through the grounds and towards the house.
“I’m calling Henry,” Dani says with an unfamiliar edge to her voice. “The kids… Something’s not right .”
There’s something wrong with the kids.
She knows it. She’s known it, if she’s honest with herself. Something wrong with Miles - his anger and sullenness, fluctuating from one minute to the next like a pendulum in a broken clock as if the mechanism is off and it moves faster and faster until she doesn’t know which Miles she’s going to get. Something wrong with Flora - the confusion and the drifting and the walking the grounds in the middle of the night. Something hasn’t been right since Charlotte and Dominic and Rebecca but this is a different kind of wrong. This settles in her bones and leaves her with a bad taste in her mouth.
She carries Flora to the house and lays her gently in her bed, careful of her pillows and her head. Dani only has eyes for Flora now, fretting at her bedside nervously, wringing her hands together as they flutter over Flora’s head and shoulders. Jamie watches her for a minute, struck by the way Dani has attached herself to these kids. Jamie has done the same, wound herself into their lives like vine on the terrace, shielding them from the world. But Dani has given so much so selflessly.
It makes Jamie’s heart beat like a steady rain in the statue garden. She lets it warm her like a summer storm. She’s falling for Dani Clayton, American au pair. No , she thinks. She’s already fallen. She’s rose over thorn. She’s everything she used to make fun of when she was younger and she didn’t want to believe there would be someone out there whose thumb would fit the print on her wrist.
You don’t know that , she reminds herself.
But somehow it doesn’t matter. If Dani isn’t her soulmate, she’s okay with that. She’ll be satisfied with this feeling. If this is the closest she gets to that, this feeling is enough.
She lingers in the doorway for a minute more, watching Dani finally reach out with steadier hands, brushing a lock of hair away from Flora’s face.
Yes , she thinks. Yes.
If Dani isn’t her soulmate, she’s the closest Jamie will ever get. And yes , it’s the closest Jamie wants to be.
Maybe this isn’t the best idea. Maybe this isn’t the best night. Maybe Dani wants to spend all night at Flora’s bedside. Maybe she should just go home and make hserlf a nice cup of tea and open the new coffee table reader Owen picked her up when he went and found Dani Clayton on the streets of London.
But maybe Dani needs this, too. Maybe she needs it like Jamie needs it.
The drive to the manor feels like it takes too long, her nerves getting the better of her with each passing kilometer. This is a new feeling too. This nervousness. She’s been so cool and collected. Indifference , Tamara used to tell her. It’s your defense against the world, isn’t it. But now she’s an exposed root and she’s unsure of herself, just a little.
Hannah gives her a knowing smile when Jamie asks if she can keep an eye on the kids. She rolls her eyes but she can’t find it in her to tell Hannah it means nothing; that it’s just a friendly walk in the woods. It doesn’t feel friendly the way that Dani’s request for a boring drink in a boring pub didn’t feel friendly.
She busies herself with checking on the flowers she put out the day before, a splash of cornflowers that reminded her of Dani’s eyes. She rearranges them, turning one into the middle so the bouquet looks fuller. She knows she’s just wasting time; Hannah said was Dani was checking on Flora for just a moment and she’d be down soon. But waiting in the kitchen with Hannah and Owen snickering at her was grating on her frayed nerves.
Jamie hears the soft footsteps go past her in the hallway and she takes a minute, hands busying themselves with the cornflowers before she follows those steps into the kitchen.
“Don’t touch that,” she warns when she sees Dani tapping the kettle. “You’ll just desecrate it.”
Dani jumps a little, her cheeks red in the low light. “Hey, I, uh… I thought you left a while ago.”
She rolls her torch in her hands and moves across the kitchen towards the counter. “Made it halfway home and I thought, ‘Rough day. Maybe Poppins might fancy a little boredom’,” she says with a casual shrug of her shoulder. “What do you say?”
Dani sighs. “The kids, I-
“Already taken care of,” Jamie interrupts.
Hannah smiles serenely. “I’ve got things handled here. You go and enjoy yourselves.”
Owen nods in agreement. “Uh, we have things handled here.”
“Any nightmares,” Owen continues, “bogeymen, or monsters under the bed will be dealt with swiftly and fairly in an impartial court.”
Jamie breathes out at the same time as she slips her hand into Dani’s as Owen continues on. “Come on.”
Dani follows her easily, out into the front hall and into her coat. She bites her lip when Jamie winks at her. It sends something down Jamie’s spine, a pleasant tingling feeling that settles in her bones and warms her.
