A post-graduation trip to London was a good idea on paper, much like the new master’s degree framed on Dani’s wall.
Never mind the new school year lurking just around the corner, nor the nagging concern that this might not, in fact, be the correct path for her at all, nor the six years of college snugged tight against her back saying it damn well better be.
A good idea on paper.
It was all Eddie’s idea, sprung up a few weeks back in a pantomime of whimsy. Just the two of them on a little adventure before, before, before their lives began in earnest.
Bright-eyed and giddy, he laid it all out before her, so sure, so sure, but Dani’s gut instinct had been to say no. No, thank you, but no, to gingerly hand him one of the many excuses she kept, snug in her front pocket, and beg his forgiveness. School, or rest, or time, or money. Maybe next year, maybe next year.
No, because he looked at her soft, all love in his eyes, and she loved him too, but somehow it fell unequal when she weighed it in her hands.
No, because he was always there beside her, steadfast and ready, ushering her forward towards the future they had, sometime, long ago, agree upon. Nearly inevitable now, coming, coming, coming fast.
No, because her gut clenched as she looked down the road laid out ahead, and she didn’t know why.
Little blue house, and sweet-faced babies on her hip. Dinner on the table, and her last name cleaved from her in one swift and brutal stroke.
The ill weight at the back of her throat and the itch, the itch, the itch to run at the thought of it.
Her gut instinct had been to say no.
But she’d just turned down his third marriage proposal in as many years.
And, always a good sport, always her best friend first and her boyfriend second, he’d taken the rejection kindly. Just a light kiss on her cheek, a squeeze of her elbow and the chipper refrain, “Not yet? That’s fine, Dani. No rush. We can take our time.”
Our time, as though time had already claimed the both of them as an inseparable pair.
Tender and patient, his gaze steady, but she saw the freshly wounded certainty in his eyes as he buried the ring in his pocket again, and it echoed the twist of her gut a little too closely.
And she didn’t know why. Wasn’t sure she even wanted to know, not really, no good to come of it, anyway.
So, she agreed. London, for a week.
When she recalled the trip in the days and weeks and years that would follow, she divided it cleanly in her mind into two unequal parts.
One, bits and pieces, remembered mostly fondly, with a general sense of warmth.
Eddie enthusiastic and beaming, happy and satisfied just to be beside her. The pleasantly off-kilter feeling of being somewhere entirely new, just a little overwhelmed. Fish and chips, heavy in her gut as they ran through the streets in a sudden shower, hand in hand. A twenty-pound ransacking of the candy shelf in a little shop, their pockets stuffed with novel sweets, like children.
Later, when she distills it all down, when the edges blur, that’s what it felt like. Like being a child again, beside her best friend. Just the two of them on an adventure.
And then there was the other part, all heat and shock and startling clarity.
For a long time after, her cheeks still flushed at the memory of it, even as the details faded and it shifted, more and more like a dream.
Five minutes in time, maybe ten, expanding inside her chest until it consumed far more than its share of memory. Staking a claim on space and space and space within her, space for what was yet to come.
The pub was dim and noisy, the night’s football match playing loudly on the television overhead. The air, thick with the slosh of beer, held the vast tension and monochromatic pride that wove through the crowd of bodies.
Dani and Eddie hovered in the corner by the bar, neither quite adept in this sort of setting.
One pint in, and already it seemed like maybe they should call it a night, take themselves back to the quiet of the hostel, play a game of cards on their bunks.
But this was quintessential, wasn’t it? Just another bit of the adventure. Only a few minutes left in the match, the crowd around them erupting in bursts of joy and frustration.
No idea what was happening, but it felt like a moment not to miss.
So, they stayed.
“I’m going to go find the bathroom,” Eddie shouted. “Back in a minute.”
Dani nodded him off, watching him weave away into the crowd with a growing sense of unease, the loss of the safety and familiarity he offered, palpable.
