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home is no place for the soft-hearted

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Jamie wakes to thunder. 

She draws herself more deeply into the warmth of the blankets and the security of Dani, pressed bare against her back.  Lips, soft on the base of her skull.  Breath, slow and steady.  Fingertips, twitching lightly against the swell of her ribs.

She shuts her eyelids tightly against the sunlight and buries her face in the pillow that smells like Dani’s shampoo and the woods on a clear night, as the thunder –

Jamie’s eyes pop open into clear, bright, dawn. 

Behind her, Dani stirs, murmuring softly and nuzzling into the dip between shoulder blades.  Jamie turns enough to press a kiss to her forehead.


A knock on the door, again.


Hannah is there in the hall when Jamie tears the door open, still tugging yesterday’s t-shirt over her tousled head, jeans unbuttoned and feet bare.

“Morning?” Jamie grumbles.  She smiles a little, undeniably caught in the act of falling madly in love with Dani Clayton.

Hannah doesn’t smile back, soft or knowing or chiding or wise, nor does she question Jamie’s presence in the room.

All she says is, “Jamie, the phone,” and the look on her face is enough to send Jamie running down the hall.


Do you know the prickle of fear that slips up your spine when the phone rings in the middle of the night, unexpected and harsh against the silence?  Dear reader, it’s no better at dawn.


Dani arrives in the hall only a moment behind Jamie, and when Jamie sees her there, at the base of the stairs, the temptation to go back is fierce. 

Back to sleep, back to bed, back to the warmth of Dani’s arms.  Back to three minutes ago, when she was thinking hazy, dreamlike thoughts of ten thousand mornings like this one, ten thousand mornings still to come. 

But by the time Dani arrives, Jamie has already paled, has already scrubbed the sleep from her eyes with the back of her hand, now resting taut against the table.  The phone is pressed to her ear, her knuckles white around the plastic, and she cannot go back.


“Mikey, no,” she says, and she manages to sound calm as she does.

It’s been ages since they’ve talked, and she can hear it in his voice, deeper now than it had been.  Twenty-two years old.  All grown, but still, he’s the little boy she carried on her hip before she had any hips at all.  He’s the little boy who cried against her shoulder and who went hungry beside her.  He’s the little boy who got torn from her once, and again, and again, but still, hers. 

All grown.

“You can’t do that.  I won’t let you.”  She says it firmly, but he protests, like she knew he would, and she feels the reflexive anger bubble up in her.  Not at him.  For him.

“Listen, you little piece of shit,” she growls, low, same as she might have uttered a sweetness to him at the age of two with a skinned knee.  “You’re going to go back to school and you’re going to finish what you started.  You’ve got a lot going for you now, and you’re not going to throw it away.  Not for him.  Not for me.”

He asks the question she’s dreading, and she gives the only answer.

“Me.  I’ll go.”


When she hangs up the phone, the room is too quiet to bear. 

Dani, frozen halfway across the hall, her brow furrowed, one hand floating in air, reaching out, unsure. 

Hannah, four steps from the bottom, watching, waiting, sure.

Jamie sucks in a deep breath and shakes her shoulders loose, forcing her voice casual and steady.

She addresses a point just north of Dani’s shoulder, just south of Hannah’s knee.

“My dad’s been hurt, in the mines.  Mikey just started at university.  Now he’s saying he’s going to leave school and go care for him.  But I can’t let him do that.  Been through too much to get to where is.  So, I’m going.”

Dani sucks in a little breath and Jamie almost, almost, almost wishes she had not told Dani so much truth in the woods last night.  This would be easier if Dani did not know where she’d come from, who she’d come from. 

If Dani did not know, she could lie.  She could say it’s fine, and Dani might believe her.

But there’s no hope of that now.

Jamie meets Dani’s eyes and the implications of what she’s just said click heavily into place across Dani’s face, and in doing so, are so much harder to ignore herself.

“Can’t Denny go?” Dani asks, already knowing the answer.

“Mikey asked him, but he won’t.  No surprise there.”  She brushes her palms across her jeans and shrugs lightly, though the effort to do so is enormous.  “There’s no one else.  Just me.”

Dani steps in closer, but Jamie flinches back.  Dani stills where she is, but does not retreat any further.

“How long will you be gone?”

“I don’t know.”  She drags a hand through her hair, all knotted from sleep, all knotted from Dani’s fingers, which had tangled in it and tugged, just hours ago.  “I don’t know.”

This time, when Dani steps in, Jamie lets her. 



“When will you leave?” Dani asks, sitting on the edge of the bed. 

Jamie catches her eyes in the mirror for a moment and pauses in her efforts to pin her hair back, her hands shaking too badly for the task anyway. 

Dani rises slowly and slips her hands over Jamie’s, which drop heavily to her sides.  Dani twists the curls away from Jamie’s face and pins them neatly.  Then she leans in, pressing up against Jamie’s back, chin on her shoulder. 

They stare into the mirror, side by side.

It should be this way, every morning.  It should be this way on their wedding day.  It should be this way when they’re old and grey.  But –

“Tomorrow morning,” Jamie says, reaching back to rest a palm on the nape of Dani’s neck. Then again, because she needs time for the words to sink in, her body rejecting them.  “I’m leaving tomorrow morning.”