It’s cool outside, that same dewey feeling from the morning starting to settle into the grass. The woods are damp and there’s a light rain coming in from the west. The clouds threatened her plants all day but now that they’ve opened up, it’s been a nice, gentle mist that settles on the petals and leaves in small beads. This is the kind of weather Jamie loves best; just enough rain to stick to her hair without drenching her, without drowning all her hard work or leaving large puddles in the driveway and statue garden.
An animal howls in the distance, the sound swallowed up in the soft pitter patter of the rain on the leaves canopying above them and the sticks snapping under their feet. Jamie looks over her shoulder at Dani and smiles, her torch bobbing into the dark ahead. It’s for Dani’s benefit. She hardly needs it. She’s been coming out here for years now, almost every night this week, too. The moonflowers have been blooming over the last few days and she’s been out watching them come and go like shooting stars.
She can’t wait to show them to Dani.
“Where, uh… Where are we going?” Dani asks, voice wavering slightly. “Are you taking me out here to kill me?”
Jamie fights a smile. “Keep talking, I just might.” They walk another few meters before nervousness starts to flutter like bird wings in her chest. “So, uh…” The moonflowers catch the torch beams. “There’s not many secret spots, even on grounds this big. But this one… special.”
She’s never shared this with anyone. But she finds she’s sharing more of herself with Dani than she’s shared with anyone ever. Not even Tamara or Dot or the foster mother who braided her hair for her to keep it off her face when she was younger. She doesn’t give much of herself to anyone, but something about Dani makes her want to pull herself open and let Dani see everything inside of her. Every petal, root, vine, and weed.
“Wow,” Dani breathes. “That’s beautiful.” Jamie moves the torch over the thick vines and white blooms. “You planted that?”
“Yeah,” Jamie says, pride in her voice. ”It’s a moonflower,” she explains as she hands Dani the torch and picks up a small lantern she usually leaves by the moonflowers. “Bloody hard to grow in England.”
She did it, though. She grew them. She cultivated them and tended to them and here they are, flourishing. She cared for them like they were her children, the way she cared for Flora and Miles. She shaped them and guided them up their trellises so their buds could soak in the sun and the rain.
“Worth it,” Dani says as Jamie sits down on the fallen log behind her, watching as Dani moves the light across the white blooms.
“Is it?” She lights the lantern, putting it at her feet. “This plant only blooms two months a year. And only at night. Each bud, only one,” she explains. “These flowers will be dead by morning and tomorrow night, new buds will bloom, and then they’ll die.”
The light from the torch catches Dani’s face and Jamie watches it hungrily, trying to memorize each small line.
“In three weeks, this entire plant will be dead.”
Everything passes , she thinks. Everything dies . It’s the way of the world. Something comes to life, something lives, something dies. Everything sinks into the earth, leaving room for something else to come. These moonflowers will fade by morning and make room for more to grow in their place.
“And in the spring, I’ll have to plant a whole new moonflower.”
Dani looks at her, her face unreadable in the light. “That’s a lot of work for a flower that only blooms once.”
“That’s what people feel like to me,” she finds herself saying.
That’s what people have always felt like. Like too much work. She was too much work for her mum and dad. Mikey was too much work for her. Relationship after one night stand, everything was too much work. She stopped putting the work into people. People left. People didn’t call back. People went into lakes and didn’t come back up for air.
But flowers… flowers came back. Perennials, without trying. Others with some love and care. But they’ve always come back, each time. And it’s easy to put the work into things that never truly leave her.
“Exhaustive effort,” she continues. “Very little to show for it.”
Dani stares at her for a moment. “All of them?”
“All of them.” She pauses for a moment, working the words over in her mind. “Even you. Even me. Especially me.” She takes a deep breath in. “So I figured I’d save you some effort.”
Because she knows Dani is interested. She doesn’t know how much Dani is interested, but Jamie can see it. She can see it in the way Dani looks at her, in the earnestness of her eyes. She can see it when Dani smiles and when her hands flutter as if they’re going to reach out and touch her.
But she’s work. Just as she knows Dani is interested, Jamie knows no one has been interested in putting in the time and effort. Not more than just in passing. She knows she doesn’t make it easy. She knows Hannah and Owen love her like family, sure. She knows Rebecca tried, but Jamie dug her heels in and pushed back when Rebecca got too close. Jamie pushes because she wants to be the immoveable object, not the unstoppable force.
Dani looks at her again, her mouth pulling into a frown that disappears when the torchlight moves away from Dani’s face and onto the dirt-packed ground. Dani moves closer, finding a spot on the fallen log where the lantern light catches her eyes.
“Skip to the end.” she continues. “Take a shot. Why not?” Jamie gives Dani a humorless smile. “So, here goes, okay?”