Hands in pockets, hands out of pockets. Arms across her chest, then uncrossed. She should get another drink, something to hold in her hands. Find a wall to lean against, drum her fingers on her thighs.
The bodies around her cheered and she joined them, a moment too late. Part and apart.
In all her fidgeting, Dani had not noticed the man who had sidled up beside her, already too close when at last she saw him.
“Hey, gorgeous,” he said, his voice wet in her ear. “By yourself tonight?”
She stepped back from him quickly but found the wall had snuck up behind her.
He smiled, all upper lip, and slithered in further, planting a hand beside her head.
“No, I’m here with my boyfriend,” she shouted, unable to tamp down the waver in her voice. “He’ll be back any minute.”
Her voice was too high, too thin, gnawing panic cinching around her throat.
She turned her shoulders, her hips, tried to make herself small enough to slip away, to get into view of anyone, anyone, anyone who might intervene.
“Let me buy you a drink while you wait.” The man shifted to match her every step, tightening the gap between them, the alcohol rolling off of his tongue.
“No, thanks.” Dani tried not to gag, tried not to whisper, tried to find enough breath to force the words audibly out of her chest.
But her vision dimmed at the edges, and her palms went slick with sweat, and –
“Hey! I’ve been looking for you!” A new body now beside hers, fitting in between Dani and the man. “We’re all at a table over there.”
A young woman, all broad smile and open stance, resting easy on her small frame, slipping a hand into Dani’s, familiar.
Dani tried to smile back, to look found, to let the little trickle of relief the hand offered soothe the tremor of her hands so she could play this new part convincingly enough to slip from this snare, but –
The man clamped a hand around her wrist, voice dropping into anger wrapped in something sticky and sweet. “Now don’t be rude. All you Americans are so pretty, but so rude. Don’t know a good thing when it’s standing right in front of you.”
The woman squeezed Dani’s hand tightly, shoulders setting firmly.
Dani wrenched her wrist away from the man, feeling the bite of his fingernails. “I said no.”
He snarled at her, catching her shirt with an iron grip, tugging her backwards. “You little bit–”
The rest of the ugly word was lost in a fine spray of blood and a single tooth, which went flying as a fist connected firmly with the man’s face.
“She said no.” Lilting and pissed as hell, the young woman cocked her fist a second time. “She said no, twice.”
Unleashed, she sent the man stumbling sideways, blood pouring from the new split above his eye.
She watched him tip away with a little sigh, shaking her head.
More to herself than to anyone else, she murmured, “I did try to be nice,” before whipping around to Dani. Almost indignant, “I did try, didn’t I?”
Caught in a dizzying mix of lingering fear, sick shock and heavy relief, and something new, something curling warmly in the pit of her stomach, one of the woman’s hands still twined with her own, Dani nodded.
The woman dragged her free hand through her mess of dark curls and scanned Dani head to foot once. She clicked her tongue and reached over to brush a bit of blood off Dani’s cheek with the flat of her thumb, cupping Dani’s jaw for the briefest of moments.
She grinned widely at Dani, satisfied. “Better. Sorry about that,” and then, with a nod towards the man, “and sorry about this next bit.”
Her hand slipped from Dani’s as the man, having recovered enough to be vertical again, turned on them, barring his bloodied teeth.
“If you’ll excuse me,” the woman said, just before tearing her eyes from Dani’s and turning sharply, landing her old leather boot firmly between the man’s thighs. The impact was soundless, save for the choked groan that puffed from his chest as he buckled to the floor.
The woman didn’t watch his descent, gaze already slipping back to Dani, body shifting in a bit closer, all her attention laser focused on Dani’s face. “You alright? What’s your name?”
Dani, dry-mouthed by now, gaped for a moment before managing to croak out, “Dani.”
The woman gave her hand a cursory wipe on her jeans, leaving behind a streak of blood, and offered it to Dani. “Jamie.”
Dani took the outstretched hand, palm against palm, without the pause that should have struck her.
