Dani was an overachiever. In school, in college, fuck, even in Kindergarten. She always wanted to meet everyone’s expectations, always wanted everyone to be happy. For her? No. With her performance? Hell yes.
Dani’s unsure what exactly pulls her into the gravity of Hannah Groose, but she cannot stop listening to the words that fall from her mouth so purely.
It takes less than an hour for Hannah to show Dani around the new school building. It recently finished construction and still smells of fresh paint and newly sawn wood.
Dani complements the old style that was chosen to match the original building out front and Hannah pauses whenever she does so.
“While I do find this sort of architecture lovely, having grown up with it.” Hannah stops and turns to face Dani fully in the middle of a white painted hallway. “I find it quite sad. The children shall not feel like this is some sort of church, they may appreciate a more…modern setting.” Her hands clasp together and the metal of her rings echoes into silent walls. Dani is absolutely stunned. If she thought Rebecca and Owen were incredible souls, Hannah was her new favorite. By far.
“It reminds me of back home…the structure and the doors. Most schools I taught at were pure cement blocks stacked on top of each other…you know…white and grey.” Dani chuckles to herself while moving her hand in a dismissive gesture like she does this on a regular basis.
“But this…just…it’s beautiful.” She turns her head and looks around, staring too long at the ceiling at one point.
She can feel Hannah’s presence closing in on her, a defensive mechanism triggering in her brain as her blue eyes shoot forward and Dani takes a small step back. It stops Eddie dead in his tracks.
Dani blinks. It’s Hannah.
“I’m sorry, I did not mean to startle you.” Hannah arches her brow, but there is no underlying judgement in her tone. The warmth spreads under her blouse and Dani feels herself breathing more than she should in this freshly painted hallway. A quick glance behind Hannah’s head and back into her brown eyes brings Dani’s voice back to her mouth.
“Oh no, I-I’m sorry…I…I just got distracted. By the…beautiful ceiling.” Dani puts on the best smile she can muster in this situation, having practiced it with Eddie more than enough times to seem genuine. The movement of Hannah’s head to the ceiling and back to Dani’s eyes confirms it. She can see right through her bullshit. “The beautiful ceiling painted…white?” A statement and a question.
But Hannah smiles. Genuinely smiles at Dani. “It’s alright, Mrs. Clayton. We all have our own ghosts.” Her eyes are still connected to Dani’s but Dani finds no force, no intruder in them. “I do not need you to tell me why you moved to England. Or why you wear no ring despite having a fiancé in your CV. We are all our own people. But I am happy you are joining us.” Her hands find themselves again, the ring emitting the same metal tone it did earlier.
“Thank you, Mrs. Groose. But you can call me Dani…if you’d like. And…thank you. Someday maybe.”
Dani moves her eyes to the marble floor.
She expects this to go the same way it always does. A date will be set, she will be interrogated, slaughtered for information and then left an empty shell of who she once was. People tear at her, want a look deep inside the beautiful, independent, lonely Mrs. Danielle Clayton.
Dani is sure she has nothing left to give at this point.
The gentle squeeze of a hand on her shoulder reconnects Dani’s eyes with brown ones.
“You’ll feel right at home in no time, dear.” Another squeeze before Hannah’s hand disappears back next to her own body. “Oh, and it’s Hannah, only Hannah. We can revisit those formalities when people actually mind.” She scuffs. Only Hannah just made Dani’s day one of the best since she arrived in England. Here, Dani does not have to put on a performance. Here, she can just be Dani.
Dani’s lips reveal her teeth, a pure smile lights up her face. “Thank you, Hannah. I can’t wait to be home.”
Home, where Jamie’s plants were living their best life. Where Dani’s teaching and children’s books overflowed the wooden bookshelf found in an antique store and dragged back to Jamie’s apartment the same day. Where the kitchen either smelled of Dani’s lasagna or Jamie’s burned whatever-she-was-trying-to-make.
Home was where Jamie was. Where she fell asleep knowing she wouldn’t be cold no matter how many times the heater broke because Jamie’s body generated more heat than any other she knew.
Or maybe Dani was just cold. Cold after years of pretending to be someone she never was.
Snuggling into Jamie, naked or clothed, was the best part of her day. And she promised herself she would never want anything else. Never strive from home. Never strive alone.
Never. Leave. Her.
With varsity volleyball for a bunch of years Dani’s heartrate has never excelled like it has today.
As soon as she leaves the apartment, it’s different. She has made up her mind. It’s love versus logic in her head, drowning vs. breathing, heart versus brain, right versus wrong.
She holds the door from slamming shut and stands on their Welcome mat in the hall. Her back is turned to the apartment door, just a slight creek allowing Jamie’s smell to escape.
Dani breathes it in, completely absorbs it, like it’s the last breath she will ever take. And in a sense, it is.