Dani nods, humming softly, head tilted forward as if she’s telling Jamie to go on; as if she’s saying she wants to hear it.
Jamie nods, taking a deep breath. “Okay.” She braces herself, pressing her palms flat against each other before she laces her fingers tight enough that she can feel the bones aching.
Because she’s interested in Dani. She’s so interested in Dani, she knows Dani can see it. She gives it away in the way she looks at Dani. She gives it away when she smiles and when her hands tighten into fists when she wants to reach out and touch Dani. And Dani is work - everyone is work - but sometimes Jamie thinks Dani might not be as much work as everyone else.
Her wrist starts to tingle as Dani continues to watch her.
“Mum was Louise,” Jamie starts.
Because why not start at the beginning? Why not tell Dani where it starts, how it starts? That’s the stem of it , Tamara had told her, when Jamie finally said something about her mum. The root. You like roots, don’t you?
Jamie doesn’t like that kind of root. Her mum was like root rot, poisoning the soil and choking the nutrients.
“Dad was Dennis. Dennis met Lousie when she was 18. He was 24.” Her mouth twitches in an attempt at a smile. “They’re not soulmates, not really. At least, Mum always said they weren’t. Total surprise, a year later, my brother Denny. And me,” she says with a shrug, “less of a surprise, I guess. But still there. The two of us, reminders of what Dennis and Lousie weren’t.”
Dani’s face is so open, so kind, that Jamie almost stumbles. She doesn’t want to hear this part of Jamie. She doesn’t need to know it. But Dani is interested and, Jamie reckons, she needs to know what she’s walking into.
Jamie pushes on. “Dad starts working in a coal mine. It’s, uh, more money. Slightly more,” she allows, “but he’s barely home now, and Lousie, well…” Jamie gives a slight laugh, a quick hiccup of her words. “Lousie is home with the kids, but she’s basically a kid herself. A kid with two kids, and a husband 600 meters down.”
She remembers those long nights when her mum would sigh and toss and turn, going on and on about useless husbands. She would smoke cigarette after cigarette until the whole house smelled, the smoke seeping into the walls and through Jamie’s clothes. Not what I signed up for , her mum would say, waving a bottle around in big circles. She would play on the floor with Denny, thinking someday soon her dad would come back and bring them to the park, push them on the swings, get them ice cream.
“So, she does what kids do,” Jamie continues, thinking now of the parade of men coming in and out of her mum’s house, all of them giving her a wink and a tip of their hat on their way out. “She plays. So Dad’s underground, and Mum’s under some bloke, and…”
Jamie clears her throat. She can feel Dani’s eyes on her but she doesn’t look. “Thing about a coal mine… well, the thing I think about most now that I’m older, no plants down there. No life at all.”
It sounds so far away from her life now. She looks back on her first home and doesn’t think there was a single green thing in the house. No sign of life beside the occasional lit cigarette or half-opened post on the counter. Nothing sustainable stayed there, nothing anyone had to care for besides her and Denny. And even then, Louise didn’t do well at.
She’d have killed any plant in there , Jamie thinks sometimes, when the nights are long and she can’t find any rest. Her mum would have suffocated any life in that house, like she did to her own.
“See, these men…” Jamie’s eyes dart to Dani’s face. “We send them down into this dark mess, digging for something dead. So… dead that it’s now lumps of dead things. So old and lifeless they will literally burn. And that was his life. While she did whatever she could to feel alive. While she went from one man to another, trying to find the person she was supposed to be with. All while the man she agreed to marry burned below the surface.”
Jamie thinks of those big soot-stained hands that belonged to her father. “All that death, that dark powdery death is all over his face, his hands, his fucking lungs when he comes up.” The image of it makes her shudder. “There’s not a lead, not a branch, not a flower in his world, and when he finally climbs out of that grave, finally climbs back to the land of the living… They laugh at him. They laugh because the whole town knows that the new baby, my little brother Mikey, isn’t his.”
Jamie sighs. “I thought they were it, if I’m honest. I’d heard of soulmates. Everyone had. I used to think they were destined for each other. They must be, if they were together.”
“It doesn’t always work that way,” Dani says softly.
Jamie lets out a quiet laugh. “No, it doesn’t. Took me a minute to get that, but I did.” She meets Dani’s eyes. “Met a lot of people who haven’t been my soulmate. After my folks… I don’t put much stock in it, I don’t think.”
Dani leans in a little. “Don’t you want to, though?”
Jamie's mouth twitches in a smile. “Don’t we all?”