Almost reflexive, she ran the pad of her thumb across Jamie’s broken knuckles, just to feel the skin shift over bone.
The movement earned her a soft, pleased hiss from Jamie, smile shifting wry, eyebrow drifted up, up, up, tugging one corner of her mouth with it.
“Well, look at you,” Jamie murmured, curious glint in her eye, raising a blush to Dani’s cheeks.
Dani had never been on the receiving end of a look like that, and the accompanying impulse to shift ever closer, to tuck an errant curl behind Jamie’s ear, was almost too strong to deny, almost strong enough to slip past all her well-kept defenses.
She bit her lip in an effort to contain the giddy understanding now bubbling to the surface, slipping across her face in a broad grin. Relief, entirely unexpected.
She hadn’t realized, she hadn’t realized, she hadn’t known.
No time to think about it now, no time, with Jamie’s dimple just there, the interested lean of bodies, the –
The man on the floor stirred, hooking an elbow around Jamie’s knee.
Jamie rolled her eyes and glared down at him, her body still turned fully to Dani. “Jesus, man, can’t you see I’m busy?”
A string of markedly unpolite comments falling from his tongue, he gained a fistful of her jacket and began to scramble up.
Jamie let go of Dani’s hand again, which was far more disappointing than it had any business being, and dropped to her knees.
Bracketing the man’s hips, she knocked him back with the unexpectedly swift movement and wrangled his arms into an unnatural angle.
As his face paled and he writhed fruitlessly under her, she leaned in and lowered her voice, all easy reason and common sense, with just a tinge of the sharp edge running below the surface of her.
“Listen, let’s not do this. I get it – you’ve had a few pints too many and you’ve lost track of your manners. Best to sleep it off and be a bit better tomorrow, right? If we stop this now, you can walk out of here, dignity vaguely intact, so let’s just –”
Seething, the man leaned up as far as he was able and spat in her face. “Kiss my ass, you dy–”
This one was lost to the rush of air Jamie forced out of his lungs with a shift of her weight and a well-placed knee.
“No, thanks,” she hummed, raising a fist to follow up.
But before she could strike again, a low whistle interrupted.
Her shoulders sagged a little as she looked back over one shoulder, petulant.
The bartender leaned on the counter and raised an eyebrow at her. “Taylor, what did I tell you about beating the living shite out of my customers?”
Eyeing him defiantly, Jamie dragged the back of her hand across her bottom lip and sank her weight a little deeper into her knee, drawing a huff from the man beneath her.
“And what did I tell you about letting assholes like this in here?” she asked. “If you bring in trash, mate, I’m going to have to clean up after you.”
The bartender shook his head in fond annoyance, laying both palms flat on the counter. “Jesus, I’m glad you’re leaving. I feel truly awful for whatever bloke owns that pub up in Bly.”
Jamie shrugged this off. “Aw, you’re all talk. You’ll be crying and begging me to come back in no time.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he muttered, pouring her a fresh pint and setting it down on the bar. “Now, come on, let him go.”
The man pinned under Jamie’s knee made to speak, all bluster, but Jamie silenced him with a quick, distinctly disappointed look.
“Honestly? That’s enough out of you, thanks,” she chided, with one delicate twist of his left nipple through his button-down. “Just hush.”
The bartender cleared his throat and Jamie relented.
She stretched a hand out to Dani and, over the man’s high whine of pain, said, “Dani, love, would you mind?”
Dani, whose head had stopped functioning altogether sometime between the soft, surprised, look at you, and the easy, lilting, love, reached forward and hauled Jamie bodily to her feet.
Jamie, executing a little hop at the end, landed nearly flush with Dani, one hand fluttering down light on Dani’s waist to steady them both.
Dani flushed, vibrant pink from cheek to chest.
Jamie winked, eyes ticking down for the briefest of moments to follow the color as it spread.
The man cussed, scrambling up, jaw clenched and fists tight.