She knows Jamie will break down walls, smash her own hands into bricks to keep her soul from shattering. Jamie takes broken and bruised knuckles over a broken heart. Jamie would break noses and come home with cuts over that life altering pain any day. She would break her own body to keep Dani from breaking.
They talked about this for weeks. First Dani tried to hide it, like she has hidden her true self for over 20 years. But Jamie is fluent in Dani and easily picks up when she suddenly zones out a lot more during their conversations, barely looking at Jamie. Just a small “S-Sorry, I got distracted.”
Every time. Jamie would let it slide; Dani remembers. Just a tilt of her head, “You alright?” in the most worrying tone Dani ever heard Jamie speak, her eyes saying more than those words ever could.
Dani understands the hidden meaning in those green-grey orbs. What’s wrong? Did something happen? Talk to me. I’m here for you. We’re in this together.
Dani never talks to Jamie about it.
It’s the first word spoken between them. “American.”
So insignificant, yet this single word will ring in Dani’s head for the next years, unbeknownst to her.
Dani thinks this is how it’s going to go. No hello to greet her, just everyone pointing out that she is in fact from America.
“Yes, American.” Dani sighs sitting on an old, wooden bar stool, turned to the door, scanning the room for people she doesn’t know, watching Rebecca leave.
“S’ not a valid drink, mate.” The words register in Dani’s head far too late. The heat in her cheeks is rising as she turns her wonderfully redden face to the bartender. Her arms are spread on each side of her body, slightly leaning onto the counter to support her weight. There’s the stereotypical cloth over her shoulder, she’s wearing a brown flannel and what seems to be leather suspenders over her wide shoulders.
Dani’s eyes scan upward, awkwardly, not even trying to hide her blush as she meets the bartender’s gaze.
This is Dani. Not Danielle, she reminds herself. Dani doesn’t shy away. Dani’s strong.
There’s a smirk appearing on her lips just now, and the last thing Dani feels is strong. She feels weak, as she may collapse any second and the bartender is going to jump over the bar in a completely smooth and absolutely not rehearsed motion, trying to catch her falling body.
“You alright?” The accent hits her ears again. Dani’s back. “Yes! S-Sorry, I was distracted for a second.” By you, she doesn’t say.
“’S fine. What’d you like to drink, then?” The bartender still has not moved since Dani had her internal breakdown. “Whiskey, neat.” It’s clear as day when Dani speaks it but she can not remind herself why she did. She hates Whiskey. And everyone will be a witness to that soon enough.
A glass filled with liquid is harshly placed right in front of her, yet nothing spills, except for Dani’s will to live. “Here you go.” It’s quick. “Thank you.” Dani’s even quicker.
Dani steadily takes the glass in her hand and whips the liquid in it back and forth. It’s funny, in a way. She escaped years of hatred, abuse, pain and regret to sit in a bar filled with joy, drunks and happiness. Yet it feels the same to her. Like she’s suffocating.
And she hasn’t even touched her drink.
It’s a habit, she thinks. As soon as she is alone, her mind goes on autopilot. All the reasons she should be alone, all the reasons she deserved it, all the reasons she should feel guilty; fill her head. And so, she does. She feels guilty. And broken. Lost.
Glass smashes against a wall.
Dani’s back in her bedroom, Eddie staring her down, her suitcase packed but open to the world. Million pieces of glass at her feet, she starts to set things in motion. But she can’t. She’s stuck. Her hands don’t listen to her brain and neither do her legs, it’s like she’s glued to the wall with the familiar wallpaper. Eddie’s eyes are hollow, she can barely make out his face, consumed with darkness and anger. He’s shifting towards her, very slowly, like a predator approaching his prey.
She’s on the bed. The wall nowhere in sight. The familiar wallpaper gone. She still can’t move.
The heat beneath her clothes increases until Dani screams in pain, it burns her skin and soul, she feels as if her heart had been ripped out of her chest and set on fire for her to watch.
Her eyes close.
She screams and screams but Eddie doesn’t stop. He never stopped.
When her eyes reopen, she’s in a bar. Her glass filled with whiskey stilled, just like her heart.
There’s a commotion going on behind her, the bartender jumping over chairs and between people to stop it. The fight gets broken up and people return to whatever they were doing. It’s calm. As calm as a bar can get.
Dani’s the opposite of calm. The only thing she can hear is her heartbeat.
She watches the bartender carefully picking up the pieces and cleaning up. She throws the glass into the bin and smoothly throws the dustpan beneath the bar.
Dani’s eyes find the spot where the glass broke a moment ago. She’s starring as if she can make the glass reappear. No cracks visible to the outside world.
“Whiskey that bad?” Once again, Dani’s body shoots around in the old, wooden barstool, no calming down in sight, as her blue eyes meet green ones. And fuck. They’re gorgeous. As is the woman they belong to. Dani clears her throat like an amateur.