Her wrist flares a little at the idea and she has to look away from Dani. She turns her attention back to the deep, dark woods stretching out ahead of her. So, Dennis,” she goes on, “buries his head in the soot, and they praise him for his loyalty, while they mock him for being a cuckold.” She chuckles. “Louise, on the other hand. Well, call a spade a spade and they call my mum a whore.”
She pauses, remembering the name-calling that seemed to follow their family wherever they went; seemed to follow her . “Call the daughter one, too, bully her at school, on the streets. Even makes its way home. Little Denny piles on, tries to save his own skin by blaming all the females in the family, and in ‘67, Louise bolts. She splits, and I come home from school to find Mikey… Alone, screaming his little head off. He’s still a baby and he doesn’t understand what he’s done wrong.”
The house had been barer than usual. No lit cigarette in the cracked ashtray on the kitchen table. No television in the living room. A chair missing from the dining room. Her mum had taken half the dresser and more than half the cash hidden away in the cupboard. What she had left was a note, hastily written in her familiar sloping scrawl: Sometimes, you have to chase down your dream. Don’t settle for someone who isn’t your soulmate xo
Jamie didn’t know what to do with that. She folded it up and hid it away from her dad, when he asked if her mum had left anything behind.
Jamie smiles sadly as she thinks about Mikey. “I try and take care of him. But I’m just a kid. Kids can’t raise kids. I forget things.” Her eyes start to burn with tears. “Like watching over a pot when it boils. So, one day there’s an accident. Social Services gets involved, and we’re split up.”
Dani’s breath catches. Jamie barely hears it over the rain, but she hears it all the same. “Dad did his best. He spent so long underground, didn’t know what to do with a kid, let alone three kids. So, he disappeared into the dirt. Then, it was foster care. Just a bunch of stale, perverted men with bitter wives, hoping to make a few quid by taking care of the local trash.” She shrugs. “I left for London pretty soon after that. Got myself into all sorts of trouble there, looking for different things. Wound up serving a couple of years.”
She turns to look at Dani, feeling brave enough to do it. “Spent a long time looking for a soulmate. It was a bigger place, someone had to be there, right? But I was wrong and trouble was easier to find. And it’s there I start gardening. Busy work for idle hands.” She thinks fondly of Dot. “But I fucking love it. Love it. And it’s so clear then… how people aren’t worth it.”
They’re not, not really. They haven’t been so far.
“But plants…” She smiles a little wider this time. “You pour your love and your effort and your nourishment into them… and you see where it goes. You watch them grow, and it all makes sense.” She braces her hands on her knees. “So, yeah,” she says as she stands. “Everyone is exhaustive. Even the best ones.”
She hesitates. Because people are exhaustive. She’s poured too much into people and gotten nothing back from them. Mums and dads and brothers and girls who only set her up for her to fall. But there’s something different about Dani. There’s been something different from the minute Jamie laid eyes on her. Something that tells Jamie - something that’s been telling Jamie for weeks now - that Dani might be the one to be worth it.
“But sometimes,” she says cautiously. “Once in a blue goddamned moon, I guess… Someone, like this moonflower, just might be worth the effort.” She takes a deep breath before she turns back to Dani. “Look, I know you’re struggling. I see it. I know you’re carrying this guilt around, but I also know that you don’t decide who lives and who doesn’t. I’m sorry, Dani, but you don’t.”
If she could have a hand in that, there are things she would have traded, like Rebecca’s life for Peter’s. Like Charlotte and Dominic’s lives. But she can’t decide that; it’s not up to her.
“Like soulmates,” Dani adds, eyes wide.
Jamie gives her a tight smile. “Soulmates may be the one thing we never have control over. The one thing we never get to choose. They’re chosen for us, yeah? Picked before we’re even born. We’re only sent into the world with no map to find them. And they die, too, Dani.”
She thinks she sees something flicker against Dani’s face in the lantern light, but it’s gone just as quickly as it comes.
“Humans are organic,” Jamie continues. “It’s a fact. We’re meant to die. It’s natural… beautiful .” She turns back to the moonflowers climbing their trellises into the darkness. “And it all breaks down and rises back up, and breaks down again, and every living thing grows out of every dying thing. We leave more life behind us to take our place.”
Charlotte and Dominic left room for Rebecca. Rebecca left room for Dani. When Dani leaves, it’ll leave room for someone else to come, to live. It’s the cycle of life, the cycle of humans .
“That life refreshes and recycles, and on and on it goes. Soulmates come and they go again. And, Dani, that is so much better than that life getting crushed, deep down in the dirt, into a rock that will burn if it's old enough.” She glances at Dani. “So much better to see the leafling… and the flower.”
Dani stands behind her.