“Oy,” the bartender hollered, no ease or joke in him now. He made his way around the counter, talking slow and low, eyes never leaving the man’s. “If you aren’t out that door in five seconds, I’m letting her go after you again. And trust me, you don’t want that. I’ve seen what she can do to a man, and it isn’t pretty.”
He gave the man no chance to comply or resist, ushering him towards the door with a firm hand on the elbow.
Jamie watched them go, slipping up onto a bar stool.
“He never lets me have any fun,” she complained lightly, reaching back across the counter to fill a second glass.
She set it down next to her own pint and nodded towards it, eyes resting on Dani, half mischief, half concern.
“Do you want company? If you’re on your own tonight, I can stick around for a bit, hold the rest of these miscreants at bay.”
Dani gravitated towards her, drawn in without any conscious footwork, finding herself quite comfortable right there, nearly between Jamie’s knees.
The answer to Jamie’s question existed in two contradictory chunks. Half, yes, yes, stay a little longer, simmering in Dani’s gut. Half, the blurry notion of being on one’s own while attached to another, bound by promises naively made and faithfully kept.
Jamie leaned back against the bar, swinging one leg idly as she considered Dani, seeming to watch the parts and pieces shift and fall and shift again in Dani’s mind.
An index finger twitched in Dani’s periphery, as though itching to lace its way through one of Dani’s belt loops, to draw her in and silence the churning in her head for a bit. And Dani would have let it, quite happily, already drifting in.
“So, Dani, what brings you to my pub?” This was said quietly, still audible under the din, Dani having come far nearer than she’d realized, one hand resting on the counter beside Jamie’s elbow, one thigh now bumping up against the outside of Jamie’s knee.
The bartender chuckled low behind them and passed across a bowl of peanuts.
Before Dani could answer, before Dani could give into the absurd impulse to rest a palm on Jamie’s thigh, curl a hand around the base of her skull, lean in just a little further to wrap space and time snugly around the two of them, there was a hand on her waist.
For a split moment in Dani’s mind, it was Jamie, sinking into the place she belonged, the puzzle snapping sharply into focus. For a splint moment, it all made sense and all that had come before fizzled out of view, and then –
Dani startled hard, biting her tongue accidentally as she snapped from her reverie.
“Dani! I asked someone where the loo was,” Eddie chuckled, terribly pleased with himself, snugging her up close to his side. “Like a local!”
Dani smiled reflexively, her eyes unfocused as she tried, desperately to shift her gaze away from Jamie.
Out of the corner of her eye, through the fuzz and blur, she saw Jamie’s smiles soften away from wild and sharp and a little dangerous. Just a little wistful, now, just a little sad.
Jamie popped off of the stool and clapped Eddie gently on the shoulder. Then, without another look, she turned and slipped into the crowd.
Dani lurched and caught her wrist at the last moment, loose enough Jamie might have slipped through her grasp if wanted. But Jamie let herself be caught, let their fingers mingle for the split of a moment.
There was too much on Dani’s tongue, too much to pass her lips. Thank you and why and what, what, what. If I stay, would you stay, and wait, wait, wait, wait, please god, wait.
But Jamie found her voice first. Soft and kind and a little sorry. “Another time, maybe. Another night, maybe.”
And then she was gone, consumed by the sea of bodies, a daydream leaving nothing behind to hold.
Dani watched her go, watched to catch the last look that never came.
Eddie looked quizzically at Dani, who had not yet managed a word.
A little concerned, he asked, “Dani, what happened?”
“I don’t know,” Dani whispered.
Only she did know. Then, and every moment after.
She would question it endlessly. Doubt it, hate it, long for it until it ate away a gaping hole inside her.
More than she had ever known, all startling clarity, sharp enough to cut its way through her.
And as time went by, it grew and grew and grew.
Details blurred and the warmth of palms and pinking cheeks bled into the abstract.
But still, whether she looked it in the face or buried it under promises and expectation, she knew
Give it two years, give or take a bit.
Another time, maybe. Another night, maybe.