“No, no. I was just-“
That smirk again.
“Distracted?” The bartender finishes for Dani. “Distracted.” She answers. The hot gaze of the bartender does not leave Dani’s face. She shugs the Whiskey down in one go, her heartrate not settled down enough and her brain still in overload mode to make a face as the alcohol burns down her throat. Burns away at the nightmares still lingering in the back of her head. She hates whiskey.
“That distracted, huh?”
“A glass broke. “
Dani only goes to one bar and one bar only. The one Jamie works at. Dani herself is still not sure what pulls her to Jamie so incredibly much, but it is definitely not her alcohol skills or absolutely stunning looks, green eyes that take her breath away or simple her charming personality. Dani couldn’t say.
When she enters the bar on a Friday evening, with zero expectations other than enjoying a whiskey and watching Jamie mix drinks, break up random fights or take a break to beat people at darts, she’s utterly disappointed to find someone else behind the counter.
A young man, his hair a little out of order as if his mother just ruffled it just before he came out here. He rocks a fine and carefully trimmed mustache on his lips and offers the sweetest of smiles.
Like Eddie used to. Like Eddie used to smile when he saw Dani, no Danielle, laugh. The smile he gave only to her, ever, even when she could never do it for him. The smile he worse so proudly and she regretted ever seeing. The smile that haunts her nights. The smile that broke her smile.
“What can I do for you?” There’s so much comfort in his voice Dani instantly breaks out into a genuine smile as she takes place on her wooden barstool.
“Look, I’m tellin’ ya, either he’s try’n rob you and I’ll rob him instead or…” Jamie slides her arm around Dani’s waist carefully. “…he hits on you and I break his face. Simple as that, Dani.” She feels a warmth on her waist and slowly leans into it. Dani pulls together every piece of strength she possesses to not look into Jamie’s mesmerizing green eyes, which are currently waiting to look into her blue ones.
“Or…” Dani offers, her mouth muscles spasm from holding back her laugh for the past 10 minutes. “You could just not do any of that and the first aid kit at the bar gets some rest, too.”
“Well, let’s see which one it is first, shall we.” Jamie challenges back.
A younger gentleman makes his way over to where Dani and Jamie are seated, again.
This marks the fifth guy trying to hit on Dani, ask if she wants to go home with him or simply presses himself into the booth opposite of her. She declined them all politely. The last guy did not take that too well.
Jamie, who has apparently made it a rule not to drink at the bar she works at, spotted Dani and her silent cries for help early on. Surprisingly, Dani had not spotted Jamie and just sat & drank by herself while dismissing guy after guy.
“This seat taken?” Dani cannot stop the roll of her eyes. Since Jamie slit into the space next to her, her mood picked up immensely. Yet, with each passing and dismissing of a random guy, she feels guilty. She should appreciate them. Should appreciate their offerings, their charm.
She hates herself.
She herself for not accepting the flirting.
She hates herself for being so selfish.
She hates herself for dressing the way she did to impress a woman and not a man.
She hates hers-
A slight squeeze on her waist. Cautious, careful. Perfect.
“Afraid the seat’s taken, mate.” Jamie answers for her. She doesn’t spit the words but Dani can hear fury in them. Why would she be angry? For Dani?
But his presence lingers. Dani looks up at him. “Sorry, waiting on someone.” Dani has perfected her lying to men. She got to train it with Edmund for far too long, it slips off her tongue in one motion.
When he man finally retreats with insults falling from his mouth, Dani’s gaze drills holes into the wooden table. She is not up for confrontation. Unlike Jamie.
“Fucking twat.” It’s not silent, exactly, but not a shout either. Loud enough for him to hear but not attract attention. Jamie has done this before, plenty of times, Dani recognizes.
The guy does not turn around. But Jamie’s head does, directly into Dani’s profile.
“You alright there? I meant what I said, ya know. I’ll break his nose if you want.” Jamie’s voice is calm, so calm. Dani closes her eyes remembering it. Embracing it.
The hand on her waist retreats and gets thrown over Dani’s shoulder, but not touching her.
There’s hesitation. Her eyes open back up.
“I am not being too forward, am I? Just hope that maybe this way they will leave you alone.” The booth squeaks as Jamie leans back in it. “Unless; please don’t tell me you’re lookin’ for love in this shithole?” Dani lets out a genuine laugh. Somehow, with Jamie by her side, it seems possible.
Living across the ocean from her old life, her old misery. She feels like she can let go, cut the baggage line from her shoulders. Start again, live free as Dani. Not Danielle.
“I was actually looking for a good drink, but the bartender didn’t get into fights with random strangers and was suspiciously bad with puns. It just wasn’t the same, you know. So…I came here instead.” Dani’s try to be mysterious and flirtatious at the same time may have sounded better in her head. A mental slap is all she manages before Jamie’s smirk grows even wider and breaks into a smile. Dani would love to see more of it. A lot more.