“We leave more life behind to take our place. We leave space for people to come and make their homes with us. And some of them, well. I’m learning they might be worth it.” She turns to Dani. “Like this moonflower. It’s where all of its beauty lies, you know.” She looks into Dani’s eyes, flickering blue as the moon moves through the trees above them. “In the mortality of the thing.”
Dani turns to face her, her hands at Jamie’s jacket as she pulls her a step closer. Jamie searches Dani’s face and sees nothing but determination. Her hand goes to Dani’s arm, steadying them both. This time, when Dani kisses her she’s ready. She’s more than willing. She’s already leaning in to meet Dani, already addicted to the feel of Dani’s lips against hers.
The warmth that she’s starting to associate with Dani Clayton starts in her fingertips, buzzing electric in her knuckles and fingers as it moves in her bloodstream. Dani pulls away and Jamie follows, her eyes fluttering open as they meet Dani’s. She wants to ask what Dani is looking for, what she sees, but Dani is already leaning back in again, kissing her harder this time. Her hands move from Jamie’s shoulders down her arms. The warmth starts to blaze hotter as Dani’s fingers move against the fabric of her jacket.
Her hand slips down over Jamie’s, squeezing gently before she grasps Jamie’s wrists, using them to pull Jamie closer. Her thumb presses hard into Jamie’s skin and something white-hot explodes in her, spreading like a wave from the point of Dani’s thumb to the tips of her toes in a searing blaze. Jamie gasps, the sound swallowed up by Dani’s mouth as she pushes even closer.
“Wait,” Jamie breathes, breaking the kiss a second time. She leans away but Dani follows, her forehead against Jamie’s. “I have to tell you something.”
Dani smiles. “I know.”
Jamie shakes her head, her nose brushing Dani’s. “No, you don’t. But I’ve been thinking it for a while and-”
Dani takes Jamie’s hand, cradling it in her own as she pulls it around her head to the back of her neck. She presses Jamie’s fingertips to the skin there, eyes fluttering closed when Jamie’s skin touches her own. “I knew. The last time we kissed. You touched…” She presses Jamie’s fingers harder. “My fiancé, he thought it was just his fingerprint from when he was younger, but I knew. I knew he was supposed to grow into it, not out of it.”
“Dani,” Jamie breathes.
“When I kissed you the first time, as soon as you touched me, I knew.” Dani cradles Jamie’s hand. “I know people are exhaustive, but I also know that some people, the right people, aren’t. They never will be.”
Jamie thinks of her mum and her dad and Denny and the girls in London. But then she thinks of Hannah and Owen and Rebecca and Flora and Miles and Dani and she thinks maybe it’s true. Maybe some people are worth the effort and the time, Maybe some people are worth caring for, tending to.
“When it happens, you’ll know,” Rebecca had said. “And everything will change for you. It sets your whole world on fire.”
What Rebecca hadn’t said is that you don’t know all of sudden. You don’t notice it all at once. You notice it gradually. You meet a woman in a kitchen and kiss her in a forest and in between you fall and fall and burn just enough to make you think that this is it.
Dani kisses her again and all thoughts of Rebecca’s words fall away, leaving behind the feel of Dani’s thumb on her wrist and Dani’s mouth against her own. Jamie leans into her, every nerve ending like an exposed root in the soil. She kisses Dani the way she’s been dreaming of kissing her, like an open sky full of rain coming down on a thicket of shrubs, desperate to be watered. She pulls Dani closer and tries to say everything she hasn’t said over the last few weeks, everything she wished she could have said but hidden behind a well-placed smile or wink.
In the morning there will be things to say. More stories to tell and even more to hear. She wants to know everything about Dani - the good, the bad, the things that Dani thinks make it ugly. That’s what a soulmate means, she’s sure. It’s knowing all the things there is to know about someone and loving them in spite of that; because of that.
A soulmate , she thinks. She has a soulmate
Dani’s thumb presses hard into Jamie’s wrist, right over the print she spent almost her whole life hiding away. It burns hotter than coal burning in a mine - blinding, but warm. Her whole body runs hot, Dani’s mouth cool against her own. Rain sticks to her forehead and her eyelashes and her hands where Dani’s skin is damp with it. Her hands cup Dani’s neck, holding her close.
Behind her, a moonflower blossoms wide, soaking in the moonlight and the rain. In the morning, it’ll be gone. But there’s more moonflowers after it and more to come still. There are years of moonflowers to come, years to spend with Dani growing old, learning everything about her until Dani’s stories are her own; until every story is one they’ve lived together.
Years with her soulmate, the whole world around them burning pleasantly.