Hannah calls Henry, and, given no opportunity to decide otherwise, he agrees to Jamie’s leave of absence, indeterminate in length.

Owen arrives for the day and, after a whispered conversation with Hannah in the drive, cooks breakfast for them all, heaping an extra serving on jam on Jamie’s toast, his palm lingering on her shoulder as he passes. 

Dani stays close to Jamie, never more than an arm’s reach away, her hand often on Jamie’s elbow or the small of her back.

The kids watch all this with worry, and when Owen plies them with hot chocolate, they don’t beg for marshmallows.  Jamie usually leads that charge, usually is the one egging them on, but today, she’s silent.  Today, she just sips her tea slowly.  Today, the hot chocolate falls cold, untouched.


Jamie waters the plants one last time before she goes.  No, not the last time.  It won’t be the last time, she promises them as she wets their soil and prunes them with gentle hands.  I’ll be back.  I’ll be back.

But the roses prick at her sleeves today and the woods rustle like they know.

You can’t go home and expect to return unscathed.



It’s half past two when she goes.  They all see her out.

No one’s eaten lunch.  Owen had prepared a feast, unable to do anything else with his hands, but there were no appetites to be satisfied, not even his own.  So, he wraps six sandwiches in foil and pushes them into Jamie’s hands.  Lays a tin of fresh biscuits and an unopened box of tea on top of them.  She sets the tower of offerings down on the passenger seat and kisses the tear off his cheek.

Hannah squeezes Jamie’s hands and leans in to whisper in her ear.  They are enough, the words Hannah offers, comfort and certainty and no goodbyes, to tighten Jamie’s throat and leave her gulping down the tide of sorrow that threatens.

The kids cry openly.  Jamie sinks to a knee and hugs Flora, then Miles, then Flora again.  Tells them to be good.  Lays upon them a thin threat of what might happen if they don’t go to bed on time, or if she comes back to find her roses desecrated again.  Flora hiccups a little sob and Miles gives Jamie a brave, watery smile, then gently tugs Flora away.  They retreat to the shelter of Hannah’s waiting arms. 

With one last nod at Jamie, Owen shepherds the three of them away back into the house.

Only Dani is left.


Dani stands back, as the door to the house swings shut.  She wrings her hands and looks at Jamie’s boots, brushing tears away on her sleeve.

But when Jamie reaches for her, she slips in to the space Jamie offers without hesitation.

Jamie wraps her in her arms, and Dani responds with enough force to split the burden of grief evenly between them. 

“You’ll come back,” Dani whispers against Jamie’s temple, a wish and a prayer, not a fact.

“I know,” Jamie says, though she doesn’t.  “It’ll only be a few weeks, maybe a month,” she says, though it won’t.

Dani presses her lips to the corner of Jamie’s mouth.  “I could come with you now, keep you company while you pack.  So, it won’t be so lonely.”

Jamie bites back the tears this offer threatens to unleash.  Leaving is always so lonely, and to have Dani there beside her would ease the weight of it for an hour, or two, or twelve. 

But after, after, when she has to say goodbye again.  When she has to kiss Dani’s cheeks and turn away, not knowing if, or when, or if she’ll kiss those cheeks again, the weight will be all the greater.

No relief in sight, the coming months of uncertainty stretching out ahead of her, Jamie swallows down the bile that rises and shakes her head.

Eyes shut to miss the concern and hurt in Dani’s eyes, she says, “No.  You stay here.  I’ll call when I can, but Dani, I might not – it might be – you should –”

She torn in the middle of two pleas on her lips. 

Go on without me, alright?  I don’t know who I’ll be after this, I don’t know if I’ll still be me at the end.  It isn’t a place that will receive me lightly, and it isn’t a place that often lets go. 


Wait for me, please.  I need something to come back to.  I need a reason to come home.    

Dani, reading both, unspoken, in the furrow of her brow and the pinch of her lips, kisses her softly and she falls silent.



That night, in her little flat above the pub, Jamie drinks enough tea to justify the shaking of her hands.  She isn’t going to sleep anyway, not like this, not with the closest thing she’s known to home, now falling away behind her, not with the gaping hole that should have been home, lying in wait ahead. 

She packs clothes for two weeks, and two weeks only.  Nothing for winter, nothing for spring nor for summer.  Just an extra pair of jeans and a few t-shirts.  A favorite flannel and one old sweater to see her through. 

She feeds the orchid by the windowsill an ice cube and makes no plans for what will become of it if, if, if winter comes, or summer, or spring.


Jamie lies in bed under every blanket she owns, and still, she cannot steady her skin, which shivers on the bone.

It would be better, with Dani here. 

One night, they’d had one night, and she’d been so sure it was the first of many.  The first of a lifetime, maybe, of nights like that.

She’d slept soundly in Dani’s arms, never thinking that it would be the only chance she had.  She should have stayed awake all night to savor the soft puffs of breath on her neck and the weight of the arm curling around her ribcage.

She should have slept deeply and refused to wake in the morning, refused to see the end of a night like that.


But she’s old enough to know the sound of a door creaking shut. 

Old enough to know an end when it’s crouched down in front of her, baring its teeth.

Old enough to know you don’t go home and expect to come back the same.


Winter will come, she knows.  Spring and summer, too.