“Mhm. So, you just found this place. Randomly. The suspiciously bad pun bartender had nothin’ to do with you comin’ ‘ere then?” Jamie is playing a game and Dani wants to score.
One time have fun and not be judged. There is no Eddie here, no Judy, no Karen. Just Dani with her regrets.
Because she left Eddie. Because she is at fault here. She caused him pain and she walked free.
Dani shakes her head. “I-I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to intrude or anything. It’s just…you’re the reason I go to that bar as often as I do. I enjoy your company. I’m still trying to get used to living here and it’s not that easy meeting new people.” Dani manages. Another mental slap, she’s way too forward. She’s never been this forward.
Somehow, she requires whiskey to get through this conversation, she thinks. She shugs the rest of her glass down her throat and makes a pained face. Well done, Clayton.
“That so? And ‘ere I thought Owen would whisk you away with his incredibly bad puns and taste for whiskey.” Dani takes a mental note of the man’s name to be more polite next time she sees him.
“He’s a really sweet guy, but just not my forte.” One of her hands makes a dismissive gesture.
“Like basically anyone ‘ere.” Jamie counters.
She’s good at this, Dani thinks.
“Not quite.” Dani can play this game, she’s sure. She can just spit out her thoughts and flirt and be alright. She’ll be okay.
“’s much as I’d love to ‘ear about it, and believe me, I do; got an early shift tomorrow. Maybe you can swing by and tell me all about it then? Or maybe after?” Jamie’s arm swings over Dani’s head, forgotten on her shoulders, as she stands up. Her eyes never leaving Dani’s.
There’s something here, Dani thinks. Hope? Is this what happiness feels like? Is this how you are supposed to flirt? Is it this comfortable?
“Sure. I’ll be there.” Dani smile has never been this wide, it physically hurts.
“See ya then, Dani.” With a wink and a lick across her lips, which Dani only witnesses in slow motion, Jamie exits the bar.
With her, Dani’s confidence.
She is no longer leaned back as her peripheral catches onto movement. She is no longer relaxed as the same guy from before approaches her. Her shoulders stiffen as he throws himself in the booth next to her, where Jamie sat just a few seconds ago. Her eyes shut tightly as she inhales the stink of alcohol and cigarettes mixed with cheap perfume.
“Guess the seat’s no longer taken, hm.” His face is close, too close for Dani to breath.
“Please leave, I am not interested.” Her voice is cracking, it sounds broken, rehearsed. As it had when she was with Eddie. No. When she was Eddie’s.
“What’s wrong, hm? I know your friend was just a decoy to get my attention. See if I’d come back to ya.” How he comes to this conclusion, Dani doesn’t comprehend. She doesn’t understand. She feels like she never has.
How did Jamie saving her and making her laugh with barely 4 sentences turn into this? It was Dani’s fault. She shouldn’t have worn this outfit. Shouldn’t have sought Jamie out in another bar she was unfamiliar with. No Owen behind the counter. No Jamie in the crowds. No one but Dani in this hellhole.
Dani can’t breathe. She sees Eddie in him. She sees the want, the domination, the drunken state. She sees Danielle.
She wants to surrender, be the ‘good girl’.
A part of her fights. A part of her wants to tell Rebecca about how she fought off a guy in a bar.
A part of her wants to tell Jamie tomorrow. A part of her wants to be proud. A part of her wants to be brave. A part of her wants to break his nose.
In and out. She goes over it in her head, over and over. Breathing in and out. In and out.
The man has been talking but Dani doesn't catch a word he said.
He notices, grabs her wrist as she stands.
“Let me go or else.” Her tone is sharp. A threat. It’s quiet enough to not gain attention, but her point is crystal clear.
“Calm down, blondie.” He puts his hands up in a defensive form, weak, strong. It’s all the same to her. But he still doesn’t let her move past him.
“And let me leave.” She holds her gaze, no longer drilling holes in the table, but in his face. She’s furious, angry, so fucking angry. Why her. Why is it always her?
When she thinks she can’t be broken again, another piece snaps. Soon, there’ll be nothing left to break. What happens then?
As if on cue, the guy stands, moves slowly backwards, waiting. Lingering. Like an animal, starring Dani up and down; observing. She knows she doesn’t have many pieces left. She has been broken repeatedly but she is still here, she is still standing.
She grabs her denim jacket, power walks through what feels like endless crowds of people to the counter, pays her tab, thanks the bartender and sprints for the exit.
Every step to the door, every time her foot connects with the wooden floor, her heart beats faster.
Every breath held; every tear shed. Her heart beats faster.
The outside air cools her face. It’s fresh. A fresh start.